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Categories are convenient; they allow us to relate one thing to another, to set up connections between events that might otherwise (we fear) fly apart into a myriad of fragments in a mad, disassociated universe. So there’s probably no harm in calling Steve Tills’ first book of poetry, Rugh Stuff, a golf book—that is to say a cycle of poems written in a foreign language, the lingo of golf. Neither poems of metaphysics nor golf, but of both, they filter our world through jargon—that twittering of birds—designed to be baffling, exclusive and dramatically inclusive. Read as a stereo-opt icon, as it were, the book plays out first, the talking of shop, the pragmatic business of time-saving short cuts between those that know:
So the pro advised
A good tip
From the blue blocks,
“Take 3 weeks off
On the surface this poem has nothing to do with golf. Yet as one contemplates the imagery and its canvas, one cannot but help but think he proves himself as astute psychologist, even distinguishing, in Coleridge-fashion, between fancy and imagination, and warning his readers against trust in visions and locutions (“voices”). But this is more than instruction, by a conscientious confessor, written to help us who were already set on the way. This is instruction that cannot explain. We do not in the end know what it means, we only know that what is meant is what is on the page.
Then there are the select habits of various professional sportsmen, and so on, where we realize Tills’ complex systems harnessing improvisations in very flexible composition formats:
Own Suicide Bunker
“Someday I’m gonna fly
That trap, fly
True and high
Here’s an evolution within this work, toward larger forces, more sustained textures and more overt theatricality. But basically it’s all of a piece. Tills’ poetry is pastoral, but cup-up, darting from moment to moment (l e i s u r e l y) in a way that might seem at first to preclude the transcendental, coherence and raucous, a laid back mix of idioms as pungent as anything coming from the void. Using a battery of devices, he makes the familiar in golf poetry. To the ear attuned to traditional forms (of poetry, golf) this is poetry of nose-thumbing chaos. But get used to it and it opens up like all the greens before you. This is a new kind of composition, and it not only demands a new kind of reading but also implies a new set of aesthetic, theoretical, philosophical and even political attitudes. Tills makes his poetry the way a golfer thinks, instantaneously and simultaneously, yet this is a “place” full of feeling and laughter. The first thing one begins to notice after a sympathetic immersion in this collection is an underlying coherence. This is most obviously the result of structural ideas, which command attention in part because they are the sort of thing that we can fasten upon. Like so many innovative poets, Tills has included the study of people’s methods, and this strong conviction of our ability to make sense of our everyday routines, and he allows them to add eloquence to what we try to know
’Cause an inch is enough
To break 60 feet.
The beauty of this game
Is mostly non-verbal.
In this case, Rugh Stuff is sifted through the rich, elaborate, ingenious rules whereby the poet improvises in a way that allows him too realize his ideas yet doesn’t unduly constrain the freedom that attracts us to the game of poetry (and taking in poetry) in the first place. Tills doesn’t suppress the wit and cerebral excitement. He elicits, instead, a personalized focus that would otherwise be impossible to achieve. This he does because his structures are like the rules of the game of golf rather than, as with a conventional poetics, like the preordained result of any particular contest. In other words, he invents rules like the rules of golf, and while each poem resembles other poems in the way that all tournaments of golf are alike, each is different, too, unique, like any single spot of golf.
Ultimately, it’s what this approach accomplishes, not the approach itself, that unifies its application. It’s talent and personality that determine those accomplishments rather than mere rote membranes of jargon. The extra poetical implications of all this are clear. Between the poet and the tactic, there must be a resistance to a one-way system of information, in favor of a mutual and continuous flow of influence of the procedures that come with composing it. The success of Rugh Stuff is an estrangening of our common situations. By employing this and deliberately behaving different than expected—decontextualizing —this book makes visible a locally produced, but hidden paraphrase of everyday. This set of poems transforms how we know and experience our way in the world well beyond the greens and sand-traps of the course.