Your Reader is Your Creative Partner
by Susan Plett
This is Susan's second column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.
"Every time a book is read, it is a different book.” Lisa Samson
Over the course of my writing life, I have amassed a large number of what I call “Sue’s Oft Trotted Out Phrases.” One that comes up in pretty much any critiquing session I’ve ever been part of is "your reader is your creative partner."
What do I mean by that? The well-known Robert McCloskey quote: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Misunderstanding is possible in any interaction, but most especially in poetry which is mere words on a page, and the fewest possible words at that. The actual words we speak account for only a small percentage of what we communicate—remove the influences of body language and our own receptive filters, and words become a clumsy tool at best.
Who we are and where we’ve been contributes to our interpretations of what we read. In workshopping my poem that contained the lines “beside the moving van/your tin of cookies in my hand,” I was asked, “What is wrong with someone giving you cookies?” Further discussion revealed that the person asking the question had a grandmother who made the same kind of cookies every Christmas, cookies that no-one liked, and the entire family had come to dread the Christmas influx of inedible baked goods packed into festive tins.
Does this mean I needed to change my poem? There were six other people in the room—everyone else interpreted the tin of cookies as a heartfelt, home-made gift. I accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to please everyone, and left it unchanged.
In another critiquing session, a friend of mine brought one of his first poems, a brand new baby poem that he had slaved and slaved over. Comments were varied.
“I like how the narrator is choosing to rise above his obvious dysfunction.”
“I felt bad for the narrator being in such a desolate place.”
“I thought teeth in that context was particularly chilling.”
“I thought the fallen bridge as metaphor for divorce was great!”
And, finally: “I have no idea what this poem is about.”
As it turned out, we were all off the mark—he was talking about a car. No metaphor, no relationships, just… a car. In that case, “your reader is your creative partner” wasn’t enough to get the poet off the hook. He thought that he had communicated clearly, but we weren’t hearing what he was saying.
A little ambiguity can aid the connection
Lack of clarity isn’t always a negative thing. As communicators, and as Christian poets, we want to name truth, and we want that truth to be relevant to as broad an audience as possible. Marianne Jones’ poem “Here, on the Ground” opens with the lines:
No, I never really got over the loss of you
though to everyone’s relief I’m finally behaving myself.
The exact nature of the loss remains unidentified throughout the poem. This lack of specificity enables the reader to enter into the common ground of grief, regardless of the specifics of their own particular sorrows. By the time we reach the last lines where “...every tug/wrenches”, we are fully immersed in the pain.
Along these same lines, consider this short poem by Malcolm M. Sedam:
I would not speak—
as a matter of fact
I was determined
not to give in this time
because I was By God Right!
and I was,
I did not speak
though I did smile
as I carried her up the stairs.
Quick! Without thinking about it—who is the narrator carrying up the stairs? His wife/girlfriend/child/pet? Is the narrator obviously male? On first read, I saw a small child being carried up the stairs, and I’m guessing that is because I currently share a house with children. I also know the value of not engaging in argument with a small, portable child, and how hard it is to just let it go when I’m right. You may have imagined something completely different. Does not knowing what the poet intended make any difference to your enjoyment of the poem?
Your reader needs enough hints to make a connection
It does seem important, at this point, to mention that both Jones and Sedam appear to have given us ample hints as to the nature of the relationship alluded to. However, even those hints can be misinterpreted. I once wrote a glowing fan letter to a fellow poet, commiserating with her over how painful the particular situation she was clearly describing was, and offering support and encouragement. To my great embarrassment, when she explained the inspiration for her poem, I realized that I had misread almost every supposed “obvious clue.” She thanked me, most graciously, for affirming for her that her poetry meant something to a broad range of readers. That may just be the experience that branded “your reader is your creative partner” on my brain.
Does this mean that my interpretation of her poem was wrong? This gets a bit interesting. In Marianne Jones’ poem, I can feel the “wrenching tug” as I think of people I have lost, specifically my father. Eleven years after his death, there are still days when I wish I could play one more game of Scrabble with him, and “Here, On the Ground” names that for me. If Marianne is writing about the loss of a loved one who is not her father , that doesn’t change the fact that she has spoken a deeply felt emotion and found an echo in me. No, my error was not in the interpretation—my error was firing off an email laden with assumptions.
Fantasy writer George MacDonald, when asked why he refused to explain his fairy tales, would respond that the question presupposed that he knew all that they were about. When asked about the possibility that “a man may then imagine in your work what he pleases, what you never meant!” he responded:
“Not what he pleases, but what he can. If he be a true man, he will imagine true things; what matter whether I meant them or not? They are there none the less.” (Read the whole interview here.)
What does this mean to us, as writers and readers of poetry? When we write, we need to “Speak (our) truth quietly and clearly”*, and make it as accessible as possible. As readers, we need to put aside our often frustrated need to work out what the poem is about, and listen. Sit with the poem awhile, and listen to the parts of ourselves that a poem touches, and let it be about that—about truth spoken into our deepest places.
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Copyright ©2010 by Susan Plett
*“Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann)