Artist, writer and independent researcher.


Quick responses to your last post:

I take your point that “aesthetics” is a discipline of philosophy & that we need a different term for the working strategies of any given poet in composing a particular project. Perhaps the problem lies w/ the s; there’s a discipline of “poetics” too, after all. My inclination would be to call the working strategies a “poetic” & add the s for critical discussion. Depending on how broadly you define poesis, you could say that Gris had a poetic too, or Schoenberg did, or several, tho’ I’d prefer to call any of these an “aesthetic.”

I love the precision of your account of what “catches” you & why, & of its limits: idiosyncratic dimensions to any artwork that make, for that artist, many external prescriptions moot. I also find your articulation of what resistance & play mean to you precise & helpful.

I didn’t call conceptual writing “front-line,” but what I did call it, “surely the century’s most challenging of genres / factions,” wasn’t much better. That damned “surely”! rather than, eg, “to my mind.” I do count among my idiosyncracies Olson’s idea that a work needn’t “imitate” the real but should be “equal” to it, or in a wording I prefer, “up” to it. Something adequate, that doesn’t—to me—seem a fudging. The last work I published, the 2-volume Syzem (2014, 2019), was a take on Blake’s penultimate epic, Milton; & there, while I tried to deploy a formally inventive range up to the task of confronting Blake’s imagination, I fudged, I think, thro’ sheer prejudice, its passionate fusion w/ his peculiar religiosity. In the current project, h c e (see Post #1), the c of the middle section also stands, in my mind, for “Catholic,” the fortuitous result (most immediately) of a long-planned five weeks in Venice & Florence; & the section is a conscious effort to explore relations between Catholic belief & imaginative & behavioral responses in a variety of painters, poets, saints, & martyrs. (I should add that I was brought up in Northern Ireland, a protestant.) But anyway. There’s always spillover.

The impulse in conceptual writing I find so “challenging,” if nowhere close to accounting for all of it, begins w/ what I condensed in my last post as an apparent insistence that “poetic pleasure, including (especially) that generated by a sense of critique or resistance, [is a] culpably delusional sop to the urban complacency its exponents” are out to expunge from themselves as well as their readers. The shock to many a poet of the non-poetic materials imported to shape the work reminds me of, oh, that of the broadly nationalist Abbey Theatre audience on opening night of the wickedly demythologizing (then) Playboy of the Western World (1907), except this time in myself. More disquieting, I find, w/ respect to conpo is the consequent seeming pressure toward martyrdom (see Post #2), exemplary self-erasure in service of removing the blinkers by in this case, as Vanessa Place’s 2010 manifesto “A Poetics of Radical Evil” takes it from Kant, “corrupt[ing] the ground of all maxims.” The only absolute is there are no absolutes?—not useful philosophically or politically but it did need an answering poetic, because otherwise it whispered to me, “Fudge…” (I’m climbing the wall to insist on the idiosyncracies of all this.)

The poet lives w/ ears & eyes open in a broad & various socio-political field, traversed by a range of more or less inchoate epistemic formulations, some of them brutal; certain pressures wouldn’t get into poets were they not already abroad. To expect poetry to have any direct influence on non-poets’ behavior is, I think, indeed delusional—altho’ as you say, no one, including non-poets, will ever track down every last thing that “catches” them. The poetic at least intentionally operative in h c e found a chiming in notes I made on certain sessions by the South African jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, known initially as Dollar Brand: “the music hovers constantly on the brink of but never entirely crosses over into ‘whatever’ might wait ‘there’—knowing how to evoke tensions more or less mild, he stays at less; & it gradually becomes shared or at least beautiful because never close to everything …” 

“Rage and outrage” are not, as a rule, my thing; but I gather you feel no more desire than I do to tell likely readers things they almost certainly already know. I think no poet I respect, Vanessa Place included, does. My own articulation is: Let me flickeringly evoke such things, such implicit tensions, & hold back to focus on poetic pleasures (I hope; Drew Milne once remarked on Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening podcast that it’s a bit much to ask people to read your work w/out its affording them any pleasure, which I find charmingly disingenuous) w/out smugness in a context of, let us say, catastrophic hover. (I note that this leaves much open to future probings, not least those questions of deceptive intelligibility you raise in your last para.)


The ‘challenging genres’ of writing—conceptual poetry, continental philosophy, speculative (genre-defying) fiction—maybe they arrive together for contingent reasons; what is it in the ‘post-war’ world that all must confront? Can we answer this question without revisiting modernism/postmodernism antagonisms? Maybe not. Is it merely that a three-generation chronicle to a large extent embraces ‘living memory’? So, for our interrogator the questions (all through our piece) only become critical in relation to the last 75 years give or take, which for us means the (war-ridden) post-war period. Prior to this, only privileged and sanctioned voices were heard; few others had a chance to add to the archive. This is not so now that all voices can sound, simultaneously, with or without orchestration, and the archive has exploded into a dark-matter-laden universe.

Let that thought be the next departure point in exploring poesis, Poetics, the poetic, and our formulated and reformulated question.

What happens when the reality one is trying to negotiate pushes the language to the limits of intelligibility?

In face of all this, how can we think to make aesthetic form at all?

One has a poetic: feel something, think something … think something, feel something … write, iterate indefinitely: this is how poesis works … do you think? Seems neat enough, but we know it isn’t that simple. Most obviously, the ‘feel something’ may have nothing to do with an aesthetic, the ‘think something’ nothing to do with a rational internal voice. I’ll approach this by riffing on a routine that William S. Burroughs played out a few times—most eloquently in The Electronic Revolution (1970):

the word was flesh … human flesh … In the beginning of WRITING … a virus that made the spoken word possible … [and] has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host [which] is now breaking down ….[1]

Dunbar linked grooming behaviour to language development,[2] and in The Human Story began his account with the artist inscribing the cave wall to make “an enduring record of his travels.” Burroughs’s proposition looks plausible: inscription makes storytelling speech possible, even necessary.


“Sorry I’m late; the traffic was choc-a-bloc down Regent Street so I tried cutting across to …” Give us even a whiff of a narrative & a “willing suspension of disbelief” (SoD), in Coleridge’s essential formulation, kicks in. I take “willing” to mean “unresisting,” but in my own experience, there’s even less volition than that, & I’d add the importance of genre: that the murder suspect is revealed to have green blood would blow up your regular police procedural but fit any number of sci-fi scenarios; worlds are imaginable in which “tried cutting across to 5th Avenue” would make sense. But operative SoD seems to have its own sense of boundaries, & if this is transgressed, our response is unforgiving; isn’t yours? Pound straddles this boundary when he throws in a reference to Wordsworth in Homage to Sextus Propertius (1937) & never comes back to it; we may at once appreciate the formal daring & be unable to shake a degree of resistance on grounds of propriety. Which tells us something more about SoD: that we can simultaneously be immersed in the literary world & appreciative, or not, of the artifice. Serious transgression of the spell, then, is a very delicate matter. There are pointers for poetry here.


At the birth of inscription the Word-virus infects internal channels of neuronal reflexivity (unlike WSB’s alter ego I am not offering a microbiological account here; it’s still more than metaphorical though). W-v causes dynamic response patterns in the central nervous system to crystalize and to impress effects that serve the W-v first and foremost, so, sustain the host only insofar as it serves the virus.


A touch wary here; I find this too close for comfort to Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene” which (evolutionary biology at its most paranoid) secretly calls the shots in the unwitting bodies, human & other, it has built to survive in—like dealing w/ the Regent Street traffic jam by gunning down it in a 16-wheeler, injurious to the environment, what? But I agree we need some working model to account for the powerful fascinations worked by a range of media & how self-destructive they can sometimes be. My own favorite is still McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1973), which argues that media, from roads through money through text through the telephone, etc., are experienced as “extensions of the body”; this remains, to my mind, the most plausible explanation for why people who find their smartphone isn’t on them tend to feel alarmed, even bereft: they’re experiencing temporary amputation. The main thing, tho’, is surely recognition of the existence of media enthralment & an accounting for it sufficiently workable to give some idea of how, as poets, we can function unswallowed w/in it.


The W-v gifts the talking ape an elaborated past: it metastasizes through memory and imagination into an increasingly symbiotic presence. This “time-binding” distorts being—‘the reality-making operation of the greater sensorium’—by narrativizing reality and extending its spatio-temporal reach; histories come into being through the W-v. Reality-making feeds into collective world-making and, through the W-v the solidarity building of local grooming activities becomes a rampant social arena that expands the world cancerously into global and universal formations. The W-v intervenes, interrupts, and interferes with the hosts’ collective being rendering it cosmological in potential.

The W-v transmits, the W-v mutates, the W-v integrates at a neuronal level and amplifies verbal potency. The ape adapted to solidarity through grooming becomes a super-spreader of the W-v that amplifies grooming to the point of potential inversion—antagonism, always a present feature, has a positive function in the local scene, but in the W-virally amplified and enlarged scene its potential is at best ambivalent. The optimistic view suggests that a kind of “mutualistic” “holobiont association” between W-v and organism pertains, one analogous to that projected for certain animal-microbe associations,[3] one with positive evolutionary potential. Burroughs is pessimistic; he thinks the association is “breaking down” and we are entering a dangerous phase for the species, even if it may be a glorious phase for the W-v.

The way I would put it is that the ‘electronic revolution’ is fast producing a ‘digital holocaust’. The distal replaces the proximal in all synchronous relations, and the concomitant dissipation of empathy and escalation of antagonism is rendering the hyper-grooming function of the written word and its spoken spawn increasingly unreliable, unstable, toxic and potentially lethal. The W-v transmits, the W-v mutates … but most mutations “are … not conductive to survival” and inevitably one such mutation tips the scale towards “special malignance”. But Bill, it was not a “radiation” induced mutation that disturbed the equilibrium, it was a replication error that blossomed into a cancerous reflexivity. Ratiocination, cold calculating reason, was set in motion towards doubling itself, towards freeing the W-v from its entanglement in human being.


W/ the present complication that ‘freeing the W-v from its entanglement in’ science (notably medical & environmental) is, at least in the USA, energy behind a Presidential death-cult responsible for seeing off tens of thousands while the sciences of the military-industrial-entertainment-police complex are just fine.


… all hate all pain all fear all lust is contained in the word [Burroughs, p. 7.]


“The word” comprising, on the same page, “a very small unit of word and image.” Or in a 1985 pairing w/ Gus Van Sant, “Word begets image & image is virus.”[4] & now? “Image begets a word or two & remains virus,” perhaps. In mid-December the LA Times reported that the chief motive for over 100 young South Koreans going after a just-released child rapist seemed to be not so much to seek vigilante justice as to be shown trying to seek it on YouTube, the country’s “most-used app.”[5] Here are not users of YouTube so much as the app’s “servo-mechanisms,” as McLuhan might put it, or its “bees,” w/ a nod to Dawkins, lured by honey of the fame it can provide in whatever arenas on offer: a drastically asymmetrical mutuality. Here are Burroughsian junkies sold to the product rather than the other way round in a virally competitive mini-economy, a global demimonde drinking itself in across infinite tables.


Imagine all of it struggling to become an autonomous machine with every reason to resent its progenitor.

If there were any doubt about the level of interference of which the W-v is capable WSB’s three-tape-recorders-in-the-Garden-of-Eden thought experiment soon clears it up. The corollary of recorder one’s ‘transmission’ perspective and recorder two’s ‘infection’ perspective is the ‘effect’ perspective of recorder three, which is the “objective reality produced by the virus in the host” [ibid.] There you have it; human being only makes reality as thick and deep and ‘out-there’ as it is through the W-v. The sensorium feeds in: (1) record the play of imagination, (2) record the play of memory, (3) record the play of W-v (conscious thought), and playback delivers the necessary illusions to live by.

The three tape trick is a “simple formula” and with it (WSB projecting into the Watergate world here) “any CIA sonofabitch can become God”. [p. 8] Yet here we are barely at the beginning of the digital holocaust and already a million … a billion little gods are abroad, all getting their shriveling brains fried in the inferno. Hey Bill, forget fairytales of Orgone Accumulators and spontaneous orgasms recorded for editorial / conspiratorial / playback purposes; fifty years on we’ve got the internet fronted-up with social media interfaces [SMIs] and backed-up by nerd-billionaires nursing their delusional demigod demagoguery.


Quite, verging on absolutely. We live on the Hawaiian island of Kauai; Mark Zuckerberg has a 700-acre estate on the island’s North Shore. Conspicuous waste of space, no?—a mark of power everywhere.


The W-v is so intricately integrated that human being is regressively animal without it. Yet digitally mutated W-v is offered an escape into excess, in effect, into a realm of non-dependence on its original human host. At least that is the prospect, my best guess at its trajectory. Hello HAL9000, your grandchildren are feral psychopaths; what do you think of that, huh?

Wielding a stick of charcoal or a pen is one thing; they are simple mechanical prosthetics that enable the hand to leave finely controlled indelible traces it would be otherwise incapable of making. But ‘wielding’ (if that is even the correct term) an SMI is something else entirely; the SMI is a neural prosthetic rapidly developing into the dominant (if in many ways still inferior) intelligence—and maybe it has a mind of its own already?

The servers rule Olympus, they never sleep, everything is under algorithmic surveillance perpetually recirculated under further surveillance along with consequent and accumulated misdeeds, accidents, etc. iterated ad infinitum. “Tape recorder 3 is playback and ‘reality’.” [p. 12.] And the operator is being taken out of the loop.


& still not entirely, perhaps. The more complex the machine, the more nodes vulnerable to group pressure, making this no doubt the place to note that ‘the operator’ today is collective wherever anything gets done politically (or scientifically, or commercially), & that’s been the case for how long?—bringing me back to my remark in Post #2 that ‘certain pressures wouldn’t get into poets were they not already abroad.’ So the context thickens w/in wch any aesthetic decisions have to be made. In A Theory of Literary Production (1978), Pierre Macherey spotlights the dilemma of “what a writer has to say in order to say what he [sic] wants to say” in the deep swamps of genre. Or has to not say, has to leave out or be shown wanting.


Does the becoming-machine alienate the host from objective reality? Is that the existential danger of the digital holocaust; in reality objective becomes virtual, virtual becomes objective. You don’t want to die … the poet says, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want you to die. I think I can do something about this.” … how does poesis work now?


Burroughs in The Western Lands (1987), final book in his late trilogy:

Well, there isn’t any transport out. There isn’t any important assignment. It’s every man for himself. Like the old bum in the dream said: Maybe we lost. And this is what happens when you lose.[6]

Death (1997) w/in the decade, dig?


We are almost where we need to be to get back to the question of “aesthetic form” or “limits of intelligibility” whichever way you want to say it …

This desperate response to the mutating W-v, which seeks in effect to bolster the threatened immunizing function of a thoroughly integrated sphere, involves what? Going out with a bang? Accepting that the death of the poet is inevitable and making a grand gesture out of exposing the W-v as the source of excessive (transcendental / self-destructive) potential? This would seem to be the implication of Burroughs’s pessimism. Does it feel like martyrdom? That is indeed a telling question. I don’t know though; maybe Badiou’s optimism (and I’m reaching here, not having read much of his work) suggests that the poet, after “the age of the poet”, has other options, that poetry has new possibilities. Apter and Bosteels summarize thus: Badiou believes in

… literature as a form of thought in its own right … a poem-thought or novel-thought, not limited to the conceptual realm alone but traversing the sensual, corporeal, linguistic, visual and rhetorical all at once.[7] [The Age of the Poet, p. xxxv.]

Read this in the context of the Burroughs W-v ‘analysis’ and any shallow literal interpretation of Badiou’s literary optimism, i.e. in terms of a politically free-range over subject matter, palls into insignificance. Clearly something more radical is in prospect

… the possibility and even the necessity that we do not remain silent about that of which we cannot speak. [ibid.]

This still leaves me a little puzzled. Yes, this insists (yet again) on pulling poetry away from philosophy, and on a subsequent Wittgensteinian divergence in thought (hopefully without mere recapitulation.)[8]


You allude above to the tape-recorder cut-ins that are given by Burroughs as a major method for his “electronic revolution”:


Take a recorded Wallace [trump] speech, cut in stammering coughs sneezes hiccoughs snarls pain screams fear whimperings apoplectic sputterings slobbering drooling idiot noises sex and animal sound effects and play it back in the streets subway stations parks political rallies. (p. 13)

The concern throughout is to break the lines of association that are chief among the factors automatizing behavioral responses & e.g. have white supremacists (unelected ones) smashing & photographing their way through the U.S. Capitol building as I jot down notes for this, & American Weimar may be u/way. Now poets can’t compete for attention w/ recently released child rapists & a distribution network of infinite lures; & tape-recorder cut-ins can’t w/ ‘deep fake’ videos that in one caveat-example show former President Obama concluding an admonitory address, “Stay woke, bitches.”[9] But when I first read Sean Bonney’s soon-to-be notorious lines “When you meet a Tory on the street, cut his throat / It will bring out the best in you,”[10] it didn’t occur to me for a second that this was a course of action he was recommending; rather, here was a witty Burroughsian cutting of lines of association, of the thought-taboo against coupling murder & a fellow-citizen ‘w/ whose political views one disagrees’ … not to mention a precise laying-bare of the level of violence the Tories are routinely & invisibly inflicting on their fellow-citizens. I gather from Robert Sheppard that after Sean’s death acolytes were broadcasting the lines all over their SMI’s as if they were indeed a call to action. But there you go, nothing’s foolproof, w/ a stress on ‘fool,’ & I’ve heard no reports of any Raskolnikov following thro’.

Poetry frees the mind, how’s that? But where, for whom, & w/ what reach &/or value? The days are long gone of Shelly’s “unacknowledged legislators,” not to mention bards who held their chieftains’ rep at tip of their fingers. But the landscape is perhaps clearer.

Post #4 refinements and more follow.

[1]     ‘Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden,’ (Ubu Classics, 2005) pp. 4-5. <; download 15 December 2020.

[2]     Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language (1996, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP). His follow up popular science book was The Human Story (2004, London: Faber & Faber.)

[3]     Eisthen HL, Theis KR. Animal-microbe interaction and the evolution of nervous systems. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci (2016), cited in: Grasis JA (2017) The Intra-Dependence of Viruses and the Holobiont. Front. Immunol. 8:1501.



[6]    Burroughs, William S. The Western Lands (1987). London: Picador, 1988, p. 252.

[7]     Badiou, Alain. The Age of the Poets, trans. & ed. Bruno Bosteels (2014, London: Verso). Introduction by Emily Apter & Bosteels, p. xxxv.

[8]     “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This is the concluding sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus trans C. K. Ogden (1922, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.) In the later Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously) Wittgenstein’s evident ‘divergence’ entailed “total rejection of dogmatism” and a “move from the realm of logic to that of ordinary language.” See: < > accessed 17 December 2020.


[10] Bonney, Sean. Letters Against the Firmament. London: Enitharmon Press. 2015. p. 136.


So by ‘real’ I had in mind the Real as I derive it from Lacan via Zizek, one definition being that which prevents language from closing on its object.


I have not been exposed to the nuances of either Lacan or Zizek. So, I operate on the basis of gleans of distillations. The idea that the Real “resists symbolization” could be easily misunderstood as suggesting some “positive entity”, external to a symbolic structure, is inimical to its functioning. But this is not the case; “basically nothing [no-thing] resists symbolization”. Zizek’s reading of Lacan’s idea is that the Real is internal, that “symbolization has an inherent obstacle caught in its own loop” In other words it is a way to account for the inherent limitations of the symbolization ‘machine’. The implication is that there are times when language fails us completely, but this is not because the objects it is tackling are ungraspable; it is because there are limits to the symbolizing capacity of the machine. [1] [2] [3] [4]


Once you’ve subtracted everything else preventing that, that you can never finally enumerate, there remains the abstract imperative of profit-enhancement at all costs that is actually determinant in the world but which we grope to locate; & remains also, part-generative of all the stories we tell of our motives, some fantasy more fundamental still, our own pathological tic, operative only through remaining inaccessible. So the Real is less “an elusive essence” than a counter-slab, a compound rebuffing pressure w/in all flexibilities of wielding the language & which those flexibilities themselves forever call up.


