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The Poetry of Sean Bonney: Form and Content in Poisons, their Antidotes

- Mark Jackson



I was privileged to be part of the Writers Forum workshop when Sean was working on the poems that became
Poisons, their Antidotes. Each time he would come in with a reworking a rewrite lines abandoned words moved around bits added. The construction process bearing a striking match to the final (published) poetic form. As Olson said, form and content emerge from one another; form and process, in this case, too. And Sean’s search for a finished product continuous and endless and that finished product never realised. The process, like the activism and refusal of authority/arianism that Sean insists on (the striking match as incendiary device), rolls on, knocking into itself phase upon phase, a relentless restlessness to achieve - and avoid - perfection.

Unless I have missed something, this is the first sizeable comment on the sounds clicks shrieks of Sean Bonney to be published. It will not be the last, and it will be bettered many times; Sean’s variations will be discussed long after the formaldehyde stench has drained away from our rotting corpses. This is just the start.     

This essay is an adaptation of an original written for William Rowe’s Contemporary British Poetry course at Birkbeck College in early 2007.

Mark Jackson, May 2008



I make poetry from the entirety of speech. Sounds clicks shrieks. Lies. Histories. All the possible permutations of the alphabet invaded by non-alphabetic signs. Variations and hybrids of meanings. The differing levels of account on the page. 1

So states Sean Bonney in the essay ‘The Is ::: Occupied Territory : Anger Is An Energy’. The title alone, part lifted from Lydon’s postpunk endorsement of resistance to authority, 2  suggests a willingness to comment on political matters. Yet the quotation indicates a range of sources beyond the political. Through a close reading of sections of ‘Poisons, their Antidotes’ 3 from Blade Pitch Control Unit, I aim to reveal Bonney’s work as political not merely because of its political references but because of the level of engagement with language it invites from the reader. Marcuse’s words here provide a framework:

The distance between the universe of poetry and that of politics is so great […] that any shortcut between the two realities seems fatal to poetry. […] [D]enial of the Establishment and the communication of the new consciousness depend […] on a language of their own […]. [T]he rupture with the linguistic universe of the Establishment is more radical: […] it amounts to a methodical reversal of meaning. 4

Bonney’s poetry attempts to rupture the linguistic universe of the establishment and seeks its own language by taking recognizable speech and grinding it up, creating a consistent indeterminacy and breach of conventional poetic form.

Some terms need a little definition: by ‘form’ we generally mean the shape of the poem on the page, including spaces, syntax and language style; ‘content’ tends to refer to the words themselves ¬– their signifying meaning, language and syntax – inevitably including shape on the page. In other words, a clear overlap exists between the two, an overlap which has been increasing since at least the Dadaist assaults on bourgeois culture as radical poets have attempted to escape comfortable lyrical signification. In ‘Projective Verse’, Charles Olson (paraphrasing Creeley) states: “FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT”. 5 He is right, as the form could not exist without the words: there is no shape except that formed by the letters on the page. I would go further: form and content, particularly in modern poetry, are intrinsically linked and work off each other. I will examine if Bonney’s work shows “the ‘form’ and the ‘message’ are politically charged”. 6

Defining ‘political’ can cause problems – arguably everything is political, as it is social. My definition considers direct and indirect actions. Bonney’s work references places of political significance, of both authority and resistance, conservative and radical political people, political and historical events, and the activities of business, commerce and culture. These are direct actions. Indirect actions pertain to transformation: how change in individual consciousness precipitates social change. This poetry actually has little ‘political’ content if we seek explicit propositions or ideology. An indirect address to political issues can be potent, given Bruce Andrews’ notion of “a conception of writing as politics, not writing about politics”; 7 in a sense Bonney does both, and my study keeps in mind Denise Riley’s statement, “the materiality of words isn’t the secondary but the primary stuff of the political”. 8 A poem’s material presence – its ink, shape on the page and sonic qualities in performance – is its primary means of contact with its readership/audience. To show how Bonney’s poetry is ‘politically engaged’, then, let’s consider direct political references in the work and emergent indirect political effects with an attention to how the materiality of the poems acts as a medium between the two.

Early titles for ‘Poisons’ were ‘The Temperature’, ‘At Turnmill Street’ and ‘Metal Throat Spike Language’ “according to what mood I’m in at the time”. 9  Nicole Brossard notes how these options act: “[q]uotations, dedications, and titles provide for immediate references or statement. They tell a state of mind, they point out literary, cultural, or political networks”. 10 The title of ‘Poisons’ implies there will be considerations of what is sick, insidious, politically or socially: possibly imperialist abuses, commercial corruption, the shallowness of popular culture. ‘Antidotes’ is suggestive of solutions, possible modes of repair; an instant curiosity is aroused as to what form this may take. The Fall’s ‘(Jung Nev’s) Antidotes’, repeating the mantra “Antidotes / and those who vote”, 11 obliquely implies a disparaging view of parliamentary democracy (as a Fall fan, Bonney’s poems often echo the twisted indeterminacy and rhythm of Mark Smith’s lyrics). The earlier titles also provide for immediate reference, particularly ‘Metal Throat Spike Language’ which combines a sense of anger with an acknowledgement of the power of language. The title Blade Pitch Control Unit itself sets the tone for the poems with its suggestion of battleground and surveillance, themes found throughout Bonney’s work.

The opening,“At Turnmill St, in / deed”, 12 places the poem geographically, with historical and social significance. Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell has historical links with Chartists and Communists and is where “those who wanted to live outside the laws of the city dwelt: Gnostics, witches, heretics”. 13 There is a sense of “valuing marginal experiences – valuing people who are inferiorized”, 14 a notable feature of ‘Notes on Heresy' 15 which celebrates marginal historical figures Tom O’Bedlam, Ann Baites and Abiezer Coppe. References to place hold many of Bonney’s poems together: “my method in writing is to […] just go walking all over the place and make notes. I also think it helps ground [the poems] a little bit, it puts them in a place. It’s also quite arbitrary”. 16 The word ‘indeed’ is split by the line break and the underlining of ‘deed’. Possible readings of these opening words emerge: “I/we/he/she/you/they are absolutely at Turnmill Street”, “it certainly happens at Turnmill Street” or “an exploit or action is carried out at Turnmill Street”. The line and a half gap that follows suggests an omission, a space for the reader to be “active co-producer” (a feature of Lee Harwood’s poetics), 17 and opens up textual possibilities, as Umberto Eco states:

Blank space surrounding a word, typographical adjustments, and spatial composition in the page setting of the poetic text – all contribute to create a halo of indefiniteness and to make the text pregnant with infinite suggestive possibilities. 18

The next block of text displays fragments from ‘Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland’, a Scottish poem originating from at least the 13th century and published in the 19th century as one of several hundred Child Ballads. 19 ‘Poisons’ lifts some key phrases of dialect and re-presents them with seemingly random bracketing which further segments phrases from the rest. This is a grinding up of language:

           (fernie brae
of grass-green silk
(ilka tate
           fifty siller bells 20

In the context of ‘Poisons’ these phrases, aside from being borrowed, have their own resonances. 21 ‘Grass-green silk’ suggests markets, produce, commerce; green is the colour of go, an affirmative (a ‘yes’!); grass is to lie in or sit on, indicating laziness, passivity; it is also marijuana (suggesting similar connotations plus consciousness alteration) and ‘informer’, which signifies an unsettling, untrustworthy relationship. Furthermore, ‘grass’ functions as an adjectival modifier, confirming what type of ‘green’ we have. These various readings of the same phrase, and the fact they are open resonances rather than closed signifieds, highlight what Robert Sheppard calls a “semantic indeterminacy”. 22 Sheppard believes this is a political action: the ‘poetry of the new pertinence’ (Allen Fisher’s phrase) “creates fresh significations, not in itself, but when engaged by an active reader. […] Such engagement can be seen as assisting in the subversion of dominant and impertinent social values”. 23 The reader is invited to be ‘active co-producer’ of the text and create their own response from the ‘suggestive possibilities’, in doing so circumventing conservative modes of language.

