In their essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley quote various inspirational anecdotes by writers, and then add: ‘All this, however, would appear to belong to an art separate from criticism, or to a discipline which one might call the psychology of composition… different from the public science of evaluating poems’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1954: 9). They go on to say: ‘The day may arrive when the psychology of composition is unified with the science of objective evaluation, but so far they are separate’ (Wimsatt and Beardsley, 2001: 1380)1.
This is an interesting idea, something perhaps to be examined in another study, but what I want to do today is to examine one aspect of ‘the psychology of composition’ in the guidance and development of a person’s creative writing. The part played by ‘intention’ in this process has always been of interest to me, but I would characterise my attitude to it as one of healthy suspicion. In thirty years of writing poetry and prose I have often been surprised at the ideas that seem to force themselves into my writing, and there have been times when, ten or twenty years after writing a poem or story, I have discovered something significant about it that I hadn’t noticed before. I have always been a writer who is either compelled to write, or who doesn’t write. I never regard a period of non-writing as a ‘block’. It is a time of ‘rest’, of ‘filling the inkwell’.
In the process of analysing three particular poems for study with the first year undergraduate creative writing students at the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne, and influenced by my friendship with the poets in question and my knowledge of their histories, I began to perceive certain metaphorical sub-texts within these poems. In today’s twenty-minute paper I will only have time to examine one of the poems, the shortest of the three, Myron Lysenko’s ‘Chimney’. The poem is reproduced here with permission:
|CHIMNEY||move up||move down|
|My brother||He was||came and|
|and I||stuck there||took the|
|were playing||like an||top of|
|hide and seek||Adam’s Apple,||the chimney off|
|around the||in the part||brick by|
|new houses||where the||brick|
|being built||chimney narrows.||taking care|
|down the road.||I didn’t||not to|
|My brother||know what||drop the|
|was hiding,||to do||larger chunks|
|I couldn’t||so I||down the|
|find him.||ran home||chimney|
|He called||and ate||while|
|and I||a sandwich.||my brother|
|followed his||I told||waited there|
|voice but||my father||suspended|
|couldn’t||and we||in mid-chimney|
|see him.||ran back.||coughing softly|
|I was||My father||and keeping|
|standing in||pulled at||the dust|
|a house||my brother’s leg.||off his|
|without a floor.||My brother||eyes|
|I was sure||cried out.||with tears|
|he was here,||The fire brigade||as his|
|somewhere.||arrived but||brown hair|
|I heard||couldn’t help.||bit by bit|
|shuffling sounds||A crowd||turned grey|
|come out||was forming.||as little|
|of the chimney.||My brother||by little|
|I looked up||was there||the sun|
|the chimney||stuck halfway||came in|
|and he was||like an||to lighten|
|in there||Adam’s Apple.||his day|
|stuck||He couldn’t||and move|
|halfway.||move up,||his body|
|He couldn’t||he couldn’t||away.|
Myron Lysenko (1998). Winning and Losing (Melbourne: Hit & Miss Publications), p.43
In re-reading ‘Chimney’ I began to wonder about the connection of the poem to the death by heroin overdose, in his early thirties, of Lysenko’s brother. Myron has confirmed that he wrote the poem at least a few years after his brother’s death. When Myron visited me in Sydney during the time of this tragic event, some time around 1990, I was struck by the extent of his sorrow at his brother’s death. Such sorrow is of course natural but there was, it seemed, something about it that went beyond what I would have expected. He was inconsolable. I can remember thinking this then but it wasn’t until I was reading the poem again that night preparing for class that I began to think more about it. Certain phrases took on greater significance. Phrases such as ‘I couldn’t/find him’, ‘I/followed his/ voice/but/couldn’t/see him’, ‘I was/standing in/a house/without a floor’, and (when he finally sees him) ‘and he was/in there/stuck/halfway. He couldn’t/move up, /he couldn’t/move down.’ The last sentence covering a series of lines is repeated later in the poem.
