Better than Language, Lisette and Tiplady

The last piece that I wrote on this anthology has triggered a debate between Chris Goode and myself. I don’t wish to reiterate anything that I’ve already said but would encourage others to make a contribution in the relevant thread. I remain of the view that this is a really strong collection and I’d like to underline this by giving further examples of the work that it contains.

I’m going to start with Francesca Lisette who I’ve been intermittently reading in other things since the beginning of the summer. She has a sequence entitled “Casebook: a History of Autonomy and Anger’ which is subtitled ‘A poem for performance’. The sequence begins with Apollinaire’s ‘The Hills’ in English which is followed by a piece of prose ’01/12′:

Seizing up the weakened cradle your bent-black chest is present to, louder in the gritted wind. Notes of lice tinkle down in sun, hard with malformed lushness in swathes or a swept lip. You press me volatile to your pure solicitations, which complicates my being ONLY A TOY. Not for labels are their teeth arrowing out like angels sicked on ash vulvar. We make a face, or two, playing for feed at whites which hiccup ‘self/object’ sheathed in PLAYDO. Slip away knowledge as dust booms the bar; nook hanging as a blond void, to be filled, or something like it. Renders impulse slide nectarine: breaks open the police helmet, sniggering at small stitch. Speechless with depth we relinquish flounce and pass on so naked, burnt as a side remainder of what catches in the real light of day.

Once in a long while I come across stuff that is utterly startling and on other occasions I encounter stuff that is really well put together. On this occasion I’ve come across both in the same place. There are many, many things in the above that really function as the best poetry should. There’s a level of sustained brilliance that’s really quite rare. I’d now like to recount an entirely relevant Twitter exchange that occurred last night. On occasion I;m given to tweet lines of poetry that I think are particularly strong. In this vein I posted the first half of the last sentence quoted above and immediately entered into an exchange with Timothy Thornton about just how good Lisette’s work is. I observed that I was writing this and wanted to do justice to it. We then fell to swapping adjectives for a while and eventually settled on ‘raggedly defiant’ although along the way Timothy made this observation- ” i somehow imagine her poems as what’s there when you snap a heavy blank book shut on life and then prise it open” which is far more eloquent than I could ever manage.

What I think is particularly brilliant is the absence of compromise blended with a very lyrical eloquence. The above passage contains some compelling phrases and images but the whole thing is also put together with an urgency that doesn’t dwell on its own eloquence. Jeremy Prynne has made the observation that ‘difficult’ modernist poetry should sometimes be so surprising that it takes our breath away and my breath was stolen by ‘hard with malformed lushness, muffled in swathes of a swept lip;, ‘complicates my being ONLY A TOY’, ‘teeth arrowing out like angels sicked on ash vulvar’ and the last sentence which forms a truly magnificent ending. This is hardcore stuff that Lisette manages to punctuate, interweave with a really powerful and poetic lyricism. This is important to me because I have been of the view that poetry needs to be less poetic in order to survive, Lisette is busy proving me wrong and for that I’m very grateful.

We now come to the enigma that is Jonty Tiplady who occupies a very singular place in British poetry. He appears to be on this mission to do the extraordinary with the everyday and to revel in the process. I struggled with his first sequence, ‘Zam, Bonk, Dip’ which came out a while ago until I read something very perceptive on Joe Luna’s blog which brought me back to the work with a new pair of eyes. I’m going to quote one poem in its entirety because I think it shows what some aspects of the Tiplady project might be about. This one is called ‘Superanus’:

Slow banana stock cubes at Vigo's Wunderkammer.

A little beauty, or sunshine epic, don't get me wrong
but how be sure
you wish spiritual speed,
for this not to be about negative love,
wound, and 'war' without name, ill=loving and cruelty-thing?

Why can't I cry,
why can't I shine right like my lover's light,
everybody has the same shenanigans with the milk muffs

But that's everything, that's the loneliness
killing me like I do now openly surrounded by animals
on a Christmas tree farm.

Screwball addiction, post-bling
post-gangsta-rap nothing.

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

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 kicks in.

This is really clever stuff that’s deceptively straightforward whilst actually managing to undermine to poetry-making business in a number of different ways. I’m particularly impressed by the humanity of the ‘voice’ running through this and the way in which the playful tries to batter the serious into submission. Incidentally as far as I can recall it was Norman Wisdom who was huge in Albania whereas George Formby is the only British comedian to have been awarded the Order for Lenin for boosting Russian morale during World War 2. I’m really quite pleased about this because I’ve carried the Formby fact around for over twenty years without being able to put it to use.

I think that I now need to make clear a distinction that exists in my head relating to the post-modern. The above poem has many elements that some critics and readers would consider to be post-modern- appropriations from popular culture, frequent changes of tone and register, lashings of knowing irony and what used to be called jouissance. In my head however the primary feature of po-mo is the primacy of form over substance or ‘message’ and one of the main definging features of modernist literature is its readiness to use collage and montage to achieve serious aims. So, what I’m trying to say that this can be thought of as either a kind of hybridity or an attempt to do modernist things in a po-mo frock. The last line is superb, it comes from nowhere and it stopped me dead in my tracks.
This isn’t the end of the Better than Language posts, it’s likely that I’ll continue with this for a very long time. Because it’s important, special, crucial and available from ganzfeld for only a tenner. It’s also the best thing that’s happened to British poetry for several decades. There is no excuse.

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One response to “Better than Language, Lisette and Tiplady

  1. Any Formby fact is worth its weight in ukuleles.

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