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Ian Duhig
Ian Duhig

Ian Duhig has written six books of poetry, most recently Pandorama (Picador 2010). He has won a Forward Prize, the National Poetry Competition twice and three times been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.

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Poets Reading Poets 12

Engine Block

In a Times interview in 1949, Alan Turing said, "I do not see why it (a computer) should not enter any one of the fields normally covered by the human intellect, and eventually compete on equal terms. I do not think you can even draw the line about sonnets, though the comparison is perhaps a little bit unfair because a sonnet written by a machine will be better appreciated by another machine." However, nowadays many people appreciate the poems produced by, for example, the computer poetry-generating programme 'Alfred'. Christian Bok is a pioneer in related areas. But at one time, a machine meant a supernatural or contrived intrusion into a poem (The changing of the Trojan fleet into the most violent Machine in the whole Aeneid - Steele, 1713). Turing's comment about a sonnet-writing machine, however, missed a most important element in our understanding of a sonnet (as of all poems), namely that it is itself a machine.


          In Valéry's definition, a poem is a kind of machine for producing poetic states of mind. This makes it sound rather like the poet herself, reminding us of Yeats' apparent stated desire to become an automaton, a golden bird in 'Byzantium': a machine-making machine. Not to complicate matters further just yet, for William Carlos Williams: "A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words". For Auden, it was "a verbal contraption", and more recently Don Paterson has it as "a small machine for remembering itself"  while Michael Hoffman wrote, "a successful poem, in my definition, is 'a machine for re-reading'". It is also a paradox machine, poetry being of a paradoxical nature: almost any statement about it can be immediately contradicted by an equally valid opposite statement like old-fashioned metaphysics (the universe is one, the universe is many), something technically embodied by Auden, who liked to recast a line as its negative to see how that might work. Still, John Fuller can confidently inform us (in 'Who is Ozymandias?') that Poetry is not, however, abstract. No ideas but in things, in the restoration of detail to memory, say William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara - except that the sweeping abstractions of Yeats and Stevens also help make unarguably great poetry.


          I want to explore this contradictory nature by looking at a short poem by Martin Bell called 'Writer's Block'.


          A jewelled piece of furniture of hell,

          This block. An elaborate machine

          Of twisting gleaming parts

          Hewn from solid metal. Try

          Your teeth on that.


          This seems to me the ultimate gesture of the professional writer: the employment of lack of inspiration in the service of functional inspiration. Machines have gears with teeth, but Bell here challenges us to use ours on his "elaborate machine", which more particularly lies behind my choice of title for this piece: the block as dynamo. The reason Bell is able to pull off this trick is that poetry has a peculiarly dynamic relationship with silence - George Mackay Brown called it an “interrogation of silence” and as many people have pointed out, it is the one art form that can be completely constructed and experienced in the mind. Even music requires its proper realisation with the assistance of voices or instruments, but a poem can be made in silence out of silence; in this respect it resembles strands of religious thought, noting that Bell invokes the afterlife as the source of his machine’s construction.


          In the fourteenth century, Greek orthodox theologians developed the principle that any statement about God must have two qualities: it must be paradoxical and apophatic, leading us to silence. A very different kind of writer to Bell, Steven King, appropriately observed in this vein that salvation and damnation are the same thing. The deus ex machina is the diabolus ex machina at the operational level; Auden might randomly recast a line as its opposite to see if worked better that way: a via negativa to poetic discovery in the same way that Martin Bell’s poem to his block realised it as its own antitype. He was a translator of the surrealist poets and the surrealists were great machine-makers - with one distinguishing feature: The surrealist machine is more often than not a nonfunctional machine as Sara Darius writes in her book 'The Senses of Modernism'. It works by not working: by not working, it becomes the work of art.


          In conclusion, therefore, I believe Martin Bell’s short, desperate poem illuminates key concepts in poetry: the poem as machine and the paradox of its utterance, driven by white space as much as ink. Again I am reminded of a religious formulation in connection with this, St Jerome’s praise of Asella: Her speech is silence and her silence speech. Bell lived out his days in a place he hated but could not leave, writing Why, Leeds is Hell, nor am I out of it./Why, I am Hell, nor is Leeds out of it; the Hell which fashioned his poem/block, the place Nuttgens called ‘The Back-to-Front, Inside-Out, Upside-Down City’, the place where paradoxically he could not not be a poet.



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