Rules for Poets: 2 — Poetry is Poetry Because of What It Leaves Out

The title is a quote from an interview with Marvin Bell (here’s the complete interview).

Another way of saying this is that poetry is at its best when it exposes rather than resolves problems of meaning.

The following poem by Sylvia Plath raises many questions which the reader needs to ponder. When the “poem” is over, the reader’s work has just begun:


I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

(If you don’t know what the poem is about yet, read it again after reconsidering the first line.)

To begin with, the reader isn’t even sure what this poem is about. Eventually (probably no later than the phrase “a cow in calf”) the reader finally discerns what the subject is. There is pleasure in having “discovered” what’s going on without being told outright, even if the clues are pretty obvious. As in any riddle, the answer never appears in the poem (in this case the word “pregnant”).

Even after we know “what the poem is about,” we readers have a lot of work to do. How does Plath feel about her pregnancy? The images she chooses aren’t exactly flattering (an elephant, a ponderous house, a melon, a cow). And she does end the poem with the image of someone who’s boarded a train from which she can’t get off…

It is now up to the reader to start thinking about the poem. What is it saying about this pregnancy? About pregnancies in general? About motherhood? About choice? Does it make a difference that the poem was written in the early 1960’s when abortion was still illegal?

Even though we can piece together, more or less, how Plath feels (because she has left enough clues for us), she doesn’t spell it out. We have to dig into the metaphors to put together “what the poem means.” And different readers will find different meanings here. In fact, we will never “know ” what the poem means — we can only know what it means to each individual reader.

That is poetry’s greatest asset: it forces readers to create their own meaning. By having to do so, the reader actively participates in the experience of the poem instead of simply reading it passively.

This poem says too much:

A Note To My Son

Time is moving slowly,
The day is almost here.

The anxiety and joy is building up,
For my baby boy will soon appear.

I can’t wait to see your smiling face,
And hold your little hand.

Just then I’ll know deep inside
that you’re my little man.

I have so much to share with you
day after day.

And to you my son I will give my love
in each and every way.

(Author’s name withheld)

The poem says it all. There’s nothing for the reader to add. We read it and we are done. We don’t have to think about what the poem means or what it’s trying to say. The poet has done all the work for us.

Let us go back to William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheel Barrow, which I discussed in the previous rule:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The poem opens with a statement which is never explained. What exactly depends upon the red wheelbarrow? That is, indeed, the question. Tens of thousands of words have been written about that simple statement. And nobody has a definitive answer.

Poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

Now take a look at this poem by Seamus Heaney and notice what it doesn’t explain immediately:


Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

Beginning with the title, the poem leaves out quite a lot of information that the we readers have to supply for ourselves:

1. What is limbo? The poem doesn’t define it. If we don’t know, we need to look it up.

2. Where is Ballyshannon? Again, the poem doesn’t tell us and leaves it up to us to find out if we don’t know.

3. Why is a mother who kills her illegitimate child described in sympathetic terms? (she ducked him “tenderly”; her actions were “tearing her open”).

4. Why is God powerless to reach limbo and do anything about the souls there?

In unofficial Catholic doctrine, infants’ limbo is specifically set aside for children who die without being baptized. They can’t enter heaven since they haven’t been baptized, but they do not deserve to go to hell through no fault of their own. Thus they are “left in limbo” (that’s the origin of the phrase).

Even more significant to the ultimate “meaning” of this poem is Ballyshannon’s location. It lies in County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, right next to British-controlled Northern Ireland. Interestingly, while County Donegal is in Ulster Province, it is one of three counties in that province that are not part of Northern Ireland. And Northern Ireland, of course, has been consigned to British rule while the rest of the country is an independent republic.

Add this to the mix: Northern (British) Ireland is predominantly Protestant, while the (independent) Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic … but there is a large Catholic population in Northern Ireland whose express wish is to be free of British rule… and who have violently opposed such rule. (In the late 1960s, conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and involving British forces, erupted into three decades of violence in Northern Ireland which claimed over 3,000 lives and caused over 50,000 casualties. After the signing of the “Good Friday Agreement” in 1998, Northern Ireland became largely self-governing and the violence effectively ceased. “Limbo” is a poem in Heaney’s book Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966.)

Who may the woman killing her infant represent? Who may the infant himself represent? Who may a powerless God represent?

Where do the poem’s sympathies seem to lie?

Poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.


Rules for Poets: 1 — Poetry happens on the page

Rules for Poets: 3 — Poetry Is Poetry Not Because of What It Says But Because of How It Says It

Rules for Poets: 4 — Poetry is Language on Fire

Rules for Poets: 5 — Write at All Costs


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