Wednesday, July 28, 2010

using the five senses in poetry

In my last posting on showing not telling, I mentioned that it is easier to show if you use more than one sense. This blog post is on using the senses, all five: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. We all experience the world through our senses. Use that to your advantage when writing poetry.

Sight – likely the most important sense in poetry. Sight dictates much of what you do every day. You decorate your home, buy a car, cross a street by sense of sight. When writing a poem you must interest the reader by attracting them to the world of the poem. The details you use to show the poem say something of your attitude toward the place. Be specific in those details, colors, shape, what is written on the side of the coffee cup, etc.

Sound – has two meanings in poetry. 1) The sounds of the words are as important as the meaning of those words. 2) The sounds of the scene of the poem are also important. As the red sedan passed, did the reader hear it whiz by? Does the chickadee you just described sing? Did you tell us it sang or did the words you used invoke the song? Ex: ‘The chickadee seeks seeds along the filigree of icy trees.’ Couldn’t you hear the chickadee by my use of all the long e’s? When writing poetry the easiest senses to invoke are sight and sound and thus are the most common.

Smell – Your nose is the closest sense to the brain. It has been called the most primitive sense. Smell triggers the strongest memories. By using the sense of smell, you can make the poem even more personal to the reader. Ex: the word ‘kitchen’ is probably a trigger to most of us. If I mention the scent of pumpkin pie, doesn’t that invoke a Thanksgiving feast? I’ll leave it to you if it’s a good or bad memory. The sent of sawdust always brings me to my father’s workshop. There’s a trick to describing scents. Every time your nose senses a scent, write down the first three words that come to your mind that describe that scent. To most of us, the kitchen has the most memorable scents, but it could be a walk in the woods, a fresh mowed lawn, a fast food restaurant. They all have their special odors. Use them to your advantage. They can add a dimension to your poem.

Taste – is strongly connected to smell. When I mentioned pumpkin pie above, did you salivate? I did. Taste is a very intense sensation. Eating good food is pleasurable. Taste is very difficult to invoke because it is only felt in the mouth. But you could say something about the sense of pumpkin pie in the mouth. There are many emotions that can be invoked by sense of taste. Fear, comes to mind. Fear brings a metallic taste to my mouth. If I was writing about the car that almost hit me last month when it ran a red light I could say, “as I slammed on the brakes, the taste of all the coins in my pocket filled my mouth.” Rough, but you get the idea.

Touch – requires physical contact to experience, but can be invoked in the reader. I play softball. The feel of a ball leaving my bat, when I’ve hit it good… Ah! Touch includes temperature, pressure, pain, pleasure, etc. Touch can bring up an emotion, a pat on the back, a kiss, a slug. The best way to think of touch is to use your fingertips. They give the most acute sensation of touch. You’ll come up with sensations that are more accurate.

Don’t try to use all senses in all poems. The subject of the poem will dictate which would be best to experience the subject. Too many senses just like too many details will negate the reader being able to bring their own experiences to the poem. Tell us enough to know we’re in a kitchen, and enough that we know what’s happening in that kitchen, but not so many that we can’t bring up the kitchen of our memory.

The happy medium is to give enough concrete details so the reader can experience the poem, but not so many they can’t use their past as a trigger for the poem. Using the five senses will help you.