Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A History of the Other: Part One: Robert Sheppard

Over the next few months I will be posting excerpts from a history I have written of the kinds of poetry Pages feels itself to be part of. We begin in the 1950s and 1960s. It will end at 2000.
1. The British Poetry Revival

... 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, 1979

While some conventional accounts of British poetry have colluded with Morrison and Motion’s contention that the 1960s and 1970s formed a ‘stretch ... when very little – in England at any rate – seemed to be happening’, 2 these postings offer the counter-view, presented by Ken Edwards above, and spelt out in oppositional terms by another poet-critic, Gavin Selerie:

'As various reviewers have pointed out, the 1960s and 1970s actually witnessed an explosion of poetic activity, which was in itself a reaction against the full common-sense politeness of the ‘Movement’ poets of the 1950s. After a period dominated by such figures as Philip Larkin, qualities of inventiveness, passion, ­intelligence entered once again into British verse. Poets as
diverse as Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Roy Fisher, and Tom Pickard exhibited a toughness and also a splendour that were entirely absent from the writing collected in the Movement anthology New Lines (1956).'

This posting will define this serious, but heterogeneous literary movement. The term I use to describe it, the British Poetry Revival, was first proposed by Tina Morris and Dave Cunliffe in the eighth issue of their underground magazine Poetmeat around 1965, which presented an anthology of such work. It was subsequently used as the title of a 1974 Polytechnic of Central London conference: ‘The British Poetry Revival (1960-1974)’, and of its conference essay, by Eric Mottram. Ken Edwards and Barry MacSweeney have both adopted this term. Mottram also used the term in his revised essay ‘The British Poetry Revival, 1960-75’, an important survey, published in 1993. Significantly, it proposes a limit to the years of ‘revival’, to which I shall return. Given the dominance of the Movement Orthodoxy during the period 1955-2000, the Revival can be seen as a counter-movement. Yet it looks less of a ‘reaction’ than Selerie suggests, when it is set in its own, still largely uncharted, context, to emphasize its own positive qualities. But first, we return to the early 1950s.

* * *
Although Roy Fisher began to write seriously at 23, in 1953, some of his first attempts, other than a spoof sonnet, which he submitted to the BBC, were the pieces published as Three Early Pieces in 1971. Fisher has described them as ‘verbally automatic’, and there is a general debt to surrealism, although the images strain for a cosmic significance, which suggests the influence of Thomas and the New Apocalypse:

As laden slaves sweat upwards
lash hums like a fly about
God in his
ebony ark.

Although it was a style Fisher was quick to reject, it avoided the empirical lyricism of the Movement, which Fisher regarded as exhibiting ‘all sorts of misanthropy and resignation, both social and artistic’. By this time he had found a viable avenue to European modernism, which he knew he ‘strangely wanted to re-visit’, via the new American writers of the time to whom he had been introduced by fellow poet Gael Turnbull (who was himself an influence). These writers – Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, the Black Mountain school – were ‘still showing allegiance to the claims of early twentieth century modernism, claims which to my mind had been far too hastily abandoned’, particularly by the stridently anti-modernist Movement.

Turnbull was an important publisher of British and American work. Between July 1959 and September 1960, he and Michael Shayer edited eight issues of Migrant magazine; design and production were spartan: stencil and mimeograph. The print run was 250 and the distribution uneven. A note inserted in the first issue gives a telling summary of its ethos:

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.

Additionally, Turnbull 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 Modern 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.

In that year an issue of a university magazine, Cambridge Opinion, was dedicated to the subject of ‘Carlos Williams in England’ – that is, the influence the work of Williams and the Black Mountain poets were having. Bunting’s example of influence, ‘The Oratova Road’ dated back to 1935, but Fisher’s ‘Seven Attempted Moves’ is described as having evolved from a recent experiment with Williams’ famous triple line. ‘A Gesture to be Clean’, in which Turnbull praises Williams for his Objectivist presentation of ‘the things themselves, however absurd, however limited’, for avoiding the impulse to ‘symbolize’ found in the dominant modes of modernism, accompanied his own poems. This magazine was also one of the earliest gatherings of what has come to be called ‘Cambridge’ poetry which derives as much from the example of JH Prynne, then, as now, a fellow of Caius College, as it does from American influences, particularly the projective theories of Olson. This group’s own journals included the English Intelligencer, a privately distributed poetry and discussion sheet, which was issued to a mailing list of around 30 between February 1967 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”‘. 14 Crozier’s magazine The Park, moved from the University of Essex to Keele where Crozier became a teaching colleague of Roy Fisher. In 1968 a further two poets, John Riley and Tim Longville, founded the Grosseteste Review, and the largely ‘Cambridge’ oriented Grosseteste Press.

