I was attending the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival in beautiful Nelson, British Columbia recently, and as I listened to readings by two wonderful Canadian poets, Marilyn Bowering and Fred Wah, I found myself asking, as one does; what is the intersection of poetry and mystery? I wrote poetry for a number of years before I started writing mysteries, and I have always considered them unlikely chums; two forms at opposite ends of the literary continuum. One could be tempted to observe that one captures the ethereal, the intangible, the abstract, and the other lives hard on the ground where the rough stuff happens. But… which is which?
I argue that both live on both planes. Both deal in spiritual uncertainty, and both explore the very gritty core of what it means to be human. Both forms are littered with clues, which the reader is put to work making sense of.
For starters, there is the economy of expression required for both forms…the sort of clarity where the author leaves out extraneous words and material, but leaves in what is critical to the final understanding.
A poet is concerned with carving a precise, if not necessarily immediately accessible, image. Poems often capture feelings that live at the edge of our minds, somewhere between the solid world of fact and the half remembered world of dreams, or impressions that appear and are gone, flicking out like fireflies, nameless, but powerful. Marilyn Bowering describes this as like standing in liminal space, on a threshold; neither in nor out, but suspended between the inner and outer worlds.
The mystery writer is concerned with a kind of precision as well. Carefully polishing and highlighting feelings, behaviours, landscapes, that exist in the fictional world of the story. The author lays out, but does not necessarily explain, all the many intangibles of the human condition that underlie the commission of a particular crime. Evidence is presented and left to be considered.
Good writing sends the mind off to wander in places created by that magical partnership between the writer’s words and the reader’s imagination. Poetry and mystery both require the reader’s imagination, and most importantly, engagement, to make sense of the gathering evidence. Though one could say that the solution of a mystery in a novel is uniquely ripe for explanation and reveal, I would argue that the last line or two of a poem often does something similar; it pulls the whole thing together, completes that imagistic circle, revealing the core of what the poet is concerned with; the mystery at the heart of the poem.
Poets often write about what is lost, lamented, remembered. Mysteries too deal with loss; the loss, most obviously of a life, but also the loss of social stability, of what once made sense and seemed safe, of what could be counted on. Mysteries serve as a reminder that, in fact, we all stand on the threshold of life itself, neither in nor out, but ever suspended in between.
The resolution of a poem contains in it a kind of admission of loss as a central condition of human life. A mystery does as well. The criminal may be caught, and society returned to a sense of order, but some of what is unravelled by the commission of this biggest of sins is never really repaired. There is an underlying sadness in even the most satisfying mystery, as there often is in the most satisfying poem.
PS: did you know Lane Winslow is also a poet? That there is one poem by her in every one of the books?
Meet Lane Winslow!