Assemblage in contemporary British poetry

The act of assemblage, of composition through unifying disparate elements of pre-existing texts, takes many forms in contemporary British poetry, and is utilised to various ends. However, despite the multifarious ways in which this aesthetic manifests itself, there are two overriding functions that assemblage performs: firstly it challenges pre-conceived notions of poetic form and extends the ways in which a text can generate meaning, and secondly it uses this formal and linguistic experimentation to exhibit a certain postmodern malaise in contemporary culture, which displays as self-evident the difficulty of meaningful self-expression in late-capitalist culture. Most importantly, the use of assemblage ventures a viable means for artistic expression in an era in which, as Kalle Lasn writes, ‘culture is no longer created by the people’[1] and ‘the spectacles that surround the production of culture…are our culture now. Our role is mostly to listen and watch – and then, based on what we have heard and seen, to buy.’[2]

This is a culture in which individual, subjective, authentic creativity and self-expression is no longer feasible, and any attempt at such is all but redundant. Therefore the use of assemblage and appropriation is inherently subversive, as it enables poetry to become an art form that lives out Theodor W. Adorno’s conception of the collage, in that it ‘makes use of devalued means…as devalued means, and wins its form from the “scandal” produced when the dead suddenly spring up among the living…a montage of the debris of that which once was.’[3] With this in mind, this essay will explore how a number of contemporary British poets display these traits in their work, while also examining the implications this has for poetry’s potential for radical cultural critique in contemporary society.

One of the most important ways in which poetry can exhibit this attempt at expression despite cultural limitations is through pushing to the limit of what the poetic form can express. As such, the act of assemblage is frequently an important compositional tool employed by poets who wish to question poetry’s viability as a means of expression in contemporary culture. We can see this in recent formal experiments with the sonnet, of which Mary Ellen Solt’s ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ is a prime example. This work is particularly important as it exhibits a number of key ways in which formal experimentation can reframe poetry’s potential as a vehicle for expression, with the process of assemblage being the key to binding this concept together and compounding the poem’s success.

Mary Ellen Solt, 'Moon Shot Sonnet'

Mary Ellen Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’

Though ostensibly a sonnet, Solt’s work does not initially seem to resemble the form – or even poetry – in any traditional sense, largely in that it does not have any linguistic content, and instead comprises an appropriation of ‘symbols (“accents”) superimposed by scientists to mark off the lunar surface.’[4] However, a more nuanced analysis would reveal that the work’s lack of linguistic content is the very means through which it can convey meaning. As such, the poem still has a communicative function despite containing no semantic content. The use of the word ‘symbols’[5] in the commentary is not inconsequential: they are indeed symbolic, in that they signify something beyond themselves. The symbols of which the work is constructed are thus a form of ‘pseudo-language’: it is not anti-language or a non-language; rather it functions as if it were a language. These symbols convey meaning in the same way that a conventional, semantic poem would – in fact, it is these symbols themselves that signify the work’s meaning, namely the inadequacy of the linguistic formulations that they have replaced (and are imitative of) to address the subject matter of the poem.

In the case of ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’, the pseudo-linguistic symbols Solt appropriates serve to exhibit how the exponential increase of scientific knowledge and technological progress has changed the way in which conventional poetic subjects can be addressed. As the poem’s commentary notes, ‘the moon had relinquished its romantic aura to become a scientific object. The twentieth-century poet cannot address the moon as Sir Philip Sidney did in 1582.’[6] Thus by the mid-twentieth century Solt’s work is a more pertinent way of addressing the moon, which is now an object of scientific investigation rather than a subject for romantic lyric poetry. There is no ‘truth’ to Sidney’s words in the present: his work is nothing more than a historic artefact and an aesthetic curiosity, which cannot speak to or for the modern condition of life and culture.

So while on the one hand dismissing pre-existing notions of poetic expression, Solt’s work also explores how this very dismissal may in itself breathe new life into poetry’s viability as a vehicle for representing contemporary culture. The discarding of language, and by extension any tangible content, forces the poem to generate meaning through other means: meaning is conveyed not through what the poem expresses, but through what it is unable to express. As the poem’s commentary suggests, ‘the silent language of the symbols was new and commensurate not only with the moon’s new scientific status but with its timeless mystical silence.’[7] This silence hints towards both the sublime abyss of space and the moon, and also of language’s inadequacy of expression, especially through poetic conventions. This power of the work’s ‘silent language’[8] also suggests the inability of the poet to provide an authoritative voice, that subjective expression is ill suited to addressing themes that transcend the individual be it objects of science or universalities of nature. In light of this, appropriation and assemblage allows the poet to ‘create’ without being compromised by their own inadequacy, as it allows a direct conveyance of potential for meaning from the content to the reader. Through this, as Solt writes, ‘It becomes possible…that the highly perceptive reader may be able to make a better poem with the materials the concrete poet gives him than the poet himself.’[9]

The use of assemblage is therefore able to take this decentred subjectivity one stage further by showing that not only is poetic convention obsolete when grappling with modernity, so too perhaps is the poet’s ability to convey subject matter with pertinence and vitality. The use of assemblage removes the authorial voice – again in a way that allows form to mimic content – to compound the fact that Solt herself is no more able to address the moon as perceived in contemporary culture than a work by Sidney is, were it ripped from its historicity and thrust into the twentieth century. In this work in particular, Solt attempts to reconcile a desire to represent the moon with her own inability to adequately do this through poetry – or at least in any traditional sense. This is the key way in which assemblage is used throughout contemporary poetry: its apparent necessity highlights the obsolescence of the subjective authorial voice, while also presenting the reasons for doing so as self-evident. Unable to rely on language – or perhaps even poetry itself – to convey meaning, Solt is therefore left to assemble her message from fragments of found objects, in this case symbols adapted from scientific photography.

Solt’s non-linguistic assemblage of scientific symbols is therefore an admission that language cannot express that which she wishes to express, and so she is instead forced to make use of pre-existing material to compensate for the poet’s inability to fulfil this function. In addressing the moon and humanity’s relation to nature (as mediated through scientific symbols), Solt attempts to represent a subject that is beyond representation, something so sublime that language cannot grasp it. This work is therefore evocative of the Kantian sublime in that it exhibits an attempt to something that, in its magnitude, is beyond linguistic comprehension, meaning that ‘we cannot unify its elements’[10], especially in a work of art. This futility is highlighted by the use of assemblage (which is in a very literal sense an attempt to ‘unify…elements’[11]) rather than subjective linguistic expression in the search for rational meaning where none can be found. The use of assemblage therefore shatters an outmoded, idealistic notion of what poetry can be, and reaffirms that a poetry of assemblage can be more evocative, more pertinent, more authentic than a linguistically conventional work. In this way Solt’s work – if we were to accept it as a true representation of the moon as conceptualised in the age of science – shows Sidney’s work to be outmoded, sentimental and trite. It is in this sense that we can see the inherent radicalism of poetic assemblage, in that an attempt to continue to rely on pre-existing poetic conventions in modern times would be inherently reactionary and conservative. Linguistic and poetic convention is the antithesis of modernity, and so abstraction is the only way to ‘represent’ the abstraction and obfuscation of contemporary culture. As the artist Barnett Newman claimed, through abstraction:

‘We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images…The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.’[12]

So then, the only way to adequately address the abstract and unrepresentable is for art itself to become abstract and unconcerned with representation. The form of Solt’s work therefore mimics its implied content, in the sense that it is through the work’s structure that meaning is expressed, rather than through any linguistic communication. As Solt herself writes, ‘the content of the concrete poem is inseparable from its structure…In the concrete poem form and content are commutative.’[13]

Form therefore becomes crucial to the work’s ability to generate meaning, and it is for this reason that it is important to address ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’s categorisation as a sonnet in order to recognise its function and its radical potential, and ultimately the role that assemblage plays in achieving this. Paradoxically, this work is not a sonnet and yet it is: regardless of authorial intent, the found material ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ derives from consists of written symbols on a page, fourteen lines in length. The work was always-already a sonnet; it was a sonnet before it was even a poem. Assemblage and appropriation renders this collection of symbols being identified as a sonnet as irrefutable, in that they are presented as they were found: ‘the fourteen lines the scientists “wrote” could be divided into the “octave” and “sestet” of the traditional Italian sonnet.’[14] It would take conscious authorial action to ensure that this assemblage doesn’t resemble a sonnet – it is important to note that the poem was ‘found’[15], not written. Solt therefore has changed nothing within the work to ensure it is sonnet-like, and is fully reliant on assemblage for the poem’s form to manifest.

This again highlights the obsolescence of linguistic convention (such as that seen in Sidney’s work) in representing modern concerns. As despite language being unable to address the abstract, the poetic form has evidently survived as a viable means to convey a message. It is therefore important to recognise this work as a sonnet, as it is the most overt signifier that this is indeed poetry – that it is not poetry itself that is irrelevant at present, merely the way in which it has been utilised. It is not its form that signals the extinction of Sidney’s poetics, only its content.

So while this work is in one sense radical, in that it reframes the parameters of poetic function and pushes poetry to its formal limitations, it also functions to reduce the poetic form to its fundamental essence: the conveyance of meaning through symbols on a page. The apparent obsolescence of any truth in Sidney’s work already hints towards the inherent abstraction of poetic language, so in this sense reducing language to abstract, asemic signifiers is not such a radical change.

This paradox of abstract or ‘concrete’ poetry – that it is both radical and fundamentalist – means that the aesthetics of poetry is utilised to express its own inadequacy. This is the underlying function of assemblage in contemporary poetry: it is the mechanism through which poetry can address contemporary culture, while at the same time acknowledging the obsolescence of poetic convention, ‘[making] use of devalued means…as devalued means’[16], to return to Adorno. The assemblage aesthetic compounds the deference of subjectivity in that the lack of contrived creative manipulation allows the work essentially to speak for itself.

While Solt’s exhibition of this deferred subjectivity through abstract assemblage is extremely effective, this can also be achieved through linguistically conventional signification. It is possible to hint towards diminished authority of the poet while still retaining comprehendible content through exploiting the aesthetics of assemblage. We can see this particularly in Juliana Spahr’s ‘After Bill Clinton: Press Briefing and Press Release, White House Website, April 2000’, which employs similar effects as Solt to create a sense of poetry’s inability to represent contemporary culture, and yet still retains a degree of linguistic poetic convention. As the title suggests, the work is appropriated directly from a pre-existing text, in this case a media briefing from the Clinton administration regarding the public’s access to the internet and its relation to such factors as wealth, education and ethnicity.

 Better educated Americans are more likely to be connected. 69 percent
of households with a bachelor’s degree or higher have computers, compared to 16 percent
of those households that have not completed high school. 45 percent
of households with a bachelor’s degree or more have Internet access in the home, compared to 14 percent

with only a high school diploma or GED. The divide between high and low-come Americans is significant. 80 percent
of households with an income of $75,000 or above have computers, compared to 16 percent
of households earning $10,000-$15,000. 60 percent
of households with incomes of $75,000 or above have Internet access, compared to 12 percent

earning $20,000-$25,000. Whites are more likely to be connected than African-Americans and Hispanics. 47 percent
of white households have computers, compared to 23 percent
of African-American and 26 percent
of Hispanic households. 53 percent

of white, two-parent households with children earning more than $35,000.
However, there is virtually no gap in computer ownership between white and African-American households earning more than $75,000.

– Juliana Spahr, ‘After Bill Clinton: Press Briefing and Press Release, White House Website, April 2000

The work consists of what was originally prose reconstituted into the form of a sonnet, so while there is some structural alteration, the content has been lifted wholesale from its source and remains unchanged. In terms of linguistic clarity the work is wholly conventional: it is syntactically consistent, and any content from the original source remains totally intact. This notion – made explicit through the work’s title also effectively acting as a citation – creates the overwhelming impression that the poet has added absolutely nothing to the source material. It would be sensible to conclude then that the poet feels unable – or at least unwilling – to comment on the source material beyond merely repeating it word for word. It would seem therefore that, in the same way that Solt concedes that science is better placed than poetry to conceptualise the moon, Spahr recognises that media-regurgitated facts are in themselves more conducive to a critique of American society than if this subject were to be tackled in a conventional poem. Spahr would seem to be relinquishing the ability of the poet to represent the world, instead deeming it sufficient to let the subject matter speak for itself. There is a concession that the poet’s role as a conduit between ideas and the reader is insufficient in a mass media age in which the elite can speak directly to the public instantaneously. There is also an implication here that in contemporary culture the poet cannot be a raconteur, a dispenser of truth or even a supplier of information in any purposeful way.

