Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

"Tears in the Fence, No.56" by David Caddy (ed)

176 pages of small-fontsize text. Poems, stories, reviews and essays. I admire the magazine - it's well put together, and the essayists/reviewers sound well-informed. Pieces aren't classified into poetry or prose though many pieces fall clearly into one class or the other. Few poems employ poem-long narrative. There's little sadness or humour, few allusions that I noticed, lots of black, uni-sized text on a white background, and yet there's a wide range of styles. There's much fragmentation, used for different purposes. Sometimes the fragments are inter-related. Sometimes (as on p.17) words are fragmented

eyes pat ag   ainst   specks flicks
of place en   ter nerve sayings pr

inted parts   of heart or   tree gath
er mom    ent    um in a    lens's

Sometimes (e.g. on p.87) the words are intact

oversized boot
laces = length----------------love-----------------lips
                              touch   sensitive
                              to colour    pink
                              ginger   larkspur
                              awaken    streams
                              spirals    gentle
                              daylight   glitter
                              sand    in    lens

The magazine begins with some poems that mix text and graphics. Dip in anywhere and you'll see variety continue. On p.77 is a letter (yet it has line-breaks). p.78 is a single, half-page paragraph. p.79 is a kind of sonnet that wouldn't be out of place in a mainstream magazine.

On p.97 are 2 pieces by Tania Hershman, who's best known as a short (and short-short) story writer. Each is 3 lines in a prose format. The first begins "Catch me, appled, love, oh catch me. Dimpled, I am sweeter, loves of honey, men and ministries. You talk me, preached; I sink." On the next page is a one-paragraph piece by John Latta that ends "Sight is a dizzying congenial bricolage of brute innuendo and retrieval: implicit is its scat, helpless is its song"

Though I've been to a couple of CCCP events, I don't understand or like most of the poetry in this issue, bar a few images and the odd paragraph. I like the stories more. Or at least I feel I understand them - the gap in aesthetics between the stories and most of the poetry seems wide to me.

To illustrate my difficulties here's the start and end of p.61

working hard to avoid working

working hard to avoid working
is the most exquisite and charming activity
a human can practise
in a workplace
they don't want
to be in


the coffee house chain that provides shade and shelter
for its hot customers
should provide shade and shelter for its workers

pretty obvious to me

but no, or is it yes?
i don't go much on this world at times

more of us should be working to change things

The title could have been "working hard to avoid working ..." and the first line omitted, but space isn't an issue in this magazine. Even if the last 2 lines of the first stanza are necessary, I don't understand why their line-breaks are needed. Indeed, all the line-breaks seem like padding. The lower-case i and selective lack of punctuation smack of affectation. I'm confused by the tone as well as the format. How would we characterise the persona, the voice? Are the lines short because s/he's short of breath? Is it supposed to sound like E.J.Thribb? Why the coy anonymity of the coffee house? If the persona's being mocked for being an armchair revolutionary, it's being done in a verbose way. It seems to me to be boldly transcending the constraints of mainstream poetry without realising that it's entered the realm of Flash, and is vulnerable to the rules of a different language game.

The poet, Tim Allen, has books with Oystercatcher, Knives Forks & Spoons, and Shearsman - all respectable publishers. So I'm happy for my reaction to be described as "a blind spot", or even "clueless". I feel like a member of "the general public" complaining about chopped-up prose and wondering what it's about. I know it's as petty to question Rothko's draughtsmanship as it is to criticise Cezanne's clumsy lack of photo-realism. Why should I judge this as if it were Flash? But if I want to be able to appreciate such writing, what should I do? Read more of it, yes, which is why I subscribe to the magazine - the articles are often useful too. But are these poems subjected to the ruthless workshopping that so much other small-press poetry is? Are they subjected to the "emperor's new clothes" test? Do they sometimes suffer from the law of diminishing returns? Are they compared blind with works written by people who are consciously parodying? In this poem are both "exquisite" and "charming" needed? Are both "shade" and "shelter" needed? Is an "if in doubt leave it out" policy adopted, especially regarding line-breaks?

There are over 60 pages of essays and reviews. The reviews don't always praise - e.g. "leaves an impression of showboating with its simultaneously shrill and tired playfulness" (p.143). They contain samples of poetry like "they breathe/ I do not know/ for our death// or for the child// who alone has turned back/ has seen the grey/ the unbridled path of the shadow" whose lack of punctuation I find unhelpful and which is is described as "a writing - or, perhaps, discourse - that seeks to signify without signification, that is to say, a writing whose self-annulling syntax becomes a peculiarly 'performative' force of language in itself, inasmuch as such self-annulling is the only 'action' of the text" (p.133). Of another poem we read that "A paradoxical temporality constitutes the space created in and by the poem. Such a space seems both the genesis and result of the work" (p.134). On p.141 we learn that "False Flags" by Luke Roberts is "one of the century's most impressive collections of British poetry ... When a poem fully comes off ... the writing is tremendously charismatic and rich. At times, indeed, Roberts soars, as in

spring graph tone in sight shines on wrecked
dry stone sometimes it's just tired out eye
recognition & we go tender, allowing speech
                                     to falter behind your
face which is not always the same on YouTube
Hold the gap out : its possibility is without
touch to push against fading and compression.
That a spark glows without a centre, could
                         ignite anywhere in its splinters.
I mean care held through a blanket of dust &
inadequate traces

On p.144 we read that it may be a "poetic oeuvre that will be read for decades to come".

"What's Avant-Garde in the 21st Century" by Jennifer Dick interested me, dealing with some of the issues I've been writing about here. She writes "as far as reading goes, many authors remain in a familiar zone, much like a gated community, surrounding themselves with poetic neighbours who are not unlike themselves formally, linguistically or thematically. These communities not might perjoratively [sic] call writing cliques, labelled 'experimental' and 'avant-garde' on one side of the spectrum and the old guard 'conservative' or 'traditional' on the other" (p.117). Fair enough, and I'd add that psychological rather than aesthetic factors can influence matters: people who fail when trying to write mainstream poetry might look elsewhere; people who enjoy a chat over tea and biscuits at a poetry circle may not want to rock the boat; people can become polarized by the company they keep. She goes on to provide a helpful list of characteristic traits

  • "For those often classified as experimental authors ... the poem can be lineated or in prose, have or give up on structural norms like beginning-middle and end linearity and favour sequential or reverse-linear reading via collage techniques, printing text in columns, etc"
  • "support the open-ended poems which, under the influence of postmodern theory and later L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and poetics, led to explorations of the elliptical in poetry, as well as interest in the syntactically skewed to include open grammatical as well as thematic structures"
  • "These were helped along by the cut-up experiments ... which became experimental norms, even clichés, in the first decade of the 21st century"
  • "from the 1960's to the mid-1990's, they shunned the confessional and often moved away from the focus on a lyric 'I' use. In recent years however, there have been moves to establish an experimental autobiographical style of writing"
  • "For some, the rejection of the lyric 'I' and autobiography accompanied a move away from casual, everyday language ... Recently, certain groups of authors designated as experimental ... have reintroduced an accentuated focus on everyday speech. However, they either combine that with a hyper-real focus on pop culture ... or use extreme forms of space or non-sequitor to challenge the apparent transparency of the everyday phrase and world ... the quotidian phrase has even returned them to a child-like or anti-poetic stance ... it is not the force of any individual line which renders the poem experimental, but the combination of simple-looking lines, use of line breaks, and the overall absence of punctuation"

Later she wonders, as others have, whether there is an avant-garde any more, given the lack of a strong mainstream to rebel against. I think that the increasingly broadening and porous mainstream has to some extent defused the surprises of the experimentalists. Besides, it's only familiarity that stops us thinking that a sonnet's counterpointing of sound against sense and its use of puns or even anagrams undermine plain language. Surface clarity can mask complexity.

On p.144, Ken Bolton writes of his earlier work that he was "interested in a poetry that could think and employ the language of thought, but not the bullying certainty of discursive prose, nor the bardic insistence of 'poetic' language with its intimation of heightened perception, stronger and finer feeling". I know how he feels. I distrust discursive prose but also tired, old avant-garde tropes when used for form's sake. Disruption as mimetic representation of modern lifestyles doesn't work for me, nor does defensive obscurity. In defiance of fashion, mainstream techniques can be re-adopted, old tools refashioned, transparency selectively embraced. Discovering new techniques by questioning mainstream practises doesn't mean restricting oneself to those techniques. By the sound of it, that's how Ken Bolton developed.

On Gists and piths there's an in-depth review of some of the poems from this issue - Getting Close: Peter Hughes' 6 Petrarch Sonnets from Tears in the Fence #56

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