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Adrian Clarke


Time in the School of Cobbing


Describing a Bob Cobbing performance in Norwich in 1968 Jonathan Raban observed: " ... the evening, in its own terms, was a spectacular success, compounded of incongruity, embarrassment - a fragmented sound pattern which worked as a trenchant image of something very much larger than the contained two-hour stretch of that particular night. In this sense I find it hard to agree with John Cage, who ... told Frank Kermode ... :

I wouldn't say that we are interested in destroying the barrier between art and life or even blurring it. I would say we are interested in observing there is no barrier between the two.
No formal barrier between the two, admittedly; but there is a real and important temporal one. The poem or the piece of music viewed as an event is marked by the two points of its commencement and its ending; a slice of time which has a very special authority of focus. ... The poem-as-event performs an implicit commentary upon all the other events which compose our lives; we are allowed, for a finite period of time, to respond fully to all the contingencies which under normal circumstances we need to censor. The flickering patterns of chance become dramatically exposed, lifted free from their usual encasement in a web of ordering categories and hierarchies."

Fearing that Raban's remarks would assist Cobbing's experimentalism (very much from experience as it was) in the direction of the laboratory, I am drawn to applying Charles Bernstein's take on duration in Robert Creeley: "Value resides in the particular constellation of sound-in-movement : not exactly event or occasion if these are seen as stop-frame, out of duration: 'actual' as acting in-the-world versus 'real' - res, thing, possessed state. ... This insistence on duration is simultaneous with lived life in - as - a body: framed not by this device but by this inexorable condition".

Cobbing's sound poetry became an activity that irrespective of circumstances he could resume at will; equally, performances could evidence a concern with where to stop. - When John Coltrane complained he was often unsure where to end a solo Miles Davis' advice was, "Try taking the horn out your mouth"; one of Cobbing's solutions was to find fellow performers - such as, at different times, Clive Fencott and Lawrence Upton - with whom he could establish sufficient rapport for the decision to be collaborative and instant.

The rhythms of the Cobbing of the late 1960s were sometimes little more than recognisably incantatory and sometimes approached the clod-hopping. The direction was other, but there was the occasional reminder of the leaden two-beat of Revivalist jazz, or a parade up the aisle in a Vyv Stanshall Evening of British Rubbish ... a distorted echo of which survived into the odd Birdyak performance two or three decades later. I am tempted by the analogy of Joe Harriott soloing over the rhythm section of the Chris Barber Band; though the New Thing's fragmentation of the beat (which, restricted to the support of local musicians, Harriott, unhappily, was denied the experience of as a performer), although it was not antipathetic and may later have enabled compatible approaches, was not Cobbing's direction either.

"If you imagine that any line on the page or any shape or texture on the page can be read there's no reason why three dimensional lines and shapes and textures couldn't be read. One can read anything that one can see." The transition from concrete to sound poet involved Cobbing in giving vocal expression to shapes and textures in the time necessary to "read" their surface - for which measure as such, though episodically present, was not a prerequisite. In performances like the 1985 recording from "A Processual Double Octave", he stayed with simple - if increasingly deft - implicit rhythms which change with or blend into vocal textures. Casting around for comparable approaches, one could cite John Litweiler on the mid 60s Albert Ayler: "With his approximate, imprecise pitches he varies and caricatures his themes in the midst of his improvisations. And his improvising is in squalls differentiated not by melodic qualities but by duration, range and sound character". - Perhaps that might be encompassed in a broader gesture towards a period in which virtuosic technical developments and a resort to the most basic methods concertedly challenged notions of artistic competence. But narrowly musical comparisons are misleading in that, for all its extraordinary mobility and range, the Cobbing voice at peak performance remains that of a poet - lyrical, elegaic, expository and dramatic by - for some all too abrupt - turns.

Returning to Bernstein: "Here/there, self/other are, in Creeley's poetics, projected fissures ... locating the 'voice' of the poem and its material situation as a duration that bridges the distance of 'here' to 'there', that reveals a mythic elsewhere was here all the time."

Cobbing offered his version of that bridging activity in conversation with Eric Mottram:

E.M. But dance is movement.
B.C. Yes.
E.M. I mean physical movement through space.
B.C. So is a wiggle of line on the page, isn't it? That line, which has a muscular quality about it, is the same muscular quality that you get into your voice or into your body when you dance.

For Creeley, according to Bernstein, "Here is never a point but always a series in time"; for Cobbing that series, adrift from the fixed point of the "I", has become permutable, performable: " ... an area in which not only you can join, but other people can join".

Bruce Andrews: "Discourse & Embodiment. Materiality as a precondition, not an ornament of sense. Graphic immediaces as vehicles of meaning, not tourniquets. Making sense together - refuses the sleek anorexia of the sign. The nerves are pulled into its orbit.
Sign gains fluidity by passing through a fluidity of bodies, a field of flux & constantly negotiated positions & relative weightings of hegemonic & counterhegemonic forces, or tintings, or reinvention. The mobilizing of the body - by means of insinuation into our horizon. Embodiment is transformation. Words fleshlike within a body of meaning."

In the context of journalistic literary criticism, or perhaps that of Barrett Watten in his account of Charles Olson's poetic project "motivated in terms of the metaphor of the body, an all-over poetics grounded in subterranean passages of reference, finally ending in physical presence as a primary value for the whole", Andrews' words - and not only in the last sentence - might be taken as metaphoric (though Watten's problem may be the Body, rather than language bearing evidence of the activity of a body to other bodies); in a non-dualistic reading it could function as a general formulation of Cobbing's performative practice, disembodiment characterising "those monotonous seeming printed words on a page". ... or, ironically, exclusion from a total System.

For Michel de Certeau, "Whereas the object beheld can be written - made homogeneous with the linearities of stated meaning and constructed space - the voice can create an aparte, opening a breach in the text and restoring a contact of body to body. 'Voice off.' What comes from the mouth or goes into the ear can produce ravishment." I persist in reading Cobbing's practice as in opposition to the transparence of a "scientific world-view"/the Market, engaged in the struggle for the reclamation of language for Merleau-Ponty's "body that speaks".

Bourdieu still characterises artistic activity as "spiritual", in opposition to the material; and, certainly, outside a favoured range of visual work, the arts rarely further a material interest. Nonetheless, Cobbing operated in a social space occupied also by the Poetry Society Old Guard, the Arts establishment and an occasional irate witness to his approach to performance, a space of the kind Bourdieu recognises allows for "a tacit accord about the objects of disagreement".

How much of poetic language - if we ignore the more determined textual exegetes - has a referential function? What measures, beyond the "regularity" of our conventional meters, might characterise the poetic and what relationship, if any, have they to those that precede them? How much "mere" sound has an affective content and with how much precision may that content be utilized? And what conditions are necessary to recognise the marks that occasioned such experiments in Cobbing's performances as text?

In conversation in the 1980s Bruce Andrews suggested radical poetic activity in England was developing through Schools of Cobbing, Mottram and Prynne. Deprived of its proper context - which, though he was not anti-academic, was certainly not institutional - Cobbing's sound poetry risks the exotic; perhaps his "school" may be comprised of those who analyse the disturbances his interventions have given rise to in a definable social field for further use.

Michel Deguy observed that "the critic's job is not so much to throw light on and to favor one or more differences, but to set up on his own behalf the crushing difference, the one that kills, the one that says to and of the other 'You don't exist; as a matter of fact you have never existed' ". In this light Cobbing's activities could hardly be described as critical: he never asserted his practice at the expense of another - though he did engage in a lengthy disputes over the origins of sound poetry and other matters; rather, he tried to offer whatever was presented to him as instigator, organiser and publisher - however feeble a specimen - the conditions in which it might most fully be realised on its own terms. Robert Sheppard on the Writers Forum Workshop: "Bob facilitates, offers yet another structure for experiment, but allows the participant to learn from his or her own experience, to develop personal (or non-standard) criteria, essential in the alternative poetries. If it's rubbish you'll learn to hear that it is". Cobbing's time was the now of an aesthetic "sudden awakening". Though it may have lurked in his gloomier thoughts, "never" was not in his vocabulary.

According to Peter Middleton, "The poem is an action in the world which it hopes to alter in some way, even if this alteration is no more than a series of moods of delight or saddened reflection. Performance will be the answer to the academics, and by implication, to the political impotence as well. A poem is not performed, it performs, and this is its significance.
There is an element of caricature in this account, I know. The poets I talk to eschew any easy answers or simple methods, and are all too aware of the imensity and complexity of every moment and every attempt to articulate the smallest part of it."

The caricature perhaps extends into Middleton's second paragraph; though its cause may not be in the faintly apologetic evasiveness I initially registered, but in that institutionally conditioned servility towards Science which previously inspired Eric Mottram's recommendation of "particles . . . in the soundtexts of Dufrene, Chopin, Cobbing and others" as "well within the twentieth-century description of the universe"; it may continue to urge a simultaneous awed humility and wilful disregard for the salutory sense of methodological limitation developing among many more thoughtful scientists through the last century. It is becoming a commonplace that Middleton's "immensity and complexity" cannot be known in their moment and can no longer be known outside it: they could only be observed and subjected to analysis as a wholly objectified form in an arrested state. They can, however, be intuited from a simple, physically-based awareness of relation. And of that something may usefully be said in terms both of hypotheses and poetic expression.

Bob Cobbing : "The concept of one voice scarcely making use of the physical possibilities of body - almost disembodied - reading with attention only to intellect and syntax to an audience ranged in rows, gives way to a new concept of complex bodily movements and mobile vocal body-sounds in space, - moving in space and sensed in different intensities and from different directions by an audience who may, in the event, become participants, and who may also be scattered in space; just as, with electronic equipment (e.g. the four or eight channel systems employed in Sweden) sounds may be given substance and precisely placed to come from this direction or any direction, from five yards to fifty yards, with this or that quality, this or that intensity of vibrations, this or that physical and emotional (and, indeed, intellectual) effect on the bodyframes receiving them ...".

Karen Mac Cormack's response to the "body-wide" architectural strategies of Arakawa and Gins, "the continual pursuing of that which perplexes, a coming at it and to it from all sides", though she engages their implications for "spoken and written language", may suggest another way into the sound text and its performance. She quotes the architect Ed Keller: "As they theorize the body and the subject, Arakawa and Gins project a human who does not submit to a dialectical subdivision. The inchoate no longer means 'outside of language' or 'unformed'. An inchoateness of the body becomes a cessation of habit - becomes a processible and developmental state". Taking language in the sense of "manner or style of expression", "keeping an eye on meaning" may appear to be sound: the processible and developmental nature of Cobbing's sound texts, be they on the page or discovered in the performance environment, is evidenced in his practice over 30 years' activity. Pages for performance would be dropped on the floor and performers allowed the options of standing over them, walking round them, picking them up and deciding on a "right way up" or turning them in their hands and approaching their visual poem/score from any direction. That so many of these performances did reach an unforced conclusion testifies to the legibility of their "processual" aesthetic.

Cobbing's disagreements with institutional and commercial aesthetic doxas were, in the end, neither tacit, nor elaborated in a productive dialogue. Perhaps some Lyotardian "differends" got registered for the official record, but much of his energy as creative activist and educator was channelled into doing differently irrespective. This manifested in his tenure of the basement at Better Books in the 1960s and, effectively, of the Poetry Society in the following decade, in his involvement in the short-lived Anti University of London and efforts to establish a national reading circuit, in the Association of Little Presses and the London Musicians' Collective. Other projects failed to see the light, but crucially his Writers Forum press and workshop have offered open house to three generations of experiment.

The time of these activities is past and equally, through published work including recorded performances, and, to some extent, the efforts of associates, present continuous; the strategies they have been instrumental in exploring in a culture in which cash values dominate retain an incalculable potential.



ANDREWS, Bruce   Paradise & Method, Northwestern U.P., 1996.

BERNSTEIN, Charles   Content's Dream, Sun & Moon Press, 1986.

BOURDIEU, Pierre   Practical Reason, Polity, 1998.

COBBING, Bob   A Processual Double Octave on FINCH, Peter & COBBING, The Italian Job, Klinker Zoundz cassette KZ8802C, 1988.

DE CERTEAU, Michel   The Certeau Reader, Blackwell, 2000.

LITWEIILER, John   The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958, Da Capo, 1984.

McCAFFERY, Steve & NICHOL, bp   Sound Poetry: a Catalogue, Underwhich Edns, 1978.

MAC CORMACK, Karen   INNOVATION'S INVENTORY: further points along the way, North American Centre for Interdisciplinary Poetics, www.arts.yorku.ca/english/poetics/article.

MIDDLETON, Peter   Performing an Experiment, Performing a Poem: Allen Fisher and Bruce Andrews in KENNEDY, David & TUMA, Keith (Eds), Additional Apparitions, The Cherry On The Top Press, 2002.

MOTTRAM, Eric   Composition and Performance in the Work of Bob Cobbing: a Conversation, Writers Forum, 2000.

RABAN, Jonathan   The Society of the Poem, Harrap, 1971.

SMITH, Steven Ross   Ballet of the Speech Organs: Bob Cobbing on Bob Cobbing, Underwhich Edns, 1998.

WATTEN, Barrett   Olson on Language: Part II in PERELMAN, Bob (Ed), Writing/Talks, Southern Illinois U.P., 1985.