Tag Archives: Jocund Day

Defining literary poetry and its (contested) place

Last week I referred to Neal Pattison describing the English Intelligencer as having an ‘underdeveloped salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity’ which seems the sort of thing an editor would say- especially if we read ‘salience’ as a typo for ‘sapience’. I was going to do something big and bold about the nature of the contest(s) but then I realised that I don’t actually know what a ‘literary’ poem is.

‘Literary’ could refer to poems that aspire to the status of literature but this merely shifts the problem. It could also mean poems that use recognised and established forms or perhaps poems with ‘serious’ themes but then we get into deciding what is serious and what isn’t. Then there’s the attention divide by which (following Keston Sutherland) the difference between those poems that can be grasped or understood on a first reading and those that require additional attention. A further troubling thought occurs to me- could the literary poem have the same status as the literary novel? This is troubling that particular label is now a marketing device rather than having anything much to do with content.

Then there is the individual poet, are Prynne and Hill literary poets and, if so, why? Can the same be said of Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery or Kenneth Goldsmith?

The final and equally troubling doubt that occurs to me is that the literary poem may be the one that includes;

  • foreign words and phrases;
  • references to obscure figures;
  • references and allusions that aren’t ‘signalled’ as such;
  • unusual syntax
  • words that the OED consider to be obscure and/or archaic;
  • words where a secondary and much less well-known meaning is intended;
  • what J H Prnne has described as ‘radical ambiguity.

Are these the characteristics that I’m looking for? Can it be the case that literary actually simply means difficult?

Then there’s the possibility that literary poetry is that which gets reviewed in the three main lit comics, in which case words like ‘dismal’ and ‘vanishingly mediocre’ spring to mind.

Given that I am blessed with impeccable readerly taste, there is the argument that literary refers to the stuff that I like although this doesn’t stand up because Eliot clearly intended ‘The Four Quartets’ to qualify as literature and it does seem to be viewed in this way by the majority even though I really don’t like it. It could be argued that the literary is a fickle beast and that it moves about as tastes and academic trends change. This may be so but I am prepared to bet a fair amount of cash on the chances of Becket and Celan being consistently though of in this way for the next couple of centuries.

<before thinking about contemporary poets, it is probably as well to see if the OED offers any kind of help:

  • of or relating to the writing, study, or content of literature, esp. of the kind valued for quality of form; of the nature of literature. Also in early use: relating to letters or learning;
  • of or relating to the letters of the alphabet, or (occas.) another set of letters or symbols used as an alphabet;
  • that is communicated or conducted by correspondence by letter; epistolary;
  • of a person or group: engaged in the writing or critical appreciation of works of literature; having a thorough knowledge of literature; spec. engaged in literature as a profession;
  • of language: having characteristics associated with works of literature or other formal writing; refined, elegant;
  • appearing in literature or books; fictional;
  • Of the visual arts, music, etc.: concerned with depicting or representing a story or other literary work; that refers or relates to a text; that creates a complex or finely crafted narrative like that of a work of literature.

Incidentally, the Oxford Historical Thesaurus provides ‘staffly’ and ‘bookish’ as alternatives and I’m becoming fond of both. Leaving out the ‘literature’ tautologies, it is possible to tease out a few revealing adjectives- refined, elegant, thoroughly knowledgeable, complex and finely crafted. The astute amongst you will note that there is nothing here about being aesthetically pleasing or deeply meaningful, indeed it could be argued that the literary poem is far more about form than content and that (by these standards) Elizabeth Bishop is the literary poet par excellence.

British poets that write in a late modernist vein have an odd relationship with the literary because (in my head) the one defining characteristic is seriousness or gravitas and some of the finest pieces of this kind of poetry gets its strength from its lack of refinement and inelegance. Most of it does fit with complex and knowledgeable but there are strong late modernist poems that aren’t finely crafted.

The conceptualists present a different kind of challenge, Kenneth Goldsmith’s verbatim transcripts of traffic and weather reports and sports commentary don’t in themselves meet any of the above criteria, indeed part of their ‘point’ is there immense banality but Goldsmith and others would argue that the idea (concept) can be judged in those terms even though this view is still considered heretical in some circles because it is ‘about’ neither form nor content in the traditional sense.

The final point of these ruminations relates to groups, are the ‘Movement’ poets, the ‘Beats’ and members of the Cambridge School literary simply because these groupings have achieved a certain academic recognition? Does this kind of recognition or label now constitute the literary?

Thinking about the younger generation of British poets, the work of Timothy Thornton strikes me as the one that best meets the above criteria, that ‘Jocund Day’ and ‘Trails’ may also embody the lyricism that the literary also entails for me. At the other end of the spectrum, Jonny Liron seems to be intent on destroying the literary in a very complex and thoughtful way, as is Jonty Tiplady.

J H Prynne’s vow to collide head-on with the unwitty circus that was and is the literary establishment would require us to look at his work as anti-literary but it is too complex, refined and knowledgeable for that. Geoffrey Hill is more clearly writing in a literary manner and yet makes use of weak jokes and imitations of stand-up comedians in his finest work. John Ashbery’ work is refined and elegant, sounds complex and knowledgeable and is loved by the literary comics- the only problem is that most of it is emptily meaningless and the poems that aren’t are the ones that attack the idea of meaning.

With regard to David Jones, ‘In Parenthesis’ can be said to be more literary than ‘The Anathemata’ because it has a better elegance/complexity balance but ‘The Anathemata’ is the better poem.

A final thought, Neil Pattison writes literary poetry that meets all of these criteria whilst managing to remain firmly in the late modernist (Cambridge faction) vein.

This may not have been a very productive line of inquiry but it has narrowed the ground for thinking in the near future about whether this material actually has any kind of ‘role’ or place in cultural modernity and whether reading ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ does move us forward as Neil claims.

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Reading Poetry the Bayesian Way

Michael Woolf - Bastard chairs Project

Having started to pay attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, I’ve been forcefully reminded of my own scientific ignorance by the sad fact that I don’t understand even the explanation of the explanation of Van der Waals forces. Some time ago I also decided that the understanding of protein folding might be Quite Important but I can only follow even the most basic reports with extensive use of the OED because, to quote Hill, I don’t have the science.

This isn’t normally a problem in that I can get by / function in the world without scientific literacy but as an auto-dictat it now annoys me that I’ve ignored this stuff since I was 12. In an attempt to assuage this angst, I’ve been looking through scientific comics to see if there’s anything that I can attempt to access without too much furrowing of the brow.

Looking through last year’s ‘Science’ comics I fell across one containing an article entitled ‘How to grow a mind: Statistics, Structure and Abstraction’ which I think I’m beginning to understand and I am finding it useful to think about the way that I read ‘difficult’ poetry and how mis or over readings might occur.

The authors of the article start by asking how it is that we can build up knowledge from so little data. They give the example that small children learn what a horse or a hairbrush is and can apply this knowledge after very limited exposure to examples. They use a ‘Bayesian’ or ‘probabilistic’ model to explain this and (this is important) I understand most of it.

Before going any deeper into the science and sums, I’d like to use a few poetic examples of the fruits of paying attention and drawing inference. There’s a line from Keston Sutherland that refers to the dire situation in Northern Mexico that I read as a reference to a bankrupt chain of booksellers, there’s a trope used by Timothy Thornton that I took to be a reference to the Latin verb to love but isn’t – although we both agree that it should be. I understand Prynne’s reference to the foreland in ‘Streak Willing’ to be a reference to the original four Irish provinces and his repeated use of ‘speak parrot’ (once in English and once in Latin) to be a reference to the John Skelton poem of the same name. In each of this instances it turns out that I have been applying Bayes’s rule and this pleases me because I think I can now put a bit more structure on the way I think about this ‘paying attention’ to poetry business.

We now have a slight digression on statistics. I find that I understand statistical probability on a fairly instinctive way. I know this because I can still recall my reaction to learning the statistics with regard to being over 50 and having a bipolar disorder. The numbers in question are: suicide attempt (70%) and successful suicide (20%) and the only further detail that I needed was that one in five relates to the total number of people with the condition and not the 70%. This was a very big slap in the face and ever since I’ve taken a much more active interest in my care and have been much more proactive in obtaining the services that I feel I need. I did not find out how these figures were arrived at nor whether there were any other variables. In terms of prevention it would seem that lithium might be beneficial for attempts but this may be due to patients who are drug compliant might be less likely to do themselves in. What I’m trying to say is that I’d like to think of myself as a creative esoteric type who has a distant relationship with calculations and numbers but I also know that my reaction to these numbers was immediate and unfiltered- i.e. that 7 in ten and 1 in 5 are both lousy odds.

Anyone who has read poetry that is considered to be difficult will know that engagement initially depends on using probability to work with sparse data. For example, I don’t know that Prynne’s ‘grow up to main’ refers to Ulster Protestant anxiety about demographic trends but I can demonstrate that such an inference does have more than a chance of being correct. Of course that also depends on the level of likelihood that the recent civil war is one of the themes of the ‘Streak Willing’ sequence and both of these depend on information acquired prior to reading the poem and what feels like a rough calculation of the odds.

If we think of difficult lines or phrases as what the article decsribes as ‘latent variables’ i.e. data that is unobserved or hidden from us then the Bayesian rule can be applied.

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign
yours grow up to main, leaf round and round the
cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm
same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

There are many latent variables in the above, one of the many pleasures of paying attention to Prynne is that each and every phrase may contain data that has several different meanings. I’ve chosen ‘grow up to main’ because it’s one phrase that appears to point in a reasonably specific direction and is one that I’ve used in my head to work out what the Bayesian rule might be.

This is the passage that struck home with me:

Bayesian inference gives a rational framework for updating beliefs about latent variables in generative models given observed data. Background knowledge is encoded through a constrained space of hypotheses H about possible values for the latent variables, candidate world structures that could explain the observed data. Finer-grained knowledge comes in the “prior probability” P(h), the learner’s degree of belief in a specific hypothesis h prior to (or independent of) the observations. Bayes’s rule updates priors to “posterior probabilities” P(h|d) conditional on the observed data .

The posterior probability is proportional to the product of the prior probability and the likelihood P, measuring how expected the data are under hypothesis h, relative to all other hypotheses h′ in H.

(I’ve removed the quite scary sum that occurs in the middle of this because I don’t understand it and because of the limitations of the WordPress formatting monster.)

The constraining of hypotheses in poetry reading terms is the narrowing down of an infinite number of subjects to ones suggested or alluded to elsewhere in the sequence and knowledge of what Prynne tends to write about. Both of these would point to politics – imperialism – recent conflicts – Iraq, Afghanistan, Ulster and further refinement led me to Ulster as a constrained hypothesis as to what the sequence may be about.

‘Prior probability’ turns out to refer to the extent/depth/strength of my belief that ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ is about Northern Ireland and the Bayesian rule looks at the impact of my understanding of the new data (‘grow up to main’) on this hypothesis to produce the posterior probability referred to above.

Given that the phrase doesn’t make grammatical sense, I ran through a number of possibilities- ‘main’ as the sea and this being a reference to sons running away to sea in the traditional manner or ‘main’ as in the most important or central or controlling part at which point a connection was made in my head with the view that the only reason the Protestant factions came to the negotiating table was that demographic trends indicated that the Catholics were destined to become the majority anyway and that it was best to share power now rather than become the victims of persecution once that moment was reached.

I find with Prynne and Celan that there are very few certainties and that every readerly judgement has to be made on probabilities. I’m also aware that, having come to this insight, I become more entrenched in my view and less likely to consider other probabilities simply because I haven’t thought of them. The other thing that I’ve done to increase the posterior probability is to point to such unarm / same peril as pointing or referring to the same way of thinking as in “we’re going to have to face this point whether we disarm or not” which is very satisfying and only slightly let down by the ‘Me’ that precedes it.

The other value of the Bayesian rule is to think about where the reading has produced the ‘wrong’ or unintended interpretation. In retrospect it turns out that I was so carried away with my ‘insight’ that I forgot about the odds.

The only qualm that I have about this is that it seems a bit too smooth, I don’t do these things in a linear way, my arrival at a posterior probability may contain many competing hypotheses and I may come up with a solution / possibility when engaged on another task but it does seem to present a broad outline of how I pay attention to this kind of material. What’s interesting is the confirmation that the appreciation of poetry may not be some left-field intuitive event but may be based on hard calculation…..

Timothy Thornton’s ‘Trails’

(This has been edited in response to Chris Goode’s comments below)

There are two versions of ‘Trails’ currently available from the Deterritorial Support Group site and they are very different so readers should download both. Earlier this year I wrote about Jocund Day with enthusiasm and admiration and these newer poems give me the opportunity to expand on that and consider Timothy’s work in further depth. Before getting on to the poems, I need to mention that I am one of the 560 people who follow Timothy on Twitter. This is relevant to what follows.

Both these poems are political and oneof them relate to the demonstrations about this regime’s ‘austerity’ schemes. I have a reasonably negative view of political poems and I’m more than a little cynical about ‘kettling’ poems and I think I need to explain these prejudices in greater depth. Being against the austerity measures devised by the particularly dismal government is an easy position to take and (consequently) being against a the tactics used by the primary instruments of class oppression is more than a little naive because the police will always be used to contain any political initiative that dares to take to the streets. So, I don’t find anti government and/or anti police polemic in poetry very interesting or useful and I have yet to be convinced that poetry is an appropriate way of doing politics. The first version of ‘Trails is also a response to the Stokes Croft ‘riots’ in Bristol earlier this year which is a much more nuanced event and one which may well require a poetic response.

Stokes Croft was about Tesco’s intention to move a store into an area where it wasn’t wanted or needed and also about squatting as a legitimate lifestyle. It is relatively easy to paint both these issues as being about economics and the priority given to profit but Stokes Croft is also (primarily) about place which is n excellent subject for grown up poetry.

The following facts may be helpful in reading version 1:
1. Alain de Botton is a figure of fun and derision whose name is frequently played around with on Timothy’s Twitter posts. In ‘real’ life he is a writer without much talent and a fully paid up member of the Great British chatterati even though he is Swiss.
2. Nigel Pargetter was a character in ‘The Archers’, a long running BBC radio soap, he was killed off earlier this year, the photographs at the end of the poem are of Graham Seed who played Pargetter. Timothy has been known to comment on ‘The Archers’ on Twitter.
3. Timothy is also a Dr Who fan.
4. Wikipedia has this to say about Cordyceps- “When a Cordyceps fungus attacks a host, the mycelium invades and eventually replaces the host tissue, while the elongated fruiting body (ascocarp) may be cylindrical, branched, or of complex shape. The ascocarp bears many small, flask-shaped perithecia contain the asci. These in turn contain the thread-like ascospores, which usually break into fragments and are presumably infective. Some Cordyceps species are able to affect the behavior of their insect host: Cordyceps unilateralis causes ants to climb a plant and attach there before they die. This ensures the parasite’s environment is at an optimal temperature and humidity and maximal distribution of the spores from the fruiting body that sprouts out of the dead insect is achieved. Marks have been found on fossilised leaves which suggest this ability to modify the host’s behaviour evolved more than 48 million years ago.”
5. Professor Brian Cox is the UK’s current face of science and all things cosmic, his personal hero is Carl Sagan whose style he seeks to emulate.

So, ‘Trails 1’ may be a political poem but it’s also using political strife to say wider things about national identity and about sexual desire. It’s also a very honest poem, by which I think I mean that there is nothing here simply for effect and that the ‘stance’ adopted is utterly genuine. The lyricism which was prominent in ‘Jocund Day’ seems to have acquired a greater degree of intensity and the tone has become more urgent.

I think the following passage illustrates this and also epitomises the almost joyous rebellion that fills the poem:

the city broke “suspended neath the sky near snapped and brilliant-blue”
between as something resembling a shifting transparency showing a crude Windows 95 "fire" screensaver over-
laid on a like transparency this time a torpedo heartily fucking an aqueduct from an angle of thirty point five
degrees itself overlaid on a rope of fucked hearts slung from the John Cabot Tower tearing a spine down
to Stokes Croft every time on the tarmac thudding these wet bloodied teabags a distant henge of Vagrants detect
a low hum and look up: NATURE DOCUMENTARIES the Cordyceps fungus which entered their brain on a feeder wrong
they ascend
the Pylons spinnerets orgasming quite beyond orgasm: hold with the breeze: pause: webs: for a half

second:
hang and at
last is the em-spaced game: over but not before Life (that's a thing) itself blinks
over and up into what
really could only be called a Big Boss Level, which always happens: we know this: to Winning
a tidy corollary:
having ascended the Pylons in bodily pure anaphora our deployables link arms like in that

I hope this demonstrates what I see as Thornton’s lyrical strength and the radical intelligence of his work. I’m particularly impressed by ‘a rope of fucked hearts’, ‘these wet bloodied teabags a distant henge of Vagrants detect’ and ‘last is the em-spaced game: over but not before Life (that’s a thing) itself blinks’, all of which suggest a major talent currently evolving before our very eyes. The two ‘Trail’ poems are more confident and ‘free’ than the remarkable ‘Jocund Day’. I’d also like to point out that it takes a lot of guts and skill to insert ‘(that’s a thing)’ and bring it off with aplomb.

There’s also in the first part of the above a very skilled piece of verbal camera work that, without us being fully aware, takes us through a site of struggle, the use of ‘heartily’ in this particular context opens up a whole realm of thoughts and ideas- as in eagerly or hungrily or enthusiastically or as in of the heart or as in some pastiche of Edwardian adventure stories for boys. I have to admit that I’m a great fan of words used in surprising and/or idiosyncratic ways and this (like Francesca Lisette’s use of ‘flounce’) is brilliantly evocative.

I do however have one very minor quibble, neither ‘corollary’ nor ‘anaphora’ feel quite right, almost as if they’re visiting from another poem. Both seem to run counter to what precedes them in tone and register but that’s probably because I have a fairly fixed idea of what that tone is aiming for. And I’m probably wrong.

I have on a couple occasions expressed the view that poems should end well and the final stanza of ‘Trails I’ ends brilliantly because of how it manages to turn oppressive authority into something that can be used against itself and at the same time manages to be funny. The reason why endings are important is that attentive readers need to know that the poem has actually ended and the line of thought has come to a conclusion. Some ‘innovative’ poems fail to do this and readers are left either hanging in the air or feeling let down. These five lines act as both a reprise for the main themes and the last line delivers a quite startling full stop.

We now come to the delight that is the second ‘Trails’ poem which is both very humane and deeply honest. Anyone who follows Thornton’s posts on Twitter (which is an unfolding work of art) will instantly recognise the beleaguered figure trying to defend his fish and chips in the park. As a new found devotee of repetition, I’m fascinated by the use of ‘capitalism is an actual thing, I have seen it’ which feels like a Jarvis / Sutherland style swing at us deluded relativists but it is incredibly effective. For those unaware of the details of British politics, Michael Gove is our current Secretary of State for education who used to be a journalist and is the walking embodiment of ‘the chinless wonder’. With regard to the use of block capitals, this is an essential part of the Thornton project, yesterday’s tweets contained- “FOX!!! FOX IN THE GARDEN” and “EAT THE BASIL”. In years to come, when he has gained the recognition that he richly deserves, academics will take delight in arguing over the relevance and ‘meaning’ of these stylistic variations. For the time being, ‘Trails 2’ makes me smile. A lot.

Good poetry often kicks off a chain of thoughts that end up in odd but satisfying places. So, I’ve been pondering whether or not capitalism can be described as a thing and (if it can) what might this thing resemble. I’ve glided effortlessly over the first part of this but I have come up with the following-

1. A smooth glistening machine that sits in the corner of the world. And hums.
2. A vampire creature that can only be killed in a very complex and time-consuming way.
3. A heretical set of beliefs that are now referred to as ‘common sense’
4. An unfortunate paradox which can only exist/thrive in the gap between first world obesity and the 900 million that don’t have enough to eat.
5. Five dogs with tongues in the park.
6. A wet Thursday afternoon on the way to Seaton Carew (by public transport).

It’s at this point that I return to the first part of the question which is probably quite entertainingly complex so long as we’re careful to avoid anything that might be even vaguely Marxian…

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
cuteness
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
or
portal
tending to
a local
heartache
wounded in
thick grass
bending to
a visionary
bliss
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.

Timothy Thornton’s Jocund Day

Timothy Thornton’s Jocund Day.

I first came across Timothy Thornton in the first issue of the Cambridge Literary Review which published his ‘Fire Shift’ which demonstrates his inventive approach to language and the honesty of his material.
He and I then discovered that we were following each other on Twitter (there is still an essay to be written about poets and social networks) and swapped notes / views on Simon Jarvis and Luke Roberts (we’re both fans). To cut a longer story short, I have a copy of ‘Jocund Day’ (which will be published this summer) and want to describe why I think it’s so good. In addition to CLR, Department has also published ‘Chamber Aubade’ which is also part of the ‘Jocund Day’ sequence together with a lengthy and forensic analysis by Alex Davies.
I want to treat ‘Jocund Day’ (JD) as a single work because that’s how I read it and because I think the sequence has some important things to say about male desire and about language.
As I’ve said with reference to Keston Sutherland’s Odes, the average British male isn’t comfortable with desire which he mostly equates with lust and usually stumbles into complete incoherence when trying to think about desire for another person. Most British writers, novelists and poets, can’t write about these things with any degree of honesty and accuracy. I know and understand this because I have the same problem.
The sequence bears an epigram from a lyric that is  attributed to Thomas Campion to be found in ‘Giles Earle His Book’ (1615):

O but wherefore should soe faire a face, retaine a heart soe cruell ?
Then dispare, dispaire aspiring thoughtes, to gaine so rare a iewell.
O but when I cull, & clip, & kisse,
mee thinkes there hidden treasure is,
Which whispers in myne eares all this,
Loue’s flames require more fuell.’

What’s really good about JD is that it expresses and explores this stuff without ever being overly dramatic or flamboyant. There’s an incredibly light cadence being deployed that belies the depth of what’s being expressed.
I also might be wrong, Thornton make use of ‘am’ words – amid, amok etc in the sequence and I found this had some resonance with me but couldn’t work out why. After some mulling I realised that it was redolent of the ‘amo amas’ declension that someone once tried to drill into me at school. Feeling pleased with myself, I then checked it out with Tim who informed me that this connection hadn’t been in his mind at all…. So, I’m going to proceed with caution and try hard not to extrapolate too much.
I’ll start with an example from the first poem ‘Hunting Tungsten Out’:

which is it / isn’t it a cradle, now. Tring! — aces sluice this
for, oh, YES, we do rely and
chances are after all just
chances you cute scrape little scaffold, your vacant
plangent slump / nt then hold then my hand my mm

bee on the Voynich, O ! you melt my eyes
shut over just that gantry ; that we slept by
when first we slept

(lines 3 and 8 should be indented)

The bebrowed criteria for quality is whether I wish I’d written something and whether what’s been said is expressed in an original and interesting manner. This more than fulfils both of these, ‘then hold my hand my mm / bee on the Voynich’ fills me with poetic envy and the description of the desired one as a ‘bee on the Voynich’ is startlingly clever once you start to think about it. The play of possible meanings around ‘scrape’ (as a noun) captures a lot without really trying. I’ve written before about Prynne’s definition of O as a sign of ardency and/or unmediated experience but it’s used here to denote a change of pace into something more lyrical and intense. I could also point to the choices offered to the reader by ‘scaffold’ and ‘slump’ but I’ll think it’s best just to say that there’s a great deal of skill involved in this kind of word choice.

As for desire, ‘Hunting Tungsten Out’ ends with:

…………………..But

I flicker. Suppose now
you want to handcuff me, my

gristle, sinew gallowglass.

The contrast between ‘But I flicker’ and ‘Suppose now’ is another example of Thornton’s dexterity and ability to operate across several levels without appearing to exert effort. Only those of us who’ve tried to obtain (and failed) to obtain this mix of complexity and delicacy will realise just how accomplished this is. The choice of ‘gallowglass’ might appear to be jarring until you read the line out loud.
The second poem is entitled ‘Chamber Aubade’, Thornton is a musician as well as a poet so it’s safe to say that both of these terms are being used with a degree of precision and that the term has more meaning/connotations than I can wring out of them. What I can offer is the OED’s definition of both. ‘Aubade’ is defined as “A musical announcement of dawn, a sunrise song or open-air concert” and ‘chamber music’ is defined as ‘music intended for performance in a private room, as opposed to a concert hall, church, etc.; (subsequently) any music composed for a small group of musicians and typically played with a single instrument to a part’. This is more abstract than the first poem but just as effective, we begin with a three-line play with ‘hector’ that is further extended towards the end. Davies pays a lot of attention to ‘hector’ but I think I’ll concentrate on other issues. The first is one of style, there are very few poets writing good material that’s as ‘difficult’ (i.e. not initially apparent and in need of further attention) as this and nobody as far as I am aware is writing with this quite compelling blend delicacy and complexity. I’ll try and give a couple of examples from ‘Aubade’ The first occurs in the middle of the poem:

Back then betwixt the flint
and crown the chroma is become
aberrant. Hushabye

the other vane the

fluorite child.

What I think I’m trying to say is that very few poets would have followed ‘the chroma is become aberrant’ with ‘Hushabye / the other vane..’ It could be argued that ‘betwixt’ is affected or mannered but I’m a great fan of the word and would have no problem seeing back in everyday conversation. The meaning isn’t immediately apparent and readers may need to look at the context of the rest of the sequence before some clarity emerges. Given that again there are several thin gs going on, it is remarkable how light this use of language sounds and feels.
The poem ends with these three lines:

beta-end, stand tiptoe,
taut and let
the cairn-elect be yet.

‘Cairn’ needs to be considered in conjunction with ‘henge’ that occurs earlier in the poem and we also need to be mindful of the let / elect / yet rhyme and half-rhyme but again it’s the balance between complex and light that is so impressive and invigorating – ‘beta-end’ and ‘cairn-elect’ both function on multiple levels and are neatly separated by the command that closes the poem
The poem also has its more straightforward and lyrical moments:

the tincture glitch the tax the lid I love I lark the
all I love encircling you in rifled white, we wick
the birds alight : amid : ashore :

I think this just needs me to point out the tenderness and the agility of the central phrase ‘encircling you in rifled white’ to demonstrate that this material does contain a remarkable balance between light and dark.

The third poem is called ‘Tattoo’ and is much shorter in terms of both line length and the number of lines. There are two other poems with the same title in the JD sequence. This starts with a very definite statement- ‘The pressure is derived / from here and now…. before the ‘you’ is again addressed-

I will say you sing some
other song and you that I
am too much / blazing up and
settling back….

Which is lyrical and succinct without over-egging the pudding the last two lines are again examples of Thornton’s skill and originality-

that ten paces glitch, the corner
of your eye.

The next poem is entitled ‘Bull Canvas’ and it makes me smile a lot in its depiction and celebration of male desire. Again the use of language is extraordinary – being inventive without at any time feeling portentous or forced. It’s also funny, there’s ‘sweating like gone off / ham (like shiny ham on a credit card)’. There’s also this uncanny feeling that Thornton is letting us know more about himself without in any way being confessional or overly serious.
There are so many impressive lines in this that I’m tempted just to copy it out without further comment. However, I do feel the need to point out that anyone who can write ‘is my strand of wholly sincere herringbone glances’ is worthy of serious attention.
The poem is not without its difficulties- it starts quite obliquely and there are odd phrases (‘shoulders the finch gantry’ and ‘tasked ah / senator in me will you’) which will need careful untangling. Things get more direct as the poem proceeds and there’s a sense of celebration that builds towards the end-

last, about how to burn the tar summer
thru with fuck and vassalage and drink.

The second ‘Tattoo’ poem is shorter than the first and acts as a kind of lyrical interlude before ‘Fire Shift’ which is much more complex and ambitious than what has gone before. There are more you/I juxtapositions and it’s clear that something unpleasant is going on – the loss of teeth, being bruised and strapped to a gurney but the wider context isn’t entirely clear.
There’s also some cleverness that doesn’t quite work:

I am sticky in the sun and am encouraged
toward diligence, as a shelf along a wall.

Which sounds good until you try to think about it, at which point the final phrase appears either redundant or empty.
To be fair, things improve as the poem proceeds with a palpable sense of urgency and danger, the you/I motif is used to good effect.
Throughout Jocund Day Thornton uses the forward slash (/) in the middle or towards the end of lines as if to signify additional pauses or line breaks. This can be impressive when used sparingly but does get a bit tiresome with the more frequent use in ‘Fire Shift’.
The third ‘Tatoo’ poem provides another lyrical interlude before the stunning ‘Hart’s Tongue’ which starts with three line stanzas dealing with desire and obsession and images that shouldn’t work but do- skin held in an urn, ‘hairline reveille’, ‘sand catenary’ and the ‘am’ words device.
The poem is only a page in length – the stanzas are broken by a single line (‘together here amassed’) and ends with

or just to brush up, once

enough against you.

This is followed by the equally stunning ‘Cairn-Punching’ which reads as a less structured riff on the same kind of theme – the I and you are still used but not in opposition – the ‘you is addressed more directly and reference is made to the process of writing. There are bits that I still need to unpack (‘heron stamp’, ‘this patent civil breathing apparatus’) but this kind of originality is certainly worth serious attention.

The sequence ends with “Alarum, Da Caccia” which is a kind of extended reprise of what’s gone before and (to extend the musical metaphor) a more structured improvisation around the themes of love and desire. It succeeds in being both startling in its use of language and phrasing and in a quite compelling kind of lyrical honesty. The good bits are brilliant and the less good bits are still very accomplished-

………….dismounted
into teasing finger-
nails : barely

not at ease, we
lie stood cruciform
now lighting limb-like flares of

raw meat now run
blasted to the rubber.

As usual WordPress won’t let me format this properly but I think that most would agree on the quality of this stuff and the ‘we / lie stood cruciform’ acting as a perfectly centred ‘bridge’. This I would put forward in the ‘very accomplished’ category whereas this is brilliant-

But for now, for the moment, we

should hold, the quarry still extends into
the room, and we can make it stay. You’re off
your guard : asleep : and I

will watch asleep for infantrymen, listen
close for birds along the line, tugging
at your only vest

the bellringer’s fist can wait and want.

(The first, fourth and seventh lines should be indented).

This would be a fairly straightforward expression of love and care but what makes it special (to my mind) is the use of ‘still’ in the second line, the image of watching asleep for infantrymen and the inclusion of ‘only’ in the seventh line. It’s this kind of craftsmanship that’s a joy to read- I’m even prepared to forgive the highly annoying use of Greek without clarification towards the end.
In summary, ‘Jocund Day’ is pleasure to read and rewards the attentive reader. Timothy Thornton is clearly a rising star in English verse.