I’ve never been on a newspaper's ‘best of the year’ list before (although Mark Scroggins did list Twentieth Century Blues on his blog) but John Seed in The Morning Star said he enjoyed A Translated Man.Here.
Here’s poem three from Petrarch’s Canzoniere. We all know about this tradition, don’t we? Anyway, here it is:
Era il giorno ch'al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo factore i rai,
quando i' fui preso, et non me ne guardai,
ché i be' vostr'occhi, donna, mi legaro.
Tempo non mi parea da far riparo
contra colpi d'Amor: però m'andai
secur, senza sospetto; onde i miei guai
nel commune dolor s'incominciaro.
Trovommi Amor del tutto disarmato
et aperta la via per gli occhi al core,
che di lagrime son fatti uscio et varco:
però al mio parer non li fu honore
ferir me de saetta in quello stato,
a voi armata non mostrar pur l'arco.
I don’t read or speak Italian. Of course I can make out the odd word: ‘amor’, ‘honore’, ‘tempo’. And I’ve watched Montelbano (both young and old).But it doesn’t get me far. I have to rely upon translations. No way round that one. It’s tempting to put it into a translation engine. (This is something that Van Valckenborch apparently uses a lot, according to Martin Krol and Anneie Dupuis on the EUOIA website (here)). But I wouldn’t trust people I’ve invented. In 2010 there was internet chatter of a book called Robot Rilke that presented machine translations of Rilke; his deathless line, ‘Du musst dein Leben ändern,’ which is usually translated by humans as something like ‘You must change your life’ appears ‘afresh’ as ‘They must modify your life span.’ (Caldwell: 2010) Announcement of the book may have been a hoax. Caldwell, Edmond. ‘Advance Praise for Robot Rilke’: http://thechagallposition.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/advance-praise-for-robot-rilke.html (accessed December 2013). Google Translate can’t deal with pre-Modern Italian.
That itwas theonlydayyouscoloraro for the pietyof hisfactorethe rays, when'I was taken, I do notetlooked, becausei be'vostr'occhi womanbound me.
Timedoes notseem to metoshelter anti-seizureof Love: butI went confident secur, withoutsuspicion, somy troubles Commons'incominciaroinpain.
Lovefound mealldisarmed and the way openfortheeyes to the heart, thattears arethe portal and passageway:
Butin myopiniontherewasnohonor to woundmewith his arrowin that state, armednotshewto youwhilethe arc.
‘Anti-seizure of love’ is rather good, but otherwise it doesn’t work. Anyway, here are two literary translations of poem three, Victorian by the look of them.
'Twas on the morn, when heaven its blessed ray
In pity to its suffering master veil'd,
First did I, Lady, to your beauty yield,
Of your victorious eyes th' unguarded prey.
Ah! little reck'd I that, on such a day,
Needed against Love's arrows any shield;
And trod, securely trod, the fatal field:
Whence, with the world's, began my heart's dismay.
On every side Love found his victim bare,
And through mine eyes transfix'd my throbbing heart;
Those eyes, which now with constant sorrows flow:
But poor the triumph of his boasted art,
Who thus could pierce a naked youth, nor dare
To you in armour mail'd even to display his bow!
'Twas on the blessed morning when the sun
In pity to our Maker hid his light,
That, unawares, the captive I was won,
Lady, of your bright eyes which chain'd me quite;
That seem'd to me no time against the blows
Of love to make defence, to frame relief:
Secure and unsuspecting, thus my woes
Date their commencement from the common grief.
Love found me feeble then and fenceless all,
Open the way and easy to my heart
Through eyes, where since my sorrows ebb and flow:
But therein was, methinks, his triumph small,
On me, in that weak state, to strike his dart,
Yet hide from you so strong his very bow.
I’m less interested in the literary skill of these than in the mutual confirmation that they somehow ‘fix’ the poem, like Trig points. Not sooner am I reading these configurations than I’m attempting my own rough translation, shaped to the Petrachan frame (as I call it) but lightly rhyming.
That pitiful morning when the light of Heaven
Was hidden for our mourning maker’s sake,
I saw you first that day, My Lady, but
Was captured, disarmed, then bound to your stake.
It didn’t seem the time for shields and armour
Against Love’s arrows, his batters and blows;
So, unsuspecting, I wept with the world,
But that day my heartbreaks began, my woes.
Love stalked me, found me, unarmed and weak,
And opened my eyes, portals of tears, through which
Sorrow flowed from the passage of my heart.
But feeble was Love’s triumph to triumph
With his arrow over one so enfeebled,
And to not even dare to flash you his dart.
‘Versioning’ it got me right inside the poem, not so much formally, as I’d thought; it took the frame as granted and dangled the English through it. Petrarch makes each stanza of the poem (as he may have thought of them) a complete sentence, and I do that too. The ‘pitiful morning when the light of Heaven/ Was hidden for our mourning maker’s sake’ is Good Friday and it was while the narrator ‘wept with the world’, participating in the general mourning, that he is struck by Cupid’s arrows. He was caught off-guard, like an ill-prepared soldier, because ‘It didn’t seem the time for shields and armour/ Against Love’s arrows, his batters and blows’. Who would expect love to strike at such a grim time, but that is indeed when Petrarch (of the sonnets) first sees Laura in 1327. But the result is extreme:
Love stalked me, found me, unarmed and weak,
And opened my eyes, portals of tears, through which
Sorrow flowed from the passage of my heart.
However they are translated, these three lines present the central emotive event of the poem. Only the composure of the final three lines tries to recover some dignity for the narrator. It was no victory at all to capture somebody so weak. I’ve gone in for a little word-play to emphasise this sophistry (or that’s what I’m saying now. I don’t remember what I thought as I composed it; I was just surprised that it came so quickly): the repeated ‘feeble’ and ‘triumph’. But the final line accuses stupid Cupid of real cowardice (not the narrator’s with his defencelessness, his tears, his complete and un-resistant surrender): he smote the narrator but did not dare to show his bow and arrows to the beloved (Laura is not named until about sonnet 5). In the original poem Love shows his bow but ‘dart’ was chosen to rhyme with ‘heart’ in my version (a decision that was to have consequences, as you will see). The poem is rhetorical, its argument following the sonnet frame, its language colloquial but with heightened emotion at its core, though of course such a capitulation to unrequited love is common to the tradition. Note that the poem is addressed to the Lady, but she does not act in it. The only agency in the poem is invested in Love.
Why have I picked this sonnet? Because I want to be able to say something – and say something comparative – about the two versions of Petrarch being undertaken by Peter Hughes and Tim Atkins, both of whom I have seen reading within the last couple of years and both (let’s get evaluative) offering excellent texts. They have both done the lot (though Peter Hughes may still be at his). Neither of these are ‘translations’ in the sense that the above are translations, or even in the sense that an e-translation is. (I can talk, of course, with the Van Valckenborch oeuvres, but I didn’t have ‘originals’.) These are ‘versions’ in the terminology of translators and there’s a lot of it about. When Pound dropped a startling anachronism in Homage to Sextus Propertius (1917) by mentioning the ‘Wordsworthian’ poetics of one of Propertius’ rivals, (Pound 1975: 97) or when Bunting cuts off one of his translations (which he called ‘Overdrafts’ as if the debt to the original is a burden perhaps never to be redeemed) with the words, ‘- and why Catullus bothered to write pages and pages of this drivel mystifies me’, they set something off. (Bunting 1968: 139) This method is carried into our own times, for example, in the re-workings of The Iliad that Christopher Logue published finally as War Music in 2001. Lack of competence in the original tongue seems not to be an impediment as cribs and previous translations are plundered as guidance for the production of a newly formed equivalent to the original. (That’s how I wrote my version, of course.)
Zukofsky found more in Catullus than Bunting did and initiated the now rather over-used form of homophonic translation (imitation by sound similarity to the original), best represented in recent years by David Melnick’s Men in Aida (1983) which follows the text of The Iliad (I think) to emphasise gay undertones or (perhaps more accurately) to translate into gay argot: ‘Allow men in, emery Archians. All gay ethic, eh?’ runs line two. (Melnick 1986: 94) In Britain John James’ brilliant ‘Letters to Sarah’ from 1973 use the poems of Tristan Tzara as a springboard for a serial poem. (James 2002) Barry MacSweeney, in Horses in Boiling Blood (2004), a late ‘collaboration/ … celebration’, ventriloquises Apollinaire through MacSweeney’s morbid set of obsessions. (MacSweeney 2004: 3) ‘Inventive reworkings’ might be a weak term for these texts where ‘translation’ involves multiple possibilities of transformation in ways that far outstrip modernist practice. We find Philip Terry (whose ‘Shakespeare’s sonnets’ are kinds of translation, of course) taking on Dante’s Inferno (2011) setting the poem on the campus of Essex University with the ghost of Berrigan playing the part of Virgil. Tim Atkins himself has previously ‘translated’ Horace’s ‘Odes’ and ‘Epodes’ as Horace (2007)in a mode capable of referencing Mein Kampf or Robert Lowell’s widow. Sean Bonney’s Baudelaire in English (2008) combines formal visual poetry (utilising an ancient typewriter) with fragments and versions of Baudelaire poems. Perhaps the nearest I’ve got to these models is Van Valckenborch’s ‘Ode to Orbit’, which alludes to both Alvaro de Campos’ ‘Marine Ode’ and Blaise Cendras’ ‘Prose of the Transiberian Railway’, that is, a poem by a man who was made up and a poem by a man who made himself up! (But I’d like to attempt another text like that in my own voice; the attempt to ‘write through’ Milton’s sonnets didn’t get far, but then I’ve had enough of sonnets and it was (ironically since I’m writing this) his Italian sonnets that stumbled me (though I have one good poem out of it, and it’s appropriately dedicated to Tim Atkins but I keep forgetting to send it to him).
Let’s examine Peter Hughes’ sonnet 3:
it was on an Easter day-trip
when the dark heavens opened
& I was swept away on the surge
of a glance from your mesmeric eyes
The use of ‘day-trip’ immediately modernises, even trivialises and humanises, the Eastertide setting of the original. The heavens simply open, whereas in the original they are closed to allow God to hide during the most auspicious, awesome, moments of the Christian calendar. The references to armour are replaced by references to modern but unlikely impedimenta. Imagine a deep-sea helmet being used to deflect a glance from the beloved’s eyes. It’s certainly a turn-off, curiously loyal to the poem but betraying its martial imagery and its passion. The narrator passes onwards in the original (I had trouble with that sense and hoped it was encoded in the word ‘stalk’, which implies the narrator is on the move) and is now simply driving (though dangerously, blinded as he is by love, not a situation directly mentioned as part of the disarming in the Petrarch poem):
unequipped with a deep-sea helmet
or welder’s mask – not so much
as a pair of discount shades –
I just drove into oncoming traffic
The emotional core, as I think it, is realised through a set of metaphors that comically recast the image of the sorrows of the heart channelled as tears through the eyes into the common (but near-rhyming) irritant of ‘pests’ and ‘nest’. The disarming of the lover is related in terms of forgetting the armour of the modern holiday-maker:
I’d forgotten the sun-block & fly-swat
& each of love’s pests wriggled inside
to make a swarming nest of my heart
‘Swarming’ is an accurate correlative to the flowing sorrow of the original. The poem ends by personifying ‘Love’ (although all poets in English from Wyatt onwards have had the problem of Love not clearly enough appearing as the god Cupid by the use of the word. ‘Amore’ in Italian does the job neatly in a way that English cannot). Nevertheless:
Love has you by the balls: iron fist
in a lacy French glove
touched by the breeze through these windows
Hughes completely removes the rhetorical counterattack that Petrarch issues at this point. There is no pyrrhic victory for our lover. Like James Joyce before him, Hughes’ narrator, on being presented the ‘heart’ as the site of the emotions, issues the corrective that ‘the seat of the affections is somewhat lower’. If not the dart, then the balls, we might say. The iron fist in the glove, though, does capture the martial imagery that is used to describe Love/Cupid’s ‘triumph’ over the lover in the Petrarch, but the breeze through the window (a little incongruous to the dark Heavens of the first quatrain, not to mention the glowering, hiding, mourning skies of Petrarch’s Easter) is an added detail, a post-imagist epiphany, erotically charged and dangerous (and thus distantly equivalent to Petrarch’s closure. (Perhaps my word ‘dart’ also sexualises the poem where it is not in the original. Google Translate saw it before I did.) Like Philip Terry’s versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets, however altered they may be, they retain the originals’ obsessions with beauty and time, for example, similarly ‘distantly equivalent’). As Peter Riley notes of the sequence as a whole on the blurb of the Like This Press edition of the Canzoniere 1-28 entitled Quite Frankly and carefully subtitled After Petrarch, from which number 3 is drawn, ‘For all the ironic modernisation and free-play it enters deeper and deeper into a sincere realisation of the modern love-poem.’ (Riley 2103) That process, which is observed across the sequence, is perfectly rendered in those last three lines:
Love has you by the balls: iron fist
in a lacy French glove
touched by the breeze through these windows
Beyond the irony (partly if not wholly derived from reading the poem against the original (or our knowledge of its conventions)) this is a well-constructed description of obsessive love and its effects and after-effects: the testicular grip of iron-strength, the erotic touching of both lace and breeze (a ‘French’ glove seems peculiarly suggestive). Traffic is one-way through these windows, all moving towards acts of arousal.
Here is Tim Atkins’ sonnet 3, drawn from his 2011 Barque Press book Petrarch. It is impossible to use Petrarch’s and Hughes’ stanza division as a unit of reading. We face 14 undivided lines and the subject matter seems initially alien to the original. This is poem 3 transformed nearly beyond recognition, but that ‘nearly’ is important. The poem is a ‘love’ poem; at least it can be read as one if it opens on that word: ‘Love of the welfare state/ Did not prepare me for its or my own extinction[.]’ Love of an institution is evoked only to suggest its negatives. If I say that this is like the church at Easter in the Petrarch poem am I making a valid point, and even if I am, am I explicating the poem, unravelling its analogies, or am I making them because I know that this is poem 3 at some level? Then it must be asked: is that an illegitimate move or one that the poem actively fosters by providing the link, as in a computer link, to the Canzoniere? Likewise if I note that death is often a theme of this love tradition, am I reading the poem, reading the tradition, or reading the distance between Atkins’ poem and Petrarch (in Hughes’ case we read the difference with Petrarch). If I notice that the next line, ‘All the I’sin one book’ is a line (number 3) for which all the English translations have the personal pronoun ‘I’, am I indeed reading ‘All the I’sin one book’? If I then note that the Italian line ‘quando i' fui preso, et non me ne guardai’ also has an isolated ‘i’ in it, am I unravelling a method, or not? (I know that the translations demonstrate seven types of translation, in Atkins’ terms.) ‘Not reading the road map right at the fork’ suggests the process of writing these ‘distant’ poems but does not seem to refer to the Petrarch. The passage
A cowboy’s life does not extend much
Beyond rimming & riding
Like an arrow doesthrough the eyes
To the millions of past lives
It must have takento commute
Body fat into amorousness
uses two images from Petrarch: the arrow and the passage ‘through the eyes’ of ‘portals of tears, through which / Sorrow flowed from the passage of my heart’, though the peripatetic cowboys suggest the ‘arrows’ here belong to the Red Indians of the Western film genre. Nevertheless the process is quite different, not at all personal, and in this respect (only) like the opening lines. The narrow life of the cowboys is like an arrow which seems to have shot through evolutionary history until we end up with the truly corporeal ‘commute’ to, or translation of ‘Body fat into amorousness’. Thus we arrive back at Love, our opening word, but emphatically embodied in bodily process. ‘Rimming & riding’ suggest sexual activities of their own, so the cowboys are the equivalent of the disarmed unarmed narrator of the Petrarch poem, but they seem to get on with it, making use of one another’s impoverished but local ‘body fat’/ ‘amourousness’. The sonnet does have a volta, an abrupt change of tone, mood, or argument. Lerici takes us to Italy, not to Petrarch’s Florence but perhaps to Shelley’s Lerici. The revelation may be Shelley’s (his late infatuation with Jane somebody or other?) but the sentiment is Petrarch’s, and straight out of poem 3: ‘One day … I saw a woman’. This is the plot of the poem (perhaps of the whole Canzoniere) though transposed to Romantic poetry, and abruptly curtailed with a ‘etc’, as though this is too tiresome a conventional poetic gesture or textual detail. The cut up method of the text, the space-punctuation, makes cohesion uncertain, but ‘her passport & her chair’ suggest foreignness and domesticity (a hotel perhaps):
One day on a rock at Lerici
I saw a womanetcher passport & her chair
3 fingers’ width awayfrom the stars
Lighttheir fierce scrutiny & Italian cars
The poem ends with a rhyme: the celestial star-gazing (perhaps through spread fingers, measuring the distant stars against the proximate digits like a child) is equated with Italian cars (Italy, again, but modern now). Light from the stars, like Hughes’ breeze from the window, offers a radically different ending to the poem from Petrarch. My ‘flash you his dart’ contains poetic license and is not a direct response to Petrarch’s rhetoric concerning Cupid’s bow. Again, this poem is not different to the Petrarch; it is distant. Far from re-stating Petrarch’s great theme of love, this poem (and many of the others in the sequence) floats free, transforming the Italian poem so completely there is little left. But it leaves just enough for identification. Then it is ironically free to do what it likes with itself, and in the event revivifies the sonnet tradition.
I tried, as an experiment to machine translate (a slightly earlier version of) my ‘translation’ into Italian and then back again into English. The result is worth considering. The sting is in its tail.
That morningpitifulwhenthe light of heaven It waswellhiddenbyour creatorof mourning, I've seen youbefore that day, My Lady, but He wascaptured, disarmed, and then tied to the pole.
I do not thinkthe timeof shieldsand armor Againstthe arrowsof Cupid, his hittersandstrokes; So, unaware, I cried with the world, But that daybeganmyheartbreaks, my troubles.
Lovechasedme, he found me, unarmedand weak, Itopened my eyes,tearsofportalsthrough which Sorrowflowed from thepassageof my heart.
Butweakness wasthe triumphofloveto triumph With itsarrowinmore than one wayweakened, Yeteven dare toflashhis dick.
See the related posts to dry-runs and beginnings of my work The Meaning of Form here. And look at my later additions to my readings, written once both of these extraordinary sequences had been published in full, here.
You can read about my own recent poetry here and
here, and follow the links to points of online purchase.
'Petrarch 3' is now in print, see here and here, though there are accounts of my reading it, with set lists and summaries here and here, and one version, 'Pet', narrated by a dog (!), here. Four of the 'symboliste' variations may be read on Card Alpha 1: here.
And you can watch me read some of my 'Petrarch' variations 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
The last poem in the sequence announces its performative focus as ‘Fused sonics (interaction)’. The incarceration metaphor that surfaces throughout the poetics enters the first line: we are ‘Released from solitary’, for purposes of collaboration, into the custody of musicians. Their fetishistic fiddling and fastidious preparations, confusing to the non-musician, are the price to be paid for the promised ‘interaction’; they come with strings attached to their arrangements (to coin two bad puns!):
Musicians come with-wires attached
ill fitted plugs
miscellaneous black boxes
far too many knobs &
forgotten amps behind their
Obdurate objects of professional mystification threaten to delay the encounter of voice with music. ‘The spontaneous moment/ needs voice checks’ we are told, rounded with a □ symbol, Monk’s formal marker of block, blockage, silence, delay. As with other transubstantiations of poetic substance, the process is not presented as unproblematically positive, one of the strengths of this poetics in my view, since it is wide-eyed about each stage or state of development, and yet aware that problems are indeed what performance writing produces.  As Hall writes, of Dartington College pedagogy, ‘In relation to contemporary practice, existing subject fields no longer operate either as guilds or ontological frames offering “natural” recognition of belonging.’ (Hall 2013: 206) Fusion and interaction are acts of risk, the clash of two (or more) formal disciplines, formal practices, formal languages, that threaten (in cybernetic language) to produce noise rather than message. Some noise, though, is literal.
get sstRucking a
Trio. Duo. So.
‘Tronic synth’ is a phrase that deliberate presents word-parts as though via tape edit. ‘So’ is not just a conclusive exclamation but the first syllable of the ‘Lo’ of the next line (also referencing ‘lo-fi’, the contemporary anatonym of hi-fi), and the piece hovers over the different configurations of instrumentation and the ‘voice skirl’ with which is in interaction.‘SstRucking’reads like an archaic or dialect version of ‘striking’ though the carefully formed typography emphasises the sheer sound of the event and leaves the word ‘ruck’ as its whispered interior (a word, like spell with a number of meanings, though ‘wrinkle’ seems a suitable synonym). Improvisation seems slightly askew as an ad lib becomes a ‘lib-ab’, and embedded in ‘squalib-ab’ it is fused sonically with the word ‘squall’, which means to sing loudly and yell unmusically. (The word ‘syllabic’ seems buried there too.) The performative process is ‘squalled in/ sownd’, the very word ‘sound’ rounded out by sonic emphasis. ‘Sonic v Semantic’ Monk declares, stating the central problematics of this performance, which involves
un estuary ova
The short lines, the impaction within, the fragmented wordage across, them, formally enacts the ‘Sonic v Semantic’, the latter as ‘meaning’ fighting for dear life but not allowed to say so amid the iterations and utterances that are compressed into the neologism ‘itterance’ (also suggesting that a thing, an ‘it’, is uttered). ‘Sownd’ may be miming dialect pronunciation, a knotted and noted swallowing of the final artefactual condition of this collaboration: ‘noise-fate’. The repetition ‘Daubing lunarscapes’ finishes the piece, which, as Attridge observes of all repetitions, ‘freshly contextualized, is different.’ (Attridge 2013: 48) This visual silent action still harbours the word ‘escapes’ and may be an act of release from the fate, noise that is channelled with no message (it also introduces, late into the game, another interaction, this time with visual art). Lunascapes literally are silent, of course.
I want to return to John Hall’s words: ‘Some writers respond to site in strictly formal terms.’ (Hall 2013: 159; italics mine.) In the kind of expanded art practice described here, the notion of form has expanded too. It is no longer simply the poetic artifice we might identify in the quotation above (for example); it might involve the formal meeting and clash of the interdisciplinary forms brought together by and in performance. Hall, in a way that echoes but re-reorders the progressive states or stages Monk follows, presents an inventory of performance writing types:
between formal emphases within writing, as between ‘sonic’ (writing that works primarily with the sound of language and thus relates to music); ‘visual’ (writing that works with the visual appearance of script and thus relates to visual arts); ‘installed writing’ (writing designed to be installed in space in the form of textual (or text-bearing) sculpture or visual installation); ‘live’ – writing as or for live performance. (Hall 2013: 155) 
Goode calls this poetics-poem-essay Monk’s ‘most extendedly explicit published engagement with the questions of voice’ and rather than the categorical calm of Hall’s taxonomies he sees that ‘the space requisitioned by the voice and occupied by performance is a turbulent zone in which the tensions identified by Monk within her own voice may be momentarily reconciled individually only to come into a new communal interrelation.’ (Goode 2007: 163) From ‘The Lone Reader’ to ‘noise-fate’ Monk sees that each formal stage or state of the realisation of a text brings with it its performative ecstasies and its agonies. Transubstantiation brings delight and damage to the body. Insubstantial Thoughts on the Transubstantiation of the Text transforms poetics into poem, offers a poetics of form neither theoretical nor practical but embodied in material language, thick with artifice, slenderly personalised, and rich with ambiguity and replete with the experimental experience of a variety of performance events.
(See here for links to related posts pertaining to my work The Meaning of Form)
Attridge, Derek. 2004. The Singularity of Literature. London: Routledge.
Attridge, Derek. 2013. Moving Words: Forms of English Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goode, Chris. 2007. ‘Speak and Spell: Geraldine Monk’s voiceprint’, in ed. Thurston, Scott, The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk. Cambridge: Salt Publishing: 152-177.
Hall, John. 2013. Essays on Performance Writing, Poetics and Poetry: Vol 1: On Performance Writing, with Pedagogical Sketches. Bristol: Shearsman Books.
Massey, Doreen. 2005. for space. London and New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Monk, Geraldine. 2001. Noctivagations. Sheffield: West House Books.
Monk, Geraldine. 2002. Insubstantial Thoughts on the Transubstantiation of the Text. Sheffield: West House Books & The Paper.
Presley, Frances. 2007. ‘“Eye-spy”: Geraldine Monk and the Visible’, in ed. Thurston, Scott, The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk. Cambridge: Salt Publishing: 119-151
Stabler, Jane, Martin H. Fischer, Andrew Michael Roberts and Maria Nella Carminati, ‘“What Constitutes a Reader?” Don Juan and the Changing Reception of Romantic Form’, 2007, in Rawes, Alan, ed. Romanticism and Form. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
 I have some sympathy with the musicians; I was a singer with a blues band and I was always rather impatient to get playing on time, and chivvied the musicians to hurry up the complex preparations of drums, guitar and amps, while I had a music stand and pile of blues harp easily ready. They were often tetchy.
 It is interesting to note that digital writing, or the use of the internet is not listed as a tool, but ‘flarf’, for example, was only just beginning when these texts were originally written.
In ‘Voca-visu (orientation)’ the
word in brackets is most telling. Monk was part of a nexus of performers, such
as Aaron Williamson, Brian Catling and Caroline Bergvall, whose performance
writing, from the early 1990s onwards, involved the realisation of ‘voca-visu’
text in spatial and installation space, where interdisciplinary practice
combined and contested aspects of theatre, dance, poetry reading, performance,
installation art (and, to a lesser extent, music). It was ‘advancing words
beyond jealous boundaries,’ as Monk puts it, the sometimes closely guarded borders
between disciplines and practices. This work, in the end-stopped first three
lines of the poem, is
Movement, process and material
objects are three components of this interdisciplinary art, the poet only part
of the ‘exhibition’ now. Monk’s description,
characteristically in this poetics piece, offers negative aspects as well as
positive ones. Space and place are the parameters of performance. The
distinction begins benignly enough, with a formal splitting of the word ‘inhabit’
that brings forth combinations of habilitation and habituation in the word.
perform is to in habit space.
is aggressive occupation of
Convoluvulaceous. Territorial laundering.
Whereas space is easily occupied by
performance, as a generalised environment, place (say, a named location with
its histories and stories ) demands ‘occupation’, which is annexation rather
than habitation, an opposition perhaps exemplified by thinking of space as a
horizontal leaking outwards and place as vertical, digging itself into one
location. ‘Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far,’
suggests the geographer Doreen Massey in for
space, with a sense of multiple occupation and unfinish which matches
Monk’s inhabited sense of ‘mutability’, although Massey rejects the opposition of
space place which nevertheless still offers Monk a useful binary to draw out
the clinging (‘Convoluvulaceous’) sense of territorial appropriation that some
performance seems to demand, making its territorial mark, or ‘scent spraying’
as she puts it in animalistic terms that relates it more to the verticality of
place. (Massey 2005: 9) As John Hall
writes, in defining ‘site’ (as in ‘site-specific’, another word to describe
this work), that ‘some writers respond to site in strictly formal terms –
responding, for example, to the shape, colour and light of an internal or
external space;’ he contrasts this spatial sense with that of those who
‘respond to sites as places already full of social or cultural associations’. (Hall 2013: 159) Without wanting to sound
too reductive, we could say that space is formal; place is full of content, and
thus contestable, conflictual, and necessitating ‘Equipping body with armoury’,
in Monk’s words.
