We live lives of emptiness.
That is to say, most of what matters in our lives is what’s missing in our lives. Take our homes, for instance. We do not live in the walls, the floors, the ceilings, but in the empty spaces they create. We drink from the part of the coffee mug that isn’t there, and spoon up stew from the hollow place inside a bowl. The most useful part of a saddle is the empty space between the fork and the cantle, followed closely by the emptiness surrounded by the stirrups. It’s the empty space inside a saddle bag that works, and the hole in a loop. The same principle applies to the page you’re looking at now—in layout and design it’s the “negative space”—the places not occupied by words or pictures—that defines the look, the character, of a page.
Ivan Doig makes the point beautifully in his outstanding novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair: “A boat is a hole in the water.”
What’s important, then, isn’t necessarily what’s there; it’s the holes, the emptiness, the spaces we create around and inside what’s there.
We could go on. But let’s get to the point.
The point is, when it comes to poetry, what you don’t say is often more important than what you do say. The empty places between the words, between the lines—what isn’t there—can say more than what is there.
And that, fellow poets, is a big part of what makes poetry poetry; what separates it from more mundane, less artful forms of writing. The reason is simple: poetry is not a spectator sport. When poetry works, really works, the reader (or listener) is actively involved in the poem. So, the best poems leave some empty spaces for the audience to fill, to let them make the poem their own. In a sense, those empty spaces, what you don’t say, can spur a deeper, more intense level of communication and connection with the audience.
I once heard from a presenter in a workshop—I don’t remember who, when, or where—say that every good poem is about two things: what the poem says (or seems to say) on the surface, and its deeper, underlying true meaning. The poet Richard Hugo means much the same thing, I believe, when he writes, in The Triggering Town, “A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or ‘causes’ the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing.”
So, how does a poet generate or discover the real subject, or meaning, of a poem? How do we realize what a poem really wants to say to the reader?
Simple. Don’t say it.
Simple, but not easy. Saying something by not saying it takes some doing. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do it. All poets, all writers for that matter, have at our disposal a long list of literary techniques and figures of speech that allow us to say more by saying less; to convey meaning by not saying, at least not directly, what we mean.
Here’s a list. You’ll recognize most of what’s here; some may require a trip to a textbook to appreciate (it certainly did for me). Some are more useful than others. And there are, of course, more. But this list is a good starting point:
Lists and textbooks are fine. But, being somewhat thickheaded, I learn best by example, by demonstration. Studying how accomplished poets accomplish a poem makes it easier for me to understand the poetic tools and techniques they employ; what those techniques do, and how they do it. And, I hope, how to use them in my own attempts at poetry.
So, here are some examples of how poets say what they mean by not coming right out and saying what they mean. Here’s how some fine poets challenge us as readers to participate in a poem, to realize, on our own, what the poem is really saying.
In this partial stanza, he tells of a barroom brawl he and his saddle pals participated in one inebriated evening:
So when some high-collared herrin’ jeered the garb that I was wearin’
’Twasn’t long till we had got where talkin’ ends,
And he et his ill-bred chat, with a sauce of derby hat,
While my merry pardners entertained his friends.
You’ll notice in this example of colorful euphemism that the poet doesn’t say “fight” or “brawl” or “donnybrook” or any other direct explanation or description of what happened. And yet, there’s no doubt about what went on. And, it seems to me, there’s no doubt that Clark painted a more descriptive picture by allowing—requiring—the reader to fill in the blanks.
Later, in the same poem, and in a more subtle fashion, Clark uses allusion to define the meaning of the poem. A meaning which is, I believe, considerably different from what casual readers, who do not catch the allusion, make of the poem.
Since old Jacob skinned his dad-in-law of six years’ crop of calves
And then hit the trail for Canaan in the night,
There has been a taste for battle ’mong the men that follow cattle
And a love of doin’ things that’s wild and strange,
And the warmth of Laban’s words when he missed his speckled herds
Still is useful in the language of the range.
Clark assumes his audience is familiar with the story, from the Book of Genesis, of Jacob’s sojourn with his Uncle’s family in Haran, their difficulties, and the resolution of the story. A resolution which gives the narrator of the poem pause concerning his—and his partners’—behavior.
Linda Hussa, a fine poet of more recent vintage, wraps up two whole heartfuls of romance in the three short lines that open her poem “Love Letters.” The second stanza only adds to the romance:
was written in the dust
on the bedside table.
The dawn and I blushed together
as your spurs
around the kitchen
as you started the fire.
I doubt a detailed description of the night’s activities could convey as much.
Out my window
A gatherin’ of clouds
Has hid the stars away
And turned them to flakes,
Falling gently gently falling
Onto the backs
Of the two bay mares.
Without the poet ever saying I should, I get a sense of longing, of loneliness, from the poem. And that’s in addition to the more obvious, but still unspoken, beauty in the scene.
“The Barn Cats” by Vess Quinlan contrasts the allure of life in the city with that of the farm; the complexity of adulthood with the simplicity of youth. With a simple rhetorical question, the poet opens for examination any number of assumptions, and leaves it to the reader to provide the answers. The poem says a lot between the lines while the words themselves say very little.
Here’s an early stanza from the short poem, included to set the stage for the final line of the final stanza:
How on your tenth birthday
You walked down to milk
With a staggering headache,
Sat on the one-legged stool
And pressed your forehead
Against her silken flank.
And now, years later,
You stare out a city window
And ask yourself if big money
Is really better than barn cats
And cow cured headaches.
Like Badger Clark, Bruce Kiskaddon sets a high bar for poetry of timeless quality. Between these opening and closing stanzas of “How a Cow Puncher Rode,” the poem’s narrator recounts a number of riding styles employed by cowboys he has known:
I have often been asked by the people I knowed,
To tell ’em the way that a cow puncher rode.
Now them cow hands they didn’t all ride just the same.
They rode almost every old style you could name.
There was some of them fellers set off to one side.
In fact I can’t tell how a cowboy did ride.
When I figger it out, there is only one guess.
They rode like they thought they could do it the best.
The poem, of course, makes it point clearly—there are as many ways to ride as there are riders, and they all work. It’s an idea with broader implications, as well. To put it in today’s warm, fuzzy language, it’s a poem about diversity and tolerance.
Kiskaddon’s poem doesn’t say so. At least not in so many words. But the meaning is there, between the words and the lines and the stanzas. Kiskaddon—like Clark and Hussa and Groethe and Quinlan and countless numbers of other poets and poems—leaves it to the reader to interpret the poem, to make the connection, to decode the deeper meaning.
On one level, every poem ought to say something to the reader. But outstanding poems exist on more than one level. There are underlying messages, subtle themes, veiled meanings, universal truths for the reader to discover. And it’s at those levels that poetry connects to the memory, the mind, the soul of readers.
So when you have something you believe worth saying in a poem, follow the lead of the finest poets and don’t say it. Instead, create an intriguing, interesting, involving poem that makes “a hole in the water,” then watch your audience float away on waves of meaning in the empty spaces between your words as they discover for themselves what you’re saying.