Monday 29 August 2011

Poetry numbers, again

More on a model of publication numbers, June 2010

This adds something to ‘My errors and some numbers too’, posted on this website.

I did some work in 2010 to correct figures for the overall volume of poetry publications in the period 1960-97, offered on this website. The work was based on spreadsheets with long lists of names. There are three values which the spreadsheet exercise is there to correct. One of these, the curve of the male/female ratio, is not controversial, fairly secure, and does not require exhausting scrutiny. The other two are less secure. They are the figure of circa 7000 for poets publishing in the period, and the count of roughly 1400 underground poets (corrected from 2000) within that figure. I have been doing some work to check these and confidence is hard to obtain.

I discovered that for four years in the 1970s there was an annual issue of Poet’s Yearbook, a publication which on the basis of returns from over 900 publishers issued a list of all poetry publications for that year (from June to June). The first result from this was that the annual listings produced by the Poetry Book Society were hopelessly incomplete.

Using this excellent new source (PY), I typed up lists of poets publishing in successive years, 1976 and 1977, and by matching these derived a count of the overlap between the two years. 106 poets recurred between 1976 and 1977, out of 628 in the first year. So in theory the whole list would recur over 6 years. So a count of the total pool at that point is 6x628 which is 3768, less the 628 double appearances, so 3050. This would be the ‘model’ total pool of poets publishing in that time. Assumptions about the length of a working life would allow us to scale this up to the whole 40 year period - e.g. double 3050 or 2.4 times 3050 (depending on the assumption used).

Some poets born in the 1880s were still publishing in 1960 and 1961. Some poets were publishing for the very first time in 1997. We have to consider poets entering and leaving the pool in order to get at the count for all poets active in the period 1960-97. Assume the pool arrives in 40 exactly equal annual cohorts and each cohort leaves after exactly 40 years. This means that the pool in 1977 includes exactly 20 cohorts and therefore the set of poets active in the whole period is double the pool active in 1977. Therefore this count for the whole period is 3050x2, equals 6100.

This is an idealisation, because the cohort entering in 1960 was certainly much smaller than the cohort entering in 1975. On balance this means 6100 is an overestimate and so the total in this model would be less than 6100, perhaps between 5000 and 5500. The 40 cohorts are all of different sizes and they probably increased in steps from 1960 onward. If we adjust the multiplier to 1.6x 3050 we get a count of 4875 poets.

This model is accurate to within half an order of magnitude (he said modestly). Its real value is to get a ‘fix' on the other model, where we estimated 33,000 books published and using a bludgeon translated that into 7000 poets. The two figures critique each other and give us a hint of where the true figure must lie.

The PY lists also give us information, only at a point in time but quite thorough for that point, of the balance between male and female poets. Counting entries in Poet’s Yearbook 1978 (for publications between June 1976 and June 1977) we find:

21.7% female
71.9 % male
indeterminate by name 4.9%

I don’t have comparable counts for the 1950s or 1960s, but it is clear that the scene was male-dominated in 1976. Using counts from selective sources like anthologies and the lists in British Council pamphlets, it is possible to guess that female participation in the 1950s was around 10 to 15%, and so we can suggest that this share was growing up to 1976, in line with greater access to higher education of female students, and a reduction in the rigidity of gender roles.

One thing that PY yields is a critical comparison with the lists in the Poetry Book Society lists for each year. In 1974 the PBS lists 450 books + 61 anthologies, in 1975-6 they list 859 titles. This figure is identical to the one in Poet's Yearbook so the jump from 1974 to 1975 is probably due to copying the figures from PY! It follows that the count in the PBS list is probably far too small for the entire series. The 'hike' blows their credibility. So any figures based on their count for the period 1960-75 are in doubt - as too low. My guess is they ignored little presses unless forced to include them. (Note that the PY year runs from June to June.)

It is possible that 74 to 75 was a growth year, but post the ‘oil price shock’ inflation had already taken off and this does not seem like the basis for sharp growth. So a jump from 450 to 850 titles in a single year is due probably to a better means of collecting information.

