This Is Not About What You Think
No poem is ever about what you think it is. You're always required to read in between the lines and so it's up to each reader to provide his or her context and meaning generally from dipping into their own experiences. This is true of other art forms but it is especially true of poetry. The mind demands order so we try to make sense out of the words in front of us. We decide who's talking and about what.
Collections bring additional problems because we feel a need to connect the poems; we look for common threads, a story when there is none. There is no story to this collection but you will find yourself looking for one. Even if the poems had not been arranged in the order they have been you would still see that they chart a life from childhood through to old age but it is not my life nor the life of anyone I know or know of.
What is the purpose of poetry: to communicate or to record? It can be both. My poetry is actually written primarily to exorcise, to get a specific thought or feeling out of my head so I can examine it before dealing with and then discarding it. The writing process is more important to me than the finished product. Once written I understand myself a little more. I may still be carrying around the same baggage but it's packed a little more neatly.
This doesn't mean every poem I write is autobiographical. They are my reactions to certain subjects, some which I have experienced first hand, some which I've witnessed others experience, others which I've read or heard about and a few which I've simply imagined. But they're my take on all of these. I am a writer; my natural response to life is to write about it. I wrote the poem about the stillbirth the day I heard about it; 'Making Do', a poem about my own mother, I completed years after her death.
None of my poems are very long. I've long held the belief that writers should say what they have to say and get off the page. So I try to do exactly that. This has resulted in an aphoristic style of writing which I happen to like. It also means they're not particularly well suited for reading aloud which is fine because they were never written to be read out loud even though I occasionally do read them to myself to ensure that they flow properly.
If my poems are throwaways why publish them? Because it's green. Just because I've finished thinking my thoughts doesn't mean that someone else won't be able to make use of them. They may make something of them that I never intended or imagined. And that's fine. You have my permission to make every poem in this collection your own. They are your own. You've paid good money for them. I hope you think it was money well spent.
I missed out on a lot growing up:
stilts, a pogo-stick,
skates — ice and roller — underage sex.
There were things I had: a family,
but it was the wrong family and
they skipped all the useful stuff at school.
Whenever I have needed something
it was never there:
the capital of Peru or the
TV remote, the exact bus fare
or just reasons why.
"You can't miss what you've never had, son."
Is that so? I think you've missed the point.
(First appeared in The Rusty Nail)
Advice to Children
People will fail you.
It's a fact of life —
they'll let you down.
But not always.
And that's the worst of it —
sometimes they don't.
But most times it's hard to tell.
My dad used to give me marks out of ten:
homework — seven out of ten,
the dishes — eight out of ten.
Anything less than a five
came with a clip on the ear.
Marks is merely another word for scars.
I have those too, the ones you
can see and the ones you can't.
I'd give my childhood a three.
That's me being generous.
Dad's no longer here and so I have to
mark myself. Is that what you
were waiting to hear, doctor?
What do you think this poem
might be worth? Maybe an eight?
(First appeared in The Apple Valley Review, Volume 5, Number 1 (Spring 2010))
This is the floor beside my bed
where I kneel to talk to God.
If I press my ear to the floor.
I can hear Him talk to Mum.
About me. It is always me.
I know what God looks like.
He looks just like my dad.
I heard him tell my mum:
"In this house I am God."
I heard that through the floor.
Now I only pretend to pray
because I don't want my dad
to really hear the things I think.
Now he's not sure I'm so bad.
I don't want him to know I am.
I just want my dad to love me.
My mother made do almost every day of her life.
There wasn't that much to the dish. To tell you the truth,
Mum could make do
with almost nothing at all.
She'd put on the pot and just let it simmer for hours.
And all of my life so far I've tried to do the same
but I find mine
always leaves a bitter taste.
I wish I knew what her secret ingredient was.
Red Tape and the Meaning of Life
Things have to be done in a certain way
otherwise the universe won't make sense
which is why the milk goes in the coffee
after the hot "but not boiling" water
and only Superman (who isn't real)
gets to wear his Y-fronts on the outside.
This means there are lots of rules to follow
to protect us even when they don't work.
It's not the universe's fault if we
can't remember simple things like not to
trip over cracks in the pavement.
Reader Please Supply Meaning
If, as some have proposed, poetry is beauty (misquoting Keats no doubt) one must also keep in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Many have attempted at some point in their lives to define poetry and most, to give them credit, have done a fair job, although the more accurate attempts frequently sound like legalese and there's nothing further removed from poetry than the language of the law. Poetry's like love. Most of us couldn't explain love but we recognise it when we encounter it in all of its guises, be it love of country, of family, brotherly love, erotic love, principled love or just the fondness we feel for the family pet. Likewise with poetry. We see it for what it is even when it doesn't necessarily look like what we're accustomed to.
This collection is not an ars poetica per se. I'm not interested in saying what poetry is, could or should be. I'm more interested in understanding poetry. What happens when I read a poem?
A poem is, at least according to Paul Valéry, "never finished, only abandoned." It's up to its readers to complete the text. This, of course, echoes what Samuel Johnson wrote: "A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it." A written text, any written text, the text you're reading right now, only comes to life when someone reads it. When I lay out words on a page and call that arrangement a poem, all I've done, if you'll forgive the crude and rather obvious analogy, is kludge together body parts and left it up to you to animate them. You are my bright sparks.
I've talked in the past about 'iceberg poems' and 'decoder ring poems' (the latter expression being one coined by my wife). All poems are icebergs. If the resemblance holds, between ten and twenty percent of the poem ends up on the page; the rest remains in its author's head. This is why a poet is the very worst reader of his own work because he's able to fill in all the blanks and it'll be many years before he's able, if ever, to look at what he's written with any degree of objectivity and that's usually when he realises how bad it is. In the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street there's a humorous scene during which Barrett tells Browning she was confused by a section of one of his poems and seeks clarification:
ELIZABETH BARRETT: Well?
ROBERT BROWNING: Well, Miss Barrett, when that passage was written only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it.
A secret decoder ring is a device which allows one to decode a simple substitution cipher-or to encrypt a message by working in the opposite direction. They date back to the fifteenth century but gained popularity in the 1930s when they were often used as inexpensive promotional items by retailers and radio and television programmes. The most well-known example dates from 1934: the Ovaltine-sponsored radio programme Little Orphan Annie. A decoder ring poem is, therefore, a poem that requires a code to crack it, a piece of information that's known only to the poet. My poem 'Melancholia' opens with the line, "My dad was an incredibly sad man." When people read poems written in the first person it's tempting to assume they're autobiographical and this is me talking about my own father but that's not the case; the narrator of the poem is my daughter and I'm the dad but few people will make that connection without help. This doesn't mean the poem doesn't work. It works. It's just there's a hidden message.
A lot of readers treat poems as if they were puzzles, things to be solved. Up to a point they're right. Anything any of us reads is something we have to work out: what did the author mean here? The problem with poetry in particular is that most of the time there isn't a definitive solution and there never will be because, as I've said, every reader brings a bit of him or herself to the poem; they make it their own. So 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? In that respect a poem's like a Chinese finger puzzle: the more you fight with it the less chance you have of extricating yourself from it.
A poem is also like a piece of abstract art. How many people have looked at such a painting and said, "Yes, but what is it?"? It frustrates them. And poems frustrate so many people too. Only what they say is, "Yes, but what does it mean?" When you bought this book-thank you for that by the way-you'll have noticed the cover-possibly that's what drew you to it-and wondered: Why the inkblot? It's all to do with apophenia. It takes many forms but probably the most common is seeing patterns or shapes when looking at random data, e.g. the man in the moon or the mesa in Cydonia, often called the Face on Mars. It's hard to look at an inkblot and not try to make sense out of it. It's the perfect metaphor for what happens when you scan a poem; we try to impose order on it. And that's what you'll be doing in a few pages time. Some of you will 'see' 'faces'; some won't. Some of you will see what I see when I look at these poems but I've no intention of explaining any of them. If, as William Carlos Williams suggested, a poem is "a small (or large) machine made of words" then it's complete bar one thing: fuel. That's where you come in.
Some poets frown on poems written about poems. I've never understood this. The nature of poetry fascinates me. Why do I do what I do? Why do I need to do it this way? Why don't I write poems like T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound? Why does no one else write poems like me? I've been churning out poetry for over forty years now. Including the juvenilia that's over eleven hundred poems. Have I learned anything about poetry in all that time? Yes, but it's more about language in general, and it's quite simply this: it's a miracle, a ruddy miracle that any one of us can communicate with another living soul.
A while ago I learned of the concept of fuzzy logic and it bowled me over. At its simplest then:
almost 2 + almost 2 = almost 4
This doesn't invalidate 2 + 2 = 4, rather it envelops it. "[A]ll interpretation is a use of violence and caprice against a text." So wrote Italo Calvino in If on a winters night a traveller. I'm not sure I necessarily agree with him but I do understand where he's coming from and it is definitely easier-and more natural perhaps-to take away from a text rather than add to it, to subsist on the gist of it, the -ishness and -esqueness of it. Will you get my poems? They're not hard. I don't set out to be difficult. I don't have much time for so called "difficult poetry" if I'm being honest; life's hard enough as it is. But I make no promises. I've done my bit. Hopefully I've done my best. Now it's up to you.
Keats didn't say that poetry was beauty. He said, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Poems are fictions. Which means they're lies; let's not beat about the bush. The odd thing, the downright perverse thing, is how much truth these lies are capable of making evident. Never ceases to amaze me.
Something To Think About
Such an awful
lot of thought has
gone into this
You simply would
not believe how
much thought I have
put into this.
So many thoughts
went into this
poem there was
no room left for
Sorry about that.
I'll try and do
better next time
(First appeared in Writers Bloc, March 2011)
Writers are afraid of the truth.
It's impossible to work with,
it's not malleable;
truths are like lumps of rock.
You can chisel away and you
might reveal this great work of art.
More than likely though you'll
just get rock and more rock,
probably not even the kind
with a message through the middle.
(First appeared in The Apple Valley Review, Volume 3, Number 2 (Fall 2008))
This is a
It is in
is complete and
No words are missing and
though they have
all been read before
the previous owner
was careful not to
read too much into them.
The poem will make sense
but it must
be said it doesn't
quite mean what it used to
and it may require
some reader attention.
What you see
is what you
get but what
you end up with
up to you.
(First appeared in Gloom Cupboard #36, March 2008)
You can hear Nic Sebastian's interpretation of this poem here.
I had a poem
published on the Internet.
It looked good there and
I went to see it often.
After a while they moved the
poem into a
great big archive with
a lot of other poems.
I still visited
though maybe not quite as much.
One day I went to look and
it had disappeared.
I suppose it must
have escaped or maybe died.
I'm not sure how long
poems are supposed to last.
Someone told me forever
but that can't be right.
(First appeared in Feathertale)
No one gets poetry
not even the poor sods
who write it.
Besides, poems don't need to be read,
they have to be written,
and that's a
different thing entirely.
Keys need locks.
Locks still work without keys or am I
stating the obvious?
you don't have the key you
kick down the door and see what you find.
(First appeared in Eclectica Vol 12, No 1)
The Rape of Language
After he'd used them
they just weren't the same.
It was as if they'd become
somehow different, lesser.
What exactly he'd taken
she couldn't be sure,
perhaps their true meaning,
leaving only the sounds.
It wasn't their fault
yet how could she trust them?
They said that he loved her
still something wasn't right.
But who do you tell
when the words stop making sense?
(First appeared in The Pgymy Giant, April 2010)
The Language of Hands
My mother's hands never held me.
I kept myself beyond her reach
misreading all of her gestures,
every last one.
My father never used his belt;
his hands were enough, big and hard.
I've never known hands like them since,
the servants of truth.
My daughter bites her nails like her
mum before and wears fake nails.
I can't remember the last time
that she held my hand.
My own hands sit before me, useless.
I don't know what to do with them.
There is nothing to do except
write down this poem.
(First appeared in Mused, Winter 2013, Volume 7, Issue 4)
I am a great man.
People depend on me to say great things.
They expect me to say great things.
I expect I am saying something great right now.
Things appear greater when I say them.
It is a terrible burden, of course,
a terrible responsibility, in fact,
to always have to say something great,
to be great to order; that said
people believe I am being great
even when I am being normal.
To them my normal is just great.
They need me to be great
ergo I am great.
"That was great," they'll say
and they'll believe that to be true
but at the same time they'll be thinking:
I thought great might be greater than that
but what do I know, he's the great man, not me.
(First appeared in Snakeskin #200)
The Only Way
Lay siege to feelings.
It's the only way.
You cannot best them.
They're sharper, smarter,
crueller and strong
and your only hope
is to starve them out.
Don't engage with them.
Don't trust their white flags.
Hold out until they
devour themselves then
once the wailing ends
and the miasma fades,
shoulder your shovel,
say a few last words
and don't mark the graves.
(First appeared in The Open Mouse July 2013)
not a Bukowski poem
I am not Bukowski
but I am the kind of person
he would have written about
if he had lived in Glasgow
or I had lived in L. A..
he would have sat at his desk
with his shirt off,
and decided what kind of man
it's uncomfortable having the shoe
on the other foot.
(First appeared in qarrtsiluni February 2012)
Back then she didn't have the words;
it was all 'stuff' and 'things'
but mostly blanks.
Now she knows all the proper words,
and dirty word.
The proper words don't sound right though;
there was nothing proper
in what he did
just a lot of stuff with things and
stuffing things in places
without real names.
Nothing is real without its name.
Back then she learned the names
Pain, Guilt and Shame
because what happened then was real
but it only became
real when she said
its name out loud for the first time.
(First appeared in Sixth in Line May 2011)