Frances Presley notes of this poem
that ‘costume is a profound necessity’ (Presley 2007: 140). Unlike Denise
Riley’s poetry reading where dress is ‘accidental’, this performance provides
the unlikely combination of, choices between,
which take us from fairy-tale to
Weimer cabaret, via ‘Poundstretcher gadgets’ and ‘other strategies’ involving different
‘Paraphenalia’.[i] All add
to the effect summarised in the first of these closing lines of the poem:
The ritualistic delineation of
Scent spraying. Carnal. Nails
(Keratin overshoot is ard but dead but vital)
Toes in perpetual isometric
clinging for balance:
a body hanging by its feet.
This heavily defamiliarised passage
almost describes a ritual. ‘Chantcasters’,
a word from the headnote (but also a title of some Monk texts in their own
right) resonates with repetition to that account of the genesis of a poem, but
links with the oddly quasi-anagrammic, quasi-palindromic ‘spell spelleps lleps’
that follows. This is a ‘voca-visu’ fragmentation of language, where only
‘spell’ has a meaning (and not a fixed one; it is a word with four major
meanings, four etymologies). By synaesthetic effect this chantcasting (is this
a witch’s spell from the voices of the Pendle Witches?) transforms into the
ritual territorialisation of ‘Scent spraying’. As ever, the poem draws
utterance (or here action in space) back to the body, bluntly announced with
the unattached adjective ‘Carnal.’ The focus is almost exclusively on the human
feet, with the violent image of ‘a body hanging by its feet’, a posture at once
tense and painful, but presumably part of a performance in space, with the toes
hanging on and polished hard with keratin. ‘(Keratin overshoot is ard but dead but vital)’ uses
bold type to visually accentuate vocal stress patterns: the hard nails are
technically dead but vital to the process of ‘clinging for balance’. Feet
themselves (and the word ‘feet’ in ‘voca-visu’ doubleness) disappear into the
iterative ‘.t.t.t.t.t.’, one for each toe. Attridge argues that ‘the greater
the number of repetitions, the more obvious their anti-closural effect; a
single repetition can be read as an emphatic and final reiteration,’ but Monk
seems to both adhere to this ‘rule’ and break it. The repetitions hang to the
final ‘.t.’, a kind of
acrobatic-alphabetic finale, as though it were a single repetition, the hanging
body of closure, perhaps a corpse. (Attridge 2013: 43)
[i] I am assuming that these miscellaneous objects have been
used by Monk or observed in others’ performances. ‘Other placements demand
other strategies,’ she says, the word ‘placement’ suggesting commissioned work.
How ‘junk shop bayonets’ were used I am not sure, but the surprising
‘double-decker buses’ refers to Monk’s ‘Hidden Cities’, ‘part of a series of
“alternative” bus tours around 5 English Cities’. (Monk 2001: 117). The text of
Monk’s tour around Manchester,
‘Hidden Cities’, appears in Monk 2001: 61-70.
‘Vocalised (public)’ is the longest
of the sections, perhaps in recognition that the poetry reading (one poet: one
poem) is the common form page-based poetry performance takes. As John Hall says,
in an almost Apollonian vision of this,
Y writes a page
that becomes a book
when he performs
that writing the words are on the page, which he has written, are in the form
of the performance, inform it and are transformed in it[,] (Hall 2013: 28)
all of which is acknowledged in
Monk’s more Dionysian poetics, where the informing and transforming is both wilder
and embodied in wilder language. ‘Public and
pubic are too close for typographical
comfort,’ the poem opens (after the repeated head note), though it is the
vocalisation of this common (and embarrassing) misreading that is
discomforting: ‘Spoken so pointed it
should be spiked with a double ‘k’.’ Curiously Monk describes this transformation
instead of effecting it and transforming the word ‘spoken’ into ‘spikken’. The
voice is spiked, the language is as physical as the poet:
on the back of phonemes
puns with heart-reach
Puns (and this poetics abounds with
them) either are affective or effective (as jousting insults). A variety of poetry
reading venues, from utilitarian ‘Bright/college rooms’ to quaint and twee
‘Upon-/a-time shops’, snap their way across the line-breaks, until we arrive at
an italicised phrase which appears twice in this section: ‘Poet as an Exhibition’. Two phrases lie behind this locution: the
neutral title ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, as in the Mussorgsky rhapsody, and
the complaint (to children or egregious adults) that they are ‘making an
exhibition of themselves’. [i] This
is precisely what a poet does in performance – makes an exhibition – in
stam r twitch [,]
all features in their socially
obvious obscenity, the performer utterly vulnerable. ‘Mean-time exposure’ shows
meanness could be the cruel response to a ‘stam r’ for example. This emphatically
is not rendered as a gendered apprehension here, but another female poet,
Denise Riley, also describes the exhibitionism of the poetry reading, noting
how ‘it ushers in a theatrical self with a vengeance, the performing I bringing
her accidents of voice and costume and mannerisms to flesh out a starved text,
married and reconstituted with it in fullness before the eyes, like wartime
powdered egg soaked in water.’ (quoted in Hall 2013: 73) However, Monk counters
this theatricality with a measured presence as
a performer, which means that ‘Body mass is conduit’ not just socially-judged
‘weight’. The point of this poetics embodied in a poem is that neither it, nor
the ‘poem’ being evoked into imaginary performance by the text, is ‘starved’,
in Riley’s formulation. ‘Max somatic dynamics’ are even rendered as an exciting
list poem without fear of metaphorical powdered egg or performative nuptials,
metaphors which separate text from performance:
Body limited in overdrive:
uptaut/ double-bent/ kathakalic.
warbles/ sprechgesang/ gutturals.
up arterials of interior weather maps.
and growing. Corporeal compass points.
Ythmm. Timing. Timbre.
preposterously loud death-thud of the
against the bedroom window.
This last image seems a violent alternative
to the ‘birds and clouds and bits of paper flying through the sky’ of
Levertov’s happenstance listing of occurrences that evoke and then enter the
poem, but the process is the same, the outer limit of a poetic compositional
process. The list begins with the body mass of the performer-poet and her
gestures and energy. The form of the list acts to order levels of performativity
and at each level we are offered performance choices. The voice, or kind of
voice, is a matter of some choice, not an ‘accident’ as Riley insists. The
performer can choose between canting and chanting or opt for the formal
technique of ‘sprechgesang’, which lies between speech and song. Somatic neural
pathways through corporeal humours, metaphors that combine the scientific and
the pre-scientific, share a directional and territorial sense of discovery (with
maps and compasses). The ‘text-gesturals’ perfectly enact the echoic
progression from the formal properties of ‘Rhythm. Ythmm. Timing’ to ‘Timbre’, sonic
shading that unites form and content, in the contextually powerful ‘Ythmm’, and
concludes on a gentle roll of the poetic tongue: ‘Timbre’. [ii]
opposite notion of being ‘inhibited’ seems equally objectionable.
[ii] The monologue is the poetic form most alive to
capturing a single voice on the page, usually through some approximation of
speech. ‘Responding to a poem being recited involves performing the particular
performance of it that I am hearing.’ (Attridge 2004: 86) This fact requires
further theoretical work.
Part two, ‘Vocalised (private)’,
shows how the poet ‘is brought to speech’,
but in quite distinct ways from the empirical-mystical process implied by
Denise Levertov’s use of those words. Privacy has again negative connotations, of
secrecy and concealment. ‘The secret,’ explains John Hall, ‘relates to the
confession and is governed by a contradictory impulse to conceal and show, perhaps
to find a form of showing that can enter the public domain.’ (Hall 2013: 78)
Monk’s ‘words up like sap. Exit with frou-frou’, move towards the public
domain, but do not reach it beyond a contradictory saying Monk calls (in a
brilliant neologism) ‘mutterance’; sap transforms into the rustling of silk,
hardly a form of showing (silk, a contradictory material itself, suggesting
undergarments, concealment). ‘Cabinet readings’ sounds more closed in than a
chamber performance, say, and the word ‘Cabal’ suggests conspiracy rather than confession
or consanguinity. However, ‘amongst friends only’ suggests a safe environment,
what Hall calls ‘the relative social privacy of being among friends’ for ‘the
quiet page ruffled’, the ‘inner sanctums’ of private performance, in which ‘Off
guard quirks’, ‘A misplaced laugh’ and ‘Gaffs’ are all permitted by performer
and intimate audience alike. (Hall 2013: 78)
Most eloquent, perhaps, are the
single empty quoted space of “ ” and the clammed parenthesis of  which are
the formal markers of, the phenomenological bracketing of, something so
locked-in, a species of windowless monad, that we see only the unvoiced sign of
its non-appearance. It is simply so private as a content that it almost carries
no form other than a vacant shell. For Monk, private vocality is almost formless and demands processes of
performative forming (and deforming) to make the voiced text a significant and
signifying form at all. She doesn’t want to confess; she wants to profess.
However, in this, the shortest part
of Insubstantial Thoughts, the
somatic reasserts itself as ‘Words
birthed. Made flesh’ – a reiterated reformulation from the head-note text –
words which suggest forming and transformation, but it is only as a
The full stops enact truncation and
separation of the phrases, as does zero enjambment. ‘Lax’ suggests lethargy as
well as lack, and ‘Foot cramp’ seems worse than the ‘involuntary fidgets’ of
silent private reading, although ‘Low-glow performance’, it must be emphasised,
is still performance. ‘Mutterance’ is still utterance, ‘shared murmurs’ still
shared. The private is like a low wattage light bulb using the ‘Letric’ as
energy. ‘Letric’ points towards electricity but it also evokes letters, as in
the ‘lettrism’ of the French avant-garde, opening the possibility of
performative energy on the page. ‘Letric’, the text asks, ‘is a (j)eeled live
wire?’ Electric eels carry energy and perhaps letters do too, beyond their
silent curling orthography, a ‘live’ (i.e. performed) ‘wire’, though perhaps
the ‘(j)eeled’ nature of the energy is ‘con-gealed’ before being ‘Made flesh’. The transformation of
energies is stalled but is conducted through the kaleidoscopic perspective of
multiple puns, transforming meanings and thus forming meaning in a way
consonant with the poetic processes described. This section ends with yet
another question, as though this performativity is liminal: ‘Is it within a
hair’s breadth or a hare’s breath?’ The ‘it’ of the question perhaps refers to
the ‘vocalised (private)’ performance itself. We are left with the panting
somatic breath of the most elusive of animals. It is ‘breath allows all the speech-force of language back
in,’ as Olson puts it. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 152)
Before we pass on to public
presentations, to performance per se, it might be worth dwelling a little on
the liminal performativity expressed by Monk in this section, in light of the
theoretical and practical perspectives of what has become known as performance
writing (to which Monk’s work stands as precursor and analogue).
Institutionally associated with Dartington College of the Arts between
1994-2010, its chief theoreticians and practitioners include Caroline Bergvall
and John Hall, and it is the latter’s teasing ‘Thirteen Ways of Talking about
Performance Writing’ that most clearly articulates, in its fourth section, the
way performativity is formally conceived at every
stage of the writing-performance continuum by performance writers in a way
that Monk partly resists (in order to prioritise the public). Hall writes
X is a performance writer
writes pages and she writes performances
forms writing which informs performance
what is it to
she performs the
act of writing
there is a performance of X in the act of writing (Hall 2013: 26)
Writing, whether private writing or
the ‘live writing’ proposed above – ‘live writing implies an act of writing as
itself a live performance’ – is all performance in this perspective, and the
stages or states between them are matters of form, conceived of as acts of
forming, quite explicitly in Hall’s words, and as transformations in Monk’s poetics. (Hall 2013: 155)
Hall also writes, in remarks that
contextualise the apparent categorical distinction between the two ‘vocalised’
forms of performance in Monk’s titles: ‘“Private” and “public”, rely on each
other, of course; even the OED can’t talk about one without the other. It is a
very public notice on the door which reads “private”. What constitutes privacy
is, as it were, a public decision.’ (Hall 2013: 76) This interconnection is enacted
through Monk’s parallel titles (‘Vocalised (private)’ and ‘Vocalised (public)’)
but the passage to the public (if only as yet ‘vocalised’) means we can consider
Monk’s public and published works to test her (so far ‘private’) poetics of
transformation, although the poetics are, like the notice on the door, in
public form (and in poetic form, we must remember). (Such testing is beyond the
scope of this piece which is, as the reader will have noticed, already
The titles of the parts of the poem
are clear about the poetic’s foci, the various conditions for the largely vocal
performance of a poetic text (I
repeat: not the making, as in most poetics, but the formal remaking of one,
hence the insistence on transubstantiation). The five sections are:
‘Unvocalised (private)’, ‘Vocalised (private)’, Vocalised (public)’, ‘Voca-visu
(orientation)’, and ‘Fused Sonics (interaction)’. As such they formalise the states
or stages of the potential realisation of a text from silent reading to its
performance with musicians and others. It separates out phenomenologies of reading
(in its various senses) and of performance and collaboration.
As a poet dedicated to performance
one might suppose that Monk’s ‘Unvocalised (private)’ would see the lack of
performance or audience as negative. The condition of the ‘Lone Reader’ is
‘Incommunicado’, masked like the Lone Ranger hinted at, the words of the poem
‘Unutterings’. (Monk 2002: np) This leads to a ‘self-meeting’inwardness
that is ‘cerebrally absolute’. More positively it is ‘Unpoliced’, of course, in
its privacy, though even that is balanced again the ambiguous detention of ‘The
body taken in to (care)’. But even though she describes a ‘Corpus in repose’
(which could equally refer to the corpus of the words silently read as to the
reading body) Monk is aware that ‘Eye-orbs fly-wink’. This ‘mini zigger-jit’ is recognised by cognitive
scientists as a ‘saccade’. Jane Stabler et
al. summarise the findings of considerable empirical research on reading:
Reading in a
strict cognitive psychology definition consists of a series of jumps forward,
rests and returns by the eyes: forward jumps are known as ‘saccades’, backward
ones are ‘regressions’ and the resting points are known as ‘fixations’. Readers
typically fixate … for about a quarter of a second and saccade forward about
eight character spaces with 10-15 per cent of fixations being regressions to earlier
points in the text. Difficult texts … produce longer fixations, more frequent
regressions and more cautious short saccades. (Stabler 2007: 205)
Poetic texts formally belong in
that last category, of course.[i] The
eye and brain are thus fully occupied by this unvocalised private reading,
while the body is prey to ‘Involuntary fidgets’ and drinking and smoking while
reading: ‘Tics. Itch-ay. Sips.
Drags./ Scra-T-cha~~cha~~~chaa.’ But
musicality keeps breaking through, as rhythmical scratching turns into a genre
of egregious dance music with its rhythmic name, and there is even ‘A semblance
of a toe-tap’ along to the poem as its musicality is spectrally registered if
not recognised. Even the purely visual elements of the text (‘-T-’, for example)
seem to be ready to burst into song. Chris Goode says that in a Monk performance
of this piece ‘the tildes outside language
were not pronounced’; they were ‘performed (though not emphatically) as hand
movements.’ (Goode 2007: 171) Similarly Goode feels this first section of Insubstantial Thoughts, with its many
visual glyphs, punctuation marks and signs, ‘could be said to extend the
liveness of performance back to the moment before
the poem begins to be written; in other words, it may matter how you
pronounce the punning graphic bundled within “dis♥embodied”, but it doesn’t
matter yet.’ (Goode 2007: 171) This is because it is, as yet, private in its
vocalisation (though there is some irony in Monk actually performing this piece
However much cognitive science may
be used to show the eye-dance of the reader, Monk’s reader is clearly also the
poet (as the poem is its own poetics). Indeed when she reminds us ‘Authorial
origins can be dubious’, she is not just reminding us about the intentional
fallacy (or its post-structuralist equivalent, the death of the author, or the
‘authoaxer’ in her wonderfully minatory neologism), she is again positing
poesis as a formally transformative process. The poet is a ‘Shape-/shafter’
rather than a shamanistic shape-shifter, the enjambment abruptly holding the
hyphenation in supreme tension as we consider ‘shape’ and ‘shafting’ as a more
violent – even sexually so – version of the shape-shifter’s transubstantiation.
The absence of unpronounceable glyphs and symbols
after the first section where they are ‘busiest’, as Chris Goode says, (171)
indicates partly the entry into the realm of performance. Wait for the next posting.
[i] Stabler et al. raises quite a challenge to our
assumptions about close reading: ‘A full, slow, thoughtful reading of a poem
will produce all the characteristics of a reading that a psychologist would
recognise as typifying an impediment.’ (Stabler, et al. 2006: 205) Part of the answer, for students of form, or for
a poet like Monk, is that reading becomes performance.