Michael Horovitz’ 1969 campaigning anthology, Children of Albion: Poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain was the first widely available gathering of the British Poetry Revival. Unlike Andrew Duncan in his recent book, The Failure of Conservatisim in British Poetry, I do not think this 'the worst book I have ever read'; indeed, it was one of the first books (of poetry) I ever read and, for all its faults, gives an insider's account of the Literary Underground. Essentially this is a collection of writings by persons associated either with Horovitz’ long-running little magazine New Departures, or with the series of readings/performances called Live New Departures. Both ventures began in 1959, and the latter delivered 1500 ‘shows’ during an eight-year period in the 1960s at various venues, ranging from the Marquee pop club to the Institute of Contemporary Arts. This variety indicates an ability and willingness to mix high and low culture, without having to ironize the difference between them; Adrian Mitchell’s dictum that ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’ was a clear challenge to the exclusiveness of the Movement poets and their book-bound means of distribution. (Children of Albion, pp. 356-57.)
In 1960, Horovitz with others (such as Mitchell and Pete Brown, who later wrote song lyrics for Cream) began to write and perform poetry that derived heavily from the American Beat writers, particularly the trinity of Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti, who were to achieve wide currency when, in 1963, the popular Penguin Modern Poets series issued a volume of their work in Britain. At ‘Live New Departures’ ‘gigs’ (as poets, like musicians, came to call readings), poetry was read to jazz performed by some of the best British jazz musicians, and, on occasions, Roy Fisher, himself an accomplished pianist, played. In contrast to the Movement, and looking back to the popular performances of Dylan Thomas, these poets believed that the sound of poetry was as important as its sense, performances completing the inert words on the page. Thus a social aim (to broaden the appeal of poetry) coincided with an aesthetic aim: ‘voice’ in poetry was no longer a metaphor for ironic modulation; the voice was a performance instrument of communal gathering, and (often) the voice of political protest, which broke abruptly with the quietism of the Movement poets of the 1950s.
Most of the British Beats, however, did not innovate beyond mere imitation of their American models. Rather than the vatic passion of Ginsberg’s Howl (1955) their followers slipped into easy whimsy. British Beat poetry modulates towards the one-shot (and sexist) joke, possibly as a result of responding too readily to the demands of a live (and, as I shall argue in the last part of this history, male) popular audience.
Many British writers began by reading the American Beats, including Lee Harwood, from 1958-61 a student of English Literature at Queen Mary College. Like others, he discovered their work around 1960, chiefly in Donald M. Allen’s influential American anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960. After the work of the Movement (which Harwood has characterized as ‘dull, boring, & smug’), reading the Beats was an imaginative release: ‘They said: ... “You don’t have to have gone to a Public School and Oxford and Cambridge before you can write.”’ Whereas he found Movement work ‘remote’, Harwood speaks of
for the first time picking up a printed book, where people were talking about the world you knew, that you lived in, and were expressing what you felt were your feelings, confused and gauche as they may have been at the time.
A predominantly educated (often art-school and working‑ class) audience, with interests in CND, drugs, modern jazz and street life, could find affinities with those hipster ‘best minds’ of Ginsberg’s Columbia ‘generation destroyed by madness’, and authorized Harwood, for example, to write of his own life, environment and involvement with drugs, in ‘Cable Street’ (1964-65).
All three American Beats, British writers such as Adrian Mitchell, and the Viennese sound poet Ernst Jandl, read at the most spectacular poetry event of the decade, the Royal Albert Hall Poetry Incarnation of 1965, when over 7000 people listened to four hours of poetry. In Horovitz’ polemic this is a central occasion, a success on both aesthetic and social grounds, even if Horovitz’ claim that on that day ‘poem after poem resonated mind-expanding ripples of empathy’ sounds hyperbolic. (CA, p. 337)
Ginsberg, of course, had by this time become a prophet of the underground, an exemplar of a new, liberated sensibility: at the Albert Hall reading, chanting a mantra to finger cymbals, he was described by Jandl as ‘the soul’ of the flower-festooned audience. (CA, p. 338) ‘At poetry readings and teach-ins,’ Theodore Roszak wrote, ‘he need not even read his verses: he need only appear in order to make his compelling statement of what young dissent is all about.’
But this new-found populism was not congenial to all who had discovered Ginsberg’s early work and literary influence. ‘There was a whole group of English sub-beat poets,’ Tom Raworth recalled in 1989. ‘It’s like tossing the quarter bottle of whiskey out of the mini as you drive down the M16 - it doesn’t work at all, there’s a whole different way of going about things.’ By about 1965 Harwood felt he had learnt all that he could from the Beats, and distrusted the polemical ‘ranter’ element in their verse, ‘telling people how to live’. In an uncollected ‘Train Poem’ (published in Great Works magazine in 1975), entitled ‘At the ‘New Departures’ Reading 1975, Not 65’, Harwood looked back to this era to question the sixties’ programmatic euphoria; its creativity was ultimately mindlessly destructive:
Crush the flowers ‘underfoot’
that have been picked,
and scattered on the floor,
while talking of ‘love & joy’.
Indeed, ‘love’ - a key word for the underground audience - would become a rhetorical trademark of the poets who were to reap the benefit of the media exposure for accessible popular poetry. These were the Liverpool Poets, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, who were to be published in three collections during 1967, including The Mersey Scene, Penguin Modern Poets 10, which was (and continued to be, in updated form) an extremely popular volume. They were again able to mix avant-garde and popular culture in an accessible (and saleable) form, and extended their work, not just through a Liverpudlian association with the Beatles, into performance, which lay somewhere between stand-up comedy and the happening.
When Children of Albion appeared in 1969, some ground had been prepared by The Mersey Scene. There are many writers among the 63 included whose work might be thought to be out of place: for example, poems by John Arden, Michael Hastings and Bernard Kops, who are better-known, and more talented, as playwrights. It has been a particular feature of the British Poetry Revival that it has re-discovered radical artists who have been obscured; Horovitz features Paul Potts and Philip O’Connor, the former a remnant of Dylan Thomas’ Fitzrovia, the latter a minor, but individualistic, surrealist writer of the 1930s. Some writers, then quite young, published immature work: David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier and John James would be thought of as Cambridge poets, Carlyle Reedy as an intermedia artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay as a leading concrete poet. Some writers were fortunate enough to be represented by mature work: Gael Turnbull, Edwin Morgan, Jim Burns, Tom Raworth, Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood. For example, Roy Fisher’s selection includes both late and early work: the favoured anthology pieces from his first major work City (1961), ‘The Entertainment of War’ and ‘Starting to Make a Tree’, the first poem from the major sequence ‘Interiors’ (1967), and a poem from the late fifties, ‘The Hospital in Winter’ which is one of Fisher’s least characteristic poems, in that it approaches the realism and rational structure of the Movement Orthodoxy. Harwood’s selection is also uneven, but it also shows a greater immersion in the general concerns of the underground, though with some important reservations. (The reasons for this are partly generational: Fisher was born in 1930, Harwood in 1939.) Two of his finest poems, ‘As Your Eyes Are Blue’ and ‘Plato was Right Though’ are included, but so is ‘sciencefic’, which remained uncollected after the pamphlet title illegible (1965), and which, with its surreal edge, shares the whimsicality of the British Beats.
A persistent theme for many writers in the anthology was drugs and drug-taking, in the work of such poets as Anselm Hollo, Alexander Trocchi, Tom McGrath and Mark Hyatt. In Bomb Culture (1968), the poet Jeff Nuttall claims that the interest in drugs reflected a desire for the dissolution of an unacceptable self, to effect the ‘reasoned derangement of all the senses‘ that Rimbaud recommended for the ‘visionary’ poet and which contemporary thinkers, such as Herbert Marcuse, recognized as an attempted utopian gesture.
Various kinds of inconsequential subjective notation of so-called expanded consciousness in the anthology fortunately contrast with poems, such as Mark Hyatt’s ‘Smoked’ and Lee Harwood’s ‘Love in the Organ Loft’. Hyatt, a heroin addict who committed suicide in 1972, was described by Geoffrey Thurley as ‘the strangest and most talented poet’ in the anthology; he ‘writes like a newcomer to language, to the world it opens up’. (There are rumours of a Salt volume of his work.) In ‘Smoked’ he balances despair and desire, and describes ‘a feeling of dreamy nonchalance, heightened awareness, bursts of introspection, mellowing attitude towards one’s fellow man ... and a formidable sense of contempoaraneity’ (to quote Richard Neville, from the hippie Bible Playpower, on the effects of marijuana):
It goes through the body like a satellite
because one wanted it that way
holding back a mouthful of air.... (CA, p. 152)
An image of love and peace, a cliché of the era, as we have seen, is forcefully imaged in the controlled and hopeful surrealism of the poem’s end, which no contemporary reader could fail to relate to the continuing war in Vietnam:
I hope the war in the apple-orchard ends soon
for all the missiles I’ve are filled with love
and they will drop like birds from the sky
on the drawings of desire in this heart. (CA, p. 152)
This poem may be usefully compared to Lee Harwood’s ‘Love in the Organ Loft’, which, although it begins in disarming innocence (‘It is April - of course. (Why should songs have all/the good lines? - like “I love you”, too.)’) (CA, p. 97)) deals with the ‘morbid masochism’ of an involvement with heroin. (CA, p.100) The post-Beat Harwood takes over much of the tone of Frank O’Hara and the New York school he visited, but darkens it considerably. He places his narrator within the painful context of personal relationships.
But what can this mean - that I should
sit here all night watching over my love
& at the same time I fix
more than double my usual intake
to feel without compassion my brain wince & flatten
under chemical blows -
cocaine memories now repeated, though on a less brutal scale. (CA, p. 99)
The poem presents a collage of viewpoints, from that of ‘cocaine memories’ to the ‘adoration’ for the loved one that ‘fills my eyes with happy tears’; (CA, pp. 99-100) the passage of time is uncertain, as night approaches morning, and everything, except the opposed realities of human life and drug addiction, is ‘disturbing and disordered’ in a paranoid world of accidental and unrelated occurrences, that counterpoints the narrator’s desire for the ordinary. (CA, p. 97-100) However, there is a further aspect of the poem that reveals a less savoury trait of the sixties underground. There is a certain self-satisfied (and, given its yearnings, ironical) smugness in its consideration of ordinary people in the ‘straight’ society, from the point of view of a ‘deranged’ bohemian.
But everything on this (surface) level is so disjointed
that it can make even this possible act of kindness
appear to ‘THEM’ as ‘foolishness’ (if ‘they’ feel patronizing)
or ‘absurdity’ (if ‘they’ feel insecure that day).
(A ‘definition’ of ‘them’/’they’: ‘They’ shampoo their cars on
Sundays, each holding a red plastic bucket.) (CA, p. 98)
When the poem was reprinted, these heavily-laboured final two lines were omitted. In attempting to expose the clichés of the ‘straight’ society with his scare quotes, Harwood has merely exposed his own.
The generational dichotomy of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ is often alluded to in the rhetorical gesturing of Horovitz’ ‘Afterword’, whose apparent extemporized structure allows its author to side-step analysis. Its nervous excitement may reflect the time at which it was written - April 1968 – between the Movement of March 22 and the subsequent Paris student and worker riots, and between the two major anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in Grosvenor Square, London, and with apparently concerted unrest breaking out at every educational institution. At times Horovitz writes as if the underground was a formal cultural opposition, waiting for the edifices of ‘their’ society to tumble so that ‘we’, the bohemians, can take over. Indeed, as Tom McGrath wrote, ‘The revolution has taken place WITHIN THE MINDS of the young.’ It was merely a question of turning the subjective and the artistic into the objective and new utilitarian; Horovitz predicted a successful campaign of infiltration: ‘Spreading an aesthetic wing for the daily more effectual changes wrought by students - & teachers - all over’. (CA, p. 372)
But what would this aesthetic wing, this fifth column of underground thinkers and poets be? Ginsberg, Roszak writes, ‘is a protest poet. But his protest does not run back to Marx; it reaches out, instead, to the ecstatic radicalism of Blake.’ Blake was a pertinent influence during the 1960s (and later). The Albion who fathered Horovitz’ generation of poets was the spirit of a compassionate radical England, who appears principally in Blake’s Jerusalem, Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-07). There was a general belief that the revival of poetry and imagination could be an apolitical model for massive societal change. As Horovitz put it, ‘The mutual response between people determined to free their spirits can simultaneously give birth to the architecture of that liberation.’ (CA, p. 371) There was a desire to heed the words attributed by Blake to the artist-revolutionary figure Los, in Jerusalem: ‘I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s;/ I will not reason or compare; my business is to create.’ Creativity, valorized here twice, is elevated over reason; Blake’s attack on empiricist philosophy is re-read as an attack upon the instrumentalist reason that, for example, supported the Vietnam War. Blake’s teasing ambiguity – that to create a ‘system’ is actually to replicate one’s repression, that one might be enslaved by one’s own system – was conveniently ignored. It was read as a libertarian gesture to do ‘your own thing’ (in the parlance of the day).
