Sweating the Small Stuff: Detail in Poetry

When you sit down to write a poem, it often feels like you have to convey some universal truth for your work to be worthwhile. It can be tempting to make your writing broad and expansive to ensure that as many people as possible can relate to it; when I started writing poetry, much of my work focused on abstract concepts, and the imagery I used was very general. As a result, most of my poems fell flat–I could feel that something was missing.

Work centered on broad, abstract ideas can be effective; poems like “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats or “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou come to mind. As I’ve written and read more and more poetry over time, however, I’ve found that often the poems that impact me the most aren’t the ones that attempt to tackle the deepest questions or issues, but ones that focus on brief moments or concrete objects and draw their emotional core from them.

Take “Meditation on a Grapefruit” by Craig Arnold, for instance. The poem zooms in on a single moment: a person preparing a grapefruit for breakfast, which Arnold documents with a reverent tone. Combining vivid, unconventional imagery with simile and metaphor in lines like a cloud of oil / misting out of its pinprick pores / clean and sharp as pepper allows readers who are familiar with the act Arnold describes to view it through a new lens while those who aren’t familiar still get a solid understanding. The only real abstraction comes in the final lines: a little emptiness / each year a little harder to live within / each year a little harder to live without, and it feels earned. It’s a culmination of the idea of living in the moment that’s been implicitly present throughout the poem. At the same time, this excerpt betrays a sense of discomfort with the fact that the speaker did so much to prepare the grapefruit only to eat it. It’s a confrontation with the void that so many feel. These layers of meaning can be gleaned from just a pair of lines because of the intimate imagery that sets them up.

In effect, Arnold appeals to a wide range of readers while writing about a specific experience; he uses particular details to grasp a universal idea. Using this technique isn’t the only way to write a good poem, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee one. Still, the poems that I keep coming back to, whether I’m reading for Levitate or on my own, are the ones that focus on small moments. It’s also a great way for new poets to find inspiration, too. When I started to focus my poetry on these images, I found that my work became easier for others to relate to. Even if this style of poetry doesn’t end up being right for you, trying it is a great way to broaden your horizons.

Caitlin Hubert, Lead Poetry Editor

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