| Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage

Roy Fisher's


Surveying the items listed in Derek Slade’s excellent bibliography of Roy Fisher 1, one cannot help speculating as to the curious turn in this poet’s American reception. Why, to put it baldly, has Fisher’s poetry, published and praised as it was in American avant-garde little magazines of the sixties and seventies, all but disappeared from their counterparts of the eighties and nineties? Does this disappearance mean that Fisher has become an Establishment figure or that his work is too insular for an American audience? Surely not, for as John Kerrigan observes in his review of Fisher’s most recent collection, The Dow Lop Drop (Bloodaxe 1996), ‘His refusal to strike marketable postures . . . has kept him relatively unknown’, in England as well. 2 But if Fisher is, a Kerrigan suggests, an experimental, antithetical poetic figure, why hasn’t his work caught on in such successors of Kulchur (which published ‘Then Hallucinations’ in 1962) or Montemora (which brought out ‘Diversions’,1-20 in 1977), as Sulfur or Temblor or Talisman, or in the countless little magazines, both in the U.S. and in Canada, associated with Language poetry? Slade’s bibliographical supplement for 1987-96, for that matter, does not list a single poetry appearance or review in a U.S. publication. 3

The American response would not be especially significant, were it not that it had been so enthusiastic. Reviewing six Migrant Pamphlets for Kulchur (Summer 1962), Denise Levertov declares that ‘what English poetry desperately needed was a shot in the arm from American poetry. . . . Now at last something is happening’ (pp. 4-5). And she singles out Fisher along with Michael Shayer as ‘England’s hope’. Fisher’s City is compared to William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and praised for its comparable ‘nakedness’, its ‘directness of feeling’ (p. 8). Again, in an interview of 1977, Jed Rasula compares The Ship’s Orchestra to John Ashbery’s Three Poems: ‘Both books,’ he remarks, ‘. . have an extreme sort of concentration which is like wringing water out of a washcloth’. And the discussion moves on, as is typical of Fisher commentary in the seventies, to the question of the poet’s relationship to the American ‘open form’ poetics of William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Black Mountain. 4

The link between Fisher (along with Tom Raworth, Gael Turnbull, Michael Shayer and a few others) and American countercultural poetics was first made by Donald Davie in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1972), although Davie subordinated that link to what he took to be a more powerful, if subconscious, similarity between Fisher and Philip Larkin and, via Larkin, to Hardy. 5 But the Williams-Olson-Creeley connection has since become a truism: as recently as 1993, Neil Corcoran, in his English Poetry since 1940, places Fisher, along with Christopher Middleton and J. H. Prynne, in a category called ‘Varieties of Neo-Modernism’, the latter being defined by ‘three essential characteristics: a turning against what these poets read as a played-out native humanist or empiricist tradition; a deliberate indebtedness to the work (poetic, critical and aesthetic) of Ezra Pound and through him, of an American writing whose central figure is Charles Olson; and a readiness for an exploratory or experimental formal inventiveness not common in post-war British poetry’. 6

The reference here is to the much touted ‘open form’ of the sixties, as proclaimed by Olson in his famous essay ‘Projective Verse’. But the alignment of Corcoran’s ‘neo-Modernists’ (along with others like Eric Mottram and Charles Tomlinson) to the Williams school has always been more apparent than real. In the sixties, as Tom Raworth observes, these poets ‘saw something fresh and useable in U.S. work of the Williams / Zukofsky / Olson tradition . . . and, the British literary structure being SO rigid, their use of these techniques was enough for them to be classed as ‘alternative’ or ‘experimental’ or whatever the label was then.’ 7 And, one might add, their American counterparts were only too happy to admire those who were admiring them. In a 1989 interview with John Tranter, Fisher himself refers, somewhat ruefully, to the irony that his Fulcrum books found their audience, not at home, but in the U.S.: ‘When I went to America I met all the people who had bought my Fulcrum books. They hired me to do readings. That’s where my Fulcrum books were, on American bookshelves, in houses on campuses. People who’d bought them in the late sixties’. 8

What has changed in the intervening decades--and this is largely misunderstood in surveys of postwar poetry, both in the U.S. and in Britain -- is that the familiar tale of sixties oppositionality, of the much touted ‘breakthrough’ of American ‘open form’ poetics, has itself come under fire. The fate of Olsonian ‘projective verse’ is a large topic to which I cannot do justice here. Suffice it to say that, at its best, as in the case of Robert Creeley’s poetry, the phenomenology of ‘open form’, with its emphasis on authenticity, the simulation of the speaking voice, and the ‘natural look’, has evolved into a form of writing more consonant with the dislocations and simulacra of the mediated eighties and nineties. 9 Other poets in the Williams tradition-- Levertov, Gary Snyder, David Ignatow-- who have continued to mine the veins of Black Mountain, no longer have the standing they once had, and so Fisher’s work may well have suffered a certain guilt by association.

What makes this neglect both unfortunate and ironic is that Fisher never had much in common with his American admirers like Levertov. Critics have been misled, I think, by Fisher’s stated predilection for a poetry of ‘things’. Thus he tells Jed Rasula, with reference to The Ship’s Orchestra (1966), that ‘I work by perceptual attentions. For me the thing had to be grounded in sensations and in refinements of sensation, and indeed the book is written as an elaboration of almost hallucinatory sensory effects--tactile, olfactory, visual of course, auditory’ (Rasula 13). And again, when asked to comment on the credo of Williams’s Paterson: ‘The trouble with ‘no ideas but in things’ is that it has become an idea.’ Whereas Williams’s real strength is ‘the wealth and diversity of sensations taken from . . . a limited immediate perceptual field’ (Rasula 20).

Following the poet’s lead, critics have made much of the concreteness and ‘perceptual attention’ of his poems. Martin Dodman, reviewing The Thing about Joe Sullivan (1978), praises the ‘graceful concision of a language pared-down to collocations of words that might have had their surfaces scraped away by contact with one another to reveal fresh significances and reverberate in new ways’, and J. D. Needham talks of the ‘startling immediacy’ and ‘vivid particularity’ of the poems, citing as an example a passage, in the final poem of ‘Matrix’, where the poet looks down into a rock pool and ‘finds it hard to distinguish between the water, the floor of the pool, the pool-life and reflections from the sky’:

long white and green

ravels in the blue

tensioned over the shimmering

chalky surface 10

In a similar vein, though more critically, John Kerrigan refers to the ‘state of empirical overload’, the ‘exhausted encounter with the real’, represented by such early poems as ‘Seven Attempted Moves’:

A cast concrete basin

with a hole in the bottom

Empty but for

a drift of black grit

Some feathers some hair

some grey paper,

Nothing else for the puzzled face to see. 11

For a reader attunded to Williams’s extraordinary precision, these assessments, whether pro or con, are puzzling, for the language cited is hardly that of concrete sensations. If, for example, the ‘long white and green / ravels in the blue’ (the noun ‘ravels’ is a rather fussy and obscure word for tangles, knotted threads), refers to the reflection of tall trees silhouetted against white cloud, the metaphor distances rather than concretizes the image. And the phrase ‘tensioned over the shimmering / chalky surface’ is not only abstract but confusing for how can a chalky (and hence opaque) surface be ‘shimmering’? How, moreover, does a chalky surface reflect those ‘white and green ravels’?

The second example, a stanza from ‘Seven Attempted Moves’, is even less ‘thingy’. Williams (and the Objectivists after him) would probably have omitted the opening article and preposition, to give us:

cast concrete basin

hole in the bottom. . .

More important: Williams would have never used the bland adjective ‘some’, which tells us virtually nothing about ‘feathers’, ‘hair’, or ‘grey paper’. And finally, the line ‘Nothing else for the puzzled face to see’ goes against all Imagist-Objectivist prescriptions: it is an example of telling rather than showing, of refusing to let the images do the work. ‘Use no word,’ said Ezra Pound, in what became a credo for Williams as well, ‘that does not contribute to the presentation’.

All the same, Fisher was on to something when he insisted that for him ‘the thing had to be grounded in sensations’. For ‘ideas’--which Rasula takes to be the staple of Ashbery’s Three Poems, as opposed to the ‘things’ in The Ship’s Orchestra-- are definitely not congenial to Fisher. ‘That’s partly,’ he tells his interviewers, ‘because I don’t have any training in logic or any education in abstract thinking or any inclination towards it. I’ve got a great distrust of it’ (Rasula 13). A remark that certainly separates Fisher from Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. . Rather, ‘a poem has business to exist, really, if there’s a reasonable chance that somebody may have his perceptions re-arranged by having read it or having used it. . . a poem is making some kind of potentially new dislocative effect in the minds of some readers’ (Rasula 23).

This ‘dislocated effect’ has been related, both by Fisher and his commentators, to the Russian Formalist doctrine of ‘making it strange’ or ‘defamiliarization’. 12 But ‘dislocated’ from what and to what purpose? And is the ‘re-arranging’ of the reader’s ‘perceptions’ a sufficiently large ambition for poetry? Here Fisher’s distrust of logic and abstract thinking is telling. He is a poet drawn to the ‘perceptual field’ of sensations, who doesn’t in fact quite trust those sensations either--hence the need to extrapolate, to explain, in the case of the ‘feathers’, ‘hair’, and ‘grey paper of daily life’, that there is ‘Nothing else for the puzzled face to see’. ‘As a poet, I’m an image maker’, Fisher insists (Rasula 16), deploring the tendency of many of his fellow-poets to write a poetry of moral or political statement. But what happens when what Yeats called those ‘images that yet / fresh images beget’ lose their power to charm and ‘dislocate’? Even in City, as John Matthias has noted, Fisher’s is not ‘the imagination of a realist’ (Matthias 36). Rather, the poet’s great subject--and here his poetry has no school affinities, either in Britain or in the U.S.--may well be the void confronted by a poet whose refusal to submit to the power of the Image is matched by his self-declared distrust of philosophy, of all ‘education in abstract thinking’. The central text, in this regard, is one that has been, in John Kerrigan’s recent words (LRB 31), ‘left out in the cold’ (LRB 31)--namely, The Cut Pages of 1971. 13In this, his most radical and misunderstood poetic sequence, Fisher’s writing, I hope to suggest here, is closer to the minimalist prose of Beckett than to the precisionist lyric or Williams or the didactic projective verse of Olson. And, beyond Beckett, Fisher may be seen as the unwitting precursor of what Ron Silliman has called ‘the new sentence’ as well as of the visual poetics now practiced by such ‘language’ poets as Rosmarie Waldrop and Joan Retallack.


