Thursday, 5 April 2012

A Bittersweet Symphony

I've admired the poetry of Durs Grünbein for years, but never read any of his prose until recently. Grünbein's book 'The Vocation of Poetry' (which succeeds as a kind of Ars Poetica, even though he expresses a suspicion of them early on), contains some interesting observations about the idea of the lyric 'I', the implied narrator of the poem. Discussing a particular poem of his in which he was aware of having found an authorial voice' Grünbein describes how writing this poem made him aware of "the paradoxes inherent in writing poetry, such as the impossibility of knowing just how many voices had gone into creating your own."

The poem in question deals with the idea of a divided self:

From under the edge of the night
Toward me I'm silently diving.
Inside me it's roaring - my ear
Is taking a walk in the rain.
A voice (it is someone's, not mine) -
Monotonous - lingers behind.
A lurch then: bones, stones
...skull crash course.

I was struck by how the structure of the second line emphasises the dislocating effect ('I'm silently diving towards me' wouldn't be nearly as effective) and how this extract seems to capture something of the disembodied feeling you sometimes get when writing a poem: almost like what Julian Jaynes would call an 'auditory hallucination'.

Grünbein goes on to discuss the notion of the 'I' in greater depth. He says the poem made him aware of how "...your so called 'lyrical I'...was only partially congruent with the intellectual being behind it, whom only you were familiar with... The Romans knew all about the histrionic element in any form of public discourse, including poetry, and coined the term 'persona' for it.... The poetic subject...is not concerned with the real person, the one carrying a driver's licence and identification papers, but with the stranger beneath the mask. 'Larvatus prodeo' - 'I show myself wearing a mask', was Descartes' motto, and it captures in a nutshell every writer's constitutive two-facedness."

Thinking about that unavoidable 'two-facedness' in poetry, something I've written about myself (my first collection 'Division Street' is all about necessary divisions of various kinds) I remembered the thought-provoking neuroscientific work done by Benjamin Libet on our perceptions in time. Libet's work dealt mostly with automatic and unconscious reactions and how spontaneous, volitional acts are experienced by us as conscious and deliberate. Libet's studies of this 'readiness potential' proved controversial because they might be taken to imply that since unconscious processes in the brain are the true initiator of volitional acts, therefore free will plays no part in their initiation. If unconscious brain processes have already taken steps to initiate an action before consciousness is aware of any desire to perform it, the causal role of consciousness in volition is all but eliminated. In other words, we know not what we do, but we have the illusion of control.


This in turn links to the idea that our perceptions of time founder because memory is a thing we constantly reconstruct. A fascinating blog post by George Musser summarises some of the research in this area, arguing

"It’s not that our memory is a glitchy wetware version of computer flash memory; it’s that the computer metaphor just doesn’t apply...we store only bits and pieces of what happened—a smattering of impressions we weave together into feels like a seamless narrative. When we retrieve a memory, we also rewrite it, so that the time next we go to remember it, we don’t retrieve the original memory but the last one we recollected. So, each time we tell a story, we embellish it, while remaining genuinely convinced of the veracity of our memories."
Richard Ashcroft preparing to vault some cars in the
video for 'Bittersweet Symphony'...
No wonder the poet is inherently 'two-faced'. To quote those notorious Wigan lads The Verve, I really am 'a million different people from one day to the next.'

I wonder if this awareness of multiplicity, or 'two-facedness', of the slippery nature of time is what makes poets so fascinated by other lives - particularly the lives we might have led. I've always been obsessed by poems like John Burnside's 'The Good Neighbour' which imagines a kind of 'double' who represents all the things the narrator could have become, yet keeps a distance all the same, or poems that let us briefly inhabit another person's world, offer a glimpse into a alternative reality. There's a great poem by Michael Symmons Roberts in the latest issue of Poetry London called 'The Others' which I kept returning to because of its theme, our 'opaque' thoughts of other people getting ready for the day. There's a sharp sense of longing about this poem which kept drawing me back to it. The other people alluded to in the poem:

...dress in other people's many ways:
shirt first, shirt last, no shirt at all.
And some resent the clothes they have to wear.


If you were there to see them, you would mark
the way they thread their buttons through,
the pout they give the mirror as they leave.

There's probably no poem that captures this envy of the lives we can't lead better than Derek Mahon's 'Leaves', which I'm sure is familiar to many readers of Poetry on the Brain, but which I'd like to end with anyway:

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have lived
Have found their own fulfilment.

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