The Problem of Imagery

“There is a simple trick at the heart of imaginative writing…The trick is that if you write in words that evoke the senses, if your language is full of things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched, you create a world your reader can enter.”

-Imaginative Writing – The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway. Second Edition. Page 3. (Not following a standard citation method here).

I have often belabored a singular point in my critique to poets who must have come to detest it by now: introduce more concrete images to your poem. When you create a poem, no matter how commonplace the language written, it evidently transforms into a masterpiece in your mind. It is the same instinct that makes a mother love her child beyond its physical appearance. Obviously, the devotion to the poem from the poet is of (slightly) lesser magnitude.

During my years at DWL, I have come across countless poems that hold great potential. The themes may be very strong and refreshing, the idea nothing short of genius, but more often than not, the poems fall flat once written. The most important thing that the poet must understand is the importance of getting the reader involved. No one cares about your personal suffering, plight, identity crisis, break-up, et cetera, if it doesn’t somehow pull them into the theme of your poem. If readers can’t hold on to the poem by some kind of tactile imagery offered to them, they will not give a damn about the story you have to tell. Essentially, they want to be able to find a world they can enter – aptly phrased in the quote above.

In my experience, the best way to check a poem for its impact and quality is to take yourself out of the poem. Invariably, my poems are in first-person. Empathy dictates that a large ratio of a random sample of readers should be able to relate to my experiences as written in the poem. If I am to write about my life however, without giving them a chance to be a part of it, chances are empathy will be flushed down the toilet in 2 seconds flat. Even if I am writing about something that is of extreme personal significance, I must make the poem “friendly” for my readers. I generally try to do this by introducing the reader to my world, getting them acquainted with my life and surroundings. I mention the pile of dirty laundry at the foot of the bed in passing. A bamboo bowl of two month old potpourri on the nightstand – almost completely scentless, except the times when a wayward breeze from the broken window teases it. A red lampshade throwing diffuse light on a dried ring of stale chai on the coffee table. These are concrete images. Something the reader can recognize and hold on to. Now if I throw in a hurtful fight with my significant other somewhere between the dirty laundry and the caked ring of chai, with the emotional outburst highlighted metaphorically by the red lampshade – aha! I have a poem and I have pulled. You. In. I do this by writing out what exactly I want to say in the poem (the fight) and slowly fleshing it out with images, metaphors, and similes – figures of speech do wonders for your poem. Be creative with them. The way to flesh out your poem is best done by trying to look at what you have to offer beside yourself and your personal experience. So if you take yourself out of the poem, what is left? If you’ve got a handful of articles and a weak line of introduction, then you’ve got work to do. Build a world around yourself in the poem and you’ve got what you are looking for.

I am going to leave you with a short poem by Yusef Komunyakaa. It is a very personal poem (as most of them are), but please try to look for concrete imagery that he cleverly introduces along with spectacular metaphors and similes. Enjoy – and of course, happy writing!

Facing It by Yusef Komunyakaa
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I am stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way – the stone lets me go.
I turn that way – I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

Piled Higher and Deeper – writer’s block of an unusual kind

posted by Shehla

I once watched a documentary on Leonard Cohen and was struck by his discipline in writing. He insisted that to be a writer, he had to “go to work” every day, and therefore, to write every day. I’m much more liberal in my approach to writing, choosing to wait for revelation, the right mood, the perfect environment. It is one of the main reasons why I often tell people I am not a “real writer”.

So imagine the gravity of the task at hand. Writing the introduction chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation. Is there ever a perfect environment to sit down and regurgitate facts about prostate cancer and molecular signaling pathways? Can one ever be in the mood to describe, in great length, the zonal anatomy of the prostate, the gaping holes in knowledge about the disease, and the dearth of treatment options available for advanced stages of said disease? No prizes for guessing the right answer.

It hasn’t been all that bad. I’ve learned some very intriguing things, which 5 years of doing experiments and reading the literature never taught. Did you know, for instance, that prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia – the precursor lesions that lead to prostate cancer – can be present in men as early as at 20 years of age? Now there’s a reason to be grateful I’m not a man. Sadly, this documented, reference-able fact takes up only one line to communicate. I’m supposed to write an entire CHAPTER. It also makes for very strange conversations, as I go around punctuating dinner with my treasure of “believe it or not” prostate cancer facts.

As stuck as I’m feeling, this is a very exciting time in the life of a graduate student. Years of hard work has finally shaped up to form a coherent theory. And nothing can match the feeling of coming up with and proving a novel hypothesis. My thesis mentor told me writing the intro will be hardest part of the process. I couldn’t imagine what would be so hard about collecting background information on a topic I have lived and breathed for years. Turns out (as always) he was right. It’s not so much collecting the information than figuring out how best to summarize it. Gives a whole new meaning to the term “writer’s block”. For inspiration (or for lack of it), I have resorted to perusing my favorite comic website, Yes, it’s real. Yes, they really do put up comic strips on the life of graduate students. I can safely credit them with hours of procrastination, and in addition to providing the title to this blog post they have also been an amazing support group over the past half-decade. Too bad they can’t summarize the different stages of metastatic adenocarcinomas.