Glimpses of Notes: an introduction

Not to Explain but to Assist

This is not an academic essay it is part of a conversation following on from the pause you made just prior to turning the page. You have the power to interrupt whenever you so desire in the same way that you have the option to exercise this same power at any stage of your journey through this whole attempt by me to present to you an autobiographical poem.

The more I contemplate the written word, the transcript and amalgamation of text and paper which chooses to label itself as poetry, the more I realise that it is, in most instances, a mere fragment of what poetry should be. In my early endeavours to attempt to uncover a fresh format I began to look at the visual properties of regular text and increasingly I found them insufferably smug in their conformity. I accept that there is little aesthetically pleasing in a word per se, even if that word be ‘poetics’, nor in a phrase per se, even if that phrase be ‘linguistically innovative’. However I began to ask myself was it not the function of the poet, if it were at all possible, to create more than words and more than random concrete pictures with words. Was it not possible to blend structure, fonts, possibly even colour and the fragmented trace-roots of words into something that lent differing infrastructure to the words as visualised, creating thereby new superstructures that would allow a poem or a series of words and the paper they are part of, to be viewed as a painting is viewed; from different angles, in different lights, in differing columns of words-within-words separated by purposeful font-changes or rhythmically fragmented shades of black or white or colours.

I recall how as a young man the cynicism of poets like Larkin and Eliot, and their obvious contempt for ordinary people, alienated me from the content of their work and so I began to look more closely at the actual structure of their words. I then realised just how ‘ordinary’ these poets both were, constantly plodding onwards using basically the same techniques that had gone before and most definitely elaborating on previously overworked themes and ideas. (‘ordinary’ is a word I shall use frequently) Eliot picking up on his fawning religious references, barely able to conceal his contempt for the hollow men, and Larkin, being good-old-ordinary Larkin sneering perpetually at his Mr Bleaney, lecturing us eternally about restraint; creating his private electric fences. Of course I do understand that in poems like The Waste Land and Four Quartets Eliot at least attempted to emphasise the aural aspects of poetry and to explore new layouts but these efforts were severely limited and hampered by the poet’s extremely narrow and conformist perspectives on reality. In other words he may have tried to explore new avenues with regard to form but his personal history limited severely his ability to explore anything other than mere form; he behaved in essence like a story teller who tells a bad story well.

On the other hand the alleged ‘new poets’ use language and the framing of text wittily and intellectually, although it surprises me how often the form is incestuously reductionist and so very ‘ordinary’. Read Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Stealing’ for example and decide for your self how far her poetry has devolved from her Liverpool Scene beginnings. Most of the alleged new poets lack humanity, warmth and, above all, a political voice. It has also to be said that when they resort to the ‘concrete’ the shape of text in some instances seems arbitrary and is perhaps used without giving a great deal of thought to the completed composition as it will appear as a finished whole. I use that word again and make no excuses for that; most of it is ‘ordinary’, almost as though they can not see beyond what has gone before in the immediate past and so they emulate and plagiarise the people they regard as giants; standing on their shoulders flitting mere glances back over the panoply and seldom ever looking forward.

Another unfortunate trend with the ‘New Poets’, is the downward slide into obscure textual references and/or an over-intellectualising of the text to the extent that even well-educated people are alienated. These are people who apparently are happy only when they are revelling in their superior knowledge of language, people who call a spade a ‘levering and redistributing insertion mechanism’. The resultant ‘poetry’ is read and distributed amongst perhaps a dozen or less ‘intellectuals’ and their dog who meet monthly in Ye Olde Glue Pot to discuss ‘progress’ without realising that there has not been any. Invariably what is produced is obscure unpoetry understood only as part of a private tribal language. They would do well to remember that Pope, Milton, Shelley, Byron etc. the acknowledged masters of the art, wrote for the mass of the people as, incidentally, did Shakespeare.

I see poetry as a personal, intellectual and visual thing and therefor have little empathy with ‘performance’ poets, it could indeed be argued that the current trend towards performance poetry actually has a negative effect on the comprehension and exploration of more serious poetry as the spoken word moves on at such a pace that there is literally no time to analyse, to savour or to explore it’s real meaning. Consequently most poetry readings are attended by people who have gone there to be entertained and who may never have actually read a poem in their lives. An anecdote may illustrate this point well; a young student, at a poetry reading I attended recently, revealed wisdom beyond her years when she went to the microphone and said; ‘If you stand up and say any old rubbish loudly and confidently people will applaud…’ and the assembled audience applauded her! Of course I accept that poems should occasionally be read aloud, some indeed are designed to be read aloud; mainly light and/or humorous ditties or parochial anecdotes, but the English language is filled with wonderful nuances that can only be appreciated through viewing the words on paper. My favourite example of this is the Donald McGill post card which portrays a suitably shocked gentleman overhearing two substantial ladies enlarging on the merits of their respective babies and one says; ‘He’s just like his father, lungs like bellows and bawls like a bull!’ Speak that out loud and it means nothing, view it and it becomes humour.

My own poetry in places ‘bawls like a bull’ for I have something to say over-and-above the way my poetry appears. I hope it is never simply ‘pretty’ although I do have an internal and somewhat romantic image of my poetry erupting concrete from the earth forming the bulwarks of solid pillars with perhaps voices or music intruding at some lesser level. Poetry literally cut in stone or inlaid into translucent pillars curved like giant half bananas which rise from the floor to tower some two or three feet above the reader. The perceiver stops at a pillar and as s/he closes in to focus on the text, faint voices and sounds, perhaps even scents, intrude. Ah; but that is for the future perhaps.

The autobiographical poem I present here, Glimpses of Notes, is experimental and, in a sense, incomplete; the perceiver is asked to view it as it is to date, an unfinished work, indeed perhaps it can never be finished. On the whole I am happy with the structure and content but have to confess that with regard to the notion of integrity, which should be foremost in an autobiography, there are things I know that I have turned away from, because there are times when my life, my ‘self’ if you will, was unacceptable both to me and to others. The problem, with regard to the sticky question of honesty in autobiography, is that I may well write a line which may be interpreted as ‘...at this point in time I stopped beating my wife...’ but, as Eliot might have it; ‘That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.’ However if I have strayed from honesty it is merely by way of omission or false recollection and never through intentionally falsely presenting facts.

At one level, by tradition, poetry should explore, analyse and intellectualise but at its most primitive or basic level it merely exposes the nerves of raw emotion within. In Glimpses of Notes I’ve set about the task of producing an entire image, the image of, what I know to have been, an eventful life. Errors of interpretation will undoubtedly occur but that is because the reader is part of the process and though the poem is autobiographical it is not necessarily factual thus the perceiver’s interpretation may well be more ‘correct’ than my own unreliable recollections.

The art form I have attempted to produce should ideally be textual, pictorial, aural, visual, pleasing to the ear, the eye and the intellect but above all emotional. Each nuance of text, shading and colour has a purpose which, it has been suggested, is Brechtian. It is not intended to be that, although I do use an accusatory questioning to constantly remind the reader that it is at least an interpretation of reality I am dealing with and perhaps my often repeated refrain; ‘You; could you sing?’ could be part of an alienation technique. Nor is it, as has also been suggested, influenced by Schlovsky for I would assert that the purpose of art is to make the stone stonier, to step above God as it were. However I do borrow from Schlovsky a new ‘way of seeing’ via defamiliarised layout which, incidentally, makes close viewing of the text essential. Complexity of text or language is not desirable in itself although we must commit ourselves to using the tools we have at our disposal, in a poet’s case; ‘words’ and a ‘page’ in which to inlay these ‘words’, to their most aesthetically and intellectually pleasing extent. I hope that Glimpses of Notes steers clear of complex, pseudo-intellectual phraseology and is accessible, at least at some level’ to anyone and everyone who chooses to view it.

With the above in mind I offer Glimpses of Notes as a ‘work in progress’. It is a simple and uncomplicated story with a beginning and a middle and, at some time, an end. I suspect though that, if at some distant date I eventually declare it to be ‘finished’ I shall still not be presenting a fully clothed picture... but I hope that is not the case. Glimpses is a skeleton that I have attempted to flesh out, I am however aware of its limitations and indeed the limitations of all work that is labelled autobiographical.

Finally may I ask you, the perceiver, to bear in mind a Chinese proverb; ‘...the longest journey begins with a single step’ so on that reckoning I’ve just about tottered forward a few feet towards my goal, bear with me and, as I say towards the end of this fragment of a poem; ‘Watch this space’.

Alan Corkish: April 2005

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