Lately I have been thinking about the difference between what is good poetry and what is great poetry. In the process, I couldn’t help but think about our lives and how each of us measure how successful we have been and what it really means to be successful in the first place—also how the feelings that surround our success or lack of can ebb and flow much like the tides at the beach.
Some days we can go boldly where no man has gone before and other days we hang around the back of the room waiting for someone to clue us into what is happening and where we are headed that day.
During my last trip to see my son and daughter in Raleigh, North Carolina, I picked up a couple of poetry books that looked very interesting and I’d had my eye on for some time. One was “Sailing Alone Around The Room” by Billy Collins, former poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003 and the other was “The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai” an Israeli poet who wrote his poetry in the Hebrew language.
First of all, both of these men have a keen eye towards the world around them and both have a unique way of illustrating what they see. And while Billy Collins can be considered a successful poet, having sold many books and helped people see poetry from a different angle, Yahuda Amichai is what I would consider a great poet.
Why do I make such a statement and what does either of these men have to do with success in general and how we measure it for ourselves.
Let me try and explain.
When reading Collins poetry I am first and foremost struck by his ability to describe the world around him in a way that is somewhat unexpected and original. He has many thoughts that we might have passed by on our way to someplace else and has taken them into areas and avenues that help us begin to understand the world around us.
Amichai, on the other hand takes us literally into his reality and moves us beyond the visual to the visceral. When I read his verse I am taken to a place of understanding that unlocks all sorts of possibilities—in other words he opens me up to many layers of meaning whereas Collins is very apt at describing the surface and putting words together in a clever way.
Simply, a person might say that Collins, while very good at what he does, lacks the substance that Amichai has. They are both successful—one is a good poet and the other might be great. How history will view them overall is another matter that I know not of.
And lastly, this leads me to the main point.
What is success and what makes one a successful person?
I really don’t know for sure the exact answer or whether there is one.
What I do know is that if we take what our culture has to offer as an answer, not many of us would be on the high end of that grading curve. Not that we would be “sub-prime” if you get my drift, but that there are many people ahead of us and many people behind in this type of scenario.
Society values business achievement over just being a good mother or father for instance.
I remember several years ago I was allowed the opportunity to visit my father in California after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Several weeks prior to my visit his four brothers had made the trip to his apartment and one of them had video taped several living room get-to-gethers.
Somehow I had received one of the tapes before I flew out for my visit. When I watched the tape, I heard one of his brothers ask about how I was doing. My dad said that as far as he knew I was doing fine but had never lived up to my potential. This meant to him that I had not gone on to become the president of General Motors or something even more significant to him.
When I was alone with him weeks later on his patio in Signal Hill, I told him that I had seen the video and that in my estimation I was a success. I told him that I had a great wife, family, job and church and that I considered myself a success even though he seemed somewhat unconvinced on the tape that I had seen.
In those minutes between us, he seemed to accept the fact of what I said and nothing more was mentioned about it. The generation my father belonged to didn’t do “deep conversations” and so we didn’t talk much about our feelings during that last visit. In other words you know that you have gone to far when whoever you are talking with looks away and begins to squirm in their chair a little bit.
I think in those final moments we had both achieved a measure of success, if not in monetary terms, at least in maturity and fulfillment.
I read in 1 Timothy 6:6 that: Godliness with contentment is great gain. And that is what I would like to have as the bedrock of my thinking about what success is and is not—it is not about having things but about a way of thinking and being that will protect us from any type of storm that might be on the horizon.
And yes—that is a very good long ride.