I remember the day in my very first college-level poetry class when my instructor (a wonderful poet and teacher by the name of Neal Kirchner) asked us the difference between concrete and abstract language. When we had given up on our half-hearted attempts to articulate our understanding of the concept, he showed us the distinction in a way that has stuck with me.
First, he put up a slide with the word “WAR” typed in black on a white background. Next, he showed another slide, this time with an image of the painting “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. We started talking about the difference between the two slides, and the impact they each had on us. Looking at “Guernica” produced an almost visceral reaction. The woman screaming over the body of her baby, the terror on the face of the horse – these images produced a deep effect in the viewer. The word “War,” however, required so much interpretation, had so many possibilities, that we couldn’t agree what it represented – it became our vision of war, rather than the author’s. Though the medium was an image, rather than words, I felt a glimmer of understanding beginning to kindle in my mind.
That class is where I first came to understand that abstract language (with which my poems to that point had been positively riddled) may have an unintended effect: it can garble and even dissolve its own meaning. I swore then and there to make sure my own poems would be full of concrete language, that they would aspire to the same impact that “Guernica” had achieved.
This was a lofty goal, particularly because I, like many others in my class, still wasn’t completely sure how the distinction worked, and how it produced the effect that it did. Today, we’ll dig in and try to show the difference in another way. By rewriting a passage from a famous poem without any of the concrete language that it uses, we can see how much concrete language affects a poem’s meaning and its power.
Let’s use a few lines from Sylvia Plath’s well-known poem, “Daddy.” In lines 57-63, the speaker talks about her difficulty in dealing with her father’s death, and her subsequent mental illness:
“I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.”
Now imagine that same section told in more abstract language:
“I was ten when you died.
At twenty I tried to kill myself
Because I missed you.
I wanted to share something, even death, with you.
But I got professional help,
Though I don’t feel like I’m really healed.”
The second (and I admit, poorly translated) version feels flat and lifeless compared to the emotive power of Plath’s words. It’s difficult to even say that the same sentiment is conveyed, because we can’t really feel any emotion behind the second version. There’s no concrete language to ground us, to give a sense of reality and physicality. We don’t connect with the speaker in the second version the same way we do with the speaker in the first version. We understand the words on an intellectual level, but they don’t have the power to move us in the same way. The physicality of the words “bones,” “glue,” and “sack” all provide sensory detail that gives us textile and visual imagery, as well as bringing their own connotative weight to bear on the poem.
The phrase “I was ten when they buried you” has more power than the translation of “I was ten when you died,” because “died” is an abstract term, whereas “buried” is a concrete one – it provides an image of a funeral, of a burial, and, in context, of a ten-year-old girl standing at her father’s graveside. There is too much room in the concept of “died” for us to form those images with any confidence. The concept described in the lines “But they pulled me out of the sack / And they stuck me together with glue” demonstrates so clearly the way that the speaker felt about her treatment for illness. She felt it was a patch-job, that it was a mere cosmetic fix. She’s merely “stuck” in her form, not truly healed. This isn’t conveyed so clearly in the abstract version, for all that it says essentially the same thing. In this brief analysis of only a few lines, it’s clear how powerful a tool concrete language can be in a poem.
To be fair, abstract language isn’t something you can’t or shouldn’t employ. Nor is concrete language a magical key that will make your poem or story automatically great. However, understanding the difference can help you to make conscious choices about how you want to convey meaning in your poem. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write, and many famous and talented poets have and do use abstract language wonderfully in their work. The power of concrete language is that it can make your poem’s meaning more clear, more beautiful, more surprising, and more effective. Also, concrete language has become something of a gold standard in contemporary poetry – you will hear about it again and again in workshops and from instructors. Don’t be afraid of the discussion, or of using either abstract or concrete language, but rather use your understanding of the differences to push each poem to its most powerful incarnation: a rich, sensory ride from which the reader will never really recover.
Want to understand more about concrete versus abstract language? Try these sites and pages: