Follow by Email

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Form, Forms and Forming and the Antagonisms of Reality in Criticism, Poetics and Poetry

A poetics piece dedicated to poet Sean Bonney, ‘Bad Poetry for Bad People!’ re-articulates many of the terms in this piece in a ‘forming action’ that drags ideas in the wake of its forward trajectory. I come up with the term ‘manyfesto’ to distinguish its multiple unfinish from the ‘manifestos’ of art (and politics). Written in response to Bonney’s talk about politics and poetry at the same Edinburgh conference to which I presented a draft of ‘Form, Forms and Forming and the Antagonisms of Reality in Criticism, Poetics and Poetry’ (and with the sounds of Bonney’s talk, my paper and the 2011 English riots ringing in my ears), it brings together (and disperses) many of the themes of this book, and demonstrates some of its concerns: it harbours (yet another) sonnet in its midst, it contains a ‘poetry’ that cannot be paraphrased, it offers a poetics that remains speculative, conjectural and provocative. It is a form that thinks poetry. Read it here.

It begins (to give a taster):

i put myself in the scene i swerve new walls a mile high. An Investors in People plaque gleams on the funeral director’s wall. Shadows cast us aside for evening’s soft erasures, leave pencil shavings on paper. Political poetry will both say and not say, modified by formal resistance. Commodified a looted shop or Love on an impulse never correct mistrust of getting some watches a clear Muse stream hash-tagged on Twitter. This might be a way of approaching Adorno’s contention that the unresolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as problems of form. There’s….

