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Poetry and Self-Pity

from the magazine

Poetry and Self-Pity

Winter 1998
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

The English are a nation of poets. I am not speaking now of Keats or of Milton but of millions of my contemporaries. Surveys have established that three-quarters of the English now living have written poetry at some time, usually during adolescence. The same surveys have established that (increasingly) the English can hardly read, cannot spell or do arithmetic, and know nothing of their own history; but they do not let mere ignorance get in the way of self-expression.

Little wonder that much of what they write has little merit from the purely literary point of view. But that does not mean that it is without interest or that it does not reveal something about the national soul. If the way a man dresses tells you something about him, won't his poetry do so also—however tasteless or garish it may be?

For the vast majority, writing poetry is like chicken pox: once you've gone through it, you're immune for life. But, like the chicken pox virus, which can lie dormant in the body to erupt again in the form of shingles several decades later, usually at a time of bodily or mental stress, so the poetic muse can revive in exceptional circumstances—such as incarceration. The medical records of a significant minority of prisoners contain copies of poems they have written while in jail.

Do you know, what it's like to be lonely,
being just one, being the only?
Do you realy care,
that there's no one out there?
Do you realy mind,
or are you just blind?
Am I all by myself
Left to rot on the shelf?
Who am I in here,
Left on my own, I fear?
Is there plenty of ways
to end these long lonely days?
Does it really matter
if my mind begins to shatter?
All of these questions, but why,
am I put in here, and left to die?

Actually, there was quite a good reason. The author of these lines, aged 29, had been found guilty of kidnapping a 12-year-old girl, whom he had repeatedly raped over the three days he held her captive. Nor was it his first such offense. He nevertheless concluded his poem with a reflection on the nature of friendship:

What is the meaning of a true friend?
is it to whom you can really depend?
But it all becomes clear in the end,
that everyone around me are just pretend.

Murder also has its poetry, usually taking the form of lines addressed to the dear departed. Not a few murderers turn to verse; among them, for example, is Tracie Andrews, who stabbed her boyfriend, Lee Harvey, 37 times. She made up a story that a vicious passerby did it, and went on television to appeal for witnesses. She penned these lines in court and somehow let them fall into the hands of a reporter from a paper with a circulation of 3 million:

Goodbye my Love
God bless you my Sweetheart
My love is so deep
In my thoughts are you I keep . . .
One day I'll be with you, the jigsaw complete
`Tracie and Lee'
United in peace.

Though union in peace with the murdered one is a common conceit of lines written after a killing, reconciliation with the victim is rarely the subject of other prison poetry. As Wordsworth said, poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; and the most powerful feeling that overflows spontaneously in most prison poetry is self-pity. Few indeed are those so lacking in compassion that they do not feel sorry for themselves, and in some cases self-pity becomes strident or militant. Here, for example, is a poem, entitled "Hustler," written by a convicted black robber, published in the magazine of the prison in which I work:

I rob,
I steal,
I con,
I deal,
I am a hustler.
Because I can't get a job.
Because of the colour of my skin.
I didn't ask to come here,
No, it was forced on me.
My forefathers were brought here as slaves.
What to do?
I rob,
I steal,
I con,
I deal,
To survive where I don't belong.

This is not so much Wordsworth's emotion recollected in tranquillity as special-pleading provoked by captivity. The version of history it contains is, of course, false and confused—but not from mere ignorance. The writer's forefathers were not brought to England as slaves; in all probability, his father emigrated to England from the West Indies in an attempt to better his economic prospects. His physical survival does not in the least depend upon his street robberies: he does not rob in order to eat but to procure consumer goods for which he would otherwise have to work and save. Moreover, if it truly were the color of his skin alone that necessitated his criminal activity, he would in effect be saying something that even the most flagrant racist would shrink from claiming: that all blacks are, ipso facto, criminals.

