I live in Dublin. It is a good city to live in: anywhere that’s worth going to is within walking distance of my flat (thank you Dublin, how very thoughtful), the architecture is pretty enough (as long as you keep your eyes high enough not to notice the piles of rubbish accumulating around the lower parts of the architecture), and the people. The people!
Since I don’t know much about architecture and everywhere I go I go for people, this post is going to be about the people. Or one that I met today, briefly. His name is Pat Ingoldsby, and he is a poet.
Here’s a thing that Kurt Vonnegut once said about humans:
In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.
“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.
“Certainly,” said man.
“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.
And He went away.
— Kurt Vonnegut, the Books of Bokonon / Cat’s Cradle
He also said this:
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
— Kurt Vonnegut, The last rites of Bokonism / Cat’s Cradle
When I look at people around me and I feel a cynical thought (of which I have a great many in my head), I think to myself, what would Vonnegut have to say about that thought, if I were a character in a book he was writing? A direct consequence of thinking in this way is that I met a lot of other kinds of sitting-up mud. An indirect consequence is that I say “so it goes” way too often. So it goes.
Today I was walking Róisín, who has a lot of apostrophes in her name and is a very new friend indeed, to the train station. This proved harder than it sounds since there are a lot of people in Dublin on a sunny day like today, and she knows all of them. Every single one. Finally we left the very crowded Grafton Street area behind us, only to run into Pat Ingoldsby on Westmoreland Street, who was selling his books by the central bank. Pat’s a poet.
Now here’s the thing about clichés: they are valid and logical thoughts that died because they got thought too often. The starving poet is a cliché. The starving poet who has withdrawn from big media and refuses to have his work scrutinized by academia is a bigger cliché. But then you meet Pat, and it makes sense.
Buggies are frequently followed by a debris trail
Which usually includes a pink sock.
— Pat Ingoldsby, “A Beautiful Fact of Life”
You see, for the longest time I was labouring under an unfortunate misconception: that poetry, to be any good, would need to be cryptic and densely stuffed with meaning and metaphor and imagery. I blame it on my mind’s tendency to make its own etymologies, really: the German word for poetry is “Dichtung”, and dicht is German for dense. Which, of course, plays no role in Dichtung’s etymology: it derives from the Latin dictare, which is to speak in front of people.
As I was saying, I was walking around town with Róisín, who has a band in Germany called Róisín and the Beards, and who’s been making music for the longest time. Now Pat, he used to be on the telly here, doing a show for children until he apparently got fired for saying a bad thing. At any rate, Róisín had known his work for a long time, and she had written a song about one of his short stories.
If you approach someone who is holding
a JESUS LIVES sign and say – “Don’t be silly!”
you will sometimes get an amazing reaction.
— Pat Ingoldsby, “I have learned”
So we sat on the pavement and chatted about things. Róisín wrote down the lyrics of the song for Pat, and his reaction–I cannot do it justice. The thing when you are near a man like him is that you feel so much honest, genuine happiness that you ask yourself, later, when you’re no longer in his presence, if you don’t maybe misremember. Surely this man of 68 with a paralyzed arm who spends hours every day trying to sell his books on the street (and often sells none), who clearly should be but isn’t recognized as one of the great living poets of Ireland, surely that man can’t be this happy. But he is, and he is funny in a way that makes you happy too. Sure, he screamed abuse at an innocent-looking tourist girl who took a picture of his “Dublin poet. Anywhere else I’d be a God.” sign without talking to him first, but that, too, was genuine.
Realising that I had got a graveyard full of dead people
all to myself, I stood on a convenient pedestal
and said – “I’d like to start off today
with a little poem that I wrote myself entitled…”
Before I could go any further
there was a chorus of shouts and yells.
“Hey! Cut that out!”
“We’re trying to have a rest here!”
“Come back when you’re dead,” one voice said,
“You’ll be great then.”
— Pat Ingoldsby, “Dead or Alive”
I think Pat taught me two things:
- The starving artist thing is pretty cool, as long as it happens to others.
- Poetry is about talking to people. Sure you pick the moment and make sure it’s poignant, but don’t hurt yourself with the how. It’s the what.
This confuses and elates me. Pat scribbles poems in a cheap notepad all day long. He has a thought, turns it around in his head once, commits it to paper, and moves on. He does not compose. He scribbles.
Every time the bus-driver jammed on the brakes,
the old ladies shot forward on their seats
and finished up on the floor
but they didn’t seem to mind at all.
“Again!!” they shouted. “Again!”!
— Pat Ingoldsby, Just Do It
This is poetry. What can we learn from this for prose, for narratives, for stories in games and films and tv shows?
Nothing, really, because I’m sounding like an academic dissecting some imaginary ephemeral message in Pat’s stuff. There isn’t, and that’s the point. He’s an old man who’s lived a pretty interesting life and who never lost the fascination with it all. He observes and records life through the prism of his mind. That is all. It is that simple. It needs nothing more.
Stories don’t need to twist a hundred times. There doesn’t need to be thematic coherence and dialogue doesn’t need to be a clever dual-meaning commentary on the theme in the underlying action. Things should happen that are funny or sad or infuriating. You, the audience, should react. And it should be honest.
For extra credit, write a 2000 word essay on how the story of The Nameless One who lost his mortality (laced with theme as though it may be) is a hundred times funnier and sadder and more infuriating than the pointless exploits of Shepherd, the silly travels of Soap McTavish, and the empty rebellion of Jim Raynor combined.
“I don’t believe in me anymore,” said God.
“Oh shit!” said the cardinals with the big rings.
“It’s alright,” said God, “I was only joking.”
“We’ll decide what’s funny or not!”
said the cardinals. “For your penance
say ten Hail Marys!”
— Pat Ingoldsby, “And Watch Yourself in Future”