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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Robert Sheppard: The History of the Other part five: Linguistically Innovative Poetry and Small Rooms in London

During the 1990s the clumsy term ‘Linguistically Innovative Poetry’ began to be used of much of the alternative British work of the era. It encompasses a poetic of increased indeterminacy and discontinuity, the use of techniques of disruption and of creative linkage, though its differences with the creative work of the British Poetry Revival do not constitute an absolute break. However, the increased willingness of emerging poets to operate theoretically, in terms of post-structuralist and other theory, to even expound poetics more coherently, was in marked contrast to an earlier lack of such discourse. Ultimately, the definition of ‘linguistically innovative’ is not to be found in the terms of its name. If anything, it is a term to constellate overlapping practices in the British alternative poetries from the 1980s onwards, which operated under less propitious conditions than its predecessors.

‘Linguistically Innovative Poetry’ had humble origins in the March 1988 issue of this magazine during its first series. Using the phrase to specify work ‘for which we haven’t yet a satisfactory name’, it was the way poet and critic Gilbert Adair described the kinds of British poetry he believed had been ‘operating since 1977’ in ‘fragmentation and incoherence’. The choice of date is decisive; it marks the Arts Council's takeover of the Poetry Society and the atomizing of the community of British Poetry Revival writers. Adair, possibly looking at it with a London bias and from the perspective of one who had not been a member of the British Poetry Revival, declared that there had been a ‘public invisibility of the poetry’ and ‘ditto of a theorizing discourse’.

Adair’s identification of the post 1977 (post-Poetry Society) conditions of the poetry include ‘decreasing publishing opportunities; wide gaps in continuations of public ... discussions’, and, looking towards the Movement Orthodoxy and the broader literary world, ‘a one-way “dialogue” with oppositions that largely expunge us from more public discussion, ... movement in a less visible, less real poetic community’. This contrasts with Eric Mottram's already discussed survey ‘The British Poetry Revival 1960-1975’, which celebrates reputations, achievements and opportunities. Yet as republished in Hampson and Barry’s volume New British Poetries in 1993, it carries an appendix, dated 1978, which narrates the end of the Poetry Society adventure. (This doesn’t, of course, mean that the narrative of the Poetry Society adventure is at all over; there is a book already written on this subject, I’m reliably informed.) This was the ‘fragmented and incoherent’ backdrop to the despair of the early 1980s, one echoed by Allen Fisher's identification, in the introduction to his 1985 Necessary Business essay, of those years as ‘a period of entrenchment and awe ... speaking in a considerably small room’. Politically, a bumbling 1970s social democracy had been replaced by a right wing ideology that wanted to change human consciousness, and nearly succeeded, ‘a culture fascinated with change, ruthless curtailment of job reliabilities, share-owning, and the legitimating professionalism’, as Adair put it in language redolent of common anti-Thatcher rhetoric of the era. (I notice that in a recent interview I say that she did change consciousness; at least she changed mine.)

The gesture of the 1988 anthology The New British Poetry to separate a section of British Poetry Revival work edited by Eric Mottram, entitled ‘A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry’, from the section ‘Some Younger Poets’, simultaneously acknowledges the proximity and difference of the two strands. Yet Ken Edwards, the editor of the latter section, notes both the sense of a revolution having been lost in the late 1970s, and the sense that his poets

have the previous generation’s work to refer to: a body of specifically British but non-parochial writing that has remained, thanks to the small presses, available and alive. Many of the poets at the younger end of this selection have started by discovering the work of Prynne, Mottram, Raworth, Harwood, Cobbing or RoyFisher


before American or European works.

Cris cheek recalled these troubled years, and again, taking a specific London perspective, noted:


Rapid deterioration began. For the best part of a decade from 1980 there was only really occasional Kings’ readings (put on by Eric Mottram), the Sub Voicive series curated by Gilbert Adair, and Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum workshops. Allen Fisher ran workshops at Goldsmiths’ College which generated a focus and produced the Robert Sheppard, Adrian Clarke axis, and there were occasional programmes such as the RASP session in South London put together by Reality Studios and Spanner [the presses of Ken Edwards and Allen Fisher respectively]. But really the scene, which had been a steaming scene, went flat.


