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.

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