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Lining Up On The Precipice
- The Shape And Role Of Poetry In Brian Aldiss' Barefoot In The Head
by Steve Sneyd

Brian Aldiss is both science fiction novelist, ever willing to experiment with new directions, and published poet. In his 1969 novel of a psychedelic-saturated near future world, Barefoot In The Head - A European Fantasia, he both explores an extraordinary mindscape in stylistically innovative ways, certainly for the genre, and turns intensively to poetry for the content of his characters' extraordinary journey. Indeed, the poetry makes up so much of the book as to demand the reader takes into account its right - even duty - to be there, acting, in John Clute's term, as a "foregrounding device." In examining the way in which the poetry functions in Barefoot In The Head (hereafter abbreviated to BITH), aspects of particular interest include Aldiss' own view that his use of poetry draws on Cubist ideas of multiple perspective, the echoing of the approaches of rock music lyrics of the period, and the influence of Dr Christopher Evans' work on the subconscious, particularly the concept of the "auditory stabilised image."

First, a brief look back at what BITH is 'about' seems sensible. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex series of events, the basic scenario is that the setting is a (then) near-future Europe, which has been the theatre of a war in which one of the main weapons used by both sides has been the large-scale release of psychedelic drugs into the environment. Populations across the Continent remain, in the aftermath, continually exposed to the resulting drug cocktail almost universally present, although in concentrations differing from place to place, in air, water, etc. Individuals differ in their responses (and indeed the responses of any one individual differ from time to time, depending on a variety of factors, as is to be expected from drug usage, even when as in this case externally imposed). Collectively, however, European societies are in effect continuously either on a trip or flashbacking to one, whole populations become both habituated and dependent.

In this situation, a young Yugoslav - a nationality ironic in the light of more recent events - who calls himself Colin Charteris, visits England and comes to be seen as a miracle worker and potential saviour. Against his will he finds himself leading a crusade - almost a Children's Crusade, so naive and inchoate are it and its aims - across Europe in search of some never clearly grasped grail of salvation, peace and hope, lurchingly but irresistibly overcoming internal disorganisation and official and other outside obstruction on the way.

At one level the novel takes to extremes - and in a sense affectionately mocks - the wilder dreams and hopes of 1960s' LSD users; here is the 'tune in turn on drop out' vision become - albeit not by their choice - the universal experience of Europe's populations.

BITH's scenario also reflects the way in which foresight-less short-term actions, in this case for military purposes, have unanticipated long-term society-reshaping effects. In this case, the effectively permanent aftermath of actions to disable an enemy in conflict have created a 'hallucinatory heaven' or hell, which parallels in the real history of our century the by now proven, and even then suspected, way that LSD entered into the populations, initially, via CIA and other US governmental mind control experiments. The lasting effect of this brain pollution by conflict also echoes the environmental post-effects of conflicts then and since - the pollution of much of Vietnam by Agent Orange in the war there, actively raging when Aldiss' book appeared, or the abiding pollutant effect of new-tech warfare in the Gulf and now Yugoslavia; indicating that Aldiss' 'fantasia' operates in a context far wider than that merely of 'swinging London' and its drug culture...

At the same time it explores directly and indirectly the natures of illusion, delusion, faith and the effects of individual charisma, the giving and taking of Messiah-ship and the clearly related phenomenon of the relation between rock group and fan, and the contexting question of the making and maintaining of personal identity - whether through human interrelation on equal or unequal bases, through drug reshaping of perception, or through the almost tribal experience of collective travel to wards a willed but delusory goal.

It also offers implied commentary on the Cold War situation of Europe, the development towards ideas among the young also of a shared post-nation state Continent - the term 'European' in the subtitle gives a clear indication not just of geographical scope, but of the way Aldiss sees the phenomena of induced change as inevitably working at the level of continents, not nation states - ideas of which the EU became, in a sense, the, bureaucratic vessel - and, at a bedrock level, an investigation into the effects of the distortion to break point of overarching social structures and the resultant crumbling of the lesser structures of everyday existence, of habit, routine, and social normality, sheltering within them. Aldiss' own viewpoint clearly has its ambiguities as to the benefits and disbenefits of Europe's hallucinogenic drug-saturated state. The book offers, if not an unmixedly Utopian vision of rebirth, of liberation from old mental straitjackets and shibboleths. At the same time, nor does it present a particularly dark, dystopian, Lord Of The Flies-ish vision.

