My own personal poetics are greatly influenced by the Romantic movement in English poetry: from Blake through Keats and Coleridge to Wordsworth. While this poetry may sound ‘old-fashioned’ to the modern ear, at the time it was written, it was considered groundbreaking: a move away from the stilted ‘poetic diction’ of the 18th century towards ‘the language really spoken by men’ (Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802.) The ideas of the Romantic movement were super-charged with revolutionary spirit, carried across the Channel at the time of the French Revolution. With its anti-authoritarian treatises and thinly-veiled criticism of contemporary authority, Blake’s work is perhaps the most prophetic, revolutionary and anti-establishment of all.
Be this as it may, I am sometimes painfully aware that my own poetics could be perceived as old-fashioned. I love lyrical poetry, drawing from music the kind of inspiration that I imagine more imagistic poets draw from the visual arts. Favourite poems of mine usually those which follow a traditional metre and rhyme scheme. However, I realised it wasn’t just this that made my poetry seem old-fashioned. I was frustrated, as I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Then I came across this Instagram Post from the poet Ren Powell. In it, she explains the difference between concrete and abstract subject matter in poetry:
“Concrete objects bring a reader back to the body, to the senses – while abstract objects will invite the reader to use reason, and to recall previously defined experiences.
A poet – or writer of any sort – can use this distinction, not as a guideline, but as another tool in their toolbox.”Ren Powell via Instagram
What is the difference between concrete and abstract subject matter?
A concrete subject can be physically defined, quantified and measured. Examples of concrete subjects would include a tree; a ball; a cat; the human body.
An abstract subject, on the other hand, is something which cannot be quantified, and is often associated with human emotions: love; hate; dreams; happiness or sorrow, for instance.
The Romantic poets made ample and unashamed use of abstract subject matter. Consider Blake’s poem, ‘The Human Abstract,’ as a fine example:
Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor;
And Mercy no more could be,
If all were as happy as we;
And mutual fear brings peace;
Till the selfish loves increase.
Then Cruelty knits a snare,
And spreads his baits with care.
He sits down with holy fears,
And waters the ground with tears;
Then Humility takes its root
Underneath his foot.
Soon spreads the dismal shade
Of Mystery over his head;
And the Caterpillar and Fly,
Feed on the Mystery.
And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
Ruddy and sweet to eat,
And the Raven his nest has made
In its thickest shade.
The Gods of the earth and sea,
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
But their search was all in vain;
There grows one in the Human Brain.
In this fascinating poem, Blake builds a bridge between the abstract and concrete: both are, of course, perceived in the human brain, or mind. How much can we trust our senses? Is any subject truly concrete?
It is possible, however, to write remarkable poetry using only concrete imagery. It is a challenge, especially to those (like me) well-versed in writing of emotions and imagined experience. But the results can be profound. Let us take a look at the opening stanzas of Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Bogland:’
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening—
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.
Such earthy, concrete imagery brings us down into the squelch and suck of the muddy bog alongside the poet. He concludes this poem:
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.
(from the collection Door into the Dark,1969)
Here, in a reversal of Blake’s device, Heaney builds a bridge from the concrete towards the abstract: pointing towards the bottomless centre of the human mind, or soul.
For this challenge, I want you to write a poem using only concrete nouns, subject matter and imagery. For the purposes of this exercise, the following words are banned: soul, love, lust, dreams, sorrow, suffering, heartache, wonder, etc. You may write:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.
À la Lewis Carroll, if you wish, but do not write directly of the emotions which such objects invoke. It should be left to the reader to experience the emotions, without the poet referring to them directly. Phew! That is quite a challenge, and I hope I can rise to it myself…
Once you are done, follow the usual dVerse rules:
- Write a poem in response to the challenge.
- Enter a link directly to your poem and your name by clicking Mr. Linky below,
- You will find links to other poets and more will join so please do check
back later in order to read their poems.
- Read and comment on other poets’ work– we all come here to have our poems read.
- Please link back to dVerse from your site/blog.
The bar is open!