Friday, 7 June 2019

Poetry Wars; when did the counter-culture end

Poetry Wars

Parahistory is written from previously undisclosed documents. Deep history must be recovered from what was never recorded in the documents.
- Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics III

Some cameras are able to prevent certain kinds of people from appearing in the image.

There is an aside about the brouhaha at the Poetry Society in 1976-7, which Peter Barry wrote about in his compelling Poetry Wars (which I must have read four times by now, if not five). There is a problem with taking a stack, even a roomful, of texts and taking them as objects frozen rigid, with no connection to the social life, especially the conversations, flowing all around them. With Seventies poetry, the connection with a social movement which at the time was called the “Counter Culture” is one of the main issues. Verbal gestures within poems connected to a wider reality, and took their meaning from a social community, not from a sort of “pure form” which comes, as it were, from the planet Sirius.
My aside relates to timing, reacting to a claim by Dominic Sandbrook. If you accept that idealism was replaced by disillusion, during 1974 or soon after, most of the story is a narrative of disillusion. I have this memorised value of late 1974 as when the “generation of 68” lost revolutionary impetus and began searching for jobs or research funding. Sandbrook now claims, in his history of Britain in the 1970s (which eventually piles up to about 2000 pages), that the Counter Culture was effectively dead by 1972 (State of Emergency, p.178). This does not equate with the radical and counter-cultural phalanx at the Poetry Society, thriving up until a crisis early in 1977. I think he just wants to hustle the radicals off-stage as quickly as possible. He quotes as a source George Melly, as saying on 1 September 1974 that an event in August 1974 (a free festival in Windsor Great Park, broken up by the police) was the end of the counter-culture. But he has just said that it had been washed up by the start of 1972. That means it wasn't there to get beaten up in 1974! He is contradicting himself straight away. Melly published a piece just after the Windsor row – but he can’t have found that something involving 250,000 or 500,000 people had stopped in time for getting into the Sunday papers two weeks later, surely you would have to wait three years, then search, and then make your observation. Melly declared a “turning point” in order to make sure his article got published, he is claiming knowledge which could not possibly be available so soon. This source is no good! Sandbrook does not mention that Melly had published a book called Revolt into Style, whose theme was that movements which began as social revolts always ended up as merely forms of clothing, fashion, design, etc. The idea that youth movements always wound themselves up was part of Melly’s stock in trade, he was promoting his book by putting out what looks remarkably like fake news. The Windsor thing didn’t break up because there were not enough thousands of people there having a good time, it was broken up forcibly by the police. I can’t accept that the loss of optimism preceded the oil price hike – and, in fact, the stage where the price hike began to affect people’s disposable incomes and perceptions. Many available accounts leave out the new year-groups – they are fine with people reaching thirty and wanting to settle down, but they by-pass the equal numbers of people, every year, turning 18 and wanting to kick up a row and re-organise things on a more idealistic basis. There was a turning-point where people felt disillusioned with imminent change even at age 18 – but this came late and, anyway, they went for updated ideals rather than instant middle-age. The proposition that after 1970 young students were more impressed by their older, more or less revolutionary, peers than by employers, bishops, MPs, etc., seems remarkably convincing. Melly could sing jazz but in 1974 he was hardly an expert on youth culture. Actually, historians seem in a hurry to get the counter-culture off stage. This is all too neat a story. I am not convinced there was a generation of apolitical students. The generation of 68 may have got PhDs and mortgages but that could mean that they were much less radical than people younger than them.
Clearly the Mottram period at the Poetry Society is an integral part of the Counterculture,  and it hadn’t stopped in 1977. I think we can also conclude that by 1977 the Alternative was in very deep trouble and this wasn’t just due to the Arts Council. But, I don't accept Sandbrook’s claim and I also don’t think that the “alternative” poetry thing stopped in 1977, it has never really stopped. Maybe it was hard to find in the shops - that doesn't mean it wasn't there.
My impression is that students during the 1970s were rapidly developing into a separate world, as if a walled and self-preoccupied city, which was coming to live more and more by its own rules, ignoring the wider society. Confidence was growing. Idealistic politics was a core part of this confidence and it wasn’t tapering off and flowing away. By 1976, university staffs were awash with people who had been radicals in 1968. Then Thatcherism brought an uprush of student radicalism because it was so blatantly unjust. Radicalism never went away – it is more that journalists stopped writing about it.
You can’t separate underground poetry from the radical Left milieu, which changed every year as an outcome of all those arguments people kept having. But this history is poorly recorded. Maybe you don’t want an overview. And maybe all those arguments were valuable and deserve to be recalled.
Poetically – the "Meinungskorridor" or official alternative view is that people never went through a phase of optimism and (especially) never lost their ideals. The thing you are never allowed to say is that after 1974 the alternative poetic lost its meaning and that what followed was a phase of pessimism and territorialisation, as people tried to turn social ideals into private property, and to mark out their share of it. A process of enclosure. There definitely was a Generation of 68, and if Corbyn was born in 1949 and a cluster of key poets were born in 1948, then they belong with him.
Sandbrook’s two books on the 1970s weigh several kilos. But where he writes about something I know about, it doesn’t hold water. I went up to university in 1975. His narrative builds up to the climax of the first Thatcher government as an inevitable and admirable outcome, so that any alternative ideas which were voiced during the decade are groundless, childish,and effectively a waste of time. There was no Alternative!
For me, there were two things in the Seventies – a big lift of idealistic fantasy, the world of Sixty-Eight, and a crash where people lost expectations of a better world and suffered a terrific hangover after the high. This was the simple version – maybe not everyone went through those Events and, especially, the counter-cultural ideals probably spread successfully but gradually, so that the "high" in Blackburn could well be years after the "hangover" in Ladbroke Grove. (I reviewed a book about the Counter Culture in Blackburn.)

(apologies for format problems in a previous issue of this post. This blog tenaciously resists adjustments to type details in an existing post.)

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