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

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Identity parade

invisible-man Why is it so much easier to stand before a portrait of a writer one admires than to look in the mirror? We all do it. And we persist in doing it convinced that if we just stare at the face of the next portrait down the line for long enough we'll finally see ourselves. And we'll make sense. I've never found anyone out there who writes like me. If I did I'd very likely quit and let him get on with it. No point in the two of us eating ourselves up over a few lines of poetry.

I bought a book maybe fifteen years ago, a text book called simply Literature, which, amongst a host of other things, contains photographs of many of the authors represented therein and I remember clearly sitting and going through them, page by page, and looking for the 'author' in them. What should an author look like? I paid particular attention to the eyes. I didn't expect their faces to look like mine but I was looking for something, something in them that I could identify with.


I had expressed this idea in a poem a few years earlier:


Though I kept my rooms on
I'd given up all hope of an audience
when one day I was summoned.

It was like an interview in the womb
before being granted life.

He read what I'd brought without comment,
and then addressed me in the half-light:

"There is a drowning man in us all,"
he said,
"and like a man who never sleeps
he is driven mad by his own existence."

He said no more;
but then he'd said it all.

We never met again.
I did not expect we would.

And that's all I can remember,
except his eyes:
as if some prisoner inside him
was peering out through them at me.

I had only ever seen them in a mirror.

17 October 1986

This was my 600th poem and I remember at the time being very pleased with the results. It was part of a sequence of poems called simply The Drowning Man Poems of which this was the climax if you will and probably the best one; I think there were a couple after this.

At the point of writing it I had met only one other published poet and although a far more genial and articulate character than I was he did have sad eyes, at least that's what I saw, although I have become well aware over the years of my talent for projection. Seriously, what's that guy doing on the right?


The issue under discussion here, of course, is one of identity. Like most words we use it without thinking about it. We feel we understand it so why get tied in a knot trying to define it? Simply because there is no simple definition and that can lead to misinterpretation. 'Identity' makes me think of the word 'identify' and 'identify' feels lost without a 'with' to tag along on after it. Is 'identity' the same? To acquire our own identities do we first need another to frame that identity?

Wikipedia opens up its entry on 'Identity' with the following helpful definition:

Identity is an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual's comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.

So, fundamentally, 'identity' has to do with how different we are to others rather than how much we are alike others. There is, of course, the notion of 'group identity', 'belonging', if you will. I am a poet ergo I am a member of the group of poets. But I am also an individual.

So, who am I? I am, or have been, all of the following: father, son, brother, uncle, nephew, employee, colleague, manager, student, teacher, friend… You get the idea. The list goes on and on and yet, when I look in the mirror, when I look into the sad eyes of the bloke staring back at me in the mirror, what do I see?

A better example is when I see my photo up on the Web identifying me as an author. What the hell is my face doing up there?

Much of the groundwork on identity from a purely psychological point of view was done by a guy called Erik Erikson. Needless to say, others built on his work but the one that interests me is James Marcia who put forth a paradigm that focuses on the twin concepts of exploration and commitment. I listed some of the things I have been in my life. There have been more that I have explored but I found they weren't me. It's an expression we use all the time but have you really thought about it? I was self-employed for a bit. It's a fact. I could give you the dates. But I didn't include it in that wee list because it wasn't me. Okay, it was me. I did the work. I got paid. I sent my accounts into the tax office. But I was never comfortable in the position and got out of it and back into regular employment as soon as I could. You could say I'm self-employed now. I sell books and get paid for them and I do keep records but until I can pay my way based solely on my writing I regard my writing career as the tax office would, a paying hobby.

And how does being thought of as a hobbyist make me feel about being a writer? Yeah. Nuff said.

But let's stick with 'poet' because unless you're Seamus Heaney hardly any poet earns enough to be more than a paid hobbyist if even that once you add everything up. So I can say, hand on heart: "I am a poet," and yet – can you believe this? – after close to forty years writing the damn stuff I still feel that there's something out there called 'poetry' and there's what I do that I call 'poetry'. 'S nowt as queer as folk, eh?

Why do I feel that 'identity' and 'identify with' are mutually exclusive terms? Because one is personal and the other is social: it is possible to be a part and feel apart at the same time like feeling alone in a crowd. Identity is more than a feeling though, it is a definition. I don't feel I'm a poet, I know I'm a poet. How I feel about being a poet is another thing entirely. I'm a man. That is incontrovertible. And yet, when I'm in the company of a certain kind of man – testosterone-fuelled, beer-swilling, football-crazed and women-hungry – I feel uncomfortable being a man. Granted in that kind of company I'd probably feel more uncomfortable being a woman but you get my point.

In his essay, What Is Identity (As We Now Use The Word)? James Fearon takes this stab at defining 'personal identity' (the whole thing is worth a read too):

Personal identity is a set of attributes, beliefs, desires, or principles of action that a person thinks distinguish her in socially relevant ways and that (a) the person takes a special pride in; (b) the person takes no special pride in, but which so orient her behaviour that she would be at a loss about how to act and what to do without them; or (c) the person feels she could not change even if she wanted to.

Not sure why he uses 'she' but this obviously applies to both genders.

It's (c) that jumps out at me. I'm a poet in the same way that I'm a man. I can't change either. Okay, I can stop writing the words down but I don't believe that would stop me being a poet and I could stick on a frock but that wouldn't make me a woman except in some very weird carnival.

venn-diagram My social identity as a poet is an odd thing since I don't socialise with poets. Not in a real world sense. But if we go back a couple of years to before I was active online I still had to contend with how I perceived myself as a member of the set of poets (think Venn Diagrams). The fact that I didn't socialise says a lot about me. I knew there were others like me out there and yet I deliberately kept myself to myself. Was this an ego thing? Not really. I, as do a lot of people, view writing as a private thing. We don't even discuss what we're working on with our mates. So what would a group of poets do? Here, I'll show you mine if you show me yours. No, I don't think so.

I think my social identity as a poet really suffers because I'm not a social person in any aspect of my life. I would sing, "You will always find me in the kitchen at parties," but that simply isn't true – I'd never go to the party in the first place if I could get out of it – but if I did, yes, I'd be in the kitchen with the women. Safe.

I can't shake the feeling I get though when I see a photograph of a writer or watch them being interviewed. I want to ask of them what non-writers ask of me. Well, actually I don't because I've heard enough to know that they will probably be nothing like me. Which brings us round to imposter syndrome, which I wrote about back in February in my article 'Are you an imposter?', the feeling that you're a fake and about to be found out any day.

I don't think I'm doing anything particularly radical with my poetry but I wonder if E E Cummings ever sat down and looked at one of his poems and thought: Who am I kidding?

Now you might think all I'm looking for is a wee bit of reassurance, a pat on the back – "Don't be a silly bugger, Jim, of course you're a poet" – but I'm not. Pats on backs don't last very long anyway. Like most of the things I write like this I'm really addressing the poets out there who feel like me, who look in the mirror and don't see a poet looking back at them. Maybe one day you will. I hope you do. But if you don't my bit of sage advice would simply be: Stop looking in mirrors. And stay clear of portraits galleries too.

Let me leave you with a few more portraits – ladies this time – and you tell me which one's the poet.



Dick said...

A fascinating little excursion into the territory of identity, Jim. And a fine poem at its heart - one of your best.

Kass said...

That poem really does it for me. This identity thing - if we didn't view ourselves somewhat as others see us, would we falter less or more as artists?

All of the ladies are poets, but the first one seems less likely to be, so I vote for her.

Art Durkee said...

I think a lot of what's on is that the general celebrity culture also has its tentacles into poetry. Everyone and the Warholian 15 minutes of fame.

Author's photos have never done it for me. I've never once thought, He's nice-looking, I bet he writes well, too.

Of course, I grew up with classical music, where one quickly learns to separate the composer as a person from the compositions they produce. There are plenty bad characters who wrote great music. So I never got into the celebrity viewpoint about artists or poets or composers; I always looked at the art, not the artist.

I just recently wrote about the identity politics issues of the opposing arguments of the essentialists vs. the constructivists. Both of these positions have some merit, and both also miss the boat. Venn diagrams with both/and overlap, indeed.

Rachel Fenton said...

I have some weird need to see the author of a book, I wnat to see if they look as if they could write the sort of fiction I like. I make heaps of micro-judgements about an author and then discard them and read the book anyway. Author portraits really make me smile. You never see an author giving it the big cheesy grin....

Identity is a bit like colour: it's all relative (thanks Einstein)...and it isn't static like a fingerprint, you can't photograph identity...I feel like a fraud...aren't all writers - frauds and liars - how else could we write?

Sorlil said...

Great post Jim - thoughtful and amusing, I like the poem.

I got excited when I saw the sound link at the top but then disappointed when it wasn't you reading the post!

Just curious - did you realise 'Identity Parade' is poetry collection by Roddy Lumsden or did you just make it up for your post?

I've discovered that meeting authors is one way to take away the special aura that author pics on books promote lol!

Dave King said...

I have a book of modern Scottish poets, which I have been looking for, but cannot lay my hands on just now. It is a large, thin book with a double spread for each poet, a portrait on one side and a poem facing it. I remember being given this book. It fascinated me for a long while, a though there should be some correspondence between the lines on the face and those in the poem. I wonder if there is... if so, I never did find it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Dick, and I'm glad you liked the poem. It's often the simplest images that are the most effective.

Interesting point, Kass, is self-image part reflection? I suppose it has to be. Society leaves a hole they expect us to fill and so often we have to distort who we are to fit comfortably into it. Oftentimes that's meant lopping the poetry bit off myself because there was no room for it.

I'll come back to you on the photos of the ladies.

I also grew up with classical music, Art, and although I have pictures in my head of the famous composers, the Beethovens and Mozarts, there are so many whose image was unknown to me for years. It was never important for me to see a photo or a drawing of them. That said I do like photos. A few years ago my daughter bought me a book of photographs taken photo booths across the decades and I pawed through it for ages just staring at these faces. The ones that particularly struck me were a couple of girls of about fourteen taken in the nineteen-seventies who'll be ages with me now if they're still alive.

You have a point, Rachel, I can't think of many author photos where they're smiling, in fact most author photos I can think of are pretty awful; I'm talking about the ones on the sleeves of their books that get used year after year. Even the Queen changes the image of her on stamps and coins every few years.

Am I a fraud? I'm certainly a liar. I've never pretended to be anything else. Lying comes in all shades of grey however. My author photo is a lie. Okay the camera never lies and that is how I looked then but it's not how I look today. This is why portraits are often better than photographs. I don’t think I'm a fraud. There are people who would suggest that I am, who set certain criteria that a 'real writer' needs to me but I can rise above that. Of course when I can't write I feel like a fraud but that's another thing completely.

Sorry, Sorlil, I'm afraid I've never even heard of Roddy Lumsden but then I don’t know anyone. I read blogs all the time where people go on and on about contemporary poets and I wonder who the hell they all are and why I don't know about them. I think what it is is that there are so many poets of the past that I have barely read that I could spend the rest of my life on them and never read a contemporary poet other than the odd one or two I stumble across on the Web. I just got sent a review copy of a book of Bukowski's poetry and I realised when I picked up this great doorstop of a book that I can remember reading only one poem by him – ever.

As for meeting other authors, what can I say? A couple of my wife's friends came to see us here and we met another when we were in Dublin but that's it. I could've made the effort to see you at that thing at the Mitchell Library but I didn't. It's not that I'm trying to maintain an aura or anything, it's not even that I don't want you to be disappointed because I can fake being witty, charming and intellectual for an hour, it's just the sheer effort it would take. Perhaps when I'm feeling a bit better.

And, Dave, yes, exactly, a correspondence. You look at the poem and you look at the face of the poet and you look to see the one in the other. I can see Larkin in his poems; it's seeing him in the rest of his life I struggle with. And maybe that's how it should be. I never liked the title of Motion's biography - A Writer's Life - because I don't think his life as a writer's life not in the romantic sense anyway.

Elisabeth said...

What a poigant post, if that's the right word.

It made me think of another post I read earlier this evening, on Issa's Untidy Review, in which he selects a number of winning haiku for the 2nd Annual Basho Haiku Challenge: the one written by a certain Jacek Margolak

'Waiting for you,
the window changes
into a mirror.'

I have a vague memory that you're not fond of hailu, Jim, but my memory may well be of someone else who dislikes the form.

Back to your post and the search for identity, with its links to shame and guilt and also a sense of fraudulence.

Many of us have dreams in which we are only half dressed, if at all, or unprepared for exams. Our vulnerability sneaks up on us in our dreams.

You remind me so much of Gerald Murnane, Australian autobiographical fiction writer extraordinaire, except he is older than you and I suspect he has gained in confidence over the years. He ought to by now. He's just won the Melbourne prize for literature

You are both honest and self effacing writers who care about your work, more it seems to me than fame and glory.

Your fellow bloggers recognise your talent, even if you are doubtful. That has to be worth something.

I'll conclude with a quote that seems to me to speak to your search for identity as a poet/writer.

At the end of her series of essays, A Plea for Eros, the writer Siri Hustvedt asks the question:
Is the wounded self the writing self? Is the writing self an answer to the wounded self? Perhaps that is more accurate. The wound is static, a given. The writing self is multiple and elastic, and it circles the wound. Over time, I have become more aware of the fact that I must try not to cover that speechless, hurt core; that I must fight my dread of the mess and violence that are also there. I have to write the fear.' (Hustvedt, 2006, p. 228)

To me all this writing is our attempt to circle the wounds of our pasts, our memories, our struggles with shame and guilt, the search for identity and our fears of fraudulence.

To my mind you are a writer, Jim Murdoch, and a poet, with sad eyes and a beautiful mind.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don't not like haiku, Elisabeth, its just, like most forms, I don't think that way. For me form comes afterwards not beforehand. I have written a number of tiny poems over the years but not many and only one I'd call a haiku. I like the piece by Margolak though: short, simple, to the point – exactly my kind of poem.

It's only in recent years I've been able to recall my dreams with any regularity. (I blame the drugs.) My father maintained that he didn't dream which is rubbish and he finally backed down and went for he didn't remember his dreams. I've never had any of the classic dreams: falling, flying, wandering around naked nor have cigars featured heavily in my dreams either (although I will admit to a Freudian slip when I there – instead of 'heavily' I typed 'heaving').

I can see where you might see similarities between Murnane and myself; I see them too. There's definitely a subset of writers which would include the two of us and I suspect both of us would feel uncomfortable in it. I am disparaging when it comes not only to my work but to everything to do with myself. It's a defence mechanism. I used to have a friend, a girl, who was both overweight and extremely big busted and she knew every joke and putdown there was, a bit like the Cyrano de Bergerac character with his nose. I find it hard to accept compliments. I don't seek them out and they certainly don't fuel me but I'm also aware that it would be ungracious to dismiss them entirely and so thank you.

The image of circling the wounds of our pasts is a good one. Of course there are very few metaphors that someone's not used before. I've written about scars and wounds and broken teeth but your point is well made. I'll leave you with this one:


    They came yesterday
    and unwittingly I let them in
    after all, what had I to fear from friends ?

    It must have been while I was sleeping
    they made those deep deliberate cuts
    into my past.

    They were looking for malignant truths.
    You can't live with them.
    They have to come into the open.

    I didn't even know what they'd done
    till they showed me the ugly truth,
    limp in a dish like a still-born.

    "You've got to be cruel to be kind,"
    they said.
    They said lots of things.

    But the wound never healed
    and the truth ... it lay and rotted
    like Adam's apple.

    2 November 1986

Sorlil said...

That's funny, Jim! Roddy Lumsden is one of the most well-known contemporary Scottish poets. His stuff's not really my cup of tea but I think you would like him.
I hope you will feel better to get out and about more, StAnza poetry festival is a great way to meet poets and hear them read their work.

Rachel Fox said...

