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This is Jacket 12, July 2000   |   # 12  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Nate Dorward

Roy Fisher

Roy Fisher, Interviews through Time and Selected Prose. Kentisbeare, Devon: Shearsman Books, 2000. 148pp. ISBN 0 907562 26 4. £10.00

News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher. Ed. Peter Robinson and Robert Sheppard. Exeter, Devon: Stride, 2000. 126pp. ISBN 1 900152 67 3. £8.95.

The Thing about Roy Fisher: Critical Studies Ed. John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000. 377pp. Hardback: ISBN 085323-515-5, £34.99; paperback: ISBN: 085323-525-2, £16.99.

This piece is 3,600 words or about ten pages long.
You can read John Tranter’s interview with Roy Fisher
in Jacket # 1.

THE SIMULTANEOUS appearance of these three books is a sign of the gathering critical consensus in the UK as to the significance of Roy Fisher’s work. Such a consensus bespeaks a remarkable convergence of opinion among poets and critics otherwise very far from consensus about poetic matters. Fisher belongs to a generation of poets who, getting their start in the grey area between the decline of the 1940s Apocalypse and the rise of the Movement in the 1950s, found themselves oriented towards an international modernism — other key names here might be Bob Cobbing, Gael Turnbull, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Christopher Middleton, Eric Mottram, Charles Tomlinson and Edwin Morgan. After early experiments in an Apocalyptic/Dylan Thomas manner (discussed by James Keery in an illuminating essay in the Liverpool book) Fisher became involved with the post-Williams aesthetic of Turnbull’s Migrant and Cid Corman’s Origin. Fisher’s modernism put him outside the poetic mainstream of his time, and instead found readers (and publishers) in the underground small-press movement — among the poets associated with The English Intelligencer and Ferry and Grosseteste Presses, or among those associated with Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum Press. His work from this period is extraordinarily various: his remarkable, and still best-known, long poem City (1961, rev. ed. 1968) is a mixed prose and verse work that runs the gamut from surrealism to exact urban description; The Ship’s Orchestra (1966) and The Cut Pages (1971) are experimental prose poetry, while the poems of The Memorial Fountain (1966) combine Williams-like exact description with epistemological skepticism.

Roy Fisher by Claire McNamee

Beginning in the mid-1970s Fisher began to gain more recognition outside the little-press scene: the key moments here are critical appreciations by Donald Davie (1973), J.D. Needham (1975) and John Ash (1979), and Fisher’s progression to larger presses — Carcanet, Oxford and most recently Bloodaxe. For Ash his work was quintessentially "postmodernist", for Davie heavily indebted to the modernist technique of "defamiliarization": the exact designation hardly matters, but it seems clear that Fisher, like his fellow Bloodaxe poets Barry MacSweeney, J.H. Prynne and Douglas Oliver, found an increasingly large audience in part because of the supplanting of the Movement in the 1980s by a new mainstream postmodernism represented by authors like Craig Raine, Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Muldoon and Simon Armitage, and more generally by the popular dissemination of the clichés of poststructuralist theory (Ian Gregson’s book Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement, which crunches its subject-matter through the mill of Shklovsky and Bakhtin, has a useful chapter on Fisher). Fisher’s poetry has become less formally unpredictable since the mid-1970s: he no longer uses prose, preferring a tightly marshalled free verse, and the urban surrealism of a book like City is replaced by a more straightforward discursive or loco-descriptive verse. Though I find much of this body of work on a lower flame than before, I would also argue that A Furnace (1986), a book-length poem in a high modernist mode, is his finest achievement, and one of the most important poems of the last several decades.
If the publication of the three books under review is a product and culmination of an increasing consensus about Fisher’s importance, they also attempt an intervention in that consensus. The Thing about Roy Fisher, a collection of twelve new essays on his work edited by Peter Robinson and John Kerrigan, attempts several crucial re-orientations. Rather than City, the early poem that is still Fisher’s best-known work, here A Furnace receives pride of place: Robinson’s introduction notes that A Furnace is "for some readers undoubtedly Fisher’s masterpiece" (5), and it is discussed here at various lengths by Ralph Pite, Clair Wills, John Kerrigan, Michael O’Neill and Robinson himself; it is also extensively documented in new interviews with Fisher, conducted by Robinson and Kerrigan and printed in the other two volumes. The Cut Pages, Fisher’s most experimental text, is little known outside the ranks of Fisher enthusiasts because of its exclusion from the Oxford and Bloodaxe editions of his poems: here it is moved to the centre of the oeuvre, receiving commentary by Robert Sheppard, Marjorie Perloff and Simon Jarvis. Surprisingly, The Ship’s Orchestra is barely discussed, except for a brief account in Sheppard’s "’Making Forms with Remarks’: The Prose"; City is touched on frequently without being discussed at length, and Wonders of Obligation goes almost without comment. (Such omissions are of course likely as much dictated by the whims of contributors as the desires of editors, but this does not alter my point about the impact of the collection as a whole.) Critical clichés are overturned, such as the association of Fisher’s verse with the technique of defamiliarization: "While Fisher was aware of and has acknowledged an interest in such strategies," Robinson remarks, "this sense of him as primarily a defamiliarizing formalist has become a received idea of the critical literature, with distortions and mischaracterizations inevitably following" (8-9). And crucial supplements are made to the consensus, for instance in Pite’s "’Coming into their Own’: Roy Fisher and John Cowper Powys", which sets forth the extent of Powys’s influence on Fisher’s poetry; despite Fisher’s dedication of A Furnace to Powys, the poem’s critics have until now let the connection go unremarked.

Contemporary poetry has often had an uneasy relation with the institution of academic criticism. In News for the Ear, an homage volume of poems and prose written by Fisher’s peers among (mostly) UK poets, Fisher’s work is in a few spots the occasion for an attack on academe and on the modes of poetry it finds of value. Lee Harwood expresses contempt for "’Establishment’ tapdancing main-chancers and ’Experimental’ arrogant academics" (53) — I take it in the latter case he’s referring to the "Cambridge" poets associated with J.H. Prynne or perhaps the US Language poets. Ric Caddel more temperately produces two parodies of academic gibberish (Dr. Laidback’s poststructuralist doublespeak and Professor Upright’s threadbare humanism), then dismisses them as "arty commentary" that has "nothing to do with its lively and unclassifiable subject" (59). I can understand such attitudes — after all, academe often seems either to completely ignore contemporary innovative writing, or (as in the case of John Ashbery and Samuel Beckett) bury it under a pile of crud — while thinking them ultimately complacent: the essays in The Thing about Roy Fisher are all worth reading, often conveying a sense of deep engagement with the poetry and leading one to a fresh and newly appreciative perception of it. Some sense of the volume’s significance may be given by looking at its authors’ handling of A Furnace and The Cut Pages.
I spoke of A Furnace as a high modernist poem. One aspect of this modernism is exemplified in Fisher’s hostility in the poem to a debased rationality which enforces clear and authoritative distinctions, whether in the realms of politics or Christianity: Fisher’s poem instead prefers to blur distinctions, in particular that between the living and the dead. As Robinson puts it: "Coolly acknowledging the necessary interrelation of the binary terms, their natural overlap, and the numerous ways (e.g., the ’involuntary memory’ of genetics, dialect, environment, cultural and family traditions) that the dead of many centuries are actively present within and around us, Fisher’s poem discovers a mysticism in the patternings by which all our lives-and-deaths are part of the process" (296-97).
Such a mysticism draws on several strands of a modernist inheritance. Ian F. A. Bell had earlier in his book Critic as Scientist: The Modernist Poetics of Ezra Pound demonstrated one strain of Modernism eager to draw on contemporary science for aesthetic analogies; here, in an essay co-written with Meriel Lland he illuminates Fisher’s preference for "osmosis", for the "crossing of borders and boundaries of all kinds" and for the "’oblique’ and the ’vague’", by demonstrating its affinity with the thinking of William James (106-07). Kerrigan pushes this line of inquiry further by demonstrating how the spiralling structure of A Furnace reflects Fisher’s obsession with post-Einsteinian concepts of space-time and his search for a "four-dimensional language", as he put it in a 1977 interview with Robinson. According to Kerrigan,

