What’s the Most Important Detail?

“We know there must be consciousness in things,” writes Mark Jarman:

In bits of gravel pecked up by a hen
To grind inside her crop, and spider silk
Just as it hardens stickily in air.

Many poets might just as easily say, “We know there must be consciousness in words.” By fitting together individual bits and pieces of language, they work to create a facsimile of life, one that may reach even across centuries to touch the most unsuspecting of readers.

A few summers ago, as I sat reading Middlemarch on the front porch of the Robert Frost Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, a teenage boy came around the corner of the house. He was about eighteen years old—tall, curly-haired, athletic. Plopping himself down on a table, he crossed his arms and looked me in the eye. “Are you a poet?” he asked.

After I admitted that I was, he leaned back. Still holding my gaze, he announced, “‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is the bomb.”

I did what anyone would have done under the circumstances, which was to become slack-jawed and slightly dizzy. Undeterred, the boy remarked that Alfred Tennyson was his favorite poet, that he’d accidentally discovered Tennyson’s poems in a book in his grandfather’s house; also, that he hadn’t quite gotten his brain around “In Memoriam” and that other long stuff but “The Eagle” and “The Kracken” were also the bomb.

We talked. What he liked about these poems, he explained, were the details—those particular combinations of words that pulled him directly into the poet’s imaginative world. “I like that he makes me be there.”

Think of details as a poem’s information. The poet relays this information by choosing words and phrases that evoke specific characters, places, or situations while also advancing narrative action, lyrical intensity, and thematic unity. As Theodore Roethke explains, “The poet must have a sense not only of what words were and are, but also what they are going to be.”

In her memoir The Gift, H.D. wrote of her child self’s growing awareness of the link between observation and the urge to repeat, reframe, reinvent what one has seen : “It was not that I thought of the picture; it was that something was remembered. . . . You saw what was there, you knew that something was reminded of something. That something came true in a perspective and a dimension (though those words, of course, had no part in my mind) that was final.”

Image is the customary poetic term for a mental picture translated into words. Images are constructed of details, and precise nouns are their foundation. For instance, in the opening stanza of her poem “The Burn,” Terry Blackhawk chooses a handful of plain yet exact nouns to solidify the details of place:

I saw it once in a sycamore
at a fishing spot near the lagoon,
one of the tree’s three trunks combusting.

“Sycamore” is the accurate name of the tree. The compound noun “fishing spot” adds a casual connotation to the more exotic “lagoon.” In the last line the poet avoids repeating “sycamore,” this time allowing herself to draw back to the more general “tree,” which visually and sonically reinforces the repeated t sounds in the line. Blackhawk’s only adjective is “three.” Her only verb (until the shock of the participle “combusting) is “saw.” The imagery of this stanza depends primarily on those solid, simple nouns.

In “Christmas Eve in France,” Jessie Redmon Fauset also chooses a handful of basic nouns, but she reveals and varies her details by adding adjectives:

Oh, little Christ, why do you sigh
As you look down tonight
On breathless France, on bleeding France,
And all her dreadful plight?
What bows your childish head so low?
What turns your cheek so white?

Even though “On breathless France, on bleeding France” repeats the same noun twice, Fauset’s shift from “breathless” to “bleeding” entirely reconfigures the imagery. Yet the adjectives are similar in sound, so the line retains its songlike quality even as it disrupts my mental picture of the situation.

Some poets, such as Ted Hughes, choose details of ornament that seem as weighty as the nouns they modify:

Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,
Hands never still, twist of body never still—
Bounds in for a cup of tea.

The extract’s grammar, like its subject, is jumpy. In “Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,” the hyphenated repetition shifts from compound noun to compound adjective. Hughes repeats the noun “hands,” the adverb-adjective combination “never still.” In the last line he tosses us the vivid verb “bounds,” yet we’re hardly aware that it’s the first verb in the extract. Thanks to the precise arrangement of his nouns and modifiers, Hughes has created the sensation of action from the details of a physical description.

The details in a poem do more than create specific images. They may also advance narrative action, develop character, hint at a back story, intensify a mood, reinforce sounds, and so on and so on. In the words of Baron Wormser and David Cappella, “Details are the confluence of observant intelligence, apt feeling, and thematic sense.” For example, the details in the opening stanza of Siegfried Sassoon’s “The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still” draw together a present-tense situation and layered memories of other times and places to construct a unified moment of consciousness.

The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still,
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Filed under: Dawn Potter, Poetics, Prose