SunWinks! March 1, 2015: Abstract Poetry: The Medium is the Message.

Dear SunWinkers!

This is a lightly reworked reissue of my September, 2012 column for on the topic of Abstract and Cubist Poetry. I also urge you to read our recent SunWinks! columns on Edith Sitwell and Intrinsic Rhythm and Cubism as these three columns all encourage you to sharpen your sense of the sound, rhythm, and structure of your writing by putting aside considerations of meaning.

* * *

SunWinksLogoWell, we’re all done with modern poetry. I’ve exhausted every conceivable topic, every possible technique. There’s nothing left to talk about. Just go back through my previous columns and you’ll know everything there is to know about writing modern poetry.

Did I have you going for a second?

The fact is, there is no end to the invention, the creativity, and the variety of modern poetry and approaches to modern poetry. Think of how many stylistic genres and individual styles there are in modern painting, to name just one medium. Think for just a moment about the unique visions of Monet, Mondrian, Matisse, Miro, Grandma Moses, and M.C. Escher.

As I’ve said, and tried to demonstrate, poetry is much more than sentiment, short lines, and end rhymes. The techniques that can be used to communicate the very special, intimate truth that lives in the poetic imagination are as rich and variegated as the colors in the artist’s palette, or the harmonic colors in the music composer’s palette. I’m inviting you to go wild. Let loose. Be creative. Pull out all the stops. Put all the leftovers into the stew. Throw the paint onto the wall. Play the piano without the music—with your fists, even.

Today we’re going to look at Abstract Poetry and its close cousin, Cubist Poetry.

Abstract poetry is:

  1. intended to convey emotion rather than a moment in time, event, story or descriptive scene. Some might view it as nonsense.
  2. constructed at the discretion of the poet in length, stanza, meter and or rhyme.
  3. primarily attempting to communicate through sound and bizarre images.

More at:

Cubist poetry: Heterogeneous [unrelated] images and statements, presented in a seemingly disordered but considered fashion, so that together they build a coherent work.

Babette Deutsch [Poetry Handbook, A Dictionary of Terms; 4th ed., Harper, 2009] (Also, Deutsch’s definition of abstract poetry begins the excerpt there on the book’s Amazon page.)

Edith Sitwell. Painting by Roget Eliot Fry (1918).

Many of the abstract poems cited below may also be considered cubist poetry, especially the e.e. cummings and Gertrude Stein. For the purpose of this article, we will just treat Cubist poetry as a variety of Abstract poetry, and not belabor the distinction between the two genres any further than we already have.

Dame Edith Sitwell (Wikipedia) (Poetry Foundation) is generally cited as the modern pioneer of abstract poetry.

from Came the Great Popinjay

Came the great Popinjay
Smelling his nosegay:
In cages like grots
The birds sang gavottes.
‘Herodiade’s flea
Was named sweet Amanda,
She danced like a lady
From here to Uganda.
Oh, what a dance was there!
Long-haired, the candle
Salome-like tossed her hair
To a dance tune by Handel.’ . . .
Dance they still? Then came
Courtier Death,
Blew out the candle flame
With civet breath.

Also by Sitwell:

What The Goose-Girl Said To The Dean

Sitwell’s book-length poem collection and performance piece Façade (which can be read here) is credited with establishing the genre of Abstract Poetry. Please do follow the link and treat yourself to a couple more of these delightful confections.

More Examples:

Jabberwocky (Lewis Carroll)

…”Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”…

Carroll’s tour-de-force of nonsense just keeps coming up. He is so good at conveying his meaning through the sounds of the words he coins, you would swear they actually meant something.

Three by e.e. cummings:

Hist Whist

anyone lived in a pretty how town

in Just-/spring

Three by Gertrude Stein:

Susie Asado

If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso

Yet Dish

The Prompt

Read the examples linked to here, as many as you possibly can.

Write an abstract poem.


Start with automatic writing. Get a pencil and paper and write down whatever goes through your head without thinking about it or filtering it or judging it. In a previous phase of my writing life, many of my poems began with automatic writing. When you’ve done that for a few minutes, you may find the poem flowing out of you, or you may find you have written the poem already.

Start with an abstraction. Write a poem about that abstraction. Use surreal, unrelated images, use the sound of the words, but do not use images conventionally associated with that abstraction, and don’t worry about grammar or syntax. Example: Spring—evoke the emotions of spring without using flowers, birds, rain, etc.

More examples of abstractions: heat, betrayal, light, sacrifice, speed, dissonance, giddiness, recklessness, thirst, anger, transcendence, achievement, time, work, blue.


Find an abstract painting. Picasso, Miro, Mondrian, Chagall, Pollack, that sort of thing. Write a poem evoking the sense and feeling inspired by the painting, without referring to the painting or its visual elements in a literal fashion.



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© 2015 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Please share, reblog, link to, but do not copy or alter.



  1. Pingback: Gertrude Stein’s Mentoring – SunWinks! March 1, 2015: Abstract Poetry | Irina's Poetry Corner

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