Trips, traps, landmarks - part two

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.


Mike French said...

Great article Paul - it is amazing how people can see different things in the same piece of work - that's why I love writing - you take something that is yours mix it up with another person ( as they read it) and you get new flavours you never expected.

That's why I disagree with a lot of authors who say once they release their novel into the wild, it is no longer theirs.

Instead,I like your statement that ...

"the moment you release a piece of writing into the public domain it becomes theirs as much as yours"

A published book is like a child that has left home. It is still the parents's child but how it engages with the world around it is what produces the new thing, the new flavour, as it finds its own feet.

Stella said...

that's it exactly
you always hit the nail straight
in prose or haiku

Michael J. Kannengieser said...

Hi Paul,
I enjoy reading about another writer's discovery of a particular writing genre. I am a terrible poet; yet, admittedly, I do not put the time and effort into learning that form as others do and I am fine with that.

"But then he said: I’m surprised you don’t like Christmas though. I thought everyone enjoyed Christmas."

Similar to your experience, many folks read my essays and stories and instantly believe that I think like my characters do. I had some e-mails from readers who were suspicious of me after I published a blog post about how I write "love scenes" in fiction. I was looked upon as a bit of a pervert after that even though I used no foul language or graphic descriptions. The goal was to create a scene where the "act" between a man and woman advanced the story.

I'd be interested to read your wouldn't want to look at mine. Thanks Paul.

Unknown said...

Really interesting essay, Paul.
Did you save any of your poetry?

Once a candid friend gave me a glimpse of how others saw me as a writer. Since writing took up so much of my time (a sorry fact that's worse now than then), the consensus was that whenever I could I holed up and hit the bottle: a drunk who prefers to drink alone.

Anonymous said...

Mike: Yes, there is something 'organic' about the way interpretations of a text develop and grow. Well noted. And trust you to revisit the published book as a child analogy! Ha!

Stella: A haiku. Touche. Now you're the tricky one, but I appreciate your haiku and sentiments very much. Thanks.

Mike (Mr G): It's a bit of a concern when readers confuse the fiction with the writer, and when people confuse the process of one with the product of another. I don't think it's a failing of the majority, however; it's just that the minority who do it are often more vociferous.

Kathleen: a drunk hitting the bottle, eh? Ouch. Not a hermit or just plain anti-social? Society isn't always tolerant of individuals who don't follow the norm, is it? I guess it follows that if somone isn't into small talk and cucumber sandwiches, they must be doing somethinmg anti-social. Oh well. As for the poetry, I've kept most of it, but store it well out of sight. Every once in a blue moon, I'll feel like working on a poem and will spend time with those words, but there's always enough other projects on the go that I don't return to do the polishing I need to do. One day, perhaps.

Jane Turley said...

Hi Paul,

I enjoyed your piece; it's very true that words are so open to interpretation and as we all individuals we are able to put a different "spin" on them. And I suppose when you have exposed yourself,as most writers do, it could be disheartening if you then are misenterpreted. I know sometimes even with emails I've sat back and thought twice about what someone was trying to say. Was it a joke or a jibe? Without a face and a voice it can be difficult; perhaps more so with poetry where perhaps there are more limitations.

Hmmm... you've made me's possible I could have offended a lot of people on my blog. Oh dear!!Ah well..perhaps I will go into hiding...

Anonymous said...

Great to see you at The View From Here, Jane. And please don't go into hiding! I know exactly what you mean about posting blogs or comments and then thinking: Oops! Being a bit of a smart-arse myself, it's a feeling I have all too often. At least with writing letters and using snail mail, there's that all-important reflective and cooling-off period on the way to the post office, when it's possible to turn round, edit or destroy the missive. But with the internet, the moment you hit SUBMIT---well, it's gone. Maybe that's why they call it a Hard Drive: because it's too hard to retrieve anything once it's sent. Should be called the Impossible Drive ;-)
Seriously though, you are right; without the non-verbals and tone, it can be difficult to interpret how something is being said at times.
Thanks for your comment. Hope to see you here again.

Unknown said...

Paul, Much of the beauty in poetry results from how much work the poet's done; perhaps not in any way making it "easy" for the reader, but certainly in giving him or her so much, cleanly and memorably. Perhaps I have it wrong, but I've come to accept as true a quotation by Marilyn Monroe. She supposedly said she only read poetry "because it was faster."
A wry "dumb blonde" quip, which if you think of it, might be profound.

Unknown said...

Nice essay, Paul.
I took to writing because I had so much difficulty getting people to understand me when I spoke... but even in prose, it turns out, communication is a mysterious process.

Jane Turley said...

A smart arse eh Paul?

What size?

( I should warn you I have an impossibly bad sense of humour.)

Anonymous said...

Kathleen: That's a great quote, and one I'll have to use. The notion of 'giving ... so much, cleanly and memorably' is very important, isn't it, and you've put this so well. I'm a slow reader of poetry because I enjoy peeling back the layers, but the best poetry (and prose) for me is that which is multi-layered.

Manny: Thanks for the comment. I understand what you mean. It's empowering to be able to edit and redraft and redraft again to ensure the sound and rhythm and intent of the words works as well as it can. And yet, even then, a reader can sometimes bring another element into their interpretation. Having said that, deliberate ambiguity in writing can be effective and can lead to those different layers of meaning. (I enjoyed looking at your site. There's some wonderful visual images there too.)

Jane: *lost for words, but only momentarily* Well, I ain't no Pierce Brosnan, that's for sure. We may share the same initials, but ... As for bad humour, (not that I believe, from a visit to your blog, that your humour is anything but excellent) I think it's like bad singing: all a matter of taste, and the world would be worse place without it. Cheers, Mrs T.