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Prose Poets: ‘Of Abstraction’


Definition of ‘abstraction’, from Dr Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language


It’s one of the great, gratifying surprises to discover that Dr Johnson was an Objectivist. Epochs ahead of his time, he extols in his 1755 dictionary the virtues of paying attention to the world itself – the world of objects – in a manner that would surely have met with approval from William Carlos Williams, whose mantra ‘no ideas but in things’ has become a founding creed for workshop participants across the creative writing troposphere.

We think of the eighteenth century as the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of the Abstract Dinosaurs, a time when concepts like Justice, Reason and Liberty were being thrashed out with such urgency that they sprouted capital letters. The writer of the first modern English dictionary, a great Enlightenment thinker, would appear to represent the very heart of the Abstraction Establishment – and yet here Johnson is, berating the ‘disregard of worldly objects’ like a modern-day craft zealot in a powdered wig.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, Johnson told a famous story about his own charged encounter with the material. It centres on an attempt he made in old age to atone for the sins of his youth (and can be found, in all its beautiful concision, as the epigraph to a much less beautiful poem by Walter Thornbury, ‘Dr Johnson’s Penance’). As a boy, he once refused to accompany his father, a stallholder, to market day in Uttoxeter. Pricked by the memory of this disobedience – which he knew boiled down to embarrassment, or ‘Pride’ – the elderly Johnson made a pilgrimage to Uttoxeter ‘in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time, bareheaded, in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand.’ The remedy for an abstract problem such as pride (and the pain of its remembrance) came in the very concrete interface between cold Midland rain and a bared scalp.

For Johnson, matter and spirit were locked in an inextricable, often distressing embrace. This mutual dependency is ingrained in his first definition of ‘Abstraction’, where abstract ideas are those that ‘neither represent anything corporeal or spiritual; that is, any thing peculiar or proper to mind or body’. In other words, the ‘corporeal’ and the ‘spiritual’ share equal footing: the shame he felt about betraying his father would be every bit as real, as concrete, as the rain that helped to wash it away. An abstraction, then, is an offence not only against physical objects but against all meaningful spiritual concepts too. It consists in language that purports to refer to something meaningful but in fact doesn’t – a forerunner, if you like, of Daniel Dennett’s trendy philosophical pejorative ‘deepity’.

Compared to Johnson we live in materialist and irreligious times, when to believe literally in most spiritual concepts is to come out as an epistemological nincompoop. Anything less tangible than atomic matter – anything resistant or invisible to the instruments of science – can be dismissed, if you wish, as hocus pocus. (I’m not saying that all scientific-minded thinkers would make such a generalisation, just that it would now be perfectly respectable and safe to do so.) As an undergraduate I came face to face with this prevailing brand of rationalism in my university philosophy department. I admit to being swept up in the stylish scepticism that I found there, in imposing journals, rakish tutors and alluring weekly reading lists. Contemporary philosophy provided a clean, elegant solution to the problem of fathoming the world: not an eternal catfight over abstracts like Love and Justice – which nobody could even define without controversy, much less talk about sensibly – but the sober attempt to sort through what we did understand, discarding all the extraneous rubbish along the way. Sounds good, right? For three years I relished the challenge of eliminating weasel words, deepities and redundant concepts. It was a time when I learned a great deal about how to think and write, but a time of ultimate dishonesty as well. For even as I constructed my watertight argument about why uttering the sentence ‘Murder is wrong’ is equivalent to making a grunting noise or scrunching up your face, I didn’t believe a word of it – not truthfully, in anything but the most calculated sense. Deep down I still believed in Love, Justice, Right, Wrong, and all the other pesky abstractions I was gleefully weeding out.

As well as spirited essays on moral realism, I began writing poems around this time. Perhaps that wasn’t a coincidence. Poetry seemed to offer a different, more legitimate means of talking about the abstract verities – not a misguided project to define them for the ages, but a way to gesture towards them in the flux of human experience. Here’s the start of a famous ‘Poem’ by Frank O’Hara:


Light    clarity    avocado salad in the morning
after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is
to find forgiveness and love, not even forgiveness
since what is done is done and forgiveness isn’t love


This beautiful dance of a poem – a dance through and around and into abstractions – still insists upon a comically earthbound plate of ‘avocado salad’; indeed, it is precisely this eccentric breakfast that gives the flighty, excitable higher registers of love a legible shape in the world, allowing O’Hara to pirouette gracefully into the further abstraction of ‘forgiveness’. Like O’Hara, I may not know what love means, or if it even exists in the same sense that a house fly does, but I know a fair bit about what it feels like when I see my girlfriend again after a day spent staring at the computer screen on my own. For O’Hara, ‘the mere presence’ of his beloved ‘changes everything like a chemical dropped on paper’. That one word ‘presence’ delicately undermines the distinction between the abstract and the concrete: strictly speaking an abstraction – you can’t touch or see or smell a ‘presence’ – it nevertheless conjures the physical body that lies behind it, like a charm.

Unfortunately, when I arrived in my first creative writing workshop, I learned that abstractions were as little welcome as they were in the most hardcore journals of analytic philosophy. The general attitude might be best summed up in Ezra Pound’s instruction to ‘go in fear of abstractions’. Pound justified this assertion by arguing that ‘the natural object is always the adequate symbol’, a view that finds support in his friend T.S. Eliot’s writings on the Objective Correlative. It’s a well rehearsed debate, and one that no experienced workshopper can be unfamiliar with. How often have you brought in a poem that valiantly reaches after the ineffable, only to be told by some adenoidal killjoy to ‘find a concrete image’? It’s an orthodoxy of modern poetics, and to stand any chance of survival and publication, you need to understand why you’re unlikely to get anywhere by penning your own variations on ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’. The charge will come: find me a symbol for that beauty. Show me, in reference to common nouns like stones and flowers, what it is to feel joy.

This ‘fear of abstraction’, of course, sacrifices a lot of what we naturally want to say in poetry. You might think – and I would agree with you – that Keats accomplishes more with that one line of ravishing abstraction than he would with whole stanzas of carefully plotted symbolism. Nevertheless, before we swing giddily to the other pole and consign workshop dogma to the dustbin, we must surely agree that a whole poem written in that abstract register would start to annoy even the most ardent aesthete. At some point, you’re going to need an object, an image, something concrete to hold on to. This is the problem with workshops and advice. It’s easier to generalise, by abstracting (in Johnson’s first sense of the term) a partial insight from the wider truth. Yes, abstraction is often harmful to a poem’s prospects, and can get in the way of expressing complex or familiar ideas in fresh terms. (When a workshop fellow tells you to avoid abstraction, this is probably what she means.) Yes, most of the time we should aspire to concrete images that lead our readers somewhere that they’ve never been before. But we should never ‘fear’ abstraction. Rather, we should cultivate a sense of how to use it sparingly, with love and attention.

Patrick Kavanagh argues for this interplay between the abstract and the concrete in his sonnet ‘The Hospital’. The poem is about love – not the love of other human beings, but the love we might feel for ‘the functional ward / Of a chest hospital’. A passionate plea to value the objects and places that give our lives meaning, even if they’re nothing much to look at, it celebrates ‘square cubicles… plain concrete, wash basins’. That word ‘concrete’, deployed here as a general noun, clearly has wider adjectival work to do; this is a celebration of concrete experience everywhere. In the sonnet’s sestet (i.e. final six lines) the register clicks into a more visionary gear:


This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.


After the purposely mundane, generalised nouns that have filled the poem up to that point (ward, cubicles, basins, lorry), this more complex image of the seat zeroes in on a particular square yard of a particular shed, and we can almost feel the sun beating on the back of our necks. Kavanagh dials up the particularity at exactly the right moment, demonstrating how a simple arrangement of common nouns can act as a mode of spiritual transport.

But ‘The Hospital’ doesn’t just revel in the concrete. Here’s a list of the poem’s supposedly abstract nouns: the common, the banal, adventure, pledge, mystery, claptrap, the passionate transitory – and rippling through so many lines, often modifying other abstractions, the poem’s central concern: love. Instead of relying on concrete images to plead their case alone, Kavanagh bolsters them, gently, within a conceptual framework. As far as he’s concerned, love and lorries don’t belong in separate worlds. In this, Kavanagh follows Dr Johnson, for whom the corporeal and the spiritual were happy bedfellows, equally at odds with that rogue impostor abstraction. Pound’s insistence on the ‘natural object’ has led to an impoverished sense of what those objects might include, as if it were only those available to the natural sciences – rocks, sparrows, nuclei and the like. It’s time for poets to reclaim Dr Johnson as the original Objectivist, by proceeding boldly with a lexicon that encompasses ‘joy’, ‘guilt’, ‘danger’ and ‘love’ – all valid words, all pregnant with creative purpose, and all needlessly traduced as abstractions. As Johnson’s third definition reminds us, the real sin of abstraction isn’t to use words that elude the five senses. It’s to lapse into ‘absence of mind, inattention’.

Prose Poets is a new series of short prose essays on poetics by poets. Each essay uses a word and definition excerpt from Samuel Johnson’s first edition of the English Dictionary as a spur towards an exploration of poetry, language and literary criticism, combining a casual, subjective treatment of the chosen theme with personal anecdotes and reflections.

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Image: Suprematist Composition (1916) by Kazimir Malevich

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons