Saturday, 16 April 2016

Ethnocentricity as fatigue as malice; or, what just didn’t happen

Sandeep Parmar (editorial in issue 31 of The Wolf, 2014) has just published an essay about ethnic minorities in poetry where she says that people are unwilling to talk about the subject. This seems to irritate people so I think it’s beneficial to do some such talking. This is not going to end up giving everyone gold stars so I guess that may explain why people avoid the topic.

 Parmar cites another essay (”Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde”, by Cathy Park Hong) which is reported to be about the American avant-garde’s belief that rejecting Republican values (crudely) makes them politically innocent and neutral (this is the “delusion of whiteness”) and so that there is no need for further engagement with poetry by ethnic minorities - whose critique of dominant American traditions (and the propaganda for the avant garde has been overwhelmingly nationalistic in the USA) is assumed to be anticipated and rolled-up and answered by the critique which founded the official poetic avant-garde. She also published a much more detailed essay (in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015, available on-line) from which some quotes are as follows. (BAME means “Black and minority ethnic” and seems to exclude Irish, Scottish, or Welsh. The acronym BME seems to be more common in Britain.)

>>It can only be a good thing that British poetry publishing is slowly becoming more racially diverse. But is it enough for poets of color to simply win prizes and appear more frequently in publishers’ catalogs? Does this adequately challenge a national tradition in which so few ethnically diverse voices have been historically heard? I worry increased visibility of BAME poets is superficial and, when the dust settles, British poetry will return to a largely monochromatic, monolingual expression of sameness. The literary establishment here needs to rethink the subject matter, aesthetic modes, and assumptions about “literariness” made about poets of color in the United Kingdom. 
While it won a major UK award, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a striking example of exactly what is not happening in popular British poetry.

Both contemporary avant-garde poetry in the United Kingdom, with its dispersal of the lyric “subject” through linguistic process, and the British mainstream’s Movement-inspired poem leave little room for expressions of complex identity and difference. At times, in the hands of a BAME poet the lyric form can become a beguiling call toward the homogenous white space of intimate revelation and universality. Expressions of difference enact a kind of closure that erases the ambiguities and subjectivities upon which poetry depends — after all, as bell hooks reminds us, “language is a place of struggle.” And while no one wishes, least of all me, to argue that BAME poets should or should not write about specific subjects, the singular lyric voice should not merely reproduce poetic sameness through an universal “I” or self-fetishizing difference through a poetic diction of otherness.

Contemporary British poetry lacks a vocabulary to speak about race, and a willingness to be critical, despite this happening elsewhere in literary and cultural studies.

How is it possible that only a few poets of color in the United Kingdom appear in anthologies, magazines, reading series, presses dedicated solely to innovative and experimental poetics? How is it that the centers of “radical” poetics — the supposedly progressive, Marxist annex within overwhelmingly white universities — willingly exclude poets of color from their registers? Especially those who partake in the dreaded work of “identity politics”? One recent example is Emily Critchley’s anticipated follow-up to Maggie O’Sullivan’s Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK (1996), which has just been published. Out of 44 experimental women poets, it appears that three are of Asian descent (Sascha Akhtar, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Myung Mi Kim) and only one is black (the British poet Elizabeth-Jane Burnett) — a total of two North American and two UK writers of color. I can think of several inexplicable omissions — a jaw-droppingly long list that would include Harryette Mullen, Bhanu Kapil, Evie Shockley, and M. NourbeSe Philip, and even slightly more mainstream British poets Sarah Howe and Vahni Capildeo [.]  <<

Poetry is not a study, I don’t think.
I emailed Sandeep about this, in connection with some other things.

>> […] about ethnic identification. I read your article and it is very interesting. I do agree with it. I have to say that where you describe Emily as excluding certain people, it might seem to EC and others that they spend all day including people, to the point of exhaustion, and it is only post factum that their activity is defined as excluding people all day. I think there is an equality (& diversity) problem with the uptake of BAME poets, and it has to do with empathy fatigue. Empathy is powerful but gets tired quickly. When the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry was happening, German poets used to come over and there would be almost no audience for them. Kevin and Leslie got them over and got funding from German arts bodies, I would translate them, which was bloody difficult, and then there would be 20 people in the audience. Everyone stayed in the bar. They were right there, in the building next to where the poetry was. This was mild xenophobia. Karlien explained it to me, as the students (others too) were willing to go to English and American poets but it stopped there. European poets didnt count. Anyway, if everyone you know is in the bar, it is attractive to stay there, you would follow if everyone else left to go to the gig. So I think this is probably true for BAME poets. Did you carry out a xenophobic act? no, I just stayed in the bar. When Romana organised an Anglo-American conference, about 15 (?) years ago, in Michigan or somewhere, and busloads of English poet/ideologues were there, I was told that when there was a talk about an English poet the Americans werent in the auditorium. They were in the cafe or possibly even in the bar. If it was about Americans, they had to go, but if it was somebody English it was obviously Totally Unimportant and time for an extended coffee klatsch and networking session. Hi, I think youre so great, please plug my next book. These are the silent rules. Its a little hard to see who makes them. People are centric, they get out of being egocentric but move into being group-centric.
I think its good to talk about these things. Reflexivity is desirable even if people resist it all they can. These arent conscious decisions and there is no rule-making forum which deliberates.
I spoke of empathy fatigue. I think it needs a bit of a jog.
I calculated/ guessed that there are 10,000 people in Britain who have published at least one book of poetry. The figure may be wrong. Anyway, there is no institutional power of comparable magnitude. There is no institution which would bring about justice. Who are you going to sue? Instead there is something spontaneous and ineffective. It does seem possible that we now have a grasp on what happened in the 70s, although the we may not be able to get that view across. It took a long time to reach this.<<

I doubt this was very convincing. Actually, this exchange filled me with a pervasive sense of doubt.
My voluble and excitable critical career has NOT involved talking about the topic which Sandeep says we want to avoid. Except for me banging on about Wales and Scotland, which involves majorities rather than minorities. Am I an ethnic minority or not. Maybe we could run through the findings again. If you take the subjective act of identification and projection as an action sequence, you can imagine it being filmed. And then, the film being examined frame by frame to find the patterns. This is like what athletes do with film of their running actions and so on - things they can’t see but need to be hyper-aware of. If you could look at a film of poetic subjectivity, you would find a systematic bias towards the in-group the reader belongs to - so egocentricity, group-egocentricity, “centricity” in general. So minority ethnic poets don’t get the uptake, in anthologies, maybe in reviews or textbooks, probably in bookshop sales, probably in live audience response, which they deserve. The poem-response does not involve the language of the poem, only, but also preverbal identification with the people in the poem, so the person speaking as much as other people. This identification, this occupation of another self, is ethnocentric, as well as being egocentric, and in practice there is a White Anglo-American in-group and this diffuse, unarticulated, self-domain is a factor in the appreciation of contemporary poetry. Due to the influence of television and popular music on the socialisation of children growing up since about 1960, or maybe 1956, Americans are readily accepted as identification objects in Britain, and so the in-group can sensibly be called “Anglo-American“.

Just to recap, we never did photograph that process. So my version might not be true. It’s just that I feel it’s like that, and this feeling is shared by a lot of people. If you ever come to look at anthologies over the period 1960-2010 (let’s say), it is very noticeable how few “minority ethnics” are found in those pages.
I cant make any clear statements about this in group thing, but, as Sandeep said, people find it hard to talk about, and I think just by talking about it we can make progress on this thing. Talking might help unconscious decisions rise to the surface and become visible. We are talking about empathy fatigue, and trying to reach people about this is like waking them up. It is by definition where consciousness and interest have stopped. Until they wake up they obviously can’t hear you at all.
I am much more emotionally involved in the silent exclusion of Welsh and Scottish poets than in, say, South Asian poets.
Obviously, the centric effect is not the only one in operation, and there is also an exoticism effect, where something strange is much more stimulating than something familiar, and indeed poetry has to be strange to some extent. If we consider archaeology, it is apparent that the search for ancestors means that people look for an in-group which they belong to in the first millennium BC. This is absurd, but if you read the literature it is obviously happening. But if you look at British Museum exhibitions, the two most popular they ever had were the Gold of Tutankhamun and the Terracotta Warriors. So, both from another continent. The market is not rigidly ethnocentric. Of course both those exhibitions were associated with supreme secular power, monarchs who possessed staggering power, and artefacts built to embody that power.
We also have to mention the aspiration to equality. People genuinely want culture to be fair, not predisposed to leave some people out in the cold. This impulse can either take the form of anxiety which puts you off the pleasures of culture, or of denying the suggestion that the poetry culture is biased towards the dominant ethnic group. Further, the basis is spontaneous and personal, whereas the egalitarian drives come mainly, or seem to come mainly, from the government, from officials who are structurally inhibited from pushing their personal views - but who recognise the whole spectrum of citizens as their target and, indeed, as their employers and bosses. It is hardly a secret that grant awarding bodies have put pressure on publishers, possibly also event organisers, to take on more poets from ethnic minorities. This may have had the corollary of publishing books that the public isn’t very interested by (and which possibly haven’t been looked after very carefully by editors). One more thing - the border of the “in-group” can change in five minutes. The edges of these “domains of the self” are remarkably soft - their capacity for change is so prominent, and drawing a map that embodies the limit of identification is dubious because the border has probably moved by the time you have drawn the map. The “in-group” for poetry is evidently Anglo-American; due to the prominence of television and pop music in the socialisation of children since 1960 or so, it is easy for British people to identify with Americans in art and there is no real barrier. This connects with the way literature is taught in schools. While this is a culture on a large geographical scale, it is hardly an in-group with no out-groups.
You can’t have a multi-cultural society made up of monocultural individuals. Of course the immigrants, first second or third generation, etc., are bicultural and it is the “old northwest Europeans” who are monocultural. My point is that it is feasible for grant-awarding institutions to be multi-cultural. It does seem like a collaborative thing, a thing provided by institutions. The government belongs to everybody but culture belongs to the people who enjoy it.
Sandeep also pours scorn on the dislike of the “alternative” poetry scene for the politics of identity. I can’t agree with this. The idea that poems are just vehicles for a personality is dangerous, because every personality has equal value and it seems likely that poems have unequal value. To explain what happens, we do better to shift axis and say that a poem is a piece of linguistic technology and that this is known to few people, comparable to the knowledge of how to write a program in C. Obviously much of the discourse around poetry acts as if poems were no more than lumps of personality. The residual elements of narcissism and group narcissism within the poetic field are essential but very hard to articulate. No particular words or syllables of the poem record this element, and analysis of it is retarded. It is likely to cause particular problems to people perceived as outsiders - immigrants, for example. Uncertainty must hinder the act of identification, which relies on inner certainty. Conclusion - hostility to a person means hostility to their art. You can’t wrench this back to objectivity. If identity politics is the central pattern, then the alternative poetry scene is completely wrong and has to disappear.
I am not aware of any actual text where someone claims that Underground poetry, by dint of its link with the New Left and so its ability to subvert capitalism and bourgeois values, is offering liberation to ethnic minorities. If that position exists, it has obvious flaws. First, the promise to overthrow bourgeois society has been devalued somewhat after 45 years of not being honoured. Secondly, I don’t understand why poets from ethnic minorities would desist from writing poetry on the grounds that the message had already been delivered by the stars of the Poetry Underground. This does not seem to imply that Underground poetry since 1972 has been unnecessary because the stars have already written the real story. I think the claim is more “because we are totally ignored outside a tiny niche we don’t have cultural power and so if you are angry about the cultural power structure we are not to blame and refuse to feel guilty anyway”. That is more plausible. Actually, it means that the scene had to disappear in order to become the Underground.
People want to say, I changed the rules. This is a pervasive fantasy, and the scene is largely made up of fantasies. This one needs the assumption that there are rules which everyone else is following. This may be wholly untrue. If 3000 people say, quite loudly, “I changed the rules”, it is easy to get the impression that the rules have changed. But, maybe they haven’t. Maybe another 20 people making a career doesn’t change any rules at all.

Weakness of empathy

Empathy and intuition are so much the foundation of the poetry scene that to understand the way things happen we have to offer a critique of them. They are partial, inefficient, spasmodic, easily tired. They date back, as a form of knowledge, to the Palaeolithic, and they are inaccurate. They are not particularly compatible with justice and equality. The poetry world is all founded on the sovereignty of empathy. In the end we have to draft a critique of empathy, it is too structural to the landscape to be pushed behind a screen of awe and silence. Around the edge of warmth we find the cold. Cold, cold, cold. There is a limit to how far you can write about the poetry world under this ancient and feudal sovereignty without stubbing your toe on the problems of empathy. It just isn’t going to reach the outer fringes, and people are so happy to issue entire books which don’t mention any Scottish or Welsh poets. You don’t want to go there, so why would you want to read poems about there?
If I could dwell on one cell for a longer moment, it is that the government officials may be less biased than the individuals following empathy and subjective wishes. The scene may need cold and indifferent governmental processes to balance its in-built favouritism and loyalty and centricity.

What is justice?

If you look at the scene and decide that (other) people make the right decisions only 5% of the time, that might also mean that 95% of people disagree with you and that, really, this is a measure of how different you are from other people. Suppose you belong to an in-group which extends to 5% of the whole realm. That might be a little large to enjoy the notorious benefits of being an in-group, preserving warmth and loyalty. The wish for it to grow outwards and take over 100% of the territory might be projective rather than the voice of reason and necessity. Could the “picture” be described as blanking out the 95% of the realm that belongs to other people? just not being interested by them and not recognising their right to occupy territory and to make judgments? The majority of discourse directed by poets boils down to an argument for their own work to get more love, fame, admiration, attention, praise. This extends quite readily to similar arguments in favour of their in-group. It is difficult to re-normalise these impassioned and organic utterances of need to something that you could call public or accountable or rational. And the unmediated cries of need just cancel each other out. One poet is quite happy for another hundred poets to be cropped out of the picture and have their microphone mysteriously go dead. The only way for one faction to win and have their ideas become “official” is when the other factions fall off the boat and can’t get heard.
Suppose we have 10,000 people [in Britain] who have published at least one book of poetry. It may be more. This is a large number. It is growing all the time. How can you take this number in and still assert that everyone gets their little bit of fame, that there is a slice of the pizza for everyone? It doesn’t stand up. But if it doesn’t stand up, how can there be a basic situation of justice proportionately distributed to everyone, so that deviations from that would show up as anomalies? where is this basic situation situated? 
There is a problem of defining how much recognition anyone gets, much easier for dramatic incidents which probably aren’t typical. Poets are obsessed by recognition but there are several steps between burning resentment and an objective view of success & reputation which would then be the basis for serious critique. Poets are obsessed by praise and find it difficult to reach an objective view of it. How much praise does any poet deserve? This is hard to agree about. And how much exposure, praise, recognition does any particular poet get? In a poetry scene which has 200 magazines, dozens of readings series, and an uncounted number of Internet sites, it is demanding to count up how much recognition any individual gets. This takes hard labour rather than just a feeling of need and being rejected. How on earth do you measure if anyone gets more than they deserve? I can see that if you start with an overwhelming feeling of Injustice, then stopping to measure anything is just a waste of time, a bourgeois evasion of Facts which everyone already knows. But the scene is so big. If you can’t produce a convincing measure of two quantities, merit and reward, it is doubtful then that you can assert that there is a disproportion between them. Better research is called for, I think. A way of measuring recognition that has objective results would be useful, even if it only applied to a finite subset of the poets of interest. Counting reviews could yield interesting results, although I don’t see anyone doing that. Surely we need a convincing measure of the success of at least one poet, and a measure of their merit which is agreed by different factions. Lacking that, it is hard to see how you can reasonably scale up to talking about the degree of justice allotted to a hundred, or four hundred, or a thousand, poets. I am suggesting that the work has not been done and that intuition is not enough to propel public debate.
Is there any point to writing about poetry unless to move towards justice?
My problem with all this is that the transition to a scene where a few poets decide what is the proper way to behave and what is Wrong means that poetry readers are faced with a setup where they are being scored out of 10 for their ability to be poetry readers. I think this is incompatible with cultural freedom, pleasure, and volition. It is unable to happen but it is fraught with problems even in partial implementation. If you dislike the people who actually buy and read poetry, your ability to write something which pleases them is going to be severely abridged. The idea of the empirical bias is, among other things, that inherited prejudices and class solidarity are things you have cast off as outdated. The idea that culture is based on narcissistic acquisition of pleasurable sensations belongs to the suppressed zone and is consciously rejected by key players.

I think there is an underlying metaphor based on the coming of American independence. This has several steps:
A naturally separate group exists on a heroic frontier
They are spoken of and talked down by reactionaries at the centre who wear ridiculous clothes
You get hold of muskets and shoot your way out
You achieve autonomy and control vast amounts of territory
You expand into this territory, the population of which miraculously disappears
You are transformed by autonomy into maturity

 This is really “what happened in history” and it is hard to get away from. (That is, Anglo-American history.) But it is unrealistic for ethnic minorities to address the mainstream cultural market through these episodes. You can’t define the cultural realm as territory without defining the cultural consumers on that territory as beings enfieffed to your ideas and having to behave in a certain way laid down by you. The metaphor has this implication, that “you are on our land and have to follow our laws”. As a metaphor, it inevitably blocks an understanding of the cultural market - where consumers do exactly what they want.

Shared scenarios

 It’s pretty obvious that the most prestigious poetry tends to be written by the people with the most formal education, and within that group, even, by people closest to a sociocultural norm of families with a long tradition of speaking English. The acquisition of poetry-fertile qualities, that is, seems to start in early childhood rather than, say, at age eighteen. Hardly less obviously, the people who ascribe this prestige (i.e. successfully ascribe prestige, in contrast to rather large numbers of people unsuccessfully ascribing it) themselves conform to this pattern. There is a geographical factor (if we divide Western Europe into subjectively cold and warm zones then it is obvious that peripheral areas are relatively “cold” and that Wales and Scotland are less attractive as areas to come from) but as American poets do not suffer from this it seems likely that language use is very important. Poetry tests linguistic knowledge more deeply than any other exercise, so it may be that the way in which the English language is acquired is significant to what kind of poetry you write.
Because the educated classes implicitly believe that what they embody is high skills at empathy and high openness to individual merit, the idea that there are silent blocks against people from immigrant families is massively unacceptable. Voicing it marks you as a dissident. Ethically unacceptable might mean "intellectually valid".

Writing a poem may involve use of an inherited code which is of obvious complexity, although not so complex that an individual brain cannot master it. This code is implicit and I am unable to formulate it. It is acquired chiefly by reading messages written in it - however, that may be an incomplete concept, as vital parts of the transmission may happen during face to face interaction with older speakers. If you live far away and know poetry only from books, the way you read the books may not be enough to let you grasp the code. Eliot was preoccupied with the idea of this Tradition; it has become deeply unfashionable among later strata of critics (employed in an education industry which is instructed to deliver social mobility and so to make tradition packageable) but this may inhibit them from seeing what is actually going on.
A book called Ways of Sensing (by Howe and Classen, 2014, the title is an allusion to Ways of Seeing) talks about the symbolic forms of the Desana people: “In one image the human brain … consists of layers of innumerable hexagonal honeycombs. … Each tiny hexagonal container holds honey of a different color, flavor, odor, or texture or it houses a different stage of larval development. … A brain can be seen as a bouquet of flowers, a fluttering cluster of butterflies, a glistening swarm of tiny tropical fish, or a quivering mass of multicolored frogs.” The coding is described as arbitrary but stable - synaesthesia could form associations in any direction. An initial freedom is exchanged for a later stability, and this process is the formation of culture. The associations relate to experiences while using a psychedelic drug from a plant called yage or ayahuasca. In this people’s theory of sensory correlations “colours emanate from the light of the Sun or Moon and then combine with heat to produce corresponding sets of odour and flavours. Purple, for example, is said to come from the moon and is linked to a rotten smell and acid flavour [.]”

If a culture has a stable coding for an arbitrary set of associations, that argues for a process of destructive coding. It is destructive because it wipes out other possibilities- it stays in place and is recollected. This memorised quality is what makes it collective. The destructive quality is what makes it specific to a culture, different from the neighbouring tribe.
If we accept that very complex codings are shared and at the basis of our collective culture, it becomes obvious why an outsider would be reluctant to create cultural structures which rely on that coding. Simultaneously we have the definition of an outsider (it’s someone who has trouble with the coding). Because the code is complicated, it is difficult to use and only a minority can create new assemblages of signs, as opposite to participating in shared realisations of the completed sets. English culture may be, to a much greater extent than we usually believe, based on founding scenes which are remembered and repeated.
People want to believe in their radical originality. That may not be a true idea- it may be much more true that they create within a universe of pre-existing symbolic relationships. So if an outsider creates something radically new because based on ignorance - it may fall flat. The English language is obviously a pre-existing set of relationships.

 Another Desana image sees the brain as “formed by a bundle of pencil-shaped hexagonal tourmaline crystals” which produce sound waves. Woo!

Relatively few individuals who have English as an additional language (code for immigrants, or rather from immigrant families) publish poetry. This may well reflect a perception that poetry has a close relationship with levels of the English language which are incalculable and implicit and likely to make your efforts go wrong. Other branches of art are less subject to invisible problems. Moreover, there is no living to be made out of poetry. The situation may be comparable to demographic patterns for barristers: there are now quite a few barristers from South Asian or Caribbean backgrounds, although there were few in the 1960s. This may parallel the pattern for poets. You don’t get to be a barrister by deciding in the first place that the law is ridiculous. 
Half a century ago, during the education revolution which brought secondary and higher education to millions of people from the working classes, the perceptions of these outsiders becoming insiders were articulated very frequently and offer a description of the English middle class and its mechanisms of defence. The cultural politics of the last 35 years (I mean roughly 1979 to 2015) have involved a consistent switching of this kind of discourse to a branch line. It is not listened to and is frequently described as boring. However, its validated results are likely to explain the relationship between those other outsiders, the first or second generation immigrants, and the culture around poetry. Giving right explanations is not necessarily the way to gain prestige and popularity among the people whose conduct you are explaining.
There may be a simplified English, just as there is a simplified Welsh used by learners who acquire it as a second language. It may be that this actually explains the phenomenon of dumbed-down poetry, and that the work of several hundred poets fits into this category. It is not likely to impress connoisseurs of poetry. The literary code, most probably, was developed to make ambitious poetry possible. (The language of pop lyrics may have a close relationship to this simplified poetry; and the lost strata of language work more with the rational faculties than with the affective ones.) Dance, and music, and clothes, may be easier to translate across cultures than language. They are more detached from daily life and yet less artificial. This may not be true for all forms of music (for example).

(The Desana material comes from research by G Reichel-Dolmatoff.)

The definition of outsiders raises the spectre of a group which already believes that they are the outsiders and that they have overthrown every assumption of literature - along with them, evidently, the prejudices of the middle class. But the market position of this group suggests that they use an implicit and obscure code far more than mainstream poets. In fact, that might be a way of defining their site. Their texts are baffling to outsiders, and that includes the professional literary critics of the day, paid to review them. The deletion of connectives made the texts more subtle and open to possibilities, but also made them baffling and frustrating. The claim to cultural openness does not match especially well with an audience that has an amazing knowledge of the history of modernism and critical theory. If it was open, wouldn’t there be an audience which has no specialist knowledge, like most of the population?
The outsider franchise is enclosed.


I can imagine someone resisting this idea of being “centric” and “group-egocentric” but I can’t take this resistance seriously. However, I will discuss it because it could be part of the landscape. I did some quantitative work on an anthology by Kenneth Allott, a standard anthology for Penguin called in one incarnation “The Penguin Book of Mid-century Poetry”, subtitle 1918-60. When I say “quantitative work“ I mean a quantitatively very small quantity of quantitative work. The upshot was that 40.8% of the poets he had anthologised had attended Oxford University. Which, by a complete coincidence, he had himself attended. So this is the concrete example of the “in-group”. It documents “group egocentricity” as one of the bases of spontaneous aesthetic choice. I am suggesting that the presence of Black and ethnic minority poets in the British poetry scene is astonishingly slender for essentially the same reason. Further quantitative work would be possible but I think there is no case to answer. Group egocentricity is the central place. Allott was very keen on “close reading”, the unique selling point of proper academics in the mid-century, and his anthology is ruined by including his phobic and authoritarian “close readings” which occupy almost as many words as the poems. The idea of this close reading, which an uncounted number of schoolchildren had to learn to pass exams, was to get away from uncontrolled subjectivity, which of course would include group egocentricity. That figure of 40.8% does not seem to support this claim of getting away strongly. In fact, the problem of sociologically stained subjectivity was present already in the 1920s, when Close Reading was being developed as a way of certification of fitness, and if it doesn’t look very good today that is after people fretting about it for most of a century. My guess is that group egocentricity is just as powerful today as it was in 1950, when Allott was working on his high-sales anthology. I can’t really measure it, but how many well-known British South Asian or Caribbean poets are there?


If there are 2700 books of poetry being published every year, which is what we are told, then evidently most of them are going to disappear leaving almost no trace. Equally evidently, no critic is going not read all 2700. The decision about which books will survive and reach “daylight” is made by experts on the basis of a prior filtering process. Roughly, made by experts on a basis of ignorance. It is this filtering process which we would have to reform, if reform is desirable. An individual committed to poetry decides what to read on the basis of advice: other readers push books towards them, whether this happens via anthologies, magazines, reviews, bulletin boards, selecting poets for live readings, or simply personal messages. This network involving humans and information is more important than the dispositions of individuals. Its effect is to ensure the emergence into daylight of a few books; the poets not selected are resentful about this, but the alternative might be for no books at all to emerge into daylight. I spoke about Allott’s anthology in terms of Allott, but this is unlikely to be fair, because he was not an extremist, and his choices were undoubtedly suggested and validated by a network of peers, in which he had participated between going up to Oxford (in about 1932?) and 1960, when he finished the expanded, 1962, edition of the anthology (originally 1950). The real object of study is the network, not the individual.  He was smooth, had allies, and was successful - so his personality just cannot be the issue.
I have interviewed quite a few poets, and they often mention face to face interactions. That is, it’s all in the books but you get to the books because you hang out with people who guide you to them. If you get these experiences then you penetrate to the inside of it all. Poets hang out with poets. It is private but not secret. The prevalence of variants of the traditional code makes it even more difficult to write poetry. It may be written up as freedom but actually it makes for more invisible rules and more ways of being wrong. Actually, even if you get the books you may read them in the wrong way.
How do you acquire prestige among your peers? Well, it would seem that a history of past intelligent decisions is key. People are always disappointed when they discover that they don’t have peer prestige and that their recommendations of poets are in practice ignored. Eventually, the “shared map” stabilises, and some poets emerge as being part of the legacy (while others vanish). This is the collective effort of several cultural networks, and may reproduce the values of the network as well as those of the poetry. Individual critics only evaluated the poetry they read, and the major effect of prejudice was felt in the processes pre-deciding which books they read, not in the actual reading. Sigh. If you want to replace the network, what do you replace it with?
As this might imply, I think close reading is the most desirable cultural tool. Everybody has a personality, but few people can write poetry. We are interested in the poetry, not the personality of someone we have never met. So it is valid to restrict everything to examination of the texts. This is going to work well for people from ethnic minorities who can actually write, and expose poets with rich in-group connections who can’t write. Moreover, it is a focus which will push forward excellent books based on their contents, and those books will reach library shelves and so on complete with their content. The reader gets to read the poems, not to take home a personality in a shopping bag. Close reading protects production standards and improves the commodity which our business is producing. It didn’t cause the shortcomings of Allott’s work, those shortcomings were injected at several other stages of the reception process.

I believe that “we” now have an effective map of what happened in the 1970s. I feel we are ready now to produce an anthology of “British poetry 1960-90”, on the lines of Allott’s book. That is not to say that such an anthology currently exists. It may be decades before we have such a map of the period 2000-2015. The volume of poetry coming out is just so huge. There was a 35 year delay in assimilating the material from the 1970s, when a maximum of 800 books were coming out annually.


I am not sure we have got anywhere but I have to stop anyway. I am thinking about a dance where the attendants mainly do know each other but come from several different groups, perhaps several different schools, so the groups are strangers to each other. If you let the individuals choose their partners, very little mixing will take place. Actually, some people will not get to dance very much and some people will be frustrated. If the people in control decide that there is going to be formation dancing, not partners, then that issue can be made to vanish. Everyone gets to dance a lot and everyone encounters strangers and has a kind of intimacy with them, shared physical excitement and the mood evoked by the music. Mixing takes place. So, we hear that particular publishers were told by granting bodies, Publish more poets from ethnic minorities or you lose your grant. This is not a public message so it may also be non-factual. I can’t verify it. The result may well be that some books come out which their publisher doesn’t like very much. The result might also be that individual inhibitions and levels of cultural exhaustion are locked out of the decision process, and what emerges is fairer. Mixing takes place. So I think this is the way to direct the power of public funding. The in-group can expand and the “cultural managers” can help it to expand. Also I think individual choice is influenced by inhibitions, and needs pushing at certain points. Intimacy and inhibitions are inseparable.


 This is not vital but is interesting as gossip. Allott states in his Introduction that “It is a representative collection of English verse written between 1918 and 1960.” This cannot in fact be true - he was trying for the best poetry, not the average. The inhibition about stating that was that he was, most probably, including poetry which he did not like. This is an interesting fissure. Already then, an expert was seeing personal preference as distinct from expertise. I think he disliked some poems because he attacks them in his prose forewords, or indictments, to each one. But also, there are clearly poems he does not understand and is unwilling to give the seal of validation to. Thus on p. 390 we have him saying he can’t follow the Geoffrey Hill poems (‘Annunciations‘, 1 and 2) which he prints. “I can understand ‘Annunciations’ only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversations (i.e. they grasp something by the tone of the speaking voice) [.]“ Evidently he wrote to Hill and said “Explain yourself“. And then he prints Hill’s explanations, which we have to get through before reaching the poems. I think 1960 was about the last time when a critic could say to a poet, What does this mean. It was the 1950s - and poets actually wanted to be understood. Advanced poetry has since then plunged into an ocean of complete subjectivity. One effect of this was to restrict the “audible realm” of the poem to an in-group and so to make the power of the in-group, and centric effects, also complete and unrestricted.

It seems to me that such inclusions are an example of Allott bowing to the wishes of the in-group when they conflicted with his personal perceptions. That is admirable, but it points to the next step, of inquiring who was in that in-group. The step after that is to ask if its field of vision covered all of English poetry or just a segment. But really, it was so easy in 1960. The number of poets around was so small.

April 2016

 Sandeep read this and says she just doesn't accept "empathy fatigue": "I don't believe in empathy fatigue as you do. I have yet to see real empathy in places where the avant-garde exist." So this argument will go on. I think my personal reference group CAN do empathy and is NOT the avant-garde. Yes, many people regard empathy as "residual bourgeois humanism" and want it to be stamped out of the poem.

have no idea why the system keeps changing stretches of text to double spacing. it does not seem amenable to my wishes and suggestions.





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