Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Letter 9

Click here to listen to So Here We Are on miporadio.

So Here We Are

A great variety of absorbing poetry is obscured by its omission from mainstream publishing, newspaper reviews and the critical narrowness of national poetry awards. There is, at least, a lack of balance dating back to the late 1970s and the changes at the Poetry Society, as described by Peter Barry in Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court (Salt 2006). National poetry awards are essentially judged by a small coterie of friends who give each other awards, as delineated by Private Eye magazine in July 2002 and as Tom Chivers reminded us earlier this year in Tears in the Fence 45. They are essentially unrepresentative of what is and has been happening in English poetry, incredibly safe and unchallenging. There is a tame parochialism and narrowness that has its roots in notions of nation and identity forged between the World Wars and reinforced by the Movement in the Fifties and its apologists in the Eighties. ‘English decency’ as Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion wrote in their introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982). There is an antagonism towards the discovery of meaning and form in language and to reading widely and deeply that flares up in spats about what constitutes poetry and who should control the field. (See for example Don Paterson’s 2004 T.S. Eliot Lecture, ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’, Neil Astley’s 2005 StAnza Lecture, ‘Bile Guile and Dangerous to Poetry’ and their responses. Conversely there is the predominantly modernist line of thought that seeks to avoid any market taint. Friends refusing to review friends work for fear of selling out.) The New Generation Poets of the Nineties and its marketing machinery similarly adopted a cosy world of vernacular spontaneity and simplistic forms of connection between poetry and life. This strategy involved an acceleration of the critical deterioration heralded by Morrison and Motion. This was not always the case and there are signs that younger readers, thanks to new technology and a greater awareness of disparate writing, are having no truck with this narrowness.
I would like to discuss an example of this absorbing poetry that encourages openness and takes the reader off the beaten track and to indicate why there may be signs of change.

I first encountered Allen Fisher’s Place in literary magazines at Compendium Bookshop in Camden Town, London in the mid 1970s. This was an exciting time to visit Compendium and buy such magazines as Grosseteste Review, Curtains, The Park, Poetry Information, Aggie Weston’s, Joe Dimaggio, Reality Studios, Sixpack, Spectacular Diseases and Eric Mottram’s Poetry Review. Scattered amongst such magazines were extracts from Place by the poet and painter, Allen Fisher. It seemed like samizdat literature. It was inspirational in the sense that it allowed itself the privilege of drawing upon a wide range of sources that impinged upon South London, where Fisher was born and raised. Place Book One, for which Fisher jointly won the Alice Hunt Bartlett Poetry Award, appeared in (Aloes Books) 1974 and was followed by other parts of the project, culminating in Unpolished Mirrors (Reality Studios 1986) and finally appearing as one book, Place (Realty Street Editions) in 2005.

In common with J.H. Prynne, Andrew Crozier and Iain Sinclair, Fisher drew upon Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1960), Maximus Poems IV, V, VI (1968) and his ‘Projective Verse’ essay (1950) to articulate a rich seam of sources and information from archaeology, history and geography. I don’t think that you can discuss Olson’s impact in England without mentioning Ed Dorn’s enthusiasm and encouragement to English poets, whilst he was a Fulbright Fellow at Essex University, to follow this path. Raised and educated during the Depression, his poetry was concerned with limits and thresholds of place and identity. Dorn had been taught by Olson at Black Mountain College, lived at Gloucester, the location of the Maximus Poems, and clearly was an inspirational figure.

Like the Maximus Poems, Place is a sprawling work, although not an epic work in the sense of a journey out and in. It is more about process and contemplation than journey. It has a relentless and flat movement forward. The book’s organisation is Olsonian, with five main books: Place Book One, Eros:Father:Pattern, Stane, Becoming and Unpolished Mirrors. Place Book One is subtitled in roman numerals 1-XXXVII, and contains within it an internal sequence ‘Lakes’ and a section subtitled ‘Making an Essay // Out Of Place’. Stane, the Scottish word for stone, is subtitled Place Book III: XLV-LXXX1 and so on. There is a complex numbering system at work for each poem or section of the project. There is also a series entitled ‘Grampians’ that appears in Place Book One and Stane as well as letters to friends, a response to the publication of Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat (1975) and direct quotations from fellow poets Anthony Barnett and Pierre Joris. There are poems with lines and stanzas at different angles and poems that use horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines to connect bits of text and to allude to other connections. However defamiliarising this might be, it is clearly a development out of Olson, with its shared emphasis on the complexity and plurality of cognition, rather than an imitation. There is no immediately assimilated narrative, Place requires the reader to become immersed in the conflicting range of references and readings that constitute its object. The preface states:

this set takes the form of an essay
in fragments that brought together
bring about their own symmetry
their own chaos

and later,

I await the day when this book will lose & find itself
in a general movement of ideas.

Place begins by peeling away layers of history and settlement along the Lambeth causeway to the City of London. Through mostly unidentified historical, literary, philosophical and documentary sources the Lambeth people are shown standing on the sites of battlefields bridging the City banks with cattle fields. Fisher’s fragments highlight indices of nineteenth century poverty, submerged pathways and streams, lines of migration and waste, ley lines and boundaries. He seldom attempts to prioritise one fragment over another but rather teases out possible underlying structures and association through juxtaposition. In contrast to the stable identity and formal restraint of Movement and New Generation poets, open field produces polyphonic and fragmented perceptions. On one level there is a kind of levelling of sources and ideas, reminiscent of Eric Mottram’s essays, that can engender a less than engaged response. Sometimes the conflicting energies are dissipated, or need to be held in suspension, as other perceptions and lines of enquiry enter the poem. Yet on another, one could argue that Fisher’s play on the binaries of the visible and actual, of giving and taking, of sources and deposits, of underlying and artificial divides is an example of an attempted Tao, with its allusiveness intact.

Fisher’s achievement in this initially bewildering and subsequently compelling poem is to seek out processes and possibilities and to encourage his readers to embrace this as a work in progress that involves their active participation. In many ways, it was the experience of reading and not understanding Place that forced me to make linkages between the concept of place and other discourses that impinge upon any place. In my experience that involved linking with Foucault’s discourse analysis and thinking about process and on a practical level realising that a knowledge of place required a full understanding of natural and human sciences as well as social, economic, legal and historical processes. Place Book One is entitled Place rather than Lambeth or South London and that surely suggests Fisher is attempting to move beyond Williams’ Paterson and Olson’s Maximus.

the loci of a sphere i have seen it
I, not Maximus, but a citizen of Lambeth
cyclic on linear planes

Here the narrative self, with small and large I to indicate selves, is located in a specific place in the manner of Paterson and the ‘not Maximus’ indicating that this is not an imitation.

This is a long poem with a Shelleyan scope for poetry built upon American models with an English philosophical hinterland. The fifth book, Unpolished Mirrors, employs a Blakean flourish with the gardener’s, Watling’s and Wren’s monologues within an enquiry into memory, perception and consciousness that includes references that extend beyond London’s literary and scientific history, John Dee and the theatre of memory, to the specialist language of scientific research. Fisher has clearly absorbed Pound, Oppen, Olson, Rukeyser, Reznikoff, Zukofsy and so on. The arrangement of fragments can be seen as both strength and weakness. The strength comes from the emphasis on process, which Fisher develops in later work, such as Brixton Fractals (1985), and the weakness comes from the failure to elaborate the interconnectedness of all through linkages. I suspect that an underlying resource that Fisher draws upon is A. N. Whitehead’s Process and Reality (1929), a work that was introduced to me by John Cowper Powys’ brother in law, Gerard Casey, in the early Eighties. Although not listed in the bibliographical resources, the work has resonance with the Taoist methodology. Whitehead’s central metaphysical idea identifies reality with process. He saw the universe as being in constant flow and change and rejected the dualisms of mind and body, of knowing subject and transcendent object, of man and nature, believing in the interconnection of all things. Another feature is that Fisher includes within the poem some of the background thinking to his work in progress as a kind of estrangement in the Brechtian sense. It can be disconcerting for readers to encounter passages of philosophy with brackets closed and opened. However, this is Blakean in the knowledge that ‘without contraries there is no progression’ and similarly works to keep Place outside of the poetic mainstream and inside a broader avant-garde of poetry as process.

Place’s Taoist approach is combined with aspects of late Sixties esoteric research and thinking. These are specifically English sources such as The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones (1925) by Alfred Watkins and The View Over Atlantis (1969) by John Michell, both of which present ley-line theory, and The Patterns of the Past (1969), research into underground water systems and ancient sites, by Guy Underwood, a pioneer of earth-energy dowsing. Fisher uses this speculative material on the underlying lines and patterns detected by dowsing to great effect as the Lambeth walker seeking out hidden sources of energy. His contemporary, Iain Sinclair, was similarly divining the past in Hackney, East London, in Lud Heat (1975), which along with Andrew Crozier’s The Veil Poem (1974), is similarly fragmentary and concerned with showing that the world reveals itself, not as a given, but through perception and process.

Place involves much more than I have indicated here. It is the thinking behind a work such as Place that is as important as the range and uses made of the content. The poetry may not be as quotable as T.S. Eliot or be as linguistically hinged as Andrew Crozier or as formally elegant as Peter Riley, but it is very effective and works on the reader with repeated readings. Multifaceted long poems such as Place are rare and challenging. They are not elitist per se as time and scholarship wear them down to manageable tenancies. They are adult and awake, moving forward. There are many ways in and out of their ingenuity. Parts of Place Book One echo the connections between the psychogeography of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem and sexuality. There is a sense of fully exploring the relations between the narrator’s body and the body of Lambeth. Place also contributed to the popularisation of pyschogeography in Britain through its emphasis on walking London and its connection with the large body of work produced by Iain Sinclair. One could also examine the way individual poems mark the extent, through fragmentation, to which the narrative self interjects within certain discourses. Place implicitly encourages moral and political thinking, of the need to break out of confined dogmas, peer groups and idioms. It shines as a beacon to show possible ways forward in that endless movement from the natural landscape to the cultural and back again. It makes you consider citizenship, moral responsibility and what it is to live in a place. It makes you think about the limits and thresholds of place, speech, identity and audience.

Time has moved on since Place first appeared and we are now a more fragmented and multinational nation, although you would not know this from our national poetry prizewinners. The post-Wordsworthian critique of the pastoral is not merely localised anymore, it is contextualised globally as poetry itself is becoming increasingly contextualised globally. The Australian globetrotting poet, John Kinsella, has a useful introduction to this in Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism (2007). Based in Gambier, Ohio, Kinsella is a remarkable poet of birds and the beach concerned with issues of nation, place and self that reverberate internationally.

Younger poets and critics are more aware of the twentieth century English modernist tradition these days thanks to new technology developments. Literary websites, such as John Tranter’s Jacket magazine, have led the field in essays, articles and new poems within an international modernist aesthetic. Individual poets, such as Ron Silliman, have used blogs to discuss a wide range of modernist and other poetries. There are also sites that actively encourage the sharing of wide reading, such as Goodreads and Stumble Upon, and networking sites, such as Myspace and Facebook, used by younger people where older poets have made contacts and found a new audience. Younger poets and critics have started their own blogs, such as Edmund Hardy’s Intercapilliary Space, and display their knowledge and interests. The Internet fosters wide reading through its search engines and, although the information is not always accurate or reliable, there is a great opportunity to discover those marginalised poets of substance that have been almost written out of existence. Combine this with the success of non-mainstream English publishers, such as Shearsman and Salt, and it is broadly possible to say that there may be an underlying change in emphasis under way in English poetry that will eventually see an end to the current ridiculous situation.