While cheek saw these years as an interregnum between the British Poetry Revival and the rise of ‘performance writing’ (to be analysed a couple of months time), I believe that these London based activities (and I was a participant, as the above suggests) were important for consolidating Linguistically Innovative Poetry, and were not as flat as cheek suggests. (And what an axis of ‘evol’ we were!) The scene was notable for including poets who had either not been bruised by the affairs of the 1970s, or who recognized that the entryism of the Poetry Society could only have ever been temporary. Cheek ignores a vigorous though admittedly smaller nexus of magazines than there had been in the 1970s; Hampson and Barry itemize the following:

Rod Mengham and John Wilkinson’s Equofinality, Tony Baker’s Figs, Martin Stannard’s joe soap’s canoe, John Welch’s The Many Review, Tony Frazer, Ian Robinson and Robert Vas Dias’s Ninth Decade, Robert Sheppard’s Pages, Ken Edwards’ Reality Studios, Paul Green’s Spectacular Diseases, and Ric Caddel’s Staple Diet.


To which may be added, for the 1990s: Drew Milne’s Parataxis, Anthony Mellors’ (and Andrew Lawson’s) Fragmente; a revitalized And, edited by Adrian Clarke and by Bob Cobbing (who had edited its first issue in 1954); Angel Exhaust (edited mainly by Andrew Duncan, but with serial co-editors including Adrian Clarke, Scott Thurston and Simon Smith, and recently revived,2005); Object Permanence, edited in Glasgow by Robin Purves and Peter Manson; Tony Frazer’s Shearsman and Ian Robinson’s Oasis, both slim regular magazines after their collaborative effort. Even slimmer but more regular (though short-lived) was Tom Raworth’s In Folio, which miniaturized the little magazine to a single folded A5 card, which was sometimes published daily! The fugitive nature of this last publication should remind us of the rebellious and contentious nature of small press publishing.

King’s Readings (based at Mottram’s college, where he became professor of American Literature) ran between the late 1970s and the mid 1980s, dovetailing on alternate Tuesdays with Gilbert Adair’s and Patricia Farrell’s Sub Voicive readings which began in 1980 and continued under different convenors. Adair was a research student of Mottram’s, but Sub Voicive was developing a new set of poets. There was a tendency for the British Poetry Revival poets to read at King’s, for example: Allen Fisher, Wendy Mulford, Cobbing and the not to be forgotten late Paul Evans, all of whom were in the ‘Treacherous Assault’ section of The New British Poetry, whereas Edwards’ ‘Some Younger Poets’ – for example, Maggie O’Sullivan, Geraldine Monk, Kelvin Corcoran, Gavin Selerie, and Edwards himself, tended to read at Sub Voicive. While both were literally ‘small rooms’, King’s Readings took place in an austere lecture theatre, whereas Sub Voicive was located in a series of hired rooms above pubs. It could be argued that the smaller audiences at Sub Voicive fostered a stronger community of writers, and newcomers were given a chance to read; often they took the opportunity to extend reading into performance. Writing in 1991, Adrian Clarke and myself stated that many Sub Voicive poets

have at one time performed their texts rather than simply read them, whether this has involved tapes, music, multiple voices, elements of drama and performance art, the creation of environments or the use of visual art.


Clare Buck describes The New British Poetry as ‘the first (anthology) to map the challenges in the 1970s and 1980s to the myth of a new postwar cultural consensus’. It was general edited by John Muckle, who himself read his fiction and poetry at Sub Voicive (Check out The Cresta Run from Galloping Dog and Cyclomotors as well as the new Shearsman book of poems). Muckle saw the opportunity to produce an anthology containing the alternative British poetries: black, feminist and two generations of experimental writers. The strict division of the work in representative sections reflected a moment when there was no crossover between poetry ‘scenes’ and no critical work to make such links.

While Mottram, as a former editor of the Poetry Review, was an obvious choice to edit a section of British Poetry Revival work, Edwards was selected because he was by the mid 1980s editing what was the most important magazine publishing Linguistically Innovative Poetry, Reality Studios. Beginning in 1978 as a few stapled sheets, distributed with another magazine, Hampson and Barry’s Alembic, it developed into a perfect bound paperback magazine with a print run of 500. The last volume appeared in 1988.

Reality Studios was important as a vehicle for poetics. The May-June 1980 issue, entitled ‘the death of a referent?’ was the first attempt to introduce the most recent American avant garde, the language poets, to a British audience. Edwards himself explained the poetry in a typically British politicized way as ‘reacting effectively to cultural/political enforcements ... by exposing the mechanisms whereby language is employed to naturalize historical determinations’. The use of the term ‘naturalization’ suggests that Edwards was attempting to rearticulate language theory using Forrest-Thomson’s British poetics, a move which predates Charles Bernstein’s own recasting of the theory by nearly a decade.

In the final issue of Reality Studios, Gilbert Adair reviews language poet Bruce Andrews’ poetry, and writes with a political edge that matches Edwards, but with an attention to Andrews’ awareness of language as an element of social control: ‘The proliferation of Andrews’ writing’ (and Adair names a group of both US and British writers who share this sense of proliferation, and it seems reasonable to assume this poetics for his own work)

is, it seems, a capitulation to the overproduction of message, commodity and rhythm in the consumerist urban environment, which nevertheless resists that by coupling quantity with the quality of each linguistic unit. It apes but contests the shit machine.


That a younger London writer was assimilating language poetry, and speaking of it in terms borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari to describe what they would call a ‘machinic’ mode of literary production, is emblematic of a dual interest around the mid 1980s in the theory of language poetry and the more radical edges of critical theory.

The British connection with language poetry seems obvious because ‘Linguistically Innovative Poetry’ could be a synonym for this term. But Bruce Andrews, in his introduction to the anthology Floating Capital: new poets from London (1991), demands we should forget national differences and speak of ‘this more inclusive field of so-called English language writing’, which shows the ‘same barriers being dismantled’. However much this is desirable, I have always expended my critical energies (perhaps at the expense of my academic career) on the specificities of the British context. (A new book is brewing, I can feel it in my postmodern waters!)

It has become common to remark the influence of the Vietnam War on the Post-War baby boom generation of North American language poets. Questions of ‘ideology, discourse, social rules, & epistemological paradigms or opacity or “sense”’ raised by Bruce Andrews’ academic work on US foreign policy found a place in his poetics. Protest at this War had been present in British Poetry Revival work but1980s Thatcherite Britain afforded a different situation. A foreign policy dominated by a fortuitous war in the South Atlantic and by a frantic last minute cold war before the Berlin Wall fell, was combined at least with an anti-nuclear official opposition in parliament, however unelectable. Outside of parliament inspirational protest, such as the Women’s Peace Camp at the American nuclear base at Greenham Common, bred a grim optimism in direct action. To be engaged in leftist politics in Britain in the 1980s was not the act of despair it was in 1970s America. The enemy and the evil were identifiable in all their absurd manifestations, as Tom Raworth noted in the poem West Wind, which might be thought typical of the combative political work of the 1980s, with its attacks on a ‘colourless nation/sucking on grief’. Linguistic innovation still held to the utopian resistance to the reality principle.

When Adrian Clarke and I edited the anthology Floating Capital in 1991, this anger formed its political background, although the aesthetic aim was to bring ‘linguistically innovative work’ into focus, and to foreground its utopian resistance.27 Its opening section contained the work of two poets, Bob Cobbing and Allen Fisher.

