(This has been edited in response to Chris Goode’s comments below)
There are two versions of ‘Trails’ currently available from the Deterritorial Support Group site and they are very different so readers should download both. Earlier this year I wrote about Jocund Day with enthusiasm and admiration and these newer poems give me the opportunity to expand on that and consider Timothy’s work in further depth. Before getting on to the poems, I need to mention that I am one of the 560 people who follow Timothy on Twitter. This is relevant to what follows.
Both these poems are political and oneof them relate to the demonstrations about this regime’s ‘austerity’ schemes. I have a reasonably negative view of political poems and I’m more than a little cynical about ‘kettling’ poems and I think I need to explain these prejudices in greater depth. Being against the austerity measures devised by the particularly dismal government is an easy position to take and (consequently) being against a the tactics used by the primary instruments of class oppression is more than a little naive because the police will always be used to contain any political initiative that dares to take to the streets. So, I don’t find anti government and/or anti police polemic in poetry very interesting or useful and I have yet to be convinced that poetry is an appropriate way of doing politics. The first version of ‘Trails is also a response to the Stokes Croft ‘riots’ in Bristol earlier this year which is a much more nuanced event and one which may well require a poetic response.
Stokes Croft was about Tesco’s intention to move a store into an area where it wasn’t wanted or needed and also about squatting as a legitimate lifestyle. It is relatively easy to paint both these issues as being about economics and the priority given to profit but Stokes Croft is also (primarily) about place which is n excellent subject for grown up poetry.
The following facts may be helpful in reading version 1:
1. Alain de Botton is a figure of fun and derision whose name is frequently played around with on Timothy’s Twitter posts. In ‘real’ life he is a writer without much talent and a fully paid up member of the Great British chatterati even though he is Swiss.
2. Nigel Pargetter was a character in ‘The Archers’, a long running BBC radio soap, he was killed off earlier this year, the photographs at the end of the poem are of Graham Seed who played Pargetter. Timothy has been known to comment on ‘The Archers’ on Twitter.
3. Timothy is also a Dr Who fan.
4. Wikipedia has this to say about Cordyceps- “When a Cordyceps fungus attacks a host, the mycelium invades and eventually replaces the host tissue, while the elongated fruiting body (ascocarp) may be cylindrical, branched, or of complex shape. The ascocarp bears many small, flask-shaped perithecia contain the asci. These in turn contain the thread-like ascospores, which usually break into fragments and are presumably infective. Some Cordyceps species are able to affect the behavior of their insect host: Cordyceps unilateralis causes ants to climb a plant and attach there before they die. This ensures the parasite’s environment is at an optimal temperature and humidity and maximal distribution of the spores from the fruiting body that sprouts out of the dead insect is achieved. Marks have been found on fossilised leaves which suggest this ability to modify the host’s behaviour evolved more than 48 million years ago.”
5. Professor Brian Cox is the UK’s current face of science and all things cosmic, his personal hero is Carl Sagan whose style he seeks to emulate.
So, ‘Trails 1’ may be a political poem but it’s also using political strife to say wider things about national identity and about sexual desire. It’s also a very honest poem, by which I think I mean that there is nothing here simply for effect and that the ‘stance’ adopted is utterly genuine. The lyricism which was prominent in ‘Jocund Day’ seems to have acquired a greater degree of intensity and the tone has become more urgent.
