When I meet a difficult text, it invariably makes me think of the Genesis story of Jacob and the Angel, or at least its depictions in art. I like Jacob Epstein’s statue Jacob and the Angel (1940) in the Tate, but it is Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon (1888) with women having just left church on Sunday, receiving a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel that most often comes to mind. What does the angel want? Obedience? Submission? When Jacob prevails after a night of wrestling, he is freed with a wounded hip joint and he is given a new name: Israel.
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Grappling all night with difficult texts can seem an ordeal too, especially if there is an exam at the end of it. As a student, I sometimes found unpicking all the references in say T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound tiresome. I still think of this stage of modernism as an exercise of cultural collage, or mosaic work: a tessera of Dante, a smidge of Wordsworth, a splash of Bhagavad Gita. Exemplified by The Waste Land, this juxtaposition of pan-cultural resonances was undoubtedly exciting, and a leap ahead in poetry. As a student, the better read you became, the easier it became to nod with a certain smugness, for example, when you’d traced the origins.
In the mid eighties, I was given J.H.Prynne’s The Oval Window by my friend Michael, who is now a professor in the US. This was the best kind of grappling. Michael was a Prynne advocate, and we swapped letters (yes, in actual envelopes) for a few months about Prynne’s work. My first reaction to Prynne was hostile. I got that he used language in part to portray the difficulty of communicating, a familiar trope in twentieth century writing. But itseemed to me that Prynne took this to heroic levels of wilful obscurity. Grappling with the angel of Prynne frequently left me feeling angry and baffled. But it stretched me as a reader, and something else happened that I hadn’t bargained for: I became haunted by the images in his work. Here’s a section from one of the untitled (they are all untitled) poems in the book.
Given to allergic twitching, the frame
compounds for invertible counterpoint
and waits to see. A view is a window
on the real data, or a lower surplus in oil
and erratic items such as precious stones,
aircraft and the corpses of men, tigers
fish and pythons, “all in a confused tangle.”
This collection is full of points ‘of vantage, private and inert’, and these poems have been a sphinx on my imaginative horizon ever since, and in the way that poems that yield their pleasures more easily simply have not. I’m still conflicted by Prynne. Do I find this language beautiful? Not really. Does it move me? Only in a weird way. Do I find myself picking up Prynne on a regular basis? Yes, damn it!
Since Prynne I have grappled with poets I find difficult, and even if I have to submit, bruised and baffled, I often feel I have at least encountered something mysterious, and that the struggle taught me something, even if only about my own limitations.
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Most writers of poetry often encounter invitations to enter competitions. The majority of them exist to bolster the funds of poetry publishers, which is a perfectly good reason to support them. Sifting through hundreds of poems, those judges, however sincere and thorough, are more likely to respond to work that rapidly downloads its meaning and rewards. While these poems can be profound, my feeling is that only rarely do they provoke a lengthy engagement. The worst of them are like jokes, you read them once or twice, get the punchline and move on.
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I have lately been visiting the New York based site E·ratio, which is edited by Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino. E·ratio ‘publishes poetry in the postmodern idioms with an emphasis on the intransitive’. The intransitive being writing that draws attention to the act of writing itself, in a Prynne-like way, rather than pointing to something in the outside world. I loved this bracing precision, and there is bags of challenging work on the site. I was also delighted when Gregory published a rare sortie into this kind of postmodernism by me.
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I have been enjoying getting to grips with Gregory’s Vincent St. Thomasino’s selected writings, collected in the soon-to-be-released, The Wet Motorcycle. This work, which I have been lucky enough to see before publication, includes some absolutely pyrotechnic poems, that burst off the page and whoosh over your head. An early sequence is called Bolts. To me they are mysterious meteors of meaning. Take Bolt twenty which pinballs between tiny fragments of perhaps, Tristan and Iseult, and Petrach, and may be alluding to the misfortune of having to dash your brain on the harsh business of grappling with words.
Fu pechiez dash my brain L’
The Wet Motorcycle is also remarkable, in that it provides the theoretical background to enable you to better understand the poet’s way of seeing. He offers a Crash Course in Logoclastics, which employs the term ‘logoclastics’ to suggest a break or dislocation in discourse. This break is where the reader steps in to bridge the gap with ‘their own logic, sense and meaning’. I think it may be possible to read this as encouraging a more engaged reading, where the reader is co-creating with the writer. Nothing to argue with here. While I have never thought of it this way, I always enjoy writing that has ambiguity, suggestion, and territories left for the reader to explore. Leaving space for the reader is essential in serious writing.
The theory continues with a description of the ‘pannarrative’ text.
The pannarrative text. If “text-collage” is the general term for such, then a “text collage” composed of fragments (word fragments, words, sentences, verses, elements [quotation]) of narrative (narrative as found / appropriation) “stitched” together. It is a sort of “list” or “roll call.”
The pannarrative poem begins by seeing all the world as one great narration — a narrative that is known in proportion to the degree of the relation of its parts.
As an instance of the pannarrative text (or, of, the collage text) I here do offer a text. And notice, please, the composition, the assemblage, is of things from the world writ large, from the world encircling me, and these are mixed with my own sensibilities, with my own emotions (and that my poem is the analogue to the expressionist depiction, and thus an ekphrasis of sorts).
This description of how the writer engages with the ‘one great narration’ to produce his work I find fascinating.
I have just embarked on Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino’s work. Sure it is difficult. But it has rewards and challenges. But one thing is for certain, this is a way of writing that is distinctly different to my own, and I enjoy it for precisely this reason. His is a serious and pioneering endeavour, which has poetry, flash fiction, novels and theory in its ambit. It is unlike any other I have read, so must be explored.