It’s quite a popular secret, the Cambridge Poetry Festival; a roomful of freelance delegates, all capable of keeping their eyes to the front, on the platform – no droolers, no crisp packets. By Saturday afternoon, a certain mid-term weariness is evident (so many readings survived, so many still to come); the post-traumatic shock of being allowed into the showpiece. King’s College, the part the grockles are never allowed to photograph (too squalid, these ranks of distressed vinyl chairs). It’s unreal: all these floaters drifting in from the street, straight past the uniforms, unmolested; an atmosphere of subdued revivalism, inauthentic elation (like getting high on a dope dealer’s promissory note). There is even a cadet Boulting, floppy-haired, who has volunteered to keep the video record. Otherwise the civilians, the print-grazers, wouldn’t believe it: poetry, the hard stuff, back on the agenda. Not the New Generation faces with the interesting jobs, the mugshots from Waterstone’s window, nor the ethically-challenged technicians who provide the polyfilla strips to fill a hole in the broadsheets with a slender genuflection aimed at the Balkans. The commodity these Cambridge jokers trade in is much more volatile. It congratulates itself on an audience-defying perversity. Read the list of ingredients: argument, intelligence, spiteful syntax, information overload. A negative dialectic that can live uxoriously with itself, assertive in its modesty. Poetry. An embarrassing word. The project is anachronistic. Well-meaning (but seriously pared-down) publishing conglomerates have had to let it go. The Oxford University Press feel no obligation to keep David Gascoyne’s Collected Poems in print. Faber and Faber get along very nicely on Tom Eliot’s singing and dancing pussy-cats. The Cambridge Festival (don’t tell them) is nowhere, it isn’t happening. What’s the story? Even the participants don’t know. Irony is currently unfashionable. An outsider couldn’t begin to grasp the laid-back intensity with which the poets (because they are all, it is understood, card-carrying practitioners) test the rhetoric for unsound doctrine. Anathemas are pronounced with quarrelsome tenderness. Rogue cadres peel away to check out the alternative festival, the real action, the underground’s underground.
An insider would have a sharper take on this scene. The Leeds-based poet, who operates as ‘Out to Lunch’, with long experience of these binges behind him, speaks of ‘a sell-congratulatory scum of proudly atomised sentimentalists’ and ‘the tedious outfall of SI critique of isolate art: poetry as dribbled politics’. Harsh, but not inaccurate. A post-punk SWP member, obviously. He’s right about the blend because, strictly speaking, this is not the Cambridge Poetry Festival (as sponsored by Eastern Arts) but the CCCP4 (blessed by a fantasy Comintern). That playful Stalinist logo signals a snakes’ nest of nostalgic affiliations (fun-house mirrors in which to define themselves): Maoists, Trots, IS, SI – more splinters than a hedgehog. (‘Of course the best poetry of the Forties was written by Marxists, hence the resurgence of Adorno.’ Out to Lunch. His notebooks.) There is a Cantab tradition (morphic resonance?) of double lives, whispers, betrayal, running back from the Gang of Four (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt) to the Apostles; a tradition that is impossible to honour now that there are no secrets left, no one to listen. The spy and his spook-master pay homage to familiar tutorial arrangements: civilised interrogations on park benches, brisk walks by the riverside, papers handed in for external examination. You feel that if these lefties had gone to Oxford they could have settled for a collar-up shuffle down Farm Street and a bit part in the Evelyn Waugh biographies. The primary task of the Cambridge poet is to find a language that respects this inheritance: as resistant as code, as the markings on a Sumerian clay tablet. A language justified in its paranoia. The poems we listen to in King’s are feverish, in meltdown, struggling to keep pace with earlier avatars: those lives of romantic duplicity, alcoholic and sexual derangement, gutter élitism, afternoon clubs at the interface of Soho and St James’s. Out to Lunch is himself the classic double agent, the turned man. He has a public persona as ‘Ben Watson’ (apologist for his nocturnal self, the crazed poet), columnist for the Wire, broadcaster, and author of the monumental and magnificent folly, Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.
