Sunday, June 10, 2018

Tobi Alfier - Classic Does Not Mean Boring

Tobi in Ireland, near the grave of Yeats

What is your wish for your writing? Do you want it to be a commentary on our current times, or do you wish for it to be able to stand on the page long after the drama of current events has moved on to become a paragraph in the back of a history book?  Being “generic” is a way to ensure your work will be timeless, but that does not mean it will be boring.

One of my favorite poems is “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats.

       When You Are Old 

       When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
       And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
       And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
       Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

       How many loved your moments of glad grace,
       And loved your beauty with love false or true,
       But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
       And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

       And bending down beside the glowing bars,
       Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
       And paced upon the mountains overhead
       And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


This poem was written in 1892. It has stood the test of time and I think it will still be timeless and lovely in 2092.

Does anything date this poem? Not the fire. Electricity had been in homes for over fifteen years. We use fires today for warmth and comfort — the fire in this poem is doing the same.

The first word of each line being capitalized is still used by some poets today. The punctuation is correct. The rhyme is subtle and correct.

Poster courtesy of Writers & Authors
The poem says “take down this book”. It doesn’t name the book.

Did Yeats think about this while he was writing this beautifully unself-conscious, sincere love poem? I don’t know. It is classic. It certainly isn’t boring.

I want my poetry to stand the test of time, but I also like specificity, so this is something I struggle with. I don’t write “he lit a cigarette”, I write “he lit a Marlboro”. I don’t say “she flirted with the guy at the old car show”, I say “she coyly bent her head from side to side/ keeping time with her feet in their ballerina flats/ out in front of the black ’62 Chevy/ belonging to who she would later describe/ as “the hunk in the white t-shirt”.”

Photo by Brigitte Werner
In a hundred years, I doubt anyone will be describing anyone else as a “hunk”. A pack of Marlboros might be relegated to those “do you remember these?” quizzes along with pictures of VCR’s and Brownie cameras. Who knows? I think about this all the time.

Keep this in mind when you write, and be thoughtful. If you write about war, you may want to leave it generic and not specify which war. Likewise Presidents, musicians, television shows, some types of clothing, current political hot issues, and so on.

“Take down this book”…

Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Somewhere, Anywhere, Doesn't Matter Where. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.

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