“Poetry & Art” – An Essay on Creative Production (2008)


During 2008 I was slap bang in the middle of a masters in 20th and 21st Century Literature in the University of Southampton. At the time, one of the course options was a poetry writing module, which was part of a larger creative writing MA but suitable candidates could take part if they had proof of having written before, and I had.

I don’t go on much here about writing poetry, and sometimes I think I should, but perhaps I feel that writing is something I struggle enough at without having to pretend to know what I’m talking about. The poetry class I took made it a requirement to actually write an essay proving to a certain extent that I did have a clue what I was talking about.

Looking back at it now, I can recognise some strong elements of theory and understanding of what I was doing in my own writing, in a time when I knew less of my actual poetic direction than I do now, and I maintain I know nothing to this day. That’s not to say that I write bad poetry, just don’t ask me to give you a notion on what my actual goals are, other than to write and get published more (you can read some of my published poems here and here – but be sure to read some of the other great poetry on both these sites).

This essay though was written five years ago, so in advance allow me to offer my defence. I don’t think I’ve ever written as much as I have in the five years that immediately preceeded this essay, so I think my writing is better. I’ve also got my bullshit detector a bit more finely tuned, although still far from perfect. I haven’t edited this, except for a few typos, so please feel free to pick through it and raise any points in the comments section. There are large tracts where I related to my own poetry, and in terms of that you can refer to this document which includes all the poems which the actual essay was referring to (again, I have not edited these poems and consider them to be in their so-called original state).

So without further adieu, allow me to present my essay full of self criticism, self appraisal, but hopefully not self destructive.

“Poetry and Art”

Southampton, December 2008

Why and what am I writing for? What is the significance of my own ability as a poet or writer and what good can come of it? I have tried to confront as many themes and different styles for varying poetic effect. I have amalgamated my writing into a project which presents to the reader a journey. The ‘journey’ is an artistic journey from the position of questioning my ability, to understanding, and to the eventual acceptance and use of poetry as a means of conveying a message.

I have experimented with the use of language and its effect on the poem. Of course, there are various definitions of language and each affect us differently. A simple search on the internet for ‘language’ will reveal a primary concern with translation and learning new languages; this directs us towards the function of ‘language’ in poetry. Poetic language is a means of translating the world into art, the same as painting or sculpture, but in this case, with language and words. By learning to be ‘poetic’ we understand a new way of speaking and looking. This all sounds very simple, but that is its beauty; that it is simple and easy to understand.

With this in mind, I have used my own experiences and ideas to help my writing. I have used a mix of reality and imagination to create a blend of language which represents truth. At the same time, I have remained conscious of the fact that simple language portraiture has little function other than aesthetic. For me, poetry must contain more than just a picture.

I have added into my work emotion, nature, and the subconscious self that cannot be transmitted in conventional terms. Of course I am conscious of the disadvantage of individual interpretation. Human interpretation is, as Susan Sontag termed it ‘the revenge of the intellect upon art’[1]. And it is not only Sontag who holds this opinion. Nietzsche said:

“The feeling that one is obliged to describe on thing as red, another as cold, and a third as dumb, prompts a moral impulse which pertains to truth; from its opposite, the liar whom no one trusts and all exclude, human beings demonstrate to themselves just how honorable, confidence-inspiring truth is”[2]

 With that in mind, how do we know what poetry is? How can I tell that what I am writing is ‘true’?

Wittgenstein said that ‘mutual understanding, and hence language, depends on nothing more or nothing less than shared forms of life, call it our mutual attunement or agreement in our criteria’[3]. As a poet one is not left in the world with only feelings to decipher but left in the world with meaning to respond to[4]. Art is created for a response to be created from it, not dictated from it. Poetry must insist on running its own course, finding its own measures, and charting its own course in hidden or denied places as a means of unlocking its true feeling and expression.

When I write, one of the things that I want to address the world and the problems and realities which, I believe, the twenty-first century has forced. Consumer culture and the loss of the individual’s sense of individuality is one of these pressing forces. I have tried to explain that through the desire for all things material we have allowed ourselves to be consumed by the society we live in, leaving our lifestyles to be decided on by ‘decrees of state’. My own attempt of finding poetic truth has been hindered by what Nietzsche has drawn attention to:

 “humankind, where deception, flattery, lying and cheating, speaking behind the backs of others, keeping up appearances, living in borrowed finery, wearing masks, the drapery of convention, play-acting for the benefit of others and oneself — in short the constant fluttering of human beings around one flame of vanity is so much as the fact that an honest and pure drive towards truth should ever have emerged in them”[5]

 With this in mind, there is a fashion of living in large expansive housing estates where all the homes are the same design and shape and colour. In Ireland, near my home town, this is particularly the case, where huge stretches of field have been turned over to construction companies who have built thousands of houses which, to me, have little or no character, with even less public amenities; except for a small green patch in front for the children to play on when it is not raining. Lives and the deep, deep reality of life have been clouded over by the competition between neighbours’ own vanities. Art holds a responsibility to present realities at face value and to present to open the eyes and minds of those that are clouded over.

