The intelligent layman no longer looks to poetry for insights into our times. The only surprise is how poets got away with it for so long. – Tim Love, ‘The Great Poetry Hoax’
His poems challenge perception. Sometimes they aren’t what they seem, but then again, they are. They offer themselves like canvasses in a gallery, the white box of the page inviting the reader in. The process is playful and serious and, like all good art, demands no less than absolute attention.
The average poem is eleven-years-old and earned him nine pounds. Twenty-seven of the twenty-eight poems have been previously published in magazines. It is a good introduction to a literate and thoughtful poet. Some of the poems are straightforward and playful, like the opening poem, ‘Love at first sight’ which, I’m sorry to say, I will now forever associate in my mind with Brotherhood of Man’s ‘Save Your Kisses for Me’ – apologies to all those who are familiar with the song, because it’ll probably be running through your head for the rest of the day; not all first loves are expressions of romantic love. It is a poem that does what all good poets do, it misdirects. I recall another poem once that talked about two brothers I think and it’s only at the end of the piece you realise that the poet is actually going on about a pair of swans. You can read the whole of ‘Love at first sight’ by clicking on the hyperlink if you’ve not already done so but it begins:
You look down. She’s looking at you. You look away. You look again.
She’s still looking. Don’t stare
because she’s beautiful but because
you’re lost in thought. Every moment counts.
The reflection of misplaced lights
reminds you of an art gallery. Don’t touch,
Art and art in galleries in particular is a recurring theme in this collection; five other poems mention them and if I was searching for an alternative to the word ‘collection’ then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to describe Moving Parts as a gallery of poems. Of course discounting the actual pages none of the parts move, but parts will move you. And parts will move you to put the pamphlet down and go and do something else instead. And that’s fine. I’m sure Tim would say that was fine, but he’d hope that the next time you find yourself wandering through his gallery of poems that you might stop and linger a while in front of the more difficult poems.
Back in 1998 Tim wrote an essay entitled ‘Not so Difficult Poems’ which begins as follows:
First there is a mountain
then there is no mountain
then there is.
An academic criticised this as being at best nonsense. In fact it's a reference to an old Chinese text (by Lao Tzu?), pointing out that if you analyse something, you may lose sight of the original object, but later, the object returns richer than before. However, what the text doesn't point out is that before you study a piece you need to realise it is difficult and that it's worth the effort. The critic found these words from a Donovan song difficult because they're deceptive – neither the context nor the content give the readers any hint that work is required. This demonstrates one of the many types of difficulty prevalent today, but not the most difficult to deal with. It's just a matter of finding the "missing key".
The opening poem in the collection lulled me into a false sense of security because I turned the page and found: ‘Iron Birds’ which I struggled with despite the fact it’s only ten lines long. I wandered away. Came back. Tried again. Still locked. Checked my pockets – no key. Mooched off again. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to it later down the page.
I decided to simply plough my way through the collection, just get to the end and see how the overall shape felt, see what themes revealed themselves. Galleries and art crop up in several poems as I’ve said, as do bridges (including the wonderful sentence, “Bridges are vulnerable; / they don’t enclose.”); words and language, of course; children; old people and birds. With a title like Moving Parts I expected more machinery but other than the lovely poem ‘Windmills’ towards the end this didn’t jump out at me; science in general, yes, but no great emphasis on mechanics unless he adheres to Valéry’s view that a poem is “a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words,” which is one of the many quotes he has catalogued on his quotes page. I asked Tim if he generally agreed with what Valéry said and he does:
I'm happy to going along with Valéry. Though I've read little of his poetry, I've read quite a lot about him and like his attitude.
Then I looked a little closer at the image on the cover and wondered what the hell it was supposed to represent. An image of bacteria perhaps? So I asked Tim:
The cover was the first that Helena [Nelson] suggested (from some pictures she already had, I think). She offered some others later, but I preferred the first. It shows parts on the move, and has an organic/artificial/lab mix that suits the book's material.
Language, of course, fascinates Tim. Can’t imagine a writer not captivated by language. One of the most striking poems in the collection is ‘The Fall’ where he tracks the transformation of language over the past 6000 years:
Spanish and Portuguese split 600 years ago,
Sanskrit and Greek 4000 years before,
So there must once have been
a common tongue, a first kiss
Now American and English have split and…
a fire engine that used to hee-haw
like a seaside donkey goes wow wow wow
“Words are too significant,” writes Tim, in ‘Misreading the signs,’ “too few, unable to describe without pointing or denying, / their meaning flicked like abacus beads as we scan.” The poem is set in an art gallery and Tim is obviously asking us to compare how we look at art and how we look at poetry. This is something Tim addresses in one of his essays, ‘Attention, Agility and Poetic Effects’:
Reading often doesn't proceed linearly through the text. Even in prose there's typically 10% of saccades (eye-movements) backwards. In poetry this percentage is likely to be higher. In particular ambiguity and confusion will provoke backtracking or regression to lower layers. The amount of backtracking needed will influence the reading strategy.
I hadn’t really thought about it until I read it here but I do find myself flitting back and forth over poems in the same way I do works of art for example, to backtrack to ‘The Fall’, when I read “London leaves fall / yellow as cabs” I found myself diving back to the line “American and English split months ago” because, as everyone knows, London’s taxis are black. This is an obvious connection but it highlights the fact that these poems work in layers.
In ‘Action at a distance’ Tim writes: “words aren’t the world / but they take us where we want to be.” In just the same way as Newton’s flawed mathematics “got us to the moon and back” these flawed tools serve us but only up to a point and that point is where our imagination steps in and ably demonstrated by his son blowing “gunsmoke from his fingertip” and then playing dead.
In an article about aging written about a year ago Tim writes:
I'm not very autobiographical and have never depended on intense inspiration or imagination. I think I've become more efficient at finding and exploiting material. Who knows, I might even be improving with age...
I might have disputed that until I learned that he has two boys, Sam and Luca, so the daughter in the opening poem and ‘Mark’ in ‘Taking Mark this time’ are creations, although I have little doubt that he remembered his own children when writing the poems.
…as I chase the night into
the cul-de-sac of dawn, cities closing the distances between them,
one or other claiming every village like young lovers, greedy
I carry him still sleeping to his bed, his doll eyes
Briefly opening. He’s only four, only everything.
But just as birth opens the collection old age and death are not far away from the dying swan in ‘Touch’
Further on, the lockmaster told me it was no use
phoning anyone; if I could touch it,
it would be dead by morning.
via “the toothless sucking / [on] moon-flavoured sweets” in ‘Estuary’ to “the darkness flapping / so close to you, so huge” in ‘Crows’ nests’, the final poem in the collection.
Tim’s fascination with art is obvious. There are references to Van Gogh, Munch, Turner, Mondrian and Vermeer, in fact his poem ‘Misreading the signs’ is set in Amsterdam where the poet shelters from the rain in a gallery (presumably the Rijksmuseum) where he finds himself transfixed by Vermeer’s Woman with a Water Jug:
Causality becomes patter, a loss
of narrative where viewpoints fail to accumulate – Vermeer’s
yellow moment expands to fill a postcard, calendar or jigsaw.
Now I have to wonder if one of the signs that Tim is misreading here is the name of the painting, because Woman with a Water Jug (on the right) was the first Vermeer to arrive in America circa 1887 and currently resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There is a painting in the Rijksmuseum which also depicts a woman with a water jug but it’s called The Kitchen Maid (on the left).
He doesn’t make the same mistake (assuming this was a mistake) in ‘He understands but he doesn’t love’ – the only piece in which was previously unpublished – which opens:
So here I am, in the famous Chinese Room.
If you’re thinking of galleries or palaces
you don’t understand.
I thought I was being clever here assuming the setting was the room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the Ingram Street Tea Rooms, Glasgow. That said, examples of Mackintosh's room design, furniture and fittings are now on display at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, effectively replicating the room, although that all happened probably years after this poem was written, I would imagine. I was, however, wrong. In an entry on his blog Tim writes:
The title's a quote about Picasso (by a fellow artist, I think). The Chinese room is a thought experiment by philosopher John Searle. A person in a room receives slips of paper through a slot. The paper has squiggles on it. The person looks these squiggles up in a book which has instructions on what to scribble on a piece of paper that's pushed back through the slot.
Unbeknownst to the person the squiggles are Chinese and the notes being passed out are reasonable responses to the received messages. The people outside think that the person in the room understands Chinese. Does s/he? Does "the room" understand? If not, what does? How can you tell? How much do you understand of what you say?
And then, as in any other gallery, I found myself back in front of that painting, or, in my case, that poem:
You lay out words to tempt them,
another poem about poetry.
Rhyme radio valves with light bulbs.
Rewrite airstrips with painted decoys.
Ancestors can't save you. Burn your foodstores.
Murder the medicine men. Empty your shelves.
You have seen them flying overhead.
They will come again. You will write about
how their vapour trails are like the broadening,
fading scratches on your lover's back.
My wife has an expression that I’ve adopted since it’s a good turn of phrase: the ‘decoder ring poem’. I’ve written about them before; they’re poems where there is a missing element and it’s impossible to make complete sense out a poem without being in possession of that ‘key’ or ‘code’. Some poems are like Fort Knox; every line holds secrets if only you can find yourself on the same wavelength of the poet. I’d like to meet the person who sat down and read Tim’s poem, ‘Closure’, which is not in this collection, and got it first, second or even third time. Have a crack at it and then look at his notes.
In his article ‘Attention, Agility and Poetic Effects’, which I quoted from above, Tim goes on to mention:
A literary work has many features, some of which might be considered as "layers". For example, Roman Ingarden developed Aristotle's concept that a literary work of art has at least four layers, starting with sound, then sense. Perceived properties (like beauty, difficulty, etc) can slide from one level to another. In an experiment by Song and Schwarz where people were shown recipes in different fonts, a recipe in a font that's hard to read was thought to be harder to execute than the same recipe in an easy font. Similarly, speed of reading (controlled by layout) can affect the perceived speed of the narrated events, and a surprising layout can be synchronised with a narrative surprise.
Upper layers can have emergent features absent from lower ones (emotions only exist at higher levels) or can have effects that contradict those of lower layers (a story full of jokes can be sad). Interpretation is not a straightforward progression from lowest to highest level. A higher level interpretation can provoke a re-interpretation of a lower level.
All of the above suddenly makes reading a poem feel like a very difficult thing indeed. In his article entitled ‘My system’ Tim outlines what he expects from a reader. It’ll take up too much space to address all of them but these two jumped out at me:
- When someone reads a text they will try to make sense of it using explicit or implicit instructions about how to combine the text's components. Readers will bring their knowledge to the text, but the context within which they meet the text matters too.
- The reader experience takes priority over the author's. If the author decides to give two characters the same name because they had the same name in real life, that's not helpful. If a poem came into being as an exercise in syllabics, but the reader gets nothing from the syllabics except puzzlement re the line-breaks, that's not helpful.
Let’s go back to ‘Iron Birds’. This is what I got out of it:
The title reminds me of the expression the native Americans used to use to describe trains, ‘iron horse’ and I suppose had there been planes in their day that’s what they would have called them. I’m not sure if I made this connection before I read the words ‘ancestors’ and ‘medicine men’ but it’s there now. When you talk about laying out words to tempt them I remember the old joke about an Irish woman trying to feed a helicopter bread. The birds symbolise the passengers, the so-called ‘jet set’ if that expression still exists. No one reads poems on planes. And they are even less likely to read ‘modern’ poetry where people think it’s okay to ‘rhyme radio valves with light bulbs’. What is poetry to these ‘birds’? Airstrips are where planes land (fall to earth literally and metaphorically) but why the decoys, to distract them, to force them to crash? Is that what happens to people who try to read ‘difficult poetry’? Do they get ‘fed’ with decoys and not real food? If the birds are the readers then the ‘you’ who sees them must be the writers. Are writers cruel? If they hurt their lovers they are. How are the scratches inflicted? Because they are selfish and only write what makes them happy? The great writers that have gone before us, their reputations can’t excuse us. We need to destroy the crap we have been writing that we say has power but, like the medicine men of old, our words only have any power if people believe in them and not always then.
I sent that to Tim and he directed me to his post Notes about ‘Iron Birds’ where he wrote:
[W]hen technologically advanced cultures visit more primitive, isolated ones, they often give presents. After the visitors leave, a religion might develop in the hope of getting more presents, based on rituals – building imitation landing strips and planes, or imitating the behaviour of people with walkie-talkies, etc. The title alludes to the primitives' impression of planes. Some isolated poetry writers are being compared to Cargo Culters. The poem begins:
You lay out words to tempt them,
another poem about poetry.
Later they're mockingly told to "Murder the medicine men. Empty your shelves." (medicine men are the wise men, the lecturers; shelves can have both food and books). At the end the hopeful visions of vapour trails are compared to scratch marks fading on a lover's body.
I personally think the poem would have been better served with the title ‘Cargo Cult’. That is the missing key. Personally I think a poem that doesn’t contain all the necessary elements for a reader to work it out on his or her own is a bad poem. For me, ‘Iron Birds’ is a bad poem because it fails to meet my needs and expectations. Tim writes:
The variation between readers can be attenuated by writers. For example, a writer can hint at something in a way that few people might notice. Later the writer can be more explicit for the readers who didn't get it the first time.
For me he didn’t do enough here. I wasn’t alone. In her review of the collection, although not talking about this particular poem, Sue Butler writes:
When friends take me to an exhibition of abstract paintings, I stand in front of each one whispering to myself, Don’t look for narrative. Don’t look for narrative, hoping that eventually I will see something I recognise.
To my frustration, I can hear things rattling throughout this pamphlet that I can’t fully understand or grasp firmly enough to fully appreciate. I’ve hammered and hammered on the glass but I just can’t open up a crack.
In poetry though we are told to make every word count and so there is rarely an opportunity to open up a text later on, especially not one only ten lines long. In this poem there is no later. I sent a copy to a fellow poet in New York and asked him to see what he made of it and he did no better than I did but I like the way he put it:
I'm more, I don't know, annoyed after being told what it's about than I was before when I did (and KNEW I was failing) the best read I could.
That’s it. Exactly! I also knew I was failing as I was reading it. Well said, that man. I don’t mind failing in front of a piece of abstract art because I’m not an artist, but I mind failing in front of a poem.
Back in 1997 Tim did something quite brave. He reviewed his own collection which, at the time he had intended to call Misreading the Signs – he couldn’t remember when I asked him why the name change. And the review is not all gushy and glowing either. A wise man, to get in there first before the critics. Whereas I honed in on ‘Iron Birds’ he picks on the next poem in the collection, ‘Giraffe’, saying:
‘Giraffe’ [uses] imagery at the expense of sense, symptomatic of a more general conflict between feeling and intellect that is not always well resolved.
I am not sure I would have been brave/stupid enough to include that poem. I struggled with ‘Iron Birds’ but at twice the length I gave up on ‘Giraffe’ completely. (In an e-mail to me Tim described the piece as a “‘Martian Poetry’ metaphor-fest.”)
These two or three poems aside I actually enjoyed this collection. I had to spend far more time with it than I am used to. That is not a criticism of the poetry but a confession on my part: I don’t often read or even try and read chapbooks like this because they require and deserve more time that I find I can spare. I need to do something about that; I really do.
I like Tim Love. I have no particular reason for liking him – our paths cross rarely, we pass the time of day and then trundle on our way – but he’s someone I find I can relate to. I was never employed full time as a computer programmer but I did work as a database designer for several years. He’s also been writing for about the same time as me. His first poem was published in 1972 in a school magazine, the same year as me; Tim is two years older than me. His first collection wasn’t published until 2010; mine was the same. He also writes the kind of articles I aspire to and publishes them on a variety of sites, Litrefs, Litrefs Reviews and Litrefs Articles but also check out the list at www2.eng.cam. Seriously, if you’re an inexperienced poet and are fed up dumping raw emotion on the page and calling it poetry this is the guy you should be reading. I would have given my eye teeth when I was nineteen to have access to the kind of articles he writes. Probably the main reason I like him is that, when he was younger, he looked like my one-time best friend, Tom. Stupid reason to like anyone but there you go.
Moving Parts is available from HappenStance for £4.00 + postage but if you want to sample more of his poetry for free just click on the following links:
He has also produced some small videos to accompany some of his poetry which you can view here.
Tim Love was born in Portsmouth in 1957 just round the corner from Dickens' birthplace. After writing a computer game (Tim Loves Cricket) he decided to do a Masters in Software Engineering. Prior to that he apparently worked at Southsea's South Parade Pier and Shippams Meat Paste Factory. Between 1980 and 1983 Tim travelled the globe visiting India, Morocco, France, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, Eire, Scotland, Italy, Wales, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain. He wrote his first web page in 1993 and has been active online ever since. He lives in Cambridge with his Italian wife, Mariella, and bilingual children, teaching others how to program.
 The proverb goes: “At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers” and is credited to Hsin Hsin Ming
 A Japanese artist, Riichiro Kawashima, once asked Henri Matisse what he thought of Picasso. Matisse answered, "He is capricious and unpredictable. But he understands things."
 According to Ingarden, every literary work is composed of four heterogeneous strata:
- Word sounds and phonetic formations of higher order (including the typical rhythms and melodies associated with phrases, sentences and paragraphs of various kinds);
- Meaning units (formed by conjoining the sounds employed in a language with ideal concepts; these also range from the individual meanings of words to the higher-order meanings of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc.)
- Schematized aspects (these are the visual, auditory, or other ‘aspects’ via which the characters and places represented in the work may be ‘quasi-sensorially’ apprehended)
- Represented entities (the objects, events, states of affairs, etc. represented in the literary work and forming its characters, plot, etc.).
 Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz, ‘If It’s Hard to Read, It’s Hard to Do: Processing Fluency Affects Effort Prediction and Motivation’, Association for Psychological Science, Vol. 19, No. 10