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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.)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Past writings on, and past tributes to, Barry MacSweeney

I have been reading the very welcome collection of essays on Barry MacSweeney, edited by MacSweeney scholar Paul Batchelor, Reading Barry MacSweeney (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2013), an important supplement to the work of William Walton Rowe in Three Lyric Poets (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2009) and the essays in John Wilkinson’s The Lyric Touch (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2007), (though Marianne Morris’ essay ‘The Abused Become the Abusers’ in Quid 14 (October 2004) must also be acknowledged, and the long 100 page chapter in Clive Bush’s volume Out of Dissent which I read last night).

The oscillation of views on MacSweeney’s work is extreme, which is not surprising, given its range. The by turns precocious and derivative early work, uneasily dominated by father-figures like Bunting and/or Prynne contrasts with the Vorticist impaction of Odes which followed. The either hopeless or aspirational mythologizing of Ranter gives way to the violent abjection of middle period political work like ‘Liz Hard’, which is either enthusiastically embraced as the central work of the oeuvre or dismissed as its ‘central disaster’ (Peter Riley’s phrase, I think). In one volume, The Book of Demons, readers face either the pastoral richness or sentimental poverty of the ‘Pearl’ poems, and the execrable or exemplary un-palatability of ‘The Book of Demons’ (depending on one’s views towards the idyllic and the alcoholic). The collaborative celebration of Apollinaire in his final book Horses in Boiling Blood – a marvellous book I fully recommend to those who stopped with Wolf Tongue – presented the last in a long line of ventriloquised heroes and avatars, from Chatterton to Robert Johnson, a strategy which raises various objections, subtle excuses and lengthy supporting expositions, from his critics.

In another posting (here) I deal with some of the views of MacSweeney (the canonisation of him, to be precise) but I don’t offer my own. MacSweeney (who I met only a couple of times) pops in and out of my autrebiographical texts (to be published whole as Words out of Time: autrebiographies and unwritings (see some excerpts here and here). I fish these four direct references out of the texts that make this up. 

I don’t remember buying Barry MacSweeney’s poem about Jim Morrison.

Why is there no news from Barry MacSweeney?

I came over but he was deep in MacSweeney and Rimbaud.

Barry MacSweeney recites his Mary Bell sonnets.

To contextualise: Just 22 and don’t mind dying came in a 7 inch square sleeve; I know I had a copy, probably bought in Norwich at the underground bookshop that was closing down. There was ‘no news’ because I had invited him to do a reading in the early 1980s in Norwich, no reply. I too (‘he’) indulged in the equation of MacSweeney and other doomed heroes, you can see. The last quotation refers to the last gig I saw him do, in Southport with Lee Harwood in about 1998 or 99 at which he read the notorious and unpublishable ‘Mary Bell’ poems about the Tyneside child-killer who was herself a child at the time of the murder.

MacSweeney haunts past and present. I have two copies of his Hutchinson volume The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother (see note 137 below): one signed and dated by me: ‘robert g sheppard august 1974’, by which time I’d met him, having recorded a London poetry reading with Tom Pickard (who read his brilliant ‘Dancing Under Fire’) in 1974 for my tape magazine 1983. I still have the blurred cassette on which I am surprised he read early poems. The second is signed ‘All best wishes Barry MacSweeney Nov 1968 Liverpool,’ which I bought in the Oxfam shop a few years ago. There’s something totemic about having two copies.  

As a ‘linguistically innovative poet’, for me, the central MacSweeney book has always been The Odes. I reviewed this in Reality Studios in 1981, and this review is republished in Far Language, whose title comes from MacSweeney, but I also beefed it up for the end of my ‘British Poetry Revival’ chapter in The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool University Press, 2005). It ran like this (pp. 68-70):

With their celerity, and condensation, Barry MacSweeney’s Odes offer a tough view of politics in the late 1970s. Having made a precocious beginning in the late 1960s, even being picked up by a major publisher as a possible Geordie complement to the Liverpool Poets, and having mixed with a broad range of poets, from Bunting and Pickard, to Prynne and Mottram, who steered him away from such celebrity, MacSweeney developed a range and authority that remained in his writing until his death in 2000.137
Pound had approvingly quoted Bunting’s bilingual equation ‘Dichten = condensare’ in his ABC of Reading (1951), to demonstrate that condensation is the essence of writing,138 but in Odes, whose title might suggest a debt to Bunting’s own two books of ­Odes, ‘the style is compressed, paratactic.’139 This is not the economy that comes of careful revision but is an economy built into the compositional process. Condensation is so acute, its resultant autonomy frustrates the processes of naturalization. Perhaps learning from the increased impaction found in the work of Prynne at this time, as he too moved from the Olsonian inheritance, MacSweeney 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 … I think they are shocking. 140

