Posted: February 20, 2014 in Chat
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In an earlier post I wrote a little of Ken Goldsmith’s thinking in his book Uncreative Writing. It is based on concepts of recycling text. The argument runs that there is more than enough text in the world – it is everywhere, in and on everything – so much text it is coming out of our ears, so to speak. As such meaning has become devalued. We are either isolated from any sense of ourselves by this loss of meaning, or we are so mapped out that there is no sense of our self anymore. The result is a kind of ‘screen shot’ of our time.

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One cannot but detect a strong political undercurrent to the ideas: distrust and disgust at political rhetoric, sloganeering and manifestoes. We live amongst their effects, our environments are their results.

His practice is to use texts, from any and every source, cut them up, enjamb them, mate them with each other… no, I made that one up… and ‘play’ with them. His results have been very interesting. There needs be a good, strong determining eye and ear in the arrangements.

Now the British Poetry School is running an open access course on similar principles: ‘Hackwriting’ and run by Alex Macdonald.

Found text is set with self text – and what results can be an exciting revitalizing of material.

And then I came across an article by Heather Glen, from 1983. It is titled ‘Blake’s ‘London’: the Language of Experience’. The article is reproduced in a book, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, edited by Kiernan Ryan, 1996.


Heather Glen gets us to look at Blake’s poem ‘LONDON’:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks  of woe.


In every cry of every Man

In every Infants cry of fear

In every voice; in every ban

The mind-forged manacles I hear.

His notebooks had a slightly different version, and this draws out the intent of the piece. As it is here, the first stanza is a take on the period observation-piece we find in Defoe, Gay, Johnson. Theirs is a take on city life; they note the variety and variousness they find. For Blake the first stanza alters the stance: his earlier version had I wander thro each dirty street/ Near where the dirty Thames does flow.

So why change to charter’d? It is a term of the time used by Thomas Paine – his pamphlet explains how the term is double-edged: it can allow certain persons access to, say a region, place, but only by excluding the majority. To Paine it was a term that denoted control, exclusion, preferment.

Blake’s use shows knowledge of Paine’s argument: his denizens were very much the excluded, they were the chartered excludeds, who later we see populate Dickens’ novels.

So what of the term Mark? This would seem to a biblical reference to all those who wore the mark of Cain. This Cain was marked in blood, marked by God, but also very tellingly the maker of the first city of men. Blake emphasises his usage of the term Mark by drawing our attention to it, and also registers his sense of difference as ‘one who marks’, one of the angels, in effect, doing God’s dirty jobs of casting out people. In Blake’s sense we have a self-awareness in the poem, of his separation-by-observation of the populace.

The second stanza is auditory as opposed to the first as visual.  That last phrase ‘mind-forged manacles’ is a direct reference to a piece by Godwin. The argument is between conservative thinking and radical thinking. For the conservatives if the populace will not discipline themselves, their behaviour and appetites, then they will have to submit to being disciplined from without, by law and statute. Everyone had their place, and none must transgress: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate/ the lord made them high and lowly, and order’d their estate.  Blake leaves it open, but demarcates the options.

This highlights Blake’s attempts to wrest God from the hands of those corrupted by power and privilege, and interpret Him so the people could find Him again.

The latter half of the poem is different in tone:

 How the Chimney-sweepers cry,

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls.


But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born infants tear

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.


A sense of the mark is here again, Heather Glen, notes, in how the city walls at the time began to bear anti-war slogans. Also we see the industrial marking of city buildings.

There is much, much in the article that is truly fascinating. But my point is, before enthusiasm threatens to swamp it all: Is not Blake using a version of the technique of these new works? He brings in a selective range of pamphlet material: texts. He enjambs them with self-texts that reflect on the source material, as well as re-contextualise them.

By Blake’s time the rampant pamphleteering, and the endless stream from Grub Street were commonplace. The excess of material has a dual image: the literate among the populace were indeed growing rapidly, but access to concepts and ideas still restricted to University men. Thom Paine and Godwin, as two examples attempted to bring down the fire from heaven. Without the discipline of the university-tutored, what could the common person make of, say Hume, Kant, Hegel?


Of course, I am being a little disingenuous. One of the main characteristics of the writing being promoted here is its non-sequiturs. I think the idea is to ape/suggest the ‘fractured narratives’ and discourses of the city experience. In my earlier piece I used the phrase about this approach that it is ‘submissive’ to language. Here is another example of that. By setting out the fractured discourses, the broken thought, the non-carry-through of discourse and narrative due to the endless distractions of the city experience there is a critique of shallow thinking and short-term attention. And yet the non-sequiturs also promote them.

By, instead, deliberately developing discourse, thought and narrative we could, I suggest, do far more for future concepts of behavioural norms. The tendency over time is to see the novelty rather than the reasoning.

And also see how the New Historicism book recycles material, in this case, essays – and how therefore I am also reusing material, and putting it with self-material to give a recycled effect.

I’ll let you work out the rest.

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