Jim's Reviews > The World as Is: New & Selected Poems, 1972-2015

The World as Is by Joseph Hutchison
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This is not so much a review as a response to reading this collection of poems.

There once was a time when if you owned up to being a poet you were publicly admitting to being one of those fey individuals who didn’t quite see the world as it is, convivial enough company down the pub but not someone you’d want representing your interests in the House of Commons. Poets never call a spade a spade. Christ knows what they see when they see a spade but the odds are it won’t be what the rest of us see. And by “us” I mean “you” because, like Joe Hutchison, I’m also a poet although I’m not a poet like Joe; and here you—and by “you” I mean “you”—thought all us poets were the same. Well, we’re not. There’re times I get lost in Joe’s poetry and not in a good way and I find myself a little embarrassed to call myself a poet but then I’m an unknown Scottish poet and he’s the current Poet Laureate of Colorado, which I’m also embarrassed to say I couldn’t locate on a map of the USA if you paid me. Joe, like the rest of—and by “us” I mean “us poets”—writes not about the world but his world, a world that occasionally overlaps with ours but mostly doesn’t. And that’s fine. I don’t read fiction—and poetry’s more fiction than most people realise—to see what I can already see: I want to experience other ways of seeing. I want to see the world as a woman does or a black man or a Denverite. We—and by “we” I mean everyone—are all a part of life’s rich tapestry and each inch or so we get to work on won’t make a lot of sense to anyone other than us and our nearest and dearest but occasionally—far less often than I’d like—we read a few lines by someone else and we go, “Yes!” Their worldview dovetails with ours for a second or two and for that second or two we’re vindicated. Maybe we don’t pump the air every time—not all such realisations are joyous—but it’s reassuring to be in the company of a like mind.

The preceding ramble is a long way of saying you’re not going to get everything in this book and you probably won’t get the same out of it as I did so really my opinion’s neither here nor there but there will be moments I guarantee when you will be struck by the way the world appears to him. My own world now makes a little more sense although nothing’s changed except how I perceive it. People complain about how difficult poetry can be and wonder what’s worthwhile about it but life doesn’t make much sense and we never (or very rarely) seriously contemplate tossing in the towel; we live for the insights and the highlights and, if it matters to us, our five minutes in the limelight.

A perfect example is the poem ‘What I Know’ (which you can read in full here) in which the narrator sees a man lying on a bed in tears. The man has the same face as the man on the bed but the watcher is not a doppelgänger, a twin or a clone but rather the personification of the man’s knowledge that all things will pass which, for some reason, he’s unable at that moment to find comfort in:
Why, I wonder, can’t my knowledge
comfort him? After all, he is me
and suffers only because he refuses
to see me standing in the dark
with what I know.
Laing wrote about the divided self back in the sixties but there won’t be anyone reading this today who doesn’t understand that we all house many selves. We may struggle to find the words to express what we mean which is why we need poets, to do exactly that. If a character called Reason had been incorporated into the Disney film Inside Out we wouldn’t have questioned it. We immediately bought into the notion that there’re little aspects of us—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear—running around inside our heads pressing buttons and flicking switches. Can you not easily picture another little frowny character jabbing away at the controls and fuming, “Why won’t he listen to me?” This is the world as it is only that’s not how it is. Our disappointment never becomes manifest any more than our knowledge does. But we know exactly what Joe’s on about.

Here’s another one from the prose poem ‘The Moonlit Dream’; a more groanworthy title I can hardly imagine but don’t let that put you off. In it his friend puts on an LP which if you’re of a certain age like Joe (and me) you will remember with some fondness:
Once a friend put on Jimi Hendrix, saying, “I’ve taught myself to listen till all I can hear are the scratches. Rock ’n’ roll Zen,” he grinned, as Hendrix soared into Foxy Lady.
Music as a religious—or metaphysical—experience? Why not? Personally I like to think all human experience can be described in terms or thoughts and/or feelings—I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body—and yet I, and I use the word reservedly, get what Joe’s friend’s talking about here even though it doesn’t make any more sense than the sound of one hand clapping. Really what Joe’s friend is on about is not Eastern thinking but Grecian. Aristotle is credited with the coining the expression “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and that’s, for me and a great many others, what music is and not merely a combination of harmony, melody and rhythm. Logic is only one way of looking at things which is why paintings sell for millions of pounds and not for the cost of materials plus labour.