‘Different Shadows, Different Surfaces’

Fisher’s introduction to the second (1986) edition of The Cut Pages is unusually candid and revelatory. Since this small press book is not readily available and since, for reasons given in his introduction, Fisher has chosen not to include the sequence in Poems 1955-1987 or in the 1996 collection The Dow Low Drop, I cite the introduction almost in its entirety:

The Cut Pages was written on sheets taken out of a notebook between whose covers I no longer wanted to work. The aim in the improvization was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations; so the work was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal is coming from. . . .

The Cut Pages really was. . . a document of release, a device for dissolving a prolonged stasis. Since writing the Ceremonial Poems early in 1966, I had almost completely blocked for four years, and when, early in in that period, I assumbled my first collection (which was to appear in 1969 as Collected Poems 1968) I had no expectation that there would ever be anything to follow it. After a while I even gave up adding to the file of self-strangulated false starts, and let the phobia have its way.

But in 1968, at a little distance from the writing of texts which might one day be published, I resolved to tidy up my desultory habit of journal-and-notebook keeping and write a leisurely and expansive journal, with no day in the year passing without an entry. There was no intention of an imaginative performance on the lines of Kora in Hell; it was to be a quite ordinary conversation with myself. It was ironic that the starting of the journal coincided with the onset of a period of relentless stress and personal crisis which was to dominate my life on every day of that year and most days of the one that followed it. Each day I wrote in the journal, for the routine was something to hang on to; but I never wrote anything explicit about what was happening to me. The entries, in their hundreds, are oblique, coded, desperate and dispiriting.

Recovering from my troubles towards the end of 1969, I found--or so I came to interpret it later--that the ideas about myself which had gathered round me as inhibitors, eventually locking together to bar me from my writing, had been burnt away and would probably never bother me again. And as a memento of the experience I had a notebook, partly filled with a diary of demoralization, but with many-as-yet-unstained pages. These I cut free from the binding, and used for one of the run of writings, all concerned with the dissolution of oppressive forms, ‘purposes’ and personal identities, which suddenly presented themselves in the first weeks of 1970: the Glenthorne Poems; The Cut Pages; The Six Deliberate Acts; Metamorphoses; the materials of the Matrix sequence.

Of the five, The Cut Pages is possibly the oddest. I think of it as being--simply from the point of view of the relation of length to density--out of scale with almost everything else I have published; and for this reason I have been unwilling to see it reprinted in the company of shorter works. (CUT, unpaginated).

‘To give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations’: this seems to be the key to this ‘oddest’ of poetic texts, one that, as Fisher himself says, is ‘out of scale with almost everything else’ he has published. The ‘planned situations’ to be avoided here are, to begin with, the familiar alternatives advanced by Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain: verse and prose. Everything Fisher had published heretofore was written in one or the other. Prose, as in The Ship’s Orchestra and a large proportion of City often seemed more congenial than verse, whether formal or free, but, as is evident in the shorter pieces included in the 1971 edition of Cut Pages, Fisher’s highly wrought prose, its sound design built on a great deal of alliteration, assonance, and repetition, is syntactically quite normal:

All the green fields are cold, the bright afternoon deserted. Faces look out of the cars that go by; that is what they do, those faces. There is a tower among the trees, a white drum on legs, and a road turns off beside it, sweeping down to a cinder patch by the river where the field-tracks join and cars can park. A path, much mauled and trodden, leads through the elders, and at one place, where it crosses a marshy dip, a sheet of corrugated iron has been wedged across, balanced on a springy root and half earthed over. 14

The effects here are gained by metaphor (the water tower as ‘white drum on legs’) and metonymy (‘the bright afternoon deserted’), the paragraph organized by the poet-observer’s unfolding ‘camera-eye’ perception: first fields, then cars, then the road down to the river, then the path through the elders, and so on. The look of the text on the page doesn’t especially matter; indeed, in Poems 1955-87, the typeface is smaller and what was a nine-line paragraph is reduced to eight.

In The Cut Pages, this paragraph unit (justified left and right margins) gives way to page design--a design, incidentally, maintained in the 1986 edition, the only distinction being that in the original, each notebook section is introduced by a black square at the upper-left margin, a logo replaced in the second edition by an empty circle. Here is the opening text, as it appears one-third of the page down below the square or circle:

Coil If you can see the coil hidden in this pattern, you’re


Pale patterns, faded card, coral card, faded card,

screen card, window fade

Whorl If you can see this word and say it without hesitation

you’re deaf

Then we can get on with frame

Frameless Meat-rose, dog-defending, trail-ruffling


The Redcliffe Hotel? Forget it

Coming in on the curve. Cross under he baffle. Dropped

through, folded in the flags

Street work. Across purposes and down flights. Only male

shades flit

In the Rasula interview, Fisher insists that ‘"The Ship’s Orchestra" and "The Cut Pages" are composed works, they stand as they were composed, and if you’d seen them before they were finished you would have found them as they are’, whereas "City" and some of the other prose pieces in "Cut Pages"--those are assemblages, they’re albums’ (Rasula 34). This explanation is somewhat misleading for ‘composed’ in Fisher’s lexicon is by no means equivalent to improvisatory or random: the first thing to notice in the extract above is that the justified right margin in lines 1, 3, 5, 11, and 13 is obtained, as I discovered when I tried to reproduce the passage, only by artificial spacing, as in the extra spaces provided for ‘Pale patterns, faded card, coral card, faded card’ in line 3. And Fisher admits that his particular ‘experiment’ in The Cut Pages is ‘methodical’ in that ‘I know what it’s going to do as well as I would know if I were writing a Petrarchan sonnet’ (Rasula 34). The analogy is by no means coincidental: even as the sonnet has fourteen lines, The Cut Pages has fourteen (unnumbered) sections.

