I'll start with a disclaimer. John and I are in regular correspondence, we're friends and spend much time talking about poetry. This kind of relationship has worried me in the past in case the friendship coloured my response to the work, it no longer bothers me that much but I still feel the need to declare it before we get on to John's current work.
Today, John's In the House of the Hangman project has reached episode/installment number 1733. It's an almost daily 'mash' from many different sources intended (in part) to document the world in the now and to produce what Lefebvre calls a 'recognition effect'. The mash makes use of a wide range of disparate resources and has some brief notes at the end of each poem. I'm going to try to avoid hanging any of the lit crit tags on this ongoing monument to ourselves because I don't think that would be particularly helpful.
I'm guessing that the most frequent reaction to ITH will be "it isn't poetry" which is eminently understandable but entirely wrong. There remain many readers in the English speaking world who are still hung up on the idea of Poet as a singular creative talent that pulls his work from his imagination / soul. There are also those who suspect that most radically innovative work Doesn't Say Very Much. In response I'd just like to observe that poets are always stealing stuff from others, always have done and always will. I'll readily concede that there are many poets who use many different sleights of hand to disguise the fact that they have very little to say but this particular practitioner says many things and we should really start to take notice of him.
I'm not going to go through ITH 1733 on a line by line basis but do want to draw attention to the range of the extracts from Mulder in The X-Files through to Jonty Tiplady via Dan Lieberman and the enigma that is Anthony Grafton. There's also a quote from the forthcoming anthology which is edited by John and Jerome Rothenberg which might be seen as a shameless attempt at self-promotion but the extract does actually 'work' in the context of the poem.
I'm now going to be brave and set forward a reasonable but subjective account of what differentiates those poems that work from those that don't. Firstly, reading the former holds the reader's attention and gives some pleasure / satisfaction whilst also providing some kind of opportunity for involvement. Poems that don't work are either badly formed, have a limited vocabulary or are dishonest in intent.
I've reffered above to the monuental quality of ITH and I think, without getting overly Continental I need to drag in Henri Lefebvre to illustrate what I mean. Along with Alfred North Whitehead, Lefebvre is the most sensible and astute writer on all things spatial that we have and is especially good on monumentality. This is from his seminal The Production of Space:
A monumental work, like a musical one, does not have a 'signified' (or 'signifieds') rather, it has a horizon of meaning a specific or indefinite multiplicity of meanings, a shifting hierarchy in which now one, now another meaning comes momentarily to the fore by means of - and for the sake of - a particular action. The social and political operation of a monumental work traverses the various 'systems' and 'subsystems' or codes and subcodes, which constitute and found the society concerned. But it also surpasses such codes, and implies a 'supercoding' , in that it tends towards the all-embracing presence of the totality.
I'm happy to accept that I've ripped the above completely out of context as Lefebvre is concerned with physical structures and explicity differentiates these from any kind of verbal texts. My only defence is that, after paying attention for some time to ITH the above was the nearest approximation to how I responded to and made sense of the work. I'm not entirely happy with 'supercoding' and would rather have 'gestures' than 'tends' but I do think the horizon of meaning may well be, in the sense of distant and intangible, what the work is 'about' especially as a shifting hierarchy within each part and within the sequence as a whole. My other excuse is Prynne's usage of 'corridors of sense' and 'pathways' in Difficulties in the Translation of Difficult Poems. (2010)
I'd also point to 'by means of - and for the sake of - a particular action' as being paticularly pertinent to this material because there is this multi-faceted dynamic going on throughout whereby relationships between the elements are played out in the presence of the reader.
There's a couple of other elements/qualities that seem to go hand in hand: monstrosity and relentlessness. ITH is huge and carries a challenge to the reader to engage with the whole. We're accustomed to having an overall or panoptic idea of a work but that's really difficult with this, I came late to ITH and, although I have a pdf of the earlier work that I missed, I find that taking each episode as it comes to be enough of a task to cope with. The current bebrowed morning routine is coffee, more coffee, read the latest ITH piece and then get on with the day. This is because it's something I look forward to and it always gives my small brain some serious exercise. It's monstrosity doesn't just come from its size but also because it moves forward relentlessly and gathers a kind of momentum and additional weight as it does so. These two combined give it both urgency and deliberation.
The notes on sources are helpful in obtaining further context (even though the links will 'die' eventually) but I'm not entirely sure that this is what readers of this work need. It's almost as if they get in the way of what's going on with the text.
In conclusion (for the moment) ITH is not an easy or comfortable read, it's often dense and frequently catapults the reader from one piece of ground to the other, it also gets under the skin and undermines many readerly cognitions and habits. These are all good things. Read it.