This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
To thine own self be true: this is another one of those expressions that we use all the time, albeit in modern English; it trips off the tongue but what’s it really saying? Be selfish? That is it, isn’t it? Look after numero uno. Do your own thing and sod the consequences.
How can one be true to oneself until one knows oneself, though? As we grow up we try on different selves, look in the mirror (literal or metaphorical) and go, “Nah.” Then one day the person looking back doesn’t appear so bad and we say, “You know, I could live with that,” and we stop all the psychological dressing up and let who we are coalesce: this is who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. Later on, years later usually, we perchance to glance in that mirror and who we thought we were has started to crumble a bit, but we’re not as pliable as we once were and change is hard; oftentimes we give up and settle, learn to live with who we have become even if we’re not who we hoped we’d be by then.
I was a poet when I was a boy. I looked in the mirror and a poet looked back at me. But over the years layer after layer were slathered on top of him and eventually only I ever knew there was a poet there on the inside. It happens to us all. All of this I talked about in my ‘Russian Dolls’ post recently. But just because something is buried doesn’t mean it can’t be alive. Our hearts are buried in our chests and they’re very much alive. I’ve certainly never seen my own heart – I sincerely hope I never do – but I know it’s there and I do what I can to look after it. A whole new man has grown around that heart, one I really don’t recognise when I look in the bathroom mirror these days, but my heart is true, it is still the heart of a poet.
That’s another expression people use, “To thine own heart be true”:
When, yestereve, I knelt to pray,
As thou hast taught me to,
I seemed to hear the angels say,
"To thine own heart be true."
You don’t often hear the expression, “Be true to your own mind.” “Know your own mind” is probably the equivalent.
The past is a big hill to climb and it’s getting bigger day by day. When Beethoven studied music what was there? Haydn, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart and no doubt a plethora of minor composers who were big in their day. Nowadays a modern composer has literally hundreds of years’ worth of composers to study before he can clamber to the top of that hill and breathe. And, amazingly, new ones keep cropping up with their own unique sounds, e.g. Ligeti, Pärt, Glass. You would think that every tune that could have been written would have been written by now – let’s face it they’ve only got twelve tones to work with – but apparently not. And yet when we listen to them it’s nigh impossible not to hear echoes of all those who’ve gone before them. I remember listening to the soundtrack of Alien if memory serves me right (although it may well have been Aliens) and thinking, I know that tune and, after digging around in my music collection, there it was, a snippet from Barber’s Piano Concerto. It may have been deliberate – composers do quote from each other often blatantly (Rick Wakeman incorporated a few bars of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King into Journey to the Centre of the Earth) – it might be a coincidence or it might have even been unconscious; it doesn’t matter.
We writers have a bit more scope – a whole twenty-six letters – and again new writers appear with wholly unique voices, e.g. Beckett, Brautigan, Bukowski. No sooner do they appear, however, than they begin to be imitated, which is flattering but it is right? It’s certainly not wrong. It’s natural. And imitation is the highest form of flattery. Beckett was so in thrall to James Joyce that he didn’t simply emulate his writing style – anyone who has struggled through Dream of Fair to Middling Women will know exactly what I mean – but he even wore shoes that were the same style and size nearly crippling himself.
SB was sycophantic, imitating Joyce's posture, drinking white wine, holding his cigarette affectedly, and wearing tight shoes (Joyce was proud of his small feet). - The Grove companion to Samuel Beckett
When you consider what an original Beckett became it’s cringeworthy to read about what he was like as a young man. (Beckett met Joyce in 1929 when he was twenty-three.) The simple fact is he had to get him out of his system. It’s like a crush. You know it’s a crush. You know it’s not love and yet it won’t let you go. In my experience there’s not much you can do but wait for it to run its course and set you free. Enjoy it for what it is.
I think I’ve been quite lucky in that writers who have had the most profound effect on me have not been easy for me to imitate. This doesn’t mean I haven’t tried:
Poem to be Read in the Dark
That is how it is.
but for the clouds
and my breath.
for the footfalls.
for the angels of darkness.
Bright at last –
at the end.