The use of page as unit within the larger unit of the two or three-page section, each section being a "line" within the framework of the fourteen-line Petrarchan love sonnet is a remarkable innovation--one that, as I have argued in my ‘After Free Verse’, 15 distinguishes recent cutting-edge poetry from the free verse that precedes it, a free verse designed to track the momentary temporal shifts of the speaking voice and the individual perception. The mode of The Cut Pages is, as Rasula noted about Fisher’s poetry in general, ‘space oriented rather than time oriented’ (Rasula 36). We perceive the page as a whole as we do in the case of a painting or or other visual construct, our eyes then moving up and down and sideways to take in the words themselves and make sense of their relationships.

Consider the relation of ‘Coil’ to ‘Whorl’ on Fisher’s opening page reproduced above. The two words, separated from the rest of the text, form a column; they are further related by consonance: ‘coil’ / ‘whorl’. ‘If you can see the coil hidden in this pattern, you’re colour-blind’, reads the first sentence. The ‘pattern’--and ‘pattern’ will become a key word in the composition--has no center, no hidden spring (‘coil’) at its core. To imagine that there might be such a center is to be ‘colour-blind’, which is to say, unable to discriminate difference. And that, in a nutshell, is at the heart of the poet’s malaise--a malaise that, as he tells us in the introduction, had precipated severe writer’s block. The ‘coil’, like the chiming ‘whorl’ beneath it on the page, cannot be mastered: ‘If you can see this word and say it without hesitation you’re deaf’. This is literally so because one wants to say ‘whirl’ for the hard-to-pronounce ‘whorl’ . And this difficulty makes it all but impossible to perceive ‘pattern’, especially when the properties available are no more than a ‘faded card, coral card, faded card, / screen card’, the word ‘fade’ shifting from its normal verbal (or participial) position to that of noun, as in ‘window fade’ (with its play on ‘window shade’).

‘Then,’ the poet remarks in line 7, ‘we can get on with frame’. But when is ‘then’? The next line, far from following up on the notion of getting on, negates it with the single word ‘Frameless’, set off from the words that follow. Disjunctive and fragmented as this notebook page may be, a form of ‘patterning’ is carefully established. For what this opening tells us is that ‘pattern’ has neither center nor frame; the ‘coil’ or ‘whorl’ that motivates the poet’s meditation (one thinks of Pound’s ‘VORTEX’ is energy!’) is inscrutable. ‘Where we have both dark and light’, as Beckett put it, ‘we have also the inexplicable’. 16 To escape one’s predicament via such ‘normal’ activities as feeding one’s pet (‘Meat-rose, dog-defending, trail-ruffling’) is only a ‘Dodge’, the monosyllable a nice anagram on ‘dog’, as well as a visual echo of the words ‘Coil’ and ‘Whorl’. Thus, when we finally come to a specific image--‘The Redcliffe Hotel?’--the poet quickly tells himself, ‘Forget it’. Whether (rather like Prufrock) he actually goes out or just imagines going, his exodus is ‘Across purposes [at cross purposes] and down flights’ to a place (probably a pub) where ‘Only male shades flit’. ‘Dying to get out’, we read on the following page, ‘But is exposed to the open at all events’ (CUT 14).

"I never,’ says Fisher in the introduction, ‘wrote anything explicit about what was happening to me. The entries in their hundreds are oblique, coded, desperate and dispiriting’. To decode these entries, to allegorize Fisher’s broken phrases and find a narrative thread in the notebook is certainly possible, but what would be gained? No doubt, at one level The Cut Pages constitute a coded account of Fisher’s mid-life crisis: his divorce, guilt feelings, writer’s block, search for meaning in life and the gradual forming of a new relationship. The man in the crowd, the claustrophobia of urban life, the inability to make contact with others: these are the sequence’s ‘themes’. But if this were all, the poem’s momentum could hardly sustain itself for thirty-eight pages, and ‘translating’ the coded entries into something more recognizable would only obscure the real accomplishment of The Cut Pages.

The spatial structure of the sequence--a sequence that, as I shall suggest later, also turns out to have a particular temporal trajectory--is organized around three sets of verbal clusters: (1) references to ordering, control, containment; (2) references to movement, change, opening, journeying; and (3) images of vision and items that obscure vision--shade, shadow, shutter. The intricate repetition and permutation of these words and word groups provides precisely the ‘relief . . . from serving in planned situations’ that Fisher talks about in the introduction. For it is less a matter of concreteness and the ‘perceptual field’--the ‘thinginess’ of Williams that is not, as I remarked earlier, Fisher’s forte--than of placing perfectly ordinary words in contexts that force the reader to rethink their connotations. ‘The meaning of a word,’ in Wittgenstein’s words, ‘is its use in the language’. And although Fisher claims to have no interest in philosophical discourse, his poetry uncannily enacts the often dijunctive aphorisms of Wittgenstein, the philosopher who himself rejected all notions of a philosophical metalanguage.

