Do I Say What I Mean?

I’ve been blogging for one month now, and it’s been an enjoyable experience so far. One aspect which takes a little acclimatisation is the sharing of thoughts with strangers, and I’m still not completely sure of how open I want to, or should, be. Some bloggers seem very comfortable revealing a lot of personal, even intimate, detail, to a degree that I doubt I’ll ever reproduce. Reflecting on this made me think about how we censor ourselves, and just how much of our meaning, or what we might potentially say, is obscured by this middleman of self-control.

Are we limiting ourselves in some way, or is this editing process actually converting our true, unwieldy thoughts into something comprehensible, something fixed and definite enough that the reader can grasp and understand it, without needing to perform an excess of detective work or a psychoanalysis of the author’s mental state.

This transformation of intent, of meaning, of what we intend to mean, is illustrated beautifully in the fascinating iPhone and Android app What We Mean, created by writer, poet and app developer Joshua Fisher . In his own words:

What We Mean is a poetry chapbook and creative application. Composed using love letters written between his grandmother and grandfather during World War 2, J. A. Fisher presents 20 blackout poems. In an effort to simulate a poetic War Department Censurer, Mr. Fisher redacted sections of his grandfather’s letters into poetry.

If we were to take J. Fisher literally, then what is he saying by censoring his grandfather? And who is to be protected by this act? Or alternatively, what is it that is to be presented in a more favourable light? Ultimately nothing, for we know he’s only playing after all, the original version is there for any and all who wish to see.

Or is it? How can we be sure? I wonder how strong the temptation was to pre-censor and to pre-process the letters so as to make them more amenable to later poetic reinterpretation or merely to protect some intimate family confidence. But if the difficulties of expressing one’s own feelings on a blog are grave enough, it is quite another thing to express those of someone else – do it with reckless abandon or utter restraint? Possibly the only, or best, way that it can be done is with honesty and purity of purpose, and it seems to me that he has honoured the memory of his grandparents. The writing in the letters is good enough to stand on its own merits, and deserves its showing in the app. Furthermore I think he is lucky to have had such good source material with which to work, as without it the task would surely have been much harder.

The idea of producing new texts from old, via a selective editing, isn’t an original concept, but what before might have seemed a rather formal concept, or mere demonstration of an artistic principle or technique (and one possibly loaded with more significance than really it deserved) is in this context rather more poignant. Whether this is mere sentimentality, and whether this affects our judgement of the final works or not, is an open question. Possibly it is one that could be answered by controlled experiments.

One interesting aspect of the app, from a user interface design perspective, is that several parts of it force the user to slow down, and even wait a few seconds. If this were a productivity app, it would simply be bad design, but in the context of reading poetry, it does us many favours. We are encouraged to take our time, to savour the words and reflect on their meaning, rather than furiously tapping onto the next poem, and the next, and the next, until the task of poetry reading is completed and can be crossed off our to-do list.

I don’t want to spoil the surprise of using the app, so I will only talk in specifics about one of the twenty poems. This is Inhale Often which contained a particularly touching sentiment. In the letter the author confesses to his wife:

I know I should write about how much I love you more often than I do, but honey you understand don’t you? Writing about it everyday is like writing about the fact that I’m still breathing.

In the poem the letter is rendered thus:

it takes a lot of doing for a guy
like me to be worth your

writing about it is like breathing

Reading the other poems, it’s interesting to note that some of them are merely a concentrated form of the original letter, as though any impure words have been removed by distillation, preserving the meaning of the base text, yet expressing it more elegantly. Switching between the redacted letter and the original text brings home the potential power of this process of elimination.

Yet other poems transform the meaning entirely, to construct whole new narratives, using the constraint provided by a fixed palette of words to inspire the creative process. I suppose that this is at once both easier and more difficult than writing poetry with the dictionary as your source material.

The re-imagining of his grandparents words, making them speak anew, could have been a tricky exercise, fraught with responsibility and special sensitivities, but I think J. Fisher has carried it off with aplomb.

So why not download What We Mean yourself (it’s free!) and share your impressions below?

Note: In the interests of full disclosure I have no connections to J. Fisher.

Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth

Perhaps this is what Guy Debord and the Letterists were trying to achieve with dérive, purposefully using an incorrect map to artistically navigate a city – to arrive at a destination, other than the one desired, but that might prove to be of equal or greater artistic value than the intended original. If it has a literary equivalent, then it happened to me when I was reading a book about Arvo Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers: Arvo Pärt by Paul Hillier), and learning about all the things I had expected to from such a book: his biography, music theory, minimalism. What I hadn’t expected to read was:

The sound is clear
And reaches the Big Dipper-
Someone pounding cloth.

Simply stunning.

The contrast in scales between the galactic and the solitary human, and the percussive linking of the two into the ending of perfect abruptness, floored me, and I sat silently for a couple of minutes trying to digest those three simple lines.

