We poetry fans are well-accustomed to techniques for maximizing indeterminacy: cut-ups; parataxis; minuscules; lacunae; absent or unmatched punctuation; exiguous titling; wide leading to disassociate each line from the next; words used deictically but without their situation-of-utterance; and severely occluded references. To take an example:
my mooring is mist and zoos
and with no sunset i roll on
the sky bends buildings
an asteroid is no clarity
Some readers think such poems don’t like them. Others that they are just shy. This poet, after all, used to self-identify as ‘RK’. Others still will mark the contemporary ambience of disparate and disjointed information. What we are no longer subject to, however, is the elitism of old High Modernism, which once presumed a reader with a lifetime’s ticket to the leisured classes, but nowadays one with fifteen minutes to spare, a search-engine and a love of puzzles. So, the quatrain above – thanks, Internet – is a reworking of an eighth-century Chinese poem by Meng Haoran. And its first line’s unaccountable reference to ‘zoos’, for instance, is a pun on the characters zhŭ (islet) and zhōu (boat). Boom, boom! Besides the genial waggishness, the repeated point is that there’s nothing hermetic at the rainbow’s end; the pleasure is in the process whereby, among other things, you discover some Tang poetry that you’d’ve never gotten around to otherwise.
So far so standard. What makes this stand out, though, among the interesting groups of poets associated with vitrines like Streetcake, Spam, Crater and The 87, whose linguistic innovations encompass cut-ups, parataxis, minuscules, lacunae…? Mostly, in this case, the level of wit. Like judicious gifts, there are moments of scintillating clarity among the riddles. The exhortation to ‘trust nothing especially your own/ implants’. The artwork that becomes sentient and applies for its own funding. The fantasy that turns Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into a ‘pyramidal rubix cube’. The line saying ‘in the beginning were the minutes of the previous meeting’. And a terrific capriccio – too long to quote, unfortunately – that takes the locution ‘burning your bridges’ and explodes it into the realms of hilarity. The poet shows that they could out-entertain the mainstream if they chose. But like those bands that smother cute melodies in feedback, this book’s anxiety about how to write, read and live in the face of terminal crisis to either the planet or the economic system, and its simmering emotions about the current choice being made, means it has a wider objective in view. The approach looks understandable enough. Go undercover. Use a low-capitalised, low barrier-to-entry artform that’s a virtually non-saleable craft product. Ward off the hobgoblins of popularity with deliberate catachresis, recondite vocab and terrible puns, despite your unconcealable talent. And quietly create the new world within the old. I think this book is what revolutionary avant-garde poetics looks like right now, and it’s surely a small sign of hope. This tipster doesn’t recommend a ‘buy’. Certainly not. But definitely – and as the book itself is suggesting – a ‘participate’.
Guy Russell 31st January 2021