Conductors of Chaos: A Poetry Anthology 
edited by Iain Sinclair.
Picador, 488 pp., £9.99, June 1996, 0 330 33135 3
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Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne 
by N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge.
Liverpool, 196 pp., £25, April 1996, 0 85323 840 5
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Carl Rakosi: Poems 1923-41 
edited by Andrew Crozier.
Sun & Moon, 209 pp., $12.99, August 1995, 1 55713 185 6
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The Objectivists 
edited by Andrew McAllister.
Bloodaxe, 156 pp., £8.95, May 1996, 1 85224 341 4
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That Iain Sinclair, poet, essayist, impresario and weaver of arcane fictions, is one of the more generous spirits around is obvious from this brave, demanding and often flummoxing anthology. Thirty or forty poets are represented; most have remained in relative obscurity, partly because their work fell on deaf ears, partly because they believed in the notion of a mainstream which intellectual loyalties led them to disparage quicker than it could disparage them. ‘The voices here,’ says Sinclair in the Introduction, ‘are the ones who have been locked away, those who rather enjoy it.’ Twenty-five, thirty years after the best of them began to publish – John James, Chris Torrance, Lee Harwood, Andrew Crozier, Peter Riley, J.H. Prynne, Michael Haslam, Douglas Oliver, Barry MacSweeney, Denise Riley – they must nonetheless wonder, from time to time, whether theirs is a case of having missed the boat which would only have been worth catching if they’d been on it in the first place. Perhaps that is why Sinclair gives the impression of his poets as a ship of fools docking for an open day. ‘The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to “understand” it but I like having it around.’ Plenty of his contributors are not chaoticians at all. They do not make a meal out of alienation and fracture. Yet the alternative to implying, as Sinclair does in his adversarial way, that because they are crazy and wild, his favourites can wipe the floor with the dandies of the London lists, would have been to argue that they were an avant garde with coherent ideas whose bearing on British poetry will in time become clear – and this is unlikely. Their identity is now too loose, the poetic culture on which they might have a bearing too amorphous. Their vanities, moreover, are not those of an avant garde: Sinclair’s people have too much both in the way of an admirable reticence and a less admirable vigilance which drives some to any lengths to avoid the sin of facility. Most important, the forms of patronage that made avant-gardism a reliable means of insertion in a ‘prevailing’ discourse, and the political contexts in which this was possible, no longer exist. Low-paid day jobs or faculty teaching posts have kept too many of Sinclair’s unworldly contributors at a remove from anything resembling an open forum. If they now speak largely to one another, sometimes in a mysterious babble, that is our loss, for many of them are, or have been, very good indeed.

In The Kodak Mantra Diaries, Sinclair’s record of a film project based on Allen Ginsberg’s stay in London thirty years ago, there is an interesting exchange with the psychiatrist David Cooper.

Sinclair: It seems to me that what has emerged from this Congress [the Dialectics of Liberation] is the necessity for what has been described as madness – as one of the few active means of keeping society alive ...

Cooper: Yes, I think we’ve changed our ideas very much, in the sense that we now see madness as something precious; not as a diseased state of consciousness but as an expanded state of awareness.

Despite a quarter of a century of revision, the lingering notion of madness both as a gift and as a practice sounds a keynote for Conductors of Chaos. It’s not the madness of mental illness, which, along with ‘Belfast, the Caribbean, sexual politics’, Sinclair dismisses as a marketable poetic agenda, but something more impersonal, closer to the magical attentions of the ‘poet-shaman’, who (like Ginsberg) can reconfigure the world with a poetics of utterance and enactment, or else with a more strategic approach (such as ‘cut-up’, which Sinclair tell us he’s been dabbling in at the beginning of The Kodak Mantra Diaries) that would liberate language from the custody of ‘sense’. In both cases, the objectives are revelation and transformation, and two exemplary young poets who revealed and transformed the world in ways that Sinclair approves are named in the Introduction: Mark Hyatt and Veronica Forrest-Thompson, both engaged until their deaths in the Seventies in wringing that impersonal madness from very disconcerting forms of solitude – Hyatt’s poems raw and visionary, Forrest-Thompson’s more in the nature of a long conversation with difficulty.

Common to at least half the contributors is a keen interest in Modernism, identified with Pound, among others, but less with Eliot, and a resentment of the Movement, which is seen as a drab cul de sac down which a serviceable Modernist tradition was diverted and then done away with. If going back is impossible, a handful of refugees have looked for other ways out: the culture here is excursionary, touching on far more than the merely ‘English’. There is a good familiarity with American poetry, tending out of Objectivism, through Black Mountain, Beat, the ‘New York school’ and on, much later, to the more detached experimentalism of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers whose notion of ‘subverting’ the ‘imperialism’ of poetic discourse won a hearing in Britain shortly after the launch of their journal in 1978.

Surrealism is also important: David Gascoyne is one of five predecessors, each chaperoned by a younger contributor, to win a place in the anthology. Here and there, traces of a heady European education are to be found, chiefly in phenomenology and Marxism – Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, vestigial readings in the Frankfurt school – leading on, in some cases, via the Situationist International and then the Tel Quel of the mid to late Seventies, to Derridean anxieties about the metaphysical haunting of texts. Which may simply be to say that several of these poets have been around for a while, and that they’ve been interested in radical or oppositional modes. Often notions of purity and incantation (the poet-shaman, again) get the edge over the numbing mix of craft-consciousness and attitude which Sinclair takes to be the British career-poet’s strongest suit. Alternatively, we are offered a belief, verging on superstition, in the excellence of difficulty and a tendency to think of vernacular as an entrenchment of social and political habits which can be unsettled and perhaps dislodged by radical work on the page.

For some of these ‘elective outsiders’, as Sinclair calls them, quality time at the keyboard is conceived as a challenge to power: the poem is a flamboyant descent into the street, part Pentecost, part June Days – old allegiances among the poets run from the Communist Party through most stations of infantile disorder. In literary political terms, there is a vigorous disdain for an impervious centre: London literary life; the breezier, upmarket poetry lists; the reiteration of English down-in-the-mouthism (‘careers,’ says Sinclair, ‘built on rummaging through Larkin’s bottom drawer’).

For Peter Riley, the failure of Nicholas Moore, another of the predecessors, to break through to a wider readership (bigger publishers) after his success in the Forties proves ‘that poetry-in-public ... was already completely useless in the Sixties for any purpose except re-endorsing the pre-endorsed’. From which it follows that there are margins, and that these are by definition zones of virtue, in the moral, political and personal senses proper to poetry. This seething peripheral space used to be called counter-culture, or, as Michael Horowitz preferred, the ‘underground’, and in the Sixties, whatever the wreckage, it was probably easier going than it is now. But the older Conductors of Chaos, and their anthologist, never thought of counter-culture as a leisure activity.

Difficulty of an obvious order occurs at the level of the page. To cull at random:

A forced landing in parlance
as aforesaid in the aphoristic
pall as predicted disafforested
the wordland ‘on balance’.

                                         Alan Halsey

To make a true difference, ascertain the turning point just prior to the terrain itself. Wefting and proof of particularised elements, panegyric as oscular traces, the trim sensor convinced.

Aaron Williamson

But before we can even embark on this kind of text, we are up against a broader problem, to do with the advertisement of marginality. What approach is a reader who feels the absence of any virtue attaching to a marginal identity, or to this particular one, or the absence of virtue tout court, supposed to take? It’s enough to read poetry from time to time to reckon the material character of language, and to know that meaning is fugitive; a reader with a politicised sense of the page might even agree that it is the business of poetry to insist on the migratory character of meaning. Yet these shrines of marginality can be absolutist places, where the reader’s obtuseness, or reluctance, or perplexity can seem clumsy and defiling, which leads to the suspicion that they are far more enclosed than they take themselves to be. Several of the writers here – Drew Milne, John Wilkinson and Caroline Bergvall, for example – opt understandably for a poetic strategy that allows no rest at all but the results are oddly stable. A delirious quest for the inconceivable seems to inform the work of John Wilkinson:

Hold your sides, clamp down on sequel
manufacture flings the wardrobe
to four quarters – will bring Mayan sack,
plastic thin as sea urchin shells
broadcasting responsible parenthood
Only one covers the worlds apart,
a floater, a foreign body slings
its hook through the slack harnesses

This disabling, fracturing and re-routing of meaning in eternally interesting ways is certainly callous, perhaps abusive, in part because, as we know, it can never drop; and so the refusal of closure is something of a forced march. Solace is definitely regarded as bad politics – a cheap shot. At the same time, the work is intriguing to an outsider, lush in its parochialism, in the way a pile of trade journals, a specialist manual or a corporate training video might be. The key to pleasure, or edification, nonetheless lies in being in the business, and the multivocal shifts and broken ruminations of a Wilkinson poem indicate that we are in a very businesslike space: the poems are perfectly defended by their own inconvenience, opposed to any untutored reading and deliberately hard to negotiate. This carefully mussed turmoil is a good illustration of the way in which disruptive strategies – the derangment of the authorial voice, the mistrust of the signified, the refusal of narratives, grand or minimalist, the fastidious expunging of recognisable idioms except as laconic fragments – give the poem a bullying character; and it’s not long before its parts reconvene into a single, resonant whole that sounds very much like vatic intemperance. The signified, rising cravenly through the text, can turn out, all along, to have been the poet’s prestige as an oracle of exemplary nonsense.

The encyclical voice here is surely that of J.H. Prynne, whose lectures in Cambridge have long been counter-incentives to desertion – to the halls of anthropology or philosophy – for restive English undergraduates. But Prynne’s poetry, and especially Sinclair’s inclusion from Her Weasels Wild Returning, is neither so generous nor so obviously a public form.

                                          If I still caught
the view does she know it is seen, how other like made
adhesive upon a clouded aspect. Fresh legions get on
reader docking, on to a limb following the now often dazed
declensions apart.

It is hard to excerpt from Prynne – the rest of the poem seems to scoff at us for the part we choose to puzzle at – but these lines catch the register of the later work, which still exercises a strong influence on a small number of followers. Prynne is a cult poet, an overseer whose ghostly presence at the shoulder of a writer like Wilkinson has done no good. Few readers deny that the work is stubborn in its difficulty but there is disagreement over whether it is worth the trouble. A dedicated following asserts that it is and Prynne’s second and fifth books, Kitchen Poems and The White Stones, from which a representative selection was made by Tim Longville and Andrew Crozier in their 1987 anthology, A Various Art, have a less implacable aspect than the later work – there are over a dozen books, of which For the Monogram is the most recent.

The manner of the later Prynne is that of the monarch-reader – he is among the most well-read poets of his day – abolishing the kingdom of erudition with a wild prodigality: no sooner is knowledge acquired, in geology, mineralogy, physics, chemistry, economics or anthropology, than it is cast out with the fury of exorcism, in a poetry of rapid truncations, elisions and montages of such opacity and compression that the reader must either embark on a patient inquiry into the very process of reading or abandon hope. There’s a microscopic parody of Modernism here – a clinical concentration of the techniques of reference, allusion, juxtaposition within a single stanza, so that the range of response that might once have been elicited by a long poem, or a sequence, is now urged within the space of a single line. We are to understand that the poem, however small – indeed, the smaller, the more exacting – is a site of infinite labour. But we can’t tell how much of this is play and how much is make-work – a worthy job-creation programme for the idle reader.

Commentaries on Prynne are rare and much needed. In Nearly Too Much, Reeve and Kerridge, both supervised by Prynne at Cambridge twenty years ago, take us as far as it’s possible for a non-partisan readership to go. They are outright admirers, but their book is short on special pleading; it goes about the poems in a series of close readings which digress to helpful generalities about the poet’s interest in the human body, the fragile character of scientific knowledge and the political nature (or armature) of specialist discourse, before returning to excavate a section in detail. They are attentive and informed readers. In The Oval Window for example (the title refers to ‘the aperture in the middle ear through which sound waves pass to be converted into neural impulses’), they find a limit-site ‘at the edge of what constitutes the integrity of the human subject’, a complex threshold which marks us off from the apprehended world at a primary point of apprehension, and a typical focus of interest to the poet.

Prynne’s work is in love with unbelonging – a long dalliance, rather than a flirtation, with the border. Reeve and Kerridge rightly detect its impatience with poetry as a discrete, soothing pursuit and praise what they think of as a programme: ‘poetry has to “collide” with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture (smashing them to pieces) ... Prynne would want a poetry neither useful to some manipulative power, nor providing musical accompaniment to a commodifying culture.’ One of the thrilling aspects of Prynne’s range, however, and of his clashes of scale (‘the ques-/tion is really what size we’re in’) and, in so many of the late poems, of his mannerly absenteeism, is that readings which confer radical respectability are often short of the mark.

Staying ahead of them may, by now, have become a vice in Prynne, but for years the restlessness of the poems was more instinctive. They were nomadic not because the road was a fashionable place but because the sedentary mode was at odds with a utopian commitment to the present: in the city, time was accumulated as history; there was no possibility of free and fluent expenditure because no moment could actually be ‘spent’; it was merely added to the past of the settlement. The conurbation was an admirable but unmanageable thing from which allegiance was reluctantly withdrawn after a quick and troubled scouting. ‘Loyalty,’ Prynne wrote in one of the great passages from The White Stones, ‘is regret spread into time.’ Such dangerous fissures in the ground of reasonable assumption drive us to the edge again, where we should feel content, rather than condemned, to stray; home is a palpable place, yet the perfect wandering is strictly anti-Homeric: there can be no yearning for return, no facile ‘aspect of hope’ to tempt the poem or the reader into closure. ‘Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform’ took the measure of this wayward ideal, using the sonata form to establish the tension between a virtuous domesticity and the lure of the endless steppe – both of which it seems to endorse in more or less equal measure. At a crucial point, however, the poet laments his inability to hear a passage of music as anything but a ‘past tense’; if the music would only

level out into some complete migration of
sound. I could then leave unnoticed, bring nothing
with me, allow the world free of its displacement.
Then I myself would be the
complete stranger, not watching jealously
over names. And yet home is easily our
idea of it, the music of decent and proper
order, it’s this we must leave in some quite
specific place if we are not to carry it
everywhere with us.

The difference between this verse and the work over which it has had such influence is that, even when it is moralised, the margin is for Prynne a place of a moral necessity rather than a zone of conscientious piety or a tactic. ‘Only at the rim,’ he says in a later poem, already much trickier than the dazzling creations of the late Sixties, ‘does the day tremble and shine.’ An unforgettable line, which raises the question how the glorious, blazing idiom of the early poems gave way to the rebarbative, granular style that followed. Reeve and Kerridge stay with it, and in their patient work on The Oval Window, the old virtues are visible again. But everything feels smaller. A vast terrain has shrunk to the area a human shadow might cover: mostly what we hear is the triggering and warbling of biochemical processors at intricate sensory thresholds where the world resembles a flurry of data. For Prynne, the liminal zones where the body contends with this blizzard represent the new extremity – and at the same time, paradoxically, they bring us home, as tenants on the estate of our own physiology.

The distance between where we are and where we might be was carefully mapped by Andrew Crozier in The Veil Poem. Crozier, who, like John James, Lee Harwood, Denise Riley and others, does not conform to the wild-man model of Sinclair’s Introduction, nevertheless gets ten pages of verse in Conductors of Chaos. Crozier’s work appears at first reading to be grounded in an intimate reckoning of home: the crown of domesticity that Prynne would not put on is taken up without much fuss. But the domain is governed with obvious misgivings and there’s a seditious leakage at the perimeter, where the world abuts and intrudes, and the integral figure of the poet begins to bleed away into unfamiliar territory.

In his easy vernacular, Crozier tamps down language with the skill of a painter achieving a rare equivalence of terms on the canvas. Often, too, we find an observed action or a local detail quickly entailed to something larger and simpler: the pattern of day and night, seasonal change, or the slippage of light and shadow. This has the effect of ascribing thought and emotion not to the speaking subject (the poet) but to the processes of the poem. A deceptively shambling manner, with its cat’s cradles of clauses, promiscuous participles and other equivocations of grammar spreads the load of the bigger themes and adds to a sense of forms thinking aloud, in a number of voices. Once again, the approach is painterly: the figurative elements of a typical Crozier poem are briefly acknowledged and then abstracted by the momentum of its composition into the broadest space it can construe. The result is extraordinary. This poem, part of a sequence entitled High Zero, begins in the ‘night long white/glow of insomnia’ but lifts clear of the poet’s body in a sudden transposition to a kitchen, perhaps late at night,

where the animals all come in
to feed in turn, nudging their plates
over the vinolay in silence

no less heavy than their sleep
and just as fugitive as their days
go haunting the neighbours’ gardens

animating the shadowless grass
which gleams by night in parched
neglect just covering the earth

like a tattered quilt and
patched with weeds it barely
holds the heat of the day.

This is a quietist, thoroughly confident poetry, neither overcooked nor cleverly understated. The same is true of ‘Free Running Bitch’, a sequence of ten poems, 30 lines apiece, in Sinclair’s anthology. The narrative is grudgingly given, and set away from us by layers of subjectivity, densely applied. Someone, perhaps a wife, is in hospital. The poet/husband is a visitor, alert to a memory of other, similar occasions, perhaps of working in a hospital or of some earlier visit to a sick person. In any case, the reader has enough information to start working with the sequence. In the fifth poem, we’re looking at a bedside monitor. We’re to infer a single, significant human life at issue, a post-operative recovery, envisaged almost entirely in the graphic dance on the screen. But the monitor is not a poetic device; it is far too insistent a presence to refer back neatly to the patient; if it is to refer to anything other than itself, it will have to refer on – which is what it does, as the poem moves beyond the localised, repetitive measurements of the patient’s progress into a far larger space. Two ‘frequency cycles’ register on the monitor,

         one travelling fast round another’s
light pulse, delayed burst, in the sequence and
out, remnants of colour displayed, falling
away on the curve of its tangent, out of
the corner, scattered before its return swept
into the bay as a double beat counted twice,
its point in the line divided and dotted
back where, see what, time rushing past
your one body, small corner and one little eye,
time rushing ahead through its gaps, meeting
its markers and dying away as you pass,
snatched up to the stars, sideral passenger,
so many vertices plotted, invisibly now,
across the celestial sphere, so much infinity
sectioned, such stories foretold

There is physical buffeting in this verse. It gusts, like the big, volleying stanzas in The White Stones; at times the sense is smeared or indistinct, but the gist is thrown forward and momentum is sustained. The last poem in the sequence takes us clear of the hospital. The patient has recovered (‘Terror was gone/ and you began to speak like a survivor’); the poet is in open country. The tone is one of celebration, the animating agent is a dog – the ‘free running bitch’ of the title, elusive, busy, seldom visible – whose starting, moving forward and doubling back transact the poet’s relief into the landscape. At the beginning of the poem she is ‘lost from sight’, ‘but her bell heard’; towards the end she is coming and going, eerily absent in woodland and thicket, quiet then audible again, and eventually glimpsed on the move in undergrowth:

                         impossible to miss
her continual jingle, or if waiting to hear her
bell as she runs to catch up, or still tinkling
in the wood, or no sound for minutes, then the
shook flap of her ears: to stand and wait, hunker down,
or follow the sound in, criss-cross between the quick
slender growth and fallen trunks, angled branches,
see her head down follow her nose through bracken
and bramble and vanish, broken outline of variegated
fawn and white slip through dappled light,
bell notes startling elsewhere, the air traced
by her passing

This walk in the land of the living, with its moments of silence and waiting, is not so different from intensive care, nor the hectic movement of the dog through the ‘quick’ and the dead vegetation so distinct from that of the signal on the hospital monitor. In both poems, and the sequence as a whole, life and death play host to each other. There is not much else in Conductors of Chaos – or anywhere just now – to touch Crozier’s sense of the transcendent and the ordinary, and the success of these poems derives largely from their refusal to adjust their appearance in the mirror of the ‘poetic’. They shift uneasily like the body of a dreaming man, in a world that is always tousled; but there are no nightmares or rude awakenings, only the gaze of a poet whose eyes are never entirely closed.

The commitment to American poetry, shared by many of Sinclair’s contributors, is strong in Crozier, whose interest in Objectivism dates from the Sixties. It is a mark of his achievement to have produced something quite unlike the verse he seems greatly to have admired – including that of George Oppen and Carl Rakosi, both driven to lengthy silence, between twenty and thirty years in each case, Rakosi recovering the possibility of poetry as a direct result of Crozier’s intervention in 1965, long after the term ‘Objectivist’ had ceased to serve him well. Rakosi is poorly represented in Andrew McAllister’s Bloodaxe anthology, otherwise a useful dash through the poets chosen by Louis Zukofsky for An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology of 1932, and those, notably Lorine Niedecker and Muriel Rukeyser, who were admired rather later. Some of the most distinctive Carl Rakosi cannot be found here – ‘How to be with a Rock’, for example, a playful, ontological stand-off with the massive and the insensible (‘The closest human thing to it/is the novocained tooth’):

                   It has its own face
and its own tomb,
                   the way it stands,
unmoved by destiny,
                   a model for the mind.
We can only be spectators.
                   All day is within.

Rakosi is a witty, often whimsical poet, at ease with the vignette, the comic epigram, the conundrum; his manners are old-fashioned, his frame of reference wide – he was born in Berlin in 1903, raised in Hungary and taken to the US at the age of six. His impulses, often for awe and amazement, are governed, sometimes overruled, by irony (‘In an age of injustice/it is embarrassing/to be discovered/playing the lute’) and by a gift for light verse which gets heavier as you stand away from it; he lacks the extensive, foraging tendency of his better known contemporaries and is something of a genealogical misfit in the multiple-graft family tree, covered in creeper; which leads from Pound, Williams and Marianne Moore through a flurry of cousins and affines to the poets of Iain Sinclair’s anthology. ‘If Rakosi were more predictable, clubbable and given to the right patter,’ August Kleinzahler wrote in 1984, ‘a collected poems would have been through several editions by now.’ He was not. Nor, despite several long poems, was there a clearly indicated work of some ambition with which to mark his card as a Modernist master. He was swept away from poetry before he reached the age of 40. Being on the left – and in Chicago in the Thirties, Crozier tells us, close to the Communist Party (of which his friend Oppen was a member) – he grew manifestly tired of the world’s resistance to the poem. By the time Crozier began sniffing out the early verse, Rakosi had changed his name to Callman Rawley – still the copyright owner of the Collected Poems, which did, indeed, appear in 1986 – and settled into a career as a social worker (his day-job in the Twenties) and psychotherapist.

Rakosi’s earlier work, from 1923 to 1941, has been assembled by Crozier after a search through the magazines of the period to retrieve roughly 70 poems, set out here by order of appearance. This gives a very different perspective to the Selected Poems (1941) and the Collected, about which Rakosi commented a year or so before publication: ‘one won’t be able to tell my early poems from my late ones because I’ve arranged them all, not according to when they were written but what their sense and climate are ... The chronological order makes no sense to me.’

Crozier has done an immense service in qualifying Rakosi’s preference and presenting the work chronologically. The result is, as he says, ‘a substantial body of fully achieved writing’, of which the most startling text is ‘The Beasts’, published in Modern Things in 1933, a poem of 120 lines in three sections, plotting the contradictions of the big American city, a writhing world of masterly accumulation and migrant struggle. The poet in the metropolis, torn by his sense of the abject and the exquisite, is ‘like a gizzard thrown to two dogs’; the city itself has the quality now of a silent, churning marine environment in which it is the ‘shining, sea-forced pearl’, now of a more conscious experiment in appropriation and extraction:

I saw the city

changed, set up like laboratory
glassware, like amines of herring brine,
the malic acid of the sea buckthorn,
glass-enclosed prescription balance
steel and agate, Fabrik Köln

a physics clear as alcohol,
La Vita Nuova, I hardly knew.

To judge from Crozier’s reconstruction of a longer version in the appendix, it was intended to go further. In the Collected Poems, it has ceased to exist, although parts have become poems in their own right or elements in other, shorter lyrics. The body of work in which it’s been brought to stand (work adjourned more than fifty years ago) is a reminder that good poetry can be submerged for decades without disappearing from the map – all grist to Iain Sinclair’s mill – and, in turn, that a wide range of published material lies behind the Sinclair anthology itself, much of it in capricious, xeroxed productions whose staples now rust slowly through powdery covers in dank lofts.

The differences are immense, yet Rakosi’s early poems, and some of the later ones in McAllister’s Objectivists, have this in common with the verse of Sinclair’s older poets: they are significant acts of attention paid to the world, yet, for long periods, they remained or became labours of largely unrequited love. Something here, beyond the politics of the poets and the vagaries of literary fashion, is very striking. The best poems in Conductors of Chaos have a way of standing that is not to do with posture; they have no very pressing sense of the reader’s regard; they are, as Crozier says of Rakosi’s early verse, ‘decisively what they are’. No doubt their makers would agree with Sinclair that, by comparison, the more eligible British poets of roughly the same generation can look importunate in their wish to engage us with a commendable range of poetic effects. If so, we’ve got the makings of a big disagreement about the problem of address – how the poet is supposed to stand in relation to the poem. It is set out in the closing lines of ‘The Gesture’, one of ‘Five Poems about Poetry’ by Oppen, which McAllister does not include. They offer a key to the success of ‘Free Running Bitch’ and the less showmanlike derangements in Sinclair’s collection:

How does one hold something
In the mind which he intends

To grasp and how does the salesman
Hold a bauble he intends

To sell? The question is
When will there not be a hundred

Poets who mistake that gesture
For a style.

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Vol. 19 No. 16 · 21 August 1997

Jeremy Harding, in his review of Conductors of Chaos and other works (LRB, 3 July), rightly points out the importance of Poundian Modernism and an American poetic tradition coming out of Objectivism as one context for a significant area of English poetic production over the last thirty years. However, despite noting that Carl Rakosi recovered ‘the possibility of poetry’ through the intervention of the English poet Andrew Crozier, Harding manages to maintain the impression that relations between English and American innovative poetry have all been one-way, and misses some of the dialogue that has actually taken place. For example, he suggests that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers ‘won a hearing in Britain shortly after the launch of their journal in 1978’. Not only does the metaphor deny the possibility of dialogue, but the statement occludes the ‘hearing’ that poets such as Tom Raworth and Allen Fisher had already ‘won’ from ‘language writers’ before L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was launched. In his Introduction to the anthology In the American Tree, Ron Silliman includes Raworth, Fisher and cris cheek in the list of individuals who ‘participated in the greater discourse of which this poetry is but a particular axis’. Before the publication of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E becomes fixed as the moment of contact between language writing and these shores, it is worth noting that some English poets in the area of production that Conductors of Chaos gestures towards were known to some of the American poets who were to become language writers, were present in some of the language-writing magazines that preceded L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and were, literally, in dialogue with ‘language writers’ from the mid-Seventies. Ken Edwards, for example, published work by both James Sherry and Alan Davies in Alembic 6 (Summer 1977); and went on to publish work by Sherry and Charles Bernstein in the first volume of Reality Studios in 1978.

Robert Hampson
Royal Holloway College

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