POETIC REVOLUTION

Robert Sheppard's The Education of Desire
& Ken Edwards' Good Scienc
e


Both Ken Edwards and Robert Sheppard have written about discovering American Language poetries in
fragmente magazine. In his essay 'The Remake' Edwards [1990, p 57] talks about how 'it rapidly became apparent that [t]here was a new excitement in American poetry, and that ... this poetic revolution had at its fulcrum a radical revaluation of what language is, and the relationship of language to poetry.' He goes on [pp 57-58] to suggest that ' ''Making the familiar strange'' has ever been one of Modernism's methods and ''the familiar'' in this case ... is in fact language, that community of meaning-generation we take for granted most of the time.' Sheppard meanwhile, a few pages later, in 'Recognition and Discovery in the 1980's' [Sheppard, 1990, p 60] writes about his poetry already 'embrac[ing] modernist defamiliarization and self-consciousness' before discovering 'the New American Poets'. He wanted [p 60] to 'extend the inherited paradigms of ''poetry''

     ... by delaying a reader's process of naturalization, by using new
     forms of poetic artifice and formalist techniques to defamiliarize
     the dominant reality principle, in order to operate a critique of it;
     and that it should use indeterminancy and discontinuity as major
     devices of this politics of form, which was implicitly utopian. The
     reader thus could become an active co-producer of the text...'

As well as a creative impetus to write anew, there is a political edge to this poetry. Douglas Messerli [1984, p 142], one of the main publishers of the Language Poets, with his Sun & Moon Press, says in an interview in
Gargoyle magazine:

     For me... language is just
everything. It is the way the only way
     we have of making reality, the act others describe as 'comprehending
     experience.' But, for me, it is truly a 'making.'  Every day every
     moment we
speak and, through language, think the world into existence.
     Therefore, it's of the utmost experience that a few of us ... spend some
     time contemplating, playing with, challenging, and delighting the ways in
     which the society uses it.

     Hopefully, we can affect a few people, who can ... affect two more,
     who can affect two more and so on... and so on... until we have the
     whole country reevaluating, listening to, and reinventing language
     not as an intellectual exercise, but as a matter of life and death...

Robert Sheppard considers the same area of concern in his essay 'The Education of Desire', originally written as a hand-out sheet for A Level English students [Sheppard, 1983] but later incorporated into both his chapbook of poetics,
net/(k)not - work(s) [Sheppard, 1993] and his book of critical writing, Far Language [Sheppard, 1999]. In it he suggests [1999, p 28] that 'a lot of poetry today will look like adverts' and that 'What once belonged to poetry has been stolen'. Although [p 28] 'Some poets don't worry about this', he declares [p 28] that 'It is impossible to write revolutionary poetry like this', so that [p 28] 'The writer who wants to do something different has to write in new ways'. This, he says [p 28], will mean:

     The poetry may seem strange. It may be difficult to understand.
     There may seem to be bits of it missing. There may be problems
     in putting all its parts together; things may not seem to follow on.
     It may be difficult to see who's speaking.
     It may seem as though there should be a story, but there isn't.

He adds [p 28]:

     I'm talking about difficulties that stop the process of reading, or
     upset your reading habits.

Having considered what the writer must do, should they wish to write revolutionary poetry, he goes on [p 29] to consider what the
reader has to do, because 'most of the poetry I am thinking of is not easy to read. You can't consume it one go'. Not only does this [p 29] make 'the reader work harder', it also [p 29] 'does something else too: it makes the reader's work as important as that of the writer'. In fact Sheppard [p 29] goes to far as to say that:

     It is the reader who makes the poem or rather: each individual
     has to make the poem, to complete it, for his or herself.
     The reader is no longer a passive consumer.

He then goes on [p 29] to link this new writing with the idea of 'Making a New World', where 'the writer will rearrange everything so that out of the bits and pieces of this world, he or she will make a new world', which, 'is a way of criticising the way things are' in the real world. This way of writing will, he suggests pp 29-30], 'be a little bit revolutionary, although it will never tell you
how things might change', it is only 'a way of criticising the way things are'.

He also says [p 30] that although 'linked to the notion of a more active reader' that he 'think[s] it can ... be a delightful thing to be allowed as much freedom as the writer, to read creatively, to fill in gaps, to decide who is speaking, etc.' And he reassures [p 30], saying that, unlike advertising, romantic fiction, pornography and most poems:

     The new poetry doesn't fulfil you. It leaves you with still a lot
     of thinking to be done. There will always be more and more to
     think about.
     ...
     It might make you confused, mixed up. But that's all right. When
     you're trying to understand something difficulty you get confused
     for a bit.

This idea of revolutionary poetry means there is an onus on the writer to find new ways and processes to write and use language. As the 'Preface' to
Good Science, Ken Edwards [1992, pp 1-3] offers 'A note to the reader on some self-imposed procedures in the making of this book, their use, and an indication of some possible responses'. In a review of Good Science, Robert Sheppard [1994, p 99] suggests that this 'Preface' 'amounts almost to a manifesto of the linguistically innovative poetries of this country'. The instructions include [Edwards, 1992, pp 1-2]:

     See clearly with clear eyes. Be strong, harmonic and geological.
     ... Hint at a place beyond speech. Alternately speak, and
     indicate the silence beyond speech. ... Create something modern
     and intrinsic, sensitive and strong. Treat words with the contempt
     they deserve. ... Learn everything you can, and forget everything
     you have learnt ... Replace experience with language.

Many of the poems contained in
Good Science read as fractured and assembled texts with no linear meaning, simply a gathering of events and experiences. In the title poem [pp 7-8], the narrator [p 7] 'state[s his] case on the basis of need' whilst [p 7] 'You', an unnamed protaganist, 'shoot[s] it down on the basis of want'. The gathering of knowledge [p7]:

     This week has given me a new grasp of particle physics
     You see how the glands in your throat do swell

exterior events, whether observed firsthand or reported to the author [p 7]:

     The Dow is up the unit starts to break down
     ...
     A light plane trails red fly north-west

and personal occurrence [p 7]:

     My legs start to shake uncontrollably

lead only to the strange observation [p8] that

     The elephant house is blinded with plywood.
     It contains the ghost that language doesn't need

Knowledge, it seems, is not always obtainable [p 8]:

     After a heavy day the book was no more than adequately clear
     ...
     There's no objective way of measuring space

and only leads to a state [p 8] where

     Extended intervals are occuring

and the observation [p 8] that

     The big building is full of really crazy people

Somehow the 'you' is better at dealing with the information that the poet has gathered. Whilst the narrator suggests, in the penultimate line [p 8], that

     You dovetail neatly into the above stuff

the narrator himself is reduced to confusion as the poem ends [p 8]:

     I wake up I open the refrigerator I don't know where I am

The narrator of these poems is suffering from an overload of event and information; he appears lost and confused as he tries to make sense of the world of consumerism and knowledge. At the end of 'Lashed to the Mast' [p 30] he suggests this information is 'the white noise  / of a no-signal screen...', yet continues with:

     were I to reach to switch
     that off
           I'd switch the darkness on

If he tried to disengage from the information around him, he will only end up in the dark (although if he is bewildered and doesn't understand then he is 'in the dark' anyway!). He must learn a new way of seeing the world around him, must map and then navigate through the facts and figures which he struggles to keep up with.

One way of doing this is to reconsider history, refusing to regard it as 'set in stone' or absolute. Edwards hints at the fictional nature [the 'neverness'] of fact in 'After a Season the Syntax Falls' [pp 51-56] which ends by combining melancholy with a big statement [p 56]:

     Through your half-window
          a little blues must fall
          a scent of history trembling
          at the wrists of never

He also jokily observes in 'And 'Mid This Tumult' [p 62] that the science of the book's title is in flux and cannot be known too; in fact it is dangerous as well as 'amazing':

     That's technology for you
     Nothing is safe any more it's amazing.

