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Poetry Column: Oversized Blazer — Sam Riviere On Audun Mortensen
Sam Riviere , February 15th, 2015 11:00

In the first instalment of his new column on contemporary poetry (Poetry Column), Sam Riviere examines - via Sontag, Calvino and the convoluted nature of the 'I' - the work of Norwegian poet, artist and possible anti-Knausgård, Audun Mortensen. (Photograph by Václav Jedlička)

(2011?) I remember describing, after a night drinking with a fellow postgraduate student, the premise of Norwegian poet/artist Audun Mortensen’s 2010 ‘novel’, Roman (translation: ‘Novel’). He responded by saying, ‘It makes me really angry.’ ‘Good,’ I remember thinking. In all the works I’ve encountered by Mortensen, this reaction seems anticipated: the pieces are in fact somehow emboldened by it. Opaque, evasive, possessed of a paradoxical literary imagination, I can think of no other contemporary writer (if he is a writer) who responds so well to Italo Calvino’s request for “a literature raised to the second power…that is like the extraction of the square root of itself…a ‘potential literature.’”

Mortensen’s own summary of Roman, from a 2010 Maintenant interview, is typically straight-faced and statistical:

[Roman is] a story about how a child and an adult try to figure out how to ‘touch each other’. The novel is based on two distinct narratives. One of the narratives is included on TIME’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, and ranked as number four on the Modern Library’s 1998 list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century. The other is a tabloid news story, circulating ‘globally’ since the late 1970s. The text was arranged via customized computer software. 118 729 words, 326 pages.

Well, it’s Lolita (the Norwegian translation from 1959), the sentences arranged in reverse order, the moniker ‘Roman’ replacing ‘Lolita’, and ‘Sammy Sammy’ that of ‘Humbert Humbert’. The characters’ genders, I think, remain intact. The cover shows the image of a youthful-ish Roman Polanski reading and sunbathing. I haven’t (can’t) read the book, whether or not you’re even supposed to (though there was a YouTube video many hours in length of a Norwegian critic reading it cover to cover). Mortensen’s other recent works include The Collected Jokes of Slavoj Žižek (in English, reprinted in the USA by The MIT Press), and his third poetry collection, 27 519 tegn med mellemrom (27 519 characters with spaces). Feeling irritated yet?

I have repeated my account of the effects of Mortensen’s work on my thinking about poetry enough times to feel fairly suspicious of it. I first read a few of the handful of his concise, post-lyrical poems written in English in a McSweeney’s on Norwegian literature, and on, before seeing a reading at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden. I would have to wait for Vanessa Place to provide a more satisfactory explanation of the destabilising impact this work had on my understanding of mode of writing which up until then my poems had aspired to ‘convincingly inhabit’ – but suddenly, the integrity of the ‘I’ in poetry became corrupted, as if by a virus. Or it was like the light changed, and the unthinking assertion represented by that prominent, grounded ‘I’ was revealed to be severely compromised; its confidence became an embarrassment. What Mortensen’s work showed was not only a far more attenuated, distrustful, hesitant negotiation of the first person, but an excitingly ‘impertinent’ rejection of that lyric mode in general. (I’m assured there exists in Norway an equivalent of the English style I read it as deposing). You know what I mean: the swooping, mooning, tideswept lines. They now appeared washed-up, lifeless. Take this poem, ‘POT_LEAF.GIF’ (published 2010), in its entirety:

        i saw mary-kate olsen riding a bike
        across williamsburg bridge wearing 'oversized blazer'
        seemed like a 'homage' to annie hall

On one level it’s a perfect Poundian double-exposure: a sort of internalised image search-and-match. At the same time it’s a sly sending-up of that construction – the frictionless referent-to-referent comparison is self-consciously vapid, and seems to occur involuntarily, flagging up a level of media immersion which perhaps ‘seems typical’ in 201–. The use of the lower case, the sullen quotation marks, the awkwardly up-to-date setting and apparently mismatched title, all vouch for its tentativeness, its spontaneous ‘stoned’ amusement – the poem is more like an aside to experience, a comment tapped out below it, and it has that under-the-breath, or, more aptly, iPhone note-to-self quality.

The final reference in a poem composed almost entirely of references (everything apart from ‘riding a bike’, I suppose) is the most orientating, and tellingly it isn’t sequestered in inverted commas – Annie Hall is at least as real as Mary-Kate Olsen (who is the same age as the poet, and whose presence, the occasion for the poem, has the bathos of a humblebrag). It’s also the most literary reference in a wilfully anti-literary poem (Annie Hall is a literary film), and pretty much the only place to go to gauge the poem’s metaphorical capacity.

I’m thinking of that scene in Annie Hall in which, “what seemed a mild exchange of trivial personal data [between the principal characters] is revealed in ‘mental subtitles’ as an escalating flirtation” (Wikipedia). The poem feels to me absolutely like a ‘mental subtitle’ of a ‘trivial’ occurrence, the sort of pithy update that wouldn’t be out of place on some social media accounts. But here we can appreciate how the ‘i’ of the poem invests and implicates itself fully in its symbolic environment of values and identities – there is no occasion for the poem without this recognition of the ‘tags’ floating above its urban setting, labels provided by an internalized network of language and culture, their intersections creating points of significance (‘williamsburg bridge’) and value (‘annie hall’). The event is practically GPS-tracked, time-stamped: logged and bagged. The connection that the poem makes occurs instantaneously: its aside is the experience. This faithfulness to the signs of culture is the poem’s stake, and it doubles as a measure of the overbearing and inescapably linguistic structure of the city (and the cultural scenario in which poems appear). There is nothing beyond this chance convergence of names and signs that the poem registers (or nothing important: no information that couldn’t be sourced elsewhere).

To ignore this immersion in a landscape of signs and commodities, to assume the sovereignty of the ‘I’ as free from the strictures and directives that map and determine our experiences, is not the hallmark of a ‘traditional lyrical style’, exactly. Such a thing seems impossible to define. (Keston Sutherland has written: “There is no such thing as ‘traditional poetry’ and there is no such thing as ‘the Lyric I’.” OK I guess, though there seem to be poems which behave as if there are such things as both?) But to make this poem more conventionally ‘poetic’, removing its tags, its time, distilling it to a non-specified image of a girl biking through an urban setting (‘petal-like’, say, in her transitoriness), perhaps tilting the phrasing towards a received musicality, would deprive the poem utterly of its purpose and its power: probably condemning it to some superficial mythological interpretation. As it is, the poem remains slippery, charged, multi-sourced. The modern ‘clutter’ of the poem, its zoned flatness, is its real substance. To me, the poem illustrates that poetry which ignores the governance of commercial structures, operating like language, in language, through us, is at best kidding itself.

In a series of posts for the Poetry Foundation blog titled ‘I is not a subject’, Vanessa Place writes:

We live in this era of what has been called semiocapitalism, otherwise described as a technology-based enterprise whereby, as noted, “the soul itself is put to work”…most popularly emblematized by facebook, where we are both producer and consumer of attention spans.

Or, concisely: ‘there is a spectre haunting williamsburg, the spectre of facebook’ (Erik Stinson’s Twitter account).

Over the five-part paper, Place positions the lyric ‘I’, a zone supposedly cleared of any entanglements with capital, as (citing copyright law since 1710) a primary site of ownership and exchange: “the lyric ‘I’ is the gold standard of poetry… that core unit which must persist if the sign is to exist as a unit of trade.”

The readiest example I have of this is my own working life. To an external viewer, my employment as an editor, when I duplicate, elaborate and shunt around chunks of text and am remunerated for it, would look indistinguishable from my activity as poet (when I duplicate, elaborate and shunt around chunks of text and am remunerated for it) – or for that matter, when I’m doing my tax return. There is no real separation between these ‘I’s, regardless of the sort of poetry ‘I’ might be writing. The integrity of the first person as promoted by the lyric poem is a sort of dream of the self in words, unmediated, inspired, and probably should be relentlessly troubled by poem that sells it.

There are many poets in the UK who do this, in a variety of ways, but to do so with the spirit of totality of Mortensen’s work, to ‘go to the end’, is almost unheard of. (Not completely: see James Davies’ Plants, Luke Allan’s website, some of Holly Pester’s performances…) Instead, it’s as if this problem of the ‘I’, perhaps more felt than understood, can been tracked moving in an opposite, although symmetrical, direction across the face of UK poetry. The plagiarism scandals of the last couple of years can be read I think as a sort of reverse diagnosis of this discomfort with a lyric self. Ultimately a question of bad faith, in a slightly different climate their opportunistic bids for cash prizes could have been passed off as a convincing experiment, an exposé of the dominance of an imitable, stationary, commercial style. The fact remains that the perpetrators are gifted at spotting ‘prize-winning poems’ – like trainspotters, they know the model numbers – and ultimately I’m not sure how different this is from writing (riding) them.

It is a similar sense of debasement of the lyric that Mortensen’s poetry discovers, in an immediate and visceral way, and which makes finding alternatives seem absolutely necessary.

Having invoked Vanessa Place, it would appear that the final destination travelling away from the lyric, towards its total besmirchment, is conceptual writing. Perhaps it’s enough to say that I’ve generally found its leading proponents’ statements to be more satisfying and enjoyable than the actual work they produce, which often feels like a too-notional example used to illustrate the theory. Mortensen’s output remains not completely explicable within conceptual writing frameworks, while still following in some way from the discourses of visual art and European avant-garde poetry traditions. Maybe the use of the tropes of ‘American blog poetry’ seems from a Norwegian perspective as deliberate as the repurposing of Nabokov.

Mortensen’s newest work is a twelve-page pamphlet (edition of 20, so good luck getting a copy), originally displayed in a gallery as framed pages of text, called Bildungsroman. The German term for a ‘coming of age novel’ translates literally as ‘novel of formation’, and the joke is that that’s literally what you get – just the index, a ‘formation’ of a (unwritten? appropriated?) book, complete with page references, from ‘Abandonment, child’s fears of, 178’ and ‘Abuse, of digital creatures, 47, 49’ to ‘Zhu zhu pet hamsters, 1, 24’ and ‘Zone, The, 226, 227, 228, 230, 258, 264’. One thing to note is the total evacuation of the ‘I’. The content sounds almost futuristic, the majority of listings clustered around robotics, online identities, virtual pets, and seeming to orbit the central, illegible problem of

            anonymity and the expression of,
            choosing medium to match,
            development and,
            experimenting with,
            authenticity of,
            instant messaging and,
            machine intelligence and,
            performance of,
            technology and confusion of,

with a cold sort of curiosity, almost as if this were the autobiography of the android boy in Spielberg’s film AI, or a child ‘raised by machines’ (as opposed to wolves) – perhaps explaining the author’s interest in mechanical systems of representation. The text is much more entertaining to read than you might imagine, its iterations are rhythmical and abbreviated, and you can track synchronicities and apparent clashes of content on the same or adjacent pages. It becomes impossible not to mentally project the entire novel.

