Illusion & Austerity/ Verses in an
Advertising Culture: A ‘Caudwellian’
Take on Two Volumes: Advertorial
Verse versus Adversarial Verse
by Sam Riviere
by Niall McDevitt
International Times, 2012
None of us knows the truth –though a frequent hermeneutic trope of post-modernist poetry criticism is the non-falsifiable rhetorical poser, ‘but does it ring true?’, which almost always precedes a mandarin-like verdict that the work under the microscope lacks the unspecified characteristics, in accordance with some mystified formula, which apparently signify truthfulness. But the only truth poets can really aspire to is to be true to their work, to their poetic calling, and thus to themselves –there lies the only obtainable kind of truth, or authenticity, for poets, or any other writers or artists, no matter how ‘truth’-seeking they may feel themselves to be. And, after all, isn’t much creative self-expression a kind of quest for some sense of ‘truth’ reflected in the self from the outer forms of ‘reality’ (itself, a sort of composite projection of multiple subjectivities perceptually compromised and commingled in order for some sense of practicable cooperation to be possible among myriad individualities)?
Some might think this a strange statement coming from someone who himself writes much ‘political’ poetry, and who edited two anti-cuts protest anthologies; but these are not attempts to claim some monopoly on ‘truth’, simply to attempt to approach something of its adumbration, in terms of commonality, and in an emotional as much as ‘polemical’ response to what are without a doubt some of the most extreme and vicious social policies in living memory –and, significantly, imposed on our society by fanatically right-wing politicians who themselves purport to have a monopoly on 'truth’ (cue the ‘ideological’ intransigence of, for instance, Iain Duncan Smith…).
In short, such politically tempered poetry petitions and verse missives are ultimately still subjective, reflexive and ‘felt’ responses to the societal effects of policies promulgated and imposed on all of us by subjective ideological dogma; in the case of the current government, what might be reasonably described as ‘vicarious fascism’ –that is, a persecutory and attitudinally violent directive against certain defenceless social groups deemed economically unproductive (the unemployed, the sick and disabled, squatters, travellers, gypsies, Roma, ‘illegal’ immigrants etc.) is sublimated through purely material administration deemed ethically acceptable to our vestigial ‘democracy’, even if the effects of these, again, in material terms (mass evictions, destitution, homelessness, suicides) are to many of us morally unacceptable (though I hesitate to use that term much-fetishised of late by politicians, in itself a non-falsifiable and almost mystical adjective always abused by its user as a semantic fait accompli to arrest discourse and abort debate on sometimes morally ambiguous issues: effectively, to verbally re-seal a subject with the ‘incontrovertible’ boulder of taboo).
The fact this government also markedly lacks the electoral legitimacy of full ‘democratic’ mandate to pursue such ‘radical’, or extreme, social policies, makes it all even more difficult to accept. But just because a number of poets join together to write in opposition to political policy doesn’t mean they are collectively asserting some prerogative of ‘truth’. Such verse interventions are as emotional as they are polemical responses: they are the expressions of a multitude of individuals who feel compelled by their social consciences and concern for others victimised by government directive to express their opposition through the medium in which they habitually practice (i.e. poetry; thus, apart from anything else, attempting in part to reassert the long-neglected ‘social role’ of poets, of which Christopher (St John Sprigg) Caudwell (1907-1937), for one, in his posthumously published Marxist dialectic on the societal function of poetry, Illusion and Reality – A Study of the Sources of Poetry (1937), placed paramount emphasis).
To recapitulate, all this simply signifies attempts by poets to adumbrate their own emotive notion of some externally sensed social ‘truth’ through felt response to a perceived political offence against themselves and their fellow citizens, to which they wish to assert their right to conscientiously object; not to claim they, above any other group of people, know exclusively what is true. That is the sort of audacious claim more typical of politicians, in spite of their occupational code of obfuscation. Quite oppositely, poetry, like religion, operates more in the realms of doubt, and if it sometimes skirts clouds of truth, they remain clouds: poetry is serendipity, not science, it deals not so much in certain forms but in the shadows thrown by those forms.
More to the point, if poets, by way of one example, have in their possession some monopoly on ‘truth’, then, in contemporary supplemental terms, it is a very misty verisimilitude with which they convey it (though most often –and ironically, given the peculiarly figurative aegis of poetry– not by any obviously intriguing or imaginative means which would lend them the parabolic quality of, say, the aphorisms of the Gospels, or long-resonant symbolic works of the last century, such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, David Jones’s In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, or John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, to pick just a handful off the top of my head). And while some contemporaries might rail at what they see as wilful ‘obscurantism’ in more ‘avant-garde’ verse, it is nonetheless even more frustrating to find in the elliptical tendencies of those poetry exponents who purport to be putting forward some form of ‘truthful’ insight or experience in the form of what appears to be a poem –though often actually reads more like ‘chopped-up prose’ (or, ‘prosetry’)– there seems insufficient actual content, or, if quantitatively sufficient, then too textually non-committal a content, to succeed effectively in communicating this (indeed, as I’ve commented before, postmodernism, due to its apolitical nature, seems implicitly ill-equipped to address, let alone fully comprehend, contemporary political vicissitudes).
And these aspects are in their own special senses forms of obfuscations: not necessarily to meaning or interpretation, but in terms of ‘putting off’ the reader from bothering to properly engage with the poem due to its tonal attitude of urbane, almost self-disinterested indifference. This isn’t to say that such poets come in any way close to the much more conscious, occupational obfuscation of politicians –although, to self-paraphrase from one of my former polemics, ‘Reoccupying Auden Country’, in terms of the phrasal-framing of their own internal disputes and controversies, some high profile contemporary poets and their apparatchiks demonstrate a capacity at pure spin which easily compares to the type practised in contemporary politics –a sour irony that at a time which is in many senses a cultural rerun of the Thirties, when it is never more relevant, even urgent, for ‘political’ poets to come to the fore, we instead get ‘politician poets’ (or and 'poetry Realpolitik): not so much the ‘legislators’ as the cultural ‘hedge-betters of society’, to paraphrase Shelley; or, the ‘shopkeepers of the workshop of the world’, to paraphrase Marx.
As with many Marxian paradigms on the subject of poetry in capitalist society, Christopher Caudwell disputably pitched in first, even though his polemics were published posthumously and some years after composition:
The poet regards himself as a shopkeeper and his poems as cheeses, but he becomes more convinced he is a man removed from society… …realising only the instincts of his heart and not responsible to society’s demands… his poems come increasingly to seem worthy ends-in-themselves…
It is a crowning irony that post-modern poetry culture places so much emphasis on ‘truth’ when it is itself almost antipathetically equipped to actually communicate any. To my mind, postmodernism is in many ways a euphemism for 'poetic constipation'. Not to say, political constipation: as I wrote in my polemic of 2012, ‘Emergency Ambulance: Reoccupying Auden Country’:
If literary critic Fredric Jameson’s description of postmodernism as the "dominant cultural logic of late capitalism" (Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism; Verso, 1991) is anything to go by, this poetic impasse in the predominantly postmodernist mainstream to polemically open up, at least to more left-wing, even ‘anti-capitalist’, sentiments, does seem to be a casualty of a self-imposed stylistic. Small wonder then that other poetry communities outside the postmodernist paradigm, free of socio-political inhibitions, have stepped into the breach; to have not done so would have been negligent to the point of cowardice. And all such poets wish to encourage is a more encompassing poetical response to the injustices of this period.
This is not to say there haven’t been any oratorical interventions on contemporary political issues by high profile poets, because there have been sporadic episodes over the past four years which have pleasantly surprised some of us: most notably when poets Alice Oswald and John Kinsella both withdrew their names and books from the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist in protest against the PBS’ somewhat ‘politically tactless’ uptake of funding from a hedge fund company. More recently, in fact, only this week, there was also a well-argued case for Scottish independence put forward by award-winning poet Kathleen Jamie –and I excerpt the final two paragraphs, which are particularly apposite:
Those of us who want Scotland’s independence want it because we have no further interest in being part of a U.K. “brand”; we no longer want to punch above our weight. We seek a fresh understanding of ourselves and our relationships with the rest of Europe and the wider world. If Scotland were independent, we would have control over our own welfare and immigration policies, look more to our Scandinavian neighbours and rid ourselves of nuclear weapons.
We want independence because we seek good governance, and no longer think the Westminster government offers that, or social justice or decency. We find the prospect of being a small, independent nation on the fringe of Europe exciting, and look forward to making our own decisions, even if that means having to fix our own problems. We’ll take the risk.
More recently, there was the very first 'high profile' public poetry protest to take place since the Tories returned to power four years ago, prompted by the Justice Secretary's banning of books supplied by outside sources (i.e. relatives and friends) to prisoners (thus condemning them to the philistine pap of prison libraries). The protest by Writers at Liberty, incorporated an impromptu poetry reading by, among others, Ruth Padel and the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and has since been dubbed 'The Ballad of Not Reading in Gaol'. This was a vital intervention against both Tory philistinism and retributive Toryism. But we still wait for a more public response to Tory austerity policies in general (i.e. outside of the 'bibliosphere') from the doyens of the poetry establishments; not least for such protest to spill over into their actual poetry.
Indeed, there is still very little evidence in verse terms to date of an authentic trans-authorial response to austerity in the poetry of the mainstream (and this taps back into my view that still ‘fashionable’ postmodernist sensibilities inhibit such a fusion –and the very fact that there are a fair few high profile poets who do oppose much of what is happening at the moment, but choose to voice this not through their prime medium of expression, but through supplemental columns, would tend to vindicate this view). It’s almost as if many high profile poets are stubbornly trying to prove, as ever, Auden’s long-enduring aphorism ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, which was long ago surgically removed from its poetic context to serve as a kind of anti-rallying-call for poetic Quietism (and I’ll not delve into the hermeneutics of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ here, since I did so previously in ‘Reoccupying ‘Auden Country”).
Perhaps many poets today feel poetry should offer something entirely ‘different’ or ‘separate’ to the rest of society; that as a medium it should keep out of politics altogether, and instead communicate something more ‘transcendent’, or even numinous –but then, if that is the case, why is so much contemporary verse preoccupied with domesticity and the quotidian? Surely poetry readers have more ambitious appetites than can be sated by such thematic conservatism?
But more importantly, this unspoken –but demonstrative– reticence in mainstream poetry to more authentically and noticeably comment on contemporary social catastrophes (that is, those of domestic politics: many high profile poets are much more outspoken in their poetry on international topics, such as oppressions in Russia and Syria, or on macrocosmic single issues, such as ‘war’) is in many ways to neglect much of the potential of poetry as a medium not only of individual but also social transformation; a way of reaching out to as many people as possible through a symbolic form of communication (not entirely unlike religion), which could, if exploited to its full, operate as potently as, say, red-top propaganda, but, oppositely, towards stimulating independent and reflective thought (as opposed to implanting automatic parrot-thought and parrot-opinion into the populace, as the red-tops do), which in turn might lead to a wider psychical awareness among readers. (Niall McDevitt is one contemporary poet who aspires to a counter-hegemonic poetics, being, as described in the Introduction to his volume Porterloo (discussed in depth later) 'a staunch believer in poetry as an instrument of change').
But even if we still doggedly persist with the literalist interpretation of the Audenic dictum, we still might argue that while ‘poetry’ might not make anything ‘happen’ in material or political terms, it can nevertheless lead to a ‘change of heart’ –also an Auden phrase!– and what else is a political change if it is not, fundamentally, a change of heart? Much political ‘opinion’ is rooted in the emotions (or disputable lack of them in the Tory case), less so in the intellect (ditto) –and this is never more apparent than in the hysterical ‘politics’ of “welfare”, itself such an emotionally-loaded term now that it is almost a verbal taboo, and not only semi-homophonic to but also part-synonymous with ‘warfare’ (indeed, the modern Tory take on social welfare might be described as more 'social warfare': for this Government has declared a 'fiscal war' -using the capitalist weapons of pecuniary sanctions- against the poor and unemployed, thus picking the most defenceless of enemies on the most uneven of fields -no difficult thing to triumph over an army of unarmed paupers).
In poetic terms, there are still many attitudinal ‘fashions’ which unfortunately obfuscate authentic, heartfelt engagement with the more emotive vicissitudes in society, and this is partly because it is still perceived as somehow heretical in contemporary poetry to be too openly ‘outspoken’, particularly on political topics; and any poets who break with this unspoken convention lay themselves immediately open to prosodic traducing which is, however, almost always a camouflage for ideological antagonisms. Alan Bold discussed this prosodic onus on political poets in his Introduction to the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (1970) –and in this context, for ‘socialist’ read ‘political’:
It is necessary for the socialist poet to have more impressive technical equipment than his apolitical contemporaries because his task is that much more important.
(This quote has of course become something of an ‘aspirational’ motto of The Recusant, enshrined on its front page for some time now). Another irony would seem to be that perhaps the prime factor in putting off so many contemporary poets from confronting political issues, or ‘the bigger themes’, is as much to do with the prosodic challenge as with that of exposing themselves to potential establishment blacklisting (i.e. with regards to prizes and honours). Instead of equipping themselves more preparedly with reinforced prosodic armature in order to attempt tackling political themes, they instead mostly kit themselves out in reinforced ‘irony’ (and, no, Sameer Rahim’s oxymoronic phrase ‘ironic sincerity’ –see further down– doesn’t equate to a credible escape from this trap). This is as much a means of self-protection as anything else, but equipping oneself thus, any polemical muscle is sapped from the poetry in the process. It’s almost as if many poets are more preoccupied with keeping up with the trends of society rather than with its events –and this is one of the prime pitfalls of ‘capitalist poetry’ (Caudwell*), that strange breed of verse which is as estranged as it is estranging, so that it doesn't even recognise itself (and this can include much poetry which is consciously critical of capitalism in the mind of its composer); it is also, arguably, symptomatic of what sociologist William F. Ogburn termed ‘cultural lag’.
Indeed, the still-trendy postures of ‘knowing irony’, of a post-political cynicism inculcated into our culture during the ‘as good as it gets’ ideological chill-out lounge of the ‘New’ Labour Noughties (epitomised by the ubiquity of the now obsolete ‘bookuccino’ Borders circuit), which also promulgated a ‘been there, done that, bought the t-shirt’, hash-in-the-backpack, ‘year out travelling in Thailand’ experiential annihilation of Western trustafarianism –all of these are unfortunately, and ruinously, still rampant in what passes for ‘finger-on-the-pulse’, ‘zeitgeisty’ edginess in contemporary verse, at least to the minds of what we might indulge ourselves to imagine as flannel-lapelled ‘talent’-spotters Starbucks-slurping their way through the sifted piles of elliptical, pared-down manuscripts of impersonally toned ‘poem-shaped’ prose or pastiche text-speak, in the big publishing hubs of the metropolis.
All this is tragically symptomatic of a long-predicted co-opting commoditisation of poetry –and culture in general– by business-minded establishments that seek to promote a new commercially sponsored ‘brand’ of verse which in many senses is little different in terms of the ‘effect’ it produces on the public than the promotional spiel of the advertising copywriter, much of which is itself a form of fetishised doggerel –what Jerry Mander, in his blistering polemic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1971), called ‘advertising verse’ or ‘corporate poetry’, what S.I. Hayakawa called ‘sponsored poetry’ in his Language in Thought and Action (Chapter 15. ‘Poetry and Advertising’), and what Christopher Caudwell in his sublime dialectic, Illusion and Reality (1937) termed ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist poetry’.
To Caudwell, contemporary capitalist society was ‘the superstructure of the bourgeois revolution in production –a revolution whose nature was first analysed completely by Marx in Das Kapital’, and thus, in applying such dynamics to the microcosm of poetry, concluded that ‘Modern poetry is capitalist poetry…’*. Caudwell elaborated at length on this subject, but here’s just a snippet: ‘bourgeois poetry expresses the spirit of manufacture, of the petty manufacturing bourgeoisie, beneath the wings of the big landowning capitalists…’. And one of the key aspects to this ‘capitalist poetry’ is its obliviousness to its own complicity in a cultural system which it consciously presumes itself to be somehow writing in spite of; victim as it is to its own perpetual ‘bourgeois’ rebellion to established modes, which are, paradoxically, actually part-generated by its own propulsions (and often copied, patented and copyrighted by commercial publishing houses) –in Caudwell’s mind, it was a kind of unconscious poetic ‘permanent revolution’, a stylistic Trotskyism of the middle-class poet:
…this anarchic position of the contemporary bourgeois artist is only a variant of the old tragedy of bourgeois revolt. At each stage the bourgeois revolts against the system by the assertion of contradictory categories which only hasten on the advance of the things he hates…
The artisan of yesterday is the factory hand of to-day. The shop-owner of this year is the chain-store manager of the next year. This guarantee of individualism and independence produces the very opposite –trustification and dependence on finance capital… This golden garden of fair competition produces the very opposite of fairness: price-cutting, wars, cartels, monopolies, “corners” and vertical trusts’, and so. The bourgeois is always foaming at the mouth for freedom for it is the thing ‘always slipping from his grasp’. His drive towards a free market exposes the producer to a gale of competition of which the only outcome is – an amalgamation. …and so he makes himself a ‘“mirror-revolutionary” and ‘continually revolutionises society by asking for that which will procure the opposite of what he desires’…The bourgeois poet treads a similar circle…
(Perhaps more of us are prone to this Caudwellian paradox –in spite of our best conscious intentions– than we’d like to know!). In his illuminating polemical pamphlet Marxism and Poetry from Lawrence & Wishart’s Marxism Today Series (No. 6; 1945), George Thomson –who argued in defence of Illusion and Reality against Martin Cornforth’s critical attacks on it through several issues of the Modern Quarterly between 1950-51, a critical joust which became known as ‘The Caudwell Controversy’– recapitulated much of Caudwellian theory:
During the past half-century capitalism has ceased to be a progressive force; the bourgeoisie has ceased to be a progressive class; and so bourgeois culture, including poetry, is losing its vitality. Our contemporary poetry is not the work of the ruling class — what does big business care about poetry?— but of a small and isolated section of the community, the middle-class intelligentsia, spurned by the ruling class but still hesitating to join hands with the masses of the people, the proletariat... And so bourgeois poetry has lost the underlying forces of social change. Its range has contracted —the range of its content and the range of its appeal. It is no longer the work of a people, or even a class, but of a coterie. Unless the bourgeois poet can learn to re-orientate his art, he will soon have nobody to sing to but himself…
Forty years on from Thomson’s polemic, Humphrey Jennings also picked up on this long-term consequence of an ever-spiralling specialisation in poetry ending up as a form of solipsism, in his Pandemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660-1885 (1986) –here interpolated by John Hartley in his polemic Tele-ology: Studies in Television (1992):
…the function of the poet has, historically, been subjected to a division of labour, such that poetry becomes more specialized, until at last it has no subject but itself…
And I’ll be returning to these polemicists and their sources further into this review.
Suffice it to say that there are certain types of contemporary poetry, often, significantly, those promoted under the opportunistic marketing ploy of being ‘political’, ‘polemical’, ‘topical’, and challengingly ‘edgy’, that are, in actual fact –when one digs down to any hints of ‘truth’ in the actual reading matter they so ‘provocatively’ package– precisely the opposite: are, in fact, supreme examples of ‘capitalist poetry’ at its more unscrupulous and opportunistic, and serve very much as ‘verse as advertising’, or, in the case of one of the two books under discussion in this review, ‘verse as self-advertising’ (or "selfie verse' –albeit of a type which seems to play on the conceit of ostensibly trying to do the opposite by making itself appear as textually unattractive as possible), seemingly only to the purpose of wrong-footing more politically sincere readers; even indirectly mocking their aspirations for some real political muscle in contemporary high profile poetry. Or, in spite of ostensible gestures of conscious ‘self-parody’ imparted through self-amplification so pompous that it can only seriously be interpreted as ‘irony’ or self-parody, nonetheless, putting noses out of joint among more experienced –and accomplished, in many cases– poetic craftspeople who suddenly find they’ve laboured for years or decades under the misapprehension that poetry publishing is some sort of pool of meritocracy in a cultural swamp of nepotism and one-upmanship.
Such output has the surface-appearance –even in spite of conscious intentions– of poetry as self-promotion; and on closer inspection is often so elliptical and tonally impersonal as to only reconfirm one’s initial impression. It’s almost as if the ‘poetry’ itself is simply being used as an expedient means to constructing a marketable ‘package’ (or ‘cult’) out of a 'personality', so that a subsequent zeitgeist and ‘mystique’ is automatically generated –because capitalist society implicitly pulls towards it the tropisms of arrogance and egoism– around the up-and-coming amplified ‘personality’ that has authored the ‘product’, rather than around any obvious singular qualities of the actual content, or substance (if any) of the content, implicit in the ‘product’ itself. Here the ‘personality’, or the ‘packaged profile’, even if as yet unknown and indistinct as the product, appears to be what is being promoted, what is ‘on offer’ for purchase, but, importantly, only in the object through which it is being projected: in this case, a book –but it could well have been anything else.
So, in a sense, the book itself becomes just a fashionable accoutrement to the rootless and untested conviction that somehow the author is spontaneously apotheosised simply by such athletic promotional investment by the publisher –a commercial self-fulfilling prophecy. The book is the tangible bonus to a new mystique, like an invisible but faintly detectable scent, surrounding an establishment-sponsored, pre-packaged ‘prodigy’ –a kind of prefab Rimbaud sans any as yet-significant distinction. And much of the public fall for the promotional hype, for the advert over and above the product. But they’re not purchasing something lasting or revelatory or life-changing, as the sales spiel projects: they’re simply purchasing another near-identical variation of all the other brands’ special offers, only under a different label and design. In the case of 81 Austerities, the prestige of the Faber ‘label’ (which in turn invests itself into the ‘brand’ of the volume) is of paramount potency in terms of the book’s cultural candidature and promotional prospects –the ‘brand’ of the imprint is in many ways more important than the product it patrons. To quote from S.I. Hayakawa, advertisers
prefer that we be governed by automatic reactions to brand names rather than by thoughtful consideration of the facts about their products.
This is part of the capitalist 'anti-transubstantiation trick', whereby the substance/thing/product is effectively turned back into its symbol, as expressed most morbidly in money, seen as an end-in-itself, rather than simply a token for product-purchase (see further into this review for more discussion on this subject via Karl Marx and Edmund Wilson), and ditto with the advert, which is supposed to be promoting a ‘product’ for purchase, but which ends up more promoting the ‘brand’, in and of itself, irrespective of the actual quality of the product.
And it seems almost trite to note that, of course, by sponsoring poets who appear on the surface to be producing something with an ambiguous aura of ‘edginess’ –just as the bourgeois art-dealing world capitalised on the –in any case, apolitical and narcissistic– Stuckists, and has attempted, but so far thankfully failed, to acquire the authentically political and provocative graffiti works of the anonymous ‘Banksy’ (even down to physically stripping one of his works off a public wall, replete with half the plaster as a canvas)– the acquisitive hegemonies appropriate their own prefab ‘rebel’, their own poetry ‘agitator’, in order to both dupe the public into believing that our publishing culture really is proactively ‘democratic’ and ‘open-minded’ in terms of representing more ‘radical’, leftfield types of literature, and, purely opportunistically, to capitalise on a current cuts-pelted public appetite for more ‘political’ and dissenting types of literature.
But what the public are offered through such duplicities are synthetic substitutes for the real things, which only placate radical appetites in the short-term, and at the expense of proper nourishment (like the paradox of simultaneously appetite-appeasing-appetite-stimulating fast food or thirst-quenching-and-thirst-causing fizzy drinks: the aim of these being, of course, to make an even more frequently hungry and thirsty ‘customer’ tantamount to an addict of entirely under-nourishing and un-quenching comestibles, thus dependent on their pocket-emptying, habit-forming properties –which all spells perpetual profits for the manufacturers). Similarly, when such approaches are applied to poetry ‘products’, readers experience personally the contemporary paradox of poetic under-consumption in the midst of poetic over-production, though in their special cases, this is a two-in-one phenomenon: the under-consumption comes in spite of exercising the spending power in purchasing the item of over-production. Not so much a case of ‘poetry will eat itself’ as poetry will repeat itself (or ‘reheat’ itself).
Perhaps, then, it isn’t entirely surprising such half-hearted and unfinished poetry has an over-reliance on reader participation (which, in itself, is a potentially good thing), even though there is a distinctly insufficient investment in the prompting of the process by the poets themselves; or, at best, a certain light-touch approach to capturing the readers’ attention through the imaginative energising of language –‘evocation’– and an almost inbuilt resistance to ‘drawing readers in’, which is perhaps indicative of a lack of poetic conviction, authenticity, or, if you like, ‘truth’…?
It’s at moments such as these that some poets are tempted into certain conceptual artifices, pretensions seemingly empty of any purposes other than to frustrate interpretations (if nothing else, to deflect from the fact that there is nothing to interpret), trip up their readers with hermeneutical obstacles; in a sense, manipulate them into even, in some instances, falling into the trap of piling up interpretations of the poetry at hand that are far richer, more imaginative and, in themselves, more poetic than the rather barren material to which they are so boundlessly giving the benefit of the doubt. Such ‘poetry imposture’, as it might be termed, is unfortunately quite commonplace today, especially through the auspices of some of the most prestigious poetry imprints, who really should know better.
Much contemporary poetry still seems caught up in meditations on deadening domesticity (even, in some examples, dropping ‘brand’ names into poems not as signposts of any polemical point being made, but simply as impartial ‘cultural’ references), as if in futile attempts to somehow versify a cult of consumerist tedium, out of which must be somehow massaged a sense of sublime ‘truth’. And in such a hyper-consumerist society as ours (unabated by retail austerity), where ‘brands’ are etched into the brain like bar codes on a daily basis, thoughts are commoditised, and our very basal adumbrations of ‘reality’ and authentic consciousness are bowdlerised by the billboards of interminable advertising, any ambitions as to somehow being able to dowse someone else’s words and thereby detect, or not detect, some veridic nuggets in the undergrowth, are wildly optimistic.
Nevertheless, in the case of much ‘post-modernist’ contemporary poetry, the treasures to be unearthed are almost all in the hermeneutics of the most devoted of readers. And, inescapably, in the case of a piece of criticism, which I’m attempting to undertake here, the hermeneutic antennae is on auto-pilot, is almost spontaneous, and inextricable from the attempt at articulating a critical response to a piece of work. The point of this proem is to emphasize that, ultimately, as ‘objective’ as I might try to be in my evaluation of both these books, in the end, my own ‘verdict’, for what it’s worth, will inevitably be subjective, even if I do try to bring in, from variously mixed critical sources (both contemporary and historical), some concordant ‘voices’ to try and leaven my own views with a modicum of cross-correspondence, or rather, ‘peer review’. But I am always aware that I might be entirely wrong in my judgements –I only have my personal tastes and impressions to go by.
And in terms of that vexed question of poetic ‘truth’ –that most Babel-like of rubrics in contemporary poetry criticism, and slipperiest of grails for the practising poet: poets can only attempt to communicate ‘the truth’ as they individually perceive it. And in terms of expressing personal senses of ‘political truths’, such poets are few and far between these days (most are noticeably elliptical when it comes to addressing inconvenient truths of their own poetic culture, let alone topics of wider political importance; but one of a thin red line of exceptions (including Alexis Lykiard, Andy Croft, Barry Tebb, Michael Horovitz, Heathcote Williams, David Kessel….) is Niall McDevitt, whose ingeniously titled Porterloo (International Times, 2012, with striking cover design by Nick Byrne and illustrations by Mike Lesser), is a case in point, and will be reviewed after consideration of another volume, which is only meretriciously –and mostly only in its titular and conceptual conceit– related to themes of austerity (and which, by that token, served as a kind of prefab-adumbration of the more authentic verse-conviction of McDevitt’s).
This is the debut full volume of Sam Riviere, deceptively titled 81 Austerities, and published by Faber by way of a consolidation of this young poet’s previous induction into the prestigious and historied press’s famously simple but elegant trio-toned jackets, with a slim pamphlet sampler under the Faber New Poets Series. To this writer, speaking more from the point of view of an editor, Faber perhaps extended the full honours of its much-coveted livery a little too precipitously in the case of Riviere (and one or two others) whose verse has that sort of reasonably well-camouflaged greenness which can sometimes be mistaken for ripeness.
And, on the latter point, I wish to emphasise that it is indeed early days for this up-and-coming poet, and that he has been catapulted to such prominence so early and rapidly is hardly his fault. Further, although I personally find it a significant challenge to fathom from the evidence of the actual verse in 81 Austerities anything which to my own tastes would mark it out for poetic distinction, I do not mean to say that I think the poetry is entirely without merit. Indeed, for all its lack of what for me makes for arresting turns of phrase, 81 Austerities is certainly not without its occasionally arresting turns of thought, even if often oblique, or evasive –that these aren't, for me, brought to full poetic ripeness is, as I say, a matter of personal taste. And my felt response, that this type of poetry falls pretty far outside the parameters of my own personal tests for what, to me, is poetry of permanent importance, is equally aesthetic. (With regards to Riviere's previous Faber poetry pamphlet, and his new collection, neither of which I have yet read, I reserve judgement: this is about the poetry, the material, not the poet,and the material might change radically from one book to the next: a younger poet's style is far from being set in stone).
Noting that Riviere is as well a visual artist (a graduate of Norwich College of Art and Design), which in part explains the ‘conceptual’ impetus of his volume, I would argue that 81 Austerities is, to my mind, actually a work of conceptual art that just happens to use what appear to be often extemporised, chopped-up and/or ‘found’ words arranged into verse shapes, when it might just have easily used paint, sculpture or some tangible ‘installation’ to express its ‘statement’ on ‘austerity’ as an abstract concept. In many senses, 81 Austerities is more an ‘installation’ than a work of literature, it just happens to be using language as its medium. I’d even argue that interpreting it as a fully fledged work of verse is in many ways an aesthetic mistake –but then, just as our contemporary ‘art’ culture likes to claim ‘anything and everything is art’ –thereby de-investing ancient notions that art has to be in some sense illuminating, insightful, inspired (or inspirited), expressive, and invested with that unmistakable mark of talent and/or craftsmanship (or ‘gift’: the almost mystical ability to translate thought through the hand into an external image or form of remarkable beauty and/or deeply affecting visual intensity), it seems, as well, that contemporary poetry culture adheres to similar ‘principles’ –that ‘anything and everything can be poetry’, hence the plethora of plainly expressed, domesticated anecdote that typifies much of the most prominently published verse today.
And here we seem to enter into a dialectic that hurtles towards a wishful ‘democratisation of talent’ as its synthesis, but which many would argue translates, in practice, into a ‘mediocritisation’ of art; and it is perhaps an approach typical of the ‘Oh, that’ll do’ expedient British temperament –culturally manifest in reductionism– that inclines towards a ‘democratisation’ of art (and talent) without having first established its ‘meritocratisation’. In short, it’s a faulty dialectic, which leapfrogs from thesis to synthesis, missing out the much more difficult-to-pin-down but absolutely vital antithesis altogether.
And, to my mind, the kind of ‘artistic produce’ indicative of this cultural and aesthetic short-circuiting in terms of perceptions as to what constitutes talent, or whether there is even such a quantifiable thing as ‘talent’ altogether, are, for example, the purely conceptual, apparently skill-less installations of the likes of Damien Hurst and Tracy Emin, and, in the verse scene, the type of extemporised anti-poetry or contra-verse of which in many ways 81 Austerities has proven one of the more ‘marketable’ distillations. But the only ‘democratising effect’ generated by these very public ‘rehearsals for art’, improvisations, or ‘adumbrations’ of the authentic thing (‘art-by-its-absence’, if you like), is, bluntly, that they prompt in some members of the public/viewers/readerships a greater respect for their own talents, whether actualised or not (as well as, of course, riling many lesser-praised practitioners at the unfathomable veneration of what they perceive to be obviously less accomplished output to their own –not so much ‘sour grapes’ as ‘pitted olives with anchovies’).
It almost gets to a point when too obvious an evidence of ‘talent’ in an artist, writer or poet is somehow interpreted as some kind of anarcho-aristocratic affront to democratic principles; but since we inhabit only a pop-up, flat-back, two-dimensional ‘film set’ attempt at ‘democracy’, we can be sure any ‘principles’ at risk of offence here might be many things, but they are not, authentically speaking, ‘democratic’ (unless one defines democracy purely in terms of ‘majoritarianism’. But I’d be inclined to argue that, in a society where the majority of the population are deprived adequate education –most markedly, in the spheres of culture, politics and sociology, subjects which could help them make more sense of the hegemonic ‘hidden persuaders’ (i.e. our disproportionately right-wing press) that help shape their perceptions and beliefs, and, in turn, preclude their chances of acquiring authentic occupational opportunities, not to say denying them full and accountable democratic political representation and access to the upper echelons of intrinsically anti-democratic capitalist power structures (i.e. oligarchy and oligopoly) –whatever the ‘majority view’ might be on any given subject is, arguably, just the aggregate regurgitation of hegemonic ingestion (to which, one might describe, in same gustatory terms, any dissent from received views as ‘ideological indigestion’ –e.g. socialism as a colic caused by an excess of bile).
This is all of course upside down and results in the worst of both worlds: a society which is eaten up with its own rapacious ‘competitiveness’, one-upmanship, institutionalised nepotism and correspondingly implacable class structure, but which yet, schizophrenically, invests much of its ‘democratic’ inclinations in a qualitative relativism within its arts and culture. Everything is literally back to front in anarcho-capitalist culture: we live in a mall-white Wonderland sans the 'wonder'.
To my mind, with these two only superficially similar but actually diametrically opposite poetry collections, we have, in McDevitt’s, a book which, to coin a perennial phrase, pretty much ‘does what it says on the tin’ (and much more besides), and directly engages with the dystopian farce of hyper-commercialised and commoditised yet economically paralysed ‘austerity capitalism’, through a brilliant subversion of the topsy-turvy ‘Newspeak’ of its corporate apparatchiks’ rapacious propaganda of ‘brand’ advertising and intransigent right-wing propaganda (through that ubiquitous and unholy alliance of Tory and tabloid, or what we might call, ‘blue torch and red-top’), so as to equip his deeply oppositional poetry with its own self-empowering, counter-hegemonic armoury of antagonistic nomenclature formulated in ways that government and tabloid mythologists (e.g. with regards to what I call ‘Scroungerology’: the contemporary mass “scrounger” shadow-projection of un-confronted societal vices and moral failings onto the most vulnerable, particularly the unemployed, and, even more shamefully, the sick and disabled) will both instantly, and antipathetically, grasp. So, in these senses, McDevitt’s is verse as anti-advertising, verse in adversity; and, moreover, adversarial verse –something which unlikely iconoclast T.S. Eliot believed to be the only authentic form of poetry:
…what’s important, to Eliot … is not the content of the ideology but its adversarial structure. For Eliot … the hope of poetry lies in pitting it against civilization; distancing the means of vision still further from the means of production. Culture [in this context, ‘high’ culture] is anti-technological, anti-modern, anti-popular. Popular culture is thus structurally the opposite of ‘live’ culture; that is, it is death. Its content doesn’t matter.
Riviere’s verse, on the other hand, seems more just verse as advertising. In spite of its posture of pastiche advertising spiel, 81 Austerities comes perilously close to playing its own commercial confidence trick on the reading public: and this is because, perversely, Riviere’s verse does the imitation too convincingly, whereby his alleged attempts at self-ridicule through self-hyperbole simply come across as self-hyperbole: it actually does read, in the main, as if the poet is promoting himself, and the verse promoting itself –a kind of poetry as product and advert all in one; ‘commodity-poetry’. Even when Riviere isn't replicating advertising language in order to try and get his point across, his more 'polemical' moments are so phrasally prescriptive as to simply appear to state the obvious, without the figurative engagement to morph them into aphorisms: ‘there is no purer form of advertising/ than writing a poem’ (if one was to be particularly churlish, one might say that certainly this volume is a prime demonstration of poetry as advertising). This 'statement' is excerpted in a piece in The Literateur of October 2012, which goes on to elucidate that Riviere's line was 'a response to his brother pointing out that poetry and advertising share a tendency to two traits: brevity and imagery'. But there's nothing really new in this observation, nor in the prosaic way the poet simply states the point rather than finding a more, well, 'poetic' way of phrasing it, in order to make it more memorable. Okay, so this is part of the overall conceit of this book, that these 'poems' are themselves the 'austerities' of the title -but to my tastes it's a conceit stretched to breaking point.
Christopher Caudwell was disputably the first poetry polemicist to observe that ‘The poet now begins to show the marks of commodity-production’. He speculated on the likely future development of many venerated poets who had not lived beyond their greener years, as to whether the likes of Byron, Shelley and Keats would have been destined to a Wordsworthian winding down of their poetic passion and revolutionary zeal –and thus Caudwell saw much consolation in the fact that they were all spared the inevitable ‘tragedy of the bourgeois illusion working itself out impersonally in their poetry’. But then, of course, William Blake lived to a ripe three scores and ten and lost none of his poetic edge or visionary zeal (though Blake is very often an ‘exception’ to the ‘rule’ of his period, and, arguably, to all periods).
And when one considers the disturbing mutuality between the rhythms employed in poetry and those employed in promotional copy/spiel to sell products, it’s not difficult to see how an attempt to parody what Hayakawa terms ‘sponsored poetry’ (advertising verse) through the medium of ‘unsponsored poetry’ (i.e. authentic poetry –though at another level, Riviere’s verse is a kind of ‘sponsored’ poetry in the sense of its promotion by a major ‘label’) without sufficient pre-consideration of how most effectively to do so, can so easily become confused with the very thing it is supposedly parodying. 81 Austerities lays itself open to such a trap (albeit a 'multiple-prize-winning trap') even more so by its choice of subject matter –mainly that of Sam Riviere, its author– and its tone of Stuckist-esque ‘narcissistic chic’, so not only does it come across as verse as advertising, but also as verse as self-advertising. Riviere –rather than the verse– would appear to be the ‘product’.
Hayakawa reminds us of the unhealthy interrelation between verse and advertising in his fascinating chapter ‘Poetry and Advertising’ from Language in Thought and Action (1949), when he argued that the aim of the ‘copywriter is
the poeticising of consumer goods… A poet…cannot let a yellow primrose remain merely a yellow primrose… the primrose comes to symbolise things… Similarly, an advertising writer cannot permit a cake of soap to remain a cake of soap and “nothing more”…the copywriter, like the poet, must invest it with significance so that it becomes symbolic of something beyond itself… aristocratic elegance (Chanel No. 5)… rugged masculinity (like Marlboros)… the tasks of the copywriter is the poeticising of consumer goods.
One might, in the context of the volume under discussion, turn the latter trope round to say that the verse in 81 Austerities seems more commensurate to some subversion of the poet’s task towards the commoditising of poetic goods (it might have been more accurately titled 81 Adverts!). Hayakawa goes onto say:
The unsponsored poet of today works in a semantic environment in which almost all the poetry that ordinary people hear and read is the sponsored poetry of consumer goods’ and that subsequently, the once-hypnotic power of words through pure poetry has been sapped by public association with ‘poetic language’, or, more accurately, rhythmical verse, with ‘purposes of salesmanship’. … Poets, too, must work with the symbols that exist in the culture, and… Almost all the symbols of daily living… have been appropriated by advertisers…
Which begs the questions: is Riviere trying to re-appropriate advertising language for poetry? And does that mean his poetry is employed for the ‘purposes of salesmanship’?
But stylistics aside, it is the disingenuousness of 81 Austerities that irritates: rather than trying to genuinely grapple with the multitude of catastrophic social vicissitudes of recent years, as its tricksy title hints might be the case, it actually and explicitly doesn’t ‘do what it says on its tin’, but rather opportunistically plays on the abstract concept of ‘austerity’ and applies its precepts of systematic thrift to the medium of poetry itself; almost like performing a workshop exercise to try and find as many ways to compose a poem with as little verbal embellishment as possible, stripping the verse down to its bare components, and thus producing what are, in a sense, poem-carcases, and certainly eighty-one verse-‘austerities’ (and in that one sense, at risk of contradiction, perhaps Riviere’s book does ‘do what it says on the tin’, albeit in a way specially choreographed to be misinterpreted).
This conceit might have perhaps seemed more of a novelty in previous periods when more marked engagement with image, metaphor and description were relatively commonplace in poetry; but, the 'confidence-trick' of the counterfeit titular conceit apart, even the method fails to distinguish itself amidst what is already a broadly reductionist or deconstructionist postmodernist poetry culture where such elliptical pseudo-textspeak and ‘prosetry’ is already widely pervasive (again, the proverbial postmodernist ‘poetic constipation’, although, inexplicably, promoted as if this particular manifestation of it is somehow outré -it is thus because we're told it is -because the advert tells us it is- seems to be the implication, and so it should be self-evident - only it isn't).
It’s almost painful to have to say it, but in both ethical and aesthetic terms, 81 Austerities proves its own worst enemy, even its own victim, its very title self-prescriptively disadvantageous, a big glaring ‘hostage to fortune’ hoarding of a title (though I recognise of course that everything I am writing here, in all sincerity of opinion, might itself prove one aggregate ‘hostage to fortune’) almost like one of Reginald Perrin’s ‘never knowingly undersold’ anti-advertisements for his ergonomically illiterate Grot, manufacturers of entirely useless products (“solar-powered torches” and the like), any verisimilitude of which is instantly betrayed by the pop-up poetry skeletally sketched within its covers. And although, as with many Faber firsts, the volume was (automatically? as part of the publishing contract?) catapulted to the top of the Forward Prize list for Best Debut Collection, and a Guardian Book of the Year (‘has a wry, sardonic touch, with, however, an underlying power that signals a gifted new voice’, Edna O'Brien…!?), in broader critical terms, if one discounts inescapable supplemental plaudits –promotional spiel in themselves– which could be perceived as the proverbial ‘damning with faint praise’ (in such a wide gamut of outlets as The Guardian (by Ruth Padel), The Independent and The Telegraph), such Olympian summits would appear to have scored mostly only pyrrhic conquests.
More bluntly, the hype surrounding this publication, based on the evidence of the actual verse served up within it, is, for me personally, unfathomable; even more so when one surveys the ‘real thing’, as it were: authentic political verse of some contemporary smaller presses, much of which is also far more prosodically accomplished output – most notably, Smokestack Books, which offers a list of truly exceptional, ripely topical and hugely powerful contemporary ‘political’ poetry from a rich crop of highly individual voices united by their common socialistic values, while yet so different stylistically; almost in complete opposite parallel to the far more uniformed and formulaic voices published through the bigger imprints and poetry journals, most of whom are united, ironically, more in terms of their individualistic values (it's a flipside thing: poets of the Left often tend to sublimate their individualistic impulses through idiosyncratic poetry, while poets of the apolitical postmodernist Centre tend to compose in almost-homogenous formulas). It’s interesting to reflect, again, on the individualistic editorial stance taken on the 2011 riots by then-editor Fiona Sampson of the flagship journal of the postmodernist orthodoxy, Poetry Review:
In the face of mob rule, poetry’s rugged individualism seems especially important. It offers its alternative, a kind of focused integrity – the understanding that we do not need to be totalizing, or totalitarian, but write all the more tellingly when we acknowledge our own particularity...
It is also not without significance that Poetry Review, and its fellow high profile postmodernist cousin, Poetry London, both excerpted sizeable chunks from Riviere’s volume, being as it was a conveniently apolitical ‘response to austerity’ via a big imprint, which they could safely promote in order to seem relevant to current events but without ruffling any establishment feathers in the process; for instance, the sheer deluge of authentic and technically accomplished political poetry pouring out from the smaller presses of the same period –such as Smokestack, Flambard, Red Squirrel, Waterloo et al– were markedly absent from Fiona Sampson’s solipsistic ‘round up’ in the now notorious non-sequitur that was the ‘Where Is The New Political Poetry?’ summer 2011 issue of Poetry Review –a velum-coated non-event in the verse scene which McDevitt, for one, brilliantly ripped to pieces in his article at International Times, in which he riposted, ‘The answer to the question ‘Where is the New Political Poetry?’ is: not in the Summer 2011 edition of Poetry Review’.
Poetic conceits such as 81 Austerities, then, manage more to muddy the waters of contemporary poetic-political dialectics than illumine them, almost in the same way that advertising distracts consumers from the necessities of their lives for the flash and whiz of manufactured ‘false needs’, or commodities of no true worth or usefulness, but that are simply the latest ‘must have’ of entirely dispensable and ephemeral fashion. The book's efficacious confidence-trick is, in its actual manifest form, less verse than advertisement (again: 81 Adverts)– though it’s not even clear what is actually being advertised. No doubt that’s part of the point of the conceit, and certainly marketed as a key conceptual selling-point by the publishers. (And I am aware that if the author ever reads this review, choicest snippets from it may well end up forming part of one his cut-and-paste collages of those pockets of negative criticism which diverge from the general received view of the book’s inalienable triumph, as spun by its corporate-minded sponsors).
But, after what had been in 2012 two years of pulverising austerity cuts and remorseless shaving down of living standards, had we not even by then grown out of such affectedly synthetic nihilism and ‘nothing really matters or means anything’ poetry ‘manifestos’? Although some obvious aspects to Riviere’s volume signpost certain symbols, memes and nomenclature (the proliferation of text-speak and the frequent nods to the vicarious ‘cyber-sex’ of internet pornography, are examples) which are recognisably attributable to something resembling a ‘zeitgeist’ (though certainly not in the true sense of the term, meaning ‘spirit of the times’, since ‘spirit’ is not an ingredient I detect in the verses themselves), some might argue that this is more now a ‘vestigial zeitgeist’, that we’ve moved on, quite abruptly, over the past four years or so through the very ‘austerity’ culture that the book itself uses, if only superficially, as its rubric (or, more opportunistically, its cod-topical ‘selling point’).
81 Austerities feels more like the product of the deeply apolitical, culturally atomised hiatus of the anodyne Noughties (a commoditised verse companion- piece, perhaps, to Oliver James’ Affluenza) than anything obviously representative of the increasingly radicalised and mobilised ‘anti-capitalist’ activism (cue the Occupy movement etc.) of ‘Generation Rent’, or ‘Generation Tent’ as the case may ultimately be. Far from having its ‘finger on the pulse’, I personally feel the book is slightly behind the times in many respects, and is, as with the Stuckists in the visual art medium, symptomatic of a deeply ironic ‘cultural lag’ in contemporary arts culture (and yes, I am aware that, at risk of contradicting my own precepts, ‘cultural lag’ is itself a reductionist term, coined by William F. Ogburn, but it was prefigured by Karl Marx in the form of ‘technological determinism’): a seeming inability, or wilful refusal, to catch up ‘poetically’ with the seismic social and political tectonic shifts of the here and now, which demand to be addressed by society’s poets and artists (particularly those who occupy the most public platforms). But it seems, in postmodernist mainstream culture, it’s still a case of ‘Stuck-in-a-rut-ists’, of ‘post-relevant postmodernists’, of ‘marketable packages’ for non-existent markets instead of ‘trends-reversing survival kits’ for the newly emerging verse-activists (of which, significantly, Niall McDevitt is a prime example).
For any who might think these opinions rather harsh, I excerpt below the critical verdict on Riviere’s volume by Alex Niven and Stephen Ross, published in the Oxonian Review, and appositely titled ‘Major Label Verse’ –the only review I read during the thick of euphoric reception for the book which dissented from that general critical ‘line’:
The release of Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities has quickly become a case study in how easy it is for a young writer to be damned by the praise of the middlebrow mediascape. As the new Faber poet du jour, Riviere has become a minor literary celebrity, but his work is feted for all the wrong reasons. Reviewers have taken both his title (an ostensible dig at the coalition government’s austerity measures) and the origin of the poems (in a series of “poetry posts” on a blog begun in 2010) as an indication that Riviere offers a sort of magic synthesis of political engagement and tech-savvy modernistic innovation.
In one sense, it is a shame that 81 Austerities has been hyperbolised almost out of existence by the casual blandishments of the bourgeois literati (Ruth Padel, for example, argued that the poems “have a lovely energy”, in a queasily gushing Guardian review). The collection is not, all things considered, so bad. Against a backdrop of polarisation in British poetry between an aging avant-garde and a conservative mainstream, Riviere’s formless circumlocutions at least have the virtues of eccentricity and gaucheness, two qualities that are relatively rare in major label contemporary verse.
Riviere’s basic mode, adopted in almost all of the 81 short poems contained in the book, is the unpunctuated monologue. This template is typically used to communicate allegories of hipster culture and the vicissitudes of adolescent or post-adolescent experience, as in the following gap-year-esque conceit-poem, ‘All the Happiness You’ll Ever Need’:
the sun in paris rides a skateboard
giving everyone high-fives winking
at a man whose wife leans out from
a first-floor hotel balcony standing
by a fish stall in the still shady streets
of the disgusting latin quarter at 7 a.m.
having violet eyes like you-know-who
and lighting the unlit cigarettes of two
american boys with very serious hair
wearing plain white T-shirts and then
it’s off going waterskiing up the seine
The formula allows for occasional rhymes (who/two, then/seine) and near-rhymes (from/a.m.) but these are incidental and even arbitrary. What is being foregrounded is a discourse that mirrors the untrammeled loquaciousness of the text message, the quickly written email, the botched website pop-up advert.
It’s in the following four sentences that I think the reviewers really hit the nub of the problem of the book:
This is not an entirely pointless formal trick in itself, but in any deeper sense it does not seem to have a point. There is no situationist détournement, no attempt to run the language of technological modernity back against itself as a means of subversion. And neither is there any attempt to parachute in different lexical registers—as someone like J.H. Prynne might—as a means both of ironising and elevating text-message discourse so that it becomes something strange, jarring, and, perhaps, ultimately ennobling. This is what a good poem is, but Riviere’s apparent attempt to write something like a text-message poem is ultimately just a text message, albeit one with a metaphor and a goofball phraseology tacked on for effect.
The reviewers then pick up on the ghost of Frank O’Hara, which tends to haunt much contemporary postmodernist poetry:
Perhaps a more generous approach would be to judge Riviere by the standards of his own frame of reference. After all, 81 Austerities does not align itself with the situationists or with the strongest of the UK’s late-modernists, but with a range of less austere, non-British predecessors. The most insistent of this book’s ghosts is Frank O’Hara, whose breathless urban egoism and short-gains lyric ironies register Riviere’s room tone. O’Hara’s transformation of witty improvisation into a high art form in the 1950s and 60s licensed countless subsequent poets to name-check their artist friends, apostrophise pop culture institutions, wax anarchically surrealist about the “real world,” and write about lunch. Riviere takes up the mantle with great brio, doing all of these things with a heavy-handed contemporary twist and ruthless consistency. O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” becomes, in his hands, “I hate this/I love that.” In Riviere’s hands, O’Hara’s flair for irony subsides into ironized flair:
[In the ensuing ‘verse’ extract, we see proleptic ripostes to anticipated criticisms of ‘conceit’ and prosodic ‘confidence tricks’ embedded within the poem itself –once again, the author who is always ‘one step ahead of us’, and of his future detractors, is mining himself and his conceptual impertinence for the very subject matter of his ‘poem’; the point being apparently to be pointless, and the end result: far removed from any obvious verse-verisimilitude –or even prose, except for some half-hearted attempt at thoroughly prosaic stream-of-consciousness, indicated really only by an absence of punctuation, casualised by adolescent-flavoured expletives and text-speak, while language is almost entirely let off the hook]
One Note Solo
it depends if he is genuine or not
if he is it is wonderfully expressive
sensitive overt yet subtle brave art
if he is not it is an arrogance and
conceit a concept daring to see
how stupid people can be how much
they can be conned by confidence
it’s a confidence trick that if he gets
pleasure from makes him in my eyes
an arsehole to do something like that
although it could be argued if the
audience are aware of his exhibitionism
and enjoy the twist to a normal stage
performance it is no matter what his
psychology is and he would not be an
arsehole or a twat only he himself
knows how much of his planned act
however planned is motivated by
honesty and how much is disingenuous
absurdism if that distinction can be made
Yes, the distinction can be made. ‘One Note Solo’ indeed: this is the sound of one hand clapping for itself. Here, the poet’s failure to out-ironize his own irony does not activate a new kind of ‘honesty’ (as it does, say, in O’Hara’s frenetic late poem ‘Biotherm’)—rather, it strips the poem of all interest. You can’t dig into ‘One Note Solo’, or almost any other poem in this collection, and what’s the point of merely skating over its surface?
Precisely; it’s as if Riviere’s verse is almost critic-proof due to having eviscerated itself of anything substantial to criticise.
Poetry, of course, has always been a dying art, hence the proliferation of “apologies” over the centuries. Poetry’s failure—to capture experience, to change the world, to have itself heard—is the poetic convention par excellence. Good poets bring this dead art back to life again and again, Frankenstein-style; bad poets whine about its death in the idiom of the day. The idiom of our day is the choppy unpunctuated monologue, the voice of endless mediation, staginess, and pixelated solipsism:
All day I have been watching women
crush ripe tomatoes in their cleavage
whatever you think of
someone’s already done it
there’s a new kind of content
pre-empting individual perversions
I’ve seen my missing girlfriend’s face
emerge cresting from a wave of pixels
I sleep with a [rec] light at the foot
of my bed. . .
But does this really allegorise our collective loneliness? Or is it just scabrous faux-confessionalism? Computers, recording devices, missing girlfriends, crushed ripe tomatoes in cleavages. Yawn. He’s right about one thing, though: ‘whatever you think of / someone’s already done it.’ Hasn’t the face of atomized postmodern identity crested toward us before?
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
So writes John Ashbery in 1975. Thirty-seven years later, Riviere trades in the convex mirror for the computer screen, and replaces Ashbery’s suave facture with the art of the blog post.
But, one might object, these poems are not intended to be taken so seriously: if anything, they are lively, wry snapshots of our amphetaminised tech-zeitgeist and don’t aspire to be thousand-year art. They are made for rapid consumption, and if they also prompt reflection on consumerist excesses, so much the better. Maybe. But even so, it seems important to take 81 Austerities to task for the way it so casually condescends to engage with ‘big issues’: austerity cuts, of course, but also the ‘rich/poor gap,’ ‘the destruction of the rainforests,’ the expansion of pornography into the public sector. The book is opportunistic in the worst way, reducing the vulnerable position of artists, and of cultural institutions more generally, into a facile governing conceit—a mere pretext for surfing the zeitgeist.
‘Effortless, wide-ranging and confident’ (the Forward Prize judges). ‘Refreshingly modern, accessible and self-aware’ (Varsity). ‘A sexy book’ (The Independent). This collection wouldn’t merit such a caustic review, but given the often scarily ineloquent, uncritical responses it has received elsewhere, some sort of levelling action seems vital. The culture industry has taken a xeroxed précis of some of the best late-twentieth century verse, and spruced it up for the literary prize circuit in lieu of the real deal. Once again, another generation of readers will have to learn to look harder and further than the dead centre of market orthodoxy for a more authentic, less presumptuous new bearing in British poetry.
It’s interesting again to note phrases such as ‘market orthodoxy’, and hortatory prompts towards looking elsewhere for something ‘more authentic’ –if it wasn’t for the pithier discipline of the Oxonian reviewers’ compendious take (as opposed to my lapses into prolixity), I might have confused there’s and my own reviews. It’ll not surprise readers to know that I wholeheartedly concur with this critical take on the book, and felt its own ‘levelling action’ needed some reinforcements to counterpoint those blasts of broadsheet hyperbole of which the review takes note. Riviere’s verse, or the card-flapped kudos in which it was clothed, pushed all the buttons of a uninamously smitten mainstream commentariat, and, in that sense, would seem to have had something of a Pavolvian effect in terms of predictable critical applause common to titles under that mighty imprint –‘Pavolvian verse’, anyone…?
On the phrase Ruth Padel picked to spark off her damp praise, ‘Effortless’, well, bluntly, this word is self-evident, though not perhaps in the sense Padel intended it. To ascribe to a creative work which seems and feels invested with some extraordinary ‘effort’ the epithet of ‘effortless’, implies of course that the critic is also ascribing to the artist or writer the distinction of some genius sans perspiration; but to ascribe to a work which seems and feels to have been invested with little ‘effort’ the epithet of ‘effortless’ is, well, not much of an effort in itself!
Of course, it’s also trite to point out that if such a book as 81 Austerities was truly, authentically subversive, politically radical and genuinely challenging to hegemonies, a) it’s unlikely it would have been published by Faber (or any of the other ‘big’ imprints), and b) it certainly wouldn’t have been hyped up to the euphoric degree that it has been in the national supplements. But what almost all these reviewers appear to be praising isn’t so much the poetry itself, but the concept to which the poetry is entirely subordinate. And some of these ‘critics’ unwittingly reveal their hands all too transparently as they, like Riviere himself, betray their own commoditised perceptions as to what constitutes artistic ‘product’ of any lasting and endurable quality or importance.
This was glaringly apparent in the almost self-contradictory piece by Elleen E. Jones in The Independent (13 September 2012), who wrote, seemingly without any real sense of self-searching irony, ‘His [Riviere’s] balance of accessibility and formal invention is what makes Riviere marketable, even in austerity Britain’. Is this meant to be slightly tongue-in-cheek satire, or self-parody? One might ask precisely the same questions of both Riviere’s volume and much of the incomprehensibly jubilant journalistic-‘critical’ response to it. One plus-point of inflicting these supplemental excerpts on readers is that they provide sufficiently extensive excerpts from Riviere’s verses to save me the chore of having to plough through the volume a second time to extract some myself –but one tends to notice the marked lack of any obvious evidence to vindicate the hyperbolic tone of the ‘review’ in any of the actual extracts from the verse excerpted:
Sam Riviere was one of the four young poets to benefit from the Arts Council-funded Faber New Poets scheme. Judging by this follow-up to his debut, the investment was a sound one, so it’s apt that his collection takes austerity policies as its inspiration.
Only, it doesn’t!
Riviere’s work is certainly not “austere” in any other sense. Mostly written in the first person and full of chatty run-on lines and zeitgeist-y references, his poems read like an on-going conversation between friends.
‘Premises, Premises’ reports back on a gig, ‘Nobody Famous’ is a series of captions from holiday pics on Facebook or Instagram: ‘This is me eating not 1 not 2 but 3 pancakes / this is me having Breakfast in America in paris’. Are the repeatedly mentioned Jennys and Emmas current or former girlfriends we’re supposed to remember? Savvy readers know better than to confuse author and narrator, so why do these poems seem to invite that very confusion?
In 81 Austerities, it’s not just that the poems appear to communicate in the poet’s own voice, it’s that this voice (which even pops up in the idiosyncratic index) is often the subject of the poems themselves, as if trying to convince of its own authenticity.
Another ‘critic’ falls again for this synthetic hankering after authenticity –there appears to be no clear sense in which these verses are trying to convince us of anything at all. Nevertheless, according to Ms Jones:
Several of the poems comment on poetry and culture. ‘The Sweet New Style’ is sniffily sarcastic about the contemporary fondness for twee things. There is suppressed professional rivalry in ‘Adversity in the Arts’ and anxiety about funding sprinkled throughout. ‘Crisis Poem’, which opens the collection, asks whether capital is the ‘index of meaning’, while ‘Dream Poem’ even includes its own in-built literary criticism (‘In my dream the poem didn’t have / this assonance that’s creeping in’).
Self-reference may be par for the course for contemporary poets, but Riviere’s has taken his engagement with the modern world beyond posing and into formal experimentation. ‘Year of the Rabbit’, a description of a trailer he’d make for an Updike book, if he was a conceptual artist, is as multimedia as ink words on a paper page can get.
But Riviere is a conceptual artist! And there is no clear evidence of any ‘formal experimentation’ in the poems, which, at least ostensibly, appear very much as ‘posing’.
It’s a sexy book – not only in the Coalition/Blair spin doctor sense of attractively modern, but literally too. Several poems, like ‘Clones’ borrow and remodel the language of internet porn to occasionally shocking effect, but Riviere is at his cheeky, charming best when, as in ‘No Touching’, his language takes the long road round: ‘We will appear at the weddings/ of people we don’t care about / our faces radiant from fucking.’
The very commercially savvy, advertising-style phrase ‘sexy book’ is particularly telling –to quote from S.I. Hayakawa again, speaking of the copywriter whose job it is to
“poeticise” or glamorise’ (even fetishise) ‘the objects’ up for sale by giving them brand names and investing those names with all sorts of desirable affective connotations suggestive of health, wealth, popularity with the other sex, social prominence, domestic bliss, fashion, and elegance.
Here Jones is doing much of the copywriter’s job under the subterfuge of critical journalism. But, more pertinently, is Riviere a poet dreaming he is a copywriter, or a copywriter dreaming he is a poet? Is he a kind of Gordon Comstock in ‘virtual’ reverse?
Quotable and funny, this is the poetry of online dating profiles and witty Facebook status updates. His balance of accessibility and formal invention is what makes Riviere marketable, even in austerity Britain, but it’s also what makes him good.
The earlier asserted non-sequitur that Riviere’s work is ‘certainly not “austere”’ seems somewhat bizarre given the distinctly unadorned, pared-down, casually conversational, image-impoverished, un-evocative, un-descriptive, adjectivally arid shavings of ‘verse’ provided, almost all of which read indistinguishably from prose –and a markedly flavourless stripped-to-the-bone prose at that. It’s also hugely ironic in itself that someone who makes so many claims of merit in the book seems so oblivious to its most marked textual and textural feature: its blatantly ‘austere’ style, which is, after all, pivotal to its entire conceptual purpose!
Before 81 Austerities had even seen print, and based entirely on an implied, near-mystical ‘sense of momentum’ based around its then-exclusively ‘virtual’ debut via its own website, I remember coming upon a rather lazy and disingenuously titled piece by one Daniel Barrow in the New Statesman, ‘The poetry of austerity’, sub-titled with optional inflection, ‘A response to the cuts in verse’ (which might have been phrased, ‘A response to [pause] cuts in verse’, or ‘A response to arts cuts, in verse’), which began, obliviously, albeit with a nod to William F. Ogburn's theory of 'cultural lag', the bucking of which, however, is completely misapplied to the example under discussion:
Art, relatively speaking, is slow. Representation needs time to mirror real events, and little work has emerged so far in reaction to the coalition government's austerity programme since it took power last June.
I say ‘obliviously’, since Mr Barrow –and, indeed, the New Statesman– seemed to be completely unaware of the otherwise pretty well covered Emergency Verse, the 111-poet strong, emphatic response to the cuts, which I’d selected and edited, which had been published in e-book form and emailed to all MPs the previous summer (in direct response to the ‘Emergency’ Budget, hence its title), and launched in print form at a packed Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in January 2011. By the point of Barrow’s promotion-cum-article, summer 2011, review copies of EV had been distributed to all the progressive paper and magazine outlets, including the NS, which, however, had seemingly completely ignored it (as it would also, the following year, ignore The Robin Hood Book).
EV had been covered by Guardian Society, the Big Issue, The Independent, the Morning Star, and even picked up by Reuters, and yet, Daniel Barrow (and the New Statesman, a magazine which one would have presumed would be the first to cover an anthology against the cuts, which also included many poets previously published in the NS, such as its one-time own resident poet, Bill Greenwell) seemed completely unaware of the anthology. Indeed, unaware of pretty much anything other than a much-hyped solo volume more riffing on the abstraction of ‘austerity’ than actually ‘reacting’ to the coalition government’s ‘austerity’ programme, and which just so happened to be published by the most prestigious poetry imprint in the land. In this context, the second sweeping trope of the above excerpt would seem wilfully blind, if not criminally negligent. Nevertheless, to the oblivious Barrows of this world, Riviere’s volume was the first significant verse intervention against the Tory-led government, in spite of being neither significant, nor an intervention.
It was this apparent prestige-based disingenuousness, unrepresentative selectivity, even irrelevance, and synthetic, purely titular associating of 81 Austerities with a wider and more authentic insurgency among the poet’s cuts-capped generation, which really rankled at the time. The somewhat solipsistic Barrow continued:
There was the so-so Theatre Uncut initiative earlier this year, but over the last couple of months another project has emerged out of the unlikely world of innovative poetry to deal with the cuts.
Only, once again, it doesn’t actually ‘deal with the cuts’, but just utilises them for a conceptual conceit which has little, if anything, to do with austerity, nor with the catastrophic cuts announced in the ‘Emergency’ Budget, nor with the trebling of student tuition fees and the student riots, nor with the then-announced dismantlement of EMA, but very much to do with Sam Riviere, his quotidian text messages, allusions to internet porn, and constant preoccupation with his own fledgling ‘poetry’ career and embarrassment of associated riches. All of this might not be so offensive if it wasn’t for the fact that the book was attempting to palm itself off as something of poetic-political import.
If there is any sociological significance to 81 Austerities, it is purely in its emphatic expression of a kind of i-pod-plugged solipsism prevalent among vast swathes of the Noughties’ postgraduate generation (born in the Eighties –Riviere was born in 1981, hence, perhaps, the reason for his numerical choice of austerities by way of birth-reference) who just escaped the clutches of trebled university tuition fees at the cusp of the Tories’ ‘austerity capitalism’; and, bizarrely, it seems most of the contemporary poetry that does appear to be addressing the unprecedented dispossession of the upcoming ‘Generation Rent’ (or ‘Tent’ as the case may be) is coming more from the pens of those born between the late Sixties and the late Seventies, educated in the Eighties and Nineties, refuseniks of the Thatcher era, of whom Niall McDevitt is one example. The 'bucking of a 'cultural lag" in terms of poetic responses to austerity is much more marked in McDevitt's book than in Riviere's, whose volume only really serves, in this regard, as a titular prompt towards more empirical poetic responses to be made by other poets (many of which had already come by this point, as mentioned, in divers verse from legion poets in EV, as early as autumn 2010 -but clearly to commentators such as Barrow, the 'brand'-backing of a major metropolitan imprint is required in order to -almost contradictorily- legitimise any verse dissent).