Poetry scares me,” said a writer friend.
It scares a lot of people — even writers — and it doesn’t have to. Everything you ever needed to know about poetry, you can learn from E.B. White’s classic children’s novel, “Charlotte’s Web.” Your instructor is Charlotte A. Cavatica. Gray spider. Pig savior.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both,” the narrator says.
Charlotte saves Wilbur using just five words — Some Pig, Terrific, Radiant, Humble. The whole story is held in that handful of words.
Like a good poet, Charlotte stays put, waits for whatever comes her web’s way. It might be a butterfly. Or it might be a mosquito — “anything careless enough to get caught in my web.” Then she discards everything unnecessary, like a good writer getting rid of useless words. That leaves only one thing, the blood.
“I love blood,” Charlotte says. Wilbur groans when he hears this, but Charlotte insists, “It’s true, and I have to say what is true.” A poet always tells the truth.
A good poem, like a good web, is a little miraculous. There you are, like the character Lurvy, the hired man, slopping pigs one morning, when suddenly, you see it. Someone stayed up long past midnight putting together words, and those words are paired with the most unlikely creature — a runty pig. When he sees it, Lurvy “dropped to his knees and uttered a short prayer.” Then he shaves and gets a haircut on an ordinary day because no days are ordinary anymore. The farm has been transformed. The corn goes unhoed, and the blackberries go uncanned so all the neighbors can marvel at a pig and a web. No wonder that chapter is called “The Miracle.”
When it comes time for the second word, Charlotte asks her fellow barnyard dwellers, “Does anybody here know how to spell ‘terrific’?” Because in a poem, spelling matters a lot. So do capitalization and punctuation and something unimportant in prose — line breaks. While Charlotte writes “terrific,” she talks herself through the process as if she were writing a one-word poem: “Easy, keep those lines together! Now, then, out and down for the leg of the R! Pay out line! Whoa! Attach! Ascend! Repeat! Good girl!”
In Karen Swallow Prior’s literary memoir “Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me,” she concludes her chapter on “Charlotte’s Web” saying, “Like a true friend and a good writer, right words are hard to find. And all of these, like a mother, have the power to give life.”
To find the third and fourth words, Charlotte needs Templeton the rat. Rats don’t seem poetic, and the places Templeton searches — the dump and the leftover trash from the fair — aren’t poetic either. But they are the right places to find the right words. Charlotte ignores Templeton’s suggestions of “crunchy” and “pre-shrunk,” selecting “radiant” and later, “humble,” a word that comes in its own good time, the way humility usually does.
April is National Poetry Month, and most people don’t care, except for a few English teachers. And me. I care because a handful of well-chosen words can be miraculous.
Take the scene when Fern rides the Zuckerman’s barn swing, “the best swing in the county.” The rhythm of that paragraph is so strong, you feel like you’re swinging, too. In this beginning part of the story, Fern is an early riser who spends most of her time with farm animals. By the end of the summer, she’s riding the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy. Six months later when winter comes, she’s still talking about Henry — no mention of Charlotte or Wilbur. She has jumped off of the rope swing of childhood forever.
After that extraordinary summer, Wilbur is no longer lonely, even without Fern and Charlotte. Now, he has his own words, and rather good ones, too: “It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”
I asked my poetry-fearing friend if she’d ever read “Charlotte’s Web.”
“I did read it, a long, long, long, long time ago, and I remember loving it,” she said. “I loved the references Karen Swallow Prior made to it in ‘Booked’ about the power of words.”
“But you never noticed the poetry in it, did you?” I asked.
“Umm … no?”
Maybe it’s time to read it again.