Irrepressible Serpentine curator Hans Ulrich Obrist: “Harry Burke is from a new generation of London curators. He builds bridges again between visual art and poetry, as was so relevant for avant-gardes in the 20th century.”
The rumours of poetry’s demise have been greatly exaggerated – the word no longer conjures mental images of dusty old men in dusty old rooms writing light verse about clouds and nubile girls. A new literary vanguard is emerging, and leading the charge is a cipherish 22-year-old from South London.
It’s sometimes easier to imagine Harry Burke as a kind of abstract concept: while his enigmatic poetry does crop up in printed collections like the recently released Clinic III, it exists predominantly in the swirling vastness of the web, as something that can neither be held nor owned. “It’s important to stress that the internet is physical,” says Burke of his chosen medium. “It’s a huge infrastructure of pipes and datacentres spread across the world, burning coal and cooled by water. Every Google search you do uses up half a millilitre of water, which may not seem a lot, but worldwide amounts to up to 150,000 litres of water daily. Of course, I’m still streaming music videos on YouTube, but it’s important to understand this base materiality of digital technologies.”
Burke’s poems are austere and introspective, fragments of contemp-orary youth published mostly on his own website, a virtual white cube that gives the poems the space they deserve and affords him a certain level of control. “Removing obvious distractions actually gave more space for the poems to reflect the context of their production.
I don’t think there’s any such thing as a blank canvas; everything comes with an existing and embedded ideology, and that’s what I like to try to work with.” But it’s a case of give and take.
“The framework is part of the poem,” he concedes of the idea that his poetry is shaped by as much as for the internet. “I like the way it makes the language different. It’s a constant dialogue.”
So is the internet making poets soft? Burke pauses to consider the drawbacks of being at the forefront of this new poetry, which has been evolving, largely unrecognised, for 20 years. “When I was younger I was really into Frank O’Hara, who sort of embodied this homosexual-but-still-so-macho male who was able to grab a piece of paper and write a poem anywhere. I write all my poems on Google docs, so that’s already a problem.”
Photography by Alex McLeish