Monday, July 28, 2008


by Mark Goodwin
(pub. Shearsman Books)

I'm currently reviewing this for Staple, and enjoying it. Readers of Litter will have seen Goodwin's work there; as an editor, it struck me as distinctive, and as something which didn't fit into any current trend. The book includes a homage to Peter Redgrove and an endorsement by Penelope Shuttle, and there are certainly echoes of both those poets, as well as resemblances to the crafted verse of someone like Richard Cadell:

My crown's leaves curl
Sea's screams. The chisel
of my blood bit
out whole season's to rid
mere millimetres
of unwanted medium...

As befits this diction, some poems have elements of the Anglo-saxon riddle, while others are contemporary pastoral, incorporating social comment into close observation of the natural/semi-urban world. It's an impressive debut from a poet who I'm sure has more up his sleeve.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

John Welch, whose Collected Poems and most recent book of prose reflections have just been published by Shearsman, has some work on Litter.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hre's a snatch of email conversation between John Bloomberg-Rissman and myself.


Re: Prynne, I’m not sure if he writes “pure” poetry, if by that you mean entirely non-referential poetry. I think, rather, that his stuff is referential, but that the references change mid-sentence, sometimes mid-phrase. It recalls my experience of Finnegans Wake, if only in the sense that when I read the Wake, each time I said aha, firm ground, that ground turned out to be cloud and shifted right out from under me.

Prynne’s definitely hermetic, not in the sense of hermetically sealed, but in the sense of “obscure”. But it never feels like nothing’s going on; it feels rather like the opposite.


Your comments are spot-on. Is it possible to write "entirely non-referential poetry"? I doubt it. And your comment that "the references change mid-sentence, sometimes mid-phrase" is exactly right, and that's why it's the opposite of nothing going on. Prynne's book on Wordsworth bears this out - it opens out Wordsworth's poem, broadens its reference, or rather points out that it's reference is "the world" in which it was written and exists. The way he expands on a single word, writing mini-essays on the connections to bonded labour, enclosure, the perception of music in the early 19thC, etc, is analogous to the way his own poems change reference, or maybe add new layers of reference, almost from one word to the next.

Friday, July 18, 2008

After my previous post on J.H. Prynne and John Bloomberg-Rissman's response to it, I went off and re-read Prynne's 'For the Monogram' (1997) and 'Pearls that Were' (1999). While this poetry is daunting, in fact baffling to most readers, if I analyse 'For the Monogram', it does become apparent that two techniques are involved (or appear to be - I could be wrong): first, cut-up, in the sense that sentences or phrases are chopped to produce a disjunctive effect; second, unnattributed quotation or borrowing (or possibly fake quotation). An example of the second is found in stanza 3, which resembles a spec for a computer program, albeit a form of programming that would have been antiquated in 1997:

if (set to true) a product goto top list, an object
otherwise (if else) remaining the same...

There may be other such extracts from technical sources - without any notes or attributions, it's hard to say. Who knows for example what this might refer to:

Fissile drag under gang profile

Is it it invented, or is it genuine technical jargon? While the language in 'For the Monogram' has a certain liveliness at times due to unexpected juxtaposition, I defy anyone to hold their attention on writing like this for more than a few minutes - my brain at least, can't deal with that level of abstraction in language - and overall, the whole exercise is rather heavy. It doesn't have the raciness of Raworth or the humour of Ashbery.

'Pearls that Were': when I bought this pamphlet in 1999 I remember enjoying the opening stanzas: rhyming (or half-rhyming) quatrains that had a certain pleasing lyricism, which, while abstract, gained something from the accidents of musical placing. Again, my attention wavered (another way of saying 'I got bored'?), but I was prepared to accept it as abstract lyric. Then I discovered that one of the stanzas was a spoof translation of a poem by the contemporary Chinese poet Che Qianzi. That threw me. What else was I missing? Maybe the 'abstract lyricism' was something more. At that point I gave up.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On J.H. Prynne

A few years ago I listened to a BBC Radio programme which included a discussion of JH Prynne's poetry. Yes, I know that's hard to believe, but it did happen (since then, the Beeb have reverted to Georgian pastoral and Ian MacMillan comical). Anyway, on this programme Elaine Feinstein described Prynne as a charismatic lecturer and teacher, and she talked in glowing terms about his lectures on Wordsworth. The book quoted below, 'The Solitary Reaper: Field Notes', confirms for me that she must have been right, given that I've found it a totally absorbing and mind-expanding read. Which is not to say that it isn't intimidating and uncompromising; it has no contents or index, and the quote below is from six close-typed pages devoted to the opening word of the poem. But it's a book I recommend highly if you're prepared to put some work in.

Here's an extract, commenting on the opening of Wordsworth's poem:

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!

This equivocation of reference station is part of a sustained fiction from the very outset. The voice which says 'behold' supposedly on the scene of an actual encounter, exclaims this word (though probably in mind rather than out loud, if at all) only as a proleptic hostage for its textual equivalent which will be written down later, at least some time after this scene is only an image in writerly memory. The poet-traveller does not undertake instantaneous plein-air transcription, writing down these words in a notebook as a documentary record of his on-the-spot utterance (at least in thought) of their sonic equivalences. When he speaks the word 'behold' (if indeed he does) it is unnecessary, not called-for; instead, by anticipation, he will store the potential for this word as prompt for the later written claim to immediacy of regard. He will write 'behold' when no-one, (himself included) can any longer perform this beholding, except by running out a memory trace as if to be a writer is to be authorised to compose by backwards displacement into the site where what is to be now composed had then its germinal origin.

(J.H. Prynne, Field Notes: The Solitary Reaper and Others.)

As you can see, it's an incredibly detailed commentary - at times, one feels, almost absurdly detailed, or almost more than the poem under discussion can bear - touching on, among other things, poetics, musicology, ethnography and history. The second part of the book deals with related texts by other writers, including Thomas Hardy.

Reading this book sent me back to Prynne's poetry; I like the early work up to and including 'The Oval Window', though I suspect I like it partly because I've managed to find explications of it, particularly the well-known Reeves and Kerridge book on Prynne. The later work, say, from 'Her Weasels Wild Returning', I find I can't read for more than a few lines at a time. I'm not sure I understand what he's trying to do in this work. David Caddy has a piece on Prynne here, which, while good background, studiously avoids any textual analysis of the actual poetry. I have a feeling that Prynne's later poetry is important, and I feel frustrated that I'm unable to engage with it. I'm not helped in my insecurity by the fact that people as turned-on to contemporary poetry as Tony Frazer and Peter Riley have both expressed an alienation, or simply an inability to understand Prynne's poetry, and that Lee Harwood described it, in my presence, as 'rubbish', claiming that no-one in the Cambridge circle that he knew was prepared to take up his challenge to go through the text of a late Prynne poem and explain it to him. I've seen 'His Weasels Wild Returning' interpreted as being 'about' The first Gulf War, the sense of loss when a much-loved daughter leaves home, and (in Caddy's piece) as an expression of exile in its numerous guises. None of these interpretations could finally be proved (or indeed, disproved) by an analysis of the text. Maybe the whole project of Prynne's later poetry is an attempt to, as Caddy puts it, present "a deepening of the challenge to the reader, as a method of registering wider referents, on the basis that might be a focal point of social and ethical or literary change." One could argue however that, as in Pound's attempt in The Cantos to write a poem that was an explanation of Western civilization, there are probably more suitable vehicles for the project.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

There's some interesting work at John Bloomberg-Rissman's blog - a project which starts with a poem by seminal Filipino poet Jose Garcia Villa, translated by Eileen Tabios, and creates "1,000 Views" of it by transforming the original text in various ways "using methods developed by bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, David Cameron, Jackson Mac Low, John Cage, Christian Bök, Oulipo, Charles Bernstein, Bernadette Mayer, etc". John is accepting contributions from people who want to play. The project is coming along nicely with some fine visual poetry, artwork and textual shenanigins.

The idea of transforming an original text got me re-reading some of the late poetry of Theodore Enslin, in which he takes a chunk of verse and performs a series of variations on it in a way analgous to musical variations (he is also a composer). Some of this work is hypnotic and strangely moving - an effect is generated by a combination of the poem as self-contained textual unit, and by sound and rhythm - some effects only becoming apparent when the poems are read out loud. Thank you JBR for reminding me of this stuff.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Todd Swift, three of whose poems have just appeared on Litter, has descibed himself as a 'cultural activist', a term I like. I've been enjoying the following blogs, all by cultural activists, including Mr. Swift himself:

Heriberto Yepez - bi-lingual Spanish/English from this Mexican poet and writer.
Todd Swift - ever-insightful comment
Pierre Joris - lively and wide-ranging comment from Luxembourg poet/writer.
Ernesto Priego - likewise from Mexican-in-London, poet, DJ, academic and, well... cultural activist..

The last of these bloggers has tentatively agreed (well, after some badgering from me), to pen an essay on Octavio Paz for Litter, as I've recently been discussing Paz with him.