“Love Letters Lost”
with John Stocks
Challenge 436 Response appeared in issue 437.
Hello, Don, Tom,
Many thanks for the positive response and the kind words.Timely, too, because, when I was sitting in a cafe in Manchester yesterday, reflecting on yet another Wimbledon semi-final defeat for Andy Murray, I was trying and failing to effectively revise a poem and thinking that, like poor old Murray, I am trapped at a level that is satisfactory rather than good — expressed in a phone call to a friend as, ‘I’m trying to write a Nadal-class poem and all I am getting is another Andy Murray.’
Tomorrow being another day, I breezed cheerfully into the poem, about surfing as it happens, in a much more constructive way this morning and for once was quite pleased with the outcome. Nadal, incidentally, has just been blown away by a new kid on the block, so the aspirational poem will have to be a ‘Djokavic class’ poem henceforth.
It is always pleasant when someone expresses their appreciation of a poem, but this is more, an astute analysis, which forced me to pick the bones of my own poem.
There is a nice quotation from Yeats in this week’s Times Literary: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” This is a little quarrel with myself.
I had a good feeling about this poem as I was writing it, having found a collection of old love letters written to my wife which have survived but remain in their box, protected a little from mouldering now by plastic sleeves.
The poem was dashed off with little revision, but looking it it now it appears that after the first stanza, which sets the scene, I decided that the ‘letters’ should harangue their jailer, myself, for the injustice of their banishment.
The voice, however, does not reflect the letters, which belong to a fleeting moment when, as Tom noted “the narrative still burns” offering ‘an immediacy of the realness of the feelings such letters draw to the surface’, but is akin to some living spirit of old letters, a bitter spirit which has accrued wisdom.
In this context, ‘such is your betrayal’ is a strong rebuke suggesting that I have have turned my back not only on the letters but on the passionate, emotional rawness and honesty that the letters hold in trust.
I find it very difficult to judge the relative merit of my own poems. Prior to this discussion ‘Love Letters Lost ‘ was not a poem that I expected to hold much resonance. In some respects I thought it a very old-fashioned poem and the ‘spirit of the letters’ voice too pompous to be accessible. I have appreciated the opportunity to form a second opinion.
Aha! So that’s who’s speaking in the poem: the letters. I can see why you’d be uncomfortable with that voice; it’s a hidden personification.
The first stanza begins in the third person: “In their quiet stillness,” with the narrator talking about the letters. The second stanza begins:
Was it only yesterday we passed into the darkness?
Who is “we”? I can see how the figurative microphone can change hands from the narrator to the letters themselves. However, I must invoke one of our mottoes: “Readers take everything literally unless they know to do otherwise.” And readers assume that only people speak unless we’re told otherwise. Nothing says, “Cue the letters,” although readers may reasonably infer the change in viewpoint if they choose to do so.
But that’s part of the beauty of the poem: it can be read both ways. In the end it makes no difference whether it’s the letters or the narrator who speaks of passion overcome by age. And the ambiguous line “Such is your betrayal” fits either voice differently but equally well.
I’m not surprised that the poem was “dashed off with little revision.” When a poem is ready, it will write itself.
Copyright © 2011 by John Stocks
and Bewildering Stories