Writing Poetry: Abstract vs Concrete Imagery and Specificity

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Thread: Writing Poetry: Abstract vs Concrete Imagery and Specificity

  1. #1

    Writing Poetry: Abstract vs Concrete Imagery and Specificity

    “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
    -Anton Chekhov

    The prevailing preference in poetry today is to write in concrete imagery as opposed to an older convention of writing more abstractly. It’s from this convention that we have the adage, “show, don’t tell.”

    Abstract refers to concepts that have no physical representation. They are ideas or concepts. Many of poetry’s worst clichés are from romantic poetry and are abstractions. Ideas like honor, hope, love, soul, madness, and god are all abstractions and lend very little to the reader’s imagination.

    Concrete refers to objects or events that have a physical component available to the senses. They are solid and can be interacted with in the real world.

    It is easier for a reader to grasp the imagery and the emotion of a poem or even a story if the imagery used is concrete—the glint of light on broken glass rather than “the moon is shining.” Writing concrete imagery will also help your writing to feel fresh and vivid as opposed to archaic and dull.

    How do you know when you’re writing with concrete imagery? The best test is to use your senses. Answer the following questions and you’re well on your way to writing with a concrete image.

    “What is seen?”
    “What can be smelled?”
    “What can be touched?”
    “What can be tasted?”
    “What can be heard?”

    General and specific terms are not opposites in the same way that concrete and abstract terms are—rather one is a distillation of the other. For example the term furniture refers to a group of objects while futon refers to a specific item of furniture. Usually specific terms will help your writing to be more clear rather than vague. It will also be more interesting. With the use of adjectives these terms can become more and more specific so that futon becomes red metal futon.

    Using specific, concrete images allows writing to be more accessible, explore abstract ideas with the use of metaphor and simile, and creates interest in more vivid, clear ways than using general abstract images.

  2. #2
    “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
    Whilst both are concrete one is abstracted from the other, in the sense of being removed from it. A fraction creates an awareness of the whole in its parts, rather than as a simple whole.

    Edit. Sorry, I wasn't happy with that, but hit 'post' rather than 'cancel' by mistake.
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  3. #3
    The quote is not a direct one but rather a well-known summary of advice Anton Chekhov gave to his brother in a letter and later attributed directly to him. From https://www.google.com/amp/quoteinve...?client=safari :

    In May, 1886, Chekhov wrote to his brother Alexander, who had literary ambitions: “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”
    Further, the quote may be the opening of the article but the article is about both abstraction vs concrete imagery and the importance of being specific in descriptions.
    Last edited by Ariel; October 1st, 2016 at 12:55 PM.

  4. #4
    So I make a list of parts, and then show how they are associated

    A dog rolled past like a ball,
    following his own agenda,
    whispering, half seen, trees
    talked to each other.

    He clutched his coat against
    the chill damp air,
    whistled against the silence,
    stamped his feet.

    A star appeared amongst
    the newly visible clouds
    and then the moon lit up
    everything, revealing the night.

    But if I start with the unifying thing, then list the parts, the reader knows exactly where I am going.

    Dark night, and
    a dog rolled past like a ball,
    following his own agenda.
    Whispering, half seen, trees
    talked to each other.

    He clutched his coat against
    the chill, damp, air;
    whistled against the silence,
    stamped his feet.

    A star appeared amongst
    newly visible clouds
    and then the moon lit up

    That could appeal if the point is the moonlight and being able to see, but that needs a continuation. As it stands, for me, it is putting the climax at the start.

    That is, however, nearly all concrete imagery, let’s try some abstraction.

    Following his own agenda
    a dog-ball rolled by.
    Trees exchanged ideas
    in half heard whispers.

    The insidious air caught
    at him inside his coat,
    made melancholy his whistle
    as he waded through it.

    First one bright, stellar point
    among amorphous masses.
    Then bright, lunar, light
    reveals the night.

    Well, I don’t know if I really illustrate your point, or if I am simply having a lot of fun trying variations, but your thread has got me thinking, amsaw; for which I thank you. I hope I have not bored everybody else.
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  5. #5
    Olly, I should know by now to let you finish your thought. You always bring something gracious and thought-provoking to the table.

  6. #6
    It seems similar to taking what some people read as a metaphor and making it literal, or tangible as the case may be. An embodiment of silence or something that is less than nothing. Personification, characterization, and anthropomorphizing of incorporeal entities...e.g.

