Saturday, 24 April 2021

Volumes of publication

Let me comment on some work not included in my book about poetry in the Seventies, about overall volumes of publication and fluctuations in the intensity of publication.
If we take 3 years in the 70s, we have figures for the percentage of titles written by women, as follows: 1970, 24.1%; 1975, 19.0%; 1978, 22.6%. This does not support the narrative which we have accepted from other sources, of feminism starting in a minimal way in 1970, facing difficulties, and making good progress through the decade by putting forward undeniable arguments. We can move away from the numbers to suggest some speculative interpretations. To start with the growth of poetry from 1960 on was based on the growth in the number of graduates (to include current students). This correlation works in the long term. But, there were far more male than female students, even in the 1970s. So, if 80% of undergraduates are male, a growth in student numbers also means a growth in numbers of male poets. This is what we are seeing in 1975 or so – “male former students” from the cohort of 1960 on are writing poetry, and this effect is dominant in the figures we have for the 1970s. This does not mean that feminism is making no progress, or even that the poetry world is resisting feminism. There was a shift in the attitude of girl school pupils, such that they moved over to a belief in having a career, and so in getting a degree, and so they became more academically focussed at the age of, say, 14 to 18. 15 year olds changed their attitudes and change in the structure of student populations followed. This is feminism as a demographic, macro-economic event.
For three successive years, we have exact figures for the total number of titles published. Figures for these three years (between 1976 and 1978) are 770, 906, 709. The growth since 1970 is impressive. The short-term fluctuations are also impressive. It is hard to explain why the industry should be so unstable. As a comforting narrative, we could guess that figures were going down, in 1978, because of a wave of cultural pessimism, a loss of belief in the new ideas, which also led to the victory of Thatcher in April 1979. Culture and politics are different, but there may be a “national mood” which affects both of them. Another explanation would have to do with inflation – the cost of paper and printing was going up very steeply and, arguably, people buying books weren’t accepting of prices going up by 400% – a case of “perceptual lag”. It was easier to scale down the issue of new titles and wait for better times. If you remember the days of inflation, everyone had the idea that they could “pass on” the cost increases to someone else – but consumers were at the end of this line and they always had the power to say “no”.

These figures do not invalidate the long-term effect of the growth in the number of graduates, but they show short-term fluctuations which are not in time with that – we have to posit ups and downs which we can probably name as the effect of enthusiasm, the overall temperature of the market.
There is some consensus about a shift in cultural attitudes around 1965 – the moment of “swinging London”. That was a splash in a small group, geographically in London and involved with fashion and the media. This group is influential, and when we see sharp growths in poetry in the mid-70s, this is still probably the effect of a “long wave” rolling out from that moment in 1965. There is still the effect that if you have five times as many graduates you have five times as many people ready to commit their energies to poetry. This is the demographic aspect and the sense of liberation provides the content for the new culture. It seems likely that the Seventies saw important shifts in the cultural attitudes of women which were hard work and which formed the basis for a blossoming of women’s poetry in the Eighties. Certainly we can point to new women poets in the Seventies, such as Denise Riley, Nicki Jackowska, and Judith Kazantzis.
If we look at Lucie-Smith's classic anthology of 1970, British Poetry since 1945, we can count six women poets in 86 names. This is about 7%, and there is an obvious gap between this and the 24% which was the share of women in all the (roughly 400) titles which came out in that year. This is accompanied by an interpretative gap – we can guess what the reasons are, but the guesses are much less solid than the counts. The reasons may relate to factors in the upbringing of the poets, which for poets born roughly between 1920 and 1945 would relate to “formative years” between roughly 1925 and 1960. One explanation might be that Lucie-Smith is looking for culturally impressive poems, to fill a showcase, whereas a significant portion of mid-century women poets went for conservative, lyrical, and unambitious poems – logical behaviour for the dominated sector of a society. Thus feminism was faced with two tasks, of persuading men that domination was not a position they could defend in the long term, and of persuading (adult) women to change their attitudes towards many aspects of femininity, including the composition of graceful and forgettable poems. Is this enough to account for the 17% gap which we mentioned? (Another interesting gap is between 24% of poetry books being issued and the level of women in the adult population, roughly 52%.) Lucie-Smith’s position is complemented by Eric Mottram's statement on the ”British Poetry Revival 1960-74” where he lists 36 poets of which exactly one is a woman – less than 3%. This is an alarming figure, but may also give insight into the question of “dominant” behaviour – evidently the intellectual and innovative sector in poetry is correlated with the most autonomous and intellectual parts of society, one kind of dominance in fact. Of course this kind of poetry may not be popular, of course there are many analogies one could bring to bear, but it remains true that the innovators align themselves with the parts of society which lead, and which ignore inherited authority to think for themselves. This lets us return to the postulate that mid-century women poets were mainly conservative, dependent, personal, and lyrical – attitudes consonant with being dominated and with being conformist and well-behaved.
Another explanation would, of course, be that Lucie-Smith had missed several excellent women poets, so that his proportions are out of proportion. I am tempted to list the women poets he left out, we would all enjoy this, but if you also start listing all the male poets he left out then it is not clear that this operation really changes the demographics. Maybe if you step the list up from 86 to 200, the female share is still 7%.
The narratives I have overlaid on the figures are not wholly convincing. It is much more accurate to deal with poets one by one – where they write the story for us. Facing the overall shape is more of a struggle – it is hard to resist, though. Analysing the behaviour of 5000 people is not necessarily more accurate than analysing the behaviour of one person.
In the 1970s, the feminists are much more important than publication figures would suggest. So cultural critique is central - it is much more what we are writing history about than poems about birdsong and landscapes. The question of how society is going to change is the most significant question – although of course if you start to answer it you are claiming to be more intelligent and powerful than other people. If abstract ideas about changes that have yet to come are the core thing, the power generating station, why do we hear so much about empiricism? My guess is that writing about empirical facts makes the poem much less interesting. Reviewers are constantly asking young poets to write empirically as a way of persuading them to write unimportant poems. This is a contest over status. Feminism was important because it wasn't empirical, it was a line of radical cultural criticism.

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