Sunday, 27 May 2012

"Don't go full Britney"

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. 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.




Dear Andrew,

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:

" 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 x


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.'

yours, Andrew


  1. It took me less than a minute to find out what lava mice were, using google. Though once you have that knowledge? I've never thought the OED was of the slightest real use in reading Prynne. I mean, I know what a tenter ground is - so what?

    1. "Then what," was the point of the exchange, wasn't it? That the identification of whatever lava mice are is less important than the image complex they serve to indict, or banalize? And that for Andrew they failed to be anything save pointless? Obviously the OED is useful for reading anything. But, you win re: google; how weird I never did that. xj