Why was I interested in these numbers? It has to do with the completeness of 'Affluence' (the overall project which includes all my books on British poetry). I covered 140 poets from the period in 'Affluence'. Selectivity was a big issue for a lot of readers. The numbers let me get at selectivity - and the answer is that everything is drowned in it. 140 poets is just a drop in the ocean. Almost everything is forgotten. Another answer is that "in all this warehouse of dead print, there are a number of poets who really count, and the cognoscenti know who they are". So by missing out some of those poets I would be committing errors. But either the cognoscenti don't cover the terrain or they keep their knowledge to themselves.

I don’t think anyone would go and read all 850 volumes published in 1975-6. At some level, we all agree on one basic thing - that most of the poets publishing were wasting their time. Quite a few of us share the same question: how do you know which of the 850 books are worth reading?

As an aside, Poet’s Yearbook was only published for four years. It is a fabulous source but there was really no market for it. What do you with a list of 850 poetry books? ST Gardiner edited it and did all the work. It is coincidental that they cover a lot of the period in which Poetry Review stopped running reviews and so drops out as a reference source. PY is a high quality publication but it only lasted for those years, up to 1979, and unfortunately its figures cast doubt on the other series we have, which run for longer. This whole area is paved with uncertainty.

Novels about Poets

Novels about Poets

In Cargo of Eagles, by Margery Allingham (1968), a detective story with the legendary sleuth Albert Campion, a minor character is a poet named HO Wishart who keeps a pub in an Essex village, the one he grew up in. 'A genuine minor poet and a white hope at one time.' (p.19) He is about 65 in 1966 and is said to have been in a book called Georgian Poetry - which would have been when he was about 13. There is quite a complicated plot which mainly involves faded scandals, 20 years before or even 50 years. Campion himself seems like a nostalgia item by this point. What Campion works out about Wishart is that, being a brilliant lad of humble background at Cambridge, he had written volumes of poetry for three well-off friends for them to publish under their names - against a bulky payment. This is possibly the only modern example of a poet making money. (Later we find out that it was Georgian Poetry volume 5, which fits slightly better.) The story goes -
'Think of your Cambridge friends, Colquhoun, Middlemass and Swinstead. Three dull men and all of them rich. Yet each of them produced an unlikely volume with remarkable literary qualities - very flattering to their vanity. I wonder who really wrote Mosaic to machine or Mandragora Days or Oh, Mr Cromek? Odd books to keep on your shelves, Mr Wishart, yet there they are right behind your head sitting next to the fifth volume of Georgian Poetry in which you figure." (p. 138) We do not find out how Campion knew that these men born around 1900 were dull or rich. Nor do we hear any of the forged poems- instead we get more of a tedious plot about crime and stuff like that. Who was Cromek? was this the origin of the Cambridge school?
Allingham is my favourite detective story writer. Reality barely intrudes but the fantasy is always rich, subtle, and light.

A Chymical Wedding, by Lindsey Clarke
The original ‘chymical wedding’ was one of the Rosicrucian tracts of around 1615 and refers to a conjunction of two elements, a compound - not to humans.

The character is based on George Barker, who lived in Norfolk for many years.

There is a parallel plot set in Victorian times and about religious doubt. This double line was very much the fashion in the 1980s. I didn’t really see that the 19th C plot was linked to the 20th C one. The depiction of the earthy and wilful poet-figure is brilliant but the book doesn’t really add up to a whole. The connection between the supernatural idea of conjunction etc. and the 20th C characters did not arrive.

Diawl y Wenallt, by Marcel Williams
The book is full of racy stories which do not add up to what you would think of as a whole novel, the characters do not acquire depth, but the individual sketches are funny, witty, and racy. I enjoyed this a lot. The book ends up with admiration for Thomas’ sexual energy and focus on pleasure, mocking the various more classically Welsh characters who disapprove of everything in sight. The depiction of Thomas in action is much more exciting than anything in the biographies. Drama is better than documentation.

Ffenestri tua’r gwyll, by Islwyn Ffowc Elis
The rather typically 1950s plot rotates around the emotional problems of a widow who has sacrificed her own artistic talent to a dominating husband and who now expresses herself through artistic patronage. This comes to include a young and stroppy poet and all too predictably she extends her interest beyond offers of money and good taste. This is very enjoyable although dated. It is rather like a film by Douglas Sirk. It also expresses a distrust of the North Welsh for the South Welsh working class. The youth is threateningly modernist and self-possessed. I didn’t quite get why a clergyman like Elis would believe in Freud so much when it comes to psychology, but the melodramatic plotting is so effective that this doesn’t seem to matter.

Festival at Fairbridge, by JB Priestley (1955)
This large-scale fresco of English life in the 1950s includes a brief scene in which we encounter the verse drama movement. Priestley, an unfashionable but great dramatist, is putting paid to the very fashionable verse dramatists here. Fairness or benevolence are not much on show. His parody of Fry’s writing is uncomfortably good. Priestley was more intelligent than everyone else around him but no one notices this if you come from Yorkshire. Verse drama became utterly unfashionable within a year or so of this novel's being published. I don't know if his depiction of the whole thing as emanating from a rich patron, and rotating around the whims of that person, is accurate, but it is convincing when you read it. The same novel includes a tour round the documentary film movement, which he also demolishes (and which was also heading for the end of the road around 1955). Priestley actually writes some of the poetry in question, unlike many novelists.

Enderby, by Anthony Burgess
Trilogy about a poet.

The Virgin in the Garden, by AS Byatt
describes someone who wrote verse drama during the brief boom in the early 50s. fails to produce any of his verse. Instead the book is just full of prose. set in North Yorkshire in the early 1950s, which is inherently interesting.

If pressed I would say I didn’t read novels but somehow, in bursts of inactivity, I must have done so.

London School yada yada yada


I have a long personal history of sitting in upper rooms of pubs somewhere in North London listening to the recital of something really, really dreadful. The managers of the London scene are very proud of being unselective. The result was the humiliation of the audience, for which the only comeback was that, years later, one could tell the truth and not sign up to some jolly collusive fantasy that it was all marvellous. It is good to rip my shirt off and get up front about how addled and deluded I thought 90% of it was, knowing that by doing this I would be telling the truth for dozens of other people as well. Now it can be told!

Two questions about 'Affluence, Welfare, and Fine Words'. Why no chapter on the London School? Secondly, why the comment in Origins of the Underground which Robert Hampson found 'unhelpful'? ("Yes Virginia, there is a London avant-garde; it is too much like people with bags over their heads banging their heads against the wall and making a lot of noise but making few articulate sounds.") I will start with Allen Fisher. This work seems to me to be of great importance. I wrote about it frequently but it resisted description. So I produced a whole book of interviews with the poet. This was completed in 2005, and the publisher has not managed to print it yet. All the same this represents the value which I place on his work and which I want others to place on it as well. I do not think that other poets have taken on much of what Allen worked out in formal terms, and of hundreds of influences he has documented other London poets seem to feature nowhere.

While I was in The Punter after a seminar in Cambridge (in August 2011), someone made this comment to me about Eric Mottram, that he was an academic who couldn't stand first-rate art and so gathered around him a bunch of second-raters, rowdies who believed that all they had to do was to create riot and revolt against the rules and create noise. This may be the real prehistory of the London School. Naturally this is not recorded in the folklore.
(addendum. The book of Fisher interviews has now come out, with a different publisher.)

Fear of reflexivity

The first reason for not writing about the London School en masse is that there were hundreds of people milling around (as documented in the anthology Verbi Visi Voco and in too many of the 1500 pamphlets published by Writers Forum) and producing dreadful radical poetry. "Look, I've broken my language!" The ethos of Writers Forum was never to criticise anything and not to be selective when it came to publishing. VVV itself was a reprint of one page each from the first 500 WF pamphlets - neatly documenting that the undertaking was a waste of time. The unwillingness to apply discrimination is itself a prime example of wearing a bag over your head - the powers of the intelligence being switched off. The idea of selecting the best poetry as a preliminary to making an anthology had not penetrated these parts. Bring your rambles to the shambles! Because the borders of the London School extended to engulf so many talentless louts, the LS as an aggregate was not interesting enough to write about. Conversely, the talented individuals who hung out on the London scene could only be given justice by being separated out from the Gadarene rout and treated as individuals.
The 'bag over the head' quality derived from simple precepts, thus:

utterances with no meaning, such as sound and concrete poetry, are better than articulate speech
consciousness is bourgeois
anything which damages language is better than anything which is articulate, coherent, refined
it is necessary to smash cultural forms in order to achieve liberation
connoisseurship, discrimination, exact knowledge, are bourgeois fantasies
disrupting patterns of association is more important than creating something clear
expressing the personality, and the differentiated patterns of perception and sensibility which show the personality in poetry, is reactionary and out of date. Operations based on chance, mechanical recombination, found texts, defacing of found texts, are inherently superior.
attentiveness is academic
noise is better than sound
new patterns are always achieved through random damage and disruption and not by study and formal insight

The result of applying these rules is adequately described by the phrases about wearing a bag over your head and jumping up and down. The abandonment of judgement is a form of blindness, putting out the eyes of reason.

The comment about wearing bags over their heads is helpful because it points up the weaknesses of the whole swarm of incoherent/ revolting poets around the London scene over the decades and clears the decks so that I can recuperate the excellent poets within that scene and pierce the defences of boredom and indifference developed over the years by exposure to the interminable third- and fourth-rate products of Writers Forum and associated outlets. The situation is like the mainstream - there are literally hundreds of poets filling the scene and blocking the light, most of it is savagely tedious, but if you sift the evidence quite a few interesting poets can be found. Writing a history of the mainstream is impossible because there is too much data.

By abandoning intelligence, reason, self-criticism, rules of verbal conduct, etc., the poets mentioned were precisely acting 'with bags over their heads'. There is no point denying this. Robert may not find this 'helpful' but the truth is always helpful. You can't go 'gubba gubba gubba bing bing bing' for 30 years and expect people to see you as an intellectual. You can’t indulge in ‘Messy Play’, print the results, staple them, and have someone come along 30 years later and say they are significant.

What happened in history

I know that Nuttall, Cobbing and Mottram were around in London in the 60s and 70s, and one version of the history is that they were all in love with garbled primitivism, inarticulate, 'subversive’ language, messy play, and that this is the ‘ground floor’ of the London scene.

I lived in London for 27 years and was active on the alternative poetry scene for 20 of those years. One of the prominent features was that people had no idea of the past of that scene. Maybe there was a central project which included an 'inherited set of assumptions' (an acquis communautaire indeed) but no one seemed to know what it was. Publicity material would declare that Bob Cobbing had begun doing sound poetry in 1953 (soon after the Continental revival of it, then, so he was up to date in 1953, if less so in 1954) but there seemed to be no memory of what that entailed or any record of what it produced. I pored over the bookstalls which were such a feature of reading events, but they seemed mysteriously blank of records of the past. I found Maggie O'Sullivan's A4 pamphlets of 1986 (I did not acquire them until about 1990, regrettably) and they seemed to be the start of continuous memory. Writing an account of the London scene from 1960, or 1953, up till then was not feasible for lack of intelligible sources. Maybe there was nothing interesting up till 1985 or so, except for Fisher?

I have to say that this is remarkably different from the milieu of poets which we associate with JH Prynne, Grosseteste Review, Ferry Press (and scenes like these). The first time I got exposure to this was in around 1982, when I met John Wilkinson, but he and many others seemed to have a clear reflexive memory of what had happened and of the reasoning involved, and of course this is analogous to the clear reflexive content of the poetry involved, which is not in damaged language.

I would have written on the history of the ‘London School’ if the folklore available had produced anything intelligible and worth writing down.

There is a strand of opinion which holds that the London scene is the real avant garde and that the poetry represented in A Various Art, Conductors of Chaos, etc. is not properly avant garde and is not at that tip of an arrow moving forth into meaninglessness. This view is limited by the loss of precision into baling up dozens of individuals into a package, and by the limits of validity in classifying X or Y as belonging to one group or another. (If you start with a list of poets you will find that many of them can't be easily 'brigaded' into a group, as a basis for reckless and exciting generalisations.)

I do not buy the idea that Cobbing, crumpling up pieces of paper, photocopying them, and publishing the results, is more advanced than ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years’. Of course, if you do buy that idea, things must look a lot different. This is perhaps a moment of division when form is born - a watershed inscribing itself in the whole alluvial geology downstream.

How can you put faith in innovation and not have a grasp of chronology? You wouldn't know if your poem is innovative or not. In fact the detection of originality argues a level of connoisseurship which must pre-exist it - or you might simply be marching in circles like a drunk man in the darkness. You could be deluding yourself about the innovation, and checking this requires someone with a genuine reflexive knowledge of poetic style and the delicate details of change. Comparing yourself to the norms is not something you can do without reflexive knowledge. The possibility that a whole group of people in the 1990s were stuck in the cultural atmosphere of 1953 is more substantial than we would wish it.

Hit list of significant 'alternative' work from the London environment

Gavin Selerie, Azimuth. Allen Fisher, Place. Robert Sheppard, Daylight Robbery. Paul Brown, Meetings and Pursuits. Maggie O'Sullivan, A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts. Robert Hampson, Seaport. Ulli Freer, Stepping Space. John Seed, Interior in the Open Air. Adrian Clarke, Possession. Selected poems 1996-2006.
It needs a critic to come along and throw out all the bad poetry heaped up around the London School in order to reveal the excellent poetry written within the London scene to a public which hasn't noticed it.

The dislike of thought connects to the lack of interest in distinguishing between good art and bad, and connects too to a lack of complex and differentiated sensations, and then connects to a lack of interest in changes in style over time, which is why the oral folklore of the London scene is so uninteresting.

The line of reflexivity includes much of what I value about modern British poetry and moreover allows a continuity to be traced back beyond the ‘new start’ in 1959 and 1960. It is the only real political line in poetry as it strives to understand daily life in the attempt to change it. The emptying from awareness of its primary contents is not the path to a new consciousness. Rather, consciousness needs memory and self-awareness. Freedom is the exercise of judgement - the formation of judgements is the precursor to it.

Politics belongs with reason and complex language.

The idea of a polarity (in the British underground scene) in which one end believes in using the full range of language and one believes in the random, the use of mechanical processes, the unmodulated, lets us out of the misleading geographical classifiers of folklore. When we say ‘London’ we mean ‘anti-discursive hi energy constructed in small units’; instead of saying ‘Cambridge’ we would rather say ‘reflexive and with intact access to the resources of the English language’.

The whole idea of reflexivity needs exploring, as the key to mapping part of the Underground. I did work on the ALP catalogues which suggested that the 'Underground' included 2000 poets who had published at least one book or pamphlet up to 1990. The fact that this entire area was written off wholesale by people like Ian Hamilton or Peter Forbes hardly proves that all its parts resemble each other. People interested in the subject might be looking for terms for describing divisions within this vast extent.

How does this relate to the depolarisation project, where we try to grow out of the mutual hostility of the factions which lined up against each other in the 70s?
Well, the 'truth and reconciliation' process must involve truth. The attempt to join up in one community with the poetry enthusiasts outside the 'realms of the Underground' must involve a process of owning up to how bad most of the rebel/rabble heritage is. A community has been defined as a group of people who share a version of the past (or, share a past preserved in a narratives). In order to build a larger poetic community, we go through a process of filtering which builds an ever larger stock of truth.

The disputes were originally about theories of poetry. If there are so many bad poems, the theories responsible for them must be wrong, and there is no point going to war for them. Perhaps there are better theories, which regrettably most poets have failed to understand.

Generally what poets want is attention, and the fights are about shares of that. To write with studied inattentiveness is always likely to draw the audience into inattentiveness. This destroys the asset you want to acquire. This is surely a more fundamental problem than the fights which you lose.

If there were 1400 poets publishing in the Underground, it is futile to go into the new cultural process with a banner saying that they were all good. Surely there are excellent reasons for admitting that the slack, messy, inattentive Underground boys were inattentive, messy, and slack. This is the truth and will found a society of poetry in which we can talk to each other. The theories we abandon on the way to the truth probably aren't going to be very good theories to follow as paths into a joyful future. Being delusions moves them out of the frame for shining paths. In fact, if there is a communitas based on the idea that all the inattentiveness is Great Avant Garde Art then it is unsustainable and people are likely to lose faith in it and fall out of it all the time. The lie seems to be inclusive but all the falsity it entails means that the shared thing crumbles at every step. So it's better to tell the truth.

(The figure of 1400 comes from analysis of the ALP lists of 'alternative' books in print'. It is partly extrapolation because doing a count was too complicated. The larger problem is that firms signed up to AP who were publishing rather non-radical poetry.)

Of course there are good mainstream poets, as well. Discrimination can lure good art from behind the spoil tips of the inept and inattentive. In order to get to the solid ground of truth the poets who wrote in a conservative style also have to accept just how many people wrote in that style and produced bad poetry, the flimsiness of the conventional virtues. It is a sobering up process, a de-intoxication. In the end there is nothing to go to war to defend.

The recovery of the history of British poetry from 1960 to 1997 (or other limiting dates) has to deal with one case at a time. The problems with the ‘inherited narratives’ are extreme. The whole area is likely to repay reflective study. The outcome of that study is likely to be a new poetic community with a new shared past.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Poetry Review, 67/4

I have a stack of back issues of Poetry Review (PR) here and I took the time to read 67/4, 1978, edited by Harry Chambers. The message of this issue is the tedious mainstream, it stands as a symbol of how tedious the m-stream can be and gives an opportunity to think about this problem. For this number is full of very tedious poetry. Interest and innovation are securely locked out. To grasp the word ‘mainstream’ you have to get the tedium of moments like 67/4. Noticing this sheer badness is a chreode -a moment of rejection that thousands of people went through. Not just a crap moment but a moment embodying a whole universe of poetic crap. So many people had a bad experience in 1978 or so and never read any mainstream poetry over the next 30 years.

This is a moment of horror but not the whole m-stream. I can't reconstruct my reading in the 1970s. But I do know that I made voyages into British poetry of that time and found it searingly disappointing, much like 67/4. There were bad experiences with tired and conventional set-ups. I walked out, I just thought it was all crap. Of course the Underground wasn't visible to me, that came later. Scenes like this were so vile that they created the Underground. People reacted to dull scenes by walking out, in large numbers. It was inevitable that they would then aggregate, to some extent. Poetry split in two.

There is a miasma of mainstream. It appears as a swamp in which consciousness is impossible. Any attacks on the mainstream are bound to hit their target because it's too big too miss. Bad mainstream poetry fills entire counties. But it's crucial all the same to locate good m-stream poetry and recognise its difference. I made a big mistake by using the term mainstream without differentiating between the morass of tired poetry and the strands of good poetry using conventional methods. The m-stream has so much to hide, and we need better determinations of everything.

You have to read between the lines, always. Chambers only edited one issue. Maybe this means that someone at the Poetry Society, owners of the magazine, looked at it and decided that Chambers was too drab, too anti-intellectual, too unimaginative, too smug. If you look at other issues around the same time, i.e. after Mottram's departure and before they had someone permanent, the approach is more intelligent.

The past of PR is intricate. It is the centre of British poetry, the magazine read by the most people, the one with the most weight. It was a terrible magazine in the 1950s, and a problem up to about 1965. In the later 60s, it went through rapid change and improvement, in line with what English culture in general was doing. It became a completely different magazine. Between 1971 and 1977, Mottram was at the helm. He followed on from the issues immediately before his arrival, but took it further. In 22 issues over six years, he developed a radical magazine - innovative, ambitious, experimental, politicised. During the 70s, culture in Britain became caught up with politics and with bitter conflicts. The new came to seem a tangible threat, and the 'old' got organised and began a cultural purge. Mottram may have been a victim of this, to some extent.

In 1978, then, PR had an established audience who liked radical poetry and expected it. Chambers was facing this audience - most copies of the magazine went to members of the Poetry Society as part of their membership, so the audience were rather stable. Chambers chose to take them on head-on. He makes no attempt to reconcile the numerous people who would have read 67/4 and been affronted by its fatigue and conservatism. It has no overlap with the Mottram PR. He supplies an editorial made up of quotes which seems to offer an explanation of why the magazine has changed so much. Chambers quotes Karl Shapiro: ‘For the first time in history the illiterates have a literature of their own, op-pop-camp-kitsch-existentialist-occult-nihilist sweepings and swill.’ Presumably Shapiro is attacking the Beats here. But in context it emrges that Chambers means by this the whole set of poets published in the Mottram PR - more than a hundred of them. Of course he does not name any names. But the presumption must be that he is referring to the readers and poets who enjoyed Mottram's PR. This is like a declaration of war on them. The only concession to this problem of transition is his quote-editorial - which by denouncing the modern seems to be denouncing the existing readership of PR. This surely looks like an attempt to break off any relations with the audience which had developed since 1960, and to make the split permanent. And to get rid of the poets who had arrived since 1960. It is hard to avoid the feeling that Chambers actually wants to get rid of this audience. It is inaccurate to see splits in the poetry world as simply the products of malign acts by conservative editors. But actions like 67/4 help to explain why differences of taste became petrified oppositions. Surely Shapiro’s quote describes something which does not exist? why is it being resurrected at the masthead of Britain’s poetry magazine of record? If Mottram was a professor, why refer to him as an illiterate? This caricatural editorial is the only account offered of why PR changed policy so radically. What we apparently see is Chambers trying to get rid of about half the established readership of his magazine. This is why he is insulting them. The lack of continuity with the Mottram PR is shocking. This must have felt like a deliberate insult. No wonder people stomped off in a huff. Chambers was defining the hostile centre, guarded by wire from areas that might overflow into it.

Working through old PRs is productive but the real story is only present through silences and anonymous distortions. Negative generalisations. A dialogue of the unlistening. It is interesting to read the issue (68/1) which Douglas Dunn edited the next year. His editorial starts out by discussing how boring most conventional poetry is. Bravo! this man is right! Then he goes on to describe the old poetry and the new, and to suggest that we need poetry which mixes both streams, and that his issue is in fact filled with poems which do that. Then he kicks off with John Ash. Bravo again! So people who abandoned the mainstream altogether were making a false generalisation - the mainstream was a whole sea of poetry within which there were gifted poets and also open-minded editors. (The race of poets who combined the new styles with being accessible did not yet exist in 1979 - they arrived slightly later, as a group.)

The point of resurrecting this moment, of course, is to retrieve a moment of decision. The thesis is that the poetry scene was split in two sides by 1978 and that moments like this produced an enduring situation whereby one side ignored what the other side published and so entered a tunnel where the light was surrounded by darkness on every side.

There is a review of Charles Causley which includes a weird excursus which explains that we did not need a renaissance in the 14th century because there had already been a renaissance in the 12th century. This is bizarre to read. It is there because the reviewer is afraid of someone saying Causley was out of date. Actually – Causley was completely out of date in 1978, this is obvious. His poetry had dried up. The people who would have said this appear in the magazine, but only as ghosts. They are being slapped down throughout the issue but they never get the chance to speak. There is another weird moment in this review where the author abandons Causley altogether in order to denounce the 1975 Cambridge Poetry Festival and the 'Black Mountain' poets who read there. The denunciation seems to me factually wrong. Also, I don't think that the poets there in 1975 had more than a tiny amount to do with an American college which closed down in the 1950s. The remarks simply seem like a way of telling the reader that everything which has happened since 1960 can be ignored and actually didn't happen. I think this goes beyond thoughtful connoisseur chit-chat and is more like an attempt to define the previous readers of Poetry Review as the enemy.

