As Abstractions Go

A favorite poetry instructor gave her class some good advice.

“Poetry is a delicate thing. You are trying to impart a (hopefully) complex set of ideas in a very limited space. If you didn’t want to limit yourself, you would write fiction, or an essay, something with fewer limitations. Every word, every image, every phrase needs to earn its place in the poem. Be ruthless when it comes to editing. Avoid cliche, no one pays attention to it. It is weak writing. Avoid becoming too didactic, as preaching turns readers away. Besides, none of you are all that wise. Finally, never use words that are too abstract. They have far too many meanings, interpretations. These words include (but are certainly not limited to)-Beauty, Truth, Freedom, Reality.”

One student asked, “What if my cliche’ is used ironically?” She shook her head. The implication being-none of you are that talented of writers to pull that off (which was true).

But things are Beautiful, and some things are True, one person argued, which wasn’t the point.

I still think when it comes to writing (poetry, fiction, non-fiction), this is good advice. Edit your work repeatedly.  Avoid things that muddy ideas.  I believe once a writer puts something out to be consumed, she/he loses the right to say what it gets to mean to a reader. It makes sense then to do whatever one can(as an artist, writer, creator) to be as clear as possible.

These things carry over into more than writing.

What I always remember from this conversation, this class is the concept of individual interpretation. When I write words like Beauty or Truth, each of us conjures different images, ideas in our heads. Though many of us might share common things and if we made lists, some things would overlap, none of us agree on everything. The ocean is Beauty for me, while I think southern Wyoming is  the ugliest place on earth. Many would disagree.

How does the world look to someone who studies physics compared with someone like me, who is often scientifically illiterate? The nature of Reality is certainly fluid, less concrete than we imagine.

Truth-the ultimate abstraction.

The buzzword of the (three year old) decade (thanks to social media, I’d wager) is Freedom with a capital F. This word gets tossed about like everybody here, there and everywhere sees this word and says to themselves, “Yep, I get that, I understand that, and I agree.”  They don’t.

I have yet to meet two people who share the same idea when it comes to Freedom. I have also not met anyone who believes that any concept of Freedom comes without some personal responsibility or limitations (those limitations varying depending on the individual).

Most people think that while we should be free to say and think what we want, there are times and places where we must reign in our impulses. Shouting “Fire” in the crowded theater, when there is no fire, being one instance (what if I am being ironic?). These limitations are what allow us to exist in large groups. Imagine a culture where rather than a list of agreed social rules, everyone acted according to their desires or whims. I shoot my neighbor in the house to the west then his neighbor shoots me.


It is a difficult balance, with the will of the individual on one side, the needs of the larger culture on the other. We rarely get it right, with the weight shifting the scale one way or the other, depending on the decade, political climate. We are fickle and always want what we currently don’t have. More Freedom, more security (and yes, those things are opposites). Get out of my personal space, why weren’t you there when I was threatened?

Such uncertainty. “The center cannot hold.” Our lives are delicate and full of  self imposed trappings. We argue, we rant and rave about right and wrong. We should collapse. Yet we don’t. It’s astounding.

I would love to hear what you think.

P.S. That poem is my favorite.


About fenster

There are some who call me, Tim?

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