Anne Boyer’s Common Heart

I started re-reading the above as a way of not reading ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, ‘Odi Barbare’ and ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ but then I got dragged in and now feel the need to enthuse in the manner of a stupid red setter. I first encountered Boyer by way of using an article in Lana Turner to refute a misplaced attribution which sounds much grander than it is. My initial view (subjective, provisional, on the way to something else) was that this might be tactically good as a part of the Occupy movement. I’ve now decided that some of it is very good indeed and stands on its own terms.

Here I think I need to explain what the difference between poetic quality and tactical quality. There are a whole range of criteria for the former, I currently going for a mix of Hill and Prynne- technically efficient, startling and beautiful- whereas the tactical poem looks outside poetry and is perhaps more or equally concerned with what poems can do. Some of the better conceptual work meets this criteria but so too does Simon Jarvis’ determined use of metre.

The thing that strikes me now is how some of this work is on the way to being conceptual whilst retaining at least a foot and an ankle in the late modern camp. I am aware that I’m ignorant and that there may be an entire North American ‘school’ writing in this manner but I still think that, whatever this is, Boyer does it very well.

I’d like to focus on bodies and bodies that crowd together. Boyer’s ‘Crowds’ is entirely in prose and contains a series of reasonably straightforward statements interspersed with some questions. What we have here is both startling and efficient. Each statement/question gives pause for thought but the succession of statements also carries forwards through the text. I didn’t want it to finish but that probably says more about me than Boyer.

I’d like to draw your attention to the really good/important/salient/valuable bits:

  • every kind of virtue is found in a crowd: that humans in a crowd create their own paths as if
    they are water that creates its own stream of water;
  • she has a crowd of carrots but carrots alone;
  • how in a disaster, humans in a crowd;
  • the building falls around him but the man carrying the man he does not know is not Hobbesian;
  • to make those deep dog woof cheers as they walk in the path the crowd has made like how water makes a stream;
  • oh what a piece of work is the crowd that we work so hard together to work against it;
  • to dream with the crowd is her cognitive surplus;
  • how the crowd so often starts with women together conspiring. How for this reason you are not allowed to see women together in the movies conspiring unless it is about clothing or a man;
  • at night I dream of a poetry for the crowd. I imagine the bodies pressed against each other until there is not one set of feet left on the ground.

I think the first thing that needs to be said is that it is really very easy to do this kind of thing badly. I know from personal experience that there is a temptation to become overly abstract which ends up being merely pretentious or to be really plain and simple which doesn’t say very much at all but does flaunt its own self-regard.

This remarkable piece of work points and teeters toward the portentous and abstract yet manages to stay the correct/appropriate side of the line. I became quite concerned with the appearance of the philosopher but this is kept nicely in proportion. The other thing to note is the degree of political engagement which becomes increasingly apparent as things progress. This isn’t full-on polemic but it is a scathing analysis of state power/paranoia coupled with a ‘wish’ for adequate verse.

I’ve confessed many time before that I’m easily impressed by the clever and need to be on my guard against the clever that is merely clever for it’s own sake. ‘The Crowd’ is bursting with intelligence but this is cleverness that is a means rather than an end, it needs to be clever in order to make its point succinctly and forcefully but the strength of the point overrides the intelligence and skill needed to get there.

What I also admire is that this feels like an easy read with the implication that it was easy to put together when in fact this level of quality is really difficult to achieve and requires much hard work and a great amount of skill. As with Olson and Matthias, the reader does not notice the machinery that’s churning away to achieve the effect.

Given this level of quality it’s perhaps no surprise that some other poems don’t work with the same kind of fluency and some don’t say very much. I’m a fan of list poems and have a strong interest in the various uses of repetition but Boyer’s use of both (apart from ‘The poet with the best body’) doesn’t seem adequately thought out.

‘Il pie fermo’ almost restores my faith in the utility of the political poem, I haven’t checked whether the initial paragraph is a quote or note and I don’t think it matters. The poem builds into bitter polemic but does so in an unusual and compelling way. The first ‘winter’ paragraph is an example of good use of repetition that catches both the obsessive and absurd sides of power whilst the second puts us in a much, much darker place. I’m taking it that the scratching of the captives is an echo of what happened in the gas chambers and this here is both startling and quite shocking.

The change into verse is fascinating to me primarily because I haven’t worked out what informs the decision to change and whether this is different for each poem. The effect here is again to place the poetic centre stage in a direct and unambiguous relationship with state power. I find this incredibly effective- it challenges my own practice ina fundamental way.

With regard to bodies (apart from bodies in crowds and bodies incarcerated or dead), I want simply to say that ‘The poet with the best body’ is a repetitious list poem that works as it should and makes me smile a lot, the kind of thing that you want to quote at strangers in the street.

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