OK, OK. It’s been 12 days since I posted, and I pledged to post every week. Mea Culpa. I’m working on what has become a bigger idea for an essay than contains itself in a week-long time frame, and it’s the end of a semester and grades are due. Also the beginning of a new semester with all that attends that. You get it. But I did pledge. So here is an essay from a few years ago. I know that’s cheating. But it’s something. The essay I’m working on brings together a bunch of threads of thought about how men and women approach poetry differently, and it’s wrestling with me. Right now, it’s winning. Soon, I will prevail. Or die trying.
The Art of Concision
As a poet and a reader, I’ve always been drawn to the short poem. From the haiku and haibun of the Chinese masters to Jane Hirshfield’s “Pebbles” to James Moore’s recent work, I am struck again and again by the power that can be held in a few words, carefully chosen,
The British Romantic poet Robert Southey said, “It is with words as with sunbeams — the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” This is not to say that there isn’t a place for the long, rambling, and beautiful elegy or rant. I find, however, that the short poem is more likely to make me gasp in surprise as it pierces its arrow-like revelation into my mind and heart.
Take a poem like Margaret Atwood’s “You Fit Into Me:”
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
It’s all there in those sixteen words: the hope, the expectation of a symbiotic union, the disappointment, the anger, and the pain. No long explanation is needed, and if we had one, it would dilute the impact of the poem. This is often (but not always) the case. Too many details, too much personalization, get in the way of the clear-eyed observation. The poem is about the speaker’s experience, and not about it. Stripping it down to the raw emotion, sans details, allows the reader into the poem in a way that a highly specific narrative might not.
This kind of concision is something that I find is a struggle for many poets. If the topic is highly personal and emotional (as most good poetry is, I would argue), it is difficult to step back from the specificity of the event. A stumbling block for those poets writing autobiographically is their slavish devotion to “truth.” Because they are re-telling something that actually happened, or describing a person who actually lived or lives, they feel that leaving things out will be misleading or dishonest in some way. Therefore, they end up with poems that read more like stories than poems, or that are so specific to their divorce, or their grandmother, or their herb garden after a rain, that the reader cannot see his divorce, or her grandmother, or their own sparkling cilantro. It is when the poet can let go of the smaller, more earthbound truths that s/he can strip the poem down to its bare essentials and reach the larger, capital –T Truth that underlies the experience. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”
In the Atwood poem above, I can think about the ways some of my relationships progressed (or didn’t) and feel the universality of the feelings those eventual, and sometimes long-overdue break-ups engendered. If Atwood had told me that the “You” in this poem was an alcoholic trapeze artist who never came home without the scent of the bearded lady on his collar, I wouldn’t feel it in the same way, as I have not, as yet, been involved with an alcoholic trapeze artist with a penchant for the unnaturally hirsute. I could enjoy the poem as a curiosity, as a view into another’s life, but I would not have the head-nodding recognition that the poem gives me now. It is not that the Atwood poem is not specific. It’s what the poem is specific about: the feelings, not the details, the people not the setting, the timelessness, not the time.
Of course there are poems that go against every single idea that I posited in this article that I love and return to and wish I had written. But it is the short, concise observation that gets me every time.
(First published on The Writers’ Block at loft.org)