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

Thursday, 29 April 2010

To thine own self be true

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

Ring To thine own self be true: this is another one of those expressions that we use all the time, albeit in modern English; it trips off the tongue but what’s it really saying? Be selfish? That is it, isn’t it? Look after numero uno. Do your own thing and sod the consequences.

How can one be true to oneself until one knows oneself, though? As we grow up we try on different selves, look in the mirror (literal or metaphorical) and go, “Nah.” Then one day the person looking back doesn’t appear so bad and we say, “You know, I could live with that,” and we stop all the psychological dressing up and let who we are coalesce: this is who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. Later on, years later usually, we perchance to glance in that mirror and who we thought we were has started to crumble a bit, but we’re not as pliable as we once were and change is hard; oftentimes we give up and settle, learn to live with who we have become even if we’re not who we hoped we’d be by then.

russian_doll I was a poet when I was a boy. I looked in the mirror and a poet looked back at me. But over the years layer after layer were slathered on top of him and eventually only I ever knew there was a poet there on the inside. It happens to us all. All of this I talked about in my ‘Russian Dolls’ post recently. But just because something is buried doesn’t mean it can’t be alive. Our hearts are buried in our chests and they’re very much alive. I’ve certainly never seen my own heart – I sincerely hope I never do – but I know it’s there and I do what I can to look after it. A whole new man has grown around that heart, one I really don’t recognise when I look in the bathroom mirror these days, but my heart is true, it is still the heart of a poet.

That’s another expression people use, “To thine own heart be true”:


When, yestereve, I knelt to pray,
As thou hast taught me to,
I seemed to hear the angels say,
"To thine own heart be true."

Haddonjg It’s from a song by Sydney Grundy from the operetta, Haddon Hall, but the expression goes back generations no doubt.

You don’t often hear the expression, “Be true to your own mind.” “Know your own mind” is probably the equivalent.

The past is a big hill to climb and it’s getting bigger day by day. When Beethoven studied music what was there? Haydn, Handel, Vivaldi, Mozart and no doubt a plethora of minor composers who were big in their day. Nowadays a modern composer has literally hundreds of years’ worth of composers to study before he can clamber to the top of that hill and breathe. And, amazingly, new ones keep cropping up with their own unique sounds, e.g. Ligeti, Pärt, Glass. You would think that every tune that could have been written would have been written by now – let’s face it they’ve only got twelve tones to work with – but apparently not. And yet when we listen to them it’s nigh impossible not to hear echoes of all those who’ve gone before them. I remember listening to the soundtrack of Alien if memory serves me right (although it may well have been Aliens) and thinking, I know that tune and, after digging around in my music collection, there it was, a snippet from Barber’s Piano Concerto. It may have been deliberate – composers do quote from each other often blatantly (Rick Wakeman incorporated a few bars ofRick_Wakeman-Journey_To_The_Centre_Of_The_Earth-Frontal[1] Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King into Journey to the Centre of the Earth) – it might be a coincidence or it might have even been unconscious; it doesn’t matter.

We writers have a bit more scope – a whole twenty-six letters – and again new writers appear with wholly unique voices, e.g. Beckett, Brautigan, Bukowski. No sooner do they appear, however, than they begin to be imitated, which is flattering but it is right? It’s certainly not wrong. It’s natural. And imitation is the highest form of flattery. Beckett was so in thrall to James Joyce that he didn’t simply emulate his writing style – anyone who has struggled through Dream of Fair to Middling Women will know exactly what I mean – but he even wore shoes that were the same style and size nearly crippling himself.

SB was sycophantic, imitating Joyce's posture, drinking white wine, holding his cigarette affectedly, and wearing tight shoes (Joyce was proud of his small feet). - The Grove companion to Samuel Beckett

When you consider what an original Beckett became it’s cringeworthy to read about what he was like as a young man. (Beckett met Joyce in 1929 when he was twenty-three.) The simple fact is he had to get him out of his system. It’s like a crush. You know it’s a crush. You know it’s not love and yet it won’t let you go. In my experience there’s not much you can do but wait for it to run its course and set you free. Enjoy it for what it is.

I think I’ve been quite lucky in that writers who have had the most profound effect on me have not been easy for me to imitate. This doesn’t mean I haven’t tried:

Poem to be Read in the Dark

(for S.B.B.)

That is how it is.

but for the clouds
and my breath.

for the footfalls.

for the angels of darkness.

Bright at last –
at the end.

23rd July 1989

It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever written. I think of it more like a wee bit of fan fiction than a serious poem. Here’s another that I would never have written had I not come across E. E. Cummings’ poem about a falling leaf:


un emptiness1_thumb[1]



It’s the only poem in my canon like that and I never expect to write another. The same goes for this recent poem which I wrote after finishing reading a collection of Bukowski’s poetry:

not a Bukowski poem

Bukowski I am not Bukowski
but I am the kind of person
he would have written about
if he had lived in Glasgow
or I had lived in L. A..

he would have sat at his desk
with his shirt off,
watched me
and decided what kind of man
I was.

it’s uncomfortable having the shoe
on the other foot.

5th January 2010

Why did I write these three poems? Essentially to understand the mindset of the writer. You really don’t understand a thing until you do it. You can analyse someone’s work till the cows come home but nothing bests getting your hands dirty.

Question: What makes Beckett Beckett, Hemingway Hemingway and Kafka Kafka? The fact that the writing embodied them. None of the three poems above is really me. I wrote them but they’re not my typical style. I’ve talked about finding my own voice before. I would hope that regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my approach. If you’re new then there are links in the right-hand column to all the poems that are live online at the moment – please feel free to have a shuftie at a few. I’m not really sure how I would describe my voice but I definitely have one.

Let’s try: I have my recurrent themes, there’s no doubt about that, the nature of truth being way at the top of the tree, but it’s more than that. There’s certainly an aphoristic quality to most pieces, short pithy statements, and I do love a punch line that’ll wind up my reader. The Bukowski poem is closest to my own style but that’s one of the things I appreciated about his poetry and probably why I connected with it immediately.

My wife says my poetry is “naïvely twisted and brilliantly obvious. You look at everything as if it’s the first time you’ve ever looked at it ... you make us see those obvious things in a different light.” She said more but that was all I managed to get down accurately. I do believe I’m blushing under all this hair.

Drummer I think one of the hardest things for any writer is to march to the beat of his own drum. Especially when everyone around him is drumming so loud. The only way I found I could do it was to isolate myself. I read very little of other writers especially those with strong styles. You can’t walk through the perfume section of Lewis’s and not come out smelling of roses or of something anyway.

Time for an anecdote:

A novelist I know went on a blind date with an optometrist (built-in irony!), and she not only suggested new glasses for him, but after the movie they saw, she spoke about which actors had contacts or needed glasses. He spoke about the film in literary terms, of its "character arc" and "turning points." Their specialties made them see the film in different ways. – Christoper Meeks, ‘Finding your voice’

swampthing Like a lot of writers I’m quite an introspective guy. It’s probably why I’ve walked into so many (metaphorical) walls in my life because I’ve not been looking where I was going. Who am I? Who the hell am I? I’m unique that’s what I am. I have a mindset and an accompanying set of experiences and knowledge that sets me apart from every other person on the planet which is why you’ll be just as likely to find me prattling on about Alan Moore’s tenure as Swamp Thing’s writer in the eighties as I might end up discussing the rape of Tamar (which I thought about referencing when I was talking about crushes but it would have needed too much explaining). As I grow older my palette expands and I expect to continue to grow into myself until the day I drop dead.

So what’s Swamp Thing to do with anything? In 1982, DC Comics revived the Swamp Thing series, attempting to capitalize on the summer release of the dire Wes Craven film of the same name. When Alan Moore took over the project not long after he had a problem. Was he going to do the same as DC did with the Batman comic after the TV show in the sixties turned the whole thing camp (and basically ruined a great character for twenty years until Frank Miller came along and saved him?) or was he going to, like Miller would, do his own thing? He chose the latter and, after one issue, killed off the character and began reinventing him in what came to be a landmark series that culminated in the abandonment of the CCA’s Comics Code. That’s what Swamp Thing has to do with it. Moore took a muck-encrusted monster whose outdated book was expected to be cancelled before too long and transformed it into the most important ongoing series at the time.

Model-T It’s easy to do what works. The Model-T worked. It got people from A to B. Stephenson’s Rocket worked. It’s not enough to just work. Moore could have continued with the storyline that Martin Pasko had left him. Well, he did kinda have to which is what his first issue does, it takes up the reigns and drives the whole thing over a cliff. From there on Moore did his own thing. You can actually download the entire second issue (#21) here if you’re interested.

There are a lot of people out there who want to tell you what works. Stories with beginnings, middles and ends work; the three-act structure in films works; haiku that are seventeen syllables long work. There’s nothing wrong with any of these. They are established, tried and tested. So why go against the grain? Quite simply because there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

I don’t think that rules are made to be broken, I like rules, I like driving on the left and knowing that no one is going to plough into me because he felt like driving on the right that day. There are some areas of our life where we need hard and fast rules. Writing is not one of those areas though. All the rules people made up in the past are simply guidelines as far as I’m concerned. I can make up new rules any time I like, and you can’t say you need no rules because that’s plain daft. When Moore threw out the rules book in issue #21 of Swamp Thing he immediately established his own. The first story is called ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ in which he sets down what the true nature of the beast will be from now on but he does it without pooh-poohing all that went before him. If I can use a musical analogy, he modulates from one form to another: from a man who thinks he’s been transformed into a monster by the kind of accident that befalls most comic book heroes (Peter Parker being bitten by the spider, Bruce Banner being exposed to gamma radiation) to an elemental creature who only thinks it’s human. Genius.

Being true to oneself requires a certain level on confidence. This wasn’t Moore’s first gig. He’d been writing for about ten years beforehand in which time he had developed his own style. He had his heroes too and has been called “a disciple of Kurtzman's style”; that would be Harvey Kurtzman, founding father of magazines likemad105 MAD and Help! Will Eisner and Jack Kirby are also cited as influences along with a load of non-comics-related people. I’m not sure I can see any Jack Kirby in his work but I’m happy to be corrected.

After standing on the shoulders of giants Moore has become a giant in his own right and his influence is being openly acknowledged:

His talent for unflinchingly showing people what they really are has made him an inspiration for everyone from Joss Whedon to Lost producer Damon Lindelof to director Christopher Nolan, who has noted the influence of Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke on The Dark Knight. – Andrew Firestone, ‘The Wizard of “Watchmen”’, The Salon, Mar 5th 2009

Everyone starts off somewhere. I started off talking about Shakespeare and ended up talking about Alan Moore. It’s all grist to the mill.

Sitting in front of a blank screen can be a lonely place but in reality we’re never alone. There are so many voices all clamouring for attention and what we have to learn to do is not listen to them. It can be done. In a busy bar you can block out everything that’s going on around you and focus on the person you’re with. It simply takes effort.

Listen to your own voice. Yet another pat expression like all the others I’ve incorporated in this article. But how can you trust it? Your elders and betters are wiser and more experienced than you, surely if they say to go this way you should listen to them? Maybe. If they’re telling you not to jump out of a third-story window because no one is buying your paintings then that’s pretty good advice. You never know, they might have felt exactly the same forty years earlier. Nothing changes, not really. I remember the alternative comedians of the early eighties, the likes of Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle, who are now the establishment and people use the word “classic” to describe their most famous efforts.

van-gogh-self-portrait It’s a gamble. Different is not always good. Vincent Van Gogh was different, so different that he famously only ever sold one painting in his lifetime and yet he doggedly persisted, doing his own thing and if he could see people forking out tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars I wonder if he would feel vindicated or that some people simply had way too much money. There are others: Gerard Manley Hopkins was the most experimental and most challenging of the Victorian writers and almost unknown in his own lifetime; much the same is true of William Blake, H. P. Lovecraft, Johann Sebastian Bach can you believe, Søren Kierkegaard, Wilfred Owen and some bloke called Nostradamus apparently.

Time will tell. Actually there’s no rule that says time has to tell anybody anything. It can keep completely schtum if it so desires. And it has done many, many times. Time only remembers those who happened to be in the right place at the right time or, as in the case with Kafka, not in the right place at the right time. Had he lived he may very well have destroyed everything that made him famous today. If fame is your goal you’ll probably fail. So few of us ever get famous for more than fifteen minutes. I doubt any of the above sought fame; most were just looking to earn a buck but at the same not compromise their own artistic integrity. George B. Stauffer has this to say in the cover notes of a recording on Bach’s preludes:

The preludes display a wide range of experimental designs and styles and reflect Bach, the bold innovator. The fugues combine sophisticated four- and five-part counterpoint with bravura passagework and illustrate Bach, the polyphonic master.

bach.h1 It’s hard to imagine Bach as an innovator. But he was. And yet in an article on Bach’s fugues, John Stone, remarks that “stylistically, there is much in the fugues that looks backwards to the so-called stile antico practices of Palestrina and other Bach predecessors.” No one is without their influences.

Think about it, without the past what would we have to rebel against? The past is our cocoon and the struggle to free ourselves from it is what enables us to fly but more than that, it forces blood into our wings and gives them colour. If you’re gonna fly, fly in style.


Kass said...

Jim -Sod the consequences - you just convinced me. I'm going to be me and quit making apologies. My daughter keeps saying, "Own it!" She's right. If how I feel or write or perform doesn't fit into Kuhn's or anybody's paradigm, so be it.

Interesting that you mention Pärt, he's one of my favorites. So sparse, yet emotional.

I love these 3 poems, even if you were trying on different styles. Sometimes imitation is good - a point of departure is necessary.

Recently, when I listen to my own voice, it sounds like Ginsberg. I just want to howl and swear.

I really enjoyed this post. You inspired me.

Marion McCready said...

Great post. I agree, imitation is a great way maybe even an essential part of the process of learning to write. But there comes a point where you have to break free and trust your own voice regarless what everyone else is doing.

Elisabeth said...

Ditto ditto ditto, Jim, to the two commenters above, Kass and Sorlil, I couldn't agree more.

We, only three of your female admirers - I suspect there are many more - are grateful. We bask in the sunshine of your encouragement.

But as you say : 'Being true to oneself requires a certain level of confidence.'

It takes time and experience to get past all the hype of how we should be and how much we should follow rules.

I like to know the rules before I dare to break them. I like to have a firm grasp on what's acceptable or not before I'll slip over the edge into lawlessness, but lawlessness must have meaning for me.

I agree with you Jim, you have a distinctive voice and I imagine it's one that's taken you some time to develop.

You are fortunate to have such a supporter in your wife, Carrie. I love the way she describes your poetry. She should know, she's read it all, I imagine, and no wonder you blush. High praise indeed.

I enjoy your reviews Jim, but I especially enjoy the bits of autobiography you occasionally offer.

It's such a treat to read about your vagaries, your thoughts on life and reading and poetry and the meaning of it all. It's wonderful to get a deeper sense of where you're coming from.

A terrific post here. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

It’s an interesting expression, Kass, ‘going to be me’, as if who we are is something ahead of us, in the future, that we have to work towards. It’s all metaphorical of course. If we talked about ‘setting free the real me’ we encounter the same problem, that ‘me’ is something apart from the rest of us. And I think that’s true. There is no ‘real me’ but there are aspects of me that I can choose to construct that me. The thing is not to be embarrassed that I didn’t choose to emphasise other facets to my personality. The ‘real me’ is a thing we decide up. I suppose some lucky buggers discover it quite by chance but that’s not been my experience.

I own a lot of Pärt’s music. One of my favourite albums contains only three works played twice: Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano followed by Für Alina for solo piano; then we have Spiegel im Spiegel for cello and piano and the album concludes with Für Alina for solo piano again. It is an inspired bit of programming. You can read about it here.

I think most people do go that way, Sorlil, but I was never so besotted by any writer nor did I associate with other writers and so, although I was lonely, I think this helped me develop my style. It also means that stylistically I work with a limited palette but I’ve learned to live with that.

And, Elisabeth, you know what, when it boils down to it I have to own up to not being a particularly confident person. I’m intelligent and so I can fake confidence but the evidence speaks for itself. I have been content to potter away on my own for most of my life not so much for fear of rejection of my writing – I know I can write – but out of embarrassment, out of an awkwardness, a not knowing the rules, the protocol, the etiquette, whatever.

Most of my writing has been done with only a sketchy knowledge of what was acceptable. What I’ve learned about writing has been by osmosis and by doing it. I’m actually glad that I never went to any writing classes. I suspect that I would have wasted several years writing something I thought might get me published rather than writing what came into my head.

I’m glad you find the little autobiographical snippets of interest. I wouldn’t feel comfortable devoting a whole post to them but where I think something that’s happened to me is relevant to the general theme of the blog I’m happy to oblige.

Art Durkee said...

I still own those Moore Swamp THing issues. That's when John Constantine was invented, by Moore and Bissette, who remains one of my favorite characters of all time. (The look of John was originally modeled Sting, BTW.) Now Constantine is as great a character as ever was, and is constantly quoted himself.

The music for the original Star Trek series, by Alexander Courage, contains a couple of almost direct quotes from Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler. (In the scene with the green-skinned Orion dancing girls, it's right there.) Hindemith actually influenced or was quoted by a lot of TV and film music composers in the mid- and late-1960s. "Steal from the best," is what my own composition professor, William Bolcom, used to say in class.

I think of the period of imitation in writing poetry as part of the necessary apprenticeship. You read so thoroughly in a favorite great poet that you cannot help but take on their voice, albeit temporarily. I had a Rilke period, among others; most of those poems haven't survived. But it's a necessary apprenticeship served on way to finding your own voice. I don't have a problem with it; as long as a learning poet doesn't stay stuck there.

Jim Murdoch said...

I keep meaning to do a post or two about comics, Art, but there’s only so much time. Swamp Thing would be way up there. I think The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are pretty well known but I was buying Swamp Thing month by month at the time and I couldn’t wait till the next month I’ll tell you. The one stand out issue for me was the vampire story (with a group of vampires living under water) although the werewolf tale (that links lycanthropy to the menstrual cycle) was memorable too. I did know that Constantine was modelled after Sting by the way. At least Keanu Reeves didn’t try and fake the accent in the film; he does not do a good English accent.

I have Mathis der Mahler but I don’t know it well. You won’t catch me singing it in the shower put it that way. I will give it a listen to to see if I can pick up on the theme you’re on about. I have Hindemith’s best known pieces but he’s not a favourite.

Art Durkee said...

I was like you, waiting in eager anticipation for each new issue of Swamp Thing.

Ditto when Hellblazer first started up; I think I have the first 100 issues or so. At some point I couldn't buy every month, as I was moving or otherwise in turbulence, but I do have several of the book collections thereafter.

I have to say, I'd like to see you write about comics as serious literature. I imagine we agree on that point, and I think you'd do a good job writing on it. Consider that a request. :)

Dave King said...

Interesting post, Jim, a subject that has always exercised me.
There's this question of how many mes and which one I should be ture to, for example. The me they see at the rugby club is not the one they see in church. I remember Sangster (I think it was) asking "Why did you stop being you when you went into the forces?"
And then your story of the optometrist and the novelist reminded me of an occasion when I was studying for my diploma. We were shown a film of a chameleon on the prowl and asked to study it carefully. Well, what do you watch? You watch how it changes colour. Afterwards we were asked to describe the way it moved. Then we were shown the same film again - and saw an entirely different film.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ll bump that up the to-do list then, Art.

And, Dave, your example of the chameleon is an excellent one. My parents only ever saw me as their son. That was who I had always been. When I became other things like a husband, a father or a writer it was as if I’d taken one step further into the shadows and away from them. I feel exactly the same about my daughter, as if I’m losing her one day at a time, but that's life.

Ken Armstrong said...

I was walking along the other day and thinking, 'what makes me any different from the hundreds of thousands of other writers out there trying to catch a break?'

The conclusion I came to was that I have been doing it so long and so consistently that I have at least found my own voice in my writing. You have to keep writing and reading and watching to eke that out of yourself.

So, I concluded, at least that is something.

How does this relate to the post. Not sure. It's what I thought after reading it. Maybe that's something too.

Jim Murdoch said...

What we have to remember, Ken, is that we are all unique. We have to have a unique voice in there. Think about bats. I was watching some nature programme a week ago and there was this cave full of bats, thousands of bats, baby bats, and their mothers would fly into a cave full of screeching, fluttering creatures and locate its offspring by its call. The problem is over familiarity. I have been listening to me talk (out loud and on the page) for half a century and nothing I say startles me very often and I am genuinely puzzled when people go on about how I say things. How else would I say them? We need not to worry about such things, not at our age anyway. Our voices have broken, literally and metaphorically.

Reading and watching stuff is all fine and good but we’re echo chambers and our responses to what we see and read are going to be uniquely, and subtly, different to everyone around us. I’ve never met anyone with your particular take on life. I’ve met a lot of witty and insightful people, but your peculiar mix of wit and insight is what attracts and helps you hang onto readers.

Ken Armstrong said...

Just thinking... what an interesting blog your collected responses to your readers' comments and your comments on blogs (mine included) would make.

Honestly. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

You're right, Ken, and I have written two or three blogs which started out as comments I've made which were just too good to waste as it where. Part of the introduction to my new poetry collection started life as a comment I made to someone.

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