Yes, there are casualties of the chaos, but the horrific is never foregrounded in what is, in many ways, a curiously gentle portrait of social disorder and cultural and structural semi-breakdown, a transformation alike of 'real' - ie: exterior and interior - and mental landscapes, which, if by no means presented as wholly benevolent in its results, is certainly not painted as anything resembling a nightmare of devastation by the author.

However, it is interesting that Aldiss himself draws a dark conclusion from the book, one that is near-Puritan in its echoes; in his 1970 nonfiction book The Shape Of Further Things - Speculation On Change, Aldiss commented, in the context of discussing how unstoppable technical transformation can be made more human-friendly, that "the answer is to find a new question" (ie: implicitly, around to which to build a new social context for the species). He goes on to say "The decade of the 1960s has provided a superficially attractive one: 'Does it feel good?'" He then summarises his own view that this was "the question I attempted to answer in my novel Barefoot In The Head, saying "To paraphrase, the answer would seem to be 'No, because if everyone is preoccupied with trying to make themselves feel good, everyone feels bad'," which implies a dystopian view of the work, albeit turning aside from the questions raised by the militarily-imposed causation of the particular drugged environment he uses as setting.

Before looking more closely at the poems. and how and why it appears that they do what they do, their function within the book, it is necessary first to look at Aldiss' overall narrative strategy.

Style and structure are clearly designed in themselves to mimic drug experience, the way in which attempts to function and interrelate are subverted by the increasing dominance of individual realms of hallucination.

The sheer quantity of the poem element within the book, very nearly a quarter of its overall 236 pages, or looking at it another way, at 60 pages of poetry the length of a fairly substantial poetry collection. Nor is that the whole of the 'poetry presence' within BITH - much of the ostensible prose is more accurately described as that creature much easier to recognise than to define, prose-poetry.

The poems themselves punctuate the prose at regular intervals, grouped in sections ranging from three up to 16 pages, making them effectively impossible to ignore, and raising demandingly the question what they actually do, in other words what their function is relative to BITH as a whole.

So is that substantial tranche of poetry functioning as just one more way to disjoint the narrative and the reader's expectations of linear form and content (although, given the place and time of the first appearance of these texts, that expectation will have been far less rigid than if it had appeared in a previous science fiction text. It's worth recalling, after all, that, before appearing rewritten as a 'fix-up', to use the jargon, into novel form the BITH material had first appeared as instalments, or more precisely self-contained stories sharing a setting, of the 'Acid Head Wars,' the first section 'Just Passing Through', in Impulse (February 1967), the remainder over a two-year period in New Worlds. It's worth remembering how, under Michael Moorcock's editorship of the latter, the readership had become attuned to the way New Wave meant experiments with narrative form as much as it did a fascination with the 'inner space' of the mind and those inescapable divergences between interior worldview and outer 'consensus reality' which Philip K. Dick had opened up for exploration from the 1950s with the concepts of 'idios' and 'koinos' cosmos and which became a central concern for a whole school of New Worlds writers, and one which closely interfaces with exploring the hallucinogenic experience with its ostensible revelations of a different relationship with a changed reality.

As poetry itself is very much a different way of ordering sensory input, and the response at different levels of consciousness to it, from that of prose - more compressive, less bound by logical linkage and linearity, and so on, there is clearly a sense in which the poem offers a natural responsive and communicative tool for exploring these questions and reporting such disconnective experiences.

