As a teenager, like many before and since, I discovered an interest in poetry. R.S.Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, e.e.cummings, Herman Hesse, Brian Patten ... Reading it and attempting to write it. Experimental poetry was the order of the day, and I loved the instant gratification that knocking out a piece of free verse provided. It allowed me to play around with the sounds and rhythm of words, without worrying too much about structure. Poetry was even cool in an alternative kind of way.
I don’t think I was a very good poet, but I don’t think that matters either. I like it when people sing for their own pleasure whether they can sing or not---there’s something life-affirming about whistling or singing, whether you can keep a tune or not---and, for the same reasons, I’m always pleased when I hear that poetry is being written (in the privacy of a diary, on a scrap of paper, on the wall of an underground railway platform). And, of course, every now and then a true wordsmith rises to the fore, like R.S.Thomas, Jennifer Strauss, Gerard Manley Hopkins, to delight us all.
However, I was keen enough to cough up some hard-earned cash and subscribe to Outposts and Poetry Review, and to attend a local poetry reading or two, where I learnt what it was like to read poetry to a boozy audience intent on maintaining a dozen conversations (and how deafeningly damning indifferent applause can be). But I was lucky enough to get a couple of poems published in a magazine called Bite and a couple in the local newspaper. It was soon after The Chronicle & Echo printed a piece of mine which I thought explored three different views of Christmas---commercial, Christian and pagan---that I learnt an important lesson about the way people read the printed word and how they’re quick to attribute qualities to its writer.
I was on my way to school and waiting for a bus to arrive, when my dentist walked past. We knew each other well enough to have a chat, and the first thing he said was: ‘I saw your poem in the paper. Well done.’ I was pleased by that. At the time, I thought it was a pretty good poem and was glad he’d read it. But then he said: ‘I’m surprised you don’t like Christmas though. I thought everyone enjoyed Christmas.’
This wasn’t what I’d tried to convey at all. He seemed to have missed the point completely, or I’d failed to communicate it. And I was lost for words, and could only fumble through a poor explanation of what I was trying to say in the poem. But then it was too late to find the right words because the bus arrived, and I went to school feeling dissatisfied and wondering if people now saw me as some sort of Scrooge instead of someone who believed Christmas should be one big party. A massive party.
Afterwards, I learnt to laugh about this. It taught me that everyone interprets what they read in different ways, and that the moment you release a piece of writing into the public domain it becomes theirs as much as yours, and that, as a consequence, some people may choose to see you in a different light. If you worry about this too much, though, you stop writing, or your writing remains contained within a diary, or on scraps of paper, or only appears anonymously on the wall of an underground railway platform.