Consider the references to pattern, form, and structure subsumed under what Wallace Stevens called ‘ideas of order’. The word ‘pattern’, introduced on the first page of the sequence--’If you can see the coil hidden in this pattern’-- comes up again on the very next page, after a surreal description of ‘Washes of screen. Men are fluttered. Houses are being thrown away wholesale. Butchers are on air’ (14). The deflationary lines read:

If you can see the numeral 88 in the pattern. The Old 88; the

wallpaper piano

which repeats the ‘If you can see’ structure of the opening of Cut Pages, as well as the notion of something unknown that animates pattern, a figure in the carpet that could be deciphered but, judging from the previous instance, should probably be left alone. The ‘Old 88’ is probably a street address bearing memories of a former life of ‘wallpaper piano’ (which noun modifies which here?), but what those memories are is finally less important than the longing for pattern that activates them. Thus we find the poet ‘Summoning all the scratches into pattern" (40), and searching for ‘Patterns on the backs of hands’ (45).

The heart of patterning, at once desired and feared, is the ‘coil’ of the opening sentence ‘hidden’ within it, the spring that animates motion. In The Cut Pages, it usually appears as a ‘cluster’--one of the key words in the sequence. ‘With that’, we read in #7 (28), ‘everything has come to us in a cluster. Turn it inside out and step out of it. Call for another’. Clusters, it would seem, act to keep us in line--’Yes, forming into lines, little clusters of lines, little directional urgencies of line-clusters’ (18); they impede movement and freedom: ‘A forked detail. A cluster. A generality’ (35).

‘Pattern’ and ‘cluster’ go hand in hand with a third item, ’frame’. At the beginning of #8, precisely at the volta or turn of this sonnet sequence, the poem reaches a crisis point, the sense of the ‘undifferentiated’ dialectically opposed to that of being ‘Enclosed. At least by treaty or agreement. Framed, unmistakably’ (32). ‘Frame’ brings out the negative implications of ‘pattern’:

In the angle of the frame over the gulf full of sunlit mist. The

frame is modern, the ritual is modern. Every gulf will have its

use. Plastic gold capitals swimming up, picked out by the sun (44)

but in the course of The Cut Pages, it also allows the ‘undifferentiated’ to come into focus:

Great square wings in which romantic visions of a softened city

pass in coloured openings between black framings. Growing

by pushing outwards into a stretched pallor; and sending itself

away (46)

Those ‘coloured openings between black framings’ point to the second set of references carefully placed in dialectic with the first in this ostensibly random composition. Images of opening, unfolding, changing are everywhere, the most pervasive one being that of the ‘curve’. ‘Coming in on the curve’ (see the opening page reproduced above) sets the stage for the poet’s obsession with ‘inhuman curvatures’ (20), the need to ‘Bend your back to the curvature’ (21), the descent of the steps ‘Down around the outside of the curved wall’ (29) and the acceptance of ‘nothing but the bare curve. Utterly without excrescence’ (43). ‘The wrong side of a door’ in #6 (31) gives way to a ‘revolving door’ in #7 (33). Curving, revolving, turning--these spell the gradual return to life recorded in the poem. Interestingly, the curve has a downward and diminishing trajectory rather than the upward spiral that one might expect here:

Dropped through, folded in the flags (13)

Dwindles to a cut (14)

Tumbled. Strewn. Built. Grown. Allowed (17)

It follows that dropping further--everybody takes counsel (22)

Into the drop-sheet, or past it (26)

Always falling to be away; never on the rise (28)

Always to be going down, arrested and spread (29)

There is a banner to be dropped from a bean (38)

Some things have been flowing backward (47)

And so on. The downward-inward-backward imagery points, of course, to an archetypal descent pattern, some sort of regression into the unconscious. But since the ‘I’ is dispersed, fragmented, a mere point of observation rather than controlling ego, the curvature is seen in abstract, generalizing terms--

Tempestuous in the container, the simple brown sliding con-

tents, having only one way of moving, one direction, the con-

tinuous slide (40)--

where the repetition of the prefix ‘con-’ at successive line endings is itself the container holding the continuous slide within its rhythmic limits. In the same way, the many references to change and motion, to climbing stairs and turning corners (‘Corner. If you start from inside and travel out it’s all corners, ’ 42) , or to taking ‘a new direction’ (e.g., 32), are cerebral rather than sensuous--an abstract--and often threatening-- geometry of lines, curves, angles, and new directions.

The complicating factor is produced by the third set of references mentioned above-- images of light and shade, of vision and blockage.. Near the opening of the poem, we read:

Stem of a spiral stair depending through glass light, in going

down, is confined but neatly stacked office and reception space.

There is one flung out. On that one the light is sharp. There is

no half-light; only the grace of diffusing what is full (14-15)

Here light appears in the context of the change / framing tension already discussed: the ‘spiral stair . . . going down’, ‘confined’ by the ‘neatly stacked office and reception space.’ ‘Depending through glass light’ is an oddly punning locution: we expect the stair to be ‘descending,’ not ‘depending’,the light to be ‘gas’ not ‘glass’. But the puns make sense here, for how the ‘stem of the spiral stair’ is seen does in fact ‘depend’ on its reflection in the ‘glass,’ and as we then learn, the spotlight is on the ‘one’ mysteriously ‘flung out’--an external staircase perhaps, or one of those ‘ghastly grey underparts’ (14) that can be seen as one approaches the ‘Works’ on ‘Leviathan Lane’. The lighting on this surreal shape is as equivocal as the nature of the object perceived. ‘The light is sharp’, we are told, and again, ‘There is no half-light’; but the latter phrase is qualified by the disclaimer, ‘only the grace of diffusing what is full’.

The discrimination of ‘light’ becomes, in any case, an obsession. Here are some variants.

Decorated. This light falls through the dirtiest air in the world. (22)

` The sunlight ran a rail and burst from the end. (24)

Clothing rich but fusty, beaded with hard things. Kept in the

bottom of a room, dusty velvet, dusty sun (35)

The sun is written on from the other side (36)

Cubes of light looking in on us at noon. Sunken floor, recessed.

This is the moment when secession should stop. We’re set down (39)

The light is given, on trust. The breath is given, on trust (40)

Red lights for peace. Peace tails (42)

Faith. The little red lights sailing over the precipice into the shadows (42)

Fisher’s ‘light’ is an ironized version of Wordsworth’s ‘celestial light’ but it isn’t clear whether its source is natural (like the ‘dusty sun’) or artificial like the ‘Red lights for peace’ or ‘Peace tails’ (‘tales’). Even the ‘dusty sun’, for that matter, is placed in apposition with ‘dusty velvet’, making it quite possibly no more than a painted sun on a tablecloth or bedspread. ‘Cubes of light’, in any case, are more often than not obscured by shades and blinds. ‘Vestiges’ reach us ‘through the venetian blind’ (14); ‘Slats and shades, heads and shoulders, afternoons look at afternoons’ (18). ‘Enamel panels’ [are] passing, as if of use to the adjacent effort’ (21). ‘The blind is lowering all the time and the world dives with it, answering with brilliance bursting from the glass’ (34).

The negotiation of light and shade is carried on by a series of mirrors. From the first, the poet sees himself as ‘The detective in the driving mirror’ (14). In the next section, Fishes writes punningly, ‘The defective mirror plucks at a glove. It is passing, it is passing the mirror. The mirror’s defect is to pluck what slips’ (17). And the following unit reads:

Tumbled. Strewn. Built. Grown. Allowed.

Five abrupt past participles as if to measure the havoc of reflection, ‘detective’ having turned into ‘defective’. When vision fails, the location of a given point cannot be made properly; ‘Not located in ice, or mud, or flat plane. In air or glass. Counter-system that won’t engage in a dialectic’ (28). And, in a surreal moment, ‘Glass drops. They pile up in the bed’ (39).

In its emphasis on isolated nouns of light and motion--shades, blinds, slat, panels, mirror, glass, spaces (a noun used again and again, as in ‘The spaces are alive’ [28]; or ‘Refer to the space beyond the reeds’ [44]), surfaces, vestiges, steps, curves, corners--The Cut Pages recalls Beckett’s Unnamable or How It Is. Like Beckett, Fisher dwells on the void:

Nobody has to have a face. Nobody who has a face can keep it.

They can never be recognized again. There are no voices asking

to be remembered (32)

And again on the same page:

No one is found. The steps are empty in the sunlight. The

place shouldn’t be left empty: not all that plant

But Fisher’s trajectory is ultimately more romantic than Beckett’s. The lone word ‘Soon’ at the end of #9 (36), following the contemplation of ‘Miraculous urine, streaming among the ice’, suggests that the ‘sonnet’s turn is finally coming. At the opening of #10, ‘The streams ran through the garden round the house and in under the balconies. In some of the rooms there were channels of running water bridged by plank walks from which the plants trailed’ (37). ‘The painted wheels hum in the early morning’ and, in a Stevensian moment, ‘Grey pigeons are lit from beneath’ (37). Most important for this world of shades and mirrors, ‘Cracks appear everywhere, large and small, in all directions, on every surface. Wonderful’, and the poet tells us hesitantly that ‘There will be flakes’ (38). In the final poem, ‘The palm leaves come as pads’ and ‘Sand hung in the sky, ready to start something’. The corner approached so apprehensively in the first few sections, now turns into a kind of soft sculpture:

One corner was flattened into the mount, the other bent out

and standing a few millimetres proud. (50)

The ‘inhibitors’, as Fisher refers to his morbid fantasies in his introduction, have been ‘burnt away’.

From Cuts to Continuities


The best way to understand the achievement of The Cut Pages is to read it against the more conventional poems Fisher was writing at this time-- for instance the ‘Glenthorne Poems’, like Cut Pages, first published in 1971. Here is "Glenthorne," #5:

At sunset over the water

the nondescript cloud

builds up and breaks

in dirty dramas across the sky

With colours from clinker beds

brilliant in paradise rims

or washed wide

Sun dazzles along the waves

and slaty shoals of low water

Strikes up the cliff

in under the dark of the bushes

with tangles of burning wire

To chance on a gold thrush 17

Some of the vocabulary here echoes the phrasing of The Cut Pages: rims, sun, water, dark, tangles. But here the words and phrases are not left to create their own relationships by means of repetition, punning, or sound play. Rather, the poem opts for continuity, not only with respect to the syntax, which is perfectly straightforward, but in its assignment of value. The cloud is called ‘nondescript’ and it ‘breaks / In dirty dramas across the sky’. Not much room for multiple interpretation here. And the metaphoric nature imagery is reassuringly tidy: the dazzling evening sun sends out its ‘tangles of burning wire / To chance on a gold thrush’.

The poem does nice things with alliteration and assonance, as in ‘Sun dazzles along the waves / and slaty shoals of low water’, but the mystery of Cut Pages is wholly missing. Consider this page from #3:

Traces; So much isn’t the railroad, so little is. We dot by traces

Breathe again, we dot so small

Stepping-stairs, leading round, leading to another platform with

its rail from which we

Free our spread

How far through you will it come, sweet red,

sweet streams of blue

River of artifice

Inhuman curvatures

Don’t say. Engulf

Little character. Little distinction

Beating under the crossbeam (20)

‘Traces’ are what this poem delineates-- the ‘traces’ we ‘dot’ and breathe in.. No ‘sun dazzles’ here; rather, we find again the mysterious ‘Stepping-stairs’, stairs from and to we know not where, ‘leading to another platform with its rail from which we . . . .’ The sentence breaks off, possibly, but not necessarily, continuing in the next line, ‘Free our spread’. This phrase, in turn, introduces echoes of pop song: ‘How far through you will it come, sweet red / sweet stream of blue’. Here the rhyme--’we’/ ‘free’; ‘spread’ / ‘red’; ‘through’/ ‘blue’--calls attention to the artifice of poetic composition, an artifice that comes to a head in the lines, ‘River of artifice’ / ‘Inhuman curvatures’. Mimesis, Fisher seems to be saying, cannot occur: ‘So much isn’t the railroad, so little is’, and one cannot tell whether that ‘sweet stream of blue’ and the ‘River of artifice’ are one and the same. Thus the words ‘Don’t say. Engulf’ testify to the despair of one who perceives himself (or is he referring to someone else?) as one of ‘Little character. Little distinction’. And the final line ‘Beating under the crossbeam’ is highly suggestive: one thinks of a bat, flying across the ceiling, leaving those ‘Traces’ mentioned in the opening line. The page is designed to descend from ‘traces’ to ‘crossbeam’, even as ‘Breathe again’ yields to ‘Don’t say. Engulf’.

The Cut Pages, says Fisher in his introduction, is ‘out of scale with almost everything else I have published’. Readers have tended to agree: although the 1971 text of Fisher’s ‘diary of demoralization’ was reprinted in 1986, the sequence has received almost no attention, even from the poet’s admirers. 18 In the course of time, evidently, Fisher has himself come to regard The Cut Pages as something of an aberration; he has not, in any case, repeated the experiment. For British readers who have followed his career, Fisher has, on the contrary, turned into a more conventional lyric poet, as his 1988 and 1996 collections testify. As for his American readers, the Oxford and Bloodaxe volumes seem to have passed across the crowded poetry screen without much notice.

All the more reason, therefore, that Fisher’s remarkable ‘out of scale’ experiment, a book that was, quite literally, ahead of its time, receive the attention it deserves. Consider the well-known language-poetry manifesto ‘The New Sentence’ (1987) by Ron Silliman. The essay outlines a ‘new’ form of poetic prose (not the same as the prose poem) in which sentences that seemingly don’t follow one another and don’t connect are organized into paragraphs, the paragraph serving as ‘unit of quanity, not logic or argument’. 19 In the ‘new sentence’ paragraph, ‘The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of language, that is, most often at the sentence level or below’ (NS 91). Accordingly, ‘any attempt to explicate the work as a whole according to some ‘higher order’ of meaning, such as narrative or character is doomed to sophistry, if not overt incoherence. The new sentence is a decidedly contextual object. Its effects occur as much between, as within, sentences’ (92).

An example from Silliman’s own sequence ‘Demo’ (1992) goes like this:

This is a test.

The hammer of birds (rabbits) secure in the deficit garden,

fog along the coast.

Water, hammer, rock board -- recurrence as key in phleg-

matic analysis (fellaheen hurdling custard pie into the face of

Bette Midler).

Friends are perpetually ‘going to get it together,’ jobwise

the coast is altered one quarter inch.

Just like that.

The window conceived as a form of torture, through which

a century is expressed (blue hands, the chartreuse of a tennis

ball): dobermans of delight crowd the sun.

Met against metaphor (I want white rooms): the cast is clear

Up against the woolite, desire for narrative condemns mil-

lions--French bread hard as a rock. 20

Here is the phrasal structure with justified left and right ‘prose’ margins of The Cut Pages. Silliman’s use of specific procedural (counting) devices to govern construction accords with Fisher’s parodic allusion to the fourteen-line sonnet. 21 Both poets, moreover, take the page rather than the line or stanza as their lyric unit. Like Fisher, Silliman relies on metonymy and pun (e.g., ‘the cast is clear’) rather than metaphor; his sentences and syntactically ambiguous phrases don’t ‘follow’, and their referents are often obscure, meaning arising from accretion and repetition (‘The hammer of birds’, "Water hammer’) rather than logic or temporal sequence. Again, as in the case of the ‘Redclyffe Hotel’, concrete references like ‘Bette Midler’ are introduced only to be rapidly deflected, permutated, and picked up later.

Silliman’s discourse radius with its up-to-date American colloquialisms and particularities is, of course, quite different from Fisher’s. But what seems almost uncanny is that, quite inadvertently and within a thematic context quite different from Silliman’s more jaunty meditation, Fisher’s ‘cutting’ of the page, with its removal of words from their ‘planned situations’, anticipated a mode that became prominent in the U.S., not only in Silliman’s poetry but in that of many other Language poets, at least a decade after Fisher had written the (evidently unknown to them) Cut Pages. Once this connection is understood, once the claim for a precisionist, projectivist aesthetic has been put to rest, Fisher’s work, especially his ‘prose’ sequences, should find its audience among American poets and their readers as well as a new audience in Britain.

