Why Daniel Mark Picture Poems? An Essay
The short answer is this: I believe in the power of words. “Four score and seven years ago . . .” ; “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”; “I have a dream . . .”; “When in the course of human events . . .”; “Oh, say can you see . . .”; “Back . . . Back . . . Hey, Hey!”
Some of those were powerful enough to bring change to our world.
Your mind can fill in the the blanks (the last one requires a Cubs fan, and old one at that!). All of the above are poetic in nature, even if not intended to be actual poems. Many TV and radio commercials are poetic, to make them memorable. Songs are poetic. People like poetry, even if they don’t acknowledge it.
I posted a little essay a couple of weeks ago about winning an essay contest way back in my youth, although the recent essay was about more than that. At the end of it, I said I would do a further essay about why I do this now.
So today, I want to talk about why I started this business.
I wouldn’t say I was a hyperactive boy, but I did love to play, especially outside. And I had an active imagination. When I watched TV (and in those days, TV was nothing like it is today!), I had trouble watching anything all the way through. If I was watching a cowboy show (Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, The Rifleman), I wanted to play cowboy, either outside with my friends or with my little plastic cowboy guys and their horses. Or, if I was watching a baseball game, I would drag my mother out to play catch (when I was three or four), or later my brother and our neighborhood friends. When I was a little older, if no one else was available, I would throw a ball against the garage, playing imaginary little games in my mind. I was usually the shortstop on the NY Yankees, or the White Sox, or the Cubs, and I could make every play in the field, I had speed on the bases, I could dive for line drives or deep flies, and I could hit for power and always made contact, and when necessary (which was always) I could be counted on to hit the home run needed to win the game in the bottom of the 9th, or at least drive in the winning run with a base hit. Sometimes I even pitched. And was I good! Jack Brickhouse was the announcer in my head, and he extolled my talents and virtues like no one else. And I was very happy to be so good!
And later, when I fell in love with basketball, the same thing happened. I could shoot, and from far out (and that was true!), and I could handle the ball through all kinds of defensive pressures (it’s easy when you are the only one on the court at the time!), and I could pass and play defense and make the important steal when necessary, and on and on. Quite an imagination, with a hero complex! The same thing was true with basketball as with baseball: I could watch for a little while when it was on TV, but then I would wander outside to shoot in the driveway, and then delve into my imaginary NBA games. I didn’t need anyone else to play, and it was as much or more fun to just play on my own, with my own imagination running wild and free. Besides, this way I knew I would win!
I was always an avid reader. As far back as I can remember, when I would eat my Alphabits or Sugar Pops or Cocoa Krispies or Wheaties or Trix (Looking at this list, maybe I just sugar buzzes! Do they still make all of these cereals? I’ll have to look. And I acknowledge that those weren’t good for me!), I would read the list of ingredients on the side of the cereal boxes, just to read something. Riboflavin; thiamine, protein, carbohydrates, corn syrup; long name chemicals; longer name chemicals. Only later did I realize I could read what I was really interested in, which was the sports pages in the newspaper about my favorite teams and players. And then I found the library, where there were biographies of my heroes. I read them all. Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, Walter Johnson, Yogi Berra. I remember a book called “The Glory of their Times” which I read several times. I was in heaven.
And I loved to read about presidents too: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, US Grant. And even about scientists: Thomas Edison; Louis Pasteur; Robert Oppenheimer; Galileo.
You’d think I’d be smart since I read so much. Well, retention was hard. I don’t know why.
But even reading required interruptions, so that I could do (or live) what I was reading about. If it was a baseball book, and the weather was nice, I had to go outside for my imaginary game in the backyard against the garage wall. Or I’d have to shoot some hoops if I was reading about the old Boston Celtics (Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Larry Siegfried, Bill Russell) or even the early Chicago Bulls (Guy Rogers, Bob Boozer, Bob Love, Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker.)
And then it came to be that when I would read, I would have to write. It became a way to emulate writers who I admired. Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), Zane Grey, Mark Twain, and even in college I liked Faulkner for a while, and tried to write like him a little bit, and there were others whom I no longer recall. In high school, I fell in love with Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.