It is with some reluctance that I identify anonymous caricatures as the phantom of a debate - as the only way in which critics within one faction acknowledge that other factions exist and produce poetry and have arguments sustaining their position. The bulk denunciation reflects the fact that the person speaking has not read the poetry they are denouncing. This is the landscape of miasma - you simply ignore what you don’t have allegiance to. It seems that the counter-attack on innovation in the 1970s and 1980s was not based on contemporary innovation but on the classic period of ‘high’ modernism - work from the 1920s or 1930s. The good part of this is that simply having a debate, where two or more sides had actually read the texts which the other sides like, would be a huge improvement on what we have had in the recent past. Maybe we could start simply by giving up miasma as a reaction.

Some things have changed since the twelfth century. For one thing, French stopped being the culturally dominant language in England. If poetry is subject to organic growth, an editor would not have a cut-off point after which he accepts nothing. The cut-off point in fact sets up a line of division in poetry, denying what continuity we might find for ourselves. I don’t doubt that Causley uses ‘mediaeval forms of versification’, drawn from folk songs. The question is why he couldn’t make anything of what elements had reached English poetry since the Renaissance.

The dispute at the Poetry Society in 1977 reflected a division which already existed. It cannot have been the moment when that division emerged. The split was a process, not an event. However, English society in general was politically split during the 1970s and flowed back together during the 1980s. If poetry was slow to follow suit, we must suspect that some individuals manipulated the situation in order to achieve local authority, which the disappearance of factions would have caused to vanish.

Division is natural. The strange thing is how poetic worlds achieve solidarity when they include so many disparate individuals. The answer is that solidarity is natural, poetry is all about communication and the communication brings people together. It is natural for poetry to live in diffuse, tolerant, fluently verbal, aggregates of friends. Mediation was missed at the time. We can try to do it now. We can even take it to another level. How should editors manage cultural relations?

I intend to go on reading back issues of PR. I find the improvement in circa 1965-71 especially interesting. But the issues over a couple of years after Mottram are also interesting, because they are so varied, as if the Society was headless and casting around for a policy.

Maybe you want to define 95% of the poets around as the Enemy. Even if you do that, you have to accept that producing caricatures of their work and speech, as in wartime propaganda, is not intellectually valid. Maybe this is what the advent of 'theory' has brought to us – that you cannot remove agency from people, that there are no ideas which nobody owns, and that those people have some right in the linguistic space if you are going to bring their ideas into play enough to attack them. Crushing large numbers of people down into caricatures is a habit which needs to be discarded. I believe this is what 'theory' was saying.

This comes with the usual caution, like an anti-piracy warning. This is that people involved in the 1970s during a cultural crisis became polarised, but this does not mean that everyone younger also became polarised. I suspect the whole struggle seemed less real to people who turned up from say 1983 onwards.

I suppose that organising debates is very complicated, and that by not having any debate a great deal of time has been saved over the past 35 years. Yes, but fundamentally that time had to be spent and avoiding debate has had all kinds of spreading and disastrous effects which no one could possibly want.

Sounds surround the icy waters underground: psychedelic coding

Note. This is a chapter written for the 2003 book 'Fulfilling the silent rules'. There are problems with it. The subject is important but the relationships are too subjective and 'deep' to be easily described. I feel that poetry of a certain time was composed of 'blinding signs' and that feeling has been lost. In general listening to a particular kind of music is often a way of coming round to understand a certain related kind of poetry. Which puts the critic off the bus, really.
This has been deleted (6/5/2021) because it is about to come out in book form. Promotion! The book is "Nothing is being suppressed"