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Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Backlit (March 17, 2018)

24 Mar

NSFS IMG 13

The first Introduction to Art Writing session took place on the afternoon of Saturday 17 March, and despite the day’s heavy snow and blizzards drew around twenty five people to Backlit.

Matthew Chesney, Backlit director, introduced the session and touched on some of the host gallery’s activities, including his own experience of putting together a publication, House of the Flying Wheel, that explored the history of the building (once part of the textile empire of Samuel Morley and the Morley textiles company) and the evolution of Backlit itself as a place for artists’ studios and a venue for performances and exhibitions, currently Strike Site, a group exhibition based on ideas and experiences of migration, displacement and borders curated by the writer Sacha Craddock.

Following this, Wayne Burrows introduced some samples from the wide range of outlets for different types of art writing, noting the ways that each has its own particular approaches: an article in an academic journal will take a different form to a review in a specialist contemporary art magazine, while newspapers and more general interest magazines covering art, but not exclusively about art, will make very different assumptions about the reader’s knowledge and potential interest in the subject. Looking at journals as diverse as Frieze and Art Review, Nottingham Visual Arts and LeftLion, and a variety of artists’ books, catalogues, press releases and other publications, we touched on how each makes its own distinctive demands on the writer.

Wayne also discussed the development of his own work, from working mainly with poetry and journalism to projects that use collage, exhibitions, films and performances alongside publications as vehicles for fiction and the building of alternate realities:

Wayne Burrows links: https://wayneburrows.wordpress.com/links/

Beyond the more straightforward field of critical writing, where the standard formats might be reviews, essays and interviews, we looked briefly at those points where writing about art blurs into writing as art, and it was here that the most creative approaches seemed to be found. Whether the more hybrid kinds of poetic essay, artists’ text – or even in works where the artwork itself employs characterisation and narrative, or constructs a fictional world or history – there were forms that art-writing could take that pushed through the confines of the kind of prose found in press releases, exhibition information panels and catalogue essays.

With this range of possibilities and potential responses in mind, participants spent time in the Strike Site exhibition and were invited to write down (or simply think about) a few lines that might embody a response reflecting a particular viewpoint, rooted in the participants’ own interests and reasons for attending the workshop. During the discussion that followed, there turned out to be no standard angle, but rather a range of individual concerns: some focused on the issues raised, others on aesthetics; some were positive, some critical; some considered the forms of the works included, others paid closer attention to their positioning, relationships or content.

In exploring these responses we also discussed some future possibilities for the group, with developing writing skills, sharing work, making connections between people, creating a group to discuss exhibitions on a ‘book club’ model and building a network all mentioned at one point or another. After resolving an earlier technical hitch, we concluded with a short screening featuring three short films, chosen to illustrate the points made earlier about the more creative, ‘expanded’ aspects of how thinking about writing – in the form of both text and strategies of fiction-making or world-building – can apply in relation to particular art-works.

Shana Moulton Whispering Pines II 2007

These films included Shana Moulton discussing her Twin Peaks-inspired Whispering Pines series of artist films featuring an alter ego named Cynthia; footage from a live text-based performance by Sophie Jung; and a short film in which the artists Tai Shani and Florence Peake introduce the fictional archaeological and political ideas that informed their collaborative installation Andromedan Sad Girl at Wysing Arts Centre last year. Links to all three films are included here for those who missed them:

Shana Moulton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z1kow40WGY

Sophie Jung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2TwYQ6bcF4

Tai Shani & Florence Peake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv4bavXUV_c

Tai Shani & Florence Peake Andromedan Sad Girl (2017)

As a final note, here are some of the comments written during the day on the pages put up around the workshop space to collect suggestions and thoughts from participants. These will be used, along with the comments made during discussions, to shape future sessions.

Ideas/ suggestions

Mini biogs – ‘As much as I hate them, introduction circle helps my social anxiety to be over ridden. So to intro and bio is easier when everyone does it together’

Facebook page – ‘I need to meet in person to do anything productive. Social media feels too impersonal and lacks accountability sometimes‘ (perhaps we can look at alternative online platforms?)

Seeds to grow, to create a network of writers, creatives and like-minded souls

I love writing in response to visual stimulus/ art in poetic form. Also love overlap of forms – eg: photography, theatre, performance. Would love to hear more about others’ backgrounds and interests…

What is everyone reading? I’m struggling to find new authors…

A ‘bookclub’ but for exhibitions? Go and see it, than have a chat later?

I’d love to see/read other people’s writing

Practical discussion and critique of each others’ own artwork

Thanks! worth coming, maybe fragmentation into sub-groups, also convening to re-connect would be helpful.

Great to be in a room with a dynamic range of people with a variety of reasons for having an interest in writing about the art.

The day has been amazing, informative, great content and brilliant opportunity to network.

Interesting to think about writing with a mix of participants/ fresh views.

Melanie Jackson - Deeper in the Pyramid (2018)

Next Session:

Saturday 14th April, 1 – 4pm at Primary, 33 Seely Road, Nottingham NG7 1NU. Please book your place via the Eventbrite link at: https://bit.ly/2ua96mk

Primary are also hosting an event on Thursday 12th April at 7pm with Melanie Jackson’s performance lecture and exhibition opening, free to attend and no booking required: http://www.weareprimary.org/2018/02/melanie-jackson/

 

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Robert Holcombe as Fiction at Nottingham Writers’ Studio (October 6th, 2014)

11 Oct

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

On October 6th 2014 I was invited by NWS director Pippa Hennessy to deliver a short talk about the origins of the fictional artist Robert Holcombe, and the shift in my general approach to writing since around 2010, as part of the regular ‘social’ event held every month at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. As I’d got the notes already written down and the images gathered for the slides used on the night, it seemed worth preserving an outline of the talk here, if only because it might help to explain what it is I think I’m doing and how I ended up doing it…

Wood & Ink (Shoestring Press) (545x800)

At the start, writing poetry for the most part, I worked in the generally accepted way. That is, I mostly did things other than writing for a living (in my case, working in retail, picture framing and other similar trades) and sometimes got to write things in my spare time. I sent these things out to the magazines I knew about, who would sometimes publish them. At a certain point I had gathered a book’s worth of poetry that seemed both OK in itself, and gave an impression of coherence, so this was sent out to publishers. Marginalia appeared from Peterloo in 2001, and after several years focused on a day job in freelance journalism, compiling a fragmentary book about money called Shrapnel and developing projects like a sequence about genetics written for a dance company in 2005, a second short poetry collection, Emblems, emerged in 2009.

The Apple Sequence (Orchard Editions, 2011)

It’s worth noting that I still work this way, though I’ll admit that I’ve been negligent about sending things to magazines since 2010, perhaps because I edited one, called Staple, between 2007 and 2011, and needed a very long break from the endless round of envelopes, stamps and emails by the time its natural life-span expired. Even so, a series of poems written in response to woodcuts by Alan Dixon were included in the anthology Wood & Ink last year, and a body of new work, including the sequence A Cycle Of Songs From The Body’s Interior, will feature in Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, which is forthcoming from Shoestring in March 2015. But there was also a turning point, where a new way of working became possible, and this was probably a 2010 commission to work with Neville Gabie on a project built around the redevelopment of Sneinton Square, a historic fruit and vegetable market on the Eastside of Nottingham.

Sneinton Square by Patel Taylor Architects

This project became known as Orchard  and my contribution to it was a book-length series of poems called The Apple Sequence, a 64 page publication distributed free to an audience not usually engaged with the arts, but with a stake in the future of the site: market traders and their customers, activists involved in urban food production on the many allotments and city farm nearby, tenants and residents of the Sneinton and St Ann’s areas more widely. The commission included money to cover production of an artwork, so I used this to create a book from scratch – designing, typesetting and writing it simultaneously, to a tight deadline and with a definite public purpose. This seemed a more interesting way of working than the standard literary and publishing industry model. More to the point, it seemed to work, with The Apple Sequence widely read by those we’d hoped to reach.

Robert Holcombe: Marine (1955)

Yet the fact that this book was directed not at the poetry world in the standard way, but addressed to a very different readership, seemed to mean that as far as conventional literary acknowledgement went The Apple Sequence barely existed. Perhaps this was partly delayed response: no reviews, for example, but one of the few literary events the Apple Sequence poems were presented at was a Nine Arches Press reading in Leicester soon after publication – so the apple-themed anthology that appeared from Nine Arches this year may not be entirely unrelated to the 2011 project. At any rate, The Apple Sequence proved liberating in terms of the control it allowed over the design, format and speed at which the book could appear, and for the readership it was able to find while by-passing the usual literary channels. It is probably not insignificant, either, that the work of writing poems was, for once, reasonably well paid upfront.

WayneBurrows_Robert_Holcombe_The_Modernists_Diptych_I_(Primal)_[1972]_(2014)

I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this way of working ever since, in poetry and various kinds of non-mainstream fiction, the resulting work mostly distributed outside the channels of traditional publishing. A couple of these later projects might include Spirit Wrappings (2012), which was produced as a short, beautifully designed fiction chapbook by Nottingham Contemporary, commissioned in response to an exhibition about a collector named Rashleigh Jackson by visual artist Simon Withers and curator Abi Spinks, and The Disappearances/The Peel Street Codex, commissioned by Jo Dacombe and Laura Jade Klee of Sidelong to be performed in caves, then made into booklets for A Box Of Things (2014), a limited edition publication documenting a project based on the myths and legends of Nottingham’s cave network.

Robert Holcombe: Biological Camouflage (Les Chateaux de la Loire I) [1977]

The creation of Robert Holcombe, an alter-ego who could be put to many different uses, was almost accidental. He first appeared in a novel I’d been writing, Albany 6, which traced an alternative history of the late 20th century, where he was the author of a handful of pulp science-fiction stories that had shaped the obsessions of the book’s main protagonist, a Chicago musician named Thomas Satz, and grew from there. His public debut was as the subject of a fictional lecture during 2010, expanding on one of those pulp stories, Not smoking can seriously damage your health (1976). More fake lectures have been delivered since, among them a fabricated paper exploring the invented connections between Holcombe and the post-war Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, presented at a Nottingham Contemporary symposium on the meaning of disgust in November 2013.

The Modernists: Portal (1967)

So who is Robert Holcombe? An exhibition hand-out written in early 2014 gives the basic facts of his fictional biography:

“Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art  and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in Leeds. He maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared. Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was usual at the time. His works are marked by a fascination with consumerist excess, inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors, and unsettling disturbances of ordinary space”.

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Apocrypha - The Appearing of Three Angels to Abraham] (1967)

Another lecture on Holcombe’s work was improvised at a closing event for the fictional retrospective exhibitionThe Family Bible & Other Fables: Works From The Holcombe Collection 1948 – 1978, staged at Syson Gallery in January 2014. This outlined links between the fabricated collages on the gallery walls and their literary sources, some fictional, like Holcombe’s own pulp SF writings and letters, others, like Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr Hoffmann and JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, very real. A quote from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition perhaps gives a flavour of the literary origins of Robert Holcombe: “These mental polaroids form a large part of our library of affections”, writes Ballard. “Carried around in our heads, they touch our memories like albums of family photographs. Turning their pages, we see what seems to be a ghostly and alternative version of our own past, filled with shadowy figures as formalized as Egyptian tomb-reliefs.”  

Marine - A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle, 2013) Cover design by Joff + Ollie.

The first time all of these literary, historical and visual threads had come together in a single place was in Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, commissioned by Nottingham Castle and Fermynwoods Contemporary Art to be part of Make Believe, a series of interventions in the collections and grounds of Nottingham Castle during 2013. The exhibition explored the blurring of fact and fiction in the site’s real and legendary histories and Marine combined a 30-page print publication, tracing the actual and imaginary resonances of a sea voyage from England to Hawaii aboard HMS Blonde in 1824; a film remix setting fragments of that published text to 1950s ‘exotica’ music and sequences of still visual images; and an installation featuring a Holcombe work inside a high security case (another collage appeared as the book’s frontispiece and the opening image of the film).

Make believe -7560

The Marine film and publication were also presented at two venues during the inaugural Pilot Festival in Brightlingsea, suggesting that they did not depend on the site specific context they were devised for. Site specificity could also arise by accident: with Holcombe having been at least partly inspired by JG Ballard, it seemed a good omen that the second fictional retrospective – Folklore, Ritual and The Modern Interior: 1955 – 1975 – was shown at a London gallery named (by the curators, Pil & Galia Kollectiv) after three ‘psychic projections’, Xero, Kline & Coma, who appear in several of Ballard’s books. Even more pertinently, the exhibition accidentally coincided with a major Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern and Hannah Hoch’s work just down the road at the Whitechapel, both of which added a certain additional resonance to the work on display.

XeroKline&Coma

Holcombe’s Performing The Curtain Rituals series, supposedly made in 1966, directly referenced work by both these neighbouring artists, a fact that earned the show a small place in a dissertation on the politics of parafictional art published by Keren Goldberg at the RCA in summer 2014. This seems apt, as chance meanings were the subject of The Holcombe Tarot, a series of 78 collages made between 2011 and 2014 in which a few classic Tarot symbols, like Death, The Tower, The Lovers and The Priestess, were vastly outnumbered by such oblique images as The Mirage (some banknotes hovering above a glacier), The Source (a gigantic chrome tap standing in a ruined abbey), The Purge (a burning rice field, suggestive of the late Vietnam War context in which the cards were made) and The Nest (a classical column protruding from a birds’ nest). Devised to appear meaningful, while remaining open-ended, the curious thing is how the drawing of one of these cards can still feel significant.

Tarot Series (The Mirage)

These cards were first shown (as a selection of 12 collages) at Xero, Kline & Coma and have since been prototyped as a working Tarot pack and launched on Kickstarter, so a limited edition of 100 packs of The Holcombe Tarot will be produced in November 2014. The Holcombe Tarot also, I suppose, works as a kind of mutated poetry collection: a gathering of images that seem to relate to one another, can be ‘read’ in sequence or dipped into at will, each card freestanding but dependent on the others. Perhaps this is the thread connecting these bodies of written and visual work. Collage and poetry, after all, both operate through the selection and recombination of images and details from multiple sources. In a poem it might be a written recollection or voicing where a view of an apple orchard merges with a memory of factory machinery; in a collage it might be some photographic combination or overlay of the two things. The effect, either way, is similar.

GBX020 CD 800

A project currently in its early stages of development is Exotica Suite, a collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood (look up The Soundcarriers’ back catalogue for some examples of his work). At this point Exotica Suite is not planned as a Holcombe project but a sequence of new texts exploring identity as something constructed, both for us, socially, and by us, in response to assumptions made by others. Inspirations are figures like Sun Ra, Yma Sumac and Jack Bilbo, who each in some way refused or complicated authenticity and rebuilt reality around themselves (as Holcombe notes in a 1984 letter: “We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves.”). Where all this will lead is not yet known, but the results will be released as a vinyl LP and download and a print publication. There will be events at New Art Exchange to introduce the ideas and influences behind the project and discuss the issues it raises. I think it is going to be interesting.

Questions of Identity: Donelle Woolford, E.A. Markham and Robert Holcombe (2014)

7 Jun

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

I came across a link today to the news that the Yams collective  had withdrawn from the Whitney Biennale over the inclusion of work by a fabricated black female artist, Donelle Woolford, whose life and work are purportedly the creation of a white, male academic, Joe Scanlan, working with actresses. A polemic by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandial, implicitly endorsed by the collective, and explicitly endorsed by other exhibiting artists, makes a powerful case. As with many fabricated artists currently in circulation (whose numbers, since 2010, have included Robert Holcombe himself) I’d been following the fictive career of Donelle Woolford mostly out of a straightforward curiosity about how (and why) others pursue the making of work under fictional identities. One point of interest was that in this instance, while the fabrication itself didn’t seem particularly compelling, the possibility that Woolford was not, in fact, Scanlan’s creation, fronted by actresses, but potentially the fabrication and creation of those actresses, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell – both involved with the project for many years – who were in fact using Scanlan as a front to manufacture Donelle’s physical artworks while they handled the performative elements…well, that possibility was compelling. Thinking parafictionally, this not only seemed possible but pretty much essential if the project were to mean very much at all beyond the banal points about authorship, race and gender it makes when taken at face value.*

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Since November, these questions about Woolford and her highly ambiguous play on identity have became of somewhat more particular interest. After exhibiting at the Nottingham Castle Open in 2013, Robert Holcombe received the accolade of a new commission from New Art Exchange, which meant he’d be making a new work in the context of a venue where the questions of identity already implicit in the project (indeed, the very ability to choose an identity) required deeper consideration. Mainly focused on issues of class and post-war British history – what Fabricated Archives had defined as his ability to bring about “a distancing from the present and an estrangement of the recent past” –  Holcombe’s is a parallel history, grounded in the actual but unrealised potential of the real one, then deployed as a means of countering claims that ‘there are no alternatives’ to our present state. This construct is now entering a context where willed suspensions of reality and, by implication, re-writings of the very real struggles factored into the construction of identity, are likely to be questioned.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul's From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul’s From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

For that reason, I’ve been grateful to my colleague at Primary, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, not only for his bemused comment on hearing about the commission (“What colour is Robert Holcombe?”) but for several conversations since, in which questions about how we might be responsible for a real identity, while challenging those identities imposed on us from outside,  might all be navigated and addressed. I’d very deliberately conceived Holcombe to be of a similar profile to myself (white, male, raised in Midlands/Northern factory and mining towns, Methodist upbringing, working class) but displaced in time: he’s of my grandfather’s generation rather than mine, though my grandparents imagined as having had some of the opportunities my own never did. The decision to keep his profile close was pragmatic (I knew this world well enough not to need research to make it convincing) but perhaps also unconsciously linked to some felt responsibility to an actual identity.

