In Introduction to Poetry Writing there are a lot of vague poems. I would say the largest percentage of my “work” in commenting on poems is advising the writer to simply be more specific. Often I find myself saying this in workshop. Invariably, there is that student, though, who will say “but I kind of like it without details, I mean, that way, you know, the reader can just fill in any ideas they want there. Like, you can see what you want.”
I say this about the adjectives I hate most: beautiful, colorful, ugly, good, bad. “What do you mean by beautiful? Isn’t that just a placeholder for some other, more specific words? I can’t see beautiful.”
“WHATEVER BEAUTIFUL MEANS TO YOU,” they say. No, no, no, I say. I’m saying it means nothing.
I have been getting this comment more and more. Maybe because students are changing, becoming more competitive with each other and more demanding with their professors. Anyway I have been thinking a lot about why this comment cannot be right.
Creatures, all animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria, must cope with their environment and each other. Consequently creatures tend to become more sensitive in their evolution—most notably in animals, who, because of the nature of their reproductive technique that fuses cells rather than splits them, have marked asymmetry in gender and societal roles. There is individualism. Individuals, as evolutionary biology has proved, adhere to each other in societies, which then functions again as an individual.
An individual must be able to detect surroundings accurately not only for food and sex, but for consciousness itself, to find function in the environment and group.
One of the most sophisticated sense organs animals possess is the eye, for its complexity in design. Often it is the eye that creationists point out as a “proof” against evolution—for how could something so sophisticated evolve, step by step? What use would an almost functioning eye be, half of an eye? Well half of an eye would be of a lot of use to an animal. The ability to sense light is one of the oldest tricks cells have used, and in fact almost all creatures—plant, animal, many bacteria—can sense light. It is not so far to imagine how light data could be collected to form pictures in the brain. If it is a matter of survival, consciousness will figure out a way to do it.
Once a body has a form suitable for survival in its environment, as ours generally are, the sense organs have more time and energy to expand. Our senses are literally the edge of our consciousness. They are growing. They are growing us.
We are able to see better than our ancestors. We can taste more subtle flavors. We have names for more subtle emotions.
I feel how reading works on the edge of my consciousness. It activates the edges. At the edges, there are senses. A poem can grow me a little. It needs to have the right teeth in its gears though, and the teeth are the details.
Without them, I’m dark in primordial soup, guessing, lost to you, the writer, lost from what you want me to know.