This is Part Two of a special retrospective on the Informationists, an experimental poetry group including Robert Crawford, W.N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey, Alan Riach and Richard Price. Part Two includes five more poems from the anthology ‘Contraflow on the SuperHighway’ and a commentary on the poems included in both parts of this retrospective by Richard Price.
by Richard Price
THUMB: Introductory Material:
POINTER: Selfie with Severed Head: Horror! Comedy! Politics.
Poems: ‘Letterbomb’ by W. N. Herbert; ‘Selfie with Severed Head’ by Peter McCarey
In Peter McCarey’s 2015 poem ‘Selfie with Severed Head’ the title hovers between very dark humour and shock. The youth culture, digital culture is there in ‘selfie’, an informalising word for self-portrait, which implies a photograph from a mobile phone rather than hours in Rembrandt’s studio (spent by an acknowledged master, Rembrandt). Even to explain what a ‘selfie’ is, positions the explainer in old-fashioned distance. ‘Severed head,’ although it seems throwback to a medieval time, or earlier, is also a digital phenomenon – the reader I guess fairly immediately thinks of the awful promotional videos of one resurgent cult or another, and the secret footage of one state execution or another, in Saudi Arabia, say. As with W.N. Herbert’s classic informationist poem, Letterbomb, the reader has no opportunity to evade the poem’s horror, nor the cheekiness of its direction back to the endearing narcissicism of fun photos by the young (or should know better).
Although these titles are in a way in the same territory as David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and – ineffective spoiler alert – the shotgun uplift of the decapitated Bobby Peru, they operate with a slightly different kind of postmodern noir. They have immediate confrontation, with immediate co-opting of the reader in queasy horror, and no suspense.
But then, from that point of explosion, each then re-tells time, situating the ghastly banality of their depicted violence in a web of social and political phenomena: in Herbert’s case, the strange and strained and for centuries largely unviolent relationship between Scotland and England; in McCarey’s case, overlaying the uneven power at play in international politics with an actually wry understanding of the hyper-individualism of the consumerist age. While the severed head is probably most readily associated with the anti-modernity world of ISIS (and, paradoxically, its media savvy), McCarey wrong-foots that convention with a decidedly Western take on suicide. There is hope, of course, in the image of the rescue-team, still setting off despite low expectations. McCarey’s apocalyptic vision, like all visions of humankind at its worst, is born from a belief in humankind at its best.
INDEX FINGER: Succulent Marrow of Grapeiness
Poems: ‘Lion’s milk’ by Alan Riach; ‘A Portrait of Walt Whitman’ by David Kinloch
If some Informationist poems ‘explode’ others operate at a cooler, more leisurely temperature, where the poem slowly, slowly, unfolds. Overall, you can see Informationism as an exploration of pace, of prosody, and of structural range, from the concentrates found in my own Marks & Sparks sequence in Lucky Day, to McCarey’s book-length works The Devil in the Driving Mirror and Tantris (collected in Collected Contraptions). This exploration is also in McCarey’s decades-long online project thesyllabary.com, which manages to be both minimalist and maximalist at the same time. Like The Syllabary, which has a deliberately randomised playback, Bill Herbert’s Omnesia, presented as two volumes which are variants of each other – with no clear authority for which is the ‘original’ – goes even further by destabilising the containing structure in the first place.
In Alan Riach’s ‘Lion’s milk’ and David Kinloch’s ‘A Portrait of Walt Whitman’ there is a dance with prose, but they are very different dances.
In Alan Riach’s free verse ‘Lion’s milk’ the dance is with the rhythms of speech, especially a kind of philosophical recollection, similar to the circling conversational patterns of Ford Madox Ford or D. H. Lawrence. (Incidentally because there is also the incorporation of contextual ideas and their structures of articulation within the poems themselves, you can see how the more recent Slow Poetry in the United States is working through the implications of similar patterns of expression.) The ‘lion’s milk’ of the title is Turkish raki, a clear alcohol occluded with the addition of water (like absinthe, raki becomes milky when you add H2O). The speaker is sharing his gently intoxicated euphoria with the reader – Informationists are praise poets and have a distinctly anti-puritan turn. From the first we know he is ‘high’ and yet the whole poem depends on its understanding of depth – the tricky currents in the Bosphorus with which the poem closes. Depth ‘allows’ the pattern of conversation to happen, as it allows the light effects over the straits, as it allows the process of making raki. The poem itself has a clearly sketch-like atmosphere – its firm beauty exists on the authority, on the confidence, of the poet, another kind of depth. And, as the last sign of the poem is a dash, so that depth is always aspired to but never reach: the poem is open, you are invited to sit down and share some lion’s milk, too.
If Riach’s line goes ‘out’, taking poetry on a prose flight at exactly the same time as it acknowledges its debt to depth, then David Kinloch’s line in ‘A Portrait of Walt Whitman’ is going ‘in’, folding prose in and in again until it’s poetry: the prose is rich; held within a fascinating state which, to this reader, appears delicately equidistant between prose and verse. As with Riach, there is good-humour in the telling and there is now an explicit acknowledgement, like Riach’s concluding dash, that art “may only point”. If McCarey’s ‘Selfie with Severed Head’ is hyperaware of the mediated world we live in (or ‘live’ in), then Kinloch’s poem rolls time back to the forgeries of fancy camerawork in the age of Whitman. The butterfly on the great American poet’s index finger is a cardboard fake, a trick of photography, but Kinloch dwells with the aspiration of the big gentle man and the hint of his posthumous confession. Fakery yes, but still a desire for “succulent marrow of grapeiness, the quiddity in things that provoked an ‘itch’ in words.” The layeredness of reality isn’t just about communication – though Informationists are naturally obsessed with that aspect – it is about the challenge of fathoms-deep ambiguity, mystery, to the idea of living directly and openly. Kinloch brings the theory of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida to bear on the flat documentary nature of information: this is the significance of the stab of the “punctum”, when a photograph, despite itself, catches itself in real meaning. For the Informationists, notwithstanding their distancing name, emotional pain and heartbreak break through, find their transient truth. Loss, felt with immediacy, allows ambiguity, briefly, to resolve from dark matter into a pang of light.
RING FINGER: Now as then we seek a tongue to mark this difference.
Poems: ‘Mamapoules’ by David Kinloch; ‘These choices are not choices’ by Richard Price
If Roland Barthes attempted to codify the language of love in A Lover’s Discourse, the Informationists recode romantic discourse. In ‘Mamapoules’ a Caribbean word for gay men, Kinloch layers the Western lifestyle of middleclass gay men with the history of Scottish convicts in the islands, and unfolding, gently, an elegy for those who died of AIDS in the 1980s. It is striking that markers of difference flow in and out of each other in this and other poems by Kinloch – ‘dialect’ words, shared syllables which are nevertheless pronounced differently, and mutating genetic material, become comparators for each other. This creates a kind of fluidity between object and subject, a destabilisation between describing discourse (recollection, theory, science) and the immersive discourse of being.
If Price plays this near-interchangeability for laughs at the beginning of ‘An Informationist’s Kitchen’ by the end of that poem the mood has changed, has become elegiac, thirsting in angst for what cannot be achieved, the impossibility of predicting the good future (it is no coincidence that this domestic piece was written soon after his mother’s death in her early 60s). In ‘These choices are not choices’ Price’s poem begins as a reflection on the transition between the age of printing and the age of digital communication. Soon, though, it has homed in on emotional health, on loneliness and company, breaking down the filament between digital communication and love itself. At times brittle, the poem shows the word ‘I’ to be exposed, isolated at the end of that critical line which begins “to be in your own absence.” ‘I’ positioned there creates a near-jump-off pause before finding company – like a trapeze artist finding her mate – in the next stanza’s opening word, “love.” Despite bytes and pixels, the Informationists remember that touch is still a primary sense.
PINKY: In Praise of Peripheral Vision
Poems: ‘What constitutes a bribe?’ by Peter McCarey; ‘The Price’ by Richard Price; and ‘In Praise of Peripheral Vision,’ by Alan Riach
In ‘What constitutes a bribe’ Peter McCarey names his price: a list that mixes coveted bric-a-brac with the coveted priceless. It’s a self-portrait and an acknowledgement of the frailty in most of us. Price’s ‘The Price’ plays on his surname and enters a different kind of fantasy country that would seem dystopian if the vast extent of state surveillance wasn’t now in the public domain. Both appear to be personal poems, with their apparent confessions encoded in the details of their emotional debris and desire, and yet they play out as public poems – about bribery, about government authority, about society’s direction. They are lateral-thinking poems, propelled in McCarey’s case by a gradually-opening, and increasingly sinister, list of wants, and in Price’s case by an unfinished refrain which tries out a new permutation each time it appears. Alan Riach’s ‘In Praise of Peripheral Vision,’ begins with a close reading of an episode in Fritz Lang’s film Western Union but then changes direction, bringing in ‘the old house I was born in’, via the theme of perpetual watching (remembering, if you like), only to go back to Fritz Lang and the actor Randolph Scott, and so to emphasise a different kind of sensitivity, the knight’s move awareness of the contextual, of the peripheral, perhaps one of our only hopes in times when government and corporate misdirection is the key weapon to be rendered blunt.