Follow by Email

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Return to the British Poetry Revival 1960-78

Outside Better Books

It’s difficult to be writing history again, the history of the British Poetry Revival, after a foray into the tenets of formalism although I do know – and quote in The Meaning of Form – Barthes’ aphorism that a little formalism takes one away from history, but a lot brings one back to it. I’m back to it.

I’ve told the story before, in The Poetry of Saying, and I’ve told it on this blog:
My earliest series of postings on Pages under the title ‘The History of the Other’ was really a re-casting of the historical chapters of The Poetry of Saying and they can also be accessed via Peter Philpott’s gathering of them as a set of links here, where each is summarised. Approximate links to the pages are shown below. Link on and scroll down until you find the item under these titles.

1. The British Poetry Revival

2. Children of Albion

3. The Seventies: What the Chairman Really Told Tom

4. The 1970s (Continued): Poetry of Place/Poetry of Autonomy

5. Linguistically Innovative Poetry and Small Rooms in London

6. Cambridge: Towards a Community of Risk

7. Performance Writing

8. Out of Everywhere: Be(com)ing a Woman Poet

Since then I’ve written When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry which historicises (usually later poetry than the 1960-78ish period I’m attempting to sketch again). I’ve written there and in Iain Sinclair accounts of the dangers of Sinclair’s attractive mythologisation of this period, which puts it like this:

“Sinclair trudges the sites of the original Ranters, political activists and religious radicals of the seventeenth century English Revolution and asks of the years of the British Poetry Revival, ‘Was it legitimate to read that decade of samizdat publication (1965-75), poetry wars, readings above pubs or in disestablished chapels, as in any way analogous to the outpourings of the Dissenters (Levellers, Diggers, Ranters) in the years of the English Civil War …?’ (Sinclair 2002: 186) The question, like much else here, is rhetorical…. The ‘disestablished chapels’ rhetorically function as temporary locations of the British Poetry Revival’s festivities, but suggest – but only suggest – an actually existing continuity with radical non-conformism (which I can only find evinced in Bob Cobbing’s radical work ethic which may have derived from his Plymouth Brethren upbringing, but this is hardly tantamount to finding the last Muggletonian at a Sub Voicive reading). Peter Barry recognizes the danger of this rampant associationalism, but also acknowledges Sinclair’s scepticism toward his own systems, which must be borne in mind: ‘This overdetermined universe would quickly become unbearably claustrophobic, and perhaps ultimately silly, in the hands of any other writer.’ (Barry 2000: 178) Sinclair ‘inscribing his own mental biro-lines on the tarmac, and then excavating and linking up the marked spots’, as Barry puts it, is the unifying activity of his intratextual oeuvre, in its multiple intertextuality.[i] However, those hoping to discover an exclusively avant-garde ‘tradition’ – say, a singular version of the British Poetry Revival – will be disappointed to discover, at some of his ‘marked spots’, sites pertaining to other cultural agendas, such as the edgeland asylums that housed villains and visionaries alike, or  J.G. Ballard’s Middlesex stalking ground, in London Orbital. … The lines Sinclair draws explicitly complicate or refute existing lines of ‘influence’; they scribble over the maps of affiliations and allegiances, official and unofficial.”

It would seem best to leave those “analyses” alone. For this present purpose. Indeed, I intend to scour some of the good recent sources for some new angles on this old subject.

“The British poetry revival has been long on the way but slow under its own steam.” Dave Cunliffe and Tina Morris. (Cunliffe and Morris 1965). Cunliffe, Dave, and Tina Morris. 1965. “The New British Poetry”. Poetmeat 8: 3.

That’s the earliest use of the term (and of the title that became the John Muckle edited volume in the 1980s! – I would be surprised if John knew this source). I only picked this source up after my PhD was finished, when my colleague at B-------ds College, Martin Jones, placed Poetmeat in my hands. He’d bought it at the time. I will probably re-use one of the quotes from Ken Edwards that I used in the thesis and book, at least in parts, because it is so suggestive and true. ... “the ‘British poetry revival’: an exciting growth and flowering that encompasses an immense variety of forms and procedures and that has gone largely unheeded by the British literary establishment... and it may be that one day (probably when we’re all long gone, or our work lapsed into repetition and genre...) some bright critic, as usual too late, will discover this to have been a kind of golden age.” Ken Edwards, Ken. 1979. “Reviews.” Reality Studios, Vol 2: No 1: 9.

I always saw myself as that ‘bright critic’, I suppose, but not too late. But there are dozens of them now, better than I, who write for the journal I just about still co-edit (I’m standing down) the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, among other publications.

The main essay to utilise the term is Eric Mottram's ‘The British Poetry Revival 1960-1974’, Modern Poetry Conference, 1974  (London: Polytechnic of Central London, 1974), pp. 86-117. The revised form appears as ‘The British Poetry Revival, 1960-75’, in New British Poetries , eds. Robert Hampson and Peter Barry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 15-50.

I often footnote this (in The Meaning of Form for example) but re-reading it I was surprised how man-in-a-hurry-ish it actually was. I was amused again at his reference to the anthology Adrian Clarke and I put together in 1991, Floating Capital, that took a slightly different line to his; he intuited the presence of a ‘group’ called ‘Floating Capital’, which wasn't the case. It is over this kind of fault line that I trace a distinction (but not a complete rupture) between the British Poetry Revival and linguistically innovative poetry… Something did cease about 1978, even if it was only Eric’s attention. So is there anything worth quoting in that article? It’s not so much the amassing of names and information (useful in the original as lists and ‘poetry information’, to use Eric’s term), nor the clodhopping attacks on the mainstream ‘axis’ (my use of the term “Movement Orthodoxy” is open to the same objection I know), but moments of acknowledged collective poetics, a distillation of many kinds of processual, objectivist, projectivist, poetics, such as in this extraordinary paragraph:

“ Poetic space need not be rigidly enclosed or shaped under hard linear dimensions, restricted to traditional sentence logic and grammatical usage. The completion of a poem could include a reader’s consciousness. The poet’s meeting a reader in a formative process need not be dependent on a straight-jacketing notation and the eyes following print on a silent page. A poem need not illustrate dogmas but can enact with gestures flexible enough to hold potentiality as well as ascertained experience and prior formed knowledge. A poem could be a proposition of energies that / suggested their sources and need not terminate them in insistent limits. Instead of being marketed as a consumerist item, a poem could be part of the world of physics and philosophy in interaction, requiring an attention beyond instant recognition and reaction. Instead of being an item in a school of rhetoric, a poem could have a variety of articulations, continuity and discontinuity, sentence and parataxis, and an awareness of the imaginative possibilities of relationships between particle, measure, line and paragraph, between existent and new forms…. The poets of the Revival understood the risks of ambitious form and multiple experience.” Mottram 1992: 27-8. (Eric Mottram: See his Towards Design in Poetry (London: Veer Books with Writers Forum, 1977, reprint 2005), and Peterjon and Yasmin Skelt, eds. Alive in Parts of this Century: Eric Mottram at 70 (Twickenham and Wakefield: North and South, 1994).

That’s a marvellous passage. And not a million miles away from the clunkier statement of ‘linguistic innovation’ that was largely my doing in Floating Capital. The point about ‘recognition’ was borrowed from Mottram’s use of ‘recognition patterns' in a number of his essays:

that poetry must extend the inherited paradigms of ‘poetry’; that this can be accomplished by delaying, or even attempting to eradicate, a reader’s process of naturalisation; that new forms of poetic artifice and formalist techniques should be used to defamiliarize the dominant reality principle in order to operate a critique of it; and that poetry can use indeterminacy and discontinuity to fragment and reconstitute text to make new connections so as to inaugurate fresh perceptions, not merely mime the disruption of capitalist production. The reader thus becomes an active co-producer of these writers’ texts, and subjectivity becomes a question of linguistic position, not of self-expression or narration. Reading this work can be an education of activated desire, not its neutralisation by means of a passive recognition. (Clarke, Adrian, and Robert Sheppard. 1991. Floating Capital: new poets from London (Elmwood: Potes and Poets): 142.

Not everybody enjoyed (or enjoyed in the wrong way!) the term BPR. Paul Evans wrote: “I’ve always been amused by the religio-medical implications of that term.” (quoted in Sheppard, Robert. 2009. “Alive in the Twentieth Century.” In Evans, Paul. The Door of Taldir: Selected Poems, 10. Exeter: Shearsman. That’s a book worth buying if you haven’t already: here.) There is, in Evans' view, a suspicion of the tambourine and the undead. Or of both.

Better Books

Bob Cobbing and I'm pretty certain that's Annea Lockwood on the floor. Notice the racks of books

Better Books

But, as I’ve said, there are a lot of recent sources. Such as Rozemin Keshvani’s work on Better Books. (See above: I'm surprised at the number of women in the audience. And see Rozemin speaking about and showing relics from the shop - in English - on this German video here.) The narrative around this shop is complex (changes of manager, even location, I think: the dangerous and oppressive happenings in the Basement, Ginsberg’s free reading June 1965, etc.). But there were lots of other meetings and connections. I think I might quote this one, which links with one of the pictures above:

“Sound artist Annea Lockwood met Cobbing when she wandered into Better Books in search of a City Lights publication. Cobbing and Lockwood performed the ‘sound poetry’ circuit together, eventually teeming up with Jeff Keen to create, the disturbing, surrealistic soundtrack of Keen’s incredible Marvo Movie.” Keshvani, Rozemin. 2012. Better Books: Art, Anarchy and Apostasy. Center for Art and Media: Karlsruhe. (Thanks for that Rozemin!) I like the way this suggests the interart possibilities of the 1960s, emanating from the shop, an interaction between two major artists (one a member of staff and the other a customer), and their subsequent collaboration and interaction with a third genius of the era. Lockwood is still active, has new and old work out (see The Wire every other month); her work with Cobbing is on the CD Steve Willey edited in 2009 (NSACD 42); Keen’s film is on his BFI Box Set (GAZWRX). That sentence can stand for huge passages elsewhere. As in Bomb Culture. Here's the film by the way:

or at

I have just re-read Bomb Culture (I conceive of the need to see this book back in print, spent half a morning thinking I might try to edit it, remembering the ‘academic fan-girls’ (their term) at the Bill Griffiths launch waving a copy when Harry Gilonis mentioned it), and lo! and behold! it is referenced in the latest Wire in the interview with Bruce Lacey. I particularly liked this previously unrecorded account of the Albert Hall Reading on June 11th 1965:

“I was invited to do a performance. I had a full size plaster of Paris statue of the Venus de Milo and I wanted to do an anti-art thing, to come on stage pulling the Venus on wheels and then smashing it with a sledgehammer … But the poets said, ‘You can’t do that, it’s visual. And poetry is spoken word.’ So I thought, all right you buggers! I made a radio-controlled robot of out aluminium, and called it John Silent. It came on stage and made farting and belching noises.” Cowley, Julian, “Quirk Strangenesses and Charm”, 2014, in The Wire 368: 30 (28-35) 

The sources are curiously uncertain who actually read (like the audience, it seems, though it is likely Neruda and Voznesensky were in the audience, and Indira Gandhi). Nuttall has (though he ignores himself and John Latham painted blue, setting things alight): ‘Trocchi, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Horovitz, Brown, Hawkins, Richter, McGrath, Lacey, Esam, MacBeth, Logue, Hollo, Jandl and Fainlight (the real star of the show), performing together but all our separate audiences had come to one place at the same time, to witness an atmosphere of pot, impromptu solo acid dances, of incredible/ barbaric colour, of face and body painting, of flowers and flowers and flowers, of a common dreaminess in which all was permissive and benign.’ (Nuttall 1970: 182-3. Nuttall, Jeff. 1970. Bomb Culture. London: Paladin.) Ginsberg’s ‘The Change’ and Fainlight’s ‘Spider’ were his highlights. He wrote to a friend: ‘London is in flames. The spirit of William Blake walks on the water of Thames. sigma (sic) has exploded into a giant rose.’ (183) Those images of floral explosiveness (benign flames) are worth examining but it is interesting to compare this effusion to Ginsberg’s letter to a friend: ‘There were too many bad poets at Albert Hall, too many goofs who didn’t trust their own poetry, too many superficial bards who read tinkley jazzy beatnick style poems, too many men of letters who read weak pompous or silly poems written in archaic metres, written years ago. The concentration & intensity of prophesy were absent except in a few instances…’ Ginsberg doesn’t exempt himself: ‘I read quite poorly and hysterically.’ (quoted in Miles, Barry. 2003. Inside the Sixties. London: Pimlico, 61). It’s worth noting, he liked Liverpool more. (I researched his visit here, which was a week before the London gig, for an unpublished short story that begins:

“Allen Ginsberg dangles little bells on strings – Tibetan he says they are – knocking them against one another, making little circles in the air with his hands. Their thin chimes accompany the flat drone he calls an ‘invocation’ to some Goddess or other. Chet expels cigarette smoke into the slants of sunlight above the dome of Ginsberg’s head. The jungle of the poet’s obscene beard affirms his venerability, his promise of wisdom. It’s so unlike the clipped Beatnikery of the men in the close room, even Chet’s. Cathy predicts a fashion. Ginsberg coughs, adjusts his Bilko glasses, and begins to read.”

I tried to capture the sense of exasperation you get in Ginsberg's letter in this scene:

“Pete the Beat was meant to introduce Ginsberg at the off, but Arthur Horrobin, his double, leapt up in his hair to tout copies of his New Arrivals magazine, spilling them from a raffia bag, and offering a discount on damaged copies. Cathy hadn’t bought it since the poetry and jazz issue. He’d always rejected her poems. Pete’s mouth was still open like a cod’s, as Horrobin began a ‘spontaneous bop eulogy’ to Ginsberg, who shrank into a corner. He scowled, un-Zen-like, rapping his notebook.”)

We can work out (and perhaps my short story helps) who Ginsberg meant, and it was a sharp attack on supposed avant-gardists and mainstream poets alike. Where was Cobbing (Steve Willey seems to suggest he did read), Harwood, John James, Tom Pickard, Bill Butler, Roy Fisher, Jim Burns, Gael Turnbull, etc, let alone a woman, Tina Morris for example… and others who might have? Answer: in the audience. Chris Torrance was there, for one. It was bankrolled by Barbara Rubin, a friend of Ginsberg. It is interesting, reading Barry Miles’ autobiography, how he quickly moves into a circle of Beatles, Stones, Marianne Faithful, Ginsberg, Olson and away from Harwood, Cobbing and others he’d known. (Paul Jones had a formidable collection of small press books: how odd; I've got a a collection of harmonicas!) The switch from Better Books to Indica was a switch of worlds. From where Bob met Annea to where John met Yoko, in fact.   

History is not, after all, written by the victors, but by the loudest (and we know what makes most noise, don’t we?) Perhaps it might be a good thing in my piece to downplay this event (emblematic though it was) in favour of readings at Better Books, Group H, work for Gustav Metzer’s’ ‘Destruction in Art Symposium 9-11 September 1966… (Miles says August 31-Septmber 30th (Miles 143)) and, of course, nationwide events… I shall use a couple of Nuttall quotes to deal with the need to broaden out into the wider context: 

“To a certain degree the Underground happened everywhere spontaneously. It was simply what you did in the H-bomb world if you were, by nature, creative and concerned for humanity as a whole.” (Nuttall 160) Yet that knowledge was hidden. “When Cobbing, Musgrove, Rowan [that’s John, the psychologist] and I were putting on our shows in hired rooms, exclaiming our poetry in public parks, swinging the duplicator handle throughout the long Saturday afternoons of 1963 we had no idea that the same thing was happening all over the world.” (Nuttall 161)

I have a theory that the fairly cheap worldwide postal services have an important part in this story. Lee Harwood somewhere (probably in the interview with Eric Mottram) talks about the wonder of finding magazines from all over the world arriving unannounced. Neil Pattison, Reitha Pattison, and Luke Roberts’ Certain Prose of The English Intelligencer has all kinds of pleasures, but one is simply seeing the mail distribution list of this ‘worksheet’. (Cambridge: Mountain Press, 2014 edition). In The Poetry of Saying I called it

a privately distributed poetry and discussion sheet, which was issued to a mailing list of around 30 between February 1967 (it's actually January 1966) and April 1968, edited by poets Peter Riley and Andrew Crozier, with Prynne’s assistance. Simon Perril has recently described the open exchange of  The English Intelligencer as ‘the constitution of trust through the establishment of a “community of risk”’. (Simon Perril, ‘Trappings of the Hart: Reader and the Ballad of The English Intelligencer’ , The Gig,  4/5, November 1999/March 2000 (‘The Poetry of Peter Riley’), pp. 196-218, at p. 197. The phrase ‘community of risk’ is Drew Milne’s.)

This seems to me still (thankfully) accurate. The lists indicate that it went to the ‘Cambridge School’ but also Lee Harwood, Paul Green, Tom Pickard, Roy Fisher, Wendy Mulford, Elaine Feinstein (the oldest), Barry MacSweeney (the youngest), and some of the Liverpool poets. It was the nearest thing the postal service could offer to an e-discussion list in the 1960s (and it utitlized the same duplicator technology that Cobbing was using). There was some discussion of poetry (Lee Harwood pleads for consideration of the poems he sent, and then seems to have given up; the changes of address indicate he had moved from Better Books to Unicorn in Brighton (where I first bought poetry and where I was menaced by Bill Butler's huge Alsations mentioned in Bomb Culture!).) There is not a lot of discussion of what I would call poetics (as a writerly speculative discourse) though there is a lot of angst about being derivative of Americans. ‘And everybody is trying hard to cover up the fact that they’re wet through with Mid-Atlantic spray,’ as the young Barry MacSweeney puts it. (Pattison 140) Gael Turnbull had accused the contributors of being ten years out of date. He and most of the other contributors seem unnervingly dismissive of their community and see no risk: ‘To write and then build little walls round it, is just fucking useless. .. Honest, that’s what the Intelligencer is doing, NOW’, (141) though he admits it was useful for putting people in touch (those lists again). MacSweeney is as fierce as Ginsberg after the Albert Hall endeavour, as he attacks the ‘Liverpool poets’ and ‘all jazz-poets’ as ‘the main bad craftsmen, unpoets.’ He blames the ‘in scene that this lives off' that 'wants no longer the pill  but the sugar that goes with it.' (31) Living in Liverpool I have a love-hate relationship with the Liverpool poets. They both demonstrated that poetry was a live and vital performance and that performance often vitiated the language. (Later today Pete Brown, the Beat, is reading some of Henri’s poems at the Bluecoat, and maybe a couple of his own, the organiser, and editor of a new book on Henri, Bryan Biggs told me last night (at Will Holder reading Robert Ashley and Josephine Foster and Victor Herrea); shall I go? I don’t know.) In The English Intelligencer there is much Olsonian consideration of long human histories (by Peter Riley, in what look like notes for Excavations and by Prynne: the famous ‘Note on Metals’ from The White Stones. Prynne was collecting data and fact checking for Olson at this time.

I was a little disappointed by the exchanges, or lack of it, the persistent re-appraisal of what they were doing. (Perhaps the effect of the absence of the poems themselves from this volume?) But high praise must go to Neil Pattison (see his first published poems here on Pages) for an excellent introduction, with formidably detailed footnotes, which should be read by all wishing to engage with these early years of the British Poetry Revival. So he reminds us of the ‘Migrant coterie’ and remarks: ‘The centrality of the Migrant coterie to the history of modern poetry in Britain has often been underestimated.' (Pattison xxii: but see xiv and xv for accounts of Gael Turnbulls’ association with US poetries and the establishment of Migrant press and magazine). In The Poetry of Saying I quote a wonderful insert that dropped out of a copy of Migrant I bought for next to nothing in a Balham bookshop; I’ve bequeathed it to the marvellous Lila Matasomoto, who is also researching this stuff. It says:

Dear Reader, MIGRANT will be published irregularly.... For it to pretend to be a ‘magazine’ with a ‘public’ would be absurd. There is no such public.... What subscription rate could there be? And so, it will be sent to anyone who wishes to receive it. That is, to anyone interested to read it. Thus our ambition will be to have a minimal number of readers; but for those readers to be maximally interested.( Migrant 1, July 1959, flier inserted loosely in issue.)

But of course:

Additionally, he published an impressive list of booklets between 1957 and the mid 1960s, including books by Creeley and Edward Dorn, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s pre-concrete poetry collection, The Dancers Inherit the Party, and in 1961, Fisher’s City, with a foreword by Shayer, and later Turnbull’s own impressive improvisation Twenty Words, Twenty Days, the title of which describes its time-based form and the lexical nature of the starting material. In 1965, by which time Fisher was helping to run the press, Migrant published Basil Bunting’s The Spoils, in association with Morden Tower in Newcastle. By 1965 Migrant was no longer an isolated venture, and the Americans Turnbull had introduced were more generally well-known within the larger alternative network.

Turnbull said: ‘I was wanting … to create a ‘context’ that was not narrowly ‘national’ and in which I felt I might be able to exist as a writer myself. In both these concerns .. . I succeeded.” (quoted in Pattison xv). “When Turnbull returned to the UK in 1964, things ‘had changed completely. I would be foolish to say that Migrant had nothing to do with it, even as one could make a long list of other factors which had contributed … By 1964, a lot was happening’. (quoted in Pattison xv)
But oddly, he had “created” a national literature of sorts, by publishing Roy Fisher’s City, the first serious book of the British Poetry Revival. I made much of this in an editorial for JBIIP. In essence, this read:
City, Worcester, Migrant Press; date of publication given as May 1961 actually appeared June 1961”: thus the first entry of Derek Slade’s bibliography of Roy Fisher’s publications. At such a distance the extra month the first readers of this fugitive pamphlet had to wait seems insignificant. What should not be underestimated is the importance of this quiet entry into the field of literary production by a writer who was already 31 years old. The 300 copies were probably distributed by the publisher, Gael Turnbull, in his usual casual way… I’ve always thought of City as the beginning of the BPR… This is not to downplay other events – those above and elsewhere – the ambition at play (even in that slightly different version) set a benchmark for others (whether they knew it or no) particularly in the development of the long poem, the representation of the urban as an evanescent city of modernism (our hero is a neo-modernist flaneur not a pomo psychogeographer), the introduction of crisp documentary prose into the flow of a poetic work, and in the rhythmic subtlty and freedom of the writing….
it sort of read.
Worcester. Birmingham. We are already a long way from asking how many wholly communions it takes to fill the Albert Hall. (See Geraldine Monk's edited volume Cusp for non-Metropolitan views of this history.) Here's the photographic answer. Look at all those 'flowers and flowers and flowers'. And is that Neruda in the front row seemingly reading a newspaper? Who were the other readers? Wikipedia, the fountain of misinformation has:   "The event attracted an audience of 7,000 people to readings and live and tape performances by a wide variety of figures, including Adrian Mitchell, Alexander Trocchi, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Fainlight, Anselm Hollo, Christopher Logue, George Macbeth, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Horovitz, Simon Vinkenoog, Spike Hawkins, Tom McGrath, Ernst Jandl, and William S. Burroughs." The last named didn't read, did he? But what did Burroughs do during these heady years (1965-1974) when he lived quietly (?) in West London?

Read my earlier take on the British Poetry Revival (largely taken from my book The Poetry of Saying) here.

Ginsberg at the Albert Hall

[i] See my monograph Iain Sinclair. Writers and their Work, Tavistock House: Plymouth, 2007, for a fuller account of Sinclair’s career, and Episode Five of When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, for a summary of his early career.