In the previous section, we discussed the importance of word choice in poetry. Furthering this idea, and also the idea of "show versus tell," we will explore how a poet's use of concrete words makes all the difference. Also, since the best way to appreciate poetry or any art is to practice it, we will try writing a few lines of poetry.
Image from Pixabay
Abstract Versus Concrete Words
The success of the above poems results in the poets’ uses of concrete images, the images that refer to things you can actually touch in real life. In poetry, we work with two types of words: abstract and concrete. Ideally, the poem should recreate the experience of a poem through concrete details so the reader isn’t merely told about the experience through the speaker, but shown the experience which the poet recreates in a way that engages the reader’s five senses. If the poets had used mostly abstract words, their poems may not be, well, poems. They might tell us more than show us. They might report or summarize. For example, if Gary Snyder relied more on abstractions than concretes, "The Bath" might tell us outright how he feels about washing a baby or how the baby feels about being washed rather than creating images of the baby being washed. The concrete images create a scene and allow us to come to our own conclusions through the images. Here is an example of what Snyder’s poem might look like if it relied too heavily on abstractions:
The baby was scared
but we were happy
in the sauna washing him
and keeping him safe
because we love him
and his body so much.
The sentiment in these lines is intimate and warm, but as readers we struggle to see the event in our mind’s eye. But note, even with the abstractions, the poem cannot escape using some concretes—baby, sauna, body. Rather than putting us in the room with the bath and allowing readers to feel the actions and be there themselves, the poem shifts its spotlight on the feelings of the speaker.
- To prove the usefulness of concrete, sensory detail, and the failings of being overly abstract in one’s language, especially in one’s descriptive language, the poet Mike Dockins works with his creative writing students to describe the scene of a motorcycle accident. As a class, make a list on the board of various concrete (and sensory) images that a witness would observe. Telling the story with only concrete words, and literally no abstractions, does the emotional level come across? If they do, how do they accomplish chaos, panic, fear, shock, terror, death?
To better understand, let’s look closer at abstract words. Here are some examples:
These are what we call abstract words. They refer to ideas we think with our minds rather than specific, individual things we can feel with our five senses and that call an exact image into our mind’s eye. Think of concrete words as something you can actually touch. You cannot touch “love” and “safe” but you can touch your son in “warm water / Soap all over the smooth of his thighs and stomach.” Once you finely tune the images into specific, concrete details, the sentiment will come through naturally.
Sometimes this concept confuses my students. “But I can feel love,” they say. “I can feel anger.” And, yes, of course we can recall what those emotions feel like when they are referenced in a poem. And, in fact, we feel actual sensations brought on by these emotions when they happen. Our blood races when we’re in love, our stomach jumps when our lover or someone we desire walks into sight. We feel our chests swell when we think about our mothers and our fathers, but when we read abstract words like “love” and “anger” we experience them in a vague, cloudy way, reliant more on our own individual memories that involved our five senses to make, rather than the poem itself using our five senses through imagery to create a new experience and memory.
Trying to avoid concretes is difficult. In fact, in order to even explain to you the sensations we feel when we experience love, as I just did, I had to use much more specific language that refers directly to physical things — chest, blood, stomach. Lover, mother, father. We read the word “love” and imagine love but it takes our brains on an extended voyage of neural connections; we do not have a specific image come immediately into our mind’s eye. And immediacy is the poet’s job and responsibility to the reader of poems — words should vanish. The walls between the experience created by the words and the reader’s senses taking in that to which the words refer should fall. When we read good writing, we get lost in the experience and in the images the words are creating in our minds. We are transported.
In contrast to abstractions, take in these words:
Go around the room and have each class member share the image that comes to mind with the above words. How many different images are there for apple? Blue? Boat? Now, what if we were to make these words even more specific:
- Apple … Golden Delicious Apple
- Blue … Turquoise blue
- Boat … Sailboat
Next, begin with the following vague categories and narrow down the word making it more and more specific:
Now the brain is working more quickly. We see these things more immediately in our mind’s eye.
In the poem “The Bath,” Gary Snyder is very attentive to specific details. He names his son, Kai, places us in a sauna, describes the lantern as being kerosene and set on a box. There is not a window, but a ground-level window which the light from the lantern illuminates. The light also illuminates not the stove, but the edge of the iron stove. Kai’s body stands not in water but warm water, and it’s not his body that is soapy—but his thighs and stomach.
Snyder creates a concrete, physical world for his readers and places us in a very specific time and setting. The details feel like they are slowed down—in both the writing and reading process—so the event may be created on one side and taken in on another. Snyder slows down and looks closely so we may, too.
Once details become this specific, something magical begins to happen. The poem naturally begins to amass different levels of meaning; it grows in complexity. For example, what’s the significance of the lantern being kerosene? What does that tell us about the setting? The speaker? What do we take away from the detail about the ground-level window? What ideas come to mind when we read “ground-level”? Once we attain a literal reading, a first reading, which creates the scene, we may look again only this time more closely at the words, the diction. We may notice that “ground-level” evokes a sense of simplicity in us, an idea about being closer to the earth, being grounded. If so, how then does this feeling and idea relate to the poem as a whole?