What we encounter in his poem, in fact, is an internalization of decades of liberal ideology, which the writer then uses to rationalize his clear intention to repeat his crimes. According to liberals, crime is the result of poverty, and black poverty is the result of racism, as night and day are the result of the earth's rotation. No conscious human decision or thought intervenes between the forcible transportation from Africa to Jamaica of the poet's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and the snatching of an old lady's purse in the back streets of my city. The latter is no more than the natural consequence of the former. Thus the concept of personal responsibility for one's actions vanishes; and thus a man can continue to commit the most dreadful acts secure in his self-righteousness.

This poem, far from being a product of self-examination, is a product of self-deception, the maintenance of which is precisely its psychological purpose and function. As every child who has done wrong knows, if you protest your innocence loudly and vehemently enough, you come to believe in it yourself.

The poem also bears witness to what the eminent British historian Norman Cohn wrote in the preface to a new edition of his study of the forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: "[I]t is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious."

Such a subterranean world exists indeed, and not only in the prison. It isn't only prisoners, after all, who feel the need to deceive themselves. Man is a self-deceiving animal; I have bad faith, therefore I am, one might almost say. Since amateur writers outnumber professionals by 100 to 1—at the very least—their productions are a better guide, statistically speaking, to the travails of the modern soul than the more readily accessible output of their professional confreres. Throughout every city you'll find writers' groups, where the disgruntled gather to express their rage in mimeographed print, aiming to disguise the source of unhappiness from themselves. Every dissatisfaction calls forth its own group, it seems: thus there is even a writers' group for socialist transvestites.

To be sure, the connection between socialism and transvestism may not at first be obvious. But many (even relatively conventional) people are inclined to ascribe their purely private woes to social causes in order to distance themselves from their own unhappiness, and to persuade themselves that the fault lies not within them but out in the world, and that therefore happiness is but a social reform or two away. The transvestites argued that it was not their sexual conduct in itself that made them unhappy but society's reaction to it; change society, and all would be well. Since the society in which they were unhappy, or at any rate dissatisfied, was a capitalist one, it followed that its opposite, a socialist one, would agree with them more.

The transvestite writers were angry: they believed themselves ill-used by an intolerant society. They believed that it was the transvestite content of their poetry that alone precluded its publication by the anti-transvestite mainline publishers (there is no one as paranoid as an unpublished poet). Anger is the handmaiden of self-righteousness, of course, and self-righteousness the mother of much declamation. One of the transvestite poets, a schoolteacher, read out his poem entitled "There Are As Many Sexes As People," outrage vying with complacency for mastery of his tone:

My sex
Isn't narrow or one-eyed
Like a fist to the jaw
Doesn't slam the door
Or jump into the driving seat
My sex
Isn't cold and cod in a suit
Doesn't stamp on the accelerator
Or aim with a gun . . .
My sex
Is like a child inside . . .

The transvestite poet isn't claiming mere equality with people of more normal sexual proclivities: he is claiming superiority to them. The world, he implies, would be a better,  more peaceful place if there were more transvestites. Fists to the jaw would be fewer; fatal road accidents due to aggressive acceleration would dwindle.

As to the unjust discrimination from which he claimed to have suffered, it consisted of nothing more than the need to conceal his nocturnal activities from the school authorities. He had never been arrested, charged, convicted—or even reviled—for wearing women's clothes at night.

But why, I asked, did he want to reveal his secret desires to his employers? Which of us wants to reveal everything about himself to anyone, let alone his boss? Did not tolerance entail a certain reticence on the part of those who wish to be tolerated?

I was missing the point, he replied. A man's sexual desire was not under his own control, so he should not be criticized for it. A tolerant society would allow him to cross-dress any time he liked—in front of his class, if he so wished. In fact, a tolerant society would encourage him to do so, that children might learn about the multiplicity of human desire. A tolerant society would not force a man to live a lie, as he had lived, or to conceal his innermost desires, as he had concealed them. It would accept his personality whole.

Eventually, he said, he had been able to contain himself no longer, and had felt obliged—duty-bound, in fact—to go public. He had told his local newspaper that "I am simply a man who likes to dress up as a woman." The indifference that greeted this revelation was for him an example of what the late Herbert Marcuse called "repressive tolerance." And so he had taken to writing a column called "Confronting Self-Denial" in a small socialist theoretical monthly. Self-denial, he seemed to think, was a hydra-headed monster that needed to be slain: the failure to recognize and embrace one's true nature led to all manner of psychological problems; the refusal of legitimate pleasure was a waste of opportunity. Far from being a precondition of civilized existence, self-denial—in both its meanings—was the principal cause of human misery.

Since utopian socialists can hardly hope any longer to combat the top-hatted plutocrats of early Soviet propaganda posters, their last hope of overthrowing the social order that they imagine has caused them so much suffering lies in attacking the remaining barriers to self-indulgence. In the new society brought about by the absence of limits to personal conduct, there will be no personal suffering.

The transvestite poet's brand of anger—at once dishonest, superficial, and intense—marks several other of the city's writing groups, which constitute themselves according to an extra-literary sense of grievance. There are women writers' groups, lesbian writers' groups, black women writers' groups ("We are twice slaves,/ The slaves of slaves"), Indian women writers' groups, and even a disabled writers' group ("You think we cannot think like you/ Because we cannot walk like you"). Writing and reading are not attempts to grasp imaginatively the complexity of the world, to tease out moral ambiguities, or to enter the experience of others, but a primitive tribal ritual of solidarity, a raising of the drawbridges against the hostile aliens who do not share one defining attribute or another.

Our bookshops precisely mirror this balkanization of literary endeavor, with their black writing sections, gay and lesbian writing sections, women's writing sections, and so forth. You do not read to broaden your outlook or your sympathies but to maintain your rage—to quote Gough Whitlam's advice to his supporters, after he had been dismissed as prime minister of Australia. For in an era of victimhood, when even the most privileged feel themselves hard done by, rage is automatically deemed a generous and justified emotion, no matter what the special pleading upon which it is founded.

But not all amateur writers form themselves into groupuscules, like nineteenth-century Russian revolutionaries. Some toil in less than splendid isolation. They appear to maintain their rage successfully nonetheless. Indeed, today's official guardians of literature take that sense of grievance as literature's defining characteristic, though sometimes they throw over the raw anger some of the decent drapery of political correctness.

For example, in the city's central public library is a Poetry Corner—placed next to the ecological display entitled The Earth Fights Back, (principally, it seems, against the multinationals). The good citizens of the city who write are here encouraged to expose one another to their emotion recollected in tranquillity: provided, of course, that such emotion does not in any way conflict with what the City Council—the elected representatives of the People, after all—think it ought to be. "We reserve the right," says an official notice at Poetry Corner, "not to display poems which do not comply with the City Council's Equal Opportunities Policy."

What does Equal Opportunities mean, as applied to literature? A clue appears in a pamphlet explaining the library's book acquisition policy. Since for financial reasons it can't buy all the books that are published (100,000 per year in the United Kingdom alone), it must confine itself to the purchase of good books only: and one of the main criteria of merit in a book, the pamphlet explains, is whether "all cultures and lifestyles [are] portrayed positively."

The word "all" is here used in a severely technical sense: it doesn't mean "each and every." No one should expect that the "lifestyles" of a neo-Nazi, a billionaire currency trader, or even an old-fashioned teacher of classics would be sympathetically portrayed as a consequence of the Equal Opportunities Policy. "All" in this context means something akin to what is meant in India by the Scheduled Castes and Tribes: but instead of untouchables we have single parents, drug addicts, selected ethnic and religious minorities (not Chinese, Jews, or Jehovah's Witnesses, who are assumed to look after themselves), homosexuals, and all those who, in one manner or another, feel aggrieved by the traditional bourgeois code of conduct and rebel against it.

On the other hand, Equal Opportunities as applied to literature means that Poetry Corner makes no attempt to discriminate between good and bad on purely literary grounds—or to impose bourgeois orthography on the citizenry. How else would such lines such as: "The meaning of life is a puzzel to us all" or "Love of a tender hart should be encoraged not lent" ever have seen the light of day?

