Skip to main content

Analysis of Poem "The Partial Explanation" by Charles Simic

Charles Simic

Charles Simic

Charles Simic and a Summary of The Partial Explanation

The Partial Explanation is, in many respects, a classic Charles Simic poem. It has mystery and a hint of danger. All three are elements common to many of his poems.

Yet, he is also known for creating works perceived as surreal in nature or that at least display an alternative view of life that occasionally walks on the wild side. He is attracted to folklore, fairy tale and dreamscapes, which is why he has written about artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Joseph Cornell.

For all this, Simic says, "I'm a hard-nosed realist," which is difficult to understand given his subject matter. Perhaps this statement is rooted in his rather unusual start in life. Born in 1938 in Belgrade, he lived through the horrors of the Nazis and a post-Second World Yugoslavia war as a child, only escaping to Chicago, USA, with his mother when he was 16 years old.

In a remarkable turnaround of circumstance, he steadily established himself as a major American poet.

Simic again: "Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition."

And it is this short statement that best encapsulates his approach to poetry: he seeks to learn about what it is to be human by exploring what lies within the psyche. So it is that he focuses on dreams, darkness, memory, history, day-to-day happenings and his own personal store of experience, not necessarily bringing immediate answers.

The Partial Explanation gives the reader a snapshot into the mind of what seems to be a lonely person, someone looking to make contact, who is almost desperate for social interaction.

As the poem progresses, a subtle tension builds, the narrative creating this rather gloomy scene which could come straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. It's up to the reader to complete the picture, to think of a context - the explanation - for this individual's reason to exist.

The Partial Explanation

Seems like a long time
Since the waiter took my order.
Grimy little luncheonette,
The snow falling outside.

Seems like it has grown darker
Since I last heard the kitchen door
Behind my back
Since I last noticed
Anyone pass on the street.

A glass of ice-water
Keeps me company
At this table I chose myself
Upon entering.

And a longing,
Incredible longing
To eavesdrop
On the conversation
Of cooks.

Analysis of The Partial Explanation Stanza by Stanza

First Stanza

The Partial Explanation takes the reader straight into the speaker's thoughts and feelings. The first two lines set the scene: here is a person waiting too long for the food to arrive, thinking to themselves that they have been ignored or neglected.

That tentative word only seems like a long time. The speaker hasn't mentioned looking at a watch or a clock to gauge the actual time, there is only a feeling inside. And maybe one or two questions pushing to the surface - Where is my food? Have I been forgotten?

The third line brings hard reality into the poemscape. This is no plush restaurant, this is a low budget kind of place, not too clean. The speaker uses observation and judgement to give the reader a visual context and to create an atmosphere.

The fact that the individual has been kept waiting long enough to notice that the place is grimy doesn't send out positive vibes. Just the opposite. Did he know beforehand that the luncheonette would be grimy? Or is he new to the place and already disappointed with it and himself?

To make matters worse, snow is falling outside. Falling snow is traditionally, arguably, a romantic kind of thing to be happening. We might be reminded of the festive season for example, of Christmassy days and celebrations. Of a white Christmas. But the speaker doesn't seem to be in a festive mood. The snow only tells us that it is winter and it is cold.

Second Stanza

The second stanza starts with a repeat Seems...this is not quite deja vu but it is a sign that the speaker's situation is becoming gloomier. He's noticing the dark, either inside or outside, or both, and this dark is linked directly to the sound of the swinging door leading to the kitchen.

This guy, this individual, is feeling more and more isolated. Note the line endings in this second stanza, all enjambed, no punctuation to pause things or slow the thoughts down. And another repeat, Since...only prolongs the feeling of loneliness.

This is a deserted scene. Even the pavements are empty. Just what is this person up to? Where have they come from?

Third Stanza

The third stanza concentrates all of this chilliness into an object - a glass of ice-water - and ironically the speaker thinks it is keeping him company. He must be in desperate straits if he thinks ice is a soul warmer!

He's down on his luck, with misgivings here, there and everywhere. His choice of dining, his choice from the menu, his choice of table, his choice to have his back against the kitchen. His choice to create this tragi-comic scene.

But what sort of world has he come in from? What sort of world does he still inhabit if he thinks that choosing a table is worth even a mention? Why is that particular choice of such importance? It seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Fourth Stanza

This person longs for a crumb of personal comfort. If he could just hear what the cooks in the kitchen are saying about him, his order, which they've cooked but burnt so are having to recook it. Or perhaps the waiter is the cook and he has his own issues to think about?

The cooks are talking but what are they talking about? If he could only be a fly on the wall. The speaker wants to know because he's becoming a little paranoid. This individual's world is only partially explained. It's up to the reader to provide the rest of the story.

More Analysis

The Partial Explanation is a short poem of four stanzas, split into two quatrains and two cinquains (or pentains), making 18 lines in total.

It is a free verse poem, having no rhyme scheme or regular meter (metre in British English).

On the page it seems to gradually fade away, the lines contracting, struggling to maintain their length, as the poem progresses. Perhaps this reflects the growing feeling of isolation for the speaker, who seems to be ignored at his chosen table.


There are three examples of repetition - Seems like (x2), Since (x3) and longing (x2). All of these add to the monotony and build up of tension as the speaker sits there waiting for service.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

The Body Electric, Norton, 2000

© 2017 Andrew Spacey


Robin Carretti from Hightstown on December 19, 2017:

This was a good read its how we perceive things with explanations we need to understand from our side of view