This symbolic way of reading of poetry happens naturally when images are concrete, and details specific, and significant. Snyder could have used any words in the poem, but he used these. Why? What do these words do inside their poetic space? What we do as writers affects the way readers read our poems. But when we write—here’s the catch—we don’t necessarily have to think of how a reader will interpret and read the poem. We just need to concentrate on making the words we choose be specific and significant so language—naturally symbolic—can do its thang. After all, Alexander Fleming didn’t discover penicillin by setting out to cure disease — he saw some mold growing, tapped into his curiosity, and used his imagination.
Read the poem “What Came to Me” by Jane Kenyon and note how the poem thinks small but produces big feelings. The poem’s use of line, sound, tone, and image creates a moment in which the speaker is overwhelmed with grief. And what causes this for both the speaker and the reader? Finding a drop of gravy on the porcelain lip of a gravy boat. One “hard, brown / drop.” Why does this image have such power? It is a short poem—nine lines—and those lines are short, ranging from four syllables to one line that is seven syllables long. But although brief, it is compact and bursts with emotion. We are not told how the speaker feels. She does not say she felt sadness, pain, remorse, or loss. The first line describes action, simply, “I took.” And the penultimate, the second-to-last, line also describes an action: “I grieved.” Kenyon doesn’t write “I felt grief” (a filter) or “I thought of all the good times” (a cliché). Instead, we are there with her, lifting the gravy boat from the box, only to discover in line five, a “hard, brown” and in line six, “drop of gravy still.” The word “still” here doubly stops time and implies no movement while it also ends the line and hangs there, still on the sixth line’s edge just as the gravy drop is on the edge of the gravy boat’s lip.
As Hirsch writes, “A poem creates an experience in the reader that cannot be reduced to anything else.” The effect of Kenyon’s poem cannot be reduced only to the image of the gravy drop. As said, the diction, sound, form and tone do a lot of work. But it cannot be denied that the image is central to the poem’s effect. And when it is combined with all the other poem’s elements, it produces an experience that cannot be replicated any other way.
- Write a poem about an experience with an object that invokes emotions for you. Rather than tell the reader about this experience, show the reader by using concrete, specific words. You may wish to start by free writing about the memory and then forming it into a poem, especially if no specific object comes immediately to mind. Through writing about an emotional experience while paying close attention to specific details, a concrete object should emerge.
Image from Pixabay
A poet not only chooses words carefully, but also the order in which to present them to emphasize the desired meaning. According to Dictionary.com, syntax is the “arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.”
Poetic inversion, or changing the usual word order of speech, is often linked to the need to maintain a rhythm or to find a rhyme. We noticed Pope’s poetic inversion in An Essay on Criticism and saw how the rhyme was intimately linked to the rhythm of the verse. The song "Dancing in the Street," first recorded by Martha and the Vandellas in the 1960s, does violence to word order in the interests of rhyme—"There’ll be dancing in the street/ A chance new folk to meet"—but, because the words are sung to a driving rhythm, we are unlikely to notice how awkward they are. There’s a convention that we recognize, however unconsciously, that prevents us from mentally re-writing the line as "a chance to meet new people." ("People" rather than "folk" would be more usual usage for me, but, as with the Pope example, this would mean that the rhythm too would be lost.)
- Read Emily Dickinson's poem about a snake. Discuss how her choice of word order affects the poem.
Watch out for changes in tone for they can happen within a line or a few lines of poem and are critical in understanding a poem. Poems can be serious, sarcastic, grieving, happy et cetera. One of the definitions of tone, according to Dictionary.com, is “the general character or attitude of a place, piece of writing, situation, etc.” Words that have positive or negative associations give a specific tone to writing.
Poets use both denotation, or the actual/dictionary meaning of words, as well as connotation, or the implied meaning of words. For example, the dictionary definition of “home” is a place where one lives, but the connotation can mean security, warmth, belonging. The connotation of words lends to the tone of the poem as words with a positive connotation lends itself to a happier tone. Connotations change over time as they are based upon readers’ experiences within a given period of time. An allusion, according to Dictionary.com, is an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly; an indirect or passing reference. Allusions, like connotative words, refer to something beyond just the dictionary meaning of the word.
To a Captious Critic
by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)
Dear critic, who my lightness so deplores,
Would I might study to be prince of bores,
Right wisely would I rule that dull estate—
But, sir, I may not, till you abdicate.
To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
To his Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Contributors and Attributions
- Adapted from Naming the Unnameable: An Approach to Poetry for New Generations by Michelle Bonczek Evory under the license CC BY-NC-SA
- Adapted from "Approaching Poetry" by Dr. Sue Asbee. Provided by OpenLearn, The Open University. License: CC-NC-SA