However, like ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ before it, it is the very acknowledgment of this inadequacy in Spahr’s poem that gives the poet a new vitality and purpose, thanks to its use of assemblage. For the act of assemblage here enables a critical distancing between the poet and the work: Spahr is not responsible for the subject matter, the voice in the work is not the poet’s but the spectre of its source material. This allows the content to be harnessed for poetic ends but without it being manipulated to a degree that it loses its autonomy of meaning. This means that while there is no ‘poetry’ to be found in the work, it is still read as such, and it is this that gives ‘After Bill Clinton’ its power. Restructuring this press release to give the illusion of a poem invites a deeper reading than its original incarnation would ever receive, and the reader parses the sentences with a greater degree of scrutiny.

This means we can identify subtext more easily in the work, thanks to the poet’s intentionally failed attempt to poeticise the plain and direct prose of the press release. The creation of conventional stanzas and a rhyme scheme (to the extent that the word ‘percent’[17] ending each line with a final rhyming couplet of ‘$[x],000’[18] can be considered a rhyme scheme) means that themes in the work echo and repeat more explicitly. This allows the reader to draw links between different elements within the text, namely the interconnectedness of various inequalities within American society, be it wealth, class or race. The perception of these links would not have been the intended conclusion to the original press release; thus there is a hidden subtext to the poem in the same way that it is possible to perceive hidden structural causes to any societal problem. So while the content is identical between the source material and the resultant poem, the implied meaning of the former is radically subverted by the latter. This effect would not have been possible if Spahr had doctored the source material to make it more ‘lyrical’, or merely used it as inspiration.

Therefore, while on the one hand the work belies poetry’s inability to represent reality with any great clarity, it is also the poem as a form that enables a radical re-reading of the source material. Spahr, like Solt, exploits formal experimentation to both denounce the relevance of poetry to contemporary culture, and yet at the same time enables that very denouncement to become a vehicle for cultural critique.

Assemblage’s role in decentring the poet in their own work is key here, in that it enables information to transfer from subject to reader without any kind of authorial intent diminishing the effect. We can see a variation of this in the extension of allusion and reference as earlier developed in the high modernist tradition, as seen in the works of J. H. Prynne. His ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’ is particularly allusively rich, drawing on ancient Greek myth as a catalyst but also absorbing a multitude of temporally and geographically expansive sources. This is the prime way in which this text can be seen to make use of assemblage, but there are numerous other ways in which Prynne seeks to make explicit a collage-like compositional process. Firstly, Prynne makes use of what David Wheatley calls ‘extreme syntactic disjunction and parataxis’[19] extensively throughout this work. The resultant effect of this is that a phrase such as, ‘No | cheap cigarettes nothing | with the god in this | climate is free of duty | moss wormwood as the cold | star, the dwarf Siberian pine | as from the morainal deposits | of the last deglaciation’[20] does not ‘make sense’ in any reasonable way, and so gives the impression of multiple fragments being fused together, possibly from disparate sources, with disregard for whether the newly created phrase is comprehensible. There are also multiple abrupt digressions, esoteric terms, ‘an almost archaeological attention to etymology’[21] and ‘extensive use of scientific language and other specialist terminology.’[22] Perhaps the most important aspect of the work is not the poem itself but the fact that, unusually, it has a bibliography included with it, making it explicit that this work is significantly indebted to pre-existing texts, and that there is an obscured origin point for the work that would be otherwise unknown to the reader, and which the poet has been unable to sufficiently ‘clear imaginative space for [himself]’[23] and ‘wrestle with [his] strong precursors’[24], as Harold Bloom suggests in The Anxiety of Influence.

This extreme density of reference points, sources and collage-like characteristics in ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’ creates the impression that there is a diminished sense of authorship in the work, leaving the reader disoriented and unsure what – and who – they are reading. It also suggests a lack of ability to create something new, something original; that the work can only gain value through its reference points and how effective it is in disseminating them. Prynne’s work then can be seen as a testament to the struggle for artistic expression in contemporary culture in that, as Fredric Jameson notes, ‘in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.’[25] Prynne’s poetry, through the use of assemblage, both confirms this notion and seeks to find a purpose for poetry beyond and in spite of this.

Thus, like the aforementioned work of Solt and Spahr, Prynne exploits the problems of poetic expression in contemporary times through portraying them as self-evident within his work. Prynne achieves this through experimenting with the function of linguistic signification within poetry, putting into practice his questions in ‘Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words’ regarding the possibility that ‘the sign is arbitrary[26] and that ‘anything that can count towards meaning may do so.’[27] The suggestion here is that it is possible for words to have a purpose, perhaps even a ‘meaning’, beyond signification. The effect of what Wheatley calls Prynne’s ‘flowchart of signification’[28] is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ analysis of the literary text, with the suggestion that ‘the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’[29] and that ‘the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.’[30]

This concept is made explicit and self-evident in ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’, as the aforementioned techniques Prynne utilises enable him to exhibit this deference of signs, while his syntactic fragmentation means he is able to disrupt the link between the words and their meaning. So in exploiting the idea that ‘the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred’[31], assemblage allows Prynne to effectively use words regardless of their meaning, as signs stripped of any explicit signification. This playing on the arbitrariness of the words used could even carry the suggestion that they are even somewhat irrelevant to the content and the aesthetic phenomenon of the totality of the work. Thus in this discussion of linguistics and signification there is also the possibility that language is fully capable of having an aesthetic value without having a communicative function. This assertion of the aesthetic value of language is reminiscent of Newman’s seductive proclamation that ‘man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication…The human in language is literature, not communication.’[32]

In the same way that, in ‘Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words’, Prynne suggests that a receptive audience can understand the effect of a work if it is ‘self-explainingly constructed by familiar rules of word-formation’[33], it is possible to enjoy the reading of a work like ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’ without having an intimate knowledge of, say, Apollo, or the Hyperboreans, or even Aristeas himself. As such, when used in this way in contemporary British poetry, assemblage can be an end in itself. In fact it is a key process in the development of the poem as purely aesthetic phenomenon; it allows poetry to gain the abstraction of which Newman speaks while still retaining an innate poetic value – i.e. the use of language to affect rather than to inform. Once again this work serves a dual, self-contradictory function, in that while it shows poetry’s inability to be a vehicle for self-expression in a way that conveys meaning, it also reasserts poetry as an autonomous work of art, whose goal is to create an aesthetic effect rather than to be a vehicle for information or ideology.

Sean Bonney makes this concept explicit in his translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. His Baudelaire in English seeks a radical function for the aesthetic of assemblage through exploring the formal possibilities of translation. Bonney’s work asserts that translation can be a form of assemblage in showing that the process is more than merely transferring a text from one tongue to another, and that the essence of translation is recontextualisation.

In ensuring that Baudelaire’s work remains a living, breathing cultural artefact there will inevitably be artistic fragments and cultural baggage that Les Fleur du mal picks up along the way, which have irreversibly seeped into the consciousness of the speaker of Baudelaire in Translation, thus becoming inseparable from the act of translation itself. It is in this sense that translation can be seen as an act of assemblage like any other, and as such there are parallels here between what Solt is trying to achieve and Bonney’s act of translation. Bonney’s work suggests that it would be disingenuous to attempt a ‘faithful’ translation, where the words of Baudelaire’s original – already decontextualised through the very act of trying to reproduce them in the 21st Century – are cryogenically frozen and have miraculously remained unscarred by the 150 years of human history between the text and translation. In the same way that Solt suggests that her ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ is a more authentic poetic address of the moon than clinging on to the dead style of Sidney would be, Bonney’s work is exclaiming that this is how Baudelaire’s work should be read in 2008 rather than, say, James McGowan’s 1993 translation, which takes a more conventional, ‘faithful’ approach.

We can see this approach in Bonney’s work in his ‘Les Litanies De Satan’, which is particularly liberal with its translation, with seemingly very little of Baudelaire’s words remaining. For example, Baudelaire’s desperate refrain ‘Ô Satan, prends pitié de ma longue misère!’[34] is conspicuously absent. Instead the only phrase faintly resembling a refrain is taken from another source entirely, with ‘blues falling down like hail’[35] and ‘hellhound on my trail’[36] being an interpolation of lyric fragments from blues musician Robert Johnson’s ‘Hellhound on My Trail’. Bonney thus invokes the aforementioned cultural baggage of the ethereal Johnson’s own feted Faustian pact with the devil, and so it is this representation of Satan that makes its presence known in Bonney’s work as much as Baudeleire’s incarnation does. The spectres of Baudelaire and Johnson haunt Bonney’s work, who draws from Jameson’s ‘imaginary museum’[37] and exhibits, like Prynne, Marx’s notion that ‘the tradition of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’[38] It would be problematic for the speaker in Bonney’s work to reject extraneous influences on his own poetic voice in the name of preserving a misguided sense of purity inherent to Baudelaire’s original text.

As we have seen in the other works discussed here, there is something of an intentional failure in Bonney’s work, in that he has been unable to translate Baudelaire in any conventional way, yet this failure is presented as self-evident in order to comment on the flaws inherent to the act of translation and the problems of self-expression in contemporary culture. In incorporating other sources in the act of translation Bonney acknowledges the continuance of the multitude of influences comprising the original work, rather then the act of translation damning Les Fleurs du mal to be a hermetically sealed, monolithic work that stands alone and impervious to both the context whence it came and that which, in translation, it now finds itself. For translation to have any kind of contemporary purpose and virility this is totally necessary, it would be insincere and inauthentic not to do so.

We can see here that the distinction between an original work and a translation is blurred, again reminiscent of the aforementioned claims made by Barthes. If the claim can be made that Bonney’s work is original in that it bears very little resemblance to the linguistic content of Les Fleurs du mal (as some no doubt will), then we can also make the inverse claim that ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ is a translation of the 31st sonnet of Sidney’s ‘Astrophil and Stella’ (as is somewhat implied in the commentary on the former). The point here is that translation – and the wider act of assemblage – is an essential means of both retaining the work of the past in a relevant way and as an exhibition of the difficulties in creating new work in the current cultural climate, and it is for this reason that is so intrinsic the work of many contemporary British poets.

Bonney’s methods of composition and assemblage allows him to retain the aesthetic effect of Baudelaire’s work, if not the ‘content’, reliant on many of the same principles of signification and extra-linguistic value as discussed in the work of Prynne. Bonney’s aim here is to retain the radicalism and the ‘shock of the new’ of Baudelaire’s writing, even if that means dispensing with much of the original work itself. In the translation of ‘Obsession’, for example, ‘Forests & cathedrals make me puke…I hate the fucking Ocean’[39] may not be as ‘faithful’ as McGowan’s ‘You scare me, forests, as cathedrals do!…Ocean I hate you’[40], but it certainly retains a greater degree of the power of the original. Bonney’s work is to 2008 as Baudelaire’s is to 1850, while McGowan’s translation is trapped in a Neverland of stillborn language and anachronous irrelevance.

Sean Bonney, 'Les Cygnes'

Sean Bonney, ‘Les Cygne’

This is the purpose of utilising assemblage and translation in this manner: it flouts the politics and the conventions of translation, while maintaining a closer fidelity to what should be the goal of translation, in terms of creating a desired aesthetic effect – again reminiscent of what assemblage has achieved in Solt’s work. It returns a radical artistry to the form, and is therefore inherently anti-reactionary, anti-conservative, anti-bourgeois. Bonney achieves this through the violence of tearing up the original work, the crudity of the unconventional typography and the added vulgarity of the language he employs. All of this is underscored by the act of assemblage, which allows Bonney to subordinate the authorial voice and engage in the knowingly futile act of attempting to unify disparate heterogeneous sources, all the while being fully aware of the ‘failure’ of his translation. So yet again this failure is exploited to comment on what this new poetics is able to achieve – namely the network of signification that maintains a link to the past while simultaneously damning the cultural climate in which the work was written. This self-sacrificing element of Bonney’s work serves to offer a path out of the contemporary, suggestive of Chris Mansour’s idea that ‘the creation of a new perceptible reality outside of our existing one is where art’s political potential lies.’[41]

As we have seen, the assemblage evident in contemporary British poetry can be seen to exhibit a great paradox of steadfastness in acknowledging that poetry as we know it is no longer able to address the human condition in contemporary culture, and yet there is an insistence in using that very art form to express this notion. Through assemblage there is the overriding notion that in sacrificing its own potency, poetry exhibits its own irrelevance and inadequacy in conveying meaning in contemporary culture, but paradoxically it is this very trait that can give poetry a new value. As Adorno suggests, ‘Works of the highest level of form that are meaningless or alien to meaning are therefore more than simply meaningless because they gain their content [Gehalt] through the negation of meaning.’[42]

It is through a recognition of this that we can perceive poetry’s potential to be a politicised, radical art form in spite of itself. What we have seen in the works discussed here is a self-evident exhibition of the impossibility of poetic expression in contemporary culture. If, as Slavoj Zizek writes, ‘we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom’[43], then poetic assemblage is an attempt at expression regardless of its impossibility, which itself serves the purpose of exhibiting the cultural conditions of its own creation. This is underlined by Jeff Hilson in discussing of the paradox of ‘announcing the the sonnet as an impossibility whilst demonstrating its continued vitality, not unlike Beckett’s “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”’,[44] itself reminiscent of John Cage’s proclamation that ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry as I need it.’[45]


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Solt, Mary Ellen, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, ed. by Jeff Hilson (Hastings: Reality Street, 2008), pp. 26.

Spahr, Juliana, ‘After Bill Clinton: Press Briefing and Press Release, White House Website, April 2000’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, ed. by Jeff Hilson (Hastings: Reality Street, 2008), pp. 307.

Wheatley, David, ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain’, The Poetry Ireland Review, 64 (2000), 114-118.

Zizek, Slavoj, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002).


[1] Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge – And Why We Must (New York: William Morrow, 1999), p. xiii.

[2] Lasn, Culture Jam, p. xiii.

[3] Andy Hamilton, Aesthetics and Music (London: Continuum, 2007), p. 164.

[4] Mary Ellen Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, ed. by Jeff Hilson (Hastings: Reality Street, 2008), p. 26.

[5] Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, p. 26.

[6] Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, p. 26.

[7] Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, p. 26.

[8] Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, p. 26.

[9] Mary Ellen Solt, ‘Concrete Poetry’, Books Abroad, 44 (1970), 421-425 (p. 423).

[10] Donald W. Crawford, Kant’s Aesthetic Theory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974), p. 99.

[11] Crawford, Kant’s Aesthetic Theory, p. 99.

[12] Barnett Newman, ‘The Sublime is Now’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 580-582, p.581-582

[13] Solt, ‘Concrete Poetry’, p. 423.

[14] Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, p. 26.

[15] Solt, ‘Moon Shot Sonnet’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, p. 26.

[16] Hamilton, Aesthetics and Music, p. 164.

[17] Juliana Spahr, ‘After Bill Clinton: Press Briefing and Press Release, White House Website, April 2000’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, ed. by Jeff Hilson (Hastings: Reality Street, 2008), p. 307.

[18] Spahr, ‘After Bill Clinton: Press Briefing and Press Release, White House Website, April 2000’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, p. 307.

[19] David Wheatley, ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain’, The Poetry Ireland Review, 64 (2000), 114-118 (p. 114).

[20] J. H. Prynne, ‘Aristeas in Seven Years’ in Poems (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2005), pp. 90-96, p.91.

[21] Wheatley, ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain’, p. 114.

[22] Wheatley, ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain’, p. 115.

[23] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 5.

[24] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, p. 5.

[25] Frederic Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ in Modernism/Postmodernism, ed. by Peter Brooker (Harlow: Pearson, 1992), pp. 163-179, p. 169.

[26] J. H. Prynne, Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words (London: Birkbeck, 1993), p. 1.

[27] Prynne, Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, p. 1.

[28] Wheatley, ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain’, p.116.

[29] Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image Music Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), pp. 142-148, p. 146.

[30] Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, p. 146.

[31] Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, p. 147.

[32] Barnett Newman, ‘The First Man Was an Artist’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 574-577, p. 576.

[33] Prynne, Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, p. 35.

[34] Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, trans. by James McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 268.

[35] Sean Bonney, Baudelaire in English (London: Veer, 2008), p. 41.

[36] Bonney, Baudelaire in English, p. 41.

[37] Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, p. 169.

[38] Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ < http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm&gt; [Accessed 16 April 2014].

[39] Bonney, Baudelaire in English, p. 44.

[40] Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, trans. by James McGowan, p. 151.

[41] Chris Mansour, ‘The Antinomy of Art and Politics: A Critique of Art as “Cultural Resistance”’, Platypus Review, 39 (2011), pp. 1-4, p. 4.

[42] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. and ed. by Robert Hullot-Kentor, London: Bloomsbury, 2004), p. 210.

[43] Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso, 2002), p. 2.

[44] Jeff Hilson, ‘Introduction’ in The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, ed. by Jeff Hilson (Hastings: Reality Street, 2008), pp.8-18, p. 16.

[45] John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), p. 109.

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