letters / memory / mom / poetry / writing

you know the unicorn is there

In April of 1989, seven months before she passed away, my mom wrote this.

You’ll probably call this weekend, but I wanted to ask you how your reading went. Talk about being on the spot!

To just say “I enjoyed your poetry” sounds rather insipid. I wish I were not your mother so I could write you a real letter about how I felt about what I read. Well, can’t do that, but I can explain it like this as a parent. As just an emotional response, which I happen to think is the only proper response to poetry, I want to keep my own images, What gave rise to the words is in your own brain and soul–as a parent, trying to get a glimpse of the person behind, underneath and through the visions one’s child appears to be, it was like: if you walk through the woods and you hear the following hoofbeats, but you can’t see the unicorn for the trees. And yet, you know he’s there. And one day you see a flash of white. And you know he’s there.

What is ever the proper response to reading anything?

6 thoughts on “you know the unicorn is there

  1. A proper response? An honest one, I suppose, as much as a reader can be honest. Easier to do with a writer you don’t know, I think, than one you do, unless you know them really well. I can be honest with Darc about what he writes.

    Some people confuse honesty with cruelty, I think. That’s a shame. One doesn’t need to be mean to give an honest feedback.

    I think the best proper response, when it’s truthful, is “do you have more I can read?”

    • Some people do mistake honesty with cruelty. I think that is true of the speaker and the listener. Too many people believe that the cruel, hurtful thing someone said is the truth, and the kind thing the lie. That’s a shame.

      An honest answer… oh, for people to even know when they’re being honest. Some folks fool themselves or hide their true selves away too well to even know how they honestly feel about anything. I’ve felt that way.

      “Do you have more I can read?” My dream response.

  2. “You Know the Unicorn Is There.” Lovely analogy — for writing fiction, I think, as well as reading poetry.

    Falc (following on your Mom’s lead) raises an interesting question, about feedback from someone you know really well. (And vice-versa.) If they are smart, they’ll know that YOU know them well enough to detect false notes in their feedback, so there’s no point in bluffing just to “soften the blow.” (Or, for that matter, just to say something harsh — just to, haha, reassure you that they’re being honest — even if the harsh thing isn’t honestly how they felt.) It’s hard for a reader to walk that line.

    But, y’know, it’s tricky. There are times during the writing — for some writers — when the slightest negative feedback will any writer them crashing to a halt. And some writers really aren’t honest enough to say, “I absolutely do not want any criticism right now, pro or con, although I will later. But I know you’ve been curious what I’m up to.” For a writer I don’t know, I never slam them about what they’ve written. I just don’t know them well enough to know what they’re looking for from the critique, despite what they say. I won’t be dishonest, but I know how hard it is to write and then to show what I’ve written to someone else. I can’t help respecting another writer in that situation.

    (When The Missus and I were in a workshop, I think I had a reputation for bending over backwards to try understanding the writer’s intentions, both in writing the piece being critiqued and then in asking for feedback about it. It helped that people in the group were already friends.)

    • This thought comes up in teaching. Some students need to be pushed and told they’re being lazy or doing unacceptable work. Other students are broken by these sorts of comments. In one class this semester I have a student who I can look in the eye and say, “This work is ridiculous.” And I say it because he is lazy and he can take it. Another student I say things like, “Well, I think that instead of doing it this way over here, you might try doing it this way and that might be closer to what you really want to say. What do you think?”

      I never want to give the feedback that brings someone to a halt.

  3. It’s very hard for me to respond to the writings of someone I know, because SO much of what we read – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or see – paintings, sculpture, architecture, etc., or hear – music, poetry readings, etc., is filtered through our own personal projections. I see some sub-conscious bit of myself in the work of others because honestly I’m a bit self-involved at heart. I can’t understand EXACTLY where an artist is coming from b/c I can’t draw from his or her experiences. I can guess. I can appreciate. I can respond from the depths of my soul. However, since we write what we know… I don’t always know the same things and, therefore, cannot make the same inferences. I can give opinions on structure, character development, grammar, etc. But I feel inadequate to speak to the soul of the work. I give honest feedback when I feel most objective, but when the art form hits too close to home, I tell the artist how deeply it touched me and leave it at that.

    For writers I don’t know or who have not asked for my opinion: either their works end up on my Comfort Shelf to be re-read over and again, or sent off to the used bookstore.

    Your mom was such an insightful woman. The Unicorn in the Woods. What a lovely way for a mom to say her child is a magical, mystical creature of power and surprise.

    • I’m so glad you said that, Sophie. I find it very hard to respond too, for all the reasons you give. YOU are an awesome reader! I write with you in mind. Hope that is okay.

      Ah, my mom. Complicated, difficult, wonderful, and insightful. She always knew what to say to me.

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