ROGER HILTON'S SUGAR, Kelvin Corcoran (Leafe Press, Nottingham, UK), 2005.
What does the poet want of the painting? A poem; the absolute given ("world", "language") such as poetry would die for (though the good chance the painter's done just that is temporarily forgotten).
To the poet, the painting is already part of the world --a step or a word away from the impenetrability one might also call nothing (as in how & what to say anything); a speaking not merely audible but coherent.
The poet in the wake of the painting joins a conversation, answers because spoken to, enrolls the painting in the ventriloquy that's largely the art. To the poet the articulate painter is the painting(s) speaking. The oracle. To the poet , painter is often who one would like to be, doing, naturally, what one would like to do.
Kelvin Corcoran's Roger Hilton's Sugar (Leafe Press, UK, 2005) is as candle to moth for me if only because Hilton's one of the St Ives school, the most personal artist of that distinctively English modernism flowering at mid-century. He's one of mine, as it were, since in addition to assuaging my ex-pat's nativist fascination, he fields the formal contradiction of contemporary painting, dealing both abstractly & figuratively with the challenges of representation & feeling.
Hilton's line-drawing, Seated Nude 1972, is wonderful on the cover & also heads the sequence of poems. It's similar to the many female nudes in Night Letters and selected drawings (selected by Rosemary Hilton, produced by Newlyn Orion Galleries Ltd., 1980), those he confesses to becoming bored with in that remarkable tragi-comic testimony. The title of Corcoran's book refers to Hilton's great word-painting, Fuck You Wheres My Sugar (gouache, 1973), which I've only ever seen in reproduction in Adrian Lewis's The Last Days of Hilton (Sansom & Company, UK, 1996).
So what does Corcoran want of Roger Hilton? In his chapbook, the painter's words, often drawn from Night Letters, & the poet's words, evoking the painter & his works, convulse --sudden image in my head of the moment, in all its film versions, that Dr Frankenstein's creature spasms into life!-- and Roger Hilton appears to be up & about & all around one. My experience of Kelvin Corcoran's poetry is much the same --as though literary culture is the ground, received, mediated --not done to death though, since he tills this particular earth wholeheartedly, his head a pair of hands & no lump of stone --and disport he will, with & upon it (--the problem, if I may say, of intellect in the equation with song (that is, the sound of it, voice defined as subject's truest quiver that'll shake & fork poem (& painting come to that) to disorder's most perfect pitch) --likewise the problem of historian, political analyst, propounding critic --welcoming --could that be true? would that it were! --whatever contradiction, expressed as text, which love exacts. Love? Well of course, love : the body that doesnt mind, the body unbound --"My mind empties around the tower / of Kapetanios Christeas and into the sea", Ino in Against Purity, from New & Selected Poems (Shearsman, 2004) --the sensually responding, data dissolving, feeling, desiring poet come through all-knowing's blaze, relatively unscathed!
Corcoran's a dissenter whose poetics & politics snuggle up cuddly as these times' rad rap expects them to (--his "English Bores", in one poem, who've "co-opted Ashbery", probably line up with his Blair, Bush, Sharon, Milosevic in another poem, "those who are wired to the world, who cannot set ambition aside." --and not much of a charge, really --I mean, any four nobs would do, surely? -Mandela, Arafat, Mugabe, the Pope --but I suspect his foursome are code for "Fascists" or some such, with the despicable Milosevic there to anchor the calumny --Blair & Bush the patsies for the relativist political equation that makes nothing very much of the profound distinction between megalomaniac, racist dictatorship & liberal-democratic society; Sharon included not only as the legendary butcher but cypher for Israel in the Left's lunatic repudiation of her sovereignty (--as though poetry could be "reactionary" in such raw political terms --as though political terms served poetry's definition at all? --but, to be fair, Corcoran is a poet of history who, of course, uses the materials according to his own interest)... And he enrolls Roger Hilton in the same disaffection, disaffiliation... The famous incident of Hilton trying to give away his own CBE -- poignantly in Roger Hilton's Sugar : "I am lying under a bus in St Just / -who wants this fucking medal? / It's a curse on me for staleness, / I could use this gravel, textured to my face, / fairer far than palace walls." -- is more complicated in Jeremy Le Grice as quoted by Adrian Lewis, the contradictory psychology of the anarchist who keeps an eye on career... For Corcoran a feature of his quixotic conjuration, a Hilton whose "Stick it in your pipe" is an inflection of the "brand to stick in the eye of state"...
Probably Hilton's greater role for Corcoran is that of index of Englishness --of England & the English --from out of geology, topography, climate, culture, aesthetics, politics --exemplar of what I think of, from so far away in Australia, as the quirkiness of that marvelous place, not just St Ives but all of England as that magical "secret island". And that's Corcoran himself, hiltoned thus :
THE LANGUAGE OF ART CRITICS
My discontinuous line is sexual, intimate, savage.
your fantastic anatomy my vehicle;
this is what they say - beast, charming I'm sure,
show the whole world, why don't you?
As is your life, so is your line,
a fragment made abstract and broadcast;
the human sensation we die for;
my nudes and other animals dancing.
My horses, carts, boats and flowers
such earthly bodies in motion overlap,
run into one another the quick sensation
behind the big secret behind all thought.
Bow down you Greeks, you ghosts;
I am on the last run, with no feeling in my feet.
So much more one could say... Corcoran's domestication of Pound's dictum in the opening of the second stanza above (& Pound surely inferred in the coupling of the misquotation with giveaway word "broadcast"? --and Jack Spicer's moniker "radio" quite a motif in Corcoran's work generally)... Corcoran's lifting from WS Graham's poem, Lines On Roger Hilton's Watch, the image of Hilton's gaze, "Nothing can replace the long, steady gaze, / face to face with the picture." (Seeing Hilton), against the artist's teasing instruction, from Night Letters, "Never confront either a painting or your wife face to face. They are better seen out of the corner of your eye, while you are entertaining yourself with other things."
(These are observations, not quibbles, about the use a poet makes of historical material --all grist, yes, but something closer to metaphysics emerges than history supposes --or is it simply the natural waywardness of the lyric & what happens to history when it's caught in lyric's throat, tuned on poetry's tongue?)
My heart goes out to Kelvin Corcoran for his English project which is far from simplified in an artist like Hilton, however poetically configured --Hilton & that entire St Ives, & further, neo-Romantic, crew --before, during & after abstract-expressionism; before, during & after postmodernism...
November 12-18, 2007