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

Friday, 29 February 2008

Mirror, mirror on the wall

The one-man/woman show has been around for a while, one actor playing a host of different characters. Whoopi Goldberg has done it in the states, Dorothy Paul has been doing it in Scotland for years and Joyce Grenfell was famous for her monologues and character pieces. (I wonder why no men jump to mind.) If one actor can play several characters what about several actors playing the one character?

It was John Baker's review of the film I'm Not There that started me thinking about this. I've not seen it but I will get round to it. What I've read in reviews and seen in clips has done nothing to discourage me. What's caught the media's attention is the fact that the director uses a selection of actors including an actress (or is that female actor these days?) to play one of the Dylan parts and a damn good Bob Dylan Cate Blanchett makes, too, from the clips I've seen.


Not surprisingly, of course, it has been done before. At this very moment I have a copy of Todd Solondz's Palindromes sitting with a bundle of other DVDs ready to watch. The plot concerns Aviva, a 13 year-old girl (who is played by 8 different actors of varying ages, races, body types and genders). Aviva wants to have a baby because they're cute but she doesn't understand the implications.

In Star Trek: Nemesis we have a popular science fiction staple, the clone. The difference here is that rather than using special effects (as in Multiplicity) a separate actor is used to play the clone Shinzon who forces Picard to review the course his life has taken.

In Fight Club and Identity fractured personalities are also represented by multiple actors.


In Michael Boyd's stage adaptation of Janice Galloway's The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, he decided to use three actresses to play aspects of the central character, the mentally ill Joy. (It is important to note that Joy does not have a split personality). It was on in Glasgow a few years back but I'd not read the book at that point and let it slip by; still kicking myself for that one. The book doesn't do this but I would be fascinated to see how it plays out on stage.

In Three Tall Women, Edward Albee (best known for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ) has three characters: A, B and C who all represent the same woman. This play takes place in the bedroom of a sick and forgetful old woman (A). In the first act she is cared for by a middle-aged companion (B) and visited by a young woman (C) sent by the lawyer to settle some financial affairs. At the end of the first act, A suffers a stroke that leaves her on the edge of death. In the second act a mannequin of A lies in the bed allowing A to join B and C on-stage in discussing events in their mutual life and how one became the other – for they are all the same woman at different stages of her life.

In Sweet Sue by A R Gurney Junior, two actresses portray the same character, Susan Wetherell, a successful designer of greeting cards who falls for the handsome, 22 year-old Jake. The character of Jake, like that of Susan, is played by two actors who interact with the two Susans in an "emotionally tumultuous roundelay" whose outcome – do they or don't they consummate their love? – is left frustratingly unclear at the end of the play.

This is also is the central device of Peter Nichols's Passion Play:

Passion Play is not satisfied with the traditional triangle: it needs a pentagon. That sounds like a pretty unwieldy geometric configuration, but in Mr. Nichols’s hands it’s a piece of cake. He adds two characters, or at least two actors, to the mix, in the persons of Jim and Nell. They function largely as James’s and Eleanor’s alter egos, but we’re never quite sure exactly who or what they are. When they first appear, they are dressed like their alternate selves and can be seen and heard only by them. Through them we learn what is going on in the minds of the two protagonists. But little by little they gain more independence, wearing different clothes from James and Eleanor and actually filling in for them, i.e. Nell has a scene with James and Jim with Eleanor. -Theatre Reviews Limited


The finest example I can think of is, of course, Dr Who, a character who doesn't die but regenerates and, because of the way the show interprets quantum physics, in episodes like 'The Two Doctors', 'The Three Doctors' and ultimately 'The Five Doctors' the writers bend the laws of time and space to get various combinations of the doctors to work together. I loved the episodette during Comic Relief last year where the tenth Doctor and the fifth Doctor got to interact even if it was only for ten minutes – wonderful!

In The Cloning of Joanna May, a 1992 television mini serial adapted from the novel by Fay Weldon, a wealthy, self-centred monster loses the woman he loves, but determines to re-create her. He has a number of clones developed (each played by a different actress), and sits back while they grow to maturity, unknown to each other, in a wide variety of circumstances. He then invites them all to a gathering and announces that he will be picking one of them as his bride.


Discounting the use of alternate realities, time travelling and clones which, to be fair, are unique individuals, the most common way literature enables a character to come face-to-face with themselves or a version of themselves is in the form of a doppelgänger, a recurrent motif in Gothic and horror literature.

In mythology doppelgängers are a projection forged from the real counterpart's own will and soul. It will manifest itself before its real counterpart first, and announce its intentions. The ideal time for a doppelgänger to appear is during the new moon, when the real counterpart does not cast a shadow. They are not automatically bad, often merely mischievous; theoretically when one chooses to listen to one's conscience, they may be dealing with their doppelgänger, unrealized and trapped within the shadow.

In literature when the doppelgänger does appear it acts as a kind of alter ego to the protagonist, often representing, literally embodying, a side of the person which is normally suppressed. The most obvious commentary on the dual nature of Man has to be the 'relationship' that develops between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde even though they can never interact directly.

In The Double, a novella by Dostoevsky, a man is losing his mind – he is haunted by a look-alike who eventually usurps his position. The novella tells the story of a minor government official, Golyadkin, whose life crumbles to pieces following the sudden appearance of a literal facsimile of his self. This double attempts to destroy Golyadkin's good name and claim the position of both in the Russian bureaucracy and within the social circle inhabited by "Golyadkin Senior" as he comes to be known.

A similar position is taken in the short story William Wilson by Edgar Allen Poe. In this story the protagonist, William Wilson, runs into a man who looks exactly like him (also named William Wilson) at university. The narrator quickly becomes jealous of this double. Apart from looking like him his doppelgänger can do everything better than he can. On the outside Wilson pretends to be best friends with his double, but the fact is, he's envious of him and his frustration finally spills over when he cheats in a simple game just to beat him. This act foreshadows the resolution of the conflict in which he finally murders the doppelgänger. This story is interesting in that it is the protagonist who becomes the 'evil twin' rather than simply having to confront the personification of his dark side. The same happens in Nabokov's early novel Despair in which the narrator Hermann, murders Felix, his exact mirror double.

In A Scanner Darkly where we are presented with a typically Philidickian twist: Fred, an undercover narcotics agent is investigating a drug ring in which he is known as 'Bob Arctor'. To maintain his cover Fred starts taking more and more of a mind-altering and highly addictive drug called Substance D. Eventually Fred no longer sees 'Arctor' as a character he is playing and reports 'himself' to his superiors.

A more extreme example still can be found in Solaris where the character of Snow as he appears in the book is actually the doppelgänger having murdered the original Snow when he attacked him; the replacement becomes deranged trying to come to terms with the concept of having killed 'himself'.

These examples are explicit. Many instances of doppelgängers are more subtle. For example, in the poem 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', several critics have suggested that the Lady of Castle Hautdesert and Morgan are ultimately two aspects of the same character, rather like Bertilak and the Green Knight. The question of which character is the 'real' one may not be answerable in either case.

Considered purely on a metaphorical level then, the term doppelgänger most often applies to worthy adversaries: The Headless Horseman to Ichabod Crane, Professor Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes, Rā's al Ghūl to Batman and so on.

I have another thought about doppelgängers. I think the characters we authors invent provide us with an opportunity to look into that other mirror, the one that doesn't cast a reflection. Frankenstein's monster is frequently cited as an example of a doppelgänger. The two are often confused, the monster frequently being called 'Frankenstein' too. The big question is who, in this case, really is the 'evil twin'?

