Tuesday, May 01, 2007


One of the questions I have about some of the categories I’ve concocted in my own head over the years, such as School of Quietude (SoQ) or post-avant, has to do with what good Marxists once would have called the National Question. Are these U.S.-specific categories? Is it possible, for example, for a British poet, regardless of how conservative, to be a true anglophile in the same way that many U.S. SoQ poets so clearly are. If Anglophilia is a defining feature for SoQ poetics in the U.S., what does one make of the recent “Irish turn” in SoQ letters? And how does one address the question of such post-avant poets from Britain, such as Jeremy Prynne or Allen Fisher or Thomas A. Clark or Redell Olsen or or or? That list is rather endless, suggesting that the anglophilia of U.S. SoQ writing isn’t abject subservience to British writing per se, but rather to a certain cultural tradition that is only one strand of what U.K. writing truly is – and, if the Irish turn means anything, a waning one at that.

Post-avant is no less problematic. The defining moment in the transition from avant to post- is, as I read it, the recognition that the so-called avant garde is itself a tradition, that it has communities & that community itself is a value. This shift becomes visible when Don Allen makes the decision to organize The New American Poetry around such communities¹, however loosely defined they might have been in that anthology. Indeed, of that generation, only the projectivists really put program ahead of community – Larry Eigner was a “Black Mountain” poet, tho he never once set foot there, because he followed the prescriptions of Olson’s toward a speech-based poetics. Of course, at the time, the severely palsied Eigner was barely able to speak at all. The New York School & the Beats were pretty explicit in putting community first & the San Francisco Renaissance really had no meaning at all other than community.

So how does this play out in the United Kingdom? Are we to read the work of Eric Mottram and others as attempts to create a parallel phenomenon in Great Britain? Or is it simply that Mottram, Stuart Montgomery, Tom Raworth, J.H. Prynne, Tom Pickard et al represent a poetry as attached to the literary history of the United States as Edward Hirsh & Dana Gioia are to the literary history of Oxbridge? Having seen Britain only from the air, it’s impossible for me to know.

Tony Trehy is a poet from Manchester, one of those cities in the north of England about which geography-deprived Americans tend to be terribly ignorant. Those who have heard of it probably think of the name as an adjective, describing the noun United. (Or, if they were around in the 1960s, perhaps the noun Guardian). Trehy has been doing interesting things in & around his home grounds, most recently publishing a book entitled 50 Heads. Or, to be exact, 50 Heads, just out from Apple Pie Editions. The front cover has no lettering on it whatsoever, simply a close-up color photo of the side of a high-rise building. The binding is the kind of stiff-cover paperback that one finds from publishers aiming to place all their stock on library shelves. The interior feels almost as austere: 49 (not 50) one-paragraph prose poems, each with a one-word title, each beginning with a 0, then a period, then a sentence with no capitalization, concluding a few sentences later with a colon followed by the number 1. The poems are presented almost in alphabetical order, the first being “Content,” the next-to-last being “Yggdrasill.” Seeing that the 49th & last of these prose poems is entitled “Apology,” one turns to it out of sequence, anticipating perhaps some explication:

0. pollarded. Inert with targets. Told and giving up within the week is the easy Victorian option now; generally orchestra is diminished by the demand for youthful understanding – a case fatality ratio. Ragnarök partial orders merely travel change, the most successful vertebrates that ever lived. Time for irreflexivity: iff I can be the collapsing material straight away rotations are not commutative. Drippling to the end weakly, you don’t want to think any more. Hadja wished, it can’t be hermetically sealed: false to worldly, false but this equiconsistent with heroism, without being able to prove it(,) can always be commuted to not(,) waiting for the: 1.

This explains everything. That there won’t be any explanations in the usual sense of that word, for one. This text can be understood in so many different fashions. For example, with the word / sentence pollarded, my first thought was not of the pruning technique, but of the Israeli spy, his surname transformed into a verb. Similarly, I hear Ragnarök as the mythic Norse battle, tho the language into which it is imbedded suggests the commerce of software. How much of this is a montage of found language? How much of it actually constitutes argument, as such. What are we to make of the twin disruptions in the final sentence of the parenthetical commas?

I hear this writing as focusing very much on the cognitive movement from word to word, phrase to phrase, in that sense quite close to certain kinds of language writing – the work of Jean Day, for example, or Leslie Scalapino, but Bruce Andrews or Erica Hunt as well. While there are poets in the U.K. who are close to langpo personally – Tom Raworth in particular – there has never really been anything you could call a language school, as such, in Britain. I hear this equally as a techno descendant of someone like Prynne, a concept that strikes me as very odd indeed. And a sign that Trehy isn’t really like anyone else at all.

Trehy is an eminently readable poet, tho you have to pay attention as you proceed through each work. He promotes this further with a vocabulary that is large and sometimes technical – auxetic discrete breathers, no two prosopagnosics are the same – but full of wit & more than a few echoes: Discrete breathers parametrise pseudogenes, But Vitruvian children stalk with charges of religious defamation tastier than a plateful of every number looks like nineteen.

Concerning Trehy and the concept of community: he gave a reading to launch 50 Heads just last Friday. Tho it was invitation only, poets other than Trehy did the actual reading of the work. Both, I would suggest, are pretty clear signs that he lines up as a post-avant.


¹ One might read the history of the Objectivists as an incomplete, perhaps thwarted gesture in exactly this direction, but it is worth remembering that when The New American Poetry was published, that community wasn’t visible at all in American verse.


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