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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Robert Sheppard: Petrarch 3 poems in Card Alpha 1 JUST OUT

The first issue of the online journal CARD ALPHA is available. Here.

Poet and editor Adam Hampton writes:

As editor, I took the
decision to begin this project in
order to bring together some of the
most exciting and ground-breaking
poetic works being produced by
both emerging and established
poets in the UK and around the
world today. This first issue has
been, on a personal level, at least,
a steep and forbidding scramble,
taken from the genesis of an
editorial idea, to the summit, which
is represented by the online
publication of this, the inaugural
issue. The magazine is to become,
I hope, a stronghold for the most
innovative and experimental poetry.

The contributors are

William Bulloch
Andrew Taylor
Iain Britton
John Seed
Gordon Gibson
Chris McCabe
Robert Sheppard
Sydney McNeill
Tom Jenks
Luke Thurogood

I am represented by ‘The Symboliste Quartet’ which is a set of 4 of my Petrarch 3 translations. More about those here. All 14 variations will be published by Crater Press, but these are the ones are chimerae, as the Oulipeans say, of Petrarch and Baudelaire, Mallarme, Rimbaud and Verlaine!

Please also see my notes on Petrarch variations by Peter Hughes and Tim Atkins here, which is how my project, a 'derivative derive', began its life. It's the most looked at page on this blog. You can read the original translation and my 'doggie' translation, 'Pet', here! And you can watch me read some of my 'Petrarch' variations here. Including the Jimmy Savile one.


'Petrarch 3' is now in print, see here and here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Nerve Damage ed Rupert Loydell now out (responses to Witkin)

Nerve Damage, edited by Rupert Loydell, an anthology of poems in response to Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph “The Poet.”  
Poets include Sheila E Murphy, Carrie Etter, Peter Finch, Alan Halsey, Ian Seed, and Rupert Loydell. Paul Sutton's poem may be read here on Harvey L. Hix' website. Oh, he's in it too, as are many others. Including me.
(Rupert and I have just finished working on the latest EUIOA fictional poet, Hermes, from Estonia. Something of this project may have rubbed off on our depiction of this abomination! More on the EUOIA here.) 
Ordering information for the anthology:
UK: £5.00 per copy, cheques payable to ‘R.M. Loydell’  USA; $10 bill per copy, to include postage 
available from: Stride, 4B Tremayne Close, Devoran, Cornwall TR3 6QE, England
A first review appears here
Thanks for the invite, Rupert!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Robert Sheppard: A Guide to my new books and pamphlets 2015-16

1 New critical book

The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry

My academic critical book is now published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

For those who can buy the book, or order it for libraries, here are the places

3 New poetry books

History or Sleep: Selected Poems

Details here.

A wide selection of work from 1982-2015, it is reviewed by Steve Waling here. By Clark Allison here. And by Ian Brinton here. Anna Cathenka's review may be accessed here. Nikolai Duffy reviewed it in The Wolf.

And a post I wrote about how I selected the poems here.

Words Out of Time


an ‘autrebiography’, an anti-memoir, mainly in prose, including the popular ‘I don’t remember…’ Details here. A review here.

7 prose pieces that range from fable to conceptual writing, narrative to unnarrative, political address to text for an image; features the psychogeographical exploration of space, 'In Adopted Space'. Details here. Its first review from Steve Waling here. He also reviews my next item there, which is:

1 Pamphlet

The Drop

an elegy to my father, details here.

It's reviewed here by Ian Brinton, and by Alan Baker, here.

1 Tribute

An Educated Desire: Robert Sheppard at 60.

This very pleasant surprise is available here, along with the list of its contributors

My website:


I have a story in the Best British Short Stories 2016: see here. And about all my published fiction here.


My 'avant-garters' (garters embossed with monostichs) are available from ZimZalla to tie around a shapely thigh. See here.


My Petrarch 3 will be coming out from Crater Press.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Robert Sheppard: de-selected bossa nova epigraph to It's Nothing

The latest 'row' of 14 sonnets called 'It's Nothing', from the developing project, Song Nets, is suffused with echoes and hearings of bossa nova music, and I even wanted to use this quotation as epigraph. I thought I'd post it, as I like it's irony, even though ultimately it doesn't fit the mood of the piece:

Gilberto: Look at the wind shaving the trees.
Psychologist: But trees have no hair, João.
Gilberto: And some people have no poetry.

Watch Gilberto in concert in 1980. Notice the subtle use of the orchestra.

Here's the last poem from 'It's Nothing': 'Last Look' (another bossa nova quotation, this time from Jobim's 'How Insensitive' (which Gilberto sings), and which is also quoted in the poem).

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

EUOIA: Cristòfol Subira by Alys Conran and Robert Sheppard in Poetry Wales

The collaborations between Alys and myself have just been published in Poetry Wales Spring 2016, Volume 51: Number 3.

Cristòfol Subira was born in 1957 in Barcelona. He worked for many years as a street performer and living statue in the tourist districts of the city. Between 1980 and 2007, Subira produced four collections of poetry, alternately in Catalan and Spanish, but since then, his poetry has not appeared in print except for several unattributed poems inscribed on the paving of cul-de-sacs in Barcelona, recently acknowledged as his work. There was one doubtful sighting in Brussels in the summer of 2010, i.e. at the end of A Translated Man, where he appears.

It was fun working with Alys because we’d not met and she was game for my strange collaborative project. She is a very tight writer and she kept me in order. We did meet in 2015 and read the poems in Bangor. See my account of that here, and watch the embedded videos of us reading the two poems.

See also an account of the EUOIA’s previous appearance in Poetry Wales here.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Robert Sheppard; The Necessity of Poetics: Conclusions and Notes

Credo of a Writing Studies Coordinator (Abridged Version)

(The longer version of the 'credo', a document aimed at teachers of Creative Writing, appears here.)
I believe all students of creative writing should be inaugurated in the activity of poetics, since it is, of necessity, a self-sustaining part of all writerly process, born of the critical need to change practice. I believe the higher education student should be enabled to make this discourse in its most explicit forms and, to some degree, to study it.

If students are taught explicitly what poetics is and does, and to situate themselves in a field of cultural production, through critical exercises like Reading as a Writer, and even to study a particular writer’s poetics, if they are asked to use and feed these activities into a writer’s journal and in the self-assessment process, and if this has a more pronounced role in the explicit recording and developing of poetics, any ‘commentary’ or ‘reflection’ that results will be automatically poetics-oriented, and of more use to the writer.

The hybrid and intermittent nature of poetics outside of the pedagogic environment suggests new possibilities for the making of hybrid texts within it, particularly for the production of works which heal the creative writing-literary theory divide. In producing poetics, one always speaks as a writer, explicitly identifies oneself as a maker of literary works. It is itself an act of self-definition embedded in a process of self-organisation, that makes a permanent mark upon the page.

 Some Conclusions

I have glossed over many works of poetics in this piece; it has been less my desire to evaluate Sidney, Eliot, DuPlessis or Joris, than to situate them in a continuous, continuing discourse, that may be both studied in its own right and developed in terms of writing practice (inside and outside the academy). It would be easy to take issue here and there: but that seems almost beside the point, if we fail to read those ideas doubly. We must recognise, as Mays did of TS Eliot, for example, the relation of poetics to writing inherent in what are still too willingly taken to be literary critical constructs. Read in this new way these ideas lose nothing of their power – a discourse is a power construct, of course – but neither do they achieve a measure of invulnerability. They simply need to be discussed in the spirit of poetics, where use and permission, experiment and play, are as important as philosophical cogency or the (mis)matching of concept and product. Finally, I hope that any study of poetics is concerned not just with furthering the study of poetics, but with the active production of poetics as a speculative discourse for writers in order to further the arts of writing.

February-March 1999/August 2000/April 2002/revised March 2011


Return to part one (and an index to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics) here.

Notes to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics

1. ‘Poiesis’, writes Gerald F. Else, of Aristotle’s Poetics, ‘is the actual process of composition ... is the activation, the putting to work of poietike.’ (Aristotle 1970: p 79)

Poetics is not Aesthetics. Aesthetics is a contemplative analytic of art: what is art? what is beauty? what is the sublime?

Poetics is not Rhetoric. Rhetoric is to do with the laws of composition, not with the lore (or lure) of writing.

2. Poetics within literary studies is used by structuralists like Todorov, (Introduction to Poetics) or by Bakhtin (The Problem of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics) or even Harold Bloom, to speak of a theory of making that properly belongs to literary criticism. (It is common to read of the poetics of the novel, or of feminist biography, in this sense.) Poetics has also found many uses to describe various non-literary or even non-artistic kinds of making: in psychiatry to describe the making of self (autopoesis); in musicology to describe the compositional (poietic) dimension of music. Titles like Bachelard’s The Poetics of Fire adorn philosophy shelves.

3. Bernstein writes: ‘Equally at play in the context of poetics is the political and social situation, including the social configuration of poetry [writing] in terms of distribution, publishing, capitalization, jobs, awards, reviews.’ (Bernstein 1992: 157)

4. Looking for a book to put the slips of paper containing the above ‘definitions’ of poetics safely in, I took down one containing some uncollected essays by Robert Duncan. One, entitled ‘The Poetics of Music: Stravinsky’ (1948) begins with a slightly overpassive definition but one which reminds us of the term’s use in the other arts: ‘Poetics is the contemplation of the meaning of form: it is what is common to painting, music, sculpture and poetry. Poiein, Stravinsky reminds us, means to make. We might keep in mind that in the days of William Dunbar the poets were the Makaris.’ (Faas 1983: 335)

5. Poetics at one limit is apoetics, formulations that deconstruct poetics, as the continuous lower case typography on the extra titlepage of Bernstein’s A Poetics suggests: ‘ a p o e t i c s’. (Bernstein 1992: vii). In this sense, poetics must eat itself!  At another limit is anti-poetics, a discourse that accompanies the practice of not, or no longer, writing, as in the pronouncements of Laura Riding (see Seymour Smith 1970) or John Hall’s ‘Writing and Not Writing’ (in Riley 1992:41-49). See may essay on the latter in Sheppard 2011, ‘The Price of Houses the Cost of Food: The Poetics of Not Writing’: 55-67. Other essays in this volume treat the poetics of Ken Edwards and Maggie O’Sullivan, as well as the communal poetics of the Poetry Society 1976 and the cultural poetics of Iain Sinclair. Also of note is: Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation: an inaugural lecture delivered on 13 March 2007 at Edge Hill University’, New Writing. Vol 5: 1 (2008): 3-26.

6. MacGann argues that ‘Literary criticism too often likes to transform the critical illusions of poetry into the worshipped truths of cultures’. (MacGann 1983: 135) In poetry ‘we can to a degree, observe as well our own ways of thinking and feeling from an alien point of view. That alienated vantage, which is poetry’s critical gift to every future age, permits us a brief glimpse at our world and our selves.’ (MacGann 1983: 66) Perhaps a similar critical function for the writer of contemporary poetics might reside in the historical poetics outlined above.

7. My blogzine Pages ( carries a serial catalogue of hundreds of examples of historical and contemporary poetics under the title ‘The History of Poetics’: Part One: Poetics and Proto-Poetics
Part Two: Through and after Modernism
Part Three: North American Poetics
Part Four: Some British Poetics

8. Loydell (2009) contains a number of pieces that derive from creative writing research at Edge Hill University. Cliff Yates’ piece ‘Flying: A Poetics’ (28-38) and Andrew Taylor’s piece ‘The Poetry of Absence’ (4-17)  – both fragmentary aphorisms and quotations – come directly from PhDs writing there. Scott Thurston’s piece ‘Acrreted Statement (Notes)’ (123-131) was written after such study. My own ‘A Voice Without’, ‘Not Another Poem’ there are in reprinted in Berlin Bursts, Exeter: Shearsman Books (2011), which also contains the poetics piece ‘Rattling the Bones (for Adrian Clarke)’. Some of my poetics may be read as parts of my creative project Complete Twentieth Century Blues. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2007; in Far Language, poetics and linguistically innovative poetry 1978-1997, Exeter: Stride Research Documents, 1999; and in net/(k)not/-work(s), London: Ship of Fools, 1993, as well as in ‘Poetics as Conjecture and Provocation: an inaugural lecture delivered on 13 March 2007 at Edge Hill University’, New Writing. Vol 5: 1 (2008): 3-26. See my ‘Experiment in Practice and Speculation in Poetics’ in Teaching Modernist Poetry, ed. by Peter Middleton and Nicky Marsh (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 158-69 for statements about how pedagogy, practice and poetics relate to one another.

Works Cited across these posts

Allen, D., and Tallman, W., (eds.), 1973, Poetics of the New American Poetry, New York: Grove Books.

Allen, Tim and Duncan, Andrew. Eds. Don’t Start Me Talking: Interviews with Contemporary Poets. Cambridge: Salt, 2006.

Aristotle, (trans. Else, G.F.), 1970, Poetics: Michigan: The University of Michigan.

Bernstein, C. 1992, A Poetics, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Bradbury, M. 1977,The Novel Today, Glasgow: Collins/Fontana.

Danaher, Geoff, Tony Schirato, and Jen Webb. Understanding Foucault. London, Thousand Oaks, Delhi: Sage, 2000

DuPlessis, R.B., 1990, The Pink Guitar, Writing as Feminist Practice, New York and London: Routledge.

Eliot, T.S., 1975, Selected Prose, London: Faber and Faber.

Esslin, M. (ed.) 1965, Samuel Beckett, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Faas, E.,1983, Young Robert Duncan, Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow  Press.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge London and New York: Routledge Classics, 2002.

Fisher, A. 1985, Necessary Business, London: Spanner.

Fisher, Roy. Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose. Kentisbeare: Shearman Books, 2000. 

Golding, Alan, ‘Experimental Poetics and/as Pedagogy in eds. Retallack, J. and Spahr, J. Poetry and Pedagogy. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Joris, P., 1999, Notes Towards a Nomadic Poetics, Spanner 38.

CJ Jung, quoted by Ezra Pound in Foreword to Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound, p. 9

Lowry, M. Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, Capricorn Books, New York, 1969)

Loydell, R. (ed.) 2009, Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh: Manifestos and Unmanifestos, Cambridge: Salt.

MacDiarmid, Hugh. 1985. The Complete Poems (Volumes 1 and 2). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

MacGann, J, 1983, The Romantic Ideology, Chicago:University of Chicago Press

Mays, JCC, ‘The Early Poems’ in Moody, AD, 1994, The Cambridge Companion to TS Eliot, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

‘Poetics’: ‘Poetics at Buffalo’, hhttp://wings. accessed 1 March 1999.

Riley, D. (ed.) 1992, Poets on Writing, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan.

Rabinow, P. (ed.) 1984, The Foucault Reader, London: Penguin.

Romer, S. 1982, ‘Correctives’, PN Review 27: p 63-64

Rothenberg, Jerome. Pre-Faces and Other Writings. New York: New Directions, 1981.

Rothenberg, J., and Joris, P. (eds.)  1995, Poems for the Millennium, Volume One from Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rothenberg, J., and Joris, P. (eds.) 1998, Poems for the Millennium, Volume Two from Postwar to Millennium, Berkeley and Los Angles: University of California Press.

Rushdie, S. 1990. Is Nothing Sacred: The Herbert Read Memorial Lecture: 6 February 1990. Granta: First American Edition. No place of publication.

Seymour Smith, M.,1970, ‘Laura Riding’s ‘Rejection of Poetry’’, The Review , no. 23. 

Sheppard, R., 1999a, Far Language, poetics and linguistically innovative poetry 1978-1997, Exeter: Stride Research Documents.

Sheppard, R. 1999b. ‘The Poetics of Poetics: Charles Bernstein, Allen Fisher and the poetic thinking that results’, Symbiosis, 3:4. 

Sheppard, R. 2002, The End of the Twentieth Century: Twentieth Century Blues 63, Liverpool: Ship of Fools, re-published in Complete Twentieth Century Blues. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2007.

Note. The earliest, pedagogically oriented, version of this text was delivered as a paper at the Creative Writing Conference 1999 at Sheffield Hallam University, and was first published in the Proceedings of the conference. A shorter version, emphasising practical uses for students, was published by Ship of Fools in 1999 solely for distribution amongst Writing Studies MA students at Edge Hill College of Higher Education, Ormskirk, Lancashire, UK. Another – emphasising poetry – was published in Pores, A Ship of Fools booklet was published in 2002 and was re-printed a number of times. This updated version has been amended, expanded and abridged in various ways, but the chief addition is the section ‘Poetics as Discourse’ which was written in 2009. This is a re-presentation (in part) of the 2011 publication.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 6: Don't Explain

Don’t Explain

 (This short, but important section was not included in the original published The Necessity of Poetics, here)

None of the above poetics explain works of art. They permit. Explanation is not to the point of poetics. But why do I think that poetics cannot, or better not, describe? Part of the story, as I’ve hinted above, derives from the usefulness of poetics; but there is another, perhaps deeper, reason, that we should consider. As CG Jung stated:

Being essentially the instrument for his work he (the artist) is subordinate to it and we have no reason for expecting him to interpret it for us. He has done the best that is in him by giving it form and he must leave interpretation to others and to the future. (Jung, p. 9)

Being the self and in his or her tightly scheduled now, how can the writer provide this kind of discourse, or be the work’s reader? As I read, as I do, poetry magazines from cover to cover, I occasionally come upon my own work. Try as I may, I cannot get it to inhabit the same space as the poems that surround it. I cannot read it, partly because as I read I read every design decision I made to complete it. There are palimpsest versions beneath the text. It is like trying to look at the back of my head; I cannot map it with a freshness reading requires.

Writers, in any case, are notoriously bad at reading their own work; indeed, that they deliberately misread it in the service of speculating about future works is a constituent of poetics. This can be very productive, but is baffling for critics and for readers, who expect the kind of match they themselves might provide.

There have been a few examples where artists have been compelled to become their own works’ explainers. I would like to mention one of the most notorious of these. In 1946 Malcolm Lowry, faced with a hostile reader’s report and the threat of non-publication, was forced to write Jonathan Cape a 30 page letter, explaining, chapter-by-chapter, the meaning of his novel Under the Volcano, and was forced to evaluate it, and write about it like this: ‘The chapter is a sort of bridge, it was written with extreme care.... It is an entity, a unity in itself, as are all the other chapters; it is, I claim, dramatic, amusing, and within its limits I think is entirely successful.’ (Lowry: 72 ) This strikes the false note of impossibility. Indeed, the letter and the novel together might constitute an anti-model for the creative writing PhD as I envisage it: a text and commentary by an exegete who is also the writer. Put thus, and admittedly as rhetorical as any story, does it not sound narcissistic? And if not that, then possibly harmful? Especially when it is recalled that, unmentioned in the letter, which is discursive and explicatory, Lowry attempted suicide at the anguish of this epistolary nightmare.

The letter ends, though, with a piece of writerly poetics, one which actually shows the futility of the exercise itself (and indeed it deconstructs the notion of the monologic reading implied by reading one’s own work): ‘For the book was so designed, counterdesigned and interwelded that it could be read an indefinite number of times and still not have yielded all its meanings or its drama or its poetry....’ (p 88) And not all of those meanings are accessible to one reader, let alone the writer, with his or her unique memories of the experience of having conceived and written it (and in Lowry’s case, re-written it).


Return to part one (and an index to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics) here.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 5: The Flavour of Poetics

The Flavour of Poetics

 (an earlier version of this was published here in the original The Necessity of Poetics)

I want to focus on three well-known texts to give a flavour of poetics and to suggest that it is not the preserve of the avant-garde (although I will add some flavours from that area too). The first is an example of the revelation of poetics in literary criticism. TS Eliot’s essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ (1921) contains this memorable passage that describes the multifaceted complexity he located in John Donne, but in terms which are obviously constructing the poetics of The Waste Land, which he was then composing. The slippage from Donne to typewriter is a giveaway.

A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. (Eliot 1975: 64)

This is only one revealing example in Eliot’s work, as JCC Mays has pointed out: ‘When he writes about tradition and the individual talent, he described how his allusive method works; when he wrote about a dissociation of sensibility taking place in the seventeenth-century mind he described the subject of his own poetry; when he wrote of the objective correlative in Hamlet, he defined its method.’ (Mays: 115)

While my critical and writerly focus is upon the poetics of poetry, the existence of poetics for other genres may be exemplified by my next two examples. Samuel Beckett’s ‘Three Dialogues’ (1949) looks like a carefully orchestrated Socratic exchange on aesthetics, apparently on visual art, but it contains what looks more like a credo for the rest of Beckett’s novelistic, dramatic and poetic career – he was already writing the trilogy – a new art premised upon ‘the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express’. (Esslin 1965: 17). 

Salman Rushdie’s speech (originally delivered ventrioloquially by Pinter) ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ (1990) carves out a space for the novel in terms reminiscent of Henry James’ poetics of the house of fiction, as well as Bakhtin’s sense of polyphony, whilst integrating Lyotard, Foucault and Rorty into his poetics, all delivered with the brio of Lawrence: ‘Literature is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way’. (Rushdie 1991: 429)

Two prominent examples of poetics in my own research area of American language poetry and British linguistically innovative poetry are Allen Fisher’s Necessary Business (1985) and Charles Bernstein’s ‘The Artifice of Absorption’ (1986) (Bernstein 1992: 9-89). Without repeating a comparative analysis available elsewhere (Sheppard 1999b, and on this blog, here), these two formally hybrid texts constitute exemplary poetics. Fisher’s text is an essay collaged into interviews with poets. In it, or rather, through it, he manufactures a poetics for himself, one that others may use and develop (See Sheppard 1999a and the long account in Thurston 2002). Similarly Bernstein, who presents a verse-essay, plays off the conventions of the essay (footnotes and quotations) against the conventions of poetry (chiefly line breaks) to produce an oddly associational and playful ‘patapoetics’. It refuses to settle the arguments it presents, chiefly through a monstrous proliferation of new critical terms and manifold examples. It is also comic! Both documents keep the arguments open by their dispositions in form. They refuse the essay discourse they approximate and, most importantly, they demonstrate and embody their two authors’ poetic practices, the collage of Fisher and the playful mixture of discourses found in most poems by Bernstein.

Bernstein himself provides a further model that it is worth acknowledging. After two decades of consciously producing poetics outside of the academy he fronted the Poetics Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo for a number of years, which favours an ‘interdisciplinary approach to literary, cultural and textual studies’. (‘Poetics’ 1999: 1)  It focuses upon poetics as ‘an unruly, multisubjective activity’. (‘Poetics’ 1999: 3) Reference to the massive Electronic Poetry Center website the program administers ( reveals it as a model institution, for its many poetics documents. This site inevitably includes links with what has been called Cyberpoetics: how the now not so new technologies may be used in literary creation. Documents relating to cyberpoetics may also be found in the two volume Poems for the Millennium which Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris edited. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 871-829. See also Sheppard 2002.) That the experience of compiling these volumes was itself an act of poetics is evidenced by Pierre Joris’ Towards a Nomadic Poetics which, like Necessary Business, was published by Allen Fisher’s own Spanner press. Its millennial appeal to a nomadic sense of ‘moving & connecting all contents, languages, bodies, machines’ (Joris 1999: 29) has provoked comment, both for and against. Whatever the arguments for a nomadic poetics, it is clear that poetics, as I have defined it, has always been nomadic.


Return to part one (and an index to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics) here.


Monday, April 04, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 4 : Poetics Some Examples

From Aristotle to Nomadic Poetics: Some Examples

(The original un-updated version of this list of examples may be read in the earlier version of The Necessity of Poetics here.)
Poetics has a long history: from Aristotle, through Horace, into (in English anyway) Sidney, Puttenham, Campion, Dryden and Pope (both in verse), onto Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’, Coleridge’s Biographia, the assertions of Shelley’s Defence, some of Keats’ letters. Onto: Henry James’ essays and Prefaces, and DH Lawrence’s spirited defences of both free verse poetry and the modern novel – to summarise the contents page of a possible volume of historical poetics (My rough chronology of these and other documents may be found online.) 7

In the twentieth century the discourse of poetics proliferated. The intense artistic innovation of the era demanded such a discourse, not least in the manifestoes and documents of the great modernist and post-modernist movements from Dada to Situationism, from Negritude to Neo-HooDoo, from Stein’s ‘Lectures’ to DuPlessis’ feminist poetics, to take a few examples from the two volumes of Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (Rothenberg and Joris 1995 and 1998).

A well-known collection such as Allen and Tallman’s The Poetics of The New American Poetry (1973) collected documents ranging from Pound’s group manifestoes to Frank O’Hara’s patapoetical one man movement statement ‘Personism’, from Lorca’s essay on ‘duende’ to Olson’s influential ‘Projectivist Verse’ essay. America, as if asserting its cultural autonomy, seems particularly attracted to the discourse, from the Imagists to the Language Poets. In Britain this has not been the case, certainly since the Apocalyptic Manifestoes of the war years. To think of Basil Bunting’s dust jacket disavowal of meaning in poetry alongside the critical corpus of his mentor, Ezra Pound, is emblematic.

However, one of the most prolific examples of twentieth century poetics comes from the British Isles. In 1944, Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid published parts of a long associative list poem – he called it a ‘testament’ (MacDiarmid 1985: 1030) –  written in the late 1930s, entitled ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’ as the backbone of a chapter of his intellectual autobiography Lucky Poet, in order to argue for a poetry of fact and wonder, ‘a poetry full of erudition, expertise, and ecstasy’, as he put it (MacDiarmid 1985: 1019). Politically it is ‘a poetry that stands for production, use, and life,/ As opposed to property, profits and death’ (MacDiarmid 1985: 1023), and for the development of a modern consciousness of ‘super-individuality … to assimilate, utilize, override, and fuse/ All our individual divergences’, a fusion that would represent a technological, artistic, scientific, and political synthesis of World Thought – Eastern as well as Western, folk and popular as well as high cultural, with MacDiarmid’s international Communism perfectly counterpointing his Scottish Nationalism. (MacDiarmid 1985: 1004-5)

This example makes me wonder whether there is something essentially ‘English’ about a refusal to theorize in poetics, as in other areas? Does philosophical empiricism rule the day (which matches the continuing lyric empiricism of the dominant post-Movement orthodoxy itself) – or is it the geopolitical centrality of the English imagination, and its refusals of the necessity of poetics, the defensive and normative restrictive practices of the colonial centre? It may well be that a declaration of independence (cultural or poetic) generates more necessity than an act of union!

One exception (and to remember that poetics pertains to all genres) is a collection by Malcolm Bradbury, a pioneer of creative writing teaching at the University of East Anglia, who saw the value of poetics, though I do not remember him using the word when I was a student of his, nor was even ‘commentary’ a requirement of the MA I studied.  His anthology The Novel Today (1977) still constitutes an important sourcebook for the poetics of fiction: from Doris Lessing’s influential Preface to The Golden Notebook, to the in-the-thick-of-it ‘Notes on an Unfinished Novel’ by John Fowles, which are preliminary studies for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, along with some American and continental poetics, such as pieces by John Barth and Robbe-Grillet.

With respect to the more adventurous British poetry, Eric Mottram, in his still-uncollected essays, delineated a poetics deriving from the American modernist inheritance, although his polemics often obscured its positive aspects. However, he did coax poetics out of dozens of recalcitrant poets in his interviews, chiefly in the context of ‘Poetry Information’ evenings at the ICA during the 1960s and at the Poetry Society during the 1970s, which, transcribed, were mostly published in the important magazine Poetry Information. One such interview, with Roy Fisher, also forms part of one of the few British Poetry Revival publications to rival the American collections of interviews with single poets. Roy Fisher’s Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose (2000) includes 90 pages of various interviews garnered at various times, by various methods ranging from face to face to email exchange. There have also been valuable interviews spread among the pages of little magazines, and some of these are collected, and augmented by especially commissioned interviews, in Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan’s Don’t Start Me Talking: Interviews with Contemporary Poets (2006) with British and Irish poets ranging from so-called Cambridge poets Andrew Crozier and David Chaloner to younger poets such as Sean Bonney and Peter Manson, as well as independent voices such as R.F. Langley and Elisabeth Bletsoe.

One pioneering example of British poetics is Denise Riley’s 1992 edited volume Poets on Writing, which contains a rare number of essays of poetics as well as a selection from Veronica-Forrest Thomson’s important Poetic Artifice. But tellingly, Tom Raworth provides a selection of (presumably) his most recent poems from Eternal Sections under the inviting banner: ‘The State of Poetry Today’ in a typically British refusal to tackle that very theme in a discursive way! The 17 year gap between this volume and Rupert Loydell’s poetics anthology Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh: Manifestos and Unmanifestos (2009) is telling, but the latter volume demonstrates the full range of poetics as a discourse.

The only reason to make a poetics public is to share with others, either collectively as a manifesto, or agonistically as position statement – in both cases it is a social fact, and implies at least community of exchange or risk. These have not been the favoured British options; there is little explicit work (although it doubtless exists, implicitly, as private meditation and notebook jottings, etc...). This is one reason why the pedagogy of creative writing seems central to me, particularly as the advocate of a particular poetics myself (and again the evidence of creative writing is seen in Loydell’s collection). 8


After I had written the above I catalogued every item of poetics I could find and they may be read here, in four brutally compacted parts: 

Part One: Poetics and Proto-Poetics

 Part Two: Through and after Modernism

Part Three: North American Poetics

Part Four: Some British Poetics


Return to part one (and an index to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics) here.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Robert Sheppard: The Necessity of Poetics 3: Poetics as Discourse

Poetics as Discourse

 (This more recent part of this essay was not contained in the first online publication of this work here).

But the world we share, & our interplay with it, calls again & again for discourse: in the case of Poets, the setting forth of a poetics.

Jerome Rothenberg (Rothenberg, 1981: 3)

In the preceding definitions, I have adopted an unacknowledged Foucauldian vocabulary in describing poetics as a ‘discourse’, which requires further exposition. Whereas followers of Michel Foucault conceive of discourse as ‘a type of language associated with an institution, and [which] includes the ideas and statements which express an institution’s values’, I argue that the ordering and categorising of poetics is something that has barely begun, and that its elements have been located in different categories rather than in any single institution. (Danaher 2000: x) It ranges historically from treatises for gentlemen on the composition of verses, through literary criticism (even as it developed as an autonomous discourse); or even in bland bibliographical designations such as ‘authors’ miscellaneous prose’ or the ‘literary interview’. Poetics is not necessarily a shared form of writing; it has an ambivalent social location. ‘Poetics’ is not (yet) a unifying principle to structure and arrange a discourse; although an often-used term, it has seldom been defined. (In the volume entitled The Poetics of the New American Poetry, for example, the meaning of poetics is taken for granted by the editors.) I use poetics as a central principle in a method to constellate various writings that only constitute a discourse if viewed perspectivally, and retrospectively.

            The effect of this indetermination is that there has been little historical consciousness in both the writing and the reading of the discourse to date, little evidence of a ‘tradition’ of poetics in the traditional sense, even though one can trace a loose history of its proto-forms and development, as I shall show. One has to admit there is also a refreshing lack of a need for discursive legitimation. Unlike the body of knowledge built up in the social sciences, for example, where references to the theories of Weber or Kuhn (or Foucault, of course) are almost obligatory if the discourse is to be legitimate, it is not thought necessary to refer (back) to the poetics of Alexander Pope or Ezra Pound, S.T. Coleridge or Clark Coolidge as ‘authorities’ in quite the same way, in order to demonstrate that the discourse is legitimate – part of the discourse rather than outside of it, professional rather than amateur – amongst the fraternity of its users. This is not to say that, in specific local circumstances, in focussed works of poetics, amongst groups of poets, these figures do not carry authority as writers of previous poetics; think of Pound’s position as a provider of poetic strategies and categories amongst the North American avant-garde. But in other groups, say, among the Movement Orthodoxy in Great Britain, his influence is less and his name often a by-word for incoherent thinking. In other words, these names – and many others – do not operate as what Foucault dubs ‘founders of discursivity’ for poetics – in the same way that he says Marx dominates the ‘ism’ to which he gave his name, or Freud, who spread his foundation-ness over an entire discipline: those ‘figures who provide a paradigmatic set of terms, images, and concepts which organize thinking’ across an entire field of cultural production. (Rabinow 1986: 25) Not even Aristotle, who wrote the first ‘Poetics’, operates in quite this way now, although he did, as part of the general reverence in Western thinking towards classical models in the proto-poetics of the past; in the works of Horace, Dante and Ben Jonson, he is quoted as an authority, but as the founder of categorising philosophy as a whole rather than as a founder of the specific discourse of poetics (which he never practiced if we strictly refer to ‘writerly’ poetics). The mercurial nature of poetics since modernism at least – the magpie nature of its inspiration, the piebald gathering of its writings, its discontinuous discursivity – make this foundation-ness difficult to maintain. When all this is combined with more individualised aspects of its practice, such as the necessary distance a writer might want to preserve between creativity and conceptualisation, for fear of fixing his or her own image as a writer through an authoritative poetics which he or she cannot escape with ease, we can imagine that few writers would care to identify so completely with the activity of poetics that their own ‘creative’ work would become eclipsed. It would be as though Pound were willing to become known solely as the theorist and master of ceremonies of Imagism and not as the author of The Cantos. More practically speaking, writing poetics cannot be a full-time occupation since it implies another occupation, or is best thought of as an integral part of literary authorship as that has developed into the modern era. Perhaps most writers also know that they can seldom provide, or would want to provide, ‘paradigmatic’ terms and concepts through their poetics, and that poetics tends to be paradigm-breaking rather than paradigm-shifting, permissive rather than dismissive, locally organising rather than globally organising (either for a group or individually).

            Whether or not poetics can (or would want to) claim founders for its discursivity, Foucault writes that

To expand a type of discursivity, such as psychoanalysis as founded by Freud, is not to give it a formal generality that it would not have permitted at the outset, but rather to open it to a certain number of applications …. In addition, one does not declare certain propositions in the work of these founders to be false: instead … one sets aside those statements that are not pertinent …. Reexamining Freud’s texts modifies psychoanalysis itself. (Rabinow 1986: 25)

‘Opening up’ parts of poetics may be thought of as an exemplary strategy for those wishing to build a new poetics using elements of older thinking, but such an activity lacks the emphasis in Foucault’s last clause on whether the discourse and its practices will be ‘modified’ in any definitive sense.

Of course, apprehension of that ‘modification’ may become visible if poetics is seen through time, via something like a Foucauldian framework. It would seem more a discursive practice, at least in its thinking about poetics – metapoetics as I define it  – if not in the writing of the discourse itself, which, I suspect, may of necessity remain too intermittent and wild for such discursive decorum. On the other hand, Foucault’s rejection of ‘proving’ the falsity of earlier statements of a discourse is in accord with my thinking here about how poetics develops. Re-examination of Coleridge or Coolidge can further poetics itself, modifying without permanently re-modelling, ‘trying on a paradigm’ as Bernstein experimentally and experientially puts it, rather than providing paradigmatic sets of organising principles. (Bernstein 1992: 161) Previous poetics can usefully be ‘set aside’ if they do not provoke writing or thinking that results in creative writing.

            If we follow Foucault in declaring that ‘such discourses as economics, medicine, grammar, the science of living beings give rise to certain organizations of concepts, certain regroupings of objects, certain types of enunciation, which form, according to their degree of coherence, rigour, and stability, themes or theories,’ may we effortlessly add ‘poetics’ to his list? (Foucault 2002: 71) While my task is not Foucault’s – ‘to discover how such [themes and theories] are distributed in history’ – it is not impossible to discern the presence and persistence of concepts, objects and so on in poetics. (Foucault 2002: 71) Certain weak themes can be detected, for example, in the theories of rhythm during the age of free verse – Pound, Lawrence, Zukofsky and Mayakovsky can be found testing their theories – but they offer conjecture rather than definition. Even Pound with his ‘brusque practicality’ cannot claim to adjudicate the whole field of poetic production, although it is important to remember the level of factional antagonism inherent in avant-garde formations, particularly where poetics finds its functions compromised by the more territorial claims of the ‘manifesto’. Indeed, Foucault’s conception of discourse is not monolithic: he writes of finding a paradoxical ‘system of dispersion’, in accord with both my sense of situated constellations and the position-taking of avant-gardes.

Whenever one can describe, between a number of statements, such a system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation…. (Foucault 2002: 41)

He argues that it is ‘a space of multiple dissensions’ and his analysis must ‘maintain discourse in all its many irregularities’, a formulation that looks not unlike poetics as I have defined it with a care I hope is commensurate with its possible forms. (Foucault 2002: 173)  

            Another of the components of Foucault’s theory of discourse, touched on but not commented on above, complicates this dispersion: that is, a discourse’s reliance upon institutions to mediate and propagate it. ‘In every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers,’ Foucault says, procedures that rely on ‘institutional support: it is both reinforced and accomplished by whole strata of practices such as pedagogy – naturally – the book system, publishing, libraries’. (quoted in Golding 2006: 24) While the discourses Foucault analyses are more universal in their impact than poetics as I have defined it, it is true that its procedures are not institutionalised in this way (as a recognisable discourse), and indeed in the areas of contemporary poetry they often barely exist, limited to what Charles Bernstein calls the ‘provisional institutions’ of marginalized poetries, (Bernstein 1999: 145) such as fugitive publishing of magazines and books, readings and – importantly for poetics – talks series; indeed, non- or anti-institutionalization might be part of its strategy, as Bernstein suggests (in a passage quoted in one of the preceding definitions). The antagonistic landscape of recent poetries (on both sides of the Atlantic) affects poetics, in that energy is spent (wasted, even) on defining poetic activity against another group (or individual) but it is also true that the lack of institutional reinforcement keeps poetics relatively free of forces that might avert its powers and danger, and precisely institutionalise it. (However, the poetics of any ‘mainstream’ poetry can be said to have one identifiable institution, in Britain at least, the school and higher education syllabus, but that is a subject beyond the scope of this essay.)         

            Poetics, as I have defined it, at this stage of its development, is a weak case of a Foucauldian discursive formation, but one still deserving of the name. The lesson remains: poetics must be read differentially, not deferentially.


Return to part one (and an index to all parts of The Necessity of Poetics) here.