Follow by Email

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Poetic Form as Forms of Meaning: Base Material and the Signet of Form in John Seed’s Pictures from Mayhew

(This paper was delivered at the Poetic and the Unpoetic conference in Amsterdam a few years ago, but has been worked up since. The first four paragraphs represent a fair paraphrase of the argument of my on-going work on poetic form.)

The borders between the poetic and the non-poetic are permeable, particularly across time. Perhaps what is regarded as the non-poetic is in some sense the not-yet-poetic (or the no-longer poetic in the case of outmoded or rejected poetic devices). A poet like Jeff Hilson regards the importation of deliberately bad writing into the saintly portal of the sonnet as the deliberate assimilation of the non-poetic, but all poetry necessarily feeds off of the non-poetic for its life. The passage from matter to form, which Schiller regarded as one of the fundamentals of an aesthetic education, drags novel matter into the life of forms. I am going to initially identify the poetic with medium, with artifice and form, and the non-poetic or extra-poetic with message, quotation, semantic content, in the full knowledge that this distinction is not one I will ultimately acknowledge, and isn’t so in this critical work into formally investigative poetry. Poetry, under this sign, is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. However, holding form and content, the poetic and the non- or extra- poetic, apart will ultimately demonstrate how these terms elide. Susan J. Wolfson says that in any case some readers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’ (Rawes 2007: 214), and Derek Attridge says that ‘Meaning is … something already taken up within form; forms are made out of meanings quite as much as they are made out of sound and shapes.’ (Attridge 2004: 114)
Form as a set of identifiable poetic devices – enjambment say, or any other specific feature of artifice – causes or at least incites aesthetic encounter, to use Peter de Bolla’s term. Form thus becomes conceived as force, something that happens, and happens to readers and listeners, a dynamic energy even (as aesthetics since Schiller has consistently contended). Rather than conceiving of form as static or as a parcel of devices, Attridge theorises it as a singularity. ‘Form,’ he argues in The Singularity of Literature, ‘needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form” of “forming”, or even “loosing form”’ (Attridge 2004: 113). I favour (as shorthand) his middle term forming while contrasting and combining that with ‘form’ as poetic device or, as I prefer to say, forms. Any discussion of events of readerly forming must be contingent upon identifiable elements of poetic artifice, or forms.
I bring to my readings the work of the recent critics of form mentioned above but cannot avoid procrustean summaries of their rich thinking on this brief skirmish across the borders between poetry and the non-poetic in the knowledge that readers for form, as Wolfson says, are aware ‘that the forms of our attention will persist in ceaseless, lively transformations’. (Wolfson and Brown 2006: 23-4) I will have to put to one side the implication here that encounter will be multi-systemic, different for each person, each encounter a singularity. To bring some rest to this sense of animate, even cognitive, form, one must fix one’s position for the duration.
If apprehension of form is not, or not only, a matter of collecting the devices of poetic artifice, of forms, but a question of entering into the process by which the text finds form in our reading, as forming, there can be, strictly, no paraphrase; indeed, paraphrase, a mode by which meaning is supposedly skimmed off the surface of reading as a residue or even an essence, is to escape from the realm of poetry into the non- or extra- poetic, but is a violation of the processes so far outlined. As Attridge attests, even if we preserve a minute trace of the form of a poem – some sense of its devicehood – we are still remembering the poem as a poetic form. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.
These contentions and conjectures are put to the test by found texts and other framing or quoting devices which take their content (whole or in part) from other sources, but which involve considerable artifice. As Bob Cobbing reminds us somewhere: ‘All found poems are treated poems.’ Content (at least in the sense of material) is clearly identifiable and the artifice (both as forms and forming) can be apprehended in particular isolation. It would be easier to quote than to paraphrase. The adventure of the interinanimation and resistances of the poetic and the non-poetic is specifically played out at the level of form; forms of meaning and the meanings made by form are equally revealed.
John Seed is a British poet born in 1950 whose work holds to the American aesthetic of Objectivism, derived largely from the thinking of Louis Zukofsky, who (influenced himself by the dynamic example of William Carlos Williams) posited a robust post-Imagist poetics in the 1930s, believing that ‘poems are only acts upon particulars’ that ‘become particulars themselves’ through rigorous poesis. (Zukofsky 1981: 18) ‘The more precise the writing the purer the poetry’, he asserted, holding textual condensation and free verse derived from Imagism as near axiomatic. (Zukofsky 1981: 15) Objectivism ‘is thinking “with” things rather than “about” things,’ as Tim Woods rephrases Zukofsky. (Woods 2002: 22) ‘Particulars’ also suggests the focus of left-wing politics in contrast to the authoritarianism of Pound’s ‘overlooking’ of historical particulars, such as ‘the hell of Belsen’. (Zukofsky 1981: 166) Sincerity is only possible if matched by technique, by attention to acts of form. Through the example and presence of the British objectivist Basil Bunting in the North East of England (where Seed grew up) British poets from Tom Pickard to Richard Caddell (Seed’s publisher and a Director of the Basil Bunting Centre at Durham University by the time of his death) joined Seed in an interest in this grouping, particularly as they re-emerged from silence, obscurity and neglect from the mid-1960s onwards. Seed avoids the notational absorption in perception found in some British objectivists by maintaining a conceptually acute practice, partly through the influence of objectivist George Oppen, to whom he wrote a hailing poem from Manchester: ‘this city has its beggars too’, a bitter line which serves to flag up Seed’s interest in the urban and possibly his commitments to Marxism. (See his prose volume Marx: A Guide for the Perplexed.) (Seed 2005a: 43). Sometimes seen as allied to the Cambridge poets, via friendship with Andrew Crozier, a fine British poet who re-discovered the objectivist poet Carl Rakosi, this led to his inclusion in the ‘Cambridge’ anthology A Various Art in 1988, co-edited by Crozier. (He re-appears in Iain Sinclair’s compendious anthology London: City of Disappearances in 2006.) A peripheral member of the London poetry scene sometimes called linguistically innovative, he has lived in London since 1983 and has increasingly written of its history, particularly in his crowning poetic achievements, the lyric sequence ‘Divided into One’ (2004) in his New and Collected Poems (2005), and the two volumes: Pictures from Mayhew (2005) and That Barrikins – Pictures from Mayhew II (2007). If earlier work owes to Oppen then the ‘Mayhew Books’ owe to another objectivist, Charles Reznikoff, whose volumes Testimony (1965) and Holocaust (1975) use legal documents from American courts and from the trials of Nazis, respectively. Reznikoff was trained but never practised as a lawyer. Seed has been a social historian since the 1970s; he was allied to the ‘history from below’ movement of that decade that followed the rich example of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and recalls: ‘The duty of the socialist historian was to bring alive the experiences and the consciousness of working people in the past, to retrieve an alternative people’s history and an alternative cultural tradition.’ (Marx: 68) In a different tradition, Walter Benjamin remarked: ‘To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.’ (Arcades p. 476). This is a useful way to conceptualise the impulse behind the ‘Mayhew’ project, which is analogous (not identical) to the work of Reznikoff. In terms of the theme of this study, both writers are in essence framing selected parts of pre-existing non-poetic documents as found texts and making them poetry through formal manipulation, one set of particulars into another. In a different context Zukofsky spoke of ‘The base matter … which must receive the signet of the form’ (p. 18), which expresses the process precisely. 
            The non-poetic base matter of  Testimony are legal documents presenting evidence in a variety of cases that paint a picture of ‘The United States 1885-1890’ – the subtitle of the 1965 volume – as a violent, negligent and disputatious society. This material gave a new gloss to ‘objectivist’: ‘With respect to the subject matter in verse and the use of the term ‘objectivist’ and ‘objectivism’, let me again refer to the rules with respect to testimony in a court of law,’ Reznikoff explains. ‘Evidence to be admissible in a trial cannot state conclusions of fact: it must state the facts themselves.’ (Bernstein 1999: 215) The almost accidental effect of this for Reznikoff’s readers is that they – like a jury – must draw conclusions from particulars. For example in a poem describing the moments after a child’s birth, when ‘he’ (presumably the father) ‘took it out of the room,/ and she could hear the splashing of the water’, we are not told he is drowning it. When ‘he’ returns ‘and put the child into the fire’ we are not told why, and his attendant ‘smile’ is left to the readers’ interpretations. (Reznikoff 1965: 13)
The third subtitle of Testimony is ‘recitative’: ‘a style of song resembling speech’ (although ‘recitation’ is US English for a lesson, and should be heard there as connotation). It is a slightly inappropriate term for the stilted language of the court room, and the sanitised reported and direct speech of the court reports upon which the poems are based. ‘Out there – in the water,’ the father is quoted as saying, after removing the child in my example above. ‘O John, don’t,’ cries the mother as the corpse is thrown into the fire. (Reznikoff 1965: 13) The chief determinant of the poetic here is enjambment, but many of the lines in the work are phrasal, with the occasional dramatic lineation, borrowed from William Carlos Williams’ practice, as when a man ‘slipped/ and fell’ from a moving train (a shockingly frequent occurrence in the book). (Reznikoff 1965: 24)
Framing (selection) and recasting (lineating) are the chief modes of artifice, of formal manipulation, of Seed’s work too, but they operate differently to Reznikoff, according to differences in base material and in poetics. The Mayhew books use as material the voluminous journalistic works of Henry Mayhew, which he published in his own newspaper and collected in four volumes, London Labour and the London Poor, between 1851-1862. They are lively witness reports of the trials, tribulations, and occasional joys of the Victorian underclass, that body near-synonymous with the ‘unemployed reserve army of workers’ which Engels describes: ‘which keeps body and soul together by begging, stealing, street-sweeping, collecting manure, pushing hand-carts, driving donkeys, peddling’, and comments: ‘It is astonishing in what devices this “surplus population” takes refuge.’ (quoted in Seed 2010: 119) But whereas Marx and Engels fed off government reports and statistics to isolate the structural position of this group as vital to the operations of capital, Mayhew never theorised, but relied upon his own witness reports and the testimony of the poor themselves. Most remarkably he relied upon the skill of stenographers or shorthand experts to report – or rather, repeat – the spoken words, pronunciation and even the inflections of the interviewees. Although stenographers would have been used in compiling the formal court proceedings Reznikoff used, Seed’s poems outstrip Reznikoff in the representation of the demotic, and eschew testimonial factualism; his poems only report the speech of Mayhew’s interviewees (speaking in less formal surroundings than a court room). (This is not to deny that the interviewees are cognisant of speaking to ‘Sir’ and would not have spoken unguardedly, particularly about their ‘astonishing’ illegal activities.1) Seed also employs more violent and foregrounded enjambments and removes punctuation completely so that the representational aspect of the work is countered by the artifice, content clashing with form, the non-poetic uneasily accommodated within the poetic structure so that readers never forget that they are reading a poem. Seed himself speaks of loosening syntax, grammar, restoring an artifice of speech as counters of authenticity and re-construction ‘to bring alive the experiences’: ‘My work of reading/writing was partly about undoing Mayhew’s own work of rewriting and perhaps getting closer to his listening and recording’ (Seed 2007: 155) but he additionally ‘wanted the form to slow down the reader’ to defamiliarise the reading experience and foreground artifice or ‘play’ (Seed 2007: 155), by the use of word count, verse forms, and the inescapable ‘visible form on white paper’ (Seed 2007: 156). Where Reznikoff chops prose into line lengths, Seed revoices the material through formal investigation. They are after all ‘pictures’ (like Williams’ sequence from Breughel, to which Seed alludes in his title) not voices.
            Volume one of Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ carries 58, volume two, 59, sections, each roughly divided into category of speaker, by trade, occupation or subject matter. Reading the poems is cumulative, slightly hypnotic; they feel choral, polyphonic, rather than lyric, as we encounter the series of vendors of game, poultry or fish, flower-girls, ballad singers and other street entertainers, itinerant labourers, booksellers; sometimes they are simply the poor, genteel or otherwise, their voices isolated on the page, lamenting lost opportunity or the precarious situation of belonging to capital’s reserve labour pool. There is no typical poem (Seed avoided ‘slipping into a single method’ (Seed 2007: 156)) but in some the poetic is located in the poignancy of content, as when a former Roman Catholic regrets her non-attendance at church:
            seems like mocking going to chapel
            when you’re grumbling in your soul (Seed 2007: 33)

In the last poem of the second volume rigorous de-contextualisation operates to produce an effect of allegory when an unnamed visitor (‘a reduced gentleman/perhaps’) to the unidentified speaker is described as appearing only ‘after dusk//or else on bad dark days’. (Seed 2007: 153) (This echoes the night motif found in many of Seed’s poems.) Even this affective framing is the result of formal isolation and quotation but Seed’s greatest effects are when he achieves a formal tension between the poetic and non-poetic, where devices hold in suspension a readerly desire for authenticity or presence against an aesthetic and therefore pleasurable encounter with distanciating forms. The poems’ forms are calling us to form the voices themselves – this is forming – from fragmented written traces, as in the twin prefaces to the first volume, both of which position the reader as Mayhew himself. In one we are assured:

            if you was to go to
            the raffle tonight sir they’d say
            directly you come in who’s this
            here swell what’s he want they’d
            think you were a cad or
            spy come from the police but
            they’d treat you civilly some would
            fancy you was a fast kind
            of a gentleman come there for
            a lark but you need have
            no fear though the pink pots
            does fly about sometimes (Seed 2005b: 7)

The voice carries across the lines but syntactic closure collides with the isolated end-words (six to a line, an artifice that causes the collisions), and voice recognition falters as the eye reconnects with the form and links the poem together again; the hinging ‘some would’ hangs between two syntactic possibilities. We are forced by the form to remake this peopled moment as a visible voice, as it were, hanging halfway between something we think we can hear and something that is patterned upon the page artificially. The second preface is the response of a publican who indeed thinks ‘Who’s this here swell?’ of the Mayhew figure, and the beer pots do threaten to ‘fly’:

            I know who you are well enough

            take you for?               why
            for a bloody
            spy you

            here from the Secretary of
            State you know you do

            to see
            how many men I’ve got in the
            house & what kind they are by

God if you ain’t soon mizzled I’ll
crack your bloody skull open for you (Seed 2005b: 8)

Isoverbalism is dropped here in favour of spatial arrangement, composition by field. The voice hangs on the page hooked to the line breaks and between interrogative gaps. The euphoriant, barely contained, outrage is chopped like a live eel into flexing segments. Again voice is visible, but broken at its most emphatic moments (‘by/God’; ‘I’ll/ crack’) into lines running against the intuition of oral delivery, making its form with meanings, and meanings that present the threat of the content as something to be made in the difficulty of our aesthetic encounter. (We hardly need to know that ‘mizzle’ is slang: to disappear suddenly.) As Wolfson says we may respond to forms as kinds of meaning, and the form here is declaring the testimony artificial. In Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ project, quotation of the non-poetic de-formed and re-formed by selection and lineated arrangement into poetic structures, operates a knowing ventriloquial trick as we imagine we hear the voices of the (almost) forgotten of history, recovered by Seed from Mayhew’s commentary.2 Seed brings the voices alive only as form. But whenever we feel we apprehend the voice, hear it with our inner ear, the eye brings us back to the materiality of the page, the formal pull against the historical particulars. This is essentially the act of forming: the text is transformed into visible voice as we make it in our aesthetic encounter with its form. The resistance to our drive to authenticity matches the tension between the recuperative historian and the distanciating poet in Seed himself. The poetic – to remember the origins of the word as ‘making’ – pulls the non-poetic into its dynamic force-field.

 John Seed reading at the Poetry Buzz, London, 2005

Read new work by John Seed here

1. This sense of audience worked both ways. Chesney points out, after quoting a long and detailed account of rat fighting in his The Victorian Underworld, that Mayhew omits from his account the betting on the fights that must have occurred, out of respect, as it were, for the illegality of the act.

2. Seed makes use some of Mayhew’s commentary (which he places in distinguishing italics) but it provides the least effective lines and feels obtrusive to the poignant and formal isolation of the singular voices.

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. tr. Eiland, Howard, and McLaughlin, Kevin, ed. Tiedemann, Rolf. Cambridge, Mass, and London: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Bernstein, Charles. My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Chesney, Kellow. The Victorian Underworld. London: Temple Smith, 1970.
Cobbing, Bob.Where on earth did he make that comment about found and treated poetry?
De Bolla, Peter. Art Matters. Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Rawes, Alan, ed. Romanticism and Form. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Reznikoff, Charles. Testimony: The United States 1885-1890: Recitative. New York: New Directions/San Francisco Review, 1965.
Seed, John. New and Collected Poems. Exeter: Shearsman, 2005a.
Seed, John. Pictures from Mayhew. Exeter: Shearsman, 2005b.
Seed, John. That Barrikins – Pictures from Mayhew II. Exeter: Shearsman, 2007.
Seed, John. Marx: A Guide for the Perplexed. London and New York: Continuum, 2010.
Wolfson, Susan J., and Brown, Marshall, eds. Reading for Form. Seatle and London: University of Washington Press, 2006.
Woods, Tim Woods. The Poetics of the Limit. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1981.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Robert Sheppard and Thomas Ingmire: Afghanistan; the full book and the music

A previous post showed a work, the single page from  American calligrapher Thomas Ingmire's brilliant response/use of my poem 'Afghanistan' (see the image and the poem here). Here's the image again.

This is one page from a unique book created by Thomas. The whole book may be seen here, on Thomas' website, AND you can hear the beautiful sax solo played by Clifford Burke that accompanies it. Wait a while for it to load.

Thank you Thomas for these formal responses to my text and to Clifford's response to the whole. See Thomas Ingmire's website, Form and Expression here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Storm and Golden Sky: Skoulding Sutherland reading

Storm and Golden Sky

Up the stairs (at the back of the barroom) at the Caledonia pub, Catharine Street, in the Georgian Quarter, Liverpool, £4, 7 pm spot-on start!

 FRIDAY 25th April, Zoe Skoulding and Keston Sutherland

Keston Sutherland is the author of The Odes to TL61PStupefactionStress PositionHot White Andy and other books, and lots of essays, many of them about Marx and poetry. He lives in Brighton, where he runs the Sussex Poetry Festival, and where he founded Brighton Left Unity. He co-edits Barque press.

Zo├ź Skoulding is primarily a poet, though her work encompasses sound-based vocal performance, collaboration, translation, literary criticism, editing, and teaching creative writing. She lectures in the School of English at Bangor University, and has been Editor of the international quarterly Poetry Wales since 2008. Her recent collections of poems are The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren, 2013), Remains of a Future City (Seren, 2008), long-listed for Wales Book of the Year 2009. You Will Live in Your Own Cathedral is a multimedia soundscape, video and poetry performance with Alan Holmes that has been presented across Europe in several languages.

Born of a Liverpool taste for variety and drama, ‘Storm and Golden Sky’ offers literary high style from across the poetic landscape. Programmed by a collective of Liverpool-based poets, Michael Egan, Nathan Jones, Robert Sheppard and Eleanor Rees.


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Most Popular Posts (and the least)

 The five most popular posts of all on Pages are:


Robert Sheppard: Proposals by Allen Fisher
Robert Sheppard: Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat

Robert Sheppard: Charles Bernstein, Allen Fisher and the poetic thinking that results

Robert Sheppard The Trace of Poetry: Notes on Conceptual Writing and Form

Robert Sheppard: Bob Cobbing and Concrete Poetry

These may differ from those shown to the right of this posting because that list is of the most popular posts of the month only. I’m in danger, of course, of making them more popular, so here are five that are not looked at very much (or in one case at all):

Robert Sheppard at the Bluecoat 2008

Poetry Beyond Text

Van Valckenborch’s Cube


Twitterode 30

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Other Room Anthology Six

The Other Room is delighted to announce the publication of their sixth anthology, featuring all of the performers at The Other Room over the past year: Richard Barrett; derek beaulieu; Mike Chavez-Dawson; cris cheek; Patrick Coyle; Sarah Crewe; Lewis Freedman; Harry Gilonis; Elizabeth James; Tom Jenks; Laurence Lane; Jo Langton; Sandeep Parmar; Holly Pester; Frances Presley; Gavin Selerie; Robert Sheppard; Rachel Smith; Chris Stephenson; Carolyn Thompson; Rhys Trimble; Chrissy Williams; Nigel Wood. More at

James Davies
Tom Jenks
Scott Thurston


Friday, April 04, 2014

Robert Sheppard Sean Bonney (Part Two): The Trace of Rimbaud in Happiness

This posting follows the previous one (read it here)

Rimbaud is everywhere in the poems but as indirection. ‘The Letter on Poetics’ at the end explains how he politicises Rimbaud’s poetics. As he says in an interview (a good one, here): 
the “systematic derangement of the senses” has to mean the social senses, the world turned upside down. And then the very fragile, damaged nature of his later work seems to me to be linked to that, in that it’s coming out of the pain of that collective subjectivity returning to an isolated, personal one. (Bonney nd)
Bonney also describes his writing method, which contrasts collection with selection, improvisation with revision:
Pen to paper. I accumulate materials in my notebooks – like I’m sure most people do – notes from reading, little bursts of things and so forth. Eventually it’ll reach a critical mass, and I’ll sit at my desk, the notebooks open, and improvise off them straight onto the laptop. Usually a very fast process, followed by a careful period of revisions and so on. Probably more or less the same as what everyone does. (Bonney nd)
(It is interesting that Bonney assumes this is a common method of composition. It probably isn’t, though I recognise it as analogous to my own methods and know of other ‘linguistically innovative’ poets for whom this would be a familiar methodology.) The result is a particular kind of energised text, urgent but collagic, gestural but considered. Ian Davidson (writing of other, but contemporary, poems to Happiness by Bonney) offers an almost apologetic formalist reading of the poems and notes the force of the words in their iterations:

