Craft Annotation: Szymborska, Imagery, and Abstraction

As I discussed in my craft annotation on Rilke, modern poetry favors a particular aesthetic quite the opposite of the era preceding it. The rise of the Imagist movement in the early 20th century heralds this shift. As the name implies, the movement was toward concrete, visceral imagery and away from sentimentality and meditations on abstract concepts such as love or death – or if the poem is a meditation on love or death, it’s never explicitly named as such. In the preface to the 1915 anthology Some Imagists Poets, the school listed some of its common principles. These two in particular stood out for me:

  • To present an image (hence the name: “Imagist”). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
  • To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite. [i]

William Carlos Williams explores this principle in his long poem “Paterson,” which includes his famous quotation “no ideas but in things.” Or, as the poem begins, “To make a start / out of particulars / and make them general.”[ii] Looking back on the poets I’ve read this semester, I can see how I responded more easily to poems that introduce an image that is gripping and visceral. But to let the poem reside only in the thing itself without making it in some way universal, or connected to an abstract thought is to write only half a poem.

Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska does an admirable job of tying down the abstract with imagery. In her poem “Note,” for instance, she writes “Life is the only way / to get covered in leaves / catch your breath on the sand, / rise on wings.”[iii] She begins with one of the words we tell beginner poets never to use, and it is indeed an abstract concept, but she grounds it right away in three vivid images. The second stanza continues this vivid list: “to be a dog, / or stroke its warm fur;” but then she moves back into the abstract: “to tell pain / from everything it’s not; // to squeeze inside events, / dawdle in views / to seek the least of all possible mistakes.”

The next stanza begins with abstraction but moves into more concrete imagery: “An extraordinary chance” (continuing the argument of the poem), “to remember for a moment” (still abstract but placing us in time), “a conversation held / with the lamp switched off.” With the lamp, the reader is returned to a specific moment in the sensual world. The speaker continues in this vein with another quick succession of images: tripping on a stone, getting drenched in the rain, losing your keys in the grass, and following “a spark on the wind with your eyes.” The listing of these somewhat disparate images throughout the body of the poem evokes the quality of a life flashing before someone’s eyes at the moment of death, which jibes with the thesis of the poem: that life is the only way to experience these things.

The last stanza, however, injects a note of uncertainty again: “to keep on not knowing / something important.” Is the thing unknown the argument of the speaker, or is it something else? The poem begins and ends on an abstract note, but it ties down these ideas with very concrete images.

I see the back-and-forth movement between abstract and concrete again and again in Szymborska’s work. In “On Death, Without Exaggeration,”[iv] (another topic beginner poets aren’t supposed to attempt), the speaker personifies death, listing what it can’t do: take a joke, find a star, make a bridge. She continues: “It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming / building ships, or baking cakes.” The list begins with occupations in the abstract, but moves closer and closer to the concrete, finally ending on an image that calls up a specific sense perception: the smell of a baking cake. She continues to move back and forth between more abstract thinking (“In our planning for tomorrow / it has the final word”) and very concrete images (“dig a grave, / make a coffin … swat a fly from the air.. bulbs, pods, / tentacles, fins, tracheae, / nuptial plumage, and winter fur”).  As with the previous poem, these images are not tied to one particular scene or moment in time. They serve as concrete supports for her abstract arguments – often very funny ones, as when she says that death can’t clean up after itself.

Once I became aware of this quality to Szymborska’s poetry – the use of images outside of a single scene or moment in time – I began to find it in almost all of her poems. I’ve found one exception, but overall the pattern holds across the body of work in her collected poems. It’s actually quite a different solution to the problem of time that I investigate in the other annotation in this packet. Szymborska’s “moment of the poem,” doesn’t really correlate to a particular chronological moment, yet it’s quite distinct and self-contained. That’s a helpful lesson for me and illustrates the fact that every poem deals with time – each in its own way.


Works Cited

[i]  H.D. and Aldington, eds. Some Imagists Poets: An Anthology, H.D. ed. Houghton Mifflin, 1915. pp. vi-vii. Web. Full PDF available here: 11/04/2016.

[ii] Williams, William Carlos. “Paterson.” Selected Poems. New Directions, 1985. p. 259. Print. [Ironically, it’s a rather abstract way of beginning a poem.]

[iii] Szymborska, Wislawa. “A Note.” Map: Collected and Last Poems. Trans: Cavanagh and Baranczak. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. p.349. Print.

[iv] Ibid. p. 246.

Photo credit: Chris Limb via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

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