Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Remarks on gay sensibility in poetry

DC Andersson wrote: Hello there, I'd been exploring the work of John Wilkinson, and hence came to your 'review' on pinko, which I enjoyed greatly. I have often thought that underlying many of the distinctions between rival schools of poetry has been the extent to which form (which demands to be recognized as such, rather than something that any coherent content has) and ego are to be aligned. Obviously there are different ways of politicizing this question - for some, left-wing ideas of the decentred self under the lights of the 1960s avant garde seem appropriate to some (whether or not these were in fact drawn from text or seemingly 'collective' practice of other art forms), or an alternate *radical* pattern would be drawn from the various mutations of feminism from the nineteen seventies onward. An alternative right-wing intellectual model for dealing with the pains and pleasures of the ego, with all of its necessary growing up and disciplining, is a sort of sympathetic engagement with institutions (a friend came up recently with the formulation that a Tory is someone who believes institutions are wiser than individuals). Other modes of social and ethical engagement being viewed as primary will naturally result in other forms or relation to the self, and one thinks of how so many great poets of friendship (from Horace to Auden to John Fuller) have also been poets of ego. I note, in a rather embarrassed way, that whenever I write of human relations in my own poetry, I tend simply to want to record accurately the stable socialized commitments that ebb and flow in and out of the networks of friendship and love and sex - a fairly obviously gay male aesthetic that privileges a combination of ego, archness and group identity and ability to ventriloquize others, yet respectfully and with honesty. As my friend Simon said of our rather more *angry* friend Mike, *You don't have to fight it, you know?*. For some this will place the muse of poetry too readily at the service of rhetorical functions (to console, to teach, to persuade into bed) that they will find are the route to the *Astleyization* (those Staying Alive anthologies) of poetry or its simplistic totalitarian aims. The range of humane warmth and the Horatian social aesthetic of course depends upon a set of material undergirdings that many will consider lead to a consumerist aesthetic - in the end, like Auden, I prefer *poems* to *poetry*. Pound wrote dismissively (was it in his ABC of Reading) of Cowper that he was simply doing in poetry what was being better done by the novel at the time, that his pastoral work would be unthinkable without the novel. By contrast, I think of that as a virtue, since I want to make poetry more expansive rather than more pure. In the same way, I rather like the novelettish autobiographical narrative poem. I am writing currently a study on Ian Caws, whose experiential underpinning of a suddenly desubstantiated self in the face of the sudden intrusions of a Christian past and Christian landscape (alas, comfortably home counties for some) seem to provide as accurate and as horrifying an account of the difficulties of identity and the dangers and consolations of form as anything in Tom Raworth, for whose integrity of purpose I have of course great respect. I never thought of myself as a conservative, always the opposite, but I think I've become one. I am about to launch my own new poetry magazine, called Tempo. Perhaps I could send you the link?'

All the very best Daniel --


aduncan@pinko.org wrote
i have been wondering about something for a number of years, which perhaps you can help me on. is there a separate market/network for gay poetry? If someone asked me about this, I would like to be able to reply (one way or another). People keep attacking me for leaving things out. Ignorance is not usually an excuse. Maybe there is something I have failed to notice (in 30 years of mooching around the poetry scene).

Alignment of ego and forms. Hmmm. The thing is with a Strong Personality that it's like having attractive performers appear in films all the time. Why watch someone more attractive than you are? In poetry, people are quite happy to identify and ride along with someone with a Strong Ego, just for as long as the trip lasts. There is something faintly comic about this. It's not quite being dominated, not quite dominating. who is Ian caws? should I read him? caws is welsh for 'cheese'. Still, weldon kees is also 'Mr Cheese'.

On 20/05/07, Daniel Andersson wrote

Is there a gay market for poetry? I think there are probably two conflicting strands in gay literary identity, looking about at my friends and their enthusiasms. One derives from the particularly American tradition of oppositionalism. It has roots in the Beats, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and slides into rock and indie and to the various democratic undergirdings of performance poetry and then further slides into an embrace of popular culture and from there into some sort of (usually negative) engagement with consumerism/camp/daily life. It is also a tradition nourished by the esoteric underground (especially in the musical field - one thinks of Throbbing Gristle, Coil, The The), and is not particularly engaged with christianity or, indeed, *mainstream* gay culture. Leaden, dishonest and superficial would be its chief terms of abuse. It tends not to be too suspicious of statement.

The alternative, more well-bedded down tradition (more English) derives from an obsession with density, wit and form, but nourished emotionally by love, friendship, loss and group identity, understatement, urbanity and ventriloquism and via that ventriloquism to camp. It is a tradition more concerned with syncretism, understanding of society, observation, dialogue and engagement with institutions such as families, the church, the universities. It is a tradition that is as much as home in the literary novel as the musical scene. Poise, warmth, sensitivity, form, friendship and wit are its watchwords - and it probably has closer connections with mainstream gay culture. At its most *literary* and within the poetry tradition, it shades off into coterie arch group identity poetry, which one might consider some of the Cambridge school to be. Sloppy and self-indulgent would be its chief terms of abuse. It is often rather diffident about *statement*.

My friend James Mckay, who is a performance poet, is a very knowledgable exponent of the first tradition. I will ask him what he thinks of my distinction and get back to you.

Ian Caws is one of my favourite poets of the 1980s. He is a subtle, quiet formalist, recording the problems of christian faith in the Home Counties, full of understatement, and a great commentator on the seventeenth-century tradition of Herbert and Vaughan.

All best,
DCA

Daniel wrote: The distinction is almost between Whitman and Henry James. Henry James reviewed Leaves of Grass with about as much queeny dyspepsia as he could manage. Above all, James hated the endless statements in Whitman and the absence of the comforts of form that demanded to be recognized as such, the pleasures of a game which everyone knows the rules of and which everyone is subtly changing. I remember, in particular, one very funny piece of his review: he describes the way in which Whitman writes poetry in which the line seems to "exist in joyous independence of what comes either before or after it".

The rules of the game. Ruth Padel referred to Ian Duhig's (deeply heterosexual) poetry as 'sly'. A difference between straight sly and gay sly occurred to me. In straight sly, you tell a story, and you surprise people with where you end up (and the performer takes a great pleasure in having got there). In gay sly, everyone knows where you are going to end up, the slyness is in engaging people in an unusual journey, not an unusual destination.

Just some thoughts.

Best
DCA


aduncan@pinko.org wrote

Daniel, this opens up layer after layer of basically resistant encoding. I'm just worried about being accused of ignorance and prejudice. It doesn't look like I can let myself out of the accused cell without dieting for a long time. Let's be philosophical. If I write about modern poetry, I will be accused of monstrous acts no matter what I do. People in the poetry world love to have themselves photographed striking that stance.

Even more, it doesn't sound as if this layered meaning is going to benefit from me unclipping it and rolling it out straight. It sounds more like something more Maloryan - a vision that vouchsafes itself to the pure of heart.


Dr. D. C. Andersson (http://dcandersson.blogspot.com/) wrote:


I see what you're getting it, but the best way of avoiding prejudice and accusations of ignorance is to delimit the scope of one's enquiry. Being simple-minded has much in its favour on these sorts of occasion - dico expertus! I think that the layering you refer to is a not inaccurate broadbrush distinction in gay sensibility. Simply recording it clearly, and then querying to what extent poetry markets flow from (or do not flow from) given gay sensibilities will surely benefit you and your immediate audience, especially if it's a *general* literary audience.

I think that there IS something (in your terms) Maloryish about the competitive mercuriality of some versions of gay sensibility, which, in its more leaden versions, shades into snobbery, Senior Common Room wit and accommodation with existing power structures (camp flourish where something like class flourishes, unlike kitsch).

Mere thoughts. As I said, I have emailed James and I will report back.

My very warmest best wishes,

DCA

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Poetry Yearbook 1976

Poetry Yearbook, reverie about the state of poetry in 1976

I have a copy of Poetry Yearbook 1977, compiled by Samuel Gardiner, which lists all poetry books published between June 1975 and June 1976. Having access to this gives me an excuse for a nostalgic trip through the poetry scene. Strolling through these pages offers the chance once more to idle away an afternoon recalling the poetry world and my life in poetry. Gazing at these pages naturally draws on my memories, useless for books I haven't read, but offers a view with a low temperature, an indifference and completeness, which no single book could offer. The story of poetry in this time is here, even though in compacted and encrypted form. I seem to know something about most of the names in these lists, although in reality that can hardly be true. I seem to find an awful lot of them familiar. Gardiner says that in this year “770 new books of poetry by individual authors were published’, along with 88 anthologies. The figure is striking, as it is roughly six times as many as the equivalent figure for 1960. The fantasy of being a poet was appealing to very many people, and the issue of legitimation must arise. Is liberation enough?

This was an era when people were expecting revolutionary change in society. In line with that, people thought that the basic rules of the poetry world were able to be reset by conscious and collective action: the scene in 1976 was, it follows, in some ways the realisation of the idealistic fantasies people had had in 1965, 1968, and so on. 1976 was clearly a moment of downward turn for the countercultural enthusiasm of 1967: the Summer of Love had not really stopped, in its course to ever new regions and strata of society, but the activist group at its centre had been affected by a disillusion with the permanent results of the 'new consciousness' and by a gnawing need to make a living and (usually) join some kind of firm or institution in order to do so. The movement acquired momentum as it permeated and spread, so that obviously much more 'liberated' poetry was published in 1976 than 1967. Yet problems had found their way on stage.

The anthologies Gardiner lists seem dominated by locality. We see endless collections of poets from Streatham, poets from Waltham Forest, and what have you. I think that the strength of local links meant that people had to throw theory away. Theory was inherently divisive, it meant that people with differing artistic ideologies had to split from each other to protect the clarity of their artistic line. Sticking together meant compromising the artistic line. We have to speak of ‘legitimation through theory’. Theory was a new elitism. By saying that ‘to be a proper poet you have to have absorbed Olson/ Pound/ Oppen/ Robert Duncan etc.’ it defined a group even smaller than the group of ‘Oxbridge graduates’, and produced an intense focus on details of style which also defined failure and success in emotionally intense ways. This process was very productive of artistic excellence. But it was not compatible with the ethos of the Underground, which insisted that it was also self-expression and that everyone’s self had equal value. Belief in ‘theory’ is just such another lottery which holds that most poets are doomed to failure and only those hit by the lightning of ‘projective verse’, or whatever it is, will succeed. It puts power in the hands of connoisseurs who adjudicate on whether someone has understood the theory properly or is just copying admired gestures. In practice, acceptance by Mottram or Prynne was significant and had a great deal to do with the young poet’s feelings of belonging to an elite, with consequent calm and determination.

The Seventies did fulfil this role of ending the wish for freedom. I wrote a blog about this when reading Matthew Sweet’s book about British cinema, Pinewood Babylon. Sweet says that the local film industry collapsed in the 70s, and output was dominated by pornography in the guise of ‘sex comedies’. It looks a bit as if the promise of complete liberation was tried out through the banal means of sex films, which really did offer the breakdown of restraint, and which created feelings of satiation and even disgust. By 1980 people had the feeling that ‘freedom has been tried out and failed’. Similarly with devolving power, the unions were very active in the 70s. It was during the inflationary era triggered by the oil price rises. The strikes only led to workers getting 20% wage rises when inflation was running at 25%. The impression that the working class was taking over was basically false. Yet again, people reached the Thatcher government, or the 1983 election, with an unquantifiable feeling that freedom had been tried out (and had failed). In reality, the whole New Left project, or the counter cultural project, were still untried ideas, they were never put into practice and never failed. This complex was frustrating at the time and still remains frustrating. We can hardly relive the seventies without re-enacting this frustration.