Bottom line: reading inspired doing. Imagination. Emulation. Empathy with characters. Emotion. Hero worship. Maybe some narcissism too.
And so it was.
And then it wasn’t anymore. I came to the point where writing was no longer a part of what I wanted to do, because I had to do a lot of writing that I had to do. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed writing motions and memorandums of law. There wasn’t a lot of room for creativity, but there was some room for finding ways to creatively make arguments so that they would be more persuasive. Many briefs that I saw were so formulaic that, if I had been a judge, it would have been hard to stay awake while reading them. If you believe in your position, it’s important that you make your points in a compelling way. But many lawyers just repeat the same thing over and over, as if repetition will be the key to winning the argument. Sounds like some of our politics, doesn’t it?
But it was difficult to find time to do other writing. I know there are many lawyers who are able to write while maintaining full caseloads and running a business (Scott Turow still does), but those lawyers are much smarter than me, much better writers and lawyers, and that will have to be my excuse! Richard North Patterson, John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline are all incredibly talented as writers and as lawyers. I admire them. Truly. And I envy their self-discipline and abilities.
Occasionally, I wrote something that never left the house. I did start a novel that remains a work in progress. I like the premise and I like what I’ve done, and I want to finish it, but it will take some concentrated time to finish, and I find it hard to make that time for a variety of reasons. Some day I will.
But, one thing I could do was write poems, even if they were not particularly good ones, by some people’s standards. They don’t require the time that a novel, or even a short story, requires. I find that I do like them to have a beginning, middle and end, which goes against the grain of what I see in more contemporary poetry, much of which I don’t understand. And I write them over and over again, trying to get just the right word or words, the right rhythm, the right everything. I move things around, then back again, or partly back again, and do it some more.
I like to understand what people tell me. I think most people do. There is, it is true, subtlety and nuance in life and in language, and part of life’s adventure is learning about subtlety and nuance, recognizing it, accounting for it even if it’s not recognized, and looking for it. But I don’t like it when people tell me things in one sentence that really needs four or five sentences to make it clear. If you tell me that the hotel is located 3 blocks up and 5 blocks over, that doesn’t help much, especially if there are intersecting streets that veer off in what appears to be the middle of a block! Do tell me more then! And life is complicated, and those who act like they are wise because they answer in pithy one word sentences and look at you strangely when you look at them with a questioning look are not helping. Life is hard enough when you can’t understand things. Make it easy for us, and explain what you mean.
I do like to understand what people tell me, and I like to understand what I read, and I like to understand what I write, because if I understand it, I think most people will understand it, because I am not smart enough to write or leave unfinished what I can’t understand. Does that make sense? I hope so.
I think most people like to understand what the speaker means, and what the writer means. So I think most people like to understand what they read, and by that, I mean they like to understand what the writer intended for them to understand. It’s one thing to create suspense in a mystery or thriller or any novel, but there has to be a logical ending where what was a mystery is no longer a mystery. People don’t like it when the end does not satisfy the curiosity built up through the earlier part of the story.
Life has enough mysteries, and the more we learn, the more mysteries there are. I don’t want to add to those mysteries. You have enough on your mind.
And so I like to write poems that can be understood, and can be enjoyed partly because they can be understood.
And, I like rhythm and rhyme. I sometimes try to deliberately and consciously keep rhyme out of a piece just to do it, and then I sneak back and put some in. I just like the sound of it better. I wish I was musical so I could write songs.
Sadly, people in general don’t really read much poetry, and I think it goes back to middle school and high school days when kids would be compelled to read something that often didn’t have much rhythm or rhyme, or could not be understood without a major discussion, like looking for a glimmer of meaning—a single fish—in a big ocean. And then the student might feel stupid for not “getting” what he or she assumes that the rest of the class “got.” And sometimes, even after being told what the point was, it still didn’t seem to make sense, and things only got worse from there. And that was pretty much the end of any interest in poetry forever. And if the teacher started out with The Iliad or The Odyssey, forget it. Too big. Too hard to read. Too many big names. Too much stuff, with too much time and too many words between things happening. I remember a big deal being made of “Fog comes/on little cat feet,” as if the metaphor was just about the deepest concept ever determined. What was the big deal, anyway?
