Sometimes watching a college basketball coach’s reactions reminds me of the Guardians of Poetry — those priests and priestesses who guard the keep and issue pronouncements about poetry. You know, the “Thou Shalts” and the “Thou Shalt Nots.”
Consider the coach when he sees his shooting guard launch a 3-point shot from well beyond the line with 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock. A close-up shows coach’s mouth opening and the eyes bulging in disbelief, the pilot flame of anger getting ready to pop and flare.
Until the ball goes in.
It’s like that with the poetry mavens who say no this and no that. They carry a special unholy tabernacle of words you are not supposed to use. I don’t know how the words got there, but we don’t know how we got here, either, yet life goes on.
As an example, I give you the “dark” family: dark, darken, darkening, darkness, black, shadow, shadows, dusk, twilight, gloaming, etc. I’ve read that these words are off limits. No. Never. Don’t do it. Your poetry will scream “cliché!” Your poem will never work!
Unless it does.
Um, OK. In that case, never mind. All’s well. Proceed and continue to impress us with the fact that you can do what others can’t. Namely, get away with it.
Exhibit A and B with “dark” family in bold (dare I say “dark”) print, James Wright:
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
It’s not only pretty, it’s shockingly pretty. And I’m not supposed to use the word “pretty,” either, but in the spirit of banning the practice of banning, I will. Another James Wright:
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
The point is this: Sure, if you think of your Muse as a coach with a whistle around his neck, he’s going to lift that whistle to his livid lips when he sees words familiar and well-traveled, but it’s premature.
Using familiar words may seem like a rushed shot, yes, but sometimes it still goes in the net and you look like James Wright, of all people. In his darkest mood.