There's an extensive, thoughtful and very positive review of the sampler over at Jim Murdoch's ever stimulating blog The Truth about Lies. Jim comments on each of the poems in turn, as well as on general aspects of the pamphlet as an object and collection. This is the paragraph that most interests me:
As a poet myself I'm inclined to have my meanings at the forefront of my poems, not that I discount feelings but they've always tended to be something of an aside with me. Philip's poetry, to my mind, concentrates on feelings and the meanings are put on the back burner. These are poems you can't read, tick the box – Yeah, I get that one – and then pass onto the next one. ... A star has exploded and these are fragments rippling away, getting further and further apart, remnants; they meant something when they were whole. Now they are not meaningless but they mean less and Philip is desperately trying to cling onto that meaning. The feelings are clear and unambiguous however.
Always fascinating to see how others read your work, isn't it? I'm interested that Jim thinks I put meaning "on the back burner". I'd certainly agree that meaning is not "at the forefront" of my work as it is for him. That's perhaps the fundamental difference in our poetics: I don't discount the skill and craft of writing something with meaning at the forefront--perhaps I even do it occasionally--but that kind of poetry has never interested me as much as more layered, multivalent poetry has. So that's often what I aim for: something that layers meaning; that can access a sense beyond the surface meaning; that will draw the reader back to discover new meaning on subsequent readings.
I wouldn't call that putting meaning "on the back burner". To my ears, that phrase sounds a touch pejorative in this context. However, Jim is anything but negative about the pamphlet, so I guess he didn't mean it that way. In fact, he says the sampler is
a collection of poems by a man trying to make sense out of something that will never make sense, trying to imbue words with meanings they were never intended to hold and, where that fails, creating new words to try and get his point across.
Absolutely spot on. This is perhaps where we come to the emotions in the poetic. The poems in question being largely about grief and bereavement,* it's hardly surprising that emotion should strike a sensitive and intelligent reader as being at the forefront. Nonetheless, Jim acknoweldges the attempt to make sense (ie, meaning) out of it.
What we have here is the collision or collusion of meaning and emotion. Writing poetry has probably always been to me a means of thinking through my emotions, even more vitally so since I began writing about losing my son, Aidan. And I mean thinking through in a double sense: making sense of my emotional life; and using my emotions as a stimulus to thought. That's not the sum of my poetics, but it's probably a central part. After all, we're talking about an important aspect of the way I'm made: a reasonably intelligent/intellectual individual but, at the same time, uncommonly emotional for a man.**
Thinking again about the relative positioning of meaning and emotion in my poetry, I'd like to suggest that I'm not backgrounding meaning but foregrounding possibilities in the language. Fundamentally, poetry is about language: what we can do with it and what we can do to get beyond it.*** The poem's meaning is a function of the poem as an instance of language--a language event, if I can put it like that--with all the complexity of interaction between the text, the writer and the reader(s) that that implies. That too is a central part of what I'm trying to do. I'm not saying I apply this understanding in the most sophisticated way, but it's definitely mixed into the mortar.
Some of these thoughts have been rattling round in my wee heid for a while, but it's taken Jim's appraisal to get them out into the open, slightly random though they are. My thanks to him for providing the impetus and, above all, for taking the time to read and review the pamphlet so thoroughly.
*This holds for "Tonguefire Night" too in ways I didn't know and could never have known when I wrote it, although I understood at some level the cultural grief and bereavement that it touches on.
**Though not especially sensitive to emotional atmosphere, strangely enough. Aren't we humans complicated sometimes?