I’ve recently returned from a trip to Florida. Flying, especially these days, is always an interesting experience.
In the airplane, I don’t even know
I’ve been looking at the ocean
for a long time. A setting sun makes it
yellow, though my eyes register pink,
tricked by a careless reality,
and when I don’t think of anything,
I finally see yellow between bands of blue.
I notice the lack of buildings,
mountains, rivers, the missing lines
of roads and my brain trips:
water, an expanse, then an edge
where the land curls its toes up tight.
Below me, a cotton ball puff of a cloud
floats by, alone, tethered I suppose,
to one soul whose day is still
under water. I don’t know anything,
am no longer capable of learning,
and I look at my daughter next to me,
the doctor-to-be, and wonder
how she rose from a yellow ocean,
how she crystallized from a solitary cloud.
As described above, I was caught off guard while on a recent airplane trip when I realized that what I was looking at was ocean, and that the ocean was not blue or green or pink due to the sunset, but yellow. Since when is the ocean yellow? I didn’t care about what it meant that the ocean was yellow, but was interested in the trick my mind had played on me, in the way that when I took a moment to think – or not think – about what I was seeing, I saw something else entirely.
It, once again, reminded me of my friend Nancy’s bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” In trying to find the source of that quote (which I never did), I came across another quote that seems fitting to include here, this one by author Anais Nin, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
What does this have to do with the little poem above? Description, description, description.
Of course I saw a pink sunset – that is the expected thing to see, what paintings and photographs show, what television commercials for tropical destinations depict, what I, as a recipient and acceptor of the status quo, see. But description in a poem needs to go beyond normal expectations. In the book, The Art of Description, World into Word by Mark Doty, he states, “All accounts, it seems, are partial; thus all perception might be said to be tentative, an opportunity for interpretation, a guessing game.” (5). So why not a yellow sunset, a tethered cloud, a crystallization into human form?
Why, indeed. Why describe anything? Why do poets and other writers have this insatiable urge to describe the world around them and share it? Doty explains it this way: “The need to translate experience into something resembling adequate language is the writers blessing or the writer’s disease, depending on your point of view. That’s why Whitman isn’t sure if what sings to him is a demon or a bird. If it is indeed a symptom of a problem of life not having been really lived until it is narrated, at least that’s a condition that winds up giving real gifts to others. The pleasure of recognizing a described thing is no small thing.” (10-11). Description is not about what we see, but about the experience of seeing, how we feel when we see, what we learn when we see. (You may substitute “hear,” “taste,” “touch,” or “smell” for the word “see” in the sentences above).
Okay. If we must go on with it then, what is the best way to go about it? There are a few accepted means that most agree upon that make for effective description. For starters, we need to unfold the scene, piece-by-piece, bit-by-bit, making sure that certain details come before others (such as establishing the narrator in the poem above as being in an airplane) in order to have a scene make sense. The syntax of the sentence – how words and phrases are ordered – reconstructs the image in a particular order. The order of the words will either clarify or confuse.
Another important component of effective description is the use of figurative language. We are always told to use the five senses in describing things, and it is for this reason that figurative language is an important tool when getting the scene from your head into another’s. Figurative language such as metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole connect our senses to an image in a new way. When we use our bodies – our five senses – as reference points, we better understand. The land curling “its toes up tight” will evoke a particular image in one’s head. I connect it with cold water or being cold under the blankets, but what I intend to evoke with that image is only half of it. The reader brings his or her own experiences and may interpret it differently. The use of the “cotton ball puff of a cloud” shows the size, shape, color, and even texture of that little cloud floating below the airplane. It is perhaps too much of a cliché to use in my poem, but still it conveys many things in few words. In discussing figurative language, Mark Doty mentions, “Far from being just ways to make meaning seem more attractive, figurative speech itself means, and means intensely. It’s one of the poet’s primary tools for conveying the texture of experience, and for inquiring into experience in search of meaning.” (76). I’m not sure if the two metaphors, that of the curled toes and that of the cotton ball, work so well together in their proximity of one to another in the above poem; the combination of the two is a point for further discussion elsewhere. Both both metaphors do, however, convey something more than the physical image. There are additional associations that come along with the use of figurative language and that is what we must consider when reading and writing.
The second half of The Art of Description is comprised of “Description’s Alphabet.” Doty goes through the alphabet to discuss different points of description, and while all of his points are enlightening, I want to highlight just two of them here. Doty’s J word for description is Juxtaposition. Using words or abstract concepts in original ways can be done through the pairing of things not usually paired, placing things next to each other that are not usually found there. This can have an effect of surprise or cause a shift in perception, but taken too far, it can convey absurdity. Doty uses excellent examples of juxtaposition to illustrate his point. I want to use a poem by Taha Muhammad Ali from his book, So What. I’ve recently finished the book and was blown away by his poems. In one of my favorites, “Twigs,” the last stanza reads:
After we die,
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
on all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
hate will be
the first thing
Ali juxtaposes an abstract concept, hate, within a very physical description. In doing so, hate becomes visceral, something we can see, feel, touch, taste, smell, and the use of the verb “putrefy,” which has such a negative connotation becomes a wonderful thing, for it is hate that is putrefying in us. Alas, how unfortunate that it takes death for hate to dissolve within us! In this juxtaposition of the abstract and the concrete, “the yoking of disparate elements makes more than a vivid account of perception.” (Doty, p. 93).
While “Description’s Alphabet” is worth reading in its entirety, I’ll mention just one more key to description here: Verbs. That verb “putrefy” in the excerpt above is a good example of how effectively descriptive a verb can be. Doty’s example of the strength of verbs in description is from Jay Hopler’s “Green Squall” in which he writes:
The rain tins its romantic in the water pots.
Creating a verb out of the noun “tin,” brings sound and texture to the scene in an unexpected way. It is original and so effective.
Now, time to revise some description in “Flying.”
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
List of quotes where I found the Anais Nin quote above as well as this quote by her that I like: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” (Keep scrolling down the page through all the ads to see them all).
Here are a couple of photos totally unrelated to my post but from my trip to Florida, just for the fun of it.