Major Label Verse
Faber and Faber
The release of Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities has quickly become a case study in how easy it is for a young writer to be damned by the praise of the middlebrow mediascape. As the new Faber poet du jour, Riviere has become a minor literary celebrity, but his work is feted for all the wrong reasons. Reviewers have taken both his title (an ostensible dig at the coalition government’s austerity measures) and the origin of the poems (in a series of “poetry posts” on a blog begun in 2010) as an indication that Riviere offers a sort of magic synthesis of political engagement and tech-savvy modernistic innovation.
In one sense, it is a shame that 81 Austerities has been hyperbolised almost out of existence by the casual blandishments of the bourgeois literati (Ruth Padel, for example, argued that the poems “have a lovely energy”, in a queasily gushing Guardian review). The collection is not, all things considered, so bad. Against a backdrop of polarisation in British poetry between an aging avant-garde and a conservative mainstream, Riviere’s formless circumlocutions at least have the virtues of eccentricity and gaucheness, two qualities that are relatively rare in major label contemporary verse.
Riviere’s basic mode, adopted in almost all of the 81 short poems contained in the book, is the unpunctuated monologue. This template is typically used to communicate allegories of hipster culture and the vicissitudes of adolescent or post-adolescent experience, as in the following gap-year-esque conceit-poem, “All the Happiness You’ll Ever Need”:
the sun in paris rides a skateboard
giving everyone high-fives winking
at a man whose wife leans out from
a first-floor hotel balcony standing
by a fish stall in the still shady streets
of the disgusting latin quarter at 7 a.m.
having violet eyes like you-know-who
and lighting the unlit cigarettes of two
american boys with very serious hair
wearing plain white T-shirts and then
it’s off going waterskiing up the seine
The formula allows for occasional rhymes (who/two, then/seine) and near-rhymes (from/a.m.) but these are incidental and even arbitrary. What is being foregrounded is a discourse that mirrors the untrammeled loquaciousness of the text message, the quickly written email, the botched website pop-up advert. This is not an entirely pointless formal trick in itself, but in any deeper sense it does not seem to have a point. There is no situationist détournement, no attempt to run the language of technological modernity back against itself as a means of subversion. And neither is there any attempt to parachute in different lexical registers—as someone like J.H. Prynne might—as a means both of ironising and elevating text-message discourse so that it becomes something strange, jarring, and, perhaps, ultimately ennobling. This is what a good poem is, but Riviere’s apparent attempt to write something like a text-message poem is ultimately just a text message, albeit one with a metaphor and a goofball phraseology tacked on for effect.
Perhaps a more generous approach would be to judge Riviere by the standards of his own frame of reference. After all, 81 Austerities does not align itself with the situationists or with the strongest of the UK’s late-modernists, but with a range of less austere, non-British predecessors. The most insistent of this book’s ghosts is Frank O’Hara, whose breathless urban egoism and short-gains lyric ironies register Riviere’s room tone. O’Hara’s transformation of witty improvisation into a high art form in the 1950s and 60s licensed countless subsequent poets to name-check their artist friends, apostrophise pop culture institutions, wax anarchically surrealist about the “real world,” and write about lunch. Riviere takes up the mantle with great brio, doing all of these things with a heavy-handed contemporary twist and ruthless consistency. O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” becomes, in his hands, “I hate this/I love that.” In Riviere’s hands, O’Hara’s flair for irony subsides into ironized flair:
One Note Solo
it depends if he is genuine or not
if he is it is wonderfully expressive
sensitive overt yet subtle brave art
if he is not it is an arrogance and
conceit a concept daring to see
how stupid people can be how much
they can be conned by confidence
it’s a confidence trick that if he gets
pleasure from makes him in my eyes
an arsehole to do something like that
although it could be argued if the
audience are aware of his exhibitionism
and enjoy the twist to a normal stage
performance it is no matter what his
psychology is and he would not be an
arsehole or a twat only he himself
knows how much of his planned act
however planned is motivated by
honesty and how much is disingenuous
absurdism if that distinction can be made
Yes, the distinction can be made. “One Note Solo” indeed: this is the sound of one hand clapping for itself. Here, the poet’s failure to out-ironize his own irony does not activate a new kind of “honesty” (as it does, say, in O’Hara’s frenetic late poem “Biotherm”)—rather, it strips the poem of all interest. You can’t dig into “One Note Solo,” or almost any other poem in this collection, and what’s the point of merely skating over its surface?
Poetry, of course, has always been a dying art, hence the proliferation of “apologies” over the centuries. Poetry’s failure—to capture experience, to change the world, to have itself heard—is the poetic convention par excellence. Good poets bring this dead art back to life again and again, Frankenstein-style; bad poets whine about its death in the idiom of the day. The idiom of our day is the choppy unpunctuated monologue, the voice of endless mediation, staginess, and pixelated solipsism:
All day I have been watching women
crush ripe tomatoes in their cleavage
whatever you think of
someone’s already done it
there’s a new kind of content
pre-empting individual perversions
I’ve seen my missing girlfriend’s face
emerge cresting from a wave of pixels
I sleep with a [rec] light at the foot
of my bed. . .
But does this really allegorise our collective loneliness? Or is it just scabrous faux-confessionalism? Computers, recording devices, missing girlfriends, crushed ripe tomatoes in cleavages. Yawn. He’s right about one thing, though: “whatever you think of / someone’s already done it.” Hasn’t the face of atomized postmodern identity crested toward us before?
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
So writes John Ashbery in 1975. Thirty-seven years later, Riviere trades in the convex mirror for the computer screen, and replaces Ashbery’s suave facture with the art of the blog post.
But, one might object, these poems are not intended to be taken so seriously: if anything, they are lively, wry snapshots of our amphetaminised tech-zeitgeist and don’t aspire to be thousand-year art. They are made for rapid consumption, and if they also prompt reflection on consumerist excesses, so much the better. Maybe. But even so, it seems important to take 81 Austerities to task for the way it so casually condescends to engage with “big issues”: austerity cuts, of course, but also the “rich/poor gap,” “the destruction of the rainforests,” the expansion of pornography into the public sector. The book is opportunistic in the worst way, reducing the vulnerable position of artists, and of cultural institutions more generally, into a facile governing conceit—a mere pretext for surfing the zeitgeist.
“Effortless, wide ranging and confident” (the Forward Prize judges). “Refreshingly modern, accessible and self-aware” (Varsity). “A sexy book” (the Independent). This collection wouldn’t merit such a caustic review, but given the often scarily ineloquent, uncritical responses it has received elsewhere, some sort of leveling action seems vital. The culture industry has taken a xeroxed précis of some of the best late-twentieth century verse, and spruced it up for the literary prize circuit in lieu of the real deal. Once again, another generation of readers will have to learn to look harder and further than the dead centre of market orthodoxy for a more authentic, less presumptuous new bearing in British poetry.
Alex Niven and Stephen Ross are senior editors at the Oxonian Review.