John Wilkinson: Vehement Lyric

  John Wilkinson

  Vehement Lyric

  JPR 09

This talk was written for the one-day symposium on my essay collection The Lyric Touch (Cambridge: Salt 2007) held at the Centre for Modernist Studies, University of Sussex, on 23rd June 2011, and had been scheduled for now-cancelled publication in a collection of the conference papers. The symposium followed shortly after the conference ‘The Legacies of Modernism: The State of British Poetry Today’ held at Université Paris-Diderot on 9th-11th June 2011, to which the talk makes extensive allusion; papers from this conference have subsequently been published in ed. Abigail Land & David Nowell Smith, Modernist Legacies: Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). Since ‘Vehement Lyric’ was so much shaped by two occasions, I have resisted revision except for one or two stylistic improvements. It was pleasing to discover The Lyric Touch has its legacies, and the evidence that these legacies include resistance
as well as affirmation showed that the book
still has legs.

Paragraph One follows 1:

One evening last week on the invitation of a friend I went to the exhibition opening of the year’s work of her visual arts access course. She hadn’t told me anything about her own small collection, based on reconstructions of book covers, rendered in various materials, each inscribed in minute text with a passage from the book concerned; nor warned me that one of these books was my own The Lyric Touch, the only cover reconstructed as an incised sheet of silver metal. So as I peered at it to identify the textual incisions, the straw man of the original cover was replaced by my ghostly and distracted face.

British poet John Wilkinson. Copyright National Humanities Centre, USA.


This was an apt effect since The Lyric Touch is no more than the patched-together screen of a decades-long writing life. Everything included had been written primarily to think about poetry that compelled me, except the paper ‘Following the Poem’ which was a job talk for my first academic job and so my last call on an unprofessional vocation. Most pieces responded to poems and books of poems read as texts received from elsewhere in Birmingham, Dudley, London or Swansea. These responses were careless of feelings other than my own. I recognised no community outside my various workplaces. Enthusiastic critical writing was not where I wanted to hedge, because what I was writing about was poetry that kept me going, and to be untruthful would have been more disrespectful to it than to be unkind. Too much depended on these poems. Perhaps more should have been invested in poets, but I had been trained from schooldays in practical criticism, and before the internet, geographical separation reinforced textual detachment.


When I strayed from my friend’s artwork to sample the rest of the exhibition I felt hollowed out by its clumsiness, as though this were my own mess. In most cases the artist had an idea and had been persuaded or had persuaded her- or himself that its formal execution was unimportant – many statements attached suggested that the art was Conceptual, although this term bore little relation to the term’s high art lineage. In practice it meant the artist couldn’t be bothered to put in the work needed for faktura to become intelligent. Diluted traces of French theory could be picked out from amidst child-like handwriting. An inert strain of political art was paraded, that is, not political at all but merely signifying ‘political’ through slogans against the Conservative-Liberal Coalition and the Murdoch press, nothing like a forensic or acerbic coming to grips with global finance.

Rupert Murdoch in London, June 14 2017, photo by Tolga Akmen /LNP/REX/Shutterstock/Vanity Fair/Pinterest


A slogan ironised in a degree show – surely the sorriest detritus of the political. Upsetness displayed because an artist must feel intensely. But in most displays the feeling was sentimental, relying on a heap of tacky manifestations alongside the artist’s statement to guarantee it. No craft aesthetic here, although tackiness was sometimes patched with a needlepoint obsessionality. Sometimes sentiment was married with cruelty, as in a display of latex singlets hung from meathooks like the flayed skins of children. Lumps of fatty matter on a shelf nearby showed you don’t need to crash-land in a Stuka to get elemental. Such a compendium of debased modernisms might have induced nostalgia for craft except that the few graphic works with a high finish invoked pornography more than businesslike gloss. I longed for a hand-thrown pot! Or struggle in thick paint!


As a group these presentations looked like nothing so much as the pathetic shrines commemorating children run over by cars. Spontaneous at first, such shrines have become a genre. So what I saw was indeed the fallout, the take-it-or-leave-it, the ragged mementoes spun out from my peering into the shiny tablet of The Lyric Touch, a parody of the opening of Mallarmé’s ‘Crise de Vers’, bits and pieces scattered about the exhibition space. All around me the tradition of the new, trashed. And the history of the stuff I do, flung about as in a childish tantrum.

Stéphané Mallarmé by Nadar


I felt stranded and oppressed in this world of objects awkward in their objecthood, these tawdry remnants. My book’s warped mirror caused me to reflect that the British poets I wrote about had been students or adolescents in 1968, and in different ways their writing had remained true to that historical moment, committed to a stance of imaginative forwarding even through the despondent years of Thatcher and Blair. What extreme perversity had been required to sustain this, from Barry MacSweeney’s syndicalism to J.H. Prynne’s Maoism to Douglas Oliver’s Spirit Party voodoo to Wendy Mulford’s Christianity.

Venn diagram an a window of the upstairs luncheon room at Gonville and Caius College, where Mr Prynne often ate.


These versions of an imagined future had been held onto for dear life, and further exaggerated the more a counter-word to administrative reason became a human necessity. There must be an imaginable otherness. Despite the confabulated past projected by the Miners’ Strike as a possible future, the imperative for the sixties generation was fiercely unrestrained by cultural conservatism. How could the tepid municipal culture of post-war Britain, with its houses ashamed of glass and its coffee afraid of coffee, with its worry about what people might think, with its boiled potato meagreness of menu, especially for women’s lives, ever have been celebrated except ironically? Even marching to Saltley Gates we knew that the miners’ leadership had no imaginative force, and it was the miners’ wives who inspired the Greenham Common women – prospective as well as tenacious. No, the municipal art tip I wandered about last week was a betrayal of the imagination and hope sustained through the intervening years by poets, artists, teachers, social workers, nurses and who knows how many more of that generation. They were sure in their calling despite political and tabloid disdain, and despite the bureaucracy which the free market’s incursions into so-called human services and so-called cultural industries have only exacerbated.

British (St Ives) artist John Hilton apparently attempting to put his own foot through his own canvas. Photo supplied by John Wilkinson.


A week earlier, at the conference ‘The Legacies of Modernism’ in Paris, Drew Milne had delivered a pitiless and breathtaking typology of poetic deformations and exhausted attitudes in what he called ‘clever young dude poetry’, conjuring a cascade of glittering negativity. Keston Sutherland re-read Marxist dialectic to confront his audience with a Hobson’s choice between hoarding and squander. Negating the negation produced more negatives. Not only clever young dudes were bound to wince, as both Milne and Sutherland exposed the unavoidable traps. Simon Jarvis showed how the bullet points of Sutherland’s ‘Hot White Andy’ left no room for argument, which is the point of bullet points. A knowingly implausible utopianism was diagnosed throughout the conference, for instance by Nadini Sankar on Peter Riley’s obdurate humanism. You would think the imaginary had died, ground into the surfaces like granite polish. Sutherland showed how two opposed senses of seizure in Beckett and Michaux were succeeded in J.H. Prynne’s late poetry by co-dependent seizures, an immobile and epileptic machinery. Prynne was thereby revealed to have attached latterly to the generation of 1989 along with Milne and Sutherland and many others at the conference, the generation kettled between the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the tanks of Tiananmen Square, the choke point, the inescapable fault.

British poet Drew Milne

British poet Keston Sutherland reads in Helsinki


An optimistic view of this impasse was taken by Romana Huk, reading from an American perspective what I call ‘vehement lyric’ as carrying an entirely different valency from lyric in American verse culture. There the spread of creative writing programmes helped to debase ‘lyric’ into a self-absorbed and sentimental notation of personal experience (or so the hackneyed story goes), while in its best moment Language Poetry claimed the force exercised by lyric through Blake and Shelley and the young Auden. Following Language Poetry’s exhausted turn towards Conceptualism, decades after the word would elicit a yawn from serious visual artists, death had been warmed over in a successful promotion of the ‘hybrid lyric’, self-expression addled with linguistic self-consciousness. This use of the term ‘hybrid’ disregards all faults, misalignments and proud scarring, just those features which make poetry compelling in pressing against its imagined perfection. But with Language Poetry another casualty of the financial crisis, and with Conceptual Poetry patronised by The White House (a bad career move), according to Huk those muttering Brits with their brown bread attachment to lyric kept the faith in an important way. We stayed true to our home knitting, but wild knitting as Barry MacSweeney clicked and purled it out, a tricoteur tending the radically romantic lyric flame, burning effluvium, burning rot, burning good Irish peat.


So maybe here is an answer to what’s to be done with the mess, the steaming piles of waste, sentimental nonsense, the pseudo-democratic open-field harvest that no-one wants to eat even if it’s given away. Time to compost it, to set small fires in allotments, to crush flints, to fill barns with combustible trash. Heat rises from madcap despair in the writing of Marianne Morris, Jennifer Cooke, Francesca Lisette, Amy De’ath and Emily Critchley through a resurgent mimeo and letterpress culture: where are the beards of yesteryear? Although these poets can sometimes seem to be thrashing delightedly in the muck, lyric emerges as their recourse, asserting its continuing restorative and impelling power through their practice. How is interiority to be affirmed amidst the hard shiny surfaces of South Mimms Motorway Services, against an autism installed and enforced by consumer culture? Romana Huk’s announcement of lyric as a force whose radicalism had been revived in these tin islands may have been framed as the next big thing after the vacancies of Conceptualism, but it felt poignant too. What vehement lyric wants is the return of human being in a posthumanist landscape, where the inside is given no special privileges but is gathered enough to be vulnerable and to register outrage and inrush.


The most memorable and most consequential paper in Paris may have been Sara Crangle’s beautiful articulation of how Barry MacSweeney gathered himself and was gathered through the agency of Pearl, lamenting the despoiled world through his reverence for the speechless signs of a starveling girl. For MacSweeney there had been no need of a linguistic turn, infatuated and oppressed as he had been from childhood by every kind of pressured, marginalised, abused and abusive English, from dialect to fanzine to fake medievalism to franglais. He was addicted to linguistic pornography. Beyond all his fetishes lay the loving turn to Pearl (whose status in autobiography or fantasy remains unknown). This brilliant, wretched and violent poet is returning to preside over the new British poetry; witness the translations of Baudelaire, the de-ironising of the poète maudit, the return of serious attention to poetry and the active figure of the poet from its restriction to the objectified poem. As I open the file of Keston Sutherland’s ‘Ode to TL61P 1’ it is MacSweeney whose raging and loving tongue seems to bulge behind the ‘teat cistern’, the ‘dusters wrapt in itching flame’, the ‘polyester Primark poltergeists’.


The hard edges of contradiction delineate the object world and snap through it, and through such stresses that world’s tendency to seizure has been challenged in powerful poems, at the end of every line and at every caesura. But eventually there is something too hygienic about contradiction. The new bloody birth will not be plucked from a breach in the middle of the poetic line. It may be possible, even necessary, to extend the field of contradiction and to exacerbate the play of contradictions, to induce overload. That is what I would mean by hybridity, although the term has been ruined in relation to poetry. We can imagine a poem as a contestative object on a number of different axes. A poem quarrels with its own tendency towards procedural regularity, towards clausal and metrical encapsulation, becoming so to speak a contestative formation with its own shadowy perfection and parody. It breaks and cleaves with its own best and worst self repeatedly. The strength and tension of this dynamic is highly variable and remains indicative enough of poetic power to determine whether a reader will be drawn into a poem’s forcefield. At the same time a poem’s articulations are freighted by poetic practice in its language of origin and in other languages, both a full corpus of poetic work, and by the overcast of specific exemplary texts and textual traditions, for instance the Pindaric Ode which Simon Jarvis tracks or the writings of Mallarmé. Freighted with such stuff and struggling to be free from it, contestative poetry makes its lissom or stumbling way. Evidently such contest also agitates within contemporary poetic writing, and at some periods the poetic action is to be found as much between poems and poets as between poems and readers. This may be true now as it was at the moment of The English Intelligencer. And evidently the poem’s contemporaneity is not limited to its response to other poetic works; it is far-reaching within contemporary artistic production and the full range of informational media, glossy, finished and trashy. Barry MacSweeney and John Wieners, say it again, these poets of utter vulnerability, overwhelmed, these poets heralded the contestative necessity of poetry, as also does the writing of Denise Riley and the increasingly contestative writing of Andrea Brady. And what of the anguish that breaks through Keston Sutherland’s dizzying whirls of decaying leaves and electronic tracery, the cries of love, ever more piercing?

British-American poet Andrea Brady, photograph John Wilkinson 1999.


What this amounts to is a discovery of the flip-side of the romantic sublime, reinventing the full Lucretian, vitalist philosophy that recognises rot and shit and putrefaction as fundamental to life. The whirl of leaves that opens Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ “Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, | Pestilence-stricken multitudes!” proclaims that decomposition is a vital force, intensified by the power of poetic imagination, whipping up the blaze. The lyric taint, that is what accelerates the vital force of decomposition, ripping through the piles of meretricious trash like necrosing fasciitis. In the new British poetry I hear and smell and feeling a crushing, a compaction, a squeezing of heat out of the piles of ordure and the waste dumps of yesterday’s printers. Emphatically this does not belong to an ethos of virtuous recycling; the accelerant catches and rips through the soft fruit and shampoo punnets, forcing new alloys, new toxins, new colours, new coughing fits. And this writing is barefaced in its avowal: Yes, this does deliver more heat than light, and we demand more heat than light, we are sick of light and want to recruit ourselves in the dark possibilities.


There was one artwork in the access course exhibition that has stayed with me. It was a kind of tent but a little boxlike, a sort of velvet palanquin large enough for several people intimate enough to push up together, but with mysterious folds about its opening and multiplying its edges, so that someone emerging looked as though she was stepping out of a vagina. Deep in its recesses hung two strange heavy bags from thick cords, and these might have been testicular, they might have been money bags. The construction was beautiful but perhaps rather fragile. Everyone I was with wanted to get in at once, as though it were an old telephone box. This thing had a familiar shape, but it was not a known shape. It needed to be recognised. I am still recognising it.

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