Sunday 24 March 2013

john coltrane: 'lush life' in seattle, 1965

this from a cd which collects the remaining recordings from coltrane’s residency at the penthouse in seattle in 1965 – an expanded group comprising pharaoh sanders, donald rafael garrett (on bass and clarinet), jimmy garrison, elvin jones. the quality is pretty dreadful compared to the officially-released impulse 2-cd set (the untitled half-hour track taken from a radio broadcast is the cleanest, similar in vein to ‘evolution’ from the impulse set). nonetheless, worth making it thru the murk to find this cover of billy strayhorn’s ‘lush life’. i’ve been playing it for days, it makes me feel ill or something tho’, voices transported thru some ancient analogue form of recording technology, ghosts in the machine sounding out some terrible warning barely disguised as languid balladry, an interlude before the up-tempo and familiar ‘my favorite things’ routine (which itself sounds under some terrible strain here, coltrane’s soprano piping away obsessively over phrases that drown out under the general murk of the rest of the band’s pounding). this is partially a quality of the recording, but it’s there in the rest of the seattle tapes as well (as per this blog post from a little over a year ago). partially this is to do with the tension between the move towards free jazz that coltrane, sanders and garrett are taking, and the continued use of standard material – i mean, it’s perhaps somewhat surprising to find coltrane playing the strayhorn at this stage (tho’ the impulse set also includes ‘body and soul’), and there are moments here, as there are (to a far greater extent) on 'body and soul', where pharoah sanders enacts a queasy near-disintegration of the standard quite different to anything else in his or coltrane’s work (despite an online reviewer’s rather dismissive comment that he simply was “not really in this mould,” that it was “not his bag then”). & while coltrane and tyner stick to the chord changes, coltrane's playing nonetheless has an urgency to it far from the smooth and uncluttered phrasal shapings of his 1962 'ballads' record and collaboration with the smooth baritone of singer johnny hartmann. while the hartmann version stays solely and comfortably within the mode of wistful, resigned melancholy that characterizes strayhorn's tune, its chronicle of lonely day-drinkers (“sad and sullen faces / with distingué traces”, “twelve-o-clock-tails,” etc), here we have an attempt – or at least, this is how i hear it – to seek reassurance within that melancholy as a kind of pleasurable resignation, even transformed into a triumphant emotive assertion (as in nathaniel mackey's notion of 'blutopia'), rather than the desolation and desperation that the interpretation increasingly gestures towards – hence coltrane’s clinging close to the melody in a fairly lengthy opening exposition. yet sound and fury are always on the verge of kicking in, as witnessed by some upper register intrusions around two minutes in, and by increasing phrasal clutter and expansion before the entrance of pharaoh sanders (just as, in this period, coltrane's own ballad 'naima' comes to seem less and less a serene ballad, more and more poised between the quiet bliss of its first half and the element of uncertainty that creeps into the second, that element of the tune emphasized and exacerbated in lengthy solos that are increasingly dramatic in their stasis - check, for example, the 1965 version at antibes, or the version with sanders at the village vanguard the following year). so sanders follows coltrane with strange tonguings (signalling elvin jones’ drums to really start kicking in, almost drowning everyone else out on the muffled murk of the bootleg recording), a queasy sliding or turning away, a kind of dribbling and wavering quality to the tone, far from 'free jazz macho', an uncertainty, hesitancy, odd phrasal gaps, not quite going far enough away from the tune to constitute an explosion of something radically other (as in archie shepp's solo preface to a version of 'in a sentimental mood' live in san francisco), but rather opening up some space in another dimension inside or outside the tune (between the lines, off the edge of the page) which it never quite enters, falling between the changes-melody approach and something much more askew, all the more disturbing for that uncertain balancing act. (and all the more emphasized by the fact that the other musicians are rhythmically and harmonically still within the changes framework - that quality, tension-and-release, soloist straining from rhythm section yet playing with them at the same time - given a particular and still almost shocking quality in these seattle recordings, in a way that's hard to pin down technically (sanders' own debut recording on ESP disk has the same tension, but it's in no way similarly productive, just as cecil taylor's early recordings are hamstrung rather than productively ennervated by this opposition)). i really think this is something which hasn't quite been matched since (david s. ware's takes on standards, for example are ecstatic, reverent, even sentimental, their ‘free jazz’ techniques nowhere near as chilling as elements of coltrane’s seattle ballads): it certainly hasn’t been matched in sanders' own late-career interpretations of standards, which move back to a smoothed-out, less-complex version of coltrane's own earlier takes on that repertoire. nowhere here the volability of coltrane’s 'sheets-of-sound' approach, a kind of unstoppable glossolalia, hyper-complexity as the realisation of the form at its limit, teasing out every single implication of the tune's harmonic sequence to the point of exhaustion or even self-parody, hyper-articulacy as a kind of babbling on the edge of terror to which the only response is the scream, literally vocalised or sounded thru saxophone multiphonics, reed-shriek. sanders’ later ballads don’t really contain the smoothness of coltrane’s more measured approach on 'ballads' either; rather, they manifest a kind of robust steadiness, straightforwardly tender (i’m thinking here of recordings like ‘crescent with love’, or the take on, of all things, ‘a nightingale sang in berkeley square’). tenderness on the seattle recordings, by contrast, is wracked by doubt and violence, desperately yearned for, returned to, but never with any sense of resolution – that which one breaks thru to, in that "air from another planet" of sanders' solos (as in the final movement of schoenberg's 2nd string quartet, poised on the breakthrough to atonality) isn't fulfilled utopia, isn't heaven, is unimaginable, could be utter horror, catastrophe. and even tenderness itself enshrines exactly such horror in the societal conditions in which one must place coltrane’s 1965 recordings (tho' their address to these conditions is in no way propogandistic-direct, doesn’t necessarily offer alternatives or answers) – by which i mean that tenderness cannot be a total other to violence, is implicated within it even as it must be vitally felt as its other, its counterforce (thus, coltrane’s following up of the unexpected and utterly chilling multiphonic in his recapitulation of the melody at the end of ‘body and soul’ with an exceptionally tender melodic extrapolation that at once mitigates against and emphasizes the sheer strangeness and foreigness of that multiphonic). well this version of ‘lush life’ doesn’t go quite so far as i might seem to be suggesting, within the compression of its 10 minute running span (on the recording of ‘body and soul’, it’s partially tyner’s lengthy solo that sets the ground for the most ‘out-there’ sections of the piece, ratcheting up the tempo, granite thud and thump and right-hand sprinkle, wavering arco, spirals of repetition like a sudden lock, trapped in a cycle you can’t get out of) – and yet at times sanders’ solo comes to seem a hideous parody as it tries to push the tune into something it isn’t and remains stuck on those changes, a gurgling and gargling strained thinness of tone transforming the tune and its changes from melancholy to an emphasized statement of – what? and then coltrane’s re-statement of the melody, ending in low-register barfs and morphing back into the contours of strayhorn’s tune, stuck in codas that can’t end, that contain but can neither entirely release nor entirely dissipate the disturbed energy that has built up on the relentless propulsion of jones’ drums and sanders’ questing spirals. and right at the end, almost all we can hear is the hollow thud of jones’ drums, tyner’s piano tinny uncertain ending, cut-off by the recording before it’s even finished. what the hell would this have sounded like as you sat in the club with your strayhornian cocktails. what the hell does it sound like now. melancholy as real despair, latent violence, hardly some heroic artist-struggle but objective social record. that’s how we have to hear coltrane, that’s why even fans like the amazon reviewer i quoted earlier just don’t get that, for example, sanders’ utterly un-canny or really terrifying solos on ‘body and soul’ and ‘lush life’ don’t just evince a failure to fit into a particular mould, that he can’t play ballad changes properly or something; rather, they temporarily split that ballad form right open and reveal the abyss at its heart.

(a belated part 2)

that last sentence was one of those rhetorical flourishes on which it seemed right to end the other night, but i've been thinking about this over the past day or so and realized that one element i could and really should have talked about to a greater extent was the tune 'lush itself' itself, and its relation to strayhorn's race and homosexuality. it seems fairly established that the line "i used to visit all those gay places" is not a reference to sexuality, both because the sexual connotations of that term were not widely established at that stage, and because strayhorn, as a 16 year-old from homewood, pittsburgh, wd likely not have been aware of them. but i wonder if we cd argue that the tune's melancholia, its lyrics' description of a milieu which is materially luxurious but emotionally unsatisfactory (visits to paris, moves into a cosmopolitan world of jazz and cocktails, and so on, don't make up for the pain of lost love), is also a melancholia with unspoken, perhaps even unintended wider resonances - if not in the original, or hartmann's smooth, gentleman's rendition, then certainly in coltrane's exacerbated expansion of something that was in some sense there at the heart of the original tune (that 'abyss' i somewhat clumsily mention at the end of the original post). by these i mean, firstly, racial overtones: fine clothes, drinks, a more tolerant / cosmopolitan european cultural setting with its own african-american expatriate community, don't disguise the glaring fact of continuing racism which means that wealth for a black man or woman is not the same as it is for a white man or woman - not to mention the real melancholia of continuing murders and race riots and ghettos and incarceration as tactic (these things which have not gone away, even if frank ocean's portrayal of disaffected ‘super rich kids’, on the album 'channel orange', is of a very different kind to strayhorn's projection of an older man's world-weariness from the position of a non-rich kid; and even if black wealth is increasingly celebrated as excess, joie-de-vivre, the jewell'd paraphernalia and weaponry of hip-hop, its money obsession). second, the melancholia of strayhorn's own sexuality, the particular and difficult problems of that sexuality within the black community, the sense of seeking 'sophistication', elegance, etc, as opposed to a more macho modern of proletarian manliness that the black arts movement would frequently valorize to the extent of caricature.

and it’s in relation to this that fred moten’s ‘in the break’ proves helpful: moten puns on strayhorn’s surname and the similarly ‘straying’ or wavering pitch of his vocals on his 1964 version of ‘lush life’, to suggest that str’s work manifests “a disruptively essential fugitivity”, “a propensity to wander or migrate or stray that is always animated by desire,” this propensity characteristic not only of his own practice but of the artists of the harlem renaissance whose sexuality and frustration at american racism lead them to europe – james baldwin, beauford delaney – this perhaps also present in strayhorn’s line in ‘lush life’ about a curative “week in paris.” relevant here might be strayhorn’s early ambition to be a classical composer (a realm he could not enter due to his race) – again, this realm of ‘sophistication’, that which, in a double-bind of condemnation, one is not allowed (by the white establishment) to enter into, not supposed to possess, because of one’s race and class background (‘culture’ as doubly foreign, both european in influence and ‘alien’ to yr supposed class and race position) – and the desire for which is also later taken (by the militant black resistance to the white establishment) as a betrayal of black working-class culture, in often sexualised terms. (see here amiri baraka’s conflation of aspects of the european or white avant-garde with this betrayal – his ambivalence towards cecil taylor explicitly figured thru a suspicion of the ‘euro-american’ lineage which he sees as taking taylor away from the more ‘authentically black’ style of, say, an archie shepp (even as taylor himself, in interviews, frequently claims just that very blackness, disowns the very same euro-americans – cage, stockhausen, david tudor – that baraka lumps him in with) – yet implicitly predicated on a suspicion of taylor’s homosexuality conflated with 'whiteness', 'europe', or 'classical influences' (again, see moten’s more expanded take on all this in his reading of baraka’s ‘the burton greene affair’)).

if this fugitivity is both racially and sexually determined, it would be be too simplistic to draw this back into the argument about coltrane and sanders’ exacerbation of 'lush life's melancholy: the melancholy of the original tune can’t really be said to emerge out of a self-tortured closeting (strayhorn was nothing if not open about his sexuality, tho' his relatively low public profile compared to ellington seems to have been the price he paid for such freedom). i mean, check his enunciation of the word "places" on the afore-mentioned 1964 version of the tune on which he sings and plays piano - this isn't the wounded heterosexual masculinity of chet baker, more a clipped kind of queerness that identifies itself as queer precisely by being less heart-on-its-sleeve than someone like baker. this itself is perhaps out of a reaction to the stigmatizing of homosexuality as particularly 'feminine', out of which camp dismissal emerges as the deliberate parodic disavowal of deeply felt hurt or pain, especially in love – and so strayhorn’s own version of ‘lush life’s’ melancholy is less emotionally volatile or searing than coltrane’s or sanders’ can be, as if fear of any indulgence in a specifically homosexual or 'feminine' melancholy comes to be precisely that which characterises the homosexuality of strayhorn’s rendition, while the heterosexual musician is free to take the role of emotional depth-plumber. (think also of the fact that miles davis' trumpet playing, actively taking the 'female role' as it 'speaks' for the silent jeanne moureau in scenes from louis malle's 'l'ascenseur pour l'echafaud' (or taking the role of porgy in 'porgy and bess', or the female mourner in 'saeta' from 'sketches of spain'), doesn't seem afraid of emotional vulnerability, even as davis' own personality veers strangely(?) between the debonair, fine-dresser ('the man in the green shirt') and the hyped-up boxer, hard drinker, ladies' man.)

which is all to say (again) that it would be too simplistic to interpret coltrane and sanders as consciously bringing out the racial and sexual melancholy that lies behind the surface love-melancholy of 'lush life': i’ve no idea of their attitude towards homosexuality, and in any case tackling a strayhorn tune isn’t exactly a statement of intent in that regard, ‘lush life’ itself having become such a standard (coltrane apparently adding it to the session with johnny hartmann after hearing nat king cole’s rendition on a car radio). nonetheless, their take on the tune (which as far as i can tell is pretty much unique in terms of its emotional register among the many interpretations that have stacked up over the years) might be taken without too much of a stretch to suggestively, if not uncomplicatedly, correlate with those resonances.

similarly, their playing here, not necessarily through programmatic intent, but through its affective qualities, pretty much blows away the argument that being particularly open about emotions, especially painful ones, is a particularly feminine thing, that strong/silent men might remain more tight-lipped – tho’ perhaps one might characterise the emotional register of coltrane’s work as hard to mistake as stereotypically ‘feminine’ in a way that davis’ might have been. (even as davis and coltrane get lumped together as both equally examples of masculinity by herman gray, for instance, who argues in a piece for callaloo that “davis and coltrane, like their contemporaries, enacted a black masculine that not only challenged whiteness but exiled it to the (cultural) margins of blackness - i.e, in their hands blackness was a powerful symbol of the masculine.”) that said, at the point coltrane and sanders recorded ‘lush life’ in seattle, davis’ own work had moved more towards a fast and loud style in which the softness and perceived technical shortcomings of previous recordings were replaced by hard, fast tempi. well, that’s itself a caricature, take ‘filles de kilimanjaro’ or ‘in a silent way’, take even simon reynolds’ argument that the emphasis on groove, extended timings and so on across davis’ late 60s-mid-70s output, its gesture towards something approaching the ambient, is itself some kind of feminine, anti-phallic, ‘oceanic’ deleuzian flow: “i reckon miles was half in love with, half in read of, the ‘female’ will-to-chaos, the mutagenic, metamorphic life force[…]that’s why miles’s misogynist nickname for oceanic flux with ‘bitches brew’.” in any case, to suggest that emotional forthrightness, length, technical complexity and so on are specifically male or macho would of course be a stupidly reductionist position to take. one might, for example, note the change from the rhythmic emphasis of mccoy tyner and elvin jones to the more floating, freer rhythms of alice coltrane and rashied ali as a different kind of complexity and elongation, one predicated less on the tension that characterises the seattle recordings and more on a trance-like flow in which detail is of less importance than overall, continuing effect (the deleuzian / gregory batesonian ‘plateau’) – and one might then adopt reynolds’ position and characterise this (albeit in scare-quotes) as ‘feminine’, noting alice coltrane’s role, her harp-like arpeggios. but then one might also note that her work on, say, ‘live in japan’, has a kind of droning grounding to it predicated on a strong left-hand (she cites her husband as encouraging her to use the whole register of the piano, to move away from a more limited be-bop concentration on particular areas of the keyboard), is hardly just harp-like delicacy and float. and rashied ali, jimmy garrison, sanders, coltrane, are equally, collaboratively responsible for this freeing-up. while gendered readings of the music might prove valuable, then, (witness david ake’s essay on ornette coleman and the ‘re-masculation’ of jazz), i’m not primarily interested here in reading coltrane's music that way – even if i have proffered the (homo)sexual melancholy of strayhorn’s composition as some sort of backdrop to the expanded melancholy of coltrane and sanders’ rendition. and even if i have suggested that the more emotionally forthright performance or transformation of this melancholy comes to seem a heterosexual privilege, as much as jazz itself came to seem a particularly macho or heterosexual form (despite its original, new orleans brothel associations with homosexuality – viz. jelly roll morton’s gay mentor tony jackson). but this is meant less in terms of a particular performance of black masculinity (sexualized or not) as in terms of a socialized understanding of coltrane’s 1965 ‘lush life’ in which melancholy, as in the blues but formally beyond it, comes to seem a force, not of resignation or quietism, but of some kind of registration of the objective difficulties and traumas of revolt, racial, sexual and political.

Friday 15 March 2013

Starcrusher Night: Cambridge, 09.03.13

This was again at the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio in the Faculty of English in the University of Cambridge, ok, so, an 'institutional' or 'academic' space, but thru its temporary inhabitants granted some extended drunken spirit. After an endless projection of a lo-fi(lm) the less of which said the better (save that J. Hardingham’s Klaus Kinski is a fine Klaus Kinski_), interval spillage spilled over into wine-table chatter sprinkling the edges of the opening drones of one O. Evans, down with the flu but freshly haircut & armed w/didgeridoo, kaoss pad & assorted other implements electronic & acoustic. His 20 minute set, billed as 'noise', began proper with a reading of the night's wall-tacked schedule, announcements of multiple intervals drawing an incredulous 'oh my god' from a certain attendant Poet of High Repute; preceding between the advertised noise and the more luxuriant melancholia of pre-recorded loops, Evans' set went on to incorporate treated blarts from a (non-indigenous) patterned didgeridoo and an in-progress set of homophonic translations of the work of Henri Michaux, said by their translator to concern the relation between drugs and the state. No hippie nostalgia here, then, that refusal carried

over (after one of the aforementioned intervals) by the decidedly anti-hippie Sean Bonney, for whom, as his 'Letter on Harmony and Crisis' makes clear, any indulgence in a past history of supposed radical art must be questioned as recuperated nostalgia (“Old films, old music: abstractions, commodities[...]Old songs made an integral part of the phrase velocity of the entire culture”) even as such past history must be simultaneously clung to for the possibility it offers of continuing resistance in this here ("the circulation of these songs does contain within itself the possibility of interruptions"). For the past couple of years now, Bonney's writing has taken a turn towards prose - as he said of the series of 'letters' from which he read, of which that concerning Harmony and Crisis is one, “these are not poems” (tho' at the time he had first started writing them, caught off-guard by this unanticipated formal turn, he was describing them as ‘prose poems’). Instead, one might read them as something like communiqués, bulletins, reports from some kind of front-line in which the speaker - described by Bonney as a 'fictional character' but in many ways obviously identified with the poet himself - hangs around in his East London flat or wanders the supermarket meditating on, among things, the riots of August 2012, the growing rhetoric stacked up by the U.K. gov't against the unemployed, and the history of oppression woven into Cecil Taylor's 'Unit Structures', in which each note is said to form part of a "a kind of chain gang, a kind of musical analysis of bourgeois history as a network of cultural and economic unfreedom." This would seem of a piece with the bulletin-type quality of Bonney’s poetry over the past few years, a quality exacerbated or perhaps in some way produced by their first appearances at his blog, abandoned buildings. "like getting a telephone call from the barricades, the Paris Commune.” Yet it seems that the move from poetry to prose is not a simple transition to ‘the bulletin’ or somesuch: indeed, one might, it seems, say things with more directness in a poem, which indicates something both about how little poetry is taken to matter nowadays (hence the fact that censorship controversies occur over hip-hop records or rock lyrics rather than ‘poems’ per se: a case such as the prosecution’s use of Amiri Baraka’s poem ‘Black People!’ in court is pretty much unthinkable now), and about relative levels of censorship with regard to differing forms. This is what Josef Kaplan is getting at, in however deliberately controversy-courting and politically bull-headed a manner (verging on some kind of anarchistic nihilism), when he makes a statement like this: “Poetry itself doesn’t do shit. Which is why you can have things happen in poetry that would be horrifying or terrible if conceived of in spheres outside of poetry. Which is honestly the best part about poetry.” And OK, without having to entirely agree or disagree with that (it seems to verge on the sort of justifications used by repellent neo-Fascists like Peter Sotos), you can see how lines of Bonney’s like “slaughter the Fascist BNP” or “if you meet a Tory in the street, cut his throat”, would mean something entirely different in one of the Letters than they do in the poems. I think. I may be wrong. But there’s no easy trajectory here, whereby both poetry and prose can be taken as allowing a political discourse that it is more direct than the other; and Bonney seems to have felt the change in registers or formal structures as something of a crisis in itself, at one stage wondering in public if he was even a poet anymore.

The acuteness of this privileging of poetry over prose as knowledge-repository, for the kind of thinking in form that it allows might seem to those perhaps not as (emotionally, intellectually) invested as Bonney in the world of poetry as an over-reaction – why should working in prose be a betrayal, or an incapacitation of certain strains of thought? And yet it is a dilemma that we might see enacted in the work of the writer on whom Bonney has recently finished writing his Ph.D, Amiri Baraka: the sense that, to write a political poem, one must nearly destroy the qualities that make the poem a ‘poem’, that the content of that poem moves beyond the form(s) in which it originally appeared so that the poet suddenly finds themselves spinning out lines of what are, essentially, lineated prose. In Baraka’s case, this takes an extreme in his first collection of Marxist-Leninist poetry, ‘Hard Facts’, tho’ at the same time there is an increased emphasis on the poem as ‘score’ for reading, as oral repository rather than as object fixed by eye-reading – even as this rhetorical register might just as well be said to echo the political speech as the ‘poem’ itself (“Malcolm the artist. Touré the artist. Nyerere the artist. Karenga the artist” writes Baraka in an earlier, Black Nationalist essay in which he ends up claiming, Situationist-style, that “THE LARGEST WORK OF ART IS THE WORLD ITSELF”). In Baraka’s more recent work, which has barely received any critical discussion, something of a rapprochement is enacted between a self-consciously ‘poetic’ form and an attempt at dialectical thought, often centred around puns in a manner more than a little reminiscent of the esoteric-playful signifying practices of Sun Ra or Rammellzee’s coded alphabets. Indeed, an essay such as ‘The Blues Aesthetic and the Black Aesthetic’, collected in the recent book of essays on music, ‘Digging’, shares very similar territory to the poem ‘The Book of Life’, excerpts of which are included in Aldon Nielsen and Lauri Ramey’s anthology of African-American poetry, ‘Every Goodbye Aint’ Gone’: the same puns occurring in both works, the notion that rhythm and the entirety of life itself is a dialectical process being one that is presented, accessed or reached as much through the afore-mentioned puns as it is through logical argumentation. One might argue that this process is itself anti-historical, given that the suggestive connections Baraka draws are based on double-meanings that only work when one considers, for example, an ancient Egyptian word as an English one ('Isis' becoming 'Is/Is') – it is hardly a philological or etymologically-sound approach, a tracing of the actual history embedded in language. Yet perhaps this is not the point – the work exists half-way between actual, fully-thought theory and a scattering of suggestive and playful notes, hinting at lines of thought without quite pinning them down with exactitude. Certainly, to posit that the rhythms of African-American music embody the materialist dialectic, as opposed to the stale old Adornian dismissal of jazz or the Left’s continued miring in Bragg-Seeger folksong-sterilisations/ aspic-encasements, is a step forward, even if it risks over-generalisation and a reliance on a-priori concepts; and the re-writing of Islam, within the poem ‘Allah Mean Everything,’ as an assault on capitalism, the suppression of women, and the monetary system, assumes political relevance within current Islamophobic trends.

But further discussion of this really does get us way off point, and the details of Baraka’s poetry/prose dialectic(?) perhaps don’t apply so much to Bonney, whose poetic style, as much as it is fed by the same African-American musics that Baraka champions, cannot operate out of that same cultural or racial community, emerges from a different situation and a different tradition, originally (just as, in the 1960s and 70s, European Free Improvisation emerges from Free Jazz but takes it in a different direction). And Bonney’s prose, if we’re calling it that, is very different from the sloganeering aspects of Baraka’s most dogmatically MLM poetry: rather than preaching from a pulpit and attempting to create a black-working class revolutionary alliance through sheer rhetorical force, Bonney’s speaker, the letter-writer caught between requests for money and patronage from his relatively well-off, employed friend, and contempt for that friend’s bourgeois conformity, is acutely aware of the poet’s own implication within a recuperation of discourses and, above all, the peculiar economic status of the poet, the scholar, or the artist in general within capitalism, both critiquing and feeding off the system. Certainly, the poems of ‘The Commons’ in particular are acutely aware of the problematic status of what Bonney elsewhere calls “legitimate ruins like the letter I”, i.e. the fabled lyric I, rescued from Language Poetry’s complicit dismissal-disguise and re-asserted as a kind of collective I/eye borrowing from folk song, thieving its sources like the cuckoo bird – but, in assuming a seemingly much more stable subject-position, within the prose letters or, as Bonney suggests, ‘short fictions’, of the recent works, different conventions are played with. {{One might draw parallels with the return of an almost joyfully-over-emphasized ‘I’ as the seeing subject of J.H. Prynne’s most recent poem, ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ – the visionary seer of medieval dream poetry periodically asserting “I saw” – yet, in Prynne’s case, this very return of what had been, according to many ‘critical’ accounts of his late work, in any case, banished and removed, may in fact be an attempted means of extinguishing subjectivity once and for all.}} If Bonney’s letters play with conventions of, I don’t know, the epistolary novel, collections of letters from Benjamin, Olson, Rosa Luxembourg, whomever, they are also a means of heightening the relation between addressor and addressee that the poems, in their spasmodic creation of enraged community, particular in performance, are less explicitly concerned with, assuming a shared register, for ‘us’ and against ‘them’. That rhetoric certainly continues through here (the description of bourgeois ‘understanding’ as the bullet in the brain that ends the life of the Headmaster in Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’), but with an acute sense of complication, of the urge to lunge forward in rhetorical-overstatement but of the gap that this lunge raises between theory and practice; of the dependence of the letter-writer on the very system his entire writing project is predicated on destroying; or the containment into commodity from not only of human lives and labour but of the artistic ‘products’ often simplistically supposed removed from that cycle. (Bonney’s comments on the recuperation of Cecil Taylor’s ‘Unit Structures’ into (shelf-)units(albums) or over-priced Royal Festival Hall tickets echo the dilemma described acutely in Iain Anderson’s article ‘Jazz Outside the Marketplace’, whereby the attempted economic self-organisation and resistant dissonances of 1960s free jazz were steadily incorporated into university professorships, Guggenheim grants, support from the Rockerfeller foundation, removed from the black communities for which they claimed to speak and, in many cases, reduced to another ‘high art’ commodity.)

This simultaneous turn to a foregrounded subjectivity, however loosely identified with the author’s own person (parallels with Baraka again, his semi-autobiographical practices in ‘The System of Dante’s Hell’, ‘Tales’ or ‘Six Persons’ through to ‘Tales of the Out & Gone’), and the self-critical positioning of that subject as distinctly non-heroic, trapped within the obscure mathematical or scientific systems that Bonney outlines as the workings of capital (“the intense surges of radio emissions we’re trapped inside. Cyclones and anticyclones” // “the base astrological geometry of th[e] supermarket […] revealed as simplistic, fanatic and rectilinear”) might be characterised as part of the ‘turn’ from poetry to prose, even as this narrative is complicated by the fact that Bonney still occasionally writes lineated poems and that such discourses of the trapped are present both in ‘working notes’ and poems that have appeared on his blog. Perhaps, then, the letters are a synthesis of these working notes and poems, filtered through the foregrounded subject-character as new stylistic amalgam that is more than ever concerned with “the problem [of] how to make whatever it is that is trapped in aesthetics, idealism and in history learn to speak,” but that has decided to do so through an examination of methods, life-minutiae and habits rather than some more ‘elevated’ form of exhortatory utterance. "It's difficult to talk about poems in these circumstances."

That summation, tho', still implies a chronologically over-simplistic description of the move 'away' from poetry towards a more discursive style as a reaction to a particular political situation, a growing dissatisfaction with the constant gap between the purported heroic potential of king-killing poetic utterance and the actual indifference various fugitive publications and scenes might provoke in the actual sphere of political action. True, there have been discussions of a return to the distribution of oppositional poetry thru, say, handing out broadsides on street corners, printing multiple leaflets of poems to hand out on marches as displacement of the usual SWP factional-evangelical pamphleteering; there have been readings at occupations. And these various measures have never seemed to go quite far enough, or to fulfill their objectives even when 'implemented'. Bonney:
"Yeh, I turned up and did readings in the student occupations and, frankly, I’d have been better off just drinking. It felt stupid to stand up, after someone had been doing a talk on what to do if you got nicked, or whatever, to stand up and read poetry. I can’t kid myself otherwise. I can’t delude myself that my poetry had somehow been “tested” because they kinda liked it."
Similarly, Kent Johnson's suggestion to the UKPoetry List run from Miami University that the supposed thriving underground of British radical poets should all join the SWP also falls flat, (particularly given the rape-apology scandal now engulfing the party), even as its provocation towards political organisation remains pertinent. But while this might all have to do with poetic or prosaic form, it might equally not. Still, it's worth considering here the use of prose sections in Keston Sutherland’s recent work, forthcoming in the ‘Odes to TL61P’ - in particular ‘The Clearance of Trafalgar Square’ - even if Sutherland describes these as simply (or not simply!) an extra-long verse line; or, similarly, Justin Katko / Jow Lindsay’s ‘Trigger Warning’ -- both examples written as reactions to specific political events which seem to invoke a particular stylistic register that, while full of exclamation, invective, invocation, lends itself to the prose line rather than to shorter ‘poetic’ lineations (even as both Katko and Sutherland have also been recently and simultaneously working with much more ‘old-fashioned’ forms of poetic affect that strike an equally surprising register). Perhaps J.H. Prynne’s ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ also (in sharp contrast to the monosyllabic clippings of ‘Streak ~ Willing ~ Entourage ~ Artesian’).

In any case, whether or not the Letters’ generic indeterminacy (maybe not the right word) occurs as a specific formal reaction to political crisis, said indeterminacy (wrong word, Cageian), does indeed render them hard to pin down in a manner very much congruent with certain strands of politically-aware ‘artistic’ writing. As much of Bonney's work over the past 10 years has done, they include appropriated slogans, quotations and phrases from a wide variety of communist writers and African-American politicians and artists, Marx on surplus value jostling up alongside Eldridge Cleaver ("all else is suffering and madness at the hands of the pigs") in a style certainly departing from (as in beginning, but also diverging or being suspicious of) certain Situationist tenets -- re-appropriation, the use of arcane vocabularies as a kind of underground cell of resistant language - the alternative tradition Bonney earlier identified in Blake, Bob Cobbing and Abiezer Coppe, and which increasingly comes manifested in an African-American tradition of Amiri Baraka, Cleaver and Cecil Taylor, or the radical kernel at the heart of the work of Arthur Rimbaud, 'translations' of whose work draw parallels between its engagement with the Paris Commune and various protest movements in the UK. This appropriative practice was figured primarily through music in Bonney's major sequence 'The Commons', which he has described as a 'modern folk song', taking its cue from the re-ordering of collective folk fragments described, for instance, in Greil Marcus' treatment of 'The Cuckoo Bird' in his book 'Invisible Republic': here, the sonnet form ("this thing has fourteen lines / as in picket lines" Bonney writes in a later poem) collided with black American music of (roughly) the 1930s to 1970s, Adorno, B-movie zombie register of a kind found more obliquely in the work of Bonney's partner Frances Kruk, current political discourse, and a debate on the nature of the lyric 'I', in a highly wired, jerky, spasmodic series of short lines characterised by a jammed-up connectivity that terms borrowed from other disciplines like 'montage' or 'collage' would not do well to define, a sense of simultaneous foregrounded breakage and forced elision, where the song of the cuckoo becomes the song of Betty Davis (‘he was a big freak’) or the sound of a gun-shot ("the cuckoo is a / BANG"), the disruption of pastoral idyll by urban energy and the suppressed underclass that allows the aristocratic fantasy of the healing power of the countryside its arcadian shadiness (shades as in spectres, of course). And while the Letters are often about music (and specifically the notion of harmony as cover for a system of social order(ing) that covers and masks injustice – see here in particular the discussion of the Pythagoreian antichthon in an article called ‘Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City’ that can be found here), in contrast to 'The Commons' their affect is of a different kind that can’t really be called ‘musical’ (as even ‘The Commons’ itself wasn’t, really, so much, given that the term is so often banded around in vague broad-brushing of a general area that might be better identified as ‘has strong emotional/rhythmic qualities in performance that produce similar convulsions as listening to certain kinds of music’).

But, OK, here’s what I’m getting at – with the change in the style of writing, so a change in the style of reading, of the style of reading that the style of writing demands (because, after all, poets don’t necessarily write what they write as a guide to how they might read it; they might write it and then have to find ways to read it – this is something you hear people say a lot, e.g. “I haven’t really found a way to read this poem yet,” and so on.) So, Bonney’s reading itself, in Cambridge, began quietly – as he notes, the Letters are not really meant to be read out loud, in a way that it was immediately obvious the poems of ‘The Commons’ were, as he launched into them with foot-jerking intensity. But, and not to valourize the following as some sort of sense of (the appearance of) suffering-artist-intensity as lending a particular kind of privileged vatic ‘truth’ to utterance (somewhat akin to what Anthony Braxton calls “the sweating-brow syndrome,” in which the more sweat a jazz musician dispenses, the more ‘authentic’ they are deemed to be, with all the problematic racial stereotypes that implies), that sense that the poem or the thing you are reading, because recent, because wrestling with formal dilemma and thus all cracked and imperfect and wrong, is wrenchingly awkward and painful to read, almost embarrassing, is something that has resulted in some of the most powerful readings I’ve seen in recent years. Say, for example, Justin Katko’s rendition of his own afore-mentioned poem about the 2011 riots, ‘Trigger Warning’, at about this point last year: in which Katko sat in a chair and appeared distrustful of the very rhetorical vehemence and shouting intensity that his reading eventually moved into and that the poem itself fully and completely inhabits and provokes. Certainly, or partially, anyhow, in Bonney's reading, that quality of nervousness mixed with the occasional vehemence of the work read out went some way towards approximating or paralleling the mixed stylistic and theoretical register of those works themselves, the desire and necessity to strongly speak undercut and yet somehow reinforced by the self-questioning webs of implication that that poet’s voice implied. I’m not saying that this frisson of difficulty and strain should be applauded as an end in itself, but that its evidence that poetry might still be thought (as in, it might still be a form for thinking) gives some sort of hope, even as there are not ever easy answers here.

Lisa Jeschke’s reading style is almost the opposite of this, avoiding emotive effect for something that is certainly not ‘neutral’ but that comes to a very different place than, say, Bonney or Katko. The recently-written piece she read on the night emerged from a dissatisfaction with the form of her own recent work – almost an opposite trajectory to that of Bonney, in fact, in that her own previous pieces (collected in ‘Materials 1’) often consist of large undifferentiated blocks of prose which she would have described as ‘poems’, but which she has come to view, following recent discussions & symposia, as, in terms of, formal categorisation, something of a cop-out, an inattention to poetic form as poetic form. Hence this new piece, each line exactly seven syllables in length, often relying on deliberately clanging and obvious rhyme, as a kind of parodic return to rhyme that questions its own affect but that cannot quite be described as simple ‘irony’ or ‘parody’ (interesting parallels here, again to Katko: the first poem of his ‘Songs for One Occasion’, with its “ocean grave”s and waves). Also some play on English-German translation, reversed verb forms: references here less (as in previous works) to (a) personal ‘life experiences’ (meeting a drunk man in a park; burying a childhood friend under a pile of earth; &c.) or (b) critico-theoretical-theatrical debate-terminologies, more to - what? A change in voice, anyhow, “neutral chide,” some sort of unplaceable bite.

Ian Heames following, reciting the second half of ‘Array One’, of which I’ve written at length here, and a new poem, 'Orca Plaintiffs', which seems to continue that poem’s mix of computer-game and poetic register (“my opponent believes that the universe is made of fire”) shot through with the discourses of techno-capitalism. And Tomas Weber, whose ‘Another Word From Me Out of Uniform’ has just appeared from Tipped Press, and whose running-on of different register-phrases is, again, very different from all of the above: if Heames’ poetry is clipped aphorism, sequential thought, cross-referencing, Jeschke’s concerned with (various) form(s) as restriction, Bonney’s again with form and voice and the political, Weber’s seems in some way unforced, even distinctly pleasurable: Biggie Smalls meets F.R. Leavis but not in any music-journo Metaphyiscal Poets mash up bastardisation (this from 'Ausculation': “and I will never rhyme / like party and bullshit” […] “it wasn’t really / Leavis who said the way / the British do war is still true / to English mannerism and so I love you forever / & always or was it”). Yet in the recent long(ish) poem, ‘Performing for the Troops’, the run-on joins that make much of his work so pleasurable are deliberately not soldered, the links not fashioned, so that there is something brutal to it, even as it gets a hearty audience laugh (“Who’s that fuck? / Shut up, fuck”). It's hard to write about because it resists the more broadly theoretical frameworks into which one might place the other poets, and that might make it seem more ‘insubstantial’ or something; certainly, earlier work had a strain of lyricism to it that still perhaps functions a little (traces of American pastoralism tho’ by no means unconscious of imperial complicity) - the poet actually wanting their heart to be a plane, I can’t remember the exact reference – but here lyric most often moves into exchanges of selves as collections of clothes or children or radio stations or youtube videos that aren’t so much lang-po playful or even, in the vein of O’Hara’s ‘In Memory of My Feelings’, self-critically-camp-playful (partly because Weber isn’t American and so the register is different, even if American culture as filtered over to the UK and in summer travels is very much present), but poised more obliquely between laughter and something more sinister, even disturbing, as in those lines quoted above, the subject not allowed voice, mocked in authority-figure mimicry -- shut "that fuck" up, “wants to be / some speaking thing.”

That combination of poets constituting quite a long reading, intense continuance, so interval spills over, again: music set-up, second noise set, O. Evans again kaoss padd’d, this time w/added Minton/Patton-esque screaming and even at one point a trace of school melodica; Gregor Forbes’ industrially-reverb’d Pure Data factorials, some other PA’d laptop & pickup-to-practice-amp feedback’d human, but I think it all merged into one blart of sound in which individual contribution was less important than general sonic mass (though perhaps a little more ‘improvy’ than Japanoisy?). It had started to fucking snow outside & bits of it had melted and were dropping off people’s hair. I think Nas replaced Bad Brains as interval music @ this point, then in fact the longest section of the evening, Nat Raha and Verity Spott the final poets of the night. Raha read, among other things, poems for Sonic Youth to the accompaniment of vintage cassette recorder as lo-fi voice-multitracking, youth against fascism – “it’s the song I hate” – the words themselves not really decipherable, the effect more akin maybe to something that might have come out of the choral-voice experiments of 1970s NYC (Hannah Weiner, Jackson MacLow &c.) and the more unexpected for that. The poems without tape that started things off were from Raha's new collection, ‘mute exterior intimate’ - where exterior might be buildings, might be faces, bodies in spatial negotiation, indie or shoegaze leakings thru with seagulls into critiques of neo-liberalism, memorials for victims of transphobia, the spectral presences of Mayakovsky and love, the “doctrine of bliss and suffocation.” Spott’s was the longest reading of the night at maybe over half-an-hour, certainly the most intense, and not only in terms of sheer length, veering between grotesque-choke sound poetry, @ one point even throwing the pamphlet read from down on the floor and repeatedly punching it. The audience laughed a lot, and this seemed right, but, like a lot of the laughter that punctuates readings like this, it came back rebounding on itself because the work itself is hardly comfortable, is scatological, grotesque and highly sexual - infant sexuality too, a long joke about fucking poets turning into a dialogue between two children centering around the many implications of the activity implied in the familiar insult ‘motherfucker.’ Kind of traumatizing, really, but (and) for sure visceral in a way that, say, the noise set before even really wasn’t, and hard to process in that way because less precise than, say, Heames or Jeschke, throwing itself all over the place with words and words and words in often uncomfortable excess. Spott herself describes it as “digusting and ungainly”, which it is in parts, deliberately and distinctly so.

And that kind of intensity necessitates another interval, and then Business Lunch make their debut with a three-song set, absent singers and last-minute rehearsals shaping, at this stage into the evening, into something fitting right in place, some noise keyboard too over the bass & guitar riffs in the more extended last piece. Shudder and jump // "got the swing" // more rock music at readings, yes? Jeremy Hardingham closes the evening with a-cappella songs and some karaoke to Die Toten Hosen which is hardly karaoke as ‘we’ know it. He reads a poem about the killing of a bird with an oar and then sings it, closes with a tender ‘goodnight’. There’s again a lot of laughter here, but I think that to laugh in this way would be to take the songs @ a face value that does a disservice to their non-naïve non-irony: many parts were, you know, moving. Tho’ the “fist full of piss / apostrophic bliss” barnstormer, well, yeh. It's been in my head for days. At one point Hardingham sang literally with a silver spoon in his mouth, but again, that was hardly boringly symbolic even as the joke-resonances of it being symbolic were of course not discounted. The room heaved. It was still snowing outside. (The equivalent event last year was called ‘Spring Decoys’. There are daffodils outside the English Faculty. The area around Grange Road in which the faculty and the University Library are situated is ghost-empty at night, darkness on the edge of town. 'Cambridge', as much as this university-sphere-cocoon constitutes it, is so far from the real world, whatever world might be made inside black boxes. Why not throw an egg out of a moving white van outside one of the gated colleges, built to be thus gated, enclosed? But these big one-off events might be made to move into something else even if no one from the ‘town’ was ever going to come down to the university bowels, the City of Dis. By which I mean, maybe there will be some sense of a series extending somewhere (viz. Onward christian soldiers.