ENGLAND, GREECE AND MYTH in Kelvin Corcoran’s Selected Poems

Kelvin Corcoran, New and Selected Poems, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter, EX4 4LD, ISBN 0907562396, pbk 196pp, £10.95

Another important publication (alongside Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems, 2004) from the excellent Shearsman books, bringing together poems from the last 20 years by one of the major voices in contemporary British lyric poetry.

This is a sensitively produced volume that presents the work in reverse chronological order, beginning with the assured new poems Against Purity
(2004) and working back to the risk-taking Robin Hood in the Dark Ages (1985). Two things that this reverse chronology allows is a focus on Corcoran's powerful arrival point in Against Purity and, at the same time, a clearly visible way of tracing back the unities and the changes from his early published work. One of the striking features of his oeuvre is its consistency of tone, subject matter and style, and yet Corcoran has definitely moved on and developed his art to a high point of lyric, emotive refinement. One reviewer has been right to identify the 'strength and calm' in Corcoran's work; another to distinguish Corcoran's signature '...manner that is both intellectually and emotionally probing...'. It is this calm; this emotional and intellectual consistency and stillness that distinguishes much of Corcoran's writing.

There seem to be a number of ways the writer achieves this. One is through a focus on three main themes: England, Greece and Myth. The second, is through and intra- and inter-textual weaving of phrases and motifs; ideas that re-emerge from poem to poem within individual collections, but also across collections. One of the delights of reading this Selected Poems at a single sitting is discovering just how many of these there are and tracing their lineage throughout the book: foxes at rubbish; 'my brother the snake'; 'tropes of Greek myth; 'the invention of fair writing'; Eng-a-land, the football chant; and MacSweeny's borage, to cite but a few.

No doubt because of where he has been published – and because of the friendships and affiliations he has made over twenty years of publishing – Corcoran is often grouped with the linguistically innovative poets of late 20th Century British Poetry; the kind of work that appeared in the new british poetry
(Paladin 1988) and Conductors of Chaos (Picador, 1996) amongst others. Personally, I think a sole focus on the 'innovative' in his work limits its potential readership and I would recommend that anyone interested in poetry today go out and get a copy of this book right away. In Poetry Quarterly Review, David Kennedy commented that Corcoran's individual volume When Suzy Was 'deserves a wide readership.' Kennedy is absolutely right. Whilst Corcoran's work may have its own difficulties of style for a general reader (and here I mean the perhaps perceived 'difficulties' of Corcoran's Modernist fascinations with fragmentation and the way we see rather than a focus on what we see), this poetry is essentially at the forefront of the contemporary British lyric tradition. It emphasises experience (individual experience as well as social and cultural experience); the line as a vehicle of musical cadence as much as of semantic meaning and, amongst other poetic devices, the formal structures of traditional lyric poetry, especially the sonnet.

Other difficulties in the poems, if such exist, perhaps come from the more learned historical and mythological references. My personal take on this is simple: if a reader can't be bothered to find out the reference then why are they reading poetry in the first place? Part of our pleasure as readers of poetry, surely, is that poetry extends the limits of our knowledge – our emotional knowledge, musical knowledge, historical knowledge, cultural knowledge, knowledge of ourselves, and so on. We come to poetry to grow, amongst other gifts; not to receive news of what we already know. Iain Sinclair wrote of Corcoran's collection Melanie's Book,
'the poet's news comes so swift and fresh that it really is, immediate, present; not loud.' Whilst a reader must make efforts with Corcoran's complexities – as one does when reading Paul Muldoon, or Mark Ford, or Alice Oswald even, for example – it is that 'presence' and sense of calmness (Sinclair's 'not loud') that carries the reader through the poem's intricacies. As Corcoran himself wrote in one of his anthologised earlier poems, 'Nobody thinks hard enough for poetry'. He's right. 'One book dropped in their letter box / would burn their paper homes' or, as he incites us elsewhere, 'This is Radio Free Byron on the short wave / broadcasting to the English shires: wake up'. Corcoran is so skilled with his line and his subject matter, he can help us wake up through his writing: he sweeps from the ancient to the contemporary and back again, often in the same short stanza. Like the poets mentioned above, his work is linguistically complex, yet emotionally, socially, politically and, above all, poetically (musically) alive.

Yet it is with his big recurring themes – England, Greece and Myth – that the ultimate meaning of Corcoran's projects lies. From the mythic dream of England in Robin Hood in the Dark Ages, with its focus on the implied truths and lies of folklore and mythology, Corcoran's work explores 'the dread night of shire politics'. His is partly a landscape in which 'it rains local newspaper lies / about a town nobody lives in'; the suburban gloss of 'polished cars and public lies.' For Corcoran, like the romantic and political revolutionary Blake, 'the corruption [is] absolute, normal'. Blake's Jerusalem, and its counterpoint 'satanic mills' form an implicit backdrop to much of Corcoran's work, 'a sort of machinery is at work / dumb song compulsory / enthralled by vacant ghosts'. The vacant ghosts are, of course, the dead and the living dead; the living people and the historic people of the myth of our country; the ordinary folk, the workers, the disenfranchised. They are 'those people locked up without cause', those very real prisoners as well as the metaphoric prisoners – political prisoners, emotional prisoners, cultural prisoners; prisoners locked inside the myth of 'Eng-a-land'. With echoes again of Blake, and of Elliot, Corcoran writes, 'Their hands are empty, their mouths are empty, / against ironic commentary / the poem a hymn to the republic, / my name and all that history I suppose.'