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

Within that, however, are other threads and influences that I’m fairly sure I hadn’t been conscious of at the time, including the fact that I spent several years studying in Sheffield with E.A. Markham whose own career was marked by the adoption of a series of fabricated identities. Markham spent much of the 1970s and 1980s Living in Disguise (his collection owning up to these ‘other persona’ works used this title in 1986) most notably as a younger generation Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and as a feminist poet, Sally Goodman (“She is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde; is very much, in a way, like me”, he wrote of her). His personae appear to be responses to a feeling that voices and identities are malleable, and extending them extends our own understanding of others. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the licence to be other than oneself granted by Markham (the responsibility, even) had one source in Sheffield, though the link made by James Proctor between Markham’s use of “play and personae with his interest in Anancy, the trickster Spider-god of African and Caribbean mythology” just complicates things further.

That said, another thread leads back to that mythology, by way of a very formative work (a work that will, I think, be a touchstone for anything produced at New Art Exchange). This is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). I first stumbled on a copy (for ten pence) in a sale in the unlikely setting of Heanor library at the age of nine or ten and still regularly re-read it today. To those who know Heanor, this area of South East Derbyshire, and their reputations, the place where I spent much of my first decade has long been notorious as a stronghold for the National Front, the BNP and (currently) the likes of UKIP. That Tutuola’s book turned up there, and opened these other possibilities – the kind of possibilities that led, ultimately, and in very indirect and tangled ways, to working with E.A. Markham, making the work of Robert Holcombe, and thinking about the issues raised by the fabrication of Donelle Woolford – is almost too neatly poetic.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr's Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr’s Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Today, I don’t remember how I visualised the characters in The Palm Wine Drinkard in my head that first time I read it: did I even know the book was Nigerian or understand what that meant? What I do know is that I fully immersed myself in its story, and identified with its characters, even as I almost certainly failed to understand any of the book’s real context or meaning. In the same way, whatever my own take on Holcombe’s work might be, and whatever framework I construct around it to facilitate that meaning, there is a near inevitability that it will, eventually, escape that context and be seen as it is, just as ‘real’ works invariably lose the cultural and temporal contexts that define them and find themselves read against the grain of their makers’ specific intentions. Any parafictional project is ultimately founded on the belief that shifting the context changes and extends the work’s meaning and such work aims, however briefly, to make itself appear real, to conjure a mirage or hallucination even as its fabricated nature remains explicit. What happens when our fictions escape those framing contexts might be largely out of our control, but remains our responsibility.

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Note: *I have no idea if this is the case or not: it’s entirely possible (and wouldn’t be the first time) that a project had been oblivious to its own potential, or had been made for banal or spurious reasons.

Writing Objects Part III: Masks and Masking (Primary, June 4, 2014)

5 Jun
Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington

For the third and final Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s Multiple points in this crude landscape, we looked at the various forms that masks can take and the even more various ways in which masks can be deployed in the creation of texts. Strictly speaking, a mask is a physical object that covers all or part of the face, from behind which the wearer looks out. Technically, this means no text can truly be a mask. But in a more expanded sense it’s clear that in the different personas we project in our choices of clothes or accessories, our movements between behaviour at work and in private, our editing of images and interests to represent ourselves on social media, we all, in practical terms, use masks.

To give a sense of how this kind of masking can operate, we watched an excerpt from Forced Entertainment’s recent re-staging of 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), a durational piece in which, as the company themselves explain: “five silent performers endlessly reinvent their identities using stacks of cardboard signs with which they name themselves, and a store of jumble-sale clothing (coats, dresses, suits, anoraks, trousers, pyjamas) from which they dress and re-dress…”. The minimal resources and suggestive capsule descriptions on the cardboard signs bring to life a range of archetypal characters in their wider imaginative contexts and suggest multiple potential narratives.

The tones of voice, degrees of intimacy and formality we adopt for different email correspondences (personal and professional, with close friends or casual acquaintances) serve a similar function to Forced Entertainment’s cardboard signs in presenting a shorthand for different aspects of ourselves in different contexts and situations – some close to our real selves, others almost entirely fictional. Even in supposedly pure self-expression, we tend to highlight insecurities to win sympathy or strengths to seem more capable and attractive. Paradoxically, an actual mask might distance us from this kind of everyday self-consciousness and liberate us to explore other possibilities.

Leonora Carrngton: Self-Portrait (1937)

Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait (1937)

In Leonora Carrington‘s short story, The Debutante (1939), a mask plays a role in the narrative but the text itself masks autobiographical content behind the appearance of a darkly surreal fairy-tale. The characters, a young girl and a hyena, represent the constrained and liberated sides of Carrington herself, who wrote it at the age of 22. A raw 16mm film version of The Debutante by Ric Warren, made in 1994, illustrates Carrington’s point that the human face acquired for the hyena is little more than a skin, a civilised veneer covering the hyena’s true face. This is – visibly and significantly – a mask. Only when the hyena gleefully reverts to her authentic mask is the girl’s own potential revealed.

In the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola‘s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), there is an early scene in which the narrator follows a handsome gentleman at the market. At first, he is consumed by feelings of inferiority: why can he not be as handsome as this gentleman? Yet time passes, the market winds down, and he sees the gentleman leaving another piece of his own body at each stall he passes, until he is finally exposed as a floating skull with no body, no arms or legs, no skin or skeleton, not even a face of his own. His substance is borrowed, rented by the hour on the market. As a metaphor for consumerism, the sale of identity and appearances, it’s a remarkably prescient passage.

Perhaps the unsettling quality of masks, exploited in many films, including Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), relates to this sense that appearance and reality can no longer be matched or trusted. A mask can erase or expose us, free us from responsibility for our actions or to express what is forbidden. A mask can also break habitual frames of reference. The Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used his various literary personas in this way. We concluded the session with an excerpt from Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). This neatly drew together threads from all three sessions: everyday objects are performed, Lewis Carroll’s incantatory poem is recited, and the film’s political meanings are both blatant and ingeniously masked.

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

 

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Notes from session two, looking at incantation and ritual, are here.

Writing Objects Part II: Incantation and Ritual (Primary, May 21 2014)

23 May
Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

For our second Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s commissioned installation, we looked at the various ways in which the sound and rhythm of language can be used to create an illusion of almost magical power or authority: the realm of the incantation, the chant, prayer and spell. These, after all, are the kinds of texts used in anything from a horror film to a stage magician’s act, and from a Church to a coven, to imply that words possess the power to bring objects to life and influence nature.

We began with Marie Osmond, specifically her 1980s appearance in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, in which she introduces and then memorably recites Hugo Ball’s Dada sound-poem Karawane (1916). Ball’s text implies meaning through its imitation of some of the expected patterns of spoken language, from which all familiar syntax and vocabulary has been erased to replace comprehension with patterns of repetition and verbal sound to generate an air of impenetrable significance. In this, the sound-poem echoes much that is commonly found in the form of the incantation.

Looking at the traditions of Biblical or Oral song-texts, the way these patterns work emerges more clearly. In The Song of Solomon the effect lies in the repetition of sentence structures, of patterns of concrete nouns and vivid images shaped by rhythmic variations. A text that imitates the more sinister possibilities of this kind of incantation is The Peel Street Codex (2013), commissioned to be performed in a (supposedly haunted) cave underneath the Salutation Inn in Nottingham during a series of walks curated by Sidelong. Although contradictory when examined, and designed to expose its own fakeness, when recited it creates a ritualistic, if theatrical, intensity.

The real thing can be experienced in the work of American poet and musician Jayne Cortez: looking at her 1980s piece New York’s Bullfighter Gums on the page clearly implies the presence of this kind of ritualistic tone:

New York’s bullfighter gums
mashed up like red bananas
fiery sauce caked on
its rocket-shaped head
E train eyes rolling like
some big time frog from Uruguay
& I say
it’s not impossible
to find deep fried romance
in this concrete ocean
of marinated snake juice…

The real impact of the piece, however, emerges when it is heard in Cortez’s own voice, and while this particular poem isn’t available online, re-reading it after listening to the author’s rendition of I See Chano Pozo (an incantation to the spirit of the musician who fused Cuban music with Be-Bop jazz in the 1940s as part of Dizzy Gillespie’s band) transforms the way we read the text of Cortez’s poem. With the drums and rhythms of her voice planted in our minds, the logic behind the construction of the initially baffling but powerfully vivid images of New York’s Bullfighter Gums sharply clarifies. Cortez uses concrete nouns, repeated sentence structures and rhythmic patterns to give shape to a series of images that follow no ordinary or everyday logic, but instead by-pass conscious reasoning and aim to find echoes in the unconscious.

