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

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Are you an innie or an outie?


[C]oming out is like high school: some people have good experiences, while others have bad experiences. Everyone learns from it and wants it to end as fast as possible so they can get it over with and graduate to the real world – Rikki Bower


A wee while ago Herman Van Rompuy became the new president of the European Council. It was news for a day. Had it been Tony Blair then that would have been another thing entirely I'm sure although not in my head. Actually Van Rompuy, who's Belgian by the way, was news for a couple of days because the papers jumped on the fact that he wrote haiku which the Financial Times defined as "those impenetrable short Japanese poems that seem to have no real point." Andrew Motion wrote a whole article about the subject in The Guardian. He listed his favourite poem by Van Rompuy as being 'Water':

Puddles wait
for warmth to evaporate.
Water becomes a cloud

although he thought 'Time' a bit clichéd:

Life is sailing
on the sea of time but
only the sea remains

I actually don't mind it. It seems though that his most popular poem (which Motion didn't pick up on) is 'Hair':

Hair blows in the wind
After years there is still wind
Sadly no more hair

I can see why it might be popular although it doesn't do much for me.

This post isn't really about Herman Van Rompuy or politics or haiku. It's not even about journalism, but it was that that got me thinking. The papers of course are out to sensationalise things. They want readers and so they have become increasingly free in their interpretation of the facts. What's interesting in Van Rompuy's case is that the only thing they could dredge up was the fact that the guy writes – and manages to gets published – haiku. He has a website and everything but I have to warn you, Google Translate doesn't do his work any favours.

Plassen wachten
op warmte om te verdampen.
Water wordt een wolk

gets translated as:

Pee waiting
to heat to evaporate.
Water is a cloud.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

john-kerry_0 In the case of the American Democratic presidential contender John Kerry it was kitesurfing the media picked up on. Tony Blair lists no hobbies at all in Who’s Who, although Gordon Brown finds time to play football and tennis apparently. I said this post wasn't going to be about politics and it's not but we clearly find it interesting to know what people do when they're out of whatever particular role they have in our lives. Like mums and dads. It always comes as such a surprise to most kids to learn that there are real people inside their parents. I know it shocked the hell out of me.

Roles. I think the whole subject is a fascinating subject. Are roles identities? Hmm, must ask my daughter about that. I wrote a poem about it once:


So many faces

the daughter

the sister

the wife

the mother

the secretary

the friend

the lover

and on the inside

the nothing


19 March, 1997

Carrie used to collect matryoshka dolls – that's where the idea came for that one. She thought it was sexist when she first read it and I suppose it is but it doesn't reflect my personal view of women; it's simply a dissection of one particular woman. The thing is, I could so a similar list for myself:










And somewhere on the inside . . . the poet. I wonder how many of you would come up with a similar core to your being. The thing is, most of you reading this – and who have been reading my wee articles for some time – will think of me as Jimmy the Poet because that's the face I present to you. It's a lie but I've always been very honest about the fact that I'm a liar. It's a lie in the fact that it's incomplete. It's a lie of omission. A poet is not all I am and for most of my life it's been on the inside and only those few people who got admitted to that . . . what shall we call it? . . . inner sanctum, got to see him.

I didn’t start off like that. For a while 'the poet' was several layers up and easily accessible. I may not have been proud of my poetry (I knew most of it was dire) but I was pleased to be writing it. Over the years though 'the poet' part of me sank almost without trace. All the items on my wee list refer to my relationship to others. I let other people define me with one exception: I could be a poet on my own in fact I had no real clue how to be a poet in company. In time being a poet became my secret identity.

Moon_Knight Question: Is Bruce Wayne Batman's secret identity or is it the other way round? Which came first? Is that important? I actually liked Marvel's take on Batman, a character called Moon Knight. What I liked about him is that there were more than two identities on the go here. There was Marc Spector, the man he was born as; Moon Knight, the masked avenger he became when he allowed himself to become the avatar of the Egyptian god Khonshu; after his return to the United States, Spector creates the identity of millionaire entrepreneur Steven Grant, using this identity to purchase a spacious estate, and to remain in contact with the common man he also invents the identity of taxicab driver Jake Lockley. Needless to say in time Spector doesn't know who the hell he is any more and he literally ends up being diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (that's multiple personalities to you and me).

Am I a man who sometimes writes or a writer who sometimes pretends he has an ordinary life? Or is it that simple? Most people in my life will see me as the former whereas increasingly I've come to see myself as the latter. Is that pretension or delusion or has The Poet finally taken over completely? Does that sound sick? I don't feel sick.

All superheroes have their enemies and if they can't beat them the very least the bad guys want to do is unmask the hero. And so when people have found out about The Poet the first thing they do is go on the offensive: Have you ever been published? Oh yeah? So where? I've never heard of that? Anyway, what did you get paid? A free copy! Is that all? Well, come on then, let's hear one of your poems. Go on, recite something. What do you mean, you need your notes? You mean you can't just rattle off one right now? Go one, make up a new poem. Here, I hope it rhymes. You know it's not real poetry if it doesn’t rhyme.

I think Herman Van Rompuy got off light in the press. I really do. Could it possibly be that things are changing a bit and that there isn't quite the same stigma attached to being a poet that there used to be? I hope so but somehow I doubt it.

A few years ago Margaret Atwood had this to say:

Atwood A lot of being a poet consists of willed ignorance. If you woke up from your trance and realized the nature of the life-threatening and dignity-destroying precipice you were walking along, you would switch into actuarial sciences immediately.

If I had not been ignorant in this particular way, I would not have announced to an assortment of my high school female friends, in the cafeteria one brown-bag lunchtime that I was going to be a writer. I said "writer," not "poet;" I did have some common sense. But my announcement was certainly a conversation-stopper. Sticks of celery were suspended in mid-crunch, peanut-butter sandwiches paused halfway between table and mouth; nobody said a word. One of those present reminded me of this incident recently – I had repressed it – and said she had been simply astounded. "Why?" I said. "Because I wanted to be a writer?" "No," she said. "Because you had the guts to say it out loud." – Waterstone's Poetry Lecture, delivered at Hay on Wye, June 1995

I know the first thing I wanted to do when I put on the mantel of The Poet was to test myself and the toughest thing I could think to pit myself against was the publishing industry. And those first few victories were so sweet. With the existence of the Internet most poets can circumvent that by publishing online, indeed there must be hundreds out there – dare I say thousands? – who have never seen their work in a print magazine or a chapbook and who couldn't care less; they're being read and isn't that the real victory? Surely the printed page is the middle man?

Back in Tudor times things used to be very different:

Today it is usual to ask a young author not 'What has he written?' but 'What has be published?' The achievement of print, with the imprimatur that it implies of a recognised audience of publishers and critics, has become a rough guide to quality and permanence. But the Tudor poet would have been embarrassed, if not insulted, by the question 'What have you published?' It would have seemed to him to introduce a completely irrelevant emphasis upon an unimportant and indeed somewhat discreditable aspect of authorship. The leading Court poets, those who set the pattern of the times, did not write for print.


The unimportance of the printed-book audience is proved conclusively by the time-lag between composition of most Tudor poetry and its appearance in print. The poet was often dead before his work was printed. – J W Saunders, 'The Stigma of Print: A Note of the Social Bases of Tudor Poetry', Essays in Criticism, p139

BatmanAccent2 Now I'm sure there are other factors to be taken into account here – the cost of printing and the size of the readership (I mean those who could actually read) – but if we just look at this innocently then it presents us with a different kind of poet. Batman doesn't do what he does to get his name in the papers. It may well end up there but that is not his raison d'être. And shame on him if it was.

Which bring us back to our mild-mannered Belgian politician, Herman Van Rompuy. It seems he reads his haiku out at work every now and then. When they're all sitting round the board table he'll chuck in a few lines of poetry just to break up the tedium. He doesn't have an alter ego. Writing poetry is a character trait rather than a separate and distinct personality. So that's why I think outing him was a bit of an anticlimax. I guess that's why they turned Motion on him taking on the role of the school bully. His article ends on this final sentence:

Judging by the poems, Van Rompuy is not only a charming, attentive and sensitive man, but he's clearly in the right job.

That's right, flatter the guy and then stick the boot in. Ah, let's hope that Van Rompuy is not a true poet otherwise his sensitive soul might just be crushed by a remark like that. Somehow I don't think so, politicians come with thick skins.

On the whole I haven't met many people in my life who have felt the need to either attack or dismiss my writing. It's the I-don-get-it attitude that gets me. It would be like Lois saying to Clark: "Yes, I know, sure, I totally get it, you want to fight crime, that's good, that's really good, but could we lose the costume? Seriously. Or at the very least do you think you could start wearing your underpants on the inside? People are starting to talk." I've found that most people don't mind me wanting to write – everyone needs a hobby – but it's when I start to talk about being a writer. They change then. It's as if by saying, "I'm a writer," I'm really saying, "…and I'm better than you. So na na," but that's really not the case. The list of things I can't do is far, far, far longer than the things I can and if they only knew how miserable being a writer can make one I'm quite sure they'd be calling me up and going, "Christ, Jim, I just heard. Are you all right? I mean, we'd hoped it might be just cancer but . . . I mean, a writer! God! How are you coping you poor man?" No wonder Basil Bunting wrote 'What the Chairman Told Tom':


Poetry? It's a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It's not work. You don't sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that's opera; or repertory―
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week―
married, aren't you?―
you've got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it's poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I'm an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company,
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it's unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They're Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr Hines says so, and he's a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

If you're interested you can hear Bunting reading the poem here. My contribution to this particular branch of poetic expression is much shorter but no less heartfelt:


"So you are a
practicing poet?"
she asked,
and I felt unclean
and wanted my closet back.

23 March 1989

Yeah, that's about the size of it. It has a similar flavour to something else Bunting wrote a few years before 'What the Chairman Told Tom':

The Lady asked the Poet:
Why do you wear your raincoat in the drawing-room?
He answered: Not to show
My arse sticking out of my trousers.

From First Book of Odes – XII (1929)

Coming out as a poet is one thing. In the grand scheme of things it wasn't so hard. Becoming comfortable being a poet is another thing entirely. It's taken me a very long time I can tell you.

So, I know I've meandered a bit with this post and I also know I'm preaching to the choir but every now and then we all need to let off a bit of steam so please feel free to contribute your own tales of coming to terms with your inner scribbler.


Kass said...

Wow, Jim - one of the most enjoyable posts EVER! While I was reading the Margaret Atwood quote I went a little spacey and could have sworn it was you talking.

I love the Russian doll exercise - peeling the onion - I'm going to have to work on that. And I love that you think Batman is real or at least real enough (like me) to not get his name in the papers.

When people ask me what I do, I usually say, "nothing." That's something they can relate to. I don't want to babble on about taking care of my aging mother, doing massage out of my home, working on my one-woman show, playing around on my computer (I'm not confident enough to say I'm a poet or a writer - although I HAVE been published, and ON PAPER!) It's nice you have one thing to say. And you should say it loudly. Bravo!

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Kass, what you say makes me think about how we get to know people. We generally start off with their name but a lot of the time the very next question people ask is: “And what do you do for a living?” It used to be even worse for women because they were asked, “And what does your husband do?” That really rubs me up the wrong way. But it’s just the fact that people insist on building up an internal picture of me based around my job. In Wales, where so many people have the surname Jones, it’s very common to talk about ‘Jones the Steam’ (the train driver in Ivor the Engine or ‘Jones the Voice’ (as Tom Jones is sometimes known) combining surname and occupation. Of course online I talk very little about the jobs I’ve done. I don’t not mention them but I keep them in their place.

Coming out is one thing. But do people simply tolerate you or, at best, accept you? I’d hate people to be saying: “Oh, that’s just the way Jim is, there’s no harm in him. Just don’t mention Beckett or he’ll never shut up.” If we think about gays for a minute people can sometimes go out of their way to prove they’ve nothing against them and that can be almost as bad. The comedienne Catherine Tate does an Irish mother who, on learning that her teenage boy has homosexual tendencies, goes around telling everyone, loudly and proudly: “This is my boy, John. He’s a gay man!” when all the lad wants to do is get along and live as normal a life as he can. Here’s a link – it works better when you see it.

I’d like to think that being a writer is like being a man, something I’ve grown into over the years, nothing to write home about, a natural development of who I am, nothing to make a fuss about, nothing to shake ones head in dismay over either.

Rachel Fenton said...

I like it when you analyse yourself, Jim. It makes for very interesting reading.

Dave King said...

In my experience, telling someone that I write poetry (I never claim to b e a poet!) is met either with the one word Interesting! or blank incomprehension. Either way, it is followed by something like: Do you get them published? If I say Yes, on my blog., the next question is How many hits do you get? - never an inquiry about the poems themselves.

Elisabeth said...

Wow, Jim, I'm with Kass on this one: how wonderful it is when you 'analyse' yourself.

I have trouble with my profession: To say you are a 'psychologist' is dangerous. People automatically imagine all sorts of things about you.

Is it worse to say you are a writer?

I used to be a 'poetess' when I was a child. In fact there's a picture of me in a family album when I was about ten, underneath which is written the word 'poetess'. This of course proves it.

I write that I'm a writer, often enough, but I tell people if they ask that 'I write'. I prefer the verb to the noun.

As far as I'm concerned 'writers write'.

I started off in social work. When I first met my husband and declared my profession he told me that 'Social workers are mawkish dabblers in the dirty washing of others'. This description has stayed with me.

Could the same be said of writers? Perhaps, but certainly not of poets.

To me poets will always take the top row, even if they never get the public and commercial recognition they deserve.

To me, the poets are the angels of heaven and although I gained the title of poetess as a child I've not been able to live up to it. You, on the other hand, have earned the title many times over. And all those other descriptions are merely reflections of your multiple selves.

I suspect that I'm an outie, and you are an innie.

When I saw the title of this blog alongside the photo, my first thought was that the question applied to whether or not you wear your tie inside your coat or outside of it.

Was I correct in this fantasy?

Sometimes I find life in blogland far too cryptic.

Thanks for your wonderful post.

Kass said...

Jim - thanks for the link to Catherine Tate. I always surprise myself when I laugh uncontrollably at my computer.

This whole idea of 'coming out' in any respect is such an interesting proposal. Sociologist say we are always responding relative to an audience, real or imagined. Even if no one is staring us right in the face, asking us who we are or what we do, we have some kind of idea in our heads that our actions are relating to someone. It's when we realize that there is no difference between a real or imagined audience that we are free. I don't want to go all existential on you - it's just something that I think about all the time.

Art Durkee said...

Now all we need is a 12-step group for poets, or recovering poets.

And Moon Knight was one of my favorite Marvel heroes. I have almost a complete run of the book. They're hard to give up, or sell off. They were too good.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, I’ve never found self-analysis particularly hard. Articulating what I learn is the hard thing but over the years I’ve kept chipping away at myself.

Exactly, Dave, and no matter how good an answer you give it feels like they’d always have yet another question and they’d keep on asking them until you stumbled and they could say, “Ah well, see, you’re not a real poet. It is tiresome.

Elisabeth, I couldn’t tell you the last time I wore a tie, probably my mother’s funeral. And who in their right mind would wear a tie outside their coat? I actually expected everyone to think I was on about bellybuttons. As for whether I’m an ‘innie’ or an ‘outie’ no matter how hard I try I’ll always be an ‘innie’ but that goes for most things. I’m less embarrassed than I used to be but I don’t publicise who I am on the inside to the real world; online it’s a different kettle of fish.

Kass, please feel free to go all existential on me any day you like. Even though half the time there no definitive answer I love talking about this kind of stuff. Write a blog about it and we’ll pick it up over on your site.

And, Art, I’m afraid I did sell off all my old Moon Knights but I remember the comic fondly especially Bill Sienkiewicz’s marvellous black and white covers. He probably is my favourite comic book artist of all time certainly as far as cover art goes. The only complete run I still own is Shade: The Changing Man and that’s for the storytelling although a few of the later covers are excellent especially #35 and #36.

I dropped you an e-mail back on the 13th BTW and haven't heard from you. Did you get it?

Sorlil said...

I wrote on another blog recently that in the real world I hold my cards very close to my chest. I tend to share very little about myself unless specifically asked. So writing poetry is just one amongst many things that people don't know about me - or they didn't until I joined facebook!!
I was 'outed' to my family years ago when I won a poetry comp and was published in the herald. But it was never really mentioned since until I started going to StAnza each year -"wow she must be serious if she goes to poetry festivals"!! But they still don't ask to read any of my poems despite that fact I tell them now when I get any published!!

I suspect most people are too embarrassed to read poetry, they don't feel clever enough. After all school turned poems into cryptic puzzles to be analysed and if you don't get it then you just Don't Get It!

Conda V. Douglas said...

Oh my, translation does leave something to be desired so often. My niece speaks and reads Japanese fluently and she points out that haiku is far more layered when read in Kanji.

I loved the poem "Coming Out." I don't know a writer who doesn't sometimes feel that way.

Jim Murdoch said...

I know exactly where you’re coming from, Sorlil and my wife has complained to me of the same thing the almost complete lack of interest in something that’s so fundamental to who we are. It really is like telling you mum you’re gay to which she replies, “Yes, that’s very nice, dear. Would you like a fresh cup of tea and maybe a slice of fruit cake?” But what I found hurts more is when they say, “Oh, you must let me read some of your stuff!” and you rush home, print off a nice selection, make a bit of fuss about the presentation and then you never hear a peep from them for weeks. And eventually, when you can’t stand it any longer, you have to ask:

“Erm, did you manage to get around to having a wee look at my stuff?”
“And what stuff would that be, dear?”
“My poems.”
“Yes, remember I gave you some.”
“Oh, yes, so you did.”
“Very nice, dear.”
“You read them?”
“And what did you think?”
“I told you they were very nice.”
“But what was nice about them?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”

And I could go on. I just don’t think people have any idea how vulnerable we are when we expose ourselves to our friends and family. It’s different with strangers. But there’s something so utterly soul-destroying about familial indifference. If there’s anyone you want to be proud of you it’s them.