In saying this, art can have its own personality and avoid the politics of society. Poetry is a voice, art is a vision, what is heard and seen depends on where one looks.

Poetry as an art is concerned with the moment, one which deals specifically with the present, asking questions and presenting answers about moments which are not distinguishable from the repetitive nature of human life. Both situations may in their own right be unique, but the solutions are not. Sentimentality has little function in matters of the heart. Understanding the very motions of existence from start to finish, realizing their significance, and reacting to them, are more important than waking and running to work. Waking up in the morning brings with it a total change in the way we have perceived the world, from dream state to conscious state. The emotions brought about by change and then the sickening feeling of reality can do more damage to the subconscious, yet at the same time it can have little benefit to the individual as it will not return and it will not change. Poetry is a means of expressing the reality as it is, and diminishing the effects of trauma which comes from realization of the conformity which humanity subsists itself to.

I have presented poetry which has been inspired by the situation, the moment, and the occurrence which can only be true for the moment which it is speaking of; be it feeling, a true story, or an imaginary creation. My intention has been to prove that it does not matter what words are used, but what they say, how they are used and what they present to the reader. I want my poetry to be understandable for what it says, and for the words to interpret the poems for the reader[6], and not the other way around.

Language and literature are inseparable. It is only through this connection that we can use language as a way to express and commit our thoughts into expression.

 

[1] Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’ pp.7

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’ pp.878

[3] Charles Bernstein, ‘The Objects of Meaning’ pp.60

[4] Ibid. pp. 61

[5] Nietzsche, pp. 875

[6] David Antin ‘Some Questions About Modernism’ http://writing.upenn.edu/library/Antin-David_Some-Q-Modernism.html

 

 

A Lesson in Perseverance


In 2008 I was on the brink of getting married, and I was busy contemplating what to do afterwards. There were plenty of options, easy and less easy, but none painted in any way a clear picture of the future.

At the time I was working in a relatively big language school on the south side of Seoul and I was nearing the end of my third year. I didn’t have any teaching qualifications, but much like today I talked a good fight and fancied my chances regardless of what happened.

Of course marriage was going to change everything. There was the obvious and easier option and then there was the riskier and more exciting option that you don’t hear of many newly-weds taking, at least not in Korea anyway.

As a couple we’d been pretty straight forward. We would travel around the country and take as many breaks as possible, we spent money as liberally as our bank balances would allow in restaurants and shops, and me in bars. We were having fun in that situation and that was what mattered. But I don’t think we took any major risks.

Seoul, 2008

Seoul, 2008

Just before my contract was ending I was applying around for university teaching jobs in Korea, because we had decided that we would work a little, save, and then travel together to study in Ireland or the UK. I was mostly unsuccessful until I got offered a job at a small enough university in Daegu. We were both quite intrigued and curious about the possibilities this new opportunity would deliver.

Now, let me let you in on a few things. I didn’t have anything higher than a BA degree at the time, and I had no formal qualifications as well as fairly limited experience. The job I had been offered presented little in the way of a pay rise, and it would also involve a big move down to an unfamiliar city where neither of us knew anyone.

We bit the bullet.

I applied for a few masters courses in the UK, extended my contract until a month before our wedding day, and sat down to wait. Before long I had received a letter of acceptance (and a couple of rejections too I might add) to the University of Southampton.

Now let’s not be naïve, Southampton on England’s south coast was an even a bigger risk than Daegu; we knew hardly anyone in the UK with the exception of my brother and his girlfriend and a scattering of friends in London, we’d never lived in the UK, and I’d only been there twice before and both times briefly. Despite this, we went for it because it was the payoff that we were aiming for.

So we headed back to Ireland once I finished working, then came back to Korea, via a long weekend in Hong Kong, and got married with my parents and all four of my brothers in attendance, then lumped a pile of bags on them as they flew back to Ireland, and we packed our bags for two weeks in Turkey for our honeymoon. We then moved on to Ireland where my parents threw a huge party in the back garden with a marquee and gallons of booze, and then we went down to Kerry in the south of Ireland and proceeded to travel up the west coast through Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and into Donegal, which took us about two weeks. A second honeymoon if you will.

Bozcaada, Turkey

Bozcaada, Turkey

While this road trip was taking place, I got a phone call and got accepted onto an English language teaching certificate course in Dublin, which I accepted, and cut our road trip short.

After finishing the course, we began to prepare for the move to Southampton. This involved a very demotivating visit to the town where we found that another university in the town had made a mess of their halls allocation, leaving half the students without previously promised accommodation. This left the vast majority of cheap accommodation close to the campus to be already occupied before we even got off the plane. In a whirlwind visit we eventually settled on a small two bedroomed place on the ground floor on the opposite side of town to the university. This wasn’t an issue as I only had a few classes a week; most of the time I would spend would be doing my own reading and research, and I could easily walk into the university as it was a brisk 45 minute walk away.

I won’t lie, but aside from the course the year in Southampton was almost a disaster. Hiccup after hiccup befell us. Herself struggled to find any form of work, and she felt genuinely discriminated against. I couldn’t find any teaching work – I later learned that nearby Bournemouth was a hub for English language schools but was still too awkward to get to regularly – and ended up working in a supermarket on minimum wage. Our apartment turned out to have little to no heat, and the place soon got enveloped in damp and mould. We were lonely and we were broke.

In a cemetery next to Southampton Common.

In a cemetery next to Southampton Common.

I remember one incident in particular when we were walking back from the college where I had classes and Herself directed me towards the supermarket because we needed to pick up some things for dinner. I was terrified the whole time because sooner or later I was going to have to tell her we had only 25 pounds left in the bank. When I did tell her it is her face and reaction that I can remember and will forever.

She paused and faced me, stiff as an old iron rod, her eyes dropping, sucked of life and close to tears, as sad as I’ve ever seen them. Her mouth dropped half open, and her fists clenched tightly in desperation around the little piece of yellow paper with the small list of household basics we needed for dinner.

In the end I placated her, and we went into the supermarket and picked up the absolute necessities on the list. I should add that the supermarket was ASDA, so there was no shortage of cheap things, but still it was the first time, and only time, we’ve felt so vulnerable.

We pulled together and learned to adapt fast. In my supermarket job I had the pick of the food about to expire which was always sold at cut prices. I picked up bread, chickens, bacon, sausages, vegetables, ham, cheese, and every other variety of product and often for less than 50p – about 1000 KRW. This in the end probably saved us. Things began to eventually work themselves out and everything got a lot easier in the end, fortunately.

Howth Harbour, July 2009.

Howth Harbour, July 2009.

After a long year we moved back to Ireland where I finished my dissertation and Jin Won eventually found work in customer service to Korean customers on an international website that was based in Dublin. And in the Autumn, after I’d received my final grade for my masters – a grade I was simply happy to get but I should have been disappointed with considering the work I put in – I returned to the job market in Korea, where I eventually found work. That was in January of 2010, and by March I was back at work in Korea hoping on a semblance of normality.

It’s a long story but it’s worth putting across the trials we put ourselves through. Not only was it hard work, it was an amazing experience learning to grow with Herself, because when all is said and done, after all the difficulties of empty bank accounts, old food, the damp apartment, the lack of work, and all those other things, myself and Herself really just had a great time together. If anyone got us through that period it was both of us.

We persevered for the sake of getting a better deal. We took an unconventional route for newlyweds, and we opened ourselves to the possibility of doing things the other way. We haven’t looked back from the experiences. I think we’ve kind of trained ourselves to be irresponsible, as these days we’re always looking for where we can travel to next, as opposed to saving up money and looking towards the distant future. But while that lesson may be a bad one, we are no longer afraid of making the necessary change to get ahead in life, and that’s more important than anything if you ask me.

Sometimes you have to get out and find what it is that’s looking for you. This sounds like one of those silly overly idealistic quotes you see popping up on your twitter or Facebook feed, but you know it’s true. The problem is taking the bait and being hooked in. Our conscience says that the outcome could be of great benefit but it could all go belly up in the end.

Jumunjin, Gangwon-do, February 2010.

Jumunjin, Gangwon-do, February 2010.

I think though, for me, what made me realise all this and suddenly appreciate it more all of a sudden was a conversation I had in work the other day. I was talking to a Phd student in our department, and American I believe, who worked in the university that I turned down five years ago before I got married.

I learned that I made the right decision, as I now worked in a department with four other foreign faculty members, with little or no interference from management (they have their own classes to worry about) and a minimum amount of paperwork. The job relies on me to honestly and professionally teach my students. What I had avoided was a faculty of over 100 foreign teachers strictly regimented with many aspects of their classes and courses dictated for them (why schools do this I can never understand).

I walked away from that conversation relieved, knowing that while the previous years had been difficult, I had gained from them. I had strengthened my relationship with my wife, found a better understanding of the necessity of knowing what you want to do, learned the importance of enjoying yourself even during tough times, and found out five years later that a decision I made paid off. It is something I should do well to take into account when making decisions in the future.