Matthew Caley writes about his own practice, and notions of the ‘avant garde’ and its relation to the British mainstream.
Note: the printed edition of the magazine contains a transcription error, for which Magma apologises. The correct version appears here.
It starts, as most things start, with Ezra Loomis Pound. Pound, the irascible, volcanic centre of the Modernist project, abandoned as many movements as he started, leaving the beginnings of multiple possible paths barely touched on. His own development rapidly ran through the Georgian lyric, neo-Troubadour poetry, ballads, sestinas, Anglo-Saxon voyage poems, Imagism, haiku and Chinese translations – amongst other things – before hitting the ‘major’ works Mauberley and Propertius and of course, the Cantos, sixty years in the making and abandoned, not finished. Yet he is a contemporary –
From the French of Laurent Tailhade [1854-1919]
What lures the ancient truss-maker from his shop whose luxury
Sucked in the passers-by
In his garden at Auteil where zinnias void of all odor or stink
Look like varnished zinc.
That’s where he, of an evening, comes to taste the aromatic air
In his flannel-coat and rocking-chair
As factories of suet and animal
Black spread out the whiff and flavor from Grenelle
Although free-thinking and a quite free mason,
He thinks a favouring god in propitious hour
Gave him such refuge – a goldfish dying in the fountain basin –
While, with Chinese lanterns in a moorish tower,
His “young lady” hums to and fro
Spicing his rasberry syrup with a couplet by Nadaud.
We might as well be reading a Muldoon sonnet from the Quoof period.
Amongst the other things that Pound produced was a voluminous correspondence – 60 letters a day at the height of his mania – about literature, life, science, economics, cat-piss and porcupines, the latter being his own invented expletive. These letters were unique in being both written in a variety of accents – one of the most common being a kind of crackerbarrel hick Southerner – and with deliberately lax and slack spelling and syntax. Aristophanes, here, becomes Harry Stop Yer Knees; New Directions [James Laughlin’s famous press, set up at Pound’s urging] Nude Erections, causing much consternation, fainting and resigning amongst Laughlin’s prim and proper secretaries when Pound addressed his envelopes thus. He might open a letter [to Harriet Monroe] with: “Orl rit, you put in your bloomink feetnotes” or to William Carlos Williams: “Deer Willyum the wumpus: How badly does Zuk want to git to Yourup?” He was forging a savage-comic vernacular, partially through the use of what I will dub ‘the loose science of anagrammic mishearing’. This provided the spark for the poem So, Fuck Off, Please in my first collection Thirst, which was based on a small section of Pound’s translation of Sophocles’ Women Of Trachae –
They twang car ariels
outside The Paradise Club
and Fracas, his pina-colada spiked
believes he’s The Son Of God.
Legless under a Thunderbird duvet, Cutie’s a fallen bride
eyeing a dowsing-rod.
Into the dust they all go.
The first stanza only was ‘original’, setting up the poem’s modus operandi. The other three used ‘the loose science of anagramic mishearing’ and in doing so appeared to re-route Sophocles’s work from Ancient Greece to a late-night bust-up outside a night-club in Stockwell or Brixton. The poem was a last-minute addition to the book and, though the idea of a ‘translation’ from the English of one of Pound’s [in]famous ‘translations’ of the Greek utilising Pounds own crazy letter-writing style appealed to me, I still thought of it only as a one-off, not a mode of working.
Amongst other things, some little while later, I had two lines in my notebook which I liked but couldn’t seem to fit into anything I was working on.
Dusk and your absence
swells to a palpable stanchion.
The lines seemed mock-dramatic, parodic, they played around with ideas of absence and presence, were a horny pastiche of the male balladeer, an inversion of Pound’s belief in Remy De Gourmant’s theories in The Philosophy of Love and Eleusis – the phallic power of the male genius. But they overbalanced any poem I put them in. So I changed tack, seeing the two lines as the ‘astronaut’s pill’ containing the whole poem and applying ‘the loose science of anagrammic mishearing’ to work variations , built these into a much longer poem:
By Selectadisc the bus
swerves in an unpeopled station
as a frisbee absentmindedly
flys through the pebbled washroom
where dusky absinthe
is swilled by capable henchmen
The thing seemed to gain a life of its own and eventually turned into a long-poem I called Wallace Stevens At The Oboe – as what resulted seemed to relate to the kind of word-play he approaches in a poem like Bantam In Pine-Woods:
Chieftan Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
of tan with henna hackles, halt!
Whilst it might be supposed that this technique forestalls ‘meaning’, words continue to be signifiers of meaning[s] even when they are taken out of their original contexts or syntactically shuffled. I found the poem actually picked up bits of news from the contemporary media, fragments of personal life, and arguments from my reading at the time – like static, building them into pertinent inter-relation. The poem went into the m.s. for my second book, The Scene Of My Former Triumph. Again, I saw it only as an interesting one-off.
Of course, hindsight and prose convention lends all this a chronological, programmatic certainty which I can assure you I’m incapable of, amongst other things. Neither of these poems was preying on my mind several months later when I finished up another version of the Triumph m.s. I had five weeks of secluded holiday in Moravia ahead of me and was determined to take no poetry-related materials. Once there, quite by chance I found a copy of Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings in some old boxes we were rummaging through. Within a five day frenzy I had re-written it in its entirety using ‘the loose science of anagrammic mishearing’. Here’s part of the first poem – Here.
