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Using Common Senses

April 7, 2009


Poems that deal with the five senses directly will inevitably be rich in imagery. By referencing senses, especially those often left out of poems, poets can invoke strong emotions through the way people universally perceive certain sounds, smells, and tastes.

In Song of Myself, Section II, Walt Whitman describes with ecstatic joy the sensory world around him:

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore
     and darkcolored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belched words of my voice.... words loosed
     to the eddies of the wind...
Now listen to Richard Hugo reading his poem "Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg," paying specific attention to how the five senses are used. Does anything surprise you? Listen again, noting how sparingly the poet uses specific colors in the poem—and how striking the images are when the senses are finally put to use: "the girl who serves your food / is slender and her red hair lights the wall."

For more poems that address the senses, take a look at David Lehman's "A Quick One Before I Go," Theodore Roethke's Pickle Belt," and Claribel Alegría's "Rain."

Write a poem about a common experience (walking home from school, taking off in an airplane, waiting to be served at a restaraunt), and pay particular attention to when and how you conjur each of the five senses. Remember the power of metaphor: attempt to describe the scene using senses that are not literally present in your memory, but which feel the most true. In revision, remove unnecessary description to emphasize the effect of your favorite lines.

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Tags: Walt Whitman, Richard Hugo, Theodore Roethke, Claribel Alegrķa, David Lehman, Senses

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