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

Monday, 20 July 2009

Say what you have to say and get off the page

57041933_3fc495a326 My father died about thirteen years ago. January 1996. He had a heart attack, his second. It was all very sudden and all over very quickly. When I was about thirteen he had his first heart attack and that was the day he started to grow old. He'd be about my age when that happened, maybe a few years older. Up until then there was nothing he couldn't do if he put his mind to it. Or at least that's how it seemed to me. He'd grown up in poverty and worked his butt off to become the man he was.

At that time he was an assistant manager in a cotton-spinning factory. Later on he moved and became an assistant manager in a wool mill. I know it sounds like there wouldn't be too much difference but apparently there is and I remember him sitting with books on the subject once he'd got the job and he taught himself the job from scratch. I was impressed.

The cotton-spinning factory was just over the hill from where we used to live and I used to go over and hang out there sometimes when he was working overtime. He had a wee office where he used to sit when not fixing some machine or other. All I remember about it was he had a set of precision scales in a glass cabinet up on a shelf. Really all he was was a glorified mechanic once you got down to it. If he owned the company then maybe I would have had real reason to be proud but I didn't know it then.

I remember when I was a kid the first time he came home with £100 clear in his pay packet. £100 for a week's work – now that was something to be impressed about. Another thing was that he never handed my mum a broken pay packet and usually walked around penniless. Once his car broke down in the next town to us and he had to walk home because he had no money for a taxi or bus.

As I got older I inevitably began to become more aware that my father had flaws. And, of course, as the years went on his flaws became easier to give names to. Not that he had changed. Actually that's not true. As he aged he mellowed but we refused to acknowledge that at the time; the damage had been done. I'm deliberately keeping this vague because I have no desire to slag off my dead dad. But since the poems that follow are directly influenced by him it's only fair that you know something about him.

Yamaha Organ When he was made redundant from the cotton mill he spent £600, which was almost all of his redundancy, on a brand new Yamaha organ for me because he saw I was becoming passionate about music. I wasn't even pestering him for a second-hand piano at the time. This is just before you get it into your head that my dad was a right bastard and I couldn't see it. He wasn't. He was just human and frankly I'm no better than him. I never became the man people expected me to become and while I was faffing around disappointing other people I also managed to disappoint myself. I kept losing or quitting jobs and then having to start at the bottom, making a bit of a name for myself and then allowing the whole shenanigans to begin again. A kid I used to hang around the streets with when I was five is now a professor of mathematics at one of our country's leading universities; he had an odd name so I googled him one day. And what have I ever done? I never even went to uni.

But this post is not about me. It's not even really about my dad. It's about poetry.

I have a question: Do you think you use too many words in your poems?

I used to. I used to write poems that were pages and pages long. I just waffled on and on and maybe I got to my point eventually but I never made life easy for my readers. I really just enjoyed the sound of my own voice. Well, that's part of it. The main reason was that paper was so cheap. I didn't have to ration my words. I could just grab another sheet and another. And that's fine when you want to get something out of your system, as long as you're not expecting anyone else to read it.

As I grew older I began to realise that less is more. There is no need to be explicit. In fact you can actually say more by leaving your reader to ponder what you might be on about. Beckett called the process 'envaguening' – he would strip away all the biographical details from his text so that rather than applying to one time, place and person it becomes accessible to a much broader audience.

When my father died I wrote two poems. One was called 'So?' and I wrote it the day he died. It's a bad poem and I don't want to share it. Writing bad poetry is easy. You don't need a master class from me to teach you how to do it. But four days later I came up with this one:


Yes, even granite men
melt in the rain in time.

20 January 1996

I've posted it before.

First question: If I hadn't told you would you have known that this was a poem about my dad?

Second question: Is the poem any good?

The title actually comes from a Lou Reed song called 'Harry's Circumcision - Reverie Gone Astray' from the Magic and Loss album. The important part goes:

Harry looked into the mirror thinking of Vincent Van Gogh
and with a quick swipe lopped off his nose.
And happy with that he made a slice where his chin was.
He's always wanted a dimple,
the end of all illusions.

You you can find the complete lyrics here.

Of course, Reed didn't make that up. He's quoting Balzac from The Human Comedy:

"Dear child," she said, "I should have liked to spare such of your illusions as were not fatal. But there must be an end of all illusions now. You would soften me if I were not so old..."

But it's the relationship between the son and his father as laid out in Reed's song that resonates throughout this piece for me, the idea of a man disfiguring himself so he won't look like his father. I just grew a beard which he hated and was always going on at me to shave off. I actually look very little like him and although he was a major influence in my life, the irony is I take after my mother in more than just looks.

There's more going on here and you'd have to listen to the whole album to see that but for the moment let's just stick with the one song.

All our illusions die when the body dies, all our hope and fears. Strangely enough this is not really a poem about my father's death. I'm talking here about the death of my illusions and they died years beforehand. Frankly I can't remember a time when I wasn't disillusioned with something.

You'll note the poem begins with a 'Yes' and there's a reason for that. It is an answer to a question but what is the question? After death there's no time for any more questions. It doesn't matter what the question was. All we are left with is an answer. That actually is the theme to 'So?' the fact that I'd left it too late to ask all the questions I had to ask.

'The End of all Illusions' is a poem that's always pleased me. Everything about it works. Even its peculiar rhythm and rhyme scheme.

pointing hand I have a poem in Right Hand Pointing this month. You can read it here. And it started me thinking about the short poetic form. Everyone knows the haiku but why should it be the only form where you can get by with maybe a dozen words or so? I've only written a handful of poems that have less than four lines and in every case I've known that what I said was all that needed to be said, there was no need to embellish or expand upon or frame. I said what I had to say and got off the page. If I was making a list of rules – which I may do one of these days – I suspect that that would be my rule number one.

The question I found myself faced with was: How do you prove to your readers that 'The End of all Illusions' is perfect in its compactness? My solution was to rework the poem so you'd have something to compare it to.

Here it is:


My father was a very small man.
Since I was a smaller boy still
I had to look up to him.

I got to hate how it hurt my neck
though in time I got used to it
and just the hate bothered me.

Sometimes I used to stand on a rock
or a pile of books so that I
could look down on him and then

one day I didn't need to stand on
anything at all. It was then
that the hate stopped hurting too

because from there I could see
that if you are patient
even granite men

will melt in the
rain in time.


Thursday, 25th June, 2009

I think it's a fairly decent poem in its own right. It's a different poem. It has a different rhythmic structure. The first four stanzas are like tentative cuts of 9-8-7 syllables each before the last three where the count descends to zero with that invisible last line. It passed the 'Carrie Test' – my wife approved it (although she made me put the title on two lines – I originally had 'The View From Here: The End Of All Illusions II' all on one line) – and so it got its number and is in the big red folder for keeps but I'm still not sure about it and I suspect I never will be because it was perfect to start with. Why does it need to be set up? And, of course, because of the structure of the new poem I had to change both the layout and the text – the 'Yes' is gone replaced by an 'even', plus we have the final 'Goodbye / Dad' which I wanted to drop but I was told to keep it.

You can let me know what you think.


Unknown said...

Enjoyed the poem and the biography of your father. I've had to learn similar lessons. I've learned not to use quite so many adjectives or my prose begins to bruise and becomes purple. I've learned that my father is human too and though I sometimes still curse him for his obsessiveness making me feel to this day that nothing I do will ever be good enough, I've learned to have sympathy for this trait that actually prevented him from enjoying life and has caused him to see himself as a failure.
I've failed at most jobs too, in part because of type II bipolar disorder that was unrecognized as such and not properly treated until I was 38, and in part due to the fact that I really don't want to work at a job in the first place, I just want to write and hope that someone thinks that what I'm saying is worth reading.
Well, I didn't exactly keep that brief, did I? ;-)
Thanks again for the insight.

Rachel Fox said...

The short one, the short one. In this instance anyway.

Scattercat said...

They're... very different poems. Personally, I prefer the starkness of the odd imagery by itself; I think I'd almost rather have the father poem with a different ending and keep the tiny two-line bit of strangeness as a sort of koan.

Jim Murdoch said...

Lily, thanks for that. I really have to acknowledge the effect my father has had on my personal development. He was a complex individual. As a child I had a very one-dimensional view of him which broadened out over the years and finally got some depth to it once I became a man and old age made it harder for him to keep up a front, which I must add, he did for the best of reasons just as I try and put on a brave front when my daughter visits; she really doesn't need to see me when I'm bad. I can sympathise with your condition. I've not got a manic bone in my body but I know depression well and I'm becoming acquainted with anxiety now which I suppose has its manic overtones.

Rachel, nice to see you back. Yes, I prefer the short one too but what is it about the longer one that doesn't work for you?

And, Scattercat, I'd ask you the same: what is it about the ending of the longer version that you'd change?

Jasko said...

This was a really magnificent post Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Jasko. What sre your thoughts on the two poems? Do you think the shorter poem contains the essence of the bigger one?

Roy said...

no, I wouldn't have known that the poem was for your father... although even if I were clueless about the story, I love the construction of the first poem.

but I also love the longer poem... and I really wouldn't want to choose any one of the two... I like them both.

and I love your story!

Ken Armstrong said...

"...he never handed my mum a broken pay packet." 'Says a lot.

You will perhaps remember that I was *very* struck with this first poem when I first saw it. I actually think I might see it as being about your father without knowing any more although this is impossible to know for sure at this stage.

I think the first poem is an incredibly pure distillation of the second. The second poem is very good but it distilled to a masterwork.

Jasko said...

Jim, the both forms have something special, in my view. Borges once said that a writer's life passes by correcting of what he has written previously. It is one of the curses of writing.

Rachel Fox said...

To me the longer version has interesting ideas in it but needs reworking somehow. I like the bits about looking up (and down) but it feels a bit like 2 poems stuck together. I would keep the short one and write a new one with bits of the long one. But you might not...

And today you are posting personal poems and I am recommending rewrites...have we swapped places or what!


Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Roy, I appreciate the feedback. There's really no right answer to my question here. I just thought it was a good way to illustrate my point.

Yes, Ken, I already knew you liked the short poem. It's not really a distillation of the latter poem; the longer poem is an expansion of the short one. I agree totally with you with regard to the short version. I think it is damn near perfect. I was just curious what would happen if I explained the piece as a poem.

Thanks for that quote, Jasko. Yes, I can see how Borges might say that. The thing is what happens when you do write that perfect poem? Do you automatically assume that because the others are flawed that this one must be too? That's effectively what I've done here, I've taken a perfectly good poem and added on a pile of – to my mind – unnecessary decoration.

And, Rachel, I doubt I'll be rewriting the long poem. It is exactly what you said, two poems jammed together and if I was to start chipping away at it I'd simply end up with the short poem. As an exercise it was interesting and I hope helpful.

Yes, it's unusual to be sitting here asking for people's opinions on my poems but I'm always happy to get feedback. The odds are I'll never change anything. I'll just take the criticism to heart and bear it in mind when I come to write my next poem. I have changed a poem recently based on a comment made by an editor – there was a reading of the piece that I had not intended nor wanted – and so I reworked it. The irony is that she still knocked back the rewrite. But that's life.

Dave King said...

I absolutely agree with Lily about the overuse of adjectives and with Rachel in preferring the short one - this time around. It's a difficult question to generalise about. Indeed, I'm not sure that you can generalise about poetry or any other art. There was a time when when I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly, when density was the thing for me, but now, although I thrill to a well-made, densely-written poem - or piece of prose - I can see other beauties that build on a lack of tension. Now there's a nice verbose reply - into which do not read too much!

