A scarlet letter

If I had not gone to visit him that day, if I had not decided, to hell with caution, to hell with my studies,
to hell with propriety, I would not have lost my virginity.  
I would not have entered into the world of
sexual experience that marked me, in my own mind at least, as an adult woman,
no longer virginal, no longer innocent.
And, although it did not show on
the outside, I feared it could radiate outwards and everyone would know that I
had fallen from grace. 
The clichés run thick and
I was nineteen years old.  The following Sunday I went to Mass at St
Patricks in Mentone.  I sat, stood or knelt
in line with the priest’s words, and chanted my responses to his droning.  I listened to his sermon without taking in a single
word of what he had said and wondered why it was that cracks had not appeared
in the brick walls of the church, or why a voice had not roared from on high to
say that I had sinned so badly I deserved to be punished for evermore. 
Even my mother who sat beside me on
the hard pew did not seem to notice.  She,
whom I once thought could read my mind, did not detect the telltale signs of my
As the time for Communion drew near,
I panicked.  I could not take Holy Communion
given my sinful state but if I did not line up with everyone else come Communion
time, my sin would be obvious – the nature of it not, perhaps – but its severity,
as plain as the Scarlet Letter around Hester Prynne’s neck. 
The memory of this dilemma stays
with me, but its resolution does not. 

Did I stay in my seat, my
sinfulness on display for all, or did I manage to sneak up and pretend to take
Communion, only to skulk back to my seat without the host in my mouth.  Or worst
of all, did I take Communion as if I were without sin to escape detection and so
commit the greatest sin of all, the blasphemy of receiving the body of Christ in a state of
mortal sin?
First Holy Communion Day, before the sin.  
Every memory has to matter.  It’s not good enough to tell a story, to offer
an anecdote, to introduce an image without some understanding of its
significance, or so my daughter, who has started a class in creative writing at university, tells me.  
I have enrolled in a poetry class
for beginners.  In the beginning it is
easier to learn before the expectations of knowledge set in.  
I fear my poems will be simple things, unable
to transcend the ordinary, unable to offer resonance or layers of meaning.  
I will clunk around in average words with my
narrow vocabulary and the small girl inside of me, who as a ten year old
fancied herself as a poet, will get in the way. 
She will say to me, you have to
sound smart.  You have to use big and clever
words.  It does not matter what they
mean, it only matters that they look good on the page and that the grown ups
who read your poems will be gobsmacked and in awe of the cleverness of a ten
year old who can write such things. 
And I will scold myself for my
clumsiness.  My blood will quicken and my gut churn because underneath I will know, it is all a

3 thoughts on “A scarlet letter”

  1. I don’t have much time for creative writing classes. I’m not saying there’s no technique to writing—indeed there is—but it’s tempting to amass a load of rules to abide by before any actual writing takes place. I see newbies asking the daftest of questions in some of the groups I frequent. They’re not daft questions as such but what is daft is the fact that they imagine there’re sensible answers to these questions. How long should a story be? As long as it needs to be. Ask me a stupid question and I’ll give you a stupid answer.

    I’ve probably written more about poetic technique than I have about prose. I don’t write from the perspective of a know-it-all but rather from the point of view of a guy who’s fascinated by this thing called poetry and all the things that people say can or ought to be poems. You know the kind of poems I write. They’re what come naturally to me. I have my ways of saying things and I suppose if I could be bothered I could analyse them and give you a set of guidelines but I’ve no intention of doing that. You’re not me. Why the hell would you want to write poems like me? Or anyone else?

    I was watching a programme about abstract art yesterday. It made me think. About poetry. I wrote down, “If a painting doesn’t need to be of something why should a poem be of something?” And what does ‘of’ mean in this context? A painting of a man is not a man and would never be mistaken for a man; it’s a representation of a man. It stands in place of a man. There’s much missing—most obviously a third dimension—but we work around that. On the next page I wrote:

            This is not the Poem

            The words come between
            the reader and the poem.
            Think about that.

    I have no idea what I’m going to do with that other than think about it. It might find its way into an essay. A long time ago I felt there was a distinction to be drawn between ‘poetry’ and ‘a poem’. I’ve a new book of poems about poetry coming out soon and I’ll send you a copy. It probably won’t help. It’ll probably make things worse. But I’ll send it you anyway. What I mean by the distinction is that a poem has to make do; a poem is a translation of something bigger that was never intended to be reduced to words. Mostly I’m disappointed with the poems I write. I expect you will be too. The real problem is one there is no solution to: most of your readers will not be your ideal reader and they’ll make something of your poem that you didn’t intend or expect. Occasionally they’ll improve on it. Mostly they won’t and you’ll feel you’ve let them down but you’ll never know for sure.

    What you do have going for you is that you’re not a youngster. Youngsters tend to be full of their own importance. Mostly that sense is unwarranted. I’m curious why you’re finding yourself drawn to poetry. If you’ve something to say, something you want the world to listen to, then you’ll be far better served by prose. I write poems because they come naturally. I never sit down to write a poem. I write and end up with a poem, what I call a poem. Usually all I’ve written is a sentence or two. The subject matter of this wee essay is perfect material for a poem but what would be gained? Much would be lost.

    I believe that content dictates form. Which is why I found myself writing a novel after twenty years of only ever writing poetry. What I needed to say couldn’t be contained within a poem or at least not the kind of poetry I’m capable of writing. Neither form is superior to the other; there’s always something lost along the way. With poetry its specifics but that opens it up to universality because even when you write ‘I’ in a poem it stopped being you as soon as you hit the I key.

    I write the above not to put you off—I doubt you’re the kind of person who’s easily put off in any case—but to give you a few things to think about. My advice in situations like this is always: Listen to everyone and then do your own thing.

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