Reading and reflecting on Jen, Selina and Will's posts to the blog I
was reminded of my own contribution to the deployment of a vocabulary
of fucking. This may yet dwindle into spurious and diaristic
auto-critique, but I suppose that could be useful too; here goes. The
language employed is in the untitled 'last' poem that was published in
a pamphlet published by Grasp Press, 'Poems, Written Between October
and December, 2010,' which contained (contains) poems by Timothy
Thornton, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette and myself. I believe this
printed fold is now out of print, but I have a .pdf and can send it to
anyone on request.
The poem opens "Sections of an absent pressure herein fucks us[.]" To
gather the sense of a language of arbitrary, despairing, despondent,
throwaway ease of reference in prosaic terms, terms that are used to
refer colloquially, but no less passionately uttered, to a situation
in which dinner might be burnt and therefore fucked, as much in a
situation where generations of children would be excluded from the
right to education as matter of profitable principle and therefore
also fucked, did not, at the time, seem to me to be, as for example
Will's last paragraph figures it, to be fighting fire with fire; that
is, its usage did not seem to fight being fucked with fucking. Rather,
it attempted to channel disgust at a culture of domination into a
steady articulation of the social moment; to be representative of a
doomed solidarity of victimhood. This now seems far too abstractly
posed. What it felt like was the use of a vocabulary that risked a
negatively defined solidarity, one that emerged for me as an aspect of
the protests at the time that were eminently doomed to failure, even
as the movement in its grandest gestures were at their most
ebulliently defiant. The vocabulary of fucking would, I hoped, be
powerful enough to to reproduce the affective mediocrity of a ruinous
and ruling universal imperative - to sacrifice life on the altar of
capital - but banal and colloquial enough to temper such a grandiosity
of declaimed solidarity; so that the desire to define ourselves
negatively in opposition not only with our friends and each other but
with everyone we didn't know, the unborn progeny of policy, would be
tempered with a more particularly deflated exhalation. The situation
in those protests felt so fraught with the sense of everyday intimate
ruination that I wanted to try to register this in the most prosaic
terms possible; the violence felt so palpable, so keen and generalised
and essential at the same time, that I wanted terms that risked
collusion in a violent, unthinking metaphorical economy, as
connotative of casual despondency as they were of abject despair, in
order to rig my "protest poem" with the catch in the throat any such
song would need to be articulate. It was precisely the elucidation of
the coeval nature of the banal, the ubiquitous and the horrific that
the terms "fuck" and "fucked" tried to articulate. That the ruination
of intimacy could be properly imputed by the appropriation of the
language of sexual violence to connote general suffering I now find
hard to stomach; being raped is not like having to pay £9000 a year in
tuition fees. I wanted a disproportionate analogy to exacerbate the
normalised credulity of defeat; I now think the analogy is clumsy and
I'm conflicted about the last line of Will's post, that "struggle, in
a revolutionary sense, is the only valid form of ecstasy." I suspect
that nominating such ecstasy, however various and contingent, as "the
only valid form" risks demanding of the language in poetry that it
resonate monochromatically with the authentic desire of
"revolutionaries," in whatever context they may be writing; and that
that resonance will shine with the singular truth of the ecstasy of
struggle in order to refute the lesser, invalid ecstasies that are not
of the form "struggle." I don't think I'm being pedantic here; I'm not
suggesting that Will means that struggle is always and everywhere
ecstatic - surely in the vast majority of cases struggle, however
broadly defined, is definitively ecstasy's endless refutation - but I
want to escape what seems like the extreme reciprocal tennis-match
between fucking as sheerest bliss and being fucked as sheerest
oppression. For one thing this underlying assumption seems absolutely
based on the privilege of penetration and of the cock-bearer: someone
always ends up getting fucked. This contradiction seemed pertinent to
me at the time of writing the poem in the pamphlet: it exercised an
aporetic economy of unfreedom that could be analogous to the condition
and trajectory of any collective innervation produced by a large
number of my kettled friends. But it now seems to produce in me the
Sam Solomon wrote an incisive and committed review of the pamphlet,
which can be found here.
I want to say all this in the spirit of questioning my own practice as
a commitment to getting poetic work done, and to consider the
ramifications of work that has been done, because I think my
contributions to this exciting on-going discussion can perhaps best
pertain to the particulars of work that I know as much as work of my
own that I perhaps no longer know, or feel like the conditions for
which were so crushed into a sense of staving off despair that I can
no longer know them, or reconstruct them as if I did, but have to
grasp at their production in retrospect. I feel at the moment that I'm
more capable of doing this than anything else, since after all I want
the material content of poems to be at the forefront of thinking about
what poems are good at, and what they need to be better at doing, in a
forum like ours. That said, I don't want to apologise for the
potential treatment of this letter as in any sense narcissistic,
although I'm aware it might be taken as such.
Originally posted to the Militant Poetics listserve, June 25th 2013.
Beaming with the thrill of live violence, Hi Zero Publications announces the emission of ASTROTURF & other poems by Me Joe Luna. A full set of histrionic lyric tantrums over 21 poems and 40pp., printed 8k comic-size in an edition of 100: "In basic passion it's the Lana Del Rey arc bent into a Möbius strip".
£5 UK postage included; ROW £8 postage included (provisional).
...I really only wanted to write an appreciative letter about Us Dead Talk Love, which I saw at the Chisenhale last month with my good friend H, and we sat through it twice with increasing and deepening mutual involvement, pleasure and interest, and afterwards I felt such a flush of excitement about the work and its textual skeleton, or scaffold (not quite the phrase, I'll try to articulate that better in a bit) that I wanted to let it settle before getting in touch and talking about it. I've seen some of your previous work and liked it, but this one really did it for me.
I see in this work a really crucial materialist dialectic that unravels the imprecision of hi-definition itself into the physiological task of comprehending the body image at a point in time, now, where the highest resolution it is possible to achieve is one of the more perfected practices of post-human digital barbarism. Love in this work is not given over to the faux-romantic obsession with the coils of bad irony surrounding a valorised and ubiquitous connectivity that so much otherwise attractively but desperately contemporary art is producing; instead I think that love in your work, in this work, is fundamentally concerned with articulating the severance of the labour of the body from an active eroticism as the real death of intimacy, and I think it is a beautiful and necessary caution to the types of re-production of contemporary forms of internet or digital mediation that end up celebrating those forms of mediation, rather than critiquing them, as I feel this piece does so tenderly and intensely.
The experience of the whole show was one of becoming increasingly entrenched in the contradictions of the virtually sexual and the holding of that excitement over the duration of the voiced text, so that the whole audio-visual apparatus itself acts as a kind of theatrical wish-fulfillment, "As in..." repeatedly speculating further and further along the horizontal wormhole of the time the piece takes to start and finish, the almost forgotten "I wanted to ask..." never quite being allowed to remind us that all of this was in fact never asked, that it was a withheld or repressed desire, perhaps, that the desire did not come to fruition as so much of the speech does come, to at least a giddy, imperative demand that eroticism be felt as much as practised. The reason I mention the text as a kind of scaffold, though, is only because I realise I'm perhaps reading the piece too much, instead of attending to its installed appearance: the virtual, presumably downloadable head, rotating as if on the playful axis of infantile technological curiosity, and the attendant bursts of tone or colour or text on the opposing panel. These images seemed hung on the text, for me, rather than the other way around - not necessarily that the text felt original or originary, but that in the experience of the whole audio-visual field what creates the cues for the diffusion of accumulation of intimacy are the deliciously enunciated syllables of the script, like:
"A relation to life that coerces the cadaver into a being that does not require a prior life - requires no living human to be smashed into oblivion by some high definition hammer for merely tuning fucking gods."
"I wanted to ask if love might productively be thought of as the faith that the body that formed the eyelash and...laid it, like some foetal mammal, beneath my foreskin."
"How this desire might be partially satiated at night...in the miraculous presence of a LOVER, who bears witness to my definite, inconclusive state change; my thick faint into repugnance and mockery."