The sheer number of publications reflects a more optimistic set of beliefs about individual talents and possibilities, yet most of the poetry published was hardly touched either by 'the Summer of Love' or by the more political 'movement of 68. It's obvious too that most of this poetry was rather bad. No one could attempt to resurrect most of this product. The 'full picture' does not include the 90% of low-grade books because they just don't repay attention. It may be that I was drawn into the poetry scene, around 1973, partly because it seemed to have low levels of attainment and it wasn’t intimidating. Most adult things seemed to have a high threshold of abilities. The poetry I saw at that time really didn’t, its weaknesses were quite obvious. It is hard to say that the scene encouraged excellence, when most of what it encouraged was anything but excellent. The feeling is more like the brilliant poets being quite alien from the scene and having to ignore its prejudices and expectations to get anywhere. It’s hard to say what the scene was for.

The split between the innovative sector and the traditional one is scored deeply into the data. The typical poetry of the time was what I call the 'mainstream'. (Poetry Dimension 2, from 1974, is a convenient summary of what I am calling ‘the mainstream’ at around this date.) It was against rhetoric and in favour of the empirical. Being against rhetoric meant that the language couldn't be interesting and was as bare as possible. Being empirical meant being against the imagination or ideas. The payload was freeing people from the commitments which emotions or ideas had bound them to. The misery of the mainstream poets is palpable even at this distance in time. I pick up the feeling that they desperately need a way out but that the gleaming future offered by the theory of the avant garde is a delusion and in the end offers no open door but merely more wall, stretching off into the distance. The future on offer was not the future.

It occurs to me now that the empirical project was trying to erase the unconsciousness brought by unchanging cognitive contexts. The plan was to write poems in which everything was vivid because you had scrapped general ideas. Everything is evidence and you are alert to everything. This bears strong similarities to the innovative project. Both are an attempt to reach overall heightened awareness by a break with the past and its knowledge. Obviously, the problem they were both seeing must have existed.

The tedium of much of this poetry was still affected by existentialism at that time. In the late 40s and the years that followed, existentialism led educated people to believe that they were not the leaders of society and that by writing as drably as possible they would achieve virtue. By destroying ideals and not setting up figures of admiration, including poets, they would be modern and serious. This was the local vessel into which abiding Christian energies were poured, at the time. Writing depressing poems was seen as spiritual. In fact, destroying the cherished ideas of other people who relied on the imagination and on emotionally coloured speculation was seen as a virtuous act - the goal of literature. I think this whole approach was going through a big dip already in 1965 or 66, but the logic of biology meant that poets who had been students in the 1950s were still prominent in the poetry world in 1975. Their grip was lost a few years later.

The mainstream poets were proud of not glamorising their abilities and lifestyles. But by proudly writing about boring and compromised experiences they were not producing interesting poems, and large sectors of the audience simply identified this project as one of accumulating boring poems. The domestic approach was going to work best when poets were leading interesting lives and were in fact naturally glamorous and dominant individuals. Poems about typical events in the lives of unexceptional people were not going to work.

A lot of the poets writing at this time had styles very similar to each other. This was not necessarily something popular with a wide audience - it belonged to an in-group, being the English Literature academics of a certain period, who had a strong caste consciousness and approved a cluster of stylistic traits related to the study of literature. The audience that bought poetry books was, I think, much more interested in poets that explored emotions and were sensitive to feelings and details of personal relationships, more like the market for singer-songwriter records. The academic, existentialist, Christian poets did not like the retailing side of poetry, the atmosphere in High Street bookshops, because they did not thrive in it. The experts in publishing or the media had a different view of what poetry should do. George MacBeth was perhaps the most prominent of these.

The 'anti-rhetoric' thing involved an implicit critique of the means of earlier poetry. This was the precursor of some of the most radical experimental poetry, which questioned the basic structures of language and the self. Making formal devices the subject of poetry was already part of the 'anti-rhetoric' project, which came out of classroom experiences in dissecting poems.

The list allows us to consider the makeup of the scene - the failure of the past to disappear, even. Someone from the deep past who was still publishing was Sacheverell Sitwell. He had been in the Wheels anthologies of around 1917, almost the first blast of avant-garde poetry in England. He had written the libretto for a Diaghilev ballet, surely the incontrovertible proof of Modernist status. He was not though in any way on the scene for poetry in 1974 - he found the scene unbearable and was self-publishing his poetry in a way which avoided reviews and avoided sales, as it was largely distributed to friends. So we can say that there was roughly a 50 year span in the poets actively publishing in the sample year. A very young poet who published two pamphlets in this year was Jeremy Reed. Just as the official scene was unsympathetic to the new poetry of the 70s, driving it into the ‘Underground’, so also it was probably unsympathetic to poets from much earlier periods. The latter could thus also form an ‘underground’. I would guess that the publication by DS Savage, 'And also much cattle', a libretto of 16 pages, falls into this category. Savage was part of the New Romantic scene of the 1940s and it is likely that this publication passed almost unnoticed. The surviving New Romantics didn’t even have a magazine to keep their group feeling going (although Kathleen Raine provided something like that with Temenos, from 1984).

There are so many wonderful books in this single year. Poems 1955-75, by Peter Levi, High Pink on Chrome by JH Prynne, Striking the Pavilion of Zero by John James, Pleats by Andrew Crozier, Dense Lens by Asa Benveniste and Brian Marley, Catacomb Suburb by Alistair Fowler. There are quite a few other pamphlets or books of interest. However, it’s not obvious why the area of high artistic achievement needed also to have the area of low artistic achievement around it. (We could also mention Taj Express, by Alan Ross, not his best, and a book by George MacBeth which I can’t evaluate because his collected poems doesn’t identify which book things came from.) You have Long Shout to Kernewek, by Allen Fisher, written much earlier and not yet great poetry. It is clearly the predecessor of his major work ‘Place’, which was in progress at its time. Antony Lopez published Snapshots, Anthony Barnett Blood Flow.

I picked up the book with the supposition that I am the first person who has taken on the mass of publications from this time and sifted out what is good. After reading the list through, I still think that. Most of these books did not get reviewed, the reception system effectively broke down. If anyone has sifted through this material, they haven’t made the results known. The corollary of such a high publication rate is that the process which forms collective knowledge and reputations seizes up.

If I had to sum up the pattern of these publications, I would talk about irrational generosity. There was no need for so many books and their numbers also defy all commercial logic. The typical event behind the publications is an empty act of acknowledgement: some publisher (unpaid and running at a loss, usually) acknowledges the talent of a poet, yet the poet has no talent and the acknowledgement is an empty one, something generous but also disproportionate and even unjustifiable. We hear a lot about tough gatekeepers locking people out of the buildings where they had a natural right to be, but the heart of the scene was something totally different. What was happening, in hundreds of cases, was people publishing a book of poetry by someone who didn't really deserve it, because they put the moment of gift, bestowing, recognising, prizing, above the moment of accurate scrutiny. The scene was unmistakably benevolent to the sensitive, introspective, uncertain (and even immature), and this atmosphere gave it a strength and durability which were thinly connected to artistic achievement and to connoisseurship. The affection of the publishers for their clients is the more admirable because it wasn't tied to genuine talent - it was pure and unconditional. It was impossible to stop.

The poetry world revealed in this catalogue shows a retreat away from meritocracy and commerce. This was a reversal of the values by which everyday life is conducted and this reversal is significant in typing poetry as a zone of innocence and autonomy. This is important to the scene as a place to live, a zone that offered sustenance. You can't simply ridicule it. It was a code of conduct. Of course you can't get away from the idea of excellence in art forever.

Along with a collapse of the need to hit a particular market went a collapse of the need to write interestingly or to link the poem to an experience of intense focus and awareness of which it is in part a record. Some people wanted liberation in order to achieve excellence and others wanted to write undifferentiated slush - to abolish the sense of failure.

It occurs to me that Writers Forum, rather than breaking with the inherited patterns, was actually over-fulfilling imperatives present in the structure of the field. They went further out of inanity, a lack of intellectual structures that could have formed a brake or a counter-policy, so ending up with zero-effort works that could not be sold and were not on sale anywhere. Breaking with the theory that talent existed ended attentiveness.

The element of recognition was wiped out of the patronage equation. WF was totally undiscriminating so being published by them didn't mean anything at all. The scene has pulled back from the most total realisation of incomplete sets of imperatives, without really resolving the problem of quality control.

The wash of mediocre material contributed to the loss of interest in poetry by the reading public. If you have an incredible overload of poetry product, viz. the 700+ books emerging in 1975 or 1976, then you really need a whole tier of people who are coldly differentiating between good and bad, truth and fantasy or hype, and who bring back the results. If you have that then the good books come out top over the bad ones, and this is really such a desirable outcome. Another effect would be that people would be effective at resisting group imperatives and be better at looking at the evidence, i.e. the texts themselves. This is not something which was a big feature of the scene in 1976. The critical attitude, which segregated good from bad, did have positive effects. The poetry scene did seem to be realising a programme of equality which erased the reader from the equation. Applying commercial values would have closed down the poetry industry altogether. Yet getting away from commerce should not have meant ignoring artistic quality and readability. The end result was the destruction of respect for the term ‘poet’, and the loss of interest by bookshops in stocking new and unknown work. Forget about commerce, people had been ripped off too many times.

Someone who ploughed into all this stodge with real enthusiasm would end up tired. There is something fated about this. In 1976 there was still a ‘counter-culture’ hoping to replace the existing structures of behaviour and group organisation. The relevance of dropping the controls, which had certainly happened in poetry, as in the visual arts and pop music, was that it gave a foretaste of freedom in a realised Counter Cultural takeover. The conclusion which many people must have drawn was that the appallingly low quality of the cultural product which ensued was a foretaste of failure by the revolution if it ever took over. If you look at this morass of poetry as a test, the signal that comes back seems to say that people are bored by freedom, they lose focus and release frustrations in a basically uninteresting way. The ‘political dimension’ to poetry was certainly important in 1976, but the cultural message it finally came back with was not the one poets were hoping for.

The elitist argument wins. Lots of people were trying to break down the validation of central cultural agencies. If poets had marched away from the points of validation and still retained intellectual and artistic focus, still produced works of excellence, the argument would have been won. But so many people rejected ‘standards’, dropped out, found publication through thoroughly ‘unlegitimated’ publishers, and produced deeply uninteresting poetry. This is a big part of the story of the Underground. It proved that the prospect of success and recognition by the ‘authorities’ made poets reach perfect focus just as the presence of a crowd might make a cricketer reach perfect focus.

Gardiner evidently got tired typing all this stuff up. Thus, 'Edge', credited to Asa Benveniste, is surely 'Grip Edge Lay Edge'. 'Residues', by Gael Turnbull is 'Residues: Down the Sluice of Time'.

I notice two books by Eric Mottram. Evidently Eric was excited. Publishing two books within a year is rare, yet quite a few people are recorded in the Yearbook as doing this. 1922 Earth Raids and Local Movement are not artistically successful, yet they do testify to a phase of creativity and energy, optimism and release. They are intricate works. He went through a bad patch when his contract as editor of Poetry Review came to an end.

I found the same title published by two different publishers. Probably both were self-publications, the author (Bill Griffiths) toshed out a few inky copies in the print room at the Poetry Centre and declared that as publication. If Akros publishes five works by Duncan Glen in one year, it may help to recall that Akros was Duncan Glen. We seem to have three books by Brian Jones, but I think two were republications which London Magazine Editions had craftily smuggled in, and the original versions were around 1970.

