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abstractions

One of the hardest things to do is to get students to notice the world beyond feelings and abstractions. Feelings and abstractions seem significant. A dolphin balancing a ball on its nose is novel, but so what? Dolphins are of the moment, and although our annoying culture drones on that we should live in the moment, we are mostly lying.

Many ardent “poets” don’t like the world of details all that much because a.) they think it’s no big deal (they never know how boring it might be to read the 100th my lover is an asshole, but I’m her slave poem), or b.) for all intents and purposes, their neurotic parents have cheated them of what is really of value in this world beyond grades, careers, and belief systems (dry stuff, all that).

We say God is in the details and then we spend most of our time avoiding both details and God. Tonight, after a reading, I was parked at a Hess station and I noticed this bush at its edge. Brown leaves were shivering at its center, and a sparrow, who had no business being visible this late at night, sat hunkered down, away from the wind, not very different than a vagrant with a bottle of Hurricane. He would have been lost in the camouflage of his brown and grey and dirty buff had there not been the rather lurid light of the station reaching casually into his kingdom. The fretwork of dried out stems was intricate, the way it is in certain sketches of by Hans Holbein. But I wasn’t thinking of Hans. I was thinking this was beautiful, and all the more beautiful for coming at me in the middle of a gas stop. Either because I am urban and nature must ambush me or because I am contrary, I have never liked “officially” beautiful scenery. I was bowled over and pointed the scene out to my wife who grew up in a pretty rural town and is accustomed to nature looking well, appropriately scenic–not awing her in the middle of a Hess parking lot. I didn’t belabor the point, knowing through years of experience, that my weird bouts of transport are not truly exportable.

I wondered what the hell the bird was doing there–so late, so visible, and without his flock. Birds huddle together for warmth. Perhaps they were migrating, and this particular sparrow went off course, but I know Eurasian tree sparrows stick it out in winter. Was he an outcast? Was he having a midlife crisis? Was he sick, and wanting the privacy of dying alone? Or best of all, did fate place him there so that, in the middle of my normal doings, I could be reminded of just how amazing the seen world is?

Perhaps I am old and stupid and am not that far removed from a senile nun with the world’s largest collection of Plaid stamps. Perhaps I am too easily delighted by what I consider awe-inspiring. I know only that I was grateful for this vision and went away from the Hess station the way other, more sensible mortals drive out of national parks. If I was in a national park and saw an Elk, I’d be happy, but no more happy than I was to see this out-of-place sparrow hunkering down in the center of a bush beside the green and white Hess station.

I am echoing Williams, who, among other things, is the great poet of sparrows seen in bushes outside gas stations. We do not take him seriously because, being snobs, we want our nature to be appropriately set (as per Mary Oliver). We really don’t care for nature. We care for what it might give us in all the expected ways–but Williams was the wiser poet. In his poem, “January Suite,” he says it’s the strange hours we keep, the sudden joy of noticing a thing on the fly that makes it beautiful. He claims the dome of The Paulist Fathers outside Paterson was as thrilling to him as St. Peter’s Basilica after years of anticipation. I believe him.

Detail, especially the unexpected and perfect detail at the unexpected moment, is the neglected mother of us all, the mother who does all the drudge work and who is never noticed until, perhaps, in the poverty of our lives, we see her crossing the street at dusk, see the brown bag clutched in her hand, and remember she is our mother. No parent says to a child, “I want you to be ready at all times to be stunned out of your intelligence and brought halt and stupefied before the covenant of your own eyes. I want you to notice how traffic lights are so much more vivid before it snows. I want you to remember, for the rest of your life, the sound of my voice in a yard when I called out your name through the dusk. Please. I want you to be truly human. With all my heart. I want your consciousness to win over everything that attempts to murder you.”

These things will not make the child successful. They are, as the utilitarians say, a waste of time. Yet all that we do, all the machinations of our finest plans are so we might “waste” time instead of being wasted by it.

I will give you a little story about a teaching experience I had that pleased me as much as that Hess station Sparrow.

I had a sweet student, in my early years of teaching, who had a great love of books and poetry and hardly any talent. I taught her what a cliché was. I taught, and I admonished. I tried so hard, and so did she, painfully hard, so hard that she reminded me of the tormented student ripping his paper in Joyce, and it broke my heart because I had always wanted to be a great baseball player and I sucked. She was writing lines like:

I know he doesn’t love me. Dying,
pretending not to care, throbbing with hurt fear.
Yet his ashen cruelty takes my breath away.
and I succumb to his worst intentions.

