This isn't a 'Reader' in the sense of being a kind of
best-and-most-accessible selection for students, like the venerable James
Joyce Reader, for example. In fact you
could argue it's not for reading at all, at least so far as John Byrum's
concerned. His work doesn't really fit into book format, which might be one
way of making sense out of the wan grisaille of 'Approximations'.
I can't quote from 'Approximations'. No, I'm not being lazy, I mean this
literally. I could tell you some of the words I found in it, but it isn't a
text. It's visual poetry, and you can't detach the verbal element from the
graphics. It triumphantly fails the 'Blake test' proposed by Ron Silliman,
who claims that the words of a poem should always be able to do their
business when taken away from their original context. That seems a pretty
good definition of what visual poetry isn't. It isn't illustrated poems, or
poems used as calligraphy exercises.
So what are we going to talk about? We could talk about Byrum's ideas, which
are basically about merging and dispersing the category of art into well,
human activity itself. That seems a logical destination for visual poets. You
can see their work being exciting on the website of Byrum's Generator Press;
much more exciting visually than the monochrome of 'Approximations'.
In principle, a visual poet needn't be skillful with the linear disposition
of words that we call 'writing' at all. 'Approximations' could have been
designed to test that principle. Byrum chooses the most lifeless kind of
intertextual theorising about art as the material for his pages; the sort of
text so gnarled and over-familiar that it looks like some forgotten essay
that you wrote yourself when you were really worried sick about something
This, for example, is the text of one double page, big white letters inside
two identical grey oblongs:
No question but that you can read this off as 'cyclical tropes revealing
concealing one thing in terms of another' - Oh, please! But the presentation
brings submerged sounds out of their prisons. 'ngconc' begins with a liquid
(though indefinable) vowel and ends with a hard k-sound. 'reveali ermso'
wriggles across the middle of the page. More to the point, this has occupied
two whole precious pages of the Reader's modest 85 - and the next five are on the same gigantic scale.
Never mind, Byrum makes up for it later with three pages of text so small and
cramped that I accepted the invitation not to read it, merely to enjoy the
interference patterns. In 'Approximations', neither text nor space has an
inherent value. But in your mind it does. The pages I've, well, 'quoted',
look opulent, a half-naked penthouse. The cramped later pages are slum
You would think that the instantly visceral power of graphics might lead to
an art full of passion. That isn't how it turns out, not here anyway. In the
middle of the word 'approximations' is the word 'proxy' (as Byrum's text
flat-footedly points out), a defining image of modern poetry. Whatever real
things there might be out there, the modern poet doesn't feel anything about
them because they've all been endlessly spun in the discredited virtuality of
the media. Consider these phrases from Alan Halsey's section of the Reader:
& anticipated only as an Under-
Song by sub
suppressed initials unified by natural
So even Terra Incognita is already qualified by hordes of past participles.
wayes of flying
I have now
A little tease. You'd like to know about that, wouldn't you?
'There was a
time when people forgot
responsibilities.' At Harken Energy
priced the bad news in without a negative spot-
'Everything,' the ex-director said, 'seemed easy.'
So the bad news doesn't seem bad, and even the lively words 'harken energy'
are smeared by being a trade name.
Are you supposed to feel indignant and horrified about airstrikes? No, just
notice a clever pun.
Or here, finally, are some shorter phrases: 'hoovered goodwill', 'sugared
safeguards', 'a library garbled', 'For 'faculty' read 'faulty'', 'a sign
saying DANGER or DANCER'. Every noun comes ready-wrapped in cynicism.
It seems fairly appropriate to quote Halsey out of context. You're never too
sure how many of the words are his anyway, and he often builds page after
page out of decontextualized quotes of other people.
The few attempts I've seen at dealing with his work seem to throw their hands
up and just regard him as a force of nature. I think I can agree with that.
His writings are the dark side of the moon, and reading them from the front
isn't very profitable. They have a recognizable cast of mind, of course. They
are basically belittling. Every promise is a false promise, every word and
action discredited. It produces an oddly liberating kind of equality.
Halsey's favourite ornament is the pun. At one point he says:
A pun's a
written-out's blast or boast weapon in or upon class
A sentence that, typically, manages to trash itself. Occasionally I find
Halseyan word-play bracing - for example, 'Wall to wall coverage on Cogito
Live', or 'the cutting-room ceiling'. For every mind-expanding goodie like
that there's a mass of 'uniform as cuneiform' and 'literal or littoral' where
the pun is manifest only in its negative aspect, as a way of reducing
significance, not adding to it. The pun drains away the potential strength of
the unpunned word.
But to see Halsey's writing more fully one needs to be constantly thinking
about what it doesn't openly express. At one point he talks illuminatingly
about an 'emblem firewall' and I follow the suggestion that, though the
writing on the page consists of belittling emblems, these are a very screened
version of what lies beyond that firewall.
Consider, for example, the ongoing composition that is extracted here, 'Lives
of the Poets'. This consists of a series of short sections headed by the
names of British poets - generally, what were once called 'silver poets' - of
the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. I think none of the words are Halsey's
own - they are all either the poet's or contemporary with the poet's life.
no bones to
take the wall of
liking Maister Dyer had of youre Satyricall Verses
Inuentor of the English Hexameter
ink-squittering Howliglasse in Newgate
the Pamfletter says borrows my name
I recognize some of the sources here (Spenser, Nashe), but it's probably best
not to. At least I hope not, because nearly all the other 'Lives' are outside
my range. Anyway, vividly collaged as this is, it clearly denies the
satisfaction that one might have hoped for from that hallowed title 'Lives
of the Poets'. What did we really want? A narrative in which the subject poet
goes about doing things? - But, a narrative told by whom? Or perhaps an
interpretation of the poet's significance, whatever that might mean? Halsey's
'Lives' aren't biographies, and they even avoid the commentary of
punctuation. They are, however, lives; or at least bits of them. So why all
jumbled, then? Because that's the way it was, perhaps - in their lives, which
are not their works.
Here Halsey's procedures are turning a spotlight on the integrity of the
various things that we mean by authors and their lives. And it's surprising
what comes out of this self-denying and humane project. Gabriel Harvey's
heaviness and suspicion are perhaps encoded in the lines above; at least,
they seem so to me. But conceptions of a unified character or personality are
themselves under review here - the poets themselves, from such different
eras, wouldn't have had anything like the same conceptions as me, or each
The challenge of John Byrum's and Alan Halsey's work is, in some sense, to
avoid reading it as poetry - at any rate, not as poetry the way we have known
it. The difficulties of Geraldine Monk's poems are somewhat different -
perhaps, to take them seriously enough. Her voice is playful, populist,
impatient with pretension and highly resistant to being told how to speak.
That must be what Andrew Duncan meant when he said 'Perhaps it's significant
that she has a command of oral skills, to go with her acute lack of academic
skills'. 'Manufractured Moon',
the first piece in her selection, is pretty much in 'Dear Diary' format, and
it reads like she took about as much time over it as someone dashing off
evening emails, which is unnerving as well as pleasing.
even quivered at the iddy girl tungsten thin and burning
out with all gods in a big way such as only youngage
starry id. They conjured miniature animals for warfare
readily scorched and rebelled.
Its face turned a shiny teaspoon to the
west beam that was.
When, towards the end of 'Manufractured Moon', there's a complex and
marvellous three columns of listening out of the open car window to voices in
the street, you'll be convinced that this is a much more worked piece than it
might appear in extract. But though there's many games to play here I'm not
satisfied overall. Recurring images of an apostle who might be a sashaying
female, or an annoying stranger under the streetlight outside, or a Freudian
nursery rhyme about crossing a golden river to bring our father's dinner, are
woven together and produce an insomniac, sensually hungry fabric. But my
appreciation is, too much, at the level of picking out and admiring shiny
'Latitudes' undersells itself too, with weary ha-ha subtitles like 'Eulogy
written in an unmarked Northern city pub', but this strikes me as an
altogether more pointed sequence, omitting everything but strictly functional
words (which, with enviable sophistication, manage to look completely casual).
It's the same kind of approach that Monk takes to using the space on the
Consider this highly ambiguated northern meditation on southern countryside,
and its eloquent line-breaks:
winters to molten
horses - swish and
Dumbswept. Vibrant. Earth-hug.
Or the ending of a not-at-all grave meditation in a summer graveyard, which
keeps flying upwards, and keeps getting more serious:
gang. Ging and. Blue chipped. Marble.
date. A hands span. A spirit cheer. Clinks.
one. Poor one. Beggar both. The
The graveyard sections are paired with pub sections. So now read this:
It is still
night. It is still
day. It is moving. Timeless.
The ebb and
flow and chink of glasses.
Lay the two passages thus alongside (e.g. 'cheer. Clinks' next to 'chink of glasses') and you'll
register the echo effects that someone who listens to every sound and rhythm
can deploy to create an intently focussed exploration of society out of
Monk's selection ends with three poems that are, a little more directly than
the others, about the worsening international situation and the Iraq war. The
best is 'Opus Anglicanum-'. Monk's poetry does not, admittedly, pretend to an
international kind of poetic reach. What she sees is strictly here and now. I
think it makes the poem's discoveries more urgent.
stuckup on thorn hedge
the may day
a fly pass is
streaks red white
It takes more than lateral thinking -
lateral feeling, maybe - to connect dental flossing with the Red Arrows. So,
yes, I conclude that someone who insists on saying 'her maj' and talking
about 'pearlies' is nevertheless someone I do take seriously. Whether you do
or not, you ought to keep a watchful eye on a poet who falls out with so many
© Michael Peverett 2005