Not as we see, but as we are seen

I woke up the other morning, as I sometimes do, with a line of verse in my head.

Sometimes this is something composed in the last dream before waking, and usually it’s a magnificent higgamus-hoggamus (‘The long iron boot-rat’ being a favourite from my twenties).

Sometimes it’s the vague memory of a verse composed in the gap between committing yourself to and actually falling asleep, that space in which your imagination is, naturally, fully active, but your capacity to write anything down has failed you.

Usually, this involves me in reciting a few lines or stanzas over and over as I drift away – a great test of the memorability or otherwise of both structure and content.

Rhythm and sound fulfill their ancient functions at such times, and, as I write down something which has survived sleep’s great gap, I often think about contemporary poetry’s apparent renunciation of memorability.

How much poetry meekly relies – as prose robustly depends – upon the  survivability of the book and its technological successors, in the same way as verse often seems passively to echo prose’s rejection of sub-vocalization in favour of silent, or rather sensorily-deprived, reading?

Lines dreamt or lines remembered are, of course, results of the two liminal states, the hypnagogic and the hypnopompic, which writers invoke by the parallel rituals of the owl and the lark, and the sacred drugs of intoxicants and opiates, hallucinogens and stimulants.

This time it was hypnopompic, a dream in which myself and a female colleague were observing an old friend write, as though in a workshop, and the remembered line was, ‘Not as we see, but as we are seen.’

As soon as I’d reflected upon it, I realised this was a variation on the Burns distich from ‘To A Louse’, ‘Wad some Power the giftie gie us/Tae see oorsels as ithers see us’. And as soon as I realised that, I remembered my father quoting or rather misquoting it to me the previous weekend as ‘Wad the Lord the giftie gie us…’

I remembered because I’d already had a conversation about this that same weekend, catching up with two (different) old pals in the Fishermans, our old haunt in Broughty Ferry. We were talking about variant verses in folk songs (they’re both keen singers), and the question of what, when we try to be faithful in a lyric or tune, we are being faithful to.

In the case of the Burns quote, the ‘error’ (‘variation’ may be a more pertinent term) made me focus on a purposive ambiguity in the original: if not the Lord God, who or what else could the poet be invoking by ‘some Power’? Is it just some faculty wearing its eighteenth century capital, or is it a more ambivalent entity altogether?

The first thing this points to is a sort of critical or diagnostic purpose to misremembering, indeed to forgetting, that Freud would recognise. The second thing is more in Derrida’s territory.

Neuroscience tells us that we never simply recover a memory, that every access involves an act of translation of the raw ‘data’ not only into language, but into a language understood by your current working self, a construct distanced by both time and experience from the self that laid the memory down.

Equally, our notion of the stable text is constantly being undermined, whether misremembered by oral tradition or misrepresented by mechanical reproduction, or simply disturbed by its inability to fulfill its author’s assumptions about closure.

But this destabilising act, whether it is noticed or not, is always received by its audience as meaningful, and is always interpreted creatively.

The observed error sheds light equally on reader, error-maker and original. The unnoticed error is taken as gospel while it’s changing our interpretation of what gospel is. When it is discovered, then, it functions as a critique if not of truth, at least of truth as a stable concept.

In this it mirrors our faith that memory’s relation to the self is mutually-affirming: both memory and self are experienced as stable until they are perceived not to be.

Of course, this is the very particular emphasis being drawn out by my dream text: not what we see, unwittingly, uncritically, but what we see if we look from the perspective of the other, if we look not as ourselves alone, and beyond what we normally see.

This, it seems to me, is very close to the purpose of generating, negotiating in, and, however imperfectly – in fact, perhaps largely because it is an imperfect transmission –  preserving and transmitting text. Poetry speaks to us from more than the ego and points us toward what lies beyond our ordinary consciousness’s concerns.

The ‘Power’ to which Burns alludes becomes, in this context, something conferred upon us by this often if not inevitably flawed process, as much through its flaws as through our desire for perfect transmission.

How many of the lines we create are, beyond those conscious acts of acknowledgement and allusion, in fact unrecognised rewritings, unacknowledged recombinations of those texts which have sunk so deeply into our minds as to become, as Freud argued with regards to jokes, necessarily repressed, because they are imbued with precisely this – expressly – non-orthodox power?

Cut-ups and Uncreative Writing are current surface echoes of this deeper processing of text, much as free verse and composition by system are latter-day reflections of our ongoing engagement with pattern and prosody.

As these techniques have divined, it remains a moot point whether we create text at all, rather than function as a nexus for this power to manifest itself between us and the successions of texts which, like dreams or memories, we both revere and misrepresent.

Richard Dawkins would like us to call this meme activity. I’d prefer to speculate with W.S. Graham ‘What is the language using us for?’

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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2 Responses to Not as we see, but as we are seen

  1. John Glenday says:

    So, Bill, if memory is actively reconstructive, does that mean our dearest memories are also our most fictitious, threadbare with repeated translation?

  2. Bill Herbert says:

    Hi John – I’d say the opposite of rendered threadbare: rather each revisiting puts down another layer of emotive reinforcement, like draft upon draft of a poem. Sometimes that can take the memory entirely away from what happened; sometimes that can enrich what appears to be its every detail. What this amounts to can be a wonderful affirmation of our need to affirm, or a gradual denial or stepping away from what others or evidence may prove to be the facts.

    Neither extreme is actually a fiction, though, as that seems a more conscious act of creation, whatever its origins in experience or other writing, be that remembered or misremembered or entirely forgotten. Memory intends to be true, even when it can’t actually be so. Fiction aspires to embody a similar sort of truthfulness.

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