I like to think that I’m not normally given to hyperbole but I’m coming to the view that 2011 was something quite special in the small corner of the world that is British innovative poetry. I’d first like to clarify what I mean by ‘landmark’: the third OED definition for the noun is “An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing”. I think it’s the idea of the turning-point that I’d like to emphasise in that last year saw the publication of a number of poems and one anthology that seemed to herald a new phase in the late modernist vein. All of these developments, when taken as a whole, may also signify a ‘broadening’ of the genre. This new phase seems to be about a readiness to explore themes in a new and (in some instances) subversive way and a greater consistency in quality or technical efficiency or poetical prowess (I know what I mean).
In 1971 ‘Crow’, ‘Brass’ and ‘The Mercian Hymns’ were published, all of these have been immensely influential and marked a distinct tear in the fabric of British poetry- it does seem to me that a very similar thing occurred in 2011. You will note that I’m avoiding using ‘rupture’ which is bandied about by many Foucauldians because I don’t think that’s what has happened, I don’t think these works signal the end of modernism and ‘tear’ is the best noun I can come up with right now.
Of course what follows is entirely a personal view and is based solely on my reactions but I do think that I’d be able to defend this particular perspective with a degree of success. Let’s begin with the startling, which Prynne claims as an essential feature in poetry. I have been most startled by the changes in direction produced by Jeremy Prynne, Simon Jarvis and Keston Sutherland because each of these have confounded and overgone my view and expectations of their work. The publication of the ‘Better Than Language’ anthology brought home to me that they are a group of young poets (i.e. under 30) who are immensely talented and producing some incredibly proficient and accomplished work. The year also saw the publication of Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Meddle English’ which is important for all sorts of reasons (see below).
I’ve had a bit of a think as to why momentous things might be occurring now and I think there might well be a variety of things going on with the way in which material is circulated and/or published and may also have something to do with the economics of printing but none of these factors explain why three of our leading poets decided to go against their own grain nor why there should be such a rich crop of talent in those young people born in the eighties (ish).
I now have to be reasonably careful and resist the temptation to get carried away with the inherent wrongness of some of this work, I also need to keep my fondness for the odd in check and demonstrate instead how these events will change the direction of poetry in English. Let’s think about the influence platitude, it is relatively straightforward to draw a straight line from J.H. Prynne to Keston Sutherland and then on to many of the poets in the ‘Better Than Language’ anthology and to talk about the pervasive presence of everything Cambridge. I think this is to miss the point because I think influence is much more complex than simply encouraging imitation. What influence does is that it gives attentive readers permission to think in new and different ways. For example, none of these younger poets has written a long poem about American imperialism that features an animal from children’s fiction but many of them do seem to have taken works like ‘Stress Position’ and ‘Document’ to make a poetics of their own.
So I don’t think we are seeing (at long last) Prynne’s presence in the work of younger poets but I do think we’re benefiting from a wide range of startling work from Timothy Thornton, Sarah Kelly, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Luke Roberts and many others who all seem intent on ‘making it new’.
There now follows a work by work account of the material in question and why I think each is so pivotal.
Long lines, disordered text, outline of the cross, kenosis, archaic themes of the sorrowful and/or returning God, Church Fathers, the workings of grace, masque and anti-masque, the face he wears to the bank, deeply confrontational and a radical performance on the page, emasculation and murderous dissolution, Cheryl and Ashley Cole, private security outfits as an instrument of foreign policy. I believe that’s a reasonable precis of what I’ve thus far been able to glean but what it does for the rest of us is that it enables us to consider the possibilities that it suddenly opens up, not to mention the two lines devoted to the British road network…
I still want to be Caroline Bergvall but the above is important because of its intelligence and the possibilities that it throws open. She does repetition really well and has a really strong grip on what matters-
Let’s imagine the midden of language. Robert Smithson brought a strong interest in geology to his views of language. Gordon Matta-Clark cut transversally through the structures of a condemned Paris apartment building. Let us cut a cross-section into building stacks of language. What gets revealed is history and ground. Or rather, ground history, compost, history as compost. Temporariness and excavation. Volatility, weathering and renewal.
and this from ‘Goam Atom’-
Trouble in the Hous
illy all tied up
says the EVERY HOST
about the herrings of this
twice culled more loved
All presently engage in a
It is worth pointing out that Bergvall should not be overlooked or diminished in any way because her work moves between the printed page and the art gallery, this is the work of someone who is doing new and wonderful things with language in a way that gives me permission to almost step outside of what I do and consider things as a child would- from the beginning.
Have now had this for only ten days but it is following me around the house. Some things can be said- there is only a fragile link with what has gone before and this probably heralds a change as radical as ‘Brass’ almost as if it’s a collision with his own circus, feels parodic in places, like it’s a ‘fake’ which calls brilliantly into question the whole collapse of authenticity that we’re starting to experience. The reference cues appear to be deliberately eclectic and some are inserted as block paragraphs into the text. Needless to say, nobody else is doing this, nobody else has thought of doing this, nobody else would do this, I didn’t consider for one moment that Prynne would do this. Provides too much to think about / argue with:
These are the markers of what’s there, what there is by necessity in the field of self-play and no player, deduct mentally. There is a garden in her face, when owls do cry, or if I live, or if I die. Molecular contradiction given out for taken aback, ‘each new distribution seems to contradict what preceded it; since there are no predictable continuities, one can only listen in the immediate present to each moment as it occurs.’
That’s a garden in her face and listening to moments in the immediate present…… Staggering, brilliant, bonkers and addictive. Again, it’ll take me a long time to work out just how much permission this gives.
Did I mention the parrot?
My newest copy of the ‘Odes to TL61P’ dates from March last year and I know that Keston has done a lot of work on it since. The drafts that I’ve seen contain this extraordinary blend of political analysis, confessional and an examination of our view of sexuality and desire in children- the copy I have also has the title ‘Paedohebeëpheboteleiophilia’. It is Sutherland’s must accomplished work to date and it’s also disturbing on many levels, as I’ve written in the past but I think it is also important to recognise the quite radical shift that this marks in Keston’s work and a major advance in how to ‘do’ political poetry. I must emphasise that it’s a landmark because it gives the rest of us permission to consider what is and isn’t appropriate in a poem and to re-cast those boundaries. I understand that it will be published later this year by an American publisher and must be read by everyone on the planet.
For the sceptics, here’s a brief extract-
The public loves to be told that it has to learn to expect
less, because everyone wants everyone else to have less,
and everyone is willing to have less himself if that is the
price for making everyone else but him have less. What a
cunt. The blood of virginity lost
in space, jouissance in the puissant stars, / life is a set up
same principle as the banking disaster
one love used to leverage another, one life
namely another renamed the next
by Vodaphone is the leverage for Buddha
the meek, whose metaphysical persistence of the person
in late Beethoven as in late adolescence
misbehaves like grinding teeth, moves in,
leaves its unwashed performance art shit all over the place
where what you say is what you do
without including less of you, pay attention
the fire drill in the family quad at lunchtime
is not cancelled in the end. You know that because this is
the end, and it is not cancelled yet; I will
likely not ever meet anyone I love so much as
you again; but I want to try some men before I die.
Better Than Language.
I rarely buy anthologies because I usually only like one or two of the anthologised and resent (in true Northern working class fashion) paying money for stuff that I’ll only read in order to decide how much I dislike it. ‘Better Than Language’ is the shining exception to this rule in that it is knee deep in talent throughout and declares the arrival of a disparate cohort of young poets who are demonstrating that there’s still a lot of life left in the modernist vein. As well as their technical ability, these poets (along with a number of others) are showing the rest of us what can and should be done with the poem. The range is broad and the quality is consistent throughout, although I would personally single out Timothy Thornton, Francesca Lisette, Jonty Tiplady and Sarah Kelly as favourites for very different reasons and, having written down those names, I realise that there’s also Joe Luna, Luke Roberts and Emily Critchley that also make me smile a lot and I still haven’t mentioned the astounding work that Jonny Liron is putting together….
I’m not going to quote favourite extracts because that would take for ever, all you have to do is proceed to the Ganzfeld Press site and part with a mere 10 English pounds and you should do this because in fifty years time lovers of poetry will still be reading it with more than a little reverence, and amking notes.