Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Poetics and Linguistically Innovative Poetry 1978-1997: New Introduction and links to chapters

In 1999 I published my first work of ‘criticism’ and ‘poetics’ in a book that deliberately mixed reviews I had published on linguistically innovative writers and the ‘linguistically innovative’ poetics of my own writing, particularly the then-still advancing Twentieth Century Blues. In both cases this was a selection, leaving out, for example, an essay on David Miller that had appeared in a Stride volume already (for Far Language was published in the Stride Research series) and a series of overlapping pieces on Paul Evans that had appeared in several places (interestingly, parts of it turn up in the Introduction I wrote for the Selected Poems of Paul Evans, The Door at Taldir, that I edited a few years ago for Shearsman). I excluded the gloriously-indulgent reviews I produced for New Statesman which were rich in insult against the Movement Orthodoxy (some re-appeared in samidzat from Ship of Fools). It built up a picture of British Poetry of its time, and some of it found its re-written way into ThePoetry of Saying (or even beyond). When I moved to work at Edge Hill in 1996 and turned my back on literary reviewing in favour of literary criticism, I also left behind the concise, telegraphese of some of these pieces, particularly the ones I wrote for the paper version of Pages (precursor of this blog; see here): having few actual pages free I squeezed the criticism into as few as possible, and used every line – but in the process invented a style, I think. (See the pieces on Adrian Clarke, Ulli Freer, Maggie O’Sullivan and Bob Cobbing, for example, though the latter was for And).

The poetics again is selective (my interlinked early 1990s Ship of Fools net-(k)not-works, influenced by Roubaud's The Great Fire of  London, was my most intricate attempt at poetics), but the pieces here relate to a developing writing practice and to the overall construction of Twentieth Century Blues (and ‘Poetic Sequencing and the New’ is indeed part of the poem itself). ‘Propositions 1987’, flawed perhaps, in interesting for its attempts to define postmodernism in a way that didn’t mean what it had come to mean for mainstream British poetry, Craig Raine, for example.  

There is still stuff that is relevant here. Perhaps as confirmation of that fact: it is a surprise to find 5 chapters of the book already on-line. But having the files, typed at the expense of the research fund of Edge Hill University, I sent them to various places (I was not slow to see the eventual importance of the internet, despite my reputation as a technophobe, and a free repository of literary ideas). These are:   

‘Far Language’, on Barry MacSweeney, whose phrase this is and was used, with permission, as the title of the book (see here); ‘Poetic Sequencing and the New’ (see here); 'Buoyant Readings', about Bruce Andrews and others (see here); ‘Sightings and Soundings’, on Bob Cobbing (see here).

Rupert Loydell (who published the book) writes about Far Language and ‘The Education of Desire’ here.

I shall be reprinting one chapter a week, including links to these, until the book is re-published entire online. With an index amassing here as I go:

The (original) 'Introduction': here.
'Reading Prynne and Others': here.
'Far Language' (MacSweeney) here.
'Irregular Actions' (Allen Fisher) here.
'Timeless Identities' (Roy Fisher) here
'Utopia Revisited' (John Ash) here.
'Flashlight Propositions' (Robert Sheppard's 1987 poetics) here.
'Education of Desire' (pedadgogic poetics) here.
'Commitment to Openness' (Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth) here.
'Poetic Sequencing and the New: Twentieth Century Blues' (poetics) here.
'Buoyant Readings' (J.H. Prynne, Bruce Andrews, Ken Edwards, Aaron Williamson and Gilbert Adair) here.
'Collosal Fragments' (Adrian Clarke) here.
'Tune Me Gold' (Maggie O'Sullivan here.
'Linking the Unlinkable' (poetics of Twentieth Century Blues) here.
'Adhesive Hymns' (Ulli Freer) here.
'Bob Cobbing: Soundings and Sightings' here.

I do have copies of the 2002 re-print still, and anybody who wants one can have one free, as long as they pay postage. Email me here.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Poetry of Saying: The Point of Poetry: Ethics, Dialogue and Form

This is the third level of analysis in the thesis of The Poetry of Saying. The first may be read about here. The second may be read about here. There is a general introduction here.

Levinas might be thought a strange philosopher to use in a defence of poetry, since he has stated categorically that art can only be a ‘shadow’ that dimly represents reality. ‘The artist has given the statue a lifeless life, a derisory life which is not master of itself, a caricature of life.’ As representation, art remains wholly within the realm of perception, whereas criticism, or philosophy proper, is a superior discourse, because it remains conceptual. ‘The most lucid writer finds himself in the world bewitched by its images,’ whereas ‘the interpretation of criticism speaks in full self-possession, frankly, through concepts, which are like the muscles of the mind.’ Levinas' very rhetoric here, in this 1948 essay ‘Reality and Its Shadow’ (which had to carry an editorial disclaimer when first published in the flagship of literary commitment, Les Temps Modernes) reveals a bitterness about, perhaps even a sense of betrayal by, an activity which he warned was ‘not the supreme value of civilization ... having its place, but only a place, in man's happiness.’  But even this formulation suggests that there is a modest role for art; to recover art for Levinas' ethical project one needs to redefine art, not as stale representation of bewitching imagery, or as something without a conceptual dimension, but as something capable of being open to a dialogue with the other.

The face of the other, Levinas argues, presents an immediate, non-negotiable, ethical demand, one that transforms an individual, as he or she is obliged to respond and answer. This encounter is the foundational moment for ethics, which, for Levinas, is ‘first philosophy’. He is not concerned to define a particular morality or law, the theological or social codification of these precepts, but of a basic ethical condition, which Derrida has called ‘an Ethics of Ethics’, one embodied in actual interhuman situations.  Levinas writes:

The proximity of the other is the face's meaning.... The other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question... It is the responsibility of a hostage which can be carried to the point of being substituted for the other person and demands an infinite subjection of subjectivity.

As proof, and example, of the last point, of the essential asymmetricality of the relationship between self and others, even when the other seems not to reciprocate, or when the other has died and the individual persists as a survivor (the analogy with the Jews after the Holocaust is intended), Levinas is fond of quoting from an artwork, one he should condemn for its umbrageous illusoriness rather than utilizing its conceptual acuity: Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. ‘We are all responsible for everyone else - but I am more responsible than all the others’. 

Tim Woods’ article ‘Memory and Ethics in Contemporary Poetry’ traces an important theoretical shift within the work of the British discontents by theorizing a Levinasian ‘ethics of form’ to supplement the more familiar ‘politics of form’. Woods, who has been active within this poetry, argues

Language attesting to the ‘heard word’ of the other in sound, becomes the basis for an ethical ethics of the voice is attention to what interrupts. That ‘alternative’ other is partly what much contemporary British ... ‘experimental’ poetry is seeking; to release the Utopian other in writing.

I shall return to the interruptions of literary experimentation, to this interaction of technique and ethics.

Woods’ use of ‘voice’ here instead of ‘face’ points to Levinas’ later thought, one partly caused by the linguistic turn his work took in the 1960s, whose result was the theory of Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence of 1974. The central element of this pacifist ethics, for my purposes, is the distinction between the saying and the said.

Levinas’ most fruitful remark for this ethics of form is contained in a series of assertions
made in a 1981 interview that draws on this pair of terms.

Man can give himself in saying to the point of poetry - or he can withdraw into the non-saying of lies. Language as saying is an ethical openness to the other; as that which is said - reduced to a fixed identity or synchronized presence - it is an ontological closure of the other.

Saying is the call of, the call to, the other, and the fact of the need and obligation to respond to, and become responsible for, the other, as Levinas had always maintained. It is a quasi-transcendental state beyond being, yet it is also ‘a performative doing’, as Simon Critchley puts it, ‘that cannot be reduced to a constantive description’. It is the site and performance of ethics because of this obligation to respond. It is public, yet it does not communicate anything but the desire to communicate. Thus explained it seems like a philosophical version of interhuman phatic communion that precedes, or in comfortable circumstances replaces, actual informational communication. Indeed Levinas has indicated that passing the time of day about the weather may embody such a gesture. As Levinas explains: ‘Saying opens me to the other before saying what is said.’ We cannot, as in his everyday example, but not reply (even with silence). Yet importantly Levinas recognizes difference as a corollary of such proximity, one which avoids the violence of assimilation, or even the need to express unity with the other. Levinas' earlier sense of the individual as a hostage, committed to response, as a permanent possible substitute for the other, even as a sacrifice to the act of proximity, is re-introduced in this linguistic recasting: saying is a metaphor for what cannot be said; saying makes us into signs of significations without content. It is the gift of openness that is the very ethicality Levinas posits. Yet this cannot be painlessly achieved.

This saying can be defined apart from, but is not found other than interwoven with, the said. There is a price to pay; for the saying to appear it has to undergo a betrayal, a ‘subordination of the saying to the said’, to the linguistic system, to ontology. As Robert Eaglestone explains:  

It is impossible to say the saying because at the moment of saying it becomes the said, betrayed by the concrete language which is the language of ontology. The saying, which is unthematizable, impossible to delimit, becomes limited, thematized, said.  

Yet the saying is what interrupts the said, ruptures the said. The saying ‘appears’ as a knot catching in the thread of the said. This is its necessary condition of falling into essence in language. Indeed, without this knottiness it would not have its being or effectivity. However, ‘The said ...  arises in the saying’.  It is the point at which ‘clarity occurs, and thought aims at themes’.  The said and the saying both support, yet react against, one another, hence the tragic lifting towards poetry and the fateful thematizatation in ontological solidity. The ‘otherwise than being’ which is found in the act of saying is ‘betrayed in the said which dominates the saying which states it’. 

This outline suggests that uncovering the saying in the said is the task of philosophy; it seems to suggest, in an echo of  Levinas’ early theory, that art would belong to the realm of essences, ‘in which the said is reduced to a  pure theme -, to absolute exposition’ ) and that only criticism (by which he meant philosophy) could uncover the saying. But it is Robert Eaglestone's argument, and Levinas' own belief, if we take seriously the notion that ‘man can give himself in saying to the point of poetry’ that the qualities of saying occur in art. Eaglestone reminds us that ‘the poem must interrupt in the name of the saying ... as literary texts, they work as “prophecy”, fracturing the said.’ They must open to the other; they are saying as well as said. Indeed he sees Levinas' own Otherwise than Being structured as a literary work, ‘especially self-reflexive contemporary postmodern poetry and prose’.  It is precisely its foregrounded artifice that makes it so, that attempts to keep the saying, the interruption, open in the text we read. According to Eaglestone: ‘In his style of writing and choice of metaphors Levinas performatively foregrounds language in order to disrupt the said’.

This description of Levinas’ literary practice recalls Woods’ similar assertion about the interruptive nature of the technical devices of the British Poetry Revival and Linguistically Innovative Poetry. The technically defamiliarising poetry that imposes such a task of dialogue on any reader may indeed be a poetry of an open saying rather than of a closed saidness. The the 1990s self-interruptive texts of Tom Raworth, with their lateral shiftings, or the neologistically resistant materiality of Maggie O’Sullivan’s poems, are works which court the refusal of a saidness that we might equate with paraphrase and the empirical lyricism of the Movement Orthodoxy.

Writing as saying is ethical, processual, interhuman, dialogic in Bakhtin’s sense. Writing as said is ontological and fixed, warlike; a closure of the other, monologic in Bakhtian terms. This is why so much poetry of the orthodoxy attempts what is arguably an irresponsible closure that is a violence towards the possible agility and response of a reader. In less elevated terms we might argue that it even insults the intelligence of the reader. As the other of the writer is the reader, then the other of the text is the act of reading and the reader in it, prolonging its saying.

There cannot be a poetry of pure saying; the saying must exist in the said, as ghost to its host. A text in very physical terms needs to be printed, the order of words (usually) fixed. The openness that is its gesture must go hand in hand with some thematic or semantic fixity, however that is resisted by delayed naturalization. For the saying to be witnessed at all, it must turn into the said. We cannot know the saying from the said.

Conversely, there cannot be a poetry of the pure said, since only the performance of saying could body forth the said, and as it does it both supports and disrupts the said. The musical and metrical life of Movement poetry, for example, cannot simply be argued away. However, one of the effects of the deliberate will towards saidness in Movement verse is its articulation in social terms, often extending into an invasive ontological violence at the level of theme which might be called the attempt to articulate the other; where the writer literally speaks the, in actuality, unknown thoughts of another. It may be found in the use of the false consenual ‘we’ as when Larkin informs his reader that ‘our’ love will survive ‘us’.

‘Saying makes signs to the other, but in this sign signifies the very giving of signs,’ argues Levinas. Yet it is this openness that readers find already in a number of writers (including Allen Fisher), an openness that allows readers to find the necessity to enter the artifice, to articulate the interruptions in the discourse, to enter into an active relationship with the textual other. The text is a gift that may be brought to a thematized rest only after having been given or taken to the point of poetry. The text and its other, which is the act of reading, are brought together. When this poetry is successful it is arguably able to articulate that saying in the said of the dialogic performance of the book. A successful reading will be one that exposes the saidness of the text to an openness of performance since saying, Critchley reminds us, is a ‘performative doing’. 

(Another way of valorising reading is to suggest that there must exist a corollary of the interdependence of the saying and the said in a reader’s act of reading, as against the reader’s sense of the read, as the already read, the thematized said, completed. Indeed Derek Attridge defines an act of innovative ‘reading as an attempt to respond to the otherness of the other’, working performatively with the text and ‘working against the mind’s tendency to assimilate the other to the same, attending to that which can barely be heard’, in ways which remind us of the ethical asymmetricality a reader must face with a text. (This is indeed a moment of osculation between The Poetry of Saying and The Meaning of Form.)  

Terms from speech act theory, such as Critchley’s, are often used to describe the relation between the saying and the said. Jill Robbins, for example, echoes Critchley, and writes:

The Saying and the Said is a correlative relation ... that marks the difference between a conative speech, oriented towards the addressee, interlocutionary and ethical, and a speech oriented towards the referent, more like a speaking about than a speaking to the other.

The necessity of saying arises before self-identity, and indeed breaks up the sense of identity, emphasizes the approach of the undeniable other, as a reader active with the devices left by the poem’s saying. Interruption brings forth dialogue. In a text, where the face-to-face has been replaced, the responsibility is more acute, from reader to writer, and from writer to reader. As the author is responsible to the reader, then the reading is responsible to the writing to preserve reading as an act of saying, as the reader responds, participates in the text’s structural indeterminacies, as it ruptures the said, interrupts by effects of defamiliarization, or suspends like Forrest-Thomson’s good naturalization, through its textual opacities. These preserve the saying in the said, since they compel the reader to dwell on the devices of the utterance rather than reducing them, or closing them, to dead paraphrasable fixities. They preserve reading as an activity, resist closing it in a summary. Open works are, in a sense, always open books.

            A reading which operates as a paraphrase (and writing which works in collusion with such readings) is an appropriation of, a fearful taming of, the otherness of the text. In Levinasian terms, it judges the other in terms of the same; it closes. It attempts to be (or more more colloquially we would say have) the last word. The relationship with text is more ethical for not attempting this reduction, this identification. It recognizes that the text maintains its differences as well as its proximity, through its technical devices, its social dialogism. Appropriation must be countered by distanciation. This is a necessary recognition for both writers and readers in the textual dialogue of their acts of saying (and reading) in attempting to minimize the thematizing of the said (and of the read).

One must remain vigilant to the possibility that the concern that writing may do violence to the other, possibly by a fake ‘saying’ that is simply a gesturing of responsibility in the thematized language of the said. Robbins, in her study of Levinas’ theoretic of literature, stresses, ‘We should not take for granted that we know what we mean by the saying. This is precisely what is seized upon by Levinas’s readers hoping to extend his positive evaluations of art to an ethical poetics.’ 57

Both the technical and the social levels contribute to the effects of making the point of poetry its saying, an interruption, and not its said. To read is to be proximate to, to face alterity as distance, and be implored to answer, as Bakhtin would say. To write of this work, or of any work, is also to attempt to do justice to alterity and diversity.

(The rest is analysis: and that's the rest of the book.)


My later project The Meaning of Form may be accessed here.

Patricia Farrell's cover image for The Poetry of Saying, which I dubbed 'Otherwise Than Beings'

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Poetry of Saying: The Social Poetics of Form: Dialogue

A general introduction to the thesis of The Poetry of Saying may be read here. This is the second level of analysis of the thesis. The first may be accessed here.

That the various entries of various readers into actual texts is represented as its affirmative moment by such a theory points towards why the work of the reception theorists is only hinted at by Allen Fisher and others. The poets’ notions of readership are actual rather than ideal. When Harwood speaks of leaving an object (the poem) in the room for others to use, or when Roy Fisher similarly talks of the poem being used as a subversive catalyst by potential readers, they are thinking of a clear social authorization for their work, but not one that can be codified or regulated.

            There is a clear difference here between a practice that sees a social dimension for poetry, embedded in its artifice, and a poetry that has as its chief dimension mimesis of a recognizable social world. In the first case the reader has to dialogue with the text; in the second the social is encoded in the empirical lyricism of the paraphrasable content, yet such writing runs the risk of becoming monologic, however accessible (a favoured term of approbation for the orthodoxy).

The implication of the former case is that no poem is more ‘social’ than any other since all poems are social facts open to social comprehension (or even completion in the case of open works). Indeed all utterances are social, in this sense. The accessibility of an utterance is not a determinant of this. A mathematical formula that will be understood only by three experts is no less so than a bald news headline broadcast to the nation via various media and abroad in several languages.

            The sociality of all language derives from its essential dialogic nature, a determining factor of language and literature first noted by the Bakhtin circle of critics, and explicitly developed as a social theory in the work of Vološinov, who stated: ‘The utterance is a social phenomenon.’

            The structure of utterance is precisely social and a description of language, such as Saussure’s, is an abstraction, a dead system. The individual speech act is likewise a contradiction in terms.
Life begins only at the point where utterance crosses utterance, i.e.,where verbal interaction begins, be it not even “face-to-face” verbal interaction, but the mediated, literary variety.
This crossing emphasises an essential instability and dynamism not accounted for by synchronic and static models of language.
There is no escape from this process of dialogue. ‘A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another,’ writes Vološinov;

Word is a two-sided act....As word, it is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addesser and addressee.

Even thinking, or inner speech, is conceived as a dialogue with the world. ‘There is no such thing as thinking outside orientation toward possible expression’ in the socio-ideological sphere. 19 Thought itself resembles ‘the alternating lines of a dialogue’. 20

            While this is of the utmost importance, it is in the extension of these concepts that confirmation of the dialogic nature of literary practice is found.

But dialogue can also be understood in a broader sense, meaning not only direct, face-to-face, vocalized verbal communication between persons, but also verbal communication of any type whatsoever. A book, i.e., a verbal performance in print, is also an element of verbal communication.
This formulation also makes a text an event rather than an object, and one that engenders further social events.
It is something discussable in actual, real-life dialogue, but aside from that, it is calculated for active perception, involving attentive reading and inner responsiveness, and for organized, printed reaction in the various forms devised by the particular sphere of verbal communication in question (book reviews, critical surveys, defining influence on subsequent works and so on.)

That some of the poetry here has not been part of many such discussions of British poetry points to the timely nature of this study, and indeed to this book’s function in developing that alternative poetics. But, more importantly, the calculation of the active perception of a literary text is evidence of its dialogic intention. The potentiality of responsive is more important than the actual response which cannot be forced and cannot be calculated, as Fisher and Harwood realize. But as Bakhtin writes: ‘The living utterance ... cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads’ in the consciousnesses of actual readers, receptively positive or hostile. Vološinov states:
Moreover, a verbal performance of this kind also inevitably orients itself with respect to previous performances in the same sphere, both those by the same author and those by other authors. It inevitably takes its point of departure from some particular state of affairs involving a ... literary style. Thus the printed verbal performance engages, as it were, in ideological colloquy of large scale: it responds to something, objects to something, affirms something, anticipates possible responses and objections, seeks support, and so on.
At one level this shows a part of this poetics approaching a comprehension of the field of cultural production in a systemized way, akin to that of the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, and as such is a reminder of the value of the sociological mapping of poetries in Chapters One and Two, and Five and Six, both of the orthodoxy and of the discontents. ‘Any only a moment in the continuous process of verbal communication.

The insistence that ‘attentive reading’ is necessary reminds us that ‘to understand another person’s utterance means to orient oneself with respect to it.’  The comprehension of a literary text involves the kind of engaged reading described by Allen Fisher, as it demands focussed acts of participation from its readers.

With its technical resources of openness, indeterminacy and artificiality this poetry demands social completion:
Any true understanding is dialogic in nature. Understanding is to utterance as one line of a dialogue is to the next. Understanding strives to match a speaker’s word with a counter word. 

The structures of these texts work in conformity with dialogic utterance, even if the works are not well received in the literary world and (this would follow) do not emphasize social realism and lyrical empiricism. The poetics described here refutes such comprehension, as a counterword itself, in favour of a comprehension of form in social terms. The techniques outlined in the previous section lead to the construction of a text that demands a receptive reading dialogue with its artifice.

This social dynamic has been described here in terms of Vološinov’s explicitly Marxist work, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, but this insistence upon the dialogic nature of all acts of language is famously present in the work of his colleague Bakhtin. His work on the polyphonic novel and the heteroglossic text might be said to be equivalent to the plurovocity Allen Fisher identifies in his poetics. They both agree that a text itself is a dialogue in which discourses clash and contest, even beyond the intentionality of its author, although Fisher favours techniques of creative linkage to achieve this.

However, at this point of the argument, it is interesting to note the more philosophical and ethical re-formulation of dialogue in Bakhtin’s work. Language ‘directed towards its object’, by which Bakhtin means towards its theme,
enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgements and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group; and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate the expression and influence its entire stylistic profile.

Not only is the alien word (an invasion of new or unusual material, which will steer language change) waiting there; the encounter with the counter word is anticipated. ‘Every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates.’  Linguistic exchange (and that must include performances in print) is a question of answerability, an encounter with an other, and one in which response entails responsibility. Hwa Yol Jung has identified ‘an affinity between the structural requirement of ‘answerability’ (‘response-ability’) in Bakhtin’s dialogical principle and Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of proximity, which privileges the face and epitomizes human co-presence and interhuman presence in terms of the structural primacy of the other.’

The third level of analysis, the ethical, may be read about here.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Protest Against the axeing of A Level Creative Writing! NOW!

As you may be aware, a (political) decision has been made to cut the Creative Writing A Level that many people worked so hard to see introduced. A petition has now been started and if we get enough signatures this will have to be raised in the House of Commons, so do please sign and urge others to do the same.

Here is my reasoning:

I'm deeply concerned, as a teacher of creative writing at university level, and as a theorist of its developing practice into an autonomous academic subject (with a pedagogy separate from English) that this A Level - replete with chances to access the cognitive contents and challenges of literary form, and its opportunities for critical thinking, as well as creative engagement, should be discontinued. The reason for this seems to be a supposed lack of 'knowledge base' in favour of 'skills', but a knowledge of a range of linguistic and artistic forms (again, with their own cognitive content, as much of my academic literary criticism attempts to prove) is a knowledge of the means for advanced rigorous thinking and reflection. It is not a simple a writing skills course. At any level.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Poetry of Saying: Technique: The Poetics of Form

This is the first level of analysis associated with the thesis of The Poetry of Saying. A general account (and further links) may be accessed here.

At the level of technique the work of the British Poetry Revival and the Linguistically Innovative Poetry that followed, differs from that of the Movement and its still dominant orthodoxy.The Movement style privileges a poetry of closure, narrative coherence and normative grammatical and syntactic cohesion, which colludes with the processes of naturalization, that is, with the ‘attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organization by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal external world,’ as Veronica Forrest-Thomson puts it. Its poetry becomes an empirical lyricism of discrete moments of experience. Its insistence upon tone, and the speaking voice, strives to maintain the effect of a stable ego, present in the discourse as the validating source of the utterance. The principle of the Movement’s metrical practice, although used with greater laxity through the decades, has largely relied upon the iambic pentameter to level the tone, which both controls, and assists in the maintenance of, a coherent ‘voice’.

                 Postmodernism is a term I use exclusively in Lyotard’s sense of defining a condition, a generalized philosophical worldview, one that is useful to introduce a particular poetics of technique. Knowledge, scientific knowledge in particular, is not so much the result of the recording of empirical investigation but involves a permanent condition of exploratory and incomplete process. Rules are not normative prescriptions but are produced coterminously with the event or process they regulate. Rather than claiming, as has the orthodoxy, that a certain ‘irony’ and cultural melange denote postmodernist poetic practice, Lyotard’s formulation of the now famous resistance to grand narratives also involves a commitment to exploratory techniques that are spelt out precisely in terms of poetics:

A postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher: the text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules.... Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.’ 

Any activity will be ‘producing not the known, but the unknown’.  In a purely literary sense, this suggests a mode of writing which acknowledges that its only possible condition is one of technical development, a process of working towards new, and initially difficult, meanings, and delaying naturalization. It cannot be the formulation of a product from prior assumptions of meaning. Larkin’s insistence of poetry as empirical reconstruction:
if you’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people

is clearly inadequate.

            This leads directly to the centrality of the notions of discontinuity and indeterminacy as technical elements of poetics, notions which Umberto Eco, writing of certain musical compositions in 1959, recognized were derived from science: ‘indeterminacy as a valid stepping-stone in the cognitive process’ and discontinuity as ‘an essential stage in all scientific verification procedures’. Perception  (Eco also has in mind the phenomenology of Merleau Ponty) is an indeterminate process, both for the writer writing and for the reader reading, to an extent denied by Larkin’s attempted poetic preservation. There is in the work discussed in this study a preference for, an imperative towards, various forms of indeterminacy: structural, syntactic, semantic and metrical; the effects of these difficulties will be to emphasize the activation of the reader so that he or she has to enter into the artwork to complete it.

            Techniques of indeterminacy and discontinuity range from the avoidance of narrative naturalization in Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages or the referential and perceptual uncertainties of his short lyrics, to the invitation of Lee Harwood’s open syntax and collage structure. The development of collage into what I call techniques of creative linkage (where the linking is more radical) is a central device in the works of Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Adrian Clarke and Ulli Freer.

Considerations of metrics reveal the paucity of descriptive terms for new poetic experiments, which demonstrate the inadequacy of the dated term ‘free verse’, particularly in the case of the sound and visual poetry of Bob Cobbing, which is a precursor of the new non-linear poetry found in the radical collage of Maggie O’Sullivan. In both these cases, and in certain later texts of Allen Fisher, the transformation of materials plays upon their instability to produce new meanings. In the case of performance texts their realizations may be unique, different each time they are attempted.

Indeterminacy should not be assumed to imply randomness, but a process of working with contingency in a conscious fashion, even in the procedural and processual works of a writer like Allen Fisher, where a dialogue between choice and chance, a precisely stochastic process, ensures that systems are subject to disruptive interventions by the poet. Clarke’s isoverbalist metrics (counting numbers of words per line, per poem) is an instance of a closed system which is at one level an affront to traditional metrics, but one that is arguably as demanding, a modern constraint rather than a convention authorized by tradition, as the Oulipo movement defines it. At another level it only works as a vehicle for the hinging of phrases in an indeterminate syntactic practice, a practice which is arguably stronger for the tension between its systems.

Instead of proceeding as though the text is self-evidently a transparent communicative system (the orthodoxy occasionally takes this view in violation of its works’ obvious constructedness), these poets foreground the fact of the artificiality of the forms and discourses they employ. In Harwood’s narratives a self-conscious narrator is often presented, while Roy Fisher’s lyrics often make ‘the poem’ a counter in its own argument. Allen Fisher deliberately adopts techniques of ‘process-showing’ in his work. Cobbing’s processual pieces develop out of previous texts. By foregrounding artifice or construction, the poem suspends the inevitable act of naturalization; it can be said additionally to be de-automatizing the reader’s habitual responses, defamiliarizing them, in that deferral.

If the prescriptions of the Russian formalists are followed fully, defamiliarization is the technique which defines literature’s very literariness. However, in its weak from, it is merely used as a descriptive tag, as in the 1980s Movement Orthodoxy’s justification for ludic metaphorization. Too often it is forgotten that, when in the famous definition of the device, Shklovsky said ‘the purpose of art’ is ‘to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived not as they are known’ he was not merely pointing to a freshness of perception, the seeing as though for the first time.  He expounded ‘the technique of art’ as attempting ‘to make objects unfamiliar’, the famous ‘making strange’ of the more colloquial translation of the Russian ostrananie. It is often ignored that to effect an increase in ‘the difficulty and length of perception’ it is necessary not just to admit an estranging ‘content’, but to ‘make forms difficult’. This is not a question of likening a flowerpot to a fez as in a poem by Craig Raine, but of using the variety of formal techniques of indeterminacy and discontinuity, of foregrounding artifice and construction, outlined here.

A poem is an object, but it is also part of the reader’s responses, since he or she must complete it; any reader, in Umberto Eco’s words ‘is bound to supply his own existential credentials’. 8 This is, as the theoreticians of reception aesthetics have noted, an active fact of interpretation in both structurally closed works, and in the kinds of work examined here, such as the playful defamiliarized lyricism of Roy Fisher, for example. However, in other kinds of open works often offered by some writers of the British alternatives, who work in deliberate collusion with this fact, this is crucial. Eco calls artworks with such a radical structural indeterminacy and discontinuity ‘works in movement’ which he characterizes as involving ‘the possibility of numerous different personal interventions.’  Eco defines this limit case of an ‘open work’ as one that is ‘literally “unfinished”: the author seems to hand them to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit.’  Harwood has at times thought of his work in this way, as leaving textual lacunae for a reader to complete. Yet Clarke’s syntactic play and catachresis also achieve this. Cobbing has indeed presented texts to be realized in performance from a few visual clues.    
Allen Fisher has most fully theorized this in relation to his own poetics. Poetry is at its most pertinent when fresh significations are produced by an active reader. A text is judged on its ability to escape the writer and invigorate the reader’s engagement. It is assumed that this is effected by means of technique: modes of creative linkage are utilized to present a plurivocal text to which a reader brings his or her existential credentials, which are, like the text itself, the results of historical and social processes.
              This emphasis upon the activity of reading brings us back to Forrest-Thomson’s notion of naturalization to focus upon and emend the distinctions she makes between good and bad naturalization. As opposed to reducing ‘the strangeness of poetic language ...  by translating it in to a statement about the non-verbal external world, by making the Artifice appear natural’, a reading practice with which most of the Movement Orthodoxy is complicit, and which she defines as ‘bad’ naturalization, she argues that ‘Good naturalization dwells on the non-meaningful levels of poetic language, such as phonetic and prosodic patterning and spatial organization, and tries to state their relationship to other levels of organization rather than set them aside in an attempt to produce a statement about the world’. Charles Bernstein argues that all levels of poetry, any discernable device, should be regarded as meaningful, but he merely widens the premises of one of the only attempts in the 1970s to develop a poetics of British poetry.  The whole text signifies for the engaged reader, as he or she enters it; ‘Whatever else I may get from a work of art,’ argues Allen Fisher, ‘because its dominant function is aesthetic it requires my engagement to create it, to produce it.’  Its artifice may not be willed away, in all its particularity and, even, in the case of some of the work I will be examining, its peculiarity; its artifice has to be read because no ‘paraphrase’ is accurate or full enough, or, in some cases, possible. Forrest-Thomson’s general account of artifice and naturalization reminds the reader always of the strangeness of technique, that to only read ‘formal features’ as ‘noteworthy components of the poem’ if they ‘can be shown to contribute to a thematic synthesis that is stated in terms of the external world’, is a denial of poetry’ singularity. She quotes Wittgenstein: ‘Do not forget ... that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information is not used in the language-game of giving information.’

Accounts of the second level may be read here, and the third level here. And a lot that was thought-through here first, turns up in my more recent project The Meaning of Form. See here.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Blue Bus Reading (set list)

Set list for the London Reading with Michael Zand, Patricia Farrell and Robert Sheppard on 18th August, 2015 at The Lamb, Lamb’s Conduit Street, the 103rd event in THE BLUE BUS series.

More on Michael here
More on Patricia here
More on me here.
reading at the Blue Bus in 2012

I read in two sets, the first from my new book Words Out of Time (See here.)

I read

from 'The Given', part one, the introductory poem, 'I remember' (to contrast with the unread 'I don't remember...' litany of the prose that follows; read my talk on writing The Given here); (Read Alan Baker's review of The Given here.)

from 'Arrival', the two short poems announcing the arrival of the rival, again to contrast with the prose which I had read at the Blue Bus the last time I read. (One was the final poem here.)

from 'When', I read the whole of 'Work', the final piece of the book which distends time (and is 'about' or 'round and about' work.

I also read Lee Harwood's 'One, Two, Three', in homage to the man (with whom I read at the Blue Bus, as I was to explain two days later in Brighton).

In the second half I read all of the 'Petrarch 3' sequence. (See here for its inception.) As usual the audience went silent for the Jimmy Savile poem. The presence of dedicatee and semi-onlie begetter Tim Atkins was especially appreciated.  

The other readings were exciting and the evening seemed especially magic, with so many unexpected faces (some of whom I would meet again on the Thursday at the Lee Harwood celebration; see here).

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents 1950-2000; its contents and theory and earlier posts

In The Poetry of Saying (2005), to which I refer across this blog, and also in my new work-in-critical-progress, The Meaning of Form, (particularly in the footnotes I comment on here; but access the whole project here) I argue that Linguistically Innovative Poetry (and that of the British Poetry Revival before it) may be best seen as regards to a tripartite theory, involving three levels: the technical, the social and political, and the ethical. (It is interesting I didn’t say The Formal, though the second is subtitled ‘The Poetics of Form’ .) I shall post on each of these levels separately.
The technical level concerns techniques of indeterminacy and discontinuity, of collage and creative linkage, of poetic artifice and defamiliarization.(Read about this level here.)
The social and political level concerns itself with a reading of the necessary dialogic nature of all utterance, including the kinds of poetry offered here. This will build on the technical devices described, ones which animate the reading process into necessary dialogue. (And this level is dealt with here.)
The ethical level of analysis extends from the first two levels into an understanding of the varieties of openness to the other implied by the techniques and social orientation of the work. (This level may be found described, and the thesis completed, here.)

See here for contents and original availability. The book is out of print (literally no longer in print) but may be obtained second hand, via Amazon and its associated book-sellers, and electronically from Liverpool University Press, which is the book's future, of course. Start here:

Bits of it are displayed by Google Books (though I'm not sure what I feel about that) and there are some sites offering free downloads of it, but I'm not going to direct you to them.

Amazon link: You can definitely buy it secondhand via Amazon's associated booksellers.

Some earlier Pages posts, on the British Poetry Revival and Linguistically Innovative Poetry, were associated with the historical chapters of the book. These are:

On the British Poetry Revival:

Here’s a later post on the British Poetry Revival:

Here are the posts on Linguistically Innovative Poetry: