Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Uncontrolled inclusion lines

Uncontrolled inclusion lines

(more on the work describing British poetry 1960-97)

I looked at the earliest version of the “shopping list”, with a note “updated January 1996”. Then I did a comparison with the latest version of the list of poets I wrote about for ‘Affluence’. The outcome is that I started with a list of 65 poets and that I added another 80 in the course of research. I suppose this shows that I didn’t have the knowledge at the beginning, and that the design changed as more and more information came in. This explains why the count of volumes kept on going up, and why the date of completion kept on vanishing over the horizon. One qualification – Kathleen Raine was not part of the original list, because she was already celebrated in 1960, and I was determined to move the subject of debate on, and to omit poets I regarded as already assimilated. By 2005 or so, it was clear that the situation was different – Raine had already entered the stage of “being forgotten”. (She was included in an anthology of forgotten or excluded poets, Completing the Picture.) So I spent a lot of time in ‘Council of Heresy’ exploring Raine and the intellectual background to her work – reversing my original decision.
It was just so hard to say no to any gifted poet I uncovered. If you separate the functions of editor and researcher, as a what-if, you come up with some interesting conclusions. First, any external editor would have declined to extend the inclusion list from 65 to 150. It was just an infeasible demand. The research carried the work away from its moorings. Secondly, the design of individual books is impossible to account for. The remorseless need to tick through a dozen poets, then another dozen, is too obvious as an overriding motive of action. Thirdly, the inclusivity actually guarantees the quality of the overall design. If all the descriptions of particular poets are convincing, and the work has 150 data points, it must resemble the landscape it is trying to give a likeness of – however strange that landscape. If the narrative is labyrinthine and not strewn with bright generalisations, that is probably because the landscape in question is labyrinthine and geologically dissected and discontinuous.
The original Shopping List came from a session with Simon Smith and Harry Gilonis in a pub, probably in a terrace behind Waterloo Station. It is possible that Stephen Rodefer had asked for a list of significant British poets – a kind of Europe in 45 minutes guide. This was in 1995. It seemed stupid that there was no list you could consult. We felt that there had been an “underground” for thirty years (even if we understood this idea differently) and that this had piled up much information you needed, even if the faculty of memory to store it was dissipated or missing. I can’t imagine how nobody brought up Tony Lopez or Tom Lowenstein. It’s just inexplicable. I was 40 in 1996; why didn’t I know about all these poets? The works were never literally hidden, just that attention was perpetually distracted away from them by rafts of bad poetry.
I think the break-through into being hip was less knowing what was good than knowing what not to admire – the insight that “poetry in the High Street is boring”. People who looked at jazz through finickally pursuing the best players, the best recordings, etc., in overweening and competitive completeness, failed to take the same approach to modern poetry. Perhaps this was a tacit admission that most of the poets in the Underground were profoundly untalented.
A recount suggests that the figure of poets added after the start is greater than 80. I can’t imagine how I let the project run away with itself like this. Conversely, I find that this fuller set of data is the most solid and informative one, and that generalisations developed before the core data was analysed are suspect.

Jonathan Barker did a bibliography of British and Irish poetry, specifically 1970 to 1995. I counted 817 names (omitting the Irish, which is just to get the count right). I compared this list with the list of poets I wrote about in 'Affluence'. Conclusion: 84 of the poets I chose to write about are in Barker's "standard" list and 72 are not. My feeling about this is that I did a "ground up" job on the poetry, I didn't take over the accepted version. But, I want to amend the suggestion of obscure research – none of the finding was really difficult and the obstacles were my own obscure inhibitions rather than notable physical or even technical difficulty. If I found something “new” in 2010, the work had probably been on the shelves at the Poetry Library since 1975. The object I want to push to the centre is the social network that brings you things – so many anthologies, magazines, or just people you had conversations with, produced some brilliant poet I hadn’t heard of. My “finding” really means me standing near several dozen people who had found things and were keen to share the results. I could criticise the set of anthologies at some length, but that would just reveal how intimately dependent on them I have been, over forty years or so. Someone who thinks the outcome has been unfair might demand a description of the research programme, actually with the object of attacking it. The programme is not based on random reading but on the “connoisseur network”, and a description of it would be for 90% a description of the network. “The intelligence is in the system”, to deploy a phrase which can’t be wholly true. The network that really exists consists of people (all of them intelligent), and I guess that a description of a hundred or so people would be an adequate picture of it as it existed during the four or five decades I am interested in. One example. The only poet I discovered from typescripts, rather than from anthologies, magazines, and what have you, was David Barnett. He sent my magazine some scripts, almost certainly, because Norman Jope had recommended him to. Norman had published his poetry in Memes, so there is another question of how David, in West Wales, came across Memes, in Swindon. Anyway, a chain of individuals made this happen. It really doesn't amount to me doing heroic amounts of research, climbing bare cliffs, descending into caverns, etc. And his poems were easy to assimilate, they were obviously hippy/Jungian/ mythy poems of a type I recognised. I probably didn't think “60s survivor”, although in fact that was the case. I really liked his poems, and this is one example of how I added 85 poets to the project and almost made it sink through the earth trying to hold it up. 

My work is a record of the connoisseur network rather than of an autonomous personal journey, assuming that autonomy exists in a perfectly social medium like literature. You can imagine a second network, whose shape would uncover the nature of the existing network by acting as a comparator. This is interesting. But, on a less theoretical level, what are you saying about “poetry which does not arouse or please people in the poetry world”? isn’t that the same as saying “poetry which is not good and which should not attract resources”? I can see that a lot of people who didn’t get anywhere would like the network to be exposed as corrupt, in some way, to discredit it and create a new space in which they would be Significant and not “between 1000 and 2000 in the rankings”.

I don't want to get too theoretical, but the idea of reading lines of poetry accurately depends on a consensus, not barely about the English language, but about the conventions of poetic utterance. It is a profoundly social art. The "connoisseur network" is the guarantee that there is a correct reading of a poetic structure, namely the one which they ascribe to it. They are the society which owns the language of the poems. Poets habitually overrate their ability to make language mean what they want, but critics can succumb to that fault too. If I added 72 poets from outside the list which was "industry standard", I can be wrong; but I don't think I am, and anyway I have people who agree with me about each one of those 72 names. The discussion is open, I think.

If I say that 1000 books coming out a year is too much for the network of connoisseurs, that just points to another network, of publishers -obviously they are finding poets on a large scale, even if the poor quality control sets the whole system working in a bizarrely dysfunctional cycle. This is the “uncontrolled” phase of the system. Evidently 90% of the poets who publish are not going to be successful. The “connoisseur network” only takes on a few per cent of what the industry churns out. So one phase is unselective and one is selective. This is a balance. Not perfection, but principles that counter-act each other.

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