Saturday, 20 March 2010



[[This is an attempt to cross the gulf between big theoretical principles and the domestic tier of personal wishes and predilections which make up the prose of life but which also play a large role in poetry. As big concepts like 'class' 'English nationalism and postcolonialism' 'capitalism' don't seeem to explain what actually happens.]]

I was concerned about the relationship between morality and history in the field of poetry. There are uncertain areas in the morality of the decisions we actually have to make in everyday life, and one would naturally wish to find answers to what has been done wrong and what has been done right in the narrative record of shared experience. I have been writing that record for ten years or so and still feel uncertainty.

The immediate source of these thoughts is an anthology of modern British poetry, The New British Poetry, edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic (and published by Graywolf Press). The discussion focusses on anthologies, and the selection process which produces them. The point of departure is the awareness that there is a landscape of poetry which is totally different from Paterson's view, and which can be successfully contrasted with it. It allows us to ask if we can really separate acts of immorality (partisan, prejudiced, political) and acts of aesthetic preference (and the cognition, of people or of poems) underlying them.
The immediate stimulus was something else, an act of exclusion by X who considered that Y had failed a loyalty test some four years before. Something altogether scurrilous, paranoid, scandalous, stupid, purposeless, and embarrassing to record. I am not going to record the details, but my feeling is that this sort of thing is the daily bread of poetry and that literary historians have to know about this to get anywhere at all. How you get from this to the abstract realm of ideas, I don't know; my guess is that you can't explain poetry politics in terms of ideas at all. Pique, loyalty tests, revenge, collusion, and bursts of wild affection are more like it. If poetry is all about subjectivity it's naive to think that poetry politics are the product of logical and objective laws.

I spent a lot of time looking at sociology as a way of analysing poetry. The project did reach a fruition, a state of knowledge in which I called the project off. It's easy to think of poetry as the product of conflicts between the sexes, classes, regions, religions, etc., but these results are very unsatisfactory when we try to relate them to all the evidence for a particular event or phase. Then they just seem impossibly vague and generalised. They are certainly effective at generating guilt; so much so that we can suspect that they are used for that purpose rather than to explain the way things happen. Of course, I was using data drawn from sociological studies which were not specifically about poetry, or about cultural consumption. The defect was in trying to use this data to explain poetry. We may well accept that people have an invisible or (phantom) capacity to identify which although irrational still has limits, and that in this way social roles do enter the precincts of poetry - which does not then have perfect autonomy (and can be studied via the sense of self as this fits into a social structure and is learnt). However, research on these projective identities is missing - and attempts to replace research with private speculation have been unsuccessful, even if they are very popular and provide a stratum of folklore around poetry (and poetry marketing). Whereas the profiles usually described are very crude and lack detail, the profiles of actually existing poets are very detailed. We suspect that the details matter, because the crude profiles are simply identical between bad (and unpopular) and good (and popular) poets. It is certain then that they exclude the significant and decisive factors. We cannot possibly be satisfied with them. If research cannot give us information refined enough to be useful, and no agency is willing to pay for such research about this low-turnover field of culture, we have to forget about scientific research and rely on the shared personal sense of what cultural artefacts mean. Controversy will continue and we may as well try to enjoy it.

The concept I am toying with is ideoli - things too small and pervasive and numerous menial to be ideas, but which one can actually see in the events of poetry - unlike Ideas. I did a fine-scale analysis of some events in the scene, which I was close enough to see in some detail. I had much more detail than one usually gets in historical accounts. Ideas played no part in these events, although multiple small factors, the ideoli, obviously did. And I had this vision of a thousand such events as the (public) history of the last 30 years. It was depressing, because I wouldn't want to write all that stuff down. Nobody would want to read it. Cultural history can only be readable if you master the details of politics and then soar above them to write something much more concise and interesting.

Selections of poets are at the core of the literary process. This would include poetry magazines as well as book anthologies. Each one has a definable line demarcating in and out. The lines are definite facts, and this is why people like to discuss them rather than more nebulous and private concepts. Quite evidently fairness is an issue in making up anthologies, and not all editors are fair. But having taken the first step we should realise that there are a hundred more that need to be taken. The chatter of poets in bars is always preoccupied with the equity and every other detail of such things. I am sure that what poets think is important, really is important; further, that people evaluating a cultural act - specifically an anthology - at the exact time it is published are better able to evaluate it that someone looking back, decades later, with whatever documentation they can muster. Of course the anthology does not list the poets who were not included! This is a vital fact which can only be constructed by someone who genuinely grasps the cultural field of the moment. The act of choice of an editor is only qualifiable if we know what poems the editor (or editors) rejected. Someone involved in the scene, who looks at dozens of magazines and books, and reads enough to know the field, can judge what editors do. Having judged dozens of editors, they are able to judge the individual events of selection. Their verdicts are the precious substance of shared knowledge. This is what we need. The evidence is too complicated and low-level to ever write up.

I see quite a lot of material written from a point of view which ignores the artistic qualities of poetry, or in fact the poetic qualities, and which conceives of the whole scene as simply a drama of usurpation, in which people are wrongly deprived of their rights, and in fact literature is burdened with a vast debt to the Excluded which it is quite unable to pay. In this drama, publishing a magazine does not bring poetry to people, instead it is an unspeakable crime committed against several thousand people whom it does not include. The task of literary history is then to act as a bankruptcy commission which catalogues and administers the essentially negative assets of the literary world, declared unfit to carry on business. This vacuous restitution is no longer confined, as in the Romantic era, to a few unrecognised and wonderfully talented figures, it has been extended to thousands of untalented figures, and even people who never wrote any poetry at all (but might have done under different circumstances). This trend is not a practical way of analysing the decisions of anthologists. I feel we need to get back to the everyday here.

My goal is abidingly to explain the crushing of intellectual poetry by mainstream editors, and in fact the split between intelligent poetry and the mainstream. The question is why the British visual art world should have taken on modernity and why the literary world should have kicked it into the cellar and nailed the trapdoor shut. Further, there is a remark in a German-language anthology of recent English poetry that 'lyric poetry' (Lyrik) has low prestige in England. This is an interesting remark, and if we add that poetry by living poets is meant, it may be true. This would explain why prestigious writing in a low-prestige genre would be irrelevant. Anyway, here is the salient question. The test of a description of the scene is whether it is able to answer this question.

With that horrible Paterson intro, we have evidence that someone can consider the whole of intellectual poetry (or art poetry, or innovative poetry, or reflexive poetry, etc.) as unimportant. We need to add, as part of the evidence pack, information about the poets in this category (100 or 200 names omitted here!). With those two things, we have a basis for argument. We could get into the drama of advocacy here. Thus, Paterson would be a kind of Wicked Landlord in a top hat and big black moustache, horsewhipping the virtuous and beauteous Cambridge poets (as well as London, Plymouth, etc.) and driving them out into the howling wind and rain. Boo! But this figure may not quite capture all the information in the scene going by. Another line is to look at the history of this blanking out and collect the tedious details of its history. Three decades, maybe four, of unshared perceptions. Maybe from these details we can figure out the big Why. Or the several hundreds of small Whys, quite possibly. Since Paterson's selectivity (and even his scurrilous introduction explaining how all the intelligent poets are incomprehensible and artificial and inorganic) is in line with many magazines, publishers' lists, and anthologies, since 1970, his attitude conforms to a norm - and this is a good reason for thinking that it is not criminal. Since what is customary (and not a breach of any enactment) is unlikely to be a crime. Crime is a breach of norms, one would think. So there is a lot to be said for the non-litigatory approach to poetry politics. I would add that many of the poets in the Paterson/Simic anthology are quite good. Also, I would not regard even the mainstream poets who can't write at all as cultural criminals. Also, the detective/ dereliction of rights bit doesn't actually explain anything. The mainstream world clearly exists because of aesthetic choices by the participants (even if there are some dirty politics involved on the public relations side).

