Friday, April 28, 2017

`233 Fully Drawn Characters'

My youngest son and I were talking about country music and why some of it is so good and some so dreadful. We share a liking for Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Johnny Cash, among others. I told him that Charlie Parker, according to Nat Hentoff, defended country music when other jazz musicians were making fun of it. We tried to define why the songs can be so memorable, and David came up with a likely explanation. Apart from the music itself, he said, “The songs tell stories about people.” To cite obvious examples, consider Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman; Haggard’s “If I Could Only Fly,” by Blaze Foley; and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” covered by Haggard and Nelson.

Our talk reminded me of a poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, who brings to life more characters and tell more stories than some novelists. I remembered reading a tally, and after a brief search I found this in Chard Powers Smith’s Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1965):

“It is in the other category of greatness, that of size of population, that Robinson is preeminent among poets in English except those who wrote for the stage. His 233 fully drawn characters are approached only by Chaucer’s 188—the latter at a cursory count.”

Here are two of Robinson’s poems that amount to novellas in verse: “Aunt Imogen” (Captain Craig, 1902) and “Bewick Finzer” (The Man Against the Sky, 1916). The concluding lines of the latter encapsulate a life and might be sung by Haggard: “Familiar as an old mistake, / And futile as regret.”

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