First Impressions

When people see |X| they more often as not describe it as an X in a square. Of course, it could be described in many ways (as 4 triangles, 3 intersecting zigzags, etc) but there's a tendency to clump things into the simplest symmetrical units, preferably units with simple names. This form of categorisation happens in reading too. Readers look for categorisations that increase coherence and satisfaction. However they sometimes cling to their original hunch even if it's later shown to be wrong. Genres and forms have names; a useful shorthand but also a temptation to be inflexible.

In stories as well as poems the title and first few lines have extra significance for the reader. Even this early on, readers expect to know the genre and form of the text, the time and place, the personality and gender of the narrator. They may well make arbitrary assumptions if evidence is lacking. Experienced readers are more likely to treat these assumptions as working hypotheses that can be overturned. Writers may seek to control these first impressions to their advantage, setting an ambush. This is common in "twist in the tail" pieces but anything stranger can produce problems. A poem of mine suffered from such a misreading. Its title "Love at First Sight" makes people think of romantic attraction - the typical Love Poem. The first few lines do little to dispel this notion

You look down. She's looking at you.
You look away. You look again.
She's still looking. Don't stare
because she's beautiful but because
you're lost in thought. Every moment counts.

However, when readers reach the following lines a little later

Stare, and the incubator dials will start moving.
The pen beside the form will spin on the table.

people are often baffled. Some didn't like the use of maternity ward imagery in a love scene. Others see these lines as a shift of time and place, with too many years having been skipped. Yet others, already alerted by the heavy-handed title, have kept their options open and are ready to amend their first hypothesis to increase coherence and satisfaction by setting the whole poem in the ward. My aim was to lull the reader then let them share some of the shock that the new parents experienced when the birth didn't go as expected, but I failed to reckon with reader intransigence. The ending isn't enough to shake some from their original belief

as if only fairytale princesses lie under glass
like this, disqualified from pain;
missing, presumed immortal.

Even in this age of consumerism I don't think the poetry reader is always right.


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Updated in January, 2000
tpl@eng.cam.ac.uk