Reviews of the Ephemeral

Different Chemistry / Guage by Rupert M. Loydell

In Pamphlets on January 11, 2011 at 8:00 pm

-Reviewed by Alex Campbell-

Poetry is not visual art. They certainly share many properties, but the bare presentation of a scene, without judgement or even elucidation is not one of them. Visual art is balder, more all-at-once than poetry, which of necessity must be sequential. We watch the individual poetical brush-strokes as they happen before we can step back and examine the whole.

But what about poetry inspired by art? Ought that to emulate the content or the medium that inspired it?  Rupert M. Loydell’s Different Chemistry is described as being “after Joel-Peter Witkin”, the American photographer, and, as you would expect, it touches on many of the same subjects. Here we find “photographs of mirrors”, (“11”), “dead eyes staring upwards” (“8”) “fruit around a baby’s corpse” (“4”) and “grotesque wounds & sepia stumps” (“1”), all reminiscent, and possibly even drawn straight from Witkin’s work.

But there also appears to be an attempt in the poetry to be more photographic in itself. For example, the central line of every stanza of every poem is comprised of three (or sometimes two) italicised and disjointed words or fragments, such as “nonsense   nostalgia   numinous” (“2”) “inane   inept   indecision” (“7”) or “who says   why bother   will you” (“11”), which looks like an attempt to show, as photography does, the entirety of the image at once, rather than building on it sequentially, as written art must. Either that, or it could be reminiscent of flashbulbs going off – each word a photograph in itself.

However, poetry is not visual art, and it seems that in the attempt to emulate, something has been lost in the translation. In attempting to be more like photography, the poems actually become less. There are no sharp outlines, or clear definition. Meaning is blurred and obscured and the poetry becomes an impenetrable mess, from which it is nigh on impossible to derive any kind of sense beyond a few fragmented images. Words are splattered haphazardly across the paper, much like the ink designs opposite each poem. Reading them becomes an exercise like seeing patterns in clouds, or Rorschach ink-blots; Loydell makes the reader do all the work, rarely offering his own interpretation, or even a helpful signpost to meaning.

Which wouldn’t be so bad, if he didn’t keep asserting that there is some sort of deeper meaning to be found here. Every poem of the collection ends with the refrain “the condition of our lives”, tantalisingly hinting at revelations about the human condition, and all that poetry at its best strives to encapsulate. But merely stating it, in amidst such a hap-hazard stream of language does not elucidate anything, does not paint a picture for the reader, or delineate shades of meaning, or even hint at a conclusion which we can draw for ourselves. This isn’t so much Pointillism as join-the-dots. Without the numbers.

Loydell also doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a ballad. While there is nothing wrong with re-imagining a form, the essential quality that makes a ballad a ballad, one would have thought, is the fact that it is a narrative poem. Different Chemistry touts itself as “Ballads of the Alone 4”, but there is nothing narrative about it. The subtitle is meaningless. He might as well have called it “Washing Machines of the Alone 4”. Different Chemistry almost has more in common with the French ballade, for, though it forgoes rhyme altogether, it does still retain a refrain as the last line of each poem. Though it seems a stretch to imagine that this is an intentional comparison that the poet has sought to create.

The second of the two collections, Guage, is, sadly, little better, and just as inexplicable. Though in this there are at least occasional flashes where Loydell demonstrates a greater facility for language and the sound of words, such as in “Tone”. The clicking of “Tacit shift/ /basic alibi/ a stiff fact” as it slaps around the palate is certainly aurally pleasing, though one wishes this skill with sound had been harnessed to a more interesting (or indeed intelligible) message.

There are also moments of either remarkable serendipity or accurate self-awareness, such as in “Hat Tree 2”. Reading the phrase “other language/ clarifies fall / /fill us in”  seems something of a supreme irony, seeing the poet articulate an exhortation the reader has probably been wishing to direct to him from the start. Wonder is not “enough/ for all to guage” (sic.) Sometimes we need something more to wonder at than “words taken out of context / the content of the work / gooseflesh garbage genuine” (Different Chemistry, “6”).

This may seem a harsh estimation of Loydell, but it’s hard to be charitable to a poet when he miss-spells the title of his own collection. Unless “Guage” is supposed to be a nonsense word, or has some deeper meaning that I am unaware of, and isn’t merely a miss-spelling of Gauge, as the quote from “Hat Tree 2” would suggest.

Poetry has for too long held a reputation of being difficult and requiring hard work to understand. Perhaps with a little deeper reading, the meaning in these poems would become apparent, but if one believes that poetry should be an accessible medium to all, then they seem unhelpful to say the least. Modern Poetry does not want to pick up the same negative and elitist connotations as are sometimes attached to Modern Art (e.g. in the public image of The Turner Prize), but with these collections Loydell is in danger of doing just that.


  1. ‘Guage’ is half of the word ‘language’ – Guage is part of a plunderverse project which Stephen Betts collected work for but which was never published. All the texts in Guage were plundered from Betts’ own texts.

    Pointillism and join-the-dots is about right; I have no problem with that as a writing/reading concept, nor with the idea of poetry drawing on the visual arts, or being a visual form [cf concrete poetry etc].
    yes, ballad implies narrative. Is there any reason that narrative can’t be assembled by the reader though?
    And might the ‘alone’ bit of the subtitle also change the idea of a narrative?
    Readers might be interested to know there are 5 Ballads of the Alone sequences, each about/from a different photographer’s work. No 5 is due to appear shortly in University Salzburg Review.

    • “yes, ballad implies narrative. Is there any reason that narrative can’t be assembled by the reader though?”

      There is a very good reason: assembling the poem is rather the job of the poet, isn’t it? Or else why write the poem in the first place? I appreciate that the best readers will always bring a little of themselves to the poem, and the best poets will leave them space to do so, but there is so much space in these poems that it’s almost all space and no substance. To continue with the art metaphor; it’s not a Picasso, it’s a paint by numbers, crucially, without the numbers.
      I think it unlikely in the extreme that a reader who was not previously informed could have picked up on the “Guage” being half of language – especially when the context in which it was used in “Hat Tree 2” really made it seem like it was a miss-spelling. When that fact is mentioned, it does bring more to the text, which makes me wonder why on earth it wasn’t included, alluded to, or made more explicit in the text itself.
      Poetry – to my mind – is great because it is a fantastic medium through which to convey emotion, sensation, feeling and meaning; the important word being “convey”. According to Barthes, the author is dead, so if the reader requires more authorial input than what is already in the text in order to comprehend its meaning, then the text is at fault. And, I’m sorry, but I ascribe to Barthes’ viewpoint.

  2. I don’t happen to think it is helpful going too far in conflating the visual and the verbal, and to my reading Loydell’s piece works well on its own terms, rather than aiming for some putative realisation of visual effects in linguistic equivalence. There is a writerly pace, character and resonance to the Loydell text, albeit taking off from the Witkin source, that I don’t feel Campbell has entirely picked up on.

  3. I don’t want, and I don’t think it is necessary, to choose between fragments and wholes. I know this is confusing, but I have come to believe in the notion of whole fragments: pieces of experience, or language, which are understandable and complete in themselves, but which don’t necessarily link up with or to a Big Truth or Story or Conclusion. I think our real lives are made up of just such discontinous fragments – a cup of coffee, the sight of a cardinal in a tree, a kiss, a poem, a scrap of overheard conversation, an image from an ad on TV, an article about Rwanda. The list is endless, and most of these are neither memorable nor important in “the scheme of things”, but taken together they make up our daily lives.
    I think we need to be glad for these bits and pieces, and not insist that they have to fit into some big picture, some imposed coherence. If you extend the notion from one’s own personal life to the life of the planet, of the universe, you see how the notion of consistency and wholeness begins to waver; you see that the model is one taken from scientific paradigms in which everything fits. But many things don’t “fit”, and as long as we insist on the neatness of the fit, many things of potential significance will be left out, omitted, forgotten. Fragments in this sense suggest the possibility of variety and difference rather than coherence and sameness. They make us think again about what is considered important, or beautiful, or true (you can put in any value here), and so perhaps give us permission to resist moral or aesthetic absolutes. Reality is an invention, a selection, an artifice, not something that actually exists out there/in here in toto.


    A poem is not a puzzle to be solved. A poem is an experience, an event, in and of language. It should be approached as such…

    As long as teachers think poems have to be translated, students will be fearful that they don’t have access to the “right” language. The logic of poetry is not the same as the logic of a story or newspaper article. Poetry is often as much about the way language works – rhythms and sounds and syntax, musical rather than pictorial values – as it is “about” a given subject. The meanings which come to a poem are often just at the intersection between these elements. Students of poetry should become excited about the fact of language as such. Some poems are more difficult than others, but then, some experiences are too. It isn’t the worst thing in the world to be confused, if the confusion is honest – that is, I don’t set out to write poems that are difficult or confusing. I like to provoke; I want my poems to give people permission to think for themselves, on the one hand, and to be deeply responsive, on the other.

    Ann Lauterbach, in *What Is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde*, Daniel Kane, Teachers & Writers Books, NY, 2003

  4. Poetry is turbulent thought, at least that’s what I want from it… It leaves things unsettled, unresolved – leave you knowing less than you did when you started.

    – Charles Bernstein, ‘What’s art got to do with it?’ in My Way

  5. Rupert, much as I understand the need to defend your work, you can’t *force* someone to like it. They didn’t work for Alex and that should be fair enough, it is *her* reading of it. It will work for plenty of others. We can’t get into a mode of saying that there is a singular correct way of viewing a work, as you say, poetry is pluralistic and doesn’t always work as you’d expect it, let’s accept that readers are the same.

  6. Dear Clairet, of course Alex is allowed to dislike work. I’m more concerned with challenging statements such as ‘Poetry is not visual art’ or questioning why poetry should be accessible to the reader! If you’re interested in something then spend time on it. And talkabout it…

  7. Rupert… I’m sorry… you’re questioning the assumption that poetry should be accessible to the reader??

    Why on earth would one write anything – and then publish it – if it is not meant to be read and understood by someone? That smacks more than a little of self-indulgence and arrogance. I have no problem with poetry being challenging, or stimulating questions, or requiring more than a superficial reading to get the full meaning, but poetry that is designed to be deliberately obtuse, or worse, doesn’t even care whether its reader understands it or not is, to my mind, not worth the paper it’s written on.
    If you agree that the underlying function of art is communication – you may not, but that’s certainly the philosophy I subscribe to – then any art, visual or written, which fails in that function can be objectively considered “bad” art. I don’t care what the message is, it may be one with which I passionately disagree, but it is the conveying of that message which I see to be the whole point of the enterprise, and as long as it does that it is successful. The extent to which art conveys this message, emotion, story, situation, etc, the methods which are used, and how effectively and appropriately they are employed, form the subjective experience that critics then deconstruct and evaluate, but it all stems from this single objective criterion: communication.

    My original review was attempting to detail how and why there has been what I see as a breakdown in communication within the poems I was reviewing, and thus why I think they are lacking in artistic merit. I posited that this breakdown came about because they were attempting to be more like visual art than poetry – I might be wrong in this assumption, but that was the opinion I formed on reading them. I was not trying to suggest that poetry should not emulate visual art, or that it could never be successful in doing so, only that in this particular case it appears to have been unsuccessful, and ultimately detracted from the poetry rather than adding to it.

    As a final point, I am interested in discussing questions like this – hence why I replied to your initial comment – but I would be more interested in hearing your opinions on the subject, rather than quotations from other sources.

    regards, Alex

  8. Hi Alex, i suspect you and i may disagree what ‘communication’ is. I don’t for one minute think having something to say is the prime motive of the arts – as a motive it tends to produce polemic and lowest-common-denominator work. I’ve already made it clear that I think an author might choose to focus their poetry on the sound of words or the visual shape of words as much as the content. Just as all paintings use the same visual language but many do not have narrative content, poetry uses words but may not have a story or narrative or something to say.

    The thing is, having said that, is that it is almost impossible to make words not say anything… If the reader is prepared to assemble meaning [which is what the Lauterbach quote is about] then there is a meaning. Obviously, i have chosen the phrases in my poems because I believe they not only work rhythmically but also because they work as a mosaic or collage does, to offer a set of references to the reader about Joel Peter Witkin’s work, that build into something larger than the isolated phrases.

    Having said that they are a response to, not a poem about, Witkin’s photos. They are also about the nature of nudity, death, photography, horror and other issues which Witkin’s work touches upon.

    Why would anyone be interested in, or only intetested in, poetry that tells us something and offers the reader an immediate response… It’s like liking pop songs and only pop songs when there is so much more music out there: contemporary classical, jazz, improv, noise, etc etc, all of which focus on different elements of the sounds world that constitute music.

    You don’t learn a foreign language overnight, so why expect to understand a poem immediately. In the end the poetry that interests me is the complex, difficult stuff – the longevity of work such as The Wasteland, The Cantos, Crow, Berryman’s Sonnets, Maximumus and other work would indicate that I am not alone.

    I do, by the way, enjoy the likes of Roger McGough in performance as much as anyone else, but it isn’t what I wan to read. I’ve said before and i will happily say it again, I don’t want epiphanic spurts of emotional outpourings, nor shaggy dog stories with a “funny” last line. Language is far more exciting than that!


    ps i certainly think 20th C visual arts, along with music, has changed the way we write and think. For instance, think of how collage has entered the mainstream via sampling, rap and flarf/google.

  9. If you don’t have something to say, then why say anything at all?
    I quite agree that not all poems have to have a “message” or say anything particularly profound – poems that convey simply an emotional state, or a static scene rather than a narrative, or an idea or a question can be wonderfully effective (and affective) – but shear poetry of all meaning and it becomes garbled mess. Much like music without a tune is just noise.
    And whilst one can certainly put together a meaning from a jumbled mess, what would be the point? I could do that, but then I would be the poet, I would be the one engaged with the act of creation – you might as well throw me a few pages from the dictionary and tell me to get on with it, pass me a set of paints and a brush, and say that’s as good as giving me a Picasso. Where is the poet’s skill and craftsmanship? You’ve merely selected the materials, nothing more.

    You claim that “Ballads of the Alone 4” is about “the nature of nudity, death, photography, horror and other issues” – so there was something you wished to communicate. What did you wish to say about these subjects? Because I couldn’t tell from your work – which to me suggests a failure of communication. Did you just want to get me thinking about these concepts? Well, again, there they were unsuccessful, because my response is printed above, and I certainly didn’t start meditating on nudity, death or horror – the closest I got was photography, and I take it that my response wasn’t what you were after.

    If you notice, one of the things I actually praised your work for was your use of sound and the shape of words – I think it’s a technique that isn’t used as often as perhaps it should be. But style is no replacement for substance – the technique wasn’t serving the meaning.

    I have a feeling you and I are never going to agree. I also have to add that I detest The Wasteland, James Joyce and a vast amount of the work produced by the Modernists. I object to their entire philosophy that Art is only for the elite, and can only be understood by the educated. My tastes lean much more towards the Pre-Raphaelite ideas of finding the extraordinary in the commonplace, and Art for the masses. Obviously you and I come from very different schools of thought, and have very different artistic tastes. However implying that my tastes are the equivalent of “pop songs” and confined to the likes of Roger McGough is somewhat disingenuous of you. Not everything that isn’t modernism is fluff, and art for all does not necessarily require pandering to the lowest common denominator. My favourite poet is probably Tennyson, for example; hardly a purveyor of Shaggy Dog stories, trite humour or “epiphanic spurts”.
    I would hate you to write me off as a trendy or uneducated pleb, demanding instant gratification from everything I read; I have said on numerous occasions that I do not object to poetry being challenging, or requiring in-depth reading, and believe me I gave your work quite some considerable time – just ask my editor!. I have not flicked through and dismissed your work because I didn’t get it the first time round. I just didn’t like it, predominantly because I couldn’t find any meaning or relevance to it, despite in-text assertions to the contrary.


  10. Hi alex, wasnt implying you were daft or anything, and it was me said i like roger mcgough’s work [and i do]. yup, we’re going to disagree. But i didn’t say art is for the elite, i said if you/people want to understand something then it needs work – there’s a 100 years of poetry since modernism, lots of things being done with language and sometimes it puzzles people. Critics like Lauterbach, Bernstein and others [Robert Sheppard is good] have written about the whys and hows of various poetries and i’m inquisitive and excited enough about how language can and might work to want to play and experiment.

    Yes, i expect my readers to do some work; that’s a kind of political statement and a way to avoid ideas of genius/self-expression and the author’s ego. In this instance you didn’t like it, and that’s fine. I do, however, find it unnerving that you are prepared to write off 100 years of poetry though!

    [i also confess to misunderstanding the blog’s purpose. it doesn’t seem to only deal with ephemera, which is why i sent along the little pamphlets. Look out for the paperback book, Wildlife, due soon from shearsamn, which i suspect might be more to your taste since the poems in it take a (kind of) narrative form.

    Best wishes

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