Tag Archives: chris goode

Poetry and crisis, the case of Better than Language and Kazoo Daydreams

The question here can be briefly formulated: does poetry get better as things get worse?

Others have remarked here that we are especially fortunate to be living through a period in the UK where a great deal of excellent work is being produced both by ‘established; poets and a younger group of rising stars. There may be all kinds of reasons for this but I’m increasingly of the view that the above correlation might be a major factor.

This is prompted by a view I came across this morning that ascribes the flowering of poetic and dramatic endeavour of the 1590s as a response to the many religious upheavals of the previous fifty years. My initial response was to reject this and replace with something about the much improved teaching in grammar schools of the period or the growth in the legal profession or the rise to dominance of the mercantile class or colonial adventuring by grammar school boys on the make. I then paused and tried the ‘crisis’ thesis out on other periods. The flowering of what J A Burrows has described as Ricardian verse occurred after the Black Death of 1348 which decimated the population and emptied large parts of our countryside, the reign of Richard II was (to put it mildly) politically fragile and the practices of the church were being challenged by Wycliffe and the Lollards.

The 1590s pale in comparison with the latter half of the fourteenth century but they were nevertheless difficult times. The church was making reasonably draconian attempts to enforce some kind of orthodoxy, military campaigns were being pursued in the Low Countries and yet another futile war was being fought in Ireland, the monarch was getting older and no-one knew who would succeed her, there was famine in the middle of the decade and the elite were more paranoid than usual about domestic unrest. These were not the easiest of times.

So, the hypothesis gathers a strength that is reinforced by the Romantics who first flowered in the aftermath of the political angst brought about by the French Revolution and who flourished during a period of enormous social and political upheaval.

There is also the argument that Paradise Lost could only have been written after the various traumas of the previous thirty years.

But before I get carried away, it might be as well to consider what I might mean by crisis. The third OED definition is:

A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied esp. to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce.

I want to put a slight twist on this and point out that the anxiety-inducing experience of being in a crisis stems from the uncertainty of how things will turn out. Those living through the latter half of the fourteenth century were acutely aware that disease could strike at random and with enormous force and were living through a chaotic ‘re-balancing’ of social and economic forces which are reflected in the vibrant poetry of Langland, Chaucer and others. What I’m trying to get to is that crisis is characterised by societal and individual anxiety stemming from this not knowing.

It seems to me that we are in a period of not knowing which is manifested by the rise of China and India and the consequent decline of the West together with the slowly dawning realisation, especially in the UK that the elite are both corrupt and dismally incompetent. This is matched by the massive changes wrought by the internet which do throw many prior truths into question (privacy, authenticity, ways of doing science etc.). There are also the challenges posed by an aging population and climate change.

I’m going to start with Better than Language, Chris Goode’s magnificent anthology of younger British poets. In his astute introduction Chris writes:

To write a poem is to to want to see something in the world that isn’t yet in it, however direly complicated or conflicted that wanting might be and however ungraspable the author’s sense of the lack of the poem before it’s made. And from its earliest intimations, the poem is asking questions about what will and will not be included in its compass. Which voices will be heard, what life-paths will cross within its system, whose desires can be admitted? To which areas will the reader have access? How tall must you be to ride this attraction? What moments will amount to to the constructed event in which author and audience encounter each other? How much language can this poem bear? And of course all these questions point to another: on what basis, and in the light of what responsibilities, will the poet attempt to answer as she proceeds? Which is partly to ask: What don’t I know yet? What are the known unknowns, those Rumsfeldian phantoms, that negatively shape the composition of a particular poem at a particular time and place? And what do we do with the impossibility of an approach to these questions that takes us even a whit beyond tolerable insufficiency? – Believe me, not every poet now at work is aware these are real and present questions. Here are thirteen who are.

Whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with all of the above, I’d like to argue that this awareness is bound up with and is directly related to this wider sense of crisis fuelled by the many (too many) Rumsfeldian phantoms inm the wider world.

The other point that I’d like to throw into the mix is that Prynne read ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ to a group of Occupy activists and that the Occupy movement does seem to be the most sensible political response (with its refutation of dogma and refusal to promote ‘easy’ solutions) that we currently have. I’d also like to point out Prynne’s use, in ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ of ‘Piers Plowman’, one of the great poems of the Ricardian period and concerned with all aspects of crisis as discussed above and one (in any of the three texts) that doesn’t present solutions.

I’m not suggesting that good poetry now is a direct reflection of these phantoms but what I am considering is that crisis throws things into a state of flux and that there are a number of very talented poets that have used this as a tool and are producing work of tremendous strength and depth with it as opposed to trying to make ‘sense’ of it.

In a recent discussion about readerly anxiety with John Boomberg=Rissman, John made the point that “RA may be the only response that can be made although I’m not sure that we want to make the “unjudgeable space” bearable. I think we want to bear its unbearableness, so to speak. It seems honorable, if I can still use a term like that”. I’m now of the view that these poets are engaged in this ‘bearing’ with more than a little honour.

Amy De’Ath and the determined tulips on The Claudius App (2)

I have been intending to write about Amy De’Ath for some time and the inclusion of four of her poems on the latest issue of The Claudius App and her remarkable reading of Jonty Tiplady’s ‘The Undersong’ in the same issue has prodded me further in this direction.

In Chris Goode’s introduction to the ‘Better than Language’ anthology he concedes that several of the important younger poets have been admitted and rightly points out that readers will have a list of those who should also have been included. My personal and highly subjective list has Emily Critchley, Luke Roberts and Amy De’ath competing for first place but for entirely different reasons apart from the fact that they are all very very good.

These four poems indicates a degree of control that’s more advanced than most of De’Ath’s peers. I get a very strong sense of poems that are in charge of themselves and know where they are going, there’s also an enviable degree of skill with language. In order to show what I mean I want to focus on ‘Heaven’ and ‘You Win’ because they’re both long enough to show how this control is sustained.

On the first and second readings of ‘Heaven’, I had a problem with the road signs, the melon factory, the vole and the tulips because these appeared to be selected for their oddness alone. However I’m now beginning to see the point because heaven in this sense refers to a separate dream-like world more than it does to a perfect one although the poem seems to assume that we aspire to the ideal too.

The inclusion of the tulips does however throw up a number of questions:

  1. What are the tulips determined to do?
  2. How does a tulip show that it is determined?
  3. If the tulip’s have emerged from ‘heaven’s side door’ then which planet is it that they are marching to the figurative edge of?
  4. Are we meant to assume that the planet is our own?
  5. Why did only some of the tulips leap of the edge of the planet
  6. What did the others lean into or against?
  7. Were the tulips, like bad angels, expelled from heaven or did they leave of their own accord?
  8. How does a tulip (determined or not) get to be in heaven?

None of these queries are intended as part of a quest for deeper understanding but it does illustrate the kind of processes that this material can initiate. The same sorts of questions can be asked about the appetite of roads signs and the slewing of melon juice but I want to try to concentrate on the effect of the poem as a whole. We start with the poet setting off to heaven but the last line of the in initial paragraph suggests that this may have been a dream. The keeping of stollen for emergencies whilst burning up is excellent as is the love that thrusts and yelps. We’re also given indications that mistakes will be made with the language (spirituals/forest, revolving faithful).

The personification of heaven as male and the idea that writing artlessly is a ‘measure of his talent’ is intriguing as the writing here does at times affect to be artless. Anyone who’s tried to write in this way will know that it does require a lot of talent to get it right. The next line is gloriously complex and manages to deliver an enormous amount of ambiguity (temper, grace) without appearing to try

I like the way the poem gradually loses the dream/surreal/subconscious affect and moves into something more concrete and urgent and the ‘you’ introduced and addressed. The arbitrary is apparently rejected but the last few lines talk about a booming moon and refer to a robbery which isn’t previously mentioned.

‘You Win’ has one of the best endings that I’ve read in ages. The references to other family members are more Ronnie Laing than Sigmund Freud but there’s generally less of the subconscious on display, unless you count Havel’s clam juice. I would question the wisdom of the Swindon / Wigan device in the first stanza but this is more than made up for by the pace of the rest and the shining genius of the the third and fourth. The notions of the ‘cryless sock’ and the ateing heart have kept me smiling for days now- I’m particularly impressed by the apparent lack of effort and the refusal to show off.

Poetic control comes in many shapes and sizes, there’s control over the formal elements, over word choice, over subject matter, over cadence etc etc. I think the kind of control here is about a considered inventiveness and by this I mean a quite startling originality in terms of both voice and subject that is tempered and given direction instead of being left to fend for itself. Tis is a rare and precious gift that sets De’Ath off from her (very talented) peers.

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
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
tending to
a local
wounded in
thick grass
bending to
a visionary
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.