Ern Malley and the Art of Life

By | 1 December 2010

But hang on. I’ve used the ‘A’ word. Any literary undergrad worth their black hair dye and hand-rolled ciggie can tell you, Virginia, the author is dead, dead, dead. Killed by some French cat in the 60s. Before that, even, some stuffy English dudes had decreed that preoccupation with the author ‘leads away from the poem.’ According to them, a poem is ‘detached from the author at birth … [and] belongs to the public.’ The basic point of all this was that authors and their intentions are not the ultimate source of meaning in a poem or other text. Readers are free to interpret texts in varied and multiple ways, unhassled by the spectre of what they are supposed to really mean. This was essentially a rejection of a previously dominant approach to literature that stressed authorship and authenticity at the expense of broader possibilities.

I’m definitely not arguing with the view that readers are free to interpret. The Malley case is a perfect example of how readers of poems can find meanings far beyond those the authors intended. However, it seems many readers, for whatever reasons, want to keep the author’s corpse attached to its works by whatever lengths of fraying, necrotic umbilical cord reside at hand. I am guilty. My bookshelves are lined with biographies, letters, diaries and other paraphernalia relating to the lives of poets I admire. I don’t care if the stuff is real or forged. I crave stories – oh okay, I’ll admit it, gossip – and the ways I can use this information to create new (probably completely whack) interpretations of the poems I love. In my mind I turn not just hoax, but real authors into fictional characters inside their own texts.

I can make this shameful admission because – I have evidence – I am not alone in my indulgence of these voyeuristic fancies. Consider films such as Bright Star (2009), Sylvia (2003), Barfly (1987) and An Angel At My Table (1990). These explore the lives of poets John Keats, Sylvia Plath, Charles Bukowski and Janet Frame, respectively. But if movies aren’t enough, a Google books search for “Keats Biography” returns “about 91500 results”. Plath gets 12400, Bukowski 2520 and Frame 2920. Die hard fans can also visit Keats’ house in London, which has been turned into a museum or take a Janet Frame Guided Tour around Oamaru. Sylvia and Hank’s houses aren’t open to the public, but UK Attraction (“The UK’s Premier Attractions Site”!) provides a map to the Plath / Hughes residence, while in 2008 the Cultural Heritage Commission and City Council of LA named the bungalow where Bukowski penned Post Office as an official Historic-Cultural monument. Similarly, Lord Byron was as famous for being ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ as he was for his poetry. And then there’s the cult of Beat Gen obsessives … (no disrespect – I’m in it).

Do these endless books, films, and various other shrines to famous poets actually offer an accurate insight into their lives? Probably not. Bukowski’s one-time lover Linda King has criticised Mickey Rourke’s portrayal in Barfly as well as Matt Dillon’s attempt in the later film, Factotum (2005) while Frame wryly observed that ‘until Jane Campion’s film I was known as the mad writer. Now I’m the mad fat writer.’ But whether fact or fiction, these portrayals are out there. Their existence suggests that a considerable portion of readers are interested as much in te poets as in their poetry. Their existence also helps create the personas through which many of these readers interpret poets’ works. In this way, “real” extra-textual authors can be said to become “fictional” intra-textual characters and literary devices within their own works.

Is this cause for moral outrage? Are all history’s un/dead poets now rolling in their graves, swearing vengeance? Meanwhile, what was Frame’s actual BMI? Would Cate Blanchett have been better than Gwyneth Paltrow? Yes. No. I don’t know – and I don’t care. That gristle is for the critics to chew on. Me, I’m a poet, as are many of Cordite’s readers. So I’m wondering, what does all this mean for us?

Essentially, as living poets, we need to cope with being dead – but resurrected – but never quite exactly as ourselves. (In limbo?) Then there’s that notion of being a literary device. (Reduced to the status of a metaphor! Hmph.) To re-phrase those English dudes, it is not just the poem, but also the persona of the author that becomes ‘detached from the [flesh and blood] author … [and] belongs to the public’ as a character within the poems. But we do have a certain extent of control over exactly what becomes detached, and how. We decide how to dress and behave at public readings, festivals and other events, decide which photographs to use for promotion, what to mention (and not mention) in the bio notes we send to publishers as well as in interviews, on blogs and message boards, perhaps even through social networking sites. As per the old cliché, most people – whether writers or not – present various masks in public. Or perhaps I’ll download an upgrade on that phrase and say everyone looks better on Facebook (at least in the pictures they post themselves).

To what extent, then, do / can / should poets consciously manipulate their public personas to contextualise their works? In The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry, Somers-Willet identifies the performance of identity as a vital device in the genre of slam poetry. That’s talking about a very literal, live performance, but it is also possible to perform on the page – as well as the screen and various other mediums. Malley’s biography can be seen as an extreme example of such performance. A less controversial example is that of artists presenting work through avatar identities in online game Second Life. “Real-life” writers and artists (not poets) who may be viewed as further examples include Hunter S Thompson, Perez Hilton, David Bowie, Eminem and Banksy (the most intriguing aspect of his persona is his lack thereof). Even language itself can involve subtle performances. Take my use of idioms like ‘the French cat’, ‘some stuffy English dudes’ and ‘whack’. As someone who has racked up around six years of tertiary real-world-avoidance, do you really think I don’t know better?

Ethically, however, this territory is feeling more than a little bit shaky. Am I suggesting it’s okay to lie? That we shouldn’t be ourselves? That an interesting life-story matters more than writing well? No way. But at the same time, I’m wondering how possible it ever really is to tell the truth – the actual truth (which version?) At the point of the essay when I ought to be knitting these woolly threads together into a pretty little conclusion to sit snugly over a well-earned pot of tea, I find everything unravelling … Can poets manipulate their public personas to make themselves characters in their own works? If so, how? Are there examples of poets who have done this? Any who would admit it? Is performance of identity ethically acceptable? Why / not? And even if poets don’t deliberately perform, is it ever actually possible for them to accurately present their “genuine” selves?

In place of conclusions, more and more questions. But perhaps conclusions are overrated. The Malley case has shown us that, placed in the hands of readers, pieces of writing often branch off in strange, unexpected directions. They not only take all the paths less travelled by, but dig tunnels, build bridges, grow wings and go all hell for Icarus. (Particularly on web-pages with message board facilities …

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