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Weightedness in Poetry: An Approach to Scott Thurston


 Ira Lightman  



What kind of presence do the words of a poem have? Many's the time I've come across a quoted verse, sounding new and fresh, and it turns out to be from the middle of a poem I'd read and thought I knew. In the world of song, for example, I only realised the John Lennon line "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans" came from his song ‘Beautiful Boy’, which I'd heard many times. I’ve wondered to myself several times what Scott Thurston has thought, at different times over the last ten years, about how weighted and properly considered every word in every poem of his actually is, to the reader as to him. My sense is that (with no concession at all, deep in his being, to reader response theory) for him the words in the poem are all fully present. They are fully weighted, for him and de facto for everyone else. I can't justify that. I read it between the lines, and can't be very specific about which lines. I think it lends him a grand, tragic and not piteous (I'm admiring and not patronising him) bewilderment with the other people staring at him across his own poems. At the same time this gives an extraordinary and helpful warmth and belief in the reader when Thurston writes critical essays on other writers.

He has written, interestingly, about how the poems of Miles Champion borrow extensively from other writers, often as a collage of quotes. There is more to Champion than that, but Thurston's sleuthing and, as important, his tone, are valuable. For all his emphasis on formal analysis, Thurston doesn't remind me in his criticism of the "technique will save the world" style of analysis. Thurston would also (in his essays to date) not guess at Champion's pain, I think. I read Champion as a very intense and ambitious writer who is somehow very chic with his well-readness and, at the same time, as gently driven by woundedness as any surrealist or writer of automatic writing. What after all are readers placated from doing or asking when Champion's "compositional bonbons placate" (the title of his first book)? Not from shouting "fraud" or "charlatan", which is how many readers took it (placidly). There is a great and powerful unconscious (one that is speaking) inside Champion's conscious that would be amazed to hear me say I take him as expressing pain. The German word Angst is too solemn (too much in hope of cure) for the emotion; it is a lightly floating pain. "Angsty" half says it but makes it sound pleading for pity, kvetching. Thurston doesn't write bonbon poems, though there are, as some have noted, bonbon lines. It's clear that Champion negotiates "spot the style" with his audience out of chutzpah, skill, being ahead of the game ("you think it's this kind of pastiche, no, it's another now") - and succeeds in esteem (and envy) at that. Champion may forego (and this may be his room to breathe) many reading him as an expressive writer saying something. Many think Champion stylish, and important (but not solely for his style, yet that is not gone into).

Thurston reads Champion by not skimming, and Thurston's own work is expected not to be skimmed, though it contains poems, as a drama contains outbursts, as a lid on a simmering pot pops off, that have been valued by others - others who may have skimmed, but that is not gone into. I began this essay by skimming his work and looking for quotable lines and poems that exemplify, that open into the work as a whole. This took months. Reviews of Thurston’s work came out. One of them, by Melissa Flores-Bórque, seemed pleasingly to say some really nice things about the poet.  After a long while. I thought I had a eureka moment, and singled out two or three poems. About to start my write-up, I went Googling reviews again. And I found that Melissa Flores-Bórque had, in fact, used all 3 of the poems I'd been about to build my essay on - and, at the time, the poems as quoted in her review had meant not remotely as much to me in detail as they do to me now. I thought they were touchstones, literally epitomes, imbued with some sense, I thought, of the whole. I felt foolish, and deflated. It’s useful for my essay to have all the poems in one font in one book, as I’m genuinely moving forward with Thurston’s oeuvre. Different magazine and chapbook appearances, in different fonts, make some lines jump out, in one font (in another, not so much) but all this airbrushing does not make me know the poetic any better. So, instead, I’ve set to thinking about skimming. The majority of people skim. I do. It is not that Thurston expects his poems to be studied, to be read as studded, nor psychoanalysed for hidden meanings that the poet might mean. This is not puzzle poetry. He doesn't revise them by studding them with treasure chests, formal clues, patterns to draw the whole poem together into a focus. Instead, the poem is said with a paced, patient, earnest - to be received, eye-to-eye. Whatever one might say in the ensuing moments, this must not be presented as a summary in the form: "What you meant to say there, Scott Thurston, what you essentially mean..." Thurston's persona in the poems seems, genuinely I believe, to be open to response and future moments. But not to anything reductive. That would be denying poetry; it would be mockery. Champion, on the other hand, dabbles in mockery, self-deprecation, parody of all and sundry. Champion can say something, then not have any further discussion, and yet there is a wake of charm.

