I've just tracked down a poem that's lingered in my memory since I first encountered it a decade ago.
As a college student, I rediscovered poetry as a means of creative expression. It was something I stumbled into in middle school but quickly left behind. After a trip to Boston when I was attending Mercyhurst in Erie, PA, I decided I wanted to commemorate the experience in a series of poems, which I abandoned before completion. But then at the University of Maine I seemed to fall into its poetry scene, by far the most vibrant aspect of the English department.
Much of my college experience took place in the shadow of 9/11. Yet the scope of the event was illuminated for the first time when Chilean writer Marjorie Agosin visited a class dedicated to modern poetry. This was the first time I heard of the significance of another 9/11, which resonates for all Chileans who experienced the Pinochet coup of 1973, which dramatically transformed the country and radicalized many of its citizens. I was appalled when the consensus of the class was that her evoking the Chilean 9/11 was an insult to the American one. If you can't trust poets to be sensitive, what else is there to believe in?
What stuck with me just as clearly over the years was a poem she'd written about Pinochet that, as with the best of poetry, was centered on the power of imagery. Here she depicted the casual detachment Pinochet had to the suffering of his countrymen, contrasted with his immaculate white suit. I tried saving most of the poems from that class, but things become lost over time, and when I wanted to read it again, the poem was nowhere to be seen.
So I began a quest to rediscover it. This is harder to do with poetry than with just about any other creative medium, and that's a general indictment of society's current appreciation for the form. But of course I finally succeeded. For the record, it's called "The President" and can be found in her An Absence of Shadows collection.
Why talk about it at all, why rehash memories that stirred so much conflicting emotion? Because for me, it speaks to the best quality of the written word, whether in poetry or prose. In other words, the power of imagery. Often as writers we're encouraged to "show, not tell," but the result of this advice is more often than not a lot of description that sets a scene, tiny details like the items that fill a room or what exactly someone is supposed to look like. I find this tiresome. In some cases, it works, it's actually important to the story. Mostly, however, it's a chore.
What, then, about the power of imagery, and how poems do it so well, and why "The President" needs to be discussed first in order to make this point? In film, which is a visual medium, the words of a book are often condensed and altered in order to produce the most striking version of the story possible. When a play is adapted into a film, the critical reaction usually hinges on how "stagey" it remains, whether the actors look static, trapped in a limited space, or if the production has taken advantage of its new setting.
I know common wisdom is that literature is a culturally superior artform to film, but I'm suggesting that literature can use to learn a lot more from film. The best films are poetry in motion. See what I'm getting at?
The best prose, which is to say the best written words of any form (you probably don't think of Beowulf as poetry, but it is, much like Shakespeare), is filled with visual imagery, the capturing of a specific moment, a single scene. It is a meditation on all the elements that have converged to make the moment happen. You get a clear image in your mind of what has happened, why it's important, and it has nothing to do with whether you could produce an exact replica of it in a drawing. It feels more like a memory than an artificial experience.
For me, that's the only kind of writing that truly qualifies as great literature. The best poems know it. I don't know that we think of the best literature as having it, too, but it does. The problem is, young writers are never told this. They're told to "show, not tell" endlessly, as if that really says anything at all. It's one of the most common and least beneficial suggestions for creative development.
When an image like Pinochet dressed in white and casually strolling through the chaos that resulted from his actions sticks so clearly in my mind, when I find it impossible to forget it, the cool and precise nature of the poem is only half of the reason why. It's because Agosin knows better than most writers what she's trying to accomplish. I'm saying, more writers should try to keep that in mind. It's not all about having an easy read. If you want to be a writer at all, I hope you understand that the point isn't to have something readers will consume in one day and forget the next. It's not about your name being remembered forever. It's about the imagery. It's about the material itself becoming unforgettable. And, if you're lucky, your name will survive as well. Because you write in order to preserve your perspective on the world. You're creating a cultural record. Because of Agosin, I know of the Chilean 9/11, and I'll never forget it because of the man in the white suit, the callous general and president detached from the horrors he's created.
If that's not your goal, why are you even trying?