Monday, March 31, 2014

Robert Sheppard Sean Bonney’s Letter on Poetics (from Happiness)

Sean Bonney could appear in two places in my current critical project on form (may still), under the translation chapter (The Petrarch Boys, Caroline Bergvall, Erin Moure, and Simon Perril so far), and under the one on politics as form. This last issue is addressed in my poetics-poetry prose piece, or ‘manyfesto’, ‘Bad Poems for Bad People’, which I wrote after the September 2011 conference in Edinburgh on politics and form (and after the riots of August 2011). It can be read here, as it appears on Intercapillary Space, and I ask readers to pause to consider it.


(It is the opening poem of the unpublished work Unfinish.) The piece I gave on Politics and Form I promised to post on Pages at the time, but haven’t yet. (Apologies at least to Nat Raha on that front). I will. I don’t think I will feature Sean’s work there (though I will reference it, I’m sure). It is the most openly impassioned political work since Barry MacSweeney’s state of the nation addresses at the height of the Thatcherite madness. That fact, it is worth stressing, is not automatically praise-worthy; they are both excellent writers because of the level of formal investigation encountered in the works. (See my own reference to Thatcher’s demise here.)

I want to turn to Happiness. This book had not yet appeared at the time of the Edinburgh conference, though Sean was speaking from it (and from his postgraduate work on the late Amiri Baraka, which I had the pleasure of reading later in a professional capacity). I asked a few difficult questions about form and Sean seemed to dodge them; I think he said he was really only interested in the improvisatory action of writing the pieces. Of course, my work is as much interested in acts of forming as form as a structure or frame or elements of poetic artifice, but perhaps I couldn’t communicate this – and was probably why I found myself writing my piece to Sean. (It addresses him in the earlier drafts, something I’ve revised from the still-revising – I should say ‘still forming’, shouldn’t I? – text.) Sean suspected the term ‘form’ meant ‘structure’.

The warning to my project, which wants to read Happiness: Poems After Rimabud as a book of translations, is printed on the stiff hard covers of this Ukant publication (that make it feel like a Ladybird book: a lovely incongruence). The warning is clear about these poems: ‘If you think they’re translations you’re an idiot.’ (Bonney 2012: cover) Two things. This sentence is then followed by Bonney’s version of the Cretan liar: ‘In the enemy language it is necessary to lie,’ which suggests both a political strategy (perhaps derived from his study of Baraka) and an approach to Rimbaud. Don’t tell them they are translations. Secondly, the condition of being ‘stupid’ or an ‘idiot’, in both Rimbaud and Bonney, is not unequivocally negative. If Rimbaud was an idiot then it is not idiocy to regard these as translations. By this point in the chapter I’m writing it will be clear that the transformative practices I call ‘translations’ are not just those of the jobbing word-for-word translator but feature attempts to transform alien materials into new contemporary poems. ‘Poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form,’ is the axiom I keep returning to.

Previously Bonney had transformed Baudelaire’s poems into English language visual poems. Why Rimbaud? Teenage Barry MacSweeney wrote of ‘The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother’: ‘A drunken hug is worth a revolution,’ and Rimbaud joins Chatterton as figures of the poete maudit reappearing throughout his work. (MacSweeney 1968: 35) (The possible influence of MacSweeney’s last book of poems, Horses in Boiling Blood (2004), a ‘collaboration’ with Apollinaire, on Happiness is a point worth churning over another day.) Bonney is clear who HIS Rimbaud isn’t. In his ‘Letter on Poetics’ with which the volume ends, he notes: ‘I’d been to a talk at Marx House and was amazed that people could still only talk through all the myths: Verlaine etc nasty-assed punk bitch etc gun running, colonialism, etc. Slightly less about that one.’ (Bonney 2012: 63) The final sardonic remark alerts us to Bonney’s politics and to his preferred focus, which is on the work itself, though this is not a simple formalist plea to turn away from biography to the an engaged reading of the texts, though it involves a sense of form, and says so:

As if there was nothing to say about what it was in Rimbaud’s work – or in avant-garde poetry in general – that could be read as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of any revolutionary moment. How could what we were experiencing, I asked myself, be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it. The form would be monstrous.’ (Bonney 2012: 63)

This passage stands well for the way that the poems themselves effortlessly slide from Rimbaud’s writings and his socio-political context to Bonney’s writings and contexts (as you might expect from a ‘Letter on Poetics’; I nearly treated ‘I asked myself’ to a scholarly elision but it seems a germane remark strictly in tune with poetics as a speculative, writerly discourse). However, I want to stay with Rimbaud’s work for a moment. The way to read Rimbaud, according to Bonney, is ‘as the subjective counterpart to the objective upheavals of’ his particular ‘revolutionary moment’, the events of the Paris Commune (events that are glossed in Bonney’s opening section ‘Revolutionary Legends’). True, Rimbaud wasn’t in Paris; he was at home with his mother in Charleville in the Ardennes. (But he was only 15 so that is not too surprising; the myths that surround Rimbaud glorify his youth but also forget that he was a child.) But he is writing, poems and letters (the latter expressing his desire to get to Paris.) On May 15th 1871, he writes his famous Lettre du Voyant, a quite extraordinary poetics document for a boy of 15, and in the letter is the poem ‘Parisian War Cry’. It is explicit in its contempt for the government and the military and its statement of solidarity with the workers against the bourgeoisie:

Never, never now will we move back
From our barricades, our pile of stone;
Beneath their clubs our blond skulls crack
In a dawn that was meant for us alone. (Rimbaud : 63).

