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Monday, April 25, 2005

Robert Sheppard: A History of the Other, part three

The Seventies: What the Chairman Really Told Tom

In 1966 the Association of Little Presses was formed as a self-help organization for those involved in non-commercial publication, usually of poetry. Until his retirement as chairman in 1985, Bob Cobbing was a key figure in the organization. Founder members included both large and small presses, for example, Fulcrum and Writers Forum. The AGMs held discussions on practical matters, such as grant aid. At the 1968 AGM there were still only 14 members, but this doubled within a year. Other activities included book-fairs, regular catalogues, for which members printed their own pages, and in 1973 ALP published its guide, Getting Your Poetry Published, written by poet Peter Finch, for the assistance of aspiring writers in submitting work to magazines and presses. By 1996 its fifteenth edition had sold 37,500 copies; Finch has expanded it into several handbooks. By 1980 ALP had 122 paid-up members, all of whom were receiving a regular magazine, plus a newsletter containing information, contacts, press profiles and practical advice on everything from sources of cheap ink to bookshop outlets. Underground magazines, known again as little magazines, were more drawn to regular deadlines, standardized formats and quality production standards. A little of the spontaneity of these anti-commodities was lost in the process but the sense of community remained. Allen Fisher has written that part of the desire to run a press is ‘to engage with the “communities” of artists similarly involved’; most of the presses were run by practising poets.

The importance of poetry readings – particularly when the poetry demands performance – continued; the smaller venues ran regular readings above pubs. Yet there was also a move in the 1970s toward large-scale conferences, such as those organized by poet Paul Evans at the Polytechnic of Central London in 1974 on the British Poetry Revival and followed by the 1977 one on Place; and the biennial Cambridge Poetry Festivals, begun in 1975, and organized by Peter Robinson and others. Funding of poetry readings was assisted by the establishment of the London, and National, Poetry Secretariats, thus ensuring the poet received a reasonable fee. These schemes had been one of the principal aims of a short-lived organization convened in 1970, Poets Conference, a ‘trade union’ for poets.

Another of Poets Conference’s demands, for a radical poetry centre, and ALP’s desire for a permanent base, were both realized, then abruptly forfeited, in the 1970s. During the late sixties, the Poetry Society, and its sizeable Victorian property in Earls Court, were in decline. Its general council consisted largely of non-poets, and Stuart Montgomery was invited to stand on the council – though as a doctor. He was successful and, after he had secured a position for Cobbing, one nomination followed another until, by 1975, British Poetry Revival poets were in the majority: Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Jeff Nuttall, Barry MacSweeney, Tom Pickard, as well as emerging writers, such as Bill Griffiths, Allen Fisher and Elaine Randell. There were plans for reform: to open the building to the public, to establish a print-room, to run both conventional and experimental poetry workshops, and to open a viable bookshop. Among the events there were readings, performances and lectures. Bob Cobbing encouraged younger performers such as Lawrence Upton, cris cheek and Clive Fencott, who formed their group jgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjggjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjgjg (etc) about this time; and Eric Mottram’s Poetry Information evenings, public interviews with Roy Fisher, Harwood, MacSweeney, Pickard, Cobbing, Ken Smith, and others, some of which were published in Peter Hodgkiss’ critical review magazine, which took Poetry Information as its title. Harwood lectured on ‘Surrealist Poetry Today’, insisting that Dada and Surrealism offered an energy and an attitude of mind, rather than a set of techniques; he pointed to the work of Raworth and Roy Fisher. Fisher’s own lecture praises the ‘sheer closeness of linguistic activity’ in the work of Bunting, and refers generally to the Cambridge poets as having exceeded narrative and anecdote, and particularly to the work of Andrew Crozier (see below) for demonstrating how ‘consciousness is charted’ – a concern of his own work at this time.

Between 1971 and 1977 Eric Mottram, then Reader in American Studies at King’s College, London, edited the society’s journal, The Poetry Review, and in his 17 issues featured over 200 poets, ranging from well-known Americans, such as Oppen and Ashbery, to senior British poets, such as MacDiarmid and Bunting (both of whom had been elected President of the society). The magazine was largely an ongoing anthology of the work of the British Poetry Revival. He generously published long works, such as Tom Pickard’s Dancing Under Fire, which weaves dream imagery into a texture of post-industrial realism and Northumberland folk tradition.

However, these vital activities were threatened by literary politics. There was tension between the new general council members and some others, ‘who can only be called reactionary and narrow’, in the words of MacSweeney. These members disliked the work Mottram was publishing and pressured the Arts Council Literature Panel to commission the Witt Report, which recommended more direct Arts Council control over the Society, including the appointment of one Arts Council representative onto the general council. There was the promise of increased funding ‘and solid approval of the magazine’, The Poetry Review, ‘so long as Mottram was ousted’, according to MacSweeney. Accounts vary, but many members of the council resigned in protest in 1977. (That last sentence formed a part of my PhD years ago; Eric Mottram, who was my external examiner, responded: 'Accounts don't vary!', but I don't think he'd spoken to some of the people I had.) Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood, for example, remained on the council for some time, hoping to effect some compromises, but were eventually made to feel uncomfortable by the new regime and resigned. Whether or not mass resignation or negotiation was the correct strategy – and the vilification on both sides lasted decades – the British Poetry Revival lost an essential power-base that has not been replaced. While the Poetry Society has become an active organization with a popular poetry magazine, it only has occasional links with British Poetry Revival or linguistically innovative writings (as proved by the recently curtailed incumbency of David Herd and Robert Potts, which some hailed as the breakthrough we’d all been waiting for since the 1970s!). Following this incident many poets and publishers boycotted the organization; many of those previously associated with the Poetry Society were frequently and repeatedly refused Arts Council grant-aid, as the now homeless ALP was quick to document conclusively via its newsletter. Meetings would have to switch again to individually organized events, which at least decentred activity from London: Durham and Newcastle were vibrant again, thanks largely to Richard Caddel, as was Cambridge with its Poetry Festivals. Perhaps the British Poetry Revival escaped a stultifying institutionalization, but at the time it demoralized many of the participants, with lasting effects.

Blake Morrison, in the essay ‘Young Poets in the 1970s’, offers a view of contemporary poetry which, while it carefully prepared the way for the retrogressive Penguin anthology he would edit with Andrew Motion in the 1980s, does acknowledge non-mainstream poetries (and the Poetry Society must have at least made these alternatives visible for a while); he documents the so-called London-Cambridge split, to which I shall return in future months, for the first time and lists, as catalysts, Eric Mottram and JH Prynne.

'One vociferous set of opponents has been associated with and promoted by Eric Mottram, who as deposed editor of Poetry Review knows to his cost the ‘establishment’ line.'

However, Morrison’s contention that ‘there is little sign yet of an important new poet emerging from under’ Mottram’s ‘wing’ can be refuted by examining the work of two young writers, Allen Fisher and Bill Griffiths, who shared the Poetry Society’s Alice Hunt Bartlett Award for 1974. Morrison, with his sense of the poem as a small-scale crafted artefact, could not be expected to value their extensive intermedial and avant-garde practices. In 1975, Fisher listed involvement in 34 such projects, including collages, found texts, mail art, experiments in process music and conceptual art, as well as performances. Such works were often generated by fixed procedures and evolving processes, and interactions between the two, as well as often humorous interventions in his systems with personal ‘impositions and invitations’.

Bill Griffiths’ exemplary use of disruptive technique, which re-shapes his particular concerns with prison as a representative repressive institution and with urban deprivation, as well as his interests and expertise in Anglo-Saxon and Romany literatures, were demonstrated in Cycles, Griffiths’ first sustained sequence, published in 1976. It opens, appropriately, with ‘Dover Borstal’. As Nuttall points out: ‘Syntax and experience are so manifested as to compel the poem to be read as poetry (as art) – not as a news report’. Its heteroglossic nature is unsettling and unstable. The juxtaposition of the Latin and the demotic with which it opens is a characteristic procedure to avoid transparency, to break through limitations of discourse which are implicitly as real as the prison which is the poem’s apparent focus.

as I ain’t like ever to be still but
lock and knock my sleeping

The poet’s measure of time – the beat of ‘Ictus!’ – complements the prisoner’s rhymed rhythm of incarceration, as he ‘does time’. The commitment to kaleidoscopic experience pitches dream against reality.

Do you know it’s sea?
the speaking sound
and I wake like a dragon’s dream
taut-limb around and my teeth were avid
in wonder

This almost heroic self prefers alertness and action to meditation as the dream dissolves a social reality that is pervasively sadistic and repressive:

The ships, turquoise,
cutting open the sea
smiling killing

It is a landscape and seascape of cuts. Dover, ‘kinging the blue’, is replete with imperial war-histories and the modern ironies of the borstal: ‘the barbwire is German/it is made with razorblades’; the modern prisoners are defined, like their lives, by repetition and inescapably by the ‘screws’: ‘thief you’re a thief you/hey you thief come on’.

Redemption is figured in a discontinuous statement that suggests, at least that financial or verbal exchanges can be altered by re-stamping, by violence: ‘I think on the pattern of an action/till the gold of the answer I can beat anyway’. This meditation on theft in a violent poetry – a ‘beat’ – of stolen discourses is neither ‘news’ nor revolutionary tract. Its open syntax re-forms the world as text; it both refers to, and evades, social reality.

Blake Morrison, dismisses the Poetry Review poets by noting, ‘alongside Mottram’s polemical theorizing – poetry as revolution and poetry as research – the poems themselves look wan’; and conjectures:

'A more feasible alternative may come from the work and teaching of JH Prynne, who in Cambridge at any rate has a considerable reputation; but again there is no clear sign of what his following amounts to’.

That the editors of the Ferry Press and Grosseteste Press, Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville, later edited the Carcanet anthology A Various Art to document this period, confirms the existence, and strength, of this group, although one of its members, Peter Riley, emphasizes that Prynne and Crozier were merely the originators of an ‘impulse’, and that ‘certain people worked together to a greater or lesser extent from about 1966 to 1970’. Perhaps the most typical work belongs to the 1970s, when the influence of American projectivist verse, largely derived from Charles Olson, fused with the resources of the English lyric.

The work of Andrew Crozier in the 1970s is a clear example of this mixture. The Veil Poem, published in 1974, opens with a deliberately unfinished fragment; it is the record of perception in language, not a description, and is indebted to the commitment to process found in Olson’s work:

and the storm I hear wind and rain
raging is an effect of bathwater
emptying into the drain.

The philosophic ease, which owes equally to Wordsworth, is trenchantly domestic, even when determining ‘What hides in darkness and what truths/it veils’. The world reveals itself, not as a given, but through acts of slow perception; a garden tree is ‘flowing smoothly through its changes’ and the shadowy narrator realizes, ‘I cannot dominate it’, an attitude of reverence towards the autonomy of the world, unlike the Movement Orthodoxy’s use of empirical details (and Crozier was one of the first to criticize them as such). One of the sections quotes, without irony, Wordsworth’s invocation to the ‘Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe’ which ‘giv’st to forms and images a breath/and everlasting motion’, and this traditional Romantic theme is elsewhere restated in terms derived from A N Whitehead, the twentieth century philosopher who rescued and redefined a holistic cosmology that Wordsworth might have applauded. Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of mind and nature – which Olson had drawn on before – is elaborated in perceptual and phenomenological terms, not too distant, as one might expect from Roy Fisher’s Poetry Society lecture, from the terms of Fisher around this time:

This is
the ordinary world, naturally incomplete and
is no wise to be verbally separated
from your picture of it.

The punning on ‘wise’ and ‘naturally’ introduces the question of language as a mode of thinking, hence the echo of Wittgenstein in the passage. A household fireplace provides a domestic image of process; stasis engenders collapse, as coals

settle slowly
into themselves and something slips ...
You should never stop.

The poem ends with a description of the careful building of this fire to preserve it; this action is emblematic of the wisdom that nurtures process and which returns the narrator to human relationships:

The dust beneath my
fingernails is all the wisdom I have
to take with me upstairs to my wife.

Both Griffiths and Crozier offer inclusive discourses and ambitiously emphasize the role of language in mediating, and acting upon, the world. While Crozier absorbs literary tradition, Griffiths is a writer who takes an anarchist stance towards a received past, including literature itself. In a later text he rhetorically overstates the case: ‘What better disguise for evil/than sonnets?’ Yet Griffiths’ involvement with Anglo-Saxon sources – his translations and dictionaries, often self-published, away from the world of academic scholarship – suggests an openness to the past, not mediated by the repressive mechanisms of a selective history; he possesses an ability to juxtapose a remarkable range of materials. I agree with Clive Bush: ‘Griffiths’s greatest ability is to combine the severest of ethical judgements without losing a sense of open intellectual, social and historical curiosity.’

Page 462

Coming up next month, part four : The 1970s Continued: Poetry of Place/Poetry of Autonomy


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