Tag Archives: meddle english

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….

2011: a Landmark Year?

I like to think that I’m not normally given to hyperbole but I’m coming to the view that 2011 was something quite special in the small corner of the world that is British innovative poetry. I’d first like to clarify what I mean by ‘landmark’: the third OED definition for the noun is “An object which marks or is associated with some event or stage in a process; esp. a characteristic, a modification, etc., or an event, which marks a period or turning-point in the history of a thing”. I think it’s the idea of the turning-point that I’d like to emphasise in that last year saw the publication of a number of poems and one anthology that seemed to herald a new phase in the late modernist vein. All of these developments, when taken as a whole, may also signify a ‘broadening’ of the genre. This new phase seems to be about a readiness to explore themes in a new and (in some instances) subversive way and a greater consistency in quality or technical efficiency or poetical prowess (I know what I mean).

In 1971 ‘Crow’, ‘Brass’ and ‘The Mercian Hymns’ were published, all of these have been immensely influential and marked a distinct tear in the fabric of British poetry- it does seem to me that a very similar thing occurred in 2011. You will note that I’m avoiding using ‘rupture’ which is bandied about by many Foucauldians because I don’t think that’s what has happened, I don’t think these works signal the end of modernism and ‘tear’ is the best noun I can come up with right now.

Of course what follows is entirely a personal view and is based solely on my reactions but I do think that I’d be able to defend this particular perspective with a degree of success. Let’s begin with the startling, which Prynne claims as an essential feature in poetry. I have been most startled by the changes in direction produced by Jeremy Prynne, Simon Jarvis and Keston Sutherland because each of these have confounded and overgone my view and expectations of their work. The publication of the ‘Better Than Language’ anthology brought home to me that they are a group of young poets (i.e. under 30) who are immensely talented and producing some incredibly proficient and accomplished work. The year also saw the publication of Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Meddle English’ which is important for all sorts of reasons (see below).

I’ve had a bit of a think as to why momentous things might be occurring now and I think there might well be a variety of things going on with the way in which material is circulated and/or published and may also have something to do with the economics of printing but none of these factors explain why three of our leading poets decided to go against their own grain nor why there should be such a rich crop of talent in those young people born in the eighties (ish).

I now have to be reasonably careful and resist the temptation to get carried away with the inherent wrongness of some of this work, I also need to keep my fondness for the odd in check and demonstrate instead how these events will change the direction of poetry in English. Let’s think about the influence platitude, it is relatively straightforward to draw a straight line from J.H. Prynne to Keston Sutherland and then on to many of the poets in the ‘Better Than Language’ anthology and to talk about the pervasive presence of everything Cambridge. I think this is to miss the point because I think influence is much more complex than simply encouraging imitation. What influence does is that it gives attentive readers permission to think in new and different ways. For example, none of these younger poets has written a long poem about American imperialism that features an animal from children’s fiction but many of them do seem to have taken works like ‘Stress Position’ and ‘Document’ to make a poetics of their own.

So I don’t think we are seeing (at long last) Prynne’s presence in the work of younger poets but I do think we’re benefiting from a wide range of startling work from Timothy Thornton, Sarah Kelly, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Luke Roberts and many others who all seem intent on ‘making it new’.

There now follows a work by work account of the material in question and why I think each is so pivotal.

Dionysus Crucified

Long lines, disordered text, outline of the cross, kenosis, archaic themes of the sorrowful and/or returning God, Church Fathers, the workings of grace, masque and anti-masque, the face he wears to the bank, deeply confrontational and a radical performance on the page, emasculation and murderous dissolution, Cheryl and Ashley Cole, private security outfits as an instrument of foreign policy. I believe that’s a reasonable precis of what I’ve thus far been able to glean but what it does for the rest of us is that it enables us to consider the possibilities that it suddenly opens up, not to mention the two lines devoted to the British road network…

Meddle English

I still want to be Caroline Bergvall but the above is important because of its intelligence and the possibilities that it throws open. She does repetition really well and has a really strong grip on what matters-

Let’s imagine the midden of language. Robert Smithson brought a strong interest in geology to his views of language. Gordon Matta-Clark cut transversally through the structures of a condemned Paris apartment building. Let us cut a cross-section into building stacks of language. What gets revealed is history and ground. Or rather, ground history, compost, history as compost. Temporariness and excavation. Volatility, weathering and renewal.

and this from ‘Goam Atom’-

followed by
Colon speechmarks
Trouble in the Hous
illy all tied up

Nothing random
says the EVERY HOST
about the herrings of this
fanny face
Once remove
able envlope
just stamp
or aply
twice culled more loved

All presently engage in a

It is worth pointing out that Bergvall should not be overlooked or diminished in any way because her work moves between the printed page and the art gallery, this is the work of someone who is doing new and wonderful things with language in a way that gives me permission to almost step outside of what I do and consider things as a child would- from the beginning.

Kazoo Daydreams

Have now had this for only ten days but it is following me around the house. Some things can be said- there is only a fragile link with what has gone before and this probably heralds a change as radical as ‘Brass’ almost as if it’s a collision with his own circus, feels parodic in places, like it’s a ‘fake’ which calls brilliantly into question the whole collapse of authenticity that we’re starting to experience. The reference cues appear to be deliberately eclectic and some are inserted as block paragraphs into the text. Needless to say, nobody else is doing this, nobody else has thought of doing this, nobody else would do this, I didn’t consider for one moment that Prynne would do this. Provides too much to think about / argue with:

These are the markers of what’s there, what there is by necessity in the field of self-play and no player, deduct mentally. There is a garden in her face, when owls do cry, or if I live, or if I die. Molecular contradiction given out for taken aback, ‘each new distribution seems to contradict what preceded it; since there are no predictable continuities, one can only listen in the immediate present to each moment as it occurs.’

That’s a garden in her face and listening to moments in the immediate present…… Staggering, brilliant, bonkers and addictive. Again, it’ll take me a long time to work out just how much permission this gives.

Did I mention the parrot?

The Odes

My newest copy of the ‘Odes to TL61P’ dates from March last year and I know that Keston has done a lot of work on it since. The drafts that I’ve seen contain this extraordinary blend of political analysis, confessional and an examination of our view of sexuality and desire in children- the copy I have also has the title ‘Paedohebeëpheboteleiophilia’. It is Sutherland’s must accomplished work to date and it’s also disturbing on many levels, as I’ve written in the past but I think it is also important to recognise the quite radical shift that this marks in Keston’s work and a major advance in how to ‘do’ political poetry. I must emphasise that it’s a landmark because it gives the rest of us permission to consider what is and isn’t appropriate in a poem and to re-cast those boundaries. I understand that it will be published later this year by an American publisher and must be read by everyone on the planet.

For the sceptics, here’s a brief extract-

The public loves to be told that it has to learn to expect 
less, because everyone wants everyone else to have less,
and everyone is willing to have less himself if that is the
price for making everyone else but him have less. What a cunt. The blood of virginity lost
in space, jouissance in the puissant stars, / life is a set up
same principle as the banking disaster
one love used to leverage another, one life
namely another renamed the next
by Vodaphone is the leverage for Buddha
the meek, whose metaphysical persistence of the person
in late Beethoven as in late adolescence
misbehaves like grinding teeth, moves in,
leaves its unwashed performance art shit all over the place
where what you say is what you do
without including less of you, pay attention
the fire drill in the family quad at lunchtime
is not cancelled in the end. You know that because this is
the end, and it is not cancelled yet; I will
likely not ever meet anyone I love so much as
you again; but I want to try some men before I die.

Better Than Language.

I rarely buy anthologies because I usually only like one or two of the anthologised and resent (in true Northern working class fashion) paying money for stuff that I’ll only read in order to decide how much I dislike it. ‘Better Than Language’ is the shining exception to this rule in that it is knee deep in talent throughout and declares the arrival of a disparate cohort of young poets who are demonstrating that there’s still a lot of life left in the modernist vein. As well as their technical ability, these poets (along with a number of others) are showing the rest of us what can and should be done with the poem. The range is broad and the quality is consistent throughout, although I would personally single out Timothy Thornton, Francesca Lisette, Jonty Tiplady and Sarah Kelly as favourites for very different reasons and, having written down those names, I realise that there’s also Joe Luna, Luke Roberts and Emily Critchley that also make me smile a lot and I still haven’t mentioned the astounding work that Jonny Liron is putting together….

I’m not going to quote favourite extracts because that would take for ever, all you have to do is proceed to the Ganzfeld Press site and part with a mere 10 English pounds and you should do this because in fifty years time lovers of poetry will still be reading it with more than a little reverence, and amking notes.

On wanting to be Caroline Bergvall

For many years I have wanted to be Steve van Zandt, mainly because of the East Street band and The Sopranos but also because of the New York radio show and the bandanna and the fact that he’s actually uglier than me. I’ve been very comfortable with this aspiration because it’s never going to be achieved and it is far superior to being envious of him and what he does.

