Saturday, December 18, 2021

Robert Sheppard: ‘So, now to the poetics’: from a Journal Entry, 22nd December 1983

Just as I completed typing this journal extract up, I decided that I probably wouldn’t include it in the book manuscript of/on poetics that I seem to be assembling at the moment, that I might call (after one of its most authoritative, and even influential, pieces) The Necessity of Poetics. (You can read that here: in one of its versions.) It was written, deliberately, as poetics, not as a theory of poetry. I had just worked out that theory for my PhD – and here I decide to write about some of those ideas (Veronica Forrest-Thomson and some structuralists, and Ricoeur and Marcuse, who I name) without academic gloss, or references. I find the mentions of Auden and the language poets a little odd, but I do like the parts about the uses of the self and the lyric, and particularly the following sentence: ‘I see the desire for a diminished self as a healthy move towards a New Humanism, which accepts than Man is no longer to be thought of as the central, originating presence of the universe (in the place of God).’ This refers, at least in part (and much of this piece combines various traditions of thought) to ‘eco-humanism’, which I was reading at the time, or a little bit earlier. It also is a riposte to certain attacks on the avant-garde for its refusal of identity. The other continuity is the thought of Christopher Middleton (see here: Pages: Christopher Middleton (1926-2015) i.m. ( and Pages: Robert Sheppard: Inaugural Lecture PART 2: Measuring Experience (on Christopher Middleton). His Viking Prow has been churning poetic quietude for decades now. I find this piece more open than slightly later attempts to codify poetic artifice, as in this piece, ‘Flashlight Propositions’, which I also think I am going to omit from the book. What did I call them? Oh yes: ‘operational axioms’! Later notions of poetics loosen these operations and those axioms a lot! (As here, again:

So, now to the poetics.

            The enemy can be defined as The English Poetic Tradition. It has afforded us some of the greatest poets of our language, but in this century, it has spawned midgets and misguided talents, e.g. Larkin and Auden. The text is thought of as forever closed, as an utterance coming from the empirical author. The poem translates thoughts into words and the words then become transparencies behind which we can clearly see the thoughts. This is what is thought to be ‘communication’. The poetry offers us the familiar (England, more often than not) and its details are easily naturalised. The iambic pentameter is a major defining characteristic, yet even this is value-ridden. Not least of all, in its transparent moulding of speech, it reifies the speaking voice and thus the illusion that there is the presence of a transcendental ego behind (and before) the poem. The pervasive self-hood seems to be the aspect of poetry that is definitely in a state of crisis, although the Wayne Pratts of this world might not think so. Historically, the notion of a self-hood in poetry is a recent and, possibly, lamentable development. But the subjectivity of the text should not necessarily be that of the author (empirical or ‘implied’).

            This, then, is The Enemy: The Great I am and the Great Iambic.

            How do I see my own work developing, in the light of this? How has it developed to date?

            I want the Self in my poetry to be indeterminate, relative and – at times – plural. Far from seeing this as an anti-humanistic, alienated poetry, I see the desire for a diminished self as a healthy move towards a New Humanism, which accepts than Man is no longer to be thought of as the central, originating presence of the universe (in the place of God). But the reader is the real person of the text, not the writer, or even the characters, of a poem. The writer is the catalyst of the poem. As far as the reader is concerned, the writer is a self produced by the text. But as far as the writer is concerned, the text is produced by the writer – and if he or she is a truly contemporary writer, he or she will see that the text is completed by the reader. The writer and the reader are both the producers of meaning of the text. The horizons of the poetic world of the writer (in writing the text) fuse with the differing horizons of the readers (in reading the text). This is not what is commonly thought of as communication.

            This is not to argue that ‘I’ cannot appear in a text. It is only to be aware that as soon as I have written ‘I’, I am a reader of that text myself, since the self in not a stable entity (although it undoubtedly has recurring characteristics and is part of a history), but is an effect of consciousness produced in the acts of perception, moment-by-moment in a time continuum. Je est un autre, and this is cause rather for wonder, than for angst and alienation. The writer is free to use one self, or many selves in a text. In reading the text, the readers receive a new self (not the writer’s, I hasten to add. Brain transplants may be theoretically possible, but not via the medium of poetry!).

            American forebears dissolved the egotistical self in the act of perception.

            Iambics are already avoided in my work, and this indeterminacy of the self and the indeterminacy of perception demand some form of indeterminate structure. This can occur at the level of rhythm or at the level of semantics, but it will inevitably happen. Defamiliarisation, for example, is a formal procedure to prolong and frustrate perception. The Russian formalists saw this as an end in itself, but it carries a moral dimension: that of reactivating the reader’s perceptions and destroying habitualised, automatic perception. It is also pleasurable. We must avoid stuffy texts at all costs.

            The point of these modes of openness is existential and – ultimately – political, and they must never become obsolete through overuse, in imagese, or ‘place poetry’, or conventionalised cut-up. (That’s why it is not possible to say what my ‘freedom forms’, as Roy Fisher calls them, will be.)

            Whether my poetry is a poetry that is co-extensive with reality, or whether it is the poetry of a fictive landscape, it still involves defamiliarisation. In defamiliarising the dominant reality, in offering sensuous images from the point of view of a formal autonomy, the poem is operating as an (implicit) critique of that dominant reality. It gives pleasure. Pleasure may excite us, but it might not necessarily move us. To be moved the reader must feel that the poem is opening up for the fusion of horizons. This may be achieved through the category-expansion of metaphor, by the opening up of a world by the entire poem, or sequence of poems. This world is an image of a possible reality, a synopsis for a new mode of Being. (It is at this point that the theories of Ricoeur and Marcuse meet.)

            This is my latest formulation of what I called formalist-humanism. It is obvious that whether or not I indulge in self-disclosure is completely irrelevant to this aspect of poetry. Whatever the terms reality, reality principle or Being signify, then I take it that a poem is intimately involved (as far as the reader is concerned) in what Christopher Middleton has called, in an equally hesitating manner, ‘if not the revelation of being, then … apertures upon being’. (His ‘Notes on a Viking Prow’ become more and more important for me as I explore this whole area.)

            So, what is the writer’s job? To produce language that appears to have coherent origin, the sort of stream-of-wordprocessor writing that the American language poets indulge in? No. That does not give pleasure (or, at least, not much). It certainly cannot move us, if by moving we accept my above definition (as the shock of new significations from out of the old). No, the writer’s job is to attend so attentively to his or her poetic focus that he or she fails to expend energy on the self as a supposedly stable entity. And if the past selves of the writer’s ego happen to be the poetic focus, the self which is the effect of the text will still be another self. And then – but I’m beginning to repeat myself – the reader enters the picture!