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.