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image metaphors, imagist poetry, literary visualization, visual imagery


Cognitive Psychology | Other English Language and Literature


In this essay I investigate how image metaphors – metaphors that link one concrete object to another, such as “her spread hand was a starfish” – promote visualization in the reader. Focusing on image metaphors in Imagist poetry, I assert that the two terms (e.g., the hand and the starfish) of many of these metaphors are similar in shape, and that this “structural correspondence” encourages the reader to visualize those metaphors. Readers may spontaneously form a “visual template,” a schematic middle ground that mediates between those similar shapes, in order to smoothly move between the two images within each metaphor. The structural correspondence and the mediating visual template allow readers to mentally shift back and forth between the two images, yet readers cannot fuse the two terms through visual imagery. Research supports these claims: reader reports have demonstrated that subjects understand image metaphors primarily through their physical features, and work on the visual interpretation of ambiguous figures suggests that though one cannot fuse images together, one may switch back and forth between multiple images of a figure, especially if the images share the same frame of reference. These findings indicate that readers may be particularly likely to understand image metaphor through visual imagery, especially when the terms of the metaphor correspond physically. This essay is drawn from a larger project on the “poetics of literary visualization” – a part-by-part investigation of the formal features of texts that elicit visual imagery. Such an account helps to reveal the workings of the visual imagination and restore critical attention to this neglected aspect of the reading experience.


Published in Poetics Today, Volume 30, Fall 2009, pages 423-470. Copyright © 2009 Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics. The definitive version is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2009-002.



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