- Francesca Lisette writes incomparably stunning poetry that is embedded in the now;
- She has that rare talent of being able to say new things in new ways;
- Already her work shows a control over language that most of us can only dream of and wonder at;
- Those of us who recognise the above have a responsibility to write about her work with great care.
I’ve spent the last four months avoiding doing this. I’m confident that I can make a very strong case for all of the above facts but worry enormously about fact 4. As I said on an earlier post, Timothy Thornton and I did spend an hour or so on Twitter trying to come up with the ‘right’ thing to say about Lisette’s work and I came up with ‘raggedly defiant’ which is reasonably close but doesn’t express how good, in the sense of technical competence, she is. I’m also aware that I’m bored with the way that I currently say things about poetry so I’m going to true something new and identify (at some length) how I personally react to this stuff. The following observations are based on work published in ‘Better Than Language’, ‘Grasp no.5’ and the Claudius App.
The following elements are entirely subjective and deeply personal and have no theoretical justification whatsoever.
The smile effect
Good poetry makes me smile and really good poetry makes me smile a lot. This has to do with being impressed by the poet’s abilities especially in terms of phrasing and image creation but also in the knowledge that someone else thinks and cares about poetry and language as much as I do and that recognition of something shared. Lisette’s phrases and images are startlingly impressive. We have ‘a fierce matrimony of hurt lust and gunpowder’, ‘speechless with depth, we relinquish flounce’ and ‘Complete a thought, tho’ not before plucking out paper elbows, frotting boxes with ticks, juicing quarterly sermons within slip of an eye; play on.’. All of these make me smile a lot because of the element of surprise and the obvious delight in language but also because the strength of this stuff draws me in and encourages my readerly participation in this complex doing of poetry. At this point the smile turns into a grin.
I am a cleverness tart and this causes a whole raft of problems. I like to think that I’m fairly bright and, as an autodidact, I am remarkably free of the anxieties that Bourdieu describes. Tartdom does however mean that I’m overly ready to be impressed by clever people- I initially admired Obama’s cleverness and deployment of ‘proper’ rhetoric for example although I don’t think I was moved to the rampant optimism that gripped the American left. Underpinning this admiration is the sad fact that I get bored and distracted really easily and that clever stuff written by clever people usually keeps me occupied. The real downside with this tartdom is the lingering suspicion that something is clever for the sake of being clever rather than saying anything substantial or that the cleverness is being used to hide the fact that the material isn’t very good. The sense of betrayal when this realisation eventually arrives can be quite dramatic, I sulked for weeks when I realised that ‘The Four Quartets’ fell into this category.
Lisette is a clever poet who produces clever material but this is a fierce intelligence rather than being (merely) knowledgeable. There are very, very few foreign phrases and most of these are reasonably familiar, there are now obscure references to obscure figures or events but there is cleverness in abundance that both excites and throws down the gauntlet. As with other really accomplished poets, Lisette takes the reader’s head for a walk to new and exhilarating places which demonstrate how different ways of thinking are possible/feasible/essential.
I realise that this is a bold claim but I do have evidence. ‘What Continues’, the second poem on the Claudius App is an example of several very clever things being done at once, the theme is complex, the poem is technically accomplished with each quatrain forming an autonomous block, the ending is utterly brilliant and the sense of emotional depth and integrity is palpable. Of course I may be proved entirely wrong but this is authentic, undiluted cleverness and not some over-dressed frippery that is all too prevalent in poetry today.
I was once ‘against’ political poetry in all its forms. The reasons for this are twofold, the first being that poetry is really bad (inept) at ‘doing’ politics per se and the second is that most poets are decidedly weak on most kinds of political analysis and action. Chris Goode in his ‘Better than Language anthology remarks on the ‘anti=capitalist’ stance of his contributors as if this is in some way significant. Of course it is relatively common for anyone with half a brain cell to be against the global obscenity that is the unfettered and entirely pernicious free market but the real ‘trick’ is articulating an alternative that isn’t simply a re-hash of the usual Marxian fantasies. A feasible alternative (given where we are) is reasonably difficult to get our brains around never mind constructing it in poetic form. One of the very few things that unite J H Prynne and Vanessa Place is a commitment to showing how things are rather than how they ought to be which, for a whole range of reasons, is the only viable mode for poetry.
Francesca Lisette writes defiant, uncompromising and extreme political poetry and therefore I should hate it. The above position isn’t consistently applied however- Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ escapes outright condemnation because it manages to do many more things than ‘just’ critique our involvement in the Iraq fiasco. Lisette escapes too because of this and also because the delivery is so skilled and controlled. The following is the middle section from ‘Heterosexu-Normative, or, / Lines on the Spectacularization of Radical Dismemberment’:
Golluped tongue felt so sweetly, thresh into paranormal pre-dawn
&/ or morning stipulate check her answer against
because when I sit down to write of love horns shake
me out of intention, plain-vested stars leap in
perfect symmetry meanwhile diskette chew-toys
rampage past the train argument snaggled in
your discomfit-ready for
a new age crumbling
as stiff plenty would have it.
Have I mentioned that Lisette is physically incapable of writing a bad line? There is an enormous amount going on the above yet it doesn’t feel forced or deliberately compressed, it reads so that you overlook the work and skill that’s gone into it. Charles Olson and John Matthias does this but Lisette does it with more passion and elan.
I hope that it will be noted that thus far I have avoided the usual set of adjectives but I can no longer resist- essential, crucial, important, challenging, uncompromising, hardcore, deadly serious, implacable. That feels better.
can you help me get anything out of this? is it possible to articulate clearly WHAT’S going on in the last passage? I want to like Lisette for the politics & lack of deadly populist realism but I fail to get much pleasure out of what seems to me like radical disjunction and a virtuosic avoidance of meaning anything, even suggesting anything. its like every word is maximally disconnected from every other word. I would find it very hard to write something this meaningless drunk at 4 am if I tried. is that the point? I must be a secret Stalinist or something.
Think there’s a couple of things- Lisette’s material at the far end of my (entirely personal and inconsistent) sense making spectrum. The above is the middle bit of a poem that appear to be ‘about’ a kind of awkward and thwarted desire. I realise now that I should have used all of it to make my point- I’m not suggesting that this would make it much easier to get to grips with but it would at least highlight some of the less dense lines. I take your point about disconnection but it’s more skewed away from than cut off completely- isn’t it?