Silent Rules – history of the project
(Fulfilling the Silent Rules – another book about British poetry 1960-97 – published by Shearsman in September 2018 – out now.)
I was approached. Not by the editor but by someone she knew, who described the kind of book they wanted. It was an American university press which wanted to set up a London office and an English list. They needed some titles. They don’t have to be nice to you. You rush off and do the work anyway. The message – passed through intermediaries – was that I had to write the whole book before submitting a proposal. This was in June 2002.
I was in year 10 of a long (uncontrolled?) project of writing books about modern British poetry and at year 10 I didn't have a book deal for any of the books. The initial idea was to publish something in America. The design I came up with was based on the idea that Americans have fixed ideas about British poetry, implying that there are only a few poets active and that there is a single British thing which all poets faithfully reproduce. So my concept was to give rapid accounts of 100 books to show that all generalisations were wrong and to list the assets which made the field significant and irresistible. So this was the thesis. The time-span was 1960 to 1997 because that was the perimeter of my project. Because it was meant to be a big-deal book, I felt I could ignore the prior existence of Legends of the Warring Clans and incorporated a dozen book reviews from ‘Legends’ into the text. (Legends was internet-only and set up in 2003, I think.) I didn't want to write the book. I felt I was over-committed to the poetry project, in view of piles of unpublished books, and the lack of rewards. I thought I was the natural victim, not being an academic insider and having views which were not conservative and accepted. I was probably going to get thrown out once the servants realised I was there. But it composed itself spontaneously in my head. Writing it down was hard, but all I had to do was write it down. So it wasn’t voluntary. And so I ended up with a book. Of course when I had written it the editor said she only wanted to see the contents page. And said no after seeing the contents page. So there we were. This was in 2003.
I was irritated by the exchange with the publisher but the book was an asset once written. By 2002 I wanted to get away from writing about poetry. The writing coincided with the build-up to publication of Failure of Conservatism. No time to rewrite that because I was busy writing 'Silent Rules'. Various other arrangements to publish the book fell through in a puzzling way. Time went by.
'Silent Rules' does not have a thesis because the aim was to be the first book that someone seriously interested in literature read about modern British poetry. The strategy I followed was to evoke the 'whole spectrum', so going for many descriptions of very diverse books, rather than picking a few stars or finding that one single style was the 'solution'.
The book does not mention chronology at all. This is because I had already done the analysis of stylistic change in The Failure of Conservatism.
The focus was allover, in the overall design, the tip to tip quality. This meant that any group of 100 high-quality books would do. I began with a huge list of books and had great problems getting it down to 80. I stuck at 120, that seemed just about right. Throwing books out was a strain. The selection has no higher plan. Sacheverell Sitwell wrote a book called Splendours and Miseries, which I liked. It refers to a French original, Splendeurs et chagrins militaires, by de Vigny, and at one point the pieces about 80 poets were headed “Chagrins and splendours”. I used to refer to them as “Chagrins”. When I was assembling the book for publication in 2009 I suddenly realised I'd recycled all this stuff from Legends and this wasn't right. The count of Chagrins was no longer 100, I am not sure there were ever 100 sections written. I have an old list with 75 titles and I think it is now down to 65 individual books plus 15 anthologies. Of these 51 were in the oldest version. In 2009, I also radically cut the book, so several chapters vanished altogether. The design became much simpler. Any themes except the major one of 'diversity' were removed. The selection was rebalanced to include more mainstream poets and more feminists.
In 2017, Shearsman agreed to take the book and I agreed with previous publishers that this was the right way to go. In January 2017 I got excited by reading back the book and devised a number of rewrites. I didn’t actually incorporate these because the length couldn’t really be extended and the book couldn’t be improved. It was more that I was excited about it all.
This is the final volume of the seven-volume set called Affluence, Welfare, and Fine Words. Why has the text not been updated to cover developments since 1997? This would have meant throwing out material I had already written and probably throwing out poets I was interested in. A printed book of poems is itself frozen and so it is rational to freeze prose that describes such a book. I wanted to calm the past rather than calming the present. (In 2002, 1997 was “just before now”, not yet The Past.) This leaves the other question of why the book is being published 15 years after being written. The answer to that is obvious, the alternative scene has almost no resources and it is a wonder if anything gets published. If the book swelled up to 500 pages, nobody would be able to buy it. I can see that people want to read about poetry after 1997, but I couldn't add it to this volume without throwing away what I wrote before. I prefer saturation of a predefined area – that is, the period up to 1997. 'Silent Rules' deals only with individual volumes and has no career surveys – just as well, since almost all the poets have published prolifically since 1997. The reviews will no doubt go on about the halt line in 1997, but that really wasn't up for negotiation. Anyway I think people are just too territorial when it comes to the present. The poetry world is not densely populated with dispassionate people. You are going to reach much more acceptable conclusions if you are dealing with the 1960s or 1970s – people are more willing to listen. So is there some magic line where the free-fire zone becomes the Past and ceases to be territorial? I think so, and that is the purpose of writing this series. The scene is febrile and dissident, a steady and frozen view is a good thing for it.
We are now in year 26 of the project. Technically, I stopped years ago. Maybe in 2005. 'Silent Rules' is the last part to come out. You can ask why I needed to do a seventh book once six have already appeared. I still want the function of “invalidating generalisations”. That is still fun. But also, this one gives descriptions of about 40 poets who are not in the other books. This must be a useful function.
How does ‘Silent Rules’ relate to the other books in the series? The answer is that it includes a great deal of subject matter not included anywhere else, and which has to be covered somewhere in order to reach a complete picture of the time. At the same time, some poets described in ‘Silent Rules’ also appear in other volumes. The set discusses 140 poets all told. I suppose you could argue for adding a career survey of all of them – what, another 500 pages? Completeness is just a notion.
The series of books is supposed to be 1960-97 but when I was writing in 2002 I inadvertently included work that was post-97, specifically by poets I was extremely keen to include and who wouldn't have been in the work otherwise. So there are some overspills.
Why “silent rules”? Evidently poetry is made of sound, in the form of speech, but is governed by rules which are not stated explicitly (and which have no accepted notation in which they could be shared). There is always an argument to be made that you don't need any prose about poetry, just access to the poems. If prose is helpful, this is connected to its ability to tease out and make plain the silent rules. You have to perceive the structure of a work in order to read it. The subtitle is “inside and out” and becoming an insider definitely involves knowing what the silent rules are. Although, to be honest, I didn't learn about poetry by reading prose, it was more by hanging out with people who liked poetry and noticing their reactions. Or, in fact, mirroring their reactions. How can you have critical culture when the core of culture is mirroring other people's reaction patterns? Don't know. Not my problem.
I had a feeling that writing about famous poets in a brief extent (1000 words) was relatively ineffective. So the very celebrated poets tended to get cut. This might give the effect of a collection of obscure poets – a cunning way for conservative critics to trash the whole thing. Certainly I wanted to place more figures into the landscape. I think there was some scheme of disproving generalisations by the avant garde as well –I was annoyed by exclusive and preconceived schemes of merit. I didn't think the key to artistic creation was so simple. The plan is in fact a race-course of generalisations. The course wins, to be frank. All the generalisations crash and their burnt-out carcasses are exhibited on billboards around the track. The facts come out on top.
The message is that poetic merit is scattered over the landscape and that loyalty to a faction is not compatible with full aesthetic principles and a thorough approach to collecting primary evidence. This message lacks kinetic energy – it doesn't define the role of Winner, and this is what motivates people. They find the egocentric and one-person view natural and the broad-spectrum view unnatural and frustrating. But really, it is the only message I want to transmit. Each individual poet gets a limited amount of space, but the “hero of the piece” is the entire landscape, the awe-inspiring span from one end of the poetry world to the other. It's not part of the 'depolarisation' campaign, but it is remote from the ideologies of any group of poets, because the wide spectrum wouldn't fit with that.
Does it follow from covering the entire scene that the report will be accepted by the entire scene? This is the problem, you can only carry out an effect of wiping out divisions in the scene if your voice is heard widely enough to affect the scene.
I have rewritten the book several times. Once it exists, the temptation to redesign it is overwhelming.
May 2018. After reading Robert Hewison's book Cultural Capital, I rewrote parts of the book again. This is ridiculous, but the point is to be as precise as possible. Changing something so long and so finished is exhausting – it gave me a headache. What I had written on arts funding and State attitudes was just not accurate. Hewison's book gives a glimpse of a much greater whole in which my feelings are insignificant. I can’t extend that glimpse for long, but it was compelling while it lasted. Hewison quotes a Runnymede Trust publication saying that out of the first £2 billion of arts funding from the National Lottery only 0.2% went to artists from ethnic minorities. He says on another page that the lottery funding panel was given permission in 1998 to give out more individual grants, which were only 2.5% at that point. If capital projects were 97.5% then grants to individuals cannot have been more than 2.5%. So 0.2% as a fraction of 2.5% is not so far out of proportion. Squeezing the real story out of administrative history is like fighting warthogs with your bare hands. If a large sum goes to repairing or converting a building, you can't say if it has gone to one ethnic group or another, because an arts building can be used by all kinds of people. No arts organisation is specifically or exclusively White. Funding panels don't like giving money directly to individuals, as infrastructure spend is just much harder to launch glib political attacks on.
I spent time struggling with this area and then cut it altogether. I bought the book which Hewison drew that fact from – he has made two mistakes in citing. (This is 'The future of ethnic minorities in Britain', credited to the Runnymede Trust, 2000.) What he reports is not in the source. The source says that 0.02% of the organisations funded had ethnic minority 'representation' on their boards of directors. This isn't really a measurement of anything. The managers don't produce any art. “Follow the money” is good but this doesn't tell you who got the money. Hewison's book is fascinating and overwhelming in its scope.
'Silent Rules' originally had seven more chapters, including 'Long poems of the 1970s' 'Parataxis' and 'Coherence and exceptionalism'. Because the book was over length, I removed these. These chapters are part of the work but because of size constraints they are coming out on the Internet and not in print. They are available on the www.angelexhaust.blogspot.com website.
There are some more sources.
Memory of the Drift. The piece is about a pamphlet which was published in 2001. This now appears as Book One of the work (overall title Memory of the Drift). A volume from Shearsman has collected books one to four, but there is a book five (published in Angel Exhaust 22).
Elisabeth Bletsoe, Landscape from a Dream. The on-line version has now been taken down but the poems are available in a volume from Shearsman also called Landscape from a Dream.
Toynbee. Four volumes of the 'Pantaloon' series appeared, but according to Wikipedia there are others unpublished.
Elfyn. Fiona Sampson says (Beyond The Lyric p.80) that Elfyn introduced free verse into Welsh. This is utter piffle. The first volume of free verse in Welsh was published in 1937 (Y ddau lais), and Elfyn began publishing in the late 70s. Gwyn Thomas was a striking example of free verse in the Sixties. There is an interview with Elfyn (in Welsh) in Taliesin (volume 141, 2010). This was published after my book was finished.
Chaloner. Angel Exhaust 22 is a special issue on Chaloner, with some letters between him and John Hall.
Kazantzis. There is an author’s statement at http://literature.britishcouncil.org/judith-kazantzis .
