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

Sunday 28 October 2012

Am I an antipoet?


The true poet is willing to give up poetry in order to find poetryHenry Rago

nobody reads poetry nowadays
it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad

– Nicanor Parra[1]

A friend of mine made this comment a while back: “Your writing is very much part of the 'anti-poetry' tradition, as is Larkin's.” She meant no harm by it—I have no problem being compared to Larkin—and I’m pretty sure I know what she meant when she used the term ‘anti-poetry’ but it started me thinking and you know what happens when I start thinking. Antipoetry: the obvious meaning is ‘against poetry’ or poetry haters (mysomousoi as they were known at the time of the English Renaissance) but that’s not what antipoetry is really about.

In his book, Toward an Image of Latin American Poetry, Octavio Armand writes: “Every poet is an antipoet. The reverse is not always true.”[2] One way of looking at a statement like that is to say that all poets can write prose but not all prosers can write poetry—something I tend to agree with—but the relationship between prose and poetry is not a simple either/or situation. And what about antipoetry? Is antipoetry simply chopped-up prose or is there something in between?

Arguably the world’s best known antipoet is the Chilean, Nicanor Parra, who, at the end of 2011 was awarded Spain’s Cervantes Prize (considered the Spanish-speaking world’s highest literary honour) which comes with a cash sum of €125,000 so no small honour. He’s also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize. He’s 97 now but his name became forever bound to the notion of antipoetry when, in 1954, he published Poemas y Antipoemas (Poems and Antipoems). He did not coin the term however.

The foundation of the antipoetry movement (if indeed such a thing exists nowadays) lies with another Chilean poet, Vicente García-Huidobro Fernández, but known as Vicente Huidobro. He was a Creationist, in fact he founded the movement. Creationism held that a poet should bring life to the things he or she writes about, rather than simply describe them. Huidobro saw a poem as a truly new thing, created by the author for the sake of itself—that is, not to praise another thing, not to please the reader, not even to be understood by its own author. He defined himself as an "antipoet and magician" and decreed in his “Manifesto Perhaps” that “THE GREAT DANGER TO THE POEM IS THE POETIC,” that to “add poetry to what has it already without you” is to pour honey on honey, “it’s sickening.”[3] Well said that man. He was not the first Latin American antipoet however. The Peruvian Ultraist poet Enrique Bustamente Ballivan had already published a book called Antipoemas in 1926 of which I can find next to nothing online other than it’s supposed to be worth reading.

In an interview in 1938, Huidobro proclaimed that “[m]odern poetry begins with me.”[4] A similar claim was made by Parra in 1962 when he declared, “Poetry ended with me.”[5] I have little doubt that there’s a long queue forming after them who would want to make similar hyperbolic claims although I’m certainly not one of them. Both poets were very clearly aware of what had passed for poetry before them and were keen to draw a line under it but let’s face it that happens every generation anyway.

If you were to ask someone to name a famous Chilean poet from this time neither of these names will probably top the poll; that honour is most likely to go to Pablo Neruda who, incidentally, did win the Novel Prize in 1971. Neruda’s poems are often passionate odes to love and nature, verbose and adjectival in approach featuring a cornucopia of nature-derived imagery. (He’s not a poet I know well so I’m basing this on what I’ve read about him online.) A brief example:

In Praise of Ironing

Poetry is pure white.
It emerges from water covered with drops,
is wrinkled, all in a heap.
It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet,
has to be ironed out, the sea’s whiteness;
and the hands keep moving, moving,
the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are accomplished.
Every day, hands are creating the world,
fire is married to steel,
and canvas, linen, and cotton come back
from the skirmishings of the laundries,
and out of light a dove is born—
pure innocence returns out of the swirl.

(translated Alastair Reid)

nicanor-parraParra, like Philip Larkin, chose to formulate his poetry using vernacular, unrhetorical, direct language. Parra, it should be noted, was a careful reader of British poetry particularly T S Eliot. Larkin himself also acknowledges Eliot as a major influence upon his making as a poet. An odd hero I’ve often thought as Eliot’s work has always been beyond me; too clever for its own good. Parra sought to demystify poetry and make it accessible to a wider audience. Although others are quick to point out the differences between the two men, Parra himself had this to say:

Not one day goes by without my thinking of him at least once. I read him attentively, I follow with increasing amazement his yearly displacement along the Zodiac, I analyze him and compare him with himself. I try to learn whatever I can.[6]

Admiring someone and seeking to emulate him or her is something else. I think it’s fair enough to talk about Eliot as a “poet’s poet.”[7] Larkin and Parra were never aiming that high; they were content to be the people’s poet and both achieved that in their respective countries.

Oftentimes Larkin’s poetry comes across as if it has had all the poeticness stripped out of it and if it didn’t include rhymes at the end of the lines and be left-indented you might be forgiven for thinking that it was, in fact, chopped-up prose. An interesting point though is made by Ryan Hibbert in his book, Proving Poetry: Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, Now:

[A] literary text can sound like ordinary speech, but it never is ordinary speech, which it ultimately defines itself against; the “common” speech in Larkin’s poetry assumes … “a special character” it otherwise lacks. Swearing, for example, takes on the special character of a poet swearing, or swearing in a poem—an extended meaning it lacks in everyday conversation.[8]

The poem of his that I always return to—it’s my perfect poem—is ‘Mr Bleaney’ and the perfect synthesis between ‘poetry’ and ‘non-poetry’. Whether it can be classified as ‘antipoetry’ is another matter (I’ll come back to that) but you can find a detailed consideration of the poem beginning on page 60 of Hibbert’s book.

Of the two—I’m comparing Parra and Huidobro here—I relate more to Parra in his approach to poetry. He reminds me of William Carlos Williams (who compared a poem to a machine) when he wrote in his Manifesto that a poet is not an alchemist (or a magician) but a man like any other, a carpenter who constructs walls, doors, and windows, and the poet’s job is? In 'Letters from a poet who sleeps in a chair' he says:


Young poets
Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.

In poetry everything is permitted.

With only this condition of course,
You have to improve the blank page.

(translated by Miller Williams)

Later he says it a little differently:


The poet's job is
To improve on the blank page
I don’t think that’s possible.

(translated by David Unger)

(Shades of Beckett there too.) What this brings to my mind is a distinction between two kinds of poetry: nature poetry (in the broadest sense, not just poems about brooks and daffodils) and urban poetry (again taking a broad brush approach to the term). Two words that frequently come up when people write about antipoetry are ‘urban’ and ‘colloquial’, colloquial speech as opposed to the refined language normally associated with poetry. Colloquialisms are sometimes referred to collectively as "youknowhatitis language" but, as William McIlvanney has pointed out, the language of the common people is saturated with metaphors and is far from unpoetic without ever appearing pretentious.

In The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, Edith Grossman details three objectives of “the theoretical course” that Parra “set for himself after the publication of his Cancionero sin Nombre.” The first objective was to free poetry from the domination of the metaphor, which he terms “the abuse of earlier poetic language.” His antipoetry, understood as a liberation from what he termed an “abusive” style, would rather avoid such “poetic” language in favour of direct communication with the reader. Second, antipoetry should “depend on the commonplace in all its ramifications, that it decisively reject the rarefied and the exotic, both thematically and linguistically.” By this, Grossman elucidates, Parra meant that “the language of literature must be no different from the language of the collectivity . . . language reflects the life of the people. . . “Third, Parra has reaffirmed that his writing was leading directly to a “purely national expression” because the poet cannot remove himself from the community, the tribe. Thus the poet “should use colloquialisms peculiar to his own country, even if readers from other areas find them difficult to understand.”[9] (bold emphasis mine)

Pablo García writes of the movement in Chile: “…our motto was war on the metaphor, death to the image; long live the concrete fact and clarity.”[10]

Parra expressed his intention for antipoetry most clearly in his poem ‘Manifesto’ contained in his 1972 collection Emergency Poems:

Ladies and gentlemen
is our final word
– Our first and final word – 
The poets have come down from Olympus
For the old folks
Poetry was a luxury item
But for us
It’s an absolute necessity
We couldn’t live without poetry.

Through the course of this poem he condemns a variety of styles of poetry:

We repudiate
The poetry of dark glasses
The poetry of the cape and sword
The poetry of the plumed hat
We propose instead
The poetry of the naked eye
The poetry of the hairy chest
The poetry of the bare head.
We don’t believe in nymphs or tritons.
Poetry has to be this:
A girl in a wheatfield –
Or it’s absolutely nothing.

LarkinMany have struggled to come up with a definition of poetry that we in the 21st century are comfortable with. Form used to be the crucial thing but now that just about everyone is writing free verse we have to dig a little deeper. At its core I believe all poetry is metaphorical even if not a single metaphor or simile is used; very few poems are ever taken just literally. Even a straightforward poem like ‘Mr Bleaney’ which describes a man agreeing to rent a room in essence doesn’t stop there; it takes us to the cliff’s edge and leaves us there. Poetry is all around us. Football commentators describe the technical skill of players as “pure poetry”. Here’s a sentence from an article about children:

[S]eeing her laugh and suck on those fat little fingers…that was pure poetry, if it ever existed.

From a comment talking about a blog post about rescuing horses:

Joe, that was pure poetry.

From a poem about canoeing:

It was pure poetry
when you were
a lone traveller
in your canoe and
suddenly the sky
darkened by a flock
of migrating birds.

There used to be a time when some subjects were considered verboten. But then there was a time where women didn’t show their ankles in public. It’s just a matter of readjusting how you see things to realise that what you’re perceiving is poetry. It’s like music. I’m quite sure that most Baroque composers would cover their ears if they were exposed to some of the stuff that twentieth century turned out and called ‘music’ but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t music. And the same goes for what poets like Parra call ‘antipoetry’—the term is misleading because his antipoems are not against Poetry but a response to a certain kind of poetry. His poetry is antiheroic, it eschews high rhetoric and elevated language but it is still poetry.

In his thesis Notes on Insufficient Laughter Ronn David Silverstein writes:

Antipoetry is flat, understated; and relaxed; antipoetry “returns poetry,” as Parra says, “to its roots;” antipoetry is honest, unadorned, unlyrical, nonsymbolist; in antipoetry what you see is what you see; antipoetry is chiselled, solid. Antipoetry dispenses with stock poetical devices; instead, it offers dark humour, disjointed logic, flatness of tone and directness of statement.

He contrasts these to “the ‘deep image poem’ (which is hyperbolic and associative in its images) […] a phrase coined by Robert Kelly in the 1940s to describe what Robert Bly was doing through his Fifties Press, namely, his translations of the Spanish poets: Lorca, Jiménez, Vallejo and others.” (You can read a long article about deep image poetry here.) What is interesting is that Bly openly criticised Pound’s Imagist movement describing it as “Picturism. An image and a picture differ in that the image, being the natural speech of the imagination, cannot be drawn from or inserted back into the real world.”[11]

In his book Leaping Poetry Bly explains his concept of the deep image. He says that the deep image concerns itself with a central image that “should exist at the centre of the poem and sprout from the unconscious mind, uniting the known world, i.e. the poem’s content, with the unknown world, i.e. the poem’s language, by the act, on the poet’s part, of creative fusion.” In the poem ‘Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River’ this leap occurs in the final stanza and I find myself thinking about the closing image to ‘Mr Bleaney’ and wonder just how well it fits the criterion:

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

Is it an intellectual image, a room imagined as a coffin? Does that fear sprout from the conscious or the unconscious mind? I’m not going to labour the point but it’s something to think about.

williamcarloswilliamsAfter I left school and started to examine poets that weren’t on the curriculum (and hence not British) I quickly discovered another who spoke my tongue: William Carlos Williams. Wallace Stevens considered his work “anti-poetic,”[12] (describing "the real" instead of "the sentimental") while H.D. found him “commonplace, common and banal.” I found his work pure, like the music of Pärt, stripped down to its essentials. But it was most definitely poetry. And yet I find that Williams is another poet whose work often gets referred to as antipoetry; Dave Oliphant has written an entire book comparing his work to Parra’s. The most obvious comparison is their insistence on working with normal speech:

His late development of ‘the variable foot’ allowed him to be discursive without abandoning the cadence and rapidity of natural speech. The order of speech, of prose statement, has replaced a repetitive, metronomic pattern, as the expected element in Williams' line. By and large, the line units are dictated by speech, but they have a flexibility and offer a range of possible discovery far exceeding those of traditional meter. Looking for criteria to judge ‘the variable foot’ we may suggest: (a) is it natural, true to speech? (b) are the variations vital and interesting? For Williams the anti-poetic would be aping of traditional literary forms or copying the speech and/or measure of others.[13]

What Stevens wrote in the introduction to Williams's Collected Poems 1921-1931 was this:

His passion for the anti-poetic is a blood passion and not a passion of the inkpot. The anti-poetic is his spirit's cure. He needs it as a naked man needs shelter or as an animal needs salt. To a man with a sentimental side the anti-poetic is that truth, that reality to which all of us are forever fleeing.

And this is how Williams responded:

I was pleased when Wallace Stevens agreed to write the Preface but nettled when I read the part where he said I was interested in the anti-poetic. I had never thought consciously of such a thing. As a poet I was using a means of getting an effect. It's all one to me—the anti-poetic is not something to enhance the poetic—it's all one piece. I didn't agree with Stevens that it was a conscious means I was using. I have never been satisfied that the anti-poetic had any validity or even existed.[14]

As the book was published in 1934 I think it can be taken as read that Stevens is not referencing Huidobro and that he is attempting his own definition of antipoetry. Williams is not an antipoet—he had very clear ideas on what a poem should be and be about—but he is an anti-traditionalist and that’s where much of the common ground lies when you compare him to Parra.

What I find noteworthy is that, in a letter to William Rose Benét written in 1939, Stevens mentions that his favourite poem (of his own) was ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’ because it wore “a deliberately commonplace costume, and yet seems to me to contain something of the essential gaudiness of poetry”[15] and a few days later he clarified this when he said, “This represented what was in my mind at the moment, with the least possible manipulation.”[16] Five months later he admits that “[t]he poem is obviously not about ice cream, but about being as distinguished from seeming to be.”[17]

My gut feeling is that when he made his comments concerning Williams he simply hadn’t spent enough times with the poems because so many of his poems (Williams’, I mean) can seem superficial until you’ve lived with them for a while. Just look at the amount of stuff that’s been written about ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ for instance. Williams and Stevens “were like brothers who might break up a fight to unite in the face of a bully.”[18] One such “bully”, interestingly enough, was T S Eliot:

Williams felt the pressure of a poetic contest with T S Eliot, whom he considered a deadly threat to everything he stood for. Stevens also opposed himself to Eliot. He wrote, “Eliot and I are dead opposites and I have been doing about everything that he would not be likely to do.”[19]

As I’ve mentioned already Parra and Larkin were also reading Eliot and no doubt their choice of direction was a reaction to what they read even if they weren’t so vocal about it.

