Withheld Poetry

I have been thinking about this for a while but what follows is more tentative speculation than anything with definition or clarity, I’m also likely to change my mind. Last year I wrote about Joe Luna’s contribution to the ‘Better than Language’ collection and remarked that what mattered was the stuff going on outside and around the text rather than the words themselves. I’ve since elaborated on this a little but it now occurs to me that several of our better poets are in the business of withholding or making poems that function as a collection of items/events that are incidental to what’s being talked about.

This line of thought started with a discussion with Neil Pattison about obscurity, I felt that one particular reference was far too obscure for it’s own good- Neil responded by pointing out that this might be secret rather than obscure. This was followed by coming across Luke Roberts’ observation of the ‘deliberate secrecy’ deployed in the work of Francesca Lisette.

I probably need to be a bit more detailed, I’m not talking about allusion in the sense that a phrase can allude or point to something else. The material that is withheld isn’t signposted at all except by the fact that it isn’t present and the poem that we have appears to be what is left when the’secret’ has been removed.

Before this gets hopelessly and incoherently abstract, I’m going to take refuge in some examples of what I’m failing to describe. In my head, Luna, Pattison and Lysette are the most conscious/deliberate withholders at the moment so I’ll use a poem from each. This is Joe Luna’s poem from the ‘document’ containing this and poems by Francesca Lisette, Jonny Liron and Timothy Thronton which was published by Grasp last year. The blurb says “Joe Luna’s poem is a singular work made from revisions and concanetations of smaller poems, written alongside and sometimes in response the others here”. This is the first half of the third part of this singular work;

with silliness & love taut multiplies
the trauma that produces humans. here
is my head so bleed it will you make my
infant mouth stay nothing: there, if I am
fully human, what goes in and how
the square can phrase that with a charge
of infantilism or crack: head's mother
tongue's cheap trick, selling short what's smashing
but prevented, love: given half a chance
who wouldn't harm what represents us,

I should perhaps have mentioned that this collection is a response to this government’s enlightened approach to the funding of higher education but that really isn’t much help with what might be going on here. The astute amongst you will have noticed that sense seems to have been deliberately disrupted or damaged without quite veering off into the completely abstract. The reader (me) is thus left with the impression of something which has been excised from the poem but still exists outside it. This notion is further enhanced by the considered use of punctuation- the full stop in the second line is not a typo and is followed by the lower case ‘h’. Normally I might find this kind of thing overly clever but this is more than redeemed by the degree of invention and the careful use of language that allows for this kind of disruption.

What’s also remarkable is the shifting nature of the proximity to sense/clarity, of how we almost know what “here / is my head so bleed it will you make my / infant mouth stay nothing” refers to or means even though we never can.

I’ve said this before but Francesca Lisette writes stunning poetry that manages to combine defiance with invention and humour.

Coincidentally, Mountain Press have just published ‘Teens’ which appears to gather together most of Lisette’s work. This is all of ‘Descension’:

fractionate uglies pass under mucked,
where eyes are, where palms grit to bless.
lunar spacings fringe the raw velvet
revolving the splintered crease.
[pin intervention]
now decidedly a field: turned-up,
caught in buttercup
high confessional
black touching dank silver
working to undermine the grease
side-guided,
jellyish strapped-in. blue myths wheel and caw;
bones stream in particles winded
caesarian synapse gives out: gives over

afterwards the shadowed wreckage
bacon won breeds eyes silkily
intentionally fathered.
cloud-set skin replaces knives and worm-wracked pentagonal
it is the laugh, the hairshine.
throttles on vampirically.
features too, escape voluble knowledge
all the undoings dozed out while braised:
carrying this kiss of initials like a stricture

Is this what Roberts means by “deliberately secret”? I’d like to put it another way, the above contains brilliant moments of verbal invention and enough indicators to allow us an informed guess as to what might have gone on but this can only ever be a ‘might’ because the language never quite gets to be formed even though it gives the impression of wanting to. It could be argued that this is just another piece of dense oddness but (as with Luna) what’s important is what isn’t said and we can only catch this at the corners and edges of the lines.

Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’ is one of the best poems written in the last ten years. This has primarily to do with the ‘voice’ of the poem and the determined urgency that it contains but it also withholds in a way that is slightly more nuanced than Luna and Lisette. This is a section that makes my point:

Scope under the silicon tint is tinfoil, patches
thumbnail, scan. Rubric, stinted, component of
this limb
is related to this joint
radiant proteins, bonding in a dream, stripped
out in light : tint qualifies, the eagles venturing
acquisition only ; stability maps in to sculpted
enamels, restriction polishes up as belt, teething
ulterior surface, desaturated : is tinfoil, scoped
then selective, this humane break in the product
line. Tracking its metric, folding, cursive, the scan
is firebreak, no quality witheld, the stinted whole.

This is grown-up poetry that isn’t for the faint-hearted, it’s got to be worked with, the reader has to identify the things that aren’t being said which without doubt are much more terrible than the things that are. In fact I’d like to suggest that Neil’s withholding is to do with heightening and intensifying our anxiety and pushing us toward action or at least a response to the Bad Things that are almost described.

Another thought occurs to me- this keeping back isn’t done so that the reader can fill the gaps with whatever his or her experiences might suggest. These are real and tangible things that are not being said and that might be the point because the world is full to bursting with things that are made clear, are made plain to such an extent that we think we know lots about what there is to know. Only we don’t know very much at all and these poets are very good at bringing us back to the many absences and gaps that we need to recognise and pay attention to.

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3 responses to “Withheld Poetry

  1. Hello there, I’m just wondering where you got hold of ‘Slow Light.’ I’ve ordered ‘preferences’ from Barquepress, but my googling is getting me nowhere in my search for slow light. I love your blog, it is endlessly fascinating.

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