Watson, if he wanted to carry his argument outside the poetry ghetto, had to adopt protective colouring, find a synopsis that was acceptable to the culture brokers, a name that would stand up. This is no easy task in an Alzheimer’s climate, when history has been wiped, and the library is a fenced-off building site. Artists exist not in their writing, but in their being written about: the virtual reality that overwhelms its origin. We’ve finally (post-National Book Award) got around to Cormac McCarthy, whose first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was published in 1966, but we continue to ignore William Eastlake, who worked (Go in Beauty and Portrait of an Artist with 26 Horses) a parallel seam with equal distinction. To be read, a player, a part of the buzz, you need to be given away with copies of Esquire magazine. (McCarthy was an established ephemeral when he found himself being debunked by the Modern Review.) It remains an open scandal that while everybody has heard of The Silence of the Lambs – seen it, snacked on the video, sniggered at the parodies – nobody has heard of, or cares about, Spring of the Lamb by Douglas Woolf. Sorry? Doesn’t ring a bell. One of the rarest, most delicately obtuse talents lost by America: a skeletal revenant too canny to leave any footprints in the dust. (‘He’s come down from Kellogg or Wallace – Idaho camptowns, feathery silver markets on the far tip of the right wing. He’s got a couple of quarts of blackberries in his arms, picked with the morning dew, five hundred miles away.’ Edward Dorn.) Even Ben Watson, whose poodle parlour is wall to wall with off-piste names, admits (in conversation) that he has never been introduced to Woolf’s work: ‘My book’s sub-plot is Philip K. Dick, sales-talk, Hollywood and schitzophrenia.’ So I’m forced to describe Woolf in terms of Dick’s excellent ‘straight’ novels of the sliding life in the Western States, In Milton Lumky Territory and Humpty Dumpty in Oakland. The keenest tribute to Woolf I had come across on this side of the pond (a response to Fade Out) was by J.H. Prynne – to whom Frank Zappa is dedicated and who, according to the author blurb, supervised Watson at Gonville and Caius. (Mr Prynne, I’m told, doesn’t have much use for fiction: Patrick White excepted.)
Poetry was struck off in the Eighties. Now it’s a special-interest item, available on prescription – like Southern Gothic vampirism, Uzi and crack Brixton scorchers, cyberpunk. Like the rest of genre fiction it is dealt with in compendium round-ups at the bottom of the page. And an obituary notice in the Independent has always been the genre hack’s best hope of getting into newsprint. There was, for example, fulsome coverage for Robin Cook (Derek Raymond) once he had gone; local colour pieces (memory tapes from the Coach and Horses) outweighing the tepid inches of a life-time’s review space. Cook, that most civilised of men, most troubled of writers, was one of the last to sustain a career on a working knowledge of the classics and an exploitably toxic lifestyle. As he remarked: ‘I had the downescalator all to myself.’
The Oxford shoot has always been well-polished, sliding out fresh product, summery verse-makers eliding into Book-of-the-Month novelists. (It’s curious that one of the major lubricants of Isis-incubated reputation, Granta, began as a folksy Cambridge periodical.) The only Cambridge poet (two slim volumes from Ferry Press, plus the mimeo’d Ouch from The Curiously Strong) to put enough of a dent in multinational budgets to command serious media attention was Peter Ackroyd, a meticulously re-invented Man of Letters. The others, until Ben Watson elbowed his way onto the scene, have had to settle for a succès d’estime, quasi-academic projects with spin (such as the provocative series edited by Denise Riley for Macmillan). Poets who preferred to compose by assemblage, by having the ‘right’ books on their shelves, began to deal in the better class of used literature: with the attendant strangeness of honourable leftists peddling Wyndham Lewis and all the phallic stormutroopers of High Modernism.
