Saturday, 11 August 2018

Michael Ayres and The New Pictorial Economy

Flower, yarrow, and the starry thistle: Michael Ayres and The New Pictorial Economy; a Premature Review

[this was written in 2003 for a website which has now taken it down – so I am putting it up here. It accompanied some of Ayres' poems)

It is sometimes best to view artists from a standpoint at an angle to their own standpoint. Texture becomes visible when the light falls at a slant. We see all kinds of detail we weren't supposed to. But often, it is good to view an artist from exactly the same angle at which they stand – to capture the data as a primary act of apprehension, the acquisition which will later enable us to think or talk about it.

I have decided to associate Ayres, Kelvin Corcoran, and Robert Sheppard, all born 1956-59, as a group. The name I have given to this group – as a handle – is poets of the New Pictorial Economy. Discussion need not be distracted too much by the fact that this group would logically include me, as well; something which needed to be declared, in order to lighten our load. We could possibly associate Jeremy Reed (b.1951), who exhibits tantalisingly varied developments of the same themes. Reed is the only one of this named group to have engaged with High Street success, the most prolific, the most artistically wayward (in the eyes of many) – and the most involved with pictorial glamour.

These poets had in common that they missed the revolutionary cultural upbeat of the 1970s, except as students and consumers of art; were sorely at odds with the New Right hedonism of the 1980s; have largely been ignored by criticism; became very prolific, perhaps reacting against rejection; explored large-scale forms; do not perceive a vital 'high-low' difference between poetry and rock music, and were formed by rock culture; and that they are fascinated by the new pictorial economy which fills streets and homes with images – and by the processes which developed those images, as cultural messages with overt and covert content. I often associate this sensibility with Tony Benn's two books of the early Eighties, Arguments for Democracy and Arguments for Socialism, where he swept the economy of information to the foreground of politics, arguing against the whole ownership structure of the information media, and exposing the political bias which subjected the content of the owned media. This is the pictorial economy – the system of mills and pulleys by which images are assembled, transformed in a lavish and highly capitalised way from their dull and dumb originals in the real world. Once you see an image as an idea (which means something visual, etymologically), you then ask whose idea is it - whose vision.

The poets in question often seem to be writing from inside a system of pictures – Corcoran's Our Thinking Tracts being an example of this. They also have a private and self-confident set of internal images as a basis for acute criticism of social reality and of the shallow images of affirmative culture.

This may not be the best name. Any name would have done in order to study Ayres in a landscape in which he is at the centre, rather than one where the centre is Black Mountain in the 1950s, or Cambridge in the 1970s, or Huddersfield in the 1980s, and the poet's essential traits register as amusingly deviant. Other names might work better. I first thought of Young Marble Giants, after a line of Kelvin's which appears just before one of Ayres' poems, in Angel Exhaust 10:

Young marble giants sleep inside us,
that virtue which fills the body with itself,
limbs and head emerging from stone
if only I could, as if to take a step.
O you islands of men and women.
(from Melanie's Book).

The line comes of course from the name of a band, one who appeared on Rough Trade records, were Welsh marxists (roughly), made the wonderful 'Final Days' in 1981, and vanished. I heard a rumour that they are still playing (and live downstairs from someone I know?), but in practice someone who knows their name belongs to a specific generation – the generation, of course, of the poets we are discussing. (The band took it from some guide-book about Greek sculptures standing on a headland somewhere.) I rather liked the link of visual art, politics, and rock and roll. However, the "young" bit is by now misleading. I liked the "giant" bit, too. I toyed with the phrase "lost marble giants". Oh well. The giants suggested a drama of idealism: a recognition that the created visual world expressed ideals rather than an actuality able to reproduce itself. The drama confronted the capitalist Utopia fervently promoted by the owners of the media with the socialist and humanist Utopia desired by the poets.

Part of the Ayres legend is as someone under-published, impassively ignoring the tasks of literary networking in order to spend the largest possible amount of time writing the largest possible number of poems. Art is wealth. This situation, the external aspect of which will be dramatically transformed by [releases imminent in 2003], is profoundly comparable to the other New Pictorial Economy poets at a certain stage of their careers. It was a formative environment which disappears – built over, but leaving its trace in the physiology of the inhabitants.

"The plump sun of a segmented tangerine burns on the saucer by the side of the pool: that taste is fire slowed and synthesized, stored in batteries of sugar, and the rays bend now into Lexington handmade paper 622 x 800mm, burns later in the suicide's blaze, where one dies of life, unable to continue: one, water dripping down back, buttocks and thighs, feels the bones enter the terrifying medium of cancer, now watches lover whipping a tethered dog with a leather lash, the greyhound eyes, the shivering physique, eyes of a Mary, a suffering Madonna, watches and does not intervene.
One pounds a piano, a hefty grand, a lacquered beats, beauty from blood, sonata from carcass, the smile of teeth, pounds pounds pounds, titillates, pounds, caresses, a rippling smile, moral grandeur with a yellow label, Deutsche Grammophon, a cubist crocodile fed on fingers of Schoenberg, and opens the jaws like a yawning patron on the void of boredom, one's private disease, an ivory throat yawning, and yawning – first fear, then fury, then melancholia, then despair."

'Deposition' goes on like this for 5 A4 pages (of Grille, #3, 1994), imitating the visual imagination of advertisements, taking on the MegaVisual tradition (in Peter Fuller's phrase) and excelling it. The poem stages a self-love-nest of commodity fetishism and climaxes with a quote from the Sex Pistols, a flashback to Situationism.
There seems to be a connection, in the atmosphere of German Idealism, between the ideal visual forms of Greek sculpture, and the behavioural and intellectual ideals discussed by the leisured heroes of Plato’s dialogues. In modern radical thought, there is a way leading from a dispassionate consideration of visual creations to the ideal forms towards which they strive; and on from this visualisation of the ideal to an emotional withdrawal from the forms of law and social life actually obtaining. Because of Marx’s classical background and enthusiasms, the whole line of Marxism has remained soaked in this line of German idealism, as we realise when we look at Soviet architecture and painting, or consider the Soviet bloc’s preoccupation with athletics in terms of its origins.

Looking, thus, at the Soviet realm’s visual order of ideal bodies and stone-enveloped ceremonial spaces is bound to remind us of the idealised world which saturates our streets. This is peculiarly an era when architecture is ignored or covered over by flat photographic images. When, too, the three-dimensional reality of oranges is felt to be less stimulating than the 2-dimensional, artificially staged and lit, image of oranges on the label. These images are also ideals – a visual economy as the satisfaction of desires. Commodity praise art is a shallow Utopia offering a model for each grouping of humans, which is more concentrated and significant than those formed by the real humans around them, and can act as a model for them. The wonderful technology of pictures draws us into a state of dependence, brings us the temptation of immersion, and teaches us to use the off switch of detachment. The street of pictures shows us the society we desire as a didactic refrain to the actual scenes and groupings. Its frames are a social grammar for forming social utterances or acts.
The poetry of the new pictorial economy has been far-reachingly oriented to take on this visual grammar – to seize it and sequence it. The poets of the group have taken on this interconnected, self-repeating, false yet lush visual world, in a struggle so intimate that it turns into a relationship. The lag between retinal perception and the formation of a model in the brain, with its star-burst of neural activity, has been prolonged, to become the site where poets excel, where poetry has its special place. As a side-effect, it is the location where the artist deviates from the merely objective and common, to create an impossibly rich and personal world, as mandated by Symbolisme. When the visual is so detached from its own archaic grounds in the physical, it gives us information about what is no longer archaic but actually timeless – our own biological desires; and, consequently, a state in which those desires would be satisfied – and we, replete.

The invasion of the offered public imagery by pressure-groups can also be interpreted as a wish to enter those images – by pushing to the centre of them, you tacitly accept that they are central. Contest over what too many people desire to have shows us, nonetheless, what desire is animated by. Love that hurting thing y'all. In the new visual economy, litigation takes place over images rather than over land ownership. The insubstantial is thus made fundamental. The projection of intact wish images is then a restitution for a new population, as transcendentally beautiful landscape images were restitution for a displaced rural population, which lived in cities and wished to live in the country. The litigation process damaged the images, in which we were then forced to live. The intellect perpetually seeks an intact visual plane, full of clear relationships as the basis for its struggles to model the truth, and perpetually shatters it, realising conflict in order to collapse into a domain of concepts.

A 1955 essay by David Sylvester remarks that "The most obvious difference between the art of today and art of the inter-war period is that rough surfaces have taken the place of smooth ones." He speaks of "the growth of moss or lichen which is suggested by the textures of certain English neo-Romantic painting, the wear and patination undergone by archaeological relics". This distinction is probably crucial for how we take to Ayres' work. It is extremely smooth, it has a mighty depth of field which requires perfect lighting conditions and a suitable self-arrangement of objects; it advances irresistibly, like a bus. As Sylvester indicates, painters of the existentialist era saw damage as the sign of authenticity. But why should the authentic not be intact? is that not why it is authentic? Surely rough textures can quite well be projective, subjective, fashionably predictable. "Two decades ago", the English critic wrote, "the current ideal was a streamlined finish, clean, precise, immaculate(.)" This is Ayres' current ideal, swimming in a world of techno music, steadicams, and mathematically generated films.

Naturally, the clash between the overall nature of the optically available world-surface and the linear, punctual nature of language causes problems at the level of metre. The posing and solution of these problems – of perpetually turning a plane into a string of points which recompose as a plane – is the project which Ayres has given his workshop over to. 

It is premature, no doubt, to write at length about Ayres' work when so much of it has not been published. He strikes me as someone almost totally uninfluenced by modern poetry. The influences we do detect go all the way back to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarme; influences dissolved, to be sure, in the workings of contemporary awareness, but which do concretize and converge as a "New Symbolisme". The key form-element is the Symbol, a visual image integrating various objects or parts. The origin of the image is within the artist's psyche, and it is not being corrected by reference to a physical original. Something essential is the way in which it is developed. We could speak of images that obey the laws of music. We should consider other Symbolists such as Paul Claudel, Leconte de Lisle, St Pol Roux, Verhaeren. His endlessly expanding pictures are carefully programmed; this is not quite surrealism.

Let's look for a moment at a passage from 'The Symbolic Church of the Red Truth':

John puts the grey stone into the cold box
In the cold box there is a grey stone
In the cold box there is a stone there is greyness
In the cold box is the grey stone John put there
John puts aluminium into the cold box
Jeff puts a yellow crayon into the cold box
In the cold box a yellow crayon rests beside a grey stone
In the cold box a yellow crayon rests beside aluminium
They are safe in the cold box – the grey stone, aluminium and the yellow crayon
They are there in the cold box
They are things in the cold box
Sometimes the cold box is the eye
Sometimes the cold box is 'memory'
Sometimes  the cold box is mind
Sometimes  the cold box is language
Sometimes the cold box is a flamingo
Sometimes  the cold box is an instant
Sometimes  the cold box is 'there'

The same phrase appears in 18 successive lines. This is a striking technical device. It may represent the poet's generation of fictive space: by a process of cellular doubling and variation, repeated indefinitely. We are bound to be reminded of Spiritualised – a band who use two-chord structures to produce an effect of shimmering and hovering, as we lose a sense of musical 'forward' and 'back': forward is the same as back. Something else we are bound to be reminded of is House music, with its dervish-like repetition of nuclear phrases, stored in a sequencer. The endless symmetry with its rippling, shifting breaches puts the centre of the work inside itself: it is convergent, which is the first requirement for any artificial world. This sounds like the self-teaching program of an automaton, acquiring cognitive structures through a minimal vocabulary and untiring procedures. By a slight shift, this could be the program which generates a digital landscape in a film – or in the code of a video game. The same doubling, splitting, and shifting gives, just further on, the lovely
the azure acid of melancholia the rook acid of foreboding.

'Marshal' is my favourite Ayres poem and is, we now learn, one of five poems, planned as a book, from the early 90s, the other four of which were 'Pool' 'Idyl' (published in Angel Exhaust 16), 'Sad Captain' and 'Nosferatu'. 'Marshal' was published in Angel Exhaust 10, and concerns a US marshal, a cattle town gunfighter from some classic and forgotten Western, come to face down and seize the poet for an unnamed crime. The scene is one from some lost Surrealist film, of lovers chased by malign authority. The Marshal is Tom Mix as the 'taxonomic loco' who reduces the wild lands of the West and the psyche to miserable, apathetic order. Of all Ayres' poems, this has the most brilliantly changing images, like shards of glass flying apart just slowly enough for us to see:

Then you come as a china dog tied with a morphine bow,
you come as lacunae, in senile pools,
you bring us what we forget in sacks of crushed wheels,
with clocks dipped in lard;
you come as a tiny barking dog,
a tiny ornamental dog from off a mantel,
an Anubis smaller than the eye
of a Lilliputian, tinkling needle.

In rooms of dishevelled memory,
a Jacob's angel of dirt and throwing winds on through,
a localised hurricane, diminutive then suddenly vast,
centreless, but perfumed,
trailing anxieties and desires:
I have passed close by you,
have reached and lost you

The openness to imagery is as if his studio were built with one glass wall. A poet who writes visually has to compete with other visual artists and to provide an adequate answer to the problems of visual thinking. The benefit is this purling fluency – you wade into the river and can then scoop what you want out of it. Correlatively, the poems offer themselves to our acoustic "scoop" with few or no retrieval problems. They are not cryptographic, paradoxical, violating the code they are written in. They reflect an imagined and experienced serene phase of existence, not frantic uncertainty in some hellish transit zone lost between two states of true being.

The more the image evolves and expresses process, the less it is surreal. Surrealism is of course present, mediated no doubt through Neruda, but we recall that is in fact a mutation of Symbolisme, and the objects which populated its oneiric scenes were largely left over from the warehouse of Symbolisme. Ayres is not interested in the momentary and contradictory montage, his key values are the abiding nature of the image conjured up from nowhere, its autonomy visavis the psyche which created it. These are not scribbled sketches but as it were built in brass and marble.
Symbolisme instructs a defection from the levelling world of the rational, shared, and legalistic. A refusal to adjust the lens to a shared norm – a portrait of the behaviour of the lens rather than of the visible, real, world. The dominance of personal style was defined by Arnold Hauser as bourgeois subjectivism, something which arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century. That was the start of the era we are still in. Maybe we start with a library of shared images and acquire personality by inducing differentiation in them.

As someone else influenced by the French, who adopted surrealism but did not want to surrender expressive control, we could name J.F. Hendry – a predecessor. His concept of the expanding image seems relevant:

Flower, yarrow, and the starry
Thistle throughout her temporal death!
Flower and flowering doubly, bear
This supersession of breath
Into the dreamless kingdom where
All substance, shape and motion
Find fulfilment of conception.
(from 'the orchestral mountain')

Let us break into blue music, like the sea,/ This hour-glass shivering at the wind's note. Hendry could devise brilliant lines but has none of Ayres' mastery of organisation in depth – his power to throw in violent shifts of direction which strengthen the cumulative image rather than interrupting it.

Whether rough or smooth, the boundary between the voluntary (gratifying) and involuntary (images that fly of their own accord) seems a vital boundary in this animated world. Jeremy Reed's recent work has accepted glamour photography as the authentic visual skin of the ideal in our time, and adopted the schemas of glossy magazines as the production values of the poem: a step too far for his peers. The step forward into kinky erotica was in its way a move into optimism, away from the corrosive revelations of observation of flesh and temperament taken from life. The contest with such a fulsomely multiplied world of scenes made possible a linear maximisation of impact, sheer and flawless as the chassis of a new car. In its extremism, and acceptance of media values, this work sheds a light on more complex work – for example the Ayres of 'Deposition', for example Barry MacSweeney's Jury Vet. The cynical isolation and valorisation of assets at least allows us to hazard a guess that the avant-garde's single-minded focus on one set of assets – those of a discredited historicism and formalism – represents a kind of tunnel vision rather than a choice which art will forever stay with. Art has always danced with the prized assets of the society around it, and the more this attraction is forbidden the more it will stand for temptation and transgression.

Very early appearances were in First Offence 5 ('Raw Materials') and Angel Exhaust Nine (1993; 'The Age of Drift'). An interesting moment in the struggle was the anthology Ten British Poets (edited by Paul Green, 1993), which showcased Ayres along with DS Marriott, Rod Mengham, Nigel Wheale, and others. Green’s knowledge was ahead of the game, and the milieu should have taken advantage of this. The anthology was both timely and of high quality. It repays looking at today. Maybe the problem was as simple as putting Peter Larkin’s share at the front – the reader was bleeding and unconscious before they ever got to the second contributor. This was a book which the whispering gallery of literary opinion never started whispering about. I do recall seeing two reviews, which were animated by jealousy and resentment, and didn’t bother with any description or evaluation. On such chances, entire periods of someone’s career may depend. Compounding the problems, no anthology with the same chronological lens has followed. This gallery serves as an exhibition of Ayres’ work, which can usefully be set beside Kelvin’s selected poems (to come from shearsman in 2004), and Robert Sheppard’s gallery (planned for 2003). It would be simpler if there were a magazine we could name the group after. In fact, all the New Pictorial Economy poets have some connection with shearsman.

Andrew Duncan
April 2003

Bibliography. Ten British Poets. Michael Ayres, Poems 1987-92; a.m. Robert Sheppard, The Lores, Daylight Robbery. Jeremy Reed, The Isthmus of Samuel Greenberg, Saints and Psychotics, Walk on Through, Bleecker Street. Kelvin Corcoran, The Red and Yellow Book, Lyric Lyric, When Suzy Was, Their Thinking Tracts or Nations.


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