I quit battling against abstractness in my poetry
My experience writing poetry is tied up in my battle against abstractness. I was never the greatest at creating imagery. I picked words that were way too general.
Yet, I tried to adhere to the “show, not tell” maxim. So I didn’t exactly explain much either.
As a result, my poetry lacked concreteness. My writing was too abstract. It is a common mistake for beginning poets, or writers in other genres as well.
I tried to eliminate the abstractness from my poetry, but that was like sucking the life out of the words. It was so boring! All I had left were concrete, tangible images with no emotion attached. It was a losing battle.
I ended up in a poetry workshop, where the teacher brought up the abstractness in my poetry once again. She suggested that I work on finding a balance between the abstract and the concrete.
So, of course, I went off on a search for balance…
…which can be interpreted a huge number of ways. Was I supposed to use some concrete and some abstract images? Was I supposed to use both concrete and abstract lines, but make sure they were equally distributed throughout the poem? Should I mix general and specific words?
At first, my teacher’s advice did not help that much. Then I started thinking more deeply about what I wanted people to feel when they read my poetry.
Poetry has no meaning
One of the most interesting classes I ever took was a music appreciation class. Near the beginning of the semester the professor told us, “Music has no meaning.”
I thought, “Yeah right. Of course music has meaning.”
But no, he explained that music by itself is meaningless. It is the listener who gives the music meaning.
The same can be said for poetry. By itself, poetry is meaningless. Then the reader absorbs the words and they come to life. The reader’s experiences, background, emotional state, age, etc…all these things are what gives poetry meaning.
I don’t want to tell my readers what to feel. When people read my poetry, I want them to feel something. But what that something is…well, that’s up to them. The meaning is in their hands.
Your poetry does not have to be understood. Sometimes I will write a poem and have no idea what it means. All I have is a vague concept of what I am trying to express. The best poetry is unexplainable.
I like it that way. I want the meaning of my poetry to be abstract.
After pinpointing what I wanted to be abstract, I was able to figure out what I wanted to be concrete.
Imagery should be concrete
A poem with abstract meaning is not meaningless…as long as there is something concrete to anchor it. For me, that’s imagery. Imagery is what keeps the poem grounded and makes it tangible.
Concrete imagery balances well with an abstract meaning.
However…the best poets also use a balance of the abstract and concrete within their imagery. Take a description from Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” for example.
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
This excerpt is a great example of what it looks like to combine highly concrete lines, such as “big as a Frisco seal,” with abstract concepts, such as “a bag full of God.”
Yet, “a bag full of God” is still concrete enough to pull up an image in your mind. It is a very delicately balanced phrase, just tangible but distant enough to be perfect. And, although it might be abstract, it is specific.
When it comes to imagery, specificity is the key.
Balancing abstract meaning with concrete imagery
Some poets brilliantly balance an abstract meaning with concrete imagery. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I wanted to share a short poem that inspired me. It is an excerpt from Jason Gray’s book of poetry titled Radiation King.
So much of the sky
A dolphin dives
Into the atmosphere
To see the cloudwrecks.
The imagery in this short poem creates a familiar picture, one that we’ve all probably seen in photographs, if not in real life. I see a dolphin leaping out of the ocean and into the sky. Simple and concrete.
But you may also notice that the world is flipped around. Instead of leaping into the air, the dolphin is diving. Instead of hunting for shipwrecks, the dolphin is looking for cloudwrecks. Never mind that ‘cloudwrecks’ isn’t a word. It conjures the image of a sky crammed with great, big clouds all crashing into each other.
In this example, the imagery is familiar and concrete…but the meaning? Is it a poem on perspective? Is it a poem on how we chase after unimportant, useless things? Is it a poem on how we should enjoy the things we have?
Maybe it is all of these things, and more. Maybe you can feel beauty and loss and emptiness all at the same time. Maybe you can see the ocean and smell the salt and feel something powerful that is nameless and intangible.
And if it all makes sense up until this point, remember that words themselves are abstract. They are nothing but marks on a page that we give meaning to. The line between abstract and concrete is blurred. Maybe it’s not even a line.
In the words of Jack Gilbert, “What we feel most has no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.”