On Melville, Mendacity, and Letting the Unknowable Find Its Way in Your Writing
David Kirby Plumbs the Uncertain Depths of Art and Truth
Once upon a time, I wrote a book about Herman Melville. On the first page, I describe how I got the idea to write about him: I was browsing through books at an outdoor stall in Venice and came across a 72-page graphic version of Typee, Melville’s most popular book during his lifetime and the one that made him famous as “the man who lived among the cannibals.”
There’s not much Italy in Melville’s writing, so why was I encountering him here on the shores of the Adriatic? He’d never even visited Venice, or so I said on the first page of my introduction.
Turns out I was wrong about that. A poet but also a by-the-book scholar at the time, or so I thought, I was churning out the chapters of my Melville study as the separate volumes of the authoritative Northwestern-Newberry Edition of his work appeared so that I could check my quotations against the most reliable version of his writings. But I needed to turn my manuscript in before Volume 14, entitled Correspondence, came out. That’s the one which contains Melville’s letters from Italy, including, yes, Venice.
If I’d been taken to court for my mendacity, I might have gotten off on technical grounds since there wouldn’t be an Italy until the country was unified in 1865, meaning that in 1857 Melville visited some of the states that shared the Italian peninsula—the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papal States, Tuscany, and so on—there was no way he could go to a country that didn’t exist yet. He did make it to Venice, however. He even wrote a short poem called “Venice,” damn it. (The sound you hear from the direction of Tallahassee is me grinding my teeth.)
Now, writers don’t always get everything right. Shakespeare’s famous for his mistakes: there were no clocks in Julius Caesar’s Rome, Hamlet’s father couldn’t have been Catholic because Danes at that time were pagans, and so on.
But the standard is higher for nonfiction, which is supposed to tell the truth. I hadn’t. Nonfiction writers make mistakes, too, of course. But not on the first page. As soon as I discovered my falsehood, I vowed to turn my back on nonfiction forever and write nothing but poetry, a genre in which you’re encouraged to lie.
For I had violated the one law that should be tattooed on the inside of every writer’s eyelids: that of Keats’s “negative capability” or the capacity to accept, in the poet’s words, “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” For reasons I’ll never fathom, I wanted to keep Melville out of the Piazza San Marco, on the mainland, well away from the scowling border guard who stamps your passport and signals your entry with a brusque nod that suggests he’s doing you a favor (I’m sure that guy worked there in Melville’s day as well).
Maybe I was just in a hurry. I was trying to get tenure in those days, meaning I was writing and publishing a lot, both poetry and nonfiction. The latter included a number of reference books, several of which were well-reviewed in Scotland, of all places. I used to imagine these sensible Scottish librarians standing around at their annual meetings in Edinburgh or Glasgow, brushing the pipe ash off their kilts and saying “Guid lad, Kirby,” and then, when I started writing poems full time, shaking their heads ruefully and wondering, “Whatever happened to the lad?” and “It’s nae the same since Kirby went missing.”
To date, no one has called me on my error, which could mean that either there are more nice people in the world than I think or that nobody read my Melville book. Still, I did it, and if anyone is to blow the whistle on me, it might as well be myself.
In Key West one time I heard Peter Meinke read his poem “Scars,” in which he writes about accidentally walloping his late father with a baseball bat. When he finished, he told the audience that, yes, there is a vivid scar, only it’s on his arm, not his father’s—Peter’s son was the one who administered the wallop and to the poet, not his grandpa. Peter’s father was still alive then, too—so that poem contains not one, but two falsehoods. When I wrote Peter recently to check my memory, he said he showed “Scars” to his father, who was “a bit puzzled by the way poetry works, but not at all against the poem.”
Confronted with a well-turned poem (or story or play or painting or opera or scientific discovery), some people might think, “Wow, whoever came up with this is really smart.” But they aren’t, at least when they start out. A scientist friend told me, “If you know what you’re doing, it’s not research.” In a December 1973 interview in a Canadian magazine called Beetle, Leonard Cohen says, “I don’t think too much. I never think, to tell you the truth.”
At the moment I’m reading Hermione Lee’s splendid widowmaker of a book called Tom Stoppard: A Life, an 896-page biography of our most accomplished playwright since Shakespeare. Here Stoppard talks about his process, which seems to consist of equal parts industry and confusion:
I don’t have a play to write at the moment but I have at least two subjects for a play so in a way I do have a play to write, it’s just I have no idea what the story will be. . . . There are three or four things I thought, you know, might justify writing a play. I mean, they’re all quite interesting, and still are, but I have no idea of any kind of narrative or characters. . . . I decided to somehow jam them all into the same narrative, like cats in a bag fighting.
In other words, it’s the cats who will decide what the story will be, not their master. If there are two kinds of truth, the factual truth and the artistic kind, the only way you’ll make your way to the latter is to be led there by the cats. Otherwise, you’re just going to end up saying what everyone else says.
Occasionally someone will wag a finger at me for not writing political poems, but I do: it’s just that (a) they don’t announce themselves as political in their titles or first lines and (b) I don’t know they’re political until they turn out that way. (See Leonard Cohen’s “I never think” and Stoppard’s “I have no idea,” above.)
A quick example: a poem called “Look, Slavs,” which appears in my collection More Than This, begins with my childhood confusion about the words “Slav” and “slob.” The poem cycles through some notable people of Slavic descent—Marie Curie, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy—and finally arrives at the Doge’s palace in 16th-century Venice, whose occupant maintained a bodyguard consisting largely of Slavs. The poem ends with a ringing call for diversity: “Only Slavs / can save us” and “Only people who aren’t us can tell us who we are.” It’s a pro-immigration, pro-diversity poem, though it started out with a silly kid’s assumption that two similar-sounding words mean the same thing.
See? Politics. But I began with word play. Politics only came up after I let my poem tell me what it wanted to be. I met someone recently who described himself as a “poet of protest,” meaning he thought he knew what he was doing. Artists as different as Leonard Cohen and Tom Stoppard would see anyone with that firm a sense of his purpose as delusional.
Continuing with his seat-of-the-pants approach to playwrighting, Stoppard says:
I have a topic, more than one, but I can’t find the way in. My plays are—supposedly —a bit complicated, “clever,” etc., but that’s not the problem. I don’t even know what the problem is. When I was busy failing (this has been going on for a couple of months) I was reduced to reading my own work, trying to remember how I did it, what I did, how I got in, but there didn’t seem to be anything to remember. Previously, after—sometimes—a lot of preparation (I mean in the case of plays which required research) I took the cap off my pen and suddenly I was in, I was off, like the daring young man on the flying trapeze. So it’s a sacred mystery, near enough.
Maybe that’s why he said in a speech that “when something works out really well, you don’t actually feel clever, you feel lucky.”
Why? Because you, the writer, have just tripped over the unknowable, which is something over which you are not guaranteed to trip. Hence the pointlessness of the conventional in writing, the tried and true, the useful. In Stoppard’s Salvage, the third play in the Coast of Utopia trilogy, his character Turgenev is taking to a no-nonsense fellow named Bazarov who disdains fiction as useless and says his idea of a good book is Mackenzie’s No More Haemorrhoids. Turgenev agrees but adds, “I found that reading Dr. Mackenzie made me very aware of [my haemorrhoids] . . . whereas reading Pushkin, I quite forget about them.”
The unknowable is built into art by the art itself and not by the artist. Again, Stoppard: “Like a saxifrage blindly seeking the light and not to be denied, the artistic impulse, in pursuit neither of facts nor food, or efficiency or survival, splits the rock and breaks into flower.” The name for the saxifrage plant is taken from the Latin saxafraga or “stone breaker,” and while there are several varieties, clearly Stoppard is referring to the one that is found in alpine settings and is literally capable of breaking through a stony surface.
You can’t really look for the saxifrage. There’s no point. You can’t see it: it’s under the rock if you’re an alpinist and under the poem if you’re a poet. Nor can you expect the saxifrage to come to you. Either it will or it won’t show up. When it doesn’t, you’d better climb another mountain.
For Melville, the saxifrage popped into view when he was writing Moby-Dick. Melville had achieved quick fame with Typee and Omoo, his straightforward travelogues about life in Polynesia, and then struggled as his public greeted the more experimental Mardi with indifference. He bounced back quickly with Redburn and White-Jacket, two narratives that were also based on his experiences, and then launched into the writing of Moby-Dick, which, in the beginning, did little more than chronicle his time aboard a whaler.
But then something happened, something big. The story of that seismic shift was told by Charles Olson in a book titled Call Me Ishmael, where Olson claims that announces that there were two Moby-Dicks, one written before its author encountered Shakespeare and one after. “Moby-Dick was two books written between February, 1850 and August, 1851,” Olson writes. “The first book did not contain Ahab. It may not, except incidentally, have contained Moby-Dick.”
The book we read today contains the tragically flawed Ahab, who speaks in Hamletian soliloquies when the mood seizes him, as well as an entire chapter, “Midnight, Forecastle,” that is scripted like a scene from a play, complete with stage directions. And just as the witches utter three improbable prophecies that must come true before Macbeth can be defeated, the Parsee harpooner Fedallah does the same for Ahab.
Now we’re talking. The finished novel contains all the sensory details that sold his early work but also, thanks to a fortuitous encounter with the Bard, an epic structure that turned a plodding narrative into something that might have flowed from the pen of a Homer.
Elsewhere I’ve said that art is the deliberate transformed by the accidental. You make coffee, set out your writing materials, and go to it, but then something intrudes: the phone, the doorbell, a sound from the street, a childhood memory, an image out of left field, your sweetheart reminding you to change that lightbulb in the kitchen.
Or you read Shakespeare, and not just any Shakespeare but the one that’s right for you. Olson notes:
In 1849 Melville purchased an edition of Shakespeare’s plays that differed from any he had seen before. It was set, as he described it, “in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every ‘t’ like a musket barrel.” For Melville, whose eyes were permanently damaged after a childhood bout of scarlet fever, this simple fact allowed him to engage with Shakespeare’s work in a way he never had before.
The saxifrage is waiting, friends, but you won’t find it by looking for it. Ciaran Carson said, “There’s a whole language out there, and one’s role as a writer is to stumble around in it.” Stumble, poets! These days I find that I’m much happier waiting on the truth than trying to find it or making it up, as I did in my Melville book. The thing about the truth is that you don’t know where it is. It doesn’t even know itself.