Tag Archives: vanessa place

Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.

Vanessa Place and the Poetics of Radical Evil and some poems

There are times when you come across something that you agree with, sometimes you come across stuff that articulates things that you have been trying to articulate and very, very rarely you come across stuff that you have been trying to articulate / think about and then takes it into areas/arenas that you haven’t thought about but now seem suddenly obvious. this is the case with the above essay which was published in issue 3 of Lana Turner.

I’m tempted just to leave the link and let people read this without further comment from me but I also feel the need to elaborate on some of the really important bits.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am passionate about and obsessed by poetry but that I also recognise its weaknesses and fragilities in the wider scheme of things. I’ve also observed somewhat glibly that poetry or the poetic is the problem with poetry just as there’s too much of the political in politics. Regular readers will also know that I’m of the firmly held (this is unusual) view that Vanessa Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’ is the most strategically important work for decades- on either side of the Atlantic.

THE ‘Poetics’ essay is correct in both its analysis and its remedy. That it’s correct is a bit of a misnomer, it is incredibly focused and puts the rest of us wooly-minded poetry types to shame. I acknowledge that Place does not compromise and this can be more than a little off-putting, I also admit that she scares me to death but in a really good way.

In her introduction, Place warns us that she will be playing the lit crit academic game- name-dropping, one upping, explicating whilst slagging off etc and this dance does occasionally get in the way of the argument- a certain audience may respond to the games played with Helene Cixous but it doesn’t do that much for me. What I think is really important is that poetry is increasingly that speaks only to itself about itself in a language that only initiates have access to and that this is The Very Bad Thing.

Here we fall across the ‘c’ word- Place considers herself to be a conceptualist and here quotes conceptual works with approval. For the rest of us this could lead us to ignore the message because it’s not been spoken by ‘one of us’ ie not one of us rugged individuals struggling with the limits of the poetic / late modern tradition. The sad fact is that this argument does apply to us and we need to take notice. One of the things that I continue to fail to understand is the ongoing ghettofying that seems essential to the poetry business, the rule that says that I can’t see the point of J H Prynne whilst also seeing the point of Erica Baum, that says that I’ve got to apply blanket condemnation to all those who might not share my particular view of Adorno / Derrida / Heidegger / Marx.

So, not all conceptualists are bad just as not all Cambridge poets are good. End of short speech whilst reserving the right to repeat it at will. What Place says that is important is the primacy of communication and the real and the absolute need to devise a poetry that is ‘what poetry isn’t’ and to think very, very hard about the rhetoric of witnessing.

The good bits

For those that can’t be bothered to read this seminal piece in its glorious entirety, I present a completely partial and subjective list of quotes that I’m currently learning by heart:

  • Our guilt is all we know of the law;
  • If we fashion a critical poetics out of these approaches, we have, on the surface, a three-chambered ecumenics of: (1a) impotency, by way of penned constellate meaning; (1b) elision, by way of the metaphoric slide, glide, and aside, and (2) reform, by way of errant liberal recombinancy;
  • In other words, and I say this often for a reason, the question becomes whether proffering a multitude of meaning is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether proffering difference or différence is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether embedding the dialogic is a sufficiently ethical response. Whether reading itself is a sufficiently ethical response, whether there is a sufficiently ethical response;
  • That is to say, there must be an excavation, necessarily wrenching, in addition to a radical archiving, necessarily annoying. In other words, it is not enough to walk down the Department hall, or cross a theoretical divide that is not a divide, at least not in practice;
  • In other words, a violent and manacled responsibility, even duty. To what? To insist that poetry is what poetry isn’t;
  • An a-poetics rather insists that, to use another numerical referent, the trinity is the new binary, and there is no dialogue, no call and response because the poem is no longer treated as a text to be read, however many ways and loose, but is cut loose altogether. The poem is simply a site of potential engagement like other works of art are simply sites for potential engagement, and there may be no “reading” just as there may be no “writing,” but a tripartite encounter with a textual surface;
  • And in my Statement of Facts, in which I self-appropriate my legal writing, and unadulterated narrative accounts of sex offenses are re-presented as poetry, the rhetoric of witnessing—and what is the law if not rhetoric? and what is poetry if not rhetoric? and what is law and/or poetry if not the rhetoric of witnessing?—is overtly rendered immaterial;
  • All I know of poetry is of my transgression of poetry. Through a-poetry, radically evil poetry, poetry that cannot be poetry as poetry has been previously conceived, poetry that takes the execution of poetry quite literally and quite stupidly, there is poetry.

