Poetry Editing 101 – Session Two: Resolving Emotional Abstractions

Welcome back to the poetry workshop.

Last time we spoke about the process of creating poetry with multiple drafts and editing rounds. This time we’re going to begin looking at abstractions in our poems and how best to deal with them.

It’s no accident this is the first actual editing topic on the list. Awareness of the problems abstractions cause, and the beneficial effects that editing them out can produce, can make the most substantial improvements to our work.

One of the most ubiquitous pieces of advice given across all forms of creative writing is: show, don’t tell. In prose, it’s important because it enables us to tell a story in the most dramatic way possible. But it’s also particularly true of poetry.

Packing and Unpacking

Abstractions are clauses and words which deliver an idea rather than an image.

In poetry, concrete writing (the inverse of abstraction) is preferable. The best way to demonstrate this is with an example. Take these lines:

You make me angry so often
I’m at the point of giving up.

So what can we say about these two lines? They’re both blanket, abstract statements, keyed in on emotional triggers which the reader is supposed to apply to the persona (voice of the poem). To me, these two lines read like the work of the angst-ridden fifteen year old I once was, and I know that if I leave these lines unedited, they’re going to turn off a good percentage of my readers.

Imagine if someone you knew randomly came up and said those words to you. It’s a hassle. It’s something you have to deal with. It’s certainly not a good indication you’re about to experience a conversation that will bring you either enjoyment or beauty. It’s the exact opposite of what we want to achieve from our writing. It will turn readers off when what we want to do is turn them on.

Identifying these abstract emotional statements and queuing them for rewriting is an essential process of the editing. Hate, anger, fear, frustration, jealousy – any time you see a word directly describing an emotion you should highlight it right away, ready for reworking.

In my mind right now, I hear an anthology of poets (that has to be the proper collective noun for a group of us, right?) saying, “But poetry is all about feelings and expression.” Well, yes and no. Themes and ideas like this are absolutely the meat of confessional poetry, but what we need to look at is the best way these themes can be deployed.

I might write:

I was angry.

…the reader will know the persona (the voice of the poem) was angry, but it will mean very little to them and pass them by, as it’s the least dramatic way to deliver this idea.

Are these lines doing the best job they can of making the reader feel and understand this emotion? What if there were a way of communicating this idea so that the reader generated and applied the emotion we want them to feel, all by themselves?

So how do we write it better?

One of the things poetry does well is to manipulate and subvert the critical faculties of the reader. The effect is at its weakest when we’re telling the reader how the persona feels, and at its most powerful when we’re showing them.

If I write:

My nostrils flared
as I pounded
my fist
on the table.

…the reader gets to deconstruct that image themselves and supply the emotion to the persona, making it experiential and extremely dramatic. And because we’ve done it in this way, the reader won’t write it off (as they used to with my angsty juvenilia) and abandon our poem after the first few lines.

That’s the real difference between telling and showing, between abstract and concrete.

So let’s go back to our first example and see what we can do with it.

You make me angry so often
I’m at the point of giving up.

We could be quite literal and show the persona in their frustration and defeat:

I glare at your words
as I grip my wrists.
Then shake my head as it falls
into my calloused hands.

Note that there is no mention of direct emotional words here whatsoever. Yet these lines are brimming with the feelings of the persona. Delivering them this way, you force the reader to unpack the image and provide the emotion. Then it’s too late for them to do anything about it but live out the experience of your words.

Or we could use tropes (similes, metaphors and the like) to further subvert the critical faculties of the reader:

Your taunts are as constant as gravity;
I am the dulled heat of a collapsing star.

In both cases we’re taking away the chance for the reader to deflect an idea they might otherwise reject, or take issue with, and simply handing them an image. This, they’re only able to reject once they’ve unpacked and thought about it, by which time, it’s too late. They’re stuck with an analysed image to which they have embedded the emotion.

This has given you just one of the dark arts of poetry. I’m not giving all my secrets away, at least not yet, so I’ll end this session with an example of a poem which perfectly achieves the concrete delivery of emotion: Morning Song by Sylvia Plath.

Next time we will be delving further into non-emotional abstractions and the how and why of resolving them in the editing process.

Before you go, please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this lesson, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.

For now, go write!


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