IV: Adjuncts to the Muses' Diadem?

Tuma's chapter on "Alternative British Poetries" begins by sketching the continuities he perceives between Movement poets, middle generation poets like Harrison, Dunn and Heaney, and the New Generation poets celebrated by David Kennedy who receive the qualified support of Sean O'Brien. The chapter ends with brief but close readings of one book each by Peter Riley, Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk, Tom Raworth, and Roy Fisher, all of whom, along with Maggie O'Sullivan whose work is considered earlier on, figure as major contributors to Other and/or Conductors of Chaos. Along the way, Tuma fine-tunes his distinction between the Cambridge and London branches of his favored alternative poets, and indeed makes clear that the quarrel between a Cambridge-based poet-critic like Drew Milne and a London-based (at least initially) poet-artist like Allen Fisher is both interesting and quite substantial. But the chief service Tuma provides in this chapter is to foreground work by six poets whose poetry does not appear in the Penguin anthology, who receive no mention at all in O'Brien, who are very little known in this country, and who have written books which he clearly prefers to those by Fenton, Armitage, Maxwell, Reading, and Didsbury. I will focus here on Riley, Raworth, and the Fishers while also quoting a few of the others both to broaden contexts and simply to exhibit some unusual work.

Peter Riley (no relation to John or Denise; there are three Rileys as well as the two Fishers on Tuma's "alternative" team) is a poet whose work can be read with profit either in the context of Cambridge-based writing by poets like Prynne, Milne, or Mengham, in the context of British modernists like David Jones or Basil Bunting, or indeed, as he would seem to prefer, in the full context of English poetic traditions stretching back to Renaissance songs, lyrics and madrigals. Riley is rather suspicious of American poetry and in fact argues that the influence of American experimentalism on British poets had run its course by the mid-1960s. Some of his more general statements about poetry, including the excerpts from an interview printed in Conductors, seem, outside any context of avant-garde militancy, both accommodating (in ways I have described and implicitely endorsed above) and aesthetically conservative. He argues that "we need a stronger emphasis on the poem as a beautiful object," that contending camps in modern poetry ought to open a dialogue with each other, that one can no longer confidently divide "modernist and traditionalist" in terms of a politically "dichotic metaphor" nor be certain that "advanced poetic praxis" will employ only open forms - and indeed one of Riley's best known poems, "Ospita," is a sonnet sequence. Still, the poems in Distant Points, the book discussed by Tuma, twelve sections of which also appear in Conductors, look like this:

poem one

If this is a species of British postmodernism that has any kind of commerce with the five poets discussed by Sean O'Brien on whose work I have focussed above, the most obvious connection would be with James Fenton in his use of documentary materials in Exempla. Expanding on Riley's own notes to Distant Points, Tuma examines the poet's sources for these prose poems in his use of nineteenth century excavation accounts by J.R. Mortimer who worked on human burial deposits of the Neolithic/Bronze Age culture in the Yorkshire Wolds. Juxtaposed with quoted, modified, rearranged and condensed texts taken from Mortimer (mostly in italics), are passages in boldface deriving chiefly from early English song and madrigal verse along with passages in Roman type linking, mediating, questioning or reconciling elements among the "found" materials in what Tuma calls a "collision of discourses" that create "a postpastoral, postlyric space" where "lyric emotion" and "brute facticity" contend and struggle for some kind of harmony or accord. The effect of the sequence as a whole—and even of the twelve sections printed in Conductors—is deeply elegiac and reminiscent of David Jones in passages from "Rite and Foretime" in The Anathemata and "The Sleeping Lord." Collectively, these poems also seem to incant with Jones (although above the graves of later "adaptable, rational, elect / and plucked-out otherlings" of Tellus):

          By the uteral marks
That make the covering stone an artifact...
          By the penile ivory
And by the viatic meats...
          Dona ei requiem.
Riley's prose poems manage, Tuma concludes, "to confuse or invert the relationship between one and the other genre of writing, so that the deathly description undertaken in the italicized fragments over the course of the series... can seem to gain an affective weight one would think to be reserved for the fragments from the English lyric archive." He agrees with John Hall that the final effect, as in Riley's earlier Tracks and Mineshafts, is a kind of "hesitant self-contradictory and doomed transcendentalism."

Although Distant Points is not necessarily typical of work which Tuma identifies with Cambridge, Riley's poetry and his statements about the art are nonetheless associated in particular with the group's "regard for the artificial status of the poem as a resolved and 'finished' object," Riley having asserted that the poem exists "as an object between poet and reader which is both a means of communication and a barrier to communication" and that even individual units in a poetic sequence need to achieve an "utter completion." Riley also affirms a notion of impersonality in ways that again recall David Jones (and T.S. Eliot), while extending his notion of the work as both a means of and a barrier to communication by saying that it is "constructed out of paradoxical or conflicting motivations within a tradition: desire crossed with fear, envy crossed with confidence, the need to say and be revealed crossed with the need to remain silent and secret." Without wanting to attribute Riley's views to other poets, these characteristics can, I think, be seen in work by other Cambridge poets associated in various ways with Jeremy Prynne whose poems appear in Conductors or in Other and which I would like to quote if only to provide a glimpse of some important writing most American readers are entirely unaware of. Here, for example, is Drew Milne:

Clamour for change, with this to plough on
even though fresh mint, under a flat
climate, borders on wisteria
buoyed and flushed in a slogan too far,
or wills no attempt to portray what palls
as in every body flirts, don't they?
So minting, some feel like death over it
whose only sin is unlikely grist,
wit and wag this sizzling raunch bears all,
wailing wall to boot, and now we're told
due more to Herod's engineering,
nature not withstanding, as a fly
passes on withering western winds,
and all the bold sedge goes hand in fist,
spent in forage round other and earth.

This is John Wilkinson:

To his seeming true the apothecary turns about,
padding between his plastic rows, maintenance of
plant & smits of government subsidy will make
his garden grow with Scotch Tape, barrier cream,
grids of planting shunt the energy where tactful.
Divert it to the maidens asking for slow horses
to woa at a residential door swings like gunsmoke -
words drain their faces, violent ballet means
decided something from a treatment they accustom
to draw out of a particular chair by details so
yielding, Alzheimer's mutates to a contact disease...

And Andrew Crozier:

        ... see them flash by, time unit
continuous for two frequency cycles, heart
stutter, one travelling fast round another's
light pulse, delayed burst, in the sequence and
out, remnants of colour displayed, falling
away on the curve of its tangent, out of
the corner, scattered before its return swept
into the bay as a double beat counted twice,
its point in the line divided and dotted
back where, see what, time rushing past
your one body, small corner and one little eye,
time rushing ahead through its gaps, meeting
its markers and dying away as you pass,
snatched up to the stars, sideral passenger
so many vertices plotted, invisibly now
across the celestial sphere, so much infinity
sectioned, such stories foretold, fixed a word
for them, call it out of luck, or under what sign,
or on what base are they struck, short use life,
weather beaten, fallen, degraded, one on its own
if not lost must have been stolen.

Here certainly is a poetry that, just eluding paraphrase, foregrounds the materiality of language in a kind of Heideggerian withholding of exactly what is offered. The atmosphere of all three passages, claustrophobic as Riley's Neolithic graves, is nonetheless alluring: Milne's poem derives from the verbal world of newspapers (the reading of which G.F. Hegel, quoted in the epigraph, once called "the realist's morning prayer") and, later in the sequence, recalls the use of tabloid journalism found in Peter Reading's work; Wilkinson's apothecary-shop-cum-horse-show-and-doctor's-office-of-a-stanza somehow begins to answer the question more or less raised by the title, why do "City Scientists Grow Magic Skin"?; Crozier's lines apparently describe a hospital monitor — cardiogram or encephalogram or both — where scientific fact and human terror simultaneously register their graphs. All of the poems are stanziac (Crozier's unit is 30 lines and therefore has been excerpted), two are sections from cycles, and some effort has been taken in each case to give the parts as well as the wholes a formal integrity. Elements of narrative appear in all the poems, but, as Reeve and Kerrige say of Prynne's "A Night Square" (eleven poems each containing eleven lines), "energizing forces are traced as they run up against obstructions." In Prynne's case, as Reeve and Kerrige observe, the layout on the page resembles the walls of a maze, but the other poems have mazelike qualities as well. Here is Prynne:

But is
        the small ensign of love a
street by
            the docks past
        the screen past
the lithograph is fixed so desperately
        the screen past
when he sets his wheel by the form
        of a per
                fected nail in
        structed second part
Although Crozier's sequence may come close to positing the existence of something like an empirical self, there is great suspicion among these poets of the first person singular, which is probably best regarded in their poems as an entity entirely constructed by linguistic convention rather than something like a psychological identity with a state of mind. In this they resemble Roy Fisher, who has spoken of his attempt to "steer a sufficiently agile course [that he might] be able to see the back of [his] own head" while locating the "I" that is being thought rather than the "I" that is thinking. In fact, the claustrophobic atmosphere is also like the world of certain Fisher poems which point the reader finally to a zone that is, as he says, "turbulent, bulky, dark, and lyrically remote."

