To make a ‘personal’ poetics public, to share it with others, agonistically as position statement, or as a provocation for the benefit of other poets, is to widen poetics’ effects. It beomes an immediate social fact, and implies at least community of exchange or even of risk. I wish to compare two contemporaneous American and British attempts to write a formally innovative poetics. I evaluate each in terms of the poetry it suggests and the commonalities between them, and I draw conclusions about appropriate forms for the discourse of poetics.
Charles Bernstein’s text, Artifice of Absorption, arose out of the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver in 1985, organised by the Kootenay School of Writing, at which an early version was delivered. The text was published in 1986, as an edition of the magazine Paper Air, and collected in A Poetics, published by Harvard University Press in 1992. Even before this prestigious eventual destination for the piece, Charles Bernstein clearly had a community to which, and for which, his poetics would have a use, beyond himself: the immediate context of the New Poetics Colloquium to which he speaks the text, and from which he draws his text, even dialogically incorporating others’ responses to his original talk presentation; and the wider context of North American Language Poetry. The public ‘talk’ is a communal mode of North American poetics, common amongst the poetics documents of the Language Poets. Bob Perelman describes this wider context well, emphasising the ‘talks on poetics that took place frequently ... They were not only addressed to immediate participants: they were also recorded. However contingent or trivial some of the remarks were, those tapes were aimed toward entering and redefining literary history’. (Perelman: 14) Bernstein himself is central to this ‘aim’, and to North American Language Poetry groupings, as a major poet and as former editor of the influential L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics magazine. After two decades of consciously producing poetics outside the academy, he headed the Poetics Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which favours an ‘interdisciplinary approach to literary, cultural and textual studies’, thus providing a rare institutional centre for the discourse of poetics. (‘Poetics’ 1999: 1)
Allen Fisher’s Necessary Business is an essay on British poets J.H. Prynne, Eric Mottram and cris cheek, containing taped (private) interviews with the latter two. Interestingly, he follows Eric Mottram’s example in his employment of the taped interview to gather poetics, which Mottram undertook chiefly within the context of ‘Poetry Information’ evenings at the ICA and the Poetry Society during the 1970s, though the widespread use of this reactive, private-public form is telling. So is the (predictable) refusal of Fisher’s provocation to poetics by J.H. Prynne (who did, however, engage in private correspondence with Fisher). The North American talk is an explicit public form; the British tape interview has to be occasioned. Necessary Business was composed between 1980 and 1985, and published in the year of its completion, by Spanner, Fisher’s own press. In edited form it was republished by Tsunami Press in 20XX. Unlike Bernstein, Fisher has to virtually manufacture his community in his very text-making. He speaks from ‘entrenchment’ within ‘a considerably small room’ (Fisher 1985: 163) rather than to a community. This text was written towards the end of the post 1977 lull in alternative British poetries, particularly the aftermath of the activities at the Poetry Society.  Fisher is central both to what Mottram calls the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s and 1970s and to the Linguistically Innovative Poetries that followed the 1977 ‘entrenchment’. Indeed, this text could be regarded as the pivotal public poetics between the two and is clearly a dividing line between Fisher’s two long sequences Place (1971-1980) and Gravity as a consequence of shape (1982-2006). Place exemplified, formally speaking, a method of connecting and juxtaposing materials that almost became a privileged style of the British Poetry Revival: the field of patterned energies, with nodes, or notes, of facts disposed upon the page in a primarily spatial disposition (the resultant white space being often performed as silence), a mode loosely derived from the work of Charles Olson, and from a face-value reading of his poetics essay ‘Projective Verse’ (1950), as well as nodding towards the ideogrammic method of juxtaposition of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat (1975) and Lee Harwood’s The Long Black Veil (1970-2) – which both have the added heteroglossic dimension of prose discourses – Barry MacSweeney’s suppressed volume Black Torch (1977), or Eric Mottram’s Elegies (1981) are typical of this. The Olsonian proselytising of Mottram himself, a crucially important figure for Fisher in many ways, was an obvious candidate for the tri-partite speculations of Necessary Business.
Despite being the most considerable working out of a useable Linguistically Innovative poetics, there has not been much explicit reference to, or use of, Fisher’s Necessary Business. While Bernstein’s essay is often cited and referred to, Fisher has perhaps paid the price of self-publication. This is ironic since the small presses and self-publication, where the decisions of book-design follow poetic practice intimately, are two of the themes of the essay, and something which unites his three chosen writers. It is also a theme to which I return in relation to form.
