C. E. Chaffin
( California )

Four Kinds of Poems

It recently came to me that there was a very simple way to classify how poems are constructed, not only in this age but in all ages. If that boast seems excessive, allow me to explain the simplicity of this approach.

Simply put, poems can be either deductive or inductive and open or closed.

Deductive poems use figures of speech to support their assertions and observations. In other words, the writer does not start in a real experience but uses experiences to advance the poem. Therefore he does not begin with, “The desert wind came up and scorched the rocks,” an actual scene, but uses the scene to elaborate something else: “Her voice was like a desert wind that scorched the rocks.” The former line implies an inductive poem, the latter a deductive poem. Inductive poems spring from an actual experience that generates elaboration. Deductive poems mold experience for their own purposes.

In addition, deductive and inductive poems can be either open or closed. Open poems invite the reader to join the author in his journey, avoiding easy conclusions, while in a closed poem the author does most of the work for us. Open poems often end in ambiguity, not certainty. They tease more than inform the reader. Closed poems usually end with a summarizing statement, however disguised by technique. In closed poems the poet tries to make his own sense of the narrative, usually near the end, with little room for negotiation with the reader.

In all ages, and I suspect, all languages, these four constructions have been extant: open, inductive poems; closed, inductive poems; open, deductive poems, and closed, deductive poems. Our present age seems to favor inductive poems, while the Elizabethans favored deductive poems. One need only read Shakespeare’s sonnets to be assured of this. Each of his sonnets strives for a resolution because he felt compelled by both the form and the culture to reach a conclusion, to “finish” the sonnet. In his early work Wordsworth is likely the most famous practitioner of inductive poems, signaling a departure from the past, but even he, in his dotage, returned to deductive poems, as in the rightly maligned “Ecclesiastical Sonnets.”

Here is a simple mandala for these concepts:

Closed         X           Open  


It is much easier to provide examples than persist in explanations for these categories. So let’s have a look at a poem by Robinson Jeffers.
October Evening

Male-throated under the shallow sea-fog
Moaned a ship's horn quivering the shorelong granite.
Coyotes toward the valley made answer,
Their little wolf-pads in the dead grass by the stream
Wet with the young season’s first rain,
Their jagged wail trespassing among the steep stars.
What stars? Aldebaran under the dove-leash
Pleiades. I thought, in an hour Orion will be risen,
Be glad for summer is dead and the sky
Turns over to darkness, good storms, few guests, glad rivers.

Here is an open, inductive poem. Notice how it builds from actual experience, from the ship’s horn to the coyote’s wail. Next comes a description of October stars, and finally two lines of lingering thought about the experience, though inconclusive. They do not tell us what to think about the experience nor do they say exactly what the author thought. We learn that “summer is dead” and the days will be shorter, with “good storms, few guests, glad rivers.” Thus we think about the change in weather, the reduction in social activity, the rain that swells the rivers—but not about what we ought to feel or what this should mean to us. The ending is loose and invitational and invites further reverie.

Now let’s turn to a closed, inductive poem by Frost:
Once By The Pacific

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last “Put out the Light” was spoken.

Notice that the first six lines are inductive, as Frost describes an actual scene. Lines 7 - 12 elaborate on the natural scene, adding apocalyptic overtones. The last couplet nicely summarizes this dark sentiment, telling us that we should be prepared for even more darkness and havoc before the end of the world. It constitutes a prophecy and provokes wonder at a future imagined by the poet, but is also an epitaph, emphasized by the strong, feminine, trochaic rhyme. The ending doesn’t leave much wiggling room. The prophet has spoken. Inductive but closed.

