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extract from the poem Koi by John Burnside All afternoon we've wandered from the pool to alpine beds and roses ...
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Tuesday, 27 July 2010
This Is Not About What You Think
Words, too, can be deceptively simple - and therefore, so can poems. Jim's poems can be, but in referring to their "simplicity" I mean only that the poet uses the words and speech forms of everyday conversation and that he erects no artificial barriers to our understanding. I do not mean that no original work has gone into them or that there are no buried nuggets for the reader to uncover. Read these poems and you may think you are out for a casual stroll, but watch out, for there in the shadows something is waiting to mug you. Skip casually through this book and the chances are that you will alight on a poem that seems too careless or breezy, too simple to repay extended study or consideration. Jim says they are about life. And so they are, every last one of them, and they are no more careless, superficial or "easy" than life itself. Indeed, for me this book has been something of a revelation. I have followed Jim's blog and read many of his poems. But only single poems. In isolation. I have found them impressive (always) and thought I knew them and, within limits, that I knew Jim as a poet. I didn't. The poems collected together like this strike chords that resonate beyond the single note of a solitary poem. They enhance each other and spark new significances from each other. I realise now that his work is more varied and subtle and its meaning (for me!) more deeply hidden than I had realised. And the simpler the surface appears to the eye, the more it seems to promise treasure beneath.
Problem: for Jim says that the process of writing a poem is more important to him than the finished work. The written work is expendable, so how can what I have written above, be true? Each poem, he says, is "a specific thought or feeling expunged from his head, examined, dealt with and discarded", so that henceforth he will understand himself a little more. I can partially relate to that, but that is only because Jim and his poems have brought me to that point. For me, the printed or spoken word is what it is all about, but reading these poems and thinking on them and his comments, has caused me to examine the importance of the process for me. Many of my poems are driven by memories, recent or distant, and in the process of writing, it is vital that the memory be not disturbed or modified... I was going to finish the sentence with "in any way", but that would have been a counsel of perfection; I will satisfy myself with "as little as possible". So Jim has made me more aware of the importance of the process for me.
What his remarks do emphasise, though, is that he is writing, not about what he knows, but about the unknown, maybe the potentially threatening. In that and in their deceptive simplicity, they seem to me to have something in common with fairy stories. They deal with the darknesses that lurk. They are not difficult to read, they may be harder to digest. During the war the government issued silhouettes of the various enemy aircraft, the better for us to recognise them as hostile. Simple affairs they were, the silhouettes, but effective. They had to be the first in order to be the second. If I have understood him correctly, Jim's process is one that will throw up the silhouette of whatever it is that is troubling or exercising him. He will know it that much better in the future - and himself as well.
But what of us? We cannot be privy to his process. We are getting only what he would throw away, job done. But as the book's title, This Is Not About What You Think, reminds us, the meaning of each poem will be different for each individual mind-set that is brought to it. I forget who it was that said of a work of art: It doesn't mean anything, but it has meaning. It is not inherent in the artefact; for Jim it exists in the process; for us - if at all - in the coherence of printed word and internal landscape.
One of the fascinating aspects of this book is that the poems are presented in seven sections, then, in an appendix at the back, he tell us that he began numbering his poems while still at school, and that he has been faithful to the same numbering system throughout. He gives us the number and date of each poem included in the book. The latest poem given is number 1046, dated 25 May 2010 and the earliest 510, dated 28 April 1979. I read through and chose some poems that particularly attracted me before I discovered the appendix. My chosen poems were written in August '89, April '97 and July 2003. What does that tell us? Not a lot, except that he has been writing well for a long time.
Here then, the first three that I picked out. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I have:
You took the child in me in your arms
but none of his fears.
They waited a little off
knowing you wouldn't hold on forever.
It would have been nice
to have kept them waiting a little longer.
You had just as much of a claim on me
as they did.
Reading Into Things
So often we had pointless sex
as if intercourse should have some point.
I've not really thought about it.
We did it for its own sake and
the fact that we did it together
was almost coincidental.
She opened herself up to me
but not in the way a poem might
and I took from her what I could.
Each of us came but to very
(for Erica Jong)
I cannot live without
poetry in my life.
And I cannot live without you.
You make the words make sense
and gift them their meanings:
those strange, dark and sensuous thoughts.
The words were there before
and yet they meant nothing.
I guess they were waiting for you.
The book can be ordered from Amazon.co.uk but the cheapest and fastest way is direct from the FV Books site where there’s a special offer at the moment. Here’s a link to the site.
You can also read the whole of Part I of the collection on Jim’s new website, here.