Unpretentious Words

Awhile ago, I included a poem as part of one of these blog posts: Epitaph In An Elevator.  It was hardly an example of shining verse, being unsophisticated in its composition and stark in the emotion it presented through the medium of gossiping voices.  And yet that simple, naïve little poem received multiple views and likes by readers.

Since then, I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering why a work so basic and unpretentious “spoke” to so many people.

Considering this, I recalled a line from a Mary Stewart novel, Nine Coaches Waiting.  Ms. Stewart’s light mystery/romance novels, written at the end of the 20th century, were (and are) unappreciated gems; literary works of art, beautifully-researched, marvelously plotted, with vivid, memorable characters.  One of the things I recall most about her books, though, is that they often included quotes from classic poetry; lines that enhanced and augmented the story.  In the mystery Nine Coaches Waiting, the main character, recalling her late poet father, recollects and confirms the lessons she learned from him about poetry being “awfully good material to think with”.

Truer words were never spoken. Poetry—good poetry—brilliantly twists language to evoke emotion, and consequently reaches out to us in the hours when our feelings brim close to the surface. As I pointed out in the post Mathematics Makes a…What?!, the very best poetry tosses all the rules of grammar right out the window, superbly weaving words to fit feeling.  Our minds react with the abrupt recognition, “Yes!  Yes, that’s how I feel!” and we are immediately connected to something larger than ourselves; a universal knowledge, a link to all humanity.

So as I sat considering why it might be that my very un-brilliant and simple poem reached out slender fingers to touch so many readers, I finally realized that many of my own favorite poems—memorized, and recited to myself numerous times–are also incredibly simple. They are brief and straightforward, and two, especially, have an almost O’Henry-ish twist to the final lines.  (And I desperately hope they are not under copyright, for I intend to quote them here, trusting that their very age means these works are in the public domain, and apologizing if they are not.  A search for the terms, “How to determine if a poem is under copyright” produced few useable results, other than that poems published before 1923, which these certainly are, are likely to be public domain works).

Both poems, perhaps not surprisingly, concern the most difficult emotion of all: grief.

Lines By Taj Mahomed

This passion is but an ember
Of a Sun, of a Fire, long set;
I could not live and remember,
And so I love and forget.

You say, and the tone is fretful,
That my mourning days were few,
You call me over forgetful–
My God, if you only knew!

 Laurence Hope

and

She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

William Wordsworth

Poetry is very good material to think with.  And for that reason, no matter how poorly you or anyone else believes your works to be, continue writing it–because any words that evoke human feeling connect us to a larger view of humanity.  And in today’s sad and hate-filled world, that cannot but help be a good thing.

Epitaph in an Elevator

“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone…”  Those lyrics have been running through my head continually, because it was just yesterday I learned that a former coworker, a woman whom I’d worked with long ago, had died.  This is someone who, if I hadn’t known her well, I’d at least interacted with on a daily basis over the course of several years.  Hearing of her passing made me recall, uneasily, some experiences from the long years of my working life.

Working as an administrative assistant, it was often my sad duty to pass the hat and arrange flowers or a memorial gift for a coworker who had died.  At times, when the offices I covered were quite large, I barely knew the person for whom I was making the collection. But I came often to find that each member of the office, especially those who were better acquainted with the deceased, would take a moment to share their recollections when I came to dun them for what we euphemistically termed the “Flower Fund”.  In those brief conversations, I usually learned more than I’d ever before known about the coworker who had died.

In our large agency, I also often heard snippets and snatches of information about individuals in other divisions who had passed on—people whose names I vaguely recognized, knowing nothing else about them beyond that. And so it was that I stood one day at the back of the elevator, listening, as the group of people who’d just entered discussed a coworker who’d died unexpectedly.  Not once, but multiple times that day, I found myself nearby as employees gathered in corners, discussing a woman who had passed.  I found myself so saddened and disturbed by these conversations that, arriving home that evening, I exorcised the demons of my emotional reaction by turning some of what I’d heard into a poem–a simplistic poem, but nonetheless heartfelt.

Epitaph in an Elevator

She died, oh, a week ago Sunday.
Yes, I went, and it all was so sad.
She seemed like a nice enough person.
Well, the whole thing is really too bad!

Oh, you must remember her: short gal,
sort of plump, sort of plain—sort of dull.
She worked here forever and ages,
but I can’t say I knew her at all.

I wouldn’t have known, but I needed
all those files, and that room was a mob!
She always seemed smiling and helpful.
I just wonder who’ll cover her job.

She’s dead? Well, I’ll never pretend that
it upsets me one bit. Truth to tell,
I’m sorry she didn’t die sooner!
And I hope that she’s burning in Hell.

No, I didn’t know much about her.
I just heard that she died from a fall.
She seemed like a nice enough woman,
but I just didn’t know her at all.

I heard that she died—you recall her.
Sort of quiet and plain; not too bright.
It must be so sad for her family.
Takes some time, but then they’ll be all right. 

She couldn’t have died at a worse time!
What the hell will we do with her work?
The whole thing’s just plain inconvenient.
(No, I am NOT being a jerk!)

I can’t say that I really knew her.
She just wasn’t my type. Yes, she fell.
I daresay that someone will miss her.
But I just didn’t know her that well…

All too often, the very people with whom we interact on a daily basis are those who we, indeed, don’t even try to know too well.  It’s possible that we miss so much thereby.  And that is the core of greatest sorrow about any passing.