Ii

In September 1892 in The Bookman, W. B. Yeats remarked,

A friend of mine is accustomed to say that there is poetry and there is prose, and there is something which, though often most interesting, and even moving, is yet neither one nor the other. To this he applies the curious term 'noetry'; a word ingenious persons derive from the Greek word nous, and consider descriptive of verse which, though full of intellectual faculty, is lacking in imaginative impulse.7

This comment may have a supercilious tone, but I have to admit to a certain satisfaction with it as a dismissive pseudo-definition, because formally, if not in terms of content, it is a pretty good definition of Informationism. The aesthetic of the definition would be my first stab at describing what I'm after on one of those admittedly rare occasions when I feel like an 'Informationist'. But in order to be more precise I must take issue with Yeats's highbrow attitude.

Highbrow is all about shibboleths: it's about the unspoken aesthetics behind gastronomy, opera, and Radio 4. Its codes have the same unquestioning rigidity as a doctrinaire scientist's concept of facts. Its world is always dividing into Greeks and barbarians, prosecution and defence, U and non-U, and its main raison d'etre is to end up on the right side of the fence, even if that involves moving the fence posts. It's about the empty rituals of manners rather than politeness. Above all, it is jealous of what it thinks of as its secrets. Poetry is one of its little gewgaws, and remarks like Yeats's seem designed to placate the bourgeois sensibility that requires that Highbrow art remain a matter of 'impulse', reassuringly ineffable and necessarily imprecise. Highbrow hated Modernism, for instance, because Pound and Eliot and Wyndham Lewis immediately declared themselves to be 'Even More Informed than Thou', and left folk staggering for their Quiller-Couches all over the Home Counties.

But of course the pursuit of cultural information in the standard Modernist manner is also slightly risible; witness any real, snot-blooded academic taking Pound or MacDiarmid's 'learning' to pedantic pieces. As the British satirist Chris Morris has demonstrated the absurd conceit of the media, so the Informationist declares the absurd conceit of the broader fields of political discourse, cinema, scientific, academic, and philosophical jargon, history, and, of course, cultural kitsch and detritus of all sorts, from 'popular' music to advertising. We don't want to claim the higher brow. Except most of the poets I could define as Informationist—David Kinloch, Alan Riach, Peter McCarey, Richard Price—are after something more than post-modern jocosity.

If, in Pound's grandiose but rarely examined phrase, ' "Literature is news that STAYS news"', then perhaps literature ought to be at least interested in the format of news broadcasting, since that is the closest thing to Bible truth our culture seems to have.8 If, as is increasingly the case, a good deal of poetry seems a lot more transitory than the news, then perhaps people need to be told that 'bible' is another word for the third stomach of a ruminant, because it has many folds like the leaves of a book. If that particular lump of noetry is 'lacking in imaginative impulse', then I'll call myself Aengus and wander round looking for silver apples.

The ability to negotiate between jargons is of increasing importance in our culture. The ability to take aesthetic pleasure in this verbal diplomacy is what distinguishes the Informationist as a dedicated Jargonaut, ready to take oar against an ocean of syntax to seek out the Golden Interface. The ability to turn this pleasure to positive ends, to be informative, to provide a post-Poundian communal periplum, is what the quest is all about.

Although Informationism is just something everybody does, particularly all writers, the Informationists as a unit are Scottish, male, and generally suffering from Post-Academic Trauma (not so Post-, in some cases). So that means we Informationists have a particular heritage, and a particular agenda. The heritage is, in a nutshell, John Davidson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan: poets who all establish that it is as important to know as it is to feel, and that it is vital to examine what we mean by, as well as what we feel about, knowledge. Generations of Scottish thinkers, sceptics, and scientists stand behind that trio: George Davie, Patrick Geddes, J. G. Frazer, J. F. Ferrier, Hugh Miller, Thomas Reid, David Hume—all the way back to John Mair and Duns Scotus; but our specific poetic agenda, I'd argue, is largely shaped by these three poets.

Davidson laid down that agenda in his Testaments and in his magnificent posthumous volume of 1909, Fleet Street and Other Poems: an urban poetry, a scientific poetry, a poetry that engages with contemporary metaphysics, and a poetry that can manipulate a prose voice. Consider 'The Wasp', in which a wasp flies into a train carriage in which the poet is riding, and is momentarily baffled by the opposite window before escaping. The situation recalls Bede's image for human life, of a bird flying through a lighted hall, but the immediacy of the context and the precision of Davidson's central observation take that idea into a proto-Modernist existential realm that anticipates Edwin Morgan's Glasgow poems of the 1960s:

Perplexed now by opacity with foot and wing She coasted up and down the wood, and worked Her wrath to passion-point again. Then from the frame She slipped by chance into the open space Left by the lowered sash—the world once more In sight! She paused; she closed her wings, and felt The air with learned antennae for the smooth Resistance that she knew now must belong To such mysterious transparencies.9

What MacDiarmid adds to this viewpoint is a sense of the primacy of discourse. Whether in Scots or English, he is always language-led, almost to the swamping of his individual 'I'. In fact, MacDiarmid rarely cares whether he 'really' did some of the things his plagiaristic eye claims for his verse; to lie, after all, is part of an odyssey like MacDiarmid's Mature Art. What interests him is that little space in which we believe him enough to accept a new (and often ridiculous) possibility. For this he must claim shibboleth after highbrow shibboleth:

Apart from a handful of scientists and poets Hardly anyone is aware of it yet.

(A society of people without a voice for the consciousness That is slowly growing within them)

Nevertheless everywhere among the great masses of mankind

With every hour it is growing and emerging

Like a mango tree under a cloth,

Stirring the dull cloth,

Sending out tentacles.10

This is vintage MacDiarmid, rattling away like a Pathe newsreel about 'the great masses of mankind', and entirely forgetting to tell us what 'it' actually is. It's .. . it's, you know, that important thing that's exactly like a mango tree under a cloth. Who put that mango tree under that cloth? Not MacDiarmid, surely, but just for the moment, the authority of the image has us feeling our way with our 'learned antennae' like Kafkaesque forkietaillies, reaching into a free space we did not know we possessed.

Occupying that free space through judicious manipulation of language is what Edwin Morgan's poetry is all about. From 'Pleasures of a Technological University', with its paired lists of educative terms, its nodules of modules: 'ergs and Bacon', 'stichomythia and feedback', and 'copula and cupola', where one begins to experience puns and anagrams as tonal qualities; to 'from The Dictionary of Ted, a prophecy of Informationism in its format and its spoof definitions: 'teafish: bred by the Japanese in special fish-farms, where it feeds on tannin-impregnated potato extract, this famous fish is the source of our "instant fish teas", tasting equally of fish, chips and tea.' From the gentle dismissal of Ashbery's endless play of signifiers in 'On the Water' ('There is something almost but not quite I beguiling about the thought of houseboat days') to the harsh but ecstatic realism of 'Death in Duke Street' ('These were next to him when he fell I and must support him into death'), and above all in the clear-eyed constant search for a language that can convey multiple levels of truth, geological as well as lyrical, Morgan opens the field of our kinds of concerns, as in 'Trilobites':

A grey-blue slab, fanned like a pigeon's wing, stands on my record cabinet between a lamp and a speaker.

Trapped in a sea of solid stone the trilobites still almost swim;

the darker grey of their backs, thumbnail-sized and thumbnail-shaped, gives out a dull shine as I switch on the lamp.

I have eight of them; half are crushed, but two are almost perfect, lacking nothing but the antennas.

My fingertip, coarse and loutish tracing the three delicate rows of furrowed plates, tries to read the paleozoic braille as vainly as the blast of Wagner at their ear searches for entrance five hundred million years and a world of air too late. But I would not trade my family torn by chance from time for Grecian urn or gold Byzantium.11

I think that refusal to sail to Byzantium would stand for most of the

Informationists. We've too much cultural reclaiming and historical recontextualizing to do on our mapmaker's circumnavigation of Scotland. We'd much rather keep our antennas intact and extended, watching for dolphins of found material, stopping off at islands of specialisms for fresh buckets of discourse, and, of course, extending metaphors so far they begin to groan under the steam of testing. So we're not 'really' Informationists, not all the time, not with manifestos that we have all po-facedly signed. But the idea will hold water, just for the moment, just for long enough to quote Thomas Mann on the real reason we must write 'noetry' as well as 'poetry'; because we don't know what we'll need to meet what's coming next, and must include, can't afford to exclude, any medium:

That the writer (and the philosopher) is a reporting instrument, seismograph, medium of sensitivity, though lacking clear knowledge of his organic function and therefore quite capable of wrong judgements also—this seems to me the only proper perspective on writing.12

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