Over the past two days I’ve realised that the above may be in need of some revision because I now think that I’d rather be Caroline Bergvall. By this I think I mean that I’d prefer to spend the rest of my life doing Bergvall’s kind of language practice and feeling okay about it. I’d like to be able to do things with language and space and books and readings. It doesn’t matter whether I’d have her success and reputation but I would kill to be given a couple of rooms in a gallery to do language practice with. Nor am I suggesting that my practice would look or sound like hers but I think that she is more correct than most on a number of points.

I think I’d also like to be French-Norwegian.

On wanting to be in Caroline Bergvall’s gang.

The way this realisation came about is mostly due to my new-found interest in Middle English which I’m currently trying to learn and a specific interest in the period at the end of the 15th century when Middle English became early modern. Thinking about this whilst washing up yesterday, I remembered that I’d bought Bergvall’s ‘Meddle English’ and had put it aside until I was able to give it the attention that it deserved. So, I started to look through it and read more carefully the ‘manifesto’ at the front. It turns out strikes more than a chord with the way that I think about the doing of poetry which is why I want to be in Bergvall’s gang.
I’d like to give a few examples and then give some consideration to the poems. This is from p17:

I repeat what many have said, that poetic art language must not implicitly be held to account of identities and national language, the seductions of literary history, or the frequently fetishistic methodologies of art movements, but rather seek, far and close, the indicators and practices of language in flux, of thought in making: pleasured language, pressured language, language in heated use, harangued language, forms of language revolutionised by action, polemical language that propose an intense deliberate reappraisal of the given world and its given forms.

Many may have said this but I doubt if any have said it with such clarity and force. She is, of course, absolutely correct that the focus of our attention and practice should be on language in flux, subject to the many and various negotiations and deals that both traverse its surface and pierce to the core. If we think about language use as the manifestation of ‘thought in making’ then this frees up a wider range of dimensions that the current lit crit view. I also think we should think more about how language gets to be ‘pleasured’ (this nicely articulates a view of mine that Spenser and Milton are both supreme pleasurers of language). The notion of language development as a continuing and perpetual revolution is reasonably standard but it does make more sense than usual in this context.

Whilst I am personally fond of ‘polemical language structures’ I think I’d also like to see these balanced by practices that reflect (embody) notions of celebration and performance because I think these are essential if poetic language practices are to have any kind of relevance to the confused and conflicted world in which we live.

Most manifesto compilers tend to focus on the ‘broad sweep’ and hardly ever get to the detail of what needs to be done. Bergvall avoids this trap, the next paragraph is:

More often than not, we each use a voice that speaks for us before we get to speak. Quite apart from the ideological implications and beyond palliative arts methodologies, this is why so many of us spend so much of our lives and imagination working at the undoing of a voice or identity we do not wish to be tagged as and questioning the methods of environments we might not wish to represent. It is through this confusing, seemingly self-defeating process of dissociation, of “disloyalty” that other forms of allegiances are made manifest and other conductor-channels can be generated.

I had to read this a couple of times before I saw that it seems to catch the essential component of what a few of our younger poets might be up to. I could argue that a self-conscious awkwardness/discomfort might need to be added to “disloyalty” but this does seem to describe a lot of what’s going on in the ‘Better than Language’ anthology as well as with Bergvall’s own practice (see below). I think I might also detect a poetic articulation of what Foucault says about the mechanics of power in volume 1 of ‘A History of Sexuality’ but that might be wishful thinking.

The idea of ‘conductor channels’ seems to take us a little way into Prynne territory and this is underlined/heightened in the next wonderful paragraph:

To meddle with English is to be in the flux that abounds, the large surf of one’s clouded contemporaneity. It is a process of social and mental excavation explored to a point of extremity. One that reaches for the irritated, excitable uncertainties of our embodied spoken lives by working with, taking apart, seeing through the imposed complicities of linguistic networks and cultural scaffolds. One which is not only prompted to recognise what it wishes to fight against: what sedates, what isolates, what immobilises, what deadens, what perpetuates. But works at it tactically, opportunistically, utilising at will and with relish the many methods, tools, abilities and experiential attitudes it needs. Making a workshop of the surrounding world. Oiling creativity and artistry with critical spirit, since there can be no revolt nor renewal without creative impulse, without anarchic pleasure, without a leap in the dark.

For many months my personal notion of poetics has veered between Geoffrey Hill (‘a sad and angry consolation’) through to Philip Roth and Ezra Pound (it is what it is – read the fucking words) but now it is more than likely that these have been obliterated by a ‘seeing through’ of the taken for realities and an occupation of and working within a ‘workshop of the surrounding world’. There isn’t a single word that I disagree with or have quibbles about, in fact the above manages to articulate many of the things that I have ineptly tried to express in this blog. Having been even more enthused by typing out the above, I can only reiterate that I really do want to be in Caroline’s gang.

Meddle English

The proof of the manifesto pudding is to be found in the work and ‘Meddle English’ does contain a wide range of poetry for our consideration from the more or less straightforward to the experimental. I want to quote from two poems that I think give an indication of the strength of the whole. The first is the start of “Fried Tale”:

All juicit with an arseful of moola, wonga, clams & squids
doks stashed in identikit blakases hanging from ther hans
2 Suits, a mega pair of Smith, Blupils no dout,
viddying how they trading outa goodness welth stuporifik,
shake handes, hug n abuse ech othre on the bak.

This extends into a thoughtful consideration of matters economic primarily utilising the thoughts of J K Galbraith and glides wonderfully between the meddle english in use above and current standard English. There is an audio version on Bergvalls web site that I would recommend but I want to contrast this kind of language practice with the first two stanzas from ‘Utitled’ which has “Roberta Flack can clean your soul – out!” as a subtitle:

BUTCOMPAREDTOWHAT horns piano drums bass.

Normally this is the kind of conceit that would irritate more than impress me but it’s done with such confidence and flair that it makes me smile. Both of these occupy the ‘mid-range’ (in terms of experimentation) of the collection but I do think that they indicate a practitioner who is busy making her own workshop of the world.

Meddle English is published by nightboat and sells for $14.95.

Jacket 2, Vanessa Place, Erica Baum and Caroline Bergvall

Jacket 2 is now live and continues the excellent work of John Tranter and co. I considered the original incarnation to be fairly essential for those of us who take an active interest in contemporary poetry and criticism even though I have ranted in the past about some of the more pretentious contributions on Prynne.
So, I approached Jacket 2 with a mixture of trepidation excitement. The launch issue dispels any concerns that I may have had. There is an interview with Caroline Bergvall whose “Meddle English” I’m currently reading, a feature on Erica Baum’s “Dog Ear” which I wrote about last years and an exchange between Divya Victor and Vanessa Place which features “Statement of Facts” which I wrote about on arduity last month.

My relationship with Ms Place is becoming more complex which is a good thing. I first came across her stuff in the last issue of the Cambridge Literary Review and didn’t like it much but liked the idea (conceit) behind it enough to work out the reason for my dislike. I then came across “Statement of Facts” on Ubuweb and was staggered and thus goaded into writing the ‘conceptualist’ page on arduity. I was then alerted to the recording of her reading at last year’s cross-genre festival and became a complete convert- as in this woman can do no wrong and even when she is wrong it is still a wrong that I’m happy to defend.

The exchange in Jacket2 embodies much of what I disliked about the earlier version. There is mention of Bataille, Arendt, Kant, Adorno and others as if to add some notion of academic credibility but which has the effect of deterring most interested readers. The exchange isn’t as revealing as other interviews that Place has given mainly because this has all the insiderist smugness of the conceptualist coterie. There are some interesting points made about appropriation and about the function of text and speech that give me further food for thought and anything that brings Place’s work to a wider audience has to be a good thing- even though I would have been deterred by this without some prior knowledge.
Place makes some really good points and then makes some others that sound good but aren’t – arguments about authenticity and appropriation aren’t the same as ‘lies and truth’ and I’m not sure that lies are the opposite of truth in this particular context even though it sounds right.

I think that I’ve said all that I need to about “Dog Ear” except to note that I’m now of the view that the spectral “Card Catalogue” is probably the better work.

Caroline Bergvall takes language and the visual representation of language very very seriously but her work isn’t either sombre or portentous. Having read the interview in Jacket I wish I’d gone to see her Southampton show (I had the opportunity, it’s quite nearby and I wanted to see it…) when I had the chance. “Meddle English” is, as you’d expect an extended riff on all things Chaucer mixed in with bits of Russell Hoban and some earlier stuff that’s probably a bit too close to the dialogue from “A Clockwork Orange”.

I am however very fond of “Untitled” primarily because it uses a kind of repetition which is masquerading as notation. Here’s the last two lines of the third stanza:

piano ALL horns WITHOUT ONE GUT horns bass TRYIN horns MAKEITREAL
horns bass piano BUT COMPARED TO WHAT horns bass

There’s also an instance of repetition in “Goan Atom (Doll)” but I want to save that for the next part of the slow poetry manifesto. The interviewer is a bit fawning and doesn’t really ask particularly searching questions but it’s certainly a good introduction to the work and the thinking behind it.
One final point, before we get any further can they please fix the navigation- something even vaguely usable would be an enormous improvement on the current offering.