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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Robert Sheppard: 'Far Language (1981)'


(I made reference to this and the re-write I made for The Poetry of Saying, which I also quoted in the last posting here. This is the original text.)

Barry MacSweeney: Odes, Trigram.

The first quality that strikes you is the celerity, the quickness of movement within these poems.  Many of them replace the conventional margin with a central axis, a form borrowed from McClure (see example below).  The kinetics of this contrasts the movements of the reading eye on a horizontal plane with a vertical linearity.  Thus we begin one ode with the line, ‘Crepuscular phantoms energised manhood, soap’ only to be arrowed down the page to the five single-word lines at its end.

The second quality, allied to this, is the condensation of the text.  The lesson may have been learned from Bunting (who had, years before, supplied Pound with his maxim ‘dichten = condensare’), though MacSweeney’s Odes owe little to Bunting’s and employ a more rigorous condensation.  This is not the economy that comes of careful revision but is an economy built into the compositional process.  It is perhaps too simple to attribute this wholly to MacSweeney’s journalistic training, yet we are aware of weird headline-like qualities in the statements: ‘Oak-pin/shells/survive the/China Sea’ (p.40).  Yet it is difficult to imagine a story to match the headline.  Something more than pared economy gives these poems their strength, makes this the most powerful collection to have appeared for some time.

Condensation is so acute as to actually block, and frustrate, our reading at the informational level.  Given a naturalistic reading we could say simply that MacSweeney is retreating into private meaning, has created a poetry so dense with personal reference, that he excludes us from the province of meaning altogether.  Although this is true, in so far as we recognise repeated motifs with a special significance for a barely discernable ‘I’ of the text, MacSweeney’s ‘obscurity’ is wilful.  He has said, ‘I’ve worked towards this condensing of language, this cutting across meaning, not having words next to each other which are supposed to be there, but in a way … I think they are shocking.’ (p.37, Poetry Information 18).  They are attempts to make a potential reader more acutely responsive to his language.

This is not a poetry where you can safely ‘get’ the state of mind of the author.  The metaphors are only half-elaborated, at one remove from their usual level of connection.


The feet are white boats.  Hands are

unlocked keys of colour & shape.  Love

me.  Feel me beside you

and within.


in April rain


I break my chrysalis

& Rise!

Walk as a golden man.

This, one of the shorter, early odes, leaves little doubt as to its central image of a springtime emergence from a chrysalis, but the connections between ‘feet’ and ‘white boats’, and between ‘hands’ and ‘colour & shape’ are not directly paraphrasable, although we recognise the patterning of the artifice, the symmetry of the thought.  ‘Unlocked keys’ suggests many possibilities of interpretation from paradox to pun.  By squeezing metaphoric language into this indeterminacy MacSweeney has ensured that the poems stay poetic.  The hermeneutic exercise (my own notes included) is useless to grasp the poetic complexity, beyond the definition of several difficult usages of vocabulary.  The exemplary text, the most dense, is the 1971 ode to Jim Morrison of the Doors, ‘Just 22 and I Don’t Mind Dying’.  MacSweeney himself has said of this, ‘The style is compressed, paratactic.  You know what I mean - commas acting as magnets drawing the next thing in, without having to go into ‘ands’, ‘thes’, all sorts of descriptive shit.  What you’re getting in fact was the facets of a diamond, like the facets of a stone, like complete shape, like Gaudier-Brzeska’s sculpture.’  (Poetry Information 18, p.36)  The Vorticist legacy is an important one, with MacSweeney replacing the linearity of syntactic structure with a linearity of movement.  An essential element of expression has been squeezed out of what is still a very expressive poetry.  ‘Just 22 …’ reminds me of certain symbolist texts.

Blow and she tinkles.  Burn the desk, my new

vampire, blousy and blue.  Giraffes invade the hands

´ chaque ¾tage.  Qui?  Smoke your kiss.

Although this poetry requires a special reading, and is not dissimilar from a great deal of so-called Cambridge poetry with which MacSweeney has some links, it does not attempt to produce anaemic verse that remains wittily and indecisively ‘surface’.  It admittedly does have wit (‘If finesse is crinkly you’re a / Dairy Box wrapper, whose heart’s crisp.’), yet its refusal to be pegged down resists any claim for its autonomy; it gestures towards the referential.  It lacks the sophisticated smoothness of tone associated with much Cambridge poetry.  It is also, it is worth adding, as far as possible from the linear strategies of MacSweeney’s own Black Torch poem.

Reading is cumulative across the book.  Concepts and symbols rime (in Duncan’s sense) and at their repetition we cling to them as familiar gobbets of meaning, though they are frequently slippery fish that, as we handle and unhook, we lose back into the water.  The ‘Wing Ode’ above is contextualised by reference to the euphoric ‘Rise/up and live!’ of the preceding ‘Flame Ode’.  Symbols of masculine sexuality, Snake and Wolf, and of female sexuality, Torpedo and Vixen, abound throughout, as do references to MacSweeney’s tragic heroes, Morrison and Thomas Chatterton.  There is some verbal play.  Thus the ‘Make your naked phone call moan’ of ‘Flame Ode’ echoes the ‘Make your naked pencil mine’ of the following ‘Torpedo’.  The ‘O pulchritudinous orb de la dish scourer,/bring suds!’ exists in the tension of mutual parody with the beginning of ‘Dunce Ode’: ‘O pusillanimous orb de la Brillo / fetch pseuds!’  Other sonic devices, such as unexpected rhyme, occasional regular rhythm and alliteration, give a too-graceful edge to what is, in terms of syntax, vocabulary and symbolism, an intensely disturbing experience.

The heightened language of the Odes, pertaining, as the title implies, to music and its morphologies of feeling, goes beyond the demands of a poetry of pure surface.  Celerity is a guerilla tactic against a language that belongs increasingly to the controllers of our society.  In ‘Far Cliff Babylon’ MacSweeney can adopt a persona that declares with frightening simplicity in lines that are parodied throughout the piece:

I am 16.

I am a Tory.  My

vision of the future represents

no people.

These poems cannot be pinned down, anaesthetised with a fixed meaning, though the feeling - so often of an anger that verges on the sadistic - is distinct.  We are forced to join in the mechanics of language.  We can’t rest in too many of the familiar notions of space/time, social details, idea, or traditional image, most of the comforting impedimenta of ‘poetry’ as it is understood and transmitted accordingly in the package-deal mentality of our educationalists.  In ‘Far Cliff Babylon’ there comes the stark realisation that ‘I have died every day since I gave up poetry. / Dangerous condescending humans lapped it up.’  Despite this, the real triumph of these poems is that they ‘move’ the reader - in both senses of the word.  Yet the ‘movement’ of the poems, the celerity of the text, resists that static aestheticisation of the feeling, that comforting, introspective notion of having been ‘moved’.  If they move us, these poems move us onwards.

17-19 April 1980                                                                     Reality Studios 3:2, 1981

(Note 2015: There is more on Barry MacSweeney here.)