Nevertheless, that aspect in itself is clearly superficial in that it does not begin to explain how prose and poetry interact within this particular SF novel. It is perhaps useful here to briefly draw on the categories proposed by American science fiction poet and critic Robert Frazier in his seminal 1977 article 'Poetry In The Major SF Novel' (in Speculative Poetry Review #2). Although the inclusion of poetry within prose fiction is by no means limited to the science fiction genre, but it relatively particularly prevalent there, and in analysing this Frazier suggested such usage as divisible into four types. In his view, these are 'Supplement', the poems in effect functioning as little more than epigraphs. 'Attachments' - whereby they flavour the book, acting as, in his words, "a special condiment." 'Supplement' - to be seen as an essential part of the book although less directly a means of progressing its narrative than the prose, and 'Content' - where it is an essential part of the work...

In the particular case of BITH, which his article discusses briefly, he describes the poem as belonging to the category of Supplement, he sees them as "binding for understanding... characters... insights into the degree of elemental change in the future not provided by the plotted prose," although in practice, certainly in the case of prose-poem elements within the BITH narrative, it would seem that by Frazier's own definition his fourth category, Content, would be the more applicable description.

There is, admittedly, arguably an extent to which the actually poems are pictive, rather than overtly directly functional within the story. But even on that view of them, that they are in effect verbal illustrations, their role would be a significant one. For, just as in an earlier story of the exposure of 'holy innocence' to a world in which normal patterns of causation do not prevail, the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, that classic readily interpreted during the 1960s and 1970s in drug related terms, the illustrations by Tenniel act as gateways into the hallucinatory world the words describe, as intense summaries, points of focus and ostensible clarity, even gestalt nodes; so the poems in BITH can be seen as serving a parallel role in guiding the reader. In their very different medium, they act, as does Tenniel, to add depth and perspective rather than providing a 'dot for dot' transcription of prose content.

It is of relevance that the poem content emerged at the 'fix-up' stage. Although the acknowledgements in BITH say of the New Worlds appearances that there the material was "shorn of some of its pop songs and poems," Aldiss himself (in a letter of 3rd March 1994, to me, replying to questions about the poetry in BITH) says specifically "You must realise that the stories themselves were rewritten for the novel. It needed to be a whole novel, not just congeries of short stories. I was so immersed that the poems emerged naturally in the process." Aldiss, in the same letter, clarified the way in which he saw the role of the poems in a way that makes reference to the visual arts, albeit work very different on the surface from that of Tenniel for Alice. "Cubism," says Aldiss, "was an inclination," explaining "These poems try to give a double perspective on the story. Or they let some of the lesser characters have a look in. So they do in a way alter or enlarge a reader's view of events."

A key insight of Cubism was to provide a means of offering multiple viewpoints simultaneously, multiplying the field of vision, so that, given Aldiss' objective as stated in the extensive use of poetry within BITH, this comparison is an enlightening one which can also be regarded as relating to the fact that among the book's acknowledgements is that to "the shade of P.D. Ouspenski (1878-1947)" - Ouspenski was a thinker fascinated by the fourth dimension and non-Euclidean geometries, which underlie theoretical justifications for the altered, multiple viewpoints of Cubism and the experiments of Russian Futurism with attempting to depict in three dimensions those portions of objects having four and more dimensions detectable in a three dimensional world, a process having difficulties arguably parallel with those facing Aldiss in attempting to depict in words the beyond-words visionings, ecstacies and sensation processes of a hallucinogenised state.

Alongside the Ouspenski acknowledgement goes one to the Procul Harum of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, a song whose hallucinatorily detached lyrics implies narration while avoiding narrative, and open themselves to multiplicity of interpretation while evading exact explication. It is one which can stand as an example not only of so much of the rock lyric writing of the psychedelic period but of much of the poem content of BITH also.

In this context, it is worth noting that one of the main categories into which the poems of BITH can be grouped is that of song lyrics, some ascribed to rock groups which associate themselves with Charteris' Crusade in the novel, others, although not so ascribed, functionally recognisable as such.

The point does need to be made as to the difficulty of defining boundary conditions - when is a song lyric also viable as a purely as a poem, for performance or page, particularly in a time like the 1960s and 1970s when rock lyric and poetry had clear convergences, to take the obvious example Bob Dylan's work, or in the area of space/ science fictional rock, and specifically Hawkwind, the work of Michael Moorcock himself, and particularly Robert Calvert.

Another numerous group of the BITH poems, alongside those which explore 'in clear' experiences or ideas also present, albeit differently treated or concluded in various ways, are those which, in whole or in part, involve serious puns and word distortions, homophone or near homophone replacements and the like. Although having an air of Joycean wordplay, they seem more directly related to Aldiss' considerable interest in, and experiments elsewhere with, the concept of Auditory Stabilisation.

In essence, this technique is based on a phenomenon, the Warren-Gregory effect, further studied by Dr Christopher Evans the National Physical Laboratory, as part of research into the working of the brain, which involved repeating words on a continuous loop to subjects until one of two phenomena occurred, fragmentation - whereby part of a word was lost, or distortion - whereby a new word appeared to have intruded itself onto the tape sequence, closely or distantly related to the original. This phenomenon, which can be seen as putting a scientific gloss on the critical concept of 'creative mishearing', is discussed by Aldiss in The Shape Of Further Things - Speculation On Change, already mentioned. There he includes as Appendix III a 1967 paper by Dr Evans and others 'Auditory Stabilised Images; Fragmentation And Distortion Of Words With Repeated Presentation', and, as Appendix IV 'Destabilised' ie: clear English versions of two poems of Aldiss' own he had earlier in the book (pps 82/83) given in the distorted, pun-rich form to which the 'auditory stabilising' process had led.

These have such clear similarities with many BITH poems as to make it apparent that the same methodology has been at work, leading to the speculation that Aldiss used the technique as a way of mimicking within his writing of the poems the sensory distortion affects of hallucinogenics. The results, interestingly, have parallels with Scots poet Edwin Morgan's concept of 'interferences', which he used both in mainstream and science fiction themed poems, of the Other, human or alien, manifesting its proximity by initially slight but increasing unwilled distortions of language, examples appearing in the 1968 Morgan collection From Glasgow To Saturn, indicative of the way, from different theoretical premises, an interest in the vulnerability to mutation of the individual's use of language had become apparent in a period of drug experimentation. It could be argued also that associative distortion of language reflects elements of rock lyric, whereby, partly to veil material liable to cause airplay problems of censorship - drug references, in particular - and also because of the degree to which words were often both subsequent and subordinate to the music, suggested in John Lennon's remark "if the words come first, it's a poem song, if the melody comes first, they're word sounds." There is therefore a possibility that, alongside the employment of Auditory Stabilisation as technique and theoretical framework, Aldiss is also reacting to rock lyric praxis.

The search for a Cubist-paralleling multiplicity of viewpoint also has its parallels in the rock culture of the time - Jimi Hendrix, for example, having spoken of his desire to show the different sides of reality. The conscious interaction of ideas derived from a Cubist multi-faceting of viewpoint and Evans' experiments, overlaying a more generalised reaction to ideas from the wider rock and drug cultures seem, therefore, more directly than any echoes of Joyce's wordplay experiments, to be the source of the intense use of serious punning and word distortion, portmanteauing etc, in the BITH poems, and prose-poem stretches of the prose text.

It is also worth noting that, except where such Auditory Stabilisation wordplay occurs, and the occasional use of concrete and other experimental forms, the poems are either relatively straightforward free verse, or, for the rock lyrics, rhymed structures. The latter, although verbally complex enough to require several re-readings, are no more so than much actual rock lyric of the time, which had accustomed its listenership to the dual tasks of disentangling words from walls of sound, and then decoding, or ascribing meaning to, of ten densely surreal and private-image-encrusted sung texts.

As Aldiss explores the inner mindscapes of his characters as they drift through their drug-saturated environment, there is thence a paradox that deserves examination. This lies in the fact that, in general, the poems are less 'coded', less dense with the distorting, punning wordplay used to convey the mental step-changes of the characters as they phase in and out of differing hallucinogenated states, than the prose content of BITH. In those prose-poetical sections of the main text, as it strives to convey the almost un-sharable private inner perceptions of individual members of Charteris' Crusade as they strive to grasp, or shape, the ostensible changes of their outer world in an almost Gnostic way - the shapes within becoming the shapes without -meaning hovers at the edge of vanishing - this is seldom the case with the poems.

