Bob Cobbing Solo

(This is the text of a posting to the british-poets e-mail discussion list on the occasion of Bob Cobbing’s 80th birthday solo reading).

Date: Fri, 14 Jul 2000 20:56:28 +0100

From: Peter Manson
Subject: Bob Cobbing solo

A belated appreciation of Bob’s solo reading on Tuesday:

Bob did 3 sets, 2 hours in total, of his linear verbal poetry — in rough chronological order, from the 1950s to the present day. The audience was both good-sized and _good_.

The variety of the work was astonishing — from early cut-ups (pre-dating Burroughs/Gysin), through found and collaged texts to word-nets and, well, poems.

Several of the pieces performed exist in visually-emphatic form as well as linear (see ‘Worm’ and ‘tan’ — both in the The New British Poetry (Paladin 1988)). Bob was careful to warn us that he’d be performing the linear version in each case, but in the case of “Worm”, presented with lines like

           rust          moth         fungus       mildew
           dryrot        canker       maggot       WORM
           wriggle       coil         roll curl    buckle
           twine twirl   twist wind   spiral       WORM

, the visual pull of the upper case drew Bob towards the kind of detail within drawn-out sound which we’re more used to from his sound-poetry. The word WORM, six times repeated, expressed six very different summarising attitudes to the animal and human worms of the poem.

I knew a lot of this work on the page, but it’s amazing how much you learn from a performance: in the poem “wordrow” (reprinted in the anthology Word Score Utterance Choreography), with its alliterating (mostly-)palindromes

           wordrow     worn row
           wombat tab mow
           womb mow     wort row
           weser re-sew
           wolf flow
           wolf-dog god flow
           won't now

, it was surprising to hear how interested Bob was in emphasising the semantic element over the formal, to the point where the repeated line


came over as a powerful malediction – and a sly chafing at the self-imposed constraint of a sound poet giving a reading consisting entirely of words.

The ABC in Sound (1964/5) was performed in its entirety. The 13th poem is a list of Scottish surnames beginning with Mc or Mac: Bob kept his eyes on the page until the second last name, when he looked up with raised eyebrows: “MacSweeney”.

[the best introduction to early Cobbing is still the essay “Bob Cobbing: Troubadour & Poet” by dom silvester houédard, published, with texts by Cobbing, as Extra Verse No.17 in 1966. This issue has been reprinted and is available from Writers Forum].

The found and collaged poems ranged from the barbedly funny (turning an unfavourable review into a poem) to a dense and troubling construction pieced together, word by word, from a ribbonised Robert Sheppard poem. Somewhere in the middle, a found text from a linguistics textbook became a tribute to Tom Leonard — uncontrollable laughter here and there ebbed away as the listeners realised how tender a poem it was.

All of which should emphasise that Cobbing’s verbal work isn’t really that different to his visual/soundtext work. He’s often noted in interviews that his current visual output isn’t really all that abstract: based on the photographic treatment and distortion of pre-existing material, it’s, quote, “realism slightly manipulated or more than slightly”. People who come into contact with Bob tend to find bits of themselves incorporated into his work — it’s one of his means of paying attention, of playing with and refunctioning what he sees. Whether he’s wobbling a photograph or turning a critical text by cris cheek into a poem about soundtext poetry (it’s in the recent volume, Shrieks and Hisses, available from etruscan books), he remains one of the crucial receivers of our time.

Anybody else enjoy it?



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