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 ‘Paedohebe√ępheboteleiophilia’. 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.

4 responses to “2011: a Landmark Year?

  1. Hi, Just signed up to your superb site and have told others, forwarding the very fine reflections about Skelton. Waterloo and specifically my other co-editor David Pollard (and John Goodby, Phil Ruthen, Maggie Sullivan) have been talking about Sordello, Paracelsus, and Asolando as possible stand-alones for 2012. It’s dragged three years but an e-book or Kindle version with commentary might be possible; print later. Sordello above all needs such exegesis.

    What about books that followed others, were successful, then after 70 or so years fell into ragged second hand copies? Bailey’s Festus. Only Giles Goodland and I (of those younger than John Heath-Stubbs anyway) seem to have read any of it (he far more) but you might well have at least dipped.

    Most of all thank you for tracking down Sarah Kelly. I asked her about a collection 2 years ago and she was still thinking diffidently; one other editor didn’t think she was ready. But she is and I’m the founder. So I’ll find Sarah’s email and approach her. She might of course have a publisher for a full collection now, but everything you pointed out was in place, more or less, by the time I read her eight poems in October 2009. She was off to the States and we fell out of touch.

    I’m writing about Marvell and eventually had to print your remarks off and take them to bed. Everything you say is enormously stimulating, the language searching and critically informed without encrustations; an invisible ink trick, as Connolly might suggest. These will easily stand ten years’ scrutiny. The net now enforces it but the cobwebs shouldn’t accrue.

    Michael Schmidt asked me to review Clavics when we last met, but I never heard back (he’s occasionally prone to vanishing, and I didn’t follow up, being involved directing Survivors’ Poetry as well as Waterloo) so I’m belatedly inspired to write of Clavics myself. There’s something to be said for a musically informed (Hill infusion sense) way of looking at it. But Jeffrey Hipolito’s point about Hill’s affinities with Pound is nearer than he imagines: ‘Go…. that book of Lawes..’ I bet Pound didn’t know if he meant Henry the song writer or William the occasional song writer but great writer of consorts. I’m not sure Hill, who knows the difference, really understands his man either (how 1920s that sounds).

    Is Clavics an exemplary failure as Hill wouldn’t say of himself? You’ve summarized the caveats with exemplary success and make it easier of address: The jarring register, the awkwardness, stay-constraining rhymes alien to Hill, and the defence-in-depth he creates for himself, are of a ‘I have written an elegy for myself it is true’ kind. Having finally found even Speech! Speech! congenial, and felt that I’d almost fully come to terms at least with late Hill, Clavics forced me to realize his quiddity is cussed. I’d glibly blame it on the States. Poor Christopher Ricks, propelling Hill there, receiving a rough edged tongue himself, now the inadvertent corrupter of Sir Geoffrey. Well no. The reasons for the Late Hill industry is as we all know far more complex. But Clavics deprives us of later Lawes all over again.

    Thanks for so much on this Blog. I wonder if you’re faintly allergic to the denotative in certain poets? Rilke, for instance. The way he sits in judgments on his own qualities and by extension ours,then gets out of writer’s jail almost free. In other words, you might find a certain smugness and in some translations it purrs across like a snub-nosed Persian cat. A Movement Poet then, un-looked-for German friend of Amis (My Enemy’s Enemy), Conquest, and Davie. Back to Pound.

    • Simon,

      First of all, thank you for your appreciation. I’m still surprised that I have readers and it is especially gratifying to know that some readers find this material to be useful. As you may have seen, I don’t follow a plan but am quite content to be guided by my enthusiasms.
      If you or anyone else can put together a Sarah Kelly collection then you will have my eternal gratitude as well as the kudos for providing in one place one of the most accomplished bodies of work that we are currently blessed with- since ‘Better than Language’ I’ve spent some time each week trying to find more of her stuff but with little success.
      This corner of the web is unashamedly in favour of Andrew Marvell because he’s accomplished, intriguing and wilfully undefinable. I said to someone yesterday that I could happily spend the rest of my life writing about him and nothing else because the poetry is such a joy to work with.
      Clavics is fascinating, I find that I’m returning to it more and more – have you seen the four poems from the next sequence? They’re in Clutag’s latest Archipelago comic and I’ve written about them on here. I feel that I have an enjoyable but ever changing relationship with Hill’s work and this next collection looks as if it will complicate things even further.
      I’ll need to think about those ragged second-hand copies a bit more but thank you for prodding me in that direction.
      I’ve given up on Rilke because I fail to see the ‘point’, others have tried to explain him and I’ve returned to the work with new curiosity but it goes completely over my head.

      Thank you


      • Hello John, I’m rushing of to London but must just thank you for your comments too and hastily add that I’ve enjoined several others to follow and access Bebrowed; they’ve all read you and I hope they will follow too.

        I must re-read Clavics. I’ve not read those four poems but will read you on them. Haste means my comments here are loosely written and not particularly intelligent, but I hope to glint some brightness another day, like a small flint out of the peat. Most of all I agree about Marvell. He’s clearly a major and I think at least minor great poet, though such appellations are useless at times: Upon Appleton house isn’t known as we don’t read long poems.

        I helped an old girlfriend on her PhD on David Jones. She’s now (for almost 19 years) been with a very nice and extremely fine Celan translator and retreated from that world. I encouraged her to keep her vernacular comments and notes as part of her text. One ran: ‘And that about wraps it up for the goats’; a comment now obscure to me.

        Rilke I’m still hooked on when I return, which hasn’t been for several years. The poet who in translation offers most purchase to me (as a poet) is Mandelstam. I’ll try to find Sarah. Perhaps our mentioning her will alert a network and glow to a filigree of friends and readers since this might turn up in a google search. She deserves the exposure as well as publication. All best wishes for now and thanks for the latest posts, still absorbing – Simon

      • Simon,

        Thanks for this, ‘Clavics’ is fascinating because it shouldn’t really ‘work’ but does and I’m growing increasingly fond of its various foibles. This blog is the headquarters and flight deck of the ‘Let’s make Marvell great’ faction because he is and would be recognised as such if he hadn’t been such good mates within one J Milton. I know this is bordering on the heretical but I’m currently re-reading Donne and he just isn’t as good.
        This long poem lacuna, I don’t understand why and when we stopped valuing length but it is definitely time for more poets to follow the path of ‘The Unconditional’ or ‘Maximus’- I also think ‘Appleton’ has suffered because it is difficult to categorise and we’re not good with 17th century ambiguity.


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