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

Sunday, 6 July 2014



Very deep. You should send that in to the Reader's Digest. They've got a page for people like you. ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

One of the last things my first wife said to me before she walked out the door was, “You know, you’re not deep. You think you are but you’re not.” That hurt me more than her leaving me. To this day, some thirty years later, it still stings. The fact is she was right—I wasn’t nearly as deep as I thought I was (what twenty-odd-year-old is?)—but I was (and continue to be) terribly interested in deep things. What exactly ‘depth’ is, though, is not an easy thing to define. It isn’t the same as complex or difficult. It can be couched in the simplest of language even—merely look at the parables of Jesus or the haiku of Bashō—but it usually takes you to places where language struggles and as much as I love words and endeavour to translate everything into words, I am, nevertheless, painfully aware of their limitations. That was in September 1982. A few weeks before the breakup—prophetically, one might say— I wrote this poem:


One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.

The wheels still went round.
No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.

27 June 1982

Is it deep? Who knows? I’m pretty sure by that time I’d stopped sharing my writing anyway. Twelve years later I had another woman in my life for whom I wrote this


(for Jeanette)

Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.

Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.

heartLove to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.

Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.

12 June 1994

There are many kinds of love. Reducing any one of them to four letters only does it a disservice. Is it deep? It aspires to be because it aims to take the reader beyond the words on the page. That said if you’re fourteen and never been in love can you possibly hope to get it? I’m fifty-four and still not sure I understand love but I can measure its effects on me and others. I didn’t love my first wife. I thought I did but the truth was I lusted after her and once sex stopped being enough we both could see what little there was holding us together. Clearly not enough.

Jumping forward twenty-three years:


As a child
          I knew I knew everything.
No one believed me
          and over time I
          forgot most of it.

When a man
I thought I knew many things.
          I knew of many things
          and I believed
          the things I knew were mine.

Now, of course,
          I've grown old and it is clear
          to me I knew nothing.
It is the one
          thing that I know for sure.

Two plus two
10207328-blackboard-with-2-2-4-written-on-it          is not mine, nor the capital
          of Venezuela,
          nor the reasons
          I'm all alone tonight.

02 October 2007

I wasn’t alone when I wrote it—poetic licence—but it makes its point well enough. It was important for me to be considered deep when I was twenty. Not so much now although I still enjoy wallowing in the depths of another’s imagination.

There is a test for intellectual depth. I found it here. My result was:

Your Functional Intelligence Score... 66

Needless to say I take the result with a pinch of salt.

There’s an interesting conversation over on TED. The topic under discussion is: Is everyone capable of deep intellectual thought? A few selected comments:

Ann Chovie: Everyone is capable of abstract thinking, but I don't believe that everyone is an adept abstract thinker capable of carrying out the "deep intellectual thought" that you are referring to. In the same way that some people are highly proficient at retaining information while others are less so, some people are better at understanding and synthesising abstract ideas. Everyone has the ability to memorise information, but some people are more proficient at it than others. One student may spend a week memorising the material for an exam, while another may only spend one day retaining that same amount of information.


Synthesising a new idea is one thing, but to articulate that idea in a coherent and succinct manner is a challenge within itself, and is essential to demonstrating that you have the ability to think abstractly in the first place.

Gisela McKay: Deep thinking requires not only the mental faculty, but also the curiosity and drive to understand.

Dan Goddard: This opinion does not preclude intelligent people—as many of the people I know who are like this are quite intelligent, but they do not have the patience for introspection nor to spend time to think deeper than how to solve the next challenge with shallow shot-gun blast of suggestions that will possibly hit the mark. We are each born with our own disposition, thought processes, and communication patterns. People born with this disposition are not deep thinkers with respect to the aforementioned assumption of what "deep thought" means here.


I believe that not all people are capable of "deep thought" as understood by (as an assumption) most people reading this thread. Why I believe this is because, "deep thought" in this context requires observation, consideration, introspection and time in thought. I have known many people incapable of prolonged introspection – most of the information that flows through their lives, flows in an outward direction, diluted in accuracy and potency by whatever multiple the original input was multiplied by.

