Sunday, 19 March 2017

Crime stories

Very satisfied because an order of books has arrived after 5 weeks. I ordered two books about criminal cases by a prominent East German lawyer, Friedrich Karl Kaul (1905-81). These cost 1 Euro each I think, which is why the order was slow.

Kaul is discussed in a history of East German literature which I have been consulting.
It is a platitude that the best writers, in dictatorships, are dissidents. Any bright 13 year old knows this. But if you assume it to be true, you never read writers who are not dissidents. In this way you could miss the fact that it is only, say, 80% true. Also, opposition writers are often banned in the country they are writing about. This means that the reading matter in that society is quite different. I want to read Kaul because I want to get at something more typical of East German daily experience. If you read some writer who is published by a West German publisher, who is being read by people in the West, who is getting reviews and prizes mainly from literati in the “capitalist zone”, they adapt to that milieu. A writer whose only goal is to be read in the communist republic, and perhaps in some of the “fraternal republics”, is a better source than one with wider contacts.

I got into this because I was reading a 1925 book by Egon Erwin Kisch, in an East German reprint. Kisch was a reporter who wrote only reportage, and so was one of the bases of East German literature. He died in 1948. Obviously the DDR in the 1950s was a rerun of the Weimar Republic with the nationalists having their microphone unplugged. Kisch was the perfect writer. That's the problem with the literature of the Democratic Republic – that core of perfection which you can never enjoy, like a core of ice in the ice cream which will never melt. So many writers saying, virtually, “this idea was great when it was first used 50 years ago, so I will be great if I use it”.

If you scour the second-hand listings on the internet, you find that Welsh books stuck in English bookshops are often incredibly cheap. East German books, especially non-dissident ones, are equally cheap. Since I have no money these are two fields I am penetrating in depth. In both cases the appeal is of learning about an alien society from the inside and I want books that speak to the small society and not to a wider world. Also, reading a bad book from a society can be more revealing than reading classics all the time. Certainly true for Wales. I had a wish, at some point (2010?) to uncover trivial culture from Germany. This was due to a question about the prevalence of American culture as "mass consumption”, the point about American movies and TV was obvious but the other question about how far a native “pulp” existed and what constituted its appeal was more elusive. German pulp would essentially not be exported, it would be missing from the libraries I used in London, which were founded on a notion of “seriousness”. I didn't get very far with this although I did get to watch some German Edgar Wallace films.

If you follow simple wishes, you end up reading 9 dissident writers for every one who was regimetreu, loyal to the regime. But in fact the East German regime lasted 40 years, the Soviet regime lasted 70 years. So the idea that the story is all about them falling apart is flawed.

Kaul had nothing literary about him but was very concerned to tell the truth. In a 1959 book (Kleiner Weimarer Pitaval) he quotes the original writer of true crime, Pitaval, as saying that truth is the most important thing. “Peculiar and astounding events, which move us in novels, in these works of the imagination, can because of their untruth awake no founded pleasure in us ... But when the true and the amazing are combined, then our reason and our heart enjoy a pure and true pleasure.” This was in 1736. So that is the model for East German literature, in 1736. Kisch wrote a book called Prager Pitaval about crime in Prague. I used to have a copy of this, God knows how that ended up in London. Kaul must have read this book.

Communist society was based on crime. By the government, that is. I don't expect to find very much in Kaul about crime inside East Germany. You just know it's all going to be about crime in West Germany, maybe in Britain (the home of detective mysteries), crime in the Third Reich, crime by Americans in Europe, crime in the Weimar Republic. In fact he wrote a 3-volume Weimar Pitaval in the 1950s. That says so much about the Fifties in the DDR, that people were reliving the Weimar Republic, in this case alongside the right-wing judges and lawyers who had put communists in prison for talking and set Nazi murderers free because they were patriots. So in 1955 you re-enact the trials but with the result coming out differently.

Kaul writes a 70-page account of a corruption and bankruptcy trial in 1929. I suppose it's not literature but it is very interesting. He was obviously a communist sympathiser as a young man and spent time in Lichtenburg and Dachau concentration camps around 1935. This is why he spent the 50s reliving the injustice of the past. He was also half-Jewish. Anyway, he got out, first to Colombia and then to Central America.

The big story in Russia is the alliance between the Party and the gangsters, which was growing even in the Sixties and came to run the country after the breakup of the Soviet Union. So true crime is the key to everything, even if loyal writers never mentioned it. I am not sure that there was any corruption in East Germany, they didn't have a Mafia and they didn't really have dissidents. But as for truth, clearly Kaul wasn’t willing to tell the truth about the society he lived in. Truth started at the border, more or less.

Refuge areas and English nationalism

This is a posting about resentment and refuge areas, in the wake of the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump.

The poetry world is most visible when it carries out acts of validation, such as awarding prizes and releasing books in prestige series. These acts are claims of homogeneity and indeed poets all want homogeneous applause. However, a significant component of the scene viewed in the round is resentment. This is one of the major energy flows and it needs to be brought to light.

One form of the lingering resentment is ethnically defined. It's aboot time we listened tae naebodie but oorsels. TS Law said. Mentioning this raises the possibility of an English Nationalist programme for poetry. This seems structurally implied in a game where ethnically defined blocs are saying listen to naebodie but oorsels, but it remains a white space on the board. It faces structural difficulties- on the level of someone saying that they won't eat spaghetti or hamburger because they aren’t English. In parallel, it seems that someone who would commit to such a programme would reject all poetry since 1960. That is, this category of people may actually exist, in numbers, but they are structurally removed from the game because they refuse to play it. This would point to the origin of the poetry scene as a self-selected group, dominated by empathy which leads to convergence. The more they converge, through shared experiences, the more they differ from the outside world. We may speculate that even though poetry is subjective, if a number of people read the same 300 books they converge, so that their subjective reactions come to resemble each other. In fact, the wish of the poet was to communicate, and this always mitigated the purely subjective element. The domination of the poetry world by the people who actually want to take part in it disguises an untested fact, namely that the scene could alternatively be run by quite different groups who would then lead it down a new path – so that the empathetic/liberal tendency would have to leave. So perhaps very different outcomes were possible.

English nationalism would take the form of denying the right of the people in the poetry world to own poetry. This is a thought experiment. It is likely that the actual state of poetry is the product of all its preceding states. Nationalism was extremely important in poetry in the era of Newbolt and Noyes, but there was a strong reaction against it in the Twenties – the reaction against the military ideas of the First World War, in fact. Being incorporated into the poetry world has meant, since that point, taking on unstated assumptions about the desirability of war, the condition of the State as an emotional object rather than a business one, about asking questions, and about submerging in a collective, which were not compatible with nationalism.

One fruit of the uprising of 1968 has certainly been to critique individual judgement, the individual experience of art as a source of knowledge and pleasure. I think there is a refuge idea where art consumers faced with the critique of judgement which has been taking place since the Sixties get irritated and disengage and take refuge in a narrower world. Here, the refusal to extend is a vision of authenticity. They find a comfort zone of pleasure while ignoring the critique and the rather long drawn out arguments which have accompanied it. This seems like a retreat to me. Back into the Balkan hill ranges and a tribal sense of homogeneity. I am not sure that criticism ought to be annoying and humiliating. There is a whole line of Marxist-oriented cultural critique which is designed to humiliate people – in the style of John Berger. Your experience is invalid, he is saying, because you are invalid people. This may not be backed up by evidence.

I was very impressed with Goodwin and Ford's book about the rise of UKIP (Revolt on the Right), because at each point they pass on assailing UKIP's dud ideas in favour of saying that the energy of the system as a whole is running down because politicians are ignoring what the electorate are thinking about and saying. The key thing is the decline of Labour and the Conservatives, not the rise of UKIP which wins votes without winning elections. I think the managers of poetry need to learn from populist hostility.

The poetic equivalent of UKIP and Donald Trump is Bloodaxe Books. The critique of the intelligentsia. Of sophistication, of ideas of modernity. The resentment against an elite who dominate the discourse and are super-articulate, the rationalist that the elite represent a consensus and are fastened by self-regard. We have been dealing with this since the end of the 70s. Actually Bloodaxe is not English nationalist. I should emphasise that this resentment is expressed in the jacket texts, a fugitive genre which is not subject to scrutiny and not expected to be responsible and proportionate. Its texts may not be visible in retrospect, they vanish. They are anonymous. But they are read a lot by possible shoppers. This matches up with political campaigns via Twitter and the Internet, the digital post-truth realm. This attitude is not written up in any book (a book about modern poetry by the head of Bloodaxe was announced in the Bloodaxe catalogue but never appeared). Like UKIP, this line of opinion did contain a lesson for the intelligent and credible. I have certainly thought about it a lot. Populist books of poetry were selling in thousands while modernist-style works were selling 200 or 300. 95% of the potential audience are scared of anything difficult.

I don’t think those jacket texts ever named the people they were attacking. They didn't distinguish between the academic taste of the 1950s and the modernist/Leftist poets of the 60s and 70s. They just had a stereotype of “intellectual – smug – inhibited – not entertaining”. Evidently many real books acted out that stereotype.

The poetry world is a small self-selected group. This is worth thinking through. Evidently, people who never read any poetry are less qualified to make generalisations about poetry than people who read it all the time. This is a question of sovereignty, almost. Of the right to make judgements. The established “poetry elite” falls into several groups. Evidently there is a group whose working assets include the rejection of modernism and of the critique of the self (roughly) which has developed since 1968. The populist thing involves a dual rejection: first, of the Oxford line of poetry for being too narcissistic, too smug, too sheltered from life's problems, too conservative in social attitudes. This is quite separate from the attack on another elite, of left-wing intellectuals, for not delivering credible accounts of lived experience and for being too esoteric in linguistic means. You can attack both groups at once. (It is characteristic of a populist resentment that it ignores differences between various sectors which it wants to attack.)

Because of the history of the scene, the populist resentful group is on the Left and is educated. It is rather that they are less educated than the hyperliterate and are Left in a less abstract way than the readers of philosophy. You have to have sympathy for someone who is reeling out of the cinema not having understood the film. People encountered poetry at school – if there were people who read a Shakespeare sonnet and really didn't understand it, they were labelled as not the A-stream by the teachers, but it is unconscionable for the poetry world to go on casting them as the C-stream. If someone is labelled as 37th out of a field of 45 in an exam, it is quite likely that they will mentally define the 36 who were more intelligent than them as inauthentic and lost in abstraction. This sounds childish, but as I was saying adult behaviour in culture recycles attitudes acquired while at school. If you see attacks on poets with Oxbridge educations, poets with knowledge of Continental culture, poets who have read literary theory, we are seeing a “refugium” mentality, parallel to UKIP's attack on career politicians. You have to admit that some people are reading new-style poetry and they just don't get it, the dots don't resolve into a pattern. The scene shouldn’t just be built around academic stars if they are very few in number.

If you get into the critique of everyday life, including consciousness, you can lose the sense of life being lived and offer the reader nothing to identify with. That is the very thing they want, so giving it away is quite a radical step. This may be what people mean when they talk about “abstraction”. I think that what the wider market wants is a poet with greater sensitivity than most people, and then poetry which has contained time. If poetry is an argument, if the compassion of the poet stops being visible because of the critique they are carrying out, the appeal is not there any more. If you are criticising the process of consciousness, you end up with zero contained time. There is nothing to identify with. Meanwhile you can reach a larger market by presenting a poet who embodies compassion and the feel of “lived time” even if they are unoriginal and evidently mediocre at key points.
Obviously I regard the people who like my poetry as the most legitimate critics. But there is a circularity built into this. Suppose you have an elite which enjoys minority support. Meanwhile its legitimacy is challenged by broad if disorganised groups which are pushed by resentment. This means you could redefine them as not being an elite. As a thought experiment, we could say let us define a hundred different factions as being failed elites. How do we decide which one is the least failed? What I am saying is that if you only have 50 fans there is a problem in you defining those fans as the most authorised to authorise because the whole process of legitimation is in question.

I don't think the populist hostility amounts to a new elite group. This is because its means of presenting ideas, in jacket texts and so on, are so shallow and unaccountable. The ideas cannot be argued at length because they are too flawed and too reliant on negative stereotypes which fall into shreds when the evidence is assembled. They exist as smears, scurrilous insults, stereotypes, folklore, dark flashes of emotion, and if they were not like that they would not be populist.

Who are the elite? One segment little considered is the stockists, the people who choose the stock of bookshops. They are nameless so their biographies are not part of the cultural memory. However, it may be they influence the course of literature more than anyone else. The flow of reviews and so on may be at a remove from the book trade, and not especially influential on sales. A critic might be influential by affecting what the stockists do – influence is always conditional on being listened to.

I have reached a halt without talking about refuge areas which ignore the existence of feminism or of immigrant groups (and critiques of the British). I think similar conditions apply – the resentment is never articulated and so is hard to critique intelligently. Similar emotions are probably in play – people don't want to enter the poetry section in order to be made to feel guilty and to be told that the position they hold will have to be given up and they will be evicted. They probably want to hear the reverse, actually. They may want a refuge area, a refugium, from those feelings. They are resentful of an elite which bases its legitimacy on inflicting those feelings on people. But actually – being pro-feminist and pro-immigrant really are qualities which qualify you to apply for a post as culture officer, qualities too which justify the system and protect it from legitimacy and energy leaking slowly away.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Web statement on 2nd edition of Failure of Conservatism

theme: reissue of a 2003 book on style and time in modern British poetry.

In June 2015 Tony Frazer of Shearsman discovered that Salt Publications had discontinued my book The Failure of Conservatism in British Poetry and offered to republish it, so that it would continue to be available. Big up to Salt for unleashing it on a horrified world. That was in 2003 but multiple internal references make it clear that the main body was written or finished in 1995. This means the book was 20 years old. There were a number of glitches in the text, fairly easy to fix, but there was a more basic problem related to the passage of 20 years. I decided to fix the problems which I saw and have spent late June and July frantically rewriting the text. I wanted to change every paragraph and have ended up writing about 60,000 words of new text - it is hard to count exactly. I kept the original timeframe of 1960 to about 1995. The main change was to remove almost all the stuff attacking conservatives. This is because the people I was attacking are dead. It was like shelling a sunk ship.

I was misled by reading Under Briggflatts. The step before writing FCon was a lengthy review of this terrible book by Donald Davie which claimed to cover poetry 1960-88 and did not praise any poet who had emerged since 1960. Four poets get brief mentions, but the message is that nothing happened after 1960 - just the Movement poets serenely triumphing and piling up more and more volumes of Final Truth. So I was writing before anything else to populate a landscape with all the poets who DID matter and to refute the malign Davie view of the scene. It was obvious that Davie, at 67, was seriously unhappy about anyone younger than himself being talented. He just wasn’t having it. But how influential was Davie in 1995? or the whole Movement clique of which he was the spokesman? In 1989 Davie was already not the voice of central opinion, but already obsolete, and the mainstream had already moved on from the 50s hegemony which DD had been so much part of. There was much more of the mainstream than Davie’s patrons at PN Review. I was mainly attacking DD’s repressive and blind view, of 1989, but in 1993 or 1995 that target was already partly dead, and I didn’t take enough account of other parts of the landscape. Affluence is the anti-Davie statement. The fact that I had a limited grasp of the history of the Underground didn’t hold me back. I had to controvert Under Briggflatts and I did that.

If you are listening to mainstream critics born, not in 1922 like Davie, but in the 1960s, the pattern is different and the need for profound opposition and critique is not there, or there in a very moderated form. The purpose this time, in the rewrite, is to reach a consensus. This is so much easier for the past (the book halts primly in 1990) than for the immediate present, with its unexpired passions. The large-scale changes involved cutting the attacks on conservatives (the generation born in the 1920s, largely off the scene by now) and also the chapter on the 1950s (pp. 45-74). This gave me space to add much more information that was specific about dates and sequence - this is the function of this volume in the overall cluster of 7 volumes. I think the time is ripe for a consensus about 1960-90, as the ‘area of disturbance’ moves forward to the last 20 years.

I think that if you take the question what is distinctive about this poetry and answer it comprehensively, you will be close to knowing also what is excellent about it. The body of opinion which could be called neo-conservative and which harbours intellectual doubts about the merit of originality is little articulated and its popularity is hard to gauge. Tracing these innovations produces a style chronology which does not also have the merit of identifying what is typical at any point.

The unstated premise of FCon is that the process by which a poet gets to write outstanding poetry involves the pursuit of ideas into unknown territory and the realisation of individual dispositions to an extent which means differentiation from the conventional and already present. Thus originality and unfamiliarity are features of strong poetry, in the twentieth century - although of some weak poetry as well, I would think. This consideration of what is conventional and of the multiple formal means of going beyond it are powerful procedures for getting the shape of contemporary poetry into clear view and, consequently, of recognising what is unoriginal, tired, and weak. Most people share this idea that originality, the realisation of a personal vision, and internal variation are key features of important poetry. The project was always heading towards consensus, although through controversy.
I was interested by readers who were compelled by formal issues. They base the value of assets in their collections on knowledge of what they are, including what is original about them. Nobody likes the shop assistant who looks down on you for buying the wrong record. All the same this minority has the knowledge, and we have to hang out with them to get at it. Tight definition of stylistic moments or changes is an area which belongs to collectory types.
Because originality is a product of a phase of creative development, the absence of originality is a sign of lack of engagement and disinclination to take poetry seriously. This apathy is the key - not, on its own, the wish not to take up the forms of modernism and modern art.
The creative phase does not have to be part of a Style Fashion, so the innovations can go off in different directions. But autonomy has a distinctive cast and it is serious if poets lack any trace of them. The idea of a 70s mood affected me powerfully. The external signs always affect me, it is like black and white TV which inevitably reminds me of childhood and the 1960s. Besides, sensitive people are more sensitive to collective excitements. This is an unignorable factor. But a given year may witness a number of different collective excitements - giving more than one “period feel”. Thus what Christian poets were feeling in 1975 was probably quite different from what left-wing secular poets were feeling. Both are parts of Time.

A secondary effect of identifying what is new at any point is that you get into the slipstream of the theory that the development of art follows a timetable, that what changes their time is a group of conscious and reflexive people, that these people know each other, and that everything which is not new in their terms is provincial and at best belongs in the museum of naive art. Actually, studying naïve art is a clue to why art does not always have to be metropolitan or innovative. This ideology is historicism and by some mysterious process it has come to belong to a faction, a coherent group whose ability to invalidate and to validate is underwritten by a large body of international opinion. (When I say “is”, the disbanding of this ideology and this faction is one of the features of recent times, and it is scarcely possible to trace a historicist line of progress in the period since 1990. This is part of the story. At present we have an innovative sector comprised of people who do not in fact believe in historicism and historical progress.)

Later volumes got away from this test of merit and were much more about the pleasure of reading poetry. I took out the stuff on the 50s generation because they have lost all importance. I cut about 60 or even 80 pages about the conservatives. They may not have lost the war but continuing the war after their biological exit from the scene is pointless. This war is over. The map can be drawn.

I have just been reading David Kynaston’s social history of Britain 1957-62 - 872 pages about 5 years only (Modernity Britain). This is the way to go. I read a snarky blog about FCon which complained that it didn’t have anything after ‘Conductors’ and that it was incomplete. Both criticisms are true but that wasn’t the design of the book so I don’t feel bad and have made no attempt to fix that. It would certainly be irrational to try and fix both problems. I chose a solution to the problem of dealing with modern poetry comprehensively by writing a series of seven volumes- although in 2003 the plan only involved 4 volumes. (The whole ensemble is called Affluence, Welfare, and Fine Words.) If the design is so large-scale, you must have patience -and you certainly don’t put everything in volume one. No, first thing you learn is that you always have to wait. No-one starts a series of 7 volumes with one which is of itself closed and conclusive and closes the question down. No-one plans duplication. Omission is the key to everything that is about to follow.

My impetus was to show that good poets had emerged since 1960. This led to a wish to record ALL the good poets who had emerged since 1960. The project of showing significant features of 100 poets was not compatible with rapidity of movement and, in fact, a one-volume history. The extensive method, of exploring magnificent poetry over what was eventually 2000 pages, was more satisfactory in every way. I think the brief sketch method is condescending and dangerous unless there is a consensus, which is wholly missing, around poetry since 1950. It is charged with the burden of cultural authoritarianism which is the most important and detestable aspect of the late 20th century era. Where the basic assumptions and conclusions are not shared, you can’t deal with and dismiss literary works quickly. I explored the unshared assumptions themselves, and this occupied many pages because the subject matter had so many convolutions and was so much in need of recuperation. The 7 volume method was the right one to choose. I didn’t offer a 1-volume history and I was right. I have left the cutoff at about 1990 and not tried to carry the fight beyond that. The whole 7-volume work gets with poets born 1920-50 and makes a stab at poets born 1950-60.

The main issue I have with FCon is the lack of an overview of the 90s - for this reason I have added the subtitle “1960-90”. There is a section on poets who were new in the 1990s, originally written for an anthology produced in 1997. This is a glimpse of the future. It is a long way off an overview of the decade. Today I feel that the key factor in the 90s was a poetry boom, one effect of which was that poetry grew in every direction and so there is no ‘main axis’ to be recovered. There is no clear line of development even for the stylistically aware minority who are interested in such things. Growth outward into new stylistic space was difficult and the “group feeling” about where development would go was missing. Poetic innovation was certainly happening but the new territory did not open up as a generational project. In such a cultural atmosphere the style-chronological approach which I am applying throughout the book no longer works. Listing outstanding new books is useful, but the specific method of FCon has lost its command and geographical power by this point.

I declined to describe feminist poetry as such. I was writing in a period of conservative dominance when identifying anyone as Left inevitably wrote them off as biased, naive, allied to Third World dictators. I had to hide all that. After all the ideas proposed by feminists were not some abstract ideology but the truth. The problem is always that ideas about a new collective life are designated as ideology by those who are happy with existing property relations. That anti-Left feeling was just much weaker in the Blair years, though it may be coming back in 2015. I said very little about the politics of the poets because of that Thatcherite atmosphere of witch-hunting. I didn’t want to say who was in the Communist Party and who was in the IMG. It would have been too easy for journalists to say “look, these Underground scruffs are the equivalent of communist shop stewards and wildcat strikes” and write off the whole enterprise, and that is exactly what they would have done.

Another question is whether FCon increased polarisation in the scene - significant when the theme of The Long 1950s and to some extent The Council of Heresy was depolarisation. But my feeling is that it’s not contemporary enough to infuriate people, it deals with the recent past which has already slipped into a colder, more rational, territory for us all. Also, fruitless arguments are fuelled by ignorance and misunderstanding, and FCon provides floods of information. This is the important thing, and it is what historians are supposed to provide.

Although the cover made no such claim, everyone reviewed it as a one-volume history of British poetry. Actually the cover said it was part of a series of four, but they all ignored that. Why this blatant dishonesty? Because the unmade claim to completeness allowed them to name a poet I had left out and ride to their rescue. Everyone wants to pose as the patron and protector of a vulnerable, quivering, Neglected Poet. A reviewer who did not pose in this way would be an exception. This is total self-indulgence. Why is it poets get neglected? because of loyalty, critics project egocentrically onto one single poet and bypass the opportunity of surveying a field. There is no chance of any perception of all poets who made a debut in a given decade, for example, while critics are so busy identifying with a single one - as a projection of their own ego, a wholly owned asset. A generation is not just a couple of needy and manipulative individuals. In the meantime I published reviews of 140 modern poets in the series. You can have intimacy with one poet but apparently not with 20 or 140. I am glad to say that I finished the 7-volume work, although at the time of writing one book is unpublished.

I was not in a position to write the history of the Underground in 1995. Components of bluster, vagueness, supposition, and challenge animate the undertaking. The book went beyond what was technically possible when it was written. It was high-risk. I think a cultural critic has to attack areas of uncertainty, conceptual disturbance, and the results of oppression. FCon was unsatisfactory. But it moved the whole poetry world on. The history of the Underground is still poorly written, due to the egocentricity of the participants - the detachment needed to write prose does not fit with the emotional demands of the poet.
I was very frustrated by the lack of any prose account of the Underground from within their own ranks. Frankly I was incensed by the condescension and cliquiness of the participants and was quite happy to write about them as an outsider, someone who hadn’t been around in the 60s and 70s. I had this idea that making vaporous ideas explicit, in a coherent prose narrative, would provoke people on the inside of the Underground to put accounts into print which would correct my errors - and realise my frustrations. But no corrective accounts appeared. Maybe people were too cool to put key ideas into the public domain. Maybe they weren’t really interested by anything except themselves and elective ancestors they could weave into the origin legend of their poetic selves. I spent a long time trying to get people, survivors of the 70s, to narrate the past of their in-group, and it usually went badly. I am so grateful to the people who did talk sense to me. Mostly I got into poetry through spending time with people, through empathy rather than reflexive and explicit tales. Ulli and Eric were especially influential on my ability to understand. 90% of the meaning reached me through empathy rather than theory. I would concede that my narrative of the past of the groups, the legendary Warring Clans, does not agree with their sacred folklore. I don’t have that transfusion of ethnic loyalty. It is almost sad that so much is passed face to face. I was lucky to be friends with Mottram and Prynne at an early age. I was hardly able to be unaware of the existence of a school of Cambridge and a school of London, even if I didn’t know which one I belonged to.

If you break down the “necessary knowledge” into 100 modules, I probably had 30 of those modules in 1995. But I didn’t want to wait. I don’t understand the history of the Underground. This was a weakness of the first edition - I was a participant but that didn’t mean a view of the whole landscape. It was also restrictive identification. You are feeling what I am feeling. How can you map something which is invisible and which flees from view? Recently I have seen some generalisations about the underground which I don’t believe. This suggests that there is no consensus. So what is the history a history of? Dissidence is not a constitution. In contrast, I do have some texts in my house. A few texts are patches of knowledge. FCon was unpublishable in 1995 and covered an area which key cultural figures were eager to deny the very existence of. Was I keen to rewrite it in 2003 - no, I was sure that if I waited the window would close forever. The project was moving on and I had by that time written three more books - Legends, Centre and Periphery, and Silent Rules. I was busy and I didn’t have time to do anxious rewrites of FCon. Anyone who has stacks of unpublished books will know that you don’t hang around rewriting what is finished. Instead you write more books. The alternative is a state of anxiety and repentance which gets closer to silence every day.

It is likely (based on counting names in the ALP catalogues) that some 2000 people published poetry in the innovative or underground sector during our period. Fairly obviously most of these were not very good, and prolonged exposure to their work is irritating and disillusioning. Ideas which are imitated by so many people reached that condition because they were exciting ideas at the outset. This is proof of something.

People always think I read the new books of 1977 in 1977 & the new books of 1988 in 1988, but this wasn’t how it happened at all. The answer is that up until 1987 (roughly!) I didn’t know anything about it. The Underground was genuinely inconspicuous, it was hidden behind endless stacks of mediocre mainstream books and the well-known magazines had a strict policy of never reviewing anything ‘small press’. The real problem with Under Briggflatts was that it was so convincing, it was in tune with the poetry industry, for what that’s worth, in this country. So it’s “you say the count of good new poets since 1960 is zero but actually it’s 100. You attempted to conceal this from me”. This is the detonation point for fCon. This is what I’m talking about. There is an unlimited flow of culture, it’s easy to bypass Underground poetry altogether. So I had an incredibly rich experience in which I caught up the whole history in a short time, perhaps over seven years after 1987.
So – how did I find out that there was an Underground when it was being concealed. The answer is partly that my life changed and partly that I got lists of names to track down in the Poetry Library (where the books had been lurking all the time). A Various Art was a help and hanging out with London poets like Ulli and DS Marriott was also a big help. To be honest, it was to do with my social life. Whatever was inside me, I learnt so much from socialising with people, and in 1987 or so I began spending time with poets as opposed to other friends. What’s harder to explain is why they were hanging out with me. I think poetry criticism should fill the role of face to face contact. I am trying to write from inside the poem. The generalisations can only be reached after prolonged wrestling with the data, and are at first unrecognisable and alien. So after 20 years I can’t offer an overall view or solid generalisations.

The mainstream has a reviewing system. It is a public art. If you are involved with it, you get to know what the reactions of the other people involved are. Most probably, you assimilate to them - empathy as a way of learning. Equally, the poets write what the reviewers want to hear. The prose and the institutional element play a vital role. They make visible a set of norms - if you don’t match you can define exactly why and define this mismatch as your character. All this stores up a quick win for the historian - you just tap into what was actually there. None of this applies to the Underground. There never was a reviewing system. There was a set of norms based around the pattern of American poetry of the 1950s, but it had little connection with what was happening in Britain. The poetry offered asks you not to assimilate. There were no institutions. The cultural ideas were very noticeably scattered and rapidly mutating away from each other. It is very difficult to figure out what the audience liked, if there was an audience. All of this means that any historical account of what happened is an invention. I am very sceptical of some generalisations recently uttered. I am therefore not offering a history of the Alternative sector. Some strands can be made visible, with chemical preparation. The generalisations come slowly. Recovering the important texts one by one is still where it’s at.
Between about 2004 and 2009 I was carrying out a search and recovery project to find good mainstream poets. This work is documented in The Long 1950s (published 2012) which is a “flickering” history of the mainstream. This work was hard to do because the m-stream is amorphous and very large, and critics make little attempt to distinguish between good and bad. There is a category of High Street poets but they really aren’t the best ones. I like a lot of poetry attached to the era before 1960 - as this whole book explains. The existence of this book is another reason why material on the 1950s and 1950s poets going on until 2000 could be dropped from FCon.

One book I read in that “location and recovery” phase was John Wain’s Letters to Five Artists, poems (1969). This shows one of the original 8 poets in New Lines breaking ranks and shattering every rule of the Movement’s rule-book. Wain got with the twentieth century. Letters is spontaneous, hedonistic, lavish, excited by the possibilities of poetry. It is exciting to see someone liberating themselves, but this is not great poetry. At the point where you find that one of the original ideologists of the Movement abandoned it and struck off in a different direction, you realise how complicated the history of these things is. Wain had a biography in the sense that he thought about things and as he made new decisions kept moving forward. Perhaps a thousand Movement poets (is this figure too high? say 500) also made serious decisions to follow the New Lines thing and then later a dozen or two made serious decisions to move on, or at least modulate the message. The crumbling of the Movement was a twenty-year process which did not follow a simple course and where a thousand significant details could be found. I concede that I haven’t written this history, although I would love to read what someone else discovered about it. I would hesitantly say that the Movement was terribly important in the 1980s but was decaying in power and energy during that time. The pattern was roughly X saying “I have immense literary authority” and maybe 50% of relevant people agreeing with them. But as time went on more and more interested people were saying “you don’t have authority, your views reflect your personality problems and your social attitudes” so the 50% figure crumbled. Wain, around 1965, walked out on the Movement project and effectively said “these values are restrictive and you can ignore them”. (Prior to 1965, maybe even 1961. Wildtracks was the big break and is about modernism and revolution.)
I haven’t read all Wain’s books. There is no Collected, possibly because his Movement allies saw him as a traitor and talked him down. Obviously it is better to read lots of books and you get the “shared story” better as you travel through many individual books. It is just rather expensive doing this, even via the second-hand dealers. John Holloway is the other New Lines participant who showed radically different ideas and the capacity for changing what he was doing. People thinking about poetry, moving away from poems after they had written them, moving into areas of uncertainty and writing new poems they were uncertain about. This is the day to day reality. It is exciting to read a narrative which soars over the details and shows large-scale structures which at least seem to exist, hidden by the myriad details. I am interested in the collective drift, so in 100 books published in 1969, rather than in quirks of individual biography.
I am deeply grateful to Simon Smith and Harry Gilonis for (amongst other things) the original evening in the pub in around 1995 where we made a list of the significant books of poetry of the modern period. This was an incredibly concise way of presenting a lot of information. The Shopping List (of significant books) has 250 items & obviously I wasn’t going to give a Brief Sketch of all of them. I chose the 7 volume method instead. The new edition adds about 45 titles to the 2003 version. How do you explain 295 artistic texts? The snarky blog sneers at the presence of very little material post Conductors. Actually Conductors isn’t in the Booklist because the script was completed in 1995 and Conductors of Chaos came out the following year. In 1995 there was no book which admitted that the Underground existed. Being up to date is suicidal where there is an 8-year delay between writing and publication. Books need validity of a quite different kind. The cold light of retrospect yields the most durable views.

Surely it is unrealistic to say that bad poetry dominates - there is tons of bad art pouring forth at any point in any field of the art industry, and by common consent it is unimportant. It dominates by volume only. While gazing in horror at bad poetry, and indeed the whole publicity machine of bad poetry, I don't get with the group which we can (at least recognisably) label as 'post-modern' or ‘ludic', and which so much redeems the official poetry publishers. (Actually there are a few pages about them, but not drawing the right conclusions.) What I don't get into is whether this group took over the 'lead role' from the Underground in around 1980-3 as the Underground was in such disarray and the 'post-modern' group were so much more able to reach the reading public through the usual gatekeepers. The question of decline in the Underground fascinates me. I have never published about this because I can't make my mind up about it. However, I would welcome debate on this point. I think the office of 'lead role' has disappeared. But perhaps it was still there in 1974- and the convulsive struggles of the next three or four years were a symptom of this office dissolving, spilling out its strength and confidence, as splashes landed everywhere.

There is a new style of cultural managers who don’t set out to exclude everyone except a chosen few. It’s not Davie, Grigson, Ian Hamilton, Gunn, running the shop any more. I should have given this topic more space, back then. My feelings of oppression overwhelmed me. The new mantra is ’poetry is incredibly diverse’ and this is what I was arguing back in 1995.

