This is what the accoutrements of war should look like: abandoned and overgrown with vegetation, mere objects of curiosity for passersby on an Indian summer day.
I subscribe to two poetry sites, Poem-a-Day, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, and Postcard Poems and Prose. Poem-a-Day is a curated compilation of poetry with a wide range of publication dates, while Postcard Poems and Prose publishes new work. Reading the poems that the people behind these sites consider important in the current moment, I’m struck by the number of poems that take as their subject the troubled times we live in.
This has gotten me thinking about the two primary roles poetry can play for people facing difficult times: providing solace and providing a means of expression. A third role that writing can play in times of trouble, a call to action, I’m seeing more in prose.
When I think about looking to poetry for solace, the 23rd Psalm in the Bible is the poem that immediately comes to mind–although I have never once turned to it for solace myself. In fact, I can remember actually reading it only once, when I took a Bible as literature course in college–and I think that’s the key. My experience of the 23rd Psalm has been through the spoken word, not the written word. I think I associate these verses with solace, not because of their meaning but because of their sound. The rhythm of the lines is soothing.
However, the verses I’m familiar with are a translation. The cadence of the original Hebrew would have been very different. Thinking about translation prompted me to, look up the King James Version of the psalm and compare it with the Good News Translation that came out when I was in high school in the 1970s. The difference in effect between the two translations is striking. The soothing cadence I remember from the King James is gone in the Good News version:
Psalm 23: King James Version (KJV)
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Do you spend much time thinking about your favorite words, calling each one to the forefront of your mind so that you can explain to yourself once again just how much that word delights you and why? I tend to have these little reunions with my old friends when I’m driving to work in the morning.
Allow me to introduce you to a few of them.
Lugubrious. Now, “lugubrious” is a fellow I love dearly, but I just can’t take him out in public. How I long for an opportunity to say, “I have a deep appreciation for the lugubrious musical stylings of the late poet-singer-song-writer Leonard Cohen,” but the opportunity never seems to present itself.
Pixilated. I was introduced to “pixilated” years ago in a work of regional fiction (Southern, I think, although it could have been New England). It was used to describe an eccentric old woman who behaved as though taking direction from pixies. I can’t imagine a more delightful way to live: charming and mischievous, with little thought given to responsibilities and no need to justify oneself. Unfortunately, I can never introduce “pixilated” into a conversation because she’ll always be mistaken for her homonym “pixelated,” what happens when your Netflix video starts breaking up.
Modality. “Modality” is one of those words that I am unable to take seriously because of the way it sounds. While I understand its place in the health care lexicon, I simply cannot say it with a straight face. I have to syllabicate it and put air quotes around it: “It is regrettable that the latest treatment ‘mo-‘dal-i-ty’ has had no salutary effect on her regrettable condition.”
Snark. I can appreciate “snark” because it connotes a certain agility of thought and facility with language that the simple passive aggression or petulance its cousin “sarcasm” lacks. Think of Samuel Johnson’s description of poet Edward Young’s poems: “Young froths, and foams, and bubbles sometimes very vigorously; but we must not compare the noise made by your teakettle here with the roaring of the ocean.”1
Buffoon. Now, as insults go, few come better than “buffoon.” So much more elegant than [expletive not inserted]. By far, my favorite use of the word was by a former colleague to describe a dysfunctional department. He referred to the department as a “cadre of buffoons,” going so far as to label them as such on a flip chart! They had a certain cohesion and delineation of roles that enabled them to function as a group, but individually and collectively they were completely inept.
And I’ll end with “edification,” which is what the purpose of this post should have been but wasn’t.
1 Jack Lynch, ed., Samuel Johnson’s Insults: A Compendium of Snubs, Sneers, Slights, and Effronteries from the Eighteenth-Centry Master (New York: Levenger Press, 2004), 68.
Image of Leonard Cohen by Rama, Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Cover, Samuel Johnson’s Insults, Levenger Press.
One of the greatest joys that comes from reading poetry is the ability of a poet, someone I’ve never met, someone who knows nothing of me, to use language to articulate my own experience in just the way I’d always yearned for–but without knowing it. There’s a jolt of recognition, then an instant feeling of kinship and gratitude. The poem I’m sharing with you today, “August,” by Helen Hunt Jackson, is just such a poem. Ironically, when it came into my inbox from the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, I almost stopped reading after the second line because the language was a little too Victorian for my taste.
“August” is in the public domain. For more information about Helen Hunt Jackson and her work, go to https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/helen-hunt-jackson.
Note: Angela L. Lindseth’s lovely poem, “Good Girl,” follows my own reflection on honest emotion in poetry, prompted by the poem. Liz
Thou Shalt Not Write Sentimental Poems about Thy Dog
One of the very first thou-shalt-nots I learned as a creative writing student in college was that the literati–our tacit, if not presumptive–audience would not look favorably on sentimental poems about one’s dog. (An even worse literary faux-pas would be to end a story by revealing that the point-of-view character was really a dog.)
