Tag Archives: vanessa place

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

Vanessa Place and the Archive

First, a couple of announcements, John Matthias and I have now completed the annotation of all seven sections of the first poem in the Trigons sequence and any feedback would be most gratefully received. Secondly the experiments in reading project has now acquired additional material on all three poems: ‘Night Office’; ‘The Anathemata’ and ‘The Odes to TL61P’. With regard to ‘The Anathemata’, I’m particularly grateful to Tom Goldpaugh for his support and contributions.

I think I’ve said before that. as a make of poems, I’m attracted to archives and in particular archival records of Bad Things that have occurred. I know that I’ve also expressed my admiration for Vanessa Place and the crucial work that she does. So, imagine my delight in coming across ‘Full Audio Transcripts’ on the radio-break site. This is a sound file which consists of the poet reading transcripts from conversations between various government agencies of Sept 11 2001 as the morning progressed. The most frequent conversations are between aircraft controllers and the other agencies. The reading lasts just over 90 minutes and is mesmerising.

I’m a tired old cynic and I know what happened and in what order it happened on that day, I’ve read senate reports and watched a number of documentaries so I didn’t expect this to tell me anything I didn’t know. After a few minutes I became transfixed because of the way in which another picture was being painted, a picture without a single viewpoint of a world that is confused, chaotic and more than a little scared. If there is a narrative it is that all the acronyms and numbers and command structures and all the military might in the world will now save you from a group of men with box cutters and imagination.

There are multiple confusions ranging from whether planes have been hijacked or not, in which direction and at what height a plane is flying, the fate of the crew on one of the planes. Place reads this mounting chaos in virtually expressionless speech with clarity and sustained stamina. The effect is to draw the listener into the heartbreaking conversations and to identify with the various voices as they try to make sense of the unfolding tragedy.

Poetry purists (and not-so purists) have many things to say about this kind of thing, that it doesn’t contain any original work, that is much more about form than substance, that all conceptualists are charlatans who are more interested in producing a single idea rather than a sustained and considered piece of work. I, however don’t have problem with the conceptual per se, my own bias lies in the direction of the confessional as well as P Larkin, but I’m saddened that most of it isn’t very good. This is especially unfortunate because it has the potential to mount a proper challenge to the over-lyricised state of things today.

I’m also not a fan of everything that Place doe, her “One” collaboration is both overly precious and underwhelming but, at her best, the work remains essential. Both ‘Transcripts’ and ‘Tragodia’ challenge the current poetic and depict in some detail, the forces of the state at work and the very many flaws therein.

Of course many would argue that this isn’t poetry and that is part of the ‘point’ because it can’t be anything else, ‘Transcripts’ makes its own demands- it uses one voice to read out the words of many and it must be viewed in the context of contemporary poem-making. This is not to suggest that it’s a foundational Ur-text marking the moment when the established order is overthrown but to demand that attention is paid to what it does and what it says.

In terms of subject matter, I’m reasonably ambiguous on 9/11. It was a magnificent thumb in the eye of imperialism and capital but nobody deserves to die in that way and it was organised by a small group of fundamentalist nutters (technical term) who ever since have received far more attention thn they deserve. It also gave the clapped out forces of imperialism to demonstrate their ineptitude and impotence in a number of sovereign states across the globe.

I’m also very aware that the above is many miles away from the American mainstream and I don’t listen to this reading in the same way that a US citizen would but I can be horrified (still) by the slowly dawning realisation that something very bad is unfolding, from the first calls from the flight crew to the muddled decisions to open fire on hijacked aircraft. This isn’t sensationalist, Place does not read any of the words of the victims as they occur in transcripts (and are all over the web) but she does read out what others say about them. One of the things that struck me whilst reading the second and third parts of Tragodia is the amount of numbers that the state use to keep control of its own data/instruments of power. This aspect is underlined by the constant reference to acronyms and numbers between the various civil servants and military personnel. Oddly, this is not something I took much notice of when I was involved in policy and procedure setting, but looking back (especially in child protection issues) it is how things were done.

A couple of years ago I was heavily involved in a poetic examination of the massacre commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday. Listening to Place reminded me that I still have the transcripts of military chatter on that day and am now about to compare and contrast….

In conclusion, ‘Full Audio Transcripts’ is another brilliantly defiant work by Vanessa Place that demands a response from all those who profess an interest in poetry and the poetic.

The Claudius App, being in a poem and a twitter challenge.

I’ve intended to write about Claudius App IV since it first appeared on the interweb. I enjoy writing about CA because it contains some of the best contemporary work currently being written and therefore deserves as wide a readership as possible. One of the reasons (I tell myself) for not writing about issue IV is the fact that my name is used in “the flesh called fwan” by Francis Crot, Idaho Pistols, Nat Raha and Verity Spott. Section 41 is:


In 'the scene' getting reviewed by John 
Armstrong means I can eat. He would hate
this. What Paterson fails to realise. It's
                                         supposed to be shite
                                  like coal (???)
A faggot slugabed I can't protect you with.
London wilts bye tranny lavic totter on
Ankle nodule St Vitus circa Sleeping
Beauty enchantress. In 'the scene' getting
reviewed by your ft inside me. Hobo fat.

Now it might be possible that this is referring to some other John Armstrong or an entirely fictional John Armstrong were it not for the fact that I was told I was in this poem by Verity Spott via the Twitter gizmo.

I’ll get back to this in a moment. What has prodded me into CA-related action is that my gmail account tells me I have received these two mentions on twitter: “@zackzee, Emily Dorman’s calling Bebrowed at bit.ly/1eGp2sx with texts on the “scariest poet on the planet” for you. Dare to blog?” and “@zackzee, @VanessaPlaceInc, be browed, be very browed” – both of which would seem to be some sort of challenge.

There is some background to this, as I recall I took a previous poem by Emily Dorman to task for not being very funny about Ms Place. I also had a bit of an anxiety-laden rant about Emily Dorman which was then referred to on the CA Facebook page. Obviously I’d like to reply to these two via twitter but it currently seems to be out of action. Obviously, I’m beginning to regret referring to Vanessa Place in this way because this one-liner does seem to keep on coming back at me, I’m much fonder of my pithy one liner on Caroline Bergvall.

Anyway, I am delighted to be mentioned by some of our brightest young poets and am equally pleased to be mentioned by the only poetry site that I pay attention to. It’s just that I’m not sure how best to respond.

It’s now time to address the smoke and mirrors problem. My first involvement in this came about by placing a forum on a disability-related information site. The idea was to promote the development of a community which could challenge societal and cultural attitudes towards those with a long-term health problem. This was about twelve years ago and was a mistake becuse people can pretend to be other people and can say things whilst pretending to be other people with the intention of creating chaos. This salutary lesson has remained lodged in my brain ever since. This has some relevance because I’d previously (foolishly) assumed that was a single human being but it transpires that this might not be the case and the whole Dorman persona may be an indulgent dig at a variety of different poetries. At which point I think I stop caring, a disinterest to that encountered when reading the first 500 lines of Marvell’s “Last Instructions”. In short, it’s all a bit sixth form.