I think without the usual stamps of approval (competition wins, prizes, faber and faber cocktail parties) it can be hard to believe yourself a poet at times. And then, from speaking to others higher up the chain, it seems to be case that they feel much the same. I would say 'don't worry about and just write' if that weren't a bit of a cheek because I do lose time (and every now and again) sleep over it myself.

As for our own image/photo/face...that's a confusing one whether you're a writer or not! Especially as we get older. I've never been a mirror regular and that's not changing with age!

From your current author pic I would probably guess that you wrote sci-fi or Neil Gaiman-style fantasy (if I didn't 'know' you). It might be the beard.


Rachel Fox said...

Should have read that through better...trying to cook the tea at the same time...and do several other jobs...

Jim Murdoch said...

Nope, Rachel, never had any inclination to write fantasy and never been able to write sci-fi. As for the look, my daughter bought me a boxed set of Family Guy: Blue Harvet and the t-shirt same as a part of the package. I think I wore it for about a week straight and I've never seen it since. I wonder where it is. The last time I think I wore a t-shirt was when I was seventeen. It had a print of a motorcycle with "Hubba-hubba, burn that rubber" underneath it. Not me at all even then.

Art Durkee said...

For a writer, I make a good musician. My own author photo on my blog is of me playing music, not sitting at a desk "looking like a writer." The pretentiousness of such a pose, or lack of a pose, could probably be commented on.

I prefer candids to formal portraits in general, and especially for author portraits. Show me there's a real person there, not just a naked brain dictating to a blank page.

There was a great author photo of Allen Ginsberg that was an appropriate portrait because it pictured him in dialogue with a grad student class of poets and/or writers. He was engaged, a little disheveled, and on fire. Which Allen at his best was like.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think part of the problem on books is space, there's rarely room for anything bar a close-up and it's hard to see a personality in action that way. In close-ups we concentrate on the eyes, at least I do. I really wish some of the avatars people use online were a bit bigger. I couldn't pick you out of an identity parade if my life depended on it and yet it's never really worried me what you look like.

Jim Murdoch said...

For those who are interested these are the five ladies at the bottom of this post:

   A – Julie Brown-Rrap (photographer)
   B – Paula Dawson (hologram artist)
   C – Lisa Randall (theoretical physicist)
   D – Gig Elizabeth Ryan (poet)
   E – Zaha Hadid (architect)

John Baker said...

Fascinating piece and poem from you, and striving and insightful comments from many others. To arrive here at 6am on a Sunday morning revealed to me that there was a good reason for getting out of bed so early in the day.
I've also found author portraits interesting for some time, and have collected some together on my blog.
But I suppose which authors' portraits one is attracted by says as much as the portraits themselves.
I don't share your fear of the compliment; but at the same time I take it only as an individual contribution. I suppose it makes me feel both elevated and humbled at the same time.
And I also find myself distrusting of visual images altogether, especially self-portraits; because we project into the world the image we wish recognised, but this process happens with no standards. One of us wishes to project our physical prowess, another our mental ability, a third his vulnerability, a fourth her caring nature, a fifth some ambiguity etc. etc.
So we're all a little weird without even trying; and then, of course, there are poets . . .

Jim Murdoch said...

I enjoyed your own little collection, John. What is it about faces (and not even human faces) that we find so fascinating? I love to watch someone looking at someone else’s face to see their eyes skittering all over it. Have you managed to catch a show called Lie to Me yet by any chance? It’s about a man who has made a career out of his ability to read microexpressions. Tim Roth plays him to perfection. For the slowcoaches in the audience he freezes these onscreen and I guess that’s what we’re trying to read in photographs, like being played a single chord from some orchestral work and trying to work out in our head all the instruments that are playing. I used to like score-reading at school and it is amazing how much you can hear when you have that visual representation in front of you.

I’m with you when it comes to being wary of photos too simply because I realise that no one photo can quite encapsulate a personality irrespective of which aspects of it they have chosen to project. Since I was a kid – probably of about ten – I don’t think you’ll find a photo of me smiling and the fact is that I am a bit deadpan but underneath that I’d like to think I’m also dead funny – just very self-conscious.

Ping services