Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It
should be precise about the thing and reticent about the
feeling, for as soon as the mind responds and connects with
the thing, the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry
enters deeply into us.
--Wei T’ai (11th century)
Good description is basic to poetry. Of course poets don’t merely describe, but description is an important element in all poetry. A poem like Matthew Arnold’s famous “Dover Beach,” with its descriptive visual and auditory details about the sea at night, off England’s southern shore, also contains ideas and feelings about love, about what he calls “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery,” about religious faith, and even about war. Those ideas and feelings would not be nearly as meaningful without the memorable description of the sea. Here are some lines from the early part of the poem, in which Arnold is setting the scene:
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
In these lines, the reader can almost hear the sea’s waves, with their “tremulous cadence slow” that “brings the eternal note of sadness in.”
Here’s my point: whatever else you “say” in a poem, make sure that your descriptive details, however few or many, are “in tune” with the ideas and/or feelings you express.
In this article I’ll discuss description in poetry, with examples from poems, and a couple from prose, since poets can also learn a lot about description from fiction and nonfiction writers.
1. Philip Larkin—“At Grass”
Here are the opening lines of Larkin’s fine poem, in which the speaker watches retired race horses in a field:
The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about
--the other seeming to look on—
And stands anonymous again.
I like to call any effective description in poetry and prose focused writing. It’s the result of being alert to what is going on around you, moment to moment, and then choosing effective words and phrases to describe what you have seen, heard, felt, and so on. Larkin’s description here depicts something that’s on the one hand, static, and on the other hand, dynamic (“one crops grass, and moves about/--the other seeming to look on--,” an ironic contrast, since these horses, which were bred over generations for speed, will never be racing again.
2. Mary Oliver—“The Black Walnut Tree,” “The Hawk”
The opening lines:
My mother and I debate:
we could sell
the black walnut tree
to the lumberman,
and pay off the mortgage.
Likely some storm anyway
will churn down its dark boughs,
smashing the house.
In any description, verbs are key. “Churn” in the 7th line is an excellent choice of a verb—it’s a word with visual, tactile, and even auditory qualities. “Smashing” is also the right word. When you have the right word, especially a verb or noun, you don’t need to load your line with modifiers and other words.
The ending lines of “The Hawk”:
. . . and that’s when it [the hawk] simply lifted
its golden feet and floated
into the wind, belly-first,
and then it cruised along the lake—
all the time its eyes fastened
harder than love on some
unimportant rustling in the
yellow reeds—and then it
seemed to crouch high in the air, and then it
turned into a white blade, which fell.
Oliver couldn’t have written those lines without having seen a hawk “cruising along a lake,” and how it fell out of the sky toward its prey. The very ending phrase, “which fell,” is terse, quick, and final—like the fall of a guillotine blade—signifying the sure and precise action of the hawk.
3. Cormac McCarthy--The Road (a novel)
There’s a paragraph in McCarthy’s novel that seems to take on a life of its own, as if it were inserted into the book from another context. This is pure speculation on my part, but as writers we all save scenes, images, descriptions, lines, and sentences that don’t seem to quite fit into the work at hand, let’s say, but we sometimes find a place for them in later works. An example of this is a line in Theodore Roethke’s poem, “The Meadow Mouse.” The poet is describing helpless things, like a field mouse trapped by the speaker and kept for a time in a shoe box. Roethke said he inserted the following line, which didn’t fit into any other poem of his:
The paralytic stunned in the tub, the water rising.
Here is McCarthy’s paragraph from The Road:
In that long ago somewhere very near this place he’d watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose plumage in the still autumn air.
Do you agree that the passage reads like a poem? It’s mostly visual but has tactile qualities as well. It’s a powerfully observed moment, a superb piece of description. You might want to set the passage in free verse lines and see what it looks like on the page.
4. James Dickey--“For the Last Wolverine”
Here are Dickey’s opening lines:
They will soon be down
To one, but he still will be
For a little while still will be stopping
The flakes in the air with a look,
Surrounding himself with the silence
Of whitening snarls . . . .
