Six Words

You’ve probably heard of the possibly apocryphal Ernest Hemingway six-word short story: “For sale. Baby shoes, never worn.”

I’ve been thinking about this flashiest of flash fictions since I saw bits of the inauguration on Monday, when Senator Lamar Alexander stood up and quoted Alex Haley’s personal motto: “Find the good and praise it.”

I love that.

That’s what I’m trying to do, in a small way, here.

And while we’re on the subject of the inauguration, here’s a commentary on the Inaugural Poet’s work, from Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post. Do yourself a favor and don’t read the comments on the piece — people can be truly awful.  Ms. Petri gently questions the efficacy of contemporary poetry, through the lens of what she sees as a less-than stellar Inaugural poem. (For another take on contemporary poetry, read Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter?” here.)

I didn’t see Mr. Blanco read, but it’s the rare occasional poem (and by that I mean a poem written for a public occasion or event) that I find moving or unstilted. Poems aren’t essays; it’s difficult to write one in the best of circumstances, and to write one for a huge audience on a specific theme is more difficult still. Modern audiences aren’t as aurally attuned as the groundlings of Shakespeare’s theatre, or the audience at nineteenth-century recitals, so there’s another challenge.

Ms. Petri asks, “Can a poem still change anything?”

Of course.

Poems change us. Poems written five hundred years ago, poems written yesterday. Poems we write and poems we read. Poems ask us to see the world, even if it’s just a tiny piece of the world, in a new way, ask us to feel a loss or an exultation not our own, ask us to admit our own vulnerabilities, our own inability to know everything. That’s the thread that runs between William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say” and Milton’s impossibly epic–in the true sense of the word–Paradise Lost, which asks its reader to confront questions about life, death, God, fate, sin, knowledge, art, education, war, suffering, love, parenthood, childhood, creation, poetry itself. And more.

Poetry changes us because we change when we face these questions.

 

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