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In Short: The art of intentionally failing to elaborate


I begin one of my poems called "Morsels" with, "In short," a single line, as would befit a poem about small things. The poem is about small things in life that have big meaning.


Poems do not have to fail to elaborate. I know one poet who in a long series of poems writes about her experiences of "Walking in Manhattan," and it is all about elaboration on her many jaunts through "the city that never sleeps." One might be inclined to call them prose poems, as these poems have a rhythm to them you would not normally see in prose. But they are full of detail.

For me, however, when I sit down to write a poem, I might have an enormous list of details in my head, but I often ask myself how I can present these details without actually elaborating on them. A poem for me searches for what lies beneath the details. Successfully uncovering these often enormous aspects of experience and condensing them into a few words presents a difficult challenge, and I miss the mark probably more often than not.


In "Remembering Last Year…," tandem paddling is a metaphor for romantic relationship, and that it was in "deep roiling waters," signifies a turbulent partnering in flux.

My poem about lost love and the grief that follows, "Remembering Last Year at Hood Canal," [Link] begins with:

This time last year we were paddling together

in deep roiling waters in Hood Canal.

The other person in "we" and I had been to our friends house on Hood Canal in Washington state, probably many times, and we had been out in a canoe there together. But by leaving out those details, I focus on the "paddling together" and the "deep roiling waters." If you have ever paddled in a canoe with another person, you know that it is a necessarily intimate experience. If you are not "in sync" and paying attention the canoe will not go where you want it to go. Or maybe you are both wanting it to go in different directions. If one person decides not to paddle, the other person will do all of the work.


In "Remembering Last Year…," tandem paddling is a metaphor for romantic relationship, and that it was in "deep roiling waters," signifies a turbulent partnering in flux. In the next long verse, I note:

We paddled well the two of us: a left, then a right.

If too much on the left a stroke or two on the right.

And then the poem descends from there into the realization that the relationship was over as he fades "into beyond."

Everyday a little farther

Less and less I know him.


And less and less I remember.


I tried to leave in enough details such as the name of the place, Hood Canal, to give it some substance. Most people who read the poem will not know Hood Canal, but canals in general are bodies of water deep enough and wide enough that a large ship can pass through. This creates the image of a small paddle-type boat on a very large and deep body of water, similar to where some relationships end up.


In short, such poems intentionally fail to elaborate, because the addition of unimportant details can detract from the underlying theme of a poem. Take for example the haiku form. No room for elaboration. Word choice paramount. Again, we know, from the many examples of ancient long-form poetry and the recent interest in prose poetry, that poetry to be poetry does not require an economy of words. But such detail-pruning can be a tool for a particular type of short form poem writing.


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