Skip to content

Back to Front?

29/06/2008

There’s an extensive, thoughtful and very positive review of the sampler over at Jim Murdoch’s ever stimulating blog The Truth about Lies. Jim comments on each of the poems in turn, as well as on general aspects of the pamphlet as an object and collection. This is the paragraph that most interests me:

As a poet myself I’m inclined to have my meanings at the forefront of my poems, not that I discount feelings but they’ve always tended to be something of an aside with me. Philip’s poetry, to my mind, concentrates on feelings and the meanings are put on the back burner. These are poems you can’t read, tick the box – Yeah, I get that one – and then pass onto the next one. … A star has exploded and these are fragments rippling away, getting further and further apart, remnants; they meant something when they were whole. Now they are not meaningless but they mean less and Philip is desperately trying to cling onto that meaning. The feelings are clear and unambiguous however.

Always fascinating to see how others read your work, isn’t it? I’m interested that Jim thinks I put meaning “on the back burner”. I’d certainly agree that meaning is not “at the forefront” of my work as it is for him. That’s perhaps the fundamental difference in our poetics: I don’t discount the skill and craft of writing something with meaning at the forefront–perhaps I even do it occasionally–but that kind of poetry has never interested me as much as more layered, multivalent poetry has. So that’s often what I aim for: something that layers meaning; that can access a sense beyond the surface meaning; that will draw the reader back to discover new meaning on subsequent readings.

I wouldn’t call that putting meaning “on the back burner”. To my ears, that phrase sounds a touch pejorative in this context. However, Jim is anything but negative about the pamphlet, so I guess he didn’t mean it that way. In fact, he says the sampler is

a collection of poems by a man trying to make sense out of something that will never make sense, trying to imbue words with meanings they were never intended to hold and, where that fails, creating new words to try and get his point across.

Absolutely spot on. This is perhaps where we come to the emotions in the poetic. The poems in question being largely about grief and bereavement,* it’s hardly surprising that emotion should strike a sensitive and intelligent reader as being at the forefront. Nonetheless, Jim acknoweldges the attempt to make sense (ie, meaning) out of it.

What we have here is the collision or collusion of meaning and emotion. Writing poetry has probably always been to me a means of thinking through my emotions, even more vitally so since I began writing about losing my son, Aidan. And I mean thinking through in a double sense: making sense of my emotional life; and using my emotions as a stimulus to thought. That’s not the sum of my poetics, but it’s probably a central part. After all, we’re talking about an important aspect of the way I’m made: a reasonably intelligent/intellectual individual but, at the same time, uncommonly emotional for a man.**

Thinking again about the relative positioning of meaning and emotion in my poetry, I’d like to suggest that I’m not backgrounding meaning but foregrounding possibilities in the language. Fundamentally, poetry is about language: what we can do with it and what we can do to get beyond it.*** The poem’s meaning is a function of the poem as an instance of language–a language event, if I can put it like that–with all the complexity of interaction between the text, the writer and the reader(s) that that implies. That too is a central part of what I’m trying to do. I’m not saying I apply this understanding in the most sophisticated way, but it’s definitely mixed into the mortar.

Some of these thoughts have been rattling round in my wee heid for a while, but it’s taken Jim’s appraisal to get them out into the open, slightly random though they are. My thanks to him for providing the impetus and, above all, for taking the time to read and review the pamphlet so thoroughly.

*This holds for “Tonguefire Night” too in ways I didn’t know and could never have known when I wrote it, although I understood at some level the cultural grief and bereavement that it touches on.

**Though not especially sensitive to emotional atmosphere, strangely enough. Aren’t we humans complicated sometimes?

***”Poetry is only there to frame the silence”, as Alice Oswald said in an interview.

Advertisements
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Murdoch permalink
    29/06/2008 15:38

    This is the problem with words, the fact that they’re so uncooperative. If something is ‘on the back burner’ to use my expression, it is still cooking away. I certainly didn’t say your poems were meaningless, far from. The first thing that hits you – or me anyway – was this wall of emotion; I had a similar difficulty with Thomése’s novel. I had to negotiate that before I could get at your attempt to find meaning in what happened to you.

    I used the metaphor of an exploding star to make my point, the star being the child. From that point on, everything that was the child is flying off into oblivion, into forgetfulness. I pictured you desperately trying to catch as many of these fragments to keep a hold of something before they all were beyond your reach.

    You don’t know me very well but if you did you would realise that I’m not the kind of person to make disparaging remarks on a public forum like this. If I didn’t think I could say something positive about your work I simply wouldn’t have written the review and would have just chalked it up to a bad experience, £2.50 down the drain. This was certainly not the case.

    That said, you’re right, this is not my kind of poetry and I had to work at each of the pieces.

    I thought you might find my take on grief of interest though. I wrote it off the cuff for a woman online whose name I can’t even remember. She had just lost a loved one and was struggling to find comfort in scraps of other people’s poetry. I thought she should have one of her own.

    Specks of Dust

    Grief swells and expands.
    It fills up holes
    in sentences,

    the rooms we lie in,
    it seeps into our
    thoughts and our dreams.

    The dog looks sadder
    and the photographs;
    when did that happen?

    Grief blocks out sunlight,
    moonlight, and starlight,
    clogs up the very

    air that we breathe.
    Grief has become the
    whole damn universe.

    And we are so
    very, very
    small.

    Monday, 10 December 2007

  2. Anonymous permalink
    29/06/2008 19:54

    Dear Mr. Phillip:
    I have a story to share, but it’s not a poem, but a real life happening.
    I had been looking for someone I’d met 35 yrs ago. Finally found him, right under my nose almost.
    We married, then immediately, his health slowly started to go down hill.
    If I may share my story with you & your readers, can you let me know.
    As it is 3 pages approximately.
    Many thanks.
    I will await your response.
    Sheila Joyce Gibbs
    sjgibbs@shaw.ca
    ph. no. 250-995-1643

  3. Dave King permalink
    30/06/2008 11:27

    There is a sense in which we are always trying to stretch the meaning of words beyond what they were originally meant to bear. nothing wrong with that, in fact to my mind that is what poetry is about, but perhaps not its main aim. We (i) do not set out to do that; it happens in the struggle to put down in words something equivalent to what is felt. Actually, I don’t think you two guys are that far apart.

  4. Andrew Philip permalink
    30/06/2008 15:03

    Certainly didn’t mean to imply that you said they were meaningless, Jim, so sorry if that’s what you took from the post. I was just trying to explore my poetic a bit, spurred on by what you said. Perhaps my choice of “pejorative” was a bit awry, though I did say that, although that’s how it sounded to my ears, I didn’t think that’s how you meant it.

    My thanks for the review are absolutely genuine. In fact, I appreciate your unequivocal recommendation all the more because it’s not necessarily your kind of writing. I was just musing away inspired by your comments, so apologies again if anything came over as combative.

    In other words, Dave’s right!

    And thanks for the poem, Jim. It does capture something of the all-pervasiveness of grief. The stanza:

    The dog looks sadder
    and the photographs;
    when did that happen?

    surprises, just the way grief itself does. But, you know, I think it’s only the earlier stages of grief that necessarily choke; if we can engage with our grief and go into it head on, it can deepen us in some way. Maybe your final stanza hints at that.

  5. Jim Murdoch permalink
    30/06/2008 17:57

    Isn’t is funny, Andrew, that two experienced writers can’t get their words right? As I’ve got older I’ve become more and more aware of the limitations of verbal communication. That last sentence alone I felt the need to rewrite three times. It’s the old story isn’t it? I knew what I meant and expected you to know to. Anyway, now we know – no offence was intended and none was taken.

    I’m glad you picked up on the stanza with the dog in it. I had thought to cut it but I liked it so much that I let it stay. It was a poem that surprised me because, as I said, it was written off the cuff.

    The book I am working on at the moment – which I’ve been writing and not writing for a good three years now – is about a woman who has the job of clearing out her father’s flat after his death. It’s not really about the death of either of my parents but it has meant tapping into the feelings I never really worked through at the time; attending to practicalities took precedence. It’s called Left and I’m currently reworking the first section from third to first person (and cutting chunks as I go). There is no second section yet. Until I get the first bit right I won’t know how the start the next. It’s all very musical, like chord progressions.

    Here’s a wee bit I’ve not got to yet but it explains the title of the book

    He had been in every room. Here was his chair, his desk, his cup, his toothbrush. He’d never done anything great in these rooms. He didn’t write or paint. He ate, he watched too much television, he slept and got up several times in the night to use the bathroom. Now he didn’t do any of those things and did it matter that no one was carrying on doing them? This was all that was left of her dad, negative space.

    And her. She was left. She had been left.

    It’s really an exploration of the ‘dog stanza’. Suddenly everything looks differently but nothing’s changed. It’s driving me doolally but I’ll get there.

  6. Andrew Philip permalink
    01/07/2008 08:04

    Indeed, Jim. That’s words for you.

    Also, on further reflection, I concede that the image of something bubbling away is quite a good metaphor for how meaning functions in poetry such as mine. In my initial reaction to it, I suppose I imagined something much less active.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: