Here is a short, deceptively simple poem that’s a wonderful example of imagery.
Poems (or poets) “think” in images. Not always — poems can use a variety of ways of thinking. But poems rely much more than other kinds of texts (such as informational essays) on reasoning through images instead of through logic. In a sense, a poem makes its “argument” through imagery.
Maybe this is why people often say they don’t “get” poetry, or they feel it’s too mysterious. Poems don’t come out and tell you a reasoned, objective thesis statement. Instead, poets create and explore images, visual and sensory (the five senses) pictures of something, to get at a more complicated, unspoken truth, or really questions that don’t have answers. Creating images allows poets to explore an idea or a thing through many different angles, like examining a stone or a prism from all sides, looking at all its refractions of light. Poetry is about exploring, not necessarily making a statement.
Imagistic poems are great first “dives” into the waters of poetry. “Watermelons,” the poem below, doesn’t have to mean anything. (I’ve read this poem many times, and I still don’t think I can explain it. But I feel it and see it.) As you read it, just let the picture, the color, the sounds, the touch — anything within the five senses — wash over you. Don’t “think,” just get an impression.
Read the Poem
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.
by Charles Simic Source: Poets.org
- Read it again! What do you picture? What do you feel?
- Read it again! Read each line and pause. What do you picture in each line? What does each line make you feel? Are there any changes in feeling between the lines?
Imagery into Metaphor
Let’s start with the first line. “Green Buddhas.” What’s a Buddha?
So this image becomes a metaphor: Watermelons as “Green Budhhas / On the fruit stand.”
- What associations do you have with the Buddha or buddhas? What is the comparison between these watermelons and the Buddhas?
I didn’t use this image as the intro image to the post because I wanted you to experience the image in the poem first. But here’s what I picture: A row of watermelons sitting on the fruit stand like a row of Buddhas in meditation.
Peaceful, waiting (waiting to be bought? to be eaten?) Actually, the image makes me smile a little. The Buddha is known for his meditative half-smile, not exactly laughing but content with joy. He’s also often imagined with a round belly. These watermelons take on a little of that feeling, smiling, content, waiting on the fruit stand together.
As I was looking for images, I also realized the watermelons in this poem are not haphazardly thrown into a pile. They’re not in a supermarket. They’re probably outside, maybe by the side of the road at a fruit stand, in nature, peaceful, and they’ve been carefully arranged. (Which makes what’s coming in the poem even more impactful…)
- What do you picture in the next two lines? (We eat the smile / And spit out the teeth.) What is your overarching feeling? Is there a shift?
I picture red, that red slice of ripe watermelon that also has good associations for me — of a happy summer day, eating that sweet treat. A lot of times watermelon is shared because it’s such a big fruit! I remember watermelon parties as a kid, where everyone would grab a spoon and dig in. The poem does say “We.”
- Who do you think the “we” is? The speaker and friends or family? We as in humanity? Maybe both of these? How do you know?
What about the teeth? I see those black seeds that we do spit out. It’s such a pleasant image, and then that line “spit out the teeth.” The sound of that — the hard “t” in “spit and teeth,” the short syllables (spit – out – the – teeth) and the action of spit, which is such a harsh, kind of gross, impolite action — really changes the tone for me. The summery red before becomes kind of violent. Also, going back to the line before, “We eat the smile” — that sounds pretty cruel. Think about it — the poet could have written “We savor the red candy taste” or something similar. But no, “We eat the smile,” and then the even harsher “spit” image. And contrasted with those first two lines, those content watermelons all lined up in harmony on the fruit stand?
- What are your thoughts? As you reflect on all the images in the poem, the images that become metaphorical, what is the impression that’s left on you?
- Remember, you don’t need to explain too much. Just think about how the poem makes you feel, or what it makes you imagine, or what it makes you think about.
For me, the poem paints something about humanity. Maybe it’s in our nature to be a bit cruel, a harsh. We use things for what we want, maybe even enjoy digging into that flesh and spitting out the teeth. We have a tendency to destroy peace. The whole poem seems very playful, beginning with calling the watermelons “Green Buddhas.” They don’t really mind our crassness; they’re at peace. It makes me feel like they’re kind of laughing at us, silly humanity. But also, it’s darkly comic, almost violent. I feel a mix of the fun, enjoyable watermelon, and the cruelty of humanity.
Reflection on Imagery: See how using an image to explore can allow the poet to explore a complicated idea? It’s not one thing, one interpretation. The image lets a lot of impressions exist together, at the same time.
This poem also lends itself to a “fruitful” (forgive the pun!) discussion of line breaks. Line breaks are another of those fundamental features of poetry. Poetry, unlike prose, is written in lines, so choosing where to “break” the line is one of the tools a poet has to communicate through the art of poetry.
There are two types of line breaks: end-stopped (meaning the line stops at its end with some sort of punctuation (period, semi-colon, colon, question mark)) and enjambed (we say “the poet uses enjambment,” meaning the line, as we read it, continues onto the next
- Looking back at this poem, can you identify the end-stopped lines and the enjambed lines?
- So, you can see there’s a pattern that repeats. What effect do you think this regular pattern of line-length creates for the poem? Any other observations about the line length, number of syllables? What about where the poet chooses to break the line in terms of the meaning of the words or what is happening in the poem?
I see that these are very short lines, ranging from three to five syllables. The enjambed/ end-stopped / enjambed / end-stopped pattern gives it a very predictable, neat pattern. The poem kind of reminds me of a haiku, where so much truth is packed into a small space. The short lines help me consider each image before I move on. They also help the movement of the poem because the poet gives us a new detail with each line. First, we take in “Green Buddhas,” then, although we don’t stop, there is the line break that gives us a visual pause, before we get the detail of where they are — on the fruit stand. Line breaks can be great for visual pauses — where yo don’t necessarily interrupt the thought too much with punctuation but still give the reader some space. Then, we get an end-stopped period. And the big shift in the poem, to the “We,” and on to the harsher images. Again, we get one action that the “We” does in the first line, a visual pause, then a new action in the second.
To me, this short, packed poem takes on so much meaning — more than it would in a couple of prose sentences — because of its packed little box form and the line breaks. The form makes each line seem dramatic and meaningful!
- Any other last thoughts about this poem? What did you learn about imagery, metaphor, and line breaks? Any new vocabulary you’d like to remember?