If there is a key essay for approaching Mortensen, it’s perhaps Sontag’s Against Interpretation (1961). Sontag’s imperative is the collapsing of the binary of style and content, via the prioritising of form: “we must learn to see more…our task is to cut back content so we can see the thing at all.” Sontag defines inferior art as that which contrives a single meaning for easy digestion, of prioritising ‘content’ (when to do so is merely an aspect of style), and she challenges writers (especially novelists) to ‘elude meaning’ by constructing “works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be…just what it is.” [Her ellipsis]. Bildungsroman, with its elegant, economical strategy of expression, seems almost made to order from these demands. We can find a similar sentiment in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985), praising especially the virtues of lightness and quickness: “the true bent of written language…[is that it] communicates something very special that is derived simply from its swiftness.” For Calvino, Borges is the master of the ideally condensed, maximum-yield, minimum-expenditure approach to literature – and the form which Borges buffs to a new thinness and heats until it glows is the allegory. With regards to his own allegorically shaped stories, Invisible Cities (1972), Calvino points out “every concept and value turns out to be double”. The allegorical structure – a ‘geometrical’ composition, is like a particularly spare narrative syntax: its components are distinct, actions are traded between its objects and players. A lake, perhaps, a ring, a knight, a tower. As a structure, it’s able to draw attention to the spaces between things, to potential contact between its elements, in a way most fiction is not, and in doing so it becomes an “open encyclopedia … potential, conjectural, manifold”. This of course is a vision of allegory stripped of its automatic, parallel meaning. That is, the metaphorical structure remains, but hollowed out, in anticipation of its missing part: a meaning remains to be discovered. This space, a sort of intrinsic, magnetised gap, is exactly what is proposed by the allegorical structure – it is what holds it together, and makes it capable of attracting potential meanings, holding them in suspension.

Bildungsroman obeys this logic of geometrical, or allegorical composition, at moments reading like a list of plot functions, a periodic table from some new fictional morphology. In Notes On Conceptualisms (2009), Vanessa Place writes, “Allegory differs from symbolism, in that symbolism derives from an Idea, while allegory builds to an Idea.” The ‘overview’ employed by Mortensen on his material is really a method of addition, multiplication: building a structure with many entrances and exits. This approach is determined by its presentation, its exacting form, which also necessitates an ‘outward’ reading, across and out, along all axes, making it impossible to narrow our interpretations to a single channel. There is a generosity and vitality to this text that belies its rigid appearance.

The measure of any poet’s importance is probably the amount of poetry that their work goes on to generate by, or demand from, other poets. “Literature begets literature” (Sontag again). To bring this view into relief, alongside an opposite aim, that is, writing with the ‘completion’ of an approach as its logical end-point, I’m tempted to propose Mortensen as a sort of ‘anti-Knausgård’. I haven’t read a lot of My Struggle, though I have seen Ben Lerner’s review in the LRB (where he treats us to perhaps his most quintessential Ben Lerner sentence yet: “I remain agnostic about the title’s terrible wager”1), and also Blake Butler’s account, with which I feel a spontaneous affinity:

This book embodies everything I hate about contemporary literature: worship of the self, merciless documentation of the self, idolization of the penis, reality fetish of quasi-celebs. If this kind of thing is all that's left for the future, take me out back and shoot me.

While Mortensen, similarly to Knausgård (in that My Struggle is an account of its own production), foregrounds the labour that goes into producing literature (in Mortensen’s case the creation of computer software, or reading Žižek’s entire oeuvre), he seems at least latently critical of overproduction – his work is concerned with transforming its material. My Struggle is concerned with fully inhabiting its material, swelling it with literature (or ‘the literary’). (Sontag on Mailer, pertinently: “his writing is ultimately more concerned with success than danger; danger is only a means to success.”) Notice how My Struggle’s openly egotistical gameplan is laid bare even in synopsis, in contrast to the way that, where Mortensen’s works are explicit about their production, the question of a motive remains mysteriously blank, and the author himself is almost entirely removed. The countenancing of celebrity in ‘POT_LEAF.GIF’ is of an entirely different tenor to the namedropping that offends Butler in My Struggle.

The ungainly ‘fullness’ of much literary fiction results I think from a misapprehension or forgetfulness about ‘depth’. Well, it’s a metaphor, isn’t it, when what we mean is surface complexity and referentiality (“Depth is hidden. Where? On the surface.”2) – a bit like how using multi-track recording and reverb effects can create the illusion of an inhabited, echoing, three-dimensional space. To generalise, the syntactical tightness of objects and thoughts in some contemporary fiction can stifle an improvisatory connectivity, a sense of textual spaciousness. Fidelity to a personal, historical voice can limit poems’ outward, imaginative development, and suppress other, inner types of coherence. In both instances the refinement towards a perfectly realised form becomes in reality a lessening, as the repetitions diminish in variety and freedom.

Both My Struggle and the ‘memoir poetry’ of the British mainstream express, for me, a strange outlook on literature’s purpose, in that both argue in some sense against their own existence. Pursuing the repletion of content and the purging of personal drama, their ideal is to arrive at a position of legibility, emotional stability and meaningful ‘fullness’ whereby they need no longer be written. This certainty in moving towards a finalised outcome, taking ever-smaller steps while doing so, emerges from the consistency of the authorial ‘I’.

Interrupting this should be poetry’s forte. As ‘the aesthetic treatment of language’ (Wikipedia), poetry is most identifiable by its engagement with form; form could be said to be its real subject. Play with form, as a way of aestheticizing content, is, I’d argue, the remit of Mortensen’s project: what’s explored and questioned in his work is the expressive function of a variety of forms, among them imagist poems, novels, found objects. His work depends on their presences, just as much as it does the directives of consumer capitalism – and these it treats as equally distinct and demanding forms, which in precisely the same ways are designed to create value through the interaction of signs. In a piece like Roman, the marketing of fiction becomes yet another form that is incorporated into the ‘allegorical’ spread of the work: a series of enigmatic book trailers, a record of how the book advance was spent, even the publisher’s emails planning a book launch, are published alongside the ‘novel’ itself.

Here, the truly disruptive potential of form emerges, its demands representing a sort of catastrophe for ‘authentic’ individual expression. The allegorical approach makes alert use of the forms that surround us, compressing them, recycling them (as all forms are recycled) in new contexts. But obeying form like this ends up confounding the supposed purpose – much like a genie’s answer to a careless wish turns out to be a curse. Instead of providing a vehicle which can be loaded with one’s own reflections and feelings, here form actually legitimises the disposal of that content: what remains instead are streetmaps, scaffolding, the essential skeletons of structures we’re used to seeing fleshed-out, overloaded. I think, for example, of Matthew Welton’s wordless poems, arrangements of barred lines that frame familiar stanzaic shapes, their emptied staves hopelessly refillable. (The work knows that the best wish is still the one for infinite wishes.) The outline of a catastrophe is discernable:

Catastrophes are never the consequence…of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression…towards which a whole multitude of converging forces have contributed.3

Form in this sense is properly embraced as a compulsion: motiveless, messageless, (‘because the idea’), a ‘symptom of multiple causes’, through which the experience of an ‘I’ is revealed as a series of provisional occupancies, continually discovered and abandoned. This radical compliance to the materiality of form (what else is there?) emerges as an extreme solution to the current ‘reality fetish’ of literature. Capable of elevating writing from its systems of expectation, of transcending traditions, Mortensen’s innovations arrive like necessary disasters, derailing the literary objectives of the present. All you can do is prepare.

  1. It’s actually, “I remain agnostic about the tremendous gamble of the title”
  2. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, quoted by Calvino
  3. Carlo Emidia Gadda, quoted by Calvino


Luke Allan
Italo Calvino
James Davies
Ben Lerner
Audun Mortensen
Holly Pester
Vanessa Place
Susan Sontag
Matthew Welton

Sam Riviere studied at the Norwich School of Art and Design, and holds a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from UEA. He is the author 81 Austerities (Faber & Faber, 2012), which won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, Standard Twin Fantasy (f.u.n.e.x., 2014) and Kim Kardashian's Marriage (Faber & Faber, 2015). He was a recipient of a 2009 Eric Gregory Award.