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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hide and Seek

It is with tremendous joy that I am introducing here a guest post by Jim Murdoch, a Scottish novelist and writer, poet, and author of many literature related posts – that could be found on his amazing blog The Truth About Lies, as well on the site Jim Murdoch for sure knows the real truth beneath all the lies. All I could add to it is this – The one who does not know how to lie, does not know what the real truth is.

I hid and you sook – Beckett, 'Whoroscope'

I have been reading (and not getting) poetry for 35 years. I get some of it but there is far more out there that I don't get. For years I allowed myself to feel stupid when I didn't understand The Waste Land, The Cantos or The Maximus Poems. The fault had to be mine, I clearly wasn't clever enough and so I persisted, read more, understood little of what I was reading, couldn't find anyone to explain what I was reading and pretty much gave up reading poetry as a bad job.

My problem came from the premise from which I was working: words are containers for meanings > poems contain words > ergo poetry contained meaning. I still believe that, at its core, is what all writing does first and foremost; anything else is either a bonus or just coincidental. I've gone down the whole explication route, taken poems to pieces and not known how to put them back together.

Back in January Sean O'Brien won the T S Eliot Prize and there was an article in The Times about him or, more specifically about about.

What's it about? It's probably the question we poets hate hearing more than any other. The article has this to say:

The answer to the problem of "about" is simply, I think, to relax. Speaking after his win, O'Brien said: "We live in a prose world where poetry is an experience. People have to let themselves off the hook, absorb it, be with it and not expect to understand it." Being told that we shouldn't expect to understand things is – in a world of exams and target-setting – not necessarily comfortable.

If the poet isn't going to take responsibility for meaning then who is? I wrote a poem a while ago which addresses this issue:


Writers are all liars. We all are.
But at least they are honest liars.

They write down those necessary lies,
the kind that move men to leaps of faith
or excuse us when we fail to jump.

In the end it doesn't matter that
they let us down in the cruellest ways.

August 18, 1996

What has always fascinated me about fiction writing is its capacity to communicate fundamental truths via out and out lies: George and Lenny never existed, nor did Holden Caulfield or Capt. John Yossarian or Moby Dick or The Grinch. They're not real. They're all made up, figments of some guy's imagination. They're not true and if something's not true then it's a lie. Writers are all liars. I was brought up to believe that lying is wrong but it’s not.

If we examine my poem a little closer you'll see that's it's not as clear as it first appears. The first two statements are fine. They are statements of facts or at least opinions: the narrator believes that everyone is a liar and that obviously includes all writers. But there's a proviso in the third sentence, writers are described as "honest liars", an oxymoron. How can one be an "honest liar"? The second stanza sheds some light suggesting that there's reason, a necessity even, behind their needing to lie; they're doing it for us so that we can in some way justify our actions or abdicate responsibility in some way. But then we have the rider: the narrator says that in fact these writers – which must include himself – let us down and "in the cruellest ways" but what he might mean by that is left up to reader.

Does this poem succeed or fail because it demands the reader does some work? Have I let you down in some way?

Let's consider another poem, 'Orbs', by Carrie Berry. You'll need to click on the hyperlink to read the poem.

Now this is a beautifully presented piece. The twinkling stars which could look tacky manage not to. This poem was read in front of a constellation of astronomers who loved it – they're not like the rest of us, they didn't need to look up "baryon", "fusion waves" or "gamma" to get the thing. The thing is though, they thought they got it but they didn't. They liked the sound of it, because it used terminology they were familiar with but they couldn't see beyond that. "Ebon orbs" – that's got to be black holes? Right? Nope. It's about the way light danced in a girl's eyes. I know because I talked to her about the piece.

The question is: Is this a bad poem? Has the author short-changed us in some way? Does her use of astrobabble detract the reader?

How about this one, the short opening stanza to Beckett's 1930 poem, 'Whoroscope':

What's that?
An egg?
By the brother Boot it stinks fresh.
Give it to Gillot

You can read the whole poem, all 98 lines of it, here.

