Armoured in arrogance
There is a collection of stray essays (and questionnaire replies) by the art critic Harold Rosenberg which includes a piece on “The avant garde”, 1969. He says “Seeing particulars in the perspective of their historic outcome, the avant-garde has brought into being the arrogant notion of the utterly worthless. Works, actions, persons, whole races for whom the future has no use are cast upon “the rubbish heap of history”, and the sooner they are gotten rid of the better. The elimination of historical discards is a necessity of sanitation, and the ability to recognize this necessity and the courage to respond to it are among the qualifications of the future-building elite. As the personification of the advanced forces of time, the avant-garde is thus obliged to adopt ruthlessness as a moral principle, the ruthlessness dramatized by Raskolnikov in eliminating the old-woman pawnbroker as a “human louse”.” (The book is Discovering the Present, 1973)
This has a lot to do with the idea of the “British poetry revival”, actually with its external history. There is no doubt that people adopted this “street cleaner” role as members of the avant garde. There is no doubt either that the momentum built by Mottram, in his 1974 “catalogue” and in other statements of the Seventies, excited people, and that individually they accepted the role of being the star actors of history. Other people, who were ascribed the role of being obsolete and irrelevant, were less convinced by the proposal. The elite were self-validating and they collectively owned a kind of camera which took photographs in which most poets did not appear. These photographs were supposed to be capturing the Future, but when the Future arrived it looked nothing like the photographs.
I have been exercised by emails (from Riley P and Nolan K) saying that the British Poetry Revival never happened. When further details arrived, it emerged that they were not denying the existence of the 46 poets whom Eric defined as the “revival”, nor their importance as creative artists, but rather that they were rejecting the momentum and specifically the self-validation of younger poets (those emerging after 1977, to put it crudely) who were encased in arrogance. So there really isn’t an issue about whether the British Poetry Revival happened. What is at issue, for them, is the validity of avant garde “street cleaner” arrogance and its consignment of everybody else to a rubbish-heap (and eventual landfill). We don’t need to investigate this in order to write a book about poetry in the 1970s.
The Rosenberg piece is useful because it proves that the “blinding arrogance” behaviour was present before Mottram got involved with publicising modern poetry and so that it was just part of an ideology which was perfectly available to students in 1969, and other times. Various books sold the idea of modernist destiny. Jeff Nuttall was much more immersed in it than Mottram was. Herbert Read published, between the 1930s and the 1960s, many books in which this idea was available, and these were the books students were likely to read. Read was not fanatical, but he was willing to publish surveys of 20th C art in which only modernism was deemed worthy of coverage. Nuttall taught at arts colleges and had this idea, that nothing had happened in the 20th C except modernism. By the time a 19 year old could define themselves as a Dadaist and get course credits at art college for the intellectual quality of their Dadaist year’s work, something essential had changed. How many art students had defined themselves as Dadaists and surrealists in 1969?
I had a long and fruitful email exchange recently with a poet who can be categorised as ”mainstream” (broad as that term is). He remarked how, whenever he encountered inmates of the experimental scene, they always started proceedings by assuming that he was incredibly stupid, unconscious, unable to understand his own situation; whereas they were Cup Bearers of the Future. This is a long-term problem. I suppose the idea that he could read their work and point out artistic flaws in it didn’t even occur to them as a possibility. He just didn’t have voting rights.
I doubt that I need to go over the terrain trying to find out if the published poets were arrogant. I just don’t need this result to evaluate the poetry, which exists outside the limits of the personality and was always expected to do that. I have to observe that the “alternative” scene, as it has existed, not very stably, since 1977, has involved a lot of people who created very high-intensity work. You could even say that high expectations of oneself were the predisposing factor which let them execute this work. Anyway, it is the work I am interested in and not the wattage of their self-regard.
It may not be incredibly productive to pursue these questions of definition at length. However, I have produced a book about the Seventies in which the idea of the British Poetry Revival plays a central role. Obviously the descriptions of individual texts are more important, but the “overall geography” is also part of the story I tell. I am expounding this argument on my blog page because I want it to be available as a reference – and so I can leave it out of the book.
As for the landfill, I have always defined myself as a historian, so I regard landfills full of old art as the land I harvest from, not as junk. Rosenberg has a brilliant description of the difference between a museum and a junk shop, which says that they are buildings containing the same kind of commodity. (“The difference between the museum and the junkshop is reverence.”) When I started with all this, it was the “alternative poets” of the 1970s who were on the market as junk work, while numerous available critical surveys simply passed over them in silence.
The foreword makes it clear, with a rather brilliant obliquity, that Rosenberg didn’t want a collection of this kind and scarcely saw it as a book. All the same Rosenberg was a nonpareil as cultural commentator. The introduction (recycled from a 1972 symposium in Partisan Review) says “The cultural revolution of the past hundred years has petered out. Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it. Today’s aesthetic vanguardism is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, by state arts councils, by museums, by industrial and banking associations[…] The art-historical media have become thoroughly blended with the mass media and with commercial design and decoration under the slogan of community art programs.” Ouch!