Note, in Dickey’s description of a wolverine in its snowy habitat, the relationship between what free verse poets can convey just through the way they break their lines. Each line has its own meaning and yet it’s connected well to the other lines around it. The speaker is describing the last wolverine on earth. “They will soon be down”—“down” has its meaning of “dead” here, or something finished or done. Note the “They”—Dickey is speaking of a whole species, not just a single animal, though he is focusing on a single wolverine.
Further: “ . . . To one, but he still will be” (that is, still will exist) “ . . . “For a little while . . . still will be stopping” (again, “stopping” suggests “stopped,” pausing, inert. “ . . . “The flakes in the air with a look” (pay close attention to ending words and beginning words in lines (and the sentences of prose). Writers take advantage of beginnings and endings of lines and sentences, especially preferring verbs or nouns. “ . . . Surrounding himself with the silence”—again, taken as a single line standing by itself, the line has meaning—and again, it ends with a strong noun:”silence,” once again suggesting the demise not only of the animal, but of the species.
If you haven’t read “For the Last Wolverine,” I highly recommend it. I think of it as one of the outstanding environmental poems by an American poet.
5. Annie Dillard—“For the Time Being,”(an essay)
Dillard in the following excerpt is writing about the first time she saw the Terra Cotta warriors in Xian, China, which were discovered in a farmer’s field in the 1970s. Notice that as you read these descriptive sentences, it’s as if the speaker/observer were seeing all this from the point of view of someone who has no idea of what she’s looking at—observing it as a child would, with an astonishing innocence and freshness:
At my feet, and stretching off into the middle distance, I saw . . . what looked like human bodies coming out of the earth. Straight trenches cut the bare soil into deep corridors or long pits. From the trench walls emerged an elbow here, a leg and foot there, a head and neck. Everything was the same color, the terra-cotta earth and the people: the color of plant pots.
. . . A horse’s head and neck broke through sideways, halfway up a wall. Its eyes rolled. Its bent hoof and hind leg broke through, pawing a crooked escape. The soil, the same color as the horse, appeared to have contracted itself to form the horse in a miracle, and was now expelling it.
There, down a sunken corridor, I saw a man swimming through the earth. His head and shoulder and one raised arm and hand shot from the dug wall. His mouth was wide open, as if he were swimming the Australian crawl and just catching a breath. His chin blended into the wall. The rest of him was underground. I saw only the tan pit wall, troweled smooth, from which part of this man's head and shoulder emerged in all strength and detail, and his armored arm and bare hand. He jutted like exposed pipe. His arm and hand cast a shadow down the straight wall and on the trench floor four feet below him. I could see the many clay mustache hairs his open mouth pulled taut, and beside them I could see his lower lip springing from the dirt wall.
At the far end of the same gallery lay great heaps of broken bodies and limbs. A loose arm swung a bronze sword. A muscular knee and foot pushed off from someone else’s inverted head. A great enemy, it looked like, had chunked these men’s vigorous motion to bits. Each tangled heap resembled a mass grave of people who, buried alive, broke themselves into pieces and suffocated in the act of trying to crawl up through one another.
. . . Deep in another trench, horses four abreast drew a wheeled chariot. Tall honor guards accompanied them. One of the horses tossed its head, and I could see red paint in a raised nostril.
6. Jane Kenyon—“Dry Winter”
Consider how in the following three-line poem, Kenyon makes a statement about her life, but makes that statement by way of a single descriptive detail:
So little snow that the grass in the field
like a terrible thought
has never entirely disappeared . . .
The poet could have said:
never entirely disappear . . .
But that’s just a statement, not a poem. What she wrote is a poem. And it’s a good example of what the ancient Chinese poet Wei T’ai said about how poetry works: “Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling.”
7. Robert Frost—“Dust of Snow”
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood,
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
Just as Kenyon does in her poem, Frost presents an image, a “thing,” and then follows the image with an idea and a feeling. But the thing itself—the descriptive detail of a crow shaking down on the speaker some snow from a branch—is working here as something that wakes up the speaker, startles him into realizing that he no longer rues (or regrets) the day, which was evidently not going very well for him before the experience.
Also: this poem is traditional, with rime and meter: iambic di-meter, in fact (two-stress lines with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable for each poetic foot: “The WAY a CROW . . . etc. But that word “Shook,” beginning the second line, is stressed strongly when you say the poem aloud. This is right, since the speaker is suddenly “shaken” out of his negative feeling by the bird on a branch.
So when you work with meter in a poem, make sure that what you are hearing comes from the way we actually speak, not from an artificially concocted rhythm, such as a metronome used in music.
And notice too that the observation comes first, and then the response (the idea/feeling). This happens over and over in our lives every day. First, something happens to us, and then we reflect on it.
8. Li Bai (8th century Chinese poet)—“The Birds have Vanished”
The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
Here is what the well-known poet and editor Czeslaw Milosz says about the poem: “Motionless sitting and meditating on a landscape leads to the disappearance of our separate existence, so we become the mountain we contemplate.” The power of this poem , just as in the Frost poem above. is in the brief, symbolic, descriptive details, followed by the poet/observer’s conclusion.
The poem describes a woman working in her kitchen. The last stanza goes like this:
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal bin.
I wonder if you agree with me that when you read these lines you are almost seeing that scoop’s gleam disappearing into the meal-bin.
For an interesting assignment for yourself, you might want to try the following:
Think of a particular, memorable experience you had recently or many years ago. Write about the experience in lines of free verse or with rimes and meter. Just put down some words and phrases and see where they take you—you might very well end up with a comment or idea as you write those lines, and maybe even end up with a poem.
Or start the other way: with an idea or feeling. Write it down, break it into lines if it’s long enough, and see if you can somehow come up with an image or an experience that you remember—something that the idea doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with at first, and yet, as you work on it, maybe something will materialize. Experiment with images, details.
SUGGESTED READING—Here’s a list of writers as well as anthologies that I hope will be useful to you. The poets and writers mentioned are ones who demonstrate in their work an excellent balance of the objective and the subjective: things and ideas (and/or feelings).
I. POETS, ANTHOLOGIES
Jeffrey Harrison, Incomplete Knowledge, other books
Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems
Miller Williams, Half Way to Hoxie
Jane Kenyon, Collected Poems
Ted Kooser, Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems, Delights and Shadows, other books
James Dickey, Poems: 1957-1967
John Stone (cardiologist, poet), Music from Apartment 8: New and Selected Poems
David Bottoms, Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems, other books
Thomas Lux, New and Selected Poems
Czeslaw Miloz, Collected Poems
John Haines, Winter News
Stanley Kunitz, Collected Poems
Wistawa Symborska, Poems: New and Selected
Allison Hawthorne Deming, Science and other Poems
Elizabeth Bishop, Collected Poems
Linda Gregg, Things and Flesh
The New Book of Canadian Verse in English, ed. by Margaret Atwood
The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature, ed. by Christopher Merrill
We Animals: Poems of Our World, ed. by Nadya Aisenberg
Poetry for the Earth, ed. by Dunn and Scholefield
The Oxford Book of British Poetry, ed. by Philip Larkin
Twentieth Century American Poetry, ed. by Gioia, Mason, and Schoerke
II. PROSE WRITERS, ANTHOLOGIES
Loren Eiseley (anthropologist, poet, essayist), The Immense Journey, other books
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Henry Beston, The Outermost House
Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces, A Match to the Heart
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
Ian Mc Ewan, Saturday (novel)
Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist), The Ancestor’s Tale
Barbara Kingsolver (biologist, essayist), Small Wonder: Essays
David Quammen, Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, other books
Edward Hoagland, On Nature, other books
Scott Russell Sanders, Secrets of the Universe
T. C. Boyle, Tooth and Claw (short stories)
Edward Abbey (essayist), Desert Solitaire
Edward O. Wilson (sociobiologist) , Biophilia (see especially his chapter, “The Right Place”), The Future of Life, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, other books
Carl Sagan (biologist, astronomer), Pale Blue Dot
The Norton Book of Nature Writing, ed. by Finch and Elder
The Best American Science and Nature Writing (The Best American Series)
On Nature: Nature, Landscape, and Natural History, ed. by Daniel Halpern