Radical Spaces

Stress Fractures: Essays on Poetry, ed. Tom Chivers
(212pp, £9.99, Penned in the Margins
Hidden Agendas, Unreported Poetics
, ed. Louis Armand
(278pp, £12.00, Litteraria Pragensia Books)
 Radical Spaces of Poetry
, Ian Davidson
(179pp, £50.00, Palgrave Macmillan)

I read a lot of poetry criticism because I have a professional interest in it and I assume that the readership for the sort of books reviewed here will be a couple of hundred people like me. But Stress Fractures is a genuine attempt to reach out to a different kind of readership for writing about poetry. Fourteen essays range across conventional criticism; poetics; explorations of links between poetry and popular culture; and accounts of various compositional and performance practices and strategies. The style is clear and accessible and the book owes much to feature journalism: engaging but thoughtful tone, short paragraphs, and key sentences excerpted in bold in textboxes. There are a number of stand-out pieces here. Sophie Mayer's 'Emily Dickinson, Vampire Slayer' tracks the poet's presence in popular culture from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Josephine Foster's CD of Dickinson settings Graphic as a Star and sheds new light on Dickinson in the process. The different usages of what might be termed Dickinson's afterlives tell us as much about the poetry as the poetry itself. Emily Critchley's essay 'Hejinian's Faustienne Beings-With' wears its extensive scholarship lightly and will send readers back to Hejinian's work with a revitalised sense of female writing and poetry-as-community. David Caddy and Simon Turner give lively and informed accounts of, respectively, the contemporary British prose poem and British OuLiPians.

It's a long time since I read a book of poetry criticism that (a) showed me new ways of writing about poetry; and (b) made me want to log on to Amazon straight away and buy things I'd never heard of. I like Tom Chivers's conception of poetry 'as a broad church tent which entertains the constant play of contradictory forces or
fractures (tradition/innovation, private/public, freedom/control); and as an artform stretching, connecting, collaborating and making sense of its new positions in a rapidly-changing cultural landscape.' Tent is a kind of image for carnival and misrule but also perhaps a distant reminder that writing about poetry too often succumbs to the fantasy of being outside a small tent pissing in or inside a small tent pissing out. There's none of that here and if much of the work discussed here can be called broadly experimental then that's because the experimental is more eager to entertain the constant play that Chivers values. It's that constant play and the willingness to work across genres that shows up the limitations of 'death of the avant garde' arguments. What one of the essays here calls the 'post-avant' is not about shocking the usual readers of poetry: it's about finding and playing with new cultural, political, sexual and social identities and new interrelations of body, feeling and thought on and off the page. Plus, it's really refreshing to read a collection of essays that takes the experimental, exploratory and innovative for granted. Tom Chivers is to be congratulated for constructing what is in effect a portal to a huge range of exciting work.

Hidden Agendas, Unreported Poetics is, on the face of it, a more self-conscious critical intervention. Like Avant-Post (2006), which Louis Armand edited for the same publisher, it offers a range of answers to the question of whether the avant-garde is still viable. The starting point for Hidden Agendas is a doubled one of poetics as reception; and marginality as a unique vantage point and not a self-fulfilling prophecy of 'nobody likes us and we don't care'. This means that for several of the contributors - Kyle Schlesinger on Asa Benveniste and Trigram Press, Robert Sheppard on Bob Cobbing and the 1980s London reading and performance 'scene', John Wilkinson on Mark Hyatt, and D.J. Huppatz on flarf - it's important to rescue activities and socialities from the marginalization they usually experience in critical and historical accounts; and to recognise activities and socialities as important cultural 'sites' in their own right. Michael Farrell, Stephan Delbos and Vincent Katz seek to counter different processes of marginalization that have worked against Robbie Walker, William Bronk and Edwin Denby. Other pieces - Lou Rowan's very short account of Robin Blaser or Livio Belloi and Michel Delville's piece on loops in Gertrude Stein and Martin Arnold - seem to belong to another volume. And, for this reader, the prose, in contrast to Stress Fractures, often lacks passion. It's a little frustrating to be introduced to something you know nothing about and to be left with more knowledge but no desire to seek out the work. Where Stress Fractures speaks clearly and invitingly to a particular moment, Hidden Agendas suggests a range of activities past and present that is so vast it can seem bewildering if not a little intimidating.

Between them, Stress Fractures
and Hidden Agendas feature thirty-three contributors of whom only eight are women which suggests that representations of women and by women continues to be an issue - although Chivers does slightly better with five out of fourteen. Ian Davidson's book has extensive discussions of Alice Notley, Joan Retallack, Lisa Robertson, and Muriel Rukeyser in amongst readings of, among others, Aimˇ Cˇsaire, Tony Harrison, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, Charles Reznikoff, Lee Harwood and J.H. Prynne. Radical Spaces of Poetry develops the ideas of Davidson's earlier volume Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry. Davidson's starting point is a deceptively simple one: 'experimentation in modern and contemporary poetry [provides] perspectives on social and political issues that conventional literary forms struggle to discuss or represent, or can even work to conceal.' Davidson might have added that poetry is able to be and feel immediate in ways that other literary forms cannot. Indeed, to recast Tom Chivers's comment slightly, poetry often seems to be the only literary form interested in making sense of new positions in a rapidly-changing cultural landscape. What gives Davidson's book particular interest is his exploration of how those perspectives derive from experimental poetries' relation of the local and the global, their 'emphasis on specific embodied experience in a particular time and place' and their focus on 'the ways that a body is always in movement'. I wonder if the book should actually have been titled Radical Bodies of Poetry. And, like Stress Fractures, Davidson's book is an attempt at a different type of criticism. Where academic poetry criticism has often risked using poetry to show that theory works, Davidson is at pains to show that poetry itself is radical criticism.

I like the way that Davidson tends to de-emphasise what critics have tended to over-emphasise - e.g. class in Tony Harrison - in order to give a sense of a fresh encounter with a particular poet's work. And he tends not to focus on well-known poems. This works well in his reading of Frank O'Hara's work 'as existing within a series of geographical or topographical levels which he moves between, levels which may physically exist but which he also uses metaphorically.' This feels true to the experience of reading the poems but, crucially, enables a reimagining of O'Hara as a political poet through a focus on his very late poems. At the same time, Radical Spaces of Poetry can be a frustrating reading experience. Davidson's approach to poetry as a species of evidence in itself and his emphasis on the truth of the reading experience is tremendously positive but it also has the effect of making his book seem isolated from other criticism and from other parts of itself. The O'Hara discussion, for example, would have benefited from some reference to Geoff Ward's Statutes of Liberty (1993) which was an early attempt to read the so-called New York school with European theory, theory which Davidson uses judiciously throughout his book. Similarly, it seems odd not to discuss O'Hara's poetry more extensively in terms of queer spaces and even odder in this context not to attempt some linkage between his work and Lee Harwood's. As an aside, my own feeling is that Harwood's work exemplifies a particular difficulty in writing about some experimental poetries: the reading experience is the thing and criticism doesn't actually do anything very useful except to restate the poetics that the poetry already embodies and performs.

The sense of Davidson's book being isolated from itself is reinforced by a short 'Conclusion' which seems to have forgotten the interesting and important arguments he makes about how bodies create the spaces in which they move. Instead, we get a familiar argument:

     The poets are not only trying to represent marginalized social
     positions and make them part of a broader cultural discourse, but
     they are also questioning that process of representation. They
     hesitate to represent a world, although inevitably each poem does
     that, as if from a single point of focus or single perspective. The
     critique they present of any issue is as likely to be undercut by a
     critique of the critique.

Yes, but contemporary poetry's habitual defamiliarising strategies always lead to a questioning of representation; and all poets represent marginalized social positions, even Larkin at his most reactionary. At this moment, is there anything else that can
be represented? I'd like see to a list of contemporary poems that represent centralist social positions. In fact, a poem that represented a centralist social position would actually be the most marginalized writing of all. Now that's what I call a stress fracture!

      © David Kennedy 2011