Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics (ISSN 1534-7877) is an international literary and philosophical journal published by Fulcrum Annual.
Editors: Philip Nikolayev, Katia Kapovich
Contributing editors: Pam Brown (Australia), Billy Collins (US), Fred D’Aguiar (Caribbean), Brian Henry (US), W. N. Herbert (UK), Robert Kelly (US), David Kennedy (UK), John Kinsella (Australia), August Kleinzahler (US), Ben Mazer (US), Paul Muldoon (US), Greg O’Brien (New Zealand), Michael Palmer (US), Marjorie Perloff (US), John Tranter (Australia)
According to Fulcrum’s inaugural editorial, “The hardest thing for poets is to keep on speaking terms with each other. They tend to be self-absorbed and alienated by nature. Few have the energy to follow goings-on in the many regions of the poetry world. Contemporary English-language poetry does not know itself well at all.” The idea, then, is to help modern poetry to know itself better – to distill what is most important and interesting in the current poetic process. The first issue’s central theme is “A Map of English-language Poetry.” It contains poems and essays by leading poets and critics representing twelve different parts of the English-speaking world: the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore and South Africa. Twelve out of the issue's 16 essays discuss the current poetic situations in those regions. National Public Radio's "The Poet and the Poem" has announced Fulcrum as the winner of The Excellence in Print Award, 2003.
Subscription rates in the U.S. are $12 per issue/year for individuals, $15 for institutions. Foreign subscriptions are $17 and $20 respectively. $5 discount for a three-year subscription. A check, money order or bank draft drawn in U.S. dollars and payable to Fulcrum Annual should be sent to Fulcrum, 334 Harvard Street, Suite D-2, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.
In those days when the sands
might shift at any moment, when his mother might at any moment lay
into him, he thought nothing of getting up half-way through a story about the Sahara,
the one about the tribesman following the scent
of water to a water-hole, thought nothing of getting up and going out
while he was still half-way through a sentence, going out and taking a turn
about the house, sometimes not bothering to return
for an hour, two hours, a week, a year perhaps, perhaps not until the sands
of time had run out,
not until his favourite guinea-hen had brought herself to lay
a double-yolked egg, or the double scent
of the sand-pile and the dunghill made a Sahara
of the yard through which Ned Skinner had moaned “Saahaara, Saahaara”,
the yard in which, after seeing The Four Feathers, he’d taken it upon himself to turn
a stack of pea-boxes still redolent of the scent
of pears into a bolster-humped camel that carried him across the endless sands
to where Harry Feversham and himself lay
in wait in a gully for the last of those out-and-out
cowards and scoundrels, the yard in which he’d not only learned to spout
most, if not all, of the main languages of Sahara
but had such a grasp of the lay
of the land, every twist and turn
of the ergs and regs which looked for all the world like featureless sands,
had so mastered following the scent
of water to a water-hole, shielding his eyes from the hen-house’s fluorescent
strip of light, under which he could make out a couple making out
an a featureless room in the old Sands,
or a featureless room in the Sahara,
a light by which he could make out every twist and turn
in what would have seemed to a lay
person a featureless hotel-room, a room which offered him an instant replay
of the old bolster and pea-box scent
rising from the camel under him, a scent powerful enough to turn
him around, reminding him that he’d already been out
for an hour, two hours, a week, a year perhaps, having him turn back through the Sahara
in which so many had perished, back through the sands
on which lay the bones of thousands
of his countrymen, the guinea fowl feather-strewn sand-pile reminiscent of the Sahara,
having him turn back inside to pick up his own sentence, to hear himself out.
“Light Silence: Dark Speech”: Reading Johns’s Images, Seeing Beckett’s Language in Foirades/Fizzles
Foirades/Fizzles (1976) holds a special place among Beckett’s collaborations with visual artists, it being the only book he made with someone as preeminent an artist as Beckett is a writer. Not only is Jasper Johns one of the great artists of the later twentieth century, but, like Beckett’s, his work is at once conceptual and sensuous, a curious combination that recalls the philosopher both artists read carefully and drew upon—namely, Wittgenstein.
How did Foirades/Fizzles come into being? In a 1977 interview with Edmund White, Johns recalls:I met Beckett through the exwife [Vera Lindsay] of an art critic. She wanted me to do illustrations to Waiting for Godot, but I said I’d like to work with Beckett on something new. She didn’t seem to understand and kept sending me other published texts. Then, when I was in Paris with Merce Cunningham and his dance company [in 1973], I met Beckett. I told him I wanted to illustrate something new. He looked horrified. ‘A new work?’ He asked me. ‘You mean you want me to write another book?’“I said, ‘Don’t you have some unpublished fragments, just some words or phrases? At that time I was thinking I’d use his words inside the image, phrases included within the picture. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have something like that but they’re in French.’ I told him I don’t read French. He agreed to translate them into English. Only later did I learn what an arduous process translation is for Beckett—he makes something altogether new when he translates. Finally he sent me two or three beautifully polished pieces; they were finished works and not fragments at all. Then I coaxed another one out of him. In the end he sent me five pieces. I decided to print both the French and the English in order to make the book longer and so that people who know both languages could compare the texts. I did etchings of the numerals and derived the other images from two patterns I’ve been working with in the last few years—a wall of flagstones and slanted lines on the diagonal, a sort of cross-hatching. [The reference is to the great painting Untitled of 1972; see Figure 1].When I showed the etchings to Beckett he held them very close to his face and scrutinized them for ages, scanning up and down (his eyesight is very bad). I was terrified he’d hate what I had done. I said, ‘Sam, I’ll be happy to explain--.’ ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘it’s perfectly clear,’ and he made approving noises. Then I showed him the endpapers. He said he hoped that I would place the cross-hatching design at the front of the book and the flagstones at the back. I asked him why. He said, ‘Here you try all these different directions but no matter which way you turn you always come up against a stone wall.’” (JJW 152-53)
A perfect Beckettian comment, of course, and one that shows that the writer understood just what Johns was up to. In his turn, Johns later spoke of Beckett’s “incredible sense of internal space” (WJJ 165); the imagery from the four panels of Untitled [figure 1], he explained, were chosen before he so much as saw the texts to be illustrated:
I barely began work and I thought: “This is what I should do for Beckett because I won’t ever have anything that will be more appropriate—I won’t be able to think of anything.” I didn’t know what his texts were going to be, but I just knew—what I knew of him and what I know of myself—that I wouldn’t be able to do anything better than that. (WJJ 197).
This is a very important comment, reminding us that Johns’s “illustrations” for Foirades/Fizzles depend on images from a painting that was finished before the book was so much as begun. When the art critic Roberta Bernstein remarks that “[Beckett’s] presentation of the individual as fragmented and isolated conjures up feelings and reactions similar to [Johns’s] fragments in Untitled, 1972” and asks Johns, “Were you thinking of that similarity when you decided to use images from that painting in your collaboration with Beckett?” (WJJ 201), the painter responds enigmatically that, yes, “intuitively” he felt “comfortable” with the association between “that particular painting” and Beckett’s writing (WJJ 201-202). And more recently Johns has told Michael Pye that he identified with Beckett’s “combination of elegance and austerity, of negativeness . . . . the tragic aspect, almost, and the elegance” (WJJ 256).
But why did Johns insist that Beckett make new works for the collaboration when he himself was relying on earlier work? And why did Beckett comply with this request—or at least seem to comply since the fact is that he gave Johns five texts that had already been written and partially translated between 1960 and 1975?
[Read the full essay in Fulcrum 1.]
Poly-Olbion, a Strange Herculean Toile; or A Sketch Map of British Poetries
In 1612 and 1622, the English poet Michael Drayton published the first eighteen and final twelve ‘Songs’ which together comprise his topo-chronological epic Poly-Olbion. It was by his own account a ‘strange Herculean toile’ which had begun in 1598 and the finished poem in alexandrines amounts to nothing less than a detailed celebration of England and Wales. Poly-Olbion is, however, a celebration of a particular kind. Drayton not only draws on earlier works like William Camden’s Britannia (1586-1607) but on his own travels about the country and on his own knowledge of history and legends. The result is a work which is located in a pre-existent genre and in which historical fact rubs shoulders with accounts of Robin Hood and classical personifications of English countryside jostle with detailed descriptions of nature and closely observed portrayals of the actualities of everyday life.
The multiple vistas of Poly-Olbion could lead one to speculate endlessly on the actual meaning of Drayton’s title. Is the emphasis on the fact that all these parts—the ‘poly’—are nothing compared to the greater thing—Albion—to which they contribute? Or is Drayton indicating that it’s only possible to talk of a multiplicity of Albions? That what actually identifies Albion is that, in the words of a much later writer, it contains multitudes? Poly-Olbion was not well-received by its contemporary audience but it marks, nonetheless, one of the starting points for a particular line in English culture where poets have felt able to write at length about the state of the nation. Places and events are carefully chosen and used to evoke aspects or qualities of Englishness. It is a line that can be traced at least as far as Eliot’s Four Quartets but in the last thirty years or so the relationship between poetry and nation seems to have taken on a particular form.
It is certainly true that successive generations of poets have felt uncomfortable not only with the idea of national epic but with the epic per se—although, of course, many poets continue to write long poems on a variety of subjects. What I want to suggest, however, is that as poetry has become more and more marginalised in terms of public discourse, the state of poetry has in a curious way come to stand for the state of the nation. Poetry and poetry criticism, instead of writing about nation, have internalised it. This is true of both academic and journalistic accounts. Alan Robinson’s Instabilities in Contemporary British Poetry (1988) constructs an account in which poets of the 1970s and 1980s engage primarily with history and nation. Similarly, Neil Corcoran’s English Poetry since 1940 (1993) announces itself as an account of ‘a national individuality newly and differently defining itself in relation to vastly altering historical circumstance’.
Journalistic accounts are, if anything, more revealing precisely because they tend to be less self-aware. Periodically, an article like this one will appear in a literary magazine or even in a national newspaper. The article will usually be written by a poet but from the viewpoint of a perplexed and despairing outsider. Its tone will be satirical to the point of viciousness. It will dismiss most things that are happening in the mainstream and the non-mainstream. It will end by offering a list of poets who are, in the writer’s opinion, the only genuinely talented writers currently at work and who are therefore the future hope of poetry. It goes without saying that these candidates usually turn out to be as ludicrous as F. R. Leavis’s 1932 proposal of Ronald Bottrall in New Bearings in English Poetry.
The reason for the generally unsatisfactory nature of such articles is that what is really at stake in them isn’t poetry at all. What is really at stake in such articles are anxieties and issues surrounding class, economics, gender and nation in a period when such things have become culturally and politically open to question. It is these anxieties that drive, for example, complaints about the ‘academic’ nature of contemporary British poetry or laments that it is just too diverse or that it is not diverse enough. It is anxieties about the fragmented nature of cultural and political reality that produce accounts whose underlying assumption is that an identifiable totality still exists. Just as politicians still insist in talking about nation, so poets and critics of poetry still believe it is possible to talk about poetry.
The reality is very different. One of our local television stations, broadcasting from Leeds in West Yorkshire, insists on talking in terms of ‘our region’ as in ‘good news for our region’. There are a number of things wrong with this. The geographical region covered by the station includes not only Yorkshire but parts of the Midlands, Humberside and East Anglia, all separate regions with their own recognisable accents. The Midlands and Yorkshire parts of ‘our region’ include large Asian, Afro-Caribbean and Chinese communities. Finally, within a fifty mile radius of my home in Sheffield, there are at least half a dozen universities. The majority of staff and students come from outside ‘our region’ and probably amount to at least 250,000 people who will spend only a short part of their lives in the area. What exactly, then, is this single ‘region’ supposed to be? And, more to the point, who are the collective ‘we’?
The same difficulties arise with poetry. Simon Armitage, J H Prynne and the members of the local writers’ group are all clearly engaged in very different types of activity and cultural production and yet, apparently, they are all involved in something that we can designate ‘contemporary British poetry’. Poetry, it seems, is a continuum and it is a conception that the new Director of the London-based Poetry Society, Christina Patterson, is keen to promote. The Poetry Society, she has been reported as saying,exists to represent the interests of Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy, as well as those of the young poet publishing their first slim volume, the performance poet struggling to be heard in the pub on a Friday night and for those ‘ordinary people’ who found that writing a poem ... seemed the most appropriate way to express their grief at the sudden death of a princess.
This is interesting for the way its rather desperate inclusiveness performs a beleaguered communitarianism. But, like all communities, it defines itself and functions by exclusion. The opening reference to Heaney and Duffy implies the existence of a particular kind of hierarchy in which there is no room for innovation.
In this context, it seems to me that it is no accident that a period in which ideas about coherent national identity have become increasingly precarious, is also the period in which more poetry anthologies and ‘state of the art’ articles—both mainstream and non-mainstream—have been published than ever before. And, it is in this context too, that I’m going to attempt to do something slightly different. I’m going to try to sketch a map of British poetry that is alert to the fact that poetry is embedded in wider cultural networks. The emphasis throughout will be on ‘poetries’ as opposed to ‘Poetry’. A defining assumption will be that while groupings and movements are useful signposts they take no account of the interesting and valuable work done by writers without obvious allegiances.
In what follows, I am going to assume that my typical reader has scant knowledge of British poetry but would like to get a broad idea not only of what is happening but also where it comes from. I shall begin, therefore, by making a brief sketch of the period after World War Two. I shall then give a personal account the period I know best—the 1980s and 1990s—and follow that with a view of what is happening at the moment. I’ll finish with a list of suggested reading which will include anthologies, individual collections and critical books.
[Read the full essay in Fulcrum 1.]