By squeezing metaphoric language into this indeterminacy MacSweeney, like Bill Griffiths, has ensured that the poems stay poetic. 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.141

The Babylonian exile of the reggae of the era (‘I have no people/They represent me’) merges with the sinister tones of Igy Pop’s lyric, ‘No Fun’, that operates as a resistant echo of the other NF, the National Front, which, as we have seen from Lud Heat, was a small but potent force throughout the 1970s.142  More positively, ‘No Fun’ counterpoints another slogan: ‘No more apartheid’. 143
The poem is what MacSweeney would ironically call a number of his angry poems of the 1980s: a state of the nation address. The sceptre of unemployment hovers in the surreal image of

your natty dread future is a dole card
stamped with asteroids exploding
across the city of my

The reader is forced to join in the mechanics of language, cannot rest in too many of the familiar notions of space/time, social detail, idea, or traditional image, most of the comforting impedimenta of ‘poetry’. In ‘Far Cliff Babylon’ there comes the stark realization that ‘I have died every day since I gave up poetry./Dangerous condescending humans lapped it up.’ 145 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 aestheticization of the feeling, that comforting, introspective notion, of having been ‘moved’. It recalls what Forrest-Thomson said of the alternative linguistic orderings evoked by poetic artifice. That the lines ‘I am 16/I am a Tory’ quote the young William Hague, leader of the Conservative Party from 1997 until 2001, makes the poem seem prophetic, a bridge to the poetry of the 1980s and 1990s.


And beyond, I think, into the 2000s and 2010s: Mr Hague’s now shiny skull is thought a useful target for a nail in Sean Bonney’s Happiness published two years ago. (Look it up.) It’s a cogent enough account, it still seems to me (and I note how the hero-worshipping and the mythical aspects are strategically ignored).

When The Tempers of Hazard appeared in 1993 (I got my copy pretty quick and avoided the notorious pulping) I was surprised to see the anarchic and typographically wild ‘Liz Hard’ and ‘Jury Vet Poems’, but I’d always found them ‘difficult’ in a different way, a less-guarded way, than Odes, and I don’t mention them here (though to be fair I was writing a history of the British Poetry Revival, whose dating generally ends in 1978). Looking at them now, and wondering if I am up to writing about them, I realise that they should be formally regarded as a continuation of the impaction of the Odes, despite the scatological and sexual violence of the content (Bush refers to them as the ‘Jury Vet Odes’, which encourages me in this identification). As readers of these posts will have noticed, FORM is what I am interested in with my current critical project. But before I turn to that, I recall another debt to MacSweeney in my creative work. I am making this clear to myself (and others) before moving on. 

The apparently non-parenthetical remark above ‘until his death in 2000’ was added at a late stage in the preparation of the manuscript of The Poetry of Saying (as were the references to Hague, it seems; MacSweeney himself confirmed the quote but I have seen the odious video of the infant Hague uttering these words through his Giles cartoon chin). But this wasn’t the only reference to the sad fact of MacSweeney’s death in my work. (I found out about it by picking up a copy of The Guardian in The Willow Bank in Liverpool and read Andrew Crozier’s obituary. It was quite a shock.) The last poem of my long intratextual project TwentiethCentury Blues was the millennial ‘Empty Diary 2000’. The character ‘Pearl’, who appears in a kind of semi-Beckettian comic-tragic pairing with ‘George’ throughout the project, and is the narrator of this poem, is of course not the same Pearl as the one eulogised by MacSweeney in his searing pastoral ‘Pearl’ poems. (They are both based on different real people.) Here is the poem (revised from the unsatisfying prose version in Tin Pan Arcadia). The dedication to MacSweeney, which seemed inevitable at the time) is only at the end because of the terrible rhyming couplet it would make if placed just after the title. (Try it.) It’s not ‘about’ MacSweeney, but seems appropriate to him; there’s as much from Noel Coward (‘Poor Little Rich Girl’ rather than ‘Twentieth Century Blues’), Kiki of Monparnasse, Roland Barthes, Harryette Mullen, even Angela Carter, and it’s a farewell to the entire project and the ‘Empty Diary’ strand that runs through it like the legendary ‘Fuck You’ supposedly printed through miles of Brighton Rock that had to be destroyed. There exists, however, an Empty Diary 1327 (coincidentally written in the last few days, a Petrarch 3 variation) and an Empty Diary 2055 (a homage to cyberpunk in the Blues itself) as well as the complete 1901-2000 series (though I have it in mind to extend it into this century at some point: 2001-2014 perhaps, 14 fourteen-liners).

The Push Up Combat Bikini

Coda 4
Empty Diary 2000
IM 11

Such turned out to be the eternity the poet promised me, the bastard
                                                                                                                Angela Carter

You’re coming over all female.
Your conceit’s too clean. Out
of the push up they’re a let down,
deposits that won’t quite register,
banked on your looking. You sniff
eroticism off dirty shifts, smudges of pelt.
I slip an ought, drop a stitch or two
Hot gushes signal your retreat. Every
time I open my mouth out comes
a manifesto of a new literary movement!
Was that a poem, curling round you,
your nerves ajangle at syntax’s opening?
It takes me and takes me
for somebody else, as you
push me out between its lines.
What might a poem be, elsed?
You dunk your aching, lived-in balls in ink
and roll them across the page.
I’m your shagged out Muse.
Take me over you this last time.
Whisper me Pearl, whistle me off.
I’ll be a big register on your retina,
breathlessly weaving love for a puppet prick
that can be choreographed. I’m
pegged on that line to George’s stuff
and nonsense. ‘I’m only an instance of a fuck
fucking (he says (she says (who says?
The ventriloquist tongues my clitoris and it speaks.

dedicated to the memory of Barry MacSweeney

2000; revised 2007


For the sake of completion, I took a look at my When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry (Shearsman, 2011), a book I thought did not include much on Barry MacSweeney. In fact there are a string of references, on one occasion countering the mythologising of him by Iain Sinclair. But more germane to my current theme, his role at the Poetry Society during the years covered by Peter Barry’s The Poetry Wars is outlined and I compare his more assertive political poetry to that of Lee Harwood, but introduce it with sound-bites from Marcuse’s 1977 book The Aesthetic Dimension … :

‘In its autonomy art both protests [the prevailing social relations], and at the same time transcends them. Thereby art subverts the dominant consciousness, the ordinary experience’ and its ordinary language which, one might add, the manifesto [ of the Poetry Society] also questions. (Marcuse 1979: ix) Marcuse sees the ‘logic’ of art – via its distanciation, and other techniques hinted at in the manifesto – as culminating in ‘another reason, another sensibility’, which defy prevailing conditions, with its own ‘categorical imperative: “things must change”’. (Marcuse 1979: 13)  The critical function of the work of art re-establishes the emancipatory dreams of the 1960s in a new 1970s formalism…. Barry MacSweeney, at one time chair of the Poetry Society, in a public mode of poem he would call later ‘a State of the Nation bulletin’ (MacSweeney 2003: 138) …  delivers a public address in a clipped shorthand that may owe as much to his journalistic training as it does to the example of Allen Ginsberg’s public ‘Poems of these States’, an excerpt of which provides the epigraph to his 1977-78 poem, ‘Black Torch Sunrise’. MacSweeney offers images of potential insurrection, or of ‘1968 failure’:

Whipped legs
                        of left-bank women students
                                    blur on the shimmered screen
                                    625 line consciousness  (MacSweeney 2003: 75)

The public scene is mediated through the latest televisual technology but the language is ‘direct’. It is a public discourse that disarmingly answers its own questions: ‘Will the Labour Party uphold the jailing of pickets?/ Of course.’ (MacSweeney 2003: 74).


Of course.


137. The early book was The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother (London: New Authors, Hutchinson, 1968). MacSweeney had published in Vogue as well as The English Intelligencer so one can imagine that he was confused enough when, at the age of 20, he was nominated for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. MacSweeney turned to the small presses for the next 25 years until he was anthologized by Iain Sinclair in The Tempers of Hazard (with Thomas A. Clark and Chris Torrance) (London: Paladin, 1993),  pp. 133-285 and in The Book of Demons, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1997. He is well served by Clive Bush, ‘Parts in the weal of kynde, Barry MacSweeney’, Out of Dissent, pp.304-416.
138. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (London: Faber, 1951), p. 152.
139. ‘MacSweeney’, p. 36.
140. Ibid., p. 37.
141. Barry MacSweeney, Odes (London: Trigram Press, 1978), p. 57.
142. Ibid., p. 58.
143. Ibid., p. 58.
144. Ibid., p. 57.
145. Ibid., p. 60.

(All my posts on form, MacSweeney and other writers building up to create the project The Meaning of Form may be accessed 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

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Form, Forms and Forming and the Antagonisms of Reality in Criticism, Poetics and Poetry

A poetics piece dedicated to poet Sean Bonney, ‘Bad Poetry for Bad People!’ re-articulates many of the terms in this piece in a ‘forming action’ that drags ideas in the wake of its forward trajectory. I come up with the term ‘manyfesto’ to distinguish its multiple unfinish from the ‘manifestos’ of art (and politics). Written in response to Bonney’s talk about politics and poetry at the same Edinburgh conference to which I presented a draft of ‘Form, Forms and Forming and the Antagonisms of Reality in Criticism, Poetics and Poetry’ (and with the sounds of Bonney’s talk, my paper and the 2011 English riots ringing in my ears), it brings together (and disperses) many of the themes of this book, and demonstrates some of its concerns: it harbours (yet another) sonnet in its midst, it contains a ‘poetry’ that cannot be paraphrased, it offers a poetics that remains speculative, conjectural and provocative. It is a form that thinks poetry. Read it here. It is also republished, revised, in my book Unfinish: see here.

It begins (to give a taster):

i put myself in the scene i swerve new walls a mile high. An Investors in People plaque gleams on the funeral director’s wall. Shadows cast us aside for evening’s soft erasures, leave pencil shavings on paper. Political poetry will both say and not say, modified by formal resistance. Commodified a looted shop or Love on an impulse never correct mistrust of getting some watches a clear Muse stream hash-tagged on Twitter. This might be a way of approaching Adorno’s contention that the unresolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as problems of form. There’s….

