Thursday, 18 December 2008

lean times in Faversham town

Santa seems to have lost air pressure . . .

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Monday, 8 December 2008

spitting the dummy

Bureaucrats have their uses. Our cultural institutions couldn’t function without them (and I have to admit that I have myself benefited from some arts organisations). But the relationships between the various arts and their funding and broadcasting bodies have some significant differences. Imagine, for example, how visual artists would feel if their supporting frameworks were run by Sunday painters. This probably sounds like a ridiculous fancy. Yet consider the comparative situation of poetry. Most of the quangos that form what meagre support base poetry has, are populated by just this kind of person. I won’t use the word ‘amateur’ here because, often enough, the Sunday painters of the poetry world are the ones who consider themselves ‘professionals’. Running an institution or a magazine is just part of the structure that confirms them as artists. If you need to ask you’ll find that, sure enough, those heading Poetry Societies, those in paid positions in Poets’ Unions etcetera, almost all fit this bill. They are, of their nature, good at filling in forms, good at all the institutional aspects of the art world. These poetry bureaucrats don’t necessarily sign their own cheques (there are others of similar job description who will do this for them). But they do, often enough, shape the landscape. The world of poetry created by them is often enough the world that review journals like the TLS and LRB seem to accept as the only one. Why is this so? It all seems to come back to that sense that since written language is shared by many of us we are all de facto experts. Is the fag end of romanticism reconstituting itself as bureaucracy?

Friday, 5 December 2008

sonnets in space

In a recent public service email Harry Gilonis made a plea for all concerned to find their way to Roehampton University for the (second) launch-reading of The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. If Londoners in the avant scene found it difficult to get to an event in Battersea (as Harry noted ruefully) how on earth would they deal with a place somewhere to the south of Barnes overground station? Well, some of them made it to the Duchesne Building (opened in 2006 by Cherie Blair QC) and the volume was duly launched, albeit without copies of the item itself. The photos above show some of the participants before the reading started. The first includes an unknown photographer, John Gibbens, Tim Atkins, Harry Gilonis, Simon Smith, Richard Makin and unknown. The second features Richard Makin, Gavin Selerie, Keith Jebb, Jeff Hilson, Sophie Robinson and Peter Jaeger. We read in two brackets, this time in reverse chronology. First off Sophie Robinson, followed by Sean Bonney (who also read Stephen Rodefer), Jeff Hilson (Giles Goodland), Tim Atkins (Lisa Jarnot and Bernadette Mayer), Simon Smith (Peter Riley), Richard Makin, and Peter Jaeger (featuring fellow Canadian Paul Dutton). After a break came John Gibbens, Keith Jebb (Johan de Wit), Harry Gilonis (Kathleen Fraser, Elizabeth James and Maurice Scully), Gavin Selerie (Geraldine Monk) and myself (fellow Australian Michael Farrell). Jeff Hilson ended the evening with work by publisher Ken Edwards who was unaccountably delayed. There was indeed life in the sonnet, even if those at my end of the age spectrum come scarily close to the Bus Pass. The feeling of creeping age may well have been reinforced by a visit late in the afternoon to the V&A exhibition ‘Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970’. If you can remember serious talk about fallout shelters, this one’s for you. The exhibition tracks the course of Cold War rivalries through postwar anxiety, art in the service of capital (or Das Kapital), the competition to be modern, the art, architecture and cinema of fear, the space race, the use of new materials in fashion and the anti-authoritarian movements of the sixties. What seems irrecoverable from all this is the sense of utopia. Its absence induces a kind of nostalgia yet we know too much about it now to wish for its return.

Monday, 1 December 2008


For those of my readers outside of the UK this is a public service announcement. The lollipop site is as good a place as any to check out the British small presses and their doings. It was started by the late Bill Griffiths, poet, early English scholar, bikie, and computer whiz. Currently the wonderful Glasgow poet Peter Manson is at the helm.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Sunday, 23 November 2008


One of the pleasures in connecting with the British poetry scene is that people here take the opportunity to celebrate the work of others. The frequency of festschrifts, birthday volumes and general celebrations testifies to a desire to let some poets know they are valued. Friendship is one thing (and a good thing) but these works make it a public fact. Accordingly I was more than happy to participate in the loose leaved Uplift: a samizdat for Lee Harwood. This publication, produced by Patricia Hope Scanlan and Timothy Weston of Artery Editions in East Sussex includes poems, artworks, a CD, memoirs and critical pieces but is, especially by virtue of its ‘open’ mode of production, not the kind of tombstone such an item might otherwise become. The samizdat was a surprise for the poet, presented to him at a reading in Brighton for the launch of a Shearsman selected and a book of conversations with Kelvin Corcoran. I couldn’t, unfortunately, be at the reading, though I hear Lee was in fine form.

Friday, 21 November 2008

friday, wednesday and thursday

Last Friday I attended a reading given by Peter Riley and Roger Langley at Dulwich College. The reading was primarily for the students and though turnout was voluntary for this after-hours event there was a goodly audience. Roger Langley, whose Journals (Shearsman, 2006) I’d recommend to anyone for their density and perceptual clarity, began by discussing the reception of haiku and the way that most scholarly discussions of the mode end up trying to crudely paraphrase what is already a kind of ultimate unit of writing. Peter Riley read a poem based on the early thirteen-month Chinese calendar. Both of these poets took their auditors a long way from notions of the art as a series of ever-more-clever simile manufacturings.

