by Pj Holliday
When I began writing poetry, I had the tendency to fill the lines with abstractions that left my classmates with the difficult task of understanding the poem. We’ve all heard numerous times how an overuse of abstractions does not allow the reader to grasp your meaning. We’ve heard how concepts such as love, freedom, and hope have meanings that are too subjective and should be avoided when writing poetry. But for me, being able to use abstract concepts in my writing has allowed me to come closer to shaping the expression I want readers to experience. That is, an impression of the visceral through language. And yet I know there aren’t words that can ever deliver the true elements of my experiences. For years, I did not understand how to write from the perspective of the reader -- my poetry would consist solely of abstractions, and the responses were always the same: that I needed to anchor the feelings to something concrete. I was told that it wasn’t realistic to envision that any human would be able to understand terms like grief without an image of what grief looks like to me. Language is flawed when it comes to sharing experience, but for me, through the use of abstraction in poetry, I think it comes close as possible.
As an artist inspired by cubists, expressionists, and impressionists, I enjoy looking at ways I can let my imagination artistically capture the mood, the light, and the shape of a thing, a person, or a place. In abstract art, the concrete is broken and image is distorted. It’s as if you’ve peeled an apple, which has then lost the security of its coating. The core of the apple is vulnerable both to the way in which it was peeled and to the perspective of the person who took its skin.
As a poet, I feel similarly about letting my mind create a world from my subconscious. Ezra Pound famously said to “go in fear of abstractions,” arguing instead that the image should be described in its purest state. As in visual art, when I abstract lines in my poetry, my imagination feels free to create a world outside the expected frame. Abstracting lines means that I can come up with the wildest metaphors, then rework them into the thing I am creating.
Still, abstraction without imagery, I am told, is not enough -- especially when it presents a unique challenge for the reader to interpret meaning. I often find myself being pulled back to address meaning and from where the meaning is derived. When that happens, I ask myself: Am I allowed to create something that makes the reader work for the so-called meaning? How do we define what is undefinable? It’s as though there must be a reward at the end of writing an abstract piece of work. Are abstractions then most powerful when they are earned? That is, when the poet has reached deep enough to connect it to something concrete, allowing the reader to better experience the visceral through language?
This experience of the concrete through the abstract -- this “taste of earned fruit,” as I like to call it -- is what I now strive to work toward in my poems. It is a term derived from a moment in my favorite professor’s office. She said, “PJ, what you wrote here is not concrete enough, but because of the line above it, you’ve earned the use of this abstraction.” It is delivering my interpretation of an open-ended concept. If the reader can experience that hard-to-define abstraction from my perspective as a writer, then I have earned the satisfaction that comes with using abstraction to allow the reader to come close to connecting to my experience.
Typically, when the meaning of a line is elusive to the reader, it tends to be described as abstract. But meaning is a subjective and wandering thing that appears at different times in different minds and changes all the time. Why then should it matter how abstraction is used, when not everyone will receive the meaning in the same way? But it is possible, I have discovered, to bring a sense of satisfaction to the reader with an elusive abstracted line by anchoring the abstraction to something specific.
While what I wish to express cannot always be captured in words, words are how I convey my deepest pains and joys. And I have learned that if I want to bring my pains and joys to the world, then I have to create them in a way which allows others to access them. I have often heard that if I am the only one able to experience my work, then I have not dug deep enough to create a good poem. “The English language would be without some of its most memorable poets,” writes Rabi Shankar, if abstractions were written off completely (In Praise of Abstraction). Using Wallace Stevens’s poem, “On This Beautiful World,” Shankar helps us explore abstraction. In this poem, we witness Stevens’ effective use of the abstract because he associates it with the concrete:
On This Beautiful World Of Ours composes himself
and hems the planet rose
The poem attempts to promote the sensation of abstraction of beauty. While the language choices initially create abstraction through what feels like syntactic confusion, the specificity of the color, rose, the character of the lecturer, and the verb to hem all work together for a full visceral experience for the reader. We often think when an abstraction occurs in a thing of beauty, or is associated with a thing of beauty, the beauty of the thing is lost. Beauty as an abstract concept is one which does not hold finite meaning. The poem that attempts to define “A beautiful world” through concrete image is one where poet and reader discover this beautiful world through abstraction. And the poet has earned the fruit of his effort. “Because at the middle, if only in sense and in that enormous sense, merely enjoy.”
Because the thing that makes a beautiful world is subjective. It’s just as subjective as identifying the thing that makes a beautiful poem. Without abstraction, we would never be able to discover those to-be-avoided cliché truths about beauty, love, and freedom for ourselves. With abstractions we can instead be conduits, completely disappearing as the subconscious takes over to bring the writer's world to light. Within those spaces, where the abstraction and concrete meet to create the metaphysical, the reader can finally know how to experience my interpretation of grief, love or beauty. Without definite or fixed meaning, the reader can still experience the blood-pumping sensation that comes when allowed access to the taste of the poem; that is, the taste of earned fruits.
Ravi Shankar’s In Praise of Abstraction: Moving Beyond Concrete Imagery“
The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract” by Wallace Stevens
Since I got my first digital camera in 2001, I’ve been thinking about ways to integrate words and imagery. Until recently, my concern was focused on how to mix poetry and photographs, with some attempts more successful than others, but in the last couple years, I’ve expanded my inquiry to additional media and dimensions.
This has included making poemboxes (sculptural interpretations of my poetry that usually involve a box), playing with geoboard poetry, collaging image with text, and including text when painting and sculpting. When you have another medium to incorporate beyond the written word, one you interact with using your more physical body, such as drawing or assembling, it helps you to approach the work from a new perspective.
Sometimes I am literally holding words in my hands. How does that feel, how does it differ from just reading them? Do some words weigh more than others? How can I embody what poem fragments like “blue stone” or “compilation of silhouettes” or “body as shelter” mean in the work, visually, not just linguistically? When we convey meaning beyond words can comprehension work at a more fundamental, primal level?
Lately, my joy in creating hybrid works is playing with their physical presence: I want words I can touch, turn over in my hands instead of just seeing them. Wondering how to translate a poem into a sculptural format was how my poembox project began. Sometimes I write sentences on pieces of ribbon and wind them around a geoboard to see how fragmentation and viewing from different angles changes the way I experience a piece.
I’ve made poems as flowcharts and mind maps (similar to some of the work in DIAGRAM magazine), chopped up a paragraph into small pieces and mixed it with dirt, played with spreadsheet poetry (inspired by work like Jamie Mortara’s “Parse Table”), buried a prose poem in the ground, wrapped lines into scrolls to sleep with them under my pillow, and used a wooden box with 31 paper slots as a daily writing prompt (asking: what gap do I want to fill today?).
Objects can invoke non-verbal associations: symbols, the collective unconscious, etc. Anything can become an ingredient in your art, but not much starts as a totally blank slate. How can use of materials with pre-existing connotations enhance or affect a piece of work? What happens when you add text to the mix?
Of course, people have been creating mixed- or multimedia art for many years. But assigning these labels tends to focus on ingredients, prepares the mind to experience a piece based on its raw materials, potentially making it more difficult to see the whole through the sum of its parts.
If we instead speak of a piece that goes beyond text to span several media as hybrid, perhaps we can better focus on its holistic composition than the boundaries it incorporates or transcends. Would that change how we experience a piece of completed art? Would it change the way you’d want to compose new work?
There is no limit to ways you can play with integrating your words with the three-dimensional world. If you could carve one sentence into a stick, what would it say? Can you make a shape with clay or play-doh and then write a poem about its existence? What if you gave yourself $5 and 10 minutes in a thrift store to make a visual collaged poem? What would a poem look like as a movie? As a comic book?
Taking words off the page and onto unexpected materials gives us new ways to process their potential, to uncover what they mean to us. Working outside your comfort zone can be intimidating at first, but that’s the point: to see what grows from exploration of unexpected places. That’s one of the beautiful things about hybridity: it can include whatever you need it to.
By Jesica Carson Davis
I used to loathe political poetry, found it to be tedious and lecturing. Too often, it seemed to focus on the outrage and demands, a didacticism that results in rhetoric of lyricism at the sacrifice of the poetic. Political poetry also didn't feel like it had much to do with me. Perhaps I had been previously looking in the wrong places, attempting to connect with protest poems from the 1960’s, written before I was born. No wonder I didn’t feel an emotional, creative, or intellectual connection.
However, in the months after the 2016 election, a majority of the writing that came out of me could be tagged as political poetry, and I haven’t been able to stop writing it since. I process thoughts through the written word, so I turned to poetry in an attempt to make sense of a world that felt like it was crumbling around me. I wrote with no attention to form or meter. I wrote to work through—and work out—a feeling of impending doom, chaos, and persecution.
Eventually I looked at my notes, all those rough drafts, and wondered if I could turn them into poetry by emphasizing images and elements, balancing emotions and concrete situations. Could I make something potentially beautiful from the ugliness I saw and felt? Even if I couldn’t, my attempts made me feel less stuck. I’ve written a sonnet on birth control, poems on the prison industrial complex, and made a poembox about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, among other things.
Creative writing, especially the language of poetry, has the power to transform thinking and is a testament for the necessity of poetry in times of crisis. Amidst walls erected in the name of public safety, children interned and separated from their families, people of color who are shot by police, the erosion of health care and impending loss of choice over our own bodies, poems of protest and resistance can empower us to transform our world. When we the people resist being categorized by politics, we cross the boundaries imposed upon us, and we are open to accepting our differences.
And as Chad Bennett says in his piece, “Why Are More Americans Reading Poetry Right Now?” “…poems often nourish questions more than answers. Poems tend to foster uncertainty. Poems cultivate mixed feelings.” Poetry can help us become more comfortable living in an uncertain space, teach us to hold and evaluate conflicting beliefs without our heads exploding. In times of crisis, poetry is there for us.
As most of life is more gray than black and white, there is another option between these diametric poles: make some art. Try doing it outside of your chosen form(at) or genre. If you’re a writer, try painting. If you’re a photographer, make an assemblage sculpture about what’s coming into your life right now. Write a Villanelle about how the world feels like it’s on fire, then write a Tanka about that gorgeous, looming moon. Then rewrite them breaking the forms. Get together with other creative people and talk, create things while you are together, plan and execute projects to keep you making art. If you’re open to it, do a poetry ritual, or cast what could be thought of as a spell, which brings us back to the power of language. Just keep creating and talking, especially about the hard stuff. Invite a change, or at least attention, pour light where before there was darkness.
Creating something against inhumane policies takes strength and means standing up and saying who you are, that your life matters, that others lives matter.
Sometimes we have to write things just to get them out to help ourselves—focus on the process over the product and make something new without worrying about how it’s going to look when it’s finished. Now is your time to get your creativity out. Turn it into a force of reckoning.
So this July 4th, start a creative revolution in your life. It’ll be a revolution for you as much as for others. You never know who will be paying attention. You may bring something into the world that someone really needs. Speak to your power. Do something creative, begin by doodling or a writing a journal entry. Write a poem in a notebook, sketch your own face in the mirror, play with clay or paints. Express what the hell is going on in and around you.
It is easy to feel defeated by current policies and decisions, but you can resist through your creativity. Keep making noise and practice using your voice. Figure out how to listen, how your own voice might be best expressed, and what you want to say. Then say it, say it again, and keep saying it until you see change begin.
Further reading suggestions:
Look, Solmaz Sharif
Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
Nature Poem, Tommy Pico
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker
The January Children, Safia Elhillo
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong
Seam, Tarfia Faizullah
Milk, Dorothea Lasky
Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith
#NoMorePresidents at Heavy Feather Review
Learn more about Jesica Carson Davis and her work here.