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

Friday, 22 February 2008

God only knows

There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a female admirer once wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: "When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant – God and Robert Browning – and now God only knows what it means."

This got me thinking about some of my own poetry. I have written so much that there is no way in hell I can remember the particular events that prompted me to put pen to paper. That said, having never kept a diary, my collection of poetry is the nearest I've ever got. I just have to look at most of my poems and I can remember where my mind was at when I began it. Often I can recall the specific events that moved me to write. I can even tell you where I wrote a lot of them.

I say "began" because I used to be very slow at letting go of poems – we are talking months and months of taking the proverbial comma out and putting in back in a week later so the completion dates aren't always very helpful. By the time I used to get round to finishing every scrap of passion that had gone into that first draft would have vanished and I would have been reduced – bad choice of word there I think – to a cold-blooded editor.

I think it is good to distance yourself from your work. I saw an interview once – twice actually – with John Irving who recommended taking a break from one project to focus on another because when you come back you do so with fresh eyes. I may have blogged about this before, if not then I made a comment on someone's blog about it. It doesn't matter. Either way it's worth restating. When you return to a piece of work after a while you do look on it with fresh eyes and it's easier to do what's necessary to make the piece work.

But how do we know if a piece of writing has worked? It seems like an easy question but it isn't. In his essay, The Text Says What It Does Not Say, Pierre Macherey makes, what seems at first a radical suggestion, but, when you think about it, it's not such an unreasonable one. According to Macherey, the ideology of a literary work resides in its incompleteness, in its significant gaps and silences. In other words what you don't say can be as important as what you do. It's like wandering into Cyrano de Bergerac's living room and NOT looking at the nose; avoiding looking at something, or mentioning something, can actually draw just as much attention to it.

I think the whole issue of meaning is a fascinating one, one that, if I'm honest, is probably way above my head but that's never stopped me talking about things I don't really understand before.

Think about any poem you've written (this works best with poetry – you prosers will have to use your imaginations) and remember how you felt afterwards. It made total sense, it encapsulated precisely how you felt, it said exactly what you wanted it to say. But take a step back a minute and ask yourself how much of that poem never actually made it to the page, is still in your head. THAT is why the experience is a complete one, because you have all the facts, feelings, meanings at your fingertips; you are connected to that poem and in no position to be objective about it.

All of which brings me to a poem I wrote in May 2000. What can I tell you about the time I wrote this poem? Very little actually. The only interesting, though not necessarily significant, thing is that it had been fourteen months since my previous poem so something significant must have got the ol' gears going but, for the life of me I can't imagine what. I'd started a new job six months earlier and I'd settled in well. I was actually quite content in my life at the time – poetry would be the last thing I'd expect to be writing at a time like that – and then, out of the blue, this poem appears:

This is Not About What You Think

Every name and place has been changed,
what we did and why, all changed,
the dates and times, how we really felt,
the reasons we wouldn't stay away,
everything slightly altered, twisted,

to accuse the innocents
and excuse those guilty.

So A chases B like night flees the day
just as I came after you
or was it you taking the lead?
It's hard to remember now
but I'm sure we were never quite there together.

Stories are simple, even the difficult ones,
smoothed out and edited, tied up neatly by the end.
And that special ingredient, that missing metaphor?
A soupçon of some sort of sense to make the thing palatable
when nothing that real ever could be.

But why on earth should it? It's a pretty good question.
I just don't have any pretty good answers left
so this will have to do for now.

Now, I find this poem interesting for a few reasons. For one, it's in free verse. I've made no attempt at structuring the piece. When I write like this it generally means the subject is paramount and the word choice critical. It's also long, long for me. Normally I'd say what I had to say in half those words and get off the page before I messed the whole thing up. The poem is not without technique though, actually I've been a bit heavy-handed with the alliteration and repetition; I wonder why? The poem is deliberately contrary: normally names are changed to protect the innocent and should it not be "A chases B like night pursues the day" and how can difficult stories be said to be simple? I've worked at these obviously for a reason. I've gone out of my way to say something by not saying it but have I been too clever for my own good?

I have to confess that the poem has lost all meaning for me. I think of it as a bad poem, a poem that has gone off. I get an unpleasant taste when I read it. But does that mean it is meaningless?

Dave, at Pics and Poems, reminded me of Bashō, the seventeenth century master of the haiku, who is reported to have said: "Is there any good in saying everything?" An illustration Dave has seen given with the quotation, comes from the modern art of photography: "The poet makes the exposure, leaving the reader to develop it." I can follow the analogy. It's a good analogy. I know that wasn't my intent when I wrote the poem originally. I can write poems that make you think and feel, I can even write poetry that means something but my intent is normally transparent; at least I think it is.

Now, I'd like to contrast my poem with one I found on-line by Peter Ciccariello:

Poem of twelve nouns

Prayer arrow
anger mountain
plenty record

climate apparatus
share speed
stone distance

This poem deliberately excludes certain elements – verbs, articles, conjunctions, adjectives. It functions more like a series of photographs trying to tell a story. What is missing is easily as important as what is there but it's got nothing to do with parts of speech. The reader has to use what's there as a starting point and structure what's presented to him in his head. The title really doesn't help. What I can tell you is that Ciccariello is an interdisciplinary artist, poet, and photographer, whose images are a synthesis of language and visual imagery. Knowing that helps me understand why he might produce a poem like this but it doesn't help me understand the poem which, I think everyone will agree, should stand on its own merits.

Meaning is clearly a dynamic thing. It is something we look for in everything. We try and impose order on things that have none, like stars and clouds, inkblots and words. Look at the Ciccariello poem. What did your brain do with those words? It tried to organise them. It needs them to make sense. I thought of what the missing bits might be and tried them for size. I struggle for a context that will fit all these words. Is there a definitive solution to the poem? No, because it's a poem and not an equation. At best it's only half an equation, the solution to what was going on in Ciccariello's head at the time, to which we need to work out the question. In this poem meaning is inferred, inferred by association. As soon as you see one word sitting beside another your brain wants to connect them in some way.

My poem meant something to me once. Now it means something else. The reason it meant something in the first place is because I was carrying the key around with me. Since I've lost it, it's nothing but a source of frustration, which is how I feel you must feel about the poem because that's how I feel about Ciccariello's poem. I'm frustrated because it does not live up to my expectations; whether it lives up to the poet's intentions is another thing completely.

So is my poem meaningless? God alone knows. I think it is. I think it's a bad poem. What do you think?


Dave King said...

Jim, this post has intrigues me not a little. I am getting echoes from it at all points of the compass: The Ciccarello poem which I shall have to come back to, and your poem, which actually picks up a line of thought from two of my earliest posts, It's How He Sees It and Every Picture Tells a Story
Your comment about you having the key to your poem which the reader cannot have, strikes a chord. I have often had the experience (usually immediately after a redraft) or rereading a poem and thinking that a line or a reference does not make sense - because the line that made sense of it has been moved down and the reader does not yet have the necessary information. It's like a computer program where you introduce a variable before defining it. The program goes Ugh? and folds its arms in defiance, but need it matter all that much in a poem? Take Eliot's "Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock". You cannot make logical sense of it because he does not give you enough information. But at some deeper level it makes perfect sense.
Anyway, thanks for this post.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Interesting post, Jim. What it brought to mind for me was the great poets and their editing of their poetry. This was especially true after I read Dave's comment. When I was in college, one class we had as our main text a volume of "J Alfred Prufrock" which contained all of the different versions of the poem, with all of the corrections and edits. The main assignment was two parts: Was the final edited version correct? If so, why? If not so, why and what version would be correct?

Drove me crazy until I discovered that there was no way to "fix" the poem other than the way Eliot had it in the final version. The why of that, as Dave pointed out, was elusive--it just was. Deconstructing such a famous poem was awe inspiring.

Gabriel Orgrease said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gabriel Orgrease said...


My confession: I had an incident about six months ago when I was looking on my computer at various text files and I came across this one 'prose' piece that I was reading and I first said to myself, "Where did this come from?" "Who wrote this?" I thought it was a pretty compelling piece of prose and I began to get jealous that anyone could write this well and that I would not remember where I had got it. That I would not even know their name.

Until slowly as I read further it dawned on me that I had written it.

I felt like the puppy that had an accident on the floor and knew better what might come next.

Don't ask me where it is or what it was as I immediately lost it back again.

I am very much in favor of to put pieces on the shelf then come back to them at a later date. Sometimes they seem inconsolably muddled beyond repair, other times I pick them up with a fresh eye to work on them anew. I have never, ever, before that incident as nearly absolutely lost a connection with any piece that I have written.

I think there is something very important in getting that level of distance, in seeing that the distance is possible and to try to recreate the sense of distance in the action of writing... to strive to write outside of oneself.

Alan Ginsberg once said something about the place where we have got to when we forget our name.

I have gone on many adventures in the past to look for that place. It is kind of a hard one to get to, sort of like looking at the constellation Pleiads where if you look directly at them you cannot see them well and you have to look slightly askance and there they are. They are always there, that place where you forget your name is there, that sense of distance to be outside of one's act of writing is always there... just a need, if one cares to try, to learn to adjust the angle of perception.

I like your poem. If it is good, or not, I cannot ever tell. It either works for me, or it does not.


Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, I don't mind poems that make sense deep down as long as they give me something up front to keep me going. That's why I like Beckett so much because he is immediately accessible without one needing to have a read anything by Dante; Eliot couldn’t even be jugged translating his opening lines into English. I don't mind something not making sense at first if sense is applied to it later. I'm enjoying a quirky TV programme at the moment called Raines about a detective who hallucinates, he talks to an image of the victim of the crime he is trying to solve, however, as he learns more about the victim you literally see the image metamorphose to suit the updated facts. As a writer I get that totally.

I'm afraid, Conda, that I find the poem nothing less than frustrating. I read it through again last night and it just annoyed me. I even read through some notes on the poem and they annoyed me even more, it might be this: it might be that, it might be t'other.

And, Gabe, I have so much trouble with my memory these days that it is only a matter of time before I forget my own name. I handed in a parcel to our next door neighbour a few days ago – a woman we have known for four years (or it is five?) – and I read her name on the parcel while I was waiting for her to come to the door but five minutes later back in the flat I couldn’t remember it. From a writing point of view it's a bit of a blessing as well as a curse, because I can put a bit of writing aside for a few days and I've pretty much forgotten what I was on about; that used to take months. The only thing I have to make sure now is that I leave it in plain site or I'll forget to go and look for it later.

Matt D. Barnes said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, there is much of this I can relate to.

You've managed to capture my interest, I will be back.

Catherine said...

This was a really interesting post. I've recently started writing poetry again after a hiatus of many years, and I find myself wanting to experiment with words and form, whereas in years past, I just wanted to get certain feelings down on the page.
Dave King's comment is also highly relevant, and I've got some interesting ideas now in my head for when I write my next poems.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dave and Catherine, always nice to see new faces on the site. And Catherine, I'm working on a two-part blog at the moment on various forms of short poetry I'm sure you'll find interesting. Probably a couple of weeks before I post it though.

WorldClassPoet said...

Jim, I miss seeing you over at WCP. This was an awesome post, BTW. I published a little piece about Browning on my website.

I tagged you today for the six-word memoir game. Drop by the World Class Poetry Blog and play a round.

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