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The Age of Outrage
Scandal and Rebellion Against Literary Order

‘An Interrupter, a Collective’: Sean Bonney’s Lyric Outrage

« An Interrupter, a Collective » : Sean Bonney et l’outrage lyrique
David Nowell Smith


Se fondant sur une lecture des « traductions » de Baudelaire et de Rimbaud réalisées par le poète britannique contemporain Sean Bonney, cet article analyse la manière dont la poésie lyrique engagée accueille deux élans opposés : l’expression d’un outrage individuel et le désir d’une praxis collective. Dans un premier temps, je situe Bonney dans la tradition d’une poétique radicale d’avant-garde selon laquelle le refus d’instrumentaliser le langage poétique fait partie intégrante de la dimension politique : ce qui est souvent jugé « élitiste » constitue de fait le premier temps démocratique de cette poésie. Dans un second temps, je situe les changements intervenus dans la poétique de Bonney au regard des évolutions de la politique britannique tout au long de la dernière décennie : la dimension collective gagne en importance à la suite de la crise financière et après la mise en place du gouvernement conservateur. Bonney passe alors de Baudelaire, observateur du capitalisme triomphant, à Rimbaud, poète communard. Je conclus que, chez Bonney, l’expression du sens politique de la collectivité a lieu dans le langage, comme dérèglement synesthésique de tous les sens.

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1How does poetry negotiate the outrage felt by an individual and the collective political engagement that this individual demands? And to what extent does this require that the poem itself incarnate such outrage: both by externalising the rage in question (literally: out-rage) and through a rhetorics which embraces the ‘outrageous’? On the one hand, it is an individual expression of an individual outrage; moreover, the committed poet’s vocation is often thematised in terms of the marginal, and marginalised individual: ‘The lyric I—yeh, that thing’ (Bonney 2011a, 65). And yet, the politics this poetry aims to incarnate is one of collectivity—not just as the basis for socio-economic organisation, but also as a metaphysical claim about human freedom.

2The oeuvre of the contemporary British poet Sean Bonney (born 1969) offers a particularly powerful exploration of this double bind. His is a poetry continually caught between the individual and the collective, between vehemence and critique. His writing, both in poetry and prose, seeks to provoke and cajole its readers into political reflection, and ultimately into collective action, but the collective for Bonney is not simply a question of political efficacy: his entire thinking is subtended by the belief that human freedom is predicated on collective structures, on the ‘commons’, as his major work to date has it (Bonney 2011a). And yet, this insistence upon the collective both lyric and political engagement exists on the margins: poetry dubbed ‘elitist’ and politics lies outside the mainstream.

3We might then situate Bonney within a long lineage of radical avant-garde poetics, from Mayakovsky to Tel Quel, Adorno to the ‘Language poets’. For these poets and critics, disjunctive modernist poetic practice breaks down hegemonic canons of meaning and renders possible new forms of linguistic articulation from within the language that dominates, subjugates, and (in Adorno’s phrase) blocks off utopia (Adorno 2004, 57). Adorno sums this up particularly well in ‘Lyric Poetry and Society’ when noting that the artwork’s mere assertion of its own autonomy constitutes an act of resistance to instrumentality and reification. We might think also of Charles Bernstein’s rather succinct formulation: ‘Language control = thought control = reality control: it must be decentred, community controlled, taken out of the service of the capitalist project’ (Bernstein 60).

4In other words, the politics of poetic form lies not in trying to communicate to the ‘masses’, whoever they are, but rather in interrupting the linguistic structures of instrumental reason and its attendant structures of domination, reification, expropriation. For Bernstein, and ‘Language Poetry’ more generally, this entails a rejection of lyric as a model of poetry as subjective expression; Bonney’s own work is closer in affinity to Adorno, insofar as lyric becomes, through its linguistic resistances, the site where a salvaged subjectivity can start to be articulated—a subjectivity that is itself ‘decentred’ and ‘community controlled’, to take Bernstein’s own phrase. Poetry resists not by attaining an instrumental use-value of its own, as leftist propaganda, but insofar as its resistance to instrumentalisation becomes its most basic condition. What liberal and conservative critics (Adorno calls them ‘philistines’) will often dismiss as ‘elitism’—at best obscurantism, at worst arrogance—is in fact its emancipatory democratic moment. But conversely, this implies, as Adorno and Bernstein do not go on to say, but which is nevertheless utterly crucial to such a claim, that politically committed art cannot be justified in terms of its own instrumental value for a political cause. Its emancipatory moment is, as it were, speculative rather than empirical: in other words, it cannot be gauged in terms of how many readers are emancipated. And this, in a sense, replays the same double bind as before: how can an individual articulation of lyric outrage come to embody a political collectivity? In Adorno’s terms we could articulate this as: how can a poetics whose political content lies in its autonomy also aspire to heteronomous aims? Or in terms closer to Bonney’s own poetic career: is the category of ‘activist poetry’ doomed in advance?

5It so happens that when Adorno defends purportedly incomprehensible poetic language from philistine charges of elitism, the poet he has in mind is Baudelaire, and more particularly Baudelaire’s rather curious blend of elevated neoclassical diction and newspaper jargon. In most avant-garde defences of committed art, this is hardly the literary style being defended—and we will see how in Bonney’s Baudelaire in English we continually find a confrontation between the ‘antiquated’ diction Baudelaire rather regally employs and his own disjunctive techniques—techniques, of course, which Adorno’s philistine will find even more uncommunicative, and indeed senseless, than Baudelaire’s use of the alexandrin. Today Baudelaire’s canonicity means that he is a poet to be tolerated, but not read. Bonney for now has at least the dubious honour of being intolerable. But the central thrust remains the same: the marginal positions—both political and poetical—that Bonney takes up are not elitist but rather the only way of opening up a space in which this righteous outrage can be voiced.

6This tradition of radical poetics finds an echo in the opening statement of intent to Bonney’s collection ‘Filth Screed’ (2003-4):

All poetry that does not testify to an awareness of the radical falsity of the established forms (of life) is faulty. Understand prosody via black bloc tactics.* No-one has yet spoken a language which is not the language of those who establish, enforce, and benefit from the facts. Language is conservative. Its conservatism issues (a) from a utilitarian purpose, (b) from the fact that the memory of a person, like that of humankind, is short.
* Archaic reference, unexplained. (Bonney 2005, 87)

7Poetry must not only resist the false language of the world around it; it must at the same time recognise the inherent falsity of the very words it uses. Its struggle against political (and, he suggests, cognitive and mnemonic) domination is thus registered as a struggle against words. But Bonney’s statement here does more than simply reiterate the claims of Adorno, Bernstein and others: the reference to black bloc, footnoted as an ‘archaic reference, unexplained’, signals not only hermeticism, but also exclusion. The gesture says: if you don’t know what black bloc is, I won’t explain it to you. You are obviously against, rather than with us.

8And indeed, black bloc itself is exclusivist through and through. The black bloc is a strain in contemporary anarchism, and in particular a set of strategies for destabilising police lines during riots through the fluidity of rioters’ movements, so as to open up different lines of confrontation, and thus stymie police attempts at crowd control and at isolating and arresting ‘rogue elements’. One might then extrapolate that black bloc prosody will destabilise the verse line through a violence that is protean and continually decentering its points of confrontation and gravitation: here poetic disjunction is aligned with the radical politics the poetry would embody. But this refusal to explain is a slightly different gesture, with a slightly different violence, and one characteristic of the black bloc itself. Black bloc anarchists are not merely an irritant for the police (in fact, is it not certain that they do ‘irritate’ the police: it often appears in fact the reverse), but for all those who support non-violent civil disobedience and worry that violence simply plays into the hands of those who wish to find pretexts to dismiss the grievances of demonstrators: the exclusion is directed against fellow travellers and potential allies, and not simply the powers that be. And this allows us to develop one of the questions with which the present essay began: how can a radical left poetics of outrage such as Bonney’s, predicated on collective consciousness, collective political action, and ultimately the collectively-owned ‘commons’, how can such a poetics also propagate the image of the poet as rebel—of author, moreover, of an individual rebellion? Whether this lies in the employment of exclusionary rhetoric and references, in the us-versus-them positioning of many of the poems, or even in its employment of a lyric ‘I’ and its updating of the figure of the poète maudit, we find the attempt to articulate political collectivity collide with gestures that threaten any such collective space.

9To this end I wish to look at the evolution of Bonney’s poetry and poetics from the late 1990s to the present. We will see that the question of the collective becomes of increasing importance, and is worked through with greater nuance and urgency (he now, incidentally, describes himself as a socialist rather than an anarchist). The essay will focus on two works in which he engages with nineteenth century French poets: Baudelaire in English (2008), and Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud (2011). The former might take the form of a series of ‘translations’, but as will soon become clear they are not translations in the traditional sense, but typewriter poems that take Baudelaire’s texts as starting points for a transfiguring of language and form, historical time and place. If Baudelaire in English thus probes the conjunction ‘in’, the poems ‘after Rimbaud’ do the same to the conjunction ‘after’ in order to ask what Rimbaud’s work and legacy demands of his descendents. These two works, and their points of contact and divergence, provide us with the most clear-cut indication of a shift in Bonney’s attempts to negotiate between the individual voice of the lyric poet and the collectivist aspirations of the left activist. In doing so, I knowingly overlook Bonney’s long poem ‘The Commons’, written between 2008 and 2011 (the dates of publication of the Baudelaire and Rimbaud projects respectively). This might seem surprising, and even problematic: ‘The Commons’ constitutes perhaps his major poetic achievement thus far, and without doubt one of the first major long poems in English this century, and moreover, as its title suggests, the poem is concerned precisely with articulating a shared political moment—both as a history of political rebellion and revolution, and as a depiction of human interdependence. However, I will suggest, it is in the dialogue between these two translations from nineteenth century French poets that the tensions between the lyric outrage of the individual and the outraging of language by lyric for a collective consciousness are at their most stark.

102008 is the landmark year for Bonney’s poetry, not only as it signals his engagement with Baudelaire and the beginning of ‘The Commons’, but also for the shift in the political dynamics of British social and political discourse that followed the ‘credit crunch’ and the ensuing financial and democratic crisis. Bonney’s work has always reacted to its own epoch: the poems of the late 1990s encounter London in finance and property boom, a metropolis of vast towers of reinforced glass that house dotcom startups and private equity firms, with working class London bussed out to live in Barking and Welling to make room for gentrification; we can see why Bonney would be drawn to the flâneur poet observing the era of high capitalism. As we reach the mid-2000s, the outrage is directed towards the Iraq war, and to Messrs Bush and Blair (the photo on the back inside cover of Happiness shows Bonney with a placard that reads ‘Blair Drinks Blood’). But, however exercised many people were over the war and the false pretences upon which it was sold to the public by those desperate to wage it, the economic boom continued apace, and so the fissures of society could be papered over, however superficially. During the New Labour years, the opiate of cheap credit meant that people remained for the most part deaf to the rantings of a shouty anarcho-socialist poet. It is only after 2008—after the crash and when criticisms of the credit boom were being aired not only by the radical left but also in editorials from the Daily Mail and sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury—that Bonney will bring this question of political collectivity to the nodal point of his poetry and poetics. Only, in other words, when political discourse has shifted, when such a collectivity seems like a potential reality, only when millions march against government cuts, when throngs of 16 year olds chant ‘Tory Scum’ in Trafalgar Square—only now does the question of the collective become the key question of Bonney’s work. For it is at this moment that the sensory derangement of radical poetics can contribute to working through what such a collectivity might look like.

11In short: whether wittingly or not, Bonney starts to ask how lyric might articulate political collectivity at the moment at which the political conjuncture seems receptive to such a question. And at a time when cheap credit and rising house prices kept Britain in a state of dumb satiety, Bonney’s outrage was not channelled into cries for revolution and solidarity, but rather directed against his peers, a high-pitched fury aware of its own impotence. This is made explicit in his citation of Guy Debord in the final lines of ‘Filth Screed’:

nothing of importance has ever been communicated by being gentle with a public: and this particular public, which has been so totally deprived of freedom and which has tolerated every sort of abuse, deserves less than any other to be treated gently.
LICK IT. (Bonney 2005, 121)

12The reader is ‘abused’ for his/her witless complicity in the radical falsity of established meaning, but also because Bonney’s abuse aims to render manifest the far more pernicious abuse the reader accepts daily, through the interjection—‘LICK IT’—he superimposes on his citation. As a consequence, one often feels reading Blade Pitch Control Unit as if one is being bombarded, both through the poems’ invective and through their prosody; this bombardment’s often compelling aesthetic power is at once a performance of political anger and an attempt to inspire others to anger, whilst painfully aware of its impotence before the general political anaesthesia of its contemporaries.

13But of course, the only ‘public’ who are reading the chapbooks that are collected in Blade Pitch Control Unit are sympathisers to Bonney’s poetical and political project—fellow travellers thus become a proxy for his real targets: a poetical-political mainstream that remains blissfully unaware of all this outrage welling up at its margins, and which would in any case dismiss such a poetical-political stance as ‘marginal’, as ‘elitist’.

14It does not then take much to see why Bonney should have identified with Baudelaire at this point in time. Think, for instance, of the celebrated opening address to the reader of Les Fleurs du Mal (Au lecteur), in which Baudelaire delights in every stereotype that could be directed against the Satanic dandy and the demimonde as a marginal, aberrant figure, but at the same time embraces his hypocrite lecteur as mon semblable, mon frère—the reader he addresses would place him on the margins, but would do so only because he realises just how terrifyingly similar [mon frère] they actually are. Ditto Bonney, although Baudelaire’s camp Satanism has been transposed into the age of the war on terror. Baudelaire says: ‘Sur l’oreiller du mal c’est Satan Trismégiste/ Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté’; through homophonic play Trismégiste becomes a ‘terrorist’ who’d ‘love to torture, rape & that—blow up stuff—terrorise/ but our nerves are shot’ (Bonney 2008, 62). The activist thus assumes a posture analogous to that of the dandy: knowingly playing up his outsider status as a means of grasping the mechanisms that so desperately want to situate him on the ‘outside’.

15The politics of Baudelaire’s dandy has long been disputed, and central to Bonney’s own translations is the interpretation given by Walter Benjamin and Adorno, trenchantly summarised by the latter when he quips that Baudelaire’s ‘poetry gives a slap in the face to the juste milieu and even to every normal, middle-class feeling of social sympathy [ . . . but] was nevertheless truer to the masses, against whom he turned his tragic-arrogant mask, truer than all the poor-people’s poetry (Adorno 220). In the ‘Notes on Baudelaire’ that accompany Bonney’s typewriter poems he says:

there is a lyric I in these poems & it is annoyed by perpetual efforts to destroy it. the I is now an interferer, an inconvenience, a potential parasite within the clean capitalist body. (Bonney 2008, 85)

16Yet, we shall see, Bonney also ends up diverging quite radically from Baudelaire’s stance: his ‘translations’ do not just reimagine Baudelaire but also confront him and his legacy. At its most basic level, it is a confrontation between the alexandrin and the typewriter poem: two different ways of infuriating the philistine. But it is also a confrontation between two eras of high capitalism. This we can see through Bonney’s updating of Second Empire Paris to post-Thatcher London: Haussmannian buildings are transfigured into yuppie flats, and the chance encounter of ‘À une passante’ (purposely mis-spelt as ‘passant’) attains further pitch and intensity through the possibilities afforded by the typewriter, but also the increased speed and din of the 21st century city. Yet Bonney goes further in bringing Baudelaire ‘into’ English. In an interview he says of his translations: ‘Baudelaire appears, through the static of the typewriter, in contemporary Hackney, sometimes as a bored office worker, sometimes as a psychopath drinking White Ace and harassing people’ (Eltringham). This is borne out in a second translation of ‘À une passante’ in which it has become a drunken grope, thanks in part to its wordplay on FLASH (un éclair. . . but also s’exhiber):

Fig. 1—Bonney 2011a, 42

Fig. 1—Bonney 2011a, 42

17Such reimagining introduces distortions between the two eras, but also on occasion between the two poets. For instance, the regards familiers of ‘Correspondances’ are no longer comforting pastoral but rather surveillance state-induced paranoia: ‘they WATCH US like satellites, cameras & Eyes’ (Bonney 2008, 50). And in ‘Sonnet d’automne’ a metaphor is overdetermined in contemporary connotation: Je connais les engins de son vieil arsenal becomes ‘ENGINE of war &&& oil’ (18):

Fig. 2—Bonney 2011a, 18

Fig. 2—Bonney 2011a, 18

18Crossing the word ‘oil’ through with the typewriter becomes retroactive self-censorship, making the associative impulse all the more powerful, overwhelming the negotiation between eras and setting Bonney’s Baudelaire firmly in a present of Dick Cheney and Halliburton.

19But this is not simply a juxtaposition of historical manifestations of capital. There is a startling discrepancy between the Baudelaire Bonney encounters and the Baudelaire he wants to find, and which he tries to recreate. Staying with the ‘Sonnet d’automne’, we can see how Baudelaire’s final tercet is endowed with a sentimentalism Baudelaire himself resists:

Crime, horreur et folie—ô pâle marguerite!
Comme moi n’est-tu pas un soleil automnal,
Ô ma si blanche, ô ma si froide Marguerite? (Baudelaire 48)

20Bonney glosses the ‘autumn sun’ now is ‘pale, gentle, transient’, undoing the tension of ‘cold’ in the original—where Marguerite may be spurning the address, may be wholly unresponsive, and where a conversation poem ends in unanswered apostrophe. But note also how the metaphor—n’est-tu pas un soleil automnal—is simplified, and defused, at once turned into a simile, and directed away from Marguerite and towards their shared action: let’s just lie here like the autumn sun. In a second translation he says, ‘come let us set/ like the autumn/ sun’ (Bonney 2008, 76). Again Bonney inserts a simile—to a double effect. On the one hand, the rhetorics now insists on the agency of the poet as controlling the connections between metaphorical elements; yet by the same token, the insertion of a simile implies that there is something unnerving in the metaphor that must be tamed, and as such becomes even more unnerving and beyond the translator’s control. There is something in Baudelaire’s relentless coldness that makes Bonney flinch—Bonney who will excoriate his peers for their sentimentality and sensationalism. In his Literateur interview he talks about recuperating Rimbaud from those who would romanticise him, but he himself of guilty of romanticising Baudelaire: Moi, je veux régner par l’effroi becomes ‘Me, I’m stiff with fear’ (Eltringham 35) in one manifestation, ‘love rule by fright’ in another (Entringham 31). Both open up new slants on the line—the colloquialism of ‘stiff’ develops a phallic imagery the translation has pursued, whilst the syntactically indeterminate ‘love rule’ makes the line powerfully reflective: does love rule by frightening, or by being frightened? But again, faced with Baudelaire’s cold precision (effroi indeed puns on froid), Bonney shrinks back.

21This tension is perhaps what—aside, of course, the visual cacophony of the typewriter—is most remarkable about Baudelaire in English, not simply as a project of translation but also as a reflection on the poet figure more generally. We have seen how Bonney sentimentalises certain moments in Baudelaire, yet elsewhere his translations offer a corrective to Baudelaire’s own lapses into sentimentalism. The final quatrain of L’albatros reads:

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher. (Baudelaire 7)

22For the activist poet, this is unacceptable. Ripostes Bonney:

The Poet is
Nothing like THIS
the crowds are right to
take the piss (Bonney 2008, 74)

23What we find here are two opposed responses to high capitalism: Baudelaire’s ‘aristocratic’ attitude, in which the flâneur observes the world around him and delights in the fragmentation offered by the city, refuses point blank the consolations offered by erotic sublimation, insists on the solitary nature of modern urban life; and Bonney’s militant poetics and the collective aspirations it tries to articulate. This faultline is perhaps most powerfully opened up in the translation of ‘Paysage’. Baudelaire’s lines tell of a hallucination that takes him outside the city, which not even the riots taking place on his doorstep will be able to interrupt.

Alors je rêverai des horizons bleuâtres,
Des jardins, des jets d’eau pleurant dans les albâtres,
Des baisers, des oiseaux chantant soir et matin,
Et tout ce que l’Idylle a de plus enfantin.
L’Émeute, tempêtant vainement à ma vitre,
Ne fera pas lever mon front de mon pupitre;
Car je serai plongé dans cette volupté
D’évoquer le Printemps avec ma volonté,
De tirer un soleil de mon cœur, et de faire
De mes pensers brûlants une tiède atmosphère. (Baudelaire 60)

24Bonney’s gloss is: ‘I will scratch/ dreams into petrol riots’. For him, the Émeute quite simply is the Idylle, but his claim is not simply about the role of the activist poet in society, but what language can do. We can read this line two ways: the poet’s dreams will be actualised as petrol riots, or petrol rioters will, through the poet’s words, start to dream, so that the riot is no longer merely a nihilistic act, but the basis of revolutionary change. Both Baudelaire and Bonney grasp lyric as linguistic efficacy, the alchemy of the word, where the word’s fantastical naming comes to transform what it names; yet the politics of this lyrical alchemy could not be more different. Baudelaire channels language into voluptuous escape; Bonney wants language not simply to ‘make things happen’, but to make things kick off. The poets have only shut out the world in various ways—the point, however, is to change it. The kind of interrupter Bonney envisages is ultimately far more than the ‘inconvenience’ and ‘parasite’ that Baudelaire embodies. But it is through the confrontation these translations afford that Bonney can work out what kind of poet he wishes to be, not simply with regard to the lyric persona he would adopt—a revolutionary poète maudit—, but to the material power of words to address and transform the world.

25This is what he then pursues both in ‘The Commons’ and in his ‘Poems after Rimbaud’. Of the latter project, he has said that ‘it’s a critique of the Rimbaud myth, the poète maudit taking lots of drugs and having lots of sex and this fairly chaotic life’ (Eltringham). But this is given a more elaborate, not to mention compelling, expostulation in his ‘Letter on Poetics (after Rimbaud)’, which serves as an afterword to Happiness:

it is impossible to fully grasp Rimbaud’s work, and especially Une Saison en Enfer, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Marx’s Capital. And this is why no English speaking poet has ever understood Rimbaud. Poetry is stupid, but then again, stupidity is not the absence of intellectual ability but rather the scar of its mutilation. Rimbaud hammered out his poetic programme in May 1871, the week before the Paris Communards were slaughtered. He wanted to be there, he kept saying it. The ‘long systematic derangement of the senses’, the ‘I is an other’, he’s talking about the destruction of bourgeois subjectivity, yeh? That's clear, yeh? That's his claim for the poetic imagination, that's his idea of what poetic labour is. Obviously you could read that as a simple recipe for personal excess, but only from the perspective of police reality. Like, I just took some speed, then smoked a joint and now I’m gonna have a pepsi, but that’s not why I writing this and its not what its about. The ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ is the social senses, ok, and the ‘I’ becomes an ‘other’ as in the transformation of the individual into the collective when it all kicks off. (Bonney 2011a, 63-4)

26The Baudelaire who observes the Second Empire in an opium-addled haze, but whose attitude, to use his own word, is ‘aristocratic’, is supplanted by the Rimbaud who celebrates the Commune. This is not simply to pit Baudelaire and Rimbaud against one another, be it as poets or as archetypes for a future poetry (and in this respect it is crucial that Bonney is writing poems after Rimbaud). They are responding to fundamentally different political conjunctures: one of Louis Napoléon and the fall-out of the 1848 revolution, the other of the Commune itself and the vast sense of revolutionary possibility that this opened up, however fleetingly. And, as noted above, Bonney is now responding to a new political conjuncture: the Occupy movement, the student protests, and the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands against a Conservative-led government espousing the very ideology that the financial collapse should have discredited, now seemingly hellbent on dismantling what remains of the welfare state.

27However, the ‘Letter on Poetics’ represents not merely the shift in political dynamics over the course of the first decade of the twenty-first century; it also contains an implicit critique of much of Bonney’s earlier work, extending far beyond his Baudelaire ‘translations’—most strikingly, the poetic mythmaking taking place Blade Pitch Control Unit. Take, for instance, a poem from the late 1990s, ‘pop stars on Holloway Road’. Here Bonney had written:

cold night fog brings ocean
invisible creatures
to crack open lips
& heart, to flood
in & out. beauty. Fuck
it. lipgrind,
tonguemusk. more clouds?
just buy some ketamine,
swim down 3rd Avenue,
the shore-line, clamber
up into London, aquatic mammals. Serenade
the tube and grin unhumour,
cold and green. (Bonney 2005, 16)

28Here drug use does indeed furnish a dérèglement de tous les sens—look how the hallucinogenesis is registered in the metamorphoses of the poem’s language. And indeed, as per Rimbaud’s letters of 13 and 15 May 1871, the poet-figure is thus depicted as a voyant. Look how he takes the tube whilst off his head and can thus mock the monochrome mediocrity of London’s commuter class, who merge into ‘aquatic mammals’. Look how it namechecks Ketamine, the hip new drug of the new millennium (now popularised thanks to dubstep). When, a few lines later, we get the flipside to getting high, it deals in cliché, but retains its air of superiority:

hands stained
cigarettes, lips, methadone,
stained with Kings Cross
puked the next day away
Radio 4, hands shaking. (Bonney 2005, 16)

29The drug-taking might not seem so much fun, but its hyperbolic suffering still seems cool, as evidenced in the arch comedy of its juxtaposition with that embodiment of middlebrow Englishness, BBC Radio 4. Contrast this to the depiction of fake personal excess in ‘Letter on Poetics’: ‘I just took some speed, then smoked a joint and now I’m gonna have a pepsi’. Bonney now realises that druggy counterculture and mindless consumption in fact share the same logic, and that this entire logic must be broken. Individualistic excess, even when done with anarchist ‘street cred’, turns out to be politically unviable—not simply because it disengages with society, but because, as consumption, it is ultimately complicit in the very socio-economic system it claims to reject.

30However, I would like to note one way in which with Rimbaud too he finds that he must move beyond the lineage he has made for himself. In interview he has suggested that Une Saison en enfer is ‘coming out of the pain of that collective subjectivity returning to an isolated, personal one’ (Eltringham); if this then bears the mark of collective subjectivity, it does so through its exhaustion and deflation, as it is isolated once more. The poetry Bonney strives to write would traverse the opposite path, articulating, from isolated subjectivity, the possibility that a collective subjectivity might be opened up once more; hence his poems are ‘After’ Rimbaud. So, adopting the celebrated sonnet ‘Les Voyelles’, Bonney starts a prose poem thus:

We invented colours for the vowels, rich people live there: a mobile holding cell where reality would go on reproducing and representing itself endlessly where we could not exist . . . (Bonney 2011, 38)

