Advice For Poets 13: Making The Unfamiliar, Familiar

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects 
be as if they were not familiar.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley


The numeric accident of this creative writing advice article landing on number 13 seems like an excellent opportunity to discuss the side of poetry so well summed up in this quote from Percy Shelley – the uncanny, the creepy, the indefinable shivers up the spine you get from a really good metaphor or an unexpected linguistic twist.

In poetry, taking something that is familiar and cleverly subverting our expectations of it is a great way of sending chills up the spine of a reader – when the reader can’t quite work out why, you know you’ve successfully made the familiar unfamiliar. Shelley wasn’t just talking about the scary side of poetry – the uncanny can pop up in poetry of any kind, but for the purposes of this blog, we’re going to look at the darker side of unfamiliarity.

Those icky twins from The Shining. Eew.
Those icky twins from The Shining. Eew.

The Uncanny

First, lets take a (very) quick crash course into what we mean when we say ‘uncanny’. Although touched upon by several academics before him, it was really Freud who consolidated what we mean when we say ‘the uncanny’ in his 1919 essay of the same name. It is hugely reductive to describe Freud’s conclusions in a few sentences – his theories go into depth about not only what constitutes uncanniness, but WHY we are so disturbed or affected by it –  but for the purposes of this article, we have to keep it short!

It is generally used when we are describing something that is familiar and yet unfamiliar – identical twins who are very, very alike can incite a feeling of uncanniness, as can a doll who is very lifelike. These lifelike robots are a great example – they look real, but there’s something not right about them that’s sort of gross and scary. So when a poet uses imagery, language or context to re-represent a familiar object or concept to us, they’re invoking the uncanny.

Example: Donne

‘Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk’
– John Donne, ‘A Nocturnal On St Lucy’s Day’ 

Blink and you’ll miss the significance of this example. In Donne’s world, his readers were no strangers to death. There was an enduring idea, permeating social consciousness since the middle ages, that death started at the feet and moved up the the brain. The death of Lucy, the narrator’s love interest, is of such import that the language of the poem describes several familiar concepts of science and magic as being unnaturally reversed – death, for Lucy, shrank down to her feet, not the other way round.

In this case, the point of making the familiar appear unfamiliar is to EMPHASISE –  the reader realises how important she was and how deeply the narrator is affected by his loss, as even the laws of nature have been overthrown.

Let's get creepy. Why not. Photo by Flavia / CC BY
Let’s get creepy. Why not.
Photo by Flavia / CC BY

So How Do I Do It?

  • Metaphor
  • Concept – Donne took a familiar conception about death and reversed it
  • Character – subvert what we know
  • Duality – ‘same but different’/’familiar yet unfamiliar’ naturally lends itself to images of double-ness

There are loads more not listed here – the key to reversing our expectations and making the unfamiliar familiar is to use your imagination to show us something we’ve never seen before.

It’s NOT Just a Plot Twist

The death of Donne’s beloved Lucy is not a plot twist. The process of familiar-unfamiliar happens at the level of the metaphor – its language, not plot, that carries the unfamiliarity.

Keep it Subtle

 ‘AND THEN A GHOST POPPED OUT OF HER SOCK DRAWER AND SHE DIED’ is no going to send any shivers up your reader’s spines.

Focus instead on subverting just a few familiar metaphors or concepts. Perhaps you could concentrate on creating one or a few strong instances of uncanniness that stand out in the wider fabric of your poem. Another way to keep it subtle is to think of one great idea and stretch it out through the whole poem.

 Good luck with writing your chilling, uncanny poetry – and if you want to take a peep at some modern examples, subscribe to our blog, Twitter or Facebook and get updates on when The Wait, an upcoming charity poetry collection, is coming on sale this year.

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