concrete and abstract

3 posts

Snapshot-in-Time Poems: A Mix of Concrete, Abstract, and Economy

For a successful poem, sometimes a snapshot in time is all it takes. You don’t even need to get into narrative beginnings, middles, and ends, because your poem is that brief, almost like something you’d drive by, briefly take in, and draw your own conclusions about.

In a way, writing about a brief moment in time is akin to ekphrastic poetry. Recalling the picture from memory hits you emotionally, so you ask yourself, “Why?” Answering that “why” is the trick.

For starters, the first line has to jump right in. No needless exposition, thank you. No clearing of the throat before you get to the important stuff. This is a snapshot in time, after all. Just get to it.

Then, the necessary details. The descriptive elements you have taken the time to trace to your own emotions. Concrete is always the driver of abstract, after all, but connecting the dots requires both honesty and careful thought. It also requires deletion of superfluous elements as you revise your work.

Here, in Joseph Mills’ poem, the opening line provides essential information to the meaning of the last. That’s economy. It also bridges the man’s situation—a wife with a terminal illness in the hospital—with the snapshot described—a quick game of catch with the fatherless boy next door.

Keep your eye on the tennis ball they’re tossing, though. It’s more than a tennis ball, and because it’s more than a tennis ball, it’s a poem. A successful snapshot-in-time poem.


Joseph Mills

She’s been in the hospital a week,
this time with no improvement,
and I’ve come home to shower,
change clothes, and feed the dog.
As I’m about to get back in the car,
the boy next door, whose dad left
years ago, asks if I’ll play catch,
and I agree because it’s something
I can do. We toss a tennis ball
back and forth in the driveway;
after awhile his mother comes out
with two beers and a juicebox.
She watches, without speaking,
because we have known each other
a long time, and, as it gets darker,
the ball seems to become lighter,
floating through the gloaming.
Maybe I should say it looks
meaningful, like a radioisotope
or a pill, but I’m not thinking
anything like that or about how
we probably look like a family
to passersby. I’m not thinking
at all. I’m just swinging my arm,
grabbing and releasing yellow,
slowly becoming indistinct.

One Defining Moment Deserves Another


Thinking back to school daze, you’d probably agree that one of the original sins of “education” is a teacher forcing students to copy definitions out of a dictionary. They wrote the Geneva Conventions about stuff like that, no?

But definition is, in its humble way, sophisticated stuff. No, not Merriam’s or Webster’s. Yours.

Redefining, or defining something in your own way. I put it right up there with metaphor, a type of redefinition itself. But, if you think about it, taking a list of abstracts and then redefining them with concrete images is a great poetry-writing warm-up, like push-ups at 6 a.m. And, like any warm-up, it leads to greater feats and bigger accomplishments, in this case a poem based on definition.

We all know that an extended metaphor is one that finds multiple ways that one thing is like something else. A successful definition poem — I mean, uber successful — would be one that does the same, and although I cannot find one that extends like that right now, I did stumble across a simple definition poem by way of illustration. Cue the late David Budbill of Vermont:

The Sound of Summer

David Budbill

The screened door slamming tells me it is summer.

There are other sounds only in the summer, too.
The hummingbirds moving from
feeder to feeder on the porch, chickadee’s two-note
song we hear early on summer mornings, ravens
croaking back to their aeries on the ledges
every summer evening.

There are other birds too, visitors we hear only
in the summertime, but it’s the screened door slamming
that is the definition of summer for me.


Simply put, this poem takes an abstract (summer) and redefines it in concrete terms (the screened door slamming). Summer to you might be something quite different. Summer to you, in fact, might be ten different concrete sorts of familiar imagery, which is the point. Definition poems are a great “in,” especially if you, unlike me, are a believer in writer’s block.

Maybe, if your well is dry and you’d like to write the first draft of a poem today, the “Merriam and Webster Way,” as I don’t call it (you’re welcome), is your “in.” For me, definition poems (concrete) are one definition of “creativity” (abstract).

Don’t believe me? Go ahead and check under “C.”

If Humans Were Formulas…


Not being of scientific or mathematical mind, I’ve never thought of humans in terms of a formula. Imagine my surprise, then, when I poked around Lin Yutang’s tome, The Importance of Living, and discovered this quixotic mix:

Reality – Dreams = Animal Being

Reality + Dreams = A Heart-Ache (usually called Idealism)

Reality + Humor = Realism (also called Conservatism)

Dreams – Humor = Fanaticism

Dreams + Humor = Fantasy

Reality + Dreams + Humor = Wisdom

Lin Yutang himself admitted that these formulas are “pseudo-scientific” and that he distrusts, to a degree, “all dead and mechanical formulas for expressing anything connected with human affairs or human personalities.”

And yet, as writers know full well, abstractions, when given expression through the medium of concrete objects and human character, can lead to poetry. Thinking in this manner, a poet might be moved to find ways to write, for instance, about heartache.

As proof, let’s look at helpful formula #2. Said poet might begin by mixing equal parts reality (concrete images) with the abstraction of a dream (human desire). The contrasts, written with an alchemist’s precision, could conjure poetry to be reckoned with–the type of poem readers read and react to with, “Yes! That’s it, precisely! A wistful, poignant moment captured by an actual moment in time I can identify with!”

The sixth formula might be the most challenging of all. Here the “show” vs. “tell” takes the form of three formidable objects being juggled at once. A slice of life (reality) teamed with mankind’s addiction for dreams, leavened with the spice of wry humor that expands the vision (and don’t you just love the warm smell of vision?).

Easier said than done? Surely! But what fun is writing without a challenge?

And look at formula #4! Does it not remind you of our world’s 1930s-style shift to right-wing governments and brash demagogues? I leave t to political writers who go where angels fear to tread by attempting political poems that don’t come off as didactic and sanctimonious. A good resistance poem is a rare wonder, and sometimes the best approach is to objectively describe the humorless dreamers of a past that never existed and leave it at that.

Meaning? I’m no fan of formulas, but I can see how Lin Yutang’s pseudo-scientific equations might serve as interesting prompts, a jumping-off point into a refreshing quarry pool of wonderful things.