In the penultimate section of The Cut Pages, we read:

There’s no sign of anything. They’re the sign. Maybe it’s just

that the time has come round. But some things have been flow-

ing backward (47)

The time, we might extrapolate from this strophe, has come round, and ‘some things’ that seem so new have in fact been ‘flowing backward.’ That, it would seem is the ‘sign’ we must heed: its lesson is that history, as that other American knew, has many curious corridors.


1Derek Slade, Roy Fisher--A Bibliography, unpublished, 1987. With a supplement, 1987-97. The manuscript was made available to me by John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson.

2 John Kerrigan, ‘Rooting for Birmingham’, London Review of Books, 2 January 1997, p. 30. Subsequently cited in the text as LRB.

3 An exception, but in scholarly book form rather than periodical, is John Matthias’s, ‘The Poetry of Roy Fisher’, in Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism, ed James Acheson and Romana Huk (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 35-62. See also Keith Tuma’s forthcoming Fishing By Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), chapter 6.

4 Jed Rasula & Mike Erwin, "An Interview with Roy Fisher" (Keele, 19 November 1973), in Roy Fisher, Nineteen Poems and an Interview (Grosseteste, 1977), pp. 12-38. This interview is subsequently cited in the text as Rasula.

5 See Donald Davie, ‘Roy Fisher: An Appreciation’, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (New York: Oxford, 1972), pp. 152-72.

6 Neil Corcoran, English Poetry Since 1940 (London and New York: Longman, 1993), p. 164.

In a discussion of City, Corcoran again makes the Black Mountain connection: ‘The punctiliousness of Fisher’s exact and distinguished prose is the register of a desire to get this "city" into his poem, to remake it in the place of writing; and, as elsewhere in the oeuvre, the form taken by this desire may be felt to owe something to such comparable modern American efforts as those made by Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Ed Dorn’ (pp. 170-71).

7Tom Raworth, email to the author, 13 August 1997. Ellipses are Raworth’s.

8 John Tranter, interview with Roy Fisher (1989), Jacket magazine,#1, ed. John Tranter (Internet, at http://www/ Subsequently cited as Tranter. The interview was also published in John Kinsella’s magazine Salt,11 (1997).

9 For further discussion, see my Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), and Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Martin Dodman, Montemora 7 (1980): 25; J. D. Needham, ‘Some Aspects of the Poetry of Roy Fisher’, PN Review 5 (Vol. 3, no. 1, 1975): 75, 82. ‘Matrix’ is the title poem of Roy Fisher, Matrix (London: Fulcrum Press, 1971); #10 appears on p. 25. The sequence is reprinted in Poems 1955-1987 (Oxford and New York: Oxford Press, 1988), pp. 87-94, subsequently cited as P88. See also Glen Cavaliero, in a review of Fisher’s Poems 1955-1980 for PN Review 20 (Vol. 7, no. 6): 62: ‘Fisher has a rare ability to handle the prosaic as it should be handled in verse, with the natural precision of good prose. His world of tower blocks, by-passes, hoardings, cast-iron radiators, urinals and foundries is quite simply the known’.

11 LRB 30; rpt. in P88, p. 50.

12Specifically, Viktor Shklovsky’s theory in "Art as Device." See, for example, Matthias 39, Corcoran, 172, Peter Barry, ‘Language and the City in Roy Fisher’s Poetry’, English Studies, 1986, 3, pp. 234-49, esp. p. 239.

13The original edition of The Cut Pages (Fulcrum Press, 1971) contains, aside from the title sequence, ‘Metamorphoses’, ‘Stopped Frames and Set-Pieces’, ‘Hallucinations’, and ‘The Flight Orator’. The second edition (Oasis Shearsman, 1986) contains only the title poem, prefaced by a revealing introduction, of which more below. The epigraph from Blake’s ‘Gates of Paradise’ (‘Truly my Satan, thou art but a Dunce. . .’) is eliminated, perhaps because its emphasis on the determination of identity seemed too emphatic for this ‘diary’ sequence. ‘Metamorphoses’ and ‘Stopped Frames and Set-Pieces’, are included in Poems 1955-1987 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), subsequently cited in the text as P.

In what follows, I refer to the revised (1986) edition of The Cut Pages, subsequently cited as CUT. References to the 1971 edition are cited as CUT1.

14 ‘Metamorphoses’ 2, in CUT1, 13; rpt. in P88, p. 83.

15 Marjorie Perloff, ‘After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries’, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford, 1998); rpt. in Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), pp. .

16 Samuel Beckett, ‘Interview with Tom Driver’, Columbia University Forum (1961); rpt. in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, ed. Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 220.

17 Roy Fisher, ‘Glenthorne Poems," Matrix 42; rpt. in P; see p. 74.

18An exception is J. D. Needham’s essay cited in note 10 above: see pp.84-87. Needham speaks of the ‘spirit of free play’ in the poem and says ‘it would clearly be pointless to seek too much pattern in The Cut Pages (p. 85). But, as I have been suggesting, the poem is in fact highly patterned.

19 Ron Silliman, ‘The New Sentence’, The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1987), p. 91. Subsequently cited as NS.

20 Ron Silliman, ‘Demo," Demo to ink (Tuscon: Chax Press, 1992), p. 9.

21 Interestingly, just as Fisher wrote an entry of Cut Pages a day, ‘Demo’ was written, so Silliman has told me in a letter (6 September 1997), one sentence/paragraph per day for one year (1985). | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage