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

Wednesday, 18 March 2015


Les Étrangers

a preoccupation with anti-heroes:
almost faithless voids and phantoms ...
other trees struck by lightning,
impotent as daylight –
residues; threads forgotten.

unlearning ... life-long friends –
wasteland agnostics
who believe in words
but deny their meanings ...

things burned out.

fugitives running from
their roots ... (metaphysics) ...
into blind alleys;

again in chains.

10 June 1978

My wife has just finished reading Ian Rankin’s published first novel, The Flood.. He wrote it in the mid-eighties while still at university. I say ‘published’ because, technically, it wasn’t his first novel. In the book’s introduction he writes:

I'd already written one novel, entitled Summer Rites, a black comedy set in a hotel in the Scottish Highlands. The plot revolved around a one-legged schizophrenic librarian, a young boy with special powers, and the abduction of a famous American novelist by the 'provisional wing" of the Scottish National Party. Curiously, no one had seemed to agree with my judgment that Summer Rites was a fully realised contender for the title of Great Scottish Novel.

It would, of course, be years before I’d try my hand at a novel—by which time Rankin was a household name—but the young Rankin and the young me did have one thing in common: the arrogance of youth. I’m afraid I’m sentimentally attached to ‘Les Étrangers’ and am ill-qualified to judge its worth even after all these years The_Flood_(Ian_Rankin_novel_-_cover_art)but I do recall that at the time I thought it was a full-blown work of genius even if I did misspell the title (‘Les Estrangers’).

I have talked before about how full of myself I was as a young writer. Carrie says that this is where Rankin and I differ. He handles his early efforts with “panache”—he embraces the cocky youth he once was—whereas I tend towards the apologetic. So let me just say, for the record, that when I read this old poem of mine I get the same frisson of excitement now as I did the day I wrote it. It has lost none of its power. Not for me at least.

Like Summer Rites ‘Les Étrangers’ never found a publisher.


Tim Love said...

I'm surprized that it hasn't been published. Fragments that spark off each other the way these do should find a home.

That said, I have cherished poems that are unloved by others. Some are important to me because they mark a change in direction, a breakthrough, or because they mark an important moment in my life. Perhaps they're not good in themselves but they led to good things. Often they use sound effects, which may explain why they've stuck.

Yours has sound effects too - several constellations of repeated phonemes, most clearly at the end - "strangers again in chains". In addition to the sounds, the fragment has allusions to Rousseau's "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains", as well as Camus. Something for everyone, I'd have thought. Maybe it just needs a line or two chopped now that you'll fixed the title.

Jim Murdoch said...

I probably didn’t try that hard to get it published if I’m being honest, Tim. I was churning out poetry at a decent rate of knots back then and, of course, your latest stuff is always the what you think’s your best. I don’t know about editing it or fiddling with it after all these years. How would you feel if a stranger came along and started mucking around with your old poems? And that’s what I am now. I can barely remember who I was when I wrote this piece. What I can tell you is that even back then I had strong feelings about returning to a poem once it was finished and ‘finished’ meant I’d given it its number and printed a copy—well, typed it up back then—and put it in the big red folder. Since I started I have only changed four poems after they were completed. (I discount the alterations made to poems in Street Games and Other Poems because the first I knew about them was when the pamphlets arrived in the post or at least that’s how I remember it today.) That is until I published the poetry book I’ve just sent you. I made some minor edits there but mostly correcting the punctuation. There were two poems that sat close to each other in the book that contained the same unusual word and so my wife suggested I replace one of them which wasn’t as easy as she imagined because it altered the structure and I actually ended up having to rework two or three lines.

I will have been aware of the quote by Rousseau—I have two books of quotes that I devoured for years and made me sound far better read than I really was—but the nod to Camus is obvious in the title. I probably read The Outsider for the first time in 1977 or 1978.

vito pasquale said...

I’ve read this poem a number of times this week Jim and I’m intrigued by it. I see it as a grand improvisation around a theme of. . . loyalty, over which is playing this counterpoint of doubt.

I looked around for “again in chains” and found a wonderful text written in the 1830s on the “Harmony of the Gospels.”

It’s always interesting where your work takes us.

Where to next?

Jim Murdoch said...

These early poems are interesting to me, Vito, because I was definitely less attached to meaning than I’ve become. No doubt it was all the stuff I was reading at the time. At school we’d been presented with such a narrow slice of English poetry. Free from all that I was dipping into everything to see what called out to me. Most, to be truthful, I neither got nor liked. I really couldn’t see why the likes of Pound or Eliot were such great poets but they had something. There’s a touch of Eliot here; I’ll’ve read ‘The Hollow Men’ around this time which I liked but I wasn’t as impressed with ‘The Waste Land’ despite the nod in the poem. Too long. Why did it have to be so long? The line “other trees struck by lightning” I’m sure was inspired by a poem (possibly plucked from a poem) by Charles Olson but I’m damned if I can find it online.

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