And I choose these three instances as only moments that I particularly favoured and still relish. The eyelash is not fetishised, it is made a detachable erotogenic zone, proving one of Freud's more extravagantly stupendous claims, that any part of the body may become an erotogenic zone - it seems therefore already excessive to the cock upon which it was discovered, as if suddenly dead matter attached to the genitals was new and particularly concentrated and at the same time live. This is the beautiful contradiction: between the snap and calm of the megapixel and the impossibly low-resolution grit and dust and sweat and suck and sound of sex, sex's coolness, sex's careful particularity and curious resistance to (but simultaneous comradeship with) universalism. Sex and death aren't here, as they are in Georges Battaille, the markers of a transcendence that desires as much continuity as can be gleaned form a world founded on discontinuity, but instead the reminder that real bodies desiring might always prove to be a site unobtainable by the biopolitical or the global contextualisation of every action it is possible to imagine performing, even as it acknowledges, crucially, the shift in what it means to know one has a body, what it means to discover one's own representation as flesh and blood, what it means, even more universally, for life to be determined by and understood through the "faith" in the apparatus which were designed to accommodate the ever-siwfter and unimpeded movement of capital, and only secondarily the mechanisms of the fun side of digital globalisation and the attendant "smashing into oblivion" of the interactive (read: shopping) living human under Google Earth.
And as a love poem I think the work terrific too, reminding me of Barry MacSweeney's Odes, and more contemporaneously with the work of Timothy Thornton, whose cadences the prose of your piece reminded me so much of...
'Okay' by the J. Arthur Keenes Band. The really quite wonderful solo-project of Canada's Daniel McLay, whose previous album, Computer Savvy, is probably the best thing 8-bit Peoples ever put out, can also be listened to on the bandcamp linked to. Best two from Savvy are 'Water2 (wetter)' and 'Foe Paw,' whose 10-hook a minute extroversion is your new best friend you don't want to tell anyone about, but I think 2012's The World's Smallest Violin raises the stakes in terms of the songwriting and musicianship: witness the sheer clarity of cascade and interpolation in 'Okay,' the lyrical matter harmoniously orchestrated, rather than ebulliently jostled about, the nonchalant melodious enticement, it's alright. In 'Okay' the ironic affirmation of mediocrity gradually becomes the more profoundly moving affirmation of mediocrity's negation in favour, or in fact, of the slow and steady progress of happiness. Hardly the labour of the concept, but something like it, while you get yourself back together. It is a weirdly moving song; I don't hear it as supercilious, more quietly heroic, self-help for tyrants, the schizophrenic apostrophe of lyric self-regard.
Although I'm quite fond of the transcription of the words into regular quatrains, it doesn't do justice to the eerie concatenation-effect of the eponymous lyric, especially the in last two verses. There, 'Okay' shimmers in Janus-faced oscillation between lines, belligerently refusing to sound like it will start something new, but equally unwilling to mop up after itself: neither resignation nor acceptance, those syllables register the information they subsume under their own metrical progression the only way they know how, sort of gleefully wallowing in "the element of tragedy that lies in the very fact of frequency." The hanging coda of the last line's upshot sounds less hopeful, to these ears, than all those authentically disabled false starts.
Okay, I talked to you all day
The things some people say
I wish you'd go away
Find somewhere else to stay
Okay, I threw my phone away
And learned where not to lay
You just won't stow away
I have to pay and pay
Is this some fantasy of yours
Always knocking at my door
I've got things to do I swear
I have to wallow in despair
I have to shave off all my hair
Okay, I talked to you all day
The things some people say
I wish you'd go away
Find somewhere else to stay
And never meet my day
Okay, I read you loud and clear
Okay, this road is ending near
Someday, I will forget my fear
Someday, it could take years and years
Okay, I'll be the hand that steers
Away, I'm smiling ear to ear
Someday, I will forget my fear
Someday, I will get out of here
"If, as China Miéville has suggested, literature tends to oscillate between recognition and estrangement, then the British poetic mainstream groups around the former pole while seeking to cash cheques in the latter’s name. Beyond the Lyric is a perfect illustration of how successful poetry in this country stifles the challenge of what Sheppard terms the “linguistically innovative” with something that may be a cousin of Freudian “kettle logic”; according to this rubric, the avant-garde doesn’t really exist (its estrangement effects are just gibberish designed to fool the credulous) and the mainstream is where everything that’s truly experimental occurs anyway. Sampson separates her peers into finickety, portentously-named categories like “The Iambic Legislators” and “The Touchstone Lyricists” to create the illusion of edgy, internecine aesthetic struggle between these poets who devote so much time to puffing up each other’s work. Shapcott and Paterson are “Dandies,” wielding their “swagger-sticks” of linguistic brio against the “Plain Dealers” who succeeded the Movement and “Anecdotalists” like Jackie Kay and Paul Farley. What a rich, complex poetic ecology this country can lay claim to."
- from Joe Kennedy's review of Fiona Sampson, Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry (London: Chatto & Windus, now)
The following correspondence took place between myself and Andrew Duncan late last year and just now; I sent A.D. a draft of the essay in the last post, for the most part in response to his essay in Hi Zero 8, and partly beyond that. Pinko.org for the scum psychotope tope map in full skrim. Thanks to Andrew for permission to reproduce the gabble, all in sic.
thanks very much for this article on Jaunty Toplady.
I did acquire 'Zam Bonk Dip' somehow and read it. I quite liked it but the problem is of lack of definition. The language relates somehow to a passing state of mind but most of it seems to spill. It could even be scattery language alluding to a state of scattered wits. Take 'lava mice'. I know about sugar mice, computer mice, field mice, but lava mice? I think the issue for New Readers is why so much of the verbal fabric has no function. This can be disconcerting. If the lack of connectedness refers back to a febrile state, that would be comprehensible.
I look at a window display of the (underground) poetry scene now and it’s full of names I don’t know. It’s impatient to make some critical information available so that fewer people have that confused feeling. I did scheme to have essays about 20 ‘new poets’ in issue 23, but gave up because the effort was too much. In this context an essay on Tiplady is helpful. It’s a good essay because it expresses a subjective response and because it records that in objective prose, as opposed to disintegrating along with the poem. There seems to be this belief around Quid and Barque that you can have something completely subjective and yet so much in line with important Theory that people can’t argue with it. I think that part of subjectivity is the ability to say ‘no’.
The use of unlatched language - call it yibble, call it doo-wop, call it spontaneous - seems to be quite a feature of new poetry. It repays consideration. Of course some proportion of readers are going to say ‘OK, now we know what it is we are saying no to it’.
I can see that poets want to get back into the dizziness and fulfilled gratifications of Pop. But what makes it onto the page is unrecognizable as part of Pop. This baffling quality can also be the source of something new. Pop has that conformist subjectivity, the beat telling everyone how fast to breathe. Maybe the value of individual words is less important than the gestalt, but the gestalt ha sto become visible at some point.
An email I started to open nine minutes ago hasn’t opened yet. Actually what I am trying to do is delete emails so that the performance goes up slightly. I think I had better try to un-glue this application.
groaning slightly. I think there is a whole genre of poetry - going back maybe 50 years now - where the poet is listening to music & writes something down and the something has no trace of the music, or its aura of New York avant garde jazz, carnaby Street, Ibiza discos, or whatever. The poet can hear it but the poem can’t. You can’t replace legacy prosody with imaginary music.
Thanks for this, you've got a whole telescopic thing going on, but with language. I do see what you mean about the "lack of definition", although I wouldn't go in what seems to me like the Empsonian direction of relating that back necessarily to a "state of scattered wits" - surely that would only be semantically consoling on the most abstract level, that we knew something that we couldn't know, or rather know that we can't know it; it would wrap up the meaning in a sort of smallpox blanket of finally knowable affect, based on author-brain. I don't buy that bit of Empson, and neither did Frank O'Hara, who I think is very relevant to Tiplady's work, and indeed a great deal of the Barque scene; he has that great line in Personism, to whit:
"...at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man's Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can't be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don't believe in god, so I don't have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve."
Obviously this is designed to piss people off, which is brilliant, but more importantly it's very risky to take it totally seriously, like the best of O'Hara's poetry, but which readerly activity garners its best and most passionate diagnosis of contemporary intensity in the never-ending present discontemporaneity of lost love on the brink of commodification. O'Hara wants to see his heart in the window of a shop on Main Street because that would at least be a true reflection of the conditions of passionate consumer affect that keeps New York's blood pumping. Die Ware ist das Ganze. That I think is a very important inheritance, for Tiplady, Sutherland, Brady, Stanley, Thornton, etc., (the best contemporary love poetry, basically) and one which hasn't yet to my mind been fully examined. But what I mean is that the whole status of something like "lava mice", instead of being understood as pure linguistic wash, a symptomatic feature of the acid-bath or whatever, that its deployment in the poem, however flippant, does something to the overall feel of the poem, as you say the gestalt becoming more important, the poetry, in fact, being more important than any single poem, and what it does is to say, "I am the kind of allusion or reference you expect at this point; if you don't expect it, you are perhaps not up to scratch with the culture this poem was built for". That is to say, I think moments like that are flippant, acerbic, facetious land-mines to protect against an over-academicised reading of image or allusion. They piss you off, and its hard to take them seriously, but I think in my brief reading of that bit I tried to suggest that to scan them by assumption, to feel what is going on with them in the predication of the line, what they are "scathing about" and why, is more important that what they are as an image or allusion. So that the lack of function becomes deployment as a function in itself - this is the never-ending panning back of contemporary poetry, which must not only cannibalise itself but take into account exponentially more than it ever has done; the effort at utter comprehension is in fact what becomes disguised or mis-diagnosed as the complete failure of such an effort, or its actual obverse.
Now I don't think I completely believe the argument I've just tried out. I think it's the one that Kerridge and Reeve use in their book on Prynne, or that Bernstein appropriates and rather bastardises from Forrest-Thomson, that incomprehension can now be used as a tool, lack of meaning used in a poem to designate just that, but only as part of an overall argument. I find that believable on one level, but I don't think my reading experience has ever matched it, in that I don't think I've ever read through a poem, by Prynne or anyone else, and thought, "ah yes, here is the non-meaingful bit. Let's see how it contributes to the whole later on!", I just don't think it's possible to read like that, at least not, you know, in time. But lack of function isn't perhaps the same thing as lack of meaning, and uselessness is surely at this point more useful than meaningfulness. Those "lava mice" mean less than what they're useful for; they may well be a crap image, even phonetically ambiguous (I can hear "lavam ice" and lavam eyes" and "laav amice", none of which mean anything), but couched within that ambiguity is perhaps some more work for us: what would "lava mice" be if they existed? Probably some kind of garish YouTube meme, knowing the context. (And that "knowing the context" is also knowing the poem's enemy: it doesn't want to be read, I suspect, by anyone not prepared to give the lava mice the benefit of the doubt. That is why Tiplady's poetry is not cute: it is full of spite and trickery.) And what they do in the poem, being scathing about every poem's end, is a relation of antagonism to the finished product: the incomprehensible arguing for nothing to finish. That is what I mean by the melancholy of the poetry - it is desperate for the world to slow down, cannot bear the speed at which it is made to move, and is yet utterly implicated in that speed itself, in fact dwells in it and gains succour from it. Maybe it is uselessness attempting to make itself useful relationally - the same thing was tried in modern Art under the curatorship of Nicolas Bourriaud, but was mostly hideously boring.
This argument is difficult to make because it might sound like I'm desperately shoring up every conceivably incomprehensible (whether useless or meaningless) fragment against ruin; that project would, I think, be to produce an unhelpful totalising structure for a contemporary poetry that would leave any single poem utterly bereft of strangeness and mystery and unidentified beauty and fear and all the other negative relations that make a new, good poem so thrilling.
"lava mice" may of course also be a red herring. These are, as you say, becoming more prevalent. Sounding like a contemporary poem is becoming a tool for satirising contemporary poetry, but only from the inside, so it's like a total clique joke, everyone gets it, and at the poetry reading the people at the front snort down their noses in a rush of self-congratulatory carbon dioxide. Gross.
Well, I had better sign this off. Sorry to be so scattershot. Speak soon,
Joe, I think you are over-identifying with Tiplady and this allows you to produce endless possible interpretations without stumbling over the basic lack of clarity in his poems.
I am guided (or misdirected) by a count I did in 'The Oxford Guide to 20th C poetry in English', edited by Ian Hamilton, where I filtered 374 more or less 'British' poets out and found that 111 out of these had studied at Oxford. Where X identifies with a poet, this may be simply due to co-ownership of key assets. A cultural cartel. Hamilton's identification with these poets is what a reader is supposed to do. Yet it is distasteful once you get the sociological key.
I worry about this and the protection is to make sure that the poetry is burnt very deeply into the verbal fabric and not hovering somewhere 'off stage', detectible to insiders only. This is the worry with Tiplady - that you identify with him so intensely that you aren't interested in the words. Would this poetry survive if it was pitched into a space, a group of people, where nobody knew anything about the 'cultural placing' and only had the words to work with?
Meaninglessness is the 'soft area' where this kind of emotional identification soaks in and shows up as a stain. It's a sort of void where insiders see perfection and outsiders see only perplexing failure to articulate. It takes on the colouration of delicate signals which otherwise would not be picked up at all. It allows collusion. It is like the ‘la la la’ in a pop song - it is either seductive or irritating, depending on whether you like the song.
I think 'lava mice' was maybe a Barry White song of about 1972 with a transcription error, so it was 'lover mice'. Mice are known for their preoccupation with each other. In fact, 'Love cats' was a response record to this lost Barry masterpiece.
As suggested, I suspect that the inexplicit is a key area for any poetry, all the same the example of Hamilton and a slew of others makes me very sceptical about the identification process. Frank was a deep insider as we know from the biographies and memoirs.
So Frank O'Hara is the justification for the way this new poetry is. Possibly justification is unnecessary. Thinking you're Frank has been recognised as a common psychological ailment in the new DSM volume, the reference classification guide for psychiatrists. Insurance companies now have to pay up for treatment of people who think they're O'Hara. In fact there is a huge area of Federal Reserve land given over to residential care for them, it's like Area 51 only it‘s full of beach houses. So the news that many young poets think they're Frank does not come as a shock.
My co-editor Charles Bainbridge is writing a thesis on 'Frank O'Hara in 1959'. My guess is that the move into the immediate present, short attention spans, hedonism, transient social attractions and moods, is picking up all these as decisive features of popular culture, and that this immediacy was being sought, in New York, in 1959, by hundreds of songwriters who had never heard of Frank. Intelligent poets today are moving into popular culture. The problem might be more that you eliminate everything profound and still want to be profound. Acquiring the qualities that the Beach Boys had, or doo wop, or Depeche Mode, means a sort of rigour. You have to leave out the boring bits. You also have to be instant, not obscure. Don't go full Britney.
The close reading fetish of Hamilton and other critics of the 'empirical' era may have been deep camouflage for the cultural snobbery which pervaded their understanding both of poetry and of their fellow humans. They liked poems where you could tell which university the poet had gone to. Empiricism was a realisation of the existing cultural order. It was an alibi worked out over decades. Have things changed fundamentally?
The new Tim Burton film features Barry White at a key moment. Allowing a brief yet blissful regression to 1972. Where else would you hear the Vanilla Fudge? Covering that Donovan song. Being influenced by The Carpenters would be so much more original than being influenced by Frank. 'Every sha-la-lava mouse, every wo-uh-wo-wo.'
Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.