The open brackets before ‘fernie brae’ and ‘ilka tate’ generate unfinished tangents, disruptions to the linear sequencing of writing. They are seen as marks on the page, just ink, pure material to introduce the phrases in dialect, which for readers unfamiliar with Scots dialect act as pure sound, as interventions: another disruption. ‘Ilka tate’ with its hard, aggressive consonant, the ‘k’, pivotal in the phrase, acts in much the same way as ‘ack’ does in ‘Paul Verlaine read poems on Old Compton Street’: 24 an expressive, syllabic burst of anger. Bonney’s performances of ‘Poisons’ make the ‘t’s of ‘tate’ sound vicious. The spaces again open up semantic possibilities, and “fifty siller bells” has homophonic resonances with ‘fifty syllables’, indicative of rhythm, beats, the counting of language: an attention to its sonic materiality. ‘Fifty bells’ also denotes sound, a cacophony no less, so the phrase mutates between material sound and conceptions of the sonic. The ensuing line space leaves the bells ringing as the reader contemplates possible meanings.The poem continues:

fear of strangers “that name does not belong to

in brass howls (ona)
red wind:
churning over (          ) bodies / wind 25

We are situated inside an individual’s existential crisis, their paranoia. The open speech marks act as the open brackets do, and as their material echo. We do not know who or what the name does not belong to, the syntactically unfinished line exacerbating the unsettling nature of the phrase. The underlining emphasises the whole line, echoing ‘deed’ above it, and inviting a reading of ‘fear of strangers without a name’. This interpretation creates a circular point of signification as strangers are always nameless - unless also unnamed to their acquaintances. This is an instance of refusal, depicting an experience of the world as hostile, detached, where individuals cannot make human connections. “(locked:)” is, fittingly, locked inside brackets and cannot escape, despite the colon’s attempt to continue the phrase. “hail” is unspaced from “(locked)” as if trying to break into the brackets. ‘Locked hail’ is therefore a disrupted phrase on the page, but in reading and performance is unbroken, creating a tension between the various material lives, or moments, of the poem, between the page and the words’ sound/ sounds. The line space here has the added effect that the quietness precedes the sound of ‘howls’, creating an interplay of sonic effects. Politically, that is the voice of protest, of anger, against the frustrated, strangulated silence of ideological impotence. “Brass howls” suggest free jazz and lone cries of anguish – each a noisy intervention, further disruptions to the sonic and poetic fields. The brackets around “(ona)” separate it, although the line continuation links it to the brass howls. ‘Ona’ suggests biblical seed spiller Onan, implying fluids, sexuality or perhaps the indulgence of listening to or playing those ‘brass howls’. Brossard observes themes such as sexuality and language can have a troubling (if not ideological) effect; 26 this is consistent with what I call Bonney’s poetics of disruption. ‘Ona’ is a corruption of ‘one’ or truncation of Onan, in either case acting as a linguistic rupture, promising meaning or a visual image of some kind but settling only for what we might call a semantic fragment. “red wind”, which disconcerts further as wind has no colour, possibly refers to the music which ‘churns over bodies’. ‘Churning over’ suggests physical reorientation or a contemplation of issues. The empty brackets are another blank space for readers to fill, although the irregular punctuation means this set could be taken as another tangential open bracket plus a closure to an earlier one. Closing on “bodies / wind” gives us the strongest hint yet of an antidote in that the music carries the bodies, transports them to a higher, presumably preferable, plane of consciousness. Yet if this is an antidote, its alternative reading negates it: ‘bodies’ as ‘wind’, or swept up by the wind, creates an image of human beings as immaterial, scattered, passive, politically impotent and vulnerable to authority’s abuses.

We see in this opening section the layout – what conventionally might be called ‘form’ – and the meaning – the ‘content’ – performing indeterminate and overlapping roles. The lack of closed semantics is not just echoed by, but is framed by, the arbitrary breaks from the left margin, the unconventional punctuation and underlining, lexical echoes and possible semantic echoes. Line breaks do not assist the reader in closing the meaning, and line spaces add to the effect of semantic indeterminacy. The grinding up of the ‘Rhymer’ poem and the way it is laid out exercise the same effect on language: it is borrowed - or stolen - and corrupted into a form only recognizable within the context of the poem.

