When 'the boss' sends me two publications produced with
the aid of The Arts Council and published by his own publishing company I
have a dilemma; as a rebel do I want to exercise my personal form of anarchy
and tear into them critically and with malicious relish (just to show that
I am really 'the boss') or should
I ponder upon the wisdom of biting the hand that feeds, as it were. I decided
compromise; praise the cover and attack the content, and so I picked up these
two slim volumes and examined them as objects to be held, balanced, touched,
gazed at abstractedly. They are of a peculiar size; being about 10% wider and
25% shorter than the standard book-size (Don't ask me to get technical that's
as much as I can manage), but this makes them absolutely ideal for slipping
in the pocket or balancing in the hand. They are glossy, both covers are
designed around beautiful paintings which make them aesthetically delightful,
I found myself stroking them, holding them even when I wasn't reading them.
Inside they are simply constructed; no lengthy blurbs extolling the talents
of the poets, no boring biography detailing all the poet's past success in
minute detail. Both books give an instant surge of delight; but then they
should at £8.50 for around a hundred pages in each.
And before I go to content; hark back to the Gawain poet, all that wonderful
alliteration, recall Chaucer with his delightfully structured rhythms, leap
forward to the political verse of Shelly and the lyricism of Claire and
Wordsworth and hold in mind the poetry (yes I said 'poetry') of Tolstoy and
Joyce and then tell me what poetry is? Don't even think of the linguistically
innovative poetry of such as Robert Sheppard or the Dada(ist) poetry of
George Melly but go on, take a chance, tell me what poetry actually is? Tell
me where poetry is going? Or maybe give up all definitions and just
concentrate on words that please and are set out in a pleasing manner. I did
the latter and turned to the opening pages of Heart of Anthracite (with my evil heart, you'll recall, intent on
malice) and discovered: Prose! What the hell sort of a con is this? (I
wondered) My attack on this should be a doddle!
The first few poems are mere descriptions of journeys and places; sort of
road-words set out, as I said, as prose. But what prose! Prose that makes
most poetry seem like doggerel. As in 'Langdon, North Dakota' when McGrath is
describing a farmstead being auctioned and notes that the people gathered to
bid are 'self conscious, caught somewhere between a wake and a square dance.'
The phrase doesn't moralise or lecture, it simply captures perfectly that
mixture of delight and guilt in bidding to undercut, to get something
perceived as 'a bargain', and it captures too the loss (by someone) that has
forced the sale. And mull over observations like this one in 'Capitalist Poem
#23'; 'On Signal Hill the oil wells move relentlessly like Tinkertoy
wrenchesÉ desperate machines saying nothing, nothing, nothing.' Yes indeed; 'nothing, nothing, nothing.' What more do you need to say about the
relentless mechanical menace of oil-fed Capitalism? And so I found myself
reading this prose out loud and then I discovered that the poet is conning
us; it isn't mere prose, it is great poetry in disguise! Disguised so well in
fact that I was almost disappointed when, with subtle gradations, the prose
gradually ascends into what we would recognise as slightly more formal
poetry, as in 'Jimmy Buffett':
Florida is beautiful and terrifying, the part of America most like
idling at the gates of Eden
nautilus-patterned retirement communities are riven from the swamplands,
par 5s carved
from sandy tomato fields, marinas hewn from the marl and
shallow bays and estuarine inlets of the Mangrove Coast.
nor man has finished with this place.
You could of course formalise this line structure even more but I guess that
McGrath is saying; 'Why the hell should I?' And indeed; I concur, why the
hell should he? Remember the Gawain poet? Chaucer? Claire? The lineage that
has gone before? And this is an end-product; think, think, think! Yes! That's
why I love this guy; he makes me think, makes me think about what exactly
poetry is and about the frailty of all of us. I can even forgive him for
constantly referring to Native Americans as 'Indians', I mean he is after all,
under the delusion, that he is an American.
And so to Dean Young's Ready-Made Bouquet and more disappointment as yet again I was forced
to relinquish my desire to dissect, ravish and adversely criticise. These
poems, much more structured than Campbell's but no less insightful, stimulate
the imagination with vivid, almost surrealist imagery, 'The Periodicity of
Clouds' opens with:
You can't go
round the world
in a troika
but you can in a submarine
submerged is powerful
in endless circling.
And later informs:
In the story
river there's a twist
then it all comes back, flashing
tail, its extraterrestrial wings,
I like it. I like its anarchistic use of metaphor, I like its initially
amorphous seeming structure which turns out to be tight form ladled up with
tongue-in-cheek humour which reminds me in places of the black comic plays of
Beckett, as in 'Two Heads Arguing':
Where are we
going in this split life?
A walk down a
road where the asphalt crumbles
which crumbles into crumbles into.
want to jam my head into the mechanism.
like a dead priest,
I want to wash my face with mud
Or what about this coolly observed, yet again mischievous, observation in
'Yellow Sports Car':
empty circle has appeared
ago a snowman collapsed.
infrastructure - too sad to continue.
Yet there is
much to learn from a dissolving
form. All flesh is made of tears for instance
and a portion
Delightful! Yes? Oh come on you have to agree that it's a million times
better than Carol Ann Duffer's incestuous doggerel. This is a guy who enjoys
words, who loves ideas, who writes original poetry that people might actually
want to pay to read.
So thank you Stride. Thank you oh great and hallowed Arts Council of England.
Thank you artists, cover designers and typesetters and thank you the person
who was bold enough to go for the oddly satisfying 'shape' of these two
books. But most of all thank you Messer's McGrath and Young for forcing me to
be a nice guy with only enthusiastic words to submit to 'the boss' that
praise your unique talents.
© Alan Corkish 2005