The Poetics of the Puzzle

Philip Terry – Birds of the British Isles (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Tom Cowin – Static Gleanings (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

For the ancients, poetry’s job was to sanctify. For the Romantics, it was to express. What is its role today?

Two new short works from Red Ceilings Press suggest, in different ways, the same answer: that poetry is a puzzle.

“Puzzle” is, yes, something of a diminutive word. It is cosy. Domestic. A night in with hot cocoa rather than out with the Sturm und Drang.

For the first of these collections, Philip Terry’s Birds of the British Isles, such a descriptor might be suitable. Terry was editor of The Penguin Book of Oulipo, and here offers us some wordgames of his own.

                  Oak battle daze

                  Pine fight erasure

                  Larch conflict haze

                  Birch feud muddle


There is a dotted line at the end of each poem; a space reserved for a bird of the British Isles: fifty in total. For the above piece, as I’m sure you’ve got now, the answer is willow warbler (as in “willow war blur”).

Some of these are easier than others. A layman’s knowledge will suit for most – puffin, seagull, robin, shag – but a quick brush-up with a bird book might be needed beforehand if one is to get every answer. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of the bee-eater or the sheerwater.

As Sunday afternoon amusements go it’s definitely original, and particularly fun to play with others. It’s often said of poetry that it’s “intended to be read aloud”; in this case, the audience are encouraged to answer back as well.

As for poetics, there are some pleasant incongruities, and some of the puzzles build to a satisfying conclusion (massive breast / large bosom / sizeable mammary / big boob …. [everybody together now!]).

But the real poetics are, I suspect, in the readerly constraints. It’s not often that a poet tells you exactly how to respond to their work. It inverts our expectations. By refusing analysis, it provokes analysis in response. You want to ask; “but is it poetry?”

Isn’t this the quintessential response to the arts in our time?

An identical response might be levelled at Tom Cowin’s Static Gleanings. Subtitled “The History of our Polyphony Gleaned from EVP Recordings”; Cowin combines words heard in static with his own poetical structuring to produce a book sat uncannily between poignancy and garble.

Certain lines stick out as framing devices: “if you hear music or singing in the sounds / sometimes they are just random sounds / or a limited range of learned patterns”.

Our poet-guide leads us in.

Others read like the white-noise-words themselves: “when the rain stopped / it was like an unravelling / knots of almost territory / reclaiming voices like / nightingales”.

But mostly we find ourselves caught between. Are these the sounds Cowin heard, or are they his own? Or, which seems the case, are they a fusion of the two; messages from the void repurposed to act as a guide to hearing the void itself?

The void calls. The void beckons.

The poetics here are clearer; the answer to the puzzles less clear. Ambiguity. The abiding category of our contemporary judgement. Cowin’s work has it, far moreso than Terry’s. At least on the surface of things.

And yet, in its séance-like qualities, Cowin’s work also belongs perhaps to the “puzzling” tradition. The voices are on tape, an analogue phenomenon and therefore antiquated. It’s certainly no parlour game, but it gestures that way. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s what makes it so contemporary.

The world is interactive now. Not just videogames, but our friendships, our love lives, our careers and our experiences. We are given an active role, albeit a mediated one, a curated one. That our poetry grows more puzzle-like, more encouraging of interaction or replication, places it here among our lives; not as elevated, maybe, but more fun.

  • Joe Darlington

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