Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Roddy Lumsden (1966-2020)

Roddy Lumsden (1966-2020)
I was saddened to hear of the death of Roddy Lumsden, in January this year. He was 53. One obituary speaks of cirrhosis of the liver, so this may have been a consequence of the traditional Scottish diet. He said in interview that he had read 350 books to compile Identity Parade (his 2010 anthology of debuts roughly from 1993 on) so the combination of workaholism and this may give us something of the tune. Both speak of excess, of a refusal to believe that the cave stretching under the sea doesn't come out into daylight at the other end.

He has been described as a “trivia genius” and seems to have had a passion for quizzes and puzzles. Possibly this began with a kind of pub games machine that asked you quiz questions and would actually pay out money if you got enough of them right. This was possibly a source of funding for many unemployed autodidacts in the era of Thatcherism, when nobody had a job. Anyway, he published a book of obscure quiz questions (Vitamin Q: a temple of trivia lists and curious words) and may have derived income from quiz questions throughout his career. Inspector Rebus began as a puzzle solver– the name means a kind of puzzle (in pictures), and the first Rebus book is ‘Knots and Crosses’, a set of puzzles. I like to think of a pub, in Edinburgh, sometime in the 70s, when Lumsden and Rebus took part in the same pub quiz.

He is said to have published ten books of poems, although to be honest I haven't read any of them.

I was impressed by Identity Parade and wanted to interview Lumsden for our magazine, Angel Exhaust. My co-editor, Charles Bainbridge, was against it, on the grounds that Lumsden would be too cautious to say anything useful. I expect that is right, based on the prose in IP. IP describes Lucie-Smith's 1970 anthology of British Poetry since 1945 in the introduction. This sets the bar incredibly high, but does tacitly make the point that IP was the first anthology since Lucie-Smith to undertake a survey of the entire span of British poetry. It exposes a problem, that Lucie-Smith wrote pieces of incredibly focused prose about each of 86 poets (one more than Identity Parade) and Lumsden was unable to do that – his little intros say what the poet wants to hear about themselves but don’t start on classification and description. He says that "this may be the generation least driven by movements, fashions, conceptual and stylistic sharing", but this may really mean that there are lots of conventions but he is not analytical enough to identify them and write them down. This is "hegemony". It is conventional to judge writers by the quality of their critique – Lumsden didn’t have a critique. However, it is also possible to say that poets want warmth and softness. How bad is that – a kind editor who doesn’t try to separate poets on the basis of the size of their talent! Some social media postings refer to him “influencing hundreds of poets”; that is unlikely, and may mean “interacted in workshops with hundreds of poets”, but it points to the value of being nice to people. It may be we should set Lumsden down as “a great workshop convener”, and although that is novel language it may be the truth in this case. Lucie-Smith was the convener of “The Group”, a prototype workshop in the 1960s where the poets actually criticised each other. I think generous enthusiasm is all people aspire to in the modern convention, although that is probably not going to make you a better poet. The face to face world is essentially different from the world of thought, but it is necessary to the poetic process. There are people who are self-aware enough to listen to articulate criticism of their poems and turn it round and write better poems in the following years, but I think a lot of people are not so rational at all and the value to them of hearing criticism is questionable. A lot of sensitive people have high anxiety levels and anything which reduces their anxiety, soft words for example, will open up the way for them to write more poems.

He speaks of the two traditions (“Within IP, the reader will find poems from both the conventional and innovative styles, and which take their influence from both traditions at once”). Two? Lucie-Smith divides his poets into ten sections. This is probably more productive – two may not be the right number. L-S throws his poets into their projects – exposing the risk and artificiality of what each one is doing, the need to create artificial rules in order to create original poetry. Naturally failure is an aspect of these bold and fragile worlds. Lumsden bypasses all that. I am not convinced that he understood the “alternative tradition”, but my suspicion is that it takes many years to reach that understanding, partly because the language around it is so cryptic and hostile and unhelpful, and that the critics who do come to understand it do so by neglecting every other part of the spectrum.

An anthology called the Salt book of younger poets is possibly even better than Identity Parade. Note that he did the one based on reading 350 books in 2010 and this set of 50 poets, none of whom had a book out, the year after. This is a high work rate (SYP was co-edited with Eloise Stonborough, so maybe she did most of the work. OK, I don't have a view on that. But it still looks like two major anthologies in two years.) Finding poets who haven’t done a book means diving into a pathless underworld of little magazines, student websites, unpublished typescripts, rejected typescripts… it is heroic. Anyone willing to swim in that river, most of which is work so bad it deserves to be lost, is stalwart. Like Rebus in Niddrie.

The introduction to IP says that the “field”, of debuts between 1993 and about 2009, was a thousand names. This is accurate. Reading 350 books was already selective! I think you have to deal with this by saying "anybody I have never read may be Utterly Brilliant". Nothing else will do.

The same introduction says that the characteristic of the poetry under consideration is "the self-exploration of individualism", and that very little of it was political. I think this is problematic as a characterisation of poets born in the 1960s (this is roughly what the field is) and the truth is that “pluralism” (p.20) has no descriptive power at all. All the same, diversity is the right diagnosis. Some people are less diverse than others. The idea that everyone is excitedly exploring is belied by the contents, where most of the poets are very similar and clearly wary of originality, as an enemy of empathy and group solidarity. It is vital that Lumsden includes genuinely diverse poets, like Helen Macdonald and DS Marriott. As for politics, my guess is that he is expressing what he loves and believes in even as he is denying what the poets are interested in. So, it is not plausible that all the poets who write poems about feminism or the need for Green policies were apolitical: “Overall, political poetry has been scarce since then [1993], and much of it is ineffective, unconvincing.” I mean, the green thing involves the end of profits for most corporations, the end of fossil fuels, the end of aviation and private cars – it is anti-capitalist and you just can’t see this as apolitical. Feminism too, is asking for a change of every cell of society. And you probably couldn't find even one female poet who would admit to not being a feminist. But opinions are divisive, and Lumsden is trying to isolate a feeling of togetherness by effacing differences. This is really a consistent strategy, not an omission. He is more interested in the poet's feelings than in what they have feelings about. As for the poet descriptions in IP, they do give the titles of publication and how the poets want to be seen, and that takes them a long way. No critique, no analysis – that leaves a whole range of other cognitive tactics. Maybe Lumsden could read 350 books (without going completely numb) because he was genuinely fascinated by (mediocre?) poets and willing to open up to every new poet, however many times he had been disappointed.

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