Sean Bonney, 1969-2019
Sean Bonney, one of the finest British poets of our time, died in Berlin on 13th November. William Rowe discusses his life and work.
Sean Bonney, one of the finest UK poets of our time, died in Berlin on 13th November. His work comprises seven major books and a series of pamphlets; it includes some of the most vital writing in the language today. He pushed at the limits of poetry, creating new forms in each single book. No other contemporary work destroys so thoroughly the universe of resurgent fascism.
Bonney was born in Brighton in 1969 and grew up outside Hull. He studied at the university of Liverpool, then moved to London sometime around 1996. He had already engaged in community organisation against the Poll Tax and placed himself with the hard left in politics; in poetry he found his place with Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum Workshop. He read at many small press venues, like Subvoicive, and was deeply involved in the free jazz and punk music scenes, having been a punk since a teenager. His friends around this time included many in the radical poetry and politics scenes, notably Bob Cobbing, Bill Griffiths, Jeff Hilson
He began a PhD on Charles Olson at King’s College London in 1998, and several years later returned to postgraduate study at Birkbeck College, where he also taught as a part-time lecturer. He got his PhD with a thesis on Amiri Baraka, whose work had become a main force in his own poetry. This and other examples of Bonney’s acute critical intelligence remain, unfortunately, unpublished.
Throughout his life, he read deeply and widely in Black American radicalism, Marxism, anarchism, working class history, surrealism; among the key poets of his life were Ginsberg, Olson, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Bill Griffiths, Hölderlin, Baraka, Césaire, Anna Mendelssohn, Pasolini, Katerina Gogou; in prose, Hegel, Marx, Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord. In music the list would include The Fall, Dylan, early American blues, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and many many others. Frances Kruk and Bonney founded the small press yt communications, the non-sense word yt being a homage to the Russian futurist Kruchenykh. Politically, he described himself as an anarchist communist. He taught a seminar on revolutionary poetics at Cambridge, but all the British universities he applied to for fellowships and jobs turned him down. One of them asked him at interview, ‘What would you do if there was a student strike?’
After failing to find work in the UK, he was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at the Free University of Berlin where his investigations included –among others--the work of Diane di Prima and Katerina Gogou. He was married to Polish-Canadian poet Frances Kruk.
Bonney’s first book, Notes on Heresy (Writers Forum, 2002) absorbs past voices of rebellion, such as Abiezer Coppe and that of the anonymous ballad ‘Tom o’Bedlam,’ and makes them pulse in present time with the living anger of the oppressed. ‘Anger is An Energy,’ Bonney’s phrase from that time, is true of his life’s work. Poisons, Their Antidotes (West House Books) came out a year later and gives the feeling that the lived space of London streets is jutting into the pages. The poems grew out of the space and history that Chartists, communists, and anarchists once occupied. ‘Negative Poetics’ is the title of a talk Bonney gave at the time when Blade Pitch Control Unit (Salt Publishing, 2005) appeared. The book includes Poisons and other earlier work; the title speaks of the angle of attack of the blades of a helicopter rotor, and carries the state’s violent uses of technology.
Cobbing’s sound and visual poetry had a strong effect on Bonney. His visual work can be found amongst a large volume of his writings, visuals, and videos on the internet. Baudelaire in English (Veer Books, 2007) mis-uses a typewriter by spinning the roller to create tilted, overprinted lines which offer an extraordinary condensation of Baudelaire’s complex voice. Document - Poems, Diagrams, Manifestos, (Barque Press, 2008) collects prose and visual pieces as well as poems. Bonney’s exceptional ear for music as a political force is especially evident in The Commons (Openned, 2011). He commented, ‘The work was originally subtitled "A Narrative / Diagram of the Class Struggle", wherein voices from contemporary uprisings blend into the Paris Commune, into October 1917, into the execution of Charles 1, and on into superstitions, fantasies of crazed fairies and supernatural bandits //// all clambering up from their hidden places in history, getting ready to storm the Cities of the Rich //// to the bourgeois eye they may look like zombies, to us they are sparrows, cuckoos, pirates & sirens //// the cracked melodies of ancient folk songs, cracking the windows of Piccadilly.’ His most lyrical book is Happiness (Poems After Rimbaud) (Unkant, 2011), which brings Rimbaud’s writing, especially its close relationship with the Paris Commune, into the present via a thorough critical demolition of the hostile language and malign geometry of the neoliberal city. What Bonney wrote in an essay on Mendelssohn’s work – that it ‘insists on poetry as a specific method of thought’—is equally true of his own.
Bonney’s most complex book is Letters Against the Firmament (Enitharmon, 2015). Coming out of the UK riots and protests of 2010-2012, its thinking struggles with the extreme difficulty of revolutionary action in a time of universal co-optation of resistance to capitalism; as in Blanqui, even the sun and stars have been annexed by the system. But in the density of its dialectical thinking, its willingness to enter uncertainty, and its transmission of revolutionary energies of the past, Letters opens a space of possibility. His last book is Our Death (Commune Editions, 2019). Published shortly before he died, it lives inside death. The poems range from expressions of intense grief, to cries of pain, to the sight of dead bodies in the streets of Berlin, but also include the body shaken by love – a thing with no place – alongside hatred for the people responsible for what capital is doing to the world.
In recent years, he read in the USA, Germany, Portugal, Ireland, Norway, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Greece. His work was translated into Portuguese, German, Norwegian, Spanish, Catalan, French, Greek, and other languages. He gave his last talks and readings in October in Athens. Lines of his poetry have already started to appear as graffiti on Athens streets.
No other British poet of Bonney’s generation so exposed themselves to the violence of the UK after Thatcher (‘she faked her death’), to the violence (‘police reality’) that maintains the law. Rimbaud, Pasolini, Baraka, Diane di Prima, are some points of comparison. This is poetry in which defensive layers of the self become suspended, the poem sheds its traditional walls, the brutal injustices of history find expression.
(With thanks to Frances Kruk and Helen Dimos).