Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Reading


Reading

The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours ― Alan Bennett, The History Boys: The Film



I don’t read in bed. I don’t read on the loo or in the bath. I don’t understand people who do. I think the reason is—now I’ve given the matter some thought, because before I began writing this a few seconds ago I’d hadn’t given the matter any thought—that I don’t particularly enjoy being in any of these places.

Beds are for sleeping in. If I’m not sleeping then I want to get up and do something. Sleep’s a waste of time. I resent how often my body wants to do it and when. For some reason I often get ideas last thing at night when I’ve no time—because I have to go to bed—to do anything with them. Some get scribbled down in the hope I can make something of them later—the best ideas don’t need you to strike when the iron’s hot but will wait for you—but most get lost out of pure laziness. There are few things old age has going for it but the one thing I long for is the ability to get by on three or four hours a night especially since by then the amount of years left to me will be considerably reduced by then and every minute will count.

Toilets are a necessary evil. If I ever got the chance to buttonhole God on the subject one of my top peeves will be how unpleasant the elimination of bodily waste can be. Especially solids. Surely he could’ve dreamed up something more agreeable. But either way it’s a job I want to get done quickly and efficiently so I can get back to doing more interesting stuff instead. I do like the idea of multitasking however. And so I tend to think while I’m on the loo. I frequently get good ideas too whilst cloistered away for those five or ten minutes, in fact quite often when I’m struggling with a problem and have to heed the call of Nature the break proves to be exactly what was needed to provide a solution or at least a new direction.

Baths I don’t take anymore. It’s been showers for years now. We never had a shower growing up and I can’t say I was overly impressed with the whole showering experience when I got introduced to it but now the utilitarian in me likes to get the whole bathing experience over with as swiftly and proficiently as possible. (Yes, I know that’s just another way of saying ‘quickly and efficiently’.) Bathing’s another one of those things I resent. Why when I don’t’ go out of my way to wallow in muck does my body insist on getting filthy? I spend most of my days sitting in a chair reading or writing. Where’s all this dirt and grime coming from? If I did still take baths I certainly wouldn’t read in them. The idea of holding a paperback with soggy hands just upsets me. I look after my books. I don’t turn down the corners of pages or break the spines or take them into rooms full of steam and soapy water.

I tend to read in two places in this flat: my leather armchair in my office or the Ikea Poäng armchair in the living room. I prefer the former if I’m reading a paperback because I have a lamp beside the chair. If it’s an e-book—I mostly read on a tablet—then I’m happy in either chair but if my wife’s up I’ll sit beside her and read. I’m not an especially fast reader. Nor can I fall into a book for hours and hours. I’m always very conscious that I am reading a book. If I’m reading a paperback I always count how many pages are in the chapter I’ve started so I know how long I have to go before I reach a natural stopping point. (I don’t like that you can’t do that easily with e-books.) Forty pages used to be my absolute max. Twenty was typical. Recently I’ve been getting better and I’ve even managed a hundred pages in one sitting but that’s rare. I read seventy-five yesterday and the same today but in two sittings; I was getting tired and had to leave the last fifteen pages until I’d had a nap.

3 writers

I don’t read for pleasure. I don’t hate reading but if I want to relax I’ll watch TV. I read to educate myself. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who people regarded as ‘well read’. I don’t think I am. Well, that’s not true. I am well read in that the majority of books I’ve read have been good books—Auster, Beckett, Camus… that’s my kind of ABC—but I’m not widely read. The list of authors I’ve never read upsets me every time I think about it although one has to draw the line somewhere and mine comes in round about 1900. I’ve read virtually nothing prior to the twentieth century apart from the Bible and feel no great pressure to do so. I’ve never picked up a Dickens or an Austen and can live with myself. The TV and film adaptations have filled any gap there.

I do wish I retained more of what I read. I have a bad memory—I mention it often (it’s the bane of my life)—which is why I always write reviews of the books I read—if not on my blog then at least on Goodreads—as a way of reinforcing what I’ve read. What is the point in reading a book if you can’t remember a damn thing about it? I’ve books on my shelves that I read in my twenties and literally all I can tell you about them is that I once upon a time I turned all their pages, looked at all the words contained therein and retained sod all. Waste … of … time. When I was twenty I had time to waste. If I last as long as my parents that’s probably all the time I have left. That’s a sobering fact. Of course medical science is improving all the time and it really would be nice not to snuff it when I hit seventy-five but let’s say I do. That means I’ve got some 7300 days left. Or 1040 weeks. So if I only read a book a week I could reasonably read another thousand books before I die. I should make a list.

When writers are asked to give advice to newbies one of the things they usually tell them to do is read: read, read, read and then read some more. It’s not bad advice but I think it can be overemphasised. Read, yes, do, but do be selective in what you read. You can learn quite a bit from reading rubbish—what not to do, what doesn’t work—but once the lesson’s learned move on. Don’t keep reading tripe. Same with good books. You don’t need to read every book by every author but do try and read something by every author, every major author and certainly every author who chimes with you. This is why I feel no desperate need to read Dickens or Austen. They may be great authors but they don’t speak to me. Stumbling across an author who does though is a wonderful thing. It happens rarely. (It’s happens to me rarely and I can’t imagine it happening to anyone else more often.) You can even benefit from reading authors whose views you’re diametrically opposed to. (See Why It’s Important to Keep Reading Books By People Even If They’re Monsters.)

On 14 October 2013 Neil Gaiman gave the second annual Reading Agency lecture at the Barbican Centre, London. You can read the whole thing here and there’s a lot good in it but I’d like to quote just one section:

[A]s Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty years before the kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.

Not so sure about the ‘bath-resistant’ but other than that I agree with him.

I like books. I like being in a library in the same way I like being in a supermarket. I love looking at all the packaging. I don’t always like what’s inside the boxes or the packets or between the covers of a certain book but I do like to be surrounded by them. The idea of throwing a book away really bothers me and probably the only ones I have consigned to the recycling have been technical books that are now outdated. And even ridding myself of them bothered me a wee bit. I try not to romanticise my feelings for books—they’re only books after all—but I find it hard. I have never known a world without books and I struggle to conceive of one without them even if they do all end up being turned into endless streams of ones and zeroes on some übercomputer somewhere in the distant future. I can imagine a world without sharks before I could imagine one without books.

Of course the Internet is full of lists telling you why you reading is important, Top Threes, Top Fives, Sevens, Eights, Tens but I don’t need a list to tell me why I should eat; I just eat because I enjoy it. Of course there’re reasons why we need to eat but once you start breaking things down like this, for me anyway (who doesn’t have a scientific bone in my body), it takes all the fun out of the thing. I feel better when I eat. I feel better when I read. It’s not complicated. I know that not everything that makes you feel good is necessarily good for you and, yes, reading has its minuses—tired eyes, sore neck, missing your bus stop—but that’s where we need to be grownup about reading.

My mother had a saying (it’s not hers but she made it hers): “You are what you eat” and as I may have mentioned here before in later life she lived off microwave chips so I’m not sure what the moral here really is but if you are what you eat then I suppose it’s just as true to say: You are what you read. My mother had another saying (this one was hers): “I don’t buy rubbish.” And you can see where I’m going here: I don’t read rubbish. What’s the point?

I have a daughter. I mention her periodically and if she bothered to read my blogs more often she’d probably be pleased that I mention her; people do like to be thought of. Before she was born she had a library of over one hundred books. I Tar Babyremember scouring the bookshops in Edinburgh looking for a complete set of Enid Blyton’s retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories—the first books I remember having a real effect on me (especially ‘The Tar Baby’ and ‘Mister Lion’s Soup’)—because I had a single ambition for my daughter: I wanted her to be a reader. That was it. Some parents try to live vicariously through their kids—that was never my intention—but if I have one regret (actually I’ve a list) it’s that I was never a voracious reader. I was never discouraged from reading but neither was I encouraged. I did not want that for my daughter. I wasn’t desperate for her to become a writer although it pleased me that when started writing poems and I have one of hers framed by my bed (one of the few she ever let me read) but it was important that she became a reader. Which she did. Everything else was gravy.

Why read? Why indeed? There are so many quotes I could insert here, pages and pages of them. I chose Alan Bennett to lead off this article because it was the one I related to most strongly but it’s only one of many and there’s some truth in all of them. Do we really need one more? Let’s have a go: Reading is the doorpost we measure ourselves by. Even on tiptoe few of us reach the lintel.

I’ll leave you with that lecture I mentioned earlier:

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A History of Books


Cover__A_History_of_Books_Gerald_Murnane_Size4

If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact. – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast




When you read you forget. You’re forgetting right now. Reading is an act of forgetting but there are levels. Whilst reading you temporarily forget the outside world and become absorbed in the text before your eyes but as your eyes scan the page in front of you, you also almost instantaneously begin to forget what you’ve read. You carry the gist of what you’re read from page to page but if asked to remember even a single sentence from the preceding page most would be hard pressed to do so. We let go so easily.

Memory is an issue with me and so any texts that deal with memory issues are always of more interest to me than others and so from the very beginning of this book I found myself empathising with the narrator—not to be confused with the author although they could well be twins—and his inability to remember very much about any of the books he’s read throughout his life. When I first joined Goodreads I decided to go through the books in my cupboard, the old ones I’ve been carting around for decades, and enter them in the system to start me off and I was appalled to note how little I could dredge up from the depths of my mind. I had, for example, read four books by Nabokov when in my early twenties and could remember nothing bar the titles.

In ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’ the third of the four pieces of fiction in this book—Murnane doesn’t talk about his writing in terms of novels or stories—we’re introduced to a man who was for a time an English teacher and he makes an important point about reading, at least according to Joyce:

james joyceAs a teacher, he had been fanatical in urging his students to think of their fiction, of all fiction, as consisting of sentences. A sentence was, of course, a number of words or even a number of phrases or clauses, but he preached to his students that the sentence was the unit that yielded the most amount of meaning in proportion to its extent. If a student in class claimed to admire a piece of fiction or even a short passage of fiction, he would ask that student to find the sentence that most caused the admiration to arise. Anyone claiming to be puzzled or annoyed by a passage of fiction was urged by him to find the sentence that had first brought on the puzzlement or the annoyance. Much of his own commentary during classes consisted of his pointing out sentences that he admired or sentences that he found faulty. At least once each year, he told each class an anecdote that he had remembered from a memoir of James Joyce. Someone had praised to Joyce a recent novel. Joyce had asked why the novel was so impressive. The answer came back that the style was splendid, the subject powerful…Joyce would not listen to such talk. If a book of prose fiction was impressive, the actual prose should have impressed itself on the reader’s mind so that he could afterwards quote sentence after sentence. [bold mine]

I managed to remember the first three sentences of this article in their entirety. Ask me in an hour’s time and it’ll be a very different story.

What happens when we read? No doubt whole books have been written on the subject although this article is interesting when it comes to the subject of fiction. It’s not something we think about. We pick up a book, locate where we left off and begin. But begin doing what? When we put down a book we say we’ve finished it but what does that mean? Samuel Johnson noted: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” He meant something different though; he believed that a reader adds to the written word and oftentimes when a book fails the lack is with the reader and not its author: I can tell you here and now that I was too young to appreciate the Nabokovs I read as a young man.

Murnane opens the first work of fiction in this book with a famous quote:

After a certain age our memories are so intertwined with one another that what we are thinking of, the book we are reading, scarcely matters any more. We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s Pensées in an advertisement for soap. MARCEL PROUST, Remembrance of Things Past

I’m not sure what age Proust was thinking about but I believe—and I suspect Murnane would agree—that this process begins at a very early age. Images are a big thing with Murnane and he gets a great deal of satisfaction from discovering “at least once during the writing of [a piece of] fiction a connection between two or more images that had been for long in his mind but had never seemed in any way connected.” In the second piece of fiction in this book, ‘As It Were a Letter’, he talks about a time when he was eleven:

If [he] had been asked at the time what were the chief dangers of the modern world, he would have described in detail two images that were often in his mind. The first image was of a map he had seen a year or so previously in a Melbourne newspaper as an illustration to a feature article about the damage that would be caused if an Unfriendly Power were to drop an atomic bomb on the central business district of Melbourne. Certain black-and-white markings in the diagram made it clear that all persons and buildings in the city and the nearest suburbs would be turned to ash or rubble. Certain other markings made it clear that most persons in the outer suburbs and the nearer country districts would later die or suffer serious illness. And other markings again made it clear that even persons in country districts rather distant from Melbourne might become ill or die if the wind happened to blow in their direction. Only the persons in remote country districts would be safe.

The second of the two images mentioned above was an image that often occurred in the mind of the founder of Grasslands although it was not a copy of any image he had seen in the place he called the real world. This image was of one or another suburb of Melbourne on a dark evening. At the centre of the dark suburb was a row of bright lights from the shop windows and illuminated signs of the main shopping street of the suburb. Among the brightest of these lights were those of the one or more picture theatres in the main street. Details of the image became magnified so that the viewer of the image saw first the brightly lit picture theatre with a crowd milling in the foyer before the beginning of one or another film and next the posters on the wall of the foyer advertising the film about to be shown and after that the woman who was the female star of the film and finally the neckline of the low-cut dress worn by that woman. This image was sometimes able to be multiplied many times in the mind of the viewer, who would then see images of darkened suburb after darkened suburb and in those suburbs picture theatre after picture theatre with poster after poster of woman after woman with dress after dress resting low down on breasts after breasts.

This is very typical of Murnane. When he reads he is completely absorbed with the images that appear in his mind, some generated by the text obviously enough but others that are responses to what he’s been reading. Fiction is very important to him. It’s the environment that’s most suitable for the kind and level of thinking he gets the most out of. He notes that when a young man he actually “preferred to the visible world a space enclosed by words denoting a world more real by far.”

In ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’ he talks about a story written by one of his students. As an old man he’s been looking back on the various stories he’s read and graded over the years—over three thousand—and realises that he can remember very little of any of them. So he devises a kind of game, a race if you will—the winner of which will receive the imaginary “Gold Cup of Remembered Fiction”—to see which one he can recall most clearly:

The fifth contender was a sentence: the opening sentence of a piece of fiction. A few vague images hung about the man’s mind whenever he heard the sentence in his mind, but they meant little to him. The man was not even sure whether the images had arisen when he had first read the fiction that followed on from the opening sentence or whether he had imagined them, so to speak, at a much later date. The man seemed to have forgotten almost all of the fiction except for the opening sentence: The boy’s name was David.

[…]

The boy’s name was David. The man, whatever his name was, had known, as soon as he had read that sentence, that the boy’s name had not been David. At the same time, the man had not been fool enough to suppose that the name of the boy had been the same as the name of the author of the fiction, whatever his name had been. The man had understood that the man who had written the sentence understood that to write such a sentence was to lay claim to a level of truth that no historian and no biographer could ever lay claim to. There was never a boy named David, the writer of the fiction might as well have written, but if you, the Reader, and I, the Writer, can agree that there might have been such a boy so named, then I undertake to tell you what you could never otherwise have learned about any boy of any name. [bold mine]

Many times throughout these texts Murnane pauses to remind the reader that what they’re reading is a work of fiction. For example:

Since the previous sentence is part of a piece of fiction, the reader will hardly need to be reminded that the man mentioned in that sentence and in earlier sentences is a character in a work of fiction and that the newspaper clipping and the note mentioned in some of those sentences are likewise items in a piece of fiction.

There is at least one good reason for this. More than any other writer Murnane draws on his own life experiences as a basis for his fiction and it’s tempting to imagine what you’re reading is autobiographical in nature—it is undoubtedly semi-autobiographical—but the simple fact is that even if it were wholly autobiographical and as accurate an accounting as he was capable of producing it would still be fiction: we fictionalise it as we read it. I have never been to Melbourne. I’ve seen a few photos and some films (I watched a documentary about Murnane, Words and Silk – The Real and Imaginary Worlds of Gerald Murnane, which featured the city, for example) but the bottom line is that Melbourne might as well be Narnia as far as barley patchI’m concerned. Murnane exists in my imagination in exactly the same way and I exist in his imagination; I have a copy of Barley Patch signed to me and he got the city I live in wrong. As Murnane puts it, in A Million Windows, “Today, I understand that so-called autobiography is only one of the least worthy varieties of fiction extant.”

For me the most captivating piece of writing in this volume was the opening one, ‘A History of Books’, which consists of twenty-nine sections that trace his reading throughout the years and how little he finds he can remember of any of those books. It also looks at why he was reading. He’d decided he wanted to be a writer—he’d even taken two years off work letting his wife support him so that he could have the space to tackle this ambitious project—but what he discovers as he reads (and as he attempts to write) is what kind of writer he is. One like no other. Simply telling stories was not for him. He felt “as though writing fiction was too easy. It seemed to [him] the easiest of tasks to report image-deeds done by image-persons in image-scenery or even to report the image-thoughts of the image-persons.” Hence his unique approach to writing.

If this is the first book by him it will take you a while to get into step with him. He writes with great precision but also manages to be incredibly vague at times to. A simple example:

His surname ended with the fifteenth letter of the English alphabet.

I bet you just counted the letter on your fingers. It’s what I did. I didn’t even have to think about it. But you can’t say he’s not been precise. And he often directs the reader’s attention to things he’s written previously (or is about to relate) with comments like “the young woman mentioned in the first sentence of the previous paragraph”, “[t]he man aged sixty and more years had never read any sort of report of the fictional events reported in the previous five paragraphs of this work of fiction” and “[e]ach of the four previous paragraphs reports details of a central image surrounded by a cluster of lesser images that had arisen from several sentences of one or another piece of fiction.”

At the end of the book the publishers provide a list of the authors of the books referred to in ‘A History of Books’ are believed to include. I would discourage you from checking it until you’ve finished the piece. That said they don’t mention the actual books he’s talking about. Some were obvious—he provides the occasional quote which you can easily google—and he even names one (although he does so in the original German) but a number are very obscure. It seems as a young man he and his friends were attracted to esoterica:

The man and his friends liked to seek out and to read little-known books of fiction, especially books translated from foreign languages, and then to announce to one another that he or she had discovered a neglected masterpiece, one of the two or three greatest books of fiction that he or she had read.

Here’s an example:

An image of a man and an image of a young woman appeared at the base of a tall image-cliff. These images appeared in the mind of a certain young man while he was sitting beside a campfire at the base of a tall cliff and trying to explain to a certain young woman what he remembered having read in certain passages of a certain book that he considered, so he told the young woman, a neglected masterpiece of English literature. Since the young man spoke as though the image-persons were actual persons, they will be thus described in the following paragraphs.

The image-cliff was not a bare rocky cliff such as might have overlooked a bay or a seacoast but a steep embankment overgrown with grass and bushes and forming one side of something that was reported in the so-called neglected masterpiece as being a dingle, which word the young man had never looked for in any dictionary, preferring not to have to call into question the images that had first appeared in his mind while he was reading a work of fiction. At the base of the cliff was mostly level grass shaded, at intervals, by clumps of bushes. Near one such clump a small tent was pitched. Perhaps ten paces away, near another clump, a second tent was pitched. About halfway between the two tents, a kettle of water hung above a campfire. One of the tents belonged to the man mentioned and the other tent to the young woman mentioned in the first sentence of the previous paragraph. Both the man and the young woman were noticeably tall, and the young woman had red hair.

The man and the young woman had lived in their respective tents since their first meeting, which had taken place several weeks before. At that meeting, the young woman had struck the man but had later made peace with him. During the weeks when the young woman and the man had lived in their tents, they had often taken their meals together or had drunk tea together at the campfire between the tents. At such times, they had debated many matters, and the young woman had sometimes threatened to strike the man. Sometimes, beside the campfire, the man had persuaded the young woman to learn certain words and phrases in the Armenian language, which the man had learned from books for no other reason than that he felt driven to learn foreign languages. At one time, beside the campfire, the man had persuaded the young woman to conjugate in several of its tenses and moods the Armenian verb siriel, I love. In the course of this lesson, the man and the young woman were obliged to speak, in the Armenian language, such sentences as ‘I have loved’, ‘Love me!’ and ‘Thou wilt love’. At a later time, beside the campfire, the man proposed to the young woman that he and she should marry at some time in the future and should then go to live in America. At a later time still, the young woman left the dingle without the man’s knowing and did not return. A few days later again, the man received from the young woman a long letter telling him, among other things, that she was setting out alone for America and that she had declined his proposal of marriage because she believed he was at the root mad.

isobelThe book in question is Isopel Berners by George Borrow, specifically the events of chapter fourteen. Not a book I suspect many will have heard of. Not an author I suspect many will have heard of. But none of that’s important. Were I to list all the books I’ve ever read I’m sure there will be a few oddities in there which are unique to me and form part of the image bank that I draw on every time I read a book. I, for example, to the best of my knowledge have only read one book by an Icelander—Stone Tree by Gyrðir Elíasson. Murnane has also read at least one, an “English translation of a long work of fiction that had been first published in the Icelandic language in Reykjavik in the year before” he was born—so that would be in 1938. My best guess would be Halldór Laxness’s World Light. Either way Murnane will have his fictionalised version of Iceland in his head and I will have mine.

We’ve talked a lot about fiction—the word appears in the book over two hundred and fifty times—but what about non-fiction, facts? He has some interesting things to say on this subject. Two unrelated excerpts:

(Why did I write just then the expression a book of non-fiction? Why is the expression a factual book so seldom used? Is this our way of acknowledging that most seeming-facts are, in fact, fiction? And, if books of fiction are not called non-factual books, is this because we understand that most matters reported in books of fiction have a factual existence?)

[…]

The man who was aged nearly seventy years was making notes for a work of fiction in the belief that the power of fiction was sometimes able to resist, if not to overcome, the power of fact. The man understood that a fact could never be other than a fact, even though it might be reported in a work of fiction, but he believed that any fictional event or any fictional character might be said to have acquired a factual existence as soon as the event or the character had been reported in a published text.

You might be forgiven for thinking you were reading a book on philosophy rather than a work of fiction but this is very much philosophy-with-a-small-p. This is a guy trying to communicate how he sees the world. It sounds complex but then riding a bike sounds difficult when you try and put it into words and really for all this guy’s a writer his primary interest is in the visual, what he ­sees when he reads.

Although not arranged chronologically what we get in this book is a very specific kind of biography, from age eleven to nearly seventy; he’s seventy-five at the moment. Other of his works of fiction deal with different aspects of his life. As an addition to his existing canon I’d say it was invaluable but then I’m a fan as you can see from my articles on Tamarisk Row, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Inland and The Plains. I’ve also read Barley Patch but never quite got round to writing about it.

The final piece of fiction in this volume is ‘Last Letter to a Niece’. I’ll mention it just briefly. This is a very different piece of writing. You’d almost think it was a story. And there’s a reason for this. It’s actually an adaptation “from one of the seven pages about the life and the writing of Kelemen Mikes in the Oxford History of Hungarian Literature.” Oddly, though, it fits with the tone of the rest of the book because the uncle in question has never seen his niece and so holds an imaginary image of her in his head (and from all accounts in his heart):

But I have not explained myself. I am interested in the appearance and deportment of young women in this, the everyday visible world, for the good reason that the female personages in books, like all other such personages together with the places they inhabit, are quite invisible.

You can hardly believe me. In your mind at this very moment are characters, costumes, interiors of houses, landscapes and skies, all of them faithful images of their counterparts in descriptive passages in books you have read and remembered. Allow me to set you right, dear niece, and to make a true reader of you.

A true reader. I’d like to think this is how Murnane sees himself and that his efforts in writing this book (as well as his others books) is to convert us into true readers too. In that respect this is the most evangelical of texts and yet somehow manages not to be at all preachy.

If you have read Murnane before this book will not disappoint. If you haven’t this isn’t actually a bad place to start. There’s stuff you won’t see as important—the marbles, the horse racing and his interest in Hungarian which he taught himself to speak late in life (see here)—but it’s not a great loss; the book stands alone just fine.

***

murnaneGerald Murnane was born in Coburg, a northern suburb of Melbourne, in 1939. He spent some of his childhood in country Victoria before returning to Melbourne in 1949 where he lived since. He has left Victoria only a handful of times and has never been on an aeroplane.

In 1957 Murnane began training for the Catholic priesthood but soon abandoned this in favour of becoming a primary-school teacher. He also taught at the Apprentice Jockeys’ School run by the Victoria Racing Club. In 1969 he graduated in arts from Melbourne University. He worked in education for a number of years and later became a teacher of creative writing. In 1966 Murnane married Catherine Lancaster. They had three sons.

His first novel, Tamarisk Row, was published in 1974, and was followed by nine other works of fiction. He’s also published a collection of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs.

In 1999 Gerald Murnane won the Patrick White Award. In 2009 he won the Melbourne Prize for Literature. He has since won the Adelaide Festival Literature Award for Innovation and has received an Emeritus Fellowship from the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Year of Magical Thinking


year-of-magical-thinking

I wanted to get the tears out of the way so I could act sensibly. – Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking




I began reading this book the day after my goldfish died. We’d had him for eight or nine years and would’ve happily hung onto him for another eight or nine but he became ill, was refusing food and in the end the kindest thing was to euthanise. At one point I walked back into the living room and my wife asked me, “How’s Fishy doing?” to which I replied, “He’s dying.” At which point I cried. I begin with this not because I think that the loss of a goldfish equates with the loss of a partner but just to show what a softie I am. And yet I never cried reading this book. I didn’t tear up, not once. Towards the end of the book once she starts to pull things together as a form of protracted summary over the last three or four chapters I started to feel a bit for her but her accounts of her husband’s death and the events leading up to his being declared dead (two different things) as well as her accounts of her adopted daughter Quintana’s two extended stays in hospital—twice the girl is at death’s door—were delivered with such dispassion and objectivity that despite the amount of detail, the clinical detail if you will, there were times when I felt like I was reading a textbook rather than a memoir:

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself. I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself

One of the reviewers who only gave the book one star—and there were a few (3% on Goodreads which amounts to over 1400 people)—said, “I found only brief spots of actual grief for Didion's husband and daughter, but they weren't enough to overpower my loathing for the author and her self-importance.” I can’t say I loathed the author despite her privileged lifestyle which as far as I can see she worked to attain and there wasn’t enough name-dropping to annoy me in fact I found it oddly sweet that Katharine Ross taught Didion’s daughter to swim. Listening to Liza Minnelli talk about her childhood makes me feel the same. Rich people are allowed to lose loved ones too and grieve in their own way.

I found this comment in an interview in the Huffington Post noteworthy:

Joan said it came to her that everybody she’d known who’d lost a husband, wife, or child looked the same:

“Exposed. Like they ought to be wearing dark glasses, not because they’ve been crying but because they look too open to the world.” It was this rawness that shocked her, she said. “I had spent so much of my life guarding against being raw. I mean, part of growing up for me was getting a finish, an impenetrable polish. And suddenly to be thrown back to this fourteen-year-old helplessness...”

What interests me here is the use of the word “raw” because despite her best efforts I’m sure that rawness didn’t come across. She said it was like “sitting down at the typewriter and bleeding. Some days I’d sit with tears running down my face.” Why did none of that bleed through?

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Of course other than fish and a few cats I have lost a couple of humans, both my parents who’d been a part of my life for as long as Didion’s husband had been a part of hers, and I have tried to explore my own grief process—unsuccessfully I should add—but much of the material here didn’t reach me. I suspect this is because the degree to which my parents mattered to me had diminished to such a degree that I barely felt the loss. I was sad but not bereft. I grieved but didn’t mourn. As Didion puts it:

Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.

Perhaps if I reread this book once I’ve lost my wife—assuming she passes away before me although she insists that’s not going to be the case—I might feel differently. I found the book interesting which is a word I do tend to overuse but in this instance it’s both the right word and the wrong word: it’s the right word because it accurately describes what I got from the book (I was interested in the outcome) but it’s also the wrong word because others have clearly been deeply affected by what they’ve read. So the difference is between an intellectual appreciation and an emotional connection.

As a memoir all Didion has to measure up to is herself and her own recollections of events. What was interesting was the way things came into focus over time. The nearest I can relate to this is my experience following the breakup of my first marriage. I found myself telling people the story of the marriage trying to work out at which point things went wrong and there were several contenders. Didion does much the same. No one is to blame—she never seeks to blame a person, not even God, although I was never quite clear where she stood there—but she appears to find some comfort from looking back on her husband’s heart problems seeing them in a new light. It’s interesting—that word again—how her husband seemed to find comfort knowing (or at least believing) that he would die from a heart attack.

Much of what Didion goes through is what most people—but most certainly all writers—do: trying to find the right words to make sense out of what’s just happened. Non-writers have to rely on books like this. Didion, too, gains comfort from the writings of others and not only from fiction but technical manuals, too. I’m not like that but my wife is so, although I don’t personally understand the need, knowing someone who is interested in the mechanics of the human body helps me to appreciate Didion’s need. Death is a process which has a beginning and an end; tracing that process—journeying with the person who’s just died—is probably helpful to some. I, personally, felt no need with either of my parents. My father died under very similar conditions to Didion’s husband. He sat in an armchair. One minute he was alive, the next he wasn’t.

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Books like this are about the search—pointless though it may be and often is—for meaning. Didion writes:

[We cannot] know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

In his review in The New York Times Robert Pinksy writes:

By attending ferociously to the course of grief and fear, Didion arrives at the difference between "the insistence on meaning" and the reconstruction of it.

He’s not quoting Didion here when he talks of “the insistence of meaning” (it’s from a poem by Frank Bidart—who actually says “Insanity is the insistence on meaning”) but this is exactly what she does. Meaning is a solution to a problem. Julie Andrews wondered how to solve a problem like Maria; Joan Didion wonders how to solve a problem like her husband. Over the months she gathers her facts and assembles her formula only to realise that there are so many things she will never know:

One day when I was talking on the telephone in his office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message? Or had the message been lost before I touched the dictionary? Had I refused to hear the message?

Much of what she does and thinks is irrational and she’s well aware that’s what’s she’s being—she refuses to throw out his shoes in case he needs them when he comes back—and one might wonder how she can be objective and subjective at the same time but from my own experience of depression I can assure you that you can be; it’s a coping mechanism.

There were things I was surprised she skipped over, like the x number of stages of grief—but I was fine with that. After all this is a personal exploration of loss and I think that’s ultimately why I found the book interesting as opposed to moving because I found myself standing with her looking back at what happened as opposed to experiencing things with her; I experienced her reflections on her experiences and not the experiences themselves, a reflection (in all meanings of the word) and not the reality. I think I would’ve preferred a semi-autobiographical novel like P.F. Thomése’s Shadow Child. Novels are often more intimate than any confessional memoir no matter how honest the author tries to be. Autobiography tells you only what the writer recalls and how they want you to think they behaved at the time. Some manage to be more truthful than others. But even the most honest memoir is still a carefully constructed artefact, reality filtered through self-conscious caution. I am not, of course, making any accusations here. Didion is well aware she’s attempting the impossible: “trying … to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star.”

Blue-Nights-by-Joan-DidionOn March 29, 2007, Didion's adaptation of her book for Broadway, directed by David Hare, opened with Vanessa Redgrave as the sole cast member. The play expands upon the memoir by dealing with Quintana's death which happened a few months after she completed The Year of Magical Thinking and is dealt with in Blue Nights, a memoir about aging. Having just read this article what I now realise is how little we really learn about Quintana in this book. I suddenly see the girl in a completely different light. The memoir may be primarily about Dunne’s death but a large portion isn’t and it would’ve been helpful to learn a bit more about her clearly troubled daughter. Dunne incorporated some of his daughter’s fears into his novel Dutch Shea, Jr. and Didion quotes from the book but not with enough weight. It slips by that Cat is a thinly-veiled Quintana:

The Broken Man was in that drawer. The Broken Man was what Cat called fear and death and the unknown. I had a bad dream about the Broken Man, she would say. Don’t let the Broken Man catch me. If the Broken Man comes, I’ll hang onto the fence and won’t let him take me…. He wondered if the Broken Man had time to frighten Cat before she died.

The article says, “The secret subject of Joan Didion's work has always been her troubled daughter.” I did not get that.

You can read the opening two chapters of The Year of Magical Thinking here.

***

joandidion90sJoan Didion, born in California in 1934 and a graduate from Berkeley in 1956. Her most highly esteemed work is her narrative nonfiction, which she began writing in the 1960's in the form of essays that have over the years appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. Of Didion, Joyce Carol Oates once wrote,

[Joan Didion] is one of the very few writers of our time who approaches her terrible subject with absolute seriousness, with fear and humility and awe. Her powerful irony is often sorrowful rather than clever [...] She has been an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time, a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing; always in control.

She married John Gregory Dunne in 1964, a fellow writer, and they collaborated on a number of projects, mainly screenplays, probably the most notable being A Star is Born. Unable to have children, in 1966 they adopted a baby at birth and named her Quintana Roo, after the Mexican state.

Didion has published numerous collections of her essays beginning with 1968's classic Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and culminating in Blue Nights which came out in 2012 which I will probably read since I get the feeling it might fill in some of gaps in The Year of Magical Thinking. She is also the author of several novels.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock


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It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the western hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response... – John F. Kennedy: Address on the Cuban Crisis October 22, 1962



When I first chanced upon this novel I imagined it was going to be one of those books like When I was Five I Killed Myself or Naïve. Super, a little gem that those in the know were raving about but had somehow managed to escape wider exposure. And I was right but here’s the thing: no one seems to have been raving about this book and for the life of me I don’t understand why. Three reviews on Amazon (two five-stars and a four) and a third five-star review on Goodreads and that looked like it. No newspapers. No blogs. No nothin’. I did, finally, discover an interview with the author here and a short review on booksworld.com but that really was it. And I think that’s a crying shame because this is a lovely book. It reminded me of Peanuts and who doesn’t like Peanuts?

The events in the book take place on Saturday, October 27, 1962, the last (and darkest) day of the Cuban missile crisis. Tense negotiations had been taking place for some time but since several Soviet vessels attempted to run the blockade tensions had increased to the point that orders had been sent out to US Navy ships to fire warning shots and then open fire. On this Saturday a U-2 plane was shot down by a Soviet missile crew, an action that could easily have resulted in immediate retaliation from the Kennedy crisis cabinet. Americans were sitting on their porches with radios pressed to their ears or could be found queuing up outside confessionals wanting to make their peace before the inevitable end. Thoughts about the atomic bomb or fallout rose from 27 percent in the spring of 1962 to 65 percent during the crisis. Schools were having twice daily duck and cover drills as recorded by one of the children in the novel:

        Sister Veronica’s had us doing duck-and-cover drills twice a day.
        She’ll be going on about something, the natural resources of Brazil or something, then all of a sudden, “Down, children, down,” and we have to get out of our seats and down on our knees facing away from the windows, foreheads on the floor, hands behind our necks. She never tells us if it’s real or not, if we’re all going to die now or not. This kid in front of me, Jerome Winslow, starts whimpering every single time. I always whisper to God a quick “Sorry, sorry,” in case this is really it.
        Once while I was down there I snuck a peek at Sister to see what she was doing, and there she was, down on the floor like the rest of us. That scared me a little, I have to admit, seeing this nun on the floor.

LucyIt’s a grim time. Unless you’re a kid who takes these things with a pinch of salt which entrepreneurial Toby does. He’s out in front of his house, business as usual, not unlike Lucy offering psychiatric help for 5¢. Toby Tyler’s line of business is not advice on how to cope with the current crisis; it’s baseball cards:

        It was warm out this morning so I was sitting on the top step of the front porch with my boxes of cards, open for business, trade or buy, a tall stack of toast and jam on a plate beside me.
        Mom made the jam herself, with actual strawberries.
        She still wasn’t back from Mass. She probably lit some candles afterwards in front of Mary and said a rosary. Plus it takes her a while to walk from there. It’s only a couple of blocks but it takes her quite a while.
        Poor thing.

Toby, as you’ve probably gathered, has been brought up a Catholic. The other two players in this little drama are Ralph and Lou (short for Louisa). Roger’s ten and his sister is eight and their relationship is not dissimilar to that of Charlie and Sally Brown: she whines; he’s lousy at baseball. They’re more devout than Toby despite that they—or perhaps because—they come from a poorer part of town. Toby and his mum aren’t exactly rolling in it but following the death of his dad they are comfortably off:

        We’re not rich, me and Mom, but my father was a big enough bigshot with Mutual of Omaha so we’re pretty well set because of him dying. But what I would like, I would like to be rich, and not just rich but filthy rich. Or anyway rich enough to have a staff. That’s my dream, to have servants—a chef, a maid, and a butler.
        Especially a butler:
        —You rang, sir?
        —Change the channel, will you?
        —As you wish.
        —And bring me some more of those Peeps, just the heads.
        —Very good, sir.

I’m not sure you’d call Lucy snobby but she is bossy and crabby and Toby’s those too. He’s also one thing Lucy isn’t—apart from not being a girl—he’s overweight:

        Here’s something funny, though. I’ve got all these baseball cards, seven shoeboxes full, and I don’t even like baseball. I don’t like any sports. That’s one of the reasons I’m so fat. I’m only thirteen, eighth grade, and I’m already twice the size of anyone around, except my mom.
        She’s truly huge.

He even suggests setting up a tent in their backyard, “twenty-five cents to step inside and guess the Fat Lady’s weight”. Of course he’d share the profits 50:50. She is not amused.

Okay, so I’ve pretty much covered Toby. Ralph and Lou Cavaletto are completely different. Their dad’s a janitor and when they get up there’re only two slices of bread in the house and they have to fend for themselves—no tall stack of toast and jam for them—but they’re content with their lot and look as if they genuinely care for each other. This morning Lou wants to go to the vacant lot to look for empties, as Ralph recalls:

        I promised her the other day we’d go look for empties on Saturday and today was Saturday and she didn’t forget. She never does.
         “After I get back,” I told her. “I’m gonna go to the park for a while—don’t start whining—just for a while. Then I’ll come back and we’ll go.”
         “When?”
         “Soon as I get back.”
         “But when, Ralph?”
         “Quit whining.”
         “Just tell me.”
         “After Garfield Goose. By the end of it.”
         “Promise?”
        I promised. Then I told her about that last piece of bread I left in the toaster. I told her she’d better go eat it before I did.

So Ralph heads off to the park:

Charlie Brown        It was nice out for being practically Halloween, plenty warm enough for baseball, so I brought my glove and wore my Sox cap, and sure enough a bunch of guys were already in a game. They let me in, out in right field.
        I like baseball. It’s one of my favourite things. I wouldn’t mind being a pro when I’m old enough, you know? Playing baseball for money? That would be perfect. Right now I’m ten so I should be in Little League this year, except we didn’t have the money, and anyway I didn’t really want to join. They got uniforms and coaches and umpires and dugouts and chalk lines and brand new white balls and people in the stands—I’d be way too nervous. I’d be so afraid of making a bad play it wouldn’t be any fun.
        But I like it at the park.

Needless to say the game does not go the way he imagines it might in his head but he dutifully returns home—he is a good big brother—collects his sister and they head off to the vacant lot dragging their wagon behind them. The return on an empty is 2¢ by the way. On their way they pass Toby’s house and, since it’s hot and he doesn’t like sweating if he can avoid it, he has a proposition for them:

        He offered us a nickel if we wagoned him there and back. He said he wanted to get some baseball cards at Morgan’s—that’s the drug store just past the vacant lot—and if we took him in the wagon there and back he’d give us five cents.
         “Each?” I said.
        He asked me if I was out of my mind.         I started leaving.
         “All right, all right,” he said.
        I stopped. “All right what?”
         “A dime.”

A dime was worth five bottles immediately so it made good business sense to agree; they may not have Toby’s business acumen but they know a good deal when they see one. Well it would’ve been a good dead if a) he hadn’t been quite so fat and b) they hadn’t eaten his toast while he was in the house putting on his shoes which Toby then charged them a dime for. Anyway, long story short, huffing and puffing they heave their way to the shop, Toby gets his cards and on the way back they pause at the vacant lot where he permits Ralph and Lou a few minutes to forage for bottles but that’s not what Lou turns up:

        I stubbed my foot. Fatso hollered and I looked up and stubbed my foot on something and almost fell.
        It was a rock. I was going to kick it for tripping me. I was mad. We had to wagon him all the way back now and I was going to kick the rock—but it was looking at me. It had like an eye and it was looking at me out of it. Plus I think it told me, “Don’t, Lou.” Or maybe not, maybe it didn’t speak, but it was looking at me, I know that.
        So I picked it up.
        Now it was looking at me out of two eyes.
        And that wasn’t all...that wasn’t all...
         “Ralph!”

It’s a rock caked in dirt but the image on the thing looks like Jesus. Ralph realises this could be a Holy Object; they’d been shown a film about Our Lady of Fátima the previous Thursday where an angel had apparently appeared to three shepherd children. Toby sees dollar signs. And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you.

The booksworld.com article had a few good points to make. It said the book explored such themes as:

  • How children deal with fear, especially during time of war
  • The notion that all wars eventually turn into "holy wars"
  • How children create their own narratives reflecting the adult world – merging fantasy with real-life

These are good points to keep in mind when reading this. Because we have a book narrated by children it’s sometimes easy to shrug off their insights or to imagine this is an adult putting words into his creations’ mouths but I completely accepted the perspectives offered by the three narrators—the book is presented in short chapters alternating in perspective from one kid to the next—and believed them unlike most of the characters in Peanuts who are frankly a bit too wise for their ages.

Booksworld.com quotes the author as saying:

Through the story, I attempt to show the way in which a profound national crisis gets interpreted, played out, and ‘resolved' by children. It's important that we understand the way fear operates in children, the way they absorb, and respond to a moment of national emergency as well as what narratives they use to ‘resolve' the issue, the adult ideas they draw on, and how easily they are manipulated into a particular interpretation of the crisis.

And in his interview he adds:

The H-Bomb and the Jesus Rock came out of a whole big bag of things from my grade school years—the fear of sudden nuclear annihilation, the equation of the Red Scare with the Red Devil, coldblooded nuns, a fat kid in the neighbourhood with a vast collection of baseball cards and a perfect capitalist mentality, this letter the pope was supposed to open which the saintly little shepherd children of Fatima got from Mary, which would predict the fate of the world, and this complete belief we had in signs, in holy objects, for instance a rock that looked like Jesus, and the power of such a God-placed thing, and of course looking for empty pop bottles to get the two-cent refund—all of this was mixed together, so writing the book became a matter of separating all this stuff into elements that could carry a story along. I had a lot of trouble coming up with a title. I usually have one pretty early on, but I didn’t know what to call this one. I finally just jammed the two major elements of the story together.

duck and coverManderino is clearly drawing on personal experiences. I was three when all this was happening but I can still relate strongly to it. I didn’t grow up with Duck and Cover; in my day it was Protect and Survive. We watched films like Threads and The Day After which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, “is currently the highest-rated television film in history” and we told jokes about what we’d do when the four-minute warning came. Of course the cold war’s over but just look at the recent surge in dystopian and post-holocaust fiction. The fear never went away, not really. Plus I had a religious upbringing, which I’ve never recovered from, and so I strongly related to how people reacted in the book; I lived in fear of—or at least in expectation of—Armageddon every day of my childhood; I remember when there was a big explosion at ICI—I was sitting in English at the time—and for a second or two I genuinely wondered if this was it, the end of the world.

Normally I would’ve posted this review on Goodreads and got on with the next book—I’m never short of books to review here—but I really was disappointed by the lack of publicity for this book, not that I imagine this article will open the floodgates but, seriously, you can pick up the book for pennies now on Amazon. I highly recommend it. And when did you last hear me say that about any book?

***

John ManderinoJohn Manderino lives in Maine with his wife Marie, where he teaches college writing and provides coaching and editing services to other writers. One of his students describes him as, “This guy is one ****ing cool dude. He's very dry and entertaining. Great teacher.” He’s published three novels, a collection of short stories and a memoir with Academy Chicago. John has also written plays that have been performed at theatre festivals and other venues. A stage version of his memoir Crying at Movies was recently produced.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The optics of poetry


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Poetry is the art of saying two (or more) things at once and making them one. – Richard Wakefield, 'Poets display writing translucent and opaque', Seattle Times, 10 April 2005




In the opening chapter to his book Seven Types of Ambiguity William Empson states:

An ambiguity, in ordinary speech, means something very pronounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful. I propose to use the word in an extended sense, and shall think relevant to my subject any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.

Simply put then: Ambiguity is the quality of having more than one meaning. That seems clear enough, pun intended. What I think would surprise most of us is just how ambiguous most of what we say actually is, even when we think we’re being crystal clear in our meaning. We assume because our intent is to ‘tell the truth’ (an expression which is often confused with ‘report the facts’) we’re being transparent and open when what we’re forgetting is that everything we say is open to interpretation and much is lost in the translation.

In his book Empson then goes on to discuss the (seemingly) simple sentence, ‘The brown cat sat on the red mat,’ and what becomes apparent very quickly is how unclear that sentence actually is. He continues:

The fundamental situation, whether it deserves to be called ambiguous or not, is that a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once.

Any word. Any grammatical structure.

Lawyers go to great pains to leave nothing open to interpretation. There’s a formality to their style of writing which is peppered with specialised words and phrases, archaic vocabulary (herein, hereto, hereby, heretofore, herewith etc.), Latin expressions (habeas corpus, prima facie, inter alia etc.) and quotidian words which have different meanings in law like party which indicates a principal in a lawsuit as opposed to a convivial get-together, an oblique way to refer to drug taking or a euphemism for sexual congress. It can get confusing especially when the party of the first part parties at a party with certain parts of the party of the second part. But if you’ve ever spent even a few minutes reading a legal document you’ll realize just how unclear and open to interpretation these documents often are. There’s a lot of money to be made translating legalese into plain English.

There’s no money to be made in poetry whether in translation or not and yet many poets go out their way—or so it seems—to be as opaque as possible in their writing:

Opaque poems are written with such a sense of mystery, free association of thought, or private myth-making and symbolism that sometimes even the most astute readers have difficulty "taking in" the poem rationally. The beauty of these poems, or poetic lines, lies in the realm of the imaginative, the intuitive, the metaphysical. Stream of consciousness poems are in this category. Sometimes poems or poetic lines are best appreciated for the stream of ideas and the sound combinations rather than for the reader to come away with a logical, coherent, rational meaning. Carried to extremes, the reader may leave the poem feeling isolated from the poem's "meaning" and intent. – The Poem as Craft: Poetic Elements

Communication’s hard enough when people are trying to be understood. Why go out of our way to make our readers’ lives difficult?

BernsteinIn the fourth of his excellent, if a little long-winded, Norton lectures Leonard Bernstein gives another broader definition of ‘ambiguity’ and I think it’s important to distinguish between the two kinds of ambiguity he talks about:

“Ambiguity” is in itself an ambiguous word—that is it has more than one meaning. And I think before we go one step further into our enquiry we would do well to have a solid dictionary definition or two. Or two: That’s the problem. There are two distinct definitions arising from the dual meaning of the prefix ambi- which can signify “bothness” (that is being on two sides at once) and also signify “aroundness” (or being on all sides at once). The first connotation, bothness, yields such words as “ambidextrous” and “ambivalent”, which imply duality. Whereas the second connotation, aroundness, conditions such words as “ambience”, “ambit”, and so on, which relate to the general surround thus implying vagueness. Webster gives these two definitions of “ambiguous”: (1) “doubtful or uncertain” and (2) “capable of being understood in two or more possible senses”. – Leonard Bernstein, ‘The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity’, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, pp.193,194

To my understanding all words naturally contain multiple meanings; they do not naturally have to be vague. On the other hand the seven types of ambiguity that Epson goes on to discuss in his book are:

  1. The first type of ambiguity is the metaphor, that is, when two things are said to be alike which have different properties. This concept is similar to that of metaphysical conceit.
  2. Two or more meanings are resolved into one. Empson characterizes this as using two different metaphors at once.
  3. Two ideas that are connected through context can be given in one word simultaneously.
  4. Two or more meanings that do not agree but combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.
  5. When the author discovers his idea in the act of writing. Empson describes a simile that lies halfway between two statements made by the author.
  6. When a statement says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author.
  7. Two words that within context are opposites that expose a fundamental division in the author's mind.

I’m not going to discuss them all here but broadly speaking we have number 6 and all the rest. I refuse to believe that any poet sits down and deliberately writes nothing. I do believe that many poets expect too much from their readers. They don’t exactly expect them to read their minds but they do imagine that everyone thinks like they think and will make the same connections as they do and that is simply not the case. So the reader is forced to make something else of what’s before him.

Most people would regard me as a plain speaker. Especially in my poetry. I say what I have to say and get off the page. And yet a part of me is slightly offended by that presumption if I’m honest. I think my poems have a broader scope than is first apparent. Yes, most are immediately accessible and I think that’s a good thing but if you spend time with them (which so few people are willing to do—and not just with my poetry, any poetry) there’s more there. Life being the way it is I think we need to cater to people’s needs and present a surface meaning that people can get in a oner because at least they’re getting something from the poem. If I stood my ground and made them work they’d probably give up after a few lines, take nothing away from the poem and put even less effort into getting the next poem they come across. Their loss but my loss too. I have stuff to say. If I go to the bother or publishing a poem I want it to be read. I think what I have to say can make a difference to people’s lives and I’m willing to present what I have to say in such a way that what I have to say is at least partially communicated to my readers, the important bits at least.

Is there something to be gained from misdirecting our readers? You would think not.

Work in Progress


I have something important to say.
Please be patient.

I have the words right here, all the
words one could ever need to say
all the things that have to be said.
It won't be much of a problem.

It's just there are so many words.
It will take time to sort through them.
You can't just pick any old words.
when revealing important things.

Have you ever sat down and thought
about how many words there are?
And why it's always the small ones
cupthat appear to make the most sense?

A cup of coffee while you're waiting?
Or herbal tea?



3 April 2007

A poem’s supposed to be about something, yes? At the very least it’s supposed to say something. And yet what I’m saying here is: I don’t have the words to say what I need to say. Think about all the important things you’ve said in your life. I bet most of them were said in words of one or two syllables, words a five-year-old could grasp—‘I love you’, ‘I quit’, ‘It’s a boy/girl’, ‘Don’t stop’, ‘Stop!’, ‘No, your bum doesn’t look big in that’—and yet you take those same simple words, jiggle them about a bit and you end up with a poem called ‘Work in Progress’ that’s maybe not quite as obvious as it first looks. I’m not saying it’s the most complex poem ever written but it does require something from the reader to bring it to life. Who’s the narrator? Who’s he talking to? What’s this important thing he can’t find the words to say? A lot of readers assume when you use the first person pronoun the poem’s autobiographical. Problem here is that the tense is the present so that means the ‘you’ is you. And how the hell could I offer you a coffee or a tea when we’re separated in time and space by several years and a couple of hundred or even thousand miles? It doesn’t make sense. What’s the poem about?

Well, I intended it to be about how hard it is to write a poem. When you read my poem you imagine—i.e. you pretend—I’m talking to you, you and you alone. That I have said or will say those exact words to some bloke in Cheyenne or a girl in Adelaide and a dozen other people scattered across the globe is neither here nor there. At this precise moment I’m talking to you, in the present even though I ‘said’ the words first way back in 2007. It’s still now. It will always be now. It has to be now for the poem to work. You need to imagine me standing—am I standing? maybe I’m kneeling—before you with something important to say and if it’s important then maybe it’s personal. Maybe I’m trying to tell you I love you; that’s pretty personal. Maybe I’m building up the courage to say how big your bum looks in what you’ve got on. Whatever I’m trying to get across, it’s obvious that it matters. It matters that I get it right. Any ol’ words won’t do. This is how I approach every poem I write. I spent time on these words. They may not be the fanciest of words. But they’re the right ones. Of course when I compose a poem my readers aren’t around like this apart from my wife and I never tell her when I’m writing a poem; she simply gets the thing handed to her to rubber stamp when I’m done. But what if you were here? Imagine the pressure.

Did you get all that from the poem? Or any of that? If you didn’t does that mean you didn’t get it? Does it matter if you didn’t get it? Am I a bad poet? Maybe you’re a bad reader. Maybe we’re just a bad fit. Tell you what, I won’t write you any more poems and you don’t read any more of my poems and we’ll both be happy. Or am overreacting?

You and I are not connected. Time, space, culture, life experience, age, gender possibly all create a gulf. My wife gets me. As much as any one person can get another person. She gets irritated by me and frustrated because I don’t always get her, so maybe I just think she gets me because I get me and I can’t see what’s so hard to get. Pretty straightforward guy, me. Although not the most communicative. I live in a wee world in my head and don’t let anyone in. I write poems as records. I actually don’t have a pressing need to communicate to anyone other than my future self. My poems are a diary, a codified diary, admittedly, but a diary nevertheless. The poems aren’t locks. The poems are keys. Take this poem:

Reflections


No
we are not ready

to
go skinny-dipping

in
one another's souls.



29 August 1989

That poem unlocks a whole series of memories. It’s also the key to understanding this later poem:

Skinny-dipping

(for Jeanette)


Being with you
is like

swimming in the sun
on a

warm Summer's day.



23 June 1996

Of course both poems work (IMHO) fairly well on their own. They’re not the greatest poems I’ve ever written but they mean a lot to me. I knew Jeanette when I wrote ‘Reflections’ but that poem’s not about her. It could be because at that time I wasn’t ready for our relationship to be more than it was; she was a casual friend and that was it. ‘Reflections’ is actually about someone else. Doesn’t matter who. On one level they’re the most opaque of poems, what my wife would call ‘decoder ring poems’. The need for some level of encoding is explained in this old poem:

Poems


Poems are near
naked thoughts: for

Adamwe will not take
off our clothes since

we are ashamed
of our bodies.



7 January 1979

We talk about naked truths but I don’t think we—or at least I (I can only really speak for myself)—am capable of complete honesty. I don’t have the words. As I wrote more recently:

Meaninglessness


Words drag
me down.
They are
out to
get me.

I look
them up
and there
are more
of them.

I look
those up
and there
are more
again.

Each word
is an
abyss
to fall
questionsinto

where there
are no
answers
only
questions.



11 August 2012

I don’t think any of the five poems above is a ‘difficult’ poem. I never set out to obfuscate. For starters I tend to shy away from words like ‘obfuscate’ although I do have a poem (which I will spare you) from my schooldays entitled ‘The Obfuscating Task of Writing a Poem’. I suppose what I aim for is translucency in poetry. Transparency is impossible. Let me make that last statement clearer: I don’t believe writing can be both poetic and transparent at the same time. It’s not in its nature. The following comes from a blog over at The Dish:

The preface to a recent translation of Greek Poet Kiki Dimoula‘s work addresses the issue of opacity in poetry. Dimoula seems to think that the question isn’t whether poetry should be opaque, but, rather, whether it can be poetry at all without being opaque. She offers a parable to illustrate:

Once, on the road to Alexandroupolis [in Thrace], long before I reached the city, I saw storks’ nests, high up, at the tops of a line of telegraph poles. Protruding from the poles, the bases of the nests were fluffy and shiny, like the fancy frills that decorate cradles, ready to welcome newborns. In the middle of each nest stood a stork, erect, immobile, on one leg, as if in this ascetic position, in this ciphered balance, it was protecting secrecy’s sacred hatchling. Already protected from above by the celestial cradle net. Poetry is like a nest to hide in. It is built on a pointed height so as to be inaccessible to the rapacious curiosity of anyone who wants to see too clearly what’s being hatched inside it. The most efficient way to safeguard concealment is by subtraction. Art is ever-vigilant, elliptical, balancing on one leg. When we write, we subtract.” (xv; emphasis added)

“When we write we subtract.” I think artists sometimes forget that simple fact because it’s true not merely for writers but composers and choreographers and visual artists. A poem is a starting point, not an end in itself. I’ve used the following quote commonly attributed to Paul Valéry before and it’s so well-known now that I suppose it’s veering on the clichéd but I still like it: “A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.” (Actually this is a paraphrase of Valéry by Auden. Valéry actually said, “A poem is never finished; it's always an accident that puts a stop to it—i.e. gives it to the public.” And more fully, “A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.”)

I don’t think I abandon poems, deliberately or accidentally. I don’t like the verb; it has unpleasant connotations. If our poems are indeed our children we don’t—at least we shouldn’t—abandon them to the world but which one of us, no matter how good a parent we’ve been, sends out a child who’s prepared to face every eventuality? We do our best. There’s a lot of me in my daughter (poor thing) but somehow she makes it work and has blossomed (terrible word) despite that. She’s an interesting person.

In his book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry David Orr tries to make a point by referencing one of Karen Volkman's sonnets, which opens:

Blank bride of the hour, occluded thought
wed to waning like a sifting scent
of future flowers, retrograde intent

The sonnet, he points out, is “metrically regular, is composed of fourteen lines, uses real words, and has a traditional rhyme scheme—but it doesn't make sense and is grammatically incoherent.” We latch onto what we can. But here’s a curious perspective. Rather than trying to understand the poem Orr advises posing a simpler question to which everyone will have his or her own answer: “Is it this interesting?” If you can say yes, then, as Orr notes, “that is enough.” It’s a point of view but not one I myself can live with. Interesting is not enough in itself. When I find someone interesting I want to get to know them. I want to spend time with them. An interesting poem is a… mind tease.

At its best, as Wallace Stevens says, poetry should "resist the intelligence / Almost successfully," meaning it shouldn't quite make sense, thereby expanding the reader's—and poet's—notion of sense a bit. I can live with that. But there’s resistance and there’s resistance. When you’re trying to give your wife or girlfriend a cuddle and she resists it might just be because she want you to persist. All good things are worth waiting for and worth fighting for after all. Just because a poem resists a little doesn’t mean it doesn’t want you to get to know it. It’ll let you in if you don’t give up. No one wants an ‘easy’ poem that gives away everything on first read. My poems respect themselves too much for that. I brought them up proper. They don’t wear see-through tops but they don’t mind showing a bit of leg.

The poem ‘Reflections’ is not about the relationship between the poet and his reader although it is about the relationship between a poet and a reader. But what if it was about me and you? It’s very important that the poem begins with a no. If there’s a no then something preceded it, an advance, a proposition, a question to which the answer is no. What might that question have been? What about: Can I understand you? The poem says no. Are you going to take no for an answer? Sometimes no means no and sometimes no means maybe. Try again. That’s a bit of my soul contained in those six lines. Taking off one’s clothes and being seen naked isn’t so hard even if your body’s not in the best of shape. But letting someone see you naked on the inside is another thing entirely. I’m not going to let strangers in without putting up some kind of resistance. If you’re worthy all will be revealed. And, of course, the revelation goes two ways because at that moment you’ll see yourself a little differently than you did before and there’s no going back:

WarningDo Not Read this Poem


You mustn't read this.
Turn the page, please.

You don't want to see
                  the home truth here.

Because when you peer
                  in this darkness

                  you'll discover a
                  side to yourself

                  you didn't want to.
Just like right now.

I do hope you think
                  it was worth it.



13 July 1997

People continually squabble about what a poem is nowadays. I’m more interested in what a poem does frankly. Only one person has seen ‘Do Not Read this Poem’ and not read it. My onetime boss’s daughter—who was about eight at the time I think—was flicking through by big red book of poems, came to this one and said something like, “Okay then,” and turned the page without reading. I was very impressed. The poem’s not about me. The poem’s all about you. It’s my equivalent of “Do not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden.” Sometimes no mean no. It’s a deliberately dissatisfying poem. That’s its point.

People use all kinds of metaphors to describe poetry. If such a thing could exist as transparent poetry then it would be like a sheet of glass; opaque poetry is more like a brick wall we bang our heads against. Continuing the optical metaphor, translucent poetry would fall somewhere in between, allowing some light through but not enough for the reader to clearly get it. Ideally, though, poetry should be opaque enough to reflect some aspect of yourself like a mirror. Let me leave you with this to reflect on:

Mirror, Mirror


Before we start, gentle reader
tell me what you're looking for;
it helps if I know beforehand.

(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price.)

mirrorOr we could just talk if you like.
What do you want to hear?
Surely not the truth?

Oh, I see: you like mirrors.
Well that's quite all right.
I have just the thing here.

All it takes is a little imagination.



19 August 1996

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