At the level of technique the work of the British Poetry Revival and the Linguistically Innovative Poetry that followed, differs from that of the Movement and its still dominant orthodoxy.The Movement style privileges a poetry of closure, narrative coherence and normative grammatical and syntactic cohesion, which colludes with the processes of naturalization, that is, with the ‘attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organization by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal external world,’ as Veronica Forrest-Thomson puts it. Its poetry becomes an empirical lyricism of discrete moments of experience. Its insistence upon tone, and the speaking voice, strives to maintain the effect of a stable ego, present in the discourse as the validating source of the utterance. The principle of the Movement’s metrical practice, although used with greater laxity through the decades, has largely relied upon the iambic pentameter to level the tone, which both controls, and assists in the maintenance of, a coherent ‘voice’.
Postmodernism is a term I use exclusively in Lyotard’s sense of defining a condition, a generalized philosophical worldview, one that is useful to introduce a particular poetics of technique. Knowledge, scientific knowledge in particular, is not so much the result of the recording of empirical investigation but involves a permanent condition of exploratory and incomplete process. Rules are not normative prescriptions but are produced coterminously with the event or process they regulate. Rather than claiming, as has the orthodoxy, that a certain ‘irony’ and cultural melange denote postmodernist poetic practice, Lyotard’s formulation of the now famous resistance to grand narratives also involves a commitment to exploratory techniques that are spelt out precisely in terms of poetics:
A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules.... Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.’
Any activity will be ‘producing not the known, but the unknown’. In a purely literary sense, this suggests a mode of writing which acknowledges that its only possible condition is one of technical development, a process of working towards new, and initially difficult, meanings, and delaying naturalization. It cannot be the formulation of a product from prior assumptions of meaning. Larkin’s insistence of poetry as empirical reconstruction:
if you’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people
is clearly inadequate.
This leads directly to the centrality of the notions of discontinuity and indeterminacy as technical elements of poetics, notions which Umberto Eco, writing of certain musical compositions in 1959, recognized were derived from science: ‘indeterminacy as a valid stepping-stone in the cognitive process’ and discontinuity as ‘an essential stage in all scientific verification procedures’. Perception (Eco also has in mind the phenomenology of Merleau Ponty) is an indeterminate process, both for the writer writing and for the reader reading, to an extent denied by Larkin’s attempted poetic preservation. There is in the work discussed in this study a preference for, an imperative towards, various forms of indeterminacy: structural, syntactic, semantic and metrical; the effects of these difficulties will be to emphasize the activation of the reader so that he or she has to enter into the artwork to complete it.
Techniques of indeterminacy and discontinuity range from the avoidance of narrative naturalization in Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages or the referential and perceptual uncertainties of his short lyrics, to the invitation of Lee Harwood’s open syntax and collage structure. The development of collage into what I call techniques of creative linkage (where the linking is more radical) is a central device in the works of Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Adrian Clarke and Ulli Freer.
Considerations of metrics reveal the paucity of descriptive terms for new poetic experiments, which demonstrate the inadequacy of the dated term ‘free verse’, particularly in the case of the sound and visual poetry of Bob Cobbing, which is a precursor of the new non-linear poetry found in the radical collage of Maggie O’Sullivan. In both these cases, and in certain later texts of Allen Fisher, the transformation of materials plays upon their instability to produce new meanings. In the case of performance texts their realizations may be unique, different each time they are attempted.
Indeterminacy should not be assumed to imply randomness, but a process of working with contingency in a conscious fashion, even in the procedural and processual works of a writer like Allen Fisher, where a dialogue between choice and chance, a precisely stochastic process, ensures that systems are subject to disruptive interventions by the poet. Clarke’s isoverbalist metrics (counting numbers of words per line, per poem) is an instance of a closed system which is at one level an affront to traditional metrics, but one that is arguably as demanding, a modern constraint rather than a convention authorized by tradition, as the Oulipo movement defines it. At another level it only works as a vehicle for the hinging of phrases in an indeterminate syntactic practice, a practice which is arguably stronger for the tension between its systems.
Instead of proceeding as though the text is self-evidently a transparent communicative system (the orthodoxy occasionally takes this view in violation of its works’ obvious constructedness), these poets foreground the fact of the artificiality of the forms and discourses they employ. In Harwood’s narratives a self-conscious narrator is often presented, while Roy Fisher’s lyrics often make ‘the poem’ a counter in its own argument. Allen Fisher deliberately adopts techniques of ‘process-showing’ in his work. Cobbing’s processual pieces develop out of previous texts. By foregrounding artifice or construction, the poem suspends the inevitable act of naturalization; it can be said additionally to be de-automatizing the reader’s habitual responses, defamiliarizing them, in that deferral.
If the prescriptions of the Russian formalists are followed fully, defamiliarization is the technique which defines literature’s very literariness. However, in its weak from, it is merely used as a descriptive tag, as in the 1980s Movement Orthodoxy’s justification for ludic metaphorization. Too often it is forgotten that, when in the famous definition of the device, Shklovsky said ‘the purpose of art’ is ‘to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived not as they are known’ he was not merely pointing to a freshness of perception, the seeing as though for the first time. He expounded ‘the technique of art’ as attempting ‘to make objects unfamiliar’, the famous ‘making strange’ of the more colloquial translation of the Russian ostrananie. It is often ignored that to effect an increase in ‘the difficulty and length of perception’ it is necessary not just to admit an estranging ‘content’, but to ‘make forms difficult’. This is not a question of likening a flowerpot to a fez as in a poem by Craig Raine, but of using the variety of formal techniques of indeterminacy and discontinuity, of foregrounding artifice and construction, outlined here.
A poem is an object, but it is also part of the reader’s responses, since he or she must complete it; any reader, in Umberto Eco’s words ‘is bound to supply his own existential credentials’. 8 This is, as the theoreticians of reception aesthetics have noted, an active fact of interpretation in both structurally closed works, and in the kinds of work examined here, such as the playful defamiliarized lyricism of Roy Fisher, for example. However, in other kinds of open works often offered by some writers of the British alternatives, who work in deliberate collusion with this fact, this is crucial. Eco calls artworks with such a radical structural indeterminacy and discontinuity ‘works in movement’ which he characterizes as involving ‘the possibility of numerous different personal interventions.’ Eco defines this limit case of an ‘open work’ as one that is ‘literally “unfinished”: the author seems to hand them to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit.’ Harwood has at times thought of his work in this way, as leaving textual lacunae for a reader to complete. Yet Clarke’s syntactic play and catachresis also achieve this. Cobbing has indeed presented texts to be realized in performance from a few visual clues.
Allen Fisher has most fully theorized this in relation to his own poetics. Poetry is at its most pertinent when fresh significations are produced by an active reader. A text is judged on its ability to escape the writer and invigorate the reader’s engagement. It is assumed that this is effected by means of technique: modes of creative linkage are utilized to present a plurivocal text to which a reader brings his or her existential credentials, which are, like the text itself, the results of historical and social processes.This emphasis upon the activity of reading brings us back to Forrest-Thomson’s notion of naturalization to focus upon and emend the distinctions she makes between good and bad naturalization. As opposed to reducing ‘the strangeness of poetic language ... by translating it in to a statement about the non-verbal external world, by making the Artifice appear natural’, a reading practice with which most of the Movement Orthodoxy is complicit, and which she defines as ‘bad’ naturalization, she argues that ‘Good naturalization dwells on the non-meaningful levels of poetic language, such as phonetic and prosodic patterning and spatial organization, and tries to state their relationship to other levels of organization rather than set them aside in an attempt to produce a statement about the world’. Charles Bernstein argues that all levels of poetry, any discernable device, should be regarded as meaningful, but he merely widens the premises of one of the only attempts in the 1970s to develop a poetics of British poetry. The whole text signifies for the engaged reader, as he or she enters it; ‘Whatever else I may get from a work of art,’ argues Allen Fisher, ‘because its dominant function is aesthetic it requires my engagement to create it, to produce it.’ Its artifice may not be willed away, in all its particularity and, even, in the case of some of the work I will be examining, its peculiarity; its artifice has to be read because no ‘paraphrase’ is accurate or full enough, or, in some cases, possible. Forrest-Thomson’s general account of artifice and naturalization reminds the reader always of the strangeness of technique, that to only read ‘formal features’ as ‘noteworthy components of the poem’ if they ‘can be shown to contribute to a thematic synthesis that is stated in terms of the external world’, is a denial of poetry’ singularity. She quotes Wittgenstein: ‘Do not forget ... that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information is not used in the language-game of giving information.’
Accounts of the second level may be read here, and the third level here. And a lot that was thought-through here first, turns up in my more recent project The Meaning of Form. See here.