Prising Open Walls

Some Remarks on John Wilkinson and Schedule of Unrest

I thought I might try to address the poetry, and to some extent the prose, of John Wilkinson, whether this be a propitious time or not, partly because Salt have recently brought out quite an interesting 'Selected', called Schedule of Unrest (14).

Now, why should we be interested in John Wilkinson? I notice that the back cover of Schedule
includes a number of plugs, from people, among whom notably I might cite Robert Potts and Roy Fisher, although pride of place goes to Tom McCarthy who speaks of how in Wilkinson's poetry, 'a hidden world - the real one - shimmers into view'. McCarthy, so far as I can tell, is a somewhat unconventional, no doubt innovative novelist and sometime critic. The main publisher's blurb opines that of this writing '[t]he unfamiliarity of its surfaces and soundscapes have too long delayed its appreciation.' There is mention made to the 'troubled internal lyric and the breadth of his social and political engagements'. Whether by accident or design, these 5 endorsements, the blurb, the bio, do not attempt to situate Wilkinson's work historically, nor with any present contemporary trend. Who does he write like? Well they don't really say. Wilkinson himself neither really indicates anything in his 'Preface'.

So why read John Wilkinson? Is it about trying to get a take on what might be a somewhat hidden 'real world', according to Tom McCarthy, or is it because he is so definitely not 'pedestrian', according to Adam Phillips, or is it because this might be 'one of the most significant bodies of work in contemporary poetry' according to Patrick McGuinness. Phillips usefully also cites 'sheer verbal inventiveness and unheard-of melodies'. But keep an eye on that 'troubled lyric'. The 'delayed appreciation' the blurb cites is no doubt also not wholly inaccurate, although quite why might be a complicated question of publishers, readerships, critics etc.

I am an interested reader of poetry, have been since my teens, born 1961, and influenced at an early stage by the modernism of Eliot and Eliot's criticism, although of course Eliot was also very interested in 'tradition'. I read a bit more Eliot, not finding any great advance on his 'Selected Essays', and where was it going, anyway, it seemed like the next thing was Auden, who of course is highly verbally fluent and erudite, yet no doubt not quite so radical as Eliot in some of his more intense pronouncements, for which we might credit some of the influence of Pound. I moved to the US in 1983 and did some reading in poetry there, where it seemed that, what I might surmise in a rather concise fashion, the vestiges of the 'New American Poetry', perhaps conspicuously the Black Mountain Poets (Olson, Creeley etc) and the New York Poets was running into an encounter with the formal radicalism and sensibility of Language Poetry, among whose proponents included Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian etc. Not too many British poets were catching the Americans' ear, one notable exception perhaps being Tom Raworth, whose Clean and Well Lit
, Selected, was published by Roof Books of New York in 96, after numerous earlier publications, though I didn't myself closely engage with the work of Raworth at that time. The New American thread was then still quite strong. I was quite fascinated by Olson's 'The Kingfishers' poem for its summary of the situation/state of play. Olson was very interested, out of a very wide ranging scope of interests and frame of mind, in the 'cybernetics', a kind of proto-information theory, of Norbert Wiener, which comes out in that poem in particular. I'll recite a little of that, -

                                    The factors are
   in the animal and / or the machine the factors are
   communication and / or control, both involve
   the message. And what is the message? The message is
   a discrete or continuous sequence of measurable events distributed in time
     (cited from Weinberger ed 93)

And then Charles Bernstein has a not very easy to find rejoinder to Olson in his Content's Dream
book of essays, which I think was called 'Unfinished Business'. The conclusion coming to pass seemed to be that Olson had taken far too much on, it couldn't 'cohere', as Pound said, and one had to essentialise it a bit more, get it back to what the poetry was about, the language itself, with a continuing radicalism. Silliman has been a very able social chronicler of that scene, Bernstein perhaps a rather better surmiser and critic of its formalism and suppositions. For better or worse, I have a few pieces by Olson to hand, I do not have any Bernstein (though Content's Dream remains in a storage box, bit of a precursor to A Poetics), though I did end up regarding Bernstein as essentially a defender or advocate of disjunctiveness and difficulty, without the highly expansive mytho-poetic ambitions of Olson. These days it tends to be Olson's associate Creeley that I prefer to read.

