Miles Champion | A Full Cone | Carcanet £14.99
The challenge or skill, perhaps, for a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet is how much of conventional syntax to retain to allow the surface of the text to be ‘accessible’ or not. Or perhaps that is how I see it. Clearly, there is a cline of accessibility here, with accessibility itself a contested term; ‘accessible’ to whom? And there is also a sense that what is accessible to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets themselves will be different to the rest of us clodhopping, lyric persons. There is also the sense in which a line might be blurred between L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and, say, surrealism. And, of course, we may simply want to dispense with such categories altogether; as Duke Ellington (or was it Miles or Charlie Parker?) said of music, ‘There are only two types of music, good music and bad music.’
Miles Champion’s A Full Cone moves between categories of poetry with ease and confidence. ‘We Have Triangles’ begins, ‘We have triangles / in our minds and we love / to triangulate / rectangles are shaded / with grey scribbles / resembling webs / more webs are spun / and a pale lozenge floats / in the grey web of sky’. The first thing to remark on is the lineation with the line endings falling where we might conventionally pause after noun phrases and clauses. The line endings here occur after verbs five times, and other line endings occur at the end of phrase boundaries. And, although there is no punctuation in this poem, the reader can ‘punctuate’ the poem fairly easily; there are regular sentence structures here even if Champion doesn’t want to flag them up. The second thing to remark on is the way in which this particular part of this poem trades on the visual. As Champion, himself, emphasises at the very beginning of the poem ‘We have triangles in our minds’, and the words on the page move off the page in the imagery which Champion creates, aligning such visual elements as, ‘triangles’, ‘shading’, ‘scribbles’, in ways which allow the reader to imagine the proceedings with some clarity. As he goes on to write, ‘the analogy of the web / is useful for spiders / webs are flat and eventually / all lies flat’ Here the poem reaches out with a metaphor; where ‘all lies flat’, there we have death.
Elsewhere, Champion writes in ways which are more syntactically disruptive. ‘The Seedless Eyebrow Pencils’ begins:
We got hot past the marker in a cloud of
Being still, a ‘gradual’ practice to set
Open to adversity in the jet stream
Hair cream floats thru the air
And tried to genie perfume back in
This is the kind of poem which can try the patience of those who don’t ‘get’ the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E project; sometimes articulated as ‘wresting the signifier from the signified’, i.e deliberately disrupting the relationship between word and meaning so that the poem becomes all surface and has no reference beyond itself. Another problem here is that much of this ‘kind of poetry’ seems the same. You would need to immerse yourself to the poems of differing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets for some time to experience their differences. Much like a lot of contemporary classical music to those outside the fold it often ‘all sounds the same’. Whereas in the past classical music had a particularised ‘language’ i.e. the Baroque, the Romantic, etc., contemporary classical music may seem as though its languages all feel very samey. And this is a ‘problem’ with contemporary language-oriented poetry.
In Champion’s case, the music feels both rapid and yet costive. In the extract above the lines may be syntactically and grammatically regular, but Champion disrupts our expectations. These disruptions are not only lexical; in the first line ‘hot’, ‘marker’ and ‘cloud’ all come from slightly different semantic fields, although ‘hot’ and ‘cloud’ could be put in fields which overlapped. But the line ending on the preposition ‘of’ followed by the participial phrase ‘being still’ ‘feels’ unusual. However, I can’t be the only person for whom ‘being still’ is indeed a ‘gradual process’. Currently, there is a lot of mindfulness training aimed at the gradual process of being still!
We could carry that kind of analysis on for week, and that wouldn’t actually lead us any nearer to working out how to ‘get’ the poetry, how to absorb its music. Such poetry resists accessibility but it can sometimes depend on a perilously subjective kind of evaluation; either you like it or you don’t.
As we have seen, Champion’s poetry is much more varied than just the language-oriented writing. And often there is a gentle wit running through these poems which makes them warm and involving in a way that’s unusual in much of this kind of poetry. One such poem is the one quoted on the back jacket, ‘For Vivian’
I must warn you that I
the top of my sock
on a crazy pot
with a red rubber spout
When I put my foot down
pedals came out
And there are other poems like this in A Full Cone which place much of Champion’s poetry in that very English tradition of Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan, and very welcome it is, too.
by Ian Pople