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In the story titled “Hands,” by Sherwood Anderson, the narrator several times comments that the story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story that only a poet could properly tell. What does the narrator mean by these comments? Consider the first example of such a statement:
The story of Wing Biddlebaum’s hands is worth a book in itself. Sympathetically set forth it would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men. It is a job for a poet. In Winesburg the hands had attracted attention merely because of their activity.
This comment seems to associate poets with the ability to express sympathy and understanding and to describe things that are strange and beautiful and people who are obscure. The kind of poet the narrator seems to have in mind here is the same kind of poet described by William Wordsworth in his famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads. In short, the kind of poet the narrator has in mind is a Romantic poet, and Anderson himself seems to try to function as that sort of poet in his own writing of this story. Anderson presents Wing with sympathy (not as a freak), and he himself shows the strange and beautiful qualities of this obscure man – a man whom his present neighbors fail to understand and a man whom his previous neighbors ostracized and rejected. Part of the job of the poet, then, at least as this narrator describes it, is to make use see sympathetically the unsuspected beauty of other people, especially people who are often misunderstood.
Later, the narrator once again imagines the poet in explicitly Romantic terms:
Perhaps our talking of them [that is, of Wing’s hands] will arouse the poet who will tell the hidden wonder story of the influence for which the hands were but fluttering pennants of promise.
Here the key words are “wonder” and “promise”: the narrator again imagines the poet as someone who can see imaginatively and optimistically. The poet is the opposite of the kind of narrow-minded, conventional persons who failed to understand Wing’s talents and potential.
Later still, the narrator is even more explicit when he describes the kind of insight such a poet could achieve into the life of a man such as Wing Biddlebaum, whose real name, before his disgrace, was Adolph Meyers:
Adolph Myers was meant by nature to be a teacher of youth. He was one of those rare, little-understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness. In their feeling for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of women in their love of men.
And yet that is but crudely stated. It needs the poet there.
In other words, only a true poet would have the insight, the imagination, and the powers of expression to do justice to a soul as subtle and complicated as Wing Biddlebaum’s. Only a true poet could appreciate Wing’s individuality, unconventionality, and unusual powers. The narrator once more imagines a kind of Romantic poet, not a harshly satiric poet or a rigidly orthodox poet or a poet who might endorse rather than criticize conventional opinion. In short, the narrator imagines a “poet” who strongly resembles Sherwood Anderson.
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