Bizarre Crimes of the Future
Chaotic Dynamics: Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair
"In the field, chaotic dynamics can create difficulties that we do not fully understand, and which may require more detailed studies than have been usual in the past." (the New Scientist Guide to Chaos, p.88)
The scam is that Welsh underground hippie, psychogeographer, stallholder, sunstroke victim and small press poet reincarnated as distingué High Street Gothic novelist, topographer, and star of the London Review of Books Iain Sinclair has dredged up thirty-six survivors of the Left modernist poetry scene which was closed down, erased from the tape, violently abused, and generally kicked into the X-files by the poetic Right in the seventies. The shock about coming across these names in the High Street is seeing them as bashful yet pleased commodity gewgaws and not as severed heads dangling from some enforcer's saddle-bow; they've all been silenced, marginalised, taunted, satirized, made invisible or monstrous by disinformation. Heads kicked in by sonic distortion. Denise Riley impales her co-workers on p.397, 'and as she frets the minute wars scorch on through paranoias of the unreviewed/ herded against a cold that drives us in together-then pat me more, Coventry/ to fall from Anglo-Catholic clouds of drifting we's high tones of feeling down/ o microscopic horror scans of tiny shiny surfaces rammed up against the nose/ (...) one we as incense-shrouded ectoplasm gets blown/ fresh drenched and scattered units pull on gloss coats to preen in their own polymer.' This is the return of the repressed, the future of British poetry which was deleted to make way for endlessly looping regression; these are the living nightmares, the sons of extermination. Or as the Ninja code says, The darkness surrounds me. I am clothed in night. This is in fact the poetry by which the English literature of the last thirty years will be judged by any future audience of intelligent and thrill-seeking people. The clinging heady taint which fills my nostrils now is one of criminality: the systematically excluded, damaged and steeled by decades of punitive confinement, aflare in a death spree of dithyrambically and barbarically spilt energy, making fools of the law. Behold the empty hand, Edged with the truth hard won, Becomes a sword in righteousness; out of lockdown and into a barrage of contempt; hunted like a weasel in the corn. Beckoning to the demons of paranoia to save ourselves from speaking the language of ghosts. The society of which this wholly reckless speech could have been the code of ideals will now never come about: like Peckinpah's outlaw princes of the Mexican frontier in mid revolution, the earth had cooled. They hadn't. The land had changed. They couldn't.
'What process of mind extracting/ divers out of the sea/ hooded as gulls, the Arctic in their wings,/ unfolds the cold and creeping lava of this tide/ into the volcanic sculpture of the beach?/ What musselled mountain roars again/ as roots of earth are blown into the sky?/ Trapped in their rippling mirror fish flesh hackles/ and revolutions turning on us images of horror/ that never rise to flower upon the globe/ mornings of moon-drawn curtains and draped wells.' 'In general, the pulse of radiation will contain many frequencies. (...) It is hard to see how we can know the answer to these conjectures until a great deal more is known, both about gravity waves and the conditions at the centre of our Galaxy. Superficially at least, the experimental results seemed very compelling and the sidereal anisotropy was exactly the sort of effect that one would expect(.)' 'Ten and twenty years of running into great mentalities of very slight significance. Across flawed communities. The soil acidic is. There industries leak gas. And protected material and. West and dank is the journey that brings me to suburban matter. That take me from here to there. Awkwardly dry-assed. From then to now. These lines and patterns that erase unaccountables. Doors shut and secure. Allow the growth of mirrors. More is less. Must be. Must be must be. Pigeonshit and recreational landscapes. The family stage. The father the mother. (...) A feat of the digressive realm. And mannered gestures. Of adjectives and parenthesis. Stamina and prolonged action. Of the strong, supple ankle and the displaying of feet. Toes spread out in fans might keep me safe from greed.' Swamp pot tonics. Dithyrambic maidens of Dionysus easily eluding boorish pursuit. New family values. 'The Stumbling Block has made itself of carbon paper, sucking the increasingly obsolescent material from offices at the centre of the city. It is compressed to become a pivot; diamond-hard. The compacted density smoulders in the deep night blue of its waxy, slippery layers. The tiny scar letters are thick and noisy at its centre, their planktonic clusters bite and disengage continually, refocusing the chattering fusion. This mute lexical friction gives the heat that powers the inflexibility of the shifting mass. It can be heard only in the quiet times; its static, a translucent muscle pulling between infinites. In this manifestation the block is almost organic, a writhing tank of cellular activity, straining between two poles(.)' (and) 'The Stumbling Block is being hunted. Extravagant books of soap, perfumed with fear, have been placed in the sunken zones. Dews will rub their musk to bathe the causeways with heart-rending lures. Lanterns of ice are offered to the early morning, light is stroked through their steaming chancels. These constructed spectres are almost strong enough to catch and drain the omnipotent cryptic grace of the block.' And now, for swinging lovers, he returns to what is, after all, home grounds-to the happy task of singing the most enchantedly romantic songs he knows. 'a pulse/ flicked across a backless mirror/ in the tick of blanks and slats/ motion limned but not caught/ by a gleaming streak/ the event scratched the graphic surface of silver/ lips of the wake parted in the deep emulsion/ ripple nuclei explode/ crests summate to fray in light and foam/ the vortex overloads its own patterns/ the swimmer's hand pushes the water in the swimmer's shape/ scanning of pulse peaks declares a buried star' Twice as sweet as sugar, twice as brilliant as salt. Then for the first time he released the awesome Ninja Kiai-it was legend that this could stun the very birds from the trees. 'There's been more than one Caudine Forks, more/ by a long chalk and more to come/ More when we're on the upgrade, as now/ (so they reckon)/ Still more, and internecine too/ when the cosmocrats of the dark aeon/ find themselves/ wholly at a loss/ in the meandered labyrinth of/ their own monopolies./ And the Celestials themselves/ begin to weary/ of our bickering imperium and turn/ plug-eared to all our suffrages.' El tango macho. El tango poema. El tango ternura. 'When you wake and open your eyes/ transparent days rise to the surface,/ each part aligned on the grid/ etched on the smooth face of the unworked block,/ today's already horizontal light.//Shares fall in the Asian morning, / fear falls to earth and burns us;/ numberless they clamour at the glass/ cathedral clouds roll in from the wet,/ the sky opens to drench us to the skin.' The first rule is: leave nothing living. 'The rumours of his being everywhere/ but never seen, or nowhere, black on black,/ proliferate, multiply to a film/ in which enigmatic footage repeats/ his visual changes, or the camera slows// to meditation on a door/ infused with white light, or a lifting jet/ aimed from Kennedy to a red sunset,/ a blank frame punctuating every three/ as a phased, abstract possibility (.) ' You can't do this and you can't do that, finally after you've understood that, what the hell can we do? Because that's what you sent us in there to do. 'What comfort could be derived from the implosion of networks; the trade routes go in a circle that frays and tightens on the city's rim. Cars and trucks are abandoned, each day further from the centre with its funicular descent into the rubbish-compacting dens of the avant-garde. A few avians sortie across the fractured energy reserves of a secret library, where the ripples of migration deposit a film of refluxive script one of whose characters opens a single rusted memory-valve, divulging the inception of a time-schism: history before, and history after, the circumnavigation of value.' Freaky Deak. Freaky Deak. Freaky Deak.
(Hendry; The search for gravity waves; Bergvall; Catling; Duncan; Jones; Corcoran; Reed; Mengham)
Maybe you don't like these quotes; well, it goes on like that; and remember the curt words of Radio Birdman's Rob Younger, faced with an audience in rural South Australia that wasn't into heavy metal: If you don't like it you can get out. After burning up the stores of a conservative and long-lived cultural succession, they tried to cross the Styx in two leaps; thirst prevails and memory will fail, as the social formations which were the meaning of the poetry are destroyed its verbal body stiffens into place as a deviant ossature, a sinister everted structure displaying phantom organs of sense.What disintegrates, flies on the wind; and I foretell that Conductors will become a fetish book, one of the die-for possessions which set starry-eyed youth in Pudsey, Motherwell, and West Penwith on the path to la gaya scienza. Not as fiendish as the puzzle which opens the gates to Hell in Hellraiser, bulked out with poets who are long overdue for the phagocytes, nevertheless it contains fragments of the extraterrestrial in full ballistic descent.
Sinclair is known as a collector of grotesques; a semi-documentary director who needs a crew of neurologically atonal gazing-stocks, twisted visions, twisted limbs, to animate le regard concret of his spectacle. Peckinpah, Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, also had a stock company. Much as I detest the Andy Pandy wimps of our cherished mainstream, Conductors is the kind of bar where the bad people go; a Café Egon Krenz. The Boris Pugo ubegalovka. The title is surely a reminiscence of Frankenstein's monster, hauled aloft, in the novel, in an electrical storm to become a conductor of the shock which re-animated him. Investors are thus alerted to the risks of innovation, of decontextualisation and the new flesh. Wilhelm, hand me the diagram! The uneasy notion arises that Conductors represents a Sinclair-Tod Browning freak show, a brelan des dingos where the possessed tread out their linear, insect-like dances of daftness while a swooping camera integrates them into a kind of Mondo Cane panorama not unlike his verite-from-Bedlam prose fictions White Chappell, Downriver, and Radon's Daughters. Some poets have been included only as geeks (did you see 'Nightmare Alley'?), and it is this diapason which gives the anthology a majestic spatial recession which the works of a single poet could never have. The real heroes of the book are procedures forged by subjectless action, generating take-home forms for as many as will. This restored socius is a test range: the sight of thirty-six people running teaches the gaze in tiny differences of rhythm and speed, a lucid saturation making possible comparative and developmental insights which years of compulsive reading of little magazines could not afford. The effects of so many years of rejection are awkward; one-sided language, an inside without an outside, either mutating into new and boundless geometries or losing its eyes to run round in tautological and incomprehensible circles. For, what is language without a listener? Some of the characters seem to have taken bad acid, others seem refugees from an M.R. James story. The socius of this big anthology promises to reverse these effects of isolation.
There is no New Right in poetry. But the idea of experimental poetry was marginalised, repressed, and very thoroughly hidden under lies by a wave of people who didn't wait for funding from American foundations linked to the military-industrial complex. This wave of cultural conservatism, which has shown some signs of breaking up during the past five years, was distinguished for its belief that it was Left and populist, and so wasn't cultural conservatism even if it did roll back the rules and artistic theory to the 1950s. This devastated and parasitical growth is registered as the real history by other anthologies. The past as damage, more or less. Would it be a good idea to mediate the ideas of radical poetry to a new and young audience, who have been lied to all their lives about the history of poetry in Britain? Exactly here is the role which Angel Exhaust has to play. Bus Conductors of Chaos is mainly texts from the past five years; but it does contain the history of the last thirty, as a kind of package tour. Everyone constructs the past for themselves. The victory of the Right can't be repealed; but you'd be crazy to ignore this large-scale return of the repressed which Sinclair has poured so much life into; dawn of the dead, on every city street.
What is Chaos?
I am one of the Wild Bunch chosen for this death ride, qualifying I think as one of the headcases. Unable to review my own poetry, I asked Andrew Sarris to adapt his piece on Edgar G. Ulmer from The American Cinema (one of the decisive books of my life): 'His camera never falters even when his characters disintegrate.' (And further: ' That a personal style could emerge from the lowest depths of Poverty Row is a tribute to a director without alibis.') 'But yes, Virginia, there is an Andrew Duncan, and he is no longer one of the private jokes shared by auteur critics, but one of the minor glories of the cinema. Here is a career, more subterranean than most, which bears the signature of a genuine artist.' Voilà. But what is this? 'Strictly speaking, most of Duncan's films are of interest only to unthinking audiences or specialists in mise-en-scène.' The five poems printed here are bleak, pessimistic, and efficient; an Ulmer movie to set beside the more florid or oscillatory material around it.
One of the omissions is Sinclair himself, whose great works of the seventies, Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, have just been re-released by Vintage. I can't easily evoke these near-illegal masterpieces, but let's mention Peckinpah, Cronenberg, Coleridge, psychedelia, Edgar G. Ulmer, Brakhage, Nicholas Pevsner, Mark E. Smith, Mulder and Scully, and that's just scratching the surface.
Some of the poets included go up to a bursting 20 pages; the book is like twenty-five pamphlets in one. Some notable poets might not fill so many without repeating themselves; but many of the more baffled agonists also ramble around and miss their exit cue. Whatever the vagaries of this weirdathon, the anthology has a dizzying bouquet of variety, unpredictability, craziness.
The dob profile runs like this:
1936 1937 1939 1940 1943 1944 1947
1 1 2 1 2 1 1
1948 1949 1950 1951
6 1 1 2
1953 1955 1956 1960 1962 1963 1964
3 1 3 1 1 1 1
I have excluded the 5 older poets: J.F.Hendry, David Jones, N. Moore, Gascoyne, Graham, each one active during the neo-Romantic 1940s and so assimilable to the protest against the fruity Oxford chaps of the day. While Conductors covers poets from several generations (born between roughly 1936 and 1964), it does not open the archives; almost all the material included is from the past ten years. A few dozen poets deserve to be represented by a few poems, though not the flamboyant and redundant swathes allowed here.
Reviewing an anthology always brings one up against the problem of generalizations. If you treat every poet as a homogeneous block you get a different result than if you take every poem separately or if you take every line separately. In fact, the possible variations on poetic classification are so complex that they slide into the mathematically intractable, something like chaos in physics; we can reach stable results by picking units of study large enough to exclude impossible complexity, but with the knowledge that the accuracy of the results is rigorously limited by the units chosen. It is possible to analyse the corpus of poetry in terms of what sex the poet belongs to, or what region the poet lives in. The beckoning chaos of classification points to the double node of over-complexity and artificial regulation: we can easily reach a degree of complexity which would be impossible to read or remember, and which would destroy any poem it was allowed into; but the controls must be artificial, and as they organise the phenomena they create all kinds of false structures. The insight that this double condition underlies many, perhaps all, cognitive processes derives ultimately from information theory and has been much exploited in modern poetry; the drift has been to draw attention to the conventions and so withdraw from them, creating an ironic space. Much traditionalist effort has gone into claiming that there are no artificial structures involved in language, so that literal truth is possible. Before the discussion, it is best if I present a few simple ideas of Information Theory, since chaos can most easily be conceptualized in its terms. It was originated, principally, by Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener, in the 1940s.
Information theory is about communication and holds that the information content of any message, or sector of a message, is its unpredictability. The information content of any message sent a second time is zero. Information is related to determinacy through time: the amount of indeterminacy available in digit 7 of a message before it reaches the receiver is the same as the amount of information contained in that digit after it has been read. So much for information theory.
A number of less precise ideas follow. Any message is written in a code: communication demands that transmitter and receiver share the code in which the message is coded. Any message is a realization of one of the possibilities contained in the code, and can also usefully be considered as an exclusion or zero-marking of all the other messages permitted by the code. The code may have been agreed before any transmission occurred, or may itself be transmitted. Receivers can deduce unknown parts of the code by studying enough messages: we learn English by listening to utterances in English, not vice versa. People often visualize determinacy in terms of a network of nodes: if there are many legal paths at a node, this is rich connectedness and high indeterminacy, conversely if there is only one path. This is only a visual metaphor. People often talk about information and thermodynamics together, because thermodynamics is also interested in indeterminacy and the possibility of calculating past and future states from present ones.
Information is an essential component of beauty, but information theory does not give us a theory of aesthetics. A minute of television made up of random grey fuzz contains more information than a minute of a TV drama, because it is less predictable: if a human figure is on screen for a whole second (or ten screen refreshes), that is more predictable than screens generated by random numbers. Representing something from the non-symbolic world must be a form of determinism (you are constrained by what already exists), so puzzlingly representing anything at all reduces art's information content. This puzzle explains why aesthetics knows something which information theory doesn't. It may be that a very large set of random numbers, say enough to specify an hour of grey fuzz-blare screentime, could be called chaos.
Unpredictability is one parameter of good art, though. Information theory posits that the receiver is forming hypotheses about the remainder of the message, and updating these constantly as new information comes in. This hypothesizing probably is something the reader of poetry does do, and a book containing 100 very similar poems will get more boring as one goes through it. So as one turns the page one has a poem-matrix in one's mind of which the real poem is a realization, more exciting the more it damages that matrix. Arguably, the pleasure of a poem in a context is that of scanning and rewriting the matrix. In Western poetry of recent centuries, the matrix may be something like the artist's character, and character is the other theme of our review. Information theory has an understanding of large series of repetitive digits: for example, you can collapse a streak of 100 7s into the string "7x100", which at 5 digits long is 95 shorter than the raw message. This suggests that the logical complexity of a message is its incompressibility. Arguably, the merit of a poet is partly the incompressibility of their work, i.e. the independence of each page, stanza or line from the preceding ones. We acquire this secondary code by learning; there may always be hidden extra predictability in the code. Poetry loses its charm on repeated readings, which suggests that the joy of poetry may be some feature or cluster of features within the temporally unstable curve of learning during the first few readings. Does this poetry invite the incalculable data energies of chaos?
scour, grouse, loses back, knows how to, chervil.
little owl. who other trust loaded who quizz loess
italian fish, poitrine. chlorine fear rests, quizzical.
having taken, was that too, meurthe-et-moselle do not
walk on air, precipitate, mon dieux prie adieu
pieds noirs crumbs holt john bull.
auxerre. cierre. du haut en bas. homberg.
cherry brandy. strapped back. large glass goblet.
yellow glass avignon mass my brother he did me lacerate.
