Sunday, February 26, 2017

We Need to Talk About James Hutchings’ Poetry…

…And of course when I say, “We need to talk,” what I mean is, “I need to lecture you about.”

The mastermind behind Cirsova Magazine knew what he was doing when he commissioned “My Name Is John Carter” and spread it out over several issues.  He’s got me hooked on this literary drug, and every time he offers up another hit of this story, I’ll be right there sitting on the curb outside the Circle-K taking a hit.
For those of you who aren’t aware, “My Name Is John Carter” starts from a very simple premise: What if you retold “A Princess of Mars” not in prose form, but as a Homeric poem?

You might cringe at the blasphemic notion of twisting one of the all-time great books into long form poetry.  Sacrilege!  You would probably do that if, like me, your potential love of epic poetry was strangled in the crib by an education system that loves literary gimmicks above all else, that premise probably sounds tedious.  If, like me, your main experience with poetry consists of listening to the litanies of pointless phrases and empty alliteration spouted by “Poet Laureates” at the inaugurations of the God-Emperor’s predecessors or the dreary exercises thrust upon students in classrooms, you might even roll your eyes at the notion.
Slow that roll, my dude!

Hutchings strings rhythm and rhyme together to present a rollicking tale of adventure that is Homeric in scope, but that doesn’t pay the price of two thousand years of language and culture drift.  His wordplay is thoroughly modern, but no less epic.  Many writers fall head over heels in love with their own cleverness, but Hutchings dodges that trap by never letting his ingenious word choices overshadow the story itself.  To compare him to another classic poet, he writes poetry with the grace and style of a modern day Kipling.
I know what you’re thinking, but hold that thought for a few paragraphs.  Kipling’s neglect in American High School English classes is borders on child abuse.  Telling kids that poetry is great and then not exposing them to Kipling is like telling kids sculptures are great and then not showing them anything from the Renaissance period.  No art instructor worth his salt would fail to show students Michelangelo’s David as a prime example of just how good sculpture can be, and yet countless English teachers commit the same by showing students the literary equivalent of a statue made of used tampons.

Seriously, if the English teachers of America truly wanted to instill our youth with a love of poetry, they’d cram Kipling down their throats early and often, and leaven that fare with a light spice of Chesterton.  Trying to pawn off Maya Angelou as a worthy successor to these guys is like trying to pass a Big Mac off as prime rib.  Maya Angelou ain’t half bad.  Her craftsmanship is adequate, and her choice of subject matter is mostly inoffensive pap.  She might just be the best of what the modern poetry field has to offer, but holy cats is that damning the culture with faint praise.
Let’s get back to comparing Hutchings to Kipling.  Clearly, Hutchings comes off as second best in that comparison.  For one thing, Hutchings isn’t even telling his own tale – he’s ripping off Burroughs!  Granted, Kipling’s poems speak to universal truths of the human conditions and provide cutting and incisive insights into everything from war to romance and everything in between.  Kipling was a sage, a prophet, a patriot, and a realist all rolled into one.  Hutchings is just presenting a great tale, well told.

That aside – and admittedly it’s a pretty big “that” to set aside – Hutchings shares something very important with Kipling.  His word craft is clear and readable.
You wouldn’t think that would serve as high praise, and yet we’re talking about one eyed men in the land of the blind.  Like Kipling, Hutchings stands out amid a desolate wasteland of poetry marked by literary gimmickry specifically designed to block the reader’s attempts at understanding.  The modern way of poetry is to mystify, obscure, and block comprehension and understanding.  Modern poetry is an exercise in battle – the modern poets defy the reader to understand what he’s REALLY talking about, and the more obtuse the writing, the better.

Hutchings will have none of that.  There are four armed aliens to fight, princesses to save, and buckles to swash, and his rich and accessible word craft is as clever as it is unobtrusive.  Granted, his word choices often make me laugh out loud in awe at the sheer audacity of his writing, but it is the pure laughter of discovering an oasis in the midst of a desert.  That laughter is an expression of marvel that poetry could be used to such electric effect.  In Hutchings hands the choice of epic poetry fits hand in glove as a natural fit for retelling the saga of John Carter.  It harkens back to the days of oral tradition when poetry, rhythm, and rhyme were used to lend weight and meaning to the epic legends and histories.
In the end, and in the hands of James Hutchings, that simple premise gets turned on its head.  The question is not why tell John Carter’s saga in this manner, but why did it take so long to happen?

The only answer can be that it took a man with the talent and creativity of a Hutchings to get around to it.


  1. Glad you've been enjoying it. It's something that I knew wouldn't be to everyone's taste, but I've long been a fan of Hutchings's work (he's the main reason there is a Cirsova) and wanted to involve him in this project.

    Also, hopefully you'll find more good than bad in our 4th issue. In it, we were trying a lot of new things, since the extra-large format allowed for it, so we wanted to see what would stick, so to speak.

    1. I did find more good than bad. I've got a series of posts coming up reviewing every story in it. Not all of them worked for me, and a few missed greatness by -> this <- much. But as a double-stuffed issue it's hard to complain about a few duds. Plus, the good ones were *really* good.