You have my first novel and so you know about my father and my first novel. My first novel for Christ’s sake! Not “that story our Jimmy wrote” which is what he called it but then that’s what he thought of it. He never read fiction, at all, nothing, and so fiction was just “stories” to him.

As for what schools are guilty of, yes, I agree totally and I’m sure the pared-down poetry I write is as much a reaction to what I was told poetry ought to be as it is to anything else.

And, Conda, I tried, many years ago, to learn Mandarin. Needless to say I didn’t get very far but I did get far enough to realise how hard translation must be. You can arrange anything you like for the school’s brass band and your audience will recognise what it is – “Oh, that’s the tune they use in the Hovis ads!” (Dvořák: Symphony No 9 'from The New World') – but the subtleties of the piece are lost; it really isn’t enough to get the gist.

Glad you liked the poem. I think it’s the only list poem I’ve ever written to be honest.

Sorlil said...

I'm half-way through your novel (it got lost over Christmas in the madness), it's my while-feeding-the-baby-reading-time book!

The lack of interest from my family used to puzzle me - if one of my kids wrote poems I'd demand to be the first to read them!!! But then we do write and our parents don't, I think it's a mixture of fear and embarrassment on their behalf - fear of what we might write (about them??), fear of not understanding what we are writing about (make them feel stupid?), dislike (of the pretentiousness and stereotypical uselessness) of the arty-farty group of people called writers.

Jim Murdoch said...

What’s ironic, Sorlil, is that my mother did write. After her death we came across a couple of old school jotters with poems in them, the kind of sentimental verse you would expect from her but quite sad too. I found out in later life that she wrote but she never let me see any (at least I did ask). She never read anything I ever wrote though. Perhaps she regarded poetry as something private. I don’t know. We never discussed it. My gut feeling is that they simply weren’t interested. And that’s unforgiveable. You show an interest in your kids no matter what project they get involved in. When I wrote music my dad would come into the front room and ask me to play for him quite often – music made more sense to him. He even asked me to record a tape so he could listen when I moved out but, self-centred bugger that I was, I never did and I’ve always felt bad about that especially since I’ve forgotten all of it now. I don’t even have the sheet music left.

As for the novel, I’ll never be able to pick up the thing without that image coming to mind. Thank you for that. Jonathan would heartily approve.

Sorlil said...

ha ha :)

maekitso said...

Hi Jim,

The title of this piece caught my attention and while I don't think you gave me a checklist solution to go away with and fill out, your words are very timely. For three years I've been publishing my own efforts at poetry on my blog and going through various stages of identity crises. I can safely say that when I started to see myself as the writer slash poet that my readers were calling me, my grip on myself and my place in the world started to crumble. Strong word crumble, but it fits the bill. I stopped being in the world and started analyzing it and pulling it apart and pulling my intentions and my place in the world apart and yes there was a great thrill in seeing the world differently and finding words to express that difference in a way that other readers could respond to - usually with confusion and references to the headaches, but I was getting responses nonetheless. Then I started hating the fact that my life was comfortable. There wasn't enough suffering in it and I felt like either a fake or a whinger when I wrote about painful things from the past, so I made a comment somewhere in another blog that I wished my life was harder so that I could write about that hardness in the clear and present danger tense. Anyway going back to the question, am I an innie or an outie, I've kind of built an identity for myself around the inward and the outward, trying to pull the two concepts together - draw the reader in and then throw them out onto something unexpected; but now I've built that world of clear and present danger for myself and I'm writing from it and posting it and looking back in the morning at it and feeling like a drunken streaker in the hindsight and wondering now where do I go from there? In or out? The Russian dolls are a fascinating creature to think about that question from. I can choose any one of those skins and see myself as either belonging to the inside or belonging to the outside that holds all of the insides together but no matter where I am in that collection of bodies I have to admit of an empty inside - and it feels to me like I've worked my way out to the skin and the guts of the big doll (and I don't like it out here).

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm not entirely convinced that writers have to suffer Maekitso although that said my best poetry tends to draw on negative rather than positive emotions; I don't have very many happy poems put it that way. All of us are Russian dolls in that we flit between the various roles in our lives. The big question really is: Which one of those shells in The Poet? Is it the most innermost shell or the most outermost? Am I a writer before anything else? I would like to say that I am but I know that's not true. I would actually say that I'm The Husband before anything else because I know if my wife fell sick that I'd abandon everything to attend to her. That doesn't mean I woulnd't write in the cracks but The Poet would get relegated to a lower level.

I've had a read through some of your posts. I commented on one which ticked me but there were others that I liked and I've subscribed to your site. You clearly have a voice that's your own.

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