Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

"Reader Please Supply Meaning" by Jim Murdoch (fandango virtual, 2015)

The book has a 4 page introduction in which it says "All poems are icebergs ... A lot of readers treat poems as if they were puzzles, things to be solved. Up to a point they're right ... the wrong question to ask when reading a poem is: What did the poet mean? The right one is: What can I make out of this? ... A poem is also like a piece of abstract art ... Some poets frown on poems written about poems. I've never understood this".

I'm broadly in sympathy with these views. I imagine most poets would agree too (except for the "poetry about poetry" tendency). Where people differ is their opinion of how much meaning (or how many meanings) the reader might be expected to supply. Don Paterson wrote "We read according to an undeclared handicap system, to the specific needs of the author. We meet the novelists a little way, the poets at least halfway, the translated poets three-quarters of the way; the Postmoderns we pick up at the station in their wheelchairs" ("The Book of Shadows"). So what demands does Jim Murdoch make on us, and are readers of one of his poems likely to come to a consensus?

Though written over a period of 36 years the poems (which have appeared in over a dozen magazines) are quite uniform in their demands - they're more aphoristic than Rorschach; more tell than show. And I don't think there'll be much arguing amongst readers - initially at least. Language isn't disrupted, nor is there puzzling imagery. Nothing approaches abstract art.

Of course, clarity of presentation needn't destroy mystery. For example, Magritte's painting of a steam train coming out of a fireplace hides nothing. Magritte claimed that he'd have liked to make the painting simpler still, with just a locomotive, but "In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery — the image of a dining room fireplace — was joined". With such works the title often matters. Magritte called the piece "La Durée poignardée" (meaning something like "duration stabbed") though the usual translation is "Time Transfixed". Murdoch's titles are sometimes the poem's missing key, though as frequently they tell it straight ("The Nature of Poetry", "Advice to a Young Poet", "Everyone's a Critic", "A Poem is not an empty room"), as does the content. There are few allusions - the only one I registered was "Unmoving/ he is moved/ and moves on" (p.87).

I did a quick keyword count. Along with the words in the table, "answer", "mirror", "language" and "words" crop up often. "beauty" is scarce. Soundbites abound. Here are just a few -

  • Writers are all liars. We all are./ But at least they are honest liars. (p.32)
  • insight: the power to look within and// not be afraid of the dark (p.37)
  • No one gets poetry/ anymore,/ not even the poor sods/ who write it (p.51)
  • Poems turn up out of the blue these days/ like family/ and usually when things are going badly (p.57)
  • Life is meaningless./ That said it is not devoid of meanings ... You can draw around them but that doesn't make them more real (p.69)
  • I am sorry/ but your moment/ of meaningful/ silence has not been/ inserted properly./ Please try again. (p.74)
  • there is always something to/ block our view/ of the nothingness this is // coming (p.88)
  • You can't possibly know/ what truth/ is till you've made one up/ yourself (p.93)
  • "Stones aren't packed with sparks are they?" "No, Dad." "So why would words be filled with meaning?" (p.101)
  • Sometimes not enough/ has to be enough (p.105)

The reader is often directly addressed as "You". I often read books more as a fellow poet than a passive reader, wondering what I can learn from the poems, and how I'd do things differently. In this case, the urge to supply more than just meanings was especially strong. I've written poems entitled "Language is a shroud", "Balloons are poems too", "He understands but doesn’t love", "How to write a poem", etc., and I've written aphorisms (a recent one - "Poets are the first to tell the truth in an age of lies. Else when they're the first to lie" - suits the theme of this book). I wondered whether some of the poems could have been replaced by aphorisms - Don Paterson's written a book of them so it's a viable option.

In a magazine, amongst poems on other subjects, these poems would make a welcome change, but I found I had to take a break every so often to finish the c.100 poems. That said, there's variety within the constraint, sub-themes including "language in general"; "poem as mediator between poet and reader"; "the poet-reader relationship"; "analogies" (poem = map, poem = offspring, etc); "failure to communicate"; "the relationship between meaning and language" (in "Body of work" "There are no meanings/ for the words to hide behind"; in "If only pigs could fly" there's also conflict); "can poetry can express what's really important?"; "thought vs poetry" (in "Something to Think About" there are "so many thoughts ... there was no room left for the poetry"); "the nature of truth".

My favourites were "The Drowning Man", "The Primal Scrawl", "Exhuming Truth", "The Laws of Physics", "The Reason", "Give and Take"; "Making Sense", "The poetry of regrets", "Marks", "Maps", "Petrified Poem". I'd have listed more were I allowed to edit them ("Not Now" for example could be concertina'd). You can buy the book from the fandango virtual website.

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