Frank Kuppner - the Douglas Adams of poetry; a work of contemporary poetry that makes you laugh out loud. Allusive and humorous, this uncommon anthology is comprised of the first lines of a collection of lost poems. Reportedly discovered in a Latin American restaurant in Glasgow


Frank Kuppner, Arioflotga, Carcanet, 2008.
read it at Google Books

Allusive and humorous, this uncommon anthology is comprised of the first lines of a collection of lost poems. Reportedly discovered in a Latin American restaurant in Glasgow, this immensely entertaining compilation of verse is full of depth, insight, provocations, and astonishments, and spans a wide range of writing styles, from melodrama and sarcasm to bawdiness and outright absurdity.

Surely none of us can have been left quite unaffected by the recent startling and unfortunate disaster of the disappearance of the Great Poetic Anthology into the electronic cracks between the major academic institutions which were preparing it - something which one might have thought to be impossible in this age of unremitting communication. Nothing can compensate us for a loss of such magnitude. And yet here is some slight alleviation. Just over a year and a half ago, a copy of what seems to be a version of the index of first lines of the vast confusion of lost poems mysteriously turned up in a Latin American restaurant in Glasgow. No time has been lost in offering it to a still disconsolate public. It is not nothing that a portion of what promised to be the greatest collection of poetical thought of all time has not been utterly lost. And, as it happens, such is now not the case. No. Not so. For here indeed are depths, insights, provocations and astonishments. Or, at least, the beginnings of them.   Frank Kuppner

'Kuppner is a first-class parodist... a poet of immense intellectual and comic power, without whose cosmic interrogations the universe would be poorer.' - Poetry Review

'He writes with the bemused urgency of someone who has only just noticed that nothing whatsoever makes any sense... Kuppner risks playing with bathos and sarcasm, outright silliness and sheer smut...' - Sunday Herald

Frank Kuppner's Arioflotga is that rare thing: a work of contemporary poetry that makes you laugh out loud. This purports to be an index of first lines from a lost work, the "Great Poetic Anthology", and over 100-odd pages has a great deal of fun by having us imagine what comes after such beginnings as: "It isn't an Ancient mariner"; "Ignorant bastards! Why did you stop speaking Latin?"; "'Er,' said God, 'I think I may have done something completely unforgivable there'". Or the unassailable line: "Useless in bed? But I have a certificate". Kuppner's talents as a parodist, and his gift for being cheeky to his poetic forebears (previous targets have included Shakespeare and TS Eliot) are very well served here. The joke pays off. - Nicholas Lezard

That Frank Kuppner is not widely recognised as one of the most ingenious contemporary Scottish writers is a disgrace. From his surreal short stories (In The Beginning There Was Physics) to his haunting memoirs that combine investigations into true crime with meditations on personal loss (Something Very Like Murder and A Very Quiet Street) to his utterly idiosyncratic poetry – only Kuppner could call his selected poems What? Again? – he has consistently tested the limits of literary forms, literary tastes and literary norms.
Kuppner published a wonderful poem called 'First Lines Of Leo Hennigsdorfer' in Poetry Scotland several years ago. This new collection expands the conceit: the Great Poetic Anthology has been lost in cyberspace, but its index has turned up in a Latin American restaurant in Glasgow. The entire collection is first lines of lost poems: some ribald, some melancholy, some silly, some profound.
Kuppner has huge fun in this collection. Each line glimmers with possibilities, and simultaneously frustrates them all. There are, of course, parodies (having ruthlessly skewered TS Eliot in his previous collection, he seems to have it in for Gerard Manley Hopkins now, with lines such as "Wafer all-conquering, eclipsed biscuit, yea, Christ's crisp disc, whilk") and gleefully childish rewrites of great lines to include rude words. You can dip into it, but it rewards sustained reading.
There are little eddies, where the same line is repeated with variations, or corruptions, or emendations. The overall effect, especially when coupled with Kuppner's testy distrust of religious ideologies and poetic epiphanies, is of a book that systematically warns us against taking books too seriously.
As for the title: well, I'm stumped. Perhaps, like the inscrutable God he fulminates against so well, Kuppner has left a riddle that isn't supposed to be solved. But you won't read a more dazzling collection of aphorisms, elegies and wisecracks than Kuppner's Arioflotga. - Stuart Kelly

I’ve always liked Frank Kuppner. The book titles: A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty, Everything is Strange, A God’s Breakfast, The Intelligent Observation of Naked Women, Ridiculous! Absurd! Disgusting!, Second Best Moments in Chinese History, What? Again? Selected Poems, and now Arioflotga. The fact that he was ‘born in Glasgow in 1951 and has lived there ever since’, without benefit of a wikipedia entry or a Contemporary Writers website page (shame on them, again), or any invitations that I can see to poetry festivals south of the border. The highminded bawdy-rambunctious grotesquerie. The de Selbyesque cod scholarly shenanigans. The boisterous atheism. The finger he flamboyantly flicks at contemporary neo-nationalist and post-colonial ways of reading and writing poetry. Such as, from ‘The Uninvited Guest’:

I would rather keep my private parts throughout eternity, thank you.

The sound which the stars emit is an endless scream of pain.

If a man cuts off thy head, then do thou likewise.

Stranger, do I owe you anything? No? Then kindly get lost.
[Evidently, a rather disobliging tomb inscription.]

Yes, yes, yes. Of course you’ll live on after you’ve ceased to exist.
The whole universe couldn’t possibly even think of continuing without you.


The brilliant parodies of Eliot in ‘West Åland, or, Five Tombeaux for Mr Testoil’:

lightning thundering and thundering in the empty house
though I dare say we need not ask, which dole
as I pointed out at least once when discussing the Whole
over the lemon sole with Ernesto Che de Altzpflegenerheimer-Smith
whom I happened to fall in love with
looking rather shabby
in a public convenience near the Westminster Abbey


The brilliant cod Orientalism, as in ‘A Faded Inscription’:

‘Arriving very early I knocked vigorously on your door,
But an old lady from a window opposite told me
You were probably gone up the mountain to find a cool place to jerk off in;
Somewhat alarmed by her smile, I hurried away without waiting.’


I could keep going like this all morning. But what prompts this post is his new book, Arioflotga, Kuppner’s salvaging of the index of the sadly disappeared Great Poetic Anthology, as found in ‘a Latin American restaurant in Glasgow’. It comprises 114 pages of alphabetically arranged lines including:

‘There can be no true Bolivian who does not wholly agree with me’

‘Only a single example of a heroic shit’

‘One assumes that Saint John of the Cross was not much interested in schoolgirls’

‘Mozart? Never heard of him,’

‘Man’s life is a sort of fart in a dream’


And what I really wanted to say was that amidst all this brilliant buffoonery he repeatedly refers to a country called ‘Oblivia’. Frank Kuppner, I just invented a country called Oblivia and was trying to write a poetic sequence about it. I had put its national flatfish on the coinage, lamented the plight of its navy (Oblivia is a landlocked country), discussed the possibility of building an opera house to play Wagner in the Oblivian jungle, and started a lively correspondence in the Oblilvian Monthly on free-verse Bolshevism. And now you come along and do this! I fear I may have to set the chupacabra, the Oblivian national fictional monster, on you (after you’ve signed my copy of Arioflotga).
The photograph, which I’ve always wanted to copy on here, shows my brother Gavin at large on the southern coast of Oblivia, near Ushuaia.  -

Something Very Like Murder

Life on a Dead Planet

Ridiculous! Absurd! Disgust...

Second Best Moments in Chin...

Some years ago, when artists and writers frequented the Groucho Club, there was much excited late-night chatter about founding The Frank Kuppner Appreciation Society. Stationery would be printed, and the Glaswegian electronics engineer transported first-class to one of London's top hotels, where a reading would be arranged. Sadly, perhaps, the scheme was never realised. It was feared that the author of 'The Intelligent Observation of Naked Women', 'A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty' and 'Second Best Moments in Chinese History' might feel like a performing monkey, obliged to showcase his skills to an audience he cared little for.
His books continued to circulate, passed from hand to hand feverishly, and lines from his verse extracted and adored. How much lighter life seemed when one could at last acknowledge that "Life is a dinner party without a host./ And, frequently, without a dinner party either." And how much richer both religion and language felt when the poet observed that "God is real, but not as we use the word 'real'./ Or, for that matter, as we use the word 'God'."
With a masterful palette ranging from Stoic philosophy to theology, physics and Oriental aesthetics, the reader not only delights in the unlikely concatenations Kuppner orchestrates but also learns something. The constructions and fancies of human knowledge are continually offset against the worldly and the trivial, or a perverse baseline of sexual desire. "'From which we may deduce', said Avalokiteshavara,/ As he was carried feet-first out of the young girl's bedroom,/'That the 54,545 steps towards self-control/ Are not susceptible to short-cuts, really'."
We read of priests, wise men, poets and sages, system building or engaged in spiritual pursuits, who nonetheless keep returning to the brute object of their desire: a naked temple goddess, a neighbour's wife, tattooed buttocks. Animadversions on astrophysics end up with the image of footwear discarded by a bed, a pitcher of wine or some meaningless artefact. "The day after the last day will be of quite staggering beauty/ Rather like the whole Universe waking up in your bed;/ To find itself looking at an imitation antique clock".
This dialectic of the vast and the tiny, and of abstraction and crude desire, is as lively as it is funny. Kuppner uses China as a kind of laboratory, as it includes both the idea of an infinitely precise and focused wisdom and an uncountable mass of people getting on with the drudgery of daily lives. "But if you too lived on a huge stone hurtling through the sky -/ Much of it an explosion - what would you believe?/ What would it be right to believe, in such a predicament?"
Kuppner's poetry invites us to reflect on human knowledge and the ineffable, trivial nature of existence; it is true philosophy. He makes us think about what it means to be alive, and to recognise that "Perhaps life is background music playing in the foreground." - Darian Leader

A God's Breakfast

There's nothing like kicking a great writer when he's down. TS Eliot, villain of stage, screen and literary criticism, is now a popular football for his fellow poets. Tom Paulin let his prose attacks spill into The Invasion Handbook, and even Geoffrey Hill, the most Eliotic of contemporary poets, has been using verse and prose to bad-mouth Four Quartets. However, when it comes to Eliot-bashing, Frank Kuppner makes the competition look like pussycats.
Though he may not have Paulin's fame or Hill's reputation, Kuppner has been one of the most interesting Scottish writers of the past 20 years. The spoof Chinese-in-translation of his first book of verse, A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty, like the later Second Best Moments in Chinese History, was novel, funny and often rather beautiful. In a very different manner, the prose of A Quiet Street and Something Very Like Murder spliced investigation into old crimes with autobiographical reminiscence to create what approached a new genre. Other books have varied in style from the fanciful and the manically comic to the meditative and argumentative; the titles of Kuppner's volumes Ridiculous! Absurd! Disgusting! and Everything is Strange indicate much of what is captivating and, sometimes, wearying about his varied oeuvre.
A God's Breakfast is three books in one. The first and longest is "The Uninvited Guest", a sequence of hundreds of cod-classical epigrams and fragments; the third, "What Else is There?" a collection of 120 shorter poems. The rest of the volume is given up to "West Åland, or Five Tombeaux for Mr Testoil". At 48 pages, "West Åland" is about as long as The Waste Land and Four Quartets combined and is, I'd reckon, the most protracted dance ever made by one poet upon the grave of another.
In it Eliot's verse is mercilessly caricatured, his faith and thought denounced, and his private life lampooned. While charges that Eliot was a right-wing Christian, had a bad first marriage and was an editor at Faber and Faber are scarcely news, the contention that Eliot wasn't much of a poet comes as more of a surprise. To help persuade us, Kuppner scrawls ruderies on Eliot's lines ("I grow stout ... I grow stout / I shall walk through St Paul's with my balls hanging out", and so on) and tries to convince us that Eliot wrote doggerel and rhetorical waffle by supplying his own.
Kuppner can be an excellent humourist and pasticheur, but, though it prompts the odd schoolboy titter and hits one or two of its numerous targets, on the whole "West Åland" is a repetitive, over-egged and ridiculously over-long affair which diminishes one's respect for Kuppner while doing nothing to lower one's opinion of Eliot.
If there is a justification for "West Åland", it is that it pulls down the trousers of a writer who gave intellectual and artistic respectability to ideas which Kuppner's atheism and critical rationalism find erroneous or repugnant, thereby alerting us to how Eliot concealed wrong-headedness with "verbal mesmerism, a hoping that the music / will be taken for elusive meaning". Eliot's ideas no longer have the currency they once did and Kuppner doesn't show Paulin's outrage at Eliot's anti-semitism. Instead it's this mesmerism - or, to put it another way, poetic talent - that seems to be the chief impetus for Kuppner's jeers. The title poem of Kuppner's 1987 volume The Intelligent Observation of Naked Women asks:
   "What grey divorces have lapped against the walls of his room?
   What seas have slowly rotted into intelligence?
   Where were her various sighs already by my reading?
What does that remind you of? "What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands / What water lapping the bow"? Here it's Eliot's "Marina"; elsewhere in The Intelligent Observation of Naked Women and Everything is Strange, it's Four Quartets that influence a verse that can be as labouriously orotund as Kuppner's invented Eliot. "West Åland" is the sound of someone shouting abuse to stop themselves falling back under the mesmerist's trance.
"The Uninvited Guest" is much better. Its fictitious fragments from anonymous ancient authors contain the erudite and the philosophical as well as the unremarkable and the obscene, as its protagonists think deeply on the meaning of life, the pursuit of sex, of death and fame, and of how little they care for one another.
There is something to offend almost everyone, including a fair amount that is sexist or homophobic, but there's also plenty to illuminate, amuse and instruct. Kuppner likes the role of Diogenes the Cynic: shameless and funny, pointing out his own animal nature and the foolishness and hypocrisy of others. However, it's Karl Popper, the philosopher of science and vehement critic of Plato, who is the guiding genius of this attempt to enter the disputes of the ancient world in order to address the misconceptions of the present.
Kuppner's desire to hammer home old arguments can knock his own art out of shape, and his work tends to be best when it has the least design upon us. In "The Uninvited Guest", however, Kuppner's ideas are at their most interesting and attractive. All of the gripes of "West Åland" - against spurious profundity and obscurantism, against religion, anti-materialism and asceticism - are here. Nevertheless, set free of the grudge against Eliot and placed amid competing voices, they, and the reader, are given space to breathe.
In "West Åland" Kuppner observes that "lyricism can be a knack, much like anything else"; but it's not a knack that he has ever quite acquired. Though he can write a neat enough pentameter, Kuppner hasn't the gift for verbal music and emotional and intellectual intensity of, say, Eliot. Kuppner's abilities are, however, ideally suited to diffuse extended poems and sequences; the best description and defence of works like "The Uninvited Guest" coming in the couplet: "Some good stuff; more indifferent stuff; much rubbish / How else is any book going to catch reality?" The short poems in "What Else is There?", which tend to have much the same consistency as Kuppner's sprawling ones, are thus at something of a disadvantage.
When Kuppner tackles the everyday he has his moments - he does, for instance, continue to write well about his parents. However, there's something slightly disappointing about finding someone who has masqueraded as a Chinese poet of the Sung dynasty, an insect and God, recalling his European holiday or contemplating the view from the office of a writer in residence. So it is the, often anti-religious, parables and flights of fancy that most appeal. In "An Ode Suitable for Almost Any Literary Occasion", Kuppner exhorts the fleas that bit Shakespeare as he went
   "on writing yet another of his appalling poofy sonnets.
   Yes! Bite! Go on! Give him no peace! He deserves none.
   Quite apart from the truly atrocious handwriting.
   And dead at fifty-two - that wasn't too great, was it?
   I mean even Ben effing Jonson managed to beat that out of sight.
   And dead on your birthday to boot! Huh. Happy birthday
As mean-spirited and bilious as anything in "West Åland", but without its tedious self-righteousness, the poem proves that petty envy has its place as a spur for literary endeavour. And that the spectacle of watching lesser poets make fleabites on their betters, while never exactly edifying, can at least be very entertaining. - William Wootten

A Very Quiet Street: A Nove...

What? Again?: Selected Poems

A Concussed History of Scot...

In the Beginning There Was ...

Everything Is Strange

The Same Life Twice

Jon: More than ever, it seems Frank Kuppner is the Douglas Adams of poetry; his short, questing stanzas in The Same Life Twice take on God, time and the Universe but are shot through with droll self-deprecation and bathos, not to mention a little bawdiness. They make light of the philosophical mode, the big questions repeatedly descending into puzzled exchanges and faltering interior monologues:
As for the priceless
(bejewelled) gift of treachery,
darling – I – what? What?
Oh, where has he or she disappeared to now!
Many poets are witty, but few are as committed to their humour. Flowery/intense lyricism gets short shrift, sometimes explicitly. “All mature art,” advises one character, “is part of the precarious endeavour / of getting men / to **** women properly.” This is followed by an addendum in brackets, then another, shorter one in square brackets. The book is strewn with such afterthoughts, footnotes, corrections and insertions – mostly comical, but also adding the frisson of a profound self-doubt. The Same Life Twice is like a drawing room farce where the main character only runs into iterations of himself coming through the other doors.
Kirsten: I often imagine Kuppner’s writing process as taking place in a lightning-bothered laboratory, the author testing slight proportional alterations, frowning, adjusting and noting down each new reaction. Less cleanly disjointed in structure than Arioflotga, the collection reads like an Inner Space-style tour through one person’s brain (the delineations of Left and Right reinforce this idea), as stray ponderings, exclamations and emotional peaks and troughs swim to the surface.
J: Like Arioflotga, however, and like many of his other books, the tone is absolutely unwavering. It’s a generous collection – 258 pages! – made up of three sections, two of which are laid out face-to-face across the page. But I’m tempted to say that you only need to read a third of it to get the gist. On the one hand, it’s an impressively sustained effort, but on the other, what of economy of language?
K: Perhaps it’s more about the ecosystem as a whole than the justification of each component. The repetitions and parenthetical hiccups fling paint at the canvas as we go along. Whichever order you read the stanzas (or poems?) in, whether you choose to read straight down one side, hop across from one number to its counterpart or simply select random portions to examine, you end up with a picture from the gathered elements.
J: I have a confession: I didn’t read this start to finish. I’m not even sure I’ve read all of it. There’s no linear or thematic narrative, and I found myself simply reading arbitrary tranches, sometimes going backwards through the book, or reading a page from the end, then a page from the beginning, and so on. It’s a book with multiple points of entry, all of which seem to lead to signposts pointing in all directions.
K: And this ties back to the anxiety and self-doubt mentioned earlier. The thematic links between the parallel poems tighten and loosen from stanza to stanza. It’s an almost tidal relationship between the sides, the right lapping at the left. Kuppner is a rascal – just when you think you see the pattern, the way the next pairing might sit together, he shifts gear and twins totally contrasting lines of thought, shaking the reader from any lull. In the same way, we are not allowed to get stuck into any major metaphysical queries before they are dismantled by the speaker’s inner demons:
“(i.e. not even dead. After all, people have died by now in their almost incomputable millions – but not even one of them exists onwards in some sort of state of being dead…I could say more but I dare say I, er – hic, etc.) I’ll be completely silent from now on.”
J: In all honesty, I think the structure of the book is undermined by its stylistic consistency. I don’t think I would have noticed if the section headings had been removed and the poems renumbered in a linear fashion. I’m far more enticed by the individual flashes of fear, incredulity and caustic mockery. I love this:
I found your absolutely staggering book
absolutely staggering, to be quite honest, Dan.
In fact, I was absolutely staggered by it. Yerss.
K: But the section headings open up so many possibilities for readings! Parallel universe, reincarnation, resurrection, physics experiment, fantasy, false memory, converging into a single voice for the final, ‘echo’ section. This shift feels initially like progress, as if the conflict has been resolved following intense negotiations, but turns out instead to be a distillation of earlier concerns (“I have just done something/extremely bloody stupid”), still dogged by the bottlenecks of self-second-guessing.
J: [But I still don't get why all the sw**r w*rds are asterisked out]. - Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving

Creation and its paradoxes have long troubled the philosophical mind. Why should there be something rather than nothing, Leibniz wondered, while Beckett's Jacques Moran has a question for the almighty: "What was God doing with himself before the creation?" In The Same Life Twice Frank Kuppner has written, not for the first time, a comic and cosmic meditation on all the big questions. "No, there'll never be /another me! – whatever the Universe /might proceed to do next," he begins. But this being Kuppner, such trust in the universe's duty of care to our needs proves short-lived. Flatulence is a recurring theme in his work, and seldom is he happier than when launching a rip-roaring fart in the general direction of our anthropocentric self-delusion.
Yeats judged that "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry," but out of the quarrel with itself poetry makes Frank Kuppner books. The first two parts of The Same Life Twice are arranged in a verso and recto standoff, and often engage each other in an unseemly slanging match across the page. Adam and Eve and Dante and Beatrice feature prominently among the dramatis personae. A commentator, too, chips in prolifically between square brackets. The fact that we appear to be in heaven does nothing to ameliorate the bad mood. Of the three parts of Dante's Commedia, the Paradiso has always been the least translated, a neglect that may owe as much to theological as to literary reasons. "Might not the beatific vision become a source of boredom, in the long run?" another Beckett character, Molloy, muses to himself, and if Kuppner's Adam and Eve and Dante and Beatrice have anything in common, under their endless squabbles, it is their epic sense of boredom ("just what exactly are we doing here, Beatrice?").
Perhaps paradise, like hell, is a form of punishment for the crime of being born. "Who's the great sinner?", Irish Victorian poet James Henry asked, before answering: "He, who gave the power / And will to sin, and knew both would be used." Like Henry, Kuppner directs his share of anger at divine sadism, but his cosmology inclines as much to the whimsical as the diabolic. Existence is "greatly over-rated" and what pleasure there is to be had comes mainly from jokes at the expense of the whole fiasco. Few writers exploit the humorous possibilities of obscenity as well as Kuppner. We read of "a very strange letter from the authorities / advising me to 'go and take a running f*** to myself'," and Dante and Beatrice quarrel like surly teens over the "huge part" of his life the poet claims to have spent thinking about her.
Like the late Peter Reading, Kuppner writes wittily and well on literary pretension and folly. "'I found your absolutely staggering book / absolutely staggering, to be quite honest'", a flatterer assures Dante, but the uncertainty of literary value is merely one among a multitude of unknowns. Who is Kuppner's narrator, really? As Robert Crawford has noted, his narrative techniques "involve both secrecy and self-protection". Some manner of doomed love affair appears to be lurking under the surface of the paradise narrative; it is all the more effective for never coming properly into focus. The real joke in Kuppner, Leontia Flynn has argued, "is at the expense of purity of texts". The existence of God, the universe and the author are all gravely in doubt, to the point where we may do best to emulate another flatterer and stick to a more manageable level: "I have now read your latest book. / And I must say there was one comma in it /that I did so very particularly admire."
In general, Kuppner's work operates at a far remove from the more tuneful poetry Pound would recognise as "melopoeia", though in previous books he has shown himself a dab hand at imitation Chinese lyrics. If Kuppner is among the most prose-like of poets, this is not to call him prosaic. He is prose-like in the sense that a Browning monologue is, while Hopkins's vision of Browning "bouncing up from a table, his mouth full of bread and cheese, saying he means to stand no more blasted nonsense" could hardly be bettered as a description of the crackpot savants who people Kuppner's work, holding forth on theology with their pullovers on back-to-front.
The lengthy discussions of non-existence in The Same Life Twice reminded me of the Greek sophist Gorgias of Lentini, whose theories went as follows: nothing exists; if anything does exist, we know nothing about it; if we did know something about it, it could not be communicated; and if it could be communicated, it could not be understood. While the sceptical substance may be the same, the style of sprawling self-repetition preferred by Kuppner might appear damagingly at odds with the minimalism of the pre-Socratics. Eternity does last a long time, though, and The Same Life Twice accumulates more than enough philosophical pleasures along the way to compensate. As bulwarks against boredom go, in this life or the next, one could do a lot worse than Frank Kuppner. - David Wheatley

A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty

The Intelligent Observation...