Thoughts on Tactile Image

So I’m reading After Babel, by George Steiner, and came across this:

Work done with patients who have recovered eyesight
after long periods of blindness or first acquire normal vision in mature age
does suggest that we only see completely and accurately what we have touched.

 After Babel 2nd ed. p. 131

I confess I am a little obsessed with the tactile image. We live in such a visual world, ever-increasingly-so, and when I read poetry or other writing that uses images created with a multiplicity of senses, I find it an insanely effective craft technique.

We experience the world in so many ways. Smell and taste, even sound, are generally considered far more evocative of memory than sight. To me, touch is a way that we constantly interact with the world, and we’re so rarely aware of it. So when a poet locates me as a reader in their specific emotional-experiential continuum by letting me know how something physically feels, it frequently gives an intensity, a vividness to the image that can startle.

It makes me think of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival,” which you can find in his books Copacetic and Neon Vernacular. He’s got two repeating lines that form the backbone of a complex, evolving metaphor through the poem:

bad luck isn’t red flowers
crushed under jackboots

The metaphor (or anti-metaphor, since he’s negating the comparison as a way of making the comparison) changes slightly throughout the poem, but that resonant image of the “red flowers / crushed under jackboots” is powerful in part because the reader can imagine, perhaps, both how it feels to be a red flower with a jackboot coming down on you, and how it feels to crush a flower under the heel of your boot. However you experience this image, the tactile, in-motion image of crushing is an evocative part of one’s understanding.

we only see
completely and accurately
what we have touched

Thanks, George. So here’s a useful exercise. If you have a poem (or other work) with a dominant image, and you’re feeling stuck with it, take a new page and start describing that image with the sense of touch, using as much detail as you can. Move on to other senses, if you wish.

Natalie Diaz talks about creating such a deep image of an apple that the reader can feel the crunch, can see the five-petaled cross-section of its core. If you’re looking for more books with intense, multi-dimensional imagery, her book When My Brother Was An Aztec is also phenomenal. Vievee Francis’s Horse in the Dark makes incredible use of other senses in bringing the reader into the poet’s world. (Well, basically every craft element of Horse in the Dark is on point, but more about that on another day.)

Another good exercise, if you’re in need of a prompt: try writing a poem that describes a single object vividly – without the use of sight.

What do you think? Do you actively work at building other senses into your poems? What poets and other writers you love do this well?

Note: please excuse the super-embryonic website. It will become much better written and more developed in the coming weeks. Thanks. 🙂