Four poems by Denise Riley

Pers. Comm.

It willed to be ordinary, easy
as rain sifting through woods
but doubt shrouded the mind 
to warp its aim of kindliness. 

Fires were lit and sap hissed
in green branches torn down 
by anxiety contorted to shield 
itself, biting its angry hands.

It smoked out each transparent joy.  
It strode well away from its heart.  
Darkness absorbs the mind, once 
it starts calling itself ‘unwanted’.  

Oh go away for now

Persistent are your lost or dead 
intimates and buried child.  

They won’t leave their wants unsaid          
but tag you with appeals and prods
while your ‘work of mourning’ quails  
before each sibilant attack

inveigling you to lead them back: 
‘You’ve loved us terribly, and so  

you’ve kept us going even though …’ 
Calmly heap fresh soil upon them. 

They can wait for you to join them 
as soon you will; you’ll soon gang up 
to poke and give some new grief to  
whoever, left living, once loved you.  

On the Black Isle

Three ginger temples of oilrigs clamped at the bay’s mouth, a  
big navy sky roiled over cloud pillars; the notebook goes riffling 
through its colour chart for rose-flushed stonework cut clean as
these rain-beaded fuchsias or until that notebook, a mental one, 
flips round to enquire whitely:  Just what do you think you’re up to?  
‘Any gay thing’s worth a chase, for as long as its shade distracts,
so drape, far rain, hung in cinematic swathes’.  Its next reproach
isn’t appealing, either: So where am I in this?  ‘We aren’t – this is in 
rosy Cromarty, its broad fields racing by and silvery ruthless rain 
nettling our scoured skins.’ – Quite vanished and never said why.   
Thick kelp straps gleam in the shallows and loll on the rising tide. 

Boxy Piece
Exhibit of small boxes made from wood 
to house their thought and each an open 
coffin of the not-dead with their chirring. 
Satin-lined frames stack square in blocks
nested to a columbarium – then mumble
closet doves, whose fond carpenter drills
piercings for more air, won’t let you flap.

Index of Poems By Year


Tom Betteridge
     [#] Of A Silent District

Amy Cutler
     [#] Rumpele stilt

Dan Eltringham
     [#] mystics

Sarah Hayden
     [#] Women & Labo[u]r I-II

Benjamin Mullen
     [#] Easter Monday

Denise Riley
     [#] Four Poems

John Seed
     [#] from 'Brandon Pithouse: Recollections Of The Durham Coalfield'


Felicity Allen
     [#] The Installation

Oliver Dixon
     [#] Four Poems

Peter Jaeger
     [#] A Philip Whalen Mala

Pansy Maurer-Alvarez
     [#] Rapture Stripped Of Confetti

Drew Milne & John Kinsella
     [#] from Reactor Red Shoes

Stephen Mooney
     [#] from The Cursory Epic Pt 3 – The Seven Serpents

Benjamin Mullen
     [#] The Aral Beach

Matthew Paskins

Denise Riley
     [#] Late March 2013
     [#] You Men Who Go In Living Flesh
     [#] Signifs

Daniel Tiffany
     [#] Three Poems


Tim Allen
     [#] from Default Soul

David Ashford
     [#] Pulgarsari

Amy De'Ath
     [#] Cuteness Is A Landscape

Ben Borek
     [#] from Sissy

Emily Critchley
     [#] For Him

Andrew Duncan
     [#] Precipice of Niches

Elizabeth Guthrie & Andrew K. Peterson
     [#] Two Poems

JD Melling
     [#] truth table analysis

Sophie Seita
     [#] Little Trauma


Amy Cutler
     [#] Wild Pansy

Tray Dumhann
     [#] Two Poems

Ralph Hawkins
     [#] The pflight of a Poet (Four Chanson)

Colleen Hind
     [#] From "DP"

Lisa Jeschke
     [#] Lines 1, 2, 3

Sarah Kelly
     [#] Two Poems

Francesca Lisette
     [#] 3 Poems

Tom Lowenstein
     [#] The Apartments of the Great Khan

Fabian Macpherson
     [#] Two Poems

Luke McMullan
     [#] Dawn, Vision

R.T.A. Parker
     [#] 9 sonnets from 99 Short Sonnets about Evil

Nat Raha
     [#] Three poems from 'mute exterior intimate'

Sophie Seita
     [#] Fragonard

Helen Slater
     [#] Easter Sunday 24 April 2011

Samantha Walton
     [#] 3 Poems

Tessa Whitehouse
     [#] Draft Folder Poems


Sean Bonney
     [#] The Commons set 3 // 31 - 33
     [#] The Commons set 3 // 27 - 28
     [#] (after Rimbaud) "complaint registered March 18th 1871"
     [#] (after Rimbaud) "september 2003. we were wondering why the poets were silent"

Dominic Fox
     [#] After Slumber (xiii)

Harry Godwin
     [#] Experiments in Deconstruction : Flushing

Abdulkarim Kasid
     [#] Two Poems (translated by the poet and Sara Halub, with David Kuhrt and John Welch)

Joe Luna
     [#] Two Songs

Alistair Noon
     [#] Three Poems from Some Questions on the Cultural Revolution

Jonty Tiplady
     [#] Happiness 4


Tina Bass
     [#] s'wet
          my cyclamen

Carrie Etter
     [#] Divining for Starters (65)

Nathan Hamilton
     [#] Sunbathe

Ralph Hawkins and Alan Halsey
     [#] From The Incomplete Pseudo-Necronomicon

Peter Larkin
     [#] Lean Earth Off Trees Unaslant, IV

Johan de Wit
     [#] from annulus
          6 statements


Jenny Allan
     [#] from Intermittent Voices

Jeff Hilson
     [#] from In the Assarts

Federico García Lorca
     [#] Nocturno del hueco (translated by Michael Peverett)

Alice Notley
     [#] Ten poems from Negativity's Kiss

Joshua Stanley
     [#] The true shape of proteins

Anna Ticehurst
     [#] Open Season
          Abasement Marks
          Open Practise

Timothy Thornton
     [#] Scrap, Manifest

Tom White
     [#] from Old Sense


Tina Bass
     [#] Emmenogogue
     [#] "not diligent"

Jennifer Cooke
     [#] Phew

Mark Dickinson
     [#] from Nematode
     [#] from The Speed of Clouds

Carrie Etter
     [#] Anthro-

Peter Finch
     [#] Old

Helen Macdonald
     [#] "Between her wings the novitiate"

Richard Makin
     [#] Nine Poems from Erratum's Lip

Dee McMahon
     [#] Satiety

Andrew Nightingale
     [#] from Maps of my Hermetic Future

Alistair Noon
     [#] Postcards From Home

Francis Raven
     [#] I Thought This Was Better

Hannah Silva
     [#] 'can live with this music we'

Matina Stamatakis
     [#] Behind Eyes

Joshua Stanley
     [#] The Return
     [#] Untitled

Simon Turner
     [#] La Città Nuova: a construction for Antonio Sant'Elia
          To Be Bewildered

Lawrence Upton
     [#] NAMING for Lucio Agra

James Wilkes
     [#] Two reviews


Tim Allen
     [#] from The Failure of Myth

heidi arnold
     [#] Red Checks

Aase Berg (trans. Johannes Göransson)
     [#] Deformationszon / Deformation Zone
          Filt / Blanket
          Fotboj / Foot Buoy

Mairéad Byrne
     [#] That West End Blues Syndrome
          Climbing the Stairs

Jon Clay
     [#] 'Windblast a vibrating landscape'
          Pyrite (Flare Hope)

Emily Critchley
     [#] I just want you to know that we can still be friends

M. T. C. Cronin

Steve Dalachinsky
     [#] blank space in a car pool

Ian Davidson
     [#] Baltic
     [#] from Partly in Riga

Nina Davies
     [#] Mzuzu University Inauguration Day 1999

AnnMarie Eldon
     [#] scrubbing up
          house calls and the slattern's self-disparaging emesis

Giles Goodland
     [#] Three poems from Capital

     [#] from Please Eat Yourself

Peter Larkin
     [#] From "Shade" (At Wall With The Approach Of Trees, 2)

John Latta
     [#] Landskip And Fit

Tom Lowenstein
     [#] At Uqpik's Cabin

Peter Manson
     [#] Poems
          Labour 1995
          That Door
          If by dull rhymes our English must be chained

D. S. Marriott
     [#] from Speak Low: Poem To Jonas

rob mclennan
     [#] last night: thirteen lines

Geraldine Monk
     [#] from Raccoon

Daniel Nester
     [#] Two Douglas Rothschild Laments
          To Be Imperfect, To Be

Dawn Pendergast
     [#] from Zoo Po Day
     [#] Hi mouse.
          The Even

Frances Presley
     [#] Creswell Crags

Lisa Samuels
     [#] Civitas
          Song: body's end
          The morning of departure

Mark Scroggins
     [#] Flâneur
          'The spillage of sunlight...'

John Seed
     [#] From That Barrikins

Robert Sheppard
     [#] The war had ended; it had not ended
     [#] From September 12
     [#] From Thelma

Joshua Stanley
     [#] "It is a persistent floatation on the glass, the conflict there"
          "The exchange of temperature unfelt bent blades of grass"

Scott Thurston
     [#] from Separate Voices

Lawrence Upton
     [#] i.m. barry macsweeney
     [#] oscillation
     [#] Marcus Vergette
          Pete Kubryk-Townsend

Stephen Vincent
     [#] from Tenderly

Carol Watts
     [#] from Dogtown

Tom Betteridge: Of a Silent District

Of a Silent District

On the duct pace is leased under light
at an hour’s turn, the field dampens and white
stills, threads its rate.

[. . .]

Read the whole poem (pdf)

Sarah Hayden: Women & Labo[u]r I-II

Read 'Women & Labo[u]r I-II' (in pdf format)

Download a pdf of the whole poem

greetings to Metambesen (Robert Kelly etc)

There's no let-up in the steady flow of attractive US poetry, a situation that any UK reader must view with some envy,  no matter how committed to the gnarly scene over here. I wonder as we all do what it means, what the history and condition of cultural life must be that allows such a river.

Nevertheless there's sometimes also a recognition, there as here, that you can't conveniently sell the good stuff and it's better to just make it available.

The Metambesen offerings are enjoyable and above all free. (As regular readers will know, this reviewer discriminates positively in favour of poetry that doesn't cost anything.)

Metambesen is a new publishing site (PDF chapbooks) based out of Annandale-on-Hudson  put together by Robert Kelly and others. Annandale-on-Hudson is in the Hudson Valley (surprise) in the northern part of Dutchess County (nice archaic spelling there), in upstate New York (according to all but the most exclusive definitions of "upstate"). It's the location of Bard College, where Kelly has taught for about half a century, and not far south of Albany, another place with significant modern poetry connections.

("Metambesen" is not a term you forgot from Fichte but the name of a creek in the area, of native American origin.)

Robert Kelly: The Language of Eden

Or, if you read the PDF cover,


which I think says something more about the book. It's a talkative 80 pages written in 2002, and is interesting to contrast with  (to say nothing of his fify other books) the more recent poem GRAVITY FEED, which you can find on his blog.

Robert Kelly's blog:

The Language of Eden is a prolonged, intimate, wide-ranging, often anguished conversation between a patient and an analyst. Gradually these roles metamorphose, but still they have a clarity of definition unusual in post-modern narrative.

and now our time is up
usually I mind it when you say that
but I’m glad not to talk about children
you’re really fixated on my having them why
not on your having them just what you think about them

but the divan’s empty now
I always want to know who cleans his office
his invisible wife his illegal immigrant au pair

I imagine her sitting in his chair in the dark
then stretching out along the patient’s couch
where she has no right
no right but the dark


Dipping into the book is one thing. But the invitation is clear, to read it from beginning to end. I don't know if people ever do that with free books. Anyway here's a a more lyrical part from near the beginning:

but all I wanted
was to see the porcupine
climb up the pine tree the rattlesnake
lie sleepy in the morning sun
some deer gaze at me from the woodlot’s edge
when you see an animal it means you’re thinking

all summer I was thinking
and not a word I had to say
I watched the thermometer go up and down

rigid interpretation
sailing ships and steamers plunging
smokestacks like the valves of trumpets

holy trinity going far away
does music ever come back
but when an animal looks at you it means you’re wrong

sometimes the bird can’t tolerate
eerie smell of the closets
where the winter coats have talked too long

sometimes a coat never comes home

Eléna Rivera: Overture

Here's a sequence about autumn, change, accidents, writing. The scaffolding works all through the poem. That might at least be one reason for thinking of Jane Cooper; the other irrelevant author who came to mind is Tua Forsström; neither of them closely related to the US-modernist sphere in which I supposed Rivera operated. But I mean these as compliments. The poetry is compressed and undecorated, so that maximal value is placed on small sounds and under-meanings.

Have to have a high idea of what we do
No matter the stakes
No matter if the writing hasn't been read yet
A leaf is picked up and put in a plastic bag
                                        the word floats into view
Impatient with pronouncements
Of every variety
Trying to convince ourselves
Doing the ‘‘right’‘ thing

Rivera has published quite a few other books, including The Perforated Map (Shearsman, 2011)

Tamas Panitz: The Empty Stations

The first two poems are, in part, about the Egyptian sky-goddess Nut. As the 28 pages proceed the chapbook is seen to cover a lot of fast-moving ground, more than you'd guess from this opening, even though the second one is also about a park smelling of shit.

The following lines represent a small move early within the title poem (my favourite one), but they'll give you an idea:

Smell of soup after midnight from downstairs. Like lovers tramp across the
frozen tidal river the tides a cold terror of latent pasts: a dream (but I was
going to write demon) ridden primordial soup

warms open. It’s summer, barley & rosemary & the green man. Who says
the seasons come in order.

George Quasha: free floating instant nations (preverbs)

Quasha has published several previous selections of preverbs - a concept, supposedly suggested by William Blake, of something anterior to and more contingent than a proverb. Quasha has written persuasively about the "preverb" idea; he has a gift for coming up with appealing and original artistic concepts, as previously seen, for instance, in his remarkable sculptures known as axial stones.

But back to the preverbs. Something needs to stick, and that's here from the start.

I say me as if I were a tree.
I appear to be looking up because I am.
I’m on this journey because I have feet.
Facing down on horny earth in a phrase.
The syntax is make sense before it’s too late.

The poems are sexual, sensual, spiritual, body- belly- and earth- centred. Trees, clouds and sensations of free floating are recurrent features. Whether the word "nations" really deserves to be in the book-title is more debateable.  Of course I don't grasp much of the thought's detail from so fleeting a contact, though I can see the persistent lines of thought as they overflow from one poem to the next. One such thought-line is around syntax, poetics, and language.

I know it’s a poem when it teaches me language lip first.

Eyeland (The Cuttyhunk Photographs of Charlotte Mandell with texts by Lynn Behrendt, Billie Chernicoff, Robert Kelly, and Tamas Panitz)

That is, Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, a place of wide horizons and white weatherboarding.The poems began as comments on an online photo album by Charlotte Mandell (Robert Kelly's wife):  poems by and for a small group.

I think it's highly problematic to write a poem about a photo that the reader can see for themselves. The picture is always in competition with the poem and it always wins. The poem, trying to get away from the the drastic particularity of the photo, can drown in its own symbolism. But for all these pitfalls, it's so tempting to try. Would Tamas Panitz's line about "the orange shawl"  even be possible without the the beautiful photo alongside it?

 Or take the symbolism just as it is, and it can make a lucid kind of discourse.

I knew Tivoli was a rose
roses, heads heavy with dew
heavy with admiration
yours and mine, women
tired of telling you their names
tired of being so transparent
so obvious we can only fling ourselves
more deeply into who we are.    (Billie Chernicoff)

There's a good deal of happenstance in a book with such conversational origins and that's what produces the moments I valued most.


crippled by gentility

by Michael Peverett

There is class war on the internet as everywhere else. And I'm as implicated as anyone, and (thinking of myself as a player here, because I've now written so many literary pieces) I keep noticing common literary/journalistic expressions that I just would never use, because of personal snobbery and because I want people to see that I've got more class than to write crap like that (which really means that I'm not being told what to write by paymasters, because no-one gives a toss about what I write).

1. "a gem of a book"

Pure Hustle is a gem of book ... (Jo Shapcott on Kate Potts' debut collection for Bloodaxe.) BTW, since we're taking potshots, the worthy but ancient Bloodaxe website desperately needs a facelift. Can you imagine it, you can't even browse in the books, there's no samplers! So the only things Kate Potts has got to promote her probably unique gifts are two worthless blurbs, Shapcott's heartwarming "gem of a book.. pure gold..." and Jen Hadfield's woolly stab at a more surreal style ("this assonance-jellied, beetle-drawer of a pamphlet..."). Is this of any use to anyone? Contrast, of course, the Shearsman or Salt websites: you can really discover a whole lot about, say (pause...), Sascha Aurora Akhtar's The Grimoire of Grimalkin.. Hey, I like this book a lot; that wasn't in the script. I thought Salt had stopped publishing my kind of books (NB I was right, but you can still buy some old things). Anyway, you see what I mean? That's what a publishing website needs to do, isn't it? The business of a publisher is to publish, not just print.

[You can read about Kate Potts' book here, though:]


"This gem of a book" - most appropriately used of debut collections: attempting to suggest a cherished personal discovery that one has hugged to oneself for ages before coyly, earnestly, almost reluctantly, feeling impelled to speak of it among friends.

Of course we do not use expressions like this in the alt-poetry world.  (We pretend that we don't have any friends, while mainstreamers pretend that they don't live in an economy.)  Perhaps we view the gushingness of "this gem of a book" as further evidence that mainstreamers in general don't have any thoughts about poetry worth attending to, while they continue to believe that we don't  really care for poetry at all but just use it to promote our own personal agendas; both very true insights.

The more generalized expression used by both these blurbers: "This A of a B" now appears to survive only in the provincial world of books, long since discarded from more fashionable media spheres (who used to say "this colossus of a performance", "this determined beauty of an anti-single" etc).

More distantly, it makes me think of:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

Essentially all these expressions are about asserting (creating) value, i.e. they attempt to propose a heroic scena in which swords are magic and heroes can hold up stone bridges with their bare hands. Used in reviews, this transmutes into a heroic/commercial nexus, i.e. in which you can BUY THE ACTION: bucklers, bridges and all.

2.  "in defence of"


Yup. That's it. No, I mean, that's one of the things I would never, ever write: an article entitled "In Defence Of" something. But lots of people do. Try Googling "in defence of" ... well,  anything. Modernism, moral imperialism, moral absolutes, mothers, monarchy, moderate aesthetic formalism, model-based inference in phylogeography, Morgan Tsvangirai, and that's just the MOs.

Gillian Beer in defence of rhyme (Guardian, Jan 13th 2007): "Rhyme is often dismissed as conventional, old-fashioned and childish. Not so, argues Gillian Beer, who believes its potential to persuade and surprise should not be underestimated". That's the subEditor speaking, with his brisk "Not so". The article that follows is often intelligent, not at all original, and eventually sinks under the oppressive discomfort of trying to pretend to be a perky topical must-read: "One difficulty in discussing the effects of rhyme is that these are manifold and diverse," the author laments helplessly.

(Bit of a soft target, you're thinking? I know. The fact is that I've lost contact with the original article that inspired this particular snobbery; I can't even remember if it was about poetry or not.)

So why are people so fond of titling their articles "In Defence of X"? Because it vaguely reminds them of other articles they've read. They think it's a clever quote from something, was it Shelley? (No, it wasn't.) Even if it was a clever quote, I'd despise it because it wasn't a cleverer one. Think of all those other vague appropriations of forgotten quotations: I want to say that entitling your essay "Post-Structuralism and Its Discontents" (Globalization, Simulation, The Euro...), so far from differentiating you, in fact places you on just the same beery level as if you write "The Great British Barbecue" (Pudding, Christmas..).

But the real reason why cool people don't use "In Defence Of..." is this. Consider the scenario: you use it to stand up for something that is, in your opinion, under attack. In other words, you tell the world that you're going to come on a bit reactionary here. Obviously, you're saying it oh-so-knowingly so as to prove that you're not REALLY a reactionary. (Keston Sutherland could possibly get away with that, but absolutely no-one else can.) But it won't work. Your title proves exactly the opposite. It proves you have a taste for sitting among reactionary furniture, so probably you ARE a reactionary, it's just that you're so reactionary that you don't even realize how reactionary you are. Actions speak louder than words. (And it's a safe bet that though you're finding relief in giving vent to some of your reactionary views now, you're still holding back on all the worst ones.)

But, wait a minute, doesn't it make a difference WHAT you're defending? No, not really. Never defend. It's A. defensive behaviour B. A lost cause. C. Suggests the puzzled blinking of an owl in daylight. D. Proves you're in denial.

And by the way, the perhaps exemplary object that you've set out to defend is now, thanks to your own bungling, tainted by association with the reactionary attitudes encoded in the word "defence".

You think I'm joking. Well, take Michael Pollan's big-selling "In Defence of Food". Main assertion, that there's no point taking any nutritional supplements because you cannot reduce food, which is so chemically complex, to a small number of active principles. I can't help noticing that the same argument would seem to condemn all medicine or pharmaceutics; it asserts an obfuscatory integrity of nature and makes experiment or investigation as impious as to question the ways of God. Interesting argument, nonetheless. But hold on! Soon the author is complaining that people don't even sit down together to a family meal these days! And if you want to know what real food is, then it's whatever your grandmother would have recognized! .... The author together with his cherished damsel (defended object: "Food" in this instance) are equally betrayed from within by these mindless DailyMailisms.

There's a more important reason than any of that. Attack and Defence are like Good and Evil, they tend to reduce the complexity of nature to the ancient binary systems, always more or less inaccurate, that humans rightly fall back on in extreme emergencies when action of some sort is paramount and layers of complexity must be stripped from the vision. At all other times, binary is pointlessly wrong.

3.  "oft-presented".

Now that's nasty, isn't it? Evidently, the word "oft" is a poeticism and has no idiomatic existence today, supposing it ever did. Nevertheless some people love to use it when they're writing. Well, I don't. Oh but surely this is just about personal taste? No, it's about class struggle. But it doesn't necessarily work the way you might assume. In this case, middlebrow huxters write things like "oft-denied" or "oft-imperilled" in order to demonstrate, as they suppose, that they have some culture about them, that they're at ease with public writing. Highbrow huxters would be ashamed to do the same, because their secret conviction is that their writing is sufficiently commended by its own essence to obviate the need for pathetic decoration with such faded blossoms as this.

4.   "I'm reminded of"

People are very funny when writing about other people's poetry books. When it's the kind of poetry that I mostly follow, the uppermost experience is usually puzzlement, and this can be signalled in various ways. If a modern poet is lucky enough to get a review at all, it is usually just a ragbag of "I'm reminded of".

This phrase means that the critic is about to introduce something that, within the critic's personal imagination, has a vague connection with the book under review. At the same time, the phrase signals that the critic realizes that this association, this something, is in all probability purely personal to the critic, and is not at all likely to be known to the poet; and is probably an evanescent impression that oughtn't even to be mentioned, but hey.

[Something similar to this is when the reviewer confides "I happened to be reading such-and-such last night and ..." ... followed by quotation from tangentially relevant book.]

There seems to be a consensual recognition that a review of a book is not a study of the author's work. It is sufficiently justified, so this consensus runs, by being written by a reader and by honestly recording how it strikes them. But does this mean that the reader's happenstancial experiences are all grist to the mill? Traditionally, I'd say no. In former days the reviewer aimed for typicality, or rather pretended to do so. Now that this is rightly discredited, the modern reviewer is encouraged to confide the random synchronicities of their readerly life, even when only flimsily connected to the book in hand. I think that's how it's meant to work.

5.   "There is a sense of"

This timidly risks proffering an interpretation, while ready to snatch it away at the first hint of a frown.

Perhaps it is meant to evoke the enormously long, calm middle-distance musing that I remember from university tutorials. I hate the way these manners still persist.

6.  "only to"

Where Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ provides a mechanism by which the bereavement process can be structured around the writing process, 'Eurydice' suggests that it cannot. As in the Greek myth around which this sequence is loosely structured, Eurydice is resurrected only to fade away once again. .... it is tempting to conclude .... Chillingly, .... etc etc. (Stride review of James Womack by Thomas White.)

Is it fair of me to single out out "only to", surely that's unobjectionable??

Well, perhaps it is as regards the quotation I've taken up, but it strikes a disagreeable note in me nevertheless. It's something to do with being knowing, with consciously seeing all round a subject, and with abusing the short and easie way to seeing all round a subject, which is reductiveness. You fancy that in the hierarchy of knowingness, Thomas White sits somewhere above Christopher Reid who himself sits above Ovid who sits above poor naive old Orpheus. White, above all, knew where the story would end almost before it began. Yet to me (doubtless excessively reverential) this hierarchy is upside-down. The commentator should never sit above the subject, you can't see through your own butt.

7.  "who should know better"

This chiding schoolmasterly phrase is inexplicably popular among critics who, I think, would want to reject its implications if they thought them over. Borrowing the enemy's weapons is good in war but bad in criticism, is the way I see it.

8. "serves to"

This is a cliché of literary criticism and scholarship that became ridiculously popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still seen today. I'm taking these examples from Anne Righter's Shakespeare and The Idea of The Play (1962), but any university library would yield tens of thousands of examples.

The comparison made between life and the theatre serves, in this instance, to define the depth and realism of the play world itself. (p. 60)
Like the valedictory remark of Subtle Shift, his comment serves to recognize the contrived, somewhat artificial nature of the action now terminated. (p. 68)
Used within the confines of a play, the metaphor served not only to dignify the theatre but also to bridge the space between the stage and the more permanent realm inhabited by the spectators. (p. 76)
Used within the 'reality' of the play itself, they also serve to remind the audience that elements of illusion are present in ordinary life, and that between the world and the stage there exists a complicated interplay of resemblance that is part of the perfection and nobility of the drama itself as a form. (p. 78)

Obviously part of my objection to this kind of commentary is that it's too knowing (as per 6); the scholar-critic takes it for granted that s/he knows why the author has done something. In Righter's case, this knowingness is probably unintended. She is apt to state that such-and-such a passage "serves to" support her thesis, when it might seem to serve to do other things that are a lot more obvious. (I mean just how many times do you need to remind an audience of the connection between play and world? Isn't it one of the amazing things about drama that it's one of the most obvious things there is, that "make-believe" is something that a young child "gets" without any help whatever?)

The other part of my objection, and I admit this is more speculative, is that this expression encodes a master-and-servant view of the world. I am all right with services as something provided by servers (computers) or by companies. But I'm uncomfortable with people serving and I'm uncomfortable with a view of the world or nature as something whose main function is to serve us. And I extend this to the materials of art. I don't believe that the artist's relationship to her/his materials is one of using them to serve her/him. I see the relationship as more human and more tentative. The artist, as I see it, participates with materials (such as language or vocabulary) that are already imbued with a certain life because of their context within interpretive communities.

9. "itself"

We live of course in an era where art tends be self-conscious and self-reflexive and self-referring. Somehow this has been seen by many not as lamebrained mannerism but as a revolutionary brilliance that they have been keen to associate with and to mimic. (The truth is, it's nothing but a heat-sink for controlled dispersal of those instinctive revolutionary restlessnesses that one hesitates to employ to any purpose.)

Personally I was bored of it in 1976 and I haven't become much less bored of it since.

Most literary commentators are not Derridas. Their wielding of self-reflexive argument amounts to little more than arriving at the word "itself".

What the hell am I talking about?

...interweaves political intrigue, personal responsibilities and the ways in which the forces of history are played out in the struggles of individual human lives. But its true subject is perhaps the role of narration and the limits of storytelling itself.

(Jacket note to the Edinburgh Edition of Scott's Peveril of the Peak.)

Can you hear the triumphalism in that ending? The author believes that by arriving at the word "itself" they have achieved a climax beyond which no other is necessary or even possible. Like Anselm defining (or rather, manhandling) God into "that than which nothing more Godly can be conceived".

But why did and does this snake-swallowing-its-tail manoeuvre have (in the eyes of its authors) such incredible prestige? I believe it's to do with the disenfranchisement of the first-year Arts student who suddenly ceases to acquire any further information about the world, while her/his colleagues continue to dully mug up on economics, technology, genetics, chemistry, medicine, civil engineering and political history. Meanwhile the Arts student is left with her /his swift intelligence intact, but without any knowledge. (I know. I was one.) The outcome is that the Arts student becomes addicted to arguments of this form: "If that were true then it would also undercut your statement since this itself would by implicated by what you claim."  It's a form of argument that requires hardly any knowledge about the subject under discussion, and for that very reason (an inner consciousness of comparative ignorance) it seems to the author almost miraculously clever, the first couple of times you bring it off. A lot of people never get over the thrill of it.

NB Yes, St Anselm was an Arts student.

10. "It is as if"

It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.

(Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates (2007))

Ah, fancy! "It is as if" introduces a proposition with the minor concession that it has no basis in fact, but offering as a substitute the rarely-kept promise of a brilliant dash of intellectual play. Obviously I have no sense of humour left. I note that Seneca did commit suicide ("all but incapable"?), and that his slow bloodflow was due to being old, and almost certainly not to reading Plato. I also note that contrasting Rome disparagingly with Greece has a long literary tradition. Why was anyone bothering with this, in 2007? What was this, actually, but bookmaking, that is, very old wine in new bottles?

("Nicely summed up", according to the columnist who requoted it.)

11. "extraordinary"

This is more spoken than written. If you listen to or watch any arts program (I'm basing this mainly on BBC Radio 3), then you'll find that the interview is paved not only with plugs, awards, anniversaries and anecdotes of the famous but with the regular utterance of the word "extraordinary", used to self-complacently gratulate shared moments in the speaker's own life-experience. A generous reading of this interview-mannerism is that it honourably recognizes the distinction of others and encourages the listening art-lovers to see their own art-loving lives in terms of a series of "extraordinary" events shared with art-makers; though one must point out that even this generous reading boils down to an encouragement to spend more money. An ungenerous reading (heaven forbid) would interpret it as someone working hard to define themselves as within a hagiographised elite, and reporting a certain wonder at finding themselves there. So far from this sense of wonder being disabling, it is actually legitimizing, since it is well-known that members of the elite are A. humble B. born to it.

12. "not dissimilar to"

Another vague pretext for the imminent incorporation of dubiously relevant mental clutter, as per 4 and 10, above.

But really, I'm including this only as an excuse to quote Prynne, writing about the opening lines of Tintern Abbey.

The present visit is made 'again' after this double interval [sc. five summers/winters], part-clement and part-forbidding, and 'again' is a marker word which is itself repeated, so that these linked doublings establish a rhythm not dissimilar to the rhetorical patterns of the renaissance handbooks, or the looping journeys of a tour of visitations. 

 (from the essay "Tintern Abbey, Once Again" in Glossator (Fall, 2009))

The quotation is meant to be a welcome refreshment (plus, don't you think clement and forbidding would be a good pair of concepts to characterize Prynne's poems?).

How much more suggestive is that word "visitations" than (what one more commonly achieves on a tour) mere "visits" !

Ah, poetry!

But still, "not dissimilar to" remains a burbling reminder of dubious relevance. How have the repetitions within Wordsworth's text been amplified in Prynne's commentary! - a commentary that very much enjoys overflowing the bounds of its subject. Attentiveness is one thing - but amplification, that's something else, there's a fuzziness in it. In this case the amplification is done by raking in some bits and pieces that the poem doesn't hint at (those very unspecified renaissance handbooks, for example) and by doubling the doublings again and again, not omitting to apply the essential assurance of the word "itself" (see 9, above).

Well, it's no good getting too hung up over vocabulary. Prynne's essay - it was written in 2001, in fact - is exemplary, its sentences full of depth-charges (four examples: "variations of nature and nurture" in unripe apples; the latency, absence and promise in "murmur"; connection of orchard tufts to youth; and the contemplative threshold of "natural unhoused wandering and its mimicry by the traveller on tour"). Anyway, that's enough of praise for now.

[This pallid eviscerated UK poetics-related whine is a stub. You can help Mikipedia by expanding it.]

D.S Marriott poetry links

I've got to thank Peter Riley for belatedly bringing D. S. Marriott to stage centre in my personal theatre of UK poetry. His recent piece is here:

It's an article that's both admirable for the detail of its tussle and vulnerable to some rather obvious objections (for example, in its willingness to characterize "Caribbean" poetry, and its clumsy attempt to connect/contrast Marriott's poetry with said characterization).  But detailing these easy objections distracts from the more urgent issues that Riley exposes.

They are often most urgent when most mean, as in the paragraph that forcibly connects Marriott's poetry with John Burnside's, both of whom Riley caricatures reductively as going: Look at me, I have a special psychological condition. The exemplary obverse, of course, is Riley's own poetry: here the psychological condition of the poet, as a topic of any importance, seems to disappear from view. Riley may misunderstand Marriott (or Burnside, or both), but anyway this is a discussion worth having. Personally, I feel Riley's critique depends on a conception of normal psychological experience that ultimately isn't true and in many contexts isn't even helpful. One of those contexts, surely, is the disturbing places that Marriott's poems go to.

While fully recognizing the formidable skilfulness of  Marriott's writing (as who could not), Riley basically finds it depressing and a dead end. Well, that's my own reductive caricature of a many-layered essay, and you too might find that the encounter prompts contrary conclusions.

Riley's view of Marriott's poetry is part of a wider dispute with theorizing and any poetry that takes its propositions seriously. On the other hand,  John Wilkinson's 2013 review claims that while Marriott's poetry has close links to certain thinkers (e.g. Franz Fanon, Gillian Rose), "the extensive sweep of his poetry resists any ready purchase, and for readers raised on French Theory or post-Heideggerian thought its way of thinking may be incomprehensible".

Marriott's own cultural studies books (On Black Men, Haunted Life) are most likely the best introduction to this aspect of the poetry. For a stunning example of this side of his work, see the essay "Inventions of Existence" listed below.

This isn't, and isn't meant to be, an exhaustive bibliography of Marriott on the internet. It's structured around the big collections and his most recent chapbook, and it comprises enough poems to make even the most cautious of poetry fans decide whether it's time to shell out for a Marriott book, plus a few articles and other materials that I've found useful in thinking about his work.

Incognegro (Salt, 2006)

Sampler, including "The Ghost of Averages", "Someone Killed Them", "Orange & Green", "The 'Secret' of This Form Itself":

Review of Incognegro (Salt, 2006) by Abena Sutherland, in Intercapillary Space

Very informative review of the pamphlet Dogma (Barque, 2001) by Andrew Duncan, in Jacket 20 (Dec 2002). The poems from Dogma ended up in Incognegro.

Hoodoo Voodoo (Shearsman 2008)

Sampler, including "On The Whiteness of the Whale", "The Ishmael Poems", "The Dream of Melby Dotson":

"The Levees" in Jacket 31 (2006):

From "Speak Low: Poem to Jonas",  in Intercapillary Space:

["Jonas" is Stephen Jonas, US poet who died in 1970. Here's some poems by him:  ]

The Bloods (Shearsman 2011)

Sampler, including "Lorem Ipsum", "The Virus Called Smith", "Black Sunlight", "Sirens", "Trueblood", "The Dog Enchanter" :

"Pot Kettle Black" and "Into the Pit" in Blart 1. (But watch out, the pages are in the wrong order.)

"Riverflesh", in Blackbox Manifold

In Neuter (Equipage 2013)

Review by John Wilkinson, in Blackbox Manifold:

other bits and pieces: 

Review by Cristian Castro of Marriott's Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity (Rutgers, 2007).

David Marriott: Inventions of Existence: Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, Sociogeny,
and "the Damned" (The New Centennial Review, Volume 11, Number 3, Winter 2011,

pp. 45-89) is available online here:

(You might have to join up. Just bullshit them with that Independent Researcher guff.)

Michael Thurston and Nigel Alderman, Reading Postwar British and Irish Poetry (Wiley, 2014) has a few illuminating pages on Marriott's poems. You can read them if you check out the eBook version on Google Books.


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