Rachel: And your fly's still open...
[Ross looks down.]
Rachel: Ha, I made you look....
– Friends (The One with All the Poker)
How do you say things? Do you get right to the point or are you a shillyshallier, pussyfooting around the issue? Or is there another way?
I’m thinking here, in broad terms at least, about the difference between prose and poetry. As I said, in broad terms. Prose states things, poetry not so much or when it does it’s usually saying one thing and meaning another. In cinematic terms we’re talking about the difference between Alien and Alien Resurrection. In the original film more is suggested than anything else but in Alien Resurrection metaphorically-speaking (and literally) the lights are all up full. (I’m thinking about the scene in the lab with the three aliens behind glass.) We all know what the monster looks like so let’s get to see him up close and personal. But which is the better film? Okay, Alien, hands down, but if we’d never had the first three films to compare Alien Resurrection to it might have received better reviews than it did.
What I’m saying here that there is nothing more powerful that what we imagine. As soon as we get to see something we can step back from it and go, as in Aliens: “Oh, that’s just a couple of guys in rubber suits.” (I’m thinking this time of the scene where Ripley sees them crawling through the space above the ceiling.) Aliens was clever film though in that it suggested an army of creatures but I don’t think we ever get to see more than two or three onscreen at any given time.
Am I saying that it’s never appropriate to show things in surgical detail? What is this need to see all about? Here’s a photograph from Naked New York by Greg Friedler. The whole book is made up of diptychs like this, one clothed, one unclothed:
The first photo is intriguing. I wonder how many men have seen her floating around the office and thought to themselves, I wonder what she looks like naked. And now we all know. Yay! Next page, please! What more is there to see? Oh, we’ve not seen her bum. Maybe she’s got a cute bum. She looks like she might have a cute bum; pert. But do we really need to see her bum? Haven’t we seen enough? When is enough enough? Would we have been happier if the photo had been in colour? Or bigger? There’s not exactly a lot of detail here, is there? The thing is, one seen we can’t unsee:
I've exposed myself too much
and embarrassed you.
I thought we were that close.
Can you pretend
it never happened?
And you only imagined
28 August 1989
I picked this photo because of the expression on her face. It’s almost identical in each picture. There are a few more online if you’re curious. Just type ‘greg friedler’ into Google.
Truth is often described as being naked. Personally I’m not a big fan. Of truth. I quite liked nakedness, just not my own especially. What I really don’t like about the truth is the fact that I find nothing is ever true enough for most people:
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO SWEET WILLIAM
What do you do when you've seen?
Look again. See more. It pays to be sure.
Of course, third time's the charm,
three points make a straight line
and we all know where they lead.
It's always the same though,
always in familiar places.
always doing the same old things.
There's a certain comfort to be had in that.
It's different though, every single time,
each time, the same but different,
a revelation or a kick in the teeth.
That's what's kept us coming back for more.
Curiosity crippled the cat
and all cats are peeping toms.
25 December 2002
This is the last in the Sweet William sequence and I think after nine years we can call it a day. I’ve said all I can about William but when you read the whole sequence (which I will publish one day – promise) what’s pretty clear is how little I actually say. I leave much to the imagination of the readers.
Here’s an early experiment:
Old Walt used to watch the cleaning woman –
Through the spy hole.
Breasts hung as she scrubbed.
In the monochrome passage.
...and the neighbours
talked about it for weeks...
29 May 1979
So what happened? Did he kill her? Rape her? Flash her? Shout obscenities through the letterbox? Propose? I don’t know. I never knew. And even if I did I can’t remember and if I could I wouldn’t say. That’s not what the poem is about. It’s about you. What do you think happened?
There are two styles of writing: explicit vs. implicit:
Are you busy tonight?
If you’re not busy tonight, would you go out with me?
Is that seat taken?
Can I sit beside you?
I wouldn’t if I were you.
You will die.
Does my bum look big in this?
If you say it is you will suffer.
which means there are two ways of acquiring knowledge:
Implicit (or Tacit) Knowledge
Of course we use both all the time. In the poem above I implied that something happened, Walt did something and probably to or with the cleaning woman. You may infer that something bad happened based on your knowledge of voyeurs who’ve got tired merely looking and escalate to doing. In my poem ‘The Rapist’ which was written about the same time as ‘Old Walt’ this is all I say about the actual assault:
Then in the wood:
Stains and not simply on clothes.
I suggest what happened, where it happened and how it affected the victim (and possibly the perpetrator) but I really don’t say anything very much. I don’t need to.
I used to want to know everything, every gory detail. Does this ring any bells with any of you?
Where did he touch you and how did it feel
And why did you let it begin?
What did he whisper and when did you cry
And where do you think it will end?
How long did you do it and why did you stop?
Did you get to try anything new?
How good was he honestly and where did you go
And who made the very first move?
It’s from the spoken introduction to Jim Steinman’s song ‘Left in the Dark’ in case you wondered. These are all facts. The two that’re missing are probably: Who was he? and Was he better than me? although I’m sure you could think of lots more. But this is all explicit knowledge – names, dates, places – and it’s ultimately dissatisfying because what he wants to know is how it felt. And not just the physical act, the emotions, before, during the act and after. He wants to know how she felt and how the guy felt.
We want the truth – we say we want the truth – but no matter what we get it’s never true enough:
We start off looking for truths
but end up just looking
not seeing even what we thought
we wanted to
or hoped we might
because, at the end of the day,
nothing could ever come
close to our expectations.
Especially the truth.
21 June 1997
I’ve always acknowledged the role of the reader in a work of fiction and the thing about voyeurism (all writers are voyeurs and, let’s face it, so are all readers) is that no matter how much you concentrate on looking at whatever it is that you’re fixated on at that moment, you cannot not look into yourself and see yourself for who you really are:
Before we start, gentle reader
tell me what you're looking for;
it helps if I know beforehand.
(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price).
Or we could just talk if you like.
What do you want to hear?
Surely not the truth?
Oh, I see: you like mirrors.
Well that's quite all right.
I have just the thing here.
All it takes is a little imagination.
19 August 1996
We all know the story about Adam and Eve. Whether you accept it as fact or fiction it doesn’t really matter. It makes its point beautifully:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying: 'Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.' – Genesis 2:16,17
The key expression here for me is ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat.’ It’s not as if he was depriving them of food or anything so Eve didn’t eat of the fruit because she was ravenous and although the Bible never actually states explicitly what the fruit was (it’s a misnomer to think the first pair ate the first apple) doubtless there were dozens of other trees with the same fruit close by. But Eve’s curiosity got the better of her. Curiosity is not a sin but it led to her sinning.
There are lots of things I’m curious about. Even without acting on that curiosity much is revealed about me but once I’ve acted on it there’s no going back. And if I’m disappointed well I’m always going to be disappointed. I like Christina Ricci. It’s okay, my wife knows. I like lots of other actresses but let’s just stick with her. I think she’s sexy. I don’t quite know when she got sexy. One day she was Wednesday Addams and kissing Casper the Friendly Ghost and the next she’s falling out of her clothes in Buffalo ‘66 and The Opposite of Sex. And I would be lying if I’d never wondered what she looked like without her clothes on. I have. There I’ve said it. And then one day I watched After.Life and well, now I know. If you’re curious just type ‘christina ricci After.Life’ into Google. Try and not. Go on. And even if you don’t I still make you wonder.
I wrote a poem about this once. As you all know I keep my poems in a big red folder. One day, a good few years ago, a friend was over with her daughter and her daughter was flicking though my poems when she came across a poem entitled ‘Do Not Read This Poem’ at which point she said, out loud, “All right,” and turned the page without reading it. Of course every adult who’s ever come across the poem has read it. It’s like anything that says ‘Don’t press this button’ or ‘Don’t eat this’ – we want to. It suddenly becomes desirable. Knowledge is, let’s put no fine point on it, alluring. We want to see Truth naked so badly. We’re scared we might be missing something. I assure you Christina Ricci has exactly the kind of body that you would expect from a slender thirty-year-old. It’s quite like the one of the thirty-one-year-old Friedler photographed in New York – no extra nipples, no appendectomy scar, no blemishes. So, if you’ve seen one naked about-thirty-year-old woman have you seen them all?
There are times when you want to be explicit. Giving evidence in a court of law is a good time. I don’t think writing poetry is one of those places. I don’t honestly think that prose is either but because you can routinely get away with writing 90,000 words in a row about a particular subject it’s tempting to say more than you need to and IMHO most novelists do.
The salient characteristic of the tacit knowledge approach is the basic belief that knowledge is essentially personal in nature and is therefore difficult to extract from the heads of individuals. – Ron Sanchez, “Tacit Knowledge” versus “Explicit Knowledge” – approaches to Knowledge Management Practice, p.3
This is why savvy businesses move people (“knowledge carriers”) around rather than retrain staff because not all knowledge is transferrable. That doesn’t mean that tacit knowledge isn’t transferrable:
The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit or specifiable knowledge is known as codification, articulation, or specification. The tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified, but can only be transmitted via training or gained through personal experience. – Wikipedia (italics mine)
I repeat: some things have to be experienced, which is why I wrote this last poem:
DO NOTE READ THIS POEM
You mustn't read this.
Turn the page, please.
You don't want to see
the home truth here.
Because when you peer
in this darkness
you'll discover a
side to yourself
you didn't want to.
Just like right now.
I do hope you think
it was worth it.
13 July 1997
This is my version of Genesis 2:16,17. I think we as writers should be more aware of the limitations of our craft. We encode and readers decode but this isn’t maths and there’s always something lost in the translation. We may get to see the words naked on the page but we never get to see them with anyone’s eyes other than our own. I cannot put into words how I feel about Christina Ricci. I think I know how I feel but I’ve never tried to articulate it. Why would I want to? They’re my feelings. When I say, “I think Christina Ricci,” is sexy I am sure there will be people out there nodding and thinking, I know exactly what he means (there will be others going, Eh?), but how do they know what I mean by ‘sexy’? That knowledge will go to the grave with me. Unless my wife gets it out of me first.
Is the purpose of writing to pass on knowledge? It can be a purpose. Maths textbooks pass on knowledge. Atlases pass on knowledge. And telephone directories. But the remit of fictional writing (both poetry and prose) should be to make people think and feel not to teach; education is a by-product. Someone told me that 2+2=4 (most likely Miss Kettle) and someone probably told that someone but once upon a time someone worked out that all for themselves and in theory all of us are capable of working out that 2+2=4 on our own. Would I care more about knowing that 2+2=4 if I’d worked it out for myself without any assistance? Yes, probably. Just as I feel a certain possessiveness towards poems that I’ve read in the past that I’ve made my own.
Good teachers don’t just tell. They will explain what numbers are, what the concept of addition is and then they will allow you to (literally and metaphorically) add two and two together for yourself. And sometimes their pupils will get five. And that’s not as wrong as it seems.