Prior to meaning is the title of a poem by Steve McCaffery. I bought his selected Verse and Worse earlier this year after seeing him read in Sheffield (he lives and teaches in Canada but was born in Sheffield). His poetry is experimental and challenging. I can’t claim to ‘understand’ it, just as I don’t quite understand the yellow penguins I photographed in Prague last year. However, like the penguins (they’re lit up at night by the way) McCaffery’s writing really does make you think. It’s an odd feeling, encountering his poems, a sort of knowing and not knowing at the same time. The brain makes links, carries its various readings from word to word, phrase to phrase. You feel something is hinted at, start to congratulate yourself because you’ve got it, but before you are allowed to understand too much, or have your hunch confirmed, the work moves elsewhere and you have to start making other, new connections.
“I recall puzzling one member in an audience at a reading I did several years ago in London … with the phrase “disambiguated geese”. To his question “What does it mean?” I answered, “It doesn’t mean anything, but it allows you to think and in doing so you experience a fresh, perhaps novel juxtaposition of two common words.” (McCafferey, 2010).
That phrase, ‘it allows you to think’ really interests me at the moment. I’ve always liked to know where I am with a poem (whether reading or writing one) but since I finished my last pamphlet Out of the Weather, I’ve had this nagging sense that my work’s too safe. There are two poems in the pamphlet that are more experimental than I usually write, but the rest are firmly lyrical. I haven’t really written over the summer, as is often the case with me. Now the nights are drawing in, poetry beckons. So, I’ve made a pact with myself to be a bit braver and not get too bound up in certainties (what the poem’s about, what it’s really about etc). Of course, I’m still at the ideas stage, and poetry, ultimately, isn’t about thinking but doing. However, it will be interesting to see where this experiment leads. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this extract from McCaffery’s Prior to Meaning.
(Lost listening to paint)
(a whiter Odalisque inside
(the specific instances of angels or tugboats
in a struggle
so absent over surface is
the stream that’s there)
There. I told you it would make you think!
McCaffery, S., Verse and Worse. Selected and New Poems of Steve McCaffery 1989 – 2009 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010)