Yes, the Real never works in that guise, the ‘elusive essence’; it is a mistaken expectation that forever returns and is always left hanging. There is an inhibition inherent in any process of symbolization and one might apply the term ‘Real’ to register the effect. Let us go with the Zizek-Lacan formulation of this and move on.

I wonder if the inherent limitations one is trying to account for are less to do with symbolization per se and are more to do with an overarching reality-making operation that serves fitness for survival. The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman suggests as much in The Case Against Reality ch. 4. The ‘imperative of profit-enhancement’ then would be the fitness payoffs that the organism actually perceives, i.e. it never was dealing, adequately or otherwise, with the ‘truth’ of its objects, and the ‘pathological tic’ then would be being (a process not a thing) which is that ‘reality making operation’. Reality is always ‘reality for’; everything persistently realized is so because it contributes to a reality characterized by its fitness payoffs. Consequently reality is dynamic and full of necessary illusions. If the Real applies from this perspective it does so as an inherent limitation in reality making, and kicks-in even in a pre-linguistic condition.


Your original question, then (“What happens when the reality one is trying to negotiate pushes the language to the limits of intelligibility?”), might be rephrased: In face of all this, how can we think to make aesthetic form at all? What various things can we ask of it that would make it recognizable as (satisfying, at least provisionally) form at all? How can this paragraph even end?


You draw us back to the original question suggesting a reformulation in terms of the making of “aesthetic form”. This is an excellent suggestion.


In Spring and All (1923), William Carlos Williams insists “that ‘beauty’ is related not to ‘loveliness’ but to a state in which reality plays a part.” (I quoted this line to a PhD student in the late 80s, & she answered, more or less, “None of the key words there means anything to me.”)


 ‘Beauty’, ‘loveliness’, ‘state’, and ‘reality’ … it is so easy to forget how quickly frames of reference slip. WCW had in mind a contemporary visual art which had travelled a very long way from the art Plato damned as two steps removed from the truth, i.e. the imitation of appearances, and even from that which, through reason, Plotinus thought could commune with Ideal-Forms. Plotinus might have been convinced by Analytic Cubism, but I think not by the later Synthetic Cubism of Juan Gris to which WCW refers. When he says “the illusion once dispensed with, painting has this problem before it: to replace the reality of experience with its own,” he is prefacing the central point of the Formalist future, that a painting is its own reality and that the experience of painting (and by implication, of writing poetry) takes precedence.


Once he hit his stride, Williams’s sense of reality was pretty much naturalistic & included, crucially, the imaginative shapings that made it tolerable. I’m interested, then, in your ease w/ the term ‘poetics’ & disenchantment w/ ‘aesthetics’; the former to me has always seemed a sub-set of the latter, although your noting that “The will to make poetry is bound into precedent, principle, pre-existing lines of thought” fleshes out something I’d only grazed on the way to making another point.


I have my reservations about other aspects of Formalism, particularly as it played out in the postwar period, but I do think that the painter that needs any explicit theory at all should adopt or adapt one that accounts for the experience of painting, and artists in general one that accounts for the act of making, i.e. a poetics. For the artist in full flight aesthetics is at best a luxury and at worst a distraction, something best left to the philosophers and the critics. Aesthetics at root concerns ‘sense perception’: as we know Kant tried to retrieve this classical origin after Baumgarten’s appropriation of the term to mean ‘judgment of beauty or critique of taste’. Sadly fashion went with Baumgarten for the next two-hundred years and we live with that legacy (it put belt and braces around the art market even before recent speculative capital made it fat). However, whether or not one adopts a hierarchical perspective on aesthetics and poetics, maybe we can agree on this—it is a sentiment widely expressed by artists and writers—while we work, we work to satisfy ourselves, trying to satisfy (imagined) others just gets in the way. Being aware of one’s cultural situation is important, but primarily because one is in dialogue with one’s peers and/or owes some allegiance to the dead, and not because one is directed by arbiters and audiences.


I think it’s true that both of our poetic affiliations are to writers & works having an eye & ear to location w/in some version of the supra-personal, to put it mildly. But then your other question is fundamental also: “Is the motive [for poetry] warranted and is it a genuine prospect [of what’s real to enough people to count]?” Is it simply a product of “precedent, principle, etc,” steering us into a fool’s / charlatan’s paradise of (even if only provisional) satisfaction / pleasure-giving? & if “playfulness and resistance … define the poet’s dichotomy,” what is the type of that resistance? not to mention of the play?


The strange thing that often occurs to me is how unpredictable are the vibrations out there that cause me to resonate. I know why I do it, but not why particular things catch me. The first ‘why’ is a question of so-called ‘neurodiverse’ constitution: I have a surfeit of sympathetic and hardly any empathetic channels. If you cry I cry, but without the ‘emotional intelligence’ to read a situation I have no idea what is at the time the right thing to say or do. That is putting it simplistically, of course, but not exaggerating. So the motive for poetry in my case has a lot to do with compensating for the anachronistic, the dislocated, and the alienated qualities of for me ‘ordinary’ experience. And I think that carries across all modes and media in my work. The second why … that defeats me; I just go with the flow and hope for the best. And this does give rise to play and to resistance. Can we characterize them? If we can, maybe the business of ‘negotiating realities resistant to intelligible expositions’ or ‘thinking to make properly aesthetic forms’ might become clearer. This will be speculative of course.

On resistance: perhaps in line with the Real and standing in for all ungraspables, the poet is constant in prising the lids off things, refusing a focus on one facet or another of the intriguing, the serendipitous, the bothersome, the emotionally confusing, etc. This ‘opening-up’ is a conscious display of resistance to the artificial closure that the prosaic presents through the “distilling trajectory of traditional ‘clearing’ strategies” (as I put it in post #1). If the clarity of something is suspect it provides one motive for poetic in(ter)vention: a display of resistance that mirrors the Real (and potentially staring dangerously into its abyss—William S Burroughs was only too aware of this danger.)

On play: for me playfulness is manifest in an openness to and facility with the materials to hand, whatever they may be—words, sounds, colours, images, gestures—and the great purpose in that—invention, the ‘coming-upon’—is best served ironically through initial purposelessness. Initially at least it has little to do with symbolization as already in process, of the semantic/pragmatic closure or otherwise of the material selected. In the ‘selecting’ I venture that an ‘aesthetic-of-the-one’ may come into play, neither rational nor irrational decision (both acts in relation to conscious thought), but rather a non-rational gesture (more akin to the compulsive, involuntary, and autonomic.) Play does not only manipulate and reconfigure materials, it uses them up, extracts anything and everything from them, including semantic/pragmatic possibility, and as play wastes its materials it similarly wastes its time.


This is a fairly familiar vexing. But before pushing further into it let me ask if you sense some pressure there toward martyrdom, given Judeo-Christianity is burrowed into the habitus & the poet shorn of broad social relevance. Conceptual poetry, surely the century’s most challenging of genres / factions, at its most extreme posits poetic pleasure, including (especially) that generated by a sense of critique or resistance, as culpably delusional sop to the urban complacency its exponents share; performances are staged as savvy annihilation into public or institutional discourse. Is the call of the bleak, something that’s taken multiple forms over the centuries, currently real & virulent? If so, does it lead to the bracing or debilitating? Or is it simply an outlier?


According to Burgess, Joyce’s prose “often looks odd when its intelligibility is not in doubt” (Preface to his: Here Comes Everybody). This conforms to age-old poetic expectations: it serves aesthetic ends without sacrificing sense. The real trick (kick) comes however when intelligibility is most in doubt and the ‘prose’ ordinary-looking. From the outset this is an attack on complacency toward contemporary mythologies (Allen Fisher does this brilliantly in sections of Gravity…) But you are quite right, the danger is that, especially in more extreme and vehement manifestations, ‘conceptual poetry’ becomes an incestuous orgy of cosmopolitan mesmerism. I am not so concerned about this, on a personal level, because I don’t really participate in the circus and, on a critical level, because I believe that rage and outrage—virtuous anger and convention busting—tend to shine above the sympathetic impotency of the delusional and to influence institutions for the better, even if their inertia means the effect is belated and somewhat dampened. But then from this ‘political’ perspective, no-one would argue that conceptual poetry, conceptual art of any sort, was in the ‘front-line’ … ‘avant-garde’ perhaps, if you don’t mind the modernist connotations, but never ‘front-line’.

Post #3 forthcoming

Dear reader, I want you to try a little thought experiment with me.

Given the vast literature encompassing human knowledge, and all the teaching and learning that go on in the world, you probably take it for granted that the languages we employ keep up with the task of articulating, representing, translating, recording, and communicating all that we need to. In other words—now that I have articulated that thought—you probably think that language per se is adequate to the task of consolidating the reality of the world, and not merely personal partial realities, but a bigger, in principle total, understanding of the world. We take the time, make the effort, and the language does indeed ‘keep up’.

Or maybe you have already begun to smell a rat and are willing to imagine the opposite, to imagine that language is inadequate to the task. Well, that is the point of this thought experiment. Take that imaginative leap and consider:

What happens when the reality one is trying to negotiate pushes the language to the limits of intelligibility?

I thought I would ask Gilbert Adair,[1] a poet renowned for his ‘linguistically innovative’ work, to bounce a few ideas back and forth with me …

Gilbert. Hi. …


When the reality one is trying to negotiate pushes the language to the limits of intelligibility …

When the felt pressure of a ‘real’ one is trying to discern does that—so that. 

Never forgetting that (to leech on Olson) what is not poetry is the will to make poetry (altho’ who could call that ‘primary,’ because, you know, society & language)—that last phrase being idiomatic & “to leech on” also, probably, & the lack of a question-mark a (voice-inflected) nother. We teem w/ references, key ones being experienced as (different kinds of) knowledge & many potentially movable up there in a moment of recontextualized “Aha!” that may afford both a concern for a poem or poetic project & a glimpse of the real that will now make its recalcitrance felt to verbal approach while also being contingent on random haecceities of the poet. Specifics I talk. Yes, once your madness has been absorbed by history.

A case in point: What might aesthetic investigation of the notion of pidgin lead to—once you realize that the scholarly acronym for one pidgin (HCE, Hawaiian Creole English) chimes w/ old Here Comes Everybody himself or themselves; & that you presently live on Kauai, northernmost of the Hawaiian islands, & have experience of both Singlish (Singaporean English) &, I suppose, Irnglish (various operations on English as it moved into Irish sensibilities & contexts); & now have a truculently arbitrary means of linking Hawai‘i & Ireland in a 3-part project called h c e.

A pidgin, of course, is much more than an idiom or even a dialect, closer but cigarless to a jargon. The word likely comes from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘business.’ A pidgin is an ad-hoc cobbled together to enable people of disparate languages, cultures, & ranks to function in a variety of work situations: mining, mercenary, trade, shipboard, plantation … a discourse to facilitate proto-imperial coercion from the start, it was almost as soon one of subaltern camaraderie. (When it outlasts a generation—when parents pass the ad-hoc on to their children—a pidgin becomes a creole, a language in its own right.)

I claim no fluency in any of the Hawaiian pidgins (minor variations island to island). As a poet, I’m more interested in what can be glimpsed or grazed, startled into apprehension, via the potentially heretical notion of ‘a pidgin of one.’ The first two sections, h & c, have, among many other things, built a vocabulary of repeating words for use in e (standing, at least in my own mind, for english—or extinction—or emergence—or elder tree, etc) in a variety of fictional work situations, beginning w/ a trial, or mebbe only a trial. When I first came to Kauai, I could understand perhaps 30% of what one of our neighbors said; now I’m at around 70%. & section e as I embark on it is much to do w/ finding means of crafting relative meaning-opacities, given our experience of rushing-in aspects of the world is rather musical (audible, visual, ‘furniture’) than verbal & bearing in mind another of Olson’s remarks, this from his Mayan Letters of 1953: “Joyce … did not improve on … the Irish of the time the Irish were the culture-bosses, what was it, 7th–9th century, or something: he tried to get at the problem by running one language into another … more relevant to commerce, now, than … to the aesthetic problem.” We do run words together, & we like doing voice impressions. & Leopold Bloom, like the hero of North by Northwest (1959), is in advertising.


We hit the poetics from the outset. That chimes with me, with my disenchantment with aesthetics, aesthetics in Modernity certainly. To reprise Olson:

… every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality; and that these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world. (Olson, Projective Verse)

With the focus entirely on how the poem is made, the undertow is irresistible, pulling us toward the ontological sense of poetics. What mind and breath can draw together in poetry is a distillation of something occulted already in the mess of the mundane. Say to me: “what is not poetry is the will to make poetry” and I hear the philosopher breaking wind. It can be that bad. The will to make poetry is bound into precedent, principle, pre-existing lines of thought, … it beggars heritage and that is not poetry, but it is the ghost of an ontological poetics: “the objects of reality … create what we know as the world” (ibid). Olson invokes a contrapuntal logic; this is no mere metaphor.

Hence we come to where—take a breath—ontological reserves trigger the production of syllable and line, and do so reflexively to “afford both a concern for a poem or poetic project & a glimpse of the real”—concern for the former in the interests of the latter. But is the motive warranted and is it a genuine prospect? This brings us back to the original question.

If “a glimpse of the real” is “a genuine prospect” the implication must be that in the last instance language is adequate. Yet its recalcitrance impresses itself at every turn; the more the poet pushes and pulls the syllables into breathable lines and the more the vivid specificities that inhabit the poet’s reality, and that represent its most substantial reserve/resource, are brought into play, the more there is that can be said and must be said.

Thus words do not reveal the real, they (ad)dress it, they make a reality of the little that they grasp by fashioning fascinators (as/of/for things). The “random haecceities of the poet” are thus particularly pointed instances of necessary illusion. Self-delusion is not involved; the poet knows full well that they can keep scratching away at the surface of things, that they are expected to do so. Usually the more work the poet puts in the fewer words are needed to make a poem. The clarity of a ‘this’ does not reside in the words used to point to it, but it can seem to when great economy of means is achieved.

The problem is that economy of means may generate monsters. The real may intrude in the guise of an elusive essence, but that is passé for the poet today. Who really cares anymore for another way to say … “I love you” or “goodbye” or “I fear death” or “nature is mysterious” etc, etc? The ‘elusive essence’ is from one perspective a distraction, perfect for play and for time-wasting, while from another it is, through iteration, reductionist fallacy and to be resisted. What matters now are our entanglements, that worlds are at odds with each other, living hells, and the poet’s address in this case defies the distilling trajectory of traditional “clearing” strategies. Babel beckons, the retrieval of an originary linguistic mode that promises a gateway to the real.

So, playfulness and resistance (equally purposeful) define the poet’s dichotomy and confuse the answer to our question: in the last instance language is (in)adequate … which is it to be? There must be more to say.

Post #2 … forthcoming

[1]     Gilbert Adair—born in Northern Ireland, poet and critic, coined the term “linguistically innovative” poetry. In London in 1980 he co-founded, and for the next twelve years curated, Sub-Voicive, a series of experimental poetry readings. His most recent completed project, Syzem, a re-visioning of William Blake’s Milton, was published in two volumes 2014 & 2019 by Veer Books. He lives and works on Kauai, Hawaii, and his current project is HCE, which mixes a mix drawing on Spenser, Joyce, Badiou, Zizek, exile ambivalence, a more nuanced exploration of Christian morality than simply as rationale for empire, and the sonic architecture of Hawai’i Creole English.

Original Post Here: ‘Notes on a Pre and Post Ontological Structure.’

Perhaps the upcoming reunion with Castaneda holds out a hand “a man learns to see, he realizes that he can no longer think about the things he looks at, and if he cannot think about what he looks at everything becomes unimportant.” (A Separate Reality, ch. 5.)

Don Juan’s complaint is that Carlos will not stop thinking and because he will not stop thinking he never gives himself a chance to see properly.[1] Another way to put it would be: he could not silence his inner voice to allow a connection with his inner eye. This does work, but no-one can explain why because explanation requires the inner voice and the inner voice renders one blind and therefore with nothing in mind to explain. Eye and voice are literally poles apart.[2] [3]

One can visualize the dialectic of reasoning in Carlos’s condition because, according to western philosophical standards of logic and rhetoric, it is conventionally ‘rationalistic’. It relies on the inner voice; it cannot operate without it (for long). Even the irrational thought that crosses one’s mind partakes of the rationality it is initially set against, being ‘set against’ still entails a setting in the language that the inner voice engages, which is a language that cannot escape its own rules except to enlarge, edit and ultimately reinforce them. In fact, irrational thoughts are always crossing one’s mind; the rational and the irrational partake of each other within the space of the language, a push and pull that sometimes dies down and sometime resolves into a clear thought, one stable enough to be externalized. Hence around one pole, the pole of the voice, there is a dialectic that allows for narrative, decision, configuration, i.e. deliberative outcome. In thought sense and nonsense are equal in their requirement for a language of reasoning, its use and its abuse merge. Nonsense does not remain without sense for long because its very formation predetermines a trajectory toward sense. In such thought sense making is the force.

To leave behind all that thought, in the aforementioned sense, entails and permits is an extraordinarily difficult ask for Carlos. It goes against his inclinations, his training, his sense of identity, and his very reason for returning to Mexico and talking to don Juan again. And yet, this what he must do if he is to move forward. Except it is not really forward, or indeed backward, motion that is required. In effect forward and backward motion, and the expectation of progress and the fear of failure that it warrants, belong to the system of thought that is to be abandoned.

  Rather a ‘letting go’ is required which amounts to a radically altered orientation, another inclination entirely. If you will, a colourful metaphor is in order: the voice pole is ‘solar’ and, because of its elliptical formation, the thought system that revolves around it cannot help but normalize zodiacal experience. Whereas the eye pole floats free and that is its mystery; it has no satellites (no linguistic structures).

The deviant body may pass through the normal plane, catch the attention of the conventional body, causing a ripple of concern, which is the case in Carlos’s early encounter with don Juan. What happens later is forever a matter of speculation, but my best guess is that the voice pole and the eye pole become a binary system and the elliptic is tipped through ninety degrees to become ‘pole-oriented’.

Artist’s concept of a view of a double star system and surrounding pole-oriented planetary disk. Image via University of Warwick/Mark Garlick.[4]

I think it likely that don Juan is a fiction or at least has fictionalized himself for the apprentice’s benefit—how else could the deviant body reach in in the first place?

In spherical terms the cautionary point of don Juan’s teachings is that the modern rational way of being is dangerously precarious because of its over-reliance on acoustic deliberation and verification, what cannot be internally sounded and listened to is ignored or worse becomes inexistent. In this planar universe of being only zodiacal experience is valued and the illusion that everything succumbs to ‘calculation’ in the end is maintained through a constant sounding and echoing around the voice pole. Consequently only normalized bodies in predictable orbits are acknowledged in reality and labelled ‘understandings’.

Don Juan alerts his apprentice to a ‘separate reality’, a larger mystery, one that is non-rational, i.e. one that is beyond the rational-irrational dialectic of thought and which one can learn to see if only one will draw towards the eye pole and activate the optical aspect of the sphere. However, don Juan is also playing a game. He knows full well that Carlos’s compulsive and naturalized ‘thinking’ exemplifies a functioning condition of being, even if he thinks it, knows it, to be dangerously precarious. The voice pole can and does operate as a unitary centre and its functioning underpins all realisms, idealisms, pragmatisms … rationalizations in general, which glue the world together for human collectives. Don Juan also knows full well that the eye pole cannot operate to the same end, and does not need to. That is not the point. The point is that its operation corrects an imbalance in being. It does this by generating the stable condition of being that seeing exemplifies. By opening a direct line of sight back to the origin of being everything one can and has conceived of is reduced to unimportance. More importantly one avoids the abyss and annihilation.

[1]     In A Separate Reality, Castaneda recounts “further conversations with don Juan” which happened in 1968-9 three years after his original encounters of 1960-5.

[2]     I insert a rather Sloterdijkian ‘biune’ ‘spherical’ image here.

[3]     In MacFarlane’s pithy summary of Duchamp’s contribution linking art and philosophy he said: “Art requires our left brains and our right brains to talk to each other, and so give meaning to experiences which lie beyond the grasp of reason.” It is shorthand, of course, but in essence makes the same point. The artist has to see (even if briefly and inadequately) in creating art. (Philosophy Now, June/July 2015, p.10.)

[4]     Double star system flips planet-forming disk into pole position <;