Friday, 2 April 2010

My errors and some numbers too

My errors and some numbers too

(This relates to a 7-volume work on modern British poetry and is of restricted interest if you haven't read that.)

I began writing Affluence in 1992 and finished in 2010.

Gwanhwyseg Centre-Periphery describes the dialect of gwanhwyseg (of Gwent, Gwentish) as vanished, but in about 2005 the poet Meic Stephens won an eisteddfod prize with a series of poems set in wartime Trefforest and written, most emphatically, in gwanhwyseg. I am delighted to admit myself wrong. The sequence is obviously a nostalgia piece and it might be hard to find the dialect spoken in 2005, as opposed to 1942. Gwent is geographically marginal to Wales and marginal dialects are often difficult; I had great difficulty following what Stephens writes. D after a vowel shifts to t, throughout. The text was published in an issue of Taliesin.

Heresy refers to Alvarez's anthology as 1960, it should be 1962.
FCon refers to G Hill's date of birth as 1931, it should be 1932.

Origins cites a book as by Meier-Graefe. This is my bad memory, the correct title is 'Kulturgeschichte des Wohnens im abendländischen Raum', by Edmund Meier-Oberist. (Hamburg, 1956)

I refer to Bultmann starting on 'demythologisation' in 1915. Where did I get the 1915 date? can't remember. This may be a mistake. The famous essay was published in 1941.

(not an error) The Theosophist Alice Bailey was definitely English, although some sources for Ascona identify her as American. According to Stuart Sutcliffe, The New Age Movement, p.46, her own account of her life has her 'coming from a wealthy family in Manchester and being brought up as an Anglican, largely ... in Surrey.' She turns up in the chapter on Ascona.

FCon refers to John Goodby as an English-Irish poet. This is incorrect, he is just English. As he was living in Ireland at the time and writing a book on modern Irish poetry, it was an easy assumption to make. John has been living in Wales for the last 14 years. I think the Irish influence came from being a close friend of Ian Duhig in Leeds.

There is a sentence in CP which makes no sense. I can't find it now but this was a product of long tussles with the copy editor, who wanted to change a great many sentences to say something simpler but incorrect. I tried to rescue the text but I couldn't rescue all of it.

Somewhere in Heresy I refer to Variations on a Time Theme as dated to 1936, it should be 1934.

In Origins of the Underground, I refer to Pentangle as having two Scottish guitarists. This is a mistake, John Renbourn is actually English.

References to the mainstream do not always make it clear that there are good poets within the inherited boundaries, and that plainness is not always banality. This is a big problem. Evidently I do not wish to attack the excellent poets who have stayed within the parameters of a language which is limited as much by the desire for simplicity and by the patterns of everyday speech as by artistic conservatism in its pure form. Expanding the wording to say that every time would have been inflationary and bad style. There is a zone of inhibition and convention which has fatally restricted much poetry and yet there is a zone within which poems are natural and clear. They are not the same zone and there should be two different words to evoke them. I did not address this point before setting out.

I spent years on a mainstream recovery project which recalled me to add more chapters, in 2005-9, when the main text was complete or abandoned in 1999. This was a big thing for me. It was successful but did not uncover a new world. I did add poets such as Peter Levi, Thwaite, Kazantzis, Roy Fuller, John Holloway, Oswald, MacKendrick, Feaver, Rees-Jones. During that phase I was actually trying to find mainstream poets and to avoid underground ones.

In Centre-Periphery I mused on the metaphor which links a man to a mountain and how hilly landscapes are seen to be more virile. 10 years later I have seen a magazine piece which explains how film actors divide into craggy and pretty and how women are going more for the smooth/pretty kind in the Recession. The underlying program is that hormones (testosterone, probably) affect the bones of the face, progressively during puberty, so that a face with more jutting bones, lantern jaw, square profile, etc., is linked to virility. The piece said that actors with smooth (more feminine) faces look less distinctive, so they get paid less - producers are rejecting the bonier type because they have a higher recognition factor and so cost more. So when someone says that a face is 'craggy' it has a specific charge, one which everyone can recognise. Conversely, to describe a woman as 'lantern jawed' or 'craggy' would be shocking. The piece named ‘round faced’ actors who looked young (as boys have faces not yet reshaped by bone growth directed by testosterone) as well as feminine, and who had romantic appeal based on that.
I got part way towards this but I missed some essential points. Anyway, the point about regarding a Northern landscape as virile because it has thin soil and jutting rock profiles seems sound.

From the conversaries

The reader’s report on FCon, rejecting it in around 1996, said that I should give more space to the people I disagreed with. This is not addressed directly in the books.

'The end of the winter, the spring and early summer is in Britain the best time for archaeological air reconnaissance. [....] In the late winter and early spring the long shadows cast by a low sun emphasize minor differences in relief, scarcely to be appreciated by an observer on the ground, while soil patterns in freshly ploughed land which show where disturbances have taken place are then seen to best advantage.' (JKS St Joseph, from a 1956 essay in Recent Archaeological Excavations in Britain). Why do I have to be a defensive earthwork? why can’t I be a diffuse light bringing back information from a vast and largely unknown landscape?

I don’t think you see much argument between me and other critics in the course of the book. One angle on this is given by the lists of books I like (the shopping list) and a list I compiled of books reviewed by Poetry Review, 1960 to 1997. The overlap was only 10% - 90% of the books I admired were not even reviewed by this flagship of conservatism and the High Street. The non-overlap covers 300 books (in my side), 2200 (on their side). Why should each case of non-overlap, 2500 cases in all, come from the same reasons? isn’t it hundreds of different reasons? The usual thing in Britain is to ignore poetry you see as radical, exciting, and threatening, not to give it the favour of a negative review. The opposition between different admirers of poetry is not a debate because the opposing views are not put into words. I could write about Sean O’Brien but only at the cost of taking an interest in the poets he writes about. Not only do I not want to read them again but also I don’t think my opinions about insignificant writers can say anything significant about me and my cultural attachments.

If I look at experts such as Tony Frazer, Peter Riley, Sean O’Brien, Eric Mottram, Peter Forbes, Neil Astley, George MacBeth, Edward Lucie-Smith, Peter Barry, John Goodby, Charles Bainbridge, David Herd, Robert Potts, Michael Schmidt, Peter Middleton, Eric Homberger, Ruth Padel, Ian Gregson, Edna Longley, Kenneth Allott, Geoffrey Grigson, Wolfgang Görtschacher, Roland Mathias, Tony Conran, James Keery, there is no clear line of opposition between me and them. Actually, I agree with most of them for the most part. I don’t feel most of these people are my adversaries. In fact I am not convinced any of them are my adversaries. The disagreements are local in so far as they can be found at all. I don't think my position can easily be unpicked from what dozens of other people think. It doesn’t want to become property and attempts to make it property produce dozens of failures. We all want to find a breakthrough area which with a couple of days’ intensive dialogue would become transparent and show “why we differ” but maybe that is fantasy, a coup which would make a great radio programme rather than a place that really exists.

I don't think other critics have a simple view either. The investment is thriftily scattered over hundreds of poets, not a kind of small but massive lump of self. This makes it difficult to define what the nature of the disagreement is.

I think that the idea of reducing me to an area of disagreement is part of a project of compression which would continue by grouping 20 or 30 unorthodox critics and compress us all into a single paragraph. I am not eager to remove the bottlenecks from this project. I think there is this hope that you can compress anything into a paragraph, and a lingering resentment that you can’t be an expert on modern poetry without reading it. If the managers could compress my work into a paragraph - summarising where I disagree with X or Y - then they obviously wouldn’t bother to read any of my books.

One example of a definable point is metaphor. Harry Gilonis has often said to me, quoting Zukofsky, that metaphor is always less precise and that it is a good thing to eschew it. My feeling is that I like metaphor and I like adjectives, but that the restrictions people impose on verbal acts - from banning metaphor to banning rhetoric to banning any device not found in daily speech - are of great interest. Further, that restrictions are key to what there was in the Bronze Age, that later became poetry as we know it - poetic language is generally bounded by various restrictions that demarcate it from speech or prose. So here is one cell. But wouldn’t it take a couple of thousand to define What Andrew Believes.

I don’t see myself as a cluster of arguments but as a historian, the subject is primary and my text is scattered all over it. You don’t get what I am trying to say until you have traversed a great quantity of landscape.

Someone criticised me for not having an overall system. You can’t reduce history to a system. ‘I own this pattern and it is not there’ - it is always like that, the data don’t suddenly resolve into simple variations on an underlying form.

There is another issue of trying to get closer together and open a dialogue. I feel as though I ought to be able to locate “key” areas of disagreement but actually I can’t. Suppose we had a weekend of intensive discussions to bring different phalanxes of poetry together, we should start with a list of divisive topics and lead off from there. But I can’t make the list.

If there were a shared central narrative which covered all the significant poets, then what anyone said that differed could be described rapidly by describing the differences; but that central narrative is not there. In a chapter of FCon I described a number of accounts of the period (this was extended in a version on the Internet) to show that they hardly agree on anything. The standard narrative is more like “I don't know anything about poetry since 1960, it’s all too confusing". That is where I start from.

If you take O'Brien's The Deregulated Muse, a survey of British poets in the 80s and 90s roughly, his choice barely overlaps with mine and he certainly doesn't discuss the poets I like (say 100 or a few more) in order to explain why he doesn't want to discuss them. I have a notion of why his choices differ from mine but that notion is too conjectural to be discussed in print.

I envy biology and the kind of argument seen in Niles Eldredge’s Reinventing Darwin. This is possible because he and the biologists he is criticising are talking about the same thing: the positions address the same issues and are symmetrical. With modern-style poetry the conservatives have mainly operated by ignoring its existence. They have never defined what they object to in modernity. Statements exist (The End of Modernity, James McAuley, 1959) but they are fatally unclear and may refer to the modernity of the 1920s, not to the kind I am writing about. This dialogue has yet to start. If you define nine distinctive groups, different sensibilities cherishing different versions of history, they could all write up an account of the other eight (so 72 narratives altogether?), but in fact these write-ups are almost completely missing. The conservative/modern opposition is easy to visualise because we have old poetry as a comparison. It may not be a central opposition, still less THE central opposition.

It would be great if there were a component which when you swap it would transform Sean O’Brien into JH Prynne, and when you swap it back reverses the effect. There is no point looking for this as it does not exist. I think the wish for simple labels is sinister. If you aren’t interested in poetry that does not qualify you to be an administrator of it. I am fascinated by the vision of recovering the processes which led individuals to become, respectively, O’Brien and Prynne, but that trajectory is essentially unrecoverable. Theory which claims to recover it is fascinating but suspect.
I can see that people are frustrated with me for not having that "customising component", so that they could throw my work away, probably. But then, British historians go in for persistent, empirical, study, not preset theory. Looking for the theory is bound to be frustrating.

My friend Luci used to work as a life model. She used to look at the drawings people made. What she said was that at the beginning everyone produced drawings that looked like them, but after long hours of work they began to produce something that looked like the model. This worked for a lot of people. So if I have a belief it would include this, that after the first few years of writing criticism you stop writing about yourself and start writing about the subject matter. Anything that reduced so many poets to one unified discourse would be megalomaniac drivel. I don't want to own a 'system' and I want my text to abandon its identity and change when it moves from one poet to another. I picked about 150 poets as principal subjects and it's not clear to me how you would reduce them to one pattern which subdues them and states itself. If what you want as a person is to learn the common knowledge and then reach maturity and with it the ability to be free, and to follow a path which is new and chosen by you, why would you want this not to be true for poets? if they can be reduced to a simple common pattern, what happened to their freedom? Further, isn't it the free and autonomous and conscious poets whom we regard as successful, and not the ones who repeated learnt models? So, when it counts, we have to scrap the models before starting to describe a poet.

I think the task may be like memorising a 2000 line poem where the parts S O’Brien and I have memorised don't overlap. They are different but they don’t contradict each other. The meaning is reached through the entire poem and portions of it do not make sense on their own. The idea that you could take 10 lines and the entire meaning would be present in them is nugatory. Less clear is how much poetry you have to take on before grasping the whole - maybe the poem continues and has 30,000 lines. Could you summarise the poem? only after having read it.
If you want text where I survey other people's opinions, there are two lines. First, there is a chapter in FCon which analyses histories of modern poetry, and this is extended in a piece on the Internet called ‘Reception Hall’ (at ). Secondly, I discuss anthologies in some detail and this takes up a great deal of the work. This gives you a detailed view of what an editor likes and chooses. Is this an honest move in an honest debate? I hope so and I hope that the material I have published is expressive enough to raise understanding and clearly reasoned enough to invite criticism.


