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Friday, October 09, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: (original) Introduction

These short pieces have been selected from the hundred or so I have written because they tell a number of stories.

Firstly, they trace developments, often in the form of immediate reactions to newly published books, but occasionally as  surveys of whole bodies of work, of what has been called the British Poetry Revival, the New British Poetry or - more narrowly and recently - Linguistically Innovative Poetry.

Secondly, they develop a series of literary critical concerns, delineating the historical context and general poetics of that work, a task that is continued, as yet in a piecemeal way, in more orthodox critical settings.

Thirdly, several pieces explicitly articulate what remains implicit in most of the rest: the gradual construction of a specific poetics relating to my own practice as a poet which, nevertheless, aims to be seen as part of the poetics and poetry from which it developed.

The forms, lengths and tones of these selections have sometimes been dictated by the demands or permissions of their various original periodical publications (which I have indicated, along with the date of composition, at the end of each piece), yet the resulting variety lends a certain polyphony to the whole that avoids the monologic voice of orthodox criticism. The slight mismatch between pieces I find additionally more authentic to my experience of thinking these things through over the past twenty years; it was less linear - more speculative, provisional, positional - than the results of this rigorous selection might suggest.

Apart from extended works of literary criticism, and  some bits of language I'd rather forget, as well as shorter attempts that repeat assertions made here, I have felt impelled to exclude a number of pieces I should like to have made public again. My attacks (some of them satirical) on the Movement Orthodoxy, carried out during my entryist period as a reviewer for the New Statesman, deflect from the positive, even celebratory, aspect of this collection. My account of David Miller, "A Gap at the Heart of Things", appears in another Stride volume, At the Heart of Things. My review of Paul Evans' The Manual for the Perfect Organisation of Tourneys (Oasis Books), which I described - and still regard - as one of the best British  poetry books of the 1970s, most recently re-appeared in The Empty Hill (Skylark Press).

Robert Sheppard

14 December 1997

Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of the book here.


Sunday, October 04, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Selected Poems (History or Sleep) - the de-selected poems

One thing not de-selected is this image for the cover, Patricia's 1993 portrait of me.
In an attempt to pack in as many of my ‘good’ poems (who am I to judge? I mean that: my whole notion of poetics is based upon the ‘fact’ that writers can’t ‘read’ their own work!) In an attempt to pack them in, I over-provided and then we (Tony Fraser as editor of Shearsman and as the designer of the book and I) counted the number of pages we’d need to remove. Then I de-selected the appropriate number of poems and I’ve been posting them on these Pages over the last few months. The process is now over; the book nearly ready for publication (here). But I thought I’d say a little about de-selection. The poems (and even more prose works) were often cut on space grounds, a shorter poem replacing a long one, for example.

Some I particularly regretted: it was either ‘Mesopotamia’ or ‘Schrage Musik’ from The Flashlight Sonata (and later Complete Twentieth Century Blues). ‘Mesopotamia’ won. The 12 line ‘Standing By (for my father)’, from The Drop (soon to be published by Oystercatcher’) stood in for the earlier poem, both of them dedicated to my father.

‘The Micropathology of the Sign’, one of my birthday ‘homages’ to Bob Cobbing was replaced by a shorter ‘homage’, one that missed out appearing in ‘Twentieth Century Blues’ due to its time-based parameters, but which I like. Oddly, ‘The Micropathology…’ has received a lot of hits on Pages. Perhaps the mockingly-academic title attracts latter-day structuralists. (They are probably disappointed by the poem, but maybe not. It does attempt to offer what it says on the tin, though with relation to Bob’s work, particularly Processual, to which it originally provided an introduction.)

Similarly, of another poem rescued from a 1987 Ship of Fools pamphlet collaboration with Patricia Farrell, Looking North, it had to be either the first or second poem. I went with the second, which I thought a gnat’s wing’s breadth ‘better’ than the first. But I can still let others judge.

‘Hymns to the God my Typewriter Believes In’ is one of my ‘text and commentary’ poems. There were quite a few already in the Selected. (I have a sense that Hymns to the God in Which My Typewriter Believes didn’t get around a lot, even with its Alan Halsey cover.) This one, long, even in its selected version, seemed incomplete and weakened by excerption, so it was a no-brainer. Similarly, ‘The Sacred Tanks of Dagenham’ was a follow-up to ‘The Materialisation of Soap 1947’, which as a coda to, and partial substitute for, ‘Schrage Musik’, was necessary. ‘Dagenham’ is sprawling and funny and I like reading it, but it was marked by its affiliation to the ‘1947’ poem, and by the fact that I decided not to select too much from texts in the Salt Tin Pan Arcadia and Complete Twenieth Century Blues (though when I selected I didn’t know Salt was about to savage its list). (More of this on another post soon.)  

‘History or Sleep’ is a long poem I enjoyed writing after the grimness of The Lores, and I wanted to call the selected poems by this title, and I wanted to include the whole of it. Another simple reason for the squeeze. (It also put a squeeze on The Lores itself and ‘Book Two’ had to go!) The de-selected poems are near misses for all sorts of reasons, some of which I suspect I’ve forgotten.

So: the book itself will be available here soon. I will write another post when it is out, to talk about the selection rather than the de-selection process.

The de-selected poems, a kind of annex or sampler for History or Sleep, may be read here. They are (in order of composition):

‘Tombland’ (from 1979). Here. (But note it has been ‘remoded’ for a new work as a 'MIltonic', post-Selected Poems, ironically.)


‘The Blickling Hall Poem’, 1980. Here


‘Schrage Musik’ (posted in memory of my father, but with a loss of italics). Here. And here.


‘Looking North 1’. Here.


‘The Micropatholgy of the Sign’. Here.


from ‘The Lores: Book Two’. Here.  


‘The Sacred Tanks of Dagenham’. Here.


‘A Voice Within’ from The Anti-Orpheus. Here.


Part One of ‘Putting Claws on the Glove’, a homage to the great Catalan poet Joan Brossa. Here.


from ‘Hymns to the God my Typewriter Believes In’. Here.

form Warrant Error, 'Byron James is Okay'. Here.

And there are general introductions to my work here. And here.


Friday, October 02, 2015

Relaunch of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry

As I've noted in previous posts, I have stepped down from the editorship of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, and this was a step I anticipated even before - one night, way back when, it seems - Scott Thurston and I drew up some initial plans for it. (Read about the last print issue, on Bill Griffiths, here.)  

It has now entered the age of Open Access and the first issue is now available (and future issues will be) available here. At the moment it is accreting article by article, review by review. So come back later (or bookmark it) and you will find more when there is more.

Scott Thurston, University of Salford, and Gareth Farmer, University of Bedfordshire, are now the editors for the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. Vicky Sparrow, Birkbeck, is the Reviews editor. And I am still one of many on the editorial board.

The journal centres on the poetic writings that have appeared in Britain and Ireland since the late 1950s under various categorizations: for example avant-garde, underground, linguistically innovative, second-wave Modernist, non-mainstream, the British Poetry Revival, the parallel tradition, formally innovative, neo-modernist and experimental, while also including the Cambridge School, the London School, concrete poetry, and performance writing. (I bet there are more!)

It is very exciting to see this developing (and being more openly available), to all, to you, not just to subscribers or libraries, scholars and academics. Even poets might read it now! Decades ago, Sir Karl Popper proposed that all scientific and academic work should be made available to all in just this way. That is now happening - though spare a thought for long-running print journals that will find it difficult to compete (there complex rules about research journals, which I have sat through several presentations about, and not understood a word!).

Read the journal, and return later to re-read later issues. I'll see you there, I hope. Robert

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Poetics and Linguistically Innovative Poetry 1978-1997: New Introduction and links to chapters

In 1999 I published my first work of ‘criticism’ and ‘poetics’ in a book that deliberately mixed reviews I had published on linguistically innovative writers and the ‘linguistically innovative’ poetics of my own writing, particularly the then-still advancing Twentieth Century Blues. In both cases this was a selection, leaving out, for example, an essay on David Miller that had appeared in a Stride volume already (for Far Language was published in the Stride Research series) and a series of overlapping pieces on Paul Evans that had appeared in several places (interestingly, parts of it turn up in the Introduction I wrote for the Selected Poems of Paul Evans, The Door at Taldir, that I edited a few years ago for Shearsman). I excluded the gloriously-indulgent reviews I produced for New Statesman which were rich in insult against the Movement Orthodoxy (some re-appeared in samidzat from Ship of Fools). It built up a picture of British Poetry of its time, and some of it found its re-written way into ThePoetry of Saying (or even beyond). When I moved to work at Edge Hill in 1996 and turned my back on literary reviewing in favour of literary criticism, I also left behind the concise, telegraphese of some of these pieces, particularly the ones I wrote for the paper version of Pages (precursor of this blog; see here): having few actual pages free I squeezed the criticism into as few as possible, and used every line – but in the process invented a style, I think. (See the pieces on Adrian Clarke, Ulli Freer, Maggie O’Sullivan and Bob Cobbing, for example, though the latter was for And).

The poetics again is selective (my interlinked early 1990s Ship of Fools net-(k)not-works, influenced by Roubaud's The Great Fire of  London, was my most intricate attempt at poetics), but the pieces here relate to a developing writing practice and to the overall construction of Twentieth Century Blues (and ‘Poetic Sequencing and the New’ is indeed part of the poem itself). ‘Propositions 1987’, flawed perhaps, in interesting for its attempts to define postmodernism in a way that didn’t mean what it had come to mean for mainstream British poetry, Craig Raine, for example.  

There is still stuff that is relevant here. Perhaps as confirmation of that fact: it is a surprise to find 5 chapters of the book already on-line. But having the files, typed at the expense of the research fund of Edge Hill University, I sent them to various places (I was not slow to see the eventual importance of the internet, despite my reputation as a technophobe, and a free repository of literary ideas). These are:   

‘Far Language’, on Barry MacSweeney, whose phrase this is and was used, with permission, as the title of the book (see here); ‘Poetic Sequencing and the New’ (see here); 'Buoyant Readings', about Bruce Andrews and others (see here); ‘Sightings and Soundings’, on Bob Cobbing (see here).

Rupert Loydell (who published the book) writes about Far Language and ‘The Education of Desire’ here.

I shall be reprinting one chapter a week, including links to these, until the book is re-published entire online. With an index amassing here as I go:

The (original) 'Introduction': here.

I do have copies of the 2002 re-print still, and anybody who wants one can have one free, as long as they pay postage. Email me here.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Poetry of Saying: The Point of Poetry: Ethics, Dialogue and Form

This is the third level of analysis in the thesis of The Poetry of Saying. The first may be read about here. The second may be read about here. There is a general introduction here.

Levinas might be thought a strange philosopher to use in a defence of poetry, since he has stated categorically that art can only be a ‘shadow’ that dimly represents reality. ‘The artist has given the statue a lifeless life, a derisory life which is not master of itself, a caricature of life.’ As representation, art remains wholly within the realm of perception, whereas criticism, or philosophy proper, is a superior discourse, because it remains conceptual. ‘The most lucid writer finds himself in the world bewitched by its images,’ whereas ‘the interpretation of criticism speaks in full self-possession, frankly, through concepts, which are like the muscles of the mind.’ Levinas' very rhetoric here, in this 1948 essay ‘Reality and Its Shadow’ (which had to carry an editorial disclaimer when first published in the flagship of literary commitment, Les Temps Modernes) reveals a bitterness about, perhaps even a sense of betrayal by, an activity which he warned was ‘not the supreme value of civilization ... having its place, but only a place, in man's happiness.’  But even this formulation suggests that there is a modest role for art; to recover art for Levinas' ethical project one needs to redefine art, not as stale representation of bewitching imagery, or as something without a conceptual dimension, but as something capable of being open to a dialogue with the other.

The face of the other, Levinas argues, presents an immediate, non-negotiable, ethical demand, one that transforms an individual, as he or she is obliged to respond and answer. This encounter is the foundational moment for ethics, which, for Levinas, is ‘first philosophy’. He is not concerned to define a particular morality or law, the theological or social codification of these precepts, but of a basic ethical condition, which Derrida has called ‘an Ethics of Ethics’, one embodied in actual interhuman situations.  Levinas writes:

The proximity of the other is the face's meaning.... The other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question... It is the responsibility of a hostage which can be carried to the point of being substituted for the other person and demands an infinite subjection of subjectivity.

As proof, and example, of the last point, of the essential asymmetricality of the relationship between self and others, even when the other seems not to reciprocate, or when the other has died and the individual persists as a survivor (the analogy with the Jews after the Holocaust is intended), Levinas is fond of quoting from an artwork, one he should condemn for its umbrageous illusoriness rather than utilizing its conceptual acuity: Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. ‘We are all responsible for everyone else - but I am more responsible than all the others’. 

