[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':
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.
op warmte om te verdampen.
Water wordt een wolk
gets translated as:
to heat to evaporate.
Water is a cloud.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
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
and on the inside
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.
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:
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
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':
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,
What do you do?
Nasty little words, nasty long words,
I want to wash when I meet a poet.
They're Reds, addicts,
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
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.