introduction (edited)


with our tongue our drils and quadras

by Bob Cobbing (1920 – 2002)

Writers Forum Workshop

Saturday, October 9, 2010


with our tongue our drils and quadras by Bob Cobbing; 24 pp colour;  6 in. x 4 in.; ISBN 1 84254 051 5; Writers Forum; 1st reprint October 2010 (first published  25th December 2001)

This is one of the last things that Bob Cobbing made, a set of colour collages entitled with our tongue our drils and quadras which he published and sent out Christmas Day 2001 to a very few people. It seems that he made few copies.

I understand that he interpreted its reception as negative feedback; and he stopped making it and sending it, and turned to other things.

I am not going to be able today to explicate its title. I had hoped that the phrase would occur on the internet; but I had no success that way.

I do not know why ÒdrilsÓ is spelled as it is. ÒQuadraÓ has a number of commercial meanings, as well as meaning Òa small mouldingÓ, none of which seem relevant; and it is a prefix indicating four which also does not seem relevant.

Someone yesterday said: ÒIt looks like a line from FinneganÕs WakeÓ; and that excited me; but I have not been able to do anything with it. If anyone has a complete digitised text of the Wake, which I do not have, they might pursue that. Doing what I could with a carefully-constructed web query, I discovered the existence in the Augustan Age of Hostius Quadra who was into group sex with mirrors until his slaves murdered him.

I canÕt say that it helps much either.

I look forward to a response from someone, somewhere, beginning ÒHonestly, Lawrence, thatÕs so obviousÉÓ

That Cobbing sent the book out on Christmas Day will indicate to those who know his habits how important this work was to him. It would have been a waymark if not a culmination of some yearsÕ work. However, it is quite clear from studies of his surviving colour work which I have made recently that the collection of images herein had been worked on and built up over quite a long period of time.

Colour always figured in CobbingÕs work; and, in August 1999, the late Alaric Sumner elicited the following from him in the context of his work with me on the long sequence Domestic Ambient Noise, which we made together between late 1994 and early 2000; and other works:

Òcolour sounds differently but mostly [Lawrence and I] can't afford it.Ó


Ò[Lawrence and I have] done performances of colour and definitely the colour does colour the performance.Ó

and, referring to the need for more experience with performing colour,

ÒIf we did a lot more work in colour, it would enrich the performance quite a lot.Ó

but then, ÒOne could almost say that working in black and white is richer than working in colour in some ways. There are tremendous subtleties in black and white which can get lost in colour.Ó


He had had colour printing machines. His Gestetner A3 ink duplicator, the one in the famous print shop of the Consortium of London Presses in the mid 1970s. used colour; but it was potentially a lot of work to change the colour.

In the mid to late 1990s, Cobbing had an expensive to use slow and awkward colour photocopier on which, for instance, he and I made Fuming (Writers Forum 1997) one page at a time one colour at a time.

And then a year or two later, he obtained a three-in-one machine, scanner, printer and copier; and he went to town.

Concepts like ÒGoodÓ and ÒBetterÓ can be troublesome because one needs to know the underlying criteria before being sure of them; and artistic creativity has a way of getting through and under those criteria and making them wrong-headed in retrospect – which is not to say that criteria are no use, just that they work with the stuff thatÕs ok but not necessarily with the stuff thatÕs good but risky or the stuff thatÕs rather bad, and they donÕt distinguish between the two.

Nevertheless, I need to say that Bob Cobbing, in his very late 70s, began a programme of experimentation in collage at which he got better and better; and this book is one example of that, an example of what he achieved after having tried many things and left some of them behind him when he thought they didnÕt work.

Although I spoke of a degree of distress at the reception of this book, we find him at MERZ NITE, an event held under the dome of the Victoria & Albert Museum on Friday 25 January 2002, three and a bit weeks later. His material then was of the same genre.

I am inclined to think, having looked at it quite carefully, that what he came up with for MERZ NITE  is interesting over and above that context.

I am not going to waste my time and yours making an odious comparison with Schwitters. Rather I am saying that he had learned from Schwitters, among many others -- Norman McLaren, Canadian film director and animator (born in Scotland) is one not always mentioned but who was tremendously important. It seemed that if you just sat near Cobbing and had something he could learn from you, he learned it, though he didnÕt then turn and put you down.

And Schwitters was, in 2001 / 2 then, and Bob was still living. What Bob did in his now had other vectors as well as SchwittersÕ. Formally and methodologically, you can see Schwitters as one of his sources; but Bob was his own artist.

This work is asemic; but I have come recently to realise that there are many asemics, as there are many blacks and many whites.

In my essay Bob Cobbing: and the book as medium; designs for poetry [Readings 4], I took Bury Art Gallery to task for saying Cobbing moved from words and conventionally written text to the non-lexical sign, as if the movement were a straight line rather than a constant movement within and around a field of activity; and also for saying "Cobbing is famous for his use of the photocopier to generate visual pieces that explode the conventions of reading and even the very idea of words."

I have worried at that. It seemed to be idiotic; but it had to have come from somewhere: they did not seem to be generating any ideas of their own.

I wondered if it might have come from the title of an article by Richard Truhlar, Exploding the word, which is quoted in  "a peal in air" by Bob Cobbing (collected poems volume three 1968-1970; anonbeyondgrOnkontaktewild presses, Toronto 1978)

Truhlar does not say what Phil Davenport, the poet in residence at Bury, says. In the section quoted in Òa peal in airÓ, he speaks of Cobbing Ò[exploring] the word and/or letter as hieroglyph, as phonetic symbol, and as concrete graphic interaction of language image with eye and body rhythms. Cobbing releases language from the strictures of grammar and commonplace verbal communication in order to speak to the human nervous system bypassing the intellectual and rational faculties.Ó

Nothing like that got into the Bury documentation; and itÕs  more than slightly different to Òexploding the wordÓ when taken out of context;  and, I think, more interesting if superficially less dramatic. Yet that is the title that Truhlar has used in the original which was published in Contemporary Verse II, Vol.3, No.1, Winnipeg, 1977

Richard Truhlar kindly supplied me a copy of his article and now I begin to understand what he is saying. He says: ÒThe word as a concept is exploded and new energy is released in the form of basic language elements.Ó (My emphasis)

There is a subtle difference between Òthe word as a conceptÓ and Òthe very idea of the wordÓ. One phrase is analytical and the other, BuryÕs, exclamatory.

Truhlar goes on to say that ÒForm in language, as the atom in nuclear physics, is a condensed and restricted bundle of energy. By breaking the form, new energy is released, and can be used for further growth and change in language.Ó

Truhlar suggests that Ò[CobbingÕs] phonetic and concrete texts have their roots in the work of Gertrude Stein, the Dadaists, Hugo BallÕs Òverse ohne worte,Ó and MarinettiÕs Òparole in liberta.Ó which, taken with my referencing of Schwitters and McClaren, begins to show CobbingÕs range.

This work published today was excluded from the Bury Art Gallery exhibition although it points to one of the directions CobbingÕs work and artistic thinking were going at the end of his life.

I hope to make it and other work available to view in the first half of 2011. I am investigating it myself and with colleagues as a performer; and this publication, which has been very expensive! is intended to make it known to the wider poetry public.


                                                        Lawrence Upton