Say what you see
by Sheenagh Pugh
The thing about Being Studied for Exams is that it's never the poems you wrote last month, or even last year, they are studying – in the nature of things, it is stuff you, or in this case I, wrote literally decades ago, so that when someone asks "what were you thinking of when you wrote poem X", your first reaction is a desperate attempt to remember what poem X was about, and your second a total failure to recall what was in your mind at the time. I don't know about other poets, but with a very few exceptions, my "old" poems are not very alive for me. They are what I was doing then; I've moved on now and am either interested in other subjects or, if still writing about the old ones, hopefully doing it in a different way.
One thing never changes though, which is the questions you get asked. I've been used to this for some time because I have contact via email and the guestbook on my website (sheenagh.webs.com/) with students and other readers. Some of them are quite penetrating and thought-provoking. But three come up again and again and raise a slight sigh, because I sense behind them a misconception about what poems are all about. They are:
1. "What inspired you to write about X?" Why, I was interested in the subject at the time; why else would I do it? I think the subtext behind this is "is it autobiographical; can it all be explained away by some reference to your own life?" Indeed some people seem to think this ought to be the case. I once had a questioner ask me "who is the woman in "Sandman"? When I replied, "she's the protagonist, the person the poem happens to," he persisted, "no, I mean who is she in real life – your mother, you?" I said she was somebody I made up for the purpose of the poem, and I sensed a slight disappointment – as if it were somehow better to copy real life than to make things up. Well, sorry but I do. I am a licensed liar; it is my profession to embroider the truth and make it more interesting. And if I happen to use the word "I" in a poem, I am even more likely to be lying – don't assume that "I" is the poet, or anything close to him/her.
2."Where do you get your ideas from?" All around me, the same place they are for everyone. The subtext here is the belief that writing skill is something everyone has by nature. But authors have this secret cache of ideas, and if the questioner could only get his hands on them, he too would be a Famous Writer… 'Tisn't so, though. The material of art is in us and around us, everywhere we look and listen. If some people look and listen harder than others, and then practice putting what they have gleaned into words or music or pictures so that it resonates with others, we don't think they have access to anything others don't – just that they work harder at it. Remember what Elizabeth told Darcy in Pride & Prejudice when he said he didn't have the gift of conversing easily with people?
"My fingers,'' said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.''
3. "What is poem X about?" This is exam-related and I have just put up a whole web page about it on my site because I get asked it so often in schools by people who are going to have to write about poems in exams. They think, evidently, that there is One True Answer to this, as there might be to a maths problem, and that I, as the writer, know what it is.
Well, I have news. First, there is no One True Answer, because meaning in language happens in two stages; when the words leave my mouth or pen and when they enter other ears or eyes. In my mind, words and phrases have associations they cannot have for anyone else; similarly when they enter your mind, your memory and experience colour them in an individual way I cannot know about. Second, the poet's interpretation is not necessarily privileged over the reader's.
Anyway what the examiners want is not my interpretation of the poems. They want to know that you, the student, can read poems intelligently and come to plausible conclusions about them, which can be backed up by evidence from the text - i.e. quotes and examples. If these conclusions don't happen to be those of the examiner, or indeed of the poet, that doesn't especially matter. For example, I think I could argue that Wordsworth's "Daffodils" was about the influence of nature on man. Or I could argue, equally well, that it was about loneliness and the need for society. What I couldn't do is argue that it is about industrialisation or the slave trade, because I couldn't produce evidence from the text to support those assertions. But if I argue from the text, and produce evidence, it won't signify if my interpretation is not that of the examiner, or for that matter the poet.
There was once a TV game show called Catchphrase, in which the contestants had to guess a popular saying from pictures. The host, Roy Walker, used to urge them not to look for over-complicated answers but to "say what you see". Believe it or not, that is what examiners want you to do, too.
What It Means
such a one-minute-alive prism-
splintering silvershivering spasm
flailing on deck hook out flung
in a bucket tail slapping
the side frantic
and look now
the eye's surface matt
scales that shed
the meaning of a word.