Tag Archives: clever poetry

The New Clever and Late Modernism

I’m going to try very hard not to display too many personal foibles in this but it does seem to me that the last six months (ish) have seen a disproportionate amount of clever/intelligent/cerebral material emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. It may well be that this degree of intelligence may have been around for some time and I’ve missed it but I’m about to make a case for the arrival of a new aesthetic which seems to be growing out of and away from the late modernist ‘thread’. I’m also aware that North America has a whole range of movements and labels apart from late modern but a number of developments there would suggest to me that the clever is on the increase.

I think that I need here to explain the ‘c’ word. This denotes both a demonstrable level of ‘inate’ intelligence that is communicated through the writing together with technical prowess in the doing of poetry and (this is key) a demonstrated understanding of what poetry can and should do. This is a working definition that avoids notions of theme or form simply because the New Clever does not ‘fit’ into those kinds of boxes. Before I give examples, I need to acknowledge that I’m attracted to cleverness in most things, I admire clever people with clever ideas so my enthusiasm may be a little warped. In my defence I have to observe that it is generally the clever material that has lasted and is revered rather than that which is efficient and/or beautiful but not very intelligent.

The fate of late modernism does seem tied up with the New Clever and this is best exemplified by our best practitioners, both of whom have recently published material which marks a significant departure in their respective careers and is wilfully and fiercely clever.

I’ve said before the The Claudius App is (after only two issues) the best poetry site on the web and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the poets mentioned below have also featured there.

Some New Clever Poets/Poems

This is provisional, subjective and intended to be argued with- I also reserve the right to change my mind.

Simon Jarvis

I don’t think that anybody could argue that Jarvis’ work isn’t clever. ‘The Unconditional’ is one of the bravest and most challenging interventions to be made since the early seventies and ‘Dionysus Crucified’ is bursting with intellectual energy and formal experiment. In fact, it could be argued that these two very different works embody the New Clever in action. Both tackle complex ideas in ways that manage to both honour and subvert the last three thousand years of poetry whilst producing flurries of verbal brilliance:

Later in Services formica teemed.
Nonsemiotic grapefruit-eating all about
extended its impossible ideal.
Lay your knife and your fork across your plate.
Against all furious effort the slack face
still with each globful let some wet sign slip
to sit with meaning on the grating chin
while if de minimis a muscle there
could give no serviceable twitch that did
not paint a message in the vacant air
causing nonsemiosis to migrate
from off this world's bad grapefruit to some skies
of uninhabitable scientistic loss.
Agramant tucked into his bacon.

What’s clever about this (over and above the philosophical/ideological point that it makes) is that it could very easily have failed, it could have overstated the case and turned out yet another slice of poetic self-indulgence but Jarvis chooses to underplay his case and retain the ‘point’ within a comically banal frame. Agramant is the villain of the piece in this very long poem (240 pages) which is defiantly metrical throughout. He takes his name from one of the chief villains in Orlando Furioso- another very long poem. It’s verbally inventive and the point concludes brilliantly-“some skies / of uninhabitable scientistic loss”. I don’t agree with what Jarvis says but I am utterly won over by the way that he says it.

This, on the other hand is from ‘Dionysus Crucified’-

  And there they were, there on the verdigris sofa, Pen and the stranger, sitting bolt upright next to each other. Neither was saying a word,
Staring down into their Kenco while in the air all around us I noticed as soon as I sat down myself there was some kind of fusion jazz playing so quiet
That you could not really here it, could not really make out the notes, or the notes were as though they could not really bear to be notes, could not
Really will to be heard, but at each point where into the ear some decided concertion of sound might have brought its own message home, instead of this
The lost hum of saxophone dither would disappear into the airlessness, seem to become a prosthesis attaching the stranger therre to his comfortable
Sofa, although for the truth of it he didn't seem to be comfortable, sat on the edge of it just as if it were about to fades in the west as crimson
Devour him or kill in a single and swift suffocation his kin and his gods, his ancestors, with all his loving descendants, just as though all these were
shortly to vanish there into that armchair.

(The gap between ‘if it were about to’ and ‘fades in the west’ denotes that the latter is part of another poem that descends intermittently down the right side of the page.)

Pen is about to meet a sticky end- Pen being short for Pentheus who meets a horrible end in the Euripides play around which large amounts of the poem revolve. In terms of clever, I’d just like to point out that, once again, Jarvis demonstrates narrative skill whilst making a series of points in amongst the appalling colour scheme and sinister furniture.

Daniel Poppick

I know very little about Poppicks work but ‘Sneaky Freeze’ strikes me as an ideal candidate for the New Clever in that it makes startling use of language and seems at the same time against the boundaries of what it can do. This may sound hopelessly pretentious but listening to Poppick’s reading indicates to me a kind of sprint along the edge of coherence which manages to express things whilst undermining any sense of reliability. It’s very, very clever.

Amy De’Ath

“Cuteness is a Landscape” is another example of what De’Ath is doing with poetry, there’s the nods towards technique and convention, the exquisite word choice and an incredible sense of involvement that drags the reader in. I think this extract makes my point-

Your teeth are made of platinum
good for skating upside down
across the Cute, Zany & Interesting:

on Clink Street a floating
bookcase regurgitates
wonderlust. And a lesser soul am I for that

I’m going to ignore the presence of furniture and point instead to the image set up at the beginning, the presence of ‘the’ in line three and the play on wonder/wander together with the ‘straight’ poetry of the final phrase. Compelling, original and very aware of what poetry might be about.

Neil Pattison

Neil has produced some incredibly powerful work over the last few years and can be thought of as being in the vanguard of the New Clever because of his acute awareness of what words can do but also because of an absence of compromise. This is from ‘Slow Light’:

		Statuary, black stinted, oily pressure
floods analogue, dial into red : graphic fluctuation
wired-in, the pasture seized in tarry drift, ejected
measuring the iris backflow, airlift, break unscratched.

Gloze edging flouresces, accelerant centre fades :
inside, the accurate flow to shell-gland, cored
optic of pure courting is

I might be the only person on the planet who finds this stuff completely mesmerising but I don’t care. ‘Gloze edging flouresces’ is significantly brilliant by itself but placed in amongst this marvellous density shows a very intelligent process pushing against the edges of the form to say what must (must) be said. Neil is also a leading light in what I’m currently thinking of as the ‘New Witholders’ who have much more going on around the poem than inside it. Other members include Francesca Lisette and Joe Luna.

J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and the New Clever.

Both of the above seem to be pushing themselves in new directions, ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ certainly signifies a move away from the late modern and Hill’s ongoing engagement with pattern together with the level of learned abstraction in ‘Odi Barbare’ also signals a different way of doing clever.

So, I think I’m arguing for thinking about poems in a different way that seems more suited to what’s currently being written. Other New Clever poets would include Sarah Kelly, Reithat Pattison, Purdey Krieden and Jonny Liron but I’ll return to these in the next week or so….


Joe Luna and clever poetry

I’ve been intending to do this for a while and have been stung into action by the inclusion of some Luna poems in the Better than Language anthology. Of the current group of younger poets, Luna is at the ‘clever’ end of the spectrum in a couple of ways, he says complex things in deceptive ways and these deceptions encourage the reader to think about the unspoken world that moves around the poem. This, by any definition, is clever stuff but there are number of pitfalls with cleverness. The first of these is being clever for the sake of being clever whereby the poet uses an obscure allusion or reference to say something that could be said in a more direct manner. The next is the use of the clever as a means of plumage and/or display. The last main trap (there are many others) is when poets disguise some banality by means of intellectual glitter – a trick that is fundamentally dishonest. Even our best poets seem incapable of falling into these from time to time.

I am however always ready to be impressed by the clever phrase, the point made with wit and intelligence, the off kilter but compelling juxtaposition etc etc, but I also like to think that I’m getting better at identifying where the above misdemeanours occur.

There’s a degree of nervousness that I need to address. I’m of the view that writing about clever oblique work should be done in as clear and direct a fashion as possible without underplaying the subtleties of the work. I’m also trying to find different ways to write about poetry so what follows is more than a little experimental.

When writing about Luna’s contribution to Better than Language I made the entirely provisional observation that what might matter is not what’s in the text but what’s around it. Since then I’ve been a bit concerned that this observation is both too clever for its own good and (much worse) inaccurate. So I’ve spent some time this morning with more of Luna’s work in an attempt to kick this particular piece of glibness into touch. This went reasonably well until I came to ‘Life’ in the ‘Lovers’ collection which starts like this:

         Life harping on at its believable
he will I say not
an incision, but life
itself. Now bite one off - the observable
universe wrapped in snow, an ulcer
sinks into a song.........

I don’t intend to undertake a detailed analysis of ‘Life’ or the above extract but I do want to use it as an illustration of what I mean about stuff going on outside and around the poem. In these eight lines we’re given a very wide field to play in, ‘life itself’ ‘the observable / universe’ would indicate that we’re in some kind of abstract territory but this is undercut by the particular, ulcers, incisions, angles and a life that harps on. This kind of polarity invites me as an attentive reader to fill in the gaps between the two and to concentrate on what might be placed there. The rest of the poem continues to make this demand on me and it’s a deeply absorbing process.

I’d now like to try and pin down this particular kind of cleverness by having a closer look at ‘For the White Lake Blot” which is on the remarkable Claudius App.

In my new found determination to experiment with ways of writing about poetry, here’s a list of things that I want to say:

  1. this teeters on the brink of the hyper clever which might not be a good thing;
  2. the way that the line endings/ruptures function throws up many questions about form but that’s probably the intention;
  3. the repetition at the start of part 4 is really effective although I do accept that I’m a bit obsessed by the reiteration business and am therefore biased. As with the enjambment I could go on about this for a very long time;
  4. section three fits Prynne’s breathtakingly startling criteria, the last line comes right out of nowhere and disturbs/challenges what’s gone before;
  5. there may be a whiff of the too clever hanging over section three but this is avoided or redeemed by lines 4 and 8 which are good enough to allay any concerns about pretension;
  6. I worry about section 7’s “read my lip gloss’ (which is naff) playing off against “in kid solemnity” (which isn’t) and my concern is whether this naff/not naff ploy is deliberate or unwitting;
  7. there is an argument to be had as to whether or not the poem’s last stanza is essential or annoyingly frivolous/gratuitous/smug. What’s interesting is that I don’t yet know which side I’m on.

There are some poems that don’t work or aren’t completely successful or feel a bit forced and I think this is primarily due to the nature of the risks that Luna is taking. It is much easier to do complex or abstract poetry in a single register but Luna is employing a number of registers not only as a means of expression but also as an integral part of that expression and in the very best poems he’s nodding in the direction of what might be going on rather than telling us. The risk with this is that the registers can begin to lose clarity or edge and the normally incisive tone descends into mere parody of itself. Fortunately this is rare in Tuna’s work but ‘esque’ from the Better than Language anthology is to my mind an example things beginning to get a bit smug and empty. The poem ends with this:

Four score and seven monkeys
late appeal makes
tied to win reprieve
conscious & waving & and drowning &
bent toward the sun at your
disposal well today we are giving
back to a new
future largesse replete
in range
of all my early poetry
on weather systems in Nevada

but I could not help it

Unless we’re being really ironic here, the last five lines are really quite bad, aren’t they? The reference to weather systems is neither odd enough nor vivid enough to justify/account for the mannered weakness of the last two lines. This clunkiness isn’t representative of the vast majority of Luna’s work but it does I think indicate the kind of risks that he runs.

On a final note, in the protracted discussion with Chris Goode, I did make the point that the unifying factors for me were more about desire, playfulness and subversion than ‘queerness’. I really do not want to reignite that debate but I would like to say that Luna manages to create poems that play with desire and yearning to subvert both political and poetic forms and that this is yet another reason for being optimistic about the future of British poetry.