First published in A Poet's Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 2013)
"No ideas but in things," admonished William Carlos Williams in the most famous statement on poetics of the twentieth century. His remark summed up the credo of the Imagists, a group devoted to writing poems that centered on the "direct treatment of the thing" in simple, almost spartan language. In a reaction to what they saw as the eighteenth and nineteenth century tendency to draw on symbolism and abstraction rather than actual experience, poets of the early twentieth century made a great effort to, as Ezra Pound wrote, “Go in fear of abstractions.” As Marianne Moore famously put it in her poem called “Poetry,” she preferred her poems to be "imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”.
The Modernists' obsession with image has had a healthy influence on poetry-writing; beginning writers are often prone to abstraction, and being forced to think about the sensual details of a remembered or imagined scene, or the specific realities that imply a general fact, has never hurt a poet. Great poetry of all eras almost always incorporates strong, vivid imagery.
Still, I think contemporary poetry is narrowed in scope and weakened in effect, nearly a hundred years later, by taking Williams' dictum too literally. The zeal to weed out all abstractions, a common characteristic of creative writing teachers, can be misplaced. Some poems get their strength from balancing specific imagery with abstraction. Sappho's "no room for grief" (see Introduction) is largely an abstract statement, but the concrete metaphor of the house having no room for grief grounds the abstraction just enough to make it stick. Emily Dickinson's poetry is full of abstractions made vivid through metaphor:
Hope is the thing with feathers,
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without the words…"
The fact that hope has no words is part of the point; hope is an abstraction, as are beauty, truth, freedom, and many other things that poets sometimes like to write about. But without the powerful abstraction of hope, the whole impact of this poem would be lost. The following poem saves the abstraction for the end:
“Those Winter Sundays,” Robert E. Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
The movingly detailed descriptions of the father waking early and warming the house for his family would be incomplete without the powerful abstraction that sums up the poem: "love's austere and lonely offices."
Adrienne Rich's work is characterized by a balance between the far ends of the spectrum of abstract and specific:
“In Those Years,” Adrienne Rich
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through rages of fog
where we stood, saying I
The pronoun “I” becomes equated, not only with the personal self but also, ironically, with the position of abstraction which opens the poem; the birds of history are specific and inescapable, and yet they stand for the biggest abstraction of all.
The following poem blends imagery and abstraction in the service of a visionary portrait of our condition:
From "Poem for Friends," Quincy Troupe
the earth is a wonderful
yet morbid place
crisscrossing reaping complexities
that are either heavy or light
(depending upon your weight
go into light, or darkness
(depending upon the perception
of your vision)
we flounder, we climb
we call upon dead prophets
to help us
they do not answer
(we hear instead the singing in the leaves
the waves of oceans, pounding)
we see sheer cliffs
of mountains polished by storms
sculptured to god's perfection
we see the advancing age of technology
see soulless monsters
eating up nature's perfections
hear wails & screams
& sirens howling
but hear no human voices calling
we sit at the brink of chaos laughing
we idle away time
when there is no time
Troupe uses quite a bit of imagery in the poem, but it is always a means of illustrating the ideas he does not hesitate to spell out clearly, even if that involves him in abstract ideas such as calling on prophets, the age of technology, and idling away time. Political poetry such as Rich's and Troupe's needs abstractions to make up the large statements that are vital to that kind of poetic vision. Blended with inspired imagery, abstractions can greatly move a reader.
It is no coincidence that the near-total privileging of imagery over abstraction entered poetry at the same time that free verse displaced meter as the medium of choice. Meter has long provided a way to render abstractions three-dimensional by anchoring them in its constant, driving physical energy. John Keats' very abstract lines, "beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all / ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," are some of his most memorable and famous, as are Ella Wheeler Wilcox's "Laugh and the world laughs with you, / cry and you cry alone," W.B. Yeats' "How but in custom and in ceremony / are innocence and beauty born?" and Alexander Pope's "a little learning is a dangerous thing" and "to err is human; to forgive, divine."
Here the abstract ideas are rendered both memorable and poetic by the sound of the words: the assonance of “forgive” and “divine,” “little” and “learning”; the musical repetition and criss-crossing structure in "beauty is truth, truth beauty”; the parallelism in "to err, to forgive"—and above all, the strong metrical drive in all these lines—is not abstract at all. These physical, musical effects help to make the abstractions feel concrete, so that they lodge in our minds the same way that images do.