Wreckage on dry land: 2000 poets in the alternative poetry world
You will never hear surf music again.
There used to be a trade association called the Association of Little Presses. Its members were non-commercial (unsuccessful?) poetry publishers, and in practice they published almost exclusively poetry - a few political pamphlets notwithstanding. The ALP used to publish catalogues of all available publications put out by its members; title Catalogue of Little Press Books in Print Published in the United Kingdom. In good years, someone indexed those lists by author – so that you can count the number of authors dealing with non-commercial publishers in that year. This takes us into the macro-realm of overall volumes.
I found the catalogue issue for 1990-1. It had an author index, so I could count 1571 individual writers listed there. (This figure has problems as it may include some prose writers and a few foreigners.) The ALP is roughly the Underground, although some mainstream poets may sneak in. We can be sure that most poets active in the 1970s did not make it into this 1990 list - most of the publishers had simply vanished from the field. So we need a much larger figure to get the total for the whole period 1960 to 1997. I looked at some ALP lists for the 1970s, although the way they are organised makes them hard to use. Then I looked at the 1974 list, which for once has an author index, and counted 488 names. I took the names beginning with S and counted the overlap with 1991. It was about 25%. It was as if the 1991 list was a completely new list of names. If we assume (on the basis of scanning these lists) a thousand 'alternative poets' in the 70s, cut down a few as possibly not British, possibly writers of prose, etc., then we get to 2000 for the whole period, say 1960-1997. This is a numbingly large figure, and I am certainly not proposing that everyone in that set is worth examining or resurrecting, but it does suggest how important the Underground realm was. You have this tradition of eccentricity in Britain, and the idea of being personal, original and nonconformist appealed to large numbers of people.
I don't have a copy of the ALP lists – dealers charge a stiff price for them second-hand – but I have a copy of Poet's Yearbook for 1978. (It is a list of apparently all new poetry publications in a year stretching from June to June.) I extracted 70 or so names from this:
B Catling, Chris Torrance, Eric Mottram, Walter Perrie, Tom Lowenstein, Susan Fearn, Jeremy Reed, Nick Toczek, Allen Fisher, Ulli McCarthy, Phil Maillard, Alan Riddell, Glyn Hughes, Stuart Mills, Colin Simms, Steve Sneyd, Barry Edgar Pilcher, Philip Jenkins, Hugo Manning, Eddie Flintoff, Michael Haslam, John Hall, Tim Longville, Paul Matthews, Neil Oram, Nigel Wheale, Mark Hyatt, Rod Mengham, John Wilkinson, Dinah Livingstone, David Chaloner, Iain Sinclair, Brian Marley, Charles Ingham, Nicki Jackowska, GF Dutton, Eric Ratcliffe, Elaine Randell, Asa Benveniste, Stuart Montgomery, John Seed, Tony Jackson, Lee Harwood, Bill Griffiths, Michele Roberts, Paul Brown, Bernard Kelly, Owen Davis, Jeremy Hilton, Martin Booth, Glenda George, David Greenslade, Ken Edwards, DM Thomas, Florence Elon, Roy Fisher, Susan Musgrave, Sacheverell Sitwell, Colin Nixon, Mark Williams, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Elsa Corbluth, Jeremy Adler, Jeff Nuttall, JH Prynne, Paula Claire, Paul Green, John Welch, Martin Thom.
A bit more effort would throw up a list of 500 names and that might be “the Underground of the late 70s”. 500? it might be a bit more. It is often said that the Underground went through a dip or retraction after 1977 and grand disappointments. However, if the 1990-1 list has three times as many names as the 1974 list, the existence of that dip in overall activity has to be questioned.
Other calculations (available on this website) concluded that the total of British poets (all flavours) who published at least one volume between 1960 and 1997 was in the region of 7000. This figure is unlikely to be too high. Does that imply that the Underground was 30% of the whole? This does not feel right and it may be that the 7000 figure is too low.
These figures represent what we cannot know. That is an incitement to theoretical activity. What we cannot know is decisive at most points in the game. Just posting these figures makes it obvious why literary historians don’t cover the whole field. We are entitled to think about what the whole field would look like. The early stages of this overload may have led to the breakdown of relationships within the poetry world, the separation into groups which notably had a lack of esteem for the other groups. That is, the effect of overall volume on the point in cultural space occupied by one individual may have been strong enough to be measurable. There is a “cultural field” inside which we move.
What was the Underground?
This is an opportunity to describe what “the Underground” means. But at the moment I am just writing about the overall volumes. This can be seen as a continuation of something we put together, back in 1991 and 1992, as “The blood-soaked Royston perimeter”. This came out as issue 8 of Angel Exhaust and identified clusters of poets which could be labelled as the Cambridge School and the London School. The group labels were distorting and have grown less popular. But after all we made a map which had about 40 names on it. This was a start. It is reasonable to think that the average poetry reader only knows 40 names from the Underground – and that is being optimistic. Reaching an overall count tells us how big the map should be. In a way, that is the end of the project. What about describing each of those 2000 poets? Not for me. Please find another 60 critics to do that.
People who write about poetry tend to approach the Underground through a legalistic path. They define a coherent artistic or political or ideological position, elaborate that to their satisfaction, and then stand it up as a description of how small press poets really are. This seems a notably unsuccessful approach. The underground world is clearly amorphous. The coherent definitions fail simple tests of descriptive accuracy. To make them pass, you always have to take out large parts of the subject matter. There may be another problem, that some critics think there are only three underground poets. This was the point of the ALP lists, to put into the public domain minimal facts about the whole of the alternative press sector. The lists describe what ALP member publishers were offering for sale, and did not apply any artistic criteria. Our definitions should match the primary evidence. The folklorist Lauri Honko has a useful statement about this: “If a fancy theory replaces or makes obsolete identity elements actually used in social interaction by the people studied, very little has been achieved. A degree of recognisability by all parties of the alleged social and cultural identities should exist as a warrant against false definitions and artificial categorisation.”
I dislike the term small press. The word press refers to the wood and metal device which in an older world pressed ink and paper together. It harks back to the time after Morris when people were earnest about hand presses and non-machine printing. The environment was one of fine printing and a rather high proportion of the texts were from before Romanticism. Peter Wells was printing Poetry Folios, in the 1940s, by hand. This was at a farming commune organised by the pacifist J Middleton Murry, and the link between Arts and Crafts, Back to the Land, and pacifism as an opposition to the machine, correlated emotionally with the wish to print using the strength of your body as a significant input to the end product. This kind of thing was still going on in the 1950s, although admittedly I don't know when it actually stopped. It was a whole segment of culture and I am not inclined to erase it by applying the word press to anything not involving a press. The alternative poetry scene had nothing to do with that artisanal fine printing and the people who collected those books (on handmade paper or otherwise) did not also purchase alternative poetry.
The most exciting description of the alternative scene was by Eric Mottram, in a whole series of inflammatory writings (which strangely you can't buy in a collected version). Eric's vision of where modern poetry should go was prophetic rather than descriptive. Once a large body of finished alternative works was available, it differed from what Eric foresaw or fantasised about in almost every way.
There are people who stomp around saying “you aren't one of us. Your poetry is old. You have to leave” but this is just territorial aggression and not constituent. How can you be delegitimated by the illegitimate?
The Underground has continuity as a community of readers, but has certainly not remained stable in the cultural preoccupations and ideas of style which animate its projects. The continuity of individual poets, pursuing their personal style over several decades of productivity, only disguises a basic process of change which may be clearer if we just block out the dominant figures. A useful historical approach would be to examine vertical sections, defining moments in the advance of a column. I looked in early 2015 at the website of Knives Forks and Spoons, a modern Underground publisher, and listed the names of authors they publish:
Tim Allen, Meredith Andrea, David Annwn, Joanne Ashcroft, Alan Baker, Richard Barrett, Jeremy Balius, David Berridge, Michael Blackburn, Mark Burnhope, James Byrne, Neil Ambel, Joel Hace, Lucy Harvest Clarke, Adrian Clarke, Wayne Clements, Mark Cobley, Rebecca Cremin, Sarah Crewe, Sophie Mayer, J Crouse, Philip Davenport, Ian Davidson, James Davies, Peter Dent, Ken Edwards, Neil Ellman, Stephen Emmerson, Matt Fallaize, Gareth Farmer, Patricia Farrell, SJ Fowler, Kit Fryatt, Andrew Gallan, Peter Gillies, Rupert Loydell, Jesse Glass, Howie Good, Giles Goodland, Gavin Goodwin, Chris Gutkind, Trevor Simmons, John Hall, Peter Hughes, Dylan Harris, Daniel Y Harris, J/J Hastain, Colin Herd, Lindsey Holland, Simon Howard, Sarah James, Tom Jenks, Joshua Jones, S Kelly, Ira Lightman, Travis MacDonald, Ann Matthews, Anna McKerrow, James Mclaughlin, Nicky Mesch, Geraldine Monk, Frederick Morley, Stephen Nelson, Bruno Neiva, D E Oprava, Ryan Ormonde, Lars Palm, Daniele Pantano, Bobby Parker, RT Parker, Peter Philpott, Stephen Pike, Evelyn Posamentier, Jay Ramsay, Kevin Reid, George Szirtes, Simon Rennie, Antony Rowland, James Russell, Ian Seed, Robert Sheppard, Marcus Slease, Ben Stainton, Paul Sutton, Todd Swift, Andrew Taylor, Nathan Thompson, Scott Thurston, David Toms, Rhys Trimble, Steven Walling, Debbie Walsh, Tom Watts, Michael Wilson, Colin Winborn, Cliff Yates.
