The Circus of Poetry: from Clowning to the Taming of the Lion

Three years ago I edited and published a collection of essays exploring new approaches to poetry.

Stress Fractures is currently on sale for just five of your English pounds, so as a further temptation I am making my introduction to the book freely available right here. I envisaged the collection as a means of provoking dialogue, so do let me know your thoughts!

As a kid growing up in South London, one of the highlights of my year was the visit of the Chinese State Circus to Brockwell Park. Into the hilly expanse of green space wedged between the urban neighbourhoods of Brixton, Herne Hill and Norwood would come these lithe, muscled, impossibly exotic entertainers: acrobats, tumblers, strong-men and fire-eaters. The Big Top was a strange, other world, governed by Sun Wukong: the Monkey King. Entry was a contract – for the duration of the show, you agreed to be bound to the rules and internal logic of the tent.

In the final essay in this book, Katy Evans-Bush compares the poetic line to a high-wire act (‘the line must be taut, and strong enough to hold’); but poetry is also clowning and the taming of the lion. It is circus without the ringmaster.
In Stress Fractures I hope to stimulate new conversations about poetry, with all the infelicities of its language (to borrow Ross Sutherland’s phrase). The essays are not unified around a particular set of themes, but approach a wide range of subjects. A radically reinterpreted Emily Dickinson mingles with British hip-hop artist Roots Manuva; a teacher’s perspective on poetry in education appears alongside investigations into computer-generated writing. Poetry is conceived as a broad church (or tent) which entertains the constant play of contradictory forces or fractures (tradition/innovation, private/public, freedom/control); and as an artform stretching, connecting, collaborating and making sense of its new positions in a rapidly-changing cultural landscape.

Hip hop artist Roots Manuva

Much has been written about the decline in space available in mainstream culture for literary criticism in this country; the increasing commercialisation of publishing; and the dispersal of critical culture to the unrestricted – and virtually unrefereeable – territory of the internet. Some of this is nostalgic grumbling for a golden age that probably never existed in the first place. Much of it certainly overlooks the opportunities to exploit new technologies (the internet, yes, but also digital printing) to generate new dialogue. We are, I believe, witnessing the growth of a tendency towards cultural democratisation, in which the static roles of writer, reader, critic, academic and consumer, as well as the hierarchical structures of publication, distribution and reception that hold those roles in place, are becoming unstable.

In his essay, Theodoros Chiotis responds to this new environment by making the case for a ‘multidimensional, interdisciplinary’ digital poetics which disrupts the authority of the writer, and stimulates new modes of cognition in the reader. To similar ends, Ross Sutherland shares his own experiments with SYSTRAN translation software to create a collaborative robot poetry. Both envisage a new, dispersed kind of authorship, though one with precursors in, respectively, Modernism and Science Fiction.

Ross Sutherland’s essay subsequently became a performance documentary Every Rendition on a Broken Machine

I am glad to include Tim Clare’s playful deconstruction of Slam Poetry. It seems to me that performance poetry in general has existed for too long without a strong critical culture, and that a certain stream of anti-intellectualism within that broad artform has limited its capacity for innovation. Hannah Silva’s work straddles performance poetry, theatre and live arts, and certainly doesn’t lack innovation. Her fascinating essay ‘Composing Speech’ unlocks some of the secrets of her practice as a writer/performer, such as talking backwards and the peculiarly named art of ‘double tonguing’. Silva’s essay contributes to wider conversations about the relationship between poetry and performance, live art and text-based visual art. In ‘Radio and…’ James Wilkes records an imaginary conversation with Holly Pester; as regular collaborators, their work explores the poetry of radio transmissions and spoken broadcasts: ‘the ruined voice’.

