Thursday, 29 July 2021

Did the counter-culture end?

I found some notes (from 1994 maybe?) on Martin Booth’s Driving Through the Barricades. It is a history of British poetry from 1964 to 1984. I didn’t reproduce Booth’s argument in my book on the 70s because I regard his book as necessary – I don’t need to repeat it. His story focuses on live performances – they were what made poetry writing come back to life, so that written poetry became interesting again. Small magazines amplified this because they had a very quick turn-round and were super open to new work – they were “almost live”, and dialogic, and social. So he has a vast network of readings sites as his subject, and he describes many of them, and the kind of person who would go there. He must have been giving dozens of readings himself, exciting experiences which make you hypersensitive to audience mood. He describes a boom. Things were good. He wanders the land being applauded. More than that, he applauds the audience. He’s right. But he has a tragic view of this: Booth refers to "the end of the exciting era from approximately 1964 to 1974" and, "In Britain, poetry has gone from being largely sterile to immensely virile and has returned to sterility within a decade and a half." - that would cover 1964 to 1979. “It [Second Aeon] stopped and the decline and rot set into British verse soon after. It is justified to feel that the demise of Finch's astounding enterprise led to the slowdown of the art.” Finch probably was the most talented editor of the entire period. This shift took place in early 1974. Crucially, the readings circuit collapsed in the mid-70s. And, there is a 1974 MacSweeney interview where he also discusses the collapse of the readings circuit as an established fact.
I have a feeling that Booth regarded what he saw and heard as being History Itself. But, every Friday night when he was at a reading getting into the ambience, there were a dozen other readings happening elsewhere which he wasn't at. So he wasn’t seeing history. But, other people may also have mistaken their direct experience for being the whole story, over the whole country. We can’t use their results. My feel is that there was a collapse. But, this represents someone getting high in the foreglow of a future of total liberation, the overflow of equity, self-expression, personal relations. It was actually too much. But a high is followed by a comedown – a physical necessity. The bigger the high, the bigger the comedown. But I don’t think this happened simultaneously to everybody, in every city, on the banks of every river. I think getting politicised, or getting poeticised, was like falling in love – people were falling into it all the time. Everyone is 18 once and there are always more 18 year olds coming along, with stars in their eyes. The Comedown is one of the big stories of the Seventies– but it didn’t happen in a particular month. If you list publications coming out year by year, there is no halt point. It never took place.
I think Booth’s own career may have hit a ceiling – not crashed and burnt, just hit a ceiling. He couldn't get a deal with a major publisher. And he began writing much less.
If you look at the row at the Poetry Society in the first months of 1977, this is three years after Booth says the scene had crashed into the kerb. So it may be that the row, with Eric losing his job as editor of Poetry Review, 14 people resigning from the Poetry Society committee, was not a significant moment. It was emotional for those 15 people and some more who were their entourage, their supporters and advisers, but it probably came in a cultural depression which was already at full bore, and it probably didn’t change the situation for poets or audiences everywhere else – except at the fatal Earls Court building. Conflict around one magazine does not scale up into a historical turning point. Not when you can count 200 magazines.
Did it all go wrong at that point? Well, possibly it didn’t all go wrong at any point. I have yet to hear someone say that their ability to work collapsed after March 1977. So I am waiting for evidence that anybody’s work collapsed. And if the work kept on pouring out, what was there to complain about? that the Arts Council doesn't love you?
I think we are looking at this the wrong way. We argue about “when did the counter culture stop” because many right-wing journalists have declared that as an event. It used to be so great but now it’s just drug-taking. Etc. etc. This is quite like “you don't need feminism any more” or “you don’t need affirmative action any more”. Probably we should accept that the counter-culture never stopped, look away from the internal position, and look at the pressure being put on it from outside. That is what you can date, I suspect. Or, "there was a poetic avant garde in the Sixties but it stopped". Did it?
I find it hard to evaluate Booth’s poetry. He did get a full-scale book out with Bloodaxe in 1983 – but then he wasn’t included in their flagship anthology, Poetry with an Edge. (At least the edition I have.) So he had a gift but something went wrong. I read several of his books for ‘Suppressed’ but I didn’t think he had got there. I am sure he did lots of readings, but the problem with them may be that he simplified poems to make maximum impact in the live situation, so that the work seems shallow and obvious on the page. It is almost terrific, yes. He also writes prose as if history were what he personally experienced. It's exciting because he was always there whenever anything significant happened, and he always knows the story. But if you look for what he didn't see, face to face, he doesn't want to tell you about it. So when he says poetry fell apart in 1974, I don't buy it.

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