Follow by Email

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Robert Sheppard IM Roy Fisher: It is Writing (critical piece)

It is Writing

Roy Fisher wrote a poetry that foregrounds its own artificiality, and this itself is foregrounded in the poems of the 1970s, published in The Thing About Joe Sullivan in 1978. Indeed, foregrounding, in the technical sense, involves ‘all salient linguistic phenomena which in some way cause the reader’s attention to shift from the paraphrasable content of a message ... to a focus on the message itself.’ 44 It resists naturalization, in a way of holding a text in suspension, so that its qualities of saying are extended, its fixity in the meaning of the said, delayed.
‘The Only Image’ consists of a series of simple propositions concerning its opening observation, and is as fundamental to Fisher’s poetics as Williams’ similar framing of the wheelbarrow, or even Stevens’ of his snowman, are to theirs:

Salts work their way
to the outside of a plant pot
and dry white.    (DLD, p. 106)

This becomes ‘the only image’ of the title, the only counter in its metaphoric change. ‘The rest,’ the poem states, ‘comes as a variable that shifts/in any part, or vanishes.’ (DLD, p. 106) Linguistic relations, particularly those of metaphor and simile, are as arbitrary and free as they had been in The Cut Pages, although here Fisher is remarking upon the process. The only image can be related, through comparison, to any other. (The ‘salts’ are also, paradoxically, a metaphor for the possibilities of metaphor.)


                                                           I can
compare what I like to the salts,
to the pot, if there’s a pot....

The salts I can compare
to anything there is.
Anything.                (DLD, p. 106 )                         

Metaphor, so distrusted by the Movement Orthodoxy (and used only for domestic and limited defamiliarizations by the Martian poets of the 1980s and after), has a clearly subversive, rather than decorative, rhetorical role. In Riceour’s formulation, it

brings together things that do not go together and by means of the apparent misunderstanding it causes a new, hitherto unnoticed, relation of meaning to spring up between the terms that previous systems of classification had ignored or not allowed.

Fisher has called the poem a ‘formal “work-out”’, adding, ‘For me it’s a work of delight in making the picture of the salts on the plant-pot and using them for that great void’ of linguistic relation which lies open to the poet, the general economy of language’s surplus; since it can be compared to anything, no metaphor or simile need be proffered.46 It is this facility of language that allows for the saying to remain elusive to the power of the said that must inevitably embody it, a game of hide and seek between the metaphor’s fixed vehicle and its indeterminate tenors.
            ‘It is Writing’ defiantly asserts its textuality; it argues for a poetry that frustrates moral interpretation, that implicitly supports the argument of ‘The Only Image’. Poetry becomes foregrounded as the subject of its own discourse, even while the temptations of artifice (in being able to transform suffering) are being ostensibly disavowed.


I mistrust the poem in its hour of success,
a thing capable of being
tempted by ethics into the wonderful.    (DLD, p. 108)

Similar scepticism about the function of poetry is evident in the conditional opening lines of ‘ If I Didn’t’, which denies the possibility of foregrounding its artifice, in one sense, in the very act of undertaking it in another.


If I didn’t dislike
mentioning works of art

I could say
the poem has always
already started, the parapet
snaking away, its grey line guarding
the football field and the sea ...

-          the parapet
has always already started
snaking away, its grey line
guarding the football field and the sea.            (DLD, p. 112)

It is almost as though it were not possible to deal with the epiphany of involuntary memory (‘the looking down/ between the moving frames’) without ‘mentioning works of art’ (DLD, p. 112) The relineation of the repeated report of the perception of the parapet foregrounds the fact of its necessary mediation by a ‘work of art’. The ‘poem’ here contrasts with its anterior memory which, as memory, is also an event. The enjambement of the first occurrence of this phrase attempts to disguise the continuous presence of a particular moment of recollection.
            Part of Fisher’s impulse to de-Anglicize England, is realized through foregrounding the aestheticism of the gaze; years after City he is still on the number 15 bus, thinking with Birmingham and the Midlands. ‘In the Black Country’ uses the simple declarative style Fisher developed during the 1970s, and even opens with a simile, metaphor’s weak cousin.


Dudley from the Castle keep
looks like a town by Kokoschka,

one town excited
by plural perspectives

into four of five
landscapes of opportunity

each on offer
under a selection of skies.         (P55-87, p. 106)


Fisher distances the empirical Dudley by prolonging the reader’s apprehension of the town, a classic act of defamiliarization. The last line, ‘Art’s marvellous’, is sardonic about the use of art to achieve this, even while the reader is made aware of the possibilities of the actual Midlands town through the incongruous art of Kokoschka; the temptation of the wonderful is suspended. Dudley achieves ‘clarity’ through the very ‘confusion’ of its confrontation with the expressionist style of Kokoschka’s landscapes; the reader’s perception of both has been revitalized and altered; an alternative ethic to that of the wonderful and the marvellous is asserted.
There is a certain instability in the textual voice that ‘mistrusts’ the poem. It is most often a disembodied voice, a position, that the reader reads. As Barthes writes, ‘Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance saying I; language knows a “subject”, not a “person”.’ 47 Fisher dramatizes this lightly, in a poem which, complete with title and dedication opens:


Of the Empirical Self and for Me

for M.E.

In my poems there’s seldom
any I or you

            you know me, Mary.   (DLD, p. 109)

Thus the poetic discourse opens self-consciously with a series of puns on its title and the name of the dedicatee, a playfulness at the level of the signifier unusual in Fisher’s work that represents the unstable nature of the self that is barely represented in the text. The empirical self is cut off from its own ‘me’. ‘Me’ is also the ‘M.E.’, the addressed Mary of the text, who is also, ‘linguistically’ as Barthes would say, the position ‘you’. Pronominal usage of ‘I’ and ‘you’ is rejected, but only by their very assertion; ‘the “I” is always located unlocatably,’ as Bell and Lland assert. 48 Each becomes a possible position for the other and the first person plural is fastidiously avoided to preclude intersubjective agreement. However, despite this playful beginning, rhetorical austerity returns; attention shifts from the instability of the self to the nature of that self’s self-confirming apparatus of sense data and perceptual instabilities. Merleau-Ponty claimed that the blending of intersubjective perceptions confirmed the world; Fisher seems to argue the opposite. The poem is concerned, moreover, with that area of tension between the fictive and the real already examined, though now from the point of view of the discrepancies between the self and its perceptual construction in making the world. The night, innocently presented at first, nevertheless limits perception until the empirical selves are once more unstable: ‘two invisible ghosts’. (DLD, p. 109) The senses have defeated their own claims to clarity and replaced it with comic confusion.

A tall man passes
with what looks like a black dog.
He stares at the milk, and says
            It’s nice to be able
            to drink a cup of
            coffee outside at night ... (DLD, p. 109)

Once the man has vanished, this confusion prompts the question, ‘ So-/ What kind of a world?’ (DLD, p. 109) The world is constructed by agents of perception with all their phenomenological indeterminacies; reality is a spectral trace, a mark (those frequent Fisher lexes), something almost artificial, photographically printed: ‘lightning-strokes repeatedly/bang out their reality-prints’. (DLD, p. 109)
‘The Poet’s Message’ continues this enquiry by opening with two parallel questions about the function of subjectivity and text, what kind of ‘message’ and what kind of ‘man/comes in a message?’ (DLD, p. 108) The second of the questions seems more engaging and elicits not so much a clear response as a teasing confession. Its tone is assertive, while its own ‘message’ – the first unanswered question - is curiously oblique and conditional.

I would

get into a message if I could
and come complete
to where I can see
what’s across the park:
and leave my own position
empty for you in its frame. (DLD, p.108)

The self is only the validating principle of the poem insofar as it is an absence, or a ‘position’ in Barthes’ sense. It stands behind the point where the scene focuses on the artificial retina of a camera, and its ‘message’ would ideally be the unmediated view of a characteristic park, which it knows to be an impossibility. The view is blocked by the absent self’s paradoxical self-consciousness. Not much of a man comes in a message, but enough, in this case, to frustrate realistic description.
City had, of course, used memories of a vanishing Birmingham, but the role of memory and its loss, its correlative shadow, become problematic in Fisher’s work of the 1970s. Most of these poems are quite slender with little evidence of metrical contour, and consist of brief, almost gnomic, propositions upon their subjects. In the case of ‘On the Open Side’, Fisher attempts ‘getting Proust down to matchbox proportions’, as he jokingly put it. Not only is the memory fleeting and involuntary, it seems eternal, pre-linguistic, and – more importantly – autonomous:


                        - the other life,
the endless other life,
endless beyond the beginning   

... holds and suddenly presents

a particular, but totally insignificant scene to the mind. (P55-87, p. 111) ‘That was all,’ the poem concludes, ‘Something the other life wanted - / I hadn’t kept it.’ (P55-87, p. 111) The self is disrupted by this autonomous image, strangely significant with its haunting insignificance, its doubtful value. Elsewhere, in surprise, the narrator says,


                                    So I start
at the single recurrence of a counter
I expect never to need.             (P55-87, p. 135)

Unlike Proust, the recurrence does not involve the recovery of the past. Fisher is ‘fascinated with memory,’ because of its non utilitarian nature; ‘I’m impressed by its disregard for time and narrative sense. Or even for the simplest categories of thought’.  The ‘counter’ can’t be used or exchanged in anything like the market this economic metaphor suggests. Its patterns of association offer not the old, but the new; they do not so much recover the past, as flood the present with the blank screen of nostalgia.
          In many ways the obsessive concern with Birmingham (the narrator’s need to think with it as yet another counter) has dictated that later poems, such as the more discursive ‘Wonders of Obligation’, ‘Introit: 12 November 1958’ from A Furnace, his most ambitious long work of 1986, and ‘Six Texts for a Film’ (1994), are re-memberings of the body of the city, and constitute what Peter Barry calls Fisher’s ‘“composite-epic” of urban material’.
‘Handsworth Liberties’ is yet another such attempt, in The Thing About Joe Sullivan, and is one of Fisher’s most impressive sequences. Like all such sequences, the 16 parts do not develop narratively, as they negotiate adolescent memories of particular locations in Birmingham that Fisher associated with particular pieces of music. Indeed it is the street that dominates the sequence, not the people, who appear only as traces upon it: ‘The place is full of people./It is thin. They are moving’. (P55-87, p. 118)  Even when

A mild blight, sterility,
the comfort of others'

is invoked, it is still the incomplete yet immobile environment that claims the poem’s attention:

apart from the pavement
asphalt and grit are spread
for floors; there are railings,
tarred. It is all
unfinished and still.  (P55-87, p. 121)

Other poems from the sequence consciously de-Anglicize memories of the 1940s, as had parts of City. The procedure to refuse to name objects which then appear indeterminate, a form of semantic indeterminacy developed from The Cut Pages, is introduced to deal with the characteristic material. Thus the presentation of the city horizon, which certainly resembles the northern prospect of one of the clues of ‘Starting to Make a Tree’, ‘pale new towers in the north/right on the line’, operates here through non-descriptiveness, as it were. One of Fisher’s favourite descriptive adjectives is ‘non-descript’.

It all
radiates outwards
in a lightheaded air
without image. (P55-87, p. 117)

Realism is forced, not just into the strategies of foregrounded artifice, but into a register of ‘waves’, since there is no presentable ‘image’, a version of the ‘traces’ and ‘marks’ already noted. Occasionally a ‘flicker’ might reveal a partial, but insignificant, image.


There is a world.
It has been made
out of the tracks of waves
broken against the rim
and coming back awry; at the final
flicker they are old grass and fences. (P55-87, p. 117)

Sometimes, ‘At the end of the familiar’, there is stark realist enumeration but with the barest of elaboration:

brick, laurels, a cokeheap
across from the cemetery gate –
a printing works and a small
cycle factory; hard tennis courts.  (P55-87, p. 121)

But this exists in a state of tension with formalist abstraction: ‘With not even a whiff of peace/tranquilities ride the dusk’. (P55-87, p.119)
Shklovsky’s formalism is easily mistaken for pure aestheticism, especially when he declares that the ‘object’ that undergoes defamiliarization is not important.52 As has been seen the object – usually Birmingham - for Fisher is very important; there are social and political reasons for his de-Anglicizing. The Russian formalists themselves were rigorously criticized, both by Trotsky and the Bakhtin Circle before the Stalinist years enveloped them all. Shklovsky’s 1940 volume Mayakovsky and His Circle, was a rejoinder to that criticism, in which he reformulates defamiliarization. He repeats part of his 1917 essay, particularly Tolstoy’s claims that ‘if the entire life of many people is lived unconsciously, then that life, in effect, did not exist’. 53 This has an obvious existential and moral dimension often missed in readings of the original essay (as is its insistence upon form). Shklovsky developed this (opportunely) with an examination of some statements of Lenin. His conclusion is that Lenin took an interest in ‘eccentricism in art, a skeptical attitude toward the conventional, and the illogic of the unusual’. 54 Although Shklovsky is trying to prove that ‘eccentric’ art can be ‘realistic’, he is also showing its political potential, that ‘the absurdity of the capitalist world could be shown through methods of eccentric art’.55 One avenue for this radical art would lead to the dramatic alienation techniques of Brecht’s poetics of the theatre; the other would concentrate upon destroying habitual associations within thought and language. In ‘Handsworth Liberties’ – the pun on the second word is intentional – moments of eccentric illumination occur during

a trip between two locations
ill-conceived, raw, surreal
outgrowths of common sense, almost
merging one into the other. (P55-87, p. 118)

Such a meeting of the extraordinary within the quotidian produces

on an ordinary day a brief
lightness, charm between realities;

on a good day, a break
life can flood in and fill.  (P55-87, p. 119)

As Shklovsky argued, the most radical art works are not those that thematize revolution or class war. Indeed thematizing itself imposes a limit upon the possibilities of expression.
            Memories and things in Fisher’s poetry of this time are often invested with an additional autonomy from reference; things achieve a necessary freedom as the recognisable world is phenomenologically reduced:

Travesties of the world
come out of the fog
and rest at the boundary.  (P55-87, p. 122)

These ‘travesties’ are not quite visual or tactile, but synaesthetic, evanescent; they are only

strange vehicles,
forms of outlandish factories
carried by sound through the air,

they stop at the border,
which is no sort of place;
                        then they go back.   (P55-87, p. 122)

Although ‘they come/out of a lesser world’, they offer an approach to perceptual freedom: ‘I shall go with them sometimes/till the journey dissolves under me’. (P55-87, p. 122)        

Fisher has stated that the ‘political content’ of his work consists of ‘descriptions of consciousness, reminders of the complexity of the perceptual mechanisms which show us the world.’ 56 ‘For me,’ he adds, ‘it is the private memories and private fantasies of individuals which actually create the public, social world.’ 57 An art that consciously defamiliarizes breaks the false perceptual automatism which habitualizes readers to a particular version of social reality. In the fourth poem of the sequence there is yet another trip unnamed between locations, one in which all that is solid melts into a world of exchange that is not primarily economic:

Something has to happen here.
There must be change.
It’s the place
from which the old world fell away
leaning in its dark hollow.

We can go there
into the seepage,
the cottage garden with hostas
in a chimneypot 
or somewhere here
in the crowd of exchanges
we can change.   (P55-87, p. 118)


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Robert Sheppard: Roy Fisher (I.M.) Last week's seminar

This is the handout I issued to my MA group:

Roy Fisher:  MA Creative Writing 15th March 2017

Three quotes from interviews (poetics)


I would say to myself: I am on a number fifteen bus in Birmingham. I am familiar with the sensibility of Paul Klee or Kokoschka but I’m not familiar with the places they were at, but I’ll play some perceptual games and I will de-Anglicize England – which seems to me absolutely essential.


The only point of using any form is to create freedom forms and not to do things about the imposition of order on chaos and this sort of rubbish.


As far as I see it, a poem has business to exist, really, if there’s a reasonable chance that somebody may have his perceptions rearranged by having read it or having used it. The poem is always capable of being a subversive agent, psychologically, sensuously, however you like.