Section two begins innocuously enough, requesting we “imagine a clockmaker”, 27 but quickly ventures into disturbing semantic fragments with lexical echoes from throughout Blade Pitch. The imperative ‘imagine’ acts as a multi-tense, multi-subject verb, as do other imperatives like those in ‘pop stars on Holloway Road’ (‘buy some ketamine’, ‘swim down 3rd Avenue’, ‘clamber up into London’): 28 the phrase could mean ‘I imagine a clockmaker’ or ‘we have imagined a clockmaker’ as much as issuing an instruction. But why imagine someone who makes timepieces– or why imagine that individual to be split? And in what way ‘split’? Split open? Split in two? Or run away? Or, given Bonney’s fondness for Joyce-esque compound words, is the word ‘clockmaker’ to be split? This is another reference to the material properties of language, and a self-referencing within the work’s poetic system. Alternatively, ‘split’ could be another imperative: we should imagine the clockmaker and then ourselves break up – or run away. There may be an allusion to the break up of time and linearity, a later feature of the poem. These lines are indeterminate, suggest several possible readings and demonstrate the grinding of language, seeking to free it from its conservative modes of operation, in itself a political action. Sheppard asks readers to discover it is “what a text is made to do, not merely what it is made to mean, that is revolutionary”. 29 The reader is challenged to consider how these seemingly disparate letters and sounds can influence their own actions: it is not a case of what the poem is about but how, with these words, a world can be imagined. The reader who engages with these texts becomes active in creating meaning or effect, and this is where the transformative possibilities in this poetry lie.

The third line is empty, a neat space following the word ‘split’: the poem splits as the language does. Then the imperative ‘imagine’ is repeated in a corruption of Lennon’s sentimental invocation, and the poem slides into almost childlike soundings:

imagine all the persons
eating rawstarz raw
         waistrel 30

The spelling of ‘starz’ is an echo of other poems in Blade Pitch, another self-referencing. Irregular spellings disrupt conventional expectations of language; Maggie O’Sullivan, Jeff Hilson and Mark E Smith are notable exponents of this tactic. The signification is skewed: we can imagine people, and we can imagine them eating, with an imaginative leap we could picture them eating raw stars, even raw pop-up waste, but the ensuing semantic rupture renders the invocation unintelligible on the level of conservative signification. ‘waistrel’ is not just a misspelling of ‘wastrel’, it could be an isolated semantic unit – another semantic fragment – alluding to ‘a small waist’, ‘a waist-like person’ or perhaps Lord Waistrel, a pseudonym of puerile pseudo-punk band The Gonads, fronted by right wing hack Garry Bushell. The phrase also somehow evokes popular cereals, an oblique allusion to commerce and advertising, and the instruction to imagine all the people eating this stuff implies some dystopian horror. Any of these, or more, associations can be made by virtue of the ground up language and loose relationship to meaning; any, or all, are valid.

After another line space a solitary line appears before another space. “the end of the land is” 31 resonates with possibilities – the ‘end of the world’, the ‘end of the land is near’, the ‘end of the land is moving’ – but settles for none, disrupted by the unfinished syntax and ensuing line break. “light my, gobshite” 32 performs a similar action, including a possible allusion to The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’. The compounded expletive suggests a frustration with the music industry’s corruption of music, echoed in the later poem ‘Filth Screed’: “Music has been privatised”. 33 In this respect ‘light my’ is another found phrase which has been ground up. Other possible interpretations remain: an instruction to light something – a cigarette, an oven, a candle, a path? – with the addressed individual referred to as ‘gobshite’; alternatively, light is about to be upheld as a quality, as in ‘light, my guide’, with the expletive destroying any hope and optimism such an unfinished pronouncement may have infiltrated into the poem.

The next seven lines are indented:

I wish I had a word for
tideclamps/ slashpalms/ furnace
(the end of the world is
boring boring


tideclamps 34

They mark the start of a gradual release from the left margin, which is not repaired until the final section. Taking Brossard’s assertion that a poem’s structure signals how it wants to be read, 35 Bonney’s breaking from the margin, together with devices such as syntactically unfinished phrases and the breaking of the line as a closed unit, is a statement that this poem wants to be recognised as not just outside, but in opposition to, mainstream, conservative poetry. 36 The layout “resists being an act of recognition”; 37 this structural and semantic openness therefore reveals an overlapping of form and content, this time with the poem occupying a political stance. This section includes more compound words following the regret “I wish I had a word for”; the unfinished phrase tails off as the compound words kick in, suggesting that whatever word required a synonym can be replaced by invented, meaningless ones: language conventions are not treated as sacred. A contrary interpretation is that ‘tideclamps, slashpalms, furnace’ themselves need another word, with the additional undercurrent of protest or resistance: ‘tideclamps’ implies restraint on the unstoppable, perhaps the irrepressible march of western capitalism; ‘slashpalms’ could be hands or trees/branches cut in conflict or used aggressively, or covered in urine; ‘furnace’ may denote the hell on earth that is our existential condition or the fires of protest. If these terms have political resonance – if they are offered as antidotes – it is only through possibilities of sense:

Writing can recognise its social ground by contesting its establishment, its institutionalization [… and] show the possibilities of sense and meaning being constructed; to foreground the limits of the possible – and our possible lives; to create impossibility. 38

‘Poisons’ achieves a certain ‘impossibility’.

Another open bracket separates the next line from the preceding two and introduces another internal echo in a possibly unfinished phrase, “(the end of the world is”, quickly followed by the interjection “boring boring”. Pronouncements about the end of the world are dismissed as ‘boring’ as much as the end of the world itself may be boring, as a life without value and fairness is exposed as tedious to anyone who does “recognize the human crisis”. 39 Further compound words follow, breaking the rhythm, as if whatever it was that stated ‘boring’ grabbed the words of the poem, forcing it to slow down and regain itself. This interplay of spacing and rhythmic and syllabic echoes with pure sound and rhythm shows a further overlap of form and content. These lines stretch the poem’s shape which became condensed during the indented section. This stretching continues to the end of the page as three lines start with unclosed brackets, each one separated by a line space:

(m-way silence-

(rainslick punctured 25 sparrows-

(now- 40

The brackets again reference the poem’s material nature by mirroring the unclosed signification of the semantic fragments. This is a sophisticated level of engagement with language whereby semantics and materiality break down but manage, through the rupture, to illuminate each other. It is also writing ‘as politics’, a grinding of recognizable language – or ‘content’ – into a form of its own which challenges the reader to engage with the poem and make his/her own sense. The reference to silence develops the sonic theme, ironic in that motorways are rarely – if ever – silent. The dashes at the end of the lines give a false impression of linking the words or phrases, as would be the conventional function of the dash; rather, they accentuate the tailing off of the syntactically incomplete lines. The final ‘now’ is another disruption as the word is usually an imperative or assertion; here it merely slips away innocuously, a slippage enhanced by the open bracket and the dash.

Section three hints at paranoia, state surveillance and police control. The section ends with a clear political reference, although again no specific context for any ideological comment: “footsteps: the sucking spider in Westminster”. 41 When first heard, or read, the line sounds critical of politicians and their activities, yet on closer inspection we ask what exactly a ‘sucking spider’ is and how it relates to Westminster or parliament. ‘Sucking’ has overtones of the behaviour of parasites and oral activities related to food and sex. ‘webshine’, in the third line, suggests the remark surrounds corrupt networks and practices of vested interests, but close reading gets no nearer to any precise political comment. ‘Poisons’’ open nature leaves the reader seeking conventional, closed semantics frustrated, but the active reader, responsive to “the invitation to enter”, 42 discovers multiple possible readings. The antidotes now appear not in terms of political solutions, ideological polemic, but as change in individual consciousness, as the empowered reader forges new directions, spurred into action by the poem.

Eric Mottram refers to “the release of logic from excessive linearity”. 43 This release is evident in ‘Poisons’ in the disruption of the logical sequencing of numbered sections. Part four merely states “locked: (boil” and section five does not exist. 44 The disruption in the poem is unrelenting: a restless energy to unsettle and subvert the reader’s experience. Sheppard’s maxims suggest that the disruptions of form and indeterminacy of content of ‘Poisons’ are political:

[t]he desire to change the world is not simply exchanged for the desire to change the reader. For a poem, as it is being read, they are slenderly identical. […] Subversion, in the text, is effective primarily at the level of form. 45

If form holds the greater subversive effect, the possibility exists here for indirect political motions for

[a] work is a complex of possibilities in a piece of material, a mediation of variants, referent situations, and a number of invitations to action 46

Bonney’s disruptive poetics almost demand action.

Section seven’s opening, indented line, “police lines (meaning”, 47 is followed by a line space, and is then repeated around the middle of the section following a line space and preceding the indented line “shoot out”. 48 The phrase smells of anti-cop punk jargon and, given line four (“one more fuck pig”) 49 and Bonney’s comment in an essay of part-borrowed phrases (“I ::: the mighty seek to secure their power with blood (police)”), 50 it is surely a derogatory comment. However what the ‘police lines mean’ is left to the reader. The line could have been lifted from a media source, the poem re-presenting the found phrase after grinding it up. A few lines on and a common phrase is capitalised and ground up: “SMILE YOU’RE ON” 51 recalls television’s ‘smile, you’re on candid camera’ and surveillance camera instructions, ‘smile, you’re on camera’. These, and other possible, phrases reverberate as the poem adopts further leaps and internal references, so “5 minutes 28 seconds to boil a pot of water” – a closed phrase but with no determinate context – leads to the section’s end:

