P O R E S   4
An Avant-Gardist Journal
of Poetics Research
INDEX
 
 
 
W  i  l  l      R  o  w  e
title page

Tony Trehy
Questions of Ideology and Ideological Apparatus

Gallery of work from contributors to the Forum on Women Writers:
Elizabeth Jane Burnett
Marianne Morris
Susan Johanknechtarmour
Emmanuelle Waeckerle
Carol Watts

Alan Halsey
An Open Letter to Will Rower

Allen Fisher
Minimaus: in response...

Frances Presley
Piano Trio by Nicola le Fanu

Frances Presley
two flames

Frances Presley
Frances Van Goor

Philip Davenport
Vogue Divine

Bill Griffiths
In Audience

Tony Lopez
What Can Be Done

Ceri Buckmaster
Contemporary Poetics and the Re-inscription of Urban Subjectivities

Dell Olsen
Interview



Invisible Power

'Where the hell are we?' (B.S. Johnson)

A book introducing poetry to readers who want to know more, young minds especially, calls itself Poetry: The Basics (by Jeffrey Wainwright, Routledge 2004) and makes no mention of Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Denise Riley, or Barry MacSweeney. It gives seven lines (and the wrong date of birth) to Tom Raworth and none to Basil Bunting, Bob Cobbing, Eric Mottram, Jeremy Prynne. What does that mean? The immediate sense must be here has been a major act of suppression – to have excluded so much (and so systematically) that could have enlivened a young person's experience of poetry. How to understand that will to suppression? Andrew Duncan, in The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003), insists on some answers: 'The denial of change denies the conscious activity of cultural managers; by making it invisible, their work is made uncontroversial. The only real power is invisible power.' Duncan's answer to how this 'way of eliminating vanguardism' works has the advantage of reading it back into the functioning of power in the UK.

Invisible power as an English thing is traced out by Iain Sinclair's investigations in Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (and, less phantasmagorically, in his later work). The shapes that appear – tracks of will across time as congealed space – are like vitiated versions of Benjamin's dialectical image: Instead of the energy of the past, available in the present to generate change by breaking the continuum of history, Sinclair's writing traces the malign continuum of the power machine centred on London. Jeremy Prynne's words: 'Nothing / changes the will to change nothing.' The machine's code is continuism, the force that runs through it a will to power that demands sacrifice to ensure its endurance: 'The spirit is will and the will is holy' (James Hinton's letter in White Chappell Scarlet Tracings). The opposite of that would be the endurance of writing: 'Nothing is written, everything repeats.'

'Unpolished Mirrors' (1985), which is the final section of Place, Allen Fisher's investigation of the spatial and political histories of London, seeks to expose those uses of human time-energy that fed the long endurance of power inside particular inscriptions of space in the capital. Wren and Churchill, locations of the power to command sacrifice: 'I am perpetrator of city life as oppression / by multiplicity of excitations constantly accumulated / paralysed and echoed / without attenuation [ . . . ] place fused to production / [ . . . ] I am merged into a sublimity of tranquil terror / awed in contemplation with extreme antiquity and decay.'

The clues for understanding are to be found in the work of the non-conforming poets: 'No pink clues / as / fuck seeds / dance / & / rage,' MacSweeney's 'Jury Vet' searing through the language of Vogue, index of postwar consumerist conformity, to pure desire and anger – writing that does not stop at understanding because it wants truth. Reading time in MacSweeney's Odes (1971-78) and early 1980s poems like 'Jury Vet' is just about as far as you can get from experience metrically distinguished, i.e. laid out in complete patterns: 'The industrial conversion of charm (myth/metaphor/weather) into strict metre' (Iain Sinclair, Introduction to Conductors of Chaos, on Ireland 'reduced to a package for export.') That means experience already experienced, to which writing is made subservient, and therefore incapable of criticising (the) language, hardly very exciting for young people with curiosity. But let Poetry The Basics call in a senior teacher: 'Free verse claims and thematizes a proximity to lived experience. It does this by trying to replicate, project, or represent perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and imaginitive processes. Lived experience and replicated process are unreachable goals, but nevertheless (sic) this ethos is what continues to draw writers and readers to free verse' (The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). The teacher who knows better sounds off a rather impatient warning to those foolish enough to still be drawn to the false 'goals'. Result: The distinction between metrical poetry and vanguardist experiment (from Dada to the late twentieth century) gets blurred, not because the best poetry reaches beyond those differences (creates forms that both track and oppose historical temporality, as when Bunting's work brings together traditional and free forms, into sharp dialogue), but for the sake of creating a kind of soup that can be consumed as weak contemporaneity. Practical examples include the slide from Pound and HD's short forms to Jorie Graham's slack and sleep-inducing 'under the kissing of the minues under the wanting to go on living.'

If poetry 'replicates' experience, then why bother with the experience of poetry? It's just cultural capital, to be managed and accumulated. Desire: 'an art that can not be made use of, least of all by the people who are “cultured”' (Tom Raworth, 'Notebook'). Yet, to understand how conservatism has come to dominate the public situation of poetry in the UK, something more is needed than Duncan's hypothesis of a 'vast and expensive machinery of cultural conservatism.' If Poetry: The Basics (which I single out because of the claims it makes), when it's time to bring us home into a recognisable scenario after the bumpy ride of twentieth-century American poetry, gives us James Fenton, Geoffrey Hill, and R.S. Thomas (presented as the Welsh W.C. Williams), then something is badly wrong, something really is missing. For a start, there's absolutely no sense of urgency, necessity. So where are we according to Poetry The Basics? If a sense of necessity is related to history; and if poetic language is related to history via its engagement with temporality (with the temporalising effect of rhythm); and if it makes a real present (the now of writing-reading); then we need to think about the relation between how people read and how a population is prone to propaganda: World War II, Malaya, Kenya, the Falklands War, the Gulf War, Kosovo, Iraq, the 'War on Terror', for a start.

All the poets of the 'British Poetry Revival' needed to dismantle the British Communicative Pact laid down in the 1940s, including its debt to the earlier one of 1688 (see MacSweeney's 'Ranter'). Simon Perril tracks Raworth's engagement with the politics of the language from World War II to the Falklands, the early loss of trust or faith in the word of the ones in power (the father, the institutions of the state): How Raworth's West Wind (1982) exposes reading as 'the forced assemblage of pattern', and that the context is the relation between 'the selective nature of individual perception' and 'a government's ability to mobilise collective support through the selective projection of a particular version of reality,' where 'consciousness [ . . . ] is partly the sound stage of the dominant ideology' (Removed for Further Study: The Poetry of Tom Raworth, The Gig, 2003). The production of war is still the most complete form of necessity; poetry is counter-necessity, not expression of dissent: 'Beware the hundred percent loyal' is the title of one of the few interesting poems in Klaonica: Poems for Bosnia (Bloodaxe, 1993). 'Sorry. / All we want to show you is that you cannot win' (Bill Griffiths, 'N.I.'). 'Sorry' is a key word of the British communicative pact: count how many times you can still hear it in a single day, including the 'I am afraid that . . . ' routine..

The expressive blueprint of the poem, which is the one that gives poetry permission to show its face in public, is a prolongation of the idea that consciousness is possession of identity. One of it habitual forms, as Peter Middleton has shown, is 'memoryism', i.e., where memory is the authenticating preserve of the individual in a propaganda environment (Middleton argues it's digital information that makes a reader's identity consciousness feel under threat; I tend to think it's the saturation of information, including digitalk, by propaganda). Thus consecutive identity feeds the illusion of being a significant subject – consequential – the man of substance in hyperspace - and of participating in the political: it speaks the language of state interpellation and draws a veil over the question Who is participating, in What? ('the poor are painted out / the rich, powerful, and famous have their say': Raworth).

Participating in English Literature, for sure: 'In England the daily island life was the daily life and it was solidly that daily life and they generally always simply relied on it. They relied on it so completely they did not describe it they just had it and told it. Just like that. And then they had poetry, because everything was shut in there with them and these things birds beasts woods flowers, roses, violets and fishes were all there.' (Gertrude Stein, 'What is English Literature'). It makes no difference - except for irony - if you substitute streets, buses, trains, whitsun weddings, drugs, sex, rock and roll.

Raworth: 'I can't hold a thought / longer than to see it disappear / (he thinks he sees thought) / by now the credits / should have started / already tradition / is supported / so it may be clipped in / as reality / in fictions sold to anyone' (Writing, 1982). If there is to be a poetic present, then it starts with the outside, the screen.

Poetry: The Basics is not an academic book, it's more a common-sense guide for the ordinary reader ('”Inspiration” is one of the great clichés associated with poetry'). It reads like a homely version of James Fenton's pieces in the Guardian Review: sliding from one subject to another, they're all in the display cabinet: the connoisseur's conversation. It's a collection of how to do it ideas which B & Qs poetry. The tools are all in the box, and that's the trouble: no need to know why whoever forged them did it, and under what conditions. Not that all of it is useless. On the contrary, there are clear expositions of the variation of measure in Elizabethan poetry, of Eliot's take on Jacobean, or of properties of metaphor and rhetoric. But what is so dull about it is that even the best parts are directed at an early twentieth-century consciousness of what poetry can do, not an early twenty-first one. Its basic attachment is to Symbolist poetics: 'The various resources of language in both its semantic (i.e. meaningful) and sensuous dimensions;' and to New Criticism: 'Sincerity through artifice'. Missing: The aesthetic and epistemological breaks made by Mallarmé, Pound, Olson, Cobbing, all of which refuse the sensuous/semantic split by pursuing in different ways the materiality of the word. 'Any piece of language / contains meaning // that's what / we're fighting against' (Raworth).

The Basics says 'to be “free” in verse is [ . . . ] to be distinct' but its diy toolbox makes nothing distinct. It bolts Nick Cave and fifteenth-century lyric together, examples of 'sincerity through artifice.' Time does not run through it, as it does through all of Barry MacSweeney's Odes, like this: 'Watch yr breath. / It will lie / to you then lie / down and stop. Blank / / is the colour / of his separation / from language and life.' ('Ode: Resolution') If you can't rise to this time, which is life energy and not capital (dead life energy), how can you grasp the other, historical one? MacSweeney's Chatterton 'arrives and breaks things up', will not resolve into an inheritance; through him runs the violence of a society with no time for poetry; and he is the one who 'breathes to vitalise / the language.' 'Rise // up and live! // It is really distinct'. This is zero time, shoot the clocks time. To read Odes is to receive a high-voltage current; no book in contemporary English poetry that time runs through more strongly.

Pound's ABC of Reading (still the best introduction to contemporary poetry?) insists on the need to know the 'landmarks', so as to know what's good without wasting time. 'A man who has climbed the Matterhorn may prefer Derbyshire to Switzerland, but he won't think the Peak is the hightest mountain in Europe.' Pound, unlike The Basics, also insists that you can't learn about poetry, the real range of its possibilities as a live art, by reading only what's written in English; if that's no longer true it's because of Raworth, Harwood and others, the poets that Basics leaves out. Pound also advises going to 'the oldest poem of a given kind' so that the student will have available 'a list of authors who are unsurpassed IN THEIR OWN DOMAIN, whereas the writers whom I omit are demonstrably INFERIOR to one or more of the writers I include, and their inferiority can be computed on some particular basis.' By contrast, a fair proportion of the examples given by The Basics seems to have been garnered from anthologies. Whatever the reason for this, it's a good demonstration of how selection and exclusion work as a badge of authority.

What makes the now is something else. 'Modernity isn't simply the common features of all poetry written in the past year, or ten years,' not a collection of fashions any more than it depends on references e.g. to 'a mobile phone or a recent make of car' (Andrew Duncan). The poetic present is more difficult than that. 'Modernity is polycentric, and any single gesture of ostentatious modernity will expose itself as shallow and mechanical.' That's a good precaution but not a starting-point. For Jeremy Prynne's 'Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words', the materiality and the historicity of language are given together, densely intertwined: the work starts there, in the syallables and in the relationships of sub-syllables or particles. Or in the expanded sense of language given by Eric Mottram's Towards Design in Poetry: where the body can make a language out of anything, poetic language brings with it the whole range cognitive processes and machines, together with their histories, with the work of Bob Cobbing a prime example.

Learning to read according to past modes can enhance a person's ability to make vital distinctions. Example: Bunting's lectures on Elizabethan poetry. But when that mode is turned into a model, out of touch with current practice, then the effect is similar to the one produced by Poetry: The Basics. Readers are put inside a bubble or dome called Poetry. The habit is sedimented in education and the media and the owners of that territory would rather not let go of it. Meter and Meaning (by Thomas Carper and Derek Attridge, Routledge 2003) subtitles itself 'an introduction to rhythm in poetry.' The method it offers for grasping and practicing the rhythms of 'metrical poetry' consists in distinguishing 'beats' and 'offbeats', indicated as B and O in the examples offered; the system of marks includes b and o, etc., so as to indicate lesser intensities. Here is its analysis of a famous Wordsworth passage:
        
Oh Bob! Your name knocks at the door! Not so easy to keep the present out, or you out of the present.

Metre and Meaning claims there is such a thing as an 'underlying metre' which is not affected for instance by Emily Dickenson's use of dashes or Shakespeare's use of speech dynamics. Yet where is this underlying metre? It must be the result of a stabilising institution, whose success in traducing those layers of the lauguage which prolong social conservatism can perhaps be gauged in the success of Carol Ann Duffy's Edwardian cadence clothed in 'contemporary' populist disguise. The prime hypothesis would be that the condition for the institution's operativity is what it leaves out, which includes Bunting on Elizabethan syncopation, Pound on breaking the iambic pentameter, Williams's variable foot, Olson on the syllable. All these were/are necessities. And where are the poets with an outstanding ear: Wyatt, Donne, Keats, Hopkins, Yeats, Bunting, Raworth, etc.?

The trouble with creating a transferable model called regular metrical poetry is the diminishment both of the now of reading and of the past. Regular rhythm gives exactly that completeness, like a memory preserved in a drawer, which the early poems of Raworth, Harwood, and others renounced for the sake of truth. The issue is rhythm, where poetry touches the outside, and not metre as mark of what's special about poetry. To widen the hypothesis: what was done to the poetry of the 70s and 80s was a sealing off of 'that which capitalism, or indeed any established society, hates to need – the vitality of original information' (Jeff Nuttall, Art and the Degradation of Awareness). This keeps the question alive.