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Poetry and Biography
Roger Caldwell on meaning and innocence.
When I first started to write poetry there was for me no conflict between life and ‘art’ – and no evident connection either. When, as a fourteenyear- old, I tapped out on my newly-acquired typewriter the words which came to me, I had no idea that this was an activity in any way abnormal. Later, having entered the Sixth Form, I discovered that what I was writing was modern poetry, or what looked like it, so I gave titles to my sequences of words, and sent the results off to poetry magazines. I was vaguely aware that what I wrote carried some meaning or other, but was little concerned with what it might be. My criteria for success were those of feeling and sounding right; the sense, if any, was no concern of mine. I never thought at this stage in terms of selfexpression. Certainly I wished to see my pieces in print, and enjoyed the kudos of seeing my own name stand beneath – though it was this which seemed the fictitious part, for so little connected the poems seemed to myself that they could as much have been anyone’s. What was once called ‘the biographical heresy’ had never entered my head. I didn’t think, that is, that the poems bore the imprint of my personality, or told, however indirectly, the story of my life. As regards personality, I was scarcely aware of having one, and as for my life, I thought of it as something I had yet to live. The poems were one matter; I, Roger Caldwell, was another. Similarly, I never connected The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with the tortured consciousness of Coleridge. It was simply a poem I enjoyed. The fact that Coleridge’s name stood beneath was merely adventitious. If I had known then the fact I know now, that when Coleridge wrote the poem his only experience on the sea was on a crossing by the Chepstow Ferry, this would scarcely have surprised me. For the words which I wrote were too of things that, as regards my outer biography, I had yet to experience. Or rather, writing the poems was the experience contained in them.
At sixteen, however, poetry and life came together in in unexpected way. Having returned home one day from school, both my parents coincidentally out, I answered a knock on the door and was confronted with two (as I subsequently learned) quite senior police officers. Their questions were at first mysterious, but I came to understand – at last by the time my father returned – that by virtue of writing poetry I had become a suspect in a murder case – no less than that of the serial murder of a number of prostitutes in the Bayswater area of London. Two poems in particular had brought me under suspicion: one which I now recognised, as I had not done formerly, as describing the rape and murder of a young woman, and another which appeared to describe the hiding of a body under leaves. This latter had fitted too well, to the mind of the nervous editor to whom I had sent the poems, with the discovery of the body of the latest (and, I think, last) victim. The police, of course, went away in time, satisfied, by virtue of my youth at least, that I could not be the perpetrator of these appalling crimes. I too had scarcely to protest my own innocence; if anything, it was the poems which appeared to be guilty.
It is difficult to know what effect this had on my poetry: certainly, my poetic virginity was over. I recognised now that others would find meanings in my poems if I did not, and that I would be held to account for the meanings they contained. It would be vain to protest my innocence in future: I, Roger Caldwell, would be connected from now on with the murders committed in them. (It didn’t occur to me to use a nom de plume.) What happened in my poems, I now saw, if it did not happen in my outer life, nonetheless did so in some shady inner one. I couldn’t simply write the poems and walk away. My poems became – as they might have done in any case – more selfconscious, less for myself, less out of myself. I found less satisfaction in writing them: I could no longer think of myself as the medium for another’s message, and I had no message of my own. Though for a while I continued to appear in magazines, I didn’t take up the offer – when it prematurely came – of a pamphlet collection of my poems. I had grown less anxious for my poems to appear in print, and less proud to see my name inscribed below.
In the years following, poetry had little place. If I continued to write it was not for publication and was mainly in prose – which, unlike poetry, can be picked up and put down at will, and doesn’t require a steady dedication. I studied, first, philosophy, then social anthropology – anything but literature. I lived abroad, among other languages. Back in England I acquired a wife, a Poetry and Biography Roger Caldwell on meaning and innocence mortgage, a child and a ‘steady’ job. Or, at least, the outer man did. For one part of me remained errant and unrespectable. For the need to write which reasserted itself with a peremptory authority seemed to go against reason and respectability, against ordinary life. I doubt that anyone writes poetry on the basis of a sense of contentment with life. The need to write even ‘happy’ poems springs from a lack which the poetry is called into begin to fill. One writes, is urged to write, less from life’s fullness than from its absences. Soon I found myself recapitulating, though from a position of experience, my own poetic beginnings in a state of innocence. I wrote, that is, not of the experiences I had empirically lived through in the twenty-year gap, not of my foreign (or even domestic) adventures, but of adventures – if that is what they were – foreign to my outer biography. What I wrote, what anyone writes who writes poetry, is the autobiography of a hidden self, the history of another’s life. For the experiences one writes of in a poem are always those of someone else – ultimately the reader’s, since it is he who must judge whether the poem tells him something or not. It is the other’s life the poem must be true to, not that of the stranger whose name stands beneath.
‘Biography’ is a slippery term, and an essentialist view of biography will bear little close scrutiny. Everyone has many biographies – both inner and outer, and mixtures of the two. When Matthew Arnold’s poems first appeared, many contemporaries noted the gulf between the man – dandified, vivacious and witty, and the poems – sombre, gloomy and morose. But are the poems false since they fail to reflect what was known of the outer man, or the outer man false since he gave no hint of the poems? If we who esteem the poems say that he, the Arnold of the poems, was the essential, truer figure, Arnold himself may well have been grateful for the outer man who could still act cheerful. (The Arnold of the essays was perhaps a synthesis, however partial, of the two.) But is it perhaps the case that Arnold could have had a very different outer life and still have written much the same poetry? For my own part, to have written the poems I now found myself writing I need never have studied social anthropology at Oxford, crossed the Afghan border or known bullets in Teheran; vast parts of my life could have been excised and the life which is responsible for the poems have carried on regardless. The empirical self bore no obvious relation to the poetical self. To all intents and purposes I might just as well have been the man next door – as far as the poems go.
It will be argued that this is to push the point to an extreme. For it is obviously the case that the knowledge of a writer’s biography can do much to explicate his writings. Of course. However, the converse does not hold. If you attempted from his writings to construct the outer man, you would soon be dealing in fantasy. There is a relationship, no doubt, but it runs one way. The reason for this is simple, though often overlooked. All of us – even, and perhaps especially, the supposedly unimaginative – live much of our lives in imagination, and imagination deals with that part of our lives, which is much the largest part, which we do not live out as facts of biography. Obviously so, for otherwise it would not need to be imagined. The imagination is required to fill out our lives, and its satisfactions are as fully real – empirically so – as anything which happens in the outer life into which it spills. In writing I explore a life I have not lived: the poetry is the presence of that absence. Thus, when the police come to my door again, I have an answer ready, though no confidence in its power to convince. It is this: “whatever happens in my poems has not happened to me. I am merely the one who puts his name beneath. The other, who did in the poems what I did not do, is permanently abroad.”
© R. Caldwell 1993
After this article, a biography of Roger Caldwell would be a bit superfluous