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A Look at the Unusual Imagery in the Poetry of Stephen Dunn

written by: Julia Bodeeb • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 2/8/2012

Helping high school students understand the use of imagery via reading complex poems that contain strong imagery helps students learn how to use imagery in their own writing. Stephen Dunn's poems contain unusual imagery which students enjoy.

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    Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. He is a master of the use of imagery in his complex poems. His poetic writings encompass many themes from a life at work, love, nature, death, lessons about human cultures, and many other themes.

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    “The Snow Leopard"

    In the poem “The Snow Leopard" Stephen Dunn explores the concept of the end result of what happens when one achieves a coveted dream. This poem take’s the reader on a journey to the Himalayas and back to everyday life.

    The phrase “desolation of success" in this poem makes high school students think. This unusual imagery helps teachers begin a discussion about success and how it impacts life. Is it always a positive in all ways to have success? This is a topic many high school students have not yet thought about.

    Ask students to write three paragraphs about their most coveted dream; they should also include information about how they feel their life will change upon achieving the dream.

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    “Towards the Verrazano"

    In the poem “Towards the Verrazano" Stephen Dunn uses much imagery about life and nature. He writes that “pollution curls into the sky like dark cast-off ribbons." This use of imagery is a chance for teachers to ask students to talk about pollution and how it will impact their future. Ask students to write five examples of similes about pollution that they have seen in the local area or while traveling.

    Ask volunteers to share their similes with the class. Ask students if they think pollution will be better controlled now, as the world pays more attention to this crisis.

    Also, in this poem, he says that over a garbage dump the “gulls dip down like addicts, rise like angels." Ask students to comment on this imagery. What does the author want to reader to think about or see in their mind after reading his words?

    Show students a picture of a garbage dump (easy to find on the Internet) and ask them if they think this method of trash disposal will continue during their lifetime. Ask them how many items from their lives are probably residing in a dump now?

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    In the poem “Happiness" Stephen Dunn refers to happiness as “quicksand in the marshes." Ask students if they agree with this image. Is happiness fleeting or a more permanent aspect of life? Ask each student to write one example of imagery involving any emotion like happiness, joy, sadness, or other. Ask volunteers to share their phrase with the class and discuss.

    He also compares happiness to a “castle that doesn’t exist." Ask for opinions about this image.Is it accurate? Is it only accurate sometimes? Is happiness a constant in life or does it come and go?

    To assess student progress in studying imagery, ask them to create a poem containing at least three examples of imagery and to use vivid language. Circulate the room while they are working on this assignment to answer any questions they have. Many students find imagery perplexing; however, the more poems students read that contain imagery, the easier it is for them to understand it and start to add imagery to the poems they create.

    When grading the poems check that at least three examples of imagery are used. Also analyze the language used to ensure students are using strong, vivid words.


  • Source: Stephen Dunn: New and Selected Poems 1974-1994  Norton & Company, NY, 1994.