Beyond the Elliptical Poets: The Voice of Indirection

(The poet, strayed
the lost poem that
had to be lost, or
the world with it.
        —Robert Kroetsch

I love it when a rare or odd word crops up in two or more seemingly unrelated books I’m reading, creating an unexpected resonance or jar, and compelling me to lean on the word a bit more than I would have had I encountered by itself.

The word is indirection. I encountered it recently in the work of two poets, first in C. D. Wright’s new collection of prose pieces/fragments on poetics,The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All, published last month. Then I bumped into the term in Completed Field Notes, by Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch, published 15 years earlier in 2000.

I see little that indicates that they were very aware of one another. Googling gets me nothing. Yet there it is: indirection.

I imagine where they first heard it: in Hamlet, when Polonius instructs Reynaldo on how to sound out Laertes’s acquaintances. “With windlasses and with assays of bias,/ By indirections find directions out.” (I’ve always wondered why WS gave these terrific lines to the “tedious old fool.”)

Indirection in poetry suggests, possibly, a poetry that’s “elliptical,” to borrow a term from Stephen Burt’s oft-cited 1998 essay on a trend in then-contemporary poetry:

Elliptical poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory… . [T]hey admire disjunction and confrontation… . [They] want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life…..

I heard you stifle a yawn. This is an old—though possibly still ongoing—story. Yet I want to say there’s more to indirection, at least as Wright would have it:

Poetry moves by indirection and in so doing avoids the crowd. This does not mean it would not draw others in. But one has to be responsive to its movement. One has to adjust to its unfamiliar configurations. One has to train one’s best ear on its retrofitted lyre… .  Indirection makes the circle hard to draw. It changes the route, and often the destination.

The inquiry poetry postulates remains intact. An inquiry extended along the lengths of the lines of knowing and beyond the tips of the known… .

The language of poetry specializes in doubt. Without the doubters, everyone is cut off at the first question. Poetry does not presume to know, but is angling to get a glimpse of what is gradually coming into view; it aims to rightly identify what is looming; it intends to interrogate whatever is already in place. Poetry, whose definition remains evasive by necessity, advocates the lost road; and beyond speech—waiting, listening, and silence.

As I understand Burt, the elliptical poet knows “the backstory” to the poem, but chooses to fragment and/or suppress it through various means and stratagems, in order to “challenge readers” and “explode assumptions.” In other words, elliptical poets—Burt calls them “Ellipticists”—have palpable designs upon their readers.

But note the subject in Wright’s excerpt: not poets, but poetry, granting the writing itself a kind of agency: “Poetry moves by indirection… .” And its source is not knowledge that’s been suppressed or distorted, but doubt. For Wright, the poet of indirection is beholden to the poetry, which refuses certainty, “specializes in doubt,” and “advocates the lost road.” Indirection is a consequence of the poet’s task, not an after-the-fact filter-lens effect.


Robert Kroetsch’s work “The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof” is difficult to describe. Ostensibly a poem about the poet’s trip to Germany to give a talk on Canadian writing, the work is simultaneously a poem, a journal/source material, working notes, and theoretical musings, often collaged together on the same page. Here’s a page to give you a sense of the poem. Note that it includes our key term:


As Fred Wah has pointed out,  “The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof” is less about the trip than about getting lost. For the first half of the poem, the speaker “Couldn’t find the train” (this is mentioned several times) or “Couldn’t find the park…” For Kroetsch, such lostness is a condition of the poet, and this condition necessitates the “notes” and “notation” mentioned above and throughout much of his poetry. Elsewhere, discussing his ongoing project Field Notes, Kroetsch explains: “My own continuing poem is called somewhat to my dismay Field Notes. I think of the field notes kept by the archaeologist, by the finding man, the finding man who is essentially lost.”

For Kroetsch (and for Wright), the poem isn’t about controlling the story, but losing control. Lostness isn’t something imposed on the reader; it’s about the poet’s surrender to something more than what he intends or knows. The poem, the true poem, is outside the poet’s intention, beyond the poet’s deliberate reach, and can only be approached by indirection.

Eventually, the speaker “finds the train,” but only by heeding the voice of a stranger: “He told me I was about to get onto the wrong train. His voice at the time perplexed me, because it was at once a foreign voice, and familiar.” By indirection—by getting lost and attending to the perplexing voice of the stranger—the poet finds directions out.

Kroetsch points out elsewhere that “Perhaps every poem is a poem lost.” Perhaps the poet’s only possible path to its recovery is by becoming lost himself. It’s a heady paradox: the poet finds his voice by losing it:

The voice of the man who directed me onto the right train, the train that would take me to Koblenz, where I would then transfer onto another train and proceed to Trier, to give a talk on Canadian writing (and I gave the talk), had been exactly my own.

Not surprisingly, the poet of indirection is not comfortable with that absolute “exactly.” The next section of the poem begins with a correction: “like, I / mean,” because this stranger is not identical–he’s wearing a hat, and the speaker doesn’t wear hats. The poet/speaker’s relationship to the stranger is like notation’s relationship to the poem—an indirect, not-quite-synchronous, doubling: “Notation is the double of the poem. Or: we are the poem and cannot hear, except by indirection.” This indirection directs the voice of the poem, keeps it moving. The poem closes (I do not want to say it concludes):


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