Saturday, 13 September 2008

can you hear the colours of autumn?

David Bellingham, Fresh Fruit + Tables, 2008
Fresh Fruit + Tables is a book of -- what d'you call'em: thought constructions maybe, or language drawings -- by the artist David Bellingham (who was recently featured in the V&A display Certain Trees). Bellingham is a kind of micro explorer of language, non-verbal signs and marks, his short trips yield specimens and anecdotes often witty, but rarely slick or slight.

Consider the 2-page spread (where the obliques are line or page breaks):
INTERIOR / an absence of most things // EXTERIOR / a presence of most things.

Or a little thing where the words MORNING and EVENING are handwritten to the same physical length, one above the other, two line-spaces apart. On the intervening lines, the letter O, between the first instance of letter N in each word, thus reading NOON vertically (I can't make the html here hold it). You can see these, and indeed download the whole book: Lots of the pieces are about how apparent opposites are not unlike in the same way. Quite a few are about mensuration (a long-time DB theme), especially, in this case, of time. They use type, drawing or writing (sometimes a mixture), and it would be interesting in each case to decide why. The combination of means, and tenor of the ideas, are enormously original I think.

Fresh Fruit & Tables was launched today Saturday 13 Sept. at The Changing Room, Stirling (Scotland) on the triple occasions of the Stirling Book Festival, the celebrations of 500 years of printing in Scotland, and an exhibition by David Bellingham. The book is being distributed free to selected libraries in the UK, a few of whom have been supplied with many copies so that individual readers can take away a copy for themselves. The only ones outside Scotland are in London: the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Poetry Library at the South Bank Centre. Come to the NAL during the month of September, and hopefully there will be a copy left for you.

Monday, 25 August 2008

The society of the poem

It's got to stop! more than 20 books have come into my library this month, about half acquired during a short stay in Hay on Wye last week. Among them: Jonathan Raban, The Society of the Poem (Harrap, 1971) (£3.50 in the Cinema). This is a really enjoyable and interesting read: Raban was clearly deeply engaged in all the poetry of the moment and provides a selective, organised, appreciative but always sharply critical survey of all aspects. The range of his attention is remarkable by today's standards: he is able to understand 'The Whitsun Weddings' and 'The North Atlantic Turbine' as epochal works (as well as to see their self-exhausting limits).

He responds to Olson's 'typographical imagination ... always visually subtle and satisfying' (p. 77); and in the chapter 'Words Alone' (pp. 95-111) he discusses concrete poetry, locating its rationale and force in a reaction – alongside other poetic modes of minimalism, parataxis and cut-up/collage – against socio-linguistic alienation. He finds it at times both childish (in good and bad ways) and Puritanical, and views its strategies as a type of realism, often seeming merely to resemble the fragmentary messages it wants freedom from. He proposes that 'it operates most satisfactorily as a wing of literary criticism' (p. 109).

Other themes around which chapters are loosely organised are language; form; 'the politics of poetic structure', with a rather penetrating aperçu (I thought) that 'just as the centre has congealed in Anglo-American culture, so the right and the left have moved farther apart, defining themselves not against each other but against the consensus in the middle' (p. 74); tradition; 'voice' and dramatic monologue; place. A penultimate chapter considers three recently published collections -- Crow, Lowell's Notebook, and one by Charles Tomlinson. Raban finds the Lowell to be the nearest thing to a 'masterpiece' published in the previous few decades. (He went on not only to edit a Lowell Selected (1974) – which H., with his usual amazing nose, spotted for me a couple of days ago in the secondhand bookshop at Putney Bridge – but also, according to Wikipedia, to become Lowell's lodger.)

Despite some clear hints earlier ('The house of poetry has been split up into flats', p. 61) – Raban's grasp of the field made it seem as though a happier and more vigorous poetic plurality pertained in 1970 than does today. However his final chapter describes 'an atmosphere thick in plots and delusions' (p. 173), and though there are some significant differences (too complex for me to regale now) it's clear that some new dissociation of sensibility had already happened – this long before the so-called 'Poetry Wars'. Or do we just always require a golden-age pre-Babel fantasy as dialectical motivation?

In the end the restless Raban settles slightly disappointingly on a conservative analysis:
'what we need now, much more than the most daring experiment in anti-language and post-poetry, is a vocabulary for discriminating seriously between some poems and others; a language of preference and value' (p. 183). Anyway what is great about this book is not this conclusion but the vivid reminder of what was going on in poetry in Britan 40 years ago; how much that is still important, and how some basic issues still pertain.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008


'Certain Trees' display (part), V&A, image thanks to Ian Whittlesea'Certain Trees: the Constructed Book, Poem & Object', V&A, London, Apr.-Aug. 2008.

Certain Trees: the Constructed Book, Poem and Object is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, just until Sunday 17 August. (In Gallery 74, 20th Century, Level 3. Free admission.) It is a beautiful small display of poet- and artist-publications and objects curated by Simon Cutts of Coracle Press (& faciliated in the museum by me) which implicitly shows how Coracle (based in London as a press and gallery from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s; now still publishing, from Ireland) was a nexus for an extraordinary company of people and work. This show lasted 8 weeks in the Independent's'Five best London exhibitions' listing.
Objects and publications by Martin Fidler and Simon Cutts. Image thanks to Ian Whittlesea.Objects, publications by Martin Fidler, Simon Cutts (with reflections).

It makes you think about format and idea, handwork, modesty of means, collaboration, reading and looking, ways to receive text, poetics of the image, creative influence of social formations ...

Publications by Moschatel Press (Thomas A. & Laurie Clark); print by IH finlay. Picture thanks to Ian Whittlesea.Case with work by Thomas A. & Laurie Clark, Robert Lax; print by I. H. Finlay.

Thanks to Ian Whittlesea for the pictures.

Sunday, 8 June 2008


Yesterday morning at Emma Hill's Eagle Gallery in Farringdon, an exhibition of artists' books, BOOK THINGS AND WORD WORKS. My favourite thing was Victoria Bean's 'Helvetica Poems', pairs of punctuation marks presented with 'lenticular lenses', enabling (or enforcing) the view to flip between them, e.g. a pair of angle brackets; square and round brackets (as Adam and Eve); a twinkling asterisk-star. Etc.

These reminded me of Stuart Mills's 'Poems for My Shorthand Typist', currently on show at the V&A in Certain Trees, consisting of single punctuation marks:
the sea-horse's poem: ?
the canal's poem =

Emma Hill publishes artists' books too, the latest being a book of poems by Jonathan Ward with single-colour, loosely-geometrical lino-cuts by Andrew Carter. The images are attractive, with a loose minimal geometricism. The poet gave a reading. The work seemed decent and relatively unpretentious apperceptions of family life and landscapes. Gave rise to reflections on the potential virtue of plainness, restricting linguistic effects to those found in ordinary speech of some middling sort, thus going straight for 'sulphur yellow' (heron), 'electric blue' (kingfisher), narrative of one's own sensations ('I close my eyes' -- rarely a good idea) etc. etc. I liked an extempore and unwitting move into Gomringerian concrete, uttered between poems:
those people
those people and those places
those people and those places and memory

Thence to the Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia. Focussed on non-London, and preferably non-British exhibitors, spending the longest time with Solstices, from Lille: modernist and surrealist artists' books, art exhibition catalogues. To die for: Hans Arp & Sophie Tauber's Muscheln und Schirme, their first collaboration: his poems, her drawings; typeset by Jan Tschischold. Sort of prefigured Gomringer's Constellations in Futura, with minimal drawings by Max Bill. Way out of my price range.

But I did fall for something else: Le Mirivis des Naturgies, poems and texts in a kind of French zaum by André Martel, written out in capitals, with lots of exclamation marks; and full-page abstract textural illustrations by Jean Dubuffet. Published by the College de Pataphysique in 1963 it is a photographic reproduction of a de luxe version with coloured lithographs, but this small black & white version is absolutely beautiful.

Henry Sotheran's antiquarian booksellers are nearly 100 years old. Their latest catalogue is a William Blake collection, much of which is on display on the walls of their downstairs room till the end of June.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

how spring comes

All of a sudden it seems, London trees are in full, bright leaf and candle, it's too hot, and I have a cold: aching, stuffed head, sore eyes ...

On Tuesday a strong brown package of unusually long thin proportions appeared in my work in-tray from the Harvest Book Company, Fort Washington, PA, a couple of weeks after the placing of my order on Abebooks. How Spring Comes, by Alice Notley (West Branch, Iowa: Toothpaste Press, March 1981) measures 27.6 x 16 cm. It is beautifully designed and produced, letterpress-printed on creamy, watermarked wove paper, in blue wrappers (upper and spine faded, and rather susceptible to new finger-marks and moisture spots) with a great title-page illustration by George Schneeman -- two stockings neatly draped on a coathanger -- in a second colour, pink, also used for a flower on the cover title. The anachronistic, private-press style is supported by a lengthy colophon (containing two errata, as noted on the t.p. verso, paratext upon paratext ...).

Reading this book, last night after attending a housing meeting, and this morning bunged-up and slightly feverish in bed, has at last sprung a huge pleasure in Alice Notley's work. On Saturday a group of people convened by Carol Watts at Birkbeck will spend the day reading and discussing her poems (with Alice herself present). Greatly looking forward to this, yet the preparation has felt to date a little like homework. But here I love the tight strung sparkle of the personal domestic quotidian; the energy of thought; the surprise as every poem embarks quite differently from the previous.

--bum & zoom. leaving & yet never this awful old
this dark ocean life that hardly sees comes &
flashes on the sofa sits as Ms. Missa Brevis--
to go to try to find the rail between names.
('September's Book', opening lines)

Great talent is in the ear for speech, juxtaposing different registers, pasting on idiomatic elements, running to experiments in male impersonation ("I am man who dazzles ... in the park / with glasses" ('September's Book'), 'Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice'); this also tends to position away dramatically the 'real' first person, freeing the young poet-wife-and-mother to exhibit the facts and concerns of her life in a way that doesn't seem solipsistic (where the leisured absorption in her own mind of longer, later works have initially struck me that way -- my own deficient attention likely most to blame ...).

These aspects of voice and drama relate to the Frank O'Hara influence Notley often acknowledges (e.g. here, 'A True Acount of Talking to Judy Holiday, October 13'). But many other techniques come into play: the dynamic necklace of names from fiction in 'A California Girlhood'; the litany of reversed life-narrative in 'Jack Would Speak ...'; the proverbial saws piled up in 'The Prophet', and throughout the book, a virtuosity with different types of line, from the taut and rather monumental-for-its-size 'For Willa Cather', through the very long lines of 'The Prophet', via the long-and-short work of the 6th section of 'September's Book'; this poem is on its own a whole primer of different approaches. Exhilarating, menthol.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

2007, some books (6)

J.H. Prynne, Field Notes: 'The Solitary Reaper' and Others. (Cambridge, available from Barque.) This book (of which due to other pressures my reading is currently suspended half-way through) looks like a scholarly periodical issue or (e.g.) an on-demand dissertation: plain dark blue paper wrappers with nothing printed except the title on the spine (albeit that in silver); the text inside photographically reduced directly from authorial copy. It lacks the common articulations of most either standard or academic books: contents page, chapters, even footnotes (let alone an index). Its 134 pages contain in fact 54 numbered sections (of very variable lengths) in 3 Parts, of which the first is the point by point 'Commentary' on Wordsworth's poem, preceded by contextual notes; the second is a series of commented quotations from a range of sources including historic documentary and modern criticism that can be brought to bear on the poem; and the third expands by way of analogue a rural encounter in W.H. Hudson. It is surprisingly difficult to establish these contents: this is not a book one can get any sense out of by just flicking through. Fruit of a massive immersion in all the associations and implications focussed by its subject, the study resists consumption by any less diligent appetite. It brings to bear a huge amount of reference on agricultural life and practices, folksong, acoustics, and much else. The critical reading of the poem is imbricated in all of this, rather than merely supported by it: there's no 'Conclusion'. Thematically it speaks slightly to the Oceanographer of oral-aural / literal-visual boundaries of language and intelligibility, but the thoughts on work, and on the potentialities of listening to music returned me to thoughts of my poem for Roger Smith's & Adam Bohman's CD last year; while the question of obscurity and receptive meaningfulness ("will no-one tells me what she sings?" etc) have been related (e.g. in Seamus Perry's review, TLS, 25 Jan.) to issues of poetics around Prynne's own poetry. For the scanning eye however there are two illustrations, of reaping scenes in wood-engraved vignettes (enlarged). In that on the title page, the reaper is indeed 'solitary', close-up amid wheat stalks nearly as tall as he, but the tail-piece shows two -- again male -- working together, and a view of their village beyond the field. The other plain thing is the fold-out text of 'The Solitary Reaper', which can thus be kept in view simultaneously with any other page.

For those of us who have not had the privilege of being taught by Prynne, this absorbing book might suggest why his influence seems so strong on those who have. It makes reading a poem an investigation of real life.

Monday, 14 January 2008

2007, some books (5) ('you want marks')

Frances Kruk, dig oubliette. Hackney: yt communication, 2006 (OK, out of time, that's in the spirit of this tardy blog).
Frances is a virtuoso of dreck, working with an Elite-face typewriter (12 characters to the inch), fingers and other inkable objects, bits of torn paper and/or other flat media that can overlap or stop-out. Moving everything around so the 'writing' is rarely merely perpendicular to the page-edge, scratting, splurging and defacing texts that are themselves full of uncontrolled organic matter, squirting, rotting, staining, oozing, encrusting, filth ... One series is called 'Spillages', another consists of 8 purely visual (finger painted?) pages. Rather in the spirit of Bob Cobbing's work with Xerox, but (in this book anyway) the copying process is I think transparent to the autographic page (I culd be wrong about two or three pages near the beginning). Pierre Garnier does 'dirty' typewriting like this sometimes. The covers (thick texured orange paper) are I think individually hand-decorated, with black ink streaks and splashes. And yet 'smudge fest' is not the whole of it. There is actually a very 'clean' sense of design, so each page blooms a constellation. Some text is mirrored (using acetates then?). The 3-page sequence 'pretty:' is a classically Concrete minimal pair reiterated ('blood' 'flood'), but staged toward illegibility through overlay, and also dynamically impinged with splodged and then flowing (or tentacular?) graphic matter. It would be a mistake to underestimate this work just because it seems visually and thematically readily recognisable. Actually I think it is distinctively and valuably poised in an unusual space between poetry and drawing; and I'm coming to appreciate these pages -- like 'Spillage 3' and 'plunge ... PLUG for your LIFE' -- more every time I look at them.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

2007, some books (1-4)

So, this is a slow blog. (And I haven't even finished reading most of these.)

Emily Critchley, When I say I believe women ... (London: Bad Press). (2nd corr. ed.)
The title piece might seem like a 'personal poem', anachronistic outcry, but dressed as an essay, neat side- and footnotes (albeit neurotic scratchouts). But I think it is the converse, an experiment in thinking, through a pain object of indignation that should damn right have currency. Print can be in conflict and have manners and style. The poem sequence also should be read. (I might talk about the tilde-dash and parentheses.) Very nice production by Bad Press, striking cover by Marianne Morris.

Simon Cutts, as if it is at all. (New York: Granary Books & Coracle [Ballybeg], UK distr. Cornerhouse.) 'Some poems 1995-2006'. Working in a long tradition that grew out of and against Concrete, minimalism is more apparent than attention-seeking layout, with analogues in the continuing practice of Thomas A Clark and Eugen Gomringer. Many pieces are I think 'found' -- isn't that a reductive misnomer for the processes of sensibility and transformation involved? -- perhaps one might rather say 'encountered'. Here the process seems especially to reduce and concentrate, a culinary analogy. The Coracle website quotes Jamie Oliver, something like, 'This isn't cordon bleu, this is din-dins'. But it entirely depends what you think is chemically and nutritionally fundamental; in this case it's pretty refined. (In a good way.) There is some deep discovered thinking in things like: what looks like a contents page in fact indexes the words of the book's title through the poems. The blurb is an apologia for the 'selected' nature of the contents, 'whose format, type and space may present an ideal unification for the new accumulation'. Few poets would scruple so. An absolutely happy book to have & hold.

John Hall, Couldn't you? poems for pages. (Exeter: Shearsman). Another poet and artist scrupulous of the relation between word and support. Some poems here too had previous instantiations in other media but they land lightly on the page and arrange themselves, as a flock of dancers runs onstage and accurately scatters. 'Here and There' for instance is a short prose sequence designed for the precise width of this published page (so each ends with a full line, giving the impression of a possibly random cylinder of text extracted from a continuous sequence, but not actually so). The design and production processes that enable Shearsman to put substantial and materially very decent books by under-read writers into the world, though they can accommodate extended techniques including images and non-typeset elements sometimes -- e.g. in Frances Presley's wonderful Myne (2006) -- can leave them (the books) a bit kind of affectless, to my mind. Still, mustn't grumble.

Lynsey Hanley, Estates: an intimate history. (London: Granta.)
A history-with-autobiography of post-war social housing in Britain is totally out of scope here, but the Oceanographer inhabits an 8th-floor flat in a council estate block ... The author's particular interest however is the huge green-field developments mainly of houses such as she grew up in, and the relation to modernist architectural aspirations isn't really analysed. It is a pessimistic view, with little hope that public housing estates as such can be redeemed from the stigmas and problems associated with them. But to live in a quiet, off-road, treed environment in London transport zone 1/2 feels like a privilege (and living up high can powerfully counter depression, though associated with the reverse).

More to follow, tomorrow maybe.