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Monday, 13 July 2009

What to put in, what to leave out...

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.


Shadow said...

this was very interesting to read. how you form, create, shape your writing. can't say mine is nearly half as structured or planned as yours... mmmmm. something to learn maybe...

Titus said...

Very interesting post Dave, particulary tying some of the fundamental questions of writing to a very concrete, and moving, example. Enjoyed your thoughts.

Carl said...

The end result was a very personal tribute that I found touching. I think it is good to leave the reader wanting more sometimes.

You painted this portrait in words perfectly.

I find myself sadder for knowing more from your second post and these are the things that people that knew him would already know and not need.... Like the extra wires in the radio.


paperbatty said...

Very interesting for you to map out your approach to this poem.

Unknown said...

An interesting analysis of your process with this poem--which is a darned good sonnet, & a good tribute; the change from "me" to "some" in the conclusion (from your initial thoughts to the poem itself) is very good.

What to leave out is so important--in music, too, tho perhaps that seems less obvious.

Tom Atkins said...

A very thoughtful bit of writing, laying out in detail what seems to so many to be a simple outflowing of words and emotion,but which actually, when broken down, is often a complex mix of thought, sound, emotion, technique and more. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

Irene said...

You painted a good enough portrait of him for me who did not know him and the other bits of information were unnecessary and would have distracted what you put down of the core of him, and that was enough.

Batteson.Ind said...

To me, poetry is a selfish and deeply personal art. Who know's what was really going on in a poet's head when you read a poem..and I'm not sure that I'd want to know, for I think that the reading of a poem is a deeply selfish and personal art also, it is up to us to feel our way through it and apply a reaction accordingly....

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, now I know much more about your previous post, I have felt particularly identified with the fact that his marriage broke up when the news of his illness emerged, on a much lighter level, even if all the same very hard, I have realized how strong the pressure can be when someone is staying near to someone else who is suffering: the tension I have created around me because of the obsessive pain in my foot has been recently tremendous...

Cloudia said...

Heres to Dean,
To all our Deans
and to you, Poet Dave.


Comfort Spiral

@ctors Business said...

Hi Dave,
Another fantastic posting and so generous. Writing can be such a closed and insular pursuit. There are many writers who would not be so generous as to share how they work and why. More power to you looking forward to your next posting.

Dave King said...

Mine isn't always that structured, I assure you. Maybe something for me to learn there?

Thanks for those remarks. Thay all help.

Your last para' makes a very good point, I think. Many thanks.

Thanks for that. It did prove quite a learning curve for myself as well.

The change from "me" to "some" came in under my radar, so to speark. Subliminally almost. The importance of what to leave out in music doesn't seem at all less obvious to me. I think it probably applies across the arts - interpretive as well as creative, if you accept the distinction.

Many thanks for those thoughts. Very useful, I assure you.

The Green Stone Woman
Thanks. Your remarks pretty much echo what I thought at the time. It was only afterwards the doubt crept in and I wondered if I had let the creative process take over inappropriately.

The Watercats
Very interesting thoughts, there! I must admit I had not considered either process in those terms before, but I see what you are driving at. I must give it more thought. Thanks for the comments.

Yes, that is a fairly close analogy, I think. Thanks for making it.

Here, here to the first two lines. The last does me too much honour, I think, but thanks anyway!

Gwei Mui
And my thanks to you for a generous comment.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think the choices you made proved to be good ones, but there is nothing to stop you from writing another piece based around different choices. I am saying that as one who finds it near impossible to write consciously with words and ideas that I have already used, and this post gives me cause to question that behaviour. Thanks, Dave.

Lori ann said...

Hi Dave,

It's my pleasure to meet you, what a wonderful blog you have here.

I'm afraid I can't comment on your poem, i have no qualifications at all in that dept. But I usually think that the first instinctive effort is usually the best. Maybe you could direct the family to this blog post so they could see ALL the lovely words you have written for Dean.
take good care,


Jim Murdoch said...

I came to a realisation only yesterday that a poem should suggest rather than state. This is why I think I have an aversion for long poems, because they explain and I don't need everything explained. What would there be for me to do if you did that?

For us to fully appreciate your friend you'd have to write a biography and who has the time to do that when one of our friends moves on? No, the best you can do is suggest what kind of a person he was and allow us to complete the picture. It will inevitably be an inaccurate one.

I've just written a review of a collection of short stories and one of the things that jumped out at me was this woman's ability to describe her characters, especially the minor ones, but just mentioning a couple of features and nothing more. And it works just fine.

I have also just completed a post very similar to this one where I ask the same question. In it I take a poem I wrote a few days after my father's death and analyse it. There's not much to analyse as it's only two lines long. And then I end the article with a reworking of the piece where I expand on it (actually I incorporate the original in a new piece), say what was only implied in the original and ask which is the better poem? I think you'll appreciate it.

A Cuban In London said...

It's always ever so interesting to see what goes on in the brain when involved in art-making. I did not know who Dean was but when I read your poem that last line on which I remarked left a deep impression on me. I have just read it again after your explanation (yes, thanks for the pop-up window for comments, it makes it easier) and it is not surprising that out of all the information you had the poem was whittled down to fourteen lines. You have Dean's essence there and that's what mattters.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Dave King said...

A couple of really interesting points you make there. Thank you for the. I shall ponder them, be sure. The additional piece with different choices seems very close to my half-suggestion of a double sonnet. Thanks again.

Lori Ann
Welcome to my blog and thank you for your gracious remarks.

Synchronicity strikes again, it seems!

I like your point: what would there be for the reader to do if everything was explained. In the normal course of events there would be no question: I would agree 100%, my only doubt was whether there are occasions (occasional poems) when that imperative (I think it almost is) might become inappropriate, other considerations having taken precedence. (I am aware that I am beginning to make heavy weather of this issue.)

I also take the point that pushing such a consideration to it's logical conclusion I would have to write a biography. Don't worry, I didn't know him well enough for that!

Suggestion does seem to fill the bill.

I shall look forward to reading your post. Thanks for the pains you have taken over this.

A Cuban in London
I fully agree with your first sentence. In fact, all this began because I became interested in the process I had gone through. But above all, thank you for your conclusion. Like most of my replies and correspondence, it is most reassuring.

Niamh B said...

Very sad story - and a beautiful poem - a nice tribute for him, and an interesting analysis - there's always more to be said isn't there?

daijoji said...

Brilliant, just brilliant! The poem itself, and then your way back to the process of creation. Your recent post is the best, but still very unique, proof, that the best art must contain two basic elements: inspiration from the depth, or as we sometimes say - from haeven, and highly developed technics, workshop. Only one of those would not work for the real art. I feel honored that I can say my congratulations to you. I did not know, what I'm missing not reading your blog carefully before. Thank you, good luck and see you :-)

Dave King said...

Niamh B
Welcome to my blog and very many thanks for the generous comments. Yes, that is true: there always is something more that could be said. Back to knowing what to leave out!

Welcome, too, and many thanks for your most gracious comments. I don't quite recognise mtself in all that, but, again, many thanks.

Tara McClendon said...

It was beautiful the way you wrote it. Sometimes I think writers overthink some things and change the fabric of the weave to the point that the piece doesn't resemble the beauty it could have.

Inspiration for Writers, Inc. said...

Thanks for the post. This is something writers have to learn to evaluate. Sometimes what you leave out says more than what you include.

LR Photography said...

Very interesting to read Dave, really good.

David Cranmer said...

The poem as written is perfect.

Karen said...

Dave - Seldom, but sometimes, my poems will seem to spring organically. Most often, they result from winnowing. Writing poetry requires many more decisions than other sorts of writing, I think. What we exclude is as important as the things we leave.

As for your tribute, I thought it was a lovely sonnet that did exactly what it should have done.

Dave King said...

I am sure that is absolutely right, what you say. It is something I think about constantly: when to stop messing, how much to rely on the original flow of words. It was just that in this case, after posting it I had the awful feeling that in this case I might have made the opposite error. Thanks for your reassurance.

Inspiration for Writers
Welcome to my blog, and yes, I am sure that is entirely correct. Thank you for commenting.

Thanks for that.

Thanks, as I said above, I've come to think I was making heavy weather opf it.

from winnowing... I like that, the phrase says it exactly. Thank you for the easing the mind's wild ferment.

readingsully2 said...

Very interesting to see the way you think and the procedures you used. :)