Thursday, November 14, 2013

Finding the Sublime through the Senses

        Writing a poem is sometimes like diving into deep water. It’s scary and exhilarating at the same time. Whether I’m staring at a blank page or a blank computer screen, the experience is the same. I’m never quite sure what’s going to happen next.
            One thing that grounds me is using sensory description. I often tell my English students to use their five senses when writing; for example, I’ll say “What do you see, hear, smell, taste or feel?” It has become my working mantra. I hope that if they take away one thing from my class, it will be the memory of this refrain. My other frequent suggestion to them is to “be specific” and to name things.
            In one poem about an old woman, I tried to show what she looked like:
She is not who you think.
This woman is toothless, her mouth a scar
in her leatherback face.
Her lip curls up like a claw.
You might catch sight of her
at the grocery store.
Bag lady. Tramp. Old Bones.
I wanted to capture the visceral feelings of encountering her by giving some idea of what she looked like. In fact, this poem (“Old Bones”) was paired with paintings of the elderly by Betty Jamieson last spring at an exhibit at Highfield Hall in Falmouth.
            In another poem, I described the feel of a sculpted head that once resided in my parents’ antique shop: “I want to run my hand over it/as one might touch a gravestone/or an old tree, bent with many storms,/or even a horse put to pasture,/leaning its weight against me,/nuzzling my palm with its soft nose.”
            Sometimes I try to include how something sounds. My poem “The Let Down” is one of several poems in a fairy tale sequence. This particular poem echoes the story of Rapunzel with her long hair flowing out of a tower window. In this sequence, I describe the witch:  “Bone face,/voice like a creaking door, it called,/“Let down your hair.” This is followed by “It climbed, pulling my hair tight around its claws,/effort heard in the grinding of its teeth./I dreamed scissors to end the daily siege.” I wanted to capture the
 harsh sounds of an evil presence bent on destruction through my choice of words.
             In my poem “Way Station,” a woman is longing for her lover. I use the sense of

smell to highlight her feelings of isolation: “A whiff of oil from the harbor makes her think of hunger.” In another poem about childhood (“Twelve”), I bring in the sense of taste: “On waking, I ran to the bathroom,/so thirsty I couldn’t wait/to gulp down the cold water.”
            In all these instances, I worked to make my poems come alive by touching on one
 of the senses. As Nietzsche once said, “All evidence of truth come only from the senses.”




  1. Great post, Robin!
    Using sensory description is one of the best ways to capture the essence of a character and bring it to memorable life. :)

  2. Hi Cindy -- Thanks for your thoughts! I know you use a lot of sensory description in your novels.