Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Liars and poets

Would I tell you a lie?

I went last night to the launch of George Szirtes' collected poems, a reading at the Savile Club on Brook Street followed by dinner in the very grand chandelier-hung dining room.

At the reading George asserted that novelists were liars and poets told the truth.

He then read a marvellous poem called and about esprit d'escalier, the French phrase for the brilliant rejoinder you only think about when you are going down the stairs leaving the conversation. In his poem he is on the top deck of a bus when he speaks aloud that I-wish-I'd-thought-of-that-at-the-time remark, and realises that the man sitting behind him is doing the same thing, and looking out of the window of the bus the whole street is full of people saying aloud what they wish they had said.

During the Q&A after the reading, I resigned myself to asking a question about the influence on his work of living in East Anglia for many years , and waited until dinner to refer to the remarkable event in which everyone on the street and on the bus was suddenly saying aloud their esprit d'escalier which he could not have invented not being a lying novelist. George had the good grace to burst out laughing. At this point we were joined, in a case of dinner musical chairs, by the poet Ruth Fainlight, who is married to the novelist Alan Sillitoe (happy 80th, Alan).

I have nothing at all against anyone saying that the novelist is a liar, since this is demonstrably true, but I could not quite understand how in the case of the poet, his imagination produces truth and in the case of the novelist, lies.

George maintained that the poet is solipsistic, always writing about himself and his attempt to understand why a cup is a cup and not, say, a saucer. When a novelist tells lies, he is asking the reader to willingly suspend his disbelief, to believe that the lies are true; he invents cups that aren't there. When the poet lies, the lie is obviously a metaphor, and is not to be taken for reality, it's a vehicle to say something else. The novelist, however, is trying to hoodwink you into believing that there is a cup, saucer, entire dinner service, real and actual.

But by this time we had eaten some very good duck with mashed potatoes and drunk a lot of wine and I went home. I hope George himself will be along in a minute to sort things out further.

and there he is in the comments, below and at greater and very interesting length, at his place


George S said...

Well, I think I must first think of regulating the movements of my feet so they don't end up in my mouth quite as often as they do.

I want to explore this at my place because it is somewhat off-normal topic here.

What I meant (he says, carefully watching movements of feet hovering dangerously near mouth) is that, in my experience, most poets don't invent events or even - with a few exceptions - character. What they invent are mostly metaphors (at various levels)and a kind of rhythmic equivalence to what seem to them to be the state of things. Novelists however - and this is the essence of stories, isn't it? - are interested in consequences. What happens next? What doesn't happen next? What should or should not happen next? It's a moral art full of moral dilemmas.

To put it crudely, poets are interest in what is, novelists in what will be and ought to be.

To poets, novelists seem to feel comfortable speculating about behaviour and inventing people who can then go about behaving.

As for the solipsistic part you'll have to come over chez moi.

Only to add that the rather flattering photo of my good self you have used was taken some eight or nine years ago and is therefore a 'lie' not only as to my present condition but as to the frequency with which I adopt romantic positions in perfect light.

Enough to have done so once or twice perhaps.

miss cavendish said...

Hmmm . . . there's always the matter of the poem's speaker to consider, isn't there? Readers often assume that the speaker *is* the poet, but the speaker is often as crafted as a character in a novel. That assumed *truth* (speaker = poet)then becomes a *lie* . . .

George S said...

Of course the voice in poetry is not to be identified with the person of the poet. That is elementary, I think. Rule number one, in fact. Voice yes, but character as "in a novel", very rarely.

Can you have a character as "in a novel" without a novel? I doubt it. In poetry it is less character than voice, and voice has masks - needs masks to speak. Those masks are not of novelistic characters "as in novels". As I said: there isn't a novel there for them to be characters in. All we know of them is voice.

The concerns of the poem are, as I understand it, to explore a specific state of affairs, not to develop a set of actions or relationships between developing 'characters' in the furtherance of a plot. That can be the business of poetic drama, which is more drama than poetry. Passages of Shakespeare's plays read like poetry, but they are not poems.

The eclogues of the Greeks or of Virgil, or indeed of MacNeice, are not dialogues about plot or 'character' development as in a novel: they are voices hanging in space. Beckett is closer to pure poetry in that respect. That is why many poets love Beckett.

Vicki said...

I've met the most interesting folks on this blog. Thanks, Linda. I hope your book is available in paper book inthe U.S. soon.

Linda Grant said...

It will be available in p/b on November 25 in the US