23rd July 1989
It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever written. I think of it more like a wee bit of fan fiction than a serious poem. Here’s another that I would never have written had I not come across E. E. Cummings’ poem about a falling leaf:
It’s the only poem in my canon like that and I never expect to write another. The same goes for this recent poem which I wrote after finishing reading a collection of Bukowski’s poetry:
not a Bukowski poem
I am not Bukowski
but I am the kind of person
he would have written about
if he had lived in Glasgow
or I had lived in L. A..
he would have sat at his desk
with his shirt off,
and decided what kind of man
it’s uncomfortable having the shoe
on the other foot.
5th January 2010
Why did I write these three poems? Essentially to understand the mindset of the writer. You really don’t understand a thing until you do it. You can analyse someone’s work till the cows come home but nothing bests getting your hands dirty.
Question: What makes Beckett Beckett, Hemingway Hemingway and Kafka Kafka? The fact that the writing embodied them. None of the three poems above is really me. I wrote them but they’re not my typical style. I’ve talked about finding my own voice before. I would hope that regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my approach. If you’re new then there are links in the right-hand column to all the poems that are live online at the moment – please feel free to have a shuftie at a few. I’m not really sure how I would describe my voice but I definitely have one.
Let’s try: I have my recurrent themes, there’s no doubt about that, the nature of truth being way at the top of the tree, but it’s more than that. There’s certainly an aphoristic quality to most pieces, short pithy statements, and I do love a punch line that’ll wind up my reader. The Bukowski poem is closest to my own style but that’s one of the things I appreciated about his poetry and probably why I connected with it immediately.
My wife says my poetry is “naïvely twisted and brilliantly obvious. You look at everything as if it’s the first time you’ve ever looked at it ... you make us see those obvious things in a different light.” She said more but that was all I managed to get down accurately. I do believe I’m blushing under all this hair.
I think one of the hardest things for any writer is to march to the beat of his own drum. Especially when everyone around him is drumming so loud. The only way I found I could do it was to isolate myself. I read very little of other writers especially those with strong styles. You can’t walk through the perfume section of Lewis’s and not come out smelling of roses or of something anyway.
Time for an anecdote:
A novelist I know went on a blind date with an optometrist (built-in irony!), and she not only suggested new glasses for him, but after the movie they saw, she spoke about which actors had contacts or needed glasses. He spoke about the film in literary terms, of its "character arc" and "turning points." Their specialties made them see the film in different ways. – Christoper Meeks, ‘Finding your voice’
Like a lot of writers I’m quite an introspective guy. It’s probably why I’ve walked into so many (metaphorical) walls in my life because I’ve not been looking where I was going. Who am I? Who the hell am I? I’m unique that’s what I am. I have a mindset and an accompanying set of experiences and knowledge that sets me apart from every other person on the planet which is why you’ll be just as likely to find me prattling on about Alan Moore’s tenure as Swamp Thing’s writer in the eighties as I might end up discussing the rape of Tamar (which I thought about referencing when I was talking about crushes but it would have needed too much explaining). As I grow older my palette expands and I expect to continue to grow into myself until the day I drop dead.
So what’s Swamp Thing to do with anything? In 1982, DC Comics revived the Swamp Thing series, attempting to capitalize on the summer release of the dire Wes Craven film of the same name. When Alan Moore took over the project not long after he had a problem. Was he going to do the same as DC did with the Batman comic after the TV show in the sixties turned the whole thing camp (and basically ruined a great character for twenty years until Frank Miller came along and saved him?) or was he going to, like Miller would, do his own thing? He chose the latter and, after one issue, killed off the character and began reinventing him in what came to be a landmark series that culminated in the abandonment of the CCA’s Comics Code. That’s what Swamp Thing has to do with it. Moore took a muck-encrusted monster whose outdated book was expected to be cancelled before too long and transformed it into the most important ongoing series at the time.
It’s easy to do what works. The Model-T worked. It got people from A to B. Stephenson’s Rocket worked. It’s not enough to just work. Moore could have continued with the storyline that Martin Pasko had left him. Well, he did kinda have to which is what his first issue does, it takes up the reigns and drives the whole thing over a cliff. From there on Moore did his own thing. You can actually download the entire second issue (#21) here if you’re interested.
There are a lot of people out there who want to tell you what works. Stories with beginnings, middles and ends work; the three-act structure in films works; haiku that are seventeen syllables long work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these. They are established, tried and tested. So why go against the grain? Quite simply because there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
I don’t think that rules are made to be broken, I like rules, I like driving on the left and knowing that no one is going to plough into me because he felt like driving on the right that day. There are some areas of our life where we need hard and fast rules. Writing is not one of those areas though. All the rules people made up in the past are simply guidelines as far as I’m concerned. I can make up new rules any time I like, and you can’t say you need no rules because that’s plain daft. When Moore threw out the rules book in issue #21 of Swamp Thing he immediately established his own. The first story is called ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ in which he sets down what the true nature of the beast will be from now on but he does it without pooh-poohing all that went before him. If I can use a musical analogy, he modulates from one form to another: from a man who thinks he’s been transformed into a monster by the kind of accident that befalls most comic book heroes (Peter Parker being bitten by the spider, Bruce Banner being exposed to gamma radiation) to an elemental creature who only thinks it’s human. Genius.
Being true to oneself requires a certain level on confidence. This wasn’t Moore’s first gig. He’d been writing for about ten years beforehand in which time he had developed his own style. He had his heroes too and has been called “a disciple of Kurtzman's style”; that would be Harvey Kurtzman, founding father of magazines like MAD and Help! Will Eisner and Jack Kirby are also cited as influences along with a load of non-comics-related people. I’m not sure I can see any Jack Kirby in his work but I’m happy to be corrected.
After standing on the shoulders of giants Moore has become a giant in his own right and his influence is being openly acknowledged:
His talent for unflinchingly showing people what they really are has made him an inspiration for everyone from Joss Whedon to Lost producer Damon Lindelof to director Christopher Nolan, who has noted the influence of Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke on The Dark Knight. – Andrew Firestone, ‘The Wizard of “Watchmen”’, The Salon, Mar 5th 2009
Everyone starts off somewhere. I started off talking about Shakespeare and ended up talking about Alan Moore. It’s all grist to the mill.
Sitting in front of a blank screen can be a lonely place but in reality we’re never alone. There are so many voices all clamouring for attention and what we have to learn to do is not listen to them. It can be done. In a busy bar you can block out everything that’s going on around you and focus on the person you’re with. It simply takes effort.
Listen to your own voice. Yet another pat expression like all the others I’ve incorporated in this article. But how can you trust it? Your elders and betters are wiser and more experienced than you, surely if they say to go this way you should listen to them? Maybe. If they’re telling you not to jump out of a third-story window because no one is buying your paintings then that’s pretty good advice. You never know, they might have felt exactly the same forty years earlier. Nothing changes, not really. I remember the alternative comedians of the early eighties, the likes of Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, who are now the establishment and people use the word “classic” to describe their most famous efforts.
It’s a gamble. Different is not always good. Vincent Van Gogh was different, so different that he famously only ever sold one painting in his lifetime and yet he doggedly persisted, doing his own thing and if he could see people forking out tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars I wonder if he would feel vindicated or that some people simply had way too much money. There are others: Gerard Manley Hopkins was the most experimental and most challenging of the Victorian writers and almost unknown in his own lifetime; much the same is true of William Blake, H. P. Lovecraft, Johann Sebastian Bach can you believe, Søren Kierkegaard, Wilfred Owen and some bloke called Nostradamus apparently.
Time will tell. Actually there’s no rule that says time has to tell anybody anything. It can keep completely schtum if it so desires. And it has done many, many times. Time only remembers those who happened to be in the right place at the right time or, as in the case with Kafka, not in the right place at the right time. Had he lived he may very well have destroyed everything that made him famous today. If fame is your goal you’ll probably fail. So few of us ever get famous for more than fifteen minutes. I doubt any of the above sought fame; most were just looking to earn a buck but at the same not compromise their own artistic integrity. George B. Stauffer has this to say in the cover notes of a recording on Bach’s preludes:
The preludes display a wide range of experimental designs and styles and reflect Bach, the bold innovator. The fugues combine sophisticated four- and five-part counterpoint with bravura passagework and illustrate Bach, the polyphonic master.
It’s hard to imagine Bach as an innovator. But he was. And yet in an article on Bach’s fugues, John Stone, remarks that “stylistically, there is much in the fugues that looks backwards to the so-called stile antico practices of Palestrina and other Bach predecessors.” No one is without their influences.
Think about it, without the past what would we have to rebel against? The past is our cocoon and the struggle to free ourselves from it is what enables us to fly but more than that, it forces blood into our wings and gives them colour. If you’re gonna fly, fly in style.