My characters aren't always the nicest of people. I make them do things I never would. I live vicariously through them. Not all my stories get finished. Several times I've put pen to paper and not been able to face what's looking up at me from the page. In my current novel, with which, for the record, I am still struggling, I have three characters, a daughter, the memory of her dead father and a woman her father befriended late in life who acts as his daughter's doppelgänger being someone who represents the road not taken. The daughter is very similar to her father but what she can't understand is how he could have become involved with someone so different. What she has to face is that a side of her father with which she was unfamiliar was attracted to this woman and now she finds herself also drawn to her, if only as a means to get to know her father better. So often doppelgängers get presented as bad but I don't see any of these characters as bad. The daughter is different from her father's friend; different is not bad.

I have no doubt you will have heard fiction writing being referred to as "thinly veiled biography" and some of it is, but I think, more often than people imagine, it's actually a place where alternative histories are worked out on paper. I'd be curious to hear what other writers have to say on this.

Monday, 25 February 2008

A naïve (but not particularly sentimental) poem

It's always nice to see a poem in print. I have a new one in Feathertale called Naïve Poem which I thought I'd tell you a little about.

When you hear the expression 'naïve poetry' probably the first thing that comes to mind is Friedrich Schiller's On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry and that's a good enough place to start if only so I can use this quote:

The naïve is a childlikeness, where it is no longer expected, and precisely for that reason, can not be attributed to real childhood in the strictest sense.

If that isn't what comes to your mind then you are probably one of the people who would regard naive poetry as the kind of poetry written by provincial amateurs, retired postal clerks and genteel ladies who’ve grown bored in their attractively decorated little homes. Harmless. And, of course, all of those people have every right to write what they like how they like it but it doesn't always make it naïve in the sense I'm using. There is also an unpleasant connotation to the word naïve, it suggests gullible but it doesn't have to be.

I've never seen naïve writing that way at all. I've always considered it starts off with a good healthy dose of Naïve realism. Naïve realism is a common sense theory of perception. Most people (i.e. children), until they start reflecting philosophically, are naïve realists. Naïve writers present an idealised version of the world to my mind no different to what science fiction writers do. By presenting an idealised world but leaving their readers in the real world they work their magic. Like naïve and amateur, childish is another one of those words that people tend to say in a disparaging way as if childhood's a thing to be got out of as quick as you can and good riddance to it.

The narrator in a naïve poem or story may be or appear to be naïve but the critical factor is that the reader is not. It's a kind of an anti-Mork-&-Mindy situation. In the TV programme it's the alien Mork who's the innocent observer but with a naïve poem it's the reader who is the observer and unless he or she is a child they most certainly won’t be innocent and that gives them a particular insight into the poem.

The first time I attempted something along this line was in the poem 'Advice to Children':


People will fail you.
It's a fact of life -
they'll let you down.

But not always.
And that's the worst of it -
sometimes they don't.

But most times it's hard to tell

6 March, 1996

The poem is deliberately written in very simple language, the kind of language you would use with a child. The whole purpose of this poem – and those in the series that over the years that have followed it – was to present something in a child's language that a child would never be able to grasp. I tested this on a ten year-old and it had the exact effect I expected – she didn't get it. But the poem is not for a child, it's for adults. I wanted to write the kind of thing we desperately would want to communicate to a youngster to stop them getting hurt in words they were perfectly capable of grasping individually but not collectively.

It's not really a naïve poem though because the narrator is anything but innocent. Not like the protagonist in 'Cinders':


When I visited William
he had a tray of buttons.

"I like these," he said.
"They open things -
and you don't need keys."

And he counted
the buttons on my dress
and asked me to tell him a secret.

23 March 1989

I've written about William since I first imagined him in 1981 walking down Blytheswood Street in Glasgow, an area at the time famous for its prostitutes. The last poem to feature him was in 2002. He starts off on the street befriended by prostitutes, winds up in an asylum, is 'cured' and then returns to his old haunts to find everyone has moved on. This poem is where one of the girls visits him in the asylum. The thing with William is that he's not just an innocent; he has an insight that comes through innocence through seeing things as they really are without all the philosophy getting in the road at least at first. Most of the sequence has seen print over the years but one of these days I will get round to putting them all together.

Which brings us to 'Naïve Poem'. If you've read my review of Naïve.Super you'll appreciate how much this short novel affected me and I have a lot to say about All My Friends are Superheroes once I get round to posting my review which has some similarities (and a lot of differences, but be patient). And then, of course, there's been my discovery of Tao Lin.

Some people don't like poems about poetry. Personally I like reading about writing and writers. It's what I do. It's what I know. I like to read about things I know about. I like looking for mistakes. I'm a sad git with no life.

'Naïve Poem' is about the relationship between poem and poet. As you might expect it's a topic I've covered before usually utilising a fairly predictable father-son metaphor but here there is no metaphor. I simply state "I had a poem / published on the Internet" and I made a point of offering the poem to a magazine with a distinct web presence although they do bring out a print version but there's no guarantee it'll be included.

The poem has been stripped down to the very basics, words and rhythm, although you'd be hard pushed to notice it right away because of how I divided the stanzas.

I have no idea who first uttered those immortal words, "uttered those immortal words", but the life expectancy of words fascinates me; I wrote a poem once called 'The Half-Life of Words'. We use words every day, thousands and thousands of them and they vanish poof! into the ether. So we scribble them on bits of paper, type them onto PCs, copy them onto floppy disks, CDs, hard drives, print them in book and magazines but the $64,000 dollar question is: How long can we expect them to last? One day we're simply neglected, the next forgotten. (Readers might be interested in The Neglectorino Project devoted to almost-forgotten poets).

When a poem is published it's like when an animal has been donated to a zoo and that's the image I had in my head when I wrote the poem. I can visit it any time I like but it's no longer truly mine. And then one day you pop along to the cage and it's gone, the animal, the cage, the whole blinkin' zoo. When I decided to return to the Web one of the first things I did was have a look to see if any of the poems I'd published years ago were still there. No surprises, not only were the poems not there, the sites had long since vanished.

If something is there and then not there how would a child interpret its not-there-ness? A child doesn't have children of its own but it could have a pet. If a pet is no longer there then it will either have run away or died bearing in mind that 'death' may not mean the same to a child as an adult. It's the same when it comes down to 'forever'. Forever is an abstract but can a child truly grasp infinity?

Animals age differently to us and poems age differently too. Some get old very quickly. I expect all of mine to outlive me but I don't see any of them lasting forever. I suppose it would be naïve to think they might.

Friday, 22 February 2008

God only knows

There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a female admirer once wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: "When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant – God and Robert Browning – and now God only knows what it means."

This got me thinking about some of my own poetry. I have written so much that there is no way in hell I can remember the particular events that prompted me to put pen to paper. That said, having never kept a diary, my collection of poetry is the nearest I've ever got. I just have to look at most of my poems and I can remember where my mind was at when I began it. Often I can recall the specific events that moved me to write. I can even tell you where I wrote a lot of them.

I say "began" because I used to be very slow at letting go of poems – we are talking months and months of taking the proverbial comma out and putting in back in a week later so the completion dates aren't always very helpful. By the time I used to get round to finishing every scrap of passion that had gone into that first draft would have vanished and I would have been reduced – bad choice of word there I think – to a cold-blooded editor.

I think it is good to distance yourself from your work. I saw an interview once – twice actually – with John Irving who recommended taking a break from one project to focus on another because when you come back you do so with fresh eyes. I may have blogged about this before, if not then I made a comment on someone's blog about it. It doesn't matter. Either way it's worth restating. When you return to a piece of work after a while you do look on it with fresh eyes and it's easier to do what's necessary to make the piece work.

But how do we know if a piece of writing has worked? It seems like an easy question but it isn't. In his essay, The Text Says What It Does Not Say, Pierre Macherey makes, what seems at first a radical suggestion, but, when you think about it, it's not such an unreasonable one. According to Macherey, the ideology of a literary work resides in its incompleteness, in its significant gaps and silences. In other words what you don't say can be as important as what you do. It's like wandering into Cyrano de Bergerac's living room and NOT looking at the nose; avoiding looking at something, or mentioning something, can actually draw just as much attention to it.

I think the whole issue of meaning is a fascinating one, one that, if I'm honest, is probably way above my head but that's never stopped me talking about things I don't really understand before.

Think about any poem you've written (this works best with poetry – you prosers will have to use your imaginations) and remember how you felt afterwards. It made total sense, it encapsulated precisely how you felt, it said exactly what you wanted it to say. But take a step back a minute and ask yourself how much of that poem never actually made it to the page, is still in your head. THAT is why the experience is a complete one, because you have all the facts, feelings, meanings at your fingertips; you are connected to that poem and in no position to be objective about it.

All of which brings me to a poem I wrote in May 2000. What can I tell you about the time I wrote this poem? Very little actually. The only interesting, though not necessarily significant, thing is that it had been fourteen months since my previous poem so something significant must have got the ol' gears going but, for the life of me I can't imagine what. I'd started a new job six months earlier and I'd settled in well. I was actually quite content in my life at the time – poetry would be the last thing I'd expect to be writing at a time like that – and then, out of the blue, this poem appears:

This is Not About What You Think

Every name and place has been changed,
what we did and why, all changed,
the dates and times, how we really felt,
the reasons we wouldn't stay away,
everything slightly altered, twisted,

to accuse the innocents
and excuse those guilty.

So A chases B like night flees the day
just as I came after you
or was it you taking the lead?
It's hard to remember now
but I'm sure we were never quite there together.

Stories are simple, even the difficult ones,
smoothed out and edited, tied up neatly by the end.
And that special ingredient, that missing metaphor?
A soupçon of some sort of sense to make the thing palatable
when nothing that real ever could be.

But why on earth should it? It's a pretty good question.
I just don't have any pretty good answers left
so this will have to do for now.

Now, I find this poem interesting for a few reasons. For one, it's in free verse. I've made no attempt at structuring the piece. When I write like this it generally means the subject is paramount and the word choice critical. It's also long, long for me. Normally I'd say what I had to say in half those words and get off the page before I messed the whole thing up. The poem is not without technique though, actually I've been a bit heavy-handed with the alliteration and repetition; I wonder why? The poem is deliberately contrary: normally names are changed to protect the innocent and should it not be "A chases B like night pursues the day" and how can difficult stories be said to be simple? I've worked at these obviously for a reason. I've gone out of my way to say something by not saying it but have I been too clever for my own good?

I have to confess that the poem has lost all meaning for me. I think of it as a bad poem, a poem that has gone off. I get an unpleasant taste when I read it. But does that mean it is meaningless?

Dave, at Pics and Poems, reminded me of Bashō, the seventeenth century master of the haiku, who is reported to have said: "Is there any good in saying everything?" An illustration Dave has seen given with the quotation, comes from the modern art of photography: "The poet makes the exposure, leaving the reader to develop it." I can follow the analogy. It's a good analogy. I know that wasn't my intent when I wrote the poem originally. I can write poems that make you think and feel, I can even write poetry that means something but my intent is normally transparent; at least I think it is.

Now, I'd like to contrast my poem with one I found on-line by Peter Ciccariello:

Poem of twelve nouns

Prayer arrow
anger mountain
plenty record

climate apparatus
share speed
stone distance

This poem deliberately excludes certain elements – verbs, articles, conjunctions, adjectives. It functions more like a series of photographs trying to tell a story. What is missing is easily as important as what is there but it's got nothing to do with parts of speech. The reader has to use what's there as a starting point and structure what's presented to him in his head. The title really doesn't help. What I can tell you is that Ciccariello is an interdisciplinary artist, poet, and photographer, whose images are a synthesis of language and visual imagery. Knowing that helps me understand why he might produce a poem like this but it doesn't help me understand the poem which, I think everyone will agree, should stand on its own merits.

Meaning is clearly a dynamic thing. It is something we look for in everything. We try and impose order on things that have none, like stars and clouds, inkblots and words. Look at the Ciccariello poem. What did your brain do with those words? It tried to organise them. It needs them to make sense. I thought of what the missing bits might be and tried them for size. I struggle for a context that will fit all these words. Is there a definitive solution to the poem? No, because it's a poem and not an equation. At best it's only half an equation, the solution to what was going on in Ciccariello's head at the time, to which we need to work out the question. In this poem meaning is inferred, inferred by association. As soon as you see one word sitting beside another your brain wants to connect them in some way.

My poem meant something to me once. Now it means something else. The reason it meant something in the first place is because I was carrying the key around with me. Since I've lost it, it's nothing but a source of frustration, which is how I feel you must feel about the poem because that's how I feel about Ciccariello's poem. I'm frustrated because it does not live up to my expectations; whether it lives up to the poet's intentions is another thing completely.

So is my poem meaningless? God alone knows. I think it is. I think it's a bad poem. What do you think?

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

You are all merely figments of a deranged imagination

Ask a child what they want and they'll tell you. They'll tell you exactly what they want based on what they know and have experienced. If they don't know something exists how can they ask for it? And that's a problem. A novel, by definition, should be something new and what is novel about any novel (sorry that was too easy) is not restricted to its content; the style can also be new.

When I pick up a book I'm looking for something new. If I want something safe I'll buy an Asimov. Okay, his stories are all different, they're all readable – the man was a more than competent story-teller, no question there – but when I see the name "Asimov" I know what I'm going to get and that's fine; I have at least a dozen books by him and would unreservedly recommend him; he is a it-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin kind of author. I suppose Agatha Christie must be a bit the same.

You can't please all the people all of the time. It's hard enough to please any of the people any of the time. If you're lucky you might please some of the people some of the time. If you're good it'll be most of the people most of the time but even then your loyalist of fans will only take so much. No one likes a suck-up.

It reminds me of the Aesop's fable of two men and the donkey:

A man and his son decided to take their donkey to market to sell. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: "You fools, what is a donkey for if not to ride upon?"

So the man lifted his son up on the donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: "See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides."

So the man ordered his boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn't gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: "Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along."

Well, the man didn't know what to do, but at last he took his boy up before him on the donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: "Aren't you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours and your hulking son?"

The man and boy got off and scratched their heads. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey's feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They staggered along amid peals of laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

I've always said: I'll carry a donkey for no one.

People go on about the relationship between readers and writers. I'm not sure I have one. I'm not talking about this blog – blogging is very different to my normal fiction writing, it's more akin to journalism, at least that's how I feel about it. When I write fiction I think about nothing bar the writing. This does not mean I don't care about my readers but I don't consider them when I write. If I did I might hold back. I might try and play safe, just do what worked before. I don’t write for an audience. Audiences are impersonal and distant. Hundreds of people will have read something by me but who are they? I could be standing next to one at the bus stop and wouldn’t know them from Adam. When I think of writing for an audience, I feel obliged to put on a show and be properly entertaining, to give them what they expect. When I write fiction, I initiate an intimate conversation with one reader: me.

There is a risk when you try something new as a writer and it is a simple one: those who loved what you did before might hate what you're doing now. (Think Bob Dylan and an electric guitar). I wonder how Picasso felt when he (and Braque although no one remembers Braque) presented Cubism to an unsuspecting world? Or what about Schoenberg's early twelve-tone compositions? Or when Beckett popped How It Is in the post to his agent?

Readers can feel very possessive of their writers or, if not so much the writers, the characters they create. (Stephen King's Misery anyone?) It's like when a long-running series finishes and the audience are wandering around lost like characters at the end of a Spike Milligan Q sketch going, "What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now?" What some of them end up doing is writing their own stuff – fan fiction. The Web's full of it including the mind-boggling sub-genre of slash – and subsequently femslash – fiction where the homo-erotic undertones of on-screen relationships (Kirk/Spock, Starsky/Hutch, Xena/Gabrielle) are fully and graphically explored. Even Joss Whedon, following the demise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer after seven never-less-than-watchable-and- sometimes-jaw-droppingly-good years, got caught up in it – fan fiction, not slash, do keep up – and ended up writing a whole 'Season 8' for Dark Horse Comics.

This is was what got me thinking about writing a sequel to Living with the Truth. The people who read the first drafts of it all wanted more. "You can't leave it there," they said. To be honest I could have and maybe should have. I tried adding a whole second day to the first book, which actually develops the characters quite nicely, and then they wanted to know more, predictably enough, about the character of Truth. Not that I kowtowed to their wishes but they did start me thinking and you know what happens when writers start thinking. Very quickly I had a draft to Stranger than Fiction which does tidy things up and leaves a neater ending than the first book. But what I found myself doing was adding an open ending in case there was demand for a third book. So far there hasn't been and I'm not sure if I could even go back into that universe again. I've moved on and my readers need to too.

It is interesting though just how involved one can get with a character. Arguably the genre of romantic fiction generates the best example. This is from a paper by Katie Dunneback, an aspiring romance novelist:

To quote [Mary Ellen] Ryder [a professor at Boise State University] "magicians, politicians, and romance writers share a common goal, to sell their audience dreams without substance." I can argue Ms. Ryder's assumption based upon the above information on an academic level. As a reader, I can quite honestly tell that Ms. Ryder has never taken the time to read a romance novel just to read. This is the type of prejudice that romance readers are constantly bombarded with. But they still come back for more after being called ignorant, stupid, mindless, and downright backward by other women. We read for pleasure. We read for escapism. Do I expect to have Roarke from J D Robb's In Death series to be knocking on my door in the next ten minutes? No, I do not. I am a rational human being. We all are. In our groups of fellow readers we may talk about these characters as if they were real. We get into fights. As a writer I get into fights with my characters. But that is because they are real to me. They are my neighbours, they are my friends, they are the people that I will run into at the supermarket. – A Reader/Writer's POV

I've thought hard about this and wondered which characters I feel the most possessive of. When I was young it will probably have been Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) and Billy Fisher (Billy Liar) but then there's a huge gap before we get to Beckett's characters. There are characters aplenty in between that I can relate to – and strongly – but none I felt possessive of. I'm not even sure if I feel possessive of Vladimir (Waiting for Godot) and Krapp (Krapp's Last Tape) or protective but that these characters are treated with respect when they are brought to life on a stage matters to me.

The public is fickle, twisted even. I feel sorry for performers like Catherine Tate or Matt Lucas and David Walliams from Little Britain who create characters beloved by millions and then have to keep working with them over and over again until suddenly Joe Public, who felt they could do no wrong in seasons one and two, starts getting bored come season three and begins sniffing around for the next big thing. I was so glad when, at Xmas, Tate decided to kill off Lauren Cooper. I suppose she could bring her back as an angel squabbling with St Peter at the Pearly gates but please don't.

Death of course doesn't need to be the end of a character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bent the knee to public pressure and brought back Sherlock Holmes after plunging him over the Reichenbach Falls, the same is true of Dixon of Dock Green (killed at the end of The Blue Lamp and then brought back for TV), Spock goes without saying, the aforementioned Buffy Summers, Bobby Ewing, Ellen Ripley (okay her clone), Superman (so many times)… The list goes on and on and on.

To wind up this blog about the reader/writer relationships I thought I'd mention that a school of thought came into vogue in the sixties and seventies where a number of philosopher-rhetoricians began to conceive of readers as fictional constructs in the writer's mind. The best-known work of this time was Walter J Ong's essay, 'The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction.' Ong explains:

What do we mean by saying the audience is a fiction? Two things at least. First, that the writer must construct in his imagination, clearly or vaguely, an audience cast in some sort of role – entertainment seekers, reflective sharers of experience… and so on. Second, we mean that the audience must correspondingly fictionalize itself. A reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him, which seldom coincides with his role in the rest of life.

So, just to make things clear, all my readers are really nice people who never have a bad thing to say about me and love enthusing about me to all their friends. Spread the word.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

White pebbles and burning issues

I remember once, I'm not sure how old I was, wandering down a beach on the west of Scotland picking up pebbles. I was on a white pebble kick that day and dropped each brilliant specimen into my jacket pocket. When I got home I emptied them out onto the bunker (that's kitchen counter to the rest of the world) and there wasn't a white one in the lot. Oh, they were all whitish, off-white, peelie-wally-looking things, but gathered together they really weren't that pretty at all. They'd dried out and lost their gloss.

So, what do we learn from this? None of the pebbles had changed. They hadn't gone off or been discoloured by something in my pocket. I can't blame it on gamma rays in the atmosphere or anything. Gremlins didn't dip in and swap them over when I wasn't looking. It's simply that when taken out of their familiar environment and examined individually it's far easier to notice their flaws.

Think about when you've written a poem and you're still in the zone or whatever expression makes sense to you. That poem, at that time, is the best thing you've ever written. It's dripping with inspiration. You sit back and beam at it with pride. And then you stumble on it five or ten or thirty-five years later and you think, how the hell could I have written this crap? What must I have been thinking?

Before Kafka died, he gave instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn his writings. Brod thoughtfully saved the papers and assembled them for publication based on his own editorial judgements and the world breathed a sign of relief. Monica Jones wasn't quite so considerate and made sure Larkin's diaries were burned in accordance with his instructions after his death but she still hung onto a few other papers. Rudyard Kipling was another. He fiercely guarded his privacy but didn't leave anything to chance. He destroyed many of his own papers himself and, after his death, his wife and daughter deprived scholars of many more.

I've never binned any of my writings. I've certainly never burned them – there's something uncomfortably ritualistic about that. That said I chucked out all my paintings, all bar two that my wife kindly framed and which now grace our living room. Every piece of music I ever wrote – and there were a good few of those – ended up in a skip. All I have left is a cassette tape with one atypically jazzy piece on it and I'll be honest I'm not even sure where that is these days. Do I regret throwing them away? YOU HAVE NO IDEA. The only piece of writing I don't still have is the first poem I wrote when I was about nine, and I so wish I had it; it was in Scots and described a man's last few minutes leading up to his hanging. Blame the Burns they were force-feeding us at the time.

I was looking back on some of my early work and I came across this one. It's not the worse thing I've ever written – I have been responsible for some awful dross over the years – but I do remember how I felt after I wrote this. I was so full of myself. I mean we are talking bag of wind to the power of cocky:

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

To be fair, I'm probably not the best judge of this piece. But then I'm probably not the best judge of any of my work, especially the juvenilia. I'm wise enough to realise that a lot could be learned by laying my poems end to end. I'm not sure it's anything that couldn't be learned faster and easier some other way, though, and, to be honest, I only held onto the first 452 poems (contained within 4 hardback jotters bought from Woolworths) out of sentimentality. Two or three of them did make it into print but I wouldn't cry buckets if they were lost.

Actually most of my earliest work is quite readable, not very good, but you know what I'm on about. Then, after I left school and started to expose myself to the rest of the world of poetry, the Ezra Pounds and Basil Buntings, I started to think I was clever. (Now those are the kinds of cool names real poets should have). Thankfully that phase didn't last very long but it did produce 'Les Étrangers' (or 'Les Estrangers' as it's recorded in my note book).

Oh, and I haven't the remotest clue what it's about so make of it what you will. You can even like it if you must.

Words are precious. But who decides that they are? Did Max Brod do right by Kafka? No doubt his relatives thought so when the royalty cheques started rolling in, but does that make it right? I don't think it does. Of course Brod can argue that his friend was not in his right mind when he made that decision, but we only have his word for it.

Which brings me to my point. ("And about bloody time too!" cries the audience, "You're into the last paragraph.") I don't have hard copies of anything I've written on-line. I haven't saved copies on either of my computers or on disc. This is not because I don't think what I've said (what I'm saying right now, in fact) isn't worth saying (if it wasn't worth saying, I wouldn't say it), it's just not the stuff I want to live on after I'm gone. And that's my choice. These are my words. Not yours. I've no immediate plans to start deleting my archives but you never know. You never know. So, if there are some old blogs of mine you've never got round to, you might want to think about checking them out – or saving them all for posterity – while there's still time.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Holy day of obligation

Being a man of a certain age I am not ashamed to say that I have loved a great many women in my life; a few of them even loved me back. And every single time it has been different. 'I love you' is such an easy thing to say, but a hard thing to communicate. Saying it is never enough. It feels as if it should be because it is often hard to reach the point where you have the nerve to mumble those three little words. And, at first, we manage to cram everything we feel into those words, we love hearing them and we love saying them. We make the words our own. It doesn't matter that other people have been whispering them to each other for yonks; no one else grasps their significance like we do.

Eventually, though, we start to rummage around for other ways to express that love, trinkets, cards, flowers, chocolate, more chocolate. Somewhere along the line, sometimes even while we're plucking up the courage to proclaim those three immortal words for the first time, we plonk ourselves down and try to write what is often our first poem, our first love poem and our first bad poem all bound up in a pink bow along with a smattering of iambs and a few bad rhymes for good measure.

Actually very little of my poetry rhymes – it is so much harder to work with than newbies imagine – but a lot of it has been dire. Even less of it could pass as love poetry though. I have never been able to work out why it is so hard to work with that particular emotion – negative emotions are so much easier.

As Valentine's Day is practically upon us (hence the post's title) I thought I'd have a look at the different approaches I've taken over the years to the difficult task of converting, "I love you" into poetry.

Ms. A.

We'll start off back in 1977 and that's a memorable year because it was then I first discovered William Carlos Williams. I know that's the case because I immediately sat down and wrote two very different poems, different for me, on two very different subjects, war and love. Here is the love poem:



a hand out of blindness
to touch

words whispered

a place to be

memories will come


a need for silence
(but not forced)



8 May 1977

The title is after the Lennon & McCartney song which happened to be playing in a Chinese restaurant where we'd had a meal a few days beforehand. I thought by naming the poem after it I could turn it into an 'our song' but the thing I've learned about 'our songs' is that they pick you. I've always had a fondness for this poem and I think, for my age, it was a decent stab at the problem.

What I had in mind when I wrote this was to copy the style of the Imagists but what I ended up dealing with are abstracts.

When the marriage broke up I wrote this:


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.

23 September 1982

Ms. B.

The next poem, only a year later I'm surprised to find, is for new lady:


Two one-legged men
limping down the road
sharing a single crutch
and each, in turn,
being a crutch to the other.

Both must go on
for neither has the strength to alone
and neither knows how
to leave the other.

16 September 1983

The idea behind this poem is far better than its execution. Twenty years later I took the poem and turned it into a story which I incorporated into my last novel. This is also the only time the dedication is actually the title of the poem. About ten years later we split up. She got custody of the crutch. Already you can see that I'm thinking about myself as a broken individual but hold that thought till you read the final poem.

There was no poem when we split up. In fact I'd not written anything for years.

Ms. C.

Now we have a new lady who gets two poems but there's a reason. The first is at the start of our relationship and the second comes at its end. I have mixed feelings about 'The Power of Love' but I doubt there are many mathematical love poems out there. It's a clever poem and I think that's its downfall especially since I had to explain it to the lady in question.

What I had in mind was a progression from principled love (agape) through brotherly affection (filia) onto passion (eros) but I didn’t know how to incorporate the transition into a poem. It was the word 'deep' that brought it all together in my head – depth requires three dimensions – and from there everything fell into place.


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

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

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

Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.

12 June 1994


You are not me and yet you are –
you're that other part of me
that brings me to peace with myself.

Loneliness is incompletion
but you make me whole and still more:
you've let me see what I could be.

And I love you for that.

17 August 1996

The reason I've included this second poem is because of what happened to it. It got its name changed. It became 'The Barry Poem' but not because mine is a crappy title, which it is. The reason is that I showed it to one of the girls I was working with at the time and she asked for a copy because she said I had put into words precisely how she felt about his guy called Barry. I've quite gone off the piece actually. I wrote it on the back of a paper bag in the middle of Byres Road in Glasgow; I'd forgotten my notebook. That said I can’t deny how powerfully it affected my workmate at the time. She's married now but not to Barry.

Ms. D.

Another year on – I guess I don't hang around – and I stumbled across my next, and hopefully last, love. This is a poem I wrote very early into our relationship that she adopted. I have to be honest, and I'll get shouted at for this, I really can't remember too much about the writing of it. What I can say about it, which explains the second stanza a little, is that we really weren't sure where the relationship was heading. We were still pretending to be friends but it was becoming clearer and clearer that neither of us was steering and we literally fell into love.


I simply cared for you
and that caring grew into love.
Now I don't know what kind of love
I can't stop feeling.

I can't see it's boundaries.
I don't know how far I can go.
It seems though that we won't turn back
until it's too late.

7 March, 1997

Again we have the image of love as a two-dimensional surface, a map this time, and 'in love' as being something with depth, what you would fall into if you sailed over the edge.

Now we've been married for over ten years and the love poems dried up. I still express my affection in practical ways – wine, flowers, bits of jewellery, chocolate, more chocolate, she never has to worry she might miss her favourite authors' next books – but she'd been pining after another poem for a while and wouldn’t say. The frustrating thing was I couldn’t seem to string two words together until last December. This was the poem she found in her card on our anniversary:


I don't know
how clocks work

or time works
or hearts work.

I know that
broken things

shouldn't work
but I know

that we work
though not how.

Some things don't
need a how

or a why.

Monday, 17 December 2007

The idea was hers. She had been going on about broken clocks and that was all I needed.

So there you have it. I'm not sure what it says about me other than I can string a few words together. I've just had a look at few sites on-line where an unsuspecting public can go to find some of the most awful poetry I've read in years. It really is no wonder that a lot of people have very little time for poetry if they think this is what poetry is supposed to be like. It's like comparing pantomime to theatre.

I would never do anything as horrible as challenge any of the men out there to write a poem for your loved one but, if you do, you might want to try something different to:

I love you lips, your eyes so blue
Your sexy little figure
A rear that makes me salivate
A shame your boobs weren't bigger.

Ladies, you're on your own.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Buy Fresh

A lot of attention was given to the Scottish Book of the Year winner, A L Kennedy, for her novel, Day, and I am sure deservedly so, but I never heard a peep about the Scottish First Book of the Year: Mark McNay's Fresh.

Canongate, the publisher, very kindly sent me a copy to review last week which they described to me as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich set in a chicken factory" and who could resist a description like that? McNay has acknowledged in interview the Solzhenitsyn novel as a starting point, but that is all it is which is perhaps why he didn't jump at "One Day in the Life of Sean O'Grady" as an obvious title. The great Russian is not his only influence; the book also tips its hat to the work of fellow Scot James Kelman with its realistic presentation of a Glaswegian accent.

I found the book a fast read, probably because of the amount of dialogue, though I could imagine someone sitting and reading the whole thing in one session; it's definitely a page turner. And, since my last post on swearing prompted many comments, I thought following up with this book review would be most appropriate; the book is positively teeming with swear words.

Some reviewers refer to "the wacko plottings of Frank Cotterell Boyce [or] Irvine Welsh" but personally I can't see it. The plot is straightforward: it tells the tale of two brothers, Sean and his elder brother Archie, who have been brought up by their uncle Albert and his wife Jessie in Royston, one of the rougher areas of Glasgow, following the death of their mother. There are two story threads, the main one, told in the third person, relates the events of a single day in the life of the adult Sean, the day his brother is unexpectedly released early from prison; the second thread, told in the first person, recounts the history of the two brothers.

The environment in which the two boys are brought up seems at times barbaric. When Sean is bullied at school his uncle takes both brothers down to their local pub and provides them with a first hand demonstration of how to deal with difficult people by beating up a man who owes him ten pounds:

     It didnay take long for the fireworks to start. It was raised voices and pointing at each other. Ah could see McGrory's face get a bit red. Then he flung a right hook and Albert ducked, took the hook on the side of the head and got two digs under the guy's ribs. Then he was up, two lefts into the face followed by a hard right and the guy went down like a sack of shite.
     McGrory went into a wee huddle on the floor and my uncle gied him a few hard boots in the guts. Where's my fuckin tenner? he shouted.

The next day Archie beats up the boy who had been bullying Sean:

     That's how you deal with bullies Archie said as he wiped Sammy's blood off his forehead. Just attack the cunts.

McNay does not shy away in presenting life in the raw. This is accepted, even expected, behaviour in areas like Royston and Springburn. This is how they deal with others and how they talk to each other. Readers of delicate sensibilities should consider a Jane Austin instead of this.

At first Sean is somewhat in awe of his older brother but as they grow older Archie falls in with a bad crowd – actually he becomes the bad crowd along with Sammy the boy he beat up to protect his brother. The pair of them begin dealing in drugs and Archie co-opts his brother as a driver. Sean is, of course, happy for the extra cash to impress his family but, when he gets pulled over by his old school pal, now a policeman, he realises that he has to make a serious decision about the direction his life is taking. Archie's decline continues unchecked. He winds up in juvenile detention at first and ultimately in prison leaving his brother holding a thousand pounds till his return.

Sean is far from perfect though. He is not a rich man and has a weakness for gambling which lands him in financial trouble. He earns a living working for minimum wage in a chicken processing plant – he works in the 'Fresh' department, hence the title of the book – and when he finds he needs money to keep up appearances with his family he dips into Archie's money to the tune of seven hundred pounds which he fully intends to replace by working overtime not expecting his brother's release for another six months. Unfortunately Archie wangles an early release date by agreeing to be electronically tagged and Sean discovers he only has the rest of the day to come up with the cash. Sean realises what will happen when Archie returns and decides: "Ah couldnay live through that madness again." He is resilient though, doesn't panic and does his best to get the money together in preparation for a surprising – or maybe not so surprising – face-off at the end of the novel.

What is most interesting is the relationship between the two brothers. They are not twins but it is impossible not to consider Archie as Sean's doppelgänger. Archie represents what the future could hold if he lets his loyalty to his brother rule his life. Sean is a bit of a dreamer and there are several instances in the book where I wondered if McNay might not also be indebted to Keith Waterhouse and his comic creation, Billy Liar:

     Sean jumped up and down on the spot. Two-footed jumps alternated with little skips. Bum titty jump joggy bum titty jump joggy. After a period of warm-up exercises he started grunting through his nose and jabbing with his left. Jab jab jab. Then he moved on to the complete workout. Bum titty left left-right bum titty left left-right. The world champion was limbering up to take on yet another contender…
     He ducked and jabbed at the chickens as they passed him on the line. When a bird came he followed it down the line giving it left left-right. The bang on the fat breast had just enough give to make it feel like a human cheek. Sometimes the punch knocked out a bit of fat that looked like a tooth. Sometimes it was just a spray of water like the saliva from a punched mouth.

Archie beats up people. Sean beats up dead chickens. It says everything. It's tempting to describe this book as being about the loss of innocence but you couldn't call Sean an innocent exactly. He is a product of his culture. He is loyal to himself, his wife and daughter. Everyone else is fair game.

Although there is an underlying tension to the book, the story is leavened by moments of comedy, albeit dark comedy. It would be utterly impossible to write any book about Glasgow without there being humour in it. The banter between many of the individuals is very funny once you realise that much of the aggressive language is actually affectionate:

What the fuck are ye playing at?
The white cap went red and stared at his piece box. Albert looked at Sean.
     Did you see that?
     Aye he's a cheeky wee bastard.
The white cap looked at Sean like he was shocked. Sean gave him a wink but Albert caught him.
     Ya fuckin arsehole. Ah might have guessed.
The white cap smiled and so did Sean and Albert. Sean stood up.
     Ah'm goin for a fag. Are ye comin?

A 'piece' is Scottish slang for a sandwich by the way. The book is very faithful in this regard, but McNay manages to include a host of Scotticisms without his dialogue becoming so dense it is unintelligible to non-Scots. That lack of standard punctuation for the dialogue and some unusual spellings take a bit of getting used to but they're not a big issue. A glossary is certainly not included in the Canongate edition.

Non-Scots should not be afraid of this book. It provides a very believable presentation of a stratum of society that will be alien to most readers. It's a disturbing book, though, and it's its reality that makes it disturbing; people really live like this.

Recommended – but not for the fainthearted.

Mark McNay was born in 1965 and brought up in a mining village in central Scotland. After a failed electrical engineering course and fifteen years doing odd jobs, in 1999 Mark was accepted onto the renowned creative writing course at the University of East Anglia on the basis of a handful of short stories. He graduated in 2003 with distinction. Straight after this his novel-in-progress caught the eye of an agent and won him a UK Arts Foundation Prize before it had even found its way to the top of the slush pile of eventual publisher, Canongate. He currently lives in Norwich, working with people suffering from mental health problems.

McNay is now working on his second novel, the protagonist of which suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder.

You can find interviews with the author at Slushpile, Books from Scotland and You Tube.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Expletive ʄ#@%ing deleted

I don't swear, not real swearing, although I am partial to the occasional minced oath. I have sworn. I can swear. I don't have some sort of physical or mental impediment that prevents me from swearing nor do I support any ideology that either frowns on or outright prohibits blasphemy, profanity or obscenity. I don't have a chip in my brain that causes me excruciating pain if I try to swear. I just don't do it. The question I have to ask, and I'm asking it publicly here (something I've not even really considered privately), is: do I have anything particularly against swearing? The answer has to be, no, but I was never brought up in an environment where swearing was common. I can only remember my father cursing once in a fit of temper and I burst out laughing because he never said "bloody", he pronounced it "bluedy" – not a good thing to do when you're just about to get a hammering.

I have no idea the first time I swore myself but I know it was a conscious decision as was the day "Daddy" became "Dad". I owe that step to The Beano. Neither Dennis the Menace nor Roger the Dodger referred to their fathers as "Daddy" so I opted not to either. I know it felt strange in my mouth – "Dad" – and my father took note of the modification of my form of address but no comment was ever made. It was the same with swearing. I decided one day I would give it a go to see how it felt. It felt odd, these words coming out of my mouth; they weren't my words.

I tried over the years but it never sat well with me. A few times when I was angry I gave way; it felt good to have words held in reserve to express the degree of my feelings. The last time I used the f-word (no, not "faggot") was about six years ago and smashing a plate afterwards was a powerful exclamation mark, not that one was really needed (I just put the plate down too hard – honest) but everyone sat up and took note.

The first time I was actually shocked by swearing I would have been about seventeen. I was waiting for a bus outside Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride, where George Orwell was treated for tuberculosis in 1947, when two women, who in my memory were in their fifties and a pair of cleaners, passed me by "effing and blinding" as my dad would have put it. It wasn't the colourful language as such that bothered me, it was who was doing it; either of these could have been my mother.

One of my favourite science fiction novels is A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. In it all the people speak in the third person, in fact, it is regarded as swearing to use the first person pronoun. I read it first as a teenager and went to some trouble a few years ago to locate a copy; it had lost none of its power. It's a very interesting novel, the concept of swearing minus what we recognise as coarse language.

When my brother used to work for ICI he used to curse constantly: blasphemies, obscenities, profanities – you name it, it came out of his mouth. When asked, he told me, "Jimmy, if I don't swear every second sentence no one at work knows what I'm talking about." Living in Glasgow you can't avoid hearing coarse language; it's practically its lingua franca. The thing is, although these people sound as if they're angry, they're anything but. I had a fellow come up to me once, actually he came up behind me, and all I heard was, "Howrya doin yolcunt?" He wasn't being aggressive, something that some argue the use of swear words is indicative of, he was actually being affectionate!

I sometimes have my characters swear. Here are a few lines from Jill talking (well, thinking actually) about Jack in my short story, 'Just Thinking' which will be appearing in The Ranfurly Review in March:

Whit wus that? Did you hear somethin? Whit the hell if you did? Right, let’s go an chase the wee prick out of bed an be done wi it. Well, whit do you know? He’s scarpered. Thank fuck. That must’ve been him when you were in the loo. Wee shite, at least he could’ve made me you cup of tea an left it beside the bed. Aw well, lass. It’s the game we play, even if they make up the fuckin rules as it goes on.

I can assure you Jack's language is no cleaner but it is totally appropriate. That is how this couple would converse. I hear them on the bus all the time and they don't exactly talk in whispers either. The story could work without all the four-letter words but it would have had the Glasgow ripped out of it too.

I've heard is said that people swear because they have a poor vocabulary and, although people with poor vocabularies often swear more than those who are well educated, I don't believe there is a direct correlation between a poor education and a propensity to curse. Samuel Beckett, who had one of the finest grasps of language of any writer, could curse like the proverbial trooper and he wasn't averse to include very vulgar language in his works, but what you have to remember with Beckett is that every word is used for a reason. And sometime that reason is to offend or, at the very least, to make you sit up and take notice.

At the end of Rockaby, a play where an old woman rocks herself to death, Beckett inserts a single swear word into the monologue to powerful effect:

so in the end
close of a long day
went down
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
and rocked
saying to herself
done with that
the rocker
those arms at last
saying to the rocker
rock her off
stop her eyes
fuck life
stop her eyes
rock her off
rock her off

(Together: echo of 'rock her off', coming to rest of rock, slow fade out.)

Swearing has lost its power without a doubt. "Bloody" is hardly considered a swear word anymore and "fuck" is so commonplace that I half-expect it to crop up in one of the Queen's speeches one of these days; the royals "bloody" away all the time off camera anyway. I remember once when I was a boy walking by a couple of weans playing in the mud, they can't have been any older than three, and this is pretty much how their conversation went:

1st boy: Bloody bloody
2nd boy: Bloody bleedin
1st boy: Bleedin bloody bloody
2nd boy: Bloody bleedin bleedin bloody
1st boy: Bleedin bloody bloody bleedin

And so on and so forth.

We're fast running out of powerful swear words. And I don't see many new ones being invented either. Since every conceivable bodily orifice, function and excretion has already been referenced and since hardly anyone believes in deities anymore enough to worry about offending them, I suspect that technology might provide the next generation with a few alternatives. Kai at has a go at six new swear words and all credit to him. That is just what the world needs, half-a-dozen new swear words. Right? You also might want to check out some examples of politically correct swear words used by Q & A and some of his friends.

What I did run into was a wonderful list of fictional cuss words at Dragon Writing Prompts including "smeg" (Red Dwarf), "frak" (Battlestar Gallactica), "gorram" (Firefly) and "dren" (Farscape) – I'm surprised that more of these haven't been incorporated into the language. Or maybe they have. What the farg would I know?

Monday, 4 February 2008

It's a poem because I say it is

“In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite.” – Paul Dirac

“A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it, by way of the poem itself, all the way over to the reader.” – Charles Olson

“Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.” – Paul Engle

“I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.” – A E Houseman

In November 2007, United States Judge John F. Keenan had the unenviable job of ruling on whether a letter written by famed writer and poet Dorothy Parker was, in fact, a poem. To do so he first had to define what a poem is:

A poem sometimes possesses rhyme or meter, though this is not necessary. A poem is typically free from the usual rules of grammar, punctuation and capitalization. Before World War Two, a poem almost always had rhyme or meter. Now, the popular definition of a poem has become much more lenient. (The Huffington Post)

That's not simply an opinion. That's now law.

Poetry is something that prose is not. That's not the same as saying if it's not prose then it's automatically poetry, a view held by Molière. It's like saying if you're not a fork then you're automatically a spoon. Chopped up prose is not a poem, not automatically, but it can be. Prose can contain poetry and poetry can contain prose. It's not that hard. You can put a box in a bag and a bag in a box; they are both containers and that's all blocks of text are, be they poems, short stories, novels or songs – they all are containers for meanings and feelings.

Strangely enough I've never tried to define poetry before and to be honest I've never paid too much attention to other people's definitions. They're usually too poetic. Wordsworth (in Preface to Lyrical Ballads) defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" which can be true, is often true, but it also falls well short of a comprehensive definition. In fact I sometimes think people are just plain difficult when they offer up definitions like "Poetry is the chiselled marble of language; it's a paint-spattered canvas – but the poet uses words instead of paint, and the canvas is you."

A more thoughtful definition was provided by Ted Hughes who defined poetry as

…nothing more than a facility for expressing that complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction – whether our own or that of others whose feeling we can share. The inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded case, the voice of pain – and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry, is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.

It's an interesting consideration and I'm sure a lot of poets will be able to relate to it. I certainly can. It smacks of Bryant H McGill's (from Preface to Existence) "a by-product of yearning". What Hughes is defining, to my mind anyway, is, however, a subset of poetry which could be applied to a lot of his own poetry, and certainly his wife's (he was married to Sylvia Plath), but not to all poetry.

I like better what Robert Frost had to say:

A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfilment. A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.

That said he also held the opinion: “I’d soon as write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”

Part of the problem of defining poetry is a matter of attitude. In Poetry, Structure and Tradition, author J V Cunningham attempts to define poetry which he found difficult simply because "the object of definition is not constant."

The difficulty of definition, he writes, "springs from the need to defend and praise poetry… It is felt that one has not only to define poetry but also in so doing to put it in a place of honour." Yet, he contends, such claims for poetry "have in fact weakened it." On one hand poetry's puffers have "erected pretensions that no linguistic construction, no poem, could ever hope to satisfy."

It's like calling a novel a dirty great big story. In most cases that’s all they are but calling your dirty great big story a novel makes it seem more than it is. "Oh, you wrote a novel. Oh, I am impressed. Can I have your babies please?"

You might want to hold that thought because E E Cummings said:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. This may sound easy. It isn't. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel – but that's thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling and poetry is feeling – not knowing or believing or thinking. Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you're a lot of other people; but the moment you feel, you're NOBODY-BUT-YOURSELF. (from Fire and Ice)

Which must mean that novelists and playwrights are unfeeling people? Yes? No?

What I've noticed about a great many definitions of poetry is that people love to elevate poetry by dissing prose:

Prose is to poetry as walking is to dancing. – Paul Valéry

Poetry be aviation, prose the infantry. – Joseph Brodsky

Poetry is nouns, prose is verbs. – Gertrude Stein

The thing that gets me is that I write poetry and prose and, occasionally, drama but I've always regarded myself as a poet who happens to write prose or dialogue every now and then. I never get the same kick out of writing prose even though it occupies much of my time. If I'm honest, my prose is probably better than my poetry. According to Brodsky, "The poet, in principle, is 'higher' than the prose writer … because a hard-up poet can sit down and compose an article, whereas in similar straits a prose writer would hardly give thought to a poem." It's an opinion but it probably says more about what poets get paid than anything.

Up till now we've focused on poetry but Susan Sontag as an interesting point to make about poets:

In the twentieth century, writing poems tends to be a dalliance of a prose writer's youth (Joyce, Beckett, Nabokov…) or an activity practiced with the left hand (Borges, Updike…). Being a poet is assumed to be more than writing poetry, even great poetry: Lawrence and Brecht, who wrote great poems, are not generally considered great poets. Being a poet is to define oneself as, to persist (against odds) in being, only a poet. Thus, the one generally acknowledged instance in twentieth-century literature of a great prose writer who was also a great poet, Thomas Hardy, is someone who renounced writing novels in order to write poetry. (Hardy ceased to be a prose writer. He became a poet.) In that sense the Romantic notion of the poet, as someone who has a maximal relation to poetry, has prevailed… (from Where the Stress Falls)

The most glaring difference between poetry and prose is of course visual. A poem looks like a poem; they're usually tall, thin things with ragged edges. Prose arrives in big clunky blocks of text fully justified. The question has to be asked: If a poem dispensed with line breaks altogether would it stop being a poem? A decent case for this is presented at The End of the Line for Modern Poetry which argues that, for the most part, we hang onto the line break out of tradition:

The majority of poets and editors do not seem ready to accept poetry formatted as prose – and with some justification. Donald Davie, in a different context, put his finger on the problem when he said that "in translating rhymed verse the rhyme is the first thing to go and metre the second; whereas the amateur... cannot be sure of having poetry at all unless he has the external features of it." The prose-formatted texts would have to survive without some of the licence that poetry readers usually grant. In the UK at least, magazines can't afford to lose any more readers by taking chances.

I've seen line-breaks used as punctuation (but what's wrong with standard punctuation?), to control emphasis (why not italics?) and to denote a pause (let's use [Gerard Manley] Hopkins' stress marks too!). I've also seen line-breaks used thoughtlessly. Poets often follow an "if in doubt, leave it out" policy for words, but not for line-breaks. I think that some types of poems would be no worse if reformatted as prose. Better, in fact, because there'd be fewer distractions. Although I think there's a strong case for more poems to be formatted as prose, I don't think changes will happen soon. It's the last line of defence before poetry looks like prose, one that many dare not abandon.

Remember that judge we started off with? Well here's his ruling: Noting that "where a line does not fit within the margins, it is indented below and kept apart from the next line in order to preserve the rhyme scheme," the judge ruled the letter was "objectively recognizable as a poem." Case dismissed!

It's easy to suggest that poetry is beyond definition. The problem nowadays, and the same applies to music and art, is that these mediums have expanded in so many directions that the old definitions won't do and any new ones read like chunks of legalese if they attempt to cover all the possible permutations.

Anyway, for better of worse, here's my go:

Poetry is highly focussed language constructed in such a manner as to elicit an emotional and/or intellectual response from its readers.

It often does this by employing a variety of literary techniques and figures of speech which, although available to writers of prose, are more commonly found in poems.

A greater emphasis is generally placed on how things are said rather than what is being said.

Whereas with prose meaning is generally the desired end result, with poetry there is a greater emphasis placed on getting the reader to think and involve themselves in the overall process or, as Archibald Macleish puts it in 'Ars Poetica', "A poem should not mean / But be."

Poetry need not rely on conventional syntax but it does have a propensity to organise itself according to a variety of forms, many predefined such as the haiku, others based on the design of the poet utilising rhythm. "In poetry, syntaxes have little meaning; the order of the words is the order of your heart." – Peter A Rosado

Whereas prose tends to organise itself into sentences and paragraphs, poetry traditionally uses the line as a formal unit and groups these into stanzas; neither lines nor stanzas are necessarily complete units of thought. Line breaks in particular can be units of breath (Olson), units of attention (Hartman) or work in place of, or in addition to, traditional punctuation. I personally use them to expose the underlying structure of the piece.

Narrative and epic poetry have become unfashionable. Modern poetry has a tendency to focus on minutia and grey areas perhaps because poetry is more suited to dealing with abstract and intimate issues and often attempts to express the inexpressible.

Poetry is not simply not prose.

And for those who like their definitions a little pithier:

Prose tells. Poetry asks.

I have no doubt every poet out there will have something they want to add, modify or remove and that's fine. I didn't exactly spend weeks working on it. Who they hell am I anyway to write the definitive definition of poetry? You can find a whole list of definitions at beautiful monsters.

Finally I'd like to leave you all with a link to the Gallaudet University web page What is Poetry? It's far from complete but it's a good place for newbies to start. Personally I'd rename this What Poetry Can Be. It has been many things. It is many things. It has the capacity to be much more. It will always be more than the sum of its parts.

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