Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Artist in Real and Virtual Company 2:
The imagined auditory presence

One of the most common questions any writer gets is: who do you write for?  In some cases the answer would appear simple: the poem is overtly dedicated to an individual or group. Love poems are to the beloved. A political poem is addressed to a cause or to those in a position to support or oppose the cause. We have poems addressed to friends, to patrons, to people the poet has never met but admires, or to other specifics, but  there remains a nagging something or someone beyond the overt address. One might facetiously respond to the enquirer that it is you, sir or madam, I am writing for you, but this would be recognised as facetious or even intrusive.

What does it mean for Dylan Thomas to be addressing those unnamed and probably conjectural lovers? What part do the drunken companions play in the solitary figure of Li Po? What can be known of the other solitaries in Jean Valentine’s poem? In what way is Coleridge’s sleeping babe an audience?

I have had two standard answers to the question of who one writes for. The first is to indicate a class of people with whom I tend to identify: people on trains, I say, aware of the range of reasons people might be on trains, aware that people on trains are between places, aware that trains, unlike aeroplanes are in contact with the ground and pass through landscapes. The companionship of these fellow travellers is as notional as Thomas’s lovers. We are aware that travellers alight at various points of their journeys and that our contact with them is not necessarily personal: it is just that we share a suspended condition that is distinct from the business of life and identity we are obliged to lead once we have arrived. Different poets will have different answers but they may be of the kind that refers to a shared condition. Jean Valentine’s solitary speaks to the shared condition of a fellow solitary .

But there is another answer we might give and I do occasionally give which is that we write for quite specific auditors, an audience that is much more active and is composed of those writers or writings that have meant something special to us. This is an audience that has had a direct part in our own development and have taken their places in our writing selves, who consciously or otherwise are part of the writier’s navigating system when it comes to deciding what makes a line or indeed an entire poem. When there is just one towering figure in this audience we may find ourselves talking of the anxiety of influence which some interpret as a variant on the Oedipus complex. In other words we have to kill them before we can proceed. That may indeed be a stage in the devlopment of a writer, but at some stage the various towering figures begin to move in a certain constellation, not all in agreement, and it is out of these that are audience , our unconscious or semi-conscious navigation system is constructed.

There are always others beside the writer-as-solitary, those who are present not just as social context but as presences in the very act. The lovers, the drunken companions, the fellow soitary, the sleeping child are all notionally present, but so are those other figures who have made our writing what it is: the sound of nursery rhymes, thevoices in sacred texts, the sound of the first poets whose voices arrested us and those who followed. These virtual companions stand to one side of time, watching it flow past them. We who are in the stream may find them accompanying us for part of the journey: our fellow swimming contemporaries, the ghosts on passing currents, the vast edifices on the bank whose shadow remains with us long after we have passed them and those whose domain extends along vast stretches of the river. They are virtual but present. We don’t think of them but we are not altogether unconscious of them.

Our fellow travellers, those with whose condition we identify are, like us, receivers, listeners. Those who have entered our heads as influences are transmitters, just as we are transmitters: we hear them as we transmit.

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