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

It’s a patterning used everywhere in political slogans, advertising catchphrases and management mantras – from the French Revolution’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the striking Miners’ Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out; from Just Do It to Gotta Lotta Bottle; from Education Education Education to Hard-Working Families. Stringing a catchy threesome of words together has long been known to be memorable and devices like this have been rhetorically exploited for the purpose of persuasion for centuries – a secular form of spell casting and ritual speech, even if it rarely acknowledges that it is.

Used to very different purposes, in Maya Deren’s silent and self-consciously ritualistic film Witch’s Cradle (1943, partly a documentation of a Marcel Duchamp string installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Kenneth Anger’s (equally self-consciously ritualistic) Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), fragmentary images develop coherence through the use of repetition and visual rhythm. Just as Hugo Ball’s Karawane created an illusion of potential meaning from seemingly arbitrary sounds, Deren and Anger’s disjunctive edits develop their own elusive sense and operate like languages whose precise meanings lie only slightly beyond our grasp.

Eva Svankmajerova’s Baradla Cave uses similar methods, sometimes reading like ordinary fiction, but swerving between genres and forms from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Baradla herself is the cave setting of the book and its female heroine: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. But then, if Baradla Cave is anything, it is a satirical parody of narrative sense that holds its reader’s attention with the patterns of its language, which is full of lists, jokes, factual commentary and arbitrary sequences that deliberately refuse to add up. Its real aim, like any good incantation, is to imply sense while purposefully defying logic, and at its most nonsensical reveals some of its deepest and most intriguing truths.

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Writing Objects session three, on masks and unstable identities, is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm, free). All welcome.

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Writing Objects Part I: Ubu Roi and the Actor as Object (Primary, May 7 2014)

8 May
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

The first of the Writing Objects sessions took place last night at Primary, bringing together writers, performers and artists interested in using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s installation Multiple points in this crude landscape, which launches on Friday 9 May (6 – 9pm) with an opening performance devised by Baldock in collaboration with Florence Peake. For the first session of three, we decided to explore the idea of the ‘actor as object’, or more precisely, reconsider the usually frowned-upon practice of objectification.

Usually thought of in contexts like pornography, advertising and mainstream cinema, and often used in propaganda and news media, where our sympathy or animosity is aroused by stereotypical victims and dehumanised threats, objectification is about the presentation of human figures as things, stripped in some way of their particular identities and voices, and thereby rendered passive and powerless.

Our starting point was to consider other ways in which this act of objectification might work, and we looked at four texts and a selection of related films that seemed to challenge conventional approaches to objectification.

To illustrate this approach we watched the opening scenes of Vera Chytilova’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies) [1966] which first reduces its two teenage protagonists, known only as Marie I and Marie II, to mannequins, then in every subsequent scene has the girls constantly changing – from one role or context to another, almost randomly tumbling through the film’s discontinuous settings – while keeping them exactly as they are, utterly unfazed and unchanged by even the most extreme and unsettling things in their environment.

This technique relates to folk traditions, where, as in the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel & Gretel, the characters – the Woodcutter, the Witch and Hansel & Gretel – are always ciphers rather than individuals, blank spaces into which we are free to project our own identities and experiences rather than rounded individuals in their own right. Their presence in their own story is overshadowed by the objects and things around them: Hansel & Gretel are not only interchangeable with one another but with any child, while the Witch’s house, if not the Witch herself, is very specifically memorable.

In a different way, the character of Père Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi is objectified by exaggeration, a broad-brush caricature: human traits of cowardice, avarice and lust for glory are pushed to extremes, dialogue is laced with obscenities. Jarry’s drama is an absurdist satire on the workings of power, a Punch & Judy version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with no intention of being even-handed or naturalistic. When we see performed versions, either on stage or in films like Jean Christophe Averty’s live-action Ubu Roi (1965)  or Geoff Dunbar’s animated Ubu (1978), Jarry’s intention to make his play a live-action puppet show becomes unmistakable.

Another approach to the stripping away of specific identity can be seen in Samuel Beckett’s short, intense script Not I (1972) in which the central (and only) character, a woman, possibly old, possibly already dead or in limbo, is reduced to a mouth, floating disembodied on the stage while speaking a rapid-fire monologue composed of fragmented generalities and shattered bits of memory. Here, loss of identity is contradicted by language, which floods out, veering between emotional states, as though speech is the only thing that keeps Mouth (or any of us) from disappearing altogether (a point underscored by the fact that, if she ceases to speak, nothing at all remains visible).

Returning to the conventions of Hansel & Gretel for our conclusion, we watched Jan Svankmajer’s 1983 short film Down To The Cellar, a work which utilises the affectless characterisation of the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books (also filmed by Svankmajer, in 1987) in a modern, political setting. Down To The Cellar is entirely wordless, its whole effect built on heightened sound and visual atmospherics. The protagonist is silent, a figure into whose shoes we place ourselves (or at least, a memory of ourselves as children).

As a footnote, we looked at an example of the inverse of objectification, where a human consciousness strives to decode the intentions and meaning of an actual mute object. The French poet and essayist Francis Ponge (1899 – 1988) was a master of this and his quest to give objects a language of their own, to find what strange, non-human meanings hid in that ‘language of objects’, meant Karen Volkman’s translation of The Trees Delete Themselves Inside A Fog Sphere offered a neat full-stop to our discussion.

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Writing Objects (Session two: on text as incantation and ritual) is at Primary on 21 May (7 – 9pm).

Writing Objects (Session three: on masks and unstable identities) is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm).

Free booking may still be available for these sessions via the Primary eventbrite link.

Raven Burrows: An Old School Happening

5 Dec

RAVEN BURROWS Banner Image (first version)

The artists’ studios where I have my office, Primary, recently staged its annual Open event, and it so happened that our turn to deliver another part of the ongoing programme in the building coincided with it. Early in 2013, a series of public events titled Old School Breaks was launched, pairing the 30 or so artists who work here into fifteen randomly selected partnerships, each to create some kind of collaborative event on whatever terms seemed to work best in one of fifteen randomly allocated months. Some gave talks, others collaborated over a whole month then showed the work they’d made at the end, others delivered a performance or small exhibition and discussion. As I’d been teamed up with the performance artist and pug painter Simon Raven, we decided to create an immersive environment inside the semi-derelict Blue Building (a disused modern school block) and then explore it over five hours, spread across the three nights of the Open Studios event. With no budget and not much time, the fact that we’re both, if nothing else, hoarders of vaguely interesting things – slide projectors, masks, 78rpm records, BBC radiophonic LPs, a toy Tardis, perspex mirrors – meant we managed to suspend fabrics, build a hidden Ubu room, set up projectors and light sources, installed record players, negatives, light-boxes and detuned radio sets…then waited till it got dark and opened the doors.

On the first night, a big crowd arrived at the start and watched our inhabiting of the space as if it were a performance, which slightly missed the purpose of the exercise, which had always been more intent on generating an atmosphere to be explored rather than a spectacle to be watched: fortunately, once that initial crush subsided, the smaller groups of three or six tended to enter the space as required, watching us for a bit, then making their own way around all the nooks and crannies of the building: a small installation of modified record sleeves under the stairs, labelled ART GALLERY: MIND YOUR HEAD. The Ubu room, with a seven foot figure of Alfred Jarry’s anti-hero staring down at whoever entered like a gigantic crowned bird surrounded by dunce’s caps (and with one or two photocopies of Alan Dixon’s woodcuts on a nearby shelf). The old toilets, with a laptop playing a loop of rehearsal footage from a choral collaboration with composer Hilary Nicholls called ‘Breath‘ while candles flickered on a cistern. Simon’s film of himself as a grotesque blue grub, The Bookworm, crawling through London towards a library. But most of the activity was in one particular space, where it seemed, over the three nights, we moved from ghosts, haunting the space under sheets, to something like Batman villains’ henchmen in face masks, to just doing strange and (hopefully) visually interesting things with mirrors, light and the room we were in.

Was it a performance? Yes and no. With its ambition to be immersive, to generate an atmosphere rather than a meaning or narrative, it was probably closer to the old 1960s arts lab style of improvised happening than anything more formally categorisable, and perhaps the mostly analogue tools reinforced that link. Either way, it was an interesting experiment and certainly produced a result that neither of us would have come up with individually, and I suppose that’s most of the point of the Old School Breaks series (next up in the Primary Old School Breaks series, incidentally, are Frank Abbott and Lauren O’Grady – there’s more information on their collaboration here).

A Sampling of Spoken Word on Records: 1952 – 1993 (from: Staple – The Music Issue, 2010)

27 Mar

Staple 72 The Music Issue (Image) The story of spoken word as a recorded medium really begins at the birth of the technology itself, with Thomas Edison reputed to have tested his earliest prototype phonograph cylinders in 1877 with his own recital of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. The technology was sufficiently advanced by 1890 for Alfred Tennyson to make wax cylinder recordings of around ten poems, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ among them. In the years that followed 78rpm discs featuring Biblical readings and passages from Shakespeare were plentiful, and many examples of interest exist in the richly populated hinterland between music and poetry: the twisted ballads and song-poems of the ‘Old Weird America’ gathered on Harry Smith’s epochal Anthology of American Folk Music and the Red Bird Poetry and Jazz sessions of Tony Kinsey and Christopher Logue are only two of the most interesting. Despite the riches available even before the full advent of the 12″ LP record, however, it seems to be the 1950s that saw spoken word recordings really take off, and the births of such idiosyncratic labels as Caedmon in America and Argo in the UK were particularly significant in creating a commercial market for what were otherwise seen as largely educational and archival artefacts. In the selection that follows, we’ve gathered a mere 17 recordings to represent a cross-section through the many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of possible inclusions, but they hopefully touch on key strands in the development of spoken word as a distinct literary medium and offer an introductory gesture towards that larger story.

T.S. Eliot: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

From: T.S. Eliot reading Poems and Choruses (Caedmon, 1955)

The serious-minded Modernism of T.S. Eliot, and the poet’s drily ironic delivery of his own lines on records like this one, are often lazily condemned (in some circles, at least) as the antithesis of the spoken word scene’s more democratic energies. But any reader or listener who can’t imagine this 1955 reading of his early masterpiece The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock bringing down the house in a live setting with the same riotous force as the poem manages on paper is allowing Eliot’s forbidding reputation to get between the actual words and a more instinctive response to their effect. The truth is that however dry Eliot’s reading seems, there’s humour in the play between his high-serious tones and the absurdist doggerel of couplets like “I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo”. This LP, released as part of the Caedmon Literary Series in 1955, opens our selection of recordings made between the 1950s and 1990s, all precursors of today’s spoken word scene, and many by poets more closely associated with the page than the stage. As such, it’s also, I hope, a means of bridging the gap often perceived to exist between the realms of written and performed poetry in the UK. We very deliberately open proceedings with this recording of a man who is in many ways held up as the totemic ‘difficult page poet’ by both his supporters and detractors in the belief that Prufrock – first published in 1917 – unsettles that view at a very fundamental level. It’s not just our view that Eliot bridges the divide between page and stage approaches, either: the poet’s love of music hall is well known (he even wrote an essay on Marie Lloyd) but perhaps more revealing is that during an interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson in a Brixton café for The Big Issue in the North in March 2001, the renowned dub-poet mentioned in passing that he had himself recorded a reggae version of Eliot’s poem, to make exactly this point. At the time of writing, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Prufrock remains unreleased, but it would be wonderful, and no doubt transformative, if Eliot’s estate were to one day relent and allow Johnson’s so far unheard dub take on Prufrock to take its place beside Eliot’s own reading.

Edith Sitwell: Façade

From: Façade: performed by Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft with The London Sinfonietta conducted by Sir William Walton (Argo, 1972) [Link to different performance]

While the position of Eliot’s Prufrock in the Modernist canon is assured, there’s still a lingering suspicion that Edith Sitwell’s cycle of nonsense-poems set to music by William Walton – and first performed at the Aeolian Hall in London on June 12, 1923 – is some kind of in-joke, perpetuated by the Sitwell clan as a wealthy bohemian indulgence at the expense of a gullible public in search of novelties. Listening to this version, recorded to commemorate Walton’s 70th birthday, and conducted by him with Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft performing the recitals, suggests that it’s a singularly odd blend of verbal humour and musical experiment – not (as is sometimes claimed) in a jazz idiom, but with the quirky tenor of Erik Satie’s compositions, sharing its general atmosphere and tone with his score for Rene Clair’s silent film En’tracte (1924), an enterprise in which erstwhile Dadaist Francis Picabia was also involved. Seen in this context, it’s a good example of British modernism produced with lively humour and a lightness of touch, a point that seems self-evident in such nonsensically playful lines as “And why should the spined flowers/Red as a soldier/ Make Don Pasquito/ Seem still mouldier” (‘Lullaby for Jumbo’), “The light is braying like an ass” (‘Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone’) and “Herodiade’s flea/ Was named sweet Amanda,/ She danced like a lady/ from here to Uganda” (‘Came the Great Popinjay’). Taking its cues from the delight in wordplay of folk poetry and nursery rhyme, Sitwell’s verses seem both modish (“Lily O’Grady/Silly and shady,/Longing to be/A lazy lady”) and – at times – dug from some oddly distorted memory inside the language itself:

Bells of grey crystal
Break on each bough –
The swans’ breath will mist all
The cold airs now.
Like tall pagodas
Two people go,
Trail their long codas
Of talk through the snow.
Lonely are these
And lonely am I…
The clouds, grey Chinese geese,
Sleek through the sky.

This is ‘Bells of Grey Crystal’ in full, and like much else in Façade it manages to be entirely superficial yet affecting simultaneously; the combination of Sitwell’s nursery-rhyme verses and Walton’s settings, with their parodies of sea-shanties and music hall comedy songs, suggest a peculiarly English sensibility at work. Just as Façade borrowed the devices of European modernism to build a path back to childhood, so English psychedelic bands such as The Kaleidoscope and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd would later eschew the harder formal experimentation and political edges of their American and European contemporaries of the later 1960s in favour of acid-tinged reworks of The Wind in the Willows or a full embrace of Lewis Carroll’s mindbending Victorian doll-house aesthetic. Sitwell’s later work may have fallen rather too often into grandiose pomposity but her early material has its own undeniable energy and appeal, perhaps coming as close as England managed to a native strain of Dadaism – or perhaps a development of the musical genre now known to adherents as Toytown Psychedelia four decades ahead of schedule. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine a 1967 English band in velvet jackets and frilly shirts performing many of these lyrics to the backwards tapes, fuzz guitars and distorted brass bands of the day: “The rooms are vast as sleep within:/When once I ventured in,/Chill silence, like a surging sea,/Slowly enveloped me” (‘Clowns’ Houses’).

Dylan Thomas: Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait

From: Dylan Thomas reading Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait (Caedmon, 1952)

Dylan Thomas was both an early protégé of Edith Sitwell’s and, in some respects, perhaps the indirect instigator of the boom in both public readings of poetry, and spoken word releases on vinyl LPs and 45s, during the 1950s and after. It was Thomas’s renown as a reader (as well as writer) of poetry that saw him endlessly touring the United States in his later years, and Caedmon’s phenomenally successful LP recordings (beginning in 1952, when two young American women, Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen, brought Thomas’ voice and the medium of vinyl together) became instrumental in showing a market for recordings of such readings existed. Some of these LPs, such as Thomas’s own readings of Under Milk Wood, or his seasonal story A Child’s Christmas in Wales, added at the last minute to his debut recording of five poems for the label, sold in great quantities. That’s probably less true of this far from obviously commercial single, recorded in New York in 1952, on which one of Thomas’ more oblique and knotted late poems is spread over both sides of the record. But if the meaning here is frequently obscure, the language and rhythms are sufficiently rich for a listener to treat the piece as an immersive rather than interpretative experience. Hearing Thomas’s deeply musical reading of such lines as “Sails drank the wind, and white as milk/ He sped into the drinking dark;/ The sun shipwrecked west on a pearl/ And the moon swam out of its hulk” is to allow the long-lined ballad stanzas driving the poem forward to wash through the mind like the sound of the ocean itself: “…nothing remains/Of the pacing, famous sea but its speech,/And into its talkative seven tombs/The anchor dives through the floors of a church”. As Marianne Roney noted in a 1999 interview, looking for an explanation of the success of her fledgling company’s Dylan Thomas recordings with the public, Thomas always “wrote to the thunder of his voice. His poems are inconceivable without that voice”. While it’s possible to hear other voices successfully reading at least some of Thomas’s work (Richard Burton’s performance in Under Milk Wood comes to mind) or appreciate Thomas’ thunderous tones applied to the works of others (notably Yeats and James Stephens, whose poems he often incorporated into his public readings) it’s certainly hard to imagine Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait being this successfully transmitted by any voice that is not Thomas’s own.

Louise Bennett: A Jamaican Alphabet

From: Childrens’ Jamaican Songs and Games Sung by Louise Bennett (Folkways, 1957)

Already well-known at the time of this record’s release as the editor of several anthologies of Jamaican folklore, dialect and stories, and as a newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster, Louise Bennett is often considered the most important figure in carrying the oral traditions of the Caribbean into the post-war evolution of a distinct written literature. While she could be biting and satirical as well as warm and witty in her own poems, with pieces such as ‘Colonisation in Reverse‘ and ‘Independence’ having enormous influence on the writing that developed in her wake, Bennett – always an enormously popular figure in Jamaica – was not widely acknowledged as a poet deserving of literary respect until the 1960s. Jamaica Alphabet is typical of her earlier output, in that a piece of folk poetry is redefined by Bennett’s sensibility, and her linguistic and rhythmic invention, releasing the oral into a written form:

A is fe Ackee Saltfish bes’ frien’
B is fe Bammy Banana an den
C is fe Cocoa, Coconut, Callalloo
D is fe Dumplin’ an Duckoonoo
E is fe Egg nourishin fe eat
F is fe Fu-fu when you lose yuh teeth…

Bennett’s other achievement, of course, was to marry the oral as performance with the new mediums of radio and recording, and it’s worth remembering that Jamaica Alphabet was released on the legendary Folkways label as part of a 10″ album of traditional songs and games in 1957, barely a decade after the SS Windrush had first docked at Tilbury. Its contents – doubtless somewhat exotic to English ears on its initial release – have since become so deeply woven into the fabric of British culture that Bennett’s voice now seems as familiar as Thomas Hardy’s or John Betjeman’s. As a precursor, pointing towards the future of English, and for her immense importance in shaping the spoken poetry and performance that flourished from the 1960s onwards, it’s probably not going too far to suggest that Bennett has been as energising and transformative an influence on the English language poetry of the twentieth century’s second half as T.S. Eliot was on that of the first.

Edward (Kamau) Brathwaite: Calypso

From: Rights of Passage by Edward Brathwaite (Argo, 1968)

As though taking positions on either side of Louise Bennett’s commitment to an oral literature, the two towering figures of Caribbean poetry since the 1960s have been Derek Walcott and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, but while Brathwaite was undoubtedly considered the senior figure during the 1960s and 70s, he has subsequently been eclipsed in Europe and America by Walcott’s ascent to Nobel status in recent decades. As a question of mere literary reputation, this shouldn’t much matter, but it’s the difference in approach between the two bodies of work that perhaps explains how the discrepancy arose. For while Walcott’s response to the poetic marginality of his St Lucia home was to occupy the traditional forms and models of European literature, Brathwaite’s to that of his native Barbados was seemingly to tear up that tradition and begin again, from the example of such Francophone poets as Aimé Cesaire and Nicolás Guillén. The 1967 publication of Rights of Passage, the first book in his first trilogy, sees modernist techniques interwoven with an English that shifts between standard form and the dialects of ‘Nation Language’. Brathwaite re-told the story of the migrations and disruptions of the Middle Passage in a form that echoed the collective experience described: in broken lines, fragments made coherent by a constantly changing rhythm. As Brathwaite himself stated in the sleeve notes to this recording, “the rhythms… convey a great deal of the meaning of the poem. The drum-like beats of its African beginning (‘Drum skin whip/ lash’) give way to the blues of the ‘slave’ section, which in turn develop into the boogie-woogie train rhythms of emancipation, the jazz phrases of urban ghetto life and the creole dialect speech rhythms of the peasant countryside”. For this reason (and not unlike Basil Bunting’s 1978 recording of Briggflats for Bloodaxe) what can seem difficult on paper comes into clear and accessible focus when heard aloud, with the musical structures foregrounded. Brathwaite’s impact on the younger generation of British and Caribbean poets who went on to develop dub poetry and other performance-based styles – Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson among them – has been undeniable and profound, but his less frequently noted effect on Walcott’s sense of scale in works like Another Life and Omeros probably shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Herbert Read: Exile’s Lament

From: Echoes of My Life by Herbert Read (Argo, 1967)

Released on the Argo record label to commemorate Read’s death in 1968 at the age of 75, the very English sensibility on display throughout Echoes of My Life seems at first glance as far removed from Brathwaite’s concerns in Rights of Passage as it’s possible to be. Yet listening to the two recordings together, it quickly becomes clear that both are concerned with roots and displacements, and Read – a Yorkshire-born poet, anarchist and art critic who first came to prominence with poems and diaries written in the aftermath of war service between 1915 and 1917 – had once described himself as a young man “cast into the frenzy of war with no better personal covering than the philosophy of Nietzsche,” suggesting that his own life had seen its own exiles and disruptions. In this recording, he moves back through his own experience in an effort to bridge the distance between his origins and later years, interspersing passages of prose autobiography from The Contrary Experience with selections and excerpts from the poems, and weaving his own voice with those of Peter Orr and Yvonne Bonnamy to describe a series of landscapes, and the resonances of these in his own sensibility. Read’s frequent sense of the impact of natural forces on an individual consciousness follows in the tradition of Coleridge, and perhaps anticipates Ted Hughes, as when he notes “A rising fish ripples the still waters/And disturbs my soul”, or observes a rook, that “if it should swerve in the sky/Will move the whole world momentously”. Despite his own poetry’s broadly conventional feel, that English Romantic ideal underlay Read’s promotion of Surrealism during the 1930s, and in the book he edited at the time of the 1936 International Exhibition in London, essays by Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Georges Hugnet and Hugh Sykes-Davies sketched out the connections between the French movement’s concerns and the longer traditions of Romanticism and political radicalism in England that Read felt made the movement a natural fit with this deep-rooted sensibility in his home culture. It is these interests, rather than his broader role as a polemicist, educational writer and public explicator of modern art, that informs this recording. As the poems move forward from ‘Childhood’ and back into the deeper history of a Saxon and early Christian England glimpsed in such poems as ‘The Ivy and the Ash’ and ‘Dirge’, the record ends with a conjunction of ‘Exile’s Lament’, a polyphony of voices in apparent conversation with Caedmon, the first Christian poet of England, and ‘Lines from Moon’s Farm’, in which the central symbol is a clock. In one passage, Read finds belonging in a village whose inn, to his delight, is named The Wings Of Liberty, and these homespun details combine with reminiscences on the ancient kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, and the thought, voiced by an exile, that we might live “for fifty years in successive states of illusion”, our best hope to believe “it is not too late for these illusions to be re-established”.

Joan Baez: The Magic Wood

From: Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, Sung and Spoken by Joan Baez (Vanguard, 1968)

This selection of spoken and sung pieces with settings – both musical and atmospheric – by Peter Shickele, also emerged in 1968, and while Baez’s concept presents itself as ‘a journey through our time’, the record draws mainly on older material to present its portrait of the political turbulence of its day. Works by Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, James Joyce, Countee Cullen, Wilfred Owen, William Blake and Norman Cameron’s translations of Arthur Rimbaud appear alongside Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s ‘Colours’, Norman Rosten’s ‘In Guernica’, Jacques Prevert’s ‘Song of the Blood’, Kenneth Rexroth’s ‘Poems from the Japanese’ and the anonymous lullaby ‘All The Pretty Horses’ in a surprisingly effective and considered meditation on war, love and idealism, allowing the many voices gathered into Baez’s own to create a deeper perspective on an age of slogans and easily-chosen sides. Perhaps the most surprising inclusions are three poems from the now largely forgotten 1940s Faber poetry collections of Henry Treece, whose ‘Old Welsh Song’, ‘Who Murdered The Minutes’ and ‘The Magic Wood’ each offer a fusion of the early WB Yeats’ elegant lyrical impulses and Dylan Thomas’s more extravagant linguistic compression. Baez’s version of ‘The Magic Wood’ is – like her setting of e.e. cummings’ ‘All in Green Went My Love Riding’ – a case of a poem written under the influence of folk song re-translated back into that tradition. In ‘The Magic Wood’ this creates not just a very fine setting of an unduly neglected poem but one of Baez’s own best performances, beautifully poised between the breathless innocence of her singing voice and Treece’s wonderfully nightmarish imagery:

I met a man with eyes of glass
And a finger curled as the wriggling worm,
And hair all red with rotting leaves,
And a stick that hissed like a summer snake.

The wood is full of shining eyes,
The wood is full of creeping feet,
The wood is full of tiny cries;
You must not go to the wood at night!

The Open Window: The Priests of the Raven of Dawn

From: The Open Window: Peter Shickele, Stanley Walden, Robert Dennis (Vanguard, 1969)

A very different proposition from Baez’s arranger Peter Shickele is this 1969 recording of a song built from two different William Blake poems, presenting the verses of ‘London’ intact but inserting a refrain from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ as a kind of chorus. The mood is set by repeated electric piano vamps and a doom-laden organ, creating an experience akin to an otherworldly progressive rock sermon. It’s superbly atmospheric, and delivers Blake’s extraordinary poetry – “In every cry of every man/ In every infant’s cry of fear,/ In every voice, in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” – without worrying about possible archaisms, and deploying its late sixties musical armoury with unusual sensitivity to the text’s own shifting moods. As Shickele’s sleeve-notes rightly emphasise, Blake’s ‘London’ may have been written in the 1790s “but there’s no need to update it, or to pretend that it’s not also about, say, New York”. As with the 1970s jazz settings of Blake’s poetry by Mike Westbrook and Michael Horovitz’s adoption of Blake as the figurehead of his late sixties anthology of performance-based poetry, Children of Albion, ‘The Priests of the Raven of Dawn’ offers a lesser-known piece of evidence in support of Blake’s currency in the underground culture of this time on both sides of the Atlantic.

