Last month, Jeremy Paxman, the English broadcaster, journalist, and author known for his “hard-hitting” interviews with British politicians and deliciously smug omniscience as host of the quiz show University Challenge, caused a very minor scandal when he accused poetry of “conniv[ing] at its own irrelevance” by not “engaging with ordinary people.” As judge of this year’s Forward Prize for poetry, Paxman seems to have felt duty-bound to report the bad news about poems (which this blog has repeatedly repudiated, see here and here). He went on to call for a poetry “inquisition” that would force poets once and for all to confess their errant, solipsistic sinfulness—and then, presumably, burn at the stake of irrelevance.
A UK poetry inquisition: imagine what that would do for sales! There’s Paxman-Torquemada at the center of the tribunal, flanked by the shades of Margaret Thatcher and Rudyard Kipling—corporate sponsorship brought to you by the newly privatized Royal Mail plc. See the doleful train of apostate linguistic innovators: Sussex Marxists, Northumbrian late-modernists, London psychogeographers, Mancunian slam poets, Welsh dreamers, Warwickshire eco-poets, Dover doggerelists, Northern Irish neo-surrealists, Cornish sound artists, and Glaswegian ventriloquizers of the Loch Ness monster, all rounded up to account for their work’s pitiful outreach. Whips and screams punctuate the scene with metrical regularity. . .
Anyway, when I read Paxman’s comments, I immediately thought of Oli Hazzard’s new chapbook Within Habit. It is one of the most exciting and original developments in UK poetry in years, and I am sure Paxman would hate it.
Hazzard made a strong debut in 2012 with Between Two Windows (Carcanet), a collection featuring a number of ingenious constraint-based poems and some lovely and mysterious “conventional” lyric poems too. (I recommend in particular “True Romance,” a two-part poem that reads itself in reverse.) Within Habit, a chapbook of twenty untitled sort-of-prose poems, picks up where Between Two Windows left off. In it, Hazzard pioneers a new form comprising two nine-line prose blocks connected by a verbal “hinge” (John Ashbery describes these in his foreword as having “a strategic importance, rather like a clicker during a slide show”). The prose blocks, which echo each other across the volume, are divided into sub-sections by “vertical bars,” a punctuation mark used for arcane purposes in physics, computer programming, the King James Bible, and the recent poetry of Geoffrey Hill. Hard to visualize? Here’s an example:
We read too much | into the ground | beneath | the ground beneath our feet. Since everything that happened | happened there | it bombed. Who knows what | Power failed along the lines. But like Christopher Newman (a character | in Henry James’s The American) I prefer the copies | of masterpieces | over the originals. As Paul Nash implied | perhaps to distinguish the trees | from the wood, its bark is worse than | as Lee Harwood might say | all you do, my | is appropriate. You mine | my mine | with yours. Steel yourself | for an act of originalitybitethat feeds it. The divisions | undivided | all the sweeter. I was intimated across the threshold | of a margin | of a centre | moved by the accents of a margin | a kind of latent relief. | Something both doubtable and redoubtable | a reliquary of limits. You could snooze by the light | of such names | and this is no | library, chief. Beware po-faced Ƿōden for he knows | not what you do: the kind of case prefaced by head or | nut of the Brazilian | variety. A little distance quakes under its cost. Who | will fly me now? Asks | poor Monmouth, sweltering | in the rain | of his name.
This is the first poem in the series, and it introduces many of the collection’s themes and cast of characters (Ƿōden is an Anglo-Saxon god, Monmouth is a beheaded seventeenth-century duke, Lee Harwood is an underappreciated English poet, Henry James is Henry James). The poem knows we’ll be looking for clues about what it means, hence all that talk of divisions, thresholds, margins, limits. But it would be wrong to try to put all these pieces back together again, or reduce this to a study in “liminality.”
Rather, when I read Within Habit I try to feel how the sequence endlessly folds and unfolds, stutters, and repeats itself with a difference. “Folding” is also a recurrent word and a helpful interpretive key for what Hazzard’s doing. It makes sense to think of these poems, perhaps, as “better-than-exact-replicas” of an imaginary original, or better yet, as linguistic “copies of a masterpiece” in another medium—Simon Hantaï’s Etude (1971, seen above), the abstract painting used as the chapbook’s cover image, to be precise. The underappreciated Hantaï produced this work, and others like it, by painting the surface of a folded canvas, then letting it dry and unfolding it. This process, developed by Hantaï and known as “pliage,” yields a kind of unintentional figurative expressionism (Ben Lerner has written eloquently about this at Lana Turner). Perhaps Hazzard is doing something similar with poetry, using his eccentric constraints to make poems that are unintentionally expressive. The poem has gaping holes but it somehow patches them all up into smooth-yet-stuttering “beyonsense.” A more meticulous reader than I would track down all of the hidden references and quotations in these poems, but in a way this source-mongering feels beside the point to me—although I do want to give a shout-out to the word “borborygmic” in the eleventh poem, imported from Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood.”
The cumulative effect of reading all twenty of these poems in a row is a very appealing form of quasi-dissonance. All those barely missed connections between the units, coupled with their strict regimentation on the page, creates a kind of prosodic static electricity. It is stunning. I am reminded of how much fun I had reading Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path, which produces a similar interference pleasure for the eye and the inner ear. But Hazzard takes Lerner’s method a step further by rejustifying his dramatically broken lines and suturing them to each other. He develops a new kind of prose poem that quotes the idea of transition (be it through line breaks, stanza breaks, punctuation, etc) again and again. I’ve been trying to find a way of describing the experience of what the “hinge”—the main “event” of each poem— does. I am beginning to think its importance lies in the fact that any word or phrase could serve its purpose. This might be borne out by Hazzard’s first epigraph, from Archaelogical Theory: An Introduction: “the density of archaeological sites in the British landscape is so great that a line drawn through virtually anywhere will ‘clip’ a number of sites.” It is as if to say that meaningfulness is relative and random and can reside practically anywhere. The other epigraph might further explain things:
You there—I—hereWith just the Door ajarThat Oceans are—
This is from the end of Emily Dickinson’s “I cannot live with you” (#640 in Johnson’s edition). So maybe it is not just a hinge, maybe it is a door. And maybe the door is meant to communicate something about the infinite space between two words, between two poems.
No doubt Jeremy Paxman would grill (maybe even literally) Hazzard over all of this. The rest of us will be happy to dwell in possibility.