I hope this shows some of the fertility of the contemporary scene. KFS have a bit of a trawler approach, they take on a lot of books. Have I read all these poets? Certainly not. I have read Eighteens, the KFS anthology. In this list, the only ones who featured already in the 1970s list are John Hall, Peter Philpott, and Robert Sheppard. This list could be seen as a picture of the scene in 2015. There are hundreds and hundreds of other Underground poets writing, but this is a view, something small enough to look at.
The idea of a unified Underground is as illusory as the idea that the poetry world is unified (and so there is no Underground or zone of innovation). You can't be part of the reader community for a poem that has no reader community.
This area of consecration, vocabulary building, shared symbolism, repays deeper study. The sociology of cultural conservatism and 'affirmative culture' and of the radical negation it so often gives rise to, is not something we can just bracket out as we re-aestheticise an art of contestation.
The Underground is not just a mirror image of the world of conventions. The nisus towards revolt is too strong to simply halt and turn into unity when it meets an alternative world which has a centre, warmth, a social basis for language. Those centres are themselves prone to rejection, attack, resentment.
How good are these figures? The trouble with using lists is that you can’t check the quality of the items listed. Some publishers who were members of ALP were not even publishing poetry. So while these were all small circulation books the extent to which they were all stylistically dissident is much less clear. Glancing through the ALP list I saw titles which were about genealogy, surveys of obscure dialects (from Oleander Press), ecology... So we would have to purge the list of 1571 names and also add in the names of poets who were not associated with the ALP or who were not visible in 1974 or 1991.
A remaining problem is whether all ALP members had a genuinely alternative aesthetic. Reading all those 1571 writers to check their “alternative” credentials is obviously unattractive. If you look at the total volume of books coming out (via Poet's Yearbook, for example), it is clear that there are many little-known poets. Most of these are completely conventional in artistic method. They are mainstream poets but not competitively effective. They don't get reviewed in Poetry Review, or whatever other test you select. There are publishers who put out low-prestige but non-innovative work. My impression is that the ALP appealed to a clientèle who shared an ideology, of rejecting mainstream norms, and that it was a collection zone for underground poetry. Publishers of “failed mainstream poetry” did not see benefits from ALP fairs or the ALP catalogue, because there was a clientèle who turned up to the fairs etc. and that clientèle were anti-mainstream and were unwilling to buy sub-mainstream product. So they did not acquire ALP membership. This is however a problem area. Anvil were a member of the ALP and they were certainly a mainstream press unaffected by the New Thing of the 1960s. I don't regard their poets as “failed mainstream”, for example I have a number of Anvil books by Peter Levi which I like a great deal. A measure which would combine quantity and quality is difficult to devise. All told someone could do a great deal of work on this figure of 2000 poets in the Underground, which is offered as an indication of magnitude rather than as a last word.
Randall Stevenson, in his history of modern British literature (to 2000), says that the Underground or small press world remains unevaluated. I think this is a serious issue. Robust as his narrative is, it clearly leaves space where a number – perhaps a few hundred? – poets need evaluation. Working on these figures at least gives us a crude measurement of what has been omitted by apathetic historians. The sheer scale of this activity shows how attractive these cultural ideas were to thousands of people. That is another argument for taking them seriously.