Monday, 23 March 2020

What happened in the Seventies

What happened in the Seventies

We are going to start with Eric Mottram’s lists of poets in the ”British poetry revival”, in ‘catalogues’ for two successive weekend events at the Polytechnic of Central London, in 1974 and 1977. The first point is that you can compare two lists – 17 poets in the 1987 anthology A Various Art (all of whom were publishing in the Seventies) and 46 in Eric’s list. Only 7 of the AVA poets are on Eric’s list. This must be an indicator of the depth of talent in the Seventies. Clearly, a large number of people were in love with poetry. We have to ask, at the very least, what they were in love with. This total count of poets is so large it sounds like damage. But that just makes the period interesting.

In his first, 1974, essay Mottram lists, first of all, 17 of the poets in John Matthias’ 1971 anthology as:
David Jones Hugh MacDiarmid Basil Bunting
Christopher Middleton Charles Tomlinson Gael Turnbull
Roy Fisher Ted Hughes  Ian Hamilton Finlay
Christopher Logue Matthew Mead Nathaniel Tarn
Anselm Hollo Ken Smith Lee Harwood Harry Guest Tom Raworth.

I think he got the idea from Matthias. He then adds 19 poets Matthias left out:
Tom Pickard Bob Cobbing Stuart Montgomery Jeff Nuttall Allen Fisher Dom Silvester Houédard Jeremy Hilton Elaine Feinstein Michael Horovitz David Chaloner Andrew Crozier Peter Redgrove Barry MacSweeney Jim Burns Edwin Morgan Chris Torrance John James Peter Riley John Hall
Mottram wrote another catalogue for the 1977 PCL Conference. The anthology for that event added: Peter Finch, B. Catling, Iain Sinclair, Bill Griffiths, Colin Simms, Tom Leonard, David Tipton, J.P. Ward, Eric Mottram, and John Freeman. Total: 46 poets
Actually, any historian of the Seventies is going to be filling in the negative space left around Eric’s era definition, which is complete in itself.
Eric’s list redefines poetry as being cultural criticism, with poetry about love and the intimate sphere marginalised; this does not reflect a distrust of such poetry but a distrust of the public sphere.
Mottram says the centre of his document is the catalogue of small press resources, and his opening paragraphs make the focus the use of small-scale economics and the exclusion by established editors. Mottram was powerfully encouraging young poets to experiment. His style is compulsively aggregative – he sets up 40 wonderful artistic assets and then rolls them up together, and rolls 30 or 40 poets up together. None of the poets had all 40 assets, in fact it is doubtful they had more than four or five, so there is a gap between the position statement and the poems themselves. Flattening the opposition isn’t the same as accurate description.
Poets who will migrate into the underground during the decade and are not listed by Eric include Tony Lopez, Michael Haslam, Paul Evans, Steve Sneyd, Maggie O’Sullivan, Michael Gibbs, John Ash, Jeremy Reed, Denise Riley, Anthony Barnett, Ralph Hawkins, Asa Benveniste, Robert Hampson, Grace Lake, Tom Lowenstein, Gavin Selerie, Nigel Wheale, John Wilkinson, Rod Mengham, Martin Thom, Paul Brown, Ulli McCarthy, Brian Marley, Philip Jenkins, Peter Philpott and Paul Gogarty. Roughly, Eric’s list doesn’t include poets born after 1945. He is very strong on poets born in the 1930s.

There had always been an experimental fringe. Around 1960, though, a patch of the poetry scene changed radically and was the start of what Eric Mottram called the ‘British Poetry Revival’. Over a dense couple of years, books by Roy Fisher, Christopher Middleton, Peter Redgrove, Gael Turnbull, Matthew Mead, and others signalled the arrival of a new experimental sector. This area involved work, complexity, montage, ideas. As this word choice implies, the doctrine is that British poetry had expired (as a precondition for its ‘revival’). The new poetry deleted the local legacy, but had an ‘elective ancestry’, transfusions of poetic DNA from the original European modernist poetry and from the American avant-garde of the 1950s. Cultural history shows a new idealistic youth culture recognising itself (in 1967 with hippies and psychedelia, in 1968 with student revolts and a new anti-capitalist consensus with a million implications), and how this equates with a stylistic rift around 1960 is quite a puzzle, one which Eric does not mention.

Vitally, Mottram is claiming that only the rejected, only those who reject the poetic centre and write in an “anti-language”, are genuinely creative. It would be surprising if all the poets favoured by “mainstream editors” were bad. It is hardly true, either, that editors did not reflect the tastes of several thousand other people in the poetry-reading audience. His is not the only view. If you look at Lucie-Smith’s 1970 Penguin anthology, he includes about half of Mottram’s poets. So this poetry was already there in the High Street. To get the decade, it is important to read also the notes in Lucie-Smith’s anthology. He includes 86 poets, and relates each one to a microclimate of opinion which views work in that style as necessary. He breaks down the separation between wish and fulfilment. The ‘impresario’ who devises the style may not be the same person as the poet. Mottram perceives a gulf whereas Lucie-Smith shows us a continuous landscape, where the extreme regions are in contrast with each other. Mottram’s version is more exciting but Lucie-Smith’s is more convincing. If you actually read the texts, it is obvious that ‘mainstream’ poets like Kathleen Raine, Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Thwaite, Alan Ross, John Wain, Peter Porter and George Mackay Brown are producing significant work.

Within Eric’s list, it is visible that Montgomery, Hilton, Feinstein, Horovitz, Burns, Hollo, Torrance, Griffiths, Leonard, Tipton, and Freeman are not hot-shots with an option on the top spot. This clears the stage a bit. Also, Eric revisited the time for a 1988 anthology ('the new british poetry'), and his section of that book includes 6 poets who were publishing in the 1970s but are not in the PCL list: Denise Riley, Wendy Mulford, Asa Benveniste, Douglas Oliver, Paul Evans, Thomas A. Clark.

No generation is being described, because some of the poets named were already writing in 1930. The date “1960-74” is not quite right, because it ignores a poetic fringe in the 1950s. Mottram was inclusive but in that way did not identify a generation.

Eric does not identify features which all the 46 had in common. So it is a waste of time asking if any other poets shared these features – and it is logically false to say that “all poets who innovate are similar”. So writing the history of the “British poetry revival” is pointless. This makes it irrelevant to ask whether the “revival” continued after 1974, or whether someone belongs to it. No group was being identified, rather a perimeter of repression and an outlaw economy. If there is a lack of vocabulary for describing the “alternative wing” of British poetry over the last 45 years, that is hardly Eric’s fault. I doubt that one can speak of a tradition of the alternative, as opposed to spontaneous rejection of the conventional and ‘accessible’ poetry, affecting young poets persistently, so many people every year. I doubt that “everything which diverges then converges”. There are people who believe in the legacy and moreover that they can decide who is legitimately innovative and so on. This redefines innovation as property and themselves as the administrators of it. These claims are simply not credible. There are good reasons for scrapping the idea of legacy, of tradition, legitimacy, etc. as applied to the alternative sector.

Mottram’s essays of the Seventies were a breakthrough, at least for me (when I found them, 10 to 15 years late). But we have to allude to three omissions. First, he omits WS Graham. I have no idea why this is. Then, he omits JH Prynne. I guess this was jealousy – Prynne was a close friend and collaborator of Olson and Eric wanted to own the “Olson franchise”. Thirdly, he only lists one woman poet. This reflects Eric’s personal sensibility. No-one today finds his results on this repeatable. It is likely to be true that women were more attracted to the centre of events than to the periphery (and the “hermit/ recluse/ pioneer” role), and that the feminist cause persuaded poets to migrate to a cultural centre of events, where they could reach a large number of people and change the consensus. But feminism was part of “radical modernism” in 1974, possibly even the most important part. It was a critique of everything – making other lines of cultural critique look narrow in scope. Feminist poetry was going through an experimental phase in the early and mid-Seventies but it was quite possible to find significant women poets by 1977. Nicki Jackowska, Denise Riley, Penelope Shuttle, and Judith Kazantzis are examples. That 45:1 ratio is a disaster, I don't want to make any bones about it. Eric's cultural imagination just wasn't turned on by women (a few exceptions like Niedecker don't sew this back up). Eric was being authentic in verbalising feelings he actually had, but "authentic" can also mean blundering and unenlightened. I mean, if bypassing women poets is "authentic" then being a conservative who dislikes disturbing and innovative poetry is also "authentic". You can't define literary standards as being something internal to you - a process of debate and dialectic rightly follows that pristine and selfish experience of a poem.
Also - Matthias included George MacBeth but Eric removed that name from his PCL catalogue. Actually, MacBeth produced some terrific poetry during the 1970s and was an experimental poet. 