On Wednesday Riley appeared again in the Blue Bus series, this time with Peter Philpott. The latter read once more from his new manuscript consisting of poems ‘written’ by several characters, while the former read, among other pieces, a sequence of short pieces from a journey around the southwest of the US. The journal paralleling these poems (and many other things, including a wonderful memoir of growing up in the Manchester catchment) can be seen on Riley’s website.

Last night at Birkbeck, Michael Heller, fresh from the George Oppen conference in Edinburgh read earlier work as well as material from his forthcoming book of poems, Eschaton. Heller’s new book on Oppen, Speaking the Estranged, has only just appeared. Earlier critical work includes Conviction’s Net of Branches (when it appeared this was clearly the best introduction around to the work of the so-called Objectivists) and Uncertain Poetries (Salt, 2005). A selected poems, Exigent Futures came out from Salt in 2003.

Meanwhile I’d spent the late afternoons of Wednesday and Thursday wandering through the collections at Tate Modern and Tate Britain, noting the rehangings of the respective permanent collections. At the Modern I particularly noted works in the rooms devoted to the theme ‘states of flux’ including paintings by Robert Delaunay, the quite wonderful Gino Severini, Edvard Munch and Pierre Bonnard and filmwork by Jonas Mekas. At Tate Britain they’ve given some rooms over entirely to the work of a single artist or a particular association of artists like the Independent Group. A whole room of Victor Pasmore was worth it, as were hangings of Robyn Denny, whose work I’d seen little of, and Eduardo Paolozzi (in the Independent Group room with Nigel Henderson) featuring collages from his scrapbooks and a collage mural from 1952. I’d never particularly liked the later Paolozzi but the early things are fascinating (both for themselves and for the argument that ‘pop’ originated in Britain, not the States).

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Thursday, 13 November 2008

crab & winkle

The Crab & Winkle Way was the first continuously operated passenger rail service in Britain, running between Canterbury and Whitstable. It was in use from 1830 through to the early 1950s. The line climbed over hills and, at the top of the gradient, there’s a pond formerly used to supply water for the engine and a wood sculpture (above) by Tim Norris referencing the winding mechanism used to haul the engine up the steeper slopes. Part of the line is now occupied by a cycle track, part of the national network. I walked this path yesterday from the University of Kent campus to the coast. It was the first fine day for a couple of weeks almost. I’m using ‘Crab & Winkle’ as the title for the book Shearsman will be bringing out around April 2009. It’s a long journal-type poem that I initially drafted over the year from August 2006 and revised subsequently. Some sections have so far appeared in Jacket and onedit.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

strictly boring

At the risk of alienating readers I’m pasting here a piece I wrote in 2001 then revised in 2003 but never published, feeling I had missed the occasion. I was mildly embarrassed by it at the time but given the current state of world affairs and the imminent release of Baz Luhrmann’s new movie, Australia, I figured maybe the time for this piece had come. I liked Luhrmann’s first movie, Strictly Ballroom and indulged his next, Romeo and Juliet (the script at least was ok) but had the interesting experience of viewing his third, Moulin Rouge in a Brisbane theatre after which my partner and I left feeling as though we were the only people in the venue who hadn’t adored the film. Here’s the essay:

Near the beginning of Baz Luhrmann’s movie Moulin Rouge, poet Ewan McGregor lets us know that there are only three things in this world that matter: beauty, truth and love. The scenario of this film promises so much yet the finished product fails to deliver the substance of these promises. What it does offer is an unaccustomed insight into the mechanics of latter-day romanticism. From beginning to end the movie camouflages the slowness and banality of its plot through rapid editing and a heavy overlay of glitter. It appears to be aimed demographically at a young audience though its soundtrack is knowingly retro, lending an eighties feel to music which actually spans three decades (the early eighties of course was the moment of the New Romantics - Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Steve Strange &c; a time when haircuts and pirate costumes seemed the sole signifiers of originality). The themes of bohemia and romantic love (where love = death) permeate this intensely self-regarding movie as it presents itself as the advance guard of a brave new romanticism. But did the romantic project ever go away?

Extreme philosophies of individualism exist comfortably alongside the discourse of contemporary free-market economics. Both attitudes are products of the liberalism that made the aesthetic of romanticism possible and Luhrmann’s film brings to the surface the complicity that late romanticism shares with commerce. At Fox Studios the creative personnel at work on the multi-million dollar creation probably didn’t, despite their relative affluence, feel remote from the figure of the ‘starving artist in the garret’. McGregor, their object of identification, ‘lies in the gutter’ at one point in the film, though he is ‘seeing stars’ rather than looking at them.

The demise of the romantic impulse seems less likely now than ever. As the aesthetic counterpart of liberalism romanticism is proving itself a persistent ideology. Francis Fukayama’s notorious thesis on ‘the end of history’ was both a self-serving document and a classic example of romantic resurgence. Market capitalism according to Fukayama has rendered the ‘free world’ a perfect and perfectly stable place; a utopia of cash-flow. In the broader picture capitalism is the economics, liberalism the politics, and romanticism the aesthetic sensibility of one persistent world picture. The hinge between these discourses, romanticism, liberalism and market capitalism, is the individual: the authentic, singular, self-authoring, autonomous, Robinson Crusoe figure who inhabits all three fields.

Individual identity seems all-important in romantic accounts. In an age in which identification has become a science (identikits, fingerprints, iris maps, DNA swabs) the fragility of ‘identity’ increases. The discourses of liberalism serve to recreate ‘identity’ even if what is produced owes more to Hollywood than to Freud. ‘Depression’, a characteristic modern ‘disease’ is a sign of this. Depression and identity do seem to be closely linked, but not perhaps in the way one would at first suppose. Depression isn’t due to ontological doubt; it seems to ensue more from an over-identification, a surfeit of identity onto which blame and failure attach themselves. In a world devoid of identity, depression couldn’t exist. But that world would not be the world of the ‘liberal imagination’.

