I was just listening to satellite radio when “Mr. Tambourine Man” was played. The original, by the composer. You may remember him. I was struck, for the first time, by what a damn fine poem it is. See for yourself and click here for the lyrics from the official Bob Dylan website.
Back at Bowling Green State I knew a bunch of poets, and as I edited a literary annual (called Inkstone, if memory serves,) I saw a lot of poetry, though I was the prose editor. I didn’t understand a lot of it. I wondered why people liked poetry so much? I mean, if you can’t tell what it’s about, where’s the point, right? And I still agree with that assessment. Because, as it happens, those were terrible poems, or at least, most of them were.
But over time I came to understand how a poem is supposed to work, and to really enjoy good poetry. I learned about Imagism, for instance, which is what Bob Dylan writes. Bruce Springsteen, too. I can’t imagine some of my professors back then liking either Dylan or Springsteen, but I sure do.
Aside – I once helped two fellow students write a poem by drawing random stolen lines out of a hat. Their instructor particularly liked the line, “Holds you in his armchair so you can feel his disease.” That’s from Come Together by the Beatles.
I believe that fiction writers can learn a lot by studying poetry. Consider this famous poem, the absolute poster child of a poem for imagism, by William Carlos Williams.
The Red Wheelbarrow
So much depends upon
The red wheelbarrow
Glazed with rain water
Beside the white chickens.
It’s a single sentence, actually, but every time I read those lines I can see that wet wheelbarrow shining next to some white hens. There’s a chicken coop there too, of course, and other stuff not mentioned in the sentence. And that is my point!
If you can write a sentence like William Carlos Williams could, and pack so much meaning into it that the reader can see just what you’re describing, you pretty much have the secret of great writing. The poetry I follow is mostly song lyrics, but I have read the (supposedly) best: Eliot, Pound, Williams, Thomas, Whitman, etc. and found them to be excellent.
And the reason that they are excellent is that they are very, very, very clear in their meaning.
Like I said, I could learn a lot!