Hit and Run
Sometimes, the less said the better.
In fiction, the tension between showing, telling, and withholding is ever-present, but on balance the pressure tilts toward fleshing out the tale. Oh, there are the rules, guidelines, and canards people love to throw around on the Twitter; Elmore Leonard’s “leave out the stuff people don’t read,” for example. And we can’t forget the much beloved, “Kill your darlings,” the imprecation to prune the excess details.
Still, fiction is a landscape of detail. Immersion is often the goal, a sense of space and time so rich you lose yourself in it. Darlings may be killed, and the parts people don’t read left out, but still fiction is a world we move into. We inhabit it, smell its smells and feel its grit between our fingers. At their best, prose writers choose detail carefully and never provide more than necessary to evoke a moment in time and space. But still, there’s gonna be plenty.
Poets use detail differently. Though there are as many approaches to poetry as their are poets, most would probably agree the key is to distill things to the bare essence, to find the elemental core of the moment. In a novel, a crime scene may have a ratty old couch, a toppled table lamp, mold on the walls and the smell of vinegar in the air. The body is in the corner, bathed in weary yellow light. That same scene in a poem might be reduced to the lamp, coated with with jaundice.
To me, the difference is the way the story unfolds. In fiction, the tale id provided. I fill in the gaps between details, but those gaps come with a roadmap. When I read a poem, I tell the tale to myself. And each time I read it, the tale may be different, or have a different center. As such, the poet takes a risk the fiction writer doesn’t — the reader may tell themselves a tale the poet didn’t intend. Yet out of that risk can come so much reward.
Over at the 5-2, Bruce Harris offers a poem, “Hit and Run,” in which he would be hard pressed to say less, yet manages to evoke so much. Gerald So reads the poem below, though I encourage you to read it yourself. Words have a different texture when read aloud than we read off the page or screen, and experiencing a poem both ways expands the experience.
As spare as this poem is, the carefully chosen details and structure create a vivid image. But what’s striking to me is the way the image changes upon subsequent readings. Sometimes it’s a matter of focus. Perhaps I fix on the sparks and wander down a trail of arcing power lines and voltage run amok. Next time I might fix on a chosen word, how it feels in my mind’s ear, in my mouth as I speak it.
“…low-blows…” “…low-blows a po—” “…low-blows a pole…” I like it, yet it makes me uneasy.
The rest unwinds, again and again. The best poems (and stories) come back at you. You’re walking the dog and it hits you, “Cop shows teeth… cop shows teeth… cop shows teeth.” Meanings flow, and each time you ask yourself What did he mean? and each time you find a new answer.