The worlds of identity and depression crop up in an almost exemplary fashion in the work of the so-called ‘confessional’ poets. Some confusion manifests itself in the assumption that this style of psychological impressionism represents a return to the primal nature of poetry. There was indeed an element of voyeurism at work in the writings of the Plath and Berryman fan clubs. A retrospective ‘will she do it this time’ frisson often accompanies the reading of Plath’s successive books. While critics may wish to read Plath in particular in terms of gender popularly the poet is seen as an arch-individual carrying the burdens of gender (and the only way out for the individual is death). The poetics of the 1960s under the momentary sway of Al Alvarez often left little room for any other kind of writer. Even an anthology of political poetry had to cover itself with the title Poetry of the Committed Individual. This aberration in the history of poetics left behind all previous ideas of the poet as a conduit and/or as the practitioner of a craft, installing in their place the notion of the doomed individual whose sacrifice somehow leaves the publisher better off and the rest of us free to pursue whatever else the market offers.

It is characteristic of the liberal perspective that it should constantly re-invent itself. The recent historical imagination perceives a series of endings or ‘deaths’: of ‘the author’, of modernity, even of history (in Fukayama’s case) and romanticism itself. Romanticism has died and returned several times over the last century. Its end has been frequently spelt out. High-modernists instituted an anti-romanticism before the First World War; new critics in the 1950s saw in TS Eliot and his followers signs of the end of romanticism (in this context the ‘Beats’ were seen as a throwback). But romanticism has since been read back into the work of most of the high modernist writers. Eliot had used Jules Laforgue’s modes to remove himself from romantic influence. Laforgue was an ironist, writing about anti-heroes and Eliot took this aboard. But Eliot’s anti-Semitism gives the game away: the Bleistein of Poems 1920 represents the unreflecting, unimaginative forces governing the everyday world who are an anathema to those of artistic temperament. The Bleisteins are defined by an absence of true individuality, unlike those of a romantic temperament.

Postmodernism (or I should say one of the postmodernisms) found as an aesthetic of stylistic plunder a rich field in romanticism reproducing and breathing new life into romantic forms. An art that has abandoned modernism’s austere drive towards purity can use its devices to produce ‘the romantic effect’, but so many people read the effect as the real thing in an age in which irony is just another stylistic device, a kind of display rather than a mode of concealment or an address to two audiences who are supposed to hear two different things. No matter what you do, it seems, the way your actions are received will be predicated on a romanticist philosophy. Is romanticism ‘the opiate of the masses’? Is it the ultimate ‘ruling ideology’? It would seem so.

In a late essay, unpublished in his lifetime, Walter Benjamin described the street ‘artists’ of Montmartre and Montparnasse (a later generation of those who provided the material for Moulin Rouge). These were ‘people selling paintings of a certain kind, intended for the “best room”: still lifes and seascapes, nudes, genre paintings, and interiors’. The passers-by might well be more impressed by the artist’s ‘presence and imposing attire than by the paintings on display. But’, he adds, ‘one would probably be overestimating the business acumen of the painters if one supposed that their personal appearance is designed to attract customers’. What these painters do display, says Benjamin, unlike the distinguished artists who ‘do not need to market themselves in person’, is a widespread ability to use the tools of art with moderate skill. The garb is more or less a disguise, meant to alert us to the artists’ individuality, to their place as ‘outsiders’, though their work conforms mostly to an idea of art as innocuous decoration.

The formula of the broad brimmed hat or the beret and the corduroy trousers would for many more years be assumed by the sellers of what would now be called ‘hardware store art’: the big-eyed puppies or the urban vistas that show no sign of technology. What is being presented is almost of production line quality yet the story of its production is camouflaged by the image of the artist. (Associated with this is the phenomenon of on-the-spot portraiture and its attendant myth of the artist’s unique perception of personality.)

The street painters represented for Benjamin the enactment of a relatively new idea of ‘the artist’ free from the academy, guilds and art schools. This was the idea of the artist as a wild animal ‘disregarding all discipline’. These painters assumed the role at a less threatening level so that to visit their domain was like visiting a zoo, yet for Benjamin they represented in a mild form an idea of art that had been embraced by the fascists.

They also pointed to a break between art and theory. Gustave Courbet was the last artist in whose work a solidarity between painting and public affairs was still discernable. The Impressionists replaced a theory that might give answers to ‘problems touching on areas other than painting’ with ‘the argot of the studio’. Art criticism, Benjamin argued, began to serve the art trade ‘while appearing to serve the public’. It had ‘no concepts - just a kind of jargon which changes from season to season’. The anti-theory stance of the populist press would not be far behind.

Benjamin suggests in this piece that art without any input into debates about the problems of perception had become esoteric, ‘almost a relic of a past era’. As a mere parade of style it might also suggest salvation around the corner. Art could now be rescued by a strong man, swept up, as it were, in his embrace.

In this sub-critical form of art talk we are not far away from the breathless world of romantic (or romance) fiction. As some critics have pointed out the relationship between romanticism and romance is predicated on gender. Romanticism is perhaps the masculine form and ‘romance’ the feminine form of the same aesthetic sensibility. Romantic love for girls (as opposed to heroism and other ‘outward’ motivations for boys) operates as a negation rather than an affirmation of the self. In this kind of romance and in romance fiction which is essentially the same thing, one is most oneself in being most erased.

Love and death, as exemplified in Moulin Rouge, are themselves romantically coupled. From well before the romantic period, we know that death had been one of the primary plot events in opera, and that male death (the death of the hero) had existed for some time as a theme of homoerotic intensity. But the death of an artist is perhaps specifically romantic since the (male) artist is the paradigmatic individual. The title of the Robin Williams’ film might well have been ‘The Dead Poets’ Fraternity’. Why, it seems necessary to ask, is a male literary figure (like Chatterton) more of a romantic figure in early/drug induced death than a woman? (The Sylvia Plath story is not really an exception to this since it has usually been cast as a gender and power struggle. Plath and Ted Hughes are bound together permanently like a soap version of Catherine and Heathcliff.)

In Australia you could contrast the reception of the deaths of two poets, Michael Dransfield and Vicki Viidikas. Dransfield’s figure, as it has been continually re-presented, is archly romantic: the poet who died young (partially) through drug use, whereas Viidikas could never escape the mundane squalor of her fate. She was ‘a junkie who once wrote poems’. There was no commercial spinoff after her death - Viidikas was not a prolific author though her work was highly regarded - and it may be some time before her poems appear in print again. On the other hand neither factual detail nor critical acumen were ever allowed to interfere with the myth at the heart of the Dransfield industry.

Death is at once ‘natural’ (even when ‘unnatural’) and a removal from ‘nature’. This paradox is reflected in the philosophies of romanticism with its contradictory approaches to the idea of nature. What is the relationship between the two romantic discourses, of standing out from nature, of being ‘against nature’ and of being ‘at one with nature’? Both attitudes are observable in the visual arts: collage reconstructs the world, ‘action painting’ is ‘inside’ it (organic). (Perhaps the recent concern with appropriation echoes the ‘against nature’ discourse?) In social terms these two attitudes are represented by the dandy with a lobster on a leash and by the ‘natural man’ or ‘child of nature’ and the only hinge I can see here seems, once more, to be a notion of the individual, whether as agonist or as tranquil perceiver.

Both discourses are reflected in the self-representations of capitalism in its various historical phases. JK Huysmans’ championship of the dandy (in Against Nature) sounds like the early capitalism of mining tycoons with its conspicuous consumption (the mansion on the hill) and its view of the world at large as an obstacle or a ‘challenge’. Wordsworth’s attentions to nature sound like the corporate strategies of boardroom capitalism with its advertising logos assuring us that ‘we’re always a part of your life’, ‘we’re clean and green’ &c (the ruse of announcing how unobtrusive you are). Interestingly the ‘’, or third phase of capitalism brings back the capitalist as a kind of (bohemian) adventurer, this time involved in the romance of making (and losing) money that may only exist on screen.

There is an amusing passage in a coffee table book on Australia which appeared in the mid 1960s. The author of the written text, novelist George Johnston, then recently returned from the Greek islands, reflects on the mining and business boom of those years with an enthusiasm buoyed up by bad faith, turning the masters of all this economic expansion into the heroes; a metamorphosis that would not at the time have embarrassed them:

Not long ago I revisited a city bar where in the old days the newspaper crowd and the artists and writers, and poets and actors got together to put their frustrations and despairs down among the ranked glasses. It had all changed. It was packed with businessmen, alert in their executive suits, most of them young. They stood on the marble floor shin-deep in a ground-growth of briefcases as thick and as brown as summer bracken. The place had been renamed the Explorers’ Bar, and all around there were murals of Bass and Flinders and Cook and Leichhardt and Sturt and Oxley.

Here the artists and the loners have been neatly scissored out of the romantic pantheon and replaced by the very figures who might have formerly taken pleasure in using the aesthetic adventurers as alter-egos. At the same time these new ‘heroes’ are located in nature (the bracken) and in history (the bar d├ęcor). Johnston proceeds to eulogise these figures:

From the lone weathered battlers, risk-taking and response to challenge have shifted more and more to the province of the banker, investor, capitalist and industrialist. These men, once collectively maligned in the political cartoons of a working man’s Utopia, have become the principal architects of our progress. It is almost as if they had taken inventory of us, their countrymen, and judged us as stable and on the whole thrifty, solvent and to an extent affluent even, and taken note in our pride in never having defected on what we owed.

Is there any escape from romanticism’s hall of mirrors? It seems for the moment unlikely. The capacity of this discourse to reproduce itself and its chameleon-like ability to be forever different forever the same will be hard to get around. One more instance of its durability may be seen in the recycling of partially sanitised myths of the ‘beat generation’. For some time I have been aware of a continuing attraction for young writers of those archetypical modern bohemians. I had myself eagerly read Kerouac and Ginsberg when younger, but have to admit some surprise at Kerouac’s continuing relevance for would-be writers (I can still read works of Ginsberg, up to around 1970, with pleasure, but doubt I will ever want to read Kerouac again). Kerouac was the Beat mythographer, the one who, in a sense, made it unnecessary for new bohemians to even read the work of other authors. Kerouac provided a descriptive entry to the world of low life, poetry and illicit substances, together with a name check of its cultural heroes. The invocation of these works, together with the products of earlier romantic bohemia like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, have become more important than their ingestion. Like the dandy affecting his yellow handkerchiefs and coloured drinks, the new bohemia constructs itself through superficial reference and a patina of derangement. The book as a physical object (and a marketing tool) becomes, like a pair of Calvin Klein underpants, the sign through which a subculture recognises itself. This is the world that is represented with unintentional clarity in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

a rocky horror show

I have never been a great admirer of Francis Bacon’s work. Yet the extensive exhibition on now at Tate Britain held the possibility of changing my mind. Often a large gathering of work by an artist who hasn’t been seen to best advantage for some time can generate fresh thoughts. In this case, alas, no. I came away from the show feeling that the paintings combined formidable technique with a limited range. The best work, it seemed to me, was the earlier material, and I would have liked to have seen much more of the work done before the 1950s.

Most critics, even those not altogether sympathetic with Bacon’s work, draw attention to the paintings based on Velazquez’ portrait of Innocent X but I didn’t find these ‘screaming popes’ at all powerful. Their facility worked against whatever they may have conveyed (think instead of Picasso, or Goya where the violence is perhaps less graphic but much more confronting). Images of Bacon’s studio together with the photographs and news items he referenced in his work were of interest in their own right; perhaps a lot more interesting than the work itself which seemed limited rather than complicated after viewing some of its components. Though the images are in a sense ‘torn’ from a wider matrix the resulting paintings seem as airbrushed as advertisements. Bacon noted of his gravitation towards the triptych that he liked the idea of working almost with frames of a movie. Yet the resultant scenarios are too balanced to feel movie-like and the prevalence of these works in the exhibition make it seem like their author was running on repeat.

Later I thought of this work and its reception from the post-war years through to the sixties as part of a wider phenomenon. Countries that were now (or always had been) on the periphery of the modernist art story, especially that story retailed by Clement Greenberg and the high modern formalists, often exhibit a desire for artists who are at once both ‘modernist’ and ‘old master’. In Australia this explains the high regard now (or once) held for painters like William Dobell and Arthur Boyd. In Britain David Hockney has also been the recipient of this kind of regard. Neither Bacon nor Hockney are artists without interest (Hockney’s best works, for me, are his stage decorations) but they are perhaps less central than the earlier art historians or the revisionists might think.

Friday, 7 November 2008

wednesday and thursday

New Zealanders Greg O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt (above) briefly passed through London en route for Menton and Berlin early this week bringing with them a copy of Jenny’s new book The Rocky Shore (Wellington, Victoria University Press). She will be back to read in Britain in March next year. Greg brought a limited edition booklet The Wolf of Horeke (Wellington, Fernbank Studio) with artwork by Noel McKenna.

The following night’s Crossing the Line reading featured Americans Charles Alexander (above) and Daniel Kane. Alexander read from two recent books, Near or Random Acts (San Diego, Singing Horse, 2004) and Certain Slants (NY, Junction Press, 2007) together with some more recent sections of his ongoing sequence ‘Pushing Water’. Tim Atkins kindly supplied the incidental music.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

the morning after

Here's a photograph I took in Georgetown DC the morning of Bill Clinton's win against George Bush Snr in 1992. You might need to click it for the detail.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

no taxation without representation

Let's just hope the US election doesn't go down the toilet. British election reportage is quite amazing. I'm sure it's the same in various other vassal states. And I keep thinking that maybe in the age of 'globalization' the various nations taxed in one way or another by the USA ought perhaps to demand voting rights too.

Saturday, 1 November 2008


The mod revival was a curious pop phenomenon of the late 1970s. What you saw wasn’t really what you got. You got revivalism: guys wearing union jackets, targets and parkas, sitting in their tight trousers astride Lambrettas; bands covering the 'Batman' theme and other pieces from early Who LPs and EPs (though Paul Weller’s understanding of the ethos went way beyond these superficial garnerings and probably engineered the folding of The Jam). Qualitatively the 1970s thing was not all that different from other revivals (or survivals), like that of the teds and rockers, the mods’ supposed antitheses. But was it really ‘mod’? The Who of course were seen by some in the early 60s as riding the mod bandwagon. They had modelled themselves on an existing subculture and it was this popularisation that fed into the later revival. Mod though is only a ‘style’ in retrospect. In its time it was more a philosophy: that of exhibiting grace under pressure. The music was more a matter of rare grooves and floor-fillers than of explicit homages to style. It was about the present rather than memory. This aspect of mod is probably always with us, becoming manifest from time to time, particularly in periods of social and economic adversity. One recent band that seems ‘mod’ to me is Little Barrie. Their music is tight (and loose, but the elements of funk aren’t allowed to grow turgid). It’s a bright, sharp sound; a virtuosity that doesn’t hang around drawing attention to itself. I don’t know what will happen if this band move on from the clubs to the stadia, but for me at this moment they are, as they say, ‘on the one’.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Thursday, 30 October 2008

author author revisited

Pam Brown has commented on my piece on collaboration in her blog The Deletions. She notes that Correspondences wasn't really collaborative, rather it was a shared book, then continues with details of actual collaborative practises she has been involved in. It's an extensive subset of her work and her account is of great interest for the light it sheds on 1970s feminist interventions in the arts as well as for what it tells us about her own development as a writer. I'd see the sharing of a book as a kind of collaboration, though that might say more about my own practice than Pam's.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

on Red Lion Square

On Friday and Saturday the Small Publishers’ Book Fair was held in Conway Hall on Red Lion Square in Holborn. The dozens of stalls included regulars like West House Books, Reality Street Editions, Veer Books, Moschatel Press and so many others. Some, like that of Colin Sackett (whose work was included in the V&A exhibition ‘Certain Trees’ – see my entry for July 24) featured the book as an art object in itself. There were several readings on Saturday including a launch for The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. Over the space of an hour the participants read one to three sonnets each. The readers, give or take the odd trick of memory, were Tim Atkins, Adrian Clarke, Laurie Duggan (I also read a piece each by John Scott and Pam Brown), Ken Edwards, Harry Gilonis (who also read Maurice Scully), Alan Halsey, Jeff Hilson, Elizabeth James, Keith Jebb, Chris McCabe, Richard Makin, Geraldine Monk, Frances Presley, Sophie Robinson, Gavin Selerie, Robert Sheppard, Simon Smith, John Welch, Johan de Wit. The sheer breadth and richness of the anthology was well in evidence. Alan Halsey, for example, vocalised his contributions, such as this one (slightly clipped at the left edge):

I picked up a few volumes: some more of Thomas A Clark’s Moschatel Press work (I’d bought some of these at last year’s Fair) and Sean Bonney’s new book from Veer, Baudelaire in English. Clark’s work is quiet (one little book is called in defence of quiet). It is unshowy, but often granite-like. Ron Silliman once commented astutely, that this writer was ‘the closest thing Scotland has ever had to a true Objectivist’. Sean Bonney’s work couldn’t be more different. The double page spread I’ve reproduced below gives some idea of his processes. The poems appear as palimpsests of typewritten lines that you can read enough of to get a strong sense of a poetry that is and is not the translator’s own. Bonney’s fondness for the typewriter is, in a way, a kind of punk nostalgia (he’d probably quite like it that my reproduction includes the shadow at the book’s spine), but it works well in his hands. Anyone interested should also check out the poems in his now complete series The 'Commons' on his website abandonedbuildings. These are, as it happens, sonnets. Jeff Hilson’s own sequence ‘Assarts’ is well worth perusing too.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Monday, 20 October 2008

author author

It occurred to me after writing the post on ‘doubt’ that one way out of the problem of culturally ingrained romanticism in writing classes is to consider collaborative work. It’s paradoxical in a way since Wordsworth and Coleridge are among the earliest public collaborators with their jointly authored Lyrical Ballads (even though in their case the poems are still clearly by one or the other of the pair). Later in the nineteenth century ‘Michael Field’ furnishes a different kind of example: two authors (Katherine Brindley and her neice Edith Cooper) posing as one. Their project with its single male pseudonym has much to do with a desire to have the work taken seriously. They are erecting their author just as, decades later, the surrealists are dismantling theirs. Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault’s text The Magnetic Fields is an exercise in automatic writing with the added feature of voices that intercut and undermine the unconscious as a kind of lode of personality. It is this kind of writing that the authors of ‘Ern Malley’ emulate in an attempt to discredit it. Through the twentieth century numerous examples of collaboration on all sorts of levels occur, from Pound’s famous edit of 'The Waste Land' through Auden and MacNeice’s lighter pieces in Letters from Iceland to the poet-to-poet and the poet-to-artist works of the New Yorkers. In Britain examples range from the artist-writer work of, say, Kelvin Corcoran and Alan Halsey, to Ric Caddel and Lee Harwood’s Wine Tales, a work that uses the illustrated labels of French vintages as starting points for jointly written narratives. There are dozens more examples of varying degrees of collaboration, one of the most recent American items being the Grand Piano project (subtitled ‘an essay in collective autobiography’). The items I note here barely make up a Cook’s Tour of the genre. I want though to focus on some Australian instances among my immediate peers. John Forbes co-wrote poems with both Mark O’Connor (aka John Nash) and Chris Burns, taking his cue from Ted Berrigan and Frank O’Hara. Pam Brown collaborated with Joanne Burns on their book Correspondences (Sydney, Red Press, 1979), with Ken Bolton and myself with Let’s Get Lost (Sydney, Vagabond, 2005) and most recently with American resident Maged Zaher in farout_library_software (Tinfish, 2007).

Perhaps the most interesting Australian collaboration (and certainly one of the most persistent) has been that of Ken Bolton and John Jenkins. They have now jointly authored six books: Airborne Dogs (Brunswick Hills Press, 1988), The Ferrara Poems (Adelaide, Experimental Art Foundation, 1989), The Gutman Variations (Adelaide, Little Esther, 1993), The Wallah Group (Little Esther, 2001), Nutters Without Fetters (Berry, PressPress, 2002) and Poems of Relative Unlikelihood (Little Esther, 2005). These works are all collaborations in the strict sense of the term: they are jointly authored pieces rather than grouped works by one or the other authors. And they are not like the earlier work of either of their progenitors. Ken Bolton has said that he has trouble working out who wrote what in these broadly narrative poems. The writers literally abandoned themselves to the task (I’m pulled up here by the vision of a drawing Ken might do of an author abandoning himself) and the results were, like the Malley poems, something else entirely. In Ken’s case the collaboration fed into later poems of his own (presumably the idea of narrative structure) just as in my own case work as a screenwriter fed into a (very unfilmable) poem, The Ash Range, which is, in an odd way, a collaboration with hundreds of dead diarists and journalists).

It was Pam Brown who was responsible for getting together Let’s Get Lost, the book jointly authored by herself, Ken Bolton and me. This was a collaboration of the ‘soft’ variety. The three of us had for some years fired off each other and so the work already had connections. With Pam then based in Rome, Ken in Adelaide, and myself in Brisbane the book functions much as an exchange of letters might do. The names of individual authors are left off the poems though it’s not too difficult to work out who wrote what. The work was something assembled after the fact and this is the case too with my only other collaboration, the poem ‘Breath’, written with John Scott in the early 1980s. John had asked me for any unused drafts that he could then use as the basis for a new poem. The result looks much more like his work than it does like mine, yet so many of the phrases in it are mine. I enjoyed the fact that we could both place the poem in our own respective collections. Here it is:

XXXXXXIn windows he sees
women comb their hair: light failing
in distance, horizon light.
Women combing hair against the light.
XXXXXXAnd 'against' might mean
'they fight the darkness' or 'provide
a counter motion to the darkness'
or 'their bodies lean out from
darkness'; there is no way to be sure.
Only that he sees their hair spiral
from the clouds; the faces of visitors
caught in the light, vague as lost sailors,
and the light trailing like
XXXXXXwomen's hair.


