Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 28 April 2008

Just the facts, ma'am

Just the facts, ma'am. – Sgt Joe Friday, Dragnet

If there was a single thing that persuaded me to buy this book it was the quote by Andrei Codrescu that appears on the front cover: "Petrovich is Beckett's organ." It's a wonderful quote, trying to be profound but ending up just plain rude. It reminded me immediately of Alan Bennett's play, Kafka's Dick and, 'Solid Geometry', a short story by Ian McEwan about a pickled penis. I'm sure there are plenty of other phallic-oriented scraps of literature hanging around but I think I'll leave it there and get on with the review.

I had no idea who Codrescu was but I didn't bother too google him until after I'd read the book the first time. I say 'read' but I didn't really read the book – I drowned in it by about the halfway point. And to be fair I've drowned in quite a few of Beckett's texts over the years, in fact, I never expect to sail through one of his prose pieces without capsizing sooner rather than later.

The Session by Aaron Petrovich is a novella only 59 pages long and that includes 11 appropriately murky monotypes by the Czechoslovakian-born but Brooklyn-based artist Vilem Benes. They don't add a great deal to the text but I actually quite like them. In a way they provided the breaks that the text, a constant flood of dialogue, needs. You can see a slideshow of a few of the plates here.

There have been novels written in dialogue before: Nicholson Baker's Vox springs to mind although it's not completely in dialogue, and there's also Corey Mesler's Talk. The all-dialogue technique was pioneered first by Henry Green and later (and more famously) by William Gaddis, who, in 1975, published J R, a book where it is sometimes difficult to determine which character is speaking other than conversational context, a problem shared at times by The Session. I've personally written two short stories completely in dialogue, 'Just Thinking', which was published in The Ranfurly Review recently and 'Ugly Truths' which is still out there looking for a home. It's quite refreshing actually to be able to forget about those boring descriptive passages. I'm surprised I don't do more of it.

The novella consists largely of an untagged dialogue between two men, both detectives and both named Smith. One is older than the other and I'll help you out by letting you know that the older of the two starts talking first. If you can hang onto that thought then that's a beginning. The book starts off simply enough:

What we're after here is the truth of the situation.
I've got it.
I'm pleased to hear it.
In the palm of my hand.
That's the wrong place for it.
On the edge of my seat?
In anticipation of … ?

… What?
What are you waiting for?
Who says I'm waiting?
You've just done.
I said no such thing.
You are on the edge, young man, of your seat.
But I'm standing.
There are not, even, any seats within this room to sit in.
It's your expression.

Sound familiar? As another reviewer describes it: "Petrovich’s dialogue is linguistically playful, pithy, and flawlessly paced" and I couldn't put it any better; I did try. A much lengthier extract is available here.

One could easily imagine Didi and Gogo or Hamm and Clov having an exchange like that, though, as the piece picks up pace – it is a hard book to read slowly – the banter is more reminiscent of the verbal pyrotechnics of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and in that respect the piece does have a succinctly Beckettian feel. The open nod to 'waiting' evokes Waiting for Godot, and the later exchange

We must go on.
I can't go on.
You must.

obviously tips its hat to The Unnamable and I have no problem with that. The question is, is Petrovich the natural successor to Beckett? If Harold Pinter had made that quote on the cover I might have been more convinced but he doesn't even consider himself the natural successor to Beckett.

This is how the blurb on the back of the book describes it:

Funny, frantic, and with a subversive intelligence, Aaron Petrovich's Keatonesque heroes, Detectives Smith and Smith, stumble upon a bizarre new religion while following the trail of a murdered mathematician's missing organs. Their investigation to discover the truth – about the mathematician, the men and women who may have eaten him and, ultimately, the nature of truth, sanity and identity – leads them into a lunatic asylum that they may never leave.

Written entirely in dialogue, Petrovich's pitch-perfect language, reminiscent of Beckett, Chandler, and Duras, elevates rapid-fire banter to a transformative musical litany. His characters, however, remain tragically and hysterically human.

Beckett and Chandler I know. Marguerite Duras it seems was a French writer and film director. She was a leading writer of the Nouveau Roman movement and tends to get lumped in with other intellectuals of the period although she definitively did not belong to any group and apparently actually disliked Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir. I don't know her work enough to pass comment, however, I've read that there is a moment in La Vie tranquille (1949) when a woman witnesses a man drowning, half aware of the unfolding tragedy, but does nothing to aid him and is subsequently ostracised by villagers for her inexcusable failure to act; this seemingly distils the Duras œuvre: a detached, half-conscious protagonist looks out on to a world that she is ultimately powerless to affect.

I can see why the guy writing the blurb might reference her but Chandler not so much. I'm a little surprised that he didn't think to name-drop Pinget here because his novel Passacaglia (you can read my review on Goodreads) also has the flavour of a detective novel, is equally esoteric and much closer to Beckett's style than The Session. Pinget, incidentally, was also involved with the Nouveau Roman movement. Hardcore mystery readers will probably not appreciate either of these books since their emphasis is on language rather than action and there are certainly no platinum blondes or hills of beans.

Smith and Smith could never be described as half-conscious although one – God alone knows which one but I think it's the older one – may doze off at the end of the book leaving the other to deliver a fairly lengthy monologue in much the same way as Vladimir gets to do near the end of Act II of Waiting for Godot. Vladimir muses about the brevity of human existence; Smith waxes lyrical about what the author refers to in an audio introduction to the book as "sunfall" and how it affects him. You can hear his remarks along with some of that final monologue here.

Detectives are interested in facts normally but these two appear preoccupied with truth:

There are truths and there are facts and then there are those rarely encountered truths that act on us as though they are facts over which we have no control.
Regardless of our participation in them?
And freed from the constraints of the manner we've used to procure them.
This, then, is an implicit truth?
Not precisely.
Is it, then, an inherent truth?
Not precisely.
Is it not, then, an essential truth?

I've noticed that I keep feeling the need to include words like 'seems' and 'appears' in this review and that's because, when you're reading this book, it is hard to be certain about anything.

As the dialogue continues, we find ourselves faced with two quite distinct personalities though. The older Smith takes the lead and parries happily with the younger man. The other is not so sure of himself and is prone to flights of fantasy. It’s as if they’re drawn from competing yet complimentary regions of one mind and it's quite possible to draw the conclusion that there is only one Smith and the verbal battle is taking place within his skull, a particularly Beckettian concept if you consider the set design for Endgame.

A third character appears briefly, the Doctor. This, understandably, is the hardest part of the book to make sense of since we have three voices on the go as in this section. The first voice here is the doctor's:

I see. And are you also finding my patience amusing?
They’re funny, yeah.
My patience.
If a bit bug-eyed, if you know what I mean.
Little bit round the bend.
On the brink.
But a real laugh-riot, in a sort of daffy sort of duck sort of way.
I said my patience.
Yeah, I heard you the first time, Caligari….
Are you understanding the difference between my patience and my

At one point the Doctor attempts to alienate the detectives from one another and in doing so he leaves us the reader a vital clue:

…while I should not have wanted to interrupt your soliloquy, it is time, now, to mediate upon what differences have arisen between you in the condition of your bereavement.

Is the expression "soliloquy" a slip of the tongue or are these detectives truly of one mind? We know that the younger Smith was present at the Mathematician's lecture but it appears he was transfixed by the sun while the man was brutally eviscerated by his "entire attendant audience" seemingly on his own instigation. (See what I mean about the 'seems' and 'appears'?)

Asylums were, of course, a subject of some fascination to Beckett and they crop up now and again in his writing (Watt spends some time in one, Hamm recalls visiting a man in one, Murphy ends his days in one) and it has to be said that the aforesaid Murphy would have been especially taken with the Mathematician's theories on "the Elusive Precepts of Essencism" when he was alive.