Such contrary behaviour is meat and drink to Watson’s poodle dialectics. After all, it was the not notably socialist Ackroyd who (along with Ian Patterson and Nick Totton) published the first bulletin from the Zappa papers in 1979: stapled small press format. It’s a breeze for Watson to present himself as a schizoid, high-Culture virtuoso who is dedicating years of his life (risking his equilibrium on a diet of Special Brew and pirate tapes) to calibrating the minutiae of Frank Vincent Zappa’s monstrous oeuvre. It’s a stroll to realign (straighten out) the gross products of this freak-wrangler supreme, the Laurel Canyon, cottage industry, family man. Zappa: boastfully non-PC, polymorphously perverse, the L. Ron Hubbard of multi-tracked deviance. An agnostic refusenik who gets paranoid standing next to his own shadow. Watson: educated, upper middle-class boy with limited experience (respects to Wittgenstein?) of washing-up. Cambridge punk (no convictions) who spat at schoolkids. An Adorno-spouting, support-the-signalmen marcher. It shouldn’t work. But it does: a comedy of instruction, a cathedral of vanities.
This reader was sufficiently spiked by Watson’s mesmerising deconstructions of the Zappa catalogue to accept without flinching the moment when the discographer meets his subject and tells him, to his face, that he’s ‘the greatest artist of the late 20th century’. Frank demurs (doesn’t even ask: ‘how late?’) Any performer worth his salt knows he’s the best, you just don’t come out and say it (unless you’re Jeanette Winterson). ‘That’s your perception,’ he mutters, modestly. Live with these contraries and the book sits up on its hind legs and barks. But keep a beady eye on the foot notes. Those below-the-line jottings are definitely not to be missed. They are no ornamental border, stitched in to give respectability to a lowlife trawl, but distinct events in their own right: juicy pips of information, anecdote, homage to the hidden agenda. Because Watson’s great white album of a book is also the secret history of Cambridge poetics, a Whole Earth Catalogue replete with names and addresses, everything short of pre-paid order forms. The illuminati have been smuggled into the Index: John Wilkinson, Peter Riley, Drew Milne, Rod Mengham and (of course) J.H. Prynne himself. Prynne and Zappa? Certainly, why not? Ben Watson (the footnotes): ‘When I asked Jeremy Prynne what he thought of Captain Beefheart, he said he thought he sounded like Little Richard.’
Poodle Play is the Cambridge Poetry Festival on steroids. The exoskeleton recalls the papers delivered from the platform on that Saturday afternoon in King’s: selections from the Frankfurt School, carried aloft like placards in a Brecht play, moral paradoxes, confessions that somehow turn into accusations, ‘thoughts like slag in a poem by Jeremy Prynne’. Virtue is achieved by the act of naming the virtuous. Beautiful slicks of Adorno and Walter Benjamin that don’t quite fit together (like the M25). You start to feel, convince yourself, that you’ve actually read these books. Passive absorption (Clinton style): the compulsory hallucination of living through those counterculture years. Watson’s early chapters are beta rhythm blasts, pitching the noble Zappa against the entropy of sunrise capitalism’s spectacle obsessed fetishism. Bad shopping plus bad sex equals great poetry. (Who else but Zappa would rhyme ‘afternoon’ with ‘tampoon’?) The in-your-face critique, originally rehearsed through fugitive magazines, works a miscegenation between high culture (Varèse, Mallarmé) and the termite alleys haunted by Watson’s dangerously moustached guru.
But is Zappa worth all this scrupulous attention? Who cares? Biography is autobiography in drag, and the biographical element here is minimal, selective quotation. Can Zappa’s long career, roots in hardcore Fifties labels, finishing in the concert hall, survive Watson’s fan-from-hell, line-by-line viva? Because that’s the heart of the project: improvisations on the improvisations, a speed freak’s rush through the entire discography. (I mean, of course, you’d have to be chewing crystal to keep up with the man.) A mad ‘synchronous mosaic’, everything connecting with everything. Apostrophe (’) and King Lear, Phaedo and Fido (Watson read that section to the dying genius and his circle). Brilliant debris: like those cranky essays the critic Raymond Durgnat (another Cambridge man) used to write about films like Kiss Me Deadly.
The difficulty in terms of presentation is that Zappa only looked like a furball, counterculture nightmare, a psycho sheik. He was actually a very serious businessman. He grazed a couple of pages of Joyce, picked up the vibes. He was fluent in Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School. As was Watson: ‘Jeremy Prynne ... affected amazement that I should be taken in by Schoenberg’s “schmaltz”, an opening shot in his on-going support for what he calls “systems” music.’ Zappa didn’t do drugs. He used junk imagery as part of the weave: ‘Wanna buy some mandies, Bob?’ He was teasing the hippie manifesto, ripping it apart (the Marxist interpretation begins to make sense). Like Charles Manson – the dimestore, reformatory version – Zappa pushed satire a tad beyond acceptable limits, appearing to be precisely the thing good Republicans imagined long-hair freaks to be. Together, they crawled like toads out of the nicotine-tanned froth of Eisenhower’s America. Manson was the singer/composer with a great ‘loop in his voice’ who didn’t score a record deal. With better connections, and a Zappa makeover, he could have been another Beefheart. Instead, he peeled off into racist millennialism, the Green Room at San Quentin, the TV interviews – in which he looks like a wasted George Best carved out of rotten marzipan. Manson’s career proves, if nothing else, that satire has a strictly enforceable shelf-life.
The high-risk conclusion to Watson’s epic is achieved when he comes face-to-face with the dying Zappa and his security system, not something which occurs in the best-regulated biographies. The Quest for Corvo would implode if A.J.A. Symons nailed Rolfe in some louche Venetian bar. Watson arrived in California hauling enough intellectual ordnance to make Mark David Chapman (John Lennon’s nemesis) look like a handbagger. The scholar-fan had already tracked Zappa across most of England, barracking the sexist excesses of Dinah-Moe-Humm, and leaping on stage at Hammersmith to blag his way into a frenzied dance routine (‘Out to Lunch’ painted on the back of his flasher’s raincoat).
‘The negative dialectics of poodle play ferrets out these meanings quite without regard to the yay-saying of the source.’ The courteous source is indeed amused to confront this criminally well-informed acolyte. Twin fantasies flare. Watson sees his problems solved as he is taken on as Zappa’s amenuensis (he’s got the Eric Fenby spectacles): a permanent, mimosascented tutorial. Zappa, in return, collects the ultimate fan, the lad who will take the doctrine out on the road (with the added advantage of a plummy English accent). So it’s straight into the studio with Ben, to record the book (six minutes per three pages, a 16-hour release). The disciple reads to the artist whose feet are being ‘rubbed with tiger balm to alleviate the pain caused by prostate cancer’. Watson gets his final interview.
The job done, the book published, Watson explains how he took part in one of the most unequal (in terms of weight) exchanges in the history of English Literature. The biographer visited Mr Prynne and presented his former supervisor with almost six hundred pages of closely-argued text (tipping the scales at just over a kilo), to receive in exchange a pale blue pamphlet so aerial that it lay on the palm of his hand like a wafer of light. Watson (the ferret) cannot have failed to flash from the shock of the title, Her Weasels Wild Returning, to the notorious Zappa album, Weasels Ripped My Flesh. Synchronicity in overdrive.
Prynne’s poem enacts its business within seven swift pages. Its immaculate surface solicits no exegesis, the hobble of interference it will undoubtedly receive. The less ‘understood’, the better known. Trust has long since been earned by an oeuvre remarkable for the plurality of its vocalisations, the tangy intelligence expressed through the tensions of movement. Prynne, writing of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems IV, V, VI in the Park (Summer 1969), asserted that ‘the exilic origins are political facts of a high order.’ And there is no other way to read the failure of any major publishing concern to engage with Prynne’s Poems, to update the splendid collection put out by Agneau 2 in 1982. The man’s influence is pervasive but unregistered. Dedications and acknowledgments abound. A random track across my shelves reveals: Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life, Edward Dorn’s The North Atlantic Turbine, Douglas Oliver’s In the Cave of Suicession, Barry MacSweeney’s Brother Wolf, Andrew Crozier’s High Zero, Peter Riley’s Reader. Attempts have been made from time to time to prod the voluntary somnambulists. Peter Ackroyd, reviewing the anthology A Various Art, described Prynne as ‘without doubt the most formidable and accomplished poet in England today, a writer who has single-handedly changed the vocabulary of expression, and who ... has re-educated the sensibility of an entire generation’. Bryan Appleyard in The Pleasures of Peace calls Prynne ‘the most comprehensively gifted of living British poets’.
The books will continue to dazzle without the slogan exchanges which represent the plea-bargaining of critical debate. Prynne’s bibliography exposes a radical curve: starting with Routledge (who were clearly hoping for textbooks as a quid pro quo), he moved, side ways, to Cape Goliard in the high, lush Sixties, then substantial small presses (Ferry, Grosseteste), then satchel-packed chapbooks and, most recently, elegant desktop production.
Her Weasels Wild Returning is just such a challenging set. A black diamond. A converging of doubled odes, a wink tipped at Keats: the heart ‘too small to hold its blood’. The cell fired with textures of spill. Sunset. Departure ‘in teeth of surmised streamers’. ‘The weasel,’ according to Robert Graves, ‘a favourite disguise of Thessalian witches ... called cedro, usually translated “the artful one”.’ Prynne’s art is in the sanguine play of breath, the repetitions: ‘she, she, she, and only she’. All he requires of us is an unflustered attention. The narcosis of the rapt: eyes open, ears pricked.
Her Weasels Wild Returning doesn’t need to busk for its living. It’s another of those Cambridge secrets, part of a fine series operated by Rod Mengham’s Equipage Press, without fuss or fanfare – mail-shot art, the technology of the promotional flyer adapted to launch the most ‘difficult’ poetry. A strategy that has developed to counteract the negativity and fear endemic in the publishing and book retailing industries.
Ben Watson, however, is out there, shaking his stuff at the Club Integral (‘behind the Town Hall, off Peckham Road’). His book had meant enough to persuade me, in a spirit of unrepentant masochism, to cross the river on a steaming Sunday night. Down at the end of the universe, my faith in English culture was entirely justified: the hall was empty, apart from a hyped-up greeter and a coven of artists with their faces in tupperware containers of rice. Two or three hours after the announced starting time, enough zombies had been found to organise a hand of bridge. Characters Zappa would have killed to exploit. They would have shamed the Enema Bandit into signing up for the Cambridge Diet.
Watson does a very effective double act with Simon Fell, the traditionally bald bass player. Teasing slabs of Poodle Play (the books optimistically stacked on a table by the door) are delivered with a jazzy snap. The ghost of Zappa (‘I’ve never read any philosophy at all’) would bless this tall, invertebrate figure (spectacles and ironic coke spoon around neck) who conjures up Aldous Huxley, another English intellectual who went AWOL in the Californian desert. I’m happy to sink into a reverie, to love that which is most alien.
Which is how the book works, the effect it has. You don’t have to subscribe to the sponsor’s pitch to applaud the energy, the madness of the project. ‘I hear the message, yet I lack the faith.’ As Theodor Adorno wrote, quoting Goethe’s Faust. Ben Watson has worked the most hideous transformation on me. I’m sprawled on a horsehair sofa, Sony Discman on lap (Apostrophe/Overnite Sensation), leafing through a copy of that other Negative Dialectics, the Frankfurt-published one. Bow Wow Wow.