Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 6, 2012

The Bravery of Silence and White Space

I recently wrote a poem that I gave to my husband to read. As I expected, Peter had comments about this or that word choice, and some reservations about the tense I chose, but his most meaningful comment was his charge to tell a little less. The way he put it was to have confidence in the story within the poem, and to cut words that were explanatory. That is, get rid of my signposts that indicated: important news ahead! Pay attention! or In case you didn’t know…

Could I do without these markers? I hit delete here, and there, and still another there. I survived. I think the poem survived.

Writing poetry is full of these breath-catching deletions. How much can we take out and still make just enough sense? How much can we peel away, while leaving a sense of the moment that first engaged us? I’ve long thought of paring down as a core of writing poetry, but I hadn’t thought about it in terms of courage. It’s not a word I usually apply to myself, soft-spoken me who prefers watching from sidelines to scuffling in a field. Yet every phrase we dare to pull out, every word we pluck, does leave me a bit more light-headed. There’s no measure in this reckless business where we hope to leave something for readers to grab onto, but with spaces to do their own scrambling and make the words feel like their own. Sometimes you want to see skaters swinging their arms, the sunlight on the pond. And sometimes the sound of scraping skates will do.

Teaching Authors is hosting Poetry Friday today!



  1. Lovely, as always.

  2. Sarah, you are a true and loyal friend.

  3. You managed to frame the essence of the craft so beautifully with those last two lines…I shall have to remember them when I next summon up the courage to craft a poem.

  4. I really love the last two lines of this post — I have copied them into my quote notebook.

    • Thanks, Katya. I’m honored to have words in a quote notebook!

  5. Lovely post, Jeannine. I listen to the rhythm of the poem, and if cutting a word destroys that, I leave it in. Sometimes it takes courage to leave words that others might deem unnecessary, just to preserve the music. ♥

  6. I think this is a poem:

    “Sometimes you want to see skaters swinging their arms, the sunlight on the pond. And sometimes the sound of scraping skates will do.”

    • Thanks, Mary Lee. It was funny because those lines came to me more as a gift when I was wondering how to pull together the idea with which I began the entry.

  7. I see I am not the first to love the truth in those last two lines. Beautiful, Jeannine.

    • Thanks, Toby. I actually got to skate, though it might look more like hobbling, last week. I might be better with words than blades.

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