    And in that moment as the final breath fades, it emerges—Silence.
    Utterly perfect, the stark silhouette of the chaos where life abounds,
    a contrast, painfully sharp. Loneliness, seeks to claim recompense.

    Listen. You will hear it howling in the stillness, a demon’s illusion,
    the voice of Loneliness niggling in thought unspoken, familiar doubt.
    Remember silence, know silence—Touch, breaking through confusion.

    A hand reaching out shattering the illusions, Silence, speaking skin to skin.

    It was the shadow lifting the hand, there—
    at the back; no one saw. Cue—Nothing.

    These were the thoughts, detailed, waiting—
    no one wanted to hear. It’s nothing…

    It was there and gone before the nothing.
    In essence, it became just that—nothing.

    But it wasn’t nothing; it was the Lessthan.
    Sharp, shadowed—And unlike nothingness,
    Lessthan—felt, tried.

  7. #7
    The prevailing preference in poetry today is to write in concrete imagery as opposed to an older convention of writing more abstractly...
    Many of poetry’s worst clichés are from romantic poetry and are abstractions...
    It is easier for a reader to grasp the imagery and the emotion of a poem or even a story if the imagery used is concrete
    I wonder how much of this is a product of the thinking of the time? Is it overall easier to grasp a concrete image, or simply easier for a modern reader unused to the abstract image? Would the concrete images of today have appeared banal if presented to the romantic poets? Are the worst cliches obvious only in hindsight? I am reminded of Wordsworth's admiration of Felicia Hemans; will some admired modern poetry be as mocked in time?

    Things tend to go full circle, I am reluctant to dismiss the abstract image because it does not fit modern precepts, they may not last.
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  8. #8
    Agreed, Olly, you should be able to write what you want to - however, if the publishers of today are only taking the "concrete" and you want to be published, trying the abstract may be hard. Frankly, I'm a "go against the grain" type of guy - following the crowd I'm not likely to do. As far as which is best, I think it is a matter of taste, although I can see Ams' point.
    "Put not your trust not in princes, in the children of men,
    in whom there is no salvation."
    Psalm 146

    Timely, isn't it?

  9. #9
    I prefer poetry which uses concrete imagery to explore abstractions. I'm not arguing to never use abstractions. That, frankly, borders on the absurd. I am saying that in general a poem is more memorable if there are concrete images to orient the reader into. Take Poe's "The Raven":

    The Raven
    Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
    Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
    As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
    “’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
    Only this and nothing more.”

    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
    And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
    For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
    Nameless here for evermore.

    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
    Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
    Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
    This it is and nothing more.”

    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
    “Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
    That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
    Darkness there and nothing more.

    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
    Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
    This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
    Merely this and nothing more.

    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
    Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
    Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
    Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
    ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”

    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
    In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
    Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
    Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

    Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
    By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
    “Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
    Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
    Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
    Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
    Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
    With such name as “Nevermore.”

    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
    That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
    On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
    Then the bird said “Nevermore.”

    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
    “Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
    Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
    Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”

    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
    Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
    What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
    Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”

    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
    To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
    But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
    She shall press, ah, nevermore!

    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
    Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
    Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
    Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
    Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
    By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
    Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
    “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
    Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
    On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
    And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
    Shall be lifted—nevermore!

    In the first stanzas the narrator is pondering, remembering, and wishing which we know because the narrator tells us so and are all abstractions. But we also know the time of day and year, that he was napping with a book in his lap in front of a dying fire. By the end we also know where the bird is sitting. We even know the color and material of the narrator's curtains. It's these details that allow us to see, clearly, what the narrator is seeing and experiencing. And these details give us further clues as to the state of the narrator.

    Why are the curtains purple? I'm sure, ultimately, it's for reasons of assonance and sound and rhyme but the color indicates something else about the narrator. At the time the poem was written the color purple was one of the hardest color dyes to produce and was available only to the wealthy. That changed in 1856 (The Raven was written in 1845). This small, concrete detail lets us know that the narrator had wealth. Purple is also the color of mysticism, is worn to this day as symbol of authority and power by Roman Catholic bishops, and is said to indicate wisdom.

    Concrete imagery is important to poetry. Using it well can give a wealth of detail to a poem that indicates far more than is thought at first glance.

  10. #10
    Yeah, I reckon it's like 'showing - telling', completely one or the other is silly, the trick is picking the appropriate one for the occasion.

    Mind you,I reckon it was the Simpsons, Little house of horror, that made The Raven memorable
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