Saturday, 31 July 2021

What was Alternative poetry?

What was Alternative poetry?

The start point is a claim in Bloodaxe jacket blurbs that Ken Smith was “the godfather of the new poetry”. That obviously involves a belief about what the “new poetry” (of the 1970s and 1980s?) was.

The Association of Little Presses used to produce a Small Press Directory, and we had access to a copy of the issue for 1997. This lists all the publications of publishers who were members of the Association, and has the advantage of listing them in author order (as well as publisher order).
I photocopied half of the list to use as sample data. Crude total, for the whole list, is 1400 authors. Going through it entry by entry, to eliminate prose works, yields a projected total for poets of 530. Apparently, this is the total of poets active in the small press area – and can be used as a proxy indicator for the level of activity in the 1980s.
Great! But, a closer look at this data shows alarming problems. For example, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, and Arc were members of the ALP and some of their books are listed. It is difficult to see these books as Underground. In fact, Peterloo Press were also members – a publisher so conservative they made Poetry Review look modernistic. So the figure of 530 is unusable. So the list is not usable without further checks. Would this mean scrutinising authors one by one? Well, yes, but who on earth is going to scan those 530 people? The goal seems to be rushing away from us, but in fact the list does contain the names of 200 to 300 poets who can be seen as summing up the underground of that time.
The real count may be much higher. I suspect that quite a few micro-publishers were so small and anti-capitalist that filling in a questionnaire and writing a letter to join the ALP were not within their realm of activity. Ulli Freer’s set-up, Microbrigade, would be an example. Or Open Township. People who put out half a dozen pamphlets and moved on probably didn’t join the ALP.
The ALP catalogue was an attempt to sell poetry by post, to even up the odds. By definition, the Underground produced poetry which was unacceptable to the media and the retail world. It circulated more or less hand to hand. Its signal was weak. So it was likely that someone in (say) London would miss what was happening in Cambridge. The poets who are genuinely alternative are disparate. There were many of them and they were in many parts of the country. I suspect that the idea that they formed an organism in some way, or that they were visible to each other, is a retrospective projection. Only the diversity is genuine. It is clear that the “small press” world includes poetry of low quality, bumbling hedge-poets, grumpy old codgers, firms working as a sort of cottage industry which finds the modern world threatening. So, the professionals habitually write the sector off as being a haven for poets not good enough for commercial publishers. This judgement has also been applied to “alternative” poetry – because it lives in the small press world, it must be part of that amateurism and inability to produce for a market.
There is another figure, for the total of alternative poets over the history of the sector. I don’t have a way of making a list, but I guess 500 would be in the right ball-park.
I wanted to exclude Bloodaxe poets as being evidently conventional and non-alternative, but that offers us an argument, about the question “was Bloodaxe the future of the underground?” I can see that Simon Armitage (published by Slow Dancer) is not “alternative”, but the question is more difficult for quite a few poets. The blurred area is possibly larger than the clear area. Actually, in the opinion of the time Bloodaxe could well have been seen as Alternative poetry – anti-literary poets could be seen as a protest against educated poets, especially if they were anti-southern.
If we go back to Mottram's catalogue of the British Poetry Revival, he gives a fabulous list of poets in the New Poetry, at 1974. He omits Patten, Henri, and McGough. This was a key decision and was almost a protest against accepted opinion – at the time, the Pop poets were seen as a revolt against literary poetry, and wider opinion did not distinguish between Pop and the Underground.
If you dip into Bloodaxe propaganda, you see an image of what happened in the Sixties whereby it was the end of literary poetry and of the old middle class (and of reticence), where performance became pre-eminent over private reading and the immediate present became more important in poetry than learning and stored generalisations. This probably is what happened in the Sixties. However, there was also the acceptance that poetry could be about Ideas, the arrival of the New Avant Garde, the rise of higher education which meant that poets were expected to be intellectuals. All of this was happening. It is apparent that, in the 1970s, there was a split in the original unity of Sixties Poetry, and of the youth culture which produced it, such that pop poetry split off from intelligent poetry, and they became two different worlds. Bloodaxe only took on one of these. Elsewhere, you can see Mottram's definition of the British Poetry Revival, those 36 poets he listed, as being a way of making that split happen. He was defining a separate territory. The exclusion of the Liverpool poets from the poetry revival of the 1960s is almost incredible.
