If one were to tally the epigraphic advice given to young poets in our contemporary academic environment, my bet would be that two quotations will have been spoken more than any others: Ezra Pound’s "go in fear of abstractions…the natural object is always the adequate symbol," and William Carlos Williams’s "no ideas but in things." This bias toward the materiality, not of language, but rather of the world as represented in language, is lodged so deeply in the poetic psyche that a poem laden with abstractions can almost be considered a de facto failure. "Grief, justice, and joy?" I can still hear my first college poetry professor grouse, "You just can’t put such words in a poem." Indeed, one can see his point; the poem that attempts to constrain the reader’s interpretive vicissitudes by forcing the reader to feel "grief," "justice," or "joy," is less interesting, certainly less empowering, than the poem that depicts the specificity of a situation from which we can derive our own ideas on how and what to feel.
Certainly our relative lateness, historically speaking, has insured that we are privy to the contingency of all abstract ideals, and such concepts rendered in language are not constant through time but rather changeable, forever in medias res, and thus nebulous. Take "love," a word of all circumference and no center, containing innumerable, even diametrically opposed, forms and gestures, thereby lacking a pivot upon which a reader can fasten understanding. Mention an "oriole" or a "pair of soiled briefs" and there’s no such confusion as to the referent. Yet ultimately, the wisdom that places materiality on top of a poetic hierarchy and abstraction at its bottom, the breed of thinking which doubtlessly has strengthened the verse of many poets, nonetheless has become a kind of dogma that stifles poetic expression and repels us from exploring a crucial escarpment upon the peaks of Mount Parnassus.
I’ve been thinking lately about the necessity of abstraction in poetry because of the fragmentary lyric "For Hans Carossa" by Rainer Maria Rilke. Translated by Stephen Mitchell, it begins: "Losing too is still ours; and even forgetting / still has a shape in the kingdom of transformation." From the first word onwards, we’re given a slew of abstractions, the amorphous act of "forgetting" given a shape, not geometric or even graspable, but inhabiting the airy "kingdom of forgetting." The lyric continues, "When something’s let go of, it circles; and though we are rarely the center / of the circle, it draws around us its unbroken, marvelous curve." I like this poem immensely, beginning with the notion that the process over which we have the least control—loss—is perhaps the only thing we can be said truly to possess, in part because nothing is ever truly lost, but recurs in a transformed form to haunt us with its spectral presence. Think of the people whose lives we have rubbed up against, even briefly, and how some modicum of their influence remains; how a detail from the future can remind us of a person from the past; how in fact we are in a kind of orbit around the people, places, and ideas that we once held so close and have since let go of, and that at any given moment we are approaching perihelion or aphelion with respect to these past selves. Yet to grade this lyric with the tools given us by the culture of workshop, we would have to judge it a failure. The content is airy, abstract, and impossible to pin down in any concrete detail. The scope is vague and over-general ("when something’s let go of") and the rhetoric coercive ("marvelous"). In fact, I would argue, were this poem to show up in a college workshop, not known to have been authored by Rilke, it would be garroted and bathed in red ink by student and professor alike.
Certainly part of our distrust of abstraction is a reaction to the cliché-ridden spate of personifications offered to us by various Victorian poets. After hundreds of such lines as, Lord Alfred Tennyson's "Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drowned," and Alexander Pope's "Or Envy holds a whole week’s war with Sense," it’s not surprising that modern poets would occupy the opposite extreme. Also, to take an analogy from the world of visual representation, modernity is characterized by a movement towards greater and greater concreteness. Idealized, over-burnished frescoes of the Virgin Mary and Renaissance perspective paintings eventually give way to Manet’s Olympia and Cézanne’s impressionist landscapes, which in turn give way to Cubism and Dada, until finally, Pollock is dripping paint, Rothko is producing luminous panels of color, and Ad Reinhardt is painting canvases black. The entire trajectory can be seen as gradually foregrounding the material from which a painting is composed and gradually diminishing its content, until eventually the content becomes the material, or, in the words of cultural critic Marshall McLuhan, "the medium is the message."
This impulse toward materiality, strengthened by the ascension of science and the decline of religion, is felt in poetry as well, where the poet is taught that the wilderness of inner life needs, as T. S. Eliot put it, "objective correlatives," in order to appear in the body of the poem. This is not, incidentally, the true working out of the formula posited by visual artists. It is only the school of language poetry that seems interested in unmooring words from contexts and foregrounding the materiality of language as language. The lyric poet is taught to look to the particulars of life in the vast world, finding details that are emblematic of the emotion she wishes to convey, never using a Latinate word when an Anglo-Saxon one will suffice. The vocabulary that has cachet for the poet, she is told, are those words which are closest to the body—bone, blood, rib, stone—compact, muscular nouns with none of the vagueness and amorphousness of abstraction. But if such advice were to be taken literally, the English language would be without some of its most memorable poets. Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Emily Dickinson come to mind as writers who unswervingly rely on the language of abstraction to fulfill their poetic endeavors.
A counter-example can be found in William Carlos Williams’s poem, "The Locust Tree in Flower," a thirteen-word, thirteen-line poem, itself a revision of a twenty-four line poem, which offers us the very opposite of abstraction. Williams, in this poem and elsewhere, seeks the concrete world with such fervency that he wills himself out of the poem, erasing the distinction between observer and observed. Like any good Taoist, he wishes for nature to speak for herself, and certainly his technique mimics the subtle speed and resurgence with which spring reanimates life outdoors. Even the very shape of the poem on the page resembles a tree poking its trunk from the ground. Ultimately, though, a vision of the world reduced to such compressed and even banal descriptors ("green," "old," "bright," "sweet") cannot work as art in its highest sense. It presumes too much: that the author has distilled some essence of the locust tree that other language could not adequately convey; that the reader, through contemplating those thirteen words, is able to fill in the blanks and reproduce the kind of feeling that Williams had when he wrote the poem; that subjectivity can, in any real sense, be circumvented, even in a haiku-like verse form. In the end, any claim to "objective" reality, or to things as they are, reveals Williams’ narcissistic hope of grafting himself to the tangible, mineral world, thereby giving his words the permanence and durability of objects. Yet the scope of poetry is potentially much broader. Elsewhere, in Paterson, Williams has written, "I am aware of the stream / that has no language, coursing / beneath the quiet heaven of / your eyes / which has no speech,"—but if not the poet to capture those streams and coursings in speech, then whom?