‘Back into the socket’: William Fuller’s Playtime

William Fuller, photo credit Anna Fuller (colour)
Photo credit: Anna Fuller


They are tempted to note patterns in the scene below, but its aspects are so various
and the names to be applied to them so few that nothing can be described

                                       —‘¶¶’, William Fuller


Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be
A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

                                                —‘Paradoxes and Oxymorons’, John Ashbery


Dominic Hale


When we play are we free? Adorno and Horkheimer, predictably, thought not. In their analysis, work and play aren’t balanced poles: the latter functions only as an instrumentalised coping mechanism for the former, saturated everywhere with its ‘after-images’, the memory of past labour and the anticipation of future labour. Damningly, ‘Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again.’ Play sends us back to work, work we never really left anyway. All play is therefore playtime, at least in this account, playtime being the scheduled administration of play, play that is temporally defined and delimited in direct relation to labour; an obligatory allowance folded into the structure of sequenced lessons, classes, and schoolwork. Playtime is necessarily finite, boundaried; an intermission serving to momentarily relieve the school pupil within the perimeters of the school day; a recess theoretically purposing to make students better learners and harder workers. It returns us to the classroom, a caricature of the moment of escape. Playtime is play prescribed, compulsory, enforced.

Born in 1953, William Fuller is an American poet who works as chief fiduciary officer of The Northern Trust Company in Chicago. He has been described by the British poet J.H. Prynne as the ‘secrecy officer of American poetry’, and his authorship doesn’t seem quite as well-known as I think it ought to be on this side of the Atlantic. Here follows an excerpt from an interview with Fuller, speaking in 2007 with Eirik Steinhoff for Quid, on the precipice of the global financial crisis:


If the order-making activity is what ideally happens here at work, then poetry, without pushing this too far, is more like dream-work, or a kind of anti-work, which derives semi-autonomous and weird things out of all these experiences and materials. Like Sir Thomas Browne’s famous description of how dreams make ‘Cables of Cobwebbes and Wildernesses of handsome Groves’.

(the full interview is available here)


Relating only his own particular experience of poetic composition, in Fuller’s qualified terms poetry might constitute ‘a kind of anti-work’, but one which can recover ‘semi-autonomous and weird things’ from work; material which is always irrevocably inflected by and proceeding from labour. In this sense, Fuller’s speculation seems to parallel Adorno and Horkheimer’s anatomy of the work-play relation: both play and poetry are defined by work, the substance that poetry derives from work only ‘semi-autonomous’ because still belonging to the condition and ordeal of work, just as poetry itself is no autonomous pursuit. Still, Fuller’s supposition is not exactly analogous with Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of play, amusement, and leisure, because for him poetry tentatively acquires an oppositional character, rather than finding itself entirely subordinated to work. Poetry might thus promise a sort of cultivating assimilation or even sublation of play, because it is a species of artistic and intellectual labour, and therefore in writing and in reading demands qualities of attention and commitment which make it both commensurable with and immanently antagonistic towards work. It’s ‘like dream-work’ precisely because poetry cannot and should not transcend work, just as dreaming is not an escape from sleep but an interior ornamentation of it which yet has the potential to transmogrify its structures. All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.

Playtime (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2015), William Fuller’s most recent book of poetry, is a work of insidious, glimmering comedy and parody, of prevailing ironies, beauties subtle and celestial. Its title implies and directs attention towards the set of relations poised between work, play, and poetry that I’ve been triangulating, presuming a managed aperture for poetry that both is and is not work, within and without it. This will be a precisely defined latitude; a stretch of predetermined time in which to play; the sliver of a breach in the architecture of work. Of course, then, this does not mean stepping free at last, miniscule on the gigantic plateau: the poet goes out to play and the results are instantly catastrophic. Immersed in mysticism, many of the poems in Playtime take the form of hallucinations and psychedelic digressions; frustrated allegories that do not seem to allegorise anything, or anything singularly static and intractable, as if in some other dimension of luminous, compassionate fulfilments and satisfactions they might each yield up an accessible and irreducible prime wisdom, if only we could simply clamber through. Writing in his discourse on poetics, ‘Restatement of Trysts’, which appeared in the Winter 2004/5 issue of Chicago Review, Fuller praises Thomas Browne’s Garden of Cyrus (1658):


Conjecture sprouts from conjecture and what was an attempt to order degenerates into a wilderness, a textual wilderness of total heterogeneity where all the textual elements conspire to arrest one’s passage as each detail unfolds into the next. Naturally I admire this quality.

With these preferences in mind, we might begin to attempt to endeavour to encroach upon a reading of Playtime and all the book’s attendant diversions and prevarications, its vaguely specific sidesteps and specifically vague resolutions.

Fuller’s play begins with ‘Witchcraft’, the poet ‘possessed and overcome by the Devil’ and subsequently or consequently losing ‘access to [their] own thoughts’. It’s a disaster, and the early poems of the book bear comic witness to this disaster, through the medium of the Salem witch trials and their bequest of American mass hysteria (as indicated in ‘Hampton’, a number of Fuller’s ‘long-dead ancestors’ had been Salem residents). ‘Horror Rage and Pallid Exasperation’ lifts its title from the nineteenth century U.S. Representative and Mayor of Salem, Charles Upham (1802-1875), a phrase found in his history of Salem witchcraft, published in two volumes in 1867. The poem opens with a hilarious pseudo-apology and abnegation of intentionality, or abnegation of authorial concern, where the poem’s consequence is superseded by the (in this case cartoonish) calamities of material history and social reality: ‘I can’t really worry about what this says or doesn’t say. To begin with, our village has just imploded.’ There accordingly unfurls in these early poems an enquiring after beginnings and becomings; everywhere is dispersed a sense of starting from scratch, necessitated by ironised crises and catastrophes historical and personal. Back to school, back to the playground. This effect is underscored by pieces like ‘Old Fuller Burying Ground’ and ‘Hampton’ which fix their gaze back into the ancestral past: the poet’s charmingly farcical attempts to commune with his Anglo-American ancestors, including, as Eirik Steinhoff notes in his preamble to the Quid interview, figures like the Puritan poet Thomas Fuller, ‘who came to Massachusetts in 1638 a few years before the outbreak of the English Civil Wars.’

Learning how to play again means learning how to think again. This is dramatised from the outset in ‘Witchcraft’, the first half or so of which I’ll reproduce here:


After being possessed and overcome by the Devil I lost access to my own thoughts. This meant that in order to recover them I had to ask question after question of strangers, which for the most part they couldn’t answer. When someone felt he or she could answer, I took careful note of what was said and how it was said, and made a point to request an account of its origin and development. In this way, over many months and years, I was slowly able to regain access to my mental life, even translating it into propositions for public or private use. But problems soon arose when my intentions proved too elusive for my means to convey them, which resulted in unexpected deflections and distortions, and turned my ideas into twigs. Despite this I have something to tell you.


The possessed subject is wholly reliant upon others to think, a tabula rasa wholly dependent upon a bond of trust between strangers. In one sense it’s of course impossible for a poem to ‘think’ without a reader, a stranger, particularly when true intention can’t often be reliably and adequately conveyed, resulting ‘in unexpected deflections and distortions’. We have here too then what reads like a parody of a parody of unreliable narration, the outrageously funny, somersaulting volta of the poem (‘Despite this I have something to tell you’) realising on the one hand the poet’s really quite endearing persistence to communicate with their readers against all accumulated odds, and on the other plugging the aberrant sequence of layered qualifications which have characterised the attempt to regain access to their own thoughts. The poem terminates in the shakiest of confidences, a wonderfully tenuous declaration of intent: ‘I hereby represent myself to you as the residue of things that aren’t true. Or can these even by distinguished? Whose face shades the difference? Whose memory stores it?’ The poet can’t simply or unambiguously present himself to his readers, but instead must represent himself, having been forced to undergo this concerted period of slipshod cognitive reconstruction. He is only a representation of ‘the residue of things that aren’t true’, a mere depiction of an after-image of untruths, fabrications, and ideologies which themselves mightn’t even be made out or defined.

Clearly, problems of communication and observation quite artfully prosper in the inaugural crises of Playtime. In ‘Horror Rage and Pallid Exasperation’, the poet and the first person plural examine the indeterminate movements of those things ‘not endowed with properties’ which persist after the implosion of their village:


The more intently we study them, the more we seem to absorb their indeterminate character, bringing us into alignment with them, as though ceasing to be intelligible to ourselves and to others were a shared feature, a form of community, an objective world.


The counterfactual force of that ‘as though’, insinuating an unintelligibility that is communal, homely, even flickeringly utopian, reverberates again towards the end of ‘Hampton’. In amusingly laboured conversation with his ancestors (‘it would not be an exaggeration to say that during our most lucid nights we only understood every tenth word that was spoken’), the poet can affirm that


Rather than discourage us, these baffling exchanges drew us more warmly together, under the bright moon, in the twisted vegetation.


A wink or two at the expense of those clichés of difficulty so readily attached to experimental poetry traditions aside, and we begin to intimate however latent in these early propositions some of Playtime’s larger queries about the relations which bind and divide material reality, the world of all of us, and those forms of ideality quite necessarily kept in prospect, the utopian imaginary. This is of course a permanently urgent question to consider, especially so in light of those scrutinised breaches of trust and affirmations of ‘conjectural potential’ worked through in ‘Restatement of Trysts’ which make me think of the poet’s forcibly trusting reliance on strangers in ‘Witchcraft’, or the trust one might place or be required to place by command or by the necessities of survival in representative government, or the market. Assessing the qualities of difficult ‘contemporary poetic texts’, and implicating his own practise, Fuller writes:


Through their seemingly opaque and sporadic gestures, their splintered pieces come gradually to be refitted by conjecture, always with gaps and overlaps, and always prone to collapse. But the activities they solicit are the reasons they exist in the forms they do: they are loyal to the world they find themselves in, and compel an active reading of that world. The result may be thoroughly perplexing; as Adorno notes in Minima Moralia, ‘Regard for the object, rather than for communication, is suspect in any expression: anything specific, not taken from pre-existent patterns, appears inconsiderate, a symptom of eccentricity, almost of confusion.’ To establish the trust, to maintain one’s loyalty to the object, is, apparently, to breach one’s loyalty to the reader. Yet in a compelling text the rejection of ‘pre-existent patterns’ and the refusal to compromise elicit a fresh experience of the world, and motivate the reader’s responsive conjecture.


Playtime is loyal to the world in situ as all poetry must unconditionally be; passionately and parodically insisting upon this fact through a breach ‘neither cured nor confirmed’.

What then can the process of reading Fuller’s poems tell us about the process of thinking under capitalism, of thinking logically and/or poetically through the cognitive dissonance of a system of ferocious internal contradictions fundamentally dependent upon and answerable for the immiseration and suffering of millions of human beings? ‘Thought’, claims Adorno in his Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (trans E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 2005), ‘has forgotten how to think’, and ‘no longer means anything more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think’, a performance endorsed by the conduct of the possessed speaker of ‘Witchcraft’. We are presented with something like the experience of thinking a thought under capitalism – and within its naturalised contradictory logic and specious accord – in the comically irreconcilable opening clauses of ‘The Unicorn’:


The system slows down for me to catch up and I’m almost there, stepping quickly through the bushes and taking note of objects on the periphery not worth enumerating, then climbing a small hill to the narrow bridge despite my inability either to move an inch or know where I’m going –


The system has kindly decelerated for the poet to catch up, and they come within touching distance, or so we naïvely think, before revealing an ‘inability either to move an inch or know where [they are] going’. It seems that ‘The Unicorn’ of the title emblematises this system, because, legendarily, a unicorn can only be apprehended by a virgin: that is, implicitly in this case, someone inoculated against, purely outside, or somehow removed from the relations of capital, even by a hair’s breadth. Minima Moralia again: ‘By its regression to magic under late capitalism, thought is assimilated to late capitalist forms. The asocial twilight phenomena in the margins of the system, the pathetic attempts to squint through the chinks in its walls, while revealing nothing of what is outside, illuminate all the more clearly the forces of decay within.’ The poet or thinker or subject is perpetually stuck, wedged between what is possibly impossible and what is impossibly possible. In Fuller’s bleakly witty prose, the system is toying with us and we know it. Straight out of the drowsy mouth of ‘Morpheus’, in history we are ‘treading water of some sort.’ ‘Playthyme’, the title poem’s homophonic doppelgänger, equivocates over revolutions in consciousness:


In some respects the spirit was dislodged the moment your soft nod acknowledged it. We are the difference, you or I said. There must be changes inside our skulls in order for this to take. There must be changes without regard to any conflict. So why did you?


‘In some respects’. Still, the speaker of ‘The Unicorn’ sinks ‘into the earth’, loitering beneath a claustrophobic ‘underground sky’ that ‘looks to be five feet wide’ (the little muddy pond of Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’ flashes on that inward sky). Then, ‘After an hour or two a flock of splendid thoughts arrives, kindling responsive sparks’. This revelatory jiffy, a precarious moment of thinking regained, is short-lived: ‘everything clouds up. Then a small river tunnels through my eyes.’ How much of the poem’s dream-work has been undertaken with tunnel vision?

Fuller’s poems are not fragmentary in any conventional high modernist sense so much as they are ‘refitted by conjecture’ in compositional acts of trust and risk, to pinch a phrase from ‘Restatement of Trysts’. Excluding lineated pieces like the eponymous centrepiece, the majority of Playtime is written in continuous blocks of grammatically and syntactically virtuosic prose, suppressing and interring the breaks, ‘firmly guiding my arm back into the socket’ (‘Octomore’). In his 2007 Quid interview, Fuller admitted tellingly to liking fragments ‘quite a bit; but I wouldn’t actually try to write in [them]. In fact, I resist any tendency to do that. I get disappointed when people regard the poems as fragmentary, and feel like maybe I didn’t do my job the way I thought I was doing it.’ Wondering away, the speaker of ‘El Perro con Botas’ (‘Dog in Boots’!) expresses succinctly this founding principle of Fuller’s poetics, asking ‘am I in a place where all the links are broken, although they seem to be completely intact?’

But what does this have to do with the future, or with the reality of present conditions when they get rammed up against wilful peeps and previews of any sort of ideal, the serious business that poetry and poetic thinking must so often perform? Vitally, Fuller’s poetics formulate a radical parody of the logic and illogic of capital; the cosmetic organisation, management, and papering over of broken links, fragments, dismemberments, and breaches of trust with a flattened outward tranquillity, the massive cool of business as usual, that irreconcilably ‘reasonable’ pragmatism and instrumentalism underneath and within which life goes on. Playtime is o’er-brimm’d with vicious and uproarious parodies of such superficial coherence[1]. ‘Tomorrow Afternoon’ offers a vision of egalitarianism, a perfectly bland future present of harmony and equipoise that few would surely actually want or desire:


No one plays a predominant role, nothing special is attached to anyone’s perspective to give edge or advantage, each has a set of observations to supply, and each observation complements, exactly, every other. We sit around a table while a notebook circulates.


Playtime warns again and again against ascending or affecting to ascend ‘perpendicular to the empyrean’ (‘The Parks’). ‘The Master Science’ – politics, in the Aristotelian understanding – asks:


And in the freezing light of their sun what difference would it have made for someone not to have been oblivious? The last and final revolution eliminated all work so it never came up. But that led to fresh problems in terms of dogma, which is where we are now.


The tautologous and Stalinist ‘last and final revolution’ may have ‘eliminated all work’, but it still leads to ‘fresh problems in terms of dogma’. Let’s not kid ourselves now. In ‘Glidepath’ (a poem succeeded by the bitterly titled ‘Future Interests’), ‘The spirit of what can happen has changed into the flesh of what has happened, and we make room for it’; our immaterial visions and revisions of the future translated into the fleshy matter of the past before we know it, making our necessary arrangements and adjustments as the present careers away ad infinitum. The oft-contorted density of the prose pieces and the recurring sense they give of being stuck or not unstuck is balanced by ‘Playtime’ and ‘Nothing to Adjust’, the two long central poems, composed in curt tercets and couplets respectively. With unpunctuated speed, ambiguated syntax, and a preference for terse, staccato lines made up often of only one or two words, these poems are perhaps reminiscent of or in step with the forms in which the late Tom Raworth frequently liked to work. Fuller and Raworth were close friends, and ‘Restatement of Trysts’ interprets a collage of Raworth’s, so it doesn’t, incidentally, feel too outlandish to mark occasional resemblances, formal and otherwise, between their distinct authorships. Hurrying down the page, ‘Playtime’ teems with breath and flux and chance; change both wished for and obstructed:


near the end
of Book Two

on whom
it dawns

what the
problem is

till one

and being

without disappointment
it can’t

under our mutilated
alphabet –


Inhabiting the mutilated discourses of bureaucratisation, administration, and instruction, ‘Writing Policy’, the book’s final poem, can confirm: ‘Whose wishes are executed first becomes a matter of setting the right priorities, but there is no one to arbitrate.’ Not seeming to reserve an awful lot of patience for Olsonian projections of the polis, the subject of ‘Writing Policy’ has officiously ‘prepared a sheet listing all twelve permutations of the Golden City.’ And yet, in ‘The Office for Soft Architecture’, her prospectus to The Weather (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001), the Canadian poet Lisa Robertson rightly I think insists that ‘we need to gently augment the fraught happinesses of our temporary commons by insisting on utopian delusion as a passage’. I get this feeling shuffling through the tricksy, fluctuating corridors of Fuller’s impacted syntax. For all his work’s near-totalising ironies and wicked, mordant comedy, there is sustained throughout a profound and emphatic bond of trust, witty generosity and hope issuing euphorically outwards to adjoin poet and poem and reader: ‘no breath / can quantify / that candle / in the dark’, how high it lights (‘Playtime’). And such a formulation or type of formulation as Robertson’s is registered, for me, in the final verse-paragraph of ‘Writing Policy’, a passage during which the poet witnesses people ‘waiting in line for the future’. Confessing to being ‘indifferent to them’, the subject claims to ‘prefer instead to consider what it means to have delusions’. After this admission, they finish up prone, levelled, loafing, maybe even waiting for that delusory ‘kind of transcendence’ negatively conjectured in ‘Horror Rage and Pallid Exasperation’:


At night I lie on the floor and wonder if someone is available to lift me up. Everything hinges on my not being able to spot my own inadequacy.


Abiding contradiction in this intimation of potential fraternity, the poet is ecstatic, beside themselves, capable simultaneously and dialectically in one contingent move both to name their own inadequacy and not to spot it. Being there alone is not enough. And so, in Fuller’s closing image we might recognise the outline of a diagram of the precarious and conditional values of poetic composition and poetic thinking; or of the poet’s playtime, on the cusp of their return from dream-work to the waking working day.


[1] My thinking and phrasing owes something to Joel Felix’s essay, ‘The Grounds of Trust in William Fuller’s Watchword’, originally published in On: Contemporary Practice (2) in 2009 and available here.


Dominic Hale

About Dominic Hale

Dominic Hale lives in Edinburgh. His poems have appeared in Blackbox Manifold, Test Centre, Poetry London, Zarf, Datableed, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @DominicHale. (Photo credit: Ryan Edwards.)