back toJacket2
   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Martin Anderson reviews

New and Selected Poems
by Kelvin Corcoran

196 pp. Shearsman. GBP£10.95 ISBN 0907562396 paper

This review is about 7 printed pages long.

The Politics Of Paradise

‘What place can poetry make?’ (‘Watching the honeysuckle pour’ TCL)[1] Kelvin Corcoran asks in his early collection, and then more than a decade later remarks: ‘In the frozen fields of the world poets die’ (‘Picture Eleven’ YTTN). Unlike, however, Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ and the momentary impression of imaginative propinquity between the two poets — Corcoran’s ‘dead winding gear, wooded fields, barracks towns’ (‘And Such Other Cudgelled and Heterodox People’ MLB); and Auden’s ‘An industry already comatose/Yet sparsely living./A ramshackle engine’ (‘The Watershed’) — Corcoran’s focus does not reduce the detail of the poem to a kind of imaginative shorthand for ideas which  (first, courtesy of Homer Lane, and then Marx) the early Auden privileges over the reality of their social existence. As Corcoran makes clear, his poetry’s focus, caught savagely in the last line’s echo of the London plague:

      rain on April streets and cars
      the occupation forces hold the populists’ gazebo,
      no sweet moderation shines in Port Albion
      walls of sound of sea has made them soft and witless,
      hampsters in Perspex balls
      daffodils and socket sets
      markets crash and banks roar,
      they dream wealth creation in elected bodies
      and we all fall down.
                                                   (‘from the Red and Yellow Book’ RYB)

can be formulated without recourse to Audenesque secret codes. Corcoran, in the same poem, begins to delineate its scope:

    clouds pile up in the sky
    anvil    lemon     cicatrix
    with the industrial revolution
    marriage, divorce and public health,
    William – it was English poetry too
    in the circle of our blood
    blinking like moles through the other side of winter,
    in the fields of Peterloo

Unlike what Virginia Woolf regarded as Auden’s rather naïve belief that writing can alter the conditions of society there is no dissolution of faith in poetry to effect a conscious re-envisioning of society in Corcoran. Indeed Corcoran, with no privileged place, unlike Auden, in the social scheme to hamper him seems to locate his own poetry, in its search for “the politics of paradise”, in a direct line with the political, rather than the cosmic, vision of major Romantic poets such as Shelley, Coleridge and Byron:

     Climbing the liquid stairs of drink
     we go     are you there Alan
     in the English good night
     where Byron glides unwritten.


     Across an empty England tilting under cloud
     towards a new order and petrol thirst,
     trees lift like visions at the margins of fields;
     an innocent history passing with ease
     as if the rural poor lined the road, waving.

And later, in the poem’s final two stanzas:

     Capital tips off the edge of the world
     to strike the old deal still in place
     a life above ground or boundless waste;
     here we go, here we go, here we go.

     Breakers of games, iconoclasts incandescent.
     let me be among you about the county;
     snap their heads awake
     with the politics of paradise.
                     (‘And Such Other Cudgelled and Heterodox People’ MLB)

In Corcoran’s focus on the debilitating features of this world of ‘Capital’ he asserts and, perhaps, pits against such a world the modernist principle of artistic freedom: ‘Across fields silvery with democracy/MacSweeney’s borage blooms’ (‘Picture Eleven’ YTTN)

In Corcoran’s writing, then, poetry, and the political nature of its context, are inextricably woven and rewoven:

     [… ] on the floor of the house
     catwalk figures dictate
     a modest proposal brought home

    then, without panic, finally myth
    turning on the air
    the silver walls go down,
    I want it now I want it
                                             (‘Inside Britannia’ TNW)

the crux, perhaps, of the ‘system’s ruin’ in the same poem being found in that last line’s insatiable consumerism which is the legacy of an enfranchised populace deprived for so many centuries of the hard won fruits of its labour. Those ‘walls’, whose ‘silver’ represents the exploitable wealth of the earth that multinational companies of  developed societies so thrive upon, continue into:

     I run to some farr countrye
     where no man shall me know,
     inside, working at the wall,
     my hands misread the truth

     Western light falls away,
     houses write against the sky
     economic miracle as fact,
     scaling the big adventure.

                                                (‘I run to some farr countrye’ LL)

There ‘a man’s voice [… ] hits the window like grit’ with an angry and inarticulate ‘grr  oon  gri  hh/filling the dark house’. In another poem ‘open shop doors, the happy actors on their blocks/write sky on a banner above the street/they pretend everything is ok/a street in the sky, the real sky/in blue capitals the language of delivery’ (‘from the Red and Yellow Book’ RYB): both the ‘delivery’ of political manifestos devoted precisely to promoting that consumerism which does so little to really unite people, and to the actual delivery of goods themselves. Goods which in a later collection Corcoran would rhetorically enquire of, ‘What if I let bloody history in?/Imagine when they come with the goods [… ]How come they have the goods?” (‘Picture Six’ YTTN)

In Corcoran’s earliest collection, its title surely nailing colours to a mast, the green fertile myth and figure of Robin is a figure ‘without obvious support’ who ‘drives through the dead night of shire politics/rolling the sea swell and lunatic police cars’. In another poem in the collection Corcoran addresses the reader directly:

    You are here. The roads travel from the varnished frame
    around pink blocks on bleached green
    the whole thing looks nasty and fucked up;
    the police station, the play-with-me-houses
    and the insanitary schools.
    I think of their real colour
    the same sun greens the real town
    I think of how we could have lived
                                                    (‘A Slogan Will Not Suffice’ RHDA)

That ‘could have’ provokes, in the reader, not only a forward movement of the mind but a backward one too. For in a slightly later collection Corcoran traces the greed of ‘I want it now’ (‘Inside Britannia’ TNW) not just to the opportunities afforded the ordinary person by the industrial revolution and its ‘piles of soap and hot bread [… ] the polished cars and public lies’ (‘from the Red and Yellow Book’ RYB) but to a place within the Western imperial imagination (thus ‘red’?):

    to find the western path
    I breakfasted swords big sun
                                gates of and
    at first breath,                       bird song
    happy in the stupid heart,
    the fool with his finger on the trigger
    no further forward for men and women,
    hot days of rubbish letters
    surface to surface arrows
    telekinesis and country music
    spark across the imperial world
                                                  (‘from the Red and Yellow Book’ RYB)

In a later collection images of European expansion, navigation, subjugation of others and occupation appear: ‘We kept to coastal routes, in sight of meaning [… ] under spreading oak/the exiles relax at last, their children playing’. And:

    I  remember in the red book a diagram,
    trade patterns put food in our mouths;
    those people from across the great green
    at that level of sophistication inventing surplus:
    you are dedicated to trade and you to magic.

                                                     (‘In the Red Book’ WSW)

These ‘inventors’, avatars of the later imperial appropriators, were bearers, in the same collection’s ‘Catalogue of Answers’, of that ‘blatant geometry of planning’ which ‘cuts in’ and destroys the ‘green field site’ which ‘the birdman steps into — the ‘birdman’ who is familiar, perhaps, as a god in Polynesian cultures? One such culture, on Easter Island, had its fertility and greenness brutally cut short by the arrival of the Spanish in the 18thC.

   A consequence of the searching out of markets, the imperial enterprise, is:

    Look. All the trees gone for ships.

    Ash   Elm   Boxwood   Maple
           the pollen levels sing from a pit
    Olive   Vine   and   Fig
           the land is rising to meet you
    In the red book I am a small axe.
                                                          (‘In the Red Book’ WSM)

Indeed the ‘axe’ appears in other poems at a much earlier stage in the process of  deforestation and spoliation of the natural environment. In the meantime, however:

    The fleet sailed from Stonypath
    … …
    away for the Gulf boys, on the morning away:
    scattering salt on the white world
    all bright and sparkling in its wake.
                                                          (‘In the Red Book’ WSM)

‘Gulf’, surely, amplifying reference to both place and void, just as ‘white’ has additional racial and funerary (re: ‘wake’) reference.

This searching out of markets and enterprise, enshrined in the ‘surplus value’ phrase associated with Marx, and appearing in Corcoran’s ‘inventing surplus’ in ‘In the Red Book’ WSW, is echoed in  ‘subsistence became surplus’ of the same collection’s ‘Catalogue of Answers’. It is in that poem, also, that the ‘axe’ of ‘In the Red Book’ is said to ‘throw light on the issue’. Perhaps this is because it is the use of the axe, either in its function as an instrument for cutting down trees to build ships for maritime enterprise and exploration of markets, or as an instrument in the much earlier process of establishing conditions for the creation of surplus value, making clearings and settlements as a prelude to exploiting and harnessing the resources of the natural world, which leads to that ‘bed of luxury’ (that ‘honey’?) we all desire and go ‘crashing towards [… ] where it all begins’, in ‘From the Harbour’, and to which the protagonists of another poem in the same collection:

    [… ] came dark cloud boiling from white north
    drawn by the smell of luxury goods
                                                               (‘The Empire Stores’ AP)

In another poem from an earlier collection what seems to define the condition of contemporary Britain in the final lines’ ‘I want it now I want it’ (‘Inside Britannia’ TNW) is surely this satisfaction of material desires; which is, also, the apposite of the colonisers’ ‘I-Want-You-Give-It-Or’ from ‘Picture Six’(YTTN).

