Looking Forwards and Backwards:
A Janus-Faced Achievement
Sea Table, by Kevin Corcoran (Shearsman Books, 2015)
If there were any justice in literary reputations (an enormous If) Kelvin Corcoran would be recognised as one of the few greats of contemporary poetry, and his most recent book – or at least parts of it – as his masterpiece.
Few poets could get away with likening their own return from a near-death encounter with ischemic stroke to Ulysses’ return from Troy but Corcoran – after a lifetime honing the craft of weaving together ancient history and modern experience, the mythical with his own fragmented autobiography – pulls it off neatly, aptly, apparently effortlessly.
In ‘Words Through a Hole Where Once There Was a Chimpanzee’s Face’ – the first of four discrete sequences into which this volume is divided – he pretty much does what it says in the title of one of the poems: ‘He stared at death. Death stared straight back.’ Or, in the first stanza of another:
And when I was down there
this was in my mind
even though I was not.
In those three short lines you get not only an explanation of what he is about here, but a crystalline example of his skill in boiling much matter down to a seeming simplicity. When considering a poet who has engaged a lot with Byron, and who here as occasionally elsewhere references Shelley and Keats, it may not be inappropriate to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth – but if this is emotion recollected in tranquility, it is as much about intellectual and perceptual experience as emotion, though the emotions implied are pretty darn powerful.
Throughout the course of his writing career, Corcoran’s wife Melanie has been a figure as significant – though more real – as any of the women idealised and made into muses by the Romantics. Here she is not just, by implication, his Penelope but also the very human presence at his bedside:
Melanie how on earth
did you carry us through that night?
Melanie what were you thinking
when I was lying there blind?
… your eyes stare down burning
like the first night we spent ourselves on each other.
I know of no other modern poet who writes love poetry this good, and the fact that that is not the ostensible subject-matter is part of its power.
Although, as Peter Riley rightly suggests in his blurb, Corcoran is neither a specialist nor a travel-writer, it’s still worth remarking how seamlessly and effectively he fuses Classical with modern Greece. Look how much is going on below the surface in this one simple line from the closing, title sequence here: ‘Work out the big names, Xerxes, Caesar, Goldman Sachs.’ Or consider the ensuing scene, in which the poet is among a crowd of locals in a Greek bar admiring a newborn baby:
Even as the TV screen flickers over the pit, all’s well;
you’ll not be abandoned on the hillside or the sea’s margin,
those irrational, brutal practices we no longer follow;
no child, no generation is sacrificed to save the powerful;
we stand in a circle around you to tell you this.
The bitter irony of ‘no generation sacrificed’ is intrinsic to the melding of ancient and modern; the wishful thinking, the willed sympathetic magic of the words told in a circle emblematic of Corcoran’s empathy and his historical understanding. The Greece trashed by Xerxes in 480BC and the Greece more recently trashed by Goldman Sachs and their ilk alike have their people, their babies and their hopes. To place these analogous invasions in historical context is not to lessen their significance to individuals, but to provide both perspective and focus to it.
Similarly, the recurrent device of the ‘sea table’ provides a bathetic setting that both ironises the poet and gently, humorously, draws together the past and present, humble and great. It is the table at which he sits looking out to sea – a stereotypical writer’s pose for contemplating far distant, or long past, horizons but also an almost inevitable solid Greek reality. Then the table is turned upside down on the floor to become a child’s play simulacrum of the sort of boat in which those ancient Greeks conducted their adventures:
Then set said table to breakers
four legs up, rigged a sail, held on,
paddled like mad…
How like a Classical poet to belittle himself in the act of entering imaginatively into a world where history entwines with legend and myth. And how like Corcoran.
So far I have considered the first and last of this book’s four parts, and I could go on at much greater length extolling their considerable virtues. The third section, ‘Glenn Gould and Everything’ is tricksy. Here Corcoran, a master of construction and tonal switches, is in game-playing mood, indulging in uncharacteristic experimentation with musical numerology, buried acrostics and letter games. I don’t pretend to understand the rules of the game, and I don’t find it necessary knowledge: one may appreciate a building without any awareness of the engineering principles by which its frame was designed or constructed. In reading, patterns may be appreciated liminally or subliminally, as in the enjoyment of music, and that seems to be the point here. At the most simplistic level, here is an appreciation of Gould’s piano-playing and JS Bach’s playful mathematics; below that an attempt to emulate those processes verbally, ‘That the world may be an orderly pleasure … even the spaces and intervals charged.’ Specific naming of people and places provides access points, recurring interwoven scenes glancingly suggested – notably the tapping of fingers and unseen feet in piano and dance tuition – but ultimately the piece has a dreamlike quality, evoking nostalgia for unsatisfactory afternoons. This feels like Corcoran writing chiefly for his own entertainment, let us look over his shoulder or not as we will.
So there’s this question: who do we write for, those of us who write – and, more particularly, those who write poetry? The English broadcaster/journalist Jeremy Paxman caused some consternation a little while ago with an accusation that modern poetry is written only for a self-contained coterie of poets. Why consternation? And why accusation? A variety of answers, equally valid, is possible to each of those questions. Most of us would answer them differently in different contexts. In the 22 short poems that constitute the second section of this volume, ‘A Short History of Song Set to Music and Abandoned’, Corcoran appears to have accepted Paxman’s complaint and happily run with it. These are unashamedly poems for poets, about poets – those specifically named include Wyatt, Spenser, Shakespeare, Hardy, Housman, Gurney, Bishop, Prynne, Geraldine (Monk), Peter Riley, Eliot, Keats, MacSweeney, Sappho, ‘Lyrick poets’ and ‘the Romantic Tradition’. There is a poem – really more of an argument, or mock manifesto – titled ‘Experimental Poetry’ which seems not so much self-referential as gently satirical; another, ‘That Poetry Best Not Written’, which is not really a poem at all but a brief, apparently impassioned list of just what it says: those poets who like Corcoran will most likely dislike what he dislikes and so find this a satisfyingly scratched itch. All this is tied up with music and musicians too but poetry is the real subject: ‘All the poets were in one room talking and not talking.’
This section is pleasurable enough in its own way (apart from the painful pun with which it opens, a line which might enlist a knowing chuckle in performance but is possibly the worst Corcoran has ever put in print), but it doesn’t really belong here. Were it to trade places with Corcoran’s recent pamphlet ‘Radio Archilochus’ (Maquette Press) – a work contiguous in concept and tone, and similar in technique and excellence to the title section of ‘Sea Table’ – we would have an enjoyable pamphlet for a peer-group audience alongside a more substantial book I would have no hesitation in hailing as a Great Work, a proper culmination of the best that this exceptional poet has been working on for decades.
English poet Aidan Semmens’s third full-length collection, Uncertain Measures, is available from Shearsman Books. His previous volume, The Book of Isaac, was published by Free Verse Editions in 2013. He is editor of the online magazine Molly Bloom.