BBC Drama Workshop with Ronald Duncan and David Cain: July

From: The Seasons. Poems by Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill, Radiophonic Music by David Cain (BBC, 1969)

As you’d expect from the national broadcasting body, responsible for most of the UK’s schools programming on radio and television for the better part of 70 years, the BBC archives are a rich seam of recordings in which pretty much every possible approach to presenting text in audio formats is tried out. From well known actors reading the works of Shakespeare and Wordsworth to specially commissioned scripts devised for radio by many of the post-war era’s best-known poets, perhaps the most fascinating today are the readings set to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s distinctive and hugely influential electronic sounds. On this 1969 recording, the Workshop’s David Cain creates abstract soundscapes for the poems of Ronald Duncan, who moves through each of the 12 months of the year in turn, and Derek Bowskill, who offers four poems on the four seasons, from Spring to Winter. For ‘March‘, Cain generates minimal rhythmic scales that seem to skip happily along, but periodically stumble on dry synthetic rustles, like feet dragging in leaves, as Duncan intones “The Earth is washing, who will wake her?/ Burn the brambles from the hedge./ Fire will rouse her/ Bring a scrubbing brush of ice/ Frost to soap her,/ Till the fingers of rain/ Fall and rinse her”. The effect is curiously disjunctive, as when the decayed folk-tunes of ‘May’ accompany imagery of a female-personified Earth going “in impudent loveliness/ To meet the wind’s wantonness:/ Wet leaves of vine, her lips;/Their kiss, the heather rose…”, or the stately but melancholy processional of ‘July’ evokes Duncan’s “Empress with an endless train”, followed by “white swans and modest little boats” whose “cortege goes/ Down to the indifferent sea”. Throughout, nature is powerfully evoked through sounds that are far removed from the natural. The vivid poems (“Like severed hands the wet leaves lie”, writes Duncan in ‘October‘; “Now night on all fours/ Crawls cautiously through the valley”, he adds for ‘November‘) are steeped in the neo-pagan imagery of fertility, death and resurrection, and set here to a sonically inventive palette of clicks, bleeps, rustles, whooshes and rhythmic patterns that will be familiar from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s other early productions. These – the work of composers like Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and John Baker – domesticated the alien sounds of electronic music into such familiar yet startling shapes as the Dr Who theme and the 1960s call signals of BBC Radio Nottingham and Sheffield. The sleeve-notes of this LP suggest that David Cain was responsible for a 1967 setting of Eliot’s The Waste Land that should also be well worth tracking down, if it still exists.*

[Note: Since first writing this, I had the opportunity to ask Cain himself about his Waste Land setting. It turned out this was never recorded, to his knowledge, and was made as an arrangement for a live performance.]

The Liverpool Scene: Winter Poem

From The Liverpool Scene: Bread on the Night (RCA, 1970)

When the Penguin Modern Poets series published its tenth volume, bringing together three young Liverpool poets, there might have been some calculation that poets from the Beatles’ home city might prove a popular choice, but probably few clues as to the mainstream best-seller status that followed. While the contributors continue to be spoken of together, as the Liverpool Poets, the three were all notably different, even in 1967, when The Mersey Sound first appeared. Brian Patten’s work displayed a stumbling but often likeable adolescent sincerity, Roger McGough’s updated older music hall and cabaret traditions, while Adrian Henri’s interests were more underground and bohemian, encompassing jazz, painting and literary modernism. McGough and Henri both moved into making records that travelled a long way from the idea of merely recording their own poems, and McGough’s trio The Scaffold (with John Gorman and Mike McGear) scored mainstream novelty hits like Lily The Pink alongside occasional pop-psychedelic curiosities, and they continued to work as a cabaret and recording act well into the 1970s. Henri’s The Liverpool Scene – an altogether more volatile outfit that also included the independent song-writing talent of Andy Roberts – is more varied in its blend of music and word, with Roberts’ grasp of folk, blues and jazz idioms meshed into Henri’s knowing (and often satirical) approach to the key bohemian tropes of his time. The version of Henri’s long poem ‘The Entry Of Christ Into Liverpool‘, based on a painting made in the early 1960s as a homage to James Ensor, unrolls against a backdrop of loose jazz, while the Henri-penned instrumental ‘Come Into The Perfumed Garden Maud’, with its Eastern scales and heavy improvisation, seems to anticipate such current cult bands as Voice of the Seven Woods and Six Organs of Admittance, demonstrating that Henri’s input was not always, or even predominantly, on the lyrical side. Even so, perhaps it’s his own ‘Winter Poem’, an effective mood-piece with atmospheric and minimal backings, that comes closest to the mood generated by David Cain, and it’s tempting to wonder if Henri had that BBC recording in mind when recording this track. The influence of the Liverpool Poets is often spoken of today in terms set largely by knowledge of McGough’s most accessible work, with its clear sentiments, gentle comedy and love of puns, but the recordings of The Liverpool Scene (alongside the best of Henri’s poetry, and such publications as Environments and Happenings, his 1974 study of installation and performance art) suggest that the phenomenon was both wider ranging and more attuned in significant ways to the traditions of modernism than is usually acknowledged, by either the advocates or detractors, who continue to debate the Liverpool Poets’ influence.

Edwin Morgan: The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

From: The Barrow Poets: Magic Egg (Argo, 1972)

A music and poetry aggregation who made records from around 1963 into the early 1970s, The Barrow Poets’ core members were William Bealby-Wright, Gerard Benson, Cicely Smith, Heather Black and Susan Baker. They began with a cabaret presenting a broad range of material, from Shakespeare, Walter de la Mare and Robert Graves to Ogden Nash and Jack Kerouac, and on later recordings for Harley Usill’s marvellously eccentric Argo label – such as Joker and Outpatients – added more material written by the poets and performers themselves, with music by Jim Parker, whose CV also includes work on John Betjeman’s recordings for the progressive rock-leaning Charisma label, of which more later. Magic Egg is billed as the group’s childrens’ LP, and the title track recasts an Assyrian legend as a song that shares some DNA with the material created by the noted folk musicians Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner for Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s Bagpuss in 1973. Elsewhere, though, the material covers Edwin Morgan’s noted sound poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, Miroslav Holub’s ‘How to Paint a Perfect Christmas’ and Adrian Mitchell’s version of the English ‘world turned upside down’ poem, ‘Nothing Mass Day’, alongside a variety of folk pieces such as ‘Tom Tit Tot’ and ‘The Turtle Dove’. The version of Edwin Morgan’s piece is especially strong, taking the witty print version of this entirely wordless poem and presenting it as a piece of anarchic vocalese full of gurgles, roars and other meaningless but evocative glossolalia, part childrens’ party piece, part distant cousin of the Dadaist experiments of Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball, as the monster herself surfaces, looks around, and – not liking what she sees – returns to the depths of Loch Ness.

Sir John Betjeman: The Licorice Fields at Pontefract

From: Sir John Betjeman: Late Flowering Love (Charisma, 1974)

Jim Parker adds his musical stylings to the familiar tones of the best-known post-war Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, on several recordings, with recordings like Banana Blush and this one, Late Flowering Love, picking up on the popularity of Betjeman’s films and documentaries with settings that sometimes create 1920s pastiches or summery string arrangements to frame his words, but occasionally offer something more sinister and interesting, as in the crawling bass-line that underscores ‘Late Flowering Lust’, Betjeman’s account of an old man’s vision of entwined skeletons as his speaker “runs his fingers down your dress/ With brandy-certain aim” and concludes, in the aftermath of reignited passion, that “Too long we let our bodies cling,/ We cannot hide disgust/ At all the thoughts that in us spring/ From this late-flowering lust.” In another piece here, ‘The Licorice Fields of Pontefract’, Parker adds the feel of a psychedelic brass band to the typically cosy voice that intones: “In the liquorice fields at Pontefract/ My love and I did meet/ And many a burdened liquorice bush/ Was blooming round our feet…”. Located somewhere between a downbeat take on ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ and the darker, more unsettling hallucinations being created by former Mr Fox member Bob Pegg on records like Ancient Maps around the same time, it’s a reminder that Betjeman could be a surprisingly strange poet at times, deploying his reassuring tones to slip all kinds of sex and death-obsessed peculiarity under the radar of his audience. No wonder Philip Larkin liked him.

Peter Redgrove: From the Reflections of Mr Glass

From: British Poets of Our Time: Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter (Argo, 1975)

Alongside its many releases of train-sounds LPs, Shakespeare plays, radio ballads by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and a wide-ranging series of ethnographic field recordings edited by Deben Bhattacharya, the Argo label also gave what looks like free rein to Peter Orr to compile a series of recordings of contemporary poets reading their own works. Besides Orr’s rightly renowned The Poet Speaks compilations, each featuring four or five poets, and widely used in schools, a separate strand of LPs was produced under the general heading British Poets of Our Time. These differed from the anthology approach of The Poet Speaks titles by devoting either a whole record to one author (as was done for Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and W.H.Auden) or – as was more common – splitting an LP between two contrasting or complementary voices. Intriguing connections were thus forged between Stevie Smith and Adrian Mitchell, Norman Nicholson and Tony Connor, and, as here, the urbanely witty early work of Peter Porter, already trailing the shadows that would deepen through the next decade, and the free-associative Cornish strangeness, with its unique strain of scientific romanticism, of Peter Redgrove. Both poets read on this LP without accompaniment of any kind, and do so very engagingly indeed, proving that, sometimes, the words themselves and the poets’ own voices are all that is necessary.

Dave Dallwitz Jazz Band: Patterns for Slatterns

From: Dave Dallwitz & His Jazz Band: Ern Malley Jazz Suite (Swaggie, 1975)

The story of Australia’s most notorious modern poet, a man who never existed, was told in fascinating detail by Michael Heyward’s 1993 book The Ern Malley Affair, in which Ern’s creation as a tool to discredit Australia’s nascent avant-garde by the conservative poets James McAuley and Howard Stewart while on active service in 1943 set in train a compellingly unlikely series of events and connections. Malley’s poetry and fictional back-story were embraced by the young Melbourne editor Max Harris, who published the works in his magazine Angry Penguins. Harris’ subsequent trial for obscenity over the publication of these poems, and the debates in court and elsewhere over their value, is all laid out in brilliantly entertaining detail by Heyward’s account, which also includes copies of all the letters, poems and collages faked up by McAuley and Stewart in Malley’s name. Far from an ordinary hoax, however, Malley’s invention left a legacy in which the fake collection of this fabricated poet, published under the title The Darkening Ecliptic, ended up becoming one of the iconic works of the Australian modernism it had been created to discredit and Malley passed into Australian culture as a folk-hero to rival Ned Kelly. Which is no doubt why more than thirty years after the original hoax and its attendant dramas had been played out, Australian band leader Dave Dallwitz felt inspired to create his Ern Malley Jazz Suite, setting selections from Malley’s cut and paste texts to 1930s style jazz music, intercutting songs based on such poems as ‘Culture as Exhibit’, ‘Boult to Marina’ and ‘Perspective Lovesong’ with instrumental passages evoking portraits of Max Harris, Sidney Nolan and Malley himself – whose best-known likeness was the painting of Nolan’s creation featured on the LP’s sleeve. The raucous jazz pastiches of the band’s music generate a synthetic feel that complements the texts well, and Penny Eames’ singing enunciates the absurd poetry of such lines as “And I must go with stone feet/ Down the staircase of flesh” (‘Sweet William’) with a deadpan brilliance that is hard to fault.

R.S. Thomas: Welsh Landscape

From: R.S. Thomas Reading his own Poems (Oriel Records, 1976)

In the drought summer of 1976, The Welsh Arts Council visited the home of R.S. Thomas with some basic recording equipment and taped his readings of around 40 poems, releasing the results on this LP, a fascinating back-to-basics project that frames Thomas’s sometimes odd lineation on the page in the brittle, old-fashioned voice (not unlike Eliot’s, and the opposite of Dylan Thomas’s thunderous delivery) that helps to make sense of his signature poetic techniques. Side one covers material from his work between 1946 and 1968, and includes such poems as ‘A Peasant’ and ‘Walter Llywarch’, while side two divides equally between his two early 1970s books H’m and Laboratories of the Spirit, poems that seem marginally less bleak only because they encompass a more mythic dimension than the earlier work. Despite the poems’ focus on human suffering at the hands of an arbitrary universe and its largely absent creator, their angular music and Thomas’s ability to create compelling, often beautiful, images from his bleak material gives the effect of a hard-won transcendence; the Crucifixion is “love in a dark crown/ Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree/ Golden with fruit of a man’s body” (‘In a Country Church’), while for all the general despairing tone of ‘Welsh Landscape’, the vivid “spilled blood/ That went into the making of the wild sky” and half-comic dismissal of the past (“Brittle with relics,/ Wind-bitten towers and castles/ With sham ghosts”) ensure that however disconsolate the words may be, their grounding in the passing beauties of the world, even (perhaps especially) at its least picturesque, ensures there’s an ultimate sense that life might, in the end, mean something after all.

Cecil Rajendra: The Animal and Insects Act

From: An Evening of International Poetry (Alliance Records, 1982)

By the early 1980s, the shape of what was already becoming a distinct spoken word and performance poetry scene was well established, and one of its key strands is given a showcase on this double album presenting a rising generation of African, Caribbean and Asian poets, many with roots on the page, but all equally interested in the possibilities for immediate communication with audiences offered by performance. Recorded live at Camden Town Hall in March 1982, it’s a snapshot of an historic moment, sandwiched between the punishing recession and inner-city riots that greeted the early years of Conservative government and the launch of the Falklands War that year, widely believed to have saved Margaret Thatcher from electoral defeat in 1983. Edward Kamau Brathwaite is the senior figure, lending his considerable weight and sense of history to the evening with a reading of ‘For The Third World’, and (perhaps not surprising, given the event’s links to 1982’s First International Fair of Black and Third World Books, the brainchild of John La Rose) the concerns of many – though not all – contributors are political in nature and subject. James Berry writes from the perspective of a ‘Black Man On Trial in London’, E.A. Markham presents a woman transferring her anger into bread making in ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Bread’, Linton Kwesi Johnson performs ‘Di Great Insohrekshan‘, his definitive poem on the Brixton riots, and John Agard offers observations on the attitudes revealed by ‘Graffiti in a British Rail Waiting Room’. Jack Mapanje’s quirky perspective in ‘Travelling on London Tubes’, Valerie Bloom’s comic ‘Recommendation’ and the absurdist legal satire of Cecil Rajendra’s ‘The Animal and Insects Act’ ensure the tone is varied, taking in voices from India, Cuba and Africa as well as the Caribbean. Some of the material is of its day, but much still has a clear resonance: in hindsight it’s easy to see that these voices were transforming English speech, and the poetry written in it, in ways that are still very much with us.

Marie Osmond: Karawane

From: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, by Greil Marcus (Rough Trade, 1993)

Punk’s relationship to poetry is usually defined by the stick-thin figure of John Cooper Clarke, and in his early recordings (notably his adaptation of a 1940s barrack-room ballad into the mordantly funny, expletive-laden ‘Chickentown‘ and his bleak portrait of the more desolate corners of England in the late 70s and early 80s, ‘Beasley Street‘) Clarke set an example of accessible, sweary rhyming that bred a legion of imitators, and his approach is still used as a template by many contemporary spoken word artists; pretty much any open-mic night in the country will bring a few verbal stylings directly traceable to Cooper Clarke into plain view. Yet while this side of punk created its own form of alternative cabaret, Greil Marcus’s 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century proposed a different lineage, with its roots in a very different kind of cabaret: the Cabaret Voltaire, established in Zurich during the first world war, and the starting point of Dada as a movement in art, literature, politics and design. His book generated sufficient interest for this 1993 ‘soundtrack’ to be released by Rough Trade, pushing raw punk demos by The Slits, Liliput, The Raincoats and Buzzcocks into the same lineage as The Orioles’ 1948 doo-wop hit ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’, Benny Spellman’s 1962 recording of ‘Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)’ and Bascam Lamar Lunsford’s 1928 take on the Appalachian ballad ‘I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground’. Threaded between these more conventional tracks are such works as Raoul Haussmann’s ‘phoneme bbbb’ and Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck’s ‘L’Amiral cherche une maison a louer’, examples of sound and nonsense poetry made in the years between 1916 and 1918, and in Marcus’s view the founding documents of what came to be known as punk during 1976. Perhaps the most intriguing piece featured is a version of Hugo Ball’s ‘Karawane’ performed by the clean-cut Mormon pop-star Marie Osmond, recorded for an episode of the American TV series Ripley’s Believe it or Not in 1984. There’s a certain logic to the incongruity here; just as punk became cabaret during the 1980s, and it transpired, anyway, that the Sex Pistols’ sole LP had drawn heavily on the session bass playing of Chris Spedding (previously a member of Mike Batt’s bubblegum children’s TV cash-in group The Wombles) so it seems strangely fitting that an Osmond, of all people, might create her own fleeting moment of cultural insurrection.

The cultural confusion her recital creates seems a fitting place to close the story, for now. By the early 1990s, of course, the vinyl LP had already largely ceased to be the format for spoken word recordings, replaced by cassette and CD audio books, and those in turn are now being pushed to the margins by podcasts, downloads and online streaming video formats. As the formats continue to mutate the one sure thing is that the story outlined here continues, and poetry will keep finding outlets far beyond the traditional confines of the printed page, even as the book itself – one of the most resourceful technologies yet created – continues to hold its own.