What should be clear by now is that Corcoran sustains, over the period of twenty plus years covered by the poems in this selection, a remarkable consistency of concerns and preoccupations which tend to constellate around recurring images: most prominently; white (north) / west(ern) / honey/pollen / yellow (flower) / silver (walls) / spring / (great) green / snake / red / axe / bird(song) /  bull / alphabet / writing. These images come to acquire the force of motifs in his poetry.

Nowhere in this New and Selected Poems are a greater number of these concerns so intensely dwelt upon as in the excerpts from Your Thinking Tracts or Nations (a series of poems written for fourteen pictures, included with the poems in this selection, given to the poet by Alan Halsey on his fourtieth birthday.) Such concerns come together in a fascinating terrain, with the force of myth; the terrain being part of no recognisable topos but one, nevertheless, which the imagination identifies strongly with. It is a space which has been marked by the intrusions of history: ‘As if Europe did not mean to set foot here’ (‘Picture Eight’), and, even more so, scarred by them: ‘[… ] all my own relations/gone like the drifting smoke’ (‘Picture Six’). Its distinctive features of ice and snow attest to a purity which would, in time, be sullied ‘[… ] it was a garden to us’ (‘Picture Six’) and ‘[… ] the green capital of the singing world’ (‘Picture Three’):

    I could draw a map of the place
    from memory, the striped animals,
    the handsome food running about,
    the small bay open like a mouth for trade
                                                                      (‘Picture Six’)

a kind of pre-lapsarian, pre-surplus value and private property, state of innocence which had been alluded to in an earlier collection:

    each winter I return there:
    they are children in the garden
    making magic with stones
    and hidden designs in my name.
                                                           (‘The Name Apollo’ WSW)

But the distinctive features of ice and snow in Your Thinking Tracts or Nations attest also to that frozen terror of the mind sensing ‘its own sense of estrangement’ (from the epigraph to ‘Picture Six) in a place where the only nexus is one of ownership, ‘the dark utilitarian units the private calibration shot’ and where ‘sex (is) changed to politics’.

A plea in an earlier collection:

    Oh Oh I am north, a frozen map … …
    Let the yellow flower rise, let it radiate
    something. Feed me you sub-atomic, half-life zoomorph.
                                                                (‘Catalogue of Answers’ WSW)

is echoed in

    I remember at night the glow
    of free running food on shore
    and the simple boy staring.
    O yellow flower, ace of ambition,
    our cathedral and powerhouse
    the charge folded over in time …
    Fat heroes on horses came,
    hoards from the north in quotations,
    they shoot at you, sharpen the pointy arrow
    as strophe in the new order.
    O yellow flower, ace of ambition,
    I remember at night your glow
                                                                  (‘Picture Eleven’ YTTN)

The yellow flower, its ‘glow’ in Your Thinking Tracts or Nations anticipated in ‘I’d like to write one poem but darkness is down/just one word [… ] but one spark’ of  ‘In the Red Book’ (WSW) and in the generative heat of – in the same collection – ‘Let the yellow flower rise, let it radiate,’(‘Catalogue of Answers’) is, perhaps,
emblematic of that non-utilitarian inspiration which creates beauty out of such things as words and gardens:

    [… ] flowering green
    my palm, this page”
                                                       (‘there was no body, no crime’ TNW)

and is emblematic of that Apollonian light of the tongue, of vision and the word as transfigured in a ‘soft meadow split asunder/[… ] miracle of light’ in the same collection’s ‘The Name of Apollo’. Yet it is emblematic, too, of that utility of the imagination which creates the ‘powerhouse’ or what in ‘Catalogue of Answers’ is referred to as the ‘straight bearing’ which is ‘finally a powerline’ and which produces the antagonism of mutual ambitions colliding like ‘tectonic plates [… ] against each other at the committee stage’. This is that desire for utility in ‘Picture Eleven,’ that yearning for ‘pasturage, good horses and green invasion/of the alphabet ascending’. There is an inherent duality, therefore, in certain of the motifs. Perhaps it is no more, though, than an acknowledgement that such oppositions exist within the deepest recesses of our nature.

The Neolithic farmers and the settlers followed by the pastoralists and green invaders who shaped, in Your Thinking Tracts or Nations, those early tracts of our social evolution and history are the prototypes of the later wealth creators and of that surplus value so prized by:

    call him Blair, Bush, Sharon or Milosevic
    those who are wired to the world, who cannot set ambition aside.
                                                                   (‘From the Harbour’ AP)

‘Ambition’! The ‘yellow flower, ace of ambition’ is, however, what also produces in ‘Picture Eleven’ the lament for the figure of the poet, the traditional custodian and sharer of such flower’s wealth of aesthetic potential, extolled in other poems by Corcoran in the person of Shelley and Byron. It makes him declare ‘give me rivers of dirt and bring my poets back to life’ (‘The Empire Stores’ AP), and:

    This is Radio Free Byron on the short wave
    broadcasting to the English shires: wake up.
    We urge war against the west [… ]

    Wake up you boys and girls, you sneak careerists
                                                                    (‘Myriorama’ AP)

The ‘war’ which is urged is, presumably, against what Pound in AP is also represented as fulminating  (Corcoran’s innocent harbour, here, recalls that vulnerable small bay open to the world for trade and exploitation of ‘Picture Six’):

    Pound went down to the ship, Europa, the wreckage,
    raging, raging, at the innocent ants of my harbour,
    its arms open to the various world
                                                            (‘The Ingliss Touriste Patient’ AP)

It is a ‘war’ against the sceptre, that is, of usury and all its accompanying iniquities.

At the end of ‘Picture Eleven’ Corcoran dwells upon the figure of the poet Barry MacSweeney. Before he does so, though, we confront in the penultimate section the perversion of that archetypal creative energy, encapsulated in the glow of the yellow flower at night, in the form of the modern day ‘hunter gatherers’ who ‘glide by on yachts, bargain for souvenirs’ and who ‘hunger for (its) fluorescence’. The yellow flower’s generative energy, originally channelled into ancient ritual, ‘we danced and made music for the god/we did not think it was popularising/nor pushing back into darker fields’, prevented it, because of its anonymity, being reduced to the modern equivalent of those hunters and gatherers of souvenirs at the weekend. The commonality of the nature of this pre-industrial, pre-pastoral imagination, rather than its trivialisation within the individualist-self shaped by the context of a modern democratic and consumer driven society such as Britain’s, is, perhaps, what is referred to in this section:

    We lived in the old house then
    held by deep fields rolling down to the river,
    like silver snaking through the hills;
    hunter-gatherers would glide by on yachts,
    bargain for souvenirs, hunger for fluorescence;
    when they left we called it a movement in history,
    when they returned we called it the weekend.

    We lived in the old house then and everyone
    who danced and made music for the god
    wore masks, we got up on our toes in season;
    we did not think it was popularising
    nor pushing back into darker fields:
    let the rubble tell you, put your face in that mask;
    my eyes sharpen when big night comes.

    We lived in the old house then, backed by mountains,
    you think we’ve gone, into the dry river bed, the hills;
    but you imagine the beads and not the thread
    as if we left a series of pictures but no words;
    then, when you rise along the dusty tract,
    on the next step up you see the blue surrounding sea
    and your mind is flooded with us.

In the encomium to MacSweeney which follows, despite that dispiriting answer to the two questions near its end, it is the generative image of the borage blooming that we are left with, reminding us, perhaps, that ‘the endless thread’ of this deeper and more profound communal imagination still resides within us. And what was, in its crude reversal of value, in the previous section seen as being constituted by ‘beads’ (those offered, perhaps, by Europeans as trade trinkets for more valuable rights and objects) becomes, instead, a ‘pearl’. It is ‘snapped off the endless thread’ of that communal imagination which transcends the individualist ethic characterising a contemporary Western society such as Britain’s.

    Across fields silvery with democracy
    MacSweeney’s borage blooms
    and poets die of frostbite, anger, bad luck.

    Black wing spread over them.
    frozen sky folded over them
    a picture of the world turned upside down.

    The light in their faces ignites,
    each pearl snapped off the endless thread;
    what life is left (is left) in words (?)?

    What happened to those slow evenings?
    the easy music?   Cold breath
    of ice caves took them.

    Across fields silvery with democracy
    where MacSweeney’s borage blooms.

This is a poetry, then, that in its engagement with the modern Western social world opens itself not only to the immediate experience of such a world but to pondering upon those longer and fuller vistas where the nature of such a world, its matrix, is laid down. It is, therefore, a poetry where past and present exist easily together, where archaic and modern flow into and through each other. It is a poetry, above all, where, as Andrew Duncan observes in his examination of its formal strategies in Poetry Salzburg, ‘It is hard to see a firm border between the books’. Finally, because of this scope of its engagement, because of its refusal to remain within the purely personal frame of reference of so much contemporary Anglo-American poetry, it is a poetry which demands to be read.

[1] References within the review are from the following collections: Robin Hood in the Dark Ages (RHDA) 1985/ The Red and Yellow Book (RYB) 1986/ Qiryat Sepher (QS) 1988/ TCL (TCL) 1989/ The Next Wave (TNW) 1990/ Lyric Lyric (LL) 1993/ Melanie’s Book (MB) 1996/ When Suzy Was (WSW) 1999/ My Life With Byron (MLB) 2000/ Your Thinking Tracts and Nations (YTTN) 2001/ Against Purity (AP) 2004.