I have just been reading the accompanying essay to an anthology of East German poetry - finished after the Wall fell. In it, Peter Geist quotes a statement by poet Elke Erb about the increasing interest of East German poets in the playful, in games. Erb was saying this in 1981: secondly: an unfolding and reaching for autonomy of the playful. This means a liberation and placing in opposition of non-integrated and non-organisable reality, of sound or of lexical associations, of the layout or of meaning, against an unaccountably linear, aggressively totalitarian view of things. The coincidence in time with the advance of ludic models in England, which I have dated to 1982-3, is striking. Surely I should have made more of this, writing in 1995. Anyway these currents of stylistic excitement, imitation, etc. can be quite exactly dated, and that is the point of style history, and that was the approach of FCon. But there are many other ways of discussing poetry. I don’t know about Erb - I can’t help admiring her technique but I am not greatly excited by her poetry. She certainly didn’t do what the Party wanted and certainly achieved autonomy. (She identified three features of newer poetry of which this was one.)

When I stopped writing the work (Affluence) there was a sort of psychological silence which descended, and which made me insecure. I spent much time thinking about all the defects in the work. I would walk to work every day thinking about its flaws. Reflections on these are visible on my website at .

Reading this back, I see that it has a hiatus – it doesn’t explain how I was spending time with Prynne and Mottram but they didn’t explain to me about the Underground. But that is how it was. They didn’t proselytize and that is why they were effective teachers. Faced with someone who apparently knew nothing, they sought to lead me towards a great a variety of objects of knowledge – recent poetry was many places down the queue. Prynne did tell me in around 1979 to read Jeremy Reed, and that was good advice. If you read either Prynne or Mottram, it’s sort of obvious they have 1000 other interests than just reading poetry.

notes on centre and periphery (book)

Internet notes

This is some authorial chat about the republication of a book, ‘Centre and periphery in modern British Poetry’, originally 2005. Liverpool UP have let it go out of print, but due to the generosity of Shearsman it is going to be re-published. Some authorial chat about it from circa 2003 is at
The Liverpool edition cost £50 and it does not seem that many people saw it. I hope that people will get to see it now that there is a paperback edition. Because the Liverpool version was compact at 80,000 words, I have taken the opportunity of adding two new chapters. They are about the past of the periphery, Gaelic and Welsh, and although they don't improve the structure of the book I have included them because people seem interested in Celtic matters. The dwelling on concrete but formalistic details of textual construction may be irritating and certainly isn’t equivalent to describing the higher literary intentions of the texts. However, the nebulous overlay of celtomaniac fantasy is too voluminous for me to act in any other way.

From memory, I was writing it in 1994, sent it to various publishers in 1996, Liverpool UP said yes in 1997 but on condition of a rewrite, the rewrite was held up because I had to get permission to use all the quotes but went out in 1998. Then only six and a half years later they actually published it. Because all the parts are quite limited in scope, a rewrite was not necessary although 20 years have gone by. It is a very contained book. (An issue of Angel Exhaust, 14, in 1996, about poetry in the North, is related.)
It is about the periphery. It is specifically about Welsh poetry in English, Gaelic-influenced poetry in Scotland, and poetry in the North of England. It would have been good to write also about poetry in Welsh, poetry in Gaelic, poetry in Scots, and so on, but reaching a high standard depended on limiting the scope, and as I went on the focus got narrower and the information accordingly more dense. The aim was to plunge people into the life of various non-central worlds of poetry so that for the duration of the writing the peripheral would seem central and the reader would be transported to a different culture. The argument is that opinion on the periphery always writes off the central, Oxford-London, poetry, as tired and without artistic ambition, but that there is a line of artistically and intellectually intense poetry which constitutes the real Centre and which rarely seems to reach the periphery; and that there are some very important poets whose habitat is the Atlantic periphery rather than the metropolis and its surrounding area.

I am writing these notes in 2016, in between proofing the second edition and I am in Edinburgh. A visit to the Scottish Poetry Library earlier in the week was unproductive but did turn up a book which on examination turned out to be a translation into Icelandic of some Shetland poets. So you come from Iceland and the only poetry you want to bring home is from somewhere as similar to Iceland as you can possibly get? Unimpressive, but the point is that someone on the cultural periphery may be fascinated by other parts of the periphery and quite uninterested by what we view as central.

I got a lot of books from the Gaelic bookshop in Mansfield Street (Glasgow) and am tired from trying to absorb too much Gaelic vocabulary in a few days. Unsound for a holiday but I get caught up in these things when I am in Scotland.
I saw the 'Celts' exhibition at the National Museum. Subtitle “art and identity”. Think this is just to get people to buy tickets, because “identity” didn’t have much to do with it and the accompanying text was quite sound about the elusiveness of links between different cultural clusters which 20th C scholars boldly labelled “Celtic”. So the text points out that one of the repousse figures on the Gundestrup Cauldron (I can’t believe they let that one travel from Denmark) is a snake with a ram’s head. This is a figure of “dream transformation”, and in fact many of the forms on show in the exhibition represented shapeshifting, metamorphosis, forms you become in dream, possessions. If transformation is the theme, how can you talk about identity? how can you drag identity on stage? There was some painted pottery (3rd and 2nd centuries BC) from Clermont Ferrand which you could classify as “zoomorphic” and “psychedelic”. Some of the most amazing visual art I have seen in years. I have never seen this material before. (Images on Internet, keywords Roanne, La Grande Borne, la Tene, painted pottery, ceramique peinte.) The selling table outside had a new book by Peter S Wells which looks like a completely new interpretation of non-Classical European art just before the Roman expansion and during it. I couldn’t afford it but this looks like extremely powerful stuff. Obviously I have read other books by Wells & his source of propulsion is really abandoning the nationalist “enclosure” system and starting with the Iron Age material stripped of all interpretations. Psychologically difficult but in the end you make breakthroughs.

The shop has several issues of a thing called An Guth which on an initial examination seems to be a poetry annual containing a mixture of Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic poetry, edited by Rody Gorman. I had to buy a copy. I am going to have difficulty reading several hundred pages of this material but it’s just an exciting idea. They are really two dialects of one language and it would be desirable for reading people to know both dialects, just as reading people in Scandinavia can read books in any Scandinavian language (not Finnish). This doesn’t apply to me because I would have to acquire several thousand words of new vocabulary, Irish just has a different set of vocabulary. And more difficult verbs. What is this thing called the f-future? Guth means “voice”. (Possibly cognate with a Welsh word gweddi, meaning ‘pray’?)

Cunliffe. Cunliffe puts forward the theory of core and periphery as a description of relations between the Celtic world and the Mediterranean, which I reproduce. It is fair to say that the analysis of the role of Mediterranean luxury goods in Iron Age central Europe originates with a paper by Susan Frankenstein and Mike Rowlands in 1978. They were writing in a Marxist framework, and this remarkable paper is an achievement of English Marxism - a faction which has caused a lot of trouble in the study of literature.

Irish Sea Culture Province

One of the Gaelic magazines I bought in Mansfield Street has a short article by Colm ó Baoill, who taught Irish Gaelic in the Celtic Department of Aberdeen university. “They say that we are all Gael, Gael of Ireland and Gael of Scotland, that we are the same kindred from the beginning, the same language, the same culture, the same everything. But there were also differences between us from the beginning, no doubt.” He goes on to say that the sonnet never existed in Scotland, although it did in Ireland (sort of), and there was one Scottish poet who wrote a Gaelic sonnet – while living in Ireland.
Having created the idea of ISCP (Irish Sea Culture Province), people made a leap in the dark to believing that there were no differences between the different regions within this cultural province and that the ships which moved to and fro between the various sea-coasts had in fact carried an export culture which had dissolved local cultures and produced one homogeneous people. This leap came as a great astonishment to those who were used to regarding the whole area as a cluster of hinterlands, whose geography made them naturally resistant to ideas from outside. Indeed, we were accustomed to seeing those societies as ones where import and export, and means of transport, played a minor role and were underdeveloped. There was an issue of whether the regions were now redefined as littoral, and naturally open to absorbing and converting not new social patterns; or hinterlands, hinterlands even with respect to other inaccessible regions nearby, which were reached late by European waves of cultural change and which retained older cultural systems which had been replaced in the centre. The idea of comparing the different regional cultures - Gaelic, Scottish, Welsh, etc. - was promising but unable to get started if there were no individual scholars who were expert in more than one of them. If no-one today can master the different cultures of the Irish Sea Province, I do wonder if anyone could have mastered them in the 5th C AD – enough for convergence to take place, that is.
The idea of a shared culture had one quick win - that is, that Gaelic crossed the sea from its home and virtually the same language turned up being spoken on Man and in the west of Scotland. Indeed, there was a migration to Wales at the same time (roughly 400 to 600 AD) and for a while Gaelic was spoken in some districts of Wales. This is why you have names like Dolwyddelan (valley of the Gaels) and so on. For me the idea of similarities between the different language areas around the Irish Sea is a source of hypotheses - ones that have yet to be formulated.

The belief in language obscures the factual question of whether social organisation really corresponds to linguistic boundaries. To put it more bluntly, Scotland has two languages but that does not prove that it has more than one culture. The features attributed to the old Gaelic realm may also have been present in the old Scots/ Lowland realm. Notoriously (and entire learned books have been written about this) Scotland’s self-image is expressed in terms of kitsch, and writing about Scotland finds it hard to evade kitsch. Meanwhile, the image of the Celtic realms or Irish Sea province is always expressed in terms of mysticism, fairy tales, and whimsical nostalgia. Are these separate phenomena? or is there one grand unified cloud of kitsch in banks over the North Atlantic – like the ozone layer? This would make it possible that the reality underneath these international fantasies is the same reality – and Scotland had one set of social arrangements, although there was a strong contrast between old and new because the country evolved rapidly. This would solve the connected question of what was the nature of areas which were Gaelic-speaking (and so Gaelic in culture?) but became Scots-speaking in early modern times – this included an unknown amount of the Central Belt.

There is the “blank field” problem. Two completely blank pages resemble each other 100%. The further you go back away from observers and modern documentary technologies, the sparser the dataset is. So there is a “horizon line” at which the dataset is completely blank. So if you take Welsh, Scottish, and Irish “regional knowledge” back to a horizon line, a zero point, they resemble each other more and more closely, and then perfectly. Because any blank page is like any other. The less data we have, the more the pages resemble each other. And this is a meaningless convergence. If you define that meaningless, pristine, blankness as “celticity”, you are in deep trouble. You have an empty category. What actually happens, outside the realm of conservative scholarship, is total fantasy. So celticity is blankness flooded with a kind of Disney fantasy.
There is no such thing as “Celtic society”. Beneath the dreamworld, real regions have real histories. There is a real history of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but they didn’t start from the same point of origin and the results of comparison may be nil and null. I want the real story. My book is also critical of nationalist mythology and of regionalist literary kitsch. My guess is that Welsh and Scottish nationalism have become more realistic, and more worthy of holding power, just about every day over the last 30 years. C-P is a historical work – describing effects of “peripherality” which have got weaker and weaker as British politics have evolved. The new material in the 2nd edition evokes a period before the Atlantic fringe became peripheral – when those regions felt themselves to be at the centre of things.

(ISCP) The framework that Cyril Fox took his idea from included within this “sea province” the seas off Southern Ireland (and the lands near them), and around the Bristol Channel. A corollary of this is that our studies should include not only the “Celtic” Cornwall but also areas like Somerset, Lancashire, and Cumbria. Once again, geography lifts us out of old-fashioned linguistic determinism - the master-narrative of nationalism.

History of the book

The reader’s report on C-P as it was in 1996 said it had to be much shorter and also include more things. I thought this was crazy as a set of instructions, but I simplified the structure of the book and overall the report was extremely valuable and stimulating.

Where I used a certain Irish poem to illustrate the links of the Carmina Gadelica to very ancient Gaelic poetry, there are Latin hymns from Iona (translations in ‘The Triumph Tree’, edited by Thomas Owen Clancy), 10th century, which are much better evidence. Too late to include this.

The moment when ‘Centre periphery’ crystallised (out of a mass of material which I was trying to integrate into separate books) involved two poems of Nigel Wheale’s, one about the ocean near Cornwall and one about the Clearances, ‘Cara Alba derelicta’ (he was married to Kate McAskill whose family came from the Hebrides and had been ‘cleared’ in the nineteenth century). It also involved WS Graham’s poems about the ocean. It may also have included Anglo-Welsh poetry. The centre of fascination was the ocean as a symbol of boundlessness, and the idea of an Atlantic fringe which was where people had the most radical political views and were not loyal either to capitalism or to the Westminster government. There was an analogy between the ocean and the uncultivated, even uninhibited, lands of certain regions near the ocean, an emptiness which made human arrangements seem irrational and which incited people to Utopian speculation. Fantasies about a “Celtic” past were part of this. This was something I felt and which was also felt by other people, by the poets in fact. I could see a book in this.

What is it that damasks the waves of this great bay
as if with a care for each moment within the deep sad systems
of the sea? Stone crop flares on the boulder face
and we walk the high edge, our words leaving no mark,
silent on the more general silence. The great sun
is absconded beyond the waste and we navigate as if
we were the old-time sailors, peering eyelessly to gain
the pressure of invisible land with a facial seeing,
the blind sight of those who move by dark of intuition
and the common surface of their skin.

(Wheale – from ‘Silent Coast’)
I just found this utterly beautiful. Years went by. – I can’t reconstruct the stages. Being told to cut it all down to 80,000 words and yet include extra themes was difficult. Both Wheale and Graham vanished from the draft, they just didn’t fit into any of the chapters, despite my enthusiasm. Over a long period, I separated the rest of the material – I mean, everything about British poetry from 1960 to 1997 – into areas, and slowly built up the areas into coherent books which followed a line of argument.
I was fumbling through my shed yesterday and found a magazine edited by Nigel (Ideas and Production) which has what must be the first publication of ‘Silent Coast’. It says that the title comes from a painting by Peter Lanyon.

One of the books about Gaelic culture which I bought has an essay about the legendary founding of a Gaelic kingdom in Scotland as being by the Corcu Reti, where Ret or Reuda was the founder. ‘Corcu’ obviously corresponds to a modern Gaelic word which now means oats. So, seed of Reuda. I am wondering if the success of the Gael in Scotland, and the unexpected decline of the Picts, was because they had invented porridge. Was this the breakfast of Empire?

Atwood. I should credit Margaret Atwood, whose two books on the myth of the North in Canadian culture were very inspiring to me. If you see your home region as “cold”, that is in relation to somewhere else, which you see as normal and welcoming. This is a kind of “perception from outside”. It selectively picks out only features which differ from another region (a culturally dominant one). Some of these “distinctive features” are merely projective, not real. It is worthwhile capturing this stratum of myth and distortion. I grasped her idea that you could just focus on what was distinctive about a region and blow the distinction up to giant scale. This is what I did for talking about the north (of England) and I found it very productive. I am talking about myth rather than trying to be sociologically typical. All the features of life in the North which resemble life in the South are basically left out. This is not reasonable but it is productive. Atwood was not writing about typical daily life in the North of Canada, but about myth, which is itself based on fantasy or anxiety rather than on things you can photograph.

I was checking once again the passages I quote from Lynette Roberts. The texts in Poems (1944) are different from the ones in Collected poems (2005). I see I managed to mis-quote one in the original Centre-Periphery. Yesterday I came across, by chance, a possible clue to the mysterious XEBO 7011. I guessed this was the number of a boat, possibly designed for coastal raids because of the camouflage. In a book on naval history in the library I came across an XE series of ships. Exciting! They can’t match because the XEs were midget submarines, and at 50 feet too large to be boats (with tag BO for boat). But the X bit could indicate secret and clandestine activity and so explain the XEBO label. An unfinished explanation but maybe this is as far as we can get with that stanza. I did find a source for “ichnographic”, in “ichnographic plans”. (Ichnos means “trail (of an animal”.) These are old, maybe 17th or 18th C, books of plans of buildings, so two-dimensional images of three-dimensional objects; which is like objects seen from the air (as in the poem). It is basically the Latin for “ground plan”.

I had the idea that writing about peripheral cultures within the British Isles would shed light on poetry written by people from non-European cultures but living in Britain. This is probably not going to satisfy anyone. The fact that I found this kind of work so exhausting, that it took me so many years to find the right source material, that I spent so much time learning Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, persuaded me not to work on any other particular culture in detail – but this may not persuade anyone else. Perhaps studying two or three minority groups sheds light on the experience of another minority group. I think there may be a competition for “site” between different aggrieved groups. For example, if someone wants to see more public exposure for poets of Jamaican origin, are they really going to be happy with a few chapters on Scottish poetry? or are they going to agitate to get the material on Scotland thrown out to make more space for their own in-group? This kind of struggle over territory blocks the channels which let you enjoy poetry. I want the whole thing de-territorialised.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Wreckage on dry land: 2000 poets in the alternative poetry world

You will never hear surf music again.