Both texts are formally innovative. Bernstein has written a poem (although it has prose quotations and regular scholarly footnotes). One of Bernstein’s hallmarks is evident here: his breaking down of the divisions between poetics and poetry. Likewise, Fisher’s essay is not merely accompanied or appended by interviews; they ‘interrupt’ each other and the flow of the first half of the essay. There are other interruptions, such as pages printed in different colours and one page is printed upside down. (Fisher 1985: 183) Fisher’s poetics, like his creative work, is process-showing, deliberately foregrounding its poetics as formal activity; his concern with jumps and multi-voiced presentation, and various spacetimes, is encoded in the poetics.
The first, short, section of Bernstein’s Artifice of Absorption is entitled ‘Meaning and Artifice’. The persistent use of the word ‘artifice’ alerts us to its critique of Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth Century Poetry (1978). Before 1986 it is probable that Forrest-Thomson’s main readers were British. (It is odd that Allen Fisher, at this stage, seems not to have been one of them, but her initial influence was largely within the ‘Cambridge’ school.) Poetic Artifice – part theory, part poetics, as I suggest in Chapter 4 – explores the techniques and devices that make poetry a unique and autonomous discourse. The betrayal of poetry’s specificity she calls ‘Bad Naturalisation’, which she defines as an explanatory ‘attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organisation by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal world, by making the Artifice appear natural’ (Forrest-Thomson: p xi). This is the process with which many readers of poems seem content, to talk away the poetry and its formal facticity, even oddness, in prose paraphrase. What Forrest-Thomson demands is a method of delaying this (inevitable) process long enough for a poem’s formal features to be fully registered as an integral part of the poem’s total effect, not as a mere vehicle or supplement.
Good naturalisation dwells on the non-meaningful levels of poetic language, such as phonetic and prosodic patterning and spatial organisation, and tries to state their relationship to other levels of organisation rather than set them aside in an attempt to produce a statement about the world. (Forrest-Thomson: xi)
Bernstein baulks at the ‘formalism’ of her argument, revising it so that all levels of poetry may be regarded as meaningful, so that artifice becomes meaning, ‘even in the face of/ the difficulty of articulating just what this/ meaning is’ as he puts it. (Bernstein:18). As Alison Mark, in her pioneering study of Forrest-Thomson, Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry, points out: ‘Forrest-Thomson’s move, which Bernstein takes a stage further by refusing to designate any aspect of language as non-meaningful, seeks to shift the emphasis in reading – and indeed writing – poetry from the primacy of meaning, to refute the view of meaning as an extractable “essence” of the poem.’ (Mark 2001: 113) Bernstein can also agree with Forrest-Thomson, favourably quoting her quotation from Wittgenstein, one which can be used to support his revisions of her theory to demonstrate that all levels of artifice, all formal features, are meaningful in a revitalised way: ‘Do not forget that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language game of giving information’. (Forrest-Thomson: x; Bernstein: 14) This is precisely the critical stance of part two of this study, and Forrest-Thomson’s thought, and Bernstein’s revision of it, resound not just as a form of poetics but as a poetics of form.
If a poem is not used in the informational language game, then what is this Bernstein ‘poem’ doing? He seems to be almost repeating an explanatory exercise in Forrest-Thomson’s book where lineated prose posing as a poem is ironised purely by the addition of line breaks to demonstrate ‘that the differences between the prose and verse passage are the result of a change in conventional expectations, modes of attention, and interpretative strategies’. (Forrest-Thomson 1978: 22) Rather than summarise Bernstein’s ‘argument’ I wish to draw attention to the forms of his poetics, the way in which, in the course of an argument which asks us to attend to matters of artifice and its construction, the text’s own artifice – which is its meaning, in Bernstein’s terms – must be seen as crucial. Because it is a poem (the introduction to A Poetics warns us it is a ‘temptation to read the long essay-in-verse ... as prose’ (Bernstein: 3; my italics), one I shall resist for a while by reading it as poetic discourse). Artifice of Absorption is not free of the implications of the argument which it absorbs. In the course of an argument which relies heavily upon the notion of the construction of a poem and its reading being governed by varieties of absorption, the way the text absorbs the creative and critical texts of others must be problematic, as Forrest-Thomson’s exercise suggests. Even a single line-break changes a prose quotation’s meaning in a reader’s experience. The conventions of reading a poem are not identical to those of essay reading. How do we read the following assertion in the poem, whose obviousness is undercut by the enactment of the irony of its presentation as a poem by the fundamental use of the line break?
The obvious problem is that the poem said in any
other way is not the poem. (Bernstein: 16)
We have to ‘say’ this line with its line break functioning in our reading, otherwise we commit the heresy of paraphrase, and it has the affrontery to both warn us and demonstrate the fact. With the line break in any other place, this is ‘not the poem’. If this sentence is not being used in the language game of giving information, or is only partly, or parodically, doing that, in what other language game is it being used? The answer lies partly in Bernstein’s description of the piece as a ‘pataphysical extravaganza/ of accumulating works & fields’. (Bernstein: 20) Because it enacts, even undermines, its own poetics (its content), this essay poem on poetics formally subverts its own status as metanarrative, while absorbing the language of metanarrativity. The metapoetics I am sketching out turns, as language game, into patapoetics. To adapt one of Jarry’s definitions of pataphysics, it will be the ‘science of imaginary solutions’ (Jarry: 13), purely extravagant, as recognised by an early commentator on the poem, Barbiero, when he defined the text as a ‘poetics of a paradox ... a systematic paradox that is built into and simultaneously comments on the very system of writing and reading’. (Barbiero: 117)
This is not to say that the main, second, part of Artifice and Absorption, has no argument, but that it might not operate in the way in which it seems to, formally speaking. It appears to offer a binary opposition between the two terms of this section’s title: ‘Absorption and Impermeability’. This has been called into being to replace the simple-minded binary between text-as-transparency (of a supposedly non-artificial mainstream) and text-as-opacity (of an anti-conventional avant-garde), that obfuscated both North American and British formulations of the fields of poetic production. As Bernstein reminds us: ‘transparency is/ but one technique for producing absorptive works.’ (Bernstein: 26) This optical metaphor is replaced by a tactile and fluid one in Bernstein’s text, one that seems to be useful both for describing the construction of a text and as a way of describing the reading of one. From a constructivist point of view the text might, on one hand, absorb its range of materials as a satisfying content; from a reader’s point of view, a text has degrees of absorption, allowing the reader access and continuing interest. Its opposite, impermeability, acts to resist the intrusion of untransformed materials at the level of construction and with devices which resist comforting or confirmatory reading . ‘Poetry has as its outer limit, impermeability/ & as its inner limit, absorption’, comments Bernstein, slipping here into parody of Zukofsky, and suggesting a realignment of definitions from the Objectivists’ obsession with music and speech. (Bernstein 1992: 66) It is all a question of readability.
The proliferation of definitions that Bernstein allows himself results in this extraordinary list:
By absorption I mean engrossing, engulfing
completely, engaging, arresting attention, reverie,
attention intensification, rhapsodic, spellbinding,
mesmerizing, hypnotic, total, riveting,
enthralling: belief, conviction, silence.
Impermeability suggests artifice, boredom,
exaggeration, attention scattering, distraction,
digression, interruptive, transgressive,
undecorous, anticonventional, unintegrated, fractured,
fragmented, fanciful, ornately stylized, rococo,
baroque, structural, mannered, fanciful, ironic,
iconic, schtick, camp, diffuse, decorative,
repellent, incohate, programmatic, diadactic,
theatrical, background muzak, amusing: skepticism,
doubt, noise, resistance. (Bernstein: 29-30)
As Bob Perelman remarks, ‘These definitions, especially the second, work against any sense of definitiveness.’ (Perelman: 86) In fact the passive and static ‘impermeability’ is most often substituted in the text by the more re-active term ‘Anti-Absorption’. Impermeability is a state; anti-Absorption is a strategy. As a binary, it operates rather oddly, as a series of resistances, augmentations, and reversals of the concept Absorption. Rather like Bataille’s economies of the general and restricted (which are mentioned with relation to Steve McCaffery’s theorising) they operate within one another, not as alternatives, but as tendencies.
Bernstein provides a whistle-stop tour of the major works and practitioners of Language Poetry writing, and the essay seems useful for its apparent encyclopaedic scope, except that it is itself ‘unintegrated’ and ‘diffuse’ if it is read in the expectation of scholarly absorption. We read example after example. However, I want to pass over this informational overload and stay close to the texture of Bernstein’s arguments and also initially present a familiar example to show how his two major terms collapse into one another. The famous or infamous boredom and repetition of a text or script by Samuel Beckett which consists of the most apparently repellent of devices for readerly attention, can actively become the principle of a reader’s or audience’s absorption in the material: the hypnotic fascination of the strange stasis of language, character and action. A work which Bernstein describes as solely anti-absorptive, McCaffery’s Panopticon, seems open to the irony, and perhaps the criticism, that its readers might be chiefly ones addicted to its difficulties of text, image, over-print, over-determination, and obvious visual processing, thus making it an object for eventual (critical) absorption. Whereas Beckett succeeds, there is the suggestion that McCaffery’s work is at the outer limit of impermeability, and is only capable of a wilful and critically armed recuperation. The absorption by boredom is a major tenet of the poetics of conceptual writing that emerged in the wake of, and in reaction to, Language Poetry. But this contemporary stance may not be singularly satisfying for Bernstein, since he clearly favours a creative doubleness and complexity that produces hybrid effects, more paradoxical interinanimations of his opposites, for which novel names exist in Artifice of Absorption: hyper-, trans-, neo- and dis- Absorption. The extravaganza and excess of the text is felt here as the reader passes from example to example without time to ‘absorb’ the flow of the ‘argument’. This is because it is more associational than logical, which would befit its pseudo-conventionality as a poem, and also Bernstein’s pataphysical plea for ‘a criticism intoxicated with its own metamorphicity’. (Bernstein: 16) This toxic anti-absorption results in, or from, a rapid conceptual proliferation, using the works of others as its ingredients and results in the mental equivalent of indigestion. The reader cannot absorb the argument, cannot soak up the distinctions as they spill. Its solutions are imaginary, in Jarry’s sense, in that they are experimental.
The main use of the favoured ‘intersection/ of absorption and impermeability’ (86) is less the awareness of materiality or the
of words into the visible
writing’s own absorption into the world (Bernstein: 87)
with which Bernstein ends, or indeed with its not-easily absorbed catalogue of North American Language Poetry devicehood, but the ‘poetic thinking that results’ for his own practice. (Bernstein:166) He is not just describing what Artifice of Absorption dubs ‘dysraphic’ poetry – the adjective means a fusion of elements that do not properly belong together – but is laying the grounds for a poem of his own such as ‘Dysraphism’ which enacts the fused stitching of the absorptive and Anti-absorptive implied by that title. He summarises his position, in a partial return to Forrest-Thomson’s terms:
There is ... a considerable history
of using antiabsorptive techniques
(nontransparent or nonnaturalizing elements)
ends. This is an approach
I find myself peculiarly
attracted to, & which reflects my
(as in wanting multiple things)
about absorption & its converses. (Bernstein: 52)
Two recognisable reversals in Bernstein’s poem ‘Dysraphism’, one effectively transforming (if not deforming) Creeley’s famous formulation of Projectivist Verse, and another drawn from demotic conversation, enacts ‘absorption and its converses’ quite explicitly, even clumsily:
Extension is never more than a form of content. ‘I
know how you feel Joe. Nobody likes to admit
his girl is that smart.’ ‘I feel how you know,
Joe, like nobody to smart that girl is his admit.’ (Messerli:794)
As he states in Artifice and Absorption:
In my poems, I
frequently use opaque & nontranslatabtle
elements, digressions &
This can be seen in ‘Dysraphism’ in the multiple interruptions, in its joy and delight in shock, and in its use of abrupt elision:
when jogged. Delight in
on the canals of the ... (Messerli:793)
Such are used
as part of a technological
arsenal to create a more powerful
absorption than possible with traditional,
& blander, absorptive techniques. (Bernstein: 52-53)
This is a
precarious road because insofar
as the poem seems
it may produce
self-consciousness in the reader
destroying his or her absorption by theatricalizing
or conceptualizing the text ... (Bernstein:53)
A self-conscious formal construction can lead to a self-conscious reading process which alienates the reader (but which really is a self-alienation). Perhaps some readers feel uneasy being teased with a performance of belief, one that attracts and repels the reader simultaneously, as here in a passage that parodies those manifold attempts to define the difference between prose and poetry, though perhaps Bernstein offers a unique definition of Language Poetry:
That is, in prose you start with the world
and find the words to match; in poetry you start
with the words and find the world in them.’ (Bernstein:797)
Whatever he or she thinks of this distinction, the reader cannot ignore the juxtapositions which attempt the continuous ‘focusing/unfocusing’ shifts Bernstein risks between absorption and its opposites, the movement of which ‘ultimately becomes a metric weight’ (Bernstein:78) a notion to which we shall return in terms of the frequency of such shifts. Artifice of Absorption is ultimately more of a gestural poetics than a prepositional one. Like any poem, in Forrest-Thomson’s theory, poetics must be absorbed slowly, allowing the retarded processes of good naturalisation to unfold its artifice.
By contrast, Allen Fisher’s Necessary Business is a prose essay, which arises experimentally out of a detailed reading of three books, physically present on Fisher’s desk, by three British poets: J.H. Prynne’s Down where changed (1979), Eric Mottram’s 1980 Mediate (1980), and cris cheek’s A Present (1980). Whereas Prynne has been characterised as the chief poet of a supposed ‘Cambridge’ poetry, Mottram, as a poet, theorist, and collector of poetics, has been thought of as the principal figure in a supposedly complementary London poetry. However, their shared attachment to the poetry and poetics of Charles Olson points to commonalities, even though Prynne took Olsonian concerns with knowledge towards the creation of an increasingly impacted textual density, while Mottram took the use of ‘resources’ and quotation in the poetic text towards open field presentation and collage. Indeed these characteristics might be thought of as determining factors of the two respective poetries.  Cris cheek may be considered a London poet, as could Allen Fisher himself, but is more accurately described as coming from the experimental and performance context of Bob Cobbing and his Writers Forum workshops of the 1970s; cheek was also early associated with the American Language Poets. Significantly, he is a younger poet than Fisher and was probably selected as an example of the current state of cutting edge experimental and performance poetry. In short, the three represent a considerable range of poetry across the British Poetry Revival, their books simultaneous snapshots of that activity. The purpose of the contextualising interviews between which the main argument is collaged, seems to be to discover points of comparison and contrast. However, as in the case of Bernstein, I wish to dwell primarily upon the essay’s formal function as poetics.
Fisher operates with a binary opposition which underpins his argument, although it is less subject to collapse or breakdown, less pataphysical, than Bernstein’s. He contrasts an ‘impertinent’ poetry which he characterises, in terms reminiscent of Adorno’s attacks upon conservative art, as that which merely affirms the values of existing society, and shows a flattering mirror to its audience which is ultimately an ideological mirage. Its corrective opposite is the poetry of ‘the new pertinence’. (Fisher: 163) Like Bernstein he separates a consideration of the constructivist aspects of the text for the writer from that of the role of the reader. He borrows the term ‘pertinence’ from Ricoeur’s characterisation of the fresh significatory effects of ‘live’, as opposed to ‘dead’, metaphor. Such poetry similarly, though not necessarily through metaphorical usage, creates fresh significations, not in itself, but when engaged by an active reader. Fisher acknowledges several reader response theorists such as Fish, Iser and Jauss, but he avoids the hypostacisation of an ideal reader. Not having to provide an encompassing theory of reading has its advantages from the point of view of poetics: he remains faithful to acts of reading as productivities of particular readers grounded in historical and social processes. Such engagement can be seen as assisting in the subversion of the dominant and impertinent social values. A text is judged on its ability to escape the writer and invigorate the reader’s continuous engagement, an engagement that is the site of a utopianism. His or her very participation in text-realisation is the ‘necessary business’ of Fisher’s title, a productive use of the strictly rationed leisure time granted under capitalism’s providence. While not denying the importance of text-construction, or its necessity for the writer, Fisher’s emphasis is on this readerly engagement.
Fisher does not articulate these issues in terms he might have derived from North American Language Poetry; he prefers to found his own poetics upon Mukarovský’s concept of the Aesthetic Function, as outlined in the Prague School linguist’s 1936 book-length essay Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. This post-formalist work attempts to delineate the aesthetic, while managing to make the aesthetic a socio-historical process, a subsisting though changeable feature among the variations of fashion or change. ‘Aesthetic function,’ writes Mukarovský, ‘is one of the most important agencies in human affairs, and every object can manifest it.’ (Mukarovský: 95) This flexible concept is best thought of in relation to the function of objects. The beautiful clock on the mantle-piece that stops working one day can thenceforth only have an aesthetic function, becomes essentially art, where once it had a use function as well. (It is almost an answer to Elvis Costello’s haunting aestheticist chorus: ‘What shall we do with all this useless beauty?’) Yet as Fisher argues, echoing Mukarovský, in art the aesthetic is the dominant function (though it may have other, less constitutive, functions). Political art whose function is predominantly political is not (paradoxically) art at all, because, in Mukarovský’s words, ‘the aesthetic function is facultative and subordinate’ to the propagandist or informational functions. (Mukarovský: 87) Mukarovský’s essay concurs with Forrest-Thomson’s and Bernstein’s answers to Wittgenstein’s question about what kind of ‘information’ is contained within the aesthetic object, when he states, ‘The aesthetic function, by dominating over the informational function, has changed the very nature of the information.’ (Mukarovský: 72) The importance of Mukarovský’s essay, which is used quite selectively in Fisher’s poetics, lies in its preservation of the arena of the aesthetic as the centre of formal experimentation. It is a bulwark against theories that collapse the distinction between art and life (such as that of the Fluxus movement, a British offshoot of which Fisher once had been aligned to). Life can only be admitted to an art-work as the necessary ‘challenge which can be met by overcoming the contradictions encountered during the complex process of perceiving and evaluating the work’ (Mukarovský: 85), the necessity of the engagement of an active readership. Fisher concludes: ‘Whatever else I may get from a work of art, because its dominant function is aesthetic it requires my engagement to create it, to produce it. The significance I most warmly value derives from this production, its affirmation of life.’ (Fisher: 164-65) The various entries of the various readers into the actual text is its affirmative moment. However imaginary the community Fisher was addressing in the early 1980s, he has avoided the illusion of the ideal reader, which could function only as a principle of reading.
One example of an active reader is Fisher himself, in his approaches to Prynne, Mottram and cheek in the text of Necessary Business. The reading of one each of their poetic texts is the central activity of Fisher’s essay. Thus, like Bernstein, he mimes his poetics’ essential point in the process-showing of his poetics presentation. His extrapolations of the poetics of textual construction derive from his ‘readings’, which I shall summarise, since they are not the focus of this chapter. Transformative power for the reader derives from a demanding and also unpredictable poetry that does not predicate society as it is. It is openly habit-breaking; indeed, poetry breaks its own rules and paradigms to create discontinuities and leaps. But, just like Bernstein’s consideration of McCaffery’s Panopticon, Fisher finds an instructive moment of criticism, or of formal outer limit, in one of his examples. His reservations about the ‘float perceptions’ of cris cheek’s A Present concern its dangerous presentation of homogenous disorder (‘noise’) which ironically has the impertinent effect of stability. (Fisher: 184) ‘His risk is the balance of noise and music and to hell with the balance.’ (Fisher: 231)
More positively, Fisher’s three poets create structures that ‘deconstruct consistent and chreodic memory’, that is memory that is constructed, biologically, as a ‘necessary path’ during the ‘necessary business’ of readerly engagement. (Fisher: 196) The term ‘chreod’ derives from Waddington, whose ‘biological terminology’, Fisher tells us, emphasises ‘“necessary path”, whose charge is canalised once started in a certain direction’. (Fisher: 196) Through techniques of textual rupture and formal jumps, these texts ‘intuitively invent new memories’; reading is seen as a revolutionary act to alter consciousness along its new canals. (Fisher: 211) Memory becomes a reinvigorated invention of perception (which will, in its turn, transform consciousness). The techniques involve the reader in the differences that are created, of different spacetimes of, and in, the text, along with a resultant polyphony of voices, or ‘plurivocity’ as Fisher puts it. (Fisher: 237) Both of these things disturb the impertinent desire for consistency or a single referent in a discourse. As with Bernstein, and as one would expect of poets who articulate their poetics publicly, the world Fisher constructs for his reader in his own poetry is clearly modelled upon his poetics. His poetics and his incidental definitions of poetics as a discourse) have a clear focus: ‘Poetics encompasses all fields of each artistic endeavour, incidentally and substantially, held by ideas of aesthetics and how consciousness is constituted’. (Fisher 1999: 115) Aesthetic judgements are fundamental to poetics, but ‘poetics,’ he goes on to suggest, ‘spins across the epistemological boundaries of scale and energy,’ and he draws nearer to his own concerns as he elaborates: ‘A poet’s attitude to and understanding of quantum field theory will affect that poet’s experience of gravity, drawing, and reading’ – and, of course, his or her poetic writing, as we have seen both in Necessary Business and Gravity as a consequence of shape. (Fisher 1999: 115) Fisher calls the ordering principle of these ‘attitudes’ the ‘Complexity Manifold’, which Scott Thurston summarises as ‘an all-encompassing horizon of experience’. (Thurston 2002b: 28) It is this synthesising centre that ‘gathers the aesthetics at all levels and all functions of a poet’s production.’ (Fisher 1999: 115) ‘Boogie Break’, one of the early poems from his long project Gravity as a consequence of shape which was ‘permitted’ by the poetics of Necessary Business, enacts just such a catastrophic complexity in fragmented narrative mode. Part one reads:
Took the walkover to the park to change transport
in a squeezed State.
The noise first expressed as random in phase
fluctuated and obscured gravity. It
shifted the discourse into a gap where
measurement relied on quantum non-demolition.
The Mathematician took notes on a microchip blackboard,
obscured from a saxophone Busker by a bend
in the wall. Out of a desire to minimise uncertainty,
enhanced by the squeeze,
a massive irruption of bright colour
in soft, contrasted hues
gave a volume, tore the Busker from the wall
and suspended her,
cut her image surfaces into prism clashed edges into
the non-trivial significance of her libidinal investment.
Her energy glowed.
In this phase-sensitive, nonlinear interaction
the Mathematician was provided with heightened
signal-to-noise rations. It presented the discourse
with date bus technology to reach an escalator
with many user sites, but no repeaters.
As the Mathematician noted,
No classical analogue exists
for this State without ideologemes.
Such technical language exhaust-fumed
reflection, left my pinched head in
a juxtaposition of buzzes and roars.
I biked back to the High Road to witness
where they reread the ice. (Fisher 2004: 74)
‘Collage’ is an inadequate term to describe this inventive, self-interfering form, and I have elsewhere used the term ‘creative linkage’ to approximate its operations of disjoining as well as linking, linking while it maintains discontinuity.3 Words like ‘squeeze’, ‘state’, ‘demolition’, ‘gravity’, ‘bus’, ‘escalator’, and ‘rations’ (where one might expect ‘ratio’), are themselves multiple words in a plurivocal narrative. The resultant textual world is complex and fragmentary, so that even the self, like that of the Busker, is miraculously dispersed without loss; indeed, it glows with energy. ‘Classical analogues’ are eschewed in favour of quantum logics and contradictory actions, however painful for the narrator. No wonder ‘technical language exhaust-fumed/ reflection’; it is only the quiddity of ‘I biked to the High Road’ that anchors the reader to the world. To return to his central term, absorption, this is what Bernstein describes when he writes:
A poem can absorb contradictory logics,
multiple tonalities, polyrhythms. At the
same time, impermeable materials – or moments –
are crucial musical resources for a poem…
Jon Clay, picking up on the term ‘creative linkage’ says: ‘Creative linkage across incommensurable sensations … is a result of the intensity of the irrational cut itself, an intensity that is in fact produced by the incommensurability of the sensations that it both links and separates.’ (Clay 2010: 171) Or as another of Fisher’s poems says, absorbing his poetics into his discourse, and again suggesting the mental exhaustion of the effort:
The quantum leap
between some lines
it hurts. (Fisher 2004 :6-7)
In Fisher’s work, as often as not, this absorption operates ‘dysraphically’, as Bernstein would say,
to create a hyperabsorptive textual
gravity in which the different originary elements
are no longer isolable. (Bernstein: 23)
This is precisely the effect of the disruptive flow of many poems in the three collecting volumes of Gravity as a consequence of shape and, as Bernstein hints also, part of their poetics is to think of textual ‘cleavage’ as both the division and holding together of materials in the very metaphor of Fisher’s title: gravity. Without this textual energy or dynamic, everything flies apart, the linkage is no longer creative. ‘It/ shifted the discourse into a gap where/measurement relied on quantum non-demolition.’ The speed of the shifts as Bernstein says, ‘becomes a metric/ weight’ (Bernstein : 78) or can create a rhythm of gaps between the juxtaposed materials.
There are relative degrees
or valencies of impermeability that can be angled
against one another to create
interlinear or interphrasal ‘gaps’ that act
like intervals in musical composition. (Bernstein: 22)
Fisher concurs: he outlines a ‘quantum-jump methodology’ in Mottram’s technique of breaking syntax to produce rhythm in ‘phrasic positioning’ in a work and, in Prynne, of ‘the aesthetic of his selection tensioned in collisions of the same set (or line)’ in Down where changed. (Fisher: 225) Bernstein speaks of being jogged; Fisher speaks of jumps. Both speak of rhythm in terms beyond conventional metrics, as an effect of juxtaposition, an effect these poets, in different ways, use as a central dynamic of their writing. Both poets provide clearer ways of thinking about creative linkage and about how indeterminacies and discontinuities operate in both text-construction and text-reception in their own work and in others. That both agree on a general poetics points to particular commonalities between the practice of North American and British poets during the mid-1980s and since. It also demonstrates the valuable role poetics has played in the poetic thinking of each, despite the differences in currency between the two documents examined.
There is one further lesson to be derived from this excursion in comparative metapoetics, one fundamental to the whole project of poetics’ claim to offer ‘permissions to continue’. (DuPlessis: 156) There is a danger in poetics, one which is hinted at in Bernstein’s own reference to Jerome J. MacGann’s The Romantic Ideology and one that I touch on it my definitions of poetics in the first appendix to Chapter 1. MacGann’s concept of the ‘ideological imaginary’ involves ‘an uncritical absorption in Romanticism’s own self-presentations’.(MacGann: 1) One need think no further than the privileging of imagination over fancy, the organic over the mechanical, terms of Coleridge’s which still guide much critical thinking. Bernstein articulates the congruence between MacGann’s thinking and his own, typified by their dual use of the term ‘absorption’:
uncritical absorption of a poem of William
Wordsworth, for example, entails an absorption
of Romantic ideology that precludes an historically
informed reading of the poem. In order for a
sociohistorical reading to be possible, absorption
of the poem’s own ideological imaginary must be
blocked... (Bernstein: 21)
Is there not a analogous danger in that poetics texts such as Bernstein’s and Fisher’s could present their own ‘ideological imaginary’, which could operate to pre-judge readings, and offer preferred textual strategies to readers, to stabilise the jolts and bridge the gaps, to close down the text for readings and readers of the future, even while their intention is to open up text making for construction and readers?
Bernstein and Fisher both attempt to counter this by formal invention and readerly intervention. Their public documents, in different ways, internalise their poetics in their meanings and artifice, particularly in their dialogic aspects. They attempt to stop poetics becoming absorbed by (or as) the metalanguage of literary theory or criticism, which, according to MacGann, ‘too often likes to transform the critical illusions of poetry into the worshipped truths of culture’. (MaGann: 135) Poetics asserts its own claims as a discourse, as a language game with its own players and rules, commitments and ethos. As Bernstein says: ‘Poetics don’t explain; they address and redress’ (Bernstein: 160). Pataphysics and creative linkage, in the cases of Bernstein and Fisher, respectively, cannot avoid absorption into critical discussion – as here – but will resist absorption long enough for its artifice and use to be acknowledged, for it to continue to operate as an historical provocation. Poetics is not asking to be read back onto writings, or to pull the reading of literary texts back to itself as a validating discourse. It attempts to keep itself open for further readings – in the plural.
Barbiero, D. ‘Untitled Letter’, Paper Air 4:2 (1989): 117.
Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Clay, Jon. Sensation, Contemporary Poetry and Deleuze. London and NewYork: Continuuim, 2010.
DuPlessus, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.
Fisher, Allen. Necessary Business. London: Spanner, 1985
Fisher, Allen. ‘The Poetics of the Complexity Manifold’. Charles Bernstein. Ed. 99 Poets/1999: An International Poetics Symposium. Boundary 2, Volume 26, number 1 (1999): 115-18.
Fisher, Allen (2004) Gravity. Cambridge: Salt.
Forrest-Thomson, Veronica. Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth Century Poetry. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978.
Jarry, Alfred. The Ubu Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1968.
Mark, Alison. Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry. Tavistock: Northcote House, 2001.
McGann, Jerome J. The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983.
Messerli, Douglas. Ed. Fom the Other Side of the Century: a new American poetry, 1950-1990. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1994.
Mukarovský, Jan. Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979.
Perelman, Bob. The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
‘Poetics’: ‘Poetics at Buffalo’, hhttp://wings. buffalo.edu/epc/poetics/prog.html: 1 March 1999
Thurston, Scott. ‘Allen Fisher: The Necessity of Change’, Poetry Salzburg Review, etc, pp. 28-33.
 See Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court, Cambridge: Salt, 2006.
 See Andrew Duncan’s ‘Two Tribes’, Angel Exhaust 8 (1992): 1-4 for more on this.
 Gravity as a Consequence of Shape was written between 1982 and 2006 and the whole is now available in the collecting trilogy: Gravity (Cambridge: Salt, 2004), Entanglement (Willowdale, Ontario: The Gig, 2004) and Leans (Cambridge: Salt, 2007).
 ‘Creative linkage’ first appears as a concept in my own poetics in ‘Linking the Unlinkable’, Far Language. Exeter: Stride, 1999: 54-55, but I re-deploy it as a literary critical term in my chapter ‘Creative Linkage in the Work of Allen Fisher, Adrian Clarke and Ulli Freer’ in The Poetry of Saying. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005: 194-213.