Once Were Informationists

(This review of Peter McCarey’s collected pamphlets appeared in Edinburgh Review 132, and is a look at what some Scottish poets did post-MacDiarmid and pre-Internet.)

Peter McCarey, Collected Contraptions (Carcanet), 173pp, £14.95

Truth is sunk
in information
(‘Variations for Richard Peck’)

Carcanet are to be congratulated on adding the excellent Peter McCarey to their roster of international Scots. This restlessly inventive Geneva-based poet sits well alongside the elegant Francophile lyricism of David Kinloch, and the sharp, emotionally-devastating minimalism of Richard Price, and together this trio go some way toward making up for the loss of Edwin Morgan.

This is partly because all three are profoundly influenced by Morgan: the first of the four pamphlets which make up McCary’s collection, ‘Town Shanties’, contains his series of ‘rehabs’ – rewirings as much as rewritings of more or less familiar poems – which he published alongside Morgan’s ‘reconstructions’ of the same pieces in the late eighties. These were the first pieces I read by Peter, and I still remember the excitement with which I absorbed ‘Rehab No.6 (Shakespeare, Sonnet LV)’ with its epigraph from Robert Moog, and its casual-seeming flourish of an ancient inscription from the Indus Valley:

Absorb and sift, time, shift all that we’ve done,
Remit, maybe, a broken seal, Harrappan
Inscription [symbol] pan [symbol] -ar [symbol] ki(r), ‘the singer’s mark’,(1)
A thunderstone. Love doesn’t fear the dark.

This was a poetry which could play with minute Morganic flourishes of sound (‘sift, time, shift…/Remit’), and understood MacDiarmid’s magpie habits with nuggets of fact, but which dispensed with High Modernist sententiousness in favour of a strong sense of lyrical closure – something MacDiarmid had largely left in his Scots-writing period, and it took Morgan and W.S.Graham to bring back into the mix of Scottish poetry.

I felt excitement because I was trying to do much the same myself: there are, if one is lucky, moments in which the pursuit of poetic possibilities doesn’t have to be quite so relentlessly individual. Naturally, that fact makes this review not only personal but historical: this is a collection of work produced over fifteen or so years in which much happened in Scottish poetry and, perhaps, much changed within Scottish poets. McCarey’s gathering offers one clear-sighted route through that process.

Once upon a temporary configuration of poets – Robert Crawford, David Kinloch, myself, all in Oxford, then Robert in St Andrews and David back to Glasgow; Richard Price in London at the British Library; Alan Riach and Peter McCarey oscillating wildly between Glasgow, Waikato, and Geneva – there came about a sort of literary movement. Part experiment, part parody, part recognition of a shared inheritance – our collective engagement with a specific Scottish literary genealogy – we called ourselves ‘Informationists’.

We were, as John Davidson had been, interested in how poetry related to science, but also in how science might depend on poetry. We were, as Hugh MacDiarmid had been, interested in how command of discourse related to both authority and authenticity – Scots was, we understood, both as intimate and as much of an ‘other’ to us as English. We were, crucially, much influenced by Edwin Morgan (a mentor to several of us): his extraordinary appetite for invention, and his as extraordinary refusal to take sides in the great game played out between the apparently mainstream and the apparently experimental in British and American poetry (a refusal that did not stop him being commandeered by either side in acts of vague misprision).

We were, between the late eighties and the publication in 1994 of Contraflow on the Superhighway, our ‘primer’ – and avant the appearance of new orthodoxies in both camps throughout the nineties, centred around Picador and Salt – busily meeting, reading, corresponding and publishing.

We shared certain aesthetic preferences including a ready movement between free and more formal verse, an interest in harmonising and clashing different literary and non-literary registers, a free and easy way with found poetry, and the occasional pursuit of programmatic writing without assuming this therefore committed us to ‘experimental’ methodologies – in short, we preserved a distance from dogmatic principles and drew on a longer heritage of not exclusively Scottish writing than the late twentieth century paradigms we saw being established elsewhere.

Peter McCarey’s writing illustrated, exemplified and extended these tendencies more than any of us. In one sense he was and is the most complete Informationist; in another, as he perhaps would be first to point out, there neither is nor was such a thing as Informationism.

Across these collected ‘contraptions’ (the term pointing via Auden to the constructedness of any literary artefact – we’ll hae nane o yir ‘organic’ versifying here), those four Informationist preferences are readily found. ‘Double Click’, for instance, moves between gnomic plays on technology that recall Graham’s ‘Implements In Their Places’ (‘Double click on this/and nothing happens’) and fine quatrains like the following:

I’ve sung in otherwise empty buildings
sometimes random, sometimes right.
I’ve sung until my voice hit gravel.
The open windows are the wings of the night.

The busy, buzzy narrative ‘The Devil in the Driving Mirror’ weaves together the Magi, golems and robotics, Glasgow, rug-making and Rwanda with sharply-stitched images, and a voice that zips from hard-boiled to something still more syncopated without dropping a beat:

…Byron’s daughter, working in the attic all
night over mathematical
equations didn’t spend too much time puzzling
whether dimity or muslin be
this season’s thing or last. No slouch,
no couch potato or cabbage, she
was helping Charles Babbage program,
like so many bales of grogram,
Boolean cogs and cogitations, guzzling
man-hours. Boss! Replace yon
clerk with informatic tosh.

One of the title poems in ‘From the Metaforest’ (there are two, of course), as the notes inform us(2) uses a section from Paul Deussen’s The Philosophy of the Upanishads to enact a characteristic shift from a specialised vocabulary (‘Brahman denotes the term to be defined/and âtman that which defines it’) to a impassioned appeal:

…I have heard from such as are like you
that he who knows the âtman vanquishes sorrow.
I, however, most reverend sir, am bewildered.
Lead me then over, I pray,
to the farther shore that lies beyond sorrow.

McCarey also has an Oulipoetic knack for determining processes which will deliver challenging and entertaining scripts – whether playing with anagrams, using a single consonant, dissecting the copyright statement (or the equally frightening pronouncements of Richard Dawkins), he can push process in the name of invention to startling conclusions. Perhaps the most intriguing of these looks at what sense a spellcheck programme can make of a medieval Scots text – something that ‘should’ be in English, but is in fact in its neighbour, Inglis. Here the recreation of William Dunbar’s famous flyting with Kennedy (or ‘Flouting of Durbar’ as it becomes) examines just how near or far away that neighbourliness actually is:

Thought I whaled lie, thy fragrant phisnomy
DOS manifest they malice to all men;
fib! tractor thief; Fib! glengoir lung, fib! fib!
Fib! phenol front, far phyla than one fen.
My effendis dhow retrofit with thy pen!
Dhow leis, tractor! Quick I sail on the prefab,
scuppers thy Heidi armpit thymus ten,
dhow sail redraft, or thy kronur clef.

The text skirts a splendid sonorous nonsense, but continues to let through hints of the elaborate insults of the flyting mode, while gathering spare parts from other vocabularies, as though specialism were drawn to specialism in search of some ultimate meaning. As he remarks elsewhere, ‘Can poetry be/written in a language the poet doesn’t love?/It can do what it likes.’

Certain themes recur, as you might expect of someone working for the WHO – travel, infection, conflict, exploitation – and the vocabulary crackles with scientific and medical terminologies like the speech of a highly compassionate surgeon doing his rounds (‘a sparrow swoops to the kerb on a cosine’, ‘it all relaxes into us/like blowback on a hypodermic’). There is an impressive exactitude of vocabulary and instance which reminds us that an Informationist likes to replace the epic simile with the fact, and that, although he may resist the preference, these facts often take us back to Scotland, as in this glance at a map of the Hindu Kush:

As I looked down, to touch the names
in the folds of Kashmir beaten in lines

by nimble hooves and bangled heel,
Srinagar joined Schielhallion
(the first hill caught in contours)…

McCarey, as he suggests in ‘Tantris’, another of his rangey bustling narratives, is a ‘gyrovague’ – what David Kinloch called a ‘dustie-fuit’ – the Scot as traveller in both the shrinking world and the expanding realm of the virtual. He is a sort of humanist pilgrim, using the considerable range of his work – which in recent years has been focussed on the marvellous online ‘Syllabary’, a work deliberately positioned beyond the book(3) – to dissect notions of a US- or Euro- or Anglo-centric poetic hegemony, whether of the experimental or the purely lyrical. He’s one of the few working with a full range of the muses apparently to hand – Erato of course, but also Calliope, Clio and Urania. Is he an Informationist or not? That would be telling.

For time’s the jamjar, gravity’s the lid
and water’s the universal solvent.
I am an old man
out in the storm
with no umbrella.
Is this in the Confucian sense
where old is wise, umbrella-less
is tough enough to go through chaos
unprotected? Otherwise
these analects are all of me
that will.

(1) Here McCarey inserts three presumably Harrappan symbols I can’t reproduce.
(2) Ah, Informationist notes – someone should write a note about them!
(3) http://www.thesyllabary.com/

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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3 Responses to Once Were Informationists

  1. Dear Bill,

    I am bowled over by the generosity of that review of Collected Contraptions. Can’t thank you enough (and can’t remember the last time we met: was it really 25 years ago?)


    • Bill Herbert says:

      It’s probably 26 years now, Peter, it’s taken me so long to get back to you. In the grip of busy-ness: apologies. Glad you like it – I tried to tell it like I remembered it, but of course aspects of how I wanted to remember it may be there, like traces of nuts. Still trying to put together all the possibilities that don’t prefer to be kept apart, as I can see you are. Let’s try yet again to keep in better touch, ‘Try to be better’ as WSG puts it. All best, Bill

  2. Pingback: Portrait of an Informationist, (or, The Kind of Found Poetry I Want) | gairnet provides: press of blll

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