My brother’s never been a deep thinker. He doesn’t like grey areas—he said this to me once in so many words—which is why he returned to the religion we were brought up in following a not atypical bout of losing his way as a young man. He likes the black-and-whiteness of that particular faith: this is right; that is wrong; end of story. He doesn’t question things whereas I question everything. Articulating the answers I come up with is the real challenge. Framing questions is always so much easier: Is there a God? Is there life after death? What is love? My mother’s answers would’ve been: Yes; It depends and Read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. She was also not a deep thinker. My dad tried but he wasn’t a clever man and so struggled to express his conclusions at times but, especially in later life, he would sit alone and in silence for hours on end just pondering.

A caveman could think about the sun all day long and get nowhere. Nowadays school kids know all about the sun, even the not very bright ones, but that doesn’t make them deep thinkers, not by a long chalk. Besides what they don’t know they can easily google.

Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for drowning_in_information_thumb_200x9999wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

And this much about wisdom: In the long haul, civilized nations have come to judge one culture against another by a moral sense of the needs and aspirations of humanity as a whole. In thus globalizing the tribe, they attempt to formulate humankind's noblest and most enduring goals. The most important questions in this endeavour for the liberal arts are the meaning and purpose of all our idiosyncratic frenetic activity: What are we, Where do we come from, How shall we decide where to go? Why the toil, yearning, honesty, aesthetics, exaltation, love, hate, deceit, brilliance, hubris, humility, shame, and stupidity that collectively define our species? Theology, which long claimed the subject for itself, has done badly. […] Western philosophy offers no promising substitute. – E.O. Wilson, Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge, p.294 (bold mine)

Before I became a writer I was a thinker and I’d like to think I was a deep thinker even if I wasn’t always a deep person. The writing is a means to an end. It’s a record of my thought processes, the poetry especially. When I pick up my big red folder and flick though the hundreds of poems within it I can trace those thought processes over decades. I don’t pretend to be a wise man but I am an intelligent one and one who’s interested in things. Not everything—no one has the time to take an interest in everything—and so I specialise, but not to an extreme; the creative mind needs to draw on all kinds of random stuff; truly deep thought requires a certain amount of breadth. Words, in particular, especially fascinate me.

Take ‘consilience’. Consilience is an interesting word:

In science and history, consilience (also convergence of evidence or concordance of evidence) refers to the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can "converge" to strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence are very strong on their own. Most established scientific knowledge is supported by a convergence of evidence: if not, the evidence is comparatively weak, and there will not likely be a strong scientific consensus. – Wikipedia

This makes total sense to me as a writer particularly when I look back on the various sources of ideas that find expression in a single work, especially a novel. The principle of consilience is based on the unity of knowledge thesis:

Even though, for example, physics and politics are distinct disciplines, the thesis of the unity of science says that in principle they must be part of a unified intellectual endeavour, science. The unity of science thesis is usually associated with the view of levels of organization in nature, where physics is the most basic, chemistry the level above physics, biology above chemistry, sociology above biology, and so forth. Further, cells, organisms, and cultures are all biological, but they represent three different levels of biological organization. – Wikipedia

Knowledge is a stepping stone: it builds on information and leads through understanding to insight and wisdom. Everything is connected... if only via Kevin Bacon.

GoveApparently back in 2010 Education Secretary Michael Gove spoke of his desire to see "a revival of the art of deep thought". He was talking about the government’s plans for A-Levels—“fewer modules and more exams”—but he never really explained what he meant by the “deep thought” although I suspect he was hoping to see pupils leaving schools—pupils who had understood what they’d learned and not simply excelled at remembering and regurgitating facts; merely getting good grades should not be seen as the end purpose of eleven or twelve years of schooling. In his article commenting on what Gove said—and what he might have meant— Julian Baggini writes:

Intellectual nostalgia is no less perniciously revisionist than the other varieties. Deep thought requires reinvention, not revival. To the noble traditions of slow thought, we need to add the best the fast-paced information age can offer. We need to balance breadth and depth, so that what is valued is the volume of wisdom in the lake, not just its reach at its deepest point. To do this we must look forwards, backwards and sideways.

Of course now we have another term to mull over: slow thought.

On Ladislaus Horatius makes an important point:

We care about (or at least talk a lot about) quality of food, water and air. Thoughts contain just as much life, vitality, bacteria and poisons as water. From the seeds of thought our lives are born. They are the bricks with which we build our world. Thoughts need to be treated with care.

And on

The Slow Thought Movement is a peaceful revolution in the way we think. It is about stepping away from the borrowed, second-hand thinking of our times and moving towards original, first-hand thinking.