Anyone who has experienced the impossibility of helping or forcing a person out of addiction, especially to heroin, will surely see the metaphorical significance of these lines. Later in the poem there are references to Myron’s brother being ‘suspended/in mid-chimney/coughing softly/and keeping the dust/off his/eyes/with tears/as his/brown hair/bit by bit/turned grey’ and finally, ‘the sun/came in/to lighten/his day/and move/his body/away.’ The ultra short lines slow the poem down to its utmost painfulness and disjointedness, its confusion and stuck-ness. Ostensibly it seems Lysenko has done this because the lines, in three columns, look like chimneys (indeed he has told me recently that this was his reasoning). However I think that instinctively, subconsciously, he has used the short, enjambed lines for the reasons already outlined. When I asked him if he was aware of any possible connection of the images in the poem with his brother’s death Lysenko was surprised, saying, No, he was not aware, but now that I pointed it out he could see it. He was understandably moved by this revelation. I have received a similar response from Ian McBryde about his poem ‘Last Fathom’, and, in a less decisive, more complex sense, from Kevin Brophy and his poem, ‘A Small Mistake’.
Some time after these initial discussion of the poem’s deeper implications with Lysenko, he informed me that his mother had since accused him of ‘lying’, saying that he (Lysenko) had told his brother to go up the chimney. I asked Myron if this was true and he shook his head uncertainly, saying that he might have, but he couldn’t remember. ‘It’s the sort of thing I did,’ he said, ‘daring him to do things like that. He was incredible, fearless. He amazed me the things he’d do. I never really thought he would do them when I dared him, but he nearly always did …’ This kind of influence and dominance, even hero-worship, is common between older and younger brothers (I had one myself with my older brother), but they can hardly be a cause for true culpability. What is not deniable is that the subconscious (and unconscious) might hold onto and develop these connections and the consequent sense of guilt.
I then examined the poem again, and I recalled that whenever Lysenko read it at a live reading it always got a lot of laughs, and I began to wonder why. Apart from the fact that someone stuck in a chimney might be somewhat amusing, it wasn’t that funny, and now that I had touched on a possible tragic subtext it was even more puzzling. I noticed that the first half the poem could have been quirky but not comic. Then I came to the phrase almost in the middle of the poem that turned the whole narrative on its head. ‘I didn’t/know what/to do/so I/ran home/and ate/a sandwich.’ This, of course, was the phrase, I then recalled, that was so funny in the reading. It changed the tone of the rest of the poem. When I asked Lysenko about this phrase, he nodded and said: ‘Yes. It wasn’t in the poem at first. I was reading it one night and half way through it felt slow and boring and sad, so I just put that phrase in, and everyone roared with laughter, and the poem changed!’ It is possible that this infusion of humour was made to help Lysenko over his deeper feeling of grief and even guilt about his brother’s death. This possibility of guilt may be ‘survivor guilt’, but it may also come from a very real subconscious anxiety connected with Lysenko, the older brother. The fact that he never names his brother in the poem becomes very pertinent here.
The idea of personal subtext is not an original one. What is useful in this instance, however – by the close personal testimony of the poet, rather than just speculation – is the specific demonstration of a significant part of the psychology of composition for the student and practitioner of creative writing. As I have suggested already, it may assure the creative writer of any age or experience that it is enough that they feel compelled to write about something. The ostensible reason may seem elusive but if the feeling of compulsion is strong, this is often enough. Raymond Carver, in his essay ‘On Writing’ quotes Flannery O’Connor as saying she ‘most often did not know where she was going when she sat down to write a short story’. Carver adds: ‘When I read this some years ago it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought it was my uncomfortable secret…’ (Carver, 1986: 25).
