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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

This Is Not About What You Think

The drawing on the cover of Jim Murdoch's This Is Not About What You Think could be taken for a metaphor of the poems within. It is obvious, even from the quickest of glances, what it represents. Indeed, the quicker the glance, the more obvious you might find it. The female genitalia are unmistakable, but then you start to wonder - or I did - is this what it's about? Probably not, you may decide, for the drawing has something in common with the ink blot test once so beloved of psychiatrists. What you see in it is not what's there, but is driven by your mind-set. (So perhaps there are no female genitalia. Maybe they were just in my mind!) We do the same when we create, of course. The artist looks at a landscape and brings to it his mind-set, a mental landscape, turbulent or pacific as the case may be. If he can make the two landscapes cohere, he has himself a masterpiece. Whatever, the point is that, like the poems, Jim's cover drawing is working on another level. It looks almost as though it was made by drawing one half of the figure and then folding the paper while the ink was still wet, to produce the other half. But what matter whether it was or not? It's the result that matters - or is it? More on that later.

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
different conclusions.

The Poetess
(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.


Jim Murdoch said...

It’s always interesting to see what poems jump out at people, Dave, not that your choices are bad they’re just not ones I would have picked. I wondered why and the simple answer is because these poems have particular associations for me. I’ve been reading a bit about something called bodily meaning for an upcoming blog, it’s the idea that there is a physical aspect to meaning. I’ve always believed that poetic meaning was broader than intellectual meaning. This is why two people can read the same poem and come away with very different . . . let’s say answers rather than meanings. They are about three different women. Two were written while I was involved with them, the other is me looking back and trying to understand. What I’ve done in this book is superimposed each of these real life people to make a composite “wife” whereas the fact is I’ve had more than one wife. That aside I wasn’t married to any of the wives in question when I wrote the poems.

The last of the three poems was about Carrie. The Erica Jong connection is a book of poems I sent her when we were getting to know each other. It contained the first photo of me she ever saw. I remember we had quite the discussion about my use of the feminine for ‘poet’ but the simple fact is there’s no reference to gender anywhere in the text so how do you know I’m talking to a woman who writes poetry. I could’ve called the piece ‘The Female Poet’ but I don’t know about you but I think that sounds awful.

BTW I just noticed a tiny omission in the last stanza of ‘Reading into Things’. It should read:

        Each of us came but to very
        different conclusions.

The ‘but’ makes all the difference.

Thanks again, Dave. This was a great review. Your ‘Aggie and Shuggie’ will be up on Thursday.

Unknown said...

Very fine review, & three fine poems indeed. While the language is direct & straightforward, there's plenty of space for the reader's mind to move thru & gather meaning. I love what you--& by extension, Mr Murdoch--have said about the distinction of process being primary for the poet & artifact being primary for the audience. Interesting indeed.

Dianne said...

Thank you for this. I have so little time right now, and miss my own reviewing time. Thus, the Haiku, Friday 55, and Sunday 160 on my posts. Your comments are inspiring and I am honored. I will keep on! (I have tabbed your site today and "Inspiration" for future reviewing...)
timeless, Dianne

Raj said...

one sees what one wants to see. one reads but what one wants to read.

Marion McCready said...

Excellent review, Dave. I'm looking forward to reading Jim's book.

Cloudia said...

Thanks for the guidance and poetry!

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Dave King said...

Thanks Jim. I agree with you about poetic meaning and intellectual meaning, and think the substitution of "answers" for "meaning" is a good one. It avoids certain confusions and gets closer to the idea, I think.

I'm not sure where I stand on the female poet/poetess controversy. On the one hand I get annoyed when the revolutionaries say I musn't use the word "actress", but I must confess that "poetess" rankles a bit. I think I find it a bit twee, nothing to do with feelings of gender.

If you feel you would like to answer any of the comments please do so.

Apologies again for yesterday's mix-up. I have no idea what happened!

Thanks. The process/product consideration is one I am really only just getting into. I think while I was teaching, "The Process" was too much of a jargon phrase for me to bother with it when I retired. I dropped all that like hot cakes. (They give me indigestion!)

Thank you for those very generous comments.

True. Very true.

Welcome and many thanks for stopping by to comment.

Thanks for the feedback.

Jim Murdoch said...

I also have mixed feeling about the feminisation of job roles but, as Billy Connolly pointed out in a recent show I saw, “it’s not waitperson – it’s waitress!” I think there’s a big danger in femininity losing out to feminism. Femininity is a good thing. I know many people over the years have turned it to a condescending term but I think it’s important that women don’t think they have to trade off their femininity for equality. It is perfectly possible to have both. I didn’t have any axe to grind when I wrote that poem, the issue of gender was very much an aside, but that’s what I end up talking about most when people read this poem which is a shame.

I actually hate to hear women talking about themselves as actors. If there was only one Oscar then fine but they’re happy enough to receive the Best Actress award although I suppose it’s only time before that gets changed to Best Actor in a Female Role. I’m sorry if my ancestors got it wrong but it irks me that I get tarred with the same brush as them.

There are times when I think the use of ‘poetess’ or ‘actress’ would sound stupid and that’s when we’re talking about, for example, ‘a troop of actors’ – you wouldn’t say ‘…of actors and actresses’ even though that would be more accurate.

It all boils down to intent. If one doesn’t demean a woman in one’s heart then what comes out of one’s mouth shouldn’t be regarded as demeaning.

@John Hayes – I’m glad you liked the poems, John. You might have missed it but the whole first section of the book is available online here. That another 13 poems which I think is a decent amount to make an informed decision about anyone on.

Carl said...

To Jim - Hi I like your comment about being surprised about which ones jumped out to dave. I am always intrigued by which of my photos (or paintings) someone is drawn to. It is often surprising.

Great poems by the way.


Jim Murdoch said...

@Carl - Thanks, Carl. I thought I'd return the favour. Of the photos you've posted recently the ones that jump out are my are all the black and white ones. Of them my favourite is the one of the bench which is now gracing my desktop.

But you're right. No one ever picks the poems I think are my best.

David Cranmer said...

Fine review and "Holding" jumped out at me. Terrific poetry.

Carl said...

Jim.... Funny thing the B&W of the bench I thought would be great inspiration for a poem! LOL.

Jim Murdoch said...

@David Cranmer – Thanks, David. I hope you checked out the poems on my website too.

@Carl – We’ll see what we can do, Carl, but no promises. I’ve never been very good at writing poems to order.

Carl said...

@jim... My problem is I get all these ideas while I am out with my camera and forget them when i get home. Need to put a notebook in my camera bag!

Dave King said...

Interesting discussion last evening etween Tim Marlow and Nitin Sawhney (composer) on process / result. Don't know if any of you saw it. No doubt it will be repeated!!!

Dave King said...

Owch! Forgot to say it was on Sky Arts 1!

Jim Murdoch said...

I didn't but it's on again on Sunday at 7pm so I've made a note to check it out.