Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Hi gang, today’s poetry blog is on ‘abstracts.’ What is an abstract: dictionary – a word denoting a quality or intangible rather than a concrete object. To do with existing in thought rather than matter. Ezra Pound once said, “Go in fear of abstracts.” As a poet and poetry teacher, he disliked the use of abstracts.

In poetry, it is generally better to use a ‘power word’ or a ‘concrete image’ rather than an abstract word or phrase whose meaning is unclear. Abstracts are easy to say and flat. They tell not show. Yes, we all understand what an abstract means, but we don’t feel it. If I said, “Abstracts make me angry” you all likely understood me, but you didn’t have an emotional connection to what I said. What if I said, “When I hear an abstracts, I want to shove it down the speaker’s throat.’ You felt that (I hope). Abstracts do not advance a poem.

With every poem you write, you have to establish your right to write that poem. You have to establish your credibility (usually very quickly, if you want to keep the reader/listener). To do that you need to use ‘concrete language.’ Illustrate the poem with your choice of words. How do you do that? With details – it’s all in the details. Let me try an example, by describing a kitchen. “The room is gloomy. The sink is full of dirty dishes. A man sits at the table with half a cup of coffee. He glances up at our intrusion.” Now, I’ll liven that up by dropping the abstracts. “The open microwave door provides the only light. A sink of plates props up a food-encrusted casserole dish. The odor of coffee hangs over the table. A man lifts his head, but it’s unclear if he sees us.” Yes, I may have taken some liberties, but hopefully the scene is clearer.

The trick is to choose details that further the subject of the poem. Ex: in the above scene if the subject was the slow moving of time, I could mention the clock on the microwave. Poetry is supposed to be tight, using the fewest words possible and still make sense. Every word must advance the poem. There’s no room for words just for information purposes. Even the setting of the scene must advance the idea of the poem.

Your most important word choices are nouns and verbs. Nouns are the things, verbs the motion. Use adjectives sparingly, only to help the noun do its job. Don’t use adverbs. If you feel the need for an adverb, rethink your verb choice. An adverb usually means a weak verb. Walt McDonalds said it best. “Abstracts and generalizations are like chunks of lead tossed on a pond of water.’ They sink a poem.

Love (and the other emotional words, IE: hate, fear, etc.) is the most common abstract word used by poets. Never use the word ‘love’ in a poem. The word means different things to each of us. I’m not saying don’t write about love. Poets have been writing about love forever. Go ahead write love poems; just don’t use the word ‘love.’ A poem must evoke an emotion; it doesn’t have to tell us what the emotion is. Show us love in the details and fresh language. If, in the example of the kitchen above, I had the speaker do the dishes and make fresh coffee for the man, I’ve shown love.

To illustrate what I mean by fresh, I started with a quote by Ezra Pound, I’ll finish with another. (Tching was a Chinese poet, Pound translated.)
Tching prayed on the mountain and
wrote Make it New
on his bath tub.
Day by day make it new.

That’s the answer to poetry. Make it new. Abstracts are not new, are not fresh.

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