Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Robert Sheppard: Review of Harwood's Collected Poems

It’s a Long Road: a journey through Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems            

Part One

Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems – references to it marked CP in the text - takes the reader through varying landscapes, and changing obsessions, personal relationships, artistic passions. The metaphor of travel is apposite for a major characteristic of Harwood’s writing, that is, its restlessness, and one he repeatedly uses himself. On page 229 (about half way through this forty year accretion of work) we are warned to expect ‘a long road’; reaching the penultimate page we are reminded still ‘it’s a long road’ (p. 521). It is a journey, characterised not just by mutability and variety, but by what Harwood calls an ‘insistence’ (p. 168). It is

not so much a repetition
but a moving around a point, a line
- like a backbone – and that too moving
(on) (CP 177)

For example, the effect of the numerous times the reader is reminded of the inadequacy of language, particularly to evoke the emotive charge of erotic adventure, is cumulative. ‘You’ – followed by half a page width of silent space – ‘I hardly begin to say’ is emblematic of dozens of such insistences, limit-cases, crisis-points, breakdowns. (CP 463) The confessions of faltering, stumbling words, ‘moving around a point’, or the dozens of literally unfinished declarations of love or wonder, suggest that Harwood has snatched such anti-rhetorical ‘failure’ from the jaws of his greatest triumphs, his wounded poems.

Reading this oeuvre is also a stylistic adventure, a pageant of literary forms, with its readerly delights and surprises. Harwood knows this too. When he writes, ‘My heart weeps,’ and then comments, ‘Who would ever have thought I’d write that?/ “My heart weeps”?’ – he not only presents the troubling sentence twice, he presents its repetition in his frequently used and estranging quotes to defuse the subterranean romanticism – but he also knows he can rely upon a readership of whom he can ask such a question, who have followed his progressive ‘movings-on’ (CP 182), who have become accustomed to the interrogative assumption behind his ‘voice’, indeed recognise this self-conscious, knowing hesitancy as his voice (to play up to that doubtful metaphor).

The stages of this long – unfinished - journey are represented by the sections of the Collected Poems, published by Tony Fraser’s Shearsman Books in 2004. They broadly correspond to previously published books or to sections of those books. Very few poems have been omitted from what is now effectively the canon of Harwood’s work, and these are stylistically weak texts, mostly plucked from the company of poems in the first 96 pages of this 522 page publication.1 More positively, a number of uncollected poems have been added, mostly from the 1970s and the early 1980s, along with some previously unpublished recent work (to which I will return next month).

The White Room ( Fulcrum Press, 1967), Harwood’s first large volume, was already a kind of early collected poems, and began, as does this new book, with early work, called here ‘title illegible/early work 1964-1965’. Most of this was originally published in Harwood’s first pamphlet, with its characteristically self-evasive title: title illegible (1965). A regular attendee at Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum workshop (and he was later, in 1967, to follow Cobbing as manager of Better Books, an important subcultural London venue throughout the sixties), Harwood was also published by Cobbing’s press. Little of this Writers Forum pamphlet survives the editorial process; this section of early work is dominated by ‘Cable Street’, a flawed but necessary poem, and important for Harwood’s subsequent development in that it is a long text in lyric fragments and prose. It is not unlike Roy Fisher’s near contemporary City (1960), or, only a little more distantly, the later books of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. (It also encouraged others, such as Iain Sinclair, to begin to explore the little histories of London.) The text deals with Harwood's day to day life in the East End (where he lived until 1967, with his first wife, Jenny Goodgame, whom he married in 1961, and their son, Blake, born the following year), balancing the everyday with - to take one central example - the Battle of Cable Street between the fascists and communists, which was played out on the same turf 30 years before. The young Harwood applauds Lenin and eulogises the coming revolution: ‘O Prince your days are done/The Revolution’s come’. (CP 22)

The labour Harwood expended in the mid and late 1960s on translating from the French a representative selection of the ex-Dadaist and Surrealist Tristan Tzara possibly steered him from continuing to use this work as a direct model in his own writing (only a few early exercises in surreal mode are included). He met Tzara in 1963, not long before his death, and Tzara approved certain of the early translations. This body of work also is excluded from the Collected Poems, but several volumes have gathered these translations and its introductions, including Chanson Dada in 1987, for which he wrote a new introduction, and which is due to be republished soon. He also published a Tzara bibliography in 1974. As a part of the burgeoning literary underground Harwood was also a publisher of occasional magazines, (Night Scene, Soho, Horde) whose name changed with each issue, but one was an act of pure homage and assumed lineage: Tzrarad. There was even a subsequent anthology of that name. In his recent In the Sixties, Barry Miles explains: ‘We published Darazt, an anthology featuring a long poem by Lee Harwood, and named after his mimeo magazine, Tzarad (Darazt being Tzarad backwards). Lee was particularly fond of Tristan Tzara. There were some collages by me, inspired by Max Ernst, some photographs of Gala Mitchell naked by Hoppy, inspired by Bill Brandt, and a three-column text by William Burroughs.’ (Barry Miles, p. 64) 'Hoppy' was John Hopkins, who also ran the UFO Club, the centre of underground musical culture, with which Harwood also had some contact. Along with Pete Brown, Spike Hawkins and others, Miles tells us, Harwood read at the first ‘Spontaneous Underground’ event at the Marquee Club in January 1966, on an anarchic bill that included Donovan and Graham Bond, with most of the performers and audience in fancy dress. (When read this passage recently over the phone, Mr Harwood denied remembering any of it, proving, I suppose, that if you can remember the sixties then you weren’t blah blah blah. Or possibly the shame of being on the same bill as Donovan provokes amnesia. (The other day there was a horrible scream from downstairs. I went down there. I asked Patricia what the matter was. She said that Donovan was on Midweek. Why? I asked with incredulity. Cashing in on the Dylan revival, she explained. Again? sez I!). There's also the question of the relationship of Harwood's The White Room with the Cream song of the same title, written by Pete Brown.)

The brief gay lyrics early in the Collected, ‘This morning' for instance, open a theme of erotic longing at forced separation that haunts the entire oeuvre: ‘the pain of my leaving/and my love for you’. (CP, 23) This intensifies in ‘The Man with Blue Eyes’, a section of both Collected Poems and The White Room. This also appeared, under that title, as a separate volume, published by Lewis Walsh and Anne Waldman’s Angel Hair Books in 1966. It won the Frank O'Hara Prize, and heralded Harwood’s arrival in New York and inaugurated a transatlantic exchange that continues to this day. An erotic liaison with John Ashbery (whom he had met in Paris in 1965), and a more general literary engagement with the New York poetry scene at its height, engendered some deeply felt love poetry, including one of the finest meditations upon clandestine gayness, erotic obsession and separation, ‘As your eyes are blue’, which Jeremy Reed has described as ‘a love poem as important to its time as Shakespeare’s androgynously sexed sonnets were to his.’ In those days homosexuality was still illegal. In comparison, the straight love poem, ‘Summer’, demonstrates a similar erotic anxiety, though it can afford to be more graphic (though anatomically questionable, ‘length’ surely a masculinist measure of eroticism):

The damp heat
and discomfort of clothes, a tongue passing the length
of her clitoris … and back again …
erections in the musty pavilion. ( CP 41).

Indeed the explicitness is arguably an over-compensation for the restraint of the, otherwise better written, gay poems with their lack of gender markers, and their focus on detached parts of the body; ‘if only I could touch your naked shoulder’ could easily be read as non-gender specific. (CP 29)

The final ‘Blue Eyes’ poem, 'Landscape with 3 People’, while signalling separation and loss as much as earlier poems, is the first poem to adopt the more obvious narrative, even allegorical, mode that dominates the ‘The White Room (1966-67)’, replete with the mysterious menace that ghosts so many of Harwood’s fictions:

I loved him and I loved her
and no understanding was offered
to the first citizen
when the ricks were burnt (CP 50)

This large section reminds us that Harwood’s sheer output of the later 1960s and early 1970s is staggering. (One hundred and sixteen of the 500 pages were produced before he was 30.) More obvious exercises in a New York mode suggest Harwood was in danger of becoming a card-carrying member of an already fading avant-garde. The tragic death of O'Hara in 1966 might be thought emblematic of its demise, despite the rise of the genius of the second generation, Ted Berrigan. Harwood mirrors the insistent jocular name-checking and casual enjambment of the two poets:

Ted Berrigan has met Edwin Denby.
I don’t know anyone who’s met F.T. Prince.
I wish I could meet F.T. Prince;
maybe I will one day, but it will have to be soon
as he must be getting old. (CP 58)

Ironically, it was Prince – a stylish British poet much admired by Ashbery, and who Harwood did subsequently meet! – who issued the salutary warning that Harwood was ‘pattering on’. This led Harwood to realise the dangers of sheer production: ‘You get a tone of voice going, and it’s very elegant and witty … and then it comes out as yards of material which you just reel off’. (PI p 13) The best poems in The White Room show an opening of this range beyond standard second generation New York work into fictions about colonial vanity, military and naval disasters, outback life, the Wild West, the Muslim East - Harwood has spoken of these as our modern mythologies - and even about the nature of poetry itself. He matches an adherence to New York grace, while characteristically focusing on linguistic failure:

PLATO was right to banish
poets from the Republic. Once they try to go beyond the
colours and shapes, they only ever fail, miserably –
some more gracefully than others. (CP 96)

The influence of Borges’ strange narratives is evident too. Even some of these poems are rather long, and the danger of 'pattering on' was sharply dealt with by the next Fulcrum book, Landscapes (1969). Again the change of style or emphasis is prefigured by a single poem in the earlier volume, this time ‘When the Geography was Fixed’, which was originally featured in The White Room, as well as in Landscapes.

The section ‘Landscapes 1967’ is actually best read as (if not originally conceived of) as a sequence of eight poems that meditates dreamily upon the doubleness of its title: a landscape is a geographical term as well as the name of its artistic representation. The role of artifice is obvious in this interplay of nature and culture, erotic encounter and erotic representation. ‘When the Geography was Fixed’ plays on the conceit that ‘one woman in the gallery… liked the picture and somehow the delicate/ hues of her complexion were reflected in it’ (CP 100). This creates an ontological uncertainty, a sort of palimpsest world, which is an analogue for the mechanisms of consciousness and memory. (It may owe to O’Hara’s own poem of the erased canvas, ‘Oranges’.)

- you paint over the picture and start on
the new one but all the same it’s still there
beneath the fresh plains of colour (CP 108)

‘Landscapes’ is one of Harwood's finest achievements. In contrast, ‘The Picture Book 1968’ is a mixed bag. Its obsession with love and colonialism points towards the thematics of The Sinking Colony, while ‘The Coast 1968’, which was the final part of the Landscapes volume, points towards the stylistic fragmentation of that next Fulcrum book. Half lines and caesurae attempt a new semantic simplicity, while notions of heterosexual love as atomised body parts and the specifics of coastal geography merge to create stylistic complexity.