Eventually, SW2, lost, foaming, its trials of dust, hard sows,
DNA trafficking, frilly thigh-girths, weaving rough eyelids
through thin and misled bait, cold mead, -us-
not now or then, non-shards, marred to the hilt, hats dishevelled,
manky whore – ta Dawn!-, swivelling at altitude
for keys and cars, crowbars, hysterics, shares in bezzants,
and the weedy evening rover’s sly presence
the dappled gelding clods through shin-guards, lagged and dumb,
its withers usurp a prose of a real weight:
aerodynamics and statutary peers, lusher crones
and sad, rain-spattered Ritas, Bergerac, raw, dead waiter,
the residue of wan states, rough-riders,
farenheight of the dude- Miles -leastways B-flat, cake-trolleys
push through plates and glasses, swig, dares to iridescent heirs
and chop-suey, dear raw junk-hit, sharp-shooter iced, lillies
elect race-mixers, Toasters, well-wishers, Dryads-
I agreed with Andrew Duncan’s argument in his The Failure Of Conservatism In British Poetry with regards to Larkin:
what a creeping depression and lowness of spirit seeps out of the work. Larkin precisely defines what poetry should not be: poetry is exciting, Larkin is depressing; poetry is hyperassociative, Larkin discourages the formation of ideas; poetry is emotional, Larkin is frigid and prudent; poetry is social, Larkin dislikes other people; poetry takes risks, Larkin cringes.
Yet many young contemporary poets still appear to be writing under the sign of Larkin – all safe and sensible; one even declaimed in my earshot that Larkin was the greatest poet of the 20th Century. Larkin who despised Modernism and [after the grafted-on volcanic eruptions stoked up by Ezra Pound] returned English poetry to its current domestic solipsism. My writing through of Larkin seemed to produce a bizarre hybrid of Tristan Corbière and perhaps, early Barry McSweeney. It was also conceptual – using an entire Larkin book as template – the ghost of iambic pentameter [ ‘the first heave is to rid ourselves of the pentameter’- Pound] lingering behind lines utterly inamicable to Larkin’s perview – as if the English mainstream and the English avant-garde traditions were having a punch-up. Which they are, amongst other things.
During a recent stint as Poet-in-Residence at The Poetry Society Cafe I curated an exhibition ‘How Dish Wing’ which was a ‘writing-through’ in its entirety of Larkin’s final volume High Windows by 24 invited artists, writers, designers and poets – each tackling one poem. Some used OULIPO tactics – forging an entirely new poem out of the original’s letters; some ‘cut-ups’, others put the original back and forth through Translation software, amongst other things: all in all an opening-up of the closed field of Larkin.
Of course, I can’t claim ‘writing through’ as my own. American Jackson Mac Low – Pound protégé and proto L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet – amongst other things – had been trying these techniques as early as 1960. Witness his Antic Quatrains for example – a poem derived out of running the poem’s dedicatee’s names – Annie Brigette Gilles Tardos – through a computer software programme to produce something like ‘anagrammic mishearing’.
Along a tarn a delator entangled a dragline,
Boasting o’tonnages, dogies, ants, and stones
As long as Lind balled Gandas near a gas log
As it late lit rigatoni amd a tag line
Granadoes labelled a gatelog table stable
As droll goaltenders tensed at tenebrist rites
And and elegant internee sensed godlier litanies
In gangrened slattern lotteries in Laredo
Arentino’s gist is bearable
And Listers treatises are greatening:
Siberian gentianella’s deteriorating
And loneliness endangers libraries
This seems to me an exhilarating, funny, sly, moving, rhythmic, energetic, beautiful and yet programmatic poem – Mac Low had escaped the dread burden of ‘expression’, subverting the mainstream’s outmoded insistence on the primacy of the individual voice and done away with the diversionary element of ‘subject-matter’. Mac Low, in turn, influenced avant-garde composer John Cage to produce a writing through of – yes, you’ve guessed it – Ezra Pound’s Cantos:
| and thE with bronZe lance heads beaRing yet Arms
sheeP slain Of plUto stroNg praiseD
thE narrow glaZes the uptuNned nipple AS
sPeak tO rUy oN his gooDs
using Ezra Pound’s name as the acrostic string. [He followed this up by writing through the entirety of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake using the author’s name as a ‘mestostic’ string i.e. through the centre of the line rather than the edge.] My task, it seemed, amongst other things was to bring these tactics – which Cage said he used so as to ‘demilitarise’ language and syntax – to bear upon Larkin: the hub of the English mainstream.
Currently, most of the English mainstream is just about catching up with the New York School, let alone Mac Low, Cage, the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets or post-modernist theory. The inherent conservatism at its core – that Andrew Duncan attributes to a kind of middle-class depression, to being an island race, seems present even in its more lively practitioners who still argue for old ideas of ‘form’, ‘honesty’, ‘truth’ and the special case for poetry that no longer holds true under current conditions – the mainstream is inherently defensive or dismissive about ‘new’ ideas and is thus about 50 years out of date. Yet there are signs that its neat hegemony is beginning to crack. The new editors at Poetry Review have been giving space to writers such as Keston Sutherland ; more radical work can be found being published by a number of large and small presses – Salt and Barque to name just two – and the Internet allows us to access to critical, cutting-edge writing through sites like Jacket and to order the best new books from America [mostly unavailable here] through Amazon. If young poets can be encouraged to develop ‘a critical position’ rather than ‘a voice’, to seek the new rather than the neo, then mainstream British poetry might yet get dragged into the present. The last word, amongst other things, to Pound:
or the neo-hogbutchererbigdriftities? They all gone Rootabaga?