Conjuring Up Sensory Details

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The Daily Writer by Fred White

An excellent way to get your readers to experience vicariously the world you are creating with your poem or story is to include sensory details—descriptions that involve one or more of the five senses. Sensory details transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Memorable poems have been written about the taste of cold plums in the fridge (William Carlos Williams), dusting furniture and ironing (Julia Alvarez), even people sitting on a train (John Berryman). Emily Dickinson wrote dazzling poems about raindrops striking a rooftop, a bird devouring a worm, a hummingbird moving “like a rush of cochineal.” The delights and mysteries of existence can be discovered in the ripple of a pond or a film of dust on a table.

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Sensory details bring a moment to life because words alone can trigger the sensory experience. Sylvia Plath once wrote a poem (“Cut”) about slicing open her thumb while cutting up vegetables—and we can’t help but shudder when she describes the profusely bleeding “hinge of skin.” When Frank McCourt, in Angela’s Ashes, describes his flea-ridden mattress, we find ourselves scratching our arms and legs!

Sensory details enable readers to identify emotionally with the people and settings of your stories, so it’s important, as a writer, to heighten your sensory perceptions. Reacquaint yourself with familiar objects by concentrating on their sensory possibilities. Open a cupboard and heft a dinner plate, concentrating on the design, the texture; do the same with other items around the house. Our lives are surrounded by sensations, many of them dormant. Stimulating the senses through direct experience—and vicariously through language heightens our awareness, makes us feel more alive.

During the next few days compose short poems or prose paragraphs about the sights, sounds, and smells surrounding you. Challenge yourself to capture these sensory impressions in the most vivid language you can muster.