(Grace Lake, from 'June 21st')
Rum chiming a bull by its horns through purple bushes
To Fields of flowers whose pinks and greens are peachy
Dusk Pushing a cart humped with woes
Through an electric storm of joy, Snaps-
Prized from physical bondage to consumer slavery
In lightning flashes prostitutes pissing above old men coughing
Bright crabs erupting on mushroom skins Resolve to tonic.
Of ringing changes wet and dry from sugar and salt from
And tea into spray-on jeans and cocacolizing TVs and sex
Packet cassettes and this and Other Tales
Of The Remains of the richest and His Biscuits
(cris cheek, from 'Stranger')
A tape cosmography twists upon a three-ply door
extracted from that set at nothing, artfully,
not any golden strip nor mask-play of shadow
either swiped from traffic, nor the downstairs
thief accommodates, sliding there noiselessly,
no, nor merger of the government departments'
many-hued electric loom, nor cheap ecumenicism
fattens pigeon crops & spends its necky bubbles
near & far. Descendants flutter largesse, stolen
in the pantry waxing & shimmer, unpremeditated:
You two have a picnic while I do the shooting.
(John Wilkinson, from 'Crow-cage')
Your response, reader, may be "f&&k me! what are they talking about?" Rest assured that I do know. It's my trade. (Or do I?) It is fair to say that these passages show a rapid cutting technique; the selective quoting understates the overall diversity (or incoherence) of the poems; the unpredictable quality of the verse movement defies rational expectations and so is analogous to chaos as a concept in physics. The passages in question offer the following problems: the poet's personality, normally deduced from the coherent flow of the text, as the gradient which drew it, is missing; there is a lack of connection and of explanation; objects are presented from their least familiar angle; there is a shortage of affect and identification is difficult; they do not offer a moral picture, in which people are seen to be good or bad. My review will be based around these topics.
17 of the poets have been published in Angel Exhaust. The grouping follows magazines like Grosseteste Review, Spanner, the Mottram era Poetry Review, Ochre, Perfect Bound. I certainly don't like all the poetry presented here. But I think we have here a different compositional technique, which is much better than the official English poetry. By taking part in this project, one finds one's own reading habits becoming suspended and visible: systems of feeling, identification, gratification, interpretation of data, social imagination. Looking back on the journey, one can see the shape of what one has left behind: a rigorous exercise of self-alienation into which one was only lured by the opulent decor and apparent fertility of the new linguistic space, and which permits precious self-understanding. This understanding is not recorded in the texts, which merely offer a set of transforms by which it can be reached; it is unique for each individual reader, although it includes a confrontation with the collective past and its regimes of ascribing psychological states to individuals. The new manner is thin on beautiful moments and on the poet offered as a normalizing, reassuring, friendly voice; it offers, frequently, not the chaotic excess of signs but a gap, a thin air lens whose sparseness allows one to see what was formerly invisible.
In 1929, D.H. Lawrence published an essay called 'Chaos in Poetry', which expounds a belief that the cosmos is a flow of inexhaustible and intractable variety, from which form protects people:
The chaos which we have got used to we call a cosmos. The unspeakable inner chaos of which we are composed we call consciousness, and mind, and even civilisation. (...) Man must wrap himself in a vision, make a house of apparent form and stability, fixity. In his terror of chaos he begins by putting up an umbrella between himself and the everlasting whirl.(...) But at last our roof deceives us no more. It is painted plaster, and all the skill of all the human ages won't take us in.(...) This is the momentous crisis for mankind, when we have to get back to chaos.
This remarkably anticipates what information theorists were saying in the 1950s. Because information storage always involves organizing structures and rules for association and analysis, the perceptual event cannot properly be broken down into impinging reality, classification structure, and rules of procedure; the impingent constantly vanishes and changes as it is stored.
What about the poets, then, at this juncture? They reveal the inward desire of mankind. What do they reveal? They show the desire for chaos, and the fear of chaos. The desire for chaos is the breath of their poetry. The fear of chaos is in their parade of forms and technique.
Whatever the problems of Lawrence's patterns of thought, this clearly represents the ideology which was operative sixty years later, producing the title of Conductors of Chaos and some of the poems in it. Lawrence's partiality for the passing second appears to mean that he is blissfully forgetful of what he has just written, gloriously free to write it again. Transience, repetition, simplicity, egoism, directness: this list of epithets could equally apply to rock and roll, and certainly Lawrence came into his own in the sixties. His opposition of form and complexity (unpredictability, rapid succession...) asks for attention, because it seems equally plausible that an inexperienced writer, without grasp of form, would write in a very simple, predictable way. Complexity in poetry falls into the general succession of styles; cris cheek's rapidity of motion could just as well be a product of a particular technique of editing as of the primary realness of reality.
The introduction to A new anthology of modern poetry, 1920-1940, edited by C. Day Lewis and L.A.G. Strong says
For every poet, the world is a chaos which his special gift will resolve into new patterns and combinations. (...) The world we live in has increased in complexity more rapidly than the world at any other time of history. Both the sense-data which are presented to us, and the scientific or philosophical theories ... have reached a bewildering profusion and variety.
This is curious, because it leads in to the title and market image of Conductors of Chaos so exactly, and even into the technical decisions underlying much of the work. Things don't move very fast, do they? Eric Homberger quotes, in his brilliant Art of the Real, a fifties statement by Donald Hall:
'I have come to think that all human action is formal; all personality is an aesthetic structure, a making something exist by statement: like saying a word. Symmetry becomes the root of morality, conduct, and judgement, and reality is a terrifying chaos outside form glimpsed only occasionally, and never, of course, understood without a translation into form.' (Poetry from Oxford, ed. Martin Seymour-Smith, Fortune Press, 1953)
This represents the other side, but the underlying map of the cosmos, as it impinges on the brain's peripheral sensors, is exactly the same. There is a certain continuity of terminology; the tradition is agreed that the raw fragments of the cosmos and of other people's psychological reality are too complex to deal with direct, they can only be converted into meaning by mediations. The breakdown of the traditional mediations (Christianity, positivist science, liberalism) both lets in a tantalizing flood of the unmediated, i.e. chaos, and threatens the poet with total silence for lack of common words. Both Strong/Day Lewis, and Roy Fuller in a 1951 symposium called The Craft of Letters in England, discuss the lack of shared belief systems as a gap preventing the poet from writing:
there is first this widespread change and multiplication of sense-data to complicate modern verse, and then there is what poets call tradition- or, as we feel it to-day, the lack of tradition. I mean that poetry to-day has no common universal background. (...) And when poets have no such common ground with their readers, no set of beliefs which both take for granted, some of the traditional channels of communication are automatically closed." (Day Lewis).
An important pressure on artistic thought has been propaganda, which could be described as over-successful collective mediation, and is quite widely understood now as an impoverishment of topology: events, characters, and ideas lose their ambiguity and resonance, so that there are no spare possibilities, our minds have nothing to work on, and although we learn the lesson we are artistically frustrated because the course of the book or film is predictable. Such a system is catastrophic, because however rigid it is, there is always the possibility that the reader or viewer will reject it lock stock and barrel: a dictatorship is unstable because it is rigid, it makes no concessions but it can collapse altogether. A democracy is extremely unlikely to collapse, it is stable because its internal structure is fluid, shifting to reflect the migrations and re-alignments of its voters or of interest groups. Propaganda for democracy would make this point by enriching the topology of its knowledge systems, demonstrating how good solutions are found by passing through a series of less good ones without seizing up. The 1950s stimulated thought about ambiguity, because the public had, after a phase of intense political struggle which went back to 1933, become very attuned to propaganda and dead set, mostly, against it. Because the propaganda staffs of communism, capitalism, and indeed Fascism, were highly expert and had used every possible artistic technique, the questioning involved every element of the work of art. If identification came in for special curiosity, this was because hardly any work of propaganda had failed to put the unnaturally healthy, emotionally integrated, selfless, man or woman at the centre of its artistic machine; you couldn't move out of communism without untangling your emotional projections onto those dynamic communist heroes, martyrs, and athletes. It was quite apparent that even non-political artists had used these carefully designed devices, for propaganda for the self.
This crisis really goes back to the 1920s; what Sinclair is offering us is the poets working with the new fix which was developed in the sixties, or even the late fifties; a loose system giving chaos the role which electricity plays in rock and roll, directs attention to the mediations themselves, which are only tentative, parts of systems for generating hypotheses, replaces timeless knowledge with open epistemology, makes the poem a series of existential acts outside any permanent ideology or referential system, pushes personality out into the way successive instants of data are edited, and so forth. In 1962 all this was new, but if you still find it difficult today... where have you been? The new scene offers us: a) poets riding the chaos rather than reducing it to suburban order via sedate forms b) allowing indeterminacy into the system is an alternative to having "ideological convictions" and somehow fills the same structural role.
To avoid an all too self-confirming presentation, I must point out that a) there is really no evidence that the perceptual world is all aflow with data, and indeed the prevalence of boredom in modern life suggests that the distribution of chaos is patchy, like the distribution of stars in space b) statements about the prevalence of 'chaos" are unpersuasive without a definite search pattern or a map of where reality is, or is not, chaotic c) since chaos cannot be made available to thought except through mediations, the claim to know what lies beyond mediations is vulnerable to all kinds of criticisms; we don't really know what lies "before" language and so our conception of what language really does is tendentious and subjective.
High variability is a quality of good art, but after all one of the virtues of writing is lucidity, and there some traditions of English poetry arduously exclude the unpredictable. How does the reader swim as the flow of sense disintegrates? Is it possible to remain attentive to a total change of state from second to second? The proposal is that the content of a text is its information content. Everything which makes parts of the text predictable reduces its content. More concretely, every page of a book supplies us with an image of what the next page is going to be like. If someone writes 200 poems to more or less the same plan, then reading a book which collects them produces a declining curve of interest as predictability rises and rises. This presses the poet into the counter-step of attenuating the scene-setting, breaking down the reassuring logical structures, making points quickly, and editing-in the purely unpredictable: even if the reader is occasionally unable to follow what is going on. Since the details of the poem do not repeat, what the reader learns is higher-level forms: "abstract" and generative structures such as metre, metaphors, rhetorical figures, dynamic shape, and the poet's character. These contain more information than the many sentences which exemplify them. Because they are common to an era, predictability carries over from one poet to another: it is convenient to exploit the reader's increasing competence to restore excitement and high attention. We could propose a measure of the complexity of a book in terms of how many underlying structures we need to acquire in order to read it, which is also how predictable each new page is before we turn to it; I propose that JH Prynne and Allen Fisher have the highest index of unpredictability, i.e. formal complexity, of any writers ever. If we could derive the metastatement which gives the generative formula for a Prynne or a Fisher poem, it would be long; whereas the metastatement describing a Larkin or an Andrew Motion poem would be very short.
The political motive for venturing into high complexity is a hypothesis about the variability of society, imagined as a physical system in the terms of information theory. Clearly there are basic constraints to how far any society can be changed, and these include geology, the weather, the state of international trade, and human nature, in some form or other; the belief in a revolutionary transformation proposes a model of society in which every element has many microstates available without violating the constraints, and in which every element could change a great deal if the elements touching it, being its constraints, went into new and "legal" microstates. To describe such a system (and imagining it involves describing it) demands a language of variables, not identifying an observed microstate with the potential of any object, and a complex and dedicated state of mind. The vision of a society, or a small social group, with high potential implies revolutionary paths mathematically supported within the real topology. This world-view asks for poems in which none of the elements are fixed and none of the relations between them are fixed: in which "everybody solos all of the time", to quote Ornette Coleman. Both aesthetic highs and revolution are merely statistical extremes on crests of high energy states, but still satisfying the invariant laws of the system. Such extreme outcomes are statistical aggregations of microstates, clusters. Chaos means non-linearity: in practice, the hope that a system which regularly produced Conservative governments, balance of payments crises, stop-go conjunctural interventions, the eminence of the right wing of the Labour Party, industrial crises, familial cycles of deprivation, would stop repeating itself and shoot into a completely new state. Non-linearity is high gain.
I admit that there are poets of left-wing sympathies who write in a monotonous and predictable style. I don't ask that Adrian Mitchell, say, be stood up against a wall and shot; but I don't see how an unfree poem can be a plea for a free society. (Nonetheless, if some future Ministry of Rhythm should grasp the nettle, I daresay Adrian would write a jaunty little ting-a-ling jingle for us to sing as we loaded our Armalites.) I don't see how you can starve the reader of information and plan to give people, i.e. also the reader, control over the decisions which shape their lives. The future society proposed by the Left is mathematically chaotic: because it will dissolve the constraints of the past, of poverty and invested, hierarchical power, it will make the behaviour of millions of individuals much less predictable, and the complexity of the resulting environment, into which we all have to schedule our behaviour, will oblige us to dissolve more constraints. Radical art is a form of practice for freedom. The piece on circuit design in the New Scientist Guide to Chaos (by Jim Lesurf) remarks on non-linearity resulting from a second component not being constrained by the first: because it can say "yes" or "no" it is like a conscious agent. When you are dealing with someone else, unless they are constrained and unfree, their behaviour is unpredictable, and this makes your response behaviour, your "next move" unforeseeable to you; linking many consciousnesses together without a binding code of restrictive rules is like designing a chaotic amplifier, which Lesurf gives instructions for doing.
The amount of energy in a system with self-organizing capability affects its stability. Ecosystems in northern climates are less stable, and less complex, because the overall energy flow, controlled by the amount of energy from the sun hitting the surface of the earth or the sea, is lower. Any given area of a tropical region will contain many more species than the same area of a high northern region. A destructive event in north Scotland, or by the White Sea, damages the ecosystem more profoundly, because for each energy-processing niche there are fewer "adjacent" species waiting to occupy it when vacant. This has implications for the effects of dumping cores from Russian nuclear subs in the Kara Sea, as discussed in a recent Brian Catling poem.The lack of species in the north is the result of past destructive events: winter, in the hypothesis, wipes out promising but sub-adapted genetic variants and so inhibits the rise of new species. Lethality wipes out the intermediate strands, leaving only one line of flow. Evolution, then, has largely happened in the energy-rich central climates of the earth, ruled by the optics of solar light. Evolution is instability bringing metastability, so that the ability to recover is linked to the energy sum of the system; as we at first asserted. The repositing of power in the hands of a few is a threat to society because it inhibits the variety of alternative solutions, and if the ruling group fail, there are no alternative policies to be applied. Open debate puts ideas through thousands of generations of testing, improvement, and retesting: their robustness, after prolonged malleability, is the result of many energy-using cycles and so, metaphorically, points to an energy-rich system. A dictatorship, such as Russia until 1991, has inflexible policies, which are either applied by force or fail catastrophically, leading to a putsch or a new revolution. Discussion of alternative ideas is prohibited, which is, metaphorically, lethality for them, also preventing the evolution which could make them philosophically robust; the opposition ends up with ideas which are as flaky as Marxism. If a chancellor has a hundred intellectually mature economic policies to choose from, it may still not be enough: because many of them will not fit the circumstances; but choice is always better than compulsion. Real-world economic policy would be a mix-and-match from different systematic approaches.
Modern poetry is trying to illustrate these truths of information theory, but is also governed by them. For example, poetry has been under attack from academics and from the public, waving a panoply of criticisms; rather than simply building up ego defences against these, the skilled poet, plausibly, will have subjected the initial undifferentiated mass of poeticity to a thousand generations of purging and refinement, incorporating the criticisms; the robustness of the final product will be proportional to the number of these generations, and the outcome will, we guess, depend on the initial "energy level" of the system. (Note that cuts and breaks are usually thought of as bringing shape to a body; which is a synonym for form, one of our starting terms. How is it that shape is the outcome of applied energy while form, allegedly, implies lack of energy? Perhaps shape is energy made visible. The initial chaos:form formulation may be quite wrong.) Poetry which has involved no conscious thought seems to be unadapted and to mean indifference to poetry and a deficit of stored information-energy for the reader to consume.
Around here what we are looking for is a link between thermodynamics, information theory, personality, and aesthetics. In fact, it is only by means of such a link that we could first state Lawrence's opposition of chaos and form so as to reveal its true meaning, and then expound what the real situation is so as to define where Lawrence is wrong. Perhaps we could start our quest, and simultaneously justify it, by observing the groundless point in Lawrence's semi-inspired utterance: if you take any text or text fragment, you cannot point to any element which is form nor any element which is chaos. It seems hard to prove that either one exists, yet we understand his metaphor.
The interconnection seems to be indicated by the phenomenon of hotbloodedness and its sequelae. Mammals cannot greatly reduce their energy budget when food is scarce; conversely, their rapid rate of internal chemical reactions makes them fast-moving, and their curiosity lets them exploit the environment. The ability of the mouse to find food is conditioned by its rapid metabolism, which in turn is made possible by its ability to find food. A reptile takes a more passive view of the world, being sluggish in cold weather: the viper, in the English climate, hibernates without eating for up to nine months of the year, slowing its metabolism in a mimic death. Human beings also respond to cold weather by depression, as if something calculated that, where little food is available, it is more efficient to stay indoors, be inactive, and burn little energy, rather than speed up to find food. This energy budget affects all functions, including the emotional and intellectual ones. Functions like attentiveness, eagerness, high rates of association and speculation, all essential to poetry, are interconnected to this global activeness, governed by archaic hormonal systems. Fortunately, the system of glands, and the hormones they secrete, is very complex, even taken simply as a printed circuit diagram; it has many components and many interconnections. We could define it as the personality; but it also runs on chemical reactions which are manifestly subject to thermodynamics, and whose rates are governed by heat.
Another hint of a link is in the functional equivalence of process rules and the commands of the personality as instructions for writing a poem. The 29 stanzas of Allen Fisher's 'Philly Dog', published as a pamphlet and also in First Offense Ten, describe the self:
This work begins with the self
The work a multiplicity of works embedded
disparate and without circularity
concealed identities serious similarities frayed
assumptions organised permanence deconstructed
inserts and envelopes narration
consumer and cultural producer
without identities and without exactness
rumour and intruder
The self becomes an instantaneous apprehension of multiplicity
in a given region not a substitute but an I feel
myself become animal, animal among others
on the edge of the garden created in order
to escape abstract opposition between multiple and one
to escape dialectics and cease treatment of numerical
as lost totality or as an organic element in unity
instead to distinguish between types of multiplicity
I am a homeorhetic system
of attractor surfaces of chreods, necessary pathways,,
located in multi-dimensional spacetimes
in which crossovers correspond to catastrophes
Folds on the surface that suspend descriptive
referential functions and any temporal character
of my experience(.)
The resort to rules for "facturing" the poem aimed to evade the repetitiousness of poems based on the personality, which within the poem appeared as a set of rules and procedures. So the "procedures" and the "personality" were interchangeable, competing, and similar. After many years of reflecting on this relationship, Fisher has produced his poem describing the self, in terms of general system theory and even of electronics. Perhaps we can come to understand the personality as an information process and character or mood as clusters of features within a data handling process. The individual is not the unit of psychological study; because receiving and emitting messages are essential functions, the characteristics of the event are distributed along the whole chain, including at least two individuals and the "situation", which includes at least the code governing their messages and the world-horizon they find themselves in. The project of applying cybernetics to psychology goes back to a 1936 book by Gregory Bateson. If the personality is an information process then the curve by which information loses its value may also affect the personality; behavioural processs may simply reach satisfaction and stop, and indeed we can see life as a series of behavioural stages in which new behaviour is learned; the compulsions of art may reach satisfaction and stop, and indeed the development of artistic taste through life may be a series of endings.
If excitation level is a function of personality, then the rate of edits and cuts may express personality in the most elemental levels of the text and so allow the return of what was apparently eliminated:
Include bars, slurred tone, tintinnabular blinkered
beyond is the coastal storm & daily telegraph man
deep green oil cloth, balancing man, finisterre grove
but... piped up the politician, there's NO geography in
demonstrative slub linen caught tighter than a ring.
The tone is personal because it is so distinctive, although demands for tribal loyalty are discreetly absent.
The aesthetics of polyvalent poetry is perhaps based on the insight that depression is a world, or metabolic state/world in which possibilities are very impoverished, there are very few different tracks and all converge on the same outcome. The outset could be something as simple as the terror, popular in the sixties, of a monotonous job, probably in a factory, of being trapped in a boring life. Rock songs seem convinced that a trap exists, in which one's movements are confined and predictable. The relief is a good place, baby I'll take you there, where things happen all the time and predictability is evaded. A simple way of doing this in poetry was to sever the links between each line. Junctions between words, or between lines, can be seen as nodes in a network, possessing either rich or poor connectivity; better syntactic labels make these nodes clearer but also more determinate. Every sentence, every poem, generates a past, a system memory, as it progresses; something we also call context. The handling of this temporary system memory can depend on theories of how the older generation should relate to the young, or how the weight of past tradition should affect political and economic decisions in the present. The social basis for writing a single definitive line is the job with a unique relation to the boss. If there were a workers' control setup you'd have to deal with the whole team as individuals, horizontal relations, maybe a dozen people. This is much more time consuming, confusing, and changeable. A whole different psychic regime; every act glittering with a dozen facets. Imagine that you were in an exam where, instead of writing for on examiner with one set of requirements, you were writing for a dozen different people each with different attitudes and demands. This after all is what writing a poem is like. I think our ideas of concentration and coherence are founded in an artificial situation of simple hierarchy, where power is delegated from the owners of capital in a very black and white way.
Q. How do you measure the total informational flow through a poem? A. There is a method, which involves a test reader being asked to guess, at every juncture, what the next word is. The likelihood of guessing right can be translated into an arithmetical figure for the predictability, i.e. determinacy, of the text. This is a very burdensome method, also it doesn't really measure the informational richness of the poem, its effect on the reader. My descriptions of information flow are subjective, a kind of metaphor; this isn't worse than saying a poem is "brilliant", when it doesn't literally shine. I am assuming that, because of my experience in literature and information technology, I can intuitively gauge where a text is rich or impoverished in possibilities, and that the theorems of information theory provide explanatory structures helpful in studying poetry. The prediction test should really be set at each character; a poem which is unusual in lexical choice may be conventional in spelling and word formation. Dialect texts, however, may have a conventional choice of vocabulary and a startling way of shaping words. There are more sophisticated ways of measuring the amount of information in a text, but I have not applied these either.
A sign of low information flow is the use of set collocations: a recent book of Scots poetry was called hert's bluid, a clanger which takes us back to the sixteenth century. The deterministic attraction of rhyming pairs was satirized by Rob MacKenzie in a very funny poem. Dissolving away all conventional language produces a more difficult and richer landscape. The impoverishment of microstates implies a withdrawal of choice from the reader: left at the bottom of a tier of levels of access to information where each level filters out variation and contradiction and leaves cut and dried, mutually supporting, judgments. The tier models a hierarchy of power. Breaking up sets of words implying each other with fearful inevitability asks the poet also to break up pairs of lines which imply each other.
It would be unfair to omit another way of looking at chaos. In a textbook of psychology, we read "The confused thought processes that are the hallmark of schizophrenia seem to stem from a general difficulty in focusing attention and filtering out irrelevant stimuli.", and it quotes a sufferer saying "I can't concentrate. It's diversions of attention that trouble me. I am picking up different conversations. It's like being a transmitter. The sounds are coming through to me, but I feel my mind cannot cope with everything. It's difficult to concentrate on any one sound." (Hilgard, Introduction to Psychology) This does evoke the suspicion and discomfort which most of the reading public experience faced with poetry based on the rapid montage method. I suppose there to be an analogy between the fragility of attention of someone ill in this tragic way, and the volatility and suggestibility of the awareness of someone being whirled away by art. Art has to include a dose of the surprising, bewilderingly complex, disguised, ornamental, and inexplicit. I like to concentrate, but in art I also like there to be a dozen things going on which I wasn't expecting and which simultaneously disperse my attention into attentive part-selves and make me more alert and expectant. As the title astutely hints, a conductor can listen to polyphony without this loss of singularity representing a failure of concentration.
A rich network has the interesting property of being without a past. Imagine a network of three nodes, with paths radiating out from them in the numbers (1,1,1). Asssume the last node is also the exit from the system. When a ball bearing (imagine the net as a kind of marble run!) is at any node, we know where it is about to go and where it has been. Now imagine a net (7,7,7,7). When the ball is at the third node, it can have had seven immediately previous paths and 49 different paths over its last two nodes. Its position does not reveal its trajectory; it has no past. Rich connectivity removes information in the sense of balls, or people, carrying their past around with them. A class system is based, not just on inequality, but on a poverty of choices available to each social actor. Describing individuals in an affluent society is harder than in a conformist and stratified one. Lack of carry-over from one moment to the next puts into question the value of watching the process, since the information gathered has no predictive value; perception always tries to find higher-order patterns, which it turns out always mean repetition and so determinacy. For what is a pattern that does not have symmetry and repetition?
Imagine another network (1,7,0,8). The zero shows a node with no paths, i.e. an impasse. Associational paths that break off and go nowhere are an important feature of poetry. Perhaps all chains of excitation eventually run down. In a net (7,8,1,1,4,9) the particle has a (detectible) past at one point and then loses it again. The term microstates used above can now be defined more satisfactorily as rapidly succeeding nodes; a net with many nodes allows more states than a simple one. A net with a single strand at one point can be called convergent; where many paths become one. The term attractor is used for an outcome that, mysteriously or not, seems to lie at the end of many different paths. In a book of poetry, the poet's style or personality form an attractor; or rather, there is an attractor which we label a style or personality. There is a link between the persistence of marbles running through the course, i.e. the recognizable link between successive states, and what we call attention.
If indeterminacy is attached to devout hopes about how public decisions are taken, how does it relate to social conflict? doesn't that series of oppression, contestation, conflict, and triumph generate enough excitement and indeterminacy? Strangely, this is something almost missing from modern poetry; whose indeterminacy may be a compensation for the loss of productive uncertainty entrained by giving up narrative and realist representation. This moves the domain of indeterminacy from a higher level down to a micro level. The leftism of modern poets is phantomatic, as they mostly plump for appearing wise and above things, sine ira et studio, rather than committing the voice of their poems to contestation and so to counter-attack. The exception is a strand of feminist poetry, and even this has progressively moved away from attacking the enemy and into more internal discourse, whether internal to the poet's mind or to groups of like-minded and close people. From linguistic closeness to closedness. You can't attack a politician's words without drawing the public's attention to the subjective and debatable quality of the information and attitudes in your own words; an invitation which a strong poet should not quail at. In order to portray conflict with authority it is necessary to portray authority figures and let them have their say; Raworth and Allen Fisher are undoubtedly bearing a radical, anti-authoritarian message, but they decline to show who they are attacking and so the attack is oblique and on some days invisible. Modern poets have put their political ideals into high-level linguistic decisions, an aesthetic turn little recognized in the literature and perhaps hard for the audience to take in. How many of the country's committed leftists would recognize the radical intent of this poetry? Meanwhile, my decision to exclude realist-literal leftist poets is prompted only by my indifference to their work, not by their literal absence from the scene. The examples of Arden and Hughes pull us up sharply about the portrayal of conflict. How is it that they portray conflicts, and uncertain outcomes? In their works the enemy is within the frame of the work, whereas in most modern poets the enemy is invisible, outside the frame, and the only uncertainty is whether the poet will pull the poem off, in his own terms.
We can suggest that the goodness of fit of the eventual solution to any question will be proportional to the area of variations which the search has been allowed to explore. Variation can only be generated by an incomplete pattern, a permissive one. The argument is a formalised conflict in which ideas are sharpened and advanced. This population of states as the results of series of experimental variations to match bounding conditions will detain us for a while longer, because the problem with traditional artistic procedures, with their reliable outcomes, is precisely that the known outcome has a fatal attraction for the work and blinds the writer to the sheaving of other paths to go down; the way to explore those paths is to throw away your preset objective and enter a state of drift. How do you plan to reach an objective that doesn't exist before you invent it? try everything you don't know. In an age where poetry is domina
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