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Martin Stannard

Trevor Joyce:  "Selected Poems 1967 – 2014" pub. (Shearsman Books)

When I was offered this volume to review, the publisher also offered me their collection of critical essays on Joyce’s work that was published a few years ago. I’m not sure if this was intended to help me (which it did, to a limited extent) because they thought I would need help. Of course, all the essays are written by the poet’s admirers, as such collections usually are, so the book is very much a lop-sided take on things, and too often the ordinary is dressed up to sound like more than it intellectually and actually is. For example, there is the to-be-expected assumption that “linguistically innovative” poetry is much more effective in addressing the issues of the modern world than mainstream work. There is also one essay (perhaps more than one, I can’t remember) that rambles on about metrics as if they mattered, and another that goes on about Joyce’s use of different registers of language (from the lyrical to the bureaucratic blah blah blah) as if nobody had ever done that before. I was reminded how, for some, poetry is only really poetry when it blows the top of your head off (or comes pretty close), or is at least something you find invigorating, while for others it’s something to be decoded – or, to quote Trevor Joyce about his own work: “I felt as though I actually could construct something as complex as I needed to and that there would be people with patience and interest enough to follow through and decode it, as it were.”

I rather balk at the word “decode” in the context of reading poems. My enjoyment of “The Waste Land” has never come from having it shoved under my nose for “decoding” or for scholarly examination but by reading it and being astounded every time – by the language, the way the words are put together, and how it works my brain in ways that, essentially, are beyond words. Every reading of it is an event. And Pound may have wanted us to go to the library after reading “The Cantos” and look stuff up, but somehow he managed to make it seem worth doing (and of course I speak as someone who hasn’t quite made that trip to the library yet…). But with Trevor Joyce it doesn’t really work like that. He makes extensive use of carefully selected source texts, and the sources are often not at all evident. They’re certainly not always hiding in plain sight as one of his friendly critics suggests. One could not, I think, determine the sources of, for example, the texts used in the construction of the long piece “STILLSMAN” (of which more later) without help from the poet himself – which he has given to one of his critic friends. But the question then is, I suppose, do you need to know the sources?

The main thing I learned from reading the essays – aside from the fact that they cure insomnia – was what I’ve just mentioned: a large part of Joyce’s body of work comprises a varied mix of source texts, often collaged, and there are translations (or, as Joyce would have it, poems “worked from” other poems, usually but not always from another language). He has also used spreadsheets to generate poems, or word order, or something, apparently, but I’ve never understood spreadsheets, so I’ll let that pass. In short, to paraphrase one of the essayists, when you read Joyce you’re never really sure who you are reading. But, of course, you are reading Trevor Joyce. The buck has to stop somewhere.

I can’t remember (or be bothered to go back and find out) which critic wrote the following, but it sums things up rather well: “In order to grasp the implications of Trevor Joyce’s choice of sources, one must only search the capacious databases of such sites as or Google Books. Thanks to the digitisation of out-of-copyright texts by such organisations as Google, Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, it is possible for Joyce’s readers, wherever they might be, to access a shared library in the cloud.” One of the other critics says that to fully enjoy Joyce one has to have an “ear” – and believe me, I have seriously had to suppress my natural sarcasm to not comment upon that comment. What they almost all imply is that to fully appreciate this poetry one has to study it, read the notes the poet supplies (notes which, I gather, often accompanied the poems upon publication, or were published a little later, and some of which are apparently available online – but which I have wholly neglected to look at) and perhaps also attend a symposium (where you will meet your friends). This all seems rather much if it’s what you have to do to really get your money’s worth from the poems. It would be nice to think one might read without having to ponder all the other hard labour that waits up ahead.

I can almost feel any excitement or sense of amazement at what people can create out of their own imaginations threatening to be forgotten about as I write all this. I need to pinch myself. Trevor Joyce is held in what I understand to be high regard by many of those interested in, for want of a better description, innovative poetry and poetics and, in particular, given that he is Irish, with Irish innovative poetry and poetics. I need to lay my cards on the table, I think. I have what can best be described as an ambivalent relationship with innovative poetry and poetics (I’m getting fed up of that phrase) which boils down pretty much to my approach to reading any kind of poetry: is it an enjoyable and maybe even an unforgettable experience, or the opposite of that, whatever it might be. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not put off by “not getting it”, or “not understanding it” – but I am put off by reading experiences that fall short of the pleasurable – bearing in mind that pleasure can come in any number of guises. I’m definitely put off when I don’t feel welcome.

So where to begin (at last) with this book? One would normally begin at the beginning, I suppose, but this Selected Poems 1967-2014 begins with a poem dating from 2003 and ends with the aforementioned STILLSMAN from 2001, so perhaps in the circumstances it might be appropriate to start somewhere in the middle, although I won’t. Perhaps the chronology is one way of demonstrating that, whereas in “traditional” selecteds a conventional timeline might show a trajectory of sorts, this un-chronological selection highlights a relentless seeking after methods and processes that is not so much a developing trajectory as an ongoing impulse. Or it could be like this just to be different. But presumably there is a reason for the placing of the first poem, “Capital Accounts” and a reason for the placing of the last, “STILLSMAN”. Perhaps, since they bookend the selection, they are to be regarded as key works.

So, to “Capital Accounts” – a poem “worked from the Chinese of Lu Zhaolin (635-841)” – which is close enough to the original Chinese to be considered as a translation. You can forget the “worked from” – it’s as much a translation as any translation from the Chinese that chooses to skip a few details and insert a few of its own, as most of the best translations from the ancient Chinese have done in the past. And from its position at the front of the book we can take it as some kind of statement of at least some of what Joyce is “about”. I’m pretty sure that the poet and his admirers would throw up their hands in horror at the prospect of my being about to sum up in a few words what he is “about”, but even his friends the essayists seem to concur that ideas about language and power, cultural history, cultural and personal memory, institutional and official corruption, and some kind of congruence between the natural world and human violence toward that world – often shown through repeated images of disintegration – comprise Joyce’s major concerns. (Perhaps I should mention that I’ve no intention of discussing Joyce in connection with Irish poetry and its traditions because – well, just because…… ). Anyway, having read and re-read this Selected several times I’m not arguing with any of them. What I might argue about is whether the poems that deal with these “issues” are any good – although since I’ve never been to Ireland and plan to go one day because I hear it’s very nice I shall choose my words carefully, because if I do go I’d very much like to come back in one piece, or at least unscathed.

In “Capital Accounts” Joyce translates Lu Zhaolin’s poem about the ancient imperial capital of Xian, its glamour, its seediness, and its corruption and, by dint of slipping in the occasional modern reference he allows the reader quite easily to interpret this “reworking” as being a modern take on a modern city, with its dark side and corrupt officials. Frankly, there is little especially wonderful about taking an ancient poem of social criticism and turning it into a modern version on the same theme. It’s a pretty hackneyed theme, too. Whatever. Joyce retains most of the original poem’s organization, the biggest difference being that his version renders each 7-character line of the original as a short-lined quatrain –

            unifies the groves,
            moths flicker
            through the thousand gates.

thus turning a poem that might take up one page (and save paper) into one that occupies almost ten. I remain unconvinced that this particular strategy was necessary – the short line (a short line that appears from this selection to be a favoured Joyce form; he is rarely, if ever, given to the linear sprawl) gives us the concision we associate with Chinese poetry. The same words in one or two lines would do exactly the same. More to the point, I think, is that the poem is remarkably uninvolving. The original Chinese has a sense of immediacy entirely lacking in Joyce’s version, where we are left with what equates to a sixth-former’s sense of the world: the prostitutes of the original (娼 – chāng – which translates exactly into prostitute) become “hookers”:

            The hookers
            in the darkening
            put on
            flash stuff

My ear (yes, I have one) thinks the writer wants to say something that will demonstrate his worldliness, but instead it comes across as fake, from the pen of a man who would never normally let a hooker into his conversation. Perhaps it’s my ear is the problem. But I think not. In much the same way, Joyce calls the city bosses he is intent on condemning “big men” – and I yawn, to be honest. I yawn.

The absence of an identifiable speaker in “Capital Accounts” alerts us to the tenor of the poetry to come. There is an insistence upon impersonality that extends to most of the poems. On the rare occasion Joyce the individual allows himself to be seen as a person in a poem it would appear that the personal poem is not one of his strengths. For example, “‘93/4” (which comes with the inspiring prefatory note that “In the closing days of 1993 my library and other traps were delivered to my new lodgings near Kilcrea, Co. Cork.”) begins

            I’ve got no means of knowing for sure
            if you can hear the knocking of the bells
            as you anticipated from your open door
            or just the slight hiss of the rain as here……

which I would describe as a bit clunky, and I wonder what kind of an ear thinks this is okay. As an opening stanza it didn’t make me want to read the next two pages of poem, that’s for sure. And doesn’t “Writing 101” teach that the writer should be making their reader want to read on?

The book is packed with poems that will appeal to those who see reading poetry as an intellectual exercise not far removed from linguistic analysis – the specimen is to be dissected on the operating table – rather than to those who just fancy enjoying the results of reading a poetic imagination and being taken somewhere new. But if it’s analysis and decoding you want it’s there for the doing. The compositional procedures and range of sources that went into the making of “Syzygy”, which dates from 1997/98, have apparently been extensively documented by the poet. And by now you will know that I don’t care. Here is the first section of the bit of the two-part “Syzygy” called “The Drift” —

            and then there is this sound
            that starts with a scarcely audible
            rustling inside gold the whisper
            echoing within the diamond
            grows to take in snatches
            from high stars from elsewhere
            the disintegrating actions
            of clocks so that eventually
            you attend to the infinities
            of numbers shattering
            the shriek that is the change
            of several millions

I find this interesting enough to merit reading more than once (although probably not thrice) but then I read a critic who tells me that this “outlines a multi-scalar instance of creation and destruction, beginning with a sonic birth within an amalgam of minerals and ending with a moment of human catastrophe” and I realize we’re not actually in the same park, or playing with the same ball – or, more exactly, not coming to read poems for the same reasons. I can read this bit of poetry and, while I might not exactly enjoy it, I can conjure an idea or two from it. I can’t say they were profound ideas – but then the quoted critic is not profound either. It’s mainly that he can use a word you are unlikely to hear in the queue in the chip shop, like “multi-scalar”, without blushing. Joyce’s themes are, as far as I can see, quite ordinary, for all that they come by way of a wide range of compositional procedures and are supported by a criticism that constantly congratulates both itself and the poetry for what it thinks it is. It may very well be true that “In each [section of “The Drift”] there are lines and phrases of stunning power and even of crystalline beauty[my italics], and part of the readerly interest in the poem is in watching such moments of penetrating lucidity get rearranged or deranged by the lines around them. We are made to experience moments of seeming lyric interiority being unrigged by alternate, and incommensurate, registers” but actually I don’t think that’s true. There aren’t any lines and phrases of stunning power and crystalline beauty, and isn’t the rest of it just that old chestnut of let’s write against traditional modes and procedures in order to take back ownership from those bastards who have stolen the language from us? One aspect of this issue, I think, is that if you are going to argue that our language has been appropriated by malignant powers, and you intend to somehow undermine those powers and reclaim the language, to try to do so by using the language in ways that require decoding seems a not entirely efficient strategy. How many people are you going to get on your side with this stuff? And, by the way, I agree with the premise about language and power; I just don’t think poems are going to fix the problem when too many of them are too dry. If reading a bunch of poems like these is what taking back the language involves then those faceless bastards in power can ruddy well keep it. Too often the poems are weighed down by their sense of overweening seriousness. And all this poetry comes with its own little section of the literary critical industry in tow, wallowing in jargon, although the friendly critics complement the poetry quite admirably, as it happens, given they all long to be decoded. We are back to the implication that to fully appreciate Joyce’s poetry one has to study it. It’s an issue that refuses to go away.

Respite comes by way of the 16th century. I very much enjoyed (yes, you read that right.) Joyce’s “translations” of Edmund Spenser’s “The Ruins of Rome” – themselves translations of Joachim Du Bellay’s “Les Antiquités de Rome” – rendered by Joyce as “Rome’s Wreck” and written in octosyllabics – I think that’s the word – each line having eight words, and every word being monosyllabic. Only four of the sonnets are included here, although I gather all 30-odd have been published elsewhere. In Joyce’s hands – and by way of the strict rules applied – Spenser’s sonnets, which were written when he was quite young – are given a new lease of life, the syllabics investing the poems with a very modern sense of vigour:

            You look for Rome in Rome, do you?
            In Rome no Rome is to be found,
            these same old walls and gates you see,
            such wrenched halls are what Rome men call.
            See then what wreck, what waste is left,
            and how that she, which with such strength
            tamed all the world, comes weak to heel,
            the prey of time, that eats up all.
            Now as the grave of Rome, Rome serves,
            as Rome and no one else quenched Rome;
            her course that runs fast to its end                                                              
            still streams on through, still falls: Vain world.
            That which is firm now flits and fails,
            and that which flits is still and stays.

This is good stuff – but then the originals aren’t bad either. It says something about this Selected that some of the best poems in it are translations of poems someone else wrote. “Seven Songs from Turkic & Finno-Ugric” and “Two Songs from the Hungarian” are pretty good, too.

And so, skipping deftly over the bulk of the poems here, we arrive at “STILLSMAN”, ten pages or so of justified text entirely in block capitals and unpunctuated to the point where even a word like “don’t” is rendered as DON T, and the 12 sections are not allowed any visual separation – so section 11 ends and section 12 begins thus: “THE ANSWER LET HER IN 12 IN SEEDS ARE GERMS” – and you may have figured out from that description that the text is more or less impossible to quote from because there are no joins, no breaks. So here comes a quote, from the beginning of the poem:


(I should mention here that while this section of quotation manages to adhere to the line breaks of the original – with the exception of the last line – the original does not look as stretched as this – but I really can’t be bothered to try to persuade Word™ to duplicate exactly the “look” of the original text. Life is too short.)

“STILLSMAN” is a narrative (albeit a less than straightforward one) about a chap who keeps songbirds and who has a stroke that afflicts him with agraphia – a neurological disorder causing a loss of the ability to communicate through writing, either due to some form of motor dysfunction or an inability to spell. (Thank you, Wikipedia – and yes, the tale is as much fun as it sounds.) The work is a mixture (collage) of narrative and fragments of carefully selected texts, as I have mentioned earlier. And because of the way it’s presented one is rather forced into reading it in one breathless sitting, and forced at the same time to come to terms with the language, the syntax, and the tensions that come from the lack of punctuation and the juxtaposing of different source fragments. It’s quite a ride. A clue to at least one of its “meanings” (or intentions) is buried in the text:


I think I’ll own up and say at this point I’m pretty sure there is a whole cartload of argument and theory one could throw at this, if one were willing, but it’s rather beyond the scope of a review, and also I can’t be bothered (again). You will be aware by now that my concern with this book is not so much the theory or theories behind the poetics – they might be valid and worthy, or they might not – but what it’s like to read. From some people’s point of view this may well be the wrong way to deal with it but I’ll argue until I’m dead that if literature is not in some way a pleasure to read then it fails – even if, paradoxically, after failing at the first hurdle it’s able to get up off the ground and clear several later hurdles with, if not aplomb, then at least a certain sense of achievement. “STILLSMAN” is fascinating. I have not yet made up my mind whether or not I like it.

I have made my mind up about the book, at least for now. I’ve had the thing kicking around for a few months, and reading a poem here and there almost always left me feeling like I needed to get out more, because this was no way to spend my old age – or that I should go and fix myself a stiff drink. I usually did the latter. But I repeatedly told myself that I was being unfair and not open enough when I looked at a poem and felt that I simply could not get into it. I have had arguments with myself about whether it was my fault or the poet’s, and I’ll own that there are some good lines and even good chunks of lines in here, although whether or not Trevor Joyce wrote them I have no idea. However, a lot of the poems bored me before I reached their end, and I tried. I really did. But all the time I have had two other books on my desk awaiting review, books that are in no way mainstream, and that do things with language that stun me – and every time I take a peek into them the sun seems to come out and life seems to be worth living. Then I go back to Joyce and no sun. I need to finish this before poetry winter really sets in.


Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2018