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Atlantic Drift edited by James Byrne & Robert Sheppard (Arc Press & Edge Hill University Press)

Atlantic Drift edited by James Byrne & Robert Sheppard (Arc Press & Edge Hill University Press)

The opening statement of Robert Sheppard’s short introduction to this exciting new volume of transatlantic poetic focus is uncompromisingly clear in its assertion:

“Contact and conversation between transatlantic poets has always been one of fluctuating relations. North American writers have always been an important presence in British and Irish poetries, sometimes physically so. Edward Dorn, who lived in and wrote about England was aware of these relations and what he called the ‘North Atlantic Turbine’. Often the traffic is reversed.”

The fluctuating nature of these relations can of course be traced back to the early Sixties when Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry was being recognised in England with a sense of excitement. Charles Tomlinson’s forty-page Black Mountain Poets supplement to Ian Hamilton’s the Review appeared in January 1964 and three months later Andrew Crozier edited an American Supplement to the Cambridge magazine, Granta. Unlike Tomlinson’s focus on the Black Mountain School Crozier’s was more largely based on the Allen anthology and contained work by Levertov, Eigner, Woolf and Loewinsohn as well as Dorn, Dawson, Duncan and Wieners. Crozier quoted a letter Olson had written to George Butterick which included the phrase “to freshen our sense of the language we do have” and this statement might well describe the impact of this new anthology from Sheppard and Byrne. However, it might be just worth recalling the rather mean-spirited editorial note which Ian Hamilton added to the Tomlinson supplement which had offered such new ideas to a world dominated by New Lines:

“It should, I think, be made clear that the foregoing pages were given over to Charles Tomlinson to fill, more or less as he pleased, with work by the Black Mountain poets. We are most grateful to him for his co-operation. The editorial motive of the Review in this project has been a documentary rather than, necessarily, a critical one. We believe that the movement ought at least to be known about.”

As if hurled in the teeth of Hamilton’s graceless editorial disclaimer, Robert Sheppard’s comments present us with a sense of the active and living importance of what he and James Byrne have collected together. It is located in a reference to one of the contributors, Jerome Rothenberg, whose concern for the urgency and scope of poetics is presented in the words used to relate this “directly to the way he sees the world”:

“But the world we share, & our interplay with it, calls again & again for discourse: in the case of Poets, the setting forth of a poetics. I have found myself involved with that also, at first tentatively & then, once into it, discovering ways suited to my own temperament & to the sense I have…that the discourse, like the poetry, must in all events resist rigidity & closure.”

It is this resistance to closure, this refusal to adopt the safe line for poetry that is presented year after year in too many Secondary Schools, that makes this new anthology a box of fireworks. One can read Sean Bonney’s lines of lyrical politics and hear a voice that possesses not only anger but acute observation:

“An invisible person has appeared in everyone’s simultaneous dream.
Oh look here I am. Fuck the police.
It is the surveillance laws. All ages are not contemporaneous.
We are outside this century. We are very glamorous. We are
waiting in the hall.
Somewhere near Moritzplatz the adepts are getting sick.
It is the stupidity of gardens. I love the tiny sparrows.
The janitor’s kids are not playing they are digging up gold.
It is the last song you will ever hear.”

And one can turn from that to Chris McCabe’s snarled lines about “John Whittaker Straw, Labour politician” who changed his name to steal unearned value from the Peasants’ Revolt figure of 1381, Jack Straw. And then one can turn again to Rosmarie Waldrop’s ‘By the Waters of Babylon”:

“Unless we recognize a language we do not recognize a man. We
wrap entire villages in barbed wire.

My father used to close his eyes and remain as motionless as
possible to let his body-image dissolve.

I repeat myself often.

Time has no power over the Id. But heat passes from a warm body
to a cold body and not in the reverse direction.”

Look in this anthology for the America of Charles Bernstein and Claudia Rankine, Nathaniel Mackey and Lyn Hejinian; look this side of the Atlantic for Allen Fisher and John James, Geraldine Monk and Zoë Skoulding. We are presented with “Poets in both directions across the water” who “have influenced, and continue to influence each other in terms of practice and poetics.”
Atlantic Drift continues this collaboration and exchange in its alphabetic juxtaposition of twenty-four contributors and these poems ignite to provide a most effective and immediate anthology of the living power of poetry and poetics. As such it takes its place in the tradition of Donald Allen’s 1960 volume and Iain Sinclair’s 1996 publication, Conductors of Chaos.

Ian Brinton, 1st October 2017

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The Text Festivals: Language Art

The Text Festivals: Language Art

The Text Festivals: Language Art and Material Poetry, edited by Tony Lopez, (University of Plymouth Press 2013) is a fascinating collection of essays by artists, poets and curators about The Text Festivals, which challenges preconceptions of the possibilities of language art.  The Text Festivals has seen a convergence of Language Art and Material Poetry and continual development since its beginning on 19 March 2005 with Tony Trehy’s The Text Exhibition and a retrospective exhibition of Bob Cobbing’s experimental work in sound, poetry and art. Tony Lopez’s introductory essay notes that Tony Trehy’s approach, as Festival curator, has been that ‘art can be read as poetry and poetry can be viewed as art’. This allows different approaches to language use to work together on each other and work against specialist separation and categorization. The ICA’s June 2009 exhibition Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. added more impetus to the growth of interest in Text / Visual Art. Named after Ian Hamilton Finlay’s magazine of the Sixties and Seventies it showed ‘art that verges on poetry’ and featured Finlay, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Henri Chopin, Robert Smithson, Alisdair Gray, Philip Guston and David Hockney. Lopez’s historical overview, light on definition, notes that visual poetry, as opposed to Concrete Poetry, has continued since the Seventies and that Concrete Poetry, as a more discrete development within art, as opposed to poetry, ended in the Seventies.  The ‘shape poem’ has become a standard teaching aid to help children play with language since the Seventies. There are certainly a great many practitioners from different backgrounds, with variant approaches, that make current developments more than interesting.

 

Tony Trehy offers an insight into his strategies in curating the Text Festivals. Canadian poet, Christian Bök writes about The Xenotext, a literary experiment with biologists that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics, following on from William Burroughs’ famous remark that ‘the word is now a virus’. Liz Collini provides insights into her Language Drawings in her Versions essay. Philip Davenport recalls an inspiring meeting with Bob Cobbing and how it led his curating the Cobbing retrospective. [Bob Cobbing incidentally was the first poet that I ever booked for a reading in 1973.] James Davies, publisher of if p then q magazine and press, encourages thinking about ‘text art’ and explores the value of poem poster art. Poet, Robert Grenier describes his serial drawn poems being exhibited, and Alan Halsey explains how his text-graphic work, Memory Screen (2005) was exhibited and performed, at Bury. Carol Watts’ artist’s book, alphabetise (2005), which consists of 26 chronicles, derived from overheard stories and anecdotes, organised into alphabetical structures in handwritten and digital form on one page, was shown at Bury as an object in a glass case. Watts takes a dictionary word as its arbitrary focus for each entry and cuts it together with an event story as part of an exploration into the arbitrariness of words and alphabetic systems. The alpha part stemming from the first part of the Greek alphabet and as a sequence of status, as in alpha male, and betise meaning something that is foolish, a joke, or nonsense. American visual poet, derek beaulieu accounts for sending The Bury Museum and Archives an empty box in an exploration of the value of nothing and bureaucracy across borders. His piece ends with a John Cage quotation, ‘Nothing more than nothing may be said’. Holly Pester writes about her engagement with the Bury Gallery, Museum and Archives producing an installation that gathered objects, recording and ideas on transmission and the nature of speech apparatuses in order to investigate how archives operate around poetry. In her notes on incorporating text within artwork, Hester Reeve (HRH. the) follows mid-period Marina Abramovic in seeing performance art as a radical philosophical questioning linked to the body and claims her body is protesting against the predictive mind to produce an art text that is not a vehicle for explanation but ‘is the explanation’. Visual artist, Carolyn Thompson details her Festival installations, predominantly cut up’s that are exhibited on walls, and writing an audio guide for Bury buildings that were designed but never built.

 

These absorbing essays are well written, candid and accompanied by photos, colour plates and catalogue of exhibitions, commissions and events. There are few books on this area of poetic enquiry and experience.  This well produced book is trail blazing and essential reading.

 

David Caddy

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