WSC Philosophical Poetry Writing Workshop

WSC Philosophical Poetry Writing Workshop

Philosophical poetry starts with a statement of abstraction. Abstraction is the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events. In psychology, abstract thinking is considered higher-order thinking.

With a consistent, poetic context, the poet moves from the abstraction to a concrete image. This is a process of bringing poetic flow from poem beginning to end. Each line includes a non-literal as well as a literal concept or observable, material phenomenon.

Philosophical poetry uses of concrete imagery, comparisons, and metaphors to bring abstractions, qualia, non-tangible idea, such as ‘love’, to life. Through the metaphorical language, visuals, descriptive language, and sensory details act as the concrete imagery showing us what the abstractions look, smell, feel, sound, and/or taste like.

Without the imagery, the qualia (quality of something) can be ineffable. Ambiguous or vagueness are often characteristics of abstractions without imagery and metaphors to more literally illustrate meaning.

A poet who best exemplifies this style would be Kahlil Gibran. Each of his poems centers around one main abstraction. His style is a highly expressive use of metaphor and accessible imagery as a uniquely, repetitive motif.

The images, visuals, descriptive language, or sensory details bring the abstraction to life. All of the images selected to translate to the abstraction appeal to all of the primary senses; mainly sight, sound, taste and touch. Each image offers an emotional as well as an intellectual connection.


This is train of thought takes a dominant image which dictates the course and flow of the poem. In Howl, Ginsberg described this as the “monster (industrial civilization) of mental consciousness which preys on the lamb (youth, drug addicts, artists, mental health patients)”.

In contrast, Gibran introduces the abstract theme much more explicitly. For example, we have the abstractions blatantly delineated in each of the titles: ”On Love” or “On Freedom”. In doing so, the abstraction as opposed to the imagery, dictates the flow from which the metaphor is much more easily accessible/identifiable. 

Ginsberg’s stream of consciousness is a free verse with subtle, desired effect of creating a narrative and a lot of juxtaposition. Every line possesses this seed of the metaphor with a dominant image. All of the senses are fused to create a flow of emotions and thoughts–similes and symbolism are prevalent tools along with metaphors. The senses are highlighted which is interesting from a philosophical perspective. 

Philosopher David Hume argued that any mental content is originally constructed through impressions of perception with the senses. I would imagine that if he were to write poetry, he would narrate a stream of consciousness starting with a dominant image as perceived through the senses and that would feed into the symbolism or metaphor bringing the qualia/quality to life in the reader’s mind. 

Dramatizing the philosophical voice in each poem involves introducing specific images from the onset in order to establish metaphor and a subsequent extension of metaphor. 

Images create sensory connections that evolve into emotional connections.  Even if you employ language that is elevated, watch that it doesn’t sound/read cliché. Trust the imagery and extend your metaphors.

Comparing the structure of stream of consciousness poetry found in Ginsberg’s “Howl” with philosophical poetry style used by Gibran. 

In the philosophical style of poetry, the abstraction is stated explicitly and requires images, visuals and descriptive language to come to life. In contrast, the stream of consciousness style of poetry doesn’t state the abstraction directly. Instead, the poet used language to imply the meaning or abstraction in a more subtle way. Baudelaire, Burroughs, Kerouac, Dylan, and of course, Ginsberg, write in a flow without self-consciousness.

Instead of the abstraction being about feelings, the context is more consistently about the narrator’s perspective on society, culture, humanity, community, etc. Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” is focused on the ‘harsh footprint of American life.’ 

Something to ponder

With reference to three of Gibran’s poems, how does Gibran appeal to the reader’s senses?

In each of these poems, Gibran appeals to the reader’s senses.  He does so from a great reservoir of spiritual life, that which is universal and potent. With this, he then wraps the abstract concepts with his own unique images, visuals, descriptive language and sensory details.

His abstractions and more concrete contexts would be relatively known to most people.  But, it is his unique intertwining with imagery, comparisons and metaphors of his poetic motif that enhance the vitality of his poetry.

Translation of abstractions into concrete, sensual imagery

– each poem starts with abstraction
– Imagery, comparisons, metaphors
– the imagery offers the reader an emotional connection as well as an intellectual one
– assimilations, dissimilates, juxtapositions

On Giving

Emotions as abstractions

fear, pain, need, dread, greed, hypocrisy, joy                      

 mind: doubt, deserving, hypocrisy vs understanding, truth
                                    – soul: giving free-heartedly
                                    – spirit: God

Concrete imagery

~ drink from the orchards of life
~ birds flock in the pasture
~ offer the other to “fill his cup from your little stream”


~ vision: valley, myrtle, space, empty, earth, flocks, orchard, trees, pasture, ocean, men, earth, naked, valley, gifts
~ auditory: breathes, fragrance, speaks, 
~ tactile: possessions, hands, earth, cup, yoke, open-handed
~ taste: thirst, drink
~ olfactory: myrtle breathes its fragrance into space
~ instinct: “fear”, “well is full”

Repetitive Motif

~ giving is a natural, soulful act
~ inherent to the core of our being
~ with sincerity
~ walk the talk with integrity, without need of reciprocity
~ comparison of giving “to be in the world naked without the pride”
~ need it like a “thirst when your well is full, the thirst   that is unquenchable”
– pain is when the giver gives to seek joy, full of mindfulness of the virtue of giving
~the sincere giver is the nature’s “myrtle breathing its fragrance in space into yonder valley
– insincerity, hypocrisy
~ possessions buried selfishly like a “prudent dog burying    bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?”

Consistent poetic context

~ nature
~ giving is as natural to our being as our heart beats and the trees grow roots

~ namasté, Leah J. 🕊

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