Poetry and mathematics have much in common. They both traverse the abstraction ladder, up and down. Picture a long ladder leaning against a house, prongs dug into the lawn, top rung on the roof. Call it the abstraction ladder that pets and mathematicians scamper on daily, metaphorically. A poem that makes you stop and think, laugh, or weep needs to be re-read a few times and digested.
Such poems include specifics from the lowest rungs of the ladder and generalities from the highest rungs. Used together they provide rich comparisons, deep thoughts.
Consider: How is an ant like a eucalyptus tree?
They’re both alive. To reach that answer I had to climb way up the ladder carrying the ant in my mind. I didn’t go to the very top because there are 500 species of eucalyptus trees, all of which are alive, like the ant. But I still had to climb high carrying that ant.
Poets use metaphor and simile to jump around the levels of abstraction. Which rung does “love” sit on? Or “kiss”? “French kiss” is a few rungs down. It’s more specific. I use “ladder” as a metaphor for communicating our thought processes and emotions. Metaphors are marvelous if they work. “The Lord is my shepherd” is an original metaphor with the lord standing at the top of the ladder and sheep and me much lower on the rungs.
Albert Einstein won the Nobel prize in physics by using his imagination to create the formula E=MC2 which led eventually to the creation of atomic bombs. In 1905 he developed a theory of Brownian motion in terms of fluctuations in the number of molecular collisions with an object, providing further evidence that matter was composed of atoms. Obviously, he ran up and down the abstraction ladder. Of course, the word “ladder” is a metaphor for our thinking/feeling processes.
Poets are born, not made. There’s something compelling for the child who makes comparisons about what he sees and feels, even before he knows how to write. Early on he, or she, scampers up and down the abstraction ladder without knowing it. If you want to write poetry, you will. If you want to improve your writing, you will read and re-read your favorite poets and learn how to express your deepest thoughts by considering their use of the abstraction ladder. And, you join a poetry critique group where you learn how to make your poems clear and your titles appropriate as well as help other poets do the same. Besides, it’s a whole lot of fun.
I’ve belonged to the same poetry critique group for at least fifteen years. We rarely see each other socially, but we know each other intimately. They help me, especially with titles because a title establishes a mindset for the reader. Here’s an example of a recent poem of mine:

Strange sounding word for the widespread
human action expressing love,
or just the plain old fun of getting off
It’s a tough taboo we live with,
one we accept all our lives that varies
among nations and neighborhoods
Comedians get rich off our taboos,
kids whisper about sex, and
married couples fight about it
Parents worry about it,
and most of us past sixty
stop talking about it
Yet it’s the elephant
in the room
crying to get out
It’s such a shame that we feel
too ashamed to enjoy loving
the one we actually love
whether or not we feel
too slow, too old, bald in
the wrong place, or too fat
It’s sad we dare not
discuss this ever-present
permanent miracle in our lives
Here you can see varied levels of abstraction although there are no metaphors except the time worn elephant in the room. Re-read it and picture where each stanza would sit on the abstraction ladder. My poetry group helped me recently with this one. They approved of my title saying “coitus” is subtle but works because the reader will know the poem is about sex but “SEX” would not. Here’s another that’s on the back cover of my book called “Consider . . .”
She poured in a whole quart of love
before the man was warm,
didn’t save enough sugar
to sprinkle on anyone else.
She melted all the butter, too.
There wasn’t enough left
to grease the pan
let alone the kids
Or the skids.
She whipped up a frenzy
without separating
the juicy bits
from the facts.
She set her oven
too high,
let the edges burn,
the middle sigh.
Next life, she vowed,
she’d read the recipe
all the way through,
measure before she began.
The next life she came back
as a pile-driving man.
Now write your own similes and metaphors. Have fun climbing up and down your ladder.

Evelyn Cole

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