In the most recent edition of the poetry magazine, Acumen, Patricia Oxley comments in her editorial on the nature of the submissions she had been receiving since the outbreak of Covid-19. She contrasts “‘clever-clever’ poems which needed the cryptic brain of The Times crossword solver” and “poems of warmth and contact”. Although this is a very blunt distinction, we know instinctively what she means, and we can shuffle much of contemporary poetry into one pack or the other. Reducing the categorisation to an even more basic level, we could describe this as the difference between poets who prioritise form and those who prioritise content. At this point, the distinction reveals itself as false, since, in Robert Creeley’s adage, ‘form is never more than an extension of content.’ Creeley modified this statement in a radio interview in 2003:
What I meant, whatever that means, is that what’s coming to be said — it’s like William Carlos Williams’ wonderful insistence, “How to get said what must be said…” — that need, that impulse, that demand, is what I would call the content’s finding a form for its own realization, recognition, substantiation.
For some contemporary writers, form or language have themselves become content because they have recognised that neither language nor the form in which it is organised can be transparent windows on content. However, sometimes the preoccupation with language will have an alienating effect if the reader is unable to perceive a shared experience. A number of very successful contemporary poets have pursued their interest to language to a point where, although neither their intelligence nor their skills are in doubt, their audiences may lose patience, feeling they are being asked merely to solve riddles rather than engage with a perception of the world.
This long preamble is an attempt to express my own contradictory feelings about the poetry I read and how I feel poetry should be written. I have been drawn to experimental and avant-garde writing and endorse the exploration of new ways of saying. However, sometimes it seems that poems become so concerned with the mechanisms of language as to become almost totally self-reflexive and therefore impenetrable. The concepts may be interesting but often the poems are not. Nevertheless, I find this kind of formalism more interesting than another contemporary trend which is the production of poems in traditional European, more exotic or even invented forms where success is often measured in obedience to strict rules. The first time I read a specular poem, which was Julia Copus’ ‘Miss Jenkins’, I thought it ingenious and intriguing. Now, I simply find these poems irritating. And why, I ask myself, except as an exercise, would anyone want to write a sestina? The very best of these contemporary efforts disguise their form or offer variations of it, as Paul Muldoon has, over a poetic lifetime, offered variations on the sonnet.
While I may be frustrated by my failure to grasp or appreciate some of the more linguistically experimental poets, the poems of warmth and contact’ are often worthy but dull, exploring relationships with humans and often with nature but in language which is unironically clichéd. The best, or at least the most interesting, poets continue to push formal and linguistic boundaries but at the same time they do have something to say.
Perhaps you need to have time on your hands to give difficult poetry the attention it deserves. Since I retired, I have revisited the work of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, reading them with much more enjoyment and appreciation. Muldoon’s poetry, in particular, has been a revelation as I have gone from considering him an irritating clever-clogs to a deeply serious poet who uses his huge range of reference and idiosyncratic sense of humour to present poems which are (often, not always) intellectually and emotionally profound.
I was intrigued, therefore, when I read a brief notice of Fothermather, a pamphlet-length poem, by Gail McConnell.(Ink Sweat and Tears, 2019) It seemed that this was a poet who, like Muldoon and McGuckian, had something to say but who was choosing new ways of saying it. When I read the blurb on the back of the book, I became slightly apprehensive. There was the endorsement from Vahni Capildeo, currently the darling of the poetry establishment and herself highly experimental. There were the references to concrete forms and erasure which warned that this was not going to be straightforward to read.
My first reaction to the work was disappointment. It seemed too elitist, too self-indulgent, too based on the writer’s own range of reference devoid of explication. However, when I picked up the book again, I felt I had been wrong. Certainly, there is much in it which eludes me; at the same time, I became aware of strength of feeling and a refusal to compromise on the difficult, either emotionally or intellectually.
McConnell experiments with form in the struggle to discover or create her identity in relation to her son of whom she is neither the biological father or mother through a series of reflections on his gestation and birth. At times she resorts to traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, both of which she executes with great skill. Here, the difficulty of the formal task is matched by the difficulty of what is trying to be said, so that the poems go far beyond mere technical fireworks. Her sonnet “Shell Notes’ derives from a poem by Francis Ponge, a recurrent presence in the sequence, but the poem is self-sufficient and does not require knowledge of the French poet. In it, McConnell explores ideas about form and substance in the context of her own efforts to reimagine forms and create names for new relationships. She takes the image of a skull ‘at sea’ which recalls Shakespeare’s ‘Full fathom five’ and another idea of the father; the skull adapts to become a shell, or shelter for a ‘not-too-social mollusk’, thus becoming a mother rather than a father. Shell as womb occurs in other poems. The fluidity of form signalled in the octave gives rise to ‘uneasiness’, so the sestet proceeds to demonstrate how all form is taken or adapted from somewhere else: ‘Adjustment is true/genius. Less man from ape, than boy from body.’ The final line is an image of physical childbirth, but it is also a linguistic parturition which may reflect the poet’s ambition to establish a non-biological way of parenting her son which grows out of language and through this sequence of poems.
The Freud erasure poem is also extremely successful, partly because it is so very much a willed and authored piece. Some erasure poems employ randomising rules for how the rubber is used, but in this one McConnell is clearly challenging a statement by Freud that she finds troubling and problematic: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’ The poem appears in two versions on facing pages; in the first, erasure is employed to explore a relationship with a missing father, and it is relevant to know that McConnell’s own father was murdered in front of her when she was three years old. The erasures are skilfully chosen to create a moving sense of loss which manages to subvert itself:
I a father
The double meaning of dada is unlikely to be coincidental. The poem continues, on the second page, to offer an entirely different version of gender, based on the curious example of the male seahorse who gestates his partner’s eggs. The seahorse, which is the image on the front cover, is an emblem of range in gender roles and in parenting. This section of the poem begins and ends with a series of bubbles or non-verbal ‘o’s in upper and lower case which are visually extremely effective.
The aim of McConnell’s sequence is to celebrate the arrival of her son, ‘Finn, the brilliantist’ and to discover or establish a way of being towards that son which adapts, reshapes and challenges received ideas about parenthood. It is not, however, a propaganda poem for same sex parents, but the deeply felt quest of an individual to work out her relationship with the child of whom she is neither father nor mother in any traditional sense, yet with whom she clearly feels a very strong bond, to an extent where I felt slightly sorry for the partner and biological mother who is barely addressed and almost excluded. The poet creates linguistic links based on poems, on etymological explorations of words, including the child’s name, ‘Finn’, which imitate the absent DNA inheritance.
The poem convinces because it is not propaganda and because it deals with the difficult and in so dealing it pushes the limits of traditional and more avant-garde poetic conventions. The poet wants to bring into words something that has not yet been said and my own initial reaction was most probably a defensive one. McConnell has made me confront ideas that I find difficult and unsettling and along the way she has forced me to find out more about a lot of things, from Ponge to the sex life of cuttlefish. (I already knew Captain Calamari!)
 The World’s Two Smallest Humans, Julia Copus, Faber, 2012
 Capildeo is also a poet who definitely has things to say, but whose work may have encouraged a shoal of poetasters who do not.
 Incidentally, Ponge also appears in Still Life, the valedictory collection by Ciaran Carson, a more senior Belfast poet and colleague of McConnell. Still Life is a wonderful book, which I recommend without qualification.
 The lineation is difficult to reproduce accurately.