PHIL MAILLARD: Those Are Pearls…

WHISPER ‘LOUISE’, by Douglas Oliver (Reality Street, Hastings, 2005).

I wrote this essay – or amplified review – about Douglas Oliver’s WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ over ten years ago. It was part of a series on writers who are my contemporaries or near contemporaries, and with whom I feel some creative empathy: Lee Harwood, Chris Torrance, Graham Hartill, Iain Sinclair, Barry MacSweeney, Jeremy Hilton, Elaine Randell, and, from the American side, Gary Snyder. The series was called ‘Poetry Talks’, a title popular in China since the 11th Century, indicating literary writing that’s ‘anecdotal and informal in style’. To myself, however, I always thought of it as ‘Our Lot’. The Douglas Oliver essay was not published anywhere at the time.

       On re-reading it, Oliver’s stance and writing – particularly his later writing – seem to me to have retained relevance to some current concerns and events. The rise of ‘populist’ movements of all kinds in reaction to the perceived inequality and irrelevance of existing power structures – the whole gamut from ‘religious’ terrorism to Occupy, UKIP, Donald Trump in America and Podemos in Spain, for example – seems to be prefigured and imaginatively investigated in Oliver’s work. I’ve left the essay as I wrote it. Today, I would have written it differently, or at least changed the emphasis in places; but the original piece gets across, I think, my admiration for this complex and neglected writer.

                                                 Phil Maillard, November 2016



It will seem peculiar to start upon the subject of prosody by talking anecdotally about death – Douglas Oliver, THREE LILIES, in POETS ON WRITING, ed. Denise Riley.

As I write (December 2005) France is recovering from an autumn of urban riots, mostly involving youths from immigrant communities. The insurrection started on October 27th following the accidental electrocution of two boys apparently hiding from the police at an electricity sub-station in the Paris suburbs. It eventually involved the arrest of 3000 youths, and the torching of 10,000 cars in 274 French towns and housing estates. Renseignements Généraux, the police intelligence service, is very keen on the idea that this was a spontaneous outburst of frustration at the nature of life in the banlieux chauds, the hot suburbs, the urban ghettos; it blames social segregation, poverty, and a feeling of insecurity among immigrants. Apparently there was no shaping ideology, no present or future political ambitions behind the violence, even at the basic level of terror. In other words, there is no evidence that radical Islam was involved.

The British poet Douglas Oliver has long been interested in popular uprisings, and the allied issue of the environments in which they occur. His book PENNILESS POLITICS (1994) posited the creation of a ‘people’s party’ by the disenfranchised and alienated poor in the multicultural Lower East Side of New York. His latest book, WHISPER ‘LOUISE’, is part autobiography, and part the biography of Louise Michel, anarchist revolutionary. Louise Michel played a leading role in the Paris Commune of 1871, which, unlike the official view of the current French unrest, did attempt an overt political counter-structure. It ended in appalling violence on both sides. What Douglas Oliver also tells us, depressingly, is that one result of insurrection in urban ghettos is gentrification. After the bloodshed, the middle-classes move in and spruce every thing up; the poor are forced further out from the city centre, to create new ghettos.

   WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ is a long book, both physically (over 400 pages) and psychologically. It is mostly prose, with some of Oliver’s own poetry interspersed. It might have benefited from editing and revising, since it tells at least two stories – that of the author, and Louise Michel – as well as numerous asides concerning philosophy, politics, poetics, etc. However, as revealed in the final chapter, Douglas Oliver was aware of his own approaching death from cancer as he was finishing the book. In my view, this added poignancy and authenticity of feeling outweighs any structural defects in the writing. Oliver was, earlier in his life, a journalist, and could therefore keep writing as long as – or longer than – he needed to. He was to some extent an auto-didact, although he did achieve an education at Essex University as a mature student. He was also on a ‘path with a heart’, somewhat unusually for someone associated with British and French ‘language poets’. WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ continues, and massively amplifies, the concerns of his earlier poetry – not just the theme of revolutionary politics, but also of innocence, kindness, love, and guilt (personal and social). It is this complexity – and Oliver’s determined and varied attempts to achieve honesty – that make him such a uniquely defined writer, worthy of our attention.

Douglas Oliver’s writing career falls into two – possibly three – sections. In his obituary of Oliver (GUARDIAN, 6.5.2000), Andrew Crozier wrote that until ten years ago, his writing was known mainly to a select and exacting readership of fellow poets, as was inevitable since he chose to publish with specialist imprints run by poets. This was a significant career move for a poet whose first appearances in print were in Encounter and the London Magazine. In the next paragraph Crozier says that his first book, OPPO HECTIC (1969), registered this change of allegiance… Crozier’s words here are worth considering closely, as they reveal certain attitudes (overt and covert) which will help us understand Oliver’s own attitude to writing.

Crozier states that Oliver’s first publications were in ENCOUNTER and the LONDON MAGAZINE. I haven’t consciously seen any of this early work, but the implication is that only poets more interested in a wider audience for their safely acceptable style of work would publish in such mainstream magazines as Encounter and the London Magazine. However (according to Crozier) Oliver then intentionally, as a significant career move, chose to publish in specialist imprints, thus limiting his audience to a select and exacting readership of fellow poets. The word allegiance is particularly revealing – it has a quasi-religious ring to it, a vision of writers owing loyalty to one exclusive sect, the only sect whose membership has, of course, grasped The Truth, in its select and exacting way.

And what is this sect, this happy band? They are conveniently, if loosely, defined in an anthology called A VARIOUS ART (1987), edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville. In the first line of his Introduction, Crozier states that this anthology represents our joint view (i.e. Crozier and Longville’s view) of what is most interesting, valuable, and distinguished in the work of a generation of English poets now entering its maturity, but it is not an anthology of English, let alone British poetry. I shall pass over the confusing distinctions between ‘English’ and ‘British’ (at least two of the writers in A VARIOUS ART were not born in England). The main point is that right from the first sentence, lines are being drawn in the sand. Crozier then goes on to elaborate the usual reference points for ‘his’ writers – that they write in ‘open’ rather than ‘closed’ form, that they are international in outlook rather than parochial and reactionary, that they’ve been particularly influenced by certain American writers, that they have a post-modernist sense of ‘reality’, that they don’t seek approval and publication from mainstream publishers but seize the initiative and publish themselves, etc etc. However, the anthology’s title does refer to ‘variety’, and Crozier is still left with the task of finding a unifying concept to describe his writers. He denies any attempt to provide a polemic apology or manifesto because no claim is advanced here for the existence of anything amounting to a school. However, he and Longville were impressed by the degree of difference that existed amongst their writers; and what they claim is both the possibility and presence of such variety, a poetry deployed towards the complex and multiple experience in language of all of us. This is by no means, of course, ever one and the same thing, and the poets collected here will be seen to set their writing towards a range of languages, ordinary, scientific, traditional, demotic, liturgical, and so on. These denote topical and intellectual reference of different sorts, different procedures and affective states of language, but their variety and mixture equally point to the important common characteristic of these poets, commitment to the discovery of meaning and form in language itself.

