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.