JF Hendry. >>That the Cimbri spoke a Celtic language is attested to by the reports of Pliny the Elder (circa 77 AD) who stated that Philemon wrote that, the Cimbric word Morimarusa means the Dead Sea, as far as the Promontory of Rubeas, beyond which they name it the Cronian Sea (“Naturalis Historiae”, Libri IV, xiii, line 95). The word “Morimarusa”, referring to the Baltic Sea, is composed of ‘muir’ and ‘marbh’ in Q-Celt Irish; ‘mor’ and ‘maro’ / ‘marw’ in P-Celt languages such as Breton and Welsh. Importantly, there is no Germanic word in any dialect that would even approximate these root elements (Wikipedia entry for “Cimbri”).<< Philemon wrote sometime in the 4th century BC. Unfortunately there seems to be little doubt that Hendry misspelt the name.
The book “Crow” is incomplete and there was a prose tale which told the story of Crow and was the frame for the whole thing. Hughes explained this at an appearance at the Adelaide Festival in 1976. The URL goes to a transcript of this talk.
This is not the framing tale but it does explain the story which the poems radiate off from. I guess people just made up their own idea of who Crow was. The poems went out without the frame and I think this was just a feature of cultural life around 1970, art had gone outside the shared frameworks but people didn't bother to make the explanations available. Alexander Walker writes about this.
Sigmois te. I quote a strange Classical text about what seems to be sound poetry in the 2nd century AD. I may have more information about this. This (as mocked in the prose account by Nicomachus of Gerasa) may be part of a ritual narrating a creation myth in which seven stages of creation become successively more shaped and more finished. The hissing belongs to one of the earlier stages – articulate language is seen as the classical mark of refinement, so that pre-verbal language-like utterances are symbolic enactments of the earlier stages. The hissing and so on is perhaps not such a mystery, but part of an orderly symbolic structure which by a surprising chance we can recover. There is a papyrus which includes instructions to hiss, crow, etc. at moments in the seven-part ritual. At the end of the ritual we reach language. There is information about this in Wolfgang Schultze's Dokumente der Gnosis.
A relative sent me a postcard showing part of a mosaic from the Roman villa at Brading, Isle of Wight, near Brading Haven. It shows a man wearing a tunic who has a chicken head. Don't get this, but you could expect him to make crowing noises. >>The cockerel-headed man is a unique feature of the mosaics. The mosaic shows the cockerel-headed man beside a building approached by steps, with two griffins beyond.
One older opinion is that he represents the gnostic deity known as Abraxas; however Abraxas is usually depicted with a serpent's tail as well as a cockerel's head, which makes this interpretation seem unlikely.<<
So much of the theory of the period describes poems that were never written and sensations that were never felt by any sensibility. The results are not everywhere equally rewarding. The theories, bursts of wild exhilaration, saw visions of cultural achievement which went beyond the real story. As propaganda evaporates, the best texts remain as residues and prove to be the real substance of the era. Brushing away the ashes of fantasies, we reveal the shapes of hard, determinate, finished objects, the abiding works of the time. If you populate all the squares, eventually you have the map.
Maybe the theorising can start once the substance of the time, achieved and outstanding books, has been understood. There may be silent rules composing the cultural field which permits poetry to be written and read. States of mind can be recovered from allusive language because we know what they are. Poetry can be original but cannot be arbitrary. Works created by the reader's participation have to embody a shared logic, unlike for example photographs.
Admission. I write about Kathleen Nott's Poems from the North, which was published in 1956 and so is outside our chosen time period. Why? Nott published a book in 1960 but it is much less distinguished than “North” and looks as if she had lost her nerve. So it has to be the 1956 volume. Nott wrote two really important books and absolutely had to be included in the project, so I had to throw out another book to permit this. I was looking at the 1950s and noticed 5 female poets I liked – Raine, Nott, Eithne Wilkins, Lynette Roberts, Audrey Beecham. Only one of these was still publishing in the 1960s. So one theme could be “poets who found the period too unsympathetic to write in”, and this would be a whole area of study (which I never looked at). People are getting more and more interested in the “silent voices”, people who never became poets or who wrote and then fell silent. This is connected to a project for changing society to reduce inequality, which is after all more important than just studying literature. I just read books that actually got written. Some of the silent rules could include “rules that poets follow in deciding to fall silent”. I didn't get into this and I am doubtful that you can reconstruct this emotional pattern for the 1950s.
A trawl of the Internet today revealed that Wilkins came from New Zealand and was married to Austrian translator Ernst Kaiser. It says the couple spent 11 years in Rome studying the Robert Musil archive and translating his great novel. Wilkins was born in 1914 and died in 1975. She was publishing poems from about 1934 to 1953 but never got a book out.
At one point I say that only one significant woman poet was born in the 1930s. Going back many years, Rosemary Tonks had carefully kept her age quiet, but Helen discovered a reference book which did feature it, and said it was 1932. But the obituaries of Tonks put it down as 1928. So that would be zero women poets born in the 1930s. This is a moment where we see the silent rules – you notice them when they change.
The cover of the new british poetry says it has 85 poets. After counting several times, I make it 84. I think one guy was in the selection, then tried to say that the poets get should get paid more money and should go on strike, then withdrew his own poems. So the count is wrong. This is my memory of it. He was a very very bad poet. He used the moment to write reviews of the book for at least two newspapers, saying it was no good and giving most of the space to praise of his own rival anthologies. Supermarket chateau sleaze-bag with sanctimonious notes?
'Silent rules' uses a method of counting overlaps and non-overlaps between anthologies to uncover silent rules of grouping, which allows us to guess at the assumptions that precede differentiation. This locates nine “clusters” of poets, a way of getting away from binary divisions. I missed the oral:written opposition, obviously present but not really showing up in my dataset, because I used books. Divisions like male:female and Scots: English are real in marketing terms but too obvious to reveal much. The really puzzling thing is the “stereo blindness” whereby the Mainstream and the Alternative are invisible to each other. It is good to find a count for this. For example, I used 5 anthologies to work out a selective list of Alternative poets – 70 names. If you take the 1998 anthology, The Firebox, it covers a 40-year period and has 122 names. But only 3 of the 70 are allowed within that selection of 122 names. There are clearly two different aesthetics in play. The point of counting overlaps is to provide objective evidence of this.
The count doesn't tell you why the split happened. To be honest, I don't know why it happened. It would be easy to explain why readers exploit all available resources, and why poets use verbal forms which the audience understands. The opposite is hard to explain.
Does this split still exist in 2018? I don't know. I think almost everything has been forgotten. Maybe that includes the territorial claims and the barbed wire. As I say in the book, a lot of the repressions of the mainstream disappeared in the 1980s. Writing a book in which large numbers of poets from several different aesthetic factions are included within one unifying conceptual space may not resolve these territorial limits to vision. It's more of a cultivated gesture, really. But that is the objective. Maybe my book will vanish because it wants to record a consensus when in reality none exists.
In theory, the poets who cross boundaries and appear in (say) five anthologies should be the best. My impression is that the most-selected poets are actually bland, featureless, smoothed down to pap, shallow in their choice of effects. This doesn't greatly support the project of effacing group boundaries. My impression is that poets do well by developing their personal style/ world theory as far as it can possibly go. You can't really have the developments without the splits. “I write just like everyone else” – well, you needn't bother, need you. But we could have cultural institutions, and reviewers, whose sensors accept a broad spectrum.
I looked at 15 anthologies which included 456 names. That may have been about 10% of all the people who published a book of poetry in that period, roughly 1985 to 1996. Interpreting the stylistic and aesthetic/social differences between the “clusters” means actually reading the poets. This was a large task and it explains why it took me 20 years to write a study of the period. The longer you look, the more you understand. (The count goes down to 400 if you remove Irish and American poets. Is it legitimate to remove them? not really, but my subject was “British poetry”.) The whole period, from 1960 on, involves many more than these 400 poets: I write about 65 poets in 'Silent Rules' of whom 34 weren't in any of the anthologies. There are longer discussions of some of the anthologies on this website.