by Helen Currie Foster
Maybe you recall an interview like this, a chance for a fellowship.
Three dour English academics at eight a.m., staring skeptically at me, siting tense in my penitentially hard wooden chair.
First question: “Do you like poetry?”
“No!” I blurt.
“Not even Keats?” – the horrified response.
I try, fruitlessly, bootlessly, to explain, a la Marianne Moore. Poetry requires the reader to take a deep dive, to concentrate, commit time, hoping the poet isn’t just producing a clever crossword puzzle with arcane clues, but offering a key to the universe. To the meaning of life. So I don’t “like it” like one likes, say, certain music.
End of interview.
A murder mystery, in contrast (I’m still arguing this decades later), invites the reader to notice the clues and…participate. Even have some fun.
Here are three poets who offer not only fun, but some good advice for mystery writers.
Do you know “Passengers” by Billy Collins, about the airport waiting room? The first couplet grabs all of us:
At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
With the possible company of my death,…
We’re there. We’ve been in those blue seats, we remember the people near us, the girl eating pizza, the kids on the floor, the guy on his interminable work call.
Collins does this so craftily. “At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats.” Yup. And as we board, doesn’t the thought cross our minds that this plane may be the death of us? He’s got us in the first couplet.
Here’s another, “The Lanyard.” First couplet:
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
Off the pale blue walls of this room…
We’ve all felt like that, bored… then:
I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
Where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard…
That word lanyard! We all know one use for a lanyard. We’re straight back to camp, trying to braid gimp into a present for, yes, probably our mom. Billy Collins got us with “lanyard” in the title, and with his “ricocheting slowly” off the walls, which is just how we feel sometimes. In two lines he has our full attention. We’re already there with him, remembering the gimp, the braids, the other campers, and letting our eyes go down the page to see where he’s taking us.
Or how about Elisabeth McKetta’s collection, “The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell”? Take, for example, “An Occasional Elegy for Milk,” with its first couplet:
Weaning my daughter felt
Like breaking up with her.
Well! Here’s a poem worthy of time and attention. This insight, this simile, zooms straight to the heart and the brain. It’s real. Memory stirs, and we are there inside the poem. Not locked outside waiting to grasp the oh-so-secret clue, but right in the room.
In short poems in the last sections (2009, 2014) of his vast collection, Oblivion Banjo, Charles Wright takes us outdoors to face big themes (time passing, mortality). Here’s the beginning of “The Evening Is Tranquil, and Dawn Is a Thousand Miles Away”:
The mares go down for their evening feed
Into the meadow grass.
Two pine trees sway the invisible wind—
Some sway, some don’t sway.
We’re there. Present tense, two mares, evening feed, pine trees. I won’t tell you how it ends: you’ll want to get there yourself. Similarly, his “Tutti Frutti”:
Little Richard in full gear—
What could be better than that?
Obviously you want to know the answer. In eleven lines you’ll have it and be riffling through the pages for more.
We mystery writers seek vivid images, strong verbs, intriguing details. Like poets. We too want readers picking up each clue, following our character to the end. These poets, these poems, show how a first line can convince the reader to go on to the next line, and the line after that, not feeling that the writer’s just showing off erudition, or hiding a great meaning we’ll be lucky to find, but as if we’re invited into the enterprise, we’re in the waiting room, we’re watching the mares, we’re all in it together.
P.S. If only I’d read Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry” before that interview! I could have said something about how we don’t want to “torture a confession out of” a poem….Oh well.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Read more about Helen and her books here.