Jeff Hilson - There's something wrong in every poem which is turned over and over, again and again, so that the whole is effectively a diagnostic report from the back-to-front

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Jeff Hilson, Latanoprost Variations, Boiler House Press, 2017)

JEFF HILSON’S COMMENTARY: On Latanoprost Variations

Beginning with an extended riff involving the glorified music search engine Spotify and ending with the ongoing and ignored tragedy of European migration, these prose poems [sic] address a range of historic and contemporary particulars including the entertainer/paedophile Rolf Harris, ripoff payday loan sharks, English football grounds, world shipping, the endangered flora & fauna of the British Isles and singer-(not)songwriter Art Garfunkel.
Punctuationless and insistently lower-case, and employing repetition and the list as forms of subterfuge, nothing in LATANOPROST VARIATIONS is quite as it seems. There's something wrong in every poem which is turned over and over, again and again, so that the whole is effectively a diagnostic report from the back-to-front. The title refers to a topical eye-drop used for the treatment of the chronic eye condition glaucoma which if left untreated leads to loss of sight. This book is a plea not to turn a blind eye.
Not being a doctor himself, the author has no advice except never to forget that on 17 May, 2017, the day Rolf Harris was released from Stafford Prison after a brief internment, Donald Trump announced a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and a small boatload of migrants awaited rescue off the island of Lampedusa. As one of the poems reminds us: "the men of war are difficult to ignore shaking hands with them does not mean they are not men of war." Or as another concludes: "thank you art garfunkel thank you after all the eyes are fine."

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Jeff Hilson, Stretchers, Reality Street, 2006.

Sampled in various small press editions over recent years and aired in live performances in London and elsewhere, Jeff Hilson'sStretchers comprise three fast moving sequences of (more or less) 33-line poems. "Each stretcher contains a story, and each story contains other stories." Here the full set is collected at last.

 "A stretcher mis-uses that which it stretches into. Reading down the column, which stands immaculate among the ruined vocabularies. The idea of a stretcher works so well that every reading simply multiplies - by dint of new stretcher-ideas - whatever Hilson scraps together. How far can a lie stretch?"  - Edmund Hardy

Mark Twain is quoted on the back: "mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before." A stretcher is all opening. It is a lie, a bed, a stretching-along. It is 33-ish lines. A stretcher also seems to begin and end with an ellipsis. Many of them carry found material. There are three volumes of stretchers collected here, accompanied by an amusing essay, 'Why I wrote stretchers'.

Apparently they began as a response to Iain Sinclair's put-down of Hilson's then home, the Isle of Dogs - "Dog island", faux-isle - in chapter 1 of Lights Out For The Territory. "I . . . began, petulantly, to think of all the mounds of dog shit there as a kind of interruptive writing." Perhaps this indignance is also behind the name to Hilson's press, Canary Woof. I believe there to be a tradition of essayists kicking against the Dog - Have you been around the globe, asked Carlyle, "or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs." A stretcher is described by Hilson as a "barrel of odds and ends", "a glory hole", and "a pack of lies." One key constraint is this, "they can't be too wide. The need to stop them getting too wide has on occasions led to some interesting visual results." As for the 33 lines, "I was sitting in the bar underneath Centre Point just off Tottenham Court Road when a French woman there asked me my age. When I told her, she told me to watch out because Jesus had died at 33."

The mention of a life places the emphasis back on stretching-along, Strecke, erstrecken, an important idea, for Heidegger, of time consciousness, but Hilson quotes Maggie O'Sullivan, "s t r e t c h i n g // g o n e – o n – t o –"

Reading a stretcher, one is at first low down, speaking from child-height:
...the sawing man I fear for his legs
red white red white and he has years
this road they will dig it and widen the pave
tho it is not oxford street it is said
the rich must now walk on that side too
Thus begins the first stretcher, but then up we stretch to a few lines on public writing -
for graffiti there's dogshit it's a kind
of writing can be scried an inventory
taken of say colour consistency and
I won't have this neighbourhood
fears of a mass break-in nor pay
for inside when you can have sound
- which stretch and then stretch again. One form stretches inside another, "...bird to dawn as fox / takes child in two", pastoral within chess. "sue lawley" is mentioned, suggesting a radio show, Dog Island Discs. It is the incantatory phrase into phrase which can stretch into the archive of found material, into misspellings, fragments of chants, brackets within brackets, a tall tale full of the rhythms of other speech. A stretching along which is also a being-stretched if a form of historicizing movement. The important thing is this: there is no fixed "stretch of life", 33 years for Jeff or Jesus, for there can be a way to exist which stretches itself along between birth and death. In a Hilson stretcher, a concentration or a phrase expands, and it takes in what it cares to.
(the usual two & two is fair
& from three a win-win &
then there were none (they
all gone pair-bonding called
also night life (please sir
permission to blaze & as
he does red clouds of sunset
in the west was painted on
his coat (this way he was
disguised as a spreading
display which won me a
fiver & her eyes flashed
(it's keepers booty miss)
& a yellow patch to match
with no patch he was all in
Permission to blaze? A stretcher mis-uses that which it stretches into. Reading down the column, which stands immaculate among the ruined vocabularies. The idea of a stretcher works so well that every reading simply multiplies - by dint of new stretcher-ideas - whatever Hilson scraps together. How far can a lie stretch? - Edmund Hardy

