How much of the meaning a poem or piece of fiction, is provided by the writer? And how much by the reader? And does it matter whether it’s read, or heard?

On a night flight out of Toronto, heading for Munich, I find myself thinking about these questions. I’ve been writing a lot of fiction recently, and – for the first time in a while – have switched back to poetry. There’s a blank screen in front of me, glowing in the dim light of the cabin. I’m finding it hard to jump between the two. Poetry helps with fiction, no doubt about that. But I’m beginning to wonder whether fiction actually inhibits poetry.

Fiction concerns itself primarily with character – good literature being an exploration, and celebration of, human dignity. Regardless of whether a character is a prince or a pauper, a good writer will draw render them complete, as subjects in their own right. Poetry on the other hand is primarily concerned with emotional truth, with conveying emotion through time. As such, as someone very clever in a poetry workshop I was once part of once said, poetry only requires the ‘corner of an idea’. In fiction, you need not just the corner, but the entire canvas.

Why does this matter? It matters artistically because as a writer one is trying to find the optimum balance between writer and reader. Even if a writer has only the corner of an idea – an impression – when starting out, you still want as a reader to get more than that from reading something. A writer needs to give just enough to allow the reader’s imagination to take flight. But too much, and you end up clipping the reader’s wings. Too little, and the reader loses interest. But the balance is very different in different genres, and so moving between them isn’t particularly easy.

I’m guessing that in fiction, about sixty percent of the work is done by the writer. You’re giving a reader a complete picture of a world, and the characters within it, and leaving them to ‘dream’ (if that’s the right word) that world into life. There’s still a lot for an active reader to do. But there’s more to hold on to. More of a handrail, for want of a better term.

In poetry, I reckon it’s closer to twenty-eighty: the poet gives the reader twenty percent of the meaning of a poem, with the reader providing eighty percent of it through their own imagination, their own experience, their own reference points etc. But that twenty percent has to be so good, so immediate, so arresting, that it conveys everything the reader needs to assemble that impression for themselves.

Does this change if the poetry is read or spoken? And should that influence the writer when writing it? It certainly used to: in previous centuries poetry was primarily spoken, rather than read. The fourteen line sonnet form, which really came into its own in thirteenth century Italy, made for a convenient structure to commit to memory. It had the added advantage of not being too long, so as not to bore anyone listening. And it was written to be spoken: iambic pentameter pretty much matches the length of time a speaker can comfortably speak a line before taking a breath.

Nowadays a lot of poetry tends to be longer, and more discursive. It frequently doesn’t have a strict form or metre, superficially at least. One would think it would be more difficult to hold an audience’s attention for so long, not least as there’s no possiblity for an audience to re-read the poem. But readings and festivals seem to have never been more popular, and there’s work out there, like Allan Ginsburg’s Howl, or Atsuro Riley’s Romey’s Order, which is not only as good when heard, but possibly better. I think that’s pretty exciting. Perhaps, if one believes that the poem is the most completely portable of all art forms – one that can be carried in the mind and reproduced perfectly at will, simply by speaking it aloud – then there’s something important about poetry that works at least as well when spoken, as when read on the page. Perhaps the best poetry should aim at both.

All of this is on my mind as I’ve been invited to return to Canada in a month, to read at the ImagiNation Writers’ Festival in Quebec City. It’s a great festival, and a long reading slot. Ideally, I’d like to try out some new stuff. Which is why I’m sitting here, at four in the morning, somewhere over the Atlantic, trying to write…
Saturday 9th April 2016, 14hrs. The ImagiNation Writers’ Festival 2016, Quebec City.


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