A Journal of Poetry and Kindred Prose

An Umbrella Stand


On Emotional Substance in Poetry

by C. E. Chaffin

Western Wind

Westron wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

—Anonymous, 15th Century British

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 

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.

The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last ‘Put out the Light’ was spoken.

—Robert Frost 

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

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumors;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,

Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of tomorrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Auden also expresses his grief by understatement, repeated:

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

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:

From Howl

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernaturally darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy& publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull…

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

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?

—Han-Shan, translated by Gary Snyder, 7th or 8th Century Chinese

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:

The Mailman

It is midnight.
He comes up the walk
and knocks at the door.
I rush to greet him.
He stands there weeping,
shaking a letter at me.
He tells me it contains
terrible personal news.
He falls to his knees.
“Forgive me! Forgive me!” he pleads.

I ask him inside.
He wipes his eyes.
His dark blue suit
is like an inkstain
on my crimson couch.
Helpless, nervous, small
he curls up like a ball
and sleeps while I compose
more letters to myself
in the same vein:

“You shall live
by inflicting pain.
You shall forgive.”

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.