Larkin was anti- lots of things—anti-sentimental, anti-romantic, anti-life even—but I’m not so sure he would have appreciated being called antipoetic. His early work shows his influences—Yeats in particular, and later of Hardy—but on the whole his technique is nothing revolutionary; his subject matter, however, is. And that’s where he and Parra would find themselves nodding in agreement. The aim of his poetry, he suggested, was to give the impression of "a chap chatting to chaps."[20] I think that was what first struck me about him: I didn’t feel I was being talked down to. Years later, in ‘The Journey Back,’ the opening poem of his 1991 collection Seeing Things, Heaney would describe him as “[a] nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.” I think that would be a fair description of William Carlos Williams and myself too; not sure about Parra—do theoretical physicists work nine to five?

What do they mean when they talk about a flat style of poetry? Surely all poetry is flat. (Yes, I’m being facetious.) What’s the opposite of ‘heightened’ language? One would imagine whatever the lingua franca of the day is. We don’t like ornate furniture these days or fancy flock wallpaper and I doubt if any songs in the charts have very many trills or appoggiatura in them (they’re the twiddley bits Baroque composers were so fond of). We like monochromes and straight edges. And the same goes for our poetry. The problem is when you’re used to buying your furniture from Ikea and having your songs written by Stock, Aitken and Waterman (or whoever their 21st century equivalents are) then you stop appreciating handmade furniture and singer songwriters. (Again, I’m being facetious.) A friend of my dad’s once told me, “Jimmy, there aren’t any engineers anymore, just fitters.” And he’s right. You take your car in to get repaired and all they do is whip out one component and bung in another. Your phone breaks down, you buy another.

In his book Ensouling Language, Stephen Harrod Buhner, opens the chapter entitled ‘You Must Begin with Something Deeper in the Self’ with a quote from Robert Bly:

Some people who are terrified of grandiosity spend their vital energy defending themselves from the godlike furnace that is cooking inside them. They are the flat people. Side by side with the light poetry we have the flat poetry of the universities, flatter than any poetry ever known in the world before.

In this chapter Buhner presents us with a sweeping statement: You must not extend awareness further than society wants it to go. He doesn’t agree with it but he believes that that belief is something that holds many writers back, encourages them to play safe and, of course, there will be those that do pull their punches for fear they might overstretch themselves or that they might produce something their audience (if they’re lucky enough to have an audience) might turn their noses up at. And I have to wonder if that’s what I do which is why someone might tar me with the antipoetry brush. But I don’t think that’s the case. I always worry about things that are defined by what they’re not and I find that I’m struggling to find a consensus regarding flat poetry. I was intrigued by part of this comment by Robert:

Yet I really think great poetry elicits more similarity than dissidence of response from most audiences in a way that is shockingly more similar to a computer runtime environment than it would appear at first glance. While both code and poems appear flat on the page or screen, when executed both forms present myriad opportunities to branch down different paths. But the reality is that poetry gives you no choice -- only the infinite illusion of choice through allusion, implication, reference, rhyme, nonsensical meaning, seductive sounds and rhythms, and a multitude of other techniques that simultaneously tell the mind there is one thing going on as well as (in subtext) thousands.

A poem is not code. Yes, it’s true we encode meaning, but we do so in a very imprecise way. In HTML <b> and </b> have very specific meanings—bold on, bold off—and they never change no matter what the context. I don’t think a poem has been written so flat that a person with an active imagination couldn’t take it somewhere its author didn’t intend or expect it to go. That said the less technique you apply the fewer opportunities arise.

Okay, so let’s look at an antipoem:


Like Nicanor Parra I write antipoetry
antipoems for antipeople in antibooks
antipoems for anticritics for antireaders
antipoetry for antiassholes in the antimatter
antielectrons in the antiatoms for antideaf
in my antiadaptation to the literary world
in the antigroup of the antiliterature
antipoetry for antieditors for antiprizes
for antilectors for anticorrectors for antipublishers
and it is not because I don't like poetry or
because I don't like critics, it is because,
like any other antipoet I only know
how to write

Mois Benarroch

MoisMois Benarroch is a Moroccan poet the same age as me; he even looks a bit like me. And he is far from being someone who one might label as simply an antipoet. I like this piece I have to say. I could have written it, although it’s a bit light for me, to be honest. He’s actually quite a prolific writer—a polyglot no less—and I got caught up reading about him. I was particularly struck by a comment he made in an interview about the “outsiderness” of his poetry:

This is definitely the recurring theme in my writings. It spreads all over, from being an outsider as a Jew, or as a writer (and Edmond Jabes would say that every writer is a Jew) to feeling like a different kind of Jew and not really part of the mainstream of Judaism: that is being a Sephardic Jew. Maybe that’s what poetry is about: being outside, being different and writing a different poem.[21]

I find reading about schools of poetry interesting but I’ve never found myself drawn to any group. In that respect I, too, feel like an outsider in the poetry world. The notion that I might be a closet antipoet nettles, to use Williams’ word; I don’t like being classified. Classification inclines readers to limit their expectations and although it’s true I veer towards a certain style of poetry I’ve yet to find a single poet out there who writes like me. I relate strongly with what Benarroch says here. I’ve always felt different and that my poetry was different. I can relate to lots of different poets but I’m loathe to set down—even for myself—rules as to what I think a poem should be or do. So no manifestos from me; not this week.

In his poetry collection, Abstracts, John O’Loughlin gives his thoughts on the differences between poetry and antipoetry:

[W]here does poetry end and antipoetry begin? … I think we can answer this question … by contending that, although in practice the two kinds of poetry often overlap, the poetical ends by singing the praise of artificial beauty, while the antipoetical begins in a preponderating concern for the metaphysical … as a vehicle for the exploration of truth. Thus we have good reason to believe that, as with philosophy and antiphilosophy, poetry ends and antipoetry begins on a petty-bourgeois level, the one at a climax to a concern for appearances in the most artificial context, i.e. as pertinent to the urban/industrial environment, and the other at the inception to a concern for essences in the least spiritual context, i.e. as pertinent to the intellectual elucidation of metaphysical speculation.[22]

As Goethe wrote, "the unnatural, that too is natural," and I think this is where I come in. If, as O’Loughlin suggests, poetry ends “by singing the praise of artificial beauty” it certainly begins by praising Nature and those were the poems that I reacted against, the ones we got taught at Primary School that I moan about all the time, poems about brooks or daffodils or sad sacks sauntering down to the sea. I never studied the metaphysical poets but a part of me wishes I had because I think I would have found much to relate to. I live in an urban setting and am interested in writing about what I can relate to so in that respect I can be called an antipoet based on this criteria plus I’m just about the least spiritual person you are likely to meet so perhaps I am an antipoet at my core. I agree with Parra when he says that the function of language is “that of a simple vehicle and the material with which I work, I find in daily life.”[23]

But there are differences: I have not forsaken the metaphor or the image although I use both with care. The bottom line is that I don’t much care for labels and I’ve no great desire to align myself with any school of poetry. I do aspire to write clear and understandable poetry (but not superficial poetry) that has structure but is not a slave to structure and by that I mean that I believe that a poem’s shape evolves naturally in its writing which is why I could never see myself setting out to write a sestina or a sonnet and forcing my words into that predefined shape. We all look back when creating metaphorical images but the further back we look the more likely we are to lose our readers so I prefer contemporary cultural references which is why no nods to Greeks gods in any of my poems. Let me leave you with a few poems that I think might pass as antipoems. You decide.

After Pinter

I am a great man.
People depend on me to say great things.
They expect me to say great things.
I expect I am saying something great right now.
Things appear greater when I say them.

It is a terrible burden, of course,
a terrible responsibility, in fact,
to always have to say something great,
to be great to order; that said
people believe I am being great
even when I am being normal.
To them my normal is just great.
They need me to be great
ergo I am great.

“That was great,” they’ll say
and they’ll believe that to be true
but at the same time they’ll be thinking:
I thought great might be greater than that
but what do I know, he’s the great man, not me.

27 January 2010

The Wrong Nudes

My daughter bought me a book, an album,
with pictures of naked women in it.
Of course the wrong women were naked but
how was she to know that that might matter?

That said, realisation is one thing,
acceptance another and approval,
first tacit, then open, quite something else.

Nudity is such a disappointment.
I have never really understood when
nakedness becomes art or if indeed
openness is always a good idea.

She said the book had a dented spine which
is how she could afford it and then we
moved seamlessly onto other matters.

09 March 2009

An Honest Poem

                  Here's the deal,
mate – we might as well be
up front about all this –

what you need to do is
read this and forget it.
It shouldn't be so hard.

I'm sure you've read and
forgotten hundreds
of poems, dozens at

least. So, let's cut to the
chase – yes? – and not waste each
other's time.

09 November 2008

Everyone's a Critic

So we got
this writer and this reader –
seems like a match
made in heaven –

the catch is,
the writer keeps writing things
the reader doesn't want to read
whilst the reader insists on reading stuff
the writer hasn't a clue how to write.

Go figure.
But they're stuck with each other,
joined at the hip.
Think about it.

one day the writer's had it:
"So what the fuck should I write then?"
The reader doesn't even miss a beat:
(well maybe just one) ... "You got a pen?"

22 August 2004

I Spy

You shouldn't look at women's chests;
              they mind if you look.
They know you can see
              but you're not supposed to look.

But you're allowed to notice;
              they expect you to notice.

It's hard to see why you can't look
              at what you've just seen
              but those are the rules
              even though they don't make sense.

21 October 1997


Huidobro and Parra: World-Class Antipoets

Although I Havent't Come Preparraed: The Poetry And Antipoetry of Chile [sic]

Poetry of the Sneeze: Thomas Merton and Nicanor Parra

Gardens, Cemeteries, and the Abyss: Symbolic Spaces in a Selection of Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poetry

Merton, ‘Cables to the Ace’, Anti-Poetry

The Manifesto of Antipoetry (Coe Review, Number 8, 1977, p.10)

The Aesthetics of Anti-Poetry Manifesto: Poetry Criticism by an Anti-Poet

A large collection of Parra’s poetry can be accessed here.


[1] Nicanor Parra, ‘Something Like That,’ translated by Liz Werner

[2] Octavio Armand, Toward an Image of Latin American Poetry, p.10

[3] For “Poeta / Anti poeta,” see Canto I in Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor (2003: 34), and for “antipoeta y mago,” see Canto IV (94). For Huidobro’s all-caps manifesto and his further declarations on the dangers of the poetic, see The Selected Poetry of Vicente Huidobro, ed. David M. Guss (1981: 76). Huidobro’s prose statements are translated into English from his Manifestes, a volume written in French.

[4] David M. Guss ed., The Selected Poetry of Vicente Huidobro, x

[5] Nicanor Parra, Antipoems: New and Selected, pp.42-45

[6] Nicanor Parra, Welcoming Speech Honouring Pablo Neruda

[7] Peter Monro Jack writing in The New York Times quoted in Jewel Spears Brooker ed., T. S. Eliot, The Contemporary Reviews, p.xxix

[8] Ryan Hibbert, Proving Poetry: Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin, Now, p.57

[9] Julio Marzán, ‘The Poetry and Anti-Poetry of Luis Palés Matos: From Canciones to Tuntunes’, Callaloo, 18.2, pp. 506-523

[10] Pablo García, ‘Contrafigura de Nicanor Parra’, Atena, Jan/Feb 1955, p.157

[11] Kevin Bushell, ‘Leaping Into the Unknown: The Poetics of Robert Bly's Deep Image’, Modern American Poetry

[12] In his article ‘William Carlos Williams: This is just to say…’ Vancouver-based consultant Juna Wood states that “Wallace Stevens affectionately called Williams' work the 'anti-poetic' in an essay…” (italics mine) I have no idea where he gets ‘affectionately’ from but no doubt it’s based on something he’s read in the past. Dickran Tasjian writes, however, that "Williams was annoyed by Stevens' contention that the anti-poetic was an outlet, a mask, for sentimentality. Williams argued instead that the poetic and the anti-poetic were of a piece, creation and destruction, art/anti-art, inextricably bound together in a dialectic." Dickran Tasjian, William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920-1940, pp.59,60

[13] Charles Doyle, William Carlos Williams and the American Poem

[14] William Carlos Williams, I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the works of a Poet, p.52

[15] Quoted in Warren Carrier, ‘Commonplace Costumes and Essential Gaudiness: Wallace Stevens’ “Emperor of Ice Cream,”’ College Literature, 1974

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Martha Helen Strom, ‘The Uneasy Friendship of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens’, Journal of Modern Literature, 1984

[19] Ibid

[20] Martin Dodsworth, ed., The Survival of Poetry, p.37

[21] 'Interview: Moroccan-born Israeli poet Mois Benarroch', memoria y migracion, July 15 2010

[22] John O’Loughlin, Abstracts, Introduction (unnumbered pages)

[23] Pablo García quoting Parra in ‘Contrafigura de Nicanor Parra’, Atena, Jan/Feb 1955, p.157

Sunday 21 October 2012

The Great Gatsby


Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them – William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Modern Library lists The Great Gatsby as the second-best English-language novel of the twentieth century, being pipped to the post by Ulysses in case you wondered. In its European equivalent, Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century, the book only comes in it at No. 46; Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (which reaches the dizzying heights of No. 7) being the top-ranking English-language novel. Coincidentally, both Steinbeck’s novel and Fitzgerald’s are books that have at one time or other—and continue to be—referred to as examples of the “Great American Novel.” The Great Gatsby has been adapted for the cinema four times (with a fifth due out in 2013) but, of course, that pales into insignificance when compared to Jane Eyre’s twenty-one times. Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing the title role of Jay Gatsby (you can see the trailer here) and I’m sure he’ll do a good job but he’s no Robert Redford (you can see the trailer for the 1974 adaptation here) although I’m not sure either was or will be Jay Gatsby.

3 coversThe book has also been given a makeover by Alma Classics (the new name of Oneworld Classics)—“[t]he spelling and punctuation have been anglicised, standardised, modernised and made consistent throughout.” They offered me my pick of all four of Fitzgerald’s novels which they have just reissued with rather lovely foil embossed covers, French flaps and extensive notes. Needless to say I plumped for the shortest but mainly because of its reputation and the fact I’d never read anything by him so that seemed like the place to start. Coincidentally I’d never seen any of the film adaptations either, not even the TV adaptation from 2000 which starred Toby Stephens who—small world—has also played Edward Rochester in another TV adaptation of Jane Eyre.

I had no expectations. I didn’t even know it was a love story. Which it is. Of sorts.

In her book Pseudoautobiography and Personal Metaphor Millicent Bell writes: "All fiction is autobiography, no matter how remote from the author's experience the tale seems to be." I don’t see how F. Scott Fitzgerald could argue with that and it’s obvious that he was drawing from personal experiences when he laid out this tale. Where it is more than simply a rehashing of past events is where Fitzgerald chooses to change history and look at how things might have panned out if his life had taken a different course. Neither Gatsby nor Fitzgerald had the best start in life; they both fail to do well academically, although when they enlist towards the end of World War I they move up in the ranks quickly enough; they struggle to make much of themselves when demobbed and because of this they each fail to win the hand of the woman they love. The difference is that Zelda waited for Fitzgerald to find his feet; Daisy does not and opts to marry the rich Tom Buchanan instead. So in The Great Gatsby we are faced with a what-if scenario.

Of course the great thing about novels from an autobiographical point of view is that you can divvy yourself up between the characters. The novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, is a young man from Minnesota who, after being educated at Yale and fighting in World War I, goes to New York City to learn the bond business. Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota, spent his early years in New York, was educated at Princeton, fought in the war and worked for a spell in advertising.

So who exactly is this Gatsby? That is a very good question and Fitzgerald is in no rush to tell us. Everyone has their opinion, though. What is not in doubt is that he lives in a massive house—“a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy”—in West Egg (in reality the Village of Kings Point, Great Neck, Long Island) which is the poor cousin to East Egg across the bay (the next peninsula over on Long Island Sound) where all the really posh people live. Gatsby is not posh. He is rich but those who live in East Egg come from old money and there’s the difference. Gatsby is a parvenu and where was a fast buck to be made between 1920 and 1933? Bootlegging and racketeering amongst other things. Not that he is in a rush to open up to anyone and we never do know for sure what businesses he has been in. We do know that he regularly hosts lavish parties which are attended by anyone who chooses to turn up with a mind to having a good time

        People were not invited—they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behaviour associated with amusement parks. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission.

but he’s rarely seen at any of these which leads to speculation:

        ‘Well, they say he’s a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s. That’s where all his money comes from.’


        Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.’
        A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.
        ‘I don’t think it’s so much THAT,’ argued Lucille sceptically; ‘it’s more that he was a German spy during the war.’
        One of the men nodded in confirmation.
        ‘I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany,’ he assured us positively.
        ‘Oh, no,’ said the first girl, ‘it couldn’t be that, because he was in the American army during the war.’ As our credulity switched back to her she leaned forward with enthusiasm.
        ‘You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody’s looking at him. I’ll bet he killed a man.’

The book is written from Carraway’s perspective two years after the events in the novel. So he’s had time to reflect on those events and weigh his words carefully. Eventually he gets to learn much of the truth but not all and certainly not from Gatsby whose fabrications have taken on a life of their own. Looking back Carraway has this to say about Gatsby:

        Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby who represented 2012 postereverything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the ‘creative temperament’— it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

It is a paragraph that bears rereading since by the time the book has ended Carraway certainly seems to be Gatsby’s only true friend. As long as he’s been around to fund their indulgences everyone was interested in being Gatsby’s friend even if he wasn’t much interested in being seen with his newfound (and fair weather) friends. Caraway, unlike his neighbours, doesn’t crash any of Gatsby’s parties. Intrigued as he is with the man, he waits until he is invited. But meeting him does little to assuage his curiosity; if anything the reverse is true: the man is an enigma but only up to a point; spend enough time in his company (which Carraway begins to) and the cracks in his character start to appear. As Jim says to Huckleberry Finn: "It's too good for true, honey, it's too good for true." Everyone has a skeleton or two in their cupboard.

The snob in Nick Carraway looks down on Gatsby which is ironic because he’s renting a place—“a weather beaten cardboard bungalow” he calls it—for eighty bucks a month whilst surrounded on all sides by millionaires and yet his final words with Gatsby are, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Why? Because “[t]hey’re a rotten crowd.” They may have what all of Gatsby’s money could never buy him—I suppose the word for that would be ‘class’ or ‘taste’—but they are remote and out of touch with their humanity.

I said before that everyone was interested in being Gatsby’s friend. That’s not strictly true. The more reserved East Eggers keep their distance. Both suburbs are inhabited by wealthy people but when money levels the playing field people will always find some way to try to differentiate themselves from their peers. Gatsby still has to work to maintain his lifestyle—he’s always taking phone calls concerning business—whereas others, like Carraway’s second cousin Daisy, and her husband Tom (who Nick had known from college), do not. They currently live in East Egg.

        Why they came east I don’t know. They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together. This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn’t believe it—I had no sight into Daisy’s heart but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.

They are also why Gatsby is here. Or rather she is why Gatsby is here. He has followed her like a lovesick puppy dog. You see, Daisy and Gatsby have met before. In fact they fell in love. Her friend and bridesmaid, Jordan, tells Carraway:

        That was nineteen-seventeen. By the next year I had a few beaux myself, and I began to play in tournaments, so I didn’t see Daisy very often. She went with a slightly older crowd—when she went with anyone at all. Wild rumours were circulating about her—how her mother had found her packing her bag one winter night to go to New York and say goodbye to a soldier who was going overseas. She was effectually prevented, but she wasn’t on speaking terms with her family for several weeks. After that she didn’t play around with the soldiers any more but only with a few flat-footed, short-sighted young men in town who couldn’t get into the army at all.
        By the next autumn she was gay again, gay as ever. She had a debut after the Armistice, and in February she was presumably engaged to a man from New Orleans. In June she married Tom Buchanan of Chicago with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before.

In time we discover that the soldier she had been involved with had been Gatsby. What we don’t realise is that he had fabricated the identity of Jay Gatsby along with a suitable past and that really he had nothing to offer her bar love and in Daisy’s world money trumps love every time. To have a fighting chance of winning her back Gatsby needs to rid himself of his one handicap—poverty—by fair means or foul. 51RWRLE3spL__SX500_Now having done so he is hesitant and befriends Carraway as a means of easing his way back into her life. That an actual friendship develops, albeit a slightly awkward one, is not so surprising because Carraway can empathise with Gatsby’s predicament. He develops a relationship with Jordan Baker but he has no money and poor prospects so what chance does he stand with her?

The actual storyline that runs through the centre of The Great Gatsby is not a very complex one. It feels more involved than what it is because of the order in which Fitzgerald presents his facts. Told chronologically this would be nowhere near as compelling. The only thing that remains to be answered is: Will Gatsby be successful in winning Daisy over? Well, once we learn a bit about Tom Buchanan it looks like all he needs to do is pop the question and Daisy will run away with him without a backwards glance. At one point Daisy describes her husband as follows:

A brute of a man, a great big hulking physical specimen of a—‘

She never gets to finish her sentence. Shortly after this heated exchange with Tom he leaves the dinner table to answer a phone call. It is from “some woman in New York” he’s having an affair with. At least that’s how Jordan describes her. She’s half-right. The woman, Myrtle Wilson, is actually married to a local garage owner George Wilson who lives halfway between West Egg and New York. Daisy knows. Not the specifics. But enough. So, as I’ve said, Gatsby really doesn’t have his work cut out for him. What could possibly go wrong? Well if the point to all this was just getting his hands on the woman but it’s not and this is something Gatsby reveals unwittingly to Carraway:

        He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’ After she had obliterated three years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.
        ‘And she doesn’t understand,’ he said. ‘She used to be able to understand. We’d sit for hours—’
       He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favours and crushed flowers.
        ‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured. ‘You can’t repeat the past.’
        ‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’
       He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
        ‘I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,’ he said, nodding determinedly. ‘She’ll see.’
He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was….

Gatsby thinks it’s the girl he wants. It’s not. It’s what he lost when she went off with Tom. And, of course, that can never be recaptured. In some respects Gatsby is living the American dream but he’s still dreaming.

francis_ford_coppolaAfter I finished the book I located a copy of the 1974 adaptation and watched it. There is a lot good about it. Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote the screenplay which is very faithful to the novel and uses chunks of dialogue straight off the page, lived in "West Egg," aka Great Neck, former home of Fitzgerald, at the time of writing the screenplay. He was a fan but just because you get a great writer who understands and believes in the material doesn’t mean the thing is going to work on the screen. Just look at Watchmen. Could you get a more faithful adaptation? But it’s missing something. And so is this film. Coppola apparently disowned his screenplay when he saw the film, because he felt the movie adaptation ruined his work. So the problem has to be with direction and casting. Well, yes, but there is one other issue: symbolism. The Great Gatsby is a highly symbolic work. There are loads of sites devoted to its symbolism alone. Two of the most important ones are made clear in this adaptation: the green light across the bay and the billboard of T.J. Eckelburg.

When Carraway sees Gatsby for the first time they are standing outside at night and Gatsby is looking out across the bay:

I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.

Only on the last page of the book do we get Fitzgerald’s explanation for what the light represents:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run farther, stretch out our arms farther….

Redford does reach out and try and grasp something intangible but had I not read the book I would have wondered what he was doing. It looked, frankly, a bit silly and exaggerated, the kind of thing a silent actor would have done. The word ‘orgastic’ was coined by Fitzgerald, by the way. It is most likely a cross between ‘orgasmic’ and ‘orgiastic’, although it is certainly left open to interpretation.

Now to the billboard:

[A]bove the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose … But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.


The billboard I did like; I had not fully appreciated its significance when reading the book. It reminded me of the images of Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But this is not a totalitarian state. This is a capitalist country, the most capitalist of countries. So who is overseeing all of this? Not God surely? Or maybe. When George takes Myrtle to the window and tells her she can’t fool God he’s using the billboard as a visual metaphor. There is no Big Brother—merely a poster—and there is no God—merely a poster. God has abandoned America to its own devices. The billboard—a symbol perhaps of America’s abandoned spirituality—stands neglected staring out over and equally neglected landscape, what Fitzgerald describes as a “valley of ashes” which it is, literally, but also metaphorically. What is noteworthy about George Wilson is that he doesn’t attend church—not since his marriage there—and yet he still has a fundamental belief in a higher power.

These are just two of the images. There are others; colours in particular (yellow and especially gold, green, white and grey). Rarely is Fitzgerald only saying the one thing. This is a book about the American Dream. We all know what people mean when they talk about it but it’s really very badly named when you think about what dreams are like. Gatsby is chasing something intangible, trying to grasp light particles in his hand. At his core he really is a terribly naïve man. Of course neither Daisy nor Tom is happy either; they’re—to paraphrase Huxley—overcompensating for misery. As long as they’re having fun they don’t have to think about whether they’re truly happy or not.

Of course I’ve not told you how the book ends. You’ll have guessed that it’s unhappily—that’s a foregone conclusion I’m afraid—but the ending was a brilliant choice by Fitzgerald. It’s hard really sitting here trying to review a book that is considered by many to be the greatest American novel ever written. Of course it’s worth reading. But I knew from the first couple of pages that this was a superior piece of work. It manages what many literary novels fail to achieve, it’s also a damn good read.

The book is out of copyright and you can download a copy now if you just want the text. That’s not why anyone would buy this book from Alma. They’ll be buying it because it looks nice in fact these four novels would be a lovely present for anyone who appreciates good literature.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Mormon Diaries

Mormon Diaries

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ – Mahatma Gandhi

Justice is a good idea; lawyers not so much. Politics is a good idea; governments not so much. Beliefs are a good idea; religions, again, not so much. The world is full of good ideas but as soon as we draft people in to manage them everything goes pear shaped. Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I never discuss religion. It seems, though, as I’m going to review a book called Mormon Diaries, I should at least say where I stand when it comes to religion: I don’t care. I’m not a true believer, a lapsed anything, an agnostic or an atheist. I am not interested in discussing the issues. I do not want to be converted nor am I interested in converting others to my mindset. I … don’t … care.

I was not always that way. I was raised by a pair of devout fundamentalist Christians and that upbringing had a lot to do with who I am today; I am a principled and dutiful person. As far as religions go I liked that mine encouraged an inquiring mind—there was none of this “it’s a mystery” or “because we say it’s true”—and I appreciated that but an intellectual grasp of scripture can only take one so far. At a fairly young age I realised that there was something amiss but I kept going through the motions assuming that by osmosis I would eventually discover or develop my spiritual side. I never did and fifteen years ago I stopped pretending to myself and resigned formally. There are people who have no sense of smell. I have no spiritual awareness. Nada. My decision did not go down well with my family. The last time I spoke to my siblings was at our mother’s funeral and I have had no contact with them since and that’s over ten years. So if I approached Mormon Diaries from a sympathetic standpoint you’ll understand why.

There is an old Jesuit maxim "Give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man." It’s been co-opted by everyone, even Lenin. Roman Catholics will understand this better than most because they have their own special brand of guilt that never goes away. The principle is certainly a biblical one: "Train up a boy according to the way for him; even when he grows old he will not turn aside from it." (Proverbs 22:6) The modern word for it is indoctrination. Classic conditioning is usually done by pairing two stimuli, as in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, and it comes in two flavours: carrot and stick. The reward is joining the choir invisible when you die or attaining Nirvana or living forever on a paradise earth; the punishment is going to the big bad fire, missing out on the Rapture or coming back as a cockroach or something equally repugnant. Of course there are lots of wee rewards and punishments on the way (Freemasons have ninety different degrees from apprentice to grand master) but every creed has these two biggies: life vs. death. Some religions wave the big stick more than others but I don’t know of any faith that doesn’t use threats or promises to corral its members.

There have been many books written about people who have been brought up in a religion, sect or cult and then had difficulty leaving. We hear of people needing to be deprogrammed and the like and it all sounds very scary. We associate such stories with things like the Waco siege where some 72 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect died in a fire; the mass suicide of 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, a UFO religion and the murders and suicides carried out by the Order of the Solar Temple. Surely there’s no comparison between these groups and an organisation with millions of members? There are over three million Moonies, seven million Jehovah’s Witnesses, anywhere from eight million to fifteen million Scientologists, fourteen million Mormons and sixteen million Seventh Day Adventists if you believe their press. Could we really say a film or a novel had a cult following if even three million people had seen or read it? The issue here is not to look for a label because the world’s major orthodox religions can be every bit as guilty as the newer ones when it comes to treating their members unfairly.

One of the first books I heard of which talked about how hard it can be to move on dates back to 1956: Thirty Years a Watchtower Slave. I doubt many will have heard of that but what about Oranges are Not the Only Fruit in which Jeanette Winterson presents a fictional accounts of her life among working-class evangelists in the North of England in the 1960's and the problems she faced when she realised she was gay? Steven Hassan discusses his time in the Unification Church in Combating Cult Mind Control and what about Nancy Many’s My Billion Year Contract, Memoir of a Former Scientologist? Sophia L. Stone’s Mormon Diaries joins the back of a long queue.

So what do you know about Mormonism? Before I sat down to read this book I made a list:


That was my lot I’m afraid. My wife knew a few other things which I should have remembered (like not drinking tea or coffee) but she was no expert either.

One of the problems reading science fiction is the fact that the author often has to present and explain a completely different world to the one we live it. Lots of exposition ensures. Take a book like Dune with a least two hundred unique terms like Fremen, face dancers, gholas, the Imperium, melange, no-chambers, sandworms and thumpers. Or what about Nadsat, the fictional argot (that’s a secret language) used in A Clockwork Orange? That’s what reading Mormon Diaries feels like at times. I draw the comparison with science fiction deliberately because Mormonism will be, for the majority of us, an alien world involving testimonies, the baptism of the dead, endowments, exaltations, tithing, missions, polyandry, stakes, the restored gospel and various quorums. Even a simple word like ‘teacher’ means something different. From the book’s glossary:

Teacher: A fourteen or fifteen year old boy with the Aaronic Priesthood, capable of passing and preparing the sacrament, collecting fast offering, and home teaching.

parson-aaronic-priesthood-2_hrOf course we then need to understand what ‘Aaronic Priesthood’, ‘the sacrament’, ‘fast offerings’ and ‘home teaching’ mean and involve.

Sophia L. Stone was born to two Mormon parents. Unlike Roman Catholics and many orthodox religions Mormons do not practice infant baptism. Mormon baptisms take place only after an "age of accountability" which they set at eight years of age and involve complete immersion. Interestingly Mormon baptism does not purport to remit any sins other than personal ones, as they don’t believe in original sin. That, of course, is a major difference between them and most other Christian denominations. So it’s fair to say that Sophia was not born a Mormon but chose to become one of her own free will. Needless to say Mormons have their own idea what free will is.

Mormon Diaries charts, for want of a better expression, her rise and fall from grace. It begins with an eight-year-old Sophia preparing for her baptism:

My journey into Mormonism began at the age of eight after I’d emerged from the waters of baptism, peeled off my soaking wet clothes, dried my hair, changed into my dry Sunday dress, and plopped into a chair located in front of the baptismal font under the anticipatory gazes of family members, friends, and neighbours.

I bowed my head. A circle of men gathered around me. The bishop, my dad, and a number of my father’s friends stood so close as they put their hands on my head that it felt like being in a fort made of arms and shoulders and torsos. I felt small and important at once, eager to have The Gift of the Holy Ghost.

It was the moment I’d been waiting for. The monumental occasion when the bishop would call me by my full name, use the Priesthood to call upon the powers of heaven, and pour into my heart and mind a peacefulness akin to nothing I’d ever experienced before.


I’d wanted to feel the Holy Ghost pour into me so badly that I memorized every sound in the room: the buzzing of the lights, the ticking of the bishop’s watch, even the pregnant silence of those watching. I memorized the weight of the hands on my head, the lack of a draft as I sat in the blessing circle, the collective rise and fall of shoulders clad in blue and black suits as the bishop spoke. And so, when the prayer ended and I felt nothing but the air around me, I convinced myself I’d felt something the same way a child who believes in Santa runs through the house on Christmas Eve announcing they’ve seen flying reindeer.

I stood and said, “I feel it!”

But in the moments that followed, when people were shaking my hand and there was no time for confession, regret washed over me.

I had lied.

mormon-baptism1“No virtue ever was founded on a lie.” – Dinah Craik. I don’t know Sophia very well. She comes across as a virtuous person and that’s not surprising because she was brought up by two devout Mormons. She was taught to be modest, not to swear, to avoid silliness (and she admits to being a serious young girl even at eight), to respect her parents and not to tell fibs. When people say there’s good in all religions the fact is that that’s true. As I said I am the man I am today—the good bits and the bad—because of how I was bought up.

After her baptism and confirmation Sophia sat in Fast and Testimony Meeting along with others from her church:

Many of them told stories about their family, some recounted experiences when they’d felt the spirit. But when one man in particular spoke about my baptism and confirmation, saying how my countenance had glowed when I stood and said, “I feel it!” my stomach twisted with guilt.

“I didn’t really feel anything,” I whispered to my dad. “Should I go up and tell everyone the truth?”

I’d been taught all my life to be honest, and my impulse to go up to the pulpit and confess my sin was almost unbearable. I could, in fact, think of nothing more important than correcting the lie I’d told.

My father, however, knew people better than I did. He knew perfectly well what was appropriate in a Sunday service. He knew what I did not, that there’d been conflict amongst some in the congregation over what kinds of stories were appropriate to tell in church. So while I had no idea what was going through his mind at that moment, I’m sure what he said next was his way of looking out for me.

“Don’t do that, sweetheart. You wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s testimony.”

There is nothing in the book to say that this matter was discussed any further once they got home or in the days that followed. She was an official member of the LDS church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and she fell into step. She rationalises away her doubts

Maybe God simply didn’t want me to feel his spirit pour into me, maybe he wanted me to live like I knew the church was true, act like I knew, talk like I knew, and continue to read the scriptures and pray until I finally did know.

and got on with the day-to-day business of being a Mormon which was not always so easy. For starters she went to a public school. I had expected her to talk about being ostracised or picked on because of her beliefs but it looks like her poor academic performance saved her from that and that was what the kids focused on:

I couldn’t get my homework done. Couldn’t remember half the stuff I read. Couldn’t pass a test to save my soul. And Mrs. Anderson took each failure personally, attributing my poor performance first to laziness and then to passive-aggressive defiance. The more I struggled to complete and turn in my homework, the more she tried to motivate me by taking away class recess time. Not just mine, but everyone else’s.

When I finally started completing assignments, my reputation was damaged beyond repair. My classmates had stuck a label on me that simply wouldn’t come off. I sat alone each afternoon in the cafeteria, kept my eyes perpetually down, and would sometimes cry as I walked home from school.

So what does she do? She immerses herself in her church activities. A journal entry from January 4th 1987 reads:

Today we went to church at 11:30 a.m. I went to my Merry Miss class and found out many wonderful things. We are going to try to do Faith in God Awards. You set a goal in a certain area. We do the goal for two months.

After you’re done, you get a necklace with the scriptures and the angel Moroni on them. It’s painted gold and comes in its own case. I’m so excited. I have so many wonderful things to be proud of, and one reason I think I’m able to do these things is because I probably earned them, because you earn happiness. And this is happiness.

Faith in God Award

Her story goes on through college and marriage and the birth of her four children. She was never in any doubt what the future held out for her:

My father had made my purpose clear at my baby blessing when he’d put his hands on my head and prayed I’d never choose a career over the important full-time work of nurturing my kids and future husband. I may have had no memory of that event, but I still knew the gist of what he’d said because it was written in my pale pink baby book mere pages from my name and date of birth: Sophia White, born April 30, 1976.

She has lived a regimented, rule-based life:

1. Thou shalt keep the Sabbath day holy.

2. Thou shalt not drink coffee or tea.

3. Thou shalt love God.

I have to ask: Since when was abstaining from caffeine more important than loving God which Jesus said was the greatest commandment?

4. Thou shalt read your scriptures daily.

5. Thou shalt give 10% of thy income to the church.

6. Thou shalt fast once a month.

Apart from the tea and coffee thing these are all the kind of things you might expect. But down the list (which contains sixty entries) there are a few that make one wonder a little:

29. Thou shalt do genealogy.

32. Thou shalt not wear flip flops to church.

36. Thou shalt avoid silliness and loud laughter.

55. Thou shalt not procrastinate.

57. Thou shalt go to the temple and perform baptisms for the dead.

but the two one needs to worry about are:

31. Thou shalt not criticize your leaders.

60. Thou shalt not doubt, ever.

And what happens if you do doubt?

If I’d openly spoken about my doubts to others, the bishop could have taken away my temple recommend, released me from my calling, and forbidden me from taking the sacrament of bread and water until my repentance was complete. He’d likely see his actions as a form of mercy. For no unclean thing can enter the presence of God. He might even see it as a way of protecting me, which would make total sense if my Heavenly Father valued worthiness above all else.

Witch-Endor-Blake-LHere’s a case in point: King Saul. Saul wasn’t a bad lad. When he was told that God has chosen him to be king he went away and hid. So this was a man handpicked by the sovereign of the universe and yet by the end of his forty year rule he was nothing less than an apostate: he’d instituted false worship, attempted murder, consulted with the witch of Endor and was generally stubborn and egotistical. Who says that leaders are beyond criticism?

As far as doubt goes we need look no further than poor old Doubting Thomas whom the Catholics have now venerated. Saint Thomas didn’t just doubt anyone either: he doubted the resurrected Messiah to his face. All the guy wanted was proof. He got his proof—thank you very much—and then he went right back to believing.

Doubt doesn’t come as easily as one might imagine. Belief is a habit—some might even go so far as to call it an addiction—and we all know how hard it can be giving up a habit. My father sucked on an empty pipe for years after he gave up smoking and even after the bowl got broken (probably by me—I was a destructive wee bugger from all accounts) he still sucked on the stem for a long while after that.

For the most part Sophia did not have any problems with her faith. She believed in God. She believed there could only be one true religion. She trusted her husband and the church leaders. And then something started bothering her: the role of women in the Christian congregation. At a Sunday School Class they decide to discuss Ephesians 5:22-24:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. — Ephesians 5:22-24

“I prefer what they say in the temple, because the word ‘as’ has more than one meaning, and when we’re told to hearken to our husbands as he hearkens to the Lord, I take that to mean I’m only under covenant to follow my husband when he follows God.”

“So you’re his judge,” my Sunday School teacher said. Well, now he’d twisted my words around to make my interpretation sound unfair.

“No, I don’t think ‘judge’ is the right label. Let’s say a woman has a husband who hits her. I think it’s safe to say he’s not harkening unto the Lord and that the wife is no longer under any obligation to be submissive to her husband.”

“So you’re his judge,” the teacher repeated.

I knew a losing battle when I saw one. “It’s the responsibility of every self-respecting woman to judge her husband,” I quipped.

A few people laughed, and the woman behind me poked me in the shoulder and gave me two thumbs up. I allowed myself to feel optimistic about where the lesson was going.

That was my first mistake.

For the next twenty minutes, I listened to the teacher explain how a man is more likely to treat his wife with respect and love when he understands that the temple covenants essentially make him a God to his wife.

Of course this is all nothing new to me. My dad declaimed on more than one occasion, “In this house I am God.” This, however, is the thin edge of the wedge for Sophia and over the next few chapters we witness her slowly losing her faith. Not, I should make clear, her belief in God but her belief in Mormonism. And you can only imagine the trouble that causes when that finally became public knowledge. Or perhaps you can’t. I honestly expect that most people will have no idea what Sophia was going to have to go through. And that’s why books like this are necessary.

It’s not the longest or most in-depth book you will read on this subject. It’s obviously written by a nice lady who really doesn’t want to hurt, upset or offend anyone and yet in all good conscience can’t stay silent. She even uses a pseudonym so as not to do anything that might damage her family. She’s not an angry, bitter or vindictive person. She says:

On my bad days, I feel more disappointment than anger. Mostly because I believed with all my heart the promises found in Mormonism. I thought I was happier than other people, that I had greater access to spirituality, that I knew my most important and fulfilling role. I believed I had divine knowledge and purpose. Now I’ve found that many of these promises are smoke and mirrors.

And I’m further disheartened when I see religion hurt families. You’d think a family centred church would shout from the rooftops not to shun family members who’ve fallen away. You’d think they’d allow non-believing parents to see their believing kids get married in the temple. You’d think they’d support all different kinds of families, not just those that meet one definition. But all too often an ideal is promoted that benefits the church over families that are struggling. “Traditional gender roles” and “conservative family values” are taught as religious principles.

I asked her who this book was aimed at.

Anyone who wants to better understand how religions indoctrinate children, how they can unite and separate families, how they can bring peace and turmoil at the same time. Anyone who wants a more personal understanding of how it feels to grow up in a legalistic religion that values trust and obedience more highly than free thought, or anyone who wants to understand Mormonism.

Please don’t misread that to mean my book is factually perfect. It’s not. It is based on my experience, and everyone’s reality is different. But I stand by my claim that people who leave Mormonism are often in an isolating place. It’s hard for an orthodox believer to understand why anyone would leave. It’s hard for those who’ve never been in a fundamentalist religion to understand why leaving one is such a big deal. To both these groups, I’d say, “Please read this!” Understanding is vital.

I don’t think anyone who has not been brought up in a fundamentalist organisation—be it a religion, a cult, a sect or even a political party—will in fact understand. You can’t possibly understand unless you’ve been there. I read recently someone’s opinion “that Mormonism isn’t just a religion, it’s a culture.” I think that’s well put. Imagine packing your bags and leaving for India or China or Mars. Imagine the culture shock. The same article goes on:

As members of the LDS church take their first steps into traditional, Biblical Christianity, they are often accosted by sights, sounds, and Stranger in a Strange Landphilosophies which (at times) differ greatly from those with which they are familiar.  Wading through the positive and negative aspects of LDS culture and its relationship to the Truth frequently leaves these new believers feeling as though they are “immigrants in a foreign land”.

Or as Heinlein (and the King James Version) might put it: strangers in a strange land.

Most people I associate with these days haven’t the slightest interest in religion. Many, like me, had religious upbringings and yet even in their fifties, sixties and seventies cannot shake off completely what they were taught as children. ‘Sophia’ will never be free. Not even if she moves to Mars.

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