Slow Thought is thought that comes directly from you.

It comes straight from the realm of your own experience.

Slow Thought embodies a conscious renunciation of borrowed ideas.

Slow Thinkers spend most of their time, if not all, in the realm of experience. When asked how they feel, Slow Thinkers don’t speculate about it. They jump right into their feelings and let their experiences do the talking for them.

Slow Thinking gives greater importance to the phenomena and far less to the content of one’s thoughts. That is why Slow Thought is open to the wisdom of the unconscious mind. Slow Thinkers recognize that what you think you know is often irrelevant. Your conscious is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg.

Since there’s nothing new under the sun I’m not sure we can get by without borrowed ideas but we can adapt them, use them as a jumping-off point: we wouldn’t have the cog if no one first invented the wheel.

I think all writers should be slow thinkers. I know there are plenty who aren’t; in fact this article sprang from a comment I made on a friend’s site in response to his confession that he wasn’t a deep thinker. I think he’s deeper than he gives himself credit for, but he’s also a very different writer to me. He’s a storyteller and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense but that is what he does and that’s what many writers do. Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived the last four years of his life in Samoa, was apparently honoured with the title Tusitala (Tusitala is the Polynesian word for storyteller) and no one would suggest that he’s not a great writer and that his stories don’t have depth so it’s perfectly feasible to do both. I’m not, however, a storyteller. One of my rules of writing is: A story doesn’t need a plot but it does need a point. In some stories the point comes at the end, e.g. the moral in an Aesop’s fables—but not always. At some point in the process of reading you’ll hit a bit—maybe the scene early on in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby is caught looking out at the green light—and connect with it. In all my novels there’s been such a moment when I’ve suddenly realised what I was writing about. The role of the unconscious in writing should never be sniffed at. All he does is think. He does most of your thinking for you. If anyone is the deep thinker he is. While your conscious mind is distracted steering your car, or fiddling in your tax return, or trying to get to second base with some girl, he’s sifting through all the tons and tons of raw data trying to make connections.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowThere is a danger though. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman

…presents our thinking process as consisting of two systems. System 1 (Thinking Fast) is unconscious, intuitive and effort-free. System 2 (Thinking Slow) is conscious, uses deductive reasoning and is an awful lot of work. System 2 likes to think it is in charge but it’s really the irrepressible System 1 that runs the show. There is simply too much going on in our lives for System 2 to analyse everything. System 2 has to pick its moments with care; it is “lazy” out of necessity. – William Easterly, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Financial Times, 5 November 2011

As you can see his definitions differ from the ones above. The danger of what Kahneman describes as Thinking Fast is that the brain has a tendency to jump to obvious conclusions. Anyone who’s sat a word association test will testify to that. But not always and this is why we need the conscious mind to pounce, like any good psychologist would, on the unexpected associations. That can happen very quickly. I can get an idea and have a poem written, printed out and ready to hand to my wife for her stamp of approval in five minutes BUT—and it’s an important ‘but’—that’s just the writing down bit. Writing should not be confused with transcription. Converting all the stuff into your head into words is the easy bit. The slow cooking of ideas can have been going on for years. I get writing ideas constantly, dozens every day. I only bite rarely. They’re writing prompts, plain and simple. I know a lot of people online like the idea of prompts but, personally, I don’t do my best work when I sit down to work on the wrong thing at the wrong time and that’s how I feel about most prompts. But then a friend writes a blog to say he’s got terminal cancer and suddenly I have a poem drafted, and not a bad poem it turned out to be, whereas the one I tried to write when another friend’s mother died is still unfinished and I may never be happy with it.

Here’s another Polynesian word for you: po. I found it in an article on, well, ‘po’ actually which I found from a list in Wikipedia of thought processes:

A "po" is an idea which moves thinking forward to a new place from where new ideas or solutions may be found. The term was created by Edward de Bono as part of a lateral thinking technique to suggest forward movement, that is, making a statement and seeing where it leads to. It is an extraction from words such as hypothesis, suppose, possible and poetry, all of which indicate forward movement and contain the syllable "po." Po can be taken to refer to any of the following: provoking operation, provocative operation or provocation operation. Also, in ancient Polynesian and Maori, the word "po" refers to the original chaotic state of formlessness, from which evolution occurred. Edward de Bono argues that this context as well applies to the term. – Wikipedia

