Juxtaposing with a Vengeance

What the Things Sang,
Giles Goodland (8.95, 110pp, Shearsman)

Giles Goodland is a poet whose reputation seems to be in the ascendant. This can only be a good thing for poetry as Goodland is one of those rare writers whose mix of experimentation and play is usually as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. His early work Littoral  (1996) was a description of a long walk along the South West coastline and combined his interest in geology with that of language - as an employee of Oxford University press, working on the O.E.D. his day job has an interesting relationship to his vocation as poet. A Spy in the House of Years (2001) represented each year of the last century via a 14 verse cut-up of material drawn from a wide range of sources relevant to the year in question. This was possibly a more severe project but a fascinating one nonetheless, mixing documentary 'evidence' with surreal jumps and chance juxtapositions. Capital (2006) was more of the same but in a less highly systematised form.

His new book What the Things Sang
seems to this reviewer to represent the apex of his achievement so far. He takes a quotation from Dr. Johnson as his starting point to question our perceptions of the relationship between language and things - a key theme of post-Wittgenstein philosophy and a crucial element in avant-garde poetry - yet his explorations are as playful as they are questioning, posing rather more questions than there are answers. His work is wonderfully light-footed and quick-witted: one minute the reader is struggling with an imponderable proposition or an absurd juxtaposition, the next she/he is creased up with laughter or pondering a 'statement' either so wonderful or so absurd that you just wonder how good this stuff can get.

Although on several occasions his starting point is the a-z dictionary definition procedure these are not mathematically defined structures and there seems to be a fair deal of wordplay and word association in the onward flow of the poems. It's difficult to tell how much of the material is 'pre-existing'  (as in A Spy
... for example) but the forms feel looser and on at least one occasion the word-to-be-described is followed by an imperative, rather than a definition. Thus we get:

     adjective, correct yourself
     animal, celebrate language
     artist, return to world

     book, use the library against itself
     brain, think of the eye
     car, digest in peristalses of traffic

     day, launch your sparrows against me
     death, here are the plums I left you
     dictionary, define yourself

     ex-lover, call me with a dead telephone
     eye, think fast
     face, fill space with body
     father, open your arm

'foam, form forth froth'  was one I particularly liked from this section but you get the point. Goodland is 'undermining' the enlightenment relationship with language by questioning how far we are its makers and how much in fact 'it' makes and unmakes us, but he does this playfully.

Formally, much of the writing relies on 'the line' as the medium of expression, whether double-spaced; laid out in ever-decreasing length or enforced by repetition as in the case of the poem which begins each line with the words 'as when', but there are also justified prose blocks broken only by commas and an end-stop. The untitled poem on page 18 is one such where snippets of 'received language' - 'set the controls for the shape hidden under the dust', for example (a possible reference to the Pink Floyd number) - feed into the mix, where crazy, alliterative phrases - 'lugubrious lungfish' - jostle with material sourced, one assumes, from a variety of competing 'languages'. In some ways, this piece reminds me of Peter Manson's work though I suspect the precise procedures are somewhat different.

There's a puzzling, questioning aspect to this writing which is both pleasurable to read and intellectually stimulating to boot. There's a resistance to the reader within the 'complexity' of the thought as 'real things' rub up against abstract concepts, all created by language and sometimes flowing so smoothly that you have to interrupt yourself with a jolt or decide to override this particular knot of entanglement and move on:

     a torch with no batteries sheds enough light to see the unconscious

     after my thoughts have made love to each other sometimes there will
     be a poem

     all roads lead to Rome but all footpaths process you back to your
     mother's house.

     children play in some fields then roll them up and take them home

     clouds connect as consecutive dreams in all shades of rain

     concentrating under soil may be a new anxiety waiting to happen

One of the things I've discovered about 'this' kind of writing is that it's not at all dry or devoid of emotion, a charge often levelled against the varieties of experimental work. The difference is that emotion is investigated rather than being 'emoted', that quaint hangover from 'naturalism' which avoids like the plague any art that proceeds to deconstruct the procedures or lay bare the artifice. Now, this isn't to say that Goodland is a quasi-Marxist, although his methods are more Brecht then 'method-acting', or that he's a robotic, anti-human formalist with designs upon our 'sacred places' but thinking is important to him. Much of his recent work is aimed at engaging with the 'deformation' of language accrued through sixty years of applied advertising methods, always with its intent upon our pockets - to sell is the greatest good, to consume, passively, is an equally admirable trait! There are enough references to 'capital' in this collection, overt at times, to express an almost didactic intent, but Goodland's work is really a challenge in response to an insidious process that has made the world less real than it needs to be. Journalism, in its recent forms is likewise 'for the chop' but in the sense that its idiocies and market-led ideology can be used against itself by a mix of reprocessing existing materials and juxtaposing with a vengeance.

As well as playing with the notion of dictionary definitions and juxtaposing snippets and phrases into an apparently seamless smoothness there's an element of 'the proverb' about much of Goodland's work here. On page 100, for example, we get 'Chomsky: this is the cheese the rat the cat caught stole' which neatly encapsulates the American thinker's dual career as anarchist and linguist and also makes you smile.

     There are no ends but there are edges as if I dream of it but when it
     happens I forget how it happens or my pains are telling me apart but
     language creates world for as long as we believe in it so love stinks in
     the clothes but the sun rises in the skin although I feel depleted by
     each second but have nothing to add but times likewise a sentence is a
     tautology but in distant countries they may sing like love furthermore
     I walk back from the library with the rain on my skin but it is time  .....

This reads as 'stream of consciousness' speak but I suspect it's constructed out of a mix of received language and inner thoughts melded together to create that feeling of the mind speaking to itself: a mind overloaded with incoming materials which have their design upon us. Conjunctions and prepositions keep the whole caboodle afloat and the relationship between the aesthetic flow of the piece (around a page and a half long) and its 'content' is intriguing. Resistance may not be futile but it's a difficult game and one that is getting more difficult. It's astonishing that Goodland's work manages to retain some sense of personal space, of the importance of feeling and emotion, while also keeping a handle on the social and manipulative effects of that tricky thing called language.
Stephen Fry might think the future of British poetry lies with the frightful overblown pastiches of Felix Dennis - God help us - but my money is on the likes of Giles Goodland. There's space for everyone of course but this experimentation has a lightness of touch within its tough intellectual presence, an entertainment and possibly a lesson, for our times.

    Steve Spence 2009