REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST
Another day, another poem. I turn the page of the three-year Alhambra Poetry Calendar (selected by Shafiq Naz, Belgium; see www.alhambrapublishing.com) which Paul Kane introduced us to a couple of years ago. It's the 21st September, 2009. In 2008 it fell on a Sunday, this year it's Monday. Page 342's poem is (surprise --genuine surprise) : Coventry Patmore's To The Body. At last! I think aloud, --A POEM!
Of course I mean the sound of it, though can there ever be sound of this moment without substantial subject (--that is, a subject able to be carried sonorously, not force or flourish per se, thus my harping on the 'true' which, of course, begs all the postmodern suppositions --even so, my definition's checked by the extraordinary parodic poetry of our own era, found as it is in aesthetic efflorescence more than existential fray)? --"Creation's and Creator's crowning good; / Wall of infinitude;" Patmore's poem begins. To The Body the poem's called, therefore such metaphor as "Little, sequester'd pleasure house / For God and His Spouse;" rolls off the tongue! The poem of 53 lines, adeptly claused as one long and two shorter sentences, might normally have been constructed with many shorter lines & more verses. It's a gallop (the semi-colons could translate as exclamations, one after the other), slowed only by the rhyming couplets (gems like, "outwards unto the thin / Silk curtains of the skin,"). Mystical & quietly sensual --"the Lady, she / Who left the roses in her body's lieu" --resembling some of his fellow Victorian G M Hopkins' ingenuities.
To what, then, did I feel Coventry Patmore was preferable? Poem after poem in the Alhambra I'm reminded of David Shapiro's lines, "I saw the ruins of poetry, of a poetry / Of a parody and it was a late copy bright as candy." (Drawing After Summer, from The Seasons, in the chapbook published by Leo Edelstein & Yanni Florence's (as it were New York-on-the-Yarra) Pataphysics Press, Melbourne,1994). But they're involuntarily parodic, since the poets dont realize their belatedness. Ruins, yes : mostly prosey, burdened by dull topicality; the boringly domestic; the clever-dickery (for example, Paul Muldoon, --yet the final couplet of his sonnet reiterates Shapiro's verdict : "Like an engine rolling on after a crash, / long after whatever it was made a splash.")...
Of course, there are the odd lines which save the day (as I recall from this September's roll, Eleanor Wilner, Martha Collins, John Kinsella), and occasionally an entire poem (Alex Skovron, Stanley Plumley)... But day after day, month after month, I've turned the page with a hurrumph! Exceptions are, just so, exceptional: Hart Crane's At Melville's Tomb; Shakespeare's exquisite sonnet beginning, "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past" (what a gift that was for Scott Moncrieff!). And back in August I recall someone new to me, David Biespiel, tickled my ear : "That night, in the trustless, summer wandering, out of that country, / As if cursed by a nation, I settled in and slept like a seed." --yes, almost my man!
The foregoing is about taste, expectation, particular readings, transitional judgements --& not condemnation. Everyone who sees the Alhambra Poetry Calendar on the edge of the shop counter likes the look & idea of it. It's poetry in a wider world than what the speciality usually determines. So forgive me if it's not clear that I actually welcomed the poetry calendar and still look forward to each day's offering.
One could also treat American Hybrid : A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (edited by Cole Swensen & David St. John; Norton, 2009) like the Alhambra Calendar, and after initial investigation that's probably what one will do, --browsing, grazing the poems as poems & not examples of credo --tho' the latter's how one's formative & unsophisticated reading was transformed, --attracted to ideology (poetics) over & above poetry and to poets over & above poems --a direct but logical product of the literary (biographical & political) knowledge one had acquired --and no mistake what a wonderful education that process provided in the '60s,'70s & '80s --but just as the alternative schooling's a boon, eventually it's time to leave that degree of the literary and return to the world.
Perhaps this is the effect of the instructive & complimentary introductions by Swensen & St. John to their anthology, proposing 'hybridization' as the means by which the assumed mutual exclusivities (mainly, I suppose, of Language Poetry & the rest; 'writing's' opposition to lyric & et cetera) are overcome. I should say that there was something of the spirit of this in the timely & stimulating Expansive Poetry : Essays on the New Narrative & The New Formalism (ed Frederick Feirstein, including Frederick Turner, Dana Gioia, Robert McDowell et al; Story Line Press, 1989), --its new start proceeding from the opposite direction. (It's long amused me to think of the Language poets & the New Formalists inhabiting the same rebellious moment!) Also, that the first time I heard the word 'hybridization' as a special term was when John Kinsella presented a master-class & held a public conversation with Alison Croggon at the Victorian Writers Centre a few years ago. I wondered then about such coinage, suspecting the ever-pressing need within avant-garde practice for the very next if not ultimate thing. I thought too some kind of stylistic if not strategic rapprochement might be on as later seemed indicated in his anthology, co-edited with Rob Mengham, Vanishing Points : New Modernist Poems (Salt, 2006). Yet one wondered why the main subject of his preface, namely the lyric in contemporary poetry or, actually, the "contemporary English-language innovative lyric", didnt figure in the title. Mengham's introduction, though, explicated the title thus : "the writers in this volume represent a strand in recent poetry that has stayed in touch with the agendas of modernism; they are not postmodernist, but late modernist writers." Kinsella's commentary on the historical status of the lyric & the psychological reflex of the lyrical act, is moving & suggestive beyond the dictates he accepts of a literary politics conflated with political ideology (even if found in just two short sorties : opening para, "If musicality and the register of song inform the line of poetry, or are worked against, then the lyric becomes a truism. But the lyric is more than that. It's a political registration as well, a declaration of relationship between self and text, self and the empirical 'outside'. It declares an intentionality in appearance, in its desire for continuation." --and 3rd para, "In a sense, the lyric is lost in the moment of realisation: it is that engagement with 'self' and articulation, the many possible engagements of the lyrical 'I' with signifier and signified. Modernism in poetry maps this frustration of self-expression." Mengham's, though unquestionably erudite, & brightly adventurous (his pitch for this new poetry's internationalism for example), to my mind disports an aesthetical partisanship (& more pointedly than his co-editor) which is quaint if not already redundant. If there's a connection with the 'speaking voice', for example, in this 'late modernist' gathering, doesnt it redeem the practice of the jettisoned mainstream or does that mainstream's perceived absent politics perpetuate the avant-garde's contempt? But, in fairness to all, that's a discussion for another place.
Cole Swensen's & David St. John's joint declaration in American Hybrid echoes the fact of what's practiced at large, for writers & especially readers : with the vast dissemination of material on the Web today, without editorial one should say, stylistic eclecticism can but follow. And writing schools, for whom any Norton anthology is a staple, have always elicited technique at the expense of literary/historical context (as though style were truly optional). So there's a logic to the tag in both the sense the editors intend &, inevitably, in its generalised translation.
The well-known history of post World War Two American poetry, the prism for most English-language poetry too, is told here by Swensen. Her advantage is that by 2009, reactions to avant-garde modes, &, importantly, ameliorations thereof, can be recorded dispassionately --history's how the cookie crumbled after all! For many years I enjoyed David Antin's distinction, advanced in essays in the early 70s, between 'linear' & 'collage' modernism, as well as his identifying the fundamental contradictions of abstraction & the representational within the early 20th Century avant-garde (in its conjunction of the musical & the imagistic), tho' his calling the upholders of such contradiction fools & provincials was a step too far!
Swensen refers to Paul Auster for her clarifying principal. She writes, "[Auster] has made an astute observation: that most twentieth-century American poets took their cue either from the British poetic tradition or from the French... [his model] allows us to follow one thread that inherited a pastoral sensibility from British Romanticism, emphasizing the notion of man as a natural being in a natural world, informed by intense introspection and a belief in the stability and sovereignty of the individual.(... ) The second prominent line of poetic thinking stems from the urbane modernism of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Apollinaire, and moved from there into an increasing emphasis on the materiality of the text as developed by the early twentieth-century avant-gardes, a lineage fuelled in part by the belief that meaningful change in the arts requires dramatic rupture..." She argues, "This split is more than a stylistic one; it marks two concepts of meaning: one as transcendent, the other as immanent..." However, the hybrid (or as she puns it, The New (Hy)Breed), "has selectively inherited traits from both of the principal paths outlined above. It shares affinities with what Ron Silliman has termed 'third wave poetics' and with what is increasingly known as 'post-avant' work, though its range is broader, particularly at the more conservative end of its continuum..."
Naturally, it takes two to tango : St. John meets Swensen more than half way : "I have always believed that the great strength of American poetry resides, at its source, in its plurality of voices, its multitude of poetic styles, and its consistent resistance to the coercion of what emerges--in each generation--as a catalogue of prevailing literary trends. (...) To Cole [Swensen], the challenge and fascination of American poetry had become the way that previously conceived poetic 'differences' and aesthetic borders of every kind were being tested and transgressed (...) In my view, this was and remains exactly right."
American Hybrid's a challenge, though. It's not the 500+ pages that causes shivers of ennui but the sorts of things, hybridization or not, which has irritated me through thirty years of postmodernism. On a first expedition it's not until I find Alice Notley (pp310-15) that I think aloud, aware of deja vu : at last --A POEM! I confess, she brought tears to my eyes --of relief as well as empathy. Intellectual relief on account of a poetry that obviously knows the shortcomings of all the assumptions of the simple ego-subject but proceeds into the gradation of fracture (I hesitate to call it complexity) which is the consequence of the educated reader-writer's sense of obligation to declare everything happening at the moment of composition. Unfortunately, and the anthology has its fair share of it, this is usually expressed as the swamping of a single (& by no means clear) mind by a self-consciousness unable or unwilling to distinguish plurality from dissembling. (And self-awareness is precisely what I understand as a person's carriage & ambition.)
The empathy I'm talking about occurs when one feels one's spoken for in a poet's very particular saying --so the poem is understood intimately. I Must Have Called and So He Comes is utterly about the tragically late Ted Berrigan, and it's also poignantly about poetry as agency (""I can't catch your voice ..." (I say) / "...there's a place inside you," he says, "a poetry self, made by / pain but not / violated--oh I don't say violated, / you're not getting my dialogue right, you can't remember / my style.") --and the juxtaposition is deeply affecting. Visited by the poem as the poet is by the dead &/or beloved --poem as intense condition of inchoate imagining of other's absence or loss --poem, lover, spirit, ghost. The empathy flows out to her & back again, a deluge. And the empathy is also relief --"but now I seem to know that the name of a self is poverty / that the pronoun I means such and that starting so / poorly, I can live" (Lady Poverty)... free of the double-bind italics of Alette, the closest the poet comes to cutting off her fellows' gesturing digits, those sophisticates dripping knowledge yet knowing nothing...
And that's the feeling I struggle to avoid in poet after poet in this anthology or rather, poem after poem here selected... Hear my litany of complaint : poems which indicate the novels or the essays they should be had the formal imperative not been forsaken; marginalia pretending to be poems; interlinearity (including ekphrastic indulgence) in the wake of disenfranchised narratives; poems in the troughs of surrealism, ecriture, & all combinations thereof & thereafter; poems after philosophy, after theory, after everything & everybody...
There are anomalies, and I'm glad of them --Nathanial Mackey, Anne Waldman, Charles Wright, John Yau --tho' they appear to have been drafted to represent older ways, as if always hybridists had they but known! For me such poets are hip enough to acknowledge the majority the postmodern fragment attains within this anthology, and remain independent in their voice & song; certainly not hybridists as per the design proclaimed...
I grumble now that unless reading's references live on a line as a unit of sound they're better left in a note-book, on the school desk. As erstwhile poet I've both lived up to & betrayed that principal... Yet it's a conundrum : why shouldnt reading & the account of its experience register also? I dont, after all, object to other categories... But why o why does Brenda Hillman, for example, blot her little owl (Black Series, p193) with lexical associations which unnecessarily complicate already (tho' beautiful) demanding idea-images? Why o why do these poets of the new academy, as it seems to be, fill the blessed wheelbarrow with all the detritus in the yard? Why load it, why embellish, why affect intellectuality, why not affectionately let it be?
Rhetorical question --is it because they're the writers who're supposed to have read everything? the poets of learning clamped within Alette's (p312) inverted-commas? The recipients of the numerous fellowships, employees of the colleges, who've done their sums & now must show their workings? Joking aside, might not the institutional affiliation of the vast majority of these poets have implications for the type or, as the anthology advertizes, style of their work? Is it R & D poetry, and prompt return on the company's investment expected or else consigned to the mainstream oblivion?!
But, let's begin again... I'd be a real curmudgeon not to enjoy, disingenuous not to acknowledge memorable lines & stanzas, thoughts & expressions, here & there. For instance, in Etel Atnan ("The certitude of Space is brought / to me by a flight of birds. It / is grey outside and there is trembling : / fog is too heavy a word")(pp1-6); Ralph Angel(pp8-13); Mary Jo Bang (pp29-33); Martin Corless-Smith (pp89-95) --ah now, Martin Corless-Smith, and what a wonderfully strange one is he! And an American now (this Englishman who first went to the States in '92 & commutes between the Mid West & England)?
I recall Alan Halsey sending me Corless-Smith's Complete Travels (West House Books, UK), hot off the press in 2000. I remember the superb sketches of trees in (I assumed English) countryside --rook nests in the top branches --the same drawings repeating, more or less, through the book --and the sketches' sharp details & shading like an illustration of his poetry's meticulous picking, his sounding out of the adjacent landscape an apposite biography. It reminded me a little of the Devonian, Nicholas Johnson (publisher of Etruscan Books), and a similar question: how does British sing-song inheritance come through in the contemporary (& the postmodern contemporary at that)? I then found Of Piscator (Univ of Georgia, 1997) in the catalogue and perhaps it would have been propitious to have read it first --tho', like jazz, no beginning better than end, all equal!
To Absent Minister, "Come Clare, come Smart fly cockatoo / come heavenly cat and crow / let's take a stroll, manoevre through the orchard maze / let's kick old buckets till their bottoms yell / and hold a ladder not against a tree / but upright, climb it to the utmost rung and / sing until the rains come or the night or till we chill." The resonances arent all classical, or if they are some have settled in his contemporaries. Douglas Oliver for that reason pinging my ear in Corless-Smith's long poem in American Hybrid, The Acts (pp91-95). But I dont really know --reference subsumed to resonance, as everything is ultimately...
Last verse of On My Brother W[illiam] Falling From His Horse, "This land of yours no longer yours / but you its curious gift / each leaf a painted diadem / an atom in a leaf", has a parallel poem counterpointing it thus, "each atom now itself / And you this curious gift / each leaf a painted leaf / miraculous & hidden shift".
Yes, maybe he is a hybridist --but not I think the mix & match of recent literary convention but of the spoken or sung (the personal & true) & the written (textu[r]al), with the phonic & semantic pun, like a happy accident, maintaining conceptual & emotional drive.
So, there's Corless-Smith; and something of Lyn Emmanuel (pp110-16); ditto Michael Palmer (pp316-22); Stephen Ratcliffe (pp343-49)... & so on, this & that, here & there... A test it is, then, of a reader's taste(s), and hopefully too, notwithstanding mine or any reader's grizzles, a contemporary test of poetry...
KRIS HEMENSLEY / ALAN HALSEY
Kris Hemensley : I recall Frank Prince was keen on Wyndham Lewis' line of thinking. I remember him particularly pointing me toward Paleface... John Hall is another English poet who referred me to Lewis. What following do you think Wyndham Lewis has amongst contemporary writers, indeed, what is the state of his readership? And how did you come to read him -- via Pound (& Pound via Olson & Co.)? -- or by some English circuitry?
Alan Halsey : Via Pound, and Pound via Joyce -- but Pound's been my main interest. Via him I came to Olson & Co.
The state of Lewis' readership is curiously difficult to assess. There's the expression 'the men of 1914' : Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Lewis. One could make a good argument that Lewis ought to be listed first but he usually comes last and it's as if he's a kind of honorary member -- the one we all know about but don't read very much. And certainly his readership is much smaller than the others'. At the same time there is a readership which although small tends to be very serious.
I suspect that one reason for the lack of critical attention has its root in Lewis' numerous feuds, particularly his campaign against Bloomsbury. There's the purely personal element, of course, and also the fact that the Bloomsbury ethos isn't entirely dead. I also notice that people who haven't read a word of Lewis are fond of the 'fascist' tag. It's strange that the same people seem much less bothered about Pound's fascism, even though he adhered to it for a much longer and much more virulently than Lewis.
There's also, of course, the innate suspicion of anybody who does more than one thing at a time. Lewis was a novelist/artist/polemicist, sometimes all at once -- and the writings alone tend to defy easy critical categories. Enemy of the Stars, for example, appears in the Carcanet Collected Poems and Plays as a (prose) play when, as Peter Riley argued in Poetry Information 20/21, it's the only 'poem' in any true sense in the book. In England a poem ought to look like a poem. Then there are the works of the Twenties -- the novels and philosophical writings which were all supposed to be part of the one book. that probably accounts for the fact that those particular novels are very unstructured, more like 'abstract prose works' -- writing which the English critical machinery seems unable to cope with.
That much of his writing has been out of print for years is obviously one side of the coin -- presumably (not necessarily!) if there had been sufficient demand to reprint then somebody would have done so. Perhaps some of the problem's been that the books which have been in print recently haven't always been the best Lewis. I'd rather have seen Black Sparrow (or Penguin some years ago) start their republishing programme with Tarr than The Apes of God. The Apes is of course notorious and contains some extraordinary prose, but it's also unwieldy, long-winded and Lewis at his most devastatingly vicious -- that image which probably turns more readers off than on. But it's good to know that The Complete Wild Body's due soon. Secker are reissuing The Revenge For Love, a very fine novel of the Thirties. The Calder paperbacks of The Human Age trilogy are still in print after nearly twenty years but you rarely see them in bookshops. It's a shame, since I don't see why they couldn't be as 'popular'; as, say, John Cowper Powys. It's also a shame that Time and Western Man hasn't so far been announced for republication. The central argument about the time-obsession of the West is still relevant, although a good deal of thought still goes on as if Lewis' points had never been made. I've read an interview in which Foucault was making substantially the same point as Lewis, though his name wasn't mentioned. And the book does contain very sharp critiques of Pound, Joyce and Stein.
I don't think Lewis has had much direct influence on many contemporary writers. Iain Sinclair is an obvious exception. Jeremy Prynne acknowledges Lewis in a title, The Ideal Star-Fighter, and elsewhere. There's a poem by Roy Fisher To The Memory of Wyndham Lewis and I wonder if his 'exterior' approach owes something to Lewis. There are passages in Beckett's plays which are somewhat reminiscent of some of Lewis' dialogue -- pointing back to Joyce who surely couldn't not have learnt something from Enemy of the Stars. And I can't help feeling that Burroughs has read Lewis fairly carefully, though I've yet to find a direct reference.
K H : What chance has a seer got today of moving a public that has largely been blinded by the techniques & structure of mass media? I pose this with your "Thinking with the eyes" section [of Sections Drawn Across the Vortex, 1980] in mind : I agree absolutely that "the govt conceives it is the one central brain. Constrained to its precision the language goes slack." And I receive the picture from de Chirico's Piazza d'Italia series, your "'Thoughts' go out as agents, or shadows. we are drawn back into the magnetic city." : the perpetual meeting, eternal nostalgia, the gentlemen shaking hands in the square.
Is Horacio Zabala [Argentinian artist & theoretician] correct when he avers that marginal intellectual activity is past, that we are all bound to the same plane, "hypersilence/hypercommunication", spectators & makers-of-spectacle? For whom do we perform? The Invisible Government is bedecked with Classical features. But which gods does it represent? What kind of BLAST illuminates the current 'black out'?
A H : Perhaps the word 'seer' spreads the net too widely and introduces some peripheral complications. the question of the mass media is itself so complicated -- and, of course, one of its manoeuvres is to raise so-and-so as a 'seer' at the same time as it cuts the real ground from under his feet. "All the world's a sage", as Lewis' disciple McLuhan emphasized. But I'm not sure that the question of the mass media isn't in certain respects a red herring -- if it tempts us to make direct comparisons between sizes of audience, for example. For that reason, incidentally, it may not be completely deplorable that Lewis' works are hard to obtain at the moment -- I'm rather fearful what will happen when the mass media do get hold of him! The spheres in which the media and writers work are so utterly different. The media very definitely create the demand for their product whereas the writer can only really work for those who want to hear him. I don't think the rise of the media has changed the situation very much in that respect. There was an exchange of letters between Pound and Lewis in the Twenties in which Lewis bemoaned the fact that his writing wasn't being read. Pound wrote back : "While there are thirty or fifty..."
But we all know that the media have become enormously powerful since then and one of my main concerns is with the way they are eroding, debasing the language. In this respect I think the writer's position is far worse now than it was in, say, the Twenties. In face of this all-out attack on, with and through the language it's very much harder to 'make it new'. And there's a great danger for the writer in that the media set up models for discourse/polemic/rhetoric which would not only take the steam out of a latter-day Blast but also represent a considerable but nonetheless superficial temptation. This temptation must have been far less blatant when Pound and Lewis let themselves be drawn into political dispute. It must therefore have been much easier for them to accept the terms of the dispute . But their subsequent errors shouldn't blind us to the fact that the question with which they started was essentially the same question which engaged, or ought to engage, us : what is the position/future of a writer in a social system which devotes itself not just to 'levelling' but to ironing out all distinctions among men and their work? And their critiques began with the observation that this 'ironing-out' is done in the name of a completely sham 'democracy', a system of government which calls itself 'of the people' but whose tendency is to centralise, gather more power to itself. One of its methods for doing this is to flatten all kinds of distinctions into 'either-or' options -- whereas the writer's business is to occupy himself with every kind of verbal distinction. So that it's very difficult for a writer to 'talk the right language'. And this was one of the main problems which occupied me in the Vortex work. How and why did Pound and Lewis allow themselves to adopt a black-and-white language in their political thought which they did not allow themselves in their literary/artistic work?
Your comparison with de Chirico is apt -- I didn't have it in mind at the time, but it's a perfect illustration. And with the painter de Chirico I tend to associate the writer Kafka. Do you remember the scene in The Castle where K finds himself in a courtyard and realises that he's not being watched, that he is free to do what he likes -- but is immediately filled with terror, realising that this freedom is useless to him, that there's nothing he can do with it? It seems foolish to consider ourselves oppressed in the way that Russian writers are oppressed, or to regard the small-press movement as a 'samizdat'. We're given as much freedom as we like, but it's freedom-in-a-void; we have to expend more and more effort on 'making new' a debased language; and the condition of our freedom is that we talk mainly to ourselves. Not by government fiat but because we're forever outflanked -- by the official 'news' , the mass media. So that the media re-appear as 'Temptation'. At one and the same time we have to avoid adopting the techniques of the media (which would mean becoming part of the media); and we have to (try to) get through to a larger audience -- but without mistaking (as the media do) the size of the audience for an end in itself.
If Pound and Lewis set an example for us they also show us some of the methods which won't work. Cantos of instruction for our 'leaders' won't be read, poets visiting Washington won't stop impending war. A 1981 Blast would have to address itself to an enemy who's far too amorphous to allow a direct hit; the 'gods' you mention have a common ancestor in the Imperial Invisible God who used to rule Europe via Rome, controlling the purse-strings as well as the images. A 1981 Blast would probably have to be financed by the Enemy -- could it avoid containing in its pages the Enemy's advertisements? -- One of the worse aspects of the mass media is that they like to champion a glossy avant-garde. At the same time I think that those of us who do care about these matters have been too attached to the idea of a silent 'underground'. Too unwilling to engage in direct combat. Whatever errors they made Pound and Lewis never made that mistake, never let themselves believe that the walls would fall of their own accord.
Alan Halsey : 29 years later …
I was prepared to wince at what I said back then but don’t feel too disagreeable about most of it. Interesting how some of the circumstance has changed, and what has and hasn’t resulted from that. Black Sparrow did put the best of Lewis back in print but he seems to figure no more largely in the general discourse now than he did then. The last time I saw him mentioned in a newspaper was an article by Iain Sinclair – at least his enthusiasts stay loyal. I guess it shows that availability of texts counts for little in itself, a chastening thought if applied to poetry publishing. When we had that conversation most of the contemporary work you and I value was bound up in small editions often indifferently produced – now and thanks to new print technology it’s out there, much of it, in smart paperback collecteds and selecteds – and yet, in England anyway, the response is no less stifled. The approved poetry is a subsidiary form of weekend supplement journalism with its self-defining notions of ‘human interest’: nothing is allowed to challenge the narrow preconceptions the official arbiters of excellence lay down for their personal protection.
For one reason or another Sections Drawn Across the Vortex remains unpublished apart from a short-run mimeo put out by Gavin Selerie’s Binnacle imprint in 1996, although I’ve included some of its poems in recent selections. I know I could have included it whole in one of those but have resisted, maybe just believing it wants a volume for itself. One day.
The point which grates with me now is my insistence that language is or was being ‘debased’ and ‘eroded’. Not because I feel I overrated the power of mass media or think it’s lessened in the meantime. Strange to remember that a decade ago we were told that the anarchic nature of the internet would bring about a dangerous decentralisation of information, was even a threat to governmental power – gawd! – real democracy might pop its wicked face above the barricade! How brittle and unsubtle the structures and strictures of power are supposed to be. Not, either, because we’ve seen gobbledegook beating a retreat – New Labour has for 13 years shown supreme mastery in inventing jargon to disguise its shameful betrayals. What disturbs me is that I seemed to imply that there was some pre-‘debased’ state of language which was uniquely useful and in some way pure, and that without it we late modernists were hampered in our work. I’d like to think my actual writing went about its business regardless of any such misconception, in fact thrived on picking through the debris – and this somewhat puritanical conservatism only kicked in when I wrote about it from a critical distance. I don’t mean to analyse myself but I’m conscious of a muddle. Language is so wonderfully mutable, what else should it be? Maybe I’ve become more willing to enjoy myself. I’m sure I’m not alone in suspecting it’s taken me however long to realise what a lot of other people knew from the start … do you feel that at all?
Kris Hemensley : I must say that your phrase "29 years later" affects me as much as anything else we might say here! --as though it's the first time I've realized the larger part of my life has been lived away from the 'England' (& 'English') that's always my reference regarding ultimate identity & perspective --and the 29 years falls within the larger part of my life, per se, which has also passed! For all the difficulty of living in Melbourne & maintaining such a reference, I am at home here in significant ways, and this includes the poetry scene (Australian & the world via the Melbourne optic). Some of this appropriated --an Englishman abroad --some of it attributed (I've been given a home in every sense). And it means that however deep my hankering for England, my Englishness is more idiosyncratic than any English resident's since I'm separated from the daily life & language --which doesnt mean I dont read & follow English things (though I havent recently barracked for the English cricket team!) --I do. And my trips back to the UK, more or less regularly since 1987 (there were the 12 long years I couldnt afford a ticket after the summer of 1975, when I returned at Richard Burns' invitation for the Cambridge Poetry Festival & to renew connections with the English poets I'd got to know between '69 & '72), have been wonderful; so much so I've felt I was commuting between Melbourne & Dorset, and my reading & writing has reflected that reality.
Not long after I wrote to you about Wyndham Lewis, having read parts of your Sections Across the Vortex in Robert Shepherd's Rock Drill magazine, two years before we created the interview for the stillborn Endpapers journal (upon which Walter Billeter, Colin Symes & I collaborated) --& doesnt the title tell a story of the time?! --I began a long haul of rereading & rethinking which led to the gradual extraction from both literary & political avant-gardes. I should say that my context for your Wyndham Lewis was that form of the political which was deadly earnest in its suit for answers to the pressing questions. The perspective was a radical's notion of resistance to the panoply of 'state control' & 'mind control' (in which popular t.v., on the one hand, & the fear engendered by the ramifications of the super-power confrontation, on the other, were similar enemies) : as poets & artists then, the greater the experimentation or innovation the less our implication in the dastardly system...
Some of this return to the world is seen in the last issues of H/EAR magazine, which I edited 1981-85, especially the Being Here issue, at which time I thought my project could be held in the equation I'd proposed, Body : Text : World. I ceased typing stencils, abruptly, in 1985! I set about rereading, rethinking EVERYTHING! Only now, with the Poetry & Ideas blog, which includes The Merri Creek : Poems & Pieces mag., have I returned --which is the context for my communication to your good self here!
When Allen Fisher took me to meet you in Hay-on-Wye in 1990, &, ditto, when I met up with another friend-through-correspondence, David Bromige, in London in '87, I'd already parted company with the principals of what had become the postmodernist position in Anglo-American poetry. I did intersect with it, and still do, but from the late 80s, early 90s, I was consciously rereading the Tradition from which I'd become unnecessarily detached. I wanted to right the wrongs, as it were, albeit committed impetuously, ignorantly --the Poundian cleaving of the centuries, not to mention our own time, into good & bad, useful & expendible.
This isnt to say I hadnt enjoyed the ride --I will always refer to the wonderful adventures of Modernism & experimentalism, but no longer feel obliged to or by any necessary social corollary far less a poetical programme. For example, I've contended for many years now that the greater challenge was to write a complete sentence, to maintain a complete thought, to be receptive to wholeness, to the whole biz. I havent felt fragmented or 'decentred', which isnt to imply homogenous history or experience; simply that when I speak & write I attempt to hold the heterodoxical, the plurality of my life. Sometimes this is the purity (the pure effulgence) of the lyrical I, sometimes what one might call the life lived as I --the life (the world), that is, which adheres, even if only glancingly, to one's palpability & volition.
Of course a swathe of my reading isnt formed in this way at all. I keep up with it, in a way --the post-modern, the post-postmodern, whatever the contemporary is. I wonder if coordinating a poetry bookshop (as you did too in Hay-on-Wye) hasnt encouraged me into comprehensivity? But your thought about the 'approved poetry', 'official arbiters of excellence' etc, isnt one that contributes much to the stocking of Collected Works Bookshop or the atmosphere to which we invite our customers & visitors! As I suggested in pieces I wrote in the mid '90s --another 'come back' for me after years out of public debate --it had to be the "whole house of poetry" or nothing! Lately I was interested in the nature of the discussion I've followed on Robert Baird's digital emunction site (www.digitalemunction.com), which I found via a link on Pierre Joris's web-site : I might be wrong, but I felt that these younger commentators are doing their best to avoid the trap of mutual-exclusivity that afflicted our & our elders' generations. For example, Michael Robbins' "I'm supposed to think it's odd that I enjoy Albert Ayler, Lightning Bolt, Cecil Taylor etc Prynne, Raworth, Hass, Larkin" [I've abbreviated this], & Kent Johnson's averred 'catholicity of taste'. From within that strand of 2009 experimental poetry I sensed an attempt to find a framework for both established & new, mainstream & experimental, notwithstanding their penchant for the 'Marx & Adorno' strain of the British project --one that implies the separatism that's become anathema to me!
I'd like to think, Alan, that my writing also "went about its business regardless, picking through the debris"! This suggests a margin of freedom (transcendence? selfishness?) to be oneself --if so I'm with you in that. Apart from maintaining my own interest in those 'men of 1914', and oh so many others --the Bloomsburys, the Powyses --all sides of the argument! --I most relate now to your cogitation in 1980 that the attachment "to the idea of a silent underground" was an error, & at least the unwillingness to engage at large was one not made by Pound & Wyndham Lewis. A consequence of that engagement for me is an acceptance of the ways of the world --and I dont mean left wing or right wing ways! I mean the dynamics that produce such reactions as those and everything else as well. One has to be humble before the fact (& after it too, I suppose). And love our enemies, even as one articulates our contradiction!
Our dynasty came in because of a great sensibility.
‘A hypochondriac-paranoid w/ delusions of grandeur’
‘made of himself’ writes Olson ‘the ultimate image of the end of the West’
The Trial of Pull-Man/Pound: the camp in the plain outside the Magnetic City does foreshadow the camp in the plain outside Pisa. We might say: the bunched ideas of the Cantos stand to a proof of insanity as the time-zones of the plain stand to a proof of non-existence. (It was the mode of thought which was eventually tried, not EP.) There is also the totalitarian nature of the city itself and it is difficult to believe that when Lewis wrote the continuation of The Childermass in the fifties he did not have ‘the Pound case’ in mind.
Lewis stands against Relativity and against any notion of the contemporaneity of times as advocated in quite different ways by Spengler and Pound. But that Lewis should also, with Pound and half Europe, have fallen in the time-trap –
‘A useful figure under which to imagine this temporalizing process of “intensive abstraction” would be to consider it as an act of bringing the dead to life. That is indeed the miracle that is contemplated.’ Time and Western Man, p.170.
The question is whether Relativity is theory or description – a description, that is, of time breaking up, time falling into zones. The date would be 1905. There is some satire, vs. Joyce and Pound, in the progress of Pullman and Satters through the time-zones of the plain; yet at this date in the time-wars it does seem as if we go out every day into a century existing only as conglomerate.
Lewis neglects to ask why the time-mind has become a nearly-universal phenomenon. Is it not the effect of a nearly-universal disturbance? Lewis assumes it is the cause, that it is in fact a conspiracy – engineered, one supposes, by the Time-god he denies. He demonstrates that there is an appeal to a specifically Western emotion underlying the arguments for space-time but can only offer his own emotion and comfort in favour of the ‘static’ – the ‘still point’ in the vortex which stands against all conspiracy. Thus Spengler’s analysis of the Greek and Indian world-views is seen as an all-out attack.
Lewis’ contempt for Spengler seems to derive from a basic affinity. They both think with the eyes and see the same landscape, of the First World War and its aftermath. But Spengler’s time-mind looks for a pattern of events and of course finds it, for The Decline of the West has an inbuilt circularity: if ‘world’ is subordinate to ‘world-view’ and the Western world-view is temporal-historic then a Western world-history can only be the reflection of itself as history. Lewis attempts to turn Greek and stand outside the temporal-historic. Although he can thus analyse the time-mind he is no more able than any other philosopher to establish that the static world-view is ‘correct’. Underlying his attack on the time-cult is his belief that man is the controller, above all the creator – for space can be controlled in ways time can not; but the evidence is daily unfolded against him.
‘… what I am advancing is that … our time is very fully a time, but very little of a place’ writes Lewis. In fact it seems neither. The Twentieth Century seems hardly to exist as such: it is an unordered mass of temporal states, some past and some future, with geological faults and frequent landslides. Its mythology veers between Life Assurance and Black Holes.
The person stands at the centre of the argument: the person which, says Lewis, is diminished by the organic philosophies. The person does, however, require definition – is defined, we might say, by the ‘others’ who constitute the society or culture of which it forms part. This is no less true of the artist (which is, in essence, what Lewis means by a ‘person’ – i.e. the ‘enemy’) even though his most significant ‘others’ may now exist only in their art. The background to this is Lewis’ denial of influence on his work; the foreground is Pisa.
‘Coherent areas constantly invaded’ (St Elizabeth’s 1946).
The gradual extinction of the conscious mind, traced by Lewis, runs parallel with the growth of the State; the cause is not libertarianism except insofar as libertarian political systems have been constantly underpinned by state control. The line of demarcation is at last drawn so finely that the person exists in name only ‘in the public sector’. ‘The private sector will also be curtailed’: and connecting passages sealed off.
‘Thinking with the eyes’ but: Lewis was blinded by a pituitary tumour pressing on his optic nerves. His brain is preserved in the Pathological Museum at Westminster Hospital.
‘Polis is eyes’ but: the government conceives it is the one central brain. Constrained to its precision the language goes slack. Thoughts go out as agents, or shadows. We are drawn back into the magnetic city.
‘Every move I make has already been charted: the language, taxed at the source.’
‘Elaborate disguises & evasions.’
Presented with a composite surface we have only one choice: the cuts we make into and across it. Nonsense raids on the linguistic are in no sense raids on the NON-linguistic. The political grids still lack the ‘t’ which means ‘time’. Thus we escape through the smoke-hole 'where they used to be stars'.
MAXIMS, MINIMS, SQUIBS AND ESSAYETTES
1. By the age of forty -- after a few years of practice -- I'd learnt how to live the life of a thirty year old; but the time had passed, and my experience was now obsolete. And I started to realize that this would be true whatever new age group I was entering. So I began at last to comprehend the bewilderment on the faces of some old people, marooned not only in a new era they knew little about, but a new stage in their own lives they had no experience of. And that much of the experience they had accumulated over the years was now irrelevant to them.
2. We are all children, even the oldest of us; children who will never grow up.
3. Comes a time in late childhood when the young lad knows it all, and has a complete and mature understanding of life, above his cowering juniors. Then puberty, and a shaking up of the hormonal glands, and the spectacular rise of Venus from the waves, and a new set of dilemnas not envisaged in the lad's premature maturity. And he becomes a little boy again, in adolescence's childhood.
4. And I know how the time stretches from their deaths, now. So, four days since Cid died, six years with my mother, eight with my brother. And I'm aware of them all --all receding. And how Cid's death will recede too, retreating further and further into the distance, more and more away from us.
5. As La Roche says, we assume that we will live for ever --though we "know'' rationally we won't. And there is a certain level of awareness, which seems physically situated in us, that is immortal, and is neither an aged man, a youth, a "mature" adult, nor a child. No doubt it dies when we do, but it is easy to imagine it being unaffected even by that.
6. Death doesn't round things off. All its relationships are rent jagged-edged through the middle.
7. A small section of the congregation, or populace, will take the revered God or idea seriously, and ask "What is God?", "What is Freedom?", "How do I stand in relation to God and Freedom?" And maybe beat their heads against the wall to bludgeon the Truth in. But for most people going to Church is a social event --and you kneel when the Sanctuary bell rings, and stand to sing "Faith of our Fathers" after the "Ite missa est" -- whatever the faith of your fathers would have been.
8. You see a spider, which also notices you spotting it. And the motionlessness is tense, visible --almost as visible as the scuttling-off would have been (though it's in you, too). Similar to the silence of a person asked an awkward question about somebody else, when the silence falls audibly, and the answer is indicated unquestionably by the silence itself.
9. "To face whatever is." I have some sympathy for this objective. But it is by no means clear what is; and if it seems to be clear, that is not because it has been discovered, but because it has been pre-supposed.
10. rain on the hills, cloud fringe smudging into the valleys --with grey mountain wall behind.
11. As for "Eternity", timelessness rather than endless time was what people had in mind. Does "I saw eternity the other night" raise the question: and how long did you see it? For the instant of a lightning flash. Or in Vaughan's case, a sinking into the timelessness of the stars.
12. A nostalgia, much more poignant, for those events that never did occur.
13. They talk about the energy of youth -and it's true. But there is also a divine lassitude you have then stretching to infinity, that you never have again, all too aware, later, of the brevity of life, and the rapidity of its decades, and how little time will any longer become available to be squandered on such ecstasy.
14. " ... be devious, as my mother always said." (John Phillips) Women are pretty skilful at being either devious or direct --as they choose, and as you didn't choose, and as they choose you don't choose. It was very kind of his mother to get him up to speed on this. My mother believed I should be completely entangled in women's wiles, and that was the correct thing for a man to do --to be undone.*
15. We're on parole from somewhere; and if we break certain unknown conditions of our parole, will be recommitted to whatever detention centre we've been released from.
16. It's funny how we sometimes slip into our past almost as if it were unfinished business.
[*There is a grain of truth in this, but mostly it's unfair to my mother.]
[ Editor's note :
References : Cid is Cid Corman; La Roche is the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, author of the Maxims, published in 1665; John Phillips is an English poet, living in Cornwall.]
A RESPONSE TO ANN VICKERY
[It seems relevant & a propos to publish now a response I wrote, encouraged by John Kinsella, back in 1997 or so, to the essay by Ann Vickery, Beyond Strictly Verse and Pulp Diction : Approaching a Postmodern Poetry in Australian Writing via Some Language Poetry Shortcuts (published in Salt, vol. 9). Although solicited, my piece never appeared, and its omission never actually explained. Much later I was told John Tranter had received the piece to return to me, though the reason why remains a mystery to me. Perhaps JK sent it on to Tranter for Jacket magazine which was beginning around that time?
I remember mentioning it to Ann Vickery one day, hoping that she understood there wasnt anything 'personal' involved : it was a response written in the spirit of discussion. I quite expected her to have responded in turn. If I've remembered correctly, she said that of course she welcomed discussion but hadnt ever seen the piece.
Having now reread both Ann Vickery's essay & my response, some further context is required.
I think I made a red rag of Ann's comment that "Australian poets often refuse the term 'experimental' to describe their work." (Salt, p126); that "many writers seem reluctant to speak at all on the poetics that informs their work"; & that "there has been a general silence, both amongst critics and writers, over a range of issues in contemporary poetics that are being raised in other poetic communities." (p127).
I think I charged that red rag on behalf of everything I had been involved in since the '60s, as writer, editor, teacher, in Australia & England! By the time John Kinsella published Ann Vickery's essay in 1996, almost 30 years had passed since my 'new poetry' beginnings; & 20 years since the interweaving of Black Mountain, Beat, New York, & proto-Language Poetry practice into the variety of American postmodernism (& thus English-language poetry at large); &, crucially for me personally, 10 years since my own looking elsewhere for poetical succour --away from the increasing academicism of the entire scene & into a re-engagement with the maligned mainstream but particularly Tradition & its contemporary manifestation. Vickery's red rag flapped again, right up my nose : "Postmodernism then, may be seen as a cultural dominant in this age, embracing the contestatory and contradictory modes of cultural production that frame and maintain the social present. As a discourse, it signals the end of grand legitimating narratives (or the big stories, as Tom Clark prefers to call them), most significantly, the bourgeois ego (in the form of a unified autonomous self) and the picture theory of representation (language as a window to the world)." (p126). And again : "Apart from Scripsi, Meanjin, and previous issues of Salt, there still seems to be an insular promotion of our own writing at the expense of opening up dialogue with writers from other countries and other cultures." (p146). Hmmm.]
Reading Ann Vickery's essay, Beyond Strictly Verse and Pulp Diction : Approaching a Postmodern Poetry in Australian Writing via Some Language Poetry Shortcuts, in Salt no. 9, 1996, is disconcerting on a number of levels. Her description of the 1970s, 1980s U.S. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry might buzz with brio but I feel as if I've entered a time-warp. It's as though there hasnt been a discussion in Australia about poetry, as if there hadnt been an experimental poetry in Australia throughout this internationalist period, and as if experimentalism hadnt also transcended its historical types and become the form of interaction between erstwhile mutually excluding categories.
If one were to develop her 1996 contact-strip, one would find the 1970s there, even one's own ghosts & shadows and hardly at all the dramatis personae of the present time. For all the progressivist energy of her discussion --by which I mean that melange of chronological supremacism & libertarian futurism which inspires & haunts radicalism in art & politics throughout modernity --her big picture is actually a snapshot of an American movement whose revolutionary moment has passed into history. Of course, Ann Vickery should have been around in those times too! Her obvious enthusiasm for the 1970s avant-garde, whose works were trickling into Australia in the late 70s & early 80s, would have guaranteed her a place in the local symposium.
Twenty years on (--twenty years on from French & English deformations, deconstructions, inventions; twenty years on from such things as fall from my own shelves like Dick Higgins' Something Else Yearbook, Richard Kostelanetz's Text Sound-Texts, Nick Zurbrugg's Stereo Headphones, James Sherry's Roof, Barrett Watten's This, Charles Bernstein & Bruce Andrews' L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E newsletters, Lyn Hejinian's Tuumba Press; twenty years on from that American experimentalism which seemed, at last, to a New Australian's eyes, to be prepared for the kind of endeavour one had long admired in Europe; twenty years after this various experimentalism's apparently spontaneous dissemination, as feature & practice, throughout America, whereupon journals of 'new poetry' would have to be eclectic if they were briefed to represent the contemporary, thus Sulfur, Temblor, Acts, Oars, et al) --twenty years on, one is at one's wit's end in resistance to the settling of the nonetheless interesting writing & polemic into a dubious category dealing the spurious distinctions to which a criticism accommodating of the pettiest leftism now resides.
Mea culpa, from an older to a younger generation : We are sick of the sound of the strained voices we raised, round upon round, to the beat of the avant-garde drum! Listen, dear ones : We really are interested in Poetry after all!
Whilst Vickery's encapsulation is understandable, the juxtapositions she posits & the extrapolations she advances are problematic to the point of vexatiousness. I think she plays marionette for a stodgy materialism whose only life is politics, but of a kind which indulges in hiatus so accepting of the heresy of belatedness that errant sparks of irony & parody are fanned into the living flame itself.
Yes, I'll speak that elemental language against all the secondary dialects, happier as the whole bit's (the hobbit's?) fool than courier of smug partiality! But then I gag upon a sense of having been moved to repeat myself for twenty years!
Writing in Meanjin no 4,1978, coincident with first correspondences with the San Francisco poet Barrett Watten, I joshed with John Tranter about vision & with Michael Wilding about political effectiveness : "political awareness, human responsiveness, is not comprised of an inventory of political-science terms; one rhetoric is much the same as another, and all rhetorics are similarly disqualified."
At that time I juggled the propositions of Olson, Ungaretti, Benjamin, Adorno, Gramsci, Fortini & Cioran; as though awakening to the disappointment that the Dream was only a dream, and thereafter trying to articulate & cope with that disappointment. Cynicism & pessimism were understandable but transitional responses. However we still live with their political & poetical echoes --against which I'm moved to speak again!
Although in Australian Literary Studies, October 1977 New Writing Issue, I called for a "larger perspective" whose "fuller demand" enabled "a variable reading of a variety of pasts, presents, futures; it allows for a plurality of traditions, a multiplicity of reading; it places the present in dynamic relationship with all that has been, authorising what Walter Benjamin calls 'the leap in the open air of history', that potential to 'blast open the continuum of history'". --I was advocating the centrality of contemporary experimentalism, assuming the (censorial?) mainstream practice to such a degree that it had all but become invisible.
What has become clear to me now, as someone yet endeavouring to move into the 'fuller demand', is the unsatisfactory purview of the avant garde, its institutionalization of such strategic nomenclature as 'experimental' & 'mainstream'. What has been shown to me is the (nominal) mainstream's own liveliness, from the poignant verities of the Tradition to the variety of its engagement with contemporaneity (that 'us here now / hear us now' gambit which guided me in the 1980s). Thus my irritation with the schismatic opportunism informing Vickery's description of allegedly radical & reactionary forms of postmodernism, as if any poetry were ultimately beholden to any such schema.
One could tell a particular story about some Melbourne poets & their English, American & European correspondences & references in the early to late 1970s, my own version of which includes Americans who persist in the current discussion such as Larry Eigner, David Bromige, Michael Palmer, Michael Davidson. One could talk about Colin Symes' coinage "writing writing" in a particular issue in 1975 of The Ear in a Wheatfield, which juxtaposed Australian (Symes, Walter Billeter), English (Anthony Barnett), American (Clark Coolidge, Palmer, Davidson, Bromige) & European (Edmond Jabes via Rosmarie Waldrop, Paul Celan via Victoria Rathbun) poets & poetics to represent it. One could talk about the publication in the Merri Creek Or Nero, no. 3, 1979, of a supplement edited by Barrett Watten of the new writing in San Francisco (Benson, Bernheimer, Perelman, Robinson, Harryman, Grenier, Hejinian, Silliman, Watten), or of my interest in & co-option into the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E forum by Charles Bernstein. One could talk about Pete Spence coming to see me in 1983, on Geoff Eggleston's recommendation, and my subsequently introducing him to my Language poets' collection, and even take a stab on reckoning that his enthusiasm henceforth was for a phenomenon which fulfilled the textual playfulness of the New York School poets and other US poetry he'd disported with. One could talk about his Post Neo magazine's single issue, what it prefigured and what evaporated with its demise, and of his increasing commitment thereafter to typographical experimentation. One could talk about the gathering in & around Collected Works bookshop, 1984 to the early 1990s, of materials & individuals who, in different ways, could relate their writing to an experimentalism of which Language poetry was an aspect, but in whose differences & divergences equal integrity was vested --from Walter Billeter to Robert Whyte & Pete Spence; Chris Barnett to Des Cowley & Jurate Sasnaitis; from Javant Biarujia to Berni Janssen & Rob Finlayson; from Chris Mann to Charles Roberts & Raimondo Cortese; from Pataphysics to Oulipo, Surrealism to the many aspects of visual language & acoustic score. One could describe other Melbourne formations like Pi O & Jas Duke's magazines, exhibitions & readings, and the Arf Arf sound/poetry group, whose lives & works often intersected. One could put it all together again, as indeed it was --a perfect whole of protagonists & antagonists, and all the crossovers that make of any living world the self-contradictory hybrid it has to be.
It occurs to me that at the time of any such activity, history is elsewhere. But after a time, the activity is made over to history, made into history --so that further activity will be 'after history' & of a different type & expectation to the earlier or originary work. Poets & critics are evidently different creatures, though the criticism emanating from poetic engagement & familiarity, even practiced by poets, is a form of missing link.
I suppose my response to Ann Vickery comes down to this : shortcuts of any kind, least of all Language poetry's (but shortcuts to what? one may ask), will not assist any approach to the appreciation of postmodern poetics in Australia, far less its writing. Vickery's grab-bag of "feminism, Althusserian-influenced post-structuralism and cultural studies" may be cast of the same material as poetry, being, I suppose, the eternal Question, but in my book is never a superior fiction to poetry & certainly no ur-text.
As I have recently argued in Boxkite magazine (ed James Taylor, Sydney, no. 1, 1997; New British Poetry, with a Pinch of Salt), in respect of Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos British poetry anthology, "my major objection to this avant-gardism is its renunciation of the very aspects summarised by Tony Lopez [referring to the poetry of W.S. Graham] ('public' without sacrificing the personal & emotional or absenting the writer), in short its inability to conceive an openness to the Question which doesnt automatically exempt traditional subjects & manners." I reaffirm that here.
If postmodernism is to survive as anything more than one of modernism's avant-gardes, it is as the succeeding argument to that between modernism & anti-modernism. Forget what anyone said in 1951 or before! Ignore the absurdly retrospective lineages concocted for the category! Postmodernism is that sense of the contemporary in which all cases are reopened, all types & forms contiguous. This apparent inclusiveness may merely be the result of the untenability of the previously established exclusions, as though, for example, first person narrative is necessarily passe or musical measure irrelevant. It surely isnt controversial to aver the greater challenge of continuity,in this era of reflexive discontinuity, over the discontinuous? This postmodernism has expanded the scope of the conventional poetry (look at any Australian, British or American poetry publisher's programme in the last five years or so and see how comfortably older & newer forms sit side by side), and has ushered older poetry into newer critical perspectives. Juxtaposition & connection across technical distinction is the movement's trait & the figure of the day. Whilst Tradition is deconstructed, the traditional address, in terms of subject & relation to the world, is revivified. Postmodernist poetics hasnt been excused from the contemporary's slow but sure rising to its own metaphysic.
Ann Vickery's escape from the dreadful logic of most of her assay, by way of praising J.S. Harry's Peter Henry Lepus poems, in that they "encapsulate all the lateral, philosophical, and friendly play that language deserves", is commendable. Criticism, even postmodernism's, must return to the experience of the poem itself in order that its reality (that is its urgency & truth) is guaranteed.
A confidence --or might it be a confession? Depression, so rare & brief I've got a nerve to call it that or even speak of it, was once or twice dissolved in my reaching for a book of poetry & into it, serendipitously. I remember the occasion I found something of Robert Duncan's --probably not the poem beginning, "Often I am permitted to return to a meadow," but of a similar cadence. Perhaps it was, "In the groves of Africa from their natural wonder / the wildebeest, zebra, the okapi, the elephant / have entered the marvelous." --or else, "One moment sounds in its clamour of voices," --that melding of infinite suggestion & precise expression (Duncan's measure), which somehow releases me from nothingness's overwhelming numbness and returns me to sensation & articulation.
I certainly wasnt depressed at the final session of the inaugural National Poetry Festival in Melbourne (in April, '97), but experienced the same sublimity during the readings of Jan Harry & Judith Beveridge. Harry's dead-pan rendition, alowing the intellect & humour of one of her Peter Henry Lepus rabbit poems complete presence, aroused a condition in me wherein any anxiety for my own account was banished; I knew I could relax within her perfect pitch and, happy to accept her perspective, 'die'! And then, when Beveridge read her long, ornate, flowing lament for the elephant (from her latest collection, Accidental Grace), I was transported --her brilliant effects delivering a language to awe one in the same degree as its subject's tragedy, the tessellated imagery & choral appeal lifting the subject into language's largesse.
(Incidentally, it's instructive to compare Lyn McCredden's 'Australianist' reading of Accidental Grace (in Heat no. 3) with Peter Boyle's 'internationalist' critique (in Cordite no. 1). According to the former, Beveridge's "influences are mystical, particularly Buddhist, and contain echoes of Blake, Eliot, Francis Webb, John Shaw Neilson and others", --a case which should be made. However, the altter's description of a style which "synthesises a wide range of predominately American poets --people like Stanley Moss, Charles Wright, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Amy Clampitt, Sharon Olds, Michael Blumenthal," is the more enlightening proposition. Whereas the general truth truth normalises the new, the particular is exploratory. John Tranter was astute with his comment in 1976 that the juxtaposition of modern Australians & modern Americans in the cause of contemporaneity might not be very flattering to the otherwise informed locals. But one has to say that for those Australian poets hoeing a practice largely from American poetry & poetics, the statement of that relation is crucial.)
My point isnt simply that poetry is a consolation in a world of mind-scrambling tax & travail but that its daily exhumation & transformation of the matter of fact is a form of salvation.
In lieu of conclusion : I remember Nicholas Johnson (English poet, publisher of Etruscan Books) telling me in 1990 how he was simultaneously beholden to traditional poetry, from the Dream of the Rood to the great Gaelic contemporaries, & the modern Anglo-American experimentalism. It occurred to me then how radical was the potential of this collapse into each other of erstwhile contending lineages. In this light the avant-garde's ideological swipes at New Formalist & New Narrative poets is as gratuitous as its continuing criticism in England of the predominance of British & Irish poetry which isnt radically deformative! Let's take Alice Oswald, the English poet short-listed with Heaney, Adrian Mitchell, John Fuller & others, for the T.S.Eliot Prize (won by Les Murray), whose first collection, the Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (OUP, 1996), supposes a hybrid of written & spoken forms. High & low, folk & fugal, she has me in the same swoon as the bevy at the Australian National Poetry Festival!
There are lines & verses amongst her poems which exist independently, like little sculptures; e.g., "I can imagine / Pain, turned heron, / could fly off slowly in a creak of wings." There's a continual meeting of the vocabulary & imagery of land & sea in a collection I think more accomplished as a demonstration of her vocal & textual range than as a repertoire of poems. Whilst Oswald might disagree with the same derivation I suggest of Johnson, & by implication a lot more of British postmodernism, I'm sure she benefits from just such a reading. And like the sea in her tour de force, The Three Wise Men of Gotham Who Set Out To Catch The Moon In a Net, her poems "cannot be finished with; each layer is layed / co-terminous with light but more than light / and seamless and invisible in water - / cannot be closed or opened, only entered..."
KRIS HEMENSLEY / PETE SPENCE
MEMO FOR SPENCE
from memory, "extensive festoon", that which troubles the reader, causing a trembling of narrative perceived as simple telling the story, more than a trembling (which is what i'd call the fraying, the small electrical storm around & about some of Virginia Woolf, To the Lighhouse, eg-), a shaking apart, which is Joyce's legacy, & Arno Schmidt's as well (for which we're ever thankful to Walter Billeter, see his Etymspheres, vol. 1, no. 1, 1974, now on a shelf at Collected Works, first time to see such public light of day, which is charming yes? / & also proves that time is flexible, nothing by definition stuck in its own time; see also The Private As Social Meeting Place issue, with the Konrad Bayer, the Uncle Balthazar pieces (Billeter's last happy writing), some of my ABC Book, which is all very Joyce/Schmidt/even Sorrentino-ian), to which can be added brighter sparks of nouveau roman such as Claude Simon, Raymond Queneau, & such a German cousin as Thomas Bernhard; & all of these are readable, i mean they're writing the readable, & they're writing, sweetly, are not at all rubbing shoulders with the atomic scriptors of whom you're so enamoured (i'd exclude Ron Silliman, Steve Benson, Lyn Hejinian from that shoal), who would seem to agree with our own Chris Mann's reductionism after the gospel of thou shalt not commit redundancy (which i commented upon in H/EAR no. 3, 1982, p242, "Of course, the architects & composers of literary texts are not unaware of the redundant forms that necessarily enable their particular work. And they put them to work, they attempt to create language constructs that do not repeat, that arent almost wholly redundant. It ought also be said that prose-information is not the only component of the literary text. And that what informs is the cut (the sound) of the prose.")....
& "festoon" is a very good word, with suggestion of dressing up, adorning (OED: 'chain of flowers or leaves, or ribbons etc., hung in curve between two points'), & i think of Michel Tournier, & he who pointed Tournier out to me, Des Cowley, a gorgeous, beautiful word-spinning...
&, again from memory, what i wanted to say to you was that there is NO logical procession, from a to z, from any past master to any present mistress, we do very well to mistrust any such linear ministration, that leads only to tyrannical administration. For no work is ever passe : only the work to which one might now seek to put it. For example, to apply (as you quoted of some other discussion, in some dark night on some other hilltop) Wordsworth to the current problem; that is, to Wordsworth the contemporary, is plainly daft. But Wordsworth himself, his writing, is still intact. And Wordsworth's spirit (in the sense of the current poet picking up from the older poetry). Nothing is done, except when it's done to death. There is no finality born of logic...
THE ESSAY, notes.
my interest is in language not
necessarily of an understood
texture carrying inherent meaning
but as text for exherent festoon
i.e. i'm not interested in
signification bewildered by
interpretive entities (that's
like asking for an object (sub
text) to be replaced by any
subsequent interpretive entities
intentionality) there an object/
sign becomes at least doubly
removed from nominative placement
in four dimensional contingency
so a text (writing) for me should
be significanced as in music or
painting beyond a causal experient
that is exherent open text
i.e. not a skeletonic diagramic of
meaning as in "this stove is black"
when the description can also be
"big, hot, dirty, etc" nor an encyclo-
pedic infinite descriptive/explicat-
ive.....but the "stove" among other
images sands describing (i would) would
have adhering to through a reading
of the text possible description or
meaning etc (so my text would idealy
be a dense partisigned run-on writing
no part being a (tone) center as in
the music of webern ((more so than
Berg or Schoenberg!!)) habituality
is not explication.... the conatative
stove is much more than a universal
MEMO re MEMO
times are when i think we are some of
the worst reactionaries on this acreage
language is the last thing that should
have preventative medicine (what'd semioticians
o mort....oui Arthur....d'lethe.....
"the notes" are a slow attempt to explain
to myself and etc my steps into (others)
and towards (my own) texts,, that would
i feel fine taking the steps i do
i recognize myself
here or where
polyvalent kinethesis aside i do not feel
any urge towards centralism furthermore
i don't see language as something you can
go back on or how can anything said be final?
"finitude" is more than just a pesticide!!!
what i've always hoped to do is come to terms
with writing that's seriously facing the ague
and age and in that Chris Mann* Clark Coolidge*
Bruce Andrews* Michael Gottleib* et al are are
like it or not lump it or lave it in the cafiene
straights among the most and many
i thoroughly enjoy Chris Mann's journeys into
the festoon i mean is there too! apparent!
and very (if he wants or no) readable!
yoiks i festooned the cloverhitch
summation gadfly purchase
anent lad teflon up destiny long
soap opera tine tune
your poodle foist
[* all tacit ontologists!!]
Kris Hemensley is always here
Clive Faust, Pete Spence are in other issues & mentions [see the name index & click on]. I must mention, though, that the 6th number of John Phillips' Hassle (27 Treverbyn Rd, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 IEZ, UK) has recently published 6 poems by CF in its elegant, double-folded sheet series; and that PS has some equally auspicious things forthcoming in the European works...
Alan Halsey lives in the old country (tho perhaps Oz is older); used to run the Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye; is the publisher of West House Books with Geraldine Monk; much published & anthologised English poet.