There are quite a few books from what we would think of as the 'Cardiff underground'. I notice two pamphlets by Mark Williams, a figure people told us about when we were researching the Welsh underground but who proved elusive. I think he was mainly a performance poet. Anyway, I haven’t seen these pamphlets. We see also pamphlets by Barry Edgar Pilcher.

Other works of interest would include pamphlets by Asa Benveniste, Gael Turnbull, Penelope Shuttle, George Mackay Brown, Harry Guest, Paul Evans. I must admit to an interest in works by David Grubb and David Tipton, marginal figures but ones who perhaps put something good together when the weather was favourable. There is a pamphlet by Susan Musgrave which I haven’t seen but based on other work this is probably good. She is Canadian but I think living in Britain around this time. The Snow Party by Derek Mahon is probably very good, I saw his selected poems. We have by David Tipton the pamphlet Millstone Grit including the long poem of that name. I think he was writing better poems around 1972 than later on. He claimed in a later book to have been influenced by Harry Guest, which may shed light on his intentions. Here he is pulling the camera back to allow much more information in than the conventional poem with its limiting 'lyric intensity'. The narrative is complex enough to reach a real flow. Yet the aggregate is close to the banal, the lack of introspection makes it like a TV drama showing the same events and it lacks the familiar virtues of poetry. The language has been simplified to allow so much to be said. The poem is poised on the edge of excellence yet avoids it and flows on past. He differs from Guest by having no pattern of symbolism, it is all earnestly fixed on the surface of a set of social relations.

Something missing from the list is feminism. The accepted start of modern feminism is in 1970, but in 1976 this was a momentous but private literary process, rather than something which was appearing in finished works to any great extent. mine field by Judith Kazantzis came out in 1977, the curtain is about to rise on this new sector of artistic productivity. (We do have ‘Webs on Fire’ by Penelope Shuttle, maybe this was feminist. I haven’t seen this one.)

Gardiner also lists poetry magazines. He counts 170 of them but it seems likely he missed a few. In general they were even less selective than the books, so the worthless bulk of low-grade poetry books is surrounded by an even larger bulk of low-grade poetry in magazines. It’s probably easier dealing with magazines, they are more varied and you get less worried or irritated by the incompetence of the poets. You just move on to the next thing. That Britain could fill 170 magazines with excellent poems is a claim no one would make.

It may not seem sensible to regard trivial things like sex films (and drug trips) as valid tests of a liberatory project, and as grounds for rejecting it. But that is how politics works, the victors make up the rules after the game has been played. The problems with the overall social project just lead us back to the success of individual works of art.

addendum on sex films

Sweet's version of the British film industry in the 70s is too striking for me to let it go without adding some context. A BFI publication, Seventies British Cinema, edited by Robert Shail, gives the figures. A total of 56 'sex comedies’ were filmed in the Seventies. (p.5) Meanwhile, 'During the course of the Seventies, the number of feature films produced more than halved from eighty-four to forty-one.' (p. xiv) So, OK, a lot of people employed in the industry in 1971 were out of work in 1977. Some of them must have worked on the sex comedies, but these did not 'take over' because by count other genres were always the large majority. (See table on page 67.) The sex comedies were cheap and since they didn't expand more than they did they obviously weren't making super-profits. Sweet says 'In the 1970s, sex comedies accounted for the bulk of British production[.]’, but Shail's figures show them as just on 10% of production of feature films. Is this 'the bulk'? or is Sweet someone who watches too many movies?

Homage to Victor Carroon

A few days ago, I went to the Poetry Library and borrowed a copy of 'A Book of Herne' (subtitled ‘1975-81'), by Eric Mottram. I noticed an illustration showing a drawing of a cave relief made by the Abbe Breuil. The previous day I had seen a version of the same drawing appearing as part of the decor of a laboratory in 'Quatermass and the Pit', a 1958 TV serial. Reaching page 93 of 'Herne', still on the train back to Nottingham, I discovered a reference to another Quatermass serial: the original one of 1953, 'The Quatermass Experiment'. Mottram says 'Victor Caroon'. He offers no further illumination, but the context is one of pagan re-enactments and Carroon's fate was to become like a piece of fungus inhabiting Westminster Abbey, a recollection of 'Green Man' images carved in stone inside churches, representing human figures given over to vegetation. The coincidence justifies me in writing about Mottram in connection with Nigel Kneale, an author who I greatly admire.

The basic story of the film is that three astronauts go up into outer space in a rocket. The base loses control of it, and loses its signals. When it returns to earth, the hatch has not been opened but there is only one man inside it. He has the memories of one of the missing men. (I was told this part of the story in about 1961 and never forgot it.) He is Victor Carroon.

The first ‘possessed’ character in ‘The Pit’ takes up a weird and distinctive shambling posture and gait which are based on the ‘sorcerer’ as recovered by Breuil. In the Hammer film version, he is played by Duncan Lamont who, confusingly, played Victor Carroon in the 1953 BBC serial. The 'Sorcerer' drawing is one everybody must be familiar with. It is supposedly a reproduction of a really existing engraving/relief inside the Grotte des Trois Freres, near Foix, France. It shows a human figure disguised as a horned creature, either wearing a costume and mask or really being transformed into their animal equivalent, reared up on two legs in what may be a dance. It is half-crouched, adorned with big antlers and a human penis. It is the conventional 'proof' that there was shamanism in the old Stone Age and one of the most widely reproduced of all prehistoric images. Other people have examined the relief and found no antlers. Yet the drawing was produced by tracing. It is fair to say that the critique is itself controversial. Other images resembling Breuil's re-creation have not been found.

'Herne' is based on the idea that archetypal mythic images are important to our psyche and that they can be re-animated to form the central narrative of works of art. It does not work very well. 'Quatermass and the Pit' is based on a similar idea. It shows us humans as the descendants of a Martian breeding programme, in which our deepest impulses were programmed by the Martians and are ready to be amplified and brought to frightening intensity by the radiant powers invested in the semi-alive hull of an ancient space-craft, the one dug up from the 'pit' of the title. The archetypal rite in question is a 'Wild Hunt' in which human beings, losing all inhibitions, run around in troops destroying people who are 'different'. This was a feature of the Martian hive-society. Kneale built his story from the image of the Notting Hill race riots, in which for example 400 people chased one black man into a shop, threatening his life. Kneale started from the news story and from there spun his tale of the evil pooled at the base of our psyches and how it wanted to seize control. The climax of 'The Pit' shows as fantasy what had really been seen on the streets of Notting Hill, a few months before. He in fact is with the writers who saw the archetypal as evil and recognised in 'the urge to repeat' the origin of war, tyranny, totalitarian states and prison camps. Another wing saw the archetypal as liberation, and believed that the goal of art was to elicit these primal narratives and causes us to re-enact them. Posing a question - of hidden sources of actions - in this way was a feature of the cultural scene of the time.

David Mellor also draws a comparison between Victor Carroon and the Green Man (or the Burry Man), in his 1987 exhibition at the Barbican, 'Paradise Lost?", about the Neo-Romantic movement. He showed an image of Carroon at an earlier stage of his metamorphosis, when he still had the shape of a man, although the texture of his flesh had become like a plant.

Mottram as a matter of fact cites the 1956 Hammer film, 'The Quatermass Experiment', as his source, which was presumably more available than the TV series when he was writing in the 1970s. Only two of the episodes were on film, the others went out live on camera and so do not exist today. However the DVD package of the three Quatermass serials for the BBC includes the scripts of the 'lost' episodes.

The problem with it is less that the poetry is bad than that it runs out of breath too quickly:

tines/ shivered by impact and scarved neck
his feet lift lightly/ with mere memory
of gentler seasons. Lungs full of the drug, antlers
rake back, he halts the herd, his voice filled
with custom of combat and unslaked lust
Victor Caroon
(‘Notebook 3‘)

This is quite interesting but it’s just a blip, the character does not have enough substance to continue after a few lines, and the poem jumps to another theme. I do not really get a lift out of this. The moment of cut/splice, the engine room of montage, is so delicate to manage. You can jump into another dimension of analogy and higher pattern, or you can lose the thread. It is hard to catch the transition, however you try to slow it down it’s over in a flash - of failure or brilliance. (‘Scarved neck’ might be ‘scarred neck’? The ‘drug’ might be the hormone which governs the ‘rut’ which causes fighting behaviour between stags?)

If you look at a range of Mottram's work (I am slowly working through it), 'Herne' sticks out as distinctively worse than adjacent books: worse than '1922 Earth Raids', than 'Local Movement' or 'Peace Projects'. The date 1975-81 includes a period which was notably low in Eric's existence, according to the testimony of his friends. Further the subject matter of 'Herne' is almost over-ripe, romantic and barbaric, breaking out into areas of mythic liberation. The contrast with the behaviour expected of a professor and someone whose opinion was taken seriously in forming policy, academic or cultural, was too severe. 'Herne' appears more as a schematic describing an unwritten work than as a work on its own. The time inside it is crushed down, dissected into fragments, unable to move or to flow. He recognises a number of sources for a postulated romantic-mythic poem about a Stag God, but at each point the source overwhelms him and leaves him weaker. The citation of Ferenc Juhasz, whose great 1955 poem about 'The Boy Transformed into a Stag at the Gate of Secrets' appeared in 'Modern Poetry in Translation' around this time, identifies where greatness is but lacks any creative impetus of its own. Eric liked to compile reading lists and 'Herne' spends too much time acting like a reading list.

In ‘Pit’, there is a passage where Quatermass is researching the history of the area (Hobb’s Lane) where the still mysterious hull or shell has been discovered, and tracing a history of disturbances, apparitions, ghost stories, and mass fear, going back to the Middle Ages. It is a ‘ghost story’ in that the evil spirit is tied to a place. The cumulative force of the stories going back deep in time is part of the eeriness which Kneale manipulates so brilliantly. This is a short passage carried off with great precision. It resembles Mottram’s bibliophile accumulation of sources for the great poem he is unable to write. But Mottram’s rambling listings are not part of a coherent dramatic context. Another passage has Matthew Roney, the archaeologist, defining the ‘insect’ figures discovered inside a compartment in the hull in terms of visual comparisons to gargoyles, demons, and of course the horned figure in Breuil’s fanciful drawing. Roney has a frieze of cave paintings running round the walls of his laboratory. He evokes an archetype by demonstrating the common points between dozens of disparate visual creations. This also is what Mottram is trying to do, but without the dramatist’s flair for making ideas exciting. The resemblances he picks up are real but they are not exciting. The Canadian actor Cec Linder is wonderfully warm, sweepingly enthusiastic, as Roney. Kneale repeated the effect in his ‘The Stone Tape’ (1973), and dozens, possibly hundreds, of authors, have tried to repeat the effect in the decades since. ‘Herne’ quite closely resembles Roney’s montage, the pin-up board of an art historian: an excitable spill of images, a pattern to release the imagination. It has a static quality: the bits do not go in a direction, their order is irrelevant because there is no narrative line or argument. This might be true of a pin-up board or an archive. In a book-length poem it is a sign of muddle, of a design phase that has been missed out.

The Danish painter and theorist Asger Jorn was also interested in the Green Man, the stone head with leaves and branches radiating out of it. He saw this as a pagan image which had been taken over by Christian sculptors. For Jorn, it was one of a whole group of images: a significant cluster of elements was assembled into a binding image, once, and was then reproduced many times. The meaning could be re-invented to suit the audience, but the ‘craft expertise’ of the sculptor was retained with obstinate persistence. After the first century or three, it had a "meaning unknown to the maker". Arguably, the real meaning was the very first one, which had inspired the moment of origin. This re-use of images led him to invent ‘detournement’, which he imparted to the Situationists, a group he co-founded.

In the Green Man passages, Mottram mentions RILKO, which is too romantic to be true. I discussed the Research Into Lost Knowledge Organisation in my book Council of Heresy. His interest in them suggests once more that Eric was too involved in lush and romantic territory for the tastes of the formalists he hung out with. If we revisit the terrain of ‘poetic theory’ (a move which unfortunately may take us back into an era of trench warfare, but let’s just try it), the failings of ’Herne’ do not invalidate the theory he was using. Other works based on much the same theory worked much better. However, because ’Herne’ is a bad example, it is obvious and undeniable that the theory does not inevitably work and so is incomplete and fragmentary in itself. This makes it doubtful that we would want to do battle for it. Conversely, the reasons why a book of poetry is bad may have to do with more subtle and uncontrollable psychological qualities like depression and desensitisation, even lack of inspiration. The idea that a set of theoretical decisions, logical and fully controllable, can solve your problems may be an act of psychic self-defence which is actually tragic. The next poem may only be reachable by forgetting the decisions that made the last one succeed.


Another step of comparison. ‘Herne’ is noticeably similar to ‘Crow’ and ‘Gaudete’. It is a march deeper into Hughes territory. It is also close to ‘Ranter’, but both follow Hughes.

The guides I used did not guide me to other 'man-stag' images from the Palaeolithic but the German archaeologist Nicholas Conard has claimed that 'the transformation between man and animal, and especially between man and felines, was part of the Aurignacian system of beliefs'. In a cave, Hohlenstein-Stadel, in the Lone Valley was found ''One such ivory figurine just a few inches long" which "depicts the hybrid features of a man and a lion'. The new ‘Lowenmensch’ figurine was not quite ‘found’ but assembled in the museum from fragments found in 1939. It was only ‘recognised‘ in 1969 by Joachim Hahn. A similar figurine was found nearby, in the Ach Valley, in 2004 (by a group led by Claus-Joachim Kind). So the class of man-animal hybrids does exist and the 'stag-man' belongs to that class. (The Lone and Ach valleys are in Swabia. One quote I found has it that ...."Figurative art began in Swabia, music began in Swabia," but we really have to move on.) (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%B6wenmensch , also http://www.loewenmensch.de/  )

A cave nearby, still in the Lone Valley, is called Vogelherd and Thomas Kling wrote a poem about it.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Poetry numbers, again

More on a model of publication numbers, June 2010

This adds something to ‘My errors and some numbers too’, posted on this website.


I did some work in 2010 to correct figures for the overall volume of poetry publications in the period 1960-97, offered on this website. The work was based on spreadsheets with long lists of names. There are three values which the spreadsheet exercise is there to correct. One of these, the curve of the male/female ratio, is not controversial, fairly secure, and does not require exhausting scrutiny. The other two are less secure. They are the figure of circa 7000 for poets publishing in the period, and the count of roughly 2000 underground poets within that figure. I have been doing some work to check these and confidence is hard to obtain.

I discovered that for three years in the 1970s there was an annual issue of Poet’s Yearbook, a publication which on the basis of returns from over 900 publishers issued a list of all poetry publications for that year (from June to June). The first result from this was that the annual listings produced by the Poetry Book Society were hopelessly incomplete.

Using this excellent new source (PY), I typed up lists of poets publishing in successive years, 1976 and 1977, and by matching these derived a count of the overlap between the two years. 106 poets recurred between 1976 and 1977, out of 628 in the first year. So in theory the whole list would recur over 6 years. So a count of the total pool at that point is 6x628 which is 3768, less the 628 double appearances, so 3050. This would be the ‘model’ total pool of poets active in that time. Assumptions about the length of a working life would allow us to scale this up to the whole 40 year period - e.g. double 3050 or 2.4 times 3050 (depending on the assumption used).

Some poets born in the 1880s were still publishing in 1960 and 1961. Some poets were publishing for the very first time in 1997. We have to consider poets entering and leaving the pool in order to get at the count for all poets active in the period 1960-97. Assume the pool arrives in 40 exactly equal annual cohorts and each cohort leaves after exactly 40 years. This means that the pool in 1977 includes exactly 20 cohorts and therefore the set of poets active in the whole period is double the pool active in 1977. Therefore this count for the whole period is 3050x2, equals 6100.

This is an idealisation because the cohort entering in 1960 was certainly much smaller than the cohort entering in 1975. On balance this means 6100 is an overestimate and so the total in this model would be less than 6100, perhaps between 5000 and 5500. The 40 cohorts are all of different sizes and they probably increased in steps from 1960 onward. If we adjust the multiplier to 1.6x 3050 we get a count of 4875 poets.

This model is accurate to within half an order of magnitude (he said modestly). Its real value is to get a ‘fix' on the other model, where we estimated 33,000 books published and using a bludgeon translated that into 7000 poets. The two figures critique each other and give us a hint of where the true figure must lie.

The PY lists also give us information, only at a point in time but quite thorough for that point, of the balance between male and female poets. Counting entries in Poet’s Yearbook 1978 (for publications between June 1976 and June 1977) we find:

21.7% female
71.9 % male
indeterminate by name 4.9%

I don’t have comparable counts for the 1950s or 1960s, but it is clear that the scene was male-dominated in 1976. Using counts from selective sources like anthologies and the lists in British Council pamphlets, it is possible to guess that female participation in the 1950s was around 10 to 15%, and so we can suggest that this share was growing up to 1976, in line with greater access to higher education of female students, and a reduction in the rigidity of gender roles.

One thing that PY yields is a critical comparison with the lists in the Poetry Book Society lists for each year. In 1974 the PBS lists 450 books + 61 anthologies, in 1975-6 they list 859 titles. This figure is identical to the one in Poet's Yearbook so the jump from 1974 to 1975 is probably due to copying the figures from PY! It follows that the count in the PBS list is probably far too small for the entire series. The 'hike' blows their credibility. So any figures based on their count for the period 1960-75 are in doubt - as too low. My guess is they ignored little presses unless forced to include them. (Note that the PY year runs from June to June.)

It is possible that 74 to 75 was a growth year, but post the ‘oil price shock’ inflation had already taken off and this does not seem like the basis for sharp growth. So a jump from 450 to 850 titles in a single year is due probably to a better means of collecting information.

Why was I interested in these numbers? It has to do with the completeness of 'Affluence' (the overall project which includes all my books on British poetry). I covered 140 poets from the period in 'Affluence'. Selectivity was a big issue for a lot of readers. The numbers let me get at selectivity - and the answer is that everything is drowned in it. 140 poets is just a drop in the ocean. Almost everything is forgotten. Another answer is that "in all this warehouse of dead print, there are a number of poets who really count, and the cognoscenti know who they are“. So by missing out some of those poets I would be committing errors. But either the cognoscenti don't cover the terrain or they keep their knowledge to themselves.

I don’t think anyone would go and read all 850 volumes published in 1975-6. At some level, we all agree on one basic thing - that most of the poets publishing were wasting their time. Quite a few of us share the same question: how do you know which of the 850 books are worth reading?

As an aside, Poet’s Yearbook was only published for three years. It is a fabulous source but there was really no market for it. What do you with a list of 850 poetry books? ST Gardiner edited it and did all the work. It is coincidental that they cover a lot of the period in which Poetry Review stopped running reviews and so drops out as a reference source. PY is a high quality publication but it only lasted for three years and unfortunately its figures cast doubt on the other series we have, which run for longer. This whole area is paved with uncertainty.




Novels about Poets

In Cargo of Eagles, by Margery Allingham (1968), a detective story with the legendary sleuth Albert Campion, a minor character is a poet named HO Wishart who keeps a pub in an Essex village, the one he grew up in. 'A genuine minor poet and a white hope at one time.' (p.19) He is about 65 in 1966 and is said to have been in a book called Georgian Poetry - which would have been when he was about 13. There is quite a complicated plot which mainly involves faded scandals, 20 years before or even 50 years. Campion himself seems like a nostalgia item by this point. What Campion works out about Wishart is that, being a brilliant lad of humble background at Cambridge, he had written volumes of poetry for three well-off friends for them to publish under their names - against a bulky payment. This is possibly the only modern example of a poet making money. (Later we find out that it was Georgian Poetry volume 5, which fits slightly better.) The story goes -
'Think of your Cambridge friends, Colquhoun, Middlemass and Swinstead. Three dull men and all of them rich. Yet each of them produced an unlikely volume with remarkable literary qualities - very flattering to their vanity. I wonder who really wrote Mosaic to machine or Mandragora Days or Oh, Mr Cromek? Odd books to keep on your shelves, Mr Wishart, yet there they are right behind your head sitting next to the fifth volume of Georgian Poetry in which you figure." (p. 138) We do not find out how Campion knew that these men born around 1900 were dull or rich. Nor do we hear any of the forged poems- instead we get more of a tedious plot about crime and stuff like that. Who was Cromek? was this the origin of the Cambridge school?
Allingham is my favourite detective story writer. Reality barely intrudes but the fantasy is always rich, subtle, and light.

A Chymical Wedding, by Lindsey Clarke
The original ‘chymical wedding’ was one of the Rosicrucian tracts of around 1615 and refers to a conjunction of two elements, a compound - not to humans.

The character is based on George Barker, who lived in Norfolk for many years.

There is a parallel plot set in Victorian times and about religious doubt. This double line was very much the fashion in the 1980s. I didn’t really see that the 19th C plot was linked to the 20th C one. The depiction of the earthy and wilful poet-figure is brilliant but the book doesn’t really add up to a whole. The connection between the supernatural idea of conjunction etc. and the 20th C characters did not arrive.

Diawl y Wenallt, by Marcel Williams
The book is full of racy stories which do not add up to what you would think of as a whole novel, the characters do not acquire depth, but the individual sketches are funny, witty, and racy. I enjoyed this a lot. The book ends up with admiration for Thomas’ sexual energy and focus on pleasure, mocking the various more classically Welsh characters who disapprove of everything in sight. The depiction of Thomas in action is much more exciting than anything in the biographies. Drama is better than documentation.

Ffenestri tua’r gwyll, by Islwyn Ffowc Elis
The rather typically 1950s plot rotates around the emotional problems of a widow who has sacrificed her own artistic talent to a dominating husband and who now expresses herself through artistic patronage. This comes to include a young and stroppy poet and all too predictably she extends her interest beyond offers of money and good taste. This is very enjoyable although dated. It is rather like a film by Douglas Sirk. It also expresses a distrust of the North Welsh for the South Welsh working class. The youth is threateningly modernist and self-possessed. I didn’t quite get why a clergyman like Elis would believe in Freud so much when it comes to psychology, but the melodramatic plotting is so effective that this doesn’t seem to matter.


Festival at Fairbridge, by JB Priestley (1955)
This large-scale fresco of English life in the 1950s includes a brief scene in which we encounter the verse drama movement. Priestley, an unfashionable but great dramatist, is putting paid to the very fashionable verse dramatists here. Fairness or benevolence are not much on show. His parody of Fry’s writing is uncomfortably good. Priestley was more intelligent than everyone else around him but no one notices this if you come from Yorkshire. Verse drama became utterly unfashionable within a year or so of this novel's being published. I don't know if his depiction of the whole thing as emanating from a rich patron, and rotating around the whims of that person, is accurate, but it is convincing when you read it. The same novel includes a tour round the documentary film movement, which he also demolishes (and which was also heading for the end of the road around 1955). Priestley actualy writes some of the poetry in question, unlike many novelists.