I will turn to the famous poetics soundbites extracted from the letter in a moment, but dwell first on what both poets have to say about form. Bonney’s ‘The form would be monstrous,’ (Bonney 2012: 63) accords with Rimbaud’s assertions about the ‘visionary’ who ‘attains the unknown’ and uncovers something monstrous and possibly self-destructive: ‘So what if he is destroyed in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of, unnameable; other horrible workers will come,’ and the use of the word ‘workers’ a page on from ‘Parisian War Cry’ is telling. (Rimbaud 2008: 116) The visionary writer discovers in himself, subjectively, monstrous form, ‘something new – ideas and forms’. (Rimbaud 117) ‘He is responsible for humanity, for animals even; he will have to make sure his visions can be smelled, fondled, listened to; if what he brings back from beyond has form, he gives it form; if it has none, he gives it none. A language must be found.’ (Rimbaud 2008: 117) This looks like the conjectural poetics that will facilitate A Season in Hell, where prose is felt to be the appropriate poetic form for a visionary confession (though it also reads as a renunciation of the strategies of the earlier letter). The visionary aspect of this, the monstrous sensual intoxication and dangerous encounter with otherness, is balanced against a civic sense that I have certainly never seen quoted before, or emphasised: ‘This eternal art will be functional, since poets are citizens,’ and the contemporary notion of Parisian citizens is that they await ‘a dawn that was meant for us.’ (Rimbaud 2008: 117)
            I think it’s a long way from spotting these references to the revolutionary moment presented by the Paris Commune, to Bonney’s assertion: ‘But, still, it is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work, and especially Une Saison en Enfer, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital.’ (Bonney 2012: 63) The ‘fully grasped’ and ‘understood the whole’ gesture towards an absolute understanding only open to a political reading, the objective supplementing the subjectivity of poetry. I am excluded from this virtual study group – and baulk at the badgering tone, until I recall that much of my work on poetics acknowledges the conjecturality, the manifestic overstatement and the sheer energising contentiousness of much poetics. It’s a damn slight better than telling us that Rimbaud was a proto-Surrealist, proto-Beat, proto-hippie, proto-postmodernist! Bonney, of course, is not, and need not be, forthcoming on why a reading of Marx has this effect, though he hints at it in tackling the two most often-cited poetics statements from the Letter. Rimbaud wrote (famously as the hideous adverb has it): ‘A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses’ Rimbaud 2008: 116), a page or so after announcing that ‘I is another.’ (Rimbaud 115) These are interpreted afresh by Bonney, within the context of Rimbaud’s particular revolutionary moment:

Rimbaud hammered out his poetic programme in May 1871, the week before the Paris Communards were slaughtered. He wanted to be there, he kept saying it. The ‘long systematic derangement of the senses’, the ‘I is an other’, he’s talking about the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity, yeh? That’s his claim for the poetic imagination, that’s his idea of what poetic labour is… The ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ is the social senses, ok, and the ‘I’ becomes an ‘other’ as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off. (Bonney 2012: 64)

There is certainly evidence for this in the letter (and the poem), as I’ve argued and shown above. Bonney is keen is develop the ‘lyric I’ as ‘an interrupter and … a collective’ in accordance with this politicised Marxist reading (Bonney 2012: 65). Whether it is right or wrong as a reading of Rimbaud is not the issue here; what matters is how this relates to Bonney’s poetics and to his choice of Rimbaud (and to ‘avant-garde poetry in general’, as he puts it). They are intimately related.
Bonney asked of the ‘revolutionary moment. How could what we were experiencing … be delineated in such a way that we could recognise ourselves in it.’ (Bonney 2102: 63) Jennifer Cooke identifies what Bonney regards as his contemporary ‘revolutionary moment’, and comments on Bonney’s demand that protest and poetry as part of the ‘moment’ might escalate into lasting revolution:

This is a high demand. It would be a lot to ask from protest actions, indeed, which should be doing it and often seem to fail or run out of steam, to effervesce, bubble over, and then subside, like the quiet diffusion of energy after the surprise of the student dissent at Millbank, November 2010, or the confused, smoky hush that descended in the shocked wake of the London riots in August 2011. (Cooke 2012: 27)

Happiness was written before the 2011 riots that spread out from the volatile epicentre in Hackney with the police shooting of Mark Duggan, around London, and across England, and even to Liverpool, where delayed action had the air of a tribute riot, political energy replaced by muted but directionless violence. (That’s enacted in the italicised ‘sonnet’ in ‘Bad Poetry for Bad People’, by the way.) But the poems respond directly to the events of the November 2010 student protests against the scrapping of the student loan system which was met with police violence, mass kettling of demonstrators and the death of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson (who is mentioned in Happiness). Bonney’s poetics seem ready for that revolutionary moment ‘when it all kicks off’ (64). The poetry will almost inevitably be (like Rimbaud’s letter and poem) after the event. (This is a dilemma in Baraka’s poetry which I know Bonney has wrestled with.) But as Cooke notes of the prescience of another ‘Letter’ by Bonney also written before the riots: ‘Uncanny, this Sean Bonney, this urban poet-seer’, thus bestowing the Rimbaudian accolade on his best contemporary disciple. (Cooke 2012: 28).
The next post considers the poems themselves. Read it here. Also read a great interview with Bonney here. Check out links to all the related posts to my The Meaning of Form project here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Monday, March 24, 2014

Stephen Burt: "LIKE" A speculative essay about poetry, simile, artificial intelligence, mourning, sex, rock and roll, grammar, romantic love

             Covers alike

I like simile. In Stephen Burt’s new piece he considers the fact that to say something is like something is to say it is mostly not like it (otherwise the comparsion would be ineffective, or near-identical). It’s something I’ve noted, possibly lies behind the lines he quotes (from A Translated Man, with all its managed unlikely unlikenesses, as it were). Here’s a fragment.


You can find negated similes elsewhere, too. Consider Prince’s love song “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which most of us know only in its second version, a cover by Sinead O’Connor, both like and unlike the original song.

The English poet Robert Sheppard writes “we like the likeness of things but/ even if we saw them we would never know them”: we know only appearances, likeness itself, full-color projections on walls of a Platonic cave, or a “passage” (his word), that we can never leave.

Sheppard wrote these lines not in propria persona but in the voice of a fictional Belgian poet called René van Valckenborch, who wrote in both Flemish and French (really, in Sheppard’s English): his poems exist only in translations, versions that are only so much like the nonexistent originals they replicate.

The “like” in poetry may resemble the “like” in translation, where work in the target language is like (but never the same as) the source, or the like in sacrificial ritual—in Greek and Roman sacrifice, for example—whereby the gods demand the smoke of entrails, something like but nonidentical with real human beings’ real food.



Here’s the rest of the online excerpt. It's from American Poetry Review.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Simon Perril’s Archilochus on the Moon

Simon Perril is the author of several books, including his investigation of early film Nitrate. (See here for one of those poems on Pages when it was more strictly a blogzine, a condition to which it might return in time, I hope.) He is also an astute critic, with one of the finest pieces on Iain Sinclair tucked away in an academic journal, and (more publicly) the necessary and well-edited Salt Companion to John James to his name.

And here comes Archilochus on the Moon, published in 2013 by Shearsman Books. It is an excellent book, as I hope to show.

First Archilochus. Archilochus is the first named classical Greek lyric poet, so this exploration could be regarded as a return to a poetic origin (as, in its analogous way, could Erin Moure’s exploration of the troubadour archives). But it doesn’t feel like that, since he is invented anew and the epigraph of the book takes (whether the prophecy is Perril’s fanciful invention or not) the words of the Delphic Oracle (an instrument of much Greek colonial expansionism, either as permission or excuse) quite literally: ‘Announce to the Parians, Archilochus, that I bid you found a conspicuous city on the moon.’ (Perril 2013: 6) This book shows Archilochus – the lyrics hint at the absent epic beyond – doing just that, though it feels immediately more like exile (the mood reminds me of the Tristia of Ovid, texts I used, or rather my fictional poet, René Van Valckenborch, used, in A Translated Man, in a way I recognise here). However, the little that is know about the historical Archilochus is summed up neatly in Perril’s ‘Grapsing a Nettle Tongue: An Afterward(s)’: ‘He was a soldier, part slave part aristocrat, who took part in the earliest colonial expeditions. His father, Telesicles, after consulting the oracle at Delphi, led the first colonising mission from Paros to Thasos…. His companion was Lycambes, who later agreed to the engagement of Archilochus and his eldest daughter Neobulé – and later, for reasons unknown, broke that arrangement.’ (Perril 2013: 91)

What attracted Perril was (apart from qualities of the verse itself, though received in translation) ‘this ancient foundational moment of conjunction between lyric and colonization’, and that is as fascinating to him as Moure’s discovery of the troubadours, a work he refers to. (Perrril 2013: 91) ‘Lyric is territorial,’ Perril argues: ‘it desires to occupy, it forms an erotics of coercion.’ (Perril 2013: 91) However, Perril provides Archilochus with an Ovidian exile: ‘The exile I have established for this soldier-poet is steeped in the myths that surround him,’ we are told, and chief among these is that ‘when Lycambes broke off the poet’s engagement to Neobulé … Archilochus wrote such scurrilous poems about the affair, that the entire family committed suicide’. (Perril 2013: 92) Perril weaves another legend from this: ‘The basic premise of this book,’ he explains, ‘is that Archilocus has been sent – partly as punishment for the havoc his poems have wreaked upon Lycambes’ family – into exile to colonise the moon’. (Perril 2013: 92) There is some historical evidence that – unlike the later case of Ovid – colonisation followed exile, so we can surmise that Archilochus was ‘sent’ ‘partly’ also to colonise (in reality Thasos). Carol Dougherty, in a book Perril footnotes, deals with what she describes as ‘how the Greeks “emplotted” their memory of archaic colonization’. She notes: ‘The basic narrative pattern that emerges can be summarized as follows: crisis, Delphic consultation, colonial foundation, resolution’. (Dougherty 1993: 8). Perril’s book balances upon the indeterminacies of the third stage. ‘The foundation of a new city’, which Dougherty calls ‘the solution to the civic crisis’ is deferred. (Dougherty 1993: 9) Resolution feels as though it is unattainable; indeed, dissolution is its, or Archilochus’, final state. However she does note that in his poetry, Archilochus ‘overlooks the prosperous and fruitful nature of Thasos and describes the island, the site of Paros’ colonial expedition, as the bare back of an ass.’(Dougherty 1993: 22). Specifically, uncultivated timber is compared to the bristles on an ass’s back.

                                    Here the island stands
            stiff with wild timber like a donkey’s bristling back.
            This is no place of beauty, nor desirable
            nor lovely like the plains where the River Siris runs. (Lattimore 1960: 4)

The moon is even less fruitful for its new ‘selenite citizens’: (Perril 2013: 57)

before sailing
for lunar seas,
these moon-bound men

signed an oath
will bind them
to ashen coasts, (Perril 2013: 22)

the assonance of the word ‘oath’ binding them to such ‘coasts’. Archilochus bemoans his lack of fecundity. The civic crisis of antiquity is partly translated into the sexual anxieties of the twenty-first century by Perril, the rhyme of ‘bit’ and ‘it’ indicating the penis without naming it:

For my bit,
I have planted seed
and watered it
with the same instrument (Perril 2013: 40)

Doughtery reminds us of the original anxiety underlying Archilochus’ disparaging description of Thasos: ‘Archilochus’ poetry reveals what might lie behind this rhetorical strategy – concerns about settling foreign territory, questions about the nature of the land and of the people who live there.’ (Dougherty 1993: 22) Perril’s man has no problems concerning the latter, though ‘salt mines/ on the moon’ suggests not natural resources but imprisonment. (Perril 2013: 82)

The other legend about Archilochus is poetic, his formal preference for the iambic, which was not just a metrical choice, conventionally speaking, but a preference for verse ‘for ritual invective, obscenity, abuse and blame’, as Perril puts it in his ‘Afterward(s)’,(Perril 2013: 92) (or more bluntly in the poems themselves: ‘iambic stock:/ the broth of blame’), which is revealed in the image of the ass’s back and is reflected in the excerpts from Perril above. (Perril 2013: 71) As another poem has it:

I act in kind
and spew (Perril 2013: 23)

The fragmented nature of the sequence is appropriate formally to the condition of the poems handed down to us. No Archilochus poem survives intact. Nevertheless, Perril isolates qualities in the translations he has received (chiefly Guy Davenport’s). ‘His is a nuanced voice, full of many tones and timbres…; it has the viscosity of semen. It can argue and cajole, it can caress and curse’. (Perril 2013: 91)

I only have to hand, as yet, Greek Lyrics translated by Richmond Lattimore, an anthology that opens, naturally enough, with Archilochus. One fragment runs: ‘If it only were my fortune just to touch Neoboule’s hand’, longingly, caressingly, as it were; (Lattimore 1960: 5) another is directed at her father; this, in Perril’s words, curses:

            Father Lykámbes, whatever were you thinking of?
            And who seduced the common sense
            in which you were once so secure? How things are changed!
            Your neighbours giggle in your face. (Lattimore 1960: 6)

Our lunar poet invokes Neobulé in one poem which reads, complete:

Neobulé, somehow
your space was deeper

as the promise of moisture

on the moon (Perril 2013: 86)

The colonial space is clearly associated with corporeal space, and is a source of disappointment (both promises proving false). In another poem addressed to Neobulé, he laments:

I … found my body
a parchment map. Territory
of all you ever touched.

These marks
are the colonies I value
where you landed’ . (Perril 2013: 77)

He figures himself as occupied territory at this point, ‘an ex-citizen recast/ as a bastard’. (Perril 2013: 77) Lycambes is also addressed post-mortem by Perril’s Archilochus:

Lycambes’ ghost
visits most amongst
Mnemosyne’s folk [;]

that is to say, around those who are devotees of the muses, the offspring or ‘folk’ of the Titan goddess, but this is not a respectful memorialization, given Perril’s Archilochus’ complicity in the familial suicide:

and the self-righteous prick
has a point
to accompany the ruff of weals
a noose makes; (Perril 2013: 29)

Archilochus does not pause to link this suicide by hanging with poetry. (It is linked: Archilochus’ poems caused the family to self-slaughter, though in some versions of the legend it is only the shamed daughters): ‘but he misunderstands/the crux of song’. (Perril 2014: 29) Poetry, this poem seems to suggest, is not about shame but guilt, by formally patterning (‘assembled, reassembled’) ‘the wrong’:

this riot-rhythm
is what I bottle
and the poems flutter and buzz
with the life-scuzz (Perril 2013: 29)

‘Bottle’ suggests the bottling up of repressive content, but it also suggests the distillation provided by form and acts of forming. ‘Life-scuzz’ is transmuted into the rhythmic and sonic ‘flutter and buzz’ of poetry (the rhyme almost demonstrating this relation, while holding them apart; the scuzz is not buzz). (Perril 2013: 29)

Perril translates the whole legend of Archilochus and his fragmented oeuvre into his own fragmented (lyric) epic, although perhaps it is best to think of Perril’s poems as narrative nodes from an incomplete colonial narrative. (Indeed, Richmond Lattimore speculates whether some of Archilochus’ own ‘fragments’ are not, in fact, complete epigrams.) (Lattimore 1960: 1)  He ‘occupies’ the ‘foundational moment’ of lyric and its colonial ambitions (thwarted by Delphic diversion to the moon). Perril says, quite clearly: ‘These poems are not translations… They are occupations,’ which is yet another territorial metaphor, of course. (Perril 2103: 92) Archilochus on the Moon is a book-length sequence of 80 short-lined lyrics; like those above, few of them reach a second page, and they employ frequent but light rhyme, some end-stopped, but quite often internal, a device which lifts the otherwise demotic, even earthy, language and content into a register we recognise as lyrical. Unlike his previous work, which has eschewed the lyrical (in this sense), this sequence wishes to embrace that possibility (or fate) openly, recognising the power of tradition and effects of ‘lyric resistance’, as Perril calls it. (Perril 2013: 92) One poem, number 56, addresses this resistance, announces a formal (and ethical) question:

for what manner of shield
is a lyre: to what office
does it aspire

it opens, neatly and internally rhyming ‘lyre’ (the instrument of lyric) with hope, while semantically rhyming lyre with a shield, an appropriate pairing for this soldier-poet, and one dictated by the resemblance of curves in their physical designs and in their aspiration, which is

to protect
all prospects, sound
them in sinew and strum;

Both instrument and weapon are held, one to the muscles of war, the lyre to the gentle rhythmic harmony accompanying the poet in recitation. Both instruments are again equated in an elaborate metaphor (which, slightly clumsily, as though to offset the neatness of the poem’s identifications, requires the reading of ‘bags’ as a verb). Shield (made of animal skin?) and lyre (strung with animal gut?) ‘bag’ in a fashion that is emphatically, if not disgustingly, corporeal (as a reader might expect by now):

handle them
as a body bags jellied goods
in its skin-pouch

then wastes
through its holes what
it cannot keep

This image of digestion and excretion is also an image of poetic excess (the shield seems less important, though it may leak a soldier’s blood through the knife stabs and sword thrusts through it). There something lyric cannot keep. Or keep hold of, contain, long enough. The poem is syntactically ambiguous around the double but elusive use of the word ‘it’. So that on a second reading, the poem re-forms, the isolated ‘what’ holding the ‘it’ to the hostage of conclusion: ‘What/ it cannot keep

sings it out:
for song is a form
of passing (Perril 2013: 64)

‘Passing’ is wonderfully ambiguous. It is another word for excretion, the process described, but lyric is also a ‘form’ for requiem and remembrance, ‘passing’ being one of the oddest euphemisms for dying (often in battle, to return to the martial associations of the shield). This is one reading, of course, but the poem is insistent, the sentence re-lineated in prose by me simply to emphasise its teasing oddness: ‘What it cannot keep sings it out’. What escapes in lyric is not the interiority. This is not even a parodic image of fecundity of seeding and watering. This process ‘wastes’ (another word that can connote dying in other contexts) into song (into actual form and content) something it would otherwise prefer to retain. The best parts of the ‘jellied goods’ of lyric are transformed into exterior existence, passing, passing over, as transformed. The ‘waste’ of lyric is what the poet cannot keep, his essence spilling like a soldier’s vital blood. The ‘yelp/ and yearn’ of Archilochus’ poetry leaves him neither outburst nor passion. (Perril 2013: 87) By the end of the sequence, ‘my songs fall old’, he declares, ‘mind-dark’, the poet a husk, emptied of what must be surrendered beyond himself.  (Perril 2013: 88) The ‘erotics of coercion’ are at an end. (Perril 2013: 91)

Works Cited

Dougherty, Carol. The Poetics of Colonization: From City to Text in Archaic Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Lattimore, Richmond. Tr. Greek Lyrics. Chicago and London: Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Perril, Simon. Archilochus on the Moon. Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2013.

See here for links to all further parts of my The Meaning of Form project. And there is mention of the sequence to Archilochus on the Moon, Beneath here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reading Barry MacSweeney: WN Herbert's 'Barry MacSweeney and the Demons'

In the new and very welcome Bloodaxe book on Barry MacSweeney I read the following sentence and nearly fell off my chair: 'Though it should be noted, as Robert Sheppard points out, that this was no simplistic grouping of the avant-garde: " Jeff Nuttall, the only representative of the ‘Cambridge’ grouping of poets to be caught up in the events."' Had I said that in my piece on Jacket reviewing Peter Barry's Poetry Wars? I rather like the idea of Jeff Nuttall being the single representative of the Cambridge School, (he was a movie actor so I can see him sipping sherry in Caius College) but, of course this wasn't what I had written. I wrote (I'll explain the relevance of these photographs at the end)

The reason it matters — which Peter Barry doesn’t make explicit, though his close scrutiny and attention to detail implies it — is that many of the poets involved in the organisation at the time were the most important poets writing within the remit of the ‘British Poetry Revival’, to use Mottram’s term for the flowering of British modernism between 1965 and — it’s that year again — 1977. Members of the General Council included Germanist and visual poet Jeremy Adler, expatriate American poet Asa Benveniste, performance writer and musician cris cheek, major international concrete and sound poet Bob Cobbing, poet, novelist and biographer Elaine Feinstein, Welsh performance poet Peter Finch, polymath experimentalist Allen Fisher, major poet Roy Fisher, Anglo-Saxon scholar and poet Bill Griffiths, poet and translator Harry Guest, post-New York British poet and translator of Tristan Tzara Lee Harwood, popular Liverpool poet and painter Adrian Henri, poet and pioneering head of BBC poetry George MacBeth, radical poet and journalist Barry MacSweeney, poet, performance artist, actor, painter, cartoonist, musician and chronicler of the 1960s Jeff Nuttall, the only representative of the ‘Cambridge’ grouping of poets to be caught up in the events Ian Patterson, post-Objectivist heir to Basil Bunting Tom Pickard, poet and social worker Elaine Randell, the much admired poet Ken Smith, and the poet, artist and performer Lawrence Upton, who, like many of the participants, was also a small press publisher. Nearly all of them find their way into literary critical accounts of the period, such as Andrew Duncan’s The Failure of Conservatism in British Poetry, my own The Poetry of Saying, or The New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible, which Barry himself edited with Robert Hampson. Many of the are still active. Important publishers of the period Peter Hodgkiss (Poetry Information and Galloping Dog Press), Stuart Montgomery (the seminal Fulcrum), Ian Robinson (the long running Oasis), and Anthony Rudolf (the eclectic Menard Press), the last three also writers, were elected. All of these appear in the standard histories of small presses, like Wolfgang Gortschacher’s Little Magazine Profiles. Mottram himself was a brief member of the Council, but resigned only in order to edit Poetry Review, the society’s journal in 1971.

Lists are tricky things and I admit there is a certain crampness about this way of putting it but I thought it was pretty clear that I was placing list items between commas, names at the ends of. So I have some sympathy with Bill Herbert, but I do need to correct him. 

Then I start to think about his assumed claim. I think the above proves that the gathering at the Poetry Centre was a very complex grouping of the avant-garde. Possibly Herbert is trying to suggest that this array of poets (that Barry MacSweeney laboured away among for a time) was a wider collection of poets. After all, his article ends with an attack on the 'simplistic' (a favourite word?) divide between mainstream and experimental writing. Again, that divide is complex in its aesthetic and socio-historical ramifications, particularly in terms of power relations. Particularly as some of the chapters in this book seek to separate MacSweeney from his various positionings in the field of literary production (particularly if that means Prynne or Mottram) to assert his uniquesness, and then - after a suitable time - absorb him into the mainstream. That way, we don't have heave to deal with Prynne, Mottram, or even Jeff Nuttall, John James, Tom Pickard, Nicholas Moore, Allen Fisher, or Bob Cobbing. They then will have had nothing to do with him, or he with them. (I'm not saying Herbert is saying this, or any of the contributors, all of them otherwise generous, are doing this consciously.) This is the less benign sign of canon-formation. I've refined these thoughts as an editorial for the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry.

Now the photos.The one in the middle was first posted at the end of the review of Peter Barry's excellent book on Jacket. Have a look if you want: it was taken in a Russian restaurant in Riga. The top one was a sort of re-enactment of the first when, in the company of Peter Barry himself, he and I spotted the same poster on the wall of a bar/restaurant in Amsterdam. Peter took the photo. I still seem to be saying 'No!' I don't know why but they somehow seem apposite, or mysteriously analogous to, the two versions of the quote about Jeff Nuttall (or Ian Patterson, which ever way we look at it).  

At the Bill Griffiths reading in London to launch the new Collected Poems Harry Gilonis made the remark that Jeff Nuttall needed a footnote these days. He was greeted by a group of PhD students waving a copy of Nuttall's Bomb Culture. That incident, and the whole event, gave me some hope about things.  

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Robert Sheppard: On Erin Moure's O Cadoiro

I am writing about the forms of translation and the translation of forms (to coin a phrase I could well adopt to describe what is going on in various works. The next up is Erín Moure’s O Cadoiro (2007), a book which explores the (literal) archive of the Galician-Portuguese troubadours, important for Moure for the reason that they were secular, and whose discourse was that of one person talking to another, or better: whose artifice was that of one person talking to another, for she constantly emphasises the formal. (See the ‘postface’ to the book which appears not at the end of the book but online,here.) 

I bought my copy of the book when Moure read at Edge Hill University where I work, on Thursday 25th October 2007, a reading I organised for her as part of the series that has been running since 1998. My diary states: ‘Waited in the afternoon, for Erin Moure. She arrived and we talked translation, poetry, peanut allergy … and stuff, before the event began…. Moure was as fantastic as Lee {Harwood, I assume} said she was. Marvellously gliding between languages and with so many fresh ideas, that don’t owe to language poetry.’

‘Marvellously gliding between languages,’ I wrote, before I’d come across her word ‘transelation’ or had read the purchased books, of course. (Why I thought she’d ‘owe’ to language poetry I don’t know. I had been reading, or perhaps mis-reading, her work in the days before the reading, but probably only excerpts on-line.)  

So now I am back admiring this work but a little hesitant before it. I’ve written an introduction which spells out the attitude to the project expressed in the ‘postface’, but the poems remain with their ‘frequency of lyric resistance’ as Simon Perril says of them in his Archilocus on the Moon (one of the next books I shall tackle).

Rob McLennan’s blog (here) has a post about the book (here), in which he describes it as ‘translating Galician-Portuguese into an argument about authorship’. That’s an interesting phrase and a description of the book that preserves the expanded sense of translation I’ve been taking on (The PetrarchBoys, Bergvall, see recent posts on this blog) that allows the term to stand for any transformative process. Thus poetry becomes an argument, but the argument of an aesthetic form like lyric (and Moure has no trouble with a term like lyric) cannot be established in syllogisms. If form is cognitive, if literary works embody knowledge, they do so in ways far distant from the knowledge of propositional knowledge, much closer to a Heideggerean notion of disclosed, unfolding, thought (though I can hear the armbands being tightened across the biceps as I admit as much, and it’s not a group of hypochondriacs checking their blood pressure). As Robert Kaufman argue

Lyric’s special formal intensity … arises from lyric’s historically constitutive need to stretch in semblance, via its musicality, the very medium of “objective” conceptual thought, language – to stretch language quasiconceptually, mimetically, all the way toward affect and song but without relinquishing any of the rigor and complexity of conceptual intellection, so that in a semblance-character vital to the possibility of critical agency, speech can appear as song and song can legitimately seem to be logical, purposeful speech-act’. (Modernist Cultures: 212)

If we amend McLennan’s phrase and typify Moure’s book as translating Galician-Portuguese lyric into an argument about authorship’ we may see how ‘Lyric songfully stretches the linguistic medium of conceptuality’ into its own formally cognitive saying. (MC 216) (See my book The Poetry of Saying for the full implications of that term ‘saying’ in the way I use it here.) Lyric doesn’t speak conceptual language, but sings it, and in thus doing so, severs its links to conceptuality while seeming to use its language. McLennan comments:

There is an interesting way that Mouré uses the language, weaving a kind of lightness and wide range of worked speech, even while incorporating the weight of theorists such as Foucault, Agamben, Lacan and others, without letting the weight take over. How do the poems not collapse from such theoretical weight? How does the theory not simply get in the way of the poetry? How does the weight not take over?
Scattering her work with quotations from Foucault, Derrida, Agamben (in various languages, not always the original language if not in English translation) oddly does not infuse the work with conceptuality, ‘weight’ in McLennan’s formulation. The lyrics abutted to the quotations symbiotically entune them, as it were, release them into the status of poetry itself, ‘to make thought sing and to make song think’, in Kaufman’s words again. (MC 212) This can be achieved by page space and type face but this is no more obvious way than in the beautiful photographic pages in ‘Befallen’ which present supposed translations with strips of text woven across them, one per poem, which is a literal materiality that matches the materiality of the archives of the cancioneiros themselves. Excerpts from another archive, as it were, are stitched across the Galician poems (or Moure’s deliberately fictional poems written out of them). The poems are thus interrupted by the prose texts, although it is possible to regard the interruption as being the other way round. The poems interrupt the strips of prose writing. (It will depend in which you are reading at any given moment.)

The text (at least in the case I will examine) is Derrida’s essay ‘Archive Fever’, delivered at the Freud Museum in London, in 1994, which considers Freud’s work as an archaeologist of the unconscious, an archivist of psychological data. He devises the term ‘archive fever’, on a par perhaps with cabin fever, and diagnoses this condition:

It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for
the archive, right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself. It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement. (Archive Fever 91)

Does this describe Erín Moure in her falling into the cantigas de amor of the literal cancioneiros? She never lets us forget that she is approaching partial and damaged texts on occasion: ‘This folio much deteriorated, and it is clear that the copyist did not know the language’ an asterisked note ‘explains’ at the bottom of a poem, although the lack of a matching asterisk in the text signals that the note is false (as indeed the ‘afterword’ tells us that the attributions and scholarly archival numbers are often false, provided in transelational excess). (Moure 2007: 76) The ‘postface’, and the emphasis upon ‘falling’, does suggest that Moure experienced the passion before the literal archives in Lisbon, and the description of ‘archive fever’ holds until one reaches the word ‘nostalgic’. At that point we might say that Moure cures herself of the fever by overruling any desire ‘to return to the origin’ by fusing and confusing notions of the original and translation in a creative transformation and augmentation of the cantiga genre in general and its poems in particular. There is a desire to ‘return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement’ but Moure knows either that this is impossible, or she knows that when she gets there she is going to give vent to her transelational passions, where these archived forms will ‘seep… into my work, unseating forms, compelling variegated sounds and capacities, irregularities,’ as she elegantly puts it. (postface 142). There is some homesickness, by the way, but that is for Canada (in the section ‘Snowfall’, where falling becomes beneficent). Moure allows the archive to slip away, so that she may paradoxically get closer to the forms of the poems; her flagrant acts of disloyalty to the decorum of the archive, the fidelity of translation, are truer acts of love (for the poems are, of course, love poems, but, as Richard Zenith says of the cantigas de amor, ‘Courtly love becomes the occasion for an obsessive sadness in the Galician-Portuguese domain. (Zenith 1995: xxv)). It is this lyric resistance that precisely keeps the ‘weight’ of theory from its shoulders: its commitment to ceaseless acts of formal exploration. Moure makes her archival desire sing and she makes her writerly passion think in such resistance, to mashup Perril and Kaufman.
Part of the poem on page 106 is obscured by the French original of the sliver of Derrida’s text quoted above (or part of it; word order is quite different). The French slip is folded or creased at one point and it is not completely legible; neither is the poem: it has lost the equivalent of about four lines and the reader has to accept some (comparatively legible) half-words because of the fold. What remains does not feel particularly whole. Whereas some of the other poems in the book read like complete finished poems, this text looks like a draft of a poem (or its opposite, a poem falling to pieces). The first line with its italicised parenthetical first person throws into doubt the artifice of speech that is so essential to this artifice of yearning, of one person addressing another: ‘[I] live anguished in such ac-’. (Moure 2007: 106) The second line asserts the theme but has no syntactic connection with line one: ‘he of love. that yet without’. He. I. Love. Without. Anguished. The mood is clear linguistically; the genre is suggested by register. A lower-case i miniaturises the first person gesture that is both evoked and suppressed at the beginning of the poem (and in the genre), the enjambement separating the act of begging for its aim, a ritualised complaint of the cantigas: ‘i beg/ever for my death to go9,’ it reads, ending in a superfluous numeral. (This device happens throughout these photographic poems: usually a 9 suffixed to or a 7 prefixed to, a word: ‘7 ache much and weep emburdened’, for example.) What might be a reference to a footnote, a rhythmical marker, or even a typing error (the ‘o9’ could easily be that), seems to be none of those, and perhaps operates like the sheets of Letraset that traverse the late canvases of Francis Bacon, a formal registering of an act of impulsive abandonment that Deleuze calls ‘the diagram’, the writing across. Numbers are dropped into ‘the great ache in which i live to suffer’ and operate in the opposite way to the formal repetitions of the poem, the verbal echoes of the opening line and the frequent reference to ‘ache’ and ‘anguish’; they are non-semantic interruptions of what is still the genre talking to us (however fragmentarily). Like the nonsense sounds in haiku. Like grunting in a song. Indeed not unlike the slip of Derrida which threads across lines we cannot read. However, there is a recognisable chorus in this poem which begins coherently enough: ‘Knows not the hurt s.m.m.b.’ (where we might assume that the abbreviations stand for something like ‘she makes me bear’, but we can never be sure). Again, these pointers maintain the poem in a state of formal unfinish; it is choral-like in its repetition, but curiously foregrounding its material presence in a way disruptive of choral calm and decorum. The thinking is singing here. The singing thinks. Perhaps this represents the process that Derrida describes with his usual deconstructive neologistic play : ‘It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself.’ Anarchive, a verb evidently, operates as the opposite of the act to archive, but with its suggestion of anarchy. It is the point of disarray enacted in this poem’s trace; it is formally left undone. Of course that is partly what the stitched phrase is telling the reader (in French) and it is literally placed over the anarchived words, stitched slightly carelessly, with a touch of violation in the stitching’s assumed needlework, thus formally enacting some symptoms of ‘archive fever’ and of its cure. Part of ‘lyric resistance’ involves the adoption of unfinished forms (or of forms that look unfinished) with which to (literally) back up Derrida’s words. (Perril 2013: 92)
And my friends a foul day i was born/with so much ache i’ve always borne’ the poem complains, deliberately rhyming homophones in an ugly echo (‘right’ and ‘write’ would constitute a similar cacophony, though either word could rhyme with ‘slight’ adequately, as indeed either word in Moure’s poems could rhyme with ‘corn’ or ‘dawn’.) This ugliness is deliberate, it is worth emphasising. Elsewhere there are beautiful poems of ‘aching’ (as I shall show).
The signature of the poem runs ‘Vaasco Roderigues de Caluelo’ (the name under several poems in this section), but we are also aware of Moure’s confessed playing around with text (it is unlikely the presented index number ‘CCXCIII (243, 1 &2)’ (sic) will take us far in the actual archive) and her causal misattribution of the poets, her impulsive and feverish improvisation through the archive, renders the names fictive if not fictional. Though the names are the names of real troubadours, they are not the guilty parties as they are, say, in Richard Zenith’s anthology 133 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems. But names, Moure’s own included, are mobile, are virtually heteronyms in their variant spellings, and she also appears as the translator ‘Calgarii Mourii’ in ‘Befallen’, so the very facticity of the poems may be to point us to this Latinate Canadian name (the final poems express that heteronym’s homesickness), and as ‘Ehrn Cihrij’ (with a ç) Moure 2007: 11)  Most curious amongst these names is her own, ‘Erín Moure’, legible but deleted, at the end of a whole and beautiful hymn of praise to the world, a corporeal love song (with one of the many references throughout the book to breath and breathing) to an absent but desired female lover:

In my honesty, and curve
of my ribs around such heart I have
or lung for breath, and alive
here, wanting world as she
to be in me (Moure 2007: 87)

Death is never far away in the tradition, as we have seen (‘Mourii’ itself sounds akin to death), and neither is the central concept of the fall:

A creased grave-shroud is my foreboding
A careen or fall, and would you want me ever
world, for it is world I feel such weight for.

Here careen (‘v.t. and v.i, to turn over on the side, esp. for repairing or cleaning,’ or ‘n. a heeling position’ is equated with fall: toppled over for heeling, or to be worked on (the word suggests etymologically keel rather than heel, from Latin: carina, keel). Creased and careen echo. ‘Poisoned, delicate world. I love you still,’ the poem ends, balanced in address between lover and world. (Moure 2007: 87) The fall is a falling into the world, a falling in love ‘as she/ to be in me’, which points to and from the deleted Erín Moure to her other poetical analogues. Besides all the names of the troubadours, from Pero de Veer to the one female troubadour, María Balteira, through to yet another alter ego, again deleted, ‘Cálghaij M.’ whose signature carries the following note in small letters, ‘(for I cannot call her)’ where the word ‘call’ means both to hail and to name. (Moure 2007: 54)
Twisting and turning through these changes of name, persona, alter ego and/or heteronym, the poems themselves are the formal tracings of a refined version of ‘archive fever’: ‘It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive, right where it slips away,’ as Derrida says (though Moure would have said falls away, I’m sure).

To see links to more extracts and excursions relating to my The Meaning of Form project, navigate here.

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Bill Griffiths Collected Poems Launch videos

 On Saturday 1st March Reality Street Books launched the second Collected Poems and Sequences by Bill Griffiths in London. The editor Alan Halsey invited a few people who had helped him in his exacting task in some way. My claim to be there was on the basis of a few suggestions I made to Alan about the integrity of text-image interplay in The Book of the Boat. My writings on that may be read here. Apologies for raw links below, but I've embedded the ensemble piece for four voices.   
then readings from Griffiths' work by

Ensemble above (Fisher, Mendoza, Sheppard, Edwards)

Geraldine Monk (& guest appearance by the Anglo-Saxon scop Gavin Selerie) -

Links to links to Bill Griffiths' stories on Pages here.