more you know about poetry, the more poetry becomes a matter of echoes and
hauntings. Eliot dedicated 'The Waste Land' to Pound with the words il
the same designation that Dante had given to the troubadour poet Arnaut
Daniel. Larkin's 'postal districts packed like squares of wheat' triggers a
memory of Auden's 'The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest
wheat'. George Herbert's 'Is there in truth no beauty?' becomes a kind of
backbeat at the end of Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'. This sort of poetic
relationship is at the heart of Adrian Clarke's new book which, in the words
of the blurb, tests 'some possibilities and limits of cultural and linguistic
exchange'. Eurochants gathers translations of Max Jacob; improvisations
on Chinese love poems, Persius, Tacitus and Villon; and other recent work in
Clarke's characteristic short-lined, phrasal style. Daniel and Dante are in
If you've not encountered Clarke's poetry before then, depending on whether
you read Robert Sheppard or Andrew Duncan, 'The discourse of the State (one
might almost say statement) is rejected in favour of ceaseless phrasing' or
'The long cadence of the discourse of the State and professions is replaced
by Pulse.' And, surprisingly, this isn't as distant from Arnaut Daniel as one
might imagine. As Robert Kehew points out in his indispensable bilingual
anthology of troubadour poetry Lark in the Morning, Daniel's main
innovation was to take the traditional long lines of his predecessors and
contemporaries and '[chop] them up into smaller lines of uneven length'. It
was an innovation that gave greater energy and movement to the verse as well
as allowing for greater play with internal rhymes and half-rhymes.
Andrew Duncan describes Clarke's poetry and the other work collected in the Floating
anthology (which Clarke co-edited with Robert Sheppard) as pitching the
reader against a violent surface and, on the surface, this is literally true.
Spasm, cunt-lack, oppressive, scars, piss, blood and puss, injuries, hurts,
damaged—it's easy to find this sort of language in both 'Terminal Preludes'
and the title sequence. But it's also only partially true. What's most
striking about the two sequences, and particularly 'Eurochants', is their use
of other languages: French, German, Italian, and Occitan. I estimate the
proportion in 'Eurochants' at 15-20%. There are epigraphs from, inter alia, Ingeborg
Bachman, Barthes, Baudelaire, Celan, and Pavese. Here's the closing the
section of part 2/poem 11 which has an epigraph from Racine 'Je pars plus
amoureux que je ne fus jamais':
a life versed
in your loss
Clarke's work in, say, Ghost Measures (1987), Spectral Investments (1991), and Obscure
(1993) uses short, four-word lines which mean that his poetry, in Sheppard's
words, 'dwells in its conditional saying.' The conditionality is also a
result of the poem's momentum. As the reader proceeds through a poem, its
line breaks —which are also potential links—force him or her to revise
meaning backwards and forwards. It's a little like reading Creeley at his
most abstractedly self-reflexive, although more nakedly dynamic.
But what happens with the kind of late modern euro-creole on offer here is
that, multi-lingual readers excepted, both linkage and momentum are
interfered with, estranged from themselves. In one sense, the foreign
languages are another version of the way that the links in Clarke's work also
function in Eurochants at the level of sound: 'cento for synthesis',
'flotsam pro tem', 'Vetoed by fax. / Voted a fix.' In another sense, the
multi-lingual mix works across time (Daniel, Bertrans de Born) and borders to
convey a powerful sense of crisis and displacement. It's a sense that's
reinforced by the way many of the epigraphs refer to departure, distance and
exile. A single language is not sufficient to describe the state we're in, or
more correctly, other languages have been and are doing it better than
English. Other languages suggest other voices and other vantage points. The
way that different languages are broken and mixed across and within lines
performs a sense of struggling for new vantage points and of intermeshing
with other traditions. Another important effect of Clarke's euro-babel and of
the references to a wide range of European writers is to remind us that there
is a European tradition in which poetry, poetics, writing on cognition, and
philosophy are closely connected. Arnaut Daniel, Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, and Roland
Barthes are all engaged in the same sort of enquiry.
So what's partly at the back of all this is a sense of the inadequacy of
where 'official' English poetic traditions have ended up. The Persius
improvisation, 'Satire 1', sets this up with its often hilarious,
Raworth-like montage of capital and 'official' poetry culture and its
in your arse
epithet that counts.
a bid for
imaginative franchise'. Improve, not
When did competition rule
out work on
semantics, meritocrats care:
discards superior crusts. Enduringly,
an epic 'yes'
ploughed'; 'green fields greying';
pure verb' 'stained
Isn't that the best Poetry Review editorial Fiona Sampson never wrote?
The MoMo Penguin antho and Heaney's 'Oysters' are in there and a lot more
besides. I love the crackle and sweep of it. And, of course, 'competition'
and 'work on the line' might just as easily be 'about' the Potters Bar rail
disaster as they are official poetry culture's anti-modernism—which is partly
the point of this sort of writing.
What about the rest of the book? I translated Part 1 of Max Jacob's The
with Christopher Pilling for Atlas a few years back. I actually think
Clarke's versions of the prose poems are in many ways punchier than ours and
make a good introduction to Jacob. The 'Chinese Whispers' sequence reduces
Clarke's short line even further to two-word units and for this reader the
reduced resources made it hard to get much from it. The closing 'Terminal
Preludes' sequence is centred down the page and its short lines and broken
phrases mix images of war, terrorism and eco-crisis to give a sense of
'post-catastrophe', 'apocalypse / scaled spasm' and 'monument to impact'.
There's an important question about form being raised here: is the crisis so
urgent or the connections between things so dynamically complex that more
measured poetry is irrelevant, pointless, just too slow? It's a question that
Clarke's been asking all along.