Of course the word ‘po’—in both cases—is a manmade expression. I’m not big on neologisms in my poetry but I can see why some writers might be attracted to them. Every word was new once upon a time. When I think of po I think of ‘possible’. (Actually I hear Muskie Muskrat going, “It's's possible.”) A poet’s brain never says, “No.” Give it two ideas no matter how far apart and it will—as in the Kevin Bacon game—try to find a connection:

As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. – Comte de Lautréamont AKA Isidore Lucien Ducasse

You see how it works. Who wudda thunk that when I mentioned Kevin Bacon earlier or found that Polynesian word that I’d be able to connect them later in the text? I’m not saying it’s deep but it’s what happens when we write. All the stuff churns up in our head and connections we never imagined start to appear. And sometimes; sometimes we astound ourselves with the sense we make. There are poems I can look at and I marvel at what I’ve written. Where the hell did that insight come from?

It’s now 2014, thirty-two years since my first wife left me and I do have to wonder: Am … I … deep? I’m older. I’m better read. I’m more experienced. I’ve made a helluva lot more mistakes. But am I deep? I look into myself and what do I see? Let me leave you with one final poem:


He took his time –
like walking the plank –
and once he found that

he had reached the
end of feeling he
stood and peered into

the abyss whilst
something in the dark
stared straight back at him.

Then in the dim
distance he noticed –
what could it be now? –

an island!
fly because they think
they can and belief

dark-mouthis a very
powerful force. So
without a second

thought or even
a backwards glance he
leapt into the void.

The something in
the abyss gasped or
yawned or it might have

simply opened
its mouth and waited.

11 February 2013

Deep? Right?


Gwil W said...

I don't like deep. Deep is where the monsters are. The nightmares. The voices. Deep is a place to be avoided. We will all be deep one day. About 6 foot under the earth.

Tim Love said...

In a recent Poetry Review some of Mark Strand's poetry was described as "bogusly gnomic and flippantly inconsequential ... windy and irritating musings", accusations which I find easy to make when told that a poem's deep.

"deep" isn't a concept I use much. In chess it has a clear meaning, describing a move whose value only becomes obvious several moves later - initially it might seem inconsequential, strange or even bad. That usage covers some of the easier examples of "deep".

I think experience helps when trying to write/read deep stuff. In the past I've tried to identify what "poetic experience" entails. I think the skills required to identify and evaluated consilience (a word I've not heard before but will use henceforth) partly constitute experience, plus the patterns learnt by 10,000 hours of exposure.

How about "Deep Image" poetry? Is it deep?

Jim Murdoch said...

Deep is just a word, Gwilliam, and like all other words vague and unhelpful. I don’t think most people give depth much thought at all except in expressions like, “I’m in deep shit.” The older I get the more I’m coming to appreciate how poetic our everyday language is. The real puzzler is that most people turn up their noses at poetry.

And, Tim, when people do read poetry I don’t think many are interested in measuring its depth. All they care about is if they’ve got it or not. So I guess the true measure of poetry should be its getableness; no matter how deep or ‘difficult’ if a poem can’t be got—whatever ‘got’ means (I’m not sure its necessarily a synonym for ‘understood’)—then what’s the point? Oddly enough when people use ‘deep’ in this context it’s usually voiced with a slightly approving tone, “Oh, that’s too deep for me.” Depth isn’t looked upon as necessarily a bad thing, just something that’s not for everyone or at least something one needs to prepare oneself for, like putting on a diving suit before get lowered down to investigate an underwater wreck.

Of course I raise these issues without really caring about the answer. I don’t care if my poetry’s deep. I care about its meaningfulness and I do like it when I take people into areas they’ve not explored before, make them think a little differently about things they thought they’d a handle on.

As far as deep image poetry goes, yes, of course it qualifies. In fact what Bly wrote, "In many ancient works of art we notice a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known," resonates strongly with me. It’s what I was trying to get at with that last poem. The whole ‘leap of faith’ thing fascinates me in the same way as I suppose sex fascinates a eunuch.

As far as Mark Strand goes I don’t know his poetry very well but after reading one of his—Christ knows now which one—I wrote this:

      Eating Poetry

       (after Mark Strand)

      I try not to eat poetry:
      it tends to give me wind.

