The One Fundamental of Poetry Most Ignored by Beginners
Although I’d agree that there are no “rules” in poetry, I do believe that there are tools, guidelines and techniques that make some poems better than others. One of the big ones is Concrete Imagery, best summed up in the simple phrase: “Show, don’t tell.”
This was one of the first things I learned in a high school creative writing class. I’ve heard it repeated hundreds of times since then, but ten years later I still have to remind myself how important it is and make sure I’m putting it into practice.
Most beginning poets start out writing because they have a deluge of feelings and/or ideas which manifest as language. Naturally, they want to impress that language upon a poem.
What many beginning poets don’t seem to understand is that once that poem is sent out into the world, it has to stand up for itself, apart from the poet. The poem has to become its own entity.
You could write, for instance, “I love her with all of my heart.” —And although that feeling may be genuine for you as the poet, that line in the poem will not be very convincing to any reader. This is because the line is seated in abstract ideas instead of concrete imagery.
Let’s start by squaring off Concrete Imagery with Abstract Ideas. Love is an abstract idea. Fear, anger and happiness are abstract ideas. Add God, religion and government to the list and you’re off to a good start. Abstract Ideas have no physical counterpart in the world. We cannot actually touch, see, smell, hear or taste them. They have no sensory qualities.
Now Concrete Imagery is just the opposite. These are things that exist in the actual world: apples, microwaves, telephone poles, etc. Specificity plays a big part in concrete imagery, because this log that I want to include in my poem may not just be any log.
It might be the rotten log by the Blackhawk river, on which my brother and I sat while we fished for King Salmon. It might be the knotted log that Old John bludgeoned his wife to death with. It might be the hollow log at the bottom of the river that the minnows run through like a tunnel. You want your imagery to be not only concrete, but fresh and unique. As always, try to avoid cliches.
One of William Carlos Williams most famous lines is “No ideas, but in things.” And true to his word, much of WCW’s poetry strains toward imagery in its absolute sense. Note the specificity of the concrete imagery and the lack of abstract ideas in the following poem:
A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron
Her hair slicked back standing
on the street
One stockinged foot toeing
Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it
She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail
That has been hurting her
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
There is no outpouring of love here, no diatribe of anger. It is just a picture of a woman removing a nail from the insole of her shoe. That’s all it is. That’s all it needs to be. The point is not that “God” and “anger” should be excluded from poetry, but that poetry is better seated in concrete imagery than in abstract ideas.
Other than the pain caused by the nail in the poem, there are no other ideas or feelings explicitly stated. And yet, does the imagery not evoke them? I for one can feel the woman’s annoyance at her discomfort. And it makes me think of how the small things wear us away, little by little, day by day.