Enderby, by Anthony Burgess
Trilogy about a poet.

The Virgin in the Garden, by AS Byatt
describes someone who wrote verse drama during the brief boom in the early 50s. fails to produce any of his verse. Instead the book is just full of prose. set in North Yorkshire in the early 1950s, which is inherently interesting.

If pressed I would say I didn’t read novels but somehow, in bursts of inactivity, I must have done so.



London School yada yada yada

London?

I have a long personal history of sitting in upper rooms of pubs somewhere in North London listening to the recital of something really, really dreadful. The managers of the London scene are very proud of being unselective. The result was the humiliation of the audience, for which the only comeback was that, years later, one could tell the truth and not sign up to some jolly collusive fantasy that it was all marvellous. It is good to rip my shirt off and get up front about how addled and deluded I thought 90% of it was, knowing that by doing this I would be telling the truth for dozens of other people as well. Now it can be told!

Two questions about 'Affluence, Welfare, and Fine Words'. Why no chapter on the London School? Secondly, why the comment in 'Origins of the Underground' which Robert Hampson found 'unhelpful'? ("Yes Virginia, there is a London avant-garde; it is too much like people with bags over their heads banging their heads against the wall and making a lot of noise but making few articulate sounds.") I will start with Allen Fisher. This work seems to me to be of great importance. I wrote about it frequently but it resisted description. So I produced a whole book of interviews with the poet. This was completed in 2005, and the publisher has not managed to print it yet. All the same this represents the value which I place on his work and which I want others to place on it as well. I do not think that other poets have taken on much of what Allen worked out in formal terms, and of hundreds of influences he has documented other London poets seem to feature nowhere.

While I was in The Punter after a seminar in Cambridge (in August 2011), someone made this comment to me about Eric Mottram, that he was an academic who couldn't stand first-rate art and so gathered around him a bunch of second-raters, rowdies who believed that all they had to do was to create riot and revolt against the rules and create noise. This may be the real prehistory of the London School. Naturally this is not recorded in the folklore.


Fear of reflexivity

The first reason for not writing about the London School en masse is that there were hundreds of people milling around (as documented in the anthology Verbi Visi Voco and in too many of the 1500 pamphlets published by Writers Forum) and producing dreadful radical poetry. "Look, I've broken my language!" The ethos of Writers Forum was never to criticise anything and not to be selective when it came to publishing. VVV itself was a reprint of one page each from the first 500 WF pamphlets - neatly documenting that the undertaking was a waste of time. The unwillingness to apply discrimination is itself a prime example of wearing a bag over your head - the powers of the intelligence being switched off. The idea of selecting the best poetry as a preliminary to making an anthology had not penetrated these parts. Bring your rambles to the shambles! Because the borders of the London School extended to engulf so many talentless louts, the LS as an aggregate was not interesting enough to write about. Conversely, the talented individuals who hung out on the London scene could only be given justice by being separated out from the Gadarene rout and treated as individuals.
The 'bag over the head' quality derived from simple precepts, thus:

utterances with no meaning, such as sound and concrete poetry, are better than articulate speech
consciousness is bourgeois
anything which damages language is better than anything which is articulate, coherent, refined
it is necessary to smash cultural forms in order to achieve liberation
connoisseurship, discrimination, exact knowledge, are bourgeois fantasies
disrupting patterns of association is more important than creating something clear
expressing the personality, and the differentiated patterns of perception and sensibility which show the personality in poetry, is reactionary and out of date. Operations based on chance, mechanical recombination, found texts, defacing of found texts, are inherently superior.
attentiveness is academic
noise is better than sound
new patterns are always achieved through random damage and disruption and not by study and formal insight

The result of applying these rules is adequately described by the phrases about wearing a bag over your head and jumping up and down. The abandonment of judgement is a form of blindness, putting out the eyes of reason.

The comment about wearing bags over their heads is helpful because it points up the weaknesses of the whole swarm of incoherent/ revolting poets around the London scene over the decades and clears the decks so that I can recuperate the excellent poets within that scene and pierce the defences of boredom and indifference developed over the years by exposure to the interminable third- and fourth-rate products of Writers Forum and associated outlets. The situation is like the mainstream - there are literally hundreds of poets filling the scene and blocking the light, most of it is savagely tedious, but if you sift the evidence quite a few interesting poets can be found. Writing a history of the mainstream is impossible because there is too much data.

By abandoning intelligence, reason, self-criticism, rules of verbal conduct, etc., the poets mentioned were precisely acting 'with bags over their heads'. There is no point denying this. Robert may not find this 'helpful' but the truth is always helpful. You can't go 'gubba gubba gubba bing bing bing' for 30 years and expect people to see you as an intellectual. You can’t indulge in ‘Messy Play’, print the results, staple them, and have someone come along 30 years later and say they are significant.

What happened in history

I know that Nuttall, Cobbing and Mottram were around in London in the 60s and 70s, and one version of the history is that they were all in love with garbled primitivism, inarticulate, 'subversive’ language, messy play, and that this is the ‘ground floor’ of the London scene.

I lived in London for 27 years and was active on the alternative poetry scene for 20 of those years. One of the prominent features was that people had no idea of the past of that scene. Maybe there was a central project which included an 'inherited set of assumptions' (an acquis communautaire indeed) but no one seemed to know what it was. Publicity material would declare that Bob Cobbing had begun doing sound poetry in 1953 (soon after the Continental revival of it, then, so he was up to date in 1953, if less so in 1954) but there seemed to be no memory of what that entailed or any record of what it produced. I pored over the bookstalls which were such a feature of reading events, but they seemed mysteriously blank of records of the past. I found Maggie O'Sullivan's A4 pamphlets of 1986 (I did not acquire them until about 1990, regrettably) and they seemed to be the start of continuous memory. Writing an account of the London scene from 1960, or 1953, up till then was not feasible for lack of intelligible sources. Maybe there was nothing interesting up till 1985 or so, except for Fisher?

I have to say that this is remarkably different from the milieu of poets which we associate with JH Prynne, Grosseteste Review, Ferry Press (and scenes like these). The first time I got exposure to this was in around 1982, when I met John Wilkinson, but he and many others seemed to have a clear reflexive memory of what had happened and of the reasoning involved, and of course this is analogous to the clear reflexive content of the poetry involved, which is not in damaged language.

I would have written on the history of the ‘London School’ if the folklore available had produced anything intelligible and worth writing down.

There is a strand of opinion which holds that the London scene is the real avant garde and that the poetry represented in A Various Art, Conductors of Chaos, etc. is not properly avant garde and is not at that tip of an arrow moving forth into meaninglessness. This view is limited by the loss of precision into baling up dozens of individuals into a package, and by the limits of validity in classifying X or Y as belonging to one group or another. (If you start with a list of poets you will find that many of them can't be easily 'brigaded' into a group, as a basis for reckless and exciting generalisations.)

I do not buy the idea that Cobbing, crumpling up pieces of paper, photocopying them, and publishing the results, is more advanced than ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’. Of course, if you do buy that idea, things must look a lot different. This is perhaps a moment of division when form is born - a watershed inscribing itself in the whole alluvial geology downstream.

How can you put faith in innovation and not have a grasp of chronology? You wouldn't know if your poem is innovative or not. In fact the detection of originality argues a level of connoisseurship which must pre-exist it - or you might simply be marching in circles like a drunk man in the darkness. You could be deluding yourself about the innovation, and checking this requires someone with a genuine reflexive knowledge of poetic style and the delicate details of change. Comparing yourself to the norms is not something you can do without reflexive knowledge. The possibility that a whole group of people in the 1990s were stuck in the cultural atmosphere of 1953 is more substantial than we would wish it.


Hit list of significant 'alternative' work from the London environment

Gavin Selerie, Azimuth. Allen Fisher, Place. Robert Sheppard, Daylight Robbery. Paul Brown, Meetings and Pursuits. Maggie O'Sullivan, A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts. Robert Hampson, Seaport. Ulli Freer, Stepping Space. John Seed, Interior in the Open Air. Adrian Clarke, Possession. Selected poems 1996-2006.
It needs a critic to come along and throw out all the bad poetry heaped up around the London School in order to reveal the excellent poetry written within the London scene to a public which hasn't noticed it.

The dislike of thought connects to the lack of interest in distinguishing between good art and bad, and connects too to a lack of complex and differentiated sensations, and then connects to a lack of interest in changes in style over time, which is why the oral folklore of the London scene is so uninteresting.

The line of reflexivity includes much of what I value about modern British poetry and moreover allows a continuity to be traced back beyond the ‘new start’ in 1959 and 1960. It is the only real political line in poetry as it strives to understand daily life in the attempt to change it. The emptying from awareness of its primary contents is not the path to a new consciousness. Rather, consciousness needs memory and self-awareness. Freedom is the exercise of judgement - the formation of judgements is the precursor to it.

Politics belongs with reason and complex language.

The idea of a polarity (in the British underground scene) in which one end believes in using the full range of language and one believes in the random, the use of mechanical processes, the unmodulated, lets us out of the misleading geographical classifiers of folklore. When we say ‘London’ we mean ‘anti-discursive hi energy constructed in small units’; instead of saying ‘Cambridge’ we would rather say ‘reflexive and with intact access to the resources of the English language’.

The whole idea of reflexivity needs exploring, as the key to mapping part of the Underground. I did work on the ALP catalogues which suggested that the 'Underground' included 2000 poets who had published at least one book or pamphlet up to 1990. The fact that this entire area was written off wholesale by people like Ian Hamilton or Peter Forbes hardly proves that all its parts resemble each other. People interested in the subject might be looking for terms for describing divisions within this vast extent.

How does this relate to the depolarisation project, where we try to grow out of the mutual hostility of the factions which lined up against each other in the 70s?
Well, the 'truth and reconciliation' process must involve truth. The attempt to join up in one community with the poetry enthusiasts outside the 'realms of the Underground' must involve a process of owning up to how bad most of the rebel/rabble heritage is. A community has been defined as a group of people who share a version of the past (or, share a past preserved in a narratives). In order to build a larger poetic community, we go through a process of filtering which builds an ever larger stock of truth.

The disputes were originally about theories of poetry. If there are so many bad poems, the theories responsible for them must be wrong, and there is no point going to war for them. Perhaps there are better theories, which regrettably most poets have failed to understand.

Generally what poets want is attention, and the fights are about shares of that. To write with studied inattentiveness is always likely to draw the audience into inattentiveness. This destroys the asset you want to acquire. This is surely a more fundamental problem than the fights which you lose.

If there were 2000 poets publishing in the Underground, it is futile to go into the new cultural process with a banner saying that they were all good. Surely there are excellent reasons for admitting that the slack, messy, inattentive Underground boys were inattentive, messy, and slack. This is the truth and will found a society of poetry in which we can talk to each other. The theories we abandon on the way to the truth probably aren't going to be very good theories to follow as paths into a joyful future. Being delusions moves them out of the frame for shining paths. In fact, if there is a communitas based on the idea that all the inattentiveness is Great Avant Garde Art then it is unsustainable and people are likely to lose faith in it and fall out of it all the time. The lie seems to be inclusive but all the falsity it entails means that the shared thing crumbles at every step. So it's better to tell the truth.

Of course there are good mainstream poets, as well. Discrimination can lure good art from behind the spoil tips of the inept and inattentive. In order to get to the solid ground of truth the poets who wrote in a conservative style also have to accept just how many people wrote in that style and produced bad poetry, the flimsiness of the conventional virtues. It is a sobering up process, a de-intoxication. In the end there is nothing to go to war to defend.

The recovery of the history of British poetry from 1960 to 1997 (or other limiting dates) has to deal with one case at a time. The problems with the ‘inherited narratives’ are extreme. The whole area is likely to repay reflective study. The outcome of that study is likely to be a new poetic community with a new shared past.


Saturday, 13 August 2011

Poetry Review, 67/4


I have a stack of back issues of Poetry Review (PR) here and I took the time to read 67/4, 1978, edited by Harry Chambers. The message of this issue is the tedious mainstream, it stands as a symbol of how tedious the m-stream can be and gives an opportunity to think about this problem. For this number is full of very tedious poetry. Interest and innovation are securely locked out. To grasp the word ‘mainstream’ you have to get the tedium of moments like 67/4. Noticing this sheer badness is a chreode -a moment of rejection that thousands of people went through. Not just a crap moment but a moment embodying a whole universe of poetic crap. So many people had a bad experience in 1978 or so and never read any mainstream poetry over the next 30 years.

This is a moment of horror but not the whole m-stream. I can't reconstruct my reading in the 1970s. But I do know that I made voyages into British poetry of that time and found it searingly disappointing, much like 67/4. There were bad experiences with tired and conventional set-ups. I walked out, I just thought it was all crap. Of course the Underground wasn't visible to me, that came later. Scenes like this were so vile that they created the Underground. People reacted to dull scenes by walking out, in large numbers. It was inevitable that they would then aggregate, to some extent. Poetry split in two.

There is a miasma of mainstream. It appears as a swamp in which consciousness is impossible. Any attacks on the mainstream are bound to hit their target because it's too big too miss. Bad mainstream poetry fills entire counties. But it's crucial all the same to locate good m-stream poetry and recognise its difference. I made a big mistake by using the term mainstream without differentiating between the morass of tired poetry and the strands of good poetry using conventional methods. The m-stream has so much to hide, and we need better determinations of everything.

You have to read between the lines, always. Chambers only edited one issue. Maybe this means that someone at the Poetry Society, owners of the magazine, looked at it and decided that Chambers was too drab, too anti-intellectual, too unimaginative, too smug. If you look at other issues around the same time, i.e. after Mottram's departure and before they has someone permanent, the approach is quite different.

The past of PR is intricate. It is the centre of British poetry, the magazine read by the most people, the one with the most weight. It was a terrible magazine in the 1950s, and a problem up to about 1965. In the later 60s, it went through rapid change and improvement, in line with what English culture in general was doing. It became a completely different magazine. Between 1971 and 1977, Mottram was at the helm. He followed on from the issues immediately before his arrival, but took it further. In 22 issues over six years, he developed a radical magazine - innovative, ambitious, experimental, politicised. During the 70s, culture in Britain became caught up with politics and with bitter conflicts. The new came to seem a tangible threat, and the 'old' got organised and began a cultural purge. Mottram may have been a victim of this, to some extent.

In 1978, then, PR had an established audience who liked radical poetry and expected it. Chambers was facing this audience - most copies of the magazine went to members of the Poetry Society as part of their membership, so the audience were rather stable. Chambers chose to take them on head-on. He makes no attempt to reconcile the numerous people who would have read 67/4 and been affronted by its fatigue and conservatism. It has no overlap with the Mottram PR. He supplies an editorial made up of quotes which seems to offer an explanation of why the magazine has changed so much. Chambers quotes Karl Shapiro: ‘For the first time in history the illiterates have a literature of their own, op-pop-camp-kitsch-existentialist-occult-nihilist sweepings and swill.’ Presumably Shapiro is attacking the Beats here. But presumably Chambers means by this the whole set of poets published in the Mottram PR - more than a hundred of them. Of course he does not name any names. But the presumption must be that he is referring to the readers and poets who enjoyed Mottram's PR. This is like a declaration of war. The only concession to this problem of transition is his quote-editorial - which by denouncing the modern seems to be denouncing the existing readership of PR. This surely looks like an attempt to break off any relations with the audience which had developed since 1960, and to make the split permanent. And to get rid of the poets who had arrived since 1960. It is hard to avoid the feeling that Chambers actually wants to get rid of this audience. It is inaccurate to see splits in the poetry world as simply the products of malign acts by conservative editors. But actions like 67/4 help to explain why differences of taste became petrified oppositions. Surely Shapiro’s quote describes something which does not exist? why is it being resurrected at the masthead of Britain’s poetry magazine of record? If Mottram was a professor, why refer to him as an illiterate? This caricatural editorial is the only account offered of why PR changed policy so radically. What we apparently see is Chambers trying to get rid of about half the established readership of his magazine. This is why he is insulting them. The lack of continuity with the Mottram PR is shocking. This must have felt like a deliberate insult. No wonder people stomped off in a huff. Chambers was defining the hostile centre, guarded by wire from areas that might overflow into it.

Working through old PRs is productive but the real story is only present through silences & anonymous distortions. Negative generalisations. A dialogue of the unlistening. It is interesting to read the issue (68/1) which Douglas Dunn edited the next year. His editorial starts out by discussing how boring most conventional poetry is. Bravo! this man is right! Then he goes on to describe the old poetry and the new, and to suggest that we need poetry which mixes both streams, and that his issue is in fact filled with poems which do that. Then he kicks off with John Ash. Bravo again! So people who abandoned the mainstream altogether were making a false generalisation - the mainstream was a whole sea of poetry within which there were gifted poets and also open-minded editors. (The race of poets who combined the new styles with being accessible did not yet exist in 1979 - they arrived slightly later, as a group.)

The point of resurrecting this moment, of course, is to retrieve a moment of decision. The thesis is that the poetry scene was split in two sides by 1978 and that moments like this produced an enduring situation whereby one side ignored what the other side published and so entered a tunnel where the light was surrounded by darkness on every side.

There is a review of Charles Causley which includes a weird excursus which explains that we did not need a renaissance in the 14th century because there had already been a renaissance in the 12th century. This is bizarre to read. It is there because the reviewer is afraid of someone saying Causley was out of date. Actually - Causley was completely out of date in 1978, this is obvious. The people who would have said this appear in the magazine, but only as ghosts. They are being slapped down throughout the issue but they never get the chance to speak. There is another weird moment in this review where the author abandons Causley altogether in order to denounce the 1975 Cambridge Poetry Festival and the 'Black Mountain' poets who read there. The denunciation seems to me factually wrong. Also, I don't think that the poets there in 1975 had more than a tiny amount to do with an American college which closed down in the 1950s. The remarks simply seem like a way of telling the reader that everything which has happened since 1960 can be ignored and actually didn't happen. I think this goes beyond thoughtful connoisseur chit-chat and is more like an attempt to define the previous readers of Poetry Review as the enemy.

It is with some reluctance that I identify anonymous caricatures as the phantom of a debate - as the only way in which critics within one faction acknowledge that other factions exist and produce poetry and have arguments sustaining their position. The bulk denunciation reflects the fact that the person speaking has not read the poetry they are denouncing. This is the landscape of miasma - you simply ignore what you don’t have allegiance to. It seems that the counter-attack on innovation in the 1970s and 1980s was not based on contemporary innovation but on the classic period of ‘high’ modernism - work from the 1920s or 1930s. The good part of this is that simply having a debate, where two or more sides had actually read the texts which the other sides like, would be a huge improvement on what we have had in the recent past. Maybe we could start simply by giving up miasma as a reaction.

Some things have changed since the twelfth century. For one thing, French stopped being the culturally dominant language in England. If poetry is subject to organic growth, an editor would not have a cut-off point after which he accepts nothing. The cut-off point in fact sets up a line of division in poetry, denying what continuity we might find for ourselves. I don’t doubt that Causley uses ‘mediaeval forms of versification’, drawn from folk songs. The question is why he couldn’t make anything of what elements had reached English poetry since the Renaissance.

The dispute at the Poetry Society in 1977 reflected a division which already existed. It cannot have been the moment when that division emerged. The split was a process, not an event. However, English society in general was politically split during the 1970s and flowed back together during the 1980s. If poetry was slow to follow suit, we must suspect that some individuals manipulated the situation in order to achieve local authority, which the disappearance of factions would have caused to vanish.

Division is natural. The strange thing is how poetic worlds achieve solidarity when they include so many disparate individuals. The answer is that solidarity is natural, poetry is all about communication and the communication brings people together. It is natural for poetry to live in diffuse, tolerant, fluently verbal, aggregates of friends. Mediation was missed at the time. We can try to do it now. We can even take it to another level. How should editors manage cultural relations?

I intend to go on reading back issues of PR. I find the improvement in circa 1965-71 especially interesting. But the issues over a couple of years after Mottram are also interesting, because they are so varied, as if the Society was casting around for a policy.

Maybe you want to define 95% of the poets around as the Enemy. Even if you do that, you have to accept that producing caricatures of their work and speech, as in wartime propaganda, is not intellectually valid. Maybe this is what the advent of 'theory' has brought to us - that you cannot remove agency from people, that there are no ideas which nobody owns, and that those people have some right in the linguistic space if you are going to bring their ideas into play enough to attack them. Crushing large numbers of people down into caricatures is a habit which needs to be discarded. I believe this is what 'theory' was saying.

This comes with the usual caution, like an anti-piracy warning. This is that people involved in the 1970s during a cultural crisis became polarised, but this does not mean that everyone younger also became polarised. I suspect the whole struggle seemed less real to people who turned up from say 1983 onwards.

I suppose that organising debates is very complicated, and that by not having any debate a great deal of time has been saved over the past 35 years. Yes, but fundamentally that time had to be spent and avoiding debate has had all kinds of spreading and disastrous effects which no one could possibly want.




Sounds surround the icy waters underground: psychedelic coding


Note. This is a chapter written for the 2003 book 'Fulfilling the silent rules'. There are problems with it. The subject is important but the relationships are too subjective and 'deep' to be easily described. I feel that poetry of a certain time was composed of 'blinding signs' and that feeling has been lost. In general listening to a particular kind of music is often a way of coming round to understand a certain related kind of poetry. Which puts the critic off the bus, really.

**
The poetry of the 70s presents us with a formidable mass of difficult and intense work, to which there is no specialist guide at present. However, it is also, in the view of competent critics, the most fertile poetic decade of the 20th century. Brian Marley wrote:

With steam striking his jug-handle ears, our
new luggage, smell of old newspapers in
the hall - surely something wild must happen
without a slump in torpedoing the twentieth century
'Courage, Morris, courage... I neither neglect
to brush my teeth nor prune a handful of stars in
the early evening - as such, I know one true
particle in the mystery of bone-setting old
ceramics; the motionless dark, occultist
theorem, crumbs inevitably remaining
and I am (in my soupy way) blocking the nerves
from their coffee-veined stimulus - droning cellos!
The known-to-be-positive by reason, adjusting
a small knob - will frenzied faces appear on
our scanner? Duplicity, when peering up the
gun barrel, fingering the trigger: memories
are made of this!
(from 'Bargain Basement Sonnets #5', from Springtime in the Rockies, 1978)

Although forgotten by successive generations of poets in fierce competition with each other, this is splendid poetry. How is it possible for someone to achieve such lightness and brilliance in such a sustained way? When the style is more important than the subject, we have to qualify the style as far as possible - including tracing its external associations. All the new style poets of that vanished decade have in common the rejection of traditional genres, with their firm rules for the ordering and design of parts, which neither readers nor poets could easily get wrong. It is hard to summarise or paraphrase Marley's poem - isn't it valid to see this as virtuosity, and to see this capacity to hyperassociate, and to take over experience from the fatal cycles of memory and conventional behaviour sequences, as counter-cultural heroism? The aestheticisation of everyday life is represented by - the aestheticisation of the poem. Not by chance do 'reason' and 'memory' appear in the poem - it is telling us that consciousness has access to other processes. The poem is dominated by style - we can see this as like the lingering over ornament, at the expense of 'purposive' and busy musical structures, which parallels the songs of that time. All of their poems can be seen as interstitial to 1950s poems - they burst out into the space between the lines. They are unpredictable, unaccountable, non-functional - and, from the point of view of a critic like Allott, unnecessary. Ornamentation and hyperassociation are closely linked - the ornament breaks down the functional patterns to create an 'aesthetic', uncoded, space, which is filled with a purely subjective message, about the poet's state of mind - the hyperassociation is the message: I'm loose, I've got time, and I'm having a good time.
If we define this kind of poem as an improvised variation on moments within the traditional poem of the 1950s, with its rational account of highly conventional and involuntary behaviour sequences - we connect the new poetry to a new lifestyle of affluence, leisure and exploration - and simultaneously designate an 'out group' of poets who couldn't manage the incredible virtuosity needed to invent new structures that had an inner logic, and to get through poems without 'touching the ground', and relapsing into explaining and instructing. The new society was one of status competition, and radicalising leisure actually made things more competitive. Any loss of nerve would make the poem relapse into the familiar 50s drabness, and while the programmes of readers and editors involved evading or excluding this kind of poem, much of the ideological promotion around the texts has been an attempt to disguise the conservatism which makes the poet acceptable to the mainstream. There is a secondary question about the reader being baffled by poetry which doesn't pause for explanation. No-one likes being in the middle of a party where they don't know anyone and can't understand a word that is being said. But I feel that the youth culture of the 60s and 70s has spread, as youth got older, to become simply mass culture. The generation born in the 1920s which fought off and indicted the new poetry is marginal now; the preoccupations which blinded them seem eccentric to us.
I wonder if we can find a way of modelling this intractable material by borrowing the rock critic Sheila Whiteley's idea of psychedelic coding, in her book The Space Between the Notes. The specific 'ideal-typical' bands she names are Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Beatles, and the Pink Floyd (although hundreds of other acts recorded psychedelic material). In a complex exposition of a musical language, she points to features which had for the target audience a social meaning - referring to the counter-cultural lifestyle, to recognised 'affective identities, attitudes and behavioural patterns'. The musical conventions involved originated, she says, with the Charlatans' residency at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1965; the Charlatans were a San Francisco band, and because youth culture was international and fashion-conscious the style-package spread rapidly to the 'underground' in San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, and other places. The music refers to hallucinogenic experience by means which 'include the manipulation of timbres (blurred, bright, overlapping), upward movement (and its comparison with psychedelic flight), harmonies (lurching, oscillating), rhythms (regular, irregular), relationships (foreground, background) and collages which provide a point of comparison with more conventionalised, i.e. normal treatment.' She talks about virtuosity - the wild exceeding of the norms of blues-rock musical structures, while essentially obeying those norms. The elaborate variations on musical form are spontaneous - they vary all the time, and are decorations of the basic form. She identifies 'tripping' as the lingering fascination for a texture, or a sound, experienced while tripping. Typically, the style uses dislocation of time - two-chord tunes where the listener cannot recognise whether the chord shift is going forward or backward; and blurring of notes which partly contradicts the 'progress message' that one note has finished and another one is now due. 'Don't know if I'm coming up or down.' She says of Hendrix's recording of 'Purple Haze': 'Whilst this is basically a pentatonic blues riff, the extremes of distortion blur the actual pitching of the notes and the discordant partials make it practically impossible to hear the pitch. ... the electronic distortion, the fuzz and the resultant discordant partials. ... For the listener, the sheer volume of noise works towards the drowning of personal consciousness. The simultaneous underlying pulsating rhythm and the heightened sensation of raw power rip through the distorted amplification of the guitar sound with its sinuous tripping around the basic notes.' Again, of 'Love or Confusion', 'The use of distortion and fuzz creates an unknown element which can suggest uncertainty. This also comes through in the way in which Hendrix tuned his guitar. The top string was often tuned to D or Eb and the excessive bending and use of the wah-wah pedal served to obscure the actual notes played.' The belief in new possibilities for social institutions was expressed musically: "Stylistic complexity, the elements of surprise, contradiction and uncertainty suggested alternative meanings which suggested the hippies' emphasis on timeless mysticism."
I wonder if we can draw lines of analogy between the songs and the poetry. The timeless effect of two chords can, very weakly, be connected to indeterminacy in syntax - lines floating without tense, etc. Although paradox was something recommended (i.e. posited for all truly significant poems) by Cleanth Brooks, in a classic of the new criticism, the use of fundamental tensions and oscillations by 'underground' poets clearly goes beyond paradox, and can be equated with the uncertainties of pitch, rhythm, etc., which Whiteley describes for the classic bands.
We need to draw our attention away from psychoactive drugs. Extensive availability of biographical data has made it quite clear that a lot of 'psychedelic' musicians never took any of the drugs. The innovations of the period 1967-70 are logical extensions of what was happening in 1964-7, and one can easily find hundreds of recordings which are 'proto-psychedelic' at dates which unconditionally didn't see any use of lysergic acid in the places concerned. It is equally valid to see the new sounds as the product of new electronic devices - the maturing of electronic instruments and studio techniques. Whiteley quotes two sociologists to the effect that 'But this culture has already been defined in this way partially because of the existence in it of this particular kind of music. The system is perfectly structured internally... but has no necessary purchase on it from without.' People who take hallucinogens see the figures and narratives in the Otherworld which their culture has taught them to expect, and indeed one of the purposes of teaching children myths is to ensure this. 'Acid rock' pleased millions of people who had never taken any drugs at all. I have no evidence that any of the poets used any chemical assistance to their purely neurological resources. The issue of drugs is a big distraction.
The most important aspect for us is the coding which relates specific linguistic traits to a view of how life should be led - liberal, exploratory, hedonistic, not preoccupied by status and possessions. This wished-for new life was political - because it inevitably led to clashes with the captains of 'bourgeois guardianship'. It was also apolitical - because it was essentially about the dominance of leisure, and pleasure, over work and duty. It lost many of its qualities when the living people who made the coding moved on to new personal interests and rules. At the time, it 'pointed' to this group (of 'concrete living people who can be loved', as we say) - and was therefore as indefinitely complex as the behaviour of those people. Because the people were three-dimensional, the 'counter-cultural' concept is too. Precise, contract-like, definition of the meaning is inappropriate. The question of what it means now (when the people are 30 years older and quite different) interests me a great deal.
Younger than the other musicians discussed were the Pink Floyd, who were able to form their style in an atmosphere already saturated with psychedelic sounds, and so with the influence of blues, with its folk/Christian framework, minimised. They were consequently able to pursue the new style for longer than the others. Whiteley discusses 'Astronomy Domine': 'the dip shapes in the guitar solo create a strong feeling of floating around the beat and this is reinforced by the lazy meandering around the notes(.) ... The chord sequence moves against any formal organisation and (...) there is no real resolution. Instead, there is a movement towards a disorientation of the norm...' The lyrics run in part:

Lime and limpid green, a second scene
A fight between the blue you once knew
Floating down
The sound resounds around the icy waters underground(...)
Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten

The repeated syllable 'ound' echoes the musical sensation of time failing to run forward, and the third verse mutates one of the lines to 'surround the icy waters underground', a near-echo but with the syllable break shifted and the voiced -s- unvoiced - a 'tripping' effect of cognitive dissonance and the semantic tier being eroded. The sequence 'Miranda and Titania' sounds when sung like "Mi ran da ran dTitania', breaking up into nonsense - a later line runs 'Blinding signs flap flicker flicker blam', and this could be a description of these irresoluble, shifting phonetic patterns. The second scene is attracted by the tighten and frighten sounds below it to second sight - the psychedelic insight into a hidden and private world of symbolism, enabling you to see fairies like Oberon and Titania. It also contains the acoustic shape of (for a) second seen - which relates to the flickering a few lines later. The vision is blinding but intermittent - as shaky as the ghost words of which these lyrics are so full. The equation between the skies above and the icy waters beneath suggests a dissolution of the observer's point of view, the loss of the human scale of a body, on a surface, as the stable ground for a mind; the hyper-vivid description of the infinite expanses through their colours (blue for the sky, green for the waters, we suppose) does nothing to restore scale. Whiteley quotes a medical source about LSD's effect of dissolving the bounds between the self and the outside world or other people; the notion of 'cosmic rock' arose from the photographs taken in outer space (universal in the media at that time), partly from the 'weightless' music dreamed up for the soundtracks of science fiction films in the 1950s, largely from the projection of this depersonalisation into a place without persons or objects: a feeling of the dissolution of boundaries was sited, mythographically, in a place that had no boundaries and was mere extension. Oberon and Titania are not stars – they mislead, they have the power of flight, and they command potions which delude reason – significant images for psychoactive drugs. Their servant, Puck, is also a will of the wisp – a light that misleads travellers (hence blinding signs). Miranda also awoke into a new world: O brave new world, that hath such people in it! - an obvious drug reference. Saturn and Titan are not names of stars, but are perhaps not randomly chosen. Both are names of mythical figures who were thrown down from heaven – the sensation of falling is a terror involved in psychedelic ‘flight’. Titan is a moon of the ‘leaden planet’ Saturn – a frozen body which may contain the ‘icy waters’. Its shining rings are a sly reference to light-shows. (Miranda, Titania, and Oberon are moons of Uranus.) The word 'Titan' sounds, ambiguously, like 'tighten' - a reference to tension which anticipates the word frighten, in the next half-line. These lines are closely packed – a product of hyperassociation, which is the main event in the psychedelic experience. Their refusal of a character to identify with, a feeling to isolate, leads to a loss of orientation. The beloved pop song vanished, replaced by a trick surface, with a slight malice or slyness. We advance onto shifting grounds and don’t know if we’re falling or ‘tripping’.
Early Floyd 'experimented with improvising around one chord used in a drone-like way, seeing how they could extend it. On March 27 [1966], Floyd played a number lasting half an hour.' This static immersion was aided by 'using electronic feedback in continuous controlled waves which added up to complex repeating patterns.' The effect was, obviously, timelessness - a loss of boundaries and orientation to complement the loss of spatial reference points. The Floyd spent the next thirty years exploring these ideas of timelessness and immensity, through varying drones, heartbeat-like bass riffs, repetition, and barely punctuated, engulfing, emptiness. Essentially in parallel to this, poetry moved into the long poem, in which the exploration of inner space, the capture of emptiness, reflexivity (=feedback), and the approach towards timelessness, were all vital.
Whiteley speaks of affective identity. Certain features of music became signs of belonging - music was not merely a pastime but the seizure of a group identity. I suggest that, similarly, there were poetic traits which readers at that time created and recognized as signs of the counter-culture. One of these is contradiction - the confrontation of two cognitive frames which don't really belong together. Along with this, is the move of flowing two levels of knowledge into each other, so that the reader is destabilised (confused?), and responds (in theory) by a reorganisation of their existing knowledge. Reversion to the origin of social forms is held to invite the question why do we do things this way - and conjecture about how things could be different. Montage suggests a rapid shift of psychological horizons - preparation for revolutionary change. It challenges the predictable structures of consciousness. The key to the style is found in the anti-functional quality of virtuosity. These poems are not simply methodical philosophical enquiries. Art as something logical, a form of work, a piece of evidence, a test of character, is being discarded - hollowed out to leave space for the rhythms of pleasure. The shifts and leaps of the poets need to be compared with the rock guitar solo to be properly understood - they are outbursts of spontaneous virtuosic display. The flouting of preset procedures is a form of hedonism - the play principle.
Defining this new style points to an elite of poets who could go far enough in abandoning traditional concepts of logical coherence: Prynne, John James, Barry MacSweeney, Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Martin Thom, Brian Marley, Iain Sinclair, Eric Mottram. At a certain distance, we could add Ted Hughes and George MacBeth. Of course, there were any number of people hanging around with the underground and writing poetry which was too feeble, prudent, or inconsequential to make its mark as part of the New Thing. The reference to shoemaking external, making art a proxy contest about social ideals, can make the art collapse when the referent migrates, but also makes it plausible that the conservative hostility of critics like Davie, Grigson, Hamilton, or Thwaite was due to misplaced authoritarian politics rather than to serious artistic judgment. So many products from that era look ridiculous now the libertarian Utopia has been dissolved by its creditors, but work like Marley's which has a richness of internal organisation is a permanent now, undamaged by time. Today we complain about overkill of reissued music on CD rather than pontificating about how 'pop music' will all be forgotten in five years' time.
Let's look at particular pieces of poetry to see how far they really show the posited traits. Martin Thom wrote:

and have no shy
nervous origin. Mirrors none
the map streaked
with present joy. Jet, Iron
Amber/ from the North in
long trade across Mesopotamia
delirious in no-home, days and
weeks, a manic loop of assimilation
writing these journals to hold time
against all loss of shadow. A true
night of pale registrations
spread out coldly above
the nomadic line spilt through sand
sinking in the impossible
and no relief

Blankets burnt at the Indus source
far from any German sky-pole of the world
raw with all change in nerve and loss
of known quality
Until the moment breaks
rain to earth, valley to range of hills
rich off the dead structures they
build terraces, splint earth with kindness
and gather quiet and dark
the quiet and the dark flower
Persephone was
Not in cruelty. I do not live
to rise from sleep to strike
these birds of impossible design
held by no poem to sing in ears
sharpened to receive
below the threshold, as in that unity
spoken of in trance
The bird-dancers
all crazed in head and holy
sick with images since thirteen years old, now rich
in poetry and hidden chants
whirling their iron dress, taking blood from the ear
and waxy gold
Now we are blue with the reflected coldness
of strangeness affecting us.
In night
the glass of the world does not speak
washed out to the image of the
disappearing axe
to every sign on these hills, and no call to

and all tired herds sink in rain
to ashen valleys, lie there
to the left of your optic range
sand sweet as grass, from red and blue cinnabar, rivalling
the Linnaean geocracy
bright with dew and quick bees
all light burning, not damned or lost
in th'imagined breath
to live in the flight of shy nervous origins
loving their origin
(from The Bloodshed the Shaking House; dated 1974, published 1977)

The passage evokes the shamanism of Inner Asia - an ecstatic, irrational, practice, associated with wild dancing and repetitive drumming. The theme is also nomadism - used by these poets to get away from rootedness and its mental consequences, and the equivalent in poetry of cosmic flight in rock. The realm of anthropology was coded at that time to switch on thoughts about the function of social institutions, the possibility of changing them. The relaxation of rational boundaries acts to release impulses - both Freud and anthropology are used as windows on a hidden inner self of metaphors, analogies, wishes, fantasies, and pictures. The self dissolves its contracts with the outside world, and finds a way of grasping what reason is. This unbearably rich formal world reminds us of the undisciplined sonic world opened up by the 'free' guitar solo. It is spontaneous, improvised, led by affect, constantly shifting. This is why I find it hard to paraphrase - just as Whiteley found freestyle guitar passages hard to transcribe. Reducing it to order damages something integral and perpetually moving. The attachment of anthropological and Freudian imagery serves as a "frame opener" to key the kind of free association we are supposed to carry out while reading the poem. It is there as a window, opened through convention to show our inner selves: Now we are blue with the reflected coldness /of strangeness affecting us. This is really the opposite of didactic writing - although it is very erudite and rich in ideas. We have to mention Deleuze and Guattari, because they also wrote about nomadism, and because Thom's later career was as a translator of French psychoanalytical works - he was probably very early in reading avant-garde psychoanalysis, such as Guattari, in the early 70s. So the breakthrough in connecting free association, vagrant thoughts, with nomadic wandering, may already come from Traite du nomadisme comme machine de guerre. But - it may come from The English Intelligencer circa 1966. delirious in no-home is really a metaphor for wildness and freedom, for the boundless expanses which the new poetry is going to gallop over; the jumps between personal experience in the now and the deep time of the ethnographical descriptions evoke this wildness and are the match of psychedelic disorientation. There is also a theory of Indo-European origins (a phase before the Saxon identity) among South Russian nomads, which has lost most of its credibility over the last 60 years. The material of the poem is like soft sand - fit to record the finest ripples of the medium passing over it, passive to autosuggestion. Poetry sited boundlessness in the free reaches of Inner Asian space (or, the North Atlantic, or, the prairies of the northwestern USA) rather than in space beyond the earth's atmosphere or under the ground. Yet the dry air and flat horizons make the stars perilously close: A true /night of pale registrations / spread out coldly above /the nomadic line. The 'icy waters underground' (so close to blue with the reflected coldness of strangeness) bear a puzzling resemblance to the imagery of Northern icy waters in Malcolm Mooney's Land and Hendry's Marimarusa. The ocean was evidently chosen as the expression of 'lifting' of the body image into the boundless and weightless - which relates to 1940s radical use of the body as the source of all imagery. Eric Mottram wrote:

a helmet set on a head
for the horns reach from brain folds
to planets above towers
beyond a lens
moon light in his antlers
curl and spiral of universe
curve out of the brain
skill of mountains receptors to wind curve
from space to caves in the heart
a coil of horn around a nerve

which tunes the herb
(from A Book of Herne, 1981)

The imagery comes from Ferenc Juhasz, and no doubt Eric would connect the physiological equations to Charles Olson, but for me this fits perfectly as a piece of psychedelic cosmic poetry. Besides, the part about linking caves to space is too much like Syd Barrett's lyric about 'the stars that surround the icy waters underground'. I can't read 'moon light in his antlers' without hearing 'blue moonlight in your hair', from an old Cream song. The animal imagery comes from a shamanistic context, although mediated by Juhasz, and this echoes Thom - we can see this as the poetic equivalent of the counter-cultural interest in Asian religions. (Eric's Peace Projects also draws on the great poem, 'The Pearl', from 3rd century Syria, as discussed elsewhere on this site.) I don't like Eric's poetry, but at the same time almost everything I like in the cosmos appears in it somewhere. I counted eight radical cuts/discontinuities in the first 40 lines of 'Peace Project 5'. I see this merging of different conceptual/cognitive frameworks as intrinsically psychedelic - although Whiteley does not actually explore the use of montage, incongruity, recontextualisation, and merging in 'alternative' art. An example would be the cover design by Hipgnosis for the Pink Floyd's second album, 'Saucerful of Secrets': an uncalculable space unifies images, partly overprinted, of a real photo of space, what may be the fluid slide of a light show, a painted illustration of the planets, a row of green glass bottles (or alembics?), a photo of the band by a lake and against the sky, the Zodiac, a coloured print of a man in green (a magician?) in a forest, etc. This collage style, with its disorientation and overload, was coded as 'counter-cultural' at the time, and you certainly wouldn't have found it on record sleeves for jazz bands, family entertainers, or 'pop' groups. (Whiteley does talk of 'blurred/overlapping timbres'. The sound collages of a track like 'A Day in the Life' are a musical analogy.) Eric's manically branching associations parallel the hyperassociative state of a trip - and the stunningly rich sheafing of variations in musical improvisation. His edits are bewildering - much unlike the perfect smoothness which Martin Thom achieves. What I think is significant about the way he writes is its aestheticisation of knowledge structures. The really big revolution in poetry was the loss of anxiety about intelligence - the recognition that the boundless landscape of human knowledge was material for its own landscape poetry. The counter-culture called a mighty subjectivity to life - vigorous enough to burn away the problems of the monotony of so much of human knowledge, the exasperations of accuracy, the company of dusty and sanctimonious pedants. His poems are designed like bibliographies - but his bibliographies are incredibly exciting and pushed a whole generation of underground poets into poetry.
J.H.Prynne wrote:

A dream in sepia and eau-de-nil ascends
from the ground as a great wish for calm. And
the wish is green in season, hazy like meadow-sweet,
downy & soft waving among the reeds, the
cabinet of Mr Heath. Precious vacancy piles in
this studious form, the stupid slow down & become
wise with inertia, and instantly the prospect of
money is solemnised to the great landscape.
It actually glows like a stream of evening sun,
value become coinage fixed in the grass crown.
The moral drive isn't
quick enough, the greasy rope-trick
has made payment an edge of rhetoric;
the conviction of merely being
right, that has
marched into the patter of balance.
(from 'A New Tax on the Counter-earth', from Brass, 1971)

While this style is over-simplified by any description, and the passage is clearly rational (and even waspish), we do seem to find psychedelic traits in it: the blurred, shimmering, quality, the pastoral feel, the aspirations to shed material values, the dominance of disembodied colours, the apparent dream state of the speaker, the use of hazy textures (the delicate seed-heads of the plant meadow-sweet), the virtuosity, the sudden leaps of cognitive level. Perhaps not only musicians were sitting in meadows thinking anti-capitalist thoughts? How far is it from 'lime and limpid green' to 'sepia and eau-de-nil'?
The method of quotation neatly excludes exhibition of the effects of loss of boundaries on the duration of poems. While we can only point to exhibits here, it is clear that the 1970s saw an explosion in the number of long poems, and that this wish for new volumes was related to 'space rock' and the infinite reaches of subjective experience opened up by the counter-cultural emigration. A good exhibit here would be Allen Fisher's Defamiliarising, a volume length work (100 pages) which is itself only a part of an even vaster work. Fisher's 70s work presumably does overload, destroy, and transcend inherited structures of the poem, and the poet/self audible within it, just as the Pink Floyd destroyed the 'song' and 'the pop star' by plunging into half-hour improvisations as the audience watched the osmotic swirl of the light show.
So, how successful is this comparison as a way of describing the new feel in poetry? I think there are considerable problems with it, as exceptions press themselves urgently on my mind. The verbal art is much more informationally loaded and conceptually more sophisticated than the musical art - as is true in any period. The music comes into existence because it refers back to itself and the poetry has to contain everything outside itself in order to exist. The advantage of the comparison is that many of my readers will already be familiar with recordings by the Beatles, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, etc., and so can form a concept of the poetry by drawing on memories of the music of 1968-73. The 'era feeling' obviously changed around 1974, by when most of the bands had either vanished or mutated unrecognizably; I feel that the poetry had got going later, and went on for longer, but we are left with the questions of what happened after 1977 - and what the poets of the underground era have been doing over the last 25 years.