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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Adrian Clarke

A Response to Chris Hamilton-Emery

Though his approach modestly takes account of the limitations his need as a publisher to identify a “commercially viable project” impose, Chris Hamilton- Emery’s posting on changes since 2000 from the British Poets list prompts a response to some of its provocations.

I too recognise the declining significance of location and social identity. The schools of Mottram and Prynne are no more and some of their survivors have been evidencing a more generous spirit. Along with the rooms upstairs, poetic activity in pubs has become more elusive, while its nature has become a little more inclusive – with an attendant risk of a certain anonymity; and, yes, “institutional locations” offer a problematic alternative. I myself have been publishing with the Birkbeck-based Veer Books, and in my experience of the ambitious activities of the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, if it has an institutionally academic agenda it is well disguised. But London and Cambridge Colleges, the University of Southampton, etc. are far from the old dream of an anti-university; they are subject to the administrative imposition of restrictive political agendas, and the kind of ambience they can offer is, rightly or wrongly, unlikely to be perceived generally as one that can foster or disseminate uninhibited creativity.

Provocation comes with the suggestion that “a great deal of innovative writing … is using tools and techniques that are actually rather hackneyed” – particularly when three paragraphs later Hamilton-Emery observes that “new Muslim writing seems to have been branded as identity writing as if this were somehow old hat and not worth investigating”. Innovation would appear to have a variable contextual value; the explanation is that it is, in fact, a red herring, because “what’s being said is suddenly more vital than how it is being said”. - Back to a – once more respectable? – form/content split and the ascendancy of Meaning with its faithful accomplice me-meaning in tow. Nevertheless, irrespective of their hackneyed disrupted syntax and indeterminacy, because of their “huge take up” he considers “it might be more accurate to regard these (innovative) practices as mainstream”. He doesn’t define the term, but if it applies to most of what is received enthusiastically in the Guardian Saturday Review and the like, then the mainstream is so dire as poetry and so na├»ve and ignorant in its preconceptions that if there is no “binary opposition” between it and our output I see little point in persevering. It is, I think, fair to ask if Marjorie Perloff's account of an emergent materialist poetic with its seeds in early modernism mounting a growing challenge to the credibility of mainstream lyric poetry, year in and year out obedient to the "commands of sense" or "the path of least resistance", may not offer a more pertinent interpretation of what continues to be at issue.
Hamilton-Emery’s eagerness to “see what new European migration brings to the mix” seems distinctly more useful. There is a receptivity to radical poetries in most of Western Europe that shames us, and the decline in the commercial publishing of established contemporary poets from those countries in translation - and now the withdrawal of funding from small presses willing to fill the gap - is a depressing indicator of the health of our literary culture. Eastern Europe approaches from a very different cultural direction, but it is hard to believe its emigrants will readily acclimatize themselves to more or less genteel neuroses, facetious rhymes and the cosy verse essay.

Returning to that “binary opposition of avant-garde (now surely a historical term) and the mainstream”, Hamilton-Emery is certainly right that “there are no power structures that make sense within such a framework”. The operative structures are clearly external. I see no escape from the continuing relevance of Lyotard’s wry observation: “Administrative procedures should make individuals ‘want’ what the system needs in order to perform well.” If the system is “terrorist” it is so by “eliminating or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him”. Our justification is that we are calculatedly not what the system needs, while the “consumption” of our work and that in other genres and media with similar aspirations may offer an index of that system’s efficiency. Look elsewhere enviously we may; here and now it’s the practice of outside alright.