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

Wednesday, 1 April 2015



Came with the night; screams...
Men with broken arms,
unable to lift their razors
to slit their throats,
are banging their heads against
walls and crying.

A Civil Servant saw them
and wrote a report.

A Politician read it and
casually misfiled it.

2 July 1977

368835I’ve never considered myself a political poet. June Jordan said, “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” I’m not sure that’s enough. But then I don’t think I’ve ever understood the word ‘politics’. I know what the dictionary says it means. In its broadest sense then:

Politics (from Greek: politikos, definition "of, for, or relating to citizens") is the practice and theory of influencing other people

I always thought that’s what religion’s goal was. And isn’t that the aim of art too? And big business. And even science. I’m trying to influence you now. I’m doing it through reason but I am doing it.

I wasn’t brought up in a political environment. I lived in a Labour stronghold and my understanding of political parties extended to: Labour is for the working man; the Tories are for the rich. I didn’t even understand terms like left-wing and right-wing.

When I wrote this poem I remember struggling over the word ‘casually’. I couldn’t decide if it should be ‘carefully’. I like them both and they both work.

‘Concord’ has been published but I didn’t keep a record of where and I don’t have a copy of the magazine or the acceptance letter.


Gwil W said...

. . . electioneering drones on.

Jim Murdoch said...

It does indeed, Gwilliam. Seems like they’ve been on about it for months already here in the UK and now, with the disillusion of parliament, it’s like they’ve got their second wind. I’ve always known politicians twist facts—and not just politicians—but I’ve never noticed the slagging quite as much before. It started from the day the Tories won the last election and has never let up for a minute. At every opportunity they’ve gone for the jugular as if Labour was to blame for the whole world’s financial woes. There was hardly a country in the world no matter who was in power that didn’t see that coming. But, oh no, it was all Labour’s fault. I take little interest in it all although I will be curious to see the results. Not that it’ll make any real difference because no matter who’s in power there is so much scope to muck things up that they will, sooner rather than later, much something up and in four years’ time we’ll be off again.

Kass said...

It's a good, strong poem.

I don't consider myself very political, but the more I examine the arts, I see that I am, in the sense that you've identified here.

After 9/11, The New York Times reported an unprecedented increase in the reading of poetry. In an article titled, "The Eerily Intimate Power of Poetry to Console" Billy Collins said that in times of crisis we turn "...not to the novel or movies, but to the human voice speaking directly to our ears."

Howard Barker, a British playwright said, " emerge from tragedy equipped against lies."

I think most of your writing is about truth and influence.

Do we as writers have a responsibility? Can we exist in our own complexity and still unite with what we have in common, still displaying our diversity? (these are notes I wrote to myself while attending a poetry seminar entitled "The Day After: Poems of Peace, Provocation, and Witness" - the aim being to answer the question - Can poetry change the future by closely examining the past?)

Jim Murdoch said...

Do writers have a responsibility? Your question is a bit vague, Kass but I’m going to assume you mean a responsibility to others. My answer would be, no. I don’t write for other people. I write to clarify things for myself and, as I’ve said before, once the work has been written and I’ve worked out what’s been bothering me I could toss the resultant poem or story or novel; they’re job’s done. So my only responsibility is to myself but I don’t think that’s really the right word; perhaps integrity. I believe writing should have a purpose and so I write purposefully. I don’t write to entertain although. My only audience is myself and I write what I want to read. Of course I publish my work, I make it available for others, and it pleases me no end that others get something from what I’ve written but it still wasn’t written for them. The exception to that is where I’ve dedicated a poem to someone because in some cases I will have written the piece in such a way that they’ll get something from it that ordinary readers won’t.

Can we exist in our own complexity and still unite with what we have in common, still displaying our diversity? Of course. It would be arrogant of us to assume were even that complex or that there’s that much variety out there. All you have to do is look at something like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to see that, which is why a little poem like this works because there isn’t a country on the planet that doesn’t have these three archetypes. It’s also where the world’s clichés all come from. When Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he wasn’t talking about individuals but everyone in authority. (Interestingly he follows that sentence with, “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority,” but I digress.) Everyone knows what hunger is and yearning for love. And even if we haven’t experienced something to the same degree as others doesn’t mean we can’t imagine what they’ve been through; it’s why we have imaginations.

Can poetry change the future by closely examining the past? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—George Santayana. The novel I’m editing just now is entitled The More Things Change and, of course, the second half of the quote is “the more they stay the same.” The things we struggle with today and things Man has struggled with for millennia: jealously, greed, pride, sloth, anger… People have been writing about these for centuries. The evidence piles up year after year but we’re still cheating on our wives, driving our cars too fast and kicking our dogs when we get home after a crappy day at work. “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”— Hegel. Santayana is being charitable. Hegel tells it as it is: we do not learn. Individuals do make an effort and here’s where poetry finds its place. The poems I’ve written and read have changed me but how much I can change “the future” is another matter entirely. World War I was dubbed, “The war to end war,” (we have H.G. Wells to thank for that) and yet how long did we have to wait for a second world war and how many wars have we had since despite Edwin Starr’s pointed lyrics: “War, huh yeah / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothing”?

Kass said...

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions. I appreciate your view of things. It's interesting to look around this class of aspiring poets. Most are college age. About a third are my age. Most are intensely invested in the thought that these poems we're writing commemorating the 70 year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima will have an impact on our audience. Unfortunately, I think we are all writing performance poetry which changes the nature of our writing. Even on my part, I recognize the hubris.

Jim Murdoch said...

There is an ideal reader out there for every poem, Kass. Considering how many of us there are that’s really not such a bold statement. Not everyone can express themselves in words well. Sometimes it’s because of inhibitions, lack of practice or simply a poor vocabulary. And then someone, maybe at a funeral, recites a poem like ‘Funeral Blues’ or ‘Invictus – Unconquered’ and the ache that they’re feeling is given a shape. Okay it’s not the perfect shape—they’d have to write their own poem for that to happen—but it does; it helps; it takes some of what they’re feeling and makes it tangible; they can hold it in their hand. I think that’s as much as any of us can hope for or aim for. I remember giving a folder full of poems to a friend once and when she handed it back the last one was missing. She’d never asked if she could keep it and I didn’t mind but I was curious. She couldn’t explain what it was about the poem that meant something to her but I’d managed to find words that unlocked something in her. Wish I could remember which damn poem it was but I can’t.

Kass said...

"... the ache that they’re feeling is given a shape."

"...words that unlock."

Very nice, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Kass.

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