I should say here that it is not my intention to attempt to establish some kind of singular methodology for writing, or indeed for judging poems. Nor am I about to suggest that in order to understand the deeper implications of a poem the reader must take up a study of the poet’s life, let alone establish a close personal relationship with the poet. I don’t want to even imagine what the implications of such a suggestion might entail. What I do want to suggest is that in some, if not many cases, the power or resonance of a poem depends very much on a deeper personal symbolism, often existing subconsciously or unconsciously for the poet, and that the existence of this resonance is evident on the surface of the poem and often gives it its mysterious, ineffable power. The question arises: Even if this connection is given, of what use is the knowledge of it? Whether it is of use to the critic or indeed the reader is an area too large to go into adequately here. What I am sure of is the use of such knowledge to the poet; not necessarily the poet in particular, but to the poet in general, in their understanding of the process of writing, of achieving a profound resonance in their poetry. From this knowledge the poet can be confident in their instinct, their feeling, if you like, their trance; or even in their apparent intellectual grasp of what it is they are writing about. If the piece of work sings, then it will sing. And what makes it sing will be beyond analysis or else there would be a better way of articulating it. This is where the ART of ART moves diametrically away from the SCIENCE of objective evaluation. There is no certainty; all is ineffable. The revelation is in the allusion. It can be felt but not explained. Ezra Pound wrote: ‘The Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy’ (Pound, 1973: 345).
At least half of the work done in my undergraduate classes is towards the students’ own creative work. I find examples such as the poems in question most helpful in explaining to the students that it is enough that they feel compelled to write about some subject or idea, that they need not necessarily, at least at the outset, understand what it is that is driving them to do so. This approach tends to create in the class situation an atmosphere of relaxedness that might otherwise not be achieved; and it is an attitude that I encourage them to adopt with their creative work outside the classes. Martin Flanagan expressed this idea for effective creative climate very well in an article in The Age newspaper: ‘The creative path is dark, groping, essentially mysterious. If you are listening to any voice other than your own, you’re lost, or, what is more likely, are yet to cross the threshold that marks the beginning: the loss of self-consciousness and, in its place, the detached exploration of self (Flanagan, 1995). Of equal relevance and perhaps more so in the context of this paper, Earnest Hemingway, in ‘Death In The Afternoon’ makes his famous iceberg comment on writing that can apply equally to prose and poetry:
In dealing with student creative writers it has become noticeable that the primary problem with their work is often a sense of stiffness, of contrivance, of writing what is expected, of an inability to work instinctually, to find their natural ‘voice’. It is hoped that the idea behind the above analysis might be a good starting point for any creative writing class, or indeed for a writer experiencing ‘block’. The advice is, relax, and allow your subconscious and unconscious do the work. The ‘craft’ will develop through hard work and close reading, but the most significant idea(s) will nearly always only come unselfconsciously. In this sense the epitaph on Charles Bukowski’s grave: ‘Don’t try’, is most apposite.
1. The original 1954 article does not include this sentence. It was added in the 2001 version of the article in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (see References).
Raymond Carver (1986). ‘On Writing’, Fires (London, Picador) pp.22-27
Martin Flanagan (5/8/95). “A Good Critic Must Be a Good Writer First”, The Age Saturday Extra (Melbourne, The Age Newspaper, Fairfax) p.7
Ernest Hemingway (1932). Death In The Afternoon (New York: Scribner)
Carl Gustav Jung (1933). “Psychology and Literature”, Modern Man In Search of a Soul, tr. W. S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd) pp.175-199
Myron Lysenko (1998). “Chimney”, Winning and Losing (Melbourne, Hit & Miss Publishers) p.43
Ezra Pound (1973). Selected Prose 1909-1965, pt. 7 – “Affirmations – As for Imagisme” (ed. by William Cookson) (London, Faber & Faber) pp.329-370
William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley (1954). “The Intentional Fallacy”,Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (University of Kentucky, The University of Kentucky Press) pp.3-18
William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley (2001). “The Intentional Fallacy”, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, General Ed., Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.) pp.1371-1387