Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Edge of the Orison

 If London Orbital was Iain Sinclair's first foray outside the urban centre he has obsessively explored and excavated in previous books - albeit in this case a lengthy circumambulation which was in fact a strategy for adducing the city's secrets from its margins, from everything it had pushed outwards - Edge of the Orison tracks a journey out of London (re-enacting John Clare's exodus from a mad-house in Epping Forest back to his home in Helpston, Northamptonshire) which keeps doubling back on itself and inevitably concerning itself with the inner workings of the metropolis.
   The trackings Sinclair encompasses, furthermore, forge deeper than he has done before into a complex layering of thematic materials, richly offsetting and rebounding against each other, triangulating personal,historical and spatial nodes. Research into John Clare and his Northamptonshire lineaments leads Sinclair and his rogue-ish set of sidekicks (Renshie Bickshall, Brian Catling, Alan Moore etc) in two main directions: firstly, into Sinclair's own family history and autobiography, since his wife Anna's forebears were also from the Northampton region (could there even be an overlapping with Clare's somewhat murky family-tree?); secondly, into an extended meditation on English Romanticism and the seemingly self-defeating arc of its visionary proponents - not just "mad Clare" but also Shelley, Blake and Byron - within the social context of an England already in the early 19th C. swallowed up by the Industrial Revolution, agricultural Enclosure and voracious mercantilism. While Shelley and Byron turned into deracinated exiles, Clare was caught between the equally disillusioning poles of his rapidly-changing rural origins - the defunct idyll of his childhood - and a London which beckoned him with largely-spurious promises of literary success and esteem:

   "He had to learn the difficult thing, in different places we are different people. We live in one envelope with a multitude of voices, lulling them by regular habits, of rising, labouring, eating, taking pleasure and exercise: other selves, in suspension, slumber but remain wakeful. Waking confirms identity. We are never more than an extension of the ground on which we live...Poetry is a form of going away. Of holding landscape, and its overwhelming particulars, in the float of memory."

    (Interesting to note here an echo of Robert Creeley's famous assertion that "Form is never more than an extension of content", quoted also by Olson in his 'Projective Verse' essay, an important influence on Sinclair's 'open-field' approach.)
    One further 20th C narrative is set up in parallel to Clare and the Romantics: focussing on the fact that James Joyce's daughter Lucia, also diagnosed as insane, lived much of her later life in an asylum in Northampton, Sinclair pieces together a further subplot featuring both the novelist (another exile) and his sometime amanuensis and lover of Lucia, Samuel Beckett. An example of how subtle the interweavings of imagery are is that Sinclair returns to memories of first meeting his wife as students in Dublin within the context of discussing the two Irish masters.
    To my mind Edge of the Orison is Sinclair's masterpiece, at once his most personal book and the most fascinatingly rich and probing in its investigations of memory, history and identity. It also invents its own protean form, switching fluidly between factual accounts of walks and visits, historical research, lyrical insights, autobiographical remembrance and often hilarious satirical and comical descriptions, all delivered in Sinclair's most pointedly vivid prose. 

Friday, 18 February 2011

trove of prosodies

                                     When I embarked on this blog last May, I intended the main drift of the posts to be concerned with poetic form and prosody, which is why I settled on Ictus as a title. However, as with all my creative endeavours, the blog has seemed to pursue its own fortuitous direction and shaped itself according very much to circumstantial eventualities and the fluid on-go of my readings and thoughts (as well of course as the continual struggle against time-constraints).
   I aim to include more posts regarding poetic rhythm this year, reflections towards a book-length treatment of this area. To begin with, I discovered a website today which represents an interesting (if hardly objective) resource on prosody from the viewpoint of several European languages:


The author is one Leonardo Malcovati, a Milanese expert in the Troubadour poets, and indeed he includes his extensive collection of translations of the Troubadours on the same website. I love Pound's translations of Arnaut Daniel but Malcovati seems to be strenuously anti-Pound, perhaps because Pound's versions aren't strict enough. (No time now to get into the age-old argument between the virtues of poetic adaptation against linguistically-accurate translation.)
   Eccentric, opinionated and perhaps a bit lofty in tone (he emblazons 'Trobar' with 'The Democratic Republic of Poetry'), this remains a useful site to have in your Favorites. I love the snappiness of the 'Contacts' section when he says: 'Negative comments are welcomed and will be quickly answered.' (A duel, perhaps?)

