I’ve been thinking a little about the sentimental lately, what it means, why it’s resisted, and even shunned, by our contemporary literary climate, and at the same time, in re-reading May Sarton’s biography, realizing again that this debate between the emotional core of art and the supposedly detached intelligent froideur that Eliot, among others, advanced has gone on (though the sides have since fiercified) for some time. Sarton, after her second book came out in 1939, was accused of “flagrantly unfashionable lyricism” and of criminally eschewing “smart despair.” Though I adore (and poetry requires) precise, taut language, still, why can’t this essential aspect be combined with feeling? One can become quite wearied by perfectly honed books emerging from creative writing or academic realms that can’t be faulted for their learned craft (which doesn’t necessarily entail a real knowledge of forms say) but that are aloof, distanciated and snobby in tone to the point where you just want to shake them and scream, “O bleed a little outside your line breaks will ya!” 😉
John Oughton’s book Time Slip emerged in 2010 and we are currently exchanging reviews of each other’s books (mine, short stories and sliver fictions called The Day of the Dead, was recently published by Caitlin Press). Reviewing one another, as I have ranted on about before, is crucial. If one is able to be honest in a scholarly and felt fashion that is, keeping the poetic art paramount. I must say, off the top, that the design of this Selected material from Oughton’s four books (1973-1997 plus new works) is disappointing. The cover image of an ice-heavy tree by the water is startling but the shiny stock and font makes it all look self-published. One expects more from Guernica. Selecteds are challenging. Which to choose, what to leave behind and what if, like Oughton, one has published both random texts and focused ones, as in his collection on Mata Hari. His introduction to the work thus underscores the often-motley modes of publication we possess in this country, its odd affiliations and liminal excursions into the international.
There were a few jarring aspects to Oughton’s tendency to space strangely and incorporate disjointed abstract imagery, along with his avoidance of terminal periods, that gave me pause at first, but I got used to his style quite quickly and began to appreciate his moving lyricism. Lines and descriptors stir like “the scar the train/stitches over moving white drifts” (though he could have ended the poem there and really does one stitch a scar or a wound?), “dew jewelled,”the sound in the heart of a large stone,” “she is a flame from which the candle wanes” (a nice reversal!), “rides that horse through shifting shadows/in a forest afternoon forever,” the poignant moment from Xmas Pageant, 1961, in which exist “teen-aged wise men/with boxes of empty promise” or that pang of dead skunk he addresses: “you cling/to me still, like the sweet inside your stink/your midnight dancer’s grace.” Pieces that leapt out for me were Lady’s Fan Poem, Depression (a rare excavation by a male poet), For my Dead Sister, quite a few of his Mata Hari pieces, especially in lines such as, “I’m a figurehead who quit her ship” (though at times it seems a voice interpolates that is less hers than the authors, as in “fuck the family, fuck the past,”) and the above-mentioned titles, in addition to Leaving the Cape and Long Reach: Thanksgiving, 2000.
Oughton can certainly go over the top in absurd images, like the Latin lover with “his ghost’s hand” that is “stuck so deep in your heart/that he flips it away like a pizza.” Hmmm, organ(ic) crust anyone? And he can be quite silly in poems such as the chuckle-poignant “John Gone,” or “I’m in Love with my Hoover,” which attains a Pam Ayres haha.
Yet I find I like this about his work too. Because so few of the newer “breed” of poets risk such humour, unless it’s of the dry, ironic, in-club kind. I suspect his book would seem like a bit of a leaping puppy to them, tongue lolling over the beauty of the world, but I prefer this any day. It’s loyal.