Patrick Cotter on a left-looking universe

It’s hard for me to have too much respect for this poem. It came far too easily – in one sitting. I can see I saved four drafts of it – but the finished poem is not much different from the original notebook entry. My artistic ego is slighted by the success of a poem that practically wrote itself, exploiting me as a mere vessel to get itself onto paper. I have another poem I have slaved over; finally after eighteen drafts, over three years,  I think it might be working as well as I would like it to be – possibly it will never attract the enthusiastic readership ‘O’Sullivan’ appears to have done, but it will always be more loved by me.

The Helix Nebula
The Helix Nebula.

About four years ago I discovered my subconscious self was cleverer than my conscious self. It had more interesting things to say, had greater insights and had a greater tendency to avoid expressing itself in clichés. This also coincided with me abandoning the approach of only trying to write poems when I felt ‘inspired’.  I’m now a fully subscribed believer to Picasso’s maxim “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working”. Occasionally inspiration still strikes me unbidden, but very rarely. These days ninety-five per cent of the poems I write arise from generative exercises – the one which has proved most productive for me is to stare at the work of great photographers until a narrative or emotional situation suggests itself. ‘O’Sullivan’ was prompted by a photograph of half a face with just one eye showing. I noticed more than one photographer had the inclination to frame a portrait like so and thus the idea of an artistic obsessive with just one subject – left eyes – came to me; after that it was simply a case of listing all the ways such an obsession could manifest itself. It’s true this poem wrote itself by intuition – but I don’t think it might have, were it not for decades of extensive reading and writing by me before it came into being. I believe that the quality of one’s intuition depends on how informed one’s subconscious is. One’s intuition is worked thought unmitigated, uncompromised by the conscious ego.

I published my first poems when I was twenty. By the time I reached fifty I had a great future behind me. Approaching the writing desk with a suppressed ego has led to extraordinary happenings for me in the past few years – I won my first poetry prize and my poems began to be accepted for the first time in outlets such as the Financial Times, London Review of Books, Poetry and The Poetry Review. I think if my twenty-something-year-old self had had such success he would have shrugged his shoulders and presumed it was his due. My fifty-something-year-old self is in a state of constant astonishment.

The practical result of this way of working is that inarguably, on most days, I am an absurdist. If poetry can be divided like twentieth-century philosophy into Analytical or Continental, I am most definitely Continental. I consider Absurdism to be essentially about putting forward propositions on personal finitude – the result can sometimes be an endorsement of Nietzschean nihilism or Hegelian idealism, depending on how self-limiting the world-view of the poem is.

Absurdism quintessentially results in open-ended and implicit arguments. An absurd poem lacks the finality and explicitness of argument inherent in a Larkin poem. By presenting an open-ended, implicit argument an absurd poem is less authoritarian and aligns itself with a striving for freedom – freedom in personhood and/or society depending on one’s ideological bent (or the bent of one’s subconscious on a given day). 

An absurd poem necessarily avoids the analytical nature of ‘essays in verse’ and is therefore more ‘pure’ a ‘poem’. There is, of course, a certain irony in proposing an analysis of Absurdism which is why many critics, especially those in the various Anglophone schools, detest it. There is a mindset that views Absurdism to be a product of intellectual degeneracy. If that is in any way true then I must admit I am a degenerate.

Patrick Cotter’s poem ‘O’Sullivan’ is published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 107, No. 1.