My next example is an open, deductive poem. Nearly all of Yeats’ poems are deductive, not all of them are open. He had a gift for ending deductive poems with a question, a choice, an ambiguity. Although this example is longer than I’d like, it pains me to eliminate any stanzas, so here is the thing entire:
Sailing to Byzantium


That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The essence of this poem does not differ greatly from many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, where he endorses the tradition of striving for eternity not through the vicissitudes of human love, but through art. The difference here is that Yeats does not ask for his poetry to be a claim on the everlasting, rather a gateway to eternal perfection, “Into the artifice of eternity.” So much is obvious. And that the poem is deductive also is obvious, since the first line is an assertion not based on immediate experience: “That is no country for old men.” In spite of the poem’s artifice, its beauty and philosophical implications, its ending remains open: “Or [if I am] set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

In the context of the poem, a seeking after the eternal artifice of art, is it not ironic that the artificial bird set upon a golden bough sings of “what is past, or passing, or to come”? Certainly the temporal preoccupations implied make a nice foil to eternity; on the other hand, the bird is burdened with informing the ageless emperor and his retinue about the changing influence of time. In other words, someone needs to read the daily paper to God, even if he knows what it contains. The ending thus leaves the poem open, not only by its irony, but by the implication that despite the deliverance provided by perfect artifice, part of that artifice must continue to sing about the past, present, and future—things that should not concern the beings of Byzantium, who are beyond the strictures of time.

Lastly there are a plethora of examples in the history of closed, deductive poems. In contrast to most of her work, it pleases me to select one by Emily Dickinson, whose open poems far outnumber the closed, though nearly all her poems are deductive.

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!

Here, uncharacteristically, Dickinson closes a deductive poem with comic derision. And given her anonymity during her lifetime (and today’s preoccupation with celebrity, which is not new but only amplified by the instantaneous media), it is heartening to find such a cheerful antidote to ambition. For her to tell us outright how dreary it is to be a “Somebody” is hardly the norm for her verse; but it supports my earlier contention that most poets use all four constructions, though many favor a particular one.

Most of the poetry written before 1920 was closed and deductive. Even Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” though inductive, leads to a conclusion: “Beauty is truth, and truth, beauty,” something contemporary poetry doesn’t require. In surveying the poetry journals of reputation today, I think the reader will agree that most editors lean towards open, inductive poems. Except in the hands of the Classical Chinese poets, however, such poems run the risk of a fleetingly impressionistic superficiality. They may lack the depth that repeatedly returns us to our favorite poems. In other words, they may not be as memorable.

A poem we never return to is not a great poem. It is only a passing encounter. The best poetry has staying power, which Yeats endorses above, with this difference: it is not artificial or lifeless.

Inductive poems simulate life more particularly and therefore may deceive us into thinking that they possess more life than deductive poems, but this is only a contemporary prejudice. There have been far more deductive poems of quality written in the history of English than other types of poems, even if the past tradition of ending poems with rather neat pronouncements strikes us as naïve today.

The post-modern tendency toward open, inductive poems may be a shift toward a restless audience with a reduced attention span, an audience that wants their poems made up of scenes as in films. Today’s readers may no longer want to have to think their way into a poem without a palpable, visual introduction. This could be an advancement in art but it could also be only a lateral movement, or even a regression. It may even be evidence of laziness in readers and an accompanying eagerness among poets to hang on to what little audience remains for poetry.

This latter strategy is a mistake, as the more the audience shrinks, the more poets in search of an audience will reflect whatever is vulgar enough to retain them. The open, inductive poem may resemble a reality show in this regard, especially if confessional and in the first person.

William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara must be considered lions of the open, inductive poem. “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a perfect example of the genre, and indeed, a very fine poem. But in embracing the immediate as a basis for poetry there are great risks: first, in trying to attach profundity to common experience where it may not be warranted; and second, to deliver no more than the experience. Poetry has always been not only about experience but what is derived from experience, though it need not be stated didactically. But such a view is unpopular nowadays, where meaning is often optional or at least left up to the reader. It is dangerous to say what you mean if you wish to be considered an artist.

Since these distinctions appeared to me, I have had difficulty recalling a poem that does not easily lend itself to one of my categories. What help are these distinctions? At the least they will help poets to be more conscious of how they write; at the most, when the history of poetry is scrutinized, they may help us overcome our anachronistic prejudices.

I - Thrum of Wings
II - Eclipsed by the Whirr and Squeak
III - Raw Silk in the Mouth
IV - The Parenthetical Body

Review - Suzanne Frischkorn
Review - Nicole Cartwright Denison

Featured Poet - Sandra Beasley

Current Issue - Summer 2007