Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a poem by Robert Frost, and one of the more famous poems in the English language. I would like to take a look at some of its interesting elements.

First, as in any analysis of a poem, it’s better to begin by looking at the poem in its entirety, and appreciating it as a whole (some would say you have to start by reading it at least twice, since you must first grasp the whole in order to appreciate the individual lines in light of the whole). Here it is:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Rhythm and Rhyme, and Acoustic Correspondence

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. It has chain-rhymed quatrains -a form that is known in Persian as a Rubaiyat. It’s difficult to pull off in English, because it strains linguistic resources. It is a demanding form -four rhyming lines spread across four quatrains and linking them together- and poor execution will result in rhymes that seem forced or obvious. Frost pulls it off well, with language that seems natural and appropriate.

The rhyme scheme looks like this:

A
A
B
A

B
B
C
B

C
C
D
C

D
D
D
D

That’s not the extent to which Frost is playing with sound. At a first pass, we might notice only the end-rhymes. But there are more interesting effects occurring here.

As I read the first stanza, the recurring /h/ in each line is deliberate, as is the recurring /w/, and the internal rhyme with /ill/ in lines 2 through 4. Each of these sounds establishes a subtle corrspondence, perhaps just below our conscious awareness. I map the sound correspondence in the following way, with ‘x’ representing “unused” syllables, acoustic effects bracketed with ‘/’ marks, and leaving the end rhymes as A and B:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

(The second syllable of the third line is bracketed because it creates a correspondence between two sounds in a single syllable.)

By the time we finish the third line, we have already heard a pair of /w/, a triplet of /h/, and a pair of /ill/. Here is the denouement of the first stanza: every single one of these sounds recurs in the final line, which is dense with acoustic correspondence, and thereby invested with the energy of the previous lines. Even if we don’t know why, we feel the line as powerful and satisfying.

I map the first stanza this way:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

x/w/h/w/ill/x/w/A

Visualized out this way, we can see why the line feels so powerful -it is loaded with correspondence to the previously established patterns, satisfying our subconscious urge to see those sound pairs recur. The final line effectively ties the whole stanza together, linking it through acoustic correspondence with nearly every syllable.

Sensory density and psychological fidelity

This is a powerful poem in terms of sensory density. We can feel the cold, the snow falling, the wind. We can hear the wind, the “sweep” of “downy flake”, the bells of the little horse. We can see the evening woods. The frozen lake. And so on. It is rich with sensory experiences. But for all its sensory density, the poem is remarkably internal, closely tracking the mental state of the speaker. It feels psychologically real.

It begins with the speaker wondering “whose woods these are”. There is a feeling of being lost, a feeling subtly accentuated by the inversion of the expected “whose woods are these” to “who woods these are”, which puts us slightly off-balance (as the speaker is). We then feel the movement of the speaker’s thought process -from being lost, to tentatively located- in the space of the first line, when we hear the words “I think I know”. The poem moves quickly, and we are swept up in the thought process of the speaker. Perhaps without our conscious awareness, the speaker’s thought process develops further, not explicitly, but implied by their perception of the woods: the woods are no longer “these” woods but “his woods” (the unknown man who lives in the village). The speaker becomes gradually more confident in a way that feels psychologically real.

Limitations on Human Beings, Finding Our Purpose

This is poem is largely about the perceptual limitations of thinking beings. (At a deeper level, it is about our inability to grasp the “truth” of existence in a grand sense). The first stanza embodies this theme, shifting between a feeling of being lost, then tentatively placed, then slightly more assuredly located in space; it enacts the struggle to find one’s place.

This theme is further reinforced as our attention is shifted to other characters. The unknown man who “will not see” what is happening, or the little horse who “must think it queer”. The speaker, the horse, and the unknown man are all presented in terms of their psychological limitations: what they cannot see, or cannot understand, or are struggling to know.

In the final stanza, we get the sense that the speaker will not keep his “promises”. He wants to sleep, but he has miles to go. The repetition of this final line suggests an ongoing task; the poem ends not with finality, but by propelling the speaker towards the “miles to go”, for which we have no suggestion of a resolution.

The speaker’s “sleep”, in this case, seems to represent death. His “promises” are those owed to his fellow beings, represented by the village outside of the woods. The never-ending task of a thinking being is to find their purpose among their fellow beings (as the speaker first begins by trying to find his place) and this task is not done until we’re dead. It is ultimately a poem about searching for meaning in life. But it is a search that can have no resolution.

This should not be interpreted as a depressing poem. Frost says the woods are “lovely, dark and deep”. The implication here is that our being lost in the dark woods of life, of trying to find our purpose, is actually a lovely thing.

On the topic of the darkness of this poem, it does enact suicidal thoughts; the speaker looks at the woods and wants to “sleep”. Some part of him wants death. But this isn’t the focal point of the poem, or its resolution. Ultimately, the speaker continues trudging on, because of “promises” owed to his fellow beings; he will continue searching for his purpose in the dark.

Oxford Comma

Let me make take this opportunity to make a plea for the Oxford comma. Consider this line from Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

Here, the absence of an Oxford comma means that this line should be read not as listing three qualities of the woods -“lovely”, “dark”, and “deep”- but rather, an entirely different meaning: the loveliness of the woods consists in their being “dark and deep”. And further, if we take this line metaphorically, Frost is saying that the loveliness of life consists in not knowing our purpose -that the beauty comes from our endless search to find meaning in the darkness. Alternatively, we might read this line as suggesting the loveliness offered by the sleep of death -dark and deep- and embodying the speaker’s suicidal thoughts. Or both at the same time. It is a powerful line.

However, if for some tragic reason we stopped using the Oxford comma, we wouldn’t know how to read this line, because we wouldn’t have a mark to distinguish these two possible readings (if the Oxford comma was optional, then we wouldn’t know whether the line simply had an omitted comma). English would lose some of its expressive capacity and would be, to that extent, broken.

The argument for dropping the Oxford comma seems to be that, in certain cases, it is obvious from the context that the items are meant to be read as a list (for example, “the three fruits were an apple, an orange and a banana”). This is a bad argument. We might just as well omit the period from sentences that close a paragraph. Besides, that usage looks jarring to people who respect the Oxford comma. We will understand your meaning, probably, but you also needlessly risk causing annoyance and giving the impression that you don’t care about language.

Don’t break English. Use the Oxford comma.

Santa Claus

Finally, just for fun, let us just consider that this poem might really just be about Santa Claus.

Who is this strange man who has stopped in someone else’s woods at night, on a snowy evening? What are all these promises he has to keep? Why so many miles to travel?

The “darkest evening of the year” would be the 21st of December. But perhaps Frost has taken some liberties here. “The fourth darkest evening of the year” doesn’t quite fit in the established meter, and isn’t quite as neat.

The harness bells evoke a reindeer, and the animal appears in a stanza rhyming on queer/near/year. Is “reindeer” being playfully implied by rhyme?

The opening stanza introduces our speaker, and it rhymes on know/though/snow. Playfully implying “ho-ho-ho” through rhyme?

Well, read the poem again for yourself and see if that interpretation makes any sense:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Final words

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked this post.

Use the Active Voice (Unless Passive is Better)

“Use the active voice.”

You’ve probably heard this advice before. It’s number 14 in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style -one of their “Elementary Principles of Composition”- and a commonly repeated bit of writing wisdom.

However, the active voice is not always preferable. The rule “use the active voice” doesn’t help us determine when it should be used, and slavish obedience to this rule will lead to ineffective usage. What we really need isn’t a rule to follow, but an understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the active and passive voice.

In this post, I want to look more closely at active and passive voice,with the goal of better understanding why you might want to use one instead of the other.

Learning Goals

Understand the difference between active and passive voice; identify active or passive voice; translate between active and passive voice; recognize strengths and weaknesses of active versus passive voice; choose active or passive voice based on the situation.

Active and Passive Voice

Active and passive voice is not a question of verb tense. Some people mistakenly believe that passive voice means to speak about things that have passed. But:

The dog eats the food

and

The dog ate the food

and

The dog was eating the food

are all in the active voice. Verb tense has nothing to do with it.

Active voice is determined by whether the subject of the sentence -in this case the dog- is performing the action. The dog is the subject, and the dog is performing the action of eating in all the above cases, so all are in the active voice.

However:

The food was eaten by the dog

is the passive voice. In this case, the food is the subject of the sentence, and the food is being acted on by the verb. The dog is the one doing the action, even though the food is the subject of the sentence. The food is passive. So the subject of the sentence is passive. So this sentence is in the passive voice.

You can often identify the passive voice from the presence of the word “by”.

Exercise: identifying passive and active voice

Which of the following are passive voice and which are active voice:

  1. The cats were fighting in the alley.

  2. Susie was bitten by the chihuahua.

  3. Her childhood home, her dolls, her drawings, were all destroyed by the blaze.

  4. It was found by Herbert et al that “take the stairs” work-initiatives had no measurable impact on the health of non-sedentary employees.

  5. He was a man of simple tastes.

  6. On the island, right where the map had said -twenty paces from the big rock- the treasure had been found, a few feet below the sand.

  7. The population had been decimated.

Exercise: translating active to passive, and assessing relative strengths and weaknesses of active and passive.

  1. For each of the 7 sentences above, translate the passive constructions to active constructions, and vice-versa.

  2. For each of the 7 translations you made, which version sounds better? Why?

Sometimes use passive voice?

Strunk and White advocate for use of the active voice, saying it “makes for more forcible writing”, “is usually more direct and vigorous”, and that the passive voice can be “less direct, less bold, and less concise”.

They do note, however, that passive voice is “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary”. For this point, they give a pair of examples:

The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed today.

and

Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The preferred voice in this case is not based on which is more “forcible” or “bold” or “concise” but rather on the topic of the paragraph. As Strunk and White note, the former would be chosen in a paragraph about the dramatists, and the latter would be chosen for a paragraph about the tastes of modern readers.

Strunk and White don’t discuss the conditions under which passive voice would be preferable. They conclude only by saying that getting into the habit of writing in the active voice “makes for forcible writing”. That may well be so. But the advantages offered by “forcible” writing could sometimes be outweighed by whatever advantages are offered by the passive voice -if only we knew what they were!

The advantage of Strunk and White -in this case, and in most of the others- is that the brevity and lack of nuance makes the advice easy to follow. Professors and teachers can assign Elements of Style to their students and expect them to actually read and follow it. Their pithy advice will make a bad writer passable, but it won’t make a passable writer good. If we really care about our writing, what we need is not an oversimplified set of rules (“use the active voice”) but to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various grammatical structures. Active voice and passive voice are tools suited for different applications, and we need to know how to use both of them.

Fortunately, there is a guide for this. It’s from a book that is better than Elements of Style in every respect except simplicity: “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style”, by Virgina Tufte. Rather than just listing rules to follow, Tufte gives examples of good sentences and examines how they work. Where Strunk and White have a one page exhortation to use the active voice, Tufte devotes eleven pages to effective usage of the passive voice.

Strengths of passive voice

Since the end of a sentence naturally feels more stressed, the passive voice can be used to add emphasis to a particular word or words by shifting them into the final position:

I was tormented by strange hallucinations.

-Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries

Here, the passive voice is being used to shift the primary stress to where the author wants it, on the hallucinations.

A similar example comes from E.B. White, notwithstanding his injunction against passive construction:

Her body, if concealed at all, is concealed by a water lily, a frond, a bit of moss, or by a sarong – which is a simple garment carrying the implicit promise that it will not long stay in place.

-E.B. White, The Second Tree from the Corner

Passive voice might sometimes be chosen to improve comprehensibility. Tufte provides this example of a passive construction, rewritten for comprehensibility:

The Buddhist version of interior arrangement, where one strives to create a particular atmosphere with aesthetic minimalism, with an eye for simplicity, affirms in my own imagination this process of thinking and writing.

And here, in its original active construction, it is difficult to follow:

In my own imagination, this process of thinking and writing is affirmed by the Buddhist vision of interior arrangement, where one strives to create a particular atmosphere with aesthetic minimalism, with an eye for simplicity.

Bell Hooks, Remembered Rapture

The passive voice can be used whenever the writer wants to avoid mention of agency. So:

My toddler broke your phone.

might become

Your phone was broken.

Generally, the passive voice can be used anytime the writer wants to omit an agent, whether we don’t want indicate the agent, or because we don’t know, or because we don’t want the reader’s focus taken by the agent. For example:

The monument was destroyed.

We could say this if we didn’t know how it was destroyed, whether it was it a person, or people, or a natural event. But we might also say such a thing if it didn’t matter how it was destroyed.

The passive voice can be used to impart a feeling of divine command or natural law. Since the agent is omitted, these sentences can give a sense that it is simply describing the way things are:

There are rules and there are laws; they are well made. It is forbidden to cross the great river and look upon the place of the Gods -this is most strictly forbidden… These things are forbidden -they have been forbidden since the beginning of time.

-Stephen Vincent Benét, By the Water of Babylon

Sometimes we don’t want the subject to feel active. Maybe we want them to feel weak, or helpless, or the victim of circumstances. In general, we may want to express their passivity. This is done with passive constructions:

She was pulled by the tide.

Or

They sailed and trailed and flew and raced and crawled and walked and were carried, finally, home.

-John Knowles, Indian Summer

Or, the example from Nabokov:

I was tormented by strange hallucinations.

-Validimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Congeries

More Examples

If I keep going through all the examples of Tufte, I’d risk just repeating everything she has to say on the matter. Instead, if you find that kind of discussion useful or interesting, I’d recommend just getting her book.

Practice Exercises

In these exercises we’ll practice making active constructions into passive constructions, in situations where it might be useful. The goal is to develop a sense of some other considerations a writer might make when deciding on a passive or active construction.

  1. Make the injunction more powerful by omitting the agent with a passive construction:

    • “Billy said we’re not supposed to walk on the grass.”

  1. Shift the subject to the terminal position of the sentence with a passive construction:

    • “Failing educational institutions and lack of employment opportunity have increased homelessness, drug addiction, and gang activity.”

  1. Make Billy into the passive subject of the rescue, by using a passive construction:

    • “The firefighters carried Billy from the apartment.”

  1. Make the passage more “academic” by omitting the agent with a passive construction:

    • “Our research team found that the Nocebo effect is positively correlated with religious conviction in supernatural evil.”

Additional Questions

  1. Were the translated versions better? Why or why not?
  2. Pick one of the advantages of passive voice. Come up with a pair of example sentences to demonstrate this strength.

Review

Passive voice and active voice are tools that are suited for different situations. A writer should know how to use both of them effectively. This requires practice with both, and reflecting on the effects each form has on the reader.

Active voice is generally more concise and more forceful. Passive voice has a number of uses: it is sometimes clearer; it is sometimes necessary, given the intended subject of the sentence; it can be used to shift the stress of the sentence; it can be used to omit the agent; it can complement the passivity of the subject; it can create rhetorical force.

There are other applications of the passive voice -and examples of usage- in Virginia Tufte’s book, “Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style”.

Yannis Ritsos, “Maybe, Someday”

“Maybe, Someday” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. Before we do any analysis, we should read the poem in its entirety:

“Maybe, Someday” by Yannis Ritsos (translated by Edmund Keeley):

I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.
But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?

Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,
so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone. And really,
there’s nothing over there where I pointed.

Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.

But I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you, he said,
because if you too don’t see, it will be as if I hadn’t –
I’ll insist at least on not seeing with your eyes –
and maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.

Tone

The tone is wistful. We sense loneliness and a desire for human connection. The poem ends with a slight glimmer of hope but a prevailing feeling of resignation, sadness, and doubt.

The IBM Watson tone analyzer confirms this tonal analysis (I’m not averse to automated analysis of poetry): According to Watson, Sadness is the only likely emotion -by a wide margin- and the language style is tentative.

Interpretation

I read this poem as expressing the author’s drive to write poetry, which is, for Ritsos, fundamentally about forging human connections. The action of the poem unfolds internally, dramatizing an interplay of emotions and competing impulses, as Ritsos’ urge to share his private vision runs up against the intractable divide that separates us from each other.

Ritsos uses a series of images to symbolize the inner turmoil of wanting to express the inexpressible, and of being painfully aware of the limitations of language and the gulf that divides us.

The “he” in the poem I take to be a stand-in for Ritsos, writing about himself in the third person.

Narrative Structure

The poem is a complete story with a three act structure. It tells the story of how Ritsos is driven to write poetry, but conflicted because of the impossibility of the task; He wants to express his vision, but he is acutely aware of the limitations of language.

Components of the narrative structure in “Maybe, Someday”:

  • Motivation: showing the “rose clouds”.
  • Conflict: “It’s night”. (So the rose clouds can’t be shared).
  • First plot-point: “I have no choice but to see with your eyes”. (Decision to give up).
  • Rising action: third stanza, as Ritsos’ negative emotions accumulate.
  • Climax: “wilted wildflowers”, echoing the “rose” from his original vision, and symbolizing its loss.
  • Second plot-point: “I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you.” (Decision to commit to showing the rose clouds).
  • Falling action and conclusion: “[…] maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.”

Detailed Analysis

When we hear the words “rose clouds” we might picture clouds in the sunrise taking on a pink hue. But Ritsos is not speaking literally. After all, it is night, so the rose clouds aren’t really there, and Ritsos admits as much: “there’s nothing over there where I pointed”. The rose clouds are a symbol for Ritsos’ private vision -something beautiful he has seen. The “rose” here stands for beauty, or at the very least something worth sharing, and may also stand for love; the “clouds” convey some combination of heaven, spirituality, nebulosity, or being beyond reach.

Ritsos has witnessed some sort of hidden, special, or unreachable beauty that he is compelled to express to someone that he cares about. The rose clouds could stand for the sublime, but they needn’t -they are something that he wants to share.

Ritsos goal is to share what he has seen:

“I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.”

But the person with whom he would like to share can’t see. Ritsos laments,

“But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?”

The darkness of night stands for the intractable divide that separates our distinct perceptions of the world, preventing us from seeing the world as others do. Preventing Ritsos, in this case, from sharing the rose clouds.

Ritsos would like to bridge that divide with his poetry. By the end of the poem, he will make a commitment to that endeavor. But not before he gives up. This occurs in the second stanza:

“Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,”

He confesses, “there’s nothing over there where I pointed”, thereby abandoning his vision. (And also reinforcing, in case it was not clear enough, that the vision he has seen exists in his own mind, not in the natural world). He has done this because he believes -at this moment in the poem- that abandoning his private vision will allow him to connect with other people, instead of distancing himself by living in his own private world:

“so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone.”

Ritsos implies that by giving up on his vision, he can be together with other people -not by connecting them to his private world, but instead by joining with them in the ordinary world of the “night”, without the rose clouds. In the third stanza, we see Ritsos’ emotional reaction to abandoning his vision. When he looks at the sky he sees:

Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.

There is a steady accumulation of emotional imagery imposed on the stars. Of course it is not the stars that feel this way, but Ritsos. A feeling of disappointment, hunger, sadness, and “wilting wildflowers”. Ritsos’ personification of the stars illustrates his disappointment at abandoning his vision. He is dissatisfied with life, unhappy, sees nothing worth singing about. The “wilted wildflowers”, the final image in this accumulation of symbolism, calls us back to the “rose” of the beginning. It is echoic of the central metaphor of the rose clouds; The thing wilting is his vision. This is the climax in a growing feeling of disappointment, sadness, and emotional hunger, all deriving from abandoning the rose clouds.

In reaction to his own emotional downturn of the third stanza -and to the wilting of the wildflowers- Ritsos commits, in the fourth stanza, to sharing his vision:

“I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you”.

He has made his commitment to share the rose clouds.

This poem is fundamentally about connecting with other people. It opens and closes with a desire to share something with another person. The vehicle for that sharing is poetry.

In the final stanza, Ritsos comes to a realization about loneliness: the connection he sought with other people in the second stanza (by abandoning the rose clouds) was a false one. Ritsos says,

“maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.”

To say “we will meet” is to imply that they have not yet met (and will not, until he successfully shows the rose clouds). The implication is that you cannot meet someone by abandoning your private vision, by pretending to see with their eyes. For two people to really meet, they must connect in the realm of deeper shared visions. In Ritsos’ terms, you must learn to show a rose cloud in the night. This is the aim of his poetry. To forge a bridge between people, so that we can share our disparate visions, and finally meet.

At the close of the poem, Ritsos is confined to a state of loneliness and separation from others. He is alone in his seeing; the “rose clouds” still exist in his vision alone. But he is committed at least to trying to share what he has seen, trying to show the rose clouds in the night. It could be that the task is impossible. After all: “It’s night – what can one see?” But Ritsos has not given up all hope. He thinks that it could possibly be done, “maybe, someday”.

Is it possible to share rose clouds in the night? Maybe, as readers of poetry, it’s up to us.

Final Words

I hope you liked this poetry analysis. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.

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In a Station of the Metro

In a Station of the Metro is an imagist poem by Ezra Pound published in 1913. The poem displays precise technical execution, like a finely tuned machine. But the elements are difficult to see at first, hidden behind a superficially simple structure. In this analysis, I want to focus mostly on the technical execution of the poem, and its use of expertly deployed acoustic effects to achieve the intended effect on the reader.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

First Impressions

The poem has an unmistakably somber tone, even though we may not, at a first pass, be able to say precisely why. The content of the poem seems to be just the description of a moment in a subway station, when the people appear to look (somehow) like petals stuck to a branch.

By comparing human beings to petals, Pound is suggesting something about the brevity of human life. This moment in the subway station is not just an observation about visual similarities (if it is even that); It is an existential moment that occurs in the subway station: a realization of the transitory nature of life. Pound’s poem works to enact the depth of that existential realization.

Brevity of experience is one of the key features of this poem. The entirety of the poem’s structure works to enact this momentariness, and the fleeting nature of experience. Pound deploys rhythmical, grammatical, semantic, and acoustic effects to freeze time at this exact moment in the subway. He builds a static moment in the mind of the reader.

Denotation, connotation, symbolism, etc.

I won’t spend too much time on connotation, symbolism, or etymological association. But I would like to point out a few things. “Apparition” is an odd word here. One of its senses is “spirit” or “ghost”, a meaning which imbues the poem with a sort of spiritual sentiment, and invokes the idea of death. It also means the appearance of something. But it feels also insubstantial and ephemeral; to call it an “apparition” suggests also that it could vanish at any moment.

The color “black” connotes death and darkness. The image of petals that have fallen similarly connotes death or the fleeting nature of life -the change of seasons, and in human terms, life and death. So the images all work together to suggest a feeling of life’s brevity.

All of the faces are equated with the petals, just as the petals are shown to have fallen from the tree, only to be stuck, for a moment, on a wet branch. The petals, being stuck to a wet branch, are understood to have adhered because of the moisture -a necessarily impermanent and fragile state. This again complements the momentariness of the experience.

As the petals are in the process of falling; we are in the process of dying. The comparison between ourselves and the petals invites us to reflect on our existence as transitory.

The poem is about a subway station. A subway is a fitting image for the transitory nature of life, representing, as it does, going from one place to another. The subway stop is a pause in the transition, as the petals on a tree branch are paused in transition. These images work in concert to support the same central theme of the poem: a brief pause in a transitory experience. All of the technical elements of the poem enact that theme.

Grammar

The poem has no verb. This complements the feeling of momentariness. To use a verb is to imply an action occurring over time, which would, in the mind of the reader, create the effect of passing time. Pound avoids the impression of passing time by removing all verbs.

Rhythm

Control of the reader’s focus in this poem is achieved largely by rhythmical effects. Pound has built an accentual-syllabic rhythm that freezes time just as the poem comes to a close. In order to feel the effects of rhythmical variation, the reader must first sense the established rhythm. This poem begins by establishing a fast rhythm, and then moving to a rhythm that grinds to a halt.

We can use scansion to analyze the rhythm. The rhythm of the first line scans like this:

uuu/uuu/uuu/

It is firmly established in the mind of the reader. And it is fast. When it slows down, we will really feel the contrast.

The rhythm of the second line scans like this:

/uu///

The break in rhythm draws attention to “petals”, making that word pop from the line. Over the next three syllables, we are eagerly awaiting the rhythm to be re-established. It comes, when expected, on “wet”. But the following two stressed syllables massively disrupt our rhythmic expectations.

The rhythm has ground to a halt, just as the syntax comes to a close with a period; there is a rhythmic freezing of the whole moment just as the meaning is established semantically. This effect on the reader could not have been achieved without perfect concert between syntactic arrangement and rhythmic arrangement.

Rhyme, assonance, consonance

Pound uses acoustic effects to similarly project the reader’s attention towards the close of the poem, where time freezes.

There is the rhyme on crowd/bough. There is the alliteration on black/bough. There is the consonance of the /k/ on crowd/black. All of these effects draw the reader’s ear towards the close of the poem, making us feel even more strongly the freezing of time that occurs at this moment.

There are also acoustic effects deployed to make the faces disappear into the crowd. The stressed syllables in the line occur within the words “apparition”, “faces”, and “crowd”. The soft fricatives and approximant of the first two stressed syllables create a subtle correspondence between “face” and “apparition”, whereas the dual plosives of “crowd” make that word emerge from the line. We subconsciously lose sight of the individual faces in place of the crowd, which takes our focus.

An internal rhyme is used to assist rhythm in the second line. Petals/wet provides a subtle boost to the rhythm, pushing us forwards into the final three syllables, and allowing us to feel the slowing of rhythm more acutely.

Pitch-profile

Tone is complemented subconsciously with a descending pitch-profile in both lines. In the first line, the pitch-profile is comprised of the vowels /ɪ/, /ei/, /aʊ/, creating a subtly-depressed tone on the first line, with a peak in the middle. The second line begins at a slightly lower tone than the first, and again creates a depressed-tone by way of a descending pitch-profile, with no peaks: /ɛ/, /ɛ/, /æ/, /aʊ/.

Both lines have descending pitch-profiles, creating an unmistakably somber tone, though we feel it more strongly in the second line, because of the clustered stresses. As with the rest of the technical elements of this poem, the pitch-profile is structured to point towards the end of the poem, reaching its lowest point on “bough”.

Conclusion

In a Station of the Metro is a masterpiece of precise technical execution that deploys rhythmic, syntactic, acoustic, and semantic effects to create the impression of a transitory moment frozen in time. The petals on the branch, and the subway stop itself, are both symbolic of the transitory nature of our lives. The poem enacts momentariness with its formal elements.

 

 

Description: Sensory Impressions

We want our scenes to be immersive and believable. But sometimes description feels flat and lifeless. A common weakness is not using sensory impressions effectively. Often, there is too much focus on the visual. We don’t just see the world -we experience it through smells, sounds, temperature, and many other senses (not just five). Writing should capture these other kinds of experiences.

It’s not just about using multiple senses -it’s also about choosing the right details to construct an immersive and psychologically convincing sensory experience.

In order to make our writing more immersive and believable, we should practice engaging multiple sensory modalities, and learn how we can effectively use various sensory details to construct vivid and immersive scenes.

This post is about developing the ability to use sense impressions and details effectively. There will be a few concepts discussed, and lots of exercises for practice.

Learning Goals

Understand the meaning and importance of sensory density; Develop range across sensory modalities, and awareness of options for increasing sensory density; Practice writing with high sensory density; Understand how distancing language reduces immersion; Practice avoiding distancing language; Understand salient details and telling details; practice using salient details and telling details.

Sensory Density

Sensory Density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. A passage that only has visual sense impressions has low sensory density. A passage that engages multiple sensory modalities has high sensory density.

I could describe a walk through part of the city by showing the reader discarded shoes hanging from power-lines, old payphones caked with grime, a boarded up house on the corner, potholes. You’re beginning to see what kind of a place this is. But it’s not immersive description -not as immersive as it could have been if I also mentioned urine fumes from the sidewalk, the hacking coughs of old men, clouds of cigarette smoke -things that impinge on different senses.

A common rule of thumb is to engage three different senses to make a scene feel real.

The following lines of poetry have a very high sensory density:

All through the night the dead

crunch pieces of ice from the moon. (Yannis Ritsos)

This line of surreal poetry, though not aiming to be believable, is vivid and evocative. Part of its strength comes from the density of sensory impressions. We have sight, sound, taste, temperature, passage of time, all engaged in the space of one sentence. It conveys a creepy sense of weary, dissatisfied restlessness, and maybe dread or existential angst. I don’t know what it looks like for the dead to crunch pieces of ice from the moon -and I’m not sure you could find pieces of moon-ice big enough to crunch, or how the dead might get those pieces, or how they would crunch them- but the surreal line comes to life because of the evocative sensory imagery.

Here is another example of high sensory density.

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde)

We can say that a passage conveys a sense impression to the extent that the reader is able to answer questions about the passage related to that sense. For the passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, we could test what was conveyed by asking such questions:

  • Could you say what temperature the wind was?

  • How frequently it was blowing?

  • The sound it made?

  • The smell(s)?

  • What the studio looked like inside?

  • What it looked like outside, through the open door?

The passage manages to paint a vivid picture across several senses (and all of that from one sentence that is, grammatically, just about the smell). That’s sensory density.

Exercise – Sense Modalities

There’s way more than five senses. The point of this exercise is practicing with senses we might not normally consider, in order to expand our range with different sensory experiences. Some of these exercises will require you to really flex your descriptive and creative muscles.

There’s a table below with a series of different senses listed in the left hand column. For each one, your job is to come up with a description that uses that sense (write out a chart like this on a sheet of paper). Use your imagination to come up with any scene, setting, action, or object you want to describe. Or use any of the following prompts: piece of fruit, visiting a planet, magic spell, meeting an alien, fist fight, explosion, losing consciousness, stepping through a portal, skiing, falling asleep on a couch.

For example, in the “sight” row, you might choose to describe an apple using sight. For the “temperature” row, you might describe a cup of coffee. Use only one sentence per description. The purpose of this exercise is just to expand awareness of available sensory modalities, and to practice making descriptions using these different senses.

sense modality description that uses that sense
sight
sound
smell
taste
touch
proprioception
temperature
balance
familiarity/recognition
chronoception
interoception (your choice)
electroception

Exercises: Sensory Density

The point of these exercises is to practice sensory density. For each of the following prompts, write a description that engages three(3) or more senses. The main goal of this exercise is to practice coming up with different sensory impressions for the same scene. It is up to you to rely on your creativity to fill in the sensory details.

Additional instructions:

  • 2 to 3 sentences in length per exercise
  • 3rd person, past tense
  • The POV character is your choice

Prompts: (for each one, use three or more senses!)

  1. Going to the dentist.
  2. Playing hockey outside.
  3. Trench warfare.
  4. Shopping at a large mall.
  5. Dumpster diving.
  6. Casting a magic spell.

Exercises: Sensory Density part 2 – specific challenges

For each of the following, render the given scene/action/object by using the specified sense(s). Some of these are super challenging. Some might require a little bit of research.

Additional instructions:

  • 4 to 6 sentences in length per exercise.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • When a specific sense is asked for, come up with a descriptive detail that makes that sense relevant. For example, if you are asked to use smell, you will have to invent some detail in your scene that can be smelled; if you are asked to use nociception, you will have to invent some reason why the POV character is in pain.

Exercises:

  1. Render: dumpster diving, from the POV of a blind raccoon, using touch, smell, taste, and sound. Don’t use vision.
  2. Render: hunting shrimp, from the POV of a narwhal, using any combination of senses, but including salinity detection.
  3. Render: being abducted by aliens, from the POV of a farmer, using any combination of senses, but including sense of gravity, proprioception, chronoception, balance, and interoception (your choice). Make it weird.
  4. Render: running from the police, from the POV of a burglar, using any combination of senses, but including nociception and cardioception.
  5. Render: sick on a rollercoaster, from the POV of someone who ate too much cotton candy, using any combination of senses, but including taste, smell, and at least three different forms of interoception.

 Salient Impressions

Salient impressions are the most powerful sensory impressions in a given scene or setting. They are the things that stand out to the viewpoint character.

Try to render salient sensory impressions for any scene or setting. Imagine yourself in place of the viewpoint character -or rely on a memory of something similar- and capture what draws your attention: in an outhouse, that might be the smell; in a subway, that might be the feeling of cramped bodies invading your personal space, or the jerk-and-stutter of the train while you search for something to hold for balance; if you step outside in winter, the salient impression might be the cold.

Because salient impressions are the ones that draw our attention, it makes sense for them to be included in your descriptions, not just because it helps render the scene, but because it increases psychological fidelity. Your prose will better match psychological reality if you focus on the sensory impressions that are more plausibly drawing the attention of the viewpoint character. And, conversely, immersion can be ruined by focusing on low-salience details when a high-salience detail is available (imagine reading a passage where the POV character is set on fire, and they describe the smell and the colours of the flame: immersion is guaranteed to be broken; the focus in this case should be on the heat and the pain, because of their salience).

Telling Details

The smell of flowers coming through an open window is a “telling detail”, because it also helps to illustrate a larger picture -we can picture the garden even though we are only given the scent.

Telling details are descriptions of smaller parts of the scene that help to paint a bigger picture. Unlike salient details, they are not necessarily the strongest sensory impressions. But telling details give an indication or suggestion of the larger scene, allowing the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. For example:

  • The ascending-and-descending pitch of a race-car’s engine as it whooshes by. This detail is just about the characteristic sound. But it helps render the larger scene. We can picture the race-car. Maybe we can also feel the wind.

  • A single pair of sneakers squeaking on the basketball court, and the rhythmic bouncing of the ball. Again, this detail is just about the sound. But we can imagine someone practicing basketball by themselves on an empty -probably indoor- basketball court. We can picture their motions. The sound gives an indication of a larger scene.

  • Broken bottles and cigarette butts littering an apartment hallway. I don’t need to explicitly tell you that this is a dirty and run-down apartment. The telling detail informs you of the larger scene. If I asked you whether any of the lights are broken or burnt out, your imagination can probably supply the answer.

A trick for rapidly establishing a scene is to use one broad description, just to situate the reader’s imagination, and then supplement that broad description with one telling detail. The formula is: broad description plus telling detail.

Dave Chappelle used this technique with comedic effect (successful comedians are master story-tellers). He wanted to describe a particularly bad ghetto. This is how he set the scene:

We pulled up to an old rickety building[…]

That’s the broad description. Then comes a telling detail (which Dave Chappelle calls one of “the familiar symptoms of a project”):

A [expletive] crackhead ran this way [skittering noise][…] And then another one jumped out a tree [skittering noise][…].

You could think of “telling details” as “familiar symptoms” if you prefer Dave Chappelle’s terminology. He continues the routine by adding additional telling details to further colour the scene:

I look out the window. Remember, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. […] I look out the window. There was a [expletive] baby standing on the corner. And the baby -the baby didn’t even look scared. He was just standing there.

It’s a funny picture, but it proves the point. When you want to describe a scene, give the broad description, and then colour it with “telling details” (or “familiar symptoms”).

Don’t over-describe. It is often better to let the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting. Give them a telling detail and let their mind fill in the blanks.

Exercises: Telling Details

Your goal with these exercises is to rapidly establish a scene by using one broad description, and one or two telling details. You are practicing coming up with evocative details. They should be small details that help paint a bigger picture. Try to create as vivid a scene as you can by using small, suggestive details that create an impression of the larger scene.

Additional instructions:

  • 1 to 2 sentences in length per exercise. Don’t cheat by using really long sentences. Part of the exercise is condensing your descriptions. Deliver a powerful punch by using telling details.
  • 3rd person, past tense.
  • POV character is up to you.

Exercises:

  1. Render: a medieval battlefield after a gruesome battle.
  2. Render: the lobby of a fancy hotel.
  3. Render: an island paradise.
  4. Render: a maniacal gang leader.
  5. Render: a bookish and nerdy university student.
  6. Render: a magical kingdom.
  7. Render: an evil kingdom of a dark lord.
  8. Render: a goblin with a heart of gold.
  9. Render: a prison with a bad reputation full of violent criminals.
  10. Render: the class clown.

Distancing Language (also called “filter words”)

Avoid using language like “he saw” or “she smelled” or “Billy heard” in your descriptions, and instead show the sensations directly. When you present a sensory impression by indicating that a particular character is the one sensing it, you place that character as a barrier between the reader and the experience. This distances the reader from the experience. This is called using “distancing language” or “filter words”. It makes the reader experience less immediate and less immersive.

When you are editing your prose, look for distancing language and get rid of it. When rendering a sensory detail, you don’t need to indicate which sense is being engaged, or who is doing the experiencing. I don’t need to say “the smell of urine fuming from the sidewalk” -by mentioning “urine fumes” the sense modality is implied; I don’t need to say “Billy smelled urine fumes” -if Billy is the point of view character, it is implicit that it is Billy who is experiencing those fumes. By indicating either of these things explicitly, you distance the reader from the experience, putting an additional layer between them and the experience.

Avoid distancing language whenever possible. Don’t say, “Billy saw a goat standing there.” Just show the goat. Leave Billy out of it.

 Exercises: Avoiding Distancing Language

Fix each of the following passages by eliminating the distancing language. They are not good passages, and they need some revision. For some of them, you will have to be creative and invent your own details about the scene (eliminating distancing language is not always a simple matter of cutting words). Feel free to add or delete words as necessary, or completely rework the passage (as long as the gist is the same). Your primary goal is to make the passage feel more immersive by eliminating distancing language -but that will sometimes require inventing details.

  1. Billy walked in to the barn. He could smell that the goat had left something for him.

  2. Gertrude jumped out of the plane. She felt the wind, and she saw the ground far below, but growing slowly larger.

  3. He felt a pull on his hand, like a magnet, sticking his hand to the rune-symbol on the wall.

  4. She walked outside. The temperature was very low, and the wind felt very cold on her face. (For this one, please also get rid of the word “very” both times it appears).

  5. X89’s cyber-sensors picked up the reading of an electromagnetic field. He could feel the buzzing of the field. The device must be nearby.

Review

Sensory density is the degree of compactness of different sensory modalities. Prose with a high sensory density will feel more real and immersive than prose with a low sensory density. A rule of thumb is to aim for three different senses.

Try to give salient sensory impressions. In addition to helping to render the scene, this increases psychological fidelity. Conversely, a passage that neglects a high-salience impression to focus on a low-salience one risks breaking reader immersion.

Avoid distancing language (filter words) like “he saw” or “she smelled” and instead show the sensations directly.

Use broad details to set the scene, and telling details to add colour to the scene. Don’t over-describe. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the scene based on your telling details.

In our exercises, we practiced eliminating distancing language, rewriting to increase sensory density, rendering a scene with high sensory density, using salient details, and using telling details.

Final Words

I hope you liked this post on sensory impressions. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.

This site is updated at least once a week with new content. Come back soon for more posts on writing craft or related topics.

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Upcoming Publication in 49th Parallels Anthology

My story “True North” will be appearing in the 49th Parallels anthology from Bundoran Press. Bundoran Press has a history of producing award-winning science fiction anthologies.

The 49th Parallels anthology features stories of alternative Canadian histories and futures – “what might have been – or what might yet be,” in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday. The anthology is scheduled for launch in October 2017, at Can-Con.

The editor of 49th Parallels is Hayden Trenholm, four-time novelist and Aurora Award winning short fiction writer and editor.

The 49th Parallels anthology is discussed in a CBC article:

How would have Canada’s population changed if WWII played out differently or if Quebec had voted to separate from the country? How could one small change alter the future of the nation — or maybe even the world?

Looking forward to the launch of 49th Parallels!