Old catalogues

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 as it may include some prose writers and a few foreigners.) The ALP is roughly the Underground, although some mainstream poets may sneak in. We can be sure that most poets active in the 1970s did not make it into this 1990 list - most of the publishers had simply vanished from the field. So we need a much larger figure to get the total for the whole period 1960 to 1997. I 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 1991. It was about 25%. It was as if the 1991 list was a completely new list of names. If we assume (on the basis of scanning these lists) a thousand 'alternative poets' in the 70s, cut down a few as possibly not British, possibly writers of prose, etc., then we get to 2000 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 – dealers 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.

A bit more effort would throw up a list of 500 names and that might be “the Underground of the late 70s”. 500? it might be a bit more. 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.

Other calculations (available on this website) concluded that the total of British poets (all flavours) who published at least one volume between 1960 and 1997 was in the region of 7000. This figure is unlikely to be too high. Does that imply that the Underground was 30% of the whole? This does not feel right and it may be that the 7000 figure is too low.

These figures represent what we cannot know. That is an incitement to theoretical activity. What we cannot know is decisive at most points in the game. Just posting these figures makes it obvious why literary historians don’t cover the whole field. We are entitled to think about what the whole field would look like. The early stages of this overload may have led to the breakdown of relationships within the poetry world, the separation into groups which notably had a lack of esteem for the other groups. That is, the effect of overall volume on the point in cultural space occupied by one individual may have been strong enough to be measurable. There is a “cultural field” inside which we move.

What was the Underground?

This is an opportunity to describe what “the Underground” means. But at the moment I am just writing about the overall volumes. This can be seen as a continuation of something we put together, back in 1991 and 1992, as “The blood-soaked Royston perimeter”. This came out as issue 8 of Angel Exhaust and identified clusters of poets which could be labelled as the Cambridge School and the London School. The group labels were distorting and have grown less popular. But after all we made a map which had about 40 names on it. This was a start. It is reasonable to think that the average poetry reader only knows 40 names from the Underground – and that is being optimistic. Reaching an overall count tells us how big the map should be. In a way, that is the end of the project. What about describing each of those 2000 poets? Not for me. Please find another 60 critics to do that.

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 seems 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.”

I dislike the term small press. The word press refers to the wood and metal device which in an older world pressed ink and paper together. It harks back to the time after Morris when people were earnest about hand presses and non-machine printing. The environment was one of fine printing and a rather high proportion of the texts were from before Romanticism. Peter Wells was printing Poetry Folios, in the 1940s, by hand. This was at a farming commune organised by the pacifist J Middleton Murry, and the link between Arts and Crafts, Back to the Land, and pacifism as an opposition to the machine, correlated emotionally with the wish to print using the strength of your body as a significant input to the end product. This kind of thing was still going on in the 1950s, although admittedly I don't know when it actually stopped. It was a whole segment of culture and I am not inclined to erase it by applying the word press to anything not involving a press. The alternative poetry scene had nothing to do with that artisanal fine printing and the people who collected those books (on handmade paper or otherwise) did not also purchase alternative poetry.

The most exciting description of the alternative scene was by Eric Mottram, in a whole series of inflammatory writings (which strangely you can't buy in a collected version). Eric's vision of where modern poetry should go was prophetic rather than descriptive. Once a large body of finished alternative works was available, it differed from what Eric foresaw or fantasised about in almost every way.

There are people who stomp around saying “you aren't one of us. Your poetry is old. You have to leave” but this is just territorial aggression and not constituent. How can you be delegitimated by the illegitimate?

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 publish:
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.

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. This list 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.

The idea of a unified Underground is as illusory as the idea that the poetry world is unified (and so there is no Underground or zone of innovation). You can't be part of the reader community for a poem that has no reader community.

This area of consecration, vocabulary building, shared symbolism, repays deeper study. The sociology of cultural conservatism and 'affirmative culture' and of the radical negation it so often gives rise to, is not something we can just bracket out as we re-aestheticise an art of contestation.

The Underground is not just a mirror image of the world of conventions. The nisus towards revolt is too strong to simply halt and turn into unity when it meets an alternative world which has a centre, warmth, a social basis for language. Those centres are themselves prone to rejection, attack, resentment.

How good are these figures? The trouble with using lists is that you can’t check the quality of the items listed. Some publishers who were members of ALP were not even publishing poetry. So while these were all small circulation books the extent to which they were all stylistically dissident is much less clear. Glancing through the ALP list I saw titles which were about genealogy, surveys of obscure dialects (from Oleander Press), ecology... So we would have to purge the list of 1571 names and also add in the names of poets who were not associated with the ALP or who were not visible in 1974 or 1991.

A remaining problem is whether all ALP members had a genuinely alternative aesthetic. Reading all those 1571 writers to check their “alternative” credentials is obviously unattractive. If you look at the total volume of books coming out (via Poet's Yearbook, for example), it is clear that there are many little-known poets. Most of these are completely conventional in artistic method. They are mainstream poets but not competitively effective. They don't get reviewed in Poetry Review, or whatever other test you select. There are publishers who put out low-prestige but non-innovative work. My impression is that the ALP appealed to a clientèle who shared an ideology, of rejecting mainstream norms, and that it was a collection zone for underground poetry. Publishers of “failed mainstream poetry” did not see benefits from ALP fairs or the ALP catalogue, because there was a clientèle who turned up to the fairs etc. and that clientèle were anti-mainstream and were unwilling to buy sub-mainstream product. So they did not acquire ALP membership. This is however a problem area. Anvil were a member of the ALP and they were certainly a mainstream press unaffected by the New Thing of the 1960s. I don't regard their poets as “failed mainstream”, for example I have a number of Anvil books by Peter Levi which I like a great deal. A measure which would combine quantity and quality is difficult to devise. All told someone could do a great deal of work on this figure of 2000 poets in the Underground, which is offered as an indication of magnitude rather than as a last word.

Randall Stevenson, in his history of modern British literature (to 2000), says that the Underground or small press world remains unevaluated. I think this is a serious issue. Robust as his narrative is, it clearly leaves space where a number – perhaps a few hundred? – poets need evaluation. Working on these figures at least gives us a crude measurement of what has been omitted by apathetic historians. The sheer scale of this activity shows how attractive these cultural ideas were to thousands of people. That is another argument for taking them seriously.

John Wain

(justification: another poet not discussed in my 7-volume history of British poetry 1960-97)

One book I read in the “recovery” phase when I was studying the mainstream was John Wain’s Letters to Five Artists, poems (1969). This shows one of the original eight poets in New Lines breaking ranks and shattering every rule of the Movement’s rule-book. Wain got with the twentieth century. It is exciting to see someone liberating themselves, but this is not great poetry. At the point where you find one of the original ideologists of the Movement abandoned it and struck off in a different direction, you realise how complicated the history of these things is. Wain had a biography in the sense that he thought about things and as he made new decisions kept moving forward. Perhaps a thousand Movement poets (is this figure too high?) also made serious decisions to follow the New Lines thing and then later a dozen or two made serious decisions to move on, or at least modulate the message.
The crumbling of the Movement was a twenty-year process which did not follow a simple course and where a thousand significant details could be found. I concede that I haven’t written this history, although I would love to read what someone else discovered about it. I would hesitantly say that the Movement was terribly important in the 1980s but was decaying in power and energy during that time.
John Holloway is the other “New Lines” participant who showed radically different ideas and the capacity for changing what he was doing. I haven’t read all Wain’s books. There is no Collected, possibly because his Movement allies saw him as a traitor and talked him down. Obviously it is better to read lots of books and you get the “shared story” better as you travel through many individual books. It is just rather expensive doing this, even via the second-hand dealers. There is a 1979 selected called Poems 1949-79. This may not be wholly reliable, especially as he seems to have changed his mind about his early career, but it does show that by his 1965 volume at latest he was seriously rethinking formalism and his relationship to modernism. If there is a lesson in this volume (which I found compelling but not artistically fully achieved), it is that modernism was the only way forward in 1960 and that English poets who refused to take it on were blocking their own progress. On theoretical grounds, I would have said that there were a million ways forward and that modernism was just one path whose relevance to an individual poet could be zero. But it may be instead that educated people in 1960 were well informed about modernism and that they were imprinted by it, fascinated by it, to such an extent that it did represent the future and working through it was the only way to go. Wain’s 1965 volume seems to be wholly a reversion to and new start from a 1918 poem by Aleksandr Blok, “The Twelve”. The poem portrays red soldiers and whores in Petrograd, a zolaesque evocation of demoralised, criminal scum, who are destroying the old society and may yet found a new one. Clearly 1918 was no key to understanding the world of 1965, but somehow Wain had to go back to that point, and it seems that by doing so he found a way back to living in the Now. This is, palpably, what many of his cultured contemporaries refused to do, sterilising their own development an early stage. His 1968 volume, Letters to Five Artists, has caught up the Lag, is in the Now, he is part of the modern world and his poetry is part of the world he lives in, with few boundaries as regards source material and ideas. It had taken him that long to fight his way through Oxford, Englishness, and local anti-modernism. At this point he had emerged from the phase of “modernist historicism” and into the sunlit lowlands where there were a million possibilities. You can see him using the poetry as therapy.
The long poem Feng is not in the Selected. It tells the Hamlet story from the point of view of the usurper, given his original name (from Saxo Grammaticus’ book) of Feng. There is a possible link of John Wain and Tony Conran (1931-2013), as signalled by the letter to Conran in Letters to Five Artists. That discusses at length the ferns which suited the rainy climate around Bangor and which I presume appeared in Conran’s garden. Conran’s early work (say 1951-67) was almost entirely “social poetry”, messages to named individuals and often relating to named events, such as weddings. This may have influenced the form of ‘Letters to Five Artists’. The Conran letter is based on a strong series of symbols about the old rocks of Bangor, the thinness of the soil, the continual rain, and the ancient nature of the ferns which love this climate:

And the fern holds on,
rooted in any cranny, green and curling,
its form a patient embroidery, a scroll,
one of a set of variations on
a form basically as simple as an egg
and full of possibilities as a hand:
it grows, it climbs, it unfolds,
not to be questioned, permanently there,
younger than nothing but the rocks and water.

Their tenacity and ability to develop complexity from simple forms are “why you love them, o master”. The analogy is:

intent on your page of cool petal and stone,
assembling grain by grain in the dispersing weather
a soil firm enough for your unsentimental flowers:
enamelled, regal, giving to life their master
the strong homage of art, which cannot show
love except where love is. Their glowing patience

mellows the air of your steep house, that stone
ledge where you perch above your century’s weather[.]

Conran’s romantic mediaeval poems (based on figures from the Mabinogi, often) may have influenced Wain in venturing into a “romantic Middle ages” with Feng. Feng is in 17 parts and totals about 2000 lines. Wain says in a brief note says that he was interested by the theme of madness in power because of its relevance to many situations in the 20th century. Feng is “the sick and hallucinated person who seizes power and then has to live with it”. Shakespeare’s version is about Hamlet feigning madness but afflicted by doubts; Wain’s story is about the madness of the king. The story belongs, arguably, to a series of narratives about nervous breakdowns, in which poetic imagery and hallucination take over from political logic and an isolated but eloquent figure is unable to continue with a social position, with its interlocking roles, and sees social process as fictional and irrational. “The Graduate” is a classic example of this, but the Theatre of the Absurd in general tells such stories. Such stories often show uncontrolled indulgence in sexual activity or violence as instances of pre-social energies, released because social inhibitions seem as ridiculous as other social rules. It is ambiguous whether the resort to poetic logic, and to the processes of symbolism and metaphor, is part of a similar regression. It is also ambiguous whether this regression is a way out or part of a dangerous loss of control. Feng has an image of wings which attach to his body and fly with him; they are also his madness. (Horwendil is his brother, whom he murdered.)

I was content to hate Horwendil secretly, but the wings were not content
they dropped from the quiet clouds to snatch me from my dull content

making me act the revenge that till then was an unregarded dream
making me kill and seize power, forcing me through the doors of dream

never to wake. The vision I made in secret is now my world:
there is nothing outside it. Only the dark at the edge of the world.

(p.53) The condition “there is nothing outside it” sums up a whole situation. But Feng’s ambitions are not different from those of many political chiefs; the story exposes the raw desire for power, the wish to be first among the few, which is normal in elite politics. In the final poem, Feng anticipates his own death and commits a sex murder:

The wet trunks stood
erect, forming a guard. They were so still,
and she, all flowing and suppleness.
Her haunches…!
I was not chasing her. My body was moving
with the same tide as hers. The rain that touches
her skin, touched mine.
My feet on the turf were sharp and shapely hooves.
My brow was branchy. Pride came smoking out
in twin clouds with my royal breath.
To mate!

(p.55) The metamorphosis into a deer echoes quite a few other poems of the era, by Eric Mottram for example. The aesthetic of the poem is one of shock images, flowing on kinetic energy. Feng analyses his feelings but this does not give a way out, his feelings have dissolved into mania. His actions are surrounded by mystery and the events of the poem remind one of the horror films of the time. However, there are long passages of detached reflection which take us out into another world: Feng cannot take his Social being down the path his intellect has gone down. He has reached a higher plane but cannot live out this awareness – this is perhaps the classic experience of adolescence. This is especially true of poem V, ‘A Circle of Stones and a Nude Blade’:
Is it I who am free, and the animals enslaved
to their rigid patterns, those unbreakable laws engraved

on their nervous systems, so that to disobey
cannot occur to them? O whose dismay

at this fertile and comely den-partner no bear
or wolf would agnize?

The final poems see the king become a beast, so reaching a state of perfect unity and lack of consciousness which complements the states of doubt, nausea, and exalted insight in which he spends the earlier poems. In poem VIII he has what appears to be a slipping into the mind of Shakespeare, and watching a long series of scenes played by other people. He can only see these by becoming a ghost. Everything significant is visible but he cannot take part in it. This is like a drug trip and it connects with Seventies Underground poetry: which one can often see as a re-enactment of the history of society, without participation, by an onlooker who is not in control of the sequence of events. The poem unfolds through immeasurably powerful concrete images:
Today I saw the footprints of an elk.
I was repelled. A stag is stag-sized, but
this monstrous shape comes out of a bad dream:
too big for the trees, too heavy for the grass.
This parody of a man, an elk in armour,
a bad giant, hides his heavy skull
in a heavier helmet.
It is as if
he wished his animal brains to simmer slowly
in that great polished pot, until he might
eat them with absent-minded relish, then stamp on
guided by instinct and the forest breeze.

Large stretches of the poem, though, have Feng speak in 20th century language. This is an expression of the basic Absurd situation in which he finds himself: he apparently has knowledge transcending the local, wholly anachronistic knowledge, but it does not help him. He cannot switch off the madness. The poem is stretched between poles of intense physicality and complete abstraction plus detachment.
One could see Feng as an invasion of Movement values: it explores the breakdown of inhibitions whereas Movement poems are exclusively about inhibited action and stepping up inhibitions. The history of the Movement is largely the history of reaction against and advance away from The Movement. Strangely, the same applies to Movement poets: their history is mainly the story of how they absorbed movement values and then ejected them, healed up, and moved on towards something more artistic. My impression is that the 1980s saw a slow collapse of the values, as poetry escaped the grip of academics and the generation born in the 1920s lost power for biological reasons. However, the formalist thing was losing its grip by 1964 (as Eric Homberger has pointed out, in his important study). The 1950s revival of rhyme and regular metre lost its impetus and people stopped hearing poems as strings of rhymes. We have to look at 1964 to get this moment -and surely Swinging London, the Beatles, and the cult of youth had a lot to do with it. The new student culture went back to modernism and didn’t have the acquired anti-modernist hatred which the professors had grown so carefully. The expansion of the Movement was halted then, and its retention of institutional power until the 1980s was due to people sticking to acquired positions rather than to blossoming creativity. Wain’s transition from rhyme (as the keenest fan of Empson) to free verse was, therefore, a sign of the tide changing. John Holloway was a better poet, I think, but both of them show up the weaknesses of the Movement by their later trajectory, evidently the fruit of careful self-critique.
Edward Brunner’s book Cold War Poetry gives the full history of formalism (he does not use this word, which is described so well by Homberger) and shows that you can write a whole book about it without mentioning England (never mind Philip Larkin). By doing that he makes it obvious that you can’t just write off Formalism, or, especially, define it as a reaction to political problems in England – relating the middle class to the working class and Westminster to a rapidly vanishing Empire. No, it was mainly happening in American magazines and on American campuses. Of course, Brunner’s book also shows that it followed an “energy curve” and that energy had largely dissipated by the fatal moment of 1964. I wished, after reading Brunner, that Britain had produced someone who could actually write good formalist poetry. A fit of patriotic regression, no doubt. Holloway’s “The Landfallers” is artistically credible, fortunately. And Empson had nailed the formalist poem in the Thirties (and some more in the Forties).
People thinking about poetry, moving away from poems after they had written them, moving into areas of uncertainty and writing new poems they were uncertain about. This is the day to day reality. It is exciting to read a narrative which soars over the details and shows large-scale structures which at least seem to exist, hidden by the myriad details. Letters to Five Artists is exciting because the writer is facing artistic problems and is jumping off the boat to reach for a new place, a new synthesis. His personal story was bursting out of its inherited restrictions.