Poetry, far more than fiction, is a difficult one to discuss. One reader’s revulsion is another’s revelation. So at first sight I thought Conductors of Chaos would be right up SPIKE’s alley (as it were) due to Picador billing it as the collection which Faber & Faber dare not publish. Cool! I thought. Instead of the cosy banality of Wendy Cope or the unfathomable tediousness of Seamus Heaney, here comes something which restores poetry as a dangerous, subversive, underground force, breaking from the mainstream, doing it for the kids, saying something…
It cannot be denied that the majority of the thirty-plus poets featured in Conductors of Chaos have broken from the mainstream, but to such an extent that “poetry” seems to be something of a dubious label. It was that crusty old modernist T.S. Eliot who asserted that for a poet to successfully employ vers libre, they must first be fully conversant with the discipline and structure of “traditional” poetry. The truth of his dictum is glaringly apparent here: these poets have certainly been libres with their vers, and the result is nearly 500 pages of pure frustration. The attempt to be avant-garde abounds; clarity is avoided like the crabs. It appears to be a disease of the late twentieth century that artists, in whatever medium, seem to continually equate obscurity with profundity. Editor Iain Sinclair confirms as much when he states ” if these things are difficult, they have earned that right. You don’t need to read them, just feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers.” Whether Sinclair is referring to the pleasure of warming yourself over a burning copy of this anthology remains unclear; but from the rest of his introduction, it is obvious that we are in the territory of those Who Take Themselves Very Seriously.
Sinclair declares ” Why should they be easy?…If it comes too sweetly, somebody is trying to sell you something.” This is perhaps the most tired, overused rhetoric in the history of writing. Sinclair is basically stating that if it’s popular, then it’s trash and if it’s obscure it must a priori be worthwhile. Sinclair’s bravado is all the more laughable considering that Conductors of Chaos is a blatant bid for collective commercial success via Picador’s publishing power. These people are trying to sell us their subjectivity and simultaneously pretend that they remain aloof from the vagaries of the market.
This “holier-than-thou” judgemental attitude pervades much of the work included here. Most of the writers featured write autobiographically in the first person, presuming that their lives and their observations are of sufficient interest to sustain a poem. This is always the most dangerous assertion in any form of writing. It takes an incredible amount of skill to transform the intimately subjective into something which can be empathised with. Much of the writing in Conductors of Chaos merely reinforces rather than rejects the prejudice that poetry is the preoccupation of over-privileged self-obsessed bores. Take, for example, this horribly self righteous and clumsy section from Grace Lake’s “on challenges, positive attitudes and ‘les peintres cubistes'” (the title alone being just cause to summon the Pretension Police):
& here are too many words which tend to order
the rights and wrongs of feeling sorry for someone or other
who turned out to be hidebound by racist and economic intelligence theories.
Similarly, Jeremy Reed’s “The Deconstruction Co.” tries to be self-glamourising and ironic but sounds merely self-pitying and envious:
“…You seem to have no friends
in publishing, and not to be a parasite,
and this will never do. You’re exclusive
and have too much mystique, what do you do,
to write such censored off-beat books
that have reviewers chop off your hands and feet,
and yes, we’re told you wear leopardskin boots
and that’s outrageous…”
If that weren’t enough, there is also the excruciatingly Gandalfesque pastoral whimsy of John James’ “Song (after Friedrich and Goethe).”
on Pen y Fan a
thousand times I stand
reclining on my staff
& gazing down the valley
I could go on, but I’ll spare you. To term the poetry collected in Conductors of Chaos as “diverse, eclectic and electrifying” is simply wrong. There is little here that has any immediacy, only scatterings of words across the page which arrogantly demand to be diciphered. Life is short. Perhaps the failure of Conductors Of Chaos is best embodied by Stewart Home’s work, the self-styled Neoist and plagarist extrordinaire. He prefaces his own selection by stating “Our most pressing task is to bury this ‘culture’ of mediocrity because, like the still-born ‘New Poetry’, it is already dead.” Stirring words which are followed by some of the most mediocre poetry in the whole collection.
There are literally a couple of saving graces. Barry McSweeney employs that greatest of taboos, humour, in “Hellhound Memos,” a random travelogue interspersed with different characters and voices to great effect:
…I’m the only jackpot chancer on the job, estate joy-rider
extrordinaire. Bored in the listless
summer, when the boys in blue are in Marbella on the piss
I waft in or rev as is my nature, contrary to
council or ecclesiastical denial, and open up these
stolen microwaves. I turn them on and breathe
I don’t care what the damage is. Or the waste.
I enjoy the flames. I can scorch a line, a beautiful
blue and true line, through the hull of your lives…
…I don’t erect headstones, Hosanna those
sky-blue heaven in the fairy tales. I deliver.
Into a permanent darkness for the rest of your days.
I come down like slate-grey rain. That’s all. No God available.”
Significantly, Aaron Williamson’s selection is the last to appear in Conductors Of Chaos. His darkly evocative work exploits an intimacy with language which is made all the more acute by his profound deafness. The sheer sound of the syllables read from the page produces a whole labyrinth of associations and allusions. Williamson’s work is quite literally out-of-body – there is no authorial ‘I’, only a howling, shrieking voice, conjuring up visions of Beckett’s Not I, where only a mouth is visible on a blacked out stage. Williamson’s work is the apotheosis of radical poetry – it explores classic forms in new directions, being different enough to create an immediate impact but deep enough to repay continual returns to its pages. Williamson’s experimentation has even extended to having his own webpage.
Picador would probably have produced a far better anthology if they had asked for contributions from new poets, published or unpublished. Looking towards the established poetry underground has proven to be no guarantee of quality writing and it is a great shame that such a brave move commercially by a major publishing house has been rendered so drastically impotent.