Poems Should Be Seen and Heard

The first piece of advice I can give is make the reader see and feel the poem. This is pretty basic advice and certainly nothing that I invented. As a beginning writer, I was told to do it. And I suppose everyone else was also. You can try to be different, if you like. But I feel pretty safe in saying you will not get very far as a writer until you give in and realize the wisdom of the advice—show, don’t tell.

In practical terms, it comes down to looking for strong, action verbs. It comes down to looking for strong, concrete nouns. If you want to make readers feel, you have to show them something that makes them feel. Don’t tell them to feel fear. Show them things and actions that make them scared. Lines like “My fear envelops me in a panic” does not make the reader feel anything. Even Edgar Allan Poe–whom many of you like, and I sort of warn people away from as a mentor poet because he is not contemporary—used concrete nouns and action verbs to move the reader:  “Open here I flung the shutter. . . in stepped a stately Raven. . . perched above my chamber door, perched upon a bust of Pallas.”

Give the reader something to see. Give the reader things to see. Cut out as many abstractions as you can. Cut out as many clichés as you can. Don’t talk about “reality,” or “life,” or “love.” Don’t talk about “fear,” “anger,” “sadness.” Think like a painter, or a movie maker. Give the reader something to see. You can’t see “anger.” You can see a fist hitting a wall; you can see and hear the screech of the car tires when the boy friend guns the engine; you can see the jaw line grinding; you can see the raised hand of a mother in a supermarket flying down like a bomber at her little girl’s face. Almost every time you want to write an abstract word, stop and substitute an image (a noun doing something).

Luckily, the way the psychology of words and sounds works is that we have created words that often sound like what they mean or have a sound that puts them in a general emotional range. Part of this is onomatopoeia—words that sounds like what they say. Examples are “splash,” “drip,” “swat” “slap.” But words can also hint at a kind of emotion. In English, for example certain sounds tend to be happy or sad or frightening or harsh. Poe liked the “l” sounds and the “v” sounds. These are lovely sounds—voluptuous. The poems of the British poet Ted Hughes (especially in Crow) and the American Robert Lowell, both of whom gained fame in the fifties and sixties, taught me, by example, about the harshness of the short “a” sound—”action,” “average,” “bass.” The short “a” combined with the “k” sound is especially harsh=”back,” “sack,” “lack.” The poet Denise Levertov has a poem about the pain of marriage that has a line “the arc and the ache of it.” The “s” sounds are both sexy (“sensuous”) and dangerous (“snake,” “piss.”) And so on.

Of course, you can get overly analytical with this and get yourself lost in lexicographical hell. But as a general rule it is worth thinking about. It is especially helpful when thinking about synonyms for the words you have written that seem to lack something. Think of the sounds here: “The boat floated upon the water.” Ok, but is that the best we can do? Which sounds best to you: ocean, pool, sea, stream, river, pond, lake, shimmering glass, heaven’s mirror, bowl of tears, etc.? Of course, the answer to this cannot be made unless we know what the lines before this one are and the lines after. But you get the idea. Substitute several words and you get totally different sounds and meanings: “The ship sailed upon the ocean.” Or “Barges anchored in the lake.”

Suggested Assignment: Write a series of “Variations.” This is what many composers have done. They take a short piece of music—”Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a famous one—and play it in different tempos in different keys. For your variations, paint a scene in words: the view of a lake, your backyard, your kitchen, a scene in a painting. Remember—concrete nouns and action verbs. Write only about five or so lines. Then begin changing the nouns and the verbs and adjectives, just like I did with the boat and ship, and barge. Change things wildly and with abandon. Do this several times, four or five times. The pine becomes an oak and becomes a mast and becomes a cross and becomes flagpole. Change everything and see what happens because of the changes in the sounds and sights of the poem.

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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.