Jonathan P Taylor has a new poetry collection out, Cassandra Complex, so I thought it would be a marvellous thing if I were to invite him over here to talk about it. And here’s the man himself, talking poems, prophecy, and time…
On Time Travel, Poetry, Prophecy and Cassandra Complex
I’ve always felt that poetry has a special relationship with time, which is what partly marks it out from other arts. It’s the art-form which, I think, finds it easiest to hold in balance different moments in time: one poem, in a very small space, can move easily between different moments, different histories and memories, between past, present, and future. Poems often superimpose, montage and juxtapose different scenes, creating non-linear, fractal, cyclical models of time. Maybe this is partly because of the way poetry is read: you often have to re-read a poem, or a line, or read it in a particularly intense way, so the experience of it is circular, static or non-linear.
This is not to claim that other art-forms cannot do similar things – just that they do not bend time quite so easily. Music often includes repetition, cyclical forms, refrains, but obviously it is experienced in a linear way – listened beginning to end; novels, which grew up in the wake of Newtonian physics, are naturally causal, linear and chronological in their mode of storytelling, and the ghost of such chronology haunts even the most experimental of longer fiction; short stories can generally encompass only one or two scenes; painting and sculptures are usually frozen moments in time. Of course, all sorts of artists, writers and musicians have complicated and challenged these characteristics of their art-forms; but poetry is the form which, from its earliest days, moves most smoothly, even naturally, between different time-frames. Homer’s Odyssey– to give one early example among many – manages to hold in balance three or four narratives and chronologies. Poetry is – or can be – a kind of temporal palimpsest, or counterpoint.
Perhaps it is this aspect of poetry which has lent it to prophecy and fortune-telling. In Percy Shelley’s famous words, poetry is ‘the trumpet of a prophecy,’ and poets themselves ‘the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.’ Again, this association goes all the way back to the earliest poetry: from Ancient Babylonia, the tablets Enuma Anu Enlil(When the Gods Anu and Enlil…) represent at once a remarkable work of poetry and of prophecy. In my new poetry collection, Cassandra Complex (Shoestring Press, 2018), I set out to explore the overlaps between poetry and prophecy. I wanted to explore these overlaps in historical, political and also personal ways – so there are poems about moments of (apparent) prophecy in my own life, alongside poems about modern forms of prophecy (in the form, for instance, of economic forecasts, medical prognoses, and job adverts), alongside ancient and historical prophecies. Of these latter, Enuma Anu Enlilis one of my starting-points in the collection:
From Shumma Alu: Everyday Omens
If the outside of the house is decorative
it will be deserted.
If the outside of the house is beautiful
it will not stand long.
If the house keeps changing outside
so will its keepers inside.
If the house is ugly or in shade
all inside will be happy.
If the house’s exterior looks ordinary
its keepers will grow old together.
Perhaps there is something inherently poetic about trying to look into the future – language becomes imagistic, symbolic, poetic when it is stretched and distorted across time. Certainly, omens like those inEnuma Anu Enlil are poetic images, and are stretched across three different moments simultaneously: they are addressed to readers in the present, telling them about the future, implicitly interpreting signs based on past experience. In that way, they are not so different from the predictions of modern science – which are similarly based on extrapolating the future from past patterns, for the benefit of the present.
There are even more complex examples of temporal counterpoint – for instance, where historical predictions are reinterpreted in light of intervening events (sometimes called ‘hindsight bias’); or even where historical pseudo-prophecies were actually written after the events they seem to predict (sometimes called ‘retroactive clairvoyance’). In Cassandra Complex, I wanted to explore all these different kinds of prophecy and pseudo-prophecy. Some of the poems, for example, embody forms of retroactive clairvoyance, whereby past prophecies are revisited to address and defamiliarise what’s happening now:
The refugees from an Apocalypse yet to happen
are flooding through the time-gate in bloodied rags,
marked by the Antichrist, trembling from earthquakes,
scorched by stars and planets crashing to earth,
chewed and spat out by dragons with various heads,
nibbled by locusts.
Tens of thousands have already perished en route
and most who reach their past are denied sanctuary:
after all, it’s their fault they weren’t among the Elect.
The future can hardly be blamed on us, can it?
A select few we save, those who bring with them
knowledge of soon-to-be-discovered technologies,
oh, and the plumbers.
The others – the godless, hairdressers, poets –
are shoved back,
whingeing they can’t win on either side of history.
Afterwards, if you press your ear against the door
and listen carefully, I have heard it said,
you can hear trumpets, distantly, from the other side.
This poem aims to mix the age-old language of prophecy, apocalypse and Revelations with modern political rhetoric about refugees and immigration. Hence, the mingling of different time-frames in a poem can also be a mingling of languages: different voices, registers and discourses from past, present and future can overlap, merge and clash in poetry.
In that sense, poetry can be a kind of linguistic time travel. In fact, I think poetry is – at least up till now – the closest we have to time travel, in its ability to move seamlessly between different time-frames. William Wordsworth claimed something similar, when he said that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.’ In other words, poetry retrospectively revives the past and relives it as if it is now.
In poetry, perhaps everything is now, everything is happening at once – past, present and future. There’s a wonderful poem by X. J. Kennedy, inspired by Einstein, called ‘The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything From Happening at Once,’ which is about this very subject. In a poem, though, time does not and cannot always prevent everything happening at once – and the final poem in my collection collapses time, so that past, present and future seem simultaneous:
Through an open door you’re watching an old self
holding someone else’s hand and you’re trying to say:
Please don’t let go. Please don’t move away.
Please please please don’t leave the room.
But something like the future is stuck in your throat
and the warning only comes out as a raven’s croak
so the old self lets go, moves away, leaves the room,
walks through you as if it’s you who’s the ghost
as if it’s you who’ll be stuck here forever
with the someone else who stays in the chair
whose hand you’re unable to touch
and who says confidently to the old you:
Goodbye, see you soon. See you very soon.
About the Author
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018) is his second poetry collection. His other books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Originally from Stoke-on-Trent, he now lives in Leicestershire with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.