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A Thing with Feathers: Concrete and Abstract

Posted By Joe Weil On November 23, 2010 @ 8:00 am In Poetry and Poetics,Writing | 2 Comments

This entry is part of a series, Joe Weil on Metaphor»

A poem can be utterly concrete in all its details, yet abstract as to its meaning. This abstraction has better words to define it: vague, illusive, non-cognitive, gibberish, wide open to interpretation, etc. I’m sorry they used the word abstract to name such a poem, since, elsewhere, abstraction means to deal with the principle of the thing rather than the thing. Example: “man is prone to evil” rather than “Freddy is prone to evil.”

Here’s an example of a form called an “abstract” poem. Personally, I’d prefer “non-representational poem” to the extent that the poem is made out of words which may not refer to any idea, emotion, or agreed upon meaning outside the sequence of words. This is by Roy Campbell, supposedly the foremost practitioner of the “abstract poem”:

Of seven hues in white elision,
the radii of your silver gyre,
are the seven swords of vision
that spoked the prophet’s flaming tyre;

We have seven hues, a silver gyre, seven swords of vision, and a prophet’s flaming tyre. Beats me as to what Campbell means, but almost all lyrical poems contain such moments of high gibberish:

The mustard scansion of the eyes (Hart Crane)

This might be called ecstatic speech except that many language poets keep the totality of abstraction, and skip the lyricism:

With Eye Brows Thick As Tacitus
Lars Olson

We dined on sacrifage. Remember the trouncing sun?
and how Melissa’s cape flew off towards infamy?
Wasn’t that nice? The live long day wore
wretched and vociferous gloves
while that distended cousin of Gwen had to
find another ruse for frolicking about
doffing her Pavlovian grin.
Let’s face it, the dance cards of longing
are marked for death, but semblances
of scalloped bawds still pock the surly afternoon
and bring us news of kith and kin
with eye brows thick as Tacitus.

This passage is not exactly abstract. It sounds like the ghost of someone recalling some odd get together. We could paraphrase the poem (at least this section) as a memory poem, but, again, just barely. In a sense, it is borrowing “remember when” and making it odd. The gist of the poem is not regularly forthcoming. The language may be informal, even chatty (“Wasn’t that nice?”) but its effect is abstracted in the sense of not being representational of any standard meaning or expectation. This is the sort of abstraction that language poetry and surrealism often employs. It is one of the tricks in the bag of postmodernism. It is a different order of abstraction than what we commonly mean. So let’s break abstraction down.

Abstraction of meaning, running from high gibberish to a sort of dadaist literalism that makes the meaning absurd or, at the least, makes meaning highly provisional. It is the chief operating device of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, of certain New York school techniques, and of what might be deemed a sort of emotionally detached surrealism. It often comes with many and usually random concrete images. It is often comical, having, at its best, the great childish virtues of Magritte’s paintings. It is a good defense against paraphrase, maudlin sentiment, or commitment to anything overt. It often sounds highly precocious if not intelligent. It does not hedge its bets. It makes no bets. It is all hedges. Here’s the problem: if the person wielding the technique does not understand vamps, and tropes, and little tricks of distorting cliché, then it might all dissolve into a sort of verbal vomit.

Now for the more common idea of abstraction: expressing a principle or idea without being specific in terms of sensual details, or in which the sensual details serve the merely utilitarian purpose of embodying a principle.

Abstract: Man is a moral creature. And sin makes man less than man.

The poetic abstract (using a vivid or concrete image in the service of an idea): Man is an oak, and sin an axe.

Narrative concrete: Jim was a good guy, always did whatever he could to help you out, but then that bitch, Tara came along and ruined him. Now he’s a bum. Just goes to show you how one bad mistake can ruin your life.

Proverbial version of the poetic abstract: “By Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”

Abstraction in poetry before the modernists:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is, but always to be, blest. (Pope)

Hope is a thing with feathers (Dickinson)

In either case, concrete sensual detail is there, but barely. We have the human breast, but it is figurative, rather than concrete or specific. We have hope defined by an extended metaphor and embodiment as a bird–but barely. This is poetry as wisdom: its images, though often beautiful, are always at the service of a principle, a truth, and very often, a sort of maxim. You might call this representational abstraction, and the first abstraction we mentioned non-representational abstraction. The concrete is really never absolutely there. The abstract, if it be truly abstract, isn’t there at all. You can’t “see” a season. You can look out a window, see the snow, feel the cold wind, and conclude it is “winter” but “winter” is a general principle embodied in snow and cold wind. You can also abstract by going too far into details without context. If you describe a daisy by painstakingly denoting all its parts–I mean, in every seen-detail–and you do not extend that detailing to an overall picture, chances are the reader won’t know you are talking about a daisy: detail without context is abstract. Context is the necessary abstraction of recognizing the details of a daisy as a daisy. Thus, against all the prevailing wisdom and preference of teachers, I would not tell beginning writers to avoid abstraction. I would tell them to play with the concrete towards representational abstraction or non-representational abstraction. In effect, either toward an “ontology” (the being /meaning implied by the details) or away from that ontology (if it is too pat, too obvious–for example: a grey sky equals sadness). Beginners must learn to employ the full spectrum of concrete details towards representational or non-representational abstraction. Painters know this.

We need two posts to cover this business of the concrete and the abstract. For now, here’s your homework: Read Dylan Thomas’ famous poem in which he admonishes his father to “Not go Gentle into that good night.” In what ways does this poem use details to bring home its abstraction? After reading this, read William Carlos Williams’ “The Last Words of My English grandmother.” Both poems are about dying elderly people. In a sense, Williams’ poem is far less poetic in its diction and imagery, but the grandmother, even though she is dying, comes off as a wonderful old coot and lively woman, whereas we know nothing of Dylan’s father at the end. Read these poems, then look at one of yours and see if you lean more towards one or the other. If you lean more towards the Dylan Thomas, re-write the poem to go more toward the Williams, and vice versa. Good luck.

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