Web statement on 2nd edition of Failure of Conservatism
theme: reissue of a 2003 book on style and time in modern British poetry.
In June 2015 Tony Frazer of Shearsman discovered that Salt Publications had discontinued my book The Failure of Conservatism in British Poetry and offered to republish it, so that it would continue to be available. Big up to Salt for unleashing it on a horrified world. That was in 2003 but multiple internal references make it clear that the main body was written or finished in 1995. This means the book was 20 years old. There were a number of glitches in the text, fairly easy to fix, but there was a more basic problem related to the passage of 20 years. I decided to fix the problems which I saw and have spent late June and July frantically rewriting the text. I wanted to change every paragraph and have ended up writing about 60,000 words of new text - it is hard to count exactly. I kept the original timeframe of 1960 to about 1995. The main change was to remove almost all the stuff attacking conservatives. This is because the people I was attacking are dead. It was like shelling a sunk ship.
I was misled by reading Under Briggflatts. The step before writing FCon was a lengthy review of this terrible book by Donald Davie which claimed to cover poetry 1960-88 and did not praise any poet who had emerged since 1960. Four poets get brief mentions, but the message is that nothing happened after 1960 - just the Movement poets serenely triumphing and piling up more and more volumes of Final Truth. So I was writing before anything else to populate a landscape with all the poets who DID matter and to refute the malign Davie view of the scene. It was obvious that Davie, at 67, was seriously unhappy about anyone younger than himself being talented. He just wasn’t having it. But how influential was Davie in 1995? or the whole Movement clique of which he was the spokesman? In 1989 Davie was already not the voice of central opinion, but already obsolete, and the mainstream had already moved on from the 50s hegemony which DD had been so much part of. There was much more of the mainstream than Davie’s patrons at PN Review. I was mainly attacking DD’s repressive and blind view, of 1989, but in 1993 or 1995 that target was already partly dead, and I didn’t take enough account of other parts of the landscape. Affluence is the anti-Davie statement. The fact that I had a limited grasp of the history of the Underground didn’t hold me back. I had to controvert Under Briggflatts and I did that.
If you are listening to mainstream critics born, not in 1922 like Davie, but in the 1960s, the pattern is different and the need for profound opposition and critique is not there, or there in a very moderated form. The purpose this time, in the rewrite, is to reach a consensus. This is so much easier for the past (the book halts primly in 1990) than for the immediate present, with its unexpired passions. The large-scale changes involved cutting the attacks on conservatives (the generation born in the 1920s, largely off the scene by now) and also the chapter on the 1950s (pp. 45-74). This gave me space to add much more information that was specific about dates and sequence - this is the function of this volume in the overall cluster of 7 volumes. I think the time is ripe for a consensus about 1960-90, as the ‘area of disturbance’ moves forward to the last 20 years.
I think that if you take the question what is distinctive about this poetry and answer it comprehensively, you will be close to knowing also what is excellent about it. The body of opinion which could be called neo-conservative and which harbours intellectual doubts about the merit of originality is little articulated and its popularity is hard to gauge. Tracing these innovations produces a style chronology which does not also have the merit of identifying what is typical at any point.
The unstated premise of FCon is that the process by which a poet gets to write outstanding poetry involves the pursuit of ideas into unknown territory and the realisation of individual dispositions to an extent which means differentiation from the conventional and already present. Thus originality and unfamiliarity are features of strong poetry, in the twentieth century - although of some weak poetry as well, I would think. This consideration of what is conventional and of the multiple formal means of going beyond it are powerful procedures for getting the shape of contemporary poetry into clear view and, consequently, of recognising what is unoriginal, tired, and weak. Most people share this idea that originality, the realisation of a personal vision, and internal variation are key features of important poetry. The project was always heading towards consensus, although through controversy.
I was interested by readers who were compelled by formal issues. They base the value of assets in their collections on knowledge of what they are, including what is original about them. Nobody likes the shop assistant who looks down on you for buying the wrong record. All the same this minority has the knowledge, and we have to hang out with them to get at it. Tight definition of stylistic moments or changes is an area which belongs to collectory types.
Because originality is a product of a phase of creative development, the absence of originality is a sign of lack of engagement and disinclination to take poetry seriously. This apathy is the key - not, on its own, the wish not to take up the forms of modernism and modern art.
