These two questions arise in the course of almost any piece of writing - or, come to that, painting or any other art form. They arose in somewhat different form, though, after I had completed my previous post, my tribute poem to Dean. Several things to do with the writing of it were unusual - for me. But what had seemed merely unusual at the time began to feel like reservations as I thought more about it and him - a feeling that was confirmed to some extent by the many kind compliments and expressions of support, as well as by the odd remark - mostly in the emails - asking about Dean or obliquely giving the impression that more information would have been appreciated. Rather than explain repeatedly, I thought a further post might be in order.
To begin with, I awoke on the morning after the funeral with several lines and part-lines running through my mind, just asking to be written down. Unusual because that does not happen unless I have been working on a poem beforehand, and in this case I had not previously had any thought of writing a poem. Unusual also, because there were nearly a dozen such, mostly disconnected fragments. Three or four lines would be a good haul normally, plus they would tend to be continuous, not disjointed.
I managed to get them all down on paper. Unusual, because more typically, in writing out the first one, others would have faded slightly from my memory. Each such line in written form becomes for me another visitor from Porlock. On this occasion that did not happen. Here they are, in the order, and as I wrote them at the time:
Music from his vast CD collection filled the air
By request: no mention of religion
......... therapy and operations
Here we remember him, the pastor said,
It seemed unreal, the fact that he was dead
He'd spoken deeply with her of life's themes
A father, son and very recent friend,
A five-week uncle..........
A gadget man, if ever there was one.
I'd wanted to include the future tense:
to me, if not to him, it would make sense
To refresh your memories, here again is the final poem:
His wide and varied tastes in music filled
the crowded chapel, and became a thread
of silk for memories of things he'd said;
things suffered, hoped, endured; things he would build
without religion's comfort, he who'd willed
for none of that. Resilience seemed bred
in him. Unreal, I thought, him being dead,
with all that life, those plans still unfulfilled.
That wild conglomeration in his brain,
prognoses, chemo', surgery: the strain
itself was killing some. He knew the score,
but was determined always for one more
small triumph. Here I'd use a future tense -
to some, if not to him, it might make sense.
But to resume: I looked at the lines and fragments I had written, and two thoughts occurred: that it seemed to be shaping up as a sonnet; and that as a sonnet, not all the lines would get to be included. These were the first decisions made, decisions that I am not now sure about. (I seemed to have made the decision to write the poem by default.) At the time the sonnet seemed to me to be a highly appropriate form for the purpose of the poem, and from that thought another decision seemed to follow: that it would be a rhyming sonnet. Not one with near miss rhymes, but having the full dong. For better or for worse, most of what followed would follow from those three key decisions.
I have always regarded the question of what to put in and what to leave out as one of the most important of issues, and for me, so far as poetry is concerned, it all goes back to the famous question posed by Basho, the seventeenth century Japanes master of the haiku who famously asked: Is it necessary to include everything? Well, certainly not - usually. But does that apply in the case of a poem written as a tribute? What might he have liked included? What might the family?
The next step was another list, this time of all the factual information that could be included. (Again, unusual, not at all my normal way of working.) The list looked like this:
- He was in his thirties.
- He had three sons, the eldest being 11.
- His marriage broke up when the diagnosis of brain tumour was made.
- His younger brother and sister-in-law had a daughter five weeks before the funeral, a niece had seen only once.
- He had had the tumour for 8 - 9 years.
- More recently he had begun to suffer convulsions.
- I had known him for only a relatively short time - maybe a year or two.
- He was passionately interested in cars and computers.
- He loved gadgets and - something I found out only at the funeral - he loved fiddling with them, and particularly with car radios. He would, for instance, take the radio out of a car and remove those wires he considered unnecessary!
As you can see, not a lot from there actually made it into the poem either. Some that did were revamped. To have included much more would have changed the poem completely, not just in shape, but in feel, would have made it more poignant, for example. Was that what I wanted? Not at the time. But was it something I owed Dean - or the family? I don't know. I began with the lines that were in my head when I awoke, and from those the sonnet developed (I think, I hope)organically, as poets like to say. Almost under its own steam. With that aspect of it I was satisfied, but maybe I should have thrown it all in - or most of it - and jettisoned the sonnet form altogether. Or maybe it could have become a double sonnet? I did feel that Dean would have appreciated the attempt to give his life and memory some definite shape, but I think the important questions with which I started - what to put in, what to leave out - are all but unanswerable at times.