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Less is More

 

Too much of a good thing is too much. Your best poetry is going to take shape when you figure out which details to select and which ones to leave out. You will always have a lot of choices when you write. And they may all sound great. But knowing what to leave out is just as important as knowing what to put in. 

 

If you have something you want to punctuate, then put it out there all by itself. Don't surround it with clutter and wonderful turns of phrase and beautiful words. Punctuation needs to be.....well, punctuated.

Let's say your significant other breaks up with you. You might go to a trusted friend and blurt out, "My boyfriend/girlfriend dumped me and I am ready TO DIE!!!" Then comes the torrent of words, wails, accusations and grief.

 

A good friend listens. But the point was made with the very first thing you told her. "My boyfriend/girlfriend dumped me."


Really, when you think of it, nothing more needs to be said.


If you want to make a point that your character is feeling bad, then going on and on about it will actually lessen the impact you want to create. 

Let's look at this:

 

 

In The Nursing Home

 

She is like a horse grazing

a hill pasture that someone makes

smaller by coming in every night

to pull the fences in and in.

 

She has stopped running wide loops,

stopped even the tight circles.

She drops her head to feed; grass

is dust, and the creekbed's dry.

 

Master, come with your light

halter. Come and bring her in.

 

             ----Jane Kenyon

 

 

This poem is about an elderly parent in a nursing home. Notice how the last two lines have been set apart by themselves. They are the punctuation, the period at the end of the sentence. They stand out because of how they are written and where they are placed. They also stand out because they are not surrounded by a lot of other things....feelings, comments, or remarks. The author showed us what she wanted to in a simple stanza. The painful request for the Master to come 'bring her in' stands alone.

 

It would have been easy to go and on with this poem, bemoaning loss, explaining the feelings of helplessness and sadness, but the author resisted. There are no theatrics, no hysterics, no statement of the obvious. In this case, less is more.

 

 

LESS AND A SLANT

 

Another thing you might want to experiment with. Consider less is more, consider letting your most important thought stand alone in the poem, and consider that sometimes, the best way to say what you want to say, is to say it at a slant.

 

What Does the Ocean Dream Of In Its Secret Heart?

Ocean dreams of sun and birds.

 

Ocean dreams of water,

         rain,

                and skyline.

 

Ocean dreams of summer,

     sunflowers,

               and fog.

 

I dream of you

and I

sitting

   in the middle of a field

between flowers.

 

 

             ---Sahana Rangooni

 

 

I love that!! The author doesn’t clumsily launch into telling his loved one that she loves him. She wants to tell him that, but that would be too plain, too bald. Instead, she comes at it with an inviting image, a provoking question that gets the reader's attention and draws us in. She describes things the ocean dreams of....specific images we can grasp and savor. The ocean is huge and dreams of important, varied, vast things. Right?

In contrast, she dreams of one simple thing. 

 

Sitting in a field of flowers with her loved one. 

 

By making his dream/visual sharply contrast to the ocean dream/visual, she makes her point very succinctly. That the world is large and things happen, that all around us there is motion and nature and movement, and in the midst of it all, she simply wants to sit with her loved one, making his dream complete. And that is effective poetry writing.

 

 

About Feelings

 

Note that both of these poems are about feelings. Ted Kooser, author of The Poetry Home Repair Manual, has a wonderful chapter devoted entirely to writing about feelings. 

 

He observes: "Some poets have gotten the idea that they can say things about their feelings in poems that most of us wouldn't feel right about saying at the dinner table, as if writing a poem gives you permission to talk about things you wouldn't talk about in public. But we need to keep in mind that writing a poem is public, too. Your reader is right there on the other side of the table, politely and patiently listening to you. How long do you dare go on about the misery your hemorrhoids are causing you? Avoid writing  a poem that feels motivated by self indulgence, a poem that puts the need of the poet above the needs of the reader....Self indulgent poetry almost always disappears in time, a victim of its own failure to engage the needs of and interests of others. It takes a grateful audience to keep a poem alive." 

 

Mary Oliver (The Poet's Handbook) writes: "Poems begin in experience, but poems are not in fact experience, nor even a necessarily exact reportage of an experience. They are imaginative constructs, and they do not exist to tell us about the poet or the poet's experience--they exist in order to be poems."

 

 

So keep that in mind too, those of you just starting down the poetry path. The notion that poets use poetry to complain, lament, and self-indulge about their own deeply personal stories is far from true.    A personal memory or feeling can be completely universal. As with any form of writing, it is all in the method of how you convey those feelings.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Jul. 29th, 2009 08:27 pm (UTC)
another compact poem that packs a wallop
Like the Kenyon poem, which I love and use frequently to show how extended metaphors can be effective(and titles, too!), I appreciate the Jack Gilbert poem linked below for the same reasons. First, the metaphor is incredibly apt and ambiguous w/o being obscure. Readers can apply it to their own life in a number of ways (particularly if one takes away the title), yet the detail, combined with the compacted rhythm and line breaks, make this small poem so effective. It's like a mummy bag flattened and rolled to fit in into its carrier, which never seems quite big enough to hold it, and from which the mummy bag is always threatening to burst, as the emotions are both contained and bursting from this poem. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=172182
-kk
bingham2
Jul. 29th, 2009 10:05 pm (UTC)
Re: another compact poem that packs a wallop
Interesting! I see what you are saying....

I tried to copy the poem and paste it below but the line breaks are all messed up and I'm not sure it's legal to do it anyway....so I'm leaving our readers to check out the link.

"Readers can apply it to their own life in a number of ways..." what a good quote to keep in mind. Though we may be writing about something deeply personal, the joy is, a well written poem can be shared by so many.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )