Category Archives: writing

Why don’t I understand poetry?

L found a book in a second-hand-book shop in Johannesburg called Future Exiles: 3 London PoetsAllen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Brian Catling. It was Paladin Re/Active Anthology No. 1, published by Paladin Poetry in 1992 and edited by Iain Sinclair before he was famous: the jacket blurb, I imagine composed by himself, is as overwritten as you might expect, which makes me smile. Earnest, uncompromisingly un-dumbed-down. A nice bit of Stanley Spencer on the cover. L thought these scarcely known artists would be an inspiration to me.

They were. But I got very little of the work. I liked the words; I felt these were real poets, which perhaps means nothing more than, they weren’t guilty of my notions of fake poetry: neither sententious prose broken up into lines nor a formal exercise in metre and rhyme and image and structure (and sentiment). The words were charged, potent, alive, quivering and breathing (you can add some more appreciate adjectives of your own if you like), the rhetoric and rhythm alert and suggestive and provocative, the poets giving you a shove on the shoulder to make his point. They are, as art should be, irreducible to a moral or message, parable or allegory. Notice that these are all negative definitions, rules about what art is not. The trouble was that beautiful resonance alone didn’t give me a reason to read a second page.

Page 1 (the book begins with Allen Fisher):

1 Business

The sky is not our limit

A perfect fluid where
energy-density equals
pressure and sound-
velocity equals light-
velocity transforms
on the collision of
plane impulsive gravity
into null dust

X-Ray film to X-Ray

Shovel and cloth
or a muffled steel
hits the paving
signals another day
cleaning the summer

Wonderful. Page 2:

‘I’ve Left My Umbrella In A Taxi’

Fuel cracks
horizons over
gun a sound
in deep concrete a
high pitched blue
wheel ticks
weights through
bodies of food beget
hot displeasure fit
anger to uncultivated
din and this defends me

(After Wyatt’s Description of a Gun)

The gambler’s moll at No. 10

He walks up the alley
catches sunshine information
and heat beneath a hanging
honeysuckle where he scrubs
his body with the leaves
flowers resin and scent
extracts a population
of fleas and walks on

I’m starting to lose traction. Staying in low gear, I make it through to Bill Griffiths:

After Stroke

his jacket, boots kept outside the holding cell
I exhale: my breath tastes
as cut and raw veg
ceiling and great flanged tree
roundabouted, grudge
and wedge
the cuss-crush, bits of
death by fire, death by pneumonia, brain-jolting
with major wings
floods, catching.
slow angry I move
like with the heart of a hedgehog –
shocked with drink
Pete starts off to smash
the cell open, forgets it –
volcanoes=volcano will push the trees aside,
tilt and melt, like lightbulbs, till too
superheaven admits no light but a lemon blaze.
but it never comes / chains together,
the similes leap
nothing of it happens
it wldn’t happen, I suppose – morning,
I try to get my legs to move
Alf wakes with his hand in his belt
Pauline doesn’t stir yet – thinking:
it wld be better to burn the money
than be caught w/ it in yr pockets.

the cold roll of the river
the judged spark of cold stony flesh
the solemn sprinkle of bells toward a sun
vast dimensions
pinewoods & pure roadways choose on,
don’t check you

I start skimming, then skipping. And yet it’s a pleasure to type this stuff.

Last comes Brian Catling, a sculptor, installation artist, performer as well as poet. His section opens with prose, a series of pieces called Written Rooms and Pencilled Crimes, each half a page to a page and a half long. Now these, for me, don’t bear exemplification. Most of them describe rooms, and usually there is something going on in the room; often, they might be descriptions of a performance installation. They are, on the whole, simply and beautifully written. Often something painful, cruel or menacing is happening, or there is a horrifying risk of it happening. Often there is magic being worked, or at least, someone having a serious go at it, in a way that those lucky enough to have read The Course of the Heart and other work by M John Harrison might recognise. Lighting and textures are cheap, accidental, dilapidated and intensely considered, just the way I like them.

Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, these fragments can’t be explained as extracts from an unwritten story: their before and after loom over them, sure, but we are bound to the present moment or moments under description as if we were present. There is a place: unlike Calvino’s cities, or Borges’ fantasies, which I would also put on this shelf, it is usually physically plausible, somewhere you could build and not just conjure up in words. There are people. Often there is a narrative: one thing follows another, is caused by it; you could write a script.

So after ten written rooms and pencilled crimes, I was excited to reach Catling’s poems. I understand this guy’s language, I thought. First:

Moon surgeon

Moon surgeon
dazzles in transparent air,
entwining the
cosmic dragon
onto the rubber hand.

And travellers stumble into
night’s artillery
crazed in subterranean swamp-
Mineral clock unwinds a sprung
water tongue

A ghost is being built from the more
solid things

Great. Don’t get it. Next:

To journey longer and blister

To journey longer and blister
around the vegetable eruption,
its thermal violence-
eating tantrum.

Or mid-europe among smoke and trees.
Treatment varies painfully
but squeezes out mephitic pleasures
under weighted pinball moons.

But being earthed & unmasked
adrift on the pesthouse clinker;
to journey is a cancerous deceit
for the monkish leather android.

You can’t fail to approve of a poem that gives you a monkish leather android. But what else?

After some pages of poetry, we get more Written Rooms, then more poems, and so on. Each prose section astonishes me: no duds, no disappointing understanding of a mechanism at work. One lends itself to allegory; other, later pieces cross over into the incantation of the poems, unintelligible to me:

From these relentless fictions I have netted a storm. I have bred hands. Incubated them in gloves of sulphur. Coaxed harsh nubile bone to invert itself. Carved them from occulted stones of lost intentions. Bathed them in milk under the swollen names of angels. And on that distant night unleashed them; a sending, a maelstrom of many where only one was needed. Tinder nails bite sparks from the walls in their passing, their velocity echoes stars in rain water cobble stones, a scatter over darkness, a flutter into dust: right hand, left hand, the prey being sensed, a warmth inbetween. Closing.

Each poetry section baffles me. So it should! is the easy response, followed by a quote from Keats:

… at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…

In Brian Catling’s poems and prose I seem to have found the exact spot where my own Negative Capability as a reader runs out. This is rather disappointing. I wish someone could help me.

Turner tosh

Read the small print, however, and you find that what you are in the presence of is something rather more significant. “Wilkes’s installations apprehend an end point in our understanding of things as they are – a point at which words become insufficient and the naming of objects is disconnected from our experience of them” (that is to say, “I can’t think of any way of describing this”). And that is not all. “These precisely placed constellations of ready mades, sculptures, found objects and manipulated images form an uncompromising questioning of the self, and a constant desire to move beyond what is known.”

That particular constant desire is also what takes you as swiftly as possible to the next room…

Thanks to sit down man, you’re a bloody tragedy for pointing to Tim Adamscontribution to the war on art bollocks.

Curating Architecture

Bringing together [how? Are buildings being transported girder by girder and paintings DHLed to some crossdisciplinary ground zero in New Cross?] artistic and architectural projects by distinguished [the guarantee of quality, the answer to the question “Why should we be interested?” They are Distinguished. But what distinguishes them? And from what? How far are they from being undistinguished?] international [so they practice in different countries? Or do they live in different countries? And is this a good thing?] practitioners, Curating Architecture focuses on the relationship between architecture as an increasingly influential [c’mon, when has architecture not been a very influential aesthetic practice?] (and dominantly transdisciplinary [wow. Architecture crosses disciplines in a dominant manner. What is a dominant manner of crossing disciplines? And which disciplines are you talking about? And is that where we’re at now, still talking about learning and authority as things that are needed for admission to the categories of aesthetic practice? And there are too many adverbs here]) aesthetic practice [now I’m thinking of someone playing tennis in a particularly graceful way, probably with blond hair backlit by sunshine. I blame over-use of “practice” and its derivatives] and the complex claims [what are these claims and why are they complex] on public and institutional [now, again, which institutions are we talking about? State-funded groups of people working together for particular ends? Or any organised labour unit? Or simply a function that transcends what is done by individuals? Or the kind of institution that people used to say other people they thought had psychological problems should be in?] space [I’m not so naive as to think you’re just thinking about the primary meaning of this, the stuff that has three dimensions and can be measured by a ruler, although that’s what “public space” normally refers to – parks, for instance. The fact that your space can also be “institutional” makes me think you’re talking of some immaterial, conceptual space, such as a field of study. But then institutional, let alone public space becomes a little too big to be a useful idea – everything to do with an institution, everything to do with the public, in other words, everything to do with everyone. I wonder if “people and institutions” might have done just as well here, although what you are trying to say would remain obscure] made by [things are so much more difficult in the passive] artists, curators and architects [do all artists, curators and architects make these complex, though unspecified, claims? Or just some? Who are they? Are they all distinguished?] as they seek to articulate [to articulate as in “express” or “explain”, or as in “articulated lorry”?] new, often political and certainly critical [intriguing – why are they more certain to be critical than they are political? There’s something in there. Everything is political, of course, and I suspect everything is critical too, though I’d like to be sure just which meaning of that word you have in mind here. Probably not the most common if not literally correct one of “making a negative judgement”, probably closer to the idea of objective assessment, but if it is to be a “production of space” that is critical, it must embody that criticism somehow. How would it do that, I wonder? By some kind of inbuilt reference to other productions of space, or to production-of-space theory, or what? Would I recognise understand such inherent criticism if I saw it, I wonder?], productions of space [“space” again. I somehow doubt this is the same space as before. But this is something that can be done by artists, curators and architects. Are they working together or in collaboration? Architects certainly produce space, in a sense, although to be pedantic I’d have to say they put walls and roofs and floors around space that already exists. But they do create “a sense of space” and a different sort of space to what was there before. So do curators, sort of: after they’ve put up a show, the gallery feels different, and works differently as a place for experiencing art, to what it did before (I’m aware this is probably a rather naive view of what curators think their job is these days). How artists produce space is a bit harder for me to understand. They might create a new conceptual space, but that’s a game anyone can play. But before space, we have “production”. I’ve tried to read Deleuze and Guattari, and I know they wrote a lot about “production” in their discussions of psychology and emotions, where you might not expect to find such a mechanistic, material-sounding notion. Maybe there’s a vogue for using language that suggests that art and cultural studies are not about vapid flim-flam but are endeavours as grounded as car manufacturing or plumbing, as if lecturers have a pot of Swarfega in their offices for the end of the day. But as it’s not clear what kind of space you’re talking about, the literalist in me objects that no one can produce space. OK, the Big Bang produced space, the expansion of the universe is producing space, and according to the Horizon I saw last night time maybe the constant production of new quantum granules of, err, something. But I don’t think you’re talking about cosmology here, and for us on the surface of this planet we’re still in a pretty classical Newtonian space in which space is, importantly, available in strictly limited quantities.]

Reading stuff like this is a bit like playing charades. The deal is that the person performing the charade is basing their performance on something you probably know about: only a very bad sport would choose a German TV miniseries. So they gesture towards something, you get it and everyone’s happy. That’s how all language works, true, but when you are wielding such specialised meanings of words there seems very little space (there, I can use it too) for anything to be actually said.

You might say that this was only meant for academics to read, and that they would understand what you were trying to say. But The Showroom, which sent me the email in which I read this, is, or was, a public gallery funded by state money. So this is a way of saying, everyone can come, but not everyone is welcome.

From Davies to Dracula

To begin with, the tale of Our Lady of the Flowers lulls present time, for the very words the murderer uses are the magic words that equally handsome hoodlums spat out like so many stars, like those extraordinary hoodlums who pronounce the word “dollar” with the right accent. But what is to be said of one of the strangest of poetic phenomena: that the whole world – and the most terribly dismal part of it, the blackest, most charred, dry to the point of Jansenism, the severe, naked world of factory workers – is entwined with marvels, the popular songs lost in the wind, by profoundly rich voices, gilded and set with diamonds, spangled or silky; and these songs have phrases which I cannot think of without shame if I know they are sung by the grave mouths of workers which utter such words as: succumb … tenderness … ravishing … garden of roses … cottage … marble steps … sweethearts … dear … love … jewels … crown … oh my queen … dear stranger … gilded room … lovely lady … flowered basket … treasure of flesh … golden waning … my heart adores you … laden with flowers … colour of the evening … exquisite and pink … in short, those fiercely luxurious words, words which must slash their flesh like a ruby-crested dagger.


There is no point in going into the details of her arrest. A simple policeman was enough to throw her into a state of terror worthy of a condemned man, the kind of terror every man has been through, just as every man has also known in his life the exaltation of a royal coronation.

Our Lady of the Flowers, Panther, 1966, pages 192–194.

Popular songs, operatic intensity of emotion and aesthetics, veneration of the common man and ignoble lives, but this time it’s not Terence Davies but Jean Genet‘s first novel, first published in 1943, two years before Davies was born. You could say Genet was patronising the working class unforgiveably, if he hadn’t been a delinquent orphan queer petty criminal writing in prison.

You could say, that would be a good first paragraph. Seduce the reader with poetry. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the story soon. But the memory of this indulgence will be like MSG for the rest of the text. Instead, he gives us this:

Weidmann appeared before you in a five o’clock edition, his head swathed in white bands, a nun and yet a wounded pilot fallen into the rye one September day like the day when the world came to know the name of Our Lady of the Flowers. His handsome face, multiplied by the presses, swept down upon Paris and all of France, to the depths of the most out-of-the-way villages, in castles and cabins, revealing to the mirthless bourgeois that their daily lives are grazed by enchanting murderers, cunningly elevated to their sleep, which they will cross by some back stairway that has abetted them by not creaking. Beneath his picture burst the dawn of his crimes: murder one, murder two, murder three, up to six, bespeaking his secret glory and preparing his future glory.

A little earlier, the Negro Angel Sun had killed his mistress.

A little later, the soldier Maurice Pilorge killed his lover, Escudero, to rob him of something under a thousand francs, then, for his twentieth birthday, they cut off his head while, you will recall, he thumbed his nose at the enraged executioner.

Finally, a young ensign, still a child, committed treason for treason’s sake: he was shot. And it is in honour of their crimes that I am writing my book.

But what about the victims, Jean? What about their families? What about the children? Aren’t you glorifying crime? Do you really think you should? Yes, this is not going to be a nice book.

By the way, Weidmann was the last person to be publicly executed in France. It was in 1939, and was watched by Christopher Lee, who was 17.