Compare Thee to a Stand-Alone
“Good technical writing and good poetry are surprisingly similar.” I came across this line in one of the textbooks for an English class I teach. Everyone in the class immediately went slack-jawed. Even those in the class who are normally lantern-jawed went slack-jawed, and if you have ever seen one of those brass and glass gizmos that conductors on the Northern Pacific used to shoo cows off the tracks lose its shape, well, let me tell you, it’s an awesome sight. It would make that shape-shifter guy, Odo, on Star Trek, Deep Space 9, have a major meltdown of morph envy right there on the spot.
“By all the iambs of Helicon, professor, surely those clowns must be joking,” said an astute student (hereafter referred to, simply, as ‘Stew’). What makes them think that any of that old dead doggerel can hold a candle—much less a lantern—to all the great stuff being ball-pointed into posterity by some of our fine technoscribes?
“What did you say?” I rejoindered.
“You rejoined her what?”
"No, ‘rejoinder,’ as in ‘query,’ ‘ask,’ as in I wanted to know what it was you just said."
“Oh, I said, ‘By all the beakers of blushful Hippocrene, what makes…”
“That’s what I thought you said,” I thought she said. “That’s real food for thought.”
“Of course. Why do you think they call me Stew?”
Our class sessions used to go on like that for hours, so I was not alarmed. I was, however, struck by her comment. I was then struck by a number of the larger students in the class when I suggested that they write about poetry vs technical writing. "You do it," they said. "You teach this stuff, so you should be able to write it real good. And believe us," they said, "we can tell. Remember: Good Stuff talks and Bad Stuff walks," they said. (I recall that they used the abbreviation for Bad Stuff.)
Yes, poetry is alive and well, as I can vouch for now that I have been delving into this relationship between poetry and technical writing, and as my vouchers are about to expire, I’d better delve right along. True, we no longer seem to have an awful lot of people waxing poetic —heck, you can’t even get them to wax your car— these days over “the stars of midnight,” “true maiden’s breasts,” or “the dew of morning”. Even a phrase such as Yeats', “The dews drop slowly and dreams gather,” is, as Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot and Gertrude Stein once said, “…less than acipitous in its mesothesis.” (Yes, they all said that together; you can imagine how much practice it took to get that mouthful out all together. They were sitting around having a beer. That comes out to 1/3 of a beer each, I know, but Pound, a notorious lush, drank most of it.)
As Stew noted, much of that old stuff just doesn’t have what it takes to move modern souls. What?— “To be or not to be, that is the something or other”? Come on, what is that suicidal noodling all about?! Or “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” Right, let’s hear it for overanthropomorphic metaphors, poetry fans! Literati refer to that as “pathetic fallacy”: attributing human qualities to inanimate objects, such as ‘an angry sea,’ ‘a stubborn door,’ —or ‘a lonely cloud.’ Pathetic fallacy. Right on both counts.
What has happened recently is that sensitive souls, who in the past would have practiced their “craft and sullen art” by describing nature, love and yawnful things like that, are now writing technical manuals for computers. Witness this especially moving passage by one of our fine young Spanish (well, Scottish-Spanish) technical writers, Manuel Macintosh: