[A brief, improvised fragment for the discussion of Allen Fisher’s poetry and artwork held at the University of Sussex, November 17th, 2016]
Allen Fisher and Everything
One way to think about late modernist British poetry is to think of it as the poetry of everything. Allen Fisher and his contemporary J.H. Prynne are poets for whom everything matters. Both poets cite the American poet Charles Olson as the formative influence on the expansion of possibility in British avant-garde poetry circles in the 1960s and 1970s, and both poets emerge at that time into, and then beyond, the space opened up by Olsonian ambition and reach. But Fisher and Prynne diverge in the following manner: whereas for Prynne, a Poundian comprehensiveness is the means by which the world must be made vivid in its murderous coherence, for Fisher the compositional principle most clearly at work is instead complexity, in the sense of a dynamic system the component parts of which cannot be understood in isolation from their relative modalities of contact (and influence) both with (and on) each other and with (and on) an observer, or in this case, reader. In a complex system, individual relationships between parts of the system contribute to, but cannot finally determine, the mutable, emergent and innovative behaviour of the whole. It may or it may not make sense to study any given poem as a complex linguistic system. But it certainly does make sense to consider complexity as a formal concern in Allen Fisher’s poetry, and nowhere more so than when form is made vitally present in the work as a particular component of a poem’s unruly activity within the history of versification. Fisher’s poetry contains a vital additive principle intrinsic to complex systems, known as feedback: that everything in the world, or the everything that is the world, is increased by the activity of the poem, and that aesthetic experience is the inevitably dynamic relation of a reader to this irruption into the world of what is perpetually more than everything there always is.
The poems I want to touch on very briefly today are part of a sequence called Human Poems. They are examples of a genre I want to call pseudo-sonnets. Like the comparable pseudo-sonnets of William Fuller and Tom Raworth, these poems produce affinities with the historical form of the sonnet as a function of divergence from the sonnet’s claims on compositional logic. The system of a pseudo-sonnet contains as one of its agents the mutable history of sonnet form, and this agent interacts in various ways with the syntactical properties of the poem as it unfolds over the course of its fourteen lines. Fourteen lines at a snap tells us something, namely, that such-and-such a poem looks like a sonnet; a poem’s basic disposition on the page, its brevity and compaction, its placement in a sequence of like-minded poems, all tell us more; but none of these properties tells us everything, and in the space prised open between this evidence and its indeterminacy the pseudo-sonnet exercises a particular kind of formal and syntactical feedback continually at play with everything that the poem does. Here is Allen Fisher’s poem ‘Human cosmos’:
This slow universe does not seem at all isotropic, on your back in
tension it’s difficult to imagine at half the speed of light watching
starlight and the radiation background coming toward you, from the
direction toward which you are moving, with much higher intensity
than from behind. Beyond this skylight window the universe is said
to be the same all around, an isotropy precise in cosmic background
microwaves traveling through you
from the day of your conception,
somewhat more difficult to speculate that you, or humankind,
are in any special position. In formulating the assumption of isotropy,
you could specify that the universe seems the same in all directions
to a murmuration of freely falling neighbours, each with the average
velocity of typical galaxies, typical brain muscles and simultaneously
all of them might see conditions pretty much the same.
Isotropy is the quality of exhibiting equal physical properties or actions (e.g. refraction of light, elasticity, or conduction of heat or electricity) in all directions; the so-called cosmological principle states that, on a universal scale, the distribution of matter is both homogenous and isotropic: it is “the same in all directions.” Now, there is a simple irony at work here: that the poem expresses the logic of the Nietzschean obsolescence of anything so arrogant and mendacious as a specifically “Human” cosmos, whether or not the universe from our perspective “seem[s]” to be “at all isotropic.” But there is also a complex irony at work in the poem, because the spectres of traditionally sonnet-like appeal, persuasion and erotic desire permeate the poem and provide a field of depth in which to disport itself according to various combinations of immanent and historical relations: the human and the cosmic are breezily, practically insouciantly intertwined as a result, as the poem calmly and candidly plays in the light of the unimaginable scale and velocity that frame its purpose. The lines “microwaves traveling through you / from the day of your conception” express a flinch or glitch or an inward jolt in the poem’s disposition at the moment of the most direct convergence of human life and physical universe, while “galaxies” and “brain muscles” alike extend across the penultimate line as it swings into the ultimate last one: “all of them [that is, the “freely falling neighbours”] might see conditions pretty much the same.” In the paradigmatic simple Romantic grammar of extension,
How exquisitely the individual Mind
[…] to the external World
Is fitted: -- and how exquisitely, too,
[…] The external World is fitted to the Mind;
And in the simple post-modern grammar of lamentable distortion, how it isn’t. But in what I want to call the complex Romantic grammar of Fisher’s poetry, Wordsworth’s fit becomes a Blakean Vortex, an active and dynamic principle at work not simply between two elements in a perfectly calibrated system, but across and between the historical and syntactical elements of a complex system that is the poem, and which includes how the poem replies to the historical conditions of its composition; that include, for example, the inevitably bathetic tone of the final line in a world in which homogeneity can promise only dearth and mutual immiseration; but which must also inevitably include, for example, the promise, however faint, of a world from the perspective of which “all of them [your “neighbours”] might see conditions pretty much the same” would mean the celebration of those conditions as evenly distributed, replete and life-affirming. The feedback produced by ‘Human cosmos,’ this Blakean excessive spirit of affirmation, which must be there because it “seems” impossible, which emerges from the poem as a function of its formal complexity, confirms the emphatic irony of life and what life could be, “to a murmuration of freely falling neighbours.” This is the spirit in which the most compelling contemporary poetry is written today.