Saturday, November 28, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: (Flashlight) Propositions (poetics)



1          There are two general aims of the kind of poetry proposed:


1.1       The investigation and invention of poetic forms to accommodate and inaugurate new modes of perception and expression.


1.11     This will have the additional effect of extending the paradigm ‘poetry’.


1.2       Secondly, it frustrates the processes of naturalisation: delays readers reducing the strangeness of poetic language to paraphrase, to everyday language statements about the external world.


1.21     In a poem, it is only through the operations of poetic artifice that the perceptions of the ordinary everyday world are disrupted and criticised.


1.3       The concept of ‘poetry’ is entropic, and ceases to break its own paradigm, through time.


1.4       It is only through the development of new formal devices that both naturalisation and entropy can be delayed.


2          Such a poetry owes a general debt to modernism; specifically it is a reading of its forgotten vitality.


2.1       It looks to the more extreme forms of modernism (Spring and All not The Waste Land; Finnegans Wake not Ulysses), those still not wholly assimilated, and neutralised, by the Movement orthodoxy in British Poetry.


2.11     This paradoxical return can be called postmodernism.


2.111   It is broader in its use here than the simple ludic metaphorisation which the Movement orthodoxy, with its anti-modernist streak, has also claimed in its name.


2.12     It is also more precise and analytical than ‘postmodernism’ used as a tag to sell an apolitical product and consumer boom in contemporary art.


2.2       There should be a better term, one that is not itself a battleground, but there isn’t.


3          Postmodernism can be most usefully used to designate a general philosophical worldview.


3.1       Knowledge is defined as a permanent condition of exploratory and incomplete process.


3.2       Rules are not seen as normative prescriptions, not necessarily as descriptions, but a parameters produced co-terminously with the event or process they regulate.


3.3       Any activity is seen as unpredictable and is constantly moving into the unknown, towards the creation of the new, not returning always to the recognisable.


3.4       This worldview affects poetic knowledge, production and regulation directly.


3.41     Writing’s only possible state is one of change and development, a process of working towards new meanings hitherto unuttered, not the formulation of a product from prior assumptions of meaning.


3.5       This worldview also affects the reception of the literary text, which must be seen as an active process.


4          Indeterminacy and discontinuity are central notions for this poetry of the open work, drawn from the vocabulary of postmodern science.


4.1       Indeterminacy need not mean randomness, but a process of working with contingency in a conscious fashion, a dialectic of choice and chance.


4.2       Perception is an indeterminate process - for the writer writing, for the reader reading.


4.3       The types of indeterminacy may change, but they include:


4.31     Structural (and syntactic) indeterminacies of poetic form (and of grammar and discourse):


4.32     Semantic indeterminacies of reference and sense, multiple ambiguity;


4.33     Rhythmical indeterminacies of syllable and line: developing, often, co-terminously with poetic activity.


4.331   This determinacy of rhythm sometimes erodes the distinction between poetry and prose, sometimes mixes the forms.


4.4       Discontinuities could be similarly listed.


4.5       The role of subjectivity in the text will be indeterminate, the self/selves discontinuous.


4.51     Subjectivity becomes a question of linguistic position, or of a discordant polyphony of voices, rather than one of a single authorising presence, even of a ‘narrator’ or ‘persona’.


4.6       Indeterminacy de-emphasises the authorising role of the writer in the creation of meaning.


4.61     It also activates the reader so that he or she enters into the text to attempt to complete it.


4.7       Systemisation of any indeterminacy (as in prescriptions for ‘free verse’) establishes norms for imitation which diminish the de-automatising effects the devices will have upon the engaged reader.


4.71     Modes of indeterminacy and discontinuity will necessarily alter through time.


4.711   Static formulations of openness will have to be abandoned.


4.712   Determinate and continuous modes may also be able to effect de-automatising devices for the reader.


5          By employing foregrounded artifice, by laying bare its devices, the poem delays naturalisation.


5.1       Foregrounded artifice de-automatises the reader’s responses.


5.2       It makes what might be falsely taken to be ‘natural’ to appear truly as artificial.


5.3       It makes the familiar, presented in poetic discourse, strange.


6          Poetry defamiliarises the social world, the reality principle; it is not directly mimetic.


6.1       The subversive aspirations which surfaced in the 1960s have moved from the political to the aesthetic dimension.


6.11     The attempt to aestheticise politics at least politicised aesthetics.


6.12     The desire to change the world is not simply exchanged for the desire to change the reader.  For a poem, as it is being read, they are slenderly identical.


6.13     This is to concede a powerful defeat: to begin to change the desires of a reader.


6.2       Subversion, in the text, is effective primarily at the level of form.


6.21     Aestheticism is not necessarily apolitical, although it should not be complacently and autonomously closed.


7          Defamiliarisation and deformation are subversive and transformative elements in the poetic text.


7.1       The objects of the world are liberated from the reality principle in the formal autonomy of the poem, as is language, free from reference.


7.11     The autonomy of art institutes its critical function.


7.12     The aesthetic function animates the critical function: the objects of the world and language are capable of recombination.


7.13     The critical function is de-centred, sceptical, anarchistic.


7.2       It is not a question of reproducing a coherent utopian vision (or a consistent discourse) but of producing active ‘figures’ or ‘noise’ - depending upon one’s metaphor - which frustrate natualisation and notions of social consistency.


8          The text must be constant in its inconsistency, forever in a state of critical becoming.


8.1       The ethic of working for the poet is not a work ethic.  Working the work is his or her state of becoming.


9          Reading the poem should be an active education of desire, not a recognition, fulfilment and killing of desire.


9.1       The reader, producing the poem in his or her reading, enters an incomplete, open realm of imaginative freedom, recognises its formal autonomy.


9.2       This is the poem’s affirmative moment at which its indeterminacy and discontinuity, or its foregrounded devices which invite the reader to participate, co-extend with the reader’s act of reading.


9.3       The affirmative moment can never wholly be divorced from the critical function: the cry of hope and the cry of despair are heard together.


9.31     They can either be made to be heard in harmony (offering utopic images or a programme).


9.32     Or they can be made to be heard in dissonance (countering consistency).


9.321   Only this last combination can fully engage the reader, educate desire.


9.4       In the act of constructing its meanings, the readers share in the poem’s state of becoming.


9.41     In doing so, they should discover that it is also what a text is made to do, not merely what it is made to mean, that is revolutionary.


9.42     At this point, the constant change of the postmodern condition engages the future possibility of non-programmatic social change.


9.43     These meet, in the reader’s reading, not in the writer’s writing, in changing the desires of a reader, at the moment of affirmation.


10        The poem, as it is read, projects a future in its very refusal to mean this world.


10.1     This moment of affirmation, the turning towards the future suggests that however much postmodern these propositions are, they are pre-something else, flashlights unwittingly signalling as yet unreadable messages.




Sources: The material for these propositions is found also in my Some Aspects of Contemporary British Poetry, with particular reference to the works of Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood (unpublished), ‘Pre-script’ (Pages 1-8, 1987), and ‘Working the Work’ (First Offense 3, 1987).  Beyond these, the propositions are indebted (at least) to works by the following: P Ackroyd, TW Adorno, R Barthes, A Easthope, U Eco, A Fisher, V Forrest-Thomson, S Fredman, Y Lotman, J-F Lyotard, H Marcuse, M Merleau-Ponty, J Mukaéovskú, M Perloff, V Shklovsky, EP Thompson and WC Williams



18 October 1987                                                                        Previously unpublished

 Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of Far Language here.