Words form constellations and seem to spin around each other, gathering together in clusters in order to sustain a number of diverse meanings. The emphasis on form and discussion of poetic processes and their applications tends to suggest that the poem is self-consciously “about” the writing process itself. Yet the poem is also “about” other things, things that can be hard to trace through the fractured patterns of the poem. (Davidson 2010: 37­)

While it is indeed a critical default mode to read a poem as being about itself, and while it is strictly true that every poem is a formal model for itself (particularly the more formally investigative or non-formulaic it is), in Happiness one of the ‘other things’ that the poems pattern intuitively are the poems of Rimbaud themselves, fragmented into quotations, variations, translated portions, and possibly picked out of the ‘notes from reading’ in Bonney’s notebooks for further work in improvisatory extension. One notable aspect of the poem (which could arouse the suspicion that ‘the poem is self-consciously “about” the writing process’) is the prevalence of linguistic particles. ‘We were nouns,’ announces one poem. (Bonney 2011: 39) ‘There we have a series of verbs,’ (Bonney 2011: 12) or: ‘an adverb/ think of adjectives as refugees’. (Bonney 2011: 26). When there are so many direct political statements of intent in the poems, indictments and incitements – ‘When you meet a Tory on the street, cut his throat’ is one of the most notable, a nail being recommended for the Foreign Secretary of the day’s skull is another – it seems odd to concentrate upon such abstracting lines. But time and again, the patterns between these contemporary references and the linguistic markers are emphasised (Bonney 2011: 37), ‘A pronoun cluster, incinerated by dogs’ in the same context of ‘The wide avenues of Baghdad’ makes the innocent word ‘cluster’ bristle with implication, and pronouns fragile and sentient, even human. (Bonney 2011: 25) Like the adjectives figured as refugees, they seem vulnerable, especially the favoured ‘we’ of Bonney’s ‘I is another’. While the urgency of dates throughout the text suggests the contemporary, we are alerted to an implied relationship between references to time and ones to language on two occasions at least, as in ‘newsflash. May 2010. what we liked were / vowel one- ’ (Bonney 2011: 24)  or ‘December 2010. a high metallic wire. content exceeds phrase’. (Bonney 2011: 30) (The near-future is evoked in ‘early 2012’ (Bonney 2011: 14)  but ‘the simple prison diagram - /18th October 1977’ (Bonney 2011: 29) alerts us to the mysterious deaths of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group in Stammheim prison on that date.) The presence of dates like of ‘March 18th 1871’ points to the historical dates of the Paris Commune and to Rimbaud’s important (dated) letters on poetics (to borrow Bonney’s title). ‘The alphabet was a system of blackmail,’ notes Bonney, seeing it as a coercive system of ordering and categorising (Bonney 2011: 13) but Rimbaud had long before declared that ‘A time of universal language will come! Only an academic – deader than a fossil – could compile a dictionary… Weaklings who begin to think about the first letter of the alphabet’ – Bonney’s ‘vowel one’ – would quickly go mad!’ (Rimbaud 2008: 117) Bonney similarly dismisses academic language about letter-sounds: ‘some crap about the immanence of vowels etc’ (‘etc’ often functions as an index of a thought Bonney cannot be bothered to bring to completed articulation). (Bonney 2011: 13) The desire for a new, direct revolutionary language is expressed by Bonney in the same metaphor: ‘So rent me a gap in the earth, a fissure in the alphabet,’ he writes, as though they were equivalent seismic ruptures of world and word. (Bonney 2011: 45)
Behind all this lies Rimbaud’s poem ‘Voyelles’, which is embedded, quoted or alluded to more extensively in Bonney’s poem than any other Rimbaud work. As such the poems are multiple but fragmentary translations of that poem into a contemporary mode.
In A Season in Hell which Bonney calls ‘it’s coming out of the pain of that collective subjectivity returning to an isolated, personal one’ (Bonney nd) Rimbaud refers to the poem, and says, ‘I invented colors for the vowels! … I made rules for the form and movement of every consonant, and I boasted of inventing, from rhythms from within me, a kind of poetry that all the senses, sooner or later, would recognize.’ (Rimbaud 2008: 232) Whether we are talking of personal synaesthesia or of Bonney’s ‘the social senses, the world turned upside down’ (Bonney nd), this poem is central to Rimbaud’s project. The poem begins:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu, voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances lententes,
A, noir corset velu des mouches ├ęclantantes
Qui bombillent autour des puanteurs cruelles,
Golfe d’ombre. (Rimbaud 2008: P.S. 19)

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue, vowels,
One day I’ll tell of your latent spawnings;
A: black velveteen corset of flies
blusters and clusters over the cruel stench,
The shadowy gulf.

(That’s my go at it. See note at the end.)

In Bonney’s version it is not ‘I’, but ‘they’ (28) or ‘We’ who ‘invented colours for the vowels’ (38) the endangered pronouns interchangeable it seems. ‘We were nouns,’ he writes, but adds ‘a black gulf where your speech is rusting politically’, (39) translating  the excremental ‘Golfe d’ombre’ (what else would a band of flies hover over but shit?) as a place of no language (or silent complicity and guilt), using a colour that is also a process (rust is like objective synaesthesia). Bonney mobilises the schema of Rimbaud’s poem for his own purposes. Sometimes he is direct and the vowels list troubling details of a perceived political reality: ‘(a) the fusion of transnational capital with reactionary political power/ (b) arbitrary militarisation’ etc. (Bonney 2011: 47) At other times they are about utterance: ‘(a) negates the interruption of the speaking I - / (u) a system of collective thought’ though even here the language of the oppressor (dole office jargon) is heard  judging the oppressed: ‘((i) unable / unwilling to find work’). The categorizing alphabet is tellingly disordered in this repetition.
One particularly enigmatic section contains lists of both vowels and colours, though Bonney does not associate them, having reformed them in collagic action with other elements. Pronouns are emphasised throughout this work; it opens: ‘mostly they have explained your world’. Combined with the casual ‘mostly’, this isolated line is sinister; ‘you’ has little power. The next (isolated) line ‘they invented colours for the vowels’, reforms Rimbaud’s ‘I’ (who will be an other anyway) into the same mysterious collective. The vowels, unlike Rimbaud’s, are not spread across one metrical line as if in some equivalence, but arranged as a non-alphabetical list, the items fragmentary, repetitive.

(u) glyphs & harm. understood simply as it
(e) simply / public spheres or stones
(o) chemicals and stones
(i) feasts of hunger, simply as in, stones
(a) stones  (Bonney 2011: 28)

Davidson could have been thinking of the use of ‘stones’ in four of these five lines, and of ‘simply’ three times, in this passage, when he comments: ‘The repetition in Bonney’s work, rather than providing stability, produces instability, as a reader tries to make connections that the poem wilfully refuses.’ (Davidson 2010: 33) ‘Give us stones, magnificent stones,’ another poem cries, where the context is more securely that of urban revolution, the stones the necessitous weapons of the crowd. (Bonney 2011: 49) The ‘public spheres’ and ‘hunger’ gesture towards a politics the lines cannot articulate; the vowels of this world are disordered. Bonney’s desire for a form that reflects his perceived political reality (perhaps a post-revolutionary moment after the 2010 protests and the dissipation of its energies, and like Rimbaud of the Season) seems realised here. Nonchalence and inconsequence battle with incoherence and fragmentation, though there is a Rimbaudian cry for paradise:

‘so anyway’, while we were picking berries
pretty as a kidnap / ‘our superiors’
o paradise. here is a small door.

‘Our superiors’ is a phrase that foregrounds the strangeness of the possessive pronoun. (Compare to ‘our baskets’; ‘we’ possess our own inferiority, a small door for ingress and egress). The colours, not associated with vowels, are arranged in almost reverse order to Rimbaud’s and renounce the imagistic precision of Bonney’s precursor, although the reference to ‘our arseholes’ (which may be equivalents to ‘our superiors’, signalled by parallel formation) is a quote from Rimbaud’s scatological ‘arsehole’ sonnet, and is the only complete sentence. (Rimbaud 2008: 150). The mainly abstract fragments are only conventionally associated with the colours.

(blue) ‘the ultimatum expands on’
(green) ‘we presume the decision not’
(red) ‘magnetic idiocies, mostly’
(white) ‘our arseholes are different’
(black) ‘isolation in its pure phase’

The items ‘ultimatum’ and ‘decision’ suggest the language of the administered world rather than Bonney’s ‘world turned upside down’, but his deregulation of the language (‘isolation in its pure phase’ maybe) offers images of the utopian (‘heaven’ against fragmented effacement (‘not there’):

anxiously their faces, were not there
it was a kind of heaven, scraps of sky

cold wind. passengers and crew  (Bonney 2011: 28)

Language, capitalism, revolution and Rimbaud are entwined in another fragmented poem:

as if commodities could speak > or fired
lived bullets & teargas, as crackling words
encircled the last of the liberated cities
or the fierce buzzing of the flies (Bonney 2011: 33)

Commodity culture might confess in language but words, the liberating vowels of Rimbaud, are transformed into the flies of ‘Voyelles’. Live ammunition becomes lived experience in the transformations (and translations) of Bonney’s sequence.

Note at the End: F. Scott Fitzgerald translated this poem too, that Trimulchio of West Egg; it’s in George Steiner’s Poem into Poem. He knew that ‘vowels’ should rhyme with ‘bowels’ to indicate that the ‘cruel stench’ was shit. He also effects a thoroughly innovative change to the final line; where most writers follow Rimbaud and see the return of an apocalyptic god figure – ‘O … OMEGA … the violet light of his eyes’ –  he has the extraordinary  ‘O equals/ X-ray of her eyes; it equals sex’. It was only when I looked at the French line that I think I saw what he was up to: ‘O l’Omega, rayon violet de Ses Yeux’. I think, as though he were transforming the poem as a contemporary experimental poet might, he saw the word SEX (all things being equal) in ‘O l’Omega, rayon violet de SEs YeuX’. Se(s Yeu)x. Sex. After all, it’s a poem about letters. You'll have to wait for my version of 'Petrarch 3' (a derivative derive after Peter Hughes and Tim Atkins) which is also a version of 'Voyelles', if you can imagine such a thing.

Works Cited

Bonney, Sean. Happiness: Poems After Rimabud. London: Ukant Publications, 2012.
Bonney, Sean. ‘Interview with…’
 (accessed 18 February 2014)
Cooke, Jennifer. ‘Sean’s Four Letter’d Words’. Damn the Caesars. Summer 2012: 27-8.
Davidson, Ian. Radical Spaces of Poetry. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Rimbaud, Arthur. tr. Schmidt, Paul. Complete Works. New York, London, etc: Harper Perennial, 2008.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Robert Sheppard Sean Bonney’s Letter on Poetics (from Happiness)

Sean Bonney could appear in two places in my current critical project on form (may still), under the translation chapter (The Petrarch Boys, Caroline Bergvall, Erin Moure, and Simon Perril so far), and under the one on politics as form. This last issue is addressed in my poetics-poetry prose piece, or ‘manyfesto’, ‘Bad Poems for Bad People’, which I wrote after the September 2011 conference in Edinburgh on politics and form (and after the riots of August 2011). It can be read here, as it appears on Intercapillary Space, and I ask readers to pause to consider it.


(It is the opening poem of the unpublished work Unfinish.) The piece I gave on Politics and Form I promised to post on Pages at the time, but haven’t yet. (Apologies at least to Nat Raha on that front). I will. I don’t think I will feature Sean’s work there (though I will reference it, I’m sure). It is the most openly impassioned political work since Barry MacSweeney’s state of the nation addresses at the height of the Thatcherite madness. That fact, it is worth stressing, is not automatically praise-worthy; they are both excellent writers because of the level of formal investigation encountered in the works. (See my own reference to Thatcher’s demise here.)

I want to turn to Happiness. This book had not yet appeared at the time of the Edinburgh conference, though Sean was speaking from it (and from his postgraduate work on the late Amiri Baraka, which I had the pleasure of reading later in a professional capacity). I asked a few difficult questions about form and Sean seemed to dodge them; I think he said he was really only interested in the improvisatory action of writing the pieces. Of course, my work is as much interested in acts of forming as form as a structure or frame or elements of poetic artifice, but perhaps I couldn’t communicate this – and was probably why I found myself writing my piece to Sean. (It addresses him in the earlier drafts, something I’ve revised from the still-revising – I should say ‘still forming’, shouldn’t I? – text.) Sean suspected the term ‘form’ meant ‘structure’.

The warning to my project, which wants to read Happiness: Poems After Rimabud as a book of translations, is printed on the stiff hard covers of this Ukant publication (that make it feel like a Ladybird book: a lovely incongruence). The warning is clear about these poems: ‘If you think they’re translations you’re an idiot.’ (Bonney 2012: cover) Two things. This sentence is then followed by Bonney’s version of the Cretan liar: ‘In the enemy language it is necessary to lie,’ which suggests both a political strategy (perhaps derived from his study of Baraka) and an approach to Rimbaud. Don’t tell them they are translations. Secondly, the condition of being ‘stupid’ or an ‘idiot’, in both Rimbaud and Bonney, is not unequivocally negative. If Rimbaud was an idiot then it is not idiocy to regard these as translations. By this point in the chapter I’m writing it will be clear that the transformative practices I call ‘translations’ are not just those of the jobbing word-for-word translator but feature attempts to transform alien materials into new contemporary poems. ‘Poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form,’ is the axiom I keep returning to.

Previously Bonney had transformed Baudelaire’s poems into English language visual poems. Why Rimbaud? Teenage Barry MacSweeney wrote of ‘The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother’: ‘A drunken hug is worth a revolution,’ and Rimbaud joins Chatterton as figures of the poete maudit reappearing throughout his work. (MacSweeney 1968: 35) (The possible influence of MacSweeney’s last book of poems, Horses in Boiling Blood (2004), a ‘collaboration’ with Apollinaire, on Happiness is a point worth churning over another day.) Bonney is clear who HIS Rimbaud isn’t. In his ‘Letter on Poetics’ with which the volume ends, he notes: ‘I’d been to a talk at Marx House and was amazed that people could still only talk through all the myths: Verlaine etc nasty-assed punk bitch etc gun running, colonialism, etc. Slightly less about that one.’ (Bonney 2012: 63) The final sardonic remark alerts us to Bonney’s politics and to his preferred focus, which is on the work itself, though this is not a simple formalist plea to turn away from biography to the an engaged reading of the texts, though it involves a sense of form, and says so:

As if there was nothing to say about what it was in Rimbaud’s work – or in avant-garde poetry in general – that could be read as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of any revolutionary moment. How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it. The form would be monstrous.’ (Bonney 2012: 63)

This passage stands well for the way that the poems themselves effortlessly slide from Rimbaud’s writings and his socio-political context to Bonney’s writings and contexts (as you might expect from a ‘Letter on Poetics’; I nearly treated ‘I asked myself’ to a scholarly elision but it seems a germane remark strictly in tune with poetics as a speculative, writerly discourse). However, I want to stay with Rimbaud’s work for a moment. The way to read Rimbaud, according to Bonney, is ‘as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of’ his particular ‘revolutionary moment’, the events of the Paris Commune (events that are glossed in Bonney’s opening section ‘Revolutionary Legends’). True, Rimbaud wasn’t in Paris; he was at home with his mother in Charleville in the Ardennes. (But he was only 15 so that is not too surprising; the myths that surround Rimbaud glorify his youth but also forget that he was a child.) But he is writing, poems and letters (the latter expressing his desire to get to Paris.) On May 15th 1871, he writes his famous Lettre du Voyant, a quite extraordinary poetics document for a boy of 15, and in the letter is the poem ‘Parisian War Cry’. It is explicit in its contempt for the government and the military and its statement of solidarity with the workers against the bourgeoisie:

Never, never now will we move back
From our barricades, our pile of stone;
Beneath their clubs our blond skulls crack
In a dawn that was meant for us alone. (Rimbaud : 63).

I will turn to the famous poetics soundbites extracted from the letter in a moment, but dwell first on what both poets have to say about form. Bonney’s ‘The form would be monstrous,’ (Bonney 2012: 63) accords with Rimbaud’s assertions about the ‘visionary’ who ‘attains the unknown’ and uncovers something monstrous and possibly self-destructive: ‘So what if he is destroyed in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of, unnameable; other horrible workers will come,’ and the use of the word ‘workers’ a page on from ‘Parisian War Cry’ is telling. (Rimbaud 2008: 116) The visionary writer discovers in himself, subjectively, monstrous form, ‘something new – ideas and forms’. (Rimbaud 117) ‘He is responsible for humanity, for animals even; he will have to make sure his visions can be smelled, fondled, listened to; if what he brings back from beyond has form, he gives it form; if it has none, he gives it none. A language must be found.’ (Rimbaud 2008: 117) This looks like the conjectural poetics that will facilitate A Season in Hell, where prose is felt to be the appropriate poetic form for a visionary confession (though it also reads as a renunciation of the strategies of the earlier letter). The visionary aspect of this, the monstrous sensual intoxication and dangerous encounter with otherness, is balanced against a civic sense that I have certainly never seen quoted before, or emphasised: ‘This eternal art will be functional, since poets are citizens,’ and the contemporary notion of Parisian citizens is that they await ‘a dawn that was meant for us.’ (Rimbaud 2008: 117)
            I think it’s a long way from spotting these references to the revolutionary moment presented by the Paris Commune, to Bonney’s assertion: ‘But, still, it is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work, and especially Une Saison en Enfer, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital.’ (Bonney 2012: 63) The ‘fully grasped’ and ‘understood the whole’ gesture towards an absolute understanding only open to a political reading, the objective supplementing the subjectivity of poetry. I am excluded from this virtual study group – and baulk at the badgering tone, until I recall that much of my work on poetics acknowledges the conjecturality, the manifestic overstatement and the sheer energising contentiousness of much poetics. It’s a damn slight better than telling us that Rimbaud was a proto-Surrealist, proto-Beat, proto-hippie, proto-postmodernist! Bonney, of course, is not, and need not be, forthcoming on why a reading of Marx has this effect, though he hints at it in tackling the two most often-cited poetics statements from the Letter. Rimbaud wrote (famously as the hideous adverb has it): ‘A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses’ Rimbaud 2008: 116), a page or so after announcing that ‘I is another.’ (Rimbaud 115) These are interpreted afresh by Bonney, within the context of Rimbaud’s particular revolutionary moment:

Rimbaud hammered out his poetic programme in May 1871, the week before the Paris Communards were slaughtered. He wanted to be there, he kept saying it. The ‘long systematic derangement of the senses’, the ‘I is an other’, he’s talking about the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity, yeh? That’s his claim for the poetic imagination, that’s his idea of what poetic labour is… The ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ is the social senses, ok, and the ‘I’ becomes an ‘other’ as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off. (Bonney 2012: 64)

There is certainly evidence for this in the letter (and the poem), as I’ve argued and shown above. Bonney is keen is develop the ‘lyric I’ as ‘an interrupter and … a collective’ in accordance with this politicised Marxist reading (Bonney 2012: 65). Whether it is right or wrong as a reading of Rimbaud is not the issue here; what matters is how this relates to Bonney’s poetics and to his choice of Rimbaud (and to ‘avant-garde poetry in general’, as he puts it). They are intimately related.
Bonney asked of the ‘revolutionary moment. How could what we were experiencing … be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it.’ (Bonney 2102: 63) Jennifer Cooke identifies what Bonney regards as his contemporary ‘revolutionary moment’, and comments on Bonney’s demand that protest and poetry as part of the ‘moment’ might escalate into lasting revolution:

This is a high demand. It would be a lot to ask from protest actions, indeed, which should be doing it and often seem to fail or run out of steam, to effervesce, bubble over, and then subside, like the quiet diffusion of energy after the surprise of the student dissent at Millbank, November 2010, or the confused, smoky hush that descended in the shocked wake of the London riots in August 2011. (Cooke 2012: 27)

Happiness was written before the 2011 riots that spread out from the volatile epicentre in Hackney with the police shooting of Mark Duggan, around London, and across England, and even to Liverpool, where delayed action had the air of a tribute riot, political energy replaced by muted but directionless violence. (That’s enacted in the italicised ‘sonnet’ in ‘Bad Poetry for Bad People’, by the way.) But the poems respond directly to the events of the November 2010 student protests against the scrapping of the student loan system which was met with police violence, mass kettling of demonstrators and the death of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson (who is mentioned in Happiness). Bonney’s poetics seem ready for that revolutionary moment ‘when it all kicks off’ (64). The poetry will almost inevitably be (like Rimbaud’s letter and poem) after the event. (This is a dilemma in Baraka’s poetry which I know Bonney has wrestled with.) But as Cooke notes of the prescience of another ‘Letter’ by Bonney also written before the riots: ‘Uncanny, this Sean Bonney, this urban poet-seer’, thus bestowing the Rimbaudian accolade on his best contemporary disciple. (Cooke 2012: 28).
The next post considers the poems themselves. Read it here. Also read a great interview with Bonney here.