Tim Woods’ article ‘Memory and Ethics in Contemporary Poetry’ traces an important theoretical shift within the work of the British discontents by theorizing a Levinasian ‘ethics of form’ to supplement the more familiar ‘politics of form’. Woods, who has been active within this poetry, argues

Language attesting to the ‘heard word’ of the other in sound, becomes the basis for an ethical ethics of the voice is attention to what interrupts. That ‘alternative’ other is partly what much contemporary British ... ‘experimental’ poetry is seeking; to release the Utopian other in writing.

I shall return to the interruptions of literary experimentation, to this interaction of technique and ethics.

Woods’ use of ‘voice’ here instead of ‘face’ points to Levinas’ later thought, one partly caused by the linguistic turn his work took in the 1960s, whose result was the theory of Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence of 1974. The central element of this pacifist ethics, for my purposes, is the distinction between the saying and the said.

Levinas’ most fruitful remark for this ethics of form is contained in a series of assertions
made in a 1981 interview that draws on this pair of terms.

Man can give himself in saying to the point of poetry - or he can withdraw into the non-saying of lies. Language as saying is an ethical openness to the other; as that which is said - reduced to a fixed identity or synchronized presence - it is an ontological closure of the other.

Saying is the call of, the call to, the other, and the fact of the need and obligation to respond to, and become responsible for, the other, as Levinas had always maintained. It is a quasi-transcendental state beyond being, yet it is also ‘a performative doing’, as Simon Critchley puts it, ‘that cannot be reduced to a constantive description’. It is the site and performance of ethics because of this obligation to respond. It is public, yet it does not communicate anything but the desire to communicate. Thus explained it seems like a philosophical version of interhuman phatic communion that precedes, or in comfortable circumstances replaces, actual informational communication. Indeed Levinas has indicated that passing the time of day about the weather may embody such a gesture. As Levinas explains: ‘Saying opens me to the other before saying what is said.’ We cannot, as in his everyday example, but not reply (even with silence). Yet importantly Levinas recognizes difference as a corollary of such proximity, one which avoids the violence of assimilation, or even the need to express unity with the other. Levinas' earlier sense of the individual as a hostage, committed to response, as a permanent possible substitute for the other, even as a sacrifice to the act of proximity, is re-introduced in this linguistic recasting: saying is a metaphor for what cannot be said; saying makes us into signs of significations without content. It is the gift of openness that is the very ethicality Levinas posits. Yet this cannot be painlessly achieved.

This saying can be defined apart from, but is not found other than interwoven with, the said. There is a price to pay; for the saying to appear it has to undergo a betrayal, a ‘subordination of the saying to the said’, to the linguistic system, to ontology. As Robert Eaglestone explains:  

It is impossible to say the saying because at the moment of saying it becomes the said, betrayed by the concrete language which is the language of ontology. The saying, which is unthematizable, impossible to delimit, becomes limited, thematized, said.  

Yet the saying is what interrupts the said, ruptures the said. The saying ‘appears’ as a knot catching in the thread of the said. This is its necessary condition of falling into essence in language. Indeed, without this knottiness it would not have its being or effectivity. However, ‘The said ...  arises in the saying’.  It is the point at which ‘clarity occurs, and thought aims at themes’.  The said and the saying both support, yet react against, one another, hence the tragic lifting towards poetry and the fateful thematizatation in ontological solidity. The ‘otherwise than being’ which is found in the act of saying is ‘betrayed in the said which dominates the saying which states it’. 

This outline suggests that uncovering the saying in the said is the task of philosophy; it seems to suggest, in an echo of  Levinas’ early theory, that art would belong to the realm of essences, ‘in which the said is reduced to a  pure theme -, to absolute exposition’ ) and that only criticism (by which he meant philosophy) could uncover the saying. But it is Robert Eaglestone's argument, and Levinas' own belief, if we take seriously the notion that ‘man can give himself in saying to the point of poetry’ that the qualities of saying occur in art. Eaglestone reminds us that ‘the poem must interrupt in the name of the saying ... as literary texts, they work as “prophecy”, fracturing the said.’ They must open to the other; they are saying as well as said. Indeed he sees Levinas' own Otherwise than Being structured as a literary work, ‘especially self-reflexive contemporary postmodern poetry and prose’.  It is precisely its foregrounded artifice that makes it so, that attempts to keep the saying, the interruption, open in the text we read. According to Eaglestone: ‘In his style of writing and choice of metaphors Levinas performatively foregrounds language in order to disrupt the said’.

This description of Levinas’ literary practice recalls Woods’ similar assertion about the interruptive nature of the technical devices of the British Poetry Revival and Linguistically Innovative Poetry. The technically defamiliarising poetry that imposes such a task of dialogue on any reader may indeed be a poetry of an open saying rather than of a closed saidness. The the 1990s self-interruptive texts of Tom Raworth, with their lateral shiftings, or the neologistically resistant materiality of Maggie O’Sullivan’s poems, are works which court the refusal of a saidness that we might equate with paraphrase and the empirical lyricism of the Movement Orthodoxy.

Writing as saying is ethical, processual, interhuman, dialogic in Bakhtin’s sense. Writing as said is ontological and fixed, warlike; a closure of the other, monologic in Bakhtian terms. This is why so much poetry of the orthodoxy attempts what is arguably an irresponsible closure that is a violence towards the possible agility and response of a reader. In less elevated terms we might argue that it even insults the intelligence of the reader. As the other of the writer is the reader, then the other of the text is the act of reading and the reader in it, prolonging its saying.

There cannot be a poetry of pure saying; the saying must exist in the said, as ghost to its host. A text in very physical terms needs to be printed, the order of words (usually) fixed. The openness that is its gesture must go hand in hand with some thematic or semantic fixity, however that is resisted by delayed naturalization. For the saying to be witnessed at all, it must turn into the said. We cannot know the saying from the said.

Conversely, there cannot be a poetry of the pure said, since only the performance of saying could body forth the said, and as it does it both supports and disrupts the said. The musical and metrical life of Movement poetry, for example, cannot simply be argued away. However, one of the effects of the deliberate will towards saidness in Movement verse is its articulation in social terms, often extending into an invasive ontological violence at the level of theme which might be called the attempt to articulate the other; where the writer literally speaks the, in actuality, unknown thoughts of another. It may be found in the use of the false consenual ‘we’ as when Larkin informs his reader that ‘our’ love will survive ‘us’.

‘Saying makes signs to the other, but in this sign signifies the very giving of signs,’ argues Levinas. Yet it is this openness that readers find already in a number of writers (including Allen Fisher), an openness that allows readers to find the necessity to enter the artifice, to articulate the interruptions in the discourse, to enter into an active relationship with the textual other. The text is a gift that may be brought to a thematized rest only after having been given or taken to the point of poetry. The text and its other, which is the act of reading, are brought together. When this poetry is successful it is arguably able to articulate that saying in the said of the dialogic performance of the book. A successful reading will be one that exposes the saidness of the text to an openness of performance since saying, Critchley reminds us, is a ‘performative doing’. 

(Another way of valorising reading is to suggest that there must exist a corollary of the interdependence of the saying and the said in a reader’s act of reading, as against the reader’s sense of the read, as the already read, the thematized said, completed. Indeed Derek Attridge defines an act of innovative ‘reading as an attempt to respond to the otherness of the other’, working performatively with the text and ‘working against the mind’s tendency to assimilate the other to the same, attending to that which can barely be heard’, in ways which remind us of the ethical asymmetricality a reader must face with a text. (This is indeed a moment of osculation between The Poetry of Saying and The Meaning of Form.)  

Terms from speech act theory, such as Critchley’s, are often used to describe the relation between the saying and the said. Jill Robbins, for example, echoes Critchley, and writes:

The Saying and the Said is a correlative relation ... that marks the difference between a conative speech, oriented towards the addressee, interlocutionary and ethical, and a speech oriented towards the referent, more like a speaking about than a speaking to the other.

The necessity of saying arises before self-identity, and indeed breaks up the sense of identity, emphasizes the approach of the undeniable other, as a reader active with the devices left by the poem’s saying. Interruption brings forth dialogue. In a text, where the face-to-face has been replaced, the responsibility is more acute, from reader to writer, and from writer to reader. As the author is responsible to the reader, then the reading is responsible to the writing to preserve reading as an act of saying, as the reader responds, participates in the text’s structural indeterminacies, as it ruptures the said, interrupts by effects of defamiliarization, or suspends like Forrest-Thomson’s good naturalization, through its textual opacities. These preserve the saying in the said, since they compel the reader to dwell on the devices of the utterance rather than reducing them, or closing them, to dead paraphrasable fixities. They preserve reading as an activity, resist closing it in a summary. Open works are, in a sense, always open books.

