Wallow In It, It's The Only Way

Capital, Giles Goodland
[123pp, no price given, Salt]

Official Versions, Mark Pawlak
111pp, $15, Hanging Loose Press]


Both these books use the discourses we swim in, the constant ebb and surge of news, marketing spiel, slogans and sound-bites. Indeed, Goodland's book uses 'none of the author's own words', instead constructing a collage from different periodical/journalistic sources. Of course, individual words aren't really a poet's 'own' anyway, so this sort of highly crafted collage is just as much 'written' as any other book of poems.  

Goodland's theme is capital: exchange, value, consumption and pollution in their many forms, with each title steering the reader brilliantly. This is a topic that modernist writing has been drawn to repeatedly - for example, see Prynne's work on coinage and Pound's obsessions with usury/'true' value. In Goodland's work, the effects can be striking, as in 'Cancer Capital':
    The Soviet leader had inoperable cancer of the jaw
    his works are 'an instrument for the detection and disclosure of the
    cancers of alienation

    powerful agents will selectively kill the malignant cells without
    destroying normal...

Or, from 'Intellectual Capital':

    he opens the first stanza with the words 'Let us call it death'

    which, because of the harsh experience of war and death, can never
    again represent the reality of the narrator's world

    the production enjoyed neither the time nor the money necessary to
    perfect its illusions

    readers are demonstrating that everything natural or spontaneous
    in language is a rhetorical device

    identify the notoriously obedient English intelligentsia as chief

Other illuminating titles are 'Child Capital' ('led to the notion of sperm as sexual capital. She emphasises the power...'), 'Dead Capital' ('none told me the kidneys were from condemned prisoners...'), Sleeping Capital ('it's the dream of the American wasteland that disturbs so many sleepers...') and Symbolic Capital ('I got cancer two years ago and now I'm very sorry that I ever used that kind of disease metaphor.'). The overall effect is unsettling and pretty much inexhaustible - every time I read the poems, more emerged, from my own reactions.

Pawlak's employs a much looser method. He uses 'official versions' and then undercuts them himself, with his own words. Often the pay-off seems rather slight; for example, from 'Credible Information, 1999-2003':

    At the wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones
    Sir Geoffrey Shakerly, official photographer,
    observed a 'feeling of euphoria'
    as he snapped pictures in Windsor Castle
    after the ceremony at St. George's Chapel.

    He did allow that one official photograph
    of the bride and groom, the assembled
    members of their families, and foreign royals,
    had to be doctored, because Prince William,
    son of Prince Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales,
    and second in line to the throne,
    did not look happy enough.

But, more impressively, from '21st Century Newsbriefs III: Leading by Example':


    Snarling attack dogs,
    held, straining at leashes,
    inches away from naked prisoners' faces,
    will henceforth be muzzled.



    Kim Jong-il, the leader of North Korea, no doubt;
    and the leaders of Iran and Syria as well.  

The odd thing is how little room there is for the reader, despite the writing being less programmatic. And, although referencing the news media constantly, Powlak doesn't really capture the tone - which is everything to me - it's more a content thing. Perhaps I'm being unfair, since the book is very enjoyable, and uses that easy-going, highly readable loose line that is acutely skilled. It may also be a cultural thing - what seems cutting to an American is tame and obvious to an Englishman. Also, there's no justification for measuring his book against another (except I'm doing a joint review). But in comparison, what's most impressive about Goodland's work is how numerous and unexpected the effects are, how satisfying it is to glimpse the connections, without any authorial comment.    

These sampling techniques aren't new, but they do seem to be growing in popularity and success; two excellent recent examples being Laurie Duggan's reprinted The Ash Range and John Seed's Pictures from Mayhew (both from Shearsman). In these, the energy and picaresque joy of language freed from ego and 'I've won the poem' bravado makes me wonder: why doesn't all poetry similarly cut loose? Perhaps not to the extent of using quoted sources, but at least by acquiescing in the madness, hatreds, uncertainties and contradictions. Why is so much poetry worried about seeming to be above all this, seeking perfection and purity? Maybe it's better to work from the inside, if language has been so irrevocably contaminated. After all, the poet is inside. There's a related point about prose poetry as ideal for this, which I haven't room to explore.    

Many would say these questions are all wrong; poetry doesn't
do anything, it just is - see numerous discussions, linking back to Auden's famous lines on making nothing happen. Further, the very last thing poetry should be is happily contaminated with such horrors: poetry is a sanctuary, a purification of language, a place for epiphanies, 'workshops', widdershins of leaves and worshipping all things Celtic. 

But there's a growing argument that the tedium, sameness and ultimate failure of much 'mainstream' poetry comes from infection with some official discourse - bien pensant, smug, covertly self-seeking while claiming modesty and chumminess - reified in the New Labour 'project' and its Goebbels figures. Hear it in carefully modulated tones of Andrew Motion whenever he's on the
Today programme.

This discourse comes with the Newspeak terms 'diversity' and 'accessibility' bolted on - coercing the lost readership onto Bloodaxe Anthologies that speak to 'everyday people'. What poses as a personal lyric is assiduously playing the power game, seeking affirmation and inclusion, practising careerism and exclusion. Its validation comes via Soviet style awards and citations, with critically untested claims of quality and craft used to silence dissent.

Such is the powerful analysis begun by Andrew Duncan and Andrew Jordan (of
10th Muse). Clearly this view is just jealous sniping to many mainstream poets, who are understandably peeved when their 'racket' is exposed. But even on its own terms, the model of 'accessibility' and 'inclusion' has been an abject failure - it has created fewer readers and more writers - the very opposite of what the 'New Generation Game' and other celebrity gimmicks attempted. It is surely significant how unmoved the much targeted 'general readership' has proved; as one Year 11 GCSE student said about an AQA anthology poet: 'That Gillian Clarke, she sucks c***, don't she?'

Paradoxically, one can argue that the limitless supply of instantaneous information and stimulation explains both the lost readership that Neil Astley et al chase, and the global system which Goodland chronicles - the bizarre Japanese teeny-bopper perversions, food fetishes, death obsessions (especially cancer), parasitism and guiltless sadism that late capitalism is smeared with.

However, I think one can also accept Goodland's work as symptomatic, but argue that it's all down to power, not any particular ideology. So - in theory - a book like his could have been produced at any time. Of course, the technology, the access to an almost infinite amount of written material at the click of a mouse, means it can only be done now. But the drive to do it, the helplessness of an individual in any power structure, has always been there. Not least under systems following the philosophy of another writer associated with a work called 'Capital'.
          Paul Sutton 2006