John Stammers’ Use of Rhetoric

Posted: August 25, 2011 in John Stammers Page

In Panoramic Lounge Bar and Stolen Love Behaviour we have poems that, as it were, take flight from a given encounter with a phrase, an observation, a bon mot. This ‘flight’ usually takes the form of, in Panoramic Lounge Bar, an exuberant exploration of a state of mind (‘So what did you do on your week off?’, ‘Que Pasa?’, the reader can supply others), in Stolen Love Behaviour, of an emotional experience, or, a struggle for or celebration of emotional equilibrium. We move, perhaps, from Derrida’s emphasis on the question of textual autonomy, to Deleuze (and Gattari)’s imaging of the libidinal in text (even if such text also needs a ‘desire-liberating reader’).

Interior Night can be seen as an extension of both these, in that the poems there also chart an exploration of emotional states and experiences. Whereas the fragile equilibrium of Stolen Love Behaviour allowed Stammers some truly memorable poems, in Interior Night the equilibrium is tipped and we hang, as it were, to the underside over the darkness of the Id of the poet, and by implication, of his particular time and place: we approach an identity just as fluid as before, but exploring less positive elements. The superstructure of Freudian psychiatry, and of psychoanalysis, does seem to correspond to the concept of a metanarrative, which arcs the writing of this book. As Verena Andermatt Conley wrote (on Cixous) there is a strong psychoanalytical strain in Derrida’s writing, as there is a strong Freudian strain in Deleuze. Stammers has commented elsewhere on his continued commitment to Freud, and Freudian psychoanalysis; and acted as a Freudian therapist at one point. Stammers’ early, award winning ‘The Wolf Man’ from Panoramic Lounge Bar, and the later ‘Midnight in the Realm of the Psychopomp’ from Stolen Love Behaviour, introduce Freudian terminology and concepts to the reader.

What happens in this use of varied modes of language can be best described as a decentering of language. This Stammers has been engaged with throughout his published books; it is a central postmodern device: “… playful, self-reflexive and self-parodying.” Borges is put forward as a master at this, whose, “… writings parallel … poststructuralist verbal exuberance…” (‘Contemporary Literary Theory’, ed Seldon, Widdowson, Brooker). We often now think of postmodernist, especially poststructuralist, writing as rather cold, academic, and unapproachable; that Stammers has produced warm, approachable, even lovable poems is his achievement. He has this verbal exuberance; it is his most admired trait.

In ‘Aspects of Kees’ (Panoramic Lounge Bar) the rhyme and rhythm are exact, a tour-de-force of wit, punning and topical reference: ‘Kees slamming the type writer keys,/ Kees x-ing out words, cursing at his absurd,/ purposeless verbs; zips out the dead sheet/ from the roller. Kees mumbling, blocked,/ failing once again to budge the tumblers in that seized lock,/ turn the key. Kees fumbling/ with the caps lock, humbled/ by the just-typed sheet that says:/ Kees, you’re no Keats, you couldn’t write a line/ if your life depended on it. Kees wondering.’ The overall structure of this excerpt is revealing; we have an accumulating build up of short statements, hard sounds, stopped rhythms, and then a release into a prose line: a buildup, and release, whose issue is a sense of failure, a humbling, a sense of lack and loss, of inadequacy. Plainly the outcome was to be poetry, and we are referenced to expect poetry of a Keatsian character, for which we may read an over-rich, arch-archaic perception of writing. The actual outcome, the flat prose recrimination is further flattened by this expectation. ‘Aspects of Kees’ is an extended piece; we are perhaps tempted to read its rich structure and exploration of American noir culture as a personal refection of the writer’s range of interests, and therefore of the personality of the writer: is this sense of failure, so well acknowledged, part of the writer’s experience, that is, every writer’s experience? Where is the borderline; how far can we read, and how far only see textual play?

Above I have used the phrases ‘take flight’, and ‘exuberance’ for Stammers’ way of writing; this I connected with a definition of the characteristics of poststructuralist writing. What is this ‘flight’, ‘exuberance’? Do I mean here a highly rhetorical use of language? T S Eliot, in the Clark lectures (: Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry) has written, ‘…I could not admit any antithesis between the “rhetorical” and “conversational”.’ and ‘Rhetoric may be merely a development of conversation.’ If we leave aside Derrida on the issue of speech and written language, we can see here a definite reference back to the earlier connection with the approach to language-use of Frank O’Hara, his background of the Beat poets, and foreground of the apparently open structures of the New York school. ‘Any literary mode is a development of speech’: Eliot again. Also again, Derrida questioning the tenets of the underlying statements to this, that speech and the written word are in a hierarchical relationship, in Of Grammatology.

Where do we locate Stammers’ rhetoric? In Panoramic Lounge Bar, if we look at ‘Que Sera?’: ‘Lavish rays of the flagrant sun cascade on the esplanade/ or coruscate the way H2SO4 does, spilt on a lab floor,’ we see a reliance on standard adjectival effects conjoined with the nonstandard sight-reference to chemical tablature. There is a reliance on sound/assonantal effects, open ‘a’s that give sense of space, light, and how they modulate to heighten the sense of what is described. The rhyming of ‘4’/four and ‘floor’ shows an interesting displacement between what is seen and what is read. In ‘There Are Some Places Beyond’: ‘ There are some places beyond where we are,/ places we have been together in other pasts/ down other different possible differences.’ there is a major play on sound used differently, as subtly placed clues; these are alliterative markers. There is also abstraction, repetition, and a delayed syntactical completion; these barely anchor the sense of the piece in reality. It is only later in the piece we hit Vienna, and the tactile details flood in. It is as though the opening section moves through tone registers; it is suggestive of the experimental music of the Vienna circle of musicians grouped with Schoenberg, Berg, Webern. This is an invigorating opening, inviting and sufficiently assertive for the reader to agree to, as Donald Davie has it, the contract between writer and reader.

Stolen Love Behaviour offers rhetorical examples of a different order. Where Barthes’ would have called the previous excerpts as examples of ‘lisable’ writing, with Stolen Love Behaviour we move at times towards a far more ‘scritpible’ writing. ‘Rosegarden’ opens, ‘There’s bound to be rain after all this. The unholy heavens/ are black bouquets laid out along a mantelpiece.’ There is an immediacy in that short opening sentence, the everyday, throwaway phrase about the weather. We then enter the cultural portal the language opens for us, as the writing becomes majorly meta: both meta-physical and meta-phorical. It continues: ‘Interrupted from being who we are for a moment,/ we turn and look through the big bay-window/ to the rosegarden and the red, red roses.’ We do not ‘take flight’ as such here as open into ourselves, discover that the ordinary everyday we know also has an ability for perception that surprises us into a sense of a larger self. This is probably as close as we come to an example of Barthes’ ideas of Textual writing, ‘verticality’, in Stammers. In ‘Furthermore the Avenue’ we have ‘Furthermore the avenue recedes,/ all the tables set out for le dejeuner,/ tiny crabs are spots of cochineal on saffron rice…’ where the ordinary and extraordinary are conjoined within standard metaphorical usage. Use of colour words, offsetting straight observation, persuades us we are entering a heightened state of expression. The opening phoneme continues, as it were, an ongoing engagement with the reader; we are subtly, immediately inducted.

Interior Night demarcates the metaphorical referentiality even more strictly; ‘Mr Punch in Soho’: ‘You would recognise the hook nose anywhere,/ his hump and paunch, the shiny pink erection of his chin…’; the immediate address to the reader leaves no option: we are corralled, we have to listen. Throughout the books there can be seen to be a successive tightening up of usage: here the language is matter of fact, the only release we are allowed from the hammering syntax is through that slightly queasy image with its Freudian overtones. A poem like ‘Existential’ has ‘… when a person passes/ they become a void precisely equivalent to themselves.’ The language does not let us off the hook for one minute; it asserts. By use of rhythmic placement of polysyllables we enact a development of argument as we read, that has standard form and expression. It allows us no alternative, or way out, other than through acceptance of what the sense avers.

The line is Stammers’ measure; in his application it is supple and subtle. A line in Stammers can take us anywhere, and raise many questions as to the nature of an experience, of the manner of our apprehension of an experience, of the nature of such as language. It is not possible to pin him down on any one position, because he moves protean-like through them; his is the realm of language where it meets the world. Stolen Love Behaviour, in particular, does open the possibility of a comparative composition style to Coleridge’s conversational poem style. Coleridge, Robert Koelzer writes, employs the ‘…middle register of speech (using) idiomatic language that is capable of being construed as un-symbolic and un-musical… lets itself be taken as ‘merely talk’’. He traces the use of this style in Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Auden; that is, a predominantly American usage (he does not specify which period of Auden he particularly refers to here). Jerome McGann (The Poetics of Sensibility, 2006) writes, ‘…modernism draws upon romanticism in fundamental ways.’ Allen Ginsburg, of the Beat poets who influenced O’Hara, and through him the London urban styles of Stammers, Mark Ford, employed conversation-cadences as well as a developed form of romanticism in his most famous pieces; he also developed a form of confessional writing. Most of these elements can be detected in Stammers work; O’Hara was not a confessional writer, his first-person and intimate address do not enact the same role as the confessional. But he did attempt a Coleridgean form: ‘To Jane; and in Imitation of Coleridge.’ Echoic uses of a Wallace Stevens prosodic style have also been detected in his writing. And yet poems of the order of ‘Certain Sundry Matters’, ‘Rosegarden’, ‘Flower Market Street’, are not ‘effusions’ in the Coleridgean manner; these poems have particular tones, buried structures, even developments in common and which separate them off from the others; in Stammers the conversation style is developed partly through the medium of the Michael Donaghy narrative form; this is a form that utilises voice tones, and places a persona central to the narrative. The main characteristics of this form are an immediate sense of contemporarity, and immersion in time and place. Stammers is aware of, open to, contemporary experimental writing as can be evinced in his many interviews with a wide range of poets, including Caroline Bergvall; this also holds true to his own use of referential inclusiveness in his writing, in name-checking cultural and domestic motifs. It is also in the structure of his poetry; his emphasis could be said to be for the voice, attempting to capture specific tones of phrase, even more than to the eye and its silent reading. His readings are performances; the correct weighting of intonation of phrase, deployment of tone of voice, are all essential to the comprehension of his work. The categorizations of NLP practitioners in identifying a person’s particular mode or modes of perception, may have a part to play in understanding this also.

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