In search of ‘dynamic design’ in West North East

Most of my poetic output over the last five years has been geared towards distinct sequences intended for idiosyncratic presentation as art object, custom-designed pamphlet, installation or performance. West North East comprises a serious attempt at a conventional book-length collection. What would be the most effective grouping of poems to publish within one volume and under one title? What features of dynamic design could I bring to bear on the structure and organisation of that book? I’d like to discuss my decision to present a book in three parts and explore the structural experiments at work within each section. Despite my sceptical thoughts about the conventional 64-page book, it has been liberating to engage with elements of practice that reach further than the minutiae of individual poems (or sequences). This has been the equivalent of exploring a new layer of meaning.

Fugue

The first section of the book was initially in two parts: a sequence of sonnets, followed by a selection of miscellaneous poems. The new ordering is an experiment with the idea of syncopation and fugue: a means of integrating the sonnets and the miscellany. An exposition is provided by the first two sonnets. Here a subject is introduced: a complex involving ideas of crisis, journey and imaginative crossing [1]. This complex is modulated and developed through a sequence that alternates sonnets and longer poems, before some kind of recapitulation in the two longer poems that close the first section.

I’m attracted to the idea of fugue in both its musical and psychological context, especially with loss (or transformation) of identity and flight from one’s usual environment. In keeping with the unstable, volatile nature of the complex, the development stage has been constructed to avoid too logical or schematic a progression. There are contrasts and contradictions; convincing and unconvincing responses to each crisis. There are relapses and unsustainable crossings; mundane and more sublime pressures. I’ve taken care not to signpost this too crassly. The exposition offers two contrasting positions: youth and adulthood; and an instinctive attraction to heat in one, and cool/calm in the other.

The recapitulation offers further contrasts. Both poems follow an instinct to travel away from the centre (geographically, socially and psychologically). ‘Out Far and In Deep’ pursues a death impulse, whilst ‘The Walking Cure’ offers ambiguous regeneration. I wanted to achieve an opening that captures the urgency and pressure of in medias res, and I hope the development is sufficiently modulated and complex to offer the reader pleasure and challenge – as well as a glimpse [2] of what Roland Barthes calls ‘bliss’. This is effectively summed up by Natasha Saje: ‘Experienced readers want poems that make them work harder; the text of bliss is the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts, that unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions and brings to a crisis his relation with language.’ [3] I’ve taken care to end ‘Fugue’ with poems that build to notes of projection and speculation. I hope these offer contrasting tones and ambiguities, and leave enough for further sections of the book to re-examine. Although ‘Fugue’ was not written as a sequence in the proper sense, I wanted this new arrangement to offer some equivalent of its structural dynamics.

Edgelands

There are currently three versions of this sequence: a version published as an art object, a custom designed pamphlet (both published by Longbarrow Press in 2008) and the version represented in West North East. The dynamics of each variation on the sequence are similar, but adapted to meet the specific format of publication. In all three, the sequence begins with the protagonist in a state of loss and housebound introspection; then he moves out into deepening absorption into the landscape.

The art object came first, and here the sequence was represented at its greatest length – 56 mongrel tanka. It comprised a long strip of poems concertinaed into a matchbox, and is one of Brian Lewis’s most satisfying innovations. This was intended to mimic the compression performed by the poems, whilst looking like the kind of found object the walker may have encountered in the road. In this format, poems can only be viewed one at a time: most slowly and requiring most physical care.

Longbarrow’s pamphlet version (comprising 50 poems) was designed for presentation on a narrow page accommodating five tanka. The sequence was re-ordered to explore relationships between and within groupings of five. Five poems, each of five lines: a symmetry of sorts.

For the version in West North East I’ve reduced the sequence to a more essential 40 poems. I also wanted to explore a new balance between text and white space on the page, so I’ve reduced the groupings to 3 per page. The intention is to slow down forward movement and encourage the reader to savour nuance. This involves 15 lines of text per page – something very close to the traditional sonnet. The only exception is the final poem, which has been justified bottom right on a page of its own. This poem serves as an epilogue and I hope it counters any sense of easy closure. The sequence moves outward from stasis and ends on a note of melancholy retrospection.

Chinese Lanterns

In The Modern Poetic Sequence, M.L. Rosenthall and Sally M Gall identify the sequence as being the form most able to go ‘many-sidedly into who and where we are subjectively’. In their view, the sequence springs from the same pressures on sensibility that provoked poetic experiments with shorter forms – a response to possibilities of language opened up by the pressures of cultural and psychological crisis [4]. ‘More successfully than individual short lyrics, however, [the sequence] fulfils the need for encompassment of disparate and powerfully opposed tonalities and energies…’

I’ve read this book as a way of developing my understanding of the possible structural dynamics of the poetic sequence. My sense of the text is that it has illuminated the great 20th Century modernist sequences more than it has those that follow – especially those falling under the wide umbrella of post-modernism. Published in 1983, it’s unable to address the oeuvre of a poet like Peter Reading – whose practice seems to absorb techniques learned from both traditions, whilst not fitting neatly into either. For me, Reading is a benchmark poet, offering a trinity of classical line, modernist juxtaposition and a post-modern flair for ventriloquism and pastiche [5]. His inter-textual sequences ‘Last Poems’ and ‘Chinoiserie’ are part of my inspiration for ‘Chinese Lanterns’. The other chief influence has been the Ezra Pound of ‘Cathay’, ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, and the Chinese cantos. It strikes me that both Reading and Pound developed a finer range of tones through their versions of classical Chinese verse.

I view ‘Chinese Lanterns’ as a post-crisis sequence. Though it aims to encompass disparate and opposed tones and energies, it does so in a playful way. Nevertheless, I’ve taken great care arranging modulations of tone and voice. Similar principles to those applied in ‘Fugue’ have been explored. A difficulty has been that of mapping and visualisation. How could I hold all the tonal streams and nodes of such a large sequence in my head at once? One solution was the construction of various tables. I’d map a potential order using a table, and then construct a makeshift pamphlet that would help me assess the sequence as a reading experience.

The first and last poems of the sequence always seemed clear to me: ‘Li Po’s Note to Self’ introduces the main speaker and the concept of the sequence; ‘Marcel Theroux stops me…’ provides an exit and a form of Afterword. I felt convinced that the two walking poems, ‘Moving with Thought’ and ‘A Trance-Walk with Musõ Soseki’ (each a sequence within the larger sequence), should be situated fairly centrally. They combine the calm of trance with physical movement, and hence provide a stable hub or axis.

Through reading and re-reading mock-ups, it also occurred to me that some groupings worked well together, whilst others didn’t. The Hillsborough street poems feel more substantial when read consecutively, whilst the verse-letters offer tangents that need to be dispersed more equably throughout the sequence – mimicking, perhaps, the intermittent correspondence in an individual life.

Care was taken in managing the various disparities. None should be allowed to congeal and clot the flow. Scatty jumps and juxtapositions maintain variation. Displacement must be balanced with re-adjustment: re-adjustment challenged by new displacements. The sequence must fidget between drunken intoxication and clear-eyed sobriety; between Taoist and Confucian; between the local and the exotic.

Serious and pastiche reference to various other sages and poets (Tu Fu, Rumi, Socrates, Wallace Stevens, Issa and Musõ Soseki) develop the sequence’s inter-textual dimension: its reference to other eras and cultures, hopefully layering and deepening the sequence’s imaginative and self-critical scope. Li Po is displaced in time, as well as space. The ordering has been constructed to reflect a strengthening of confidence in this mode, ‘Honeysuckle Blooming in the Wildwood Air’ and ‘Li Po’s Letter to Rumi’ being more demanding of the reader’s credulity than the observational poems that open the sequence. Having said all this, I still feel an impulse to throw the whole thing down the stairs and let chance surprise me into seeing new possibilities. Were the sequence a slide show, I’d programme subtle and random variations into each loop – something not afforded by the spine binding of a book.

Overall structure and title

We have a book in three parts – each comprising a different approach to a cluster of themes and subjects – crisis, journey and imaginative crossing. The book could be a triptych, which would make the central panel ‘Edgelands’, whilst ‘Fugue’ and ‘Chinese Lanterns’ balance or complement it. Perhaps there is some parallel with the classical sonata too: ‘Fugue’ and ‘Chinese Lanterns’ being the more variable movements that stand on each side of the steady andante (‘walking pace’) of ‘Edgelands’. In design, the tripod is an unstable structure, and this seems fitting in the context of my unstable themes.

There is perhaps some kind of implicit formal progression taking place: ‘Fugue’ is an arrangement, perhaps not quite reaching the full status of a sequence; the dynamics of ‘Edgelands’ place it somewhere between a long poem and a sequence; ‘Chinese Lanterns’ is a bona-fide sequence.

On a narrative level, ‘Fugue’ presents a ‘flight’ (or quest) from the periphery towards points off the map. ‘Edgelands’ begins to map a border territory, whilst ‘Chinese Lanterns’ suggests the ‘Edgelands’ poet returning transformed before preparing for a new departure. This is mirrored formally: ‘Fugue’ works with western forms; ‘Edgelands’ starts to incorporate the Japanese tanka; whilst ‘Chinese’ makes free with a range of Japanese and Chinese forms – especially the ‘Shih’- the asymmetrical syllabic or quasi-syllabic poem.

The title of the book offers three points of the compass. West for West Yorkshire (where ‘Fugue’ starts, moving east); North for northern England and north Sheffield (‘Edgelands’); and East for the East Coast and the East of China and Japan. West North East is an impossible compass direction to travel: a direction only manifest in a reimagined world.

The fourth compass direction is omitted; I hope this gives the reader a sense of something unexplored, compounding the sense that this book is not about achieving closure or reaching a destination. In fact, the final poems of ‘Chinese Lanterns’ prepare for a new sense of departure. Whatever is traditionally associated with the south – pleasure, lushness, or ease [6] – this is perhaps the ingredient the collection lacks overall: the missing piece in a jigsaw of tones and effects.

Matthew Clegg, 2013

[1]  There are no confessional poems in this volume.
[2]  If only a glimpse.
[3]  Saje, Natasha, Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books and Poems (Iowa Review, Autumn 2005).
[4]  See also Rick Rylance, ‘On Not Being Milton’: ‘It seems to me clear that ‘discourse’ exists; that it bears very heavily upon human beings and works of literature; that language does carry the ‘traces’ of history within it; and that human identity is often a matter of crisis and dislocation.’
[5]  Peter Reading is a literary influence, but I’m also interested in what Raymond Carver calls ‘real influence’ – the influence of background, predicament and life experience.
[6]  I’m thinking of Keats’ ‘warm south’ – part of the literary myth of the south – a myth I’m happy to use in this context.

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