I’ve been thinking recently about how poets seem to control and edit their lives in print on two levels. The most obvious one is what I don’t intend to dwell on here – how poets transmute real or factual experience into something other in their creative work. This is why it’s always a fatal fallacy to assume that a character in a poem is a real person from real life – they might have their beginnings in real life, but they are also a fictional construct. In poems you can lie and fabricate whilst somehow simultaneously hitting on an emotional or aesthetic ‘truth’ of a kind.
No, I’m more interested in how poets as people present themselves to other poets and their readership (if they’re lucky enough to have one). In effect, I’m interested in how poets police and edit themselves and portray themselves in print and on social media / online. Everyone has heard that ice-breaker cliché of a question – ‘What was the first record / tape / cd you bought?’ But has anyone ever answered the question with unalloyed candour? I doubt it. There’s a faint whiff of worthiness to most people’s answers to this question – it’s always something that people still like (even as a guilty pleasure) or something designed to show good taste or discernment. The first cd / album I bought with my own money of my own free will was Shania Twain’s Come on Over. I took it home and listened to it as loud as I could. I love being asked the question above so I can answer truthfully and cut through everyone else’s canny and crafty answers. This is how we begin to form mythologies for ourselves.
How does this apply to poets? Well, one key aspect is in how poets talk about the making of themselves and their identities as poets. I’ve read so many interviews with poets where they discuss their formative years and there’s always a sense of the past being massaged or sexed-up in some way. There’s the inspirational English teacher who introduced the class to James Joyce when the class were eight years old or there’s some tale of painfully precocious and voracious reading – Voltaire at ten, Hobbes at twelve, Hazlitt during playtime… I can safely say that while I had some good teachers at school, none of them would have induced me to stand on my table and salute them ala The Dead Poets Society. Only at university did I encounter teachers I would have done that for, and there were very much in the minority. My interest in literature and poetry remained completely dormant until the age of 13 or 14 when somehow Roald Dahl was replaced by George Orwell. And I can’t say that Orwell even made much of an impression. I wasn’t really into poetry until 15 or 16 and have no Damascene memory of how I came to like it or even write it myself.
I only have one very vivid memory from the age of about 7 or 8, which I now suspect was the genesis of me as a poet and particularly a rather elegiac poet at that. My guinea pig had died, his name was Hughie Fountain (the fountain part came from the fact that he had a lovely little plume of fur on his head). The day afterwards I was at school and I went into the little urinals to do my business. Afterwards I was shocked when I looked down at the drain cover and saw, in the small circular centre a droplet of my wee hanging there. As the light reflected off it, it looked just like one of the eyes of my late guinea pig. I washed my hands and never thought about it again, until recently. Hardly a glamorous or propitious start in poetry, but there it is.
Do we invent mythologies for ourselves because our lives are ultimately rather flat, dull and trivial (even ridiculous like my little anecdote above?). Do we write poetry to try and escape from that, to find the miraculous in the mundane? Author biographies for books and magazines can be a real nuisance and often they can sound faintly self-congratulatory or fictionalised / embellished. I try to keep mine as snappy and matter-of-fact as possible now, because I am growing less and less interested in the cult of personality in poetry – what does the poet do as a day job, where did they come from, their socio-economic status, their hobbies etc. Mind you, I did enjoy MacGillivray’s which subverts and plays up the whole idea of the poet as self-mythologist, sounding like Ginsberg in ‘Howl’:
She has walked in a straight line with a dead wolf on her shoulders through the back streets of Vegas into the Nevada desert, eaten broken chandelier glass in a derelict East Berlin shopping mall…
I’m not sure I’m at the Russian formalist stage of wanting to do away with ‘I’ completely but I do think poets sometimes get in the way of their poems and are a distraction, rather like an overlong preamble at a reading, or a witty preface that turns out to be better than the poem itself, or promises too much of the poem. I like a poem to stand independently of creator or autobiography, to some extent. But there’s no getting away from the fact that poems are our creations, extensions of us. A poem can have a distinctive voice without having to be cluttered with self-mythology. I’m not seeking the death of the author or poet just yet, but I’m saying that I’m wary of the tales poets peddle about themselves in order to get us to reader their work. Once the emphasis is put on the name of the poet doing the writing, it stands to reason that what they produce will be considered designer-gear if they are famous, or schlock if they’re an unheard-of huckster.