Wednesday, 29 July 2020

depolarisation, 3: Tim Allen! Jeremy Hilton!

Depolarisation (3). Allen! Hilton!

I was enthusiastic about the depolarisation project in around 2002. 18 years later, no-one else has got involved in it, to my knowledge, so I don’t think we can still see it as charged up with high potential. Incidentally, my personal contacts with poets from the mainstream or other factions except the old “Underground”, have been minimal. Correspondence with one notably mainstream poet was an exception, rewarding though it was from many angles. I am sorry that writing ‘Council of Heresy’ didn’t bring any response from people eager to advance the depolarising project. I should note that much of my knowledge of poetry came from people who were never polarised, for example Peter Porter (whose reviews I didn’t appreciate properly until I read through them all in an on-line newspaper archive, sometime in 2020), and Edward Lucie-Smith, whose 1970 anthology was an education to me. More recently, magazines like Terrible Work (Tim Allen) and Fire (Jeremy Hilton) were firmly anti-polar and provided a whole stream of new poetry, unfiltered. This was healing the waters, and it certainly did a lot for me. (Did Steve Spence co-edit T Work? I can’t recall at this point.) Terrible Work from Plymouth and Fire from somewhere near Worcester. I am not sure that the polar split was operative until about 1972, things just seemed to get a lot more tense around then, and people became more high-handed. It was connected with the generation gap, and with academics being paranoid about their students’ attitudes and lack of respect, but it wasn’t a reproduction of that, more a sort of side-slip of certain energies.

The key moment in my project on British poetry 1960-97 (the Blair-era Grand Project, or BGP) was realising that mainstream poets were just as oppressed by the mainstream gatekeepers as the Underground poets. I had assumed that the business presented the best poets for public consumption, and that poets who offered no difficulties to a reader were going to get fair treatment. But no, the people in charge are arbitrary and not especially honest. So any number of gifted conventional poets are more or less invisible and needed research effort to locate them. (The problem was also that anthologies can focus on new poets, so that if someone has a long career then they will not appear as new poets and may be only in older anthologies, from previous decades. The retailing world wants new poets, all the time.) So the work I had done reading “showcase” anthologies was inadequate, you have to venture well beyond the showcases. This was beneficial, it did me good, but I had to add an extra volume to my project – The Long 1950s, covering poets who had not gone along with the key innovations of the 1960s. Innovations are not compulsory. I was irritated that the history of the mainstream was so neglected – big surprise. So, anyway, between roughly 2002 and 2010 I went through a long course in depolarisation.
While doing that, I was focussed on mainstream books, especially obscure ones, because that was where I could score wins. A question of search patterns – my search pattern was leading me to ignore anything Underground. Strange how powerful those patterns are! It’s all a kind of collectors’ game, where most assets don’t win you any points, but you get points by finding the ones which fulfil the pattern. It’s like searching a second-hand bookshop to find crucial books whose names you don’t know. I was pretty happy doing this. Admittedly, after a few years I hadn't really got anywhere, but I won in the end. “Depolarising means reading poetry you dislike all the time” – not quite that simple, comrades!
Writing about poets in the conventional realm, when you have a reputation for being an advocate of the Underground (which amounts to calling someone a Mafia lawyer in some circles), has a credibility problem – why would anyone take opinions about conventional poets from you? This brings us to the problem of consensus. Clearly, if you write criticism in any extended way, you believe that you are speaking for other people and expressing a consensus; even if it isn’t the consensus in 1992 it may be by 2010. I am presenting myself as a depolarised critic, someone who has completed the course and who can speak to all factions. This is where I want to be. Of course, it means I fail several kinds of loyalty test.
The title “Council of heresy” refers to a desire to find a zone of critical orthodoxy, a set of points which unifies the most people and allows the most discussion to take place before dialogue breaks down in mutual delegitimation. The wish to stand on consensual ground is risky if there is no such ground. If there is nothing that people agree about, then you can't take a stand on that shared ground, to get your verticals and horizontals. A starting-point for my BGP was an email from John Hartley Williams looking at two anthologies of recent poetry, released at more or less the same time, which had dozens of poets but no overlaps. This just brings us back to the problem of polarisation. Do we have to address it? and, if so, how can we do that if not by getting into depolarisation?

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