4 minutes reading time (706 words)

SHUTTING THE READER OUT

There are poems that won’t let me in. Not enough room.

I don’t know what makes it happen. I only know how it feels. I get to the end of the poem and cast my eye back over it. The poem looks unusually full of words. Chockablock. It sealed over when I got to the end and there doesn’t seem to be a way back in.

Is it to do with the layout? Can’t be. The poem is in couplets with yards of space round them. Is it because it’s written in the first person? No – it uses ‘she’ all the way through. Is it because there’s no ‘story’? Nope. There was a story – something to do with a dog and some washing, I think.

So what shut me out?

Lord knows. Sometimes I think it’s too much ‘I’. At other times, I wish the poet would drop ‘she’ and face up to the first person. 

But if the poem opens with this construction (see below), my heart always sinks:

Walking through the woods on Saturday
I think

which could equally be

On the road from Ceres to Blebo Craigs, I notice

or

Having drunk three cups of cappuchino and eaten two bath buns
I feel

That construction is opening poems all over the place. It is not fresh. It is not delightful and new. And the ‘I’, it seems to me, is already a poetic ‘I’. It is not me, and I want/need it to be me.

How very different is the start of ‘In Search of Uplift’ by Nancy Mattson which begins like this (and not an ‘I’ in sight):

It was heaven to sit in that shop
at number 28, reading tomes
at a vast table, its buttersoft leather top
stained with ink and sweat

I’m in the shop. That poem is about me.  

When I was at school we were taught about poems with Personal Truth and poems with Universal Truth. Universal Truth was better. There was a lot of Universal Truth in Macbeth but more in Hamlet. Shedloads in Robert Frost. (We didn’t read Sylvia Plath.)

But with this business of inviting the reader in (or not), I think I’m talking about something different from personal v. universal. I like personal truth. But it has to be personal truth the reader can inhabit. The experience needn’t be one the reader has had in person, but somehow she is having it through the poem without too much literature getting in the way. (I mean ‘inhabit’ as in ‘live inside’, as in ‘put on like a garment’, as in ‘invest in’.)

Unless it’s a poem in which she is lumped with an experience she doesn’t like one bit. At the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival recently, Julian Stannard discussed a poem by Frederick Seidel and despite Julian’s persuasive charm, it wasn’t a poem I wanted to be inside. In fact, there are texts that deliberately invite the reader inside an experience that’s abhorrent.

Browning does it in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ when you find yourself identifying with a murderer. But there – because you sense the speaking voice is a mask – not the poet himself – you can be both inside and outside at the same time. You are and aren’t the narrator. Whereas, if you are the narrator (because you’ve stepped inside) and you don’t like being him, and there’s no place to go, you end up totally creeped out and off poetry for days.

So where am I going with this? People talk about ‘authenticity’ a lot. It may be that ‘authentic’ has lost its authenticity. But I’ll risk it. I think there’s an authentic ‘I’ which invites the reader in, and an inauthentic ‘I’ which shuts her out. I think there’s an authentic ‘she/he’ too, and an authentic ‘you’. And that when you read the poem, you know which it is.

The HappenStance reading window opens a week tomorrow on the first day of December (not before). It closes again on Wednesday 31st, but by the 30th I will be tired. If sending poems, do read the revised guidelines. Then push them gently in this direction, without worrying too much about authenticity. Or anything else. Let the poems do the talking.

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COURAGE!
PANSY PIFFLEDUNK'S FIRST POEM
 

Comments 9

Guest - Eleanor on Sunday, 23 November 2014 11:55

Yes, and there are also poetry events which don't invite the listener in, or not in a good way - and probably ones where you're invited in and then don't feel comfortable there.

Yes, and there are also poetry events which don't invite the listener in, or not in a good way - and probably ones where you're invited in and then don't feel comfortable there.
Guest - Gill Learner on Sunday, 23 November 2014 15:25

I guess, I hope, that doesn't apply to the Stanza festival?!

I guess, I hope, that doesn't apply to the Stanza festival?!
Guest - Nell Nelson on Sunday, 23 November 2014 15:54

It never applies to StAnza. Infinitely welcoming and heartwarming.

It [i]never[/i] applies to StAnza. Infinitely welcoming and heartwarming. :)
Guest - Monique on Sunday, 23 November 2014 20:51

Thought-provoking; what you have written here makes me understand in part why some poems just do not appeal- dare I say, to fall into the personal? - to me (or leave out the last two words and invite other readers in!).

Thought-provoking; what you have written here makes me understand in part why some poems just do not appeal- dare I say, to fall into the personal? - to me (or leave out the last two words and invite other readers in!).
Guest - Zara Raab on Monday, 24 November 2014 09:21

I like what you're saying here. It seems intuitively right to me. Thanks.

I like what you're saying here. It seems intuitively right to me. Thanks.
Guest - Michael Hutchinson on Monday, 24 November 2014 16:38

One thing that worries me is that, when I inhabit other 'voices' in my poems, readers might think that I actually am that voice. No problem if I'm writing as a dog, a jackdaw or even a werewolf.

One thing that worries me is that, when I inhabit other 'voices' in my poems, readers might think that I actually am that voice. No problem if I'm writing as a dog, a jackdaw or even a werewolf.
Guest - Nell Nelson on Monday, 24 November 2014 17:38

Yes, it worries me sometimes too. I don't mean your voices worry me. My voices worry me. But the reader usually gets the feel of what's going on. I don't know how they do, but they do.

Yes, it worries me sometimes too. I don't mean [i]your[/i] voices worry me. [i]My[/i] voices worry me. But the reader usually gets the feel of what's going on. I don't know how they do, but they do.
Guest - Kevin Conroy on Tuesday, 25 November 2014 15:00

Entering the imaginative world of a poet new to you is the challenge and, dare I say, responsibility of the reader who decides to make a comment about a poem.

Entering the imaginative world of a poet new to you is the challenge and, dare I say, responsibility of the reader who decides to make a comment about a poem.
Guest - Nell Nelson on Tuesday, 25 November 2014 16:51

The responsibility of the poet too. She is the one inviting the reader in . . .

The responsibility of the poet too. She is the one inviting the reader in . . .
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Tuesday, 22 May 2018