Please watch this video (15mins)



On it he reads:


‘The Thing About Joe Sullivan’

‘The Entertainment of War’

‘The Nation’

‘Text for a Film’

‘Birmingham River’

‘For “Realism”’

It is Writing’


(all poems you can find in The Long and Short of It and in other books; some we shall consider)


Read this review:



Where he writes about ‘Joe Sullivan’ and ‘The Entertainment of War’ and even though (I think) he’s wrong about ‘The Cut Pages’ and other experiments, it’s a good introduction.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Robert Sheppard: Petrarch 3: first review by Alan Baker

The unfolding Petrarch 3

The first review of Petrarch 3, published by Crater Press, may be read on Litterbug, here. It is by the excellent Alan Baker. (Read his answers to Edge Hill students' questions about his work here.) here.) Read more about Petrarch 3 and how to buy it here. And about about my Petrarch obsession (it's Wyatt's Petrarch at the moment (watch me at the end of my video here...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Robert Sheppard: Inaugural Lecture PART 4; Poems

Parts one and two and three (the last three days' posts) should be read before this final part

Poems [1]

don’t normally wear a suit       don’t normally wear a tie       not at a reading      (laughter)       not when I’m reading poems       that’s all      All poems        (single catcall from audience at disrobing)     I knew you’d say something       All poems stage their meanings at a critical remove from their occasions, sources, influences and poetics. Sometimes poems subvert such complex and lucid notions as ‘complexity’ and ‘lucidity’, to produce poems that are anything but complex and lucid in an attempt to re-define      those things       In any case, poems … run ahead of the conjectures we make      the conjectures run ahead of the poems at different times     I’m going to read     I’m going to turn this into a brief poetry reading       partly because I believe that the poetry reading is one of the provisional institutions of linguistically innovative poetry or whatever you want to call it       and one of the functions of it is to flog books       I thought I’d do that       I have some books here       and there’s one thing free       and also there’s something else that’s common with  poetry readings       that’s a      that’s a trip to the hostelry afterwards       I know there’s a bun-fight immediately after this       but there could be an after after       I think I will simply delegate the Buck I’ th’Vine as a possible       venue       so here are five poems       they’re all metapoems       they do what I was talking about       this is what I wrote for the Alan Halsey reading here as part of the series Ailsa (Cox) and I run from the writing department       I decided to do a kind of introduction for him       I kind of see this as you know when you go home and you find three answerphone messages from the same person      it also rhymes and       I tell students ‘rhyme is a crime’       but they never quite get the irony of me saying that       so I’ve got the maximum number of rhymes

The Hello Poem

for Alan Halsey

Hello poem, it’s me again. I’m
the voice that lives upstairs. You

hear me reeling across my floor,
your ceiling, as I dance about my

affairs. And you about yours, not
miming my sound, un-

rhyming your eyes as they rise,
faltering, toward me, from the ground.


Hello poem, it’s me again, the
other side of your world,

speaking long distance

around your curve, racing
like a tycoon’s jet

to overtake the dawn
and possess tomorrow.


Hello poem, it’s me again. You
ran away with yourself to

stage your new self’s forming. I am
the silence that inhabits your zero.

this is a poem called

Another Poem

The scribe of the poem knows nothing
but he embodies every word you hold.
He’s not an original. He’s a solid
conduit, form rather than wave or
particle. He’s left-handed, and his block
fist covers every word once it’s formed.
The eyes he turns to us
in his mirror
            look away.
Careful not to smudge, he crouches low,
reversing the verse, furrowing his plough.
The poem tells of flowers and trees,
naming names you recognise from other
poems, but you could never make them out
in the wild. Did he say ‘Wild’? No,
he didn’t, as it happens. Neither did
the poem. You’re making it up. You think
it should be you alone and the words
agreeing to differ. But you watch his fist
pounding the lines: Snouts nuzzling the moon
grass or Gifting broken gusts. The poem
has barely recovered from his scratches, yet
you’re making to scribble links in its margins,
calming and charmless. Will you then tear
his calligraphy back, peel it off to leave
the wounded poem yours, a dripping pelt?
He fashions the final words. Waves of feeling rush
towards this hooded moment. His dream is to be power-
less as the endless poem.

                                                Then he
inscribes, in mirror-script: The scribe of this poem
knows it all

this is called ‘Not Another Poem’     partly because it’s in prose       and partly (laughs)        through exasperation       this actually       I made allusion to an essay I wrote on the avant-garde       this is also part of that       what I was attempting to do was  to write something that was neither poetry or prose nor a critical article but it’s a response to that book but I’m not sure you need to know that book

Not Another Poem

after Krzysztof Ziarek

Often I am permitted to return to a field. And it is full of forces

Something is happening here, saying whatever, but saying all the same. But not. The same there’s nothing to exchange. No need to

Forces don’t build in power. Or domination. A thoughtful, forceful relinquishing

Inside this field you are safe but not safe. All that is the world is not. The world. A bullet flies as the idea of a bullet (flies) but its trajectory is turned. To words like ‘sleet’ turning to ‘snow’. To slow. It is a bullet that stands. In relation to every new thing

Everything here is transformed, every thing (out there) interrupted. A snow-bullet  frozen mid-air becomes off-centre of a new constellation from where we see it transfigured our selves. What we think of it is the new thing

There’s more of it. And more and more of it in a different way there’s nothing. We can do with what we find here. It’s not stock. This is where. I want to make some thing. Something elsed, but disavowed – disallowed, even – in this

A carafe, That Is a blue guitar. Beyonding art

I don’t want to only make relations. I make. The gangly girl in black-framed glasses in my making. I make her trip back from her car to number 99 in her strappy party shoes to root out the Christmas present she has forgotten. Then I will make the thoughts she has as she returns

Outside of her there is domination. House numbers telephone wires. Humming with Power. Not poetry and the antinomies. Satellite navigation. Data shadow. Inside. They share the world is not escaped, but elsed

Empower me to be. So unpowered. In my relinquishment by distance not elevation to keep the saying unsaid. To speak against is to speak. Let me do it I need to do it but let me speak something elsed. From somewhere else. Of something

I have made something. For you. Now you are someone else

another poem which relates to a reading       this time I didn’t write it as an introduction       I wrote it the next day       when John James came here to read       he has the poem with the line ‘I beg you to free this boy’ and I introduced him with the words ‘I beg you to hear this boy’       so I took this up the next day whilst he was busily working with the second year students here I wrote the poem for him

As Yet Untitled Poem

for John James

I beg you to hear this boy. And hear him out.
His morning poem you’re in, now,
is neatly creased as a crisp new shirt, stiff-
backed and clipped on its cardboard torso, posed.

