(2) How the Poetry Can Be Read (and Written)

Please note all the links open in a fresh window/tab. Please note also that some of these pieces refer mainly to non-British poetry, but in a way that throws light on techniques and procedures used in contemporary innovative British poetry.

* Matthew Caley, Aspects of the Contemporary (ii): Neo-hogbutchererbigdriftities: tracing a line out of the mainstream

In an article from Magma magazine, the poet Matthew Caley puts the case quite clearly and simply for an innovative language-based poetry in Britain:

Whilst it might be supposed that this technique forestalls 'meaning', words continue to be signifiers of meaning[s] even when they are taken out of their original contexts or syntactically shuffled. I found the poem actually picked up bits of news from the contemporary media, fragments of personal life, and arguments from my reading at the time — like static, building them into pertinent inter-relation.

You might want to compare it with the mainstream poet David Constantine's Aspects of the Contemporary (i): What good does it do?, a companion piece beginning Poetry is alive and well in Britain. Much of what is said here I find unexceptionable – it is the lack of any real clarity or distinctions, a desperate desire to be in the middle, (not too innovative, not too experimental) that exposes the vacuity of a "mainstream" that has genuinely nothing to say about poetry.

* Will Rowe, Invisible Power

Will Rowe, poet and Professor of Poetics at Birkbeck, makes a strong defence of the vanguardist tendency, attacking the pusillanimity and deadness of the mainstream, through Poetry: The Basics by Jeffrey Wainwright. Stating a series of propositions about the two tendencies, rather than historicising, but doing so quite clearly & with many quotations:

If poetry 'replicates' experience, then why bother with the experience of poetry? It's just cultural capital, to be managed and accumulated. Desire: 'an art that can not be made use of, least of all by the people who are "cultured"' (Tom Raworth, 'Notebook').
The trouble with creating a transferable model called regular metrical poetry is the diminishment both of the now of reading and of the past. Regular rhythm gives exactly that completeness, like a memory preserved in a drawer, which the early poems of Raworth, Harwood, and others renounced for the sake of truth. The issue is rhythm, where poetry touches the outside, and not metre as mark of what's special about poetry. To widen the hypothesis: what was done to the poetry of the 70s and 80s was a sealing off of 'that which capitalism, or indeed any established society, hates to need – the vitality of original information' (Jeff Nuttall, Art and the Degradation of Awareness). This keeps the question alive.

* Ian Davidson, Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry — click on "Read a sample chapter"

The poet and academic Ian Davidson's new book has its first chapter ("Aesthetics of Space: Cubism to Language Poetry") freely available as a taster – and tasty it is, with a very clear introduction to the poetics of both the Classic avant-garde (eg dada – major influence on Bob Cobbing, and thus many "London" poets) and the American Language poets.

* Johan de Wit, Statements — You could have fooled me [14 July 2007]

Johan de Wit's Statements act rather than say. This specimen (there are more in this issue of the web journal Readings) has easy ways in, like: The boundary between language and poetry, drawn in chalk or charcoal, no longer shows any sign of which side it's on. Words repress as well as represent thought, language, poetry: beyond the page language in motion, beneath the page language in hiding.

* J H Prynne, Poetic Thought

Prynne, J. H. (2010) 'Poetic Thought', Textual Practice, 24:4, 595–606: open access as webpage or pdf. Superb! Read it, think about it. A brief statement of the basic nature of poetic thought:

How does poetic thought achieve recognisable form and how is it shaped? The language of poetry is its modality and material base, but whatever its relation with common human speech, the word-arguments in use are characteristically disputed territory, where prosody and verse-form press against unresolved structure and repeatedly transgress expectation.13 This is a kind of dialectical unsettling because line-endings and verse divisions work into and against semantic overload, in contest with the precursors to unresolved meaning. The extreme density of the unresolved, which maintains the high energy levels of language in poetic movement, its surreptitious buzz, may resemble unclarity which it partly is; but strong poetic thought frequently originates here, in the tension about and across line-endings, even in functional self-damage or sacrifice as the predicament of an emerging poem determined not to weaken or give way. Thought in this matrix is not unitary (unlike ideas), but is self-disputing and intrinsically dialectical.

What thereby vibrates on the page and in the mind of the reader, in knowledge and memory and moral understanding, thus does not belong to the poet, not any more; it does not belong in the domain of the language system, not any more; it does not reside in the fabric of dispute about values or competing models of state control, or visions of a future life. Even the conceptions of a public domain14 or an interpretative community15 cannot claim to be its necessary housing, any more than a conjured posterity and its compact storage in face of the unknown.16 These are the outer shells, of a dialectic energy working through the methods of poetic composition which cannot be defined or contained by its shells but must break them to become altogether new: new poetic thought.

* J H Prynne, Difficulties in the Translation of "Difficult" Poems

Cambridge Literary Review, I/3 (Easter, 2010), pp. 151–66. My word — another one! Also breathtakingly clear and revelatory, about the nature of poetry such as his own (which has been extensively translated into Chinese of course). Just refer to (apart from much else) Empson & Keats too, eg

This notion of surprise is worthy of some further thought. It was John Keats who in a letter to John Taylor said, "I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess", and I think that the excess he had in mind was to run past the normal bounds and limits in making new combinations of words and thoughts that draw the reader into new kinds of pleasurable excitement. In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of "hot spot" that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrases which break the rules for local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity

* Jeffrey Side, The Escape From Coherence: An Introduction to Creative Reading

Jeffrey Side's little essay in The Argotist Online formulates a reader-response or subjective criticism (after the American critic and educationalist David Bleich), essentially that poetry is not focused on the poet's perceptions, but on our response to language. Sounds obvious. Side suggests it isn't for some non-innovative poets:

The bulk of modern mainstream poetry is no longer about reader identification but about author communication. These poems are written merely to convey the poet's thoughts and feelings about a specific event, situation or place he or she has experienced. The poet is not necessarily concerned with whether the reader is moved or not by the poem, so long as he or she understands clearly the message the poet is trying to convey. This message may consist of some "important" insight gained from an experience, or it could be (as is usually the case) a jaded statement about some mundane aspect of contemporary life. In either case it is not poetry and it certainly is not art.

* Jeffrey Side, Poetry in Turbulence: (or how to enjoy poetry without really understanding it)

Another little essay by Jeffrey Side puts forward a similar reader-response model of poetry reading, and relating it, nicely, to Keats:

he said that a poem 'should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity . . . it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance' (letter to John Taylor, 27 February 1818).
However, there are poets who disagree: aiming to delight by pure observational descriptive accuracy. They use poetry in the same way a novice art student uses a pencil to draw a still life. A satisfying poem, on the other hand, is one that enters the readers' minds and turns the key to their imagination. It enables them to find meanings and emotions that hold a particular significance and relevance to their experience because of the process of filtration via memory. A poem that fails to satisfy does the opposite: it tells you what it is about, the emotions you are to feel and the understanding you are to have.

I ought to add that though I find Side's account of poetry rigorous and challenging, I cannot accept his Thou Shalt Nots.

* Jeffrey Side, Empirical and Non-Empirical Identifiers

Jeffrey Side's long and rigorous essay in the ezine Jacket sets up a dstinction between poetry based on the functioning of "Empirical Indicators" — those aspects of a poem that function as controlling agents to limit ambiguity and increase the possibilities for closure — and that poetry which doesn't so limit itself. The mainstream of much recent British poetry is pinned to the wall and shot, with a long detailed analysis of a Simon Armitage poem, that dissects out its multiple closures, and Side then contrasts such limiting use of language with that of contemporary master songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, followed by a more sympathetic exegesis of a great Veronica Forrest-Thompson poem, on the basis of Non-Empirical Identifiers. They are:

1. Multiple Registers (e.g. archaism, rhetoric, cliché).
2. Intertextuality.
3. Incoherent Syntax and Sentence Structures.
4. Novel Word Juxtapositions.
5. Abstraction.
6. No Distinct Ego or Poetic Persona.
7. No Philosophical Discursiveness.
8. Unconventional Punctuation.
9. Use of Ellipsis.
10. No Metaphors.

before reaching its inexorable (and challenging) conclusion:

The main thrust of this essay has essentially been advocating a return to generalization and imprecision in poetic practice. Apart from the artistic reasons that motivate this it can be argued on financial grounds also. The diminishment in poetry volume sales over the past 50 or so years is, I believe, due to the increasingly empiricist mode of writing that has found favour during this period. To obstruct the ambiguity inherent in language is to obviate the natural instincts of human beings to make sense of themselves and their experiences. If one looks at the poetry of children and the so-called "bad" poetry of adults, for instance, one finds it replete with imprecision. Contemporary poetry fails to sell in vast numbers because it leaves little to the imagination and disallows a personal interpretative interaction with the text. Its prose-like quality, which is excessively similar to prose fiction, leaves the reading public faced with a choice: to read poetry, or to read a novel. They generally opt for the latter because they perceive it as more value for money.

Ideally, each reader should be permitted the fundamental privilege of formulating a meaning which would (for that reader) be the quintessence of the poem's significance. The poem, in and of itself, is of little consequence other than as a cipher for this practice to occur. The words and images of a poem should be looked upon as devices that enable readers to recall their own experiences, reflect present circumstances, and anticipate future desires. Each word should have the potential to enable the reader to derive personal significance from it. By doing this, the reader becomes, in effect, the composer of the poem, and the definer of its limits. It is of minor importance whether the commonly received meaning of the poem is discerned by the reader or not, as the ultimate aim of such a personal response is to enhance the enjoyment value of the work for that reader alone. What the poem is "meant" to mean from an authorial standpoint should not be of paramount concern for readers wishing to gain satisfaction and enjoyment from the work. Such an approach to reading poetry, if widely understood and accepted, could possibly restore poetry to its status as a significant art form.


* Joe Kennedy, A Challenge to Poetic Generosity

Joe Kennedy's review in 3:AM Magazine of Tom Raworth's Windmills in Flames: Old and New Poems (Carcanet, 2010) is partly phrased as a defence of innovative poetry against ignorant and ill-informed criticism (in this case especially Craig Raine), riffing on the frequently used term "generous".

Raine's conviction that the poets in the 'postmodern poetic school' aspire to difficulty for its own sake has a motivation coextensive with the one which drives the celebration of generosity. Difficult poetry, we're asked to believe, padlocks the gate behind itself, refusing entry to members of a vaguely-defined public who come in search of enrichment. What Raine neglects is the fact that there is another form of literary generosity, namely one which trusts its readership to do the work and, in doing so, generates new communities of response. Raworth's unexpected diversions, garden-path sentences, and abrupt slips into profanity (see 'Baggage Claim': 'a lacy white statue parched/ bronze beneath shit on a stick') call for these in ways which are unceasingly unpredictable. He might be careless when it comes to anthologising his own work, but when it comes to the writing itself he's anything but.

* Arduity: clarifying difficult poetry

Arduity was launched in 2010 by John Armstrong who recognised the need for a user-friendly guide to reading difficult poetry. It is hoped that this resource will consist of a mix of factual information and site users' own experiences of difficult verse. This is a fascinating resource for readers of contemporary innovative poetry. The site is being worked upon, even as you read this, but there is a fine start to the project. Poets covered are J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Celan, John Ashbery, Charles Olson, Keston Sutherland, John Matthias, David Jones, Geraldine Kim and Wallace Stevens, with a range of issues, problematics, contexts and strategies discussed on the site, with a call for response and contribution by readers. Interestingly, Arduity is not coming from a position within what current language would call the Innovative Poetry Community, nor the academic universe. Bits aren't quite good enough yet (eg very limited and dated discussion of "critical difficulty" that doesn't really engage with the full-blown Theory any current academic likes to play with). But direct questions are raised and the beginning of possible responses pointed at. Perhaps the real problematic is: not to how to clarify difficult things (the poetic equivalents of The Offside Law or The Duckworth-Lewis Method), but how to respond to an ever-increasing range of ways of presenting language for our fascination and delight, how to take part in a game with totally fluid rules the players transform through their poetic acts. But this site will, I hope, make a good entry to dealing with issues of complexity, particularly with the poets singled out.

* Harriet Tarlo, Introduction to A Ground Aslant

Harriet Tarlo's introduction to her anthology, A Ground Aslant – Radical Landscape Poetry (Shearsman, 2011) is an excellent guide to techniques, aims and themes of current writing: Here, in a fine old modernist tradition, we find ample examples of work which resists narrative and realist conventions in poetry in favour of evolving techniques and structures which aim to create a truer reflection of reality itself.

* edited Philip Terry, after oulipo

This is Ekleksographia Wave 3c, an online anthology from the blessed Ahadada Books, edited by British writer and academic Philip Terry, of contemporary Oulipian writing (largely) in English (and with a the heavy British contribution), with an excellent and clear introduction by him. I have a personal blindness/deafness, whatever senseless lack it may be for Oulipo as a Movement; but the effect of constraints upon writing are fundamental to both the most traditional poetry and to contemporary innovative writing. Some of the writing here is by members of Oulipo, some is by writers who, though not members of Oulipo, have drawn inspiration from Oulipian techniques, sometimes adding or bringing something new to these techniques, some is by writers with little or no knowledge of Oulipo, whose work nonetheless has a kinship with Oulipian methods. Of this final group, it is perhaps no coincidence that many – like Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey and Tony Lopez – are poets, for not only is poetry always already Oulipian (which is why Oulipo have been so preoccupied with forms like the sonnet and the sestina), but the practice of poets over the last half century has often anticipated or echoed Oulipian ideas, as in the homophonic translations of Louis Zukofsky, the mesostics of John Cage, the procedural poems of Jackson Mac Low, and the mathematical patternings of a whole host of poetry from Tom Raworth to Ron Silliman.

* Lawrence Upton, Non-determinist responses

The poet Lawrence Upton, in many ways Bob Cobbing's heir, and the carrier forward of Writers Forum discusses, in a paper on Readings very clearly and directly, with examples, how visually-emphatic poetry (as opposed to sonically-emphatic, or the dread semantically-emphatic):

The question What does this poem mean? is nearly always wrong-headed. (To quote from Hugh MacDiarmid, You heard what I said.)
Yes, there is meaning, a lot of it, but it is not the paraphraseable sort.
When we view a society portrait by Peter Lely or a jungle scene by Henri Rousseau or a Nicolson as it reaches from the pictorial towards the abstract, what are the meanings?
They are not meanings that one may find translated in a phrasebook. Yet meaning is being conveyed.
Because the meaning in semantically-emphatic poems is carried on words, it is easy to forget that the words are being used in special ways. Rather than illustrating that, a stratagem which can lead to orthodoxy when the unimaginative reach out to find executive summaries, let me ask a small question: if one could summarise or paraphrase a poem then what would be the point of writing the poem? Likewise with a piece of music and with a painting.

* Brian Kim Stefans, Introduction to Electronic Literature: a freeware guide

Brian Kim Stefans has prepared this exhaustive and authoritative guide to the whole area of elctronic poetry (though many of the texts predate and thus speak wider, to any process-based poetics). More material is going to be produced, so keep a lookout on the arras.net site.

I also wanted to create a user-friendly, brief introduction to the field for people not in school, or who have no access to such a class. There are numerous places to find criticism and writing related to electronic literature, but they often contain such a huge amount of text that the newbie would not know where to start. Consequently, they are often very academic in discourse level, which is alienating to someone unfamiliar with the jargon.

This collection is intended to be for students, not my fellow artists and academics, but I hope there is something interesting to find in here for you as well.

Sheila E. Murphy, Blueprinting the Poetic Structure

The American avant-garde poet Sheila E Murphy writes a brief essay in The Argotist Online about structure of extended sequences as creative concept. Not the well-made poem, that long-dead kipper, but how to open the doors of the poetic experience in writer and reader.

Tim Love, The Avant-garde and Language poetry

Though ostensibly about the American poetic movement, Love has a British focus, and his comments relate to some of the practices of the British avant-garde also ("linguistically innovative poetry").

Andrew Duncan, Missing Bandwidths

Andrew Duncan is actually talking about his translations of German language poetry (and its problems), but makes this interesting comment on the British avant-garde and its social in-groupness:

This bandwidth is worth dwelling on – because I think it also points to the defining qualities of a sector of British poetry which has no name. This sector would include Chide's Alphabet, certainly. It is separate by default – because the most accessible poetry outlets simply ban that kind of poetry. This means that outlets which don't ban it tend to become specialised – they collect so much of the "extreme" poetry that they reject the "centrist" poetry. If I read only such poetry, it may be because of an emotional polarisation, a kind of group identification. You can identify with a football team while recognizing that the other team is playing aesthetically better football. This identification is buried a long way back in my life, 20 years, 25 years – so it's hard for me to be sure that it exists. If you follow an aesthetic pattern for 20 years, it carves itself so deeply into your brain that it becomes like a building – like an institution. The set of these institutions constitutes the city we live in, the aesthetic landscape into which poetry is published. They are simultaneously "the landscape" and "purely internal"; rigid, and the product of arbitrary choice. Explaining the "layout" of poetry in a given country tends to drift over into describing the history of poetry – because these formations are tenacious. However, the existence of reflexive poetry in, so far as I know, all European countries, tells us that its motivation is not historical but structural. The brain's constant move from being free to being programmed is central to poetry – because in modern times poetry is associated with the experience of freedom. (This may not have been so in the historic past.) The reflexive style is a challenging task for readers who are super-skilled at reading – hyperliterate. So it is prestigious but not likely to sell in big quantities. The lack of commercial penetration also means that this more specialised poetry is less easy to find for the foreign observer. You have to wade through a lot of conventional poetry before discovering the experimental stuff. There is another effect – which is that you need a very deep command of a language to understand the more ambitious poetry; and in fact that up till that point the more formal poetry will seem bewildering, undermotivated, and slight.

Andrew Duncan, Chaotic Dynamics: Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair

Andrew Duncan, hoping that it will become a fetish book, one of the die-for possessions which set starry-eyed youth in Pudsey, Motherwell, and West Penwith on the path to la gaya scienza, reviews this important 1996 anthology, taking up information theory concepts of chaos to fine and stirring purpose. It's not easy reading, and it quotes from the poets and discusses general theory rather than giving closer analyses; but it provides a rigorous argument for the writing, even if:

Your response, reader, may be "f&&k me! what are they talking about?" Rest assured that I do know. It's my trade. (Or do I?) It is fair to say that these passages show a rapid cutting technique; the selective quoting understates the overall diversity (or incoherence) of the poems; the unpredictable quality of the verse movement defies rational expectations and so is analogous to chaos as a concept in physics. The passages in question offer the following problems: the poet's personality, normally deduced from the coherent flow of the text, as the gradient which drew it, is missing; there is a lack of connection and of explanation; objects are presented from their least familiar angle; there is a shortage of affect and identification is difficult; they do not offer a moral picture, in which people are seen to be good or bad. My review will be based around these topics.
There is no New Right in poetry. But the idea of experimental poetry was marginalised, repressed, and very thoroughly hidden under lies by a wave of people who didn't wait for funding from American foundations linked to the military-industrial complex. This wave of cultural conservatism, which has shown some signs of breaking up during the past five years, was distinguished for its belief that it was Left and populist, and so wasn't cultural conservatism even if it did roll back the rules and artistic theory to the 1950s. This devastated and parasitical growth is registered as the real history by other anthologies. The past as damage, more or less. Would it be a good idea to mediate the ideas of radical poetry to a new and young audience, who have been lied to all their lives about the history of poetry in Britain?

Andrew Duncan, Kicking Shit with Arvel Watson and C.Day Lewis: part 2 of the review of Conductors of Chaos

In the second part, Duncan takes off on estrangement ("ostranenie" is the Russian Formalist term) and deals with (psycho-) political implications of the poetry:

A feature of the 1960s was the death of genre: the rules linking ideas on a larger scale than the line were simply abolished, and the new poet had an empty space for building designs in. We have a lack of names for the designs of poems; critics feel a huge relief when they manage to identify a modern poem with one of the traditional genres, but the point is that awareness of design was very weakly developed until recently, and poets were recycling forms derived, often, from the Hellenistic and pre-Christian past, without thinking them through. At present, conventional junctures stick out like sore thumbs. Overall design is the most interesting aspect of the poem; an easy way out is to make the personality the source of all decisions, so that the poem simply presents the self, and has only to copy from nature. This, as a way of utilising an empty stage, is despair. The abolition of genre causes the reader problems: if you don't know how the parts are going to fit together, how do you know what to notice? People get angry because they have binding expectations and the poet doesn't fulfil them. I think you just get used to this; anyway, very similar severings of rules have been felt in cinema, pop music, painting, etc. In the suspension of logical associations, poets are judged by the speed and style of their irrational montages, of which there are a thousand kinds. Maybe I should sit around and think of names for them all. Arguably, every modern poem belongs to a different genre, because its high-level structure is unique.
If the past is damage and knowledge is the shape of the past, then one wishes to lose knowledge because its structure is damage. Writing through experimental rules offers severance from experience. This conflicts with the precept of making the personality the centre of poetry: target number one, perhaps, of thirty years of radical poetry. The exemplification of a timeless truth is replaced by the hypothesis: the poet devises a possibility and writes exemplifications of that, perhaps enabling us to think about the nature of language or of social conditioning by doing so. The hypothesis is a form of ostranenie. The experiment is like play, which is also a form of free activity governed by rules; we repeat play acts until they lose their fascination, and that is probably also the regime for experiments. They belong to the primary level of art by this playful quality, and, because they produce objects which are strange, perplexing, free, inconstant, they ask for participation. Art which isn't experimenting with the world is a dreary proposition.
The mainstream approach is to take feelings, and awareness generally, as sacrosanct, merely unquestionable: a great swathe of the radical and experimental wing is pursuing a project of criticizing the immediate data of awareness, so as to find out the truth, and so become less selfish and more authentic in behaviour towards others. If one concedes that inner awareness is complex, oscillating, easily influenced, and partly contradictory, it is hard to see where the consistency of mainstream verse comes from: one must suspect that it is reached merely by following rules, and these rules are specified by the market for the poetic product. However, if one believes that there is a reason set above these turbulent data, which speaks through them and can criticize and reject them, one has a complex flow of information, laminated, qualified, reversing itself, which can fill complex poems. Behind Mellors' comment [which Duncan has just rephrased — PP] lies a theory, expounded notably by Andrew Crozier, that the poem as domestic anecdote is the source of the huge tedium which surrounds us; the theory is too simple, but the ennui is real. Writing poetry is different from being a radio personality.


William Watkin, Poetry Machines: Repetition in the Early Poetry of Kenneth Koch

Based on a close reading of the First Generation New York poet Koch's poem, "The Brassiere Factory", Watkin, a poet and academic, establishes a lot that is more generally relevant about the sort of poetic procedures that may be found in Britsh Innovative Poetry:

I want to use the trope of the poem as a machine that is used by Koch himself. The reasoning behind this trope is simple. First, a machine is a repetitive engine and much of Koch's poetry operates along similar lines. Second, language as a machine is central to the poststructural theory that informs this essay. Third, modern linguistics has made the study of poetic language much more mechanistic. Finally, to make poetry into a machine is to undermine two central tenets of the ontology of western poetry since Romanticism: that it is a mode of subjective expression, and that it somehow represents something real. In contrast, if poems are machines then subjectivity is irrelevant and a qualitative reproduction is negated in favour of quantitative production.
A careful reading of this casual reminiscence reveals, therefore, three clear features of the avant-garde in Koch's poetry: rejectionism; the technical side of found objects, chance encounters and semi-automatic writing (he finally writes the poem immediately based on a strange phrase from his unconscious); and the removal of the gap between art and life. There is also a fourth, critical aspect which is crucial to Koch's work, evidenced by his mockery of deep-themes—one cannot help but see the comic consonance between the physical restraint of totalitarian ideologies and that of bra straps—and of the Wordsworthian ideal of recollection in tranquillity. It is fantastically silly but under the carefully paced surface, reminiscent of stand-up comedy, there is a real commitment, on Koch's part, to the radical tenets of the avant-garde.

William Watkin, "Though we keep company with cats and dogs": Onomatopoeia, Glossolalia and Happiness in the work of Lyn Hejinian and Giorgio Agamben

Thought the poet and critic William Watkin is applying theory (Agamben) to a contemporary American Language poet, his analysis can apply much wider, and has much to recommend it as a description of how some aspects of contemporary innovative poetry operate.

I[s] this why even I, a professional critic, relish the moments where one can stop looking for a meaning and just enjoy the words, their interplay, and the semiotic thrill of their location in poetic space? Strange as it may sound poetic meaningless-ness, such as one finds these days primarily only in the experimental avant-garde and pop lyrics, rather than appearing as a challenge to rational modes of thought, as many of these poets insist, can actually take one back to a very old-fashioned and rational idea of the poem as a source for simple pleasure. Poetry, for our enlightenment tradition, is valued after all for its meaningless-ness, which sets is apart from its great rival philosophy, so that those marginalised contemporary works of poetry that many dismiss as not being 'poetic', lacking rhyme, metre, cohesive argument, even-ness of tone and the like, are in a real sense perhaps the only true poetry left in the late-modern age.

Peter Riley in conversation with Todd Nathan Thorpe

Wherein Peter Riley talks of many things, including his own writing, and issues concerning both lyric and pastoral poetry, modes both central to contemporary British writing, but also subject, necessarily, to severe questioning. Many good and enlightening things are said by him.

Reginald Shepherd, Defining "Post-Avant-Garde" Poetry

The post-avant is a term you may encounter and may well tremble at! I'd get it from Peter Bürger's excellent Theory of the Avant-garde (Theory & History of Literature). The American poet and scholar Reginald Shepherd, whose recent death is very tragic, has a good account on his blog of the term's use in the USA. Fight your way through some long sections on concepts of groups or schools in literature, and there is some clear explanarion.

Post-avant writers tend to eschew the standard and standardized autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical anecdote which predominates in what's called (usually pejoratively) "mainstream" poetry. Indeed, they frequently problematize and question the notions of self and of personal experience. But they don't just discard the self as some kind of ideological illusion. As well, they tend to avoid or at least seriously complicate narrative, often breaking story down into its component parts. They incorporate fracture and disjunction without enthroning it as a ruling principle (poet Cynthia Cruz calls much of this work "the broken lyric"). They are interested in exploring, interrogating, and sometimes exploding language, identity, and society, without giving up on the pleasures, challenges, and resources of the traditional lyric. Their work combines the lyric's creative impulse with the critical project of Language poetry, engaging the dialectic of what critic Charles Altieri calls lyricism and lucidity and what, earlier, W.H. Auden called enchantment and disenchantment without settling on one side or the other.

I have analysed the term in more detail. with discussion of its use by Shepherd, and by the poet/critics Ron Silliman, Kent Johnson and Adam Fieled on two pages, beginning with THE POST AVANT-GARDE: umm, what is this?, which justify my use of the term in publicising the Sundays at the Oto reading/performance series.

Marianne Morris, Total Literary Stuffheads

I like this blog posting. An expression of true, deep and justified fedupness at the crappy reception offered so much poetry.

As if a poem were something to be got, instead of read. Something to be got instead of felt. Something to be got instead of considered. Something to be got in the sale. Do you get me? I don't want you to get my poem, I want you to move with it, be troubled by it, and quick like it. Arthur Rimbaud, Frank O'Hara, poetry is not JENGA. It is a site for negotiating new modes of articulation, and those are not necessarily going to be figural or literal. Not necessarily pleasuring your garden shed.

Ira Lightman, Performing the (e.g. Visual) Poem

In this short essay on The Argotist Online, the poet and performer Ira Lightman makes some interesting observations on both visual and sound poetry, though not many of his examples are British.

eds. Robin Purves & Sam Ladkin, Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007

Academic collection of essays, ranging from Seamus Heaney through WS Graham much more to contemporary writers. It's dense, but based on clear and forceful readings, often by academics who are themselves poets. My faves: Sam Ladkin, Some Problems for Lyric Poetry, and J. H. Prynne, Letter to John Wilkinson: Mso layer by layer I don reader goggles, maybe high altitude breathing apparatus, maybe also like a fireman edging into a conflagrated mainframe.

Christopher Funkhouser, Digital Poetry: A Look at Generative, Visual, and Interconnected Possibilities in its First Four Decades

This is very well informed account of poetry which is specifically digital in its form and material. It is a general essay, with little reference to British examples, but provides an excellent introduction to this innovative type of writing. From edited by Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman , A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (Blackwell, 2008), hosted by The Alliance of Digital Humanities website.

N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature: What is it?

A shorter text than the above, from The Electronic Literature Organization's website. Again, a general survey, with a lot of notes giving links to work referred to, so a very good introduction to this area of innovation.