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Monday, March 31, 2014

Robert Sheppard Sean Bonney’s Letter on Poetics (from Happiness)

Sean Bonney could appear in two places in my current critical project on form (may still), under the translation chapter (The Petrarch Boys, Caroline Bergvall, Erin Moure, and Simon Perril so far), and under the one on politics as form. This last issue is addressed in my poetics-poetry prose piece, or ‘manyfesto’, ‘Bad Poems for Bad People’, which I wrote after the September 2011 conference in Edinburgh on politics and form (and after the riots of August 2011). It can be read here, as it appears on Intercapillary Space, and I ask readers to pause to consider it.


(It is the opening poem of the unpublished work Unfinish.) The piece I gave on Politics and Form I promised to post on Pages at the time, but haven’t yet. (Apologies at least to Nat Raha on that front). I will. I don’t think I will feature Sean’s work there (though I will reference it, I’m sure). It is the most openly impassioned political work since Barry MacSweeney’s state of the nation addresses at the height of the Thatcherite madness. That fact, it is worth stressing, is not automatically praise-worthy; they are both excellent writers because of the level of formal investigation encountered in the works. (See my own reference to Thatcher’s demise here.)

I want to turn to Happiness. This book had not yet appeared at the time of the Edinburgh conference, though Sean was speaking from it (and from his postgraduate work on the late Amiri Baraka, which I had the pleasure of reading later in a professional capacity). I asked a few difficult questions about form and Sean seemed to dodge them; I think he said he was really only interested in the improvisatory action of writing the pieces. Of course, my work is as much interested in acts of forming as form as a structure or frame or elements of poetic artifice, but perhaps I couldn’t communicate this – and was probably why I found myself writing my piece to Sean. (It addresses him in the earlier drafts, something I’ve revised from the still-revising – I should say ‘still forming’, shouldn’t I? – text.) Sean suspected the term ‘form’ meant ‘structure’.

The warning to my project, which wants to read Happiness: Poems After Rimabud as a book of translations, is printed on the stiff hard covers of this Ukant publication (that make it feel like a Ladybird book: a lovely incongruence). The warning is clear about these poems: ‘If you think they’re translations you’re an idiot.’ (Bonney 2012: cover) Two things. This sentence is then followed by Bonney’s version of the Cretan liar: ‘In the enemy language it is necessary to lie,’ which suggests both a political strategy (perhaps derived from his study of Baraka) and an approach to Rimbaud. Don’t tell them they are translations. Secondly, the condition of being ‘stupid’ or an ‘idiot’, in both Rimbaud and Bonney, is not unequivocally negative. If Rimbaud was an idiot then it is not idiocy to regard these as translations. By this point in the chapter I’m writing it will be clear that the transformative practices I call ‘translations’ are not just those of the jobbing word-for-word translator but feature attempts to transform alien materials into new contemporary poems. ‘Poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form,’ is the axiom I keep returning to.

Previously Bonney had transformed Baudelaire’s poems into English language visual poems. Why Rimbaud? Teenage Barry MacSweeney wrote of ‘The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother’: ‘A drunken hug is worth a revolution,’ and Rimbaud joins Chatterton as figures of the poete maudit reappearing throughout his work. (MacSweeney 1968: 35) (The possible influence of MacSweeney’s last book of poems, Horses in Boiling Blood (2004), a ‘collaboration’ with Apollinaire, on Happiness is a point worth churning over another day.) Bonney is clear who HIS Rimbaud isn’t. In his ‘Letter on Poetics’ with which the volume ends, he notes: ‘I’d been to a talk at Marx House and was amazed that people could still only talk through all the myths: Verlaine etc nasty-assed punk bitch etc gun running, colonialism, etc. Slightly less about that one.’ (Bonney 2012: 63) The final sardonic remark alerts us to Bonney’s politics and to his preferred focus, which is on the work itself, though this is not a simple formalist plea to turn away from biography to the an engaged reading of the texts, though it involves a sense of form, and says so:

As if there was nothing to say about what it was in Rimbaud’s work – or in avant-garde poetry in general – that could be read as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of any revolutionary moment. How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it. The form would be monstrous.’ (Bonney 2012: 63)

This passage stands well for the way that the poems themselves effortlessly slide from Rimbaud’s writings and his socio-political context to Bonney’s writings and contexts (as you might expect from a ‘Letter on Poetics’; I nearly treated ‘I asked myself’ to a scholarly elision but it seems a germane remark strictly in tune with poetics as a speculative, writerly discourse). However, I want to stay with Rimbaud’s work for a moment. The way to read Rimbaud, according to Bonney, is ‘as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of’ his particular ‘revolutionary moment’, the events of the Paris Commune (events that are glossed in Bonney’s opening section ‘Revolutionary Legends’). True, Rimbaud wasn’t in Paris; he was at home with his mother in Charleville in the Ardennes. (But he was only 15 so that is not too surprising; the myths that surround Rimbaud glorify his youth but also forget that he was a child.) But he is writing, poems and letters (the latter expressing his desire to get to Paris.) On May 15th 1871, he writes his famous Lettre du Voyant, a quite extraordinary poetics document for a boy of 15, and in the letter is the poem ‘Parisian War Cry’. It is explicit in its contempt for the government and the military and its statement of solidarity with the workers against the bourgeoisie:

Never, never now will we move back
From our barricades, our pile of stone;
Beneath their clubs our blond skulls crack
In a dawn that was meant for us alone. (Rimbaud : 63).

I will turn to the famous poetics soundbites extracted from the letter in a moment, but dwell first on what both poets have to say about form. Bonney’s ‘The form would be monstrous,’ (Bonney 2012: 63) accords with Rimbaud’s assertions about the ‘visionary’ who ‘attains the unknown’ and uncovers something monstrous and possibly self-destructive: ‘So what if he is destroyed in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of, unnameable; other horrible workers will come,’ and the use of the word ‘workers’ a page on from ‘Parisian War Cry’ is telling. (Rimbaud 2008: 116) The visionary writer discovers in himself, subjectively, monstrous form, ‘something new – ideas and forms’. (Rimbaud 117) ‘He is responsible for humanity, for animals even; he will have to make sure his visions can be smelled, fondled, listened to; if what he brings back from beyond has form, he gives it form; if it has none, he gives it none. A language must be found.’ (Rimbaud 2008: 117) This looks like the conjectural poetics that will facilitate A Season in Hell, where prose is felt to be the appropriate poetic form for a visionary confession (though it also reads as a renunciation of the strategies of the earlier letter). The visionary aspect of this, the monstrous sensual intoxication and dangerous encounter with otherness, is balanced against a civic sense that I have certainly never seen quoted before, or emphasised: ‘This eternal art will be functional, since poets are citizens,’ and the contemporary notion of Parisian citizens is that they await ‘a dawn that was meant for us.’ (Rimbaud 2008: 117)
            I think it’s a long way from spotting these references to the revolutionary moment presented by the Paris Commune, to Bonney’s assertion: ‘But, still, it is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work, and especially Une Saison en Enfer, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital.’ (Bonney 2012: 63) The ‘fully grasped’ and ‘understood the whole’ gesture towards an absolute understanding only open to a political reading, the objective supplementing the subjectivity of poetry. I am excluded from this virtual study group – and baulk at the badgering tone, until I recall that much of my work on poetics acknowledges the conjecturality, the manifestic overstatement and the sheer energising contentiousness of much poetics. It’s a damn slight better than telling us that Rimbaud was a proto-Surrealist, proto-Beat, proto-hippie, proto-postmodernist! Bonney, of course, is not, and need not be, forthcoming on why a reading of Marx has this effect, though he hints at it in tackling the two most often-cited poetics statements from the Letter. Rimbaud wrote (famously as the hideous adverb has it): ‘A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses’ Rimbaud 2008: 116), a page or so after announcing that ‘I is another.’ (Rimbaud 115) These are interpreted afresh by Bonney, within the context of Rimbaud’s particular revolutionary moment:

Rimbaud hammered out his poetic programme in May 1871, the week before the Paris Communards were slaughtered. He wanted to be there, he kept saying it. The ‘long systematic derangement of the senses’, the ‘I is an other’, he’s talking about the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity, yeh? That’s his claim for the poetic imagination, that’s his idea of what poetic labour is… The ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ is the social senses, ok, and the ‘I’ becomes an ‘other’ as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off. (Bonney 2012: 64)

There is certainly evidence for this in the letter (and the poem), as I’ve argued and shown above. Bonney is keen is develop the ‘lyric I’ as ‘an interrupter and … a collective’ in accordance with this politicised Marxist reading (Bonney 2012: 65). Whether it is right or wrong as a reading of Rimbaud is not the issue here; what matters is how this relates to Bonney’s poetics and to his choice of Rimbaud (and to ‘avant-garde poetry in general’, as he puts it). They are intimately related.
Bonney asked of the ‘revolutionary moment. How could what we were experiencing … be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it.’ (Bonney 2102: 63) Jennifer Cooke identifies what Bonney regards as his contemporary ‘revolutionary moment’, and comments on Bonney’s demand that protest and poetry as part of the ‘moment’ might escalate into lasting revolution:

This is a high demand. It would be a lot to ask from protest actions, indeed, which should be doing it and often seem to fail or run out of steam, to effervesce, bubble over, and then subside, like the quiet diffusion of energy after the surprise of the student dissent at Millbank, November 2010, or the confused, smoky hush that descended in the shocked wake of the London riots in August 2011. (Cooke 2012: 27)

Happiness was written before the 2011 riots that spread out from the volatile epicentre in Hackney with the police shooting of Mark Duggan, around London, and across England, and even to Liverpool, where delayed action had the air of a tribute riot, political energy replaced by muted but directionless violence. (That’s enacted in the italicised ‘sonnet’ in ‘Bad Poetry for Bad People’, by the way.) But the poems respond directly to the events of the November 2010 student protests against the scrapping of the student loan system which was met with police violence, mass kettling of demonstrators and the death of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson (who is mentioned in Happiness). Bonney’s poetics seem ready for that revolutionary moment ‘when it all kicks off’ (64). The poetry will almost inevitably be (like Rimbaud’s letter and poem) after the event. (This is a dilemma in Baraka’s poetry which I know Bonney has wrestled with.) But as Cooke notes of the prescience of another ‘Letter’ by Bonney also written before the riots: ‘Uncanny, this Sean Bonney, this urban poet-seer’, thus bestowing the Rimbaudian accolade on his best contemporary disciple. (Cooke 2012: 28).
The next post considers the poems themselves. Read it here. Also read a great interview with Bonney here. Check out links to all the related posts to my The Meaning of Form project 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