About Poetry and the Senses

A poem should not mean but be.” (Archibald MacLeish, Ars PoeticaOne way of understanding this quote is that a poem should allow the reader as close to a direct experience as words are able to provide. Similar, perhaps to a painting, or a piece of music. One of the best ways to do this is to engage the senses through images. Here are some of my favorite quotes about the sensorial nature of poetry:

  •  Our senses note only particular. We never see color, we see particular colors; we never just touch, we touch something….This human preference for the particular is shown in many primitive languages, which may have no word for tree but may have many words such as ‘oak’, ‘pine’, ‘maple’ and ‘elm’.” The Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by David Mason and John Frederick Nims
  •  “Poetry for me is always a process of inquiry. If I knew what I thought, if I knew what I felt about what compels me in the world, I doubt I would write a poem. That part of our minds which makes metaphor proceeds ahead of us, and the metaphors seem to know more than we do about our emotional lives, about our ideas…. my work as a poet is to…put pressure upon those images that strike me, in order to ask them to yield their meaning. –Mark Doty in Poetry Review . [Vol 87 No 2 Summer 1997].
  •  “I always begin with an abiding image. I sit with that image and I turn it and turn it and look at it from every angle, and I write into the mystery of that image. ..They (the images) are asking something of me. They’re asking me to look beyond the surface to the bigger levels of meaning and metaphor.” –Cathy Smith Bowers
  •  Image’s concentration, like sound’s, is a field where the energies of mind and body meet… Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both. — Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

My next post, Writing Image-Based Poems, will provide some ideas for using images to make poems.

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Author: Pauletta Hansel

Pauletta Hansel is a poet, memorist, teacher and editor. On April 15, 2016 she was named Cincinnati's first Poet Laureate. Pauletta is author of five poetry collections, Tangle (Dos Madres Press, 2015), The Lives We Live in Houses (Wind Publications, 2011), What I Did There (Dos Madres Press, 2011), First Person (Dos Madres Press, 2007) and Divining (WovenWord Press, 2002). Her poetry has been featured recently in journals including Talisman, Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, Appalachian Journal, Atlanta Review, Postcards Poems and Prose and Still: The Journal, and anthologized in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia; Motif: Come What May; and Motif: All the Livelong Day. Pauletta leads community poetry workshops and retreats in the Greater Cincinnati area and beyond, and has served as Writer-in Residence at Thomas More College in her native Kentucky. She is a co-editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. Pauletta received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.

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