XXXXXXand now rain.
And now rain ceasing.
He sits in a room. He feels that gentleness
has been lost from the circumstances
of his life. He wonders at its 'peculiar lack'.
He wonders how it is that things change
unaccountably. 'Change' meaning
'to grow different' or 'to take another
instead of'. What he feels
compressed to this word. What
he sees compressed to the contents
of this room. What he hears.
Outside, a road already half-dry
XXXXXXwith traffic.


XXXXXXHe hears her breath.
This trace of presence: air rustling
distance, horizon air,
the faintest assertion of being.
XXXXXXOnce he heard
her fight for that same air
against the rush of former lives
and saw her come to life.
XXXXXXNow he lies awake,
the closest he will ever be to her.
And from the sounds that might
name this place, or give it shape
and sense when all is dark, there is
XXXXXXonly her, breathing.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Friday, 17 October 2008

re Morley

As far as I can ascertain, Hilda Morley published some six books (though the fifth listed here is a pamphlet included in the sixth as respondent Sam noted): A Blessing Outside Us (1975), To Hold in my Hand (1983), What Are Winds and What Are Waters (1983), Cloudless at First (1988), Between the Rocks (1992), and the posthumous The Turning (1998). As far as publishing goes she was a late starter (b 1916, d 1998). Some accounts note that her queries about DH Lawrence made HD feel like an historical figure. The books I have on Black Mountain characteristically don't say a lot, though Creeley was obviously supportive. It's good to know a few others out there are as keen as I am to see more of the work in print. This, after all, is an age of Collected Works (according to the booksellers).

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

another side of Black Mountain

In 1991, most probably in Collected Works bookshop, I picked up two volumes by Hilda Morley. A Blessing Outside Us was her first book published by a small press (Pourboire) in 1975 with a preface by Robert Creeley. Cloudless at First was her fourth, a substantial volume published by Moyer Bell in 1988 with a cover image by Elaine de Kooning. Morley taught Literature and Hebrew at Black Mountain College during the Olson years. Unsurprisingly she found the College a chauvinistic environment, remarking at one point that ‘faculty wives tended to fall into a background position, like a minor women’s chorus voicing the spirit of a limited consciousness in a Greek play’ (She was writing a dissertation on TS Eliot too, which would have won her few friends at that institution). Creeley describes her as ‘one of those insistent sisters who invite the world with seemingly innocent provocation of its own dumb vulnerabilities’. I took these books down from the shelves again recently and partook of the ‘physical clarity’ and ‘sensual dimension’ of the work at a time when this was much needed. Here is the poem ‘Paris’, from Cloudless at First:

That world where no one
is other than what
he emerges as XX(from the vibration
& is what he is to himself because of
a juncture of moving causes XXis
as the streets of Paris unfold out of
other streets (Rue Jacob from Rue de Seine and it
XXXXXXXXfrom St. Germain
and remove their other skins (the bulbs of tulips, irises
out of one distinct form into
another, where by the spark circling (a word, a tone
the mind is filed down XX(fined) into a
plunging will of itself driving
through tunnels (waves)
that world where no one
lets the window swing to
or light blur on the shield XXso an edge of the mind
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXsharpens (to impulse
when laughter reaches a pitch XXwhen it brims over
into intelligence

Sunday, 12 October 2008


Here's an anonymous comment I received on the Issue 1 piece a few days back:

You pussies jst can't take a trick.For all your anti-poet/poetry rants you and the rest of the avant-guard fall apart the minute someone disturbs your carefully manicured image of yourselves.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Voices of a Nomadic Soul

Aldous Eveleigh drew this image of Fernando Pessoa. It's one among many that were on display last night when Shearsman launched a new edition of Voices of a Nomadic Soul, Zbigniew Kotowicz's excellent book on the poet, first published by the Menard Press in 1996. This book, together with a recently unearthed guide to Lisbon written in English, continues Tony Frazer's project to present the work of Pessoa to an anglophone audience. My first experience of the poet's work came with the publication of Edwin Honig and Susan M Brown's translations in 1986 (or possibly earlier in the Penguin Modern European Poets series). Pessoa is renowned for having created four poets (including 'himself'). Actually he created some seventy authors but these four were the ones who produced sizeable bodies of work (Alvaro de Campos's poems alone run to two volumes in the Shearsman edition). And Lisbon is to Pessoa what Dublin is for Joyce or Berlin and Paris for Walter Benjamin, hence the importance of the tour guide for his readers.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008


The general morbid state occurring in inhabitants of marshy districts.
(OED, 1881)

all or nothing at all is
everything you are
(ask me how I knew
all I’ve grown accustomed to
as Gyro Gearlooose
loses the plot
(what’s good for the goose
is not to forget) the where-
withal of knowledge
stands on its head
in the bathroom mirror
marking time with what it can
to sunlight and
distant radios

encroaching shade
or pink light
up against the trellis
a fortune lost weekly
astumble between chimneys
it takes a season to angle
eaten or half-eaten
a wardrobe away
we make our shifts
as best, as worst,
as worsted, what’s left
guttering in the bowl
as morning puts the stars
wound up for today

‘idiot light’ and now
hiss of water
as the room leans
to infinity, a brow
(or prow) over the street
named what? marshes
low and distant
a catalogue of beasts
line up to be milked
and all the air quiet
as gradients fall away
the Swale invades
sensibility, a sky
at best marginal

a black painting
passages in dark red
reflect a room back
at its beholder
somewhere a zither
a movie, substance
the sky, the sea, inert
a gas, behind all this
tangle of apostrophes
outlaws appropriate
imagery, a quiz show
for those in the know
who harvest before it ends
traces of the bends

go book, be
a blight in
what’s around
entombed in air
your staircase stretches
towards the stars
as hope is kindling
aspiring to nought
a pitch, a kind of sale
as markets crash
a bubble, perfect
of its kind
rests in a space
above the heart

two thousand year old
tree in Eastling
a road to nowhere
falls off the back
of the Downs, a tunnel
once been through
takes its shape then
collapses. you do not read
these letters at peril
taking sights on flowers
that light up finally
turning mulch, a bead
on what’s ahead,
a head, a light

enough covenants
save these cushions
it’s all enacted here
in this room the
dull curtains frame
take from books
what we can, isolate
instances, white walls
thick with ideograms
only the sound booms
across streets
where poetry and the risible
coexist, a sparkleof departing tides

the triumph of neoconservatism

The CEOs of five major banking corporations plead for the return of socialism.

Monday, 6 October 2008

fake patio

I think it’s true that hoaxes have a habit of achieving goals other than the ones they set for themselves. Ern Malley is as shining an example as any: initiated as an attempt to discredit modernism the poems ended up outliving their authors’ own works and inspiring further generations of writers. It’s an example that Ron Silliman might find amusing in that the Malley poems in turn illuminate the poems of their authors as merely (for the most part) well-wrought containers of meaning. Harold Stewart wasn’t very good at it; James McAuley was a lot better (though even he succumbed to the tedious affliction that led Australian poets in the 1950s to write long and turgid works about explorers). Every hoax has its unintended consequences and I’m sure the author of Issue 1 wouldn’t have been expecting his own mailbox to crash with irate responses . . . or would he? In my own case I let ‘Skull’ Murphy respond for me and he’s a little more hot-headed than I am (years of TV wrestling ensure this). I’d agree with Jill Jones that Issue 1 is a harmless exercise though I don’t know that I’d want to claim ‘my’ particular poem. I doubt that financial gain is involved (though someone ought to be paid perhaps for all that cut and pasting). As for 'identity theft'? That’s something for the graduates of ‘professional’ writing schools to worry about.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

issue 1

'Skull' Murphy says (to the editor/s of Issue 1): Lucky you live in New Jersey or I might be breaking your legs. [For further illumination of this possibly obscure item, view Silliman's Blog, Oct 5]

Saturday, 4 October 2008

shadow of a doubt

or Why I am not a Creative Writing teacher . . . I was some time ago when I worked part-time for a year at the brand-new outer suburban campus of a recently constituted university in Melbourne. At the time Creative (or ‘Professional’ or whatever) Writing had only been taught in Australia for a few years and the Universities and Colleges were straining to catch up with the American proliferation of such courses. Changes to funding mechanisms had meant that it was now feasible to institute subjects for which there was a demand. This was not altogether a bad thing. It broke down conservative opposition to feminist and gender studies as well as entrenched resistance to film and media as fruitful areas of research in institutes of higher learning. With writing however, the Universities realised they were sitting on a gold mine. At a time of pinched budgets here was an area of study for which people were prepared to pay. The overheads were minimal (compared, say, to those of media) and you could even bring in outside guests with little or no idea of themselves as valuable commodities. The results of all this have been mixed. There are many institutions with fine writing teachers that produce an admirable quantity of talented students. There are also places where it is doubtful that any graduate will become a ‘successful author’. Teaching methods vary enormously. When John Forbes taught writing, his classes were an almost casual mix of reading and discussion (so casual that sometimes he wouldn’t turn up). He happened to be a very good teacher and there are several people out there now writing poems who mightn’t have got so far without him. I encountered an entirely different teaching method when I filled in for someone else one day. There was no time at all for chatter in this class. Everything was mapped out with rules and regulations as to who could speak and who couldn’t and when they should do so and the structure of these lessons bore an alarming resemblance to the ‘encounter group’. The regular teacher had herself studied under a (very) famous American writing academic and there was more than a faint whiff of psychobabble in the course description. When I taught in Melbourne I was aware that something was needed to undermine the attitude many people bring to writing classes. I even alarmed some of my students by asking that if they didn’t want to read other people’s work then who did they think would want to read theirs. The class were all nice people but only one of them appeared likely to pursue writing as a vocation and he was very much into ‘performance’ (i.e. not books). To counter these tendencies I took photocopies to the class every week of many vastly different kinds of poems and we discussed this work for half of each session (this was in itself a task since the new University had almost paralysed itself with copyright concerns and I had to fill in multiple forms for every week’s productions). I like to think that at least my students came out of all this as better readers if not writers. Despite these concerns my main reason for not taking up teaching was a less ideological one. Confronting a class each week made me aware that my own method of writing was predicated on doubt. I could never be totally confident about what to say to students when in my own experience such certainties threatened to harden into unusable practices. At a micro level I’m happy enough to suggest losing an adjective, changing a line break, compressing or expanding something, but I can’t, other than through my own enthusiasm, communicate why anyone should want to involve themselves in this often crazy vocation and thus, as a result, I’m not so good at instilling confidence in others.

Friday, 3 October 2008