Equally, when Ian Patterson
scores a few points, probably against Thatcherism, with ‘a bitter phone //
you love to use in slow motion curtain, / that love reconstituted in blue on
blue / as our capital sells its skin for time out of mind...’; or when first
light is ‘leaden with cultural determinism’; or mouths are ‘fused with
indifference’, I cannot help but feel that the hit is distinctly unpalpable.
It’s the sort of work that gets read in public and people who’ve probably
written very similar poems themselves nod and laugh supportively. Safe,
melodramatic and ineffectual satire.
Mercifully, there’s enough in the first part of Patterson’s Time to Get
Here to quell my suspicion that a
given piece may only be ‘difficult’ as a ruse (to hide the fact that there’s
nothing interesting going on underneath). Even in the 80’s – which, if you
ask me, was a dud decade for Patterson – he reminds us how well he can write:
behind the eye
a page missing
enforce a lie
‘Far and Away’]
It is both rhythmically and metaphorically pleasing – creating one of his
best short pieces (and about the only good one out of his later stuff). Time
to Get Here is separated into three
parts: one, ‘1969-1979’; two, ‘Roughly Speaking: Poems from the 1980s’; and three, ‘1991-2002’.
‘Politics’, from the early works, is characteristic of Patterson’s talent:
Corsican. A patchwork figurine
in blue water
long letters home to be sent in bottles
tickle the undersides of girls
swim too far out
will probably not deliver them.
His words are well-selected and savoured – he navigates through his ‘lazy
form of investigative political thinking’ (his words) with deftly structured
lines and pleasing images.
There’s also a great sequence of twelve prose poems called ‘The Yurt’ – a
skewed account of a residential literature course. They are very writerly,
name-checking Iain Sinclair and Mike Haslam and taking their titles from
randomly selected lines of The Man Without Qualities. How do I know? Because one of the poems is about how the titles were selected. It’s unusual for such
intertextual material to come off as anything other than self-indulgent, but
Patterson’s lightness of touch and turn of phrase – as in all his early work
– make it charming.
After that things start to deteriorate. In poems from the eighties to the
present day, such lamentations are typical:
my balance has
o’erstepped my will
catch my skin instead of
I have no objection to the arch ‘o’erstepped’, but I don’t think I will ever
know what ‘fair outlook switchback nausea’ is, and I don’t much care. It
sounds like a sort of abbreviation in an existential weather-forecast, but
how something such as that could feasibly (or even unfeasibly) catch someone’s skin doesn’t so much boggle my mind as annoy it. There is a distinct lack of pataphysics – Alfred Jarry’s logic of the absurd – which states
that all nonsense must depart from somewhere, must be tethered to something
tangible lest it should fail to engage the reader in the slightest. In poetry,
that tangible something needn’t be meaning, necessarily; it could be rhythm, assonance, the
play of ideas, a single unusual and successful metaphor – but I’m going to
put my neck on the line and say that you have to give the reader something. There’s an unbearable smugness to ‘fair outlook
switchback nausea’. Maybe it’s wrong to dwell on a line out of context, but
context is the very thing many of these lines lack.
The younger Patterson’s readable formula is replaced by this uneasy balance
between deliberate, violent bricolage (where no single line follows on from
the next) and proto-conversational English. The two just run into each other.
Within traditional examples of the former, any pleasant effect is left to
serendipity; but the latter is usually concerned with parodying a particular
voice. Combining the two results mostly in obscurity: nothing scans – and
it’s a headache. Check out ‘Interference’: Listen, what I won’t say / or
could deny the words mean / lines of scruple or waste / the merest roof / to
hear winds / burning river of ignorance...
It feels so vague to begin with two lines that make an erudite kind of sense
together [reader wary but interested], and then undermine that by plunging
straight into cut-and-paste frenzy [reader drops book on floor]. So vague one
almost ceases to believe that the poet is any good.
And is ignorance ever really a ‘burning river’ – or is that a deliberately
bad line? So on top of everything else, we’re supposed to allow for ironically
bad poetry, too? How many eggs does
the pudding need? It may be a fine way of characterising the nature of interference within a poem called ‘Interference’, but
interference would appear to be Patterson’s overall method. Lines of
Scruple or Waste might have made a
good title for the collection.
He consistently writes beautiful titles like ‘The Name of Day’. But, from
that very poem, ‘Block the door / if you are so anxious / as an attic charm /
from the dead / and unscripted returns / through all eternity / in an
eyebrow’ is not an extended metaphor: it is a seven-car pile up. The last
thing I want to do is relax into the critical learned-helplessness of mocking
that which I’m not intelligent enough to understand, but come on: a what in an eyebrow? The intention of such sequences are
lost on me; they don’t even sound
satisfying or look that great on the page.
From the 90’s onwards, much of the light that permeates Patterson’s earlier
work – the engaging turns of phrase and surprising word combinations – is
replaced by this wilful obscurity and arrhythmic, sub-grammatical debris that
seems to invite reproach. For
instance, when the 18 page long ‘Much More Pronounced’ kicks off with:
we really want
cranks of nine
cap of piquant set
little ivory sombrero
my wits end?
it is a generous soul indeed that does not bellow ‘God No!’ before joylessly reading the rest of the
poem. Piquant? Cranks? Sombrero?
Just what is going on here? It’s
one of the most nauseating phrases I’ve ever read in or out of verse –
simultaneously twee and ponderous. Is ‘at my wits end’ a reference to the
writer’s own frustration at having unwittingly discovered the opposite of
poetry? What of the reader? Am I overreacting? I think not: there’s this
preponderance of superfluous ‘of’s buggering up the cadence – not to mention
the meaning – in the latter two-thirds of Time to Get Here; things are plural and not plural in all the wrong
places; the sentences never end; it’s not radical, it’s just really,
really annoying. The reader is left
as suspicious and cranky as a little ivory sombrero.
Still, all this goes to make the occasional burst of clarity all the more
refreshing, as in ‘Tense Fodder’:
knows what to do
they go crazy
write a long digressive poem
the balcony and wait for trains
Ah! Words arranged sequentially to communicate ideas! I smiled when I read that – and it nearly cracked my lips,
so set were they in a rictus of disdain. The trouble is, while Patterson’s
later poems are often long, they couldn’t be described as ‘digressive’ as
this would imply that they possessed some subject or object from which to
folder, I love you
webs drift on whitewash. Reform.
never heard so much lost breath.
The above seems to characterise this Masonic handshake between old political
watchwords and highly personal allusions (green folder?) rendered in a handsome vocabulary that never quite
gets past introducing itself. Who benefits here? The poet’s friend who knows
what the green folder refers to? Or is there some historically vital green
folder my education neglected? As political poetry, Patterson’s 80s and 90s
work is too friendly to feel especially dangerous; as poetry of the absurd it
is too unfocused to make you laugh.
There is nothing friendly about the Canadian poet Peter Jaeger’s writing, but
Eckhart Cars is not without a
harsh kind of humour. Jaeger is a formidable writer – fierce, appalling and
impregnable. His third full-length collection is a memorable piece of work –
in the same way that a long, devilishly complicated row with a loved one is
memorable; a small part of you never stops rehearsing it. ‘Eckhart Cars’ is
the opposite of a pleasing phrase to the extent of being rather satisfying –
so jagged and frustrated. The opening poem, of the same title, is equally
superb, bringing to mind John Ashbery in its fluidity of thought:
enough to hand out bread
you plot a river
a swimmer in the Yangtse. “I prefer
airport anyway, I prefer
person who loves God,” he said, but
you drop away you’re lost, and no one
you at the airport...
There is a compelling urgency to Jaeger’s writing. In ‘Eckhart Cars’ the tone
is close to that of a debate in full flow, a voice that has just discovered
it believes in something and wants very much to convince you. The movement is
fast and sometimes chaotic: ‘Did you learn to capture water on your / fingers
[...] I mean military water – how it hovers over borders [...] the hugeness /
of the sky in trains...’, but it sweeps you along as opposed to gushing over
your head – and the poet is generous enough to reward you with a satisfying
payoff to the images he sets up.
It is followed by ‘Pollard’ – which is not about Claire or Sue, but a
hedgerow pruned back to stumps. The imagistic couplets are equally pared down
to a couple of words at a time.
It’s nice enough for a poem about a hedge. However, the aforementioned
‘Extension of Standard Practice’ (unsubtle protest piece about media
representation) hardly keeps pace with the rest of the book and could easily
have been cut; Jaeger certainly could not be accused of such bluntness
elsewhere. ‘Sub-Twang Mustard’ is a maddening sequence of atrophied fragments
and noises. It is so concerned with sound that one wonders whether Jaeger reads it in public or plays it on a Korg synthesiser.
Whilst it would give me so much pleasure to see this anthologised in a Poem
a Day collection, I can’t say it
does much for me as a piece of writing. The only joy lies in the supposed
‘risk’ of writing such a poem (‘risk’ in a ‘funded by an Arts Council’ kind
of a way): the sounds themselves are clumsy and unexciting. I don’t know –
maybe you like pink astanga candy, but in the squiggly day-glo time-line of
experimental writing, didn’t language and meaning get well and truly zafued
some decades ago? And wasn’t it more fun back then? Here the obscurity feels militant, somehow. It’s not like
I’m asking for a footnote reading ‘This is about entropy, stupid.’ More that
I’d rather see entropy avoided altogether as an artistic measure.
It’s the same in ‘Bibliodoppler’
where each of the six stanzas are given their own page, with flotsam and
jetsam in italics floating underneath (“stick / handle / nettle cudgel...”)
The stanzas themselves are like send-ups of beat poetry.
of the antipyre
with possession. Alpine
as remains. Cursives
defined as blue
love nor money. In-
I or else
fuss with grey
Porous with possession? God, I hate alliteration. As with Patterson, once you’re aware of how well a
poet can write, things like this feel less a radical experiment in form and
meaning than simply selling-short a talent. It’s worse in ‘Buoyant’ where the
words just float around (yeah, buoyant, I get it), completely unattached.
It’s not that surprising anymore. Frank O’Hara did it a couple of times in
the 50s and managed to make it both readable and witty. For someone to write
the same thing now, (sans wit
and readability), is like a modern artist still trying to shock us with the
same godforsaken upside down urinal.
Mercifully, Eckhart Cars is
blessed with variety. So even if the reader finds little to savour in
‘Sub-Twang Mustard’ and its demonic siblings, the aphorisms (and
meta-aphorisms) collected in ‘Pollen’ are wise, alarming and, most important
of all, enjoyable. We are informed, with Nietzchean
people make bad collaborators.
The shortest aphorisms in ‘Pollen’ tend to be the best. Some of the longer
ones just come on like parodies
of aphorisms, deliberately collapsing under their own weight to make the
point that, what? Aphorisms are a bit pompous? ‘One improves a guarantee with
material wealth, while another improves an impulse by looking straight at
sever, and then oscillating on results.’ It’s amusing enough, I suppose, but
a tad indulgent and not nearly so bracing as:
a theory as you choose a friend.
is not having to respond.
And my personal favourite:
Which should ring true with anyone who’s ever coveted their neighbour’s
metaphor. ‘Early Gardening’
returns to the theme of nature in flower-strewn tercets wherein Jaeger fuses
the pastoral with economics in one long (and unfinished) sentence.
‘through the nose’ i.e.
the nose of those remiss
paying debts, something
the oldest garden
– sweet thoughts
even now refresh our labours,
skulls and feathers
a plot in his
– the printing press
It is a subtle and well metered piece, just clear enough not to require exam
style unpacking and cross-referencing (although one suspects it could easily
stand up to formalistic scrutiny).
Then, at the centre of the book, comes ‘Martyrologies’, eight pages of solid
text, comprised entirely of the last sentences from hundreds of accounts of
Christian martyrs’ lives, collated seamlessly.
‘After being scourged, he was compelled to hold fire in his hands, while
papers dipped in oil were put to his sides and lighted; his flesh was then
torn by hot pincers, and at last he was dispatched by wild beasts. They were
obliged to pass, with their already wounded feet, over thorns, nails, sharp
shells, etc., others were scourged until their sinews and veins lay bare,
and, after suffering the most excruciating tortures, were destroyed by the
most terrible deaths. He was carried before the pro-consul, condemned, and
put to death in the marketplace. They were condemned to be scourged and then
You were paying attention when I said eight pages, right? Eight pages of
relatively small print with no paragraph breaks. Curiously, the accumulative
effect is not desensitising in the least; the brutality of these deaths is
still so extreme that one cannot help but feel horrified. Although the
experience is altogether too unusual for empathy – each life bereft of
narrative, reduced to the single, flat sentence that makes it the life of a
‘Martyrologies’ is by far the most openly punishing poem I’ve ever read. I
wonder if the reader is intended to read it at all. The engagement lies in
trying to work out what we’re supposed to make of it in the context of Eckhart
Cars – as there’s little to suggest
Jaeger is attempting an earnest liturgy. On first reading, it stands so far
apart from the other works – a howling void of concrete, visceral description
at the centre of a perplexing, wordy maze. It is so explicit that it cannot
help but cast it’s shadow over the rest of the book
After a couple of weeks working in data-entry, it struck me that
‘Martyrologies’ may also be a comment on the act of cataloguing – a database
of atrocities. ‘Stephenson, I want a pie chart to show the No. of beheadings
in which torture was involved against the No. of straight beheadings over a
two-century period for my 11 o’ clock meeting – hop to it.’ This laughable
imposition order upon chaos and savagery seems to fit Jaeger’s vision.
All I feel qualified to say about the meticulous autopsy of ‘Black Tooth in
Front’ is that it is difficult – difficult to read and difficult to
appreciate, but nonetheless somewhat impressive. It is very long and takes both the alphabet and human anatomy
as its structure. I think Jaeger wants to make us aware of every movement and
process within our bodies – I’m not entirely sure why.
fields, fertile fields
waste, fervent tongue
round the languid heart
drops of blood, fibrous
of the eyeball, fibrous connective
(That’s from the ‘F’ section). I didn’t enjoy it, but it adds to the mystery.
Another piece in an intricate and engaging puzzle that will have me
re-reading Eckhart Cars – or at
least the good bits – for some time.
Somehow, Jaeger is a writer I trust.
Trust is very important to me in any relationship – especially with writers.
I immediately mistrusted Middleton when the opening lines of his first poem
forest wakes me it is an im
of all tree
aside and catching my walk
but then came to believe in him a couple of pages later when he splendidly
as how the extramental
into those flying buttresses
a dioptric fuss, any reason
better be good, if meant.
This is superb undercutting: the seamless manoeuvre from one voice, absurdly
highfalutin and abstract to another, absurdly coarse and direct. It may seem
a similar intent to Patterson’s, but here Middleton avoids any jarring
irritation simply by writing in complete sentences and not chucking in any
haphazard sombreros. He pulls it off equally well in ‘Time Team’:
is day one and already we have cinctured
This is such a well-weighted phrase and such a lovely subversion of a
familiar voice. So about five pages in I was hooked. However, the first poem
had me weeping at the prospect of wading through another 200 pages of
interminable gibberish: is that any way to introduce yourself to your reader?
What if I’d picked it up in a bookstore? I’d have dropped it again, that’s
what. ‘Waiting / hoper / owning up to no unthought / image engine’. Maybe
even trod on it.
I’m with Peter Middleton all the way when he states that his ‘field of
reference [is] the political culture of Thatcher and Major governments that
abandoned all discourses of egalitarian social progress, and the
managerialism of the Blair government which devalued art and idealism.’ As an
act of defiance – an act of revaluing
art and idealism – Middleton’s poetry is first-rate. The poetry isn’t the art
itself, you understand – it’s the steady, painstaking revaluation. Similar to
Jaeger and Patterson, Middleton’s concerns (and styles) are academic – and he
writes an awful lot about poetry. At its worst, writing poems about poetry is
like a long, long drive to a firework factory you never reach. So you’ve got
all these great ideas about what poetry should be and how powerful it is:
when are you going to start fucking writing it?
But at its best, it’s... well, poetry, I suppose. The first section of the book is patchy. I enjoyed the frenetic and acerbic
‘City Life’ in which ‘You might decide not to start reading an experimental
novel / in case the hero disembodies about twenty centimetres in front of
your eyes’. But cannot let any published writer get away with verse like ‘A
sense of the edge, sudden / places and reflexively endless / times merge
resistances intact.’ [‘Romantic Gallery’] Dude, even when I’m high that does nothing for me. I’d balk at it in a photocopied fanzine, I
balk no less in a glossy Faber look-a-like paperback.
Aftermath is a bumper
collection, comprised of six sequences, written over 22 years, each one long
enough to be a collection in itself. ‘Tell Me About It’ is a sequence of
thirty-seven poems of twenty-one lines (in 3x7-line stanzas). Again it’s an
inconsistent crop. ‘Time Team’
is probably the high point – the vocabulary isn’t quite so delightful and
unusual in the other thirty-six; though there’s something to savour in the
wonderfully nonsensical ‘Believe it or Not’:
are you telling me this? The pear
began to trill rapidly, before rising
above the mass for 18 years.
Middleton admits, ‘What links / these pieces in my mind is not the large /
hovering blocks of light, so generously / unfolding in front of credible
witnesses.’ When he draws the abstract and theoretical together with the
visual, he is at his strongest. The weakest stuff in the ‘Tell Me About It’
sequence is purely concept driven. In the notes, Middleton tells us that the
sequence is concerned with the number of selves – through novels, films, theories,
etc. – that pass through us each day. But some of them are just so
pleasureless – reflecting the jargon they purport to send-up a little too
well. ‘Radiate / consumers of assertion, insofar as / making explicit can
capitalise / on the past...’ One common trait between Patterson, Jaeger and
Middleton – at their most obscure, they often sound amusingly like they’re
berating themselves for their own technique.
‘That Turner Prize Bed’ (such a knowing title) harshly mimics the phonetic
spelling and disregard for good English of the Young British Artists. I mean,
really it’s just spiteful:
a classy degree in find art
aborshun, she is painterr
no more. “I gave up Art
been explore a shun
the sole concept
dysplay pillow talkie.
I object because, 1. This all feels a bit rich coming from an experimental
poet and 2. I’ve been far more inspired by Tracy Emin’s work and writing than
by this kind of ‘art-poetry’ thing.
‘Poetry for Dummies’ is shampoo bottle stuff, playing the computer-manual off
against the endemic conformism of a business-driven society. ‘Do not type
anything yet. / Revert to the interface. Run / the known programme. / If a
conflict exists exit now.’ It’s a little too easy; the sort of poem you might
use to impress dull people at parties – and they’d say it was really clever
and where do you get your ideas from? and you’d say, well I just take things
from the real world and subvert them to bluntly political ends, are you doing
anything on Friday? and they’d say, yeah, I’m having dinner with someone who
ridicules economics with greater subtlety.
However, aside from the odd blip, Middleton’s satire is well-aimed and
unaffected. For instance, in ‘Paternalisms’ when the mangled victim of a car
crash is described as ‘this once / employable body’, we’re hitting paydirt –
it’s a strikingly unpleasant way of sending-up ‘the managerialism of the
Blair government’ without reverting to travestied buzz words and raised
eyebrows. Naturally, ‘Paternalisms’ is not a car crash poem – it’s a
sprawling Gender Studies epic – so the description is almost throwaway, but
nonetheless important. Middleton’s cultural politics are so finely ingrained
in his language that some of the loveliest moments occur in the middle of a sub-clause.
With the sequence of 12 poems entitled ‘Next Gen’, Middleton turns his focus directly onto New Labour
and, in so doing, really gets into his stride. ‘The New Anthropology’ is a
highlight – the poet describes being questioned by a canvasser (‘are you
happy with this attempt / to measure the emotional literacy / of
institutions, is your ethnography / enabling the creative civic powers’) with
I could answer a single mother
by and he blushed then tried
explain that it was her witchcraft
snake in her vagina strangling him
Middleton sporadically displays a fine sense of comic timing – and he would
do well to use it as much as possible. Though even if it isn’t as funny,
throughout ‘Next Gen’ his tone is unapologetically direct and timely – ‘A
prime minister would be an indivisible person / even inviting the porn
webmaster to tea’ (‘Political Subjects’).
Just in case the reader hadn’t worked out that Middleton is a university
lecturer, there’s a Contemporary Cultures deconstruction of Buffy the
Vampire Slayer: ‘Demons ariels and
vampires / attack its skin and tone with acnes / of fear, because here
everything / is sexualised eversion / of erotic zones.’ Well that told her.
The last stuff meanders. ‘Portrait of an Unknown Man’ is, Middleton explains,
‘a photo-fit autobiography made from anecdote and memory of various men and
women’; overhearrings, essentially.
believe the guardian he pleaded
a new political tone based on
plunged accelerator and quick
through the wing mirror ideology
As an example of cynicism as the dominant ideology, this is fine – one
encounters more who delight in telling you what not to believe than anything
genuinely instructive, and satire is fast becoming the lowest form of wit.
But isn’t ‘wing mirror ideology’ rather a crap way of saying ‘left and right
wing’? Its only relevance to ideological wings is that there is also a left and right wing
mirror. Quick crosswords contain
Fragments can produce extraordinary effects when well handled and selected –
and there are some noteworthy stretches in ‘Portrait of an Unknown Man’ when
the poet balances expertly, if precariously, on the line between poetry and
years a man
that code of women’s bodies
degrees of hope
But on top of this there are so many references to ‘formalised masculinity’
and ‘co-extensive thinking’ and so on that the tapestry is spoiled. Even the
off-hand brilliance of ‘the new insomnia’ is immediately undermined by the wretched ‘middle class mutants’ –
which shows a real lack of discernment. Across the poem’s twenty-seven pages,
Middleton’s writing begins to fall under the same delusion as Patterson’s: it
assumes the reader cares by default and will labour through the tenuous
parallels with ancient Greece, the palaver of lit. crit. terminology and the
vagaries of someone else’s acquaintances’ political small-talk.
Back to the notes. The men and women cited in ‘Portrait of an Unknown Man’
‘came of age around 1970 and again at the end of socialism in the eighties’
and are characterised by their ‘laconic intellectual abstraction.’ ‘How
convenient,’ one mutters. Just as well they weren’t known for their lovely
singing voices or fiery tempers. Laconic (for which read fragmentary and
inconclusive) intellectual abstraction is the lifeblood of all three books –
and after a while one has a hankering for a couple of poems by Raymond Carver
or even some Charles Bukowski, or just anything that isn’t so openly abstract
and intellectual. To high-jack
one of Jaeger’s truisms, ambition can ruin writing too.
All three books share an over-reliance on theory to back-up the verse. I’m
speaking as a reader with a background in Critical Theory – it interests me
and I enjoy discussing it; but I do not know who these books are written
for – aside from the author and the
reverent souls of the back-cover.
Whilst poetry informed by
Literary Theory may be sophisticated, poetry about it rapidly becomes dull and self-congratulatory; I
want the drive, not the hours of engine tuning. Most of the time the theory is not interesting (or even
apparent) enough to warrant such undivided attention – and much of the poetry
is lost in a torrent of poetics and scholarly jargon that requires
explanatory notes and comes to resemble the hollowness of the business-speak
and political rhetoric we were being asked to loathe in the first place.
In ‘“The Audience”’, a poem written in the 70s, Ian Patterson asserts that
‘The audience for a poem is silence.’
don’t absorb it. Like when some biologist injects
blue dye into some small translucent organism
not absorbed. You become a perfectly controlled
and sail into action like a musical phrase.
This poem was truly ahead of its time.
There has been a growing trend for meta-writing like this in recent
years; poetry that describes, with great clarity and elegance, what poetry should do to the reader without really doing so itself. As
if we’re supposed to imagine that the writer is sitting on suitcases full of
powerful, fascinating, well-crafted work they may grudgingly share with an
audience some day, once they’re done explaining to us how great it is.
Personally, I think I’ll look elsewhere.
Luke Kennard, 2004