Even a cursory inspection of Charles Bernstein’s edited volume The Politics of Poetic Form (1990), a book that one might think pertinent to the theme of this blogging, will reveal how little form is actually referred to in any detail (by Rosmarie Waldrop alone as it happens in the poetics piece ‘Alarms and Excursions’, examined in an earlier posting). It is easier to talk politics, we might infer, than to interrogate form. I wish to trace a politics of poetic form without losing sight of form as a vital force of poesis. If poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form – as I contend – then the investigation of form itself is of paramount importance. It comes with a certain methodological liberty and verve: ‘The vitality of reading for form is freedom from program and manifesto, from any uniform discipline,’ (5) says leading new formalist Susan J. Wolfson. Indeed, this formalism has been fighting against instrumentalist readings of literature, ranging from the impositions of the New Historicists to the quasi-sociology that passes for a lot of English teaching still, particularly of poetry in schools, which often amounts to political message unmediated by the effects of form. Wolfson counters this: ‘My deepest claim is that language shaped by poetic form is not simply conscriptable as information for other frameworks of analysis; the forms themselves demand a specific kind of critical attention.’ (30)
I argue that the attention of any formal study of contemporary poetry – for that is what I am currently writing – must be dual. It must focus on form in the technical sense, on identifiable forms in play, the ones identified by Veronica Forrest-Thomson in Poetic Artifice as enjambment, line, rhythm, rhyme, etc., and on form in a general, more performative sense, that prioritises acts of forming and our apprehension of their coming to form in our reading. Forms and forming I call this pair for ease. Associating one with the other, Derek Attridge in The Singularity of Literature argues that form is the force that stages a performance of any text: we need to apprehend ‘the eventness of the literary work, which means that form needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form”, of “forming”, or even “loosing form”’(113),  but he insists that the devices of artifice ‘are precisely what call forth the performative response’ of any engaged reader, directly connected to the event of singularity which is the irruption of an inventive otherness in our productive reading. (118)
Both types of form are capable of carrying a semantic or cognitive charge, demonstrating that forms think. They contain or envelop meaning(s) of knowledge(s) and might show how new meaning and (non-propositional) knowledge might be formed and formulated. As such, aesthetic form carries a force operating on the individual (or collective) reader or viewer, which – in the case of poetry – means that the reader is the site where such meanings are staged by form, so that reading is formulating form, and formulating it into fluxing semantic and cognitive forms as a ‘performed mobility’. (111). Wolfson even writes that literature lovers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’. (Rawes 214) Formal considerations of both kinds (forms and forming) are engaged by active reading and enact meanings that moderate, exacerbate, subvert (and on rare occasions reinforce) the kind of extractable meaning that Forrest-Thomson and Attridge both decry as ‘paraphrase’. If apprehension of form is not, or not only, a matter of collecting the devices of poetic artifice, of forms, but a question of entering into the process by which the text finds form in our reading, as forming, there can be, strictly, no paraphrase; indeed, paraphrase, a mode by which meaning is supposedly skimmed off the surface of reading as a residue or even an essence, or worse, a ‘political’ slogan, is a violation of the processes of forms forming. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.
‘An “artist” is someone who presents problems of forms,’ insists Lyotard in ‘The Critical Function of the Work of Art’, using the plural of the word as my study does, in alliance with, but distinct from its singular form. He continues: ‘The essential element, the only decisive one, is form. Modifying social reality is not important at all if it aims at putting back into place something that will have the same form.’ (83 Driftworks Lyotard) As true as these two sentences might be, the analogy that is suggested between the plastic forms of art practice, form as a decisive category of aesthetics or poetics, and ‘form’ as social and political formation in the service of an understated social ‘modification’, is an utopian one not sustained beyond his textual practice of periodic juxtaposition and the cognitive wilfulness of wishful thinking. It moves, as the arguments often do, too quickly, from ‘form’ as I am tracing its adventure in my current study, to social transformation as that is envisioned by radical politics. In the transfer events of forms and acts of forming are ignored: form is lost.
Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory was published in 1970, the same year as Lyotard’s post-1968 speculations, but takes a more nuanced view of what is a long standing interaction in aesthetics, beginning in Schiller, between the forms of life and the forms of art. ‘The unresolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form,’ Adorno says, thus immediately aligning, but separating, politics and form. (Adorno Theory: p. 6). The relationship between reality and form is announced in a way which seems to settle the issue. Antagonisms that have been resolved do not make their appearance, have historically played themselves out, it seems. Those unhappily unresolved antagonisms – of class one supposes – ‘return’ in artworks. They exist prior to their appearance as form therefore. By this formulation, they could not arise in the artwork, certainly not as content and only as form, or to be precise as ‘a problem of form’, whatever that might mean, and as an immanent, intrinsic one at that. Both Lyotard and Adorno see the artist presenting problems of form or forms, rather than form or its forms (or indeed forming) themselves. To continue with Adorno: the dynamic social forces of antagonism re-appear after the event as problems (which presumably have possible solutions) in the very substance of ‘the objective organisation within each artwork of what appears to be bindingly eloquent’ (p. 143), to use one of Adorno’s multiple definitions of form. For philosophy, an eloquent problem might be a forceful expression of its ceaseless activity; for an artist, problems of form or forms may be questions of poetics as I define it, as a speculative writerly discourse about the future of his or her activity, of acts of forming. But that is to return to the primal scene of poesis too hastily. Let us pursue Adorno’s definitions of form from a social perspective: ‘Form is what is anti-barbaric in art; through form art participates in the civilization that it criticizes by its very existence.’ (143) This asserts, a sting sharp in its tail, a now familiar conception of the critical function of the work of art, but which involves form as acts of forming, as dynamic participants in critique. Another definition suggests how the immanent problems reconfigure, how form mediates its critical function by operating on the world through itself, by turning onto, or back to, itself: ‘Form converges with critique. It is that through which artworks prove self-critical.’ (144: my emphasis) The problems of form and forms offer the modalities of critique in acts of forming, at those moments when form becomes visible. ‘If form is that in artworks by which they become artworks,’ argues Adorno, a formalism with which we might concur, ‘it is equivalent with their mediatedness, their objective reflectiveness into themselves.’ (144) Reading for form is allowing critical form to become critical function. Mediation to be complete must involve the finding, making, or even losing of form by the user of the artwork.
This has an art-historical aspect: ‘By its critical implication, form annihilates practices and works of the past.’ (144) A chapter in progress (there’s a version on Pages in 14 parts (of course!) ‘The Innovative Sonnet Sequence’, it begins here, and ends here, and was posted daily for a fortnight) outlines the vicissitudes in the history of the sonnet, the emergence of the innovative sonnet in one literary milieu in response to the perceived redundancy of the traditional sonnet. Jeff Hilson’s anthology The Reality Street Book of Sonnets is a monument to formal annihilation, to form analysing itself by fruitful exploration of the possible contemporary formal meanings of the sonnet frame.
To repeat my self-consciously formalist thesis:  Poetry is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. But for Adorno there is a further chain in the argument that forges the link between formal introspection and political critique: ‘Form is the law of the transfiguration of the existing, counter to which it represents freedom.’ (143) A representation of freedom is not freedom itself, of course, and Adorno characteristically sees the melancholy and guilt of the transfigurative situation in that ‘form inevitably limits what is formed’, since ‘selecting, trimming, renouncing’ must be a major part of poesis. ‘Without rejection there is no form, and this prolongs guilty domination in artworks, of which they would like to be free; form is their amorality.’ (144) I’m not sure this is experienced at the level of poesis (chopping out an unnecessary simile or adjective, sweeping away a passage of exposition in a piece of fiction, can be exhilarating), but at an historical level (say, of rejecting traditional sonnet forms for innovative ones) it might be felt as guilt. Indeed, this is not a million miles away from WH Auden’s guilty realisation that ‘a poem which was really like a political democracy would be formless’; a society organised like a good poem (by Auden’s poetics) would be a totalitarian regime, a remark that has haunted and stimulated my thinking for some decades. (quoted in Raban, p. 27)  It certainly flowed into the formal selections for writing my poem The Lores in the mid-90s, where ‘the text’s poetic focus is the relationship of fascism to micro-fascism and the matching resistances to that at both the Grand Level and at ground level,’ is negotiated in part by the formal frame of ‘various word counts for the poem [which] derive from Plato’s The Laws, in which 5040 is considered the ideal number of citizens for his second ,[more repressive,] Republic because it is a number divisible by most numbers, and is therefore useful for the raising of taxes and militia, and – doubtless – for surveillance’ (Sheppard 2008: 383-4):




The forms of life and the forms of art have been entangled since Romantic aesthetics gave us the terms. ‘Form is the seal of social labour, fundamentally different from the empirical process of making,’ (144) remarks Adorno, and this is true, but the empirical process of making, poesis and its poetics, must lie behind any presentation of the problems of form, and it is one I want to return to as someone who presents problems of form(s) as poems. ‘Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason that a silkworm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature,’ Marx commented, (Marx in Milton ed. Davies, p. 19) a little too easily, but it does remind us that Schiller asserted, in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) that ‘Man … is only wholly Man when he is playing’ and ‘he shall play only with Beauty.’ (Schiller p. 80; italics his)  The shaping of beauty can only be facilitated by the ‘play impulse’ but the ‘object of the form impulse’ is ‘shape… a concept which includes all formal qualities of things and all their relations to the intellectual faculties’ (p. 76, italics his). This is in distinction to its reciprocatory antagonist, the ‘sense impulse’, whose object is ‘life’ to the wholeness of Man. (76: but see also p. 118) Art and life are separate until brought together. Schiller leaves us in no doubt that the Man who is wholly himself in play and sense becomes adequate to realities beyond himself by becoming a man of form, as it were: ‘When … the formal impulse holds sway, and the pure object acts within us, there is the highest expansion of being, all barriers disappear, and from being the unit of magnitude to which the needy sense confined him, Man has risen to a unit of idea embracing the whole realm of phenomena.’ (Schiller: 67; his italics.)
Jacques Rancière, in his 2002 essay ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’ points to Schiller’s equation of these drives and summarises: ‘There exists a specific sensory experience that holds the promise of both a new world of Art and a new life for individuals and the community, namely the aesthetic.’ The Romantic breakthrough of which Schiller was part is ‘one that reframes the division of the forms of our experience to this day’, he claims. (Dis: 115 ranc) This results in ‘three major scenarios’ concerning this relationship, similar to the triad established by Schiller: ‘Art can become life. Life can become art. And art and life can change their properties.’ (119) One of Rancière’s ‘scenarios’ (the last, in effect that art and life can change and perhaps exchange their properties) is particularly seductive but dangerous for the contemporary artist in Rancière’s attractive description. ‘The prose of everyday life becomes a huge fantastic poem’ sounds inviting (particularly to poets!), the poet becoming ‘not only a naturalist or an archaeologist, … he also becomes … a symptomologist, delving into the dark underside …  to decipher the messages engraved in the very flesh of ordinary things’, but this is to run the risk of making the extraordinary ordinary, and results (‘taken to its extreme’) in the vapid ‘political’ art of ‘exhibitions of re-cycled commodities’: ‘denunciation … becomes part of the game’. (126-7) How I think of certain exhibitions at the Liverpool Biennial, but the textual equivalent might be a work such as Alexandra Nemerov’s ‘First My Motorola’ which ‘is a list of every brand she touched over the course of a day’, and is an exemplar of uncreative writing in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing published in 2011. (457-62):

First, My Motorola
Then my Frette
Then my Sonia Rykiel
Then my Bulgari
Then my Asprey …. (457)                                                                    until

And finally, my Motorola (462)

Nemerov’s text attempts to trace the multiple signatures of late capitalism, but does nothing with those traces; from a formal point of view this text fails to transform the phenomena it frames (unlike, say, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day or Vanessa Place’s Statement of Facts). It is unadorned product placement that ‘my’ of the circularity of the diurnal return to ‘And finally’ hardly ironises enough (for this reader). Art and life change their properties, perhaps, and in the act de-value both; exchange is not, after all, transformation.1
However, between these three scenarios that Rancière describes (the other two entropic ‘vanishing points’ are art becoming life and life becoming art, remember) creative artists inevitably ‘shuttle … playing one linkage with art and non-art against another such linkage’. (132) The artist buzzes like a fly between the three planes of his or her conceptual prison. This places the poet in an interestingly nuanced and unstable position: ‘Aesthetic art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity,’ says Rancière, quite positively. (133) The forms of life and the forms of art touch and partly re-negotiate their relationship, perhaps continually. Rancière calls this process ‘dissensus’: ‘If there exists a connection between art and politics, it should be cast in terms of dissensus, the very kernel of the aesthetic regime: artworks can produce effects of dissensus precisely because they neither give lessons nor have any destination’. (140) Dissensus is defined in contradistinction to the manufacture of ‘democratic’ consensus as ‘a political process that resists juridical litigation and creates a fissure in the sensible order by confronting the established framework of perception, thought and action with the “inadmissible”’. (in Glossary in The Politics of Aesthetics: p. 85) Forces of subjectivation are energised by its rupture of reality. Its politics operate much like the approved model of the aesthetic in Rancière’s thought.2
‘The dream of a suitable political work of art,’ Rancière says elsewhere in an interview, ‘is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the sayable and thinkable’ – the three essential regimes of his thinking – ‘without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle’, like Nemerov; instead producing ‘meanings in the form of a rupture with the very logic of meaningful situations.’ (Polit 63) In effect, a dissensual rupture. Rupture – which I interpret, or at least envisage, as a formal activity –is inherently meaningful. As Benjamin comments: ‘Interruption is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring.’ (Benjamin: 58?)
Rancière, writing in 2003, issued a minatory corrective to the purely technical comprehension of poesis, and reminds us of a certain entropy of technique, in formal actitivity that is not, or is no longer, effective, because complicit with social and political processes, in the case of collage or ‘meanings in the form of a rupture’ to use his expression:

Linking anything with everything whatsoever, which yesterday passed for subversive, is today increasingly homogeneous with the reign of journalistic anything contains everything and the subject-hopping of advertising. We therefore need …  to put some disorder back into montage. (Rancière 2007: 51)

To me, this last corrective is a brilliant description of the ethics, if not politics, of form in late Tom Raworth (as I’ve written elsewhere and won’t repeat here, in both The Poetry of Saying and in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry). ‘Suitable political art would ensure … the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused … by the uncanny, by that which resists signification’. (63 of The Politics of Aesthetics) Although this is not, like Adorno’s, a strictly formalist reading, it is difficult for me to see how a ‘sensible or perceptual shock’ might be achieved without formally investigative operations, such as in a re-vitalised montage that suggests dissensual rupture rather than connection; but I fail to see why the fashionable ‘uncanny’ should be the only means available to achieve this. The double effect can only occur in moments of forming, when the text takes form before our eyes in our actual interaction with the text. The critical function of art is born in the instant its form de-forms and re-forms in front of us as precisely the representation of freedom that Adorno describes. If forms know anything they know at least to do this.
In my first presentation of this chapter as a paper at the Conversify Conference in Edinburgh in October 2011, I ended here on this formalist flourish but I’d like to share the original ending because it points to certain difficulties I’ve had with my poetics of form and my formalist poetics.

There [I might have said]: I’ve rattled on so long, reached the outer limits of my current critical thinking, and not left enough time for examples. I’m meant to be talking about Barry MacSweeney, and want to write about his particular forms in my book on form. My original abstract promised: ‘I test the political implications of this [my notions of form] by an examination of Barry MacSweeney’s varied use of form, from the impaction of ‘Odes’ to the political transparency of a number of his ‘State of the Nation Addresses’, from the lyricism of the ‘Pearl’ poems to the anger of the late mythologizing poems of alcoholic disintegration.’ Even then I realised: ‘While I will be unable to cover all of this in a paper I focus upon events of forming as central to reading and question how the political operates within readerly forming and within the forms of poems. This might be a more productive way of approaching Adorno’s contention that “The unresolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form.”’ I believe this to have been the case. However, in another way I’ve written myself into a corner. But it’s an interesting one. And one I’ve been in before, where, like now, I was caught between literary critical concepts, the speculative discourse of my poetics, and literary creation. The moment was the mid 1990s and the concept was not form but ‘creative linkage’ as a specific description of the ‘accelerated collage’ at work in Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Ulli Freer and Adrian Clarke. This resulted in a personal poetics of creative linkage and a literary work, The Lores, which put that theory of textual impaction into poetic practice. Using quite other materials, the thinking of Adorno and Rancière, and the whole league of ‘new’ formalist critics, nevertheless leads me back to the knot where criticism, poetics and poetry meet. Writing this one week after rioting occured about half a mile from where I’m sitting, I feel impelled to re-visit the angry core of The Lores and figure out what might be my contemporary version of Ranciere’s ‘double effect: the readability of a political signification’ – nobody is saying the poem isn’t saying – against ‘a sensible or perceptual shock caused … by that which resists signification’.

The time capsule’s
contract with the
future, the Eugenics’
Court with its
injections, co-ops us
to a selective
history: as soon
as the population
is trafficking clatters
the shutters down
the laws of
motion beyond its
jurisdiction, unceased husks
in lightning streaks

Flicks to see
who flinches empty
me from your
circumference, accommodations of
space an abacus
for millions who
stand beside us
pure result with
no contest empty
microphones and dead
amplifiers inside each
rule if she
moves any slower
she’s our commodity

Political poetry will both say and not say, modified by formal resistance and interruption.

1. Is Alexandra Nemerov a relative of Alex Nemerov (male), a wonderful academic I met in Amsterdam? We realised both of our fathers had been in the RAF. Poetry readers should be able to work out who his was.

2. Guattari also uses the term in his suggestive late The Three Ecologies to contrast ‘a stupefying and infantalizing consensus’ with ‘the singular production of existence’ from micro-political groups operating in short term autonomous activism.’ (50: Guattari.)

Works Cited

Adorno, T.W. eds. Adorno, G., Tiedemann, R., trans. Hullot-Kentor, R., Aesthetic Theory, London: New York: Continuum, 2002.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Fontana, 1970.
Dworkin, Craig, and Goldsmith, Kenneth, eds. Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011.
Guattari, Félix. The Three Ecologies. London and New Brunswick: The Athlone Press, 2000. 
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. Driftworks. New York: Semiotexte, 1984.
Milton, John. ed. Davies, Tony. Selected Shorter Poems and Prose. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.
Raban, Jonathan. The Society of the Poem. London: Harrap, 1971.
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.
Rancière, Jacques. The Future of the Image. London and New York: Verso, 2007.
Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London and New York: Continuum, 2010.
Rawes, Alan, ed. Romanticism and Form. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man (trans. Reginald Snell). Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2004.
Sheppard, Robert. The Lores. London: Reality Street, 2003.
Sheppard, Robert. Complete Twentieth Century Blues. Cambridge: Salt, 2008.
Wolfson, Susan J. Formal Charges. Stanford: University of Standford Press, 1997.
Wolfson, Susan J., and Brown, Marshall, eds. Reading for Form. Seatle and London: University of Washington Press, 2006.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Poetic Form as Forms of Meaning: Base Material and the Signet of Form in John Seed’s Pictures from Mayhew

(This paper was delivered at the Poetic and the Unpoetic conference in Amsterdam a few years ago, but has been worked up since. The first four paragraphs represent a fair paraphrase of the argument of my on-going work on poetic form.)

The borders between the poetic and the non-poetic are permeable, particularly across time. Perhaps what is regarded as the non-poetic is in some sense the not-yet-poetic (or the no-longer poetic in the case of outmoded or rejected poetic devices). A poet like Jeff Hilson regards the importation of deliberately bad writing into the saintly portal of the sonnet as the deliberate assimilation of the non-poetic, but all poetry necessarily feeds off of the non-poetic for its life. The passage from matter to form, which Schiller regarded as one of the fundamentals of an aesthetic education, drags novel matter into the life of forms. I am going to initially identify the poetic with medium, with artifice and form, and the non-poetic or extra-poetic with message, quotation, semantic content, in the full knowledge that this distinction is not one I will ultimately acknowledge, and isn’t so in this critical work into formally investigative poetry. Poetry, under this sign, is the investigation of complex contemporary realities through the means (meanings) of form. However, holding form and content, the poetic and the non- or extra- poetic, apart will ultimately demonstrate how these terms elide. Susan J. Wolfson says that in any case some readers ‘respond to forms as a kind of content’ (Rawes 2007: 214), and Derek Attridge says that ‘Meaning is … something already taken up within form; forms are made out of meanings quite as much as they are made out of sound and shapes.’ (Attridge 2004: 114)
Form as a set of identifiable poetic devices – enjambment say, or any other specific feature of artifice – causes or at least incites aesthetic encounter, to use Peter de Bolla’s term. Form thus becomes conceived as force, something that happens, and happens to readers and listeners, a dynamic energy even (as aesthetics since Schiller has consistently contended). Rather than conceiving of form as static or as a parcel of devices, Attridge theorises it as a singularity. ‘Form,’ he argues in The Singularity of Literature, ‘needs to be understood verbally – as ‘taking form” of “forming”, or even “loosing form”’ (Attridge 2004: 113). I favour (as shorthand) his middle term forming while contrasting and combining that with ‘form’ as poetic device or, as I prefer to say, forms. Any discussion of events of readerly forming must be contingent upon identifiable elements of poetic artifice, or forms.
I bring to my readings the work of the recent critics of form mentioned above but cannot avoid procrustean summaries of their rich thinking on this brief skirmish across the borders between poetry and the non-poetic in the knowledge that readers for form, as Wolfson says, are aware ‘that the forms of our attention will persist in ceaseless, lively transformations’. (Wolfson and Brown 2006: 23-4) I will have to put to one side the implication here that encounter will be multi-systemic, different for each person, each encounter a singularity. To bring some rest to this sense of animate, even cognitive, form, one must fix one’s position for the duration.
If apprehension of form is not, or not only, a matter of collecting the devices of poetic artifice, of forms, but a question of entering into the process by which the text finds form in our reading, as forming, there can be, strictly, no paraphrase; indeed, paraphrase, a mode by which meaning is supposedly skimmed off the surface of reading as a residue or even an essence, is to escape from the realm of poetry into the non- or extra- poetic, but is a violation of the processes so far outlined. As Attridge attests, even if we preserve a minute trace of the form of a poem – some sense of its devicehood – we are still remembering the poem as a poetic form. Paraphrase is amnesia of form.
These contentions and conjectures are put to the test by found texts and other framing or quoting devices which take their content (whole or in part) from other sources, but which involve considerable artifice. As Bob Cobbing reminds us somewhere: ‘All found poems are treated poems.’ Content (at least in the sense of material) is clearly identifiable and the artifice (both as forms and forming) can be apprehended in particular isolation. It would be easier to quote than to paraphrase. The adventure of the interinanimation and resistances of the poetic and the non-poetic is specifically played out at the level of form; forms of meaning and the meanings made by form are equally revealed.
John Seed is a British poet born in 1950 whose work holds to the American aesthetic of Objectivism, derived largely from the thinking of Louis Zukofsky, who (influenced himself by the dynamic example of William Carlos Williams) posited a robust post-Imagist poetics in the 1930s, believing that ‘poems are only acts upon particulars’ that ‘become particulars themselves’ through rigorous poesis. (Zukofsky 1981: 18) ‘The more precise the writing the purer the poetry’, he asserted, holding textual condensation and free verse derived from Imagism as near axiomatic. (Zukofsky 1981: 15) Objectivism ‘is thinking “with” things rather than “about” things,’ as Tim Woods rephrases Zukofsky. (Woods 2002: 22) ‘Particulars’ also suggests the focus of left-wing politics in contrast to the authoritarianism of Pound’s ‘overlooking’ of historical particulars, such as ‘the hell of Belsen’. (Zukofsky 1981: 166) Sincerity is only possible if matched by technique, by attention to acts of form. Through the example and presence of the British objectivist Basil Bunting in the North East of England (where Seed grew up) British poets from Tom Pickard to Richard Caddell (Seed’s publisher and a Director of the Basil Bunting Centre at Durham University by the time of his death) joined Seed in an interest in this grouping, particularly as they re-emerged from silence, obscurity and neglect from the mid-1960s onwards. Seed avoids the notational absorption in perception found in some British objectivists by maintaining a conceptually acute practice, partly through the influence of objectivist George Oppen, to whom he wrote a hailing poem from Manchester: ‘this city has its beggars too’, a bitter line which serves to flag up Seed’s interest in the urban and possibly his commitments to Marxism. (See his prose volume Marx: A Guide for the Perplexed.) (Seed 2005a: 43). Sometimes seen as allied to the Cambridge poets, via friendship with Andrew Crozier, a fine British poet who re-discovered the objectivist poet Carl Rakosi, this led to his inclusion in the ‘Cambridge’ anthology A Various Art in 1988, co-edited by Crozier. (He re-appears in Iain Sinclair’s compendious anthology London: City of Disappearances in 2006.) A peripheral member of the London poetry scene sometimes called linguistically innovative, he has lived in London since 1983 and has increasingly written of its history, particularly in his crowning poetic achievements, the lyric sequence ‘Divided into One’ (2004) in his New and Collected Poems (2005), and the two volumes: Pictures from Mayhew (2005) and That Barrikins – Pictures from Mayhew II (2007). If earlier work owes to Oppen then the ‘Mayhew Books’ owe to another objectivist, Charles Reznikoff, whose volumes Testimony (1965) and Holocaust (1975) use legal documents from American courts and from the trials of Nazis, respectively. Reznikoff was trained but never practised as a lawyer. Seed has been a social historian since the 1970s; he was allied to the ‘history from below’ movement of that decade that followed the rich example of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and recalls: ‘The duty of the socialist historian was to bring alive the experiences and the consciousness of working people in the past, to retrieve an alternative people’s history and an alternative cultural tradition.’ (Marx: 68) In a different tradition, Walter Benjamin remarked: ‘To write history means giving dates their physiognomy.’ (Arcades p. 476). This is a useful way to conceptualise the impulse behind the ‘Mayhew’ project, which is analogous (not identical) to the work of Reznikoff. In terms of the theme of this study, both writers are in essence framing selected parts of pre-existing non-poetic documents as found texts and making them poetry through formal manipulation, one set of particulars into another. In a different context Zukofsky spoke of ‘The base matter … which must receive the signet of the form’ (p. 18), which expresses the process precisely. 
            The non-poetic base matter of  Testimony are legal documents presenting evidence in a variety of cases that paint a picture of ‘The United States 1885-1890’ – the subtitle of the 1965 volume – as a violent, negligent and disputatious society. This material gave a new gloss to ‘objectivist’: ‘With respect to the subject matter in verse and the use of the term ‘objectivist’ and ‘objectivism’, let me again refer to the rules with respect to testimony in a court of law,’ Reznikoff explains. ‘Evidence to be admissible in a trial cannot state conclusions of fact: it must state the facts themselves.’ (Bernstein 1999: 215) The almost accidental effect of this for Reznikoff’s readers is that they – like a jury – must draw conclusions from particulars. For example in a poem describing the moments after a child’s birth, when ‘he’ (presumably the father) ‘took it out of the room,/ and she could hear the splashing of the water’, we are not told he is drowning it. When ‘he’ returns ‘and put the child into the fire’ we are not told why, and his attendant ‘smile’ is left to the readers’ interpretations. (Reznikoff 1965: 13)
The third subtitle of Testimony is ‘recitative’: ‘a style of song resembling speech’ (although ‘recitation’ is US English for a lesson, and should be heard there as connotation). It is a slightly inappropriate term for the stilted language of the court room, and the sanitised reported and direct speech of the court reports upon which the poems are based. ‘Out there – in the water,’ the father is quoted as saying, after removing the child in my example above. ‘O John, don’t,’ cries the mother as the corpse is thrown into the fire. (Reznikoff 1965: 13) The chief determinant of the poetic here is enjambment, but many of the lines in the work are phrasal, with the occasional dramatic lineation, borrowed from William Carlos Williams’ practice, as when a man ‘slipped/ and fell’ from a moving train (a shockingly frequent occurrence in the book). (Reznikoff 1965: 24)
Framing (selection) and recasting (lineating) are the chief modes of artifice, of formal manipulation, of Seed’s work too, but they operate differently to Reznikoff, according to differences in base material and in poetics. The Mayhew books use as material the voluminous journalistic works of Henry Mayhew, which he published in his own newspaper and collected in four volumes, London Labour and the London Poor, between 1851-1862. They are lively witness reports of the trials, tribulations, and occasional joys of the Victorian underclass, that body near-synonymous with the ‘unemployed reserve army of workers’ which Engels describes: ‘which keeps body and soul together by begging, stealing, street-sweeping, collecting manure, pushing hand-carts, driving donkeys, peddling’, and comments: ‘It is astonishing in what devices this “surplus population” takes refuge.’ (quoted in Seed 2010: 119) But whereas Marx and Engels fed off government reports and statistics to isolate the structural position of this group as vital to the operations of capital, Mayhew never theorised, but relied upon his own witness reports and the testimony of the poor themselves. Most remarkably he relied upon the skill of stenographers or shorthand experts to report – or rather, repeat – the spoken words, pronunciation and even the inflections of the interviewees. Although stenographers would have been used in compiling the formal court proceedings Reznikoff used, Seed’s poems outstrip Reznikoff in the representation of the demotic, and eschew testimonial factualism; his poems only report the speech of Mayhew’s interviewees (speaking in less formal surroundings than a court room). (This is not to deny that the interviewees are cognisant of speaking to ‘Sir’ and would not have spoken unguardedly, particularly about their ‘astonishing’ illegal activities.1) Seed also employs more violent and foregrounded enjambments and removes punctuation completely so that the representational aspect of the work is countered by the artifice, content clashing with form, the non-poetic uneasily accommodated within the poetic structure so that readers never forget that they are reading a poem. Seed himself speaks of loosening syntax, grammar, restoring an artifice of speech as counters of authenticity and re-construction ‘to bring alive the experiences’: ‘My work of reading/writing was partly about undoing Mayhew’s own work of rewriting and perhaps getting closer to his listening and recording’ (Seed 2007: 155) but he additionally ‘wanted the form to slow down the reader’ to defamiliarise the reading experience and foreground artifice or ‘play’ (Seed 2007: 155), by the use of word count, verse forms, and the inescapable ‘visible form on white paper’ (Seed 2007: 156). Where Reznikoff chops prose into line lengths, Seed revoices the material through formal investigation. They are after all ‘pictures’ (like Williams’ sequence from Breughel, to which Seed alludes in his title) not voices.
            Volume one of Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ carries 58, volume two, 59, sections, each roughly divided into category of speaker, by trade, occupation or subject matter. Reading the poems is cumulative, slightly hypnotic; they feel choral, polyphonic, rather than lyric, as we encounter the series of vendors of game, poultry or fish, flower-girls, ballad singers and other street entertainers, itinerant labourers, booksellers; sometimes they are simply the poor, genteel or otherwise, their voices isolated on the page, lamenting lost opportunity or the precarious situation of belonging to capital’s reserve labour pool. There is no typical poem (Seed avoided ‘slipping into a single method’ (Seed 2007: 156)) but in some the poetic is located in the poignancy of content, as when a former Roman Catholic regrets her non-attendance at church:
            seems like mocking going to chapel
            when you’re grumbling in your soul (Seed 2007: 33)

