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Over and Under: Approaches to Hyperbole and Understatement in Poetry

By: Amie Sharp


A few years ago, the global mega-hit Titanic was re-released in 3D. I like to think of that late 20th century film, with all its sweeping melodrama and grand cinematic spectacle, as a visual reference for the literary technique of hyperbole or overstatement, while certain films of the early 21st century such as Lost in Translation or Winter’s Bone, full of quiet texture and concealed moments, exist at the other end of the continuum: subtlety or understatement. Though we tend to think of subtlety and nuance as a hallmark of poetry itself as an art form, many of our greatest poets have made grand powerful statements; one approach is not intrinsically superior to the other, though a particular approach might serve a writer's aesthetic more fully. Often a variation in these approaches applied to poetry can make for a strong collection of poems even while a tendency toward one approach might become a hallmark of a poet's style, and we’ll see that the interplay or intersection of both approaches within a single poem makes for an especially intriguing work.


At times we’ll consider two subsets of each category in this presentation, which we’ll call tonal and thematic overstatement, contrasting tonal and thematic understatement. Tonal overstatement could include poetic techniques such as frequent and obvious alliteration, a multitude of metaphors, and possibly even pure rhyme, especially if the rhyme is emphasized and a conscious choice rather than a reflection of an era's expectations. Thematic overstatement could involve especially dramatic or extreme examples and a more pronounced climactic moment in a poem. Tonal understatement might include the use of assonance rather than pure rhyme, or a more unobtrusive rhyming technique in a natural voice, with enjambment (think Robert Browning or Robert Frost). Thematic understatement might give the poem a sense of “dancing” around a central event, using elision and allusion, undercutting a naturally climactic moment. We might suppose that many good poems have some element of thematic understatement—they leave some things unsaid—even if they are otherwise hyperbolic.


Here’s an example of both tonal and thematic overstatement:

Tony Hoagland

“America”

Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud says America is for him a maximum security prison whose walls

are made of Radio Shacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes where you can't tell the show from the commercials;

and as I contemplate how full of shit I think he is, he says that even when he's driving to the mall in his Isuzu

Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels

buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds of the thick satin quilt of America.

And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain, or whether he is just spin-doctoring a better grade,

and then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night, it was not blood but money

that gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—

he gasped, "Thank God—those Ben Franklins were clogging up my heart—

and so I perish happily, freed from that which kept me from my liberty—"

which is when I knew it was a dream, since my dad would never speak in rhymed couplets

and I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes and I think, "I am asleep in America too,

and I don't know how to wake myself either" and I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:

"I was listening to the cries of the past, when I should have been listening to the cries of the future"

but how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable or what kind of nightmare it might be

when each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you and you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river

even while others are drowning underneath you and you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

and yet it seems to be your own hand which turns the volume higher?

Hoagland’s poem uses both tonal and thematic overstatement, which is fitting since the poem examines American excess. The tonal overstatement consists of the poem’s construction as one long sentence, with repeated conjunctions (especially those “ands” feeling as if they’re piling on, drowning the reader with intense metaphors: "the thick satin quilt of America," "rivers of bright merchandise"). Thematically as well, the examples are extreme and intense—the student, who is one of many with “blue hair and a tongue stud,” the rap music that is compared to a “boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers.” These techniques make the poem instantly accessible and memorable to any resident of America.


However, even a poem as hyperbolic as this one nonetheless contains a bit of understatement: the humor, especially in that wonderful aside (“And this is the weird part”) helps to rein in the perception of excess a bit before focusing it toward the poem’s conclusion. The conversational tone, beginning in mid-stream (“Then one of the students”) helps to present the poem in a less portentous style. The speaker also is inclined to oppose this idea of the smothering imprisonment of contemporary American life twice (“And as I consider how to express . . . ” “whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade . . . ”) before realizing the truth of the student's observations and contributing his own experience. As this poem demonstrates, a multiplicity of exaggerated examples and enjambed lines are some effective ways to develop a hyperbolic feel, while some instances of self-deprecation can prevent a hyperbolic poem from collapsing under its own weight.


Where hyperbole can be effective in pointing out absurdity and partnering successfully with humor, understatement can be used to build an effective contrast or effectively convey a wry (or dry) narrative tone:


"Suicide of a Moderate Dictator"

Elizabeth Bishop


This is a day when truths will out, perhaps; leak from the dangling telephone earphones sapping the festooned switchboards' strength; fall from the windows, blow from off the sills, —the vague, slight unremarkable contents of emptying ash-trays; rub off on our fingers like ink from the un-proof-read newspapers, crocking the way the unfocused photographs of crooked faces do that soil our coats, our tropical-weight coats, like slapped-at moths.

Today's a day when those who work are idling. Those who played must work and hurry, too, to get it done, with little dignity or none. The newspapers are sold; the kiosk shutters crash down. But anyway, in the night the headlines wrote themselves, see, on the streets and sidewalks everywhere; a sediment's splashed even to the first floors of apartment houses.

This is a day that's beautiful as well, and warm and clear. At seven o'clock I saw the dogs being walked along the famous beach as usual, in a shiny gray-green dawn, leaving their paw prints draining in the wet. The line of breakers was steady and the pinkish, segmented rainbow steadily hung above it. At eight two little boys were flying kites.


This poem's subject has a more political bent than a typical Bishop poem, which is possibly one of the reasons it was never finished, though the literary executor of Bishop’s estate, Alice Methfessel, published Bishop’s uncollected poems in 2006. This poem does make for an interesting contrast to Hoagland’s “America,” however.

While this poem might take a bit longer to grasp, the lack of exclamation gives it that distinctive Bishop voice and helps the poem make an effectively understated point. Each stanza is self-contained, with many end-stopped lines that allow the reader to breathe. The subtle details really make the poem: the newspapers are “un-proof-read,” the dawn is “shiny gray-green.” The repetition or sense of refrain at the beginning of each stanza is an effective technique, bringing us back to the moment afresh each time. The speaker seems quite hesitant, ambivalent even; notice the “perhaps” that undercuts that first declarative statement "This is day when truths will out, perhaps." The "photographs" in the first stanza are of "crooked faces," but the poem shies away from either celebrating or mourning the suicide of Brazil's Getúlio Vargas. Like "America," this poem examines the actions and reactions of a collective citizenry. Each stanza offers a snapshot of life in the aftermath of cataclysmic national event, but notice the passivity and the focus on objects in Bishop's poem. The reader is always coming up a bit after the flurry of activity here: "the newspapers are sold," "the headlines wrote themselves."


The title, of course, helps tremendously with the poem's clarity. Bishop dances all around the event that led to the poem’s title—subtly detailing the aftereffects of the suicide rather than describing it directly. In some ways this could point to the event’s magnitude—it impacts every segment of society. But the third stanza brings in the first-person perspective and the simple and lovely details of life that continue "as usual": dogs being walked, children playing. Rather than a detailed and more obviously "poetic" description of the sunset (Mary Oliver has a poem called "Sunrise" that describes that event as an "unforgettable fury of light"), we're told, rather prosaically, that the day is "beautiful. . . and warm and clear." The simple declaration of the final line provides a marked contrast to the poem's title and illustrates the delicious tension understatement can bring out between a poem's underlying event and the way that event is presented.


Now we'll examine how these approaches can be used in poems with a more personal or intimate focus:


"Self-Pity’s Closet”

Michelle Boisseau

Depression, loneliness, anger, shame, envy,

appetite without hunger, unquenchable

thirst, secret open wounds, long parades

of punishments, resentment honed and glinting

in the sun, the wind driving a few leaves,

an empty bird call, the grass bent down, far off

a dog barking and barking, the skin sticky,

the crotch itchy, the tongue stinking, the eyes,

words thrust from the mouth like bottles off a bridge,

tangy molasses of disgust, dank memory

of backs, of eyebrows raised and cool expressions

after your vast and painful declarations,

subtle humiliations creeping up

like the smell of wet upholstery, dial tone

in the brain, the conviction that your friends

never really loved you, the certitude

you deserved no better, never have, stains

in the carpet, the faucet drilling the sink,

the nights raining spears of stars, the days bland

and blank as newspapers eaten slowly

in the bathtub, the clock, the piano,

heavy impatient books, slippery pens,

the radio, a bug bouncing against

the window: go away, make it all go away.

The self-deprecating title elevates this poem, turning a potential weakness to an advantage by conceding that the emotions will be overwrought—in this way the reader feels brought into the speaker's confidence and likely won over. Here again we have both tonal and thematic overstatement: the poem achieves its relentless feeling by piling clause after clause into one overwhelming sentence. A multiplicity of examples is crucial here (Walt Whitman frequently does this, as does Andrew Marvell most famously in "To His Coy Mistress"). This poem alternates between intense but familiar expressions of self-pity ("unquenchable thirst," "the certitude/you deserved no better, never have") and more unexpected images ("tangy molasses of disgust," "dial tone in the brain," "newspapers eaten slowly/in the bathtub"). For this technique to be successful these examples must be carefully chosen, but the poem should give the impression that the images are being brought up to the surface from an inexhaustible well. The poem builds to that last desperate, imploring line "make it all go away," effectively book-ending the title.


A poem that treats a personal subject in much more detached style:


"South"

Jack Gilbert

In the small towns along the river

nothing happens day after long day.

Summer weeks stalled forever,

and long marriages always the same.

Lives with only emergencies, births,

and fishing for excitement. Then a ship

comes out of the mist. Or comes around

the bend carefully one morning

in the rain, past the pines and shrubs.

Arrives on a hot fragrant night,

grandly, all lit up. Gone two days

later, leaving fury in its wake.

For Susan Crosby Lawrence Anderson

This twelve-line poem is understated both tonally and thematically. The lines are constructed in a loose tetrameter. The lack of specificity, the location denoted as nothing more than “South" (perhaps symbolizing where the dreams of the frustrated inhabitants reside), the frequent use of enjambment, and the similar sentence structures effectively portray the small-town monotony the poem seeks to illustrate. Each sentence in the last half of the poem elides the subject: “the ship.” The central event of the poem, the “fury” stirred in the residents by the ship’s arrival and departure, and the unfulfilled expectations and hopelessness that culminate in this sense of furious impotence are left unspoken. Notice how the poem builds to more evocative language near the end (“hot fragrant night,” “Grandly, all lit up,” “leaving fury in its wake”), but the poem only offers a briefly wry designation of this fury rather than offering a more detailed examination and allowing readers to experience it for themselves.


This poem might not have the same "wow" factor of a poem like "Self-Pity's Closet" or "America,” but what it does have is Gilbert’s indelible precision. A possible drawback for some readers is its relative lack of clarity, its abstraction, though the reader of Gilbert’s poems has gleaned many of the specifics of his life, such as his Pittsburgh childhood, love for Greece, and grief for his late wife Michiko. The dedication at the end of this poem lends a feeling of specificity, the idea that somehow the events in the poem are connected to the poet’s feelings toward this particular person, but the reader who is not aware of the significance of this connection might feel like an outsider. An appreciation for this type of poem seems to come more gradually, and then takes root.


Now for a poem that uses tonal and some thematic overstatement, while a deeper thematic understatement rests beneath the surface:


"A Lesson In Vengeance"

Sylvia Plath

In the dour ages

Of drafty cells and draftier castles,

Of dragons breathing without the frame of fables,

Saint and king unfisted obstruction's knuckles

By no miracle or majestic means,

But by such abuses

As smack of spite and the overscrupulous

Twisting of thumbscrews: one soul tied in sinews,

One white horse drowned, and all the unconquered pinnacles

Of God's city and Babylon's

Must wait, while here Suso's

Hand hones his tack and needles,

Scourging to sores his own red sluices

For the relish of heaven, relentless, dousing with prickles

Of horsehair and lice his horny loins;

While there irate Cyrus

Squanders a summer and the brawn of his heroes

To rebuke the horse-swallowing River Gyndes:

He split it into three hundred and sixty trickles

A girl could wade without wetting her shins.

Still, latter-day sages,

Smiling at this behavior, subjugating their enemies

Neatly, nicely, by disbelief or bridges,

Never grip, as the grandsires did, that devil who chuckles

From grain of the marrow and the river-bed grains.

Plath’s “A Lesson in Vengeance” serves as a fine example of tonal overstatement. Look at all the extensive uses of alliteration in this poem: the first stanza alone gives us "dour," "drafty," "draftier," and "dragons." Neither does Plath shy away from multisyllabic words: "overscrupulous," "subjugating." Compare the tone of this poem to Jack Gilbert's "South." Thematically the poem presents the extreme reactions of Henry Suso, a German Christian mystic who subjected himself to the mortifications detailed in the third stanza ("scourging to sores his own red sluices/For the relish of heaven"), and King Cyrus, who according to Herodotus reduced the strong Gyndes to "three hundred and sixty trickles" as vengeance for the drowning of a white horse.


But despite the clear examples of tonal overstatement in this poem, something more elusive seems to be happening here as well. The title "A Lesson in Vengeance" and the final stanza seem to suggest that these past examples of extreme action are preferable to our more polite but weaker modern approach, as our “latter-day sages” "{smile} at this behavior" and "neatly, nicely" wreak vengeance—that we could learn something from the way Henry Suso took revenge against his own flesh in an attempt to drive out the "devil" who mocked him from his own "marrow," or the way King Cyrus deployed his army to reform the geography of an entire river to realize his rage against nature. But the speaker’s judgment of this revenge is complicated by references in the second stanza describing Suso's actions as "smack{ing} of smite" and "overscrupulous," while Cyrus is described in the fourth stanza as having "squander{ed} a summer and the brawn of his heroes."


And the price of this vengeance is that "all the unconquered pinnacles/ Of God's city and Babylon's/Must wait," so what exactly is the "lesson in vengeance" we are supposed to learn? The poem seems to suggest that true vengeance is severe, and will have the best of anyone who undertakes it, though it will at least allow one to confront directly his or her own demons (to “own it,” in contemporary terms). With this revelation the unspoken parallels of this philosophy to Plath's personal life become more apparent. As Robert Frost said, "Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another." Plath's poem illustrates how overstating in one area can allow the poet to understate in another, and can certainly make a poem challenging, but also richer and more rewarding of multiple readings.



A member of the Colorado Poets Center, Amie Sharp has been a featured poet in Atticus Review, and her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals including Badlands, the Bellevue Literary Review, BlazeVOX, the Lascaux Review, New Plains Review, and Tar River Poetry, among others. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She received an MA in English from the University of South Florida and an MFA in poetry from Seattle Pacific University. She spent the summer of 2018 as artist-in-residence at the Sabina Cultural Association in Casaprota, Italy.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Suicide of a Moderate Dictator.” Poems, edited by Saskia Hamilton, FSG,

2011, pp. 299-300.

Boisseau, Michelle. “Self-Pity’s Closet.” Trembling Air, U of Arkansas Poetry Press, 2003, p.

15.

Gilbert, Jack. “South,” The Collected Poems, Knopf, 2014, p. 312.

Hoagland, Tony. “America.” What Narcissism Means to Me, Graywolf Press, 2003, pp. 7-8.

Plath, Sylvia. “A Lesson in Vengeance.” The Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes,

HarperPerennial, 1981, p. 80.

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