Example poetry

The new avant-garde of British poetry

John Wilkinson, Wooden circle (images courtesy of The Last Books)

I have never quite accepted the old joke, attributed to Irishman George Bernard Shaw, that Britain and the United States are “two nations divided by a common language”. But while there is a constant transatlantic exchange of popular music, art and literary fiction, the scenes of British and American poetry seem stubbornly separate; even avid American poetry readers can seldom quote more than a couple of living British poets. There is a feeling in America that British poetry is somehow more poised, more conservative than American, still invested in iambic sonnets and pentameters. It’s an impression born out of local myopia: it’s the structure of poetry publishing, a patchwork of craft enterprises, that prevents most Americans from seeing that British poetry is truly as energetic and varied as its American counterpart.

Internet periodicals and print-on-demand publishers unrelated to particular production locations (such as Shearsman and Salt) have narrowed this gap to some extent. And, as always, there are disjointed independent publishers in unlikely places: John Wilkinson and Keston Sutherland’s latest books, for example, are published by The Last Books, based in Amsterdam and Sofia, and have been beautifully printed in Estonia. and the Netherlands.

Adapting the old nickname of “Sons of Ben” (the coterie of poets surrounding Ben Jonson), one could identify Wilkinson and Sutherland as “Sons of Prynne” – the followers of Cambridge don and power behind the throne of the English avant-garde JH Prynne. Prynne has been plugged into the American experimental poetry scene since the early 1960s, counting Charles Olson and Ed Dorn as friends, and over the next half-century he grew more and more enigmatic, only to not to say prolific (he produced 15 chapbooks in 2020 alone). Sutherland and Wilkinson were students of Prynne, happy to recognize his influence and inspiration, but each of them followed their own paths as a mature poet.

The eldest of the two, Wilkinson had two careers: before coming to the United States for the University of Chicago’s writing program, he spent several decades in the United Kingdom as a nurse and social worker in the mental health sector. If some of his previous works, such as the 2012 collection Reckitt Blue, sometimes seems an exercise to completely empty the poem of subjectivity, the empathy and compassion of the mental health professional spreads Wooden circle, his most recent book. Wilkinson’s work may have gotten a little less difficult and off-putting over the years, but his syntax and vocabulary distortions continue to make readers aware of how the language of most self-expressions has become. smooth and merchant in what Adorno called a “administered world. “

These poems, as a title Wooden circle indicates, are to some extent pastoral, retreats from the hectic commitments of the everyday urban world. We see wetlands and forests, lake shores, beaches and “new pastures”. The problem with pastoral care is that you can lose contact with the “real” world: “Go pastoral, you will let go of your thread, you will lose it / intermittently / betray your nature” (“Tabulate”). Like the characters of A Dream of a summer night, in the woods, you risk having your intentions altered by magic eye drops: “They will spray your eyes when you sleep. / It’s very stressful to live in these forests, cold”(“ Lay-by ”).

However, pastoral care, from its beginnings with Theocritus and Virgil to this great forestry work, Walden, has always focused more on social criticism than on the celebration of nature. Virgil’s shepherds deplore the dispossession of post-war lands; Milton’s speaker Lycids spends as much time attacking the Church of England as he does mourning his fallen shepherd friend. At Wilkinson Wooden circle, the enchanted woodland retreat cannot prevent the horrific events of contemporary history, which continually erupt into poems: the case of “Abdullah Dilsouz, 15, / crushed by a refrigerated truck in Calais»When he applied for asylum in England at the end of 2017; the case of Iman Leila, a child who froze to death in northern Syria in early 2020; Asif Bano’s appalling Kashmiri 2018 case, “eight years old, / repeatedly raped in the temple grounds“; the Christchurch massacre in 2019, which Wilkinson commemorates in” Al Noor “(the name of the mosque) with a three-line list of some of the victims,

           Names drawn up in ranks 
insecure as the napes of their necks bent in homage,
eyes struggling out in transport on the main floor,
eyes fixed on a spot where silence in enjoined.

In “Impromptu: For the Fallen”, one of the 10 “impromptus” that punctuate the collection, Wilkinson wonders if lyrical “beauty” is compatible with the poetry of consciousness:

                    Must beauty
gloss, must it glimmer, must it inveigle: shall beauty
          roar. Barry MacSweeney says yes
          Gwendolyn Brooks says yes, Sean Bonney.
I am too well-spoken, hostage to this voice-box—: conch,
now call me out.

MacSweeney, Brooks and Bonney were poets with formidable lyrical gifts who managed to combine lyricism with incandescent political engagement. Wilkinson might regretfully contrast his own “outspokenness” with their revolutionary fervor, but Wooden circle balances a delicate lyrical sensibility with a keen awareness of the responsibilities which the poet, as an inhabitant of late capitalism, cannot escape by vacationing in the woods.

Keston Sutherland, Scherzos Benjyosos

For several years now, Keston Sutherland has been preparing an edition of Prynne’s critical prose. He is of a younger generation, perhaps less lyrical than Wilkinson; his poetry is certainly less nod to the traditional musical structures of English poetry. Perhaps Sutherland’s best-known work is 2007 Andy warm white, who somehow manages to pass a mash note to a Chinese businessman he found through a Google search named Andy Cheng, a critic of contemporary commodity markets and superpower relations, a good deal of postmodern Marxist theory and tender love poetry in 16 pages of dense, disjunctive, intermittently pornographic, and relentlessly alive.

The four sections Scherzos Benjyosos is a little calmer work, if not less tortured. For the most part, this sounds like prose – Sutherland speak to write “blocks” of language. It almost starts off as a short story:

I’m sitting writing this in a bar, doing what drug and alcohol support groups call “defining a private world,” according to their poster next to the church across from the Mash Tun. , where I met my love for the first time, and therefore where, in fact, the origin of this voice is deposited, in front of the stairs to the Therapy Center, where I have between five and ten minutes early […]

This rambling monologue sort of derails very quickly: the “speaker”, which we have built up as we read, reveals himself not as a single consciousness, but as a moment in an unstoppable flow of language, a figure which disappears and reappears, which passes from tenderness and introspection to contemptuous anger:

[…] I stopped kicking you in the back and telling you that you are dying, indeed, all the time, wind blast funeral, but I am unable to open my mouth without a abyss of amethyst spicules and ribbon-tied safety pins springing up to annoy you […]

the Scherzos don’t tell anything that resembles a linear story, although they do address or intermittently describe a character named “Ben” or “Benjy,” following him from his childhood to a nightmarish birthday party in the spirals of economy of concerts: “Your driver’s name is Benjy, they’ve just picked up your order. (I can’t help but think that “Benjy” is an evocation of the incoherent and disabled narrator of the development of the first section of The sound and the fury.)

Samuel Beckett’s narrative prose is in the air, although Sutherland’s voices may be more savage and demotic. If Beckett wrote “you must continue. I can not continue. I’m going to keep going, ”Sutherland raises the stakes:“ Hope is pegged to keep going anyway, a callout, PA immortality idiot, and everyone left is the twist of the plot that does not add up. Go. You can’t choose your murderer, dastardly asshole.

Despite their appearance close to prose, Sutherland’s scherzos for the most part avoid the progressive structuring of conventional prose; they are rather, in the words of the first scherzo, “a cave molested with scintillating obliquities”. These poems are a tough and savage race, taking us from that “bar” of opening through the bowels of our commodified society. They end, however, with a remarkable (for Sutherland) burst of lyricism, an astonishing profession of faith in the ability of poetry to bring comfort, as well as criticism:

        And please also know

That you did more to repair
Than kill us, as if to spite
A self that never will sing

That did sing. Still alive, hear
Love echo. Even here, like
Laughter, any second now.

Scherzos Benjyosos by Keston Sutherland (2020) and Wooden circle by John Wilkinson (2021) are published by The Last Books. Both are available online and in bookstores.

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