I think the following passage illustrates this and also epitomises the almost joyous rebellion that fills the poem:
the city broke “suspended neath the sky near snapped and brilliant-blue”
between as something resembling a shifting transparency showing a crude Windows 95 "fire" screensaver over-
laid on a like transparency this time a torpedo heartily fucking an aqueduct from an angle of thirty point five
degrees itself overlaid on a rope of fucked hearts slung from the John Cabot Tower tearing a spine down
to Stokes Croft every time on the tarmac thudding these wet bloodied teabags a distant henge of Vagrants detect
a low hum and look up: NATURE DOCUMENTARIES the Cordyceps fungus which entered their brain on a feeder wrong
the Pylons spinnerets orgasming quite beyond orgasm: hold with the breeze: pause: webs: for a half second:
hang and at
last is the em-spaced game: over but not before Life (that's a thing) itself blinks
over and up into what
really could only be called a Big Boss Level, which always happens: we know this: to Winning
a tidy corollary:
having ascended the Pylons in bodily pure anaphora our deployables link arms like in that
I hope this demonstrates what I see as Thornton’s lyrical strength and the radical intelligence of his work. I’m particularly impressed by ‘a rope of fucked hearts’, ‘these wet bloodied teabags a distant henge of Vagrants detect’ and ‘last is the em-spaced game: over but not before Life (that’s a thing) itself blinks’, all of which suggest a major talent currently evolving before our very eyes. The two ‘Trail’ poems are more confident and ‘free’ than the remarkable ‘Jocund Day’. I’d also like to point out that it takes a lot of guts and skill to insert ‘(that’s a thing)’ and bring it off with aplomb.
There’s also in the first part of the above a very skilled piece of verbal camera work that, without us being fully aware, takes us through a site of struggle, the use of ‘heartily’ in this particular context opens up a whole realm of thoughts and ideas- as in eagerly or hungrily or enthusiastically or as in of the heart or as in some pastiche of Edwardian adventure stories for boys. I have to admit that I’m a great fan of words used in surprising and/or idiosyncratic ways and this (like Francesca Lisette’s use of ‘flounce’) is brilliantly evocative.
I do however have one very minor quibble, neither ‘corollary’ nor ‘anaphora’ feel quite right, almost as if they’re visiting from another poem. Both seem to run counter to what precedes them in tone and register but that’s probably because I have a fairly fixed idea of what that tone is aiming for. And I’m probably wrong.
I have on a couple occasions expressed the view that poems should end well and the final stanza of ‘Trails I’ ends brilliantly because of how it manages to turn oppressive authority into something that can be used against itself and at the same time manages to be funny. The reason why endings are important is that attentive readers need to know that the poem has actually ended and the line of thought has come to a conclusion. Some ‘innovative’ poems fail to do this and readers are left either hanging in the air or feeling let down. These five lines act as both a reprise for the main themes and the last line delivers a quite startling full stop.
We now come to the delight that is the second ‘Trails’ poem which is both very humane and deeply honest. Anyone who follows Thornton’s posts on Twitter (which is an unfolding work of art) will instantly recognise the beleaguered figure trying to defend his fish and chips in the park. As a new found devotee of repetition, I’m fascinated by the use of ‘capitalism is an actual thing, I have seen it’ which feels like a Jarvis / Sutherland style swing at us deluded relativists but it is incredibly effective. For those unaware of the details of British politics, Michael Gove is our current Secretary of State for education who used to be a journalist and is the walking embodiment of ‘the chinless wonder’. With regard to the use of block capitals, this is an essential part of the Thornton project, yesterday’s tweets contained- “FOX!!! FOX IN THE GARDEN” and “EAT THE BASIL”. In years to come, when he has gained the recognition that he richly deserves, academics will take delight in arguing over the relevance and ‘meaning’ of these stylistic variations. For the time being, ‘Trails 2’ makes me smile. A lot.
Good poetry often kicks off a chain of thoughts that end up in odd but satisfying places. So, I’ve been pondering whether or not capitalism can be described as a thing and (if it can) what might this thing resemble. I’ve glided effortlessly over the first part of this but I have come up with the following-
1. A smooth glistening machine that sits in the corner of the world. And hums.
2. A vampire creature that can only be killed in a very complex and time-consuming way.
3. A heretical set of beliefs that are now referred to as ‘common sense’
4. An unfortunate paradox which can only exist/thrive in the gap between first world obesity and the 900 million that don’t have enough to eat.
5. Five dogs with tongues in the park.
6. A wet Thursday afternoon on the way to Seaton Carew (by public transport).
It’s at this point that I return to the first part of the question which is probably quite entertainingly complex so long as we’re careful to avoid anything that might be even vaguely Marxian…
John, I’m delighted that you’re continuing to lavish your critical attentions and blogspace on the BTL poets, who deserve it; but I’m beginning to feel a bit uneasy with your repeated attacks on my reference to queerness in the introduction to the anthology. We’ve now come back a third time to a topic you keep insisting you don’t want to return to. I didn’t very much expect our long debate on the topic to convince you of anything — and I’ve no idea in what sense you feel it was “productive”, as your subsequent writings indicate it produced nothing but entrenchment — but I’d hoped it might at least clarify the ways in which your reading of the suggestion I make in that intro might be seen as partial and underdeveloped, and that you might for that reason agree simply to disagree and move on. Instead your disproportionate focus on this one paragraph of a ten-page introduction has through repetition become increasingly misrepresentative in a way that I worry is occluding rather than enlightening.
Someone encountering this post, on a writer we both deeply admire, would easily come away with the impression that I had made a claim (a) for the queerness of Thornton’s work in particular (which I’m sure both he and I would find as dubious as you do, partly because he and I would both reject the elision you make here between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’; incidentally, I say nothing at all about the sexual orientation of any of the thirteen poets in the book, I’d have thought it incredibly impertinent to do so); and (b) for queerness as a “merit” that somehow obliterates a close consideration of technical and tonal virtues, rather as if one might choose to be a queer-identifying poet or a technically gifted and effective poet but not both.
You continue to miss the point that queerness is finally not a property of individuals or of artefacts or images, but rather of relationships. (This surely is embedded in the very idea of ‘praxis’.) It is produced collaboratively between a reader and a text, or a reader and a performer. As such, there are not queer poems per se, only queer readings. My premise in the introduction to the anthology — and I don’t think this is at all unclear or ambiguous — is simply that, just as some readers will be more inclined to essay queer readings of work, some writers and makers will likewise be more readily disposed than others to construct their work in ways that make it especially responsive to such readings. My suggestion that much of the work in BTL is, with varying degrees of concertedness, notably available to queer reading (especially by comparison with the work of their immediate forebears) is an observation and an invitation — securely based, as I unequivocally state, on the tendencies of my own reading practice and its political ambience; it is not a prescription and certainly not a categorical edict to override all other concerns, as you keep implying. To find it an unhelpful suggestion is in the end not very much more than a matter of personal taste; but to refuse it so emphatically, as you do, by construing the critical practice of queerness as somehow an obstacle to or interference with a proper comprehension of the texts concerned, is at best a discourtesy to these writers and many of their readers, and at worst an assault on the responsible practice of genuinely critical reading per se. You’re welcome to disagree with anything and everything I say in my introduction, of course: but you’re now coming very close to impugning my critical integrity, and I don’t believe that’s justified. To the best of my knowledge — perhaps you know different? — none of the poets included in the anthology has sought to distance themselves from my remarks; I’m sorry you feel so affronted, therefore, on their behalf, but your repeated pressing home of this point now seems to be saying more and more about your curious indignation and less and less about their work: which is contrary, I’m sure, to your good intentions.
Thank you for this, in the light of your comments I’ve amended the post as I think I agree with most of your observations. My only (and somewhat feeble excuse is that I’m still getting used to the fact that I have a readership and that this entails some degree of responsibility. My other excuse is that I try not to put too much planning into what I write because this invariably leads to more than a degree of self-doubt and rather stilted prose. On this occasion however ‘spontaneity’ has led to stupidity which I regret. Later today I’ll be making further amendments to this post because it only says part of what I want to say about Timothy’s work.
The five dogs with tongues line has really grabbed me. Am I wrong to see the terrifying horse of evil in here somewhere (from Buckowski? Or is ir Ferlinghetti?)
It’s a long time since I read either with any degree of attention, In my head they are real dogs with real tongues lolling after the slightly metaphorical fish and chips. This is entirely provisional and subject to change, as you’d expect.