Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Summit Meeting 2004

Candy Talking: Cambridge Poetry Summit, 9th-11th January 2004

An event in Cambridge on January 9th-11th assembled a large number of young (officially, "youngish") English and American poets for an exchange of ideas. The ish English poets reading were:
Tim Morris
Keston Sutherland
Marianne Morris
Chris Goode
DS Marriott (replaced on the day by Rob Holloway)
Mark Mendoza
Leo Mellor
Helen Macdonald
Dell Olsen
Jeff Hilson
Sean Bonney
Stu Calton
Tom Jones

The 'summit' phrase is a sardonic reference to the Blair-Bush summits, and not some kind of flag-planting in ice-goggles. The goggles of the weekend showed a new generation. The background to this is the inherent bias of print culture towards the past, inclined even more by the excellence of radical poetry produced in the 1970s. The classic pose for a poetry fan is to have very strongly internalised norms based on the classics – for example Adorno, for example Prynne – within which they are very happy, where things are very clear, they have a lot of memories of being happy, there is a great richness of data, they can have shared conversations with their friends. This is a benign situation, but it tends to build over the empty space where new poetry, new names, new cognitive norms, would be visible. It is healthy to speed up the assimilation slightly by insisting that poets under 40 exist. Not always to the total rapture of poets over 40.

This was a collection of poets who have complex inhibitions and are looking for innovative solutions to them. The poetry seems to be animated by a generalised sense of apprehension, tending to assume a form like George W Bush. Which could be a projection of the hostility shown by the immediate social group, of Cambridge literati, to anything which shows signs of weakness.
By entering world politics the poem increases vastly in scale. An attempt to seize objectivity, likely to draw the poem towards the discourse of corporations and government departments, a gravitational acceleration deftly paralleling the path followed by everyone else who is intelligent and who uses their intelligence for objective business matters. It is an odd calculation, whose result is that small-scale interpersonal feelings are perplexing and insoluble, while the problems of world politics are simple, straightforward, and emotionally unifying.
The ability to make every line unpredictable is impressive, and can be adapted to depicting situations full of non sequiturs. It reminds me of 70s Cambridge poetry, as in magazines like Perfect Bound and Blueprint.

come fly there is room for your ghost with us two in the bunker
there is and fly putting down chips as kind against the operation
reliable wood money can't shoot when everyone is watching the green
light blue on the deep blue here come down with lead in your floats
there is no bar to the magnanimity of rounds or imaging tiny souls
when they've been scratched and hunker round an oil drum gambling

Each subtle request brings out the most important
facts at the birth of Universal Man Organus Cadellium
strong waves break over the headland we request
leave of absence to fulfil the lofty heights of science
fiction the invincible 'we' moreover several writings later
each ingot slides out the furnace ready by Fort Knox
the insufferable aliens have developed this ray which
others have reached the interior
chamber ensembles bring each meeting to a close

Which one comes from 1974 and which from 2004? Adorno still seems to be the local deity – has anything changed? This is an era of cheap data, and in the face of the circular spectacular glut poets seem to have abandoned the elder tasks of putting the visible into words in favour of attitudinal variation: the tilt of the head, the quality of partial rejection and disbelief of it all. This tilt seems not to be recorded in the text, and working out what it is – the point of the whole poem – is perplexing and difficult. This is not simply cerebral; if someone cuts up a Blair speech about the moral benefits of the 2nd Iraq war, the act of cutting is certainly very emotional, indeed these attitudinal scans are highly personal and subjective.

Many of the readers use an inexpressive tone of voice, without any obvious speech melody or expressive inflection at all. Perhaps the point of departure is to eliminate the legacy signals carried by these little tunes, admittedly Stone Age in date – the ripples of human sensibility, if you like. A variant is to read fast and loud, but inexpressively, or to inject expressive pitch patterns which are unrelated to the words and are a form of blank logic. Locally, people are eager to attack feelings and unwilling to attack lack of feeling. Another interpretation is that such poets are nervous about reading, and inexperienced. The melody will emerge in the end. Just possibly, the same is true about the way they write.
Admiration for detachment and objectivity, for discourse which lacks reassuring emotional signals, belongs with a certain sector of the population, the most educated sector. Identifying with other people is a general human quality, while a specific tier need to unlearn it in order to run complex organisations. Removing poetry from the realm of expressivity – into that of government or philosophy – begs the question of why poetry has a discourse separate from government or philosophy. If I work for the government all day, maybe I want a differently rich language in my leisure hours.
The weekend was a crowded one, but it would be incorrect not to mention other poets of this generation who weren’t on the programme. Nic Laight, Nick Macias, and Niall Quinn, the authors of However Introduced to the Soles, spring to mind. Writers Forum poets like Scott Thurston, Douglas Jones, Peter Manson, Wayne Clements, also. Although some of the poets have established reputations (in my household, at least), most of them are unfamiliar. This might be a new equipe edging onto the stage. What's up? You can form your own opinion by reading the book of the spectacle – Sam Ladkin collected poems by the participants and put them in a book, Some Evidence (from Barque Press, at This, along with Cul de Qui (magazine), is a pivotal moment, a haul to be pored and argued over many times. Critics out of prehistory may prefer to wait for the crossover hit – the one that talks to someone from outside the group. Which has a tune, in fact. As for the cognoscenti, Sam Ladkin writes "I'm working out all your statistics for a collection of poetry Top Trumps based on the usual five categories: Density of Syntax, Density of Thought, Left Lean, Enunciation, and Glamour/Hygiene."

I spent most of the weekend engaged in detailed contextual research, in the pub. At one point, someone said “Adorno said that we shouldn’t give in to the mass-consumption leisure industry” and I heard this as “Madonna says that…”. Go back to London, fool! The weekend was about the arrival of a new generation, but no-one talked about new sounds and styles being launched, or about a change of direction from the older generation (of intellectual poets). My dominant impression of the 3 days is of benevolence. No factions. Everyone keen to listen to each other. Benign language washing around everywhere.
Ben Watson gave a brilliant paper about the evasiveness of poets who ignore time and the dialectic, starting with a description of how a poem by Ric Caddel asks you to gaze at Caddel’s noble soul across a depopulated & timeless universe, but is really smug and malign. Afterwards, an American poet approached him and said how moved he had been by honouring the late Caddel, what a fine poet he was, etc. The paper was only 20 minutes long but he hadn’t stayed focussed for more than 2 or 3 minutes. Cambridge really is the home of listening skills, and these skills really do give you a chance of understanding the world which mass-media numbness doesn’t. Maybe attention has other functions than simply the solemn & honorific exchange of prestige.
My other impression of the weekend is that Jeff Hilson, Sean Bonney, Helen Macdonald, and Marianne Morris gave wonderful readings. This is what I was expecting before I went – fulfilment being almost a disappointment, in this case. No revelations, but a happy feeling. Go home on the train with a lot of other happy poetry-binge people. And so to bed.

Top Tips
Things not to say;
“Fwor! I don’t half fancy that young poet who just read!”
“I read Jargon of Authenticity in 1976 and thought it was witty but exaggerated and not wholly serious.”
“I think the Essex School has been seriously underrated.”
“What on earth does this poem mean?”

Things OK to say:
“I know this café which is open on Sunday morning and does proper breakfasts.”
“Of course, he has no idea how to frame a proper philosophical inquiry, specially not in syllabics.”
“Meet me in the Bun Shop.”
“There is an essential distinction between naïve ironic avant-garde pastoralism and philosophically grounded ironic avant-garde pastoralism.”
“Olson was interested in Situationism.”
“There are two kinds of vulture. The American kind is descended from birds of prey and the European kind is descended from pigeons.”

Note 2017. This was written for Angel Exhaust but got cut. It stands for feelings of crushing nostalgia. You had the whole Underground in one room at that event. I haven’t been to a gathering like that since 2004. I’m sorry that stuff stopped happening. I don’t meet people and they don’t meet me.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating and resonant in terms of expressing or comprehending post-Millennial innovative poetry. I perhaps wonder about candour, detachment [disinterest], house styles (of which Cambridge is one). Also some of the usual suspects (Adorno [still!], Prynne). What of the efficacy or suitability of different manners of speech, what will play here and does it matter, whether demotic or for the cognoscenti. Why delve into some of that intricate, convoluted stuff, who's going to care about that?