Friday, February 24, 2006

Is there a readership for poets who can write in more than one form?

Is mastering the discipline of writing under strict rules, be they metrical, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or any other genre, a practical piece of kit for the mental mountaineer wishing to ascend the peaks of language and reach the higher ridges of poetical thought?

During the three years of attending writing school in my home town of Ormskirk, Lancashire, UK, I came to believe that the way to acheive non-combatant status in the continual poetry wars and avoid being the critical cannon fodder for any one group or individual would be to compose in as many forms as my learning revealed, from metrical verse right through to avant-garde forms and the newer genre of performance poetry. Whilst there my programme evolved to centre on memorising each poem I wrote before they reached a final written form, by editing and nailing them orally in the college theatre’s rehearsal rooms.

Metrical poetry was an absent other from the syllabus, casting an unspoken of shadow we were implicitly encouraged to ignore and consider as all but extinct. Treat like an aged aristocrat gasping their last beneath an oxygen tent of nostalgia, or holed up in a grace and favour bedist of a bankrupt stately home, whose faded grandeur, grip and influence had completely loosened and been deemed irrelevant.

The study of meter had not been factored into our learning because the poetry classes, traced an outline of modern and post modern verse, (mostly American) which dealt with contemporary forms and thoughts the working majority of mainstream word churners choose to ignore, dismiss or consider as irrelevant; in much the same way as their poetry and poetics can be rubbished by the spiritual avant-garde offspring of artits like Tristan Tzara, Kurt Schwitters, Gertrude Stein or Bob Cobbing.

Artists, like me, in the work-place of Cyberia creating software aided sound, sight, concrete and even conceptual poetry containing no words. Inspired by John Cage’s silent concerto, 4 minutes thirty three seconds, this is a one off, and once in a career poem whose only successful execution was authored by Charles Bernstein, and is a poem he is incapable of sounding and can be recited by anyone anywhere on the planet with access to peace and quiet.

Our six semester hike through the range of modern verse began at the base camp of Imagism, where we were issued an all in one Ezra Pound bible, blueprint, trail guide and survival pack; filled with instructions and ingredients for, hopefully, constructing our own poetic philosophy over the course of the next three years. The accumulative wisdom we were to distill into a final document summing up our stance with the world as trainee poets, and so, theoretically, leave as fully operational linguists equipped to sell our dream fare in a modern and crowded market place where poesy retails to consumers of verse.

For three hours a week and six in the final year, we traversed the landscape of American modernism from our college classroom, journeying through the foothills of Black Mountain poetry to the summit of Charles Olson's projective verse theory; which most of us failed to grasp, although we all tried to appear enlightened. The chronology of our studies mirrored the chronology of material looked at, and with only our Ezra-packs to sustain and show our minds how to travel through space and time, we ventured from North Carolina to San Francisco; teleporting to the City Lights bookshop looking for clues. We mopped up Ginnsberg and Kerouac's beat with a map of pink tinged toilet paper, which turned increasingly neon when our classes adjourned to the New York School, where we met Ashberry, Koch, O'Hara et al. Finally we felt our way through queer theory, touched on Amiri Baraka and terminated at the gates of Langpo.

The head scribe who set up and oversaw the degree programme is the linguistically innovative academic poet from the English avant-garde,
  • Robert Sheppard

  • whose poetry modules compass a non-mainstream topography, charting a course where populist verse is cast in the role of suspect scion and heir to the Wordsworthean patriarch hitched to life support. A poetic kept in coma by the enemies of po-mo thinking, unbelieving faith healers such as Billy Heaney and Seamus Collins: top quacks of a medical team funded with government subsidy and the profits of commercial poetry.

    During our time there we, in the words of the Mossbawn bard,
    read the commentaries and presented ourselves as informed; by nodding gravely to mask any bemusement or simply not turning up to class; particularly during the final year when the really crazy theories kicked in.

    The first afternoon of the final semester there were only three students who had voluntary signed up to the Reading and Writing as a Poet class. Present were Nicola, myself and Jennifer; a North Lancastrian and very gifted English major with a quirky voice from a similar vein of thought as the refreshingly talented poet Geraldine Monk, another Lancastrian. No one could fail to notice Jennifer's language gift, or the fact that she was stunningly attractive; but just as I was getting used to the idea of Robert, Jennifer, Nicola and I spending six hours a week in one another’s company creating and discussing the making of poetry, Robert decided to act. He went a few doors down the corridor to a short story class were the thirty nine other writing students in the year had elected to attend and shanghaied Neil, Stephanie, Katy and another young female student who rarely attended after that first afternoon.

    However, the delights of sharing class time with the beautiful and gifted Jennifer were yet to come; as it was during the second year when being taught by a PhD student, Cliff Yates, that I decided to devote the next part of my learning to the study of and attempt to acquire, meterical form. This was because whenever I attempted to air the subject Cliff made it clear that this was a no go area. The make up of the module meant the nearly Dr Yates would grade my poetry, and as the deadline drew near people in the class began openly wondering how this could be done. What objective measuring could be deployed, particularly on a course that is L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry based where the theoretical datums are so recently chalked up and, for some, incredibly difficult to locate?

    Although learning to float ideas in the increasingly scientific tide of a 21C poetic drew out a proficient sense of how to achieve buoyancy in the open seas of composition, the fact that our swimming instructor had no metrical aids or training made me all the more curious about this form. My instinct was telling me that it must be important because, up until Pound if poetry wasn't written in a metrical form, the finished article was just not considered poetry.

    What was even more obvious was how dense and disconnected much of the critical writing around poetry was; as though the complexities of the topic up for chat were on a par with understanding the mechanics of space travel or brain surgery. A quantumn linguistics class taught by a poet scientist who would run our finished work through the deep throught of some NASA strength software to compute a final and fixed decision on our overall talent for word play.

    It was becoming increasingly clear that the highly detailed and hard to follow positions and definitions of what poetry is which were being offered to us by many of the writers, was the product of an industry. A job at the academic factory seemed to be what the end goal of education was all about for would be modern poets. Get taken on by the boss poet or writer whose philiosophies would have to be your own before the name plate could be affixed to the cubicle door from where you could begin launching yourself upon the literary world. A fully paid up member of the respectable poetry world, playing the game and taking part.

    I had recently finished reading a book
  • Uriel's Machine

  • written by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas. This book charts the history of freemasonary and specualtes on the stellar mathamatics and perfect accuracy used by the neolithic architects who designed the still standing stone age buildings at Newrgrange.

    There is a monastry that is now a hotel tucked off the main A59 dual carrigeway at Aughton on the SW Lancashire border with Merseyside and Liverpool. The hotel and one time home of monks is at the far end of a field which is a few meters opposite the house and was used by dogs and their walkers in the autumn after it had been cropped, up to the following sprng. I was with the dog journeying from the road and through the hedge gap onto the field, when an image of the sun, obscured and orange like the lit tip of a cigarette behind the thick mist, struck itself into my mind and I harnessed the swirl of ideas this set in motion as the theme of this piece.


    The yellow orange sunset jumble glows
    through silver prism mist clinging to straw
    stumped grey winter fields depleted by cold
    and as golden summer crops have been shorn
    by harvest blades autumn yieldings mow
    the dog jumps through a gap in the hawthorn
    bounding towards a priory built of sandstone:
    a place once governed by monastic law


    Did monks believe souls sped along alone
    to fulfill the plan of a rising dawn
    as Uriel told Enoch long ago,
    that countless lives in time surge toward
    space near where matter compels spirits flow
    and exchange their urges to be born
    instant, anew to eternally glow
    by leaping one to other in the storm?

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