An Assault Upon the Citadel

Warrant Error
, Robert Sheppard (124pp, £8.95, Shearsman)

The quotation chosen by Robert Sheppard as the epigraph for Warrant Error is by the late Bill Griffiths -- 'What better disguise for evil than sonnets?' It's an appropriate question given that Sheppard's subject is essentially that of 'The War on Terror', as suggested  (undermined?) by the punning title, and that his formal experiments within the sonnet form foreground the aesthetic aspect of his writing. Other poets currently working within what I'd broadly call an aesthetic/ethical framework have often used the sonnet as starting point for their material, notably Ken Edwards and Tony Lopez. So the questions are, is it possible to combine a sense of play and of pleasure with a serious critique or engagement and how far is it still possible to write political poetry? If we accept that the work of Tony Harrison, for example, has its place but also its limitations and has pretty much run out of steam, how else to use language in a manner which is engaging, critical and able to take some measure of complexity without becoming a blunt instrument or a ranting clichˇ?

There is a sense of the epic about Sheppard's poetry in that he works with the long sequence and with major projects -- Twentieth Century Blues
, for example -- and his work as teacher, critic and essayist obviously informs his notion of what a contemporary theory of poetry might be and conditions his practice of writing poetry. If his theme is that of contemporary and recent history, combining the 'big events' with everyday and localised experience, there's also an erotic charge to his writing which fuels its 'awkward dislocation' yet gives it an energy which often throws up uncomfortable feelings in the reader. There's a sense of provocation in his work, a questioning of the 'macho' within his own writing which feels ambivalent and tender at the same time. Sheppard's is a writing which attempts to 'get inside the language', to force a critical process in the reader while also enjoying the pleasurable nature of writing itself, even where the subject matter is at the extreme end of human experience. The work of David Harsent comes to mind though I suspect that politically there is little common ground.

The compression of the sonnet form combines with a cinematic snap-shot technique and a liking for puns is evident throughout the book. Sheppard's is a poetry which is witty and alliterative, playful and hard-hitting, using the news report and media coverage as a starting point for his assault upon the citadel. That he also manages to be questioning and quizzical as well as hard-nosed in his investigations is a tribute to his tenacity. Art may not take the place of journalism where the latter has become meek and tamed, not to say world-weary, but it's arguable that the aesthetic has a vital role to play in our challenged and fragile democracy. Take this sample from the sequence 'Off the Books':

     Self-protection was self-consumption scared
     Or sacred it's eased into the holiest story
     A sonnetized account with the biggest screen test

     Local colour was masked by raw
     Overheads and the heresy was mere hearsay
     When evidently witless their mouths agape they rose
     At bungled bugle-blasts jamming Agape and Eros

     In the ballad of the blade she bites him
     Obliged attack he shoots mightily back in
     Terror or error she tries to send the message
     From compassion back to passion
     She writes releases for rouged regimes

     When she's finished she pulls the plug
     And he spills the viscous liquid for her

You could read this as an encapsulation of the events post September 11th, suggesting a history of the relations between East and West or about the challenged supremacy of American domination behaving irrationally in confused disorder. This might be a charitable way of putting the matter, depending on your viewpoint. The play on 'agape' and 'Agape' hints at the long history of religious conflict and there's a skewed narrative discourse derived partly from snippets of reportage and language culled from press and media throughout the history of 'The War on Terror', a term which clearly has ironic implications in this context.

Much of Sheppard's critique/response is filtered through the way we receive information about events via the visual media. There's a distancing, pacifying element to this which is such a common experience now that the virtual world is almost more real than the 'real' world. You could argue that by 'going with the flow' Sheppard's technique is complicit but what choice have we got other than to be perpetually angry and full of rant. Sheppard's aim is more deconstructive, more Brechtian, and it's arguably a much more effective way of dealing with madness and 'irrationality'. There's a strong surreal streak within his work which is also an appropriate response. Adorno was wrong, if we take him at 'face-value', -- art is even more necessary at times such as these:

     You are neither inside the room nor outside. You melt
     in piny breeze from unlatched windows catching
     shadows, a hint of coffee from the cafetiere 
     Consultant to this enterprise, you deconstruct from history,
     decapitated consciousness: the eyes the ears
     the brain collecting fitful data still from the world
     as it's lost. The fateful apologia of the mob fades.
     Azure is pure message behind choking smoke.

     Heads bow over the human mess they've made.
     The poet leads the service of remembrance

     Within minutes they've forgotten. Nothing. The prince
     waggles his ears as corpses are pulled out of nowhere.
     Personality teeth gleam from his chattering person
     his coiffure set atremble like a tea-party jelly.
            ('Black Flower')

A number of these poems are like news reports filed from different locations: so we get 'Night vision green flecked with sparks / And clouds of vectoral vapour pouring across / Sun-baked gravel where a human head severe/And severed scarved in crackling plastic ...' ('Afghanistan'). Sheppard plays with the crisp style of the tabloid journalist just as he utilises the language of pornography and the overall effect is both disturbing and humorous. 'The new twenty-pound note feels crisp as a fake / As Adam Smith lectures us on division / Over a Chelsea bun and a white plastic knife' ('London').

I'm reminded of Sheppard's stacatto, fast-forward reading style as I'm skipping through these poems again and it strikes me that one way of responding to them -- to their condensed, snapshot sense of movement -- is to see them as being almost like speeded-up cubism, where different perspectives are juxtaposed and where a kind of overall viewpoint becomes just about possible. If this is a method inspired by visual media and particularly by film then it's arguably one which is more able to deal with difference and with complexity than with the more usual linear poem structure which can often only handle one idea at a time. This sense of being overwhelmed, of struggling to take on all this information (disinformation!) and competing viewpoints and having to come to a conclusion of sorts, often at short notice, is a common feature of modern life. Sheppard's style is thus far more 'social-realist' than actually-existing social-realism and this fact in no way compromises his critical stance. Warrant Error is a challenging and ambitious collection of poems and one which deserves wide attention.

In his recent critical work Modern English War Poetry
, Tim Kendall takes to task those 'anti-war' poets who have little or no experience of the actual war zone (Tony Harrison comes in for particular flak here) and while Kendall, a careful and insightful critic, forces you to confront your own 'prejudices', writing such as Sheppard's, less immediate and more ambitious in scope than Harrison's 'liberal humanist' response, deserves a more considered and reflective approach. Surely the merit of Warrant Error is that Sheppard is attempting a large-scale response to recent catastrophic events in a manner which is critical, if sometimes oblique (all the better for it, some would say) and yet substantial and important. If poets aren't allowed to deal with big issues any more, if 'The War on Terror' is somehow out-of-bounds or beyond discussion then we're heading towards a serious period of censorship and/or self-censorship.

      © Steve Spence 2009