Discussing the draft of a new poem last night, I found myself close to using the phrase “but that’s the way it really happened” as justification for including an apparently inessential word.
This startled me. After all, I’ve made it clear that I don’t think of poetry as autobiographical. Life is a stepping off point for poetry, but I think facts can – and should – be sacrificed if they interfere with the poetical worth of the writing. So what made this particular occasion different?
At the point of discussion, the poem is describing the process of swallows nesting. The lines in question – which will almost certainly change in later drafts – were these:
Ten days ago, under the verandah overhang,
there was nothing but yellow-washed angles. Last week
a random spattering of grey mud. […]
and the particular word under discussion was ‘random’. Questions were asked:
I suppose I’ve watched enough CSI to feel that blood spatters, at least, are guided by the laws of physics and show clear patterns, but I agreed that most readers would understand ‘spattering of mud’ as implying random. Even so the word ‘random’ seemed to matter.
I started to talk it through, describing how I’ve watched progress on the nest.
First there was nothing there at all; then the birds were clearly viewing it as a potential site and started putting the mud pellets up there taking no apparent care over positioning. It’s up in an angle where walls and ceiling meet and there was mud on all three surfaces with no clear focus point. Finally, they must have decided on the exact location and from that point on the nest started to take shape.
To the observer, there was a definite point of inflexion between thinking ‘swallows are considering that as a place to nest’ and ‘swallows are nesting there’.
Obviously I haven’t managed to capture that in the poem, and I’m not sure how much of the detail I will include in the finished piece; but I firmly feel the facts are important. I write a lot of nature poems and think that natural facts should be accurate: I want people to be able to recognise the real world from what I write; perhaps they’ll look again at their world and see it from a different perspective, through a different filter, but I want my writing to correlate with the world they live in.
It’s still possible that ‘random’ will be omitted later as it may not be necessary in the final draft. But by talking it through, I discovered why it was important to me. I also got a clearer view of what I was trying to do with those particular lines, and a clearer view of where I was failing.
So I took two important things away from discussion of a single word: