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

Wednesday 7 January 2015



You can't always tell a
dog by the person
pulling its lead;
some dogs are
stray: they don't wear collars,
and answer no one's

call save that of the Wind.
They're searching for space
in archaic
chasing after the scent
of a bitch called Dream.

When I decided to post mainly poems this year I had to choose a starting point and, for me, the obvious place was #453. I began numbering my poems when still at school and that’s how I’ve continued to save each new poem, under its number rather than its name. Yesterday I wrote #1087.

‘Stray’ is a significant poem for me. I’ve always regarded it as my first adult poem, the first poem in which I recognised my “voice”. It was first published in Street Games and Other Poems by the Curlew Press probably in 1978 in a slightly different layout; I was young and so pleased to see my work in print I let the editor have her way. It’s a rather sorry-looking pamphlet (the quality of some small press stuff back then left a lot to be desired) but published is published.


Anonymous said...

That's an impressive kick-off, Jim! My juvenilia reads like E.J. Thribb.

Marion McCready said...

I agree, it sounds exactly like you now! That's what I've always liked about your poems - you always have the same exact distinctive voice!

Jim Murdoch said...

E.J. Thribb’s so bad he’s good, Dick. So many of the 452 poems that preceded ‘Stray’ do not have that distinction but there are a handful that still hold some charm which I might post. I reworked a Spike Milligan poem when I was about fourteen and it’s stood the test of time. But most aren’t even poems. What I do note is, apart from Owen and Larkin (sort of) I made no real effort to emulate any of the poets I was reading and I did read a lot back then or at least tried to. I also hated most of what I read and couldn’t for the life of me work out why these people were writing this stuff or why people cared about it. All of which, I guess, spurred me on to write poems I could live with.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’ve probably seen The Glenn Miller Story, Marion, the one with Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson (one of my earliest crushes although I think Debbie Reynolds came before her), and I’ll never forget the moment where the trumpeter cuts his lip and Miller has to improvise bringing in a saxophonist and, suddenly, there was the “sound” he’d been trying to replicate; from then on everything made sense. That’s how I felt when I wrote ‘Stray’. Looking back I can see I was headed in the right direction but this was the first time my poetry made sense to me. I’m sure no one else sees it. It’s a decent enough poem sure but nothing special; except, to me, it was, is and always will be special. It’s like the first time one has sex. It will always be special in its way because it was the first time and first times are special. I’ll tell you exactly what my first thought was after I had sex for the first time—thankfully I never said this out loud but it was what I thought—“Well it was nice but was that it?” Listening to some older poets, particularly those of a Romantic persuasion, talk about the experience of writing poetry I was sure I was getting it completely wrong but that really wasn’t the case. I just needed to work out what worked for me, what turned me on if you like. And the fact is when I read ‘Stray’ I get a pleasurable buzz. I don’t get it with every poem but it’s how I distinguish the good ones from the not so good ones. I can’t explain it. Why do some tunes make your hair stand on end when others, fine melodies in their own right, don’t?

vito pasquale said...

Jim - I was fascinated by the term “archaic tenements” that you used and I see that you’d posted “Stray” to your blog before. I can see how the original editor changed it, which was rather random as compared to the structure you’d created. I know that I would have let her do the same. Published is published. . .

“Archaic tenements” has only appeared “in print” a few times it would seem. It was used in the October 16, 1918 issue of American Architect magazine in an article titled “Portsmouth and the War - Notes on the Development at Atlantic Heights, New Hampshire.”

There was also a article written in 2006 in Australia titled “The Liaison Between Law and Literature” in which this paragraph appears:

But the poet is not content simply to reproduce what he hears and sees. The poet is always looking deeper, searching for the essential truth. He must give appearances a new and enduring energy. His voice should come to us like a wind along the rooftops, a phantom singing on its own, conjuring up an unfamiliar city, a realm encompassing the insights of the mystic and the vagabond, but composed intrinsically of what goes on in the archaic tenements of the world spread out below.
N. Hasluck


It was interesting that this writer used words such as “truth,” “voice,” “wind” in that essay. . .

Thank you for posting Stray. I’m looking forward to more.

Jim Murdoch said...

The expression just came to me, Vito. I don’t recall ever hearing it used by anyone or of reading it anywhere but one never knows. There’re several times I’ve written down something I thought was original (and quite possibly brilliant) only to discover on checking that someone else had got there before me. I always wanted to live in a tenement and finally did for a year after Carrie and I had to leave our first flat in Jordanhill. Our landlord had another property in Broomhil and it just happened to be a tenement. Broomhill’s one of the posher areas of Glasgow so although it was a tenement it was nicely decorated and the close was well maintained. But it was cold. We were never that comfortable there and as soon as our lease was up we ended up renting a new build in the Gorballs which used to one of Glasgow’s poorer areas but by the time we arrived all the old tenements had been demolished and it was definitely on the up and up. So when I used ‘tenements’ in the poem I have a slightly romantic view of them. I believed them to be poor people’s housing and, yes, they were once but now they’re sought after. A two bedroom tenement flat in Broomhill will set you back something like £200,000 (just over $300,000); that’s about three times what you’d pay for the same in Maryhill.

Ken Armstrong said...

This is a reason to look forward to this year, then. I never feel equipped to discourse knowledgeably about poetry but this poem reminds me that much of your work is accessible, memorable and able to touch a nerve. I like 'answer no one's call save that of the wind'. I'd like to be more like that.

Onwards into the year. I may not always speak but I will always read.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I do think this might be an interesting year. I’m not one for looking back but posting these old poems forces me to. When I do I’m invariably disappointed, shocked even, when I realise how little I can remember. You should impress this on your kids, Ken, the fallibility of memory. Take photos of mundane things. Keep a diary. No sooner have you said or done something you will start to forget it. And you will have no idea what’s precious and what’s not. It might be a collection of bubble gum cards or a TV show that never finds its way online—I’d love to see an old episode or two of Sexton Blake or Ace of Wands—or a packet of biscuits or a chocolate bar they don’t make any more. Thinking about your blog today I was trying to remember the last time I had a tube of Old English Spangles. I actually think it’s been while I’ve been living here but it can’t be because Wikipedia says they were discontinued in in the eighties. That long ago!

As far as strays go I’ve always had a fondness for them. All Mum’s cats were strays. And, of course, our bird’s a stray. He’s up on top of his “castle”—the assemblage of cardboard boxes on top of his cage—at the moment cheeping his little heart out (Christ knows what’s got him stirred). In the poem it’s a dog. Unusual for me to think about dogs being a cat person but it’s definitely a dog. And the dog is me but I’ve never been a stray. It’s a romantic notion—it’s basically a romantic poem—because I’ve pretty much always had a home to go back to. I’m reading a book by Paul Auster just now, The Music of Chance, in which a guy has a windfall and decides to quit his job and follow his nose until the money runs out. It’s also a romantic notion but one I’m finding it hard to relate to. If I had a windfall I’d start a publishing house. I might also buy a car but just to go to the shops or on day trips. Freedom encompasses the choice not to be free too.

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