Liam Guilar: Rough Spun to Close Weave
AAWP Conference: November 2012
One of the misconceptions about poetry is that it is a kind of code. A reader needs to know the code, such thinking goes, in order to extract the meaning from that poem, just like one needs a nut-cracker to extract a nut from its shell. I must admit to wondering if Liam may have been speaking in some kind of special private code, aimed directly at me, in this book. I am an associate supervisor for Liam’s creative PhD thesis which is a thesis made up of a creative component and an exegesis. As such, I wondered if he was telling me something in ‘Ghost Fences’ with this line: ‘This needs no exegesis’. Of course, such a paranoid, narcissistic reading is as wrong-headed as the poetry-as-code idea (which is also often underwritten by paranoia and narcissism).
Any reading of a poem is in itself a kind of exegesis, since the creative play of writing poetry is mirrored in the creative, interpretive act of reading poetry. Two years ago I launched another book, at another AAWP conference: Kevin Brophy’s Patterns of Creativity. In that book we read that ‘Poetry, like evolution, is an improvisational group event. And as with evolution, its nature is change, its basis is in reproduction (imitation), and its method is blind’ (p. 90). No poet can entirely ignore the past. To be utterly original would mean being unintelligible. But one cannot simply repeat the past. The tension between repetition and innovation that we find in evolution is central to poetic discourse, as Kevin suggested.
Kevin’s analogy is especially pertinent with regard to the book I am launching here today. As in Liam’s other books of poetry, Rough Spun to Close Weave is a concentrated and highly original essay on the relationship between the present and the past, on the evolution of poetry. It demonstrates repeatedly that there is no vision without revision. Guilar’s strength lies in his bold appropriations of earlier poetic traditions, in particular the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Indeed, the book opens with an untitled prologue that reminds the reader that ‘These words worked the long day Harold died, / when Norman French swept up the slope of Senlac Hill / and English grammar broke and bled into the dusk’.
As this suggests, Liam continues the great modernist project of apprehending the continuities between the quotidian, history, and myth. As part of this project, Rough Spun to Close Weave matches the everyday with the elemental: lakes, harbours, journeys, wars. A landscape becomes ‘Three bands of colour. Above the endless / empty blueness of the sky, bleached by the sun. Between, the ragged stripe of forest green. / Below, the blue-grey lake’. (‘Ghost Fences 2’).
The continuity between the everyday and the elemental occupies a paradoxical place amid a modernity that Liam shows up alternatively as abysmal, comic, or disturbing. As ‘What I Learnt from Watching Television Archaeology’ illustrates, Liam relies on a wide variety of modes to chart his vision. These include chronicles, modern history, television, fairy tales, ballads, travel writing, and Arthurian romance.
Liam’s poems are profoundly concerned with place: how we imagine it, how we move through it, how it haunts us. This is most apparent in one of the book’s key works, ‘Talking Nothing to the Stone’, a work that meditates on personal memory, history, and myth as those things intersect in a particular place (in this case, Coventry in England). In a poem about the dispersal of people, memories, and stories, Liam notes that ‘It’s only exile if you have no curiosity’.
This is a book that is underwritten by an intense curiosity, and what is a poet if not curious about the world? Liam likes to end his emails with the phrase ‘All good things’. In signing off here, I suggest you read this book: it is full of ‘all good things’.