I'm not sure that the poet, in Thurston's work, is ever talking to the apparent addressees of some of the poems - but, rather, I think, always to people interested in writing, how his personal dramas produce poetry. The poems are for people who take poetry seriously and who take seriously each of Thurston's utterance as examples of poetry. This is a distinct contrast with Champion, and with most of Thurston's contemporaries, who, I believe, are writing for people who may never have seen a poem and may never be expected to read or hear another poem. In performance Thurston makes some concession to the audience who might never read another poem, though not full concession. On the page, there is nil concession. I am not saying Thurston is a self-important capital P Poet, nor that he thinks to himself, here I am writing a Poem. It is much more than he is saying what comes to him to say, and that a proper thinking about poems and poetics is what he always impresses on people - the culture that has heard him, the culture he advocates. This is teacherly, not the insult of "academic" as applied to sentimental and/or po-faced poetry jump-started by a bravura ("my students wouldn't try this") line often written by poets who work in universities - though Thurston has been working in universities. He has one line, singled out favourably by some reviewers, "flick the fucking switch" to close a poem, and it's the one moment where for me he nearly falls into bad academic poet bravura, a la Bob Perelman's poetry of the last ten years, all properness and spiv starting lines and spiv endings. Instead, it is a queasy moment, a bit of melodrama kept from fully capsizing the poem it appears in by the rest of the poem itself. It takes some of the risk of anti-pathos, flirting with the brutal, that fails in Prynne and Joyce from middle age on.

Thurston doesn't seem to have had a Greetings Card rhyming primary school phase of "writing poems", thrown into relief by his first encounter with Eliot or Cummings etc. He seems to have sprung speak-writing the way he does, and finding a home with it among poets. He's not hostile to those who the word poetry makes think of the verse they wrote when gran died. His work is fully attuned to the larger academic idea of poetics, and saved from the paucity of parishioners of that idea by his having an actual appetite for poetry. Thurston's sense of language is attuned to the shimmers of words in their full meaning and words as we use them, the sense of what we mean by "nice" or "complicated" (folded in unison) and what "nice" and "complicated" actually mean. He hears the music of poetry in other languages and writes language that chimes and clicks a bit like German, a bit like Polish, a bit like French, spoken well and emotionally. He doesn’t sound like a translation into English of the syntax and logic of a foreign poem, that kind of translatorese. That would imply a kind of constructivist game, a cut-up, that he doesn't do. He's fluently of the school that Barrett Watten warns against, when Watten praises "construction line" poetry made of components. Watten, it's said, was getting at Bernstein, and a lot of the younger poets who do bad Ashbery via Bernstein. Instead, Thurston writes, it seems to me, in a world in which he assumes people read poetry in other languages with a sense of reading those poems as a Pole and as a German. Just as he is not writing for those who will never read another poem, he's not writing for people who aren't open to learning a language (they don't already have to have one, it isn't a snobbish badge for Thurston). Fascinatingly, when he writes, people who are not (like him) immersed in poetry (or not prepared to be like him) are off his radar.  

(I can't get enough room for my asides in this review, or can't find a shape to fit them in, or can't revise properly, but I wanted to say something here about the way a technical or cant word appears in Prynne or even Allen Fisher and, in with ever decreasing power, in younger poets associated with Cambridge; it appears so as a gesture, in an overall poem flirting with performance and entertainment and seductive lullaby and common language - also parodying it, yet in the two older poets, well, early Prynne, some humble pleasure in the oratory of say Wordsworth - in a way it does not in Thurston. The effect of Thurston's verse on some can be like the effect of Raworth's verse, an apparently dense text of sometimes common sometimes uncommon words all packed in as airless-seeming as technical cant. But Raworth's late work exists in the context of his early work, which allows one to guess at some of its roominess, its gulps and jump-cuts. Some of the Floating Capital poets enact a late Raworth surface while leaving clues and hiccoughs that make one posit an ur-text of non-airlessness, a not-quite-doing-it-full-on. With Thurston, on the other hand, it may look like Raworth or a Floating Capital candidate, which was some of his early milieu, but it's not. That milieu was what made him feel ok to be ponderous and poetical (not florid, of poetry and poetics) and rigorous not as an applied method but thoroughgoing. In essence, there are many poets now who think it outmoded to write oratory washing up to and away from keywords, say the buzzword "harm" or the non-mainstream word "hypnagogic", and instead make everything a keyword, nothing airy and oratorical; but most are playing pick n' mix with inherited forms (not in itself a bad thing) rather than writing (if finding a poem in which to happen to talk that way, by happy coincidence, as Thurston does).

I have written so copiously and speculatively above, in order to approach only a few poems from Scott’s overall work. One is ‘Speaks for Itself’, which I first knew in performance and, as I recall, in a student magazine in Norwich. This is a poem that has not changed for me when I’ve seen it in different fonts, in different places, in print; it has a mighty presence as a poem, not its true mighty presence, which seems consistent whenever it appears.  It might be apparent from what I've written that I take this as a poem resisting how the poem itself, the line itself, might be taken to "speak for itself". If the Thurston poem is live utterance true to poetics and caught on tape, as I'm suggesting, then it does not speak for itself, it speaks with the poet. There certainly are allusions to the difficulty of saying something to lead or provoke to action (implicitly, as a leader, or provocateur) and various political issues bob up in Thurston's poems, requiring for me one commitment too far to engage with as I'm trying to engage with the weightedness of non-skimmable expression. But what's really always going on for me is "don't summarize me" and, echoing a theme in Denise Riley's poems, "don't leave". It's not saying, "echo me" or "talk back the same way" but "allow me to speak as I do". I don't think the work is about the impossibility of the self, or the fiction of the self; too strong a focus on a keyword, like that, is untrue to the poetic as I've described it. It would allow the poem to be reduced to a discussion on a theme, a discussion or theme that speaks for itself. Where a keyword does appear in Thurston's work, like "utility", it feels not a word that could apply to his overall work, but caught up in tension and ambiguity for as long as it appears (each subsequent appearance making one feel one didn't get the last usage of it properly; one has been too reductive.)

Various reviewers pick up on how good a performance piece ‘Speaks for Itself’ would be. I can attest to this, having seen Thurston perform it a few times. The performance effect of ‘Speaks for Itself’ was to leave a little scratch rap in one's head, varying "speak, speak, speak for itself, for it, for self, speaks for itself...", i.e. making one play jazz variations on a melody, but not leaving you singing "speaks for itself", just those three words, over and over. Thurston's work is in a way anti-melody, anti-getting-by-rote. This is, not least, because it seems to surge with the not-said, like a very interesting case study of someone not ill to the point of incapability (the way that many readers of Freud came to see themselves, as non-terminal-cases reading about terminal-cases). I think this piece has a public, performance energy because it is the key statement of Thurston's ethics, a key effusion, but one, if repeated, that would make itself too much of a poem kept in mind by everyone reading or hearing his other poems. It would dominate, at the expense of the poetic. It's of interest to me that other reviewers, who say they have not seen Thurston perform this work, guess it would perform well. For me, the poem is weak in versification and lineation. I can't hear a way to read it at all; it asks to be spoken, but I wouldn't be able to guess how to perform it from its appearance on the page. Certainly it wouldn't exercise its hold in any other form, say as a prose poem or delineated differently. So it is a triumph of form, of a kind of free verse like William Carlos Williams, perhaps. But it makes me feel giddy and lost when I read it without trying to keep Thurston's voice in my head, because it doesn’t take breaths, or go into prose clarity, as Williams’s poems do. Others don't need a sense of Thurston’s actual speaking voice, that experience of the performance of the poem, to say very nice things about it.

My focus on weightedness of form, on what's different about this poet's approach and expectation, helps me to make allowances for the fact that there are in the work ways of thinking, for example, erotically, and seeming metaphors for body parts that remind me of Bunting's rather yucky "a trench is filled" in ‘Briggflatts’ but don't quite become the full yuck in Thurston. Instead, they retain themselves from being yucky by a clever manoeuvre. Properly poetic utterance is, because not able to be reduced, never robbed of all its privacy. There is in Thurston a kind of eroticism that remains enigmatic and private, that is not about the reader "getting off" nor about tutoring the reader not to be so selfish (or unselfish) about getting off and thus get off better. It just doesn't have about it the rut that so much erotic work has about it, the feel of the scene in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life in which John Cleese's schoolmaster has sex with his wife in front of his class of teenage boys ostensibly as a sex education class. There is a "needing to be said”, a lapse nearly to the point of brutal capsize (like his sweary last line quoted before), hard to achieve in a culture where soft porn is everywhere, and duplicity and yuck in a lot of what is written about sex in (compartmentalised) print; I think it's good that poetry be a place in which a whole speaking to the whole takes place, and a taking over from the world of (compartmentalised) print be done carefully.

There is, in fact, in this public communication of a private and never fully unpacked erotic, something of dance. One sees abstracted allusions to physical actions, some of them sexual-seeming, but with menace, with a resentment of those who would simplify, and a provoking of them. A dancer can have a sense of gradations and colours to movement that most are “movement-deaf” to, as musicians can have a (sometimes alienated) sense of the genuinely tone-deaf. I have seen wonderful movement work from Thurston, particularly in a Lowestoft performance on the same night as Miles Champion, in which he moved about quite a large space; and also hemmed into a crowded pub in Norwich, standing, hardly able to move. The rest of the time I’ve seen him sitting, or more commonly rocking from heel to toe as seen on a video of him on YouTube, in the fake stage space one gets in many readings. But I haven’t seen his performances now for five years or so, except by proxy on YouTube.

As much as I'll say about the way Thurston alludes to one of my own poems in his work is that it also looks at eros, and marriage, in a way that retains itself and remains private. I am thinking of a poem called ‘Reading’, which first appeared in Thurston’s 2006 book Hold. I think I am the only specific dedicatee of an individual poem in the book (though the whole book is dedicated to the poet Robert Sheppard), and there are not many dedicatees throughout his poems. The poem ‘Reading’ alludes to the expression "painted paradise" with which I always associate its use by Pound in the Pisan Cantos, though it can make sense without knowing that allusion. There seems a hint of Keats's "peak" in Darian too from ‘On Reading Chapman's Homer’, and an explicit one to a Shakespeare sonnet I like to quote. I take some of this as a compliment; these are poets and/or phrases that are important to me. There may be specific allusions to my own poems - but I don't know them well enough, don't write that weightedly, to follow if so. I can refer the reader, the way I referred myself, to page 4 of my e-book Alter Times Space (page beginning with the word QUOOF).

My poem was, to me, first and foremost about marrying three pastiches together, with an interlinking text – so the idea of marriage (I was not married at the time) plays throughout it. I took some of the rather gloomy, rather porno-erotic, tones of the originals I was pastiching, and tended to gloom on about that too. I can make a thousand winks in my technique in order to get out of saying anything. Some of the words in my piece, and I can’t speak for its guess about the whole, work their way into Thurston’s poem. Particularly, I talk about the anti-hero and Thurston writes, “I want a hero”.

