An obituary got me thinking. The obituary announced the death of renowned Arkansas poet Miller Williams, who was celebrated for using everyday language in his verse. The short poem cited in the piece – titled “Compassion” – moved me, as it did Miller’s daughter, the country singer Lucinda Williams, who used her father’s spare lines in a song:
Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it.
What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.
I used to read and write a lot of poetry in college. But like many a youthful artist, my literary interests expanded, and my time became consumed with survival and career. The lessons of good poetry, however – for writers of all kinds – stayed with me.
Notice the simple word choices and construction. Notice the powerful metaphors that bring the poem to its end – the wars where the spirit meets the bone.
Notice the simple, but clear, moral message – laid out for the reader to absorb and understand in his or her own way, not told with a wagging finger.
This is the essence of good writing. A lesson relearned from a Sunday obituary.