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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