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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Steve Spence on Andrew Duncan on Twentieth Century Blues

In his ‘Finding Your Own Way’, in part a review of A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 by Andrew Duncan (Shearsman, new), Steve Spence comments:
Someone he isn't so good on and who I think he massively underestimates is Robert Sheppard. He describes Sheppard's huge project, Twentieth Century Blues (a project similar in some ways to both the work of Lopez and Goodland) as being 'thoroughly unsuccessful, overheated, loud and repetitive'. He's not too keen on Sheppard's critical work either so I'm wondering if there isn't some sort of 'personality clash' going on here. Sheppard's wonderful collection Warrant Error is for me proof that it's still possible to write political poetry at all and political poetry at that which combines both an emotional response with a tight formalist quality which contains and 'skews' the anger. Reason and emotion in perfect balance I'd say, in a book which really makes the grade. I haven't read all of Twentieth Century Blues (a vast project) but I've been impressed with what I have read and also find Sheppard to be a useful and perceptive critic.

I find the terms of the attack and defence both interesting. (And wonder about 'unsuccess' and the criteria for its assessment.) It’s also interesting to reflect on Steve Spence’s ‘wondering’ about a ‘personality clash’ between Andrew and myself. I like Andrew though I don’t see him that often (but used to every week in London). He’s the least egoistical person I've met in the poetry world (which is saying something!). It would be easier if I could attribute his views to a 'personality clash', but I can’t, and won't. 

However, there is a larger point about writing criticism of contemporary poetry when one is an agent in the scene (and particularly when one is a poet as well as a critic). Michael Hamburger took the route of never writing on his contemporaries. That’s one way, but it leaves the contemporary off limits forever. So some of us plunge in (Andrew and me both, and Steve Spence) and attempt to write criticism. But what about when we attempt to write about each other? If I were now to write an even-mildly negative critique of Andrew’s poetry or disagree with some element of his criticism, (to suggest that his micro-scale assessments of individual poets are more cogent that his macro-judgements about scenes and decades, etc) would that not simply be read as some sort of revenge? Poetry. BOOM!

1990-2010: Literary histories often omit to mention my work (and that of the others Duncan and I write about). The period chosen is, of course, partly the period of Twentieth Century Blues. But it’s also the period in which I published (a quick check of publication dates) Hymns to the God in which my Typewriter Believes and Warrant Error, to limit myself to poetry, and to pinpoint the example Spence proffers. I wonder if that is mentioned.

Here is Steve Spence's piece. And his earlier review of Warrant Error here.

Twentieth Century Blues may be bought here, Warrant Error here. All my projects may be sampled in my selected poems, History or Sleep, here.

Todd Thorpe’s review of  Twentieth Century Blues my be read here.

The POETICS of Twentieth Century Blues may be read here. (NB POETICS is going to be the subject of the next 7 posts on Pages, beginning 1st April.)