clive james on poetic memory: “rilke was a prick”


Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people’s feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point.

Sick of being a prisoner of my childhood, I want to put it behind me. To do that, I have to remember what it was like. I hope I can dredge it all up again without sounding too pompous. Solemnity, I am well aware, is not my best vein. Yet it can’t be denied that books like this are written to satisfy a confessional urge; that the main-spring of a confessional urge is guilt; and that somewhere underneath the guilt there must be a crime. In my case I suspect there are a thousand crimes, which until now I have mainly been successful in not recollecting. Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick. 

—from the preface to Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs (1980)

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  1. I have posted this as an expression of gratitude to Clive James for his intellectual stimulus and good humour over my years in the Antipodes. -Ron Price, Tasmanai

    I have provided a succinct narrative account of my life in my autobiography and memoirs. It is chronological; the factual material is ordered, sequential and goes for 2500 pages and five volumes. But, clearly, sharpness of detail, revealing anecdote, even suspense and analysis of motivation are given with more insight and style, much more effectively–from my point of view anyway–in my poetry. I have so much poetry now, some 6500 poems spread over thousands of pages, that this collected and compendious mass of material, if it is ever to provide a basis for biography in the future, must be shaped, interpreted, given perspective, dimension, a point of view.

    Such a biographer must provide the creative, the fertile, the suggestive and engendering fact, an imaginative, a referential dimension. Such an analyst must enact a character, a place, a time in history. He will do this through language, through imposing a formal coherency on my material, although inevitably there will be present the incurable illogicalities of life, as Robert Louis Stevenson called the inconsistent, the unresolved paradoxes of life. And we all have them. He will give the reader a portrait of my life not an inventory. This is what any biographer must do. I do this in my autobiographical poetry in a way that suits me, suits my tastes and the way I see my life from the perspectives of late middle age(55-60) and early adulthood(60-65). I provide many pictures, many moods, many sides of one man. Details balloon; they repeat; they illuminate. I discover things about my life, but I do not invent them.

    The Canadian poet P.K. Page(1916- )once wrote autobiographically about her life: “Is it I who am forgotten, dismembered, escaped, deaf, uncollected? Already I have lost yesterday and the day before. My childhood is a series of isolated vignettes, vivid as hypnagogic visions. Great winds have blown my past away in gusts leaving patches and parts of my history and pre-history. No wonder I want to remember, to follow a thread back. To search for something I already know but have forgotten I know.” Like Page, I am conscious that I am multiple with many many roles in my 65 years of life thusfar. Who was that child of four or five? Who am I now, this man on an old age pension living in the oldest town on the oldest continent.

    Like Page, I am interested in the possibility of reaching another realm beyond this world where masks are inescapable. Like Page, I am interested in the conditions in which my self, my personality, my mind and temperament were formed. I want to understand my experience and how I have come to conceptualize it. Many cultures have conceptualized the human being as multiple. Sometimes the division is between a waking and a dreaming self or between an ordinary space-and-time-bound self and a spirit self that could transcend those boundaries. Often the divisions involve a guardian angel, a daemon or some other forms of personal contact with the divine and the immortal.

    Christianity has emphasized the division between body and soul and, since Descartes, Western culture has used and struggled with the dualism of body and mind. The search for the self and the flight from it form a central dialectic of modem culture. The religion I have been associated with for nearly six full decades has had an immense impact on my sense of self, my meaning systems, my life-purpose, my values, beliefs and attitudes. It is impossible to try and even summarize this impact in a few lines here. It would take a book. Indeed, it has taken a book and that book is now in five volumes. It is called my autobiography and it is entitled: Pioneering Over Four Epochs. My website of 450,000 words, the equivalent of six books at 75,000 words to use a standard definition of a book, also examines this impact as does my 300 page study of the poetry of Roger White.

    Some recent literary critics suggest that writers wrestle with what the Scottish novelist Neil Gunn’s Highland River refers to as “sounds in the empty spaces of history.” There are so many various and barely audible vibrations of narrative that exist among millions of my coreligionists. They exist, these personal stories, amidst the monolithic sounds of official historiography and the many main threads of Bahá’í history going back far into the nineteenth century. They exist but they are, for the most part, relatively few in number. Not everyone, indeed, very few, want to write their story.

    There are unique individuals who bestow on mankind a legacy of artistic greatness. Some of these souls also engender an almost insatiable desire to know more about them, the circumstances in which they lived, worked and what motivated them to such levels of achievement. Some were reserved and humble people who avoided fame and fortune, sustained primarily by their magnificent accomplishments. This autobiography, mine, is about a man who avoided the limelight as far as he was able but, being a teacher and lecturer as well as a Bahá’í, who aimed to give the Faith he had espoused a greater public face, it was difficult to avoid some kind of limelight.

    This avoidance of being noticed was even more true in his first decade of writing on the internet: 1999 to 2009. The internet, I found, spread me out across thousands of sites in nanoseconds and, thus, fame and success, notoriety and renown were kept to a bare minimum. Writing my biography, if it is ever written, will be a challenging exercise because of the sheer amount of resources I have made available. I have not done this intentionally but, rather, out of sheer coincidence, the accidence of circumstance. Those mysterious dispensations of Providence, perhaps.

    I feel a little like the explorer John Franklin who wrote a journal of his 1825-27 expedition. He was so conscious that the journal would subsequently become the basis for a popular narrative that he sometimes composed the journal as though he were addressing not the British Admiralty which just wanted a factual report, but a general audience interested in travel writing; for example, he frequently addressed his audience as “the Reader” and once excused himself from a lengthy description of the winter at Great Bear Lake because “the ordinary and uniform occurrences of a winter’s residence would prove anything but amusing or instructive to the general Reader.” Obviously, as the Admiralty did not read official journals for amusement, Franklin had his future audience in mind.

    Franklin’s revision of the 1825-27 accounts involved converting the measured delineations of geographic locale intended for the Admiralty into picturesque landscapes designed for an audience craving travel literature. At other times, Franklin transformed the navigational tools used for geographical discovery into devices suitable to the landscape artist’s needs. Such alterations represented a changed attitude in Franklin. Unable to rely solely on the events of his expedition, he felt he had to address the tastes of the audience that he anticipated would read his book. He felt he had to become an author and not simply a recorder of geographical information useful to the Admiralty.

    I do not write for future audiences quite as explicitly and, may I say, flagrantly or overtly as Franklin did. I have that audience in mind, but my special audience is myself. I try to get the experience right as I see it. As Plutarch and Boswell, two of history’s most famous biographers, demonstrated: “anecdote rather than history teaches us more about the subject.”1 I see my narrative as the home of history and my poetry as a source of rich anecdote. It was for this reason that, by the 1990s, I turned to poetry as a reservoir of autobiography; it seemed to teach, to convey, much more than narrative not only about me but about anything I wanted to say about any topic. The anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, helps us to understand why several poems about one object, or person, provide more significance or meaning than a narrative when he writes:

    “To understand a real object in its totality we always tend to work from its parts. The resistance it offers us is overcome by dividing it…Being smaller, the object as a whole seems less formidable….it seems to us qualitatively simplified.”2

    One can not know everything about anyone, even oneself. The mountain of detail would sink a ship and would not enlighten anyone. The task of achieving comprehensiveness not only is impossible, it is irrelevant. But there are intelligible dimensions of one’s life and it is these dimensions that my poetry deals with best. Imagination is critical in writing biography. Some writers see invention more important than knowledge. Inevitably, there is an element of invention, of moving beyond the factual, but my own preference is to use imagination in a framework of factual experience, as far as possible. I do this in all my genres of writing, except perhaps my efforts at fiction writing.

    To read my poetry should be to immerse oneself in the first several decades of Baha’i experience in what the Baha’is see as ‘the tenth stage of history’ and, especially, that time when the spiritual and administrative centre on Mt. Carmel received its richest, its definitive, elaboration and definition within what was arguably the Faith’s first global public image. Such immersion should also take place within several other unifying nodes of experience as expressed in and through my poetry. I have drawn these nodes to the reader’s attention from time to time in the introductions to some of my poems.

    From a Baha’i perspective my poetry will undoubtedly possess a moral appeal associated with overcoming hardship, a quality that characterized most nineteenth century biography. But the moral framework, while retaining a certain simplicity, is expressed in a portrait of complexity, hopefully refinement, undoubtedly mystery and also a slumbering world as well as my own idle fancies and vain imaginings. The streaming utterance of a new Revelation lies at the back of it all.

    Freud commented that biographers choose their subjects ‘for personal reasons in their own emotional life.’ 3 I’m sure this is equally, if not more, true of autobiographers. While criss-crossing Australia as an international pioneer from north to south and east to west and after teaching in the northernmost and southernmost places in Canada-all of this over fifty-six years(1953-2009), I watched this emerging world religion grow, multiply numerically, perhaps 30 times. I have taught in schools for thirty-five years, lived in two dozens towns and feel a certain fatigue. I must write this poetry for the same reason a foetus must gestate for nine months. I feel, with Rilke, a great inner solitude and that my life and history is itself a beginning, for me, for my religion and for the world. I want to suck the sweetness and some of the bitterness and darkness out of everything and tell the story.

    I sigh a deep-dark melancholy but keep it in as far as I am able. I am lonely and attentive in this sadness. My poetry gives expression to this process and to my destiny which comes from within. My poetry is the story of what happens to me. For the most part “life happens” and one must respond to the seeming inevitability of much of it, although the question of freedom and determinism is really quite complex. Reality, I record in my poetry, comes to me slowly, infinitely slowly. My poetry records this process. My poetry is an expression of a fruit that has been ripening within me: obscure, deep, mysterious. After years it now comes out in a continuous preoccupation as if I have, at last, found some hidden springs. It is as if I have been playing around the edges, with trivia, with surface. Finally something real, true, is around me. I stick to my work. I have a quiet confidence, a patience, a distance from a work that always occupies me. And so I can record a deep record of my time. I am preparing something both visible and invisible, something fundamental.

    Ron Price
    Began on 25 September 1998
    and updated on 10/10/’09.
    1 Ira Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1984, p.60.
    2 idem
    3 ibid., p.122.
    (2000 words)

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