First a quote, not from the book:
The poet as makar[sic]. Not as sage or seer, or recorder of the human condition or shaper of texts suitable for the educational system, or cultural analyst or popular entertainer, or even as spy. These, and many other activities are all valid but peripheral.
The poet as someone who makes or composes poems. Poems as constructions, as patterns of words which when heard (or in our culture, predominantly read, but nevertheless finally heard in what might be called ‘the Inner ear’) give us the experience of something we label as poetry. And which other sorts of verbal expression do not. (Gael Turnbull, 'The Poet as Makar' )
What might poetry have looked like before the rules made it a pedant’s game to misquote. One answer is Tom Pickard’s Hoyoot (2014), his collected poems and songs published by Carcanet.
And before going further, not only do Carcanet need to be applauded for publishing this but whoever saw to the back cover got the blurb right. He or she wisely kept the ringing endorsements from Bunting and Ginsberg that graced the back of Tiepin Eros, Pickard’s selected, and then added comments from Paul Macartney and Annie Lennox. This might look like a grab for a different market, but in reality it’s a testimony to the breadth of the collection.
What characterizes Pickard’s poems as a reading experience is that you’re never sure what’s going to be on the next page. Most single author collections settle to a recognizable form and subject matter, but Pickard’s don’t. He is one of the few English poets who can write directly about sex in all its forms and variations without sounding coy or crude or clinical. The political poems rage beside carefully observed pieces that let the wind and the birds into the landscape, and the intricate mess of human relationships is dealt with in all its baffling complexities.
His style is his own, but like any well-developed style evokes its own ghosts. There’s occasionally a whiff of the Mersey poets, without their self-conscious desperation to be wry. Most often he writes like a hard core imagist from 1912, except it’s hard to imagine a hardcore imagist with a sense of humor or rage and a willingness to write directly about the world as it is.
He had the minimalistic style under control from the start.
sitting in firelight
your face in shadow
the little gold glint
of your ring.
At times the ghosts of the high modernists drift in the background, but Pickard writes poems with both feet in the daylight world of jobs and joblessness and messy relationships and blackberry picking, not in a theoretical library or a seminar room. This is not poetry that deliberately references other poetry with a knowing wink.
Holding this all together is the pared down traditional ballad, with its economy and rhythm, obvious in “The Ballad of Jamie Allan” his ballad opera which closes out the book, but throughout the collection.
These three elements combine to make something that is stripped down and spare, but moving rhythmically and at its best melodically.
Before the fools made poetry a pedant’s game, to misquote, a poet might not need to carry a whole baggage of cultural references and academic expectations; or spend its time worrying about conceptualizing the art: a poet might be an intelligent, eloquent, independent human, full of curiosity with a gift for arranging words into memorable patterns. The makar lives outside the library, reflects on life, and organizes those reflections into patterns of words. So the poems are angry or tender, bemused, political, personal, a way of responding to and organizing a life. The skill and knowledge are in the craft and the making, and it would be a horrible mistake to think Pickard is artless.
The poems are then offered to the reader, with out apology. They offer a space for thinking through and in language, which requires nothing from the reader but an honest openness to the words on the page.
Somewhere in this book each reader, if he or she is honest, is going to find poems he or she finds offensive, or dull or pointless. This is not a euphemism for that old reviewers tic: the collection is uneven. I think this is a good thing. Poetry that is always being polite and clever, soliciting quiet poetry orgasms from those in the know, the kind of poetry you need a library or a degree in poetry to explain, is all very well for writing essays about in a library or for buying for your elderly maiden aunt, but it’s becoming an utterly pointless self-perpetuating exercise.
Finally one of the many things I have admired about Pickard’s poems since I first encountered them is a strange ambivalence. On the one hand these are often very personal poems. It’s difficult not to read them as personal responses to personal situations. We’re light years away from Eliot’s claim that the aim of art is to escape from personality.
But despite this, the poems are not what Geoffrey Hill recently described as the poetic equivalent of a selfie. The pared down language, the rhythm and the melody seem to be heading towards a hard won anonymity. The non-Pickard poem which reminds me most of Pickard is:
Westron Wynde when wyll thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed agyne.
The words can be used, reused, and passed into memory whether or not the poet's name remains attached to them. I suspect that might be the highest form of art.