Blake’s illuminated books may be viewed as some of the earliest small press publications. He was an example to writers who had turned away from the world of the formally published book. More importantly, poetry was a prime weapon in the underground’s arsenal, not because it could be used for propaganda purposes, but because it was in aesthetic experience that the very model - what Horovitz calls the ‘architecture’ - of the change in consciousness and society lay. R.D. Laing, himself an important figure in the underground as an anti-psychiatrist, famous for declaring that insanity was the result of familial and societal repression, and peripherally involved with Live New Departures as a poet and pianist, writes of the oppositional role of the imagination in this battle, as being both psychological self-preservation and radical activity.
Words in a poem... attempt to recapture personal meaning in personal time and space from out of the sights and sounds of a depersonalized, dehumanized world. They are bridgeheads into alien territory. They are acts of insurrection.
Poetry, it seems, can create an image of another world that is historically irrepressible. Such works ‘generate new lines of force whose effects are felt for centuries’.
Lee Harwood, in the conclusion of ‘Cable Street’, seems to concur with this view. He combines in his multi-faceted narrative the evidence of the senses, drugs, a significant reference to Blake, everyday life (without the supercilious elitism here), and the final plea for a new sensibility, for a political revolution. Horovitz’ ‘aesthetic wing’, he predicted, ‘will surely be in the “running” of such countries as last out to, well – 1984?’ (CA, p. 372) It was a fateful, and bad, guess.
The 1960s were an affluent time for the young, as the 1970s and 1980s proved not to be. Economic well-being, and educational expansion (particularly in the new universities, polytechnics and art colleges) encouraged experimental diversity in the arts, even if the revolution was slower, more ambiguous, than was supposed by Horovitz and others, and found the relationship between utopian politics and its poetry equivocal. Behind the pronouncements of Horovitz and others stand not just Blake, but the work of Herbert Marcuse. A non-conformist Marxist philosopher, Marcuse had described how a capitalist society assimilates working-class protest by making the population define itself only through accelerated participation in consumerism (by advertising and other coercive means). Again, small presses, as Ken Edwards suggests, are part of a rebellion against this. Indeed, it seemed to Marcuse, in An Essay on Liberation, written in the United States in 1968, that the wider youth movement and underground was undermining the values of the dominant society, of participating in the ‘Refusal’ as many others had noted. Moreover, in the words of Fredric Jameson, Marcuse sees in the new sensibility and the new sexual politics an application of the artistic impulse to the creation of a new life-style itself, to the concrete acting out of the Utopian impulse.
Marcuse argues that the aesthetic, manifested in the behaviour of the young, is a model for a ‘light, pretty, playful’ free society, that is nevertheless rational enough to utilize science and technology, not for the reduction of human beings to consumers, but to distribute its scarce resources with equity and compassion.
Technique would then tend to become art, and art would tend to form reality: the opposition between imagination and reason, higher and lower faculties, poetic and scientific thought, would be invalidated. Emergence of a new Reality Principle: under which a new sensibility and a desublimated scientific intelligence would combine in the creation of an aesthetic ethos. Art, or artistic consciousness – even Horovitz’ aesthetic wing - becomes a weapon for establishing that which does not yet exist. ‘The new object of art is not yet ‘given’, but the familiar object has become impossible.’ The new reality requires a new language, as Blake had realized. We’ve been teetering on the edge of finding it ever since.
To be continued next month: What the Chairman Really Told Tom, as we go into the 1970s. Read a later take on 'The Underground' here.