Tag Archives: Better than language

Better Than Language, the Jonny Liron problem and the excellent Tomas Weber.

For me some poets are problematic. Paul Muldoon is problematic because he’s extremely talented but some of his stuff seems to be more more about displaying this talent rather than saying anything useful John Ashbery is problematic because part of me thinks that there’s been a long downhill slide since ‘Some Trees’ but there’s another part of me that really admires him for not caring, in an extreme way, about what anyone else might think and some of the later work is very good. Problematic poets are the ones that I don’t know what to think/feel about their work, this is very, very different from the very long list of poets that I dislike. I’ve bought loads of Ashbery and Muldoon but don’t possess (for example) any Zukofsky, Arnold or Basil Bunting.

My wife is a psychology graduate and tells me that first impressions are really important when meeting new people and I think this goes to the heart of my Jonny Liron problem. At the end of June I bought a small fold-out collection from the excellent Grasp Press. This features work by Timothy Thornton, Francesca Lisette, Joe Luna and Jonny Liron which was written between October and December last year. I was familiar (ish) with the first four but Liron was a completely new name to me. I therefore read his stuff first and came across a passage that I found shocking and disturbing. Before I quote from it I’d like to explain why this then developed into a problem. My initial reaction was that this was someone who had set out deliberately to shock just for the sake of shocking and, as such, I wasn’t really interested. Of course I may becoming increasingly reactionary and grumpy in my old age and the ‘point’ of this material is precisely to shock people like me. I did read the other poems in the collection but my first impression was difficult to get around. Liron has ten poems in ‘Better than Language’ and it now becomes clear that there is a project under way that isn’t ‘simply’ about shock but remains very subversive indeed.

This is the initial shock:

Enter war child; war child is naked and dirty, covered in fresh and old blood and oil, soil and some of Leonardo Di Caprio’s bone fragments. A ragged foreskin hangs out of his mouth, he is fucking himself with the severed head of Leonardo Di Caprio, he has already tied up war girl and is making her kiss the dead head of Leonardo Di Caprio. She cum into a cup which war child drinksbefore fucking her and then squatting and taking a shit while war girl tries to fuck the head of Leonardo Di Caprio, she unties herself and starts to smear her cunt with the fresh faeces of war child who masturbates as she does this. War child is tied up and then fucked by war girl, the faeces on her cunt mingling with his smeared small cock when they both cum.

(Italicized in the original).

So, initially I wrote off Liron as someone who was more interested in causing shock and distaste. To be fair the rest of the poem is a fairly oblique political attack but I failed to see how this middle section could be justifed. It could be argued that it’s intensely parodic of a number of aspects of pornography and the cult of celebrity but in this instance I found any kind of message overshaowed by the content. I’m also happy to accept that my reaction is distinctly middle aged and may not be shared by others.

Better Than Language contains ‘0520’ which is dated 13-1-11 and demonstrates that Liron is a poet of real talent and that he can mange to write with great eloqence when he wants to. This is the first stanza (of three);

sudden miasmic triptych up tight begets better woes
Dalston pain heat washes the coalition of love to
throwing out vomit free for all tin cans around the
neck of history and we deserve far worse anyhow
than having to fend for yourself in the trash of loves
real underbelly the scum of love downgraded to a
simple lo-fi rub of envy and jealousy and I want her.

This, I would argue, is the sort of poetry that takes your mind for a walk without really knowing it and which challenges the way we think about being alive. I welcome the challenge but what is also present is an accomplished use of language that manages to say some quite complex things about the political moment and the confusing and contradictory nature of desire. The rest of the poem sustains this quailty right down to the last three words- “shattered image born”. So, my reaction would have probably been entirely different if I’d just read the material in the anthology but I didn’t and my problem is compounded by the fact that some of his other poems in the anthology do seem to be more about surface glitter than depth, but that’s probably the point.

I now turn to Tomas Weber who is much more straightforward but equally skilled and challenging. The anthology contains a long prose poem which is titled from Hole which I’m taking to indicate that there’s a fuller version somewhere, if anybody knows if the whole thing has been published, could they please let me know? I’ve chosen a longish section from the middle because it manages to do several things at once:

“Remember when we told each other our fears and they turned out to be the same fears? That we don’t yet fit into any geopolitical conflict analogy, that everybody will suddenly decide to vote for us and we’d have to become the Prince? Come back / perfect / you are anarchy. The eagle is here, crying to you. You are the sly one, dog-slut, running about through architecture, picking your favourite sorts of sleep. We can even act out that fantasy, you know, the one where I’m music. Though I would much rather, I don’t know, structure. Gather the smallest syllables / for Jesus. You see? Eagle’s great. Aren’t you at least glad I am not as far away as landscape? How do we get there, anyway, the place where the dogs are always barking brighter than a pack of burning wolves.”

According to the anthology Weber was born in 1991 which means that he’s twenty or thereabouts. It’s that fact and the sheer insane quality of the above that gives me real hope for the future of British poetry, the reason why this is a landmark publication is that it heralds the advent of a swathe of incredibly talented young poets. I’d like to draw attention to the way that the above expresses things in a number of starling ways. What does it mean to fit into a conflict analogy and does this apply to me? How can somebody be anarchy or music? What’s being music like? Why should Jesus want the smallest syllable, doesn’t he want the larger ones as well? How can youi be as far away as landscape? Is this a specific landscape or the general idea of one? Is there more than one ‘you’ being addressed? Why is everything expressed as a question?

This particular extract is four pages long and all of it throws up similar challenges. I think it’s really good and I wish that I’d written it.


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.

Better than language and ‘queer praxis’

Before we start I need to make an important announcement, at long last Timothy Thornton’s ‘Jocund Day’ is now available for sale from the Mountain Press site. I’ve written about this before and I don’t propose to repeat myself other than to say that it’s important and only costs five of your very best English pounds. I also note that Mountain Press is going to publish work by another three of my favourites, Neil Pattison, Luke Roberts and Francesca Lisette all of which we ought to get excited about.
Also published this summer is ‘Better Than Language’, an anthology of younger poets put together by Chris Goode. Let me say at the outset that we all owe Chris an enormous debt of gratitude for putting together material of such high quallity. Before I get on to the poetry, I’d like to give some consideration to some of the things that Chris says in his introduction. I don’t normally pay much attention to introductions but I read this one because I wanted to know how someone else would ‘frame’ this material and because the collection contains an incredible amount of strong material. There is much in the introduction that I agree with but there are two things that I’d like to take (tentative) issue with. The first is-

In fact queer praxis – whether or not the term itself would be gladly accepted by the poets considered – stands out as an important influence on much of the writing collected here. Returning again and again to the body, and to erotics, and especially to performance as both theme and modality, many of these poets are working inventively with language and forms through which they seek to evade or disturb or infect or destabilise the normativities of patriarchy, gender and sexuality. For some more than others, this reflects their own lived experience, for none of them, though, I think is it a matter of identity politics exactly. Rather this sense of queerness which runs through so much of the anthology (reflecting in part, to be fair, my own editorial interests no less than some generational tendency) is plainly continuous with a clear thread of anticapitalist thougt and ideation that, again, comes through more strongly in some places than others, but is almost always present, as in the most delicate love poem as in the boldest most amped-up geopolitical bulletin.

I’ve quoted this at length because I don’t wish to be guilty of cherry picking in order to make a point. I want to start by acknowledging that I am thoroughly straight in terms of sexual orientation and that I am about thirty years older than most of Goode’s contributors. I’m also ignorant of the latest trends in sexual politics. I do like to think that I might know something about the doing of poetry and have to query whether the first sentence of the above is altogether helpful in terms of what follows. The most obvious point is that nobody talks about ‘straight’ praxis yet this is the obvious other side of Goode’s coin. To be fair, he does acknowledge his own ‘editorial interests’ when talking about ‘this sense of queerness’ but it isn’t for me the most unifying factor in the collection and is probably less than helpful for those approaching these poets for the first time.
The single most unifying theme for me in these poems is the description and expression of desire together with a sense of unaffected honesty. The first quality has been notoriously absent from English culture for the past few centuries and I hope to give some examples below of the refreshingly frank expressions contained in this material.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed editorial board has little time for dishonest or overly mannered verse, in fact we tend to condemn dishonesty as the gravest possible sin which frequently gets in the way of otherwise accomplished work. I have to report that I have yet to come across a single dishonest poem in this collection although there will be a discussion on the mannered in what follows.
The other brief quibble relates to the Cambridge School’s Brighton Faction and all things Keston Sutherland- I have to say that Goode’s description of the influence of Sutherland and Bonney on the work is a little misleading and his attempt to place in the tired old debates about the Cambridge School only serves to perpetuate a way of thinking that is rapidly becoming irrelevant.
The poets in the anthology are Sarah Kelly, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Joe Luna, Nat Raha, Linus Slug, Josh Stanley, Timothy Thornton, Anna Ticehurst, Jonty Tiplady, Mike Wallace-Hadrill, Tomas Weber and Steve Willey. I’ve written before in praise of Lisette, Luna and Thornton and their work here matches that level of quality. The Thornton section contains extracts from ‘Jocund Day’ and from ‘Pestregiment’ which was first published in 2009. I have a copy of the original and in many ways it’s a pity that all of it wasn’t printed here because that would give mre of an idea of Thornton’s range. This stanza is probably the most ambitious of the four included here:

Your Albion slack having eaten mandrakes under brute
encouragement pales slacker. Settlement only eyot aerial
just drive you, filamentous outgrowth of a bitch, escaped
dead mesh sifting. Clock: that sounds like something
you should definitely never do. Kids wave out the Volvo
to the pyres and a dog. They hangman posit, they, they uh,
lawns just perform said anything about Shropshire just
three-point the hell to grips with this software now only
drive alchemy
this, into fucking in the grit, which is tock
as it is felt, it'll do you hey riven at the cirrus broadcasts.

I would argue that this is both startling and very, very confident stuff. There are so many wonderful things in the above but I’ll simply point to ‘lawns just perform said anything about Shropshire’ and ‘Clock: that sounds like something / you should definitely never do’ as examples of a really strong talent. It’s also of note that there seems to be a complex relationship between subject and form in all of Thornton’s work as well as a lyrical delight in what language can do. It is this quite joyful lyricism that marks Thornton off from the rest.

Now we come to the Jonny Liron problem. I have read some of his stuff in a Grasp publication earlier this year and formed a view that Liron was out to shock and that this desire to unsettle by fairly obvious means gets in the way of anything else. It transpires however that there is another Liron who is a very accomplished and effective doer of poetry. He’s also the poet that most accurately reflects the disturbing and destabilising aspects of ‘queer praxis’ that Goode outlines. His ‘Room Manoeuvre’ manages to combine elements of the disturbing with some finely crafted lines and a theme that is more or less straightforward. Even so, both aspects of the Liron persona are on display here. The one that’s out to shock does:

if you kiss me there
and stuff coke up your blow hole
keep my cock in there is mysterious
pointing see anti depressed zone
of yes so she just says yes and wants it
'make me feel special'

horny stream kid puckers up to be
black in sheen of piss flicked up
to de respect the massacred respect time

This I think teeters on an interesting edge between the need to de-stabilise and the need to say something useful. In the above the latter probably wins out and it could be argued that the useful things are more likely to be heard if they are thought of as part of the sloganeering.
The poem is five and a half pages long, this is the final part:

now the precarious testimony for reading
the unsilenced body shuddering relapsed
form of smell and yearning wound glazed
streets and strategies of tongues and hands
no bodily possibility of resistance to this
rising tide of welcome hurtling straight
of the crowd of the crown of your rose
the fundament tactic of singing up against
the air in the wall is a door floored by naked
heads and teem the sea and car park flooding
the disco of fear with subversive emptying
re-railing the corollaries of obedience to
disappearance and plants twirl up in bared
velocity preaching louder by the train wreck
of poster boys find each other and hold each
other so we watch by the fire and lose weight
in the search for food, hoods become material

In terms of the initial Bebrowed quality test, the above contains a great many lines and phrases that I wish I’d written and the whole thing is put together with an impressive amount of sustained thought. In an anthology of very impressive work this poem is another one of those that stands out for me. I’m particularly impressed by ‘the train wreck / of poster boys’ and ‘smash troops of faggot joy dancing the gross / streets and strategies….’. There’s also an extended prose piece that I haven’t yet paid sufficient attention to but that seems to be doing the half-controlled mania thing.

I’ve written at some length about Joe Luna in the piece on the Claudius App in which I made a tentative observation that what might be important are the things that aren’t said. I noted that I was struggling with this observation and this was due to the inevitable fear of being wrong but also because it feels more than a little glib. ‘Better than language’ does however give me an opportunity to try and work this through in more detail. I want to make use of the ‘A bigger you’ sequence which is dedicated to Josh Stanley and is ‘about’ love yearning and desire. There are eleven poems, the first and the last are fairly conventional in form and the others aren’t. Some of those that aren’t seem to go some way to demonstrating my point but I’ll start with the first poem:

a bigger you your
on surplus debt
a fraction of my total love
hived off
at meat incarnate
bobbing in the swim spunk
numberless acrostic

on drum time I
sing w/your load
in my mouth your
a bloody kid
raked in the light
of an image we

forget to touch

I’m sure that most would agree that this is fairly conventional and very well done, I like its directness and the honesty of expression. The last four lines especially are an example of language in a heightened form used to express complex thins that prose can’t begin to touch. I’m not sure whether ‘your load / in my mouth’ should be filed under ‘erotics’ or as an expression of intimacy and I don’t think that it really matters.

The fourth poem is more oblique as well as being quite radical in form. I’ll try to replicate the spacings:

rent asunder as
the blood
activates our
screen, dump
tending to
a local
wounded in
thick grass
bending to
a visionary
sanctioned in
our midst

I’m of the view that this is remarkable more because of what may be going on in the background and the questions that are opened up for the reader- is it the hearteache or the visionary bliss that is sanctioned? who or what is doing the sanctioning needed? why is the heartache described as local and whose heartache are we talking about? why is there a very deliberate comma between screen and dump? I’m beginning to work through these and several others mostly be referring to other bits in the sequence but also by thinking about my own experiences and responses.

I’m going to leave it at that for now but will write about the other very talented young people in the very near future. Better than Language is available from Ganzfeld Press at only a tenner. There really is no excuse.