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Robert Sheppard





You can read a section of "Twentieth Century Blues"
in this issue of Jacket.


Works I've 'numbered', rather than named, Twentieth Century Blues have been appearing over the last two years. Never the title of a piece, this apparent subtitle (for example, 'Sharp Talk and Amended Signatures, Twentieth Century Blues 2'), implies a sequencing of some sort. The text the reader has is clearly part of something else. How it relates to that something else and how that something else is disposed towards its own development, past and future, is my active and personal way of dealing with the question of what poetry might become.

A rejected title for this sequencing was that of Beuys' affective installation, The End of the 20th Century -- now happily in the Tate Gallery where it will be widely seen. It's a profound and resonant title, but I didn't like its suggestion of finality or ambiguous teleology (all denied by Beuys' work itself, of course). Moreover, a voice in a dream warned me not to use it. Less portentous and more fitting to my sensibility -- to refunction kitsch -- was 'Twentieth Century Blues', a song of Noel Coward that I once owned on a 78 but haven't heard for years: 'Blues, Twentieth Century Blues, are getting me down. / Who's escaped those weary Twentieth Century Blues?'  Since I'd just then started to sing blues again in a band, it also seemed a pertinent red herring. The first 'Twentieth Century Blues', 'Smokestack Lightning' begins:

Let it all go. As I sing, I drive my
dynamite for some strange machine
of this nearly spent century.

Clearly I had my eye on the end of the twentieth century -- Beuys' sarcophagi could also be seeds, packed with the fat of decay or regeneration -- but I wanted to avoid the millennial slip. The vast majority of the population of the world will not be celebrating the year 2000, not just because of starvation, war, and AIDS, but because they run their lives on different calendars. The twentieth century is an invention of the Christian West.


I wanted a 'title' that would allow me to order, re-order and disorder a text or a series of strands of texts in sequences, something that could be read in a number of ways. Allen Fisher's organisation of Place (1971-1980), it is often forgotten, is premised on a similar complexity, and was an inspiration. (See Unpolished Mirrors, Serial H, (Spanner: 1981)) for six possible ways of reading the work. Nevertheless, Fisher has always maintained that a reader can join the project at any point, becoming the 'loci of a point on a moving sphere', though the reader should respect the work's mutual cancellations and contradictory cross-referencing between its carefully numbered parts.)

An index of Twentieth Century Blues might include entries like this:

Twentieth Century
Smokestack Lightning
History of Sensation 5
Killing Boxes
Melting Borders 2
Mesopotamia 2
Empty Diaries

Weightless Witnesses
Empty Diary 1991
Killing Boxes 3

Mesopotamia 1 is, for example, 'History of Sensation 1'. Empty Diaries is a long sequence of poems, one of which is 'Mesopotamia 3'. Therefore, to read it linearly, which is almost chronologically, causes it to double back upon itself. Many texts belong to more than one strand. New strands, even retrospectively, can be added to the weave. Some related texts, such as The Cannibal Club, 'History of Sensation 2', are not part of Twentieth Century Blues; its own borders melt. Twentieth Century Blues is essentially not about anything; it is a form to hang things on, to weave things through, albeit knottily. I have toyed with Deleuze and Guattari's term 'rhizome' in my hunt for the adequate metaphor, but I'm not sure that's what I'm producing, exactly. In a way, I would say that this schema organises continuities I've often sensed between texts of mine, the feeling of one poem continuing, even in contradiction, another.

Reading one of the resultant strands -- even for me -- is an oddly unsettling experience. For example, The Materialisation of Soap 1947, written in 1988, is part of The Flashlight Sonata, 'Twentieth Century Blues 6' and is also 'History of Sensation 4'; it clearly belongs to more than one strand. The second 'Materialisation of Soap', was written in 1992 and belongs to the Empty Diaries 1946-1966 sequence, 'Twentieth Century Blues 16'. They therefore belong apart as much as they belong together. But to take them as a strand, they are stylistically dissimilar and what results is more of a network than a work, a dissonance, a difference born of identity (they use the same materials and share something of the same poetic focus). The first opens:
Suspicion in the capital: the ecstasy
Of austerity rationing the uniforms.
It must be like air, natural and free,
But there's a shortage of nature in this
Land of torrents and the surrounding seas.
The second begins:
Big Ben froze. British grit flies from
bus wheels sticks to flesh queues do
not waste brick dust  Pearl's face silk
through a wringer he licks her finger
There could be a third poem, different again, or one which would knot this strand into another. Or there might not. I realise that a reader's aesthetic preferences may privilege one text over another. This suits me. It activates the reader, though in a different way from my previous poetics of indeterminacy: the reader completing the author's fragments in an expansive education of desire. (See, for example, my co-authored 'Afterword' to Floating Capital (Potes and Poets: 1991), the Education of Desire (Ship of Fools: 1988, and page 21 of this volume), Ignite! And Incite! (RWC Extra: 1994). Whichever poem is privileged, it still have to be read against its apparently less convincing companion. The satisfaction of closure might be delayed as effectively as in an indeterminate text; the principle of discontinuity hangs between the texts not, necessarily, within them, though that's often still the practice. The aim, however, has not changed: to activate the reader into participation, into relating differences, to sabotage perceptual schema, to educate desire, not to fulfil it in a merely entertaining emptying of energy. To create, above all, new continuities.

The politics of this, though, becomes less utopian, less the text opening horizons of possibility, Marcuse's Aesthetic Dimension glittering with its pre-figurations. It becomes more strategic: a denial of what we presently are, as Foucault would have it, more a question of emphasising the text's 'capacity to promote active, procedural ruptures at the core of significatory tissues and semiotic denotatives, from which to set new worlds of reference to work'. (Felix Guattari, 'Text for the Russians', Poetics Journal 8)

The epigraph for the entire Twentieth Century Blues project -- the chance of there being a book, a single volume, of that title at the head of which it could stand is remote -- comes from JM Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). The disgraced imperial magistrate who is the novel's narrator, is forced to explain his archeological interests (in particular, indecipherable texts he had collected) which have alerted his authoritarian captors' suspicions:
They form an allegory. They can be read in many orders. Further, each single slip can be read in many ways. Together they can be read as a domestic journal, or they can be read as a plan of war, or they can be turned on their sides and read as a history of the last years of the Empire -- the old Empire, I mean. (p 112)
His explanation is ironically barbed, of course, but his sense of the subversiveness of the marginal or of that which cannot readily be decoded into the violent simplicities of bureaucracy is affective, and provides me with a useful analogy for Twentieth Century Blues. We can all read the object, assemble, re-assemble, it in our own way(s). This will, of course, be affected by our acquired knowledge, our perceptual schema, and by the means of the text's availability, not an irrelevant question for the non-canonical poet, relying upon fugitive small presses. We all have to start reading with what we can get, as Allen Fisher realised.

The long poem's ambition toward inclusiveness, its grasping for totality, with all its attendant drifts into dogmatism as well as stale repetition, has been, at least in this century, its most negative condition. I believe that my notion of sequencing, with its mercurial shifts, may avoid some of these traps. It is not necessary to let it go stale for the sake of titanic ambition. Although I don't wish to analyse his essay in any depth here, Barrett Watten's description of Zukofsky's A in his 'Social Formalism' essay (North Dakota Quarterly, Fall 1987) seems pertinent here. His use of Bourdieu's theory, at the very least, provided me with the term 'generative schema' to describe poetic sequencing.
The poetics I am trying to describe might be called 'process' but that would misunderstand them. The rhetoric of process describes a formal procedure given an equal value at all points; it is an imposed order, a naming from the outside of a temporal development. While these poetics involve a process, they work it out from the inside -- involving a wide and indeterminate range of feedback that enacts a refiguring and transformation of Bourdieu's 'generative schema' over a long duration. (p 375)
The morphogenetic poesis has a
logic of development that creates the necessary conditions for its own 'next move in the game'. These moves are transformative -- both of experience as it is understood and of the possibilities of the poem. The poem enacts a strategic argument of forms, rather than a rhetoric of process, and this temporality occurs in a tension with time outside the poem, with history and with the events of the poet's life. (p 376)
The aim is that the writing -- the working on rather than the working out -- of Twentieth Century Blues should constitute such an aesthetic journey, fracturing into the new, a poetic changing by stages and confronting the changing world. There are no jumps, just swift transitions.

The fourteenth 'Twentieth Century Blues' is a short prospectus for this 'working on'.



                                        Twentieth Century Blues 14


                              - work(s)

                                                         April 17 1992


A network but not a work, a knot of works, not work as labour, but as 'necessary business'. Several networks. Net: the shape of a 3D figure laid flat. Subject to no further deductions. The take home pay. Network: system of units, stations for broadcasting the same programme. Not: a word expressing denial, negation, refusal. Adv. Same as naught, nought. Knot: Interlacement. Twisting. In some particular form. A bond of union. A difficulty. The main point of a tangle. A complex of lines. A measure of speed. A node or joint in a stem. Knotwork: ornamental work made with knots. Granny knot: a knot like a reef knot, but unsymmetrical, apt to slip or jam. A tangle or a careful design? Slip knots let the world through. The net works to capture, the knot works to hold the net. Work: Working the Work, earlier notes on poetics. Working on. Effect directed to an end, that on which one works, the product of work, a literary composition, a book. Works: walls, workshop, an action in its moral aspect. To produce effects. To sail in a course, to put in motion, to purge. To provoke. To excite.

Or not any of these.


What I shall be writing next may well be another Twentieth Century Blues. What I have been writing now, I realise is itself 'Twentieth Century Blues 18'.
The generative schema allows for a proliferation of strands and an almost cellular splitting of new sequences. Perhaps Twentieth Century Blues will suddenly stop and other titles emerge from it as the 'real' work. The scheme announces only its potentialities, its host of whispered qualifiers; the strands could become, or include, music (there is one 'song' so far), performance, works by other artists in a variety of media, non-aesthetic events. One of my idle dreams has always been to write an entire literature, to become a sort of Pessoa gone fake omniscient.

The title Twentieth Century Blues does provide a temporal scope for my working, a moment at which, after having changed throughout, it will have to change utterly, into silence. And if silence isn't reached before that, it's a limit enough, the last years of the Empire and its calendar or not.

At Cambridge recently a group of poets eager for debate held a conference on 'Twenty first century poetry', a pre-emptive strike used, in the one paper I have read, to assert that the poetry of the next century will be -- more or less -- work I have written about as the 'the poetry of the 1970s'. (See 'Artifice and the everyday world' in ed. Moore-Gilbert, The Arts in the 1970s: Cultural Closure?  (Routledge, 1994))  Such arguments, logically, lead only to the past, because it is the only known thing apart from the present. The future belongs to the unknown relation of a not yet unfolded world and the, at present, slenderly formed practices of those who will work in it, and against it. You cannot see into the granite hearts of Beuys' sculpture. But it might be possible to provide structures that can transform in terms of poetics and poetic focus as the world transforms itself. The one necessary result of Twentieth Century Blues should be that its future units, within strands and across the entire schema, will look like nothing that I am producing now.

July 1992     The Why Project (Anabasis, 1992)


Robert Sheppard
Robert Sheppard was born in 1955 and was educated at the University of East Anglia. He has published a number of books, including The Flashlight Sonata and Empty Diaries, both published by Stride in Exeter, UK; and both of which form parts of a long project entitled Twentieth Century Blues. Poetry has been anthologised in The New British Poetry (1988), Other (1999) and Floating Capital, which he co-edited with Adrian Clarke. A selection of the shorter of many essays he has written on poetry, Far Language, is published by Stride, and others have appeared in English, Critical Survey and Symbiosis. He is the editor of Pages magazine and Ship of Fools publishes his many collaborations with the artist Patricia Farrell. He teaches at Edge Hill College of Higher Education, where he is course tutor for the MA in Writing Studies.


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