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!
Welcome to the bar, pubgoers! I am happy to serve up a slice of pumpkin pie with some spiced ale, mulled cider or chai tea to provide poetic inspiration…
Hi Ingrid. Thank you for hosting our Poetics. I like the different takes between an abstract and a concrete poem and subject matter. Looking forward to hitting the poetry trail in a bit.
Pumpkin pie with mulled cider sounds heavenly!
Thank you, Grace: enjoy the pie, cider and poetry!
Loved the prompt, Ingrid 🙂 It pushed me out of my comfort zone and I am pleased with the result! Pumpkin pie for me as well 💝💝 Happy Tuesday!
One pumpkin pie coming up, Sanaa 🎃 It pushed me out of my comfort zone too, but sometimes that’s a good thing! Happy Tuesday to you too 🙂
Thank you. It’s always a good thing! 🙂 Yes! 🌹
I share your love for the Romantics, Ingrid: at one time Tintern Abbey was like mother’s milk. To write a poem using only concrete imagery will tax me to the teeth, so if you don’t mind, I’ll have a slice of that pumpkin pie and ale for sustenance shall I? Brilliant prompt.
It is certainly a taxing task! So please enjoy your pumpkin pie and ale before you begin…Tintern Abbey is one of my all-time favourite poems 🙂
How can it not be?! :>) Thank you, and cheers!
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Björn Rudberg (brudberg) said:
Only mulled cider for me thank you. I hope I understood the prompt correctly… at least I made an effort of being very concrete.
Thank you: concrete is good! One cider coming up…
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Laura Bloomsbury said:
This was such a good exercise in not flying off into la-la land! Not easy though and I only just about managed. Hot rum toddy for me please but hold the pumpkin pie
One hot rum toddy coming your way, Laura! I have noticed in the past that your poetry is wonderfully imagist and never airy-fairy: your poem was a delight to read!
Laura Bloomsbury said:
thank you for such generous encouragement x
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Well, this is right up my alley! (a concrete image) It’s a lovely bright sunny day, so I think I’ll just have a crisp apple cider, thank you!
One crisp apple cider for you. Enjoy the prompt: I look forward to reading your poem!
A really challenging prompt for me, also, Ingrid, as I too feel my approach to poetry has more in common with the Romantics and is definitely grounded in the ‘old-fashioned’ areas of lyricism and the abstract. I will ponder, and see if I can come up with something.
Thank you, Hedgewitch, I look forward to reading your offering!
Well, not sure how close I came, but it was fun to work with. Thanks, Ingrid for hosting and for the great prompt. I’ll be by in the morning to read and visit.
I loved your poem! Thanks for joining in 😊
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Darius the Mate said:
I love this challenge (challenge being the key word). I hope I haven’t taken too many liberties.
I am interested to read your poem, Darius, thank you!
Well, dear friends, the clocks have gone back across Europe, but I am still firmly stuck in summer time! I have an early start tomorrow, so I will take my leave of the bar for now, but be back to read in the morning. There is a warm fire burning in the hearth, so pull up a barstool and warm yourself with some poetry…
I hope to be able to rise to this challenge also!
Looking forward to reading you, Jenna! 💝
I am sure you will, Jenna!
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Tricia Sankey said:
enjoyed the sample poems, thanks for hosting Ingrid and I’ll help myself to the rest of the pie!! 😋
You and me both ! 😀 Happy Tuesday, Tricia! 💝
Tricia Sankey said:
🍷 🥧 🍷
I hope you enjoyed the pie too!
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sorry i have never read wordsworth and the only Shelly i have read is mary shelly’s frankenstein. i do enjoy a drop of edgar allen occasionly. found the concrete challenge tricky. heading for a tankard of hot chocolate. back in the mornng for a catch up read.
Heading over to read you, Roger! See you tomorrow 🙂
You’re most welcome 💝
You could do worse than Frankenstein! Thank you for taking part 🙏
Ron Rowland said:
This was tough. More than once I had to remove a word for sounding abstract. I’ll take that non-abstract pumpkin pie.
Pumpkin pie coming right up! 🙂 Good to see you, Ron! 💝
Thank you for helping out with the late shift, Sanaa! 🥧🙏❤️
You did great, Ron – though I can understand how Montserrat could make you dreamy…
Good evening dVerse poets 🙂 I am behind the bar for a few hours till Ingrid joins us again in the morning. It’s such a fantastic prompt isn’t it? I for one really loved writing to it. Let me know what I can serve you. Adding Mediterranean shrimp kababs and Buffalo chicken salad to the menu. 💝
Sorry I missed out on those delicious food items!
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appreciate your examples Ingrid, mine is very basic.
May I please have that last slice of pumpkin pie with a hot chocolate, thanks!
Pumpkin pie coming right up! 🙂 Heading over to read you. Happy Tuesday, Kate 💝💝
much appreciated Sanaa!
PS: I’ll join you for some hot chocolate, it’s chilly here!
sunny here, a nice change after all our wind and rain!
That’s wonderful! 😀
I think your poem is great and makes a fine point!
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No dreams allowed! No questions…I hope I managed to be concrete enough. (K)
Just came from visiting your poem, Kerfe! It’s beautiful. Happy Tuesday 💝💝
I admit, it was a difficult challenge, but you certainly rose to it, Kerfe!
Thanks Ingrid. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone.
Thank you for hosting Ingrid. Ren is a wonderfully astute person, a tremendous writer/poet, and a dedicated teacher. I have admired and read her work over the years, and shared mine with her. She helped me further hone my writing during a brief period of correspondence a decade or so ago — for which I remain grateful. I will apply myself to your excellent challenge Ingrid, later today, when I am feeling better.
Sending you lots of warm wishes and positive energy, my friend 🙂 I look forward to reading you soon 💝💝
That’s great to hear that you have worked with Ren! We poets help and inspire one another… I hope you are feeling better now. I did enjoy your poem!
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Turning up the volume … this song feels particularly Novemberish to me 🙂
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Charlotte Hamrick said:
A wonderful prompt. Thank you!
My pleasure Charlotte!
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I got all excited and wrote, then realised I’d been quite literal – concrete – lol. Thank you for the challenge Ingrid.
That’s great! I look forward to reading your poem 😊
What an absolutely superb prompt that should be part of a high level writing course. Staying concrete of course removes a lot of the over-subjective writing/poetry, and strongly encourages the “show, don’t tell” mode. Really, I am in awe. Thank you.
Thank you most kindly!
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Sorry, I was offline yesterday afternoon, missed this completely. My entry is eight years old, but a concrete poem of the senses, I hope. See you soon!
Sounds great! I look forward to reading 😊
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Thank you for hosting a fabulous challenge, Ingrid. Hope, I’ve justice to it. 🙂
Great! I will read a little later 😊
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