In the last poem of the second volume rigorous de-contextualisation operates to produce an effect of allegory when an unnamed visitor (‘a reduced gentleman/perhaps’) to the unidentified speaker is described as appearing only ‘after dusk//or else on bad dark days’. (Seed 2007: 153) (This echoes the night motif found in many of Seed’s poems.) Even this affective framing is the result of formal isolation and quotation but Seed’s greatest effects are when he achieves a formal tension between the poetic and non-poetic, where devices hold in suspension a readerly desire for authenticity or presence against an aesthetic and therefore pleasurable encounter with distanciating forms. The poems’ forms are calling us to form the voices themselves – this is forming – from fragmented written traces, as in the twin prefaces to the first volume, both of which position the reader as Mayhew himself. In one we are assured:

            if you was to go to
            the raffle tonight sir they’d say
            directly you come in who’s this
            here swell what’s he want they’d
            think you were a cad or
            spy come from the police but
            they’d treat you civilly some would
            fancy you was a fast kind
            of a gentleman come there for
            a lark but you need have
            no fear though the pink pots
            does fly about sometimes (Seed 2005b: 7)

The voice carries across the lines but syntactic closure collides with the isolated end-words (six to a line, an artifice that causes the collisions), and voice recognition falters as the eye reconnects with the form and links the poem together again; the hinging ‘some would’ hangs between two syntactic possibilities. We are forced by the form to remake this peopled moment as a visible voice, as it were, hanging halfway between something we think we can hear and something that is patterned upon the page artificially. The second preface is the response of a publican who indeed thinks ‘Who’s this here swell?’ of the Mayhew figure, and the beer pots do threaten to ‘fly’:

            I know who you are well enough

            take you for?               why
            for a bloody
            spy you

            here from the Secretary of
            State you know you do

            to see
            how many men I’ve got in the
            house & what kind they are by

God if you ain’t soon mizzled I’ll
crack your bloody skull open for you (Seed 2005b: 8)

Isoverbalism is dropped here in favour of spatial arrangement, composition by field. The voice hangs on the page hooked to the line breaks and between interrogative gaps. The euphoriant, barely contained, outrage is chopped like a live eel into flexing segments. Again voice is visible, but broken at its most emphatic moments (‘by/God’; ‘I’ll/ crack’) into lines running against the intuition of oral delivery, making its form with meanings, and meanings that present the threat of the content as something to be made in the difficulty of our aesthetic encounter. (We hardly need to know that ‘mizzle’ is slang: to disappear suddenly.) As Wolfson says we may respond to forms as kinds of meaning, and the form here is declaring the testimony artificial. In Seed’s ‘Mayhew’ project, quotation of the non-poetic de-formed and re-formed by selection and lineated arrangement into poetic structures, operates a knowing ventriloquial trick as we imagine we hear the voices of the (almost) forgotten of history, recovered by Seed from Mayhew’s commentary.2 Seed brings the voices alive only as form. But whenever we feel we apprehend the voice, hear it with our inner ear, the eye brings us back to the materiality of the page, the formal pull against the historical particulars. This is essentially the act of forming: the text is transformed into visible voice as we make it in our aesthetic encounter with its form. The resistance to our drive to authenticity matches the tension between the recuperative historian and the distanciating poet in Seed himself. The poetic – to remember the origins of the word as ‘making’ – pulls the non-poetic into its dynamic force-field.

 John Seed reading at the Poetry Buzz, London, 2005

Read new work by John Seed here

1. This sense of audience worked both ways. Chesney points out, after quoting a long and detailed account of rat fighting in his The Victorian Underworld, that Mayhew omits from his account the betting on the fights that must have occurred, out of respect, as it were, for the illegality of the act.

2. Seed makes use some of Mayhew’s commentary (which he places in distinguishing italics) but it provides the least effective lines and feels obtrusive to the poignant and formal isolation of the singular voices.

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. tr. Eiland, Howard, and McLaughlin, Kevin, ed. Tiedemann, Rolf. Cambridge, Mass, and London: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Bernstein, Charles. My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Chesney, Kellow. The Victorian Underworld. London: Temple Smith, 1970.
Cobbing, Bob.Where on earth did he make that comment about found and treated poetry?
De Bolla, Peter. Art Matters. Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Rawes, Alan, ed. Romanticism and Form. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Reznikoff, Charles. Testimony: The United States 1885-1890: Recitative. New York: New Directions/San Francisco Review, 1965.
Seed, John. New and Collected Poems. Exeter: Shearsman, 2005a.
Seed, John. Pictures from Mayhew. Exeter: Shearsman, 2005b.
Seed, John. That Barrikins – Pictures from Mayhew II. Exeter: Shearsman, 2007.
Seed, John. Marx: A Guide for the Perplexed. London and New York: Continuum, 2010.
Wolfson, Susan J., and Brown, Marshall, eds. Reading for Form. Seatle and London: University of Washington Press, 2006.
Woods, Tim Woods. The Poetics of the Limit. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1981.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Robert Sheppard and Thomas Ingmire: Afghanistan; the full book and the music

A previous post showed a work, the single page from  American calligrapher Thomas Ingmire's brilliant response/use of my poem 'Afghanistan' (see the image and the poem here). Here's the image again.

This is one page from a unique book created by Thomas. The whole book may be seen here, on Thomas' website, AND you can hear the beautiful sax solo played by Clifford Burke that accompanies it. Wait a while for it to load.

Thank you Thomas for these formal responses to my text and to Clifford's response to the whole. See Thomas Ingmire's website, Form and Expression here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Storm and Golden Sky: Skoulding Sutherland reading

Storm and Golden Sky

Up the stairs (at the back of the barroom) at the Caledonia pub, Catharine Street, in the Georgian Quarter, Liverpool, £4, 7 pm spot-on start!

 FRIDAY 25th April, Zoe Skoulding and Keston Sutherland

Keston Sutherland is the author of The Odes to TL61PStupefactionStress PositionHot White Andy and other books, and lots of essays, many of them about Marx and poetry. He lives in Brighton, where he runs the Sussex Poetry Festival, and where he founded Brighton Left Unity. He co-edits Barque press.

Zoë Skoulding is primarily a poet, though her work encompasses sound-based vocal performance, collaboration, translation, literary criticism, editing, and teaching creative writing. She lectures in the School of English at Bangor University, and has been Editor of the international quarterly Poetry Wales since 2008. Her recent collections of poems are The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren, 2013), Remains of a Future City (Seren, 2008), long-listed for Wales Book of the Year 2009. You Will Live in Your Own Cathedral is a multimedia soundscape, video and poetry performance with Alan Holmes that has been presented across Europe in several languages.

Born of a Liverpool taste for variety and drama, ‘Storm and Golden Sky’ offers literary high style from across the poetic landscape. Programmed by a collective of Liverpool-based poets, Michael Egan, Nathan Jones, Robert Sheppard and Eleanor Rees.


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Most Popular Posts (and the least)

 The five most popular posts of all on Pages are:


Robert Sheppard: Proposals by Allen Fisher
Robert Sheppard: Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat

Robert Sheppard: Charles Bernstein, Allen Fisher and the poetic thinking that results

Robert Sheppard The Trace of Poetry: Notes on Conceptual Writing and Form

Robert Sheppard: Bob Cobbing and Concrete Poetry

These may differ from those shown to the right of this posting because that list is of the most popular posts of the month only. I’m in danger, of course, of making them more popular, so here are five that are not looked at very much (or in one case at all):

Robert Sheppard at the Bluecoat 2008

Poetry Beyond Text

Van Valckenborch’s Cube


Twitterode 30