Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Friday, April 17, 2020

Poetry: the bare essentials

This is National Poetry Month. Officially recognized since 1998.

            Does anyone care? A friend says he does doesn’t get poetry. Never has, not since his high school teacher tried to explain it to him. 

            I blame the teacher. You can’t explain poetry. Either you get it or you don’t. Either those images leap off the page and dance a polka in your head, or they don’t. 

            Explaining poetry is like explaining a joke -- if you have to do it, don’t bother. 

            Fortunately, I had good teachers. Including my own mother. I can still hear her rolling syllables off her tongue, savouring the taste of each one. 

            Ever since first year university, when classmate Harold Black and I tried our experimental poems on each other, I have turned to poetry to pare my thoughts down to the bare essentials. 

            Thought stripped naked, in a sense. 


Nouns and verbs

            Once I attended a workshop on editing poetry. I didn’t have high expectations. Poetry, I thought, was utterly individual; how could another mind meddle with that inspiration?

            By looking at the nouns and verbs. I learned. Everything else -- articles, prepositions, adjectives, adverbs -- is window dressing. It supplements the nouns and verbs; it can’t do their work. Eliminate everything but the nouns and verbs, I was told. If a piece still sings, you’ve got a poem; if it has to rely on layers of ornamentation, you’ve got porridge.  

            Poetry is not about rhyme. Nor is it about rhythm, although both may enhance the effect. 

            Poetry is about metaphor -- another hugely misunderstood subject. Metaphor, basically, means making connections between two things or experiences that are otherwise quite different. 

            Take Carl Sandburg’s famous line: “The fog creeps in on little cat feet.” Fog and cats are quite different things. They’re alike in only one respect – they move noiselessly. 

            Can you remember Rosemary Clooney singing This Ol’ House? The house is old, broken down, falling apart. Like its owner’s body. “Ain’t gonna need this house no longer…” That was a metaphor, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. 


Both is, and is not

            Metaphors challenge the literal mind because they deal with something that both is, and is not, at the same time. That’s not contradictory. My wife Joan is not here anymore. Yet she is here, in everything I see and touch. Both statements are true. 

            Wordsworth caught that dichotomy, when he described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” No one creates poetry in the middle of terror, amazement, or love. You don’t have time, or incentive, to polish words to a shine while the immediate experience is so overwhelming.

            Poetry tries to re-create that terror, awe, or joy -- later, after the passions have passed. So that someone else can feel the same thing. 

            Not by telling about it -- that’s prose, not poetry  -- but by inviting the reader into the experience. By jumbling together words that ride roughshod through readers’ imaginations, making connections they had never made before. 

            Prose can go on and on about a “dark and stormy night.” Poetry wants you to feel the lash of the rain, the howl of the wind, the velvet of the dark. In an absolute minimum of words. 

            Without poets drawing attention to the iridescence in life, we would be, as Shakespeare put it, just plodding along the road to dusty death.


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Karen Toole remembered that I had used the tale of two washbasins before, in my first book, An Everyday God. “And of course you have now brought it up to date. Thank you for using it again, right now! Over the years the story of those ‘two basins’ have been part of my life, my purpose, and the direction of compassion. Like you I so much believe that we need to wash our hands IN it, not OF it!”


Tom Watson liked my closing lines:  “It's frequently the case that somebody we know displays, through either speech or action, prejudice towards another group or individual within that group. It's a whole lot easier to keep quiet because we don't want to create an argument. I doubt that we often make the connection between ‘keeping silent’ and ‘playing Pilate.’ It's a challenge to keep loving somebody else for who they are, and not only when they speak or act as we would wish them to do.”


Jim Henderschedt: “I really like your piece on Maundy Thursday and how it goes in with the calls and reminders to wash our hands thoroughly during this Covid-19 crisis. Not to make light of your article, I want to share something that appeared on Facebook: ‘My body has absorbed so much soap and disinfect that when I pee I clean the toilet bowl.’” 

            Yes, we can occasionally lapse into irreverence….


David Gilchrist recalled, “When I did an exchange with a New Zealand minister some years ago, I wanted to do more than just read the passage [about Jesus washing feet]; but of course people didn’t come to Church with easily removed sandals. So I decided kneel at the door with a dust rag, and wipe the shoes of each parishioner. I was surprised at the‘Peter Response’ from several worshippers, who seemed to be really embarrassed to have this strange Canuck wipe their shoes! But I hope it helped to make the passage a bit more relevant and meaningful for them. It certainly did for me.”


James Russell liked the column. “It is made even more pointed by these Covid times,” he commented,  “when selfishness and disengagement are given a cover story that is easy to adopt, and true acts of kindness become more difficult and dangerous.”


Bob Rollwagen liked my metaphor: “I know very few people who have not washed their hands [of social problems]. Like Pilate, they talk a good story and they pass the buck by blaming politicians or bureaucrats or public employees.

            “The laundry list of issues you end with are exactly what we are trying to deal with now, during a pandemic. Those that really need don’t have a voice and those that have lots to lose are screaming for help as they are afraid of losing entitlement.” 

            Bob liked the efforts being made to help the really needy. But, he went on, “As soon as we get through the storm will those with a voice fallback to washing their hands of the needy? I think the soap feels like this -- Don’t ask me to pay more taxes for proper elderly care, for an annual living wage for all, for affordable housing and public transportation for everyone, for an educational standard that does not leave anyone behind. It will be a Good Friday when we elect a government that will want to increase taxes to keep the change going.” 




Psalm paraphrase


I don’t choose the psalms that appear in the Revised Common Lectionary. But if I were choosing a psalm that suited this time of social isolation, I might well choose Psalm 16: 


1          Life is short, Lord.
Like a breath in the night, it disappears into silence. 

2          Human relationships all pass away;
we cannot depend on them for comfort in old age.
Only you, God, are forever.
Why should I put anything else first in my life?

3          Some people hold you as their closest companion.
They are the saints.
I would like to be like them. 

4          Many people claim to put you first,
but they chase riches and popularity, privilege and power. 

5          I say that there is nothing in life but God.
God is all anyone needs. 


7          In the silence of the night, I listen for the breath of God:
In the bedlam of a business day, I watch for a whisper of wisdom.

8          I keep my mind on God.
God surrounds me like the air I breathe;
God buoys me up like water. 

9          Even in a time of loss, I raise my arms to God's embrace;
My heart rests easy. 

10        For you are a loving God.
Though our lives end, we do not vanish into the lifeless void.

11        No, you gather us into your warmth;
there we will enjoy the endless sunshine of your smile. 


For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.





If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted some new poetic works there a few weeks ago.  If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)



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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: Poetry, metaphor



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