An Umbrella Stand
On Emotional Substance in Poetry
by C. E. Chaffin
E motion is the single most powerful device in art, the reason why this brief rhyme cuts to our hearts after more than five centuries. It is a scientific fact that emotion enhances memory. You are much more likely to remember a lecture injected with humor or pathos than you are a dry recitation of facts. The same applies to poetry in spades.
There are three basic approaches to achieving emotion in poetry: understatement, direct statement, and overstatement. The example above is direct statement, a sailor giving voice to his heart. But the permutations of emotion in any given poem are not so easily classified, especially in contemporary verse. Pure examples of one approach or the other are hard to find. Here’s a sonnet that uses dramatic understatement, which I rendered in italics, before its thundering climax:
Once by the Pacific
Notice how the understatement of the penultimate line sets up the power of the conclusion, which in comparison may be viewed as overstatement. More than ocean-water? It’s the end of the world! Notice also how the colloquial minimalism, “The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,” contributes to the emotional modulation, as if one were cruising along, saying, “Yes, that's reasonable, though a bit of a tautology”—before the apocalyptic overtakes the whole.
Without emotion there can be no effective substance, but emotion is perhaps the hardest part of substance to manage, for the simple reason that strong emotions give birth to art, but strong emotions do not make for good art unless harnessed to craft or “recollected in tranquility” as Wordsworth said: think “processed.”
To transfer strong feelings directly to the page is not poetry but therapy. The question for poetry is how to transmit feelings in such a way that another will be seduced into feeling them, or something like them. This requires modulation of effect, reducing and increasing the amplitude of emotion by turns, usually toward some climax.
In other words, to shout at the top of one’s lungs may initially seize an audience, but they will soon tune out if you don’t lower your voice in contrast. The importance of contrast and pacing can never be underestimated in the translation of emotion into words.
Here’s an example in which grief appropriates overstatement. I choose it because Auden is best known for understatement, but in his grief over Yeats even Auden is driven to overstatement, examples of which I have rendered in italics:
From In Memory of W.B. Yeats
Auden also expresses his grief by understatement, repeated:
What instruments we have agree
Who cares what the thermometer said? Yet it is just that kind of detail that a grieving person might fix upon—the weather, the thermometer. Neutral science agrees it “was a dark cold day.” And if science agrees, how much more the human heart, the heart that reaches for some paltry measure of its loss and clutches a thermometer?
Also, notice the purity of Auden’s direct statement:
He became his admirers.
For pure overstatement, successful hyperbole which escapes the comic, one can always turn to Ginsberg:
Here is an approach to grief beyond Auden’s measured use of overstatement, effecting tragedy by apotheosis, inflating the stature of his subject until it seems that Ginsberg grieves more over gods than men.
In both cases it is clear that for these poets direct statement is not enough to contain or express grief, unlike the anonymous lyric with which we began. To repeat, the main devices of emotion either inflate, deflate, or state directly from the heart. But the effective communication of feeling, in our culture, in a poem of any length, usually requires all three. Emotion in verse, as in life, must have peaks and valleys. Though “No Worst, There Is None” by Hopkins dwells on despair from the outset, even that dark poem yields differentials of the emotion of despair, ending in a resolution of sorts, “all / Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”
For direct statement, Classical Chinese poetry is perhaps the best:
From Cold Mountain Poems
Notice how close this is to our first example. Chinese and Japanese poetry are full of such honest assessment of self and one’s place in the universe, as was our sailor. But this is difficult to do well in English, whose rhetorical complexities exceed those of pictographic languages—not that it can’t be done, since it succeeds in translation.
As a last example of emotional substance, I have chosen a piece by Mark Strand, which incorporates all three approaches seamlessly:
Here the narrator is so matter-of-fact that the mailman seems hyperbolically absurd. And then we realize with a shock that the narrator’s persona has only split off the character of the mailman to hide from his own emotions—so overpowering that he must address letters to himself to make any sense of them (which is a very good trope for poetry!) Yet the poem ends with a direct statement, a realistic but redemptive desideratum that unites the two halves of the speaker’s psychology.
To reiterate: In order to communicate emotion effectively, a writer can downplay, exaggerate, or state directly. All tone in verse is some derivative of these three; sarcasm is often understatement (“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”), invective often hyperbole (“She was so fat he sold his sofa”), and so forth. Most modern verse, as the examples of Frost, Auden and Strand demonstrate, combine all three in varying proportions to achieve complex feelings.
Imagine if you were talking to a friend, or even listening to others’ conversations, how the pitch and volume and tone of a voice changes, as do facial expressions, body language, the number of gestures, all the tools actors have at their disposal that poets, at least on the page, do not. Excepting public readings, all we have is words.
More than once I have read a poem to an audience and either been surprised they did not laugh or that they did. For all my labor on paper I was still not sure of the effect. That there was some effect proves there was emotion, at least, though not necessarily that intended by the author.
A poem that makes you feel nothing, even by absolute design, is not a poem but an anti-poem in my judgment. If a poem does not move you it has failed you. That does not mean it has necessarily failed as a poem, because readers differ in sensibilities just as authors do. Even so, the practiced hand aims for the general region of the human heart, yet is happy if it only strikes a shin bone.
C. E. Chaffin is an Umbrella contributing editor. His selected poems, Unexpected Light, is just out from Dimenuendo Press.