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

Monday, 25 February 2008

A naïve (but not particularly sentimental) poem

It's always nice to see a poem in print. I have a new one in Feathertale called Naïve Poem which I thought I'd tell you a little about.

When you hear the expression 'naïve poetry' probably the first thing that comes to mind is Friedrich Schiller's On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry and that's a good enough place to start if only so I can use this quote:

The naïve is a childlikeness, where it is no longer expected, and precisely for that reason, can not be attributed to real childhood in the strictest sense.

If that isn't what comes to your mind then you are probably one of the people who would regard naive poetry as the kind of poetry written by provincial amateurs, retired postal clerks and genteel ladies who’ve grown bored in their attractively decorated little homes. Harmless. And, of course, all of those people have every right to write what they like how they like it but it doesn't always make it naïve in the sense I'm using. There is also an unpleasant connotation to the word naïve, it suggests gullible but it doesn't have to be.

I've never seen naïve writing that way at all. I've always considered it starts off with a good healthy dose of Naïve realism. Naïve realism is a common sense theory of perception. Most people (i.e. children), until they start reflecting philosophically, are naïve realists. Naïve writers present an idealised version of the world to my mind no different to what science fiction writers do. By presenting an idealised world but leaving their readers in the real world they work their magic. Like naïve and amateur, childish is another one of those words that people tend to say in a disparaging way as if childhood's a thing to be got out of as quick as you can and good riddance to it.

The narrator in a naïve poem or story may be or appear to be naïve but the critical factor is that the reader is not. It's a kind of an anti-Mork-&-Mindy situation. In the TV programme it's the alien Mork who's the innocent observer but with a naïve poem it's the reader who is the observer and unless he or she is a child they most certainly won’t be innocent and that gives them a particular insight into the poem.

The first time I attempted something along this line was in the poem 'Advice to Children':


People will fail you.
It's a fact of life -
they'll let you down.

But not always.
And that's the worst of it -
sometimes they don't.

But most times it's hard to tell

6 March, 1996

The poem is deliberately written in very simple language, the kind of language you would use with a child. The whole purpose of this poem – and those in the series that over the years that have followed it – was to present something in a child's language that a child would never be able to grasp. I tested this on a ten year-old and it had the exact effect I expected – she didn't get it. But the poem is not for a child, it's for adults. I wanted to write the kind of thing we desperately would want to communicate to a youngster to stop them getting hurt in words they were perfectly capable of grasping individually but not collectively.

It's not really a naïve poem though because the narrator is anything but innocent. Not like the protagonist in 'Cinders':


When I visited William
he had a tray of buttons.

"I like these," he said.
"They open things -
and you don't need keys."

And he counted
the buttons on my dress
and asked me to tell him a secret.

23 March 1989

I've written about William since I first imagined him in 1981 walking down Blytheswood Street in Glasgow, an area at the time famous for its prostitutes. The last poem to feature him was in 2002. He starts off on the street befriended by prostitutes, winds up in an asylum, is 'cured' and then returns to his old haunts to find everyone has moved on. This poem is where one of the girls visits him in the asylum. The thing with William is that he's not just an innocent; he has an insight that comes through innocence through seeing things as they really are without all the philosophy getting in the road at least at first. Most of the sequence has seen print over the years but one of these days I will get round to putting them all together.

Which brings us to 'Naïve Poem'. If you've read my review of Naïve.Super you'll appreciate how much this short novel affected me and I have a lot to say about All My Friends are Superheroes once I get round to posting my review which has some similarities (and a lot of differences, but be patient). And then, of course, there's been my discovery of Tao Lin.

Some people don't like poems about poetry. Personally I like reading about writing and writers. It's what I do. It's what I know. I like to read about things I know about. I like looking for mistakes. I'm a sad git with no life.

'Naïve Poem' is about the relationship between poem and poet. As you might expect it's a topic I've covered before usually utilising a fairly predictable father-son metaphor but here there is no metaphor. I simply state "I had a poem / published on the Internet" and I made a point of offering the poem to a magazine with a distinct web presence although they do bring out a print version but there's no guarantee it'll be included.

The poem has been stripped down to the very basics, words and rhythm, although you'd be hard pushed to notice it right away because of how I divided the stanzas.

I have no idea who first uttered those immortal words, "uttered those immortal words", but the life expectancy of words fascinates me; I wrote a poem once called 'The Half-Life of Words'. We use words every day, thousands and thousands of them and they vanish poof! into the ether. So we scribble them on bits of paper, type them onto PCs, copy them onto floppy disks, CDs, hard drives, print them in book and magazines but the $64,000 dollar question is: How long can we expect them to last? One day we're simply neglected, the next forgotten. (Readers might be interested in The Neglectorino Project devoted to almost-forgotten poets).

When a poem is published it's like when an animal has been donated to a zoo and that's the image I had in my head when I wrote the poem. I can visit it any time I like but it's no longer truly mine. And then one day you pop along to the cage and it's gone, the animal, the cage, the whole blinkin' zoo. When I decided to return to the Web one of the first things I did was have a look to see if any of the poems I'd published years ago were still there. No surprises, not only were the poems not there, the sites had long since vanished.

If something is there and then not there how would a child interpret its not-there-ness? A child doesn't have children of its own but it could have a pet. If a pet is no longer there then it will either have run away or died bearing in mind that 'death' may not mean the same to a child as an adult. It's the same when it comes down to 'forever'. Forever is an abstract but can a child truly grasp infinity?

Animals age differently to us and poems age differently too. Some get old very quickly. I expect all of mine to outlive me but I don't see any of them lasting forever. I suppose it would be naïve to think they might.


Dave King said...

A fascinating subject this, and a post to do it justice. It seems to me that there are four overlapping concepts here: naive, primitive, folk and untaught. They all mean something slightly different to me, though the boundaries are ill-defined, to say the least. Mention of naive poetry always puts me in mind of John Clare, though there are many who would disagree and have a point or two to make. It doesn't help that his publisher launched him as The Northamptonshire Peasant, his punctuation was child-like in the extreme, or non-existent (until his editors got hold of it), but he was a brilliant observer of nature and he acquired great poetic skill. To me, though, it is the vision, not the technique, that makes a poet naive, folk or primitive. He wrote:
I found the poems in the fields
And only wrote them down
and when asked how he contrived to write his pretty poetry, replied that he kicked it out of the clods. The whole subject is, as I said, fascinating.

Jim Murdoch said...

Naive, primitive, folk and untaught – I wish I'd had those four to use as headers when I wrote my blog.

John Clare I knew nothing about till a few years back there was a bit on the TV about him – I think it was part of a news report – but I remember being quite taken with him, a true poet right down to the asylum.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Your poem "Cinders" is a delight. What struck me in reading it, was not how it was a naive poem, which it is, but how it reminded me of some haiku and of some of e.e.cumming's work (some of which is the opposite of naive). It must be the simplicity.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Conda. I have to say it a poem that never ceases to please me. One of these days I will get round to publishing the whole sequence; it contains what I regard as some of my best work, poems that still give me a shiver twenty-odd years after they were first written. I kept waiting on finishing but every few years another one would appear out of nowhere. I've thought of killing him off but even if I did that he'd come back as ghost. Such is the power of the poem.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I like your "Naive Poem" ... it has a whiff of the put-on but in a way that adds to its charm, the way a gruff old man teases you & you wonder whether your feelings are being hurt then he winks & it all seems very sweet.

"Advice to Children" reminds me of Philip Larkin a bit. It's a nice knot; you think you're following the thread out then you find it going right back in.

Jim Murdoch said...

I couldn't ask for a greater compliment, Glenn. I said to my wife, "I can die in peace, I've been compared to Philip Larkin," to which she replied without batting and eye and unaware of your last comment to me on your own blog, "Yes, and all alone on Bleaney Street." I actually teared up but we'll blame that on the Leonard Cohen DVD we're watching.

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