of shoe-cleaning and elephants

elephants' ears leaves

I’ve been back in the DCTN archives discussing narrators – first person and third person – and what’s ‘real’ in my poetry, and have just written that the inspiration for a poem is almost certainly something in my life, but it isn’t necessarily something real that actually happened to me.

The trigger may be a personal experience, or it may be something I read or overhear, or something from today that I connect through to something half remembered from the past etc. I then take that kernel of an idea and extrapolate it and link it with other images and ideas to create a poem. The same trigger can inspire different poems in different styles or forms and with different protagonists, and the information that fleshes it out may come from personal experience, research or imagination.

As a specific example, I have two poems where shoe-cleaning is included. One is a first person narrator looking back to wearing sensible school shoes which her father polished for her, while the other is third person, where the protagonist is a widow whose daily tasks include shoe cleaning. One reason the latter is not a first person narrator is that the casual observer sees this very colourful, larger-than-life woman, while the shoe cleaning is a private, behind-the-scenes ritual in memory of her husband, whose responsibility it used to be.

Both poems were triggered by the same typical image: that of the ‘man of the house’ cleaning the shoes for the womenfolk. It’s true that my father cleaned the family shoes for many years. But so did many men of his generation, and I could just as easily have seen this on a TV series, or read it in a book, or someone might have told me how it was in their family.

I could – and may yet – take the idea and explore it, with the protagonist being the husband or father whose task it is, or a small son, perhaps, who’s learning from his father, or who takes on this task when his father dies, or a new husband or father cleaning the shoes of his new wife or of his child after her first day at school etc. Or I could simply take the shoe cleaning materials and the shoes and explore smells and colours, bottles, tins and rags, describe the cleaning process etc.

Because of my personal experience, I wouldn’t need to do the same research I would if this were an idea encountered by chance, but that doesn’t restrict it to being me and my family in the poems.

The writer is advised to write about what they know, but it’s perfectly possibly to learn about a subject. If I write about polishing shoes I don’t need to do much research. But I could research elephant hunting, for example, and write about that. And there’d be no reason to assume that the people in the shoes poems were any more real than the ones in the elephant hunting poems. So if one of my narrators tracks an elephant through the jungle, there’s no need to go rummaging around in my biography to discover that I spent a month in Africa in the winter of 1979. I’m far more likely to have watched a TV documentary and read up on the details via the web.

As for the trigger for the elephant hunting poem, it may be as simple as walking past a house with elephants’ ears growing in the garden. (Which explains the apparently unrelated photo.)

Author: don't confuse the narrator

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

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