Saturday, March 10, 2007

Withholding Information in Poetry

George Szirtes has posted a draft translation of a poem, Lullaby, by Hungarian poet András Imreh.

It’s a really good poem, full of lyrical lines and with an atmosphere of mystery perfect for its subject of sleeplessness and the thin film that separates dream-states from reality. I liked the ambiguous attitude towards the coming morning – its predictability, which still manages to sound fearsome, coming as it does “dead on our doorstep/ grey as a pigeon… with a dull thud as if wrapped/ in silver paper.” As long as dreaming continues, the dull morning is warded off (and yet, paradoxically, mornings seem to arrive faster if the night passes by in dreams than if we spend time tossing and turning, awake on a bed).

What got me thinking was the withholding of information. It’s only in the last stanza when it becomes clear that a fever is the reason for the difficulties in sleeping.

I wrote a poem a while back where I withheld information that the poem’s subject was a child. When the revelation came halfway through the poem, it was clear the child was in danger in a way an adult wouldn’t have been. People who saw the poem didn’t like this aspect. They wanted the child’s identity to be clear from the beginning.

At first I justified the strategy to myself. But I soon came to believe my critics were correct. If the main tension came from the subject being a child, why wait? Why not crank up the tension from the beginning, give the poem an immediate sense of threat and danger. So I made changes.

In Lullaby, the revelation of the fever comes in the final stanza. Why wait? Why does Imreh withhold the information until the final stanza? Maybe it’s just the natural rhythm of this poem, a gradual build-up of repetitive words, sounds and phrases, balanced out by a controlled progression of new information?

Clearly, it’s impossible to legislate on a question like this. If you withhold information until near the end of a poem, it’s because it feels right to do so, and the poem works. But I wonder why I sometimes feel cheated, even annoyed, when a poet hits me with previously withheld information in a final stanza? And why I feel neither cheated nor annoyed when I read Imreh’s poem?

Any thoughts on this more than welcome.

4 comments:

Julie Carter said...

Strangely, I don't think I've ever been annoyed at a poet withholding information. I read mysteries, so perhaps I have a certain expectation of surprise, or just an acceptance of it?

(My word verification is "okgodj." Woo! :D

Rob said...

Julie, sometimes I find problems where no problems exist and this might be a case in point.

G said...

I wonder how much of the readers' discomfort in your earlier poem came from the subject's being a child, rather than the placement of the revelation?

Just a thought. I haven't felt cheated yet, either.

Rob said...

Angie - you could be right.

I've been trying to think about the information issue.

When a revelation comes in a poem and feels surprising, but nevertheless inevitable or apt (in retrospect), then it works well.

But if the surprise feels tagged onto a poem rather than integral to it, or if once you've "got" the surprise you've "got" the poem and there's no point in reading it again, then it's like a bad novel when the author introduces a new character or new information in the final chapter as a way of resolving issues that should have been dealt with using existing characters and information.

Imreh's poem doesn't work like that. The fever actually complicates the issues, as it is a bit like a dream in itself, a semi-conscious state, and when I re-read the poem, it became even more interesting rather than less.