- André Breton
Things make us happy. But this is not always true, and even if it is, emphatically true, what kind of ‘things’ are we talking about? Objects? Commodities? Beer? Holidays? Lovers? All these and more undoubtedly make our lives more complete than they otherwise would have been, regardless of whether that standard of completeness has been pre-programmed into our relations of exchange by those things themselves. Happiness can at least be decisively accounted for by things, especially commodities, because they provide what emotions and circumstance, bound by unflattering indeterminacy, cannot: a knowable and total cartography of desire, mapped out for us in every bus stop and chatroom, deftly legible in any situation in which we might find ourselves. But, this is not always true, and certain things are better at carrying off their thing-ness than others. Partly this has to do with function, or evacuated function, or simple crassness, that peculiar inability of a thing to justify its own existence; nevertheless, things do make us happy, especially things that use their thing-ness to re-create the conditions for their necessity whilst proposing their own superabundance of universal humanity. What avails a sense of idealized empathy from subjects otherwise incomplete, weakened or damaged by desire, is the complete thing, the bounded, constant, secret, composed thing, held out to us with all the sublime grace of macro-life, supernumerary, brilliant chrome, the miniature gestalt containing all the crucial elements of style and faith to make it the ideal companion, the soundtrack to our lives, gliding effortlessly along beside us & life in impeachable parallel design, offering. But we’re not even fucking subjects any more, and anyway, the preceding has already by its all-too-grandiose effort at categorization defied the truth of the elemental thing it wished to approach, which might better be apprehended as slightly as possible so as not to destabilize its delicate purity in the face of its ready-made dismissal as opium for the MTV masses, tin-pan alley manufactured nothing, the final, lowest common denominator dregs of mass production’s appropriation of the most stylistically abstract of the arts. The pop song can endure this flagrantly overwrought introduction because it is that thing of things, a thing which we love because it is both profoundly superficially like us - relentlessly complete and forever wanting - and profoundly dismissible as waste, superfluity, neon capital. We want it and we want it to make us happy and it does do that, if we want it to.
It does this, of course, by doing what the persistent use of the first person plural might do to any listener well-disposed to the fact that the universal proposals which Pop declaims are in suffering fact in gleaming denial of the evil truth of Pop hegemony as the suckers on the tentacles of global capital: by recklessly producing the desire to desire itself, claiming itself on your behalf, making its own particular, industry-standard brand of happiness the normative state of affairs for everything from bedroom politics to class warfare - Pop makes you its own happy. But that’s also bullshit, if you think about, or in fact actually listen to, a pop song (that you like). Thinking about pop songs is immensely difficult because the residue they leave is short-circuited, a kind of ‘self-destruct in 5 seconds’ sonic memory that only works by imparting the double dream of future listening bliss and the abject melancholy at the parallel objectification of the world that the pop song enacts (more on this melancholy later), and because, most importantly, they are emphatically not built to be thought about, or thought with, or thought on, or in fact done anything with except bopped, tranced, head-banged, slammed and smiled with. To. You can’t smile with Pop, you can’t even smile at Pop - it must be smiled to, because built into its silvery organs of transmission are not companionship or subjectivity but ruthless collectivity and the universal propaganda of love. Pop hates you and you love it back.
You are not the Pop Princess. You’re not even the pop princess. You’re a sham, a charlatan, a contestant, a by-stander, a listener. Pop’s most gloriously insipid achievement has been to clinically wipe off the face of the earth the act of listening, and in its place has produced the ersatz sublime of Pop satisfaction, deep, meaningful, recyclable, carbon neutral, cute. You love it. I love it. The truth of it is, of course, that it doesn’t matter what we do, what we love, because the best, most finely wrought pop songs appeal directly to the individual outside of the collective euphoria ‘we’ always assume they are supposed to document, perform or create, and if they didn’t then the sheer intensity of Pop’s innately huggable chrome robot of love wouldn’t produce such giddy affirmation in the pit of your stomach whilst simultaneously (or rather retroactively) revealing the condition of such intensity as intensity itself, with no other ground than that you desire to be affirmed by an Other which turns out to be the 99 pence you spent downloading the 256 kbps mp3 from iTunes. The stunning vacuity of the gargantuan mechanisms that pump Pop around the entire universe in the consistent futurity of 20-whatever is more than enough to render the immortality of children merely equal in duration to the ad segments audibly enforced by Spotify’s evil geniuses. Last year’s Facebook campaign to make a 1992 song by Rage Against the Machine Christmas number one in the face of the massively over-determined popular economics of the X-Factor favourite Joe McElderry was somewhat evacuated of its grass roots radicalism when it was pointed out that both franchises belong to the Sony BMG corporation, who would be doubling profits whoever won. Pop loves you, and you have to hate it back.
Things make us happy, but that happiness is radically contingent on the production of those things which are designed to make us happy, and to keep us, in a sense, the limiters rather than the arbiters of our own happiness. Self-regulation as Pop primacy. But I think that, actually, if we are trying to figure out something resembling a more rigorous happiness, which is what I think we have to do, or to figure out what kind of things might help us constitute that happiness, then we have to think about the conditions of reception at least as much, if not much, much more than, the conditions of production, and to think about how those conditions of reception might be able to impel a reading of Pop, or a pop reading, that tempers a stultifying and inertia-driven dialectic of the thing; not just that such conditions are always already built into this or that thing for pre-packaged digestion, but what we might choose to do with them, how we might decide to deploy the things we love to pre-empt or re-activate or re-recuperate or, perhaps most perilously of all, truly believe in what it is that Pop ineffably does, despite itself. A rigorous happiness needs to understand the things that make us happy and figure out why they must, and what we can do to actively account for them, not merely passively accept them as in fact negative fulfillment, but positive affirmation, in order to produce an affirmative viral humanity that could infect the very mass production of love as product placement, and in this sense make love itself a form of insurgent recuperation that would destabilize and militate against the truthfully and necessarily mendacious love of things. Reality (Poetry) must be constituted by our own investigations into the appeasement of un-reality which is the basis of the culture industry’s diurnal cartography.
One problem with this kind of untenable, flowery global cultural détournement might be summed up in the condition described by Adorno in section 48 of Minima Moralia:
In a phase when the subject is capitulating before the alienated predominance of things, his readiness to discover value or beauty everywhere shows the resignation both of his critical faculties and of the interpreting imagination inseparable from them. Those who find everything beautiful are now in danger of finding nothing beautiful. [Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (London: Verso, 2005), p.76.]
The passage continues, ‘The universality of beauty can communicate itself to the subject in no other way than in obsession with the particular’; but in ultra-modern real-live hyper life where the World itself, 50 years after first being sentimentally objectified by William Anders’ Earthrise photograph (a moment marked by Prynne in ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’ and ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ and by Dorn, weirdly, before it happened, in ‘Song: The Astronauts’, among others) has become one enormous broadcast particular of Hooman planetary affairs, where can we locate the real particular? When every street corner is up for grabs in Google Street View, the elimination of distance realized by a joyous and efficient new barbarism, the instant of direct apprehension phased out by Skype sex and real-time warfare simulation, the virtual hegemony in apathetic overload makes Chat Roulette the new global larynx, perhaps attempting to find everything beautiful might hew our attention to the particular conditions of that everything in a positively utilitarian manner. A rigorous happiness might further start by realizing that any particular is now recuperated by generality and virtual categorization at Infinity speed and thus find worth and real live soft humanity by getting at it from the other direction, by going straight through Life, the Universe and Everything to where those abstracts constitute you, and consistently determine your happiness through things.
