Time to Get Here: Selected Poems 1969-2002 by Ian Patterson
Eckhart Cars
by Peter Jaeger
Aftermath
by Peter Middleton
[all Salt Publishing, PO Box 937, Great Wilbraham PDO, Cambridge, CB1 5JX]

I had a dadaist upbringing; as a child I used to write dreadful experimental poems with titles like ‘Lazarus’ and ‘The Spoils of Mitochondria’. They were composed mostly of adjectives – and sometimes I’d break from the (already vague at best) subject halfway through to start quoting from the back of a shampoo bottle.  There’s a delicious double-meaning in the phrase ‘Avoid contact with the eyes’, wouldn’t you agree? Well my favourite teacher didn’t – and I’m grateful that he stopped me to this day. There is little more embarrassing than having your complete absence of intention pointed out to you.

You see, I have this worry – one of many – that when people write things with too many broken up sentences and the occasional ‘found phrase’ like that, they’re not really doing anything much more sophisticated than I was. As a reader it preys on me, this worry, whispers nasty, cynical things to write in the margins.

With these chaps it had a field day – to the point where I feared that it was not merely a voice in my head but my actual, personal character. And then I felt guilty – silencing the voice in favour of a generous, hardworking Uber-Reader approach. I even used a dictionary! But then I felt ashamed that I lacked the nerve to stand up for my poetic ideals. So I wrote a really bitchy introduction. And now I hate myself.

A crass American self-help writer might call that a ‘Shame Spiral’. And then a highbrow American poet might write an ironic and more or less incoherent poem called ‘Shame Spiral’, pouring scorn on, among other things, the language and vocabulary of the crass American self-help writer. The self-help writer is interchangeable: he could be the empty rhetoric of a politician; the sneering hypocrisy of a journalist; the affectionate lexicon of war such as ‘collateral damage’ and ‘friendly fire’. One might call it the circle of culture.

One might equally call it preaching to the converted. I would attest with confidence that no decent, intelligent, poetry-reading folks regard the linguistic abuse of business-speak (‘Joined-up thinking’, ‘Human Resources’, and so on) with anything other than contempt. Even my line-manager
uses them ironically. So as far as anyone likely to pick up a book of convoluted, esoteric verse is concerned, a poem that points out the absurdity of business-speak or the moral decrepitude of a syndicated media is tantamount to a poem pointing out that Hitler was a fascist. Did anyone need a writer to tell them?

In the only bad poem in a strong collection, Peter Jaeger pulls this easy trick. ‘Extension of Standard Practice’ is little more than acrimonious collage, drawing a parallel between the euphemisms of business-speak and the euphemisms of the war-monger.  It stutters like it was written during a CNN broadcast. ‘...wasn’t even reported / is likely to increase, key / markets, major drug- / trafficking outlet / major energy reserves / many people like you...[and so on]’ This isn’t poetry – it’s liner notes from a late-period Radiohead album.


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:

            impermeable behind the eye
            like a page missing
            to enforce a lie
                        [from
‘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:

            ...daft Corsican. A patchwork figurine
            bobbing in blue water
            writing long letters home to be sent in bottles
            and tickle the undersides of girls
            who swim too far out
            and 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

     and nettles catch my skin instead of
     fair outlook switchback nausea
            [‘Sleep’]

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 un
feasibly) 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:

            Don’t we really want
            the cranks of nine
            black cap of piquant set
            in little ivory sombrero
            at 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’:

            everyone knows what to do
            when they go crazy

            they write a long digressive poem
            on 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 digress.

            Green folder, I love you
            as webs drift on whitewash. Reform.
            I 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:

            It’s enough to hand out bread
            when you plot a river
            for a swimmer in the Yangtse. “I prefer
            the airport anyway, I prefer
            a person who loves God,” he said, but
            if you drop away you’re lost, and no one
            meets 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.

            troglo
                        blip whiff
                        sole re-
                        struddled scut

            bump
                        ditch or
                        hocus

                        dashing my some
                        simple, it is

                        a sometimes
                        plus of

                        it or
                        ditch, or

                        sometimes
                        just paired

            fur
                        wig t’pink
                        astanga candy

            zafu
                        clod
                        drizzl
                        putt

                        [continues...]

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.

            Lapsarians of the antipyre
            porous with possession. Alpine
            only as remains. Cursives
            not defined as blue
            for love nor money. In-
            inversion. I or else
t           heir happy families
            who 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 gusto, that:

            Nice 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:

            Choose a theory as you choose a friend.
            ...
            Paradise is not having to respond.

And my personal favourite:

            Ambition ruins reading.

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.

            ...paying ‘through the nose’ i.e.
            slits the nose of those remiss

            in paying debts, something
            like the oldest garden
            room – sweet thoughts

            do even now refresh our labours,
            token skulls and feathers
            close the credit

            grows a plot in his
            monastery – the printing press
            soon modified

            for minting coins...

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 beheaded.’

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 martyr.

‘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. 

                        fertile fields, fertile fields
            laid waste, fervent tongue
                        fever round the languid heart
            few drops of blood, fibrous
                        coat of the eyeball, fibrous connective
            tissue...

(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 were:

            The forest wakes me it is an im
            age of all tree
            above aside and catching my walk

but then came to believe in him a couple of pages later when he splendidly declared:

            Seeing as how the extramental
            crumples into those flying buttresses
            with a dioptric fuss, any reason
            had 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’:

            This is day one and already we have cinctured
            rapacity...

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 re
valuing 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’:

            Why are you telling me this? The pear
            ball began to trill rapidly, before rising
            up 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:

            With a classy degree in find art
            and aborshun, she is painterr
            no more. “I gave up Art
            compleetly in 1991.”
            Righting been explore a shun
            of the sole concept
            to 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

            Before I could answer a single mother
            walked by and he blushed then tried
            to explain that it was her witchcraft
            a 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.

            don’t believe the guardian
he pleaded
            with a new political tone based on
            the plunged accelerator and quick
            trips 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 better metaphors.

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 theory:

            twenty-five years a man
            with that code of women’s bodies
            meaning 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.’

            You don’t absorb it. Like when some biologist injects
            a blue dye into some small translucent organism
            it’s not absorbed. You become a perfectly controlled
            airship, 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