How Imagery Can Reveal Psychic States

In this post, GrubStreet Instructor Ben Berman looks at how describing images in a poem can help you reveal the speaker’s mindset.


In her book, On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation, Alexandra Horowitz walks around the block with eleven different experts, demonstrating how what we see is determined by who we are. She travels the streets with a font expert, an exterminator, a geologist, a dog, and others, and on each walk her traveling companion attends to entirely different aspects of their surroundings.


But it’s not just our occupations or areas of expertise that determine what we see. One of my favorite writing exercises to do with students is to give them a specific occasion and then ask them to describe an image from that mindset.


Pretend, for example, that you have recently met someone and fallen deeply in love – you are returning home from seeing them when you happen upon this image. Without offering any context, they take a few minutes to describe what you see.







After my students finish writing and sharing which aspects of the setting they focused on, we try the activity again. This time we are returning from a funeral and happen upon the same setting. Again, the prompt is to simply describe the images in front of us.


I am always amazed by how well this activity works – how what we see in an image changes based on the dramatic context of the poem and how our descriptions of an image or setting can reveal a speaker’s psychic state.




Writing Prompt: Find an image (in real life or on the internet) that strikes you as compelling. It works best if there aren’t people in the image and if there are a range of shapes, but try not to think too much about it before you choose it. Then imagine a dramatic context for your speaker (or character) – they have just lost a big baseball game, say, or have made a life decision they are worried they’ll regret. Describe the images in front of you without explaining the dramatic context – allow the descriptions of the image to reveal the emotional concerns.



Click here, to read more of Ben Berman’s posts.

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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

See other articles by Ben Berman


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