“Go in fear of abstractions,” admonished Ezra Pound, and most poets, regardless of school or aesthetic, have heeded his word. It seems almost self-evident: Poetry, we assume, trucks in specifics, in perceptual or emotional realism. When applied to a poem, the descriptor “abstract” (or its synonyms: abstruse, indefinite, or vague) carries with it a judgment, suggesting that it somehow isn’t doing its job, that it’s not really a poem.
Yet so many poets have used abstract language to great effect. Take for instance this passage from Shakespeare’s underappreciated poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” In the poem, the phoenix and the turtle dove have vanished in the fire of their love made literal, having “fled… / In a mutual flame from hence.” The poem does its best to describe the word-resistant fusion of their two essences:
Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in personified form, enters the poem and tries to make sense of the scene—and fails:
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded. . . .
As poet J. V. Cunningham has observed, much of what makes this poem successful is the collision of chilly, scholastic dicton with passionate, extra-rational circumstance: love. In a sense, the abstract diction is an ethical choice: it preserves the essential mystery of the subject.
Turning to another poet who’s known for addressing, in poem after poem, the complications of love, passion, and lust, Robert Creeley also employs abstract language to describe intense emotional experience. Consider a few lines from “For Love.” It’s a meta-love poem, talking about talking about love—or the difficulty of speaking of it. It begins:
Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all
that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,
different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.
As the speaker allows himself to be drawn into the tangle of expression, he resorts, surprisingly, to abstract language:
Nothing says anything
but that which it wishes
would come true. . .
The abstraction not only represents the nameless, unaccountable, and subterranean forces of love, but also a loss of agency, the surrendering of self to emotion and, more importantly, to language itself. Where “I” should be, there’s “nothing,” and what “nothing” says somehow evades the specificity that poets are supposed to covet: a wished-for “anything.” Language itself becomes the agent. As Creeley put it in a statement for the Patterson Society,
A poem is a peculiar instance of language’s uses, and goes well beyond the man writing—finally to the anonymity of any song. In this sense it may be that a poet works toward a final obliteration of himself, making that all the song—at last free of his own time and place. . . .
In both cases, the abstract turn indicates an encounter with limits: for Shakespeare, it is the limits of rational language; for Creeley, it is an acknowledgement the subject’s limitations, and its subsequent yielding of the initiative to words, to song.