Essays, Recent

Getting Out of the Way: The Quiet Poem

by D.S. Waldman | Contributing Writer

More and more in the time of COVID, confined as we all are to our homes and our tight orbits around them, I find myself encountering what I’m starting to think of as “quiet moments”—pausing to admire, for example, the neat stacks of laundry I just folded, how the late-day sun finds some of the folds, how it misses others—private moments during which time, itself, seems to slow or stop, allowing for a sustained recognition of some quotidian beauty—how, perfectly folded as they are, the stacks of laundry still possess this distinctly human teeter: you know, looking at them, that they won’t stay standing forever—and sometimes, as with my own meandering thoughts on the laundry, a sort of meditation on that beauty.

It’s not lost on me, of course, that this is what many great poems do—the slowing down of time, I mean, and the subsequent bloom of image and feeling and thought that speaks somehow, in ways identifiable and not, to a universal truth that, though usually difficult to parse or even name, is undeniable in its felt impact on the reader—that’s what many of my favorite poems do, anyway. 

Think of Whitman inviting the reader to look at a blade of grass—not at an open field, mind you, but just a single blade—and how, in that single blade of grass, he sees a whole universe, and his own place in the universe. To access the loftiest, most mystical of topics, Whitman narrows the poem’s scope to, and quiets the moment around, the smallest and most easily passed-over of worldly objects.

It’s this paradox, that one must narrow and simplify to make accessible the grandest themes and subjects, that interests me. And I think one could very well substitute, say, an event or memory for that blade of grass and achieve, ultimately, the same effect. It’s about the reader feeling present with the moment that the poem has created for us—“that quality,” says the late Stanley Plumly, in reference to the work of contemporary quiet poet, Jeffrey Harrison, “of being at one with the experience; no pushy hype or muscle-show, just the lean moment dealt with and, by implication, enlarged.” It’s a lovely paradox: by simplifying language, diction, detail, a poem can transcend the “lean moment” and brush up against an intimate and unshakable truth, something so essentially human, we all can feel it. Transcendence, in other words, through simplicity, through quietness.

Simple doesn’t mean easy, of course, or lacking in technical mastery. On the contrary; I think that, moving beneath the surface of any poem that can do this successfully, there’s an intricate choreography of language, syntax, sentence-length, line-length, and sound—which includes rhyme, meter, assonance, and alliteration—that makes the poem work. The engine, and its component parts, beneath the car’s hood.

To begin somewhere, here’s Carl Phillips’s everywhere-anthologized “White Dog”

First snow—I release her into it—
I know, released, she won’t come back.
This is different from letting what,

already, we count as lost go. It is nothing
like that. Also, it is not like wanting to learn what
losing a thing we love feels like. Oh yes:

I love her.
Released, she seems for a moment as if
some part of me that, almost,

I wouldn’t mind
understanding better, is that
not love? She seems a part of me,

and then she seems entirely like what she is:
a white dog,
less white suddenly, against the snow,

who won’t come back. I know that; and, knowing it,
I release her. It’s as if I release her
because I know.

What, in the most literal sense, happens in this poem? As far as I can tell, the speaker lets their dog outside—to play, maybe, or to use the bathroom—where, for the first time this winter, it’s snowing. As anyone who’s ever owned a dog can attest, it’s an exceptionally run-of-the-mill occurrence—letting the dog out—one that happens a handful of times every day, often reflexively and without much thought at all. Of course, the irony is that it’s thought or, more precisely, meditation that takes this poem from the lean moment to the transcendent, coaxing big, complex emotions from an especially quotidian act.

It’s worth noting, here, that the poem is in tercets, whose three-line stanzas create a sense of imbalance or excess compared to, say, a couplet (2-lines) or a quatrain (4-lines). Whereas couplets and quatrains, with their even-number of lines, tend to feel self-contained, as though we know where they’re going and when they will get there, as Robert Hass notes in A Little Book on Form, tercets often seem to spill into one another. The third line, uncoupled, helps facilitate this, the movement from one stanza to the next—a sort of tumbling movement, not entirely within our control, and not so unlike the mind’s moving from thought to thought. The tercet, in other words, is a fine formal choice for the meditative mode Phillips is working with here.     

