Concrete diction is built with words that allow the reader to create a mental picture of the author’s intention. These are usually sensory words that appeal to the reader’s ability to imaginatively see, hear, feel, taste, or smell. Sometimes we refer to these words as “imagery,” especially when we are talking about poetry.
Abstract diction makes use of words that do not create such a mental picture. While they may be informative and necessary to some kinds of writing, they are vague and do not create a memorable impression for the reader. To see the difference, check out the gorilla example at the link below. It’s a good, although a little gross, way to understand the difference between abstract and concrete.
Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—“ is a nice example of concrete diction or imagery. Look at the first stanza:
I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm –
While this poem can be interpreted in various ways, we can generally assume that Emily wants to express the idea of the quietness of the moment of death. While most people would simply say something like “Death is very quiet,” or, “In death there is no sound,” Dickinson creates a more vivid image.
The word “buzz,” which is an example of onomatopoeia, serves to emphasize how quiet the room is in death; it has to be quiet to hear a fly make that sound. Then the actual word “stillness” imparts more meaning than just “quiet.” It implies a physical state that affects everything in the room. Finally, the simile that compares the stillness to the space “Between the Heaves of Storm” gives the reader something real (a storm) to latch on to mentally.
Another good question to ponder would be: what does Dickinson mean by “Between the Heaves of Storm”?