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

Sunday, 5 July 2015



Ob lies in the hallway
and thinks of flies.
The flies on the cadaver of his past.
In the sticky heat he lies
and dreams of flies.

lands on the silent body
and pauses for a moment
as if it could remember.

Its first act of change
the consumption of its past.

6 November 1982

This is the second of four poems dated 6 November 1982. This tells me something. Some, if not all of these, are old ideas that I’ve deliberately sat down, worked at and decided were good enough to call finished. There are a couple of other blocks like this which we’ll get to eventually if I don’t decide to pack all this in and go and do something interesting instead. (Nod to an old kid’s show.) Looking at this one it’s pretty obvious what I’m on about. My wife has left me and I’m trying to decide what I want to do, who I want to be for the rest of my life. But it’s hard to let go of the past and I keep revisiting it even as it’s becoming less and less appealing to do so. The metaphor is obvious and not especially well executed. I just couldn’t find a not awkward way of saying ‘What-was-Ob’. And why Ob? Obliterate? Obituary? Objectify? Obsession?

For the record I was not brought up to believe in reincarnation although I do like the trope as a literary device.



Joseph Hutchison said...

I'm curious, Jim. When you say "dated 6 November 1982," do you mean that's the date you wrote the poem or the date you finished it? I ask because I've seldom been fortunate—maybe "talented" is the better word—enough to write a poem in one sitting, even a short one. Mine arise by impulse and develop like sketches. As a result, I have notebooks full of half-assed attempts. When I finish a poem, or abandon it (as Valery suggested), only then do I date it; most of the time I come back and tweak it, add a date of revision, and move on. I guess I'm curious as to whether you write in one sitting. I remember reading an interview with the short story writer Eudora Welty, and she was asked to define a short story; she said, "It's any story you write in one sitting." Turns out she did the creation and bulk of revision in her head before ever sitting down to write. It's a peculiar kind of genius, I think, and I wonder if you're of that same family.

I see I've forgotten to say how much I admire this poem! Well, there you have it. Full of admiration and a wee bit jealous of your process....

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not a genius, Joe, but I’ll admit to being a natural. There’re times I regret the course my life’s taken—and where in Earth’s timeline I’ve had to take it—because many of my peers are now teachers or even professors of poetry (Simon Armitage is ages with my wee brother) but I doubt I’d be very good at it because were you to ask me how to write a poem my answer would be, “Well, you just sit down and do it.” Writing what I call poetry, my interpretation of what poetry should be (I’ve never got why everyone doesn’t write like me), comes as naturally as breathing. I shy away from words like ‘talent’, however, preferring to go with something less self-aggrandising like ‘facility’. That facility with words extends to prose but there’s such a world of difference between how I construct a prose sentence and how I write a poetic one. I’ll revise and revise a sentence in a novel dozens of times. I once worked out—don’t ask me how because I can’t see how I could’ve possibly calculated it—I’d spent 24 hours rewriting the opening sentence of my first book only to discover on checking that it was identical to the original sentence I’d thought about for maybe ten seconds before typing it. For the record I still hate it. What I look for in prose for it to flow like music (Beckett is my hero) from beginning to end like a symphony and the way I work is to start at the beginning and read until something trips me up. I’ll then fix it and continue. The goal is to be able to read the entire book in one go without sticking even once.

I do get where Eudora Welty is coming from although when it comes to my poems it’s my opinion the donkey work’s all been done by my subconscious and I only get the poem when it’s almost done. They’re all short and most take me two or three minutes to draft but I’m not talking about draft in the prose sense. I get the words out of my head and onto paper—or more often these days straight onto the laptop—in whatever way they come. I don’t worry about the shape or length of lines or doing anything technique-y. Once the idea (I think of it as raw poetry) is on the page and I’m no longer in danger of forgetting any of it then I’ll start to do what Philip Roth described as “turning sentences around”. I shove the words around on the page until a shape appears. It doesn’t take long usually but it’s a rare poem that doesn’t need knocking into shape. I’ll rephrase something slightly to add or lose a syllable that’s obstructing the flow. I don’t have the original notes for ‘Ob’ but the first stanza of ‘The Art of Breathing’ (originally ‘The Art of Breathing In’) was: “To make room for new things / you have to forget some old things.” That became: “To make room for the new / you have to let go of the old.” That’s the sort of changes I’m on about. Were I to write ‘Ob’ today it’d still be in my drafts folder but then I’ve become a lot fussier about what I call finished. I’m amazed you’re moved to admiration. I’ve always regarded it as the best I could manage and it’s never been published. I doubt I even submitted it anywhere. What do I know?

So to answer your questions: the date at the end of my poems is the date it was finished. In most cases that will also be the day it was started. Sometimes I’ll leave a poem overnight but I’m quite confident these days. I know when a poem’s done and I also know that spending weeks adding in and taking out the proverbial comma usually makes no discernible difference. Oddly enough I go the other way with my prose; there it’s all about the subtext.

In the 80s it wasn’t uncommon for me to draft a poem and then sit on it for months before deciding it was good enough and many were abandoned. Mostly nowadays when I start a poem it gets finished and quickly and the longer it lies around the less likely it ever will and I’ll leave it to my daughter to decide what to do with all these scraps. I do wish I’d got into the habit of dating first drafts. Rearranging the poems in order of conception might reveal an interesting pattern.

Kass said...

I immediately think of 'obtuse' when I see 'Ob.' And I think of how excited flies must be when they can feed on decomposition.

To be both the fly and the body - I like this device.

Jim Murdoch said...

If by ‘obtuse’, Kass, you mean ‘slow to understand’ then I’ll buy it. I was slow to understand what had happened during my marriage. To be honest to this day I really don’t understand why it went pear-shaped and how I ended up being painted as the bad guy. My singular biggest weakness—and this continued to put strains on subsequent relationships—was the need to do well at work which always led to overworking and eventually to burnout and depression. When my first wife left me I was in the midst of my first major depression. I didn’t realise it but looking back the signs are obvious. When she said she wanted us to separate I was in the worst place to deal with such news and I went down clawing at straws. The thing I found the hardest to deal with was the realisation that I was going to have to become a part-time dad. That was never what I signed-up for. I was delighted to be a dad and wanted to be fully involved in my daughter’s life. That’s the thing wives forget when they divorce their husbands (or don’t care about): they’re forcing their kids to ‘divorce’ their dads too. And that’s just cruel.

Kass said...

Jim - this tears at my heart.

Jim Murdoch said...

It was all a long time ago, Kass. I never got over it but I got on with it. My wife obviously thought she had good reasons to leave me and judging from how I’ve experienced subsequent depressions I’m not sure my memories of that time can be regarded as wholly reliable but I never hit her or bullied her, I never cheated on her (even if I did look), I never drank or gambled or frittered away my wages on junk. I may not have been perfect—still far from it—but I worked hard (to the point of burnout admittedly) and doted on my daughter. I couldn’t believe the brute she painted me as in the divorce papers. There’s exaggeration for effect—I smacked my daughter once (twice in her whole life for the record and the second time I regret) and suddenly I was a child beater—and then there’s just lying. I will never know the truth. Maybe I should be glad of that.

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