NO IDEAS BUT IN THINGS
(Note: the quote above, my title for these notes on poetry, comes from William Carlos Williams, a well-known American poet and writer who was also a medical doctor.)
In these monthly comments, I’ll address myself to both inexperienced and experienced poets. I’ll be informal, and make suggestions, and give examples of how poems can be shaped. I’ll talk about the writing process, about subject matter, revision, imagery, about particular lines of poems or even statements by poets, past and present. I’ll sometimes draw from my own poems for examples. Always, my purpose will be to say something that may be useful to any poet—after 40-some years of trying to write poems, and just as long teaching poetry and poetry writing in classrooms and workshops in South Dakota and beyond.
Each week, for awhile anyway, I’ll take what I consider a characteristic of most poetry, and discuss it.
• Poems tend to say what they say through images.
Poets tend to avoid abstract words, since they don’t call up images. Poems differ radically in this way from letters to the editor and doctoral dissertations. My title for this column—“no ideas but in things”— is what I’m talking about here. “Things” is the key word in the phrase: things are literal, physical. Poems, then, tend to get their power from words that appeal to the senses: sight, sound, touch, and so on. Poets prefer to use words such as tree, garbage can, finger, and mouse, instead of words like love, beauty, time, poverty, and hope. Ever have an abstract dream? I don’t think so. Dreams are full of images too. They can be memorable, like poems, because they are full of pictures.
But keep in mind that, when it comes to poetry, there are always exceptions. Poets can and do use any words they want to use, period. And they can use abstract words too, and even make poems out of them. But you’ll notice that when poets do use abstract words, those words are typically accompanied by, again, words that appeal to the senses. And so, Emily Dickinson says in a poem, “Hope is a thing with feathers . . .” And Dylan Thomas says in a poem: “Love is the last light spoken.” Both of these lines have something specific and literal in them: “thing with feathers” and “light.” The poets offer up things that can be seen or felt or tasted or heard.
Or, take the abstract word, time. Dylan Thomas says in a poem: “Time by, their dust was flesh.” That is, at first we are flesh and blood, but then time turns us into dust.
Obviously, “things” can also refer to figurative language, or metaphors and similes. I’ll be talking about these in my columns too. Dickinson’s line above is a metaphor, and so is Thomas’s. But the essential point I’m making here is that poets “say what they say with images.”
Notice how the British poet Philip Larkin begins a poem. He is talking about the demise of a friendship, apparently, and he begins by saying:
Since we agreed to let the road between us fall to disuse . . .
Poets like to do this: they like to say things in terms of “other things.” They would rather do this than say something like: “Since we are no longer friends . . .” Whenever you hear something indirectly said, like the way Larkin’s line reads, you are often in the realm of poetry. Mutually agreeing to give up a friendship is like—what? It’s like “letting a road” between you and someone else “fall to disuse.” (I feel some fairly strong emotion behind those words—do you?) Can you see that road? Yes, you can. But you’re also seeing, in your imagination, a friendship that no longer exists. The poet says it with power; so well that maybe you won’t be able to think of an ex-friend anymore without seeing a “disused” road.
William Stafford’s well-known poem, TRAVELING THROUGH THE DARK, has a line that I’ve always appreciated (in fact, a lot of lines). At one point, a man gets out of his car and goes over and looks at a dead deer lying at the side of a mountain road. He notices that the deer is “large in the belly.” He reaches out and feels the belly, to find out why it is so large—but he doesn’t say it that way. He says:
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason.
That line, to me, is pure poetry. Literal, physical, efficient in all the right ways. The reader is brought close to the experience with Stafford’s line. We’re there, with him, on that mountain road, touching the belly of a dead, pregnant deer, whose fawn is “alive, still, never to be born.” (note the pun on “still,” as in “still-born.”) The sense of touch is engaged so splendidly here—it’s such a direct, concise way of saying what he wants to say. Stafford is a very tactile poet. Most images in poems are visual, probably because we are mostly visual animals. In fact, there’s a lot of visual apparatus in our brains. We extrapolate so easily when we say things such as “I see what you mean,” or “Do you see my point?” But no doubt the experience that Stafford is describing in the poem—which actually did happen—was strongly tactile in his memory of it.
That is a good point to keep in mind: when you are recalling an experience, try to activate or re-enliven the sense or senses that were most active at the time of the experience. Frost’s poem, BIRCHES, is about climbing birch trees as a boy. It’s a wonderful celebration of childhood. Appropriately, and naturally, he emphasizes the tactile in this poem. And it’s not that he slights the other senses--the poem contains some impressive visual and auditory imagery. But the emphasis in this poem is on the tactile.