 Jeff Hilson’s Stretchers collects two earlier Writers Forum chapbooks of twelve (2001) and twenty-one pieces (2002) with an additional twenty-one new “stretchers” (it is a Hilson-invent’d form) and a terrific essay call’d “Why I Wrote Stretchers.” Some “rules” and constraints glean’d out of the essay: “Each stretcher is nominally a 33-line unit,” a decision made for reasons “ultimately banal, based on [Hilton’s] age at the time of writing the first set.” “The poems incorporate a lot of found material . . . much of it (though by no means all of it) verbal detritus heard or seen on journeys through this city.” “Pillaging cheap secondhand texts for material enforced another kind of reading which was partial, discontinuous and manic.” “Page 33 of texts became for a time a focus.” “The opening is a measure for the rest of the stretcher not necessarily in terms of content, but certainly in terms of (line) length. This is what gives stretchers their shape. If stretchers have a constraint it is that they can’t be too wide.” “All spelling mistakes are deliberate.” “Each stretcher tells a story and each story contains many other stories.” Hilson calls the stretchers “ruins, constructed ruins,” and he “tried whenever possible to avoid the ‘effects” which line ending can produce . . . They are tatters, ragged flags.” Too, there’s a fine considering of “Artaud’s famous letter of June 5, 1923, to Jacques Rivière” wherein (in the Bernard Frechtman translation) Artaud writes:
I suffer from a frightful disease of the mind. My thought abandons me at all stages. From the simple act of thinking to the external act of its materialization in words. Words, forms of phrases, inner directions of thinking, simple reactions of the mind—I am in constant pursuit of my intellectual being. Hence, whenever I can seize upon a form, however imperfect it may be, I hold it fast, lest I lose the entire thought.
And adds, of the “ungainly phrases . . . ungainly expressions”: “I have not questioned them. They come from the deep uncertainty of my thinking.” Hilson, of the opening line of each stretcher, notes that each “‘sounded’ right . . . though mostly they were those imperfect forms of which Artaud speaks. They ‘bothered’ me as a ‘bewilderment of noise,’ a phrase turned over and over in my head. The writing down of the opening line momentarily stilled the noise, gave it some sort of clarity, though the necessity of deciding what to do immediately after getting it down made it impossible to dwell there for long.” A terrific descrying of the writing impulse, its doggish lock-jaw’d seizure and its demands and correspondences fit and “unfit.” Here’s the first of Hilson’s stretchers:
. . . the sawing man I fear for his legs
red white red white and he has years
this road they will dig it and widen the pave
tho it is not oxford street it is said
the rich must now walk on that side too
for graffiti there’s dogshit it’s a kind
of writing can be scried an inventory
taken of say colour consistency and
I won’t have this neighborhood
fears of a mass break-in nor pay
for inside when you can have sound
from over there (where was angry)
the phrase “phenomenological night”
and hedges such as do you know
what I mean the word hedge is new
and used everywhere by ladies like
albert ayler’s music for circus and
as in hedge-school and hedge-bird
and hedge-priest as in hedge-bantler
on the right or wrong side of the
hedge takes a sheet off the hedge or
is on the hedge regardless of others
the hedge-creeper he’s a creeper crept
into a hedge for the hedge-police
would catch him for his creeping and
the hedge of hawthorn was as a cloak
to hide the creeper gone aside from
the straight way the shifter and shuffler
his means of protection as in the dancers
bottom right of bosch’s garden their blind
owl-headed dance buried in a tusked bud
schal or schil rind and quarrel these
briars and brambles will protect you . . .
All the stretchers begin and end with ellipses, evidence of being scoop’d up out of the Voloshinovian stream of speech unceasing. The sense of burrowing down in a distance (or, with cue off free-jazz innovator and tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, blowing a while) and getting into “hedge-story” (hedge a fine semi-permeable word, keeping out and giving way à la fois, a place of concealment and a boundary, and a word sock’d into all manner of phrase and proverb, “to take a sheet off a hedge,” meaning—I learn—“to steal openly”—Hilson likely tossing one eye at the O.E.D. amidst the onslaught of making.) That Hieronymus Bosch makes a cameo turn suddenly makes “The Garden of Earthly Delights” into a musical romp, its own kind of fury of blowing. Is schal “scarf” and schil “peel” or “rind”? The hints of reproach for misdeeds, the hiding, something in “the straight way the shifter and shuffler / his means of protection” (not “means of production” thought that echoes in there too) reminds me of lines of free-jazzist John Berryman (working, too, off hand-made charts), and I see (looking) that I am concatenating two “Dream Songs”—1 and 29—thinking of “Huffy Henry hid the day, / unappeasable Henry sulked. / I see his point,—a trying to put things over.” And “He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing. / Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up. / Nobody is ever missing.” It’s eye-opening (in entirely different ways) to read Hilson’s fleet missive of the first piece’s “history” (I quote lengthily: it fucking soars):
Stretchers began partly as a response to Chapter 1 of Lights Out for the Territory where the author Iain Sinclair quickly crosses what he calls “Dog island” dismissing it for its lack of graffiti because “there’s no surface rough enough to take the pen.” The Isle of Dogs—faux-isle as Sinclair notes—is home to many of the stretchers and I, an invader on the wave of the area’s “redevelopment”, house-sat there for over 15 years. I took offence at Sinclair’s totalising attack on the isle’s “smooth” Thatcherite credentials and began, petulantly, to think about all the mounds of dog shit there as a kind of interruptive writing which induced in the walker a state of constant paranoia: “for graffiti there’s dogshit it’s a kind / of writing can be scried an inventory / taken of say colour consistency” I wrote in the first stretcher. It’s as simple as that. The word “swipe” occurs a number of times in Lights Out for the Territory though never the result of a white Reebok passing through one of these pliable deposits. The meeting of shoe and shit seems to me as good a way of thinking about the stink of transaction as some flat plastic moving through a PDQ machine. Both leave a permanent stain on the fetishized object. But I get beyond myself. “Trapped in a isthmus of signs, not language,” Sinclair could have found a whole new language not only by reading the walls but also the pavements, pavements smeared by shit and cracked into Cobbing-esque pages by years of neglect and truckloads of super-slim soldiers feeding the area’s “regeneration.” O Brave New World that has such language in it!
“I get beyond myself,” indeed. That’s just unbelievably great. And stretcher-story’d itself. Later, Hilson talks, too, about Mark Twain, the opening Huckleberry Finn report on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’s being “mostly a true book, with some stretchers.”
I wager the later stretchers move with even greater velocity and turbulence. Hilson begins using the parenthetical mark as a kind of virgule / caesura (with a tendency to point to the aside, the aside to the aside). Here’s one out of the final section of the book:
. . . go litel guns of april yr
pop pop for grief (repeat
the queen is not dead long
live zombie closedown
long live the arch long
live our stiff sons & all
yr shiny cunts long live
the young sailors stick it
in every night for the r r p
all over pink and stepping
on it with their wonderful
life of lights out (sleepy
head we salute you and
your fierce boys which
buried the wren which is
a common stutterer and
nothin but a tweeny which
got caught up in a bush
singing one of the f-family
& what if you could see
this in your house & what
& then what as being nearer
as the sun setting in that
the cold in it (one person
and another there there
under the stair one by one
dropping or marching or
even stalking like a long
legged bird which is in the
field (or between standing
& stamping it does drop
& rushes in with brick
& stones . . .
A love of repeating—“pop pop,” “there there”—evident in other stretchers too. And the tiny catalogue of “long live” echoing (in its wry speed and carouse) Frank O’Hara (I’m thinking of “we don’t like Lionel Trilling / we decide, we like Don Allen we don’t like / Henry James so much we like Herman Melville / we don’t want to be in the poets’ walk in / San Francisco even we just want to be rich” among others.)(Or am I getting O’Hara out of “we salute you and /
your fierce boys”? who except he so casually uses “salute”?) No matter. It’s a terrific book, narrow to the hand and tallish and flexibly put together for innumerable readings.