The creative phase does not have to be part of a Style Fashion, so the innovations can go off in different directions. But autonomy has a distinctive cast and it is serious if poets lack any trace of them. The idea of a 70s mood affected me powerfully. The external signs always affect me, it is like black and white TV which inevitably reminds me of childhood and the 1960s. Besides, sensitive people are more sensitive to collective excitements. This is an unignorable factor. But a given year may witness a number of different collective excitements - giving more than one “period feel”. Thus what Christian poets were feeling in 1975 was probably quite different from what left-wing secular poets were feeling. Both are parts of Time.
A secondary effect of identifying what is new at any point is that you get into the slipstream of the theory that the development of art follows a timetable, that what changes their time is a group of conscious and reflexive people, that these people know each other, and that everything which is not new in their terms is provincial and at best belongs in the museum of naive art. Actually, studying naïve art is a clue to why art does not always have to be metropolitan or innovative. This ideology is historicism and by some mysterious process it has come to belong to a faction, a coherent group whose ability to invalidate and to validate is underwritten by a large body of international opinion. (When I say “is”, the disbanding of this ideology and this faction is one of the features of recent times, and it is scarcely possible to trace a historicist line of progress in the period since 1990. This is part of the story. At present we have an innovative sector comprised of people who do not in fact believe in historicism and historical progress.)
Later volumes got away from this test of merit and were much more about the pleasure of reading poetry. I took out the stuff on the 50s generation because they have lost all importance. I cut about 60 or even 80 pages about the conservatives. They may not have lost the war but continuing the war after their biological exit from the scene is pointless. This war is over. The map can be drawn.
I have just been reading David Kynaston’s social history of Britain 1957-62 - 872 pages about 5 years only (Modernity Britain). This is the way to go. I read a snarky blog about FCon which complained that it didn’t have anything after ‘Conductors’ and that it was incomplete. Both criticisms are true but that wasn’t the design of the book so I don’t feel bad and have made no attempt to fix that. It would certainly be irrational to try and fix both problems. I chose a solution to the problem of dealing with modern poetry comprehensively by writing a series of seven volumes- although in 2003 the plan only involved 4 volumes. (The whole ensemble is called Affluence, Welfare, and Fine Words.) If the design is so large-scale, you must have patience -and you certainly don’t put everything in volume one. No, first thing you learn is that you always have to wait. No-one starts a series of 7 volumes with one which is of itself closed and conclusive and closes the question down. No-one plans duplication. Omission is the key to everything that is about to follow.
My impetus was to show that good poets had emerged since 1960. This led to a wish to record ALL the good poets who had emerged since 1960. The project of showing significant features of 100 poets was not compatible with rapidity of movement and, in fact, a one-volume history. The extensive method, of exploring magnificent poetry over what was eventually 2000 pages, was more satisfactory in every way. I think the brief sketch method is condescending and dangerous unless there is a consensus, which is wholly missing, around poetry since 1950. It is charged with the burden of cultural authoritarianism which is the most important and detestable aspect of the late 20th century era. Where the basic assumptions and conclusions are not shared, you can’t deal with and dismiss literary works quickly. I explored the unshared assumptions themselves, and this occupied many pages because the subject matter had so many convolutions and was so much in need of recuperation. The 7 volume method was the right one to choose. I didn’t offer a 1-volume history and I was right. I have left the cutoff at about 1990 and not tried to carry the fight beyond that. The whole 7-volume work gets with poets born 1920-50 and makes a stab at poets born 1950-60.
The main issue I have with FCon is the lack of an overview of the 90s - for this reason I have added the subtitle “1960-90”. There is a section on poets who were new in the 1990s, originally written for an anthology produced in 1997. This is a glimpse of the future. It is a long way off an overview of the decade. Today I feel that the key factor in the 90s was a poetry boom, one effect of which was that poetry grew in every direction and so there is no ‘main axis’ to be recovered. There is no clear line of development even for the stylistically aware minority who are interested in such things. Growth outward into new stylistic space was difficult and the “group feeling” about where development would go was missing. Poetic innovation was certainly happening but the new territory did not open up as a generational project. In such a cultural atmosphere the style-chronological approach which I am applying throughout the book no longer works. Listing outstanding new books is useful, but the specific method of FCon has lost its command and geographical power by this point.
I declined to describe feminist poetry as such. I was writing in a period of conservative dominance when identifying anyone as Left inevitably wrote them off as biased, naive, allied to Third World dictators. I had to hide all that. After all the ideas proposed by feminists were not some abstract ideology but the truth. The problem is always that ideas about a new collective life are designated as ideology by those who are happy with existing property relations. That anti-Left feeling was just much weaker in the Blair years, though it may be coming back in 2015. I said very little about the politics of the poets because of that Thatcherite atmosphere of witch-hunting. I didn’t want to say who was in the Communist Party and who was in the IMG. It would have been too easy for journalists to say “look, these Underground scruffs are the equivalent of communist shop stewards and wildcat strikes” and write off the whole enterprise, and that is exactly what they would have done.
Another question is whether FCon increased polarisation in the scene - significant 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 important thing, and it is what historians are supposed to provide.
Although the cover made no such claim, everyone reviewed it as a one-volume history of British poetry. Actually the cover said it was part of a series of four, but they all ignored that. Why this blatant dishonesty? Because the unmade claim to completeness allowed them to name a poet I had left out and ride to their rescue. Everyone wants to pose as the patron and protector of a vulnerable, quivering, Neglected Poet. A reviewer who did not pose in this way would be an exception. This is total self-indulgence. Why is it poets get neglected? because of loyalty, critics project egocentrically onto one single poet and bypass the opportunity of surveying a field. There is no chance of any perception of all poets who made a debut in a given decade, for example, while critics are so busy identifying with a single one - as a projection of their own ego, a wholly owned asset. A generation is not just a couple of needy and manipulative individuals. In the meantime I published reviews of 140 modern poets in the series. You can have intimacy with one poet but apparently not with 20 or 140. I am glad to say that I finished the 7-volume work, although at the time of writing one book is unpublished.
I was not in a position to write the history of the Underground in 1995. Components of bluster, vagueness, supposition, and challenge animate the undertaking. The book went beyond what was technically possible when it was written. It was high-risk. I think a cultural critic has to attack areas of uncertainty, conceptual disturbance, and the results of oppression. FCon was unsatisfactory. But it moved the whole poetry world on. The history of the Underground is still poorly written, due to the egocentricity of the participants - the detachment needed to write prose does not fit with the emotional demands of the poet.
I was very frustrated by the lack of any prose account of the Underground from within their own ranks. Frankly I was incensed by the condescension and cliquiness of the participants and was quite happy to write about them as an outsider, someone who hadn’t been around in the 60s and 70s. I had this idea that making vaporous ideas explicit, in a coherent prose narrative, would provoke people on the inside of the Underground to put accounts into print which would correct my errors - and realise my frustrations. But no corrective accounts appeared. Maybe people were too cool to put key ideas into the public domain. Maybe they weren’t really interested by anything except themselves and elective ancestors they could weave into the origin legend of their poetic selves. I spent a long time trying to get people, survivors of the 70s, to narrate the past of their in-group, and it usually went badly. I am so grateful to the people who did talk sense to me. Mostly I got into poetry through spending time with people, through empathy rather than reflexive and explicit tales. Ulli and Eric were especially influential on my ability to understand. 90% of the meaning reached me through empathy rather than theory. I would concede that my narrative of the past of the groups, the legendary Warring Clans, does not agree with their sacred folklore. I don’t have that transfusion of ethnic loyalty. It is almost sad that so much is passed face to face. I was lucky to be friends with Mottram and Prynne at an early age. I was hardly able to be unaware of the existence of a school of Cambridge and a school of London, even if I didn’t know which one I belonged to.
If you break down the “necessary knowledge” into 100 modules, I probably had 30 of those modules in 1995. But I didn’t want to wait. I don’t understand the history of the Underground. This was a weakness of the first edition - I was a participant but that didn’t mean a view of the whole landscape. It was also restrictive identification. You are feeling what I am feeling. How can you map something which is invisible and which flees from view? Recently I have seen some generalisations about the underground which I don’t believe. This suggests that there is no consensus. So what is the history a history of? Dissidence is not a constitution. In contrast, I do have some texts in my house. A few texts are patches of knowledge. FCon was unpublishable in 1995 and covered an area which key cultural figures were eager to deny the very existence of. Was I keen to rewrite it in 2003 - no, I was sure that if I waited the window would close forever. The project was moving on and I had by that time written three more books - Legends, Centre and Periphery, and Silent Rules. I was busy and I didn’t have time to do anxious rewrites of FCon. Anyone who has stacks of unpublished books will know that you don’t hang around rewriting what is finished. Instead you write more books. The alternative is a state of anxiety and repentance which gets closer to silence every day.
It is likely (based on counting names in the ALP catalogues) that some 2000 people published poetry in the innovative or underground sector during our period. Fairly obviously most of these were not very good, and prolonged exposure to their work is irritating and disillusioning. Ideas which are imitated by so many people reached that condition because they were exciting ideas at the outset. This is proof of something.
People always think I read the new books of 1977 in 1977 & the new books of 1988 in 1988, but this wasn’t how it happened at all. The answer is that up until 1987 (roughly!) I didn’t know anything about it. The Underground was genuinely inconspicuous, it was hidden behind endless stacks of mediocre mainstream books and the well-known magazines had a strict policy of never reviewing anything ‘small press’. The real problem with Under Briggflatts was that it was so convincing, it was in tune with the poetry industry, for what that’s worth, in this country. So it’s “you say the count of good new poets since 1960 is zero but actually it’s 100. You attempted to conceal this from me”. This is the detonation point for FCon. This is what I’m talking about. There is an unlimited flow of culture, it’s easy to bypass Underground poetry altogether. So I had an incredibly rich experience in which I caught up the whole history in a short time, perhaps over seven years after 1987.
So – how did I find out that there was an Underground when it was being concealed. The answer is partly that my life changed and partly that I got lists of names to track down in the Poetry Library (where the books had been lurking all the time). A Various Art was a help and hanging out with London poets like Ulli and DS Marriott was also a big help. To be honest, it was to do with my social life. Whatever was inside me, I learnt so much from socialising with people, and in 1987 or so I began spending time with poets as opposed to other friends. What’s harder to explain is why they were hanging out with me. I think poetry criticism should fill the role of face to face contact. I am trying to write from inside the poem. The generalisations can only be reached after prolonged wrestling with the data, and are at first unrecognisable and alien. So after 20 years I can’t offer an overall view or solid generalisations.
The mainstream has a reviewing system. It is a public art. If you are involved with it, you get to know what the reactions of the other people involved are. Most probably, you assimilate to them - empathy as a way of learning. Equally, the poets write what the reviewers want to hear. The prose and the institutional element play a vital role. They make visible a set of norms - if you don’t match you can define exactly why and define this mismatch as your character. All this stores up a quick win for the historian - you just tap into what was actually there. None of this applies to the Underground. There never was a reviewing system. There was a set of norms based around the pattern of American poetry of the 1950s, but it had little connection with what was happening in Britain. The poetry offered asks you not to assimilate. There were no institutions. The cultural ideas were very noticeably scattered and rapidly mutating away from each other. It is very difficult to figure out what the audience liked, if there was an audience. All of this means that any historical account of what happened is an invention. I am very sceptical of some generalisations recently uttered. I am therefore not offering a history of the Alternative sector. Some strands can be made visible, with chemical preparation. The generalisations come slowly. Recovering the important texts one by one is still where it’s at.
Between about 2004 and 2009 I was carrying out a search and recovery project to find good mainstream poets. This work is documented in The Long 1950s (published 2012) which is a “flickering” history of the mainstream. This work was hard to do because the m-stream is amorphous and very large, and critics make little attempt to distinguish between good and bad. There is a category of High Street poets but they really aren’t the best ones. I like a lot of poetry attached to the era before 1960 - as this whole book explains. The existence of this book is another reason why material on the 1950s and 1950s poets going on until 2000 could be dropped from FCon.
One book I read in that “location and recovery” phase was John Wain’s Letters to Five Artists, poems (1969). This shows one of the original 8 poets in New Lines breaking ranks and shattering every rule of the Movement’s rule-book. Wain got with the twentieth century. Letters is spontaneous, hedonistic, lavish, excited by the possibilities of poetry. It is exciting to see someone liberating themselves, but this is not great poetry. At the point where you find that one of the original ideologists of the Movement abandoned it and struck off in a different direction, you realise how complicated the history of these things is. Wain had a biography in the sense that he thought about things and as he made new decisions kept moving forward. Perhaps a thousand Movement poets (is this figure too high? say 500) also made serious decisions to follow the New Lines thing and then later a dozen or two made serious decisions to move on, or at least modulate the message. The crumbling of the Movement was a twenty-year process which did not follow a simple course and where a thousand significant details could be found. I concede that I haven’t written this history, although I would love to read what someone else discovered about it. I would hesitantly say that the Movement was terribly important in the 1980s but was decaying in power and energy during that time. The pattern was roughly X saying “I have immense literary authority” and maybe 50% of relevant people agreeing with them. But as time went on more and more interested people were saying “you don’t have authority, your views reflect your personality problems and your social attitudes” so the 50% figure crumbled. Wain, around 1965, walked out on the Movement project and effectively said “these values are restrictive and you can ignore them”. (Prior to 1965, maybe even 1961. Wildtracks was the big break and is about modernism and revolution.)
I haven’t read all Wain’s books. There is no Collected, possibly because his Movement allies saw him as a traitor and talked him down. Obviously it is better to read lots of books and you get the “shared story” better as you travel through many individual books. It is just rather expensive doing this, even via the second-hand dealers. John Holloway is the other New Lines participant who showed radically different ideas and the capacity for changing what he was doing. People thinking about poetry, moving away from poems after they had written them, moving into areas of uncertainty and writing new poems they were uncertain about. This is the day to day reality. It is exciting to read a narrative which soars over the details and shows large-scale structures which at least seem to exist, hidden by the myriad details. I am interested in the collective drift, so in 100 books published in 1969, rather than in quirks of individual biography.
I am deeply grateful to Simon Smith and Harry Gilonis for (amongst other things) the original evening in the pub in around 1995 where we made a list of the significant books of poetry of the modern period. This was an incredibly concise way of presenting a lot of information. The Shopping List (of significant books) has 250 items & obviously I wasn’t going to give a Brief Sketch of all of them. I chose the 7 volume method instead. The new edition adds about 45 titles to the 2003 version. How do you explain 295 artistic texts? The snarky blog sneers at the presence of very little material post Conductors. Actually Conductors isn’t in the Booklist because the script was completed in 1995 and Conductors of Chaos came out the following year. In 1995 there was no book which admitted that the Underground existed. Being up to date is suicidal where there is an 8-year delay between writing and publication. Books need validity of a quite different kind. The cold light of retrospect yields the most durable views.
Surely it is unrealistic to say that bad poetry dominates - there is tons of bad art pouring forth at any point in any field of the art industry, and by common consent it is unimportant. It dominates by volume only. While gazing in horror at bad poetry, and indeed the whole publicity machine of bad poetry, I don't get with the group which we can (at least recognisably) label as 'post-modern' or ‘ludic', and which so much redeems the official poetry publishers. (Actually there are a few pages about them, but not drawing the right conclusions.) 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, spilling out its strength and confidence, as splashes landed everywhere.
There is a new style of cultural managers who don’t set out to exclude everyone except a chosen few. It’s not Davie, Grigson, Ian Hamilton, Gunn, running the shop any more. I should have given this topic more space, back then. My feelings of oppression overwhelmed me. The new mantra is ’poetry is incredibly diverse’ and this is what I was arguing back in 1995.
I have just been reading the accompanying essay to an anthology of East German poetry - finished after the Wall fell. In it, Peter Geist quotes a statement by poet Elke Erb about the increasing interest of East German poets in the playful, in games. Erb was saying this in 1981: secondly: an unfolding and reaching for autonomy of the playful. This means a liberation and placing in opposition of non-integrated and non-organisable reality, of sound or of lexical associations, of the layout or of meaning, against an unaccountably linear, aggressively totalitarian view of things. The coincidence in time with the advance of ludic models in England, which I have dated to 1982-3, is striking. Surely I should have made more of this, writing in 1995. Anyway these currents of stylistic excitement, imitation, etc. can be quite exactly dated, and that is the point of style history, and that was the approach of FCon. But there are many other ways of discussing poetry. I don’t know about Erb - I can’t help admiring her technique but I am not greatly excited by her poetry. She certainly didn’t do what the Party wanted and certainly achieved autonomy. (She identified three features of newer poetry of which this was one.)
When I stopped writing the work (Affluence) there was a sort of psychological silence which descended, and which made me insecure. I spent much time thinking about all the defects in the work. I would walk to work every day thinking about its flaws. Reflections on these are visible on my website at www.angelexhaust.blogspot.com .
Reading this back, I see that it has a hiatus – it doesn’t explain how I was spending time with Prynne and Mottram but they didn’t explain to me about the Underground. But that is how it was. They didn’t proselytize and that is why they were effective teachers. Faced with someone who apparently knew nothing, they sought to lead me towards a great variety of objects of knowledge – recent poetry was many places down the queue. Prynne did tell me in around 1979 to read Jeremy Reed, and that was good advice. If you read either Prynne or Mottram, it’s sort of obvious they have 1000 other interests than just reading poetry.