This indifference to both the orthographical aspect of writing and its literary quality is hardly unique to my benighted city's council, of course. It has filtered down from the higher reaches of the academy. A friend of mine, a history don at Oxford, tells me that he has been specifically enjoined by the university to ignore faults of grammar, spelling, and punctuation when marking his students' essays (to fuss over such trivia would be to inhibit their originality, as well as to lose much time). More important, the last two professors of English literature at Oxford, John Carey and the avowed Marxist Terence Eagleton, have publicly maintained that in literature there is no better or worse, but only difference, and that therefore no intrinsic reason exists to study one text rather than another—Jane Austen rather than advertisements, Dickens rather than Dallas. Literary criticism tells us nothing about literature, but everything about the critic: his social position, his political ideology, his economic status, and so forth.

So Shakespeare's putative superiority is nothing but a fiction of a self-appointed social elite, who maintain their hegemony, in part, by the imposition of their literary tastes, which distinguish them from, and are not shared by, the masses. In a demotic age, no message could be more congenial, for it assures everyone who takes up the pen that his efforts are, ipso facto, as valuable—"valid" is the usual weasel word—as those of the most celebrated writers in history.

There are scribblers and poetasters everywhere. Not a few of my patients bring me their work, and I still hope one day to discover a talent among them (though the hope grows fainter with each disappointment). A short while ago, I discovered—after three years' acquaintance—that a nurse on one of the hospital wards in which I work wrote poetry. I asked whether she would one day show it me, and to my surprise she told me that she never went anywhere without the large notebook in which she wrote it, in case the muse should strike her unawares. Also, she said, it was her most treasured possession, and she feared to lose it.

She handed me the book with reverence for it, and with a brave attempt at insouciance she awaited my verdict. She had written about the death of children and other emotion-fraught events in the life of a nurse, but nonetheless her verse never once—not for a single line—rose above the level of greeting-card doggerel. I praised her sincerity, but I sensed that more was required of me ("Your poetry deserves to be published"). I asked, by way of diversion, whether she read much.

"Oh no," she replied. "I don't have time."

This, oddly enough, is the answer returned by all my patients who feel impelled to write. Estimable person though the nurse was, she fully partook of the egotistical notion that she might write well without any special knowledge of what had been written before her, and that literature rises phoenix-like from the ashes of personal experience alone. Romantic and egalitarian at the same time, the notion assumes that each person's untutored efforts to express himself will be crowned with success. There is no awareness of a literary tradition to which an author might make a contribution but rather a complete disconnection from the past and hence an entrapment in a solipsistic present. Professors Carey and Eagleton would be delighted at so thorough an assimilation of their lessons.

The nurse's poetry partook also of another general feature of amateur writing in the city: it served not to explore the deeper meanings of experience but to protect her from them. The death of an innocent child or the pointless suffering entailed in many illnesses (such as every nurse witnesses) are subject matter for subtle and painful reflection rather than greeting-card verse, in which declamatory sympathy or protest stands as a substitute for examination of the central questions of human existence. In a culture increasingly unwilling to distinguish between the good and the bad in its own cultural production, self-expression becomes tantamount to self-indulgence, and a barrier to understanding.

It need not be so. The prison in which I work employs a professional writer to assist those prisoners who want seriously to write. A patient man, he draws out understanding by Socratic means, gently questioning the prisoners' work. One prisoner who had long and angrily denied his participation in the serious crime of which he stood convicted wrote a novel under the writer's guidance. Like most first novels, it was strongly autobiographical, and at first he wrote fast and fluently. But as he approached the events that led to the crime, his writing slowed; he became tormented and experienced a complete block.

He had discovered that he was guilty, after all; and in finally acknowledging his guilt, he was obliged also to reconsider his hostile attitude to the world. His writing had removed the distorting lenses through which he had, for years, looked at it. The process was painful, but a precondition of living without the bad faith that had ruined his life and made him a menace to society.

Such honesty is rare. Freud said that the purpose of psychoanalysis was to transmute neurotic suffering into normal unhappiness. Most writing is undertaken to transmute personal dissatisfaction into generalized untruth, enabling the writer to distance himself, as if by an invisible wall, from the discomfort of his experience. And in the absence of literary standards, inculcated informally at home or formally in schools and universities, writing becomes but an expression of self-regard—an expression, in short, of the radical egotism that is so prominent a feature of modern English life.

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