The Poems

Issue 4 of Lana Turner contains ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s like something in the United States’ and an extract from ‘Triptych’. I think that the first of these is staggeringly brilliant and encapsulates a way to do the poetics that she describes. I don’t think that the ‘Triptych’ extract is in the same league, there is this aspect of Place’s practice that seems to want to demonstrate some kind of credibility which is misplaced and undermines what she’s about.

Place the poet is at her best when she engages with the real blood and guts of the violence that lies at the heart of our world, when she deals with stuff that we’d prefer not to think about, when she shows that she understands the importance of the ‘rhetoric of witnessing’. We all need to pay attention to the work and the rationale that informs it.

Poetry and Politics and Truth, a response to Tom Dunn

Tom,

Rather than respond to your recent comments re the above in the comments threads, I thought I’d attempt a more considered response here. It also gives me the opportunity to review the last stated Bebrowed position on this knotty conundrum. I consider myself to be deeply political, most of my adult life has been spent in various forms of what many would think of as ‘extreme’ political activity and I was a member of the CPGB (Gramscian/Marxism Today faction) for about five years until it disbanded even though I have never considered myself to be a Marxist. I also have a lifelong passion for poetry and have held the view that the two don’t mix in that I wouldn’t turn to a poem for ideological ‘positions’ just as I wouldn’t hope to find poetics in political activity. I also feel that there’s too much of the political in politics and too much poetry in poetry.

I really struggle with the fact that many poems are written about political problems that will have absolutely no influence whatsoever on those problems regardless of the stance that those poets take. I’m also deeply suspicious of poets that pick ‘easy’ targets and will shortly give some examples of these.

None of the above is helped by the annoying fact that most of the best poems currently being written do commit most of the above crimes. In my ideal world all poets would be working out the implications of what Levinas described as ‘the sadness of self-interest’ together with Foucault’s view that the primary struggle is with the fascist that lurks within each of us. I also accept that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon so I’m left with these vaguely marxian poets who are producing brilliant poems but dismal politics.

And then there’s Geoffrey Hill who has described himself as a ‘hierarchical Tory’ and whose work is a really fascinatingly incongruous mix of knee-jerk polemic and quite thoughtful analysis- but only when applied to events before 1670.

You say that there’s no space for God in this material yet there’s certainly a lot of God in Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and I think I could make a case for God in later Prynne. My own view is that poets are much better with theology than they are with politics and that the best God poems are those that express doubt rather than conviction (R S Thomas, Paul Celan, George Herbert). I’m also of the view that it is entirely possible to get pleasure from poems a standpoint that I find politically and morally repellent- Book V of the Faerie Queen and most of Pound’s Cantos spring to mind.

There is some work that is politically sophisticated and strategically correct and is being undertaken at the conceptualist end of the spectrum by Vanessa Place and Caroline Bergvall both of which make me feel more than a degree of what we used to call solidarity.

There’s also a younger group of poets who are in the process of recasting the personal and the political – I quote from some of these below.

With regard to Truth, I’m one of those intellectually flabby relativists that manage to be loathed by Richard Dawkins and the current pope in equal measure but there are Cambridge poets who are concerned primarily with truthful poetry and with a concern for authenticity but this usually coloured by dialectical processes and an interest in contradiction. My only excuse is Richard Rorty’s view that we should concentrate on that which is useful without too much regard for truth-value because doing things the other way round does get us into all kinds of trouble.

Incidentally, I really don’t want Bourdieu to be correct but he is- you don’t need to be a committed leftist to be persuaded. The escape from the iron cage is inevitably subjective but my money’s on Place, Bergvall, Neil Pattison, Johnny Liron and Jonty Tiplady- each of these for very different reasons (see below).

The Desire problem.

Bear with me but this does seem to get to the core of the poetry/politics problem. In 2010 Keston Sutherland began circulating ‘The Odes to T61LP’ which is the bravest sequence that I think I’ve ever read because it deals in an honest an open way with sexual identity and desire and childhood sexuality and confronts every single aspect of the British male persona. Timothy Thornton is an extraordinarily talented younger poet who is dealing with desire in a uniquely lyrical way.

I am and will remain critical of Sutherland’s Marxist certainty but (and this is the problem) I don’t know of anyone else with this degree of talent and critical insight.

The Polemic problem.

Poets, even Milton, are bad at polemic and shouldn’t do it. In fact, it is the repeated attempts to do this adequately that makes me most annoyed about things Cambridge/Brighton. I’ve been re-looking at some recent examples for this piece and they just make me unaccountably cross. Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’ doesn’t make me cross but it’s still an ‘easy’ target, isn’t it?

The Streak~~Willing~~Artesian~~Entourage exception.

I’ll vote for this being the best political work of the last twenty years precisely because it refuses to simplify, take sides or otherwise pontificate and it is wonderfully austere. I also think it is politically important because it confronts some fundamentals that have been ignored by all shades of the political spectrum.

Examples.

I’ve attempted to put together a number of quotes to do with politics. This selection is based on my own reading and is entirely subjective but it does at least provide a bit of a map for further discussion / debate. I’ll do something similar with both God and Truth at a later stage

This is from ‘Statement of Facts’ by Vanessa Place-

Counts 10, 11, 12 and 14: Jane Doe #3: Marion J.

Marion J. was living alone in a house on Colorado Street Long Beach on July 31, 1998; around 1:30 or 2:00 a.m., she returned home with a friend from Ralphs. The friend left without coming inside the house, and when Marion J. went in, she noticed her five cats were under the bed and her back door was open. She closed and locked the door, and took a shower. Her friend called around 2:15 or 2:30 to let Marion J. know she’d arrived home safely; Marion J., who had been
laying on her bed waiting for the call, then fell asleep. (RT 866-868) She woke about 3:15 a.m. because someone’s hand was around her throat. The person took Marion J.’s glasses and told her if she screamed, he’d snap her neck. Marion J. said she wouldn’t scream, the man pulled her nightgown over her head and told her to open her legs, she did, and he put his penis in her vagina. The man then took his penis out of Marion J., lifted her leg and reinserted his penis. Next, the man turned Marion J. over and put his penis in her vagina a third time while pulling her hair back. Marion J. was bleeding; the man got a towel from the bathroom, wiped her, laid on the bed, and told Marion J. to get on top of him because it would be easier for her to “control it.” Marion J. did, and the man’s penis again went into her vagina. (RT 868-870, 875)

And so is this-

On Marion J.’s mixed breast swab sample, there are six peaks (11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) at D-8; Fedor’s handwritten notes indicate two of the peaks (11, 15) are possible stutter. (Defense Exhibit Y; RT 1570- 1571) Stutter is a PCR artifact, and does not represent actual DNA in the sample. Fedor wrote “possible” because those peaks could be
DNA, but did not report them as because he did not think they were reliably present, i.e., he thought they were stutter rather than additional DNA. His conclusion was based on the position of the alleles, and their shorter peaks; another analyst could conclude they were real. The Identifiler software has a Kazam macro which is to filter out stutter based on the manufacturer’s research; the macro did not identify 11 and 15 as stutter. Fedor did not know what the stutter limit is for D-8; there is no fixed laboratory standard. The Identifiler user manual indicates the limit at D-8 is 8.2 percent. (RT 1571-1575, 1577-1578, 1593-1594) Similarly, at D-21, the computer recognized an allele,
meaning there was an allele present of at least 150 RFU intensity. (RT 1579-1580)

This is from Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Fried Tale (London Zoo)’-

Dame Justice no longer worries unduly. She no longer gives a smiling sod about the moral attributes or social benefits of equitable share-out of wealth; or land; or health; or education or how to work out well-being for the mostest; or the bestest ways of valuing people’s skills or establishing fair and durable structures; or thinking long-term; or facilitating technological access; or revisiting the rules of international exchange; or the balance of import/export; or the value of local trade; or determining the boundaries between life and death; or between breathing and unbreathing; or feeling and unfeeling; or animate and inanimate; or how to get out of the deep labyrinthine social moral spiritual physiological bankrupcy engineered by the brutal omnipathological so-called transnational traficking bloodsuck oilsprung hyperdfunded plunderterprrize. Sgot to be said she can be pretty longwinded. Speaks in subsections.

1a. Must fall. 1b. Should fall. 2a. Could Fall. 3a. Will Fall.

This is from Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’-

Be housed, clutched, inert. Receive, that wave earthed
in keratin
Dark’s cuticle
then fastening dark hand, recede. Conductive, slow
strings waist, a focus vantage stills, in weaning light

that houses break. Elaborately plaited fingers
crack on a shell in the breech. By coastal
rolling, granules secure and justified, flowingly
the solvencies peak and burn in type ; infant salts
the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over

This is from Jonny Liron’s ‘6.XII’-

                language and theories de cauterize
and un captivate the attention of a
child bent fixed hell for leather of
fucking like a pretend dog, this should
be what you stand for, not the press
or forgetting.

This is the end of Jonty Tiplady’s ‘Superanus’-

Nice to wonder about with you,
nice to stay fat,
nice never truly to be a polygraph.

Worth it that the woods be sovereign
what matters is that any of it
happened at all,
the children a little fucked (concept to pop to sex) up
and Formby in Albania like Big Bird to Catanou
did quite well with that toaster.

Around now climate change arrives.

Having just re-read the above, I worry that this selection might appear too wilfully oblique and insufficiently specific but I am trying to honestly highlight those things that make ‘sense’ to me and I really am far too old to worry about the niceties of correctness or the rigours of a party line.

The Claudius App, compare and contrast.


The above is the set list from a recent Gillian Welch gigs at the Rogue Theatre in Grants Pass, Oregon. It’s a poem because I say that it’s a poem.
I was recently sent a link to the Claudius App which contains new work from Simon Jarvis, Keston Sutherland and Joe Luna. Given that it contains both UK and North American poets, I was going to write something about the vast superiority of the Brits over the cliche riddled mediocrity of our American cousins. Then I read the poems and realised that this strategy won’t work in this instance. This isn’t because the British poets aren’t any good, Sutherland, Jarvis, Luna and Lisette are some of the very best that we have but rather that some of the American poems are very good indeed. This came as quite a shock as the vast majority of North American stuff strikes me as being hopelessly poetic and a result of some creative writing course somewhere on the eastern seaboard.
Like Geoffrey Hill, I’m against the teaching of creative writing especially in the field of poetry and am of the view that the proliferation of such courses is responsible for the mediocrity that is threatening to kill poetry as a means of expression. In my head, North America is the home of the creative writing phenomena and therefore all North American poets who are the product of this system can’t be any good.
So I approached the Claudius App with the intention of concentrating on the British contingent but then started to look at some of the Americans. I want to set out some initial responses-
Vanessa Place is officially the Bebrowed scariest poet on the planet because of the challenge that she presents to the rest of us and because she really does mean it. Her readings are an absolute joy and her work is exceptionally challenging. In a recent interview, Kenneth Goldsmith has again ‘explained’ conceptualist poetry as stuff where the idea is more important than the content and goes on to say that Place- “is taking legal briefs that she writes during the day in the law field. And she doesn’t do anything to them, she just represents those as poetry.” Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Place output will know that this is more than a slight distortion. For example, Place’s contribution here is based on the ‘Statement of Facts’ but large sections of it have been blocked out. I’ve written about the original ‘Statement’ for arduity where I think I’ve made it clear that this is work that we are meant to read and think about. The current contribution also shows that Place is now ‘doing things’ with the original material. The extracts from Juliana Spahr and Steven Fama and the statement that this is a response to the “negative reviews” of Statement of Facts might only be helpful to those who have actually read the original work, to Place virgins what follows may appear as needlessly gratuitous. So anyone with an interest should read ‘statement’ first and then come to judgement about what’s presented here. I may be in a minority but I’ve always felt that a respectful silence is the best way to respond to adverse comment and it does seem that stripping the rapes of any kind of context demeans the original work.
So, given that Place scares me to death (in a good way), I’m not entirely sure why she should choose to respond even though that response is typically extreme. These reservations do not in any way detract from my view that she is one of the most important poets currently practicing and cannot be ignored.
|Kent Johnson in my head has always been the slightly contrived bad boy of American verse. I’ve followed some of his interventions in debaters on the other side of the Atlantic and have gained the impression that he adopts this contrarian stance purely to gain a reaction and thus what he says shouldn’t be taken seriously. His piece here however reflects what many of us must be feeling about Jacket2 which already has become a very pale shadow of its predecessor. I don’t want to launch any kind of attack on this entity but to register my personal sorrow that an essential destination has been replaced with something so weak. I’m guessing that Johnson’s wry description of the politics behind this is reasonably accurate and it really is sad that this kind of empire building can lead to such a loss. I’m taking care to refrain from giving specific examples of this loss, suffice it to say that I for one am missing the original- which wasn’t perfect but contained stuff that was worthy of consideration and attention.
Emily Dorman. I know nothing at all about Emily Dorman who seems to be absent from most of the web so I can only assume that this is a contribution from the American side of the divide. “Towards a New Critical Vocabulary” is one of the cleverest things that I’ve read this year. It could be argued that I’m biased towards the clever and am often prepared to be impressed by cleverness for it’s own sake. Whilst this may be true, this particular piece manages to combine oddness and deliberation to produce something that is staggeringly good. It manages to make me smile and (at the same time) to turn most of my thinking processes inside out. This is a good thing. I’m particularly impressed by section 7 and the immortal sentence: “Some readers may gripe that the ideas in the sequence are overcooked (‘a moment’s monument’ walks lockstep with mommy poems for instance) but the technique leaves few bones to pick”- which manages to speak enormous volumes about the entire lit crit business. The word ‘lockstep’ is particularly brilliant. I’ve read this four or five times and each time I find something else that makes me smile in admiration. So, if anyone has any more details on Emily Dorman, I really would be very grateful.
Daniel Poppick is a product of the creative writing machine yet manages to avoid the writerly nonsense that seems to infect most of his peers. I think I’d better try and qualify this, without doing an in-depth survey of the stuff currently being produced, I think my main concern is about the misuse of the adjective and the faked inability to be clear coupled with an odd determination to be wry and cool at the same time. Poppick manages to avoid all of these and to put together lines that are very good indeed. This is unusual because I’m not usually attracted by poems that are as direct as this but I don’t think anyone can deny that there are some bits that are breathtakingly strong. I would cite the second and the sixth stanzas of the first poem and all of ‘Sucking the Sherbets’ as being particularly effective. Poppick seems to have that knack of making the uncanny seem very familiar and vice versa, this is very impressive material.
Michael Thomas Taren is also a product of the creative writing machine who seems to be able to create quite distinctive voices for his work. I’m ignoring the first because I can’t be bothered to think about it but the second two are poems that are both striking and very confident. What I find most appealing is Taren’s readiness to take risks with language and to write lines that shouldn’t make any kind of sense- “and I answer that my neck is looking now like light in a swimming pool” is deeply attractive. In my experience it is rare to find poets who can sustain this level of quality but both Taren and Poppick seem to manage it.
We now come to Joe Luna and an introductory disclaimer. Up until last week or thereabouts the only thing that I knew about Joe was that his blog sends more people to this blog than any other site in the known universe. I have no idea what if anything this might signify but I am nevertheless grateful for all the traffic that I can get. So, I was intrigued to see one of his poems included here and have since been provided with others. having acknowledged some potential bias, I now feel able to state that ‘For the White Lake Blot’ is one of the best poems to be published in the last three or four years.For those of you who may wish to doubt this I suggest the following strategy-
1. Read the poem, start at the beginning and read through to the end, read all of the words, do not skip bits that seem superfluous, do not re-read bits that may seem obscure or difficult.
2. Try and remember what you have read.
3. Read the poem aloud, do this three or four times.
4. Read the poem to yourself again.
Following this strategy will lead you to an appreciation of both the depth and originality of this sequence. There are a couple of moments when it seems like Sutherland’s influence is going to take over but this isn’t sustained- what emerges is something where (and I am struggling with this) the gaps, the what-isn’t-said is as important as what’s on the page. This isn’t to demean what the poem says but rather to point to the unsaid stuff that seems (struggling again) to lurk between the lines. The sequence is full of stuff that is clever, challenging and intriguing, I’m particularly fond of the conversational voice that’s used to say some quite ‘deep’ things. Right now I’m busy reading more of Luna’s work and can confirm its consistency in terms of strength. I’ll be writing more about Luna shortly.
The same goes for Francesca Lisette.
I wrote all of the above about ten days ago and have spent the intervening time having a bit of a struggle with despondency and confidence which is annoying because I’m supposed to be recovering. This unwelcome interval has been spent amongst some primary sources for the last decade of the 16th century – narrative history remaining the best distraction when my concentration is shot. The period has also been marked by an odd sense of unease about poetry that requires attention which I do intend to write about. Returning to the two Lisette poems today has restored some confidence. I have read some of her other stuff and am awaiting the arrival of some more but the two on display here are simply outstanding and challenging on a number of levels. I’m still getting my brain around some of the finer points but would wish to draw your attention to “living underground with stockings made of rain / my free fucking watercooler wrung hands of all / authority;” which is both startling and clever and “mantra dies off / in the bread of giving up we rose / caulked and feckless” which is almost perfect. It is stuff like this and the Luna poem that restores my faith in the future of English verse whilst also managing to challenge the ways that I read and think about poetry. This is a good thing.

The above is a set list from a recent Gillian Welch gig in San Francisco, it’s another poem in the ‘tour’ sequence because I say it is.
With regard to the three Jarvis poems, I’ll obviously need to give these much more attention after I’ve negotiated the various threads in ‘Dionysus Crucified’ – I’ll have more to say once I’ve got my brain around both the depth and the breadth of the Jarvis project. Incidentally, looking at the background to George Herbert has led me to ‘Godly sorrow’ and John Donne on kenosis which may shed a little more light on the dying god theme in ‘Dionysus’ and on “or voiding inside their once barbarous pageants of national violence and love” from Z.15. It could of course be yet another example of over-reading and leaping to conclusions that aren’t actually there. I’m not at all sure about ‘Barcarol’ mainly because of line length but I also accept that I need to pay this much more attention.
As for the Sutherland contributions, I’m of the view that the selection from the Odes contains one of the weakest bits of the sequence, the excerpt from ‘Ode 4’ is a little too controlled and rational for my taste and (probably) not ‘superabundant’ enough. The bit from Ode 5 gives a much better idea of the quality of the sequence as a whole. I’m also a little puzzled as ‘Living stops to fit the empty” was once part of the ‘Odes’ and probably makes more ‘sense’ in that context rather than as a separate poem. Does anyone know when/if the sequence will be published?
I realise that this may cause offence but I’m bored of kettling poems and becoming bored of austerity poems (unless they are really, really good) and ‘The Clearance’ is a kettling poem, it’s a clever and clearly heartfelt piece of polemic but there are much bigger fish to fry…

Welch, Toronto, Monday night, the final poem in the sequence.

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.

Poets on film and the rest of my cultural week.

I need to get this off my chest. The good news is that YouTube are now carrying important film of Keston Sutherland, Jeremy Prynne and John Matthias. The bad news is that only the Sutherland is watchable / listenable. This is particularly disappointing for those of us who have been waiting to hear Prynne read ‘Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian’ (me anyway)- I know that he reads this because he repeats the title but the words and the phrasing are almost inaudible. This is doubly annoying because in the same film Sutherland gives an excellent reading of all of Stress Position which is perfectly audible throughout.

The Matthias is a performance of “Automystifstical Plaice” where the camera is too far away from the performers and the sound is indistinct. This again is unfortunate in that the work isn’t available (as far as I know) in print in the UK any more.

So, I’d like to make a plea to those people who produce these things. Producing this material in usable form is not technically difficult, there are now a vast array of inexpensive gizmos that are almost idiot proof. The reputation of serious poetry is in a bad way and is not helped by the display of poorly produced stuff on the web. In fact if it isn’t adequately produced it shouldn’t  be made available at all.

In complete contrast, I’ve spent the last ten days or so being spellbound by film of Vanessa Place reading at the Cross-Genre Festival which has been published on the openned site which is clear and effective. I’m a recent convert to Place’s stuff and the more I read the more impressed I become even though the piece published in the last CLR was a bit too knowing for my taste. She’s considered to be a conceptualist but I think there’s a bit more going on.

The major cultural event of the last seven days has been the publication of a book review by George Steiner in the TLS on a book about the ‘warfare’ between Derrida and Habermas by Pierre Bouretz. George surveys the well known history of Derrida’s reception and of the Habermas position and then throws Richard Rorty into the equation. The point that is made about Rorty is a pertinent point but also manages to misconstrue the finer points of the Rorty position. I’ve been reading Steiner for thirty five years and he still makes me smile with everything he does.

Listening to Richard Barrett, Laurence Crane, Brian Ferneyhough and a band called Mostly Others do the Killing who manage to be accomplished and funny at the same time. I first heard Crane on Radio 3 on Saturday and what he said about repetition led me to try it with verse- hence the previous post.

Also reading Caroline Bergvall, Ezra Pound, David Jones’ ‘The Sleeping Lord’  and trying to finish the last Diarmaid MacCulloch on the history of Christianity- without much success.

Have a new strategy for Satantango (7 hour long film)- have watched it straight through twice a couple of years ago and am now watching it in more manageable segments. It is much more eventful than I recall and a lot wordier… It’s almost as good as Tarr’s ‘Damnation’ which is really bleak but much much shorter.

Lastly, a resolution to sit down and read Browning’s Sordello and to stop re-reading ‘self portrait in a convex mirror’ and to recognise that trying to make my mind up about Ashbery is more than a little futile. Also to find the time to listen to Hill’s first lecture in his current job.

On poetry and obsession

This is one of those personal things that I do from time to time in the hope that I might help me reach some kind of a conclusion.
Last week I felt that I was drowning in verse, I was alternating between Matthias, Pound, Jones and Vanessa Place and was becoming more and more enthusiastic about them as I read and re-read. The usual method of exorcising this overwhelm ed sensation is to write about them so I’ve written about Matthias (for another publication) and Place (for arduity). I should also be pleased because I’ve overcome my fear of writing something useful about Pound but Pound has led to Browning’s ‘Sordello’ which is clamouring for my close attention. All of this is slightly compounded by the fact that the latest draft of Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ is sitting on my hard drive and it remains my belief that it’s the most important poem published in the UK since 1971.
I’ve tried hard since Xmas to diversify (unintentional pun) to other things, I’ve read some history, some Merleau-Ponty, some Simon Critchley and some Maurice Blanchot in an effort to broaden my horizons but to no avail, I remain mesmerised by Blanchot’s ‘L’Ecriture du disastre’ but (I then realise) that’s because I’m reading it as a poem.
So, given that I don’t want to become completely manic, a process which involves leaping from book to book without actually reading anything, I thought I’d try and get my brain around my readiness to be dragged into poetry and to become immersed in it.
Before we go and further let me try and define the nature of my obsession with verse. I think about poetry a lot but I also think about politics a lot and certain aspects of the historical past. I don’t however spend large amounts of time attempting to work out the finer points of ideology or historical scholarship, this kind of attention is reserved more or less exclusively for verse. I worry about things like Mandelstam’s influence on Celan, the quality of Geoffrey Hill’s jokes, the reason that I find Prynne’s later work so compelling and why conceptualist verse might be quite good. These thing seem to matter to me more than the crisis currently facing all forms of socialism or whether I Blair Worden has anything worthwhile to say about the 17thy century.
I also console myself with the fact that my obsession isn’t complete, I can still get distracted by the non-poetic. Whilst writing this I’ve just come across something called “Knowledge management and diplomacy: Reflections on the demise of the valedictory despatch in the context of an informational history of the British Diplomatic Service” which I will now have to read.
I also need to interrupt myself in order to point out that I’m not one of those who think that poetry is important in the wider scheme of things, it’s clear to me that it is ‘only poetry’ and one of many interesting ways of describing the world. I do not support the notion that verse may be in a privileged position with regard to Truth. In fact, I’m quite violently opposed to this kind of wishful thinking.
So, if poetry isn’t that important, what is this obsession about? I’ll try to give a couple of examples. Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ refers in part to a reader who nods his head and thinks approvingly “that’s how it is”. Some readers may be looking to verse to provide this function or to provide an analysis that concurs with their own but I’m not one of them. In fact, I seem to get more from poets that are at the opposite end of my spectrum because I enjoy being challenged.
I also consider myself a practitioner in the poetising business so my reading of other stuff is never completely neutral, I’m always on the lookout for devices and conceits that I can steal and modify. But this still doesn’t fully account for my readiness to throw myself into this material.
I’ll try another example, I know that I’m becoming obsessed by both Ezra Pound and by Vanessa Place. I’ve just started to pay them serious attention but already I feel as if I must read everything they’ve ever published, that I must spend hours on Pennsound listening to them read their stuff and that I must write about how good / important / useful they are. In both instances this excessive interest was awakened by specific poems, Canto 9 in the case of Pound and Place’s ‘Statement of Facts’. Reading Canto 9 I realised that I was in the presence of something that was both accomplished and gloriously confident of its own strength in a way that indicates what poetry can and should do. The only problem with becoming obsessed by Pound is the knowledge that there’s a lot of stuff to be obsessed about… I wasn’t initially impressed when reading Place in the last CLR but I was sufficiently interested to find some of her other stuff and to read a couple of interviews. I find ‘Statement of Facts’ to be both effective and deeply disturbing on number of different levels even though all the text is appropriated (or appears to be appropriated) and it’s determinedly conceptual.
As with my other obsessions (Spenser, Milton, Marvell, Celan, Hill, Prynne), there are elements in both Pound and Place that I can and will argue with but I find that I’m looking forward to that argument and perhaps it’s this kind of internal debate that is the ultimate attraction for me. I also get a lot from using this blog to push these arguments a bit further.
Poets that really interest me tend to be those with strongly held views about both poetry and the world. It doesn’t matter that much to me what those views are, I’m much more impressed by the way in which they are expressed in the poetry. So, does this make me typically post-modern with an interest in form over content? Probably and it also ‘explains’ my reluctance to take poetry to seriously.
I am therefore obsessed by stuff that is well-made, forcefully expressed and contains views or analyses that I can take issue with. The obsessive aspect comes from the fact that poetry has a very great deal of ‘depth’ in terms of its history and the forms that it has taken down the centuries and most good stuff that I read does place me further into this complex web that we call the poem.