Tag Archives: francesca lisette

The World According to Francesca Lisette

I wrote last October extolling Lisette as one of the finest younger poets writing at the moment and I’ve now bought ‘Teens’ from Mountain Press which collects most of her stuff in one place. A fortnight ago I read something about Julian Barnes in one of the lit. comics which ventured the view that the English literary novel can be read as a series of disappointingly rainy afternoons. It might not have said that but that’s what I wanted it to say. Since then I’ve been overly occupied thinking about the world of the innovative English poem and this has revealed that this line of thought ‘works’ with regard to some individual poets but not with others and the reason for this split isn’t altogether clear.

Francesca Lisette’s work does (for this reader any way) contain a defined world and I’d like to spend some time thinking about what this might look like. I’d also like to stress that this isn’t about ‘themes’ in that it’s not so much what people write about or even the way that they write but much more about the place that they write from which in turn isn’t about influences or personal background. Before getting myself into deeper abstraction, I’ll proceed by example.

Just as the literary English novel comes from a world of bourgeois disappointment and rain in the afternoon, Lisette’s work can be thought of as coming from the body or bodies. I’ve said before that Lisette’s tone is of ragged defiance and there’s more than a little of this in the way that bodies are in the work. Although Lisette’s poetry is both dense and oblique (withdrawn) these bodies bring something tangible to the readerly experience which works in a number of ways. This is from ‘Cite College Remix’:

  exudes a velveteen primp icon
nesting in teeth and tongue. frilly gangblast
rocks censored gash: rhododendron witness
twitters off kerbline, covers for a threaded agent
not allowing crystal layby
scoop organ mesh.
no matter how much blue
tears //into the jargon that sleeps in your body

(Lisette doesn’t do capital letters at the start of a sentence, she does full stops but not capitals)

I think it’s entirely reasonable to assume that this is not a poem about bodies but that the body and body parts are used as a kind of grounding, as a counter to the juxtaposed abstraction that makes up the poem’s subject(s).

By way of further illustration these extracts are from ‘Preface’

        educated hordes sustain a wiped gob
- corn, grated in th'umbrous bowels


    mirror sips flesh atop the pale flight of stairs

‘Preface isn’t a poem ‘about’ bodies but it might be a poem that makes use of the flesh and fleshy things as an undercurrent. Incidentally, I’d much prefer it if ‘umbrous’ had this definition from 1481 “He was umbrouse or shadewous, that is to saye he was colde and refrigerat fro all concupyscence of the flesshe” which seems much more fitting than its primary definition.

There are very few poems in this collection that don’t have bodies or bits of bodies in them and this brings me to think about the place that this stuff might come from. It occurs to me that young children have an unfettered and uninhibited interest in their own bodies until what we call socialisation and this ‘fits’ more than the obvious butcher / operating table / morgue places. I don’t however think this childish place is altogether happy, there’s too much violence in the work for that.

I now want to turn to the use of ‘ash’. I’m of the view that this is a word that needs to be treated with immense care in the wake of Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’. This might be a personal foible but I can make a case for that poem’s insistence on care and precision. This is from ‘What Continues’-

all festooned where half-fashioned
rooves have crept: mantra dies off
in the bed of living up we rose
caulked and feckless,

brimming over with ash we die
and knit itches into permanence
bloody hurricane fighting brow
vacantly suck.

Before proceeding, I want to note the brilliance of ‘caulked and feckless’ which must rank alongside ‘relinquish flounce’ as proof of Lisette’s invention and skill. It’s not entirely clear that our death occurs because we are brimming over with ash but I’ll take this to be the case, our bodies are filled (to the brim) with ash and we die because everything is blocked up. ‘Permanence’ relates to something that doesn’t die and we, the dead, tie itches or irritation into it. This is very strong stuff and does treat ‘ash’ with the care that it deserves.

This is the start of ‘Flesh Elect’-

Roll river bank cyclical  lumped ash welts
smearing the city's
clicks and the hand glows

This is one of the angriest and ‘raggedly defiant’ poems in the book and it’s about shopping, the idiocies of retail, the stupidity of the consumer and the violence we do to ourselves-

The shade to be seen
asphyxiating your gullet with."

I’m not sure about ‘lumped ash welts’ but I think that can recognise the connotations that are being reached for. As with ‘What Continues’ the word is being used to suggest some kind of defilement but I don’t think a welt constructed from ash works as well as it reads.

This final example is from the third ‘Patient’ poem in the ‘Casebook’ sequence:

leads lose or abdicate expression  4am ash-light pours over you in cast metal
breather have you in tragic motion oder starred denial unchangeable ridge

The ash here could be cigarette ash but I prefer to think of it as approximating Celan’s use, I think the notion of the light from the ash being poured (or pouring itself) over someone particularly strong. This particular sequence is deeply political and the second ‘Patient’ poem is the best in a very impressive collection.

So, does any of this indicate a world? For me, this is a very urban world that exists in almost permanent night and continues to dance around the threat of crisis. The nearest I can get to it from my experience is central London in 1973/4 with bombing campaigns, strikes, and the strong stench of corruption. The all night cafes where you could plot the revolution and it all seemed….. feasible.

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
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.

The Archive of the Now- listening to poetry

The image is more of a poem than just the words on the placard, juxtaposition of two faces and one arm....

A few weeks ago I was approached by Andrea Brady asking for a link to the above which I was more than happy to provide because the archive does an incredibly valuable job of providing recordings of British poets reading their own work.

I’ve now spent some time with a number of the recordings and I’d like to draw attention to some of these.

I think I’ve said in the past that I’m not keen on listening to complex material without having the text in front of me as well. I also subscribe to the well worn but accurate observation that poets are bad at reading their own work although there are exceptions (Ezra Pound, John Matthias, Vanessa Place and Amy De’Ath spring to mind). I’m also disappointed about the sound quality of most of the readings on the web and won’t repeat here the rants that I have had in the past on this subject. All of this is counterbalanced by my recently renewed interest in how poems sound and might sound which was revitalised by Timothy Thornton’s account of the initial reading of ‘Dionysus Crucified’.

As a reasonably inept maker of poems I have a strong interest in all things archival so I want to spend some time here giving some thought to the idea of an archive of the present.

Before we get to the material, it seems that the site has had a fairly recent overhaul in terms of look and feel, it is a pity that nobody took the opportunity to update the links in each poet’s profile as many of these are either dead or redundant. The Simon Jarvis page doesn’t work at all.

There are a goodly number of what this blog considers to be essential poets reading essential poems and there’s also material that’s new to me that I need to pay more attention to. The ‘essentials’ are-

  • Caroline Bergvall;
  • Amy De’Ath;
  • Simon Jarvis (not working);
  • Francesca Lisette;
  • Neil Pattison;
  • Reitha Pattison;
  • J H Prynne;
  • Luke Roberts;
  • Keston Sutherland.

I have written before about my desire to be Caroline Bergvall and this recording intensifies that need. Some of the readings here can be listened to without the text but the brilliant ‘Chaucer’ poems would (probably) benefit from listeners having the printed version as well.

Bergvall’s work is marked by both commitment to what language can do and a readiness to experiment without losing either coherence or quality. The other observation that I need to make is that these readings are at variance with the poems that I have in my head, ie the way the poems ‘sound’ when I read them on the page. I wouldn’t read them as fast and I would be less emphatic- listening to these has made me reconsider (in a good way) how I’ve responded to the work as text.

I’ve written recently about the work of Amy De’Ath and have entered into some debate with the Harriet blog over the nature of her determined tulips and what they might signify and I don’t want to go over old ground. The readings here are from 2010 and demonstrate how poetry should be read. I first came across Amy’s virtuosity in this regard whilst listening to her read Jonty Tiplady’s ‘The Undersong’ which is a remarkable poem but made brilliant by the reading. The audio page of the current issue of the Claudius App also has Amy reading four of her own poems. Oddly, I don’t feel the need for the text for any of these even though some of these poems are at the complicated end of complex. If the archive really is about the ‘now’ then perhaps Andrea and co could commission a reading of the even-more-brilliant ‘Cuteness is a Landscape’.

I now need to register my personal disappointment at the failure of the Simon Jarvis page, particularly because I’ve never come across the first two poems and because I have a very clear idea of how ‘The Unconditional’ should be read. I think I’d also like to point out that there is absolutely no point in having a page that doesn’t function- it should be fixed or removed.

Francesca Lisette is another of our incredibly talented younger poets, she has this unerring ability to scare me and make me smile at the same time, there’s this mix of committed defiance and intellectual depth that is stunning. I remain of the view that anyone who can put ‘relinquish’ and ‘flounce’ together has got to be brilliant. The scariness also has some roots in a verbal density that really doesn’t see any need to compromise- this is one of those cases where having the text really helps. Incidentally, Mountain haven’t yet published Lisette’s latest collection but intend to do so in the fairly near future- according to their site it’s now called ‘Teens’. The relevant page does contain the text for ‘Icarus in Reverse’ which I think confirms my earlier assertion, even though her reading is perfectly judged and paced. I’d also like to draw attention to the link to Lisette’s reading at Greenwich in 2010 and ask rhetorically whether audio by itself is enough in an age where filming is incredibly straightfoward.

To conclude this part (of at least three) I’d like to observe that Neil Pattison has produced some of the finest and hauntingly brilliant poetry of the last ten years. I know this because I’ve been haunted by the ‘Preferences’ collection and by ‘Slow Light’ and ‘May Ode’. I’m going to omit the usual Pattison disclaimer and instead report that Neil is (or was) of the view that the audio version is somehow more definitive than the printed ‘Preferences’. I don’t hold to that view for two main reasons, the first is that this is complex and occasionally obscure/secretive material that repays readerly attention and there is a real danger that a first-time listener will be put off by the level of complexity that’s playing across a number of registers. This would be a tragedy because this is important/unique/groundbreaking stuff that we should all learn by heart. There’s also the issue of veracity, the first recording was made in 2005 and the collection was published in 2006 so I’m guessing that the differences between the two can be explained by re-drafting but the question then is (given Neil’s view) which should be considered authentic, or do we view authenticity as a movable commodity?

‘Preferences’ is still avaible from Barque but the link on the Archive page leads to an outfit wanting to sell me a domain name, this really isn’t helpful….

Francesca Lisette: the Facts.

  1. Francesca Lisette writes incomparably stunning poetry that is embedded in the now;
  2. She has that rare talent of being able to say new things in new ways;
  3. Already her work shows a control over language that most of us can only dream of and wonder at;
  4. Those of us who recognise the above have a responsibility to write about her work with great care.

I’ve spent the last four months avoiding doing this. I’m confident that I can make a very strong case for all of the above facts but worry enormously about fact 4. As I said on an earlier post, Timothy Thornton and I did spend an hour or so on Twitter trying to come up with the ‘right’ thing to say about Lisette’s work and I came up with ‘raggedly defiant’ which is reasonably close but doesn’t express how good, in the sense of technical competence, she is. I’m also aware that I’m bored with the way that I currently say things about poetry so I’m going to true something new and identify (at some length) how I personally react to this stuff. The following observations are based on work published in ‘Better Than Language’, ‘Grasp no.5’ and the Claudius App.

The following elements are entirely subjective and deeply personal and have no theoretical justification whatsoever.

The smile effect

Good poetry makes me smile and really good poetry makes me smile a lot. This has to do with being impressed by the poet’s abilities especially in terms of phrasing and image creation but also in the knowledge that someone else thinks and cares about poetry and language as much as I do and that recognition of something shared. Lisette’s phrases and images are startlingly impressive. We have ‘a fierce matrimony of hurt lust and gunpowder’, ‘speechless with depth, we relinquish flounce’ and ‘Complete a thought, tho’ not before plucking out paper elbows, frotting boxes with ticks, juicing quarterly sermons within slip of an eye; play on.’. All of these make me smile a lot because of the element of surprise and the obvious delight in language but also because the strength of this stuff draws me in and encourages my readerly participation in this complex doing of poetry. At this point the smile turns into a grin.

Cleverness angst

I am a cleverness tart and this causes a whole raft of problems. I like to think that I’m fairly bright and, as an autodidact, I am remarkably free of the anxieties that Bourdieu describes. Tartdom does however mean that I’m overly ready to be impressed by clever people- I initially admired Obama’s cleverness and deployment of ‘proper’ rhetoric for example although I don’t think I was moved to the rampant optimism that gripped the American left. Underpinning this admiration is the sad fact that I get bored and distracted really easily and that clever stuff written by clever people usually keeps me occupied. The real downside with this tartdom is the lingering suspicion that something is clever for the sake of being clever rather than saying anything substantial or that the cleverness is being used to hide the fact that the material isn’t very good. The sense of betrayal when this realisation eventually arrives can be quite dramatic, I sulked for weeks when I realised that ‘The Four Quartets’ fell into this category.

Lisette is a clever poet who produces clever material but this is a fierce intelligence rather than being (merely) knowledgeable. There are very, very few foreign phrases and most of these are reasonably familiar, there are now obscure references to obscure figures or events but there is cleverness in abundance that both excites and throws down the gauntlet. As with other really accomplished poets, Lisette takes the reader’s head for a walk to new and exhilarating places which demonstrate how different ways of thinking are possible/feasible/essential.

I realise that this is a bold claim but I do have evidence. ‘What Continues’, the second poem on the Claudius App is an example of several very clever things being done at once, the theme is complex, the poem is technically accomplished with each quatrain forming an autonomous block, the ending is utterly brilliant and the sense of emotional depth and integrity is palpable. Of course I may be proved entirely wrong but this is authentic, undiluted cleverness and not some over-dressed frippery that is all too prevalent in poetry today.


I was once ‘against’ political poetry in all its forms. The reasons for this are twofold, the first being that poetry is really bad (inept) at ‘doing’ politics per se and the second is that most poets are decidedly weak on most kinds of political analysis and action. Chris Goode in his ‘Better than Language anthology remarks on the ‘anti=capitalist’ stance of his contributors as if this is in some way significant. Of course it is relatively common for anyone with half a brain cell to be against the global obscenity that is the unfettered and entirely pernicious free market but the real ‘trick’ is articulating an alternative that isn’t simply a re-hash of the usual Marxian fantasies. A feasible alternative (given where we are) is reasonably difficult to get our brains around never mind constructing it in poetic form. One of the very few things that unite J H Prynne and Vanessa Place is a commitment to showing how things are rather than how they ought to be which, for a whole range of reasons, is the only viable mode for poetry.

Francesca Lisette writes defiant, uncompromising and extreme political poetry and therefore I should hate it. The above position isn’t consistently applied however- Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ escapes outright condemnation because it manages to do many more things than ‘just’ critique our involvement in the Iraq fiasco. Lisette escapes too because of this and also because the delivery is so skilled and controlled. The following is the middle section from ‘Heterosexu-Normative, or, / Lines on the Spectacularization of Radical Dismemberment’:

Golluped tongue felt so sweetly, thresh into paranormal pre-dawn
&/ or morning stipulate check her answer against
flesh ice-light
because when I sit down to write of love horns shake
me out of intention, plain-vested stars leap in
perfect symmetry meanwhile diskette chew-toys
rampage past the train argument snaggled in
your discomfit-ready for
a new age crumbling
in mouth
as stiff plenty would have it.

Have I mentioned that Lisette is physically incapable of writing a bad line? There is an enormous amount going on the above yet it doesn’t feel forced or deliberately compressed, it reads so that you overlook the work and skill that’s gone into it. Charles Olson and John Matthias does this but Lisette does it with more passion and elan.

I hope that it will be noted that thus far I have avoided the usual set of adjectives but I can no longer resist- essential, crucial, important, challenging, uncompromising, hardcore, deadly serious, implacable. That feels better.

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.

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.