Updated: Apr 13, 2020
Let me guess, when you read the word noun you probably hear echoes from primary school ringing in your ear, a chorus of children reciting "nouns refer to a person, place, or thing." Who would have thought that the grammar and parts-of-speech learned in elementary school would become the most important tools at the poet's disposal? Nouns are a significant part of what makes poetry so memorable. I recommend every poet (and writer) fall madly in love with nouns because it will make your poetry stronger.
To a poem, nouns are so much more than that simply a person, place, or thing. Nouns are carriers of emotion. They ground a poem, they dock it and allow the reader to get on board. They deliver imagery--and not just visual imagery, nouns activate all of the senses. Nouns are the points of connection between poet and reader; they take a subjective concept that we all feel--like grief or happiness--and transform it into something tangible, something real.
There are many different types of nouns:
Of these types, there are two that the poet should know, and know well: concrete nous and abstract nouns.
1. Concrete Nouns
Concrete nouns are objects or physical things that exist in the real world and can be touched and perceived by the senses--like a kitten, a chickadee, snow, or a blanket. Concrete nouns are the poet's best friend.
2. Abstract Nouns
Abstract nouns refer to things we feel but cannot be touched. They do not exist tangibly in the real world, but they can be felt. Nouns of this category include concepts and ideas like sadness, grief, death, love, joy, or life.
So, what is the relationship between these two types of nouns?
Well, it's through concrete nouns that poets make abstract nouns felt. This is important because one of the goals of a poem is to make the reader feel and to move the reader emotionally or mentally. Apathetic poetry hides the details, the particulars, the painful truths, behind the broad shield of abstract nouns. They block the feeling. They deflect. They discourage emotional connection, vulnerability, and truth-telling--the stuff poems are made of. Concrete nouns on the other hand leave a lasting image and impression in the mind of the reader. They have longevity. Staying power. Readers can attach their emotions and impressions onto the concrete images and conjure them later. Thus, concrete nouns cast a spell-like quality on your poetry (especially when paired with alliteration, rhyme, and repetition) because they allow your reader to conjure the images hours, days, months, or years later.
Using Concrete Nouns in Poetry
Let me show you how concrete nouns can transform a poem by introducing you to two wonderful poems (and poets!).
One of my most-admired poets is Mary Oliver. She is so incredibly skilled at using concrete nouns to convey emotion. Let's look at her poem "The Kitten" from her book Devotions:
More amazed than anything I took the perfectly black stillborn kitten with the one large eye in the center of its small forehead from the house cat's bed and buried it in a field behind the house.
I suppose I could have given it to a museum, I could have called the local newspaper.
But instead I took it out into the field and opened the earth and put it back saying, it was real, saying, life is infinitely inventive, saying, what other amazements lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes,
I think I did right to go out alone and give it back peacefully, and cover the place with the reckless blossoms of weeds. (page 366)
This poem still strikes me as deeply as the first time I read it. It deals with the abstract concepts of death and amazement and awe and sorrow in such an evocative way. I still think of this kitten from time to time because of the poem's powerful imagery: the one eye, the cat bed, the burial, and the weeds marking the resting place.
Though the word sadness is never said, as a reader I feel it. I mourn this little being. I feel when I read it that I am there with her, shoveling the hole in the field and witnessing life's infinite amazements like a kitten with one eye, stillborn. Mary Oliver takes the time in her poetry to really look at the kitten, to say "it was real" and it deserves the kindness of a burial rather than dissection. This poem oozes love and reverence for life and nature. In this poem, everything is sacred. And sad. And beautiful. And brutal. Imagine if Mary Oliver had written something along the lines of: "I mourn my cat's stillborn, one-eyed kitten. I am amazed at it's mutation. Life's little sadnesses." Using only abstract nouns is far too vague to illicit emotion! Abstract nouns lack the vivid details that make her poem memorable, sacred, expansive, and immersive.
Let's look too at a poem from my favourite poet Lorna Crozier's book What the Soul Doesn't Want, called "When the Bones Get Cold:"
My husband sends me hummingbirds from his eyes. Only he and I know he's going blind. For him, I don't get old. His fingers, chapped from gardening, sand my skin, bring out the grain he cannot see. I am made beautiful by loss. The moon, too, grows more far-sighted. Its light compliments: the smallest birds don't disagree. There's a sweetness that comes from accepting what I am, not a mountain, not a river, not a tree. (page 13)
The imagery in this poem is marvelous and vivid. When I walk away from the poem I can still see the hummingbird, the grain of skin, chapped fingers, birds, mountains, rivers, and trees.
Though Lorna Crozier does not call every abstract concept she writes of by name, I notice many: grief, change, acceptance, love. She conveys change through sight, love through hummingbirds and the touch of skin, acceptance of identity through naming that she is not a mountain, river, or tree.
Her poetry is sacred and solid and brimming with feeling.
In poetry, how you say something is everything. Poems have to have nouns, and so make them count. They are capable of transforming poetry, of filling empty words with feeling. They are generators. So amp up your poetry with them! Go on.
Buy the books:
Crozier, Lorna. "What the Soul Doesn't Want." Freehand Books, 2017, pp. 13.
Oliver, Mary. "Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver." Penguin Press, 2017, pp. 366.