Sunday, 16 November 2008

Those lying novelists and those differently lying poets



Apache story teller


Before saying something about the Savile reading in the next post - a gorgeous occasion, like being turned into an ancestral portrait at one stroke - I need to pick up something I said there and to which Linda refers in her post.

I do occasionally exhibit a gift for saying the most inappropriate things at the most inappropriate times. Have foot, have mouth, will travel. With not only Linda, but Alan Sillitoe and Eva Hofmann, to mention only three important novelists present, I suggested novelists were liars. I didn't mean they were shady people whom you shouldn't trust with a fiver - indeed they are probably harder working, more honest pushers of the pen than most poets - but that when I was attempting to write a novel I failed because I couldn't free myself of the feeling that I was in some way lying.

'Telling stories' is, of course, what story tellers do, but calling them liars is a bit much. So, just before I remove this sackcloth and anoint myself with another sachet full of ashes, let me explain, as briefly and incompletely as such a space permits, what I meant.

Right from the moment I began writing poems (and it was, literally, a moment) I felt I was doing so because poetry offered a marvellous way - possibly the only way - of registering the world as it was. I mean broadly the sensation of being alive in a world of strange sensible objects, those strange sensible objects very much including people. It was almost an act of social withdrawal in that at that point in my young life I was feeling particularly uneasy with notions of social being, even with being 'yourself'. I had no idea what that you-self might be, and was, furthermore, aware that I knew even less about all those other selves I came into contact with. This despite the fact - possibly because of the fact - that I had long been aware of the world as a tragic, missing kind of place, full of desperate, threatened human voices. It was simply that the human voices I was hearing around me, were going around being 'characters' not voices.

This withdrawal from the social aspect of 'character' is what I meant by the solipsistic aspect of being a poet. It isn't a vain obsession with oneself. The self of that 'oneself' is interesting but unknowable. It is not a solid core. It is what consciousness registers through language that makes the essence of poetry. That is the space that the 'voices' out there - the desperate, threatened, lost voices - may come to inhabit. Honesty, for a poet, lies therefore in finding what seems to be a true balance between the world and language. Language is provisional: the world is unknowable

It seemed to me then that novelists, who have chiefly to be interested in people and what people are likely to do, would have to assume knowability. But knowability always felt to me like a short cut I couldn't take.

That is the solipsist talking, of course. Linda refers very kindly to Ésprit d'escalier, a new poem of mine in which a whole lot of people start talking to themselves on the bus and in the street, until everyone is saying the things they should have said at the time they were last talking to someone real but had failed to do so. The poem wonders how far the persons being ghost-addressed like this are not simply imagined by the speakers, or are in fact absorbed into the speaker as an aspect of themselves.

I did indeed laugh, when Linda politely asked whether this account of so many people talking to themselves was not in fact - a lie? A very good point. Clearly it did not happen, the incident never took place, except as sensation, a metaphor of some sort, and even so it did not happen on a bus, but at my desk some time after the sensation, and beyond even that, it only properly happened as it started moving through language: through verse, specifically through the sestina form.

But then, I later suggested to Linda, the poem never tried to persuade anyone that the events did occur. Surely it was clear that the whole thing was made up. There was not even the faintest attempt at persuasion, no pressure to 'suspend disbelief'.

What I didn't say to her (more ésprit d'escalier here) was that that precisely was the way in which the poem seemed true to me; that, when I looked at people absorbed in themselves while on the move, they seemed to be part of an all too real world in which the lost is indeed lost though one keeps trying to address it. That, I might have said, was truly my experience of the way things happen.

Is that clear? Probably not.

What my mouth did not say, chiefly because it had a foot in it (mine), was that story telling is its own truth, in that it is the imaginative ordering of things that might be, and have to be assumed to be in order for us to do anything at all; that story telling is a great and vital art; that we do, in fact, live in a world of consequences and cannot help but reflect on the fact. And that all that is undoubtedly true and not a lie. I might also have ventured that our notions of real people's real character may in fact be an aspect of the fictionalising imagination. They become part of our stories.

Which is, I would then quietly say to myself, if only to excuse myself, precisely what Barthes says in his Mythologies too; that cheap fiction actually buggers us up by reducing being to character to personality to function to powerlessness, while pretending that powerlessness is personality is character is being. And that that can feel like a lie of sorts. It was my fear of that lie that completely incapacitated me as a novelist because I could not quite believe in the proper density of my inventions. They should have been people and, above all, beings - those strange mysterious beings who actually inhabit the world with all their pity, grief, power, desire and need - but they were merely inventions. I knew I was inventing them and felt uncomfortable.

That, as I say, was the fear. But then good story tellers don't allow that to happen. Life does not drain out of their inventions because they invent in depth and under the proper spell of language. And they entertain and bind us as readers with their spell.

I could elaborate on this for much longer but this is a blog and so I shut up, first carefully taking the foot out of my mouth and making my apologies to the story-tellers, at whose non mouth-bound feet I am, much of the time,as happy to sit as is the rest of the perfectly real, true world. It is simply that there is more doing than being in stories. There is, on the other hand, more being than doing in poems.



13 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

"... the lost is indeed lost though one keeps trying to address it": not only clear but also beautiful.

Linda Grant said...

I would not dissent for a moment from the accusation that novelists are liars. We wear it proudly.

Andrew Shields said...

Whoops, here comes Epimenides! :-)

George S said...

Ah, those lying Cretans! I wouldn't trust a Cretan further than I could throw an Etruscan.

Linda, I believe you.

Poet in Residence said...

Perhaps there's a kind of 'You can trust me I'm a doctor' mentality at work here. Let's try and see.
There may 'be more doing than being' and 'being than doing' but at the end of it all I think we have to agree to compare like with like. We can't compare DaVinici Code fiction with George Szirtes' new book and expect to get a proper result.
We must compare like with like. Is D H Lawrence more trustworthy as a poet or as a novelist? is perhaps a way to look at this. I might address this interseting subject on my blog in the next day or two, he lies through his back teeth ... or does he?

George S said...

I think there has to be more doing than being in any story, or there's no story. Nobody, as far as I know, has picked up a sonnet and said: "What a cliff-hanger! I wonder what will happen in the next sonnet? Is the Dark Lady going to get it in the neck?"

DHL? - Depends which poems, but even so I'd lay a reasonable fortune on there being more doing in the prose. It's the whole nature of syntax to be moving you on. Lines are brief physical stays.

I sometimes suspect that Dick Barton theme music waiting to start up in many a novel.

Poet in Residence said...

What I mean is that poets are not more or less trustworthy than novelists. DHL the poet is not more or less 'trustworthy' or 'true' than DHL the novelist. The events in Sons and Lovers are just as likely or unlikely as the events in the snake poems. DHL goes deep wherever he can it seems to me. I'll grant that there is more 'doing' in his novels although in some chapters of some novels there may be very little 'doing'. If only because a novel is longer there will obviously be more 'doing' unless it's a poem of novel length, such as Ted Hughes' Gaudette, then there's every likelyhood that there will be just as much 'doing' as in a novel, if not more.

George S said...

Yes, I agree about trustworthiness, but that is not the point I was making. Trustworthiness to do what? was the question. And I think it - that is to say 'doing' - goes deeper than simple length. It is there in the nature of realistic prose. It is in the dominance of syntax over line or breath, in the drive to see who did what to whom. That's part of the narratological flow, the AND THEN-ness, the logical connectivity of prose. I'll write a bit more on this, but I am not offering particularly original thoughts here, just an individual take on those thoughts.

Prose is about sequences and consequences; poetry is about states and coincidences. I mean lyrical poetry primarily, of course, but it can be argued that epic poetry and dramatic poetry have the compression and power of the lyric at heart.

Mark Granier said...

Of course novelists are liars, in the sense that they invent worlds. I've mentioned Nabokov's assertion before, that the boy who cried wolf was the first novelist. But poets are also, in that sense, liars.

Leaving aside the post-advance-rear-guard tinkerers, a lyric poem is another kind of mask, another contraption of smoke and mirrors. Its invented worldlet is smaller, denser and closer to music and painting than novels are. Perhaps it is also closer to theatre. McNeice called it a monodrama.