Within limits, therefore, it can be said that Aldiss has reversed, at any rate in parts of the book, the usual relationship of modern poetry with prose, that poetry is the less accessible, less immediately comprehensible, of the two. Instead, here the poems are, relatively, gateways of accessibility into the skeleton of a story whose narrative events are so liable to blurring by the word flood of drugged inner landscapes.

Either the poems, in a sense, are offering a less tripped-out commentary upon or post-analysis of the stoned experiences of the prose 'narrative', or, at some level, Aldiss is suggesting that the poem-making facility of the mind is nearer to a stabler essential which will remain able to communicate a form of meaning even in a hallucinogenised environment.

The different voices or personae of the poems, whether unnamed - in John Clute's view, making a problematic central demand of the reader, since "The decipherment of voice... of course involves placing it" - or presented as the protagonists of a rock group, offer different ways of detachment from, loss of contact with, or liberation out of, consensus reality, but to a lesser degree than when encountered within the prose portions of the narrative. Many include words, lines or images that derive directly from, or are clearly variants of, preceding prose material. Often, they expand on, clarify, or meditate on a particular scene or episode, on occasion giving it a quite different twist of meaning.

In particular, Charteris, in the prose very much the lens through which some vast if ultimately ungraspable illumination passes, can be seen in the poems as having an air of self-deception, and thence of wittingly or unwittingly deceiving those who follow him in search of themselves or of ultimate loss of self into a greater whole.

To choose one poem which offers some essence both of the poem content as poetry and as expressive of its role within the book. Bridging Hour In Wesciv is a strong candidate. Drawing heavily on the language of science and technology, it wills us to listen to the new language that reflects new realities - and not to ignore its poetic potential. In the third stanza of this relatively short (29 line) poem ordinary language and auditory stabilisations merge to swallow thought into a hallucinatory "in cyclic slumberth crawling/ for a far stossal round/ orrye edswill rold/ by yon tigal rave." Yet behind the cubist twin masks of technological newness and sensory deformation, there lies a haunted landscape of unwelcoming, damaged nature - "kernels... blackly/ sprouting sour green wicks." There is no going back, little help for the "reptile hearts" that "crawl slackly" to be found by the "braincage" even "under the screw of the dreamneed", only, having rejected "lost alternatives/ anagrits of maters stream", the inescapable move forward to "yon tigal cave" in which meaning and communication have been wrenched away by uncontrollable forces of the future. The voice that speaks is, I think, Aldiss' own, the poet Aldiss, stranded on the bridge of the bridging hour between civilisations, looking both forward and back, and telling us with as much clarity as a language made of its changing time can permit what he really sees.

Implicitly, then, Aldiss suggests the view that poetry is what remains essentially communicable when the prose identities of individual selves have been swallowed up, like separatenesses into are into Charteris' inchoate Crusade, by the mind-flood of this drug-drenched future European environment.

References/ bibliography:
  • Aldiss, Brian - BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD, Faber & Faber 1969; Corgi, 1971 (edition used: 'Bridging Hour In Wesciv' appears on p.221).
  • Aldiss, Brian - THE SHAPE OF FURTHER THINGS, Faber & Faber, 1970; Corgi SF Collectors Library, 1974 (edition used: Auditory Stabilised versions of Aldiss poems, pps 82/3; Destabilised versions, Appendix IV, p 205, and Appendix V, p 206; Appendix III, pps 201-4, Auditory 'Stabilised Images'; Fragmentation And Distortion Of Words With Repeated Presentation by C.R. Evans, M. Longden, B.A. Newman, and B.E. Pay, National Physical Laboratory, 1967.
  • Clute, John - I Say Begone! Atropaic Narcosis, I'm Going To Read The Damned Thing, Ha Ha - pps 201-9, NEW WORLDS #8, ed. Hilary Bailey, 1975.
  • Frazier, Robert - Poetry In The Major S.F. Novel - pps 27/8, SPECULATIVE POETRY REVIEW #2, ed. Robert Frazier, 1977.


  • Related item:
    tZ A Report On Probability A.I.: Brian Aldiss - author profile
    Barefoot in the Head by Brian Aldiss


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