Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 27, 2010

Balancing the “Huh?” and “Oh!” of Poetry

As my poetry manuscript gets shorter and slimmer, that strange goal, I’m not only careful that I don’t go overboard and end up where I began –with a blank page — but I weigh words. And punctuations. As I trim, I watch to make sure that not too much meaning disappears, but leave just enough to hint or provoke. I’m trying to be as careful as a jeweler chipping a precious stone, knowing the right angle can let in more light, but a wrong stroke will just make it a smaller rock. Or dust. My aim is to leave traces of people who are both different and somewhat the same from those any of us might know, though these are people from very long ago. I try to give information that isn’t bulky, and keep a stance like a good hostess in the doorway: inviting people in, making them feel welcome, but not showing them the whole house, every picture in my albums.

I hope to raise curiosity, invite readers to make their own interpretations, but not say, “Huh?” Leaving them guessing, sometimes, but not feeling clueless, uniformed, or disrespected. I’ve unhappily read poetry that’s left me merely puzzled. Sometimes I’ve read it again and said something like “aha,” but sometimes I’ve felt there wasn’t much beyond staged ambiguity. Or just an echo of other poetry that sounds mysterious, or, even worse, echoes of echoes. Anything that “just sounds like poetry” tends to make me raise my eyebrows. I like to guess, but I want to feel the poet left clever or astonishing clues. I want mystery, but also a sense that past it a shore of knowing can be found.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit:



  1. Those poor jewelers! At least we writers can put the words back if we need to. I have to remind myself of that when I hesitate to cut.

  2. Yes, we’re lucky to be able to stash away reams of guess-nots in invisible files. Jewelers must be either amazingly calm or anxiety-ridden. And those who sew: yikes, re the cutting. Thread can always be pulled out, but if you make a mistake with scissors, it’s expensive.

  3. Great comparison, Jeannine!
    Maybe some people who think they don’t like poetry have read too many “huh?” poems.

  4. Those obtuse poems that seem to have neither a window nor a door can be really off-putting, can’t they? There’s no real way in, and no way to pull much out, either, and I can’t stand those sorts of poems. (I have no patience for that, as it turns out, and seldom end up with any sort of “aha!” moment from them.)
    Your work, on the other hand, is lovely – very well-balanced, with enough light to see by, and enough space to wander about in without getting lost or off track.

  5. Spot on!

  6. I think you are so right, Tabatha. No one likes that feeling much.

  7. Thanks, Jenn!

  8. I’m glad you agree with me about the huh? factor, and I’m not surprised given the poems you love. And thank you so much for the elegantly phrased compliment on my work. Which feels something to aspire to, as I wrestle with words on what-comes-next.

  9. response
    that’s well phrased, Jeannine. I always find myself weighing this question when writing for different age groups. Of course, poetry for the very young, I think, needs to be very clear. I actually enjoy writing for the YA crowd because then one can be a little more obscure. Good stuff!

  10. “I like to guess, but I want to feel the poet left clever or astonishing clues.”
    I so agree! It’s true of fiction writing, too.
    Chicken Spaghetti

  11. Re: response
    Thanks for commenting. I agree for the very young one needs to be clear, but their imaginations are so big that offers lots of room, too. What’s that Shel Silverstein poem about kids talking to trees, taking it for granted, and others like it?
    So much is about respect. Don’t pound in meaning or lessons, but don’t be way too coy either is my aim.

  12. Thanks for commenting, Susan! (and agreeing, always sweet.)

  13. I was just grumping to myself over the “huh” thing this week. Seems I encounter more of these obtuse, abstract, lost-from-the-beginning poems wherever I turn. Yes, it MUST be the reason so many turn away from poetry, don’t give it a chance. A great post, beautifully and succintly put!

  14. Oh, I’m happy to grump with you, Jama. I recently put down a well-reviewed book I’d been looking forward to, because it seemed too full of these moments. I’m lucky to count on two of my three-person critique group who don’t hesitate to write “huh?” or put question marks on my poems, and I think I’ve become smart enough not to quibble — what, you don’t get it? — but cross out and try again. I don’t have to spell out, but not revel in being obtuse or mysterious-sounding, which is a temptation.

  15. Re: response
    Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: respect. Respect kids for their intelligence AND for their giant imaginations which will help them get something from the poem always (maybe not what we intended:) but something and that’s very worthwhile. I like your paradigm – don’t pound in meaning or lessons but don’t be way too coy either.

  16. Yes, avoiding Doh! moments on your side because you were overzealous in your gem shaping and Huh? moments on the reader’s side because they can’t fathom the meaning or intention, sound like excellent revision goals to me. Well said.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: