The Advert of Itself:
Some Notes on Robert Sheppard's History or Sleep




A bit of absurdism initially for what is an edifying if complex and challenging book, if you like about some basic suppositions, or way in, given that I think this poetry does raise certain essentialist or defining questions about attitudinal orientation. Do I want red or blue today, up or down today, maybe I am feeling somewhat down, and yet we don't want to all be opting for the same colour at the same time, nor necessarily even the same colour as yesterday? One might note that the cover of History or Sleep is of a somewhat orange hue, (a fine, vaguely improvised but near enough apt portrait by Patricia Farrell 1993) the cover of Complete Twentieth Century Blues, arguably Sheppard's major work, veers to the green and black. Can I decide myself, do I know who to ask? Do I just have to get on with it, as if anything to hand might do? With what? Do I want white (Malevich, The Beatles), grey (co-opted by EL James in 50 shades, but then there are Paul Simon's 50 ways), or black (Ad Reinhardt, The Rolling Stones, Prince). Do I want shapes or lines (try eg Mondrian, Bridget Riley etc) or maybe even just human faces (whose, all those magazines and TV shows?)? Can I choose, but I might wonder. Is it going to be an opening out or a paring down. Is it for the optimists or the pessimists? As they say, some days are better than others. Try looking out the window, peer through those curtains. Turn on the TV, turn on the radio. Tune in, tune out. Well, we all have our routines, we have the company we keep. We have our social obligations, entailing that we be in certain places at certain times. But we almost always have some free time, in which we can essentially choose what to do, as if the most interesting thing about the day might have been the tea breaks or the office chatter.

Is it

   I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
      (Eliot 'WasteLand')

or,

   the primal sympathy/ Which having been must ever be...
   In years that bring the philosophic mind.
      (Wordsworth, 'Intimations')

or

   I have nothing to say and I am saying it
      (John Cage, cf Beckett)

or even

   It's my lunch hour, so I go
   for a walk
      (O'Hara, intimations perhaps of 'out to lunch')

although as we know sympathy, and empathy, for instance, can be a very variable question. Many don't particularly think there are polarities. But red is not blue, and black is not white (or grey), and a line, as such, is not yet a shape, figure is not ground. The place may be lit, it may be unlit. It may only be lit at certain times, it may seem to be the best of times and the worst of times, even at the same time (Dickens), it may as Sheppard has said be good poetry in bad times. Every word we use, even, may be more resonant of dark or light, of going on or paring back. Sometimes paring back isn't so much a choice as a need. It may for Robert Sheppard be history or it might be sleep, or it might be both, either at the same time or at different times.

As we find in for example, 'A Voice Without':

   To say and not say at
   the same time, or

   at a different time to not
   say and yet say...

   disappears into the unknown
      ('A Voice Without', p94)

Sheppard's work might not explicitly aver a particular awareness of or attention to colour, say, or mood sometimes, although I take colour as indicative of mood or inclination, other than those book covers, but the intimation of moving on and how to move is quite strong, there is a quality of insistence about this poetry. As 'Returns' intimates early on, 'Rain beats upon the measure/ of the real.'

There is a very telling episode I would say from the title piece 'History or Sleep', which goes:

   Talk transports...
   the advert of itself
   the track to the furnace
   your edge of history
   or sleep within this
   trap you act
   wings sticky...
   pain correctly
   centres this ecstasy
   with humans
   flailing and
   flaring in dust
      (conclusion, p89)

There is this very curious interplay between 'pain' and 'ecstasy' (including within which we might of course surmise 'pleasure') and between 'flailing' and 'flaring', one might note a characteristic attention to homophonic effects between the last two. We may feel 'pain' , and it may be 'correct', we might 'flail' but we may also  'flare' here and there albeit 'in dust'.

As I have intimated, Sheppard may not make very explicit reference to certain things, but they are still there in the sense that I think this is poetry of the whole person in a sense, of the fuller possibilities of language, and it is indeed of a kind that nothing is necessarily suggested as being outwith its scope. A couple of lines from 'Returns' I think may be fairly indicative:

   Public persons return to become private
   people again.

and:

   You step out of this grid, return
   to the public spectrum of plain eyes,
   and are gone about your business -
   which is not the business of the poem.
      ('Returns' 2 conclusion)

I tend to revert to the notion that what Sheppard is trying to do is open up the possibilities of creative language, something Keith Tuma recognised in his British and Irish 20th C poetry anthology (2001). I find some analogies in that with the Modernist project of European artists (eg Monet, Whistler, earlier Turner) and the late Modernist work of American poets and painters. It may even be that we do not necessarily wish to assert that one specific direction is right, but that one should feel some latitude to explore what direction one feels right for oneself. On one level this is a technical question, but with Sheppard and his affinity for the philosopher Levinas (one among several philosophies of the Other, Terry Eagleton latterly is a little sceptical, though one struggles for alternatives, 'nature' perhaps), is also an ethical question. Sheppard was certainly interested too in the Language poets, although linguistically innovative poetry in Britain has followed somewhat of a different path. One gets the impression that there was a desire for an opening up, there certainly wasn't any dictatorialness about where that opening up should go. Sheppard speaks in The Poetry of Saying
of a 'plea for a new sensibility' (p47). But, again, Sheppard seems attentive to the pattern emerging, not necessarily the detail of what fills it up.

A short piece from Twentieth Century Blues
has some hints:

   Numbers polished

   back to his room

   changed continuously in the swell
      (p373)

There may not entirely be a way to be here. In 'The Hungry Years' Sheppard remarks upon how 'He had no need of a name/ Or further identity' ('History' p19). Elsewhere in '20th C Blues',:

   What might a poem be, elsed?
   You dunk your aching lived-in balls in ink
   and roll them across the page.
   I'm your shagged out Muse.
   Take me over you this last time.
   Whisper me Pearl, whistle me off.
   I'll be a big register on your retina
      (p375, a poem dedicated to Barry MacSweeney, with an epigraph from Angela Carter)

Or as 'Internal Exile' put it:

   Now
   The writing's nearly over the work
   Withdraws. Is this a model
   Of the world that does not exist, straining
   For a new referent? Her prejudices
   Owe the world no apology.
      ('History' p32)

Indeed, I can't help but feel that a lot of Sheppard's work is bound up with the specificities and intricacies of interpersonal relations, he has particularly engaged with Patricia Farrell, Lee Harwood, Iain Sinclair (the renowned and esteemed London psychogeographer) and Roy Fisher.

Perhaps as Sting indicated in his song, 'There is no political solution'. Sheppard's writing is of in the midst, but it is highly articulately done, indeed I would rate it on technical expertise and just on sheer human(ist) engagement, among the finest we've had in recent years, including the Cambridge School. There is a lot of him in here, there's a fullness, yet also certainly not an over indulgence, it is quite determinedly disciplined and attuned to the craft of language, of creative language. And indeed I think if you read this work carefully you may very well be compelled to try to readdress who you are, personally, socially, behaviourally, how you relate to the social world and conduct your business there. This quality of fullness I regret has latterly been a bit missing in Prynne, say, who seems to have dedicated himself latterly to certain technical intricacies, but is a bit closer to the more wholly engaged poetry of people like Milne or Wilkinson, or some of those whom Sheppard more closely engaged with like Lee Harwood (who of course died recently), Raworth, Maggie O'Sullivan, Adrian Clarke, Ulli Freer and so on. Sheppard I sometimes think has the emotional engagement of say Harwood, whilst not being quite so gentle, and the fullness of MacSweeney without being quite so headstrong. His facility with words in many ways is quite remarkable, and his innovativeness in their deployment, and I think he has been highly self-effacing in seeking to extend the prospects and possibilities of other writers, indeed we know he has been an advocate of Bob Cobbing, Roy Fisher, Maggie O'Sullivan and others.

There is every intimation that we need to keep working with/at the language. As Sheppard said in 'The Education of Desire' (Scott Thurston has commented upon a 'reeducation of desire'), 'The writer who wants to do something different has to write in new ways. The poetry may seem strange. It may be difficult to understand. There may seem to be bits of it missing. There may be problems in putting all its parts together; things may not seem to follow on.' (Far
Language p28 1988) Or as Sheppard puts it elsewhere, 'The imperative, for myself, and for others...is to feed both the poetry's histories and its futures.' ('Saying', p165)

There is a good quote also from Far Language
, on recognising Bob Cobbing's 75th birthday:

   The importance of radical consistency for an artist: to refuse to mark
   out an aesthetic territory which is then colonised, but to move
   confidently on, to create structures, large and small, for continued
   experiment.
      (p61)

Well, yes, regrettably there are those who would attempt to 'colonise' or co-opt certain assertions or sayings, which in part is no doubt why we have to go on speaking and communicating. But just once in a while you may come up with something that puts it on hold for a while, like Eliot's 'The Waste Land', which left reviewers baffled, perplexed or amused for some years after it appeared. And indeed Eliot did not venture much after 'Four Quartets' (when he was in his 50s).

In some ways I might prefer the opening of agency, as we might find in the opening lines to the poem 'History or Sleep':

   Less real than a dream
   logged in
   archaeologists' ledgers
   propels awareness
   along another axis
   hangs a veiled
   filter for your presence
   a gauze a
   gaze figures inward
   dirtying cuffs on the world
   wraps the teeming air
      (p79)

There are perhaps a few other remarks I could make. Sheppard has not all attempted a 'representative works', as some might, but has gone for a sampling of every piece he has done since Returns
(1985) when he was 30. In this peculiar sense he is aiming for a full appreciation of the work, just not bits of it, but how much can you cram into 140 pages. Even Twentieth Century Blues, at 376 pages, Sheppard seems to regard as a kind of thread or series through his poetic activity in the '90s. As far as I can tell the closest we have found to methodological statements are 'The Education of Desire' (in Far Language) and The Anti-Orpheus (Shearsman) and the Introduction to The Poetry of Saying.

As Sheppard puts it in The Anti-Orpheus
:

   Poetics are the products of the process of reflection upon writings,
   and upon the act of writing, gathering from the past and from others,
   speculatively casting into the future.
      (p10)

And I didn't mention the bees:

   Two bees
   hum from flower to flower on the
   aubrietia, nosing each other
   as they hang upside-down,
   silently gathering for a second.
      ('History', 'Returns' p14)

or from 'Another Poem',-

   The poem
   has barely recovered from his scratches, yet
   you're making to scribble links in its margins,
   calming and charmless.
      ('Another Poem', 'History' p129, slight rhyme from 'margins' to 'charmless')

Sheppard's work does partake of a casting into the future, whether one might call it exploratory or innovative, or at the 'leading edge' as Keith Tuma says. There might be other things to be done, but I think this is work of really good and extensive, thought-provoking, self-questioning scope and of exploring just what you can do with creative language. Where is there to go? Further into the self, both, and out into society, even the ecosystem. But I think Sheppard's work is of a rare and piercing contribution, without doubt to my mind as among the finest poetic accomplishments of recent years, none excepted.

    Clark Allison 2015


[Robert Sheppard's History of Sleep: Selected Poems
is published by Shearsman]