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Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Inner Life

My 'Prodigal Son', when he was here in December for five weeks, on his first visit back home to Australia in five years, kept telling me, 'Mum, you're not a poet!' He explained that he meant it wasn't something inborn, even though many members of my father's large extended family, through several generations that I know of, have also enjoyed scribbling verses.

'Oh yes,' said the Prodigal, 'Just like my ex-wife happened to be intellectually convinced of the truth of Islam, and it had nothing at all to do with the fact that she grew up in a Muslim family in Morocco!' It was my conditioning, he suggested, because I grew up in a family which put a high value on books, reading and poetry. He questioned my lifelong love of reading for the same reason.

One thing on his agenda was to find out more about his own childhood and mine, to better understand some things about himself. So he asked me many questions. He found out that I was an outgoing little girl who used to rush up to the front fence to chat to passers-by, until my parents got worried about stranger-danger and discouraged that.

I told him about my Dad reading my brother and me bedtime stories, including poems, and how his face lit up with joy when he read poetry. My son became convinced I adopted a love of poetry so as to have something to share with my Dad, a way to make his face light up. The corollary being that it wasn't really my thing. Nor my Dad's, despite his own writing. According to the Prodigal, Dad's love of poetry was to get attention – because I described my Dad reciting things like The Sentimental Bloke at parties, and writing poems of his own for the birthdays of family members.

After five weeks, my son went off and visited other people in other parts of Australia, then came back here at the beginning of March and spent another six weeks with us. This time, he said, 'If you're a poet, where's all the poetry you write? What have you written today?' So I showed him on my computer. 'And yesterday, and the day before that?' I told him it was easiest to see on my blog, and showed him that. He couldn't dispute the evidence that I was actually doing it, and actually sharing it with readers.

Then he decided it was unnatural to me to spend time crafting poems, working in the solitary way that writers do. 'You spend all this time every day,' he said, 'But I don't see it bringing you any joy.' But he noted that my face lit up when I spoke to him about poetry performances or my few forays into improv. That, he told me, was consistent with the outgoing little girl I used to be.

He spent a lot of hours engaging in these conversations with me. It's only now that I start to see some flaws in his logic. E.g. I actually know lots of poets who are very outgoing, and are right into performance and even improv, yet who also spend time on the craft of their writing. Well, that's not bad really – he only left 24 hours ago, so it hasn't taken me so very long.

I realise I don't actually care whether poetry is something genetic in me or something I've acquired from external sources. So what? I wouldn't have wanted a life without it. Ditto for reading books.

As for this thing that he doesn't see writing bringing me joy, I don't know how much joy would be externally visible in any writer engaged in the act of writing. Absorption is more like it. Getting lost in the work.

The Prodigal doesn't read books very often. And when he does, it is not for pleasure but self-improvement. While he was here he read The Secret and a book on the raw food diet. He thought that Andrew and I led a very dull life, spending a lot of time writing, a lot of time reading, and some time watching a few favourite shows on TV. But how do you gauge these pleasures? They are very internal.

I wasn't able to argue against him when he insisted that reading was a way of Andrew and I being separate. Reading the same books and talking about them to each other didn't seem to count, unless we actually read them together, at the same time. Which we have sometimes done, as it happens. But no, even that he saw as a substitute for talking to each other. 'When do you ever talk?' he demanded. 'I never hear you say anything meaningful.'

'We talk in the bedroom,' I replied. (We tend to lie in late in the mornings.)

'Just the same as when I was a kid,' he said. 'Everything happening behind closed doors, so I didn't know about it.'

Treasuring particular books as friends, as I do, he thought bizarre – a substitute for real interactions with living people. Yes, we did have friends call on us while he was here; we did go and visit people and take him with us. He heard us talking on the phone. Nevertheless....

I took many of his words to heart, perhaps too much so. But I'm afraid I never stopped reading books or writing poetry; never, even for a moment, entertained such notions!


  1. Far be it from me to judge your son, but it seems to me that he was judging you unfairly. Had he, for example, seen outwards signs of unhappiness any more than he had seem outward signs of joy? Could he (being neither you nor your husband) know the form of intimacy your relationship thrives on? It seems like he was projecting himself onto what he saw in you: how can reading make you happy when it doesn't him?

    Someone else's doubt can fuel worry in someone who had been perfectly happy until they spoke to the other person. It is true that other people are sometimes able to see things in your life that you have not been able to spot yourself. Still though, they do not know your life like you do, and sometimes they can be wrong.

    Who cares why you write? It is what you have chosen and it is who you are.

    Phew! That turned into a bit of a rant - sorry!

  2. "Rants" like that are welcome any time! :)

    I got a bit brainwashed, I believe, and am glad to hear other people's views, especially when they make such good sense.

  3. David Nissen20/04/2008, 10:05

    One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, was once said that a writer is someone who writes. It is a fairly simple definition, but it is also to the point. And by extention I'd argue that a peot is someone who creates poety.

  4. Ta, darling!

    Yes, one of MY favourite writers, Marge Piercy, said similar (in a poem):

    The real writer is one
    who really writes.

  5. Oh, get his voice out of your head! Tell Prodigal Son to piss off. I have never seen anyone as passionately devoted to poetry as you are. I have never seen anyone as in love with words, and as encouraging of other poets. And as for the whole 'solitary' thing, does he get how social you are on the net?
    Tell him to f**k right off.
    love, Helen, who would not be poet without you.

  6. Rosemary, you are THE poet of poets. Every time you send me something, my heart sings. Onlookers may not see the heart singing, but I hear it and hum the tunes as I take my daily "health walks". Trusting yourself is the first and greatest poem you write to yourself anyway; take everything else from everyone else as a generous offering. (And may I remind you that if the shoe fits, wear it; otherwise put it back in the street for an Ugly Sister to find {or son!}) Love, JenWig

  7. Thank you, dearest Helen and dearest Jen. I'm very glad the poet in me reaches the poet in you!

    It is true his comments were generously meant. He wants me to be happy! But I think perhaps I am a better judge of that than anyone else. :)