A Little White Opening Out Of Thought by Chris McCabe

Cover of Poetry Review
Cover of Poetry Review vol 102 no3

This review appeared in Poetry Review, Vol 102 No 3 Autumn 2012

Tom Phillips is a painter. He is also a printmaker, collagist and musician. In the 1980 edition of his “treated Victorian novel” A Humument he stated in the introduction (which comes at the end of the book and revised at the end of this new 5th edition) that he is not a poet. Phillips described the process of using words only found in the text of an obscure Victorian novel called A Human Document by W.H. Mallock to inspire and to create his work, has provided “the solution for this artist of the problem of wishing to write poetry while not in the real sense of the word being a poet...he gets there by standing on someone else's shoulders."(1). Thirty-four years later in the new fifth edition of the book this reservation regarding his own sense of himself as a poet has been re-evaluated as Phillips talks of the "well over a thousand segments of poetry" he has created in the course of writing the five versions of the book. This maturing into himself as a poet chimes with developments within poetry over this same period of time to allow for a confident reassessment of Tom Phillips The Poet.

This is not to say A Humument is a straightforward book of poetry. In the 1980 edition, and in this massively revised new edition, Phillips cites both Van Gogh and Blake as inspirations – both of whom walked the same streets of Peckham where Phillips first found the source book for his epic lifetime project in 1966. In a furniture repository facing Peckham Rye Phillips picked-up A Human Document after declaring to a friend that the first book he found for threepence would “serve a serious long-term project”(2). Where Blake was looking up into the trees for angels Phillips was amongst the deadwood of old furniture trawling the books abandoned after furniture removals. For an artist whose whole practice has thrived on chance and randomness this synchronicity with Blake walking the same streets is not lost. Blake's fusing of word and image (as well the decision to make artworks that would find their home in illustrated books) is as much a presence behind Phillips' work as the explosions of colour in the work of Van Gogh and Cézanne.

Of course the fusing of language with visual elements long precedes Blake, going back to the first formations of written languages in which script and characters organically emerged as shapes that carried their meaning in the way they looked (3). In this sense – and a good place to start with Phillips’s astounding book – is to challenge John Berger's position that "seeing comes before reading"(4). Reading begins in seeing. All language art begins with words as shapes, groups of words shaped into a visual form. Dick Higgins argues in Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature that the instinct to take pleasure from works that contain both word and image is a human instinct that goes back to roots of both western and eastern cultures: “the story of an ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses”(5). A Humument works in this tradition, satisfying the subterranean stirrings within us to have our visual and literary senses satisfied in one almighty fix. A few years back we had an exhibition in The Saison Poetry Library by Sam Winston, a text-based artist who works with similarly impressively intricate deconstructions of canonical works – fairy tales, Shakespeare, the dictionary – and noticed how those in the audience with visual art backgrounds begin their viewing by standing well back from the works to assimilate the overall form whilst those comfortable with poetry walk straight up to the pieces to read the words. As most of us are let down by the narrowness of our training in our specialist areas we should be grateful to artists like Tom Phillips and Sam Winston who play around with the spaces between our senses, the habits we form when looking at art and the world around us (6).

What is A Humument, this constantly updated and revised book that Phillips has been working on since 1966? Phillips' creative process involves painting, drawing or collaging over the original pages of text of the novel – placing the fiction erasure – until just a little of the text is visible through the new images on the page. Words determine the visual direction. In one sense this is a parallel to what a poet does through choosing available words present in the language – or the book of the language, the dictionary – and creating the best order for the words (poets also make new words, as does Phillips, though his available source book of words is infinitely smaller than the English dictionary, being confined to just one novel). In a poem all the unused words are invisible, their invisibleness determining the impact of the words chosen on the page. In A Humument words are selected from those that are available for selection on the page of the novel, though sometimes the words beneath are still semi-visible beneath paint or sketched over with pencil.

Phillips' the painter never begins with a clean canvas; Phillips the poet never begins with a clean page. There are parallels between Phillips' approach and that of the Oulipo movement. The Oulipo approach to making literature from restrictions provides another line in the tradition of experimentation through which to consider Phillips' place in poetry. A work such as Raymond Queneau's One Hundred Million Million Poems in which each line appears on a strip of paper, works similarly to A Humument in how the constriction determines the possibility for an ongoing, almost endless sequence of new poems to be created. On three pages in this edition Phillips manages to make, across the space of a few lines, the exclamation: "O | C | e | z | an | n | e". Phillips talks in this new edition of how for years he has hoped that the book could be used as a kind of oracle, accessed at random to offer cryptic snippets of life-advice and portent (7). The App version for the iPhone and iPad particularly delighted Phillips because as well as a random access feature, it also has a facility to draw together two pages side-by-side and to light them through the screen like "church windows"(8).   

The line of argument that Phillips is a poet, and should be claimed as a poet in the long line of pattern, shape and visual poetry, will receive little resistance from those associated with the second wave of concrete poetry and the US-influenced experimental group often referred to as the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s. Later 20th century writers don't have the same outlets – or audience – for serialisation as the Victorians or even Modernists had, yet charting the history of A Humument through magazines shows Phillips as something of a poststructuralist serialiser of his work. It is interesting to map the publication of pages from A Humument in poetry magazines from this period. In British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000 Geoffrey Hill – a near exact contemporary of Tom Phillips – is cited for publication in eleven publications whilst Phillips falls-in closely behind with eight (9). Phillips has certainly played the field as an experimental poet publishing his work through the journals of this period. An initial short version of A Humument called trailer was published in 1971 by Hansjörg Mayer, a publisher who was seminal in the world of concrete poetry and whose futura series of broadsides included Edwin Morgan, Bob Cobbing and Ian Hamilton Finlay. In an issue of the magazine Ginger Snaps (“a collection of cut-ups / machine prose / word & image”) from 1972 an early Xeroxed black and white page from A Humument is published with explanatory text from Phillips citing William Burroughs as a huge influence on his process (10).

Although the first wave of concrete poets in the 1950s aspired for a minimal purity in content and form (“form=content / content = form” as Noigandres movement in Brazil termed it) or works that can't be translated without some aspect of the original visual-linguistic entity being lost. The second wave of concrete poets arising in the 1960s were much more heterogeneous and sprawling in their experiments to represent language visually and Phillips’ early work on A Humument was embraced by the editors of the magazines arising from this movement. If the way in which one kind of poetry bleeds into another were much simpler to define then one could say that Tom Phillips had found his place in poetry within this generation of concrete poets. Pages from A Humument appeared in the magazines of this movement such as ‘Arlington’, ‘Exit’ and ‘Stereo Headphones’ and alongside concrete poets such as John Furnival, Dom Sylvester Houédard and Eugen Gomringer. This edition is dedicated to Ruth and Marvin Sackner, concrete poetry collectors who in 1975 founded the Sackner Archive which made a home of Phillips’ work.

Throughout A Humument there are different aesthetic strands – or groups – of pages that belong together and recur throughout the book. Of these different strands there is a group of pages that could certainly be seen as working with the minimal typewritten purity of concrete poetry.  One page has been created by simply typing red and black Xs, Zs and Cs over the original page of novel and is redolent of a Dom Sylvester Houédard typestract.

By the time Phillips had begun A Humument in 1966 there was a significant crossover between the international movement of concrete poetry and the US-led Fluxus movement. As with most of the significant movements in 20th Century Fluxus had poets at its core. The experiments of John Cage (who Phillips cites as an inspiration in his introduction to this edition) in using random operators such as the I Ching were also providing process-led inspiration for poets such as Jackson Mac Low. When Dick Higgins invented the phrase 'intermedia' in 1965 it was almost a label-fit for what Phillips was about to embark upon. Phillips has gone on to use the same source text to create an opera, IRMA, and to append his own artworks. He has also translated Dante using words from the same source text. As he says in the introduction, even the most avid collectors of his work are unlikely to have a complete set of associated ephemera: "a trivial greetings card here, a record sleeve or CD cover there or even a faded T-shirt at the bottom of a drawer"(11).

By 2012 we should be relatively untroubled by the idea of accepting a poet who works with found materials as a genuine poet. It was over a century ago when Duchamp entered a urinal into an art competition signed by R. Mutt. Yet the stakes are much higher with language, particularly within English Literature – despite these decades of experimentation and questioning of what poetic integrity and 'inspiration' might mean there is a long way to go to convince most readers of poetry that poems that are made from words that already exist in another, often more mundane form, can be real poems. The American poet and founder of UbuWeb Kenneth Goldsmith has been influential in steering forward this alternative approach to poetry through his own conceptual poetry – and the championing of others – in the US. The Flarf movement's trawling of the internet's digital bladderwrack for found poetry is done in the same spirit as Phillips began his epic forty years before. The controversy caused by Goldmsmith's approach in books like Fidget – in which every movement of his body is recorded over a three day period – is not just in the conceptual idea but that Goldsmith is also very vocal in saying that his books don’t actually need to be read (12). Much of Goldmsith’s influences are the same as Phillips’ – in Against Expression, co-edited by Goldsmith, he also includes writings by William Burroughs and John Cage (13).

Phillips shares the same spirit of delighting in the found. Aside from A Humument being entirely based within the words of a randomly-found book, Phillips often chooses the text he will work with by tossing a coin over the page of the novel (the title A Humument came from folding over two pages of the novel until the original title A Human Document to create this new word). Yet the idea of this is not enough – the idea of A Humument is only the prefix to what happens on its pages. You couldn’t tell someone about A Humument – as strong as the idea is – and not want to show them the work. As conceptual poets this is where the similarity between Phillips and Goldsmith ends – A Humument is not a book to know about, just to capture the gist of what it is attempting to achieve – it is a book to delight in: for its colour, for the constant surprise, for the open-ended play of language. Phillips redrafts and refines, often over long periods, until he is satisfied that he has selected the best possible arrangements of words from the novel and done justice to them visually. There is a massive investment of authorial intervention from Phillips, working on a page over years, only to then amend or rewrite for a new edition. Some pages, according to Phillips, have over eighty versions (14). Phillips the poet is impressive from every angle. As a conceptual – or process poet – whose whole project (lasting most of his life) has been based around a book he found by chance (what if he would have found a different novel that day?). Yet  Phillips is also the draft and craftsman of finished masterpieces. His process of amendment and revision has a compelling tension between Audenesque revision and auto-destruction – there is no such thing, and never will be – as a final completed version of A Humument. A Humument is a living breathing monster that quite literally devours his creativity (he claims that he's been through eight versions of The Human Document but has never read the book in a linear way from start to finish) but never gets significantly bigger. Phillips doesn't think of all the other unwritten books.

If Goldsmith is right – and it’s time to accept that we have had our Duchamps in poetry and that the freedom created through their approach means that we should accept poets working in this tradition as genuine poets – then the initial hurdle of whether we can accept Phillips as a poet is easily overcome. Phillips has had acclaim as an artist, both exhibiting and curating at The Royal Academy, yet very little has been said about his gift as a poet. The artworld is comfortable with embracing the entirety of Phillips’ work as art, so why should the poetry world (and this is his second appearance in ‘Poetry Review’ over the years) not embrace him as a poet? Phillips abounds with the skills of selecting, cutting, and positioning words with an ingenius flair for rich connections and memorable synchronicities. Reading his words is to be compelled by his tuning of every metrical stress in the words selected for use on his pages.

"wanted. a little white opening out of thought".

This is a line that Phillips plucked randomly from A Human Document in 1974 when he was looking for texts to append to paintings. This line of poetry shows Phillips' focus on the minimal, gathering clusters of words that work with a lower-case allusive charge (the "wanted" left hanging from the sentence gives the line instant impact), with a condensed Imagist clarity (15). A Humument is an epic of minimal poems. There are similarities between Phillips' project and Charles Olson's Maximus Poems : Phillips walked the streets of Peckham as Olson did in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to find the source for his epic. There is a page in this edition that shows a map of Peckham Rye with the lines "the gallery of a | hundred years | of | a thousand | is in | every street". There is also a parallel between Olson's focus on the Projective use of space (or Open Field) and Phillips's use of what he calls "rivers of text" – the white bubble-clouds drawn around each section of words to show the order in which they should be read. Even with these cues to the flow of the text there is still the inevitable pause created at the end of each word or letter that has been selected from each page, which brings the focus of the reader to the rising or falling stress of each syllable. Perhaps a closer comparison would be with Olson's friend and contemporary at Black Mountain College, Robert Creeley – a collection like Pieces draws similarly on the particles of words and the resulting emphasis on breath that we find in Phillips. In fact reading aloud some of Phillip's words is the best measure of its flow and impact as poetry – it is often beautiful in both music and image: "At last felt her | forest. | dearer to him now than | broken syllables which | are for lovers signs". The alert attunement to the syllable puts Phillips firmly in the American Poundian tradition (with echoes too of William Carlos Williams) through Olson to contemporaries such as Rachel duPlessis (poets all tuned-in to the metrics of poetic language as well as working in epics). The closest poet to Phillips in England is Tom Raworth through which parallels can be drawn not only between the minimal focus on language particles but also in the humour and pastiching of the English middle-class and academia (literary in Raworth's case, the artworld in Phillips – which gets a hammering in this edition). These lines from this new edition could quite easily be a short Raworth poem, detailing what happened to the character Toge on Hampstead Heath: "the | Bible | a | newspaper | and | some | opaque | British idea | saved him".

Some of the most memorable pages in the book come about when Phillips is almost commenting on his own work: "listen | to the | sound of | the colour of a flower | It is enough | listen". Many of these pages even have a title, almost as if they are consciously being presented as poems – one is entitled COME AUTUMN HAND (typeset upside down) with wonderful lines worthy of ‘The Waste Land’: "as | gene-making | men | doctor | the land | composed of anxiety and | financial earth" ( this is set against the stunning backdrop of auburn leaves against azure blue). Phillips' writing is at its best when he's talking of London, he manages to assemble word clusters that condense the grime and energy of the metropolis into very few words: "Compared with | London, all | shadowland; and the numb | who shuffled round | work | ville | helpless". Phillips' ear is alert to the turn of each syllable, each phoneme – "Turn to | serious, | syllables" – being both comfortable in breaking apart words into single particles and creating both sounds and sense that keeps each page alert to dreamlike narrative that unfolds. It is this shifting of gears within language which makes A Humument such a lively reading experience – Phillips uses rhyme in one place, cryptic parataxis in another; a proverbial generalisation can easily shift to fragmentation and distortion. As readers we are constantly having our expectations pushed-around and played with.

Phillips works with a language condensed with Pound's metrical emphasis on the syllable, he is comfortable with particles, stranded letters. Through developments in Modernism to J.H. Prynne and beyond Phillip’s concentrated allusiveness is easily read within that tradition: "numb | winter | lust | unable to | come to | candles. | drew aside from | white | age,". Phillips has a confident and assured command over the elasticity of language, even delving into sheer sound poetry – as in this page exploring Toge’s subconscious: "actica | plete", "gement | ong", "houl | atter", "ometh | ribble". He is capable of the pitch perfect lyrical poem – like this which echoes the style of Celan: "chance memories. | a | violet | shadow | -lily I have walked by in | the dark". Phillips often hacks and compounds words in a way that brings the present-tense delight of the sense we find in Hopkins: "from the numb | avenue of | utter | love...she | ill-mended, and | he | just | by rust | down-drawn". In all of this it is easy to trust that Phillips knows what he is up to as the whole book is littered with references to – and echoes of – the work of other poets. In fact the very first words of this edition have a Whitmanesque reverb: "I | sing | a | book". At another point a direct quote from Mallarmé are arranged inside a porthole: "a throw of dice will never do away with chance". Eliot's Prufrock is pastiched towards the end of the book "-let us | go | now" as well as ‘The Waste Land’ in these lines: "in London | thronging | faces had no | friends | I | had | not | known | so | many”.

In this revised 5th edition there are significant additions and reopening of possibilities. Phillips has employed photomontage as a technique to incredibly powerful effect – especially in relation to text about London crowds. Since 1980 advancements in technology have allowed for meanings to be gleaned that wouldn’t have been possible before – through technology: "her face | book"; "The | app | of this volume"; "text | him | now". Through politics: "remember | bush |...that | bitter | name". Through colour: many pages are lit in red, pink, purple, bermuda green that are far brighter than previous editions. Changes in Phillips’ own life: there is more self-referentiality in this edition, a looking-back on a past experiences of women and having children. This is what makes The Humument a living breathing entity that can never sit still, asking to be reworked in ways that would not have been possible before. The book needs constantly updating because the world has changed – the 1892 of WH Mallock is always becoming further away. In the years of the project the poet’s gifts have deepened, as has the language base he has to draw upon from the outside world.

Visions can happen looking up in the trees but also – where artists and poets are concerned – looking for connections amongst old books. In this 5th edition the "wanted" from the above quote has been replaced with the more assertive: “Here is art | coming to | claim” – a suitable shift for a poet declaring his own self-fulfilment in the arrival of the work which was promised forty-five years before: "Here is art | coming to | claim | a little white | opening out of | thought".


(1) Tom Phillips, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Thames and Hudson, 1980
(2) Tom Phillips, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Thames and Hudson, 2012.
(3) The Phaistos Disk in 1700 BC is perhaps the first example of this, being a grey clay disk with a spiral text imprinted in Minoan – this can seen in Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature by Dick Higgins, State University of New York Press, 1987.
(4) John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Classics, 2008.
(5) Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature p.3
(6) To view Sam Winston’s work go to www.samwinston.com and artists within the same collective – Victoria Bean and Karen Bleitz – at arceditions.com
(7) I was reading this version on a train from Liverpool to London on the first day of the Poetry Parnassus festival on the Southbank and came across this page: "days | of | poetry |...Tickets ready - for | Liverpool | and | expectancy"
(8) Tom Phillips quoted in The Observer, Sunday 20 May 2012
(9) David Miller and Richard Price British Poetry Magazines 1914-2000: A history and bibliography of ‘little’ magazines, The British Library, 2006. Poets are mentioned in this book in the overview of the magazine and this is not a complete number of how many magazine both 
(10) Ginger Snaps edited by Michael Gibbs
(11) Tom Phillips, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Thames and Hudson, 2012.
(12) Kenneth Goldsmith defines the new conceptual poetry as “fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, one that proposes an expanded field for 21st century poetry” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2008/06/conceptual-poetics-kenneth-goldsmith/
(13) Against Expression: an anthology of conceptual writing edited by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, Northwestern University Press, 2011.
(14) Tom Phillips, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, Thames and Hudson, 2012.
(15) Pound’s three Prefaces to the Imagists written between 1913 and 1916 prove a useful way of measuring Phillips’ success as a poet, point-after-point seem to be carried out by Phillips, particularly “To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation”. Imagist Poetry, Introduced and edited by Peter Jones, Penguin, 1972.