Delivering the Moose
Stimulating Reader Involvement
Copyright©2002 by Nathan Harms
Imagine your summer vacation has taken you on a drive through the Rocky Mountains. Lofty, snow-capped peaks surround you. Verdant walls of spruce amaze the August sun. Deer graze in alpine meadows. Azure lakes and leaping trout beckon canoes and cameras.
As you round a sharp curve in the highway, you find an enormous bull moose occupying your lane. You screech to a halt, tires smoking, with your front bumper only centimeters from the massive beast. Thankfully, neither you nor the moose has come to harm.
Now the moose turns to face your vehicle. He fixes you with his tiny, dark eyes and lowers his antlers, preparing to combat your Oldsmobile. His nostrils flare and puff as he paws the pavement. You shift your car into reverse, only to discover that you’ve stalled and cannot restart.
You begin to interact with your surroundings in a way that was unreachable five minutes ago. The breezy mountain air is suddenly stifling hot. You wish you had taken advantage of the last rest stop. You recall the scene from your childhood when a Rottweiler attacked you and sank its teeth into your leg. Since then, you’ve never been comfortable with untamed nature.
When the moose rattles his rack across your Oldsmobile’s bright paint and chrome, the serenity of your vacation evaporates in a flood of raw fear.
Just Passing Through?
Do we allow readers to pass placidly through our poem like tourists in the Rockies, or do we provide them with a stimulus to excitement, reflection and personal involvement? If our poem is going to be more than a Sunday afternoon drive, we must deliver involvement to the reader as he passes through.
We must deliver a moose. Why? Because the reader's involvement begins with his adoption of our images. Adoption requires recognition. The reader recognizes a moose—and pictures it clearly. He adopts our fear of being face to-face with it. The reader enters our work through his recognition and adoption of our images and point of view. If the reader can't picture what we’re showing him, or doesn’t relate to it, we’ve failed to communicate.
Here are the steps, from the reader’s point of view:
“I can see this so clearly.”
“It reminds me of the time I . . .” or “I know just how that feels.”
“This makes me feel like . . .”
Perhaps there’s no Rottweiler in the reader’s childhood, but monsters are universally adopted. The reader will connect the moose to his own history, his own fear and his own conclusion. He will be involved, in some way, by our moose.
Where’s the Moose?
If a poet fails to build bridges, readers fail to feel involved as they pass through the poem. This happens if poets write abstractly. In the absence of concrete images, readers wander from one vague (but beautiful) idea to the next. “What lovely words. What wonderful rhyme.” But the involvement that makes the poem meaningful is missing.
Let’s imagine we are writing a poem about the scenes from our vacation in the Rocky Mountains, but we neglect to include the encounter with the moose. We will describe trees and lakes. We may even include a moose, although it is standing in a grove of young alder, nibbling leaves—not attacking our car. The poem becomes a tranquil, pastoral piece, a poem that shuns the reader’s active entry.
From this, we can see that our moose needs to be specific, but that it also needs to be interactive. In other words, the reader has the right to ask, “Why is this tree in the poem? Why this moose? What does this mean to me?” If we fail to deliver significance, the reader is entitled to say, “So what?”
The bridges in our poem need not terrify our reader, or be shocking and unexpected. They only need to be something the reader clearly visualizes, something with the potential to represent more than a moose in the reader’s experience–and ours, of course. Above all, they need to be concrete, specific and visual, something the reader can “see.”
Here’s a sample of poetry lacking a bridge to involvement:
“Life out of the womb was fresh and hopeful
like the water that rushes from a mountain
spring, spreading toward the open soil; unsoiled
and untouched, full of new life and new perfection.”
On first analysis, we find numerous images, but it’s deceiving. The non-specific first word of this poem, “Life,” assigns us to a meaningless passage. “Fresh, hopeful, unsoiled, untouched, perfection” have no specific images attached to them. The only specific image in this selection is the weakly “mountain spring.”
We can see why a reader might feel anesthetized by this selection.
Christian poets are especially prone to use a vague vocabulary when writing about matters of faith or praise. The words, “life, purity, holy, faith, eternity, praise” are spiritually meaningful, but have no literary strength unless they are shored up by strong, specific pictures.
Add Moose and Stir
Can we rewrite the poetry sample above to add a moose? Let’s try it.
“I splashed into the delivery room, an explosion
of surgical gloves, scissors and blood.
Pure as Genesis, green as Eden,
I felt no scrape of forceps or fear.”
The poet, who was aiming to lead the reader on a journey from the purity of his birth to the disillusionment of his adult years, failed to engage the reader’s imagination with his first attempt. His rewrite draws sharp images, and while they are vastly different from the natural settings he first envisioned, his poem is now capable of carrying the reader into the poem. A bridge has been constructed.
Let’s examine the rewrite more closely.
“I know what a delivery room looks like. I can see the gloves, scissors and blood. I can even hear the baby cry.”
If you provide crisp images, the reader adds his own ingredients. When you achieve this, you’ve really done well.
“I was so terrified when my son was about to be delivered,” or “A baby must be traumatized by all that ruckus in the case room.”
“Even in the midst of my own terror and chaos, I see that there’s also purity, hope and order.”
It's all about the reader—not you
I got a lesson in poetry from my dog, Sydney, the other night. As my wife and I were chatting at the kitchen table, Sydney sat on the floor, swivelling his head between us. When I mischievously inserted the word “dog” into a sentence, his ears perked up. He crossed the kitchen and stared intently at me. Sydney knows he’s the “dog,” and anything related to that word could be critical to him. I had his full attention.
When my wife and I raised our voices, Sydney whimpered, becoming emotionally involved. He easily confused our more excited discussion for dissension. I suppose he thought the cohesiveness of our “pack” might be at stake.
Sydney simply fell asleep when the conversation lacked intensity or connection to him.
Hopefully our readers are more intelligent than Sydney—and more literate too—but they share his innate involvement in communication. If they cannot understand the connection between themselves and our poetry, they may stretch out their paws and fall asleep at our feet until we have something important to say.
This is not a flattering response to poetry.
What does this have to do with me?
The question every reader asks unconsciously as he reads our poetry is this, "What does this have to do with me?" Our readers are not necessarily selfish and self-absorbed, but they, like everyone else in the world, are primarily interested in what involves them.
How can we adjust to this challenge? Do we customize our work to guarantee that everyone feels involved? How do we involve a larger audience?
Fortunately, the humanity of our readers provides them with much in common. Imagine a stream of cars is passing by a serious automobile accident. The passengers in each car crank their heads around to take in the scene. Young children, elderly people and even dogs all turn to observe the devastation.
The spectators come from diverse backgrounds. Some have driver’s licenses and some do not. Some have been in car accidents and some not. It’s almost impossible to find common threads among the curious rubber-neckers. Yet they all have an interest in this accident.
I think the reason for most of the curiosity is tied to the fact that each of us feels personally vulnerable to disaster/pain/suffering/the unexpected. One of us remembers the close call he had at a traffic light a week earlier. Another, who recently had a medical procedure, wonders if anyone in the wrecked cars is in pain or will need surgery? The child ponders the heroics of EMTs who are working with the injured. The dog thinks anything that involves so much commotion has to be significant to him as well--or involve food.
While we do not want to create constant "poetic traffic accidents" to ensure reader interest, we as poets must recognize the characteristics our readers have in common. What are some of these characteristics?
We need someone to love.
We like to feel important.
We are afraid of pain.
If we were to gather a circle of poets to continue this list, it’s likely that it would eventually contain hundreds of characteristics that most people share. These commonalities, then, are the core of connections.
What happens next?
A critical step in evaluating our poetry is to identify the commonalities in our work. What characteristics in our work will cause readers to “turn their heads” and connect with the scene we’re presenting?
