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Better Than Language, Anna Ticehurst, Sarah Kelly and the halo effect.

I was going to be reasonably methodical with the ‘Better than Language’ anthology, I was going to write about the poets that really impressed me in fairly rapid succession. I di some forward planning, I identified the bits of Anna Ticehurst’s poems that I wanted to rave about and gave considerable thought to how Sarah Kelly’ work made me feel.

And then I got distracted and went meandering off in other directions (an all too common occurrence) and have only now returned to the anthology. ‘Better than Language’ is a landmark publication because it brings together in one place a concentration of immensely talented younger poets and must be read and argued about by all those who have any kind of interest in the state and nature of British poetry. I know that I have said this before but, in this instance, I don’t have any problem at all with repeating myself.

Anna Ticehurst.

According to the blurb, Ticehurst was born in Bristol in 1986 and is currently studying to be a secondary teacher at the University of Brighton, she’s had stuff published in Cleave, Quid, Intercapillary Space and Openned so it’s odd that I haven’t noticed her before. The work occupies a unique corner in the wry/clever/exceptionally articulate section of British poetry and should not be overlooked primarily because it does several things very, very well and does them in a way that neither shouts nor whispers. I’ll try and give a few examples of these things:


Regular readers will know that I am very partial to poems that end well, and that I know what I mean about ending well but have a hard time putting this into coherent language. The temptation is always just to quote the ending and then to assume that everyone else will be instantly converted to my point of view. This is a technique that only works for me and is really rather lazy. Because some of Ticehurst’s endings are so accomplished, I’m going to use a couple of them and try to explain how they work so well. This is the end of ‘Sunbathing under Surveillance Camera One’:

An analgesic piped through Bloomsbury
brickwork does for all, stirrups the air
through martingal'd vents and pierces the
bubble with the hacking of COPD.

First of all there’s the elegant and intelligent central phrase- ‘stirrups the air / through martingal’d vents’ which is startling in itself but is contrasted with the quite brutal shock of ‘the hacking of COPD’. As the title implies the poem is a wry and angry riff on the many contradictions and apparent hypocrisies of life in the perpetually mediated West and its many insecurities. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is directly linked to poverty, a condition that almost exclusively affects the underclass. It’s also deeply unpleasant with sufferers having to struggle for every breath that they take which is why it is so effective here. The other bonus, I would argue, is that ‘COPD’ is not poetic, not lyrical and is not dressed up here to make it more ‘fitting’. This is a Very Good Thing especially if you share my belief that there’s too much of the poetic in contemporary verse.

Then there’s the ending that doesn’t seem to work at first or second reading but then becomes the best part of the poem. This is the end of ‘Open Season’:

In the Centenary Gardens,
I lose you
push pavements to the back of my eyes,
fighting at losses in the tinted interior,
swallow Optrex and do away
with the periscope only to
silence desires and shove them into little paper bags
to discard like sugar.

On a first reading this felt too stylised for its own good and the last line fell flat almost as if it wasn’t making any effort at all- an example of the unpoetic teetering on to the facile (banal). Then I started to think a bit more about the little papers bags and how exactly sugar might be ‘discarded’ and then things began to speak to me and become very special and completely appropriate.

Word choice

Most makers of poetry know that the selection of words is a crucial component in the making of the poem because the ‘right’ word is what makes the difference between something that ‘works’ and something that doesn’t. Of course, most of us have our own ideas of what good word choice should produce and mine are no more correct than anyone else but I think I can show why the following are so effective. This is from ‘Sunbathing under Surveillance Camera One”:

date palm oases washing the skins
in salt-water brilliance and free-thinking

vacuum pumps in an oxygen tent
flick-knife the opportunity like
kissing a wet dog in the rain

The two words that I’d like to draw attention to are ‘brilliance’ and ‘flick-knife’ because they are both being used in unusual ways and yet provide a more accurate picture of what needs to be said. ‘Brilliance’ also has the effect of encouraging the read to visualise what is being said and how it might differ from other kinds of liquid brilliance. It can be argued that ‘flick-knife’ is over-shadowed by the image in the last line but I would argue that the two complement each other in a very satisfying and compelling way. I’m not sure about ‘free-thinking’ because it feels a bit unnecessary but that’s probably because I haven’t paid sufficient attention to the rest of this very accomplished poem.

Sarah Kelly and the halo effect.

In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.

The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.

Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:

  • short lines;
  • absence of titles;
  • absence of big or foreign words;
  • a satisfyingly sparse intensity
  • exceptional word choice;
  • great endings.

So, ignoring the halo effect, I’d like to use a longish extract to demonstrate why this is really essential stuff:

the three leaves 
rest like three
feathers I tell you
of and the
triangularity of our
bespoke hope
non spoke
in trust-structures
etched on prized
unwritten place
the gap
between shoulder
and base that
contorts as
you turn to
look at my
unlooking resolve

I could wallow in this stuff for a very, very long time but it is clearly an object lesson on how to do very complicated (and quite profound) things with a deliberately constrained palette. The brevity of each line forces us to think carefully about what the line is really saying and the chosen words build to create an increasingly rich range of emotions through to the brilliance of the last three lines. This is only one extract from a series of consistently impressive poems which really do stand out in tone and skill from the rest of this very impressive collection.

Because of the halo effect, I’ve tried hard to find bits that I don’t like or bits that don’t ‘work’. I have to report that the only quibble I may have is that some of the poems may be too sparse and oblique to attract the attention that they warrant but this is, at best, a tactical quibble and has nothing to do with the merit of the poems as poems.

Better than Language is available from ganzfeld press for a mere ten of your finest English pounds. There is no excuse.

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.