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Friday, May 13, 2005

Robert Sheppard: A History of the Other, Part four

The 1970s (Continued): Poetry of Place/Poetry of Autonomy

Charles Olson provided a theory and practice that was influential upon a wide range of British Poetry Revival poets. His theories of projective verse emphasized a kinetics and improvisatory way of writing that appealed to Tom Raworth and others. Treating the page as a compositional open field has been widely practised. However, writers as different as JH Prynne, Allen Fisher and Iain Sinclair seemed drawn to Olson’s Maximus Poems for the way they articulate rich information and documentary sources concerning geography and history. The poem is focused upon Gloucester, Massachusetts, a site important in early North American settlement history, but which, by the 1940s, was a run-down fishing port. Olson took the pre-Socratic Heraclitus’ maxim, ‘Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar’ as axiomatic and named Whitehead's process philosophy as his guide.

Such work appealed to poets during the withdrawal from the oppositional politics of the 1960s, in that it could be used as a model for a re-articulation of Britain from less immediately political perspectives. The poetry of place, after the particularities of Roy Fisher’s City and Harwood’s ‘Cable St’, seemed to offer a local univeralism. Olson’s fellow Black Mountain poet, Edward Dorn, resident in England, advised young British poets in ‘Oxford’ in The North Atlantic Turbine, published by Fulcrum in 1967, to define themselves against geographical structures ‘naming themselves and the rocks’ as a way both larger and intimate than concerns with nationality, and this was taken up by JH Prynne in The White Stones, published by Cape Goliard in 1969, in various attempts to avoid humanistic and accepted socio-historical representations of Britain. In ‘The Glacial Question, Unsolved’, he uses a variety of cited geological and archeological sources to ask, to open, the question whether the Pleistocene Epoch is over. On such an enormous timescale, Prynne works through his persistent verbs of knowing and being, to hyphocize about the effect of the Epoch’s process upon ‘us’, how ‘we’ are its sentient residues:

We know where the north
is, the ice is an evening whiteness.
We know this, we are what it leaves:
the Pleistocene is our current sense, and
what in sentiment we are, we
are, the coast, a line or sequence, the
cut back down, to the shore.

Allen Fisher’s Place, a project undertaken between 1971 and 1979, was published in four volumes of approximately 100 pages each. (As I post, the re-publication of the entire project by Reality Street arrived this morning! I’ve recently written a piece of fiction in which I receive a copy through a space-time wormhole, but in reality I’d not seen it. I have now. It’s a substantial, proud, book. I will also review it separately, though the paragraphs following also may be also thought of as one. {See also Page 450: Robert Sheppard: New Memories: Allen Fisher’s Gravity as a Consequence of Shape and Page 449: Allen Fisher: Mezz Merround, both archived in February 2005}.) They are the Olsonesque and notational Place (1974), the more polemical and analytical Stane (1977), the lyrical Becoming (1978) and Unpolished Mirrors, a series of Blakean monologues, published in 1985. (They are all in the new book.) Early on in Place, Fisher identifies with, and dissociates himself from, Olson’s persona: ‘I, not Maximus, but a citizen of Lambeth’. Fisher’s commitment to procedure and system distinguishes his work from Olson’s theory of kinetic process, and draws him nearer to the chance procedures of Jackson MacLow, although the writing in Place often shares Olson’s notational urgency and his use of juxtaposition. The project’s central concern is Fisher’s own reading about, experience of, locality and history, particularly focusing upon London. Its considerable resources – it has been called a ‘content-specific’ work by Peter Barry – are not offered as evidence of a single argument, a thesis on place, but are parts of the work’s ‘shading’, Fisher’s term to describe correspondences and contradictions that can be traced between the intricately numbered sections of its open system. The work constitutes not a totality but an expansive presentation of various meanings and perspectives.

Fisher acknowledges the influence of Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life upon his thinking, and of the Situationists, who were influential both upon the underground movements of 1968 and, more lastingly, upon the European avant-garde. They suggested a politics or a re-location of politics, within everyday experience, one again suited to a post 1968 failure. The Situationists engaged in work ‘where the exploration of the city reveals the psycho-geography created by the physical and mental conditions of twentieth-century society’.