It trips you over the cat from the film you’ve never
seen, as you search for your spectacles.
I use my enormous brain to seek the signals
they emit. We are both The Prisoner

on this island, Crusoes of overlapping surveillance.
Sleep is where we’ve come from, a misty place                           
of drizzled desire and mordant fear. The fog has
lifted, real enough, for the expedition that must

set off for the explanation. Your house-
guest, a sort of vapour that
an opening door dispels, coughs his soft pardons.
Serious poetry is back in town:

the Unfinished Alba of the Unknown
Troubadour, whose vida is word for word. The
beloved of this lyric is the hero of that epic, where
sometimes I did seek, I beg you now to flee this boy.

and my final one       this final one comes from this sequence of metapoems       but it also belongs in the ‘September 12’       poem as well       I need to retreat behind here for the use of my hands[2]     it’s short

Reading ‘The Poem…’.

The poem sends itself from anywhere
to your little box there it replays it
over and over. No redial no recall.
Dead ears drop in your lap. Pause.

No reply possible, skip onto Message Two:
I can see the twin cathedrals twisting below.
I should keep this thing switched off it affects
the instruments it doesn’t matter now terror

has been hijacked by artifice. Commas cower
along Hope St as we torque above them
out of control spluttering towards the radio tower
full stop. That was your fake captain speaking

through me printing fear backwards through his script.
You receive my wild meaning in his spliced last words

thank you     (applause)       thank you

[1] I have attempted to transcribe the verbal introductions to these poems (in italics), which includes me reading and abandoning  prepared text (in ordinary type) before the lecture transforms into a poetry reading. I have borrowed a number of transcription conventions from the ‘talk poems’ of David Antin.
[2] I cupped my hands to make my voice more like an intercom as I read the italicised lines, and needed to rest my text on the lectern I had read the lecture from. During the poetry reading, after having removed my jacket and tie, I moved out into the audience, swaying and moving as I read, as is my custom, advancing some way up the aisle dividing the audience. So at the end of the performance I was back in the position I started from.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Robert Sheppard: Inaugural Lecture PART 3: Doing Poetics

Part One may be read here and Part Two here. Best read before this part

Doing Poetics

What I am going to read now comes from my rather rough poetics ‘notebook’ – more a commonplace book - rather than a composed and elegant ‘Journal’, like Middleton’s. It consists of unfinished thinking in glimpses and gestures, pointing and naming. It is wasteful to reproduce its dispersal and repetitions. I have therefore edited and re-arranged some of its parts, and have re-written short passages, in the course of which its main concerns become clearer, but it now reads very differently – to me – and I have discerned patterns of yearning of which I was hitherto unaware, and which I need to consider, perhaps, in the light of my future practice. You can hear me talking to myself and, not surprisingly, you may lose me in places. This doesn’t matter. I want you to feel what it is like to do poetics.

            Jettisoned along the way are asides on reading the ‘visionary metapoems’ of Paavo Haavikko and Antonio Porta, the haiku-like dainas of Latvia, some attempts at fresh poems, as well as plans to write a complete fictional poet’s real poems (a project best left for another occasion, believe me!). Notes which lead nowhere (yet) - such as ‘Idea: write 6 poems beginning with the word “Between”’ - are also omitted. Curiously, there’s nothing about my fiction writing, which is another story. The notes were made irregularly between June 2005 and September 2006, during which time I turned 50.

            What I fear by making it public is exactly the diminution of its conjecturality, as it were, that merely by filtering a comment from the scribble, it might assume an authority it neither deserves, nor seeks, and that it will cease to be read as poetics. It follows that this poetics should not be used in the attempt to ‘clarify’ or ‘focus’ the poems that follow. These are the dangers, but it is one of my main contentions that we need to develop new ways of reading such a discourse as a conjectural and primary investigation into the nature of writing, which allow for its twisting and turning, ‘duckin’ and divin’’, and – remember – the almost inevitable, and even deliberate, mismatch with the work for which it acts as permission.    


Unease, and not knowing quite how to get going again, despite the success of the poetry and prose piece ‘Roosting Thought’. Say, - of how lyrical I could become (that ‘I’ of course), reading Jennifer Moxley. But also how visually disposed upon the page (screen space, Barbara Guest), or how rhetorically flat (Mei Mei Berssenbrugge).Or indeed how to deal with enjambement. Is syntax struggling against prosody, sentence against line, as in Agamben’s agonistic formulation, or struggling for their reconciliation? As Keston Sutherland rather abstractly suggests: ‘Prosody is implicit cognition … manifest in poetic language as the technical and unending dialectic of transgression and reconciliation’.[1] An ‘ever-compensated-for-falling’, as someone – Merleau Ponty? - described walking?

Deleuze writes: ‘To the question, “Who is speaking?” we answer sometimes with the individual (Classical), sometimes with the person (Romantic), and sometimes with the ground that dissolves both.’ Then he quotes Nietzsche: ‘The self of the lyric poet raises its voice from the bottom of the abyss of being; its subjectivity is pure imagination.’[2]

But my edition of The Birth of Tragedy has Nietzsche saying: ‘The ‘I’ of the lyricist therefore sounds from the depth of his being: its “subjectivity”, in the sense of modern aestheticians is a fiction.’ [3] Which would be a restatement of the ‘Romantic’. Roll on the ground that dissolves….


Why should the poem be ‘a form of life’? (Joan Retallack) Why a model? Such a notion may destroy its efficacy. Critique?

So in the deepest sense to discover what poetry is. To rise beyond

the technical → social → ethical

(the ‘levels’ of textual analysis in my book The Poetry of Saying). Conversely, start with the distinction between the ‘saying’ as quality and the ‘said’ as quality and to radiate out towards various textual strategies that enable ‘saying’, not just so-called ‘linguistically innovative’ ones.

To bear in mind the interrelated ‘three ecologies’ of Guattari:[4]

psyche socius  environment

which comes back to my definition of ‘Writing’ in ‘The End of the Twentieth Century’ (1999), though there it’s ironised, even comic, and quotes a poetics notebook of 1993:


both process and product, is a significant and coherent deformation of the linguistic system with the power to reorder and reconfigure individual, collective and social constructs of subjectivity, the face to face encounter with alterity, which will assist the processes of greater subjective autonomy and responsibility towards the other, as just one example of a possible aestheticisation of politics to catalyze change in the environmental, social, and psychological domains. [5]


I think of WS Graham, around 50, reaching the apparent simplicity of Malcolm Mooney’s Land after rhetorical excess. And of his rigorous self-editing.

Or of something like this? ‘The starkness of this late vision … is paralleled by an aesthetic absoluteness that replaces the earlier grammatical complexity with an uncomplicated syntax consisting largely of declarative sentences and a purified style,’ as Edmund Keeley wrote of Yannis Ritsos.[6] Not those determinants in my case, of course, nor so ‘late’ I hope….

Or of thinking through the implications of the footnote I added to my essay ‘A Carafe, a Blue Guitar, Beyonding Art: Krzysztof Ziarek and the Avant-Garde’, when I surprised myself by saying, ‘as a member (or past member) of one of these avant-garde groupings ….’:

‘The reason I ponder my possible “past” membership of an avant-garde is not my fear that I’ve not kept up my subscription, or that a modern-day Breton has expelled me for having a bourgeois face or something, but that I feel geographically remote from the centres of avant-garde practice, and that I’ve reached an age when perhaps one’s poetics – which is hopefully still avant-garde in some sense - is developed for the individual and less for the group, though I hope it is of use [I would mean now “provocation”] to others. I’m frankly not looking over my shoulder to see whether I adhere to the manifesto. The wolfish packing mentalities of avant-gardes are their least attractive aspects, despite the historical necessity of exclusivity and a decent supply of the drug of choice.’[7]


I read Douglas Oliver’s Whisper ‘Louise’…. He positions his own art as non-mainstream and non ‘innovative’. He talks, though, of needing a further dichotomy, that of the extremes of ‘clarity’ and ‘obscurity’ - not for his work to be located in the middle (a third way poetics), which is where mediocrity lies, but to inhabit both ‘extremes’ at once. (He imagines this geopoetically on a map of Paris, Heine and Celan the ‘extremes’.) I’m not suggesting for one moment that there is a contradiction here, at all, but that the two go together, at least in Doug’s mind.

            The work neither belongs to the avant-garde nor to the mainstream; it

            belongs to both the extremes of ‘positive … ballad-like poetry’ and

                                                to ‘negative opaque and complex’ poetry

            ‘both poles … are necessary’

                                    the positive is also ‘bravery in withstanding vicissitudes’; (WL         340)

                                    but is there no ‘also’ for the negative, the complex, no                                                                                                                      bravery there?

                        so why that polarity at all?

            In any case, a sense here of an individual positioning himself.

            The book is also trying to posit the positivities of Poetry: [Here I quote the essentialist definitions of poetry I discussed earlier. I continue:] And, less explicitly, but more complexly, poetry is related to an eidetic consciousness, surrounded by the ‘humming’, the background ‘radiation’ of the universe. So that:

            ‘In life … the healthiest agents of a story’s collapse are love, justice, mercy and hope. It takes love to understand’ death. (WL 423)

            Kind. Kindness. It all ends up as a series of abstract nouns, like Stefan Themerson’s ‘decency of means’. (Indeed both are trying to avoid the fanatic’s monomania… Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist is arguing something similar. Like Oliver, he sees personal heroisms amid both personal and public stupidities (on both sides), the McCarthyite witch hunts not too different a historical mess from the Paris Commune in Oliver’s reading.). Yet neither of these is a ‘slogan’.

            What impresses me is the long-term/large-scale working out of these things. But with the openness to know that he hasn’t the answers to some of the questions he posits, whether his residual materialist scepticism about ‘eidetic consciousness’, or about the 58 items on his list of undeniable ‘potentially disastrous pathways’ for humanity.

            What is interesting is the sense of measuring all this against one’s death, though he didn’t know he was dying when he began the book, out of some ethic for the only life, the ‘one life’, the only earth. I think of The Three Ecologies of Guattari – but I remember that he (or Deleuze, or both) is called a ‘bigot’ by Oliver in one of the few bigoted moments of the book. I read that accusation sitting opposite Patricia reading Deleuze [indeed, the influence of her researches are felt throughout this notebook]. A post-Deluezean definition of the purpose of art hangs upon my study wall:

‘Artworks … are not there to save us or perfect us (or to damn or corrupt us), but rather to complicate things, to create more complex nervous systems no longer subservient to the debilitating effects of clichés, to show and release the possibilities of a life.’ (John Rajchman) [8]

‘Release’ is suggestively dynamic here. 

