Thursday, 14 September 2023

beautiful feelings

“beautiful feelings” – more themes

It is a question whether there is any influential person in the present time, or one whose ideas I should be reporting. I began thinking about this while looking at copies of Poetry Review which I had acquired in order to read up their reviews. I had an issue from 2008 and the feel was of reviewers discussing works by influential people and being deferential to them, and artistic stimuli not being much present or decisive. So I don’t discuss anybody influential in my book... I was wondering if any of these people, working at the TLS or at famous publishers, actually have any influence, apart from the obvious one of pressuring people to be more conformist. But that leaves out the issue of people being influential by the quality of their ideas, and not because they have a job which gives them patronage. (Or because they have a seat on the board of the Poetry Society and have the power to fire or appoint editors of Poetry Review.)

I think one of the prominent features of the 21st century scene is that there are no influential figures. It could be that there are people influential within particular cells of poetry and it is a question of isolating cells small enough for this power to be detectible.

There is a review by Fiona Moore in a 2016 issue of PR talking about the “Best British poems of 2015” anthology (edited by Emily Berry) which correctly points out that there is a shared Tendency in the poems chosen (like, 10 out of 71 maybe) towards erotic poems by women, and that this is related to a tendency in the USA called gurlesque and indeed that this idea was mediated by Roddy Lumsden, who pointed out to various poets that this was a workable idea. The name relates to “burlesque”, which in US theatre talk means not “comic/ parodic” but “striptease”. The poets involved are not actually girls, that too is a word which involves innuendo. I dedicate a whole chapter to the poets in that anthology and it was the dropping of inhibitions which struck me. Of course what the inhibitions were driving off stage is very complex and unfamiliar, and trying to confine it to a single idea is misleading. Googling “lumsden + gurlesque” produces 4 hits, although there are many more hits which do not show the two words within one sentence. It shows Amy Key saying “Five years ago I pitched an essay to the editors of a new edition of Gurlesque – an anthology of women poets that was central to Roddy Lumsden’s teachings. I wanted to use the essay to highlight Roddy’s incredible influence on a generation of UK poets. [...]The updated edition of the anthology however, never seems to have happened, so for what its worth I’m publishing it here, because this story is really important to me. The writing in the essay is a bit awkward and I wouldn’t write it in the same way now – its almost five years old – but I’ve left it as is.“ The US anthology came out in 2010, was edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, and featured Chelsey Minnis. When Kay says “generation” I think she means maybe 2% of an age group, and the distinction between “generation” and “tiny cell” is one I especially want to bring out. “Back in London, Roddy ran two weekly poetry workshops. In one of his classes, sometime in 2006, he introduced three poets totally unknown to everyone in the room: Chelsey Minnis, Brenda Shaughnessy and Matthea Harvey. He told us these poets were loosely known as ‘gurlesque’ writers. I can’t remember who was in the room, but around this time a few of the names I mention above were in this group with me. It was common for the poems Roddy brought to class to be taken apart—this happened most often when we were looking at work from UK poets, ones that might be defined as mainstream.“ So first we hear “generation” and now it’s one poetry class in an institute doing evening classes in Covent Garden, London. It does occur to me that there is a country outside London. This looks like a significant transmission process, Lumsden did something significant even if he hadn't invented the idea and didn’t have the skill to write poems in that style. I am doubtful about the firmness of the link between "gurlesque" and the poems in Berry's anthology.
I am facing the possibility that there might be 100 identifiable cells and that I would have to crawl through a lot of detailed evidence to identify the influences which flowed into the cell or also flowed outwards from it. To be honest I think it is better to deal with particular books close-up and leave out the question of what they are sequential to.
I don’t like the word Gurlesque, it is too close to striptease, but I would go for the word “derepression”; that is the long-term thing, continuously since the 1960s, and it has given us not just a landscape with thousands of poets but also a bewildering range of styles. If people are not conformist, then tracking influences is relatively unproductive and frustrating. That 2015 anthology gives generous space to the chosen poets to comment, and none of them mentions Gurlesque or anything like it. I found an interview with Berry about the anthology which also does not mention Gurlesque. I am grateful to Fiona Moore for pointing out the context and for observing that the editor of the series in which Berry’s anthology appeared was Roddy Lumsden.

I think someone can become influential by first of all recognising that there is no avenue for being influential on a large scale. Once they accept that the “cell” is the largest unit in which they can change the melody, they can be effective. Diversity of taste has discredited the older critics of poetry who set up a rigid ideal and became significant because they owned it. That makes you look authoritative, whereas if you recognise diversity as the sound of the time, you appear not to know anything of any value. All the same the credible critics or experts are the ones who accept diversity, that is the small size of any nameable patch. John Berger is the most tyrannical and irrational critic I can think of, someone charged up with the Stalinism of the 1950s. There were others, too. But it is hard to think of anyone like that operating today, and in fact there has been a shortage of Authority figures emerging since the 1970s. People don’t want to hear that kind of aggressive tone. I link it with territoriality, someone like Berger thought they owned the landscape and that enabled them to lay down the law. I suspect that it works in two ways, that the great range of creativity today is possible because people like that have fled into the wilderness, and that the diversity also disproves any rigid and generalising theory and discredits the would-be Commissars.
Lumsden included notes on the 85 poets in his 2010 anthology ‘Identity Parade’. The notes are really bland and passive, tending to reproduce the poet's publicity lines rather than stating anything precise. Even though he admits to copying the model of Lucie-Smith's anthology, he has none of Lucie-Smith’s ability to sum poets up. Obviously there are benefits from not being exact and analytical. In the end you could learn from Lucie-Smith how modern poetry works, but there is nobody you can learn that from today. The possibility of making a living these days comes from teaching writing classes and workshops, and that role works much better if you are passive and receptive. Encouraging students and not imposing any dogma on them. I think this is now the style of “experts”, and you can have many people being very grateful to a former teacher without subscribing to any position which they stood for. This is something to emphasise….you have plenty of people who are friendly and amenable to ideas, who want to be liked and whom you end up liking. I don’t know how to paint a picture of this, but it is certainly why you have the scene being mobbed with people who want to be poets. Also, the key ideas don't have owners.

In the book I talk about Anthony Mellors’ use of Wilhelm Müller's poem “Der Leiermann”, set to music by Schubert. I was also impressed, just now, by the use of Donovan's song “Hurdy gurdy Man” as the ominous soundtrack music to a key murder scene in David Fincher’s film “Zodiac”. Leier is a hurdy gurdy, obviously. In Donovan's lyric (to this distorted, intense, rotating psychedelic song) he talks also of “roly poly roly poly roly poly man”. I saw a reference a few days ago to a roly poly landscape. Aha – it refers to something rolling (not just to someone carrying a lot of fat). The ‘roly’ must refer to the handle of the hurdy gurdy being turned round and round. This is what causes the strings to vibrate.

Maybe if I collected stories from 100 different poetry writing classes I would have the history of poetry in the last 20 years. And that would be Success. OK, maybe I am doing the wrong kind of work. But I don't think ONE story from ONE writing class is the story of a generation.

“The RED CANDLE PRESS, Britain’s longest established formalist poetry press, was founded in 1970 by Dale Gunthorp and M. L. McCarthy, without financial capital but young and feisty enough to take on the intolerant and dictatorial prose-gone-mad poetry Establishment - it really was the Establishment then - on behalf of verse and sanity.” (ML is “Len”, apparently.) I read this website in 2023 so it seems they are still going 50 years later. (More looking digs up “After the October 2010 issue of the magazine, publication of Candelabrum was suspended indefinitely.”, but the press is still going.) It is striking that people who reject modernity do not boast about being conservative and reactionary. Not just here, they always present themselves as rebels. If you are still a beleaguered minority after 50 years it may be that you are simply unresponsive to modern art, as opposed to being about to bring about its final defeat and exit from the scene.

A problem has emerged in the shape of a curve. The figures I have (from forays into the British Library catalogue) have the following percentages for women poets (of single-author collections):

2000 38.4%
2010 36.1%
2019 41.9%

The expected upward drift is not there. Evidently the percentage was rising during the Nineties:
1990 29.5%
1995 32.2%

but on this quite extensive evidence it has also seized up after the new century started. I was really surprised to see this. I would have expected the movement to stall, not at 50%, but somewhere in the 50s. I can do another crawl-through of the data, but I can't see corrections affecting this basic contour. Of course the basic catalogue entries give you names and you have to guess what the gender is, which leaves a region of uncertainty, perhaps 2% of the names. One can look these up one by one and resolve some fraction of them, but that is very tedious. Anyway the percentages do not shift much if you carry out that exercise.
I can’t interpret this curve. I analysed the titles listed by the Poetry Book Society, for a 5 year period 2017 to 2022, and in that set 55% of the poets were women. I also can't analyse why this is different from the ratio in the complete data (which in theory would include also Bad Poets).
A question would be if the increase of women poets has meant a decrease of male poets. No, because the overall count of titles has increased steeply and so both shares have been growing at the same time. It follows that 40% in 2019 actually means more poets than 40% in 2000. However, it is surprising that the moment of “50% of poets publishing are women” does not seem to be close.

It is interesting to compile these spreadsheets and work through them, cleaning up the data. The titles give you a glimpse of how the poet sees the poetic world. Aesthetic response is based on actually reading the poems and I would probably not know more than 4% of these poets. They number in thousands. Looking at the whole mass of poets gives you a different perspective. It may be that you would find two radically different histories if you looked at "400 poets earnestly publishing" and "200 effective and ambitious poets", and write two different books about them.

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