With regard to “the flesh called fwan”, I don’t hate it but I’m not sure that I want to be thought of as a reviewer of poetry. I like to think that I write about my relationship with a poem or a poetry which allows me to be provisional, subjective and inconsistent, not the qualities that you want from a reviewer. I don’t write at length about work that I don’t like (with the exception of Sir Geoffrey Hill’s more recent material) and have this odd tendency to be very enthusiastic about the stuff that appeals to me. Essentially, I write about what interests me and am constantly surprised and gratified that others seem to enjoy the inside of my head. As for ‘the scene’, I’m not aware that there is one although my definition of a scene (free jazz, activist, arthouse) may well be hopelessly outdated. Having said that, the tone throughout seems reasonably playful so I’m not going to argue. Think I need to venture a guess that Idaho Pistols may also write under the name of Timothy Thornton and that Francis Crot and Jow Lindsay may be similarly intertwined.

We now come to the CA challenge and in particular the swipe at “Tragodia”. I’m taking the Dorman rant s a little tongue in cheek but also with a sense of indignation- “But Eliot didn’t publish his account books, nor Stevens his policies, nor Williams his prescriptions. Place repurposed her profession into poetry through a bare relabelling,…” This might be okay in an interestingly witty self-referential kind of way but you do need to do this stuff from a position of strength. There are many (many) things that just might be wrong with “Tragodia” but a ‘bare relabelling” isn’t one of them. Unlike most of the increasingly popular Kenny’s stuff, this trilogy needs to be read from covers to covers sequentially and should be judged (intentional(ish)) by what it says and how it re-adjusts many disparate frames at the same time. It can be criticised for its initial subject matter, for the quite deliberate selection of appeals and its main focus on genetic evidence but, by it’s nature, it can’t be castigated for the initial conceit unless (of course) we’re living in some kind of late modern utopia where the only standards are those set by Eliot, Stevens, Williams and the rest.

The odd thing is that I’d like a debate about “Tragodia”, I’d like someone to argue with my recently expressed view but this isn’t it.

I’d like to finish with the observation that there are many high-profile poets on both sides of the Atlantic that are drably mediocre. Perhaps Ms Dorman would like to cast her glance at those British dismalities that some of us know so well.

Vanessa Place’s Tragodia

Vanessa Place is the scariest poet on the planet. I know this must be true because I’m quoted to that effect on the back of the two paperbacks that I’ve just bought in order to complete my reading of the above trilogy. In addition one K Goldsmith is quoted with: “arguably the most challenging, complex and controversial literature being written today”; Rae Armantrout with Vanessa Place “is writing terminal poetry” and Stephanie Hochet calls Place “etrange et forte” and “n’est pas un femme banale”.

I’ve written in the past about Place and how essential she is for the future of poetry, I’ve also been critical of some of her material that Isn’t Very Good and entered into a debate as to whether or not she has killed poetry (she hasn’t). My admiration started with reading “Statement of Facts” which immediately impressed me as strategically the most important event in poetry for many years. I probably need to explain – I’m of the view that the Poetry Problem stems from the fact that it continues to run on some notion of the poetic that was already clapped out by the end of the 16th century. This has led to the belief that radical breaks/fissures are needed to challenge and undermine this state of affairs- the Tragodia trilogy is the least compromised and most coherent of the current batch of breaks.

The first part of the trilogy is “Statement of Facts” which uses court documents to narrate some of the assaults carried out by Mark Wayne Rathbun aka the ‘Belmont Shore Rapist”. This is followed by an account of Rathbun’s arrest together with what appears to be a detailed precis of the dna evidence presented at trial and the defence experts’ rebuttal of this.

The other two parts both have this preface:

All quotations and accounts in this book were taken directly from the trial transcripts of cases that Vanessa Place handled on appeal. All these transcripts and the appellate briefs filed in each case, are matters of public record. However, the names of the people herein, as well as other direct modes of identification, have been changed to protect their privacy.

Place has said that she has plagiarised herself in making Tragodia. We’ll come to that later – the second part is “Statement of the Case” which has 33 statements setting out the grounds of appeal against a range of convictions. The third is “Argument” which is 33 densely worded attempts to demonstrate why specific convictions should be reversed.

The eighteenth statement and the fifth argument relate to the Belmont Shore case and conviction and I’m going to use those to show why this material is so very important. Before doing this I need to admit to a couple of biases, I’m a fan of documentary poetry and especially that which has some kind of archival base. My own creative endeavours in the recent past have looked at Bloody Sunday and the Shipman Inquiry as sources of material for thinking bout evidence and the need to bear witness, to give voice to experience.

What follows doesn’t make easy or comfortable reading, the details are factually presented but graphic accounts of rape that most will find difficult to read. This is a brief extract:

On April 2, 2000, Francine J. was living alone on Marakita, in Long Beach; by 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., she had showered and gone to sleep, wearing an old short nightgown. As was her habit, Francine J. had locked all doors: she also had sticks behind the doors and windows except for the bathroom window, which she kept partially open for ventilation. Francine J. woke to find a hall light on which she never used, and then someone “pounced” on her. A gloved hand was put over her face, a finger into her mouth; Francine J. bit down hard. The glove felt rough, like a work glove. A man rolled up Francine J.’s nightgown and used it to cover her eyes and ears, tying it in the back, and putting her hands behind her. He told Francine J., “Do as I say and I won’t hurt you.” Francine J. said she would, and asked him please not to hurt her. The man asked Francine J. what her name was, and if she was alone; Francine J. told him her name, and said she had a friend who occasionally came in after midnight to sleep at the house. Francine J. lied about the friend. (RT D-35-D-39, D-49)

The man asked how long it had been since Francine J.’d been sexually active, she said it had been many years. The man put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina, removed his penis, and told Francine J. to put his penis in her mouth. As she did, she noticed the man had a “metal ring” around his penis. At some point, the man took his penis from Francine J.’s mouth and put it back into her vagina; periodically, he had her change positions from her back to her side, removing his penis to do so. Francine J. didn’t remember how many times this happened, though it was more than twice. The man told Francine J. to lie face down; Francine J. became worried he would anally penetrate her, and asked him not to, because she had hemorrhoids. He did not. The man had Francine J. orally copulate him again. Francine J. could not recall if she orally copulated him two or three times. During the encounter, the man left and went to the bathroom more than once. After the second oral copulation, he went to the bathroom, returned, and put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina again. At some point, Francine J. asked the man for a drink of water; he gave her the bottle she kept on her bed stand. Francine J. could not remember if the man touched her breasts. Francine J. was in a lot of pain as the attack happened shortly before she had hip replacement surgery; she told the man about her discomfort, and he put a pillow on the night stand to support her leg. (RT D-39-D-42, D-46-D-49)

After a while, Francine J. told the man she was in a great deal of pain; he asked her for five more minutes, and after five minutes, left, telling her not to move for twenty minutes. She didn’t hear him, and he repeated the instruction. About ten minutes later, Francine J. went into her dining room, found the sliding glass door open, then called the emergency number. (RT D-44-D-45) The police arrived, and took Francine J. to be examined by a forensic nurse specialist. Francine J. had bruises on her body, and one breast was reddened, in addition to “pinpoint” bruises and multiple tears around her labia and outside her genitalia. Swabs were taken from Francine J.’s right shoulder, left breast, right breast and mouth, transported to the police station and then to the crime laboratory; a reference swab was taken at a subsequent date and transported to the crime lab. (RT D-45, 1355-1358, 1411-1412, 1437-1439, 1441, 1444-1445)

During the assault, Francine J.’s nightgown periodically “slipped a little” so she would catch “glimpses” of her assailant’s face. The man’s hair was either dark blonde or light brown, “loose curls” on top and short on the sides, a “neat haircut.” She thought his eyes slanted a little on the outside, and noted he had “quite a bit” of body hair, but not dark or black body hair. Francine J. told police he had a medium build, “not a real big heavy guy”; she testified he seemed “not real tall,” with more of a slender build. The room was lit by a light from outside Francine J.’s bedroom window, the small nightlight in the base of her night stand lamp, at one point, the light from the television after the man asked Francine J. to turn it on. Francine J. said her attacker did not look dark, and described him to police as white. (RT D-43-D-44, D-49-D-53, 1440).

On May 1, 2000, Francine J. called Detective Kriskovic and told her she’d received a telephone call from a man; after the caller hung up, Francine J. recognized his voice as her attacker’s. Francine J. testified she wasn’t “100 percent sure” it was the same man, but it was a voice that was similar. (RT D-57-D-58)

“Statement of Facts” contains many of these accounts and the cumulative effect of reading these is disturbing at quite a deep level. These are then followed by a detailed record of Rathbun’s interrogation:

The interrogation resumed the next morning at 9:45 a.m.; appellant was asked if he remembered his rights, appellant said he did, and agreed to continue. Kriskovic told appellant he would be charged with all the DNA cases and, if convicted, would face a long prison term, possibly life. Appellant said he wished none of it had happened, and that he knew what he was doing was wrong when he was doing it; Kriskovic asked him what he meant by that, appellant said wasn’t it obvious he was making all of the bad decisions and wrong choices. Kriskovic asked if raping women was wrong; appellant said he knew it was wrong. Kriskovic asked if doing these things was contrary to the way his mother had raised him; appellant said yes. Kriskovic asked how appellant prepared himself when he entered his victims’ homes; appellant said sometimes he would enter the home, then undress, and would usually ask the victims to give him ten minutes to dress inside the house and leave. Appellant said he never stole anything from his victims. (RT 1241-1243, 1282, 1289) Kriskovic asked appellant about the attack on Rosalie M.: appellant said a friend named Donnovan Seeks or Sikes dropped him off near the Hilton in Huntington Beach, where he planned to meet other friends. Instead, appellant walked into the nearby trailer park, and broke into Rosalie M.’s trailer through her window; Rosalie M.’s trailer was located near the rear of the park. (RT 1244-1245)

According to Kriskovic, when questioned about the Gloria C. attack, appellant said it was possible he’d taken some of the louvered panes from her kitchen window, but if he did, it was not because offingerprints. When asked about the attack on Francine J., appellant said he had never worn a “cock ring.” When asked if he orally copulated his victims, appellant said he hadn’t; when asked if he’d forced his victims to orally copulate him, appellant said he hadn’t; later, appellant said maybe he had. He then indicated he had worn a cock ring once, and that the ring had been given him by an acquaintance. When asked if he’d ever identified himself to his victims, appellant said he didn’t remember, asked what names the victims recalled, then denied identifying himself as Max or Tito to any of the victims. (RT 1244-1246, 1309-1310).

This is followed by the dna evidence presented by different experts. Each of the experts also has a paragraph outlining his or her credentials in this field. This is from one expert’s work:

According to Fedor’s analysis, appellant’s standard genetic profile at the thirteen tested loci included, at the D3S1358 marker, 16 and 17 alleles, at the VWA marker, a 14, 16, and at D18S51, 14, 14. (RT 1463-1466) As retested, Dorothy C.’s breast swab was a mixture: a mixture can be discerned if there are more than two genetic traits at any one genetic marker.28 The presence of a Y chromosome indicated the other donor was a male; once Dorothy C.’s profile was deemed the minor donor, due to the relative degree of intensity, the remainder created the major donor profile. The chance a man unrelated to appellant could have been the major donor was one in forty-seven sextillion. There are six billion people on earth. (RT 1467-1471, 1569-1570)

Retesting the Barbara B. sample, Fedor determined the DNA profile from the sperm cells taken from the right buttocks swab matched appellant’s; the chance of a coincidental match was one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. Barbara B.’s right and left breast swabs also included appellant’s profile, with the same one in eight hundred forty-four septillion chance of a coincidental match. Appellant’s random match probability on Barbara B.’s external genital swab was one in seven trillion. Fedor assumed two contributors to the mix. (RT 1471-1475, 1491, 1503, 1605-1607-1608) The Marion J. breast swab was a mixture; appellant’s random match probability was one in nine septillion. The Marion J. external genital sample did not test positive for male DNA, and there was foreign female DNA in the sample: at the
VWA marker, Marion J. was a 14, 18, and the mixture shows a 14, 18 and a 16, 23. At D21S11, Marion J. was 29, 32.2; there was also 31.2 and 30. Sometimes, with some ethnicities, the Y chromosome does not amplify properly. (RT 1475-1477, 1597-1601) Appellant’s random match probability for a portion of the prepared DNA from the fecal material taken from Carol R.’s window was one in eight hundred forty five septillion, and his match for another portion one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. (RT 1477-1479, 1491-1492, 1502-1503, 1514-1515) The Esther R. nipple swab was a mixture, Esther R.’s DNA was subtracted, and the remaining profile matched to appellant with a one in nine septillion probability ratio. At VWA on Esther R.’s external genital swab, there was a 23 marker which belonged to neither appellant (14, 16) nor Esther R. (14, 15): the sample does not contain sperm, and the male components appear in the mixture to a lesser degree than the female: Fedor could not determine whether the male donor left the 23 allele, or how many people contributed to the mixture. Fedor still matched appellant to the external genital swab sample at a probability of one in nine septillion. (RT 1479-1482) In both the Marion J. and Esther R. genital swabs, there were
unaccounted-for 16, 23 alleles at VWA. (RT 1601-1603)

I first read ‘Statement of Facts’ a couple of years ago and immediately understood that it is radically different from the usual conceptual material because of its absolute refusal to compromise with accepted notions of the poetic but also because of the ‘breadth’ of the content. There isn’t any compromise because the material itself isn’t in any way fiddled about with, dressed up nor adjusted in the name of literature / poetry. It isn’t difficult to understand the language until we get some bits of the dn testing, the details of the assaults are absolutely explicit and relentless – in the same way that Bolano’s 2066 catalogues the torture and murder of women in northern Mexico – in recognition that the rejection of ‘style’ is the only way to deal adequately with some events.

It’s easy to get carried away by the impact of the assaults in all their terrible detail but what might be more relevant is the progressive presentation of evidence and what various parties might wish to do with it. We start with the victims’ accounts and the evidence collected/gathered at the time and then move on to what the defendant is alleged to have said during the police interrogation and then on to multiple aspects of the allele problem and what dna might have to say about the ‘truth’.

