Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Use of Details in Poetry

Howdy folks, Jim Fowler again with another blog on writing poetry. Have fun with it.

Details in poetry – Many people think poetry is too hard. It takes too much effort to understand. It’s mysterious. There are many reasons for that, but I’ll discuss two for a moment.
1) They were taught in school that poems have to have a meaning and everyone must come up with the same meaning. - Poems may have more than one meaning. A good poem has many levels of meaning. Read a Robert Frost poem. Most of them have a surface meaning and deeper levels of meaning. Good. Most Americans like Frost’s poetry. They understand it at some level. But for a reader to even care if a poem has meaning, they must first have an emotional connection to the poem. They must feel it. They must want to find a meaning, and as long as they can justify that meaning to themselves, they can find their own meaning. Most of us are not in a literature class we don’t need to justify our connection to a poem to anyone except ourselves.

2) There are poets who believe that their poems must be difficult and thus write them thatway. Poets don’t need to write their poems to be difficult. Most poems are not. Pick up a poem, read it. Read it aloud. Hear it. It helps the poem make the connection. Don’t worry if you don’t like the poem. If we all liked the same poem, there would only be one poem.

If you want to write clear poems, use details. Use original details, don’t use old tired details (clichés). Specific details early in the poem give the reader a place to stand, a reference point to experience the rest of the poem. Details are what make life interesting. Most of us go through life not looking at the details, poets must observe the details. The details make the whole.

But, use the details that advance the idea of the poem. Don’t use details just to use details. Ex: if I’m describing a small town welcoming soldiers home from war, I can use the banner saying ‘welcome home heroes’ and I can describe the people lining the street. I don’t need the sign in the hardware store telling of the sale on wheelbarrows. That’s a specific for a different poem.

Don’t be rigid with the details. Richard Hugo in “The Triggering Town,” has an anecdote where he changed the color of the water tower for the sake of the poem. Feel free to do the same, within reason. Unless the poem is surreal, you don’t want to put something somewhere where it can’t possible be. I couldn’t put the Mississippi River in the Sahara for example. But if you want the sign for wheelbarrows to be a sign in the diner advertising free meals for heroes go ahead.

Colors are good details. Get specific with the color. But be careful of the symbolism of colors. In the United States black is the symbol for death, in Japan it’s white. In some cases, it might be good to use the exact color, citrine, jade, etc. But beware, the unusual color will draw extra attention to that detail. Do you want that? In most cases, the more common colors are better.

Mix your details carefully. Put them in some sort of order. Generally, unless for some kind of effect, the order will be how the eye sees them, along the street, from high to low. Don’t make the reader jump around. It can also be helpful to include details from more than one sense. Most details will be sight, but include a detail on hearing or smell. Remember, the sense of smell is the most primitive thus invokes the strongest emotion.

When you use details in a poem you show not tell. You have no choice. The details let the reader experience thus connect to the poem.

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