I really admire poets. Imagine being able to take a concept or philosophy, say, Heaven and Hell, Good versus Evil; Love, Despair, Disappointment, Rain, and box it up into a few lines that tweak the reader into saying, “Yeah, I get that. Really cool.”
I don’t know how they do it. It must be a little like a chef making a reduction sauce, cooking and cooking until the essence of the flavor pops. It takes me somewhere in the vicinity of 75,000 words to do that. Poets hone their words into micro-razor sharpness. Nothing is wasted, not when you have the constrictions and limitations of a prescribed format like quatrains or iambic pentameter. Billy Collins is one of my favorites, mostly because his poetry has a sense of humor about it. Another is the wonderful Connecticut poet Donald Hall. Forcing an entire story into six or ten verses and evoking the same human connection as a 300-page novel — that’s writing.
As I am no poet and have no idea how it’s done, it is no surprise then when I say that the hardest writing I do is when faced with a birthday card awaiting an appropriate sentiment; i.e., how to differentiate what is essentially the same message everyone else in the group is writing into something more clever and pithy than, oh perhaps, Happy Birthday? Of course, it depends a tad on who the card is for; what the degree of relationship requires of the felicitation. I’m not talking about a birthday card for a family member, but those cards that are sent by a group — co-workers or folks in the same club. The same can be said of get well cards. How many different ways can one say, “get well?” That’s where it would be nice to be a completely clever writer, instead of one who needs to think long and hard about each line. I have actually crafted greeting card sentiments on blank paper, literally practicing. And then I usually screw up my handwriting and it looks dashed off and insincere. If I was a poet, I feel as though I would have the wonderful instinct for stating the obvious with flare.
The other panicky writing moment is when I’m signing books. I have for years tried to come up with something more interesting than “All best wishes.” But when you’ve got a book thrust in front of you and a perfect stranger is smiling down, someone with whom you have no history, no connection (except deep gratitude), what epigram is most appropriate?
I could steal one of those sayings from those hand-painted signs that proliferate in some gift shops: Laugh, Love, Live. Or, Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life (popular in my youth). But that doesn’t seem fair. Nor, frankly, always appropriate. If I’m lucky, I have a moment or two to chat with the buyer and then I can make a stab at writing something less shopworn than the above-mentioned “all best wishes.” What does that mean anyway? Sometimes I get lucky and the book is a present for someone else and then I can write Happy Birthday and feel like I’m saying something useful.
I just read a piece in the New York Times by Judith Newman about email sign-offs, another slippery slope in the arena of short and appropriate messages. In her article, Newman frets about the “personality signifiers” at the end of emails; what replaces the formal “sincerely” in an email? Popular now: “xxoo,” “Carpe Diem,” “Stay happy.”
I confess that I waver between signing everything, “best,” “all the best,” or “cheers” because it seems more friendly than signing an electronic message with “sincerely.” Of course, like birthday cards, the sentiment portrayed by the signature line is usually dependent on the recipient. I hardly ever use the little Xs and Os with business emails. Sometimes I go for another language — ciao, a beintot. Sometimes I skip it altogether, especially when the email chain goes over five or six replies.
Perhaps it is the haiku that is the best resort for these various occasions necessitating only brief sentiment.
“Yours truly” is old-fashioned; now we sign off with/an emoticon.
“On this happy day/May you blow out your candles/in one wishful breath.”
This is hard….cheers!