Sunday 13 December 2015

Notes around ‘A Poetry Boom’

Notes around ‘A Poetry Boom’

This is a book about poetry 1990-2010 which I swore not to write but which began in 2011, while I was living temporarily in Germany, and which today (December 2013) is finished, as I struggle to push errant sentences into place and find points made twice. It is coming out from Shearsman in 2015, we hope. It was called “sugar rush ghost town” at one point, and then “partially coded sand“. The subtitle “shocked grains from a poetry boom” refers to the ‘boom’ as a crash through a sound barrier whose waves produce shocked quartz in the sand we are looking at. The ‘shifting sands’ part is an excuse for making a map that doesn’t work 3 weeks later. I understand the book has now been published (update 11/12/15). You can get it through the Shearsman website.

After writing a series of seven books about poetry 1960-97 it is almost unbelievable that I would start on something like this. The 'partially coded’ bit expresses just how thin the coverage of a huge raft of poets is, how tentative the conclusions. Yet I was so deeply involved in poetry as it was happening in these years. Someone looked at the quantity of poetry books being published in 1989, reckoned it was 1300 for that year, and speculated that this meant 5,000 poets at work producing poetry that was "fit to be published”. A documented* figure for 1999 is 2700 poetry books. This would mean 8100 books over 3 years. I suspect this means 10,000 poets at work producing poetry that was ”fit to be published”. Actually I think that figure is on the low side. Obviously you can’t do an “overview” of a field that big. So this isn’t an overview. (*Correction. Randall Stevenson gives that figure of 2700 titles, in "The Last of England?", but I don’t think this count is wholly ‘new poetry titles’, it is more likely an indiscriminate count based on some tag like ‘English poetry’. The British Library catalogue is hard to use but I did trawl up about 2000 titles for one year, the year 2000 in fact. I have lost faith in these counts, but the total number of published poets might be 5-7000.)

We were sitting on the Sun Terrace outside a Nottingham pub which happens to be the nearest one to the office where I work. Inspired by Tim Healey’s wonderful book The World’s worst movies, I had asked my companions, ex-colleagues, people of taste and discretion, what was the worst film they’d ever seen. Simon re-jigged this to the world’s most overrated movie and came up with ‘Citizen Kane’. Godfrey said also that Kane was ‘too long’. I got the feeling he’d never watched it all the way through, and was wishing it had come in 25-minute episodes. Godfrey also came up with a defence of ‘In Like Flint’, brilliantly written off by Healey, which I had discovered a copy of in a collection of DVDs I had mysteriously come by and actually watched. This is truly a terrible film. Godfrey claimed it was a spoof. No. It’s just a bad film with a lot of fantasy poured over a lot of unimaginative derivation from other spy films. So, without being distracted from my beer, my conclusion was that the party didn’t like 'Citizen Kane' and did like 'In like Flint'. This is the ground underlying Poetry Boom: it’s all based on my aesthetic opinions and the person reading it may derive no benefit because they didn’t follow Kane and really enjoyed 'In Like Flint'. There are hundreds of poets I’ve left out because they aren’t good enough. But maybe they are better than ‘In Like Flint’.

Faking it. I draw extensively on Barker and Taylor's great book Faking It but did not mention its main point, which is that the search for authenticity has privileged a relationship of music to community, then rigidly defined community as ethnic, and so attributed to music the quality of being Black or White which has actually led to segregation in terms of radio stations, charts, concert venues, and marketing. If segregation is bad in America's society in general, it must be bad in music. An original polarity of musical customs between Black and White Americans was contradicted by a much more blurred daily reality which Barker and Taylor describe at length. If cultural purity means segregation, its assumptions have to be challenged at every step.

I wrote some chapters which had to be omitted :
.-. Competitive language games
-. critique of the family: the family as ideology
-. Poetry and Science (Prynne and Fisher)
-. the Folk strand in poetry.
-. Inside the Periphery (Scotland and Wales)

This era of poetry was my era, the one my career went through its cycle in. This accounts (partly) for the difficulty of putting into words what really took place in it. I wrote four successive surveys of 'new poetry' from 1990 on. One was reprinted in my book  Failure of Conservatism. This one was originally the introduction to an issue of 'new poets' in Angel Exhaust, in 1995. In 1995 I was only aware of one sector of new poetry, so later I wasn't really happy with that as a survey. So a return to that stretch of time was likely. As you live through an era, your state of mind is dominated by the poetry from the immediately previous era, which you’ve absorbed and which is flowing through your veins in a mighty rush. A second survey was collected in  my book The Council of Heresy (pp.154-73 and 230-53). The third was 'Hillbilly Fever' (see below). The fourth is 'Poetry Boom'.

Sugar Rush. The sugar rush phrase refers to the poetry boom which began around 1994 and which has possibly not stopped. The 'sugar rush' concept is a modification of an earlier theme in a long piece I wrote in 2001 and which was published in 'Terrible Work' on-line. That essay (13,000 words of it) was called 'Hillbilly Fever' and in it I reacted to the 'second naivety' of several poets who were educated but wanted to conquer subjectivity as well by talking about Patsy Montana and 'I wanna be a cowboy's sweetheart'. I thought that, if you wanted to be successfully naive, you had to take on country and western and win. Also, I was a bit irritated by poets writing shallow poetry but expecting you to be impressed anyway because they had gone to an elite university. If a pop song has to charm you, then a naive poem has to charm you too, and if it doesn't it is no good the poet handing out a bibliography about the Learned Naive. The poetry I was reviewing wasn't especially good. When I came to design a book about 'the generation since 1990' I looked at 'Hillbilly Fever' and scrapped it because it wasn't about the vital new poetry. 'Coded Sand' is still about the Second Naivety and poetry being like pop music, but it represents an advance. Actually, I recycled about 4000 words of 'Hillbilly' here and there. When I read Faking It I was fascinated & it could be that I recognised in their praise of 'Sugar Sugar' by The Archies a taste of me pointing to 'I want to be a cowboy's sweetheart'.
There is a line in an Amy De'Ath poem ''Now I'm real nakedness some kind of hay bale girl a goofball" - the 'hay bale' seems to match up with Patsy Montana. Coincidence?
The theme can be explained via a book title, 'the goddess in the kitchen'. You can't be a goddess in the kitchen, or in the sitting room. Or a god. I think the 'potential scope' of poetry has vastly increased, not that people are getting more intelligent but that the sources of information are so much richer and more voluminous. The human personality is not getting more complicated. Because poetry is not a form of scholarship, news media, government social research, financial reports database, etc., it hangs on to its archaic human feelings, reaches a limit of complexity - and bursts. It sinks like the sun and then rises again - restored but extremely simple. It can’t be deified. I can see that poetry does draw on 'people with beautiful personalities', there is a 'line' which follows a curve of beautiful behaviour in the way that a painter might travel to stay in beautiful mountains. This is not especially prominent in the published landscape. Conversely you have poetry about people with terrible 'oversize' personality problems, à la Anne Sexton, but that isn't really centre stage either. No, the personality has not become more complex and poetry is bound to the personality, and cannot sustain a mismatch between the language it uses and the events and the personalities it is describing. Poetry used to describe gods & goddesses, via mythology, but that isn't a normal part of the game as it is now played. So no 'gods in the bedroom' 'goddess in the dining room'. Poetry can however succeed in recapturing the naive and lyrical - the Second Naivety. Creating a 'sugar rush'. This brings two structural problems. First, that it elides the 'defensive gap' between poetry and popular song, which is exceptionally strong in our culture and well able to crush 'musicless' poetry and consign it to the past. Secondly, the 'alliance' between poetry and quite complicated sets of information related to politics, which it wants to weave into its discourse. I said 'problems', these are things which don't prevent poetry from being written but which pose a threat past which poetic thought has to go to find its solutions.

The 'partially coded' project may have started when I was looking at the Chicago Review issue on new British poets in 2007, which seemed to restrict the new generation to four people. I was a bit irked by this although I also couldn't name a large number of poets who had made debuts shortly before 2007, so the book happened when I had located the poets. It may alternatively have started when Keston Sutherland asked me to write something about 'poetry since 2000' for a project which never came to anything, I never heard any more about it. This was in 2010, possibly. Then as time went by the 1997 end point came to seem more and more old and frustrating. So there was a sort of 'dull pain' for that terrain which I hadn't covered. This induced me, after many years, to do some work to fill in the missing terrain. Having written the book I could see that the terrain still wasn't filled in. An American editor produced an issue of his magazine ‘Pilot’ which included 17 young British poets and which I think was a response to the Chicago Review thing and its premature restriction. I couldn’t get hold of this, still haven’t seen it.

So you have 1100 titles come out in one year. Maybe the critics didn't read all those titles. Surprise. You have to posit a starting line where the good stuff is where you aren't looking for it and you are looking in the wrong place. The policy of following certain publishers and magazines and listening to certain people who are 'insiders' may not work. So would you have to read all 1100 titles? To put it another way: you can't judge the books you haven't read. The map may not be there.
It would be great if there were a cadre of poetry connoisseurs who read through all those books, found the good ones, transmitted the information to alert colleagues, and the result were a body of aesthetic knowledge which would name the good books and which would be available to me. But this seems idealistic. There is a 'knowledge distribution network' but its defects are obvious to all.
Less emphasis this time on ranking good and bad, more on reproducing the conversation around poetry as a way of getting the reader close to the linguistic world that poetry happens in.

Kevin Nolan wrote to me about Andrew Jordan:
>>Andrew, not at all, I really did have had to go and see […] on the 27th and I never managed to get back inside your time envelope. Also, the constant fag smoke really got to me, [...], but, even so, sorry to miss you.

That Jordan piece is good, full of demanding equivocations, for surely things really are as bad as he imagines, and he is not paying us back with the sour trickery, say, of [...], or the right-on low mindedness of [...]? I cite these two obvious points of referral just to remind myself how one-sided the debates are:  you would agree, I think and I liked your intro matter for the comic depth of its concern for local and even factional sectaries beyond the pale of identity-management. I think more of the book than you simply because of its will to stand up to the force of its own pessimism, in this a kind of complement to the really negational horror cinema of the 1960s: scream and scream again? But your Marstonian diagnosis of malcontentedness has some truth: there is something Jacobean in this kind of dark rhetoric, a deliberately premodern invocation of the muses of dread which does apply to Sinclair for confirmation but transcends him by seeing death as actual extinction and murder, not merely a Travelodge on the Spirit Path to literary celebrity. ((Some of Jordan reminds me of the dark side of you, but we can chat about all that later.). I owe you the proofs of Filament and more again, so I will write back soonest.<<

Robert Archambeau released on his blog part of a letter from Andrea Brady to him:

>>Throughout the time I did spend in Cambridge I felt distinctly female and distinctly American. I guess it was no accident that I ended up writing a chapter of my thesis on the way that 17th century literary coteries preserved the authority of patriarchal poets through agonistic self-definition and fantasies of all-male reproduction. But I didn’t see the resemblance at the time.<<

This isn't really my story but I thought I should quote it in case you haven't seen it.

The book is about a poetry boom but I don’t explain why this boom happened. I didn’t research this, but why was it? The constant increase in the number of graduates is surely part of it, and if I could give only one cause that would be it. There must be other reasons. I guess that there has been a decrease in dictatorship. Where you used, say between 1940 and 1980, to have people willing to say “there is only one kind of poetry that matters and it is written by people who have been my personal friends for 30 years”, the cultural managers today are only going to admit to pluralism. The same goes for the Marxist authorities who would tell you that all bourgeois art, which means art touched in any way by bourgeois mentality, is fundamentally bad and corrupt. I suspect this is a side-effect of the huge growth in the numbers of the educated - it has eroded the belief in Experts - but then there may well be a whole raft of reasons.
I have vivid memories of the humiliation course on the way into poetry - the ‘evil teacher’ figures who would tell you that there’s only one way of doing things and you have no idea what it is. As indicated, I associate this both with the conservative authoritarian figures like Geoffrey Grigson and Ian Hamilton but also with people who thought there was a modernist/Marxist franchise and they owned it. However vivid the memories, they aren’t time-stamped enough for me to work out when this peculiarly vile way of behaving stopped. It does seem to be an artefact of restricted consumption - you start with the idea that ‘in order for me to win everyone else has to lose’ and go on from that to ‘there is a unique winning position and I know what it is’. There is an idea, quoted here from the archaeologist Richard Bradley: “the special character of prestige items is safeguarded by regular destruction". (I think Bradley was quoting from an anthropologist named Meillassoux who had observed this when looking at ‘bride-wealth’ in West Africa.) There would be a symmetry between a social order in which 2% of people are the apex, from all points of view, and an artistic order with a prestige art which only applied to a tiny range of situations, which is demarcated from everyday language, which is exercised only by a few artists, and where ‘unauthorised’ artists are severely reproved and repressed.

In the model, it becomes possible for many people to be significant poets in the course of events that demolish the social ‘apex’ and lead to a much flatter social structure. Once people are generally aware that ‘culture flows in every direction’, the geometry changes and there is no niche that can be called Winning and the basis for putting everyone down vanishes. If your social role is to give prestige artefacts the stamp of Authentication, it is hard to accept that this authentication is a mirage and cultural creativity is everywhere. I think the flood of new graduates dissolved the elitist position - the function of de-Authentication which had worked so well for so many centuries fought its last stand and its curses lost their power to hurt. There was a paradoxical stage where the managers of prestige intensified their claims to have the monopoly of cultural assignment at the very moment when more and more people were losing faith in them. The old-style managers made terrible mistakes of artistic judgement and became incompetent and ridiculous partly because they rejected the new poetry in the interests of preserving their own central/authoritative position.
But… all that rubbish stopped. It became safer to write poetry. The rate of publication almost doubled in the Nineties - I hope someone else will research why this happened, and possibly also check the figures and see if they are counting something real. (Rate may not have increased during Nineties - indiscriminate lump-counts again. But count probably was upwards of 700 titles each year.)
I think the limit of this explanatory model is that the turning of prestige from a crystal phial held inside a fortress guarded by Geoffrey Grigson with a Bren gun into ‘a delta with hundreds of channels covering a huge area’ is so complete, the delta is so much where we live, that it is hard to think back to when things were different. The struggle to prevent it used Auden as a key symbol - conservative critics refused to read poets younger than Auden because they knew that would spoil the game. Conversely, Auden stood for poetry which was read by people outside the committed ‘poetry world’. Auden was not necessarily a cultural conservative himself. One more point - in the new world it is impossible to WIN in the sense of reaching the apex where the truly influential hang out, because there is no apex any more. Some groups on the scene may feel a hankering for this situation but it is impossible to bring it back (even by symbolic destruction of everyone else’s prestige items).
The flattening may have been identical with the process by which the number of university graduates rose from less than 40,000 to millions. As I write I hear that there are two million students in the country. We could also describe this process as ‘the apex growing by a factor of 400 or 500’ rather than as ‘the apex disappearing’.

When the ‘province of the culturally active” only included a few thousand people, the wish to be an insider was mighty. People assimilated to the central realm of culture, acquired the right accent, and didn’t want to be neglected and unfashionable. So there was a style of each era, roughly one per decade (for some reason). This really came to an end in the 1980s, and problems with describing ‘style history’ from that point on are due to the size of the elite. You have a mass elite, roughly. It is too big for one sense of poetic style to sweep the board - there are always a dozen contenders as central style. But you have clusters, and you have a time line of change within those clusters - separately. So you have “postmodernism” and there really are poets who fit the concept “postmodern” - but out of 7,000 poets (! whatever the actual count is) only a small number are writing in such a “post-modern” mode. So calling the whole era post-modern is blatantly inaccurate.
As the book says, a re-examination of the evidence finds that even the 1950s didn’t have one single style. At least three were in contention, and commentators at the time record that. But people were arguing about an “appointment to office” of a dominant “style of our time”, so there is an office of Caesar even if four people have been acclaimed Caesars in different provinces; and after about 1983 (??) people don’t do that any more.
You definitely have post-modern poets in 1983, and it seems fairly new then. But does that mean you have had 30 years of Postmodern Reign ever since then? That isn’t plausible either. But we don’t have a theologian of the postmodern telling us that it began ebbing away in (say) 1995. No, the expectation is that you throw away the rules of stylistic research in order to fall down in front of it. This is silly.

The book was finished but had to be prised open and reworked after I read Nathan Hamilton’s anthology Dear World, which was obviously very important.


Sugar sugar. When I talk about ‘Sugar Sugar’, a huge 1969 hit for The Archies which was a symbol at the time of banality and phoniness, I describe it wrongly. I hadn’t heard it for 40 years. The point is that I could still remember it, after 40 years, and that this is a sign of how strong it was as a nagging pop song. I describe my memory with a marimba that isn’t there. (It’s an organ with a woody tone played staccato.) During the write-up I chatted to my colleague Lance, who is maybe four years younger than me. He could remember 1969 and told me that ‘Sugar sugar’ was the first record he remembered enjoying and looking out for. So he was nine - ‘Sugar sugar’ was possibly aimed at pre-teens rather than teens, and maybe this is part of how it came to be number One for six weeks and yet all the ‘talk’ about it was how bad it was. Somebody liked it, didn’t they? There was that stretch emerging between increasingly sophisticated and album-oriented music at the top end and music for people aged nine to fourteen at the ‘bottom end’, and those markets were splitting from each other.

Sampson. Fiona Sampson has published a book called Beyond the Lyric (2012) which is effectively a study of poetry since 1990, even if not labelled as that. I didn’t write a detailed response to it and I am struggling to explain why. I think where Fiona is coming from is a wish not to offend anybody. Part of this is a wish for ‘propriety of scale’, so that no-one gets praised excessively. In the upshot no-one gets much praise. It is like a bird’s eye view which gets everyone in the correct proportions but diminishes everything through distance. Then, I find her classifications unusable. It may be that hundreds of different ways of grouping poets are equally effective, and that I am buried inside my personal one, which is after all how I retrieve knowledge every day. All the same I found her grouping instantly forgettable and non-illuminating. Also, it doesn’t tie on to the debates about form which poets enter into - it doesn’t connect with the conversation in bars full of poets. Sampson never mentions any comments by poets about the choices they make and the stylistic narratives they identify with. This is a kind of ultra-fairness - but it disconnects the book from its subject matter. I was very interested in chronology and in finding what was present in 2010 which wasn’t there in 1990 - or which had sunk and disappeared between 1990 and 2010. Sampson’s book has no notion of time at all. I think the background is fear of the utterance YOU’RE OUT OF DATE - something which would demolish the building and have hundreds of poets run round in circles screaming. Sampson is determined to avoid any disagreements. The book ends up giving the impression that time is not passing at all and that the scene is exactly how it was in 1965. This is surely not true. And a lot of poets are conservative, slow, and out of date. This feeds back into the classification problem - evidently being ‘modern’, and the 50 stages of being modern over the last 50 years, are vital to classifying styles, and everyone talks in terms of them. Sampson says that political poetry is very rare - this is palpably untrue; the comment means something like “I dislike political poetry so I can ignore it”, poets’ wishes about how society ought to work are tactfully dragged out of the picture - and this is very similar to dragging poets’ wishes about how poetry ought to work out of the picture, which is something else Sampson seems to be doing. Any argument about poetry puts many many poets in a bad light - so if you shut out of camera view all the arguments people have had over 30 years or so, you are apparently saving people pain - but lowering awareness to a very dim level. By trying so hard to be fair to everyone, Sampson has given away the possibility of giving cogent or satisfying descriptions.
However - FS mentions possibly 100 poets and if you went off and and read all those poets you wouldn’t do too badly. Also I see no wrong judgements about the poets she discusses. I just couldn’t build on what she wrote.

Todd Swift is apparently editing a book for Eyewear which will describe British poetry since 1999 - we can hope that covers my deficiencies. It may also come out in 2015. (This project never completed.)

Ghost town. After the ‘sugar rush’, the ghost town. The ‘ghost town’ part is because the book is written as a retrospect. It includes the 1990s, when I was so involved in the poetry scene and when so many things were happening. The sites of that time are deserted. Everything has moved on. It is possible to think about what happened because the crush of information has faded away: both memory and abstraction are possible. There is a line where understanding stops: maybe 15 years before today, maybe ten.

I include a chapter on ‘The Maltese Falcon‘. This is odd. It isn’t even a poem. Because poetry deals so much with the individual, it doesn’t build complexes of relations between several individuals which allow the spectator to project their feelings, as they do with the Falcon. The elusive and receding space is flattened, we are very close to one person - one face. I couldn’t find modern poetry which allows discussion of modern politics. The possibility has slipped away. The poems are too much about the projection of a personality. Poets are hyper-aware of sexual politics and so forth. They don’t allow a movement between guilt and innocence. Interesting write-ups of that movement have to use something else - films for example. The poets are all hyper-aware of the Police Departments of Theory and sedulously avoid topics that might be subject to re-analysis by tough Theory Cops. This is why we have to bring in a film to explain the arguments.
Poetry is acutely limited by anxiety about being exposed to ethical and social critique. The poetry we get is only what’s left over once inhibitions have put the raw material through twenty committee meetings.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Her look of startled innocence - red hair, blue eyes, schoolgirl complexion - when Sam Spade makes her admit that she shot Miles Archer is emblematic for the reaction of the lyric poet when told that all that critique of ideology and hidden labyrinths of deceit in texts applies to Them. You can’t mean Me?
If you decide that O’Shaughnessy was innocent then maybe lyric poets are too. So that Georg Lukacs shot Miles Archer. I’ve read the book (The Maltese Falcon) and I don’t believe it. Dashiel Hammett is disguising the real story. He never even mentions Lukacs. Why not?

The problem with Theory is this. Readers are often not convinced by poems. Often poems fall apart when they make a false move. The whole history of modern poetry is of a mass audience sheering away and not being interested. There are a million ways of screwing up the poem. An explanation for this is vital. But Theory provides a set of wrong explanations. It is not based on actual audience reactions. It doesn’t even think they are important.

The concept of ‘indeterminacy’ in poetry has to be connected back to the primal moment of reduction: poetry is not ambiguous the way a narrative with several characters, like the Falcon, is. The Falcon is a mystery story, it’s all about ambiguity. So poetry restores a missing indeterminacy in different ways.

Good poets encountered since I closed the book off: Peter Davidson, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Dorothy Lehane, Maria Jastrzebska, Nathan Thompson.
I began the book planning to project the thesis that the underground/mainstream opposition has disappeared, buried beneath other patterns. But that's not true. As I worked through the material this thesis became tattered, drained, finally it dissolved. Of course there are more groups in the field, the field is just larger. You have more of an opening onto the “truly modern” by the gate-keepers – Fiona Sampson gallantly tries to write something about Prynne and Raworth, for example. But there is still a huge “underworld” of poets who would never dream of opening a mainstream book, and there is still a world of the conventional where anything except direct self-presentation is just not understood. Sampson's book was published in 2012 and just about gets avant-garde poets born before 1940. The ones born after 1940 are just too modern for her. My wish for this cultural gulf to close up is too much a hope that an audience ready to read my work would slip into existence. That is, it's just a wish.

Spenser. In the book, I attribute the View of the Present State of Ireland to Edmund Spenser. Since closing the book, I have read Bruce Lenman’s England’s Colonial Wars 1550-1688 which discusses the wars in Ireland and says that the View, although published under Spenser’s name (almost 40 years after his death) was not in fact by Spenser. So we have to give this up. However, Spenser did live in Ireland for many years and did profit from imperialism by becoming owner of an estate in the forfeited and cleared province of Munster. More significantly, he was writing propaganda for Elizabeth and it was under her aegis that terrible misgovernment occurred in Ireland. All these situations ask for further analysis, more dragging in of awkward facts and unnoticed witnesses. What is the link between the Irish wars and Elizabethan court poetry?

Am spending Sunday morning checking the details in the catalogue of poets. This is where mistakes are likely to be concentrated. Exhaustion after two hours. I need a coffee. I change the date on How to make millions by Emily Critchley from 2005, as the credits in her first book say this pamphlet was published in 2004. Later, while ransacking the shelves for something else, I find the original pamphlet and the flyleaf says it was published in 2005. Right first time. Change the date back. This could go on for ever. Interesting how many of the books I want to list aren’t in the British Library catalogue. Spent 4 ½ hours just checking dates and titles. I think the conclusion is that copy-typing numbers is extremely boring.

The British Film Institute have issued Chris Welsby’s films on DVD: British Artists’ Films, Chris Welsby. 

(count of titles)
I have retrieved almost 2000 titles for 2000 from the BL catalogue, so the figure of 2700 a year may not be too far out. (This is the figure cited by Randal Stevenson in his book "The last of England?") However, crawling through the spreadsheets of titles has uncovered 800 anthologies from a single group of publishers in a regional city, certainly a single business. It looks as if the business model here is unorthodox, not primarily directed at selling to the public as a source of revenue. So I am not happy about defining such high figures as a boom. The pattern may be more like reality TV or Facebook, that people think the details of their personal behaviour are fascinating and don’t see any need for verbal art on their way to becoming famous and popular.
If we exclude those anthologies and just look at single-author titles, we still have a count of roughly 1100 for the year 2000. Of course, some of those would be based on the author paying the publisher, so not signs of an eager market for poetry. The figure is high compared to the 1970s, so it hasn’t doubled but may have gone up by 70%.

Thursday 10 December 2015

A note on Anthony Conran

A note on Anthony Conran (1931-2013) 

(Later books credited to Tony Conran.) He is such a fluent and brilliant poet, but he can foresee difficulties too cleverly, and the poems lack depth, conflict, self-contradiction, in some way. Does a poem need to have internal tension and twist? I can’t see why. I don’t think I’ve read all his books. I thought the Formal Poems (1960) were unsatisfactory, and Castles (1993) also didn’t work out. But there is also A Gwynedd Symphony (1996). Life Fund (1979) may be the best. It reminds me of Edwin Morgan. It has particular poems that could be anthologised; the “poems for paintings on silk” are good.
Conran has an Irish name and was partly Welsh by “origins”, if we care about those, but he grew up in Wales. Conran published an essay about Welsh civilisation (Anglo-Welsh Review, number 58) which defines it as a separate organism from Western Europe (that is - before the English conquest), and says that modern Wales is a survival of that civilisation. He was perpetually writing about Wales as a figure, an agent, capable of moving and having a biography; his poetry adheres to this as a maximum (he has no interest in Britain or Europe) and a minimum - he is always writing about Wales as a whole, and his poems all cohere in that urgent project. This 1977 essay shows the influence of Toynbee (who described “an Abortive Far Western Christian Civilisation”) on his thought; he acquired his ideas rather early in life, it seems, and Toynbee, Graves, and Buber gave him much of his framework. The Welsh mythical figures he was constantly writing about serve as ideals which show this Far Western Civilisation but are deployed to rebuke Welsh people for failing to live up to them as ideals. The sociological basis for this is weak.
He was a career nationalist, for want of a better word, a full-time one. The story of his poems is therefore the story of the fate of Wales - a great deal of frustration with the language fading year by year, but also a success story as originally ridiculed ideas came to be accepted by a large proportion of the population. His understanding of the nature of Wales grew ever more precise - simultaneously an increasing knowledge of what was going wrong and an intellectual victory. He was acutely aware of the failings of nationalism as doctrine and a logical development would have been into a critic of nationalism. He remained a nationalist true believer. He didn’t see the poems as solutions because the only real problem was how to liberate Wales.
A basic step in his poetry is the evocation of a mythical realm. He was very excited by the heroic narrative of Wales, myths about gods or about historical figures (prior to the loss of independence) projected to super-human scale. An influence on this may have been Graves’ The White Goddess, which takes place on the mythical level. Ken Etheridge’s 1943 book already includes a number of mythical poems about Welsh legends. There were absolutely radical problems with this manner of writing. An improvement was to reduce the vagueness by using a laconic style full of physical details, which after all attacked one of the main problems with the style that was drunk on mythology. So -

In the untrodden light
Come travellers
Pilgrims or refugees.

The young ones
Crowd their balconies
At the next cold
Draggle the heart.

Refugee camp -
Or a quality of light
Drawing us inward…

A problem with the poems is the exclusion of process from the poem by the laconic style and its typically short lines. The lineation is odd - it lacks fluency although its terseness also seems to possess authority. However, it also punctured the exalted and elusive quality of the myths - the primary attraction. Both of these styles were deeply flawed and likely to produce unconvincing poems. However, the contrast between them produced a kind of dialectic. This would produce new combinations all the time and some of these combinations would be good poems, which also had this quality of internal tension - a way of expressing the tension of historical situations, the absence of structure which allows for freedom and for acts of consciousness.
A key thing to explain is how Conran was a fluent writer, who could write hundreds of poems and not be bothered with them later, and also use this anti-fluent, even grudging, style of writing. I liked this poem about Euros Bowen:

A thick tapering trumpet,
A rhizome of bronze
In a dark forge moulded and twisted
In spiralling rounds.

A wide bloom opens for the root -
A crater of red
Like a lake of smouldering molten stone
Erupts from its bed -
(“To ask for a Bugle”, 1969)

Conran issued a book called “formal poems” (1958), which was pretty much juvenilia. A collected poems 1951-67 was published in 1974. There is a standard Anglo-Welsh poem which Conran never wrote at all, being original from the start. He took The White Goddess and developed a notion of poems based on social exchanges - gifts, marriages, etc., which would be raised to ceremonial level by the largesse of poetry. This was also a way of incorporating the pre-modern Welsh poetry, which had very frequently dealt with such moments- albeit in land-owning families. His selected poems of 2006 (The Shape of my Country) eliminate these poems almost entirely. However, some of these poems are picked up and show his later mature style in which events of history are used as a way of commenting on and staging events of the immediate present, that is in Wales. Despite the use of myth, Conran is a serious thinker: his observation of current events is very acute, he is capable of original thought about politics and that is the basis for writing serious poetry about politics. In fact, there is a tension between the information which this acuity feeds back to his brain and the objects of poetry. It is as if that acuity and his long study of events cut a way out of the poetic and nationalist and mythological presuppositions which Conran fastened onto as a teenager or young adult. Conran has done the work of understanding social processes but the payoff is missed because the information is too complex for the design of the poem he is prepared to write. An exit into large forms was strongly indicated for him. This would for most writers also be the signal for the exit from poetry into prose. In fact, Conran was much better as a prose writer, and his essays on Anglo-Welsh poetry are among the most enlightening for the foreigner. I have to say that his laconic statements have the force of truth, they point to a knowledge won by critical thought which he genuinely had won and could draw on. The selected poems (of some 120 pages) are not completely satisfactory as a career survey - it is a cleverly designed and coherent book, but the individual volumes, something over 800 pages in all, tell a more complicated story. (Did I count 800? No, but he wrote a lot of poems.)
‘A meritocracy’ is from a 1960 sequence called ‘Invocation of Angels’:

An aristocracy of intellect
Could come - has come already
In a few displaced souls
From the lost generations.

Like all aristocracies
That of the intellect
Is a matter of breeding.

This has a theme described in his notes: “Iaith (language) rather than gwlad has been the pre-occupation of both the Welsh intelligentsias at least since the 1970s. The result, the short term, has spelt some economic disadvantage for the English monoglot majority (and consequent resentment) because the new, bilingual Wales requires bilingual officers; but its long-term effects are likely to be disastrous for both communities.” The lucidity of the prose (written in 2004) reveals that Conran had done the studying and the thinking. The poem is not exciting because its theme is depressing. He rarely found optimistic subjects in Welsh politics. (Gwlad is the Land.)

“The Sisters” is from 1993:

Both sisters had their courts. Clients gathered,
Friends, conspirators, those with a phrase to offer

Or a kindness, warmth or wildness, way of the world.
The magic of their Welshness was Mediterranean,

Bright as seagulls. Lamplit palazzos
Where the twist and savour of a good story was king.

A taste of Gwales. The singing of Rhiannon’s birds.
The Assembly of the Head these umpteen years.

But in Non’s time, the door swung open, and she knew it.
Her court was at the rainbow’s end,

Time-bound. Men of action, or men hesitant
To act. Women poised in the rigmaroles of doubt.

Time. Time. And the great space beyond. The shuffling
Seas sweeping you out through Aber Henfelin

To the gannet ways, the shark roads beyond Cape Clear.

The introduction of figures from the Mabinogion is typical. (Opening the door brought paradise, on Gwales, to an end.) The style shows how many mediaeval Welsh poems he had read, it is genuinely un-English. Conran was not a Welsh speaker but had a passionate interest in the classical Welsh poetic forms and worked out a way of translating them. The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse (1967) consists wholly of his translations - the best ever, so far as I can see. Gwyn Williams also had that ability.

This note is a back-up to the “shopping list” of books of poetry 1960-97 which did not include a title of Conran’s. Over twenty years I have been pondering, at least intermittently, why I didn’t like his poetry enough and whether I should include one of his books. They were hard to find. Blodeuwedd (1988). All Hallows (1995). What Brings you Here So Late (2008) are three I haven’t read. I will read them, it’s just a question of finding copies.