In the case of the Belmont Shore Rapist the nature of confession as witness is the focal point of both the statement setting out the grounds of appeal and the argument against conviction. The appellant’s counsel argue that the courts refusal to admit expert testimony with regard to false confessions denied Rathbun a fair trial. This is the second paragraph of the grounds:

Pretrial, the court denied two defense requests to appoint an expert for purposes of presenting expert testimony on the phenomenon of false confessions, finding the evidence was inadmissible under People v Kelly (1976) 17 Cal.3d 24, inadmissible as expert testimony, irrelevant as to the facts of appellant’s case, and inadmissible pursuant to Evidence Code section 352.(CT 375-410, 412, 483-553; RT C-1, 385-395, 402-503, 834-835; Ex Parte Motion RT 1-7) The court denied defense request for discovery of DNA evidence relating to uncharged incidents, finding such incidents inherently irrelevant. (CT 648-683; RT C-9-C-12, 69-75). The court granted the State’s motion to exclude evidence of third party culpability. (CT 341-345, 714-738; RT699-708) Pursuant to People v Smith (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 646, the court ruled evidence of mixed source sample testing would be admitted, admissible under the third prong of People v Kelly, supra 17 Cal.3d24, and under a separate admissibility challenge based on
People v Pizarro
2003 110 Cal.App.4th 530 (CT 739-788, 804=808; RT37-43, 47-58, 61-69, 76-142, 151-196, 200-260, 268-301, 334-338)

There are a further three paragraphs highlighting different aspects of the case, these are followed by a list of the 64 charges that Rathbun was convicted of and the sentence that he received for each. He was sentenced to a total of 1040 years, plus 10 life terms. The act of testifying in criminal cases is done in front of and facillitated by the state and this process is surrounded by all kinds of documented paraphernalia which are used and referred to so as to underpin what we think of as the ‘rule of law’. One of the many (many) issues raised in my mind by ‘Tragodia’ is the over-abundance of references and the names given to these references as if to add further credibility to the criminal justice system and that this may be an example of what Prynne means when he talks about how complicit language is in oppression.

Before we go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m of the view that Rathbun was guilty of these crimes and that it would have been an absolute travesty if he had been released on appeal. This is despite the fact that the behaviour of the police appears to have been extremely inept, Rathbun was subjected to six hours of questioning but only the sixth was taped. There is a marked difference between the full and frank confession described in the officers’ notes of the first five hours and the monosyllabic answers that Rathbun gave on the tape. He was told that he could speak to his mother (he was concerned that the media would contact her before he could tell her what was going on) only after the interrogation had been completed. I also think that the appeal is clutching at straws with regard to expert evidence on false confessions, not because the phenomenon is unlikely but because there is only one documented ‘version’ of the first five hours. Place presents the argument for appeal in its entirety – this is a brief extract of the part dealing with false confessions:

In People v Page, supra, 2 Cal.App.4th 184, expert testimony had been allowed on general factors which might influence somebody to falsely confess, examples of those factors, and evidence of relevant psychological experiments in the field; the trial court excluded opinion evidence on reliability of defendant’s confession, though counsel was able to argue application of the expert testimony to that confession. The First District found no constitutional violation in the exclusion because this “marginally curtailed” testimony did not deprive defendant of the ability to present evidence on the circumstances of his interrogation, ‘merely affected the way the defense could link the theories presented by the expert to the evidence introduced at trial. It did not prevent it from making that connection” (Id., at p.187.) There was no abuse of discretion under 801 because there had been no “wholesale” exclusion, citing People v McDonald (1984) Cal.3d 351, 370-371, the Page court reiterated that expert testimony is permitted where the testimony does not seek to “take over the jury’s task of judging credibility….does not tell the jury that any particular witness is or is not truthful……, “but rather informs the jury of factors that might affect the issue of credibility” “in a typical case and to the extent that it my refer to the particular circumstances” of the present case, may be limited to explaining “the potential effects of those circumstances….” People v Page, supra, 2Cal app 4th at p.188, original emphasis.)

So, why is this so important? Firstly it shows how startling work can be made without the usual poetic window dressing, secondly it demonstrates that there re other ways to say Really Big Things and that truly ‘open’ texts like this have just as much power to move and evoke as what is considered to be great poetry.

I think I need to make it clear that the primary importance of ‘Tragodia’ relates to strategy, given that there is a kind of tiredness in the overpoeticised material that is what most people consider to be contemporary poetry – this represents the kind of ‘jolt’ that may cause the ruptures of change that are needed.

Conceptualist constraint and the death of poetry

I was going to write a long but considered piece about why I’m against Oulipo-style constraint, using ‘One’ (written by Blake Butler and Vanessa Place and ‘assembled’ by Christopher Higgs as an up to date example of why these things don’t work most of the time.

Then I realised (belatedly) that the poetic form is about constraint, that even ‘free’ verse is constrained by what it isn’t, and that it is these constraints that separate poetry from prose. So, I’m now trying to work out what it is that I dislike and, hopefully, why.

I also need to acknowledge that my own work is acquiring more and more of a conceptual tinge although I’m currently trying to think of this as more documentary and archival. I also need to confess to thinking about doing some constrained film narrative-related stuff on Twitter that has nothing to do with the 147 constraint.

This is further complicated by the fact that I don’t share the purist disdain for all things conceptual which I see as sentimental yet I find some kinds of constraint objectionable. I had thought that this disdain was due to a suspicion of the overly clever or complex which can reduce the worth/value of the ‘result’. Then I recalled the conceit for Nathan Austin’s ‘Survey Says! which is:

Austin alphabetized contestants’ responses to the television game show Family Feud. All of the answers from a five-week run in 2005 and another three weeks in 2008 were arranged according to the second letter of the first word of the phrase, providing the same arbitrary structuring order as many other assemblages of found texts but without the immediately palpable sense of predictable progression that conventional alphabetization provides.

And this is from the work itself:

They save their marriage certifi cate. They save their wedding ring. They say their prayers. They shave it all off. They simply don’t like it? They soak their feet. they step on them. They take a shower when they wake up from a nap. They talk on their cell phone. They twiddle them. They use room spray, or air freshener. They use wolves—wolf. They walk out; they cry; they get popcorn; they go to the bathroom; they leave their seat—no! they get refreshments. They want the temperature to go up.
They wash their hair. They wash their hands. They worry about losing their hair. Oh, golf. Chicago. Chicken. Chicken fingers. Chicken noodle. Chicken of the sea. Chickens fly. Chiffon. Chihuahua. Philadelphia. Children’s education. China. China. China. Think. Chips. Chips. Chips. Thirteen. Three or four, at least. Thirteen. Thirty days. This isn’t me, but: make love. + is might be a little inappropriate, but . . . the sex. This time, we’re going to try cluck. Oh no! I hold onto my emotions. Phone number. Shop. Shopping with his lady. A horse—a workhorse.

This isn’t bad in that it ‘works’ as a conceit and the result is sufficiently interesting, in a banal kind of way, to hold my interest for longer than 30 seconds or so but it isn’t good enough to merit any kind of serious attention and I’m deeply suspicious of any intro/apologia that contains a phrase as inept as ‘the immediately palpable sense of immediate progression’.

I think this leads me to the view that good constraint can be very, very good indeed- Both Simon Jarvis and Kenneth Goldsmith spring to mind from opposite ends of the ‘lit’ spectrum as writers who exemplify the best results of constraint whereas the Butler / Place / Higgs effort demonstrates its weaknesses.

I now need to have a bit of a digression on the death of poetry. Last summer I wrote an incisive and reasoned piece which took Vanessa Place to task for her claim that she had killed poetry. There has now appeared on the web this short film which purports to show Vanessa in the act of killing poetry. This may or may not be a riposte to my riposte- the page includes my (real) name as part of the intro- but I think I need to gently point out again that poetry, if it dies at all, won’t die this way whether at the hand of Vanessa Place or anyone else and the now enacted claim simply isn’t worthy of her and is disappointing because most of the time she is more astute than anyone else currently writing. End of short digression which has neatly avoided the Spenser plan for Irish poetry analogy- this would have made it much longer.

I’m still of the view that the problem with poetry is the poetic and that we need to ditch this pervasive lyricism but I think I still cling to some equally sentimental view of poetry being somehow free and inspired. I think I now what to make a distinction between constraint and gimmick. To my mind Raymond Roussel’s ‘New Impression’s of Africa’ is a gimmick because the constraint renders the work unreadable, George Perec’s two lipograms just seem cleverly silly.

In his introduction to ‘One’ Christopher Higgs lists the constraints given to both Butler and Place:

  1. First Person;
  2. Present tense;
  3. Compose – 40-60 pages;
  4. Because I want to avoid prefabricated cohesion, while at the same time I feel the need to offer a framework within which to play, I’ll suggest that you think in terms of three movements: Discovery-Secrecy-Escape. These need not be sequential, in other words feel free to think in terms of Escape-Discovery-Secrecy, or whatever arrangements of those you want. My hope is that by suggesting these three specific movements it will give you helpful boundary demarcations, and also it will allow me to locate common vector points at which I might establish pivots for the final construction.

Higgs goes on to say that he wanted Butler to focus on external perspectives and Place to focus on those from within. The idea was that Higgs would then put the two offerings together in a way that ‘something magical might be achieved’. I’m now going to lightly skip over the dismal quality of Higgs’ prose and get to a sample of this magical thing:

Now the crack of guns I became in me come back washing and lick all up the center of my guts giving shape by wet of being and tongue definition so I can hurl. Throw both my hard arms towards the over-forehead, which Corrections has already appended with new screaming bulbs, the colours of my thoughts enplasmed with them, hulking as an infant at a thrall.

In the blank of drums in my new standing I hear a shrieking and with my nose I turn around inside the smell of these years already pressed upon us stitching up my nostrils and pinching in crafty lines of neon ants. My head’s weight rotates on an axis that descends into my tummy, tucked with the nothing in kaput. No more blood and no more cellmake, no more doors or potions.

Maybe it’s me but this is about as unmagical as it gets which is a pity because it’s clearly trying very hard indeed but I’m afraid that crafty line of neon ants gives the game away- the ambition and effort all too often slide into facile cliche. Unfortunately ‘One’ appears to be another example where the constraints are given too much emphasis at the expense of the content

Is poetry dead and did Vanessa Place kill it or is it merely on the brink?

Here’s a confession, since Harriet started sending me traffic I’ve been paying far more attention than normal to poetry debates in North America. Two things have caught my eye recently, the first being ‘Poetry on the Brink’ by Marjorie Perloff in the Boston Review and the second being ‘Poetry is Dead, I killed it’ by Vanessa Place on Harriet.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed position on these matters is reasonably straightforward:

  • Vanessa Place can do no wrong and is always strategically correct;
  • poetry is far too poetic for its own good;
  • conceptual poetry is not the answer to the poetry problem;
  • whatever she might say, Vanessa Place is not a conceptualist;
  • creative writing cannot and should not be taught;

I regret to say that the first of these may be up for revision but I think I need to turn to the Perloff piece which is very grown up and thought through and has far too many words. I’d also like to make the rather obvious point that you don’t (ever) do long headers in very big fonts in a different colour. “We have witnessed a return to the short lyric that depends for its effect on the recycling of earlier poetic material” is too long, too complex and dull for this kind of eager treatment.

Perloff’s survey of the nature of this particular brink is written from the perspective of a custodian rather than a user and makes some pertinent observations, the main one being that quality does not increase in lock step with quantity. There is a debate to be had about the ‘market’ for creative writing courses and how this functions just as there is a need for custodians to know what it is they want but Perloff manages to avoid this with her extended list of platitudes. A glance at the response thread gives a clearer demonstration of what might be wrong than the article itself.

Perloff also manages to lump Place, Goldsmith and Bergvall into the same very short and dismissive paragraph. This is the sort of error that makes me quite cross. I’ve said before that I do want to be Caroline Bergvall so I might be a bit biased but anybody who has bothered to read any of the work of these three will know that they don’t ‘fit’ together, they are doing different things in completely different ways and their relationship to the ‘C’ word is really rather complex.

Having waded my way through all of the words that Perloff has put together, I’m not clear as to what poetry might be on the brink of nor what we ought to do about this apparently quite bad thing. She does try to make something of Pound’s ‘make it new’ but omits to mention that the new was/is nothing without the irascible.

Vanessa Place’s piece is thankfully much shorter and has a proper header and says this:

But if we can agree that we may function critically not from the conceit of extramural critique, which is essentially a postmodern argument, but rather from a relational perspective, which is the more conceptualist approach, we can avoid the temptation to fall into the sweet satisfactions of self—including a sorrowful self that has seen it all before. The best minds of my generation are servile, but it is service with a purpose. We take it and dish it out and leave its rumination to other minds. For, as Marjorie Perloff argues, the genius of conceptualism is in the plating.

Which is obviously correct and needs stating and restating but is only one variation on the ‘c’ word repertoire. For readers of Harriet however this could probably have done with a bit more flesh on the bone:

Wherein I slap my name on whatever comes to mind and call it poetry and yet it is poetry, and, too, as Drucker rightly notes, if I return it to its usual habitus (the appellate court, the news station), its “poetic elements lose their defining identity quickly enough.” Thus my readymade is also a reverse readymade, and critique proves not so much a matter of contemporary segregation but of an intellectual encounter which may be properly rigorous and properly ahistorical because Kant’s a prioris no longer apply.

This is an accurate precis of what the Place Project might be about but you do need to know at least some of the work and (I imagine) most would need some evidence for the irrelevance of those a prioris. I may be wrong but it seems to me that Harriet might be read by more than those that have already got the ‘c’ message and that this faux defiance might not be the best way to fight the fight- and it is a fight that needs to be fought.

Now we come to the caveats, the text doesn’t live up to its header, which is almost as bad as Perloff’s abuse of headers- if you’re going to maintain your deserved reputation as the scariest woman in literature then you’d better come up with something more witheringly vicious than this. Let’s be clear, Vanessa Place scares me and I’m not easily scared and this was a missed opportunity to scare and convert a lot more people.

The second quibble is a bit more serious, I’m of the view that endings are quite important and that they tend to leave an impression. Place’s final paragraph tries to do far too many things and the last two sentences are just inept because it doesn’t say anything at all and the ‘boring’ conceit isn’t good enough. So, I feel a little bit let down that the only person on the planet who seems to have a handle on this stuff seems to have blown her place in the sun, at least on this particular occasion.

Whilst poetry eschatology is always a fun game to play, it’s never more than a game. Poetry goes through all kinds of phases and transmutations but (whatever the crisis) it doesn’t die, it might not be what we want or what we feel that we deserve but it doesn’t die nor does it get anywhere near a brink….

Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.

Vanessa Place and the Poetics of Radical Evil and some poems

There are times when you come across something that you agree with, sometimes you come across stuff that articulates things that you have been trying to articulate and very, very rarely you come across stuff that you have been trying to articulate / think about and then takes it into areas/arenas that you haven’t thought about but now seem suddenly obvious. this is the case with the above essay which was published in issue 3 of Lana Turner.

I’m tempted just to leave the link and let people read this without further comment from me but I also feel the need to elaborate on some of the really important bits.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am passionate about and obsessed by poetry but that I also recognise its weaknesses and fragilities in the wider scheme of things. I’ve also observed somewhat glibly that poetry or the poetic is the problem with poetry just as there’s too much of the political in politics. Regular readers will also know that I’m of the firmly held (this is unusual) view that Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is the most strategically important work for decades- on either side of the Atlantic.

THE ‘Poetics’ essay is correct in both its analysis and its remedy. That it’s correct is a bit of a misnomer, it is incredibly focused and puts the rest of us wooly-minded poetry types to shame. I acknowledge that Place does not compromise and this can be more than a little off-putting, I also admit that she scares me to death but in a really good way.

In her introduction, Place warns us that she will be playing the lit crit academic game- name-dropping, one upping, explicating whilst slagging off etc and this dance does occasionally get in the way of the argument- a certain audience may respond to the games played with Helene Cixous but it doesn’t do that much for me. What I think is really important is that poetry is increasingly that speaks only to itself about itself in a language that only initiates have access to and that this is The Very Bad Thing.

Here we fall across the ‘c’ word- Place considers herself to be a conceptualist and here quotes conceptual works with approval. For the rest of us this could lead us to ignore the message because it’s not been spoken by ‘one of us’ ie not one of us rugged individuals struggling with the limits of the poetic / late modern tradition. The sad fact is that this argument does apply to us and we need to take notice. One of the things that I continue to fail to understand is the ongoing ghettofying that seems essential to the poetry business, the rule that says that I can’t see the point of J H Prynne whilst also seeing the point of Erica Baum, that says that I’ve got to apply blanket condemnation to all those who might not share my particular view of Adorno / Derrida / Heidegger / Marx.

So, not all conceptualists are bad just as not all Cambridge poets are good. End of short speech whilst reserving the right to repeat it at will. What Place says that is important is the primacy of communication and the real and the absolute need to devise a poetry that is ‘what poetry isn’t’ and to think very, very hard about the rhetoric of witnessing.

The good bits

For those that can’t be bothered to read this seminal piece in its glorious entirety, I present a completely partial and subjective list of quotes that I’m currently learning by heart:

  • Our guilt is all we know of the law;
  • If we fashion a critical poetics out of these approaches, we have, on the surface, a three-chambered ecumenics of: (1a) impotency, by way of penned constellate meaning; (1b) elision, by way of the metaphoric slide, glide, and aside, and (2) reform, by way of errant liberal recombinancy;
  • In other words, and I say this often for a reason, the question becomes whether proffering a multitude of meaning is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether proffering difference or différence is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether embedding the dialogic is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether reading itself is a sufficiently ethical response, whether there is a sufficiently ethical response;
  • That is to say, there must be an excavation, necessarily wrenching, in addition to a radical archiving, necessarily annoying. In other words, it is not enough to walk down the Department hall, or cross a theoretical divide that is not a divide, at least not in practice;
  • In other words, a violent and manacled responsibility, even duty. To what? To insist that poetry is what poetry isn’t;
  • An a-poetics rather insists that, to use another numerical referent, the trinity is the new binary, and there is no dialogue, no call and response because the poem is no longer treated as a text to be read, however many ways and loose, but is cut loose altogether. The poem is simply a site of potential engagement like other works of art are simply sites for potential engagement, and there may be no “reading” just as there may be no “writing,” but a tripartite encounter with a textual surface;
  • And in my Statement of Facts, in which I self-appropriate my legal writing, and unadulterated narrative accounts of sex offenses are re-presented as poetry, the rhetoric of witnessing—and what is the law if not rhetoric? and what is poetry if not rhetoric? and what is law and/or poetry if not the rhetoric of witnessing?—is overtly rendered immaterial;
  • All I know of poetry is of my transgression of poetry. Through a-poetry, radically evil poetry, poetry that cannot be poetry as poetry has been previously conceived, poetry that takes the execution of poetry quite literally and quite stupidly, there is poetry.

The Poems

Issue 4 of Lana Turner contains ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s like something in the United States’ and an extract from ‘Triptych’. I think that the first of these is staggeringly brilliant and encapsulates a way to do the poetics that she describes. I don’t think that the ‘Triptych’ extract is in the same league, there is this aspect of Place’s practice that seems to want to demonstrate some kind of credibility which is misplaced and undermines what she’s about.

Place the poet is at her best when she engages with the real blood and guts of the violence that lies at the heart of our world, when she deals with stuff that we’d prefer not to think about, when she shows that she understands the importance of the ‘rhetoric of witnessing’. We all need to pay attention to the work and the rationale that informs it.

Poetry and Politics and Truth, a response to Tom Dunn

Tom,

Rather than respond to your recent comments re the above in the comments threads, I thought I’d attempt a more considered response here. It also gives me the opportunity to review the last stated Bebrowed position on this knotty conundrum. I consider myself to be deeply political, most of my adult life has been spent in various forms of what many would think of as ‘extreme’ political activity and I was a member of the CPGB (Gramscian/Marxism Today faction) for about five years until it disbanded even though I have never considered myself to be a Marxist. I also have a lifelong passion for poetry and have held the view that the two don’t mix in that I wouldn’t turn to a poem for ideological ‘positions’ just as I wouldn’t hope to find poetics in political activity. I also feel that there’s too much of the political in politics and too much poetry in poetry.

I really struggle with the fact that many poems are written about political problems that will have absolutely no influence whatsoever on those problems regardless of the stance that those poets take. I’m also deeply suspicious of poets that pick ‘easy’ targets and will shortly give some examples of these.

None of the above is helped by the annoying fact that most of the best poems currently being written do commit most of the above crimes. In my ideal world all poets would be working out the implications of what Levinas described as ‘the sadness of self-interest’ together with Foucault’s view that the primary struggle is with the fascist that lurks within each of us. I also accept that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon so I’m left with these vaguely marxian poets who are producing brilliant poems but dismal politics.

And then there’s Geoffrey Hill who has described himself as a ‘hierarchical Tory’ and whose work is a really fascinatingly incongruous mix of knee-jerk polemic and quite thoughtful analysis- but only when applied to events before 1670.

You say that there’s no space for God in this material yet there’s certainly a lot of God in Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and I think I could make a case for God in later Prynne. My own view is that poets are much better with theology than they are with politics and that the best God poems are those that express doubt rather than conviction (R S Thomas, Paul Celan, George Herbert). I’m also of the view that it is entirely possible to get pleasure from poems a standpoint that I find politically and morally repellent- Book V of the Faerie Queen and most of Pound’s Cantos spring to mind.

There is some work that is politically sophisticated and strategically correct and is being undertaken at the conceptualist end of the spectrum by Vanessa Place and Caroline Bergvall both of which make me feel more than a degree of what we used to call solidarity.

There’s also a younger group of poets who are in the process of recasting the personal and the political – I quote from some of these below.

With regard to Truth, I’m one of those intellectually flabby relativists that manage to be loathed by Richard Dawkins and the current pope in equal measure but there are Cambridge poets who are concerned primarily with truthful poetry and with a concern for authenticity but this usually coloured by dialectical processes and an interest in contradiction. My only excuse is Richard Rorty’s view that we should concentrate on that which is useful without too much regard for truth-value because doing things the other way round does get us into all kinds of trouble.

Incidentally, I really don’t want Bourdieu to be correct but he is- you don’t need to be a committed leftist to be persuaded. The escape from the iron cage is inevitably subjective but my money’s on Place, Bergvall, Neil Pattison, Johnny Liron and Jonty Tiplady- each of these for very different reasons (see below).

The Desire problem.

Bear with me but this does seem to get to the core of the poetry/politics problem. In 2010 Keston Sutherland began circulating ‘The Odes to T61LP’ which is the bravest sequence that I think I’ve ever read because it deals in an honest an open way with sexual identity and desire and childhood sexuality and confronts every single aspect of the British male persona. Timothy Thornton is an extraordinarily talented younger poet who is dealing with desire in a uniquely lyrical way.

I am and will remain critical of Sutherland’s Marxist certainty but (and this is the problem) I don’t know of anyone else with this degree of talent and critical insight.

The Polemic problem.

Poets, even Milton, are bad at polemic and shouldn’t do it. In fact, it is the repeated attempts to do this adequately that makes me most annoyed about things Cambridge/Brighton. I’ve been re-looking at some recent examples for this piece and they just make me unaccountably cross. Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’ doesn’t make me cross but it’s still an ‘easy’ target, isn’t it?

The Streak~~Willing~~Artesian~~Entourage exception.

I’ll vote for this being the best political work of the last twenty years precisely because it refuses to simplify, take sides or otherwise pontificate and it is wonderfully austere. I also think it is politically important because it confronts some fundamentals that have been ignored by all shades of the political spectrum.

Examples.

I’ve attempted to put together a number of quotes to do with politics. This selection is based on my own reading and is entirely subjective but it does at least provide a bit of a map for further discussion / debate. I’ll do something similar with both God and Truth at a later stage

This is from ‘Statement of Facts’ by Vanessa Place-

Counts 10, 11, 12 and 14: Jane Doe #3: Marion J.

Marion J. was living alone in a house on Colorado Street Long Beach on July 31, 1998; around 1:30 or 2:00 a.m., she returned home with a friend from Ralphs. The friend left without coming inside the house, and when Marion J. went in, she noticed her five cats were under the bed and her back door was open. She closed and locked the door, and took a shower. Her friend called around 2:15 or 2:30 to let Marion J. know she’d arrived home safely; Marion J., who had been
laying on her bed waiting for the call, then fell asleep. (RT 866-868) She woke about 3:15 a.m. because someone’s hand was around her throat. The person took Marion J.’s glasses and told her if she screamed, he’d snap her neck. Marion J. said she wouldn’t scream, the man pulled her nightgown over her head and told her to open her legs, she did, and he put his penis in her vagina. The man then took his penis out of Marion J., lifted her leg and reinserted his penis. Next, the man turned Marion J. over and put his penis in her vagina a third time while pulling her hair back. Marion J. was bleeding; the man got a towel from the bathroom, wiped her, laid on the bed, and told Marion J. to get on top of him because it would be easier for her to “control it.” Marion J. did, and the man’s penis again went into her vagina. (RT 868-870, 875)

And so is this-

On Marion J.’s mixed breast swab sample, there are six peaks (11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) at D-8; Fedor’s handwritten notes indicate two of the peaks (11, 15) are possible stutter. (Defense Exhibit Y; RT 1570- 1571) Stutter is a PCR artifact, and does not represent actual DNA in the sample. Fedor wrote “possible” because those peaks could be
DNA, but did not report them as because he did not think they were reliably present, i.e., he thought they were stutter rather than additional DNA. His conclusion was based on the position of the alleles, and their shorter peaks; another analyst could conclude they were real. The Identifiler software has a Kazam macro which is to filter out stutter based on the manufacturer’s research; the macro did not identify 11 and 15 as stutter. Fedor did not know what the stutter limit is for D-8; there is no fixed laboratory standard. The Identifiler user manual indicates the limit at D-8 is 8.2 percent. (RT 1571-1575, 1577-1578, 1593-1594) Similarly, at D-21, the computer recognized an allele,
meaning there was an allele present of at least 150 RFU intensity. (RT 1579-1580)

This is from Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Fried Tale (London Zoo)’-

Dame Justice no longer worries unduly. She no longer gives a smiling sod about the moral attributes or social benefits of equitable share-out of wealth; or land; or health; or education or how to work out well-being for the mostest; or the bestest ways of valuing people’s skills or establishing fair and durable structures; or thinking long-term; or facilitating technological access; or revisiting the rules of international exchange; or the balance of import/export; or the value of local trade; or determining the boundaries between life and death; or between breathing and unbreathing; or feeling and unfeeling; or animate and inanimate; or how to get out of the deep labyrinthine social moral spiritual physiological bankrupcy engineered by the brutal omnipathological so-called transnational traficking bloodsuck oilsprung hyperdfunded plunderterprrize. Sgot to be said she can be pretty longwinded. Speaks in subsections.

1a. Must fall. 1b. Should fall. 2a. Could Fall. 3a. Will Fall.

This is from Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’-

Be housed, clutched, inert. Receive, that wave earthed
in keratin
Dark’s cuticle
then fastening dark hand, recede. Conductive, slow
strings waist, a focus vantage stills, in weaning light

that houses break. Elaborately plaited fingers
crack on a shell in the breech. By coastal
rolling, granules secure and justified, flowingly
the solvencies peak and burn in type ; infant salts
the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over

This is from Jonny Liron’s ’6.XII’-

                language and theories de cauterize
and un captivate the attention of a
child bent fixed hell for leather of
fucking like a pretend dog, this should
be what you stand for, not the press
or forgetting.

This is the end of Jonty Tiplady’s ‘Superanus’-

Nice to wonder about with you,
nice to stay fat,
nice never truly to be a polygraph.

Worth it that the woods be sovereign
what matters is that any of it
happened at all,
the children a little fucked (concept to pop to sex) up
and Formby in Albania like Big Bird to Catanou
did quite well with that toaster.

Around now climate change arrives.

Having just re-read the above, I worry that this selection might appear too wilfully oblique and insufficiently specific but I am trying to honestly highlight those things that make ‘sense’ to me and I really am far too old to worry about the niceties of correctness or the rigours of a party line.

The Claudius App, compare and contrast.


The above is the set list from a recent Gillian Welch gigs at the Rogue Theatre in Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s a poem because I say that it’s a poem.
I was recently sent a link to the Claudius App which contains new work from Simon Jarvis, Keston Sutherland and Joe Luna. Given that it contains both UK and North American poets, I was going to write something about the vast superiority of the Brits over the cliche riddled mediocrity of our American cousins. Then I read the poems and realised that this strategy won’t work in this instance. This isn’t because the British poets aren’t any good, Sutherland, Jarvis, Luna and Lisette are some of the very best that we have but rather that some of the American poems are very good indeed. This came as quite a shock as the vast majority of North American stuff strikes me as being hopelessly poetic and a result of some creative writing course somewhere on the eastern seaboard.
Like Geoffrey Hill, I’m against the teaching of creative writing especially in the field of poetry and am of the view that the proliferation of such courses is responsible for the mediocrity that is threatening to kill poetry as a means of expression. In my head, North America is the home of the creative writing phenomena and therefore all North American poets who are the product of this system can’t be any good.
So I approached the Claudius App with the intention of concentrating on the British contingent but then started to look at some of the Americans. I want to set out some initial responses-
Vanessa Place is officially the Bebrowed scariest poet on the planet because of the challenge that she presents to the rest of us and because she really does mean it. Her readings are an absolute joy and her work is exceptionally challenging. In a recent interview, Kenneth Goldsmith has again ‘explained’ conceptualist poetry as stuff where the idea is more important than the content and goes on to say that Place- “is taking legal briefs that she writes during the day in the law field. And she doesn’t do anything to them, she just represents those as poetry.” Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Place output will know that this is more than a slight distortion. For example, Place’s contribution here is based on the ‘Statement of Facts’ but large sections of it have been blocked out. I’ve written about the original ‘Statement’ for arduity where I think I’ve made it clear that this is work that we are meant to read and think about. The current contribution also shows that Place is now ‘doing things’ with the original material. The extracts from Juliana Spahr and Steven Fama and the statement that this is a response to the “negative reviews” of Statement of Facts might only be helpful to those who have actually read the original work, to Place virgins what follows may appear as needlessly gratuitous. So anyone with an interest should read ‘statement’ first and then come to judgement about what’s presented here. I may be in a minority but I’ve always felt that a respectful silence is the best way to respond to adverse comment and it does seem that stripping the rapes of any kind of context demeans the original work.
So, given that Place scares me to death (in a good way), I’m not entirely sure why she should choose to respond even though that response is typically extreme. These reservations do not in any way detract from my view that she is one of the most important poets currently practicing and cannot be ignored.
|Kent Johnson in my head has always been the slightly contrived bad boy of American verse. I’ve followed some of his interventions in debaters on the other side of the Atlantic and have gained the impression that he adopts this contrarian stance purely to gain a reaction and thus what he says shouldn’t be taken seriously. His piece here however reflects what many of us must be feeling about Jacket2 which already has become a very pale shadow of its predecessor. I don’t want to launch any kind of attack on this entity but to register my personal sorrow that an essential destination has been replaced with something so weak. I’m guessing that Johnson’s wry description of the politics behind this is reasonably accurate and it really is sad that this kind of empire building can lead to such a loss. I’m taking care to refrain from giving specific examples of this loss, suffice it to say that I for one am missing the original- which wasn’t perfect but contained stuff that was worthy of consideration and attention.
Emily Dorman. I know nothing at all about Emily Dorman who seems to be absent from most of the web so I can only assume that this is a contribution from the American side of the divide. “Towards a New Critical Vocabulary” is one of the cleverest things that I’ve read this year. It could be argued that I’m biased towards the clever and am often prepared to be impressed by cleverness for it’s own sake. Whilst this may be true, this particular piece manages to combine oddness and deliberation to produce something that is staggeringly good. It manages to make me smile and (at the same time) to turn most of my thinking processes inside out. This is a good thing. I’m particularly impressed by section 7 and the immortal sentence: “Some readers may gripe that the ideas in the sequence are overcooked (‘a moment’s monument’ walks lockstep with mommy poems for instance) but the technique leaves few bones to pick”- which manages to speak enormous volumes about the entire lit crit business. The word ‘lockstep’ is particularly brilliant. I’ve read this four or five times and each time I find something else that makes me smile in admiration. So, if anyone has any more details on Emily Dorman, I really would be very grateful.
Daniel Poppick is a product of the creative writing machine yet manages to avoid the writerly nonsense that seems to infect most of his peers. I think I’d better try and qualify this, without doing an in-depth survey of the stuff currently being produced, I think my main concern is about the misuse of the adjective and the faked inability to be clear coupled with an odd determination to be wry and cool at the same time. Poppick manages to avoid all of these and to put together lines that are very good indeed. This is unusual because I’m not usually attracted by poems that are as direct as this but I don’t think anyone can deny that there are some bits that are breathtakingly strong. I would cite the second and the sixth stanzas of the first poem and all of ‘Sucking the Sherbets’ as being particularly effective. Poppick seems to have that knack of making the uncanny seem very familiar and vice versa, this is very impressive material.
Michael Thomas Taren is also a product of the creative writing machine who seems to be able to create quite distinctive voices for his work. I’m ignoring the first because I can’t be bothered to think about it but the second two are poems that are both striking and very confident. What I find most appealing is Taren’s readiness to take risks with language and to write lines that shouldn’t make any kind of sense- “and I answer that my neck is looking now like light in a swimming pool” is deeply attractive. In my experience it is rare to find poets who can sustain this level of quality but both Taren and Poppick seem to manage it.
We now come to Joe Luna and an introductory disclaimer. Up until last week or thereabouts the only thing that I knew about Joe was that his blog sends more people to this blog than any other site in the known universe. I have no idea what if anything this might signify but I am nevertheless grateful for all the traffic that I can get. So, I was intrigued to see one of his poems included here and have since been provided with others. having acknowledged some potential bias, I now feel able to state that ‘For the White Lake Blot’ is one of the best poems to be published in the last three or four years.For those of you who may wish to doubt this I suggest the following strategy-
1. Read the poem, start at the beginning and read through to the end, read all of the words, do not skip bits that seem superfluous, do not re-read bits that may seem obscure or difficult.
2. Try and remember what you have read.
3. Read the poem aloud, do this three or four times.
4. Read the poem to yourself again.
Following this strategy will lead you to an appreciation of both the depth and originality of this sequence. There are a couple of moments when it seems like Sutherland’s influence is going to take over but this isn’t sustained- what emerges is something where (and I am struggling with this) the gaps, the what-isn’t-said is as important as what’s on the page. This isn’t to demean what the poem says but rather to point to the unsaid stuff that seems (struggling again) to lurk between the lines. The sequence is full of stuff that is clever, challenging and intriguing, I’m particularly fond of the conversational voice that’s used to say some quite ‘deep’ things. Right now I’m busy reading more of Luna’s work and can confirm its consistency in terms of strength. I’ll be writing more about Luna shortly.
The same goes for Francesca Lisette.
I wrote all of the above about ten days ago and have spent the intervening time having a bit of a struggle with despondency and confidence which is annoying because I’m supposed to be recovering. This unwelcome interval has been spent amongst some primary sources for the last decade of the 16th century – narrative history remaining the best distraction when my concentration is shot. The period has also been marked by an odd sense of unease about poetry that requires attention which I do intend to write about. Returning to the two Lisette poems today has restored some confidence. I have read some of her other stuff and am awaiting the arrival of some more but the two on display here are simply outstanding and challenging on a number of levels. I’m still getting my brain around some of the finer points but would wish to draw your attention to “living underground with stockings made of rain / my free fucking watercooler wrung hands of all / authority;” which is both startling and clever and “mantra dies off / in the bread of giving up we rose / caulked and feckless” which is almost perfect. It is stuff like this and the Luna poem that restores my faith in the future of English verse whilst also managing to challenge the ways that I read and think about poetry. This is a good thing.

The above is a set list from a recent Gillian Welch gig in San Francisco, it’s another poem in the ‘tour’ sequence because I say it is.
With regard to the three Jarvis poems, I’ll obviously need to give these much more attention after I’ve negotiated the various threads in ‘Dionysus Crucified’ – I’ll have more to say once I’ve got my brain around both the depth and the breadth of the Jarvis project. Incidentally, looking at the background to George Herbert has led me to ‘Godly sorrow’ and John Donne on kenosis which may shed a little more light on the dying god theme in ‘Dionysus’ and on “or voiding inside their once barbarous pageants of national violence and love” from Z.15. It could of course be yet another example of over-reading and leaping to conclusions that aren’t actually there. I’m not at all sure about ‘Barcarol’ mainly because of line length but I also accept that I need to pay this much more attention.
As for the Sutherland contributions, I’m of the view that the selection from the Odes contains one of the weakest bits of the sequence, the excerpt from ‘Ode 4′ is a little too controlled and rational for my taste and (probably) not ‘superabundant’ enough. The bit from Ode 5 gives a much better idea of the quality of the sequence as a whole. I’m also a little puzzled as ‘Living stops to fit the empty” was once part of the ‘Odes’ and probably makes more ‘sense’ in that context rather than as a separate poem. Does anyone know when/if the sequence will be published?
I realise that this may cause offence but I’m bored of kettling poems and becoming bored of austerity poems (unless they are really, really good) and ‘The Clearance’ is a kettling poem, it’s a clever and clearly heartfelt piece of polemic but there are much bigger fish to fry…

Welch, Toronto, Monday night, the final poem in the sequence.