Last September, at Litfuse, I took a workshop with poet Samuel Green about working with images. He shared poems that were numbered haiku-like stanzas all dealing with a single abstraction (love, for instance). Similes and metaphors scattered over the pages and swayed through the air as we read the poems aloud.
I tried to talk about this with my writer friends at Writing Lab recently, and didn’t do a great job, so I thought I’d circle back to it. But where are my handouts from that workshop? (Where is my personal assistant?) In any case, one labster has been writing about grief, and isn’t satisfied with the results. I suggested — per Green’s advice — just brainstorming a list of “Grief is like ______” sentences and seeing what happens.
It is good advice, but it isn’t exactly a concrete example — which, even when we write about abstractions, we humans adore. The idea I attempted (rather ineptly, that day) to convey is that the images themselves will accrete and begin to add up to something, in the poet’s mind, and (ideally) in the reader’s mind, as well.
Accretion, of course is another abstraction. Rereading Ted Kooser‘s book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, I came across his poem, “After Years,” and thought, “This is what I meant.” Notice that the poet doesn’t tell us that he misses this “you,” or longs, or grieves. He doesn’t tell us how he felt love, or that his heart thumped. And yet it’s all, already there.
Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer’s retina
as he stood in the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.