Poems as Time Machines by John D. Kelly

This Petty Pace

If tomorrow is now
                     where did time go?

Was I just too slow 
                                  to catch it?

I thought therefore I was
not here in the now of snow
as its ‘s’ has already melted 
into slush, to expose in you 
the lush roots 
of a recalled, recoiled Spring
where Hopkins’ wheel 
still shoots its potent bolts
and weeds are substitutes 
for spokes close to the hub of it.

When we write or speak and are fully present ‘with’ the actual process of the words coming in, through . . . and out, we seem to connect somewhere − in some timeless realm − that has a component to it that seems sometimes to have a commonality with everyone/everything beyond us. Perhaps it is more that something of what life is, passes through us at that moment of inspiration — that moment of ‘breathing in’; that moment (within time) before contemplation?
Perhaps the action of thinking and writing, which certainly encompasses notions of past, and at least an ‘imagined’ present, also enables us to tilt towards (or even ‘change’) the future; after all, even past memories contain notions of what we imagined and predicted as a future at the time of their first ‘birthing’ − not to mention the subsequent multi-layered palimpsest of ever-changing contemplations of them since then, and since each infused subsequent layer? As soon as we express a thought ‘in words’ however, it is already in the past and instantaneously being reformed in a multifarious mist of memory layers − ever-changing filters. Perhaps Descartes’ words on existence “Cogito Ergo Sum” would read better as follows:


Is it possible that we can ever be fully alive, or be aware of what we call existence, in only one moment or in any fixed or static notion of time or the ‘nature’ of things? It seems clear at least that we have to admit that we can’t really express existence accurately ‘in the present’ − in words!
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Essay on Nature, said that “Nature is not fixed but fluid”
He was talking of the natural world but, in that we are all part of it, aligned to it, or one with it (perhaps we contain it or create it; or it contains or creates us − or both?) then surely it must follow  that we too are ever-changing − fluid.
Is it thus that we can pour a part (or all) of ourselves into a poem, or creative piece of prose, or any creative act? Is that possible?

Maybe a part of what runs through a poet (an essence that exists on the cusp of ‘pre-thought’ and thinking) just prior to the writing of the words, is poured into, and rests in a poem. For us as writers, or as readers of another’s work, perhaps we just later find, remember, or discover it again?  
Perhaps, if it is a successful poem or work of literature or of art, it will endure and we will actually be able, at least in part, to see it, live it − experience it . . . again? 
Perhaps it is possible that we can travel in time not from a static A to a static B but actually through, with and ‘in’ a continuous time-realm; all as a complex but seamless fluid unity of  ‘Existence’ with no beginning and no end?

Gaston Bachelard in his wonderful book ‘The Poetics of Space’ quotes poet and philosopher Noel Arnaud:


This statement, for me, rings and resonates with as much truth and authenticity as can be achieved with the blunt tool of ‘words’; after all ‘all words are ‘at best’ semi-lies: only attempts at a truth. In using words I believe that poetry, of all the literary forms, can hope to at least tilt closest to some notion of that other ‘old chestnut’ − ‘truth’.

‘Time’, like ‘space’, is also, after all, only a word, another concept, another dimension that we naively use to help try to locate ourselves in the vast and complex scheme of things; to try to pinpoint ourselves. 
We seem to be an ever-moving variable within an immensely greater moving thing we call ‘existence’ which is not only spatial (as our concept of location in 3 dimensional space), but also contains ‘time’ as a 4th Dimension to it all. Perhaps many more dimensions exist not yet comprehendible to the human mind?
‘Time’, and within it ‘memory’, seems to add the kinetic energy that perhaps gives existence its feeling of aliveness.
Is it that we can’t fully realise that ‘the time machine’ has travelled, with us in it, or at least ‘some’ of us in it,  into the past (or future) . . . until we are there; or until it − the poem/time machine − inspires us, or becomes us, again − in a mutual awareness?
Is it that the poem travels into the future (or the past) after it is written or read and, in that way, because we are in or ‘are’ the poem, we too travel?

Can poems possibly be infused with, or naturally contain, a mysterious ‘future implant’− a connection with others, with other links in the whole thing, that we just cannot comprehend or be aware of at the time of writing?
How or why for instance did Hopkins and his poem ‘Spring’ appear in my poem ‘This Petty Pace’ after over forty years – the last I heard or read it as a teenage schoolboy?
It is fascinating to me that a poem can potentially have such longevity − such power.
Do you think Hopkins for one minute thought he could travel in time (through or in his poem) and enter or ‘spring’ himself into my world, from what he probably thought then was his present − at two significant times of my life?
Perhaps he did? Perhaps he now does . . . perhaps he will again?
Perhaps I travelled back in time in my own ‘time machine’ to meet him?
Did we meet half way; or just align and see and hear one another momentarily on a parallel, or concentric, or overlapping, or . . . on some other ineffable path in our linked existence?

“The sensual man conforms thoughts to things;
the poet conforms things to his thoughts.
The one esteems nature as rooted and fast;
the other as fluid, and impresses his being there-on.”

R. W. Emerson

If they were able to have a ‘voice’ or have ‘just one’ opinion on their existence, ‘the senses’ 
(the pre-word − pre-cognition parts, of us), would probably express that they are inseparably conjoined with Nature and are in fact part of it  (or that Nature is in, or part of, them). 
Within the limitations of their purely sensory existence they certainly would be as authentic as they could be in that expression.
If they had the faculty of further thought and reasoning, then they may also be awakened to their inability (just like us) to ever have ‘only one’ opinion in the conscious/thinking world. Consciousness, like subconscious-ness seems to always be fluid − never static.
Everything in the universe appears to have its ‘ counter-thing’ or its ‘coloured baggage’ or its possibility of even . . . ‘not being’.

Poets know this:

“. . .  all things counter, original, spare, strange;
fickle, freckled (who knows how?) . . . “
                                                          G.M. Hopkins 

 “. . . World is crazier and more of it than we think
incorrigibly plural. . . “
                                                       Louis Mc Niece

The purely sensual being, as in the animal kingdom, seems destined to be . . . 

                                 ‘at one with Nature’: owning it − or being owned by it.

It is considered that a new-born baby may have something of this mode of existence, prior to the secondary (and often traumatic for many) birthing of thought/reason; a transition which is itself brokered through the medium of words and ultimately the limitations of language.
At the age of about two or three, psychologists believe that we all begin to come to the realisation (or is it a loss?) that we are not the whole of the universe − or even the hub from which it all extends. We seem to ‘forget’, or are forced to forget, our true essence.
This realization is one that is voiced potently in our first rant poems, in the language of ‘tantrum’, commonly entitled ‘The Terrible Twos’!
It would seem that most people never finish their poem and continuously rant all of their lives. Many poets simply replace their rattle and baby’s bottle and go through life holding a ‘slammer’s mike’ in one hand and a glass ‘half empty’ . . . in the other.
On first impressions, being ‘at one with Nature’ may appear to us, to be a beautiful and simple and desirable way to exist and to live − akin to our ignorant or romantic notions of wanting to live as ‘Sensual Man’ or wrongly seeing the Garden of Eden as a separate entity and not as only the middle panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych − The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Unfortunately, nature is not all a bed of roses and, even if it was, we would soon learn that kingdoms have their own dog-eat-dog hierarchies, and that sleeping dogs’ apparently fragrant beds, sometimes give lie to a painful and thorny ‘truth’.
All animals and purely sensory beings ultimately live in a Beckettian roundabout of pleasure and pain, with fear being an unavoidable component of their existence.
Reason and thought, and the words that give them voice (most successfully in poetry), are the ‘release agents’ that free us from the confines of the ‘only sensory’ world and the bonded attraction to material things: the bond and burden of ownership that the senses − in isolation − are destined to only ‘enjoy or endure’, as Rilke put it, “. . . the beauty and the terror . . .” of.

The ability to think, releases us from the despotism of the senses which could bind us to a limited notion of experience, an existence that is something that is . . . imposed ‘on’ us.
Within thought comes imagination, which then leads (all originating from the senses and memory) to expression of emotions − affection, attraction, repulsion, etc. (all of the myriad of causes & affect); and thus, what we ‘sensed’ initially as very clearly defined objects with sharp outlines and coloured and patterned surfaces, are no longer that; they become less outlined, less solid/concrete; they become blurred − less transparent and clear (and yet in a way also more clear); perhaps more aligned to the notion of spirit − something infused with a value or otherness as in the delicious awakenings in life that sometimes occur after periods of earnest looking or enquiry or . . . pain; or sometimes (just occasionally), they are gifted to us ‘out of the blue’ in a way that seems like coincidence; maybe it is synchronicity orchestrated by some other ‘energy’ outside of our comprehension?

This awakening (whatever it is), can hit us like a time-bomb that shatters all static or reason-able notions of time or existence; such that it, in its new ‘atomised adrift-ness’, is then infused as a value − another living dimension,  into everything we encounter.

All of nature is then ‘fluid’ − ever changing. Its existence (and ours) depends on our ability to have an awareness of being ‘within’ time − being able to think (or exist) in past, present and future tenses simultaneously both consciously and unconsciously − or to at least to consciously keep re-contemplating and re- membering that as a possibility.

A flawed reasoning around the concept of time (at worst a static or linear notion of it) and the misconception that it is possible to consciously ‘live in the moment’, is I think, the shadow that prevents us from being able to clearly see or know that we can’t actually have ownership of anything − we can only be part of it all (or is ‘it’ part of us?).
It is not possible to own or to be consciously at one with, anyone/anything . . . even our own thoughts, memories or imagination; particularly as these too are destined to always be non-static, retrospective and reflective . . . or at least coloured by experience’s conscious and subconscious imprints. There are always compromised and fluid memories and the feelings that are attached to them. 
Unlike in the animal kingdom we, as human beings, seem to exist somewhere beyond the natural world but in a way that also includes it.


It is in his nature to be supernatural;
like the time when he first flew 
in a dream and wrote a poem, and instantly
knew that all poetry is non-fiction: that all 
conscious and unconscious thoughts are real.

He says this with the elation that a lark has, 
singing high in the blue of a summer sky 
when his spirit flies and he seems as free 
of friction . . . as a swift; that eats and mates 
and even sleeps and dreams—on the wing

and only comes to rest to nest; to bring about 
what (maybe) came first—once again: the head-
splitting dumb refrain of the chicken-and-egg 
conundrum, that doesn’t really feature in the 
earthy, non-down-to-earth nature of his poems.

John D. Kelly


Ownership is only another word (a ‘lie’) − a concept that could itself only be possible within the notion of a moment. Conscious living in the moment however is not possible in this wonderfully mercurial world that doesn’t seem to have a beginning or an end, or certainly − like the chicken and egg conundrum − seems to have no extremities we could ever, ‘get our heads around’. Ownership is thus not something to be desired or worth wasting time on. 
The native Americans had some understanding of this.
The Australian native peoples also have some handle on this difficult stuff relating to time, place, perception, memory and existence that ‘purely conscious /rational heads’ will never ever grasp.
They have words such as alcheringa, bugari, djugurba, tjukurpa, ungud, and wongar which have been translated (albeit roughly) as meaning − ‘dreamtime’.  They themselves now use this word which they in turn ‘understand’ as ‘all-at-once’ time. In this dream world they can travel along ‘song lines’ or ‘dream tracks’ that are at one with past, present and future.

Is this not similar to what happens in the act of writing or reading poetry? 
Is a poem not also a living song − or part of a song line that enables us to connect into (and perhaps sing with) some notion of an ineffable otherness through and with which we can travel ‘in’ time? 
Can so-called rational thought and, sometimes seemingly irrational, imagination/dreamtime and creativity be connected and brokered, within a fluid continuum of time (free from notions of ownership or stasis). . . within an ever-changing  livingpast—present—future’− through the ‘alchemic time machine’ that is poetry.


Recently on Achill Island off the west cost of Mayo, in a pub appropriately called The Annexe, I noticed a small brass plaque on the counter behind the friendly barman. The ‘poem’ on it read:
                                          “FREE PINTS HERE TOMORROW!” 

At once − out of the blue − as if by pure magic, I was looking into the mirror above it and my poet’s hat appeared on my already blurred and bald head, and I was able ‘in that moment’ (or so it now seems) to break through − beyond the joke-poem, to be there; to spend the next five minutes as if it was an eternity — surfing on a deliciously and decadently never-ending session of pints and pleasure − the ‘time machine’ having travelled me far into it all; where, in my semi-conscious/sub-conscious  state,  I met up with Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas and the shadow lifted, and I found true enlightenment . . . and comfort in Brendan’s words − within the syntactical blur of his slur;

                “John . . . I’m not a poet with a drink problem — I’m a drinker with a writing problem!”

               “Me too Brendie — me too.
                 Now it is your round . . . if my memory serves me well . . . or is it to be Mr. Thomas’s?”

Yes, I think that’s what I . . . will say − but not until tomorrow!

John D. Kelly  

If you liked this essay by John D. Kelly you will also enjoy THE EKPHRASIS OF ABSTRACT AND MONOCHROMATIC PAINTINGS

John D. Kelly was awarded Silver Medal in the International Dermot Healy Poetry Competition in both 2015 and 2014

About the contributor

John D. Kelly lives in Co. Fermanagh. His work has appeared in various literary publications including Poetry Ireland Review, Magma, Skylight 47, Boyne Berries, Crannog, The Honest Ulsterman, O’ Bheal Five Words, The Stony Thursday Book, Galway Review, Fish Anthology, Poetry NI, etc. His manuscript was ‘Highly Commended’ in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award 2016. He was awarded Silver Medal in the International Dermot Healy Poetry Competition in both 2015 and 2014 and won first prize in Hungry Hill’s, Poets Meet Painters, competition in 2014. He is currently working on a first collection of poetry

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