A widely acknowledged association between poetry and hip-hop is developed by David Barnes in his essay on British rapper Roots Manuva, whose lyrics he evaluates in relation to the Romantic poets and Wesleyan theology. Luke Kennard’s contribution approaches the fictional space or ‘engine room’ of the poem via early 20th century comic strips and the music of Nick Cave, David Berman and Smog. And in ‘Emily Dickinson, Vampire Slayer’, Sophie Mayer investigates the many cultural afterlives of the seminal American writer in visual arts, photography, music, and on YouTube.

Emily Dickinson

That poetry is seen here to intersect with pop culture constitutes neither some desperate plea for ‘relevance’ nor a nose-dive towards the lowest common denominator; rather, it demonstrates an open, interdisciplinary critical mode which supports a view of poetry in flux with its cultural surroundings. I am keen to reject the notion that poetry and all poets exist in a special bubble, aloof and disconnected.

Emily Critchley focuses her attention on the American writer Lyn Hejinian, a major figure within Language poetry whose activities since the 1970s have been anything but disconnected. She is, for instance, an energetic supporter of cross-genre collaborations between poets and other artists. Critchley’s essay carefully unpicks the creative, critical and philosophical dynamics at play within Hejinian’s work. Some of the essays in Stress Fractures point towards a new direction in contemporary poetry, a vision that breaks out of the factionalism of the past forty years. Simon Turner identifies a resurgence of interest in Oulipo writing techniques amongst a number of younger British poets, arguing that this could provide a means of combining radical experimentation with the concern for form and craft that characterises mainstream poetry. American writer and critic Adam Fieled, meanwhile, provides an illuminating and necessarily subjective examination of ‘post-avant’ poetry – a problematic term, but one which has generated new energies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lyn Hejinian

As a literary critic, David Caddy is interested in the social histories of artistic communities: the relationships, shared spaces and chance meetings that underpin creative expression. His essay here is concerned with both the history and future of the prose poem in English poetry, characterising it as a ‘hybrid form’ with the ability to ‘absorb a wide range of discourse’. Caddy’s subject is the poem without its most identifiable feature – the line break. Katy Evans-Bush follows with ‘The Line’, an extensive analysis of the poetic line which draws on examples from Sharon Olds, Basil Bunting, Marianne Moore and others, and which is filtered through a reading of high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s On the High Wire.

There is much hand-wringing within the arts over the ‘relevance’ of poetry to children. Indeed, as I write, the Arts Council of England has just made available a major new funding stream to enable poetry organisations to engage with young people. Alex Runchman gives a refreshingly frank assessment of poetry in education from his experiences as a secondary school teacher. He describes a largely conservative educational culture in which poetry is often badly taught and routinely reduced to exam fodder, and argues for a more liberated approach in which poetry can be both studied and enjoyed. Specifically, he calls for more poetry to be written for teenagers.

I originally conceived of this book as a kind of almanac – a form suggesting the collection of sundry data, facts, chronologies, and so on. I hope to have maintained something of the miscellany in Stress Fractures. This is not an academic publication, though a number of the contributors hold postgraduate degrees, and there are plenty of footnotes to point the diligent reader towards further study. Most of the contributors are themselves poets, and some of the essays will appeal to writers, but this is not a book solely for practitioners. Like the Big Top, anyone is welcome.

Marc Chagall, The Circus Horse

The artist Marc Chagall said: ‘For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound.’ I hope the essays that follow offer you glimpses into a world that can be both disturbing and profound, but also fun, mischievous and exhilarating.
Tom Chivers
London, September 2010

Buy Stress Fractures online for £5 (until 16/08/13)


  1. oliver dixon says:

    Hi Tom,
    You’ve inspired me to dig out my Stress Fractures and revisit the essays therein. First time round it also held out hope for new and quirky approaches to poetry criticism at a time when cosy puffery and merely qualitative appreciations have tended to become the norm.
    SF2 needed?

    1. Tom Chivers says:

      Cheers Oliver. I appreciate the kind words. If only some of that cosy puffery had been reserved for me, I might not have published this book! 😉

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