31‘We’ could not exist: not simply does this mean that a defined group of people were barred from existence, but that the concept ‘we’ itself could not exist: for ‘we’ is a concept for which current ‘reality’ has no space, a concept the silencing of which is crucial for reality’s self-perpetuation. It is in the synaesthesia that this ‘we’ is articulated, and, through this articulation, instantiated: at once a synthesis of individuals into a collective and dérèglement of the senses. The poem continues:

But how could what we were experiencing be simply down to police tactics—seriously, try thinking about the first letter of the alphabet. For thirty minutes just do it. Those public buildings that will never again be buildings. Infinitely dense petals of social perfume. Methanol, turpentine, etc. Physical attacks on all excessive displays of personal wealth. (Bonney 2011a, 38)

32Language becomes the site of rebellion at the moment when meaning is broken down. It is as if to say: stage one—put unbearable pressure on the inconspicuous building blocks of language; stage two—the public sphere is transformed; stage three—revolution. But flippancy aside, note how the entire poem turns on the line ‘Infinitely dense petals of social perfume’. The transformation of language the poem proposes, in other words, is brought forward by the synaesthetics of the lines themselves. ‘Infinitely dense petals of social perfume’ isn’t descriptive, but rather speculative—through its own infinitely dense engagement with its syntax, with the impossible image it sets up, it would embody the shapes of change it seeks to open up and inspire, and will do so by articulating sensual collectivities in language. The dérèglement of the senses it engenders is ‘revolutionary’ in a quite literal sense: it turns upside down, so as subsequently to transform. In this we can see a more tempered, but also further-reaching, development of what in 2003 he had called ‘prosody via black bloc tactics’: the slippages within the lines which become protean and hallucinogenic, whose violence is at times front-on, at other oblique, and which trouble the threshold of individual and collective, both problematising and yet straining for the political act of saying ‘we’.

33In his ‘Letter on Poetics: After Rimbaud’, Bonney says:

I’d like to write a poetry that could speed up a dialectical continuity in discontinuity & thus make visible whatever is forced into invisibility by police realism, where the lyric I—yeh, that thing—can be (1) an interrupter and (2) a collective, where direct speech and incomprehensibility are only possible as a synthesis that can bend ideas into and out of the limits of insurrectionism and illegalism. (Bonney 2011a, 65)

34An ‘interrupter’, just as Baudelaire was, but also a ‘collective’—this is the challenge Bonney sets himself, but as the letter says, it is an ongoing challenge, a blueprint for the poetry he would like to write, not the poetry he claims to have produced. Working through these tensions, Sean Bonney offers one of the most compelling contributions to politically engaged poetry and poetics in Britain today.

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Adorno, Theodor, ‘Lyric Poetry and Society’, The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’ Connor, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, 211–229.

Adorno, Theodor, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, London: Routledge, 2004.

Baudelaire, Charles, Œuvres complètes, Paris: Laffont, 1980.

Bernstein, Charles, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975–1984, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001.

Bonney, Sean, Blade Pitch Control Unit, Cambridge: Salt, 2005.

Bonney, Sean, Baudelaire in English, London: Veer, 2008.

Bonney, Sean, Happiness: Poems after Rimbaud, London: Unkant, 2011a.

Bonney, Sean, The Commons, London: Openned, 2011b.

Eltringham, Daniel, Annie McDermott & Kit Toda, ‘Interview with Sean Bonney’, The Literateur, 10 February 2011, last accessed on 15 June 2013 at

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Titre Fig. 1—Bonney 2011a, 42
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Titre Fig. 2—Bonney 2011a, 18
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David Nowell Smith, « ‘An Interrupter, a Collective’: Sean Bonney’s Lyric Outrage »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2013, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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David Nowell Smith

University of East Anglia
David Nowell Smith is Lecturer in Literature at the University of East Anglia, having spent four years teaching at Université Paris VII—Denis-Diderot. He has published widely on contemporary British poetry and on philosophical poetics, most recently Sounding/Silence: Martin Heidegger at the Limits of Poetics (Fordham University Press, 2013).

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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