In 1985, for example, it is still possible to demand that ‘an account of almost everything, inside or out, in any given historical era, is hardly too small a goal for any art to embrace’, even if it is only possible for Stephen Rodefer to demand it. [See Stephen Rodefer, ‘Prologue to Language Doubling’, reproduced in Chicago Review (54:3), Winter 2009, pp.50-52 (originally published in Jimmy and Lucy’s House of “K” (4), June 1985, pp.74-76.)] Contemporary wranglings over the atomistic, physical or political efficacy of poetry seem still to be couched in terms of the art-life continuum, as if we hadn’t all sublimated that shit, like, 30 years ago, after someone clocked that being led into the hallowed halls of Life carrying the Art of the future on your backs for inspection by the great and generous Work in the sky wasn’t going to cut it for much longer. Transformational for whom? Well, the poet for a start. If you write something that changes your life, at least it changes your life, which is the most direct and stupid way of pointing out that Art and Life no longer matter in the sense of their substantial adherence to a world picture that has to be antithetical before it’s isomorphic, that fleshing out the polarities and relative elevations of the street song last on everybody’s lips just sets off the moving blocks and makes it harder for Mario to get to the end of the level. Comparing life and art, even without capitalization, does injustice to them both by abstracting them from either ‘works of art’ or ‘reality’; we become endlessly trapped amongst their competing claims to that which is already where we all are. You are, amongst a billion other things, the opposite of language personified. I’m not saying that the distinction is invalid as an historical discourse for understanding the dizzying chicanery of autonomy’s incessant critique and recuperation over the course of Art History - I’m just saying it doesn’t count any more. Recuperation in the age of digital reproduction has become so intensely rife that wherever it does not simply leave the most self-indulgent lethargic cynicism strewn like hipster blood across the spine of VICE magazine, it makes it the new beautiful - in various galleries in East London, to my endless joy, they call it institutional-critique-for-institutional-critique’s-sake-core. This beautiful cannot be distrusted simply because it happens to be fashioned out of the impacted URLs of a 1000 Tumblr accounts rather than gouache, any more than it can be praised for being truly integrated into actual life: what both of these mono-positions lack is a dialectic of passionate irony, apart from any sense of what it means to be contemporary. Any newbie’s doing praxis right now on MySpace, but good art is more real than it is yet possible to be, and we are not yet there, which is why reading poetry is the single most unrealistic thing I do; without it I would have no excess from which to fashion its perfected shadow opposite in later life. The issue is further complicated by the pernicious historical fact that art and life are peculiarly equivalent speculative constructs, as Oscar Wilde was fully aware when he wrote The Decay of Lying, leaving them prey to the aspersions of those who would have one infiltrate the other in order to prove that such interpenetration is not, after all, that desirable, like Bürger pulling out in distaste at his own theoretical climax, or Trotsky wagging his finger at Mayakovsky’s ashtrays made of human skulls (‘inconvenient and unhygienic’) in the revolutionary spirit of measure and moderation. ‘Life-praxis’, built on misguided abstract functions which it cannot fulfill, is then castigated not only for doing a bad job of importing revolution, but for daring to assume that it would be a possible outcome in the first place.
This is not the place (ha!) to get into a sticky discussion about the constitution of the first person plural, or the composition of the readership at large. I could make a cringing statement to the effect that the voice of culture distinguishes not those whom it embraces (didn’t I point that out earlier?), or perhaps make clear that even fewer people read theoretical accounts of avant-garde poetry (passionately not even masquerading as Positive Thinking) than read the poetry itself (if there is still such a thing. ha.), and that therefore the whole efficacy debate (which I realize at this point that I may or may not have invented for the purposes of this essay, or better yet be some flagrantly misremembered bullshit Jamelia Wigmore whispered to me in the pub on New Year’s Eve) is fried from the start because if you’re reading this, you already care, and are probably changing your mind, and therefore your experience, right now. But instead, I say we flip the whole shebang, and not just for metaphysical shits and giggles: what real, substantial, social effect does Life have on Poetry? What, in any case, is efficacious life? How is my life affecting Poetry? After all, a little art can solve a lot of problems, and usually does. Rodefer, in the piece quoted above, has more to say about self-help:
What is crucial is not the ingenuity of a verbal work, nor the meticulous care for detail, nor the working out of schema and intent, however much these may contribute, but something absolutely vital no matter what else is present. I mean that power to lift us out of our seats and keep us in them. Perhaps that old churchy purpose of literature to be uplifting is not so far off in a varied sense. To disclose, in short, a design and a vision which impel us to a greater apprehension of where we are situated as inhabitors [sic] of room on this globe, larger than we, and smaller than the universe.
[Rodefer, ‘Prologue to Language Doubling.’]
So we can at least see that if poetry is still to compose, comprise and constitute us, wildly and beautifully, as we as readers of poetry surely feel we are so composed (even if it doesn’t always have to be wild and beautiful), that apprehending everything could not only be useful for qualifying and interrupting everything’s machinations on the real, but also for evincing and articulating that real as an essential component of every thing we passionately inhabit. [And thus, as Rodefer’s crucial neologism simultaneously suggests, inhibit.] I believe in poetry’s didactic promise to teach us how to love, for example, but more than that I believe in the necessary risk involved in saying, this time with only a residual trace of unwitting pathological irony embedded in my teeth, something that pathetic and stupidly bourgeois. When I say “us” I mean “me”. Me and Jonty.
Jonty Tiplady’s poetry takes what Pop proposes, mendaciously, coercively, and attempts to make it real, vulnerably live, and loveable. It can, after all, be real. We can, for the moment, really believe in the hook, verse and chorus, the rising minor key synthesizers of “Dear World and Everyone in it”, primed as it is for super-realisation of the fully-blown burgeoning reality of life composed around us, forging an intenser real from the cacophony of Pop-sexuality, Pop-social performance and Pop-cataloguing than any smarmy neo-Romantic blitzkrieg of luddite pretensions could ever believe possible, let alone confirm, let alone betray. Like AiDS-3D’s or Universal Swimsuit’s remixes of 90s dance hits, the poem achieves grace not by cynical or ironic citation, but by actually re-investing its material with the hope, or if there is to be a concession to at least a modicum of restraint, the wry hope, that the affirmatives of its lyric appeal might truly be believed, or at least trusted in until the poem either frowns in belated emo majesty or squirms in pathologically persuasive climax. The relentless anti-nostalgia in the form of a precise and presumably ever-accelerating hurtle into retro Technicolor futurity is couched in such endearing generosity it almost effaces the sustaining melancholy of the underlying drift:
So I believe, eleven, that since there / still must be some street corner soul, for example, some effects of it, the issue becomes not loss but the quality of these surviving effects as they / enigmatically insist out of and into that loss. Street corner soul was perhaps / always not what we think we now know it isn't anymore, which perhaps / means it now has a chance of still being more itself than it ever was, more / snappy and strange, which is to say less, always less. Yet anewly so. [Jonty Tiplady, Zam Bonk Dip (Cambridge: Salt, 2010), p.30]
Which, incidentally, is also how lost love operates, or is perhaps love translated into ‘different Google machine language’, the double rainbows of ‘darkest happiness’ proving by negation of non-affirmation that ‘life / isn't something we made up’, even though the parameters of the verse itself in a book like At the School of Metaphysics are a testament to that very composition. ‘Here I’m over pop, / which therefore rises falls again, like there is no absence only very weak / shades of presence down to the custard at your feet’ announces the first poem in this sequence, riffing on a heart-rendingly addictive materialism whilst declining to do much more than riff, thus betraying by that very succulent aphoristic approach the love of pop not lost but ‘always less’, and newly so. Here, love is distressingly like a box of chocolates which you’re never going to get, but which will instead be held in such careful, tender esteem that the possibility of its always being available to our sticky fingers might be at least forever sustained. About every poem’s end is a particularly hook-esque sign-off, recalling the distance between ourselves and the ‘brief dream’ we’ve just managed to occupy (or inhibit), a style seemingly distilled from the intensity of alienation even from those things we love too much, or especially so; the lyric subjects in ‘Madrock Gunned Down in Flowers’ and ‘For the Brazilian Rocket Queen’ are in themselves practically parallel in their worldly roving, ever hugging the surface of the earth without ever being fed into a machine for Wohnen or housing benefit. Parallel in the sense that they are about the very world they are passionate about, rather than buried inside it - their ‘furiously hopeful music’, a love of loving that might in some poets become emotional sycophancy, but which here is the absolutely necessary temporary structure for thinking the troublesome nature of ‘losing so much / especially zeros’, that bad negativity plumbed for all its image of emotional leverage that becomes actual emotional leverage when you realise that the description is not just wittily uncanny, but true.
Happiness in Tiplady’s poems is certainly true, however provisionally, and in fact perhaps radically and necessarily provisional; such a state is always under duress, must be worked at and maintained, is usually durational by dint of its intensity, however offensively charming. ‘Like tissue for some universal fucking soul beat’ the gags and splurges ‘get your human / ass night on’ by refusing death and the economy in favour of ‘abracafuckingsexdabra’ and singing the Google-future not as something so cynical as a pop-culture reference but as the enveloping ‘sound of bricks’ that is happiness itself, digitally dark and only blithely, deliciously conversational if the conversation happens to be Life and not resemble it. ‘It’s like when my room / resembles a hospital, my insides cry out, and / the thing seems to be the more happy I am’, at which point we meet face-to-face the damaged bedroom-pop utopianism that best characterizes the work of Tiplady’s that I’ve so far imbibed, an intensity of focus that over-stimulates happiness to a wild and pathological distress by believing in its own appeal for reconciliation. Thus ‘A happiness he cannot / face’ becomes the enduring site of a too-susceptible empathy, for Pop can contain and limit a kind of queer subversion mere local happiness can only dream of or dread, or in this case, both. Too much happiness is bad for the soul, it seems.
The melancholic carries the poems on a bed of tonics and dominants that can sustain the ‘brief dream’ for as long as it can, and no longer. ‘Those lava mice are scathing / about every poem’s end’ because they know that’s where we want to get to, finally, as the détourned image of real happiness, but must by necessity of song brush past in the time of reading, or as listening, you know that the more you play the song the less the pre-fabricated hooks are able to cope with the love you have for them, and will eventually buckle under the stress of your desire and become quotidian again. I think that same fear regulates the poems in At the School of Metaphysics: they dare not grip the rail too tightly for fear of the structural reprisal built into their code for loving. It is the curse and charm of the poetry, this parallelism noted above, and this choral flop, both part of a disconcerting vulnerability that is the truly antithetical informal device at play, ultimately deflecting the immortal chrome pretensions of the Pop Golem. However thinly veiled by the camp, affectionate slapstick of ‘I went with my Mum to headbutt a cactus’, the palpable weakness of the arbitrary, scattershot line speaks in Negative Capability without the caps, and, ‘Almost even too free and fair to want to / act as art at all’, both the pop analogy and Pop materialism are hereby dropped and subtly, almost insidiously, reinforced as the self-effacing labour the poetry accomplishes, despite its ersatz self:
Last but not / least, I believe, as the song says, that you are the only one to understand / why it is I will have to spend a lifetime saying the very opposite of what I / believe, which is that there is no such thing as cosmic pessimism because / there will be nobody there to feel it, unless there is somebody there to feel / it, or unless there is nobody or somebody here, now, to feel it. Are we not a / little this last glissade made colossal pop affirmation? [Zam Bonk Dip, p.31]
The opposite of what I believe is not thereby ignored and eliminated from the life of the poetry, relegated to some blasé ignorance where it could lie perniciously unobserved, but militates against the negation of itself by this willful, obtuse and ‘colossal’ affirmation. By shoring up everything against things, Tiplady’s poems proclaim a rigorously happy irruption into the damaged life that efficiently and sublimely determines the social reality that (the) poetry strives to realize and accomplish. The poetry and my vague sense of it remain, crushingly, bigger and more powerful than particular poems could ever hope to be. The question, to what extent this accomplishment might be altogether too exact to allow the poems to exist as anything more than affirmative pastiche, peeled off the ruptured artificial nostalgia to reveal: nostalgia, is itself the measure of their barely contained, humorous self-destruction; after all, suicide is painless. The risk of believing in what pop can do for you is the risk of believing Pop on face value. But mightn’t the poem’s question invite the glib rhetorical response: no, we’re not, we’re reading about it, however much we love to yearn and yearn to love better and more realistically; and doesn’t the fact that “there will be nobody there to feel it” smack uncomfortably of the kind of solipsistic utopian apocalypse that invites love of self to be the yardstick by which an already fantastical ‘we’ is ultimately measured, brushed up, squared, before finally being redeemed from the frailest of bourgeois miseries? Transformational for whom, indeed. Sitting comfortably, I opened my copy of The Revolution of Everyday Life. When I say ‘me’, I mean ‘poetry’. Remarkably, that same ‘stunning vacuity’ that renders the intensity of Pop the shaky ground of its own enticing real is suddenly and breathlessly evinced by your desire to have your own life affirmed in poetry. ‘Dear World and Everyone in it’ does not just implicate you by association, it is, in a sense, your own composition, and thanks to Merleau-Ponty we have the proof:
The thing is nothing but a significance, the significant ‘thing’. Very well. But when I understand a thing, a picture for example, I do not here and now effect its synthesis, I come to it bringing my sensory fields and my perceptual field with me, and in the last resort I bring a schema of all possible being, a universal setting in relation to the world. At the heart of the subject himself we discovered, then, the presence of the world… [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 2002), p.498.]
I bring in M-P not to kick-start a discussion of reading or reader-reception theory that would pop-up more subjects & objects than we could by this point possibly be real enough to render useful, but to further emphasize the universal settings we all save in our versions of real life to enable us to function at the level of fully-human. Readers of poetry know that some poets are ultimately better at providing themselves with an armory of succor and artifice than they are at providing them for the rest of us, which is the point at which self-identification kicks in to bridge the gap opened up by that very knowledge, a kind of generous readerly compensation for the poet’s (bad) superabundance of desire. Ultimate subjectivity is hard to come by, and harder still to keep from collapsing in on its own maximal designs, ours or theirs. But readers of poetry also know that everything is theirs by right, and that happiness involves the risk of attentiveness to every thing that could possibly threaten the opposite of what they believe. Or maybe I’ve just written myself into that conclusion because I want it to make me happy and it does do that, if I want it to. Either way, everything is too much for nothing except total joy. Human is a positive movement.
[This essay was originally drafted between November-January 2010-11, minor revisions December 2011. Hello sunshine.]
Click the link flashing pink below to download FAILCORE: THE MUSICAL, starring J. Clarkson and the The Olsen Twins Walk Into A Bar from jccizzle79. Also available in mute. Re-mixes are fashionable. Obama is still crying.
Excerpts from FAILCORE have appeared in FRIENDS magazine and online at Infinite Editions. Thanks to those quarks. Everybody needs to listen to more Delicate Steve.
Q: So how much of an inspiration has the internet and the digital world been on FSV?
JF: The Internet is dispatching everything in our globalised mega-city. People are essentially wearing the Internet, eating it, hearing it, talking about it all the time, because everything is like a symptom of an Internet driven society. It's really obvious, though it's not the main attraction in FSV's story. FSV is a still life. Everybody's music sounds like the Internet right now, from Top 40 to underground. Fashion looks like the Internet. It's this weird impressionism that everything embodies. I think there will be more and more artwork resembling this. Digital clarity has given us another perspective on humanism.
Q: Do you think it's possible to avoid making art that doesn't reflect the intenseness of the internet's involvement in modern society?
JF: If by chance somebody does achieve this they are truly avant garde.
On the first page of my print-out of The Faber New Poet Sam Riviere’s recent article on Internet Poetry, midway between the title of the essay and the formless hyperlinks rendered in underlined bold type sitting top-left, there is a small, generic, embedded advert for the “skills-based social directory” website skillpages.com. Featuring the wide-eyed, expectant visage of a woman’s face holding an expression of some benevolent but incredulous admonition, the innocuous .jpeg claims, in tones so glaringly bludgeoned into content-savvy submission that it makes Jobseeker’s Allowance jargon sound like your own mother crooning you to sleep on a balmy summer evening, “Poets wanted in the UK. Join SkillPages Now. 100% Free.” The fact that this ad is equidistant from Riviere’s first example of what his essay celebrates and promotes as a form of “refusal” and “resistance” in online literature, between them sandwiching the title of the essay itself, makes for a strange, beguiling and disturbing juxtaposition. The ostensible levels of time, skill and energy that go into making such extraordinary claims upon our online attention contribute, of course, to much wider developments in digital marketing techniques designed to reflect the mutable desires of the target audience demographic of any such encounter, determined not just by immediate web-content but increasingly by any individual browser’s cache of search terms used to locate content of any sort in the first place. “Poet?” the .jpeg innocently chimes as I click on the essay about Poetry on the Internet; “Lawyer?” it would presumably chirrup, if I happened to be browsing articles on Tort Law; “Social Historian?” if my subject was the suspension of Habeas Corpus after the French Revolution; “Despot?” it might potentially trill if I was trying to find information on where to purchase the arms and manpower to crush a small, but embarrassing, uprising - all innocently couched in the projected emotional blackmail of the rent-a-visage mock indignation of the face staring back at me, a face whose look of cheerful stupefaction would not change no matter what the interrogative utterance input by the parameters determining its pixelated vision of contempt for human expression; a face that looks, superficially, like a person’s face.
Riviere writes at length about Internet Poetry [or alt. lit.] having “proved itself to be highly adaptable to an online environment,” and describes how it “harnesses poetry’s own unpopularity against it[self]” in the form of “Tactics from branding and advertising [...] deployed to promote poetry zines and events.” He further asserts that “these strategies of appropriation and internalisation of commercial culture orientate the poems both as antagonists of the dominant tradition (in poetry), and as self-aware artistic ‘brands’ within culture more generally, able to appeal to an online readership directly rather than just via a poetry audience and their disillusionment.” There is a lot I find useless, unnecessary, offensive and ugly about this argument, but I want in this post to pick up on just a few of the points raised in the article, points that for the most part are primarily guilty of lauding a new, fashionable and for the most part utterly vacuous collection of writing by appealing to the most formally equivalent aspects of its style and production at the expense of any scrutiny whatsoever of its actual content. Internet Poetry, whatever that defines in toto, is in the first and final analysis, supposed to be a form of “refusal” and “resistance” not just to established forms of cultural dissemination (because the Internet is, as bad contemporary artists keep reminding us, the space in which we will find our happiness, one and all) but also to History and Materialism in general, at the same time as providing, by “avoiding compliance with what we expect from poems,” a formula for the complete re-definition of poetry as we (don’t yet) know it. These grandiose claims are supported by tautologous and self-serving arguments that do little to deepen our understanding of virtuality and digital poetics, that in fact might further mystify that understanding, and prove furthermore that what Riviere thinks “we expect from poems” is a straw man designed purely to be refuted in the most generic of terms whilst smuggling in forms of abstract equivalence and “interchangeability” disguised as a potential solution to the badly proposed problem.
Contra Riviere’s (for the most part) uncritical enthusiasm for this work, but not his admirable effort to conceptually organize its determining principles, I dispute entirely the notion of “refusal” in the very ease of its attribution, not as applied to readings of individual poems (which are not present, close or otherwise, in the essay), but to the style of Internet Poetry per se (to which it is attached without reservation, and in general). The attribution stems, early on in the essay, from the wider, more universalist claim, that “we realise instinctively it [poetry] is by its nature a subversive practice, connected with a kind of ideal spirit of honest perception, resistance and dissent.” This assertion is a bad place to begin. It assumes, for example, a lot more than it asserts. Might not “our awareness” of what “we realise” as un-examined social formulae provide the conceptual ground of bourgeois-liberal-mainstream self-identity that is itself responsible for the formulation of the “ideal spirit” of an artform “we” recognize as being implicitly “our” own, and likewise the ground of “our” own form of adequately rebellious “dissent” from whatever happen to be the prevailing, non-subversive practices themselves? Riviere’s next sentence confirms this closed-circuit of hermeneutic back-slapping: “Probably this is partly why the people who are drawn to poetry are drawn to it in the first place”. The honest perception of the poet satiates the attraction to honest perception of the honest reader of poetry, who knows innately, probably from being taught in school that poetry is all about honest perception, that this is where they will find the gem of dissent in the otherwise mendacious “liberal establishment” comprised (ironically gosh) of rapacious publishers and bad capitalism. Granted, Riviere’s description of the elitist realms of publication and Arts Council funded bodies is intended to be a wake-up call to the fact that “aspiring poets not only learn to write in accordance with a broadly accepted style, but also share broadly accepted aims, in order to increase their chances of publication” and that such practices are “a very effective way of strangling an art form”; but his answer to this strangulation, in the process of which he does not acknowledge the formal circuitry of his assumptions about the social make-up of the “we” that realise things about “our” art, is simply to state that “The possibilities for reversing this situation afforded by the Internet are obvious and probably do not need re-stating.” On the contrary, I think they do need re-stating, and with greater clarity of exposition than they have yet received. But it also needs pointing out that the assumption of the figure of the poet who aspires to imitate a certain style in order to get published is a curiously market-driven speculative personality in itself. No doubt these kinds of poets really do exist, and of course they are useless; but in that case I fail to see how the “the Internet” is going to “reverse” anything - it seems far more likely to exacerbate the problem.
“If we can say that in poetry the genuine tradition is anti-tradition, and that continual overthrowing of entrenched styles is desirable, then it is worth looking at exactly what form of interruption this new strand of poetry proliferating on the internet takes, and how valid it is in it positing itself as alternative writing.” Nothing in this sentence strikes me as absurd; far from it, it strikes me as a necessary and useful line of enquiry. But the parameters of its potential discovery seem already set in motion by what has come before: publishing “gatekeepers” create the normative poetry reader by their control of the means of production, but on the Internet poetry can thrive because these fetters are thrown off in the freedom and multiplicity the net provides. There’s an error of analysis here that needs correcting: Internet Poetry, as Riviere conceives it, does, I believe, emphatically not need to “adapt to an online environment” because it was born there and could not exist without it, and being “used to the idea of making their work available for nothing” is not necessarily a determining feature of writers who publish all their poems on blogs or in the form of gmail chat conversations, because the cultural capital of becoming a successful Internet Poet is absolutely bound up in getting a chapbook out of the effort at the end of the day – the reciprocal teleology of creativity and commoditisation remains absolutely the same. The conformity of the poetry of writers who aspire stylistically to tickle the fancies of editors from the TLS to the CLR in order to get published is not going to change drastically once those writers begin to want to appeal to the editors of Hipster Runoff or Jacket. The appeal to “aspiring poets” of this ilk, which makes an implicit claim to represent the totality of “unpublished” writers in the UK (by which Riviere means unpublished by a mainstream press), is from the start predicated upon a section of the mainstream “positing itself as alternative writing” by eschewing its former hack opportunism in favour of a new-found model of self-perpetuation and self-promotion: the fact that Riviere thinks that “the Internet” can “reverse” the situation he describes is completely down to the paucity of his description of the situation itself, and the corresponding weakness of the solution he provides for it. In the former, no distinction is drawn between the mainstream big presses and the no less crucial histories of work (small-press, avant-garde, experimental) that has consistently repudiated the idea that poetry exists, as Riviere maintains “it” has become used to doing, as “a somehow economically untainted art form”; the latter continues in a vein that, to my mind, deliberately valorises Internet Poetry as the natural successor to the natural status of dissent and refusal that poetry has seemingly always autonomously embodied, because “The opportunity for creating and nourishing an audience for new poetry like this has never existed before,” regardless of what that new poetry says, or does, or contains.
I said above that what Riviere thinks “we expect from poems” is a straw man designed purely to be refuted, and I need now to qualify that statement. What I mean is that Riviere’s entire argument rests on a fairly conservative understanding of what the average reader of mainstream poetry expects when they read a poem in a book published by a real live publisher with Arts Council funding. The refutation of that experience, the refusal of its structural norms, is what Internet Poetry is supposed to provide (regardless of what else might rock that fragile little boat, including the entire history of twentieth-century modernist inheritance, hated and ignored by everyone from Larkin to Armitage), not least because it is predicated upon the sort of historical movement that Riviere identifies at the start of his essay as the condition for “any significant shift in poetry [: the] “shift ‘down’ – to the demotic, the current vernacular as experienced by readers.”
But being on the internet does nothing to make poetry more accessible.
Elucidation of the content of the type of poetry under discussion in the essay is informative and well-reasoned, but it is not a form of elucidation that allows for a scrutiny of the content of individual poems so much as a series of things these types of poems do that are supposedly pregnant with refutation or refusal. A few choice samples follow, which I will address one by one:
1. “Tactics from branding and advertising are deployed to promote poetry zines and events, and inform the language and construction of the poem themselves. I would argue that these strategies of appropriation and internalisation of commercial culture orientate the poems both as antagonists of the dominant tradition (in poetry), and as self-aware artistic ‘brands’ within culture more generally.”
2. “Although these texts obsessively take note of the various signs, brand names and many other instances of commodified language that prompt us to incorporate their meanings into our lives (and contribute to theirs), we are confronted in these reductions with what is the least materialistic writing possible.”
3. “...the type of interruption that Internet poetry practice makes in its larger tradition [...involves the] deliberate turning away from history and memory, the territories that literature normally wishes to claim, [and] ensure it freedom from any obligation to that narrative; it owes nothing to that set of priorities. It insists instead on the authority of the personal, the immediate, intensely subjective experiences that are shared by millions.”
Firstly, such “appropriation” of advertising techniques (whatever this might be; it is left undefined in the essay), the very semblance between the SkillPages.com advert and its literary double, is set up antagonistically against the entire “dominant tradition” of poetic practice and its contemporary inheritance. This seems fairly far-fetched. It is certainly not original; it is the praxis of détournement drained of its last radical breath, even as an elite cabal of contemporary semioticians recruits that same praxis into its latest assault on the social sensorium. Promotion of a poetry magazine or a poetry reading does not need to borrow the tactics of advertising, because it already is advertising, nor does being “self-aware” make any difference to this practice – it is the social structure of the promulgation of an object or event to its potential audience, and it might be important here to distinguish between advertising in the form of sending out an e-mail or text to a selective ListServe or Twitter community from advertising in the form of online banner ads for SingleMuslims.com. In order to make sense of this argument I take Riviere to be suggesting the latter rather than the former, the locus of the meme as viral product placement for the emotional exegesis of Steve Roggenbuck, to take a concrete example. But then, where does this get us? How can a “self-aware artistic ‘brand,’” framed in the deferrable matrix of the scare-quote, be anything other than the brand “artistic” vying for the same attention of the finite poetry market as its languishing, long-lost print-Other? It cannot – the distinction breaks down – and we are left with a situation in which the appeal to “advertising” does nothing other than provide a finer, more discrete and therefore saleable branding of the material at hand. Nothing is refused. A bigger nothing than ever before is refused, because an everything the size of the infinite pathos of Capitalism versus Children is the chronic excess which “freedom of obligation to [any] narrative” [see “Thirdly”] rapaciously devours. But perhaps more to the point, “Using tactics” is not something that one can read in a poem; it is not a critical category; it is in fact a little brand name all of its own.
Secondly, the logic of “the least materialistic writing possible” comprises, if I understand it correctly, the paucity of “emotionally directive” sentiment that would tip the reader outside the ambit of an infinitely potential “ambivalence” couched in a literally reductive form that promotes tiny sound-byte-style utterances ostensibly named “poem”, but which do not necessarily resemble one. I confess to some confusion here: surely the adoption of advertising tactics named (or rather, invoked) above as a primary characteristic of the work’s operative momentum would obviate any possibility of the poetry being anti-materialistic? “The intercepted commands from advertising and other media are the most significant intrusions into our experience of narrative, directing the paths we take through our cities and online” rings true enough, but does it not then follow that the writing would inevitably have to be materialistic in order to negotiate this labyrinth? The uncertainty here is not really conceptual, it is linguistic, because the statement is not so much a characteristic of the content of the poem by Linh Dinh quoted above it, but a category error that cannot adhere to or describe poetry or a poem in anything but the most airy of critical designations. Linh Dinh’s poem may announce, portray or ventriloquise an anti-materialist stance (incidentally, I don’t think the poem quoted has anything to do with materialism, or being materialistic, at all), but this is different to saying that it is some of the “least materialistic writing” around, which seemingly designates some meta-linguistic intentionality of a texte rather than a literal feature of a poem or some poetry.
We come, Thirdly, to the beating heart of Sam Riviere’s essay. This does not really attempt to posit itself as a formulation or understanding of the content of some poetry as have the previous two examples, but it does signify perhaps the most important element of the entire piece. “The deliberate turning away from history and memory” is the radical break with tradition and the individual talent that allows Internet Poetry to exist in the perfect equilibrium of ambivalence and disdain for emotional “manipulation,” a state of affairs also celebrated as a form of uncertainty that allows the work to be “both extremely personal and totally universal” (ever the mantra of a stuck dialectic), rejecting out of hand “any type of speech that rings false through its very assertiveness.” Refutation now embarks on the task of eliminating the social and replacing it with “the immediate subjective experiences that are shared by millions,” which is nothing less than the very form of ersatz equivalence the internet is so effortlessly capable of re-producing, and whose logic is the very logic of the endlessly mutable marketing strategies of which the advert I described above is so emblematic. Riviere’s move is to make the structure of personhood embodied in Internet Poetry completely isomorphic with this spectre of the [virtual] self-identical, ensuring it only the “freedom from any obligation” to itself or anyone else, owing nothing to History or Materialism because utterly unable to encounter them, sequestered and isolated by a “deliberate turning away from memory” that forfeits any capability to refuse or resist any aspect of the world because systematically removed from its social constitution. By these lights, the internet = the self on the internet = the internet, a dead-end incapable of comprehending “the territories that literature normally wishes to claim,” let alone resist them, and is furthermore likely to be the advance-guard for a colonization of the territories it claims to reject. The call to destroy history can never be revolutionary. Poetry that refuses the world can only ever ignore it.
The language of resistance and refusal is hereby adopted to demonstrate some ultra-generalised ethical/political Standpunkt at the expense of any rigorous working-out of what exactly the poems are meant to be refusing; or else the assessment of such refusal does not amount to much more than the evacuation of everything except the individual Internet Poem, not one of which is closely read. This is the sum total of Riviere’s conception of, and arguments for, Internet Poetry: by dint of the solicitation of its social-structural existence, net poetry becomes resistance and refusal because it is Internet Poetry. The move is a purely formal one on the most abstract of levels, based on an assumption that the means of dissemination naturally entail the characteristic “resistance,” which itself rests on the work as a whole being essentially ahistorical and “immediate.” This is not convincing. Or rather, it convinces me that Riviere has tapped into a peculiar vein of valorisation of internet culture, that of the tautologous celebration of the existence of art on the internet that is somehow magically capable of producing forms of social critique, in this case “refusal,” simply by, in the final assessment, being on the internet in the first place. But this cannot be true, because the latest Carol Ann Duffy abomination on the Guardian’s splash page cannot, by the same dint of the structural designations that nominate what is called Internet Poetry, apply for membership of that standpoint.
I don’t really blame Riviere’s analysis for missing out on the real content of the examples dotted about his essay, because for the most part there isn’t any. The gap is the whole. What I mean is that any serious consideration of what is called Internet Poetry must seriously consider its typically fatuous content-less alienation as its primary modus operandi, not as fodder for dismissal by being on the internet in the first place, but as ground for a critique of the symptomatic relations between this work and the conditions of its virtual promiscuity. It is not only over the top to claim for this poetry the benefits of resistance and refutation as Riviere does, it is actually completely useless and beside the point, because conferring upon it a kind of sardonic Futurist agenda, to regard it as emancipatory, as embodying forms of refusal or resistance to mainstream publishing practices, to see in it the unalloyed freedom of the individual subject filling the gap left by his over-active male laser-gaze, is not only gross and undesirable, it is so far beyond the factual and conceptual concerns of the work that it provides only an enormous interpretative parasol shielding it from practical criticism. A reading of the work that chose to concern itself with the beleaguered desperation of lyric individualism tracing its own death-throes through the narcissistic promulgation of ultra-ironised white male teenage angst might provide a more positive forum for illumination. But that will have to wait.
One massively good thing on the internet has recently come to an end, but thankfully remains stuck to the lining of the contra-sphere like the best gob of virtual love-juice ever spat into the system, and that is, of course, Chris Goode's blog. Chris's blog has consistently provided some of the most passionate and believably truthful soliloquies, mix-tapes and pornography ever channeled through Blogger's succulent tubes, and the last post is a heady triumph; the "best of" may yet appear in non-virtual form, but whatever happens this is a loss to theatre, performance, improv, poetry and Muppets criticism everywhere.