A poet has the power to capture a world of experience in just a few words. Don Williams noted this as he discussed the Bob McDill penned song Good Old Boys Like Me. In commenting on the lines “Then daddy came in to kiss his little man / With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand / He talked about honor and things I should know / Then he’d stagger a little as he went out the door,” he said, “That’s a novel.”
And he’s right. I think on those lines and I know the man and his history, or maybe even world of histories, opens up before my eyes.
While I’m using country music, let me bring up my favorite example of this: Third Rock from the Sun, written by Tony Martin and covered by Joe Diffie. This song manages to pack into three minutes more drama and humor than is typically delivered in a two hour movie. Indeed the lines “He leaves the motor runnin’, he’ll only be a minute / His car drives away with teenagers in it / The driver tells his buddies got one life to live / They scream into the night, let’s get it over with” captures a particular strata of our male youth better than all of the Dukes of Hazzard TV series and all the Smokey and the Bandit movies put together.
I am not a poet.
There is poetry; there is bad poetry; there is poetry so bad it is funny; and then there is what I write. My greatest achievement is rhyming “Schadenfreude” with “can’t avoid ya.” And I also admit that my tastes run to the more down-to-earth variety of poetry like that found in some of the better popular music. That having been said, I find myself inspired by some of it.
Sometimes even writers of prose dip their quills in the florid colors of poetic language. Charles Dickens, writing “A Christmas Carol,” does this. In describing Scrooge’s character, he writes: “Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Two lines and you know the man.
In one passage Dickens describes Scrooge’s home: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide.and.seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again.”
That sentence may be forgiven for being stacked like a lumber yard because it describes not only Scrooge’s home but also his life--the reason he is the way he is. He’s come to where he is and has forgotten the way out.
Page 2 of 2 - Whenever I hear or read words as powerful as these, it makes me want to write. It inspires me in efforts to describe the things that I know in beautifully concise ways. It is the density of meaning that is the soul of poetry. God creates with a word. His name for us is that which we are. His name for me captures my whole life. The poet, in some sense, attempts to capture the words God uses.
That would seem to be a gateway into arrogance. And I suppose for some it is. But what is a door to arrogance for fools can be a way to true humility for the wise.
One of my yoke-fellows at the university, a poet himself, likened poets to mathematicians as people who were simply trying to describe reality. As a mathematician, I felt flattered, and there is some truth to be sure, though the mathematician works in a much narrower realm.
For all of the capturing of reality, poetry can also be a mirror, one can look into in and see oneself, so one must be careful: “Deferential, glad to be of use, / Politic, cautious, and meticulous; / Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.”
Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. You may contact him at email@example.com.