Susanna Mishler: Liar-Lyre

Many teachers say that learning to write well is paramount to learning to think complexly. As a writer and sometime teacher I believe this. Laying thoughts on paper where we can look at them teaches us to see flaws in argument, persuasion, logic, sequence, etc. It’s not hard to see how writing a persuasive essay can sharpen one’s thinking or how writing a personal essay can increase an understanding of the self and personal history. But what kind of thinking is benefitted by writing a poem or a story?

The implication of “learning to write well = complex thinking” is that language itself is key to higher thinking. The ability to use language also created the ability to lie. Fiction and poetry particularly exploit this ability. To write fiction or poetry well means developing complex abilities with untruths. In writing stories and poems we strive to be better and better liars.

The kind of lying that writers are engaged in is not the schoolyard lie (“Jasper tripped him, not me!”) designed to conceal truth. In fact, many writers will tell you that they lie in order to tell the truth. What can this mean? Is it an argument for the ends justifying the means – that the lie is a justified, well-oiled prop for delivering emotional insight? William Carlos Williams famously wrote that a poem is a machine. Does this mean a poem is a construct designed to deliver a particular action? That a poem in its construction would have a blueprint and an outcome?

When I’m writing a poem I don’t feel like I’m building a machine – not a machine in the sense of something blueprinted and predetermined. Writing a poem feels more like driving in the dark with no headlights. I become mired in a process and don’t see where it’s going much less where it might end. The lies I tell don’t have a blueprint or predetermined function. And that is perhaps why I keep on with them – they compel me because I can’t see their (our) destination. If I’m lucky I find later that the lies seem resonant with a larger experience than my own, that is, they smack of truth.

But perhaps this idea of a machine as blueprinted and product-generating is too limited. Rube Goldberg’s machines are elaborate, innovative, delightful, and completely purposeless constructions. If a poem or story is a machine, it could be a Rube Goldberg machine. It is a constructed whole of which the parts are studied and crafted to interact with one another. But to ask what the machine does, as in what task it accomplishes or what knowledge it reveals, may be missing the point.
A motor is designed with a specific function in mind. Poems and stories are feral. They are born in captivity and thrive in their escape.

Just what kind of thinking are we engaged in as poets and writers? As liars? Thinking and knowledge are not necessarily the same thing. Poems and stories insist on a kind of thinking that is not in pursuit of fact and knowledge. The making of a story or poem is process-oriented rather than product-oriented. The reading of a poem or story also can and arguably should be experiential rather than goal-oriented. Poetry, especially, insists that language – the composition of it, the reading of or listening to it – is sensory experience. Sound, rhythm, and repetition matter and the sense of the words (the fact or meaning) is often secondary to the sensory experience of the words (the sounds, the images). The liar and the lyre feed off each other.

It’s when I find myself compromising “what really happened” in events that are basis for a poem that I feel on the right track: the poem is asserting itself and becoming what it wants to be rather than a cherished outcome of mine or adhering to what I remember to be a true sequence of events. When I start lying I stand a chance of discovering something.

Writing a poem or story is a kind of thinking with the heart. The conscious mind wants goals, outcomes, products – let it have them. Emotional thinking happens with music and metaphor and what didn’t happen. The heart’s thinking unfolds in darkness, with no headlights, beat after beat after beat.

Susanna Mishler’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hotel Amerika, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, RATTLE, and elsewhere. To read some of her work online, visit the current issue of Cirque, see Michigan Quarterly Review’s archives, RATTLE’s archives, or poet Jeff Oliver’s website. She lives in Anchorage and earns her bread as an electrician.

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