This particular haiku was written by Matsuo Bashō, master of the form, and the translation is by Ueda. I tried to find a link to it online and came across this alternative version instead:

so clear the sound
echoes to the Big Dipper
the fulling block

It’s elegant, yes, but I feel it lacks the power of the Ueda version. The first two lines seem virtually interchangeable, but it’s in that last line, in the final three words, that the difference lies. Three words, such fine tolerances, but actually, the margins are even finer than that; I think it’s a single word that has it.


You or I, him or her, one person who could be any one of us, performing a task so mundane and, because of that, universal, so that it opens communication to the universe, to the entire history of humanity. Take away the human actor, and it reduces to a remote observation of dispassionate significance.

And so it was that I set out to learn about one man and his music, and ended up learning about writing, and a great deal more besides.

Note: a fulling block is a wooden mallet that was used to beat the cloth to help dry and soften it.

Life at Sea

I’ve been on many pleasant coastal walks around the UK, particularly in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and despite the company of friends or family, and quite often to their complaint, I find myself drawn into a silent contemplation. The vast emptiness of the sea seems to soak up all of my attention, and no matter how much is given, it’ll always absorb a little more.

But it’s not just the seascape that draws the eyes. Inland sit an abundance of curious treasures. Abandoned relics of wars past dot the landscape, concrete bunkers and pillboxes that sit on their haunches, nestled into the contours of the rock, or that lay camouflaged and overrun by nettles and brambles.

Standing tall in plain sight are military observation posts that look out to sea, already close to the cliff’s edge, they now appear to back away from the crumbling rock face, imperilled not by the army of some distant nation, but the entropic forces of wind and water. No amount of watchtowers will save the cliffs from that.

This wild frontier with the sea undulates continuously, and every now and again the path descends completely, taking you down to the level of the sea, to reveal a small bay. Flanked by rising cliffs, in the centre a beach of golden sand lightly speckled with ocean detritus. Here and there you find the translucent empty shells of dead crabs, fragile to the touch, while the pillaged homes of limpets sit beside, tiny mountains cosseted on a bed of crushed rock.

The insistent fizzing of the breaking surf provides an accompaniment to the viewing of this scenery, but it’s a soothing soundtrack, the energy of the waves diminished and spent against the cobbled harbour wall. A few small fishing boats nestle against it, sheltering from the dormant fury of the sea, which anger is only hinted at in the ripples of the water’s surface; an implied threat, softened by the play of sunlight on liquid, the ripples alternately catching, then propelling the sunlight.

Atop the harbour wall sits an unsteady pile of lobsters pots, empty of prey and overrun with unkempt beards of wispy green seaweed. A rope, of an artificially-blue nylon, coarse and splintering, binds these cages to a line of orange marker buoys. Beaten by the weather, they have become punctured footballs, faded in patches to a sickly pink.

Beyond the confines of the wall, a little further out to sea, there floats a larger buoy. A red steel cylinder it has the appearance of a WW2 bomb that was caught frozen as it pierced the water, and that must now bob impotently and unexploded. And this is where I begin to anthropomorphise, to imbue the buoy with human possibilities. How could I not? For I see a buoy, anchored and bound, condemned to stay in place, fixed there by forces outside its control or comprehension.

And once started, how to stop? Imagine now a face painted onto the buoy, daubed there by a weary sailor or his excited son. The features are simple, cartoonish, goofy looking, and so it animates, squirming into life. Doleful black and white eyes scan the waterline for evidence of another of its kind. For understanding.

The buoy rocks gently from side to side, propelled by that corrective force, buoyancy, and each time initiates a small train of ripples, a continual communication with the world, a sign of life. Its heartbeat counting out the time of existence, of a life at sea.

And as for us, bad weather is unwelcome. To shut his eyes brings relief from the insidious salt, yet the torment of uncertainty, of not knowing, is worse, and he must face the waves head on and stare unblinking into the enveloping green water.

Everyday here is different, and yet the same, until finally, an unwelcome change. Surveying his skin, he notices a blister of paint below his right eye, a low rise bubble, grown under cover of night. He stares at it constantly, seeing it grow daily, eyes helpless as his red skin weakens, until finally it splits to expose raw steel. Steel gives way to rust, the rust gives way completely. Only a hole remains, through which each wave brings the outside in.

Swaying buoy, lurching buoy, full up now, all movements slowed.
Drunken capsize, and fast descent. Vanishing sky, one blue swapped for another,
but darker.

Boy, boy,
drowning then?
Bubbles spew,
last sign of life.

Boy, boy,
sink alone,
gurgl’d goodbye,
last flare of hope.

There never was.

First Light, Final Thought

Over Christmas, whilst visiting my parents, I spotted the book First Light by Geoffrey Wellum on my bookshelves at home. I first read this WW2 memoir a few years ago, and it is an excellent, moving portrayal of life as an RAF pilot during that period. In 2010 the book was turned into a drama-documentary shown on BBC2 . I highly recommend both of them, however, rather than now, somewhat belatedly, giving a detailed review of the book, I instead want to relate a key impression of his extraordinary story that has lingered with me.

