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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Thoughts on Collaboration 13 or: review of Juha Virtanen, Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960-1980: Event and Effect.

Note: All posts in the Collaboration strand may be accessed via links on the first post, a hubpost, as I call it, here:


As part of my research for the essay on ‘collaboration’ (which I have been writing slowly, via the method of accreting posts on the subject, the same method I used to amass much, but not all, of The Meaning of Form, and which I realise now is less ergonomic than it was in the case of the book, see here: https:/rt-sheppard-meaning-of-form-in_19.html/ I read the volume which is the subject of the following review. I’d seen the author read from it in Amsterdam in 2011 and thought it an excellent project. (See here: I hadn’t intended to review it, but an editor of a reputable journal of innovative poetry (whose blushes I will spare) suggested that I review it for that journal. I leapt forth – the lockdown was in its first grip of terror and it seemed a valid distraction from the rising death toll – and began reviewing the book, working chapter by chapter. The editor then emailed to tell me not to bother reviewing the book because it had already been reviewed! My brakes screeched – like the those of ambulances outside houses in the surrounding streets: this piece was written in the back yard, listening to those vehicles’ sirens – and I stopped. I did enquire of another journal if they were interested, but I heard nothing back. That journal is in a country with a government more stupid than ours in its response to the Coronavirus, so I’m not surprised I didn’t hear back. The irony of my preoccupation with collaboration and performance during the solitary lockdown period was not lost on me.

What I offer here is three quarters of that review (which I think is pretty good) and I hope Juha will appreciate it. The book isn’t about collaboration but anybody following this strand will have seen that I quote from it a couple of times, and it is worth emphasising that there is a collaborative aspect to all four of the performances treated. It is an important book. You will see that it literally ends at a point where I make a transition to the final work to be considered. I will let you read it so far as it goes, after which I shall comment on the projected missing paragraphs and present some loose writings I had prepared for the conclusion.  

(For more on ‘The British Poetry Revival’, see 1. The British Poetry Revival and here).

Events and Effects

Review of Juha Virtanen, Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960-1980: Event and Effect (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

It is customary, in discussions of innovative poetry, to make reference to poetry readings and performances as modes of ‘publication’ (if we take that term literally, as in: to make public). It is commonly agreed that the poetry reading is one of the sustaining provisional institutions of the innovative poetry world. Too many accounts of contemporary poetry turn swiftly from the phenomenon to the solidity (and safety) of the fixed printed version of the text in order to evidence substantive points about it. Its performance, or performances, seem too complex to chart, and are more easily thought of as one of the contexts of the text’s existence or transmission. To my mind, too many readings are mere book launches, so that the oral performance of a text becomes its own trailer rather than a (different) event in its own right, with specific and observable effects.
Juha Virtanen, in his short but incisive volume, wants to flip this around, so far as he’s able (as an non-attendee at four selected poetry performances during the years customarily assigned to the British Poetry Revival) to account for, relate the details of, and analyse the effects of, these events. (The book refers to itself as Event and Effect; a number of volumes in the excellent ‘Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics’ series, ably edited by Rachel Blau du Plessis, have reversed title and subtitle, so that Virtanen’s focussed title now appears as the subtitle, as though it were an afterthought, in favour of the much less elegant but easily e-searchable Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960-1980, blazing with keywords. If more people find this book, and its separate chapters, which are also available electronically, via this contrivance, then I am pleased, though I am better pleased to possess the neat paperback.)
What happens if one analyses works which are postmodern to such an extent that they already ‘have the characters of an event’, as Virtanen says, quoting Lyotard? [1] At worst, one has an unstable event produced from an unstable text that amplifies those complex effects mentioned above. Such poems are already ‘event-like artworks’.[2] One has to negotiate, Virtanen says, the ‘parallels … between the analysis of “radically incomplete and unfinishable” innovative poetry’, whose poetics he outlines deftly in his introduction, ‘and seemingly “non-graspable” performance events’, which are his main concern.[3]   
This calls for a methodology, and Virtanen skips over both Deleuze (though he uses the rhizome as a useful analogy for this network of dynamic relationships) and Badiou (who has theorised eventness in detail, but who is not engaged with), to find both a model and an exemplar in the work of A.N. Whitehead, and he recalls it at strategic points in the book. Whitehead meditates upon Cleopatra’s Needle in its post-Imperial position on the Thames Embankment; he considers this undeniable object in terms of its event-like aspects: it changes as it is examined, and re-examined, temporally, spatially, psychologically, phenomenologically. The one thing it isn’t, under this fluxing scrutiny, is stable; it is inter-connected and fluid, formed, though unfinished, through intersubjective multiplicity. It is, though this term is not used, forever forming. This leads onto Virtanen’s marvellous, central observation upon which the book is constructed:

Applied to a poetry performance, this formulation suggests that the various audience responses can be understood as being simultaneously both unique to a particular member of that audience as well as connected to the event’s collective experience as a whole. On this understanding, the poetry performance is characterized by a kind of ‘cacophonous collectivity’ where the event is both singular (we all witness the same proceedings) and plural (we all form distinct responses to it) ... Both the performing poet and the audience author the event, and this intersubjective ‘authorship’ means that the narratives of such events are multiple.’[4]

It is odd that he uses the example of a single poet reading here, because he is clearly aware that the range of possible performances stretches from the monotext delivered in a monotone through to the kinds of multi-voice and multi-media performance he introduces us to by the book’s conclusion. He is probably keeping the issue simple at this stage. He promises the reader assaults upon the authority of a single poet in his model of collective authorship that fuses poet, performer and audience. His references to the extended and expanded techniques of Caroline Bergvall, Bob Cobbing and cris cheek leave us in no doubt of the applications of his arguments beyond the four previously ‘unexamined … events’ he has selected.[5] Despite this theoretical underpinning, his approach is both ‘archaeological’ and ‘archival’, and he wisely announces that his analyses will take the specificity of each event in its own, unique terms.[6] 
Virtanen has his work cut out for him choosing as his first occasion, the June 1965 Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall, organised by a committee with Allen Ginsberg as the cultural centre, a mass event much mythologised by commentators, ranging from Michael Horovitz to Iain Sinclair (though with participants like Barry Miles trying to offer his best factual accounts). To call it a ‘site of manifold ambivalences’ is probably an understatement’.[7] I have never been quite sure who read (or didn’t), and when. Some named performers seem distinctly un-countercultural (as Ginsberg noted.) The short film of the evening, Peter Whitehead’s Wholly Communion, is necessarily highly selective as documentary evidence. Who were the seven thousand people who endured eight hours of poetry? The ‘carnivalesque performances’ may have advanced ‘a temporary sense of liberation’, and they may have been a boost for the British Poetry Revival, and it is treated as such in Horovitz’ Children of Albion anthology (1969), and even in Jeff Nuttall’s less utopian cultural history, Bomb Culture (1968), but it did not feature many of the writers we now recognise as its major poets. In this sense, the analogy that Virtanen draws with the star-studded 1955 Beat reading in Six Gallery is incomplete, although he makes much of the physical spaces of both environments, pointing out how the Albert Hall operates as a détourned post-Imperial space, and he uses both Situationism and de Certeau’s analysis of micro-political spaces deftly. Of course, Ginsberg’s presence was central to both events. Despite what he calls the ‘multifarious facets of the Incarnation’, Virtanen focuses upon Ginsberg’s performance, which, while not his best – he was drunk and parts of the crowd were hostile – he points to the effects of both ‘the presence of the author-poet as well as the cacophonous collectivity of a multiplicity’.[8]  
Ginsberg read two poems of his own, the mantric ‘The Change’ (published by Cobbing’s Writers Forum), to which a woman danced while Ginsberg chanted, but this is judged a failure, due to the poet’s aggravated mood, and ‘Who Be Kind To’, which Virtanen figures as a success. He outlines the balance between the poem’s negativity regarding the Vietnam War and the poet’s recent positive immersion in Liverpool’s sub-culture; Ginsberg ‘performs within a terrain that is organized by establishment culture, and seeks to create surprises in the cracks of its proprietary powers’.[9] If so, this seems a sombre and limited victory compared to the consciousness-raising hopes for the evening, though Virtanen then re-models the event as one in which the intersubjective attention of the audience, in dialogic co-authorship, moulded their responses, both during and beyond the evening, to the poet’s own enraged tenderness.
Virtanen is not blind to the gender imbalance at the heart of the British Poetry Revival, and at the Incarnation in particular. Things were not very different at the second Cambridge Poetry Festival of 1977, although there were fewer people in attendance, since this event catered for the more specialised audience (many of them writers) of the Cambridge nexus. Virtanen’s focus is the first public reading by the young and unknown Denise Riley, one of the few women to read, in the company of her co-author and associate, Wendy Mulford. If the poetry of the Women’s Liberation Movement may be characterised as ‘political committed poems of experience’, then Riley and Mulford’s were political committed poems of theory, which included feminist theory, but also political, post-structuralist and poetic theory (though the tenets of the last, poetics, are not discussed here).[10] Riley is also the anti-Ginsberg, not presenting herself in performance and publication (although the long interview appended to the chapters manifests Riley only to witness her testimony: ‘I was so sick with fear and horror and loathing of having to stand up and make an exhibition of myself.’)[11] Not surprisingly, her early work deconstructs gender markers, but liberation seems always freighted with inherited guilt, since those markers – particularly the ‘I’ of lyric poetry, but also the performative body – cannot be theorised away, despite the urge to do so.
The opening of the reading was an attention focussing Hwæt! With Mulford, with whom she had collaborated on a book of unassigned poems, carrying the unforgettable title Marxism for Infants (a famous sneer of Orwell’s), she chanted the overheard phrase, ‘Am I, she asked, going to make feminist scrambled eggs’, which mirrors the questioning of pronouns in the feminist statement then read, and in the subsequent poems themselves. With reference to Judith Butler’s theories of gender performativity, Virtanen traces this process: ‘If Riley’s poems in Marxism for Infants and elsewhere resist the lyric “I” as a singular heroic persona, her performance continues to transgress the social foundations and conventions that produce these singularizations.’[12] It is the social that is engaged with in the rest of the analysis, from the accidental intrusion of a vacuum cleaner as Riley reads a poem about women’s labour, through to the audience in discussion, rejecting Riley’s generous reading of one of Mulford’s poems. Although Virtanan is at pains to present the two readings analysed so far as equally co-authored with the audience, I find it odd that he does not contemplate the effects of this Q and A following the reading; does this academic convention diminish the power of performance? To me, it is also interesting how many of the traits of Riley’s later work were present, not just in the (freshly) published work, but in Virtanen’s rich presentation of its performance, since social performance is so often her theme: the paradoxical self-consciousness of not knowing from what particles the (female) self might be assembled.    
Paradoxically, a little-known text by a well-known figure of the British Poetry Revival, Eric Mottram (indeed, as a critic, he popularised the term, and identified the dynamics of performance at the heart of its practice) plays an important role in Virtanen’s argument. Mottram’s Pollock Record of around 1978 is a script consisting of ‘ “three big sheets with all kinds of materials on them, with black lines around them”; during the event, the three collaborators would “read one selection one after another”, and the proceedings were brought to an end when one of them “reread one of the sections” that had already been uttered.’ [13] An image of one of the pages of the more recently published text might have been useful here. Virtanen charts Mottram’s shifting beliefs about performance: he emphasised the presence of the poet but also the instability of the indeterminate script for performance (though this need not be a contradiction). The unifying principle of these ‘materials’ is American action painter Jackson Pollock, ‘a totemic figure’,[14] we are told, to whom the script pays a kind of multi-voiced ventriloquial homage, by mustering quotations from Pollock and from other related sources, put into relation by the presence of Mottram; it ‘attempts to incorporate Pollock within a wider constellation of materials’.[15] Virtanen’s spatial metaphor is exact to the visual disposition of the text. But in tracing some personal contexts (not least of all the events at the Poetry Society in the mid-1970s) this text is a deeply personal one (with its stated commitment to experimentation).
Virtanen goes so far as to say, ‘Pollock Record is an arena where Mottram attempts to actively work with with Pollock as a mutual collaborator’.[16] The word ‘attempts’ alerts us that Pollock is not a collaborator like Mulford was for Riley, because he has no agency in the piece. However, ‘this interaction seemingly occurs via fusing the painter’s technique with the performance of the poem’, in ways consonant with Mottram’s most inspiring essay, Towards Design in Poetry (republished by Veer/Writers Forum in 2004).[17] As Mottram says, there were two live collaborators to assist in performance, Allen Fisher and Bill Griffiths. The unrecorded performance was indeterminate in structure and vocally dynamic (I’m not sure this fully ‘fuses’ Pollock’s action painting technique) but it was less so in terms of duration. Mottram spoke afterwards of the expectant tension of performance but after twenty minutes, Griffiths repeated some material and the performance (according to its one rigid rule) ceased. ‘It WAS a mistake,’ Mottram insisted; ‘He wanted to keep going much longer.’ [18] I have my doubts (though I cannot prove them). Griffiths was a seasoned performer and improviser, with Bob Cobbing and others, and he would have known exactly the point to stop the performance, particularly if he felt it had yielded whatever complexity was possible and/or if the performance was beginning to lack energy. As Fisher says of Mottram (in the second of the long interviews included in this book), ‘His experimentation was kind of reserved.’ [19]
Allen Fisher, on the other hand, had no such reservations. His practice since the 1970s intersects many projects, several artforms, in publications and performances…

That’s as far as I’d got, when I opened the fated email. This is a shame because Virtanen goes on to consider Allen Fisher’s Blood Bone Brain, a multiply-conceived piece of work which has always mystified me, partly because I have in my possession (and have for about 45 years) the programme for one of the performances (which I didn't attend), which listed performers and the groups of 39 instances (photos, jars, objects, recordings, texts, etc) that comprise much of the work. I was pleased also to see that this work becomes central to some of the discussions in the new Allen Fisher Companion (mostly written before Virtanen published his study; see here: Anyone interested in Fisher’s work will find both of these books useful for recovering some of the conceptual schemes and frameworks Fisher utilises (and I know that I have paid them too little heed, preferring to concentrate on his two major textual projects, as I do in my contribution to the Companion).

I know that in my review I wasn’t going to be able to fully engage with one of Virtanen’s terms, ‘event’. I pasted in the following from an earlier post on this blog (see here and, more recently, here) that attempted to summarise Derek Attridge’s sense of the 'singularity of literature', particularly with respect to our aesthetic engagement with it as an act-event: art is both something that happens to us and something we do. It seemed that this formulation might answer the question of the participation of the audience to show what a limited (but fundamental) part its members have to play in the creation of the event as a whole. The passage is:  

In The Singularity [of Literature] he [Attridge] insists upon the fact that genuine literary engagement (that is when one is reading non-instrumentally) is both an event that occurs and an action that the reader does, that is both passive and active. ‘The coming-into-being of the work of art is, I’ve been arguing,’ Attridge argues, ‘both an act and an event: it’s something the artist does … and something that happens to the artist’. (220) Creation and reception are similar: ‘I use the term “act-event” in order to capture the strange duality of this process in which active and passive are not clearly separable – whether we’re talking about the work or the person responding to it. In this way, the work is remade each time it is read’. (247) … Reading is a ‘willed passivity’. (2)

I also seem, at some point of the drafting of this review, to have offered myself a conclusion that combined what I had read in Virtanen with the general literary focus of Attridge which I now use habitually. (I guess, it occurs to me now, that, as a critic, I am an Attridgean, should there be such a thing.)  

Conclusion: The ‘text’ of the total performance is a multi-systemic act-event that only the reader as witness can put together. Juha Virtanen’s Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960-1980: Event and Effect presents his ‘conception of performances as events of intersubjective authorship and cacophonous collectivity’. (p. 21) This occurs at exactly the point where the reception of the literary work as an act-event (in Derek Attridge’s terms) opens the whole thing out to a multiplicity of intersubjective assemblages, a co-creation of many minds beyond the two performers.

All posts in the collaboration strand may be accessed via links at the end of the first post, a hubpost, as I call it, here:

Only one more post to go. 

[1] Juha Virtanen, Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960-1980: Event and Effect (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 15.
[2] Virtanen, p. 15.
[3] Virtanen, p. 15.
[4] Virtanen, p. 19.
[5] Virtanen, p. 11.
[6] Virtanen, pp. 11 and 13.
[7] Virtanen p. 47.
[8] Virtanen p. 48.
[9] Virtanen, p. 45.
[10] Virtanen, p. 57.
[11] Virtanen, p. 67 and p. find later
[12] Virtanen, p. 72.
[13] Virtanen, partly quoting Mottram, p. 85. I would like to thank Adrian Clarke for forwarding me jpegs of the published version of Pollock Record.
[14] Virtanen, p. 91.
[15] Virtanen, p. 90.
[16] Virtanen, p. 93.
[17] Virtanen, p. 95.
[18] Virtanen, p. 98.
[19] Virtanen, p. 102.