Petrovich has described the book as "a piece of art … that needs to be seen to be believed" which I think is a bit pompous but it is a nice book – it feels good in your hand with its textured cover and its yellowed pages; I think that's important and one thing you'll never get from a Kindle.

Bottom line: if you can find a cheap copy (I paid £2.00 plus postage for mine, mean bugger that you know me to be) and you've read everything Beckett has ever written, of which I am guilty as charged, then go for it; it's certainly not worth the cover price of $10.95 but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed struggling with reading it. Sure I got mixed up here and there especially when the doctor turns up but that is absolutely the author's intention.

I normally whinge about texts where the meaning is not clear and yet I love Beckett. Why? Because, like all things, there is an art to being vague and in that regard I think Petrovich manages to pull it off. The book is full of clues very much like Beckett's radio play All That Fall though not clues to the case in hand, the murder of the Mathematician (which might be helpful), but rather the existential problem of who Smith and Smith really are.

Released by Akashic Books, The Session, is the debut publication of Hotel St. George Press, a literary art press that, according to its mission statement, weds "the formal novelty of children’s books to the content of sophisticated mature fiction." Their website is quite beautiful though because it is so graphic intense it can be a bit slow to load. Petrovich has this to say:

Writing is – with the exception of one other – the most intimate of experiences, for me at least, and reading comes a close, um, third. There are expanding circles of intimacy in the making and selling of books independently that maintain that sense of intimacy. Those mass-corporate publishers and sellers that compose, in part, Manhattan, are a bit LIKE Manhattan – while they are likely to produce works of great beauty, they still leave me feeling a little less then human. It’s no wonder we are seeing so many great books coming out of independent publishers in Brooklyn. It’s just close enough to Manhattan not to get consumed by it.

Aaron Petrovich is a writer of fiction and theatre living in Brooklyn. He is a regular contributor to the Exquisite Corpse and an associate editor at Akashic Books. His theatrical works have appeared in the Midtown International Theatre Festival; Manhattan Theatre Source; Improvised and Otherwise, a festival of sound and form, and the Estrogenius Festival.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Wot's this phor? (part two)

Last time we covered your basic metaphors. If you missed it, here's a link to Part One. Now, if that wasn't enough, beginning with the entries I found in Wikipedia, I trawled through the Web and compiled this list:

A dead or frozen metaphor is one in which the implied comparison has been forgotten and is taken literally. These phrases use a physical action as a metaphor for understanding (itself a metaphor), but in none of these cases do most speakers of English actually visualise the physical action. 'He is a snake' may once have been a metaphor but after years of use it has died and become a new sense of the word 'snake'. You could say the same for the word 'died' in the last sentence.

I have my hands full at this time
to grasp a concept
I gather you've understood.

Furthermore, a metaphor that is considered dead in one language or culture is not necessarily dead in another. There is much debate surrounding whether the metaphors of the Bible are living or dead, for example, with this distinction having a dramatic effect on the resultant interpretation of its teachings.

A dying metaphor is a derogatory term coined by George Orwell in his essay 'Politics and the English Language'. Orwell defines a dying metaphor as a metaphor that isn't dead but has been worn out and is used because it saves people the trouble of inventing an original phrase for themselves. In short, a cliché.

ring the changes on
toe the line
ride roughshod over
stand shoulder to shoulder with

A dormant metaphor, on the other hand, is one whose metaphorical character people are aware of but rarely think about. A dormant metaphor is one where the connection between the vehicle and the subject is not clear.

I was lost in thought. (How?)
She flew at him. (Why? In anger? Love?)
He was rattled. (Why? By what or whom?)

A conventional metaphor is a metaphor that is commonly used in everyday language in a culture to give structure to some portion of that culture’s conceptual system.

I'll take my chances.
The odds are against me.
He's holding all the aces.
It's a toss-up.

An absolute or paralogical metaphor (sometimes called an anti-metaphor) is one in which there is no discernible point of resemblance between the idea and the image.

I am the dog end of every day.
That is worth less than a dead digeridoo.
We faced a scallywag of tasks.
The couch is the autobahn of the living room.

An experiential or learning metaphor is an experience that allows one to learn about more than just that experience. Examples: Board-breaking is used in seminars as a metaphor for breaking through emotional boundaries and climbing Kilimanjaro is used as a metaphor for life in Eric Edmeades' Adventure Seminars.

A linguistic-form-as-spatial metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which linguistic elements are represented as occupying locations in physical space, as expressed in some forms of discourse deixis.

Now there's a good point.
Here comes the best part.
I'm lost.
Can we go back to your last point?

A structural metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which one concept is understood and expressed in terms of another structured, sharply defined concept.

Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.

An entity metaphor is an ontological metaphor in which an abstraction is represented as a concrete physical object

We're still trying to grind out the solution to this equation.
My mind just isn’t operating today.
Her ego is very fragile.
You have to handle him with care since his wife’s death.

Personification is an ontological metaphor in which a thing or abstraction is represented as a person.

His religion tells him he can’t drink wine.

A containment metaphor is an ontological metaphor in which some concept is represented as having an inside and outside, and capable of holding something else.

He's a glass-half-full kind of person.
Her life is crammed with activities.
Get the most out of life.

An orientational metaphor is a metaphor in which concepts are spatially related to each other, as in the following ways: up or down, in or out, front or back, on or off, deep or shallow, central or peripheral.

Thinking about her always gives me a lift.
I'm feeling down.
I fell into a depression.

An implicit metaphor is one in which the tenor is not specified but implied. Example: "Shut your trap!" Here, the mouth of the listener is the unspecified tenor.

Roasting today!
She had the screaming.
We were drinking the white.

When a subject is sufficiently well-known, then we do not have to explain it in detail. Most of our communications are like this, with much being left out but the intended meaning still being communicated.

An implied or unstated metaphor is a metaphor not explicitly stated or obvious that compares two things by using adjectives that commonly describe one thing, but are used to describe another comparing the two.

John swelled and ruffled his plumage (versus John was a peacock)
Golden baked skin (comparing bakery goods to skin)

A submerged metaphor is one in which the vehicle is implied, or indicated by one aspect. Example: "my winged thought". Here, the audience must supply the image of the bird.

Her thoughts were on the wing. (wing > bird > flight)
He legged it. (Leg > human > run)
A photon struck him; bolts were for greater men. (photon > light > small idea; bolt > lightning > big ideas)

A simple or tight metaphor is one in which there is but one point of resemblance between the tenor and the vehicle. Example: "Cool it". In this example, the vehicle, "cool", is a temperature and nothing else, so the tenor, "it", can only be grounded to the vehicle by one attribute.

He was mad. (mad = anger)
I'll chew on it. (chew = think)

A root metaphor is the underlying worldview that shapes an individual's understanding of a situation. Examples would be understanding health as a mechanical process, or seeing life as the natural expression of an "ideal" form (e.g., the acorn that should grow into an oak tree). A root metaphor is different from the previous types of metaphor in that it is not necessarily an explicit device in language, but a fundamental, often unconscious, assumption.

Winning the argument. (argument as war)
Time is money.
Life as journey.

Root metaphors can be unique to individual cultures, nations, organisations or groups. For example one culture may have a root metaphor of life as a journey, whilst another may see it as opportunity.

A conceptual metaphor refers to the understanding of one idea in terms of another. A primary tenet of this theory is that metaphors are a matter of thought and not merely of language: hence, the term conceptual metaphor.

Here is a whole list describing love as a journey:

Look how far we've come. It's been a long, bumpy road. We can't turn back now. We're at a crossroads. We may have to go our separate ways. The relationship isn't going anywhere. We're spinning our wheels. Our relationship is off the track. The marriage is on the rocks. We may have to bail out of this relationship.

The pataphor is an extreme form of metaphor, taking the principle to its limit, where the basic metaphor is typically not mentioned but extensions to it are used without reference.

It is probably best understood by comparison:

Tom and Alice stood side by side in the lunch line.

Tom and Alice stood side by side in the lunch line, two pieces on a chessboard.

Tom took a step closer to Alice and made a date for Friday night, checkmating. Rudy was furious at losing to Margaret so easily and dumped the board on the rose-colored quilt, stomping downstairs.

(The pataphor has created a world where the chessboard exists, including the characters that live in that world entirely abandoning the original context.)

The pataphor was first described by author Pablo Lopez, based on Alfred Jarry's "science" of ’pataphysics.

Therapeutic metaphor is a type of conceptual metaphor presented as a story or other parallel to an entire aspect of a situation, related by a psychotherapist to a patient. The purpose of this is to highlight to a person, in an effective way, some aspects and lessons that otherwise they might not be able to perceive as clearly in their current situation, or to suggest new outlooks on it.

Thus a therapist, told about the untimely death of a loved one, might respond by describing two roses in a garden, one of which is dug up.

An active (or live) metaphor is one which is relatively new and hence is not necessarily apparent to all listeners, although if the metaphor is well-selected, it will be easy enough to understand.

To ensure the active metaphor is understood, further contextual information may be used to hint at its meaning.

Let me compare thee to an arctic day, sharp and bright, forever light...
It's been a purple dinosaur of a day.
You're looking pretty rabbit -- what's up?

Active metaphors are often used in poetry and eloquent speech to stimulate the reader or listener. When words do not fit your known patterns of meaning, you are forced to think harder about them, their use and what is intended by the author.

Their use is a sign of a fertile imagination, and this attribute of the originator may well be recognized by the audience. This makes active metaphors a particularly useful method of impressing other people. Done badly, however, active metaphors can be a sign of arrogance or someone who thinks they are more intelligent than perhaps they actually are.

Now, of course, we have brand spanking new metaphors, a metaphor that is not already part of the conceptual system of a culture as reflected in its language.

Love is a collaborative work of art.

How long they will stay new is another thing entirely. Actually I think the term 'new metaphor' could be considered a new metaphor itself. Try looking it up on the web.

I have always been aware that our language is more visual that most of us imagine but it seems even I have only been seeing the tip of the iceberg. (See! See! Another metaphor).

Have a look at this list (there were others but one has to draw the line somewhere (Yes! Another one)): it only looks at metaphors involving arguments.

An argument-as-war metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which argument is represented as war, with such possibilities as attack, defence, demolishing, winning, and losing.

Your claims are indefensible.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
He shot down all of my arguments.

An argument-as-balance metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which rational argument is understood as a twin-pan balance of weights, such that the weight on either side represents the strength of the respective arguments on either side of a question.

The prosecution piled up evidence.
The debater built up a weighty argument.
The jury weighed the merits of both sides.
More facts might tip the scale.

An argument-as-building metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which a rational argument is represented as a building having parts and degrees of sturdiness.

We've got the framework for a solid argument.
If you don't support your argument with solid facts, the whole thing will collapse.
He is trying to buttress his argument with a lot of irrelevant facts, but it is still so shaky that it will easily fall apart under criticism.

An argument-as-container metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which rational argument is represented as a container with features such as an amount of content.

That argument has holes in it.
I'm tired of your empty arguments.
That conclusion falls out of my argument.
Your argument won't hold water.

An argument-as-journey metaphor is a conventional metaphor in which argument is represented as a journey along a path.

Do you follow my argument?
I'm lost.
You're going around in circles.
We have already covered those points.

Okay, that's me. I'm done.

There are dictionaries of metaphors (e.g. Renton's Metaphors) but I don't own any. Not yet. Although I probably do have enough dictionaries at twenty-seven. The great thing about the metaphor, in fact all language, is that we don't just pick from a list. We can invent our own. In fact we have to. Life refuses to keep still and language has to run to keep up with it. Metaphors are not mere words. Metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary, a means to an end. Sometimes poets can be a bit superior about this kind of language as if they're the only ones who should be allowed to handle them, which is rubbish. Without the metaphor we'd all be talking Newspeak.

For all that, let's end with a metaphorical poem:


I'm a riddle in nine syllables.
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

Sylvia Plath

There are a lot of serious people out there seriously interested in the metaphor. If you're at all curious here are a few links to have a look at:

The Metaphor Observatory

The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor George Lakoff

Metaphor, Morality, and Politics – George Lakoff

Conceptual Metaphor

Metaphor – Owen Barfield (an essay at

Metaphor and Meaning – William Grey

Center for the Cognitive Science of Metaphor Online (a list of links)

Elizabeth Camp has written several papers on the metaphor from a philosophical perspective:

Poesis without Metaphor (Show and Tell)

Contextualism, Metaphor, and What is Said

Metaphor and That Certain ‘Je ne sais quoi’


Metaphor in the Mind

Metaphors and Demonstratives: Josef Stern’s Metaphor in Context

Monday, 21 April 2008

Wot's this phor? (part one)

As a child the words simile and metaphor were explained to me in the simplest of terms: a simile says something is like something else whereas a metaphor says something is something else.

Simile: Life is like a box of chocolates (Winston Groom, Forrest Gump)

Metaphor: Life is a cabaret (Fred Ebb, Cabaret)

And, to be honest, these definitions have served me just fine over the years. Typical of the English language though there are exceptions: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength aren't metaphors, they're oxymorons. Okay, got that, let's move on.

The thing I've found about people is that they love to complicate simple things. Life is simple – you live you die, that's it – so why is living it so ruddy complicated? A slightly more involved definition describes a metaphor as an attempt to use something familiar (the vehicle) to draw our attention to something unfamiliar (the tenor). Now I don't know about you but all I can think about is an opera singer in a car going nowhere and I have no idea what that might be a metaphor for.

I was doing some research a few weeks back. I have no idea what I was researching because all I have left is my note to investigate the matter further. Anyway I ran into some new words and for me there is something very compelling about running across a neologism (that's posh for 'new word'), and here I had found three. Here they are, including their definitions by Bob Grumman:

equaphor: that term of an equaphorical expression that is the less important of the expression's two terms so far as the artwork containing the expression is concerned; four kinds exist: the simile, the metaphor, the juxtaphor and the symbol

juxtaphor: an implicit metaphor of which there are several kinds, including the irony, the pun, the onomatopoeia and the litraphor

litraphor: an entirely verbal juxtaphor whose equaphor and referent are separate from each other.

Now I read these over a good few times and I'm still none the wiser (see I'm not as clever as you thought) and, to be honest, I'm not sure why new terms are really needed. It did get me thinking about how many kinds of metaphor exist. So, I started to make a list. And then it got complicated so bear with me. The list gets quite long. Okay, very long.

I decided to go right back to Aristotle to start off:

Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion. – Poetics 9.4

I get the idea of transference but I personally prefer John Searle's simpler definition: "understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another." According to Orwell, "The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image." I like that too.

What is important to note is that metaphor works holistically; you transfer all meanings of X, rather than some aspectual meanings of X, to Y. Analogy is when we say that part of X is similar to Y. Both, of course, expand how we view, how we define, Y.

According to A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry which serves pretty much as my poetry bible, traditionally the most common classes of metaphor are:

The Concretive Metaphor, which attributes concreteness or physical existence to an abstraction: 'the pain of separation', 'the light of learning', 'a vicious circle' etc.

Before I met my husband, I'd never fallen in love. I'd stepped in it a few times. (Rita Rudner)

The Animistic Metaphor, which attributes animate characteristics to the inanimate objects: 'an angry sky', 'graves yawned', 'killing half-an-hour' etc.

Castle Hill groaned under the weight of its timeless ruins (Spike Milligan, Puckoon)

The Humanising ('Anthropomorphic') Metaphor, which attributes characteristics of humanity to what is not human: 'this friendly river', 'laughing valleys', 'his appearance and manner speak eloquently for him' etc.

Memory is a crazy woman that hoards coloured rags and throws away food. (Austin O'Malley)

The Synaesthetic Metaphor, which transfers meaning from one domain of sensory perception to another: 'warm colour', 'dull sound', 'loud perfume' etc.

There was someone with a protruding stomach and a 5 o'clock shadow who wore a loud dress and a cowboy hat over long, curly hair. (The Boston Globe)

These, the book is keen to point out, are not hard and fast categories (the first three overlap because humanity entails animacy and animacy entails concreteness) and, just as easily as you can have a humanising metaphor, you can also have a dehumanising metaphor:

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
(William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

This is also an example of synonymia, in general, the use of several synonyms together to amplify or explain a given subject or term.

Another example would be: 'he has such a lead foot'. This means, "he drives fast" but only through an implied causal chain: Lead is heavy, a heavy foot would press the accelerator, and this would cause the car to speed. This is also an example of metalepsis, making reference to something by means of another thing that is remotely related to it, either through a farfetched causal relationship, or through an implied intermediate substitution of terms.

After your bog-standard metaphor we move on to the extended metaphor. An extended or telescoping metaphor (sometimes called a conceit) is a metaphor which is developed by a number of different figurative expressions:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
(William Shakespeare, As You Like It)

A good modern day example can be found in Susan Orlean's 'Super-Duper'.

A type of extended metaphor is an epic or Homeric simile, an extended metaphor (a cluster of similes or metaphors) containing details about that vehicle we were on about earlier that are not, in fact, necessary for the metaphoric purpose. This can be extended to humorous lengths, as in this instance:

This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you've got a moment, it's a twelve-story crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour porterage and an enormous sign on the roof saying 'This Is a Large Crisis.' (Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, Black Adder)

An allegory is an extended metaphor that goes through a whole narrative. A parable is also a metaphor. Using an imaginary story to illustrate deeper concepts, the parable teller imparts wisdom in ways that are easier to remember.

A complex metaphor on the other hand happens where a simple metaphor is based on a secondary metaphoric element.

That lends weight to the argument.
They stood alone, frozen statues on the plain.
The ball happily danced into the net.

Whereas the complex metaphor uses stacked layers to enhance the metaphor, the compound metaphor uses sequential words. A compound (or loose) metaphor consists of two overlapping metaphors:

The car screeched in hated anguish, its flesh laid bare in the raucous collision.

None of these are the same though as a mixed metaphor. Mixed metaphors are different metaphors occurring in the same utterance, especially the same sentence. The metaphors used often have some connection, although this is often tenuous at best if not downright inappropriate.

Although generally considered bad practise mixed metaphors are permissible where the metaphors that do not conflict with each other because they a) serve the same purpose, and b) exhibit a correlation with each other.

Bad: The hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket.

Good: If we keep going the way we're going, we’ll fit all the facts in.

There are figures of speech that look like they might be metaphors because they involve some level of transference but they are related:

Catachresis (Greek, `misuse') is described as an eccentric metaphor.

My favourite one is one I personally use regularly. Let's say I want someone to tell me what 5 litres is in pints, I'd ask; "What's that in old money?" which was a common expression following the UK's conversion to a decimal currency in 1971.

If it's good enough for Shakespeare it's good enough for me:

To take arms against a sea of troubles... (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which we substitute a word normally associated with something for the term usually naming that thing. The association can be cause-and-effect, attribute-of, instrument-for, etc.

big-sky country (i.e. western Canada)
We need some new faces around here.

On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn't do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again. (Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep)

In a synecdoche (or a synechdochic metaphor), a type of metonymy, one part of an object is used to represent the object as a whole

I've got wheels (i.e. I have a car)
The White House (i.e. the President and staff)
Fifty head (i.e. 50 head of cattle)

One expression that combines both synecdoche and metonymy (in which a word normally associated with something is substituted for the term usually naming that thing) is "boob tube," meaning "television."

Metalepsis (or transumption) is a figure of speech in which one thing is referenced by something else which is only remotely associated with it. Often metalepsis refers to the combination of several figures of speech into an altogether new one.

I've got to go catch the worm tomorrow.

“The early bird catches the worm” is a common maxim in English, advocating getting an early start on the day to achieve success. The subject, by referencing this maxim, is compared to the bird; tomorrow, the speaker will awaken early in order to achieve success.

All of these come under the general heading of trope, figures of speech, which includes anthimeria, euphemisms, hyperbole, irony, litotes, meiosis, metonymy, onomatopoeia, oxymorons, paradoxes, puns, similes and metaphors.

That's enough for just now I think. The next post will cover everything else from brand spanking new to dormant, dying and actually dead and buried metaphors.

Part Two

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Poem in Your Pocket Day: Philip Larkin's 'Mr. Bleaney'

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day, at least in New York City it is, and it seemed like the excuse I've been waiting for to highlight my favourite poem. New Yorkers are being encouraged to carry a poem in their pockets and share with family, friends, co-workers and classmates but it seems it's okay to post a poem on your website or blog. That's just my excuse. I'm doing it anyway.

The poem I have chosen is 'Mr. Bleaney' by Philip Larkin.

Mr. Bleaney

'This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.' Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand.'
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags -
'I'll take it.' So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits - what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways -
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

I've mentioned this poem in previous blogs. I imagine I will continue to mention it. It means a lot to me. Reading it was a kind of epiphany. Suddenly poetry made sense. I unreservedly accredit this poem with my becoming a poet. I had written poems before I read it but in a directionless, juvenile way. It was about another three years before I started writing consistently decent poetry but this was the spark that ignited the fire.

Born on 9 August 1922, Philip Larkin was 33 when he wrote 'Mr. Bleaney' in May 1955. I first read it when I was 14. I will be 49 this May and the poem has no less effect on me now that it did 35 years ago when I first was made to read it. Because it deals with archetypes it hasn't dated. Only the knowledge that I have subsequently gained about Larkin grounds the piece in the 1950s for me. I wasn't alive back then and so I only appreciate the fifties zeitgeist through the eyes of my parents who were about the same age as Larkin. From what little I know of him my paternal grandfather was something of a 'Mr. Bleaney' finishing his days in a rented room. I have to say up till this minute I'd never consciously made that connection. I never met my grandfather.

The world, England especially, has tended to view Larkin with rose-tinted spectacles and it did not appreciate many of the revelations in Andrew Motion's biography which presented the great man as a misogynistic, racist, misanthropic quasi-fascist. His letters to Kingsley Amis certainly opened my eyes as did the revelations concerning his alcohol dependency and what passed for Larkin as a love life. His supporters have worked hard to defend him – he was a product of his time (my own father's dated attitudes often made me uncomfortable) – but the damage, which the writer Christopher Carduff describes as "vandalism", has been done. Motion's biography has become a map to what poet Tom Paulin calls "the sewer under the national monument Larkin became." 30 years Larkin’s junior, Motion first met the poet in 1976 when he, Motion, was 24 and newly appointed as a lecturer in English at the University of Hull. Larkin by then was 53, and had been the university’s librarian for over 20 years; it had been 2 years since he published his fourth and final collection and his writing career was effectively over. A minor detail: Andrew Motion is the UK's current poet laureate, a position Larkin himself declined when he was offered it.

The question I have to ask is: Now that the man Larkin was and the man he became are no longer a secret, do I feel any differently about his writing? Does knowing his father was a Nazi sympathiser trouble me? The answer is an unequivocal, no. I can't say that I'm not bothered by some of the things I've read but it really only underlines for me what a sad, sad man he was. As I grow older myself and less comfortable in the modern world I often find myself pining for the Britain of my childhood. Intellectually I know all the reasons I wouldn't want to go back there but that's neither here nor there. In Larkin's case the difference between the world in which he was born and the one in which he died in 1985 was so, so different.