In ‘Place 48’, from Stane, Fisher goes further than the Situationists and presents interconnected instances of cosmic, ecological, biological and political forces to acknowledge the complexity of ‘everyday life’. It shares an impulse, in its borrowings from Olson and Whitehead, but not a language, with Crozier’s The Veil Poem. Fisher’s language is more akin to Bill Griffiths’, in that its linguistic re-orderings of experience work through juxtaposition and collage: ‘The fly on its food route’, for example, displays its ‘thrust & parry of energy’ while the self intervenes in the food chain, by small-scale gestures, suitably notated in an utterance as incomplete as the apprehension of this process.

I break the web silks
the fly escapes
lands on food in kitchen
its legs coated with

Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat (1975) is another book which charts a palimpsest London, one which Fisher goes so far as to acknowledge within his own project as part of its reading, in Stane, in a note entitled ‘To Iain Sinclair, on the publication of his book Lud Heat in 1975’. Fisher registers both Lud Heat’s similarities to, and differences from, Place, but points to an essential shared recognition that ‘there are subtle mechanisms at work subjugating our psyches, trying to keep ... our senses, awareness at a lower level than they need be’.

Lud Heat mixes open form poetry and tightly written prose that combines scholarly discourse with the style of the New Journalism (along with line drawings and Sinclair’s own photographs). Its initial premise is that Hawksmoor’s London churches emanate psychic energies which affect the population’s actions. (This thesis is used in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, for which he has been satirized in later books by Sinclair; the tedious evidence for this will be charted in my forthcoming monograph on Sinclair. See also page 256 (March) for my review of Sinclair’s latest.) Fisher is quick to sense the subjective element of this pattern-making: ‘Lud Heat assumed the kind of symbolic value particular architectural forms possess: what associations they are capable of evoking in individuals .... It is from these buildings that the energies of the area are – I was going to say ‘generated’’. Fisher baulks at the very term that Sinclair uses, and in which he believes, and this marks the difference between them. However sceptical Sinclair can sound – like Yeats with his strategic mysticism – one takes Sinclair’s work less than seriously if one rejects outright the structures and meanings of his pattern-making. As in Place, theory is grounded in the everyday; Sinclair charts his own life as a council grass cutter, working between the talismanic churches, in journals and poems. He also bears witness to the autopic films of Stan Brakage and the sculpture of his friend the poet (and later performance artist) Brian Catling as artists making similar patternings, and superimposing them upon his own concerns. Whereas Fisher uses theory and his reading to create a divergent, contradictory patterning of self and place, Sinclair is drawn to converging combinations of esoteric wisdom and mysticism, which makes his text more monologic than Fisher’s, and more certain of its allegiance to materials: ‘the scientific approach a bitter farce/unless it is shot through with high occulting’. The danger is that the totalizing fiction that develops will amount to a paranoiac sense of interconnectedness, something Sinclair recognizes. Although the conspiracy theory seems cosmological, Sinclair does share with Fisher an apprehension of the psychosomatic resonances of place. In Sinclair’s case, this is particular and oracular, as he presents hay-fever and sunstroke as solar viruses in prose which is as startling in its comparisons as the poetry is in its spare juxtapositions:

‘As the ego breaks I am host to another being, who pushes through and not with the pink tenderness of new skin – but with old flesh, hard as wood’.

This abandonment of the human perspective might seem open to charges of fascist mysticism, but this is refuted by noting not only that Sinclair often weaves his pattern-making into the fabric of everyday life but, like Fisher, he can recognize the darkest possible contemporary attachments to place beneath the social democratic surface:

here: Hackney South & Shoreditch where
Mr Robin May polled the National Front’s
best result 2,544 votes.119

As in Fisher , the ballot box is both dangerous and a diversion from real, complex energies.

The presence of Blake as a guiding spirit in both Fisher’s and Sinclair’s work is not just a fashionable hangover from the sixties’ children of Albion. Blake, another ‘citizen of Lambeth’, developed, in his similarly self-published ‘Prophetic Books’, a mythology to articulate his ambivalence towards an earlier radicalism, in a way not dissimilar to the 1970s withdrawal from social radicalism.

Prynne, Fisher and Sinclair were not alone in developing what has become known as a poetry of place. A whole issue of Joe Dimaggio magazine in 1975 was dedicated to the theme. The Polytechnic of Central London British Poetry Conference 1977 featured 21 poets constellated around the notions of ‘Inheritance Landscape Location’, the title of the accompanying essay by Eric Mottram, who clearly marshals theories of place as delineators of a special knowledge and perception, ‘both local and international’, operating in opposition to ‘official British culture’ which Mottram represents as having shrunk ‘in response to the pressures of British economic and political decline from the raving days of Empire and Influence’. Far from simply withdrawing from politics, after the collapse of the literary underground examined in earlier parts of this History, the poetry of place enabled poets to expand the notion of politics beyond both parliamentary and purely personal articulations of it.


JH Prynne’s work of the 1970s, published in eight books or pamphlets and collected in 1982 in Poems (and again in an expanded edition of 1999, and again in 2005), is a by-word for difficulty and enigma. Prynne had abandoned the Olsonian human universe for a writing that encouraged the invasion of the poetic text by non-poetic discourses – usually identifiable ones – and a textual compactness that is all the more complex for the survival of traditional lyric and rhetorical effects.

Peter Ackroyd – better known as a novelist, as I’ve mentioned, and as a biographer – published a provocative cultural history, Notes for a New Culture, in 1976. Ackroyd attempts to demonstrate that language has become the only content of literature. The resultant formal autonomy of the text, a kind of windowless monad, marks its final victory over the attempted annexations by aesthetics, the self and humanism. For Ackroyd, Prynne’s work is important both for having admitted non-poetic discourses and for having expunged the poetic voice, leaving only ‘written surface’.

Prynne uses technical discourses and changes their function by inserting them into a poem, and, as Ackroyd points out, the utterances seem coldly anonymous, rather than double. The readers are ‘not asked to participate in the lucidity and harmony of the poetry, we can only recognize its exterior signs’.

Ackroyd senses a tension between the poem as an historically determined entity and its invasion by language in its rich varieties; so that pastoral and chemistry assist the text’s linguistic complexity, amounting not to a thematic resolution but to the affirmation of its very autonomy, its ultimate non-utility.

This absolutist argument is supported by a precocious use of post-structuralist theory – applications of the work of Lacan and Derrida, for example – which is peculiarly out of step with its later uses in Britain as an element of a radical critique. Neither does autonomy operate as a critique as it does in the thinking of Adorno. He claims Prynne’s poetry in the name of an essentially conservative formulation of autonomy which sees this difficult work as a deliberate and necessary withdrawal from the ‘dispirited nation’ to which Ackroyd refers, and from the ‘call for personal “liberation” which became fashionable in the sixties’ as well as the ‘humanistic kitsch’ of its popular poetry. History and politics are thus denied a role, reduced simply to serving autonomy as pure discourses on a poem’s surface: an aestheticism without aesthetics.

Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice has been vital to the theoretical argument of this study; her notion of suspended naturalization, her concept of artifice, and the relation between the two, have been crucial to my thinking (in this history and elsewhere; see Page 463). However, it also possible to historicize this attempt to develop an ambitious theory of twentieth century poetry, one which would account for the poetic devices which create the autonomy that Ackroyd values. Like Ackroyd, she had absorbed French theory, yet so thoroughly that it does not surface in her text, for which the guiding spirit is William Empson. Published in 1978, her theory in Poetic Artifice was arguably influenced by, and had some influence upon, the Cambridge poets; her work is published alongside theirs in A Various Art. Her theory elevates artifice over poetry’s referential function but offers a model of reading that presents naturalization – the reading of a text as a statement about the external world – as a process that is best suspended to encourage concentration upon the poem’s artifice, which she itemizes as levels of conventional, phonological/visual, syntactic and semantic devices. Most readers of poetry ignore this exacting route, preferring to move rapidly from text to paraphrase. She is scathing of ‘the general dreariness of English verse’ in the Movement mode, which works in complicity with bad naturalization, which does not dwell upon the levels of artifice. Prynne’s work may not be read via this short cut. Its ‘tendentious obscurity’ makes this necessarily impossible; for Forrest-Thomson, Prynne’s work represents the supreme exemplar of the theory: it recaptures ‘the levels of Artifice, of restoring language to its primary beauty as craft by refusing to allow its social comprehension’.

Forrest-Thomson rejects the absolutism of Ackroyd. ‘It is only through artifice that poetry can challenge our ordinary linguistic orderings of the world, make us question the way in which we make sense of things, and induce us to consider its alternative linguistic orders as a new way of seeing the world.’ Naturalization may be suspended to enable this challenge, but eventually the poem must have sense made of it by an active reader. Good naturalization is a reading that accounts for poetic devices, that wades through the thickness of artifice until it is absorbed before extracting itself and daring to say what a poem simply ‘means’. It was a theory influential in the 1970s, but arguably of greater influence since. (See Alison Mark’s Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry for an account of her theory, her own poetry and translations and its subsequent influence.)

Page 465

Next month we reach the 1980s.

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