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Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Mmmmmmm? Moment

There have been moments when I've wondered why I blog. At times of greater clarity I know what keeps me doing it: it's mainly down to the generosity of spirit and the honesty (as I believe and hope) of those who take the time and trouble to pass comment. This willingness to comment freely is in marked contrast to what I have found in real life for example, where friends and family are rather loathe to put their heads above the parapet and say just how a piece of writing strikes them.

And one of the most interesting aspects to the commenting, so I have found, is the frequency of what I have come to think of as the Mmmmmmm? moment. This is a comment, maybe on a line or phrase of mine that misfires in some way; a word, perhaps, that has some unhelpful connotations, the lineation of a poem or some slight awkwardness of rhythm. Indeed, it could be a comment on absolutely any aspect of the poem's form, but what it always is, is something picked up that makes me think: Of course, why did I not spot that? to be followed, almost immediately afterwards, by the thought: Well, actually I did - all but! So by a Mmmmmmm? moment, I am referring to the time when someone hits on something in the poem which had caused me some unease, had caused me, in fact, to wonder Mmmmmmm? whenever I read it through. Perhaps the Mmmmmmm? moment had remained a Mmmmmmm? moment, for what was wrong had successfully eluded me. Not always, of course, would it be the case that I had sensed a flaw, but we are only interested here in the cracks and bugs in the woodwork which my sensors half pick up, while more sensitive ones elsewhere are left to complete the job.

It was the comments on my poem Autistic Boy that set the writing of this post in motion. I experienced several Mmmmmmm? moments when drafting and redrafting that poem, but whenever I met one, I would feel that there was something more urgent, more glaringly wrong that I must attend to first - and so, for all sorts of reasons, I never did get back to the more elusive ones - or if I did, I failed to resolve the difficulty, failed to see the wood from the trees, perhaps.

This experience throws up some interesting side-issues: am I being sloppy in not paying enough attention to the inner voice, indefinite though it may be, not thorough enough? Or too perfectionist maybe, in wanting there to be no Mmmmmmm? moments in my poems? Can there ever be none? Wouldn't that mean that I had either written a masterpiece (unlikely!) or had lost my critical faculty altogether?

Quite often, if I have worried about a Mmmmmmm? point during the day, I will wake up the next morning with a new word, phrase or line, sometimes several lines that appear to solve the problem, only to find that it no longer gels with what goes before or comes after. So I get a domino effect. It is as though an editor, somewhere deep in my subconscious, has been at work during the night, the same one, presumably, that was doing the Mmmmmmm?ing during the day - which editor, though, seems not to know the whole poem, just the bit that is misfiring!. Nevertheless, he is not to be marginalised for that. I recall a lecture I once heard in which the speaker spoke about prophetic dreams, but said that they always had a rational explanation. He gave as an example the case of a woman who dreamt she fell down the stairs, and a couple of days later, did exactly that. His explanation was that her subconscious mind had registered the fact that a carpet rod was loose. The fact never made it to her conscious mind, so the dream arose to warn her of the danger, though all unsuccessfully.

I have heard of poets and novelists being given the answers to difficult parts of their creation in dream form. I can't say I have ever had that experience - or maybe I just didn't recognise them for what they were. There are certainly cases on record, if not of poems then inventions. The invention of the sewing machine, for example, is said to have been facilitated by such a dream. The inventor, try as he would, could not see how to get the cotton back through the material from the garment's underside. In his dream he was captured by cannibals who danced around him and the pot heating on the fire. Their spears had ribbons flying from their business ends. When he awoke he had his answer: thread the needle at the pointed end.

And, in the arts there is the case of Coventry Cathedral. Sir Basil Spence, the architect, worried for ages that there was something missing. Or more precisely, that it needed something more. He worried so much that he developed an abscess under a tooth. Under the anaesthetic he saw the cathedral with concertina-shaped walls, an arrangement that allowed the windows all to face the altar and to direct all their light towards it. It is one of the features of the Cathedral.