break window (winter)

boil, seconds
8th December 52

The penultimate line is not just a material echo, and inversion, of the ‘pot of water’ line, but refers back to “(locked: boil” of sections four and six, itself an echo of the earlier “(locked:)hail”. Only with repeated reading might we see the earlier lines acting as foreground, rather than the later lines acting as echo: another disruption of linearity. The leap to the date is a contradictory action, unsettling by its unexpected appearance but grounding in terms of dating, just as the poem’s opening line placed it at Turnmill Street.

Section eight is the longest and, in terms of shape, most meandering episode of ‘Poisons’. It maintains the dense layering of internal references of its immediate predecessor and continues the effects of punctuation misuse, compound words and incomplete syntax. It also develops the language and form of the poem with wild, surreal, indeterminate, interspersed phrases (“-wet pavements, loose bricks, things”) 53 as well as more direct political commentary. It has an unrelenting energy belying the constant disruptions, similar to how, in performance, Bonney’s clipped, charged readings generate an ambiguous mix of stuttering and spewing. The anger that has simmered until now rises to the surface:

           streetsounds of
emerge (cynical
          bone tourista load
(we should be)
(                          )
1=1 is
what we want is
Donald Rumsfeld Tommy Franks
their blood 54

General Tommy Franks was commander-in-chief of the American occupation forces in Iraq. To desire his and Rumsfeld’s death is a bald statement hitherto untypical of the poem. It is emphasised by the introductory line “1=1 is”, which equates to one is one, ‘all being equal’ or ‘things being level’; in other words, what follows could not be plainer and more direct. This determinate, closed cry is consistent with the poetics of disruption and the challenging, political form. Bruce Andrews notes:

Radical praxis […] involves […] a certain illegibility within the legible: an infinitizing, a wide-open exuberance, a perpetual motion machine, a transgression. 55

Bonney’s application of these poetic intentions, to arrive at this transgression, is to have a certain intelligibility within the unintelligible, which marks the poem’s political standpoint. The proposition also possibly signals an antidote of violent action against authority.

Over the page and the poem starts to rampage with implicit criticisms of retail, America and banking, all bound up with cascading internal echoes and unsettling punctuation. The poem’s already ground up language becomes more mangled, its anger choking it. The pressure is relieved by a rare moment of humour:

5 minutes 28 seconds to
think about
cashback/ 56 

but the onslaught continues with dashes at the end of lines denoting the stuttering and choking:

sliced clocks are
could never happen here-
freedom of speech is-
burn baby burn-
my lips are-
stained- 57

and so on until the final three lines:

clock our freedom is-
a murderer’s fucking head- 58

The final line cuts across all the unfinished, choked up phrases, as if the anger is finally released. But the result is unsatisfactory because only in the revenge action of the final line can there be a resolution, and as that action remains a phrase on paper the reader is left holding the violence. In this way, transformation can take place in the engaged reader through a transformative relationship to language. We could see this as the (or an) antidote.

The ninth and final section eases up slightly on the wildness, with the lines characterised by a restoration of the uniform left margin and a complete absence of punctuation, but the anger and attack remain. Here is a clear overlap of form and content as the regular shape and unfinished, ground up lines serve to convey the rhythm – the energy, the anger – of the poem: an implicit statement of political orientation. A direct question of resistance opens this part: “how many lives / has the government / burned”. 59 Again, the reader is not invited to settle on this directness, the poem making immediate, indeterminate leaps:

contamination of
reason of
names are frayed
around the ingratiating table 60

Later potential social or political references suggest the phrasing of a media broadcast: “gold prices rise as / lies in parliament today”, before further semantic leaps continue the disruption. 61 This echoes, and is a grinding up of, Maggie O’Sullivan’s phrase “politically emphatically in parliament today”. 62 As throughout the poem, phrases pertaining to political or ideological situations or events are thrust in amongst other seemingly unrelated comments; often distorted, as if cut up, they refuse to make bald statements. The frequency of these types of reference in the final, rhythmic assault of section nine increases, but the poem still cannot articulate fully, cannot close the meaning:

his howled hand
hook burns
the living room
lethal virus
the new middle caste is
BP announces
megawatt officials
eat the north
developments in business
discuss to protect
thwack impact 63

The mentions of ‘middle caste’, ‘BP’, ‘officials’ and ‘business’ evoke the language of opposition to authority and capitalist commerce, but readers have to complete the statements themselves. Even the line “eat the north” is a turnaround of both the Class War slogan ‘eat the rich’ and the anti-southern hegemony Fall song ‘Hit the North’. The language selected is so ground up and vomited out we are never sure if the voices are of resistance, authority or from some other source. There are fewer internal references in section nine, creating a looser feeling, angrier and unrestrained. This is counterbalanced by the uniform left margin and consistent tailing off of each phrase, the poem attempting to control its own insanity. The final lines see a repetition of the verb ‘to be’, as if asserting what exists, what is real, in a poetic form where uncertainty is paramount:

is virtue
is gorged loop
is sharpening wires o new fanged head 64

And still whatever the poem is precisely asserting is indeterminate and left open. The ‘new fanged head’could be the violent head of authority or the angry head of resistance. That this line echoes the previous section’s final line reveals its multi-dimensionality – as syntactically broken, multiple signifier and internal reference – underlining the levels on which language is working in this poem: language, as the tool of authority, is abused and sabotaged, its pure material properties exposed, in a context of angry but impotent opposition.

Bonney’s poetics is one of refusal 65 channelled through processes of resistance and disruption. The voice of resistance is largely implicit but is occasionally direct, intelligible. The intelligibility within the unintelligible allows an ideological or political stance to penetrate the work, giving direction to the indirect political references. The disruption is manifested on various levels: semantics, linearity, internal echoes and foregrounding, shape and the processing – grinding – of recognized or recognizable language. The shape of the poem fluctuates, at times condensing, at times stretching, with varied use of blank space and repeated dashes to unsettle reading and create openness. The prologue to ‘Filth Screed’ reads: “Language is conservative. Its conservatism issues [… ] from its utilitarian purpose”. 66 The ‘entirety of speech’ is used, the semantic indeterminacy creating possibilities for phrases from protest voices or heroes to be subject to the same violation as ‘conservative’ or randomly sourced phrases. If language is conservative and utilitarian (or totalitarian), then for it to be repeatedly pulverized into distinctive, incomplete esoteric phrases – the semantic fragments – is an invitation to readers to circumvent the conventional signifying axes of reader/text/meaning.

That ‘Poisons’ appears on one level not to offer the antidotes it signals is consistent with the poetics of disruption, of indeterminacy, of openness. It is difficult to establish what the antidotes are, so readers seek their own as they also consider multiple interpretations of the ground up language. Yet the disruption of language itself could be the (or an) antidote. The political in ‘Poisons’ lies in the allusions to political situations and in the transformative potential in the reader: in the form and the content, as much as any division exists between them. The poetic emphasis is on the work ‘as politics’, but this poem is clearly ‘about politics’ as well, however obliquely or inconsistently. The materiality of the work, and its regular reinforcement through its use of punctuation, semantic indeterminacy, self-referencing and the reliance on and references to sound and the sonic, acts as a bridge between these direct and indirect political poles. The poem’s material presence is where the reader and the text come into contact; it is the point where the invitation to action takes place, and it is the location of the transformative political potential.



1 Sean Bonney, ‘The Is ::: Occupied Territory : Anger Is An Energy’, PORES 2 <> [accessed 6 April 2007] 
2 PiL, ‘Rise’, on Compact Disc, Elektra, 1985
3 Bonney, ‘Poisons, their Antidotes’, in Blade Pitch Control Unit (Cambridge: Salt, 2005), pp. 71-80. Hereafter referred to as ‘Poisons’ and Blade Pitch. The close reading of this ‘lexical’ poem means I will not consider Bonney’s other styles which include text overlays, visual/manipulated work and found pieces from, for example, financial publications. He has also performed sound work, multi-voice readings and with musicians.
4 Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, (London: Allen Lane, 1972), pp. 34-35
5 Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’, in Collected Prose, ed. by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 239-249 (p. 240)
6 Hans Haacke, qtd in Caroline Bergvall, ‘In the Event of Text’,> [accessed 11 March 2007]
Bruce Andrews, ‘Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis’, in The Politics of Poetic Form, ed. by Charles Bernstein (New York: Roof, 1990), pp. 23-32 (p. 24)
8 Denise Riley, The World of Selves (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 112
9 Bonney, at University College London (UCL), 4 March 2003, private recording
10 Nicole Brossard, ‘Poetic Politics’, in Bernstein, Poetic Form, pp. 73-82 (p. 79)
11 The Fall, ‘(Jung Nev’s) Antidotes’, on //The Marshall) Suite, ARTFULLP17, 1999
12 ‘Poisons’, p. 71
13 Bonney, UCL
14 Brossard, p. 79
15 Bonney, Blade Pitch, pp. 25-51
16 Bonney on Resonance FM, 2003
17 Robert Sheppard, ‘Lee Harwood and the Poetics of the Open Work’, in Robert Hampson and Peter Barry, eds, New British Poetries (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 216-233 (p. 231)
18 Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (London: Hutchinson, 1981), p. 53
19 In 19th century Scots dialect, the opening verses read:

True Thomas lay oer yond grassy bank,
And he beheld a ladie gay,
A ladie that was brisk and bold,
Come riding oer the fernie brae.

Her skirt was of the grass-green silk,
Her mantel of the velvet fine,
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty siller bells and nine.

Anon., ‘Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland’, <> [accessed 1 April 2007].A ‘fernie brae’ is a hill covered in ferns; ‘ilka tate’ is each lock; and ‘siller’ means silver.
20 ‘Poisons’, p. 71
21 According to Denise Riley, language is always borrowed; see Selves, p. 99. Bonney’s use of recognizable language is more like theft!
22 Sheppard, ‘Irregular Actions’, in far language: poetics and linguistically innovative poetry 1978-1997, (Exeter: Stride, 1999), pp. 16-17 (p. 16)
23 Sheppard, The Poetry of Saying (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005),  p. 197
24 Bonney, Blade Pitch, pp. 65-66
25 ‘Poisons’, p. 71
26 Brossard, p. 79
27 ‘Poisons’, p. 72
28 Bonney, Blade Pitch, p. 16
29 Sheppard, ‘Irregular’, p. 27
30 ‘Poisons’, p. 72
31 ‘Poisons’, p. 72
32 ‘Poisons’, p. 72
33 Bonney, Blade Pitch, p. 107
34 ‘Poisons’, p. 72
35 Brossard, p. 78
36 “There are two types of poetry in this country. There’s poetry […] which takes the history of Modernism seriously and there’s what I call ‘official verse culture’, people like Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion. To listen to those creeps you’d think that Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism etc hadn’t happened.” Bonney, UCL
37 Eric Mottram, Towards design in poetry (London: Veer Books in association with Writers Forum, 2005), p. 13
38 Andrews, p. 28
39 Bonney, dedication in Poisons, their antidotes (Sheffield: West House Books, 2003), unnumbered pages
40 ‘Poisons’, p. 72
41 ‘Poisons’, p. 73
42 Mottram, p. 48
43 Mottram, p. 24. Mottram is referring to concrete poetry but the point is equally valid for Bonney’s indeterminate lexical poetry.
44 ‘Poisons’, p. 73
45 Sheppard, ‘Propositions 1987’, in  far language, pp. 23-27 (p. 25)
46 Mottram, p. 47
47 ‘Poisons’, p. 75
48 ‘Poisons’, p. 75
49 ‘Poisons’, p. 75
50 Bonney, ‘Occupied Territory’
51 ‘Poisons’, p. 75
52 ‘Poisons’, p. 75
53 ‘Poisons’, p. 76
54 ‘Poisons’, p. 76
55 Andrews, p. 25
56 ‘Poisons’, p. 77
57 ‘Poisons’, p. 77
58 ‘Poisons’, p. 78
59 ‘Poisons’, p. 79. This is altered from the original publication which read “how many lines / has the government burned”, Bonney, Poisons, unnumbered pages. Even his own work is subject to a grinding process with re-writes, deletions and additions. 
60 ‘Poisons’, p. 79
61 ‘Poisons’, p. 79
62 Maggie O’Sullivan, ‘GARB’, in In the House of the Shaman, p. 51
63 ‘Poisons’, p 79
64 ‘Poisons’, p 80 
65 What Bonney would call ‘negative poetics’: ‘the negativity in my poetix, by the way, is to do with what happens when what 'is' is forced into contact with what is excluded. or poetry as the anti-matter of consumer society. or counter-surveillance.’ (Private email, 15 April 2007)
66 Blade Pitch, p. 87



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Mark Jackson

Readings webjournal, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX. email: or or