The sudden but confusing profusion of networks of little magazines and presses, and the spontaneity of this community of exchange for writer-editors, is noted by Jeff Nuttall in his valuable account of the 1960s, Bomb Culture. When he and his friends, including Bob Cobbing, were '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.'

Bob Cobbing, an indefatigable arts and workshop organizer and publisher, had intermittently operated under the name Writers Forum since 1954. From 1963 the press became a model of radical consistency, tirelessly producing cheap mimeo pamphlets of concrete and experimental poetry, much of it his own. Often he presented young talent, as in the case of Lee Harwood’s title illegible in 1965, which contained beat and surrealist work that had been first aired at Cobbing’s workshops, which, like the press, continued running throughout subsequent decades. Cobbing became manager of Better Books, an important venue for London readings and happenings, and an unofficial resource centre.

These sorts of personal contact were vital in order to sustain a poetry different from established forms and unwelcome at conventional institutions: from performances at Better Books in London through to those at Tom Pickard’s Morden Tower bookshop and venue in Newcastle, where Basil Bunting first read to his new young audience, an experience which encouraged him to pen Briggflatts. Visiting Americans, whether Robert Creeley talking to a teenage Barry MacSweeney in Newcastle, or Edward Dorn resident at the University of Essex for a number of years, where he befriended writers as various as JH Prynne and Tom Raworth, broadened horizons by their presence, readings, information, and (in the above two cases) their poetry written out of their experiences of visiting Britain. Lee Harwood went further, and visited the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, whose work he would translate throughout the 1960s, in Paris in 1963. 19 This was a visit to modernism at its source; Tzara’s rooms, decorated with Picassos, Miros and Klees, must have made an appropriate backdrop for Harwood’s first translations to be approved. In 1966 Harwood made his first trip to experimental modernism’s second home, New York, where he mixed with John Ashbery and other New York writers, who had adapted surrealist imagery to a discursive mode. Harwood’s own adaptation of this style led to his second book, The Man with Blue Eyes, being published in New York and receiving the prestigious Poets’ Foundation Award. The United States was equally receptive to Tom Raworth, who has been an intermittent resident and visitor to this day.

Throughout the 1960s, Harwood was also the publisher of an irregular magazine. Like Turnbull, in a refusal to produce monuments and to negate the consistency of a subscription list or bookshop distribution (other than at outlets like Better Books), each issue had a different title: one was, predictably, Tzarad. It introduced a small nexus of readers that Harwood had built up through correspondence to new English, American and French work. Tom Raworth’s Outburst, and hundreds of other fugitive magazines, were organized on the same vital, evanescent principle, in this time of relatively easy and cheap mimeo and litho printing. The ethos is perhaps neatly summed up by the title of Jeff Nuttall’s magazine: My Own Mag (and one which perfectly describes my attitude to this blogzine).

At the other end of the scale were publishers such as Fulcrum Press and Cape Goliard. Fulcrum was founded in 1965 by Stuart and Deirdre Montgomery, and published quality hardbacks and paperbacks of both British and American writers; neither group was then well-known, despite names like Oppen and Dorn amongst the Americans. Editions of Fisher, Harwood, Raworth, materially assisted their reputations, but Fulcrum was set up to publish Bunting, and his late-flowering of modernism, Briggflatts, was their first publication. Goliard, run by Raworth and Barry Hall, received the backing of the major publisher Cape, and published Olson as well as Turnbull and Prynne. Both ceased operations by the mid 1970s, reflecting the end of economic expansion and the withdrawl of vital patronage. But since poetry publishing is as much a passion as the writing of it, small presses have been resilient in surviving, sometimes with Arts Council funding, often without. Much of the activity of the underground, and particularly the small presses, lies outside of the cash nexus. As Ken Edwards wrote in 1985: 'The products of the presses... are not commodities. In fact, insofar as the labour which made them retains its visibility... they may be designated anti-commodities.'

The best of the little presses (which may be very little indeed) have often published work that breaks the conventional paradigms of what poetry has been, by publishing work which, to the eyes of commercial poetry editors, appears not be poetry at all.

Page 447... more to follow.... Next month: The Underground. Read a later take on 'The British Poetry Revival' here. Here's a later take, as part of a partial review of Juha Virtanen's excellent book on performance in poetry, here

Here are all the subsequent parts of this history as raw links:



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