Have you noticed how we shy away from getting too personal in our writing? We draw back. The subject is too raw… too close to the bone. So close that we squirm.
I think about this in particular because yesterday The Friends of the West Custer County Library hosted a reading by David Mason, Colorado Poet Laureate. What a great turnout! What an inspired reading!
One of my favorite poems, “Fathers and Sons,” concerned Mason toileting his father: Some things, they say, / one should not write about. I tried / to help my father comprehend / the toilet, how one needs / to undo one’s belt... As Mason’s poem moved from the particular to the universal, the audience expressed a collective inhalation – a gasp of recognition.
Up for debate are Mason’s first lines: “Some things they say you should not write about…” Certainly Mason flies in the face of “they,” but I would suggest that he cut the third person disclaimer. Then again, I am not Colorado’s Poet Laureate. You can read “Fathers and Sons” and debate his first lines after reading the poem in its entirety at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/indepth_coverage/entertainment/poetry/profiles/poet_mason.html.
I’m currently working on a poem about my thin-lipped, self-contained mother who silently lived life wrapped in a hairshirt… who at my father’s deathbed emitted a strangled animal sound that echoed down the hospital halls. Like Mason, I want to strike that note of recognition in the reader. It is a work-in-progress.
I think we need to be brave, and if you don’t believe me, take it from those who have made their mark: From Virginia Woolf, “If you don’t tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” Or quoting Joyce Carol Oates: “Much of my writing is energized by unresolved memories- something like ghosts in the psychological sense.”
- Troll through the dark and look for an incident in your life that holds a universal truth. Take your time. Bring a few memories to the surface and take a few notes. Give it some sugar and yeast: the poem or short story will come.
One of my favorite poets who is not afraid of getting personal is W.S. Merwin. You need to listen to him read “Yesterday.” Merwin begins “My friend says I was not a good son.” Whether or not Merwin is or is not the son in the poem, at some level he is drawing on his personal or second-hand experience, and the subject matter- that of failing to understand or appreciate our parents until it is too late- is a universal. Listen to Merwin at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/video/221.
And while you are at the Poetry Foundation website, type David Mason into the upper right search box. At which point, a David Mason video that aired on the PBS News Hour Poetry Series will pop up. He reads from his novel, a blank verse narrative about the Ludlow Massacre, that the Contemporary Poetry Review awarded Best Poetry Book of 2007.
Like Merwin, Mason uses his voice to great advantage. Years ago, I remember going to a Readers Theatre workshop and as part of the workshop, the leader had us listen to a LP (like I said, this was years ago) of famous people reading classic poems. Our task was to decide whether the voice accurately represented the poem or the voice was too in love with itself. It was an interesting exercise and a good lesson to learn. (Richard Burton, we decided, was in love with his voice.)
I hope that once you reach the Poetry Foundation website, you have hours to burn. You can get lost in there… listening and learning while the all else falls by the wayside.
“Poetry always begins and ends with listening.” W.S. Merwin