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

Monday, 13 October 2008

Wise words of wisdom

Me today (yes, I always look that annoyed)

I'm feeling my age. Actually I'm feeling someone else's age, a guy of about eighty-four. Suffice to say I'm getting to the age where I'm starting to see how well I might measure up to that eighty-four year-old in other ways. Wisdom and age are supposed to go hand-in-fist. So I've been told. I'm still waiting. In the meantime I make do with intelligence. Of course being intelligent – which I think is different from being 'clever' – doesn't mean you'll automatically become wise.

The poetry I remember growing up with, and this is well before I discovered Larkin as a teenager, were these little balls of wisdom, home truths, important truths and I expect that's why they've lasted. They were like bible verses and the thing I liked about the bible was that in the main I was only ever asked to digest a couple of verses at a time and a lot of them were like tiny poems, little nuggets of truth. I don't think it's a coincidence that I write the kind of poetry I do; we work with what we have.

But the bible was written by wise men and poetry was written by old buggers – I've seen photos of them and they were all ancient – so what business did I have trying to make out like I had something to say? The thing I remember as a kid starting off is that I did believe I had access to that kind of wisdom. I could feel it milling around inside me. It was getting to grips with it that was the problem. You see being wise is all well and good but communicating that wisdom is another kettle of fish completely. Every time I put my pen to paper it refused to be the conduit of all my wise words. The occasional bit of cleverness would leak out onto the page but that was about it.

I think wisdom is one of those things like magic. Magicians tend to keep schtum about how they do their tricks, the good ones anyway. Most magic, the kind that doesn't depend on huge apparatuses, is within the capabilities of you or me; it's sleight of hand and a lot of practice. And I guess that's all poetry is when you get down to it. Everyone has poetry within themselves but not everyone can get it out.

Anyway, if you'd like to read a bit more about what I think about wisdom and poetry have a look at my guest post on Jasmin's Heart. Jasko very kindly asked me if I'd contribute a few poems and write a few words to introduce them. So I did. And then I wrote this to set up the introduction. I think I just like to hear the sound of my own voice.


Terry Heath said...

Your distinction between intelligent and clever is interesting. I think I lean more often toward the clever side, myself. But then, perhaps intelligence is just cleverness with better PR.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm pretty sure that any word can be twisted, Terry. That's their beauty and their curse I guess and as soon as you put a couple of commas around clever, it becomes 'clever' and that's a whole new ball game.

Kit Courteney said...

Not a comment on this particular post, so apologies, but I've just been to your site and read your poetry.

Wow! Seriously. Brilliant.

I have quite a few books of poetry I've bought over the years, but either I don't 'get' them or they don't reach out to me. Not sure which but it's a constant source of frustration as I really WANT to properly enjoy them.

Enjoyed yours immensely. Especially 'Mirror, Mirror'.

Ken Armstrong said...

I thought this was exceptionally tight piece of writing (even by Murdochian standard) to introduce a most engaging guest post.

While enjoying the poems I didn't think the choice of piece reflected the diversity of poetry you create - these seemed somewhat 'of-a-kind'. Or is that just me?

Perhaps I should try to answer that myself - when one gets an opportunity to show some work elsewhere, maybe it's better to present a connected snippet of work rather than a 'potpourri'.

Jim Murdoch said...

Kit, I am very touched. It's a great thing when the right reader makes contact with the right poetry. I am so delighted when I connect with a poem these days but it has been years since I've discovered a poet that excites me but I keep looking. I don't know if you noticed but you can find another five more recent poems here and, of course, there are a few poems kicking around in the archives.

As for all those poetry books you've got that you don't get, I suspect we've been shopping in the same shops because I've got a bundle of those too. And I feel exactly the same about them. I know I'm not a stupid guy and yet I look at these poems and it's like they're in a foreign language, I get bits here and there but I simply can't seem to manage to pull the whole thing together. I'm a strong proponent – and exponent too now I think of it – of clarity in poetry. Simple words do not necessarily equal simple thoughts. They can, of course, but why should they?

And, Ken, first of all, no wisecracks about me being touched, and, second, yes, I know what you mean about these poems. I sat with my big red folder on my lap and went through everything for about the last twenty years making a list which kept getting longer and longer. I mean, how the hell does one pick five poems? And then I realised that I had four poems in a print journal that went together perfectly and Jasko had specifically requested the war poem since I'd written it for him anyway…and that was five.

As for diversity, well, that's a word I didn't expect to be chucked in my general direction any time soon – I've always considered myself something on a one trick pony – and, as for 'tight', well, you have got to be joking, right? I just ramble and waffle my way through my posts and only stop when I think even my most faithful follower might be starting to nod off. Nah, I think you've got the wrong guy there.

netta said...

The debate between "intelligent" and "clever" is one a few friends and I have had frequently over the years. There is a difference -- do you have to be intelligent to be clever? Not always. Or vice-versa.

I think you have to be both to be a successful poet.

Beautiful poetry, Jim. Successful, too.


Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Netta. I think the fundamental difference between intelligence and cleverness is is your ability to be it. No one ever says, "Don't be intelligent," do they? But there are plenty of times I've been told, "Don't be clever." It's all to do with what you do with your intelligence. Also bear in mind that that intelligent people are not automatically knowledgeable. I remember I did an IQ test on a young girl and it came out in the 140s. Being pleased with that would have been understandable but she was more than that, she was smug until I cut her down to size by pointing out than an IQ only represented her potential and she may very well not live up it.

What I have also noted about people is their willingness to assume if I know a bit about a certain subject that I'm skimming off the top of a great mountain of knowledge. Quite often when I write about stuff in this blog you're getting it, everything. I know a bit about the Greek words for love but that is the whole extent of my knowledge of the Greek language. I mention this to make sure I don't get an ego. I like when people, like your good self, tell me nice things about my poetry. I think my poetry is good but I don't want to get cocky about it. I've had a good run over the past few months and I'm grateful for that. I could dry up tomorrow and that wouldn't be a bad thing. I'd just move onto the next thing.

Kit Courteney said...

I just went to have a look at the others.

Again - dead good.

At last, I am 'getting' poetry. It's all rather exciting!

J. C. said...

I do not know who said it Jim, but I am going to try to paraphrase it (badly), it goes something like this: "Poetry does not have to talk about something, only to be". I think your poems are achieving that. I sense your poems as poetry, (and that does not happen with every poet I find. (I hope it is possible to grasp at least something from what I wrote here.)

Jim Murdoch said...

It was Archibald MacLeish in 'Ars Poetica', Jasko:

    A poem should not mean
    But be.

I think I understand what you mean. I expect it's the same feeling I got when I read Philip Larkin's 'Mr. Bleaney' because the poem was bereft of poetic…let's call them tricks. It wasn't clever. I know I've given 'clever' a hard time but I haven't got it in for it – honest. What got me was how Larkin managed to write a poem, to be poetic without adding in all that fancy stuff. I wanted to do that. I think poetry has less to do with techniques, although 'Mr. Bleaney' does rhyme after a fashion, and more to do with thought processes.

I was only talking about this today to a young writer who dropped me an e-mail. She's all caught up at the moment in the meaning of meaning. Meaning is an attribution. It is not intrinsic to anything. No poem means anything, readers imbue them with meaning. A good poem, to my mind, facilitates that process.

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