Everything, it seems, is in flux. In 'After A Season the Syntax Falls' [pp 51-56], one of the key poems in the book, 'what was a factory or church / becomes a theme park' and 'what was a hospital becomes / a  hologram of commerce' [p 53]. Even the business world of today seems unreal:

     A bank of 20 screens
          & a glaze of money on each one
          you feel that it all must have
          happened a long time ago

The present seems like history, and history is not to be regarded as truth. Meanwhile, 'white noise' is used to filter out the background noise of contemporary life, the sounds of the world around us [p52]:

     They feed white noise in
          to make believe it's quiet

The darkness Edwards suggests is the only alternative to the white noise also reappears [p52], as the poet asks in bewilderment where is he?

     What is this place? a surplus value
          of meaning? the way a shadow
          falls, drains into poetry, the way
          a shadow falls the way a shadow falls

Later, in 'New Word Order'  [pp 63-64], the title itself a pun on the 'new world order' around him, he wittily discusses the 'game' of poetry that the narrator is engaged in, managing to be both funny and serious at the same time:

             ...it's a game
     Where facetiousness
     And seriousness are inseparable; where
     The jocular and the intimate form a badinage
     Which conceals, reveals for a moment,
     Then conceals again. On the other hand
     Things are more like they are now
     Than they ever were before.
     Things is things, and words is words; the game
is a game,
     A free lunch
is a free lunch,
     It is no longer a metaphor, a penis
is a penis, a cigar
    
Is a cigar

Sometimes, of course, the overload can prove too much and the poet goes missing [p 66]:

     I'm sorry there is no-one here to answer your call but if
     you'd like to leave a message I'll get back to you.

This allows the narrator to step back from the chaos he has previously conjured up, and wonder [p 66]:

     Was there a time, then, when the word
     And the action, word & thing
     Coalesced, when the shape of it
     Was not all that there was...

He  blames consumerism and capitalism, for [p 69]

     This has been made possible by our sponsors...

In the closing section of the poem [pp 69-71] he turns to the domestic, returning [p 69] to the 'you' he has made:

     And then there was you. No I hadn't forgotten

But she is not innocent either, for she [p69]

     ...built a temple of money
     Where a house of love should stand

in the same way that [p 70], where 'the homes of the privileged' are, 'Lawns & golf courses' have sprung up instead of wilderness.

The poet [p 71] goes on to reveal that even the personal and domestic is only partially 'true':

     Even though I invent the story of you, though I put in
     the detail, the answering machine, though I make it into
     a love story, as incandescent as a narrative without an
     ending can be, still your mouth says mutely that I have
     not reached you.

His love story has failed, and consumerism and development are rampant [p 70]:

     ...the world's grown old. It has become a habit.

and the poem ends [p 71] with further instructions that verge on defeatist:

     Make love, & put it right,
     And if you can't make love
     Make war, & put it right.

along with a vague non-syntactical final line [p 71] of command, both echoing the 'Preface' poem and returning to his theme of dark & light:

     But never send to know for whom the lights change

Although this would seem a cause for despair, it is countered by the author's recognition, a kind of resigned optimism, at the start of the poem [p 63] that the multi-layered world around him, full of contradiction and confusion, can offer endless possibilities for revolutionary poetry as much as despair and overload:

     When all is said & done, then
     There is everything still to say & do;


          Rupert Loydell 2002, 2006


WORKS CITED
Edwards, K., (1990), 'Language: The Remake' in fragmente
2, pp 57-60, Durham, fragmente.
Edwards, K., (1992), Good Science
, New York, Roof Books.
Messerli, D., (1984), 'Language in Action: An Interview with Douglas Messerli' in Gargoyle
24, pp 136-148, Washington DC, Paycock Press.
Sheppard, R., (1983), The Education of Desire
, London, Ship of Fools.
Sheppard, R., (1990), 'Recognition and Discovery in the 1908's' in fragmente
2, pp 60-61, Durham, fragmente.
Sheppard, R., (1993), net/(k)not - work(s),
London, Ship of Fools.
Sheppard, R., (1994), 'Little Stars and Straw Beasts' (including review of Good Science
) in Angel Exhaust Ten: Screed Heid, pp 99-100, Cambridge, Angel Exhaust.
Sheppard, R., (1999), Far Language: poetics and linguistically innovative poetry 1978-1997
, Exeter, Stride.


Read an interview with Ken Edwards about his 2006 book Public Language