Identity theft and artful pronouns

identity theftPG

This all kicked off from a week’s writing residential in St Ives with Kim Moore and Steve Ely. The course was called ‘Thrown voices’; it had sessions with titles like  Shape-shifters and ventriloquists,  Deviant voices and the dramatic monologue,  and Holding your tongue. It set rabbits racing off in all directions; it set off a series of small explosions in my head. I’m still trying to take it in, and I doubt this post will be too coherent, but it may help me  to sort out some ideas, and possibly persuade you that identity theft could be for you. It’s not a new idea, by any means. It’s self-evidently the job of the dramatist. I remember one of my sixth-form students asking George Macbeth why he wrote dramatic monologues.

‘Because I can only imagine one person and invent one voice at a time,’ he said. ‘If I could do more than that I’d write plays.’

It’s also what Keats and T S Eliot found so crucial..the business of im-personality, Keats’ assertion that

The ‘poetical Character’ is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago as an Imogen .What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet. 

(I just realised that this is what happens when I start to write a post before I’ve got my ducks in a row…I grab for quotations in the hope they’ll give me a hook to hang my hat on. Well, here goes nothing…a bit more Keats…) What we’re after is getting beyond the purely personal, out of the self, into the thinginess of things:

Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –
or, less metaphysically

if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.

It’s this belief that if you want to know the truth, especially the truth about yourself, you need to get out of yourself. I suppose that takes us into the company of those artful pronouns. I. You. And that problematically gendered business of He and She (no problems with the plural. Always handy in an essay). but because I’ve not been right well this last week, and I’m clouded with antibiotics, I’ll leave that till a bit later, and try to find a new place to kick off from.

A month or so ago, I scribbled some notes that I thought would structure this post. I reminded myself that I’d written more than once about how, in order to to find a way of writing about people, I needed to borrow masks and identities. Like those of the sculptures who inhabit my new pamphlet, ‘Outlaws and fallen angels’. I reminded myself of all the writers who showed me different ways of doing this.

Especially, I remembered Carol Ann Duffy’ The World’s Wife. The more I read it I saw how taking on a mask, a new persona, she could throw a clarifying light on her own inner life and her past. I love the way Little Red-Cap lets her side step autobiography into something truer and more universal that I can share, and the way The Kray Sisters let her play with the ambiguous and puzzling business of gender. Because what happens when you try on someone else’s life is that you suddenly recognise and acknowledge things you’ve denied (though you may have suspected) about your own.

Let me give you an example. I was playing at retellings of various myths. I’d always been enthralled by the tale of Daedalus and Icarus, but I’m not sure that I’d really thought it through. On the surface it seems to be a familiar trope..that of the over-confidence of youth. You forget why Daedalus would craft wings from a framework of wax and feathers in the first place. In case you don’t know, Daedalus and Icarus are imprisoned in a high tower because Daedalus was complicit in enabling Theseus to find a way through the labyrinth. Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, suggests that Daedalus constructed the Labyrinth so cunningly that he himself could barely escape it after he built it. Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos, who needed it to imprison his wife’s son the Minotaur. The story is told that Poseidon had given a white bull to Minos so that he might use it as a sacrifice. Instead, Minos kept it for himself; and in revenge, Poseidon made his wife Pasiphaë lust for the bull with the help of Aphrodite. For Pasiphaë, as Greek mythologers interpreted it, Daedalus also built a wooden cow so she could mate with the bull. It’s a long trail of causes and effects that brings me to this point in my own poem:

pinioned in a parchment sky,
his mind a kite-string ravel,
he stares at distressing
white comets’ tails of feathers,
down at his dwindling son.

It’s a poem that brings me face to face with the business of guilt and responsiblity. One of my sons died like Icarus, in a fall from a great height. It was only by borrowing the mask of Daedalus that I came to be able to write my way to some understanding, and to share it. And I think the key word there is : Share. Some writers like Kim Moore, Wendy Pratt and Fiona Benson ….poets I’ve written about before……seem able to do this without recourse to maskwearing. I don’t have their control, their steel. The point is, shape shifting and identity theft are ways for me to write about rawly personal experiences. But they don’t always have to be so bleak, and this is what I rediscovered in St Ives. It’s great to be invited to play a role.

While I was thinking about this post, I made a list of the characters I’ve played, or would like to play. In one way or another,  they are my heroes.

There are the ones who are unjustly treated by history, by custom and by the gods: Eve, Pandora, Prometheus, Demeter, Hephaestus, Echo, Arachne, Joan of Arc. So many.

Then there are the ones who who endure, by their wit, or trickery, or, most of all, their capacity for love. Anthony Wilson has his life-saving poems. I have my life-saving heroes: Huck Finn, Riddley Walker, Little Dorritt, Esther Summerson, Quoyle of ‘The Shipping News’, Ivan Denisovitch, Winnie Verloc, Smike. I’m interested by how many of these I know through their own first-person voices.

And of course, there are the subversive and transgressive: MacMurphy, Mr Toad, Just William, Falstaff.

But what about the wicked and the downright diabolical? Mephistophilis, Lucifer, ‘King Lear’s Edmund, Richard the Third…the ones with the gleefully self-revelatory soliloquies. Or the as-yet-unvoiced. Myra Hindley, say, or Mary Bell or Harold Shipman. It’s interesting that dramatists like Marlowe and Shakepeare, and poets like Milton and Browning seem to enjoy inhabiting a villain, the ones who love the smell of napalm in the morning, ‘the blue-eyed bad boys on the bus’ in Lydia Macpherson’s splendid phrase. What do you find when you dress up as these? It’s what we were invited to do in St Ives. And why did I love it so much?

I’ll dodge that question, apart from noting that having had a lurching gait for the 65 years until I had hip replacements, I find it very easy to slip into the role of Richard the Third, and am much less uncomfortable with being him, temporarily, than with being Daedalus confronted by the consequences of his own cleverness…..or the lapse of his imaginative reach.

It suddenly occurs to me ask what would have happened if Wordsworth had taken the trouble to write about Michael or The Leech-gatherer in the first person, and what he might have discovered about the men of the hard fells. And about his own assumptions. I’d like to know how Michael felt about the ceaseless round of toil, in a house where not even the kettle gets a rest, or just how close to being a noble savage the leech gatherer felt, up to his oxters in the mud of a cold tarn. It makes me speculate about two things. One is the way shapeshifting might make you challenge what you thought you knew about yourself in the world, and the other is to make you ask why you would want to try on this identity or that.

And here’s another thought. I re-read Steve Ely’s Oswald’s book of hours when I came back from St Ives, where I tried out some of his Old Testament characters. Who does he try on: John Nevison the Highwayman (and his Confessions); Wat Tyler; Johon Schepe; Robin Hood (our Robin Hood of Barnsdale and of the West Riding); Thomas Haukes at the day of his burning at the hands of Queen Mary’s men.Outlaws every one. Sometimes in the first person. Sometimes in the second. Never, I think, in the third. Go on. Buy the book and read them; ask: who is this Steve Ely who spends his days in the company of those beyond the law and beyond the Pale? If you haven’t the time for that (though if you’re reading this, you probably have) then have a go at Robin Robertson’s At Clachan Bridge and At Roane head from The wrecking light and ask yourself ‘who’s the ‘I’?  Who’s the ‘he’ ?

Get out your copy of The art of falling and ask yourself, when Kim Moore wrote How the stones fell who did she mean by ‘we’? Who did she feel herself in sympathy with, or complicit with? What is her kinship with the other or the others in this ‘we’, and why does it matter to her?

I’ll tell you what. I had no idea I’d end up here, but it brings us nicely to that business of artful, or artless pronouns. Because even if you take on or borrow an identity you’ll still need to choose whether you’ll write in the first or the second person. I find I quite like using ‘you’ when I really mean ‘me’ or ‘I’….the business of treating myself as someone I’ve just come across and might treat dispassionately. Or feel as though I do. It’s a shifting of responsibility, too, now I think about it. Or maybe a cheat and self-deception, especially when I’m feeling uncomfortable about the confessional nature of ‘I’. Or its self-importance.

I do know that of late I’ve been writing two versions of poems that seem to come a bit too close for comfort. One about one of my unjustly treated mythic characters, for instance. In the first person it sounded/felt sentimental and self-pitying. In the second person some of my readers said they were puzzled about who was addressing this ‘you’. One said ‘why don’t you use both? Make it into a dialogue’. I did, and it worked. I think. Once it’s been rejected by the competition it’s in for I’ll post it, and you can make up your own minds. But in the meantime, here’s a game you can play.

One of the characters I tried on in St Ives was Myra Hindley. I felt so bad about this I felt I should try on Keith Bennett’s mother, Winnie, by way of expiation. But I’m toying with the business of pronouns.  I’ve no intention of sending Myra Hindley off to magazines, so we can play around with her here. I wrote her in the first person. What happens if this gets changed into the second person? Have a go. Copy and paste it, turn it into second person. Tell me what difference it makes. Make sure you read it aloud.

They look at me and I know
what they think.
They think that I know
where the dead are buried.
And I tell you what
I dream
I dream of cottongrass
its million white heads
its tender flowers
streaming white
like the blood of Jesus
like the love and mercy of Jesus
white as forgiveness
in the wind from the west
and there are no bodies
if there ever were
bones sunk in the peat
the weeping black dams
they are gone in the whin
in the bracken
ground exceeding small
between millstones
and they think I know
where the bodies are buried
and I know I can look in this mirror of steel
and I do not know for a second
the woman who stares back at me


Right. I’m off to take the next dose of antibiotics. And then I’m off to Otley for an Open Mic. competition. This afternoon, Matthew, I shall mainly be  Richard the Third, of whom the good citzens of York wrote in the city records after Bosworth: Today was our good king Richard mostly grievously murdered and slain

Next week we’ll be having a guest, and the week after, too. So no more homework for a bit.

Just the one I set today.