The less translucent waters of contemporary verse
In the two previous essays on difficulty in contemporary poetry, I took my examples from ‘Staying Alive’, an anthology which rejects poetry that is “incomprehensible to anyone outside academic or poetry circles.”
For a glimpse into contemporary poetry that is also incomprehensible inside academic circles I could perhaps have chosen one of the books described by Clive James when he writes that “on both sides of the Atlantic, and in Australia, the creative writing schools churn fourth slim volumes by the thousand all of them supposedly full of poetry but few of them with even a single real poem in them.”
Or, still attempting a degree of fairness, I might have chosen a poem by James Byrne, described by The Times as one of the ‘ten rising stars of British poetry’ and the editor of a leading contemporary poetry magazine. In 2009, Byrne published a collection called ‘Blood/Sugar’ which includes the following poem.
The lithic who makes a pal in death
teaches me not to die so slowly.
‘Many ways to become lineal’ he says,
‘to write The Sounding Book’.
Everything close as a finger thimble;
a lock of hair from Proserpine.
the tropics in Technicolour,
drumcliff tapped by a solitary cloud.
You lifted a finger over Gogol,
Little Russia droned bee-like.
And when they fired you up.
Uhland took you in his colossal lung.
I’ve arrived late, apprentice imp,
to where you tripped out on yoga visions
and saw the 22,000 year origins of art
insetted by a single flint;
to the Gale Chambers of the Vast Nose,
Cornish galleons tucked under the oceans like rain.
Who’s to decide between glass economies
or the drowsy pulp of the sea?
it ties the forensic squad in knots –
the way groundswell fattens
from a single rock, remakes itself
into delicate gemstone.
These days The Book of Thresholds
fits firm for a pillow,
it wakes me with an empire’s relish.
No identity preference, no thumb guide.
Only scent variations,
each murmurous, each perennial.
The footnotes appear Pythagorean
cupid seminaries/vanity carnivals
VS. GIGANTIC LABOUR.
No monument decision –
nothing on the slumberous reek
of a salmon polished by the sun.
We apprentice poets need an innovator,
‘verbal haemoglobin’, not a casket key.
I repeat the only rule you knew as mantra:
everything is invitation.
I quite liked the phrase ‘drowsy pulp of the sea’ and also the ‘slumberous reek of a salmon polished by the sun’. Otherwise I neither enjoyed nor understood a single line of this poem.
Obviously needing help, I consulted the reviews of ‘Blood/Sugar’. What I found may also be of interest to anyone curious about the world of contemporary poetry that, unlike the ‘Staying Alive’ collection, is not concerned with accessibility.
As is often the case, several of the reviewers of ‘Blood/Sugar’ were also poets. Dismissing the unworthy thought that some of them might be known to one another, I embarked upon the following review by fellow-poet Paul Stubbs. Forgive my quoting from this review at some length; a precis would, I feel, risk losing some of its nuances.
“The way the Peruvian avant-gardist poet Cesar Vallejo described language as being the dark nebulae of life that dwells on the turn of a sentence… can be applied here to the irrefutable poetics of James Byrne. For he has constructed a collection of poems of considerable imaginative pressure, a vice-like poetical ethos, which, in the majority of this book, subjects the language to a rigorous calibration of itself; poems of such exactitude and accuracy that it is almost as if Byrne is attempting to replicate and reconstruct his own jaw at the potter’s wheel of his imagining. I suppose any ‘rogue’ poetical note would be for this poet something to betray the Hymn. According to Geoffrey Hill, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings, and this can most definitely be said of the requirements of the reader facing these innovative poems.”
The review continues:
“Byrne is the editor of Britain’s most important independent poetry magazine The Wolf, and his expert and scrupulous eye is applied rigorously throughout this book. From one poem to the next, he shrouds and unshrouds his own identity before the sacrament of his ‘meaning’, walking us through a Borges-like inner labyrinth of his own etymological and cognitive libraries, where we see ‘glints’ of his mind reflected and deflected, and thus his ideas multiply and mirror themselves into an enfilade of intuitive personal specks on the horizon. The spacing of the poems is such that if we breathe in the wrong places, then Byrne seems to instinctively create new linguistic lungs for us …”
Equipped with my new linguistic lungs, I took a deep breath and read on:
“… His ear also is exemplary, and we feel him ‘set’ nouns and verbs like subterranean stones into the mineral silence of the page. Images that hold as firm as geology against the geyser-pressure of the ink:
The cat’s-eye winks
From its luteous coat.
Vitreous, though resolute,
Its kindly glamour
from Dowry for an Aerophobic
His poems are constantly moving and shifting the syntactical plates of the earth beneath our feet. Flash-points of poetical contraction occur that seem to re-brick the architecture of the poem before our eyes, so that by using his images as ‘windows’ he allows us to peer into his mind’s darkest corners:
the way faces
shapeshift in knots of the wardrobe.
I wake to the dark, thinking of her.
from What Remains of Old Addresses
There are also a number of poems that declare something of a filial sentiment (The Ashes, The Minister’s Daughter), but which in truth seem more akin to the interior-stricken gene-pools of the poet Trakl, whereby the past, the present and the possible future fail to syncretize into an audible ‘now’. Such as in these lines:
Their strange breed of surface tension
is capable of locking a bedroom door.
The villain is a ghost in white sheets.
It seems Byrne would have gained easy entry into Holderlin’s ‘aesthetic church’ where everything and everyone must be brought up to full artistic and poetical perfection. And for this reason alone his poems might well appear too ‘knowing’ for some readers – that of course is the reader’s concern, not the poet’s. The literary and artistic references are many and wide, such as Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Gerhard Richter, Mayakovsky, C.G Jung, Al. Mutanabbi or Katherine Mansfield, among others. However, this does not result in antinomies that he cannot resolve, but rather testify to the incessant evolution of his poetics and enables him to explore the widest literary terrain as possible on which to draft his own shadow.
Towards the end of the collection, the ‘Inclub Satires’ section reveals another side of Byrne’s poetical consciousness, and is a necessary, devastating and much needed wake-up call for all those still deluding themselves that British poetry is in a healthy state. Byrne hurls his pen like a spanner into the clunking machinery of this lie, to force each new poetical clone (handling prize-winning cheque with a fake smile crowbarring the jaw) to utter each self-recorded cliché of an answer onto a loop:
Aside from distinguished friends
my most calculable of judges
Aside from those who clutch
– as we must in these times –
the common candle
Larkin’s ‘limpet-clinging proxy-squad’ are well and truly thrown from the stage:
Witness the shitting of vowels,
the convulsive flux,
the bronze eye,
those familiar orchestral gesturing
to thoughts of legacy.
from Inclub Satires
What James Byrne proves throughout ‘Blood/Sugar’, a book of absolute and genuine originality, is that he is capable of being profound – what the British poet rarely, if ever, can be. Acute and heuristic, he has managed to decipher in deep poetical hieroglyphics the epoch around him. Byrne disarms history and the ‘history’ of the poem within the poem: and if each of them is a codex, a phylactery of meaning waiting still to be discovered, then so much the better.”
Our epoch thus deciphered in deep poetical hieroglyphics, I returned to the poem itself. Sadly its phylactery of meaning is indeed still waiting to be discovered.