Jim Murdoch said...

There is beauty in everything, Dave, you are quite right and I'm not saying that no one should write long poems. I just don't know how. Asked in an interview if he had ever attempted a truly long poem, Larkin answered: "A long poem for me would be a novel." I have to agree with him. When I have an extended idea to explore I always veer towards prose. That said I do have a couple of sets of poems where, over a period of years, I explored a single theme, for example The Drowning Man Poems begin with an image of a man drowning in emotions which I then returned to again and again until I had worked it out of my system.

Jena Isle said...

They're both brilliant Jim. The first one would provide the reader a chance to interpret the poem by himself, which is interactive and one of the genuine purposes of art - a fusion between the artist's and the viewer's perception.

The second one is a stand-out poem because it depicts the poet as a person with feelings; someone who is human and sentient. This could be appealing to some readers.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Jena. Of course, I'm never going to be happy with the expanded version of the piece. I know it's not a bad poem but the original has a more universal appeal. If there's one thing I learned from Beckett was that the more biographical elements you can strip from a piece the greater its potential will be.

Unknown said...

The first poem can refer to hero worship in general, not solely to father-son relationships. It succinctly captures a distinct emotional perspective.

The second poem wanders around more, and provides a narrative. Some folks object to narrative as a poetic element, particularly if they are set on poetry as lyrical. Thus for them a long poem becomes a novel, but I think in part that sentiment against narrative is to cut the epic form short. Then again, there are not as far as I feel many successful contemporary epic poems. A whole lot of reasons we can conjecture for that.

The second poem also jumps around a lot of metaphorical places, not quite coming across as clear or concise as the shorter poem. This is not bad, more like one is a mental gas cloud and the other is a sharply cut instrument.

Most poems do not work for me... most of my own poems, most poems that I read. I think it comes from having read too many too quickly. But if out of a hundred poems one works real well then it is worth the adventure.

Jim Murdoch said...

You've hit the nail on the head there, Gabe and that's why I think the two-line poem works best because it's not talking so much about my father but my father 'the hero' and I don't think there will be many fathers on the planet whose image is not tarnished in time. My father never changed over the years. He didn't suddenly become a bad man. I just started to see that he was human. The fault was mine for idealising him. And that, of course, goes for all our heroes. I've never read a biography yet where I've not found myself a little disappointed by something someone I respected had done or said.

Rachel Fenton said...

The two line poem is succinc and breathtaking in its economy with words compared to the expanse of feeling.

Don't guild the lily as the saying goes.

With your longer 'two poems jammed together' I couldn't help but think of Tennyson's In Memoriam, and that yours would benefit from breaking into smaller stanzas, to allow for shifting of focus etc. Hope that makes sense?

Jim Murdoch said...

Again, Rachel, the same point and very well put. I think my point has been well made here. If you've said all you need to say, even if it's only two lines, then get off the page. It's like the Brautigan story ('The Scarlatti Tilt') I mentioned on your blog – what more is there to say? Of course you could expand on it but why when it's perfect?

I'm not sure how breaking the piece into smaller stanzas would help but, like I said to Other Rachel, I'm done with this now. It's proved my point. Time to move onto something else.

McGuire said...

I'm learning slowly to cut off the surplus. I say too much without saying anything quite regularly.

Rare insight into your relationship to your Father and the effect of his death upon you. The relationship with my Father is at times one of conflict and resentment on my part, yet why exactly they are the central forces, I have yet to fully understand. We get along. But I think I need to develop a more mature attitude toward him.

Anyway, a nice piece of biography, touching on the issues of sparseness and getting to the point with poetry. Nietzsche always tried to say in a few sentences what many philosophers said in 200 pages.

John Ettorre said...

Powerful, powerful stuff, Jim. I'm going to reread this several times. Like you (and I happen to be exactly your age), I spent some years coming to terms with my dad and his legacy upon me. Finally, after wrestling with it for years, I tried to say it all in a single piece of writing, a relatively brief essay. You can imagine how that may (or may not have worked). But I really enjoyed contrasting your approach with mine.

Art Durkee said...

Yeah, pretty much all poetry is overwritten, especially in first drafts. My primary process during revision or rewriting a poem is to strip away extraneous words, to tighten and compress, and to decide what phrases can go because they take away from focus rather than add to it. I can be ruthless.

What I've noticed over time, though, especially in the past few years, when I seem to have developed something like a consistent voice for some kinds of poems, is that I prune as I write, and have less pruning to do later. It's not that I'm conscious of pruning, I think; rather, it's that the lesson of compression has finally become ingrained enough that I don't think about it, as I write, I just say less with more, from the start.

I think it's perfectly okay to take a longer poem that seems to be going in two directions, and turn it into two poems, each going in one direction. I did that with a poem a couple of years ago, and I ended up with one very strong poem, and one okay but not quite as strong poem. Neither sucked, and both were better focused.

I have often said in critique, occasionally humourously but also seriously: if you can say it in a haiku, say it in a haiku. Don't take up a whole page if it doesn't need it.

Truly, I think overwriting is one of contemporary poetry's single biggest problems. Poets so in love with the raw language that they spin webs that have no substance, no heft. I frankly think most Language Poetry could do what it does in a lot shorter lengths. And so forth.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you appreciated the post, McGuire. That's the things about fathers, we all have them and most of us have 'interesting-at best' veering through 'complicated' to 'just-plain-awful' relationships with them. They are central forces in our lives purely because of the familial bond, i.e. blood's thicker than water. As for developing a more mature attitude towards them, I don't think I ever really did. Right up until his death our roles were very clearly ingrained in each of us. Sure I could talk to him about more grownup things but as long as he was alive I never truly felt like a grownup. I'm fifty now and have been kinda forced into the role. I'm now "the daddy" and realising how scary that job can be has helped me realise how out of his depth my own father must have felt at times and just muscled his way through.

John, we do our best. I'm glad it touched a chord. Discounting the most recent poem (which is really just an exercise to prove a point) I only wrote one poem after my father's death, actually on the first anniversary of his death, 'A Drink Up the Crow Road', 'the crow road' being a euphemism for death. It's maybe a dozen lines long. Now when my mother died she had to wait several years before I wrote her a poem. You can find it at the very end of this blog. It's called 'Making Do'.

And, Art, I suspect there are a number of reasons for this and they're all connected, 1) a lack of practice, 2) having not read enough good poetry and 3) having read too much bad poetry, the latter two which lead to 4) a failure to appreciate that there is technique to poetry. Poetry to my mind is all to do with compression, making words work overtime.

Purists say that poetry can't be explained. That's bunkum. The fact that so much bad poetry exists online is testament to the fact that ordinary people want to express themselves in this way and they don't know how. How? is a question. Questions can be answered. You can sit down and pick away at a guitar or a keyboard and maybe suss out how to string a tune together or you can pick up a book that explains the fundamentals of rhythm, melody and harmony. Life is too short for each of us to invent the wheel for ourselves. Clamber on the shoulders of any friendly giant you see, that's what I say.

Scattercat said...

Not that my opinion is worth beans, but since I was asked...

The longer poem uses size as its primary metaphor. I think that a final image based on size and growth (perhaps playing on the idea that as you age you first get larger in adolescence and then get smaller again in senescence) might fit better than granite melting in rain, neither element of which was present in the earlier lines (without squinting really really hard.) It was just a bit jarring to me to switch metaphorical gears in that way.

Jim Murdoch said...

Scattercat, everyone's opinion is of interest to me and, of course, the great thing about opinions is that they can't be wrong. Thank you for your feedback.

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