Simon Collings: Roy Fisher and Language poetry

  Simon Collings

  Making the Cut:

  Roy Fisher and Language poetry

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The American literary critic Marjorie Perloff, in an essay first published in 1999, laments the critical neglect of Roy Fisher’s ambitious long poem ‘The Cut Pages’, a work written in 1970 at a time when Fisher was producing some of his most innovative poetry.[1] ,[2] Perloff describes the work as both ‘remarkable’ and ‘ahead of its time.’

The Cut Pages, cover image. From Jacket 01.

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She draws specific attention to the way Fisher’s poem shares some of the characteristics of Language poetry, a ‘school’ which emerged in the USA in the 1970s, and which places emphasis on language itself and the reader’s role in creating meaning. Fisher’s writing, Perloff argues, adopts some of the same procedures Ron Silliman, an influential member of the Language poetry network, discusses in his seminal book The New Sentence (1987).[3] She describes this as ‘uncanny’ and ‘inadvertently anticipating’ developments in the USA, identifying Fisher as an ‘unwitting precursor’ of Language poetry.

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Perloff’s championing of Fisher’s ‘experimental’ work is important given her influential status and the relative lack of critical attention that Fisher has received.

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Fisher is one of a number of poets associated with what has become known as the ‘British poetry revival,’ a period in the 1960s and early 1970s when a new generation of British writers, influenced by US and European modernism, created work radically different from that of the ‘establishment’ culture. Much of this work was published in obscure magazines, and by small presses, and part of the reason for the critical neglect of poets like Fisher in the past was the result of their work being difficult to obtain.

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Perloff sees Fisher’s work as ‘unwittingly’ anticipating Language poetry. But Fisher has himself said that he knew what he was doing, when he wrote ‘The Cut Pages’.[4]  So can a case be made that the British poet was consciously engaged in a writing practice which had more than an ‘unwitting’ relationship to aspects of Language poetry? Fisher shares influences in common with many of the Language poets.

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Silliman, for example, says he was inspired at the start of his career by the poets included in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, a highly influential anthology published in 1960.[5]  The aesthetic preoccupations of the poets featured by Allen — writers like Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara — also informed Fisher’s work in the 1960s. So it would not be surprising if Fisher’s work at times exhibited similarities with Silliman and his peers.

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In this essay I will argue that similarities with some features of Language poetry do exist in Fisher’s work, and not just in ‘The Cut Pages’. Fisher was and is an innovative poet whose outlook has been shaped in part by the same intellectual currents which were important to Language poetry.

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But Fisher’s experimental work of the 1970s has its own distinct context which also needs to be understood. Fisher was writing out of an immediate psychological need, but in creating ‘The Cut Pages’ he drew on what he had learned from his earlier poems. He applied the same processes in other work from the 1970s.

Poet Gael Turnbull, left, and Australian poet Laurie Duggan, Lakes District, May 1987. Photo by Jill Turnbull, courtesy L Duggan.

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William Carlos Williams, one of the early modernist innovators in US poetry, is a critical influence shared by Fisher and some of the Language poets. Gael Turnbull, a British-born poet who lived for a period in the USA, first introduced Fisher to the work of Williams, Olson, and Creeley in the 1950s, and it was the ‘seriousness of the aesthetic concerns’ of these poets which impressed him.[6]

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Life in post-war Birmingham, the city in central England (the English Midlands) where Fisher grew up, was as far from the idea of ‘culture’ espoused by T.S. Eliot as was the daily reality of Rutherford, New Jersey, for Williams. It was Williams’ search for a way of responding to his experience, and his opposition to establishment culture and traditional poetic form, which Fisher found energising. The impulse he took from Williams led not to imitation but to experimentation and the search for a poetics appropriate to his experience of the English Midlands.

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Perloff argues that Fisher’s work lacks the ‘extraordinary precision’ of Williams’ writing, quoting passages from Fisher’s ‘Seven Attempted Moves’ and ‘Matrix’ to illustrate this. The examples she gives support her argument, though it is possible to point to other poems which are closer to Williams’ style. But to focus only on stylistic issues misses the wider importance of Williams for Fisher.

Photo of Roy Fisher copyright © Claire McNamee,
courtesy Bloodaxe Publishers. Claire has photographed
many poets, novelists, playwrights and screenwriters
over the years. You can visit her site
here.

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In The New Sentence Ron Silliman comments on the way Williams was assimilated into mainstream poetry culture, at the expense of what Language poets found most vital in his work. In the 1950s the question poets asked, Silliman says, was ‘have you read Williams’. By 1985 the question was ‘which Williams do you read?’

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Charles Bernstein, another major figure in Language poetry, in an essay marking the centenary of Williams’ birth, warned that Williams’ acceptance in the wider poetry world was ‘at the expense of so decontextualizing and neutralizing his work that it will be unrecognizable on its own terms.’ US poet and critic Hank Lazer’s essay ‘Language Writing; or, Literary History and the Strange Case of the Two Dr Williamses’ also takes up this theme.[7]

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Lazer contrasts the way the ‘establishment’ poet Louis Simpson ‘reads’ Williams with the approach of more radical poets like Silliman and Bernstein. Fisher is aligned with Silliman, Bernstein, and other Language poets in reading Williams as an oppositional writer. In his poem ‘The Poetry of Place’ (1990) Fisher writes wittily of the way Williams’ dictum ‘no ideas but in things’ has been debased in the hands of later poets and readers. An old, red wheelbarrow is for sale in Rutherford, ‘at collector’s price’.[8]  It has been badly re-painted by the owner, a ‘hasty reader’. The poem ends:

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Whoever buys it
gets to see the room where the original
things with ideas in them are.

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Perloff’s detailed analysis of ‘The Cut Pages’ is often perceptive, but as with her underestimation of the importance of Williams as an influence on Fisher generally, she sometimes misreads the poem in ways which are significant. The two major areas where she misunderstands the poem are first in seeing the work as a ‘diary of demoralisation,’ and second in the suggestion that there is a ‘volta’, or turning point midway through the poem, based on her hypothesising a sonnet-like structure for the text.

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These views, as I will demonstrate, cannot be sustained when the history of the poem’s writing and publication is understood. The ‘volta’ theory also ignores the obvious lack of dramatic development in the work.

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Fisher wrote ‘The Cut Pages’ at a point when he was coming out of a four-year period of crisis during which he had been unable to write. In a 1982 interview with British poet and critic Robert Sheppard, Roy Fisher describes the genesis of the work as follows:

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I had a year’s sabbatical — and started off by typing up all my old unpublished work, quite a bit of which has since been published, and looking at what it was — just getting into myself. Then I wrote quite quickly ‘Glenthorne Poems’, I think I wrote those in a few days. I said: this year, 1970, I will write…Then ‘The Cut Pages’.

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I just did an exercise in self-permission., assuming there was no reader, there was no critic, no monitor. I’ve got, as it says in the book, a journal and general notebook. I’d had a really grisly year or two of my life and had written a good deal about the grisliness of my life at that point.

UK poet Roy Fisher, by Caroline Forbes, pre 2008.

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And had really been at my wit’s end. And I was feeling rather better but was still within the confines of this bound notebook. And I didn’t enjoy turning the pages which had unhappy things on them to get to the blank paper, which is always a pleasant sight.

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So I cut the blank pages out with a razor and wrote on them freely. The equation was quite simple: that I’d written in the earlier parts of the book what life demanded that I should attend to — heavy matters — and I did the converse in the other one. I wrote what there was no constraint upon.

[9] 

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Later in the same interview he tells Sheppard that he had Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations in mind, though ‘not directly’. He describes ‘The Cut Pages’ as an ‘unblocker’ and ‘very automatic’. Williams published Kora in Hell in 1918, breaking radically with the kind of poetry he had written up to that date. The book consists of a sequence of prose paragraphs, the sense often obscure, with explanatory notes provided for some passages. Williams explains his purpose in a lengthy preface where, among other things, he writes about the Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle (HD) criticising one of his poems.

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Williams rejects HD’s claim that poetry is ‘sacred’, declaring: ‘I’ll write whatever I damn please, whenever I damn please and as I damn please…’[10] One can imagine Fisher drawing courage from Williams’ determination to make his own way. A fear of what other people would think of his work was one of the sources of Fisher’s block in the late 1960s.

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Later, in Spring and All (published in 1923), Williams says of Kora: ‘I let the imagination have its own way to see if it could save itself. Something very definite came out of it. I found myself alleviated but most important I began there and then to revalue experience, to understand what I was at.’

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‘The Cut Pages’ is a very different work from Kora, but arguably represents a similarly cathartic moment in the development of Fisher’s writing. The British academic and poet David Wheatley has described ‘The Cut Pages’ as Fisher’s ‘Tennis Court Oaths’ moment, a reference to the mould-breaking American poet John Ashbery’s radical second book of poems.[11] A ‘Kora’ moment might be a more apposite analogy, though this risks losing sight of ‘The Cut Pages’ being for Fisher essentially a private conversation with himself. It was an act of personal ‘unblocking’, not a public broadside.

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Fisher was asked in 1998 by the British academic and poet Peter Robinson if he saw ‘The Cut Pages’ ‘as a text which sets out to disrupt, undercut, undermine, and all that?’ Fisher’s response was that such motives sounded ‘a bit social, a bit interventionist’, and were at odds with his ‘introversion’.[12]  Fisher did not create the work in order to challenge what Charles Bernstein calls ‘official verse culture’, but out of personal need.

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‘The Cut Pages’ was first published by Fulcrum Press in 1971, in a collection of the same name, and reissued by Shearsman in 1986. In the introduction to the Shearsman edition Fisher describes the journal from which he cut the blank pages as a ‘diary of demoralization’.

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Perloff mistakenly reads Fisher’s comments about the diary as a description of the poem itself. She says: ‘No doubt, at one level, The Cut Pages constitute a coded account of Fisher’s mid-life crisis…The man in the crowd, the claustrophobia of urban life, the inability to make contact with others: these are the sequence’s ‘themes’.’

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This leads Perloff to isolate three sets of ‘verbal clusters’ in the work: images of containment, references to change, and images relating to vision and the obscuring of vision. The poem certainly contains these kinds of images but, as Fisher has explained, ‘The Cut Pages’ is a series of permissive statements, not a sequence of coded references to crisis. The poem consists of a series of assertions of ‘what there was no constraint upon’.

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There is one flung out. On that one the light is sharp. There is no half-light; only the grace of diffusing what is full

Why travel heavy when you can travel light?

Traces. So much isn’t the railroad, so little is. We dot by traces

Free our spread

Decorated. The light falls through the dirtiest air in the world

The orders haven’t been given. The orders that could be given just don’t exist

It needs nothing. It can have what it likes

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Where restraint is mentioned the lines often enact a release from confining beliefs and forms. ‘Tumbled. Strewn. Built. Grown. Allowed’ is a progression towards possibility. Similar sequences appear elsewhere in the poem, for example: ‘Gone into a detail. A forked detail. A cluster. A generality’, or ‘Rigid. Cloven. Branched.’

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None of the lines in ‘The Cut Pages’ ends with a full stop, leaving the text open to possibility — a ‘line’ being sometimes a single word, sometimes several sentences. Further on the statement ‘Spread. By close proliferation so instantaneous, no more than a tight rustle, it seems pre-existent. Nothing could move. Nothing should want to’ is followed by:

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Three smiles

Three smiles from the same

Three smiles from different people

All footways lead up from this bollard

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The text again moves towards potentiality and opportunity. Here is another example:

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Past a simple shed

On to blue bricks, flat

Against blue bricks, standing

A flight of domes below

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The poem is an extended improvisation on this central theme, sustained until the cut pages are filled.

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Confronted with a series of apparently disconnected statements in a poem a reader will look for patterns and structures, and in ‘The Cut Pages’ there are frequent repetitions of words and images which provide the poem with structure. There are many references to tracks, and to light and shade, as Perloff mentions. Particular images recur.

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In the eighth section of the poem, in the Fulcrum edition, we have: ‘Nobody has to have a face. Nobody who has a face can keep it.’ A few pages further on, at the end of section 9, we have: ‘Faces, never.’ And in section 10: ‘What faces there are are jailed.’

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Similarly, references to ‘price’ in the seventh section are echoed later by ‘It pays’ in section 11. Some of the lines in the poem appear to refer to the decaying industrial landscape Fisher writes about in other poems, creating a tone which also helps to provide a degree of consistency to the text.

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Fisher says that the poem, as with his earlier book-length poem published in 1966 ‘The Ship’s Orchestra’, is a ‘composed’ work, meaning that both poems ‘stand as they were composed,’ or ‘if you’d seen them before they were finished you would have found them as they are (except the closing pages, which were unwritten,).’[13] So any patterning is a result not of editing but is created in the process of composition.

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Fisher also says of ‘The Cut Pages’: ‘I think there are tracks of it which don’t address themselves to any particular direction.’[14] Given the nature of the work, and the rapid, ‘automatic’ manner of its writing, it would be a mistake to look for total coherence.

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The fourteen ‘sections’ into which the poem was divided when first published create another apparent type of ‘structure’. In the interview with Jed Rasula mentioned above Fisher says of ‘The Cut Pages’ that he knew what it was going to do ‘as if I were writing a Petrarchan sonnet’.[15]  This statement, along with the division of the poem into sections, is taken by Perloff as implying that there is a controlling structural schema.

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She sees Fisher’s analogy with Petrarch as ‘by no means coincidental’ and goes on to posit a sonnet-like structure in the work. This seems on the face of it to be an interesting possibility. Unfortunately Fisher’s reference to a sonnet is entirely incidental to the poem.

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In a recent private exchange with Peter Robinson and me, Fisher explained that the fourteen section breaks were introduced by Stuart Montgomery, the publisher at Fulcrum, who felt the reader needed respite from the relentlessly rebarbative text. The Shearsman edition of the poem was a facsimile of the original, carrying over the sections. The section breaks are not then a structural schema for ‘The Cut Pages’, which was written as a continuous text.

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The right / left justification of the text which Perloff also makes much of was also simply a function of the way Montgomery typeset the text. In the version of ‘The Cut Pages’ published in The Long and the Short of It the sections have disappeared and the format of the poem on the page is completely different. This is not a result of the publisher, Bloodaxe, squeezing the poem to save space. Fisher has said he is perfectly happy with the way the poem appears in The Long and the Short of It.[16] 

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Even without this knowledge, the idea of the text containing a ‘volta’ would be unlikely given remarks Fisher made towards the end of the conversation with Jed Rasula. The interviewer says:

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It’s occurred to us that The Ship’s Orchestra, The Cut Pages, most of ‘City’ and Matrix are unmodulated. That is, in contrast to many of the poems in Collected Poems, your work doesn’t generally rely on highs and lows, or peaks and climactic points, any sort of catharsis…your work…moves along on a level at which each part, each detail, is just as important as any other.[17]

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Fisher’s response is: ‘I don’t know if I can make that relation, but it is enormously important to me that there shall be a levelling, that there is a levelling in language.’ Section 9 of ‘The Cut Pages’ (in the Fulcrum edition), where in a Petrarchan sonnet one would expect the ‘turn’ to come, oddly enough does start with the word ‘turning’, but this is entirely coincidental. The poem was not composed with a sonnet structure in mind, and there is no ‘volta’.

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But what of the parallels with Language poetry? In what way can Fisher’s exercise in unblocking, this series of improvised permissive statements reflecting inner mental states and processes, be viewed as a precursor to Language writing?

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Perloff offers a passage from Silliman’s 1992 poem ‘Demo’ in support of her argument of a relationship. In Silliman’s text, the unit of composition is a sentence ending in a full stop. Sentences in much of Silliman’s work are organised into paragraphs which Silliman calls units of ‘quantity’ rather than logic.[18] In ‘Demo’ Silliman gives each sentence a line to itself so that, apart from the use of full stops, the text resembles visually ‘The Cut Pages’ in its layout.

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Perloff says: ‘Here is the phrasal structure with justified left and right ‘prose’ margins of ‘The Cut Pages’. Silliman’s use of specific procedural (counting) devices to govern construction accords with Fisher’s parodic allusion to the fourteen-line sonnet.’ Since Perloff wrote her essay Silliman has gone on to publish works where the sentences do not have a full point at the end, making the ‘phrasal structure’ perhaps even more similar.

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Fisher’s comments on ‘levelling’ the language are pertinent here. In The New Sentence, Silliman describes a writing practice which he identifies as having emerged more or less at the same time in the work of a number of US poets, including in his own writing. The work he is commenting on is in prose form, and he identifies eight characteristics common to these writers, including: ‘The limiting of syllogistic movement at or very close to the level of language, that is most often at the sentence level or below.’ In other words, what these writers have in common is a method of working which avoids obvious progression, ‘highs and lows’, holding the reader’s attention at the level of the sentence ‘or below’.

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Perloff quotes Silliman on the ‘new sentence’ in her essay on Fisher, and goes on to make a series of apposite comments on the procedural similarities between Silliman’s poem and Fisher’s. Interestingly Silliman says: ‘The sole precedent I can find for the new sentence is Kora in Hell: Improvisations…’, though he adds that this is ‘far-fetched.’[19] Silliman is deliberately ‘limiting syllogistic movement’ in ‘Demo’ and other poems, as are other Language poets in their work. The disjunction we experience in Fisher’s work results from the sequence of statements being largely unconnected, or only related at an emotional and gestural level. ‘There is no process. There are many changes’ as Fisher says in the poem. The motivation is different, but the resulting text does have stylistic similarities with some Language writing.

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A parallel case can be made for connections between some of Fisher’s other work and Language writing. The Ship’s Orchestra (1966) employs a similar ‘levelling of language’. Here the work is written in sentences organised into paragraphs which serve as the ‘unit of quantity’, though each section of the work, unlike a typical Language text, is describing, however obliquely, a particular ‘scene’.

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In his 1982 interview with Robert Sheppard, Fisher describes The Ship’s Orchestra as ‘somewhat Wittgensteinian in a way. You couldn’t quite put Wittgensteinian numbering on that — no you couldn’t, but it has that spirit; it’s a parody, in a way…’[20] Earlier in the same interview Fisher speaks of Wittgenstein having been an important stylistic influence, leading him to employ lineation ‘in a conceptual rather than a metrical sense.’

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The breakthrough came with ‘Interiors with Various Figures’ (1966) which Fisher describes as ‘a great liberation in which I was just making forms with remarks which, if written tightly, were my units.’ He points particularly to the shorter poems in the sequence: ‘The Steam Crane’, and ‘The Billiard Table’. The former of these reads:

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Before breakfast you drew down the blind.

Soon it will be afternoon outside. Hear the steam crane start up again

deep in the world.

You sprawl with no shoes wet with something from the floor you didn’t see in the dark.

Black skirt. Black hair. Nothing troubles you, you big shadow. Much time has fallen away.

Wearing a blanket I sit in a hard armchair, a jug at my feet.

There is nothing I can give you as beautiful as the flowers on the wallpaper.

Under the wallpaper, plaster bonded with black hairs.[21] 

.

59:

Here Fisher is doing something which is similar to ‘the new sentence’ poetics of Silliman and his peers, using a procedure which in some ways anticipates ‘The Cut Pages’. The fragmentary references to an external, observed environment recall Silliman’s manner of documenting the world around him. Here’s part of the passage Perloff quotes from ‘Demo’:

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Friends are perpetually ‘going to get it together,’ jobwise

the coast is altered one quarter inch.

Just like that.

The window conceived as a form of torture, through which

a century is expressed (blue hands, the chartreuse of a tennis

ball): dobermans of delight crowd the sun.

Met against metaphor (I want white rooms): the cast is clear

Up against the woolite, desire for narrative condemns mil-

lions — French bread hard as a rock.

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That Wittgenstein should be one of the inspirations behind Fisher’s writing in the 1960s provides a clear connection with Language poetry. In Wittgenstein’s Ladder (1999) Perloff charts the influence of the Austrian-born philosopher on Language poets, devoting chapters to Silliman, Hejinian and Rosmarie Waldrop (all significant Language poets).[22] These poets have all read Wittgenstein with close attention, and they have in their different ways clearly been influenced by his ideas; for example Silliman’s The Chinese Notebook with its 223 numbered statements, or Rosmarie Waldrop’s Lawn of Excluded Middle (the title is a pun on the ‘law of excluded middle’ in classical logic), or Hejinian’s philosophical poem-essay Happily.

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Wittgenstein is a major influence on other Language poets too. Charles Bernstein wrote his doctoral thesis on Wittgenstein. But Wittgenstein is more than an intellectual influence. The work of these poets, like Fisher’s, also makes pragmatic use of Wittgenstein’s style, in part because it is integral to the philosophy. In Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Perloff quotes the British literary critic Terry Eagleton saying: ‘Like all good artists Wittgenstein is selling us less a set of doctrines than a style of seeing, and that style cannot be abstracted from the feints and ruses of his language…’

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Fisher has often stressed that he is a ‘pragmatic’ rather than a ‘theoretical’ poet, and has claimed he has ‘many interests but no scholarship’.[23] But Fisher is less of an intellectual slouch than he likes to pretend. In the conversation with the academic and poet John Kerrigan referred to above, Fisher describes himself as having had ‘a reasonable undergraduate training’ in philology. He mentions the influential linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, and says he ‘got the point of the mutability of language and its relation to the world.’

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He goes on to say that in his twenties he read ‘considerably’ in psychoanalysis, that in his late twenties he acquainted himself with ‘the ur-texts and instances of classic modernism’, and he mentions the radical American composer John Cage. In the 1960s, he says, he kept ‘sharp company in linguistics’.

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These are cultural influences Language poets also draw upon. Hejinian for instance quotes Whorf’s theories of language in her essay ‘The Rejection of Closure’, and Silliman describes Cage’s music as having had a major influence on him.[24], [25] In his interview with the critic and poet Eric Mottram in 1973 Fisher says: I’ve never written anything…that was a straight reaction to an event, anything in the world; poems are meant to be just poems…that means when I do writing, the writings are of writing rather than of the world.’[26]

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Fisher enjoys playing games with words. His poem ‘The Trace’, written in 1977, is a clever piece of artifice, sustained through the length of 28 couplets, the subject of the poem remaining mysterious to the end. [27] This is a deliberate exercise in creating an illusion, a poem which is all surface.

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Although at first it was single
and silver

it travelled as ink falls
through cold water

and gleamed in a vein
out of a darkness

68:

It is interesting to compare this with US poet Bernadette Mayer’s ‘It Moves Across’, written more than ten years earlier.[28] Mayer’s poem starts:

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It moves across and over
across the ground
it moves across over the ground
under (by the bridge) the moss
over the moss
across the grass
the grass moves across crossing the
blades of grass
into larger fields

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Mayer’s poem, in its use of simple vocabulary and repetition, owes something to the influence of Gertrude Stein. Fisher’s poem uses a much wider range of vocabulary and more complex syntax, but ‘The Trace’ is as much a game of language as is the Mayer poem. Both rely on repetition of ‘it’ to sustain the momentum and the mystery.

71:

Another poem in which Fisher is playing with language is ‘107 Poems’ written in 1972 for Eric Mottram, then editor of the important British journal Poetry Review.[29] Mottram, in jest, challenged Fisher to write ‘in iambics’ and ‘107 Poems’ is the result. The poem has 107 lines, implying that each line is a ‘poem’. It is written predominantly in iambic meter, and organised into irregular stanzas. Here is the opening stanza:

72:

A scraping in the coke house. One red car.
Imperfect science weakens assurances
but swallowing hard brings confidence: fall soft
through to a sunlit verge. Another vision:
stretched out like one expecting autopsy
or showers of sparks across a polished hall.

73:

The punctuation invites us to read this as a series of sentences running over the line breaks, but the extreme disjunction between lines, and the paratactic sentences which result, raise questions about whether the lines do in fact have anything to do with each other. Is this actually a collage of lines in iambic meter cleverly arranged to create nonsensical syntactic units? The fifth line of the stanza suggests a parody of Eliot’s ‘like a patient etherized upon a table.’ The third stanza reads:

74:

Sepia slippers in a sepia print,
venerable truth again: it comes direct
and broadens as it comes, is beautiful
if truth is what you want; lies in the blood
and lives on without taint. Magnificent
gorges at sunset! They knew how to live.
They draw us in their footsteps, double-tongued.

75:

Here Wordsworth is the poet being parodied, with the reference to ‘felt in the blood and felt along the heart’ (from ‘Tintern Abbey’). The ‘Romantic’ landscape becomes a picture postcard, and the idea of the poet’s exalted experience is mocked. Elevated language is mixed with cliché in a hilarious sequence of unconnected assertions throughout the text. The whole poem is a burlesque, ending with the line: ‘some idea / of what tradition numbers like these are benched in’.

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We can find parallels for this kind of parodying of the ‘tradition’ in Language poetry. Charles Bernstein’s poem ‘From Lines of Swinburne’ reads like a cut-and-paste of phrases from the Victorian poet.[30] Here is the first stanza:

77:

As a voice in a vision that’s vanished
Perjured dark and barer accusation
Song of a pole congealed
Whose soul a mark lost in the whirling snow
The soft ken, pliant
Pierced and rung for us
These murmurs a nearer voice, known and smeared
Mute as mouthed.

78:

As with Fisher’s ‘107 Poems’ the punctuation invites the reader to see the stanza as a sentence, but the sentence does not make grammatical sense. Lines can be read as running over the line break, but equally may actually have nothing to do with the lines which precede or follow them. Other poems in Bernstein’s collection The Sophist also bear comparison to ‘107 Poems’, for example ‘Hitch World’.

79:

Procedural form is a crucial element of much Language writing. US academic David Huntsperger, in Procedural Form in Postmodern American Poetry, argues that the use of procedure by many Language poets is a response to the way mainstream poetic practice tends to hide the ‘work’ involved in making a poem.[31] It is also part of a project to ‘disassemble the notion of an organic, self-sufficient individual’, which conventional verse form tends to instantiate.

80:

Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which first appeared in 1980 when the poet was 37, consisted of 37 sections each composed of 37 sentences.[32] A revised version published in 1987 had 45 sections each containing 45 sentences. In Tjianting, Silliman uses the Fibonacci sequence as an organising principle.[33] Poems which show ‘process’, Huntsperger argues, foreground their materiality as objects of language. He draws a distinction between received form, which acts as a ‘container’ for the poet’s thoughts, and procedural form, which is generative of content.

81:

The use of process by these poets has a parallel in Fisher’s use of process and procedure, a topic he discusses in the 1973 interview with Eric Mottram.[34] As we have already seen, ‘The Cut Pages’ has a procedure, the writing of permissive statements which are the opposite of the statements in his personal journal. The Ship’s Orchestra also uses procedure — ‘self-generating, self-branching forms’ as Fisher describes them. His long poem A Furnace, composed 1984–85, uses procedure, in this case a double helix.

Cover image of Roy Fisher’s book of poetry “A Furnace”.

82:

But the similarities with Language writing can be pushed too far. Fisher says, in his exchange with Mottram, that he considers process secondary to his ‘state at the time’, in other words it is a method for producing work, not an object in itself.

83:

One final area where Fisher shares affinities with Language poetry is in the privacy of some of his work. While the text of Hejinian’s My Life clearly makes allusion to events in the writer’s life, this is far from conventional autobiography. There is a general progression in the work from events of early childhood, through youth to maturity, but there is no coherent narrative of ‘a life’. The book instead aims to suggest how our lives are actually experienced and recalled: disjointed, contradictory, impossible to grasp.

84:

The result is text which, as with ‘The Cut Pages’, is oblique and mysterious. As Douglas Messerli, editor of the landmark ‘Language Poetries: An Anthology’, says: ‘Hejinian’s poetry often presents a linguistic self so private that it forces the reader to enter the poem and (re)construct meaning.’[35] Similar practices can be observed in some of Bernstein’s poetry. In the essay ‘Thought’s Measure’ Bernstein writes:

85:

To speak intimately is to be free to speak as one will, not as one should. Confusion, contradiction, obsessiveness, associative reasoning, etc., are given free(er) play. A semblance of coherence — or strength or control — drops away. In contrast to this, or taking the idea further, the private can also seem to be the incommunicable. As if I had these private sensations (or thoughts or feelings) that no one can truly know as I know them.[36]

86:

The intense privacy of ‘The Cut Pages’, its associative reasoning and free play, might be seen as an example of just the kind of writing Bernstein discusses in the passage above. Fisher describes his own work of the 1960s and 1970s as the product of a ‘phobic personality’. But the sensibilities Hejinian, Silliman and Bernstein bring to their work are no less ‘felt’, and Fisher’s attempts to find a language practice consistent with his experience was informed by many of the same intellectual currents which underpin Language writing. Fisher later became more comfortable with using ‘I’ in his work, though the presentations of experience and memory remain largely fragmentary.

87:

In conclusion then, it is clear that ‘The Cut Pages’ is not an isolated work that is unlike anything else Fisher wrote. The processes adopted in the making of the poem have parallels in earlier poems. Perloff was right to call attention to similarities with aspects of Language poetry, including the use of formal procedures to generate content, though she was misled on the use of supposed ‘sonnet form’ in the poem.

Cover of The Dow Low Drop — New and Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, cover painting ‘The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin)’ by R.B.Kitaj (1972–73)
Courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, London.

88:

Fisher’s work often indulges in a playful foregrounding of language, and ‘The Cut Pages’ and other poems exhibit the extreme privacy characteristic of some Language poetry. Rather than being an ‘unwitting’ foreshadowing of Language poetry Fisher’s ‘The Cut Pages’ should be understood as a consciously motivated work, remarkable for its time and for the context of its writing, a text which can stand alongside the work of Silliman, Hejinian and Bernstein on its own terms.

 Notes

[1] Perloff, Marjorie, Roy Fisher’s ‘Language Book’, included in The Thing About Roy Fisher: Critical Essays on the Poetry of Roy Fisher, edited by Robinson, Peter, and Kerrigan, John, Liverpool University Press, 2000.

[2] For the text of the poem see Fisher, Roy, The Long and the Short of It, expanded edition, Bloodaxe, 2012, pp.88–104.

[3] Silliman, Ron, The New Sentence, Roof Books, New York, 1987.

[4] See interview with Jed Rasula in Frazer, Tony (ed.) Roy Fisher: Interviews Through Time, Shearsman, revised edition, 2013, p.47

[5] Allen, Donald, The New American Poetry, Grove Press, 1960.

[6] Interview with John Tranter from 1989, in Frazer, Tony (ed.) Roy Fisher: Interviews Through Time, Shearsman, revised edition, 2013, p.23.

[7] In Lazer, Hank, Opposing Poetries, Volume 2: Readings, Northwestern University Press, 1996, pp.19-28.

[8] Fisher, Roy, The Long and the Short of It, expanded edition, Bloodaxe, 2012, p.147.

[9] Interview with Robert Sheppard, in Frazer, op. cit., p.66.

[10] Williams, William Carlos, Kora in Hell: Improvisations, The Four Seas Company, 1920, p.16.

[11] Wheatley, David, ‘Exposed to the open at all events’, Poetry Ireland, no.77, 2003.

[12] Interview with Peter Robinson, in Frazer, op.cit., p.94.

[13] From an interview with Jed Rasula and Mike Erwin, in Frazer, Tony (ed.) Roy Fisher: Interviews Through Time, Shearsman, revised edition, 2013, p.48.

[14] Interview with Robert Sheppard in Fraser, op. cit., p.67.

[15] Ibid., p.47.

[16] Email exchange between Roy Fisher, Peter Robinson, and the author in May 2016.

[17] Fraser, op. cit., p.50.

[18] http://ronsilliman.blogspot.co.uk/2007/03/ive-always-found-critical-writing-to-be.html

[19] Silliman, Ron, The New Sentence, Roof Books, New York, 1987, p.63.

UK Poet Roy Fisher, photo by John Tranter, 1997.

[20] Fraser, op. cit., p.65.

[21] Fisher, Roy, The Long and the Short of It, expanded edition, Bloodaxe, 2012, p.263.

[22] Perloff, Marjorie, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: poetic language and the strangeness of the ordinary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

[23] Interviews with Robert Sheppard, and John Kerrigan, in Fraser, op. cit.

[24] ​ Hejinian, Lyn, The Language of Inquiry, University of California Press, 2001.

[25] Discussion during the Kelly Writers House Fellows Program, March 20, 2012. http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Silliman.php

[26] Fraser, op. cit., p.26.

[27] Fisher, Roy, The Long and the Short of It, expanded edition, Bloodaxe, 2012, p.384.

[28] http://phillysound.blogspot.co.uk/2006/06/more-from-bernadette-mayer-reader.html

[29] Fisher, op. cit., p.319.

[30] Bernstein, Charles, The Sophist, Sun & Moon Press, 1987.

[31] Huntsperger, David, Procedural Form in Postmodern American Poetry, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

[32] Hejinian, Lyn, My Life, Burning Deck, 1980; revised and updated, Sun & Moon Press, 1987.

[33] Silliman, Ron, Tjanting, The Figures, 1981; new edition, Salt Publishing, 2002.

[34] Fraser, op. cit., pp.25-26.

[35] Introduction to Messerli, Douglas, ed. ‘Language‘ Poetries: An Anthology, New Directions, 1987.

[36] Bernstein, Charles, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984, Sun & Moon Press, 1986.