Someone could easily look at an anthology of the 1950s and by counting reveal that 75% of the poets had degrees and that 90% of them were male, and that this was biased with respect to the voting population as a whole. So far, wholly objective. There is no mileage in denying this. But if you come in as a kind of inspector (‘An Inspector Calls', I mean) and try to blow the case wide open, you would be obliged to look at the actually writing poets who had been excluded - not at people who weren’t writing poets at all. You can't publish poems that don't exist. If you dig up the field of poets who didn't get into the anthologies, you may well find their social profile is very similar to that of the people who were included. So the exclusion decisions were not (if that’s true) based on social prejudice, but on something else which remains to be disengaged.
If we look at an anthology of the 90s, we might well find that 90% of the poets are graduates and that maybe 70% are male. Things have changed. But again the poets who could have been included (but weren't) may have the same education/ income/ ethnic/ gender profile as the ones who were included. I personally am much more interested in the aesthetic exclusion line - the omission of avant-garde or innovative poets who are, as it happens, mostly well educated (many of them went either to Cambridge or to King's College, London).

The structure of the landscape is partly composed of lists. These have a definite length: I mean, 12 people get on the boat and someone is number 13. This pattern crops up everywhere and it is very hard to get away from it. Moreover, editors apply it more or less consciously. Even if a magazine runs 100 pages of poetry, it doesn't run 400; and there is always a penumbra of people who didn't quite make it. This is a source of terror to poets, but it is quite defensible as a procedure - and certainly hard to get rid of.
A poet may wish to be grouped with other poets, as a way of being memorable and getting mentioned; and then hate this association if there is a kind of 'rationing', and other people in the group are better than they are and get the rations.
Poets are interested in lists because they are preoccupied with the moment of rejection. Pain as a stimulus to learning? something 19th century pedagogy was quite keen on, we hear. Horrible! But this ordered list of names is a key item of knowledge, and will get you a long way. Comparing lists is unbelievably easy but raises questions which are difficult and interesting. Paterson/Simic in 2005 select 36 poets of whom not one overlaps with the 28 poets in Conductors of Chaos (1996). Whatever else is so, this certainly reveals a split. If you carry out this sort of comparison 100 times, you may have the raw material for a map. Adding labels to the map is where it all gets a bit polemic.

I am curious about the idea that there are very primitive, very stubborn, stereotypes which affect aesthetic reactions. As if, some connoisseur is thinking 'black bastard' unconsciously when they look at Linton Kwesi Johnson, and the more refined language which emerges as a conscious account is less accurate. This kind of notion is quite convincing when you look, for example, at the casting of film actresses. Very probably, in cinema, male spectators look at a female actor and react strongly to her physical attractiveness even if they are also willing to think about her acting skills, diction, etc. while watching the film. This example is not really to do with poetry, but I should point out that a barrage of photographs heavily designed to emphasize the physical charms of any possible female star hits anyone who lives in a city and looks at magazines. Still photographs are very poorly equipped to show acting ability. So cinema has this whole fan-out of visual material to get messages over that elicit dumb reactions -and poetry clearly has nothing in any way similar. Poetry readers get access to the poems, rather directly, and there is not much secondary material to distract them from that.
I think it is quite likely that cultural managers look at a number of poets and simply pick out what is common to them all - thus automatically eliminating any fine distinctions like artistic ability or the exercise of any freedom. If you level down the data like that you are forced to come to the conclusion that social stereotypes are everything and that this is the way to sell poetry. People who don't read poetry don't actually believe that one poem is better than another. They think it's all sham.

I am not saying that ideoles dictate what happens when you read a poem. We are interested, instead, in what happens before you get to read the poem. After all, if there are 800 published poets in the scene (taking a count from a British Council bibliography of poetry which listed that many individuals and their books) then there are probably 750 you are quite unfamiliar with. The decision - passively taken up, no doubt! - not to read those poets was crucial because it meant that you never did start the artistic reaction stage. So there is this whole production area in which reputations are evolved and editors decide who even gets into the anthologies (and editors decide who to check out as they compile the anthologies). This is where the ideoles come in. Writing a whole book about this political and non-artistic area would be deeply depressing. But, there it is. If we could be bothered to research it, we might understand a lot about why the scene takes the shape it does.

The background to this is also The New Historicism. Imagining cultural history in the simple terms of advocacy, the old left-wing stories of gifted individuals being done down because they had the wrong social background, of art just being propaganda for the powerful, etc., seemed very pale when put alongside the immense detail of New Historicist analyses. The ideoli are visible in these analyses, of course, making the liberation myths seem melodramatic, and the question is whether the grand narratives are the big picture, like the Thames flowing from west to east even if it has bends along the way, or if they are just high-calory fantasies, simplified for people with limited ability to process information. We could ask whether TNH was a right-wing response to the grandiose liberationist myths which threatened to swamp bourgeois scholarship in the Sixties and Seventies, a kind of canal network to discharge floodwaters; or if it was the necessary product of looking at political and social backgrounds in fine detail, which is what you do when there is controversy about individual injustices. I don't know of any New Historicist work on poetry of the last 40 years; it's just that I suspect that if you wrote down cultural history in the detail in which living people participating experienced it, the result would look like a New Historicist work. I suspect that TNH is not correlated with being right-wing, but probably is correlated with having given immense attention and credence to Marxist theories of literary history at some point in the biographical past, and collecting data into the models which grandiose Marxism proposed, and - for most of us - seeing those models collapse. The habit of collecting lots of data survives.

I think the difference in dealing with living art is the live action. I mean, when you show someone your poems and they definitely don't like them, this is more than just theory. And, you have to respect their consciousness, it's not just an error which History is making on its way to waking up. The same with a magazine you edit which is full of poems you really like. But there is a similarity, i.e. that when you are 17 and have almost no information you develop simple and grandiose explanations, and if you are 50 and have endless amounts of information you have very complicated models full of details.
The very detailed approach is of course compatible with a neo-conservative agenda. Within poetry, there was a tide of anti-authority feeling in the Sixties, perhaps most of all between 1968 and 1975, which manifested as an attack on all the people who selected poetry for publication or wrote about it. Expertise was attacked, rather simply, as knowledge of a corrupt way of life which tended to reproduce that way of life. This was a picturesque moment, anyway managers today are still scared of a revival of it, even if they were too young to see it live. Most people who look at the poetry scene think it is screwed up; skipping the details let's say that there are shiploads of muck that people can blame on the people who manage the scene. In fact, part of being in the scene is joining a basic collusion which says that I am happy with the scene and am not going to attack everyone else all the time. In fact, the people attacking the poetry managers in the most comprehensive way today are probably the marketing specialists. So the belief that the scene is structured by thousands of ideoles suggests that it is hard to revolutionise, that a replacement shift of revolutionary, managers would be unable to redesign and improve it, and so that the existing managers have legitimacy. It competes with an idea that the landscape is the product of a few people and so is unstable, able to be dramatically reshaped by a few (new) people. Marxism is of course enthralled by the idea of a revolutionary conspiracy by a few people, and so any map which shows the landscape being structured by rules which hundreds or thousands of people have internalised is anti-Marxist and suggests that rapid change is unavailable.

This is close to the core task of defining what ethical behaviour is in the realm of culture. If you cannot act arbitrarily, then consequently it is wrong to define the acts of an avant garde manager/theorist as lunatic. Iain Sinclair, for example, in editing Conductors, is, then, not lunatic, engaged in a conspiracy of fanatics, suffering from a derangement of the senses, publishing poetry he cannot understand, etc., but is in fact obeying an aesthetic sensibility. This sensibility, as it turns out, is one he has followed since the mid 1960s, and which is largely shared by hundreds of other people. If you apply the New Historicism to innovative poetry, it becomes robust, natural, and enduring. If we look back at Paterson's Introduction (to his anthology with Simic), he says that all the innovative poetry which he is excluding is impossible to understand; and we can identify this as a lie. The breach of ethics, I am saying, is not de-selecting the 28 poets whom Sinclair chose, or their 100 or 200 associates, but being dishonest in describing, in print, the poetry you have de-selected.

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