Tag Archives: Timothy Thornton

Defining literary poetry and its (contested) place

Last week I referred to Neal Pattison describing the English Intelligencer as having an ‘underdeveloped salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity’ which seems the sort of thing an editor would say- especially if we read ‘salience’ as a typo for ‘sapience’. I was going to do something big and bold about the nature of the contest(s) but then I realised that I don’t actually know what a ‘literary’ poem is.

‘Literary’ could refer to poems that aspire to the status of literature but this merely shifts the problem. It could also mean poems that use recognised and established forms or perhaps poems with ‘serious’ themes but then we get into deciding what is serious and what isn’t. Then there’s the attention divide by which (following Keston Sutherland) the difference between those poems that can be grasped or understood on a first reading and those that require additional attention. A further troubling thought occurs to me- could the literary poem have the same status as the literary novel? This is troubling that particular label is now a marketing device rather than having anything much to do with content.

Then there is the individual poet, are Prynne and Hill literary poets and, if so, why? Can the same be said of Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery or Kenneth Goldsmith?

The final and equally troubling doubt that occurs to me is that the literary poem may be the one that includes;

  • foreign words and phrases;
  • references to obscure figures;
  • references and allusions that aren’t ‘signalled’ as such;
  • unusual syntax
  • words that the OED consider to be obscure and/or archaic;
  • words where a secondary and much less well-known meaning is intended;
  • what J H Prnne has described as ‘radical ambiguity.

Are these the characteristics that I’m looking for? Can it be the case that literary actually simply means difficult?

Then there’s the possibility that literary poetry is that which gets reviewed in the three main lit comics, in which case words like ‘dismal’ and ‘vanishingly mediocre’ spring to mind.

Given that I am blessed with impeccable readerly taste, there is the argument that literary refers to the stuff that I like although this doesn’t stand up because Eliot clearly intended ‘The Four Quartets’ to qualify as literature and it does seem to be viewed in this way by the majority even though I really don’t like it. It could be argued that the literary is a fickle beast and that it moves about as tastes and academic trends change. This may be so but I am prepared to bet a fair amount of cash on the chances of Becket and Celan being consistently though of in this way for the next couple of centuries.

<before thinking about contemporary poets, it is probably as well to see if the OED offers any kind of help:

  • of or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature. Also in early use: relating to letters or learning;
  • of or relating to the letters of the alphabet, or (occas.) another set of letters or symbols used as an alphabet;
  • that is communicated or conducted by correspondence by letter; epistolary;
  • of a person or group: engaged in the writing or critical appreciation of works of literature; having a thorough knowledge of literature; spec. engaged in literature as a profession;
  • of language: having characteristics associated with works of literature or other formal writing; refined, elegant;
  • appearing in literature or books; fictional;
  • Of the visual arts, music, etc.: concerned with depicting or representing a story or other literary work; that refers or relates to a text; that creates a complex or finely crafted narrative like that of a work of literature.

Incidentally, the Oxford Historical Thesaurus provides ‘staffly’ and ‘bookish’ as alternatives and I’m becoming fond of both. Leaving out the ‘literature’ tautologies, it is possible to tease out a few revealing adjectives- refined, elegant, thoroughly knowledgeable, complex and finely crafted. The astute amongst you will note that there is nothing here about being aesthetically pleasing or deeply meaningful, indeed it could be argued that the literary poem is far more about form than content and that (by these standards) Elizabeth Bishop is the literary poet par excellence.

British poets that write in a late modernist vein have an odd relationship with the literary because (in my head) the one defining characteristic is seriousness or gravitas and some of the finest pieces of this kind of poetry gets its strength from its lack of refinement and inelegance. Most of it does fit with complex and knowledgeable but there are strong late modernist poems that aren’t finely crafted.

The conceptualists present a different kind of challenge, Kenneth Goldsmith’s verbatim transcripts of traffic and weather reports and sports commentary don’t in themselves meet any of the above criteria, indeed part of their ‘point’ is there immense banality but Goldsmith and others would argue that the idea (concept) can be judged in those terms even though this view is still considered heretical in some circles because it is ‘about’ neither form nor content in the traditional sense.

The final point of these ruminations relates to groups, are the ‘Movement’ poets, the ‘Beats’ and members of the Cambridge School literary simply because these groupings have achieved a certain academic recognition? Does this kind of recognition or label now constitute the literary?

Thinking about the younger generation of British poets, the work of Timothy Thornton strikes me as the one that best meets the above criteria, that ‘Jocund Day’ and ‘Trails’ may also embody the lyricism that the literary also entails for me. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonny Liron seems to be intent on destroying the literary in a very complex and thoughtful way, as is Jonty Tiplady.

J H Prynne’s vow to collide head-on with the unwitty circus that was and is the literary establishment would require us to look at his work as anti-literary but it is too complex, refined and knowledgeable for that. Geoffrey Hill is more clearly writing in a literary manner and yet makes use of weak jokes and imitations of stand-up comedians in his finest work. John Ashbery’ work is refined and elegant, sounds complex and knowledgeable and is loved by the literary comics- the only problem is that most of it is emptily meaningless and the poems that aren’t are the ones that attack the idea of meaning.

With regard to David Jones, ‘In Parenthesis’ can be said to be more literary than ‘The Anathemata’ because it has a better elegance/complexity balance but ‘The Anathemata’ is the better poem.

A final thought, Neil Pattison writes literary poetry that meets all of these criteria whilst managing to remain firmly in the late modernist (Cambridge faction) vein.

This may not have been a very productive line of inquiry but it has narrowed the ground for thinking in the near future about whether this material actually has any kind of ‘role’ or place in cultural modernity and whether reading ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ does move us forward as Neil claims.

Reading Poetry the Bayesian Way

Michael Woolf - Bastard chairs Project

Having started to pay attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, I’ve been forcefully reminded of my own scientific ignorance by the sad fact that I don’t understand even the explanation of the explanation of Van der Waals forces. Some time ago I also decided that the understanding of protein folding might be Quite Important but I can only follow even the most basic reports with extensive use of the OED because, to quote Hill, I don’t have the science.

This isn’t normally a problem in that I can get by / function in the world without scientific literacy but as an auto-dictat it now annoys me that I’ve ignored this stuff since I was 12. In an attempt to assuage this angst, I’ve been looking through scientific comics to see if there’s anything that I can attempt to access without too much furrowing of the brow.

Looking through last year’s ‘Science’ comics I fell across one containing an article entitled ‘How to grow a mind: Statistics, Structure and Abstraction’ which I think I’m beginning to understand and I am finding it useful to think about the way that I read ‘difficult’ poetry and how mis or over readings might occur.

The authors of the article start by asking how it is that we can build up knowledge from so little data. They give the example that small children learn what a horse or a hairbrush is and can apply this knowledge after very limited exposure to examples. They use a ‘Bayesian’ or ‘probabilistic’ model to explain this and (this is important) I understand most of it.

Before going any deeper into the science and sums, I’d like to use a few poetic examples of the fruits of paying attention and drawing inference. There’s a line from Keston Sutherland that refers to the dire situation in Northern Mexico that I read as a reference to a bankrupt chain of booksellers, there’s a trope used by Timothy Thornton that I took to be a reference to the Latin verb to love but isn’t – although we both agree that it should be. I understand Prynne’s reference to the foreland in ‘Streak Willing’ to be a reference to the original four Irish provinces and his repeated use of ‘speak parrot’ (once in English and once in Latin) to be a reference to the John Skelton poem of the same name. In each of this instances it turns out that I have been applying Bayes’s rule and this pleases me because I think I can now put a bit more structure on the way I think about this ‘paying attention’ to poetry business.

We now have a slight digression on statistics. I find that I understand statistical probability on a fairly instinctive way. I know this because I can still recall my reaction to learning the statistics with regard to being over 50 and having a bipolar disorder. The numbers in question are: suicide attempt (70%) and successful suicide (20%) and the only further detail that I needed was that one in five relates to the total number of people with the condition and not the 70%. This was a very big slap in the face and ever since I’ve taken a much more active interest in my care and have been much more proactive in obtaining the services that I feel I need. I did not find out how these figures were arrived at nor whether there were any other variables. In terms of prevention it would seem that lithium might be beneficial for attempts but this may be due to patients who are drug compliant might be less likely to do themselves in. What I’m trying to say is that I’d like to think of myself as a creative esoteric type who has a distant relationship with calculations and numbers but I also know that my reaction to these numbers was immediate and unfiltered- i.e. that 7 in ten and 1 in 5 are both lousy odds.

Anyone who has read poetry that is considered to be difficult will know that engagement initially depends on using probability to work with sparse data. For example, I don’t know that Prynne’s ‘grow up to main’ refers to Ulster Protestant anxiety about demographic trends but I can demonstrate that such an inference does have more than a chance of being correct. Of course that also depends on the level of likelihood that the recent civil war is one of the themes of the ‘Streak Willing’ sequence and both of these depend on information acquired prior to reading the poem and what feels like a rough calculation of the odds.

If we think of difficult lines or phrases as what the article decsribes as ‘latent variables’ i.e. data that is unobserved or hidden from us then the Bayesian rule can be applied.

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign
yours grow up to main, leaf round and round the
cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm
same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

There are many latent variables in the above, one of the many pleasures of paying attention to Prynne is that each and every phrase may contain data that has several different meanings. I’ve chosen ‘grow up to main’ because it’s one phrase that appears to point in a reasonably specific direction and is one that I’ve used in my head to work out what the Bayesian rule might be.

This is the passage that struck home with me:

Bayesian inference gives a rational framework for updating beliefs about latent variables in generative models given observed data. Background knowledge is encoded through a constrained space of hypotheses H about possible values for the latent variables, candidate world structures that could explain the observed data. Finer-grained knowledge comes in the “prior probability” P(h), the learner’s degree of belief in a specific hypothesis h prior to (or independent of) the observations. Bayes’s rule updates priors to “posterior probabilities” P(h|d) conditional on the observed data .

The posterior probability is proportional to the product of the prior probability and the likelihood P, measuring how expected the data are under hypothesis h, relative to all other hypotheses h′ in H.

(I’ve removed the quite scary sum that occurs in the middle of this because I don’t understand it and because of the limitations of the WordPress formatting monster.)

The constraining of hypotheses in poetry reading terms is the narrowing down of an infinite number of subjects to ones suggested or alluded to elsewhere in the sequence and knowledge of what Prynne tends to write about. Both of these would point to politics – imperialism – recent conflicts – Iraq, Afghanistan, Ulster and further refinement led me to Ulster as a constrained hypothesis as to what the sequence may be about.

‘Prior probability’ turns out to refer to the extent/depth/strength of my belief that ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ is about Northern Ireland and the Bayesian rule looks at the impact of my understanding of the new data (‘grow up to main’) on this hypothesis to produce the posterior probability referred to above.

Given that the phrase doesn’t make grammatical sense, I ran through a number of possibilities- ‘main’ as the sea and this being a reference to sons running away to sea in the traditional manner or ‘main’ as in the most important or central or controlling part at which point a connection was made in my head with the view that the only reason the Protestant factions came to the negotiating table was that demographic trends indicated that the Catholics were destined to become the majority anyway and that it was best to share power now rather than become the victims of persecution once that moment was reached.

I find with Prynne and Celan that there are very few certainties and that every readerly judgement has to be made on probabilities. I’m also aware that, having come to this insight, I become more entrenched in my view and less likely to consider other probabilities simply because I haven’t thought of them. The other thing that I’ve done to increase the posterior probability is to point to such unarm / same peril as pointing or referring to the same way of thinking as in “we’re going to have to face this point whether we disarm or not” which is very satisfying and only slightly let down by the ‘Me’ that precedes it.

The other value of the Bayesian rule is to think about where the reading has produced the ‘wrong’ or unintended interpretation. In retrospect it turns out that I was so carried away with my ‘insight’ that I forgot about the odds.

The only qualm that I have about this is that it seems a bit too smooth, I don’t do these things in a linear way, my arrival at a posterior probability may contain many competing hypotheses and I may come up with a solution / possibility when engaged on another task but it does seem to present a broad outline of how I pay attention to this kind of material. What’s interesting is the confirmation that the appreciation of poetry may not be some left-field intuitive event but may be based on hard calculation…..

A Dionysus Crucified Miscellany

The top half of page 9 of Dionysus Crucified


Bottom half of page 9 of Dionysus Crucified

The above images are cropped screenshots of the layout work done by Timothy Thornton prior to the publication of the poem. There is a Greek character missing from the top centre of the lower image but the rest is a faithful representation (with the exception of the outline of the cross) of the text as it appears in the printed copy. You’ll need to use your browsers zoom gizmo to get a better idea of the text.

In the book, the outline a cross is placed over the text obliterating or occluding some of it. The lower line of the right arm of the cross goes through the line that begins ‘It now to’ although it is possible to make out ‘the’ and ‘daughter collect’. The other word is unreadable. ‘ROME’ is split so that only the top two thirds are visible, The ‘L’ in ‘CURIAL’ is only discernible if you look very hard. Both the first and last ‘d’ in ‘Doesn’t understand’ have vertical line running through them. The ‘U’ in the curving ‘STRING UP’ is almost completely hidden.

I have no idea what this might intend or signify but, given the Jarvis track record, it is likely to be more than whimsical pretence.

It is possible to discern the following phrases from the top half of the page:

  1. STRING UP;
  2. error suspect;
  3. TIE HIM DOWN AGAIN;
  4. Petrine madrasa / Erastian patrols
  5. CODE RED;
  6. MEANS CURIAL ROME THREAT.

‘Erastian’ relates to the ‘superiority’ of the state over the church but the notion of an Erastian patrol is mystifying and I’ll take a long while to get to grips with ‘Petrine madrasas’.

What might also be relevant is that this occurs after a lengthy dialogue between Dionysus and Pentheus at the end of which Pentheus appears to meet his unfortunate end. The prose section after this is a monologue from some kind of security officer in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are other parts of the poem that can’t be read from left to right and there are also parts which are intended to be read out loud by two voices together. In order to make more sense of this aspect of this remarkable poem, I’ve obtained this report from Timothy Thornton who provided the second voice when the poem was given its first public reading in July-

just a few notes, from my point of view, on what Simon and I got up
to. It wasn’t announced that we were reading together, which I think
Simon probably quite liked, as the whole thing was probably quite
surprising: he was careful that we made no introduction beforehand,
but launched straight in with the reading. The first two syllables
were, as rendered in the international phonetic alphabet on the front
of the book, “ssh”. He also performed the schwas — everything on the
cover was read except the title, subtitle, publishing information, and
author name. Simon said he wasn’t sure how to “perform” the box
cutting through SUBDITHYRAMB-TRAP-COMPONENT, but the first
struckthrough “abk” he simply said while clamping his mouth shut with
his hand.

We stood very still throughout, at the back of the stage, and someone,
I forget who, pointed out that we were both following the score very
intently even when not performing, except for one moment in particular
(I’ll mention it later). It was deliberately a fairly dramatic reading
— Simon is capable of an extremely hushed but still very
well-projected tone, which, from Pi’s phrases beginning “What’s that I
can hear?”, made for a truly intense and arresting sound. Certainly
these are long stretches of text, and he read page two very slowly.

I read the opening of page one — in fact, throughout, I read Delta
and Simon read Pi. In the dialogue sections we ended up modulating
tone instinctively, I think, though Simon pointed out that by the
exchange of “Peacekeeper” / “Beekeeper” it should almost have reached
a level of jeering, playground-taunt hoquetus.

Simon had suggested beforehand that one of the chorus sections (the
one beginning halfway down the first page) we actually read together,
with him leading, and my starting each line as soon as possible after
he had. In the end, having tried this, I found it instinctively easier
to try to match him, syllable for syllable as much as I could. Simon’s
delivery here was extraordinary and was a kind of fevered
sprechgesang, probably in quite a high baritone but with extreme
variations in pitch that I wouldnt know: in any case, what he’d
suggested is that I speak the lines, contrastingly, as
matter-of-factly as possible. In the brief run through which we had, I
found, again by instinct, that I wanted to speak these lines as a kind
of drone or pedal, getting my voice as low as possible while still
being loud enough to match Simon. I found I liked the sound this made
so much I suggested doing it for the third chorus as well (halfway
down the page with the cross); Simon agreed.

For the second chorus (top of p.3), Simon recited, in German, the poem
of which the section is “a mutated double translation” –

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wandrers_Nachtlied#Ein_Gleiches.

What else? The cross page: Simon requested that the top section of
this page was one in which I showed audible disinterest (clearing
throat, coughing, whistling if I could — I can’t — humming –
whatever it was “in as desultory a fashion as you can manage”), while
he whispered the text as loudly as he could. Then, straight back into
another chorus section.

For the lines on the messenger page, the layout of which I’ve
mentioned before — probably easiest to quote Simon exactly on this:
“Page 9: Messenger’s speech. I will read the main body of this,
prefacing it with the announcement ‘Messenger’. But you will read the
small fragments of interrupting text which appear at the right margin
(viz. from ‘impaled on the fir’ to ‘final & cold demise’). In each
case you will read each phrase as soon as I have finished the line to
the left of it, whilst I shall continue on to the next line
regardless.”

The next page, the canticle, Simon sung in a strident, loud voice,
those parts taken from the Magnificat in the Book of Common Prayer;
the tunes were improvised and dodecaphonic. I spoke, intoned, let’s
say “bellowed”, the other words in the canticle, without much
expression or inflection, just trying to be loud enough to be heard.
In the run-through we decided it’d be good to carry the tone I was
having to adopt in the canticle back into the short phrases with which
I was interrupting the messenger’s speech — so they were pretty
violently delivered too. (Simon marked up a copy for me; I wouldn’t
have known which sections of the canticle to read, otherwise). We did
not make /too/ much effort to synchronize, here, but I paused
occasionally so that we were, for the most part, in the same place on
the page, and both finished the oval-shaped block of text at the top
of the page at around the same time.

The melody-fragments to which Simon sung his parts of the canticle
were improvised but I think did have a logic to them in terms of a
lasting interest in the settings of the canticles; he mentioned having
listened to many of them, and, specifically “World without end” he
sung to a phrase from a setting by Kenneth Leighton. The last two
lines were sung in the usual style, but with a deliberately bum note
on “queen”. Then we quickly closed the book at the same time
(throughout, I’d found myself trying to match the timing of such
page-turn gestures as closely as possible, the tightness and
synchronization appealed to me) and ducked back into the audience.

I enjoyed it tremendously; certainly it’s one of the oddest
performances I’ve ever been involved in — and Simon’s readings of
pages two and three were genuinely spooky. I was almost derailed at
one point because I’d forgotten that the poem is also funny.

Timothy tells me that another reading is in the offing and that Jarvis intends to do it differently. I’ve included the above because of the additional musical and performative elements that aren’t obvious from the text. This brings into question whether the performed poem takes priority over the printed version and whether the poet needs to be involved in the reading/performance on every occasion. Timothy’s account also gives a clearer indication of some of the intention/method behind the poem which is an additional help for those of us who are still getting to grips with it. Whilst I think I’ve got the main themes worked out and understand how the sections relate to each other, I now need to add the musical dimension nd rethink the poem as a whole with performance more to the fore….

Timothy Thornton’s ‘Trails’

(This has been edited in response to Chris Goode’s comments below)

There are two versions of ‘Trails’ currently available from the Deterritorial Support Group site and they are very different so readers should download both. Earlier this year I wrote about Jocund Day with enthusiasm and admiration and these newer poems give me the opportunity to expand on that and consider Timothy’s work in further depth. Before getting on to the poems, I need to mention that I am one of the 560 people who follow Timothy on Twitter. This is relevant to what follows.

Both these poems are political and oneof them relate to the demonstrations about this regime’s ‘austerity’ schemes. I have a reasonably negative view of political poems and I’m more than a little cynical about ‘kettling’ poems and I think I need to explain these prejudices in greater depth. Being against the austerity measures devised by the particularly dismal government is an easy position to take and (consequently) being against a the tactics used by the primary instruments of class oppression is more than a little naive because the police will always be used to contain any political initiative that dares to take to the streets. So, I don’t find anti government and/or anti police polemic in poetry very interesting or useful and I have yet to be convinced that poetry is an appropriate way of doing politics. The first version of ‘Trails is also a response to the Stokes Croft ‘riots’ in Bristol earlier this year which is a much more nuanced event and one which may well require a poetic response.

Stokes Croft was about Tesco’s intention to move a store into an area where it wasn’t wanted or needed and also about squatting as a legitimate lifestyle. It is relatively easy to paint both these issues as being about economics and the priority given to profit but Stokes Croft is also (primarily) about place which is n excellent subject for grown up poetry.

The following facts may be helpful in reading version 1:
1. Alain de Botton is a figure of fun and derision whose name is frequently played around with on Timothy’s Twitter posts. In ‘real’ life he is a writer without much talent and a fully paid up member of the Great British chatterati even though he is Swiss.
2. Nigel Pargetter was a character in ‘The Archers’, a long running BBC radio soap, he was killed off earlier this year, the photographs at the end of the poem are of Graham Seed who played Pargetter. Timothy has been known to comment on ‘The Archers’ on Twitter.
3. Timothy is also a Dr Who fan.
4. Wikipedia has this to say about Cordyceps- “When a Cordyceps fungus attacks a host, the mycelium invades and eventually replaces the host tissue, while the elongated fruiting body (ascocarp) may be cylindrical, branched, or of complex shape. The ascocarp bears many small, flask-shaped perithecia contain the asci. These in turn contain the thread-like ascospores, which usually break into fragments and are presumably infective. Some Cordyceps species are able to affect the behavior of their insect host: Cordyceps unilateralis causes ants to climb a plant and attach there before they die. This ensures the parasite’s environment is at an optimal temperature and humidity and maximal distribution of the spores from the fruiting body that sprouts out of the dead insect is achieved. Marks have been found on fossilised leaves which suggest this ability to modify the host’s behaviour evolved more than 48 million years ago.”
5. Professor Brian Cox is the UK’s current face of science and all things cosmic, his personal hero is Carl Sagan whose style he seeks to emulate.

So, ‘Trails 1′ may be a political poem but it’s also using political strife to say wider things about national identity and about sexual desire. It’s also a very honest poem, by which I think I mean that there is nothing here simply for effect and that the ‘stance’ adopted is utterly genuine. The lyricism which was prominent in ‘Jocund Day’ seems to have acquired a greater degree of intensity and the tone has become more urgent.

I think the following passage illustrates this and also epitomises the almost joyous rebellion that fills the poem:

the city broke “suspended neath the sky near snapped and brilliant-blue”
between as something resembling a shifting transparency showing a crude Windows 95 "fire" screensaver over-
laid on a like transparency this time a torpedo heartily fucking an aqueduct from an angle of thirty point five
degrees itself overlaid on a rope of fucked hearts slung from the John Cabot Tower tearing a spine down
to Stokes Croft every time on the tarmac thudding these wet bloodied teabags a distant henge of Vagrants detect
a low hum and look up: NATURE DOCUMENTARIES the Cordyceps fungus which entered their brain on a feeder wrong
they ascend
the Pylons spinnerets orgasming quite beyond orgasm: hold with the breeze: pause: webs: for a half

second:
hang and at
last is the em-spaced game: over but not before Life (that's a thing) itself blinks
over and up into what
really could only be called a Big Boss Level, which always happens: we know this: to Winning
a tidy corollary:
having ascended the Pylons in bodily pure anaphora our deployables link arms like in that

I hope this demonstrates what I see as Thornton’s lyrical strength and the radical intelligence of his work. I’m particularly impressed by ‘a rope of fucked hearts’, ‘these wet bloodied teabags a distant henge of Vagrants detect’ and ‘last is the em-spaced game: over but not before Life (that’s a thing) itself blinks’, all of which suggest a major talent currently evolving before our very eyes. The two ‘Trail’ poems are more confident and ‘free’ than the remarkable ‘Jocund Day’. I’d also like to point out that it takes a lot of guts and skill to insert ‘(that’s a thing)’ and bring it off with aplomb.

There’s also in the first part of the above a very skilled piece of verbal camera work that, without us being fully aware, takes us through a site of struggle, the use of ‘heartily’ in this particular context opens up a whole realm of thoughts and ideas- as in eagerly or hungrily or enthusiastically or as in of the heart or as in some pastiche of Edwardian adventure stories for boys. I have to admit that I’m a great fan of words used in surprising and/or idiosyncratic ways and this (like Francesca Lisette’s use of ‘flounce’) is brilliantly evocative.

I do however have one very minor quibble, neither ‘corollary’ nor ‘anaphora’ feel quite right, almost as if they’re visiting from another poem. Both seem to run counter to what precedes them in tone and register but that’s probably because I have a fairly fixed idea of what that tone is aiming for. And I’m probably wrong.

I have on a couple occasions expressed the view that poems should end well and the final stanza of ‘Trails I’ ends brilliantly because of how it manages to turn oppressive authority into something that can be used against itself and at the same time manages to be funny. The reason why endings are important is that attentive readers need to know that the poem has actually ended and the line of thought has come to a conclusion. Some ‘innovative’ poems fail to do this and readers are left either hanging in the air or feeling let down. These five lines act as both a reprise for the main themes and the last line delivers a quite startling full stop.

We now come to the delight that is the second ‘Trails’ poem which is both very humane and deeply honest. Anyone who follows Thornton’s posts on Twitter (which is an unfolding work of art) will instantly recognise the beleaguered figure trying to defend his fish and chips in the park. As a new found devotee of repetition, I’m fascinated by the use of ‘capitalism is an actual thing, I have seen it’ which feels like a Jarvis / Sutherland style swing at us deluded relativists but it is incredibly effective. For those unaware of the details of British politics, Michael Gove is our current Secretary of State for education who used to be a journalist and is the walking embodiment of ‘the chinless wonder’. With regard to the use of block capitals, this is an essential part of the Thornton project, yesterday’s tweets contained- “FOX!!! FOX IN THE GARDEN” and “EAT THE BASIL”. In years to come, when he has gained the recognition that he richly deserves, academics will take delight in arguing over the relevance and ‘meaning’ of these stylistic variations. For the time being, ‘Trails 2′ makes me smile. A lot.

Good poetry often kicks off a chain of thoughts that end up in odd but satisfying places. So, I’ve been pondering whether or not capitalism can be described as a thing and (if it can) what might this thing resemble. I’ve glided effortlessly over the first part of this but I have come up with the following-

1. A smooth glistening machine that sits in the corner of the world. And hums.
2. A vampire creature that can only be killed in a very complex and time-consuming way.
3. A heretical set of beliefs that are now referred to as ‘common sense’
4. An unfortunate paradox which can only exist/thrive in the gap between first world obesity and the 900 million that don’t have enough to eat.
5. Five dogs with tongues in the park.
6. A wet Thursday afternoon on the way to Seaton Carew (by public transport).

It’s at this point that I return to the first part of the question which is probably quite entertainingly complex so long as we’re careful to avoid anything that might be even vaguely Marxian…

Francesca Lisette: the Facts.

  1. Francesca Lisette writes incomparably stunning poetry that is embedded in the now;
  2. She has that rare talent of being able to say new things in new ways;
  3. Already her work shows a control over language that most of us can only dream of and wonder at;
  4. Those of us who recognise the above have a responsibility to write about her work with great care.

I’ve spent the last four months avoiding doing this. I’m confident that I can make a very strong case for all of the above facts but worry enormously about fact 4. As I said on an earlier post, Timothy Thornton and I did spend an hour or so on Twitter trying to come up with the ‘right’ thing to say about Lisette’s work and I came up with ‘raggedly defiant’ which is reasonably close but doesn’t express how good, in the sense of technical competence, she is. I’m also aware that I’m bored with the way that I currently say things about poetry so I’m going to true something new and identify (at some length) how I personally react to this stuff. The following observations are based on work published in ‘Better Than Language’, ‘Grasp no.5′ and the Claudius App.

The following elements are entirely subjective and deeply personal and have no theoretical justification whatsoever.

The smile effect

Good poetry makes me smile and really good poetry makes me smile a lot. This has to do with being impressed by the poet’s abilities especially in terms of phrasing and image creation but also in the knowledge that someone else thinks and cares about poetry and language as much as I do and that recognition of something shared. Lisette’s phrases and images are startlingly impressive. We have ‘a fierce matrimony of hurt lust and gunpowder’, ‘speechless with depth, we relinquish flounce’ and ‘Complete a thought, tho’ not before plucking out paper elbows, frotting boxes with ticks, juicing quarterly sermons within slip of an eye; play on.’. All of these make me smile a lot because of the element of surprise and the obvious delight in language but also because the strength of this stuff draws me in and encourages my readerly participation in this complex doing of poetry. At this point the smile turns into a grin.

Cleverness angst

I am a cleverness tart and this causes a whole raft of problems. I like to think that I’m fairly bright and, as an autodidact, I am remarkably free of the anxieties that Bourdieu describes. Tartdom does however mean that I’m overly ready to be impressed by clever people- I initially admired Obama’s cleverness and deployment of ‘proper’ rhetoric for example although I don’t think I was moved to the rampant optimism that gripped the American left. Underpinning this admiration is the sad fact that I get bored and distracted really easily and that clever stuff written by clever people usually keeps me occupied. The real downside with this tartdom is the lingering suspicion that something is clever for the sake of being clever rather than saying anything substantial or that the cleverness is being used to hide the fact that the material isn’t very good. The sense of betrayal when this realisation eventually arrives can be quite dramatic, I sulked for weeks when I realised that ‘The Four Quartets’ fell into this category.

Lisette is a clever poet who produces clever material but this is a fierce intelligence rather than being (merely) knowledgeable. There are very, very few foreign phrases and most of these are reasonably familiar, there are now obscure references to obscure figures or events but there is cleverness in abundance that both excites and throws down the gauntlet. As with other really accomplished poets, Lisette takes the reader’s head for a walk to new and exhilarating places which demonstrate how different ways of thinking are possible/feasible/essential.

I realise that this is a bold claim but I do have evidence. ‘What Continues’, the second poem on the Claudius App is an example of several very clever things being done at once, the theme is complex, the poem is technically accomplished with each quatrain forming an autonomous block, the ending is utterly brilliant and the sense of emotional depth and integrity is palpable. Of course I may be proved entirely wrong but this is authentic, undiluted cleverness and not some over-dressed frippery that is all too prevalent in poetry today.

Politics

I was once ‘against’ political poetry in all its forms. The reasons for this are twofold, the first being that poetry is really bad (inept) at ‘doing’ politics per se and the second is that most poets are decidedly weak on most kinds of political analysis and action. Chris Goode in his ‘Better than Language anthology remarks on the ‘anti=capitalist’ stance of his contributors as if this is in some way significant. Of course it is relatively common for anyone with half a brain cell to be against the global obscenity that is the unfettered and entirely pernicious free market but the real ‘trick’ is articulating an alternative that isn’t simply a re-hash of the usual Marxian fantasies. A feasible alternative (given where we are) is reasonably difficult to get our brains around never mind constructing it in poetic form. One of the very few things that unite J H Prynne and Vanessa Place is a commitment to showing how things are rather than how they ought to be which, for a whole range of reasons, is the only viable mode for poetry.

Francesca Lisette writes defiant, uncompromising and extreme political poetry and therefore I should hate it. The above position isn’t consistently applied however- Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ escapes outright condemnation because it manages to do many more things than ‘just’ critique our involvement in the Iraq fiasco. Lisette escapes too because of this and also because the delivery is so skilled and controlled. The following is the middle section from ‘Heterosexu-Normative, or, / Lines on the Spectacularization of Radical Dismemberment':

Golluped tongue felt so sweetly, thresh into paranormal pre-dawn
&/ or morning stipulate check her answer against
flesh ice-light
because when I sit down to write of love horns shake
me out of intention, plain-vested stars leap in
perfect symmetry meanwhile diskette chew-toys
rampage past the train argument snaggled in
your discomfit-ready for
a new age crumbling
in mouth
as stiff plenty would have it.

Have I mentioned that Lisette is physically incapable of writing a bad line? There is an enormous amount going on the above yet it doesn’t feel forced or deliberately compressed, it reads so that you overlook the work and skill that’s gone into it. Charles Olson and John Matthias does this but Lisette does it with more passion and elan.

I hope that it will be noted that thus far I have avoided the usual set of adjectives but I can no longer resist- essential, crucial, important, challenging, uncompromising, hardcore, deadly serious, implacable. That feels better.

Better than language and ‘queer praxis’

Before we start I need to make an important announcement, at long last Timothy Thornton’s ‘Jocund Day’ is now available for sale from the Mountain Press site. I’ve written about this before and I don’t propose to repeat myself other than to say that it’s important and only costs five of your very best English pounds. I also note that Mountain Press is going to publish work by another three of my favourites, Neil Pattison, Luke Roberts and Francesca Lisette all of which we ought to get excited about.
Also published this summer is ‘Better Than Language’, an anthology of younger poets put together by Chris Goode. Let me say at the outset that we all owe Chris an enormous debt of gratitude for putting together material of such high quallity. Before I get on to the poetry, I’d like to give some consideration to some of the things that Chris says in his introduction. I don’t normally pay much attention to introductions but I read this one because I wanted to know how someone else would ‘frame’ this material and because the collection contains an incredible amount of strong material. There is much in the introduction that I agree with but there are two things that I’d like to take (tentative) issue with. The first is-

In fact queer praxis – whether or not the term itself would be gladly accepted by the poets considered – stands out as an important influence on much of the writing collected here. Returning again and again to the body, and to erotics, and especially to performance as both theme and modality, many of these poets are working inventively with language and forms through which they seek to evade or disturb or infect or destabilise the normativities of patriarchy, gender and sexuality. For some more than others, this reflects their own lived experience, for none of them, though, I think is it a matter of identity politics exactly. Rather this sense of queerness which runs through so much of the anthology (reflecting in part, to be fair, my own editorial interests no less than some generational tendency) is plainly continuous with a clear thread of anticapitalist thougt and ideation that, again, comes through more strongly in some places than others, but is almost always present, as in the most delicate love poem as in the boldest most amped-up geopolitical bulletin.

I’ve quoted this at length because I don’t wish to be guilty of cherry picking in order to make a point. I want to start by acknowledging that I am thoroughly straight in terms of sexual orientation and that I am about thirty years older than most of Goode’s contributors. I’m also ignorant of the latest trends in sexual politics. I do like to think that I might know something about the doing of poetry and have to query whether the first sentence of the above is altogether helpful in terms of what follows. The most obvious point is that nobody talks about ‘straight’ praxis yet this is the obvious other side of Goode’s coin. To be fair, he does acknowledge his own ‘editorial interests’ when talking about ‘this sense of queerness’ but it isn’t for me the most unifying factor in the collection and is probably less than helpful for those approaching these poets for the first time.
The single most unifying theme for me in these poems is the description and expression of desire together with a sense of unaffected honesty. The first quality has been notoriously absent from English culture for the past few centuries and I hope to give some examples below of the refreshingly frank expressions contained in this material.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed editorial board has little time for dishonest or overly mannered verse, in fact we tend to condemn dishonesty as the gravest possible sin which frequently gets in the way of otherwise accomplished work. I have to report that I have yet to come across a single dishonest poem in this collection although there will be a discussion on the mannered in what follows.
The other brief quibble relates to the Cambridge School’s Brighton Faction and all things Keston Sutherland- I have to say that Goode’s description of the influence of Sutherland and Bonney on the work is a little misleading and his attempt to place in the tired old debates about the Cambridge School only serves to perpetuate a way of thinking that is rapidly becoming irrelevant.
The poets in the anthology are Sarah Kelly, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Joe Luna, Nat Raha, Linus Slug, Josh Stanley, Timothy Thornton, Anna Ticehurst, Jonty Tiplady, Mike Wallace-Hadrill, Tomas Weber and Steve Willey. I’ve written before in praise of Lisette, Luna and Thornton and their work here matches that level of quality. The Thornton section contains extracts from ‘Jocund Day’ and from ‘Pestregiment’ which was first published in 2009. I have a copy of the original and in many ways it’s a pity that all of it wasn’t printed here because that would give mre of an idea of Thornton’s range. This stanza is probably the most ambitious of the four included here:

Your Albion slack having eaten mandrakes under brute
encouragement pales slacker. Settlement only eyot aerial
just drive you, filamentous outgrowth of a bitch, escaped
dead mesh sifting. Clock: that sounds like something
you should definitely never do. Kids wave out the Volvo
to the pyres and a dog. They hangman posit, they, they uh,
lawns just perform said anything about Shropshire just
three-point the hell to grips with this software now only
drive alchemy
this, into fucking in the grit, which is tock
as it is felt, it'll do you hey riven at the cirrus broadcasts.

I would argue that this is both startling and very, very confident stuff. There are so many wonderful things in the above but I’ll simply point to ‘lawns just perform said anything about Shropshire’ and ‘Clock: that sounds like something / you should definitely never do’ as examples of a really strong talent. It’s also of note that there seems to be a complex relationship between subject and form in all of Thornton’s work as well as a lyrical delight in what language can do. It is this quite joyful lyricism that marks Thornton off from the rest.

Now we come to the Jonny Liron problem. I have read some of his stuff in a Grasp publication earlier this year and formed a view that Liron was out to shock and that this desire to unsettle by fairly obvious means gets in the way of anything else. It transpires however that there is another Liron who is a very accomplished and effective doer of poetry. He’s also the poet that most accurately reflects the disturbing and destabilising aspects of ‘queer praxis’ that Goode outlines. His ‘Room Manoeuvre’ manages to combine elements of the disturbing with some finely crafted lines and a theme that is more or less straightforward. Even so, both aspects of the Liron persona are on display here. The one that’s out to shock does:

if you kiss me there
and stuff coke up your blow hole
keep my cock in there is mysterious
pointing see anti depressed zone
of yes so she just says yes and wants it
'make me feel special'

horny stream kid puckers up to be
black in sheen of piss flicked up
to de respect the massacred respect time

This I think teeters on an interesting edge between the need to de-stabilise and the need to say something useful. In the above the latter probably wins out and it could be argued that the useful things are more likely to be heard if they are thought of as part of the sloganeering.
The poem is five and a half pages long, this is the final part:

now the precarious testimony for reading
the unsilenced body shuddering relapsed
form of smell and yearning wound glazed
streets and strategies of tongues and hands
no bodily possibility of resistance to this
rising tide of welcome hurtling straight
of the crowd of the crown of your rose
the fundament tactic of singing up against
the air in the wall is a door floored by naked
heads and teem the sea and car park flooding
the disco of fear with subversive emptying
re-railing the corollaries of obedience to
disappearance and plants twirl up in bared
velocity preaching louder by the train wreck
of poster boys find each other and hold each
other so we watch by the fire and lose weight
in the search for food, hoods become material

In terms of the initial Bebrowed quality test, the above contains a great many lines and phrases that I wish I’d written and the whole thing is put together with an impressive amount of sustained thought. In an anthology of very impressive work this poem is another one of those that stands out for me. I’m particularly impressed by ‘the train wreck / of poster boys’ and ‘smash troops of faggot joy dancing the gross / streets and strategies….’. There’s also an extended prose piece that I haven’t yet paid sufficient attention to but that seems to be doing the half-controlled mania thing.

I’ve written at some length about Joe Luna in the piece on the Claudius App in which I made a tentative observation that what might be important are the things that aren’t said. I noted that I was struggling with this observation and this was due to the inevitable fear of being wrong but also because it feels more than a little glib. ‘Better than language’ does however give me an opportunity to try and work this through in more detail. I want to make use of the ‘A bigger you’ sequence which is dedicated to Josh Stanley and is ‘about’ love yearning and desire. There are eleven poems, the first and the last are fairly conventional in form and the others aren’t. Some of those that aren’t seem to go some way to demonstrating my point but I’ll start with the first poem:

a bigger you your
on surplus debt
a fraction of my total love
hived off
at meat incarnate
bobbing in the swim spunk
numberless acrostic

on drum time I
sing w/your load
in my mouth your
cuteness
a bloody kid
raked in the light
of an image we

forget to touch

I’m sure that most would agree that this is fairly conventional and very well done, I like its directness and the honesty of expression. The last four lines especially are an example of language in a heightened form used to express complex thins that prose can’t begin to touch. I’m not sure whether ‘your load / in my mouth’ should be filed under ‘erotics’ or as an expression of intimacy and I don’t think that it really matters.

The fourth poem is more oblique as well as being quite radical in form. I’ll try to replicate the spacings:

rent asunder as
the blood
activates our
screen, dump
or
portal
tending to
a local
heartache
wounded in
thick grass
bending to
a visionary
bliss
sanctioned in
our midst

I’m of the view that this is remarkable more because of what may be going on in the background and the questions that are opened up for the reader- is it the hearteache or the visionary bliss that is sanctioned? who or what is doing the sanctioning needed? why is the heartache described as local and whose heartache are we talking about? why is there a very deliberate comma between screen and dump? I’m beginning to work through these and several others mostly be referring to other bits in the sequence but also by thinking about my own experiences and responses.

I’m going to leave it at that for now but will write about the other very talented young people in the very near future. Better than Language is available from Ganzfeld Press at only a tenner. There really is no excuse.

The Cambridge problem

Whilst this current session of the bipolars was pretty bad, I spent some less than useful time ruminating about what I was doing with this blog and with arduity. As well as the usual depressive stuff (feelings of foolishness, of self-castigating ineptitude and inadequacy etc etc) I had some cause to think about the notions of capture and compromise which aren’t so easy to dismiss now that I’m on the road to recovery. I’m thinking of this as ‘the Cambridge problem’ because it pertains to those poets who have published in the Cambridge Literary Review rather than whatever the ‘Cambridge School’ may refer to.
‘Capture’ is a term used in the business of regulation whereby the regulators become so immersed in the businesses that they regulate that they lose more than a degree of objectivity. I’ve spent many a happy hour pointing out to team members that they may have been compromised in this way- the reaction is always one of righteous indignation and at least two weeks worth of sulking.
This blog started as a way of writing down what I was thinking about and as a place to put my own poetry. I then realised that other people were reading this stuff and (to my delight) some of them wanted to argue with me. Initially I was mostly writing about Geoffrey Hill and found that the process of having to write something vaguely coherent helped with my understanding of the work and enhanced the pleasure that I got from it. I then moved on to Prynne, having dismissed him in the first blog post as being willfully obscure. I think I did this because reading Hill had given me a taste for ‘difficult’ stuff.
Writing running reports on my progress or otherwise with Prynne was useful for me and seems popular with others which remain s gratifying but still isn’t the main point of doing this.
During last year I was contacted by John Matthias and Keston Sutherland which was gratifying but also quite odd in that I hadn’t expected poets to take any kind of interest in what I was writing about their stuff. Both John and Keston have since both been incredibly generous with their time and I’m particularly grateful to John for pointing me towards the brilliance of David Jones. I’ve also written about Neil Pattison who has responded very constructively to a number of posts over the past eighteen months. I’ve also been in correspondence with Timothy Thornton since the beginning of this year and have recently been contacted by Simon Jarvis with regard to the publication of ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and the recent reading at the Sussex festival.
All of the above (except for Neil) have had work published in the CLR. Neil’s ‘Preferences’ was published by Barque Press which is run by Keston and Andrea Brady and also publishes Prynne’s work and Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’.
When I was first contacted by Keston, there was a bit of an exchange about the ‘capture’ issue and I somewhat arrogantly decided that I wouldn’t be compromised and that I wouldn’t hesitate to be critical of stuff that I didn’t like.
Now, all of the above have since published stuff that’s really very good indeed, I don’t have any kind of a problem with this but there is something nagging deep within about the forementioned capture problem. I’m currently reconciling myself with the fact that I bring a non-Cambridge perspective (whatever that might be) and that there are aspects of this stuff that I actively dislike. I’m also of the view that, with very few exceptions, the so-called mainstream is awash with the dismally mediocre. I also have a policy of not writing about members of this coterie that I don’t like (there are several of these) because I don’t enjoy writing negative stuff. I have written one dismissive piece on Sean Bonney that only served to fuel my prejudices.
Writing this, I also become aware of the danger of taking myself far too seriously. I am someone who enjoys writing about things that I like and I shouldn’t really be too bothered about any of these extraneous issues that may only be self-generated. There is, on the other hand, part of me that takes some pleasure in pointing out the pomposity inherent in some of this work.
I also reconcile myself with the fact that I also write about Hill and Jones and Celan and Marvell and should perhaps spend more time in the 17th century (where I probably belong). This would be much easier if these Cambridge types would stop producing such startlingly (a Prynne word) good stuff….