Perhaps poetry is not so amenable to such visual interpretation, but the subconscious can still play its part. Indeed, I would argue that that is where poetry is born and raised. It may not be the perfect place to nurture something so vulnerable, but it is all we have.

What my examples have in common is the fact of them being preceded by a great amount of hard graft. The answers might have been given, but they were not just given. But what when the answer doesn't come, even after all that hard work? Should we then struggle on like good little perfectionists? Or should we be pragmatists, admit that this is as good as we are likely to get it and invite the world to see the result? Is there a point at which we should say; Enough, that is it, for good or ill? Of course, we are the lucky generation: we have a parachute; we have our friends out there in the blogosphere, and we have their comments for the final push - or if you'd rather I didn't mix my metaphors, we have their comments for a safer landing! My thanks to you all!


Rachel Fox said...

When you write about your own poetry I get the feeling that you do not have a lot of confidence about it (whereas when you write about art or other writers' work you seem fairly sure about your opinions...as sure as person can be, that is). This is perhaps why you...somehow...wait for the comments of others to help you make a decision about a poem. You have a feeling about a word or phrase but are not sure enough about it to make the decision. Does that sound fair or accurate? That's not to say you should change and go on some kind of confidence workshop or something...just an observation.

I am probably a bit the other way (doesn't mean I'm right about my poems, I suppose but it does mean I feel fairly sure about them...most of the time...). Well, yes, most of the time...

Dave King said...

I will have a good think about what you say, but off the top of my head, I don't think it is right.
It is difficult to put across, it often is not until someone else has picked it up that it strikes me, yes, I did feel a bit uneasy at that point when I read it over, but it didn't jump out and say that it needed work done on it. On the general point that I am not totally confident about the work (as opposed to my opinions) you are right. Does that make sense? Probaly not. Maybe it needs more work done on it!

Linda Sue said...

You and Tolstoy- worrying too much! I think that you are incapable of writing poorly! Lighten up, give yourself a break, your poetry is absolute magic. If you get too heady- you will fall over!

J. C. said...

Great post, I have a friend, the writer, who was experimenting and studying dreams for two years, and also, applied much of what he had discovered to his writings. I wish I could get him over to comment on this great post.

The Weaver of Grass said...

For me the best thing about blogging is that at last lots of people are reading my work and therefore there is some purpose in writing it. I think if I was going to be a great writer it would have happened by now, so I do what I can, enjoy doing it and get pleasure from the comments people make. I love all your blogs Dave (you might not get a comment to say so as often your site won't accept my comments) and get such pleasure from your poetry and such a lot of thought provocation from your prose - so keep it up and don't agonise over it so much.

Art Durkee said...

I am one of those who definitely has experienced the "key phrase or idea" moment, given in a dream, or a waking dream or vision, or in the shower. Somebody actually did a study once about ideas coming to people in the shower, and found some statistical support for the folklore. For me, it's a regular occurrence, to the point where I can, if not exactly rely on it, prepare for it, as I have been "in the zone" enough to recognize it when I'm there. This is one of those answers to the perennial "how do you get your ideas?" question that people find frustrating; but in my case it really does work that way. I listen, I don't require.

It also strikes me that what you're getting from comments is similar to what one gets on the best of the poetry critique workshop boards: good and useful feedback that is helpful for improving the poem. Would that such comments were universal in all venues, but they're not.

My honest assessment of your self-evaluation? I think you err more often on the side of perfectionism than sloppiness. That's no criticism, BTW, merely an observation. because if it succeeds for you, as a working method, than I'm all for it. What matters in the end is the health of the poem.

One important distinction between doing this on a blog vs. in a formal workshop setting, is that in the formal workshop setting one is by default soliciting such comments. On a blog, that is very unclear. I for one do not feel that posting a poem on a blog is an invitation to critique it; rather the opposite, most of the time. So, I appreciate your ???? moments, I understand what you mean by them, but I find that I rarely share your experience, in this way.

You write about the internal editor coming up with solutions that don't seem to gel with the poem as is. That's one of the dangers of over-tinkering with a poem, and with over-thinking poetry in general. This is what I mean when I say that I think you err more on the side of perfectionism than sloppiness. Even phrasing a lesser amount of revision as sloppiness biases the attitude. Not all poetry has to be worked hard for. (Is that that Scots hard work ethic coming through, perhaps?) I grew up with the Norwegian-American work ethic, which can be just as harsh. It was a major turning point in my creative career when I realized that some poems ARE just given to you, and you really don't have to do anything about that.

You're right in that the answers were given, but not just given. But it's important, I think, to observe the difference between applying oneself to a problem until inspiration strikes, and just grinding away no matter what. At some point, it's more fruitful to stop, step back, and take a break from it. Poems can be set aside for a month, then looked at again; this is also often very fruitful, because it a way to look more objectively at one's own output, with a more distanced eye. Over-doing revision is usually a symptom of being too close to the material, and caring too much about the outcome. In other words, perfectionism.

I say this as a recovering perfectionist myself. :)

Anonymous said...

An interesting take on the meta-blogging post, Dave. I find the constant interaction between us all, each with a growing understanding and appreciation of the others' content and style, invaluable. For those of us who have been at it for a long time (er...you and I, Dave), the opportunity for sharing mmmmmm factor must be pretty much without precedent. The usefulness of the live poetry group forum varies according to the nature of the participants and the protocols that prevail. And reaction to work is usually instantaneous. So this ongoing forum with its pause-for-thought element offers possibilities for an interface of personal and external mmmmmm moments hitherto pretty much unavailable. And in our case, Dave, not a moment too soon!

Dave King said...

As I promised, I have thought about your comments, and it seems to me that you were correct about some poems, where I did post, in part toget reactions, but there are others, notably my one long poem Short Official Guide to Ancestral Home (which I spread over several posts, none of which attracted a single comment) of whose worth I am in no doubt despite external indications to the contrary. So I guess I am saying yes, that's me part of the time, but it's not the whole story.

Dave King said...

Linda Sue

Yeah, guess I needed that! Trouble is, when I lighten up, I worry about Tolstoy...

Dave King said...

Would be good if you could, it is certainly a fascinating area for study.

Dave King said...

Weaver of Grass

I have to go along with that. I feel exactly the same way- i.e. that if I was going to be another Heaney it would be happening now, but it's great to have people reading your work and giving feedback. Can't disagree with any of that. Sorry you are still having trouble - I am trying to sort that - and thanks for the nice things said.

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

You may well beright I have been told in other walks of life that I am too much of a perfectionist, but never (until recently) applied that to my poetry writing. (How easily we miss the obvious!)

I, too, often get the criticsl moment in the shower - or whan doing some job that does not make demands upon the brain (though most do these days!).

I agree that what we get from the comments page is good and useful feedback - and further that that is not always forthcoming elsewhere, e.g. in workshops, where you are most entitled to expect it, but where others might have other agandas.

Putting a poem away is a common strategy of mine, one I use, not only for poems, but for paintings also, for example.

Dave King said...


Absolutely. I can say Amen to all that. It is what I meant by saying that we are the lucky generation - though perhaps I should have qualified that: those who have had it from the beginning are the really lucky generation.

Anairam said...

I think at some point in any creative endeavour one must let go. With making pictures, as I sometimes attempt to do, I find it is when I fiddle too much, beyond a certain point, that it is spoilt. The thing is how to recognise when it is finished, i.e. when further altering will undo it. I have not yet learnt to recognise that moment.

Dave King said...

I agree, especially where pictures are concerned. The difference, I have always thought, is that with poetry - any written work - you can always go back to the previous draft if you find you have tinkered too much. With painting, particularly watercolour, for example, the paint goes muddy and everything is lost.

maeve63 said...

Well thought out post. I think I can relate to what you're saying. There are times when places in a poem have been pointed out as needing work by my friends, and often they are the same places that I, too, was unhappy with.

On a side note...I was wondering if I could add your blog to my list of favorites on my blog? I didn't want to be presumptuous even though I have already put up a link in one of my posts. This is just more permanent, you know?

Art Durkee said...

I am reminded of the (Italian?) folk story, which says that it takes two people to make a masterpiece:

One to paint it, and the other to stand by with a bludgeon to knock the first one out when the painting has achieved perfection.


It's always tempting to keep fiddling, but that's because we're too close to it.

It's good to hear you say that you set your paintings aside, too. I do that, too, with my visual art—the closest thing I do to painting per se is digital collage; making these often feels like painting or drawing, and a finished piece needs some time to breathe to see if I still like it, or if it needs something.

hope said...

Writing/painting/creating a work of art is like using a mirror to reflect who we are. I'd guess most of us would like to believe if we try hard, we can attain perfection. Practice makes perfect, right? :)

I think of blog readers as a gentle [most of the time] voice of reason offering, "Put down the polishing cloth and back away. Let us appreciate this as it came to you, not in it's refinished state." Then again, as a closet perfectionist, I'll admit I often don't share a piece until I think it IS right. The older I get, the more I shut that closet door from the outside. ;)

As for the dreams angle. I've discovered that things/people I barely take note of in the light of day will pop up in my dreams. At that point, I'll realize what my subconscious picked up on that the rest of me was too busy to note. It's good for solving problems or sometimes, just you giving hope.

Keep letting Dave shine through. A dozen revisions, not necessary.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that and yes, sure you may, much thanks again!

Dave King said...

Art Durkee
I loved your folk story - though I have to confess I had to read it twice before the penny dropped Durrr, my brain hurts! - I also like the way your story assumes that at some point perfection will be reached!

Dave King said...


What your comments put me in mind of was the difference between a live musical performance and the polished (some would say dead studio recording. it's an analogy I might think about. Thanks. (I agree with your assessment of our blog readers. I suspect it is not always so - on political blogs, for example?)

Crafty Green Poet said...

Yes i can recognise that moment myself and sometimes I have found a blog comment can help to crystalise something. Though often if there is a downside to blog comments it is that they can be overwhelmingly so positive that i can start to feel complacent about poems that aren't there yet.

Dave King said...

Crafty Green Poet
That' true, but I suppose we cannot have it all ways. Those who comment are, nearly always, positive and honest, I think - and those two virtues go a long way. I do know, though, that when I comment I try to so only if I have something positive to say. I try to be completely honest, but sometimes feel guilty that, by ommission, I may not have been.

Janice Thomson said...

I find this to be truer in my painting Dave. I used to work a painting to death till I learned to just walk away, let it sit a spell and then come back to it. I find too beauty is in the eye of the beholder whether the written word or a painting and where I feel I have failed others mention it is their favorite piece. So I've learned these mmmm moments are not really a big concern unless there is an actual technical point I am trying to achieve then I just try to practice more to get this result keeping in mind that at the same time I have to stay true to myself and my own tendencies.
Comments from visitors are a way of not only learning to appreciate my own work but point out weaknesses as well, areas perhaps that need that extra bit of tightening. I know there are far more talented painters and poets who could render my pieces more dramatically but to me doing the best I can at any given moment is sufficient - no more and no less. I also think as individuals we are always evolving and that particular phrase that so eluded us this time will all of a sudden make its presence known because we weren't striving so hard to find it.

Dave King said...


Yes, there's nothing there to disagree with. I can say Amen to all that.
As to there being more talented painters than one's self, I guess that is always going to be, but it is not what matters. The salient fact is that you are the only you. No one else can do what you do. That is why we have a duty to make it our best - I believe.

edi gardner said...


This post reminds me of Letters To A Young Poet by Rilke
" A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity." ;)

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