JH Prynne: Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, Birkbeck College
Bruce Andrews: I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or, Social Romanticism), Sun and Moon
Ken Edwards: Good Science, Roof Books
Gilbert Adair: Jizz Rim, Writers Forum
Aaron Williamson: Cathedral Lung, Creation Books
Theories of language imply theories of poetry, particularly if poetry can be defined as a significant and coherent deformation of the linguistic system, and it is not uncommon to find poets engaging with such theories. However, what is unusual about JH Prynne's lectures, Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, is that he kicks at the cornerstone of the structuralist edifice, the theories of Saussure. He examines the arbitrariness hypothesis of Saussurian linguistics - which states that there is no motivated link between signifier and signified - through 'flamboyant readings' of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and Blake's 'The Tyger'. Such readings, which involve the discovery of embedded lexical and lettrist play and readings which are supported by elaborations of historical and sociological contexts (and combinations of the two), are used to show that, while the linguistic system can be accepted as operating according to principles of arbitrariness, a potent secondary motivation of language is found in poetry. Affected as this is by social and contextual limits - whether they be the nature of consensual reading at any time, or of the author-reader relationship, or of the particular powers of certain genres and communally recognised literary forms - local damage can be inflicted upon the global linguistic system. This creates, Prynne concludes, a space for innovative reading that is socially and historically determined, and which 'can be intelligibly active as a practice of inscribing new sets of sense-bearing differences upon the schedule of old ones'. This insistence upon the social over the systemic, the diachronic over the synchronic (to use terms which Prynne assiduously avoids), is matched by other critiques, such as that of Bourdieu, which also teach us that the social transformations of language constitute its collective life.
American language poetry, so-called, is often reductively taken to be a play upon that arbitrariness of language, and exposure of the mechanism of the mechanisms that make the world, as it were. Bruce Andrews's crucially important I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or Social Romanticism), however, is haunted not by the arbitrariness of language but by the arbitrariness of the social, which swallows even that which, in other circumstances, might be valued: 'women's liberation/thru' working class struggle, ha! — liberty was the secret treat inside the breakfast cereal meat medley'. Although this sounds like a familiar, if surrealised, argument about the assimilation of radicalism by Capital, it must be remembered that any excerpt is taken out of constantly jump-cutting 'context' from a hundred blocks of not-quite prose. This mass of text is itself a representation of social totality; it is not a sombre monolith but a witty, indeed often hilarious, snap-shot collage satire upon totality. Satire traditionally operates from a fixed social theory but, although Andrews clearly expresses one elsewhere, in Social Romanticism his text turns its very comprehensiveness against itself: 'I became a doorstop for six aborted revolutions, grease on hair works as hippy demagnetiser. I said a prayer for you today, the numbers were small.' To read the text as social mimesis alone is inadequate since it is in the act of reading that Andrews's utopian aspirations emerge. Traditional 'close reading' is not much help here, since it would be stymied by the contradictions and shifting lexis of such passages. 'Flamboyant readings' would clearly be welcome; indeed Andrews goes further than Prynne and hopes for a text which is 'a common network into which people can move ... to show what positive social freedom might look like'. The hundredth poem ends 'hammer the individual into solidarity': precisely the strategy of social totality and of the kind of direct political poetry Andrews might regard as inefficacious.
Ken Edwards's 'Preface' to Good Science amounts almost to a manifesto of the linguistically innovative poetries of this country:
Never discount the opacity of language. Never attempt to communicate. Never form a kind of shell or armour round the subject. Never make absolute sense. By no means shun exactness. Do not attempt to make sense of 'our culture' Never write what you expect to have written. Do not concern yourself with lyric significance. 'Use the telephone instead of writing the poem.' Avoid floral-phallic imagery. Do not however forget pleasure in the erotic multiplicity of sense.
Yet, however much these teasing, contradictory maxims may have been in Edwards's mind during composition, they don't describe all the work here. The formal range of Edwards's work is always impressive. 'Deep Song' shows admirably its lyrical side but a similar meditative approach simply doesn't work in 'A New Word Order', whose title promises more that its own bad joke. The text combines the fake-Eliotic, 'As when, growing much older, one starts to become / Less interested in meanings, more in the look, the sound', with the political:
The FT 100 simpers & blushes, a rush of gold to the head,
Of oil & gold, the pound
Peeps shyly out from its basket
Of currencies, the metaphoric unreality
Of such events no longer cuts against
Their cinematic truth.
I think we are being told too much here, with the perceptiveness, but not the rhetoric, which appears to owe to 'Cambridge' poetry, of a New Statesman editorial. What I long for is to find some of this contemporary material making its own mysterious relations with itself, as in the earlier book Drumming (1982), which, along with MacSweeney's Odes, arguably made some of the best poetry of the 1980s possible. In 'Lexical Dub' this happens:
No hope no future
Cancel future with instant response
Police cruise total exclusion zone
The juxtaposition of punk jargon with what is, in the text's opening line, called 'Police glossalalia' establishes a clash of control and revolt. An additional connection between the local 'cruising' police with the international threat of Cruise missiles ('Instruments of use in time of war / From here to Texas burgeoning') introduces Edwards's translation of the police's 'No Go Area' into the military 'total exclusion zone'. Such linkages are made throughout this excellent text, which successfully integrates the lyrical with the linguistically innovative by not being concerned by 'lyrical significance'.
Gilbert Adair's 'linguistically innovative poetry' (a term he coined) is akin to Andrews's. 'Discontinuities as opposed to the grand totality', Adair explains in his Angel Exhaust 8 interview, can be made variously to signify so long as necessary connections - new continuities - are made upon the page, in the grained technique of the writing (something I hope I've shown in the case of 'Lexical Dub'). In Jizz Rim (this '1st outtake' was published by Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum in a handsome edition at short notice for Adair's London reading in 1993). Adair's preference for impacting information in the text is combined with a narrative thrust. This is a detective story concerning the search for an 'object' which negotiates the mysterious 'clinic of doctor foo ... the devil doctor', as well as gypsies who 'believe that writing is scalping'. Such writing could be 'JIZZ/gram'. Jizz is a term for peripheral intuitive perception, and the object of this quest seems always to be disappearing across a 'rim'.
'She's a shape detective. specialises;
can be lazy - orjagged,very popular
'it's - it was a
very small move: words multiply - joined, no joined, no
[vice versa] with figures, mobiles. the halt was what, it
will be getting easier, they used to be called abstractions:
non-visualisable, that's the line cross'd, & we weren't in
control of it, then she blink'd
But what is withheld always has political importance: 'not-said is fast under censorship / that's why censors are professional hysterics'. The delights of Adair's writing often lie in such incidental wit.
I've witnessed all but one of the poets I'm reviewing here reading their work and each, to a varying degree, regards performance as an essential part of his or her work as writers. Aaron Williamson's exploration of the limits of voicing within the parameters of deafness, a roaring performance that seems to involve his whole body in an ejaculatory ritual, has justly surprised and delighted a variety of audiences. The four stylistically various sequences collected in Cathedral Lung demonstrate that the concerns of the performances are partly those of the text. The title sequence is an examination of how the tongue engages the throat as speech, in combination with the 'cathedral lung', here also a 'site of worship'. There is a pervasive sense of imprisonment and inquisition about this speech, perhaps deaf speech: 'Even my spittle is under observation', says the shadowy narrator. 'Everything in this space is hidden except me.' While out of context this might be read as a social account of deafness, the 'spaces' of the text are somatic. The 'cosmogenic intricacies' of the lung's holy ritual (breathing is finally figured as a form of mercy) are elaborated: 'a substrate warm mosaic transforms the panic into optical sensations, these accompanied by manacled anguishes of suffocation'. Contrary to the painful physicality of Williamson's performance, some of this evocative language blunts my awareness. Although I am willing to accept that Williamson's variety of styles is necessary to his project, I must admit to preferring some of the lyrical passages, which remind me of that other poet of the body and consciousness, Robert Creeley:
The voice is a hum
and then narrows
and then radiates
return within reach
of physical bounds...
[Version in Angel Exhaust 10, June 1994]