She was not being flip or dadaist. She was being heartbroken, untalented and sixteen.

At first, I forbade her writing about love, and she obeyed me, but it was for naught. Finally, I sat down with her, and spoke of this “cruel” boy. He was a lanky, athletic, inarticulate kid with a pierced ear, and a gloomy countenance, a sure bet to make such a sweet girl an idiot. I asked her to remember one thing he did she thought was cute. She said, when he first courted her, he would hide shyly under cover of his hoody and run his long slender index finger over the bridge of his nose like playing a violin. I said: that’s it! Connect that image to your feelings of being forgotten and bring it to me on Monday. On Monday she came in all excited. She had written:

You no longer draw your finger like a bow
across the hard and freckled bridge of your nose,
no longer play the shyness of your face,
that awkward tune I loved.
Now you look me straight in the eye,
without bow, without fear, without love
and you lie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I danced. If I could have purchased a golden laurel wreath and placed it on her head, I would have done so gladly. She didn’t understand my excitement. She instinctively knew she had written something beyond her usual powers. To see that sort of moment is better than seeing a sparrow or an elk. For me, it was like the first time Helen Keller spelled out the word “water.” I went home and tried to explain this joy to my then lover who said “so what?” My wife never says so what. She is a good poet. She teaches. When someone has done something beyond their powers she comes home and tells me, and I love her all the more because I understand she has just seen her own sparrow at the Hess station.

To be a teacher is to be a midwife. You bring the child to bear. You stay up all night. If things go wrong, you question yourself. You want to have an open sesame for every soul you encounter. You want something to open in them and for them, and when you are at your best, you don’t care if they ever say thank you. This girl continued to be only fair to middling compared to my other gifted students, but years later, she still reads poetry. She has two children and a dog, and she can’t remember why that lanky boy broke her heart, or, if she remembers, she laughs. The gifted students are the elk in the park and I am grateful to them, but I am, perhaps, partial to the sparrows. I don’t know what they are doing there, without a flock, and huddled alone.

We say “show, don’t tell,” but this is a lie. We should say, “All true showing will tell, and all true telling will contain a sparrow, and, in the middle of doing what you need to do, you will waste time, and you will notice what makes you human beyond all the lies we tell.”

There are many poets who enjoy disliking William Carlos Williams. He wrote poems that seem distinguished only by their adherence to the tossed off. They make no major claims. They seem jotted off.

So why study the man at all? First, it is hard to see Williams because he is everywhere, in all the schools of American poetry. He took the English conversational lyric as invented by Coleridge and developed by Wordsworth and turned it toward American speech patterns: OK, sure–the sense of a self consciously casual utterance, language that was wrought from a busy life and ranged between the phatic, the cranky, the ecstatic, the overt, and the obvious.

But we must pause at the word obvious. Stating the obvious is not easy. Human beings tend to mistake mystification for intelligence. Abstractions appeal to us. We forget that even “chicken” is an abstraction. It is a word for an animal. It is not the animal. So perhaps we only believe things have meaning when they have been twice abstracted: first by word denoting thing, then by word (which is symbol) implying something else in the verbal universe (word as symbol for thing plus word as symbol for abstracted word: chicken (thing) plus word chicken-symbol–plus chicken as truth, justice, and the American way). By this process, every word becomes “and”, a conjunction, that which separates as it joins, joining and separating from the thing it denotes and the moral, emotional, intellectual, and historical meanings it connotes. In short, our language becomes a process of mystifications which have lost their original purpose, or have revealed the hidden agenda of all mystifications: power and exclusion.

All street lingo, scholastic jargon, all supposed “verbal rigor” is meant to appeal to the initiated and to exclude the uninitiated (and this includes the language of those who feel excluded). Williams was not against this nearly airtight law of verbal action. He was practicing a new, or, rather, reconstituted rigor: the rigor of the obvious, contact with words for things as things made out of words–double contact, rather than double abstraction.

Williams wanted to make contact with the thing, and then make contact with the thing made out of words. He was not just interested, as in a Haiku, with rendering a thing’s “thingness,’ but he also wanted to make contact with it as a verbal construct, as a thing in its own right. He was interested in a poem as a thing made out of words–as an object, an actual artifact, something as tangible as a chicken. Williams was interest in type–in the words as they were placed upon the page. He was interested in the spacial orientation of type–the “just so” latent within the act of typing words upon a page.

If we know this about Williams, then we can assume three things that may be important to entering into any Williams poem:

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious.
2. Rigorous attention to The placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page.
3. The contact with the thing, and the enactment of the thing made out of words as a thing in its own right–which is a second contact. Double contact as opposed to double abstraction.

In this system, abstraction does not disappear, but is taken as the given. Kafka wrote: “the moment you write she looked out a window, you have already begun to lie.” Kafka is not being profound here. She is doing much more than looking out a window, but the artist has selected that one particular action to render in words. Selection is a lie of omission. Even when we tell a true story, we are omitting details. We call this focusing on the significant, but it is only significant because we say it is.

We have made a judgment. Our judgment is distorted by necessity. We have a story to tell. We are never in life, but always in a narration, a process of selection, placement, and applied meaning which we call consciousness. Williams has two aesthetic tasks: one, to be rigorous about the thing at hand in such a manner that we are temporarily taken out of our narrative, and thrust into a kind of “stupidity” before the object (I use stupidity in its full sense, not as lacking intelligence, but as being stunned out of intelligence for a moment, being stupefied, disengaged from one’s usual systems of applied meanings, narratives, and assumptions); and two, to enact a ritual of placement that does not echo a received truth, but becomes its own construct–that imitates the dynamic, and kinetic force of the organic, of “nature” as opposed to merely holding a mirror up to it.

The natural breath Williams advocated was not actual speech, but the artistic placement of everyday speech rhythms and lingo into a thing called a poem. Rather than the abstract twice abstracted, Williams desired the actual twice actualized–first as something one touched through words, and then as something one made (and unmade) out of words. This double actualization has its aporia, its own deconstruction in that one makes contact with the thing not to know it, but, rather, to use it as a new energy–to “unknow” it in the most vital way possible, and to construct a thing made out of words that will contain the energy of what one has “unknown.” To “unknow” chicken as word, is to make contact again with both the thing and the thing’s essential energy used to construct a new thing made out of words. Not a chicken or a chicken as symbolic truth–but a poem that has all the life and thingness of a chicken, and must be taken as it is–beyond paraphrase, beyond mere analysis of meaning, beyond the usual apparatus of mystification.

So, armed with some knowledge of the artist’s intentions, let’s apply these intentions to an actual William Carlos Williams poem.

Iris

A burst of Iris so that
come down for
breakfast

we searched through the
rooms for
that

sweetest odor and at
first could not
find its

source then a blue as
of the sea
struck

startling us from among
those trumpeting
petals

1. Rigorous attention to the obvious. The title says “Iris.” The first line qualifies a “burst of Iris.” Things burst when their energy cannot be contained. So this is not an inactive iris. It is, in a sense, the ecstatic energy of the Iris–its “bursting.” Williams has made an event out of a flower–something we might notice as “Oh look at that–an iris, how pretty…where’s the orange juice?” Usually, we take decorative flowers for granted, especially upon awakening. He is drawing our attention to something we might take for granted. He is saying: “Look! Look! An Iris! Better yet…a burst of Iris! We have not seen it yet. We apprehend it, through the implication of smell, through its essential energy as a burst of fragrance. Here, selection creates the lie of omission in the best sense: the whole house has become alive to an iris. This is stupidity as I mean it: to be stunned out of rational priority–to make a big thing out of something we might not even notice. To be stunned into the obvious. We are told the “we” of the poem searches through all the rooms of the house. This is a lively contact with a flower indeed! Williams effusiveness over mundane and obvious things infuriates some. I find it delightful.

Next, we get “sweetest odor–”: the Iris dominates as an odor. They have yet to see the Iris, and when they do, it is not the Iris per se, but its blue: then a blue as/of the sea/struck.” So this Iris dominates the house without being seen, and when it is seen, it strikes, startles with its blue among its “trumpeting petals.” Smell becomes color becomes sound–a loud and vital awakening to the obvious!

2. A rigorous attention to the placement of the obvious as a “just so” upon the page. Well, the first line of every tercet is the longest, the second the next longest, and the last the shortest. This does not vary. It is a formal law peculiar to the poem. In addition, there is no real sentence or punctuation in the poem, yet its clarity cannot be questioned. This shape is played off against what is a sentence fragment–no sentence at all. The lack of punctuation is not sloppiness on Williams’ part here, but a vital aesthetic aid to the synasthesia and sense confusion of the poem. Everything, including the grammatical ambiguity of this poem is intentional–especially “that.” If the poem ended at “that” we would think “that” referred to the burst of Iris, but the stanzaic break adds odor at the beginning of the next stanza. Many free verse poets do stanzaic enjambment but it is too often done for neatness and symmetry rather than organic form’s sake. Williams bleeds the sense of the previous stanza into the next, but each stanza is truly its own organic moment within the body of the poem. This is true form.

3. Contact with the thing and the enactment of that contact with a thing as a thing in its own right. The whole of the poem is the contact with Iris, in all its sensual glory, as well as a mixing of the senses in an ecstatic apprehension of the flower. The poem proceeds and becomes its own thing by way of making contact with the Iris–with the artist’s apprehension of Iris. The word Iris functions then as a sort of conjunction between the thing called Iris and the poem called Iris–the thing made out of words.

Williams says what is before us–at this moment, and at this odd hour–is enough to make a vital poem, “by defective means.” And if we surrender ourselves to his intentions, we will discover a poet as deliberate in his art, and as eager to master it as any other great poet of the 20th century.

We can simplify imagery by saying it is that aspect of writing which appeals to the five senses; but that would be incorrect without the qualifier “sensual.” If we want to be more expansive, but not make the term entirely meaningless (and definitions that insist imagery is anything evoked by words are meaningless) we can use the following qualifiers:

1. Sensual imagery: any evocation of the senses–tactile, auditory, visual, aural, and olfactory in their strict sense as descriptive
2. Intuitive imagery: images that seem scattered and incongruous, non-linear, and perhaps surreal that travel somewhere between concrete detail and abstractions or fantastical combinations of things, places, concepts, things
3. Kinetic imagery: any word or group of words evoking action
4. Abstract or conceptual imagery: forms of synecdoche, metonymy, figurative speech, sensual imagery used to evoke ideas to which one of the five senses or kinesis still clings in ghostly form
5. Conceptual imagery: mere abstraction
6. Evocative/feeling imagery: where any of the preceding forms of imagery are put toward creating a feeling or emotional atmosphere

Poems before the Modernist era tend not to stress “show/don’t tell.” This was a revolutionary concept, partly wrought as a reaction against romanticism, influenced by the simplicity of realism and journalism, and the influence of Japanese and Chinese modes of poetry (misunderstood, of course). Modernist imagist work is also heavily indebted to the dominance of prose. Before Modernism, most poetry told, with showing as merely a form of decoration. Either that, or poetry sought a synthesis between showing and telling where the showing told and the telling showed. When Shakespeare writes, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he is using a form of conceptual or abstract imagery known as synecdoche in which a part stands for the whole: true minds stands for the whole.

Or later: “No. it is an ever fixed mark!” Here, Shakespeare is using imagery in a figurative, not literal way. He is not describing. Instead, he is suggesting a sort of analogy between steadfastness in love and a star that remains fixed in its position. This is very different than a haiku:

Along the river’s edge
ice. And a dead bee deep
in the brown hydrangea.

Here the images need not be taken as implying anything, but one may read winter into them, or the approach of winter. One could see this as both sensual and feeling imagery. Sensually, not one line is without a concrete visual image. In terms of feeling, it may evoke a mood of sadness (though this may not be the case depending on whether you’re the type open to suggestions of feeling states, or somewhat literalist and immune to feeling atmosphere). Someone, especially people that need poetry to have a theme or idea might say: “dead bees… so what?”

Evocation is a risky game, but, for the past 100 years, poets have been told not to preach, or tell, or pontificate, but to show, suggest, and evoke. So evocation and suggestion have been the “ideal” and have become standard. When you look at each poems, you should be aware of what sort of imagery is being employed and whether or not this is the most effective type for the writer’s purposes.

Here’s a writing exercise:
Consider the forms of imagery in the following poems: Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush,” Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” Stephen Dunn’s “Happiness,” Paul Eluard’s “Blazon,” Moore’s “The Fish,” Lucille Clifton’s “Hips.” Note what sort of imagery each poet favors. How does their choice of images effect style and tone? Imitate two of the styles. If Clifton, do a poem extolling (or condemning) a body part; if Dunn, take an abstraction like sadness or boredom, and visualize it. Good luck.