The wonderful response to my poetry in my latest novel A Man of Understanding, Runner Up in the Fiction category of the People’s Book Prize 2023, as well as in my previous novel The Infinite Wisdom of Harriet Rose, demonstrates that many readers of novels, who may not choose to read collections of poetry, appreciate poems when they are in the context of a novel.
In the creative art of writing poetry, we find ourselves expressing ideas, feelings, emotions in a way that isn’t always possible in communication through conversation. There is an immediacy about the artform at its best. Expression is conveyed through minimal words. Poetry ignites the imagination.
Yet there are those who fear that the emotions, the motivation behind poetry, its meaning, will be hard to interpret. However, in my novels, readers get to know the characters first before reading their poems. Readers understand what these characters are going through in a way that they don’t when they cannot see into the soul of a poet whose life they may know nothing about. Readers of A Man of Understanding witness the raw emotions of the characters being played out, so that the poems become an expression of those feelings and emotions. They understand the motivation behind the poetry and the poetry becomes easier to interpret. The poems are the expression of the pain, loss, joy, hope, turmoil, guilt, love, of the characters.
It is no coincidence that in times of grief, loss, suffering, our creativity often shines at its brightest like a divine message. We abandon the trivial and focus instead on what really matters in our lives and in the world around us. We draw upon our innermost thoughts; we want to find something more meaningful than the everyday to make sense of it all.
In A Man of Understanding, recently orphaned Blue Ellerton, whose parents have been killed in a car crash near to the only home, in Wiltshire, that Blue has ever known, is sent to live in a finca in the mountains of Mallorca with his poet-philosopher grandfather and appointed guardian, Horatio Hennessy, whom, mysteriously, he has never met.
At first, communication is strained between these two seemingly diverse characters, both suffering from loss in very different ways. Horatio, an enigmatic, learned, charismatic individual, has lived alone for many years since the death of his wife, Sophia, and is used to his own company. Blue, an only child, has led a quiet life with his parents in the English countryside. He is used to the company of his parents and a few schoolfriends of his own age.
It is not until Blue stumbles by chance upon a published book of poetry entitled Verses of a Solitary Fellow written by his grandfather that the barriers of communication between them are gradually broken down. Through sharing and creating poetry together, they are able to express, contemplate and address the fears, feelings, reflections that they had both found hard to communicate to each other. Poetry enables these two fundamentally strong yet fragile characters to ask questions and find answers, although not always the answers they want to hear.
Horatio takes Blue on a brief trip to Morocco then on to the South of France, to introduce him to the beauty of good food, the subtlety of the flavours, the beautiful aftertaste that lingers, not just in the mouth but in the memory. Horatio believes in experiences such as this, recognising, like the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, the importance of a good palate, which Hume compared to an ability to perceive beauty in the arts, such as we find in poetry. Horatio explains to Blue that good poetry possesses the same subtlety of flavours as the flavours in the food that they have tasted – sharp contrasts, intense reductions that need to be held longer in the mouth to savour fully. Similarly, the words of poetry or a good novel must be held in the mind longer, savoured in order to be appreciated and to heighten the experience. And they leave a beautiful aftertaste once they’ve been digested.
Horatio believes strongly in the importance of an aftertaste. He teaches Blue that, when he recalls a beautiful poem, a fascinating story, a moving piece of music, when he reads the final word of a book, or hears the last note of a piece of music, what remains is the feeling, the emotion, that the words or the notes have created in his heart, even if his mind doesn’t understand it all. Horatio instructs Blue, before his grandson attempts to write a poem of his own, to ask himself, ‘what moves you, what shakes your soul’. It is the shaking of the soul that lingers when we’ve read a beautiful poem or novel or listened to a beautiful piece of music. This is what Horatio means by the aftertaste.
In A Man of Understanding, I set out to encourage readers, both those who already appreciate poetry and those who have been uncertain, to reflect more deeply on the importance of poetry, what it can achieve, how it is capable of healing a grieving soul, breaking down barriers in communication, motivating us to a better understanding of ourselves and others. By juxtaposing these two artforms, fiction and poetry, each complements the other and highlights the importance of both.
(c) Diana Janney
A Man of Understanding by Diana Janney (paperback original, £8.99, published by COGITO Publishing) was Runner Up in the People’s Book Prize 2023.
About A Man of Understanding:
It takes a man of understanding to rebuild a shattered soul: a man with a deep and learned grasp of philosophy and poetry, a man who can nurture and inspire an enquiring mind, a man with the wit and humour to bring the world alive.
That enigmatic man is Horatio Hennessy. His grandson Blue is that shattered soul.
Following the death of twelve-year-old Blue’s parents, his new home is a Finca in the mountains of Mallorca, with the grandfather he has never met before. Bur is Horacio up to the challenge, or is he merely trying, through Blue, to make good his past?
Gradually a bond evolves between them through a shared love of poetry. But when secrets are uncovered, will understanding turn to misunderstanding? Will two souls be shattered this time?
Absorbing, moving, witty and profound, A Man of Understanding is a beautifully-told story of the search for a higher understanding of the self and others, interlaced with poetry, philosophy, and love.
Order your copy online here.