Phew! Got there at last. They’re ‘language poets’, then. But I wonder what, in this context, ‘language poets’ means. It seems to be defined lengthily, but not very precisely. For instance, Crozier says that ‘his’ writers set their writing towards a range of languages… He then gives a list of different registers (ordinary, scientific, traditional, etc) but not a range of languages. In fact, it’s doubtful that the word language – when not prefixed by an article and referring to a specific ‘language’ – can be used in the plural. It refers to a uniquely human cognitive capacity. Now I’m not denying that ‘language poets’ do exist. Three examples that come to mind are: French ‘language poets’, who have a whole philosophical tradition behind them; American ‘language poets’, e.g. Ron Silliman; or individual post-modern American poets/writers who foregrounded ‘language’ in some individual way, and who had more than a passing acquaintance with formal linguistics, e.g. William Burroughs (cut-ups), Gary Snyder (attempting to ‘bring over’ the psychological ‘set’ of Chinese ideograms into English), or Jack Spicer, who once marvellously remarked that where we are is in the middle of a sentence.

I’m afraid that the ‘unifying principle’ of the writers in A VARIOUS ART is not ‘language’ but DULLNESS. This isn’t true of all of them – after all, Roy Fisher, Iain Sinclair, John Riley and J.H.Prynne are in there. And DULLNESS itself isn’t necessarily negative – it could be a tactic to confound stereotypical reactions to ‘poetry’ that demand false emotion or sentimentality. After all, boredom in some contexts – under-stimulation – can focus us beyond our normal scattered consciousness. But to read Anthony Barnett, David Challoner, Crozier himself, John James, Tim Longville, Peter Philpott, Peter Riley… Mmm. It tends towards the monotony of a house style, a dull monologue they’re having in each other’s hearing.

I’m not meaning to sound totally reactionary here, in the style of, say, Professor John Sutherland, who had an amazing head-to-head with Iain Sinclair concerning J. H. Prynne on BBC Radio 4’s TODAY news programme. Yes, that’s right – there I was, on the morning of 27th February 2004, halfway through coffee and a piece of toast, listening to poetry on the news! And not just any old poetry – Iain Sinclair in role as defender-and-promoter of post-modernist British poetry, bless his Newgrange-spiral socks, and the Professor, refereed by Edward Sturton, discussing the importance or otherwise of Prynne. Sutherland felt that Prynne represents a dead end. He wants to take language apart and see how it works, rather like a watchmaker would. However, for most mortals – the common reader who must be concurred with – a watch is to tell the time by. Any minute now, I thought, the phrase navel-gazing is going to appear; Edward Sturton duly obliged. Sinclair’s point, however, was that the precision and therefore the utility of Prynne’s language was the main thing (rather than the foregrounding of language in itself): …above everything this is a poetry that means and does, and that’s what we need at the moment to put against public discourse, which seems to be slippery and slithery, and in the mouths of self-ventriloquists. Sinclair thought that we’d become lazy, and Prynne’s work was a necessary corrective to this. The issue of popularity was irrelevant; time would sort it, as it has with John Clare, Emily Dickinson, Blake and Hopkins. Sinclair repeated his viewpoint regarding Prynne in a more sympathetic environment, on Ian MacMillan’s Radio 3 programme THE VERB (2.7.’05).

Getting back to Crozier and Longville’s A VARIOUS ART, there is another concern, about Crozier’s use of the word generation, in the sentence This anthology represents our joint view of what is most interesting, valuable, and distinguished in the work of a generation of English poets… This seems, at best, confusing. A ‘reasonable and normal’ interpretation of the word generation in this context would include the multitude of poets who were young adults in the 1960’s, and were influenced by the very things that Crozier lists in his Introduction – American writing, music, painting, and the tradition that lay behind them, amongst other things. The writers that I’ve characterised as Our Lot. This is the issue of ‘who’s in and who’s out’, which Allen Fisher wrestles with in a long review of A VARIOUS ART in REALITY STUDIOS 10 (1988). There are at least 2 types of writer excluded from A VARIOUS ART. First, poets with a good claim to be of that generation, but who were never published by Ferry Press or Grosseteste Press (run by Crozier and Longville respectively), e.g. Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney, Allen Fisher himself, etc etc (Allen Fisher has his own list). Second, poets who were published by either of those presses or associated ones, but who have taken what can only be described as ideologically unsound subsequent directions, e.g. Chris Torrance, Jim Burns, etc etc. Weighed in the balance and found wanting.

At this stage, Douglas Oliver is included. In fact, 1987, the year of publication of A VARIOUS ART, also saw the publication of Oliver’s collection KIND by Allardyce, Barnett. KIND contains much of the major work of Oliver’s ‘language’ writing, including OPPO HECTIC (1969), IN THE CAVE OF SUICESSION (1974), THE DIAGRAM POEMS (1979), and THE INFANT AND THE PEARL (1985). The latter work is the beginning of Oliver’s second (or third, if you count the early ENCOUNTER and LONDON MAGAZINE work as the first) phase of writing, and we shall be coming back to it. The rest of the book is classic ‘School of Prynne/Crozier’ stuff.

Since Oliver is in many ways a very personal – i.e. autobiographical – writer, even in this early work, it is justifiable to recount how he became involved with the ‘Cambridge’ poets. The designation of these writers is difficult because, as Crozier himself says, they are ‘various’. Both Prynne, and Crozier I believe, are associated with Cambridge, as are some of the others. But geographically there have also been associations with Essex (university) and the Midlands. Generally speaking, these writers are educated, and more often than not have worked in education. In the 1960’s, of course, ‘higher’ or ‘further’ education was an exciting arena of effort, what with the student unrest, and the comparatively generous funding provided by the 1944 Education Act, and the need for a ‘meritocracy’. Education felt relevant, exciting, ‘cutting-edge’, in a way scarcely credible today.

Oliver, however, did not initially come to know this group of writers – let’s settle on the phrase ‘language poets’ – by the academic route, but by the more prosaic coincidence of physical proximity. In WHISPER ‘LOUISE’, he describes coming to Cambridge in the mid-1960’s to work for the Cambridge Evening News to handle agriculture and general news. As well as realising fully the class differences in British society, mixing with politicians, academics, establishment writers and grieving families, realising the harm that journalism does to dysfunctional families and that you are part of the harm, and having to live through the cot death of his beloved Downs Syndrome son Tom, age nearly two, Oliver also came across the ‘language poets’: Mostly I went out at night with the brilliant ‘New Cambridge’ poets, as they were later called, J. H. Prynne, John James, Wendy Mulford, Andrew Crozier, Anthony Barnett, and a far wider circle including Denise Riley, Peter Riley, John Riley (no relation), Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood…well it was a whole network with strong links to America and France. Prynne would give me free tutorials and the first ‘booklist’ I’d ever had. If there ever was a ‘New Cambridge’ style, I never wrote in it and don’t do so now; but I retain a personal loyalty to all those connected with that group.

   Publishing in their circles helped me to confirm my adolescent obsessions with prosody – that my ideas led towards truthfulness of spirit, because the consonance between poetic music and the passage of time through our minds is a true one. They understood these questions better than most mainstream or ‘experimental’ poets I’ve met, and only a few American writer friends – Ed Dorn, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, Alice Notley, some others- have matched this understanding. I have often been struck by the ignorance of well-known poets about how a poetic stress and syllabic or other sonic durations are related, but I suppose you don’t have to examine such questions to write well.

I don’t know about If ever there was a ‘New Cambridge’ style, I never wrote in it – I think the evidence of KIND and A VARIOUS ART would contradict that. But it’s an obvious irony that, of all the so-called Cambridge ‘language poets’, it is the relatively uneducated Douglas Oliver who seems to have bothered to acquaint himself with an in-depth knowledge of language, via linguistics. This is most overtly displayed in POETRY AND NARRATIVE IN PERFORMANCE, a prose work not published until 1989, although I suspect that its formal origins may lie back in Oliver’s student days at Essex University. It’s a technical and ambitious treatise on prosody and performance, using spectrometry, and couched in the language of linguistics and phonetics. It also reflects Oliver’s doubts about ‘reductionist’ science, given the insights of poets and others regarding the nature of the realities we all inhabit. In WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ Oliver looks back on his phonetic investigations: In my laboratory investigations of poetic music…I became convinced that the only way to explain how we have a mental concept of a ‘beat’ or a ‘stress’ in poetic music was to imagine that our minds could bend past and future time back on to an immediately past moment called the ‘beat’. The beat would be like an ‘instant’, except that an instant is empty. So we can’t hear anything exactly as the ‘beat’, which is a colourless moment defined by the sounds that extend on either side of it. So, more truly, the beat is like a quasi-instant already gone by, which is the moment we try to clap in a singalong, never quite accurately enough…Once again, I watch a heron’s mesmerising flight. Exactly when did the wing beat?…You could clap the flight rhythm like that audience happily clapping the beat of a song. Why is a singalong audience so confident that it means something to try to trap that ‘instant’ with a handclap? If there is no such thing as an ‘instant’, where does their confidence come from? That’s the sort of confidence scientists rarely address.

On the preceding page of WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ Oliver has been speculating about premonitions, which somehow chime in with his views on prosodic stress: My earlier remarks on death-bed premonitions may have seemed cranky to the reader. But I have gathered enough examples to believe that in consciousness…the future may affect the present, as if time bent backwards on to our present moments. This mixture of investigation and speculation typifies Oliver’s lively mind.

There is an element of premonition concerning Oliver’s THE INFANT AND THE PEARL, and, like much of Oliver’s writing, it is related to the death of his infant son Tom. THE INFANT AND THE PEARL (1985) was published in a small-press edition, and then republished in THREE VARIATIONS ON THE THEME OF HARM in Iain Sinclair’s excellent but short-lived Paladin Poetry series. THE INFANT AND THE PEARL is a poem – possibly the poem – about the 1980’s in Britain. Ed Dorn called it the long-awaited post-medieval retake on the dream of a better way. Its ‘back-story’ is of interest. In WHISPER ‘LOUISE’, Oliver recounts how, after the death of his Downs Syndrome son Tom in 1969, he moved to Paris; but around that time, he was also writing a novel, THE HARMLESS BUILDING (also reprinted in THREE VARIATIONS…), in which the then Education Secretary, one Margaret Thatcher, is mentioned. Tom’s death, says Oliver, made me obsessed with the career of the education secretary, Margaret Thatcher, whose extraordinary energies and politics in my view threatened intellectually disadvantaged people…I anticipated Thatcher’s potential – including her various merits – because Tom’s death had made my nerves raw towards anything that smacked of elitism and to me her politics has always done that, in a meritocratic way. ((WHISPER ‘LOUISE’, pp 55/56). Thus Tom’s death, as well as the issues of guilt and innocence, aroused prophetic abilities as well.

   THE INFANT AND THE PEARL is ‘based on’ the medieval poem PEARL, written in the late 14th century by a poet whose name has been lost. A contemporary of Chaucer, the ‘Pearl poet’ probably also wrote SIR GAWAIN. Oliver sticks fairly closely to the technical structure of the original: 12 line stanzas, rhyming or half-rhyming lines, and a use of alliteration and repeated words which in the original poem relate back to Anglo-Saxon verse techniques rather than forward into Europe with Chaucer. Both poems seem to have a strong authorial voice, lamenting the death of a child under two years of age. Both are cast in the form of dreams. In the medieval PEARL, the (female) child is symbolised by the pearl which slips into the grass and is lost, although there are also multiple references to pearls in the poem. In Oliver’s poem too, the use of the pearl as symbol is complex; the name ‘Margaret’ is of course from the Latin for pearl, Margarita, and ‘pearls’ have in popular usage been to some extent downgraded as jewellery to the typical ‘twin set and pearls’ of old-fashioned middle-class women. However, ‘pearl’ is an important idea for Oliver, and to some extent Pearl – for purity, innocence – also refers to Tom himself. This is confirmed in WHISPER ‘LOUISE’, where he says, In my poetry, ‘Pearl’ is the other name of my deer. The ‘deer’ symbolism is developed in WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ as a synonym for innocence.

