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Pierre Joris

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Marginalalia: On Pierre Joris Justifying

Pierre Joris: Made in England


Introductory note: Written by Pierre Joris in French, Made in England was originally published as the preface to Matières d’Angleterre (1984), a bilingual anthology of the new English poetry, or in Eric Mottram’s phrase, of the “British Poetry Revival,” edited by Pierre Joris and Paul Buck, and translated into French by Pierre Joris (assisted by Didier Pemerle, Glenda George, Jean-Pierre Faye, Jacques Darras and others).


As detailed in the preface, an English (or US) publisher could not be found. When Christian Bourgois Editeur suddenly decided to no longer publish poetry — Matières d’Angleterre was to be published in the change sauvage series, edited by Jean-Pierre Faye  —, the book finally appeared in 1984 as an instalment, number 19, of Jacques Darras’s in’hui magazine.
For a more detailed account of this anthology’s inception and troubled publication, as well as an online table of contents, see Pierre Joris’s blog post on Nomadics, dated October 9th, 2009 ( [Peter Cockelbergh]


To think of English poetry as innovative poetry, one has to go back to the first years of this century, when Ezra Pound’s American lightning bolt struck the dull sky of Victorian and Edwardian poetry, echoed by the thunder of Wyndham Lewis and his friends. A new élan — or violent vortex — issued from it, be it one that was, unfortunately, stopped dead all too quickly by the utter madness of the First World War. In the second and last issue of the magazine Blast, Wyndham Lewis, its editor, was clearly aghast: “All of Europe was at war and a BLAST stronger than mine left me breathless.” What that explosion could have produced is suggested by those two issues of Blast and by the very fine Active Anthology published by Pound in 1933.


Ever since, it seems to us, English poetry has been going through an increasingly deeper slump, in which the only peak that is even remotely cutting-edge — and a double-edged one at that — remains irony. This return to an out-and-out conservatism is illustrated exemplarily by the trajectory of a poet like T.S. Eliot. That other American, and friend of Pound’s, who made a debut with his Waste Land, a poem still considered in English-speaking countries as the first masterpiece of poetic Modernism. Yet it was Eliot’s critical-cultural summa, extremely conservative, orthodox and elitist, that set the tone for the years to come. Today still, it is those writings, shouldered by Matthew Arnold’s centennial and indestructible Culture and Anarchy, that found the right-minded norm and serve as a safeguard against a so-called Modernism that is as little innovative as the Anglican High Church — an order Eliot furthermore hastened to join.


There were, of course, exceptions. They nearly all came from the margins of the empire: Scotland, Wales or Ireland. Yet even among the English there were some individual poets who, by a stroke of genius — very often produced by the salutary encounter with foreign cultures and poetries — were able to escape the surrounding slump. Unfortunately they were rare, and often — as is the case with Lawrence — their fame is based on other aspects of their oeuvre. Nevertheless, let’s salute some of these poets in passing: D.H. Lawrence, the great Hugh MacDiarmid, some momentary flares of Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden, David Jones, William Empson, David Gascoyne, F.T. Prince…


After the Second World War a movement began to take shape that was supposed to renew English literature: those “Angry Young Men” who, apart from theatre — their most interesting success — and the novel, also tried their hand at poetry. But this ignis fatuus quickly lost its fire, and turned out to be a continuation of the traditional and reactionary English royal road, poetically as well as politically. Exemplary in this respect is the career of someone like Kingsley Amis: “best-seller” thanks to his novel Lucky Jim, which was something of a scandal in the 1950s, author of several volumes of poetry, and presently a pillar of the utterly reactionary literary and cultural establishment. What the poets of that decade aspired to, is formulated clearly in the following sentences, coming from one of the producers of that sorry output: poetry must be “strict,” and “sober,” because “it is not good for a nation, nor for an individual, to constantly bring to light, to scrutinize and question the principles that govern life. It is habits that make for the force of life, its grace and its unity.” And: “The most obvious level of excellence is that of a flash of wit, of fantasy, or else of sensitive description, a flight of fancy, rather than profound imagination.” And to congratulate the English nation which, when all is falling apart, “remains a unified team where the political differences have not succeeded — as is the case for numerous European countries — in breaking up the nation’s fundamental social unity.” [1]


It would be pointless, here, to enter into the dark eddies of this official muck, into this “axis” that has been monopolizing the publishing of poetry and its rare accesses to the media since the 1950s. The poet and critic Eric Mottram has perfectly summarized the situation: “Since the 1930s, official English poetry has favored a minimum of invention and information, and a maximum of ironic subtleties, varnished anecdotes and rustic details. It has preferred the flash of wit, politeness and a certain baroque sensitivity, to well-informed intelligence and to the risk of an imaginative form.” [2] The result is clear: the poem as ordinary consumer goods, as leisure time; the poet as (wannabe) ‘country gentleman,’ and good citizen. It does not matter if certain poets appear to be a bit weird, show outward signs of marginality, or act badly: for a long time now English society — a society with classes as watertight as Indian castes — has furnished them with a sub-class, that of the ‘eccentrics,’ which helps to safely bracket these lightweight fringe figures. Whoever gets involved with them risks big-time: in those circles recuperation is total.


But above and beyond this sterile stratum, a revolt began towards the end of 1950s, one that during the next decade increasingly produced a true renaissance of English poetry. Given the poetic poverty described above, it is hardly surprising that energies coming from other countries — or even other disciplines — had a preponderant role to play in the development of this renaissance, at least in its beginnings. Once more, the US contributed its share: Ginsberg’s exuberance, Olson’s meticulous thought and his vast supply of resources and knowledge, Duncan’s verve and eclecticism, Creeley’s sharpness, Spicer’s absolute modernity, Zukofsky’s exemplary oeuvre, they all suggest individual approaches, while at the same time offering shared attempts at an open and innovative poetry with infinitely moving forms. A major landmark was the huge public reading at the London Albert Hall during the summer of 1965, which was the public launch of this poetry and showcased its oral aspects in particular. What the rear guard had tried to confine to the dust of libraries, after having it tied down in the straightjacket of ramshackle formalism, was reborn again that day through the live voices of the poets addressing an audience of thousands of people. Voices that, ever since, have not ceased to resound in an impressive procession of public readings, because for most of these poets the printed text is, if not dead letter, then scarcely more alive than the notes of a musical score.


The essential contribution of American poetry has been to say that what was at stake is not confining oneself to interchangeable repetitions of a classical vision of the history of poetic forms under the police control of one or the other school of criticism or ideology, but inventing new forms, capable of taking on the weight and diversity of our present-day life — of being able to interconnect among one another through, and to communicate to others what up until then was not communicable. If the US, because of the exceptional quality of what was being written there between 1945 and 1970, and because of the proximity of the two languages, had the most decisive impact on the new English poetry, a number of other influences made themselves felt as well, amongst which we cannot ignore those of the Latin American countries, nor that exerted by France.


This new English poetry saw itself accused, subsequently, of servile imitation of foreign (and especially American) models by that faction for whom barbarism starts at Calais. Needless to say there is nothing to it: the range of this poetry is, in fact, international, global, something that we have tried to illustrate by the swarm of quotes traversing the book, and that is an antidote to the insularity maintained by the ironic and academic withdrawal of the English literary establishment. So let this poetry be banished for frivolous cosmopolitism; it laughs at such accusations, because what constitutes its force, precisely, is its profound originality. To find a specifically English (and not a Scottish, Irish etc.) poetry that has these particular characteristics, one has to go way back, to the times of Shelley, Byron, Keats.


Thus began, about twenty years ago [3], an adventure with multiple dimensions of which this anthology intends to be a first locus. We have invited about forty poets; of course, others could have been present as well. But as with all compilations of this sort a choice had to be made — and so incompleteness becomes unavoidable. Instead of being a quicktheory of poets, we wanted, right from the start, to present the ever so vast range of this new poetry; the infinite riches harbored by its possibilities for change. If the choice of the names included here has undoubtedly been determined to a certain extent by preferences and affinities which the compilers, themselves poets and hence caught up in the game, cannot escape, we hope, however, to have presented in all objectivity that range itself, the space of creation that twenty years of poetic work has shown.


What follows, then, is a collection of poems, and not a theory of names — which demands a different reading. We would like this book to be read from cover to cover, because fishing in it for an individual poem or poet would be failing to pick up on the narrative thread being woven. The organization, the sequencing of texts, was not predetermined but imposed itself on us as we proceeded with our explorative readings. Without doubt other assemblages would have been possible — everybody is, moreover, at liberty to play the game. For our part, it seemed to us that four lines of force emanated from that range, without, however, creating watertight compartments. Rather than classifying, it is a question of showing directions, tracks that, far from running oppositely, show a tendency to intersect, to share the road for a while before parting again: twists and turns. Which explains, furthermore, why one and the same poet sometimes sees her texts dispersed under several headings.


This being said, the four lines thus extricated seem to us to present concrete choices with respect to stopovers in the book and methods of work. (Evidently at the risk of being told by this or the other poet that the stopover allotted him does not tally with his own approach.) Caught in the game/trap of our stopovers and lines, we have indulged ourselves along the way in drafting the following graph/graffiti, which, while having had a clarifying value in the dialogue between the compilers, has perhaps less so for the reader of this book. We have nevertheless included it here, only so as not to conceal what is being fabricated through it:



This book, and in it the poems, would therefore be what happens at the junction of these axes: 1 — 4 (Process — Language) would thus be the methodological axis, the angle of attack, whereas 2 — 3 (Location — Body) would be that which grounds the work, the double locus, or “ambi” of earth and body. Taken at face value, this outline would be too much of a simplification, recreating the old division of content and form which poetry, precisely, does not cease to efface. Actually, the role of the axes is interchangeable. Thus, the body of the poet-reader works and transforms language, just like the geographical location ends up functioning as a generator of process. What is important, then, is to imagine these axes as whirling and touching one after the other the four poles, which themselves, persistent as they may be, do not stop changing roles. In this way a vortex is created that, far from being reduced to the traditional and limited poetic vertigo, rather shows up a complex range, a stopover made of variable geometries of which the always renewed/rejected ideal would be to measure up to the complexity of human spaces. Which is not to say that this poetic space seeks to imitate the human spaces: it is not a question of mimesis, of representation, of imitation. Art, in Olson’s fine formula, is the only twin life has: they are two different spaces but with resembling complexities.


This preface, however, is not the place to make a theory of this poetry. The poets presented here have above all made poems, without worrying too much about formulating justificatory or explanatory theories. Something that has, furthermore, permitted them to escape the quarrels of schools and -isms, and to keep a broad view of the prodigal range of poetic production, beyond their personal preferences (of which -isms are all too often but justifications that are as generalizing as they are debilitating). Their poetry, like this island, is caught between two continents, Europe and America. But by a motion wholly of its own, it nevertheless succeeds in escaping this continental pincer movement. Which makes for the health of this poetry. At the beginning of these 1980s, American poetry, so vibrant during the past thirty years, seems to suffocate; its younger poets diligently ploughing a plot of that vast land opened up by the previous generation. One can see this as a retreat, or even as a lack of imagination, or of vision or even simply of concern, a lack that hides itself behind a very marked insistence on that most dubious aspect of technique: the well-made object, the artisanal. Similarly, seen from over here, it seems to us that apart from a few rare exceptions, the new French poetry has difficulties to get out from under the steamroller of the multiple intellectual terrorisms that, putting the cart before the horses, i.e., theory before poetry, have seriously delayed the birth in the French language of a poetry-form entirely able to take on present-day complexity.


This is not a question of arrogance, but simply of a vision, of a way of deturning and using anything the wind blows in, typical of island dwellers. Which of course involves its own risks, too. Peter Riley pinpointed the difference: “Britain is an island. A continent provokes straightlines — direct migratory movements sweeping aside all institutions ahead. Here, however, we have a way of diverting these movements, of giving the movement a twist that is not necessarily weakening, nor archaic, and that is not necessarily lyrical. Carnac is a straight line, but Avebury is elliptical. Which also indicates that the dangers lurking for us are different — the pastoral mode being, perhaps, the greatest threat. If we are in need of a spur, then it is to get our vortices back on their axes — another influx of migrants, strangers with sharp profiles, without whom we would dry up in our picturesque fern nests.” [4]


What may astonish, perhaps, the French reader is that apart from one or two exceptions, none of the poets included in this anthology have been published by what one would call a large publisher. It does not matter whether they have published one or ten volumes: this happened in the parallel circuit. There are two reasons for this. The first one, a constraint: the quasi-absolute monopoly that the official poetry in England exerts on publishing, on media, on the press (from the left or from the right). A blinding and impenetrable monopoly creating a situation admirably summarized by Eric Mottram: “If Eliot, Pound, David Jones, MacDiarmid, Bunting or Dylan Thomas presented themselves at a large publisher with their manuscripts, they would not stand a chance of being published.” [5] The present book is, moreover, proof of this status quo: unpublished in the UK, it will no doubt remain so for a long time to come. To be frank, it is not publishable over here — as it would cause a scandal, something the UK is uncomfortable with, especially in the domain of the arts, unless there is a chance of recuperation.


Which is not the case for the work presented here. A situation that explains the second reason, a choice: that of deliberately creating a parallel circuit. It is true that such a circuit has its own problems, difficulties and limits; true above all at the level of distribution and information, where the monopoly of large publishers remains more or less total. Yet what is more important is the fact that today at least eighty percent of the poetry published each year in the UK is the product of small presses; and if one takes into consideration the poems published in magazines, that percentage would effectively exceed ninety percent, which is enormous. This circuit has, we hasten to say, nothing to do with so-called publishing at the author’s expense — publishing that in the UK bears the revelatory name of vanity press  — , but it does have several important consequences for the poetic work itself. Whether they are aware of it or not, these poets have all made an essential political choice: they took the means of production in their own hands.


At the same time the relation of the author to her text has changed radically. The text is no longer finished once the last word has been written into the notebook. The author accompanies his or her “writing” until it is “in print” — and further still, because the public reading again transforms the printed materials, so that the final poem actually is an infinite number of possible events. To stay with the printed text alone: the fact that the author has the entire chain of production under her control implies that the technical production itself can enter into the process of composition, determining not only an aesthetic aspect, but affecting all facets of the poetic work. Allen Fisher, notably, has made use of the material components of “mimeography”as basic compositional elements of several books of his. Not that all of this is absolutely new: Blake was, amongst others, a notable precursor. Mallarmé, too, insisted on a specific layout for his Coup de Dés, a wish that was, unfortunately, not respected until 1980 with the publication of the Change-errant/d’atelier edition.


This brief survey of what we do not fear to call the renaissance of English poetry, has consciously avoided suggesting one or more theories of poetry, because we want this book to be read as we have conceived it: a first statement of a multidimensional and multidirectional dynamics. All that remains now is to thank those, across the Channel, who were kind enough to welcome us at present, and who were able, beyond official English poetic discourse, to discern these past ten or fifteen years what was being said, what was unfolding. Thanks to them, then, this book exists now, this coming out and into the light of day of a vast movement of writing that in its own country is forced to squat in the margins. Such might seem obvious or necessary: all innovative poetic work thrives at the borders, in a half forced, half self-imposed clandestineness, always asserted as well as underwent. But then the moment comes when the accumulated work achieves “critical mass” and succeeds in breaking the silence, dense though it may be. And that, precisely, is the aim of this anthology.

(translated by Peter Cockelbergh)


[1] [Original quote untraceable, translator’s paraphrase, PC.]

[2] [Original quote untraceable, translator’s paraphrase, PC.]

[3] [Made in England was published in 1984. Translator’s note.]

[4] [Original quote untraceable, translator’s paraphrase, PC.]

[5] [Original quote untraceable, translator’s paraphrase, PC.]

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