Sunday, 7 August 2022

An afternoon delving

An afternoon in the Poetry Library

I ventured out of Nottingham to spend an afternoon (4/8/22) in the Poetry Library, in the South Bank Centre in London, looking at texts missed out of my Blair-era Grand Project, or BGP, on British poetry 1960 to 1997.

First, E.P. Thompson's long poem ‘A Place Called Choice’. This is a great poem and it was published in an American magazine in 1951 and did not see the light in this country until 1985. I had received a copy (of two different versions) by email, which I found confusing. 1950 is before my start date but given the publication dates I should have known about this. Back at base, I collated the two versions and found one amendment:
Across the Piltdown gravel,/
Over the Swanscombe skull, crunched among ammonites and shells,/
Over the tiny Crustacea, the bric-a-brac of chalk,/
First cousins to our father/
Who lies crouched in the abandoned road of memory/
Clutching in his stone fist a charm against the centuries:/
Trawling the turfs of Fosberry with a net of shadows,/

- part of the first line is changed to “alluvial gravel”. In 1951 the Piltdown hoax had not been exposed (Oakley and Weiner did this in 1953) and Piltdown Man was still the first humanoid in Britain. 1953 - it is hard not to see the link with Stalin, another intellectual hoax, whose fall would restart Thompson's intellectual biography.
There is a whole section which dropped out of the version published in 1985 (and in the 1999 Collected Poems, an admirable project by Bloodaxe, which is what I borrowed from the library). It goes like this:

Here on this black hurst above Halifax, bare/
Except for the refuse of an old slum-clearance,/
Standing on this old track, the cobbles and setts/
Sunken and worn by the labourer, the hardy pack-horse/
And the weavers hunched under their pieces, recalling/
The cold spell setting in (the masters called it “progress”)/
  Chilling my father’s knuckles in the frostblue rushlight,/
And I, on a torn blanket by the hearth, lay watching/ 
His limp clemmed fingers threading the last warp,/
Until the clock struck five, my seventh birthday,/
And he stood over me, cursing, shaking salt from his eyes,/
Calling me out for my bit of parkin and cold porridge,/
Setting me off to the new mill in the valley farmland,/
The clatter of my clogs on the track with an hour to dawn ...//

Recalling my return, some ten years later,/
With my skin like paper, the curious crick of my shoulders/
Rucking my jacket up, the daughters of the parson/
Staring and dropping their eyes, and the jolly vicar/
Giving his heartiest greeting, the girl at the farm/ 
Laughing in my face, and turning back to her guardsman ...//

I note the black apple trees by the disused canal,/
The lime eaten out of the farmland, the smoke/
Hung like a heavy ball of phlegm in the valley/
 Soaking the walls, the whitethorn, the poor grass,
/ But lug the usual loads, tread with my thoughts/ 
The Great North Road of acceptable consciousness/
(How science has got out of hand, and man disengaged/ 
From nature, devouring himself, and all that trap),/ 
Catching sight – always too late – from the side of my eye/
  Some figure, abandoned, thumbing a lift, shouting ...//

In the thicker evening more vocal, and at night/
Possessing me at last with large excitements/ 
And various voices, heard, though hardly understood,/
As the textile villages litter and foal their lights/
From here to Lancashire and Blackstone Edge –/
 Sensing within that interthreading of workshops,/
In the intricate by-ways and slips between the Palace,/
The speedway, the Lyric, and the accountant’s offices/
Some human bond more strict than the bonds of money,/
Warmer, it may be supposed, but more exacting.//

Beneath those yellow airlanes of steam in dispersal,/
There, in that thicket of evacuating smoke-stacks/ 
Is the place where mankind is knotted together,/
The place of engagement among whale-backed moors
/ Under the pretty fairylights of heaven:/
The place where humanity is knotted into matter,/
  The brain to the skull, and the skull to the planet./ 
Threading a road through the inner thoughtways/
One within me, thrusting for speech/
In the breast of this bonebox beating aloud,/
Marker of the vaunts of man in his earthdays/
Of the folk of this woolstead thirsting to sing://

“First in the fire age, foremost in the firemist,/
 Beyond all forethought master of matter:/
Thick in the hallways of a thousand windows/
Thunder of looms and throng of folk

Next, I borrowed a copy of Kenneth Allott’s Collected Poems. I have already blogged about this, but the key point is that Allott had written Apocalyptic poetry in the 1940s and these are really very good poems. Again, it was Jim Keery who made me aware of this. Allott’s creative biography is quite complicated. Next, a copy of a 1973 long poem by Patrick Fetherston. Peter Finch reviewed this in 2nd Aeon and after reading that issue I realised I had to pursue Fetherston. He published under the imprint tetralith, I wonder what that means. It means “four stones” so maybe just a rebus for “feather stone”. “Fethwar” is a possible prehistoric form of “four”. I took this one home.

Next, some work on Heath-Stubbs. I glanced at his verse play “Helen In Egypt”, a “romantic comedy”. More work left out of someone’s collected poems, I doubt it is any good. His work went off very badly in the 1950s but there was something there in the 1940s. I read the issue of 'Aquarius' on him, for his 80th birthday, not bad but no-one even mentioned the fact that he was gay. My problem is that the printed record is so dishonest on this theme, considering hundreds of poets, that I can't write an accurate account of British poetry in my selected period. Most of the tribute pieces are nice but don't say anything memorable - which is true of the majority of Stubbs' poetry.
Then looking at non-verbal works by two poets active in around 1970, Andrew Lloyd and Neil R Mills. Mills did “City Zen” (pun for “citizen”, good grief), a set of b/w photos of signs (shop signage and similar) with characters missing. A wonderful collection of dilapidated and even pre-war walls and premises. I guess part of the point is that there is no individual utterance by the poet – he is just directing our attention. The interest in “damaged patterns” is specific to the era – a preference which at its final extension expresses a hope that there is a gap in the whole social pattern and we can slip out through it. Is that saying too much? Both Mills and Lloyd are indescribably laid-back and yet there is that idyllic quality. The first casualty of apathy is belief in the system. I looked at Lloyd’s typed/mimeo’d pamphlet from 2nd Aeon (1970?), “twelve lyrics and liu”. It has almost no propositional content, being almost sound poetry but based on distortions of actual words and patterned layout. I am reluctant to describe it... it is almost purely subjective, and possessed of great charm. It is difficult to come back 50 years later and produce a formal statement, almost a consecration, for such work. Maybe the anti-meritocratic feel is the key thing… experiencing a Cool Groove and not wishing to write an effortful poem. Maybe there was an effect of abandoning words – getting rid of them as a safety rail, as a shield. Giving much greater scope to a simpler energy coming out of the self – the way you move, your silhouette. And being more aware of the gestural level affected the verbal poem, slightly later, so that it was less hung up on words and more attuned to gesture and space.
I also got a pamphlet by Gill Vickers, “an untitled first collection of poems by Gill Vickers”, 1969. So much better than just “poems”. This was published by “R”, the shorter title for “resuscitator”, a Bristol magazine edited by John James. I have one issue, from 1964. I located the Library's copy of this tucked up inside another book... I couldn't borrow it but I did photocopy part of it.

I don’t sit here to think

yet I thought again in the pub that the longest walk is inward with no fear of walking, which I thought I recognised

yet I know of a street where on the corner there's a mirror set in the wall there's this guy walks right up to it before he goes in the pub next door looking, to find out how much space he has inside to fill, trying to see into the potency of what he’s going to say

inside, there beneath my wine glass I‘m feeling kind of shut, so don't look him in the eye, better bust his thoughts up or disappear to someplace I know about.

There’s no space in one set of lips to see all their motives, I hoped I recognised a few, yet all I saw was this guy talking to himself more often than he looked in the mirror.

Each day’s much the same, you get made? But a lot of things get made. You take some and a whole lot gets given while you let some person take you in their giving.

How many is it possible to stand before and ask quite coolly, please don’t be cold?

Or when asking feel the texture of 5 senses together, not becoming tired, yet with a silently older ability to confront?
(untitled poem at page 7)

It is reasonable to say that this also has limited propositional content. his connection with James might be an indirect indication that Vickers’ poems, while understated and so ambiguous, are part of a lyric and domestic mood which James appreciated and which expressed feelings about social life rather than about the self as a separate thing producing language for itself. Actually the way you write might express something about the person you are talking to. Its open texture soaks up an atmosphere from the surrounding space... detached and yet full of affection and even joy. It deals with the immediate present and allows that an infinite depth by not categorising and implicitly diminishing and concluding the threads of a group relationship. Time has passed but we still live in the present because there is nowhere else to live.
I can't remember where I heard her name… anyway I don’t think she published anything else. I have a feeling that this open attitude towards social interaction was more possible in 1969 than a few years later, when economic crisis (inflation and the collapse of most people’s real income) brought something tougher, more purposive but also more authoritarian. So unprovable, because the lazy and almost blissful late Sixties mood is not explicit – it’s in the space between the lines. The work by Andrew Lloyd asks for more subjective response because there is more space between the lines, in fact it’s all space. It offers me a possible world where I can feel purely subjective. The entrance into it is narrow because I have to catch a train and go back to where I live.

This sounds like quite a lot for a four-hour session. It just underlines how many poets there are in the margins of my BGP – marginal because of the limits of my effort, not because their work is opaque. I just get overwhelmed when I visit that library. It is so full of bad poetry and yet there is so much gold ore. The main thing I was there to do was do some error checking for a list of all the books which Poetry Review ran during that 1960-97 period. I thought there were some holes in the net, possibly. Just under 800 British poets were reviewed in that time, possibly a statement of the core of poetry in that time, even if most of the poets I looked at don’t feature in that list. A spreadsheet now gives me figures for the percentage of women poets in the complete set of reviews, like this:

1960-64 15.36
1965-9 14.16
1970-9 11.03
1980-4 23.22
1985-9 24.36
1990-4 27.22
1995-7 34.22

This gives quite a good fit to a simple upward line – although there is a bit of a bump in the 1970s. An era where norms collapsed, but still a puzzling anomaly. The fact that women poets collectively fit that line suggest there is a collective identity, but that must be a “low level signal” compared to the differences between individuals. Gill Vickers just isn’t the same person as Ruth Fainlight. Quoting myself, “Where I think all this fails is in the equivocation of one person with another. Clearly if you count something you are giving the impression that it is a homogeneous quantity. No two poets believe they are interchangeable so a count involving a lump of several hundred of them must be flawed.”

I also copied a few more pages of Eric Mottram’s Elegies, which I am gradually reading. There must be more poetry I haven’t read; it’s just a quest that has no end point. Elegies was finished around 1981 and is like a pin-up wall, Eric writes about 35 or so cultural figures who have heroic status for him. The poems are not “about”, he regards that as outdated; they are very subjectively edited and leave out what would be prosaic. You need to know quite a lot about each of the figures to understand the poems. So when I read

you musick-loving lights
made visible by water
entry after entry
toki no ge awakened
“all’s harmony all separate
once confirmed it is your mastery
long have I hovered on the Middle Way
today the ice shoots flame”
the justification of alone
is radiance of discovery
inventions shape daylight
mount lights shade volume by surface
now black rain may beat
black rain bends the homestead

I know the whole poem is about an American poet (one I have never heard of) and so about his poems, and so the scenes may come from within his poems. But I can’t follow what the scenes are. All the same the fragments that chase each other are evocative.

Wednesday, 6 July 2022

Bad Cinema, part 99


On a stall in a market in the part of Nottingham where I live, I acquired a package with one part of The Stewart Granger Story, so a batch of dubious 40s melodramas on DVD.

I previously borrowed this package from a lending library of DVDs, now deceased, so I know how bad the films are. And I have a special desire not to see anything with Granger – a non-actor with Chiselled Features and natural authority and height. But he was a star, so he was in expensive and occasionally good films. As a cultural historian, you have to watch bad films sometimes. Caravan (1946) is a ridiculous film which I previously abandoned watching. The plot is that a wild tearaway son of good family, Stewart Granger, is the victim of amnesia and assault, and wakes up to live with the gypsies, with whom he has a natural affinity. He engages in picturesque escapades. Then finally the injustice is reversed, he remembers who he is, and he returns to enjoy the heroine and bourgeois life. It’s The Student Prince, or Doctor Syn (once Captain Clegg, the pirate; first novel 1915). We have seen this plot a few times before. It allows us to see scenes of low life, actually of life without responsibilities or inhibitions, while marginalising the people to whom that life is natural. It is strikingly different from a plot in which the hero would come from income group E. The plot involves Darrell (Granger) as the author of a novel. Helpmann, employed by villain Dennis Price, arranges the assault, by Spanish Gypsies. Darrell also loses a necklace which he was transporting and is then wanted by the police for stealing it. Price hopes to carry off Darrell’s girlfriend (played by Ann Crawford).
H plays a servant, named Wycroft, who is malicious and out for himself. He does not take any responsibility seriously and clearly has no loyalty to his employer. That is an implicit threat to the social order. But, we might continue, the social order is evidently a threat to him fulfilling his desires. He seems childish because he rejects responsibility. But also he is prepared to conform when someone in authority is watching. He is the classic quick-witted slave of a corrupt master. His willingness to accept the role society has allotted him means a profound rift in his being: he has no belief in the merits of his master or in the role he continues to carry out. Any kind of malice or humiliation excites him. He is amused much of the time, but sensitive and easily disgusted. I suppose prissy is the word... so held back by a strong sense of propriety even while rejecting moral restraint. His reactions are quick and ever changing; he seems to be leading his life at ten times the speed of the Stewart Granger character.
The second time I tried to watch it, I was worried about the prospect of a gypsy dancer scene in some bodega. I feared this would be embarrassing. It calls for archaic theatrical virtues. But that dancer is played by Jean Kent and she has archaic theatrical virtues in abundance.
The interest of Caravan is a few scenes in which two obviously gay actors engage in interaction outside the main plot. The claim is not based on them being defined in the film as gay, but on their facial expressions, speech melody, gestures, and so on, which were inevitably gay. That is not to say that they were anything but a minority of gay men, more that if they were allowed on screen then they released a great flow of visual information which says among other things that they were camp and gay. The presupposition is that Granger is going to get 30 times as much screen time as Helpmann. We can guess that Helpmann’s vivacity is related to the need to say everything in such a brief time... in between long days of conformity and deference to employers. Is that guess right? Certainly it is hard to imagine a film in which the normative world had withdrawn into the shadows and Helpmann could be camp and vivacious for the entire film. That film does not exist but we can try to imagine it.
Helpmann says to Jean Kent at one point “You are a wicked girl, but it’s no use trying out your wiles on me.” He is correct, we feel.
Helpmann comes across as frustrated, making the most of a brief stretch on camera. That is like a spectator who is watching a bad film and seizes on some aspect that is much less bad, as a way out of boredom, hoping for it to be prolonged. This is what childhood was like, so much of the time… a state which I have managed to reproduce, in adult life, by involving myself in “the history of culture”. That history is largely made up of bad films. At least in my country.

Helpmann was mostly a dancer with the Vic-Wells Ballet. He wasn't technically a great dancer, we understand, but made up for it by his abilities as an actor – in fact as a mime. His ability to use flows of information other than verbal is what puts him ahead of other performers within a film. His presence is what allows us to connect Caravan, and the world of Gainsborough melodrama, with high culture of the 1940s. The main display in the 1987 Barbican exhibition of the “New Romantics” was a sensational backdrop designed by Leslie Hurry for Helpmann's production of Hamlet with himself as the hero. (Confusingly, there was also a ballet Hamlet in which Helpmann played the lead character, also designed by Hurry.) I presume he didn’t deliver the verse in a camp speech melody… but since it has all disappeared we can't know this. Those Hamlet productions were certainly a key part of the Apocalyptic style which lasted for several years in the Forties. They represent the collapse of objectivity and the advance of feelings and dreams into three-dimensional form. But Caravan does not fit into that (even if other films in this same DVD package do). Nor really is Helpmann’s droll-sinister turn in ‘Caravan’ connected to the visions of the apocalyptics. The ambiguity of a neurotic 40s poet-type is dissimilar to the ambiguity which Wycroft is governed by.

Wikipedia lists the five most successful (box office) films of 1946, with Caravan at number five. One of the others is another Gainsborough melodrama – The Wicked Lady, which also has the “double life” plot. Clearly this is what people wanted to see, and that might explain why some of the projects were not only inherently vacuous but also badly and hastily prepared.

Price marries the girlfriend, who believes Darrell is dead. At one point he cancels a dinner party she has lovingly prepared but replaces the guests with a roomful of high-class tarts, who seem to know him well. This is a bizarre scene. Later he suggests, when she leaves him, that she has no money and also has no talent for following the only profession which is open to her. This indicates that she has not let him sleep with her in their marriage... he had invited the tarts in to educate her about sex. This is a desperate attempt to make the situation stronger than the quality of writing would allow. This isn't melodrama, just bad taste I think.

I see Granger worked for Roger Corman at one point. I hope Corman made him work a bit harder than he usually did. Helpmann played possibly related characters on screen in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The same package has Madonna of the Seven Moons, which I actually enjoyed. It starts with a frightening sequence in which a little girl (twelve maybe) is menaced by an adult male. We don’t really find out if she is sexually assaulted but it looks bad. Later a character is shown as split into two personalities... although the rape incident is never mentioned again, it is a medical fact that abuse in childhood can lead to dissociative personality disorder. The film would certainly benefit if there was someone to point this out, on screen or in a voice-over at least. The adult woman is played by Phyllis Calvert. She is a conventional wife of a wealthy man in some Italian city, but periodically she disappears and comes back six months later with no explanation. We found out that in these fugues she takes up a quite different role, as the landlady of a tavern called The Seven Moons, which has a sign with as many half-moons, a motif echoed by earrings which Calvert wears. I never worked out where the word ‘Madonna’ came in. This is an excuse for her to dress in a completely different way… extravagant and sexy as a bar owner who is also the mistress of a prominent bandit. Fairly obviously the “alternate” personality of Calvert is a parallel to Granger’s adventures with the gypsies in ‘Caravan’. The theme is respectable people disappearing into an unrespectable life, a license to daydream. We don’t get a scene in which Granger is sexually abused by a gypsy as a child… that would be a very different film.
The earrings bear a noticeable resemblance to ones worn by Jean Kent in Caravan. The Mediterranean floozy part in Madonna is played by Patricia Roc… a sort of alternate Jean Kent. Gainsborough needed such actresses. And Rank didn't.

David Bourne in his book Brief Encounters mentions the Helpmann role in Caravan as part of a book about gay characters in British films from 1930 to 1971 (and some glimmer of liberation). Each encounter is brief because gays were never the central characters in any script. This approach gives us maybe 80 seconds of a film… from a hundred films. This does seem like the most effective way to approach the subject; given both how crap the films were and how much the unrelated snippets actually do connect to each other, revealing deeper structures. The method is especially likely to reveal changes over time, so between gay stereotypes in 1930 and gay stereotypes in 1960.

The Gypsy character (Jean Kent) remarks to the boring English character (Ann Crawford) at one point that the custom of her people in love rivalry is to fight it out in a duel. We don’t see this take place but the producer obviously remembered it because he went on to make this: "Idol of Paris is a 1948 film based on the novel Paiva, Queen of Love by Alfred Schirokauer, about a mid-19th century French courtesan Theresa who sleeps her way from poverty to the top of Second Empire society. It was an attempt by its makers to imitate the success of the Gainsborough melodramas." This is a lost film, I understand, but it did feature a duel between two women (using whips) and that was on the poster. It may actually have broken the company which made it, Premier Films, and who knows where their prints went to. At the time, Picturegoer said it was “a complete farrago of nonsense”.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

the "Outposts" business


This is a bit more about vanity presses, specifically about Outposts. The background is that someone called Howard Sergeant had begun in the 1940s and established himself as an editor of poetry, suitable to the bodies or individuals who gave patronage even if he was a bit of a hack. He had a (semi) quarterly magazine, Outposts, which ran for a remarkable number of years – 1943 to 1986 according to Bruce Meyer’s doctoral thesis on Sergeant. From about 1958 he also published poetry pamphlets (sometimes with spines). Gardiner records that the arrangement of Outposts was that aspirant authors had to acquire enough pre-orders to cover the cost of publishing the pamphlet or book. Inevitably this would have been the author paying for many copies themselves, in many cases. Most of the issues I have details of are pamphlets, under 30 pages, with no spine and gripped together by staples- they would have been cheap to produce so it seems that Sergeant was making it easy for his poets and that this was genuinely a low threshold to surmount in order to get into print. It also seems that Sergeant exercised quality control over the poetry. To qualify that, let me say that the 1977 edition of Gardiner’s Poet’s Yearbook lists 90 Outposts pamphlets for that year alone. From Aitken to Zinnemann. You can either see this as having poor quality control or as offering a vital open door by which poets could get inside the sacred precincts. As these are generally debuts, most of the poets would have gone on to improve – so you definitely want to see their later work (and not the debut pamphlet). The open door factor is arguably more important than the average quality – the poets needed a break. And quite a large share of these poets were women.
An outpost protects an army at rest and is the equivalent of an avant garde for an army on the move. An outpost may be what blocks anything new from arriving.

Outposts may have been aesthetically up to date in 1945 but it was definitely conservative by the 1960s. Early issues included “Featuring (amongst many others) Muriel Spark, K. Raine, John Wain, Henry Treece, John Heath-Stubbs, Litvinoff, Robin Atthill, Vernon Watkins, Dannie Abse, Neruda, Vernon Scannell, Ronald Blythe, James Kirkup, etc.” - so 40s poets.

The three Outposts which dealers are asking a lot for are the ones by Gustav Davidson and Harry Guest. These are the same ones I wanted to buy! I think the dealers know as much as I do! Embarrassing. Davidson wrote the classic A Dictionary of Angels, I have a download of this but I haven’t read it yet. Anyway, highly recommended by those interested in non-observable phenomena. Someone offers his Ambushed by Angels, 1965, for $125. And someone offers Guest’s debut pamphlet for $62 – well, it is important, but the text is there in A Puzzling Harvest, his collected poems, at pp. 44-54.

An aside. One of the vanity presses I looked at (name withheld) did a lot of books about spiritualism as well as poetry. There seems to be an analogy – mediums bring home truths about the cosmos which official theology does not validate, vanity poets make claims to poetic authority which official taste does not validate. I would guess neither product got any fact checking. So you know The Truth and it doesn't need fact checking.

Monday, 27 June 2022

titration 1960-97

Titration of a protected fluid

I have been working (over several years) on analysing total poetry publications by year. I have to say that dealing with poets as individuals tells us more, but I thought at this point to release one set of figures, for the share of female poets in the annual set.

tabulation of gender ratios (in volumes by individual authors)
% female
1960 32.6
1965 38.6
1968 25.8
1970 24.7
1971 22.7
1974 28.1
1974-5 18.8
1975-6 18.8
1976-7 21.8
1977-8 19.8
1979 26
1982 28.4
1983 26.3
1988 30.2
1990 29.5
1992 29.5
1995 32.1
1996 34.6
1997 34.2
1999 37.1
2000 38.2

These figures are drawn mainly from the British Library catalogue. Interpretation is inevitably less accurate than a count. The presence of women poets is rising, on a fairly smooth curve, from 1978 onwards. But, it is worth commenting on the declining figures in the stretch between 1965 and 1974. I looked more closely at the 1965 records. So 1965 has 91 titles to show by female poets but 61 of these were by vanity presses. And 8 more by a firm which asked authors to contribute to costs (while also selecting the manuscripts). And 2 self-published. All told this was not a good moment for female poets. The scene in the 1970s was very different, with “alternative” publishers eager to publish poetry they liked even if it wasn't really a commercial proposition. That is not to say that vanity publishers were losing their livelihood.
I have posted elsewhere on the speculation that as poetry was taken over by the universities (including recent graduates) in the second half of the 1960s, and student bodies then were overwhelmingly male, the period 1965-75 saw a decline in the position of female poets. This reversed, again within the speculation, as a flood of female students began to reach universities – a few years later.
The figures for 1974-8 come from a source, Poet’s Yearbook, which does not list vanity publications. This accounts for a drop in the female percentage in 1974 – on investigation, vanity publications were absolutely dominated by female poets and leaving them out (for quite good reasons) makes the share of male poets rise sharply. In 1974, the rise is roughly from 72% to 81%.
During the work, I have changed my view of vanity poets quite considerably. The description would shift from “egoists uninterested by their fellow poets and ignorant of modern poetry” to “those without cultural capital”. Excluding them from consideration means excluding the vulnerable – the literary process left them as losers but we don’t have to make them losers all over again.
Gardiner records that Outposts only accepted manuscripts when the author had collected enough advance orders to cover their costs. This could actually mean the poet buying half the edition of their own work. Outposts also claimed to have quality control, they only accepted typescripts of good quality. I am cynical about this, but the number of books or at least pamphlets they produced by women poets was outstanding and there is nothing suspicious about that.
From the figures, we seem to have a period of highest male share between about 1968 to 1990. It is open to speculation how this plateau on a graph affected poetic style. If we look at social groups where people learnt and shared culture, where poets met their future audience in fact, it is credible that people who later used vanity presses didn’t understand the literary world specifically because they had never been part of those groups or sites. Wherever you find insiders, those people were on the outside. The predominance of women in the vanity press lists is related to the predominance of young men in universities and in sixth forms. That predominance is incomprehensible to people born since 1970.
I don’t want to go back and reclaim the outsider poets. It is just too apparent that if you want to write modern poetry you have to read modern poetry. If you hang out on the scene at all, people will tell you not to use vanity presses if you want to be read.
To go back to 1965, it saw a book by Kathleen Raine: The Hollow Hill. I liked this and I have written about it. But that is the only woman’s book from 1965 which I recognise or have read. Feminism changed everything for the better.

Friday, 17 June 2022

Put your cat clothes on

[ note. I failed to put this out anywhere so it is well suited to a blog release by this time. The plan is for a big Reed selected, edited by Grevel Lindop, to come out next year sometime, so I am preparing for that by looking at old Reed material.]
Put your cat clothes on: Jeremy Reed, The Glamour Poet Versus Francis Bacon - rent and eyeliner pussycat dolls (publ. 2014, composition dated 2008-9 on the cover)

The first thing to say is that Reed’s recovery in this book-length poem is amazing. He has written forty books of poetry (maybe more?) since the early Seventies, is a survivor of the glam rock era, and has produced some notably jaded or affluent work in recent years - the cognoscenti used phrases like ‘gone to Las Vegas’ or ‘glamour magazine’ to describe them. But Glamour Poet completely breaks with his work of say 1982 to 2005, and as completely transcends it. It is like some Seventies rock band coming up with album number 40 and knocking the music world on its side. My feeling was that ‘Stratton Elegy’ is his masterpiece, but ‘White Bear’ certainly runs it close. The only thing it reminds me of is Jerry Lee Lewis releasing a fantastic album (‘Two Worlds Collide’) in 1983 - as the NME review said, ‘a genius on a good day’. GP is the equivalent of changing producer and coming up shining like gold. This awesome return to form means that Reed is one of the hot contenders in 2014. The second thing is that the book is a memoir of being a prostitute - a rent boy:

every time I’ve sold myself
to write and eat (note the order) I’ve attracted someone   
in on the in breath and turned them out on the out breath
I learnt to create my own island on the pavement and to be sovereign to
That disputed constantly disrupted precinct. I was king to a radius on which
I dreamt and had to earn, when it rained the patch darkened […] What I did
Was disinformation except to the ones in on it and
They never learnt my name, only remember the colour
Of my eyes [.]
(p. 26, from ‘Love for Sale‘)

I write in Soho, get my energy
from its cells, I can’t let go
the fact that I used the railings, no one knew,
I had to feed a line [with] vegan protein
and helium uplift, had to have money
to keep from vulnerability, the cool
black painted iron a support
to making out. I’ve no pretend the way
I’ve lived as an inspired subsidiary
to the city, just notching up a word
to transport to its chemistry
without reuptake.
(p. 41)
The move is like the Rolling Stones singing songs about experiences that people really didn’t want in real life but which became outlaw glamour, erotic horror, Magdalene-like transgression, within the overheated confines of the music. ‘I’ll be in my basement room/ with a needle and a spoon’. The whole thing is urgent, brazen, high on a dozen different arousal hormones, sensationalist, outside the law.

The ‘versus’ does not refer to boxing matches but to dub or ‘mixing’ events where two DJs compete with each other, ‘Ariwa Sounds versus the Mad Professor’ or whatever - so you get to hear both of them. The railings were on Piccadilly somewhere (also the site of the all-night chemist celebrated in Reed’s masterpiece, ‘Junky Tango outside Boot’s Piccadilly’, 1978-9, renamed ‘Stratton Elegy’ for publication). It’s a relief when he gets as far away as St Giles’ High Street.

The book-length poem is actually ‘White Bear - Francis Bacon’ at pages 33 to 149 of this volume. (The White Bear seems to be the name of a pub, near the Piccadilly underground station, where Bacon and Reed used to meet.) The impetus of this poem is just extraordinary, not just the sheer weight of material and its dazzlingly integrated quality, but a developed technique for blocking any slowing-down by overrunning the changes of theme, forever cutting to action, forever announcing how much there is to say and how many ideas the poet has hidden in his hat. This is a new technique, it remorselessly gives us derepression as producer and product, and it has the momentum of an express train.

There is a question of whether the story of the book is true. Did Reed ever meet Bacon? It hardly matters. The dialogue given to the painter is all about colours:

A slash
of obsidian against hectic blue
demands a Ferrari red and a pink
you get in cup cakes or glossy car paint
or cherry pits and campari
or a black-eyed pink liquorice all sort
and slapped on with my knuckled fist
(p. 65)

and sounds like Reed, whose accumulated colour adjectives are a callsign, a routine. Maybe the book is a fanzine style re-living of something like the film ‘Love is the Devil’, by John Maybury (Bacon played by Derek Jacobi). It is ‘slash literature’ (like ‘Star trek / gay‘), that line of rewrites of famous stories to suit yourself. The work is closer to George Barker, who certainly was a Soho habitué in the 40s and 50s, than anything else; Bacon and Barker shimmer and merge. I’m just a crimson kid/ that you won’t date at p.66 is a lift from Denise Riley’s poem 'LURE 1963' somehow gulped down and re-captioned. 'Lure' could be the source of the colour orgasms in the poem.

Glamour Poet’ is necessary to telling the Reed story because it re-films the stories of most of his early poems. Those contacts with sordid, paranoid, crazed older men, which fill his early books, came out of being a pick-up, a scene gay. They tap a vein of dark and oppressed and thwarted emotion which is much older than Reed. They reveal a gift of psychological insight which is, literally, the whore’s insight into the clients - naked and defenceless - as well as the knowledge which animates great writing. The tale (older man picks up young boy who learns a lot about bad life and destructive release too soon) was not exactly easy to miss if you read those early books, but to have it spotlighted now - documentary still photographs to back up the semi-hallucinatory moving pictures - rewrites the Seventies. Once again, history mutates as a harsher light is turned on. My feeling is that Reed’s poetry is much more documentary and much more about other people than it is imaginative and about himself. Really we are reading a history of male homosexuals in London and in a particular old-fashioned province of the South, a history of fantasy and desire as much as of sadness and repression. White Bear reminds me of a rerun of ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’ with the characters but without Nelson Algren. It is easier to understand Saints and Psychotics (1975) now that we have The Glamour Poet.
Literature intersects: from clients to weird and messed-up artists, a transition so structural that it is hard to uncover. The flip from despair to admiration. A crack where Reed’s limitless narcissism lets in some compassion. Defining intimacy through sexual services provides an unusual view of art: in the poem, the artists he favours merge with the clients in a dozen ways. He also sees himself as part therapist-social worker.

I’m on my own, so singular,
My education Piccadilly rent,

I’ve spiked poetry like a cobalt vein
Into a sci-fi speed of light energy
Distillation of what’s glam in my time

Is this glamour? The line is that as JR was repeatedly picked up off the famous railings and taken to hotels by clients he was clearly attractive and glamorous and was a beacon beaming out A Good Time. The equation between attracting clients and attracting readers is all too clear. The basic idea, that Reed represents glamour, is basically incredible. Much of the poem consists of Reed explaining what our reactions are going to be. This might save time spent actually having reactions, but generally fails to take on that quite a lot of people don’t identify with gays, don’t much like the idea of prostitution, find the glamour ideology superficial, degrading, and frustrating. I don’t have a gay sensibility. I don’t feel envy of those clothes because that blare of self-advertisement seems like bad taste to me. If men don’t all dress like gays it is because their feelings take them in a completely different direction and a whirlwind of sequins and dyed string vests makes them feel nauseous. You would have to be gay to want to dress like that. But then - art is a temporary identity. This art as the most uninhibited and the most blatant offers the strongest signal and so an unusually powerful temporary identity. It is persuasive for as long as it needs to be. The depiction, of narcissistic apathy being stalked by thwarted and red-eyed compulsion, is as precise as a Dutch interior, sickening and undeniable, even while the voice-over is so unconvincing. That destructive radiance, orgasmic and emptying flare of sound, holds up temporarily.

The Monochrome Set described this life in ‘Oops what a Palaver', a little known song (partly due to El Records’ deliberate seeking of cult status) which contains the great line Ard cash guv - or sling yer ‘ook. The experience of being taken home by someone you’ve never seen before, getting to their gaff, sizing up from the decor and the accoutrements what is going to happen - the street-punk acuity of such moments is the most vivid streak in the book. The background for gay style as overstated, blaring, burning out inhibitions, was oppression: a whole week had to be crammed into Friday night. There was no time for ambiguity. It was like a transmitter broadcasting for five minutes a month. Or also like a three-minute single or even an advertisement.

A feature of this new style is scientific description, which may be derived from the write-ups on the packaging of health foods. There has been a complete shift from late-sixties (with Theosophical influence) style ‘sensitivity to auras’ to chemical (maybe pseudo-chemical) imagery to describe unusual talents. ‘Mitochondria’ at p.60 (‘40 years after terminal OD/ fatty mitochondria of the heart/ - degenerate H damage/ to her arteries’), describing the death of cult heroin novelist Anna Kavan, probably should read ‘myocardia’. He tells us this occupation of scientific imagery is derived from Prynne.

Reed systematically violates, in this work, the space normally owned by personal judgement. The eye’s cells are sensitive to a limited spectrum and there are ‘colours’ in the ultra-violet wavelengths (for example) which we cannot see. An ancient ‘folk metaphor’ describes the homosexual world as ‘sensitive’ to a spectrum reach (and a world of shapes) which the heteros cannot detect. A camera could react to these wavelengths but if its images were printed on paper the paper would appear to our eyes as blank. However other processing can spectrum shift the camera data to produce fake colours (Fehlfarben) which would let us see a new world of shapes and objects. Taking in words, you momentarily see the fake colours and glimpse the emotional peaks, tints, emotional tensions, and relations that Reed sees - like a hallucination - a whole new city. As your eyeball flexes back into its normal volume and curvature the picture slides off into nothing. I can’t share that city - he shows it but I can’t see it except for a second of distortion. It is like seeing a ghost - an older sense of ‘glamour’. He explains what’s not happening-

You can’t access weird if you’re straight
You lack the codifying gene, the kink
That criminalises what you see
Into same-sex perception, straights don’t do
Detail or up colour tempo
Like jumping up and down on strawberries
    (p. 104)
- but not what is. So a straight, orthodox person can’t understand these poems? How could that not mean that they are off the line - in bad taste? How can any of their stylistic decisions be right if almost nobody can identify with them? The attempts to write the rules of the game are radically flawed but he plays it with courage and resilience.

What is distinctive about Reed (or rather one segment of his wonderful output) strongly resembles features of popular culture and so may point the way to finding mass popularity for poetry. The unpopularity of poetry may not be due to its verbal difficulty but to emotional reserve, the caution of the writers reinforced by a sense of cultural superiority which makes them unwilling to make the vital charge available. The line of the book is guided by transgression - you have to leap out of your skin to go inside the poem and contact its evil heats and accursed availability. Classic rock and roll described a scene of people going out at night, dressed in coded and narcissistic and unsubtle clothes, to lose inhibitions, to pick up and have casual sex with someone if possible, to blare out hyperbolic and ‘inauthentic’ declarations, to get drunk, to insult authority. People bought the records without literally, or always, living them out. If a mass audience can ‘get with’ Little Richard, maybe they can get with gay nightlife at least as a momentary swelling on the skin. A comparison - driving cars too fast is stupid but people don’t pay to watch cars being driven at 30 mph, they do pay to watch racing drivers take it much too fast. 

  After wilful self-commodification, a sideslip from demanding expensive gifts as a sign of affection has shifted the whole structure of the poem into a homogeneous landscape of indulgence. The takeover by purchasing and consumption simply overwhelms every aspect of behaviour, something poetry has never said yes to before. It is puzzling to describe the border zone between sensitivity and macho crassness in this oral landscape where aestheticisation is gobbled up and dissolved by a process of sugar breakdown. The clients regard buying a rent boy as an act akin to buying and downing a bottle of cognac. This may be the way poetry goes. They loved the idea of renting a poet and this heaves up a glimpse of early-teen Reed loving the high-glucose idea of a Poet in the same way as the prologue to becoming one. Why be a poet? this is one answer.
While gay style may not need this compressed quality in an era where you can socialise at leisure and at length, art also has to abstract and emphasise. There is a problem with poetry which represents masculine values (and social authority) by being inexpressive. This might be a withdrawal of surface pleasures to offer something deeper, but could also be boring all the way down. It may be that the stance of being disenchanted, sceptical, self-disciplined, in control, is just incompatible with producing anything but porridge-coloured poetry.
Thinking about detail, the title is probably the worst one of all time. If you’re going to go tacky, why not Sleaze God Roams Soho or Street Dish Talks Back or My Brave Life Trolling and Trilling?
PS Grevel was shocked because when this masterpiece book came out it didn't even receive one review. This is a whole scandal. I have written a lot about Reed but I get the impression that people ignore what I say or have said. Grevel's Intro to that Selected is a survey of the whole of Reed's career and probably the first one ever.

Monday, 6 June 2022

Chronology of the Alternative

Chronology of the Underground

I have been pondering an anthology of the Underground. I don’t think you could do this in one volume… I am imagining a series of six volumes. I was very taken with Jim Keery’s anthology of the Apocalyptics which included 191 poets… with the Underground, you are looking at maybe 400 poets. Maybe a bit less than 400! So this raises the question of whether there were any genuine breaks in the history of this scene, or whether the volumes have to be separated by arbitrary breaks.
The question is also whether we are dealing with a single entity over a fifty year period, after the initial efforts of Migrant with Gael Turnbull, Roy Fisher, Michael Shayer, etc., giving us a starting point around 1960. One version is that the population of poets shifts by about 3% a year, with new people arriving, and so changes gradually but in the end completely. Another is that critical events have meant that the scene completely changed several times so that there are several different entities and we need several terms to describe them. Actually, no one believes this. This version is not a candidate. Another version is that the scene in 2010 is still recycling procedures developed in the 1960s, in an admiration which is conservative. I am not sure anyone believes this version. Another idea is that the Underground is not focussed on poetry; in any year the new poets are influenced by radical politics, boredom with convention, post-structuralist literary theory, conceptual art, radical cinema, etc., so that their cultural DNA does not derive from poetry (which is hard to access). So, there is a pool of radicalised youth (or survivors, I guess) of whom some portion are also interested in culture; and of that portion some small minority are interested in poetry. But there is a radical scene, or market, or attitude, which precedes any poem getting written. The distinctive feature of the poetry might then be that its semantic structures reflect attitudes of that social group.

I find it very hard to define the overall changes. It is much easier to deal with poets as individuals. The idea of 3% annual change is plucked out of the air, as I don’t have a way of measuring this. Evidently every year has had at least one new poet turn up. The Underground has continuity as a community of readers, but has certainly not remained stable in the cultural preoccupations and ideas of style which animate its projects. The continuity of individual poets, pursuing their personal style over several decades of productivity, only disguises a basic process of change which may be clearer if we just block out the dominant figures. A useful historical approach would be to examine vertical sections, defining moments in the advance of a column. I looked in early 2015 at the website of Knives Forks and Spoons, a modern Underground publisher, and listed the names of authors they published then:
Tim Allen, Meredith Andrea, David Annwn, Joanne Ashcroft, Alan Baker, Richard Barrett, Jeremy Balius, David Berridge, Michael Blackburn, Mark Burnhope, James Byrne, Neil Ambel, Joel Hace, Lucy Harvest Clarke, Adrian Clarke, Wayne Clements, Mark Cobley, Rebecca Cremin, Sarah Crewe, Sophie Mayer, J Crouse, Philip Davenport, Ian Davidson, James Davies, Peter Dent, Ken Edwards, Neil Ellman, Stephen Emmerson, Matt Fallaize, Gareth Farmer, Patricia Farrell, SJ Fowler, Kit Fryatt, Andrew Gallan, Peter Gillies, Rupert Loydell, Jesse Glass, Howie Good, Giles Goodland, Gavin Goodwin, Chris Gutkind, Trevor Simmons, John Hall, Peter Hughes, Dylan Harris, Daniel Y Harris, J/J Hastain, Colin Herd, Lindsey Holland, Simon Howard, Sarah James, Tom Jenks, Joshua Jones, S Kelly, Ira Lightman, Travis MacDonald, Ann Matthews, Anna McKerrow, James Mclaughlin, Nicky Mesch, Geraldine Monk, Frederick Morley, Stephen Nelson, Bruno Neiva, D E Oprava, Ryan Ormonde, Lars Palm, Daniele Pantano, Bobby Parker, RT Parker, Peter Philpott, Stephen Pike, Evelyn Posamentier, Jay Ramsay, Kevin Reid, George Szirtes, Simon Rennie, Antony Rowland, James Russell, Ian Seed, Robert Sheppard, Marcus Slease, Ben Stainton, Paul Sutton, Todd Swift, Andrew Taylor, Nathan Thompson, Scott Thurston, David Toms, Rhys Trimble, Steven Walling, Debbie Walsh, Tom Watts, Michael Wilson, Colin Winborn, Cliff Yates. (99 names by my count)
An attentive reader has used a computer to count the commas in the above and found 95 occurrences. It surely follows that the count of names is 96 and not 99. 96 tears! 96 poets!
I hope this shows some of the fertility of the contemporary scene. KFS have a bit of a trawler approach, they take on a lot of books. Have I read all these poets? certainly not. I have read Eighteens, the KFS anthology. In this list, the only ones who featured already in the 1970s list are John Hall, Peter Philpott, and Robert Sheppard. (After weeks studying the data in Poet’s Yearbook, which came to a halt in June 1978, I can see that 12 of these names were already appearing in publication lists in the 1970s. So 88% replacement over 40 years? is that a meaningful indicator?) This could be seen as a picture of the scene in 2015. There are hundreds and hundreds of other Underground poets writing, but this is a view, something small enough to look at.
(Finding 12% retention in one publisher is not a reliable index, as if we looked at the whole field the rate of retention could be 5% or 30%. More work needed.)

My feeling is that there are no interruptions in the Alternative scene. Divisions between a posible six volumes of anthology would have to be arbitrary.
It is noticeable that there is no anthology collecting the British Poetry Revival. Everyone agrees that Eric’s 1974 essay on the BPR is fundamental to a description of the Alternative scene, that knowing those 36 poets which he listed is basic to grasping modernity in Britain, but there is no anthology putting them together and actually there never has been. This brings up another possibility, namely that becoming an Alternative poet does not imply knowing the history of the Alternative scene, and that in fact people who write unconventionally as part of a generalised dislike of authority (plus idealistic hopes for the future!) may stumble across other poets who are conventional only after key decisions have been taken. The idea that 1000 Alternative poets know what the other 1000 Alternative poets are thinking, or have thought, is untenable and even ridiculous. There is a legacy, I guess, but it is probably fragmentary, selective, and to some extent based on misunderstanding. There are deep infrastructural problems blocking visibility of what happened in the past of an anti-commodified and rather unpopular realm of art.
Proxy. I compared this list of 96 with the poets in the Alternative anthology, Dear World and Everyone in it (2013). The overlap is six names out of 72. In order to cover all 72 names, we would need a comparator of 12 times as many names. This would be (6x96) 576 names. So the small overlap suggests a total set of 576 poets in the Alternative population as at 2015. This is not a Solid Gold Count but a proxy indicator. It gives us a ball-park figure. So, if we wanted a description of the Alternative as at 2015, we could simply wave a hand towards those 576 poets, notionally formed up as a flock or herd, compactly.

Flashback. I thought to look at another yearly volume of Poetry Dimension to get a count of how many poems have that “smug concluding quatrain”. I picked up Poetry Dimension 7 and this time I came up with 25 poems out of fifty featuring a smug generalisation as its coda. Holy shit! Maybe I am being inconsistent. Anyway this time I looked more closely at the crop… variants on “looking back after thirty years”, of pious messages to take away, of pulling back the camera to reveal a Timeless Pattern. Evidently people were collecting these adages to form a collection whose ultimate outcome would be Wisdom. My impression is that the count for an anthology like Lucie-Smith’s would actually be zero. Also, that the smug end quatrain is where the conservative reader defines what they have Gained from the poem, suspicious in case there might be some aspect to it they can’t measure and define. Strange that the coda isn’t always right at the end of the poem. Hill has a stanza “Platonic England, house of solitudes,/ rests in its laurels and its injured stone/ replete with complex fortunes that are gone,/ beset by dynasties of moods and clouds” which rather depressingly extends the subject to Our Beloved Nation As a Whole, but this is actually stanza 2 of a four-stanza poem. Also, it is a generalisation but it isn’t banal, actually it is elevated and has two mood swings within its four lines. By Platonic, does he mean “an elevated Idea of England which you can’t actually touch or live in”? If there is self-deception, is it by other people or by Hill of Hill? Anyway, the Smug Concluding Quatrain was jettisoned by younger mainstream poets, during the 1970s, as well as by Alternative poets.

Monday, 30 May 2022

what was Alternative poetry?

Alternative Poetry

I posted something about alternative poetry in July 2021. I thought to add some more, because information is emerging about the overall shape of the field as it recedes into the past and the high spots fade out (and stop blinding us).

There is a single issue (labelled 19-21) of 2nd Aeon, in 1974, which has (very quick) reviews of 276 small press publications. Apart from anything else, this raises the question about just how many alternative poets were active in 1974. And, how many were active over the whole stretch from 1960 to 2010. (2010 is an arbitrarily chosen moment… 1960 is the rough location of a break, when Migrant began putting out pamphlets which didn’t fit the commercial book world at all.)

I think to get inside the underground you have first to recognise roughly what the cast of characters is. A thousand poets, quite probably, of whom say one hundred are prominent and act as landmarks. Secondly, the chronology, which as I said I am not clear about. People see the scene as a sort of mythical place which is always the same. They deny that change is taking place.
Thirdly, stylistic features. Commentators would generally mention hedonism, spontaneity, dislike of authority, political idealism, frame shifts, lack of frame markers, an inclination towards myth, interests in unusual (non academic?) knowledge, irregularity, lack of “polish”, rejection of a Christian framework and of moral generalisations as an element, preference for open situations rather than ones dominated by service and duty. Characters in the poems are not presented as dominated by economics, status, and morality. The influence of American poets of the 1950s is powerful. Beyond that, many features are important, but are certainly not universal in the population of poets we are thinking about. If you accept that the object being described includes one thousand people, you have to pull the camera back and capture overall features while ignoring fine details, which just aren't present in a large number of poems.

There used to be a trade association called the Association of Little Presses. Its members were non-commercial (unsuccessful?) poetry publishers, and in practice they published almost exclusively poetry - a few political pamphlets notwithstanding. The ALP used to publish catalogues of all available publications put out by its members; title Catalogue of Little Press Books in Print Published in the United Kingdom. In good years, someone indexed those lists by author – so that you can count the number of authors dealing with non-commercial publishers in that year. This takes us into the macro-realm of overall volumes.

I found the catalogue issue for 1990-1. It had an author index, so I could count 1571 individual writers listed there. (This figure has problems and may include only 3-400 poets.) I then looked at some ALP lists for the 1970s, although the way they are organised makes them hard to use. Then I looked at the 1974 list, which for once has an author index, and counted 488 names. I took the names beginning with S and counted the overlap with 1990. It was about 25%. It was as if the 1990 list was a completely new list of names. If we assume (on the basis of scanning these lists) five hundred 'alternative poets' in the 70s, and speculate about 500 further poets emerging after 1980, then we get to 1000 for the whole period, say 1960-1997. This is a numbingly large figure, and I am certainly not proposing that everyone in that set is worth examining or resurrecting, but it does suggest how important the Underground realm was. You have this tradition of eccentricity in Britain, and the idea of being personal, original and nonconformist appealed to large numbers of people. I don't have a copy of the ALP lists – they charge a stiff price for them second-hand – but I have a copy of Poet's Yearbook for 1978. (It is a list of apparently all new poetry publications in a year stretching from June to June.) I extracted 70 or so names from this:

B Catling, Chris Torrance, Eric Mottram, Walter Perrie, Tom Lowenstein, Susan Fearn, Jeremy Reed, Nick Toczek, Allen Fisher, Ulli McCarthy, Phil Maillard, Alan Riddell, Glyn Hughes, Stuart Mills, Colin Simms, Steve Sneyd, Barry Edgar Pilcher, Philip Jenkins, Hugo Manning, Eddie Flintoff, Michael Haslam, John Hall, Tim Longville, Paul Matthews, Neil Oram, Nigel Wheale, Mark Hyatt, Rod Mengham, John Wilkinson, Dinah Livingstone, David Chaloner, Iain Sinclair, Brian Marley, Charles Ingham, Nicki Jackowska, GF Dutton, Eric Ratcliffe, Elaine Randell, Asa Benveniste, Stuart Montgomery, John Seed, Tony Jackson, Lee Harwood, Bill Griffiths, Michele Roberts, Paul Brown, Bernard Kelly, Owen Davis, Jeremy Hilton, Martin Booth, Glenda George, David Greenslade, Ken Edwards, DM Thomas, Florence Elon, Roy Fisher, Susan Musgrave, Sacheverell Sitwell, Colin Nixon, Mark Williams, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Elsa Corbluth, Jeremy Adler, Jeff Nuttall, JH Prynne, Paula Claire, Paul Green, John Welch, Martin Thom.

It is often said that the Underground went through a dip or retraction after 1977 and grand disappointments. However, if the 1990-1 list has three times as many names as the 1974 list, the existence of that dip in overall activity has to be questioned.

