I’ve published a large number of poems over the last decade which have never been collected into one single-author volume. Some are part of Sidekick anthologies and very happily nested there, while others are intended for future books that may or may not materialise. For now, I’m experimenting with making some of them into digital postcards and adding them to the jukebox/gashapon machine on my website. I’m also trying to line up their publication with relevant dates. So ‘Pangolin Documentary’, for example, went online on World Pangolin Day 2023 (18 February) while the below poem (originally published in Aquanauts) was given the postcard treatment in time for John Steinbeck’s birthday:
Change, change — that’s what the terns scream down at their seaward rocks; ﬂeet clouds and salt kiss — everything else is provisional, us and all our works.
— ‘Fianuis’ by Kathleen Jamie
This paper was originally delivered as a talk at Poetry, Representation and the Archive, a symposium hosted by the University of East Anglia on 25th May 2023. My practice and research mostly concerns the amalgamation of poetry and poetry books with other forms and genres of text, including digital and interactive works, and here I want to discuss digital poetry in particular. I want to talk about the problems inherent in preserving it, and some ideas I have about how its life can be extended.
First of all, I’m going to roughly define ‘digital poetry’ as poetry which is “digital-born” (Ensslin, 2014, p.19); that is, written and designed for publication on or within a digital platform. This does not mean it is totally incapable of being transferred to or translated into a non-digital medium (I will come to talk about this in more detail) but rather that some element of the additional functionality of a digital platform is anticipated in the design. Digital poems are, therefore, poems which physically move and change, often responding to user input. They are poems which are brought into being and animated, at least in part, by computer code which an app or program (such as an internet browser) is used to interpret. There are other, overlapping terms in use – ‘e-poetry’, ‘hypertext poetry’, ‘interactive poetry’, ‘code poetry’ and so on – but ‘digital poetry’ is, at present, the most useful umbrella term for this kind of poetry.
The poems in Still Life With Octopus slip down very easily — sometimes a little too easily, like they’re elastically escaping their tank. You think you’ve got them in focus, and then they’re gone. Not literally, of course; you can head back to the top of the page and comb them again, looking for the knot to unpick, but sometimes it keeps evading you. Take ‘What You May Be Offered’, for instance. It begins:
A man in a van stopped to ask if I wanted a mattress. I said
And it ends with the narrator in the same place, engaged in the same activity, one full day later, “wondering / what [else] someone might offer me”. The mystery here (and it’s not an unwelcome one) is what’s going on beyond the level of the starkly anecdotal. Who is this man? What does he have to do with the book’s broader themes, or its central sequence, in which an octopus is presented as a sort of younger conjoined twin living inside the narrator’s chest cavity?
Objects are fused with the body in other poems too — the book has a light, breezy tone but not infrequently deals in mild horror. In ‘What Plays Today’, it’s a radio trapped “between my ears”, which sometimes screams. In ‘And a Clock’, the mouth is stuffed with both the clock (which is broken) and a load of feathers. It’s a dream-poem, but the dream is clearly a nightmare — a tree comes alive in it and asks “Tell me who // this me is”. A few pages on, night itself comes to stir the narrator and ask for company, and a little way further on from that, a flickering light takes on the persona of ‘My Moon’, and likewise imposes itself as a fully self-willed entity in need of a place to stay. These briefly-sketched characters manage to come across as both creepy and innocent. In ‘I am interested’, the narrator even announces themselves as a stranger in their own body, intrigued by its mechanisms.
Still Life With Octopus begins and ends with poems titled ‘Arrival’, and is full of things arriving or becoming, or suggesting they might like to be more deeply involved with one another somehow — the theme of tying, sewing, stitching recurs as well (‘Psalm for the Seamstresses’, ‘Tied’, “I tie it with string” in ‘When the Time Comes’, “reel / her in” in ‘Tango’, ‘How to Make a Buttonhole Hand Stitch’), and the octopus as symbol of fleshy entanglement is never far away. Body parts — chiefly, internal organs — and their relationship to one another also come to the fore more than once, and the closing ‘Arrival’ poem reads as a set of Ikea instructions for (mis)handling human/animal intimacy:
put me down until I lift me
put me aside until I can lean
put me out until I desiccate
I guess, then, that the man with the mattress for sale in ‘What You May Be Offered’ is trying, in a timid sort of way, to cross a boundary, to join in with the awkward intermeshing that is taking place elsewhere, to “start with pieces, end with objects” as the seamstresses do. There’s a weird, slightly menacing craving for ease and harmony throughout Still Life With Octopus that’s barely even hinted at in the cover blurb, but which is certainly present in the animal totem Hershman has chosen — and even, perhaps, in the title. ‘Still Life’ — a contradiction-in-terms, no?
This poem was first published in issue 19 of Gramarye, the Journal of the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. ‘Gramarye’ is an archaic word meaning mystical or magical learning, related to the word ‘grimoire’, which refers to a spellbook. Frogs in folklore seem to be strongly associated with magic, and the poem alludes to probably the most well-known example: the Frog Prince of the Brothers Grimm faerytale, who is turned into a human by a princess’s kiss or, in some versions, by sleeping in her bed. Suppose, though, that this prince was not under the spell of a malevolent witch or magician, but that of age and booze? Suppose that his transformation back into a prince was a matter of perception (his own and that of the princess) at the very moment she makes a move on him – a matter of reconnecting with the sexual potential of his own body?
I’m finding most, if not all, of the poems published alongside mine in the latest issue of Long Poem magazine instantly appeal to me, before I’ve even started reading them, and I think it’s because of the length stipulation. As its name suggest, Long Poem is for poems of 50 lines or more, and this requirement all but demands that a poem have a well-developed structure, a sense of being made brick by brick, in a way that’s much harder to detect in an array of short pieces.
It helps that each piece is preceded by an introductory paragraph which sets the thematic context for what follows in much the same way as a book blurb. Here’s the intro to my own contribution:
This is the final version of a poem I’ve been trying to write for more than ten years, ever since I learned that the writer Charles Cotton was said to have gone into hiding from his debtors in one of the many natural caverns of the Peak District. It’s also the first of a set of ‘labyrinth’ poems – pieces where the form is adapted from some kind of puzzle or toy, in this case a roll-and-move race game like the Game of the Goose or Snakes and Ladders. That form seemed very well suited to describing the experience of becoming absorbed in a system or subject, or even an intense personal or bodily encounter; there is a pronounced tension between the idea of a numerically ordered sequence of events and the stumbling, back-and-forth movement dictated by dice rolls and penalty squares. But it took a very long time for this compositional strategy to occur to me – at one point, the poem was shaped like a set of stalactites and stalagmites, and had to be read with the page turned 90 degrees. At another, it was written in a row of block stanzas, in such a way that the last word of every line of every stanza was also the first word of the equivalent line in the stanza to the right of it. Apart from anything else, the poem’s current form is much more readable.
And here are the first few lines:
I say it’s the first of a set of labyrinth poems because this one is titled ‘A Labyrinth’ and intended to stand at the beginning of the sequence. The other two that were published earlier this year in Raceme no. 13 are both called ‘Another Labyrinth’. There are two more still to come. One is particularly difficult to find a home for, but we’ll see what happens.
The Playing Poetry exhibition is on display at the National Poetry Library from now until 15th January, and includes one of my digital ludokinetic poems, Erratum (a work in progress), as well as Adversary, a prototype poetry card game I made with Abigail Parry, pictured above. There was a neat write-up in the Financial Times this week. I’m very excited that this area of literary crossover is starting to flourish, after tentatively making the prediction that it would in Dual Wield. The challenge from hereon in is going to be keeping pace with it!
“Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
“[Contemporary] fiction is about society,” says Clare Pollard, in a short essay asking how writers can respond to the present moment. I wouldn’t have thought this statement at all controversial, but somehow it prompted a fierce rebuttal from A. Natasha Joukovsky on ‘literary moralism’ and “the Rampant Conflation of Fiction and History”, full of much more dubious statements. Social reform is distracting novelists, Joukovsky says, from their aesthetic responsibility to beauty. Fiction and history are ‘discrete’ – never the twain shall meet. The success of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has nothing to do with its politics, but is due to it being “stylishly written”. While Pollard’s essay is addressed to people for whom writing and reading are ways of negotiating the world, Joukovsky’s is squarely aimed at those who consider themselves capital ‘w’ Writers – members of a sacred order – and so rounds off with a list of commandments, in the form of a hodgepodge of aphorisms that have little to do with the preceding argument.
At first I found all of this merely haughty, its passion misplaced. Once I started to look at the parts that were being quoted admiringly on social media, however, I began to recognise the animating concern behind the essay’s proclamations. It all clicked into place during an exchange online with one particular supporter, who insisted that ‘talent’ and ‘politics’ were two separate qualities, that one can admire a work of art purely for the ability it displays without having any sympathy whatsoever for its creator’s outlook. I said – and I tried putting this in various ways – that any work of art which seeks to represent or engage with some aspect of reality has a political dimension to it, and admirers of that work of art almost certainly find something useful about that political dimension. In response, my interlocutor served up a series of familiar ‘culture wars’ talking points: so anyone who admires Céline is a Nazi, then? Are Chaucer and Shakespeare persona non grata because of their outdated views? And the coup de grace: this is all just one step away from Stalin and Pol Pot!
