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Contemplation, Clarity, and the Poem

Walter Butts, MFA's picture
BFA in Creative Writing Blog
Contemplation, Clarity, and the Poem

 

Complex thoughts distilled through plain diction, interactions with the natural world, and specificity of details can heighten imagery and evoke larger implications.  This endeavor to make human connection through introspection, reflection and acute awareness of one’s environment is a prevalent style employed by many ancient Chinese poets.  Within this seemingly simplistic approach, these masters arrived at discoveries, revelatory for themselves and the reader. 

"What’s important here is the bridge the poet must cross between experience and language to the reader" - Walter Butts, BFA faculty.

There’s a wonderful story about the 9th-century Chinese poet, Po-Chü-i.  At that time, poets were revered in China; their poems were recorded on the walls of cities and towns, and many were given government posts. Po-Chü-i was appointed to several, and at one point governed a fishing village.  He preferred to write in isolation and would frequently retreat to the countryside’s hills and mountains.  Each time he returned to his village, he sought out a particular peasant woman to engage her in conversation, periodically inserting lines from a poem he had just written into his dialogue.  If she accepted this as part of their conversation, Po-Chü-i was pleased.  But if she became quizzical, and didn’t seem to understand what he was saying, he would go back to the hills and rocks and revise the poem.

This is not to suggest that the task of the poet is to convey thought and feeling through literal meaning.  Rather, careful word choice, precise description, and language that employs plain diction can make metaphor, imagery, and symbolism accessible to the reader.

Here’s a poem by Po-Chü-i:

            WRITTEN ON SUNG MOUNTAIN’S EAST CLIFFS IN EARLY SPRING

 

            Skies clearing above thirty-six peaks,

            kingfisher-blue mists rise over snowmelt.

 

            The moon’s drifted through three nights

            now,  spring opening across four mountains:

 

            grasses turning distances an early green

            while cold birds leave silence unchanged.

 

            Here below the highest of these east cliffs:

            nothing but a name I’ve scrawled on rock.

 

Numerical details give us a sense of the vastness and range of the diverse landscape described. The imagery of “grasses turning distance an early green” brings forth the uniqueness of the speaker’s perspective. 

And finally, the speaker has become “nothing but a name I’ve scrawled on rock.”  The poem is an intriguing commentary on the human connection to the natural world, as well as its alienation from it.

Regardless of whether your style is experimental or traditional, lyric or narrative, there’s an opportunity for inventiveness.  Try writing a reflective poem located in the natural world that is both descriptive and expressive, with the language unadorned.

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