Taking a "Look" at Imagism with a Little Help from LIFE Magazine

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SWBAT recognize the traits of Imagism, discern between abstract and concrete language, and analyze sensory details in images, informational text, and poetry.

Big Idea

How could something so simple, like an Imagistic poem or a photograph, pack such a sensory (and possibly deceptive) wallop? Check it out!


15 minutes

Today we will be switching major gears and getting back to a closer study of Modernism.  In this lesson, students will be exposed to Imagism for the first time, and I love that it's a pretty major switch for them.  Some students will roll their eyes if I tell them that we're having a "poetry day," but Imagism is so completely different from other poetry experiences that I want them to come to this "poetry day" completely open!  In order to do that, I will explain that while we're going to be looking at poetry today, it's completely different than anything they've ever seen before.  People that typically hate poetry will probably enjoy it.  People that typically love poetry...may be more critical.  To prove that Imagism really is something entirely different, I will ask students to explain WHAT they don't like about poetry in general.  I'll list these ideas on the whiteboard so that I can work backwards after our "gripe session" to show how different Imagism really is!  Some of the common "gripes" about poetry (which I'm sure you're all-too-familiar-with yourself!) are that it's too long, complex, confusing, symbolic, oddly-structured, and elevated in vocabulary because of the rhyme structure.  Once the list is posted, I'll explain how Imagism was formed against every one of those ideas that they hated!  Then, students will read over the Imagism Notes handout, completing the items in RED which require additional thought or explanation.  At the bottom of the handout, students will also need to read over the short article about Imagism on Poets.org, which is linked for them in the document.

Once students have completed their own notes handout, they will share their answers with a neighbor and choose their "best answers" for sharing.

Building Knowledge

35 minutes

When all students are done, we will go over the notes as a whole-class.  Best responses to the rewording & question segments are as follows:

  • An image takes one moment in time and gives the viewer something to think about and strong feelings at the same time.
  • GOOD images give viewers a feeling of freedom and help them to understand that exact feeling, regardless of time or regional borders.  The viewer learns more about themselves and the art from the act of viewing.
  • In Imagism, no "superfluous" words are used, which means NOTHING EXTRA should be in there.  Imagists are concise to the maximum!
  • Concrete language represents things that can somehow be perceived with the 5 senses.  It doesn't have to be perceived by ALL FIVE senses, however.  The word "rainbow" is still concrete, though you can only really perceive it with sight.  Abstract language represents ideas that cannot be perceived with one or more of the 5 senses, like "love," "hate," "freedom," "hope," etc.  There may be concrete "symptoms" of these abstract ideas, but the ideas themselves are abstract.
  • Most students are taught to be descriptive in their writing, so this will be a sort of stunning revelation.  Especially when paired with the idea that Imagists only use concrete language, it seems like a paradoxical premise.  However, when considering that the image is supposed to provoke feeling and growth of some kind, it's easier to see that seemingly pointless over-description would just cloud the reader's mental picture.
  • Shakespeare uses too much figurative language, so he's not really describing.  He's got to be more concrete in the Imagist's mind.  
  • This comment about rhythm suggests that Imagists weren't tied to the idea of strict rhyme & meter poetry conventions.  They were more concerned with portraying whole ideas (i.e., the musical "phrase").


While all students should already know the difference between concrete and abstract language, I want to make SURE that we do by using Indiana State University's Concrete vs. Abstract Language handout.  Since I really want to survey students to be SURE that they know this, we will review the examples of concrete and abstract language given at the top of the document, then I will use the list "Exercise A" to go around the room asking each student if the word is concrete or abstract and why.  After we complete that list, I will review the Exercise B sample sentence to translate an abstract idea into concrete imagery, then let students choose three examples from the list to turn into concrete thoughts.  If any students struggle with this activity, I will remediate their skills only, as this should be an extremely small or nonexistent issue.

Next, we'll look at an example of an image that provokes these thoughts and feelings which is quite famous: Alfred Eisenstaedt's V-J Day in Times Square.  I will project the image and give students the name of the piece, then I will ask what they think is happening in this picture and collect the feelings and thoughts on the board that students get while viewing the work.  (If students have trouble connecting to this photo, I will reference the kiss from The Notebook to start discussion rolling, but usually it's not a problem with an iconic photo like this!)  Once we've gathered a list, I will ask if students think it's more difficult to connect with this photo since it's from the 1940's.  Again, most students do NOT have an issue connecting with this photo since it's so iconic and since we still have wars and homecomings today.  I will also ask students if this photo would have been better represented in written text (which will be an idea laughed out of the room!).  

After this discussion, we'll add in one more piece to our investigation of this photo.  While it's not really necessary to read an informational article about this photo to better understand Imagism itself, this photo has SUCH an interesting story that will contradict what students believe to be going on in the photo and offer a well-written piece of informational text to hour class period!  When such a tremendous opportunity to present informational text that will truly captivate students, I would be remiss to pass it up.  The class will split into three groups (based on their location in the classroom) to jigsaw read one of the first three sections, "She Looked Like a Nurse," "The Last Day of Leave," or "In Search of the Picture," of the article "The Story Behind the Famous Kiss."  Each group will be responsible for reading their section of the article, verbally summarizing that person's story, and pointing out the misconceptions viewers had about that person from the image.  Once groups are done reading, they will present their summaries and misconceptions, and I will give students time to ask other groups questions about their section if necessary.  Finally, we will group read the last section of the essay, which ties the stories of each of these characters together with one another.  Students will likely start generating their own questions and discussion based on this revelation, but I want to make sure that students consider the following questions in the discussion about this article:

  1. When you view the photo again after reading the account, what do you "see" differently? 
  2. If images are so much more "concrete" than words, what happened to make this image portray such a false story?
  3. Did you enjoy the picture more before you learned the story behind it?
  4. Our initial feelings about the picture (when it was just the photo with no backstory) were pretty consistent.  We all experienced close to the same feeling and insight when viewing it.  Is that still true?  
  5. How could concrete, concise language help a writer ensure that readers have a consistent experience?  Why?


20 minutes

Our final activity of the hour will be to actually dive in an investigate some Imagistic poems!  Since today is a shortened class period, I want to make sure that all students have a method for reading and considering these poems, so we will demonstrate that in our in-class poetry analyses.  The first poem we'll read is from the founder of Imagism, Ezra Pound.  I love to start with In a Station of the Metro, because it completely resets EVERYTHING students know or think they know about poetry.  I laugh and tell them that this is the most complicated Imagistic poem that we'll read, and I never get tired of their stunned faces and page-flipping to see if somehow there is more poem printed on a following page.  (While I link these poems here and on my school website, I still use the actual hard copy of the textbook for Imagistic poems just because I love that page-flipping.  Is that bad?  It's just not as entertaining when they're scrolling!)  Discussion questions for each poem are attached in the resources.

In this section of the class, we will read and discuss In a Station of the Metro, This is Just to Say, and Heat.  


4 minutes

In the last minutes of class, I will ask students to give me feedback on how they feel about Imagism so far.  In my six years of teaching lessons on Imagism, students tend to say that they enjoy it but don't really get how awesome it is.  Especially with the REALLY short poems like the one from Pound, they aren't necessarily "sold" on it being skilled poetry.  We will continue to explore the unique experiences that Imagism offers its readers with our homework today.  Students will read two additional poems, The Red Wheelbarrow & The Great Figure, both by William Carlos Williams, and focus on their sensory experience while reading. 

Next Steps

Next time, students will share their sensory experiences so that we can look for similarities and differences in experiences and investigate what cues from the poems built their understandings.  I will not require these experiences to be written out, but all students should be prepared to explain them the next time we convene.