Friday, July 29

No drum solos. Ginger Baker sightings only a rumour....

Review by Steven Waling

The Lores by Robert Sheppard (Reality Street, £7.50)

Whenever I read contemporary non-mainstream, so-called avant garde poetry, at the back of my mind I have a rather unfortunate image. ELP. Rick Wakeman. "Tales from Topographic Oceans". Prog rock. Arrrrggggh!

I know it’s unfair, that the non-mainstream tradition that Robert Sheppard is working in, for instance, comes from the poetry of Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams, not from daft geeks dressing up in capes. Nevertheless, when you’re faced with a collection which is only one part of a larger design ("Twentieth Century Blues") which is trying to examine English history through 100 years, including the 1st and 2nd World Wars, the fight against fascism (as in "Bolt Holes"), Thatcherism etc. etc., I can’t help thinking of triple concept albums and long long long guitar solos. And drum solos: don’t forget the drum solos.

There is a further design in this book: there are 5040 words, which apparently is Plato’s ideal number, the poems themselves often have a certain number of words in each verse etc, and the poems themselves belong to further sub-divisions both within this book and carrying over to other books that are part of the overall uber-poem. All this seems incredibly complicated, but is there a point to it?

Well, yes, I suspect there is, and it’s to do with form. Though such a complicated system could so easily lead to bloat, in these poems, it’s as tough a set of formal limits as any traditional form could be. Just as the rules of a sonnet, if used well, lead to a highly-charged unit of energy, so these syntactic and word-number rules control Sheppard’s thoughts and concentrate their energy. My worry about it being a concept album of a book is largely unneccessary: there is no fat in this book, no pretentiousness but a proper seriousness and a deep awareness of the ideologies underlying the grim history of the 20th century.

But don’t expect normal syntax in these poems. Here, he takes the language of politics, of economics and puts it through the blender:

Fanatical beings refunction the banners
driven to exchange ritual policies
what’s inside you quiet embattled
slices bricks with quixotic custom
and practice against slogans a
thingy day in the nervy
90s the new erotics underfoot

(from "Book 10")

which I don’t quite understand myself: but I do get the image at the back of my mind of an individual in the midst of a lot of advertising slogans, economic policies, political ideologies etc, somehow trying to make his/her way through it. I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s something like that.

It’s the formal constraints in the poems that stop them from running away from themselves, but this is not easy poetry. It takes work to read it well, though it is useful to read poetry like this for its sound as well as its meaning. Though, frankly, the sound of this poem still comes across as rather grim and serious, as in "Book 1:Time Capsule":

The time capsule’s
contract with the
future, the Eugenics’
Court with its
injections, co-ops us
to a selective
history: as soon
as the population
is trafficking clatters
the shutters down
the laws of
motion beyond its
jurisdiction, unceased husks
in lightening streaks

The first line reminds me of Blue Peter burying time capsules in the Blue Peter garden, but then we’re into serious politics from the 1930’s: eugenics. I like that juxtaposition, but it’s the only trace of a smile in the whole collection. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection, and the human beings in it seem to be more of a mass than people, so I do wonder if it’s the best place to start reading "Twentieth Century Blues".

In the end, I find myself dissatisfied with this collection. The mood is sombre and grim throughout, almost like a post-modernist Geoffrey Hill, but although I’m interested in the techniques used, the poems don’t really move me. In the end, poetry, however well-organised, however much it conforms or does not conform to a particular theory of poetry or describes a political situation accurately, has to have some emotional contact with the reader. Even if you don’t understand the poem exactly, if the poem moves you, you will want to understand it. Otherwise, you may as well read a text-book.

Maybe I need to read more of "Twentieth Century Blues"; then it can be fitted into place and it would seem more real to me. At least there were no drum solos.

© Steven Waling 2005

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