I realise my blurred and expanded picture of Josephine Dickinson (left) does not do justice to a poetry reading, but it is what I have to hand to mark the recording of Josephine’s poem ‘Alphabetula’ at Frieraum on Sunday. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Freiraum was a shooting star and that we return to the everyday marvel of the night sky after it has gone overhead; I want to hold on to pieces of the day because I think they offer us markers for future thought.
I have written elsewhere about how brilliant the piece ‘Alphabetula’ is; in short, a piece that starts with silence and then the revealing of words that we know and recognise eventually becomes a set of sounds, partial words: graphemes of differing lengths. At the same time, strata of pages build up as Josephine reads, turning the pages of each ‘word’. Ultimately, the sound is so dislocated from the signified that the tone of the reading becomes hugely significant – both times I have witnessed this formidable performance I have registered way that words themselves present difficulty for us. as humans. This seems so clear in their abstraction, especially given the clarity of Josephine’s precise and measured reading of each utterance. That the physical file of ‘words’ then becomes unwieldy and that the poet is fighting with the weight of them as they pull away from her is possibly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen a poet do. And one of the most palpable things I have ever sensed at a reading I feel as the poem draws to a close: the fury at language that we feel – as it does not express intrinsically anything that we invest it with. Being locked away from sound is one thing, but being locked away from the commonly arranged meaning of these words (and the power or means to access and shape that commonly-arranged meaning) is quite another isolation. I wish all poetry was as good; I wish all readings were as good.
Josephine’s poem ‘Snow’ appears in the anthology This Place I Know and we were very fortunate at the Carlisle Poetry Symposium to watch and hear her perform ‘Peat’. These are extraordinary poems. I am going, I hope, to investigate what I am going to go on to say here much later: the way that Josephine has taken form and wrangled it into her own sphere of meaning is an amazing example for us all. Let’s be careful about this: I am not saying that we should all follow in the same direction, but that we should all closely examine our own direction. Do we agree with it? Do we even know what it is? Why is that stanza like that? Did you decide it – or did someone else, and you didn’t realise? I read James Fenton’s book on poetry some years ago. Enjoyed it. But I was dismayed at the hint that Modernism (with its M and its ism and its baggage train of distorted ideologies) was an overcrowded space that the poet individual should seek to avoid; my dismay was that surely that will create the opposite problem. Open any contemporary poetry book from one of the bigger tiny publishers and you’ll see what I mean. One tyranny has replaced another. I sense with Josephine Dickinson’s work that form and structure have been held up to microscopic inspection and weighed, and worked, and wrestled with. That (that!) is what we should be doing. That is poetry.
If you can justify your iambs and anapaests (or your concrete, or surreal) morally and politically, aesthetically and sonically, then that’s excellent. Let’s have that as the marker for future thought.