We celebrated Cobbing’s ‘exemplary journey of discovery and innovation’, the inspiration of Writers Forum and New River Project publications and performances. The project met in a large railway shed, the headquarters of the London Musicians’ Collective, whose members trickled over into some of the performances: the free jazz singer Phil Minton performed with Clive Fencott, and worked with Cobbing (as did David Toop and Paul Burwell, and – later - Lol Coxhill, from the same experimental grouping). The Interface issue of Reality Studios 6 (1984) featured visual poetries and non-linear poetries, much of it showcased in performance for one or more voice at venues like the New River (and SubVoicive). This included a framed set of still images from Maggie O’ Sullivan, and pages from Gilbert Adair’s Frog Box, a work later published by Writers Forum as a box of pages, most of which combine text and design, in which ‘frog’ acts as a kind of empty sign in a process of aping and contesting the shit machine. Fencott and Steve Moore’s The Manual of the Permanent Waver, a visual performance text generated by computer program from phrases of a hairdressing manual of the 1930s, is an early example of cyberpoetics. (This is just a slice of life cut through a particular publication, of course.) One of the first poems from Allen Fisher’s Gravity project, ‘African Twist’, appeared too, parts of which Fisher read to slides of his own paintings at Sub Voicive.

‘Allen Fisher is ... prolific and extraordinary,’ Clarke and I wrote of our second chosen poet, adding that the ‘extensive project called GRAVITY AS A CONSEQUENCE OF SHAPE ... has been of some importance to a number of writers reaching maturity in the mid 80s.’ Our introduction pointed to one differentiation with British Poetry Revival work, made visible in the shift in Fisher’s poetry and poetics, from the notional poetry of place to the creative linkages of the Gravity as a Consequence of Shape project. The appearance of this project

both confirmed and accelerated a shift away from ideals prevalent in the 60s and 70s in favour of approaches that attend more closely to the paving slabs than to ‘open field’ poetics ... and the ... deadening ... obsession with ‘place’.


Clarke and I affirmed a Lyotardian postmodern poetics, with its ‘willingness to deal with the materials that are readily to hand or impose themselves in the act of writing’. Fisher’s interview-essay Necessary Business is crucial in its attempt to articulate a poetics of a new pertinence that emphasizes activating readers through habit-breaking unpredictability and plurivocal structures. It was the best example of the theorizing discourse that Adair had demanded:

Allen Fisher calls attention to art as ‘necessary business’.... Cutting across formations categorized as discrete, ‘discontinuity’ is so only if it makes other relations; or else it is mimesis of actual informational chaos.


The work of Adair and Edwards in Floating Capital may be contrasted in terms of technique. In Edwards’ texts from Drumming and Poems (1982), a collection which prefigures many of the developments of the 1980s, ‘Notation and narrative are combined with experiments with chance procedures, phrasal permutations ... sudden changes of direction ... [they] produce a ... disrupted, unsettled poetic surface’. The effects of creative linkage, achieved through collage techniques, such as cut up, are surreal.

2 pints of lager
was laughing in your sleep,
flutes of your bones
picking the ball out of the back of the net,

introduces us to the dream-world of the ‘down & out’ who addresses ‘the Daily Mail lady’ on the ‘Poster, Walworth Rd, winter ’80’ of its title: ‘In autumn you bathe in oatmeal’.

Adair is more theoretical in his text Hot Licks (1987), more likely to court informational chaos in the service of his analysis, to both ape and contest the social reality, to create discontinuity so that new connections may be made in its creative linkage. Yet what is striking is the same political anger; the reader, too, is out on the streets, courting the sinister hidden order amongst the social discontinuities:

it’s a bus queue
too drunk to form up
chamber of tongue
eyes hold from holes hold
held by a fury body-lens
militarisation of entire culture
joy of plague reasons mob interior
de-educate contain the unoccupiable for use
police the wastes

Paul Virilio waits for the night bus, it seems, as the mob internalizes its own repression, as hopelessly as the down and out peering at a society that attempts to totalize control insidiously through its billboards. These poems, in different ways, replicate the constrained paranoia of the left during the Thatcher years, as well as demonstrating the technical resources of London’s Linguistically Innovative Poetry of those years.

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1 comment:

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