The scale of abstraction

The writing that interests readers in poems or prose is usually low on the scale of abstraction. It is writing that presents concrete details and avoids abstract generalities or commentary. Abstractions are necessary in some cases, but more often interesting writing avoids them. When the details are presented so that they remind readers of their senses and perceptions, they are more engaging. When the details are presented so that they evoke the memory of senses and perceptions and the importance of those details are obvious to a character or persona, they are even more engaging and interesting for readers.

Consider the following from Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry: “Instead of the abstraction nutriment, one might use such an image as ‘juicy cheeseburger on dark rye with dill pickle.’ What concrete images can you think of that might be used to stand for the following abstractions: exercise, amusement, wretchedness, locality, velocity, attraction, dryness, spiciness, agitation, deception, insufficiency, authority, success?”

Think about the following quotations as you work:

Elias Canetti . . . had declared that “Among the most sinister phenomena in intellectual history is the avoidance of the concrete.” He means that in ignoring what is the “closest and most concrete” of realities, we are endangering the future of humanity. When generals and politicians refer to the deaths of innocent civilians in wartime as “collateral damage,” they avoid concrete images of mangled bodies, obscuring the truth with abstraction. –John Fredrick Nims and David Mason

We think in generalities, but we live in detail. –Alfred North Whitehead

The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment. –Ezra Pound

Here is one example of moving down a scale of abstraction:


Men’s clothing

Formal men’s clothing


Suits that I’ve seen

Suits that I’ve worn

The suits I’ve worn that my father paid for

The suit that my father gave me that he bought when he was my age

The suit my father gave me that he wore to church and that I wore to clubs

The pale blue suit, almost white, that he gave me

The pale blue suit with one low button on the long tight jacket, fat linebacker shoulders, and thick cuffs on baggy trousers

The suit lined with smooth silk but mostly made of cheap, tough as burlap, cotton

The suit that smelled a little like worry, like smoke, like apple pollen

The suit she liked so much that she danced with me

The suit I wore while we kissed behind the building

The suit with Isaiah 74:3 handwritten in sharp letters on a card in the breast pocket


Write a similar example of your own.

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