Monday, April 04, 2005

myth of literature--what the fugitive poet Jacob Jameson reveals to us

A couple of days ago (of course, before the dying pope started to dominate all the newsmedias, that is), there was an intriguing article on Chicago Tribune about a murderer-fugitive-poet who was recently found out and arrested. Norman Porter Jr. was involved in an armed robbery in the '60s, and was serving a life in Massachusettes when he successfully escaped after killing one of the prison guards in the '80s. He headed for Chicago, with which he had familiarized himself through the works of Nelson Algren while still in jail. He picked his pseudonym Jacob "J. J." Jameson from a random page of a phonebook. Once settled, he wrote poetry between his numerous odd jobs, and gradually became a "fixture of the city's poetry scene" (quote from the Tribune). He even had a collection of poetry published in 1999. Until his arrest some 20 years later, none of his friends, including the publisher of the aforementioned book, suspected him. David Gecic, the publisher and his close friend, expressed his shock and disbelief to the reporter. "I just need reassurance that he [Jameson/Porter] is in some way the guy I knew."

I haven't had the chance to read his works so far, which quite frustrates me, but judging from the article, his petry seemed to have been genuine in that it had the power to connect with his readers and eventually move them in some way. It casts an interesting light on the often simplified relationship between truthfulness in literature and truthfulness in life. In creative writing classes, it is often emphasized that one of the best and easiest way to bring authenticity to one's literary work is to drow from one's own experience. It is probably true, to a large extent, with notable exceptions of great writers of imagination. After all, our own life is what's closest to us, waiting for examination. It is true that the internal urge to clarify the meaning of what happened to us and what we did is quite often the strongest drive to write.

The case of Jacob Jameson gives a twist to this notion. Being a fugitive, he was deprived of the possibility to write about what probably was one of the most defining event of his life. Concealing the past inherently leads to concealing the certain aspects of the present--for instance, he couldn't write about leading a life half made of lies, except for in a very figurative or euphemistic manner. Not that it is impoossible to transform the robbery, the murder, and the fugitive life behind a false persona into something similar and still keep the authentic essence of the experience and emotion. But a mere hint could always lead to questions from his literary friends and readers, which I would imagine he wanted to avoid at all cost. It is true that these incidents shouldn't be The Only subject of his poetry, but being unable to write about them must have substantially crippled his literary exploration. Yet, he managed to produce poetry with genuine power to connect with people--or was he just a verbal entertainer?

We all hide some things when we write. But how can one be a genuine poet when practical considerations make it unable for them to draw from the most significant, most profound experience of one's life? I know how it feels to be vacillating between the urge to spit it out and the disabling sense of fear and shame that harnesses the urge. Still, I write. I write about things I can write about and share, feeling that, in a sense, these are a mere extention of my life with deception and cover-ups. I wonder if Jacob Jameson felt the same urge, if he ever wrote about his "real" past and kept it for himself, if he secretly despised his publicly appreciated works.

The only way for me to fathom is to read his poetry. I hope I will find them one of these days.


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