We begin with an image, “First snow—I release her into it,” that, in seven words, gives us the who-what-where-when-why of the moment. The next line, “I know, released, she won’t come back,” pivots slightly towards thought, while still keeping a foot in the first line’s image. 

It’s in the third line, that uncoupled line of departure, where the meditation really takes off: “This is different from letting what, / already, we count as lost to go. It is nothing // like that.” The poem isn’t just about the dog anymore, nor is it about the speaker’s fear that the dog, once released, won’t return; what we’re talking about now—and thinking about, and feeling—is loss. We’ve slipped into this realm through what Gina Franco identifies as “apophatic writing,” i.e. an attempt to know something by way of identifying what we know it is not. Discovery, in other words, occurs through negation. Phrases like “This is different from. . .,” “It is nothing like that,” and “Also, it is not like wanting . . .” make clear the speaker’s effort to clarify, through negation, what exactly they’re thinking and feeling. As Robert Hass writes in the poem “A Talk at Sewanee,” “You have to write your way to knowing what you have to say.” Which is to say that sometimes, as in the case of “White Dog,” we must first identify, through writing, what we are not talking about before; eventually, we can know what we are really trying to say. Meanwhile, the reader’s along for the meandering trickle of a ride, moving closer, line by line, to that intimate and profound truth to which, by poem’s end, we arrive. “It’s as if I release her / because I know.” 

We are talking about the dog again, and we’re talking about so much more than the dog. It’s the meditation in this poem that enlarges the initial moment, adds feeling and complexity, and gifts the poem with resonance—that quality that makes a poem linger beyond your reading it, the way another person’s touch can linger long after they’ve removed their hand.

Like “White Dog,” Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Together” begins with an image that grounds us in a household ritual that’s taking place:               

In the steamer is the trout   
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.   
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,   
brothers, sister, my mother who will   
taste the sweetest meat of the head,   
holding it between her fingers   
deftly, the way my father did   
weeks ago. Then he lay down   
to sleep like a snow-covered road   
winding through pines older than him,   
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

The first half of the poem, with its simple, declarative language—“In the steamer is the trout,” “We shall eat it with rice for lunch”—creates a sort of narrative distance: Is this a family recipe? Did the ginger and onion come from their garden? We don’t know. And with only the lean facts of the moment (what’s being cooked and for whom), the emotional stakes, through the first seven lines, are pretty low—which sets us up nicely for the quiet and devastating turn at line 8, where the recognition comes that the speaker’s father has “laid down to sleep like a snow-covered road.” The revelation of his death comes through the clean, precise details of the moment—how the mother will be eating the sweet meat of the fish’s head, how she will hold it the way the speaker’s father used to, before he passed.      

The poem lacks stanza breaks, and the rhythm of its medium line-length, stichic form is a measured and balanced one—no tricky spacing or flashy line breaks—a rhythm that lulls the reader deeper into the moment, then ensnares them. There’s no escaping the poem’s turn, just as there was no escaping that final sleep for the speaker’s father.

Again, as in “White Dog,“ this poem’s speaker begins talking about one thing (“In the steamer is the trout”) and moves beyond it through inference and association, addressing at poem’s end the recent death of the speaker’s father. But whereas Phillips’ speaker names the poem’s greater theme directly (“Also, it is not like wanting to learn what / losing a thing we love feels like.”), Lee’s poem leans on the image (“a snow-covered road / winding through pines older than him”), to communicate the broader, more potent qualities of death and its counterpart, grief. 

Though these two poems differ from one another at the levels of language, tone and syntax, they follow one another closely in their patterning: each begins in the image and leaps, through inference and association, beyond that initial, quiet moment towards something, emotionally speaking, weightier.

I wonder, then, about the inverse of this equation, about a poem that takes a big, weighty moment and, through form and language, quiets it down to a more digestible-–but no less potent—bite. Natasha Tretheway’s “Incident” comes to mind:

We tell the story every year—
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn—
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns.
We darkened our rooms and lit hurricane lamps,
the wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.

