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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Robert Sheppard: John Seed: England’s derelict archive circa 1990






 
(The above quartet of links will direct you to my previous accounts of Seed's work.)

John Seed’s poetry battled against Thatcherism in the only way poetry can, quietly and by, and through, its formal innovations. There are some strong poems that seem to me to exemplify this. Seed shares my sense of poetry as a dark nugget of resistance to the reality principle, though he’d not quite use that language. Something in the era caused all of us to come out of our shells. It is a miracle, though, given this, that he is still able to write a poem of the imagistic clarity of ‘shadow of the gable-end’ (p. 71 of his New and Collected Poems, but also, something reminded me, in Pages 25-32; October 1987, the precursor to this blogzine! ISSN 0951 – 72 43 for those who like such things). That ‘shadow’, we are told, is ‘Sharp against the white wall,’ though it is ‘Fading and shifting’ thus one unfinished aspect of reality (and out of reach of political interference). Seed even allows

 

                                                                        how beautiful

                        The world seems its transformations

                        Incomplete

 

This hymn to unfinish reminds us that perceptual transformation is a model for other kinds of transformation, without stating anything like a political theme. In the above poem ‘transformations’ is the single and foregrounded abstract noun. The word ‘seems’ suggests that beauty itself is incomplete, only half the story, ‘as we/ Begin to leave’.

 Contiguous poems (all bar one reprinted in the same order from his 1993 collection Interior in Open Air (Reality Street)) dally less over shadows and, if not quite foregrounding political realities, abstractions become important in the discourse. The prose poem ‘Brick Lane Market’ (dated September 1984) presents a world of objects (I’m not making any facile equation with ‘Objectivism’; see elsewhere) and suggests the tumble of the famous street market (not perhaps as famous as Petticoat Lane) by presenting the undifferentiated merchandise as one long compound(ed) noun to show they are components in an aggregate, one thing: ‘Denturescrackedjugsbrokenshoespanlids’(53) These are separated from the truly useless ‘Collar studs for shirts long since rags,’ flagging up (or ragging up)‘shifting’ and ‘transformations’ that have destroyed the object’s utility. There is no suggestion that the ‘collar studs’ (used to attach the detachable and separately washable collars to shirts; hence collarless shirts were/are called ‘Grandad shirts’) will become antiques. (That’s another market economy of course. In Letter from the Blackstock Road, written about the same time and in the same city as this poem, I quote this brazen truth from a shop sign: ‘We buy junk and sell antiques.’) In fact, white space, used as carefully in Seed’s prose as in his poetry, separates us from the economy he sees beneath or behind these attempts. Over what is ‘Detritus’ he presents ‘bent figures … sifting garbage in the gutters’; the text reminds us, should we have forgotten, in bourgeois retreat from the scene, where somebody might find somebody else’s ‘dentures’ of use, that they are ‘human figures’ too, like many of the Victorian survivors of the demi-monde that Seed and Mayhew (together) bring to life in his ‘Mayhew’ poems. The central, explanatory abstraction is: ‘Circulation of commodities at the limit’. At the limit of what? At the limit of commodification, certainly (it’s ‘detritus’), and at the limit of human utility, the edge of poverty in other words.

Brick Lane Market
 
But this scene is not Victorian London. However, the contiguous poem in the collection(s), ‘Along the Thames, Looking from the Roof of the Custom House: October 1849’ emphatically is. (52) The precise dating shares the same digits as the contemporary poem’s, 1984, and is a numerical echo that suggests historical equation or difference. The title is that of a photograph or painting and Seed (though present in neither poem: imagine how the streak of personality would have ruined either) presents a skyscape of variable ‘Busy trade’: numerous types of boats (‘barges’, ‘schooner’ and ‘steamers’, getting ever-larger, more sea-going rather than riverine as the passage progresses), numerous items of ‘trade’: ‘beer’ (! John), ‘fruit’ and more generic ‘crates of hardware’). The verbs are active (‘moving’), adjectives suggest plenitude (‘heaped-up’) and evoke the ‘busy’-ness of business very well (and its specialised vocabulary). Seed’s Marxist commitments are even less attracted to this scene than the one of contemporary destitution (this is important, easy to miss): ‘Busy trade and boundless capital: all corners of the earth ransacked, each for its particular produce.’ ‘Boundless capital’ is, of course, imperialist and colonialist trade, which (as Seed points out in his excellent volume Marx: A Guide for the Perplexed) was the most prescient aspect of Marx’s works of political economy, the virtual prediction of the development of ‘a global working class that produces essential goods mainly for the European and North American markets’, but yet lives in ‘absolute immiseration’. (Seed 2010: 167) In 1849 this ‘market’ was, in the poem, London, the ransacking pivot of the world, the ironic ‘Axis Mundi’ represented by this picture. But, of course, 1848 was a year of Revolutions on the continent, and, more hopefully, Seed reminds us (elsewhere, in his guise as an historian) that Marx commented: ‘The chief result of the revolutionary movement of 1848 is not what the people won, but what they lost – the loss of their illusions’ (quoted p. 41). Somewhere offstage, this near-coincidence of dates (and its echoes of 1984), signals this recognition.

 

Seed’s poems might be seen as the Benjaminian project of giving a physiognomy to raw dates, whether 1849, 1984, or in Transit Depots (1919-1939), or – as in the dates of poems to which I now turn – 1989 and 1990.

 

‘New Year’s Eve, 1989, Driving South’ is an unusually allusive poem, and allusive not to Marx or Benjamin’s take on Klee’s angel of history, for example, but to the main tradition of English poetry. The poem begins (and ends) with a reminder of the time in cosmological and psychological terms, with two of Seed’s wonderful hanging indented lines (ranged right from the capitalised full line-beginnings):

 

                                                            this is the year’s last day

                                                and the decade’s

 

It ends with an iteration, but one emphasised by the capitals:

 

                                                This year’s and the day’s

                                                The decade’s

                                                Deep midnight (73)

 

(The use of ‘night’ in Seed’s work deserves an essay of its own.) Like Donne’s similarly mid-winter ‘A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucies Day’, which begins ‘Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,’ (Donne 1950: 50), and ends ‘since this/ Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is’ (51), Seed returns to the essential time of year, but whereas Donne’s narrator is consumed with the loss of a lover (‘For I am every dead thing’) which he relates to the winter environment, and he expects no vernal resurrection in his state: ‘I … am the grave,/ Of all, that’s nothing’ (50), Seed’s anomie is both more personal and more socially situated: ‘the dreaming kids …/What kind of English/ History can I tell them?’ (74) As an historian he professionally faces this question; but it is also a reference to the politicisation of the history curriculum in schools (a process that returned under Michael Gove, of course, despite his going… going… Gove….) On the quotidian (and dreaded) post-Christmas long drive back from visiting distant relatives, these questions arise. There are grim jokes:

 

                        Whatever’s the opposite

                        Of a construction site

                        Distributed North (73)

 

Deconstruction? No: just plain old fashioned ‘destruction’ will do! Thatcher had no compunction about immiserating the North, her battle with miners and mining communities (her maiden speech in Parliament in the 1960s had been on this subject, revenge for the General Strike in 1926), her deliberate willingness to let Liverpool wither, ‘managed decline’ was their euphemism – it’s all a matter of record now. Back then it was inference:

 

                        What were we meant

                        To feel if not political

                        Hate?        and failure… (73)

 

‘Hate’ is capitalised by the line break, allegorised a tad, but the ‘failure’ reminds us of the self-loathing at the heart of the poem (that, drawing on the Donne, we are ‘nothing’). ‘Poverty lies and despair’ is Seed’s equivalent of Donne’s ‘absence, darknesse, death, things which are not’, (50) except they emphatically exist. He quotes his second intertextual reference as comment on this, and serves to underline the cyclical and iterative form of the poem itself: ‘We must suffer them all again’. (73) The allusion is to Auden’s famous (but suppressed) ‘September 1, 1939’ (another poem that carries its date in its title). The word ‘decade’ is inserted into what otherwise appears to be Seed’s opening and closing lines, but it refers to Auden’s similar sense of being at a bad decade’s end (I won’t do my ‘decades actually end in 0 years’ bit here): ‘a low dishonest decade’, the thirties, that lead inevitably to war (three days later than the date of Auden’s title, and he knew it). It’s a great poem (Auden’s best, despite the suppression, and destined not to be forgotten, because of the suppression):

 

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives… (Auden 1986: 245)

 

Like Seed, the political invades the private, ‘the dreaming kids’. There seems no escape, and thus another underlying functionality for the circular and iterative styling of the text: ‘Where are we headed?/ Not even exile.’ (74) At least one question is answered. The poem is pessimistic.

 

Seed’s intertextual use of William Wordsworth and Spenser (and/or Eliot) in ‘Crossing Westminster Bridge, Nights, November 1990’ could be similarly analysed, though the comic ending (which I love):

 

Sweet Thames

            wherever you’ve come from

Fuck off (78) 

 

has less resonance than the allegorical force of the drive south (away from the blighted North) of the earlier poem. Of course, ‘wherever you’ve come from’ might be questioning which source (a suitable riverine metaphor) the words have come from: Spenser’s glorification of London presaging a royal wedding day or Eliot’s regret at the loss of all that tat in personal feeling as black as Donne’s, but deeply conservative in its social focus. ‘Fuck off’ is a response to those literary sources, as well as an expression of the ‘political/Hate’ of the earlier poem, the reality of ‘England’s derelict /Archive 1990’. (77)

Hist
A Personal Postscript


The house on the left looks extraordinarily like the one we lived in, Lessignham Ave, Tooting

Inserted into New and Collected Poems is an untitled piece, dedicated to Patricia Farrell and myself. It was excluded from Interior in Open Air probably because it is slight, a moonlit epiphany of ‘the precision/ Of light     on asphalt crystal’, where the present disperses into the ‘future we/ Disappear into’. The scene is depopulated, no humans of any kind, just the recording of place and time:

 

No-one

On the turn of Lessingham Avenue SW18 (sic)

21.41

November 24th 1990 (79)

 

As to place: Lessingham Ave, where Patricia and I lived in Tooting, is actually in SW17 (even ‘on the turn’ I think, into the main road). As for time: It’s the same month and year as the Westminster Bridge poem, but more specifically, it’s nearly a quarter to ten and it’s a Saturday. One of our ‘legendary’ London parties is referred to here, but not the now-quite-frequently-referred-to ‘Smallest Poetry Festival in the World’ (that was 4 years later, give or take ten days), but the one recorded in my journal thus:

Tuesday 27th November [1990]: Thatcher resigned last week, on Thursday. By lunchtime, I’d re-written ‘The Poll Tax Blues’ to take account of her sudden fall: ‘Thatcher’s gone but she should be dead./ [See here.] I want her to suffer like we’ve all bled.’ I needed it for our party on Saturday, when Chris [Baldwin] and Tony [Parsons] and I [i.e. our acoustic blues trio Little Albert Fly] did our full set (with some improvisations) for the delight of our guests (none of whom I really spoke to, but it was good to see Mick Parsons and Bob Cobbing; all the Alfords and Peter Tingey; John Muckle and Chloë Homewood, to juxtapose parts of the guest-list). The fall of Thatcher was part of the rejoicing: a sudden and calamitous removal by the ‘men in grey suits’ who will take over. I am under no illusion … Thatcherism has permanently altered the shape of this country and that even a change of government which, temporarily at least, seems less likely now, would not be able to reverse a good number of ‘achievements’. But even a change of Tory leader – they’re voting today – would be preferable. (Only just, probably).

That’s the unstated context of Seed’s

 

                                    Tense    presence

 

                                                the future we

 

                        Disappear into

 

as he disappeared into the Tooting night: we were all ‘No-one’ as far the Tory government was concerned, whoever we suspected would next lead it. In fact, some of the worst excesses of Thatcherism occurred after her ‘fall’.

 



As it was long before we were there


A Second Personal Postscript

It occurs to me now that ‘New Year’s Eve, 1989, Driving South’ was written (or written about events that occurred) three days after the day I began work on Twentieth CenturyBlues. Perhaps somebody should do something with that coincidence. On that day I drafted ‘Melting Borders’ which surrealised the news where Seed ponders over it, and serves as a ‘Preface’ to the next 11 years of work (in which there are a couple of poems dedicated to Seed, one of course in the interwoven text(s) of Transit Depots/ Empty Diaries, by Seed and Sheppard which were published by Ship of Fools in 1992, with images by Patricia Farrell). Here it is (and it should appear in my selected poems too):

Empty Diary 1926

 

 

For John Seed 1

 

 

We push cars on their sides, jeering

them out

 

                 coal lorries with police guards

smoulder outside the depot’s gates and

 

nervous clerks in tin hats salute débutantes

peeling spuds with bloodless fingers:

 

 

history’s tight membrane

 

the age’s leaking sewer,

 

revolution, spirits one broken machine gun in

a pram

 

 

hold out

 

until the police clear the Broadway for

the British Gazette

 

for one instant

 

Baldwin’s hanged and we call this

 

Love

 

Friday, November 21, 2014

25 Edge Hill Poets: Michael Egan


unsonnet 5

 

no son for the widow.

one slight.

and the traffic ever ceaseless.

o thine alone, wails or lonely calls.

there’s space here for a soulless sob.

say see with a lisp,

with a child’s eye.

don’t imagine a galaxy’s edge, hinterland.

it’s silent.

no, we’re held tight,

you’re restless,

you’re a bear, only a bear.

half heart.

I wilted. I lately.

one road and a cathedral.

gap and gain and sway.

it reads now as eventide and glee, chance.

it doesn’t stay.

kneel to chant for the removal of chance.

accumulators, that was this morning.

I mean you’ve beauty.

I mean it beats an endless stasis or quiet.

o stasi child.

 
This is a poem from something I’m working on called Unsonnets. Unsonnets is a rewriting of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 154 sonnets condensed into 77 Unsonnets. I’m pretty much done with the writing process but this early unsonnet is one of my favourites – it shows how the original sonnets are deconstructed but resonate, dictate the new poem.  Basically I do a rewrite, a write-through, of the original sonnet so I have a rewritten sonnet. When I have two rewritten sonnets I condense them and also write-through them again until I have a short unsonnet. I find that as I do the rewriting I bring in influences from where I am, what I’m reading etc. and it becomes a sort of weird palimpsest in the end, you can sort see the original hidden beneath the usurping poem.

When I was an undergraduate at Edge Hill in my room in Eleanor Rathbone I read all Shakepeare’s Sonnets. I’m not sure why. I was reading a lot of stuff then but I can vividly remember reading them down by the fields, maybe on a Wednesday afternoon while there was a football game on. Or maybe that was Holden Caulfield. Or someone else I was reading. Or a dream. It was at Edge Hill that I began writing poetry more seriously. I think when I first started there I had aspirations of writing fiction but then, probably like most young writers, I wasn’t actively attempting a novel or longer short stories. I was taken by the idea of writing fiction and saw poetry as somehow secondary, something I did but not what I wanted to do or be known for or pursue beyond fiction. Focusing on poetry gave me the opportunity to write work in different styles, to absorb new poets and poetry styles, to take full advantage of the variety of poetry the course offered. I can jump from one form or influence to another, try to learn from them, more rapidly than I could with fiction. My style fluctuated and was fluid. I eventually found a way of writing I enjoyed and I think in the end that style has fed back into my fiction writing. I’ve gone back to fiction now, in fact at the moment it takes up more of my creative time than poetry, but I can see elements of experimental poetry in my fiction – shorter lines, single word lines, disjointed viewpoints, experimenting with point of view and tenses, the linear and non-linear.

I think unsonnet 5 also shows hints of my wider fiction interests – there’s something fantastical and strange about my Unsonnets. I write children’s books, or try to. I got an agent recently though I’m not sure if they’re your agent until you make them money.  Most of the fiction I write is fantasy, speculative. Reality tinged with an otherness or something like that. I wrote a book about a fox looking for god and I’m writing one now about medieval Britain but I’ve called it Beredain and there are vampires and stuff. I did try writing a full on fantasy book for children but after about 70,000 words I realised it wasn’t as good as the books it was ripping off, though maybe it has potential, so my focus now is on this strange half-Britain, which again is a bit like Unsonnets – taking something real, established, recognisable and claiming it for myself, changing it and making it my own. I think that idea feeds into a lot of my work – looking for the familiar and trying to make it unfamiliar, new and strange, writing through things, writing through my own ideas, my own old stories and poems. At least I hope that’s what I do or try to do.

I put most of the stuff I write now up on my blog. http://michaeleganpoetry.wordpress.com/

Michael Egan reading while still a student at Edge Hill

 

 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Storm and Golden Sky: FRIDAY 28th NOVEMBER 2014: Steve McCaffery and Karen Mac Cormack

Up the stairs (at the back of the barroom) at the Caledonia pub, Catharine Street, in the Georgian Quarter, Liverpool, £5, 7 pm spot-on start!

 FRIDAY 28th NOVEMBER 2014

 Steve McCaffery and Karen Mac Cormack

A critic, poet, and professor, Steve McCaffery has been part of the Canadian avant-garde poetry scene since the 1970s. His creative work has been marked by innovation and a move away from conventionally narrative forms. His oeuvre includes sound poetry (as part of the collaborative group the Four Horsemen) and concrete poet, but he has moved into a more in-depth exploration of the languages of philosophy.

McCaffery’s poetry publications include a number of chapbooks and full-length collections, among them Modern Reading: Poems 1969–1990 (1991), Seven Pages Missing: Selected Texts Volume One (2001) and Volume Two (2002), and Verse and Worse: Selected and New Poems of Steve McCaffery 1989–2009 (2010). He has twice received the Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative North American Poetry. McCaffery is a professor in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo.

 
Karen Mac Cormack (born Luanshya, Zambia,[1] 1956) is a contemporary experimental poet. She holds dual British/Canadian citizenship, and lived for many years in Toronto.

Mac Cormack is the author of Straw Cupid (1987), Quirks & Quillets (1991), Marine Snow (1995), The Tongue Moves Talk (1997), At Issue (2001), Vanity Release (2003) and Implexures (part one, 2003; full-length publication, 2009), as well as a collaboration with the British poet Alan Halsey, Fit to Print (2003). Though she was not directly part of the Language movement, her work shows many affinities with it, in its use of disjunctiveness at a within-sentence and between-sentence level, and in her interest in the interrogation of cultural norms and ideologies through the skeptical reworking of "found" materials and genres.

The prose pieces in the recent project Implexures are somewhat atypical in their use of biographical and autobiographical materials, especially a series of letters written from a variety of Mediterranean locations by an unnamed female traveller (possibly to be identified with the author, possibly not).

 

WARM UP: Jo Blowers, Steve Boyland and Robert Sheppard perform a three voice piece.

 

Friday, November 14, 2014

25 Edge Hill Poets: Adam Hampton



police station stands with ache on shallow
rise beside the bakery they knead
bread with balls and heels we call it
toenail loaf   eat with chopped potato fried
in steel tins and borrowed oil
stored unspoken words erode the mouth to an oxbow lake  
a tongue stained black by gobbet back
home mothers spot the change

like some sound entered the ears in isolation like  
like the rip of metal chipping walls like   
like the sound of shaken lego he liked
as a child like soldiers running like
he scratched his platitudes into blue   issue   paper like
   To Mum,


A note on poetics:

 

The future is, by its very nature, imprecise. The modality present in the grammarian’s ‘if conditional’ offers an apt tool with which to articulate the disoriented nature of the former soldier’s efforts to re-integrate into a society happy to accept his/her existence as necessary, but ignorable.

I cannot detach or disassociate poetry from the intricacies of grammar, of sentence structure, clause types, of subordination. There is inherent in the structure of words on a page an infinite poetic nature. It is from this amalgamation of the poetic and linguistic where, as a root, as a hypothesis, the very premise of my current poetry derives.

Could it be that a poem (is it a poem?) can be written with only a consideration of the macro structure? The current poetics explores this question.



 
Adam blogs at http://adamhampton.blogspot.co.uk

Vagital Countdown

fifty-nine

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Robert Sheppard: John Seed’s Lyric Poems and Objectivism (poems to/on Oppen and Zukofsky)

John Seed’s early poems are pure imagism, sparse, direct treatments of things, without comment, with a strong use of space and (as time progresses) abrupt enjambment rather that euphony or regular metrics. In an early, untitled poem, we see what Charles Altieri sees as the essential Objectivist way of measuring the world through acts of attention (the sort that moved imagism on towards objectivism): ‘Objectivist poetics creates an instrument sufficiently subtle to make attention and care … ends in themselves. Attention, care, and composition become testimony to levels of fit between the mind and the world in rhythmic interactions that require no supplementary justification in the form of abstract meaning.’ (Altieri 32) In a subtle placing of lines, Seed’s poem moves from the opening natural image of ‘winter sun silver over the waves’, with its slight alliteration, to its final identification of (and with) the impedimenta of the industrialized sea shore: ‘cranes silent along the dockside’. (Seed 2005: 15)  The natural and cultural meet, but resist merging through opposite qualities of attention, in ‘the glitter of metal and glass/ through the bright haze’. (15) Page after page of the earliest poems (though without the slight sonority of conventional alliteration found here) abut the natural or the perceptual with the spectral traces of industrialized modern Britain. ‘Collage construction enables images to become a form of thinking,’ Altieri suggests and (Altieri 32) the title of another poem, ‘Lindisfarne: Dole’, presents a deliberate juxtaposition (even an inexplicable equation with its colon) of the ancient monastic island (it hints towards passages of Bunting’s Briggflatts perhaps) and unemployment (which was rising in the early 1970s). The poem itself contrasts the underemployed ‘walking, dreamless for hours’ with the hard reality of ‘England’s coast’ which sounds more a more sociological construct than an a mere geological feature, thus expressed (12). A decade later ‘During War, the Timeless Air’, dated ‘England May 1982’ is similarly situated ‘At the nation’s edge’ in order to consider the Falklands war (‘For a moment almost free’) where the existential transcendence (the timeless air out of the time of war, the duration of ‘During’) is not unlike the inner freedom of ‘dreamless’ perambulation in the dole poem. (39) The care and attention are straining for the political perspectives he had already (privately) experimented with in Manc

Oppen
It is instructive to examine two poems addressed to Objectivists themselves. Adopting the same marginal convention used (but abandoned in late work) by Oppen, of capitalising after line-breaks while allowing for hanging indented lines without this convention, Seed, in ‘From Manchester, ToGeorge and Mary Oppen in San Francisco,’ begins in fragile media res, and clearly establishes the urban and poverty as a shared theme with Oppen:

                                    this city has its beggars too
            Lonely and threadbare in bronchial gloom
                                                like the sparrows
            Imagining bread or Spring (43)

The notorious damp of the region is evoked well at the human level, the sparrows (not Bunting’s ‘spuggies’ here) imaged and imagined as imagining shorter- or longer term respite. Of course, this is the city of Peterloo too (the site of the massacre now built over as St Peter’s Square, though memorialized by a plaque). But after an ellipsis, Seed picks up (in homage and identification) with a reference to Oppen’s ‘Of Being Numerous’, with its realisation of the ‘shipwreck of the singular’ in the metropolis:
                                                            … or the solitary
            Traveller    here and not here
            In the crowed night of streets

The enjambment ‘solitary/ Traveller’, though mild by later standards, which we have already identified with the Barthesian punctum, makes the isolate figure more so, as the capital on ‘Traveller’, rather than being a mere metrical convention, lifts the noun towards becoming a proper noun. Travel is not now ‘dreamless’ but semi-present, transient, and the descent of ‘night’ (a resonant word in Seed’s work, as we shall see) invades the streets and crowds it (empty but populated with isolating vacancy). This ‘Traveller’ is finally

                        Dreaming each footstep
                        Home

                                                indecipherable

                                                            ache beneath the ribs (43)  

The footsteps are only imaginary or aspirational, the whole process unreadable (words like ‘indecipherable’ and ‘impenetrable’ recur throughout Seed’s work), leaving only the desire as pain, but also reminding us of the bodily symptoms of bronchial disease, corporeal ‘gloom’ (a determinant of poverty not just the environment). The ever right-wards adjustment of the visual page, line by line, tilts the reading away from a discursive ending. ‘Indecipherable’, the untranslatable, the inaccessible, could relate equally to the ‘dreaming’, ‘the footstep(s)’ or the ‘home’ by prior syntactic linkage, or to the ‘ache’, by anterior connection. In all cases the Oppenesque theme of ‘solitariness’ (the word that is ranged farthest to the disappearing margin of our conventional reading page) is a code that cannot be accessed. (A number of Seed’s poems enact this by placing a solitary ‘I’ contentiously at the end of a line.) What Burton Hatlen says of Oppen goes for Seed in these poems: ‘Oppen … perfected a poetry in which syntactic interruptions and suspensions open up abysses within which the unsayable resonates behind, around, and within what gets said.’ (Hatlen 1999: 53) (This is not unlike the search for the elusive and ‘punctive’ something/something else that Seed speaks of lurking in his (and Reznikoff’s) conceptualist practice.)

‘For Oppen,’ writes Altieri, ‘sincerity is above all an ethical term.’ (9) Seed shares Oppen’s perspective: ‘The potential he saw in “historical and contemporary particulars” was a sense of social purpose without agitprop posturing.’ (9) The ‘gloom’ and negative ‘night’ re-appear in a later Manchester poem, dated ‘11 vii 1992’ (81) as, firstly, the ‘Architecture of solitude’ but also as the ‘Continuous Victorian night’, which reflects not just the origins of the city (its growth on the site of Peterloo) but its continuity with the ‘Victorian values’ of contemporary Thatcherite Britain (hence the precise dating, as in the Falklands War poem, so that the poem is read as situated social commentary but without agitprop intent).  

LZ
Zukofsky died in 1978, and ‘in memoriam Louis Zukofsky’ is Seed’s commemoration of this event and was included in the book of tributes, Louis Zukofsky, or Whoever Someone Else Thought He Was, published by North & South Press, edited by Harry Gilonis, another Objectivist-inflected poet, in 1988. (The decade wait seems somehow appropriate to the hiatuses, career breaks, renunciations and delays in the reception of Objectivist work!) It is also a work of poetics, one of the instances where poetics appears in the creative work itself. It opens:

                                                            outside the dream no
                        Verb
                        Invented this freezing rain is this
                        The question riveted into brick
Under the bridge (Seed 2005: 68)

‘outside the dream no’ operates as the title in the contents page of New and Collected Poems, and as such, beginning without capital letters, its assertion is muted, its negative strangely isolated (well to the right of any other word). ‘Dream’ (as much as the ‘dreamless’ state of the earlier poem) seems private and self-sustaining (and is curiously close to a usage of Lee Harwood) while the world seems determined by forces of decay. The enjambment announces the appearance of a noun, which is (ironically) the word ‘Verb’, isolated on a lone line. One might expect the word ‘noun’ to be there (and it would in a Oppenesque tribute I suspect), but here it is the fact that ‘no’ (enjambment) ‘Verb’ (isolated as though a Zukofskyean focussed particular) ‘invented this freezing rain’. Verbs (those ‘doing words’ of schoolchild pedagogy’) do not ‘invent’; they animate. Seed’s syntactic play is freer here and he asks ‘is this/ The question’ embedded in the flow of two other enjambed lines. ‘The’ of the ‘question’ is neatly capitalised. It may or not be the question but it is ‘riveted into brick’ in a quotidian location. The question that is questioned here seems to be the proposition that ‘verbs’ ‘invent’. Invention (as in world-creation, say) is not a ploy of Objectivist poetry (inventiveness is). Perhaps Seed is quietly questioning some of the practices of late Zukofsky, the proto-Oulipean games which seem so alien to the work of Oppen and Reznikoff, Seed’s acknowledged mentors.

            Rust       edges

            Already flaking (68)

suggests not construction but decay (and promises more), the space isolating the elements and liminal space of this slow process. The poem ends, confirming retardation and reminding us of the rain as the instrument of rusting.

            Slowly in October
            Rain the transient structures the (68)

Zukofsky has a long poem beginning ‘The’; Seed has a short poem ending with ‘the’.  The near- oxymoron of the abstract phrase ‘transient structures’ alerts us to the ‘slowly’ moving ‘flaking’ of even a ‘rivet’; ‘transient structures’ are, in effect, historical time, which is both nomadic and structured; even in the world’s smallest units, the crucial ones (literally speaking), this process is present. (Oppen spoke of the little words, the nouns, as his focus.) No verb invents the corrosive rusting rain, but it effects its own processes of decay, it carries out its own ‘verb’ function, as it were. This is perhaps confirmed by a contemporary untitled poem that begins:

            Trudging the verb
            Into streets     where else
            SW19 SW20
Victorian property after
Dark surfaces all
Changed in five years  (58)

This reminder of the Victorian, the dark surfaces (‘after/ Dark’ subtly evokes that ideological ‘continuous Victorian night’) and the slow historical change emphasise how Seed’s poems are mutually confirming. (Something I say to students: it’s easier to understand 10 poems by a poet than one on its isolated baffling own. I’ve looked at two.)

Other recent Seed posts here and here                                    

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Punctum, Punctuation and the Poetics of Space in John Seed’s Objectivism


John Seed doesn’t often offer his poetics for perusal, if by poetics we mean (and I mean, to the point of obsession) a speculative writerly discourse on the present (and future) forms of writing; indeed, he can be read as adhering fairly strictly to the central tenets of Objectivism, as contained in the soundbites critics extract from Zukofsky. In ‘Sincerity and Objectification’ (‘An Objective’ in its revised form), he defines the former by saying "Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody", (Zukofsky 1981: 12), while objectification relates to "the appearance of the art form as an object". (13) Objectification is the formal process that allows sincerity to appear in the poem itself; it is not a mental state, or not just a mental state, outside of the aesthetic object. ‘Technique,’ says Pound in the original formulation of this idea, ‘is the test of a man’s sincerity.’ ‘Thinking with the things as they exist’ is a recasting of William Carlos Williams’ mantra: ‘Say it: No ideas but in things’, as that in turn was a recasting of Pound’s imagist plea for a ‘direct treatment of the thing’. 

I still like William Carlos Williams’ dictionary definition of the Objectivist movement, because it reflects this: ‘It recognises the poem, apart from its meaning, to be an object to be dealt with as such. O. looks at the poem with a special eye to its structural aspect, how it has been constructed.’ The ocular metaphor suggests that the form as seen on the page might be of some significance. But Williams ends with an appeal to the intellect. ‘It arose as an aftermath of imagism … which the Objectivists felt was not specific enough, and applied to any image that might be conceived. O. concerned itself with an image more particularized yet broadened in its significance. The mind rather than the unsupported eye entered the picture.’ (Williams 1974: 582) The confusion between the eye and the mind reflects the tension in the poetics between the ‘thing’ itself (which Imagism was content with) and the form of the poem-object that treats of this ‘objective – rays of the object brought to a focus’ (Zukofsky 1981: 14), this ‘historical and contemporary particular’ (Zukofksy 1981: 12), this novel way of treating content and form.

Tim Woods recasts the objectification and sincerity binary thus: ‘What this Objectivist poetics calls for, on the one hand, is a phenomenological concentration in its insistence that poetry must get at the object, at the thing itself, while on the other hand, it must remain “true” to the object without any interference from the imperialist ego, dismissing any essentialism and calling for the “wisdom” of love or sincerity.’ (Woods 2002: 5) As he later explains, the first involves an ‘ontological poetics’ while the second involves an ‘ethical relation to the world’. (Woods 2002: 133; it is a Levinasian reading.) Or again: ‘Sincerity is that aspect of aesthetic action that respects the particulars of an object,’ reminding us again that ‘sincerity’ is not detached, in this context, from the text and text-production, (my italics: 146), while ‘Objectification … is the “formal” aspect, the poem as object-in-the-world.’ (146) Only objectification can body forth ‘sincerity’.  

Seed’s poetics hovers around the practice of two Objectivist writers, Oppen for his lyric writing, and Reznikoff for his ‘conceptual’ pieces, but that sense of the separation (but relationship) of historical particulars as being ‘sincerity’, and objectification being achieved through a series of formal manipulations of those particulars is notably strong in his conceptual works (from the newly re-discovered Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819 to the two recent volumes of Pictures from Mayhew, and not forgetting ‘Transit Depots’ in between, which is another story). See my posts on Manchester here and on Mayhew here. 

Interestingly, Seed doesn’t go back to Zukofsky’s binary but, in the ‘Afterword’, reaches out to the master of binaries, Roland Barthes (and he is such a master of them he knows how to break them, as did Zukofsky). Searching for a way of describing that ‘something else’ that Seed seeks by his framing of historical particulars, to create ‘the sense of / another reality filtering through the language of historical documents,’ (Seed 2013: 52-3) he reaches for Barthes’ distinction between ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ which he makes in Camera Lucida, but Seed only cites the latter, and indeed returns to the slippery notion of the elusive ‘something’ when he summarises Barthes’ theory: ‘Through the individual photograph something shoots out at the perceiver like an arrow, pierces and wounds him. This he calls the punctum.’ (Seed 2013: 55) He then quotes Barthes: ‘A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’. (Seed 2013: 55; also at Barthes 1984: 27) Seed’s question, ‘Can a poem have a punctum?’ is rendered rhetorical by two impressive fragments of Reznikoff. (55) Yes, we might agree. 

It is worth examining this source in some detail (and it suggests all kinds of usage as poetics for writers now, including myself; perhaps it helps explain, or offers complexities to a poetics of multiform unfinish that I have been constructing, the crane defiantly swinging above the construction site).

Seed says nothing about ‘studium’. Barthes defines it as a quality of reception (or perception of) photographs, one which is culturally determined, and may even be responsible for one’s first interest in them, but this may ‘require the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture. What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training.’ (Barthes 1984: 26) Never ‘delight or pain’, (28) it is a polite interest, the name studium (which auto-correct wishes to change to stadium every time I type it) suggests ‘study’, which Barthes doesn’t completely dismiss with his sense that this is cultured acquisition, an education even, but more properly it indicates a ‘taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment … but without special acuity’. (Barthes 1984: 26) It is not, as might be supposed, indifference, and neither (we shall see) is its opposite shock and awe. Barthes is offering a binary of ‘interests’ within the circle of appreciation, a range from liking to loving. ‘Studium’ is the feeling we have when we declare a film, play, poetry reading, musical performance ‘all right’. It doesn’t hit the spot that gets you hot. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, we might say. It’s not even ‘worthy but dull’. It’s better than that: it’s worthy and … yes, we say: it was worthy. Full stop. We’re pleased but mildly disappointed at the same time. Over to you Roland:

Punctum’ (‘Punk-tum’ I can’t help hearing) is defined as ‘the second element’ that ‘will break (or punctuate) the studium.’ (26) It is ‘sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also the cast of a die’. (27) It is impolite, uncivil, but it is not necessarily surprise, (not punk, despite the pun). In terms of photography, it goes beyond a coded visuality, and beyond naming; it may involve a detail that manifests itself in an image, ‘a detail’ that ‘overwhelms the entirety of my reading’. (49) He uses the same generality as Seed: ‘This something has triggered me, has provoked a tiny shock,’ (49) but ironically, ‘whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.’ (55) Cognition becomes recognition in a moment that feels both inventive and inevitable; Barthes relates it to the non-developmental quiddity of the instantaneous poetics of the haiku, a poetic form with a clear relationship to the imagism-objectivist tradition in which Seed both stands and stands out.

Barthes, by the time he wrote Camera Lucida was pretty much an aesthete, and he is content to deal with his responses to certain photographic details (in a given photograph) that puncture and punctuate his ‘reading’ (the folded arms of a black servant or the co-presence of nuns and soldiers in a war photo, for example) without feeling the need to generalise (and, to be fair, we don’t want him to). However, I feel it might be useful to think of the abrupt enjambments of Seed’s poems (which I have examined here, with reference to his ‘treatment’ of Mayhew’s  documentary voices) as a punctuational punctum, as a way of forcing the material to offer up its ghosts and their voices, as the trigger that motivates that something into something else. (The original material, interesting enough to attract Reznikoff or Seed, is purely the studium; the punctum is the call to form, to transformation.)

If, as Agamben says, ‘Poetry lives only in the tension and difference (and hence in the virtual interference) between sound and sense’ (109)  then ‘enjambement is the only criterion which allows one to distinguish poetry from prose’, (100) which is especially crucial when the process of composition is – as in Seed’s conceptual pieces – to transform prose (or even speech) into poetry. It’s the only tool and used well it is capable of rising to the imagistic and majestic intensity of the punctum. As a very different writer with a very different rhetoric, Frederike Mayröcker, puts it:

flesh of the poem, the

torments severe, I vanish in the

line-break (54).


(This was part of the poetics of René Van Valckenborch, at least in his Walloon poems.)


Tucked away in the footnotes of Seed’s Manchester, there is another piece of poetics, that discusses this very formal device, the line break, into which the writer might vanish. It’s an odd source too. The end of Seed’s ‘Afterword’ becomes both a slightly nervous defence of his use of prose (never apologise!) and also an opening out towards conceptual poetry of the Goldsmith and Place varieties (interesting, because I had already compared him favourably to them before this new book was published, favourably, in terms of his transformative poetics. (See here and here and here.) But: back to the footnote.

Perhaps also with Pound’s dictum against breaking prose into line-lengths ringing in our ears (how we let the Old Fascist bully us in our youths, John!), Seed cautiously asserts (if you can do such a thing): ‘It could be argued that merely breaking prose up into lines does something significant, whether we call it poetry or not.’ (Seed 2013: 63) He then quotes the sociologist and educationalist Basil Bernstein (as staple a read for Seed as the student teacher he was in 1973 as was EP Thompson for him as a Marxist historian) about a classroom experiment (not too different from Seed’s own as outlined in my last post, here) to break up ‘continuous writing’ into sentences ‘like a poem. The piece took on a new and vital life.’ (quoted in Seed 2013: 63) Bernstein too apologises and says that this was ‘bad aesthetics’ but calling this ‘the symbolic nature of space’ is a gift to the kinds of thinking many of us have been trying to do with spatial elements of poetic artifice. Like Pound and the Objectivists, Bernstein ‘became fascinated by condensation; by the implicit’. (64) What happened? At length:

‘The space between the lines, the interval, allowed the symbols to reverberate against each other. The space between the lines was the listener or reader’s space out of which he (sic) created a unique, unspoken, personal meaning.’ (64) So:


The space
between the lines, the
interval,
allowed the symbols to
reverberate
against each other. The space
between the lines was
the listener or reader’s space
out of which he
created a unique,
unspoken,
personal meaning.


Or even:

the space


between the lines the


interval


allowed the symbols to


reverberate


against each other the space


between the lines was


the listener or reader’s space


out of which he


created a unique


unspoken


personal meaning



See? This strikes me as very good aesthetics indeed, and Seed has been carrying this quote (from Bernstein’s masterpiece, Class, Codes and Control) around since 1971 when it was published. It was, he said, ‘enthusiastically marked’ in his own copy. (64) The writer may vanish in the line-break, but this is where the poem is born as the reader is born as a reader, in the reading experience; it may result at least in the studium of the educative, but at most in the punctum of delight. This is what I would argue of the abrupt enjambments of Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ work (it is less evident in the juvenilia of Manchester). What is interesting is that, while Seed alerts us to both Barthes and Bernstein, he doesn’t make this connection. Barthes himself likes the mild suggestion of the word ‘punctuation’ in punctum, so the connection, if we think of enjambment as the metrical equivalent of punctuation in syntactic and semantic structures – Agamben’s speaks of ‘the opposition between metrical segmentation and semantic segmentation’ in poetry (109) – is apposite, even accurate. Two cheers for binaries!

 

Works Cited

Agamben, Georgio

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. London: Flamingo, 1984.

Mayrocker, Feidereke,

Seed, John. (2013) Manchester: August 16th & 17th 1819. London: Intercapillary Space.

Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Williams, William Carlos, (1974): ‘Objectivism’, entry in Preminger, Alex, ed. Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1974.

Woods, Tim. The Poetics of Limit. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

More recent Seed posts here and here