the way it really happened

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:

  • Can you have a spattering that isn’t random?
  • What does the word ‘random’ add to that phrase?
  • Is the word really pulling its weight in that context?
  • 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:

  • By having to justify my use of the word, I clarified my intention, which should help me when I come to re-draft.
  • I rethought my ideas about discarding and altering facts: ‘personal facts’ can often be manipulated, but when it comes to writing about the natural world, accuracy is important. It isn’t so much a question of “that’s the way it really happened” as “that’s what happens“.
  • Author: don't confuse the narrator

    Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

    4 thoughts on “the way it really happened”

    1. As far as I can remember a week later, the point I failed to emphasise in the conversation was that “random spattering” is not only tautological but also dull. An accurate spattering is interesting; a random spattering is just a spattering.

      It seems to me that what you’re eloquently defending isn’t the phrase “random spattering” but the idea that’s imperfectly expressed by the phrase. The idea is probably too big to be expressed clearly in such a small phrase, so you have to decide whether or not a big enough phrase to express the idea would be too big for this poem. Expand or excise?

      Of course, there are other adjectival problems in the fragment you quote: “grey” and “yellow-washed” seem merely decorative to me. If there’s a story behind them the story should be told, and if not the filler words should be cut.

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      1. Lots to think about here.
        ‘Grey’ may well be filler, but the colour contrast of grey on yellow seems important to me. (Not critically important, but part of the scene.)
        ‘Yellow-washed’ might help place the location of the events (e.g. to a UK reader, I think red brick, pink-washed, slate, yellow stone etc would all conjure some geographical associations) and help the reader visualise them.
        You know that this is almost certainly a part of a roughly connected sequence of poems based in central Spain – or a fictionalised version thereof. I would hope the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts, and perhaps some descriptive elements will repeat and gather importance in the reader’s mind, or at least provide a more complete idea of the setting.
        Mind you, the writing of *a poem* probably shouldn’t be limited or overly influenced by the possibility of its subsequently becoming part of a collection – each piece should stand alone.
        Too much to think about or reply to in a single comment; I shall see if I find time to write posts about some of these topics.
        Thanks for continuing to make me question what I’m doing with my writing.

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