It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.
When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.
The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil;
by morning the flames had all dimmed.

When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came.
Nothing really happened.
By morning all the flames had dimmed.
We tell the story every year.

What I ultimately find so interesting, looking at this poem next to the previous two, isn’t so much that it is simply another example of what I would consider to be a “quiet poem”—which is to say, a poem whose whisper draws you near, then, still whispering, drives a nail through your heart—but rather that its brand of quietness serves the poem so differently than does the quietness of the previous two. “White Dog” and “Eating Together” each begin in quiet, domestic moments that (through image, inference, and meditation) are magnified to the scope of such weighty themes as death and loss—and of course, the big, complex emotions that accompany such themes. “Incident,” on the other hand, takes a moment that, for anyone who’s never had to endure traumatic racial violence—namely, yes, white Americans—is so inconceivable and horrifying and fraught with centuries of ancestral and socio-historical pain, it would ordinarily be difficult to absorb through a poem. So, Tretheway quiets things down. 

“Incident” is a pantoum, which is to say it has a fixed pattern of repeating lines—repetition with variation, of course—wherein the second and fourth lines of any stanza return as the first and third lines of the subsequent stanza; the final stanza resurrects the unrepeated first and third lines of the first stanza (though, in reverse order), thus achieving a full circle, with (nearly) identical opening and closing lines. And indeed, there is a sense of circling-back in a pantoum, with each stanza looping back and drawing from the stanza before it, which feels, especially in “Incident,” much like the mind ruminating over, and trying to make sense of, a difficult or traumatic memory—in this case, a Klan-style cross burning. The speaker doesn’t have to say it explicitly, though, or ratchet up the drama with overly expressive language; the form tells us that this incident was a sinister one, the way it stumbles back over itself, as the mind might, with details of a past trauma.

The poem’s central moment, recounted through memory —“We tell the story every year”—is treated with quiet language—“A few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns”—that, somewhat counterintuitively, amplifies the drama by refusing to name it directly. It’s the wicks, for example, “trembling in their fonts of oil,” not the speaker trembling in their nightgown. And the cross was “trussed like a Christmas tree,” and not, say, “engulfed by flames.” Through elegantly suggestive language and image, we brush up against the thing—the cross burning, the Klansman, the fear— enough to know exactly what it is and what happened; but it’s what the speaker withholds, what they refuse to make explicit, that creates the sense of dread and ominousness that looms heavy just beneath the poem’s surface.

To recount a moment so weighty, so fraught with pain and fear and hatred, Tretheway employs muted, pared-down language that, in combination with formal repetition and a suggestive/oblique narrative style, creates dramatic tension and evokes a feeling of hauntedness. We know, after reading this poem, that we will carry it with us for a long time.

There, again, is that resonance, which I’m coming to see, after looking at these three poems together, is an essential quality of the quiet poem, whose long-lasting burn is rendered not by doing more, but by doing less. 

So, while this exploration began in the “quiet moment” and with poems that, beginning in quiet or ordinary places, reach for grander, more universally resonant themes and emotions, I’m taken, now, by the idea that quietness—of language, of image, of form—is really a tool that can mediate in both directions, from the quotidian to the transcendent and, conversely, from the transcendent to the quotidian—from the blade of grass to the cosmos, and from the cosmos to the blade of grass. Perhaps it’s a matter of the poet getting out of the way and allowing the “lean moment” to create the poem’s tension. Real life can sometimes be a better maker of poems than the “poet”—that part of us that feels compelled to assign meaning to a poem’s images and events and movements, which, paradoxically, often zaps the image or event or movement of its potency. Maybe the best we can do, in the end, is to make that leap, from real life to our poetic recounting of it, as short and unfettered as possible.

D.S. Waldman is a writer living on Kumeyaay land in San Diego, California, where he teaches creative writing. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Poetry Northwest, The Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, 32 Poems, New Letters, Diode, Poetry International, Los Angeles Review, and Sugar House Review. He holds a BA from Middlebury College and is currently enrolled in the MFA program at San Diego State University.

Cover image: “Marsh Grass” by Milne Ramsey (1907)