Also in that article on Krzysztof Ziarek and the avant garde is some address to Utopianism. I know! I’ve run hot and cold on that for a couple of decades. Doug only has the utopianism of his ‘subject’, Louise Michel, in his sights, as self-delusion. She was an anarchist and willing to destroy human life to achieve her aims, like Blair even. But unlike Oliver, or Levinas, or Ziarek, who have a basically pacficist ethos or like Themerson, who sees only tragedy (‘Factor T’) facing the decency of means.[9]

            But Ziarek’s aesthetics - how he would hate that word - is a utopianism of sorts: ‘predicated on its ultimate success but guaranteed only by its inevitable failure’ as I put it. I mean utopianism in, within, folded into, art.

            Which perhaps makes utopianism more powerful, so long as we remember with Adorno that ‘Art’s utopia is draped in black’.[10]


qualities of


(with its connotations of

shining /transparency/easily understood /intellectually brilliant



(with its connotations of

infolding/being composed of many parts/intricate

rather than – say - ‘lucidity’ and ‘diversity’, as in Lyotard’s binary, borrowed from Malraux’s borrowings from Valéry: ‘It befalls consciousness to assemble and unify diversity while lucidity mercilessly trains a flash of light on the worst of it all.’[11]

or Oliver’s poles of ‘complexity’ and ‘obscurity’, or even Christopher Middleton’s attractive dyad for the poem during composition, of ‘effervescence’ and ‘distillation’. (P 22) [12]


Christopher Middleton’s best poems

Stage their own meanings as they unfold

The rhythm and lineation enact the unfolding

They are joyful in their very processes (like the singing of Sarah Vaughan, that sudden high-octane octave-leaping swoop on ‘I’ll Never Be the Same’)

They mediate matter and mind; consciousness

The language is precise but never bookish (despite his reputation as a difficult writer. He’s written some of the best poems about cats). Vernacular. Spoken

Most of Middleton’s poems begin in the quotidian, from ‘starters’, technically speaking, but end somewhere else, elsewither, elsewise. In short, that is their purpose, as embodied ecstasies. [13]

They are splendid – in the full sense of the word – articulations of the human attempt to access Being, something visionary, that integrates experience through experiences articulated. Many of them unfold that articulation in their own artifices. The result: beauty as well as splendour, even with negative experiences….

[I want to pause from my notebook for a moment to play you a recording of Middleton reading his poem ‘Old Bottles’.[14] It is an early work, first published in the 1960s, demonstrating some of the qualities I list in the notebook. It seems to be an oneiric poem, or a hypnogogic-into dream poem, but somehow it gives access to deeper levels of dream that embody the deadliest moments of twentieth century European history, especially through the resonant ‘isolable specific’ of the striped pyjamas. Indeed, one of Middleton’s ‘negative’ experiences against which he will measure any poem is his ‘first sight of a person recently liberated from a KZ’ in 1945. (P 103) It represents, I suppose, ‘lucidity mercilessly train(ing) a flash of light on the worst of it all’, in Lyotard’s phrase, but I find it a curiously haunting and uplifting poem, possibly through the narrator’s final deep-sleep habilitation and escape.

Old Bottles

It must have been long
I lay awake,
listening to the shouts
of children in the wood.
It was no trouble, to be awake;
not to know
if that was what I was.

But I had to buy
old bottles, barter
for steerage, candles too,
each stamped with my name.
It was hurry hurry
racing the factory canal toward
the town of the kangaroo.

Up the street I came
across a knot of dead boys.
In the room with a flying bird
on practising my notes
I found its lingo;
my body knew
those torsions of the cat.

She came by, that girl,
she said it’s to you, to you
I tell what they are doing
in South Greece and Germany.
My parents killed, brother gone,
They’ll read this letter, I’ll
not be here, you do not understand.
In my striped pyjamas
I was not dressed for the journey.
I changed into padded zip
jacket, boots, canvas trousers,
my pockets bulged with the bottles
I was carrying the candles,
and I ran and I ran.]



Deleuze says, in The Logic of Sense, ‘Either ethics makes no sense at all, or this is what it means and has nothing else to say: not to be unworthy of what happens to us.’[15] Not to be the ‘creature of resentment’ (Nietzsche again) but ‘the free man who grasps the event, and does not allow it to be actualised as such without enacting.’ [16]

Muslim resentment shouldn’t drive British foreign policy, neither should it be ignored. It’s disastrous in its own right, needs changing because it is immoral.

The free enquiry into culture/ language/ text/ science/ art not tied to theocracy in any form (whose paradox is that it is man-made, illusory, my last laugh). To create more complex nervous systems. Enlightenment and post-enlightenment values alike. Against the meganarrative.

An ethics of responsibility to the Other, as in Levinas’ thought. ‘And I say we should all be conditioned and educated to regard violence in any form as something to be ruthlessly mocked.’ (Muriel Spark) [17]

Not to be unworthy of what happens to us, to not curtail our civil liberties, or academic freedom and democracy, for example, to not answer terror with error. The greatest defence is the free use of the faculties that are being defended.

A commitment to the only earth we have. The three ecologies. Multitopia: ‘there is always another town within the town.’ (Deleuze) [18] Velopolis. Dissensus as well as consensus.

The necessity of Atheism? Brightness is all. In the face of William Empson’s ‘Torture Monster’ and his death suckers. Religiomania as a mania. At its outer limit: ‘Fundamentalism is a kind of necrophilia, in love with the dead letter of a text.’ (Eagleton)[19] The last recorded words of a suicide bomber, his fear of historical and human contingency: ‘If I sit here I will commit sins.’

Species solidarity and a dispersal of subjectivities, subjectivation. A sense of humanness that has to come from a shared ‘awareness of human frailty and unfoundedness’ (Eagleton) [20] of potential wounding – and hurt, and sexualities, and not from ‘humanism’, as that has evolved. We must ‘keep faith with the open-ended nature of humanity, and this is a source of hope.’ (Eagleton) [21]


This is, remember, a spring-cleaned and tidied up version of my intermittently written notebook. As I understand it, it offers speculations on, conjectures about, the effects of finding myself an older writer with an avant-garde heritage, and with a deep sense of a damaged utopian project for writing, as well as claiming a more generalised neurological function for art; a writer with an uncertain sense of how questions of prosody, lyricism and the lyric ‘I’ will play out in his future writing. It re-discovers my older definition of ‘Writing’ itself, which is consonant with a more recent formulation (though they are not the words I would use now). Remember my 80th definition of poetics: to come upon that which one already knows, but with the force of revelation as if discovered for the first time. Preferred qualities of writing – emulating the binary thinking of Oliver and Middleton and others – are expressed in terms of tensions between complexity and lucidity. Other qualities are detected in the work of other writers, as is common in poetics, in this case, in Middleton’s, and, although I don’t say it – don’t need to – I am weighing these qualities against my own practice. Merely stating them as kinds of provisional benchmark may alter my poetic trajectory.

            But the last section, ‘Multitopics’, is different. Again, the tidying up for you has hardened the outline of the conjectures, softened the fuzzy logics of poetics, and it’s not possible to tell whether that is productive or not for the actual poems. In this case, it projects, in an unusually direct way, the still-to-to-be-written fourth sequence of 24 poems called September 12 after the frozen state of emergency we are living through at the moment. These notes probably test out the content of that sequence – I can’t imagine not using the quotation from the suicide bomber, or the rhyme of ‘terror’ and ‘error’ – and perhaps they exceed my definitions of poetics because of that; they are about what, not how, writing is made. All I can say is that the limits of poetics, the limitations on its scope, is yet again one of the projected areas of study for those of us involved in Creative Writing as an academic discipline.     

[1] Sutherland, K., ‘Prosody and Reconciliation’, The Gig, 16, February 2004, 41-55, at 53-4.
[2] Deleuze, G. (2001) The Logic of Sense, London: Continuum, 140-1.
[3] Nietzsche, F. (1967), trans. Kaufmann, W., The Birth of Tragedy and The Case Of Wagner, New York: Vintage Books, 49.  
[4] This is reference (as are later ones) to Guattari, F. (2000) The Three Ecologies, London and New Brunswick, The Athlone Press. 
[5] Sheppard, R. (2002) The End of the Twentieth Century, Liverpool: Ship of Fools, np. This will be republished in Complete Twentieth Century Blues (forthcoming) Cambridge: Salt.
[6] Keeley, E, ‘Introduction’ to his Ritsos in Parenthesis (1979) Princeton: Princeton University Press, xxv-xxvi.
[7] ‘A Carafe, a Blue Guitar, Beyonding Art: Krzysztof Ziarek and the Avant-Garde,’ Avant-Post, ed. Armand, L., published by Litteraria Pragensia (Prague), in July 2006. Copy yet to be received.
[8] Rajchman, J. (2000) The Deleuze Connections, Cambridge, Mass and London: The MIT Press, 138.
[9] See Themerson, S. (1972) Factor T, London: Gaberbocchus. One example of Factor T is our dislike of killing being matched by the necessity of doing it. I promised in footnote 1 that Themerson would re-appear.
[10] Adorno, TW, Aesthetic Theory. I have been unable to re-locate this quotation.
[11] Lyotard, J-F (2001) Soundproof Room, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 46.
[12] I find that Borges, in one of his introductions to a volume of his poems, The Self and the Other, puts his finger on both the question of writerly development and the nature of the preferred model of complexity: ‘The fate of the writer is strange. He begins his career by being a baroque writer, pompously baroque, and after many years, he might attain if the stars are favourable, not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity.’ in Borges, J. (1999), Selected Poems, New York: Viking, 149.
[13] I am pleased to find Jeremy Hooker expressing it thus: ‘If Middleton’s poems are journeys or voyages of imagination, they also move by “turns” or “leaps”.’ Hooker, J. ‘Habitation for a Spirit: The Art of Christopher Middleton’, Chicago Review, 51:1/2, Spring 2005, 60-70, at 68. This article is one of the best pieces of writing on Middleton. It comes from a special feature on Middleton’s work in Chicago Review..
[14] The recording may be heard in and the text may be read on (1995) CD Poets 2 London: Bellew Publishing. The text appears in Middleton, The Word Pavilion and Selected Poems, 140-41. In the former, the word ‘They’ll’ in line 27 is given – and read – as the less-effective ‘they’.
[15] Deleuze, op. cit., 149
[16] Ibid, 152
[17] Muriel Spark, quoted in Cheyette, B. (2000) Muriel Spark, Tavistock: Northcote House, 73.
[18] Deleuze, op. cit., 174.
[19] Eagleton, T. (2004) After Theory, London: Penguin, 207.
[20] Ibid, 221
[21] Ibid, 221