Tag Archives: daniel poppick

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….

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The Claudius App, compare and contrast.


The above is the set list from a recent Gillian Welch gigs at the Rogue Theatre in Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s a poem because I say that it’s a poem.
I was recently sent a link to the Claudius App which contains new work from Simon Jarvis, Keston Sutherland and Joe Luna. Given that it contains both UK and North American poets, I was going to write something about the vast superiority of the Brits over the cliche riddled mediocrity of our American cousins. Then I read the poems and realised that this strategy won’t work in this instance. This isn’t because the British poets aren’t any good, Sutherland, Jarvis, Luna and Lisette are some of the very best that we have but rather that some of the American poems are very good indeed. This came as quite a shock as the vast majority of North American stuff strikes me as being hopelessly poetic and a result of some creative writing course somewhere on the eastern seaboard.
Like Geoffrey Hill, I’m against the teaching of creative writing especially in the field of poetry and am of the view that the proliferation of such courses is responsible for the mediocrity that is threatening to kill poetry as a means of expression. In my head, North America is the home of the creative writing phenomena and therefore all North American poets who are the product of this system can’t be any good.
So I approached the Claudius App with the intention of concentrating on the British contingent but then started to look at some of the Americans. I want to set out some initial responses-
Vanessa Place is officially the Bebrowed scariest poet on the planet because of the challenge that she presents to the rest of us and because she really does mean it. Her readings are an absolute joy and her work is exceptionally challenging. In a recent interview, Kenneth Goldsmith has again ‘explained’ conceptualist poetry as stuff where the idea is more important than the content and goes on to say that Place- “is taking legal briefs that she writes during the day in the law field. And she doesn’t do anything to them, she just represents those as poetry.” Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Place output will know that this is more than a slight distortion. For example, Place’s contribution here is based on the ‘Statement of Facts’ but large sections of it have been blocked out. I’ve written about the original ‘Statement’ for arduity where I think I’ve made it clear that this is work that we are meant to read and think about. The current contribution also shows that Place is now ‘doing things’ with the original material. The extracts from Juliana Spahr and Steven Fama and the statement that this is a response to the “negative reviews” of Statement of Facts might only be helpful to those who have actually read the original work, to Place virgins what follows may appear as needlessly gratuitous. So anyone with an interest should read ‘statement’ first and then come to judgement about what’s presented here. I may be in a minority but I’ve always felt that a respectful silence is the best way to respond to adverse comment and it does seem that stripping the rapes of any kind of context demeans the original work.
So, given that Place scares me to death (in a good way), I’m not entirely sure why she should choose to respond even though that response is typically extreme. These reservations do not in any way detract from my view that she is one of the most important poets currently practicing and cannot be ignored.
|Kent Johnson in my head has always been the slightly contrived bad boy of American verse. I’ve followed some of his interventions in debaters on the other side of the Atlantic and have gained the impression that he adopts this contrarian stance purely to gain a reaction and thus what he says shouldn’t be taken seriously. His piece here however reflects what many of us must be feeling about Jacket2 which already has become a very pale shadow of its predecessor. I don’t want to launch any kind of attack on this entity but to register my personal sorrow that an essential destination has been replaced with something so weak. I’m guessing that Johnson’s wry description of the politics behind this is reasonably accurate and it really is sad that this kind of empire building can lead to such a loss. I’m taking care to refrain from giving specific examples of this loss, suffice it to say that I for one am missing the original- which wasn’t perfect but contained stuff that was worthy of consideration and attention.
Emily Dorman. I know nothing at all about Emily Dorman who seems to be absent from most of the web so I can only assume that this is a contribution from the American side of the divide. “Towards a New Critical Vocabulary” is one of the cleverest things that I’ve read this year. It could be argued that I’m biased towards the clever and am often prepared to be impressed by cleverness for it’s own sake. Whilst this may be true, this particular piece manages to combine oddness and deliberation to produce something that is staggeringly good. It manages to make me smile and (at the same time) to turn most of my thinking processes inside out. This is a good thing. I’m particularly impressed by section 7 and the immortal sentence: “Some readers may gripe that the ideas in the sequence are overcooked (‘a moment’s monument’ walks lockstep with mommy poems for instance) but the technique leaves few bones to pick”- which manages to speak enormous volumes about the entire lit crit business. The word ‘lockstep’ is particularly brilliant. I’ve read this four or five times and each time I find something else that makes me smile in admiration. So, if anyone has any more details on Emily Dorman, I really would be very grateful.
Daniel Poppick is a product of the creative writing machine yet manages to avoid the writerly nonsense that seems to infect most of his peers. I think I’d better try and qualify this, without doing an in-depth survey of the stuff currently being produced, I think my main concern is about the misuse of the adjective and the faked inability to be clear coupled with an odd determination to be wry and cool at the same time. Poppick manages to avoid all of these and to put together lines that are very good indeed. This is unusual because I’m not usually attracted by poems that are as direct as this but I don’t think anyone can deny that there are some bits that are breathtakingly strong. I would cite the second and the sixth stanzas of the first poem and all of ‘Sucking the Sherbets’ as being particularly effective. Poppick seems to have that knack of making the uncanny seem very familiar and vice versa, this is very impressive material.
Michael Thomas Taren is also a product of the creative writing machine who seems to be able to create quite distinctive voices for his work. I’m ignoring the first because I can’t be bothered to think about it but the second two are poems that are both striking and very confident. What I find most appealing is Taren’s readiness to take risks with language and to write lines that shouldn’t make any kind of sense- “and I answer that my neck is looking now like light in a swimming pool” is deeply attractive. In my experience it is rare to find poets who can sustain this level of quality but both Taren and Poppick seem to manage it.
We now come to Joe Luna and an introductory disclaimer. Up until last week or thereabouts the only thing that I knew about Joe was that his blog sends more people to this blog than any other site in the known universe. I have no idea what if anything this might signify but I am nevertheless grateful for all the traffic that I can get. So, I was intrigued to see one of his poems included here and have since been provided with others. having acknowledged some potential bias, I now feel able to state that ‘For the White Lake Blot’ is one of the best poems to be published in the last three or four years.For those of you who may wish to doubt this I suggest the following strategy-
1. Read the poem, start at the beginning and read through to the end, read all of the words, do not skip bits that seem superfluous, do not re-read bits that may seem obscure or difficult.
2. Try and remember what you have read.
3. Read the poem aloud, do this three or four times.
4. Read the poem to yourself again.
Following this strategy will lead you to an appreciation of both the depth and originality of this sequence. There are a couple of moments when it seems like Sutherland’s influence is going to take over but this isn’t sustained- what emerges is something where (and I am struggling with this) the gaps, the what-isn’t-said is as important as what’s on the page. This isn’t to demean what the poem says but rather to point to the unsaid stuff that seems (struggling again) to lurk between the lines. The sequence is full of stuff that is clever, challenging and intriguing, I’m particularly fond of the conversational voice that’s used to say some quite ‘deep’ things. Right now I’m busy reading more of Luna’s work and can confirm its consistency in terms of strength. I’ll be writing more about Luna shortly.
The same goes for Francesca Lisette.
I wrote all of the above about ten days ago and have spent the intervening time having a bit of a struggle with despondency and confidence which is annoying because I’m supposed to be recovering. This unwelcome interval has been spent amongst some primary sources for the last decade of the 16th century – narrative history remaining the best distraction when my concentration is shot. The period has also been marked by an odd sense of unease about poetry that requires attention which I do intend to write about. Returning to the two Lisette poems today has restored some confidence. I have read some of her other stuff and am awaiting the arrival of some more but the two on display here are simply outstanding and challenging on a number of levels. I’m still getting my brain around some of the finer points but would wish to draw your attention to “living underground with stockings made of rain / my free fucking watercooler wrung hands of all / authority;” which is both startling and clever and “mantra dies off / in the bread of giving up we rose / caulked and feckless” which is almost perfect. It is stuff like this and the Luna poem that restores my faith in the future of English verse whilst also managing to challenge the ways that I read and think about poetry. This is a good thing.

The above is a set list from a recent Gillian Welch gig in San Francisco, it’s another poem in the ‘tour’ sequence because I say it is.
With regard to the three Jarvis poems, I’ll obviously need to give these much more attention after I’ve negotiated the various threads in ‘Dionysus Crucified’ – I’ll have more to say once I’ve got my brain around both the depth and the breadth of the Jarvis project. Incidentally, looking at the background to George Herbert has led me to ‘Godly sorrow’ and John Donne on kenosis which may shed a little more light on the dying god theme in ‘Dionysus’ and on “or voiding inside their once barbarous pageants of national violence and love” from Z.15. It could of course be yet another example of over-reading and leaping to conclusions that aren’t actually there. I’m not at all sure about ‘Barcarol’ mainly because of line length but I also accept that I need to pay this much more attention.
As for the Sutherland contributions, I’m of the view that the selection from the Odes contains one of the weakest bits of the sequence, the excerpt from ‘Ode 4’ is a little too controlled and rational for my taste and (probably) not ‘superabundant’ enough. The bit from Ode 5 gives a much better idea of the quality of the sequence as a whole. I’m also a little puzzled as ‘Living stops to fit the empty” was once part of the ‘Odes’ and probably makes more ‘sense’ in that context rather than as a separate poem. Does anyone know when/if the sequence will be published?
I realise that this may cause offence but I’m bored of kettling poems and becoming bored of austerity poems (unless they are really, really good) and ‘The Clearance’ is a kettling poem, it’s a clever and clearly heartfelt piece of polemic but there are much bigger fish to fry…

Welch, Toronto, Monday night, the final poem in the sequence.