I never tried to describe the difference between poetry by men and poetry by women. Over several decades I seemed to hear people explaining the differences almost every day. Men are from Brighton, women are from Penge. I didn't set much store by what people said, and I presumed that everyone was very tired of listening to this drivel. I have no convictions about it. So I felt that if I didn't write about it it was probably a significant advantage for the book. Here is my contribution: women are from Latvia, men are from Volhynia.

Other omissions: Irish poetry; the influence of American poetry; links to the academic world and the development of criticism; performance poetry; song lyrics and links to music; links of poetry to other arts and an account of what they were doing in the period. All of these could have been interesting, but then the finished work is 2000 pages long and it is probably just as well it isn't 3000 pages.

Since 2010, I have uncovered a number of good poets whom I hadn't included. Damn!

reply to critics of Failure of conservatism (c.2005)
(note. this refers to the first edition - the second edition is about 50% different.)
People act as if I'd written a one-volume history of modern British poetry, irrespective of what I actually wrote, because that's what they want to read and what they want to attack and deny. Actually what I had in mind was a grape cluster of four volumes, which evolved into seven as I integrated scattered material. A total of five of these have emerged into daylight. [now seven, addendum 2019]

Did any of the reviewers get beyond their projections to discover what the design of the book was? That is, a study of the chronology of style. Fronted with a discussion of how style changes and ending with a discussion of a group of poets too young for the true pattern to have emerged. My stimulus was irritation at Bloodaxe so persistently claiming, in sales blurbs and so on, that a style of writing was revolutionary which I felt to be old and familiar. The idea of style change was rewarding and invigorating - allowing us to ignore the problem that poets pursuing subjectivity, in a regime that worships originality, are structurally obliged to move away from each other into private and undefined spaces. Who thinks that the discovery of incommensurate subjectivity applies only to the reader? We could only reach a shared history by picking heroes - Larkin, Motion, Armitage? - and writing everyone else off as atypical. The first instruction in any book design has to be how to disguise this scattered quality, to find a feeling of unity somewhere.
The fact that two people want to own something seems to prove that they agree that it exists - but, perhaps not. Perhaps the symbolic object emerges out of the conflict, and not vice versa. Does the fact of competition amount to evidence that poets are comparable?

If you write a one-volume history, people will punish you, cut a strip off your flesh, for everyone you leave out. I have written reviews of 160 separate poets (according to a spreadsheet I keep) and I only write about 30 poets in FCon. Obviously I didn't set out to write a one-volume history! The figure of 160 is scary and this explains why I had to stop. I think this broad-spectrum sensibility is my key advantage as a critic - which is why I so much regret the slow publication of what I wrote in the 90s.

Let's try and remember what the 'deadline' was past which nothing was included in FCon. 1995? slightly after that, I think. 'Born in the 1960s' was published in 1997, although written rather before that, I think. But the horizon-limit of what was truly assimilated was even earlier than that. It was easy, in the 90s, to be busy reviewing massive volumes written in styles which had been totally new in 1965 or 1970. Styles which were totally new in 1995 probably didn't make it into my artistic understanding in time for FCon.

At that time, let's recall, I was editing a magazine which was mainly publishing young poets, and this was better than publishing judgments of them. For the creative currents of the past ten years, there are better channels than a critical book - full of inherently shaky judgments.

Did anyone identify me with a particular group or faction? No. I went to great lengths to avoid loyalty.

Around publication time, I was reading a book called Hip Priest - about singer Mark E Smith and The Fall. I really enjoyed it - but I couldn't help coming away thinking what a git Smith was, how this fantastic talent was obsessed by destroying musicians in the band who were too talented and too influential. A more thorough book about the British poetry scene would be equally disillusioning, if not more - I edited the footage so that you didn't see the bad side. Don't ask me to give examples!

Council of Heresy
I was intrigued by Todd Swift's review of Council of Heresy (on his blog, August 2009). It was the word 'eccentric' which struck me, along with the claim that I was 'wrong' 80% of the time.

He also applauds my attempt (a sketch in that book) to map the landscape in terms of nine factions rather than two - the 'novenary myth' - and speaks in favour of a 'depolarisation', incarnated in the 'fusion Poetry' movement of which he is the leader and perhaps the only member. He wants there to be, already, a broad swathe of territory where people are creating successfully while ignoring the old distinction between mainstream and Underground.

I want to address the 'eccentric' word because I completely reject it. It would be pointless writing criticism if I didn't expect people to come round to share my views, and I certainly do expect people to absorb my views and go out and buy the books I praise. What would be the point of recording views that are simply going to fall to earth without being picked out of the air and carried away by other people? Surely culture works by sharing symbolic structures, effectively by imitating other people's states of mind, and someone cannot be highly cultured without also being highly socialised? and surely the claim to be 'expert in poetry' involves the ability to understand other people's states of mind and, as part of the game, to adopt these states, to be animated by them and move in the shapes they call out? I agree that there are people who are, simply, eccentric, who say no to collusion in the game because of resentment, feuds, or whatever it might be, who allocate arbitrary values to symbols because they are not engaged in social exchanges; it's just that I am not one of them.

I discovered poetry as something essentially not arbitrary and which had an objective existence outside me. Its complexity was due to consistency in the use of symbolic gestures and its capacity to include portions of the real world. Equally, I discovered the alternative poetry scene as an organism which was essentially not arbitrary, which had complexity and coherence, and which had an existence outside me. The intellectual development which led, after many years had gone by, to me becoming a critic, involved mastering these norms - not imposing my personal and proprietary patterns on them. These norms are publicly available.

I want to bring on stage the phalanx of people composing the underground, as it used to be called, the alternative scene, the 'small press' scene as mis-called, the indy scene, the London and Cambridge schools, the constituency which anthologies like A Various Art and Conductors of Chaos spoke to. This is the cultural milieu into which I was socialised and it is misleading to suggest that I am some hermit in the wilderness when in fact I am in the centre of this constituency and I am aware of channelling their energies when I write. On this point before all others the atmosphere needs help by the supply of extra information which will allow for greater understanding and sympathy. It would be misleading to suggest that the shared information is detailed and precise, or that I reflect the majority taste in each specific judgement, but also I am aware of hearing the same tune as these people, just as when I read one of the poets I like (count 140 or so in 'Affluence' as a whole) I know I am close to them. The meaning which fills poetry is not simply a reproduction of the physical objects of the universe but the product of the autonomous activity of people engaged in culture, whose shared meanings accumulate as time goes on, and this is no less true of the alternative British poetry than of ancient Greek poetry or the Baroque style. The shared history is not exclusive but the content of a rich linguistic context in which people have a deep understanding of each other and their verbal interaction is correspondingly light, rapid, and high-capacity. To share hundreds of deep artistic experiences with these people, so creative and so attractive, is to reach a state in which one shares their artistic reactions. This leaves out the question of how you start (although writing criticism on a large scale is an answer to that) but leaves the question of eccentricity as nowhere - kicked into the long grass.

I don't want to delve into the history of how I got socialised into this artistic milieu, but it goes back a long way. It is hardly a secret that this social organism has been in existence since 1960, although it may well be that it wasn't there in 1958. I met Prynne through submitting poems for the Caius College poetry prize in 1977. I met Mottram because he asked me to do a reading (at King's College in the Strand) in 1979, after the publication of my poems in Ochre magazine (thanks to Prynne). I was an insider, and as I found out later aroused hostility by being recognised by the most influential people in the scene at such a young age. What I am saying is that I can't be an insider and an eccentric simultaneously and at the same time. I am not living in some gorse-filled wilderness but in a colony densely populated with poets, indeed by hundreds of poets.

Let us move on to the novenary question - the map which has nine different poetic realms, each with their history, their assets and liabilities, their group ethos, their favourites, their anthologies. Swift and I agree on this. So where is the centre? It is not there. If no one is centric, how can you accuse anyone of being eccentric? More than that, if he accuses me of being wrong (80% of the time I think it was), how has he got eminent authority, why doesn't it just mean that he is wrong 80% of the time (and I am right 100% of the time)? If he admits that these multiple and mature realms of sensibility exist, it is strange that he is trying to write me off as an individual and doesn't connect me with an entire realm - which, it is hard to avoid noticing, produced most of the poets I write about (of the 143 in 'Affluence' as a whole).

Finally, the question of depolarisation. Swift reports a whole scad of poetic activities which go beyond the polarised position, and he criticises me for wishing for this to happen but not noticing that it actually has. If you are depolarised, this would seem to be incompatible with defining someone as 'eccentric' and 'wrong 80% of the time'. The claim to have dissolved the inherited barriers that prevent the official world from noticing that the alternative scene exists would seem to be untrue if you can isolate an individual and ignore the fact that he is part of an entire poetic archipelago.

The numbers: a note on volumes

My list shows 143 names of poets I discuss. However, nine of these were not active, or not productive, after 1960, so they have to vanish from the count.

I estimated the number of poets, in the period 1960 to 1997, who thought they were important and needed to be written about, as 2000. So there is this gap of about 1850 where I have strikingly failed to produce a positive response. It is futile to assert the amazing objectivity of my negative reactions, the sizzling quality of my decisions not to read 50 or 60,000 books, when most of the likely audience are in fact poets who don’t rate a mention in this unnecessarily long 7-volume series. Quite clearly the omissions are the larger domain. (The count of the total number of poets who published a book in the period is much larger, see below.)

I am not interested in discussing individual names from the omitted. I think the whole range of the omitted needs to be considered as one bloc.

The count of 2000 may be wrong. For comparison, the Arts Council bibliography (Poetry in Britain and Ireland since 1970, 1995) includes 700 individual names. (I removed Irish poets, to narrow the focus.) This is selective. A better count would be "people who think they should be included". We do not have this count but 1500 to 2000 looks like a reasonable guess. "If the other 1999 didn’t attack you it’s because they haven’t seen your book"

I look at anthologies a lot, so I have seen single poems by a large number of poets. Maybe 600 or 700. The trouble here is that single poems may not be indicative. Anthologists often make crass choices. And an anthology is full of stimuli, you get distracted and so don't take in each separate poem.

I used a spreadsheet to develop a list of names of poets. I was trying to qualify the figure of '2000' but the data didn't allow that. I got up to 1200 names. Of these I reckon to have read an entire volume, or an entire pamphlet, by just over 25%.
Another spreadsheet let me calculate the overlap between my list and those in a reference book edited by Ian Hamilton, covering the 20th century and published in 1994. This is the one where Hamilton includes 111 Oxford graduates. The overlap is 60/143, or 42% of my inclusions. (From the other angle, I include 16.3% of the poets in Hamilton.) The divergence is significant, and it may well be that a reader, you for example, only agrees with me to the extent of 42%.

The shopping list I produced (see excludes poets who were already established in 1950 (Roy Fuller, for example). It tries to restrict poetry written before 1960. It leaves out pamphlets as too small. Where there is a collected or a big selected, I mostly leave out the separate volumes gathered in that volume. It only includes poetry which I like.

There is a conflict between making a list in a fixed form and my own subjective reactions, which are unstable. I could write at great length about this instability. Just one thing. I got seriously involved in poetry in 1973. My father used to arrange readings at Loughborough University and always bought books by the readers, so there was lot of contemporary poetry in the house. I have been reading poetry ever since. What I see is not progressive change as my learning increases (you have to learn something over 35 years) but rather 'locking' or 'transfixing': when I was transfixed by a certain aesthetic complex I was unable to take things in which belonged to something different. So actually while I was transfixed by the 'underground' I was unreceptive to anything else, and it was only when that seeped away that I could respond to mainstream books. Writing my own books made me unable to take in things other people were saying, even more so. Writing a book of poetry must be the most absorbing thing there is.
In this situation, does it help to read 800 books?

The cold 7000

I wondered about the total count of poets active in the period I write about, viz. 1960 to 1997.

One way of getting at this is to use sample points which are, or possibly are, counts of the complete numbers of books published in a particular year. Three are: 1995, 1944; 1960, 131; 1976-7, 906. If we make some major assumptions and take the value for each year as the average of those two points (so 1960-76 and 1977-1995), we can build a model for the total number of books in the period. (To complete, we take 1944 as the value for 1996 and 1997.)

This model yields a figure of 40,139 books for the period. If we assume an average of five books per poet (ASSUMPTION), in a 40 year span, this gives us 8000 poets. If we arbitrarily decide that 10% of the titles were anthologies (ASSUMPTION), that takes the poets down to about 7000.
(Addendum 2019. I have quite a strong suspicion that the figure of 1944 titles includes many which are not poetry, or not by living poets. This is based on taking a “grab” of parts of the British Library catalogue and crawling through it line by line. The BL figures are much lower. So the projection of 40,000 titles for the whole period is too high.
The BL catalogue for publication date 1990 and tag “English poetry” shows 1551 titles. After eliminating anything which is non-British, non-20th C, in prose, etc., this comes down to 621 titles by single authors (and 124 anthologies). My impression is strongly that any retrieval based on labels like “English language poetry” will yield inflated totals, like the raw count of 1551. These do not give a credible picture of the poetry scene. I think the figure of "1944 titles in 1995", although accepted by the Arts Council, is probably wrong in this way, and the real figure might be 900 or 950.)
(I think a more likely figure is 25,000 books over 40 years, and 5000 poets writing them.)
The ‘non trade’ publishers had a representative body called the Association of Little Presses (ALP). I found the ALP catalogue (Small Press Directory) for 1990-1. It was organised by writer, 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. I made this count a few years ago and have referred to it, but new work involving scrutinising lists line by line has convinced me that the count is much lower. The second count involved taking the Small Press Directory for 1997, looking at the 40-page list of authors, and estimating 1176 authors. I crawled through ten sample pages, line by line, and came up with an indicator figure of 764 poets as an overall count. (Other names were prose writers, foreign poets, etc.) This would exclude a large number of poets who hadn’t got a book out or whose books were not in print, but would include some poets who were not artistically alternative or non-conservative. During the decade, the barriers around the mainstream were shifting (as well as getting weaker). 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. The overlaps with 1990 were about 25%. If we assume a thousand 'alternative poets' in the 70s, cut down a few as possibly not British, possibly writers of prose, etc., cut some more for prudence, then we get to 1400 for the whole period 1970-1990. 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. The artistic rigidity of the mainstream is permanently enough to make ardent young poets exit from it, saying farewell to the material benefits.
What I am looking for is a way of qualifying my own selectivity. If the count is really 7000 then the count of 140 poets in my work is amazingly selective. Completeness loses its credibility, too. If you swallow the big figure, this also explains why different critics seem to be living in different worlds: we each take a swathe of this huge dark territory and the swathes scarcely overlap.

The assumptions in the model above are pretty huge. Anyone is welcome to provide better figures at any time. As you can imagine, collecting and cleaning up the data is pretty tedious. I built up a list of 1200 poets but it obviously wasn’t complete, while after typing in lots of source lists taking out the duplicates, the Irish, etc., just took ages. Why take out the Irish? well, it’s supposed to be a count of British poets. Looking up 100 people on the Internet trying to find out if they’re Irish is horrible and makes me feel like an immigration official. So the idea of working on a list of 7000 names fills me with ennui. (The work might reveal that it's only 5000, who knows.)

Knowing that there are 5000 poets who published in the period is not a trigger for me to go out and read 5000 books. I am really happy to stick with the 140 names I chose as significant. I just wanted to know a little about what I don't know.

(for more argument on selectivity, see 'Allotria and allegros' on this website.)

Extra material on this website

The web material is a mixture of chapters that just got removed to cut books to size, and self-criticism after the work was complete, when I went through a "trough" as I thought about all the design issues that hadn't been addressed. The work covers about 150 poets (some of them very briefly) and the main design problem was how to avoid a complete loss of continuity from happening 149 times as we lurch from one poet to the next. The construction gets over this by having a flow of argument. But this is only a partial solution: how can we insert different poets into a single discourse, isn't this "forced collectivisation"? And, isn't discontinuity the most obvious feature of the field?

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