One of the best ways for a poet to create a subtle effect is the use of understatement. Of course, this is the expressing of an idea with less emphasis or to a lesser degree than is the actual case. The opposite is hyperbole (extreme exaggeration). Understatement is employed for ironic effect in many cases. For example, look at this line by Jonathan Swift: “Last week I saw a woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.”
Like irony, understatement conveys a reality different from appearance or expectation. It can convey an unspoken power to a situation. Often, by using understatement, a poet can force the reader to focus on a situation’s key elements and their evocative possibilities. By toning down a descriptive passage (using fewer but better words and images), a magnitude of emotion and information can be more strongly sensed or felt by the reader.
Here is another example: A man comes home to find his wife being chased around the living room by a hockey-masked madman wielding an axe and the man asks, “Shall I fix my own dinner then, dear?”
Understatement can also be used to generate a more serious emotional effect. Here is a poem by Mark Halliday, one of our finest contemporary poets who teaches at Ohio University:
The family drove from Colorado to Pasadena
forChristmas, and Bev unwrapped two games
to give to the boys during the trip,
because she wanted the boys to be happy—
she brought out the games in a motel in Utah—
and thirty-two years later,
thirteen years after Bev’s death,
Hal for some reason remembers the motel in Utah
(while making a wry point about motels, or Utah, or Christmas)
and begins to speak of that evening—
and then at the phrase “to keep the boys happy”
he suddenly has to stop and look away.
The poem is almost deceptively simple. In fact, some might think it’s nothing more than chopped-up prose. But prose is usually used either to convey information or to develop plot and character. Look at the last image, where “he suddenly has to stop and look away.” Prose would have told you Hal started to cry, or told you more about this relationship. Instead, Halliday shows you just enough to let you imagine it yourself—that moment where someone feels his voice break, his tears become unstoppable—and for me, that hits right in the gut, where any good work of art should. This is achieved mainly through understatement. This is the stuff of poetry.
So, the next time you are writing a poem about a dramatic or emotionally charged situation, try to carefully set up the scene, using just the right balance of words and descriptions. Trust your reader to pick up on the clues and on what is left out. By not over-explaining, you can use understatement to great effect.
Address correspondence and poem submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org or Neil Carpathios, Shawnee State University, Dept. of English & Humanities, 940 Second Street, Portsmouth, OH 45662. (740-351-3478).