Good Poems
Whatever is Maudlin and Sentimental -- Think About Such Things?

Describing the "Thing"

Clip_image002_2 “There is only one trait of the writer,” says Morley Callaghan.  “He is always watching.”

I’m watching all right.  I’m watching two gray squirrels chase each other.  I’m listening to a mockingbird sing and children’s playful taunts.  Rain is coming.  I can smell it on the wind.  The book in my hand feels cool, smells of new ink. . . .

Writing to a young girl in 1956, C.S. Lewis had this observation: “If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, you come near to getting it across.”

Once upon a time, a friend and I co-edited a poetry and short story journal called ProCreation.  We read a lot of submissions.  Eighty percent of the submissions fell into one of two categories. The first category belonged to those who succeeded all too well in describing the thing – whether it’s sexuality, political cause, religious viewpoint, or confession.  These folks had plenty to say, but they said it so directly that the truth they expounded could not be heard.  The art was secondary to the telling. In the other category were those who through ambiguity or subtlety actually obscured the very thing they wanted to say.  As a result, the reader cannot connect with the words at all. One cannot find the universal in the particulars.  They might heed E.B. White (see Post entitled "The Little Book"), who quipped: “Be obscure clearly.” Not clearly obscure.

Often the best work occurs when we just concentrate on describing what we see or telling a story that unfolds day by day without some grand design and meaning.  Isn’t it true that meaning so often arises, serendipitously, from this process?  I think of the talent of my friend Tom who can tell a story about taking the garbage out that is full of suspence and humor.  Really.

I like what Kathleen Norris says about poetry: “The discipline of poetry teaches poets, at least, that they often have to say things they can’t pretend to understand. . . . In contending with words, poets come to know their power. . . . We experience words as steeped in mystery, forces beyond our intellectual grasp. . . . In composing a poem, one often seems to move directly from ignorance to revelation.” I can definitely identify with ignorance. And revelation?  Well, I’m not sure I have too much to do with that.  The point is we sometimes do not know what it is we've said until we've said it and even then maybe not fully.  (Hmmm, I'm not sure I know what I just said.)

There's those two gray squirrels again.  A mockingbird sings and children not so playfully taunt.  Rain is coming.  I can smell it on the wind.  Child-sized footprints track the grass to fade away at grass-edge.  A truck thrusts itself into gear,  moves on down the road.  The breeze rustles my paper, plays with the pages of my book.  Better get up.  Better get out.  Better go out walking.  Maybe today I'll get closer to the thing.

I haven’t the foggiest notion of what all this means.  Not yet, anyway.