Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Depolarisation, 1

This is a revisit to an old theme. I more or less staked the farm on depolarisation – it was the theme of two books I wrote, The council of heresy (2009) and The long 1950s (2012). The response from the hypersensitive poetry market was less “now we see!” than “you didn’t just say that so don’t pretend you did”.

If you say “people’s taste is scattered over a vast landscape”, that sounds great, but if you then say “I do a reading in some town and most of the audience dislike the way I go about a line or a poem”, that is what the scattering actually means and that doesn’t sound so great. I am willing to read to a hostile audience. I just want to be honest about what is dividing us.
The lecture series Binary Myths (in Exeter, in roughly 1997, and published in two volumes under the same title, while a volume 2 was comments by editors on how to edit) identified the problem of polarisation. The idea was that people crudely divided the poetry world into two parts, the part which likes me and the part which doesn’t. And that individuals seldom read anything outside the area which they, factionally, identified with. This was worse for people who had been polarised for 40 years than for people who had only suffered from it for, say, five years. A corollary is the suggestion that constantly following habits in choosing what to read may lead to a decision-making paradox in which the most pleasurable sensations are to be found by challenging your own orthodoxies. If you have spent 40 years ignoring mainstream poetry, it is likely that the most exciting poetry that you aren’t aware of is hidden within the mainstream. You will find it by discarding your principle of never reading such books – a preference which was once an asset and has become a dogma. Another corollary is that a zone of dry ground from which deviations of taste could be measured is missing. That is, an anthology like “Conductors of Chaos” may in fact represent one extreme of taste, but the claim that it is not central is unprovable unless you can find what the centre is. Editors or historians who span all the factions are needed by the scene, but do not exist just because they are needed. (“We cover all kinds of music – Country and Western.”)

What do we expect from depolarisation? A large number of poets would see it simply as the proportion of the market which favours their own poetry expanding from 2% to 98%. This is banal, and by the way unlikely. It seems like a fantasy project, and is not the right answer. We might mean an abandonment of stylistic research, so that the poets who do not write like everyone else give up and start writing like everyone else, with a convulsive collapse of a differentiated landscape into one without features. This is heavily undesirable. In sum, no one expects the diversity of poetry to decrease, which would be at odds with the whole Western way of life. When we spoke (in Council of heresy) of balkanisation, the problem there was not that poetry has become so much more diverse since 1960, but that groups (or perhaps just vocal individuals?) were spreading disinformation, no doubt as a result of misunderstanding – and of malice. Depolarisation is therefore most significant when we are talking about the instruments which provide access to poetry – for example reviews, publication in books, selection for anthologies, selection for magazines, mention in surveys.
Just behind these, we find a very small number of people, a rather homogeneous group called cultural managers. Few people would disagree that in Britain modernity has been rejected and driven underground in poetry, whereas in visual arts it has strode to the forefront – in the same country, in the same period. Most probably, then, the occlusion of modernity is a debt we owe to the cultural managers. I am arguing that the poetry infrastructure has structural failings. Certainly some people who like modern poetry have also reached managerial positions; the story of how editors were dramatically removed from those positions at Stand, and at Poetry Review (in 1977 and again in 2004) may well explain why the others conform, and the story is the most important one to understand even though it is not in the public domain. I said the managers were homogeneous; this is apparently less because of a shared artistic sensibility than because of the need for alliance with each other. The absence of accountability or media interest in poetry leaves a vacuum in which these alliances become unnaturally important – and the ability of a clique to subvert and exclude deviants such as innovators is unchallenged. When we speak of depolarisation as a force that could shift the landscape, what we usually mean is the collapse of the ability of the conservative cultural managers to exclude anything but the mainstream from visibility in shops or the media. The proposal involves a second stage in which the same people are still in charge but are the cultural officers for a diverse and modern offering of poetic styles – with no more trouble than other officials experience at the Tate Britain or the Whitechapel Gallery. The corollary, of the intellectuals (the “alternative”) reading mainstream poetry, is less important because the intellectuals cannot block the mainstream from access to the market, and never have had such a capability. It is a desirable corollary but would not change the landscape. The further shifts in the multipolar geometry which the end of balkanisation would imply – Scottish poets reading English poetry, to mention one of the unlikely ones – are also desirable, but do not have revolutionary potential. These polarisations are not easily defensible, and should not just be left to rust in place, but they are not as influential.

The binary project is compatible with closing down individual wishes and imposing conformity from above. You don't have to start liking what you dislike. I was very taken with the idea of depolarisation after reading Binary Myths; but in practice a lot of people just wanted to abolish people who disagreed with them! Nobody involved intended to leave their own comfort zone. You can’t get from 20 kinds of poetry down to one kind. That is an illusory goal. The initial drive seemed to resolve into the wish of cultural managers to have a unified market, which meant that people’s preferences had to be invalidated. This was very authoritarian. So if you have someone who goes into a CD shop to buy a jazz CD, it may be that they walk straight past the rock and folk sections, but it’s authoritarian to change the labelling so that they can’t tell what the CD is until they have paid for it, and to deride their wishes. People have preferences and this is the accumulated knowledge of the market; if you try to erase it you are destroying knowledge. If people are wary of unfamiliar poetry, it’s because they have had bad experiences.

(The use of the word balkanisation could be viewed as racist, or geographically biased, but we will leave it in because it is at least a clear concept. If there are twelve factions and any single fact has at least 11 different interpretations and the area of consensus is nil, that is what we mean by balkanisation. This is the term used for the British (or English?) scene by Eric Homberger in 1972, in his classic The Art of the Real. Reading Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans is recommended and we do admit that other Europeans are probably more unrealistic about Balkan politics than Balkan intellectuals, taken as a group. Peter Handke tried to spread cultural understanding of the South Slavs in the West, and people vituperated him pretty thoroughly.)

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