More or Less: On the micro realm of poetry

In “(Small) World Without End,” her essay on memoir in the Spring issue, Rebecca McClanahan offered the elegantly McClanahan-esque proposition, “maybe it takes a large mind to discuss one’s smallness largely.” In poems, too, the small matters largely. In poems, especially, silence speaks loudly. I knew a poet who boasted of having published the first collection of poems on the events of 9-11-01, as if he’d won a race. If asked beforehand, I would have advised, Proceed with caution. Big agendas—whether in reader or poet—can distort the true nature of poetry, turn it into something superficial, a reflective surface rather than a deep current.

My theme is smallness. My argument is, whatever the size of the poem, the realm of poetry is implacably micro. It’s about being on the hidden side of the rabbit hole poets happily fall through to a place where dimensions shift and can become their opposite. (Time has been known to stop there.) If you Google the familiar phrase, “less is more,” you will learn what I had forgotten—that its first known author was not the influential Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, but the Victorian poet Robert Browning. (Now you don’t have to Google it.) In poems, the smallest thing can be the largest thing. In his 1855 poem, “Andrea del Sarto,” Browning speaks in the voice of that Renaissance painter addressing his estranged wife, cajoling her to remain his model, to respect him for his art, as she did when they first met, if not as a betrayed husband. He lectures, begs, upbraids her, and, at the same time, critiques the art of painting, all the while revealing his insecurity and injured pride:

…you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia…

This passage is made of trivial details, the kind with not much meaning to anyone outside the relationship. Yet just calling his wife’s name is, in context, a gesture encompassing desire, defiance, and despair. The nugget of aesthetic prescription endures.

One of my favorite examples of the lyric micro (as opposed to micro lyric) is Yeats’ “A Deep-Sworn Vow:”

Others because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
Yet always when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.

Here is compressed a world of personal drama, the sense of a life lived under a continuing burden of loss, in one carefully structured, six line declarative sentence. And the structure is all. The meaning is complicated and enriched by its series of subordinate clauses: Others because, Yet always, When, Or when, Suddenly. There’s a story in the very syntax. The small frame allows each ordinary word a special resonance: always implies the long persistence of a certain kind of pain, while the doubling of the metaphoric face of death with the personal your face carries unbearable, if unstated, emotional import. The noun friends reads as darkly ironic understatement. The verb clamber suggests (and sounds like) the effort it takes for the speaker to achieve nightly rest.

Emily Dickinson, Linda Pastan and Jane Hirshfield are among many women poets who excel at micro moves. But I’ll offer Phillip Larkin’s “The Mower” as an example of the way such moves can turn the ordinary into the unforgettable:

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

The opening sets an ordinary scene in a voice of matter-of-fact description. What’s at stake grows with each stanza. The first is charged with a succession of key verbs: stalled, kneeling, jammed, Killed. The second transforms these harshly physical facts to a probing of values: mauled, unobtrusive, Unmendably. A suburban lawn becomes a site of violence and responsibility beyond reparation. Then the third elevates the speaker to an almost sacramental role. Priestly, but without solace, he recasts the brute physicality of the opening in ritualistic terms, enlarging the small animal death with the knowledge of human time, human ending (“always the same”). The five line final sentence ends in an ominously foreshortened two-line stanza. Even punctuation participates in meaning. The stanzas cascade from end-stopped, to paused, to overflowing enjambment. In the concluding stanza, the blank space of the “missing” third line is a palpable absence. Time has shifted from the completed past, to a past made present, to a cautionary future: “While there is still time.” Two long “i” sounds (While, time) hold the sibilants (is, still) between them like teeth holding a hiss. The ending is a five-syllable prophecy.

What I’ve been discussing is not just lyric poetry, but something as basic as how experience is figured in language, why poetry is a necessary art. Poems at their best say things in a way not possible to say elsewhere. They keep language alive in its deepest life. I have looked at a dramatic monologue and a single sentence poem in order to sidestep the notion of poetry as a songlike thing that can be sweet or sour but doesn’t really matter. Larkin’s “The Mower” shows how powerful the small can be.

It might be good to remember a once well-known quote from William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” It’s an odd, uniquely personal poem (“poetry and beyond poetry,” Robert Lowell called it), running upwards of 1,000 lines, written near the end of a life dedicated both to poetry and to the practice of medicine among the forgotten poor. Where the voice in Browning’s monologue is a dramatic invention, Williams’ is a direct confession to his wife of a half-century, an attempt to re-win her love by pledging his, while trying to justify all that has kept him from full commitment to their marriage. The poem is so intimate that it’s almost eavesdropping to read it. It includes a passage that served, in a pre-Google era, as a touchstone of the inner life:


“What is found there” remains unnamed, but it’s not “the news.” And you must find it.

My favorite definition of poetry is that it’s a way of paying attention. Poets pay close attention to what otherwise does not matter enough to be noticed or remembered. In a way, poets save the small by attending to it. Poems are a disruption of business as usual. In our rush-rush culture, flooded with links to links to links, poems extend the now as a temporality not just emptying into the enormity of next, but filled with its own immediacy of sense impressions, memories, and associations whose worth need not be proven. We may dream of, even cling to, the largeness of the future as a source of achievement, hope and inspiration. But we live our lives in the accumulation of the present, the particular, the remembered, the lost, the longed for, the found. And that’s where poems live, the kind, anyway, that stick mysteriously and go deep, even without your realizing. The kind that, later, still mysteriously, might alter your sense of what life is. We all have, or should have, poems like this as invisible precious possessions.

Stan Sanvel Rubin’s fourth poetry collection, There. Here., will be published by Lost Horse Press in Fall 2013. His third full-length collection, Hidden Sequel (2005 Barrow Street Book Prize winner), was published in 2006, and was a Small Press Distribution best-seller. Other publications include Five Colors (2004), On the Coast (2002), Midnight (1985), and Lost (1981). He co-edited a collection of his interviews, The Post-Confessionals: Interviews with American Poets of the Eighties (1989), and his poems have appeared in such places as The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Carolina Quarterly, The Laurel Review, Mississippi Review, Poetry Northwest, Beloit Poetry Journal and the anthology Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets, published by Oregon State University Press. Poems are forthcoming in The Florida Review, Cimarron Review, The National Poetry Review, Great River Review, and Talking River Review. He also writes essay-reviews of poetry for Water-Stone Review. And to our great good fortune, he is the Program Director of the Rainier Writing Workshop!