I’m working on the long ‘finale’ poem for my third collection, and it’s based on ideas I explored in my journal. I’ve been writing daily since September last year, so I’ve got quite a lot to trawl through while I’m writing the poem — it’s taken me several days already, and it’s much slower than normal poems. It doesn’t help that I keep getting distracted by other things that I wrote, and this post was inspired by one of them.
I wrote in April something that I still believe: I don’t think literature is about what the writer thinks.
Obviously, there’s a message they’re trying to send (well, most of the time), and that does matter. Usually, it’ll come across, and people will twig what you were trying to say. But that’s only the surface. The important thing is what it means for you in that moment when you read it for the first time, or when the meaning finally hits you, or when a character says something that changes your life.
Prose — and poetry, too — is there to be used, to be grasped in a moment when our own words elude us. To say: “This is what I feel.” It tells us that we’re not alone, and helps us put our own feelings into words when we can’t do it ourselves. It’s one of the reasons that representation is so important, because it can help people figure out what’s going on for them, and it’s where a book can be a totally different experience for everyone who reads it.
For me, The Dream Thieves meant: “Don’t be afraid of your own brain.” And The Dream Life Of Sukhanov meant: “It’s not always a bad thing to lose your grip on reality.” Books I read at times when they were the exact thing I needed to hear, the message I was looking for without even realising it.
For me, they were important. But for another reader, they might not have been. If they were, it might have been for very different reasons. It doesn’t matter if their creators intended to send me those messages or not, because that’s what I took from them, and that’s what I saw.
(Hamlet meant: “Don’t stab people through curtains.”)
I don’t think a purely emotional response is any less valid than one based on detailed textual analysis without a shred of personal engagement. I explored this idea in the finale poem for Fleeting Ink — I called it ‘The Hearts of Dead Poets’, and it was prompted by a review criticising Dead Poets Society for devaluing literary criticism and studying English by encouraging a purely personal response to the content of a poem, instead of an examination of the poem as a piece of literature.
You know what I think? Rubbish. Don’t be ridiculous. As a writer, I rarely write in the hope that somebody will be astonished by my metaphors, transfixed by sentence structure, amazed by the particular symbolism of a semicolon between stanzas of a poem. Of course I think about what I’m doing, especially with poetry. Of course I choose my words carefully. But I do that because I want to make my readers feel something.
I don’t write for the technical satisfaction. Maybe I should. Maybe this reviewer thinks creating emotional poems is a worthless pastime and I should be writing them for the joy of constructing a perfect sonnet. But, frankly, I don’t. I write to trigger an emotion, to make people see something that I saw and to feel something that I felt.
And, in the end, it doesn’t matter if what they feel is not what I felt when I wrote it. It’s not about me. By the time that poem or novel is in front of them, it’s ceased to matter who wrote it. It’s about them, the reader. It doesn’t matter what I think, because what’s important is how they react to it and how they respond.
It’s one of the few occasions where I agree with John Green: books belong to their readers.
Perhaps I should be trying to sell you Fleeting Ink by pointing out that if you want to read the poem I wrote on this very topic (I think I actually wrote it the same day as the journal entry, or maybe the next day), you can find it there, but that seems like a cheap trick. Instead, I’m going to give you the last three stanzas of the poem for free, because they say what I’m trying to tell you far better than I can. The conclusion to a longer argument, they’re some of my favourite lines from the whole poem, and they seemed like the best bit to pull away from the rest as they still make sense out of context.
The truth is that without emotion
we can read poetry until the earth
crumbles and destroys itself around us,
and we can know what every word means
but we will not know what they mean to us.
The truth is that they are meaningless
without the notions that spurred their birth
or the heartbreak that spilled frantic ink
like mortal blood across a page
and we will only find that meaning
by giving them our own heartbreaks
and letting fall our own blood.
I have stripped poems (and plays,
and novels and stories and great epic tales)
down to their bare ribcage
and I do not care about the body,
however toned and strong it is,
because I have my hand around its heart
and its life is forfeit to me.
(And maybe, if you like those, you’ll think about getting the collection. It’s now on Kindle and Nook and in a couple of days, it’ll be on Kobo too. Just a quick plug. Don’t look at me like that — a girl’s gotta eat.)