C. B. Cox says that his poetry "expresses uncertainty" and evokes "a feeling of rootlessness" rather than out and out despair. In that respect his work differs from my other hero, Beckett, who was never afraid to wrestle with despair, even if despair often looked like it was getting the upper hand. The same can be said for their attitudes to failure. For Larkin, failure was not some grand or metaphysical gesture; he meant failure as ordinary, petty you-and-me failure. Describing the poet a "an old-type fouled-up guy", reviewer Stephen Metcalf recently had this to say about him in a New York Times article: "Where most of us dare only pause, Larkin set up shop – in that state of near-total abjection over the suspicion we're damaged goods." ''The object of writing,'' Larkin once said, ''is to show life as it is, and if you don't see it like that you're in trouble, not life.''

Larkin did not believe poetry should be forbidding – he once insisted any poem demanding more than an ''understanding of the language it was written in, and a feeling heart'' deserved to be ''slapped down'' and this is what attracted me to his work in the first place. He used plain English and somehow managed to infuse it with poetry. It was something I thought about for a very long time indeed before I got it. He didn't write a lot but, as Kingsley Amis said at his funeral, though Larkin ''may not have written many poems, he wrote none that were false or unnecessary.''

In a rare interview in The Paris Review, carried out by letter since he wouldn't submit to a face-to-face encounter, Larkin was asked about certain comments he had made about referencing archaic material in poetry. The initial comments were made in D. J. Enright’s Poets of the Nineteen-Fifties:

As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole freshly created universe, and therefore have no belief in ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty. . . . To me the whole of the ancient world, the whole of classical and biblical mythology means very little, and I think that using them today not only fills poems full of dead spots, but dodges the writer’s duty to be original.

to which he added in The Paris Review interview:

My objection to the use in new poems of properties or personae from older poems is not a moral one, but simply because they do not work, either because I have not read the poems in which they appear, or because I have read them and think of them as part of that poem and not a property to be dragged into a new poem as a substitute for securing the effect that is desired. I admit this argument could be pushed to absurd lengths, when a poet could not refer to anything that his readers might not have seen (such as snow, for instance), but in fact poets write for people with the same background and experiences as themselves, which might be taken as a compelling argument in support of provincialism.

'Mr Bleaney' was first published in The Listener on 8 September 1955, and later collected in the book The Whitsun Weddings in 1964. I read a copy probably in 1973 produced on an old Banda machine (a spirit duplicator similar to the mimeograph) – intoxicating stuff! (Anyone who has ever smelled freshly copied pages will know exactly what I mean).

The poem was based on Larkin's own experiences whilst living in a boarding house at 11 Outlands Road, Cottinghamwhere the landlady, Mrs Dowling was "extremely kind and thoughtful", according to Larkin, and the food was "not bad", but "the house was too small" and the family's radio "like a nightmare". Bleaney was originally 'Mr. Grindley'. David Timms has suggested, a combination of "the notions 'bleak' and 'mean' [ending] in a diminutive '-ey'" but I've never read anything by Larkin confirming or denying this.

I'm not going to analyse the poem in great detail. There are links at the end of this post for those who are interested. To my mind it doesn't need any great explanation. It's helpful to know what Larkin meant by 'Bodies' and, if you're not from the UK, an idea of where Frinton and Stoke are might be helpful. (There are actually several). Youngsters who don't appreciate how much the football pools were a part of daily life back then and only think of the National Lottery and scratchcards should probably look up 'the four aways' but the gist of what he's on about is obvious.

The end of the poem is significant but especially when you look at how Larkin's own life ended, a near-blind, half-deaf, drunken, impotent ex-poet. Beckett married his long-time companion to ensure she would have financial security after his death but they lived separately; Larkin let his long-time companion, Monica Jones, move in but, again, it was more a practical arrangement than a romantic one since neither was in particularly good health. Both men wrapped themselves in a cloak of loneliness and wrote less and less towards the ends of their lives.

It's the last sentence that always gets me. Wikipedia reports that Clive James — in a recorded conversation with Peter Porter — has commented that "the last stanza of any Larkin poem is characteristically a bravura display of what the English sentence can do; in its syntax and in its grammar it's screwed up to the tightest possible compression of meaning and effect", and, to my mind, 'Mr. Bleaney' provides the perfect example of this.

Mr. Bleaney never actually appears in the poem. He is remembered by the landlady and imagined by the narrator. All that exists of the character is negative space. The narrator – and it's nigh impossible not to cast Larkin in this role as he is the one of the most autobiographical of poets – finds himself trying to measure up to his predecessor, at least in the eyes of the landlady who seems to have nothing bad to say about the man. She sees him one way but the narrator sees a completely different character, one he doesn't particularly care for.

If Beckett's legacy is a comment on the brevity of human existence – "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps" – then Larkin's is to describe the coffin, "one hired box". That I own my flat doesn't stop it being a 'hired box'. It's not mine in any real sense of the word. It'll exist once I'm gone. It's not as if I can have it buried with me; the people in the flat above might object.

You can't compete with a memory. That is why martyrs are so dangerous. Bleaney has gone and quite possibly to his grave (there is no doubt a metaphor or two dying to attach themselves to Larkin's choice of car manufacturing for the man's employment) and the narrator has moved into his final resting place with the expectation hanging around his neck that one day he'll become Mr. Bleaney. That is why he body swerves passing judgement on his predecessor, because it smacks of judging, if not the man he is (though probably that too), but certainly the man he looks like becoming.

The final sentence reminds me of how James Joyce leaves Gabriel at the end of his short story, 'The Dead'. Gretta, his wife, has been pressed into telling him about someone from her past, a young man who worked in the gasworks, Michael Furey. Afflicted with consumption, Furey dies after leaving his sickbed on a rainy night to keep vigil outside Gretta's window on the eve of her leaving Galway for Dublin. Gretta confesses to Gabriel, "I think he died for me." Contemplating himself in a mirror, Gabriel, becomes aware of his own pettiness, and it dawns on him that he has never loved his wife as Michael Furey did. At the close of the story Gabriel looks out the window of his room and watches the snow:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Joyce is expressing a poignant truth about the power of memory; but on an even more profound level, Gretta’s love for Michael is a metaphor for Joyce’s vision of Ireland itself. Joyce felt that his native land was a country of the dead; its memories were more alive than its present. I'm not sure how much Larkin meant that in this poem but if his writing as a whole does one thing it tolls the bell for an idealised England that he saw slipping, if not being ripped, away by the irrepressible march of time.

You can find an annotated copy of 'Mr. Bleaney' on the New England and Wales Institute of Higher Education website and there is also a link to some notes although the web is awash with commentaries on the poem.

Unusually for me I would suggest those who have never heard Larkin's lugubrious tones to have a listen to Larkin reading the poem on the Poetry Archive website. I have to say I cannot read a single poem by him nowadays without hearing his world-weary voice.

There are also a number of involved essays available on-line for those who want to know more about him:

Philip Larkin 1922-1985 by Donald Hall.

The Four Aways: Experience and Expectation in the Poetry of Philip Larkin

The Paris Review interview (Robert Phillips, interviewer)

'Just let me put this bastard on the skids': Andrew Motion's Philip Larkin by Christopher Carduff

Eros, Thanatos and the negation of the will-to-live in Larkin's poetry by Spiros Doikas

High Windows and Four-Letter Words: A note on Philip Larkin by Stephen Burt

Larkin's Predicament by Marcus Herold

Sacramentalism in the Poetry of Philip Larkin by Don King.

'Wanking at ten past three': Larkin's posthumous love poetry by Hans Osterwalder

Self Portrait

Monday, 14 April 2008

Thunder storms, blinding lights and soggy toast

Well yeah. I was just sitting here, eating my muffin, drinking my coffee, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. – Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction)

Putting aside for the moment the definition of Epiphany-with-a-capital-E as a Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi, most dictionaries define epiphany as a sudden intuitive perception of or insight into reality or the essential meaning of something often initiated by a simple commonplace occurrence or something very similar.

To my mind the most famous epiphany is the one later on in the Bible where Saul of Tarsus witnesses this blinding white light on the road to Damascus accompanied by the voice of the resurrected Jesus telling him to stop kicking against the pricks and become a Christian. From this, of course, we get people saying that they've "seen the light" meaning that some fundamental truth has revealed to them. I find it most interesting that a revelation of this kind would be accompanied by blindness but let's leave that there. I'm more interested in secular epiphanies.

Of course one could argue that epiphanies of sudden comprehension have made possible forward leaps in technology and the sciences. Arguably the most famous epiphany would be Archimedes' realisation of how to estimate the volume of a given mass, which inspired him to shout "Eureka!" whereupon he bolts down the street in the all-together. As you do.

In her foreword to her book, Epiphanies: Where Science and Miracles Meet, Ann Jauregui has this to say:

[M]y favourite part of the definition, tells us that the revelation is usually brought on by some simple, homely, or commonplace experience. Something big is occasioned by something little, something easily missed. And it unfolds from there – sometimes as a flash, sometimes in exquisite slow motion – out of conventional time and space and language. ‘Look at this,’ you whisper as you see something about the universe you’ve never seen before. ‘And look at this,’ you whisper too, seeing yourself seeing it. The universe is bigger than it was a minute ago, and so are you.

The world's literary understanding however owes much to James Joyce, who expanded on its meaning in the fragment Stephen Hero much of which was incorporated in the novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

In Stephen Hero, we find the following definition of Joyce’s style of writing between 1900 and 1904:

First we see that the object is one thing, then we see that it is an organized composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance etc…

Stephen is trying to explain to his friend, Cranly, how even the most common-or-garden object – in this case the clock of the Ballast Office – can be the catalyst resulting in an epiphany. Elsewhere in the book we find epiphany described as a

…sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. [It is for] the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

For Joyce then, an epiphany is not necessarily the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of Saul or Archimedes, but a fairly commonplace event, a way of seeing the world afresh. I suppose others may call this experience 'a moment of inspiration' but I've always considered them as potentially life-changing moments (think of them as often tiny course corrections) not merely fodder for stories.

A simple example can be found in the work of Marcel Proust. Working at the same time as Joyce, Proust was another writer who made much of epiphanic experiences in his writing, the most well-known being found in his classic book Remembrance of Things Past, where Proust recounts the story of how biting into a tea-soaked madeleine cake prompted a rush of memories that motivated him to write.

The fictional account is actually rooted firmly in reality. During a lull in his writing in January 1909, he apparently had an unexpected and compelling surge of memory over a cup of Linden tea into which he dipped a dry piece of toast known as a rusk cracker. Not as poetic as madeleine cake so one can understand why he changed it and it is surprising how much has been written about why madeleine cake wouldn't have worked. Some people really have too much time on their hands.

Proust's personal experiences have here provided the basis for his fictional character's experiences substantiating the claim made by James Joyce that "it would be a brave man would invent something that never happened". The other thing is that this is not the only epiphany in Remembrance of Things Past nor even the most important one though it is the one most often cited.

The same is true of Stephen Hero. At the time Joyce collected epiphanies as a way of developing his skills as a playwright and by 1903 he had dozens. Suddenly, in 1904, he decided he was ready to link them with conventional prose. If one pays heed to an epiphany, in the same way as Saul did, ones life has to change direction or perspective and this is how Joyce uses the epiphany, as plot almost.

Whereas the catalyst in a Proustian epiphany, is often a commonplace object or mundane gesture or snatch of conversation, with Joyce its stimulus is more likely to be a critical situation or some incident that upsets the individual's established view of himself and the world.

I pointed out earlier that Saul was blinded by the light he saw. In Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners, poor – or at least obscured – eyesight is a recurring theme: in 'The Dead', Gabriel's eyes are irritated by the floor which glitters with beeswax under the heavy chandelier; in 'The Boarding House', Bob Doran wears glasses which he polishes all the time, Little Chandler in 'A Little Cloud' is another visually-oriented Dubliner who sees in a blurred way: "his sight … confused by the shining of many red and green win-glasses" and in both 'Clay' and 'Araby' Joyce has characters whose sight is blinded by tears. The characters in these stories depend solely on their eyes for comprehension and, what is more frustrating, they do not see clearly but rather in a blurred way. What is ironic, but this is the point Joyce was making, is that in each story when an epiphany occurs no one changes direction; they 'see' but they do not understand, to use another biblical allusion.

In 'After the Race' Jimmy, an intellectual nouveau-riche who has studied law at an English university deceives himself trying to climb the ladder of success and reach emancipation on international standards. Because he has trained himself to rely solely on his eyes, he has acquired such a distorted perspective that when he is involved in a crucial game of cards, ironically, he misreads them ("he frequently mistook his cards") and therefore loses a fortune. The epiphanic punch line at the end of the story: "Daybreak, gentlemen!" is uttered by Villona, a pianist (who stands for the auditory frame of reference). With this acoustic message, Jimmy becomes aware of his folly, an unwanted truth that he had tried to avoid confronting to the very end. – Joyce's Dubliners as Epiphanies

An epiphany, literally or spiritually, is an opportunity, nothing more. Saul could have just as easily continued persecuting the Christians; it would have been far easier for him in fact. In some cases our moment of insight comes too late, as is the case in so many of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected where his characters learn what they should have done but you couldn’t really call these twists in the tail epiphanies.

My favourite literary epiphany comes predictably from Beckett. In Krapp's Last Tape, the wearish Krapp listens with growing impatience to the recording of his younger self relate with gusto the tale of an epiphany he experienced one night on a storm-tossed jetty. This was long considered to be Beckett’s own experience. It turns out that an equivalent epiphany did occur but it was in the far less dramatic setting of his mother’s bedroom as he watched her suffer from Parkinson’s Disease. Beckett wrote to Richard Ellmann: "All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary. It happened to me, summer 1945, in my mother’s little house, named 'New Place', across the road from Cooldrinagh."

Shortly before his death he summarised what this experience signified for him in a conversation with his friend and biographer, James Knowlson:

I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding. – Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett p352

As in the cases of Joyce and Proust before him Beckett has taken his personal epiphany – and one nowhere near as spectacular as the one he presents on the tape – and fictionalised it. Worthy of note is how the elderly Krapp views that moment at the end of his life. He skips through the tape and is clearly irritated at what he now regards as naïveté on the part of his younger self. Does he regret making the decision to put his writing first and foremost in his life? It certainly looks like it. And that could well have been Beckett sitting there instead of a merely fictional Krapp. Had it not been for the phenomenal success of Waiting for Godot Beckett might have continued with his prose work and not be any better known today that his contemporary, the not entirely untalented Pinget.

While tempted to rejoin his old ambition to compose a great masterpiece which would ‘realize a life within the confines of a book!’ - mimetically drawing ‘comparisons from the loftiest and the most varied arts’ – Marcel says no. He resists the temptation. ‘What a task awaited him!’ he proclaims, taking his final distance from the persona of the Great Writer, now suddenly displaced into the third person – ‘How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book!’ But Marcel now knows he is not this man. He is not one of those Promothean romantic artists whose will-to-power would construct his work ‘like a general conducting an offensive’, or an architect building a huge vaulted ‘cathedral’, ensuring one’s immortality even in the tomb, ‘against oblivion’. This Ideal Author of the Ideal Book is not for Marcel. He has learned, like Stephen [Dedalus] in the wake of the Library episode, to ‘cease to strive’ … Instead, he resolves on a far more modest proposal. – Epiphanies in Joyce and Proust

In modern times an epiphany lies behind the title of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a drug-influenced state, as Burroughs explained, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of the fork.” Further examples of epiphanies can be found is the work of all the following writers, although there are many others: J D Salinger, Alice Walker, Allen Ginsberg, Flannery O'Connor, John Steinbeck, Don Delillo.

There was a comic I remember vividly from my childhood, an issue of Action Comics entitled "The Day Superboy Became Superman!" (#393 Oct. 1970 for those interested in these things) and it was the first time I'd ever thought that there would be a time when I stopped being a boy and became a man; I suppose you could call it an epiphany – I had always known but now I knew. I was in my forties before it happened but there you go. The thing is there wasn't a day like in the comics when the transition took place but one day I realised I was actually a fully-paid-up adult. The same goes for being a writer. I'd written four novels before I actually started to be comfortable calling myself a writer; before that I just wrote. I never had an epiphany, I popped an Old English Spangle in my mouth (showing my age here) and suddenly realised I was a writer. I just drifted into it.

All of which brings me to an epiphany I once had. But first a poem:


Did you ever think you might have
done it because you wanted to?
she said after.
No need to apologise.

Drowning inside I close my
eyes allowing such feelings
to cover me as will.

Unaware of their names I
open my mouth to the waters.

(For H.)

19 June 1985

The catalyst for this poem was nothing more complicated than a hug. It came at the end of a bad day (make that an extraordinarily bad day) from a woman I was very fond of. She and her family had run across me wandering around the harbour and brought me home, fed me and did their best to cheer me up, which they managed. At the end of the night the wife came to the door to see me out and I gave her a goodbye hug. Actually that's not really it; I threw myself into her arms and clung on for dear life. And I kept hanging on.

After a very long hug I started to let go but she kept hanging on too. I started to make an apology for my desperate act but she shrugged it off with the quote in the poem. As regards to hanging onto me her answer was ever bit as straightforward: "Did you not think I might have needed a hug too?" The answer to that was that I hadn't. No one needed hugs but me. Why did she need a hug? She was married, she had hugs on tap.

I left that flat reeling and wrote the poem above. It was not an instantaneous revelation you need to understand but rather, like Jauregui describes it in her book, an unfolding of the truth "in exquisite slow motion". 'White Light' became the first of a series focusing on a man drowning in emotions. I suddenly had an image that explained what I was going through. I had defined the problem; the next thing was to do something about it. But that's another story. The simple fact is what caused my epiphany was nothing more fanciful than a hug and it wasn't that I'd never been hugged before either just like I don't imagine that was the first bit of toast Proust ever ate. I used to think the title wasn't very good but after writing this blog entry I find myself better pleased with it.

The series culminated in this poem:


Though I kept my rooms on
I'd given up all hope of an audience
when one day I was summoned.

It was like an interview in the womb
before being granted life.

He read what I'd brought without comment,
and then addressed me in the half-light:

"There is a drowning man in us all,"
he said,
"and like a man who never sleeps
he is driven mad by his own existence."

He said no more;
but then he'd said it all.

We never met again.
I did not expect we would.

And that's all I can remember,
except his eyes:
as if some prisoner inside him
was peering out through them at me.

I had only ever seen them in a mirror.

17 October 1986

The poem describes the meeting between the poet I saw myself as and his doppelgänger, the poet I expected I would end up as. It was my Krapp's Last Tape only the young man has the opportunity to do something about it. When he looks in the old poet's eyes he gets to see a future he thought he wanted. Of course we have no idea what he will do about it but I've always believed the young poet would continue regardless.

Which brings us the a wonderful new word, at least it's new to me: anagnorisis, the point in the plot especially of a tragedy at which the protagonist recognizes his or some other character's true identity or discovers the true nature of his own situation. It would have been a good title but I'm happy with the one I gave it.

For a writer there's a lot here to think about. Just watch out you don't miss the moment when it comes. There may not be any lightning bolts or blinding lights but hopefully you can get where you're going without the soggy toast.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Is there anybody out there?

To anyone thinking about starting off a literary blog, a few observations and a couple of words of encouragement, a whole two words; watch out for them, they could be anywhere.

It was with a fair degree of reticence I returned to active participation in the World Wide Web back in August. I'd stayed clear of the Internet for eight years contenting myself with my own work and company and only using the Internet for research. A lot can happen in eight years. Blogs existed back in 2000 in all but name but they weren't the phenomenon they have become. Everyone and his dog have a blog these days.

I didn't just jump in to see if I could swim. No, I read everything I could about how blogs worked, looked at hundreds – literally – and wasn't altogether impressed with what I found. I had no real expectations so I can't really say I was disappointed as such but the more I read the more I started to expect to be disappointed. The thing is, every now and then, I wasn't. And that was the start of it. I began to run across interesting blogs. I devoted three whole months to this research.

I don't know about you but I find uncovering new-and-interesting blogs a slog, a chore, a real pain in the wrist. My approach over the months has been quite simply to click on every single outbound link and see where it takes me. Blog directories are okay but I've not run across many quality sites through them. Usually I've stumbled across them elsewhere first. When I do trip over a site that looks promising, I subscribe to it immediately and watch it progress. Or not. It doesn't take long to see if what attracted me to the blog in the first place was a flash in the pan; anyone can have the odd good day.

Often these sites are posting daily but it's what they're posting. Frequently it has nothing to do with what their blog purports to be about and often, if it's not out-and-out moaning about life, it's plain trivia. There is a belief out there where people feel they have to post every single day or they'll be forgotten and very soon they run out of decent ideas. It's simply not true. Periodically I check my list to see how long it is since a site has posted. If it's been over three weeks then I usually delete the entry there and then. It may seem a little callous but I'm looking to build relationships with active bloggers who have something to say. I would love to paint myself as altruistic but I'm not.

What I have learned about on-line marketing is, unlike so many other forms of marketing, one of the best ways to get known is by being a nice guy and, despite an unfortunate misanthropic streak that I've never been able to shrug off, I can be quite a decent stick when I put my mind to it. It's easy to be a misanthrope though when there's no one around to bring out the nice guy lurking on the inside.

So, I started to take an active interest in some of the sites I kept finding myself visiting and, much to my surprise (even though it was a part of the grand plan), people started checking out my own blog. But there weren't many. If I made it into double figures I was happy (or at least what passes for happiness with me) and this went on for several weeks. I started to register with blog directories like BlogCatalog, BlogRush and MyBlogLog. British Blogs, BritBlog and BritLitBlogs made a real difference – I began starting to get a whopping thirty odd readers a day.

It took a surprising amount of hard work to get even to that level. The big jump came when I joined the Entrecard network of blogs. I now enjoy regular daily visits of over a hundred a day but I'm under no illusions that they're all actually reading my blog. My wife talks about it as my "clickership" as opposed to readership. (It's a good term. I googled it. It's not original. So little ever is.) A mention on Ron Sillman's blog did me no harm – a spike of almost three hundred visits that day. We'll have to see how many stick with me. Blogs tend to be read by other bloggers. It's a hard thing to attract the attention of passing trade.

It is one thing to write a quality product. It is another thing completely to think that if you write it they will come. They won't. You need to send up flares and hire a brass band. You can stand atop your blog and wave your best knickers in the air but I can guarantee there are a lot of fancier and skimpier knickers which will get people's attention before yours ever will. Fact of life #973. Get over it and get on with it.

There are a lot of blogs out there with a sticky literary centre. There are students studying for degrees and fighting with their first novels, there are the annual NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) sites and the less well publicised NaPoRiMo (National Poem Writing Month) sites, there are sites where people only publish their own poetry and stories, poetry magazines masquerading as blogs and sites where would-be-writers share their angst with the world. There are also a few sites where their authors want to talk about writing, to advance writing, to promote writing. This last group is the hardest one to find.

I hate tags. I know why they're of use but I hate them all the same. On most sites where my blog is listed it's under tags like 'writing', 'poetry' or 'literature' and they're fine but they're also so generic. I wish I had an answer – a practical answer to the problem to save people having to wade through so much … crap is probably too strong a word, let's call it … irrelevance. There are lots of awards floating around on the net. I ran across one where, once you've been granted the accolade you automatically get the right to pass it on to x number of your friends. It's meaningless really. I'd like to see something akin to a Michelin Star type of award for excellence across a whole range of topics and a directory where I could go, look up 'SEO' for example, and find the 3-star sites in a nice neat column along with up-to-date hyperlinks. Am I a dreamer or what?

Till that day I'd like to take this opportunity to direct you to a handful of sites that I think deserve your attention. I have no idea how much attention they are getting – they probably all get more readers than I do – but all of these have something more to say than, "Here's my latest poem and a photo of what my kid drew in class today." There is nothing wrong with sites like that and I read several of them. I also read a number by angst-ridden students and the fabulous Garfield minus Garfield.

Personally I don't like the word 'blog' – it's an unattractive word. It's the kind of noise your baby would make if you dropped it inadvertently into a vat of treacle. (I really must get my imagination tuned). I think of what I write more as a newspaper column. It's not a diary by a long chalk. The style is relaxed and a bit flippant at times but that's the kind of articles I prefer. Give me a …for Dummies book any day over a dry textbook. People have preconceptions about what a blog is or should be. I think they're changing. And I think it is a good thing, a necessary thing. Even if I didn't, this is the future and, although I may not exactly want to embrace it, I'm not averse to standing next to it for publicity photos.

Here are a few blogs that you may or may not be aware of. Some of them are listed on the right but this is a proactive attempt to highlight the quality of writing that's out there. It's hard work producing stuff like this. Especially when you don't get much in the line of comments. Check out a few of these. Subscribe to them. Tell them they're doing a good job. What they're on about today may not be your cup of tea but you don't want to miss what they might have to say tomorrow. They all exhibit, what Geof Huth (see below) describes, as "real thinking".


Art Durkee, who describes himself as a "wandering musician, artist, and writer, travelling across the face of the earth and sharing what is encountered", writes thoughtful posts and isn't afraid to take his time over a topic as he does with this four-parter on experimental poetry:

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 1

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 2

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 3

Moralizing vs. Experimentation 4


Allen Taylor is an opinionated chappie. A veteran of Iraq, an experience that has clearly affected him, he has written extensively about his time there. One of the main focuses of his blog has been a call for a unifying "school" of poetics which he calls the Millennial School of Poetry. Its precepts, for want of a better expression, are laid out in the following blogs. It's a brave attempt which not everyone will agree with but, as a basis for discussion (or just something to make you think about your own work), is a good thing. He is also not averse to tackling the sometimes awkward subject of religious verse.

Poetic craft is of utmost importance

There is no room for prejudice in poetry

Form is just another element of poetic craft

Creativity and poetic craft go hand in hand

In poetry, no subject is taboo

Poetic Language Cannot Be Too Archaic

All poems are individuals

There is no acceptable method to writing poetry

All convention should be shunned


This is a blog run by John Miedema who lives in Ontario. John is an exponent of the stately art of slow reading (not to be confused with close reading – see my blog on the subject here). It's not the only thing he blogs about, which is good, but who ever imagined anyone could have so much to say about something we take so much for granted?

Slow Reading – A Series

VSR - Introduction

The Facets of Voluntary Slow Reading I: The Voluntary Aspect

The Facets of Voluntary Slow Reading II: The Meaning of Slow

The Facets of Voluntary Slow Reading III: What it is Not, What it is

The Facets of Voluntary Slow Reading IV: 10 Reading Techniques

The Surfacing of Slow Library: OLA Super Conference 2008

Slow Reading is Green Reading

Results of a Search on Voluntary Slow Reading

Voluntary Slow Reading: Table of Contents

From here you'll find links to a further fifteen articles that he's currently posting.


Andrew Philip, a fellow Scot, writes poems that are often strange and beautiful. At least so the blurb on his website would have you believe. He is very passionate about the medium but in particular on of the most unappreciated poetic techniques: rhyme. His involved series, Reasoning Rhyme, is fascinating but don't expect to get through it in half an hour.

Reasoning Rhyme: Prologue

Reasoning Rhyme: The Intolerable Wrestle With Words

Reasoning Rhyme: Making It New

Reasoning Rhyme: More Complex Phenomena

Reasoning Rhyme: Supplement on the Features of Consonants

Reasoning Rhyme: To Begin at the Beginning: the Role of the Onset 1

Reasoning Rhyme: To Begin at the Beginning: the Role of the Onset 2

In Denial?!

Reasoning Rhyme: Tiel Aisha Ansari's Objections 1

Reasoning Rhyme: Tiel Aisha Ansari's Objections 2

Reasoning Rhyme: Lightness that Drew Me: Rhyme in Gaelic


Terry Heath is a busy guy. He doesn't post a great deal on his literature site but that doesn't mean he's away twiddling his thumbs. What he does upload is well-written. He's posted detailed articles on Hardboiled Crime Fiction, Film Noir and The Canterbury Tales. His current preoccupation is The Great Gatsby. So far he's posted the following:

A Feminist Critique of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

A New Criticism View of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

A Psychoanalytic Criticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

A Marxist Critique of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Indeterminacy in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Northrop Frye’s Theory of Myths

Geof Huth

It's hard to know where to start with this guy. Basically if you want to know about visual or minimal poetry Geof Huth's websites are a good place to start. (The link above is actually to his Blogger profile which lists all the sites he's involved in). I've picked five posts pretty much at random because this is a site to get lost in even if you haven't a clue about visual poetry or perhaps especially if you don’t have a clue.

An Introduction to Visual Poetry Written on the Fly



The ten laws in this article are a great guide for writing any kind of poetry.

Catechism of Visual Poetry Doctrine: Faith (1 – 12)

Catechism of Visual Poetry Doctrine: The Visual Poet’s Creed (13-15)

Ten more blogs are promised to cover the whole 'catechism'.

Oh, I did mention at the start a couple of words of encouragement didn't I? Here they are: BE REALISTIC. The thing about optimism is that it's only time before you'll get tripped up. If you're a pessimist, you may think nothing will ever disappoint you but you'll also set your expectations a tad on the low side. Pessimists are not renowned for seizing the day, grasping the thistle or living in the moment. If you're a fatalist you've probably already given up before you got to this paragraph.

Since I've started my blog I've seen several blogs fall flat on their faces. In one case the author had unrealistic expectations about her ability to commit to a daily blog; the other expected everyone else to do all the work for them. The thing is both blogs were good ideas. They could've lasted under different circumstances. The first lady managed to build up a bit of an audience who ended up chasing her up to see what was happening. The second sat there and waited and waited… but no one came. Kevin Costner has a lot to answer for. Roughly 98% of all blogs fail according to Terry Heath who sums up what blogging is all about quite succinctly in his post Where Have All the Bloggers Gone?

  • Blogging is writing
  • Blogging is marketing
  • Blogging is doing the same thing over and over

A realist realises that marketing is not a dirty word. A realist realises that content is king. A realist takes an interest in his readers. A realist knows that it takes time to write a decent blog, to edit that blog and to proofread that blog. A realist makes sure that all those things get done. A realist does research. A realist doesn't believe the first thing he reads or hears. A realist tests things, does dummy runs. A realist double-checks. A realist doesn't hope or wish or guess or pray. A realist has a plan. And a Plan B. A realist might not know but they have a pretty good idea. Realists don't always expect to win big but they know when to cut their losses. Realists get a good night's sleep. Realists take backups. Realists count their pennies. A realist is a businessman and business is business. A realist lives in the real world where postage costs money, phone calls cost money, time is money and a shark that stops swimming drowns. And sometimes a realist gets lucky but that's just gravy.

And if all of that hasn't put you off, I look forward to reading what you have to say.

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