Tag Archives: political poetry

Anne Boyer’s Common Heart

I started re-reading the above as a way of not reading ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, ‘Odi Barbare’ and ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ but then I got dragged in and now feel the need to enthuse in the manner of a stupid red setter. I first encountered Boyer by way of using an article in Lana Turner to refute a misplaced attribution which sounds much grander than it is. My initial view (subjective, provisional, on the way to something else) was that this might be tactically good as a part of the Occupy movement. I’ve now decided that some of it is very good indeed and stands on its own terms.

Here I think I need to explain what the difference between poetic quality and tactical quality. There are a whole range of criteria for the former, I currently going for a mix of Hill and Prynne- technically efficient, startling and beautiful- whereas the tactical poem looks outside poetry and is perhaps more or equally concerned with what poems can do. Some of the better conceptual work meets this criteria but so too does Simon Jarvis’ determined use of metre.

The thing that strikes me now is how some of this work is on the way to being conceptual whilst retaining at least a foot and an ankle in the late modern camp. I am aware that I’m ignorant and that there may be an entire North American ‘school’ writing in this manner but I still think that, whatever this is, Boyer does it very well.

I’d like to focus on bodies and bodies that crowd together. Boyer’s ‘Crowds’ is entirely in prose and contains a series of reasonably straightforward statements interspersed with some questions. What we have here is both startling and efficient. Each statement/question gives pause for thought but the succession of statements also carries forwards through the text. I didn’t want it to finish but that probably says more about me than Boyer.

I’d like to draw your attention to the really good/important/salient/valuable bits:

  • every kind of virtue is found in a crowd: that humans in a crowd create their own paths as if
    they are water that creates its own stream of water;
  • she has a crowd of carrots but carrots alone;
  • how in a disaster, humans in a crowd;
  • the building falls around him but the man carrying the man he does not know is not Hobbesian;
  • to make those deep dog woof cheers as they walk in the path the crowd has made like how water makes a stream;
  • oh what a piece of work is the crowd that we work so hard together to work against it;
  • to dream with the crowd is her cognitive surplus;
  • how the crowd so often starts with women together conspiring. How for this reason you are not allowed to see women together in the movies conspiring unless it is about clothing or a man;
  • at night I dream of a poetry for the crowd. I imagine the bodies pressed against each other until there is not one set of feet left on the ground.

I think the first thing that needs to be said is that it is really very easy to do this kind of thing badly. I know from personal experience that there is a temptation to become overly abstract which ends up being merely pretentious or to be really plain and simple which doesn’t say very much at all but does flaunt its own self-regard.

This remarkable piece of work points and teeters toward the portentous and abstract yet manages to stay the correct/appropriate side of the line. I became quite concerned with the appearance of the philosopher but this is kept nicely in proportion. The other thing to note is the degree of political engagement which becomes increasingly apparent as things progress. This isn’t full-on polemic but it is a scathing analysis of state power/paranoia coupled with a ‘wish’ for adequate verse.

I’ve confessed many time before that I’m easily impressed by the clever and need to be on my guard against the clever that is merely clever for it’s own sake. ‘The Crowd’ is bursting with intelligence but this is cleverness that is a means rather than an end, it needs to be clever in order to make its point succinctly and forcefully but the strength of the point overrides the intelligence and skill needed to get there.

What I also admire is that this feels like an easy read with the implication that it was easy to put together when in fact this level of quality is really difficult to achieve and requires much hard work and a great amount of skill. As with Olson and Matthias, the reader does not notice the machinery that’s churning away to achieve the effect.

Given this level of quality it’s perhaps no surprise that some other poems don’t work with the same kind of fluency and some don’t say very much. I’m a fan of list poems and have a strong interest in the various uses of repetition but Boyer’s use of both (apart from ‘The poet with the best body’) doesn’t seem adequately thought out.

‘Il pie fermo’ almost restores my faith in the utility of the political poem, I haven’t checked whether the initial paragraph is a quote or note and I don’t think it matters. The poem builds into bitter polemic but does so in an unusual and compelling way. The first ‘winter’ paragraph is an example of good use of repetition that catches both the obsessive and absurd sides of power whilst the second puts us in a much, much darker place. I’m taking it that the scratching of the captives is an echo of what happened in the gas chambers and this here is both startling and quite shocking.

The change into verse is fascinating to me primarily because I haven’t worked out what informs the decision to change and whether this is different for each poem. The effect here is again to place the poetic centre stage in a direct and unambiguous relationship with state power. I find this incredibly effective- it challenges my own practice ina fundamental way.

With regard to bodies (apart from bodies in crowds and bodies incarcerated or dead), I want simply to say that ‘The poet with the best body’ is a repetitious list poem that works as it should and makes me smile a lot, the kind of thing that you want to quote at strangers in the street.

Sean Bonney and the political poem

I’ve written in the past about politics and poetry and tried to make a distinction between knee-jerk polemic and something more complex. I also disclosed something of my own political background which is at the anarchist/socialist end of the political spectrum.

I’ve spent the last few days with ‘Document’ by Sean Bonney about whom I know next to nothing. The Barque Press site says that Document’s narrative runs from the London suicide bombers to Blair’s resignation and the work itself is sub-titled ‘Poems, Diagrams, Manifestos July 7th 2005 – June 27th 2007’. The BEPC site says that- “Currently, he is attempting to formulate a poetics of total critique, which appears to be a synthesis of social detail, historic fact, Marxist theory, pornography and random insult.” I was therefore intrigued to read ‘Document’ as an example of that attempt.

The work turns out to be a fascinating working through of a variety of radical positions featuring some of the far left’s favourite topics. I’d re-frame the pornography element as ‘desire’ but that’s probably because my leftist stance on this comes from a slightly different perspective. This element runs through the book and I’m not entirely sure whether this is merely a stance or posture or whether Bonney has something new to say. The use of terms like ‘scat’ and the frequent references to items of underwear tend to point to the former.

I’d like to skim over the fact that there’s a lengthy quote from Benjamin on Baudelaire primarily because I think Benjamin is the most overrated critic that ever lived and because I don’t like (see the point of) \Baudelaire.  The quote however relates to Baudelaire’s voice being mingled with the roar of the city and there’s enough of London in ‘Document’ to signify that this may be part of Bonney’s intent.

As for politics, the usual suspects are rounded up and shot, we are exhorted to ‘kill Blair’ and told that ‘Bush knew what he was doing’ which isn’t very interesting and ‘contemporary poetry is gentrified’ which is.  I’m particularly fond of:

the police method of knowledge
is the newer, cleaner avant-garde.

(It is a crossroads where the dead come to meet)/// not poetry, revolution (note tabooed term, container driver). meanwhile we are still grateful for the compression provided by the city / private home complex. a single tube for eating, puking & squirting ink. is that macho? or the gentrification of your own poetix / mirror fermented (as storefront::: port of entry to engagement with personal identity). a diagram of human passions. there are parts of the town are inexplicable, are made of complex moans and fierce scratching.

I’ve quoted this at length because I think it shows the outrage that runs through the work and also because I want Bonney to develop some of his themes a bit more. There’s also a situationist thread (or rather a very Anglified situationist thread) pervading most of Document and this could have been developed but I’m left with a series of images and statements that are merely interesting. Speaking of images, I find the ‘diagram’ part of the book which consists of collaged images and text or typescript with lines going from one part to the other not really worth the effort to decipher- the same goes for the passages of text where the words have been split up, all of this seems too earnest and mannered for my liking.
There are 2 ‘poetix’ manifestos which turn out to be extended rants, the first contains the immortal sentence ‘Bruce Willis is a cunt’ which is quite entertaining.
As well as Blair, Bush, Marx, Baudelaire and Benjamin, there are also references to Khlebnikov, Debord, Villon and Hennig Brandt. I’d heard of the first three but did have to look up Brandt who turns out to have been an alchemist whose recipe did involve, as Bonney asserts, the boiling of urine.
Probably the bits that will stay with me the longest are the references to London and the poem directly addressed to Blair which contains “to just say ‘fuck off and die’ / would be more accurate, more austere”. I really like the use of ‘austere’ because it reflects how I feel about our Great ex-Leader and makes a much more complex point than ‘accurate’.
I could go on about the continuing naivety of all the many factions that currently occupy the far left of the political spectrum, I could also hold this up as yet another example of agitprop gone awry and it would be easy to have a rant about wasted opportunity. However, I recognise that in these dark political times we really need all the outrage that we can get and Bonney’s target audience isn’t battle weary old hacks like me. I also recognise that there’s enough good poetry to hold my interest regardless of the political intent.
The final point is that I read poetry and politics (and most other things) in order to be challenged because I like being startled out of my current way of thinking about things. ‘Document’ sets out to challenge but fails because it tries to do too many thing at once and because it confirms most of my ingrained prejudices- I won’t be returning to the barricades any time soon.
I’ve just downloaded ‘The Commons’ from Bonney’s blog which contains the following “I seem to have anarchic tendencies / but I hang around with Trots”. This speaks to me on a much more personal level so I’ll read the rest of it and try to write something coherent at a later stage.

Doing politics with poetry

Robert Archambeau kicked off a debate in the first issue of the excellent Cambridge Review by attempting to analyse what he sees as the political strategy of Jeremy Prynne and his advocates. Predictably, the debate got quite rancorous quite quickly but it did get me to thinking about the relationship between politics and poetry.

I’ve been politically active since I was sixteen and have participated in all the activities that are traditionally thought of as radical practice. I’ve been on demos, written subversive leaflets, created havoc in supermarkets, stood on picket lines, had my phone tapped and a few unsolicited visits from Special Branch. I’ve also fed stories to the national media. I was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain for five until it disbanded itself.  I always thought that if I was doing enough to merit the covert attention  of the state then I was somehow ‘winning’.  I now see this as hopelessly naive.

However, because I’ve always understood politics in terms of the above activities, I tend to compartmentalise my efforts at poetry at some remove from my politics. Reading a number of French writers has convinced me that doing politics against an inherently violent state has to be a bit more subtle, so I have another blog sponsored by the state whose function is to explain what the state’s social policy actually means and the ideas behind it to our customers who tend to be elderly and have long-term health problems.

The blog is read by 200 people a day and every month I send out a digest to 35,000 customers. The response from these is overwhelmingly positive because they are in a language that people can readily understand rather than the elitist jargon of the state. I am able to do this because money generated by our e-commerce site is sufficient to fund it.

Turning to the Prynne tactic, I don’t think that it is at all elitist or Messianic nor am I bothered that the poems don’t reach many people. One of the problems, as Archambeau acknowledges, of putting stuff in the public domain is that it gets appropriated and used in inappropriate ways. The other issue is that you can’t really have a body of work that is about destroying the current dominant discourses and then enter that work into that arena. Publishing work via a small outfit like Barque Press does at least ensure that your readers will be those who are sufficiently interested to find you. Even this doesn’t guarantee against appropriation, the web contains several different interpretations of  ‘To Pollen’ for example. As for not giving interviews, how exactly do you explain the nature of the work in easy soundbites?

I was one of those who bought the 1st Bloodaxe edition and decided that it was too obscure for me- and I like ‘difficult’ poetry. I only returned to Prynne after I’d worked through the poetry of Geoffrey Hill and decided that Prynne might provide an equally enjoyable challenge.

The political Prynne I have taken issue with, describing his criticisms of money markets and fiscal policy as ‘quaint’. His more recent work on the role of American imperialism in the Middle East is ideologically laudable but aimed at another easy target.  Even my parents know that American Imperialism and the money markets are bad things, almost everyone is against torture so writing poems,  no matter how brilliant, runs the real danger of confirming existent middle class beliefs.

I am however much more impressed by Prynne’s work on Ulster precisely because it isn’t easy. The CPGB worked for years to develop a cogent analysis of  the Troubles and failed because the dimensions are many and varied and because the sight of members of the working class intent on killing each other was deeply troubling to class warriors. Reading “Streak, Willing…” has inspired (yes, inspired) me to return to a long-standing work on Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday based on witness statements to the Inquiry and material from the Cain archive. I read an early draft of one section at an open mic the other night and was gratified by the response in that it made people remember those events and perhaps encouraged them to think about them in a different way.

There’s also a difference between doing politics and doing ideology. Politics involves active and deliberate engagement with the world and usually involves the difficult art of compromise. Doing ideology is a much more passive and analytical activity, producing critiques and indicating possible ways forward. I would argue that Prynne does ideology far more than he does politics (with the exception of ‘Refuse Collection’) and is therefore not really interested in rousing his readers to the barricades.

With regard to appropriation, it’s always struck me as odd that both Foucault and Derrida complained long and loud about the many misinterpretations of their work, as if they felt that their own theories shouldn’t apply to them. Hill, in his own way, and Celan write political poetry and both have complained about being misinterpreted and misrepresented so the problem is not confined to Prynne and his response should be respected as a tactic rather than as an elitist or Messianic position.

The quietist strategy has a long and noble tradition and is based on two main strands. The first is that the world is an incredibly complex place and it is very difficult to ensure that your work will be disseminated in the way that you wish and the second is that by entering the public arena you become part of the thing that you are analysing. I call this one aspect of the ‘St Francis Position’ because its more often used by those with a strong faith. There’s nothing wrong with it so long as your expectations are fairly minimal.

There’s another line of thought that says that there are many different ways to do politics and many different ways to do poetry and we should celebrate the fact that this diversity exists rather than indulge in mutual mudslinging. Our political and creative lives should be spent improvising and trying out ways that work for us and we should respect each other for that. I hate with a vengeance most of what is produced by the mainstream and despair of the stuff that is churned out by creative writing courses but I respect those practitioners for at least trying to make a contribution. I don’t agree with Prynne’s politics and I find Hill’s hierarchical Toryism absurd but both get my respect for the contribution that they make to the discourse.