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Sorry You Are Having Trouble
Copyright©2003 by Nathan Harms

Once in a while, when I’m using my cell phone to check my voice mail, something goes wrong and I’m treated to a pre-recorded message from the phone company. “Sorry you are having trouble,” the voice says, sounding vaguely like Lillian Tomlin’s famous character, Ernestine. Of course there’s a very accusatory emphasis on the word “you.”

When I check the numbers displayed on my cell phone, it’s obvious that I’m not the one having trouble. Far from it. The phone company’s equipment has failed to correctly interpret my number punching.

It’s amusing, but galling, that the automated system is programmed to assume every error in communication is my fault. I’d like that voice to say, just once, “Apparently our technology isn’t quite as infallible as we’ve been bragging in our commercials…”

What do you mean, “You don’t get it?”

Pointing a finger of blame for errors in communication is not reserved for phone companies. Poets are prone to the same assumption—that failure to communicate must be due to the thickness of our reader’s skull, or his inattention to our work.

Most of us who have shown our poetry—especially early drafts of a poem—to another person have seen the furrowed brow and glazed eyes of incomprehension that signal total confusion.

If our reader is especially kind, he may ask leading questions. “Is this poem about our argument last weekend? Are you still mad at me?” Or, “What does incongruous mean?” Another reader simply returns the page with a shrug or a yawn, “I don’t get it.” Or, “That’s nice.”

The message is clear. We’ve failed to communicate the way we intended. It’s time to rework the poem.

Sorry you are having trouble

Perhaps the most disappointing time to discover that our poem does not communicate is after we think we’ve written our final draft—when we’re excited with what we’ve accomplished. At these times we can be almost fanatical about protecting our “poem babies.”

It’s tempting to find excuses to prove that the failure of the work is not our fault. We might say to our reader, like that pre-recorded voice, “Sorry you are having trouble,” and then follow it up with, “I guess you need to be a poet (mother, father, tree surgeon, etc) to understand this poem.”

But the failure to communicate is ours, most of the time, and we need to accept this truth in order to perfect our work. Rather than believing that the reader is too dense or pre-occupied to understand our masterpiece, we need to accept our failure and use it as a signal to continue working.

Value the reader’s opinion

If we’re blessed with a sympathetic reader, we may make headway towards solving the problem by asking some questions. I prefer to ask “non-poetic” questions so that I don’t lose too much control of my poem.

For instance, I won’t ask the reader, “What word would you use instead of obfuscate?” I usually don’t want anyone else suggesting images or words.

But I might ask, “What did you think this poem was about?” Or, “Exactly where did I lose you? At the title, or near the end?” “Did this poem remind you of anything?” Answers to the latter question can be especially telling.

“The first line reminded me of the slogan for Cheerios breakfast cereal,” might be a crushing insult to what we feel is deep and dynamic writing, but we must not feel resentment towards our reader. If one reader is bored by our poem, or confused by the first line, it’s probable that many other readers will feel exactly the same way. We must remember to be kind to our readers and grateful for suggestions, even if we feel they’re wrong.

After all, the poem is still ours. Whether the weakness of our poem is revealed by a non-poet reader or at an in-depth poetry critique circle, no one else can rewrite it for us. If correcting the poem means abandoning our own love of it, we can resign ourselves to the fact that our poem is part of our training—something that isn’t meant for reading by others.

Share the entire experience

In my opinion, the most common cause of failure to communicate is our assumption that readers know what we know. We write a poem out of our unique and personal experience, forgetting to inform the reader or lead him into our experience in a way that shares it fully.

Perhaps by the time we are ready to write the poem, we are focused on what we have learned or on the feelings that resulted from our experience. But for the reader who doesn’t share that same experience, our conclusions and emotions float in a vacuum.

A simple way to deal with this difficulty is to include the experience (or part of it) in your poem too, not just the “happy ending.” In the absence of a helpful reader or a critique circle, here are three questions we can ask ourselves to measure our “communication quotient.”

1. What’s “happening” in this poem?
    Not what happened that led to this poem, but what is
    happening on the page. In many noncommunicative poems the
    answer to this question is “nothing.” Nothing is happening.
    The poem is a summation of emotions, conclusions or images
    with no setting.

2. Is the entire poem a metaphor?
    Developing poets lean heavily on metaphor, sometimes obscuring
    the entire meaning in layers of it. Metaphor is a powerful and
    appropriate poetic device, but readers need to be able to sink
    their teeth into something concrete. Try to be real.

3. What is the “pre-qualification” for readers?
    While there is a niche for specialized poems, we want to avoid
    setting up qualifications for our readers. If our poem cannot be
    understood because the reader is not a university graduate, or a
    biologist, or a tailor, or divorced, or a mother we don’t need to
    throw up our hands in frustration. We can supply our readers with
    concrete details—and images that can be universally understood.

If you read this article, please let me know.