   THE INFANT AND THE PEARL is in some ways a transitional poem for Oliver. In his obituary for Oliver, Andrew Crozier characterises his later work as having a more public stance, although lyric writing was never totally abandoned. What Oliver wanted in his later writing was a social space for poetry, which might be seen as quite opposite to the ambitions of many of the writers in A VARIOUS ART. After THE INFANT AND THE PEARL and its bleak view of 80’s Britain, the social space was sought elsewhere – New York, Paris, Africa.

The third component of THREE VARIATIONS… is a short autobiography, AN ISLAND THAT IS ALL THE WORLD, which must have been written shortly before the book’s publication in 1990. As well as recording his own life, in alternate poetry and prose, he talks about the deaths of four relatives. He also wants to ask an unfashionable question…: what does it mean to talk of spirituality in poetry when no religious belief lies behind the inquiry?

   AN ISLAND THAT IS ALL THE WORLD, in addition to its other ambitions, is in a way the groundplan for much of the autobiographical material in WHISPER ‘LOUISE’, the notes and questions that are expanded and folded into the later prose work.

In 1991 Oliver published a small edition of PENNILESS POLITICS, which is set in New York. In October of that year, he was visited by Patrick Wright, who wrote an intelligent article on the poet and his American environment (POET OF THE LOWER DEPTHS, GUARDIAN 24.10.91). Various difficulties and objections are aired by Wright, such as the multicultural (and expletive-laden) nature of the language of Oliver’s characters in PENNILESS POLITICS – the immigrant communities and the homeless and dispossessed – and the charge of ‘racism’ when a white person attempts to represent or ventriloquise black experience. Wright also discusses Oliver’s talent for premonitions, citing his foregrounding of Margaret Thatcher in the early 1970’s, and Oliver’s readings at public poetry slams at the Nuyorican Café, the audience often resisting the cultural authority it perceives in his plummy tone. Patrick Wright also captures Oliver at his most charming: (Oliver) retains a thoroughly romantic view of the poet’s role in the world. He sits in that tight and crumbling apartment, with his late father’s red-cuffed dressing-gown hanging up behind him like a friar’s cowl, and says “I think the poet has a duty to live fairly poorly.” This duty entails “not following a poetic career – because that seems to me to lie about the poetry. If you are trying to write poetry that has a genuine politics in it, then you really shouldn’t do what your poetry is saying other people shouldn’t do. So I’ve usually tried to wriggle through life, and keep the poetry, as far as I can, clear of entanglements”…It’s unusual, in an age of deconstruction, to hear someone claiming without a smirk that “poetry is a vocation”, but Oliver has no qualms, insisting there is no “priestcraft” or hocus pocus involved – only “a sacred calling to look for the truth”.

   PENNILESS POLITICS to some degree achieved a public space for poetry via Oliver’s reading of it in New York, and also following a review of the book by playwright Howard Brenton six months after Wright’s article (GUARDIAN, 7.4.1992). Andrew Crozier described Brenton’s article as an outburst; it certainly is way over the top, and rather embarrassingly reveals Brenton’s apparent ignorance of Oliver’s background in ‘alternative’ post-war British poetry – Brenton compares reading PENNILESS POLITICS to the shock of coming across THE WASTE LAND in 1922, something coming out of nowhere. He also throws in PARADISE LOST for good measure, and claims that PENNILESS POLITICS sets the literary agenda for the next 20 years. Brenton’s article is reprinted as a Foreword to the 1994 reprint of the poem by Bloodaxe Books. Brenton’s praise for the way Oliver turns the negativity of satire on its head…by describing his imaginary, alternative America with a blazing optimism is also odd. Although the poorest people in New York do manage to raise up an anarchist ‘party’ called Spirit, rewrite the Constitution and declare their neighbourhood independent, it is a very short-lived manifestation of freedom. The reason for its impossibility lies in its very opposition to ‘ordinariness’:


…Emen knew they could never get it for more than this

moment: too much at stake in ordinary lives: a child is

a future to pay for continently, a morality to hand on, and it seems

that an income measures hard work and sobriety. These are dreams

masquerading as real, the only real, and we vote for them, despite

their final cost to global peace – make no mistake, the extremes

of war and pollution stem from the most ordinary moralities:

decency, wanting to be prosperous, builds hell in heaven’s despite.


In other words, the ‘dreams of reality’ behind humble ambitions, ordinary moralities and decent self-interest will always defeat revolutionary change, however spiritually charged – because to vote for the planet rather than oneself is to vote for poverty. A deflating conclusion, even a pessimistic one, if I’ve read Oliver correctly. An impasse. Oliver himself wrote that for the uprising to succeed other than temporarily would be an opiate for the hypocrite reader. In WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ he writes, Anarchy would be that opiate: it drugged Louise Michel’s sensibilities and persuaded her that misty poetic dreams – such as the one in PENNILESS POLITICS – could lay the foundation for a just society…Hers is a stupid form of politics. But if we just scorn it, we scorn ourselves and our aspirations for a better world long in the future. Still, Brenton was right about one thing – the sex in the poem is terrific.

The back cover of the Bloodaxe reissue of PENNILESS POLITICS calls it a ‘re-take’ of THE DECAMERON. Interestingly, Oliver himself claims the ‘style’ of the poem is derived from another poet: I took Tasso’s ottava rima (closely-rhymed eight-lines), klutzed its smooth melodies to yield a squawking New York effect, and altered the rhyme-scheme to give a street rap tonality.

In 2000, just before Douglas Oliver died, Bloodaxe published A SALVO FOR AFRICA, which in my view is one of his best books. It is a ‘Paris book’ rather than a ‘New York’ book, since Oliver picks up on the Francophone Arab and African immigrants to the ‘old colonial’ city of Paris, rather than the ‘new colonial’ America. Paris, and French concerns, will remain central to his next two books, ARRONDISSEMENTS (2003) and WHISPER ‘LOUISE’. It is also outrageously ambitious, perhaps even more ambitious than PENNILESS POLITICS, for Oliver here gives us poetry and prose ranging over the entire continent of Africa, both geographically and historically. Imagination and prophecy are again to the fore. ‘Imagination’ because Oliver has never been to Africa; but, as he says, our greatest cruelties often arise from a failure to imagine. ‘Prophecy’ because when he started writing SALVO…, Africa was a ‘basket-case’ ignored by Thatcherite-Majorite Britain, Reagan-Bush America, and the G8 nations’ movement towards global free trade. Now at least there’s some renewed attention being paid to Africa by the ‘West’. What will come of it remains to be seen.

Given that Oliver has never been to Africa except in his imagination, SALVO is to some degree a ‘journalist’s book’ – i.e. relying on written sources, as well as some personal observation of Africans in Paris. Oliver claims to be no more than Everyman – European and American Everyman, anyway: I am planning to be the average Northern reader’s representative: what can we do, here in our homes, to improve our knowledge and freshen our imaginations? The book actually starts in Coventry, as a way of focussing on the effects of free market economics. Oliver describes a district called Hillfields (he once worked as a journalist in Coventry) where an old working-class area declined into a slum. It was rebuilt by planners with money to spend. They did all the right things, mixed housing, community centres etc. The result was that the problem families, the slum dwellers, couldn’t compete against the incoming middle-classes. The people who were supposed to be helped presumably just melted away, to other areas of cheap slum housing. Dispersal of whatever community survived in Hillfields. Problem unsolved. A British failure of imagination. And this, says Oliver, is what’s happening on an unimaginably larger scale, to Africa.

   SALVO, stylistically, is a return to ‘straightforward’ prose and poetry, rather similar to AN ISLAND THAT IS ALL THE WORLD, in contrast to the complex adaptations of historical models in THE INFANT AND THE PEARL and PENNILESS POLITICS. Oliver’s personal experiences – and Britain’s – woven into the fabric of SALVO, move the book forward, make it accessible, make it, above all, moving, because we realise the way that the world is one place, and that people are all involved with each other at a much deeper level than global free trade. African copper-wire conducting the telephone messages of the planet. Asbestos killing African miners and British workers. Idi Amin dreamt of in Essex. The weight of ancestry in Lesotho and Scotland.

In a note at the back of SALVO that must have been written very shortly before his death, Oliver puts it plainly: he says that the increasing attention being paid to Africa by the rich countries justifies an unusual poetry book attempted in the face of a post-Larkin, British poetic culture which sniffs at too much literary ambition. I have risked overreaching because poets should not fear trying to respond to the complexity of their real lives…As I have been implying all along, part of that complexity is that I am in debt to Africa – so are my fellow citizens in the three countries I have worked in, Britain, France and the U.S. Modestly as we may try to live, we have all got richer off the back of world poverty and are still doing so. It’s not just a question of compassion; we have been breaking the tacit contract the rich always owe to the poor. The debt mounts daily.

In WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ Oliver writes about SALVO in another way, tracing his ability to try to understand suffering in the Third World back to the death of his son Tom: No one reads poetry, but it was not futile to have written that book…To tell you why drags me right back into darkness, that moment sicklier with guilt and death when I found my Downs Syndrome son Tom, in his cot. I can hardly believe I’m going to crawl again into that unbearable cave. For a second or two the memory suddenly strips naked. I close it down, instantly. Instead, I see the deer…Why do I keep glimpsing it? Is this not the worst, cloying, sensational sentimentalism? Only there, in the key experiences, births, partnerships, deaths, do you really know what fundamental value you ascribe to life…I try not to depart from the very point of Tom’s death because it’s a trauma, a nightmare in the eidetic realm. If I then swing around from that almost unbearable viewpoint to regard the world, I have more truthful feelings about the women and child slaves in Sudan, about the fundamentalist Islamic response to Western economic imperialism, about the hard-line Muslim attitudes towards women, and about our Northern culture of consumer economics and violence…Swinging around like that doesn’t solve any political problems for me. The point of death is naïve, not astute; but that’s its great value. It cuts below the sophistries of my politics and journalism into deeper ground where no one knows what to do to stop human beings spoiling everything. Because we are the one life that we are also having.

As the Preface to ARRONDISSEMENTS makes clear, SALVO was intended to be part of a larger project inspired by the various districts of Paris, which also includes the 3 sections gathered together in ARRONDISSEMENTS, and WHISPER ‘LOUISE’. As a large-scale view of a modern city, including history and out-takes to other connected places, the ARRONDISSEMENTS project rivals Iain Sinclair’s London writings, if not quite in bulk, then certainly in scope and ambition.

In WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ Oliver to some extent modifies and deepens his autobiography by placing it in proximity to the biography of Louise Michel, anarchist revolutionary. For example, we gain in our knowledge of Douglas Oliver by reading what he likes and dislikes about Louise Michel. Oliver says of her: …for me, her greatness lies in the warm example of her life, the immense tenderness in personal contact, and her intimate social policies concerning feminism, education, and so on…It lies in her willingness to suffer prison for her causes…It lies above all in her love for her mother – despairing, inadequate because distracted constantly by all her activities and imprisonments, which her mother disapproved of – in her love for close friends such as Marie Ferré… Louise Michel was an incredibly generous person, who would always share her last food or clothing with those in need, unlike most of the male revolutionaries she was associated with. She was an enthusiast. The aspects of Louise that Oliver doesn’t like are her ‘illusions’ about her political beliefs, her involvement with violence, and the dullness and predictability of most of her writings.

In a similar spirit, I am going to conclude this essay by ‘pairing’ Douglas Oliver with another English writer, Barry MacSweeney, in the hope that our understanding of both will deepen by their proximity.

The idea of pairing Oliver and MacSweeney is not new. Writing of Oliver in POETRY REVIEW John Wilkinson said, Responsive then to the oral, semi-improvised poetics of contemporary New York, sure to gladden Shelley’s heart in Bournemouth, reminiscent of Oliver’s contemporary Barry MacSweeney, this writing knows no shame in its pursuit of the good. Actually, Oliver and MacSweeney were not contemporaries, except in death, which is an unusual use of the word contemporary. Oliver was born in 1937, MacSweeney in 1948. They both died in the Spring of 2000.

