Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Robert Sheppard: Proposals by Allen Fisher

Fisher’s Proposals:

Proposals (2010) was one of the first projects embarked upon after Fisher finished Gravity as a Consequence of Space and thus is inevitably positioned as a new start. In 2009 Proposals 16-25: 10 Pages from a Sequence of Emblems appeared as a pamphlet from Oystercatcher, a preliminary showing whose subtitle points us towards the visual complexity of the final volume, by openly asserting a connection to the emblem tradition. While the poetics seems to have become refined rather than having changed focus (the ‘Confidence in Lack’ essay of 2007 will be read in connection with Proposals), the formal complexity of the work is maintained by the presence of not just the series of thirty five 17 line poems, but by the accompanying (or, as we shall see, interfering) presence of further text plus images, forming a tripartite art work of ‘poem-image-commentary’, as the subtitle puts it. However, I am going to offer a reading of one poem in isolation before considering this complex.
The first poem opens with a first person subject position that it is consonant with the figure of Allen Fisher, who took up post as head of contemporary arts at the Crewe branch of Manchester Metropolitan University in 2005.[4] At first, the new post, a new start, if we take the lines autobiographically, sounds as though it were less than congenial; ‘I’ appears four times in 17 lines.

            When I first came to Crewe
            I saw the death of my mind
            and started work again
            to bring it back to life (Fisher 2010: 4)

‘I’ is witness to this mental demise. The inability to think the aesthetic creatively or the analytical constructively seems to have been quite precisely a pre-vision or a presentiment produced by ‘first coming’ to Crewe, on first arrival. The word ‘saw’ offers a sinister image of a threatening situation, of seeing the death of mind. To the extent that these bold lines recognise the demand for action they are positive: ‘I … started work again/ to bring [my mind] back to life.’ Work (and this poem addresses employment obliquely) is required to reanimate the mind. The lineation and phrasing run parallel to emphasise the opening point as axiomatic.  
Crewe, a famous railway junction, is a place to change trains or to rush through, though the narrator ‘comes’ there (the poem points to ‘platform 5’). Re-commencement of work can begin immediately and in situ, though the poem seems specifically non-specific about how to ‘bring’ the mind ‘back to life’:

            through nourishment unknown
to me until then
The nurturing of mind is to be effected by means or agents hitherto unknown, but

            vegetables and fruit already

that is, through a diet whose elements, since they are common generically identified vegetarian ingredients, were known previously (though perhaps innocently of their revivifying properties). The poem suggests that good diet is the key to good mental health, though this is not an epistemological journey from not-knowing to knowing; on the contrary, the unknown is evoked from the known: 

with tactics
already tried and sometimes
previously tested

The answer was already there, the knowledge simply not acknowledged. The ‘tried and tested’, to bring out the cliché dispersed across two lines, still has not produced knowledge exactly, but a partially unknowing ‘nourishment’ of mind. But there is resolution (of sorts) at hand. Although the syntax is repetitive (‘until then’ ‘until/on the third day’), some word clusters in isolation sound like discontinuous phrases lifted from other syntactic constructions (suggesting collagic splicing) the moment of cure is articulated clearly enough, so long as we syntactically break at the end of line 14: 

            on the third day after 
            the railway declined
            I stood on the grime of
            platform 5 and revived

The railway ‘declining’ does not sound like a process that has happened in three days; it comes from the vocabulary of long, slow, historical progress, from a narrative of post-industrial decline, for example. The change in lexis suggests the kind of collage I call creative linkage, where the abrupt changes are so melded into the texture of the poem that is hard to disentangle them so that various kinds of simulated narratives can be conjured into being. The tone also suggests that this sweeping sentence over 17 lines (all of which I have quoted here) is drawing towards a conclusion. The internal rhyme of ‘5’ and ‘revived’, and ‘revived’’s faint echo of ‘declined’ (their shared ‘i’ sounds and ‘ed’ endings), which itself picks up the ‘l’ and ‘d’ sounds scattered among preceding words, helps to create that conclusive feel. The loco-specific detail (Crewe station platform 5) seems an odd location for a feeling of revived mind, but that is what on offer, with the affirmation of the state of belonging and the act of ‘coming’. ‘Coming’ and ‘going’, a little like ‘knowing’ and ‘unknowing’, are party to dynamic couplings in this poem. The ‘grime’ of the station adds a certain historical piquancy, a touch of pre-decline years or just the vocabulary from the age of steam (which, as we shall see, is really the age of fire). For all this, the operative word, is the verb ‘revived’, which of course is a synonym for ‘to bring it back to life’, but it is the semantic pivot of the poem since it is also part of the poem’s literal conclusion, its actual last lines, its textual closure, in another syntactic chain, the force of which my truncated quotation has muted. Thus we read a phrase beginning with ‘revived’ as much as we can read one ending in it: ‘I’

            my confidence in
            a lack I now recognised
            as necessary as demanding

This recognition happens not ‘then’, like the first attempts at nourishment, but ‘now’ (though perhaps it is only three days later), and involves ‘my confidence in/ a lack’, which implies an acceptance of what is ‘unknown/ to me’, almost a belief in negative capability, that state Keats recognised in which the (fully-alive) mind – Keats was comparing himself to the analytic machinery of Coleridge’s brain – ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. (Sp V: 14 better ref) But the further recognition on the part of the poem’s narrator is that ‘lack’ is necessary (a Fisher positive since the valorising of the term in Necessary Business); but it is also ‘demanding’, a word that suggests both its weak case meaning as being difficult but also in its strong case meaning as being that which issues a challenge, stimulates response. Only a mind fully alive to the world may respond to such a demand. The urgency of the discovery is emphasised by the rhetorical equivalence of ‘as … as’ of the final line, although the line can also be paraphrased more dependently: that confidence in lack is as necessary as the act of making demands. In ‘Proposal 1’, Fisher is precisely proposing (the dictionary tells us that to propose also means ‘to suggest or lay before one as something to be done: to purpose or intend: to move formally’) ‘confidence in/ a lack’ as a cure to ‘the death of my mind’.
There is an obvious contradiction in my reading. It offers (quite faithfully) two answers to the predicament of the death of mind: one is somatic (and requires a change in diet); the other is mental and offers a contrary ‘confidence in/ a lack’. (It would make no sense to say one could have a confidence in a lack of potassium in the same way that Keatsian negative capability is entertained. Lacking in confidence is cured by confidence in lack.) The two answers are, of course, separated temporally; the somatic solution is ‘then’; the mental solution is ‘now’. However, the disjointed form of the poem, or its creative linkage, formally celebrates a lack of cohesion in which one might have some confidence, as ever in the work of Allen Fisher which is so often appropriative and collagist in temper (and often much more wildly so than here). One function of the ‘Resources’ list in a Fisher volume is to acknowledge the provenance of quotations, but it also serves to destablise  the text which is often proved to be completely appropriated and collaged (or almost completely so, which makes the ‘original’ contributions oddly destabilising in return).
Along with contemporary philosophy (citations to Badiou, Foucault, Williams), in Proposals’ ‘Resources’ there appears Diane K. Drummond’s Crewe: Railway Town, Company and People. 1840-1914. Here perhaps is the source of the lexis of decline, analysed above. Since it is the only book on Crewe on the list, is it the source of the seemingly autobiographical ‘When I first came to Crewe’ or the situational ‘I stood on the grime of/ platform 5’? They are crucial first person statements for the textual cohesion of the poem, and it is conventional to treat them as autobiographical; indeed they are, formally speaking, but the ‘I’ might not be that of Allen Fisher who I so easily identified with this platform arrivant at Crewe.
‘Confidence in/ a lack’ in the poem’s formulation – particularised and emphasised by the enjambement – becomes (as is appropriate to poetics as a speculative discourse) the more general ‘confidence in lack’ that I have already identified with Keats’ negative capability. ‘Confidence in Lack’, Fisher’s poetics paper delivered at the Poetry and Public Language conference in Plymouth in 2007, is quite explicit about the relevance of the phrase to his practice: ‘confidence in lack’, the condition of all ‘good poetry’ so far as Fisher is concerned, is defined as ‘a confidence that poetry, when it is at its most efficacious, cannot propose logic … and cannot aspire to coherence’. (Fisher 2007: 77) [5]  Much of the essay provides examples from modern science, such as the theory of ‘decoherence’ with which quantum physics is able to negotiate its ‘absurd’ results (Fisher 2007: 83), or from philosophy, such as Plato’s banishment of the ‘inspired’ poets. Plato’s rejections of poets’ confidence in lack focuses on his disquiet at their inability to paraphrase their poetry (though Fisher does not use that term). As a ‘corrective’, Plato proposes logic, which, to come back to Fisher’s contentions, is what poetry cannot propose. ‘Poetry needs to make these proposals’, Fisher says, referring to the non-logical constructions of knowledge that the essay enumerates example by example, discipline by discipline. (Fisher 2007: 77) The use of the very word ‘proposal’ links the poetics to the poems Proposals, and it is noticeable that the ‘resources’ of the poems and the ‘works cited’ of the poetics are remarkably consonant, suggesting that similar bodies of knowledge are ultilised quite differently (but with crossovers and cross-references) in poetry and poetics. Fisher’s remark suggests that poetry should also propose these ‘lacking’ models, though by definition it could not use logic and coherence as its vehicle (as the poetics can, despite the occasional teasing game). ‘Confidence in lack’ comes to stand for both an attitude towards content (the proposals) and towards form, in the fractured discourse of creative linkage.     
Content and form, poetry and poetics, in their different ways, are resolved, but not closed down, by the lack of confidence in logic and coherence, and by their almost resistance to those forces. As Fisher himself puts it in the poetics: ‘The ideas of coherence and endings – or plot knowing – as substance for aesthetic choice are anathema to intelligent feeling and all engender a lack of confidence.’ (Fisher 2007: 81) But here the poem may be seen flirting with the readers’ propensity to logic and coherence, in the same way that – in a different context – Ron Silliman’s theory of the New Sentence utilises the ‘parsimony principle’, the fact that the readers’ minds make or take the shortest distance between otherwise discontinuous sentences. (no ref) You can present it as confidence in the productive energies of readers, in readerly participation in textual realisation, as Fisher does in ‘Necessary Business’, but more negatively, it is almost as though a writer’s negative capability is predicated on a reader’s confidence in textual plenitude, his or her will to coherence, his or her addiction to logic. [6] This is an ironic vote of no confidence in the reader that is at the same time an acknowledgement that Fisher has confidence in their lack to form the poem with recourse to the very energies that are ‘anathema’ to poesis. But the work formed is more complex than its text. 