Getting something takes effort. We’re too quick to say we get things. You can play Foxy Lady and say in all honesty that you’ve heard it but at what point you get it, if you ever get it, will depend on how much effort you put into listening. At the premiere of Men and Mountains by Carl Ruggles, his friend and fellow composer Charles Ives reportedly chastised a heckler: “[W]hen you hear strong masculine music like this, get up and use your ears like man.” It’s not poetry any more than Jesus saying, “Let him who has ears hear,” but we know what they’re on about: there’s hearing and then there’s listening. Processing takes time.

We don’t define words for kids. We think we do but what we really do is describe them and, occasionally (and the older the child the easier this becomes) metaphorise them. Poems aim to present us with experiences, not meanings. They lead us up the garden path and it’s up to us to make the most of what we find there. It can be frustrating when we find ourselves someplace strange like the mind of a Coloradan teacher but since when has frustration been all bad? Frustration motivates us. It motivates me—and, no doubt, Joe and a host of others—to write poems in the first place even though we know they can’t possibly do all we expect of them. In the bio on his website he writes:
In the all the years of my writing life, I’ve responded to and aspired to a quality in poetry that I can only call “clarity.” Not that I’m interested in clarity at the expense of honest complexity; I despise those bland accounts of near-death sailing “into the Light.” Light is not always benign: it blinds as often as it offers revelation, as anyone who’s grown up in my part of the world would know. That contradiction, if it is one (it could be that contradiction exists only in the mind), fascinates me continually. When the writing is going well, it’s the feeling of seeing into that alerts me to the fact.
I think it’s important to understand the intent of the author here. This is not Pound or Eliot. He’s not an uneducated man—far from it—but he’s not here showing off. Yes, occasionally, he’ll reference something out of your ken but if he does for God’s sake look it up. That’s how we learn. When did we start to only read for enjoyment? William Empson wrote in his influential book Seven Types of Ambiguity, “The machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.” He’s not wrong and despite seeking to be clear in what he says Joe doesn’t always make it. The world is a complex place and although it can be simplified it can only be simplified so much.

To illustrate this I’d like to mention the last poem in the collection, the last poem in the collection entitled ‘The Poet Tenders His Apologia in Terms He Hopes His Son Will Understand’ which opens:
My love for poetry,
I tell him, goes back
to a kids’ cartoon
Rocky and Bullwinkle.
He goes on to describe an episode where the twosome are lost in the desert and having scrambled to the top of a dune rather than an oasis they’re presented with simply more desert. The poet’s son thinks he gets it but he’s only seen the obvious. So the father explains but as he’s explaining he realises that there’s a gulf dividing his experience of childhood and his son’s. Maybe one day his son will get poetry but if he does he’ll have to come to it on his own terms. That I get. I really do get where he’s coming from. I won’t bore you with my own personal epiphany but there was a day when poetry suddenly made sense to me when the day before it hadn’t but that was my day and I’m quite sure it won’t work for you. But there will be a way in. Maybe it won’t be through any of the poems in this book or any of mine. But there will be a way in.

There’s much to enjoy in this collection. It’s far from being complete and it suffers because of that—Bed of Coals, for example (which I discuss at great length here), deserves to be read in its entirety—but as an introduction to his fifteen volumes of poetry it does a decent job even if it does omit my personal favourite from House of Mirrors. One good thing about Joe, as Richard Allen Taylor notes in his review for Pedestal Magazine, is he “seems to have found his poetic voice early and stuck with it.” I would concur and don’t see that as a bad thing and it certainly doesn’t make him a one-trick pony. In an interview at tweetspeak Joe says, “poetry [is] a way of knowing what it means to be in the world,” and that may not be the most profound definition of poetry but profundity is overrated. Give me clarity any day of the week.

Here are a few poems you can find in the book if you want to try before you buy and, of course, there are plenty of others dotted about the Internet.
Lifting My Daughter
The Wound
Black River
City Limits

Sundown

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Reading Progress

December 18, 2017 – Shelved
Started Reading
December 19, 2017 – Finished Reading

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