A dog laps
the dry lip
of the moon-
mimicking park’s Mare
unpester’d, I
see that. A
hinny she-ass
cross rips gobs
of pokeweed out,
Isle of Dogs,
mille neuf cent
fuck off cunt
with the invent.
A gent with
a boater like
a platter topping
a pucker’d seersucker
tosses a cheery
ta-ta rear-
ward descending off
the double-decker.
My working title
is “To Prats”
and is dedicatory
“to the phenomenological
right.” That means
any of you
object-orient’d round-
heads who fail
to see corporeal
need in making
a thing up.

Probably evident enough that the Isle of Dogs (I cannot picture the place, or even where the place’d possibly be), though prior to that a dip into Merrill Gilfillan’s River Through Rivertown (The Figures, 1982) provided me with Mare Imbrium (Gilfillan calls it “Sea of Lip” and I commenced a vivacious wonderment regarding that word imbrium, got to “overlapping” &c.) though where the dog enter’d, aucune idée. Jeff Hilson says (in one of the “stretchers”) something something “phenomenological night”—I misread it initially as “right” and so hopped a train of thinking that led to my wondering if the “experimentalists” (obligatory nod to difficulties with all current applicable “names” for “us”—or “them,” depending on one’s “stance”) didn’t, coming out of what? the Objectivists? the ongoing inexplicable preference for metonymy’s partial approach as opposed to metaphor’s relational one?—didn’t, I say, put the kibosh on the imagination (“making / a thing up”). I know it’s the case for the collector’s (and assemblagists) of details, the bus rider school. Arguably it’s the case for the collector’s (and assemblagists) of lingual muck, the Google school. The conceptual punters’ too-too study’d “critique” of creativity and the imagination (it’s not, it’s boy petulant nay-saying, tantrum-material, as American as snake oil or con royalty of the Duke and the Dauphin pedigree), that’s just rehash’d (just examine the clothes) radical chic feeding institutional insecurity (sort of like Lenny Bernstein “entertaining” the Black Panther Party and the Mau Mau of Roxbury). Oh, well, hardly any of that’s in the poem.  - John Latta

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Jeff Hilson, Bird bird, Landfill, 2009.

Jeff Hilson, A Grasses Primer, Form Books, 2000.
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Jeff Hilson, In the Assarts, Veer Books, 2010.

Onedit (opening 10 poems)

“Jeff Hilson's hilarious, tragic, wobbling, witty poems mix the high seriousness of Stein, Spicer & Ceravolo with the pleasingly ridiculous Englishness of both Stevie & Mark E. Smith…Reading [them] is like encountering Buster Keaton in a codpiece staggering down the Walworth Road clutching a handful of Clifford T Ward & Krautrock albums whilst being pursued by Francis Picabia & the Sheriff of Nottingham. Hooray! Jeff Hilson's happy project is the most exciting in contemporary British poetry.” - Tim Atkins

Now more than ever, if there exists a measure of what one could call a national character, indelible and prescriptive, it seems unlikely it can be held in the terms we seem to utilize. The limited, faded suggestions of temperament, appearance and culture are increasingly fraught. The valuable misnomer that the poetic in poetry is that which is lost in translation is a fair indication of how national character is found in the lack of a culture’s culture. I can only truly speak of England and Englishness, and what I deem to be it’s immovable quality, both it’s worst and it’s best feature – an unpretentious melancholy, a moaning disposition laced with satire, a call to arms without action, a sadness that has not the melodrama to make it public, a desire for privacy, a wit and observational keen which is razor sharp and practically dull. It is Beckettian, absurd and yet profound and civilized. When discovered, to those who know the paradox which stimulates this characteristic, it is a reassurance, a genuine philosophy of stamina and a lackadaisical intractability. When an artist can build this ungraspable quality into the very fabric of their work, you know they can only have done so without preparation or motive. Jeff Hilson, as a master of this vernacular, stands as one of the most singular and gifted poets of his generation.
Hilson's use of distinctive vocabulary, a lexicon of the banal, utilises a finesse that pales the false poetic posturing of those working in circles created by perceptions of what has come before and held as the established “tone” of English poetry. He is the creator of poetic vignettes, an imagery not of the surreal but of the proto-mundane, couched in the wry, unpretentious drawl of a fogged civil servant, tired but not fatigued, worn but not broken. Hilson elevates the speech of the lived life, accelerates it, never seeking out absurdity, rather that would be too much agency for the singular voice purveying lines of observation and reflection. His poetic is not one of alarm, not one of lamentation – it is poetry of urbanity. The Assarts are 69 individual poems, collecting themselves in a distinctly humorous glossary of satire, using the language of faux British history interspersed with disjunctive references to the emergent world of the reader. Each poem is an imagistic and wry observation of acts escaping description, sending up anecdotal poetic masturbation, so prevalent in British letters, and doing so without caution or cruelty. Each Assart maintains an almost objectivist clarity and all the more does this seem so as the ineradicably English wit seeps glum between the lines.

Only in England when the sheriff turns up
& the sheriff
I mean you are completely hidden
in this relationship.
I want to know the men separately.
Harold who held my hand.
Steven was an easy catch.
Ed, Ed, some trees is just a shed!
This cannot be true meaning my love poetry.
I love you who are called ‘broads.’
And this new gigantic poetry
on the edge of the green –
I mean you never return my calls you
mean I never returned your balls.
Hilson’s mode is to shed light on the ever present – what we seem not to have noticed in its readiness, the pitted corners of language which are fundamentally drole and bloodless. The Assarts are potent in their act of redress. Their form – graceful, fleeting and wry is so exacting, that it makes it appear his excavations are both necessary and even neglected. They relay an architectural apparatus that requires a deep philosophical understanding of the speakers pathos, of the poet's own fraudulent and fragile voice as it emanates. Hilson mines with affection, for his voice is never harsh, never angry, almost never pitiless in its satire. It is the love in a pale dejection, the homesickness for an ugly English town. His work full of British ennui, if that term was not one that did not immediately refute itself.

only into Rymans o my soldier
& the month of May
I dreamed I wore a bloody crown
of staples o my bride
its just a red Rexel Bambi
I came over all
the Bisley cabinets
for instance
your sweet lavender highlighter
it's just a felt tip
pen correction pen
o my soldier
are we meant to hide away
in Rymans or come out & play
Hilson exposes too the churlishness of the poet who takes no time to examine their own position, the ego behind the pen. His honesty, his lyrical inventiveness, his affected bleakness produces a strong sensation in it's readers / listeners because of its central truth. It is then a poetry that is necessary because the poet does not profess its necessity. Only the reluctant can offer the objective truth that poetry must evolve, that it must be allowed to warp and break and rejoin in order to be in anyway new, and in being new, represent a culture that is truly contemporary. And even then, only within a form of an apology. Against Hilson’s work the concept of the poetic soul, the poetic pretension, is exposed as a welcome fraud. The melodrama of poetry is refuted and we are left instead with a very English sagacity of intellect and poise.

And because I cannot dance
with my parachute
I dived all over her.
Billy G's not my lover
she's just a girl
like I used to.
In fact the cry is boy-up,
cleaning the o-hole,
when I was a fag.
Oi I waited for the language
he did not have it down
or any pudding.
When you arrived jump boy
where are your lovely shining end
In old English the Assart is a word with two meanings; the act or offense of grubbing up trees and bushes, and thus destroying the coverts of a forest. Or it is a clearing, a piece of land that had been stripped of trees and bushes to reveal something new, man made, cultivated and given potential, despite it being just a scrub square of dirty land. So is Hilson’s mode, a reluctant bulldozer, a brilliance that just is, refusing to call attention to itself. Deeply underappreciated, “In the Assarts” maintains Jeff Hilson’s place as one of the finest English poets of our day. - STEVEN JOHANNES FOWLER

Jeff Hilson, ed., The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, Reality Street, 2008.

With no fewer than 84 contributors, this is a truly groundbreaking anthology. There are plenty of modern sonnet anthologies around; but none that have delved so thoroughly into the myriad ways poets have stretched, deconstructed and re-composed the venerable form, including visual and concrete sonnets. We take as our time frame 1945 to the 21st century, with poets ranging from Edwin Denby (b. 1903) to those currently in their twenties. Jeff Hilson, the editor, contributes an introductory essay.

Download the Introduction

Jeff Hilson’s new anthology, The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, is flat out the best book of its kind I have ever seen. It is easily – too easily, alas – the finest collection of contemporary sonnets ever put together. read more : Review by Ron Silliman, 30 September 2008

ContributorsRobert Adamson, Jeremy Adler, Tim Atkins, Ted Berrigan, Jen Bervin, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Christian Bök, Sean Bonney, Ebbe Borregaard, Jonathan Brannen, Pam Brown, Laynie Browne, Thomas A Clark, Adrian Clarke, John Clarke, Bob Cobbing, Clark Coolidge, Kelvin Corcoran, Beverly Dahlen, Ian Davidson, Edwin Denby, Laurie Duggan, Paul Dutton, Ken Edwards, Michael Farrell, Allen Fisher, Kathleen Fraser, William Fuller, John Gibbens, Harry Gilonis, Giles Goodland, Bill Griffiths, Alan Halsey, Robert Hampson, Jeff Hilson, Anselm Hollo, Lyn Hejinian, Piers Hugill, Peter Jaeger, Elizabeth James, Lisa Jarnot, Keith Jebb, Justin Katko, John Kinsella, Philip Kuhn, Michelle Leggott, Tony Lopez, Chris McCabe, Steve McCaffery, Jackson Mac Low, Richard Makin, Peter Manson, Brian Marley, Bernadette Mayer, Jay Millar, David Miller, Peter Minter, Geraldine Monk, Harryette Mullen, Philip Nikolayev, Alice Notley, Abigail Oborne, Ron Padgett, Bern Porter, Frances Presley, John A Scott, Tom Raworth, Peter Riley, Sophie Robinson, Stephen Rodefer, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Robert Sheppard, Aaron Shurin, Eléni Sikélianòs, Simon Smith, Mary Ellen Solt, Juliana Spahr, Lawrence Upton, Carol Watts, Ian Wedde, John Welch, Johan de Wit, Geoffrey Young.

An interview with Jeff Hilson by SJ Fowler.

My first real book, stretchers (2006), is formally not a million miles from the later sections of Zukofsky’s “A” (long skinny poems with scant attention paid to ‘poetic’ niceties such as line endings) though its particular disjunctive modulations probably owe more to Stein than to Objectivist poetics. The examples I’ve included here, however, are not altogether representative of the text as a whole whose title, I should add, is a steal from the opening paragraph of Huckleberry Finn. My next book, Bird bird (2009), forty-one prose poems ‘about’ British birds, has something of the New Sentence to it though with an attendant lyricism I find it hard to shake off, and happily. In The Assarts (2010), a book of sonnets, is to date my most explicit attempt to grapple with, as a British poet, my debt to US poetry. The topography of the poems is mostly British but if the twentieth-century sonnet is an American form (as has been suggested, not entirely erroneously), then these are American poems. Edwin Denby, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Ebbe Borregaard, Piero Heliczer, Joseph Ceravolo, and Stephen Rodefer (not to mention of course the un-American Sir Thomas Wyatt) are all in there somewhere and I’m really very glad. - Jeff Hilson

Jeff Hilson has been a major actor within Innovative Poetry in London through the period since 2000. With Sean Bonney and David Miller he co-founded Crossing the Line in 2001, a poetry reading series based in London, initially downstairs at the Poetry Café, with a wide range of figures reading, to an audience always heavy with their fellow poets. Jeff Hilson's teaching of Creative writing at Roehampton University has established him with a major reputation as a nurturer of poetic talent (teeshirts bearing the legend "Hilson School of Poetry" have been sighted). He has also edited one of the most important anthologies of recent years, The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (Reality Street, 2008) — sonnets remade for a whole new world.
Most importantly, though, he is a witty and haunting poet, whose performances of his own poetry engage, astonish and amuse his audiences. His poems combine "found language", from sources such as literary or natural history or of course poetry itself, with lively contemporary speech and attitude. His early published work provides an ironic commentary on the traditional English poetic subject of Nature — the poem sequences are constructed from fragments of language used to define & describe grasses (A grasses primer) and birds (Bird Bird), worked up into longer collections of fragments. In stretchers, the range of source materials is expanded, but Hilson also matches this to a single repetitive formula: 33 short lines refusing narrative coherence (but not narrative) and enforcing a true heteroglossia, a creatively conflicting range of voices, from the bus, the pub, the book, the dream.
His most recent book of poems, In the Assarts, is centred around what were historically waste places, newly cleared land where people could live free lives. In a series of rough sonnets, Hilson jumps between the past roots of our culture and landscape and our messy present day — to show what is similar, what different, what tragic, and what comic (especially). It is poetry about the idea and the reality of present-day "Englishness" — and being English, does not take itself seriously (but is, inside, deeply so). The poet Tim Atkins, whose brilliant "translations" of Horace and Petrarch likewise show us ourselves through anachronism, violent tone-shifts and sheer comedy, describes thus In the Assarts: "Jeff Hilson's hilarious, tragic, wobbling, witty poems mix the high seriousness of Stein, Spicer & Ceravolo with the pleasingly ridiculous Englishness of both Stevie & Mark E. Smith. . . Reading [them] is like encountering Buster Keaton in a codpiece staggering down the Walworth Road clutching a handful of Clifford T Ward & Krautrock albums whilst being pursued by Francis Picabia & the Sheriff of Nottingham. Hooray! Jeff Hilson's happy project is the most exciting in contemporary British poetry."
Hilson has achieved a poetry which is both learned and unlearned, lewd and ludicrous, loud when he reads it, never laudatory. Yes, the word "ludic" hovers around here — it is a solemn and obsessive game, serious and comic, an invented ritual which engages you through its vitality and humour, and which could boast "All human life is there." What in some ways started as a formalist patterning of found language has grown into a quite lovable account of our life in language. It does you good to encounter or hear Jeff Hilson's poetry. -