Where a novel plunges us into a temporal dream, a poem twirls and circles itself, is relentlessly conscious of its own becoming. As Frost said, it rides on its own melting. So a poem may seem to harbour less illusions than a novel. But I don't think so. In fact the greatest poems have, as I think Heaney put it, holes in them, zones where we half-wake in the poem's dream, wondering how we got there.

Ted Hughes wrote that he used to shoot animals as a boy, then wondered if he could catch them in words instead; his first poem clothed itself in the "sharp, hot stink of fox". So, living zones, boxes with hearts (and pulse-rates), contraptions, smoke and mirrors, the smoke denser than a novel's, the kind "that slides along the street, Rubbing its back upon the windowpanes..."

PS
I too love that phrase, even in English: the spirit of the stairs. I managed to find a use for it in a very short poem: 'Sorry, You're a Ghost' (in The Sky Road).

PPS
In fact, all artists are liars, all who make it their purpose to create the illusion of living, breathing worldlets.

George S said...

Yes, OK Mark, but the differences I talk about remain. We are not talking about probity. Both novelists and poets are interested in what is really out there. Most poets (who are not novelists for a reason) do not go about painfully and consciously constructing 'characters'. A monodrama is mono- for a reason, not just because it is shorter.

Ask yourself what you actually mean by "smaller, denser and closer to music and painting than novels are. Perhaps it is also closer to theatre.". Why? What is the enterprise?

It isn't a moral question. It is a question of comfort or discomfort in making up things and events that you know for a fact don't exist, then equipping them with all the persuasive apparatus of realism. There is much less sense of 'realism' in poetry, even in biographical works such as Auden's Rimbaud or Edward Lear sonnets, in Edward Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters.

Masks are voices, not characters. Poets have voices: novelists characters. There is a difference.

In any case, the novel is not an ancient form that comes down to us from prehistory. It appears at a certain point and may disappear at another. Stories will remain. It is the novelist's sense of character I could not master - a lack in me, if you like. But I know, very firmly, on my pulse, that it is a different thing from voice in a poem, in that its angel to experience is different.

As the title of my post says both poets and storytellers are liars in the sense that they don't simply document 'facts', but their sense of what feels true is different.

I am not cheering for one side or another. I am trying to explain as honestly as I can why I - and by extension others - became a poet not a novelist.

George S said...

erratum

Angle to experience, not angel. But, on the other hand...

Poet in Residence said...

What are Phil Larkin's poems; Mr Bleaney, The Explosion, The Whistun Weddings, if they are not a short stories? You could pad them out and almost turn them into novelettes I'd dare say. Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' is a novelette you could probably easily shorten and change into a long poem. Mark's word is 'monodrama'. I think it fits.
I'm not disputing that there is poetry that avoids 'sequences and consequences' but also on the other hand there is poetry that doesn't; e.g. 'Rhyme of the Ancient Marinere' is all about 'sequences and consequences' and would provide a first class skeleton for a book of Moby Dick proportions. I think it's just different styles of writing we're talking about. Poetry and prose. It's simply a matter of personal prefernce. I eagerly await your forthcoming ground-breaking mind-bending novel George. I think it will be about a character who lives in a Szirtesian world of staircase moments. Go to it boyo!

Poet in Residence said...

What are Phil Larkin's poems; Mr Bleaney, The Explosion, The Whistun Weddings, if they are not a short stories? You could pad them out and almost turn them into novelettes I'd dare say. Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice' is a novelette you could probably easily shorten and change into a long poem. Mark's word is 'monodrama'. I think it fits.
I'm not disputing that there is poetry that avoids 'sequences and consequences' but also on the other hand there is poetry that doesn't; e.g. 'Rhyme of the Ancient Marinere' is all about 'sequences and consequences' and would provide a first class skeleton for a book of Moby Dick proportions. I think it's just different styles of writing we're talking about. Poetry and prose. It's simply a matter of personal prefernce. I eagerly await your forthcoming ground-breaking mind-bending novel George. I think it will be about a character who lives in a Szirtesian world of staircase moments. Go to it boyo!