This essay was written originally for PoetryRepairs.com and entitled “The Moral of It All.”
In a review of my short story collection Rise Up, a critic wrote that “…many of these tales [are] meant to leave the writer with a moral lesson, or at least comment on morality in the modern age.” Although it was expressed as criticism, I took the comment as compliment because I believe a piece should imply more than the description on the page and impart some kind of moral or position. When my work achieves that, I feel lucky.
I’ve published short and book-length material, nonfiction and fiction, poetry and prose. By far, my short work, especially poetry, is the most satisfying to produce. Everything is story, and the most challenging form of story is the poem—the shorter, the better. What’s more, if the narrative on the page implies an extensive story beyond the words, then, in my opinion, it has succeeded on a greater level. And if it imparts a moral? Pure gravy.
The poet whose work I admire most was a master at achieving story and moral beyond the printed page. Raymond Carver is celebrated most for his short stories, but he was a master poet as well. Take “The Net” as example. The narrator describes passing a one-armed fisherman who’s wrestling with a fishing net. The narrator assumes the fisherman is simply doing his job. But when the narrator looks back from a greater distance, he sees the fisherman is caught in the net, struggling to free himself. In its simplest interpretation, the poem’s net is a metaphor for life or circumstances. The distancing of the narrator from the fisherman is a metaphor for achieving objectivity by seeing the “big picture.” Of course, much more is going on in this poem, but even its most simplistic story and moral demonstrate the power and depth of short, concise, precise writing, of creating an expansive story within the confines of a poem.
My poem “Studebaker” accomplishes what I try but regularly fail to accomplish in each poem I write. “Studebaker” has appeared in several journals and is included in my first collection of poems, White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, Volume I.
There, next to the polished Mercedes,
the yellow Studebaker,
rust holes in the fender walls,
worn seats—nothing like
the old man’s.
He kept his sparkling, let me tell you,
just like the Model T before,
and the Thunderbird, the ’56 Chevy,
and the entire freeway of cars
that sped through my youth,
but none was so striking
as that hand-buffed Studebaker
with its whitewalls,
its custom steering wheel,
its immaculate seats,and that night,
coming back from Andalusia
when they thought I was asleep
in the back,
and he reached over,
grabbed her hair,
jerked her hard enough
to spin her head to the side.
I found two spots of dried blood
the following day,
and I remembered how the moon
had hung in the rear window
just below a cluster of stars
as he muttered, Christ,
why’d you make me do that?
And she had rested her head
back against that perfect seat
as the hum of new tires on asphalt
rose through the floorboard.
The story beyond the words involves a family plagued by domestic violence—a father/husband who prizes flashy cars over his relationship with his wife, who rules with anger and violence, whose behavior taints the very things that should be cause for celebration and enjoyment, a man who blames others for his own failures as a human being. Further, the poem’s second half implies that life itself is a cynical journey because everything that’s perfect in the poem—immaculate seats, custom steering wheel, whitewalls, new tires, moon, stars—is corrupted by the dark side of reality. As for lessons, draw your own conclusion, but, if I had to define a moral, it would be that people should value one another at least as much as they value their toys. Does the fact the poem communicates a moral make it less important, less enjoyable, less relevant?
As “Studebaker” suggests, I’m not a fan of poetry that relies on abstract, philosophical musing. I don’t condemn such writing. Certainly not. It’s just a matter of preference. I prefer to write and read poetry derived from and descriptive of everyday struggle, failure, success, and celebration, poetry that relates life through specific events and situations that may or may not be similar to the reader’s experiences. Through such work, we can relate to circumstances that might otherwise be foreign to us. We can sympathize and empathize closely with characters. And we can learn something new or validate something old, even if it’s the simple fact that not every reader enjoys work with a moral.