            A reading which operates as a paraphrase (and writing which works in collusion with such readings) is an appropriation of, a fearful taming of, the otherness of the text. In Levinasian terms, it judges the other in terms of the same; it closes. It attempts to be (or more more colloquially we would say have) the last word. The relationship with text is more ethical for not attempting this reduction, this identification. It recognizes that the text maintains its differences as well as its proximity, through its technical devices, its social dialogism. Appropriation must be countered by distanciation. This is a necessary recognition for both writers and readers in the textual dialogue of their acts of saying (and reading) in attempting to minimize the thematizing of the said (and of the read).

One must remain vigilant to the possibility that the concern that writing may do violence to the other, possibly by a fake ‘saying’ that is simply a gesturing of responsibility in the thematized language of the said. Robbins, in her study of Levinas’ theoretic of literature, stresses, ‘We should not take for granted that we know what we mean by the saying. This is precisely what is seized upon by Levinas’s readers hoping to extend his positive evaluations of art to an ethical poetics.’ 57

Both the technical and the social levels contribute to the effects of making the point of poetry its saying, an interruption, and not its said. To read is to be proximate to, to face alterity as distance, and be implored to answer, as Bakhtin would say. To write of this work, or of any work, is also to attempt to do justice to alterity and diversity.

(The rest is analysis: and that's the rest of the book.)


My later project The Meaning of Form may be accessed here.

Patricia Farrell's cover image for The Poetry of Saying, which I dubbed 'Otherwise Than Beings'

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Robert Sheppard: The Poetry of Saying: The Social Poetics of Form: Dialogue

A general introduction to the thesis of The Poetry of Saying may be read here. This is the second level of analysis of the thesis. The first may be accessed here.

That the various entries of various readers into actual texts is represented as its affirmative moment by such a theory points towards why the work of the reception theorists is only hinted at by Allen Fisher and others. The poets’ notions of readership are actual rather than ideal. When Harwood speaks of leaving an object (the poem) in the room for others to use, or when Roy Fisher similarly talks of the poem being used as a subversive catalyst by potential readers, they are thinking of a clear social authorization for their work, but not one that can be codified or regulated.

            There is a clear difference here between a practice that sees a social dimension for poetry, embedded in its artifice, and a poetry that has as its chief dimension mimesis of a recognizable social world. In the first case the reader has to dialogue with the text; in the second the social is encoded in the empirical lyricism of the paraphrasable content, yet such writing runs the risk of becoming monologic, however accessible (a favoured term of approbation for the orthodoxy).

The implication of the former case is that no poem is more ‘social’ than any other since all poems are social facts open to social comprehension (or even completion in the case of open works). Indeed all utterances are social, in this sense. The accessibility of an utterance is not a determinant of this. A mathematical formula that will be understood only by three experts is no less so than a bald news headline broadcast to the nation via various media and abroad in several languages.

            The sociality of all language derives from its essential dialogic nature, a determining factor of language and literature first noted by the Bakhtin circle of critics, and explicitly developed as a social theory in the work of Vološinov, who stated: ‘The utterance is a social phenomenon.’

            The structure of utterance is precisely social and a description of language, such as Saussure’s, is an abstraction, a dead system. The individual speech act is likewise a contradiction in terms.
Life begins only at the point where utterance crosses utterance, i.e.,where verbal interaction begins, be it not even “face-to-face” verbal interaction, but the mediated, literary variety.
This crossing emphasises an essential instability and dynamism not accounted for by synchronic and static models of language.
There is no escape from this process of dialogue. ‘A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another,’ writes Vološinov;

Word is a two-sided act....As word, it is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener, addesser and addressee.

Even thinking, or inner speech, is conceived as a dialogue with the world. ‘There is no such thing as thinking outside orientation toward possible expression’ in the socio-ideological sphere. 19 Thought itself resembles ‘the alternating lines of a dialogue’. 20

            While this is of the utmost importance, it is in the extension of these concepts that confirmation of the dialogic nature of literary practice is found.

But dialogue can also be understood in a broader sense, meaning not only direct, face-to-face, vocalized verbal communication between persons, but also verbal communication of any type whatsoever. A book, i.e., a verbal performance in print, is also an element of verbal communication.
This formulation also makes a text an event rather than an object, and one that engenders further social events.
It is something discussable in actual, real-life dialogue, but aside from that, it is calculated for active perception, involving attentive reading and inner responsiveness, and for organized, printed reaction in the various forms devised by the particular sphere of verbal communication in question (book reviews, critical surveys, defining influence on subsequent works and so on.)

That some of the poetry here has not been part of many such discussions of British poetry points to the timely nature of this study, and indeed to this book’s function in developing that alternative poetics. But, more importantly, the calculation of the active perception of a literary text is evidence of its dialogic intention. The potentiality of responsive is more important than the actual response which cannot be forced and cannot be calculated, as Fisher and Harwood realize. But as Bakhtin writes: ‘The living utterance ... cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads’ in the consciousnesses of actual readers, receptively positive or hostile. Vološinov states:
Moreover, a verbal performance of this kind also inevitably orients itself with respect to previous performances in the same sphere, both those by the same author and those by other authors. It inevitably takes its point of departure from some particular state of affairs involving a ... literary style. Thus the printed verbal performance engages, as it were, in ideological colloquy of large scale: it responds to something, objects to something, affirms something, anticipates possible responses and objections, seeks support, and so on.
At one level this shows a part of this poetics approaching a comprehension of the field of cultural production in a systemized way, akin to that of the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, and as such is a reminder of the value of the sociological mapping of poetries in Chapters One and Two, and Five and Six, both of the orthodoxy and of the discontents. ‘Any only a moment in the continuous process of verbal communication.

The insistence that ‘attentive reading’ is necessary reminds us that ‘to understand another person’s utterance means to orient oneself with respect to it.’  The comprehension of a literary text involves the kind of engaged reading described by Allen Fisher, as it demands focussed acts of participation from its readers.

With its technical resources of openness, indeterminacy and artificiality this poetry demands social completion:
Any true understanding is dialogic in nature. Understanding is to utterance as one line of a dialogue is to the next. Understanding strives to match a speaker’s word with a counter word. 

The structures of these texts work in conformity with dialogic utterance, even if the works are not well received in the literary world and (this would follow) do not emphasize social realism and lyrical empiricism. The poetics described here refutes such comprehension, as a counterword itself, in favour of a comprehension of form in social terms. The techniques outlined in the previous section lead to the construction of a text that demands a receptive reading dialogue with its artifice.

This social dynamic has been described here in terms of Vološinov’s explicitly Marxist work, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, but this insistence upon the dialogic nature of all acts of language is famously present in the work of his colleague Bakhtin. His work on the polyphonic novel and the heteroglossic text might be said to be equivalent to the plurovocity Allen Fisher identifies in his poetics. They both agree that a text itself is a dialogue in which discourses clash and contest, even beyond the intentionality of its author, although Fisher favours techniques of creative linkage to achieve this.

However, at this point of the argument, it is interesting to note the more philosophical and ethical re-formulation of dialogue in Bakhtin’s work. Language ‘directed towards its object’, by which Bakhtin means towards its theme,
enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgements and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group; and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate the expression and influence its entire stylistic profile.

Not only is the alien word (an invasion of new or unusual material, which will steer language change) waiting there; the encounter with the counter word is anticipated. ‘Every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates.’  Linguistic exchange (and that must include performances in print) is a question of answerability, an encounter with an other, and one in which response entails responsibility. Hwa Yol Jung has identified ‘an affinity between the structural requirement of ‘answerability’ (‘response-ability’) in Bakhtin’s dialogical principle and Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics of proximity, which privileges the face and epitomizes human co-presence and interhuman presence in terms of the structural primacy of the other.’

The third level of analysis, the ethical, may be read about here.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Protest Against the axeing of A Level Creative Writing! NOW!

As you may be aware, a (political) decision has been made to cut the Creative Writing A Level that many people worked so hard to see introduced. A petition has now been started and if we get enough signatures this will have to be raised in the House of Commons, so do please sign and urge others to do the same.

Here is my reasoning:

I'm deeply concerned, as a teacher of creative writing at university level, and as a theorist of its developing practice into an autonomous academic subject (with a pedagogy separate from English) that this A Level - replete with chances to access the cognitive contents and challenges of literary form, and its opportunities for critical thinking, as well as creative engagement, should be discontinued. The reason for this seems to be a supposed lack of 'knowledge base' in favour of 'skills', but a knowledge of a range of linguistic and artistic forms (again, with their own cognitive content, as much of my academic literary criticism attempts to prove) is a knowledge of the means for advanced rigorous thinking and reflection. It is not a simple a writing skills course. At any level.