Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The British Poetry Revival - revisited

The British Poetry Revival - revisited

I wrote about the idea of a British Poetry Revival, identified as running from 1960 to 1974, in a post in March 2020. I included a list of all 46 of the poets whom Eric Mottram mentioned in his original definition, in booklets for two weekend conferences, one in 1974 and one in 1977. (The latter was more specifically about “Inheritance Landscape Location”.) It is a fundamental idea for my book (as yet unpublished), “Nothing Is Being Suppressed”. I have an investment in it. And yet -

>>The idea of a British Poetry Revival is now cast in wet cement as proto-dogma: it is a load of old malarkey of course, but you already knew that...<< (from my learned colleague, Kevin Nolan).
What’s more, Peter Riley also claims that they didn't exist. He emailed me to say “At present I am writing a section saying that the “English Poetry Revival” of the 1970s never took place.” I believe this came out in his column in the Fortnightly Review, in 2018. This doesn't match with the chosen period of “1960-74”, and it sounds like he is leaving the Sixties in play because he made a debut in the Sixties.
If you look at the list of 46 poets, it’s clear that there was an overwhelming mass of poetness in that time, 1960-77, and it was even more so if you add 30 or so who came on the radar soon after and also belong with the ”Alternative”. It’s just a fact. It would be easy to pick out the weaker poets. Seems kind of churlish. I concede that there was good poetry a-happening in the 1950s. As for the non-alternative poets, they weren't solid dreariness as Eric thought, and I have given time to explaining how good 70s poems by Peter Levi and Anthony Thwaite were.

After discussion, I think that there may be other reasons why my colleagues who reject the BPR don’t actually reject the idea that there was a huge poetic momentum from 1960 to 1974, that the 46 poets represent a huge mass of vital work, and that they were responsible for large-scale innovations. Or even, that the innovations changed the rules, and that this change was accepted by one legion of poets and rejected by another one, so that the geography of poetry was split, from then on, on those lines. Actually, the disagreement is about something quite different. It relates more to the period after 1977 (for which large-scale generalisations are missing). And, it relates to the sense of inheritance which some younger poets felt – including some, perhaps a few hundred, perhaps only a few dozen, who had very little talent. Like, the idea of Inheritance justified them in being blindingly arrogant. Like, they don't think anyone else exists. Like, it fitted them into a grand narrative in which they were inevitably the winners (and they didn’t have to engage in self-criticism or in wondering how their self-regard translated into the reactions of other people). Like, the idea, of “progressive” poets around 1974, that they were ahead and The Future, mandated a vision which was very different from The Future as it actually manifested, and in which we are all forced to live. We’ll skip the rest. I don't like the genealogy which says “there is a modernist legacy and I own it and this means I'm right all the time even if my name is Lawrence Upton.”

There is another point which Riley makes, that the “alternative” weren't very coherent or self-similar and the mainstream also weren’t very coherent or self-similar, so that you can efface the differences between them and pronounce that there Was No Difference and so the British Poetry Revival never happened. I think this is a failed line of argument dictated by a desired conclusion and not by the evidence. It is clear to me that there was an opposition between the centre of each group, and that this opposition was clearly perceived by observers at the time, and that there are quite a few statements, by anthologising or otherwise, which exclude one of these two groups quite consistently. For example, Faber did four volumes of “Poetry introduction” between 1969 and 1978, showcasing 33 fairly young and unpublished poets, and of those 33 only one is also in Mottram’s list of 46. This level of coherence points to something real. You can't just make it go away. This is so even if you notice that the 33 aren’t interchangeable (and the 46 aren’t either).
I spent last night re-reading Eric’s 1974 statement. The concept is that he is describing something real and outside himself, not being a connoisseur describing personal preferences like a wine critic. So he effaces the fact that the choice of poets reflects his personal feelings. This allows him to leave out the oral poets without comment. No Adrian Mitchell, no Brian Patten. It also leaves open the possibility that the poets he liked were all unconventional but weren't similar to each other. So do all lines which diverge then converge on each other? hardly so. So, I don’t think you can find any set of features which would group all the 46 names together. But you could find four or five different sets of features which would group them into four or five different clusters.
To return (tediously): this does not equate to saying that there was no British Poetry Revival.

I can’t conceptualise that period without the BPR as an organising frame, or ‘dogma’ as Kevin would say.
Peter’s biography is that he is an “alternative” poet who has moved over a long period towards the mainstream. This could attract accusations of compromise, from the Inquisition of “avant garde poetry”. Publication by Carcanet was the climax of this. My feeling is that he moved towards the audience, and this is what artists are supposed to do. He probably has thousands of readers, via Carcanet and shearsman, and they are all happy to read him. His dislike of the BPR concept is part of a much larger cultural critique, which deserves to be read as a whole, when that is possible.

The objections to the “BPR” concept are definitely focussed on the period after 1990, and to the history of arrogance, the charter of entitlement, the stratosphere of self-validation, in that period, and so not on the Seventies. They completely bypass the conservative power block as it existed in 1970, and the obstacles which new-style poetry had to overcome to reach publication or legitimation. It may not be agreeable to remember those guys, but if you want historical accuracy you have to remember them – in detail.

Eric did rope in 7 people who debuted before 1960, which is kind of stupid if you think poetry was dead in 1960. But, a re-reading of his 1974 text shows that he associates ‘revival’ with ‘performance’ - the ‘viv’ bit of the word comes from live, live readings. There was a boom in poetry readings in the Sixties. He isn’t saying that poetry was dead and had to be brought back to life.
Noticeably, Eric left out WS Graham and JH Prynne. It’s striking that out of 46 names only one is female — OK, it’s fascinating to critique that inclusion list, but that just underlines how compelling the whole configuration is, how robust the generalisations. I can see that that Faber series picked up Jeffrey Wainwright, George Szirtes, Jeremy Hooker, and David Harsent – poets whose work I admire. See this blog for the details. Another email (I will leave this one anonymous) says “On the other hand, I think Peter’s gist is that the monolithic, quasi-academic notion of “progress” — i.e. one single line from A to Z with markers along the way — is also untenable. It’s untenable in the mainstream, which has a habit of leaving out swathes of good poets who don’t fit the preferred narrative; and EXACTLY the same thing happens in the Alternative scene for (these days) very similar reasons. I’d argue that there’s a bit more of a factor of being “hip”, being part of the in-crowd, with the Alternatives, though I see similar things in the mainstream.” The mainstream is a large landscape in which paths are replaced by dishonest and factional publicity releases. Certainly it produces good poets, and certainly you have to take a hike to find them. The mainstream is much stronger than I thought in 1992.

Eric didn’t like women artists very much. Or the 1950s. He was a gay guy in the 1950s, it’s a familiar story. He was in revolt. He was a very clever guy, he found vehicles for his feelings – the American avant garde and the new wave of British poetry. He built these very elaborate structures which were simultaneously part of his inner world and part of the outer world. Brilliant, really. Maybe he went too far. Actually, a lot of those poets were brilliant, too.

I heard a rumour that Ken Smith disliked all the BPR poets except Pickard and Nuttall. And himself, of course. Irrespective, there was still a Critical Momentum of Pure Poet Power. I wrote that Ken Smith thing down because it seemed so screwed up. There was a pattern. Smith missed it. He wasn’t in tune with other people in Eric’s generous category. But I don't think that disproves the existence of the group. It just shows where the lines are. In around 1980, Astley was Ken Smith’s biggest fan, and it is quite likely that he talked to Smith & Smith said, forget about the poets Mottram likes, they’re too abstract and up in the air. And that is where Bloodaxe found its direction. There is a link with Jon Silkin and Stand, which Smith co-edited, there is a line which goes back to Leeds and the 1950s and Silkin, and that is the prehistory of Bloodaxe. (I spent a day in Leeds at the launch event for Smith’s Collected. It was very interesting what people said about local poetic memories.) I’m not sure this is all true, it’s a reconstruction.

The question of “female poets of the 1970s” needs a lot more work. My guess at this point is that Eric’s idea of originality involved being a follower of Olson, having modernist legitimacy – so in fact inheritance was a key factor, which must reduce originality by most reckonings. He would have had to redefine his ideas of legitimacy to include women poets – who were certainly around by 1977, if less so in 1974. Anyone coming back, in 2020 or later, is going to have to undertake that re-definition. The flip side is that radical female intellectuals who had an interest in literature were likely to regard Olson and the Black Mountain colony as ridiculous and pointless and embracing unpopularity. It would follow that they were also less likely to be excited by Mottram’s roster of New Poets and by the social / ideological atmosphere around them. This is a vital critique of the BPR, not a mode of failure. If you could wander through that weekend event in 1974, you would probably have found that 80% of the audience were male. So where were the women? Elsewhere. I think that thematic title of inheritance and landscape bears re-analysis – because men and women understand those two institutions in quite different ways.
There are critiques to be made of the BPR from possibly six different directions, and these critiques would be of great interest. However, you can only get into all that if you initially accept that the British Poetry Revival was a reality.

I have just done a very slow reading of Mottram’s 1974 text. He is reluctant to describe the poetry he favours. He attacks Anthony Thwaite’s essay, published a few weeks earlier in 1974, about “The Two Poetries”, which is more confident about describing the two areas, as he sees them. Eric frequently describes the established poetics, the kind he dislikes, as being restrictive, authoritarian, rigid, etc. It must follow that he regards the poetry he likes as overflowing set forms, that he sees it as being spontaneous as opposed to regularising the poem by reference to the concepts of other people, and to settled artistic or behavioural norms. He sees the staff of publishers as imposing control, and feels that this inevitably imposes restrictions on poetry, and that good poetry happens in the alternative sector because it lacks such structures. If we look at Thwaite, he describes one of the two poetries as being reflexive, academic, based on close reading; and the other as spontaneous, unreflected, immediate. There is clearly a deep resemblance between what he says and what Mottram says. I don’t think Mottram's attack on him is well founded. I must say I found Thwaite's essay quite brilliant.
Where you have poetry which is austere, elaborately composed, intellectual, recording complex intellectual processes, it is unreasonable to apply the word “spontaneous” to it. It is also unhelpful. You can say that any poem which breaches conventions, traditions, and norms is breaking inhibitions. That does not also mean that it is unreflected – that it is the product of a first draft rather than an eighth draft. “Inhibited” is not a useful adjective here.
another interesting email "He’s been kicking against the traces for a while over the pieties of the English alternative scene (and it is  English, isn’t it? it’s not really a BPR….), and I think he may be disappearing too far down the track. Correctives need to be applied to some of those pieties and unchallenged assumptions. The BPR was after all something of an embattled club, in some cases deliberately embattled by a refusal to engage sensibly with anyone outside its self-appointed boundaries. Some people inside the club are over-rated, without doubt, but most of the significant figures are in print and have substantial retrospective volumes of their work." 

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