Mottram did include Jim Burns – it looks like a mistake but it also allows us to think about where he drew the exclusion line. Burns’ poetry probably worked when delivered live but looks insignificant on the page. It has a sort of dry wit. He was a jazz fan but his poetry avoids any of the innovation or improvisation which that might suggest. It was similar to a great number of poets who did readings in the Sixties – he was less romantic, more pessimistic, than most. His pessimism about the possibilities of poetry is the striking quality. Anyway, it is difficult to claim that Simon Armitage was “conventional” if you are already claiming that Jim Burns was “alternative”. The gap between them is too narrow.
On the other side of the division, Bloodaxe did include one of Mottram’s choices- Ken Smith. He was probably their “house poet” in the first ten years. If that is true, we can locate the centre of Bloodaxe’s endeavour as being inside the British Poetry Revival. This looks odd today, but it exposes a genuine fact, viz. that Bloodaxe thought they were supplying an alternative poetry in the 1980s, and saw their line as rejecting the past – defined as academic and literary poetry and an atmosphere associated with the old middle class. New graduates, people who came from lower-class families but had gone through the State system to become a new middle class, were absolutely their staple. People who disliked the old middle class and liked the new middle class were Bloodaxe's ideal audience. That is the group they were identified with. A quick sniff around 'Poetry with an Edge' (1993 edition, not the original, I fear) indicates 54 British poets of whom only 7 had attended Oxford. A mere 13%. Apologies for what may have possible errors, but this does point to a new cultural policy. Lucie-Smith's classic anthology of 1970 still had 29% Oxford graduates. This admittedly rough proxy indicator is a telltale of a new attitude towards the poetic voice. Yes, everybody has a degree. They aren't romantic outlaws. But they aren't the southern elite.
(Actually, biographies are inexplicit and I can't check this - so maybe 13% didn't go to university, and maybe even more.)
So, in the flotsam of received opinions in the 1980s, the idea may have been current that Pop was the future of poetry, and Bloodaxe was the alternative to conservative academics and Cold War attitudes. This idea was not going to be disproved unless you actually read the poetry concerned. The counter-idea, that Pop had evolved into dumbing-down and had become conservative and conventional by about 1970, was a conceptual advance which circulated only slowly. Elsewhere, a lot of people thought “the future of poetry is dumbing-down”, end of story. That would apply to people who disliked modern poetry altogether, and to those who thought that Geoffrey Hill and Peter Levi, let’s say, were what really mattered, the Future Legacy. It could also apply to sections of the Left, where cultural differentiation was seen as a problem.
My feelings about Bloodaxe connect to negative feelings about Larkin. Larkin lived in a dour northern town, he was against cultural pretension, his poetry was obvious. He delivered Grumpy Realism. Bloodaxe poets also offered Grumpy Realism. I couldn't see this as having any liberatory charge. It wasn’t a break with the past, if you see the “central sound” in 1960-80 (roughly) as being ’The Whitsun Weddings’. Even many pages of it wasn't going to change anything. It was a sound developed by Oxford graduates, and the aim was at least partly to discourage optimism about political change. For me, if you list 50 significant new poets of my generation, so roughly 1975-90, none of them was influenced by Ken Smith. He may have been crucial both to Stand magazine and then to Bloodaxe, but his cultural plan had design flaws. There was a new poetry but Smith was not the godfather of it.

To return to our count: I do think that some people in the 1980s saw Bloodaxe as being a poetic alternative. They would then belong on the ALP list. Not everybody saw alternative poetry as being the Mottram line – some people went on seeing pop poetry as being the Alternative. So if I count 500 “alternative” poets, that relies on a meaning of the adjective which excludes Patten – or Simon Armitage.
Marketing texts try to set up ideological communities and recruit you into them, and people writing about the sociology of art tend to do much the same. I should emphasise that the big patterns may not be all that important to the life of poetry. The influence of the moon on your local pond may be real but too small to notice – however big the moon is, it’s a long way away. Local forces may be much stronger. We are interested in the history of poetry rather than the history of marketing prose.

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