Even a cursory inspection of Charles Bernstein’s edited volume The Politics of Poetic Form (1990), a book that one might think pertinent to the theme of this blogging, will reveal how little form is actually referred to in any detail (by Rosmarie Waldrop alone as it happens in the poetics piece ‘Alarms and Excursions’, examined in an earlier posting). It is easier to talk politics, we might infer, than to interrogate form. I wish to trace a politics of poetic form without losing sight of form as a vital force of poesis. If poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form – as I contend – then the investigation of form itself is of paramount importance. It comes with a certain methodological liberty and verve: ‘The vitality of reading for form is freedom from program and manifesto, from any uniform discipline,’ (5) says leading new formalist Susan J. Wolfson. Indeed, this formalism has been fighting against instrumentalist readings of literature, ranging from the impositions of the New Historicists to the quasi-sociology that passes for a lot of English teaching still, particularly of poetry in schools, which often amounts to political message unmediated by the effects of form. Wolfson counters this: ‘My deepest claim is that language shaped by poetic form is not simply conscriptable as information for other frameworks of analysis; the forms themselves demand a specific kind of critical attention.’ (30)
I argue that the attention of any formal study of contemporary poetry – for that is what I am currently writing – must be dual. It must focus on form in the technical sense, on identifiable forms in play, the ones identified by Veronica Forrest-Thomson in Poetic Artifice as enjambment, line, rhythm, rhyme, etc., and on form in a general, more performative sense, that prioritises acts of forming and our apprehension of their coming to form in our reading. Forms and forming I call this pair for ease. Associating one with the other, Derek Attridge in The Singularity of Literature argues that form is the force that stages a performance of any text: we need to apprehend ‘the eventness of the literary work, which means that form needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form”, of “forming”, or even “loosing form”’(113),  but he insists that the devices of artifice ‘are precisely what call forth the performative response’ of any engaged reader, directly connected to the event of singularity which is the irruption of an inventive otherness in our productive reading. (118)
Both types of form are capable of carrying a semantic or cognitive charge, demonstrating that forms think. They contain or envelop meaning(s) of knowledge(s) and might show how new meaning and (non-propositional) knowledge might be formed and formulated. As such, aesthetic form carries a force operating on the individual (or collective) reader or viewer, which – in the case of poetry – means that the reader is the site where such meanings are staged by form, so that reading is formulating form, and formulating it into fluxing semantic and cognitive forms as a ‘performed mobility’. (111). Wolfson even writes that literature lovers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’. (Rawes 214) Formal considerations of both kinds (forms and forming) are engaged by active reading and enact meanings that moderate, exacerbate, subvert (and on rare occasions reinforce) the kind of extractable meaning that Forrest-Thomson and Attridge both decry as ‘paraphrase’. If apprehension of form is not, or not only, a matter of collecting the devices of poetic artifice, of forms, but a question of entering into the process by which the text finds form in our reading, as forming, there can be, strictly, no paraphrase; indeed, paraphrase, a mode by which meaning is supposedly skimmed off the surface of reading as a residue or even an essence, or worse, a ‘political’ slogan, is a violation of the processes of forms forming. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.
‘An “artist” is someone who presents problems of forms,’ insists Lyotard in ‘The Critical Function of the Work of Art’, using the plural of the word as my study does, in alliance with, but distinct from its singular form. He continues: ‘The essential element, the only decisive one, is form. Modifying social reality is not important at all if it aims at putting back into place something that will have the same form.’ (83 Driftworks Lyotard) As true as these two sentences might be, the analogy that is suggested between the plastic forms of art practice, form as a decisive category of aesthetics or poetics, and ‘form’ as social and political formation in the service of an understated social ‘modification’, is an utopian one not sustained beyond his textual practice of periodic juxtaposition and the cognitive wilfulness of wishful thinking. It moves, as the arguments often do, too quickly, from ‘form’ as I am tracing its adventure in my current study, to social transformation as that is envisioned by radical politics. In the transfer events of forms and acts of forming are ignored: form is lost.
Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory was published in 1970, the same year as Lyotard’s post-1968 speculations, but takes a more nuanced view of what is a long standing interaction in aesthetics, beginning in Schiller, between the forms of life and the forms of art. ‘The unresolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form,’ Adorno says, thus immediately aligning, but separating, politics and form. (Adorno Theory: p. 6). The relationship between reality and form is announced in a way which seems to settle the issue. Antagonisms that have been resolved do not make their appearance, have historically played themselves out, it seems. Those unhappily unresolved antagonisms – of class one supposes – ‘return’ in artworks. They exist prior to their appearance as form therefore. By this formulation, they could not arise in the artwork, certainly not as content and only as form, or to be precise as ‘a problem of form’, whatever that might mean, and as an immanent, intrinsic one at that. Both Lyotard and Adorno see the artist presenting problems of form or forms, rather than form or its forms (or indeed forming) themselves. To continue with Adorno: the dynamic social forces of antagonism re-appear after the event as problems (which presumably have possible solutions) in the very substance of ‘the objective organisation within each artwork of what appears to be bindingly eloquent’ (p. 143), to use one of Adorno’s multiple definitions of form. For philosophy, an eloquent problem might be a forceful expression of its ceaseless activity; for an artist, problems of form or forms may be questions of poetics as I define it, as a speculative writerly discourse about the future of his or her activity, of acts of forming. But that is to return to the primal scene of poesis too hastily. Let us pursue Adorno’s definitions of form from a social perspective: ‘Form is what is anti-barbaric in art; through form art participates in the civilization that it criticizes by its very existence.’ (143) This asserts, a sting sharp in its tail, a now familiar conception of the critical function of the work of art, but which involves form as acts of forming, as dynamic participants in critique. Another definition suggests how the immanent problems reconfigure, how form mediates its critical function by operating on the world through itself, by turning onto, or back to, itself: ‘Form converges with critique. It is that through which artworks prove self-critical.’ (144: my emphasis) The problems of form and forms offer the modalities of critique in acts of forming, at those moments when form becomes visible. ‘If form is that in artworks by which they become artworks,’ argues Adorno, a formalism with which we might concur, ‘it is equivalent with their mediatedness, their objective reflectiveness into themselves.’ (144) Reading for form is allowing critical form to become critical function. Mediation to be complete must involve the finding, making, or even losing of form by the user of the artwork.
This has an art-historical aspect: ‘By its critical implication, form annihilates practices and works of the past.’ (144) A chapter in progress (there’s a version on Pages in 14 parts (of course!) ‘The Innovative Sonnet Sequence’, it begins here, and ends here, and was posted daily for a fortnight) outlines the vicissitudes in the history of the sonnet, the emergence of the innovative sonnet in one literary milieu in response to the perceived redundancy of the traditional sonnet. Jeff Hilson’s anthology The Reality Street Book of Sonnets is a monument to formal annihilation, to form analysing itself by fruitful exploration of the possible contemporary formal meanings of the sonnet frame.
To repeat my self-consciously formalist thesis:  Poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. But for Adorno there is a further chain in the argument that forges the link between formal introspection and political critique: ‘Form is the law of the transfiguration of the existing, counter to which it represents freedom.’ (143) A representation of freedom is not freedom itself, of course, and Adorno characteristically sees the melancholy and guilt of the transfigurative situation in that ‘form inevitably limits what is formed’, since ‘selecting, trimming, renouncing’ must be a major part of poesis. ‘Without rejection there is no form, and this prolongs guilty domination in artworks, of which they would like to be free; form is their amorality.’ (144) I’m not sure this is experienced at the level of poesis (chopping out an unnecessary simile or adjective, sweeping away a passage of exposition in a piece of fiction, can be exhilarating), but at an historical level (say, of rejecting traditional sonnet forms for innovative ones) it might be felt as guilt. Indeed, this is not a million miles away from WH Auden’s guilty realisation that ‘a poem which was really like a political democracy would be formless’; a society organised like a good poem (by Auden’s poetics) would be a totalitarian regime, a remark that has haunted and stimulated my thinking for some decades. (quoted in Raban, p. 27)  It certainly flowed into the formal selections for writing my poem The Lores in the mid-90s, where ‘the text’s poetic focus is the relationship of fascism to micro-fascism and the matching resistances to that at both the Grand Level and at ground level,’ is negotiated in part by the formal frame of ‘various word counts for the poem [which] derive from Plato’s The Laws, in which 5040 is considered the ideal number of citizens for his second ,[more repressive,] Republic because it is a number divisible by most numbers, and is therefore useful for the raising of taxes and militia, and – doubtless – for surveillance’ (Sheppard 2008: 383-4):




The forms of life and the forms of art have been entangled since Romantic aesthetics gave us the terms. ‘Form is the seal of social labour, fundamentally different from the empirical process of making,’ (144) remarks Adorno, and this is true, but the empirical process of making, poesis and its poetics, must lie behind any presentation of the problems of form, and it is one I want to return to as someone who presents problems of form(s) as poems. ‘Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silkworm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature,’ Marx commented, (Marx in Milton ed. Davies, p. 19) a little too easily, but it does remind us that Schiller asserted, in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) that ‘Man … is only wholly Man when he is playing’ and ‘he shall play only with Beauty.’ (Schiller p. 80; italics his)  The shaping of beauty can only be facilitated by the ‘play impulse’ but the ‘object of the form impulse’ is ‘shape… a concept which includes all formal qualities of things and all their relations to the intellectual faculties’ (p. 76, italics his). This is in distinction to its reciprocatory antagonist, the ‘sense impulse’, whose object is ‘life’ to the wholeness of Man. (76: but see also p. 118) Art and life are separate until brought together. Schiller leaves us in no doubt that the Man who is wholly himself in play and sense becomes adequate to realities beyond himself by becoming a man of form, as it were: ‘When … the formal impulse holds sway, and the pure object acts within us, there is the highest expansion of being, all barriers disappear, and from being the unit of magnitude to which the needy sense confined him, Man has risen to a unit of idea embracing the whole realm of phenomena.’ (Schiller: 67; his italics.)
Jacques Rancière, in his 2002 essay ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’ points to Schiller’s equation of these drives and summarises: ‘There exists a specific sensory experience that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community, namely the aesthetic.’ The Romantic breakthrough of which Schiller was part is ‘one that reframes the division of the forms of our experience to this day’, he claims. (Dis: 115 ranc) This results in ‘three major scenarios’ concerning this relationship, similar to the triad established by Schiller: ‘Art can become life. Life can become art. And art and life can change their properties.’ (119) One of Rancière’s ‘scenarios’ (the last, in effect that art and life can change and perhaps exchange their properties) is particularly seductive but dangerous for the contemporary artist in Rancière’s attractive description. ‘The prose of everyday life becomes a huge fantastic poem’ sounds inviting (particularly to poets!), the poet becoming ‘not only a naturalist or an archaeologist, … he also becomes … a symptomologist, delving into the dark underside …  to decipher the messages engraved in the very flesh of ordinary things’, but this is to run the risk of making the extraordinary ordinary, and results (‘taken to its extreme’) in the vapid ‘political’ art of ‘exhibitions of re-cycled commodities’: ‘denunciation … becomes part of the game’. (126-7) How I think of certain exhibitions at the Liverpool Biennial, but the textual equivalent might be a work such as Alexandra Nemerov’s ‘First My Motorola’ which ‘is a list of every brand she touched over the course of a day’, and is an exemplar of uncreative writing in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing published in 2011. (457-62):

First, My Motorola
Then my Frette
Then my Sonia Rykiel
Then my Bulgari
Then my Asprey …. (457)                                                                    until

And finally, my Motorola (462)

Nemerov’s text attempts to trace the multiple signatures of late capitalism, but does nothing with those traces; from a formal point of view this text fails to transform the phenomena it frames (unlike, say, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day or Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts). It is unadorned product placement that ‘my’ of the circularity of the diurnal return to ‘And finally’ hardly ironises enough (for this reader). Art and life change their properties, perhaps, and in the act de-value both; exchange is not, after all, transformation.1
However, between these three scenarios that Rancière describes (the other two entropic ‘vanishing points’ are art becoming life and life becoming art, remember) creative artists inevitably ‘shuttle … playing one linkage with art and non-art against another such linkage’. (132) The artist buzzes like a fly between the three planes of his or her conceptual prison. This places the poet in an interestingly nuanced and unstable position: ‘Aesthetic art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity,’ says Rancière, quite positively. (133) The forms of life and the forms of art touch and partly re-negotiate their relationship, perhaps continually. Rancière calls this process ‘dissensus’: ‘If there exists a connection between art and politics, it should be cast in terms of dissensus, the very kernel of the aesthetic regime: artworks can produce effects of dissensus precisely because they neither give lessons nor have any destination’. (140) Dissensus is defined in contradistinction to the manufacture of ‘democratic’ consensus as ‘a political process that resists juridical litigation and creates a fissure in the sensible order by confronting the established framework of perception, thought and action with the “inadmissible”’. (in Glossary in The Politics of Aesthetics: p. 85) Forces of subjectivation are energised by its rupture of reality. Its politics operate much like the approved model of the aesthetic in Rancière’s thought.2
‘The dream of a suitable political work of art,’ Rancière says elsewhere in an interview, ‘is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable and thinkable’ – the three essential regimes of his thinking – ‘without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle’, like Nemerov; instead producing ‘meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations.’ (Polit 63) In effect, a dissensual rupture. Rupture – which I interpret, or at least envisage, as a formal activity –is inherently meaningful. As Benjamin comments: ‘Interruption is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring.’ (Benjamin: 58?)
Rancière, writing in 2003, issued a minatory corrective to the purely technical comprehension of poesis, and reminds us of a certain entropy of technique, in formal actitivity that is not, or is no longer, effective, because complicit with social and political processes, in the case of collage or ‘meanings in the form of a rupture’ to use his expression:

Linking anything with everything whatsoever, which yesterday passed for subversive, is today increasingly homogeneous with the reign of journalistic anything contains everything and the subject-hopping of advertising. We therefore need …  to put some disorder back into montage. (Rancière 2007: 51)

To me, this last corrective is a brilliant description of the ethics, if not politics, of form in late Tom Raworth (as I’ve written elsewhere and won’t repeat here, in both The Poetry of Saying and in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry). ‘Suitable political art would ensure … the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused … by the uncanny, by that which resists signification’. (63 of The Politics of Aesthetics) Although this is not, like Adorno’s, a strictly formalist reading, it is difficult for me to see how a ‘sensible or perceptual shock’ might be achieved without formally investigative operations, such as in a re-vitalised montage that suggests dissensual rupture rather than connection; but I fail to see why the fashionable ‘uncanny’ should be the only means available to achieve this. The double effect can only occur in moments of forming, when the text takes form before our eyes in our actual interaction with the text. The critical function of art is born in the instant its form de-forms and re-forms in front of us as precisely the representation of freedom that Adorno describes. If forms know anything they know at least to do this.
In my first presentation of this chapter as a paper at the Conversify Conference in Edinburgh in October 2011, I ended here on this formalist flourish but I’d like to share the original ending because it points to certain difficulties I’ve had with my poetics of form and my formalist poetics.

There [I might have said]: I’ve rattled on so long, reached the outer limits of my current critical thinking, and not left enough time for examples. I’m meant to be talking about Barry MacSweeney, and want to write about his particular forms in my book on form. My original abstract promised: ‘I test the political implications of this [my notions of form] by an examination of Barry MacSweeney’s varied use of form, from the impaction of ‘Odes’ to the political transparency of a number of his ‘State of the Nation Addresses’, from the lyricism of the ‘Pearl’ poems to the anger of the late mythologizing poems of alcoholic disintegration.’ Even then I realised: ‘While I will be unable to cover all of this in a paper I focus upon events of forming as central to reading and question how the political operates within readerly forming and within the forms of poems. This might be a more productive way of approaching Adorno’s contention that “The unresolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form.”’ I believe this to have been the case. However, in another way I’ve written myself into a corner. But it’s an interesting one. And one I’ve been in before, where, like now, I was caught between literary critical concepts, the speculative discourse of my poetics, and literary creation. The moment was the mid 1990s and the concept was not form but ‘creative linkage’ as a specific description of the ‘accelerated collage’ at work in Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Ulli Freer and Adrian Clarke. This resulted in a personal poetics of creative linkage and a literary work, The Lores, which put that theory of textual impaction into poetic practice. Using quite other materials, the thinking of Adorno and Rancière, and the whole league of ‘new’ formalist critics, nevertheless leads me back to the knot where criticism, poetics and poetry meet. Writing this one week after rioting occured about half a mile from where I’m sitting, I feel impelled to re-visit the angry core of The Lores and figure out what might be my contemporary version of Ranciere’s ‘double effect: the readability of a political signification’ – nobody is saying the poem isn’t saying – against ‘a sensible or perceptual shock caused … by that which resists signification’.

The time capsule’s
contract with the
future, the Eugenics’
Court with its
injections, co-ops us
to a selective
history: as soon
as the population
is trafficking clatters
the shutters down
the laws of
motion beyond its
jurisdiction, unceased husks
in lightning streaks

Flicks to see
who flinches empty
me from your
circumference, accommodations of
space an abacus
for millions who
stand beside us
pure result with
no contest empty
microphones and dead
amplifiers inside each
rule if she
moves any slower
she’s our commodity

Political poetry will both say and not say, modified by formal resistance and interruption. (See a condensed version of this piece, with additions, here.) Check out all my posts concerning form 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

1. Is Alexandra Nemerov a relative of Alex Nemerov (male), a wonderful academic I met in Amsterdam? We realised both of our fathers had been in the RAF. Poetry readers should be able to work out who his was.

2. Guattari also uses the term in his suggestive late The Three Ecologies to contrast ‘a stupefying and infantalizing consensus’ with ‘the singular production of existence’ from micro-political groups operating in short term autonomous activism.’ (50: Guattari.)

Works Cited

Adorno, T.W. eds. Adorno, G., Tiedemann, R., trans. Hullot-Kentor, R., Aesthetic Theory, London: New York: Continuum, 2002.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Fontana, 1970.
Dworkin, Craig, and Goldsmith, Kenneth, eds. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011.
Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. London and New Brunswick: The Athlone Press, 2000. 
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. Driftworks. New York: Semiotexte, 1984.
Milton, John. ed. Davies, Tony. Selected Shorter Poems and Prose. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.
Raban, Jonathan. The Society of the Poem. London: Harrap, 1971.
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.
Rancière, Jacques. The Future of the Image. London and New York: Verso, 2007.
Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London and New York: Continuum, 2010.
Rawes, Alan, ed. Romanticism and Form. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man (trans. Reginald Snell). Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2004.
Sheppard, Robert. The Lores. London: Reality Street, 2003.
Sheppard, Robert. Complete Twentieth Century Blues. Cambridge: Salt, 2008.
Wolfson, Susan J. Formal Charges. Stanford: University of Standford Press, 1997.
Wolfson, Susan J., and Brown, Marshall, eds. Reading for Form. Seatle and London: University of Washington Press, 2006.