What spooked me, and my skimming attitude, here too, was what Flores-Bórque quoted in her review. I found out from her quotations from Thurston (she does not make the point herself) that Thurston cites my poem twice, once in ‘Reading’, and once in poem five of his sequence ‘Rescale’ (she quoted from the latter, and it popped out at me). The keywords "marriage" and "hero" (albeit still retaining their fullness, not being proper keywords) cement the allusion. I knew both texts before, Thurston had sent me both, but I'd missed the earlier allusion probably because the poem was not explicitly dedicated to me. The Rescale poem dates from before I got married, the Reading poem was sent to me just after I got married, when Thurston had kindly agreed to read a passage from Genesis in the church. I can only say for me that these texts make me realize, in an ongoing way, the not-to-be-reduced (and not to be taken for granted), personally, in my friend, and it made me think a lot about how I position myself, what I do, when I communicate and when I write (the two informing the other). For me, there is no clear overview, no reductive summary that I can write about how these poems are placed in Hold - and I am the first to speculate.

The mostly previously unpublished work at the back of Thurston's book, which has gawky poems that jumped out at me, gave me one seeming theme to the work - morbidity, which goes at least back to ‘Speak for Itself’ (which I had previously skimmed, and not noticed so much death in). But even here, I think this is not a thing I can run with. It doesn't get a proper purchase on all the work, and although it adds a weight and colour to ‘Speaks for Itself’ this is something I now add to my improvisation from memory, adding link words to defuse it: "speaks, speaks, for, itself for, for death, speaks, speaks for itself, what death, which, speaks for itself". In other words, the word "death" does not carry the weight of "speak" or "for" or "itself", and I'm not sure "itself" does. Instead what marks some of these short frank more recent poems is again a kind of flirting with brutalism, and holding back. Also, a taking of Thurston’s whole oeuvre to date by its bootstraps and pulling it into a book shape; i.e. the poems were written to be added to a (commissioned or ideal) book as its extra last pieces. For me, they don’t represent departures into, but departures from, and not true departures from. They are almost the artwork on the book and not poems in it, at the moment. Not that poetry cannot arise from making artwork, and it is about art that I shall sample my only representative quote from Thurston's poetry, again from a poem one could entirely skip over by the skimming method, after its easy-to-misunderstand, take offence from or over-validate beginning:

body language exits a

furious music drafts

in a line of exclusion

a fraught contested

floor with open admissions

sprinkled with a clutch

of dry slogans and coloured

from wind from the

vent spaces keys to

the painting wanted

a new coat cloakroom

stuck ink an array

of prints in enclosure

files propositions pronouns

a rejection of rested

speech grafted into

particulars covert logos

eased into an uneasy

interface too much


I read this poem as a powerful question to the artworld, to poetry like the artworld, for making such sacrifices, such judgmental vanities, as it describes; even to the mere visual of different fonts in different magazines, or one font in a big collected book. Yet the poet would read in a gallery, and is photographed doing so on the back cover of his book. It is an utter no to art in the world of mechanical reproduction, and returns us to the aura of a work. Walter Benjamin is misread as seeing an evolution from the latter to the former, when it is in fact a (French or Stalinist or Thatcherite) revolution, when in fact Benjamin sees an ongoing struggle, a desire for both, and an heroic self-denial of the latter in the name of the former. At the same time, Benjamin's work as writing has little to do with becoming a mechanically reproduced object; it is instead a work little read in the original, whose translations have been reprinted in many fonts. When considered as writing from a good writer, Benjamin's essay turns back on its apparent year zero. Writing, building up its resonance chamber of resonance, and questioning of and doubling-back on its terms, is different from most visual art as it's practised - though there is bad writing and bad visual art aplenty. What Thurston is doing is saying no to making excuses for unweighted poetry for which excuses can be made consciously or unconsciously, in a very intimately and well-perceived artworld which he nevertheless, with a pathos and beauty to the act, rejects.


copyright © Ira Lightman


Ira Lightman has published several pamphlets (see biblio at British Electronic Poetry Centre), and a full-length e-book with /ubu Editions. He has spent the last year developing Public Art projects in the North-East of England where he lives. He is married, with so far one child.