25 May, 2015Issue 28.3Literary CriticismOriginal Poetry

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Notes Towards a Character-Based Poetics

Leo Mercer

Faber New Poets
Rachael Allen, Faber New Poets 9
Will Burns, Faber New Poets 10
Zaffar Kunial, Faber New Poets 11
Declan Ryan, Faber New Poets 12
Faber and Faber, 2014
£5 each
24 pages each
ISBNs: 9780571321209, 9780571321216,
9780571321223, 9780571321230

This is the final instalment of a three-part series on contemporary poetics.

* * *

when im looking from this standpoint – ie when this silly ecxessively-excitable, overrhetorical artistic faux-vizionary tendency comes over me – i get a clearer (??) sense of why the faberrr pamphlets, despite their internal sophishtication, fall short for me: its because theyr not now enough.. they use an inherited/borrowed aesthetic in a world where language is alive+changign. the artsitic faculties they make use of seem more like quiet reflection than creativ discovry. ultimately the poems show few signs of being written now:::they are tired themes in almost-spent styles::: themes & styles both obey the law of diminishishing returns.

so 1st w/regard to theme: what the pamphlets talk about doesnt surprise me.. as a reader if i need a poem about complex identities and nostalgia for past englands and etc etc my bookshelfs know where to look, which means i dont need new poems on those subjects on my shelf.. the theme is legtimate but not urgent.. poetic urgency comes about when theres something newish in ure life and you realise waitaminute i dont have betterthannormal language for the thigns that are biggest to u..

the new thing to talk about, atm, which is shared in everyone’s’ life, has to have something to do with the virtual &the tangled web of things that that that entails (which jsnt to say this has to dominate yhe poems, just like, remember to at least say hello internet). this theme is just beginning its poeticizsation, and tech niques are stil being searhcing for . it is, of course, a shakey poetic subject: what is effemeral, and what lasts (as if lasting was a fundamental poetic value..) but still, to ignore it seems wasting sumthing both humanly and artsically valauble.

yeah, so consider for eg the role these new technologies plays in these pamphlets.. on one level, its objectivized: the computer screen is like lichen or a fridge, just another thing with the gimmicky ubervirtue of nowness. such as Kunial ending his reading of Dickens with ‘I’ll pack my Kindle away’. in both Burns’ and Ryan’s, we only encounter a sense of contemporary technology through a poem (in both!!) called ‘Transmission’. for Burns’ speaker, the pylon stands for another contemporary thing he cant quite get his head around: ‘What are the pylons or high speeds / through the tamed and thewy earth’. in Ryan’s, the internet is part of the world he lives in ( hes listening to a recording) but it indicates a now-decreasing division between screen and Reality.

its not unenough, this direction: eevrything onliney realy can be a source of new metafors and images. but Allen gives us sumthing more..: the internet becomes a space we actually live in. there are the hills, there is the home, there is the homepage. ‘Maybe once our eyes met through a satellite or something I think maybe that’s too romantic’, Allen writes. the doubt’s apt, but ultimately isnt too romantic:: giving that sharp beautiful image enchants it, liek the more traditional enchantment of ‘Kingdomland’ on the previus page. only in her poems is there an implicit recognition that techolnogy creates a space we live in, its not just an object we use.. and thatthe internet is a site of rich and genuine social interaction, as much as any other. only in her poems do i feel as though a part of me that doesnt have poetry scripted for it already is being created.

the 2st way in which something becomes clearly now is stylitsic, but again, this is all almost old hat: old forms, old words, old sentences. This is a fundamentally old way of writing; any advances are small and subtle. Perhaps you could say there is a proficient but dull subtlety (or subtle dullness (dubtle)) thruout. the exception again is Allen. in ‘Maybe once our eyes met through a satellite or something I think maybe that’s too romantic’, the conjunction of the two sentences – the informality of ‘or something’ – is tweetical – familiar – down to earth – but still poetic in a nowy way.

ulti mately i wanna take Will Burns’ ‘Tools’ and twist it into a comentatary on its own language:

The canvas bag
just sits there, full of tools
that are old and rusted.

Hand-turned screwdrivers
with mechanisms locked
up through lack of use.

thats langwidge, an inexhhaustibly vibrant tool box, but closed up by lack of use!!! so if this is the best of nowish poetry, then yeah, poetry’s nice and all that, but wait-a-minute if i feel stronger about finding feeling meaning excitement insight etc than i do about lip-servicing the poetry industy ‚Üí the place to look for poetry is where where language is alive we shouldn’t look to pPoetry; yo yo let me just seachr the internet for the biggest crap of aliveness and spontinuity and otherstuff and trueth in language

or better , poetry, which can do so much but is doing so little, shud get closer to life


obv, theres no *need* to use a poem as a form of alert mindfulness. but doing so – and in general searching for alternative esthetics – goes nicely with a sortof positive ethics, in particular re:being a contempory poet. there’s something valuable (tho not obligatory) in an individaul growing, expanding out, capturing/feeling more of life n the possibilitys of life; and so for a poet, in choosing to travel somewhere different – new mindplanets – in order to share (think writing as an act of sharing:) is something pretty yeahworthy.

