Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Collosal Fragments (Adrian Clarke)


Tuneless Numbers

The roots of an alternative formalism in William Carlos Williams?  Possibly only Zukofsky noticed, to carry forward into his own practice.  ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, the classroom exhibit of objectivist minimalism, is structured in verselets of 3 words and 1 word per line.  I wonder how many people have noticed this patterning, but considered it an accident, an embarrassing caprice.  Certainly not a significant form.

Free verse as one rejection of metrics.  Measure.

Word-count as another measure, as Zukofsky demonstrated in A 14, 19, 22, 23.  All the more contentious and combative for lacking the kind of antecedents free verse could find in the prose poem and in cadence.  The next step on from syllabics and one step beyond ‘poetic form’.

And yet as usable as a sonnet and as brazenly foregrounded.

Homemade homologies.  Not homemade worlds.

Constraints: Oulipo (particularly Jacques Roubaud, counting his measures; like Zukofsky, mathematically using and abusing the sonnet).

Adrian Clarke, his defensive humour: ‘I found my Virgil in the number 4’.

Ghost Measures (1987): 4 words a line, 16 lines a poem (= 64 words); 64 poems in 4 parts (12 months in the writing).

Sorts of sonnet, numbers borrowed from the I Ching.

Adding up to The Ghost Trio, with part 2 Spectral Investments (1991) and part 3 Obscure Disasters (1993).

Ghost structures.

‘The Ghost Trio - which would be a tetralogy were the sixth stage of the multiplication that also generated Gerhard Richter’s 1024 Colours completed.  Let the missing part stand as a phantom limb.’

A choice of antecedents, Richter, the finest contemporary painter. 

And not, like Stockhausen or Silliman, seduced by the naturalism of the Fibonacci Sequence.

Motivating the arbitrary.

Word-count as a numerico-formal order that totals to a mock-totality, rational without reason or content.

Countless Spaces

The open field poetry of the 1970s was an outpost of free verse, a map-like network, so often literally mapping ‘place’.  The sparse page, its isolated phrases and words, its asthmatic notations of self.  Bodies of knowledge littering the page.  While this caricature does no justice to the true range of poetry in the 1970s, it explains why Clarke was toying with the formalism of the Pindaric Ode.  How different a notion, or notation, of ‘place’ in his ‘The Angel, Islington’: ‘Your post-imperial potman / rides the flood succumbing Euston Road’s / sinistral streams’; and yet only a short step to the new formalism of Ghost Measures, side-stepping the open field.  Something survives though: the abstract Latinate diction, the pivotal pun, ‘sinistral’.

Homages and Homologies 1986/7

Allen Fisher’s Brixton Fractals (1985 - though heard at readings before this) closed the open field.  Syntactic and paratactic linking, narrative energies with necessary interferences.  Forward-thrusting discursive arrangements of fragments.  A polyphonic assemblage.  (Very few formal constraints.)

There are two homages to Fisher in Ghost Measures which refunction Fisher’s materials, his words, into an appreciation of his method:

unclassified signals glow from

the walkway creates what

happens next by spins

where the culture breaks

Creation and breaking.  Complexity in irregularity; precisely fractal. 

Rosmarie Waldrop, an American poet associated with, but pre-dating, the Language Poets, receives a single homage.  (Her critial book Against Language? is a compendium of formal techniques.)  Her The Road is Everywhere or Stop this Body (1978) is a collection of lyrics, in four parts which reflect the calendar year of composition, like Ghost Measures.  Waldrop’s syntactic play, lines often only linking with contiguous lines or phrases, both atomises and dynamises the discourse at once.  The poems ‘barriers / and obstacles of sense’ derive from ‘this effort towards syntax’ as Clarke puts it (GM 64).  This syntactic shifting, a kind of discursive punning, is selectively adopted by Clarke.

The celerity of Tom Raworth’s long sequences, and his performance of them, combine linearity with disruptions of the processual to produce a vertigenous effect in the reader and listener.  ‘The race of thoughts spins’ as Clarke writes in his homage to Raworth. 

Yet this phrase describes equally the effects of Waldrop’s experiment, and recalls the ‘spinning’ and ‘swerving’ Clarke notes of the fractal progression of Fisher’s sequences.

Order in discontinuity.

The energy of these three writers, arguably harnessed in the greater tension of a strict form.  Entropy.

And that Problem is Politics

Theoretical positions and creative dispositions are confirmed by Lyotard’s The Differend: Phrases in Dispute.  Fragmentary resistance to the Total Society.  Fragmentary guerilla operations within language.  The discourse of the State (statement) is rejected for the phrase.  Lyotard’s words, perhaps by squinting at them, curiously offer a description of what Clarke’s work is already doing, and Clarke was quick to adapt this material in his paper ‘Listening to the Differences’:

The way in which Lyotard attempts to subvert such totalising concepts is by resort to the phrase, in a sense - wider than that of the grammatical unit - that is contextually defined, but the strategic significance of which is as a linguistic instance that cuts across genres and categories as it evade closure.  With phrases we are set adrift from narrative and logic to struggle with what they present without hope of return to safe ground: ‘for a phrase to be the last phrase, another phrase is necessary to declare this, and thus it is not the last one’.  Further, ‘That there not be a phrase is impossible.  It is rather And a phrase is necessary. It is necessary to link.’  ‘The linkage of one phrase with another is problematic, and this problem is politics.’ - Lyotard’s approach attempts at once to undermine all totalising political philosophies and a radical extension of politics into the smallest linguistic transations. 

Clarke’s last quotation from Lyotard above is also the epigraph to ‘Obscure Disasters 15’, which opens with what reads like a disarmingly personal note:

something unusual about this

for a first draft

language in pieces grasps

particulars as spectral hues

A fragment seems not to focus ‘contemporary particulars’ as ‘Obscure Disasters 2’ puts it in homage to Zukofsky, but to refract them into a fading spectrum.  The persistent ghost metaphor in the Trio (spectre, geist, shade, etc) suggests that this conceptual diffusion is at the expense of a self which has no permanent substance (‘language found myself collapsed’; GM 24) and a mass-mediated hyperreality that turns message to mirage: ‘overlapped phantoms narrative revives / our simulcra’  (GM 25).

And a phrase.  Re-read:

language in pieces grasps

particulars as spectral hues

stake out a fundamental

site diminishing traffic suburbanised

‘Spectral hues’ is now pivotal, turning on ‘as’.  Becoming a noun phrase to link with the unlikely physicality of the verb to ‘stake out’, with its suggestion that the hyper-reality has an old fashioned notion of boundaries, even as it dissolves into the dullest of realities.  As an earlier poem says, resistance is where ‘lacunae body forth’ (GM 11), embodied emptiness (ghosts) undermines totality (itself spectral).

Yet the larger public events that pass through The Ghost Trio, such as the Gulf War, are not simply images (as my allusions to Baudrillard might imply).  The Gulf War’s anti-language of premeditated adjustment offers not ghosts but dead bodies: ‘a refusal of language speaking corpses straight / in his prepared text’ (OD 1).

Straight talking.  The issue is linkage, not slippage.  The dance of the intellect among phrases.  Phrasal phasing.

A swerved reading: reading is linking (listening to the differences).

Spectral Investments: in a double meaning where the subject gets lost

Section 2 of Spectral Investments is a brilliant narrative, except there is no narrative, only the brilliant story of narrativity, whose devices, according to Lyotard and others, structure so much of our knowledge.  Which the phrasal aims to undermine.

Calvino games, metafictionality; ‘begins CHAPTER 1 with / a pattern of flowers’ is neither a description of flowers nor is it at the beginning.  A relentless foregrounding of commentary on a fiction that has ‘a content to be / described’ but which isn’t: ‘named characters elaborately set up to / conclude in words’.  The resulting partial details seem indexical but empty, as in these (recurrently) noirish images: ‘a cigarette denotes / an agony of choice’ and ‘a damp cigarette indicative of the expository code’.  No wonder this is a world ‘begging / to be described in total’ (that’s what Grand Narratives are for, of course) but it remains incomprehensible, ‘beggaring / description’ as ‘the words fragment themselves a constellation fictional or / parasyntactic in the turn of events’, and in the turn of phrases.

Both fiction and grammar (not to mention phenomenology and politics) contain ‘subjects’ and the text opens with what could have been its title: ‘in which the subject gets lost’.  Characters and sentences break down in this discourse under the pressure of the indeterminacies which structure it, ‘in a double meaning where the subject gets lost’.  To take one example only from this complex text, the slogan ‘NO REPRESENTATION / WITHOUT REPRESENTATION addressing her image’ asserts a double meaning that articulates the problem of, and the interdependence of, the politics of mediation and the mediation of politics.

The reader (another subject) is lost, left ‘to struggle … without hope of return to (the) safe ground’ of familiar narrative; my summary above only hints at the experience of reading this remarkable tour de force.  The reader’s loss is continual; but so is his or her discovery.  The text offers either ‘a duplicate reality’ or ‘an alternative universe’.  Language, in the last phrase of the section, proliferates its narratives, ‘imitations that go forth and multiply’.  This is both a prophecy of the spread of totality and of its breaking down into resistant double and multiple meanings.

After four dense pages don’t expect the satisfaction of univocal conclusion.

Obscure Disasters: the catastrophe where we put our hats

Obscure Disasters.  Hommages et Tombeaux.

From Mallarmé’s ‘Calme bloc ici-bas chu du’un désastre obscur’; for Poe.

Tributes and addresses to fellow writers who also fall from disasters (and the opening Gulf War ‘epinicion’ reminds them of one such disaster).

(Not a call to ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’, in Eliot’s appropriation, nor an endorsement of the ‘copyright protected lips’ of ‘defunctive authority’ satirised in ‘Obscure Disaster 5’,

Eg ‘Ô soeur’ Maggie O’Sullivan.

Eg Clarke ambivalently addresses Lawrence Upton

in the common

sense utopia where we

all swop notes

                        (OD 7)

Which also demonstrates one of the techniques of this book.  This ending is transformed into the ending of the poem which, for reasons of clarity and distance, I wish to concentrate on, ‘Obscure Disaster 12’, for Salman Rushdie.

the enemy of images

faded a little picture

from the catastrophe where

we put our hats

The ‘common / sense utopia’ has transformed into Mallarmé’s ‘catastrophe’ (out of which appropriate ‘noirs vols du BlashÀme’ will blow).  The place ‘we put our hats’ is home, a dangerous place for Rushdie; the phrase also has an affirmative note, an echo, perhaps, of putting our money where our mouths are.  It is a statement of solidarity with Rushdie’s catastrophe/home.  The ‘enemy of images’ who is responsible for this is, of course, Khomeni (of a million faded images), but the phrase is Rushdie’s own to describe the homeless exiled paranoiac Imam of The Satanic Verses (see pp 205-9, The Consortium edition).  ‘The Fellow Upstairs / skims phantasmal scripts’, a partial reading of the Koran which amounts to an ‘authorised grand narrative’, should be ranged an oppositional ‘petite histoire’.  One example of this ‘implicit cultural script’ is Clarke’s view of absurd authoritarianism, which echoes Rushdie:


proofed delectibubbles the sacred

frames in an inflated


Inflated claims.  Inflated ‘currency recycled’, in a world haunted by the ‘commerce wraith’ (itself a transformation of ‘spectral investments’) of world capital.

The epigraph from George Herbert may seem out of place.  But Herbert’s Christian version of ‘plain fashion’, as Clarke ironically puts it, balances an attack on what might otherwise be seen as solely one on the Islamic fundamentalist fatwa (and on cowardly world opinion).  Herbert’s rhetorical questions, ‘Who says that fictions only and false hair / Become a verse?  Is there in truth no beauty?’ are refunctioned in the text.  The second becomes the poem’s epigraph (where the ‘in truth’ becomes ambiguous).  The first is woven into the poem’s opening phrase: ‘houses that fictions only / wigged become averse to circulate’ - the houses being possibly the publishing houses which refused to circulate The Satanic Verses, except in disguise as The Consortium.

mutabilities SHAKE

in the consistent rigour of this formalism

in the exemplary phrasal diffusion of these materials

in the vertigenous tension between the two

March 1994                                                                           Pages 219-238, April 1994

Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of Far Language here. And read an extract from Adrian's 'Muzzle' here. My more recent piece on Clarke's poetics can be read here.