Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 8 March 2015



Poems are near
naked thoughts: for

we will not take
off our clothes since

we are ashamed
of our bodies.

7 January 1979

Poems’ was first published in First Time #18 in 1990. It is the first poem in my new collection Reader Please Supply Meaning. It is also the first poem I ever wrote about poetry. A lot of people look down on poems about poems. I’ve never understood this; poetry fascinates me.

Over five hundred poems later, in poem #1064 ‘Subcutaneousness’, I wrote:

Poems are flat.
Poetry’s not.

What do I mean by that? A poem is an artificial construct. A photograph isn’t real life. It looks real enough but it’s only an agglomeration of pixels. It suggests reality. At best it’s a subset of reality. Likewise a poem is not poetry. It is a sequence of letters. (Let’s not complicate matters by bringing in visual poetry here.)

I eschew all romantic notions of poetry but poetry—if you like poetry-with-a-capital-p—is, to my mind, a kind of meaning. A poem is an attempt to transcribe part of this “meaning” into words and, as such, is doomed to fail; words are poor containers for meaning. What is meaning anyway? It’s one of those words we chuck around—like poetry—without really having a handle on what it… well, what it means. What does someone mean when they say that something “means something” to them? They can never put this something into words or, if they try, whatever it is finds itself somehow diminished in the process. Often that “meaning” is sentimental attachment and that’s almost as hard to explain.

Sentiment. What does it even mean? Well, one meaning—dare I say its primary meaning?—is: an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling. Seems like not a bad definition of how poetry works because I suspect all poetry begins with feelings, get translated into thoughts (and, of course, much is lost in the translation) and then it finds its way back into feelings again. Poems are therefore filters. You could say they refine. Perhaps they dilute. They no longer mean; they suggest.

Reginald Shepherd wrote:

I am not interested in the poem as a record of experience; I’m interested in the poem as an experience in itself.

I concur. There is an old adage, attributed to Heraclitus, which goes something like: You could not step twice into the same river. Two men cannot step once into the same river. Experience is unique to every individual. So although it’s not wrong to talk about reading a poem the verb falls short of what’s going on here: we experience poetry. At least that’s what the goal is. Anyone can read a poem—it’s merely a string of words on a page—but not everyone will connect with it. Am I making sense?

For nearly forty years I’ve wondered about this process. What happens when we read a poem? What do we expect is going to happen? Over the next few weeks and months I’ll post some of the poems from Reader Please Supply Meaning. It’s a project that’s ongoing. Maybe I’ll publish an expanded version in twenty years. Maybe I’ll have poetry sussed by then. At the moment the collection contains about a hundred poems in chronological order and with an introductory essay which you can read in full on my website here along with a handful of poems from the book.

You can buy the book here for the very reasonable price of £5.99 (including postage) if you live in the UK.

And if you need any encouragement this is what my wife said to me about the book—this, you must understand, is the woman who on reading a novel I’d slaved over for four years said it was “good” (so not someone given to hyperbole)—“You watch [the poems] progress until they’re almost too good for words.” She made me write that down. I can probably die happy now.


Ken Armstrong said...

"You watch them progress until they’re almost too good for words."

Yes, we'd take that, wouldn't we? And when we trust the person who's saying it... priceless.

Jim Murdoch said...

One of the things newbies are warned about, Ken, is not paying too much attention to what they’re nearest and dearest say about their writing. Of course they’re going to say they like it. On the whole that’s good advice unless you’re married to a fellow writer. Carrie, for her own good reasons (although, like me, poor health is a major factor), keeps most of her writing in the proverbial drawer. I’d like to see her do more with it but she clearly has even less need than me to court fame. You’ll just have to take it from me that she can write. The first thing she read of mine was the poem ‘Reader Please Supply Meaning’. In fact she published it twenty years ago. Since then before anyone else she’s read everything I’ve ever written and edited a sizeable amount of it. So when my wife tells me I done good, I done good. She actually said my last poem was “excellent” although she wasn’t sure it was technically a poem. I can live with that.

One of the reasons I started self-publishing was to try to gauge how good I was. I never expected to make a living from it or even to sell that many books and certainly no one could’ve predicted the slump we’re going through at the moment due to overproduction. The problem I found is that it’s virtually impossible to get anyone to review you bar people you know. I’ve sent out a dozen or so copies of Reader Please Supply Meaning and I expect two or three will help me out there but I never completely trust these reviews even where I know they’ve tried to keep their distance and be objective. My wife I can trust. Absolutely, completely, totally and utterly. So I know I’m good. It doesn’t matter that I’ve won no major awards (or any piddling little awards) or have Bloodaxe clamouring to bring out my next book and that I’m not headlining Stanza this year (I’ve never even been). None of that matters.

You know who get a lot of stick? The artist Jack Vettriano. He’s an OBE now but that doesn’t matter. In a Guardian article Jonathan Jones (whoever Jonathan Jones is because I’ve never heard of him) wrote: “Jack Vettriano is no 21st-century Van Gogh. He is the Tom Jones of art: big, bold, brassy and devoid of inner truth.” That’s harsh. If I was Tom Jones I’d be offended too. (Vettriano’s also been labelled the Jeffrey Archer of the art world although I can’t find out who originated that slur.) The problem here, as far as I can see it, is that Jones is unable to complete the narrative. He’s the one devoid of inner truth.

I’d be interested to see what the poetry world’s Jonathan Jones would make of me. Although perhaps not. Even after forty years I’m still more sensitive than I’d like to be. Damn us sensitive types. An OBE would be nice though. Or maybe not. I don’t think I could handle the attention. Not even for fifteen minutes.

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