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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Saying More Than You Say

At least a dozen times in offering poetry tips on this blog, I’ve used the word “clarity,” while  many dozens of times I’ve urged poets to “Be clear!” I stand by that advice. But….

A poem that gives up all of its secrets in one reading will not likely draw readers to read it again and again.

Telling all about something is not as effective as inviting others to join you in the experience. Telling all also takes away the mystery and desire to know more.

The idea is to be clear but say more than you’re actually saying. This paradox makes poetry writing more difficult yet more rewarding for both the poet and the reader.

Irony can help to ease the transition between clarity and ambiguity. For example:

Black vultures at rest –
surprisingly beautiful –
on the dead branches

The words make a clear enough picture, but who ever thought of a vulture as “beautiful”?  I certainly hadn’t until seeing them congregate on the bare arms of winter! The stark contrast – and irony – caught my attention enough to commemorate the unusual sight and invite you, too, to be watchful for unexpected moments.

Another way to say more than you say is by writing only the highlights of a story, leaving readers to wonder what this might mean to them or someone they know. For instance:

Pain level a ten –
She thought she had a slipped disc.
Chemo starts today.

Little brush strokes of haiku or, in these examples, senryu, automatically keep us from saying too much and giving readers no cause to pause and think. In this poem, for example, consider the opening pronoun as it relates to the last line.

We’re counting bird calls –
listening for a response.
Sometimes no one’s there.

Sometimes irony will work, sometimes an unexpected viewpoint or turn of events. Regardless, poems do well with open endings that leave readers inspired, challenged, or at least interested enough to think about something they might not have otherwise considered. If, for example, you’ve ever had an opportunity to see the odd and, often, "useless" items donated to less fortunate people, this poem might speak to you in a clear voice while saying more than it says.


Impoverished peoples give generously 
of their patience, graciously accepting  

assorted hand-me-downs: the sequined
vest, silk tie, high-priced pair of heels.

Soon this stiletto heel will bore holes
into the earth where roots can nestle.

This silk tie will fasten branches to hold
a thin blanket, freshening in the sun. This

designer vest will warm the old woman
in search of water and one lost daughter.

She will wear sequins as icons of honor.
She will bear symbols, shining like rain.

Mary Harwell Sayler from the new collection of previously published works, A Gathering of Poems, ©2020

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