The 2010 Proposals  is a beautifully designed book, published by Fisher’s own Spanner press as a full-colour A4 text printed on high quality paper (though it has no spine and is stapled), with some help from Glenn Storhaug, a fellow-Hereford publisher and proprietor of the enterprising Five Seasons Press. Like Griffiths with his less sophisticated printing methods, Fisher had control over the book’s appearance. Each open folio contains a poem on the left page, and an image (or two images, depending on interpretation) on the right. Beneath the image is a prose passage, the ‘commentary’. While ‘poem’ and ‘image’ are primary, ‘commentary’ is of necessity a secondary concept, though it isn’t clear whether these comment upon text, image, both, or the combination of the two arrayed above it. As such it is a modern emblem book. Perhaps the best known of the original works in English is Francis Quarles’ Emblems (1635), although the book itself borrows from a longer continental history.

Like Fisher’s work, in each section of the book, multiple texts accompany a single illustration: a Biblical quotation (‘Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness’, for example) would be followed by a lyrical or narrative poem exemplifying the moral import of the quotation, and these are reinforced by further quotation (in some European emblem books this is explicitly called the ‘commentary’, as in Fisher’s work) and usually drawn from one or several of the Christian Fathers, notably St Augustine (‘Sweetness in temporal matters is deceitful’, for example) and is rounded off with a four line epigram (often addressed to Cupid, in Quarles’ texts):

                        What, Cupid, are thy shafts already made?
And seeking honey to set up thy trade,
True emblem of thy sweets! thy bees do bring
Honey in their mouths, but in their tails a sting. [7]

The illustrations represent symbols that are presented in the text; in this example, it images forth the ‘emblem’ of the bees with their dual honey and sting (which underlines the interdependence of laughter and sorrow in the opening Biblical quotation). Here the images and texts exist in a mutually self-confirming, but not necessarily simple, relationship to goad the reader into a contemplation of these moral forces in his or her life. In this last aspect we can see a distant but potent connection to the earlier tradition in Fisher’s work by examining first commentary, then image (or emblem), that accompanies poem 1, examined above. The commentary runs:

The first fustian and velvet cutting shop was established in Crewe produced railway uniforms, 650 people, mostly women, with a need to change trains at a Grand Junction and in comfortable imitation of Crewe Hall. (5)

We can sense the elisions, an ‘and’ between ‘established in Crewe’ and ‘produced railway uniforms, or ‘employing’ perhaps between ‘produced railway uniforms’ and ‘650 people’, and so on, and it is difficult to absolutely resolve in terms of coherent reading, although it feels like a cut up or fold in, a damaged recitation of an account of the industries of Crewe that surrounded the station, the gendered divisions of patterns of employment, and the design and disposition of the original station.