poerty captures a time &the past has already been cauhgt.the old life will remain lived by those who wish to::: it has its poetry(/art) to crownN it, to liturgicize it. new lifestyles, tho , are wating for a poetry of thier own, and the quest ion is how new poets can help do that. the poems we learn how to write belong in a different world than the poems we can invent how to write. art can expand the possibilities of uhman being. art can expand the possibilities of hmuan being.

language is prisonish, we have lockd ourselfs into it. just as talking only in received pronounciation british would stifle individuality&possibility&beautiy&history in language, so too grammar and spelling and the dictatorial dicktionary are an iron cage that invisiblexists in the space around us, and following the internets lead in brakeing that down has something to do with freedom, sumthng to do with allow other forms of consciousness and life and communication and thoughts to have a chance to surface legitiamtely and appreciatedly. expand lanugage, expand life.

but even if u accept beong contemporary as some sort of aim, the art that is contempporary isnt merely that. the aim of a contemporary art is not to be contemporary, but to take its leap of imagination from the contemproary. contemporanaeity is a starting point not an endpoint. (he says confidently, passionately, and without any caveats…;^) at the veyr least,as a foundation for some new ideas re:poetics, character-based poetics seems to have such littl virtues as being rooted in contemporary ideas without being tied to them, of finding a new way of being intense with language


so yeah .i might be having a passionate empty puff-a-huff about poetry, i dunno. the faber poetry’s all good, all nice, all lovely, but after all this I cant say much more than that the truth is: i feel sometimes something is lacking, for eg i know i want poetry to engage other parts of myself than the thoughtful pastfocussed armchairsitting bit, i want it to bring to life exciting parts of me that langauge *could* brign to life,

its like, when i try to edge towards aesthetic ideas more my own, try to be more timely/risky, i feel that these faber poems dont feel as though they articulate confuzed sprawlsplurging inattentivised etcing me-as-i-am-at-this-moment, the techniques they use are like a poetic-instagram, developed over the last centyur as ways of touching up a range of poetic emotions. thats not fair, as each of these poets in some way has taken control of their language and made it their beautiful own, but the points at least a littlebit true: there’re emerging ways of doing poetry that are suited to articulating emerging states of being, and i kind of want to see more of **that** enter what seems to be mainstream. so yes, im judging these poems on ground that is foreign to them – but its natural to me. or if its not natural to me yet, its the place id prefer to inhabit, or to atvl help make that strangeeland more homeable. i hope my criticism is as illuminational as it is illegitimate.

&tbh when i was reading these hypedup pamphletos i was looking for, as i think any person really interested in new poetry probs is, some newnew *great poet*, tho already thoughting i sort-of-know in my head what that’d look like. cos, well. . rli great poets seem to do two things.. the 1st is create that body of work which articulates sumthing important with unexpected/constant force, so becuming an everrenewable powersource. The 2st is to develop a set of techniques that makes order out of linguistic chaos, and real possibilitude out of what was merely dormant potentialdom. In the first, its the poems content that is given to others; in the second, its the vessels create d for other people to fill from then on. at best, that person creates the aesthetic and uses it well. so like: a poet is a user of language , and its engineer.

declan ryan’s ‘When We Were Kings’ actually works pretty gorgeatiously when read as a commentary on poetry, it gives a rich and v beautiful voice to my confusion (genuinely, confusion). and i love it. its a poem that looks back to a golden age ‘when whales swam in our rivers’. this is the monarchic age, we are back with the poetkings Chaucer and Shakespeare, and even then poetry was a dying art! (poets finds life on the deathbed lol). in reality, poets are always ‘neither thriving nor heartsick yet’… we’re always in the middle. those old poets, as the current ones, are foreigners in there own land, ‘branded with an exile’s stamp’. ok, now: so they the-readership are ‘fable-thirsty’, they desire this thing called poetry, but the poets of their own age are just wwweird. so no one’s sure ‘why these whales / in particular were news-worthy’. except.. i know why are these pamphlets are newsworthy,.. its because theyre good, but standardly good; theyre beautiful, but standardly beautiful.. but im dying to see’s poetry which is newsworthy beyond the poeticular, a poetry which does something unsettling, challenging or timely, which is enough part of language but enough notpart of it to make us have to question: what is the particular news-worthiness of this poem.

‘The fact remained:’, the poem closes, ‘it was in our rivers they had failed’. So (returning to properer consciousness) here I am, liking these pamphlets more every time I read them, but wondering if they’re sufficiently true to my me, true to these times, wondering what can be done – by poets, by publishers, by readers – to give greater space and voice to a poetry that is present, to make our the waters in the river fresh and let poetry flourish in a new way. As Ryan’s poem implies, the responsibility for creating great but genuinely new poetry is a collective not individual one.

Leo Mercer is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College. His work is published on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube.