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
Color Me Green: A Writing Exercise
By Kathryne Lim
Dorothea Lasky’s writing on color and poetry is what sparked my own interest in the use of color in poetry. Colors are interesting in that they are descriptive words that can be interpreted differently by different people. For instance, the color green may make one person think of a rainforest and another of a green Mustang. Yellow may evoke feelings of calm in one person, anxiety in another. Looking at color can be an interesting way to experience a poem in a new and different way.
The following is a writing exercise around color that I like to use with groups. It’s a good way to think about how colors affect imagery in a poem. It can also be used as a tool to uncover different layers of meaning within a poem.
First, distribute a poem that contains a lot of colors or color words. Wallace Stevens’ mysterious “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” is a good one to use. Next, ask the participants to circle all the colors in the poem. Have the participants circle all the color words as well. Color words may not be direct colors, but words that suggest colors, such as rainbow, peacock, cloud.
Have a discussion with the participants about what those particular colors represent and what emotions they evoke in them. Discuss whether any of those colors or color words are used in surprising ways in the poem.
Lastly, assign the participants three colors that they must use in their own poem. When they are finished, have them circle the colors and color words used. Just for kicks, have them switch around the colors in the poem. Ask them how this changes the meaning of the poem and whether it offers new insight into their own thought processes.