Words of a poem should be glass
But glass so simple-subtle its shape
Is nothing but the shape of what it holds.
A glass spun for itself is empty,
Brittle, at best Venetian trinket.
Embossed glass hides the poem of its absence.
Words should be looked through, should be windows.
The best word were invisible.
The poem is the thing the poet thinks.
If the impossible were not,
And if the glass, only the glass,
Could be removed, the poem would remain.
– By Robert Francis (1901-1987)
I might just as easily have labelled this one 'I Wish I'd Written This' or 'Thought Provokers', or even made it the subject of some 'Moonlight Musings'. I love what it says, which is also my own idea – or lofty ideal – of what constitutes the most excellent writing, whether poetry or prose. But I imagine many writers might disagree. They might prefer words that startle their readers, shock them awake, or make them rapturous with delight at their music or the visual images they conjure.
All those are good things to do with words too. But as a reader I love best those rare times when they are clear, transparent glass you can look straight through to the essence of what is being told. The first time I consciously became aware of this – belatedly, as in the moment one doesn't even notice that there is glass – was when I read I Can Jump Puddles, the Australian classic by Alan Marshall, first published in 1955. It's the autobiographical story of his childhood, when he contracted polio soon after starting school. A good story well told – but my point here is that Marshall's writing was so clear and transparent that it seemed to disappear, letting us see straight through. The very thing Robert Francis describes in this poem.
The poem itself is not an example of what it talks about. Perhaps it can't be, being a poem of ideas. It has to be opaque enough to engage us in thought. So perhaps not every poem 'should' be glass – and after all, I dislike 'should' in most contexts. Perhaps we may be content to get an extra-special treat when some poems are. Meanwhile this one gets its idea across very well.
Until I stumbled across it I had never heard of Robert Francis. It turns out that he was an award-winning American poet, described by Robert Frost (a strong influence) as 'of all the great neglected poets, the greatest'. Poetry Foundation, where you can find some of his poems, tells us they are 'often charmingly whimsical, presenting conundrums and mysteries with a light, lyrical touch'. He was also very much a nature poet.
Even Wikipedia doesn't tell us much more about him. He was a graduate of Harvard, and lived most of his life – alone, one gathers – in Amherst, Massachusetts in a small house he built himself. He was committed to poetry, declaring it his 'most central, intense and inwardly rewarding experience'.
His Collected Poems are on Amazon, along with a 'new and uncollected' called Late Fire, Late Snow – just a couple of second-hand copies left of each book. There is also a biographical-critical study called The Man Who Is and Is Not There. The blurb accompanying this book describes Francis as 'devoting himself to Yankee simplicity and self-renunciation derived from his reading of Thoreau' and adds that 'His preference for solitude and disinclination to write about or promote himself account for the elusiveness of his persona in his prose and poetry.' It speaks of 'poems that both reveal and conceal the self of the poet' and those 'where the speaker is both subject and object.' It goes on to describe him as 'a craftsman of intricate precisions whose work speaks to contemporary political and global concerns'.
I've included him among our 'living dead', but I wonder how long his work will live, when it is already so hard to get hold of. But there are the few at Poetry Foundation (see link above) and there are 22 at PoemHunter. They overlap a bit but are not all the same ones.
Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright). The photo of Robert Francis used here is in the Public Domain.