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

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Is there anybody out there?

I have nothing to say and I'm saying it. – John Cage

I've been fortunate to have another couple of poems accepted for publication in Apple Valley Review. The poems are 'Petrified Poem' and 'Communication Gap'. It's a good choice by the editor since there is a definite connection between the two pieces even though they were written a year apart, August 2004 and July 2005 respectively. They could've been written within a couple of days of each other.

The first poem uses the metaphor of rock which I turn into a pun. In the UK there is a product called 'rock', seaside rock, which usually comes in sticks. The classic variety is mint-flavoured with a pink rim, has a white inside and has writing the full length of the stick, usually the name of the town in which it was purchased unless you buy your rock in Edinburgh where you get this sweet, chalky pastel-coloured stuff in lumps or small sticks and God alone knows what passes for rock in Kirriemuir.

It's about my old whipping boy, truth, and how writers have their work cut out when working with it. Truth is static: A met B and they did C to D who said, "E, F," and "G, wasn't that fun?" The truth is inconvenient, sloppy. The novelist Julian Barnes had this to say about the perverse amalgam of truth and lies that is his fiction:

Fiction is telling the truth by telling lies, as opposed to telling less of the truth by telling facts... When you read the great and beautiful liars of fiction you feel that this is what life is. This is true, even though it is all made up.

People – and by 'people' I mean 'readers' – invariably want to look behind the words on the page: "Wot's goin' on 'ere then?" They're always convinced that's there's more there than meets the eye. The big problem with fiction is that, by its very nature, it is two dimensional; even the most intellectual book in the world has no depth, none whatsoever. Life is multidimensional. I wouldn't even say it's three or four-dimensional. When you do something there's always stuff going on beneath the surface, what's going on in the character's head, their conscious motivations and then there's the subconscious ones. On a page the challenge is to suggest all of this and let the reader fill in the blanks. And that's getting into very dangerous territory. It's all very complicated. Or would that be 'complex'? What is the right word? Maybe I should've used 'difficult' instead.

So what's the hidden message? I know what you said, but what do you mean? Ah, yes, meaning. Maybe I should read the poem backwards. That used to work with LPs.

There's a school of thought, expounded in several of Michelangelo's letters as well as in a famous sonnet, that says that there's a sculpture inside every lump of rock (well, marble in Michelangelo's case) and all the sculptor has to do is remove that which isn't sculpture. This idea, which had already partly expressed by Alberti, attained with Michelangelo a higher philosophical meaning: the sculptor's hand, guided by intellect, could only take out what was already extant inside the block of marble and needed to free the "idea" inside from the superfluous surrounding it.

I've always liked this notion. I'm not sure I agree with it but that's neither here nor there. To my mind a block of text is like a block of marble, just waiting for the reader to find the meaning at the heart of the piece. Let's face it, so many great writers of the past are now remembered by quotes, scraps of what they've written often not lasting a whole sentence.

Here's a quote for you. It's not a bad one and it's a whole sentence.

The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think. - Edwin Schlossberg

I agree totally with that statement. I had no idea who this Schlossberg guy was when I first read the quote. I assumed he was possibly some lesser known Austrian thinker. Actually he's not but this quote was included on a site with others from such intellectual giants as Agatha Christie, George Orwell, H. G. Wells and George Burns. One has to wonder if all that Edwin Schlossberg passes onto posterity will be that quote. It's not a bad quote as quotes go. But I wonder if the context would make any difference. Perhaps his next sentence was:

And no sentence can be better contextualised than with the new Parker PumpActionTM Gel Roller.

Don't look it up. It's not a real pen. Shock horror! I made it up.

The message in 'Petrified Poem' is that there is no secret message, no hidden compartment; it's just a pile of words and if you can make something out of them then good luck to you.

The second poem is on a similar subject. What is a writer when he's not writing? I know a lot of writers fear this question. They feel they have to have a pen strapped to their hand twenty-four hours a day or they're not a 'real writer'. God, I didn't write a single word today, I must be kidding myself and everyone else. My whole life is a lie! I was talking to a young fellow I know who is going through a bad bout of writer's block and we decided he wasn't a writer any more, we'd call him a wroter instead.

This is something I tackled years ago. How do writers cope with things? What is their natural response to … well, anything pretty much? It's to write about it. I have no idea what I was so angry about in March 1985, so angry that I included the date in the title of the poem, but I was obviously having a problem with expressing it:


Unable to find words angry enough
yet still needing to write,
he resorted to scribbling wildly,
and ended doodling:
boxes within boxes.

'Communication Gap' is on a similar theme, the inability to communicate with another person through words on a page. There is a huge gulf between you and I just now. Yes, you. I'm talking to you. Stop slouching and pay attention. I have a message to convey just now. And all I've got are these measly little words. Pah!

What am I trying to communicate in 'Communication Gap' is my inability to communicate. I have nothing to say … no, I have nothing that words will contain … and yet, I cannot resist the compulsion to express the inexpressible. Or was it inexpressible? You'll have to tell me.

A poem has been described as a window and as a door but it can often be a wall with the poor poet screaming on the other side: "Is there anybody out there?" and the reader with his ear jammed against the wall: "Hello? … Hello?"

In these two poems we have a reader who is looking and a writer who is trying to communicate – a match made in heaven you would think – but the poem stands between them, resolute and even impenetrable but put you ear right up to it and you never know what you might think you hear.


millar prescott said...

Mmmmm. Edinburgh Rock. I haven't tasted that for 45 years.

S. A. Hart said...

As always, you've delivered a thought-provoking and engaging post. Your comment, "What is a writer when he's not writing? I know a lot of writers fear this question." leads me to believe that writers and other artists who soley identify themselves with the dynamic act associated with their profession are myopic, as it is one's daily experiences which feed their creativity. Everything a writer or artist observes, contemplates, reads, senses and feels becomes a smoorgasboard to be used for sustaining their craft.

Marion McCready said...

What a great essay, thoroughly thought-provoking as always. I really like Petrified Poem, the understatedness of the ending is very effective.

Rachel Fox said...

I like the 'Petrified Poem'...small, clever, interesting...well-sculpted in fact.

Anonymous said...

I liked the second one particularly well. The comparison between rock and emmm... rock is very well made.

I always think, and sometimes say out loud, that playwrights are like sculptors except that they have to make their own lump of rock before they get to carve something out of it.

Whether every rock has a 'David' tucked away inside it is doubtful though.

The two poems, coupled with you little note at the bottom, made for a very coherent and thoughtful read.

Jim Murdoch said...

You know Millar, it's been a few years since I've had any and the strange thing is the first time I tasted the stuff was on a trip to Ayr of all places. I've never had the star rock from Kirriemuir though. I'd never even heard of the stuff till I wrote this article.

Nice to see you're still dropping in BTW. You must have been reading my blog from just about the start. I'm chuffed you've stuck with me.

Sharon, yes, smoorgasboard – great word – wish I'd thought of it when I was writing this. But it is so true and the older we get the more of this we have milling around in our heads to draw from.

Sorlil, Rachel, Ken – glad you all like 'Petrified Poem'. Of the two I think I actually prefer the other poem. I've always like the idea of the computer screen that we are all looking at just now as having a double effect and I even wrote a couple of poems a few years ago comparing the screen we can see through to the screens that shield us from others. I'm just glad you like anything I write.

Good point too, Ken, about having to make your own lump of rock before you start. I had a chance once to talk briefly to Jeanette Winterson about how each of us sets about writing and we work in completely different ways: she assembles a huge amount of information (i.e. builds her own lump of rock) from which she extracts a novel; I, on the other hand, start with a thin outline (analogous to a wire frame) onto which I stick bits and pieces until I build up a shape that pleases me. Very interesting.

Art Durkee said...

The full John Cage quote is, "I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry." It's a telling quote, in this context.

Felix Noir said...

Hey there! I nominated your blog for an award. Check out the rules at my blog,

Anonymous said...

now that jogged memories of Blackpool...:)))

Anonymous said...

Powerful stuff as ever, Jim. The Cage statement is up there with Beckett in the zen-and-the-art-of-writing-minimally stakes!

Dominic Rivron said...

I enjoyed reading "Sometimes" and "Scrap Values" a while ago, but I got even more out of these two - to me they just seem to pack more of a punch somehow. I particularly liked Communication Gap: it's great when a poem conveys something with precision which, when you examine it, is hard to put into words, and for me this one did.
I often quote that Cage quote to myself. The full quote is: I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it. (My italics). Of course, one could go on and on clarifying the full quote until one had reproduced the entire Lecture On Nothing! He does goes on to say "What I call poetry is often called content. I myself have called it form... Each moment presents what happens [i.e., the content]" as opposed to fulfilling some role in a traditional, formal musical structure.

Akemi Ito said...

Some time ago, a friend of mine paraphrased Nietzsche, and said, in similar vein to John Cage “Finally my pride defers to wisdom and I must confess I’ve nothing to say,”
One of the joys of this writing life is that even when you’ve nothing to say, you are compelled to say it, and many other things. This is true of most of our first drafts, and after months of exhaustive work, you find yourself sitting at your writing desk, gazing up at a large lump of marble. Somewhere inside you know is a thing of beauty.
Of course the art of writing really comes in at this point. Bum glue can produce a first draft, it takes both the artist, with their innate vision and feel for the work; you need to be a craftsperson to sculpt what might initially be a mass of grammatical errors into a final product.
Truth really is our profession, but quite often from such a perverse angle as to have nothing to do with truth, but how well, we, as writers, lie; how convincingly we lie and live in worlds but dreamed.

“Writers are liars, my Dear,” Neil Gaiman, “Calliope,” Dark Horse Comics, 1990

Dominic Rivron said...

Perhaps the feeling of having nothing to say is itself an awareness that there is something to be said and that it is the job of a poet, through the act of making poetry, to find out what it is.

Jim Murdoch said...

Felix, thanks very much for the award. Not quite sure what I'll do with it as I have very mixed feelings about these things but it's always nice to get a pat on the back no matter what.

Confused, I haven't been back to Blackpool since I was I was about four but it's the illuminations I remember not the rock.

Dick and Dominic, that's for padding out that quote for me. And thanks too for the compliment, Dominic.

And, B T, yeah, bum glue. That smacks of the voice of experience talking there. Actually I've just had a short story published and I've written a blog talking about how it came about and the simple fact is that it started off with a blank page and a blank mind, no lumps of rocks or piles of words, but that's a story for another day. Nice to see your name in the comments again BTW.

Anonymous said...

That was quite a poem Jim. I like the simplicity of it. Thanks for sharing.

Jim Murdoch said...

Jena, glad you liked the poems (I assume you read them both as you only mention one). I am a great believer in keeping things simple. I will get round to writing a blog about my approach to poetry now compared to when I was young but I have enough on my plate just now. Suffice to say very powerful things can be said using words of only one or two syllables if you use them with care which I try to do.

Dave King said...

The point about truth being multi-dimensional is well made. Artists in the past have tried to get round this by showing exploded views of their subject, putting several dimensions into their two, for example. Writers also only have two, but one of theors is time, so that makes it less achievable, I guess, supposing that you want to show all the dimensions, that is. In the real world we are not aware of them. we know only what our senses bring and what is in our own head.

My dod was a golf club maker. He made them by hand, in his latter days for the machines to copy. He always reckoned their was a club head in each block of wood, and that if you worked with the wood the club head would emerge.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Dave, but in the 'real' world we have what we think we see, what we actually see, what we remember seeing (once we've done rewriting the past) and what we expect to see and all of this is swishing around in our heads all the time.

June Saville said...

Enjoyed your blog Jim, and of course I accepted the challenge in your poem 1000, and stayed. The time was well spent.
I'm an Aussie,72 years, who became a journalist at the age of 15 and has been writing ever since.
Completed a creative writing/history degree at 65. As you can see, I am smitten with words - you know how it is.
Visit Journeys in Creative Writing and see what you think!
I shall return ...

June Saville said...

I just got to 'Is Anybody Out There?'
It's nice when you get feedback from your reader - then you know that you have reached at least a single someone in some way; perhaps moved through the barrier you speak about.
I am so into your idea of the multi-dimensional nature of life, and writing.
That's why we leave gaps for readers to fill in for themselves ...
(see my ellipsis above)
June in Oz

Jim Murdoch said...

Hi, June, always nice to see another Aussie finding their way here and another septigenarian! You should check out Dave King's blog Pics and Poems - I think you might get along.

And, yes, feedback is lovely. You don't need a lot but a wee touch every now and then really helps especially when you feel the momentum flagging. I think the one that touched me the most was a fellow poet who took one of my poems and pinned it on the cork board next to where he wrote because I had managed to put into words just what writing meant to him. Yes, that one touched me quite a bit. He didn't have to tell me he'd done that.

Anonymous said...

I've arrived here from Jennifer's "Writing to Survive" blog...

I love the bit about liberating the art from the block of stone. That's definitely how I feel about it all sometimes.

Whenever I write poetry (which isn't so often at the moment - its more prose right now...) then, I don't worry so much that the reader will find the same meaning as I intended.

I like to think of poetry, and actually even prose... as somewhere the reader can explore their own resonance to the words used.

For the words, well, they're just some sounds and possibly and agreed reality, but not definitely so...

Jim Murdoch said...

I liked the point you made about words being "just some sounds", Svasti. It reminds me of a point Beckett made about his own work as consisting of "fundamental sounds". I also appreciated Lawrence Shainberg's remarks in The Paris Review where he considers the problem facing all authors, that of articulation – how does one get what we wish to communicate through to another human being only using symbols on a page? Here's a quote from and link to the article which you may find of some interest. Thanks for your comment.

It's not terribly difficult to find Zen in almost any great work of art. The particular problem, however, and what made my questions seem — to me at least — especially absurd, is that such points — like many where Beckett is concerned — lose more than they gain in the course of articulation. […] As Beckett once put it in responding to one of the endless interpretations his work has inspired, "My work is a matter of fundamental sounds. Hamm as stated, Clov as stated ... That's all I can manage, more than I could. If people get headaches among the overtones, they'll have to furnish their own aspirin."
Lawrence Shainberg, 'Exorcising Beckett', The Paris Review, #104

Mainframeguy said...

I see no one else has mentioned it - but cannot resist filling in the gap. When giving the Schlossburg quote you are unsure of his claim to fame, well you do not have to look far in the Wiki link to see he is Caroline Kennedy's husband! A claim to fame indeed in current times!

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry, Mainframeguy, but I had to google Caroline Kennedy.

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