There is power and its modes, the democratic nature of speech, and the politics of wit; thus, satire. Aisle16 are a collective of six stand-up poets, “poetry’s boyband”, and their book hopes to be “The poetry book it’s not embarrassing to be seen carrying.” It collects over fifty of their poems.
When we think of stand-up poetry we perhaps unfairly think of the versified sneer, the bowl of punch-lines; satirical style. What we get here is this, but with a lot of the crude, the out to shock, and a few unexpected diversions. Against what do Aisle16 poets rail? Their targets include the fashion pages of Sunday newspapers (“The best way to get noticed at parties this year is to shoot yourself in the head”), the NME, Channel 4 (“a group of pseudo-RADA hos, dressed in nouveau-Prada clothes”), art-gallery speak (“Hirst, the self-confessed ‘Rumplestiltskin of the ICA'”), mobile phones, Ikea, blogs and the late Richard Madeley (“chat-show God of decency!”) in “Truly Madeley Deeply, or Dick”, which should be avoided by mourning fans: “O Richard! My love burns for you / like napalm on a child”. In these phenomena, Aisle16 suggest, we are lost. Obvious targets, which is why its essential to target them. Aisle16 will not modishly seek the new. They want to expose the avoidable hypocrisies. On stage, charisma and timing will transform the material; in the silent, private reading they must rely on an entirely literary performance: does it entertain?
Yes, it does. Now lets look for a yardstick. The great satires in English poetry were written by Pope and Swift. Capitalism, scholarship, fashion: against these they set Horace, the couplet, the epic, the war against Dullness. They were appalled by the South Sea bubble’s exposure of greed and opportunism, by coffee-house wits and dry-as-dust academia.
The Aisle16 poets have grown up in the Eighties and Nineties, the time of sportswear branding, Grunge turned Grunge-chic and its attitude bottled by Calvin Klein, the decline of public media, the appearance of a community called the Internet. They are preoccupied with the triumph of the faddish, and therefore a loss of the true, the real, the good. How quaint, we say, typing away on our e-Macs which are perched on our pre-weathered Conran desks. Against the “follies of the day” (for socialist-utopian William Morris, who coined this phrase, these were commerce and its middle-class champions; for Aisle16, the war on terror, Victoria Beckham and Big Business) can there be a soft rebellion, which uses rhetoric and satire? Is satire just posing, because to pose is to pose a problem, and at least then you aren’t part of a corrupt solution in which you might dissolve? What is the politics of humour? A laugh is a recognition, a structural freedom, a wobble. Aisle16 offer us these things but also depth, in its bathetic sense, as in my favourite piece here, Joel Stickley’s “The Collected Reports of Benny Ladderfield, Political Correspondent, (aged four and a half)”: “Earlier today, the Government unveiled the long awaited white paper on electoral reform, and I needed go wee-wee.”
Another of Joel Stickley’s poems reports on “Casual Friday at Nazi Party Headquarters”, (“You don’t have to be anti-Semitic to work here / but it helps”). He also advises us to move into a public toilet, and inter alia, tells us what happened to “Britain’s First Paedophile Prime Minister” (“He kissed babies, / yet we never saw it coming”). His “My Passport Photograph Makes Me Look Like a Suicide Bomber” is amused paranoia in a nervous power vacuum: “What are his demands? What has he been plotting? What does he believe?”
Another whose work here is worth re-reading is Luke Wright. His “Pop Sonnet” is full of the book’s main strength – anger more newly angry than many a simpering “alternative” comedian – as it details the “post-ironic puke-ups, reality touts / and self-satisfying media nodes” which have created a world in which:
“All that is seen of the red cloud of art
is airbrushed so smooth that details run grey,
like sallow skin on these poor zombie tarts”
And then, Edmund Spenser-style, the sonnet turns on itself in the closing couplet:
“But you’re not safe even if you missed it
For it turned immortal when I dissed it.”
Luke Wright’s versatility is much appreciated; see also his “re-branding” of Kipling’s “If” (“If you can bear to hear the lies you’ve spoken / Believed, and turned into a lifestyle choice, / Or watch your ethos become a blank slogan, / And stoop, and recreate its worn-out voice.”) Elsewhere, Tom Sutton contributes the “Timewaster Letters”-style correspondence with a curator (“Thank you for your thoughtful letter regarding the recent exhibition at Ikon by David Cunningham. I was fascinated to read of your interpretation of the work”).
Rather than the Juvenalia of Pope or Swift, it is such performance poet luminaries as John Cooper Clarke or maybe Attila the Stockbroker who animate the book. Clarke’s “Conditional Discharge” is the model for a swipe at confessional blogs, “Epiphanal Discharge” (“when a tète-a-tète becomes a talking head”).
In a sentence: “Live From The Hellfire Club” is a manic autopsy in the hands of poet-surgeons grown up in a world where “Motivation festers in styrofoam beakers”. Where do we go now? Will this change the world? The problem is that satire cannot be revolutionary because, as Adorno noted, “All satire is blind in the face of the forces liberated by decay.” But Aisle16 do advance a wittily lyric critique of what we might want to revolt against.