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Friday, 20 March 2009

When We Were Very Young - Dan Wells

When I was a kid my Mom would recite poems to us; there were several, but I remember three of them more than any others: Bed in Summer by R. L. Stevenson, Animal Crackers by Cristopher Morley, and Vespers by A.A. Milne. I will admit that I had to look up those first two just now in order to find the authors, but the third, Vespers, I did not: I’ve had it memorized for most of my life, I own three copies of both Christopher Robin poem collections, and I’ve read them all countless times. My mother, and arguably that one poem, sparked a lifelong love of poetry that only continues to grow.

The best poetry is like a puzzle: how can you say something, or evoke an emotion, or prompt a specific reaction, in the simplest way possible? Poetry allows you to paint with words, to create images and feelings in your reader that ordinary prose cannot.

It started with Milne, so I’ll start there now: A.A. Milne is one of the greatest poets of the English language, and if he had written “grown up” poems instead of children’s poems he would be widely celebrated as such. Read Disobedience and look at the way he uses such strict rhythm and rhyme, yet managing to be completely playful and even conversational. Read Happiness out loud and listen to the way the sparse, simple words create such a perfect syncopation. Then read Politeness, and Halfway Down, and Teddy Bear, and The King’s Breakfast, and…well, all of it. The man is a genius.

Robert Browning is not one of my favorite poets, but in My Last Duchess he taught me one of the most important writing lessons I’ve ever learned: narrators can lie. I’ve essentially built a career on that premise, and it’s certainly nothing new, but reading My Last Duchess opened a whole new world of possibilities. Read it now and watch the way Browning tells you two stories at once: one on the surface, as a duke shows his visitor a portrait on his late wife, and another story buried in subtext in which we begin to suspect that the duke killed his wife out of baseless jealousy. You can see this concept of the “unreliable narrator” all over the place, from music (Operator by Jim Croce) to movies (The Usual Suspects by Christoher McQuarrie) to books (I Am Not a Serial Killer by…me). The ability to tell one story, while suggesting multiple layers of truth underneath it, is one of the reasons I love writing.

One of the many books in my parent’s library was a collection of poems that I read several times as a child, and through which I discovered the romantic poets: Lord Byron, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, and John Keats. I love almost everything they ever wrote, from the heartwarming (Byron’s Epitaph to a Dog) to the horrifying (Byron’s Darkness); from extended narrative (Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes) to pure imagery (Keats’s To Autumn). I also discovered more modern poets, like Langston Hughes and ee cummings and T.S. Eliot; Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is probably my favorite piece of writing ever.

Somewhere in the middle there is Emily Dickinson, who I used to like until I realized that you can sing every poem she ever wrote to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Try it: “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves, and Immortality.” And now I apologize for telling you that, because it will ruin Dickinson for you completely. It took me years to get over it, but I’ve finally re-convinced myself of how awesome she is.

When I was in eighth grade we were in the midst of the first Gulf War, and my English teacher compiled an incredible little pamphlet of poetry about war, death, and loss. I still have it, and I consider it one of the highlights of my education. It included everything from the ubiquitous The Second Coming by Yeats and Ozymandias by Shelley (proof that Shelley is not the total hack I sometimes accuse him being), through the funereal The Dark Hills by Robinson, to such horrifying poems as Death of a Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell, or Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen. These poems taught me that poetry was not all happy, and that the grotesque could hold its own kind of beauty.

So who is my favorite poet? Eliot’s a contender, based solely on the strength of Prufrock; Milne is up there, too, and Keats, but the crowned champion is actually one I stumbled on by accident. I’ve never studied her poetry in any English class, or seen it printed in any academic anthology, but my favorite poet is Emily Bronte, hands down. Most people know her for Wuthering Heights, which is dark and seething, and her poetry is very similar: she’s a little low on technical skill, but with a vast well of raw talent just roiling violently under the surface. I believe in a life after this, where we will be reunited with those who have gone before, and one of the very first people I want to meet is Emily Bronte—I’m going to get her, John Wilkes Booth, and Philip K. Dick into a room and just talk for hours. And then we’re going to go find William Carlos Williams and kidney punch him so hard his great grandchildren won’t be able to eat for a week.

One of the questions I get a lot is “how can I become a better writer?” and my answer is simple: “If you want to learn how to tell stories, study fiction. If you want to learn how to use words, study poetry.” The skills and principles of language you learn from poetry will improve every aspect of your writing, and when you learn how to evoke image and emotion as powerfully as, for example, Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro, no force on Earth will stop you from getting published.

This week I’m going to leave you with some homework—a reading list—and, being a horror writer, I’m going to choose some of my favorite “dark” poems. Read them, ponder them, and post your comments.

Darkness, Lord Byron
Elegy, Chidiock Tichborne
Isabella, or, The Pot of Basil, John Keats
Suicide’s Note, Langston Hughes
At Castlewood, Emily Bronte
A Day in the Life, Lennon/McCartney (Yes, it totally counts)

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