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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Robert Sheppard: Poetics 4: Some British Poetics

Herbert and Hollis’ Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2000) and Poets on Writing, edited by Denise Riley, (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1992), and some of the anthologies referred to in the previous three postings on this subject, can be used to provide a limited guide to British poetics of the avant-garde. I have formed from them a representative cluster of texts, though with a number of important exclusions that result form this decision: for example, the poetics work of Allen Fisher, that of the apparently tight-lipped Tom Raworth, and that of the senior experimentalist Christopher Middleton. Indeed, I compare Allen Fisher’s Necessary Business (1985) to Charles Bernstein’s ‘The Artifice of Absorption’ (1986) elsewhere to assess both the contents and forms of the poetics of the North American and British avant-gardes. These two formally hybrid works constitute exemplary poetics and demonstrate its faculty of keeping its arguments open by its very disposition in form. Middleton's poetics I speak of in my inaugural leccture. Doubtless my method throws up other exclusions, but the effort is worth the risks.

A link with the North American tradition is immediately apparent in D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Preface to New Poems’ (1920), which is quoted a great deal in American poetics, and was, in any case, the preface to the American edition of his poems; it compares the poetry of rigid finished thought, which he associated with metrical form, with the fluid poetry of the future, which Lawrence predicted would embody itself as a process in an organic free verse. (Cook 2004: 106-110) Mina Loy, though of British birth, thought of herself and of the subject of her essay ‘Modern Poetry’, as distinctly American by the time she wrote it (1925), despite her earlier close involvement with European futurism. Her review essay focuses upon rhythm as a metaphorical quality of attention and – less fashionably - as an imprint of the poet’s own nature (which is a constant of her various poetics). (Cook 2004: 131-34)

W.S. Graham – a Scottish poet who has a growing reputation as a precursor to recent innovative poetries – prefigures the imagery of his later poetry by figuring language as a beast (as well as material) in his ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ (1946). Though a made thing, the poem is not static, as it is taken on board by the reader, again suggesting one of the later themes of his verse, which developed into a poetics-medium of its own, like Wallace Stevens’. (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 117-121) Graham’s first mentor, Dylan Thomas, in his ‘Notes on the Art of Poetry’ (1951), actually an epistolary answer to questions from a student, covers a number of unrelated issues: from his early love of the sound of words to his decision as a craftsman to use any or every element of poetic artifice; from his denial of the non-rational method of the Surrealists to his refusal to define poetry (which, in poetics, is as common a theme as the attempt to define it). (Scully 1966: 195-204) Thomas’ fellow-Welshman, David Jones’ ‘The Preface to The Anathemata’ (1952) is an apologia for his great epic poem in terms of the author’s linguistic, cultural and religious inheritance, and his making of this into an artefact of signs. (Scully 1966: 205-236) Basil Bunting’s ‘The Poet’s Point of View’ (1966) is loquacious by Bunting’s standards of self-commentary, which he normally kept to the acerbic minimum. He affirms the primacy of sound over sense, beauty over meaning, or rather his notion that meaning is in the sound of the poem read (well) out loud. This is a good example of where poetics is both a guide to the work, but it is best read against it. (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 81-2) Pure sound, though, has been theorised well. Bob Cobbing’s ‘A Statement of Sound Poetry’ (1969) is one of his rare excursions into poetics, outlining the abandonment of lexical items in sound poetry (but reminding us that the uniqueness of his own work was that it was also visual). (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 426)

John James’ ‘A Theory of Poetry’ (1977) is an ironic poem that plays with the kinds of interpretations that entered Britain on the back of continental theory in the 1970s, as I show elsewhere. (Riley 1992: 249-252) Veronica Forrest-Thomson knew some of that theory well but abandoned it for the development of her own strategies of dealing with the processes of naturalisation and for a theory of reading that respected both meaningful and non-meaningful elements of poetic artifice in her book Poet Artifice. ‘From Poetic Artifice’ (1978) combines her theoretical introduction with a portion of the book where she uses her own poem as an exemplar of her poetics, which derives from her theory of artificial devicehood. (Riley 1992: 222-233; see another excerpt in Cook 2004: 456-463). By contrast, John Riley’s ‘What Are You Going to Call It?’ (1980) is an impressionistic narrative of creativity that resists critical thinking, or rather resists the embracing of those ideas by a true poet. He or she had better abandon bogus ideas in favour of immersion in the rhythms of the earth. Not surprisingly, the short piece deliberately turns into what appears to be a species of prose-poetry. (Riley 1992: 83-4) Michael Haslam’s ‘The Subject of Poems’ (1992) is an ‘outsider’ poetics that opens poetry to notions of truth and purity, and the transcendental ego which patterns itself into poems. (Riley 1992: 70-80) Peter Riley’s ‘The Creative Moment of the Poem’ (1992) is an attempt – at some length – to grasp that moment and to reflect upon it. (Riley 1992: 92-113)

Ken Edwards’ ‘Grasping the Plural’ (1984/1992) is a text deriving from an American language poet-style ‘talk’ on the use of ‘we’ in poetry and elsewhere. (Riley 1992: 21-9) John Hall’s ‘Writing and Not Writing’ (1992) is a variety of non-poetics, since it concerns the act of renouncing writing poetry altogether; I examine Edwards’ and Hall’s contributions elsewhere. (Riley 1992: 41-9)

Nigel Wheale’s ‘A Curve of Reading’ (1992) is an impressionistic account of the growth of the poet’s sensibility, peppered with quotations from poems, popular songs, and sound-bites of poetics. (Riley 1992: 124-134) Geoffrey Ward’s ‘Objects That Come Alive at Night’ (1992) similarly traces influences but sees poetry, via the poetics of both Shelley and Bernstein, as a utopian critique created by alternative images. (Riley 1992: 135-39) John Welch’s ‘Two Poems’ (1992) is a text in poetry and prose that meditates upon, mediates between, the signs that appear in writing and those that appear in dreams. (Riley 1992: 151-3) John Wilkinson’s ‘Imperfect Pitch’ (1992) combines poetry and prose in the classic format of Dante’s La Vita Nouva, alternating poetry with ‘commentary’, though here the prose is as elliptical as the poems. At one point it theorises lyric poetry (the poetry between its prose, it implies) at once as a strict binding of representation to poetic presentation, as an excessive projection of a doomed pretentiousness, and as abundant exploding of space and a freeing of itself from nature. (Riley 1992: 154-172)

Kelvin Corcoran’s ‘Sometimes a Word will Start it’ (1992) demonstrates these titular words about poetic genesis that Corcoran has borrowed from John Ashbery; a prose passage dwells on three ‘favourite’ letters and then seems to segue into a resulting poem about his father. (Riley 1992: 173-77) Ralph Hawkins’ ‘A Period of Gestation’ (1992) opens up his poet’s notebook to the way randomly interesting quotations trigger poems. (Riley 1992: 253-259) Roy Fisher’s ‘Poet on Writing’ (1992), also sees the notebook experience as primary to the development of poetic ideas. Indeed, it argues that the multitude of notebooks he keeps sometimes seems to be his major occupation. (Riley 1992: 272-75) Carlyle Reedy’s ‘Working Processes of a Woman Poet’ (1992) also spells out a number of writerly methods in a practical poetics. (Riley 1992: 260-271) Tom Lowenstein’s ‘About Filibustering in Samsāra’ (1992), on the other hand, is a direct statement on his poem (printed alongside it in the anthology Poets on Writing) and its ethnographic sources and borrowings from native Inuit poetics (Riley 1992: 207-8). Douglas Oliver’s ‘Three Lilies’ (1982/1992) is an offshoot of his study Poetry and Narrative in Performance (1989), about prosody in action. Prosody is the life beat of poetry, and his account of it is combined with a personal consideration of the thematics of his work, including the implications of real-life emotions becoming transfigured in poetry.

Edwin Morgan, on the verge of his eightieth year, reflects on his long career in ‘Roof of Fireflies’ (1999). He considers the poems he did not write (another species of non-poetics), but also justifies his own extraordinary stylistic range as a kind of poetic diversity modelled on the necessity of its ecological cousin, bio-diversity. (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 190-194) Elaine Feinstein’s ‘A Question of Voice’ (2000) also looks back on a long career, and on her turn towards the tradition of American poetry described above. (Indeed as a student her enquiry had provoked Olson to write his statement of poetics ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 158-161)) Perhaps under the influence of her work on Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva, she confirms her position as a lyric poet, and poetry’s function in making us feel alive. (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 188-9) As against this earnestness one may pitch Scottish poet Robert Crawford’s ‘Cosmopolibackofbeyondism’ (2000), which argues for a regional internationalism, a parodic manifesto in typical postmodernist style, (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 262-4) as is John Hartley Williams’ ‘A Manifesto’ (2000) which argues for ‘extilism’, a neologism compounded of the words, ‘Exile, extricate, extrapolate, inexplicable and ectoplasm’, whose tenets amount to a poetry of denial and a vanishing of the poet! (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 287-8)


Even allowing for the relative sizes of the countries involved, poetics as a conscious practice flourishes (often under that name) in the USA and Canada, while it only appears intermittently, and with some resistance, in Britain and (on the evidence I have gathered) hardly at all in Irish avant garde poetry (although the poetics of a poet of trenchantly Irish ancestry, Maggie O’Sullivan, are fulsome and worthy of comment elsewhere). One exception is Randolph Healy’s ‘Uncertain Questions’, collected in 99 Poets/ 1999: An International Poetics Symposium, an issue of the journal Boundary 2, which confessedly caricatures the stultifying nationalistic consciousness that Irish people – and poets – felt obliged to indwell, but shows its gradual undermining by the progressive epistemologies of the twentieth century, particularly in science and mathematics, to provide new models of the world, capable of countering the simplicities of identity politics and poetics. This very essay perhaps suggests the difficult conditions that Irish alternative poetries have in articulating themselves. Of course, one of the influences on the avant-garde writers of the British Isles is precisely the poetics of this American verse, so the inheritances are not clear-cut in national terms (and, on occasions, run the other way, a precedent set by D.H. Lawrence in 1920).


Herbert and Hollis’ Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry is a book of two halves, presenting a wide selection of avant-garde poetics of the first half of the twentieth century in its own first half. It is less useful for the poetics of recent work. This is also true of its coverage of British and Irish poetics, my account of which makes use of this anthology and the essential Poets on Writing, edited by Denise Riley. The pages on British and Irish poetics also call on Scully and Rothenberg and Joris and 99 Poets/ 1999: An International Poetics Symposium.

The recent anthology, edited by Rupert Loydell, Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh (Salt, 2009), may also widen the potential list of anthologised poetics. The use of anthologies, as in my other accounts of poetics, necessarily omits certain texts, but it heightens a cumulative sense of poetics as a discourse of contrasts.

A Note on these poetics posts.

These lists – partly because they are lists – have been excluded from the study of poetics I have bveen working on. Reference to the use of poetics in creative writing may be seen in my piece The Necessity of Poetics which can be read in one version on Pores: www.bbk.ac.uk/pores. It is this sense of poetics that is explored by the Edge Hill Poetry and Poetics Research Group and what will are celebrating this autumn. Four of our members or ex-members are included in Troubles Swapped for Something Else - and we shall be celebrating this fact.




This post was part of an abandoned book on poetics (or rather, a re-distributed book; parts of it became When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, and others await their day, such as this one.). Here are others:

Part One: Poetics and Proto-Poetics
Part Two: Through and after Modernism
Part Three: North American Poetics