Sunday, 13 February 2011

the mighty shaka

Follow-up to previous - a short clip of one unsung lynchpin of UK reggae who got only a passing mention in 'Reggae Brittania'. This gives an authentic flavour of entering a Shaka night in all its  murderously heavy, quasi-mystical intensity. Nothing to match it.

'bassline runnin' tru your solar plexus'

Enthralling BBC documentary on the history of UK reggae last night, with contributions from seminal figures like Prince Buster, Bunny Lee, Sugar Minott, Big Youth, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell, as well as members of Aswad, Steel Pulse, the Specials and The Slits:


Saturday, 12 February 2011

Travelling with Rimbaud 2

(After Rimbaud – the speaker has made a counter-journey to his, from Harar to London via France):

‘I am a transient, not-too-downtrodden inhabitant of a metropolis assumed up-to-date because every criterion of taste has been disregarded as much in the architectural design of its office-blocks and new-builds as in the panopticon of its urban planning. ‘Monuments to superstition’ are subsumed within the retail-facades. Morals and discourses are reduced to binary codes. These millions of beings with no need to acknowledge each other’s existence conduct their educations, careers and retirements with such uniformity and lack of will that the duration of their lives is several times longer than accredited statisticians have found to be the case in ‘the Developing World’.

'Hence, from my fourth-floor window, I make out a new species of apparition jay-walking through the fetid exhaust-fumes these never-dark summer nights – a new breed of Furies haunting the benefit-hostels as squalid as in their home-lands, but everything for them is like this: Death, like a social-worker, removing an unwanted baby; Love an unaffordable marketing-ploy; the pretty one with a police-record, snivelling for a fix by the bins.’
                      (An adaptation of 'Villes' from 'Illuminations')

Monday, 7 February 2011

guest contributor: rob taylor

Ictus is very pleased to welcome a new piece of writing by Rob Taylor, a poet and musician based in Brighton; an insightful reading of Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a novel notoriously difficult to gain a critical angle on. It's the first of what will hopefully turn out to be a regular series of contributions from guest-writers this year, so the blog is not just me wittering on:

DFW, not Rob Taylor!
          'Heightened-State Micro-Obsessiveness':
                    Reflections on Infinite Jest                    
   Capitalism and the Novel have grown up together. For 300 or so years the development of the one has been variously and suggestively mirrored in the other. But where Capital subsumes, homogenises and reifies, the best novels are able, momentarily at least, to awaken the multiple transgressive energies, meanings and divergences within human consciousness which the mechanisms of hegemony rigorously function to expunge and conceal.   David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, published in 1996, is an incredibly apposite and percipient exploration of the pathologies at once the by product and life blood of our current phase of pervasive global Capital. The novel’s consubstantial trinity of themes – obsession, compulsion, addiction – are tackled with what is itself a kind of heightened-state micro-obsessiveness resulting in some of the finest comedic writing ever conceived. Conversely, the very same aspect of the book also produces some deliberately trying passages of maniacally convoluted detail and tangential prolixity designed to test the endurance of the hardiest reader in much the same way as the ‘Eumaeus’ episode of Ulysses or Chaucer’s The Parson’s Tale. Extensive footnotes function as a sort of anti-narrator frequently sending you to the back of the book for lengthy digressions of anything up to nineteen pages of tiny print itself smattered with microscopic sub-footnotes.
    From a subtly different yet closely related entry-point it is equally a book about loneliness, loss, disconnectedness and the longing for human contact these precipitate. Beneath the broadly comic satire and intermittent brushes with nihilism there is compassion and a sense of ineffable sadness for human failure and frailty.
    It is a huge novel: experientially vast, with frequent supple narrative shifts adapting proteanly to the various characters and their environments. As with the narrative strategy of Joyce, there is no neutral or default narrative voice from which the plurality of idiomatic registers depart. Infinite Jest consistently employs what is, as Hugh Kenner first noted, a characteristically Joycean approach to narrative; that the consciousness of the nearest presiding character inflects the rhythm, diction and ideological complexion of a sentence at any given point in the book. This is made nicely explicit when the hospitalised and delirious Gately, having been phantasmagorically visited by James Incandenza’s ‘wraith’ , finds his mind inundated with words which are entirely unknown to him:

‘..with roaring and unwilled force, comes the term PIROUETTE in caps, which term Gately knows for a fact he doesn’t have any idea what it means and no reason to be thinking it with roaring force, so the sensation is not only creepy but somehow violating, a sort of lexical rape.

   This passage also points up the way in which socially and culturally disparate characters are in fact very close in terms of their experential malaise and are ironically connected through the very isolation of their various solitary compulsions. The twin axes at the novel’s centre, Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, both encapsulate a boundlessly lonely emptiness. Judged by the criteria of ‘the American Dream’ they are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of achievement and prestige but both symbolise equally, the impossibility of attaining, let alone maintaining, the imagined point of fulfilment. Both sets of inmates are just as in thrall to the chimerae of consumer-culture’s hollow drives; their shared nexus an agonisingly single-minded will to self-transcendence and annihilation. Thanatos and Eros are locked in a perpetual, tormented dance for which Incandenza’s ‘The Medusa v. The Odalisque’ might provide an apt embodiment. The dialectic of ‘pleasure’ in a consumption-driven capitalist monoculture lies at the heart of Infinite Jest. What at first may seem diametrically opposed turn out to be two sides of the same desolate moon, as, indeed, the author of Hamlet who supplies the book’s title often demonstrated when dramatising his own anxieties toward a then just-emergent capitalist culture.
    Infinite Jest contains some of the most haunting, funniest and uncannily exact prose you could hope to encounter. It’s bawdily humane, prodigiously generous in its refusal to pass judgement on the self-inflicted sufferings of its characters. It’s anarchically form-defying, ever-shifting vastness - is, finally, its own ungraspable form. The bathetic tailing-off of its many plot-strands seems at once inevitable and unsatisfactory but really it would be fatuous to expect some kind of denouement or plot resolution from an ‘entertainment’ such as this one. It is the bastard offspring of Tristram Shandy and Moby Dick midwifed by Gravity’s Rainbow and at the same time nothing at all like any of them or any other contemporary novel. In a literary culture that has still perhaps yet to recover from Foster Wallace's staggeringly untimely death by suicide in 2008, we are equally yet to measure the full importance of this seismic, gargantuan anti-epic, whose dystopic fictional future (conjectured back in the early 90's) seems uncomfortably near to where we are now.


Friday, 4 February 2011

marks of weakness, marks of woe

 I recently began working at Hackney Community College in the to me unexplored locale of Shoreditch. Tipped off by a reference in Iain Sinclair's Edge of the Orison (of which more presently...) and bored of the office one lunchtime last week, I psychogeographised my way to Bunhill Fields just off Old Street roundabout and stumbled upon the resting-place of William Blake, a humbly unadorned grave set in fitting isolation amid the flagstones. 
   It was poignant to find such a maverick,recalcitrant master lodged in this little dissenters' cemetery surrounded now by glassy office-blocks, panini-bars, cybercafes and Pret a Mangers, this buzzing, 'happening' district momentarily stilled by the spectacle of a memorial stone dedicated to a poet who believed so passionately in the eternal.

   "I wander through the charter'd streets
    Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
    And mark on every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe"