Book Review

The Commons by Stephen Collis

why are poets so obsessed with outside?

All of the posts I’m writing atm, as I explore the nature of poetry and poetic expression, are interlinked. This current series of posts – now that I have fully and in detail described and dissected my personal relationships with Depression & Alcoholism (Spring 2013 – January 2018) and Sex (January 2018) – are tied tightly to my own development as a writer, newly a writer-cum1-poet.

To keep y’all up to date on what I’m doing, not that many of you approve (REMEMBER THIS IS A FUCKING BLOG NOT A REVIEWS SITE, IT’S MEANT TO FUCKING BE ABOUT ME), I am late in the throes of completing a series of poems that I feel happy to offer, publicly, as a cohesive manuscript. What my current bulk reading of poetry (and these posts on my current bulk reading of poetry) is intended to achieve is making sure I am:

a) comfortable describing as “poetry” the writing I intend as poetry;

b) confident that the poetry I write acheives the things I want it to achieve;

c) secure in my understanding of those intentions.

Right. I have read poetry recently by Karina Bush, by Joe Woodhouse, by Kate Miller and now by Stephen Collis, and each encounter has helped me to better understand what I want from the poetry I read, and what I hope to achieve from the poetry I write. It’s all very useful, all very productive. Right, onwards. I’ve had this tab open about eight days, so it’s really time to get this done.

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Today I am looking at The Commons by Stephen Collis, a 2008 collection reissued with an accompanying essay in 2014. We’ll get to this essay later, as part of a more general discussion on the nature and value of formal poetic experimentation, but before that it’s “general overview” time..

The Commons is another example of good poetry, in that this is poetry that looks good on the page. It is poetry full of neatness and playfulness, both in terms of its content, its conception and its tone. The overarching theme of these poems is enclosure, the method by which common land became privatised a few hundred years ago. Collis is a Canada-based poet (at least according to the author bio), so it seems odd that in a country teeming with open space and public land he would have such an interest in changes in European feudal structure from a few centuries before.

I-

Fuck it, I’m struggling to write this. I’ve started typing this post, tried to sit down to type this, about ten times since the other end of last week. It’s just tough to get much enthusiasm, tough to get much energy: when reading poetry that doesn’t exactly thrill me I feel a weird kind of guilt, still.

I still feel like not “getting” poetry means that I’m in the wrong. I think – tbh – this is a bit of a deliberate ploy. I think the people that love poetry have, quite intentionally, made it feel like something that is “better” than other art forms. In the way that people who prefer short stories to novels speak as if they are 100% right to do so, people who love poetry market the form – and themselves, the readers – as somehow kinda superior. Superior to what, I’m not exactly sure, but superior to something something something ME.

The Commons is about land reform, it is poems constructed using language from other texts, texts which Collis believes to be part of a literary, or poetic, commons. He believes that language and ideas are shared, that plagiarism is an idea far more complex than we would like to pretend that it is, that to use another writer’s words, phrases, stories, ideas, is as traditional as it was to feed your cow with the same grass as your neighbours’ [cows ate].

With the erosion of societal property, of commonland, Collis posits that the idea of shared possession is lost. His reasoning – explained in the essay at the book’s end – is complex but makes a lot of sense. When we see possessions crowded into the hands of a few for many many many centuries, we see it as normal. When we witness the rich and the powerful doing whatever the fuck they want, we internalise the idea that the rich do as the rich do. Where Collis’ ideas veer from orthodoxy is when he discusses his anarchic principles, which – for once – make sense in this context. As the state rises, particularly the capitalist state, people begin to see their opponent (not necessarily enemy, but antagonist), not as the individuals who have more grain/metal/goats than them, but instead as a faceless idea. If the state demands tax – especially a democratic state – to deny it is to deny ones individual responsibilities within that society, and though the benefits of taxation are for the many, most individuals do not feel the equitable benefit from what the state gives compared to what they give the state. Other people then begin to represent this idea of the state, this idea of a “stealing” other. People withhold tax and people withhold compassion: society dies, because everyone has been boxed into an idea of immutable self where they see everything outside as a villain: compassion dies with the lowly not aiming their ire in the right places and the rich and powerful live and win forever.

I enjoyed Collis’ essay, I think his ideas are interesting, however I felt that his poems didn’t, by themselves, carry the implied weight they were able to hold once I had read an essay explaining Collis’ intention. Perhaps I was being naive, and no one was ever meant to read these poems without knowing about Collis’ wider ideas, without reading them through the lens of heavily politicised opinion. Because, when I reread the collection knowing what it meant, I got a lot more out of it, however when this collection was first published, it was without the essay, and thus – though I think the imagery and language and look of these pieces are pleasant, are impressive – I feel that these poems, on their own, don’t do what they want to do. Without Collis’ essay, these are pleasing but non-earthshattering poems. With the essay, they become weighed with a lot of meaning, as their form and composition suits a very well developed intellectual and aesthetic stance.

What I have learned from this one, I suppose, is that should I need an essay to explain my poems, I haven’t made the poems as immediate as I want them to be. That’s a personal choice. The Commons is a good read, but it’s a deep one, requiring more than a surface glance.

Time to go.


1. When being introspective, I find it odd (given my overwhelming prurience and weighty interest in bodily fluids) how little I write about semen. Actually, I don’t write *that much* about blood or saliva, either. Just vomit and poo, the alimentary matter, the non-sexual, the prepubescent. I can psychoanalyse myself, thanks. Once I’ve written this, I’ll maybe scan through my poems and work out where I can add references to jizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. 

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1 comment on “The Commons by Stephen Collis

  1. Pingback: The Fat Black Woman’s Poems by Grace Nichols – Triumph of the Now

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