In Western Wind: an introduction to poetry, John Frederick Nims makes the following distinction between sentiment and sentimentality in literature:
Healthy emotion is object-directed; sentimentality is subject-directed. . . . The sentimentalist is less concerned with the object of his emotion than with the fact that he himself is feeling it. He is also saying, in effect: “Look how tender I am! How sensitive to beauty! How capable of deep emotions! How rich in sympathy!”
. . . .
Writers of sentimental poetry like to play on our stock responses–those built-in automatic reactions we have to many things we think dear and familiar: childhood; barefoot boys; home, sweet home; the old porch swing; the old oaken bucket; old rocking chairs; dust-covered toys; motherhood; the fidelity of dogs.1
Which brings us to poems about one’s dog. As Nims explains the distinction between honest sentiment and false sentimentality, it is easy to understand: sentiment is object-directed (the dog herself), while sentimentality is subject-directed (how the poet feels about his dog).
But is the distinction really that clear when it comes down to actual cases? After all, the example Nims uses to illustrate sentimentality is quite exaggerated: The distracted mother narrating the poem has sent her lisping, golden-haired cherub skipping down the street with a postage stamp on his forehead to mail himself to his dead father when he is trampled by a pair of runaway of horses to lie lifeless but still beauteous in the street. (I provide a link to a full-text version of the poem in question for your edification or idle curiosity: “Papa’s Letter,” by Anonymous.)
I think if I were to parse the individual lines of the poem I’m sharing with you this week, Angela L. Lindseth’s “Good Girl,” using Nims’s object-directed versus subject-directed definitions of emotion in poetry, it would straddle the line between sentiment and sentimentality.
Yet for me, “Good Girl” succeeds in conveying the gut-wrenching experience of having to euthanize your dog to end her suffering. The emotion is honest and real, and I count “Good Girl” as a Poem Too Good Not to Share.
1John Frederick Nims, Western Wind: an introduction to poetry (New York: Random House, 1974), 128-129.
Good Girl by Angela Lindseth
Thirty years ago Angela played with the idea of a book while looking out from an abandoned fire tower in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Since that time, she has stumbled her way through life. She obtained her Geological Engineering degree, but ditched that for an electrician’s license. She’s worked a variety of jobs but never found the one that fit.
The skeleton of that story never left her. Today, she has a finished novel and a published collection of flash fiction called Sanity’s Threshold. Finding her calling has opened her imagination and a multitude of words have poured onto the page.
Her flash fiction ranges from dark and twisted, to sad and sappy. For more of her work visit her website and Facebook author page.
My short story, “The Story of Henry: Chapter and Verse,” has been published in the July issue of Adelaide Literary Magazine.
I wrote the story a number of years ago, and after countless rejections, it finally found the right editor. (I sent it to Adelaide Literary Magazine from a call for submissions that seemed a good match for it. Subscribing to e-mailed calls for submissions has definitely paid off!)
“The Story of Henry” was inspired by an event that affected my father very deeply and, in turn, me. The typewriter above is the one that appears in the story. (I made mention of it in a prior post about the need some people have, myself included, to hold tight to our “Things.”)
The oddest thing happened this week. I was reading an essay on flash fiction in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction when I was hit with the sudden urge to write a poem about the smell of creosote. I resisted the urge at first–the time was getting on to midnight–but I quickly gave in to it and roughed out a few stanzas. Over the next several nights, I fiddled with it, coming to a version I was satisfied with last night.
I am a fiction-writer. I understand the anatomy and physiology of fiction: the bones of structure, the musculature of scenes, the connective tissue of leitmotif, the beating heart of character.
I am not a poet. The anatomy and physiology of poetry are pretty much the four humors of medieval physic to me. Meter and rhyme, stanza and line break must all be kept in balance somehow for the poem to be thriving and robust, but it is definitely a hit-or-miss affair. Is the poem choleric? Put some leeches on it. Jaundiced with yellow bile? Maybe an emetic will effect a cure, but take care not to kill the poor creature.
So what keeps sending me back to poetry when narrative fiction is my natural means of expression? I’ve known for some time that I will turn to poetry to write about my family; however, that’s not a sufficient explanation because much of my fiction has family relationships as its starting point.
It wasn’t until I read the opening of Sherrie Flick’s “Flash in a Pan: Writing Outside of Time’s Boundaries” that the reason I am sometimes driven to poetry became clear. Fiction is tied to time, time and causality; poetry doesn’t need to be. Poetry can be pure emotion–which brings me to T.S Eliot’s “objective correletive”:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked (Eliot).
Now that is the smell of creosote!
Eliot, Thomas Sterns. Hamlet and His Problems to The Sacred Weed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921. Accessed April 16, 2017. http://ww.bartleby.com/200/sw9.html.