Saturday, 1 May 2010

On Being Someone Else: Voices, Serpents, Gardens

I was reading at the Arnolfini last night with Peter Bennet and Rita Ann Higgins, excellent poets both, and thinking - particularly during Rita Ann's reading - I wish I could have written that, or, rather, I wish I could pitch my voice in that place. I wish it because it is a warm, hard, proud, generous, human place, a place for lives that don't often enter other people's poems. I like such places.


That thought is immediately succeeded by another thought: You can't and never will, not only because you are not a woman, Irish, etc, but because that range of voice, marvellous in her case, would be quite inauthentic in you.

I imagine this is a not uncommon feeling. Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope, wrote Shakespeare (as if he needed to, we think) in Sonnet 29,a line Eliot stole for the beginning of Ash Wednesday, adding:

I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)

(Edmund Wilson in, as I remember, The Shores of Light, gave the 'young' Eliot - Eliot was just thirty-nine - a thorough telling-off for imagining himself 'agèd', let alone an 'eagle', and never mind stealing Shakespeare, thereby comparing himself with him.)

We do covet other people's gifts. We do sometimes wish we could do what they do.


But then there is yet a third thought, which is this: What is the 'ourselves' that we seem to be stuck with? I don't specifically mean as social beings ('Lots of folk live up lanes / With fires in a bucket' wrote Larkin in Toads, considering the possibility of being someone else), though maybe that enters into it. I mean as a range of voices.

The lack of fixity in a writerly 'identity' has long been a matter for intellectual debate - our authors are dead, long live our readers! - but it is odd to feel it directly, on the pulse, so to speak. On our own pulse! Which of the 19th century French critics was it (Saint-Beuve?) who accused certain poets of his time of only writing the poems that their diction fitted them to write? Touché!

I think it is like this: that we do get trapped in ourselves, in the voice we have developed with great pain and struggle - or haply landed on as if on a deep mattress from a great height - at the time we actually call our development. Having somehow 'found our voice ', which is maybe no more than just one voice among others we might have found, it becomes a security. It is what we can do. It becomes us. We become it. At best we become Laocoön wrestling with the serpent of our own voice. At worst we just give ourselves up to the bloody serpent and do whatever it insists on. Then the serpent gets bored and crawls off and we have nothing left except our guilt, smugness and ever less comfortable passivity.

It may be good to accept this, to admit our limits, to cultivate - let me change metaphors here! - whatever garden we seem to have built around ourselves: to make it entirely our own. It may be good in the way that humility is good.

And yet the flipside of such humility (everything has a flipside) is, first timidity, then smugness. Realising this might be liberating. We may then, still in humility, ask just what it is we so admire in this man's gift, that woman's scope, and why it seems to be important to us? And we may perhaps tear up and re-plant a piece of our well-cultivated garden, or go and start an allotment elsewhere where another voice might grow, one we might have grown in the first place, had circumstances been different.

This doesn't mean we become a series of allotments, or, like Fernando Pessoa, a mysterious set of heteronyms, just that we don't cling too closely to that right little, tight little garden. Extending our 'selves', expanding them, is not like a piece of colonialism. We don't take anyone else's space by doing so.

The line between exploration and occupation of territory is faint. We may even distrust it. But, maybe, what I hear in Rita Ann Higgins (for example) has a kind of corresponding timbre in the voice I myself sing in. Maybe that is what learning is.

Maybe 'the agèd eagle' had something there:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The first time is the only way of knowing. The rest is words.

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