      I have trouble with rhymes as well:
      they just pass straight through me.

      Metaphors are okay as long
      as they’re not extended.

      I am partial to a slice of

      but just the one. Any more and
      I suffer for my art

      if you get my drift.

      Thursday, 08 April 2010

Kass said...

Jim, remember when I wrote a poem about consilience and you wrote, "I love the word consilience: everything makes sense but only when you look at everything at the same time. The reason we get ourselves in such a state most of the time is that we only have a few bits of the puzzle."?

I once quit being friends with someone because I thought they weren't deep enough. Boring. Shallow. I need to be stimulated by the way someone thinks. Being curious is a great trait, I think. There are so many fascinating things to consider which lead to other interesting things, which remind us of even more curious possibilities.

I still like your poetry...a lot.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve met many happy shallow people, Kass. Not so many happy deep people. But we can’t change who we are. I may not be the happiest person of the planet but without all the deep things that I wallow in I’d be even more miserable. It’s like swimming through murky water. You can’t see more than a few inches in front of you but that doesn’t mean if you just keep going you’re not going to swim into a wreck full of all sorts of interesting treasures. Sitting on the beach sunning yourself is all fine and well but the only thing you’re likely to discover sitting on beaches is that sitting on beaches is bad for you. On the whole I’m quite a tolerant person—I feign intolerance but I’ve put up with quite a lot over the years—and so I can get on with most people for an hour or two. Work is where you have the least control over the company you keep but the nice thing about work is that you have work in common and so that’s what bonds you, that’s what you talk about and it’s not until one of you has left and you meet up afterwards you realise just how little you really have in common.

I’m glad you like my poems. I should send more out but the months slip by and the next thing I know it’s been a year since I submitted anything. That said I checked my database yesterday and there were six or seven magazines who’d never bothered replying. So we drew a line through them. Time for another mass submission I think.

Kass said...

So true about the commonalities we have we coworkers.

Love the murky water analogy.

"Wallowing in the Deep" - now there's a poem title.

Jim Murdoch said...

Wallow is such a lovely word, Kass. When most of us think about it I imagine we think of immobility but when you look at its origins— Old English walwian 'to roll about'—from the Latin volvere 'to roll' (which is where I suppose we get ‘revolve’ from)—it suggests to coat ourselves in whatever we’re a wallowing in. The poetic implications shoot off in all kinds of directions.

Kass said...

I'm still wallowing in deepness (and of course I meant "with" instead of "we" in my previous comment).

Remember the Dr. Who episode where this was said?: "...sad? Sally Sparrow: It's happy for deep people."

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I do, Kass. I quoted it at the beginning of my review of Tim Love’s book By All Means. Superb script.

Ken Armstrong said...

I think I deal with thought in the way that I deal with with water. I like to skim along the top of a lot of it quite fast but if I start to sink under the surface of it I start to feel the pressure of it in my nose and ears and have to pop back up again.

I do think there's some value in this approach though. For some reason, I'm thinking of life as a zoo and how you can maybe get a better overall impression of the zoo by nipping quickly around it rather than stopping to inspect every little dung heap.

I think there's a bit of me in this post and, if that's right (no need to say) thanks for that.

We need the deep thinkers too.

We need us all.

Jim Murdoch said...

A poem or a story is a two-dimensional object, Ken, and most people never look below the surface of the words: Such-a-body went here, saw that, did that, came back a changed man. I expect depth is like meaning; both are the province of the reader. Some read deeply and really think about what they’ve read whereas others are content with the gist. The thing about the gisters (hm, have I just invented a new word?) is that they do cover an awful lot of ground and so amass a great deal of superficial—and I don’t mean that to sound insulting—knowledge; they can talk a bit of everything. And breadth of knowledge is not to be sniffed at either. Maybe you can’t have both. Maybe life’s not long enough and you have to decide what kind of person you’re going to be. The older I get and the less time I have to pussyfoot around the more I realise that there are a helluva lot of things in this life that I do not need to know anything about. Or want. Want is probably a better word. Wants imply selfishness but when did selfishness become such a bad thing? (Actually I can quote you chapter and verse but let’s not go there.) I enjoy depth. I enjoy raspberry milkshakes. I don’t always enjoy being me but I’m trying to work on that.

Ken Armstrong said...

I enjoy you being you, if that helps. :)

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