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

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Just what the world needs - another book of poetry

Think Cover

Vision is the primary medium of thoughtRudolf Arnheim

A month ago I introduced you all to my collection of poetry This Is Not About What You Think. This week I’m going to talk a bit about the thought behind the collection.

The world is full of poetry books, Selected Poems of..., Complete Poems of..., chapbooks, broadsheets, The Nation’s Favourite Poems about love or children or war or animals or journeys or celebration. Best ofs, Books of... Anthologies of... and The World’s Greatest. In most cases the poems will have been cobbled together from a variety of sources and it’s very hard to say what a collection of poetry is about. Very few books of poetry were ever that by design.

Don’t get me wrong, some poets have sat down with the express intention of writing a sequence of poems which they aim to publish as a group. For example:

Raylene Hinz-Penner wrote a sequence of poems about the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe;

Sinéad Morrissey wrote a sequence of poems about a train ride through China with a group of other writers;

Stevie Krayer, has written a sequence of poems about the River Aeron and

Sharon Dolin wrote a sequence of poems about the untimely accidental death of her fiancé.

I myself have three sequences of poems: The Bedroom, which is a set of four poems looking at a bedroom over four discontiguous seasons; The Drowning Man, a series of poems that explore the idea of drowning in emotions and Sweet William, a series that took years to finish (if it is indeed complete) in which I explore the universe of a boy with an unspecified kind of Savant syndrome. These three sequences account for a tiny fraction of my output. I never sat down to produce a sequence of poems; I just found myself returning to the same themes and gradually the little groups gelled.

The problem I have been faced with, and this is a dilemma most poets have to confront eventually, is when they decide they have enough material to publish a collection, how do they choose? How do they select a) which poems and b) in what order they appear? This is the reason I have never tried to get a book published before now. It’s not that I didn’t have enough poems because even if I restricted myself to the published poems I have more than enough to pick from, it’s simply that the poems don’t go together. Not in my head. I’ve made lists, dozens of lists over the years, but I have never been happy until now. Finally I have decided to bring out a collection that seems to makes sense as a unified body of work. At least people will try to make sense out of it.

Eyes_Wide_Open_1280x800 Amongst the senses, Plato gave primacy to sight. When he decided that we had five senses, Aristotle ranked sight over hearing: 'Of all the senses, trust only the sense of sight'. Plato and Aristotle closely associated vision and reason. This has been a persistent bias in Western culture. Thinking is associated with visual metaphors: 'observation' privileges visual data; phenomenon (Greek: 'exposing to sight'); definition (from definire, to draw a line around); insight, illuminate, shedding light, enlighten, vision, reflection, clarity, survey, perspective, point of view, overview, farsighted. Other words associated with thinking also have visual roots: intelligent, idea, theory, contemplate, speculate, bright, brilliant, dull. And there is no shortage of commonly-used phrases which emphasize the primacy of the visual:

● Seeing is believing

● Let me see; I see

● I'll believe it when I see it with my own eyes

● Seeing eye to eye

● It's good to see you

● Love at first sight

● What does she see in him?

● In the mind's eye

● Draw your own conclusions

● See what I mean?

When students in one study were asked to list the sense they'd least like to lose, 75% listed sight. – Visual Perception 1, Aberysthwyth University Lecture Series, Reading the Visual

We do the same with clouds and inkblots, flames and even stains. How many people have seen images of the Virgin Mary in a pizza, a tree stump, a grilled cheese sandwich or an underpass in Chicago? Some people of course are more suggestible than others:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the Mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet (Act II, Scene II)

Humans are – I was going to say ‘obsessed’ but that’s probably not the right word – are programmed to look for order. We don’t cope well with chaos. We’re also prone to snap decisions. What do you see here?


You’ve probably seen it before. It’s either a duck or a hare but you will have seen one first and probably needed to look for the other one before you managed to see it. But if you’re like me then your mind will continually drift towards the image you saw first.

I’ve used Rorschach inkblots for years now as a kind of logo: the covers of my books will all have them, and within the novels, stories and poems contained therein you’ll find references to them. For my latest book I was going to use a wraparound cover again as I did with my first two novels but the impact is stronger if you can see the complete image without having to open up the book. I’d be interested to know what you see.

The poems are arranged in seven sections beginning with poems about childhood and ending with poems about old age. An allusion to Shakespeare’s seven ages of man? Not consciously but it’s impossible to read these thus arranged and not build up a picture of some man’s life. But is it mine? Yes and no. All the poems were written by me and only me. This is all my own work. But not everything in the poems happened to me. As I say in the book’s introduction:

What they all are are my reactions to certain subjects some of which I have experienced first hand, some of which I’ve witnessed others experience, others of which I’ve read or heard about and a few of which I’ve simply imagined. But they’re my take on all of these. I am a writer; my natural response to life is to write about it. I wrote the poem about the stillbirth the day I heard about it; ‘Making Do’, a poem about my own mother, I completed years after her death.

But these poems, arranged this way, feel like someone’s life, someone who had an unhappy childhood, got married too soon, whose marriage falls to pieces because of something he had no control over and who ends up old and alone. Did I have an unhappy childhood? My wife thinks so because all I ever talk about are the bad bits but the fact is that it was probably quite an average childhood. Did my first marriage fail? Yes. Was it because of something I had no control over? In all honesty I can’t answer that. I tried to save it but how much I was to blame for it failing I don’t know. Did I end up alone? For a while, yes, but not for long. I’ve spent most of my adult life married to someone and I’m not that old yet. Whether I end up by myself in my dotage only time will tell.

There are poems I chose not to include in the collection like this one:


One day he tried too hard and broke it.
He patched it up
and it still worked,
though not as well.

The wheels still went round.

No one noticed any change
till one day it fell to pieces
and they all wondered why.

27 June 1982

The reason? Because it didn’t fit with the theme of the book. Yes, the marriage in the book ends in divorce but ultimately it’s because of infidelity which is not why my first marriage ended.

Am I cheating you in some way? No, I’ve been up front. The title tells you that these poems are going to be about something other than your first reading of them. You will find that first reading hard to shake though. You’ll have already joined the dots, filled in the blanks, read in between the lines and tried to make sense out of what 64000-question2 you’ve read. But have you gotten through to the truth? Ah, now that’s the $64,000 question.

Considering how much time I’ve spent in the past not being able to decide what poems should go in a collection, I actually came up with this grouping in a shockingly short amount of time. Once I had the theme. But this collection wouldn’t have worked even five years ago. So many key pieces have been written in that time. At the end of the book what I do provide is not so much an index as a list of the poems in the order in which they were actually written. The oldest poem was written on 28th April 1979; the most recent poem was finished on May 25th this year. The collection covers 31 years during which time I’ve actually written 536 poems. This book contains 83 of them. More books are on the way. This is an ongoing process.

The book is now available. Review copies are being sent out now so we sit back and wait. If you have not received a copy and would like to do a review or an interview please drop me an e-mail with your contact details. I’m happy to send hardcopies but if you have some kind of eBook reader and can work with a PDF then obviously that would keep my overheads down. I’m never going to make a fortune out of this book but if I could break even I’d be happy. Also if you would like to recommend a site or magazine that you think I should approach please do. I’m happy to receive all the help I can.

For those of you who are solvent/generous/interested and would like to own your own copy they can be purchased directly from the FV Books website. The prices of all my books are reasonable. I think books are terribly overpriced and a lot of the time I simply won’t pay the money. My interest is in getting my poetry and prose read by people. I believe I have something worth saying. It’s simply a matter of getting the right poem into the right person’s hands and seeing what they see in it.

If you’ve not read them already here is a link to the first section of the book on my shiny new website. There have already been some nice things said about the book by these people: Colin Will, Dave King, Kass Schoenhals, Lena Vanelslander, Paula Cary and Annie Wyndham.


C.B. said...

Interesting concept with this book; it seems like an engaging way to spark reflection about what's on the page, as well as what isn't necessarily.

Regarding the cover, I saw an art model at first, then two people at the opera or theatre. Not sure how that might effect what anyone else sees.

Art Durkee said...

Oddly enough, my years as a radio DJ taught me a lot about making segues, those transitions between otherwise independent pieces. I find that the skill does transfer to other media, such as the visual, or the poem sequence. I also was influenced by Minor White's way of presenting his photos, which was mostly as deliberate sequences.

I find that if I think of each poem as a song, or a visual piece, or a piece of acoustic performance (as in, read the poem out loud), the segues between sections and poems become very easy to determine. Things sort of fall into place almost automatically, if I do that.

Gwil W said...

Hello Jim,
Thanks for mentioning the link to your "shiny new" website. I've put that on mine. You're now doubly linked. Good luck with the book.
ps- I do poetry book reviews for David Pike at Pulsar. He's a rare gem and also a YouTube poet. I've got a link to him too.

Marion McCready said...

Either a naked fat woman or two show girls facing each other!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that C Bosco. Really the point I’m making in this book is that meaning is fluid. It’s not a matter of getting it right or wrong rather finding sense in it. I’m a bit the same with the image. It fluctuates more than some of the inkblots I’ve seen although when I look at the cover of my novels I have to admit what I see is simply a butterfly.

Art, what I find hard is when I’ve heard a song in a sequence on an album, perhaps a compilation, and then I hear it in its original setting and it doesn’t feel right when the fact is that both are artificial and the piece was never written to be anything other than itself as is the case with every poem in this book.

Gwilym, every bit of help appreciated. Thank you.

And, Marion, I think I’d go with that.

Rachel Fenton said...

The hare/duck was the top of my grandpa's walking stick...

I think there are invariably connections throughout a writer's works, whether it be in poetry or prose, albeit subconsciously placed. Often it is the reader who can see the connections that the author wasn't even aware of.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to agree with you there, Rachel. It's not until you try and order the pieces that you see the pattern. Although not strictly an autobiographical collection I have no doubt this says more about me than I perhaps intended.

Art Durkee said...

That's just the "persistence of vision" phenomenon, in its manifestation as persistence of memory. Mixing it up, making new contexts, and new segues, is one thing that can keep a collection fresh. Since after all, the context of a collection and its transitions is also a different context than the way many poems may have first appeared, in isolation, in the context of a journal or other form.

Jim Murdoch said...

That would actually have been a good title for the collection too, Art especially if I could have used the Dalí on the cover.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I think its vital to think carefully about the sequencing of poems in a collection, I suspect a lot of poets don't think about it enough. Interesting post.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree, Crafty Green Poet, and I suspect much of the problem is an inability to distance themselves from the text. My poems only make sense in my head in chronological order. They all have private meanings that had much to do with where I was in my life at that time. For me this collection is like a Greatest Hits album. It’ll never be quite right because the order is all wrong but I’m sure there have been instances where you’ve heard a Greatest Hits album first and then had an opportunity to hear the songs in their original context and they never seem quite right there. So it’s all to do with familiarity. But I do agree with you about other collections which is one reason why I shy away from reviewing poetry books although I have done one or two. I find it hard to talk about the whole collection as a unified piece of work because it isn’t, it’s a conglomeration of pieces that work on their own, that were designed to work on their own and not in some arbitrary grouping.

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