UNPROTECTED TEXTS: SELECTED POEMS 1978-2006 by TOM BECKETT (1)NICHOLAS MANNING Reviews
Unprotected Texts: Selected Poems 1978-2006 by Tom Beckett
(Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco, 2006)
The title of Tom Beckett’s much overdue Selected is revelatory: for in what way are Beckett’s texts “unprotected”? Well, perhaps we can conceive of the notion of “protectedness” in poetry as being a question of that with which the poem surrounds itself: its mode, its means, its audience, its ontology, its reason for being, etc. This cushion, this veritable air-bag, is in the end what allows a poem, any poem, to be read: it is, in short, all which enables us to identify it as a poem, as a certain type of poem, and moreover to read it in a particular way.
Its status and its statute.
Now, whether a poem shows or does not show a certain acquiescence, a compliance with regard to these protective structures, is perhaps the degree of its protectedness. In an important way, this is not to say that such “acquiescence” must necessarily result in conservatism, in New Formalism, in the British Movement or in the School of Quietude, as, for example, such texts as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are “radical” in certain ways, but may still be seen as relatively “protected”: that is, they are more or less comfortable with their own statute as pieces of writing, of what, finally, they are really trying to do.
Tom Beckett’s poems do not demonstrate this comfort. Tom Beckett’s poems have chosen that dangerous path which consists in the sack and pillage of their own protective structures. And why is this dangerous? What may happen to a poem if it is not surrounded by this veritable condom--the image is Beckett’s –of mode, means, audience, and ontology? (Or rather, if such elements are so dynamic, existing in such a constant state of flux, that they become almost imperceptible, and thus unusable?) Well, simply, such a poem, having thrown off the shackles of its protective structures, runs the risk of not being understood.
Yet the resounding triumph of Beckett’s aesthetic is precisely the fact that these poems are understood. That, all the while refusing to content themselves with being read in one way, all the while writhing and kicking, changing, in true Protean fashion, their form, genre and gender, they remain resolutely, determinably, open.
As, for these poems, “protectedness” is not so much a protective shield as it is a barrier, an imposed limit. “Anything that occurs is a structure” Beckett tells us in the first pages of this deeply rewarding collection, and one has the overwhelming impression that this inevitable structuring of the world--and of writing--is in the end unfortunate. For in order to make sense of reality we must, to a certain extent, restrict it, restrain it, just as we much restrict and restrain language. “A world is not frame”: no, but we need frames, don’t we, somewhat, in order to understand the world? And poetry, to a certain extent, is “frame”: as Beckett remarks, stanza is room in Italian, and even the very page, like Greenberg’s flat surface, is an imposed limit . . . For this reason, Beckett is extremely interested in the question of limits, barriers, horizons, walls: by all that which puts limits on our lived, and poetic, experiences, by imposing upon them a (necessary?) structure.
So what, then, does Beckett advise us to do . . . “Sleep in long unbuttoning templates” . . . This beautiful phrase is in the end quite explicit: templates, frames, may be necessary for us in order to initially make sense of things--language and world--but they are in the end mere templates which may be “unbuttoned”. The adjective, charged with Beckett’s usual playful eroticism, also has a certain Steinian echo to it, and we see this “unbuttoning” in the very poem in which this statement occurs. For this poem, “Frames”, is apparently a list-poem, but we soon remark something which occurs so very often in Tom Beckett: the poem does not obey its own rules! It does not do what its told! It writhes and kicks! As for some ten lines there is one sentence per line, one sentence per numbered-point: then it is as if, tired of its own protectedness, of its fixed definition as a certain type of poem, the poem decides, “Basta”, and begins to break down, or rather, to break out.
For Tom Beckett’s poems, like children playing, make their rules up as they go along: and in this way they are the perfect counter-point to such schools as Oulipo who attempt to impose a pre-existing framework of constraints, to which the poem must subsequently simply adhere. But Beckett’s poems are living organisms; they see what they are becoming, and maybe they do not like what they are becoming, so they change, or attempt to change: their form, their audience, their pronouns, even their gender.
But there is a rewarding complexity, another side entirely, to these questions, as: “Partitions are lovely sometimes.” It is this “sometimes” which is important. For Beckett is not an anarchist, is not an advocate of the utter dissolution of all points of reference. The poems– again like children, and I think the analogy is useful –often return to known structures in order to feel comforted again: they are not entirely free radicals, they simply change the rules if they need to, and obey them when it suits.
“Pronouns articulate indefensible space”: this is the space of the poem, indefensible because of the dynamic nature of language. Beckett loves altering the meaning of phrases solely by changing one syntactical element: an article or pronoun, which shows that language is not constructed solely, or even principally, around its “powerful” signifiers, its verbs and nouns--words which do and denote respectively--but more perhaps around its apparently innocuous pronominal and prepositional bits and bobs: “I”, “you”, “to”, “for” . . .
The result of this attention is that one is constantly “misreading” Beckett: which is, finally, simply a proof of the fact that one is reading him. For example, on the mostly very beautiful pages of “The Nude Sentience”, I read “Property is theft” instead of “Propriety is theft”, and “Meaning, in fact, is synonymous with context” instead of “Meaning, in fact, is synonymous with contest”. These confusions are, of course, subtly intentional, but they are nevertheless disturbing; for they explicitly illustrate the extent to which we often read, instead of the “real word” upon the page, rather what we expect--or most want?--to encounter. And this feeling of unease is, of course, a very good thing . . .
“Words as reruns”: no usage, Beckett knows, is a first usage, and his series of subtle variations on words, “context” as “contest”, puts into haut-relief this rerun quality of words, their adaptability, indeed their recyclability. No word is a priori: “all language leaks” . . .
There is so much in Beckett: self, space, sound, sex, gender, mimesis, ekphrasis, praxis. Windows and walls. He is a poet of abundance--with the faults too inherent in this abundant project. (Some of the conceptual pieces, for example, those which Beckett calls “repetitive” or “modulatory”, and which in the old high tradition of conceptual L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, sometime just go on much too long. After six pages, we have understood the variations, and their constant morphing and remorphing adds little to our understanding, other than screaming I AM BEING CONCEPTUAL.) But we forgive these brief moments of perhaps personal ennui and concentrate rather on the fact that sometimes Beckett is an aphorist the equal of Karl Kraus or René Char, sometimes a great pornographer, and always funny: “Does anyone out there really like their plot?”
A final question: why is this book so late? Why wasn’t this given to us ten years ago? For the fact that Unprotected Texts is Tom Beckett’s first full-length book of poems is indicative of a surprising paradigm in the way literary reputations today are made and consolidated. For Tom Beckett seems, since the 1980s at least, so much a part of the landscape of late 20th century poetics: from his seminal decade editing The Difficulties to his various chapbooks, blogs, guest-editorial stints and appearance in In the American Tree, his invaluable contributions are undeniable: they just haven’t yet made up that object we call “book.”
In his interview with Crag Hill and Thomas Fink which concludes the volume, Beckett articulates the understandable feeling that: “If I’ve despaired at times at the little attention my work has received, it hasn’t been because of a big ego. Rather I’ve always hungered to be part of ‘the conversation’, part of a thread in the fabric of our time’s poetry writing weave.” Let’s simply say then that Tom Beckett is now resolutely a part of this fabric, and may indeed prove to be one of its most vibrant filaments.
Nicholas Manning is Assistant Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Strasbourg, France, currently writing his doctoral thesis on rhetoric and sincerity in post-war European and American poetry. His poems, articles, translations and reviews have appeared in such places as Verse, Fascicle, Free Verse, Dusie, The Argotist, BlazeVox, MiPoesias, Eratio, Cipher Journal, CrossXConnect, Shampoo, among others. This year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.