There comes a time in the process of writing a poem when you find yourself putting the reader’s interests and desires ahead of your own as the poet. Now, the reader is not a potted plant. The reader is sometimes hostile, other times skeptical, still other times easily moved, or hopeful, or open, or predisposed, willing to be carried forth. The ultimate reader, the ideal reader, is someone who wants to have a communal relationship with the poem, and by extension, the poet. I believe all of us want to find places where our writing and the reading of our writing enacts some kind of transcendency, of, I guess I’ll call it one-ness, or concurrence, or affiliation.
Reading is an experience that is private. Between writer and reader. We want to feel united in the privacy. Which is to say, we want to disappear somewhat. Which is to say, we want the reader to disappear into the reading experience. Therefore, is it also the case that we must disappear somewhat as the writer in the writing? That’s where selection comes in but, all in all, if we want the reader to do anything, we must put the reader’s needs ahead of ours at some crucial point in the process of writing the poem.
Try this thought experiment: Try to picture what you want your reader to do when reading your poem. By do, I mean feel, think, wonder. You may find that the decisions and revisions of your poem become more clarified for you. I mean, we don’t write alone. There are all the other writers talking to each other, for one. In truth, we are a community in conversation. We are in community with the civic world, the domestic world, our inner world. And then, there are all the readers who are actively participating in those worlds with us, too. When you aim for communion, you’re appreciating the idea that, contrary to what you might have once thought, literary experience is quite un-solitary. It’s crowded. It’s noisy. You’ve got to get your reader’s ear. And bend it.
As much as we, at least I, value solitude as a writer — quiet time to think and fashion poems — I have never written a poem, for example, in which my idea of John Keats is not present. I want to communicate, to have communion with John Keats, the entirety of the art of poetry that precedes me, and the contemporary moment, as well as with the individual reader who might be holding my poems. Thing is, I mean that when I read John Keats, I probably know “Ode to a Nightingale” better than he did. I’ve read it more times than he did. I’ve read it for more years than he did. I’ve lived with it longer than he did. He had “Ode to a Nightingale” from 1819-1821. I’ve had it from 1979 until today. At this point, the communion is so intense, that “Ode to a Nightingale” is actually my poem!
Or, consider this. Ask yourself: What is the very least thing you want your reader to experience when she reads your writing? For me, I never want a reader to think I sound like someone else. And this question: What do you most want your reader to experience when she reads your writing? For me, I want the reader to lose track of time and to experience timelessness (as I do, as a reader, when I read “Ode to a Nightingale”). That, to me, is the kind of communion I can get behind—when the reader isn’t lost in the writing but is experiencing a sense of being found in the writing. Of finding location of self and other, of the organic and the invented, of form and identification, of the inner and the outer landscapes of consciousness, to have found content that enacts faith in being. For the time being.
Now think about it: to create as a poet and to receive as a reader this sort of communion that I’m describing is to exist in a state of uncertainty. It means to accept the tenuous, to be in the tenuous. Like floating on the surface of the water, face down, drifting with the tide, watching the little schools of blue fish twitter by. To have a cry of pain and a cry of praise simultaneously.
And yet, when you think of yourself as a reader, the minute you examine the cries, or feel certainty about the fish, about the water, about the tenuousness, about the time being, about the content, about the inner and the outer physical existences, about identifying the identification, and forms, and invented aesthetics, and the paradox of the organic in a fashioned literary form (after all, a poem is not of nature, it’s a made thing), then you become aware of your own body sitting and reading and that of the writer writing as depicted in his photograph on the book jacket, staring into the camera right into your own eyes, like, … what? Well, you know what, like the next Great American Poet or whatever. The very minute you begin to dance with certainty, the communion is gone. You are no longer receptive as a reader.
And, as writer, when you, too, have become preoccupied with all the nature and the craft and the how-to of all of that, you, too, are going to struggle with giving, and the communion will be hard to make. Let’s be clear here too, you may never witness the communion I’m speaking of, where the reader is found in the experience of reading you and what is now or what has become their experience—their new experience. You may never witness the communion you are seeking to engender.
I envision communion, I guess, as both noun and verb. To seek communion as a poet is to value sharing. It’s both the exchange and exchanging of a poem. It’s something to be given and to be received. And yes, a writer needs some form of communion with his material in the first place. And yes, a reader needs some understanding of her role to be open to communion, as well. This is a participatory ceremony of communion, as much as it is an actual transcendence.
Communion between poet and poem and reader is the offer and the act of offering. It is subject to chance. It depends upon contingency. It is most alive between two people, between the writer and reader. Therefore, as with any relationship, it is uncertain. It is fleeting.
Perhaps that is troubling to you. I find the notion comforting. It is what one strives for as a poet and hopes for as a reader. And yet it is not an unchanging thing that clings to you forever as a reader. You must reenter the communion each time you read the thing you feel has changed you. It is change itself. To feel communion with a poet and with a poem is to accept that you have been altered, dialed back, fine-tuned, re-calibrated, and transmuted.
David’s latest book of poetry is entitled, Charming Gardeners.