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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Robert Sheppard: John Seed’s Lyric Poems and Objectivism (poems to/on Oppen and Zukofsky)

John Seed’s early poems are pure imagism, sparse, direct treatments of things, without comment, with a strong use of space and (as time progresses) abrupt enjambment rather that euphony or regular metrics. In an early, untitled poem, we see what Charles Altieri sees as the essential Objectivist way of measuring the world through acts of attention (the sort that moved imagism on towards objectivism): ‘Objectivist poetics creates an instrument sufficiently subtle to make attention and care … ends in themselves. Attention, care, and composition become testimony to levels of fit between the mind and the world in rhythmic interactions that require no supplementary justification in the form of abstract meaning.’ (Altieri 32) In a subtle placing of lines, Seed’s poem moves from the opening natural image of ‘winter sun silver over the waves’, with its slight alliteration, to its final identification of (and with) the impedimenta of the industrialized sea shore: ‘cranes silent along the dockside’. (Seed 2005: 15)  The natural and cultural meet, but resist merging through opposite qualities of attention, in ‘the glitter of metal and glass/ through the bright haze’. (15) Page after page of the earliest poems (though without the slight sonority of conventional alliteration found here) abut the natural or the perceptual with the spectral traces of industrialized modern Britain. ‘Collage construction enables images to become a form of thinking,’ Altieri suggests and (Altieri 32) the title of another poem, ‘Lindisfarne: Dole’, presents a deliberate juxtaposition (even an inexplicable equation with its colon) of the ancient monastic island (it hints towards passages of Bunting’s Briggflatts perhaps) and unemployment (which was rising in the early 1970s). The poem itself contrasts the underemployed ‘walking, dreamless for hours’ with the hard reality of ‘England’s coast’ which sounds more a more sociological construct than an a mere geological feature, thus expressed (12). A decade later ‘During War, the Timeless Air’, dated ‘England May 1982’ is similarly situated ‘At the nation’s edge’ in order to consider the Falklands war (‘For a moment almost free’) where the existential transcendence (the timeless air out of the time of war, the duration of ‘During’) is not unlike the inner freedom of ‘dreamless’ perambulation in the dole poem. (39) The care and attention are straining for the political perspectives he had already (privately) experimented with in Manc

It is instructive to examine two poems addressed to Objectivists themselves. Adopting the same marginal convention used (but abandoned in late work) by Oppen, of capitalising after line-breaks while allowing for hanging indented lines without this convention, Seed, in ‘From Manchester, ToGeorge and Mary Oppen in San Francisco,’ begins in fragile media res, and clearly establishes the urban and poverty as a shared theme with Oppen:

                                    this city has its beggars too
            Lonely and threadbare in bronchial gloom
                                                like the sparrows
            Imagining bread or Spring (43)

The notorious damp of the region is evoked well at the human level, the sparrows (not Bunting’s ‘spuggies’ here) imaged and imagined as imagining shorter- or longer term respite. Of course, this is the city of Peterloo too (the site of the massacre now built over as St Peter’s Square, though memorialized by a plaque). But after an ellipsis, Seed picks up (in homage and identification) with a reference to Oppen’s ‘Of Being Numerous’, with its realisation of the ‘shipwreck of the singular’ in the metropolis:
                                                            … or the solitary
            Traveller    here and not here
            In the crowed night of streets

The enjambment ‘solitary/ Traveller’, though mild by later standards, which we have already identified with the Barthesian punctum, makes the isolate figure more so, as the capital on ‘Traveller’, rather than being a mere metrical convention, lifts the noun towards becoming a proper noun. Travel is not now ‘dreamless’ but semi-present, transient, and the descent of ‘night’ (a resonant word in Seed’s work, as we shall see) invades the streets and crowds it (empty but populated with isolating vacancy). This ‘Traveller’ is finally

                        Dreaming each footstep


                                                            ache beneath the ribs (43)  

The footsteps are only imaginary or aspirational, the whole process unreadable (words like ‘indecipherable’ and ‘impenetrable’ recur throughout Seed’s work), leaving only the desire as pain, but also reminding us of the bodily symptoms of bronchial disease, corporeal ‘gloom’ (a determinant of poverty not just the environment). The ever right-wards adjustment of the visual page, line by line, tilts the reading away from a discursive ending. ‘Indecipherable’, the untranslatable, the inaccessible, could relate equally to the ‘dreaming’, ‘the footstep(s)’ or the ‘home’ by prior syntactic linkage, or to the ‘ache’, by anterior connection. In all cases the Oppenesque theme of ‘solitariness’ (the word that is ranged farthest to the disappearing margin of our conventional reading page) is a code that cannot be accessed. (A number of Seed’s poems enact this by placing a solitary ‘I’ contentiously at the end of a line.) What Burton Hatlen says of Oppen goes for Seed in these poems: ‘Oppen … perfected a poetry in which syntactic interruptions and suspensions open up abysses within which the unsayable resonates behind, around, and within what gets said.’ (Hatlen 1999: 53) (This is not unlike the search for the elusive and ‘punctive’ something/something else that Seed speaks of lurking in his (and Reznikoff’s) conceptualist practice.)

‘For Oppen,’ writes Altieri, ‘sincerity is above all an ethical term.’ (9) Seed shares Oppen’s perspective: ‘The potential he saw in “historical and contemporary particulars” was a sense of social purpose without agitprop posturing.’ (9) The ‘gloom’ and negative ‘night’ re-appear in a later Manchester poem, dated ‘11 vii 1992’ (81) as, firstly, the ‘Architecture of solitude’ but also as the ‘Continuous Victorian night’, which reflects not just the origins of the city (its growth on the site of Peterloo) but its continuity with the ‘Victorian values’ of contemporary Thatcherite Britain (hence the precise dating, as in the Falklands War poem, so that the poem is read as situated social commentary but without agitprop intent).  

Zukofsky died in 1978, and ‘in memoriam Louis Zukofsky’ is Seed’s commemoration of this event and was included in the book of tributes, Louis Zukofsky, or Whoever Someone Else Thought He Was, published by North & South Press, edited by Harry Gilonis, another Objectivist-inflected poet, in 1988. (The decade wait seems somehow appropriate to the hiatuses, career breaks, renunciations and delays in the reception of Objectivist work!) It is also a work of poetics, one of the instances where poetics appears in the creative work itself. It opens:

                                                            outside the dream no
                        Invented this freezing rain is this
                        The question riveted into brick
Under the bridge (Seed 2005: 68)

‘outside the dream no’ operates as the title in the contents page of New and Collected Poems, and as such, beginning without capital letters, its assertion is muted, its negative strangely isolated (well to the right of any other word). ‘Dream’ (as much as the ‘dreamless’ state of the earlier poem) seems private and self-sustaining (and is curiously close to a usage of Lee Harwood) while the world seems determined by forces of decay. The enjambment announces the appearance of a noun, which is (ironically) the word ‘Verb’, isolated on a lone line. One might expect the word ‘noun’ to be there (and it would in a Oppenesque tribute I suspect), but here it is the fact that ‘no’ (enjambment) ‘Verb’ (isolated as though a Zukofskyean focussed particular) ‘invented this freezing rain’. Verbs (those ‘doing words’ of schoolchild pedagogy’) do not ‘invent’; they animate. Seed’s syntactic play is freer here and he asks ‘is this/ The question’ embedded in the flow of two other enjambed lines. ‘The’ of the ‘question’ is neatly capitalised. It may or not be the question but it is ‘riveted into brick’ in a quotidian location. The question that is questioned here seems to be the proposition that ‘verbs’ ‘invent’. Invention (as in world-creation, say) is not a ploy of Objectivist poetry (inventiveness is). Perhaps Seed is quietly questioning some of the practices of late Zukofsky, the proto-Oulipean games which seem so alien to the work of Oppen and Reznikoff, Seed’s acknowledged mentors.

            Rust       edges

            Already flaking (68)

suggests not construction but decay (and promises more), the space isolating the elements and liminal space of this slow process. The poem ends, confirming retardation and reminding us of the rain as the instrument of rusting.

            Slowly in October
            Rain the transient structures the (68)

Zukofsky has a long poem beginning ‘The’; Seed has a short poem ending with ‘the’.  The near- oxymoron of the abstract phrase ‘transient structures’ alerts us to the ‘slowly’ moving ‘flaking’ of even a ‘rivet’; ‘transient structures’ are, in effect, historical time, which is both nomadic and structured; even in the world’s smallest units, the crucial ones (literally speaking), this process is present. (Oppen spoke of the little words, the nouns, as his focus.) No verb invents the corrosive rusting rain, but it effects its own processes of decay, it carries out its own ‘verb’ function, as it were. This is perhaps confirmed by a contemporary untitled poem that begins:

            Trudging the verb
            Into streets     where else
            SW19 SW20
Victorian property after
Dark surfaces all
Changed in five years  (58)

This reminder of the Victorian, the dark surfaces (‘after/ Dark’ subtly evokes that ideological ‘continuous Victorian night’) and the slow historical change emphasise how Seed’s poems are mutually confirming. (Something I say to students: it’s easier to understand 10 poems by a poet than one on its isolated baffling own. I’ve looked at two.)

Other recent Seed posts here and here