Ethos and Perimeter
Note. This is a central statement about a project on British poetry 1960-97. If you read the note you may figure out why I haven't got the energy to go on after 1997. Composition roughly December 1992 to 2012.
Components The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry (Salt, 2003); The Poetry Scene in the 90s (published on the Internet c. 2000 at www.pinko.org); Centre and Periphery in Modern British Poetry (Liverpool University Press, 2005); Origins of the Underground (Salt, 2006); Fulfilling the Silent Rules; The Council of Heresy(Shearsman, 2009). Scene is part of the project. It just didn’t go through the delays attendant on book publication. The Long 1950s is also part of the project, although written after the project had essentially come to an end.
Attention is likely to be paid to people who are left out. This reveals a key psychological structure in the culture around poetry, to do with loyalty, and the ensuing accusations of betrayal. Having pushed the project out to something under 2000 pages, I feel the reason why it stops is obvious. It had to stop somewhere. The solution zone was liberated from even greater dimensions by a set of rules. So, the poets concerned were British, they were still writing after 1960, they published something significant before 1997, they were artistically interesting. Even more, they had to be poets I had heard of and read. There was another rule that I omitted poets who had already been established in 1960 – I didn’t want to write about people who had been written about hundreds of times before.
The point of departure was the belief that information about a whole generation of British poets was hard to come by – an idea which excluded the development of a distinctive personal standpoint. The choice of who to exclude, in contrast, was subjective. As an excursion, the claim is likely to be made that informed opinion disagrees with me about point A or point B – but there is no printed source of this informed opinion. This is the point of the project – to drain off opinion from the air and create a printed, storable source for the reference of those interested. It is an era of primitive accumulation – the capturing of primary evidence and storage of it in a large and public collection. Precise evaluation will have to come later.
The ground rules are close to a work like Lucie-Smith’s anthology, British Poetry Since 1945 (Penguin, 1971). I suppose 1970 was a golden moment before the really bitter polarisation took hold. It shouldn’t be so hard to be that broad-minded. I learnt so much from his anthology. Lucie-Smith wasn't acting as the lawyer trying to win a suit (for privileges) for anyone. He knew that one sign of intelligence was the ability to deal with different subjects adequately and without any lag.
The central drive of the project was to roll back the silence which had descended on serious British poetry like a geological stratum. It was impossible for readers to get from something as raw as the British Council bibliography of modern poetry (listing 900 poets, and admirable in its way) to a usable knowledge of which poets might be worth reading. It was this middle passage which I wanted to supply. Since I started, in 1992, the availability of modern poetry has been transformed (by Salt and Shearsman, mainly), but very little has been published as a guide to the reader. I did not read all those 900 poets. I would admire someone who took that route of approach, but I was deeply into the project before that bibliography came out.
Critics prizing their own knowledge as capital have wished for a degree of assurance only to be attained by reducing the field of poetry. They regard a wider cast of characters as some kind of proletarian insurrection. I was protesting against a literary environment in which scholar-cognoscenti firmly said "only poets who were in my year at Oxford really count", and were happy to use exclusivity as the test of their own exquisiteness. My role was to knock the walls down, and give time and space to everyone who counted - so that the book reached a vast, even Gothic, length. I saw literature as a wilderness in which I wandered for years, discovering treasures and miracles. If I thought these names were easy to find I should not have written about them.
The determination included about 130 poets. [This has risen to 150 with 'remedial' work of 2005-9.] To be successful, the project had to move through 130 separate and distinct positions. To impose a coherent and united framework on all of the poets would be an imposition. It would inhibit the necessary journey through each of the sites that had to be visited. Like most of my fellow countrymen, I view intellectual system as tyranny - the beating down of the witnesses. I have no thesis. How could the work acquire a coherence beyond the mutual dissent of these 130 strivingly original voices? It could not, and moved into a realm of confounded horizons - of volatility. I wanted to achieve passivity and receptivity. Identifying what is common between a dozen poets may produce a distorting emphasis unfavourable to each one. I was not interested in the megalomania of a museum director who insists that all of the works on display has something to say about a central project owned and signed by him. If there is anything to write above the lintel of this imaginary museum, it is that each poet should be addressed as a separate philosophical and symbolic world, complete in itself and apart from any others. I don't have any thesis to which 130 poets are forced to act as witnesses.
Kenneth Rexroth wrote, in 1948: "In 1937 a change of taste, a reaction, set in. It was inconspicuous at first, but with the onset of universal war, most of the poetry being written in England was of a new and different kind. At the least it was a new manner, at the best it was a new vision." In 1937 the poetic world was much smaller. If you're looking at 1987, you might have to say that five things were changing at once. I do think Rexroth is right about how time works in poetry. This is something which transcends individuals. Although, some of the poets who emerged in 1932-7, in his version, were still publishing in the 1970s. My work evokes Time as the medium of shared signs in which poetry breathes and whose passing silenced and lost works which detailed staging can now resurrect. Writing about being out of date and conventional puts a certain pressure on the poets, so I renounced it. Volume 1 had this atmosphere of pressure - bringing inhibited poets brutally up against their failure, really. I only wanted to do this once.
The need for the analysis of conservatism is partly that one wants to show the real poets breaking through the barriers of conventional writing in order to separate and travel out towards their unique destinations. Conventional writers are more trapped by the times they live in than ones who, by innovating, pay tribute to the New.
There is a battle of opposite ideas which poets go through. The decision process which makes freedom a tangible, experiential, thing. Focussing on this is stressful for the poets. It's difficult to say, there was a test, and this poet passed it while these other ones failed.
There are so many tunnels I could show through the work. But I can't be bothered. It was enough effort fighting to get all this stuff into the public domain. I had terrible problems getting this project published. Very little has come along in the 13 years since I started to steal my thunder, though. If you are punting a book to an academic publisher, they want something about books already on the institutional syllabus. Meanwhile, ardent as you may be, you can't teach poets on whom there are no secondary texts. So the syllabus doesn't change very much. There is also a commercial world where people write blurbs and gush overheated enthusiasm - and which is also obsessed by the new. If you put this together with academic conservatism, do you get a complete view? Hardly. There is a gap where quick and autonomous operators like Lucie-Smith, GS Fraser, and George MacBeth used to work. This is the gap I fit into.
There are serious doubts whether the academic world will catch up the 40 years lag of comprehension of modern poetry. There is however a world of informed readers - the tier from whom the poets are drawn, of course. This doesn't seem to have shown up on the radar of publishers, though. Knowledge within the alternative poetry scene grows continually, but I haven't see much assimilation of it by the wider world over these 13 years.
Each individual poet wants to be surrounded by anything but 130 other poets. But their patch comes to an end and you move on. What if the reader resents the switch, wants to stay with poet A? You try to smooth the transitions. The edit is sharp, the reader can't lag behind when you switch theme. It can all go wrong here. There has to be a continuing theme to avoid the effect of a wheelbarrow going down a flight of stone steps. The theme is like music, it governs time but might not do more than that.
I suppose that if there were another work which gave an inclusive account of the poetry of the period, my views might emerge as eccentric. However, such a work does not exist and cannot be assembled by proxy out of dozens of partial accounts. I expect my version to emerge as the standard interpretation. In the landscape, there are people who think of poetry written in words as hopelessly reactionary, and people who think of poetry not written in rhyme as drug-soaked Modernism. Every encounter with a poet is a deeply subjective experience, of course. It's not a question of objectivity. Just of not being a crackpot.
Any perimeter line implies an outside. In this case, it is the line in the sand where my mule dropped dead of thirst and I had to turn back. Not all the wilderness is sublime. Some is, well, home to bones and scorpions. What about the rest of the 900? Well, nothing really. They will write me off as a bastard and that's all. There is a statement in volume 5 about the poets I wrongly left out. But I may cut that statement to keep the length of the book down.
Fairly obviously I'm interested in the Atlantic periphery. Some English reviewers were angry at being asked to read any pages at all about Welsh and Scottish poets. They were happy in Oxford or central London in rooms full of socially OK people, and didn't want to leave even for half an hour. I don't think you can like poetry and never want to go anywhere. Being in these metropolitan networks can mean the death of the imagination. It can also mean you think there's just one way to write poetry. Can we list more factors? People have the right to be bored. You can list these factors too aggressively and erase people's right to choose. Nothing is proven about these factors. I have the right to be bored by someone, not to listen to them, not to know later what they said, not to take the time to get to know them, to leave and follow my wishes.
I was fired up at one point to identify the cultural field underlying shared aesthetic experiences. But I lost interest in this because thinking about 10 or 20 poets at once led to a diffuse afocal awareness, compared to the hot, unified, first-person, transient experience which is vital to reading poetry. Drinking the wine is more important than knowing about wine. I think the appeal of finding the unwritten rules connects with the early experience of sending poems to magazines who were never going to touch you and not knowing why the scripts kept coming back. It's great to know why. The knowledge is hard to reach, surpasses intuition, but is easy to overrate once you have it. Part of the problem is its fine structure. I don't think art politics is about the philosophical clash of Great Ideas, any more than national elections are. I think the scene runs, not on ideas, but on something smaller - ideoli, or ideoles. I see a dense root mat of tiny ideoles. So if A gives a destructive review of the event organised by B in a web magazine edited by C, this may actually be because C wants to take away B's funding, divert it to their own event, and trickle some of it towards A. This is genuine knowledge (if you can ever get the evidence, which is rare). But it's banal. I can't write a book about that. I think there is a large-scale structure as well, but it has very poor predictive value.
If you're some outsider who doesn't get reviewed, the whole activity of people who decide who gets reviewed seems cruel and illegitimate. But, there we are, there is a whole cadre of people who arrange things. They have an operational knowledge which includes all the ideoles, which would include a dataset in which there is an entry, with data, for each poet, and they make things like magazines, publishers, live events, happen. These lists decide that X does not get published, does not get anthologised. But, wouldn't you rather have ten pages about the poets than ten pages about the organisers?
The managers can look at the cards and read their face values; the poets live in a kind of cloud of emotions. So, your second book doesn't get reviewed and your third one doesn't get published. People discussed reviewing that book and said no. Someone paranoid thinks that the purpose of the database is to keep them out of sight. Paranoia is too usual on the scene to be ignored. Actually, paranoids have the most complete view of the mechanism of reputation. They see a million tendrils in every detail.
I started a project, years after Affluence was already completed, of reading mainstream poets to see if there was anything live there which could be retrieved for art. The main discovery was Anthony Thwaite. Part of the pleasure of writing about him was that it would irritate the avant-garde so much. This scheme was interrupted by leaving London, but anyway did not yield very much. I was really glad to read Thwaite, but in the end I only did a sketch of his work. I did read anthologies, but otherwise I didn't really read a lot of mainstream work.
Close observers will see that I twice mention a work published after 1997 - two acts of opportunism (from which you stand to benefit).
Why 1960? There was an unconscious belief that the official record was only 40 years out of date - that the smaller, warmer literary world of the old dispensation had not been riven by the same hatred and ignorance. We were aware that while the underground had not 'opened' until 1960, there was a pre-underground, the Apocalyptic writers of the 40s who had been subject to a new apocrupsis, burying and covering. The foray into the 1940s was a trip, a holiday outside the borders of the project. I realised at the time that this journey into the past meant the end of continuously advancing research into poetry that had only just been written. Back then, in 1999, the project had evidently ceased to expand. The lure of the 40s themes opened up by James Keery was more than I could resist. The chapter on the New Romantics (in volume 3) is interesting, but it only covers the really central figures, and there is certainly a lot more poetry which deserves to be resurrected.
You will note the omission of poetry in Welsh. When I was writing the section on Wales and Scotland, my Welsh was not good enough to read poetry in the original. Anyway, you can't acquire deep knowledge in a hurry. I gave up this possibility. I do have views on Welsh-language poetry, but they are not written down. Maybe I wasn't fair to Gaelic poets, either. I did a course in (Scots) Gaelic in 2000-1 and my Gaelic is still rudimentary. My amateur opinion is that modern Gaelic poetry is not important apart from Sorley MacLean, for whom you have wonderful translations. The first translations of Sorley that I read were by Iain Crichton Smith - and I may have been really unfair to Smith. His work in Gaelic may be more important than his work in English. (I do own one of his books in Gaelic now, but I don't have the skill to read it.) The fact that he thinks in two languages is sufficiently interesting to demand detailed attention as part of reaching a proper judgement about this prolific and original poet. I'm not interested in the song-like and folklore-like poems that people write for local circulation. At the end of the day, I grew up speaking English and have never had enough time to learn about the other cultures of the country.
A few years after Affluence finished, I took part in an interviews project. I realised at this point that it was possible to write a description of a book, show it to the writer, and ask them to speak to the description. I only did this with one poet, in fact. I regret that I did not follow this method throughout Affluence. Of course, while I was writing it, I was broke, too broke to afford bus fare across London. Also, this collaborative method could not have worked for so many poets, and would have resulted in a more intimate work, with perhaps 40 poets inside it. It would though have got closer to the inner core of the works, with much less time given to me guessing and being disoriented. It's apparent that the poets know a lot more about the poems than is actually there inside the poems; if you start to write without a background in an interview, or conversations with the poet, you may make serious mistakes.
(Since I wrote the above, the final volume was split in two and a new volume, The Council of Heresy was extracted from it. A book called The Long 1950s was added.)