Always come at a poem as if you know nothing, and it's
this thing that is going to confront you and your head may be shifted a
little out of its normal safety. (It's not easy to do, and I can't always do
I quite like the first couple of poems in 'Roger Hilton's Sugar', by Kelvin
Corcoran. I had no idea who Roger Hilton is or was, and so here goes, from
the first poem, 'Setting Out':
I slip down
the road under sea light falling
slam into the
giant red women,
split on both sides
electric spring, wet with flame
to St. Ives,
to find the Hilton.
I sailed a
painted boat fit for a boy
whole white and crashing world
This isn't exactly the kind of poetry I'm going to go back to for sustenance
when I need sustenance, but I can recognise the energy of it, and respond to
it, because energy isn't something one often finds in poetry, but it's here
in the choice of words, the strength of that 'against the whole white and
crashing world' line, and I am okay with it.
And it continues. 'The Language Of Art Critics' (which could be a dodgy thing
to deal with, in inept hands) is equally robust:
carts, boats and flowers
bodies in motion overlap,
run into one
another the quick sensation
big secret behind all thought.
But, having said this, it's here I start having a problem: 'behind the big
secret behind all thought.' What? I had to stop and think. Do I like poems
that say this kind of thing, which is almost the same as an empty thing ..... I
stop and think, and the answer is No, usually.
Kelvin Corcoran is a poet who somehow or other I've managed to more or less
completely ignore for a long time. He comes under the heading of people I've
been meaning to read and haven't. One day I finally contrived to get hold of
his Selected Poems, and then further contrived to let it get buried under the
always increasing pile of books on what was then my living room table. The
book is now in a box with all my other books in my friend's garage while I'm
out of the country ..... so it goes. I will get it back sometime. All of which
is a little preamble to say that I was quite looking forward to seeing this
new Leafe Press pamphlet.
After I read it I looked up Roger Hilton on the internet; it seemed kind of
the thing to do. Now I know who Roger Hilton was. It doesn't matter, because
I think you should be able to read and appreciate poems without the
prerequisite of that kind of prior knowledge. I think I thought so, anyway.
But collections like this seem determined to prove me wrong.
I've always felt a little uncomfortable about poems, or sets of poems, that
are about another artist and attempt some kind of understanding and
explication or whatever of that artist's work and life. At least, I've always
felt a little uncomfortable about those kinds of poems when they manage to
bore me, which is quite often. If they are good and interesting poems then of
course I'm happy, but how many of those are there around? Getting back to the
pamphlet in hand, these poems are about more than just the artist; they also
have to do with the poet's relationship to the artist and the artistic life
(whatever it is) but I'm still wondering, in spite of that, quite what it's
all about, really about? If the poems are at least in part 'about' the artist
then I wonder if the question is whether or not they shed any more light on
him than did the two or three articles I read on the internet. Or if they are
any more interesting. Insofar as they are 'about' the artistic life, then
please let it be well done and not dull and pretentious. And, as a kind of
subsequent but maybe very important question, how are they as poems in their
own right? And finally, perhaps, am I missing the whole point of the
enterprise anyway? Maybe it's not about understanding and explication, or the
artistic life, but just about paintings and poems and their pleasures and
pains, so sit back and enjoy. But you would have to convince me. These poems
have 'something to say', and of that I'm sure.
One poem here purports to be Roger Hilton speaking, in the slightly
unconvincing way poems like this pretend to be someone else speaking, which
is not the same as a narrative voice or even a monologue. It's just a
manoeuvre, but poems are full of those so I guess it's okay. For instance
I am lying
under a bus in St. Just
- who wants
this fucking medal?
curse on me for staleness,
I could use
this gravel, textured to my face,
than palace walls.
I am drinking
300 bottles of life p.a.
And to hell
with my perambulation to the pub.....
And of course I have no idea if this sounds like Hilton, or if it uses some
things he actually once said, except nobody says 'p.a.', they only write it,
though I trust the facts, I suppose. Why not?
Forgive me, I
am a shit. It is all my fault.
That sounds like someone, for sure. But I don't think 'these painted glyphs
are mocking me' does, or if it is supposed to. I've known quite a few artists
and arty types, and I don't think I ever heard anyone use the word 'glyph' in
anything except an essay or a review. Or a poem. This poem ('The Hilton
Biography - A Selection') actually does what it says on the tin, which is
give a selection from the artist's biography. I don't know why I resist it as
a poem, though. Perhaps it's because if someone one day put bits of my
biography together to make a poem, even out of very unlikely homage, I'd tell
them (if I could, but I guess I'd be dead).... Anyway, I'd tell them to fuck
off and write a poem out of their own head, not out of my life.
But then I am overthrown, because the poem sequence 'The Hilton Catalogue - A
Selection' actually manages to convey the compulsive nature of the artist's
work, the way we all, often, do pretty much the same thing over and over,
because (a) we think that maybe there's something there we can get, if only....
and (b) it's all we can do anyway, so what's the choice? Do nothing? This is
possibly the best part of the collection, apart from the opening poem.
Individually, the pieces are not much more than snippets:
pastel on paper 1974.
boomed in one
we are shape
looky - how
can you resist?
Oh my purple
which actually doesn't work especially well alone, but as one of a bunch of
several similar things it does work, and they accumulate, and it's okay. The
obsessive, insistent, unavoidable concerns of the artist are an interesting
thing, and almost un-understandable, and any mildly successful expression of
them is good, for whatever reason, although let's not spend too much time
thinking about it, because it's just there, like everything is just there.
Anyway, I read this bit on a crowded Chinese bus today, and believe me, it
withstood the test.
Then I'm in trouble again. 'Seeing Hilton', a sequence of five parts, is the
poet's account of seeing, or failing to see because of gallery incompetences,
paintings by Roger Hilton. Although correspondences are asserted between, for
example, the countryside being travelled and Hilton's paintings ('I won't
travel, snow falling on the frigid circuit, abstract but suggestive of a figure,
a giant.') it is, frankly, something of a stretch. It's only a slightly
interesting story, really, these attempts to see paintings - every gallery in
the world probably has more paintings in store than on show, and they
probably also have idiots working in them - and the poet is drawn to filling
these poems with somewhat overblown lines to try and make it all sound more
interesting than it really is. I mean, 'to arrive at the moment of seeing -
mappa mundi' is just horrible; 'I am thinking of the genius of Hilton's
painting, like a brand to stick
in the eye of the state' is the point where just maybe you might think, if
you were the poet, there aren't as many good poems in this project as you
thought there were when you set out.
The final part of the collection is a sequence (another) called 'The
Unpainted Hiltons'. It's opening poem has the finger-down-the-throat line
'like red kisses on your perfect cunt' and there's also a love poem ('Melanie
I want to say in plain words...') and I wasn't always sure who the I of these
poems is. Is it the poet, or is it Hilton? To be honest, by this time I
didn't care very much. These are poems, and I come back to one of my earlier
concerns. What are these poems like as poems? They are only poems, after all;
they don't comprise or pretend to be an essay in art criticism.
One measure of my reaction to this collection is that at this point in my
reading (and I've read it four times) every time I got to this final sequence
I had had enough. So, when I came to write about it I had to put the review
to one side and tell myself to re-read this bit of the book when I was wide
awake, in a good and generous mood (it happens, occasionally) and able to be
as bright and open about it as I can be.
Tonight I had another crack at it, and came away thinking that it's one thing
to write about energy and artistic
compulsion or whatever, and another to write with it. Corcoran can do the latter, no doubt, as other
poems here testify, but I found this last section of poems too laboured. There
are too many rotten lines - 'The light from the floor landscapes your sleep';
'the anthropometric secret in our hands at last'; 'and the short wave towers
turn, centre the static band of knowing' - even for the poems to be a
pleasurable read on the simple but actually quite tricky level of good words
put together in an interesting and engaging way. It's all notably short of
vitality, or the spirit of the artist, or whatever one wants to call it,
though the poems try to invoke it almost constantly.
So we escaped to Antibes, a new world,
And the work
flowed in beats;
We ate the
good bread in the white mornings,
Saw the days
sail by like painted boats
At a jaunty
angle in a square of painted blue.
'Jaunty'.... These poems have words in them like that, and 'Dionysus' and
'kinetic' .... that is to say, they talk about energy. But talking about it
isn't the same as having it, and it's a shame that what started out so
promisingly ends by talking about life so lifelessly.
© Martin Stannard, 2006