This week I welcome reviewer and poet, Gerry McGrath, to reflect on his wonderful chapbook, Love All the People.
The Makings of a Good Conversation – ends & beginnings
Poetry can stop the heart, if not time.
Recently I was in correspondence by email with a friend. We’ve both been doing the poetry thing for a long time and trust each other’s instincts and responses. Anyway he said something I’m sure he won’t mind me reproducing here. It’s about getting your body into the right angle. The reason I like this so much is that it uses ordinary straightforward language in order to say something quite captivating. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Not at all. How do you begin to talk about how poetry begins?
The more I look at it, the more I think The Makings of a Good Conversation is about ‘voice’. Voice has its own role within the overall structure, but it has another purpose; to dramatise the other elements – lyric, ironic shifts and vanishings, the whole dance. Dance is a good word for it. I think the poem has genuine swing, as well as magic. Voice enables the poem: it sets up an expectation that is never fulfilled, a climax never reached. This is vital. You can see in the way it moves through the sections, connecting them up, from imagined conversations with the dead to the slightly surrealist notes of the promenades to the captain’s daughters prepping themselves anticipatively in the car. Voice acts as a kind of cohesive glue; it holds the disparate elements together. Without its agency, the poem lacks tension; it becomes whatever you want it to become, what another friend calls ‘nice words’. Poems need to be artistically coherent. I’d go as far as to say it’s the only thing they need to be.
It’s not always possible to say what makes a poem tick. In fact, it’s important sometimes not to know what makes a poem tick. But you can get pretty close as long as you don’t forget that all poems ask the same question. Getting your body into the right angle. Damn it, that’s good. I wish I’d said it.
A word about the structure. The poems in Love All The People were written over the last decade. They represent a step change from what went before. I wanted the pamphlet to hit the ground running, achieve a kind of intensity of rhythm and stay there. So that, even when the mood deviated and the internal drama of the poems changed, the book retained its buoyancy.
The poems are presented in chronological order, all except the first. I arranged them according to mood and tone, and hopefully in a way that means that the less difficult, more accessible poems will encourage the reader to venture into more difficult territory. The Makings of a Good Conversation is, like all of the poems in the book, a balancing act, a mix of melancholy and celebration.
I wanted to show – again – a dreamy quality, but also to keep it rooted in some kind of experience. Writing and thinking about poetry is a constant. I’m never not doing it. Sometimes it takes over completely and I’m a fool for it. That usually means I’m close to doing something worthwhile. There are technical mountains to climb. I suppose if I succeed in scaling those technicalities, then the poem itself is a success.
I never think of a reader looking in; wondering what does this mean, why did he write that. I don’t mean that to sound pompous or dismissive. Once a poem is finished, I have a break from it. Sometimes the break is over in a flash. Sometimes it seems to last forever. The big difference between prose and poetry is: if you write prose, you’re as good as your last book. If you write poetry, you’re only as good as your next poem. You’re always starting again. Always. From scratch. *
It was 1975. I had just started second year. I was a very quiet, shy wee boy who was still finding his feet at secondary. We had four periods of English a week, one of which was given over to poetry. We used the George MacBeth anthology, a great blue bible of a book. The poem that day was Cargoes. I remember looking down at it briefly, just for a minute, before the class got started. I’m not sure that anything in particular caught my eye. I am pretty sure however, that as we sat in that warm, dappled room, waiting to do as we were bidden, it was both the end of something and a beginning.
Next week read my review of the remarkable Love all the People by Gerry McGrath.
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