Sunday 26 November 2023

Bob Dylan: Lyrical Emotion and Postmodernism

It has been so long since I first started writing poetry, that I had almost forgotten why I started to write it. It certainly had everything to do with listening to Bob Dylan, and aspiring to do what he did with words but in a non-musical context. Because I couldn’t write songs, I used to write poems to song melodies and rhyme schemes. This was my way of "being musical", as I regarded myself more a frustrated songwriter than a poet. Writing poetry was for me merely a way to be able to say that I was doing something creatively similar to Dylan. I never saw my early poems as anything other than different lyrics to his melodies.

Looking back, I realise that this was my only enjoyable period in poetry. After I started to write poems “seriously”, and tried to get them published, and performed them at local readings, all the enjoyment began to fade. Like most pleasures, once you start to see it as a “business” then all its charm diminishes.

I was quite content to write such poetry and not have it seen by anyone, which is what I did for a while. But after having read some 19th century poetry by Browning, Tennyson, Coleridge etc., as well as some contemporary mainstream poetry, I was surprised to find that none of it was as rich in interpretive possibilities as Dylan’s lyrics were.

This led to my appreciating even more the genius of Dylan. The only poets who matched Dylan for me were Blake, Dickinson and Eliot. I also read Rimbaud, to see if he was as good (seeing as Dylan liked him) but apart from a few phrases here and there, he wasn’t. I also read Ginsberg and Kerouac, again because Dylan liked them. Of the two, I found Kerouac’s poetry more similar to Dylan than Ginsberg’s was—apart Ginsberg’s Howl, which is very Kerouac in parts.

Finding out that nearly all the poetry I’d read wasn’t as good as Dylan’s lyrics, was a major revelation to me, and motivated me to find out why this was the case. So I read as much about poetry and its history as I could find, but could still not come up with a sufficiently plausible answer. Eventually, I decided to go to university and do a degree in English Literature, thinking that this more rigorous and advanced study might reveal some answers. It did, and these answers led me to embark on a PhD course, and later to start The Argotist Online.

I eventually found that there was poetry out there that was as good as Dylan regarding his use of ambiguity and multi-textuality, but what it had of those elements, it lacked in emotional resonance. Such poetry was often associated with various postmodernist styles of writing, and as such tended to prioritise formal dexterity and novelty above emotion. This avoidance of emotion, particularly regarding the themes of love and loss, appears rooted in a theoretical understanding, that sees emotional expression as theoretically contentious and "unsophisticated.

Though I have borrowed a lot from postmodernism in my own poetry, I have never followed it down the “no emotion” road. Maybe other poets have done and are doing the same. I welcome that, if it is the case.

Saturday 18 November 2023

Twentieth Century British Poetry Was Not As Innovative As Twentieth Century American Poetry

The pervasive influence of Wordsworth on British mainstream poetry in the Twentieth Century is undeniable. This influence played a significant role in shaping the linguistic uniformity observed in much of celebrated British poetry of that century, in contrast to the linguistic diversity seen in American poetry during the same period.

In that period, British poetic innovations were mainly adaptations, or “tweaks”, of those that had already been introduced by American High Modernism. One example of this can be seen in the British Poetry Revival of the mid-Twentieth century. It’s members, such such as Dom Sylvester Houédard, Bob Cobbing and others, echoed many of the tendencies found in American High Modernist works.

Another example of a British poetic movement that was derivative of American High Modernism is what is often termed “British Linguistically-Oriented Poetry”. This was predominant in the 1970s and 1980s, and had many members, including, Bill Griffiths, Tom Raworth and Maggie O'Sullivan. The movement was often celebrated for its innovative approaches to language and form, but was simply an extension of American High Modernism.

Both the British Poetry Revival and British Linguistically-Oriented Poetry were derivative of American High Modernism. Eliot and Pound had already emphasised a heightened awareness of language and a departure from its conventional usage. Similarly, the British Poetry Revival and British Linguistically-Oriented Poetry continued this focus. American High Modernist poets were interested in semiotics and exploring the idea of linguistic signifiers. The British Poetry Revival and British Linguistically-Oriented Poetry continued that project. The use of fragmentation and collage techniques, which were prominent features in American High Modernist poetry, was also used by the British Poetry Revival and British Linguistically-Oriented Poetry

The most that can be said about these two movements, is that their various writing “procedures” (they used this word a lot) were simply continuations of the experimentation introduced by the American High Modernist poets. They introduced no revolutionary break from the poetic traditions set by American High Modernism.

High Modernism was essentially a product of an American sensibility: Eliot, Pound, Williams, Stein and Stevens, all being American-born. The only exception was Joyce, who was Irish—not British. Even before High Modernism, America was leading the way in poetic innovation, with poets like Whitman, Dickinson, Poe, Crane and Hovey. It’s important to emphasise, that Poe's influence even travelled to French symbolists like Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé and Jarry, and then this influence returned to American modernists, primarily through Stevens.* And such American poetic innovation continued throughout the twentieth century: from Kerouac to Ginsberg to Ashbery to Language Poetry.

Twentieth Century British poetry, conversely, continued in the tradition of Wordsworthian empiricism, antagonistic to any use of a poetic language that basis its effects on aspects other than descriptiveness and anecdotal confession. And the so-called British poetry innovators, were, as we have seen, derivative of American High Modernism.

* My thanks to Jesse Glass for providing the linear taxonomy regarding the Poe-French Symbolist connection.

Here is a Facebook discussion about this blog post

Tim Allen

The problem with this is not just that its rather a sweeping statement but also that from some viewpoints the opposite could be said. Unless we are just talking about scale of course. Compared to the US scene the Brit innovative scene is tiny but that just reflects the population size. The situation is also made problematic by the importance of 'influence' - what I mean is if you say that Brit modernist poets were influenced by things coming out of America you also have to say that American modernists themselves were being influenced by the same i.e. they were not being influenced because they were American they were being influenced because, like their Brit counterparts, they were the kind of poets who were open to such influences. They were always overwhelmingly outnumbered by fellow Americans who were not influenced, exactly the same with the Brits. There is also the issue of what actually constitutes 'high modernism' as you call it and how that differs from the later developments - we could argue about this but I think the influence on later poets was almost entirely down to Williams and the Objectivists. Even Stein doesn't really figure much as an influence until much later. Yes, Pound influenced the Objectivists but Eliot has had almost no influence on any of them. The political distance between left and right is also important here and behind it all the prime influence was European anyway, though I admit that a lot of the Brits got that influence filtered through the Americans. I wrote quite a bit back awhile about the differences between the US work and the Brit, and there are differences, but those differences are not ones of degrees of innovation.

Jeffrey Side

Tim, you say that the size of the British innovative scene compared to the U.S. scene is tiny, but this reflects population size. While population size may influence the scale of artistic movements, my blog post focuses on the nature of innovation rather than sheer quantity. It suggests that British innovation was often derivative of American High Modernism rather than representing a unique departure.

You mention the reciprocal influence between British and American modernist poets, emphasising that both groups were influenced by each other. My blog post post acknowledges influence but argues that British poets tended to follow and adapt innovations introduced by American High Modernism, rather than creating a revolutionary break from those traditions.

You raise the issue of defining "high modernism" and suggests that the influence on later poets was mainly from Williams and the Objectivists, with less impact from Eliot. There might be room for debate on the definition of high modernism, but my blog post argues that British movements like the Poetry Revival and Linguistically-Oriented Poetry were continuations of the experimentation introduced by American High Modernist poets as a whole.

You mention the political distance between left and right and say that the prime influence was European, often filtered through Americans for the British poets. My blog post acknowledges European influence (especially the French one) but argues that the British poets took this influence via Eliot etc.

You note the differences between U.S. and British poetry and argue that these differences are not necessarily in degrees of innovation. My blog post agrees that there are differences but suggests that British poets were often derivative of American High Modernism, introducing no revolutionary break from those traditions.

Tim Allen

Sorry but I just cannot agree with your main points - I certainly do not agree with your statement above that 'British innovation was often derivative of American High Modernism rather than representing a unique departure'. Some British poetry was influenced by high modernism but this is not what we are talking about when it comes to the British Poetry Revival etc. I will try to get back to your other points later - haven't the time at the moment.

Jeffrey Side

Tim, why is agreeing with my statement that 'British innovation was often derivative of American High Modernism rather than representing a unique departure' difficult for you? Just reading the poetry will reveal the influences it draws on. Indeed, the whole British Poetry Revival project could not have existed without High Modernism, of which it uses all of its techniques.

You say ‘Some British poetry was influenced by high modernism but this is not what we are talking about when it comes to the British Poetry Revival etc.’ Are you suggesting that the British Poetry Revival was not intending to be innovative?

Tim Allen

Again I really want to get into this properly but haven't the time. I know what I mean but finding a clear way of saying it needs time I haven't got today. There are some good comments from others above anyway. A part of this is to do with your emphasis on 'high modernism' - in short I am saying that the poetry of the British Poetry Revival etc did not require 'high modernism' as a root. What it did require, to a degree, was cultural osmosis from European (and yes, particularly French) avant and left-field poetry. The sticking point there is how much this was via certain American poets - we would have to go to individual examples (i.e. I note Norman Finkelstein's comment above re Ashbery and Hill) - but once you take it down to that level it becomes a bit silly to invoke which country they come from. Also remember there is a tendency for people to forget about Latin America where modernism developed faster than it did in the North. One other point - I am not trying to defend Brit poetry against American - I really don't care about that, it's irrelevant, it's just that I don't think what you said is correct.

Jeffrey Side

Tim, you say that the British Poetry Revival ‘did not require high modernism as a root’, yet the work speaks for itself—its “innovations” are homages to High Modernism. You say that the British Poetry Revival required ‘cultural osmosis from European (and yes, particularly French) avant and left-field poetry’, but while this might be correct, it’s not really relevant to my main point: that it was grounded on the principles of American High Modernism. It is that grounding that is the main point, and I ask you to bear this in mind, so that we are not sidetracked. And this grounding addresses your question: ‘The sticking point there is how much this was via certain American poets’. I would say all of the early American High Modernist ones. Maybe later ones did not have an influence, but that is not what I am arguing.

Sean Carey

The American literary world emerged from the late nineteen forties in a reasonably healthy condition. If one looks at the impact of the GI Bill on the Beat Generation it provided 3rd level education.

While not all the Beats availed of it a critical juncture occurred. The obvious fact is that a university offers credibility. And it opens doors if you want to network.

The British innovative writers clearly did interact with the American innovators. But of course the innovators in terms of numbers were small. As well as that the sales market is small.
But that's not the key factor in modern literature. Kudos is the prize for having passed through the university gates. A raised profile is the reward.

All European cultures tend to imitate not to innovate. The vibrant European literary world felt the pressures of two major wars. These wars gave a sense of despair. Adorno's comments on post war art of course were very honest.

The American war losses were also very high despite the hesitation in putting boots on the ground. Isolationism is very conducive to American political and military thinking.

But to go back to Jeffrey's points he certainly has a case. And it is worth looking at from an nonpartisan angle.

Suez in 1956 saw the most serious Anglo American rift since American independence. The Marshal Plan was conceived to put America as the saviour of Europe.

A role that copper fastened Yalta.

The notion that political entities matter in the economics of literature are off the mark. Literature is an economic business with winners and losers. The modern writing community is dominated by economics.

TS Eliot and Ezra Pound's roles in a literary medium were different in some ways. Objectivism found room for Oscar Williams but disagreed with Eliot. That may have been tactical as Eliot in one role was a literary editor. He doesn't seem to have reciprocated Pound's supposed opposition. Both men were literary giants looking at them purely as writers.

The failure on these islands was a deference to the American major leaguers. As well as overestimating the market for experimental literature.

The Movement poets were successful as they knew precisely where the culture was moving. They also managed to undermine the WH Auden tradition from the nineteen thirties. Auden was one of the thirties radicals who had a lot of sway. There were many in that decade like Stephen Spender who seems totally forgotten.

So to look back from 2023 The Movement won the control of poetry in Britain. What now seems like a theatricality "The Poetry Wars" yielded little. Eric Mottram was of course a very talented man who had an excellent track record.

The Beat Generation were very into theatrics in their heyday. To a lesser extent the New York School embraced that mode of activity.

In comparison the Objectivists were low key men and women whose feet were on the ground.

But Jeffrey is correct in his view on derivatives as opposed to charting a new course in writing.

The American victory was of course backed up by the almighty dollar. A post in an American university was financially rewarding for many writers.

Our adoration and love for academics is akin to the old west in America.

Once you got your badge as a sheriff you got the equivalent of a literary degree. You got to know all the right people and you gained power.

So the uneducated writers of today have more chance of becoming crew members for NASA than literary acceptance.

The new establishment ensures you're a nonentity and a loser.

So much for progress!

Jeffrey Side

Thanks Sean. Yes, the sad fact is that, as you say, writers not within academia will never get a look in.

Lee Johns

I love these type of posts - they bring the best and deepest out of writers.

Norman Finkelstein

Two major British poets come to mind who complicate this analysis considerably: Geoffrey Hill and Basil Bunting.

Jeffrey Side

Norman, from what I've read of Hill and Bunting, I don't recognise a clear departure from the High Modernist aesthetic.

For me, Bunting is a continuation of High Modernism thematically, such as themes connected to "memory" and human "experience" which High Modernism often emphasised. Some say his focus on "musicality" was novel, but I can find this in most poems in the past 200 years. Indeed, I was under the impression that poetry was supposed to be music in words anyway.

Hill's poetry also could be seen as a continuation of High Modernist principles. His use of sequences and long-form poetry, for instance, can be seen in High Modernism's tendency for long explorations of themes.

Ira Lightman

I'm not sure you're taking on board the English Intelligencer. And if Bunting does nothing else, he draws the reader to Zukofsky, who definitely takes high modernism forward. One could argue there are two Zukofskys, and Language Writing took on the ludic but Bunting is one of the only ones to develop the musical. It's an innovation that American poetry has not caught up with, and is more than the age old musicality of say Campion or Milton.

Jeffrey Side

Ira, yes Bunting might have been influenced by Zukofsky, which proves my point that British poets were influenced by American modernists like Zukofsky.

I’m not sure that only Bunting, as you say, ‘is one of the only ones to develop the musical’. I can’t see how that could be proved to any great extent.

Ira Lightman

I have several basic grumbles with this piece, Jeff. One is WTF no WCW. The really good Z sited Path essay by Silliman in the New Sentence lays out that it is Pound and Williams, not Pound and Eliot, that set a path for many of the Language Writers, and that can be seen as a path Zukofsky has to be in (and, to return to my previous point, any Zukofsian poetic without Pound in the wake of it is unsatisfactory, not improved).

Secondly, if you look at the correspondence of Jonathan Williams, Ronald Johnson and Gael Turnbull, all of them curious about Britain and North America, you see them all taking influence from a British poet: Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay for me took high modernism somewhere (with Latin American poets) that the North Americans were not taking it. You wouldn't have Ronald Johnson’s Ark without it.

Thirdly, Wordworth is, at best, hidden in plain sight in British Poetry. Modern English poets write badly about him, recite him badly, and don't roam across his work, nor speak knowledgeably about his poetics. A poet who I wish would influence people more, Donald Davie, liked Basil Bunting's point that Wordworth is the last of the Augustans, and not like the other Romantics at all. Empiricism? It's what is in early Zukofsky and never leaves him, but becomes put into an extraordinary dialectic by Zuk's later language play. The later Zuk is thus a huge influence as late Yeats was – producing stylistic imitations in poets with Yeats' early gifts left unstudied.

Davie said modern Englidh poetry lives in the shadow of Hardy, and makes a good case. If only it were influenced by Wordworth! The British Poetry Revival was heavily influenced by WCW, not Pound, a sort of Low Modernism if you will.

I think T S Eliot was right that English poetry has been marked by the "disassociation of sensibility", wonderfully illustrated by him when he compares 17th century poets with Tennyson.

Jeffrey Side

Ira, Yes, you make a fair point when you say that it was 'Pound and Williams, not Pound and Eliot, that set a path for many of the Language Writers'.

Regarding your point about Ian Hamilton Finlay influencing the Americans later in the twentieth century, I have no disagreement with you. My blog post is not arguing that British poets who came years after High Modernism had no influence on either British or American poets.

On your point about Wordsworth, you will have to read my PhD thesis, which was about his influence on twentieth century poetry regarding empiricism, and several peer reviewed articles I’ve had published on the subject.

Sean Carey

The British academic system has real power in many areas of life. The literary world is certainly not alone in venerating university literary institutions.

There may be changes in the future due mainly to a possible downgrading of the arts. AI will also play its part.

Without some form of public relations the publishers of some excellent books will remain almost invisible. Few know about them or read what is produced. Their books are rarely reviewed which means a media deficit.

American presses can getaway with that approach due to a numerical advantage. But in Britain or France that simply does not work. The postwar absorption of European literature did of course take place.

But while with notable exceptions few British writers ventured beyond the American models. Jeffrey's points on derivative poetic modes does make sense.

Of course it is uncomfortable for those who have faith in the British revival. The notion of "poetry in the wars" gaining ground is the standard view. But now over fifty years have passed with very little gained. The experimental presses are not making waves. But they cater for a specific market. And the quality publications reach very few shelves. If they are happy with that situation it merely raises questions.

To say nothing is far too easy. To say anything means being viewed as a sour grapes merchant or a crank.

But to mention economics seems to be a cardinal sin. Writers cannot live on fresh air or eat from an allotment. So the academic community offers an income. It is not rocket science or astrophysics. Indeed to publish any book costs money.

A good relationship with the Arts Council helps. There are and were writers who courted funding agencies. Holding a festival or running a pay per poem competition can provide money.

To claim egalitarian values one must practice them. To exclude any writer who does not fit their bubbles is rank hypocrisy.

Personal or literary dislikes or likes are unavoidable between writers. But issues should not be used to totally undermine any female or male writer.

Those who promote and practice exclusivity know what they are doing.

But do they have a divine right to claim any mantle or carry any torch? It is time for more honesty and directness.

Jeffrey Side

I agree with all you have said. Especially this:

'Of course it is uncomfortable for those who have faith in the British revival. The notion of "poetry in the wars" gaining ground is the standard view. But now over fifty years have passed with very little gained. The experimental presses are not making waves. But they cater for a specific market.'

"The Redress of Poetry" and Philip Hobsbaum

Since his death in 2013, Seamus Heaney's reputation as a poet has grown from strength to strength in the popular media and in some academic circles. I recall one critic, Robert Taylor, saying in around 2009, that Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry (a collection of the lectures he gave while professor of poetry at Oxford): 'illuminates a point of view of poetry as a force capable of transforming culture'. I was never quite sure in what way this applied to The Redress of Poetry, which essentially defines “poetry” as an act of describing acutely what is seen with the physical eyes, while using defamiliarization as a literary device to render these descriptions more lucidly.

In the book, Heaney's reluctance towards experimentation and formal innovation is unmistakable, revealing a penchant for a poetry characterised by overt subject matter. This inclination is evident in his critique of Dylan Thomas, when he says that Thomas has a 'too unenlightened trust in the plasticity of language'.

Heaney also expresses reservations regarding poetic artifice, asserting that in Thomas' utilisation of it, 'the demand for more matter, less art, does inevitably arise'. In contrast, Elizabeth Bishop garners his approval because 'she never allows the formal delights of her art to mollify the hard realities of her subjects'.

In Seamus Heaney: From Major to Minor, R. Caldwell rightly criticises Heaney by saying:

'There is too often the feel with his poetry that the paraphrase is the end of the matter: there is little of the multifaceted richness of suggestion that invites one to probe further'.

Heaney was a protégé of Philip Hobsbaum, who made it possible for him to get a publishing contract with Faber & Faber. Hobsbaum was also a founder of the 1960s British poetry coterie, The Group. Originally based in London, The Group founded an offshoot in Belfast when Hobsbaum had to relocate there to take up a teaching post at Queen's University. Heaney met Hobsbaum while studying at Queens, and was invited to take part in Group meetings.

Given that Hobsbaum was a well-known critic of Modernism, especially of the American Modernism, he might have seen in Heaney someone who had the potential of sharing this view given sufficient nurturing. In Tradition and Experiment in English Poetry, Hobsbaum writes:

'Whitman’s abstractions and random collocations have a raw life of their own, a form even through their formlessness; and this has remained highly characteristic of American poetry ever since. The Waste Land is, indeed, a heap of broken images: this is its meaning, and, to some extent, its distinction. But that kind of writing has never worked well in England'.

His criticism of Eliot extends to what Hobsbaum sees as the negative influence on English poetry of Eliot’s use of the American idiom:

'Some damage was done to English verse by too close an imitation in the 1930s of the American idiom as evidenced in such poets as Eliot and Pound'.

Hobsbaum also sees a disparity between Eliot’s American writing style and traditional English poetic writing practice. Although Hobsbaum does not see this in itself as necessarily negative, the implication is that American Modernism is largely a geographical and cultural entity, unable to successfully function within an English milieu:

'Again, Eliot’s work exhibits the characteristic American qualities of free association or phanopoeia and autobiographical content. English verse, however, has been at its best as fiction: an arrangement of what is external to the poet to convey the tension or release within'.

Given Heaney’s association with Hobsbaum at such a formative time in Heaney's young life, it would not be unreasonable to presume that much of Hobsbaum's poetic aesthetic would have filtered down to form some of Heaney’s later ideas on poetry—perhaps even on much of what he says in The Redress of Poetry.

Sunday 12 November 2023

The Argotist Online Archive Update

For a few weeks now, the British Library's Web Archive site has been down. So, anyone trying to get to The Argotist Online's archive, which is held there via the links I posted in my last blog, will not have been able to

On 3 November, I emailed the British Library, to tell them that I couldn't access the Argotist archive, or any other archive, and they replied on the 7 November, saying:

"Thank you for flagging this issue. We do apologise for any inconvenience; our systems are currently experiencing technical issues, so the archival copies are currently unavailable. When our systems are back online, I would be happy to email you with an update."

Hopefully, things will be sorted out before much longer.

Sunday 10 September 2023

Updated Article Links

Here are active links to all articles of mine that were at The Argotist Online. The links lead to the Argotist archive at The British Library. If any of you contributed material to the Argotist, I suggest you update any links you have to it with its links in the archive.

'The Escape From Coherence: An Introduction to Creative Reading'

'Ambiguity and Abstraction in Bob Dylan's Lyrics'

'Poetry in Turbulence (or how to enjoy poetry without really understanding it)'

'The Dissembling Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Avant-Garde'

'Multiple Registers, Intertextuality and Boundaries of Interpretation in Veronica Forrest-Thompson'

'What’s in a Name?: The Art & Language Group and Conceptual Poetry'

'Songs and Poems'

'Limited Poetic Meaning and the Wordsworthian Legacy'

Thursday 3 August 2023

'Poetry as Silence' by Jake Berry

Poetry begins in silence.

Nothing and no one is present, especially the poet.

It is this silence, this absence, that is the ground from which the first sounds arise. Or perhaps more accurately, the atmosphere out of which sound emerges like clouds.

Silence and absence are holy. They are the origin and vessel of all that is.

Whatever rises in the phenomenal world returns to this essential silence.

How can this be? How can sound emerge from silence? Perhaps the sounds that emerge are merely residue hidden beneath the noise that ordinarily fills our minds. Perhaps they emerge from subconsciousness when the noise disappears. That is indeed a step toward silence. It is not however essential silence – which cannot be experienced by effort or lack of effort.

Instead, silence is always available, but we cannot discover it. We must make ourselves available to be enclosed by it. Then, quite suddenly, there is, regardless of our surroundings, an infinitely open space, a resounding silence. It runs beneath and through whatever temporal phenomena constitute our immediate environment.

We find ourselves aware, but not to ourselves, since that too is merely phenomenal noise.

In that suddenly still, glimmering instant we hear sounds. If we have become accustomed to these instances we cannot help but move closer to the sound. At this point the sounds begin to take shape as words and poetry begins.

After that beginning we become collaborators, making the whole of our experience available. If we remain true to the silence the poem will become a carrier of silence and silence will be experienced by some few among those that read or hear the poem. They will be enclosed within it and receive its gift.

Poetry begins in silence and returns to silence and in reality it never leaves silence. It is the gift of the loss of everything.

Wednesday 2 August 2023

A Review of Mark Young's 'The Sasquatch Walks Among Us' by Clara B. Jones

The Sasquatch Walks Among Us
Mark Young
Sandy Press
ISBN: 978-1-7368160-2-8
pp 72

Feudalism was the first of
the mathematical sciences
to be developed as a quest
reward from The Ancient

Brazier. A kitchen sink,
some dirty dishwater—the
world’s contempt is a theme
common to the intellectual… (p 35)

Mark Young’s new collection, The Sasquatch Walks Among Us (hereafter, Sasquatch), is an avant-garde work. A New Zealander living in Australia, Young is a highly-regarded writer, publisher, editor, and blogger who has produced dozens of books. The improvisational meters and rhythms of jazz characterize the poet’s oeuvre, and William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jorge Luis Borges are among his literary influences. All of Young’s poetry is derived, directly or indirectly, from Surrealism, the French artistic movement active during the period between World War I and World War II. Sasquatch, is a nod to Surrealism by way of its conceptual framework honoring aesthetics of the 1950s French movement, Informalism or Art Informel, which advanced Surrealism’s “automatism”—techniques promoting free expression of emotions, spontaneous thoughts, actions, and use of materials.

Though Young disavows the academic “mainstream,” it is difficult for a writer to avoid Modernist conventions altogether. The poems in Sasquatch display Formalist devices such as some traditional forms (prose poems); emphasis of form over content (the poem, “Quick! before the stream dries up completely”, p 24); imagery (“The yam family was buried with / an army of terracotta soldiers.” p 31; “Today the post- / woman brought / me an elephant.” p 65); rhythm (“The adults are in / faux leather, cork- or / kelp-based, dressed up / to look like library / books...” p 39); play (“Frank O’Hara re- / vived, recycled as a nature poet.” p 55); and what the poetry critic, Helen Vendler calls “interpretive power” (“That’s why I / feel safe getting around in a / bannered shirt that lauds the / virtues of Nietzsche & his / Nihilist Muskrats.” p 54). Even with these conventional features, however, the poet never strays far from the avant-garde and his characteristic, “radical simplicity.” A unifying feature of Sasquatch is “indeterminacy” (“undecidability”)—what the poetry critic, Marjorie Perloff, has described as never coming to know “how it is.”

Surely, indeterminate poems reflect avant-garde traditions, such as literary compositions that disrupt traditional and mainstream aesthetics—often fragmentary and disjointed (“Self- / symmetry under / magnification. Snowflake curves.” p 71). Most of Young’s poems, for example, employ titles bearing no seeming relevance to the poem that follows it—a technical conceit that, in part, preserves the integrity of each element—permitting neither to dominate while, at the same time, permitting each component to stand on its own—interpretation left to the reader—or, not. Characteristically, and in Postmodern fashion, there is an implied interaction (transaction?) between Text and Reader, as, Text <—–> Reader; though, “meaning” is the reader’s prerogative, thus, Text <—— Reader.

While Young’s writing embodies elements of Freudian “free association”—consistent with Surrealist methods and an indeterminate style (“War / becomes perpetual, aggressive / traits predict partner abuse.” p 51; “I was in Bulgaria last year / Machu Picchu was amazing.” p 35), he is, at the same time, not only motivated from within, but also, a “political poet” exhibiting Dadaist tendencies (“Still / some resistance against changing // the old rules for masculine be- / havior.” p 59). Indeed, Young’s writing is intimately associated with what Perloff calls, “the French connection,” particularly, via his abiding dedication to the principles of both Dadaism and Surrealism and, further, to what I perceive to be a Francophile disposition similar to, for example, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery of the New York School (“Reminisce about that / string quartet we heard / playing in the small salon / off the Rue des Brigands.” p 5). Fundamentally, this “other tradition” in American letters is characterized by deep concern and respect for the mastery, uses, and potential of language itself. All readers interested in innovative literature will be introduced to this tradition through Young’s collections. Sasquatch is a good place to start. The collection is a significant addition to the poet’s rich creative output.

Monday 12 June 2023

"Experimental Poetries in the 21st Century — A Foray" by Larissa Shmailo

First published in the Drunken Boat blog 2013. 

In a world threatened by climate change, teetering economies, and war, the landscape of experimental poetry (or poetries) in the 21th century is responding with its traditonal stance of épater/engager by any-and-every means possible le bourgeois, and challenging every lexical and hyperlexical convention. But is it a contracting or expanding universe, and is it the same universe as ours, or a parallel one, or one that does not even glance at our own? What does experimental poetry seek, if it seeks at all, today?

Today, Poetry magazine has opened its doors to poets who may not have found a home there previously, publishing the likes of Charles Bernstein, Forrest Gander, and Rae Armantrout. But is experimental poetry a luxury enterprise, to be coopted by the mainstream? Or is it to be supplanted by the spoken word heritors to the folk and protest song? Or is it the very heart of an art which can provide a new thinking we can bring to our problems and perceptions?

In the 21st century, overlapping sites of activity in experimental poetry have emerged:  Charles Bernstein delineates some of the movements: “Multilectical, site-specific/fieldwork; conceptual/flarf; ecopoetics; constraint-based (constructivist) work, ESL (writing in English by those from non-English regions, via web-intensified global affinity clusters); poetry in programmable media; and sound/performance in/as recording (especially the use of digital sound archives such as PennSound and UbuWeb). Newly emerging in the broad area of “bent poetics” are disability and the defamiliar body, identity formations as textual medium, nude formalism, “junk space,” ambiance, sprung lyric, mixed/syncretic poetic genre, modular prose, and ongoing collaborations with music and the visual arts. “

Sharon Mesmer states: “The most important trends/contributions are probably aligned to the Language-based multiplicities, where the reader was as much of a participant in the poem as the poet, and the strategy-based borrowings, where a foundation was laid that allowed the poet to relinquish hierarchical control, being inflected by humor and the slight return to narrative.”

The late Carol Novack, the publisher of Madhatter’s Review commented, “The landscapes I find most intriguing are populated by poetic writers playing with ‘theatrical play/dialogue,’ ‘narrative,’ digital technological forms, interweaving, connecting, and contrasting text (read or recited)with music and visual art , words unloosened from fetters to formulaic versions of poetic paradigms, writers stretching their wings in collaboration with artists of other genres, or attempting various genres within the same project.”

And what does all this mean to experimental poetry’s writers / readers / audience / victims / perpetrators / partners?

Bernstein speaks to the need for poetry’s constant motion, like a shark per Woody Allen’s definition of a growing love relationship in Annie Hall. Poetry, says Bernstein, is “always moving beyond the ‘experimental’ to the untried, necessary, newly forming, provisional, inventive. Innovation is not so much something you can map as that which resists those maps.”  Bernstein often states: “Poetry is a fertilizer, not a tool,” a groundbase for “moving beyond experiment to textual action.”

Geoffrey Gatza, editor of the experimental press BlazeVox Books, comments on the umbrella of writing that is experimental, or what Ron Silliman would term “post-avant,” saying, “There is no grouping or school of poets working towards a goal in experimental writing… Each writer is… reluctant to be a part of one group working towards one idea.” Gatza, whose press includes an eclectic mix of today’s experimental voices, adds, that as always, “The experimental is open to its successes and it is open to glorious failures in the most exciting of ways, ways that traditional poetry can only sound like a beginning violinist attacking a violin.”

Editor Jeff Hansen, formerly of the web-based Experimental Poetry and Fiction, and now the online journal and blog Altered Scale, speaks about computer poetry and Issue 1, the Dada-esque sendoff of poetic vanities and one of the best examples of search engine optimization techniques of 2008. In it, Jim Carpenter’s poetry algorithm, Erica T. Carter (ETC), wrote and published an anthology of “new work” by 4,000-plus leading poets. Says Hansen: “Issue 1 is a wonderful work (and) it’s provenance as poetry is not in dispute. Loss Glazier would say if Language is code, then Code should be treated as language… It is all very exciting, the anger, the congratulations, and the other forms this discussion has taken. And no matter the outcome, it gets poets talking who may not have reason to talk before.”

Mesmer notes that today, using the Internet, communities of writers can now function as “temporary autonomous zones.” (TAZ is a term coined by Peter Lamborn Wilson/Hakim Bey in his book of the same name, meaning “temporary spaces that elude formal structures of control”).  Mesmer says: “We think of writing communities (the Beats, the New York School Poets, Black Mountain – you name ‘em) as groups of poets who hung out together physically in bars, bookstores, cafes, all-night diners, etc…  But now, as the flarf collective has proven, they can exist in cyber-space as well, where poets communicate and collaborate as they do in temporal- space. This, of course, both adds and subtracts a dimension from the experimental toolbox.”

The Flarf movement, less a school or a set of poets, and more of a method with an end game in sight, includes Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Kasey Mohammad, Rodney Konekee, Michael Magee, and Mesmer. Mesmer explains that the Flarf collective “has used the opportunities afforded by technology to continue Language’s non-hierarchical narrator impulse by using debased Internet language to create poems and thus accomplish two things via technology: taking on narrators that even we ourselves might not embrace, thus truly eluding the formal control structures of our own personal choices.”

Speaking to the use of technology in experimental poetry, Bernstein notes that “the several-thousand-years-old alphabet remains our fundamental technology, with the printing press creating a seismic change some 500 years ago. In the last 150 years we are living in the age of electronic/digital reproduction (tape recorders, radio, typewriters, computers, the internet), which changes the function of poetry in and for the culture, and so everything about poetry.” However: “This is not a choice an individual poet makes but a condition we all are in. And much of the most interesting poetry of the past 150 years, and the past year, reveals the technological unconscious of our time and space.” With Star Trek’s Borg, Bernstein warns that, to these movements, “Resistance is futile.”

Novack added, “I see the looming present future as a melting pot of voices disrobed of the tired necessity of typecasting and classification. I embrace multimedia events and online journals that promote authors who play with amazing evolving technology as if it were clay, who utilize the new communicative forms the Internet offers.”

Daniel Nester of Soft Skull Press takes issue with Bernstein’s discussions of “official verse culture” and Ron Silliman’s “grabbing people’s eyeballs” with the notion of post-avant and the School of Quietude. “These poets and others aren’t the first to make their mark by setting up other perceived aesthetics as straw man counterarguments.  But that doesn’t mean it advances the art of poetry in any way.” Nester reiterates Wallace Stevens’ statement that  “all poetry is experimental…if it is lively, if it is doing its job; poetry presents new coinages, mindsets, shorthands, portmanteaus, neologisms… Twitter poets are the new haiku. Can you say what you want to say in 140 characters or fewer? There’s your new variable foot!”

It has often been noted that experimental poetry speaks to change and uncertainty, also a current in Modernism. Which, as Sharon Mesmer points out, begs the question: Has nothing really changed since Modernism?  Mesmer continues: “And if Modernism reflected/spoke to uncertainly, instability, fracturedness, and we’re now supposed to be getting past all that (if only because “been there, done that”) — what comes next?  Certainty, cohesiveness, stasis? I don’t think so, since the basic state of humanity is not those things. But I do think there is a general impetus to heal, remake and renew right now, and so it’ll be interesting to see how poetry will roll with those ideas.”

Mesmer concludes, “The 21st century landscape seems to be a post-everything territory, fertile with possibility.” She concludes: “Whatever that New Thing’s going to be we can’t really know at this point, but it’s safe to say it will carry the indelible stamp of whatever came before but with a mind to completely redefining it (which has always been poetry’s way anyway).

Note: these interviews were conducted in 2009, and the opinions of the interviewees may well have morphed, as experimental poetry does each day, month, and year. However, this archeology of contemporary seekings in word, sight, sound, material, time, and space still has descriptive value, and is submitted in that spirit. It is not meant to trample or ignore any seedlings of the past four years.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

The Argotist Online 2005-2023

After nearly 20 years, I have had to close down The Argotist Online, due to the increasing cost of running it, both financially and workload wise. It started out as a labour of love but became almost a duty.

To list all the celebrated poets, academics and songwriters who contributed articles and poetry, and who took part in interviews, would take too long, but my gratitude goes to all of them.

I hope that in a small way, the Argotist helped in forming poetic opinion in some poetic circles. It certainly publicised a lot of poets, some who later went on to greater things, such as Lena Dunham.

It also had features that caused much controversy. At one time, the Argotist was simultaneously hated by advocates of both “mainstream” and experimental poetry, which indicated to me that it was beyond partisan stances.

The ebooks it published under the name “Argotist Ebooks”, comprised of poetry collections, short fiction, novels, literary criticism and literary history.

Because there were so many ebooks published on the Argotist site, I felt it would be a shame to delete the catalogue once the site was closed down, so I decided to keep “Argotist Ebooks” going as a publishing venture, and am in the process of transferring the catalogue to a new blog called “Argotist Ebooks”, which will continue to publish ebooks.

The Argotist site has been archived by The British Library in their Web Archive. Here is a link to the archive:

You will see a list of years from 2008 (the year The British Library started the archive) to 2023, that when clicked on will show archived screenshots of the Argotist that were taken several times a year.

Click on a year, then click on one of the months that show, then click on the day of that month that shows, and you will see the archived screenshot of the site for that day.

Finally, I must thank Nick Watson, who was the editor of the original print magazine called “The Argotist”, which was started by him in 1996, and which I deputy edited. We were students at Liverpool University at the time, and the university kindly donated some funds to get the magazine off the ground.

The name “The Argotist” was created by Nick. It was a far better name than the one I suggested to him, which was “The Courtly Horseman”. Looking back, I doubt that name would have gained much mileage.

Wednesday 15 March 2023

Anny Ballardini RIP

I just heard that Anny Ballardini died a few years ago. I hadn't been in contact with her since around 2013. She was a great supporter of the Argotist, and always defended it. I first came in contact with her in the mid-2000s when she published some of my poems on her website, Fieralingue. She also had a blog called Narcissus Works. Here is a poem I found that is a eulogy to her:

Rest in peace, Anny.

Sunday 30 October 2022

Kent Johnson RIP

I found out recently that poet and translator Kent Johnson had died. I was last in contact with him last month, and though he was ill due to cancer, he seemed in good spirits. I found out he had died when I next visited his Facebook. His family reported it there.

Kent was a loyal supporter of The Argotist Online, and was always helpful in putting me in contact with poets and academics who he thought would be interested in publishing poems or articles there.

I interviewed him in 2009, and he mentioned to me recently, that he thought it was his best interview:

And here is an appraisal of his El Misterio Nadal: A Lost and Rescued Book by "Roberto Bolaño" by Richard Blevins, which I published last month at Kent's request:

Rest in peace, Kent.

Monday 6 June 2022

"Argotist" Now in the Lexicon

Good to see that the name of The Argotist Online ("argotist") has now become part of the lexicon. It is a portmanteau word, created by the editor of the The Argotist Magazine, Nick Watson, in 1996. He said he had combined the word "argot" with the "ist" from the title of the 1914-1919 literary magazine The Egoist, which Ezra Pound was involved with. I don't recall it as a word existing before then.

Saturday 14 May 2022

Argotist Online Poetry Blog

I've started a poetry blog for The Argotist Online for people to submit poetry to. It's called Argotist Online Poetry:

The Argotist Online used to have a poetry section but due to technical problems I removed it.

If you are interested in submitting poems, send them to:

argotistonline AT gmail DOT com

Friday 31 December 2021

'So What's Going on Now?' by Peter Philpott

I just came across this piece by Peter Philpott, which is a summary of the various changes and trends in British Innovative Poetry in the last 15 years or so. Very illuminating. Especially the details about the demise of the UK Poetry listserv.

'So What's Going on Now?' by Peter Philpott:

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Lawrence Upton RIP

A few days ago, I was saddened to hear that the poet and director of Writers Forum, Lawrence Upton, had died on the 16th February 2020. For about a year early in the last decade, I corresponded with him via email, discussing many things relating to the UK avantgarde poetry scene, and also about his association with the poet and founder of Writers Forum, Bob Cobbing, with whom he collaborated on a number of projects.

Around the time of our email correspondence, I published his Commentaries on Bob Cobbing as an ebook with Argotist Ebooks, which can be found here:

I also published a poetic work of his, Memory Fictions, which can be found here:

He said he wanted to also write an article for The Argotist Online about a (then) fracas concerning Writers Forum, in which he felt that certain people involved with Writers Forum were attempting to remove him as its director. He’d written about this on Writers Forum’s blog but felt that a formal and detailed article by him concerning the situation would better advertise the unfairness of his treatment. And that as The Argotist Online reached a wider readership than Writers Forum’s blog did, it would be the best place for his case to be heard.

I said that I’d be interested to read anything he wrote, and would likely publish it once the aforementioned ebooks had been published. Unfortunately, after they had been published he changed his mind about writing the article. I think by then he might have had a rapprochement with the various parties involved.

Here is his Writers Forum blog post about the situation:

And just in case that link becomes redundant at some stage in the future, here is a link to a PDF of the blog post:

I belatedly found out about Lawrence’s death from a post on the British and Irish Poets Listserve, which I only occasionally log into these days. One other subscriber to that list, the poet Cris Cheek, posted the following regarding Lawrence:

‘Please help bring pressure to bear so that Lawrence Upton's papers and collections do not become landfill fodder. The situation is precarious. Lawrence has no next-of-kin (as far as we know) and might have died intestate. We need to gain access to the building to ascertain if there is a will and to begin to assess the condition of the mountain of materials inside his house. It is currently boarded up by the police for security and possibly in danger of being declared a public health and safety hazard by the coroner's office. Time is in short supply. This petition seeks to demonstrate the importance of his materials for future research by scholars and practitioners:

I echo his sentiments and urge people to sign this petition.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

An Old Poem I Wrote

Here's an old poem by me that I just came across again after many years. I wrote it around 1991. It's never been published.

The Threshold of Jove’s Court

I told them to enter
and see the lamenter
who was a repenter
and became an assenter
to fall to the centre
and become a consenter
and be a frequenter
noble dissenter
and upset tormenter
and bookish augmenter
to make the restrictions
and get the convictions
to cause the new frictions
to burn the sad fictions
like Los's predictions
and all his old dictions
and Ida's depictions
and Milton's inflictions
and Beulah's conflictions
she turned to transfixtions
as she came to the confidante
who showed her the miscreant
who made her feel elegant
with the power of lubricant
and the eyes of the vigilant
and the thoughts of the postulant
and the cowardice of the reverent
and the diplomacy of the celebrant
and the hatefulness of the ignorant
and the safety of the inhabitant
and the words that are blighted
and mediocrity knighted
or the men who are not righted
or the women who are frighted
and soft voices that are spited
with the opinions that are slighted
and the warnings that are lighted
to the ones who feel plighted
as the stalkers who are sighted
turn out to be heighted
for the simple publicity
that crowns our great city
with its glass walled cubicity
and its sky bound toxicity

Friday 25 October 2019

Review of Christopher Plummer's Memoirs

Christopher Plummer's In Spite of Myself is one of the best showbiz memoirs I've read. It's very long (over 600 pages) but never boring, largely due to Plummer's narrative skill, wit and charm.

A large part of the book reads like a Who's Who of the American and British theatre of the 1950s and 1960s, with Plummer having worked with most major theatrical figures of those decades, from Elia Kazan to Peter Hall. And his friendships have also ranged widely, including figures such as Noël Coward, Rex Harrison, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, Raymond Massey and Jason Robards. He is always generous towards everyone he mentions, even to those who have treated him unfairly, either professionally or personally; and he is always self-deprecating.

He is, perhaps, better known for his film work (particularly in The Sound of Music) but a major part of his career has been in the theatre, on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, living in Britain for a large part of that decade. And amongst the major theatrical classical roles he's played throughout his career are Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry V, Richard III and King Lear.

The book is also full of interesting detail about Plummer's more personal life: his visits to different countries (he's extremely well travelled), his favourite hotels and restaurants, his house moving adventures, and movingly about the deaths of his pet dogs, which he kept in the 1980s and 1990s.

As you can imagine for a 600-plus-page book, there is far more in it than I have been able to touch on here, so I highly recommend it—especially to anyone interested in theatre and film of the past 60 years.

Friday 25 January 2019

Interview with me at The Wombwell Rainbow

Here is an interview with me at The Wombwell Rainbow:

The interview is part of a series of interviews with poets and writers about their approaches to and methods of writing.

Initiated by Paul Brookes, to date it is an ongoing series, and Paul is looking for more poets and writers to take part. So if anyone is interested you can contact him at:

Tuesday 29 March 2016

The Monopolisation of Avant-garde Poetry

Here is an article by Tim Allen called ‘The Kiss of Life? The Kiss of Death? Some Thoughts on Linguistically Innovative Poetry and the Academy’:

Tim wrote it in connection to a feature at The Argotist Online concerning the relationship between academia and avant-garde poetry. The feature is several years old, and was an attempt to get a discussion going about what appears to be an increasing tendency within the English departments of some academic institutions in the US and the UK to monopolise the practice, discourse, dissemination and publication of avant-garde poetry, thus creating a sort of “gold standard” by which avant-garde poetry is to be measured, validated and approved as being “worthy” of academic interest.

I thought the best way to start this discussion was to do a feature about it for The Argotist Online, consisting of articles by US and UK academics responding to an article by Jake Berry that was critical of academic encroachment into the sphere of avant-garde poetry. The feature can be found here:

My original hope for the feature was to get responses to Berry’s article from academics closely involved in this monopolisation process. To that end, I approached many academics, both in the US and the UK, who were involved, to a greater of lesser extent, in this process. Few replied to me, and the majority of those that did, refused to take part in the feature. One or two did initially agree to take part but later changed their minds, for such reasons as having lack of time or having more pressing deadlines for other projects to meet. Consequently, without the involvement of these academics in the feature, the feature was ignored, and failed to garner any online interest, despite being viewed thousands of times within the first few hours of it being online.

Recently, Tim and I were discussing these issues via email, and I suggested to him that he formulate his opinions on the subject as an article, so that they could be accumulated in one place and read by others. He readily agreed, and consequently wrote the article mentioned above. 

My thanks to him for taking the time to write it.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

A Survey of How Poetry Can Be Read and Written

I’ve just come across a feature I'm included in by Peter Philpott for his site Modern Poetry. It’s a survey of various ideas held or rehearsed by poets and academics about the reception and production of poetry. I'm included regarding various articles I’ve written that advocate reception theory as a useful tool for appreciating poetry. Others included are:

Matthew Caley, Will Rowe, Ian Davidson, Johan de Wit, J. H. Prynne, Joe Kennedy, Harriet Tarlo, Philip Terry, Lawrence Upton, Brian Kim Stefans, Sheila E. Murphy, Tim Love, Andrew Duncan, Willian Watkin, Peter Riley, Reginald Shepherd, Marianne Morris, Ira Lightman, Robin Purves, Sam Ladkin, Christopher Funkhouser and N. Katherine Hayles.

It can be found here:

My thanks to Peter Philpot for his generosity in including me in this line-up.