In MacSweeney’s case, the immediate cause of death was what Andrew Crozier in his obituary of MacSweeney (GUARDIAN, 18.5.2000) called the journalist’s industrial disease, alcohol dependency. It may be just coincidence that journalism figured prominently in both their lives. Oliver did a stint on local papers in Cambridge and Coventry, and at Agence-France Presse, before going to the University of Essex. In later life he seems to have worked as a lecturer. MacSweeney joined the Newcastle Evening Chronicle after leaving school, where Basil Bunting was working, doing the Tide Tables and the Financial Pages. He later worked for the Kentish Times, and then became Deputy Editor of the South Shields Gazette. Apart from the industrial disease, I can find no evidence that journalism harmed either poet’s writing. Oliver complained, in WHISPER ‘LOUISE’, of the harm provincial journalism can do, poking into real pain and tragedy for profit. But that’s a different thing to saying it affected his creative output. A case could probably be made for newspaper work providing inside knowledge and political direction, as well as helping their writing to be accessible and ‘objective’. This belies the opinion of Gary Snyder (printed as a DREADFUL WARNING at the beginning of Iain Sinclair’s KODAK MANTRA DIARIES (1971): It’s a bad bag, reporting, Snyder mused. Somehow I don’t think it’s possible to be in that bag and get anywhere, spiritually speaking.

The most obvious connection between Oliver and MacSweeney is encoded into the word PEARL. As we’ve already seen, the medieval poem PEARL was a starting point for Oliver’s THE INFANT AND THE PEARL. ‘The pearl’ in that poem is a complex symbol referring both to the infant – Oliver’s son Tomand to Margaret Thatcher and the effect of her policies on Britain. In later writing, Oliver seemed to identify ‘the pearl’ more with his son. Barry MacSweeney wrote a sequence of poems called PEARL (1995/97), and some later work, just prior to his death, which relates to the earlier sequence. MacSweeney also knew the medieval poem, and quotes it in an epigraph to Mony Ryal Ray: For urthely herte myght not suffyse. But MacSweeney’s sequence does not lament a dead son or daughter, but rather his childhood love for a girl called Pearl, identified in his mind with the Pennine landscape west of Newcastle. Oliver took ‘technique’ from the medieval poem – stanza configuration, word repetition, alliteration. MacSweeney took a kind of ‘northernness’ from the PEARL poet, conflating it with the mock-medievalism of Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley and something from the Basil Bunting of BRIGGFLATTS, as well as urban street-talk, to produce a vigorous, ‘Anglo-Saxon’, riposte to effete southerners from Chaucer onwards. The original PEARL poet was from the West Midlands, but he did seem to have stood for ‘traditional’ poetic techniques and values that were probably current everywhere except London in the medieval period.

Having mentioned Bunting, there is a similar myth behind his autobiographical poem BRIGGFLATTS (1965). From the age of nearly 13,when Bunting was a boarder at a Quaker public school, he stayed many times during holidays with a schoolfriend called Greenbank, whose father was a stonemason in the village of Briggflatts, near Sedbergh in Yorkshire. There, as described in the poem, Bunting was attracted to his friend’s sister Peggy, who was 8 when they first met. Over 50 years later, when BRIGGFLATTS was about to be published, Bunting tracked down Peggy, now Peggy Edwards, married and living in rural Shropshire, to ask her permission to use her name for the dedication of the poem. They apparently became close again for some years, but ultimately Peggy decided to stay with her husband.

I used the word ‘myth’ because all 4 poems seem to be linked by a common narrative thread, as follows: the writer is very close to a younger person (daughter, son, friend/love). That person dies, or goes out of the writer’s life, leaving strong feelings of pain, guilt, grieving. The person’s name is connected with ‘pearl’, or the person is associated with ‘pearl’. The person is perceived as innocence, and as being the writer’s innocence. In later life, the person is re-met, or we hear what happened to them, or in the case of the dead they are older than their death-age, appearing in dreams. They are to some degree an instrument of redemption or influence on the writer’s subsequent life: a journey into love in a pure, original form. Exiting through the wound, as Robert Bly said of César Vallejo’s poetry in IRON JOHN.

The Pearls of Oliver and MacSweeney share a characteristic, which is difficult to name these days. Can we say a developmental impairment? I am interested in these two writers partly because of their contributions to ‘the literature of illness’ – a horrible term, but one which attempts to describe a growing and under-defined body of creative work influenced by ‘illness’, and/or developmental problems, and their results in terms of human existence (self and others) and communication. Some examples might range at one end of the scale from ‘therapeutic writing’, healing, etc to writing such as THE BOOK OF JOB or Oliver Sacks at the other. Just to take some random samples off the shelf: Michael Ignatieff’s SCAR TISSUE, about his mother’s dementia; George MacBeth’s THE PATIENT, concerning Motor Neurone Disease; Wim Wenders on making a film with the dysphasic Antonioni; Ian McEwan’s novel SATURDAY, in which the moods and behaviour of one of the main characters are determined by Huntington’s Chorea. In the interests of manageability, it’s probably better to exclude ‘mental illness’ – or at least, the affective disorders – from our category, because virtually every writer in history would have to be included!

Obviously, illness and impairment are difficult and emotionally fraught issues. But both Oliver and MacSweeney have foregrounded their ‘pearls’ to such a degree that discussion of them is justified and probably inevitable.

Oliver’s son Tom died as the result of a ‘cot accident’ before he was two years old. He had been diagnosed as having Down’s Syndrome, which of course is not an illness but a developmental condition which affects people in varying degrees. Oliver does not describe his son in today’s more ‘politically correct’ terminology. His death was, after all, in 1969. He says, The premonitions and guilts that flew around the event were winged by his mental handicap and have never left me…he had ‘the true blessedness allowed only to the really low in IQ’…Well, Tom’s long in his coffin, inside his altar,/in some cathedral I’ve made for him (WHISPER ‘LOUISE’). Oliver’s struggle – and his eventual insight – is with the tendency to idealise his son Tom rather than fully confronting his being. The process of making Tom a ‘fetish’ was probably aided by Tom’s youth, and by the unresolved mix of love and guilt. In the final chapter of WHISPER ‘LOUISE’ Oliver says, I have made him (Tom) almost into a story expressing my sense of angelic harmlessness. But Tom, his real life and infant death, trump me at every point…In an earlier chapter, I warned against the danger of the fetish. Fetish arises…when an image of a real or fictional object deepens into or near that level I have called eidetic as do our most intense dream images. If we work into the image some exercise of spiritual power…then we have created a fetish. ..So I mustn’t try to possess Tom like that, so as to appear angelic myself, or seek to hold him in my mind as much of my poetry holds him there. For the risk is the gain in literary power, that he may become a fetish, a wriggly wrong thing, a cult object, a deer transformed into a witchcraft doll expressive of my own evil instead of released into his own freedom. Freed back into his own short life he resumes his true role as the ungraspable element that, without any merit of my own but rather the contrary, fills my politics with the wish for compassion. (WHISPER ‘LOUISE’). This is Oliver’s contribution to ‘the literature of illness’.

Prior to Barry MacSweeney’s sequence PEARL (1995/97), he had been through a period of writing disinhibited, embittered, satirical poems, and elegies of loss, such as JURY VET, RANTER, and FINNBAR’S LAMENT, characterised by sexist and perverse excess. Burroughs and Michael McClure are obvious influences, but to me the mood seems more akin to John Clare’s ‘madhouse’ epic, DON JUAN. With PEARL, and the later related poems, the mood and intent change radically, as MacSweeney explores a childhood relationship. I think, in the context of writing about ‘illness’, it is legitimate to ask the question, what is wrong with Pearl? There is some confusion here, although this is not to say that the confusion is implicit in MacSweeney’s writing. It is rather that we see multiple viewpoints, and hear multiple voices, in the unfolding of Pearl’s portrait, and there can never be one final ‘viewpoint’ of her. She also ‘becomes’ other realities, including the Pennine landscape itself, and a mental and emotional absolute for the later MacSweeney, struggling with his anger and alcoholism – an ‘other’ outside the destructive forces.

The most consistent description of Pearl is that she has a cleft palate. Her age when she first knew MacSweeney, or how they met, is not very clear. At one point, the date ‘1958’ is mentioned, which would put MacSweeney’s age at about ten. They seem to have led a close existence for some time, with the wild and wet country as the stage for their relationship. Pearl’s cleft palate is described on numerous occasions: I have a roof over my head, but none in my mouth (WOLF TONGUE, p. 198); The congenital fissure in the roof of her mouth (p. 202); Where will I find a workshop…to replace the canyon in my mouth (p. 204). Pearl also appears to have difficulty with drooling: I in worry eat my fist, soak my sandwich in saliva (p. 198); Pearl…sticks out her tongue and all you get is a splash on the path (p. 208); Open my mouth and water fountains down. I am responsible for the pool on the path (p. 209); Spout, pout, spout. Put my spittle all about (p. 214). Her speech is characterised on a number of occasions as a-a-a-a-a (e.g. p. 200). It is also stated that my tongue won’t move, I am just a strange beak (p. 209), but this is contradicted in the many references to the mobility of Pearl’s tongue, particularly where water is concerned: last seen by me tongue far out as it would go just acting like a gutter or gargoyle (p. 203). She seems to be able to articulate her feelings to some degree with facial expression and other non-verbal means: should have seen my eyebrows move round, my hands and arms go crazy (p. 211).

Regarding Pearl’s speech, and her condition, the evidence above is to some extent contradictory. The cleft palate appears certain. Did she also have some degree of cleft lip? She can phonate, which one would expect from someone with a cleft palate, but if we accept the a-a-a-a-a transcription of her ‘speech’, it seems she couldn’t even vary her vowel production, which seems at odds with the description of her condition. Normally, the main indicator in speech of a cleft palate is excessive nasality, and consequent low volume and loss of clarity. There is also the issue of whether any ‘repair’ of the cleft had taken place – it would be highly unusual these days for anyone with a cleft palate not to receive lengthy treatment, from birth to late teens. I suppose it is conceivable that someone may not have been treated in the 1950’s in the rural North of England.

Much is made of Pearl’s poor literacy skills; the implication in the poem is that MacSweeney undertook to teach her to read and write, with some degree of success. At one stage, she comes across names I could not read (p. 202). However, she becomes able to read my exercise books filled with stories by Bar (p.198); she also starts to use a little Woolworth blackboard (p. 211), and goes on to write syntactically correct sentences and start to use a typewriter (p. 216). Is Pearl’s poor literacy linked to her condition, i.e. is she dyslexic as some consequence of her developmental impairment? There is some suggestion that she may have started school but not continued: The old school where you were humiliated and betrayed (p. 320); the single word ‘idiot’ chalked on the yard wall (p. 197). Her family are poor, and dysfunctional, with an absent father, and her mother left to cope, with little money, and unable to afford anything more than a very poor diet. The local community seems to have produced in Pearl feelings of inadequacy: I wince when people speak to mam, giving me their sideways look (p. 205); Why am I ashamed of my permanent silence? (p. 214). I think on balance Pearl’s initial inability to read and write was more to do with social and psychological factors than her medical condition.

What MacSweeney does as the sequence progresses is to take us further into Pearl’s state of mind, which develops from ‘feral child’ (but also lacking in any feelings of self-worth, particularly socially) to an angry and frustrated but very determined person, discovering that her feelings are the same feelings as other people’s. So much sighing at her own distress (p. 208); In my brain is a terrible country (p. 212); My eyes go furious and I stamp, stamp, stamp (p. 205). The latter quote recalls the image of Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s film THE PIANO; MacSweeney dedicates one of the PEARL poems to the actress (Those Sandmartin Tails, p. 210). This may be effective to summon up Pearl’s angry mood, but the woman played by Hunter in THE PIANO is completely different to Pearl: she is mute, i.e. aphonic, and has been since the age of six. Mutism in childhood usually has a psychological basis if the child has been communicating normally up to that point. There is no suggestion that Hunter’s character is language impaired; her writing ability is excellent.

In the sequence PEARL IN THE SILVER MORNING (1999) which concludes MacSweeney’s book WOLF TONGUE, there is a measure of distance between the poet and Pearl. There is some scornful regret that the wild terrain of their youth has become ‘gentrified’. We also find out – with some relief! – that Pearl has 2 daughters and a strong husband who works from dawn till end of day (p. 323), and is living in Haltwhistle. In the poem Pearl In The Silver Morning Pearl is identified with the moon, and is reported as saying words of advice about distinguishing anger and passion, a force of love forever outside the poet’s self-destructive feelings. The balance has shifted from ‘Barry the teacher’ to Pearl ‘the teacher’, an extreme ‘Educating Rita’ situation where the student is the one in possession of the ongoing life-force, and has achieved a richer life, while the ‘teacher’ falls apart. Pearl finally becomes a separate constituent of MacSweeney’s fragmenting self – his own innocence in the natural world, but OUTSIDE himself.

MacSweeney’s contribution to ‘the literature of illness’, then, is different from Oliver’s. He takes us into the very being of another, and shows us (as she can’t) her struggles and feelings and beauty. Oliver’s son Tom had not developed enough before his death to allow Oliver to do that. However, both Oliver and MacSweeney do let Tom and Pearl radically influence their ways of being in the world, prior to their own deaths, manifesting at least the possibility of redemption and growth through love.


*                     *                   *                   *


     Re-reading this essay ten years after writing it, the ending strikes me as failing to summarise the full scope and development of Douglas Oliver’s writing. Andrew Crozier, in his obituary of Oliver, was right to highlight Douglas Oliver’s progress towards ‘a more public stance’, seeking ‘a social space for poetry’. This, inevitably, leads to a question about what ‘a public stance’ might mean now. In some ways, it’s the question itself that Oliver is foregrounding in his later writing. Although writing about populist political situations, his poetry is not going to be circulated in massive print-runs like a Mayakovsky – and indeed print itself seems sidelined by other media at the moment. Oliver himself says, ‘No-one reads poetry’. This view didn’t stop him writing it; and Sinclair argues (cited above) that many great poets haven’t been read much, if at all, by their contemporaries. The question remains: if the poet is writing in representation of some group, some ideal, some culture or subculture or political stance beyond his own personal concerns, what is that group or ideal or cultural stance in the early 21st century? ‘Nationalism’ or ‘Imperialism’ seem discredited ideas, although they’ve had their poets in the past. Likewise political ideologies. Post-modernism, and technological change, have questioned the ability of anyone to speak for all, certainly in some kind of ‘civil poet’ role. However, despite all that doubt and questioning, certain poets do try to see beyond the official rhetoric, materialism and confident triumphalism, to see the world in a way that the powerful cannot. In Douglas Oliver’s case this seeing was arrived at via a personal suffering. His feelings therefore connect in an emotionally grounded way with the larger feelings of frustration, injustice and exploitation that seem so dominant today.





Anon., trans. J. R. R. Tolkien, PEARL. HarperCollins, London, 1995.

Robert Bly, IRON JOHN. Element, Shaftesbury, Dorset, 1991.

Howard Brenton, review of PENNILESS POLITICS. The Guardian, London, 7.4.1992.

Basil Bunting, COLLECTED POEMS. Fulcrum, London, 1968.

Andrew Crozier,  Obituary of Douglas Oliver. The Guardian, London, 6.5.2000.

Obituary of Barry MacSweeney. The Guardian, London, 18.5.2000.

and Tim Longville (Eds.), A VARIOUS ART. Carcanet, Manchester, 1987.

Allen Fisher, Towards Civic Production, in REALITY STUDIOS 10, Ed. Ken Edwards. London, 1988.

Michael Ignatieff, SCAR TISSUE. Vintage, London, 1994.

George MacBeth, THE PATIENT. Hutchinson, London, 1992.

Barry MacSweeney, WOLF TONGUE, Selected Poems 1965-2000. Bloodaxe, Tarset, Northumberland, 2003.

Ian McEwan, SATURDAY. Vintage, London, 2006.

Douglas Oliver, KIND. Allardyce, Barnett, London, 1987.

                             POETRY AND NARRATIVE IN PERFORMANCE. MacMillan, London, 1989.

                             THREE VARIATIONS ON THE THEME OF HARM. Paladin, London, 1990.

                             PENNILESS POLITICS, Revised Edition. Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 1994

                             A SALVO FOR AFRICA. Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2000.

                             ARRONDISSEMENTS. Salt, Cambridge, 2003.

                             WHISPER ‘LOUISE’. Reality Street, Hastings, 2005.

Denise Riley (Ed.), POETS ON WRITING. MacMillan, London, 1992.

Iain Sinclair, KODAK MANTRA DIARIES. Albion Village, London, 1971.

and John Sutherland on J. H. Prynne. Today, BBC Radio 4, 27.2.2004.

and Ian McMillan on J. H. Prynne. The Verb, BBC Radio 3, 2.7.2005.

Wim Wenders, MY TIME WITH ANTONIONI. Faber and Faber, London, 2000.

Patrick Wright, POET OF THE LOWER DEPTHS. The Guardian, London, 24.10.1991.

PHIL MAILLARD: Born 1948, South London. By ‘accident’, he got to know Chris Torrance, the late Bill Wyatt etc  – ‘the Carshalton Chapter of the Dharma Bums’, as Iain Sinclair has it –  circa 1968. Published first chapbooks of poetry with small presses in the 1970’s – one by Allen Fisher, one by John Freeman, three by Pete Hodgkiss. Trained and worked as a carpenter, first in London, then Canada. 1976, moved to South Wales. 1986, paperback of short fiction, ‘Plot 20’, published. He got involved in running creative writing classes, for the Welsh Academy and the University of Wales, and then became interested in ‘caring’ as a job. He worked with people with learning disabilities, then trained as a Speech and Language Therapist. He worked for the NHS for 20 years, retiring in 2008 as a Senior Specialist in strokes and progressive neurological problems. From the mid-80’s, he was a student of Zen teacher the late Ven. Myokyo-ni, and still considers ‘religion’ (whatever that is) more interesting than most stuff. In 2008, he published ‘Sweet Dust and Growling Lambs’ (Shearsman), three poetry books in one volume. Appearing in many magazines and anthologies over the years, he has written fiction, non-fiction and poetry, often about South Wales, particularly Cardiff, and Spain. 2015, joined with two other poets working in Wales, Chris Torrance and Graham Hartill, for ‘Slipping the Leash’ (Aquifer), a thank you to Wales for inspiration over many years. Currently working on a long essay about the sinologist Arthur Waley, and gathering together a collection of mixed poetry and prose which hasn’t appeared in book form before. Phil Maillard lives near Cardiff, spends three months of the year in Andalusia, and is married to nature photographer Val Maillard.





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