Roger Hilton's Sugar by Kelvin Corcoran
(28pp, £3.50, Leafe Press)

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 it myself.)

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,
     ripping green split on both sides
     through electric spring, wet with flame
     to St. Ives, to find the Hilton.

     I sailed a painted boat fit for a boy
     against the 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:

     My horses, carts, boats and flowers
     such earthly bodies in motion overlap,
     run into one another the quick sensation
     behind the 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?
      It's a curse on me for staleness,
     I could use this gravel, textured to my face,
     Fairer far 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:

     Gouache and pastel on paper 1974.
     All the exploding
     flowers of the world
     boomed in one mind,
     we are shape colour
     looky - how can you resist?
     Oh my purple girl.

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