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poetics.ca issue #8
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A De Tour


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In November 2006 I made A DeTour, a series of 8 hand-printed postcard-poems that collage, cut up and rework excerpts from Daniel Defoe’s A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, turning them into fictitious ‘postcards from…’ various places around the UK. This is a short essay about how I came to make them, and about some of the ideas that went into their writing. 

1. Preamble

I walked backwards into Defoe’s Tour by way of Patrick Keiller. I had been mulling over the possibility of walking and writing around south-west England, and was reading the script of Keiller’s 1997 film Robinson in Space alongside Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to Oku. I became interested in the way these travel narratives, both constructed around the illusive journeys of two companions, operate in the porous borderland between reportage and fiction. Bashō’s book is a stylised, carefully constructed account that stretches and squeezes time and space to create textual patterns and parallels, filtering the poetic places of classical Japanese literature through his own vernacular culture. “The result”, writes Haruo Shirane, “was often a double vision in which the reconstructed or imagined past intersected with the immediately observed present”. [1] This description resonates with Keiller’s use of serial, static shots which, shifting from container ships to country houses to satellite dishes to chalk figures, link images of past and present without distinction, erasing the distance between them.  

The method which Keiller’s Robinson employs to investigate “the problem of England” [2] is explicitly founded on Defoe. As the Narrator puts it, 

Robinson told me […] we would begin the first of seven journeys which were to be the basis of our project.

 

This method had been suggested by his reading Daniel Defoe’s Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, which is based on Defoe’s travels as a spy for Robert Harley, the government minister in the reign of Queen Anne.

 

The narrative of Britain since Defoe’s time is the result of a particularly English kind of capitalism. [3]

 

It’s hardly surprising that Robinson in Space should reference Defoe’s Tour, another ostensibly non-fictional work that was in fact creatively compiled and adjusted by its author. (It seems that in places Defoe plagiarised from earlier works such as William Camden’s Brittania, and in other places reconstructed the narrative of his circuits from trips made twenty years before.) [4] Defoe and Keiller also share an obsession with the material effects of economics, with what the latter has called in an interview “a newly installed landscape of a computerised, global consumer economy, here in the UK” [5], and what Defoe claimed was  

the Present State of the country […] the Improvement, as well in Culture, as in Commerce, the Encrease of People, and Employment for them: […] the Encrease of Buildings, as well in Great Cities and Towns, as in the new Seats and Dwellings of the Nobility and Gentry; also the Encrease of Wealth, in many eminent Particulars. [6] 

As I started reading the Tour I found in Defoe an entertaining though inconsistent guide, a fervent exponent of progress and empiricism who nonetheless believed in providence and a divine order, a careful observer who could write movingly about the miserable conditions of particular miners or beggars, whilst refusing to see their situation as anything other than divinely appointed, much less the result of the same economic system whose incipient industrialisation and burgeoning consumption he marvelled at. 

The Tour is heavy with the contradictions inherent in the society that was Defoe’s subject – a society that with its international postal services, economic crashes and refugees, is strangely familiar. Gradually a plan crystallised: I would travel not by road but by proxy, through the long unfurling paragraphs of Defoe. 

2. Detour and Détournement 

Defoe was writing for commercial success, and knew better than to criticise a paying readership too heavily. In his preface he wrote that although he could have made the Tour a “Satyr upon the Country”, he would not: “they are ill Friends to England, who strive to write a History of her Nudities, and expose, much less recommend her wicked Part to Posterity”. [7] 

Yet amongst Defoe’s flattering superlatives and rambling anecdotes are scattered arresting passages of intense observation, such as his description of a family in Matlock who live by lead-mining. As John Richetti writes, such moments of description, “in their resistance to become anything other than what they are, their resistance to appropriation into Defoe’s vision of British modernity, […] dramatize Defoe’s honesty, his fidelity to particular facts, to at least part of the world as it is or has been beyond all those grand themes”. [8] 

I intended to make more of these moments of resistance. Collage is for me both homage and subversion, and the linguistic leap between detour and détournement is not a huge one. Tom McDonough calls détournement “the situationist strategy of diverting elements of affirmative bourgeois culture to revolutionary ends, of distorting received meanings” [9], and although I wouldn’t claim that these poems have revolutionary ends beyond being themselves, even so distortion and diversion were very much part of what I was trying to achieve. A shake-up and questioning of that ‘particularly English kind of capitalism’ whose nascent systems Defoe praised with such bombastic assurance.  

Often I felt that in writing I was refocusing Defoe’s lens, breaking through the long panning lines of his prose to release the stories he passed over. I make no claims to historical accuracy though: these poems are fictions. Here is one, A Postcard from Matlock, in which a reconstituted, resurrected voice speaks of an exploitation which never surfaces in Defoe’s telling of it. 

the narrow Pits to so great a Depth

an Arm, and quickly after a Head

thrust up out of the very Groove

as a Skeleton Bruises

If you please, Sir,

says she, I am Milk, or rather Blood

warm, very pleasant to go into

for two small Pieces of Mettle,

called Shillings, my Vein something

of the Colour of Lead itself

and very Sanative, especially

for a turbulent Market 

Another fiction, A Postcard from Taunton, imagines a Dissenters’ revolution and how Defoe might have turned it into a tourist attraction and fashion statement: 

Eleven hundred Looms immediately took root, budded, put forth

White-thorn leaves and Blossom, the Colours of weaving.

That is to say, Dissenters rais’d a little Army here.

I brought a Piece away in my Hat,

White as a Sheet risen out of Decay.

I shall give you Room, at least. I mean Fashion.

But as I said, collage is also homage, and if these poems live it is due to Defoe’s endless, restless curiosity which, though it encompassed the glamour of great country seats, was most fired by the everyday mechanisms of trade, travel networks, local produce, politics and rumour. Perhaps he would have agreed with Barthes that to write only about monuments “suppresses at one stroke the reality of the land and that of its people”. [10]

3. Towards a tempered anti-romanticism

Defoe’s style is often that of a cantankerous anti-romantic: every moor or heath is a dreary waste or a “houling Wilderness” [11]; he describes the forests of Ross-shire in Scotland as “growing wild and undirected, otherwise than as nature planted and nourished them up” [12], and deplores the fact that they have not been made useful. For him, the land finds its apotheosis as a space made productive through human intervention, as when, descending towards Halifax from a terrific snowstorm on Blackstone Edge, he comes to “one continued Village” of houses spread out across the slopes, all draped with newly-made cloth. The sun reflects off the hanging material as far as the eye can see, and this is a sort of paradise of industrious labour. “I thought it was the most agreeable Sight that I ever saw” [13], wrote an enraptured Defoe. Clearly, this was not a man who had much truck with the sublime.

For me, the humanised, constructed countryside that emerges from the Tour provides a compelling vision. I love the intricate descriptions of human business that make up Defoe’s world, despite my disagreements with his economics, and his conviction, intimate with his Protestantism, that the natural world is manifestly there to be exploited and put to use. But that sense of wonder, of the world as something profoundly complex, is never far away in the Tour, and happily undermines Defoe’s protestations that he must return to his business, to rational matters.

My choice of small postcards as the medium for these poems set other boundaries, forcing me to limit Defoe’s continuously unfolding prose. His long digressions became broken and punctuated with white space, which at times creates a form of solitude foreign to the Tour. Perhaps this recalls the lonely narrator of Basho’s travelogue or the un-peopled emptiness recorded in Keiller’s photography, which mourns “the passing of the visible industrial economy” [14]. The white space may also function as a sounding box for the faint echoes of Defoe’s occluded histories. In any case, the foil to loneliness is communication: I’ve been sending the postcard poems to subscribers one by one, as pieces of mail art that join the civic circulatory system of the postal service, before dropping onto the doormat and into domestic space.

 

Works cited:

Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 2000)

Matsuo Bashō, The Narrow Road to Oku, trans. by Donald Keene (Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International, 1996)

Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (London: Peter Davies, 1927)

Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, ed. and with an introduction by Pat Rogers (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971)

Edmund Hardy, A Quick Chat with Patrick Keiller,

< http://www.kamera.co.uk/article.php/490 > [accessed 3 July 2007]

Patrick Keiller, Robinson in Space (London: Reaktion Books, 1999)

Tom McDonough, “Introduction: Ideology and the Situationist Utopia”, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International, ed. by Tom McDonough (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002)

John Richetti, The Life of Daniel Defoe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)

Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: landscape, cultural memory and the poetry of Bashō (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998) 

End notes: 

[1] This quotation refers to haikai literature in general. Shirane, p.13

[2] Keiller, p.6

[3] Keiller, p.20

[4] See Pat Rogers’s introduction (Defoe 1971, p.33) and Richetti, p.387

[5] Interview with Edmund Hardy for kamera.co.uk

[6] Defoe 1927, p.1

[7] Defoe 1927, p.2

[8] Richetti, pp.335-336

[9] McDonough, pp. xiii-xiv

[10] Barthes, p.76

[11] Defoe 1927, p.583

[12] Ibid., p.826

[13] Ibid., p.601

[14] Keiller, p.90


Editor's Note: "The Canadian edition of James Wilkes A DeTour was recently published by rob mclennan's above/ground press."


James Wilkes studied Psychology and Philosophy at university, followed by an MA in Creative Writing. He has published two chapbooks: Ex Chaos, a series of poems based on Japanese creation myths, and A DeTour, a series of postcard poems. His work has  been published in a number of magazines, including Great Works and Intercapillary Space, and in the anthology Generation Txt (Penned in the Margins, 2006). He has read his poetry on BBC Radio 4 and London's Resonance FM and at venues around the UK and Europe, and has exhibited poem-objects including papier-mâché bowls and modified egg-boxes. His most recent project is Moves Outwards, a hand-printed book made in collaboration with visual artist Sally Davies.

www.renscombepress.co.uk


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