Poetry has long since come to be a chancy term, conveying radically different meanings to different people-from the hopelessly ignorant who expect it to rhyme, to the resolutely ultra-refined who insist that it be stripped of emotion and meaning. Between those poles dances a vast array of streams, strands, traditions, schools, approaches, and styles, the various adherents of which are sometimes not on speaking terms (figuratively and literally). One man's metre is another man's poison.
Two far-from-mainstream types of poetry are represented in three recent titles from Coach House Books (the little lit-press that could, now in its third reincarnation). The two modes are Surrealism, which has been around since the early twentieth century, and language poetry, whose history spans a mere twenty years or so. The general reader is apt to have encountered the former, or at least know the names of some principal practitioners, such as Apollinaire, Breton, and Artaud; the latter remains pretty much the preserve of a specialist cadre (some might say coterie), though the movement finds at least some of its roots in Gertrude Stein (some might still say coterie).
Let's give the general reader a fighting chance here, and start with the relatively familiar stuff.
Gary Barwin has been honing his Surrealist skills for over ten years in pamphlets and one-pagers issued through his Serif of Nottingham micro-press. Three trade-press publications-the recent Big Red Baby, 1995's Cruelty to Fabulous Animals, and The Mud Game (with Stuart Ross)-and one literary prize-the 1998 Emerging Artists Award for Writing-have upped his profile. Outside the Hat is a good way of getting inside Barwin's head, which is a weirdly stimulating place to be, with suddenly shifting frames of reference and proliferating twists and turns of image and event. Titles like "How I Became My Father's Hat" and "The Sunset Rides a Greasy Horse" indicate that we're in for a slippery ride. However sharp the mental curves he engineers and however fast he takes them, Barwin keeps his wheels on the road-or else sprouts wings to leave it. Humour's a special strength ("Haiku Night in Canada" contains this stanza: "Gretzky writes poem: / across the blue line the moon / like a puck, wayning"), but the marvel is that Barwin manages to extract from his store of wayward fancy such varied moods and delicacy of feeling.
Feeling of any kind, whether delicate or coarse, refined or raw, is not the concern of language poetry, the category into which Stephen Cain's Dyslexicon and Alan Halsey and Karen Mac Cormack's Fit to Print fall. The label derives from the name of a 1970s U.S. litmag, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, where the movement developed, and of which the title isn't spelling out the word, but declaring that "L equals A equals N," etc. For purposes of reference, the equals signs were dropped and the capitals shrank and so we have language poetry, voluminously based in linguistic and sociopolitical theory too complex to summarize here (or possibly anywhere). Challenging conventional assumptions not just about poetry but about language itself, this type of writing, disruptive and subversive, is undeniably an acquired taste, definitely not for those unwilling to relinquish-at least temporarily-the notion of language as functional and informational.
A central belief of language poets is that the poem should be not a vehicle for expressing ideas and feelings, but a field of verbal objects on the page. These verbal objects have no deeper truth or meaning beyond the surface of the words, which are organized for sound and other aesthetic considerations, rather than for any intended sense. It is held that any intended sense is inherent in words and will emerge regardless, through the reader's creative interaction with the text. Thus Karen Mac Cormack offers this, from her "Crytic, Ptoo" ("Too Cryptic"?) in Fit to Print:
despaired impounded sitters
traces resettle yeti
osculate abalone exams
tapioca feeds idle threat
flagpoles enjoyable organist
She employs a similar device on the larger scale of phrases and clauses in "Pan Horoscope", which (whether she wants it to or not) conveys the sense of a saccadic reading of a horoscope column: "Financial pressures An employment Expect to You look An objective . if forward may seem to take a morning beyond so-called bargains ." and so on. Fit to Print intersperses poems by Mac Cormack with ones by British poet Alan Halsey, who's light touch is exemplified by his reworking of Gertrude Stein's classic "I am I because my little dog knows me" to "Who am I if my little dog Spot's called Stip in Welsh?"
A principal but not exclusive feature of Fit to Print is the appropriation by both poets of newspaper text (hence the title), by which text is wrenched from context, fragmented, and floated in an atmosphere of often promiscuous conjunction. As capricious or facile as it may seem at first glance, it is not easy to do well, and requires a heightened sensitivity to words and their associative resonances, as well as to the nature and history of the language (and even of language itself). These two much-published poets are fully qualified and equal to the task.
Also qualified, but far less published, is Stephen Cain, who debuts with Dyslexicon, puzzlingly designed in flip-chart form and with a second colophon page printed mirror-image. Well, if the poetry's not meant to mean, why should the design? Dyslexicon, much of which works best read aloud, reveals Cain to be an accomplished verbal collagist, making a virtue of inanity in a realm where the non sequitur rules. He makes much of the misheard, as in "Haydn intersection", where, if you don't catch the fact that it's based on "hidden intersection", you perhaps run the risk of being hit by an accelerating car (or should that be "hate by an exhilarating care"?). Cain's play with the visual and sonic aspects of words sometimes turns on the difference one letter can make, as in the syntactically balanced and trippingly rhythmic "torque is cool when toque provides warmth". His puns are often perceptions of words as double(or more)-hinged doors swinging in different directions, either written the same and sounding differently (in "Winter winds through the building", "winds" is either a plural noun, a singular verb, or both) or written differently and sounding the same ("Rain rein reign"). There's no denying that Cain's writing is meant to be worked at and played with. As with the other books considered here, if you're looking to have your mental applecart upset at every turn and your perceptions consistently thrown into doubt, you've found your way to the right part of the poetry spectrum.
Paul Dutton has published five books of poetry. Some of his work has been mistaken for language poetry.