once its obsession with space-time is grasped, Fisher’s poem comes into focus as an ambitious attempt to think beyond religious schema about mysteries which have been enlarged rather than resolved by the advance of scientific knowledge. Yet although A Furnace is informed by science, its aims and understandings are poetic, often speculative and intuitive. Fisher writes as one whose wonder has been awakened by subatomic particles and multi-dimensionality, much as a Christian poet’s would be by angels or the incarnation. . . . (40-41)

But if science and mysticism are combined here, another aspect of A Furnace’s Modernist interest in the non-rational is a strong sense of the occult and the numinous. The title of section II, "The Return", suggests (as John Matthias has noted) both the returning gods of Pound’s poem and Yeats’s use of that poem in A Vision. One might also think of the modernist spiritualism of H.D.’s Trilogy (which starts, in Fisher-like fashion, with the image of a demolished building); while another predecessor is Mary Butts, in whose Dorset landscape is set a key section of part VI, "The Many", at "Knowlton ruin", an "abandoned Christian church [which] stands in the ring of an enclosure previously sacred to earlier deities whose ground it was tactically sent to occupy" (A Furnace, Oxford University Press, 1986, p.39). Ralph Pite usefully elucidates the indebtedness of the poem to John Cowper Powys’s animism, in which "animals and plants, even stones and minerals, are not only all alive, but each kind of living thing possesses its own quality of consciousness and seeks to become as completely itself as possible" (231). Such a belief or intuition might seem hard to square with Fisher’s skeptical temperament; but Clair Wills demonstrates how these dispositions prove more than self-cancelling or self-contradictory:

If the poem is indeed in the form of a parodic prayer, then it is a kind of counter-parody — a parody of a belief in meaning which, on Fisher’s account, has already become parodic for us. . . . [T]he shattering of religious tradition — or its jumbled, ’parodic’ preservation — now seems to contain the numinous in a way which the tradition itself no longer can. Apocalypse, Fisher states, ’lies within time’ (F, p. 45): it is happening now, and always. There is no last judgement, no final summation, no revelation beyond the momentary callings of the perceiving self, whether these callings are wished for or not. (273)

I want to turn now to The Cut Pages, and look at the sharply divergent readings given it in Marjorie Perloff’s "Cutting-Edge Poetics: Roy Fisher’s ’Language Book’" and Simon Jarvis’s "A Burning Monochrome: Fisher’s Block". (I’m setting aside the remarks on this text in Robert Sheppard’s piece on Fisher’s prose works, which chime at several points with Perloff’s comments.) One of Fisher’s least known and most recalcitrant texts, The Cut Pages occupies a crucial place in his poetic development. As he explains in Interviews through Time, Fisher had gradually throughout the 1960s drifted into a case of writer’s block: a glance at Derek Slade’s chronological listing of poems in the back of The Thing about Roy Fisher reveals that an almost complete silence set in after "Three Ceremonial Poems" in 1966. During this period of "relentless stress and personal crisis", Fisher began to keep a journal, "a diary of demoralization" (Fisher, qtd. by Perloff, 155). The crisis was over in late 1969: he then cut the unused pages out of this book and used them for the poem’s composition.

Roy Fisher, cover of The Cut Pages

For Perloff, The Cut Pages is Fisher’s most exciting text, especially for its anticipation of the "new sentence" of Language poets such as Ron Silliman. She frames her discussion of the text with a sketch of the American poetic tradition informing Fisher’s work and its reception — the names she lists are Williams, Olson, Zukofsky, Creeley, Levertov, Ignatow and Snyder, as exemplars of a "precisionist, projectivist aesthetic" (169). To my eye there’s a certain amount of conflation going on here: she is talking, I think, about two distinct but related poetics. The first is an objectivist poetics whose emblematic slogan is Williams’s "No ideas but in things"; this is an aesthetic stressing a nondiscursive poetry, verbal and imagistic economy, and an emphasis on the visual. Perloff cites a bagful of its watchwords on p.153: show don’t tell, let the images do the work, "Use no word that does not contribute to the presentation". Perloff misleadingly treats such an objectivist poetics as synonymous with one of "’open form’, with its emphasis on authenticity, the simulation of the speaking voice, and the ’natural look’" (151). But the latter poetics is in fact a discursive one, as is clear in her later reference to "the didactic projective verse of Olson" (154).
Though I think Perloff’s characterizations are sometimes too simplified (do the multiple spacings and margins of Olson’s work really have much to do with "the ’natural look’", for instance?), what interests me is rather her aesthetic allegiances and their relation to her valuation of Fisher. Though she insists strongly that the historical moment for such a conflated Objectivist/Projectivist poetics has passed with the advent of the media-saturated culture of the 1980s and 1990s, she still clearly values a nondiscursive objectivist poetics, while the rather disapproving tone of "didactic" suggests her greater doubts about a discursive poetics. In other words, a really valid contemporary poetics retains the nondiscursive emphasis of objectivist poetics while discovering poetic forms capable of carrying it forward into the context of the late 20th century. Perloff finds most of Fisher’s work outside The Cut Pages either a failed attempt at a nondiscursive Williamsian poetry (she cites passages from "Seven Attempted Moves", "Matrix", and "Glenthorne Poems" and criticizes them for a lack of concreteness and "reassuringly tidy" imagery [152-53, 166]) or a reversion to "more conventional lyric" (168).
Jarvis’s piece, though presumably written without knowledge of Perloff’s essay, is an astute analysis of the difficulties inherent in a nondiscursive poetic. Perloff is in essence praising The Cut Pages for being an updated version of the "well-made poem" (indeed, she rather wilfully suggests it is a variation on sonnet-form, since it is in 14 sections): an authorial freedom from a discursive, prescriptive modality permits intricate pattern-making activities which free rather than constrain the reader. Jarvis is skeptical about such a freedom: for him, "although The Cut Pages sometimes read like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E before the letter, they are more accurately connected with the half freedom of impro", because the book’s "artifice does not take signification to be endless" (179). "The idea of poetry as a special zone of freedom for language or syntax, which might proleptically stand in for a wider freedom of experiences, can leave us in practice, as Fisher is acutely aware, with its very reverse, the unfreedom of inert bits" (179). Its freedom may instead become an empty or incapacitating one, a constant series of swerves and attempted compensations for a block which is not only the condition of writer’s block but more generally "the partially blocked experience of every living subject under the cult of indifference" (174):

Modern indifference rests on economism: on the illusory and in principle non-completable separation of the economic from the political, of private from public, of gift from exchange. Indifference is the ’state of mind’ of which there are statues everywhere. Absolute indifference is a chimera; hence the need to put up ’statues’ of it. But its cult is real enough; hence the justification for a reserve towards pathos: extravagant compensatory splatterings of feeling are the flip side of the cult of indifference, discounted in advance by what they would correct. The danger for an oeuvre like Fisher’s is exactly marked by the uncomfortable shuttlings between ’realism’ and ’formalism’, between ’object’ and ’subject’, between objectivity and pathos, between reference and artifice, which always appear bound into a compensatory circuit: as though too much foot on the realism-pedal could be counteracted by a swift lurch into the fictive. (180-81)

The Cut Pages, like other work for this period, is thus a struggle with an encroaching "indifferent nihilism", a struggle in which its predilections for a nondiscursive poetic mode may only be part of the problem, rather than the solution. The essay ends with a sharp commentary on objectivist poetics: Jarvis notes that the slogan "No ideas but in things" is part of a much longer history: "The allegiance to a non-discursive poetics . . . has been incipient ever since ’poetry’ began to be distinguished from ’philosophy’ or any other kind of science" (189). The slogan is purposely ambiguous in its omission of the copula, leaving it unclear whether "there are no ideas but in things, or whether there ought not to be" (190). Fisher’s poetry shows a continual unease with the "deletion of the subject" represented by such a slogan: "The movement of Fisher’s poetry has often appeared to be an initial deletion of the subject along these lines, followed by a compensatory attempt to put the subject, which is imagined to have been all too successfully deleted, on the evidence of the blocked addiction to appearance, back — by adding some component of artifice, fictiveness or figurativeness" (190).
A glance at the essays in The Thing about Roy Fisher reveals the extent to which interpretation of Fisher’s work has drawn on interviews given by the poet. The publication of Interviews through Time, a collection of interview material and some further prose, reveals that Fisher is perhaps the most extensively and systematically interviewed British poet since David Jones: there are 16 separate items in the list of interviews in Derek Slade’s bibliography; six are included in this volume (in intercut form, with repetitive matter removed), and a further interview ends News for the Ear. It’s perhaps suggestive that this volubility came only after the removal of Fisher’s writer’s block (the first interview is dated 1971). Certainly the interviews seem to be an extended attempt at self-analysis: he repeatedly characterizes his former self as "phobic", and speaks of his poetry as "the arrangement and presentation of fetishes" (115); in a prose piece he wryly arraigns himself for "unconscious or unashamed solipsism" (131). Yet the volume does not come off as either self-obsessed or arrogantly worried about setting future generations right about every detail of the poems, though many insights are offered (sample, for instance, Fisher’s explanation to Sheppard of how Wittgenstein’s numbered propositions in the Tractatus inspired the prosody of Interiors with Various Figures). The opening autobiographical piece, rather than the usual wobbly and self-centred account of finding a calling one expects of such things, is a detailed (and obviously carefully researched) account of Fisher’s family history within the historical and social milieu of 19th- and 20th-century Birmingham. The volume is rounded off by Fisher’s tongue-in-cheek review of his own 1996 collection — "I think he’s a Romantic, gutted and kippered by two centuries’ hard knocks" (131) — and a set of talks for radio.

One of the dangers posed by such rich resources is that critical writing can become an act of quasi-ventriloquism, with apposite bits quoted from the poet’s interviews as a commentary on the verse. The essayists in The Things about Roy Fisher are mostly canny enough to avoid this trap, but such a danger makes News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher an essential supplement to the volume, a document of responses from poets with often strongly different sensibilities from Fisher’s. The names range from the well-known — Charles Tomlinson, Edwin Morgan, August Kleinzahler, Elaine Feinstein, Carol Ann Duffy — to small-press poets like Peter Riley, Tony Baker, Robert Sheppard, Ken Edwards, Gael Turnbull and Maurice Scully. While a few contributions are slight — little more than respectful nods or waves — most of them, both poetry and prose, manage to cast fresh light on the poetry in a way just as invigorating as the essay volume. Peter Riley’s piece on "The Slink" — just two pages long — and Gael Turnbull’s on The Ship’s Orchestra — just three — are models of critical economy and pungent commentary; Maurice Scully’s poem "Seven Variations on Seven Random Glimpses at Page Seventy of The Thing about Joe Sullivan and Poems 1955-80 plus a Personal Message" wittily pays homage to Fisher’s dual mastery of the worlds of abstraction and of sensation (the "personal message" is an appended recipe). Four recent poems of Fisher’s are also included, plus his memoir of his career as a jazz pianist and the Kerrigan interview. I’ll end by quoting the fourth poem entire:


Thinning of the light
and the language meagre;
an impatient shift under the lines

maybe to catch the way
the lens, cold
unstable tear, flattens and tilts
to show codes of what may be flaring
at the edge and beyond.

Absence of self-pity suggests
absorption in something or other
new, never to be defined.

But in all those years before
what was his subject?

Nate Dorward lives in Toronto and runs The Gig magazine (for more information see He is getting around at last to writing his thesis, on contemporary small-press British poetry.

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