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.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

"Birmingham Jazz Incarnation" by Simon Turner (Emma Press, 2017)

In the extensive "Notes and acknowledgements" section of this pamphlet the poet describes at least some of the pieces as constraint-based, and recommends "Oulipo Compendium", edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (Atlas Press, rev. ed. 2005). I've read that book (and Simon Turner's essay in "Stress Fractures"), and I have written pieces that could be described as Oulipo. It's a broad church - some pieces are dominated by easily applied randomness or automated procedures, others use such restrictive rules that writing any piece which conforms is a triumph. Let me first try to pre-empt some standard responses to such work -

  • Anyone could do it, so it can't be good - This is said of works when randomness or semi-automated procedures are involved. The same is said of some types of art. Should readers take into account the means of production when assessing/appreciating works? Should poetry be like competitive diving, where "degree of difficulty" is a component of assessment?
  • It's clever, but it's not poetry. There's no emotion: it's just wordplay - Some readers like the language used in poetry to be transparent rather than being an active component of the poem's effect. I think there's more to poetry than love and death. Besides, poetry can have both wordplay and emotion. The problem is that some readers get distracted by the wordplay if they're not used to it, even if the wordplay is a bonus that doesn't displace emotional content.
  • Why impose restrictions on yourself? Writing's hard enough as it is - Poets who think they're free may be subject to constraints (of habit, fashion, etc) that they're unaware of. As Peter Consenstein wrote, "if an author does not define his or her constraint, the constraint will in turn define their work for them". Early in this book Stravinsky's quoted - ‘The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.’

The author also writes in the "Notes and acknowledgements" that "a goodly part of a formal constraint's fun comes from working out what the writer is up to, how they have gone about achieving their chosen effects, and the ways in which they’ve overcome the obstacles" though he does explain some of the devices. Most are self-evident enough. Poetry readers are more used to seeing them now that anagrams and other wordplay are back in fashion - Luke Kennard, Paul Stephenson, and Jon Stone are amongst the non-avant garde poets who employ such techniques (Heather McHugh's my favourite US representative).

A flick-through of this pamphlet will reveal that it's illustrated (woodcut-style) and several of the poems are in landscape mode. A quick read will reveal that the poems are reformulations of the same ur-poem expressed first in "Birmingham Jazz Incarnation" which begins with "What a feeling, to step out of the musty/ twilight bookshop air with a collection". The character then passes an improvising busker who seems to spirit the city into being. The shortest rendering of this plot is the 5-lined "tl;dr", the longest is 2 pages. Some poetry collections (he mentions several in the notes) have used the same multiple-rendition idea. "Jane, Unlimited", a YA novel by Kristin Cashore published in 2017 has 5 endings each in a different genre, so the idea's not too niche. There's a wide variety of forms/styles -

  • Here's the start of "Redacted", a version of the poem on the facing page. It's becoming a popular device. Here for comparison is the start of a recent Rishi Dastidar poem - . In this pamphlet, the revealed text forms another poem - neat.
  • "A Saxophonist Reborn in Brum" is 5 limericks
  • "No Vow’l No. 2, à la G.P." doesn't use the letter "e". It begins with "What a joyful thought, to hop away from this musty/ twilight bookshop air with a chapbook"
  • "A is A" is an easy form of abcedarian, made harder by being in rhyming couplets
  • "Anglo-American Blues Concert (with Q & X omitted)" begins with "Ah, absolute 'appiness ambling away after abiding amid archaic/ bosky bookshop breezes, brandishing broadsides" (one of the easy-to-do pieces)
  • "Flatpack" is (I'd guess) all the characters of some text (the initial poem?) in alphabetic order (another easy-to-do piece)
  • "Opposite day" replaces words with their opposite, "fresh-smelling overlit nightclub" replacing the "musty twilight bookshop", etc.
  • "Not enough hours in the day" (24 lines) has numbers sonically (or sometimes allusively) buried in the lines (e.g. the 7th line has "city's evanescent"; the 15th has "breath reeling" - it's not a 24 hour clock). An easy form - I've used it.
  • "Petrarchan Lyric Variation" is a sonnet - a traditional constraint. There may well be more to it, but I didn't notice anything.

The concluding 2-page index is fun. Here's one entry - "Birmingham, dismissively reduced to indexical terms (see bus-stops, crowds, fountains, monuments), 21; described as dirty and decrepit, 8".

So what should we make of these variations on a theme by Turner? "berhyme taunter" or "a berhyme nutter"? Is it niche-transcending or just "good of its type"? Do the poems hold their own? Are they too gimmicky, or is this the acceptable face of Oulipo? How useful are the various constraints? The over-arching, unifying constraint on the subject matter adds technical interest, and is a loose analogue to a jazz performer's variations on a theme, but it doesn't help with the individual poems' impact. For example I think the "Flatpack" idea could be better exploited were the poem entitled "Flatpack Lord's Prayer".

One type of ideal poem would have an ingeniously complex form that integrates with the content, the poem being liked by the uninitiated. In practice, at least one aspect needs to be compromised. Readers will have differing preferences regarding what should be sacrificed. For me, "being liked" is the priority, though I'm prepared to accept a reduction if the form is innovative, relevant to the plot, or difficult to produce. There are 14 poems in this pamphlet. "tl;dr", "Album of the Week", "Opposite day", "Anglo-American Blues ..." and "Flatpack" are easy to do, and don't work for me (even if the idea is justifiable, the result is far too long for inclusion in a pamphlet). I suspect some of the others would struggle in isolation too.

But the point is that they're not isolated. They come as a well-designed package. They depend on each other, and improve in each other's company. The value of "What a feeling, to step out of the musty/ twilight bookshop air with a collection" is enhanced by comparing it with what it could have been. The whole is better than the parts, a justification of the pamphlet format - the poems don't outstay their welcome, and their peers are never far away, always ready to offer support.

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