In several of his poems, Corcoran is flying, over England, over deserts, across the globe, looking down on the landscape and writing poems from a point of high vista. In some senses, these lyric poems of transit connect him to some unlikely counterparts in the English lyric tradition. Yet this poet's style is utterly his own .'What am I doing here flying over England? / at a nasty tilt, green fields and conservative clubs / flatten out like a grid to the Irish Sea.' This (self?)accusative commentary is one that leads to the conclusion, 'the country looks like a picture of itself', leading us back into the myth of Eng-a-land. As Corcoran puts it in Lyric, Lyric
(1993), 'I bash my head on England.'

Yet if Corcoran's critique can be a savage one, his observations and reflections on the land can also be tender, precise and full of wonderment: 'The world is the shrine', or from one of his prose poems, 'Look at the sea, its immense rolling indifference, I love it.' It is this directness, this honesty, this literalness that distinguishes much of Corcoran's work from that of other contemporary lyric poets. In this way his work is more akin to that of Lee Harwood and Harwood's control of the public/private interface. In fact, Harwood features in several of Corcoran's own poems, so no surprise that Corcoran's Selected
and Harwood's Collected both appear from Shearsman this year. They are a duo of (paradoxically, if you will indulge me) complex simplicity. In the poem 'The Book of Answers', for example, the characters Kelvin Corcoran and Lee Harwood sit talking. A telling philosophy arises between them: 'My conceit to make the physical condition of language, the arrangement of the struts, curves and sounds, the form of discovered truth. Completely simple questions.' Here we have not only the literalness and simplicity alluded to before, but also the poetic conviction (the 'discovered truth', as with the influential Basil Bunting before him) that the meaning of poetry is in its sound. Corcoran truly belongs to Bunting's Modernist lineage foregrounding musical and linguistic truth before any other – as he notes in an earlier poem, 'The light of truth sinks, / casual but smart, true but false'. The meaning of truth changes as culture and ideology change; but what you cannot take away is the poetry of the lyric poem. That's what a lyric poem means.

Besides his mythic critiques of 'public England', Corcoran also writes beautifully, tenderly and painfully of his own family; the domestic milieu that constitutes the heart and hearth of a particular 'private England'. From 'I was with my mother when she die...' to the entire collection Melanie's Book (1996), a book that needs to be savoured in its entirety, Corcoran moves seamlessly between the honest and traditional expression of the subjective I and it's Postmodern negation. For me, Melanie's Book shows Corcoran at his sublime best: sonnets, prose poems, and reflections of startling intimacy and lyric control that lead us 'estate by estate, family by family' into the heart of the poet's own family and its intimate concerns. For this negotiation of the public and private, through beautifully weighted phrasing and musical structure, Melanie's Book
is one of the best collections of the last ten years. But Corcoran's sensitive poetic treatment of his own family also extends into the later When Suzy Was, in which his daughter's observations of noisy birds ('they want to speak / people language like us') mixes with the poet's own pursuit of 'the impossible archaeology / of the restored family album, / most of it sold for drink'. The deeply personal stanzas about his own alcoholic father, in 'The Literal Poem about my Father', are among the best, most emotive familial verses you will ever read.

It is this notion of the 'impossible archaeology' of family that ties Corcoran's personal lyric drive to his two main themes of England and Greece. In the poem 'When Suzy Was', the metaphoric archaeology of family bones ('In fact the dead have names; / my mother, my father, / Stuart, who died aged 22, / my two brothers who died as babies') brings the deeply personal family story – the family myth – face-to-face with the bigger picture of Greek myth. The poem begins with 'Skorpios across the water', encompassing Hermes and the Pindus mountains; the cradle of civilization. Of course 'the cradle', like the grave, is heavily implicit in the childhood song 'When Suzy Was'; the nursery rattle is easily transmuted into the skeletal rattle. By evoking his personal ghosts, Corcoran takes us to the big mythical questions of history: '[the dead] buzz like nobody's business, / they flicker against tiny panes / – let us in, let us in; / invisible everywhere in the picture.' That last phrase I find so beautiful; so emotive; so intellectually and spiritually engaging. This is what poetry at its best should always be; a doorway to the bigger picture.

Which brings me to the Greek-laden work Corcoran has been writing since 2000. History, Landscape, Myth and Romanticism (in the shapes of Byron and Shelley) populate these poems with obsessive recurrence. The titles: 'My Life With Byron', 'Helen', 'Pythias', 'Leukothia' speak for themselves. Yet the critique of Lord Elgin in 'The objects were not paid for...'; the parallels drawn between Nottingham's weavers and the workers of Ambelakia; the continued problematising of group mentalities, the global economy and the lies of the mythic nation (Greece/England) – each of these cultural themes demonstrates quite simply how adept Corcoran has become at fusing a cultural whole from his poems. This is perhaps what allies these poems most with the great Modernist projects. And yet there is nothing dated about what is being written here; the language and the images are utterly of the moment –– 'the arms race'; the stowaways hidden 'in containers and small boats'; 'the petrol thirst'; the barracks towns; 'the rural poor' pending 'Saturday night at the trough / they talk about technology, / new magic make you work harder, / their veins corrupted to mud'––Corcoran may write through
Greece and Greek myth yet, when his target is not 'an archaeology of the soul', a theme persistent throughout his work), it remains the 'liars in public places' (and you may currently insert the names of PM, Home Secretary and President here) that have always troubled him. Nothing changes and everything changes. Corcoran's poetry and politics – personal and public – fuse and explore this adage to the full. It leads to one conclusion that, if the Personal is still Political, Corcoran's work may be the breathing embodiment of that in poetry. But more than this, this work is vital and necessary today, not least for its continual striving to reach the New through negotiations with the Old; to strive for innovation by problematising tradition; in his own words to 'make the ordinary language good or die.'  I would say that here is a book you really can't afford to be without

Andy Brown 2004