People who write about poetry tend to approach the Underground through a legalistic path. They define a coherent artistic or political or ideological position, elaborate that to their satisfaction, and then stand it up as a description of how small press poets really are. This is a notably unsuccessful approach. The underground world is clearly amorphous. The coherent definitions fail simple tests of descriptive accuracy. To make them pass, you always have to take out large parts of the subject matter. There may be another problem, that some critics think there are only three underground poets. This was the point of the ALP lists, to put into the public domain minimal facts about the whole of the alternative press sector. The lists describe what ALP member publishers were offering for sale, and did not apply any artistic criteria. Our definitions should match the primary evidence. The folklorist Lauri Honko has a useful statement about this: “If a fancy theory replaces or makes obsolete identity elements actually used in social interaction by the people studied, very little has been achieved. A degree of recognisability by all parties of the alleged social and cultural identities should exist as a warrant against false definitions and artificial categorisation.”
Honko identifies a speech community as empowered to make category ascriptions which we then have to accept. The first thing to say is that a large number of poets are not unambiguously Alternative. This makes the idea of a count problematic. We would need some other size measurement. Secondly, we have to take on the idea that if you could line up 1000 members of the poetry community, they would disagree with each other about category ascriptions. I think we have to give up recording every detail of this, it is just an impenetrable thicket. I can say that nobody identifies themselves as conservative and conventional, and a result of this is that many conventional poets wish to deny the radical poets the status of innovators.
This count of 1000 made me realise also how little I know. Time has gone by and I came to think this was also an opportunity to describe the small press world as an organism. The subject was too large to be passed by in its entirety – as critics used to do in the bad old days. There used to be a kind of act of oblivion whereby an establishment critic would say “all small press poets are alike and I read one of them twenty years ago (variant: 40 years ago) and he was no good therefore no small press poets are any good and I can safely ignore them except for making destructive generalisations about them which will please other establishment critics”. Even if it is true that all small press poets are no good, it is not at all true that they are all similar or that you can estimate their aesthetic value without first reading them. I wanted to establish this as a fact. Apart from that, I want to entertain an idea of a resource which would when called on give you the story of each of these thousand people: their publication, their career, their shipwrecks (if necessary), their artistic hypothesis, their affinities.

There is a package of (alpha male, wisdom, responsibility, experience, generalisations, ethical superiority) which older poets saw as their commodity number one and which readers reacted against. A focal problem was the poem which has some concrete information and then at the end packages it up in a moral generalisation, so something like ‘people should be nice to each other’ or ‘you can’t trust the powerful and connected’ or “isn’t he a bit like you and me’ or even ‘it wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels’. I am wondering whether this kind of poem really exists. I thought to look at Poetry Dimension 2, a reliable reference source for conventional poems of the time, which was 1974. I counted 57 poems of which 15 have a lurch into generalisation and lesson drawing at the end, or close to the end.
This is a valid indicator. Alternative poems never have the smug concluding quatrain. But, it is not a certain marker of membership. The other 42 poems in that 1974 anthology don’t have the tedious generalisation as their triumphant climax. Moreover, we have a body of poems, in the four volumes of Poetry Introduction which appeared from Faber from 1969 up to 1980, which represents younger mainstream poets and which is also almost entirely free of the “smug conclusion”. So we are looking at a generational shift rather than something which separates two groups of poets of the same age. There is something which new poets were resisting and it was linked with certainty (about ethical truth and academic knowledge) as opposed to being new, curious, and excited. Maybe the idea of the smug closing quatrain is more of a Fear Symbol and less of a real, dreadful, thing. An older generation of readers were asking moral questions of poets, and poets were giving clear and resonant answers to these questions, which since the 1960s few people have been asking. The status of knowledge supported the status of educated individuals and the rejection of generalisations about life was an anti-authoritarian conclusion.
I also looked at frame shifts. The proposal would be that the alternative poem relies on montage, on the juxtaposition of disparate ideas – without frame markers, conjunctions and so on, which would signpost the shift and tell us what the connection between the frames was. The poem would be like a cinema in which lengths of film follow each other to satisfy the senses but without any obvious link between them. Each moment would be vivid and we would enjoy the experience without analysing it. I compared two 70s poems. Both were about the German bombing of Britain in the early 1940s. One was by Meic Stephens, one by Allen Fisher. I had Stephens tagged as mainstream because his poem was in Poetry Dimension. His poem was probably set in 1974, had a flashback to 1942 (when his village of Treforest was bombed) and inside that a flashback to a time before the war (when the siren was for an accident in a coalmine). He doesn’t actually label the shifts – with a feature like a dissolve with which a film might signal “flashback”. So the difference between the two poems is one of degree – one has more frame shifts and less insertion into an autobiographer narrative which naturalises it. But Stephens’ poem has two flashbacks, which are montage effects by any definition. And Fisher’s poem (“Morale Confusion”) sticks accurately to its theme over about 80 lines – the exception being a collaged-in piece about the Milky Way which actually fits in as a glimpse of the sky, whence the bombs fell. There is a passage I don’t understand: “moving west towards immortality/ the deer confluence/ in these measures/ in region of summation's meeting”. I have a vague feeling this is a theme from Amerindian mythology, but anyway it is about the afterlife.
I noticed that the siren, which connects the parts of Stephens’ poem (he hears an ambulance siren and flashes back to an air-raid siren) arouses diffuse anxiety. It is an ambiguous signal. I wrote (in a longer piece) “A search in Poetry Dimension 2, which I keep to serve as a reference set of mainstream devices, shows that the poems are frequently about what cannot be defined or assimilated. The choice of these themes shows that these poets like indeterminacy – although their vocabulary would say evocative, ambiguous, strange, etc. They often start from a moment of uncertainty – an unresolved sensation which arrests normal patterns of consciousness. The 'classic' Underground idea of a mainstream poem would be that “it starts with anomalous and strange things and by explanation reduces them all to complete banality, clarity being the same as loss'. In these terms, the Underground must always win. But after looking at the genuinely m-stream poems in Poetry Dimension, a not very good anthology of poems from a single year, I don't think the poems fulfil the formula.” Again it is a matter of degree. The alternative poems are more ambiguous but the mainstream poems consciously use ambiguity as part of their fabric.
Would it be a good idea to compare thousands of poems? Probably. But if you try to compare two poems which have no common elements then the operation will not work. You need a natural pair of poems as a starting point.
Stephens uses myth at one point, the dogs of Annwn and a mention of Tristan:
The dogs of Annwn barked for me then,
Trystan called without hope to Esyllt
across the black waters. Ai, it was their wail

– but Fisher also mentions mythology: “Spurt of Juno’s milk into night sky/ silver coins/ Milky Way in idealised universe”. This may be literally a description of a mantelpiece carved by Grinling Gibbons. The fact that both poems use myth may neutralise a supposed distinction: there is then no contrast to be drawn. But I feel that when the poets are making similar gestures we are seeing them very intimately and the differences are especially clear.
Another feature would be familiarity. The alternative poem is unpredictable. But another way of looking at this is to claim that the new style poem has jumps of sense, presents a pattern which is unfamiliar, and therefore is obscure. There is an issue about knowing why the author is doing something – the reader knowing what information to focus on and in fact what the expected reaction is. We could call this the separation of theme from detail. It is credible that the alternative poem is unacceptable to mainstream editors because it isn’t instantly recognisable and this is seen as being badly written – poorly organised, in fact unfinished. So a rigid idea of tidiness is part of the issue. Keywords are control, rigidity, boundaries. A poem has a schema and the reader seizes the schema as part of reading the poem. There may be a match between the rigid knowledge which we see in older poems and the knowledge of the poem which is encapsulated in the schema. This may be where we seize something vital about the differences.
A book on the subject about the underground as a whole should surely exist even if it is not clear to me what it would say. I would be especially be interested in the chronological progression – I think the scene has been constantly changing and the momentary states are actually what has been lost. It would be logical then to capture them in a book and let them be found again. **