Thursday 24 March 2022

1970s book finally out

'Nothing is being suppressed", my book about British poetry in the 1970s, is now published. You can buy it through the Shearsman website.
The booklist I included shows about 100 good poets working in the 70s, whereas I only write about 35 of them within the book. Notes on some of the poets I left out are here: capsule
and here: capsule
For more about the book, see entries under the label 'Nothing is being suppressed' in the column at the right of the screen. A list of poets I have written about, in many publications, and including many 70s poets, is on this post here:
reviews list
I regret that I didn't discuss every single poet in detail, but there is only so much you can do. I have written about almost all the 100 poets mentioned, but the texts are not all collected in one place.

I should express thanks to Kevin Nolan, for insisting on the merits of some Cambridge poets roughly 1975-80. I should have known about their work, after all I was there, but I didn’t. And, to Harry Gilonis, for suggesting a few extra Long Poems to make the list more complete.
That doesn't sound very generous, so let me admit that, while I didn’t discuss the book much with other people while writing it, I have drained endless knowledge from other people over a period of 45 or so years. A number of anthologies gave me the poets to follow up, Lucie-Smith’s anthology in first place. For the book, I read Peter Porter’s pieces from the Observer, in an on-line form of the original Seventies issues, and they were all fascinating and informative. This kind of thing doesn't happen without soaking up knowledge from informants, who themselves had soaked up knowledge from many other informants, so that my debt is to a whole network of the cultured and enthusiastic.

Someone has written in to point out a mistake. "MD", in Suicide Bridge, is not Montague Druitt but Marcel Duchamp. Who knew? Offer: anyone who identifies a mistake will get a free copy of all the mistakes.
"A passage about Montague Druitt illustrates this:
prisoner of the sharpened future cone
‘orbit of the Killing vector’
old question: is there death before life
MD cut it into the accident elbow
of his glass, his black keyhole
refined into inertia
it was found
among the grinding mills, the cones
a pattern
presented to him, trace elements
of the dying molecular equation
fuel’d his insight, brought his own decay
the magnitude
of what he could not see"

- so this is Duchamp and the 'grinding' refers to "the bachelor's chocolate grinding machine". The glass is "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)" (le grand verre).

Tuesday 22 March 2022

book on 70s finally out

Nothing is Being Suppressed; British Poetry in the 1970s

This book is a pioneering attempt to roll back misrepresentation and depersonalisation and recover one of the most high-achieving eras of British poetry. The Seventies saw the collapse of the post-war settlement amid apparently insoluble problems over inflation and profitability. Consensus broke down and a lot of things that people remember about the 1970s didn’t actually happen. The outcome for poetry was a radical attempt to write down ideas about a different society and personal lifestyle, but also a polarised climate in which one faction tried to erase others from the record. Right-wing historians like to write about the period as an error in which all trajectories led inevitably to the rise of Thatcherism and that rise corrected the error. But it is equally valid to be fascinated by the other social possibilities and to appreciate art for imaginary paths that were not followed. Is it not true that the Seventies saw styles of good poetry (maybe bad poetry too?) which have been lost to memory ever since?? The role of the implicit was destabilised in the Seventies, and we are trying to recover what was shared but unstated. A list of 100 long poems suggests the direction that poetry went in, and that the idea of extension and exploration was to mend social memory and restore a shared language. Right and Left felt equally threatened and in need of reciting ideological primal scenes. Most of the text is about the long poems, following them as they attempt to reframe seized-up arguments. A larger rhythm, a deeper scan. A wider range of voices. Returning to the unenclosed field where myth, law, and sociology are still tentative and unstable. In doing so, it dredges up unrecorded layers of a buried time. It reveals how Iain Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge develops a circular theory of time from up to the minute theories about faster than light particles and the end of black holes. This is not the only deviant theory of Time floating around. We find that “the dream is over”, but why is it that this key moment has been variously located anywhere from the death of Stalin to the break-up of Pink Floyd? Repeated bulletins announcing the decease of the counter-culture, squatland, and hippies hearing secret harmonies, just showed that those features were here to stay. Elsewhere, the narrative records that malice and distorted reporting of someone else’s speech and conduct are actually part of the social structure and not something fleeting and forgettable. It also offers tuition in the correct use of the phrase “it’s cosmic man” as part of gracious living.

Featured poets include Jack Beeching, Euros Bowen, Paul Brown, Gerard Casey, Andrew Crozier, Paul Evans, Allen Fisher, Roy Fisher, Eddie Flintoff, Ulli Freer, Michael Gibbs, W.S. Graham, Harry Guest, Ralph Hawkins, Frances Horovitz, Nicki Jackowska, Philip Jenkins, David Jones, Antony Lopez, George MacBeth, Sorley MacLean, Rod Mengham, Edwin Morgan, Eric Mottram, Peter Porter, J. H. Prynne, Kathleen Raine, Jeremy Reed, Colin Simms, Iain Sinclair, Iain Crichton Smith, Ken Smith, Martin Thom, Gael Turnbull, John Wain, John Powell Ward.
and see this website for some of the poets I left out.

Saturday 5 March 2022

Rules of the elite

Thinking about Allott and his anthology … again

I am revisiting Allott via a set of email exchanges with Simon Jenner and John Goodby. We started with Charles Osborne’s memoirs and discussion of the impersonal style of arts management, with objective and apparently anti-artistic criteria taking over. Osborne was writing about this in 1986, as he left the Arts Council. It takes us back to the late stage of the rule of connoisseurs, as what the impersonal style replaced. A good example is Allott’s Penguin anthology (one edition in 1950 and another in 1962) with its central decision to include 39.5% of Oxford graduates in its selection of poets. This covered the period 1918 to 1960. That one figure sums up the horror so many people have for the dominance of choice. It links in to a vision of uncontrolled elitism: an in-group owns poetry, reproduces itself, shuts everyone else out. They set standards of taste by which other groups become out-groups. In the bad vision, this elite compiles a product which drives most of the audience away. There is a whole new cultural market, but poetry can’t keep up with it and becomes an old-fashioned genre run by old-fashioned people. The impulse is to eliminate choice as a factor. The guess is that if you edit and subsidise poetry according to bureaucratic, governmental criteria then it will do much better. John disliked Allott's notes, which sometimes include more words than the poems he is supposedly presenting.
Note that if you add in Cambridge graduates it becomes 60%. We are looking at what happened to “validated” 18 year olds, but if we had more evidence we would probably see that they had already been to one of a fairly small number of “good schools” and had probably encountered English teachers who actually read modern poetry. The unfairness starts early on. People don’t like this... they want the outcome of the game to be unknown before the game is played. They do not want to observe X being given a coupon at the age of seven and cashing that coupon in, aged 30, as entry into a Penguin anthology.
I have just acquired Heath-Stubbs’ 1946 book. It is good, although I think he gave up trying to be good at a certain point in the 1950s. At this distance in time, we can say that there were objective risks… because Heath-Stubbs failed, there was evidently a risk of failure. He wrote a lot of bad poetry and people lost interest. Being in “8 Oxford Poets” was apparently a ticket, but maybe a ticket to obscurity. The malice of his immediate peers is the objective risk; this is a game that people can lose. Martin said Heath-Stubbs was “a coming man who never came”; I think they had known each other for 40 years at that point. Actually, Allott’s poetic career was pretty disastrous. Both Allott and Heath-Stubbs were clearly under a lot of strain… they knew they were losing the game. “Privilege” does not capture this situation with any precision.
John sent us a copy of a floridly Apocalyptic poem:

O antique vistas of stone sarcophagi,
Silent except for the stammer of literature
Through millennia,
Whose yellowing relics caricature and festoon the
Dropped anonymous features of this ice-era;
All plasm shaped to human symmetry
Through shell-coiled generations of incessant downpour;
Assemble backward out of charred time’s collapse.
Honeycomb each coxcomb
With drums for the dead and sea-green elegiacs,
Ring now like tinnitus in every ear.
Hands, be immersed in suffering like a surgeon,
And eyes, probe everywhere.

O agnus mundi, baa-lamb inhabiting
The inhibiting volcanic ranges of today,
Hovered over by harpies, restricted to cavities
And fissures out of the metre of time’s way,
Labyrinthine limp hero of a thousand epics,
Miles from the mild archipelagos of content,
Let these who underline your rhythms and stresses
Warn you like sirens of imminent judgement;
Sailors at sea
With their mercy of coracles and compasses,
Learn with the flashing miracle at last discernment.
Let their lives warp you away from the thinly-roofed crevasses.
You need not go astray, as they do, in the mountain passes.

Yet what heartbreak we have managed to mint between
The abstract cold that eyes us and the iron fire,
In our cage-bubble of doom barely six miles high,
Our quaking littoral with its sastrugi of pressure
Where nothing is shipshape, and time
Flares like a vesta and finds
An odour of memory like a pink keepsake.
Spreadeagled fall from your precipice of pride
Crying ‘Peccavi’,
Who futile and supine rut in the folded hills,
Wishing disasters may happen somewhere else.
The shadows are eerie,
The eyelids heavy,
The chances of flowers go out like a life on the tide.
(‘Ode in Wartime’, part of)
The strange thing is, this is by Kenneth Allott. So he wrote some audenesque poems in the Thirties... got carried away by the New Romantic style and wrote terrific poems from inside it… then joined the enemies of the New Romantic thing… and compiled a standard anthology which eliminated the New Romantic thing from the record. And lost the ability to write.

Maybe in his depressing poet-analyses Allott is doing an autopsy of the cadaver of his own talent. Those poems were reprinted – after his death. The early-50s reaction against Apocalypse was a punishment of Allott as much as anybody else. The friends he valued so much had decided that this style was Outside Good Taste and this enactment prevented him from any further creative fulfilment. This is a really interesting story.
In the notes (in his anthology), Allott is squeezing young poets like someone juicing a grapefruit… it’s horrible. But it’s not outsiders who are getting this treatment, it is insiders, young insiders. He has Thwaite and Levi on board but you get no idea of what they were going to do, he only sees flaws. He apparently knows everything about that little Insider group, and they are homogeneous and so knowable. But he totally fails to get those two, even though they are going to be the “star” Oxford poets a few years later. Relations inside the dominant group are so interesting. They certainly aren't friendly all the time. Yes there is hostility towards outsiders, they are “blanked”, excluded; but the hostility among insiders is more cogent. The Wars of the Roses were a huge series of factional struggles between members of the elite, often related to each other; they weren’t fights between the nobility and the peasants. You can't bring those fights on stage because they didn't happen.

I wrote: “Even more about Allott. Martin said about Heath-Stubbs 'a coming man who never came'. This could be like someone selling wine in an honest way… I can imagine Martin saying 'a touch of the cat-piss but excellent value for money'. In a wine-shop where you go on Friday night and he knows his stock because he is always drinking it.” This is Martin Seymour-Smith, a genuine Forties poet whom Simon and I knew well many years later. John Goodby said “I’m not saying Allott was a manager anyway - don’t know enough about him. I just don’t like the censorious, anti-pleasure, nit-picky nature of his prose intros in that anthology.” John is quite right about this. We are looking at the Oxford network as the most privileged people, ones freed from the usual controls. This does not seem to have worked for Allott. This is the most interesting thing in the story. How can you have a system where people at the apex are not free, can’t do what they want? Surely that makes the apex unattractive? So maybe the Apocalypts demanded freedom, seized it… and were punished by the real managers for doing so.
All through those Notes (skewering the poets he is anthologising), he sounds unhappy… that is being presented as the prestige behaviour. He gives away pure freedom to get into interrogation and collecting evidence. I mean, you don’t sell wine by showing people who drink it and don’t enjoy it. He doesn’t even answer the question, why did you decide to spend your life doing this.
If you think about the wine trade, the people who face the public actually enjoy wine. They even enjoy getting a bit drunk. They stimulate people to buy – that is an aspect of spreading knowledge. They can do the talk because they really know what wine is about – a taste you enjoy. The elite which Allott was part of was not hedonistic. They lost a lot of ground in the Sixties as people came along who did take a hedonistic attitude towards poetry. The strange thing is, this mixture of austerity and Close Reading is moving towards an impersonal-bureaucratic style of decision-making. If it is not based on pleasure, what is the point of personal choice? It has to be “I like this one, I don’t like that one”; if you don’t enjoy the ones you like, the whole project has run out of fuel. I mention wine because it was something which around 1930 only a tiny number of people were enthusiastic about, and it was an aspect of upper-class pleasures which made that downward journey, it was marketed and people wrote How To books about it and now a couple of million people are involved. You know, wine, Mediterranean holidays, visiting art galleries, French food. Downwardly mobile pleasures. A whole package of things which poetry somehow isn’t part of.
We need to go back to where we started, with an impersonal decision style in the arts and documents written in management-speak. It seems like a big disaster. You can’t market leisure commodities in that way. But there are unsolved problems to do with connoisseurship and personal choice. These tend to come out when people discuss anthologies. If you make an anthology with 85 poets today, you have probably a thousand poets who didn’t make the cut seething with resentment. That sort of resentment is now a big part of the conversation around poetry. I guess the conversation must be productive of something. I suspect also that it displays the spread of privatisation and the destruction of shared and public space. Is it too much to admit that the other team has won?