Sometimes it's easier. For instance, if we write poetry about divorce or suffering, we may find it easy to find the commonalities of pain. But if our poem has a subtler message, what then? Do we set aside finer poetic subtleties to strike the reader with blunt objects?
Familiar places and things
Let’s look at a finished poem and try to uncover the commonalties that make it accessible to most readers. First, the commonalities of places and things.
The Angel Inside Me
i was dipping my brush in color,
azure blue, blue as the sky over Bethlehem.
i was painting the wall of my bedroom
when the angel inside me began to sing.
His voice such a shy whisper
hidden in the dip and swish of paint on the wall
i hardly heard it at all.
But the voice gathered power
in a fury of spinning,
and the angel inside me
hurled a spiral of praise
into the glistening surface:
Oh Lord, you’re beautiful,
Your face is all i seek.
My brush dripped azure sea water
from the bristles to the floor
as the voices of ocean angels
joined and sang with harps:
For when your eyes are on this child
Your grace abounds to me.
i had not known my angel sang
or that he sought the face of God
for both of us.
i had not known the azure eyes of God
brought grace and joy
to the holy angel inside of me.
Copyright ©1999 by Nathan Harms
This poem has many good qualities, but let's look at its ability to connect with readers by building bridges—capitalizing on commonalities of places and things.
The first thing you'll notice, is that this poem uses a situation—and objects—with which most readers will identify. Everyone knows Bethlehem is the birthplace of Christ and of great spiritual significance. Everyone knows what a paint brush is, and how it's used. Everyone can picture the act of painting a bedroom wall.
By the time the reader has read the third line, he has an image in his mind. Quite likely this image is followed by a private caravan of memories and emotions. While the reader's memories may have no bearing on the direction this poem will take him, his connections amount to a sort of personal involvement in the work.
This is an example of using places and objects familiar to the reader to engage him. In my example, the angel, while familiar, is out of context with the painting of a bedroom. If my poem had placed the angel at the pearly gates of heaven, rather than in a room full of wet paint, it would not have been nearly so interesting. (This is one of the great keys to writing engaging poetry—putting unlikely things close together—but I'll save that for another column.)
Common fears and feelings
Another way in which we can involve our readers is by building a bridge of familiar—or electrifying—emotions for them to cross. This is the commonality of fears and feelings.
The Origin of Desire
In the beginning
God created Adam as a lover
but Adam kissed with his eyes wide open
held hands loosely
was always looking over God’s left shoulder
for someone with longer legs.
So God created Eve.
Adam held Eve in his arms that night
and thought of God
almighty manna in his mouth
And in that darkened garden
escaped his lips in an exclamation,
Copyright ©1998 by Nathan Harms
The poem above relies somewhat on a familiar situation (i.e. most people have heard of the creation story), but derives its real power from familiar fears and feelings. To illustrate this point, you could replace the names of the characters in this poem with unfamiliar names and the poem would still communicate its basic message, albeit with the lack of some spiritual significance.
The first stanza plays up the insecurities (fear) that many of us have felt when we sensed we were not as important or satisfying to a companion as he or she was to us. This would be a familiar fear to many readers.
The second stanza plays up the feeling of disappointment when we understand what we thought we wanted was not actually what we desired at all. This would be a recognizable fear to many readers.
Putting it onto paper
Creating poetry that builds bridges is rarely a matter of gathering a list of familiar places, objects, situations, fears or feelings and constructing them into a poem. We would be highly unlikely to create good poetry this way.
Rather, building bridges by using the techniques in this article is a matter of consciousness. As we work at our poetry, rewriting and crafting it, we must remain conscious that our work will not mean anything at all to the reader if we have not built bridges for him to cross.
With this knowledge, we continually examine our work to ensure that the reader's answer to the question, "What does this have to do with me?" will usually be, "Plenty."
Let me Know
If you read this article, please let me know.