I returned to Britain in 1992. There, through some thin threads, I managed to pick up on what one might call some of the more radical tendencies in British poetry. One common link was the poet Paul Green, who had interested himself in keeping contact with some of the more radical publishers of poetry in the US, like Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop's Burning Deck, etc. Through Green and Peter Riley, who at this stage was running a bookselling business, I picked up on some of the more radical threads of poetry publishing in the UK, including the likes of Rod Mengham's Equipage pamphlets, of which there were many, and such magazines as Angel Exhaust
and Parataxis (edited by Drew Milne). Parataxis as it turned out was notable for foregrounding the poetry of John Wilkinson, and that I have to say is probably the first main place I came across him. At some peculiar point, I think in Angel Exhaust 8, Andrew Duncan picked out for him what he thought were some of the more crucial developments or interventions in recent years, where he cited John James, Andrew Crozier and Michael Haslam. I didn't really follow up on these particularly at the time.

I suppose after that matters verged into a bit of a hiatus. I took to reading Dickens and Don DeLillo and medieval philosophy. Parataxis
ceased with issue 10, Angel Exhaust was only appearing sporadically and infrequently. I did have a look at Iain Sinclair's anthology Conductors of Chaos (96), which Wilkinson was in. After some considerable passage of time I procured Drew Milne's Selected (The Damage) and Andrew Duncan's Selected Anxiety Before Entering a Room and indeed Peter Riley's Selected, Passing Measures (all now in storage boxes), and I had felt compelled, partly on account of Peter Riley's strong advocacy (though I might add not to me specifically), to get a copy of Prynne's Poems, which is difficult, certainly, but in poetic terms quite fascinating. Not also without interest was the anthology Floating Capital on the London scene, ed. Clarke, Sheppard (91), and the magazine ed. Ken Edwards Reality Studios.

It has only been recently that I have rekindled some of my interest in the radical or innovative poetry scene. There, it has seemed to me, the two centres of London and Cambridge have remained pretty pertinent.

I wouldn't want to attempt an overview, and indeed many people don't like an overview, at least until after the various combattants are dead and buried. Still, one does like to have a sense of what's going on. Here, one can't help but note the strong drift to the Internet. Silliman has pointed out two of the stronger 'schools' active being Conceptual Poetry (or uncreative writing) and Flarf, the latter not taking itself particularly seriously. But still, does there not remain a market for some for a book in one's hand. Oh, and Silliman has reverted to an advocacy of The New American Poetry, rather than trying to revive Language Poetry itself. So, where does one find John Wilkinson? One finds him, formerly, in Equipage pamphlets, and more recently in the list of Salt Publishing, one of the more radical British publishing houses, who are responsible for publishing most of his significant books, based in Cambridge initially, latterly off to Cromer, Norfolk, specialising rather more in fiction these days than poetry. The Internet is a bit of a morass. One small tactic is to check out the lists of publishers one is interested in, among whom I might include Salt, Shearsman, Carcanet, Reality Street, Jonathan Cape, Enitharmon, Arc etc. Given that Drew Milne ventured into a Selected quite some years ago, albeit under a somewhat uninviting title, it might seem surprising that it has taken so long for Wilkinson to get there.

But so much of this is preamble. No, I essentially link Wilkinson to Equipage and Salt and indeed Parataxis
, perhaps the most interesting thing I'd read by him up until now was his Reverses pamphlet from Equipage (in a box). I like to think I keep apprised of later, more forward developments in poetry, and that I think is where John Wilkinson's poetry finds itself. It doesn't actually seem to me that there has been a lot of informed commentary going on about Wilkinson, although one does notice some small indications like a review of The Lyric Touch in the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry.

The summary then would be that I am interested in Wilkinson as a Salt author, who have a radical and very interesting poetry list, and as a, perhaps unavowed, member of the Cambridge school of poetry, who continue to lead the way in respect of certain formal developments.

So, has Wilkinson's poetry tended to be overlooked? Well, it might look that way. Robert Sheppard's very interesting Poetry of Saying
(05) critical book is mainly interested in Wilkinson for his involvement in the independent poetry publishing scene, and his contribution to 'Conductors of Chaos', which gets a brief mention. More recently David Wheatley's critical book, Contemporary British Poetry (15), aimed at undergraduates is interested in Wilkinson predominantly for his criticism from The Lyric Touch, on Prynne, Denise Riley and Keston Sutherland. Wilkinson's own poetry does not get an extended discussion.

This extended discussion thus far is to set out, essentially, how I came upon John Wilkinson. Prior to Schedule of Unrest
I have not attempted any real commentary on Wilkinson, and I have essentially not related closely to his writings, whether that's a good or a bad thing.

Having spent forever in preamble, I will try to proceed. One must note the cover of Unrest
. Salt have gone for a nature scene, a couple of kind of lightning struck, straggled/frazzly trees in front of a nature scene of river and tree foliage in bloom. This contrasts considerably with, for instance, the assembly of old car tyres on the cover of Effigies Against the Light, ie it's not social at all in any sense, it's a nature scene, albeit a somewhat 'troubled' one.

And as for the book (262p). I've remarked elsewhere that I find that the selection being undated and sourced means that one might have difficulty tracing the provenance of certain poems, although it does seem to be essentially in chronological order. Wilkinson often wrote what we might call sequences, and several are here intact, I think 4 actually, 'Down to Earth' is now redacted, and there are excerpts from another 6.

On perusing the book, I have to say I think the sequences are the strongest thing in it, I think Wilkinson does better where he has time to elaborate on matters that concern him and that helps the verbal fluency. I don't regard Wilkinson as a particularly terse poet of short lyrics, I don't think that's his forte. I think the opening of the book is good enough, the very first poem, 'West', is capable and well written, but I wouldn't regard it as at all typical of his main style or threads. Indeed, I don't think the book really gets going until we reach the excerpts from 'Proud Flesh' (p32) and I'd say the end is rather stronger than the beginning, there we have 'Iphigenia', 3 short poems and 'Down to Earth'.

How typical these excerpts are from 'Proud Flesh' I don't exactly know. It's mainly in quatrains, though they can also be read as 'sentences', the very opening of what we get is

   Slender pickings fall to the lap of the foster-child
   who chides them into their own spheres, the nuclei
   of unshockable plasm

I think this might confront many as very unconventional speech, the first line might seem to make a certain amount of sense, but then 'chides them into their own spheres' is kind of odd and pointed, why is he chiding them, what are these slender pickings, and then why are we adverted to 'nuclei of unshockable plasm', a potent but rather peculiar expression. The spheres presumably are the nuclei, but quite what is unshockable plasm. Can plasm be shocked or unshocked? On a certain level this turns out to be a little typical of Wilkinson. He does, as we will find, have a penchant for unusual or unexpected or sometimes erudite vocabulary. Sometimes it's startling or impressive, sometimes it's just confusing.

If one looks through the contents pages of Schedule of Unrest
one will not, perhaps curiously enough, find too many unexpected or confusing titles. They all seem to make enough sense, nothing particularly tricksy, no unexpected conjunctions etc. 'Saccades' is a little curious, which pertains to the rapid movement of the eye. 'Cite Sportif', a sequence, is a bit unexpected, and although Wilkinson is not given to a lot of mythologizing, 'Iphigenia' is here too. But most of these are not altogether unexpected, tricksy titles.

I had a look at what for me was perhaps the most interesting title, 'Attention and Interpretation' (p161). This, as it turns out, seems to go somewhere else entirely, beginning,-

   A treatise divides between its several heads, yellow
   safe as its green is matter-of-fact, ladies-mantle
   bunched lustrous jar

   and ends,-

   wallowed again on the lam like an ECHO virus; take
   that ragamuffin seeds & multiplies, cursed to remain
   orphaned ever within its own likenesses - it is clear,
   is it not, is it not, is it not, blue heaven sweats.

[note: not 'sweet blue heaven'] Here one can note again an undoubted verbal fluency, but what of the meaning? We have a 'treatise' of yellow and green 'several heads' being referred to a jar. Or unless the jar was just moving on. Again, the first line might make sense, but what on earth is a yellow or green treatise? This serves to reiterate a problem I find with Wilkinson that the fluency seems often to overrun the realism or context, if you like, and we sometimes seem to end up wondering what he is talking about. The ending here similarly is wrapped in confusion, albeit that it might seem verbally interesting.  What is an 'ECHO virus'? Then there's that insistent repetition of 'is it not', unusual for Wilkinson, and the peculiar final phrase 'blue heaven sweats', and we're left wondering what that had to do with the rest of it. Well one might have to read it again, as I say I think Wilkinson works better in longer stages. 'Take the colourful antidote/ to irony, the sexual check on starvation…/plump the little object I which wallowed'. Must one conclude that 'Attention and Interpretation' is actually a poem about sexual desire?

There was one other piece by Wilkinson where the title struck me, and it is not so much a title as an opening line, from 'Sarn Helen' (the name of a Roman road), which Keith Tuma featured in his anthology of 20th Century British and Irish poetry in 2001, though it is not actually evident in 'Schedule'. This was 'You've got some lip' (Tuma 01 p840). Now in reading Wilkinson this struck me as both typical and atypical, ie the pungent, Tuma even calls it 'rebarbative' note, is in a way Wilkinson writ high, ie he does go in for that sort of thing, yet the lineage of rather shortish quatrains is a bit unlike him, it's leaner and more fluent in some ways.

This poem of 40 lines, 10 quatrains, can tell us, perhaps, quite a lot about Wilkinson, without entirely settling the matter. Well that's the opening sentence, 'You've got some lip'. This could be quite an affront, offensive, who's got some lip, me, you? How is one to respond to that, it is highly spiked. Then the next sentence begins 'A legionary/ levels with the/ sewer-rat'. Now part of the problem with Wilkinson is often that the 'realist' context is rather poorly sketched, we are in the midst of some high flown rhetoric, and it can be difficult to know what's going on. One presumes that those who admire this sort of thing will be caught up in sewer rat v. legionary and think it's all a wonderful play of extraordinary verbal dexterity, which on a certain level it is. There's actually, perhaps for the pedant, rather a lot here that isn't exactly spelled out, ie what legionary, Roman maybe?, what sewer-rat, maybe a captive. Then the narrative again is highly verbally fluent but once more confusing. The whole thing transpires in about 6 sentences. We get 'I might yet crack/ the whip of a keyhole tracery' and there is something in the same sentence about 'catapulting a skiff', a skiff being a small boat, and there is a reference later to 'carrying boats upon your backs'. Part of the problem here was, who is the 'I' cracking the whip of the keyhole tracery? One presumes it's the legionary, given the punctuation. But why would he do that? And it is 'I might yet', ie he doesn't yet. Are what are later termed 'savages' being offered the possibility of escape, presumably across water? Tuma says 'It is a poetry [of] which what might yet be' (p836). In any event, escape is thwarted, 'your resonant shout/ won't crack the deep in a flitch/ of dominion' and therefore, in closing, 'Slurp their/ stinking rodent bolt-holes.' Amid all the scene setting confusion there are as it were numerous verbal high jinks and play with words, and numerous odd or original uses of vocabulary, terms we don't ordinarily encounter, Tuma glosses five of them, but 'voussoirs'?, a 'friendly camber', 'guano', 'penetralium', 'prolapse', 'cross-hairs'. It might sound fine to somebody just interested in the sound of words, but what does it mean, and besides the context is difficult to make sense of along with the point of view, and there is some undoubted bluntness there too, ie 'got some lip', 'sewer-rat', 'savages', 'stinking bolt-holes'. Tuma's summation is perhaps worth repeating,-

Near the end of the last poem in the sequence ['Sarn Helen'], the reader encounters the lines 'Flimsy/ as I am I burrow in the fallopian waste of my making,' as if this poetry in which it is not clear that any 'calibration' will 'serve to fold/ edgeless radiant, erasive, your saved up fervencies' will nevertheless emerge as the poet's habitus. (p836)

I wanted to cite that one because it is indicative of some of the problems I have with Wilkinson. An odd thing can be that certain effronteries or pungent use of language can be memorable in certain ways that something kinder or gentler may not, and I'm afraid 'You've got some lip' is peculiarly memorable, either Wilkinson does or somebody he knows does, it's not 'sweet blue heaven'.

I listen to quite a lot of music. Some thought Captain Beefheart, say, was quite innovative and refreshing, others thought it was just cacophonous and incoherent. Wilkinson makes me think sometimes of some kind of unholy collusion of Elliott Carter and The Clash, Carter's extraordinary technical fluency and inventiveness, The Clash's bluntness of attitude and delivery. One does tend to find a fair spattering of blunt wordage among Wilkinson, despite or in the midst of the technical fluency. Among his cohort I think he is peculiarly noticeable in this, I don't think the tendency is quite so notable in, say, Sutherland or Milne or Prynne, even. Well, if you can take it, if you want it.

As I said, I think the sequences in 'Schedule' are among the most effective features. Now, among these some of the most affecting passages probably occur in 'The Speaking Twins', although Wilkinson himself is of course not a twin, oh, and why speaking? Don't all twins speak? This seems to be from 1984. In some ways it displays Wilkinson's better and more troublesome features. There are it seems a few very interesting passages here, I might cite

   'I believe I can read you if I switch the poles.
   You see I like to get everything four-square.'


                                             'but to strip my hedge…'
   You high or low In your turn High/low compliance,
   laddering, gripping the taut straps you rush,

   one leaving her stomach below's bleeding above's
   sated ears, one semaphores the launch pad
   Cancel me Then take me higher! Take me up!

The sequence ends:-

   Name is Afterbirth. I need. I am immaculate.

                                             Forlorn fort.

This looks very fluent and suggestive, but still I am reminded that Wilkinson wrote elsewhere,-

   I who cut my teeth on the did-shoulder
   fell back on resources I once held beneath contempt
        (from 'The Nile' p122)

One gets the suggestion of Wilkinson as answerer, one who might hold you to account. I think the above is certainly written with a high level of fluency and inventiveness, and it is a little difficult to interpret. And for such an 'impersonal' poet, in the best Cambridge school tradition, it is near about as personal you'll get, though needless to say in character, in persona, in fictive context, no twin as such, he.

On this theme I might add from Wilkinson's short but very clear sighted Preface to this book the following remarks,-

   The solitary poet's tendency to sublimity and abstraction
    in stalking the landscape and city, disintegrates (I trust)
   through the saving stickiness of language into a world of
   things that insist on being recognised as attachments

one might note that the words 'stickiness' and 'attachments' might be resonant of where Wilkinson is coming from.

And I did want to move on to a brief consideration of 'Down to Earth'. This has been 'redacted', and I don't have the original to hand, it is rather dense and concise, generally in formal stanzaic patterns, either quatrains or triplets or couplets. The original is an 80 page book from Salt. What is of note here? Well, it ends with a bit of a eulogy to Artemis, a Greek goddess of hunting and childbirth who demanded chastity, sister of Apollo. But, no, mythology is not the main thread here. We can find signs of Wilkinson's remarkable verbal fluency in such expressions as 'A flight of birds/ ignites against a sunset, blackening/ in short order.' (p245) One might note a bit of a tendency to end expressions on a somewhat frustrated or down note rather than an optimistic one. There were some passages here that I thought expressed a certain sort of empathy with the concerns of others, although while Wilkinson seems to extend a sort of oppositional note against the way things are, he doesn't quite come out and say what his political position is, as such. Perhaps he doesn't need to. Anyway, we have,-

   barrios will air-condition Texas,
   try-outs glamorous as Mixcoatl
   leave their ball court for the antechamber,
   shaping up for sacrifice with sun's chop.

   I hear them call from every skip, I hear
   them when I skip a beat, the beat is theirs

This ambivalent play on the words 'skip' and 'beat' is very typical of Wilkinson, bringing up again what Sheppard called his 'dense multiple referentiality' ('Saying' p154). 'Sacrifice' hits a sour note, later we hear of 'the/ full skips of the disregarded' (p259).

What to make of it all? Here is 'The Speaking Twins' again,-

   But you sing, sirens, twitching under the hands

   of virtuoso truth-players. Yes you will rise, shining
   Martyrs, who hissed & sank an infinite light-
   years above the caskets, ordering my domain

   prankishly, I could only act stupid against
   such glamorous outrage. Let high arbitrary
   mouth off, deceiving us with its cross-talk-shall,

   but collude with us

Without wishing to go on at great length, I would reiterate that Wilkinson displays an extraordinary verbal inventiveness, indeed there may be at times a tendency to be so dazzled with his recondite style as to gain much apprehension of what it's all about, maybe we who get it and they who don't, but of course that wouldn't be quite right, Wilkinson is surely writing after a point. Wilkinson himself regards this as late 'lyric' rather than, say, disjunctive or modernist poetry. And Wilkinson, who has written with considerable clarity on other poets, one of our best readers of Prynne, I might say, has given some hints as to where he's coming from in his short Preface to this book,-

   the writer I am still reverts to the first conditions of his
   work, and…my songs start from the cry in the night
   extended into words through an exploratory oral shaping

I'd say at the very least that Wilkinson has worked strenuously and persistently to extend the scope of what it's possible to say in poetic language. Much of this is high flown, but it's with a purpose, and generally enacted with some effective fluency. It seems to me quite in keeping with late modernism, and among the most innovative interventions in poetic art we've had in some time. Of course it's not all sweetness and light. Who would have it any other way? 

    © Clark Allison 2015