I had sent my newly published poetry book to my friend, John, someone I have known for many years. Weeks later, I asked if he had received it, and what he thought of the book.
He responded with, “I have been rather absorbed in my own world which has been a struggle. I have been sick with walking pneumonia and yet am still working daily. I am on a bunch of medication, which doesn’t leave me with the clearest head. When not working, I am sleeping. Am slowly getting better but about four days bed rest would be ideal. I can’t afford to miss work so, you know the drill. I’m tired, sick, frustrated, but still fighting.”
He went on to explain, “Poetry has never been my strong suit. You are certainly elegant with words. I can appreciate the flowery wording but feel like I am missing something, and that applies to all poetry not just yours. I feel embarrassed to admit that it seems to have crashed over my head like a huge wave at the beach. It takes some doing to overcome the feeling that I am too dumb for this.”
John revealed more as the conversation continued. “A couple of the poems were almost frightening in their intensity. I could sense the emotion behind it, but I felt like such an outsider. Then it dawned on me; I am an outsider, but you are trying to provide a window for me. Stop feeling like a peeping tom and enjoy the view. I can so over-complicate things.”
He messaged me later with more thoughts. “I reached another realization. There was much mention of family and closeness. I realized I was somewhat jealous because my family is tiny with no closeness whatsoever. In defense against those feelings, I put up a wall against your poems. It is painful to read about something I can’t experience. I am happy you have it but sad that I don’t. As I have and accept these awakenings, I may be able to better appreciate your poetry.”
Well, here is my take on all this.
First, you learn so much from the other end of the author journey, once you have released your first book child into the world. (Yes, these books are our children. Any writer can tell you this. We give birth to them. We send them out into the world. We worry about them, protect them, defend them.)
I have had people apologize to me for not having read the book yet, although they instantly bought it to support my efforts. I get it. I buy books all the time to help the authors who wrote them, and these books sit in line for a good long time on my Kindle.
Next, you do need a clear head for reading, especially poetry. You are reading between the lines of someone else’s fleeting thoughts and trying to process their meaning.
John thought he was raining on my parade with these remarks. He wasn’t. After decades of hoarding my work, I am happy to have put myself out there. This is merely a starting point. While I have been at this long enough to feel confident that I know what I’m doing, I see no reason to expect everyone to understand and love everything I have to say. It surprises me more that so many people, including strangers, continue to tell me how much they love and enjoy the poems.
John may be someone who feels poetry is not his strong suit, yet he expressed his thoughts beautifully and while he thinks he is “too dumb,” he is rather insightful. His assessment was relevant and helpful, because he is not alone in his feelings. Most of us want to love poetry. We associate it with romance. Much of it is introspective, like glimpsing into a diary. Sometimes we get it, yes, and sometimes we don’t.
Many poets are intentionally cryptic. Others don’t intend to be vague but, as they say; poets are artists painting with words and yes, we distort everything and can make deep-wrenching heartbreak a thing of beauty.
Then there is the perception factor. This had me thinking of the time my professor in college asked our class to write an interpretation of William Butler Yeats’ The Coming of Wisdom with Time. He gave me an A on the assignment then scribbled something unsettling, in red ink, in the right margin. What he said was, “This is a wonderful explanation of what the poem meant to you, but I was asking what the poem meant to the poet.” My thought was, yeah good luck with that.
In my poetry, John got this impression of a happy family with happy memories. Others I spoke with perceived a very deep sadness. People interpret things differently. We are all in different places, consciously and subconsciously. People have misinterpreted me, just as I have misinterpreted others. The poet is not usually there to explain it to you. Poetry is about what resonates with the reader, what strikes a chord and why, be it negative or positive. It’s about stimulation of thoughts, realizations, and reflections. It is often a soul experience, triggering emotions, and it is bound to be intense.
As I stated in the book’s Preface, I wrote those poems over a few decades where my perception had gone in different directions. I wrote many of them in my twenties. I mixed the good with the bad, the light with the dark. Some things healed and resolved in the end. Some didn’t.
Shutting down is one of the responses people can have in reading (and listening). Some are discouraged by an opposing perception. It took me a long time to feel secure enough in my beliefs to listen to different opinions with an open mind, to look at things from another perspective without fear. Often I am able to understand and sometimes agree. I had to get beyond this feeling that a person could take something away from me that had no substance to begin with—or that I could be wrong. With all this progress, however, there are deal breakers. Mine include justification of rape, violence, and oppression. We all have deal breakers. We are also triggered by the memories of our life experience. Another’s opposing view, however, can take away only illusions. It cannot take away what is real.
I appreciate John’s honesty. I will take that any day over:
“Nothing… I love you dearly!”
Then the passive aggressive behavior continues.
No, give me honesty. When people are honest, they present us with a gift of teaching us what we need to know or reminding us of what we tend to forget.
As if we need reminding, life sucks at times, and people may be struggling to get through the moment. I have no idea what is going on with another unless I ask.
John, thank you. I hope you feel better now.