Saturday, 15 September 2012

Critique of ‘Failure of Conservatism’

This is a re-visit to a book composed circa 1993-5 and published in 2003, in case my views had moved so far in the intervening years that I had to denounce or un-say parts of FCon. I revisited some key concepts in ‘The Long 1950s’. This note is probably of zero interest unless you have read both the books already.

Writing The Long 1950s, some 17 years after ‘FCon’, I was actively trying to promote material I’d missed in that final book. I thought to re-read FCon and see if the text actually needed correction on any points. These are the notes I made. The Long 1950s (published 2012) is about the mainstream and good mainstream poets and FCon was in part a critique of the mainstream - and of conservatives rejecting all the innovations that floated up after 1960.

As a first move, let me point out that the ‘shopping list’ of excellent and indispensable books of poetry in FCon was expanded by about 40 books over the years (and that the expanded list is on this site somewhere). What was the problem? Ignorance. Sheer ignorance. But then... I did some work.

The 7 volumes (of the complete work on modern British poetry) represent ‘massive simultaneity’, as the first volume goes through a chronology and the others linger inside the same time-span but report on different poets and stylistic areas. It was possible though that adding so much data undermined the generalisations which appear from time to time in volume 1 (FCon).

p.47-8 The line of argument foregrounds the Movement too much. The energies of literary conservatism don’t lend themselves to bagging up together as a ‘movement’. Also ‘the Movement’ rubric clearly includes work by John Holloway (The Landfallers) and Anthony Thwaite which I actually like. Not for the last time, I focused on an anthology (New Lines) too much and didn’t manage to blank it out and look for other things from roughly the same area of the sky, less highly lit but much more interesting. Things that seize the attention can paralyse the attention.
Eric Homberger sums up the period 1947-61 as one of Formalism, and this is a better label as it also allows for the good poetry in that style. In around 1961 things were changing and the people who wrote that sort of poetry moved on to a freer style.

p.57 At one point there was a chapter on Scottish poetry which got cut to bring the book within a feasible length. I put it on the web at So it would have been more sensible to show material on George Mackay Brown and Edwin Morgan before getting into some minor poets.

p.177 "the last 16 years really have been dominated by poetry without characteristics." This generalisation misses out the good bits. Connect this with, at p.229-30, me making more generalisations about the run of the mill output of vacuous pop and banal academic poetry. The ‘dominated’ statement is a cop-out because there is always tons of bad poetry. It is sensible to point the microphone to where something musical is to be heard - in this case I missed the chance to label a group of ‘post modern’ writers such as Ash, John Hartley Williams, Reed, Kuppner, Crawford. They weren’t typical but it is fair to view them as a sound belonging to the 80s & opening up new possibilities. They 'dominate' because they were so good.
What I don't get into is whether this group took over the 'lead role' from the Underground in around 1980-3 as the Underground was in such disarray and the 'post-modern' group were so much more able to reach the reading public through the usual gatekeepers. The question of decline in the Underground fascinates me. I have never published about this because I can't make my mind up about it. However I would welcome debate on this point. I think the office of 'lead role' has disappeared. But perhaps it was still there in 1974- and the convulsive struggles of the next three or four years were a symptom of this office dissolving, pouring out its strength and confidence.

p.240 This list misses ‘mine field’ by Judith Kazantzis, 1977, which was possibly the first full-length book of feminist poetry.

p. 243 These figures are interesting but the point that the share of women writers in new books being published went up from some 12% in the 1950s to about 50% in 2010 or adjacent years is utterly missing here. I didn’t have that figure in 1995 or even in 2003. Working up these summative figures is hard work and the sources I found were unproductive. The books listed here stop in around 1985. It would also have been logical to include a chapter about women poets here. But it just didn’t occur to me.

p.252 ‘the poetic mainstream did not increase in complexity’. Again, I think I was dazzled by some essentially unproductive foreground phenomena and ignored much more valuable cultural creations hiding behind them. However much dumbing-down took place, every day, the mainstream publishing outlets did expand to include poets like John Hartley Williams and the range of poetry on offer did become more complex.

p.253 This does not mention the (Anglo)Welsh Underground - a wondrous cluster of poets to whom John Goodby and I dedicated a whole issue of Angel Exhaust magazine in 2010. Issue 22. A revelatory research project. How regrettable that this earlier survey, at page 253 and on, failed to mention Paul Evans, Graham Hartill, Harry Guest, and so on. I was relying on certain anthologies from the region which for reasons we can’t go into here left out the innovative poets. Knowledge of the modern poets in Wales only followed extensive reconnaissance on the ground and penetration of elite rural networks of poets by high-risk face to face work - twenty years later. We more or less lurked in Hay on Wye and Llangattock, hiding round corners and ambushing people.
The problem is roughly - (a) you read a survey anthology full of stupid poems, made by some utter jerk (b) you conclude that the jerk didn’t leave out a few dozen brilliant poets. Sheer idiocy!

p. 317 We have to ask why I came back to the question of ‘period style’ in Long 1950s and had to write again about the period 1980-97 to get it right. FCon has a chapter about what happened in the 90s but I had already published a book (Legends of the Warring Clans: the poetry scene in the 90s) which described a large number of 90s books without generalisations. Then I rewrote the story of this period in 'The Long 1950s'. I kept coming back because I didn't have an overview of the period - it is too close in time and too decentralised stylistically. In fact the watchword 'balkanisation' retains its validity.

Another question is whether FCon increased polarisation in the scene - a significant error when the theme of ‘The Long 1950s’ and to some extent ‘The Council of Heresy’ was depolarisation. But my feeling is that it’s not contemporary enough to infuriate people, it deals with the recent past which has already slipped into a colder, more rational, territory for us all. Also, fruitless arguments are fuelled by ignorance and misunderstanding, and FCon provides floods of information. This is the significant thing, and it is what historians are supposed to provide.

Note 2016. This is a critique of the first edition and the second edition will change everything. It definitely contains a lot more information. The first edition dates roughly to 1995 and new information has arrived.

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