Poetry Is About Seeing

Poetry Is About Seeing

Oh look, it’s one of those things where a load of bloggers write responses to each other’s posts! Kind of. John Hansen wrote a post about not having a lyrical style, whereas Liam wrote one countering it saying that you can learn to do that. I in turn wrote a comment on Liam’s blog that I’m now turning into an entire blog post. Hopefully.

You see, I think having a lyrical style or whatever is less about writing and more the observations that led to the poetry / poetic prose in the first place. Like art, where drawing is about depth perception and perspective more than about moving the pencil on the page, there’s a certain element to it that some people don’t have. You can teach someone to move a pencil, for example: I’ve done some beautiful calligraphy in my time. But I can’t perceive depth and I find it almost impossible to draw 3D objects. Likewise, you can teach someone how to express ideas, but you can’t teach them to have the ideas in the first place.

I don’t entirely know how to explain what I mean about this, but there are sort of levels to description. When you’re writing poetry, or writing poetic / lyrical prose, you work on a different level than when you’re writing more functional prose designed to be a window to the plot rather than a particular feature in its own right.

Where I live there are autumn leaves everywhere and my college is very autumnal in appearance, so we’ll use that as an example.

Newnham College has autumnal colouring even when it's not actually autumn..

Functional prose would probably say something like, “The grass was covered in fallen leaves.” Simple, ordinary, gets the point across. We can see it. This is, of course, a massively simple way to look at it: the functional prose writer might show the character wading through drifts of leaves, or jumping on some particularly crunchy ones, rather than just describing the grass, but we’re going to take these basic descriptive approaches because it’s easier to show the contrast.

Imagine it’s a line from a poem. The grass is covered in fallen leaves. Simple.

Then, on the next level, you begin to make it more complex. Often, this is about changing the verb to imply something more than just ‘covered’. If we used littered here, it sounds casual, almost wasteful, whereas blanketed gives it a sense of nature enveloping the world. Fallen could be replaced with dead or flame-coloured.

So now we have the grass is littered with dead leaves or perhaps there is a blanket of flame-coloured leaves over the grass. The second of these examples already begins to sound more poetic (and in some ways, more pretentious, but hey, it’s poetry. You have to suspend your awareness of pretentious writing for at least the first draft, right?).

Then I think a big part of writing in a poetic manner, or writing poetry itself, is about drawing unexpected links and creating associations that people wouldn’t have thought of immediately, which is the hardest part. Autumn leaves, fire… it’s kind of a common association, isn’t it? So to make it profound and poetic, you have to think of something more unusual. My mind leapt to bronze, and from there to ancient weaponry, associating the idea with the Bronze Age and Greek warriors. I’m not sure how I’m going to link this to leaves yet, but I’m working on it. It’s an idea.

Still, I’m not sure how I’m going to use it yet, so maybe I should thinking of some other examples. Leaves are rotting when they’re on the ground, which could be an idea I could draw into it if I wanted to create a melancholy or uncomfortable mood in this description. Or they can be crackling and sharp, which can give a brighter impression. Do I want them sodden after October rains, or crunching under the feet of anyone who walks by?

And they’re covering the grass, yeah, but that very much makes it about the leaves. Why are we mentioning the grass in the first place? Do we need to say that they’re on the grass? What impression does it give that the living grass is hidden under the dead leaves? Why is that important to that description?

These seem like negative examples. Sorry. Creepy assassin-characters on the brain. Have my pretty college for a while.

You start drawing all these threads together and you get a new sentence: the grass drowns under rotting bronze-armoured bodies, fallen around their oaken commander. Okay, that’s ridiculous pretentious, but you can already see how we’ve drawn associations from the original idea of fallen leaves to create a more abstract idea. We’ve turned an autumnal scene into an Homeric battlefield, which is a pretty far cry away from the original. Works fine for poetry itself.

And with poetry you can go further. Start taking words out, substituting verbs for ones where the meaning is not entirely appropriate but which sound nice. (I like to talk about emotions sparking inside people, and I have a weird obsession with the verb ‘slice’.) Make it abstract. Add line breaks. If you’re me, decide that capital letters are pointless and ignore them.

october battlefield with bodies
in bronze, in wet, rotting
as rain drives them deeper:
consumed into the mulch,
life-givers to grass green

In prose it can be harder to do this. You might wish you’d stopped at level two, where you were just beginning to make things poetic. That’s a totally legit thing to do. (Prose should never, in my opinion, be as obscure and full of symbolism as poetry, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.)

It’s at this point, with prose, that I’d probably start thinking more about emotional associations too. Since prose is mostly narrative, whereas poems can simply be capturing a moment (although I’m not saying you don’t get narrative poetry), you’ll often have characters, and they’re the ones who will shape the associations you draw with dead leaves. They’re going to see imagery in that. Whether they see the leaves rotting like death or whether they notice that they’re fertilising the ground below says a lot about the character as a person.

The fields are sodden and on fire. Autumn has crept up on the city while Isabel was away, and now the trees have shed skin as bright as Samantha’s hair, carpeting the ground with a damp mulch that clings to her shoes as she slips and wades her way across.

There are poetic elements here, but the sentence doesn’t read like overwrought description (I hope). For example, the idea that the leaves are the “skin” of the tree is not a straightforward descriptive phrase. However, I made it about how Isabel perceives things — the leaves are the colour of somebody’s hair, the seasons have changed while she wasn’t there, they’re making it difficult for her to get where she needs to go — and as a result, it reads more as a commentary on her thoughts than a simple description of the scene.

Um. This post kind of deviated from what it was originally going to be about, so I’ll just sum up what I was trying to say.

There are different levels to description. Anyone can imitate any of these levels. In the simplest terms, they’re about how you put words on the page. I can choose to describe leaves as compost or as Greek soldiers, and they’re still both coming from my head. The part that’s personal is the association I drew between them and Bronze Age warriors. The thing that makes a poem is the thinking that triggers the description more than the description itself.

In one of my poems from Crossroads Poetry I described scars as “Ogham inscriptions”, because that’s an association I made between straight lines and ancient writings. The poetry wasn’t in the words I used to say that, but in the link I made in the first place.

Does that make sense? I’m really not sure I’m making sense. Feel free to tell me I’m being an idiot and that my prose is dumb and overblown or whatever.

We also have squirrels as well as leaves

8 thoughts on “Poetry Is About Seeing

  1. Makes total sense. I really love what you said here, and I think you’re right. It’s about how you make people think, not as much how pretty the words sound together. That’s a really great point, IMO, and even applies back to the whole “writing in your style” thing. You can write well by making connections that get people thinking, even if those connections are not the most lyrically written.

  2. Gosh, you’re amazing. I love this post. This is exactly what I wanted to be able to post, but I don’t have the experience to write it. However, in your second paragraph, you said this: “You can teach someone how to express ideas, but you can’t teach them to have the ideas in the first place.” The thing is, no one can be conscious without having ideas. Everyone will draw a different connection between things; everyone will have a different poem about fallen leaves. (I loved yours, by the way.) I believe that everyone has the associations, the threads between topics you mentioned, to make those unexpected connections for others. But some writers don’t choose to take the time to truly see through the eyes of their characters, to make those unexpected connections from their view. That’s the tricky part of poetic prose— you can’t make your personal connections, but your characters’ personal connections. But by looking further into your character and thinking about their state of mind, you can practice making those connections through your character, and thus get better at these images in prose.

    The second tricky thing is about lyrical writing, however. It’s possible to make those connections through the eyes of the character without expressing them through the correct words. But lyrical writing can be practiced, if you have a purpose in mind. What do you want to convey? Words, and sentence, and syllables, and capitalization, and punctuation, can be chosen to create that specific sense. Why did you say “in wet”? That’s not a phrase I would use. Why the colon at the end of the third line? Why “grass green” instead of “green grass”? I don’t know how long you spent working on those lines, but it seems to me that the more you practice writing with all these parts of speech purposefully in mind, it gets more and more natural. That’s what I’m aiming for, at least in my writing— that’s the point I was aiming for in my own follow-up post.

    Thank you so much for this. I hope I didn’t completely miss your point— it seems we’re all enthusiastic about this, but we all might be skirting each other’s true intention. I hope not, though. Thanks for writing this.

    1. I spent about a minute on it to be honest, it wasn’t exactly a massive slog to write those lines. Though sometimes I have things that take ages, this one didn’t.

      I think one of my favourite first-draft lines for something I wrote recently was when a key in a lock was compared to a knife through soft flesh. Because of course that’s what my assassin-character would think, and even if it’s third person, it’s still her viewpoint.

      I think everyone has ideas, but not of the same sort as everyone else. Not everyone’s ideas lend themselves to lyrical writing – some ideas are obvious and straightforward, and that’s their strength, but they can seem simplistic..Some ideas are abstract and poetic, and that’s their power. Writers of the former often envy the latter, but the latter can struggle with action-driven scenes because it’s hard to write those poetically.

      1. I envy your poetry skills. I took an hour, late at night, to write a poem a couple weeks ago. It was an interesting experience, but it was hard. I’ll keep practicing.

        That is an awesome description. It’s perfect for that kind of character.

        That’s true, I suppose. Although, a poetic description (the author’s view, I guess) of a straightforward thought (the character’s view) can hit pretty hard as well. Or, just a straightforward thought when it isn’t expected. I guess you can play with that.

        1. Yeah, definitely. Poetry when it’s unexpected (assassin-character Isabel doesn’t often do emotions so when she does, it bursts out through very functional prose in a much more poetic style) or simple amidst all the beauty (often used to express sudden grief or other pain) can be effective: the contrast lends weight to what’s actually happening.

          I like to write poems quickly because I stew them around in my head for ages before I pick up a pen, so by that point they’re mostly finished. As this one was only an example, I used it to make a didactic point and not an emotional one. :)

  3. Jumping in the middle of your conversation :P

    I too loved this post, and I too took issue with the line Liam highlighted: “You can teach someone how to express ideas, but you can’t teach them to have the ideas in the first place.”

    I will concede to your point that not everyone has the same type of ideas and not all ideas lend themselves to poetry, but I do think that most people can be taught poetic/lyrical writing if they’re interested.

    I think your post did some of that. You broke down a poetic lens on the world into steps, so if someone wanted to follow in your footsteps the path would be pretty clearly marked, but I get that that’s not the whole process. Even if someone understands the “how” of a poetic process they may not understand the “what” of poetic ideas. Yet, I think if someone is interested in learning how to look at the world that way, and they expose themselves enough to others who do, (whether through writing or speech), they can learn to see in analogies.

    I firmly believe that our environments shape us, and that includes on a lexical level. Maybe, read this: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/29/escaping-ones-own-shadow-in-writing/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0) for someone

    And let me know what you think?

    1. Yeah, I’m not entirely sure I explained that exactly as I meant to, although I clarified my point in my comment to Liam somewhat. The fact is that everybody has a different brain. Some people can write novels. Some people can’t, because they’re not wired that way. It’s less of a difference, the wiring of a poetic brain and a prose brain (for want of a better word), and people can imitate the other until eventually it becomes their own, but the style that comes most naturally to them is probably going to be the one they were originally good at. If that makes sense. It’s by no means impossible for people to write on a different style, but it might never come quite so naturally. I guess. I’m rambling. I just woke up.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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