Mottram’s 1974 catalogue focusses on the business side: his interest is in autonomy, as part of a wider anti-capitalism and of a moment when there was an alternative everything. This replaces stylistic analysis. A key was certainly the overthrow of the system of cultural legitimation; hard as it is to recover this “soft” mechanism, a withdrawal of belief in cultural gatekeepers, a downturn in feelings of anxiety, marginality, and inadequacy, and a surging belief in the alternative and even rejected, must be part of the reason for a much greater number of people writing poetry seriously. Critics who decide at the outset that only books from major publishers need to be considered could not and cannot grasp the scene in the Seventies. However, dizzying as this expansion of activity is, we have to recall that the autonomous (or non-commercial, or zero-capitalisation) sector was not itself dominated by innovative poetry. If you are dredging up several hundred little magazines, you soon realise that most of them (90%?) were publishing poets who were quite conventional (as well as untalented); most people who wanted to write poetry weren’t skilled enough to be radical in style. I don’t want to be pedantic, but the implication that people who were working at a High Street publisher or magazine (or bookshop!) were necessarily stiff-necked and conservative is wrong; the Penguin Modern Poets series was the most important disseminator of the new poetry, and as it reached 80 poets (eventually) it hammered home the message that poetry was happening in a hundred places. (It didn't include the most famous poets, probably they just cost too much. The series was in the shops at 3/6 a volume, the only poetry books that a schoolboy was likely to buy.) I believe Tony Richardson ran the PMP series (and left after number 12 to start Paladin).

One generalisation would be that “from 1968 to 1980, talented young poets joined the alternative sector rather than the mainstream”. This would point to a gap in the history of the mainstream, a physical interruption. But no generalisations are fool-proof. In the 70s, we certainly have to reckon with Jeffrey Wainwright, David Harsent, and George Szirtes, gifted poets starting out but not swept away by “alternative” allures. I think the mainstream was in trouble (and that serious changes resolved this problem in the 1980s). 

I definitely haven’t mentioned all the people who wrote significant poetry during the 1970s, but I have set down some 80 names, so that’s enough for the moment. I feel that it is now possible to discuss the period as a whole. This is the result of prolonged effort by a number of people in wading through works straight off the photocopier that nobody reviewed when they came out (quite apart from shops refusing them shelf space). It has been a collective project. I’m not sure what the implications of this take-over by the obscurophiles and darkness lovers are, but we can recover the Seventies now – the goods are all there. That environmental quality, of unrestricted amounts of good work coming out to no fanfare, probably applies to the whole period since 1980 – it was something we were trying to get used to in the Seventies.
This only emerged after years of thinking about everything else, but by starting the “revival” in 1960 Eric wrote off the small avant garde of the 1950s, which I think deserves remembering. The fact that Poetry Review, or the universities, were promoting conservatism does not drag the Fifties to the side of the road and kill them off! So where Eric starts off his list with Bunting, MacDiarmid, and Jones, these were obviously thriving in the Fifties and didn’t suddenly come to life in 1960. Similarly for Tomlinson, Logue and Edwin Morgan. WS Graham doesn’t even get into the list. Concrete poetry was anti-linguistic but international, for that very reason Bob Cobbing (born 1920) was probably bashing away at Concrete, even if it’s hard to trace anything being published before the 1960s. Those objects (?) are scarce, were scarce even then. It’s true that, if you had searched bookshops, you wouldn’t have seen any books by these people. They were pretty marginal in the retail world. But, there is another point here. These poets were absolutely on the edge of the cultural world, well into the area where originality is redefined as eccentricity (and then low grasp of social reality and intellectual error). It’s too much to have them oppressed by the managers at the time and then written off again by the managers in the 1970s (or in 2020). We have to applaud their endeavours and support their defiance. We have just mentioned ten significant writers who were doing the avant garde thing in the 1950s. This is really too many to just be swept under the carpet to create an effect.
Obviously, there is another count, of people who would have been undertaking significant creative endeavours but were discouraged from doing anything serious by a cultural chill, the prevailing conformist atmosphere of the high Cold War. Eric Mottram is probably on this list.
Another point lost by the dating of the revival as a thing that started in 1960, like a train, is that Concrete poetry had two peaks, one after 1953 when Gomringer got it going, and one about 1972. I think there was a revolutionary feeling about the second outbreak, as if they had forgotten that Concrete internationally was a prominent feature of the 1950s (and a target for conservative culture critics). It’s a question of where you decide to point the camera.

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