But, there was music, always music. And in music, even bad lyrics and bad rhymes and even bad rhythm could be celebrated. Good music was sort of the Grand Canyon in the background of the words, and you could look past the words and admire the view of the canyon. Let’s face it: so many of the lyrics could not be understood because they were overwhelmed by the volume of the music (and maybe they couldn’t be understood even if read), but if the refrain was good and catchy, well, it was poetic and it was remembered, even if none of the other lyrics were. But the most memorable songs had catchy tunes and memorable lines and rhymes, especially in the refrains. Was there intellectual depth there? Well, sometimes yes. And if there wasn’t, the listener could think that there was because at least he could remember that line or those lines, even if he couldn’t hear or understand the rest of the lyrics to the song. Did you ever actually read the lyrics on the liner notes? Carol King had good lyrics. Paul Simon. Many Beatles songs did. Pink Floyd? I love their music, and there are some good lyrics, but some not so good (“Careful with that Axe, Eugene”). Jackson Browne, yes. I can’t speak to more modern songwriters as I don’t listen much anymore.
But people really don’t equate songs with poetry, and in part I think it’s because so much modern poetry became forgettable because it often sounded like the writer was trying to convince the reader that the writer knew some sort of deep, dark secret about life or humanity or origami or baseball or insects that the reader could get if he or she read that poem a thousand times when it would finally dawn on him or her that the writer was actually comparing Milton Berle’s hair with the sleek athleticism of a shark. What? And that would be the reaction of the reader, and how was this adding to the reader’s life or knowledge base?
And so, I like to read what I can understand, and I like to write what can be understood. I’m not smart enough to be able to guess at what someone is writing, especially when I think they are trying to fool me or to convince me of their brilliance by being vague, ambiguous or so metaphorical that it would take me three or more readings to get it. If that is fun for them, okay, but it’s not fun, or interesting, to me.
So, is that to say that some of my stuff is not metaphorical? No, I would not say that. Sometimes the metaphor may actually be inadvertent, and the reader might see something that I never saw or intended when I wrote it. I won’t begrudge them that. And sometimes I do put them in, but that is not my main mission. Mostly I like to create mental images of kindness, beauty and peace and love and all that sappy stuff because, I confess, I like some sappy stuff, and some is political, and some is intended to be commentary on human behavior, human failings, personal failings, human fallibility, personal fallibility. Some is romantic longing, much is reflective, some is optimistic, some is pessimistic. Some is just silly, and some is fun.
But I hope all is understood.
And what I don’t understand is why poetry must only be in books or anthologies or special journals or in TV commercials. Marketers know something: Rhyme is memorable, and that is why so many commercials have textual rhyme, and often snappy little jingles. You can remember them, and you will remember the product, and then maybe you will remember to buy that product.
But poetry can be on walls and tables and other places too, and it adds interest and intrigue and celebratory meaning to photographs.
It can be a gift. A nice one.
And, like sports on TV would inspire me to go practice and play, or reading stories or books would inspire me to write, working for others inspired me to want to have my own successful business. I wanted to do what others could do, in my own little way.
It’s not easy, and I won’t claim success. Not yet. Maybe not ever. But I will try, and am trying, and I think people will like having words on walls in their homes or offices or wherever. I think they will like my words, or other people’s words.
And from time to time, everyone needs to get a gift for someone, even in bad economies. I think they’d like to give something different from what everyone else might give, and frankly I think people like to get gifts that they might not really think to buy for themselves. Sometimes different is good, especially if it is nice. Especially if it is memorable. Especially if it is personal to the recipient, which is why I put some pieces on picture matting into which people can insert their own photographs.
I like to make nice, memorable things. I like for people to read them, and to look at them. I like for people to like them. And I like to sell them!
Give a memorable gift!
Thanks for reading!
Copyright Daniel Mark Extrom. 2014. All rights reserved.