Friko, commenting on my recent post, The Play's the Thing : true story mentioned that it was a pity that I'd had to stay factual to the end. It was a feeling I'd had in great measure when writing the post, for the story could have taken off in any one of a number of ways. However, there is a lot of me invested in Pip - and in the group as a whole, for that matter. I have posted before, and written poems, about the group (and one other group - but that's another story) or about individual members of it, and have tried, for example, to change the name, and in one case the gender, of the child concerned. Mostly I couldn't do it. Something inside kept screaming at me: This is not right. You cannot live with this! Nevertheless, Friko's comment set me thinking... and then in a Guardian Magazine (which I hardly ever look at) I came upon an article (two actually, but I'm only interested in the one) on lying. It was in fact, an edited extract from the book: The Liar in Your Life: How Lies Work and What they Tell Us About Ourselves by Robert Feldman. This synchronicity seems to be following me around these days.
The extract dismissed with little ado as fairly obvious, the lies people tell to achieve some pay-off, avoid some punishment, etc. The tobacco executive, for example, who lies about the dangers of cigarettes. Then mention is made of the way in which lies may be used to oil the social wheels. A friend is telling you about the great time he had at Stephen's house. You know where Stephen's house is? he asks, almost in passing. Yes, you lie, simply because you do not want to break the flow, interrupt the narrative.
We lie to present ourselves in the light in which we see ourselves and would like others to see us. Various celebrities are asked (in the magazine) what they have lied about just recently. They all seem pretty trivial. The one that struck me was Ann Widdecombe saying: ... if someone asks me, "Do you like my new dress?" then I'm going to say "Yes." Well, fair enough, as she herself says, that's like everybody else. Probably the most common example she or I or you could have picked on.
I've often thought about this question of lies when I've been blogging. It gets to being critical (pun not intended) when I'm commenting on other blogs. How can you comment on, say, a poem - and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I 'm suggesting that you cannot. And I'm suggesting that it's not my fault, or your fault, or any other person's fault. It's all the fault of the confounded words! They are just not extensive enough or subtle enough to do the job. Okay, well some of you wordsmiths out there would make a better job of it than I, but the problem would still be there. Whoever you are and however good you are, you cannot get away from it.
Urgh, I think I am about to drive into a fog, a real pea-souper, so maybe it's time to switch on a headlight or two to keep us out of the ditches that happen to line this particular road. So here are a few guiding principles:-
- I would never say of a poem that I liked it if I did not.
- No poem - nor anything else, for that matter - is so perfect that it cannot be improved.
- No poem (almost no poem?) is without merit.
That said, let me put it this way. Suppose I read a new poem by Seamus Heaney which I think shows Heaney at his magnificent best. I am so enthused about this poem that I produce a post to tell the whole of bloggerland (or that small part of it that visits my blog) about it, and about how I have been moved by it. Maybe I say something like: it's a fine poem! Okay? Clear enough? Well, maybe not. It doesn't say much about the poem to someone who has not read or heard it; pretty pathetic really, or it would be if that was all I said about it. So, hopefully I would have found something more inspiring or informative to say, but let's stick with me being pathetic, if only for the sake of a simple example. Next thing, my comment finished, I continue with my visiting of other blogs. Soon I discover that Jimmy Prettyline has posted a new poem. Fine poem, Jimmy! I comment. But hey, wait a minute, two fine poems? Does that mean I think Jimmy's poem is on a par with Heaney's? Unlikely. Fine, when I apply it to something from the pen of Seamus Heaney, does not mean exactly what it means when I use it of Jimmy Prettyline's effort. And if I chose something more informative, something like Brilliant use of assonance or the line breaks are used to good effect, then the situation is unchanged. I do not mean to put Jimmy Prettyline's technique on a par with Heaney's. In one sense I am saying that I put both of them up there among the best (finest), but... and it's a big "but"... though the words do not change their meaning between being applied to Prettyline and being said of Heaney, nevertheless their field of reference has changed.