I’ve been through all this before. It’s the same conversation I’ve had with certain members of the Transformers fandom when they decry modern Transformers comics for ‘forcing politics down our throats’ and look back misty-eyed on the 1980s Sunbow cartoon, with its good vs. evil storylines. There are people who currently earn their living making Youtube videos every week which repeat this argument with respect to each new fantasy film or TV series that comes out. Until recently, they say, art and pop culture were reliably apolitical, at least on the surface. Their qualities were ones which could be admired and enjoyed irrespective of the state of the intrasocietal conflict. But now everything is tainted by a modern fanaticism with meaning well, or rather, with being seen to mean well. As my interlocutor put it, citing Martin Amis and Milan Kundera, we live in an age where the talentless “take revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic”.
This is not an argument which withstands much unpicking. Suffice it to say works of art and literature have been occasioned by moralistic, empathetic and societal concerns for as far back as we can collectively remember, and while the presence of blatant finger-wagging in a work is often a weakness, it can also be a major part of its enduring appeal (try to imagine Father Brown without Chesterton’s Christian humanism, Dickens without his parade of grotesques, or Swift having any reputation at all). I’m more interested, however, in the psychology behind the argument, so often delivered in a tone of impotent fury by people who seem well aware they’ve already lost the battle.
I suggest one cause is the need to reconcile a belief in one’s innate goodness with an inability to act or speak decisively on urgent moral questions. Exposure and addiction to social media has the marked effect of stripping away comforting illusions. It’s much harder to believe you belong to a clear moral majority when most of the people you interact with tell you you’re in the wrong, harder to believe you’re a great thinker and agitator when dozens of strangers are able to make fun of you at the drop of a hat. Likewise, the number of places we can retreat to in order to bathe in our own innocence, to put out of mind our evident complicity in an unjust global society, has greatly diminished. That all art has a political dimension – and, not uncommonly, a complex and troubling one – is something we were able to ignore as long as nobody talked about it. But now that kind of talk is everywhere. And what, indeed, does it say about us if we continue to look for solace in the work of artists who had reprehensible attitudes, or committed unforgivable acts?
There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but wouldn’t it be such a relief if it were “Absolutely nothing”? Hence the zeal for separating art from social responsibility, for making it a safe space. It mirrors exactly the desire of members of fandoms to preserve the version of a media property that existed in their childhood. Fantasy has started to realign with metaphor; it no longer means an escape from the real world. As a genre, of course, it was never free of real-world politics, but as children we were able to pretend otherwise, just as any number of artists and arts aficionados have been able to hide behind a belief that art (or beauty) makes its own damned rules.
One fantasy still pointedly persists, however, and serves as a call to action. It is the idea that those who are in favour of re-examining the political implications of a work are traitors, weaklings and monstrosities. On the one hand, we are smug and self-satisfied, breaking into the palace and trashing our own cultural heritage. On the other, we are totally joyless, unable to experience art and media as anything other than statements of agreement or disagreement. I’d like to think the panic and pain of reactionaries would be eased if they knew that in general others suffer from the same needs, fascinations and anxieties as them, but have chosen to navigate these in a different, less embittering way.
It may not help at all though. That different, less embittering method of navigation is based on an acceptance (difficult as it is to maintain) that everything is in flux, that even that which is figuratively and literally set in stone can be torn down and replaced. If you see someone raging about ‘postmodernism’, this is what they mean. If everything can be replaced, then it means we are involved in a continuous negotiation to maintain that which we value, and on that score (so their thinking goes) the plebs cannot be trusted.
So the real anxiety that grips these reactionaries, I would suggest, is the scale of their own responsibility; to have to decide for ourselves what kind of culture is really worth having and then to make the case for it convincingly is a serious undertaking. Are you able to explain why Shakespeare is a great writer, or were you just relying on the logic that stature proves greatness, accompanied by some blather about artfulness? If so, Shakespeare being dropped from the school syllabus deals you a blow – an absurdly minor one, but one you feel nevertheless. Live by hierarchy; die by hierarchy. Those who do not really know or think about why they value the things they value – or who are perhaps aware that their only reason for doing so is blind adherence to ‘the way of things’ – have every reason to be deeply afraid of the current appetite for cultural renovation. Their cited ideals of ‘talent’, ‘stylishness’ and ‘aesthetic beauty’ are, it turns out, eye-of-the-beholder stuff whose only foundation is settled consensus. When that consensus appears to come under threat, the last recourse they have is to eulogise or don sandwich boards.
Or, I suppose, present as an unsung cultural elite. Just before dispensing her nuggets of writing advice, Joukovsky implores us to join her on her ‘high horse’, promising “The view is superb”. But the previous paragraph sees her complaining about having to read “a litany of mediocre novels by palpably anxious authors that read like they’re trying to win oppressed-identity bingo”. That doesn’t sound very appealing as a view. That sounds like something Scrooge would say.
Lyonesse (Bloodaxe, 2021) presents a problem. On the one hand, it’s tricky to talk about because I don’t feel able to map out the book’s depths. Parts of it remain sunken and mysterious to me – I can claim no commanding vantage point, despite having browsed it on-off for a couple of months and read some of the poems upwards of a dozen times.
On the other hand, it’s tricky to talk about because it describes itself, its themes and its subject matter clearly enough without any need for me to add gloss. In the preface and on the cover and in the poems themselves we are introduced to Lyonesse as “a submerged land”, “a city under the sea”, “an emblem of human frailty in the face of climate change”, “a fluid magical world”, “a feasting-cup city”, “just what you want it to be / streets paved / with the sea”. And in a sense, this is all we need to know; the poems expand on and exemplify these core traits, even foreseeing my present dilemma by referring to Lyonesse as “a place of paradox”.
The poems are also characterised as a series of ‘soundings’ that test the weight and the character of the Lyonesse concept through propositions, and by answering their own questions. How are bells made in an underwater city? They are cast out of lobster carcasses. What would a church service there comprise? Well, the ‘Crayfish Christ’ would have this to say:
Beloveds you must live for pleasure alone! This is my gospel Am I not half-brother to the moon? Are not the deeds of my claw everlasting joy and delight?
Church of Crayfish Christ
Thus Lyonesse accumulates history and character. A close reading seems redundant; the book is a Lonely Planet guide. It fills you in on all the details, and repeats its own title so often that ‘Lyonesse’ becomes a spell in itself, a magic word, the repeated hissing and breaking of waves.
I found as well that the poems flow into one another – that it’s hard to recollect, when I don’t have the book in front of me, which images came from which poem. Their forms are varied, making use of different margin alignments, stanza shapes, spacing, titling conventions, and so on, in the manner of different wind-driven slices of the sea colliding and dispersing (or pieces of shipwreck washed up on the shore). The collection avoids feeling like it’s settling into a routine or iterating a pattern.
There are several poems where the lions of Lyonesse make an appearance (sometimes they are princes) – and there are owls of Lyonesse too, and gownshops and quaysides, and echoes of other myths drawn in and chewed in the surf: an interview with Neptune, plus mermaids and sirens, the devil, Davy Jones. Sometimes the narrator is a resident (a survivor, or a fortune-teller), other times someone hearing and passing on the story.
Many of the poems allude to Lyonesse’s fate, and it’s in this respect that the book is most beguiling, since there’s no actual timeline to be grasped; the city is now and was always both sinking and sunken, destroyed and renewed. It is sea-ravaged, sea-remade, of the sea and entwined with the sea, there and not there. There’s a central ‘Account of the Submergence’, which is composed in full paragraphs and more than two pages long. This poem feels like the anchor, the true tale at the heart of all those others swimming about it, but even here the story remains evasive, partial and teasing (‘Now that we have wiped Lyonesse from the Departures Board (the starry way to Lyonesse no longer valid) let us record what we know so far’).
I think of this line from Auden: “In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” What truth is being told here, about human frailty or climate change? Perhaps that we have made these such a central part of our collective identity that we can no longer imagine what it would be like to not be in the midst of a vast, drawn-out episode of avoidable calamity. We don’t regard the end of civilisation as a series of events so much as a state of being that has been with us throughout our time as a dominant, sentient and self-directing species.
The preface is an interesting and unusual inclusion – I know others tend to find explanatory essays needless at best, an imposition at worst. In this case, I think the only issue is that it ought to be at the end of the book, not at the beginning, since it provides such a ready key to the poems that it risks turning them into a mere demonstration of a thesis. I preferred, for the most part, to put out of my mind the climate parable aspect, and become lost in Lyonesse as a tourist with an outdated, part-perished map becomes lost in a ghost town.
The preface also makes clear the role of grief in the poems, and I should mention here the second and final section of the book, ‘New Lamps for Old’, which moves away from Lyonesse (though not entirely) and into a house deeply haunted by the author’s memories. The poems here are more straightforwardly personal and direct, a little more terse and spare and grounded. The effect is like reaching the end of an animated film and then being shown a reel of the animator getting up from their desk. I like this – it avoids the usual disappointment I feel when a book’s major sequence is too short to stand on its own and seemingly needs to be bolstered by a lot of scattered miscellaneous pieces. ‘New Lamps for Old’ seems set both inside and outside Lyonesse, as if we could zoom out one stage further and find we had been lingering in a snowglobe in one of the city’s gift shops.
This is really a testament to how fiercely (but delicately) the book evokes a sense of place. To open it again after a time away is to return through a portal to somewhere that can never be comprehensively charted, a shattered Narnia that is at once very, very far away and right on the cusp of our own world.
How does a poem mimic (or capture, or transmute) something so visual, so kinetic, so unliterary, as the sight of a murmuration of starlings? And is there any point in it trying to, when we can see the spectacle for ourselves at any time, via a brief internet search? Where is the sense in using such a tired machine as language – words on a page – to describe something that can be experienced first hand?
Let’s look at how two different poems answer these questions. Holly Hopkins’ ‘Starlings’ was first published in Birdbook: Towns, Parks, Gardens and Woodland, a book I co-edited in 2010, and has been most recently printed in her Forward Prize-nominated collection The English Summer. Caleb Parkin’s ‘The Starling Committee Decides’ is published in Raceme no. 13.
‘Starlings’ is written in iambic tetrameter and composed of rhyming four-line stanzas. This is a form that’s easy to read quickly, almost breathlessly, because it’s broken into same-sized units, which are themselves broken into same-sized units. Each four-line stanza is made up of two rhyming couplets. Each couplet is made up of two lines. Each line is made up of four beats. Each beat is made up of one stressed syllable and one or more unstressed syllables. This is about as straightforward as language-patterning gets, and thereby allows the eye and the ear to move forward at pace.
The poem is also a cascade of images, one after another after another. There are no scene transitions and only the thinnest commentary is offered; instead, we move from fens as ‘dying seas’ to sedges, to marsh, to ragged lines of starlings, a ‘budding, chirping swell’, ‘kneaded dough’, a ‘churning shoal’, a ‘living sack’, a ‘thread of trust’ and so on. It seems on a first read-through that the murmuration only takes shape in the second stanza, and that the way the poem tries to capture the spectacle is through those images in the second, third and fourth stanzas, all of which are apt but, one might argue, not a patch on seeing the thing with your own eyes.
But it’s the combination of form with rapid succession of images that provides the more compelling imitation. ‘Starlings’ moves in the mind just like a miniature murmuration, one shape changing to another at speed: swell into flow, flow into dough, shoal into sack, sack into thread. This sets up a contrast with the watchers described in the poem’s last stanza, who stand ‘locked inside their coats’, not daring to speak because of their uncertainty about ‘blundering’, failing to synch up with one another. Human self-consciousness is here starkly presented as a frailty, an inability to harmonise, with the effect that progress is brought to a standstill.
‘The Starling Committee Decides’ takes a different approach. The poem is shaped like a snapshot of a murmuration, with the individual words as individual birds. This makes its rhythm rather bumpy, since the lines are all sorts of different lengths and don’t even start at the same left-hand margin. Parkin adds to this effect by splitting words across lines (‘murmur/ation’, ‘fund/ers’) and using multiple voices which interrupt and talk across one another. It is, as the title indicates, a portrayal of a committee – the voices are not so distinct that clear characters emerge, so we are left with an impression of a squabbling, disorganised cacophony.
As in Hopkins’ poem, there is a strongly implied contrast. The starlings here are humanised, deploying bureaucratic jargon (‘returnability’, ‘natural capital’) and in clear disagreement as to how to proceed. They keep referring to murmuration but have lost the ability to murmurate (‘we don’t have the numbers’). Parkin has frozen them in two ways: by deploying the poem as a still image, and by imbuing them with human reason and individuality.
Both poems suffer from eco-anxiety; ‘Starlings’ begins with a reference to the deterioration of the fenlands, while ‘The Starling Committee Decides’ is premised on reports of collapsing starling populations, handily explained in a footnote. Both respond to this anxiety by turning the spectacle of murmuration back on its human observers. One uses the speed and sweep of language, turning its eye on us very suddenly; the other makes use of the writer’s ability to pause and rearrange, so that we recognise the detail of the accusation. Both seem to agree that we are too young and inexperienced, as individuals, to know how to pull together as a species.