Drummond’s Crewe: Railway Town, Company and People is the source, an external authority as in the emblem tradition, though the original passage is heavily de-formed, (and lightly edited). The chapter ‘Growth and Emerging Social Structure’ contains all the words above, in the same order, but distributed across two paragraphs, one describing female labor in Crewe, and the next outlining the importance of Crewe railway station as a transportation hub in the past, and its notable architecture;

Of the women who did work in Crewe, the vast majority, 38.2 per cent, were employed as milliners and dressmakers. Most probably, they worked in the town’s various clothing factories and fustian workshops. The first fustian and velvet cutting shop was established in Crewe in 1869, while a few years earlier a clothing factory, Compton’s, had been inaugurated with railway company aid, producing railway uniforms. By 1900, Crewe had two fustian mills and three clothing factories, employing a total of 650 people, mostly women. The most famous of all these was Ada Nield Chew, the ‘Crewe Factory Girl’, whose revelation of the ‘…lingering, dying wage…’ paid a Compton’s factory shocked Crewe in May 1894 (Chew, 1982, p. 76 and Crewe Chronicle, 5 May 1894).

Crewe was perhaps most famous for its railway station. Few travelled north on the British railway system without needing to change trains at the Grand Junction. Crewe’s Old English-style station, with its carved oak beams and figures, according to John Ruskin, in imitation of the nearby Jacobean Crewe Hall, was commented on by many contemporaries. (Drummond 1995: 28; lifted phrases underlined)

All 35 commentaries look as though they are collaged fragments from a source text; if they comment on the poems, they do so by inference.

Formal complexity is heightened by the images. ‘Elements of images from Proposals,’ a note tells us, first appeared in 1991, that is from the early years of Gravity, though the word ‘elements’ suggests that the images have been transformed since then. (Fisher 2010: 74) Most of the images are mirrored diptyches, with the left-hand image often containing a depiction of fire, the basic physical energy that built and powered early trains (and fuelled the Industrial Revolution more generally): furnaces, molten metals, lightning, various forest and bush fires, though we also find powders of oxide, a ‘blazing tracer bullet’ and (an effect not of fire but of heat), a shattering wine glass. (Fisher 2010: 49) A handwritten reference to Prometheus accompanies one. They are often collaged or treated photographs, perhaps images drawn from magazines. The right-hand images mirror these in non-programmatic ways, but is usually an abstraction of the left-hand image; for example, a flare at the top of an oil well is matched by a triangle with a rough circle at its apex. Occasionally this pattern is disrupted. Clearly the images form a sequence in their own right and indeed seem to refer more to the formal arrangements of each other than to the content or form of the poems (or commentaries). 

However, following my focus on the first poem and commentary of Proposals, I want to dwell upon the first paired image that accompanies it. The left-hand image, framed within the overall grey-green smudges of the right-hand side, shows the explosive climax of a firework display: plumes and fans of silver and red spray out into the air (and are reflected in what might be a river). But there are dark patches like shadows that evoke a sinister aspect: the black band at the bottom might be a crowd, their backs to us, but in the background (perhaps against a brown hillside, possibly a water colour wash over pictorial elements) is a silhouette that could be a machine: a square with a pipe or chimney rising from it. Perhaps two (or more) images have been overlaid. The right-hand image seems simplified. Against the grey wash stands the drawn (and water-coloured?) image of a bone, or antler, or tree-branch. It vaguely mirrors the shape of the firework burst, and is more oblique in left-right mirroring than many of the subsequent images, as though to tease us with its mismatch from the outset. Fisher’s first poem seeks to question the nature of work and well-being while the images present mirrored ‘emblems’ of the energy that the capitalist world of employment is dependent upon, and of which the ‘commentary’ supplies a fractured historical account. ‘Crewe’, as the subject of the first part of the the work, is formed thrice as: present account poem; historical and cultural commentary; and loosely allegorical emblem. It is the very looseness that animates a reader’s productive energies.

At the level of formal abstraction (rather than at this level of content, which oddly fits more perfectly than we would expect in a Fisher project) we can equate text-image-commentary in Proposals more satisfactorily. In fact, one could say that all three elements destabilise, rather than reinforce, one another. If ‘interruption is one of the fundamental devices’ – and they are formal devices – ‘of all structuring’, as Benjamin says, then these elements – verbal and visual – present the formal interruption that Fisher calls ‘imperfect fit’. Even in the first section, while motifs cohere around concepts of work and employment (contemporary and historical), formally prose, poetry and image pull apart, as the ‘commentary’ fails to ‘comment’, the images ‘fail’ to illustrate. As ever in Fisher’s work, the formal elements belong and do not belong. [8] Creative linkage conjoins and disjoins. Despite Fisher’s anathema towards logic and coherence, in the apprehension of the work as form these forces are engaged by the very resistances to logic and coherence by imperfect fit, by a multifarious confidence in lack. In apprehending Proposals, the viewer and reader are one and the same and the formal complexity that results from imperfect fit from reading and viewing requires the same energies – the positive capability – of a will towards coherence and logic that I evoked earlier, one that is simultaneously and formally undermined by the work. In order to read the text (and images) at all, we need to use the very capabilities that are undermined in, and by, the text itself, in disharmonious imperfect collusion with the images.

Barry, Peter. ‘Allen Fisher and “content-specific” poetry’, in Hampson, R. and Barry, Peter, eds. The New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. London: Fontana, 1970.

Drummond, Diane K. Crewe: Railway Town, Company and People: 1840-1914. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995.
Fisher, Allen. Unpolished Mirrors Serial H. London: Spanner, 1980.
Fisher, Allen. Necessary Business. London: Spanner, 1985.
Fisher, Allen. Gravity. Cambridge: Salt, 2004a.
Fisher, Allen. Entanglement. Toronto: The Gig, 2004b.  
Fisher, Allen. Place. Hastings: Reality Street, 2005.
Fisher, Allen. Leans. Cambridge: Salt, 2007.
Fisher, Allen. Proposals 16-25: 10 Pages from a Sequence of Emblems. Norfolk: Oystercatcher, 2009.
Fisher, Allen. Proposals. Hereford: Spanner, 2010.
Fisher, Allen. ‘Confidence in Lack’, in Lopez, Tony, and Caleshu, Anthony, Poetry and Public Language. Exeter: Shearsman, 2007: 77-86.
Forrest-Thomson, Veronica. Poetic Artifice. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978.
Quarles, Francis, Emblems (1635) at http://archive.org/stream/quarlesemblems00quar#page/n9/mode/2up (accessed 14 October 2013)

See all the links to my work in progress The Meaning of Form (of which this is a part) here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

You can read about my own recent poetry here and here, and follow the links to points of online purchase.

[1] My episode ‘Allen Fisher’s Apocalypse Then: Between Place and Gravity: Technique and Technology’ in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (Exeter: Shearsman 2011) outlines differences between the two projects in more detail. As Fisher says: ‘The compositional procedures used in PLACE were radically reappraised for the Gravity work, taking into account the critique of the classical and ideal models of preparation and existence. The overall plan, conceived as the loci of a point on a moving sphere, in PLACE, was replaced in Gravity with the looser diagram of a cylinder marked off in Fibonacci ratios and then crushed, thus leading to a new set, but of damaged proportions.’ http://allenfisher1.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/allen-fisher-traps-or-tools-damage.pdf (accessed 12 October 2012)
[2] The 750 pages of Gravity as a Consequence of Shape similarly appeared in fasicles, pamphlets and books but were collected in book-form and then in Gravity, 281 pages (2004), Entanglement, 287 pages (2004) and Leans, 183 pages (2007).
[3] Fisher makes reference here to Mukarovsky’s aesthetic function in this piece, about which I write in detail in Chapter 8, ‘Creative Linkage’ in my The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005): 198-9. The aesthetic function is an openly formal entity: ‘Because it lacks unequivocal “content”, its aesthetic function becomes transparent and acts with the other functions.’ (Fisher 1985: 236).This chapter also outlines the poetics of Gravity as a Consequence of Shape.  
[4] Previously he had been head of art at Roehampton University, and was made a Professor of Poetry and Art in 2002.
[6] Perhaps this depends on one’s understanding of ‘lack’. One dictionary definition hovers between options: ‘a thing absent or in short supply’. To return to somatic examples, a ‘lack of potassium’ in the body is most likely a deficiency rather than a complete absence. To have confidence in lack, confidence in a lack, or a lack of confidence is strangely indeterminate therefore.
[7] My quotations come from an online copy of a Victorian illustrated text: http://publicdomainreview.org/2011/08/02/quarles-emblems-1886/ (accessed 14 October 2013)
[8] [8] As the earlier essay of Traps puts it: ‘The correlation and meeting of the patterns of connectedness that constitutes consciousness and the patterns of connectedness that encourage beauty in the process
and object of art, come together, at best, as an imperfect fit, an essentially incomplete expression, potentially brought towards completion each moment the receiver, viewer or listener, encounters the work.’ See  http://allenfisher1.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/allen-fisher-traps-or-tools-damage.pdf (accessed 12 October 2012)