The whole outline called ‘geography’
meeting at a set of erotic points
lips shoulders breasts stomach
the town dissolves sex thighs legs (CP 125)

‘The Coast’ also announces Harwood’s partial removal to the actual coast, at Brighton, where he worked initially at Bill Butler’s underground Unicorn bookshop, though during these years he led a peripatetic life, taking on various temporary jobs from librarianship to forestry, between Brighton, London, Exeter, and Gloucestershire. His first marriage had broken up by this time.
The poems in ‘HMS Little Fox 1967-1968’ had to wait until 1975 for a larger volume (of that title) to appear. The closure of the important Fulcrum Press in 1973 by its founders, Stuart and Deirdre Montgomery (Stuart is a dedicatee of one poem), meant these poems appear displaced in Harwood’s publishing history. While this at once attests to the prodigious output of these years, the delay in publication may also derive from the fact that the poems obliquely record the ‘morbid masochism’ of the heroin addiction that had overtaken Harwood in these years. (CP 139) It was not just the geography that was ‘fixed’, to use a pun he opens up in the pointedly entitled and barely encoded ‘Chemical Days’:

‘The fix’ can only mean
the man with two blue flags who stands all day
on the cliff top. (CP 133)

His attempt to escape this ‘fix’ is charted most poignantly in ‘Love in the Organ Loft’, a poem dedicated to Marian (O’Dwyer). ‘Watching over my’ sleeping ‘love’ like one of Picasso’s minotaurs, the narrator fights not just the drug as he

double(s) my usual intake
to feel without compassion my brain wince
under chemical blows,

but the disjointed fictionalising that this evokes, or produces through confusion or hallucination:

I mean what is happening? – NOW! Do you see
what I mean? – like does the cathedral nestle
in the sky’s warm lap?....
This parable can be used for most things – think of a river … (CP 138)

This ‘almost indefinitely transferable allegory of “feeling”’ (to use Prynne’s term for this aspect of Harwood’s work) contrasts so much with the coterminous poems of ‘The Coast 1968’ that one must note this as the beginning of what Harwood later called a routine: ‘I can see my work does seem to swing this way; it’s a sort of puritan-cavalier routine. I suddenly wanted to cut the crap, and stop being a tap-dancer, and try to talk straight’ (PI p. 13), a stylistic oscillation between plainness and baroqueness, notational realism and elaborate fictiveness, a battle between the influence of Creeley and Olson on one hand, and Ashbery and Borges on the other. ‘Love in the Organ Loft’ explicitly equates the plain style with health and artifice with addiction, abjection, and evasion. More generally, there is another dichotomy at work within the ‘routine’. It is difficult not to see it sexualised as a dialectic between ‘straight’ talk (which, remember, is Harwood’s own word) and Ashberyean gay camp. Harwood’s term ‘swing this way’ echoes the (admittedly inaccurate) demotic marker of bisexuality: to swing both ways. Even amid the most baroque fiction, a telling line of straight talking has it: ‘I loved him and I loved her’ (CP 50). But then Harwood’s work is full of collapsing binaries. As he confesses in a recent interview, reversing the polarities of his writerly ‘routine’: ‘At times the personal is the fiction and the elaborate stories … are the real thing.’ These are not be the only times that one can observe a personal dimension behind what is represented by Harwood as stylistic preferences.
Despite the establishment of the puritan-cavalier oscillation, The Sinking Colony (the final Fulcrum book of 1971) experiments further with fragmentation, again resulting in one of Harwood’s great (but admittedly not characteristic) poems, ‘Animal Days’, another narrative of colonialism and erotic obsession. It is pared down, but not straight talking exactly, because it is a variety of cut up. Despite the inevitable nod towards the techniques of William Burroughs evoked by the term (and although Tzrara is often cited as the originator of this brutal form of collage) the model actually was Ashbery's collage poem ‘Europe’ from the controversial 1962 volume, The Tennis Court Oath, which has one section reading in its entirety: ‘I’m on my way to Hull/ grinned the girl.’ (135) Harwood's poem seems located anywhere but Europe, let alone Larkin’s Hull:

the indian chiefs
what are the wounds, anyway, and their cost?

In the morning everything is white
low clouds trail across the upper pastures
and the valley is thick with mist

‘sometimes their canoes only hollowed-out tree trunks’ (CP 150)

Fragmentation and collage seem suitable forms to evoke what a later colonial poem calls ‘confused longing’ amid such a world with its numbed calendars of pain. (CP 201) But in another poem, ‘Linen’, such intensely isolated shards of truncated utterance enable a gesture of readerly intervention, as if the reader could literally step into the silence and finish the job, although the poem emphatically ends with its own excessive double simile that belongs to ‘cavalier’ New York baroqueness (yet how odd they seem for the sensation of touching skin). We are invited to help the poem reach its figurative climax, but not to provide it, like a Hollywood fluffer.

touching you like the
and soft as
like the scent of flowers and
like an approaching festival
whose promise is failed through carelessness (CP 144)

‘The Big Chop 1969-1970’ (again delayed until 1975 when HMS Little Fox was published by the late Ian Robinson’s Oasis Books) attempts to meld the puritan-cavalier routine, but read in chronological sequence, it seems to contain exercises towards the large scale and major success of the next section ‘The Long Black Veil: a notebook 1970-1972’, which Harwood himself called ‘the end product, the "flower" of my work to date’, so that ‘The Big Chop’ reads as ‘the roots of that work’ as Harwood put it. (dust jacket HMSLF) In its juxtaposition of poetry and prose (its generic insistence upon its notational quality), ‘The Long Black Veil’ picks up, slightly unexpectedly, on the experiments of ‘Cable Street’. Harwood’s philosophy of composition, his poetics, posits a hopeful ‘presentation of informations and the art as mover, catalyst - to somehow work together, be one’. (dust jacket HMSLF) Harwood also benefited from ‘an American permission’ (to use a phrase of Geoff Ward’s) to write long sequences, particularly from the influence of Olson’s The Maximus Poems. In its turn, ‘The Long Black Veil’ both influenced, and was influenced by, the contemporary British version of this ‘permission’, which was called ‘open field poetry’ and was proselytised by Eric Mottram and exemplified not only by Harwood’s work, but by projects like Allen Fisher’s contemporaneous Place (Book One). This was a mode that both authors would need eventually to surpass, as the technique of notational bare utterance upon the blank page, the invasion of lyric concision by quotation, page-space a kind of literal mapping, a guide to the territory of experience hinted at, became a fashion. In short, an enabling technique quickly became an imitative style. But the careful plural that Harwood places on ‘informations’, the reminder of complexity, suggests the gains initially to be had from this method. In an indirect passage of poetics within ‘The Long Black Veil’ Harwood writes (or mainly quotes):

The questions of complexity

On Gide’s death Mr. Forster said – ‘I realized more clearly how much he had got out of life, and had managed to transmit through his writings. Not life’s greatness – greatness is a nineteenth century perquisite, a Goethean job. But life’s complexity, and the delight, the difficulty, the duty of registering that complexity and of conveying it.’

The distinctions (CP 177)

This style or technique suited the restlessness that is both geographical (we pass from Brighton to California) and thematic. ‘The Long Black Veil’ borrows its title from a country and western song about loving ‘my best friend’s wife’. In an unpublished part of an interview Robert Creeley states: ‘(Lee and I) had a sad number at one point in the later sixties when my wife [Bobbie Louise Hawkins] and he had an intense and frustrated relation…. My wife and I were having extraordinary problems so it was hardly unusual. But she was very moved and drawn to him, and he likewise to her.’ This instability haunts the intense sparks of passion amid a (sometimes literal) ocean of separation: ‘you there/me here’. (CP 184) I have written (twice) elsewhere of this extraordinary poem.

In ‘Qasida Island (1971-72)’ this open field mode was put to good use in shorter tighter lyrics, particularly in the tri-partite poem ‘One Two Three’, with its clear invitation in title and final line (‘Now put it together’) for the reader to enter into the co-production of the utterance. (CP 201) Its openness is a gesture to the reader, different from the intended literal lacunae of ‘The Sinking Colony’ poems. By presenting narratives of gift-exchange, the exchanges of sexual passion and the stiffness of colonial rigeur, it asks the reader to relate all of its parts. It is a gesture of obligation to the reader to initiate an inventive response, the sort defined by Derek Attridge as when ‘the reader attempts to answer the work’s shaping of language by a new shaping of his or her own (which will in turn invite further responses),’ an image of the catalytic response Harwood has often attributed to acts of reading, and – more generally - to acts of social and political change (as I shall show):

Yes, I suppose, fascinated by the delicacy
of the piano part in the first movement
of Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio
(‘he sighed… but real enough,
aesthetic coat-trailing aside.
The delight beyond the technicalities
- not pursuing, but there
to be recognised (CP 199)

The apocryphal pamphlet, Captain Harwood’s Log of Stern Statements and Stout Sayings, published in 1973 by Writers Forum, is largely a commonplace book of informations and quotations, mainly drawn from politics (Mussolini to Mao), Poundian modernism and the I Ching, the Chinese book of divination. While such a publication enjoyed only the limited distribution of a little press, it is worth remembering that in 1971 Harwood shared the pages of Penguin Modern Poets 19, with John Ashbery and Tom Raworth and ‘reach[ed] an even wider readership. Even my father had heard of this series,’ Harwood recalls. (Bio. 145) He was also included in a couple of widely-read Penguin anthologies, Michael Horovitz’ The Children of Albion (1969), a gathering of ‘underground’ poetry, and less tribally, Edward Lucie-Smith’s catholic first edition of his British Poetry Since 1945 (1970). (Harwood has, of course, been widely anthologised since.)

‘Boston to Brighton’, a section of the Collected, equates to a second Oasis book (called Boston-Brighton of 1977) but is divided into two parts. ‘Boston’ celebrates the city in the US where Harwood lived in 1972. It was also the home of his second wife, the photographer Jud Walker, whom he had met while a writer in residence at the Aegan School of Fine Arts in Paros, Greece, and whom he married in 1974. It ranges from an ironic found poem about Kennebunkport, (which is all informations) to bare lyric notations, but the two modes are not otherwise juxtaposed or, one it tempted to say, made complex, as they had been in ‘The Long Black Veil’. The second part, ‘Brighton (1973-77)’, celebrates the British city Harwood and Walker settled in, and where they had two children, Rafe, born 1977, and Rowan, born 1979. It includes the minimalist straight talking of ‘Chên’, derived from a reading of the I Ching:

the clarity
what believed
or rather hoped for (CP 226)

It also includes a successor to ‘The Long Black Veil’, ‘Notes of a Post Office Clerk’. This extended text is only excerpted in The Collected, which suggests a measure of authorial dissatisfaction. Indeed, in 1993, Harwood himself called it ‘a worthy but dull attempt’. (Bio, 149) Harwood used the style of ‘Chên’ to develop the mappings of the earlier work (quite literally there are maps) of the Sussex coast where he lived and worked as a post office clerk, an occupation he carried out intermittently for 19 years.

Indeed, a sense of civic and family obligation pervades this period’s writings and partly accounts for their heavy literalism, their optimism in ‘clarity’. In ‘The Notes of a Post Office Clerk’ we read, that ‘now in England 1975’ there exists ‘a list of simple, practical, and just acts, /moves towards a real “socialism”’. (CP 253) That list was Harwood’s own political manifesto and, although excluded from the published poem, it appeared in full in a magazine publication of earlier drafts, advocating a fairly radical socialist equitable incomes and fiscal policy, major political reform and a utopian commitment towards catalytic social change, a hint of which survives into the published poem: ‘The steps that could change this, that could be taken now, open a few doors and windows, start the change that would produce changes as yet unknown.’ (CP 253)

During the mid to late 1970s, Harwood was actively involved in politics, as a union official and as a member of the Labour Party during its most radical years, now often derided, and he stood as a candidate in local elections (unsuccessfully). He was no more immediately successful as a member of the Poetry Society General Council, being drawn to negotiation as a strategy rather than conflict when the Arts Council began to object to the changes Bob Cobbing and others had spearheaded, after a radical take-over and make-over of the once moribund organisation. As fellow poet Elaine Randell said, ‘Along with Lee Harwood and Roy Fisher at that time, I personally felt that we could work within the constraints, that the money [for promoting radical poetics] was the important thing and that things would adapt if tempers and personalities calmed down.’ Such a hope was vain and all three, along with Harwood’s publisher Ian Robinson, suffered ostracization from certain quarters for not joining the walkout. The judgement of history may be on Harwood’s side. (Peter Barry’s forthcoming book The Poetry Wars, Salt, promises to open up this sore on the body poetic again, and threatens to have new things to say.)

The one exception to the stylistic austerity in Boston Brighton is the prose piece dedicated to Jud, entitled ‘Old Bosham Bird Watch’. Its opening

out of nothing comes...

nothing comes out of nothing

cut / switch to…. (CP 230)

suggests a recovered delight in language's ability to create ex nihilo, through fictions, through juxtaposition, though the details here are more domestic and local, less mythological, than those of the 1960s. The metaphor for erotic obsession and wider knowledge, as ever, is one of movement: ‘That I love you, we know this, parting the branches and ferns as we push on through the wood.’ (CP 231) The re-discovery of prose was to be crucially important for Harwood in the next few years.

Next month this review continues with a look at the emergence of the mature Lee Harwood. Read it here

Page 493

Monday, December 19, 2005

Clark Allison: MIND'S EYE


Parallel Tracks
parallel tracks there are lines beneath us
outboard climes plucked and seen before reducing
in sense stack whose ambience strung short
and undone I have varied according to
method how many times that theme which
you could and I decline slipping aside

test that and lift squarely hard and
harsh just stopped dead in its tracks
excess detritus there must be more than
doors closing spidered webs linger aflame as
if rent comprehension won’t cognise thick reflection
has recollection build up a little time

and came toward feasance not being untutored
hats synced to shirts few contest an
abstruse equation unspent covered ground quick head
of steam your realisation the fidelity of
moments to this garden among trees stepped


Spanned Attention
do I keep to themes spent tread
a mask may unfathom foreign places visit
one thing leading to others anodyne and
whither storm and tide fluent playing at
life and travelled nothing much as given
can’t help but betray itself once again

trapped as can caught within self interest
being powerful motives taken out with what
makes every good intention some kind of
preference whether truth could beauty really try
the soak of personality can’t stake another
minute where seen might believe at all

of what was imparted reads like an
abstract vast rooms hinging on light patterns
of interaction been there before imbued and
jump cut reclaiming spanned attention never was
and got to pare it all back


Shedding Light

evidence of foreign travel bags packed and
checked notched down a peg or two
more than enough sense of continuity tired
of repetition other angles shedding light his
default demeanour of unruffled gaminess taking it
all in stride enough of time ratching

expressionless static horizon plane of vision unheard
roccoco disabuse an elaboration of sockets sinked
to reason fared and disavowed going elsewhere
at reckless pace I have effaced detail
after synonym to render incomplete pixel upon
flatbed no rejig anon season sip quit

tender squib picked up and let go
the printer’s ink I withstand height less
vertigo queasy sun in the eyes spanning
out of sight the impossibilities of wrapping
up so many loose ends connected late


Mind’s Eye
oblique transit space slides the mid line
give it time and take immersion therapy
threads given instruction shudder and shiver and
only ache O relenter the company we
keep transferred over to dark nights transform
the ether lux an idea of heaven

not mine you only turned back displacement
of the mind’s eye hollow caverns with
neither doors nor lights dispel them as
narrow expressive range defaulting to control panel
restless and almost futile gestures set to
an automatic where what only comes naturally

could nearly look like trying primeval strokes
to sustain life reverting to the same
defensive manoeuvres call it personality crisis I
took against the mirror and called it
time or shape no more nor less


Sprung Loose
the day of the funeral what burns
fingers slipping drawn from life relinquish this
taint foisted immaculate and ignorant wishing the
past neither filled nor empty no imagination
a getting back appealed of words in
some sound or gesture a lucid freeze

hopelessly distracted your sentience mars the
remember last contoured dismembered cipher shed blind
catcher run the drop down you will
find colour and efflorescence currents ebb and
turn shun mastery having been here before
to thin and bind allows keeping place

oblivion and strong medicine no cure for
this disease and pass through inertly in
a manner of saying sprung loose not
recognising street nor curve pent up and
discharged covering the cost of sent far


Fade Out
tomorrow or till the end of time
the mind going blank fade out and
imagining torso rip ordinance sack taste bud
fending clover hop joust staged roundabout all
over by way of analogies bowl of
grapes by hand a wonder of apostles

by virtue of language such a long
way to go slow and glance consume
them thistle slight glow sunset breach the
cloak of wear and tear down which
way hey enough signage to post direction
impressed upon tight appearance slit and sand

the narrows that lodged air pockets and
nets to trap fish and wake no
destination how much could suffice and ring
walk road slog and circuitous revelry at
gasp and turned along the curved slope

These pieces are the opening 6 from a set of 17, entitled “Mind’s Eye”, which were put together by Clark as part of a collaborative project organised by Rupert Loydell consisting of work by 7 contributors. This is tentatively identified as a ‘17x7’ series. Each contributor’s poems are set
out in groups of 17, of length 17 lines, with 7 words per line.

(Ed: good to see what Adrian Clarke dubbed ‘neo-formalism’, and what I liked to call ‘iso-verbalism’, having its day.)

Clark Allison was born in Glasgow in 1961 though he spent nineyears in the 1980s living in Los Angeles. Author of Temporal Shift/Daubs (Trombone Press 98) and of several poems and reviews appearing in Notus and Stride, of which 'Six Paragraphs 1 & 2' at(www.stridemagazine.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/2003/june/6paras.htm) and 'an actuality/In the mere number of us', on GeorgeOppen, at(www.stridemagazine.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/2003/october/allison-oppen.htm), will interest regular readers of Pages.

2019: his review of Robert Sheppard's Hap may be read here:

Clark Allison: ‘One Side Ripening’, Stride, January 2019: http://stridemagazine.blogspot.com/2019/01/one-side-ripening.html

Page 492

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bill Griffiths: Ghost Story 3: MIDNIGHT EXPRESS

As we approach the year's Midnight, here's the third of Mr Griffiths' tales of mystery and local government

The bus station at Seaville – late at night – is not a pleasant site. The toilets are locked, but the mix of hormonal relicts and disinfectant pervades the concrete court. The decorative crowds of travellers back from work have long gone; the shy gangs of youngsters, with bikes to practice on, or girls to sit with, or slogans and graffiti to create, are gone likewise. Long since to bed, or whatever. The sky has darkened and the single bulb or two that provides company shows a tendency to blink – then blanks out. Shivery winds roll round the exposed bays and alleys, empty of their buses. What a place to be. But you dare not turn up late or even on time: what if you missed the last bus – the connection to the night coach at Sundercity – the only way out to London – the escape to civilisation, company and the real. It’s worth turning up early, and suffering the cold – was that a flick of snow? – and the isolation, just to know that you cannot miss the bus.

Not that there are any signs of regular travellers. I begin to doubt that there will be a late bus after all. The timetable is illegible, even supposing there was light to make something of the tiny figures. Are they am/pm or 24-hour? No way of telling. Of course, I checked up at home, before I set out – but come to think of it, it was rather an old brochure I grabbed to give me info. Yes, 23.23 – easy to remember – or is that what worries me? Perhaps I wanted to believe it – that I could get from tiny Seaville to the big Sundercity even at virtual middle-night – much better than mere and mortal accuracy. If you didn’t mind standing about in the darkness, the chill, the isolation.

Maybe it’s not so lonely, after all. Someone is turning out from a late-drinking pub somewhere – I can hear them singing – or humming – or whatever. Not a cheerful sound. Perhaps they will avoid the bus station. No. They are on their way. I can hear them getting closer, but I can’t see them quite. It’s too dark, and they are keeping back near the wall where it isn’t so exposed to the wind. I can make out shapes – people – a group – but that’s it. They don’t approach. They don’t say hello. They just have a melody or two to keep them warm. Blessings. At least it means the late bus must run, doesn’t it?

Yes, they have timed it to a T. Decrepit enough, an old bus that is all the company cares to risk at this time of night, coins the corner, and with an almost antique throb, comes to a stop – and just at my bay! No doubt about it, this is the 49 to Sundercity. I can’t make out the lettering on the front – there is no proper illumination – but the number seems as near as right – I check with the driver – 49? – a sort of solemn neutrality as I show my pass. After me the choristers get on. As I supposed, they are hugely old, and not easy on their feet. Must be a good pub, theirs. They sit way behind me at the back of the coach. I do not feel inclined to turn round and notice them. Not a friendly bunch, I’d guess. Probably known each other for years and don’t need to speak to strangers. Not typical of Seaville, mind.

I don’t care. I’m on my way. My faith in the bus company vindicated. The snow and the piercing wind, the dark and the loneliness behind me. More or less. It’s now warm, here, on board. Not cheerful, exactly. The driver doesn’t speak. The group at the back are singing a hymn now – it rings a bell – isn’t that the one at the Cup Final? – that’s it: Abide With Me. I almost join in.

Fast falls the eventide…
Fast falls the eventide…

Well, what else is there to do in a chilly bus on its way to a dark city late at night? Maybe they come from a pub with hymns on its jukebox. I turn to show my appreciation, but somehow they have blended into the dark shadows around the back seats – I can hardly make them out. I leave them alone after that. I’m on my way. I don’t need them.

We peter along – Sunnyside Up – the estates outside Seaville – round onto the old main road – average time – no spectacular racer this – but no rush either. There is a patch of country-like darkness, then we start to find our way towards the satellites of Sundercity. Suddenly – for no one has hailed the bus since we got on a Seaville – there is a stop. The antique brakes pull on, and the stiff doors fold open like an aged screen of zigzagging moth-cloth. Ah, this is where the old folk dismount. I can hear them moving forward. I see them clearly now, as they move past, silent, slow, slightly wobbly-coggly, like old folk who need sticks and a supporting hand. I do not offer. They will soon be gone, with their wheezy hymns and dark presence, and then we will be on our way! Sundercity! Hurrah!

The bus, however, disagrees. There is no move to shut the doors. There is no response from the driver. Does he know I am here? Is he too far in advance of the schedule? Unlikely, the slow rate we’ve been moving. Perhaps he’s had an attack and slumped in his seat, a martyr to late shifts. Well, it’s getting embarrassing, so I move forward to check. They don’t like being goaded, but a friendly enquiry…

How, man! We’re bound for Sundercity, are we? (No reply.) Must be time to gan, eh? (Nothing.) Drive, can you? (Humour.) (No response.) Aw, come on, it’s getting ower-late. I want to get to Sundercity. Nummer 49… Sundercity…

It seems useless. There is no response, but the driver seems upright and alert, in his way. Eventually he turns a head towards me, slow and gaunt, like a tortoise might. I wait, apprehensive somehow. I mean, how old can a timetable be? ‘We can go no further,’ he seems to be saying. Well, I know the regulations – you have to go to the terminus – the destination on the front of the bus – but then, did I check? Maybe the last bus stops short now. The old folk seemed to expect it. They all got out. ‘Sundercity?’ I query, in a last attempt to get him moving. But the engine has stopped now. The driver is adamant. Nothing is going to move. I have to get off.

How far to Sundercity I wonder, as I step down. Outside. Not nice. A musty smell. Stones and strange carved caprices over the wall. Great… A graveyard. Must be the cemetery at Grunge. No sign of the others. No hymn-singing now. The only sound is the bus doors creaking shut behind me.

Page 491

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Iain Sinclair: Patrick Hamilton



‘The sea! The sea! What of the sea?
The sea!
The solution - salvation! The sea! Why not?’
-Patrick Hamilton

a bone, a Norman bone
scavenged from pitted shelf, rain
early, against delight of snow, failed roads
meat as it’s fired, citadel stagnant with peace
hung in harness, brother spirits, late whisky
from pharmacist, a gentleman commoner
tyre track distinguishing narrow skull
Pat, Paddy, powers to your elbow
marine parenthesis, bed above butcher’s slab
harnessed in bracers, shirtless, blindlight
smell and texture of chartered streets
you step fastidious into the young girl’s body
her shame, geyser bath, soapflakes
sticky in tight hair, like flying
old values, old men: cigarette breakfast


Karl Marx & Hopalong Cassidy: this time apparently
you can trust the black shirt rider, saddlebum
smarter than singing cowboy, white-hat Roy
as beard, secular Jewish patriarch
granite paperweight holding down Highgate
it’s confusing, headline backwards
canted road hidden from promenade,
wake up last night’s radio, shadow of invasion
sea hiccups, every wave a dog’s head,
cork waistcoat, cork room, memory used up
‘that’s you done to a nice turn, sir’
hands tremble, three air shots on a 9-holer
game’s over, no more commuter trains
files thicken, print faints
the thin book it’ll cost you fifty notes


if you agree to oppose, you agree
Hamilton never got his head around Marxism
confused coarse golf with horizonless steppes
tanks ‘roll’ into Bluewater, confirm television
threat, when the car crunched Earl’s Court
his brother, fellow Norman, was in Victoria
watching the Marx Brothers in ‘The Cocoanuts’
Freddie Mills borrowed a fairground rifle
to shoot himself, suspect vehicle, exploitation
of complimentary parking space up west
pass me the knout & the knot tightens
roped cabin trunk transports body parts
uneconomic migrants
try ‘Hamilton’s Drop’ watered whisky
pissed into the hold of container ships


gun-product collage, poetic ‘objects’ of mass observers
armpits eyebrows private life of midwives
sheer bollocks said H turning from rattle
slatted blinds concrete & pleasure
warden cadging light from cab driver
no hot water to scour dental plate
Naafi-style cafeteria breakfast Gielgud
holding free hand like a slack prick
I want war, H, to end it:
Yale lock, the difficulty in dying
To Save A Life! Do not interfere with this equipment


Mexican Fast Food from 5 to 11, Urban
Conflict Simulation Internet Access
if I had a gun I could kill myself cleanly
leave others to write up the mess
easier to swallow than a No.9 iron he said
everything tastes like marmalade
a ghost play without ghosts
plains of marzipan moving sand
the Egyptians I understand watch the same
sunrise it only takes about three years


caught Hamilton’s tail squeezed juice
peardrops dissolving in milk
when he touched fingers to temple he bled
hair fell in marmalade, wife’s
a toff, sickbed, autographed bat
imprint of her buttocks, moving south
& stopping is a curse, karma of
unbricked villa. The earlier applicant
suggested movies in an upstairs room, Lang
Hitchcock, dancing girls, projector beam
cone of blue smoke: that trick
they went for the usual crusty hotpot
too close, too loud,
20,000 streets under the sea, nothing
in the can to touch Max Von Sydow
splaying cold fingers, raising stiff arm
disbelief, a blister in her palm


refusing to read or even read about Billy Budd
climbed Melville not yet born
seaboots & long-coat in glycerine soft
ascent driven starwards mizzen-mast
‘a great writer but unreadable’
bit above himself lost in computer pool
spoke Scotch & travelled once to America
20,000 spectators looking from blue yonder
dissolute faces red-paint fire
man he knew should possess grain & water
so give himself up to his judges & swing
avoiding gibbet gibbeted at dock gates
bone pendulum, pulp writer’s winter fever


why does Stacey from Holiday Rewards have to be late
Americana, beamed from sub-continent
to swing & mimic, allowed to go so far before
I say no with mock serious conviction
or, better, ‘Go away’. He dig it, the German
cleared by truth commission repentance
private resolution, disturbed by glow under pier
Hamilton couldn’t tell left from right,
Hitler Youth costume in wardrobe,
no aberration against disorganisation
of hot places where older Bavarian gentlemen
hide out: to be here, to be fixed
in the matter-toffee of narrative
mouse on sticky pad
death by screwdriver, how they scuttle
legless, behind fridge
according to whim: in darkness or light


Three years slumber on the banks of the Ocean.
William Blake

It explained his dreams. The Chinese caused his dreams. Every terror and queerness of sleep, even unspeakability – it is painted in China white.
Don DeLillo

Pistol Pete hadn’t played professionally for a while, and he was thought of as forgotten. I hadn’t forgotten about him, though. Some people seem to fade away but when they are truly gone, it’s like they didn’t fade away at all.
Bob Dylan

This poem is shortest section from Buried at Sea, a volume of Iain Sinclair's poetry to be published by the Worple Press in 2006. It is the most substantial volume Sinclair has published since Suicide Bridge.

See Iain Sinclair's take on another famous writer-drinker, Malcolm Lowry, here. And a piece by me on Sinclair's 'social poetics', 'Everything Connects', here.

My monograph Iain Sinclair is still available here: Iain Sinclair | Liverpool University Press

Page 490

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Robert Sheppard: Iain Sinclair's Lud Heat

The title of Iain Sinclair’s first important work of poetry, Lud Heat (1975), which juxtaposes poems with expository prose, is itself an exemplary juxtaposition. Lud was the mythological king of Britain who is supposedly buried beneath London’s Ludgate, and whose name is one of the etymological contenders for the place name of the capital. Heat is a term used throughout Sinclair’s intratext, as I characterise his work, to denote energy, malign or benign, often associated with certain places, and persisting through time. Early in Lud Heat, talismanic poets are imagined as ‘a sequence of heated incisions through the membranous time-layer’. (LHSB 16) Place for Sinclair, as Rachel Potter states, ‘is understood as a continuum within history which withholds and determines the particular memories and lore to which it has borne witness’. (1) That Lud Heat is subtitled ‘a book of the dead hamlets’ should not obscure the fact that death does not imply inertia, but potential. Lud Heat is identified as ‘The Muck Rake Book One’. The allusion operates through the epigraph to the book, from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, wherein the pilgrim, ‘who could look no way but downward’, cries, ‘Oh, deliver me from this muck-rake.’ (LHSB 9) At a literal level this points to the fact that Lud Heat records Sinclair’s period as a grass cutter and gardener for Tower Hamlets Council in 1974, but it also alerts the reader to the existential questioning of the book that results from both being rooted in and held captive by ‘place’, its heat, and its inescapable ‘lore’.

The book’s process of composition seems to have arisen out of journals, in which both dreams and reality are meticulously recorded; some of these find their way into the finished book. ‘An invasion of white rats, scuttling over the steps of a double ziggurat’, (LHSB 41) matches the precision of his daytime perceptions: ‘The white of horse-chestnut candles’. (LHSB 41) However, Sinclair is no Hopkins, looking for the inscape of nature. Textual quiddity comes from chat with his mostly Irish Catholic workmates as they discuss their negative reactions to the death of Princess Anne’s horse or the visit of Cardinal Heenan to the East End. The thirty-five poems of the book first appear as extensions of this journal, a poem a day. Barely punctuated, using space and the ampersand to punctuate both meaning and pace, the poems’ sentence-phrases hang on the line, their enjambement often at the ends of phrases, leaving an appropriately notational flavour. The first poem begins in medias res with an awareness of its potentialities and processes:

the coat of darkness, wondering
if he would ever write it (LHSB 41)

(Unfortunately, this blogzine can’t accurately reproduce the indentation on ANY of the poems in this posting, on this page.) The poems overhear the things of the world, in this case a television, with painful intensity:

in another room the electric serial
loud & raw
has taken something from his eye (LHSB 42)

The self, presented in the third person, is threatened, is still looking downward, but accepts the powers around it. The first poem ends:

these are the summer words
& if he works
it is not all because he has to
face down
along the curve of falling energies
there is nothing more
or less
than to become unconscious

to hood the day’s falcon (LHSB 42)

This extraordinary final image suggests that the essence of daytime consciousness is a fierce predatory gaze that must be actively extinguished. Later the poems rise to generalities and the first person plural to express their sense of human absorption in, and the lack of escape from, cyclical routine (and again the (impossible) typography is constituent of it meaning).

we come out of the cycle of pains
the pains become by repetition pleasurable
are worn down
& go into the butter
of a fat new moon (LHSB 88)

The passive awareness of uneasy harmony both in consciousness (‘dreams are sleek now filled/with pasturing doubts’), (LHSB 88-9) and in material reality (‘the sofas are human /& enclose every vertebral ache’), (LHSB 89) lends a certain grace to these poems unique in Sinclair’s work, the confirmation of personal happiness that strives, in the words of another poem, to ‘construct a more generous sentence’. (LHSB 94) Brittle theorizing is reserved for the prose essays (which were composed later), but these poems also register unease with their own lyrical compass, a striving towards such analysis. Pleasure and pain are insufficient measures as they absorb one another.

we loll in the pleasure of it
until that becomes boring & the eyes
ache again for images they cannot bear (LHSB 89)

The poetic inheritance of this work is largely American. While the ‘relaxed, meditative free verse’ derives from that tradition, more importantly so does its permission that a ‘poem’ might include prose.(2 ) It was William Carlos Williams who observed that Pound’s Cantos ‘can include pieces of prose and have them still part of the poem. It is incorporated in a movement of the intelligence which is special, beyond usual thought and action’.( 3) Williams sought to emulate this is in his own Paterson (1948-63), which not only uses assorted prose but, like Lud Heat, is intensely concerned with locality; the ragbag approach is arguably well suited to capturing the cluttered physical collage of urban space. Olson’s Maximus Poems (1950-70) makes use less of prose as a vehicle, but its tightly scored lines of breath-units (also scored for the eye using the layout devices of the typewriter) were dubbed ‘Projective Verse’ by Olson in his famous poetics essay of that name. Concerned to keep the rhythms of perception and language open and in harmony, sensitive to each momentary experience by emphasising writerly process and improvisatory spontaneity, through a mobile free verse line, projective verse was an ideal model for Sinclair’s journal-like responses to his quotidian existence. Indeed, Sinclair has admitted that, early in his writing life, Olson ‘became the major figure for me’. (V 38). Additionally, Olson’s focus upon topological data dealing with New England’s early settlement, which Sinclair experienced as ‘a sense of somebody nailing down a sea town and opening it up to the world’, suggested that a semi-scholarly attention to place might also yield appropriate aesthetic results. (V 38)

These examples may have influenced British precursors to Lud Heat, one acknowledged by Sinclair, the other not. The unacknowledged is Roy Fisher’s late modernist evocation of Birmingham, City (1960), with its assemblage of varieties of poetic forms and defamiliarizing prose. The acknowledged precursor is Lee Harwood’s Cable Street (1964), which focuses upon the same East End territory as Lud Heat, juxtaposing slight lyrics and background prose, particularly dealing with radical politics (such as the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street in 1936). Contemporary to Sinclair’s own work, Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door (of which Sinclair published the first two books in 1975 and 1977), is praised in Lud Heat for its ‘neat fast descriptions’ and its ability to show that ‘the dream/with the observed world is shared’, both qualities Sinclair has emulated. (LHSB 65) Allen Fisher’s Place project (1971-79), is – in Sinclair’s words, an ‘Olsonian epic about South London’ - which places Blake at the centre of its inspiration. (V 73) Like Blake, both Fisher and Sinclair were publishers of their own books, in Sinclair’s case, adding maps, drawings and photographs to illustrate the text in its Albion Village Press edition. Part of Place offers a reading of Lud Heat as a fraternal enterprise, which is still one of the best introductions to the work. Fisher recognizes the need to communicate about the nature of place, and the symbolic interpretation of the built environment. (Sinclair just listed the omnibus edition of Place, published by Reality Street, as one of his books of the year.)

The necessity to locate, to place ourselves becomes increasingly apparent to people living, as you do Iain, in the throws (sic) of, up against the old walls of a city, when this city – London – is now one borough of 33 held in the name of the Greater Council.(4 )

Fisher writes approvingly that ‘your concern is energetic and about energy’ and that Sinclair is concerned with ‘situational fields, lapping overlapping’, but he sceptically employs a qualifying set of inverted commas when he observes that ‘it is from … buildings that the energies of the area are – I was going to say, “generated”’.(5)

Fisher has in mind the theory contained in the essay with which Lud Heat opens, ‘Nicholas Hawksmoor, his churches’. The architect Hawksmoor, who designed and built London churches in the early eighteenth century after the devastation of the Great Fire of London, is represented as a man who could read the metropolis he found, and, more importantly, who could ‘rewrite the city’ in a frenzied, barely conscious urge, (LHSB 14) with ‘risky quotations’ from architectural history; (LHSB 14) ‘It is possible to imagine that he did work a code into the buildings.’ (LHSB 17) Even the modern standard work on Hawksmoor confesses, ‘The strangeness … of many of Hawksmoor’s formal devices, has found recognition in the present century’s exploration of the subconscious.’ 6 The guiding conceit of Sinclair’s essay is expressed in the form of a map of London; lines are superimposed upon it in the shape of two pentagrams, rather like Alfred Watkins’ ley lines, supposedly demonstrating that Hawksmoor’s six churches – he had a hand in a further three - were deliberately aligned with one another for occult signification. What Sinclair attempts in the essay, with its strategic cod academic tone, is analogous to what he accuses Hawksmoor of achieving: quotations are piled on, associated, encoded and presented as ‘evidence’. Writers – Yeats, Milton, Blake, Defoe, Bunyan, Keats – are nodes of ‘heat’ spread around the pattern, ‘generated’, as Fisher almost cannot bear to say, by the configuration of the buildings. We are promised ‘only a fraction of the possible relations’. (LHSB 16) Hawksmoor’s architectural quotations include Egyptian symbols and pyramids, and these assume the darker aspects of the patterning: sun obelisks (more heat) point the reader to invisible plague pits and murder sites, emphasizing the ‘unacknowledged magnetism and control-power, built-in code force of these places’. (LHSB 21) The Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 (which De Quincey had famously taken a cool look at in his essay ‘Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’ (1827)), and the contemporaneous murder of Abraham Cohen in 1974, had all occurred within the influence lines of these churches, almost literally on their doorsteps. More speculative accounts, that Hawksmoor planned an unrealized Basilica after the Primitive Christians on what would become the site of the Carpenters Arms, which was the Kray Twins’ gangland headquarters, stretches the threads of the web almost to breaking point. St Anne’s Limehouse, which is identified with a Mortuary Temple, becomes particularly important, with its pyramid (around which, one may read in other sections of the book, Sinclair mundanely mows the grass and against which he ‘risks’ leaning while he eats his sandwiches). Sinclair himself suffers sunstroke working this patch – the Scorpion god Selkis is invoked by this time - and it is no surprise to learn that ‘St Anne’s was gutted by fire on the morning of Good Friday, April 6, 1850. Vernal Equinox, time of occult threat’. (LHSB 37)

While Sinclair is careful to emphasize that his quotations act only as provisional confirmation of one another, of patterns of unacknowledged repetition, the reader is marshalled by a relentless rhetoric of assimilation and connection to believe that these sites are indeed funnels of power for the gods, diffusing their influence through the ‘heat’ of poets, yet emerging in a violent and violating form in negative acts of murder. Murder, far from being one of the fine arts, is a sacrificial act of purification. The possibility that the family of Abraham Cohen, for example, might not have appreciated this conclusion, should they have read the essay, gives pause for thought. Peter Barry recognizes the danger: ‘This overdetermined universe would quickly become unbearably claustrophobic, and perhaps ultimately silly, in the hands of any other writer.’( 7 ) It provided a neat enough thesis for Peter Ackroyd to run with in Hawksmoor, but that was a work of fiction and Sinclair’s essay – unless it is read like one of Borges’ meticulous inventions - is not. Allen Fisher’s scepticism about this over-determination remains as a powerful corrective. Barry also argues that, despite the mode of argument and its problematics in terms of ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, there is something ‘common’ to the urban experience in Sinclair’s ‘mapping out danger points’; he explains, ‘The mapping reclaims the city, recuperates its mean, chartered streets, and fits them into an ordered, frightening, preconception’. (8) Once again, Sinclair’s actions seem close to that of his invented Hawksmoor,‘re-writing’ the heat of Lud’s territory, as well as to the experience of the ordinary urban dweller.

The finding of equivalences becomes the focus of other prose essays that intersect the poems and journals. The essays on viewing the films of the American experimentalist Stan Brakage and the sculpture of his friend Brian Catling locate a similar ‘autoptic instinct’ in the artists’ practices. (LHSB 78) While Brakage is literally filming an autopsy – ‘meaning “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes”, from the Greek’ – (LHSB 54) Catling ‘serves the Necropolis. Objects are made in fear & expectation of death… In photographs we see the wooden pyramid … that is so close to the Limehouse pyramid, & was made in advance of the first sight of it: intentional, willed, pre-vision.’ (LHSB 84) Art is an energized, unacknowledged intensifier of circumstance and the lore of place; the artist is a variety of shaman, simultaneously blessed and cursed with vision. But the narrator of these pieces – culturally sophisticated and self-regarding - is still the character who waters his broad beans after work and records that fact. He writes of his family (and family to come): ‘Anna sickens towards the new life/the frog-bud forcing itself in her womb.’ (LHSB 134) But this is balanced against the recognition that ‘death/is every mother’s prophecy’; the hot dead of the dead hamlets are always beckoning. (LHSB 134)

At the centre of these discourses, contending with these patterns of connection, is the ‘narrator’. Sinclair is here recognizing the problematics of autobiographical representation, but also capturing a sense of the discontinuous self that the artist-shaman must assume. He wonders ‘when I am/ “not quite myself”/what (not who)’ he is. (LHSB 50) Egoic dissolution, activated psychosomatically by the Limehouse contagion of sunstroke (and by hay-fevers, upon which he theorizes), is addressed in the essay ‘In the Surgery of the Sun’:

As the ego breaks I am host to another being, who pushes through & not with the pink tenderness of new skin – but with old flesh, hard as wood. The earlier ‘I-do-not-know-who-I-am’ virus is confirmed, as this terminal caricature eases out of my face. (LHSB 109-10)

Host is held hostage by the parasite. Sinclair appears here as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll, fully aware that Hyde is bursting through. Indeed, Stevenson is quoted: ‘As for myself I cannot believe fully in my own existence… the weather is threatening.’ (LHSB 50) At times there is a more beneficent sense of diminished selfhood, of a sinking of self in perception, almost a Zen Buddhist approach to the process; characteristically, this appears in the poems:

subdue all ego
(& rigorous eye)
into the unmarked
morning quality of autumn light (LHSB 124)

To break the patterns that the text builds up, to approach something like this ‘unmarked’ experience, the energy must be annulled or countered. On a literal level, the ‘narrator’ has to leave his summer employment. On another level, he must return to the map and locate an ‘oracle’, on the outer point of London. He must then run to the oracle and return; a state of ‘total body exhaustion’ is ordained. (LHSB 138) That the oracle turns out to be a urinous machine-gun bunker in the Lea Valley seems not to matter at this stage of Sinclair’s career. Later, he would allow irony to undercut the cosmic patterning. It is, however, a ritual he feels impelled to enact, as later, Sinclair is drawn in his documentary to become a stalker of predetermined routes. This run even prefigures his need to circumnavigate the M25, as a ritual of annihilation, in his much later book, London Orbital. But his final state is a kind of Keatsian negative capability before the energies he invokes, an imperturbable emptiness rather than oracular fulfilment. Like the artist figure in Blake’s Jerusalem, Los, whose healing pilgrimage across London matches his own, he annihilates selfhood. ‘He knows nothing of the precisions & mechanics & movements & meanings here either. An ignorant man, ground-held, muddy in motive – he jogs back the way he came.’ (LHSB 134). That means he’s on his way over one of (at least) two bridges know as ‘Suicide Bridge’, a name that provided the title of Iain Sinclair’s second substantial book. (9)

1. Rachel Potter, ‘Culture Vulture: the testimony of Iain Sinclair’s Downriver, Parataxis 5 (Winter 1993-4), 42.
2. Peter Barry, Contemporary British Poetry and the City (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000), 173.
3. William Carlos Williams, ‘Excerpts from a Critical Sketch: A Draft of Thirty Cantos by Ezra Pound’ (1931), reprinted in ed., J.P. Sullivan, Ezra Pound (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), 119.
4. Allen Fisher, ‘A Confluence of Energies: A Reading of Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat, in his Stane, Place Book III (London: Aloes Books, 1977), 30/31.
5. Fisher, ‘Confluence’, 30/31.
6. Kerry Downes, Hawksmoor (London: Thames and Hudson, 1970), 206.
7. Barry, Contemporary British Poetry and the City, 178.
8. Barry, 172.
9. This text is dealt with in my forthcoming Northcote House publication, Iain Sinclair.

Updates 2016: Further links: 

Lud Heat is once again available here

My book Iain Sinclair may be bought here. Or Here: Iain Sinclair | Liverpool University Press

Another of my reviews of Sinclair's poetry may be read here

My account of Dining on Stones is featured here

My critical volume When Bad Times made for Good Poetry has some further thoughts on Iain Sinclair's work. Some of the thinking for that, on the 'social poetics' at play in Sinclair's work may be read here.   

Suicide Bridge is also back in print and may be bought here Suicide Bridge – Skylight Press  here.  This reprints my 1980 review of the book!

Here is an account of Iain Sinclair celebrating Malcolm Lowry in Liverpool in 2014.

Here is Iain Sinclair's poem 'Patrick Hamilton' on Pages.

You can read about my recent poetry here, here and here, and follow the links to points of online purchase.

Page 489

Monday, November 21, 2005

Sheila E. Murphy: Four Poems

Coronado House

of grapefruit,
freshly picked from

backyard tree, atop
the table,

naturally protected,
as we are

not at all,
these recent

impeccably clean,
and quiet professionals

move in and
out again,

room three
defined by her,

the small flicker
who is

smiling faintly
around sharp humor

we sift her
signals to

to talk
she'd rather listen)

midway through story
someone else

shifts the
hint of tension,

what to say:
we love

this near
skeleton intelligent heart

the same one
shining across

stage, dignified,
magnetic grace shimmering

through rooms, hearts
desiring permanence,

certain of
us demand to

make true, regardless
of the

for contrary
point-blank facts,

in the car
driving home,

its near
match evolving nothingness,

indebted to those
who offer


wings touch
that powder
into pastel heat

the picture rests
of you
with breath-toned eyes

your face
from nowhere
real to me
as thought

just now mimics
free pour
of shaping light

as without speech
the elements transist
to vast wing stretch


cauterize the silk
under my

June and
fireflies mesh with

screen through which
one gently

repeats itself
to spawn recollection

blue sky recedes
from porous

not quality
he said presidentially


normed daylight sponges average
meaning (surface of the common plan,
formed sense of sea, a layered
solace from this time

(a face lost facts placed through
the scattered cool beneath
pale melody in wind
drawn over pewter slips

of method acting under
glass still clustered
near a hidden hollow line
supporting fruit curved

into gravity (the town
undone along the street
still signified by home
these two young places

Sheila E. Murphy is a much published American poet, who is also much published in Britain by Rupert Loydell’s Stride Publications. Read her online volume, A Sound the Mobile Makes in Mudlark # 8. There are two long interviews with her, one by Tom Beckett and another with Thomas Fink. Read a review of her Incessant Seeds by Thomas Fink on Jacket.

Page 488

Monday, November 14, 2005

Robert Sheppard at Fifty

Robert Sheppard at Fifty: Two Poems, a Photo and a Load of Links
I like to emphasise the zine part of this blogzine, but here’s a pure bit of bloggish self-indulgence. How to celebrate the fact of turning (as they say) fifty? Obviously there are festivities being planned, and all that. And I might even stop listening to the album Sinatra made when he was 50: September of My Years (Including the indicative title track, its playlist gives some idea of its ambience: ‘How Old am I’ (answer: ‘Old enough to know.’); ‘Last Night when we were Young’ (a song reportedly too sad for Judy Garland), ‘The Man in the Looking Glass’, and ‘Once Upon a Time’, etc. the lush orchestrations of Gordon Jenkins wrapping around Sinatra’s ageing voice,) Or Patricia might hide it, or break it.

To celebrate this event poetically, I’d thought I post the following, the earliest poem of mine of which I still approve, and the draft of my most recent.

The Blickling Hall Poem

Tranquillity is only a style, whose glyph
is struck at a moment’s rest,
phrasing the violence into pattern.
We found the secret garden, banked
in by trees, away from the order
of the parterre. We watched the wind
rocking the treetops, though the air
was still on our faces as we kissed
in the tiny summerhouse. You cannot stop
for long in this miniature world, closed
in by beech-hedges, as in the order
of a poem. A solitary sundial,
surrounded by lawn and brick-path,
centres it. It has no motto;
has only, perhaps, the slanting daylight
cut on a shadow’s fin, and moving
across its still surface.

June 1980

(draft of) Yet Another Poem

Incalculable dispersions? The selves I
have a number. Of days now in an art
that is re-made as glaringly brilliant
banging. Art is unmade and laid to
restless drums, banging on about the glare.
Restless brilliance, all wrong, unmindful
in the acts of losing ruthless polarities
in place of space, sufficient ground. It
never lost on either or multiple sides, the
time before, for the setting was seen, a glimpse
of unscheduled action. Now lose the soft
fascination, the definite prosaic self. Losing
surface, the actors pause, surfing the poem and off
on stories, to a place to speak from, circum-
scribed, a stage cluttered with seating.
The best way for me to create in you the war
dance of personhood in time is not unlike the effects
of having a gun pulled in insufficient proof.
They have to be arranged to pull a gun
on you, forging a new space, new links.
On those link-sparky tracks, I
don’t do that. I make art, unlimited
access, lightning surrogate gun making
language chains the unlikely. A
gun is pulled on the surrogate self, on
screens flat with dialogue, just once,
yards away. The abandoned Coke can
on the wall opposite attracts an art
in which the unsaying saying, once said,
sings. The ‘you’ that has effects, the
new audience, says again,
The props,
or the surrogate props, speak to themselves,
an uncanny overhearing.

27th October 2005

The first was written in a strange way. It was culled out of a long rambling poem that was somewhat influenced by Harry Guest’s Elegies. I remember it was written when my parents visited me in Norwich, and I kept rushing away and adding further lines. Somehow, in this chaotic method, or because of it - with my present day creative writing teacher’s hat on I recognise I was ‘writing fit’ – these lines appeared (fairly straight). Several days later, I suppose, I realised I had a short poem in the middle of it. This (and possibly a later poem, ‘The Materialisation of Soap 1947’) is what I call my hit single: I actually won a poetry competition with it (a much needed £150 in 1980), it was published in PN Review, and it was broadcast on Radio 3, where Michael Schmidt said something about it ‘being more a matter of the text than the flesh’. More recently it became part of the literary exchange and collaboration with Scott Thurston called Turns, where it, and Scott’s 1990 riposte, became the first two turns in a casual collaboration which weaves into and out of Twentieth Century Blues. Blickling Hall is a National Trust property in Norfolk. An old lady once misheard the title of the poem as ‘The Blitz in War Time’.

The latest poem was written, quite unexpectedly the other day. I had a number of days free to write, and I decided that I would simply get up and write (I was also trying to deliberate write poetry rather than the fiction that has increasingly leaked from my pen, the first example of which will appear in Tears in the Fence in 2006). I had before me the blown up photocopy of Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘On Modern Poetry’, which I had used as an introduction to this year’s open-mike session at Edge Hill College of Higher Education, in the Rose Theatre, a practice I’ve evolved to ensure that nobody has to start the event off. It’s a marvellous poem and there it was before me, waiting to be written through, argued with, transformed, which is what I did. I then carried on writing – my sense that art is an ‘uncanny overhearing’ probably derives from Harold Bloom, of all people - until I was finished and then collaged the materials I had, which is a sort of default creative mode in situations like this. When it was finished, I added the title. It is a companion piece to one of the poems of my own I read at the open-mike evening, called simply ‘Another Poem’. But here it is oddly paired with the earlier poem, which plays around with a similar self-consciousness. If somebody were looking at these pieces as the first glimpse of my work, I wonder if they could guess at what lies between them, a quarter of a century of quite different practices!

Many of the intervening stages are represented on the web. There are a number of works from Twentieth Century Blues, a network of texts that is described in ‘Poetic Sequencing and the New’, which is also a part of the project.
(www.jacketmagaine.com/09/shep-shep.html) The earliest poetic text from the project available on-line is part of Neutral Drums, which was also a Writers Forum booklet. (www.jacketmagazine.com/09/shep.html) Other texts available are ‘Smokestack Lightning’, a poem about the mythology of the blues. (www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=5835) The ways in which the strands of the project work are demonstrated by the relation between ‘Smokestack Lightning’, and ‘Freeze It’, which is also ‘Smokestack Lightning 2’. (www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=11143). A third text, ‘Angel at the Junk Box’, is also concerned with music but is an elegy for Frank Sinatra (yes, it is a real addiction; the poem is due to also appear in anthology of poems in honour of Old Blue Eyes). (www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=11142.) All three are from the Salt volume Tin Pan Arcadia (http://www.saltpublishing.com/). There are plans for a Collected Twentieth Century Blues soon.

After completing that work I began a period of reflection, which resulted in the poetics piece, The Anti-Orpheus, which is available as an e-book from Shearsman (www.shearsman.com/pages/books/ebooks/ebooks_pdfs/Sheppard.pdf)

The next project was a series of ‘texts and commentaries’, texts that relate to other texts in a variety of ways, as I’ve explained in earlier postings. One result was a poem in praise of poet-critic Veronica Forrest-Thomson, whose theorising has been so important to me, ‘Parody and Pastoral’ (www.jacket.com/20/vft-shep.html). A lengthy reading of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader produced the obviously titled 'Reading the Reader' (www.greatworks.org.uk/poems/rtr1.hlml). Both of these texts will appear in the Stride volume, Hymns to the God in which my Typewriter Believes. (http://www.stridebooks.co.uk/) More about that when it appears.

‘Rattling the Bones’ is as far as I’d push poetics towards poetry. (www.sofblow.com/robertsheppard.html) It will stand at the head of a series of poems that deal with the various aftermaths of September 11, and with the nature of the poetical self. But that’s all vague at the moment.

Occasionally I’ve collaborated with other writers, and the one with Bob Cobbing, Blatent Blather/Virulent Whoops, was reproduced entire on Jacket. (www.jacketmagazine.com/20/cobb-shep.html) It is also available as a Writers Forum booklet. A recent collaboration with Rupert Loydell, Risk Assessment, has begun to appear in magazines, a couple of them on Martin Stannard’s on line blog-zine (http://www.exultationsanddifficulties.blogspot.com/) (He hyphenates the word that we concocted separately, incidentally.)

Many of these links have appeared on Pages before, but I have never amassed them in one place. They amount to virtual notes towards a Selected Poems, I think. Thoughts of which must be another sign of age. Hey, hang on! Why am I wearing this loud shirt? Why have I grown a ponytail? Why have I suddenly bought a motor-bike, taken up hang-gliding, signed up for male belly-dancing…. Help! I want my Sinatra album back. Patricia!!


{Update: 'The Blickling Poem' appeared in Hollow Palaces in 2021. Read about that here and see me read the poem here: Pages: Robert Sheppard at Fifty ‘.}

Page 487

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Bill Griffiths: Ghost Story 2: HAZARD

Pixies are known as BOGLES in this sector of the remoter North East. Nor are they exceptionally frisky, happy-tricky, or harmless-prankish. More malevolent.

The quaint will-o-the-wisp of legend, for example – not up here, that is transformed into a dire ecperience for the traveller. You ask your way… A stranger of smiling mien offers to help… Actually shows you the way… Gains your confidence… Indicates a short-cut (woodland path or side alley) – and then, at the blank end, turns, reveals its true shape, and, according to its true nature, rends you limb from limb, vessicle from vessicle.

Others have suffered from bogles, have been led astray in the most unexpected of ways.

I remember the case of a couple returning to Mirk from the isolated hamlet of Hazard, now. Hazard was once, maybe, a prosperous coal-mining village, but long since decayed into a few houses, a lot of gaps, and two pubs, one of which was only part-time. Public transport ran from inconvenient terminuses at inconvenient times. Miles of moorland separated it from Mirk and other middle-scale settlements; and the most direct route was a cross-country nightmare of narrow, hedged roadway, barely accommodating traffic in two directions, that meandered up and round and bedazzled those who were not born to its land. Probably a bogle designed it.

Well, this couple had paid an obligatory Xmas visit to acquaintances in Hazard, and found it as tedious as it ever was. Noticing of a sudden the lateness of the time – it was certainly quite dark by then – they made their excuses and got up to leave. Their hosts saw them safely into their car, and concerned they had held up the couple unduly, pointed out the short-cut back to Mirk. Not that there was any real rush (I presume), yet the driver thought it unavoidable to take the indicated route, or seem to be inventing excuses.

It was dark beyond normal urban reckoning. Who would drive about dangerous roads, unlit by street-lamps, unguided by proper road-signs, given a choice of that or luxury motorway? These were urban drivers, in this car, and possessed of strictly average headlights and eyesight. In those conditions, a car has to slow to the point where you can see any bends, any dips and swallies, any sudden fox or badger, as far in advance as you can. And it is puzzling how gauchely the car responds when the rate of motion is slowed also.

After a mile or so of this tortuous progress, ignoring side-tracks to farms, that might have been the main route, and slowing for hills, Z-bends, and even one small ford, they were grateful to spot the rear-lights of a car travelling before them, at a sensible and confident rate. It never occurred to them, that they should not have come up on this vehicle if it were indeed managing 40 or 50 per hour; it imparted confidence. The idea of turning round and heading back by a clearer road no longer held sway. All they had to do was follow.

And so they did, faster and faster, as the steering became easier and easier. Just keep such and such a distance between you and the car in front – which obviously knew the road very well indeed. Became almost a pleasure. Certainly seemed a responsible and mature intelligence in front… And then the bogle lights led them right off the road, at a dangerous bend, and sent them ploughing into a tree which killed them outright.

How do we know? Well, for a start, no one would visit the B--------s at Haswell for pleasure. It must have been Christian Christmas duty. Mr B-------- admitted he recommended the shorter but more isolated route back, and watched them take it, quite safely at that time. And then a farmer’s lad, who was walking his lass home to the next farm, spotted the rear lights or two cars careering off the road. So he said; she was uncertain about that. Two cars veering off, but only one crash. Must be the bogle.

So they assured Henry, who used to drink at Mirk on festival days, and whose sister Anne crewed a chiropody stall at the local fetes round about; and Henry telled me when I mentioned the problems I was experiencing with the folk of Hazard. That’s nowt – he said – you’re lucky to gerraway from that dump. Listen to this…

And so he passed the legend on. Bogles, I mused, as I sipped and listened, is like you hoyed a peanut up and caught it in the gob, and chewed it down, to find it turn into some resistant vampire-grub, whose leathery claws cycled up your throat, beasting for the cave of the chest when you try to cough it up, or struggling to evomit itself when you swallow. I have no high opinion of pubs or fellow drivers.

Page 486

(Remember: there will be another ghost next month, and a story too.)

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Robert Sheppard: A History of the Other (final installment)

Anthologies and Assemblages
Note: Previous instalments of A History of the Other derive from the historical chapters of The Poetry of Saying. While a few sentences of the following are included in the book, most of it was excluded on grounds of length.

The first edition of Edward Lucie-Smith’s Penguin anthology British Poetry Since 1945 dates from 1970, and is one such generously inclusive book, published at a time of some optimism in the British Poetry Revival. Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney and Paul Evans are featured as new writers alongside the canonical Larkin, Plath, and others. However, the revised edition of 1985 omits MacSweeney and Evans, despite the fact that they had both published significant volumes in the 1970s, in favour of such poets as Andrew Motion and Craig Raine (about whom Lucie-Smith is less than adulatory). Lucie-Smith notes that the decline of the small presses by 1985 – the four poets above were all published by Fulcrum - ‘seems to have left homeless a number of writers whose work does not fit conventional lists’. Unfortunately his selection, by its omissions, as the age demanded, bowed to market forces and ignored the plight of the homeless. Those spared this culling from a time before ‘the high tide of American influence ... receded’ (p 23) found their selections not updated as though their best work had only been accomplished while the Atlanticist zeitgeist was right, as though they were no longer relevant to, or even operative in, the Little England (and littler Ireland) of the Morrison and Motion anthology The Penguin Book of British Parrots (sorry! I mean) Poets of 1982, to which his up-dating is clearly indebted.

These misgivings should not diminish Lucie-Smith’s achievements in attempting to sample the whole of British poetry, not just the British Poetry Revival, but the work of David Gascoyne, George Barker and WS Graham, poets eclipsed by the Movement, and others such as Francis Berry and Tony Connor, who may yet see the tide of reputation turn in their favours. The editor seems to acknowledge such relativity; he sounds almost apologetic about the fact that ‘some of (the anthology’s) contents are seen with the eyes of 1970, which, given the cyclic nature of taste, may also turn out to be the eyes of 1990. Or 1995’. Or (we must add) 2005.…

A confident editorial route taken by poet Richard Caddel and critic Peter Quartermain in editing Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 in 1999, is to follow the North American fashion for teaching anthologies, an academic option one might imagine Iain Sinclair, for example, deploring, as editor of unrepentent counter-cultural Conductors of Chaos. As a number of poets enter the academy as teachers of literature or of creative and performance writing; as books such as former Alembic editors Hampson and Barry’s New British Poetries, and indeed, the present history, and the academic book of which it is an offshoot, are published; as conferences, such as Hampson’s at the University of London, are organized; as even a Centre for Contemporary Poetics is convened; the academicization of poetry is inevitable. Even the late 1990s Sub Voicive Colloquia have been held in academic institutions.

Indeed the occasion for Other, which was published by Wesleyan University Press in New England, in 1999, may have been the University of New Hampshire conference Assembling the Alternatives. Another event of 1996, this conference assembled ‘alternative’ British, North American, Irish and Antipodean poets side by side. British writers such as Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Ken Edwards, cris cheek, Miles Champion, Maggie O’Sullivan and Denise Riley, appeared alongside the leading language poets to both read and discuss poetics. Given the historical reluctance to theorize in Britain, and the lack of celebrity enjoyed by these writers, this event may be thought of as an international academic validation of this British writing. However, the fact that, like the anthology, it was not British in origin, tempers the celebration.
Other also placed these writers alongside some Irish counterparts who attended the conference, such as Catherine Walsh and Maurice Scully, whose poetry may be read about elsewhere. Caddel and Quartermain – both Bunting scholars - might also have been expected to include post-Objectivist writers, such as John Seed (see Page 452, February’s archive, see right), Tony Baker, and Caddel himself , but there is a surprise at the black writers collected there, such as Linton Kwesi Johnson (he’s great), Grace Nichols and Fred D’Aguiar (I stood next to them once in a Brighton bookshop. They seemed very important.)

The introduction to The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 , published in 1998 – its title suggests that it has superseded Lucie-Smith’s Penguin Book - provides another review of the period covered by my study. However, it offers a self-consciously millennial consensus, consonant with that of The New Poetry, an anthology in which the two editors, Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford, are both featured. It pushes The New Poetry’s central notion of plurality, consensus, or, as the editors prefer, ‘the democratic voice’ back to 1945 in a revisionist reading designed to short-circuit Alvarez’ theories of generational feedback. The positive aspect of this anthology lies in its willingness to include in its consensus works written in the Gaelic languages of the British Isles, and its willingness to include work from the Republic of Ireland (something found also in its contemporary anthology Other). Like The New Poetry, it offers little access to the figures of the British Poetry Revival or the Linguistically Innovative Poetries. One might have expected, with its post-war time span, and the existence of Lucie-Smith book as a precursor, a revaluation of the careers of Lee Harwood or Tom Raworth. Roy Fisher is represented by two early poems from the 1950s; Denise Riley with a single text. While the editors are free to select the work of whomsoever they wish to prove the existence of the democratic voice, their claim to a ‘certain catholicity of taste which will disrupt over-exclusive readings of modern poetry’, is compromised by such omissions.

‘The notion of “the democratic voice” is not intended to suggest that all post-war poets sound alike or speak with one intonation - quite the opposite’. Such poets, we are told, are aware of their individual and social specificity, their class, their gender, their race, and their historical position in the atomizing of the British Empire and indeed the Union itself, but the acoustic metaphor in the editors' definition of difference - the ‘voice’ that appears in many of the post-Movement formulations of poetic individuality - bespeaks an obsession with social tone, as in many of the traditional views of work of the period. Indeed has it not been simply turned on its head when we are told that ‘Douglas Dunn, Seamus Heaney and Tony Harrison (none educated at public school or at Oxbridge) wrote consciously as “barbarians” from outside the traditional cultural centre’? The Movement poets, despite an Oxbridge education, regarded themselves as outsiders. Yet such cultured barbarisms provide common texts for the school syllabus; in Harrison, the emphasis on social origins continues in relatively unchanged poetic modes. This is despite the fact that the anthologists identify ‘an acceptance of a wide variety of forms and styles, with poets choosing, or being chosen by, the most appropriate.’ This strange passivity in the face of stylistic choice is explained by its lack of importance, in the editors’ complacent account of poetic artifice, whose only counter seems to be an easy choice between fixed meters and ‘vers libre’. ‘Attitudes towards form became more relaxed’ as the period progressed, but, I hope I have shown, this view is tenable only if one limits ‘poetry’ to exclude the challenges of Raworth’s interruptive poetics, Fisher, Clarke and Freer’s creative linkage, let alone Cobbing’s visual and sound poetries, or Maggie O'Sullivan's non-linear poetics. Plurality of voices does not mean plurality of techniques.

The nineteen forties are given the traditional short shrift by their introduction. The democratic voice arrived as the obscurantism of the New Apocalypse waned. Not surprisingly, the Movement is identified as its beginning, and ‘post-war poets’ (Larkin among the list) ‘wrote subtle, accessible and surprising poetry, communicating more directly with a wider public’. But accessibility, communicability, is precisely a proximity with an audience that detracts from the dialogic nature of poetic openness as I have defined it, and analysed in terms of the dominant Movement Orthodoxy. Nobody would deny pluralism within these practices (indeed, its flexibility has allowed the orthodoxy to survive) but it is one achieved by a narrow definition of ‘poetry’.

For Armitage and Crawford the autonomy of the imagination must be preserved from ideological determinants, even though they call for a social definition of a poetic democracy to mirror the democratization of post-war Britain. Poetry ‘carries its own authority’, an authority which

depends on an absolute aptness of verbal shape. The right words need to be in the right order. The line-breaks, and whatever other technical devices, need to be spot-on too, disrupting and conducting the flow of rightness exactly.

Poetry's authority is invested in itself, a sovereign autonomy that relies upon a rightness which operates as a judge of diction, syntax and rhythm; the editors assume shared values: we all know how to determine the ‘spot-on’. It is a casual equivalent of Donald Davie’s normative investigations of diction and syntax in the 1950s. The level of disruption here would not perhaps be equivalent to the interruptive technical devices I have, month by month, identified in more radical formulations of poetics during this period, although the editors – Crawford more than Armitage - are aware that some poets regard language as ‘something to be negotiated with and through, rather than something transparent’ (xxxi) but this apparent recognition of radical poetic artifice and the postmodern condition settles uneasily alongside rhetoric about accessibility.

Even the editors’ attempts to decentre the Movement prove its very centrality:

If older narratives of post-1945 poetry in these islands dwelt on the rejection of modernist aesthetics by the poets of The Movement (a group which crucially included Philip Larkin), then that now seems a dated and misleading oversimplification. Modernist interests in the run-down city, jazz and mixing unusual with demotic language, resurface in Larkin's work, for instance.

This special pleading for Larkin as a proto-modernist is not convincing. To compare the patronizing depiction of devalued urban crowds with the re-explorations of Birmingham in the composite-epic of Roy Fisher is to contrast misanthropy, and worse, as I have shown, with a triumph of continual poetic renewal of the City of modernism in the de-Anglicized Midlands. Likewise Larkin’s supposedly polyphonic verbal surfaces relate less to the hetereoglossia of Pound and more to an uneasiness about social tone and the speaker’s position in class structures, as Jonathan Raban has (long ago) argued.

It is with the example of jazz that Larkin’s antipathy towards modernism becomes pronounced. ‘After Parker ... After Picasso! After Pound! There could hardly have been a conciser summary of what I don’t believe about art.’ Larkin suggests that a jazz writer who says that ‘You can hear Bessie in Bird’ may be sincere but that he rates his ‘mental competence below zero’. Those who hear modernism in Larkin catch the echo of an echo, it seems to me, and amplify that into an inheritance.

On the other hand, and more importantly, the anthologists argue that

the experimentalism of Larkin's near-contemporaries WS Graham, Edwin Morgan and Ian Hamilton Finlay show an openness to language and international poetic currents (whether of concrete poetry or concerns about the materiality of language) which challenges ideas of post-1945 verse as Movement dominated.

These three Scottish writers – again I detect the more progressive voice of Crawford - have indeed been important, in ways consonant with the writers I have focussed upon in previous posting. They are less known than Larkin, and their work has often been regarded as difficult, elitist and challenging, precisely because of the patronizing claims for an ‘accessibility’ that has underpinned the dominance of the Movement Orthodoxy. Indeed, as Tony Lopez argues, it was precisely this dominance that led Graham to a poetic silence from the first days of The Movement until 1970.

Graham’s position in British poetry was defined by the Movement... for the perception of what was good poetry in 1955 is something that was carefully constructed by those who were served by a shift in public taste

away from Graham’s post-New Apocalypse style in The Nightfishing. The world his verse creates, one made up of a treacherous and trenchant linguistic matter, is not the world of Mr Bleaney. The same might be said of figures like Basil Bunting who are represented as ‘isolated’. But Bunting was not at all isolated from the early 1960s: he was published by, associated with, and was admired by, and influenced, many poets of the British Poetry Revival.

We cannot wish the Movement Orthodoxy away, as Armitage and Crawford pretend, even if, now well past the dawn of a new century, it had outlived its spectral afterlife. It had persisted through most of the post-War period, changing and assimilating, yet so naturalized as to be invisible, as a normative pattern that limits the function of innovation within its compass and the acceptability of poetic experiment beyond it. The only way discontents - the three they name, the ones featured in this study, or the many necessarily excluded from it - can be given their true place in anything approaching a democratic literary history, is by a mode of critical re-writing with which this anthology, for all its pluralism, does not engage.

The most impressive thing about Lucie-Smith’s anthology remains, as I’ve said, that it was the only attempt between 1950 and 2000 to present a survey of the range of British poetries. The next attempt would have to wait until 2001. The American critic, Keith Tuma, acknowledges Lucie-Smith’s first edition, in his introduction to Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry and reflects, ‘I am closer to Lucie-Smith than to some editors in imagining that the selections for this anthology reflect a kind of pluralism.’ Yet, as his critical book Fishing by Obstinate Isles demonstrates, he is an engaged reader – with the eyes of 1995, perhaps - of the work of the British discontents analysed in this book. He also has a revisionist agenda with regards to pre-War British and Irish poetry, which involves placing the great Mina Loy and Joseph Macleod – he has been a critical advocate of both - next to Eliot and Ford Madox Ford; or Charlotte Mew and Elizabeth Daryush next to William Empson and Robert Graves; Brian Coffey and Thomas MacGreevy next to Yeats and Austin Clarke. As certain British poets suspect, who have sought themselves to recover some of Tuma’s poets (John Rodker, Lynnette Roberts or Nicholas Moore), the revision of pre-War poetries may have distinct effects on our readings, and on the subsequent public reception, of post-War poetries. As Basil Bunting or Hugh MacDiarmid, even Charles Madge and Denis Devlin, supplement Auden and MacNeice, the latter appear less wholly representative figures of the 1930s.

But revisionism sometimes makes trouble for Tuma’s undoubted pluralism, nowhere more so than in the period covered by my study; he acknowledges that his anthology is ‘most contentious in its representation of recent decades.’ Contention for Tuma resides in the fact, analysed throughout my study, that

it is the contemporary poetry which is most obviously indebted to an international modernism that has fared worst in many of the anthologies of British and Irish poetry published over the last 30 years, especially by major publishers in England, which until recently have seemed interested in perpetuating the influence of the Movement's anti-modernism as it emerged in the 1950s.

To remedy ‘the logic that declared a British (or Irish) poetry engaged with modernist traditions somehow “foreign” to traditions purportedly more native or indigenous altogether suspect’,24 the book literally places Bob Cobbing next to Philip Larkin, Lee Harwood next to Seamus Heaney, Roy Fisher next to Ted Hughes, Tom Leonard next to Craig Raine, Allen Fisher next to Eavan Boland, Veronica Forrest-Thomson next to Liz Lochhead, Maggie O’Sullivan next to Paul Muldoon, cris cheek next to Carol Ann Duffy. (That we find James Berry sandwiched between Christopher Middleton and Ian Hamilton Finlay, and EA Markham between Carlyle Reedy and John James, or even Gael Turnbull between Thomas Kinsella and John Montague, presents other telling juxtapositions.)

These accidents of arrangement by date of birth are liberating because they impose on the reader’s well-schooled mind – like Other it is an American teaching anthology - the questions that arise from a compare and contrast exercise. As Tuma puts it: ‘One of the ‘revisionist’ agendas of this anthology is to complicate the categories while discarding the potted histories, or rather while encouraging you, the reader, to rewrite those histories.’

The anthology ends with three of the young poets who also appeared in Nicholas Johnson’s Foil (and a fourth who had appeared Other): Caroline Bergvall (b. 1962); Drew Milne (b. 1964); Catherine Walsh (b. 1964); Helen MacDonald (b. 1970). It enables them, relatively early in their careers, to gain for their poetry ‘a hearing amongst other poetries’, as Tuma puts it. Older poets – myself included – achieve this belatedly, but at least in their lifetimes. The anthology’s greatest service to the discontents is to place them in a chronological narrative that may engender a genuine democratic literary history.

As convenor of the Six Towns Poetry Festivals in the Midlands between 1992-1997, and as a mature student of performance writing at Dartington, Nicholas Johnson was in a good position to consider the ‘defining’ of poetry in the years leading up to the millennium. In his introduction to his anthology Foil: defining poetry 1985-2000, Johnson, can be as effusive as Iain Sinclair in his enthusiasms but as tight-lipped and evasive as any anthologist trying to justify his or her choices.

A range of speech seized as birthright. Punned, sampled or appropriated, serpentine and spatial, hysteric or vitriolic: this poetry pays keen attention to sound and has a driving pulse rhythm.

This range of linguistic innovation, means the ‘acts of disruption’ found in the volume are quite various. There is less syntactic play and grammatical disruption than one might expect, although the inclusion of, for example, Adrian Clarke, ensures this is by no means absent. Prose continues to play an important part in the work of writers evading metrical regularity, none more so than Richard Makin’s texts, which present intense accumulations of allusive material and linguistic deformation; dense textualities brim with portmanteau words and neologisms, as in O’Sullivan, but embedded in long paragraphs that resist easy reading. Peter Manson and Ira Lightman are both represented by uncharacteristically lyrical work, with only hints at the little-published work both have systematically undertaken in visual poetry, multiple layouts and text transformations.

The kinds of linguistic deviation favoured here are predominantly lexical, as in the multilingual works of Shelby Matthews and Bergvall, or in the macronic Scots-English work of Rob MacKenzie. Meg Bateman’s dual Gaelic and English poems show a more traditional approach, one that stretches back to Sorley MacLean, and embeds her politics in her choice of language rather than in linguistic innovation. More radical experiments in what might be called fake dialect, include Johnson’s own work, and Khalid Hakim’s angry epistles, with their aberrant and inconsistent spellings, which work as critiques of the stability of identity in dialect, defiant idiolects against the inherited sociolect. Yet they share these pages with attempts to present ‘authentic’ regional and national voices, as in Alison Flett’s Scots, a feminized response to Tom Leonard’s dialect style. Issues of identity and speech intersect with questions of ethnic and gender identities, sometimes in complex ways, as in Bergvall’s tri-lingual queer poetics.

There is a clear reflection of the performance work that has gathered around, and been generated by, Bergvall’s courses at Dartington Hall: from more of Aaron Williamson’s ‘Cacophonies’ to the installation work of Bergvall herself, and the visual presentations of Tertia Longmire, whose found text-treated text ‘transcriptions from graffiti found on thirty school examination desks abandoned in south London during 1996’ fares less well on these square pages than they do in the space of a gallery within the context of Longmire’s sculptural-textural explorations of detritus and its strange messages. Surprisingly these screen like pages do not help the reader to grasp the radical ‘work in movement’ of John Cayley’s cyberpoetic island: a computer work which features multilingual transformations between languages. But then even this rather trendily designed book – it resembles a CD - cannot substitute for such environments, such movements. Yet for many poets here, as for others before them (from Roy Fisher to Bob Cobbing as I have shown), page space is the performance space, a site for visual regularity (Drew Milne’s austere blocks) or irregularity (Harriet Tarlo’s field of typefaces and lyric fragments of radical pastoral, the objectivist lyric released into this postmodern textural space, or onto its screen).

The attempt ‘to be poetri & not poetre at th same tiyme’, as Hakim puts it, is typifies his own and Makin’s experiments in non-generic prose (of which there are monthly installmetns on Great Works), but it also characterizes many of the contributors as they push away from the unnamed normative centre. There is not, as Armitage and Crawford argue in their anthology, an attempt to gather a democratic voice as a singularity, but something more like a democracy of voices pushing towards a variety of conceptual and performative poetics. The best innovate within language, not at the level of page presentation, or not only at that level, but in the density of linguistic event, with an aesthetic, rather than conceptual, theory of language.

That Foil ignores the mainstream – it refreshingly avoids pitching itself at an orthodoxy which ignores it - does not mean that it has gone away any more than it had for Armitage and Crawford, nor has it been vanquished. There are pitfalls in the lack of attention it pays to the Movement Orthodoxy, which are related to the uses of the techniques of performance writing, conceptual art, and cyberpoetics. Even as some of these writers and artists appropriate these areas for poetry, there is the attendant danger that they will be written out of, or marginalized within, non-democratic literary histories simply because of their ambitions to go beyond poetry. This might not matter – and for a practitioner these things do not matter - if it were not for the fact that this gives one more excuse for the Movement Orthodoxy to ignore the discontents of British poetry and reassert the centrality of the democratic voice. The desire for work not to be poetry might be balanced, as Hakim wisely but belligerently reminds us, with the imperative ‘to be poetri’.

British poets are acknowledged in an international context, placed among the world’s avant-garde, in another American published anthology project, the two volume Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (who was resident in Britain during the British Poetry Revival period). The presence of Prynne, Raworth, Allen Fisher, Cobbing and O’Sullivan in the second volume, From Post War to Millennium (1998), is supplemented by the inclusion of a part of John Cayley’s Indra’s Net in the section ‘Towards a Cyberpoetics’, which sheds more light on the issues raised above. Despite Jim Rosenberg’s work for John Cage in the USA, and the early work in Britain of Fencott and Moore, the computer has been under-utilized for poetry. Cayley’s work, as Foil perhaps did not show enough, employs ‘generative algorithms and semi-aleatory processes.... to set up a feedback loop’ so that the text on the computer screen is generated in unpredictable ways. Later versions of the CD Rom text allow the reader an intervention into the process to irreversibly change the text. The anthology quotes the oracular Michael Joyce; ‘The book is slow, the network is quick; the book is many of one, the network is many ones multiplied; the book is dialogic, the network polylogic.’

But remeber: somewhere between the shifting screens of randomly generated computer text and the frost-blown epigraph sculpted onto a headstone for all time lies your responsibility.

You cannot shift the ethical onto the technical and abandon even yourself to ‘effects of textuality’.

The story you tell can’t just accept responsibility as a by-product of ‘openness’. It has actively to assume a stance toward reality, though only in processes that build you into it, in its formal means (which paradoxically take you out of it).

But if you want to read more about these issues, they are covered in my book The Poetry of Saying, from Liverpool University Press.

Published now at £50 hardback. (Can be found second hand, in e-format, and bits of it on Google Books).

isbn 0853238197

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