Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Robert Sheppard: Looking Back at Place and Open Field Poetics

Looking back at Allen Fisher’s Place, now published in full by Reality Street (and my copy received today, as I’m extracting these notes) it exemplifies, formally speaking, a method of connecting and juxtaposing materials that almost became a privileged style of the British Poetry Revival of the 1970s: the field of patterned energies, with nodes, or notes, of facts disposed upon the page in a primarily spatial disposition (the resultant white space being often performed as silence), a mode loosely derived from the work of Charles Olson, and from a face-value reading of his poetics essay ‘Projective Verse’ (1950), as well as nodding towards the ideogrammic method of juxtaposition of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. As I’ve partly outlined in ‘A History of the Other: Part four, Page 465, Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat (1975) and Lee Harwood’s The Long Black Veil (1970-2) ­– which both have the added heteroglossic dimension of prose discourses - Barry MacSweeney’s more or less suppressed volume Black Torch (1977), or Eric Mottram’s Elegies (1981) are typical of this. The Olsonian proselytising of Mottram himself, a crucially important figure for Fisher in many ways is essential here. Mottram’s densely allusive exposition, ‘Open Field Poetry’, published in the magazine Poetry Information, probably influenced many writers to adopt this style, approach, or assimilative improvisational activity - ‘the poem could now use whatever material in whatever form that comes into the process of composition’ - but also to follow Olson, in exploring the petites histories of geography (as Fisher did). (Mottram 1977a, p. 6) For example, Mottram’s keynote paper for the Polytechnic of Central London conference, ‘Inheritance Landscape Location: Data for British Poetry 1977’ was premised upon the primacy of the otherwise obvious statement that ‘a poet works at the intersection of his time and his place’, and a plethora of British Poetry Revival poets are read in this light. (Mottram 1977b, p. 85) The dominance of a poetic mode placing itself at the centre of a supposed Pound-Olson tradition, and the privileging of the investigation of ‘place’, led Adrian Clarke and I, writing in 1991, to question ‘a concern with alternative “traditions” and “bodies of knowledge” – the most deadening being a 70s obsession with “place”’. (Clarke and Sheppard, 1991, p. 122; I confess to being the reckless author of that last phrase.) The oracular dramatic monologues of Unpolished Mirrors, which were published monthly as a serial from Spanner, (they were fun to receive through the post) suggest that Fisher, too, was trying to find a new way to articulate his interest in the matter of London in this last part of Place, separate from the presentation of factual quotations and lyrical caveats in paratactic utterances on the spatialised page. When one of his characters, Christopher Wren, remarks, ‘I have been the historian too long/immersed in wreckage hurled at my feet’, he might also be speaking for Fisher. (Fisher 1985c, p. 57)

The final Spanner instalment of Unpolished Mirrors, serial H, not collected in the 1985 Reality Studios volume of the same title, nor in the splendid new collected from Reality Street, presents a number of ‘map(s) of approaches’ to the Place project, along with a prospective diagram of it, dated 1971 and clearly indicating 1980 as the year of its abandonment/completion. (Fisher 1981, pp. 92-4; 99-101) The proffered reading strategies demonstrate that the role of the reader, facing the resistance and interference of various ‘cut-ins’, and of a variety of ‘mirroring’ texts that demand to be read against one another, favours a non-linear passage through the one hundred page parts of the project’s five main books. (Only one ‘approach’ is ‘considered void’: a chronological reading of these published books. (Fisher 1981, p. 99)) This global structural complexity does much to offset the accusations of inertness and spatial flatness in Place at a localized reading level; we are being instructed not to dwell on any single part. Fisher’s contention that in the act of reading any passage one is positioned as ‘the loci of a point on a moving sphere’ with relation to the entire project, is found handwritten onto the 1971 diagram. (Fisher 1981, p. 101) This is almost an affirmative answer to the self-doubt he reveals in ‘a map of approaches: six’: ‘readers have asked … whether an arbitrary page selection would offer sufficient readability’. (Fisher 1981, p. 100) Readers need to navigate and keep moving across the territory of the text, armed with these ‘maps’, wherever they begin. The problem for the reader is that the extrinsic motivators to move through the text are not matched well by intrinsic motivators to move across the page. The eye is in danger of slipping from word cluster to word cluster. If the page is spatialised, and particularly if grammar is relaxed too much, it arguably lessens the temporal aspects of syntactic or rhythmic flow in favour of white space silences. Derek Attridge writes that the ‘distinctiveness of poetry’ demands that ‘the verbal singularity that is performed by the reader includes a sense of its real-time unfolding’. (Attridge 2004, p. 71)

However, the real problem with open field poetics was not rhythmic, since there exist vital non-linear and visual poetries, but the paucity of content, as poems trail off into ‘notes’, or exist in a field clogged with factual data. Fisher often avoids both. Indeed, the most generous way to conceive of the Place work, and one which introduces a readerly dimension into the process (a dimension that will prove crucial to Gravity as a Consequence of Shape) is to follow Peter Barry and rationalise Place as a ‘content-specific’ work. He argues, with some conviction, that readers

"need to reactivate a body of reading in order to enter the poem. It is important to realise, though, that doing this isn’t just a preliminary to the reading of the poem: a reciprocal process takes place in which we read the sources in the light of the poem and the poem in the light of the sources…. So the text is … readerly in two senses: firstly, it is about reading, and secondly, it demands the reader’s sustained participatory engagement with its materials as well as with ‘the words on the page’. The kind of reading required is thus an active … process like study. "(Barry, 1993, pp. 199-200)

This reminds us that Place was itself a conceptual response to readings about place, rather than of improvised field-notes or site-specific spontaneous jottings, but some of the most effective passages of the project are where the past and present are juxtaposed, as in the amusing and instructive contrast of ‘1583 When we went our perambulation at Vicar’s Oke in Rogation Week £0.2.6d’ with: ‘1973 Bus fare back from search for Vicar’s Oak £0.60p’. (Fisher 1976, n.p.) Developed in the poetry, fiction, and later documentary, of Fisher’s acknowledged contemporary, Iain Sinclair, and filtered through the novels of Peter Ackroyd, narrative modes of this ironic temporal juxtaposition would define a literary sub-genre in the 1980s and 90s. Where Fisher is at his most original is where he intuits the psychosomatic condition of the present city-dweller in terms of pollution and influences that are geographical, historical, economic and political. Even though Alfred Watkins, the ‘discoverer’ of ley lines is listed in the resources to the 1976 Place, there are no Sinclair-like forces at play, no malign lines of influence between (arbitrarily selected) sites. Fisher prefers to divine, the lost (but real) rivers of London, vanished tributaries that he uses both as ‘a metaphor for thought’ and as the presentation of the physical causes of present-day impediment and ill-health. (Barry, 1993, p. 201) One page reads entire (though I cannot, it seems, reproduce the disposition of the words upon the page) :

our health is failing

already the potions of Epsom & sea salts
at Balham Hill and Brixton Causeway wells
through a bed of oysters
is stagnant

feeding our bodies with the stench of its yawn

from the beds of sexless oysters
our fingers retract
smelling of cigar smoke (Fisher 1976, n.p.)

The sudden lyrical outburst about the ‘yawn’ of fatigue gripping ‘us’ – the text is emphatically civic in its concerns – and the image of both polluted fingers and contaminated oyster beds (sexless beds suggest an associated human infertility) are neatly poised against a history of Epsom’s famously restorative salts, yet it does not require contextualising ‘information’ as recommended by Mottram and partly validated by Barry, although it may be possible to read afresh the ‘sources’ in the light of the poem. And now, thanks to Reality Street, we can all re-read the entire project, and read every part in the light of its mirroring, shading, others. There will be some who will say how sad it is to see the whole, what a loss there is in not being able to experience the irregular formats and printing methods of the original volumes. I have testified to the fun of receiving the monthly serials of Unpolished Mirrors. But there is something confirmatory about the bulk of this book that, now I’ve received it, sends me back to re-consider those open field days about which I remain ambivalent, and to let Allen Fisher’s work (along with Harwood’s The Long Black Veil) stand out as the best.

But did I tell you what it was like to hear Fisher read from Gravity as a Consequence of Shape for the first time? No? Stay tuned. (Or check out Page 450: Robert Sheppard: New Memories: Allen Fisher’s Gravity as a Consequence of Shape, archived under February 2005.)

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1 comment:

Steven Waling said...

Interesting to read these comments; it's obviously an area of modernist poetics that interest you a lot. But I would love to hear your comments on the modernist/po-mo lyric as well, if such a word as lyric has meaning any more (I hope it does; most of my own poetry is basically lyric in orientation!)

By the way, I'm sorry to have missed you in Bury, unfortunately I teach just a couple of hundred yards away every Thursday evening!