Though not an artist, I love to wrestle with the use of color in poetry. Like the Internet, it giveth (in professional hands) and taketh away (in amateurs’).
For a pep talk on the matter, I often refer to Mark Doty’s The Art of Description, where he considers the value of color — when used lightly and effectively (and ah, there’s the rub!). Let’s audit the course and listen in to his lecture:
“A beautiful use of ‘oppositional color’ appears in an early poem of A. R. Ammons’s:
There is now not a single
leaf on the cherry tree:
except when the jay
plummets in, lights, and,
in pure clarity, squalls:
then every branch
breaks out in blue leaves.
“There are no cherries here, but we can’t help but see a small burst of color when we hear the word, and then how rich that final blue becomes when it ‘breaks out’ in the space where only a little potential red and green have been. It seems fair to say the poem’s ‘about’ the blue of winter—blue light on snow, blue winter twilights, that wintry shade in the western sky after sundown.
“It’s surprising how strongly the naming of particulars brings color into a poem’s perceptual web. This stanza by Robert Has arose across the continent from Ammons’s poem, and uses only ‘silver’ and ‘golden’ as signposts to render a lushly austere summer landscape:
The creek’s silver in the sun of almost August,
And bright dry air, and last runnels of snowmelt,
Percolating through the roots of mountain grasses
Vinegar wee, golden smoke, or meadow rust…
“Roots and grasses, vinegar and smoke and rust: perhaps this stanza comes as close to a painting (impossible, longed-for accomplishment) as a poem can get.”
As you can see, this brief foray into color gives pause. It gives reason, too — reason to revise your existing poems with color in mind. Subtle yet powerful color. The kind that implies as much as it paints.