So does that simply mean that I am saying to Jimmy no more than that for him it's a fine poem! Not at all. It almost certainly does mean that, but it means far more than just that. Some will maintain (have said as much in conversation) that my words should be such that they will carry the same weight in both cases, position each on the same overall achievement scale, if you like. This would entail the use of caveats, qualifications, reservations etc. In some cases it would be like comparing my (no doubt, absolutely brilliant) local village football team with Manchester United. How could I appraise the one in ways that would leave me with suitable words with which to aptly appraise the other in the same terms? There simply are not enough words with enough shades of meaning between them to make that even theoretically possible. In one way or another I would end up damning with faint praise - or at least appearing to. Maybe it is that Jimmy has only just started to write poetry. However I phrase it or pitch it, to use the same standard, the same field of reference, of both his work and Heaney's would (could) be devastating to Jimmy. It might put him off writing poetry for ever - even though, perhaps, he might turn out to be a future Heaney yet to reveal himself! And dropping the use of words like "fine" would not solve the problem, for all the other words I might use have the same undifferentiated levels of meaning depending upon the context in which they are used.
No, if I tried to be totally honest in this strictly linguistic sense, not only would I fail, but I would end up telling a bigger lie than if I simply said it was a fine poem, or if I commended him for his clever use of line breaks or assonance.
What I meant of course, in the case of Jimmy, was that his poem would be reckoned a fine achievement for anyone (not just him) at this point in his development. So maybe I could say that or add a few caveats to my high-blown praise.The result would be the same: it would sound like damning with faint praise.
So what do I do. Usually I read the poem, maybe a couple of times, and then react to it on an instinctual level. If I write Great poem, it's because, reading it, I thought it was great. Simple as that. Same with my local football team. I don't go and watch them b because they are as good as Manchester United. They are not. But neither do I watch them because they are rubbish. Again, they are not. I watch them because I get pleasure from watching them. Yes, sometimes I will find them frustrating (more so than if I followed Manchester United, I don't doubt), but on the whole I am excited by them and I think they are great. Also, there is a special pleasure in watching the improver come good. I may even bore people by telling them how great my team is. If they ask in what ways they are great, then I will tell them that they play attractive, open football... or whatever.
I read the other day that someone had written The political brain is an emotional brain. Not a thought that would readily have occurred to me, but had they said The poetic brain is an emotional brain I could have said Amen! to that. As indicated above, my first reaction to a poem I have not encountered before, is nearly always a straight- forwardly emotional one. Maybe the second and perhaps another reading or so will also elicit purely emotional responses. At some point there must come the conscious application of one's more cerebral gear and the knowledge stored therein. Awareness and discernment will come into play,. But particularly in the case of difficult poems, to begin with a cerebral approach is a bit like trying to get your car to pull away from standing in third gear. Depending on the age, type and condition of your car, it might be possible, but it will be far smoother in a lower gear.
This is no different really, from the way in which my poems get written. Any poem worth the name begins with a distinctive feeling, what I call a movement towards. Even in the very rare case of a first line being given, it comes with an emotional charge attached. The first draft - or if not that much, the first scratchings - are feelings-led. Only later comes the more cerebral activity of shaping the poem into its final form. There are no fixed rules, but that would be not uncharacteristic. There is a lot of talk on the web about expressing yourself - not only in poetry, but all the arts - and too little, I think, about the disciplined shaping that needs to follow.
The difference between Heaney's greatness and Prettyline's may lie more in the matter of repeated readings and familiarity and may not be so apparent upon first acquaintance. Give me a Prettyline poem and a Heaney, both hot from their final drafts, and don't tell me the authors' names, and my initial responses may not be that different. Ask me again a few weeks later and it is likely that I will still be finding new excitements in the Heaney, even if the Prettyline seems to have run its course. By then I will be able to give a more considered and reasoned opinion of both poems. The differences in quality will be showing - or not, as the case may be!
Well, that's just one of the two aspects of "literary lying" that I had intended to discuss, but it's probably more than enough for now.