Poetry and Conversation
Posted 10 months ago by John
Poetry and Conversation
“...poetry is great at transforming inner jumble into something people respond to as against shrink back from with the instinctual (or, rather, socially conditioned) Fuck! I don’t want to know.”
For a number of years now, I’ve thought of my poems as centring on the sorts of thing that, if you said them at a party, would cause people to back away from you. It’s not the only thing it does – far from it. But one of the reasons I’m drawn to poetry as both a writer and a reader is that it can go the places, perhaps even makes it a core plank of its business to go the places, where social form – along with the inadequacy of the shared language – dictates we can’t go in conversation.
There are different types of poem. The one I speak of here is your intimate encounter poem: the dispatch from interior to interior. The space in which a writer gives, and a reader – in privacy – receives and recognises something which comes from what the Surrealists termed the half of life we simultaneously pretend doesn’t exist and prioritise, within ourselves, as of the utmost importance. The thing that, in essence, goes: It’s ok – I’m weird too. Here, get this, we all are. It’s just that no-one has the courage to prick the ‘normal’ balloon and say so. The New Zealand writer Janet Frame has a brilliant short story called ‘The Terrible Screaming’ in which the residents of a town and a group of visiting delegates all begin to hear screaming, but no one says anything in case other people can’t hear it too and they think anyone who can is mad. This – or worse – is indeed what actually happens. Someone caves and speaks of the screaming, upon which – despite the fact that everyone else can hear it – they are carted off to the local mental health facility. This is perhaps the most perfect modelling of social interaction I know. It is the social contract.
As a child, I was strongly afflicted by the notion that everyone but me was normal. In my teens and early twenties, I was anorexic / bulimic. In my mid-thirties, I developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Or, well, I’d probably had that my whole adult life, but I didn’t realise. I didn’t know – until I commenced treatment subsequent to exhibiting overt signs such as checking, and more insistently pronounced internal ones in the form of completely irrational thoughts I knew were irrational but couldn’t dismiss – that, say, worrying constantly over what people thought of you, or if you’d said the wrong thing etc., were symptoms of OCD. Both these maladies pivot on a line of order and disorder, impulse and regulation. I’m not an expert on either – I’m someone who has or has had them, not someone who treats them – but they feel like methods of self-control. Something erupts, and something else arises to tamp it down. They’re societies in miniature. The Dionysian meets the Apollonian, though with the result not of a balance of carnival and the smooth running of things but of semi-permanent banjax.
Conversation has always played on my mind in relation to poems. The general epigraph to my first book is from Iain Crichton Smith: “And what after all could I have done for him even if I had been able to communicate with him?” At that point in my life I thought I wrote because I wasn’t articulate. Fair play, I wasn’t. I’ve got better at that over the years, with age, with experience, with feeling more comfortable in my own skin and with who I am (I’m turning thirty-nine this year). I still think the other – everyone who isn’t me – is impenetrable at the deepest level, and I still think of one of poetry’s deepest impulses as a blending of the knowledge of that with the urge to overcome it. But I don’t think any more that I write because I can’t talk to people properly, can’t get out or at what I really mean. In fact, I’m a conversational over-sharer – hence the opposition drawn between saying-in-the-world and the poem as “a familiar voice whispering in [your] ear.”
Though is it really just reading’s privacy that makes the latter desirable and the former ick? It’s surely also the work of form, and of metaphor, music, poise: all the tricks a poem turns on the messy and imprecise to make it the exact and probing. The poem’s nose for words and images which are properly representative of the things it seeks to limn. The poem’s status, in fact, as the means by which we discover what there is
to limn. Either way, or both ways, poetry is great at transforming inner jumble into something people respond to as against shrink back from with the instinctual (or, rather, socially conditioned) Fuck! I don’t want to know.
There have always been a lot of ‘yous’ in my poems: specific addressees towards whom, although it knew or at least hoped itself to be a thing that would be read by others, the poem angled what it had to say. They aren’t, usually, identified – or at least, they weren’t in the past. In my most recent book they’ve had to be, because there are also a significant number of poems in that book, What Planet, in which ‘you’ is me – in which I become my own other and addressee: “On this shoe you have centred all your hopes / of becoming a finished person”; “There’s a turn in the stairs beyond which, / in the darkness, you are terrified to go”; “You dreamt the dreams that were appropriate.” In one, ‘Person’, there’s a you, an I and a we, all of which are broadly the same individual, though ‘you’ is also anorexia – part of, but distinct from, the identified (insofar as it can be identified) self. Such a poem is not a conversation; it’s an overheard conversation. I think this an important distinction. In the past, I don’t remember wondering why I wrote poems ‘to’ people rather than ‘about’ things, and thus ostensibly to some nebulous ‘everyone’ – but when I consider it now, I think it probably was (and is, because I still do that more than the more – for want of better words – ‘expansive’ type) to do with this same idea of the directed and the overheard. The poem, in this way of thinking, presents as something to which the reader is privy, rather than something constructed with their hearing of it expressly in mind.
This might sound dated or progressive, depending on the point from which you take your view. I’ve heard the sonnet, that most canonically lyric form, described this way; and the idea of the isolated lyric speaker presenting a self-enclosed poetic world is very much out of vogue at present. At the same time, it seems to me that there’s a non-centrist humility to not assuming you speak for everyone, or that it is your business to ‘pitch’ to the reader. ‘I’ as a device seems, when you think about it, a little like something that’s designed to showboat; ‘you’ feels at once more intimate and less entitled. (I write a lot of ‘I’ poems. I’m not slagging off the use of the ‘I’; I’m finding ways to think about the ‘you’.) ‘You’ is, of course, also a way of making yourself strange to yourself, and of signalling that self-estrangement: of undoing the solidity and confidence that ‘I’ affords, irradiates, implicitly presumes. ‘I’ says: I know who I am (and perhaps also Listen to me – I have stuff to say which you folks need to hear!). ‘You’ is less cocksure, and more exploratory. ‘Person’ – essentially a poem of adolescence – ends on a question: “who made it out of this?” The I, you and we are all past tense, so the answer (I don’t know the answer) may be none of them.
One of the things that happens when you have OCD is that you struggle to trust the evidence of your senses and your common sense. You lock a door, and know that it’s locked. You push the handle down and confirm that view. Then you push the handle again. Then you walk away; and then you go back. The same with the knobs on the cooker, the car handbrake – ad infinitum. At its most pronounced, and pre-treatment, this brat-of-my-brain encouraged me to associate everything that occurred around me with fault of my own. A child screams on the pavement as I drive past in my car. I must have run over the child, or at least the child’s foot; I have done something terrible; it is my fault the child is screaming, even though this is impossible – I am on the road, the child is on the pavement. At one and the same time, then, you can’t trust your own most basic perceptions and you can’t dismiss the most ridiculous propositions of your mind. First world problems for sure, but it’s a real head fuck.
All of this was going on while I was writing the poems that came together to form my third book. Unsurprisingly, then, there’s a strong emphasis in them on perspective, and on perception as highly varied – and suspect. There’s a political aspect to this: how could there not be in the climate in which we find ourselves, at the mercy of aggressively single-minded lunatics who insist they are sane (or don’t even feel impelled, from without or within, to ask the question)? “It came to me of a sudden that my neighbour was a threat to peace, security, the nation. Previously I had had no sense of this but I knew it to be true…” – What? Wait! How do you know? I just know…Are you calling me a liar? Fake news! You’re a liar! (I hasten to add that the unassailably self-assured speaker of this poem, ‘Wonderland’, is not – is about as far as it’s possible to get from being – an iteration of me. “[…] my soul takes the open road,” as D.H. Lawrence wrote; “She meets the souls that are passing, she goes along with the souls that are going her way. And for one and all, she has sympathy,” where “sympathy” does not presume agreement with or support of but stretches from love, through “simple proximity,” right up to hate. Basically, it’s what we would now call – the conversation of – imaginative empathy.)
But the driver for the work came from a personal place. This is also how I’ve always done poems: perhaps it’s being from Northern Ireland, where you’re schooled early in a combined (and fraught) sense of poetry’s responsibility – the need for it to ‘matter’ – and its obligation to self-regulate, to learn how to walk the tightrope between appropriation and contribution. Perhaps it’s just having grown up in a house where “bumptiousness” was disallowed. Or being a one-on-one person. And – aye – a woman. Whatever the source, I’ve never felt I could just wade in, say my piece in a grand and sweeping manner. I state much less than dramatise in poems, and I tend to dramatise in slightly left-field ways. That’s partly about wanting to make art, not pass comment; but it’s also about finding a route into things that feels allowable, particular. I’ve never felt that I could be – or wished to be – a spokesperson. Perhaps that simply isn’t what I want from poems.
I have hang-ups about these things; I worry that I’m casting a weakness or limitation as a virtue in framing why I do things the way I do. That my stuff is centred on small not because I elect to work that way but because I can’t do Big. That it comes from an angle because I haven’t the scope and authority to come head on, or simply because I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time and don’t know much about anything. And then, I’ve just written a poem – my first in about eighteen months – which, although it starts from a private place and is addressed to a specific ‘you’, counters a number of the above statements by ‘talking about’ as well as enacting. Additionally, it is – and most contradictorily, perhaps – about the right of an artist (Freddie Mercury, the ‘you’ to whom it’s addressed) to privacy; to folk, including me, not nosing into or demanding things of the stuff of his personal life.
Then again, that’s maybe not so contradictory, in that it’s a choice to ‘share’ or not, and it’s a choice how to if you do. I choose to say what I’ve said here: I don’t mind people knowing I have OCD, or that I once had an eating disorder. It’s not a big deal to me to address it and it’s in the poems anyway: they aren’t generally ‘about’ it, but it’s a part – a conditioner – of the viewpoint from which they derive.
Despite the contents of this essay, melded into that viewpoint rather than out for inspection and specific discussion is mostly where I want those bits of me to be. It’s my hope that the way they surface in or direct poems is more expansive, complex and valuable than the statement of the fact of them in a piece like this – or than having a conversation, whether small or large scale, about them. I hope that, in a poem, whatever role they play reaches beyond itself; just as I think Freddie Mercury’s private world informed his music, and all aspects of his performance, in ways that outstrip the impact of a straight-up biographical account, even so powerful and tragic a one as his. There’s no accounting for the way art acts on things when they’re inserted into its kiln. I mean, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
But I brought the poem up not so much to get into all of that as to note the surprising discovery I made, while doing research for it (yes, alright – watching Youtube videos), that lots of other people are sort of nuts when it comes to Freddie Mercury. Feel close to this person they could never have been close to. Personally connected. It’s no surprise people love him; but it was a genuine surprise to find them writing things like “I miss Freddie Mercury even though I never knew him – is that weird?” (to a bunch of total strangers). And the surprise was as much to do with the fact they were saying it as that they felt it.
Social media is, in many respects for me, hell. It frightens me, it tires me, and I rarely if ever speak about the things that matter there; it’s not suited to folk with anxiety disorders that encompass crippling self-consciousness. Indeed, having said it costs me nothing to say all this, I’m worried, already (hi, OCD), about the essay being taken up and hated, and flagged widely as something to be hated, somewhere, by someone, for some reason, online. I haven’t even sent it in yet and I’m already regretting writing it, not having plumped for something anodyne instead. I was meant to write on conversation and childhood. Why didn’t I write on conversation and childhood? Please don’t hate me.
[You will say: You have nothing to be scared of if you’re one of the good guys. I will reply: I have OCD, I haven’t the luxury of knowing.]
But: there’s something lovely about people feeling able to say – air – these vulnerably oddball things. To put that out there: I miss Freddie Mercury, is that weird. Well, yes, it is; but I know exactly what you mean. Turns out the world is full of us, the weirdos. Maybe we should get together, have a party. But then, if we did, what would I have to write about? I’d have talked it all away – or at least have talked the edges off it. And you probably wouldn’t say it to me at a party anyway: in your own skin, with your own name, faced with a flesh-and-blood someone and with other people maybe listening in. What’s that about screaming? I don’t hear screaming, do the rest of you hear screaming? We’re not picking up on any screaming, I’m afraid.
Miriam Gamble (born 1980) is a poet whose collections are The Squirrels Are Dead (2010) and Pirate Music (2014) and What Planet (2019). All are published by Bloodaxe Books. She has won several awards including the Eric Gregory Award in 2007 and the Somerset Maugham Award in 2011. She is currently living in Scotland and is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
Derek Mahon in interview with Terence Brown, Poetry Ireland Review
, 14 (Autumn 1985), 18. The familiar voice referred to is that of Louis MacNeice’s poems.