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Abstract vs. Concrete Words

The success of the above poems results in the poets’ uses of concrete images, the images that refer to things you can actually touch in real life. In poetry, we work with two types of words: abstract and concrete. Ideally, the poem should re-create the experience of a poem through concrete details so the reader isn’t merely told about the experience through the speaker, but shown the experience which the poet re-creates in a way that engages the reader’s five senses. If the poets had used mostly abstract words, their poems may not be, well, poems. They might tell us more than show us. They might report or summarize. For example, if Gary Snyder relied more on abstractions than concretes,"The Bath" might tell us outright how he feels about washing a baby or how the baby feels about being washed rather than creating images of the baby being washed. The concrete images create a scene and allow us to come to our own conclusions through the images. Here is an example of what Snyder’s poem might look like if it relied too heavily on abstractions:

The baby was scaredbut we were happyin the sauna washing himand keeping him safebecause we love himand his body so much.

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The sentiment in these lines is intimate and warm, but as readers we struggle to see the event in our mind’s eye. But note, even with the abstractions, the poem cannot escape using some concretes—baby, sauna, body. Rather than putting us in the room with the bath and allowing readers to feel the actions and be there themselves, the poem shifts its spotlight on the feelings of the speaker.

To prove the usefulness of concrete, sensory detail, and the failings of being overly abstract in one’s language, especially in one’s descriptive language, the poet Mike Dockins works with his creative writing students to describe the scene of a motorcycle accident. As a class, make a list on the board of various concrete (and sensory) images that a witness would observe. Telling the story with only concrete words, and literally no abstractions, does the emotional level come across? If they do, how do they accomplish chaos, panic, fear, shock, terror, death?

To better understand, let’s look closer at abstract words. Here are some examples:

Love Fear Happiness

These are what we call abstract words. They refer to ideas we think with our minds rather than specific, individual things we can feel with our five senses and that call an exact image into our mind’s eye. Think of concrete words as something you can actually touch. You cannot touch “love” and “safe” but you can touch your son in “warm water / Soap all over the smooth of his thighs and stomach.” Once you finely tune the images into specific, concrete details, the sentiment will come through naturally.

Sometimes this concept confuses my students. “But I can feel love,” they say. “I can feel anger.” And, yes, of course we can recall what those emotions feel like when they are referenced in a poem. And, in fact, we feel actual sensations brought on by these emotions when they happen. Our blood races when we’re in love, our stomach jumps when our lover or someone we desire walks into sight. We feel our chests swell when we think about our mothers and our fathers, but when we read abstract words like “love” and “anger” we experience them in a vague, cloudy way, reliant more on our own individual memories that involved our five senses to make, rather than the poem itself using our five senses through imagery to create a new experience and memory.

Trying to avoid concretes is difficult. In fact, in order to even explain to you the sensations we feel when we experience love, as I just did, I had to use much more specific language that refers directly to physical things—chest, blood, stomach. Lover, mother, father. We read the word “love” and imagine love but it takes our brains on an extended voyage of neural connections; we do not have a specific image come immediately into our mind’s eye. And immediacy is the poet’s job and responsibility to the reader of poems—words should vanish. The walls between the experience created by the words and the reader’s senses taking in that to which the words refer, should fall. When we read good writing, we get lost in the experience and in the images the words are creating in our minds. We are transported.

In contrast to abstractions, take in these words:

Apple Blue Boat

Go around the room and have each class member share the image that comes to mind with the above words. How many different images are there for apple? Blue? Boat? Now, what if we were to make these words even more specific:

Apple … Golden Delicious Apple Blue … Turquoise blue Boat … Sailboat

Next, begin with the following vague categories and narrow down the word making it more and more specific:

Food Vehicle Animal

Now the brain is working more quickly. We see these things more immediately in our mind’s eye.

In the poem “The Bath,” Gary Snyder is very attentive to specific details. He names his son, Kai, places us in a sauna, describes the lantern as being kerosene and set on a box. There is not a window, but a ground-level window which the light from the lantern illuminates. The light also illuminates not the stove, but the edge of the iron stove. Kai’s body stands not in water but warm water, and it’s not his body that is soapy—but his thighs and stomach.

Snyder creates a concrete, physical world for his readers and places us in a very specific time and setting. The details feel like they are slowed down—in both the writing and reading process—so the event may be created on one side and taken in on another. Snyder slows down and looks closely so we may, too.

Once details become this specific, something magical begins to happen. The poem naturally begins to amass different levels of meaning; it grows in complexity. For example, what’s the significance of the lantern being kerosene? What does that tell us about the setting? The speaker? What do we take away from the detail about the ground-level window? What ideas come to mind when we read “ground-level”? Once we attain a literal reading, a first reading, which creates the scene, we may look again only this time more closely at the words, the diction. We may notice that “ground-level” evokes a sense of simplicity in us, an idea about being closer to the earth, being grounded. If so, how then does this feeling and idea relate to the poem as a whole?

This symbolic way of reading of poetry happens naturally when images are concrete, and details specific, and significant. Snyder could have used any words in the poem, but he used these. Why? What do these words do inside their poetic space? What we do as writers affects the way readers read our poems. But when we write—here’s the catch—we don’t necessarily have to think of how a reader will interpret and read the poem. We just need to concentrate on making the words we choose be specific and significant so language—naturally symbolic—can do its thang. After all, Alexander Fleming didn’t discover penicillin by setting out to cure disease—he saw some mold growing, tapped into his curiosity, and used his imagination.

Read the poem “What Came to Me” by Jane Kenyon and note how the poem thinks small but produces big feelings. The poem’s use of line, sound, tone, and image creates a moment in which the speaker is overwhelmed with grief. And what causes this for both the speaker and the reader? Finding a drop of gravy on the porcelain lip of a gravy boat. One “hard, brown / drop.” Why does this image have such power? It is a short poem—nine lines—and those lines are short, ranging from four syllables to one line that is seven syllables long. But although brief, it is compact and bursts with emotion. We are not told how the speaker feels. She does not say she felt sadness, pain, remorse, or loss. The first line describes action, simply, “I took.” And the penultimate, the second-to-last, line also describes an action: “I grieved.” Kenyon doesn’t write “I felt grief” (a filter) or “I thought of all the good times” (a cliché). Instead, we are there with her, lifting the gravy boat from the box, only to discover in line five, a “hard, brown” and in line six, “drop of gravy still.” The word “still” here doubly stops time and implies no movement while it also ends the line and hangs there, still on the sixth line’s edge just as the gravy drop is on the edge of the gravy boat’s lip.

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As Hirsch writes, “A poem creates an experience in the reader that cannot be reduced to anything else.” The effect of Kenyon’s poem cannot be reduced only to the image of the gravy drop. As said, the diction, sound, form and tone do a lot of work. But it cannot be denied that the image is central to the poem’s effect. And when it is combined with all the other poem’s elements, it produces an experience that cannot be replicated any other way.


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