(In my last post I picked on an old professor. That made me think of another old professor whom I’ll add to the list of blog-post inspiration. By the way, I enjoyed learning under both of them.)

One of my old professors taught me that when reading a poem, never assume that the poem’s perspective is that of the poet.

OK. Let me think about this a second. Let’s take a few lines from one of my favorite poems – “Hap” by Thomas Hardy:

IF but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

So according to my professor, it’s unfair to say that Thomas Hardy is angry at God or that his life is in a turmoil, and he’s looking to make sense of it of a terrible loss he experienced in his life.

Because who is the “I” that he is referring to? Himself? A friend? A relative? A completely made-up person? No one at all? Perhaps these are just the words that came to him randomly? We obviously don’t know (unless he decides to tell us).

It would be foolish to judge Thomas Hardy’s personal life based on the perspective of his poem.

Likewise, it would be rash to judge an author solely by what he/she wrote in a novel. It’s so easy to assume that the perspective, tone, or themes of a particular book permeate directly from the soul of the writer. That may be the case, but it also may be the furthest thing from the truth.

Which writer would like to be judged by the content of his/her writing? No one I know, but I fear that is a common occurrence, and naturally so. Writers certainly pull a lot of truth from their own life, twist it around, spice it up, coat it with several layers of implausibility, and slap it on the page as a new creation. The real truth of any given phrase may be very difficult to assess.

For example, in my novel “Beauty Rising”, depending on what passage one looks at, I could be accused of being a hater of Vietnamese people, a lover of Vietnamese people, a critic of the Vietnamese government, a critic of small town America, a cynic of family, a believer in faith, a denier of faith, a hopeless romantic, a lover of tragedy, etc… you get the picture. Whether these are true or not, to me, isn’t important because I just wanted to write a good story.

I suppose Thomas Hardy just wanted to write a poignant poem.

So I would say this. If you want to judge someone, judge them for what they say and how they live, but not what they write.

1 Comment

  1. Even judging a person based on what they say can be dangerous. I worked in a female dominated atmosphere for eleven and a half years and found myself in hot water several times for things that were said in jest or tongue in cheek. They weren’t malicious comments, but the audience (usually not well read or educated) would find a twisted way to translate them. There are all kinds of differences between people that color the way words are perceived. The last three years on the job, much of my performance was evaluated by what I wrote (in reports; I was a caseworker). To amuse myself, and because it was my style, I began adding lots of the subject’s personality to my reports about them. The parents loved it and so, ultimately, did state surveyors. It got to the point where the surveyors were so caught up in the stories I told (I guess none of my co-workers used that method) that their perception of the overall program was favorable. I went from some scathing surveys to glowing ones when really nothing had changed except my writing.

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