It is significant that Tuma's group of Cambridge poets, more than other contributors to Conductors, are interested in establishing something of a genealogy for their work by making the selections from David Jones, J.F. Hendry, Nicholas Moore, and W.S. Graham. Milne's choice of Jones's "The Narrows" and the remarkable passage on "The Zone" from The Book of Balaam's Ass reveals an Eliotic High Modernist coming apart at the seams whose "antisocial critique needs to be read against its overtly affirmative claims"; Crozier's Hendry is a one-time New Apocalyptic poet of the Blitz whose work "broke through structures of language and social convention" and whose poem on the air raid that killed his wife should be read beside better-known poems on the raids by Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Stephen Spender, and Eliot in "Little Gidding"; Riley's Nicholas Moore reveals a poet "in the full throes of his argument with language as power" while Tony Lopez (not discussed by Tuma, but a Ph.D from Prynne's Gonville and Caius College) introduces W.S. Graham's work as the link, via "The Nightfishing," between Eliot's Four Quartets and Bunting's Briggflatts which demonstrates the continuity of British modernism in spite of the greater visibility of The Movement and its successors. Graham's later work is seen as poetry whose explicit subject, like that of several Cambridge poets, is language itself. However, this writing about writing - taken up by John Wilkinson and Denise Riley, among others - is no mere formalism. Its "language games [are] concerned with damaged and lonely people, with political propaganda, with coercive oppression, with the effects of torture and warfare on local communities."

The American reader will doubtless be asking by now whether or not these Cambridge poets who draw on this particular archive ought to be read as British colleagues of North American Language writers like Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, and Susan Howe. It is a question which Tuma addresses directly and at length while making a transition to Allen Fisher and the London-based alternative poets on his list.

While Tuma finds little interest per se among his Cambridge poets in notions like Ron Silliman's "new sentence," Bernstein's "antiabsorptive" techniques, or the utopian program of Steve McCaffery's poetics, he also suggests that specific and sometimes hostile critiques of Language writing which emanate from Cambridge sometimes mistakenly "read what are in fact performative critical texts intent on re-directing contemporary poetic practice as a series of truth-claims and/or 'theoretical' propositions about language, reading, politics, and so forth." Perhaps this is better understood, he implies, by his London poets, who certainly share an enthusiasm for parataxis - the title, incidentally, of one influential Cambridge journal - with both U.S. Language writers and Cambridge poets, but whose experiments with concretism and performance texts, engagement with everyday life, interest in improvisation, chance operations and disruptive techniques that violate what Drew Milne calls "the persistence of lyric," make them a kind of edgy and anarchic urban foil to the hyper-literary, reflective, radical pastoral poets from Cambridge and more receptive (vulnerable?) to Language writing on one hand, American Black Mountaineers, Beats, and New York School poets on the other.

At this point another run of I hope fairly representative passages may again be useful as these poets, seen in contrast to the five quoted above from the Cambridge group, suggest at once both the interest and the risk in pressing poetry as far as possible toward an endgame of incoherence while maintaining an ability, as Tuma says of Maggie O'Sullivan, "to baffle all critical languages or 'theories' that would seek to 'explain' [the work] or bring it back into the discipline and decorum of... hermeneutics." Here is a passage from Allen Fisher's "Mummers' Strut" which Tuma will include in his Oxford anthology, along with its notes and what is perhaps a send-up of notes in his notes on the notes written in the third person. I quote it from the journal Westcoast Line:

So much so difficult to take in
Mule driver holds to

a raised path
in case of submersion.

Even as dew drops through
a window space the driver

can be seen holding the ropes' natural lubrication.
What was once cracking has become squeak

and then whistle
before the buckles rust.

Sodium ions are represented by two children
in the skins of nylon bears

dyed fluorescent blue
or ultramarine cut with steel and oil.

Naturalists exchange informations on the relation
between bog bush crickets and the sound of dried grass

The footnote to this section refers the reader to Helmuth Plesner, Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, while the note on the notes to the whole reads in part: "In summary it may be said that, if 'Mummer's Strut' was exemplary of Allen Fisher's poetics in action, then the poetic strategy is one of slow discomposition, disruption of autobiographical voice through the use of many voices, aspiration to multiple and collage form through the pasting of many sources, many spacetimes, and a subversion of collage form through a use of re-narration, a simulation device evident elsewhere in this poet's work." Well! In the same issue of Westcoast Line, Maggie O'Sullivan's "riverrunning (realisations" includes a passage which is also a kind of note on her notes, saying that she celebrates - like Fisher and Raworth, one concludes - "Origins / Entrances - the/ Materiality of Language: its actual contractions &/ expansions, potentialities, prolongments, assemblages - / the acoustic, visual, oral & sculptural qualities/ within the physical: intervals between; in & beside." The O'Sullivan text which Tuma says we need to hear in performance to sense its "bardic" quality, along with the way it seems to hover between a preliterary and postliterary existence, reads in part on the page:

poem 2

And although Tom Raworth is not specifically grouped with the London poets, certainly his most characteristic moves are much of a piece. He can make them very rapidly indeed, like this:

These two early poems from Lion Lion, "Jungle Book" and "Unease," read in retrospect like sections frozen in a kind of permafrost from Raworth's more recent process poems like Catacoustics, which Tuma quotes and discusses at some length.

Tuma compares the "disjunctive gaps" in Raworth's syntax with the "white spaces cut between Peter Riley's fragments" in order to argue that a poetics based on "bafflement" has replaced Riley's poetics of the sublime. "Our attention," he explains, "devolves not into a terrifying 'real' altogether beyond the unknowable, calling for our inevitably desperate and failed efforts to acknowledge if not grasp it, but rather into the abundance of material particulars which obstinately refuse any effort to gather them, positively or negatively, into depth or coherence." If this distinction between a poetics of bafflement and a poetics of the sublime among these poets makes any sense, then Roy Fisher can be seen as a poet who has explored both possibilities. The former is predictably represented in the selection in Other, and, while the Fisher sublime (rare, but very real) is not exactly on exhibit in the Penguin selection, every attempt has been made to exclude the side of his work that might baffle the casual reader while printing the one and only Fisher chestnut-of-an-anthology-piece (which the poet dislikes and regards as unrepresentative of his work), "The Entertainment of a War" from City.

Following City, and on route to his revision and radical reconception of that poem in A Furnace - it is as if Eliot had written The Waste Land after rather than before Four Quartets - Fisher wrote a series of sequences such as "The Cut Pages," "Stopped Frames and Set Pieces," "Metamorphoses," "Matrix," and "Handsworth Liberties" that make use of improvisation, chance methods and automatism, the congruence of subjective musical associations with objective visual imagery, constructivist procedures reminiscent of the Russian formalists, and a treatment of semi-hallucinatory mental spaces in a manner recalling M.C. Escher's Print Gallery in which the world we see, as Francisco Varla describes the etching, defines a cognitive domain "we cannot step out of," where we are "entangled in the strange loop of our actions" since there is "nowhere to step out into." It should be clear by now why such poems by Fisher might be respected by poets from both the Cambridge and London groups, and indeed there are moments when he might be thought of himself as a member of one group —

But it is precisely with a poetics of the sublime - and Keith Tuma's original fisher by obstinate isles thought he might "maintain 'the sublime' / in the old sense...Unaffected by the 'march of events'" - that I want to leave this Fisher of the latter-days and all but conclude this essay. I am not alone in thinking that A Furnace may be one of the two or three great long poems by an English poet written in the last quarter century. Deeply resonant of modern traditions reaching back through Pound, Yeats, and John Cowper Powys to journeys to the underworld in Homer, Virgil, and Dante, the poem invokes a Heraclitean fire "to persuade," as Fisher says in his preface to the poem, "obstinate substances" - like obstinate isles themselves? - "to alter their condition and show relativities" in a context understanding that "the making of all kinds of identities is a primary impulse which the cosmos itself has; and that these identities can only be acknowledged by some form or another of the poetic imagination." A Furnace, as much as Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love, is a poem that seeks to bring whatever blood the poet has to offer as libation to the dead, fishing not among the Cantos' "souls out of Erebus," but nonetheless for "timeless identities" like "the one they called Achilles...or like William Fisher" who are guided by a syntax Tuma rightly calls conjunctive (as opposed to the disjunctive syntax of Raworth or The Cut Pages) to "enter Nature...animist, polytheist, metaphoric, coming through." In their way, Geoffrey Hill's Bletchley Magi (with their syntax of grids, probabilities and recursive functions) also half-created what they half-perceiveed in a situation where initially, as Hill writes, "unrecognized [was] not unacknowledged...unnamed [was] not nameless" and "bad faith... rest[ed] with inattention." Fisher's attentions are to codes as difficult as DNA and as ancient as the figure of its double-spiral, in terms of which he tries to think about time. Possibly tempted at last, if not by ethics then by metaphysics, into "the wonderful," the poem seems to find their miracle of survival perhaps just miracle enough.

Whatever breaks
from stasis, radiance or dark
impending, and slides
directly and fast on its way, twisting
aspect in the torsions of the flow
this way and that,
            then suddenly
        through a single
glance of another force touching it or
bursting out of it sidelong,

doing so
fetches the timeless flux
that cannot help but practise
the coming into sense,
to the guesswork of the senses,
the way in cold are
ice-crystals, guessed at, come densely
falling from where they were not;

and it fetches
timeless identities
riding in the flux with no
determined form, cast out of the bodies
that once they were, or out of
the brains that bore them... .
They come anyway
to the trench,
the dead in their surprise,
taking whatever form they can
to push across.