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. Anthony 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?

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