With some reluctance Beckett provided a series of footnotes to the poem, the first three of which help explain the opening stanza above:

  1. René Descartes, Seigneur du Perron, liked his omelette made of eggs hatched from eight to ten days; shorter or longer under the hen and the result, he says, is disgusting. He kept his own birthday to himself so that no astrologer could cast his nativity. The Shuttle of a ripening egg combs the warp of his days.
  2. In 1640 the brothers Boot refused Aristotle in Dublin.
  3. Descartes passed on the easier problems in analytical geometry to his valet Gillot.

Does it help? Or would you like some notes to explain his notes? Well, yes, but if a poem needs a pile of notes for it to make sense then is it a good poem? Beckett's poetry is notoriously difficult and obtuse. There's a good article on-line by Andrew Goodspeed entitled: Extremely Difficult & Occasionally Unpleasant: The Poetry of Samuel Beckett which is worth checking out. It is very clever poetry as is the poetry of Eliot and Pound but does that make it good? Some critics don't even consider 'Whoroscope' a proper poem. I've seen it called both a monologue and "chopped-up prose".

It is worthwhile noting what James Knowlson had to say about the piece in his biography of Beckett:

You would need to be a specialist on Descartes or to have read the books that Beckett had read to pick up many of the more obscure allusions. It certainly needs more extensive notes than Beckett added for its publication to make it fully comprehensible.

Should you have to know what a poem's about to know what it's about? Is poetry a game of hide and seek? Should they be puzzles to work out? And if so, don't all good puzzles have answers? Isn't it a disappointment somehow that we're expected to look for answers in textbooks or, worse still, in ourselves?

At the end of her 1991 poem 'Pieces of the Puzzle', Seattle poet Moreah Vestan says quite simply:

Who am I?

I am the writer who must tell you who I am, discover who you are.

I am a witness to your fear, to your faith, to your dance with the ebb
and flow of the moon—driven current of Life.

Who are we?

We are simply pieces to complete each other’s puzzle.

Is it wrong then to write esoteric poetry? No. It's also not wrong to write erotic poetry. It's actually quite a popular topic for poets. So I've heard. Esoterica, exactly like erotica, has a limited audience. And that's fine. What I think is perhaps a little naďve is to publish a poem that clearly has a hidden meaning – a "decoder ring poem" as my wife likes to call them – and then get upset or annoyed when people don't get it.

Sean O'Brien says we don't have to understand poems. But the man in the street being the contrary bugger he is will try his damndest to see meanings where there may not be any; he sees butterflies in inkblots, crabs in star formations and fluffy bunnies in clouds – he's even been known to find meaning in a poem.


Ken Armstrongsaid...

I don't think I have to 'get' poems' or writing generally. Although when something I read 'connects' with me, that is magic, even if the connection is not one which the writer conciously intended.

I do think obscure works *do* have to mean something to the creator of the work, regardless of whether that meaning is ever revealed. Otherwise they're just splashing ink or paint all around the place

Jim Murdochsaid...

It is true, Ken, that some poems do not have to mean something. What I am talking about here are poems where the author intends them to mean something (and not simply to him) but is unable to incorporate that meaning within the poem itself. Where an explanation is missing the reader is reduced to the role of say an archaeologist, trying to make sense out of something without necessarily understanding it. That poetry like this can be enjoyed on one level is fine – I can quite happily listening to The Enigma Variations without giving a toss who 'Nimrod' was; the piece works on its own. And, as for splashing paint on a canvas, well it's been done before and a lot of people still struggle with it because they expect art to be something. I know I hold the reader ultimately responsible for extracting meaning from or imbuing with meaning a piece of text but that doesn't give the author the option to abdicate all responsibility; he has to provide his readers with enough to work with. In some respects I'm playing devil's advocate because I know people will do what they jolly well want to do but it's fun to talk about.

Rachel Foxsaid...

Maybe poems are just like crosswords...some people like them more cryptic, some like them more straightforward...some don't like them at all and would rather do sudoku...some people would rather watch TV, walk the dog, have a nap...
As for 'if something's not true then it's a lie'. I'm not so's a nice sentence...but is that clear-cut - black or white, ebony or ivory, in or out, truth or lie?
(And yes I will read your book and find out!)


Great poetry is in the eye of the beholder, just like beauty. I've found myself reading poems from famous poets and at times, had no idea why it's supposed to be good. I find poetry written from pain to be the most fulfilling for me, probably because I can relate to it. I see music much like poetry - when in a certain mood, I'm more likely to respond well to a certain poem at that time. On any other day, I may miss out on the vibe.

The more you read and educate yourself, the more appreciative you are of all things artistic. You get back to that childlike state of just loving it and aren't really sure why:)

This is a fantastic post!

Jim Murdochsaid...

I think that's a very good way to put it, Rachel. The thing about crosswords in particular is that they have clues that are external to the body of the puzzle and that's equivalent to the poems that needs a pile of notes to help you work them out.

I suppose a lot of it is to do with frames of reference. Writers from each generation reference the one before them. It's like in my book since you mention it, I drop pop culture references all over the place without any explanation and I honestly don't know if a teenager today would get the jokes and I'm really curious to see if its humour translates overseas. To my mind these things are the herbs and spices that add flavour to the piece. It's like the last Dr Who episode where the show was riddled with the titles of Agatha Christie's novels. To those who know them – and get easily bored by giant wasp-things – it added a whole extra level of enjoyment to the thing.

The whole "if it's not true then it's a lie" philosophy comes, I suspect, from something Jesus said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple." There are only two choices. I just think the monochromaticism of the whole thing is hysterical: there's only right and wrong, up or down, black and white. If it's not truth then it has to be a lie. People make sweeping statements like, "His whole life was nothing but a lie," but that's plainly an oversimplification of the facts. It's why I so appreciate the concept of fuzzy logic: nearly two plus nearly two equals nearly four. That makes sense to me.


wow kinda like Religion*

I had a bit of an Epiphany yesterday I was reading Richard Dawkins brilliant Good Book The god Delusion + i decided to cross reference some passages he quoted from the bible Genesis + Numbers*

Well I never really understood that Crap they were foisting on us at an Early Age but reading it yesterday I was frankly shocked!! I was actually able to Grasp the gist of the Malarkey!!

Great Post Jim!! Very Enlightening*

;)) Peace*

Jim Murdochsaid...

Thanks for the feedback Bobby and Billy. Of course, the more we educate ourselves, the more scope we have to understand the more complex poems and books that are out there. It certainly places us in a better position to determine what's good and what's not.

Susan Sonnensaid...

I think that one of the magical qualities of poetry is that it might mean something different to a reader than what the poet intended. From his own life experiences, the reader brings his own meaning into the poem. Of course, that leaves the not-so-magical reader who is completely clueless and misses any real meaning that can be found in the poem. I have been that not-so-magical reader more than once. Sad to say. At that point, we do have to wonder if it is the 'fault' of the reader or the poet.

I posted a poem on a writing site not too long ago that, to me, was clear within it's intended fogginess. Apparently, I was sadly mistaken, as many readers just didn't get it. One of my favorite (tongue in cheek with a smile) reviews was: ?????????.

I admit, I do not do 'foggy' well. I write much better poetry when the meaning is clear, but pliable, able to be manipulated by the reader to fit within his own life.

Jim Murdochsaid...

I agree, Susan, and it's quite wonderful when someone takes ownership of one of your poems and makes it their own. I've also spent a little time on those kinds of writing sites and I really hate it where a poet feels the need to preface his poem with a comment because you don't get to judge the poem on its own merits.

I wrote a poem recently and I wrote under the title (After Auden) and then, after the poem, I quoted a few lines from the poem by Auden. The quote is an added bonus – it's not really necessary IF you're familiar with Auden's canon – and part of me would have preferred to omit it but I'm well aware that Auden is not as well read as he once was and I wanted people to see where I was coming from. That said, the poem does not depend on its origins for its meaning; it's more of an added bonus.

I have to say that I also don't do, to use your expression, "fogginess" well. My wife does and she has to explain her poems to me so I guess I'm just the wrong reader for that kind of poetry. What I do find prevalent though is an attitude that if a poem is accessible it is in some ways inferior, that it's not a real poem and that bothers me just as much as the opposing camp's view that "foggy" poetry distances itself from most readers and puts them off all poetry. It's an argument that will continue for a long time I'm sure.

Jim Murdochsaid...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Speedcat Hollydalesaid...

Sometimes I think the lines blur between poetry and simple writing.

The poetry that stikes me as powerful and thought inspiring is the work done by a passionate author. You can feel the words dance across your skin.

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