The erasure practices of Jen Bervin and Mary Ruefle
At the 2013 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Boston, I wandered among rows of bright, strange, and intriguing books piled high on independent poetry press tables. Hand-stamped, letter-pressed, spray-painted, ripped, sewn, and covered in tinfoil; poems shaped like boxes, poems printed on records, poems made into pop-ups or puzzles, or rolled as cigarettes — I even spotted a tiny book hidden inside a plastic egg. The small presses occupying real estate at the AWP book fair represent a fraction of the artistic output that marks what can be seen as a resurgence of the handmade book and the book as art object in contemporary poetry practice. The exciting variety of these book-object wares suggests a vital world of poetry, visual art, bookmaking, and communal production. In these composed book-works, techniques of production, including design, collaboration, and distribution, are part of the poem. The paper, binding, page sequence, gutter, and cover all contribute to our understanding and experience of the poetic text. Acknowledging this necessitates a reading practice newly attentive to the material nature of bookmaking in order to understand works whose compositional practices consciously incorporate physical book structures into the made poem.
Precedents for the practice of bookmaking as poetic composition include the innovative practices and ideas of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century writer-bookmakers actively creating a poetics of the book and directly engaged with the codex form and print technologies, including William Blake, William Morris, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Poetry as an art form already strives to “thicken the medium” as much as possible by using all of its visual and verbal features to create meaning and evoke sensation. This medium sensitivity inherent in poetry makes it uniquely suited to self-reflexively engage the symbolic and social functions of the codex form, and poetry’s intersection with such book arts practices as collaborative construction, manual printing, assemblage, and defacement allows for the creation of poetry book-works that, taking full advantage of poetry’s linguistic play, construct a reading experience of immediacy and physicality, of interruption, irruption, and potential. The physical and conceptual potential of the codex allows poets to deploy the paradox of the book’s cultural associations of fixity, stability, and spirituality and those of its physical intimacy, ephemerality, and corporeality in order to provide an encounter with the poem that is both tactile and conceptual, disorienting and familiar, mundane, exotic, ecstatic, and erotic. The poetry book as art object thus revises what it means to encounter a poem, insisting that to read is to move through the space of the book, to touch, to listen, to navigate, in short, to encounter a “full-bodied literature.”
By writing about two such poetry book-works, Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow and Jen Bervin’s The Desert, I ultimately want to offer a record of encounter, a thinking through and with the book objects at hand. Each of these works takes an earlier book as its physical and conceptual impetus, sewing or painting over existing text and so making a new work from a previously obscure or forgotten text. Marcel Broodthaers’s purely graphical recreation of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés (1969) and the altered book-works of Ronald Johnson and Tom Phillips from the 1970s and 1980s are perhaps the most emblematic examples of this practice and perhaps the most famous. Each employs Duchampian and neo-Dadaist notions of the defaced book in order to enact the ways in which works of art and literature are always already a reshaping of the tradition. Others have written about the relationship between original text and altered image in Phillips’s work A Humument, but its status as an inspirational prototype has yet to be fully assessed in light of later defaced book-works. The same is true for Ronald Johnson’s Radi os, a book-length rewriting by excision of Milton’s Paradise Lost. While Phillips’s and Johnson’s excisions can be read as unrepeatable conceptual acts (what was conceptual had to do with their newness as well), there is no doubt that erasure has taken on the weight of a new genre within poetry practice.
A spread from Broodthaers’s Un Coup de Dés (1969).
In recent articles, Travis McDonald and Marjorie Perloff each locate the origins of what’s commonly called “erasure poetry” in conceptual models of appropriative or restraint-based poetry such as Oulipo or Flarf. While this is certainly a valid entrance point into a still little-discussed topic, I suggest we also view erasure poetics in the context of the material substrate of the book as object, a view which allows for a richer understanding of both compositional process and conceptual or creative effect. By subverting our expectations for reading within a codex, these defaced (or even re-faced/re-surfaced) books promote new forms of tactile reading in the service of phenomenological investigation and often offer an experience of time with greater fidelity to the process of duration as it occurs in everyday life.
Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow appeared in 2006 from Wave Books as a digital reproduction of Ruefle’s initial erasure. With its high-resolution reprint, Wave Books attempts to render visible the three-dimensional textures of the original text, maintaining an awareness of the poet’s hand in the poetic undertaking. In 2008, Granary Books published Bervin’s book, The Desert, with the help of a team of seamstresses, as the colophon states, in a digitally printed, machine-sewn, and hand-bound edition of forty, combining new technologies with traditional book arts practices, and, like Ruefle’s text, retaining an awareness of the poet’s composition method in the resulting artifact. Deploying the defaced book as phenomenological investigation, Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow and Bervin’s The Desert begin, like A Humument, with nearly forgotten books. Each work utilizes texts that are over one hundred years old and have escaped the notice of most contemporary readers. As such, each project can be read as an act of reclamation as well as renovation.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
The Desert takes as its primary text John Van Dyke’s 1901 book of the same name, a detailed account of his journeys through the deserts of America. Rather than working directly on the original edition, Bervin digitally reprints the first seven chapters of Van Dyke’s book on handmade abaca paper. The text of each of these new books is then sewn over row-by-row with more than five thousand yards of light blue silk. The cover is wrapped in the same rough abaca paper and bleached to the color of sand, the title is hand-punched with small holes that form the letters. No ink or thread appear and the author’s name is also absent; instead, the negative space of the holes represents the book’s name, as if it had drained like sand into the pages that follow. The cover of the book alludes to the visual landscape of the desert and to the simultaneous presence and absence of Van Dyke’s original record. It also demonstrates the hand’s role as one of removal — the rough paper has been leached of color, the title is punched out rather than inscribed, the look, entire, suggesting absence. And yet, upon opening the book, we experience the beauty and abundance of a field of blue silk zigzags.
Bervin writes in the colophon: “John Van Dyke writes of the American deserts as necessary breathing spaces; my sewn poem is narrated by the air.” Describing her erasure as a single poem “narrated by air,” she refers to the project’s attempt to create its own elemental landscape within Van Dyke’s depiction of American wilderness. On an early page, Van Dyke’s text has been sewn over line-by-line to reveal only two words, each an utterance that is equally speech and exhalation: “Ah! / Air!” Out of the reconstituted landscape of the page, speech erupts, forming its own breathing space, furthering Van Dyke’s conceptual project, and creating a space of release for the body of the text within the landscape of the page.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
Not only does Bervin make tangible Van Dyke’s poetic attention to visual phenomena, she creates sensations within the act of reading through the haptic quality of the erasure. Bervin’s erasure enacts, in the book’s own archeological terms, both a burial and an excavation. Covering over the bulk of Van Dyke’s record of his wanderings in the desert, the three-dimensional, textured surface of the blue stitching lures the reader’s hands to participate in the text. In these raised blue fields, we also find pockets of text that have been left open or have been sewn over and subsequently uncovered once more, the pockmarks of the removed thread still visible. These pockets of text exist as fragments, such as the single legible word on page 26: “missing.” In most instances, however, the visible fragments can be read across the page to form longer (often self-reflexive) statements about observation and composition. Texturally they exist as spaces of absence or flatness within the book. Visually, however, they form the darkest marks on the page and draw the eye to read the poem as an excavation in the midst of the blue field of stitches. Van Dyke’s text exists as one man’s record of his senses, which Bervin’s attentive erasure excavates to further reveal a meditation on light, vision, composition, and ultimately, the body’s absence in the landscape of the wilderness.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008). Back side of page 16/17.
Within this meditation, the tensions between the revealed words, the absented/covered words, and the textures of the glacial silk continually push the reader to recognize the reconstitution of form as a legitimate investigative and poetic endeavor. Bervin’s page, which contains what was in Van Dyke’s original a spread of pages 28 and 29, demonstrates just such an awareness of its constructed nature.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
In this excerpt, “showing —” physically demonstrates the excavation — the needle marks around the word do in fact show us where the thread has been sewn then ripped out to uncover the word. A small black tail also hangs from the end of the word, a half-hidden em dash partially sewn over which looks in its semi-visibility like a black thread running horizontal to the vertical zigzag of Bervin’s stitches, forming a visual echo in which the text itself looks as though it might have been sewn onto the page. In a chapter retaining its original title, “The Make of the Desert,” we find further demonstration of the intervention of the poet’s hand and eye in the construction of meaning.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
Here Bervin leaves the entire em dash uncovered, the threading together of the text indicated in a visual pun and followed by a verbal pun upon the needles, the spear-points, the instruments of the hand that have punctured the text and transformed it from inscribed word to observable action. The text instructs us to take notice of the blue threads folding back into the page and the pages folding into the book as a whole. Ultimately, we are being asked to pay attention to the inquiries the text is able to perform or suggest by what the hand veils or leaves open to air.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Although the brushstrokes in the correction fluid look three-dimensional, the book’s haptic quality is illusory in its digital reproduction. Even so, the book’s look encourages the fingers to at least try to feel the grooves on the page, and our eyes still remain sensitive to its textures. At points the text also encourages us to move our eyes over the shapes of the correction fluid. On page 22, the text reads: “Think me / lazy / always idle; but / my brain / grows weary / just thinking how to make / thought” and, between each line, the patterns of white seem to form the shapes of words as they have not done on the rest of the page. The correction fluid forms illegible script-like shapes that register as readable lines rather than elided text, and we feel compelled, as we read through the lines, to strain the eyes, pushing the white images to resolve into a readability which the images ultimately deny us. On the facing page, it is as if the text has decided to answer our efforts with an explanation of its methods: “very simply, / ‘It’s always noon with me. / pale, and deformed but very interesting, / ’”. Noon appears opposite the reader’s struggle to simultaneously read and see both text and image at once.
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Each act of erasure transforms the archive while simultaneously preserving the artifact. In this action, we recognize a larger commentary on language as occlusion — as a drama of both blotting out and inscription. The books enact the truth that everything that comes into presence necessitates an absence. We must then look at erasure in the context of what the poets preserve, the words, phrases, poems selected and revealed, in order to understand the practice of erasure, of art and aesthetics, as a method of selection that provides, if not a goal of complete retention and recollection, then an affirmation and preservation of what might otherwise be lost. The act of preservation exists as participation — a transformation of the material and of our own experience of the material. Ultimately, the books want to be readable. They describe an aesthetics, even an ethics, of active selection — of world-fashioning — and are, therefore, affirmative even as they interrogate the processes and politics of the act of selection itself, of who and what we choose to foreground.
1. Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 14. McGann’s conception of the work of poetic language is especially useful: “[Poets] draw attention to that quality of self-embodiment that is so central to the nature of texts … The object of the poetical text is to thicken the medium as much as possible — literally to put the resources of the medium on full display to exhibit the process of self-reflection and self-generation which texts set in motion, which texts are.”
2. N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 26. Hayles argues that what is at stake in transforming literary theory into material practice through an attention to literary works that foreground and thematize their status as material artifacts is “nothing less than a full-bodied understanding of literature.”
9. Travis McDonald, “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics,” Jacket 38 (2009).
10. Marjorie Perloff, “Poetry on the Brink,” Boston Review, June 2012.
By now, whether or not fans of his solution, all literary scholars — and perhaps even all readers — have confronted Franco Moretti’s classic problem: there is simply too much to read. And so, his argument goes, if critics and educators continue to rely exclusively on traditional practices of “close reading,” they must acknowledge that a vast number of literary works will necessarily go unread and unstudied as a result. Certainly this abundance is nothing new, but Moretti’s wholesale rejection of his profession’s past “exclusion strategies” may be.
In the opening pages of Graphs, Maps, Trees, for example, Moretti acknowledges that criticism’s historical adherence to a tiny canon — along with all the ethnic, geographic, and gender biases it entails — is certainly one way to lessen the reading load, both for critics themselves and for the readerships their canons influence. However, Moretti ultimately frames canon formation as a means of camouflaging rather than encompassing literature’s worldwide “explosion”:
[T]he study of national bibliographies made me realize what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two hundred novels … sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain … but is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows.
So Moretti proposes a different methodology for literary study, one that prides itself on its refusal to exclude: “distant reading,” a distinctly large-scale and quantitative approach to literary analysis in which “the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction” via conceptual models and pointplotting. He then goes on to demonstrate the usefulness of this approach by applying each of his titular models to the same field of study mentioned above: the history of the novel. In “Graphs” and “Trees,” he traces the market-driven evolution of the novel through its myriad of nineteenth-century genres and forms, and in “Maps” he interprets the fictional world(s) of Jane Austen through a historically informed understanding of her novels’ geographical settings and systems.
Whether Moretti’s approach deserves to supplant or merely reside alongside previous methods of literary analysis, it seems impossible to deny its promise for fiction — and particularly for the novel, whose emergence seems most inextricable from economics and whose stories are usually clearly situated in place and time. But what of poetry, which often lacks such definitive sociohistorical settings? Can Moretti’s abstract models be applied here as well as in fiction? If so, how helpful are they in constructing meaningful analyses of individual poems, literary eras, and the evolution of poetry as a whole?
Immediately, several reasons for doubt seem to arise. For quantitative diagrams don’t deal in the ineffable; they deal in “raw data”: a baseline of gathered facts whose pattern or relationship alone is to be theorized and interpreted. But what facts can poems offer about themselves? Aside from certain obvious exceptions (such as in some narrative or “talk” poems), categories of form and topic, plot and setting, all appear rather slippery and disputable, perhaps even optional. And Romanticist Stuart Curran is not the only scholar to have deemed poetry’s several blurred and overlapping subgenres “intractable.” In more contemporary criticism, Bartholomew Brinkman has also observed a sticky “consolidation of genre” that begins in poetry of the Romantic period and culminates in modernism.
Thus, I wish to propose several possible applications of Moretti’s “abstract models” to the analysis of poetry in particular, ultimately reaffirming his hypothesis that such models reveal otherwise unseen patterns in and across literary texts and contexts. In the first section, in search of a diagram that might depict the character of historical trends in poetry (as Moretti’s genre-oriented “graphs” do for the novel), I will discuss the issue of genre in poetry and what Virginia Jackson calls the “lyricization” of verse. Here, I will argue that although generic distinctions may determine the novel’s various markets and therefore drive its evolution, it appears not to serve this same pivotal role for poetry, whose generic distinctions have remained comparatively static now for over a century. Hence, in the second section, I will turn to what I hypothesize may currently drive poetry’s evolution in genre’s stead: competing schools or movements. By analyzing a tree portraying part of this evolution, I will then introduce a crucial difference between my own evolutionary hypothesis and Moretti’s: in mine, literary development appears to be driven by not only selection from but also reaction against past literature. And finally, with this larger principle in mind, in the third section I will propose a model for “mapping” poetic content based not on geographical place but on image. I will conclude that through the use of these and similar models, poetry’s complex process of market-driven evolution does indeed begin to emerge — just as Moretti would predict — but that this process reveals a market far removed from the mass consumer readership of the novel.
1. Graphs: Genre, lyricization, and lit markets
In the chapter of Graphs, Maps, Trees focused on “graphs” in particular, Moretti charts the evolution of the novel primarily via genre: “epistolary,” “gothic,” “historical,” “industrial,” etc. And soon enough, a pattern emerges: whole clusters of novelistic forms emerging at once only to vanish just a quarter century later. And Moretti’s famously sociohistorical approach seems perfectly suited to explain this pattern: generations. That is, each genre traverses a “life cycle” no longer than that of its readers. The novel’s evolution, then, is precisely the evolution of a market governed by the forces of supply and demand — with genre as its main commodity. Consumers demand certain genres over others, determining which succeed and which fail, and the publishing industry supplies the surviving genres only so long as demand for them remains.
This analysis of the evolution of novelistic forms is elucidating, and a parallel diagramming of poetry’s historical development is certainly desirable. But can it be done? What are poetry’s “genres” anyway? And why does contemporary criticism comment so little on them?
According to Virginia Jackson, the answer to this final question concerns a process of categorical conflation between poetry as a whole and the “lyric” mode in particular — a process which, in Dickinson’s Misery, Jackson argues was fueled and embodied by turn-of-the-century critics’ misguided attempts to augment the lyric so that it might accommodate Dickinson’s originally unclassifiable work.  What Jackson’s argument narrates, then, is the effective collapse of all poetic genres into the lyric — and evidence supporting this claim saturates the last century of criticism. Indeed, even in Curran’s Poetic Form and British Romanticism, a text dedicated to the recovery of the Romantic period’s “generic conceptions,” Curran identifies the “master categories” of “literary discourse” as “narrative,” “drama,” and “lyric.” But if all poetry is also lyric, what of Curran’s alternate genres: the hymn, the ode, the pastoral, the romance, the epic? If Jackson’s theory of “lyricization” is correct, it may explain why most of these terms now smack of antiquity.
Yet although the label of lyric itself has been broadened and indeed may now encompass practically the entirety of verse, Jackson makes clear that this “collapsing” of categories in criticism has not in fact led to the total extinction of such categories, but merely to their being nominally subordinated or “reduced” to the lyric. Along these same lines, Curran asserts that “[w]e have inherited the myth of a radical generic breakdown in … Romanticism that in fact never happened.” In other words, lyricization’s collapse of generic categories is by no means a fact of poetic history, but rather a construction of critical culture. This containment of lyricization to the realm of criticism implies two notable things for a Morettian modeling of poetry: first, it implies hope. For if poetic genres indeed still exist, they can likely provide the “raw data” necessary to plot and track poetry’s evolution on a fixed diagram or graph (as Moretti does with the novel). But second, and more importantly, it perhaps implies that such a graph would reveal none of Moretti’s dramatic historical patterns or trends, since the market-driven evolution of poetry appears so vastly less responsive than fiction’s. Despite being critically received and frequently marketed as lyric for over a century, alternative poetic genres somehow simply persist, surviving in the face of critical extinction. If generic change, then, were poetry’s main mode of graphable evolution, its recent history wouldn’t appear very lively.
So is genre in fact, as Moretti and Curran agree, “the driving principle of … all literary history”? Perhaps. But if so, genre in poetry is not what Curran thinks it is — although it certainly may have been once. Moretti’s models prove precisely that literary history mimics biological evolution not only in its promise of environmental adaptations but also in its production of new species, and even Curran attests that the “[r]ecovery of [ancient genres] is much more common than the actual discovery of a new genre, at least in respect to poetry.” But if new species of poetic genre are rare or nonexistent nowadays, then might it be something else than genre that drives the evolution of verse?
I suggest a clue may lie in Moretti’s “generational” genre taxonomy itself. Across the titles of the genres named, most end with words like “stories,” “tale,” or “novel” to designate their common “master category” of narrative. However, after about 1850, another ending word appears (twice) that hasn’t before: “school.” Interestingly, Jackson’s argument for lyricization may inadvertently reveal why this term gained importance for all literary evolution — but especially poetry’s — during this particular era:
Whereas other poetic genres … may remain embedded in specific historical occasions or narratives … the poetry that comes to be understood as lyric after the eighteenth century is thought to require as its context only the occasion of its reading … My argument here is that the lyric takes form through the development of reading practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that become the practice of literary criticism … This is to say the notion of the lyric enlarged in direct proportion to the diminution of the varieties of poetry … as the idea of the lyric was itself produced by a critical culture.
Here, Jackson highlights the dramatic historical change that occasions the phenomenon of lyricization: what we might call the “decontextualization” of poetry, in which social ritual and cultural myth gradually bequeath poetry to the academy, and originally performative or socially embedded genre categories begin being filtered through the “fictive persona” of the printed page. That is, Jackson’s theory of lyricization narrates precisely the story of a market shift for poetry, a change in audience (and hence in demand) which — in a surprisingly Morettian twist — would ultimately dictate a lasting departure in poetic evolution away from generic concerns.
After all, what better way for poetry to adapt to its new scholarly environment than to flower in theory instead of in form, and to sprout up not genres but “schools”?
2. Trees: Schools, theory, and evolution
With “critical culture” having apparently acquired enough power over poetry to diminish its very categories of reception, new categories — and with them new markets — had to be established within and in legible response to that culture. The result, rather predictably, is a poetry more conscious of itself and its own priorities than ever before, one ready to explain and justify itself through personal manifestos at every turn, and one which today demands that a published poet be able to produce an “artist statement” aligning his/her work with a particular set of aesthetic goals.
Yet despite this phrasing, such a poetry is anything but “one”: indeed, as Curran puts it, poetic kinds “create their parameters not by simple imitation but by a competition of values, a subversion of precursors,” and the proliferation of individualized artistic credos around the turn of the twentieth century seems to have only increased such grounds for dispute. Thus, of the several “splits” or “divergences” in modernism’s mass of movements — some of which have been roughly reconstructed in the following tree — a few may represent “simple influence,” others pure “subversion,” but most some combination of the two:
Despite this model’s obvious conceptual limitations — its inattention to precise chronology, short-lived “missing links,” cross-branch interaction, etc. — its oversimplified form may nonetheless reveal much about the nature of “post-lyricized” poetic lines of influence. Firstly, modernism’s “roots” in Symbolism and Realism already suggest a tense competitive deliberation in poetry between external responsibility and internal composition. In other words, poets were already beginning to offer explicit responses to precisely the perennial questions of theory: “What is literature?” and “What should it do?” Next, in the tree’s “aboveground” branchings, these theoretical camps become more and more specialized, focusing and refining their questions as they go. Though most movements address all such questions to some degree, the ranking of their priorities varies widely. In brief, the Harlem Renaissance takes up social responsibility (How can/should poetry change society?); Futurism the external image (What/how should poetry represent?); Dada craft (How does/should one compose poetry?); and the Black Mountain School rhythm and sound (What is a line and how does it mean?).
Of course, still further questions arise from still further divisions. But the point is that the evolution of poetry — at least since lyricization signaled its environmental shift from social occasion to scholarly page — has become precisely the evolution of applied poetic theory. Modern and contemporary poetry engages theoretical issues, then, not out of some existential necessity for greater self-understanding, but because its market — its specific arrangement of producers and consumers — is something of an incestuous one. Most consumers are either professional consumers (critics) or also producers (poets), and nearly all others read foremost in scholarly settings, which demand similar attention to theory. The upshot of this argument may strike as surprising: poetry’s “inward” turn to theory, given its audience, made it not less relevant, but more.
So far, all of this only confirms Morettian thinking: literature evolves by adapting to its environment, and its environment is its market, its audience, its readership. However, the market that literary theory attracts — that of academics and particularly scholars of the humanities — is much different than that of the mass public, especially in its curious positioning of the consumer in relation to opposed or competing products. For whereas a traditional free-market economy fancies itself “consumer-centered,” supposedly relying on the tastes of choosy customers to decide which products die and which survive, academia is in many ways just the reverse — production-centered, where the consumption of text is almost never merely consumption, but rather fuel for further text production. This focus of the consumer on intellectual takeaway rather than personal taste, use rather than enjoyment, allows authors greater leeway to achieve precisely what Curran cites as poetry’s main means of variation: subversion of expectation, rejection of former ideals, divergence from precursors.
According to Moretti’s models depicting novelistic “natural selection” at work, conversely, the selection is entirely the consumers’. In his example concerning detective fiction, for instance, Morretti explains that “the literary market” is marked by “ruthless competition — hinging on form. Readers discover that they like a certain device, and if a story doesn’t seem to include it, they simply don’t read it (and the story becomes extinct).” But how can poetry’s pathways through modernism possibly be explained via readerly tastes?
Often avant-garde poetics, exemplified in modernism by Dada and Surrealism, was seen as an affront to readers who associated art with order; yet Andre Breton’s “First Surrealist Manifesto” emerged nonetheless, influencing successors on its own “branch” as well as on every other, and significantly revised its precursor in Dada by exalting and politicizing the “automatic” unconscious over the found readymades of Duchamp. And in turn, though highly influenced by Surrealism, the founders of Oulipo rejected Breton’s unconscious inspiration in favor of mathematical constraints, each thwarting the force of authorial will but by decidedly different routes. A Morrettian may call these men “readers,” of course, but they are certainly not only consumers. Thus, in part due to its differing audience, modern and contemporary poetry seems to have evolved differently than the novel. While (according to Moretti) the novel evolves primarily by readers choosing, dismissing, or refining genres, poetry seems nowadays to evolve more like theory: by published authors waging ever-fracturing battles of ideas, engaging with the academy, and recruiting entire “schools” of disciples to help them. Though both evolutions can be dubbed “market-driven” in a sense, poetry’s market seems to allow for more authorial flexibility, experimentation, and innovation.
One reason for this may indeed be academia’s self-professed relish for new ideas and rich theoretical controversy (often at the expense of mere “pleasure” or entertainment), but another reason must lie in academia’s central site of evaluation — and elimination. Not in sales, but in publishing, printing, and reprinting.
3. Maps: Canon, scale, and circles
Moretti’s example of the detective story’s evolution, though instrumental to his argument, unfortunately yields one rather unsettling conclusion: the canon may actually reflect the true “fittest” to survive in literature. The way Moretti explains it, the one major canonical author of detective fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle, naturally outshone and outsold his competitors through a veritable audience consensus. And what’s more, he ascribes Doyle’s success not to a mere trend in taste, but to the objective “technical feat” of his work. This may all of course be true of Doyle and his competitors; Moretti makes a compelling argument, and I see no reason to distrust it. But its implications concerning the canon seem dangerous, especially when applied to the annals of poetry, where canonical status historically appears to depend more on critical approval and anthological reproduction than on market consumption.
Based on Moretti’s account, canon formation seems almost inadvertent, a happy accident of literary evolution in which the strong simply outlive the weak, and truly “great” authors surpass their competitors fair and square through a quasi-democratic process of election. Yet this is far from the story of canon formation that poetry’s history tells. The difference between the two, moreover, I believe can also be ascribed to poetry’s distinctively scholarly market.
According to Alastair Fowler’s Kinds of Literature, three main kinds of literary canon can be distinguished: “the potential, the accessible, and the selective.” These three categories are perhaps best summarized by Alan Golding in From Outlaw to Classic as “describ[ing] the narrowing-down process” by which any tiny canon is established. First, the “potential canon” refers to all extant literature, meaning all the literature that, “simply because it exists, any reader could potentially read.” The “accessible canon,” in turn, refers to “that part of the potential canon to which readers have fairly easy access,” whether in the form of “scholarly reprints, affordable paperbacks, or anthologies.” And finally, the “selective canon” refers to “those works in the accessible canon that trained readers have selected as especially worthy of attention.” Clearly only this third and final category designates what we normally mean by the term canon. Yet Moretti seems to consistently conflate the other two categories in his discussions of the novel’s evolution — and perhaps with good cause.
Never does Moretti claim to have access to “all extant” novels, to be sure, but he at least presumes most published novels have undergone the same critical audience-evaluation process as Doyle’s. And although this could certainly be the case for novelistic fiction, whose market once again is vast and consumer-centered (and hence overflowing with “affordable paperbacks”), Golding reminds us it isn’t always the case for poetry, whose smaller readership within or adjacent to the academy frequently relegates even recently published works to the obscure fate of dissertations and historical documents: “[S]election precedes as well as follows the formation of the accessible canon, affecting the form that ‘accessibility’ takes. Some texts are considered worth keeping in print in a readily available form, while others survive only in the dark corners of university libraries.” So how can readers democratically select a canon from a set of texts to which they have no access? Golding’s answer, put simply, is that they don’t. Instead, “trained readers” do, but not always fairly or well. In fact, Golding argues that for many poetry anthologists “[e]xhibiting the historical range of American poetry meant exhibiting it at less than its best,” and that at times “the moral status quo” of American culture “effectively controlled the … range of subject matter in canonical poetry.” This argument depicts a very intentional canon formation indeed — a process that can be characterized as insidious at worst, biased at best.
Oddly enough, however, Moretti’s own methods of abstract modeling may provide a most expedient corrective to such bias, and it is this promising application of his theory to which I will now turn to conclude. Below is my own first attempt at a Morettian “map” of a poem, Ezra Pound’s own highly canonical imagist exemplar, “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
How might one go about mapping a poem that lacks clear geographical movement or even identifiable setting? One answer to this question may be found in the type of diagram presented above: a map that depicts not place but image, not absolute locations but relative changes in its visual scale, size, and scope. Of course, such a model would show little of interest when applied to a poem without major scalar variation, but it’s notable that Moretti’s own maps would prove comparably futile if applied to novels set entirely in one place.
Furthermore, despite its limitations, when applied to Pound’s poem the model yields striking results. Just as in Moretti’s various models, immediately a pattern emerges. In particular, by tracing the poem’s specific sequence of variously scaled images, one finds that it follows an increasingly focused “pulsing” pattern in which even the title participates: from the (smaller) station to the (larger) metro, from the (still smaller) faces to the (larger) crowd, and finally from the (smallest) petals to the (larger) bough.
And although perhaps not to Pound’s preferred degree of distillation, many other modernist poems — both canonical and noncanonical — progress in a similar kind of pulsation. For example, Mina Loy, a modernist linked to both Futurism and Surrealism but only recently deemed canonical, follows this pattern sporadically throughout “The Dead” — but with a twist that may betray her dual theoretical loyalties:
Our eyelashes polish stars
Curled close in the youngest corpuscle
Of a descendant
We spit up our passions in our grand-dams
We are turned inside out
Your cities lie digesting in our stomachs
Street lights footle in our ocular darkness
Here, Loy contrasts again and again the large with the minute, evoking the same disorienting leaps in scale and scope as Pound. However, an important difference also suggests itself: as opposed to Pound’s, Loy’s lines explicitly undermine the very notion of scalar stability by positioning the large within the minute, instead of vice versa. But this difference can nonetheless be sensed through a change in scalar pattern: instead of consistently moving from small to large as Pound does, Loy eventually transitions (with “We are turned”) to move from large to small, formally indicating her reversal of scalar reality. That is, through a central “turn” in the poem where the small-to-large patterning of scale stops and reverses, Loy reveals the underlying theme of almost every line — a disorienting inversion of physical order where “stars” lie in “corpuscles,” “cities” in “stomachs.”
The pairing of this reversal with Pound’s pulsation, moreover, may speak to Loy’s association with both Surrealism and Futurism. For as Pound’s Futurist-inspired Imagism suggests, Futurism prioritizes image and speed, whereas Surrealism prioritizes absurdity and dreamscape. Thus, Pound’s poem may actually reveal a template of sorts for the composition of Futurist/Imagist poetry — one which through Morettian mapping can be detected in both canonical and noncanonical writings alike.
Ultimately, then, some semblance of Moretti’s “abstract models for literary analysis” can and should be applied to poetry, despite the “intractability” of its genres. Not because Moretti’s idea is gaining traction, although it is. Not because his models yield results, although they do. And not because the course of all literary evolution turns out to be determined by the buying public, because it doesn’t. Moretti’s models ought to be applied to poetry, on the contrary, because — as he so graciously reminds us — a comprehensive understanding of literary history is yet to be reached. And why is it yet to be reached? Not because “there’s too much to read,” although there is. Not because attempting such a project would require Moretti’s method, although it might. But because the Western ‘canon’ has been exposed as a deliberate distortion, rather than an authoritative encapsulation, of that history. With Moretti’s help, may we work to rectify and clarify this distortion for all literature — not just for the novel remembered only by a sales-ledger, but for the book of poems forgotten even by its campus call number, reprinted once or never at all.
1. Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000).
Harvey Shapiro passed away on January 7, 2013, less than a month short of his eighty-ninth birthday. As his literary executor, I was given the task of looking over his remaining papers. I did not anticipate a big job: in 2009, Harvey moved from an apartment in a brownstone on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights to a high-rise a few blocks away on Montague Street, and before the move he had sold most of his papers (notebooks, manuscripts, and letters of over fifty years) to the Beinecke Library at Yale, his alma mater. His collected poems, The Sights Along the Harbor, had appeared in 2006, including about twenty pages of new work. After its publication, in his last years, I knew he was continuing to write at a leisurely pace, and he would casually mention poems forthcoming in one publication or another. My impression, therefore, when I began to consider his remaining files, was that I would find only a handful of poems beyond the ones that he had published since Sights had appeared.
As it turns out, I was utterly mistaken. Harvey had left behind a mass of manuscript pages in two file folders. I found drafts of the dozen or so poems that had appeared in periodicals, but they were mixed together with close to a hundred pages of recent work. These pages were undated, but from internal evidence, I could tell that most of the poems had been written in the last six years. I realized quickly that here was a book that needed to be edited, and that Harvey was probably looking toward such a book before he entered the hospital for the last time. I spent two days on Montague Street. There on the thirty-third floor, with the apartment’s magnificent views looking south across Brooklyn and west across lower Manhattan and the harbor, I sorted through the files, keeping most of the work and setting aside only those pages that seemed unfinished or still in the process of revision. Most of the pages were either completely clean or very lightly emended in Harvey’s hand. A word might be cut or a line break altered, and in each case it struck me as just the right decision. I returned home to Cincinnati, and a week later, Galen Williams, Harvey’s companion, mailed me photocopies of the poems.
Organizing the manuscript proved relatively straightforward. In these poems, Harvey’s overlapping subjects and themes remain the same as in the past, as readers familiar with his work will quickly see. There are poems about the places where he spent his last years, wry observations of city life, and of the Hamptons, and of the Florida Keys. There are poems based on his service in World War II (in 2003, the Library of America published the anthology that Harvey edited, Poets of World War II). There are love poems — Harvey is one of our great erotic poets. There are poems concerning some of the poets who meant the most to him, and of the writing life. And there are many poems of the sort that I consider an updated version of wisdom literature, suffused with Jewish irony and compassion, often anecdotal and bordering on the parabolic. But in all of the poems in this last manuscript, there is an intensity, an urgency, and a deep, meditative awareness that I find quietly astonishing.
A Momentary Glory: Last Poems is a sustained act of inspired writing, the passionate outpouring of a brilliantly gifted poet in the face of age, illness, and mortality. The language is charged with unprecedented gravitas. Yet the work is as edgy as ever, and Harvey never abandons the supple, even jazzy wit that is central to his style. The verbal economy, the razor-sharp lineation, the perfectly timed presentation of detail that are his trademarks — all are subtly at work here, never flashy, still in the service of a poetic sensibility in search of what Harvey always called “the way,” from halakha, the Hebrew term for the Law. Indeed, although he was not observant, Jewish culture, belief, and identity remain constants in his poetry. His book Mountain, Fire, Thornbush (1961) deals exclusively with Jewish themes, but he also turned to Jewish texts — Bible, Midrash, Kabbalah, modern Jewish philosophy — throughout his later work as well.
Perhaps above all, Shapiro was a consummate poet of New York City. He felt a strong literary kinship with Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and Frank O’Hara, but his closest connections, both poetically and personally, were to the Objectivist poets. William Carlos Williams was an important early influence; Shapiro and Williams corresponded, and met at Yaddo in 1949, when both had summer residencies there. In New York, Shapiro became friends with Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, and George Oppen. Both Zukofsky and Oppen lived for a time near Shapiro in Brooklyn; Oppen in particular served as a crucial mentor and role model. Shapiro was also close to other poets of what could be called the Objectivist milieu, including David Ignatow, Hugh Seidman, Michael Heller, and Armand Schwerner, often spending summers in the Hamptons near Heller and Schwerner.
When Harvey and I visited Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania in September 2005, we gave a reading together and the next day presented a discussion of the Objectivists, moderated by Bob Perelman. Thinking back to that visit (our presentations are recorded and available on PennSound), I’ve chosen two poems from A Momentary Glory that reflect Harvey’s relation to the Objectivist tradition. Additionally, here are three poems about World War II, about Brooklyn (where he lived most of his life), and about facing mortality. As Harvey might say, these five poems, all previously unpublished, are a vorspiese — an appetizer. In his last years, he has provided us with one more elegant feast.
For William Carlos Williams
My rhetoric imagines you as your rhetoric says you.
You are in the city, drinking coffee,
a morning break. The poem in your head
is neighborly to all you see. Those who
sit next to you are not foreign to your lines.
Impure identities, they fill your poem with essences.
You do not build tombs for posterity
but open spaces where we can breathe
intelligence and the pain of love.
The bread of life is what we die to taste.
I taste it in your poems.
When the words won’t come right
Charles would do what?
He never told me. High-laced black
shoes. Went out to a poetry conference
in the west for five days and never
shat. So he complained to me on his
return. Late afternoon, and he decided,
since I was leaving, to walk down from
his place in the 70s to Times Square
where he could purchase, at his favorite
kiosk, his copy of the Times Literary Supplement.
Fortunately, I thought, he stumbled when
he first hit the street so I was able
to persuade him to take a bus downtown.
Waved to me from the window.
Told me once that he had no use for
Zukofsky’s work — too obscure.
He was after a Chinese clarity. He said
two things Oppen, Louis, Rakosi and he
had in common: they couldn’t get published
and they admired the Do’s and Dont’s
Ezra Pound was publishing in Poetry.
The day I almost died
was near Vienna when I was
nineteen. And the day
I almost died was over
Regensburg when I was twenty.
And the day I almost died
was in a Southampton hospital
when I was eighty. Maestro, is
this a song that never ends?
This evening, for example,
when the sky cleared, the light
at the end of Atlantic Avenue
over the water —
so that everyone crossing the street
turned for a moment,
touched by something.
I don’t have to spend
my eternity in Queens
because the family plot in Queens
is as crowded as a subway
at rush hour. Instead,
I can choose my own ground
and my own tree
and my own crow to croak Kaddish.
On Pierre Joris and Adrian Clarke
The writings writers write about writing have been curiously misread.
Battling the impossibility of being their own readers, writers are drawn to fuzzy logic when it comes to thinking and externalizing their thinking about the purpose, activity, outcomes, and future of writing that results in text that can be unstable in a variety of ways, and is sometimes difficult to read. However, there is enough commonality among these writings to group them as members of a discourse, one called ‘poetics,’ and a prospective study of poetics is most revealingly conducted using examples that orient themselves in form, towards form, and that reveal themselves as hybrid and playful, fragmented or highly formal.
I want to draw a distinction between poetics and manifestos, to crystallize the nature of each. Manifestos may contain poetics, but poetics itself is a more mercurial discourse: speculative, conjectural, and provocative, suggestive of formal possibilities for the art practice concerned. Mary Ann Caws helps to clarify this discrimination: “As if defining a moment of crisis, the manifesto generally proclaims what it wants to oppose, to leave, to defend, to change. Its oppositional tone is constructed of againstness.” This ‘tone’ is absent from poetics, where, as Stephen Romer reminds us, “we find … a profound reserve before the fact of poetry, and a refusal to be dogmatic.” There may be, of course, provocation in its exhortations; poetics provokes artistic innovation or progression.
Donald Wesling, on the other hand, asserts that “poetics resides largely in the more strident form of the manifesto.” However, his characterization of manifesto poetics since modernism is illustrative, in that he balances what I call the conjectural and speculative nature of poetics against what Caws particularizes as the combative tone of the manifesto:
The manifestos are histrionic and heuristic. They dare and supplicate the reader as they project into the future a schedule and strategy for personal work. And if, for the writer, they define a field of action, for the reader they afford a gesture of solidarity, suggesting what lenses are necessary for appreciation of the work. Thus to read these productions in a univocal way, to be insulted by them, or to disregard them completely as oversimplifications, is to misunderstand their nature. (104)
Misreading poetics as a unified or simple discourse (as underdeveloped literary criticism, for example) is to miscomprehend the complexity and doubleness of the discourse, its incompleteness, its mercurial nature, its often teasing relationship to the originating writer’s (or writers’) literary productions. But Wesling strikes a false note, despite his nuanced description, when he considers the role of the reader. Manifestos, he says, “are in fact clues, historical and methodological study guides to aid us in our task of reading” (104). This attitude colludes with what Jerome J. McGann calls the “ideological imaginary,” the process by which “literary criticism too often likes to transform the critical illusions of poetry into the worshipped truths of culture.” By analogy or extension, the speculations of poetics fall prey to a similar petrifying assimilation in Wesling’s description: it is utilized as a “lens” to “appreciate” the resultant work, not seen as cultural work in its own right.
I will proceed with the premise that the only good reasons to show and share a poetics are if it assists in the definition of literariness or if it is of any practico-theoretical use for other practitioners. Readers will perhaps one day read poetics in its own right as a performative discourse, but poetics must never become simply a ‘study guide.’ My ‘episode’ on Maggie O’Sullivan’s poetics in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, “Talk,” ends with a string of unanswered questions:
May one contest a poetics? Crudely put, can we say a poetics is wrong? … What would it mean to challenge O’Sullivan’s shamanistic borrowings as essentialist or partial? Would it matter that her “sources” date from the 1940s? … Put another way, if, as Charles Bernstein says, “The test of a poetics is the poetry and the poetic thinking that results,” are these questions pertinent at all?
I wish to address these questions by looking at Pierre Joris’s “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” (before turning to Adrian Clarke’s angry reaction to it). I will be citing chiefly the text mysteriously numbered “version 2.0b,” which was first published as an issue of Allen Fisher’s Spanner magazine in 1999. Version 4.00 is found in Joris’s 2003 collection of essays A Nomad Poetics, which differs by including interpolations by Brian Massumi. This mutating document is fully congruent with its theme, of course, but I wish to remain largely with the earlier version (the one contested by Clarke). A Nomad Poetics as a whole might be seen as an extension of this text as poetic thinking that results from the poetics.
Joris, who hails from Luxembourg, spent several years in London beginning in 1971, when he formed friendships with poets such as Lee Harwood and Allen Fisher. He edited the ambitious journal Sixpack and continued to write original poems and translations between his four languages: Lëtzebuergesch, French, German, and English. He lived in Algeria for three years before a long-term return to the US, where he had already lived in 1967 and where he is currently domiciled. When he coedited the two-volume Poems for the Millennium anthologies in the late 1990s with Jerome Rothenberg, he was jointly responsible for the fact that at least J. H. Prynne, Bob Cobbing, Allen Fisher, John Cayley, and Maggie O’Sullivan from the British Poetry Revival and Linguistically Innovative Poetry movements appear in the second volume of this transnational anthology. (I have praised this anthology in a poetics essay of my own, “The End of the Twentieth Century,” as “a loose-leaf anti-canon of World Wide investigative poetries”; I also comment that “Anthologizing is poetics,” emphasizing the constitutive value of the process and its product.)
Joris’s own remarks in “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” on the editorial process with the veteran anthologist Rothenberg make it clear that the anthology is at the heart of a nomadic poetics and should be seen as “a nomadology in action, an event authored by us, which means the two multitudes that Jerry & I are, plus the multiplicities the poets in the book make” (17). He quotes Deleuze and Guattari’s remark in A Thousand Plateaus that those two authors were, like Rothenberg and Joris, “Each of us … several, there was already quite a crowd” (17). The famous “treatise” on nomadology in that book is the source for Joris’s assertion that “A nomadic poetics is a war machine, always on the move, always changing, morphing, moving through languages, cultures, terrains, times without stopping” (17). Deleuze and Guattari argue that, unlike the migrant, the nomad (who operates at both a literal and metaphorical level in their argument) deterritorializes, holds to a purely relational sense of the earth as ground, as passage. As opposed to the static military bodies of the State, the nomad (and his mobile war machine) is “itinerant, ambulant,” following (rather than representing) “a flow in a vectoral field” (372); “they are vectors of deterritorialization” that refuse to reterritorialize, unlike the migrant who simply settles elsewhere (382). The spaces they traverse are therefore “smooth,” while the geopolitical divisions of the state result in borders, striations. Deleuze had earlier written of nomadology: “There is no longer a division of that which is distributed but rather a division among those who distribute themselves in an open space — a space that is unlimited, or at least without precise limits.” Many of the US and British poets in the Millennium anthology have often had to organize themselves, operating with a self-distributive sense of literary function — arranging their own networks of publication, for example — against the readymade distributed literary tradition or canon. They perhaps are the “nomads-by-choice” mentioned in Joris’s epigraph in “Notes” from Allen Fisher (2). To these notions, as Joris freely adapts Deleuzoguattarian concepts, he adds qualities of mutability that extend into one of his own poetic concerns: translation.
There is no doubting the stridency of Joris’s ambitions for his twenty-nine-page “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics.” It takes on many of the characteristics of the manifesto and echoes one major art manifesto of modernism. Caws reminds us that “The manifesto is by nature a loud genre, immodest and forceful, exuberant and vivid, attention-grabbing” (xx). She adds: “Immediate and urgent, it never mumbles, is always in overdose and overdrive” (xxi). But Joris also assimilates quieter deterritorialized modes of contemporary poetics, ones that often mime or merge into the poetry that is envisaged. Indeed, Joris has invented the hybrid category of the “manifessay” to describe his text, to reflect his deflection of the manifestic impulse into the poetics essay form. It is indeed made up of “notes,” a form which suggests provisionality, and the “towards” of the title suggests nomadic preference for events of becoming over states of being. Often aphoristic and elliptically allusive, with quotations from poems and other documents, its final pages present a translation from a pre-Islamic ode by Tarafah, “the most modern, rebel of the nomad poets, an early Rimbaud,” according to Joris. Joris’s interest in Arabic and Maghrebian poetry concretises the metaphor of nomadism, makes it literal as well as theoretical. Like much poetics, his hybrid text borrows, steals, and distorts his sources and influences. At times this can be vertiginous, even obfuscating, as when he grafts onto nomadism the Situationist concept of drift, the willed pointlessness of the dérive, so beloved of the psychogeographer, although the point he is making — the “ever more displaced drifting” of language itself — is a pertinent one (3). There is a world of difference between the lines of flight of actual nomads — say, the purposeful, economical tracking between oases — and the deliberate and often delirious abandon of the psychogeographer.
The proliferation of concepts is a Deleuzoguattarian technique — indeed, this activity defines their philosophy — and the development of novel borrowings and neologisms can be observed in many poetics documents. Joris’s “manifessay” does not disappoint, indeed may be largely read through them. To call the nomadic poet a “Noet” is not just a neologistic contraction. It implies a rejection of the place-bound poetics in favour of a space-determined sense of nomadic movement. “There is no difference between inside & outside at the poem’s warp speed,” Joris promises, though it is difficult to relate this to specific textual practices (6). However, this is generally congruent with the views of one contemporary geographer, Doreen Massey, who conceives of space narratively and dynamically as “a simultaneity of stories-so-far,” or as communal Deleuzoguattarian “co-eval becomings,” as she puts it, although Joris does not refer to her work. In fact, he prefers to develop the associative implications of his neologism. “NOET: NO stands for play, for no-saying & guerrilla war techniques,” he writes in a grand refusal, eliding the Deleuzoguattarian war machine with a distantly romanticized sense of guerrilla warfare (“Notes,” 7). Ancient knowledges are hinted at in “gNOsis” and modern ones in “Noetics,” but again, the collocations are vitiated by lack of detail (“noetic” operates also as an adjective from the Greek, nous).
However, there is one citable example: John Cayley’s Indra’s Net. “The nomad poet, the NOET, gives allegiance to INDRA the warrior god,” Joris states, quoting Deleuze and Guattari on Hindu deity Indra as a “pure and immeasurable multiplicity” before he presents Cayley’s description of his cyberpoem: it is mediated through an ever-changing screen of words morphing between languages (13). In essence, the technological advances in cybernetics are applauded by Joris and embraced by Cayley because of programmable media’s ability to generate a mutating textual entity that the reader may operate and — more radically — enter in order to change, so that one copy of the text eventually will be quite different from any other, a true “plastic literary object,” in Cayley’s words (14). Here we have a literal example of “the nomadic poem as ongoing & open-ended chart of the turbulent fluxes the dispersive nature of our realities make inevitable,” though it is worth questioning whether this does not simply amount to a close representation of chaotic and fractal reality rather than an intervention in it (14).
Joris, of course, is not offering cyberpoetics as the only mode for the noet. Elsewhere, he becomes relatively specific about the process of becoming a noet: “The NOET learns & then writes in foreign languages (real or made-up ones) in order to come to the realization that all languages are foreign” (16). As “mother tongue” morphs into “other tongue” through yet more wordplay, language becomes a drifting substance, “consonants” like “continents,” he says. Everything is flux, it seems.
However, Joris does develop a principle of rest and pause: ‘poasis.’ Collocated from the words poem and oasis, and hinting at the poesis from which we name poetics itself, poases are the “refuelling halts” that are necessary for the paths of flight of nomadic writing to be achieved: “They last a night or a day, the time of the poem, & then move on” (3). Joris has ancient authority for this neologism. The tenth-century Sufi term mawqif is modulated through the poetics of the contemporary Tunisian poet Abdelwahab Meddeb, whom Joris has translated, and Joris refashions the term in “his poetics in order to define what the poem is: The mawqif is the pause, the stop-over, the rest, the stay of the wanderer between two moments of movement, two runs, two sites, two places, two states” (17). Thus formulated, the term implies “between-ness as essential nomadic condition,” a condition of not digging down into the territory, but of being strung above it between two points, paradoxically at rest and in transit (6). Thus the poem is not written at rest, but is itself that restless rest, as Olson realized decades ago when he asked: “How to dance / sitting down” (and which Joris quotes approvingly; 18). It is a moment of simultaneous recreation and creation, an exfoliation of poetic potentiality without having roots or taking root. It is “en route.” It is a “moving placement on a smooth space,” to quote Joris in Deleuzoguattarian mode; “it is a (momentary) stance in relation to & with space,” precisely part of the rhizomatic potential of lines of nomadic flight, which, as always, hovers between the literal and the metaphorical. In Nomadic Poetics, Joris reminds us about ancient forms of flight: “This hajara is an exile, but not an exodus, that is to say it is not a flight in search of a goal, a promised land, a telos that would reinscribe all the more forcefully all the lost identities, the unities of the individual, group or state.” In a related essay in the 2003 volume, we find a description of one technique of nomadic poetics. He notes of Picasso’s poetry its
complete obliteration of punctuation marks. This gives his poems the feel of a wide open field, a smooth, non-striated space, or blocks of space, through or along which one can travel unchecked, free to choose one’s own moment of rest, free to create one’s own rhythms of reading. (118)
Effects similar to those achieved by Cayley’s morphing screen are visible on Picasso’s page.
It might seem odd that the central historical figure of European twentieth-century modernism is taken as exemplar of the nomadic “poetics for today and open on tomorrow,” but one of the ironies of poetics is that it has to predicate the future upon the examples of the past. Indeed, Joris inventories what he refuses to jettison from twentieth-century art as he embraces futurity. Among others he wants to keep Burroughs’s exploration of inner states, Dorn’s and Olson’s explorations of space (rather than place), Nathaniel Mackey’s sense of “the imperfect fit of word and world,” Pound’s inclusion of history in the poem, the syntactical play of Gertrude Stein, and the drawing-poems of Henri Michaux, all of which may be found in Poems for the Millennium (31). Version 4.00 of the “notes” includes a passage on Allen Fisher. Joris comments: “We will take the whole of the new century to finally read Allen Fisher’s vast investigation into all our knowledges, the great serial constructive dérive he calls Gravity as a Consequence of Shape.” When Joris informs us — though latterly Joris has informed me that this is a joke — that “59 pages of commentaries have been deleted” we might feel thankful for this (!) and for his 1999 summary: “From the 20C we will retain everything — in memory. We will forget nothing and we will forgive nothing.” This ethical note, Joris’s refusal of Christian forgiveness, emerges from the sense of our having passed through an era about which one might say, with Muriel Rukeyser, “I lived in the first century of world wars. Most mornings I would be more or less insane.”
“Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics” opens with a bold but generalized statement, in which we can read both Deleuzoguattarian intent and political judgement:
The days of anything static, form, content, state are over. The past century has shown that anything not involved in continuous transformation hardens and dies. All revolutions have done just that: those that tried to deal with the state as much as the state of poetry.
While the equivalence of the “state of poetry” and the political state may seem rhetorical, the political and ethical imperative is strongly felt if not sharply delineated. The implications of this are far-reaching into the political realm; if the “two major modes of poesis” in the twentieth century involved “love (eros) & strife (nike),” then in the future they will operate as elements of the “stasis that makes movement,” as minor deviations (Joris introduces the Lucretian-Oulipean term ‘clinamen’) in “a world where accident is rule,” as Joris puts it in a poem of his own which he includes here (4–5). We need continuous transformation.
But his final word — he calls it “the fin mot” — incongruously occurs on page 6 rather than at the end of the document and is a quotation from Paul Celan. Joris is one of Celan’s distinguished translators, and it is almost inevitable that any ethical understanding of utterance should turn to this austere and subtle poetic thinker. Joris’s central borrowing from Celan is the umambiguous assertion “Reality is not. It has to be searched for and won.” “Replace ‘reality’ with ‘poetry’ or ‘millennium,’” Joris suggests: “Poetry is not. It has to be searched for and won” by the very nomadic poetic war machine that is described throughout this poetics. “Celan’s phrase,” Joris remarks, “is the quest, as it includes the critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ — & of the whole specular natures of our mis-takes on the real.” This, like other parts of the document, attempts to synthesize too much, but it suggests that Celan’s thinking is a site of resistance to late global capitalism as theorized by Guy Debord and others; that it offers hope of discovering an alternative “reality” (and alternative “poetry,” and new “millennium,” through Joris’s suggested substitutions.)
The millennium has to be searched for and won, and perhaps it is too early to see whether Joris’s millennial poetics will become — as it clearly intends to be — more than simply the thinking behind his own poetic practice or as part of his translation theory, and become part of a zeitgeist poetics. (As we shall see, it is this latter ambition that causes some disquiet.) Certainly in the era after September 11, Joris, as one who translates from Arabic, is well placed “where we have to start to think a new cultural constellation that will, finally, have to include the heritage of the excluded third — Islam & Arab culture.”
Such poetics needs to be searched for and won, too. Joris’s bold attempt to synthesize twentieth-century modernisms, his neologistic play, his playing off of rhetorics of movement against rhetorics of interruption and rest, his ethical appropriations of Celan, and finally his attempt to produce a poetics in serial and branching versions, point to the vitality of his speculative discourse, which situates itself neither within the confines of criticism nor within the extensions of artistic practice (for which they may prove of variable utility).
Adrian Clarke is a British Linguistically Innovative poet who emerged, in many ways, under the sign of Allen Fisher, whose poetics essay Necessary Business laid the groundwork for more general poetic experiment in the post-1978 era. I have written about Clarke’s work elsewhere, and about his poetics, which largely consists of papers (often delivered to the SubVoicive Colloquia of the early 1990s) that he provocatively published in single volumes with his poetry in a refusal to separate his poetics from poems. Most noteworthy is his adoption of a poetics of the phrase, derived from a reading of Lyotard, whereby abutted phrases avoid grammatical and syntactic cohesion and semantic coherence in a way that keeps the discourse open; on the other hand he adopts modes of word count (derived from the example of Louis Zukofsky) that create stanza shapes of great formal austerity, so that he can play floating phrases against mathematical form, utilizing enjambment to the full. Difficult to demonstrate in excerpt, Clarke’s Skeleton Sonnets (2002, revised and republished in Possession: Poems 1996–2006) evince a combative approach to the global that represents capitalist media and power as obsessed with speed rather than mawqif, a world of threatening connections rather than one of cross-cultural fertilization (or “mated frames”):
global eroded celebrity spells it
out with a black
and white Head
Office module in close
choice of auto
once on the running
board at the speed of receipts
One of Clarke’s poetics documents contains a partial critique of Joris’s “Notes,” and is published in Skeleton Sonnets. It is entitled “Introduction in the Form of an Open Letter to Robert Sheppard on Exile, Nomads & the Demon”; the appearance of my name requires an explanation. The occasion of Clarke’s “letter” was my poetics prose poem “The End of the Twentieth Century,” which is one of the core poetics documents of my millennial project Twentieth Century Blues. Much of Clarke’s letter speaks from his projects (the sonnets particularly and his own millennial sequence “Millennial Shades”) to my project, but at various points he strays into potting a shot or two over the bows of Joris’s millennial poetics, and it is largely towards these remarks I direct my attention.
As noted earlier, “The End of the Twentieth Century” praises the anthology Joris coedited, Poems for the Millennium, as poetics in selective action. By making of it “a prospectus of reading,” I say, “I have constructed a twentieth century more generous than that given to me, to give to others, into the next” (346). Severer than I, Clarke will have none of it, and he tells me why:
I have difficulty both with “ethnopoetics” as copyrighted by Messrs Rothenberg and Joris, inasfar as I grasp its rationale, and with your enthusiasm for their anthology … if not for some of the work collected there. My problem is that the translations … lose much of the strangeness we might value in the source texts as they are accommodated on a plateautude of AGIT-PROP strung with dead International Surrealist light-bulbs.
Clarke suspects that the Deleuzoguattarian planarity operates in order to level the work presented until it flattens out into an unproblematic and homogenized international avant-garde mode; ethnopoetic oral texts are presented as the equivalent of Dada sound poetry, for example. Rather than being released nomadically, these texts are de- and recontextualized, losing their otherness, their formal power. “To translate is, of course, to welcome the work as an other into the same, to transform it from the foreign to the familiar,” Derek Attridge says; “but in doing so, if its otherness and singularity are respected — if, that is, the translation is inventive — the field into which it is welcomed is also transformed in the process.” Clarke suspects that otherness and singularity are suppressed in favour of vampiric assimilation of the other in the service of a single line of argument.
Clarke attacks Joris’s poetics head on: “Facile notions like … nomadic (cyber)poetics … fill me with rage and despair … Or at times a reluctant cynicism” (3). After praising the direct action of the demonstrators at the Seattle World Trade talks, Clarke will have no truck with what he sees as an easy utopianism of connectivity in nomadic poetics. He sees “circulation” as a “key term” in debates about political power, rather than “drift” (2). He tells me:
Joris’s appropriation of the dérive subjects it to an accelerating and “ever more displaced drifting.” Noting the [Situationist] movement’s immediate preference for backstreet labyrinths, underground passageways and houses due for demolition … Vincent Kaufmann remarks of the project Situationist hanging city above its ground-level transportation systems: “Circulation is to take place below the space of everyday life. …” (6)
Thus it seems to Clarke that possibilities of guerrilla action in the sewers of culture, as it were, beneath the level of “everyday life” eulogized by Henri Lefebvre and others, are denied by Joris’s apparent sunny armchair dérive and its faith in technology. Joris, we are told, “waits for the caravan (No more oasis stops needed, boys — metaphoric or otherwise!) to a mathematical plurality in the Electronic Millennium” represented in part by John Cayley’s e-poetry (5). Clarke’s bad-tempered charges expose a danger that the free synthesizing of Joris’s poetics may end up entangled in its own complexity, the mawqif swiftly swapped for the latest poetic fashion.
Joris is no less uncivil in his “Open Letter in Response to Adrian Clarke’s,” which is included in his 2003 book A Nomad Poetics. He tellingly flings the same term of abuse back at Clarke: “facile” (139). He responds to Clarke’s poetics as “your rather facile strictures re ‘dematerialized is immaterial’ which you tease out of Bruce Andrews’s reflections on materiality and graphic immediacy” — which is an accurate description of Clarke’s own poetics, but he adds that this is “maybe pointing out the sleek anorexia of his/your signifieds” (139). It is odd that he says “signifieds,” where one might expect the word signifiers, since Joris is referring to what he describes elsewhere in “Open Letter” as the “trap” of US Language poetry that “runs the risk of remaining stuck exactly … in linguistic auto-referentiality”; he assumes Clarke’s slavish adherence to this poetics or to this simplified critique of its poetics (100). Clarke’s practice, while estranged and difficult, is nevertheless referential, however much it dematerializes its substance and makes its materials immaterial. One of his “Eurochants” of 2010, a sequence which displays a plurilingual internationalism to rival Joris’s, opens with a line which clearly equates the emptiness of New Labour/business school rhetoric with Joris’s central concept, which he presents in scare quotes: “blue skies thinking ‘nomadic.’”
In fact, Clarke’s probing makes Joris more specific about the ethics of his position. Sensing that Clarke suspects him of complicity with theories of postmodernity that demand ever-accelerated speed instead of finding a fixed position from which to mount critique — the mawqif might serve this function — Joris declares that there is no home to return to in language, and that “being” and “dwelling,” Heideggerian terms seemingly valorized by Clarke, are tainted with the fascism his “manifessay” warns us is capable of a strange and powerful return in the new millennium; “being” itself can dangerously serve to aggrandize the self and belittle the other. We are condemned to this unethical position “until we become nomadic, until ‘becoming’ is what we want.” Joris admits that “the enemy (late global capitalism) has been thinking nomadically for a long time,” an assertion that could damage his claims for nomadology as it elides with Clarke’s loathed “blue skies thinking,” but as his attitude to the uses of the internet and e-poetry demonstrates, he envisages using that techno-power against itself (137). Clarke’s stridency on this point in his piece allows Joris to regard him, wrongly, as a technophobe; “simply tuning out is not a solution” (137). Joris suspects “sedentariness” might be an affliction of the British, and assumes a native poetics resistant to poetry’s true “desire to feel everywhere estranged, out of touch/in reach with the other — out of house and home” (140). Clarke is one of the most adventurous and self-estranged of British poets and writers of poetics, but taking sides at this point does not enrich our understanding of conflictual poetics.
Neither of these poets reaches out to the other. Their mutual “perplexity,” an account of which Joris uses to open his letter, is more telling than the actual exchanges, the incomprehension more eloquent than any connection one might elaborate in an attempt to show a relationship of poetics, let alone a fellowship of poets. Neither sees the other’s position, but this is not just a lack of clarity or charity but something that reveals a fundamental characteristic of poetics itself.
The hybrid forms of poetics, its mercurial qualities, militate against it being considered fully a discourse in the specific sense intended by Foucault, although there are enough shared characteristics for it to be regarded as a weak form of discourse. Poetics lacks what Foucault claims as necessary conditions, or effects, for strong forms of discourse: institutions, founding figures of discursivity, originating concepts, principles of recognition and validation — and especially principles of verification and falsification. This lack of conditions, in the case of poetics, I would argue, is fundamentally productive. The nature, or natures, of poetics, in the present examples, seems to support the case that it desires to resist finality of statement: Clarke is gnomically aphoristic, where Joris is expansive and manifestic, but he still claims the provisional status of “notes.” Indeed, it is this combination that makes me uneasy when I consider Joris’s text as a whole. When I think about its parts I am less concerned; for example, his notion of the ‘poasis’ speaks to both my criticism and my poetics. The document teems with good ideas and beneficent attitudes for the contemporary poet but, despite its fragmentary and deterritorializing forms, it approaches the assumed authority of the manifesto; as a fractured totality it is still loud, as Caws would say (even when it is loud with self-deprecating laughter).
Poets, eternal optimists in this sense, trust that poetics might prove the last word (if only to themselves); they treat a provisional position as though it were a theoretical absolute (if only to produce the latest text or brave a creative crisis). But deep inside they know that the fixity is — to borrow Joris’s vocabulary — but an oasis on a long journey of continual transformation: compulsive nomadism, a compulsory “becoming” that steers “continuous transformation.” Joris’s global assertion — itself a deliberate echo of Breton’s rhetorical final sentence in his surrealist novel-manifesto Nadja — that “the millennium will be nomadic or it will not be” is predictive and absolute. It leaves little room for dissent, or possibly even for poetics as a developing practice of paradigm-breaking “becoming,” an unintended consequence of its manifestic “overdose and overdrive.” Already as the twenty-first century crashes on, the irruptive poetics of conceptual writing offers a resistance to many cherished notions of literary postmodernity. It will be interesting to see if nomadic poetics can encompass its assaults on originality, aesthetic facility, and readerly fascination (through work which is breezily derivative, deliberately repetitive and excruciatingly and/or exquisitely boring). One of its central characteristics is also to reverse the relationship between poetics and product: its poetics is often more important than its work; the poetics in a sense is the work. Conceptual writing may offer a victory for poetics that it might have to resist.
The dispute between Joris and Clarke suggests that while there may be debate over some of the terms of poetics, while one poetics may wholly or partly contradict another, or for that matter partly or wholly confirm another (where its terms are expressed propositionally), a poetics as a whole cannot be successfully contested (the more so it includes aesthetic, hybrid, formally nonpropositional or gestural moments) because there is uncertainty about the grounds of the contest. Poetics’ purposes may be practical as well as theoretical; it might provoke or conjecture as much as it argues, and it may gesture or demonstrate as much as propose, leaving epistemological indeterminacy. “Statements” in poetics often have contextual, fiduciary currency. Poetics’ terms are provisional, modified by experience (or influenced by the practice of art-making that is beyond its own terms or scope, but which it provokes). Formally it might defamiliarize content. I am not trying to exalt the discourse of poetics, to position it on an inviolable plane of expression, like a starlet hoisted above the chorus girls at the climax of a musical. This is not a question of discursive purity but of the various impurities found in what is best thought of, pace Foucault, as a weak form of discourse. It is a jostling crowd rather than a debating society, let alone a legislature.
Lyotard developed the concept of the differend to account partly for the situation of incommunicability between two arguments, conducted in two different language games, a contest for which there is no final, higher tribunal. Perhaps something like this — I emphasise my simile — pertains between examples and modalities of poetics (though I do not wish to push the discourse too far into Lyotard’s specific arguments). Because of its forms and functions, overstating cases, understating cases, not stating cases at all, offering thumbnails rather than blueprints, and often demonstrating through formal means, it is rare to find an actual argument between poetics, but not unknown to find mutual incompatibility that verges on incommunicability between artists. The mutual incomprehension of Joris and Clarke may be the effect of their attempting to answer poetics (in all its formal and contentual variety) with argument. In Lyotard’s post-Wittgensteinian terms, they are playing incommensurable language games. It may be possible now to see why it is difficult to contest, or impossible to refute, a poetics. (One is always free to choose whether to use it or not, of course, but that is a different, probably more important, question relating to praxis and poesis.) Refutation is what Clarke is attempting in his “Open Letter,” as is Joris, to a lesser extent, in his response. Joris’s exasperation at Clarke at one point breaks down into his simple request that Clarke reread the original document; it is as though he possessed no new terms to persuade Clarke further, could offer no new moves in the language games of poetics. Stalemate! They are left “to register a differend,” an admirable term used by Clarke himself elsewhere in his poetics. If we remind ourselves, in the words of Richard Rorty, that “a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change,” we shall see that the survival of poetics depends upon the registering of differences, on paradigm-breaking, not upon the provision of paradigmatic organizing principles, the accumulation of universals or discursive legislation. All poetics is nomadic.
1. See an early version of my The Necessity of Poetics in Pores here.
9. In addition to published sources by Joris, see his ongoing Nomadic Poetics blog.
10. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, Poems for the Millennium: Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Robert Sheppard, Complete Twentieth Century Blues (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2008), 345–46.
23. Adrian Clarke, Millennial Shades and Three Papers (London: Writers Forum, 1998). See the chapter “Creative Linkage in the Work of Allen Fisher, Adrian Clarke, and Ulli Freer in the 1980s and 1990s” in Robert Sheppard, The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005), 203–8; and the similar “Colossal Fragments: the Work of Adrian Clarke” in Robert Sheppard, Far Language (Exeter: Stride Research Document, 1999), 45–50.
30. Joris, “Notes towards a Nomadic Poetics,” 1 and 29. The quotation is “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”: Andre Breton, Nadja (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 160. See Caws, Manifesto, xxi.
31. Lyotard’s The Differend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) is a troubling volume whose central concept is illuminating and useful at times. The book is suggestive — Adrian Clarke has found it so, even as he misread ‘phrase’ literally in his concoction of a constructivist poetics — more than it is coherent.
Other poetries from Ireland
Discussions of the Irish poetry avant-garde, or avant-garde poetry from Ireland, or avant-garde poetry produced in Ireland, tend to focus on a lineage that begins with the quartet of Samuel Beckett, Brian Coffey, Thomas MacGreevy, and Denis Devlin, before continuing with Michael Smith’s New Writers Press and Trevor Joyce, Randolph Healy, Maurice Scully, Billy Mills, and Catherine Walsh. Sometimes there are extensions to include younger poets like Aodán McCardle and James Cummins. These poets have consistently rejected, or vigorously questioned, aspects that have come to seem inevitable to poetry from Ireland. And apart from one or two cases, their work has not become widely accessible.
Through multiple extensions, this lineage is slowly bearing an increasing influence to new writing from Ireland, posing a significant challenge to the blueprint of the (let’s call it) Heaney School. Whether there’s value in the type of poetry that still dominates publication, awards, etc., is beside the point; so overwhelming has its influence been on the vast majority of what’s being written — and, crucially, expected to be written — in Ireland that it’s become an unhealthy monolith. Conscious opposition to it seems necessary in order to bring about a liberating distribution of poetic modes.
Key to this shift is a pluralism of approach, plenty of cross-breeding and a geographically-outward attitude. Most of the writers mentioned above have either lived or spent considerable amounts of time outside Ireland: Walsh and Mills have lived in Spain and England; Scully in Italy, Greece, and Africa. Though biographical fact alone does not guarantee an alternative approach to writing, it’s partly due to living through other languages that some of these poets have been able to question the inherent parochialism of the poetry propagated in Ireland. There’s little of the obsession with the idea of Ireland in their work, and while it may address the geography of the country or the poets’ specific connection to it, there appears little attempt to territorialise the poems.
A common characteristic is the rejection of regular narrative modes and what they may signify. In Catherine Walsh’s Optic Verve, A Commentary, in particular, standard approaches to reading and writing are interrogated, as is the nature and function of words:
Whose place was it? To say what is its name is not tantamount to saying I don’t know what it is. Naming is not a speculative art and not necessary, as many seem to assume, to actual comprehension. Understanding. Naming makes communicative interaction a lot less tedious and time consuming. A coded shorthand of the specific, necessary component of the everyday dialectic of our lives.
Words, then, as shorthand, form their own identities, and do not necessarily stand for things. In Walsh’s work, we remain constantly aware of the complexity of linguistic structure and intention by the disorienting effect of fragmentation or hybrid language — she often uses text in English, Irish, and Spanish without translations or explanations, as well as imported symbols and typography. It questions systems of (re)presentation and apprehension, and insists on an alternative way of reading and writing as an element of political redirection. Walsh’s is also a body of work grounded in immediacy, which views improvisation as a critical element of composition.
While Walsh’s writing is radical in practice and scope (Optic Verve bleeds into her subsequent book, Astonished Birds) it is also grounded in the physical and even the domestic. These modes aren’t always or necessarily mutually exclusive. Maurice Scully’s work, too, can often be seen to stand apart from the perceived difficulty that accompanies the avant-garde label in that it contains a level of musicality usually expected in the work of writers within the lyrical mainstream — which, in Scully’s case, seems to have to do as much with an innate ear as with the training the poet’s hearing receives as it attempts to process new and changing types and patterns of speech, tones, and accents.
To place an “avant-garde,” then, and a “mainstream” in perpetual opposition would be to miss some fascinating shifts within and between these two vaguely distinct modes. Writers, poets especially, are allocated into groups, factions, or movements largely for the relative irrelevance of categorizing them in literary history books. Vital to recognizing new tendencies in poetry is a dynamic exploration that allows for cross-fertilization between practices. Up to now there have been very few continuous outlets for the exploration of radically different poetics and the spaces and dialogues between them emanating from or focusing on writing in Ireland. Journals and magazines largely fall into the trap of selecting from a narrow band of material, without making much effort to actively seek out or engender work that raises questions or drives a discussion — with a general lack of understanding of the editor’s role as instigator of new ideas and directions the main reason for this.
is the font
of that voice?
(Kit Fryatt, “Why I Am Not a Performance Poet”)
It’s fallen to the many spoken word and performance poetry initiatives which have sprung up, particularly in Dublin, over the past five to ten years, to bring about a widening of the perception of how poetry can be written and received. Poets who make innovative use of sound and movement energize language. Their power derives from the ability to communicate with audiences immediately. They can break through barriers of all kinds. And they make use of poetry’s earliest and most basic tools: the voice and the body. Their work benefits from the immediacy and vividness of hip-hop culture — a form of expression that has gained exponential popularity in Ireland — just as it can be limited by some of its more clichéd aspects.
One criticism of performance poetry everywhere is that it suffers from an anti-intellectualist attitude, which leaves the work rooted in the safe realm of the populist. Another is that it places too much emphasis on identity writing with an over-reliance on flourish or a clearly defined, easy-to-follow narrative. Essentially, on manipulating its audience into assent. These are fair criticisms to extend to the Irish spoken word scene. In general, an easily identifiable agenda surrounds the performance poem in Ireland. It brooks no uncertainties regarding its ideological position. In its eagerness to become understood and accepted at once, it eschews nonlinearity or complexity and aims to flatten experience into a series of cause and effect connections. A sense of interrogation taking place in the process of composition is lost through its collapse into a single dimension.
Like everywhere else, the Dublin spoken word scene has its exceptions. Tongue Box is a monthly reading series that has been running for several years in the Smithfield area (though at the time of writing it appears to be dormant). Presented by Raven and Cah-44 — whose collaborative performances of Cah-44’s sound poem “Dublin Onion” became, briefly, something of a scene emblem — the series is characterized by its hosts’ commitment to putting on an entertaining show with poets, artists, and musicians who are witty, energetic, and deadly serious about what they do. As with most such regular events, the quality on offer can be uneven between or within shows, but audiences rarely witness an indifferent performance. Occasionally, relative unknown or visiting poets and artists performing in collaboration will electrify the stage. And there’s an ongoing interest in alternative methods of dissemination, with poets encouraged to present in the medium that serves the work best — which is often anything but paper.
And if anti-intellectualism infects the generic performance poem, Kit Fryatt’s live work offers something of a remedy. Experimenting with personas, translations, updates of medieval lyrics, visual accompaniments, dramatic interpretations, and other devices, Fryatt’s performances seldom provide a single frame of reference. Her multifarious interests and activities as poet, performer, writer, critic, academic, editor, publisher, and much else allow her a range that bestows her work a complex cultural meshwork. Entertainment comes shrouded in mystery and ambivalence, in uncertainties and depreciations, and an intellectual intensity that forms the backbone of her practice.
With concrete or visual, sound, and, especially, forms of poetry that make use of conceptual writing strategies having remained stubbornly rare in Ireland, it’s mystifying how little attention has been paid to poets who have at one time or another adopted them. Evidence that, when prompted, writers here would be keen to engage more with experimental writing processes was seen during the UpStart collective’s poster campaign in the run-up to the February 2011 general election. Many of the text-based material erected then among the party political posters were clear examples of concrete or conceptual poetry. Context and medium were crucial; these were understood, by their authors and readers/viewers, as forms of slogans, with questions of politics, protest, public art, and temporariness vital to their acceptance as poetry.
As far as traditional publishing goes, Susan Connolly is one notable poet to have used the visual form consistently. Throughout The Sun-Artist and in the second half of her previous book Forest Music, the presentation of texts (or “pattern poems,” as Connolly calls them) referring to the landscapes and history of the town of Drogheda in starkly visual terms offers a fusion of the traditional and the avant-garde — a fascinating positioning of lyrical or sentimental content within experimental writing practices. The fact that instances of concrete poetry, in some cases typographical word- or text-art, have as their subject something steeped in Irish tradition renders them strange, almost grotesque. This aspect of Connolly’s work is extraordinary in its rarity among recent writing from Ireland. Discussions of it have been muted within Ireland, with criticism of the work left to reviewers based in Britain.
Susan Connolly, “Tara.”
Anamaría Crowe Serrano’s One Columbus Leap offers a hybrid of formal experimentation, language deconstruction, and political investigation. It reimagines the gestation of Christopher Columbus’s journey from Palos de la Frontera in 1492 to the New World and follows it to its conclusion and beyond, displaying an innovative use of language and an acute understanding of its function. It employs several tools including prose, lists, and typography. The extract below is taken from the section “27 Leagues due West, September 15, 1492.”
The sea can be calm flat rough choppy sparkling and infinitesimal shades of the spectrum. A spectacle of poisoned ink, marco polo murk, mercurial, uncatalogued voyage green and brittle, middle kingdom blue, buddah, tang, ming and warrior glaze, maille grey silver pearl and dashed hope celadon, crackle mutiny ash and fortress slate.
The sea. Favourable. Spectered. Quadrant algae-rhythm underhue. Astrolabe and sextant turf, welkin samphire cirrus winds. Auspicious, haruspicious and benevolent.
One Columbus Leap was published by the Paris-born and now Luxembourg-based Corrupt Press, run by Dylan Harris — who while living in Dublin attempted, in partnership with Kit Fryatt, to vitalize the scene with a series of readings they dubbed Wurm im Apfel. Through their events, including the Wurmfest weekend festival in December 2009, they introduced poets such as Jaap Blonk and derek beaulieu to Dublin audiences. Since Harris left Dublin in 2010, Wurm im Apfel has been run solely by Fryatt. Harris’s book antwerp contains a poem — part of which was erected as a poster in Dublin’s Dawson Street during the UpStart campaign — that articulates concisely much of what’s being discussed here.
ierland is geen belgië
body bag bread
the problem is it’s just one colour
now the colour is fine as a colour
but you might just stare at the black all night
and wish for the evening’s amber dawn
Multilingualism and cosmopolitanism are strong features of Harris’s work; in antwerp there are poems “set” in Ireland, England, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. He writes in “new city”: “gotta stop / being English // Engels.” The chapbook that preceded it, also from Wurm Press, is titled europe. Harris has lived around the continent and views both place and language through the illuminative lens of a serial explorer. Rarely, though, does place come before language. And he is comfortable across forms: he has published work that fuses poetry and photography, while his interest in computer programming bears an influence. An advocate of the Creative Commons, Harris seeks through his work as publisher of Corrupt Press to promote work in English from poets whose first language isn’t English or who live in non-Anglophone territories, aware of the aesthetic and conceptual richness that may result through approaching language or cultural entitlement at a slant. It’s a wonder this idea, championed by Beckett among many, still seems such a novelty.
an impositional narrative
what other kind
(Catherine Walsh, Optic Verve, A Commentary)
When networks of poets, publishers, editors, and critics start to resemble ghettos or exclusive clubs, then it’s time for a shakeup. Past experience suggests those operating in the margins who come to the attention of the mainstream are not before long lured into its workings. That the conditions for the emergence of a self-sustaining alternative, or for the growth of an ideology that resists such dichotomies, just don’t exist. In a poetry world as small as Ireland’s this has perhaps been especially the case. It’s an environment that presents those whose writing starts to outgrow the conditions that spawned it, but who don’t wish to compromise their practices, with a problem. Some of the most innovative writers are fleeing the country’s confined spaces, whether in intellectual or physical terms, to a large extent because of what they perceive as a lack of urgency in shifting this state of affairs. Not just a recent phenomenon, of course, but nevertheless worth remarking on after the huge wave of migration into Ireland over the past twenty years.
This is not unconnected from a sense of hierarchy that continues to dominate a general understanding of poetry as well as other aspects of public life — though outside influences and a new eagerness to question orthodoxies are beginning to throw things off course. It’s not a coincidence that most of the poets leading this change have minds and bodies present in more than one territory. The monoculture that brews poems arranged in neat lines and depicting closed systems, with their anecdotal, moralistic, sentimental, inward- or backward-looking tendencies, their preoccupations with homely things and things of home, their repeated use of specific metaphors and particular words — this monoculture is no longer sustainable. I’d argue that in these unstable, highly political, nationalism-infused times, it’s also rather dangerous. Just repatriating some kind of native perception into poetry is not enough; it cannot be expected to be of relevance or interest in the long run.
Driven by a few committed individuals, there begins to emerge a vital and disparate counter-scene that takes its tune from a newly honed political restlessness. Increasingly, writers who have entered the workings of “Irish poetry” from elsewhere are making their mark with hard-to-ignore activities and statements, while boundaries between poetic practices, genres, interests, and art forms are being — slowly — erased. Political writing does not only take the form of spoken word anthems or performance pieces looking for consensus. Despite much work that still relies on a traditional understanding of what a poem is or how it may come about, with a reluctance to experiment with processes and interrogate forms as well as the minutiae of language and how it’s employed persisting, a stirring has begun.