Robert Sheppard's The Education of Desire
& Ken Edwards' Good Science
Both Ken Edwards and Robert Sheppard have written about discovering American
Language poetries in fragmente
magazine. In his essay 'The Remake' Edwards [1990, p 57] talks about how 'it
rapidly became apparent that [t]here was a new excitement in American poetry,
and that ... this poetic revolution had at its fulcrum a radical revaluation of
what language is, and the relationship of language to poetry.' He goes on [pp
57-58] to suggest that ' ''Making the familiar strange'' has ever been one of
Modernism's methods and ''the familiar'' in this case ... is in fact language,
that community of meaning-generation we take for granted most of the time.'
Sheppard meanwhile, a few pages later, in 'Recognition and Discovery in the
1980's' [Sheppard, 1990, p 60] writes about his poetry already 'embrac[ing]
modernist defamiliarization and self-consciousness' before discovering 'the
New American Poets'. He wanted [p 60] to 'extend the inherited paradigms of
by delaying a reader's process of naturalization, by using new
of poetic artifice and formalist techniques to defamiliarize
reality principle, in order to operate a critique of it;
and that it should
use indeterminancy and discontinuity as major
devices of this politics
form, which was implicitly utopian. The
reader thus could become an active
co-producer of the text...'
As well as a creative impetus to write anew, there is a political edge
to this poetry. Douglas Messerli [1984, p 142], one of the main publishers
the Language Poets, with his Sun & Moon Press, says in an interview
in Gargoyle magazine:
language is just everything.
It is the way Ð the only way Ð
we have of
making reality, the act others describe as 'comprehending
But, for me, it is truly a 'making.'
Every day every
moment we speak and, through language, think the world into existence.
it's of the utmost experience that a few of us ... spend some
contemplating, playing with, challenging, and delighting the ways in
society uses it.
can affect a few people, who can ... affect two more,
affect two more and so on... and so on... until we have the
reevaluating, listening to, and reinventing language Ð
not as an
intellectual exercise, but as a matter of life and death...
Robert Sheppard considers the same area of concern in his essay 'The
Education of Desire', originally written as a hand-out sheet for A Level
English students [Sheppard, 1983] but later incorporated into both his
chapbook of poetics, net/(k)not - work(s) [Sheppard, 1993] and his book of critical writing,
Far Language [Sheppard, 1999].
In it he suggests [1999, p 28] that 'a lot of poetry today will look like
adverts' and that 'What once belonged to poetry has been stolen'. Although [p
28] 'Some poets don't worry about this', he declares [p 28] that 'It is
impossible to write revolutionary poetry like this', so that [p 28] 'The
writer who wants to do something different has to write in new ways'. This,
he says [p 28], will mean:
may seem strange. It may be difficult to understand.
seem to be bits of it missing. There may be problems
all its parts together; things may not seem to follow on.
It may be
difficult to see who's speaking.
It may seem
as though there should be a story, but there isn't.
He adds [p 28]:
about difficulties that stop the process of reading, or
Having considered what the writer must do, should they wish to write
revolutionary poetry, he goes on [p 29] to consider what the reader has to do, because 'most of the poetry I am
thinking of is not easy to read. You can't consume it one go'. Not only does
this [p 29] make 'the reader work harder', it also [p 29] 'does something
else too: it makes the reader's work as important as that of the writer'. In
fact Sheppard [p 29] goes to far as to say that:
It is the
reader who makes the poem Ð or rather: each individual
has to make
the poem, to complete it, for his or herself.
The reader is
no longer a passive consumer.
He then goes on [p 29] to link this new writing with the idea of 'Making a
New World', where 'the writer will rearrange everything so that out of the
bits and pieces of this world, he or she will make a new world', which, 'is a
way of criticising the way things are' in the real world. This way of writing
will, he suggests pp 29-30], 'be a little bit revolutionary, although it will
never tell you how things might
change', it is only 'a way of criticising the way things are'.
He also says [p 30] that although 'linked to the notion of a more active
reader' that he 'think[s] it can ... be a delightful thing to be allowed as
much freedom as the writer, to read creatively, to fill in gaps, to decide
who is speaking, etc.' And he reassures [p 30], saying that, unlike
advertising, romantic fiction, pornography and most poems:
poetry doesn't fulfil you. It leaves you with still a lot
to be done. There will always be more and more to
It might make
you confused, mixed up. But that's all right. When
to understand something difficulty you get confused
for a bit.
This idea of revolutionary poetry means there is an onus on the writer to
find new ways and processes to write and use language. As the 'Preface' to Good
Science, Ken Edwards [1992, pp 1-3]
offers 'A note to the reader on some self-imposed procedures in the making of
this book, their use, and an indication of some possible responses'. In a
review of Good Science, Robert
Sheppard [1994, p 99] suggests that this 'Preface' 'amounts almost to a
manifesto of the linguistically innovative poetries of this country'. The
instructions include [Edwards, 1992, pp 1-2]:
with clear eyes. Be strong, harmonic and geological.
... Hint at a
place beyond speech. Alternately speak, and
silence beyond speech. ... Create something modern
intrinsic, sensitive and strong. Treat words with the contempt
... Learn everything you can, and forget everything
learnt ... Replace experience with language.
Many of the poems contained in Good Science read as fractured and assembled texts with no
linear meaning, simply a gathering of events and experiences. In the title
poem [pp 7-8], the narrator [p 7] 'state[s his] case on the basis of need'
whilst [p 7] 'You', an unnamed protaganist, 'shoot[s] it down on the basis of
want'. The gathering of knowledge [p7]:
This week has
given me a new grasp of particle physics
You see how
the glands in your throat do swell
exterior events, whether observed firsthand or reported to the author [p 7]:
The Dow is up
the unit starts to break down
A light plane
trails red fly north-west
and personal occurrence [p 7]:
My legs start
to shake uncontrollably
lead only to the strange observation [p8] that
house is blinded with plywood.
the ghost that language doesn't need
Knowledge, it seems, is not always obtainable [p 8]:
After a heavy
day the book was no more than adequately clear
objective way of measuring space
and only leads to a state [p 8] where
intervals are occuring
and the observation [p 8] that
building is full of really crazy people
Somehow the 'you' is better at dealing with the information that the poet has
gathered. Whilst the narrator suggests, in the penultimate line [p 8], that
neatly into the above stuff
the narrator himself is reduced to confusion as the poem ends [p 8]:
I wake up I
open the refrigerator I don't know where I am
The narrator of these poems is suffering from an overload of event and
information; he appears lost and confused as he tries to make sense of the
world of consumerism and knowledge. At the end of 'Lashed to the Mast' [p 30]
he suggests this information is 'the white noise / of a no-signal screen...', yet continues with:
were I to
reach to switch
switch the darkness on
If he tried to disengage from the information around him, he will only end up
in the dark (although if he is bewildered and doesn't understand then he is
'in the dark' anyway!). He must learn a new way of seeing the world around
him, must map and then navigate through the facts and figures which he
struggles to keep up with.
One way of doing this is to reconsider history, refusing to regard it as 'set
in stone' or absolute. Edwards hints at the fictional nature [the
'neverness'] of fact in 'After a Season the Syntax Falls' [pp 51-56] which
ends by combining melancholy with a big statement [p 56]:
blues must fall
a scent of
wrists of never
He also jokily observes in 'And 'Mid This Tumult' [p 62] that the science of
the book's title is in flux and cannot be known too; in fact it is dangerous
as well as 'amazing':
technology for you
safe any more it's amazing.
Everything, it seems, is in flux. In 'After A Season the Syntax Falls' [pp
51-56], one of the key poems in the book, 'what was a factory or church /
becomes a theme park' and 'what was a hospital becomes / a hologram of commerce' [p 53]. Even
the business world of today seems unreal:
A bank of 20
glaze of money on each one
that it all must have
long time ago
The present seems like history, and history is not to be regarded as truth.
Meanwhile, 'white noise' is used to filter out the background noise of
contemporary life, the sounds of the world around us [p52]:
white noise in
believe it's quiet
The darkness Edwards suggests is the only alternative to the white noise also
reappears [p52], as the poet asks in bewilderment where is he?
What is this place? a surplus value
meaning? the way a shadow
drains into poetry, the way
falls the way a shadow falls
Later, in 'New Word Order' [pp
63-64], the title itself a pun on the 'new world order' around him, he
wittily discusses the 'game' of poetry that the narrator is engaged in,
managing to be both funny and serious at the same time:
...it's a game
seriousness are inseparable; where
and the intimate form a badinage
conceals, reveals for a moment,
again. On the other hand
more like they are now
ever were before.
things, and words is words; the game is a game,
A free lunch is a free lunch,
It is no
longer a metaphor, a penis is a
penis, a cigar
Is a cigar
Sometimes, of course, the overload can prove too much and the poet goes
missing [p 66]:
there is no-one here to answer your call but if
you'd like to
leave a message I'll get back to you.
This allows the narrator to step back from the chaos he has previously
conjured up, and wonder [p 66]:
Was there a
time, then, when the word
action, word & thing
Coalesced, when the shape of it
Was not all
that there was...
He blames consumerism and
capitalism, for [p 69]
This has been
made possible by our sponsors...
In the closing section of the poem [pp 69-71] he turns to the domestic,
returning [p 69] to the 'you' he has made:
there was you. No I hadn't forgotten
But she is not innocent either, for she [p69]
temple of money
Where a house
of love should stand
in the same way that [p 70], where 'the homes of the privileged' are, 'Lawns & golf
courses' have sprung up instead of wilderness.
The poet [p 71] goes on to reveal that even the personal and domestic is only
Even though I
invent the story of you, though I put in
the answering machine, though I make it into
a love story,
as incandescent as a narrative without an
be, still your mouth says mutely that I have
His love story has failed, and consumerism and development are rampant [p
grown old. It has become a habit.
and the poem ends [p 71] with further instructions that verge on defeatist:
Make love, & put
And if you
can't make love
Make war, & put
along with a vague non-syntactical final line [p 71] of command, both echoing
the 'Preface' poem and returning to his theme of dark & light:
send to know for whom the lights change
Although this would seem a cause for despair, it is countered by the author's
recognition, a kind of resigned optimism, at the start of the poem [p 63]
that the multi-layered world around him, full of contradiction and confusion,
can offer endless possibilities for revolutionary poetry as much as despair
is said & done, then
everything still to say & do;
Loydell 2002, 2006
Edwards, K., (1990), 'Language: The Remake' in fragmente 2, pp 57-60, Durham, fragmente.
Edwards, K., (1992), Good Science,
New York, Roof Books.
Messerli, D., (1984), 'Language in Action: An Interview with Douglas
Messerli' in Gargoyle 24, pp
136-148, Washington DC, Paycock Press.
Sheppard, R., (1983), The Education of Desire, London, Ship of Fools.
Sheppard, R., (1990), 'Recognition and Discovery in the 1908's' in fragmente 2, pp 60-61, Durham, fragmente.
Sheppard, R., (1993), net/(k)not - work(s), London, Ship of Fools.
Sheppard, R., (1994), 'Little Stars and Straw Beasts' (including review of Good
Science) in Angel Exhaust Ten: Screed
Heid, pp 99-100, Cambridge, Angel
Sheppard, R., (1999), Far Language: poetics and linguistically innovative
poetry 1978-1997, Exeter, Stride.
Read an interview with Ken Edwards about his 2006 book Public Language