In searching for poems to write about this morning (and I was definitely in the mood to write about good poetry, having recently finished a longish bout with prose in having published a fifth novel), I was reading through my own favorite poems in a treasured Norton anthology and came across a poem by Robert Graves which has always struck me as particularly talented. Luckily, since it has been in at least one published version since 1938 and has already been published in full on the Internet at least once, I can share the whole poem with you here without transgressing copyright laws. Here is the poem:
The Devil’s Advice to Story-Tellers
“Lest men suspect your tale to be untrue,/Keep probability–some say–in view,/But my advice to story-tellers is:/Weigh out no gross of probabilities,/Nor yet make diligent transcriptions of/Known instances of virtue, crime or love./To forge a picture that will pass for true,/Do conscientiously what liars do–/Born liars, not the lesser sort that raid/The mouths of others for their stock-in-trade:/Assemble, first, all casual bits and scraps/That may shake down into a world perhaps;/People this world, by chance created so,/With random persons whom you do not know–/The teashop sort, or travellers in a train/Seen once, guessed idly at, not seen again;/Let the erratic course they steer surprise/Their own and your own and your readers’ eyes;/Sigh then, or frown, but leave (as in despair)/Motive and end and moral in the air;/Nice contradiction between fact and fact/Will make the whole read human and exact.”
This is excellent compositional advice for prose, and I think of it every time I remember my maternal grandmother, who used the expression “telling a story” to mean “lying.” She would look at me gravely during a particular moment of my stellar mendacity and say, “Now honey, are you sure you aren’t telling a story?” It would always make me grin ruefully and would thus give the game away, but the dialectal expression itself was so apt and funny that I couldn’t help myself. There were even one or two occasions when I was telling the truth and she almost didn’t believe me because of my typical reaction when she made her query.
So, now, what does this poem have to do with “being an individual”? Just this: I have recently discovered, thanks to a friendly and frequent commenter writing in, that there are at least three other Victoria Bennetts with writing aspirations, some in poetry and some in prose, and my feeling is that the mild adventure I’ve gone through in coping with this does indeed “read human and exact” even better than if I’d come up with a glorious lie about it. I am probably the oldest of the Victoria Bennetts currently writing (I was 55 on my last birthday), arguably at least one of the best or at least most conventionally educated, and have had experience writing both poetry and prose. Most of what I’ve written or at least what has been published is available on this site, though there is more to come if I live long enough. Having said that, it’s now time for my big adventure:
Today, in trying to revise my “About the Author” page to contain my middle name (my full name is Victoria Leigh Bennett), I inadvertently eliminated the whole page instead of just the PDF of information, and so lost all of the kind and wonderful comments that were also stored on the page, along with the notices of awards people have from time to time nominated me for and at least one movie which a fellow blogger, JM at thelivingnotebook, was kind enough to send me for this weekend. The movie is one I had copied down the link for, and I plan to watch it this weekend, the only time the movie is available, so at least that wasn’t totally lost, but I would have liked to have retained the other material as well. But people do write in to the “About the Author” column from time to time, so I hope and trust that I will hear from people again there before all is said and done.
No, the real adventure was contained in finding out just how many other Victoria Bennetts there are around. It is a particularly euphonious and stately name–don’t worry, I’m not complimenting myself–after all, I didn’t name myself–very Latinate, and though I respond to various nicknames, I have learned also to answer to my full name, which for some reason as one ages gets used more and more. Now, I was used to the idea that there were Victoria Bennetts in home decorating, Victoria Bennetts who ran office companies, and various assorted other and sundry Victoria Bennetts who either bore the name from birth or had married into it as regards the last name. But what I was really shocked to find was that there were several other WRITING Victoria Bennetts around. On the advice of my commenter who informed me of one of these in particular, I found that just on one website there was a Victoria Alexander Bennett, a Victoria Louise Bennett, and yet another Victoria Bennett who, like me, had chosen not to use a middle name.
This was sobering indeed. That there were so many of us (and doubtless more to come!) was very discouraging. But then I thought: if it doesn’t discourage me that there are so many people writing in general every year, and that I am in competition with all of them, then why should it bother me that there are several other Victoria Bennetts, who moreover don’t even all write the same sorts of things, to judge by my research? And I also thought that after all, writers are very determined and tenacious when it comes to tracking down authors whom they want to read. As long as no writers are copying the ideas of other writers explicitly and misusing them, there’s plenty of room for us all, surely.
And as to Robert Graves and his delightful, whimsical, mischievous, and diabolical little poem? I’ve got news for him and his devil–though they may know how to write fiction so as to “make the whole read human and exact,” when it comes to reality and finding one’s own individual space, it’s like the man said: you can’t make this stuff up!