The memory I have is a quote that, oddly enough, isn’t actually from the book, but rather from an interview with Geoffrey Wellum that appeared in the Independent newspaper. When asked, by journalist Julia Llewellyn Smith, why he had written the memoir, he gave the following reply:

“I just wanted to sit quietly and convince myself that at some point in my life I had been of use.”

Having read his account of his extraordinarily intense military service of several years, including fighting in the Battle of Britain, it is incredible to think that he could ever have had any doubts on this point. These haunting words have stayed with me almost verbatim ever since, a testament to their power, and, even now, I struggle to think of a more raw or poignant summary of the question of life than them.

Note: the interview in the Independent seems to be currently unavailable online, but the quote is reproduced in this blog, Place to Land.

K. rolls the dice

So, it’s the New Year, a time for ambitious undertakings. Here’s one: what is the power of literature? Perhaps that’s a little too ambitious. Slightly less ambitious then: what is the power of a novel? Just how much influence can one wield?

Let’s put aside political or religious tracts, those books explicitly designed to advance arguments and convert the minds of those opposed (or bolster those of the already converted), and consider only novels. Of course, works of fiction can still be constructed to assert (or through satire, to subvert) positions and thereby persuade, through whispers and allegory, reader to concur with author. They must do so by subtle means though, if they wish to succeed in that first and necessary aim of being a ‘good novel’; necessary of course if it is to be a novel that is read, without which there will be no deployment of its arguments.

We might think of Kafka, and the morphing of his name into the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. His depictions of unyielding, inhumane yet man-made bureaucracy have led to the labelling of similar, less extreme examples in real life. And yet the pithy designation of them has not, it seems, reduced the likelihood of such systems occurring. They still repel, confuse, and control us, and mankind suffers to relive analogous, edited versions of K.’s bewildering experiences. One might argue then that the fate of The Trial was to become one extended dictionary entry. An even longer one, if we include in it The Castle too. And this extensive dictionary entry could in turn be replaced by a few short words, and nobody need read Kafka ever again.

This seems unfair to Kafka, and indeed it is, and yet I feel it’s not a complete exaggeration to say it. Depressing, for all the obvious reasons, to those who care about the rich variety of the written form and the artful expression of imagined scenes, it is surely even more so to the aspiring writer. If this is the fate to befall Kafka, that strange, original, and brilliant author, then what hope for the rest of us? In attempting to engage with the world we become K. evermore completely.

Perhaps the solution is to remove our aim from society, and focus on the individual reader. And with that focus, give ourselves up to chance, forsaking our hoped-for influence.

In the post Thoughts at Intervals? I wrote that Saramago has been a big influence on me, and that continues to be true. The source of this inspiration can be traced back to the first book of his that I read, Death at Intervals. And this is the thing, it was not through advancing arguments, but the shear brilliance of the writing, the form of the expression, the gentle, incisive wit delivered with a warmth for humanity, that persuaded me to act. This writing style, and the revelation of greater and more appealing possibilities in literature, moved me to enrol on a creative writing course and try my own hand at fiction (to be uploaded to this blog in future posts).

Some months later, I happened to read an interview with Saramago in which he claimed that his sentences were constructed not just to carry meaning, and not even just to be elegantly structured, but that they were to possess a musicality that could be heard, so that by reading sentence after sentence something of a symphony would be produced. As excellent as Margaret Jull Costa’s translations are, I couldn’t help but feel that I was missing this musicality that the sentences had possessed when in their original Portuguese. To hear the music then, there was no other solution but to begin learning Portuguese.

The third, but probably not the final, act of this story? Well, you are reading it now, without the creative writing, it is unlikely that this blog would ever have come into being. And what is more, the truly exciting thought regarding all of this is: what further influence on my life will this all have? The contemplation of future possibilities brings to mind the proverb For Want of a Nail .

A final point, or caveat, to make is that the book found, in me, a receptive reader who was minded to act, without which state of mind the book would have been just that, and I would have gone about my life unperturbed. The corollary of this is that the same book read at a different time would likely not have had the same impact, our tastes and personalities changing and maturing as they do, so that it could well be a different author who is now my favourite, and a completely different language that I would now be learning.

And so returning to my earlier suggestion. Writers, having no control over who it is that purchases their books, nor requiring assessments as to their sensibilities or suitability for the book at that time and at that place, really have no choice but to give up their own aims and instead retrospectively adopt those accomplished by their audience. In influencing then, chance is the thing, and possibly the only thing.

And now for some audience participation: if asked to pick the single most influential book (in terms of changing your outlook and particularly your actions) that you’ve read so far, and you are permitted to select only ONE, what would it be and why?