Cambridge: Towards a Community of Risk
Keith Tuma declared in 1998, that 'London writers are sometimes supposed to be at odds with writers affiliated with another cultural centre, Cambridge. Such tensions ... were no doubt exacerbated by an issue of the magazine Angel Exhaust containing ... editor Andrew Duncan’s essay ‘The Cambridge Leisure Centre: Traits’ ......’
Another North American commentator, Charles Bernstein, co-editor of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, noticed in 1994 a split between London’s Linguistically Innovative Poetry and a Cambridge poetry which he negatively characterized as ‘renovations (or refashionings) of lyrical and pastoral (or postpastoral) forms’, and noted that ‘a particular range of aesthetic procedures seems to be propped up by a patrician decorum and Oxbridge authoritativeness that barely covers over the thematic renunciation of these values’.
Duncan’s article attempted taxonomy of the Cambridge tribe as yet another ‘lit room’ for ‘the ambient medium of society’. Duncan discerns three factors, the first being the pervasive influence of Prynne. Ben Watson has written that the annual Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry (which began in 1991), ‘was founded by Prynnians, but (Prynne)’s such a crucial figure to the attenders, he himself cannot attend (as Ian Patterson, one of Prynne’s proselytisers put it, “he’s made himself the Pope, so now he can’t be there.”)’. Secondly, Duncan notes, the ‘reputation of the group is for hermetic complexity’; certainly Prynne’s poetry is difficult and allusive, mannered and gestural in a way that may be imitated, but there is a contrary tendency to follow the example of Peter Riley.
Duncan thirdly detects ‘a remarkable density of serious Marxist politics’ (yet he also acknowledges ‘an undocumented strand of Far Right thought in another groupuscule’); he has in mind the younger generation of theorists and poets, such as the ‘Material Esthetix’ of Watson, or the thinking of Drew Milne.
Milne was editor of the influential magazine Parataxis between 1992 and 1996, a journal whose subtitle, ‘modernism and modern writing’ announced its resistance to postmodernism and suggested the Adornoesque high modernist line of its critical content. In the third issue, in 1993, Milne’s article ‘Agoraphobia, and the embarrassment of manifestos: notes towards a community of risk’ sought ‘to ventriloquize a utopian collective’, ‘a community of writing which liberates its possible readers’, and a poetics of ‘the residual and emergent avant-gardes of contemporary poetry’. He identifies conditions which militate against the collective. He attacks the exclusivity of the Cambridge poetry scene; Duncan suggests that the ‘coterie smugness of the poets’, which Bernstein sees as aesthetically self-defeating, is a remedy against the ‘encircling chill’ of the atmosphere of Cambridge University. ‘An embarrassment with direct statement’, both in poetry and poetics, combines, for Milne, with ‘hostility to traditional literary criticism and literary theory’, the refusal to theorize that Adair had noted; Adair and Milne (in their different ways) were both poets who fought this tendency in their own creative and critical work. The ‘embarrassment of manifestos’ is a clear plea for the development of poetics. Milne’s argument pays scant attention to the development of this discourse in the London grouping, and he has been a resistant but perceptive critic of language poetry theory; his focus is Cambridge, yet he expresses his annoyance at both Peter Riley and Denise Riley for denying the term ‘Cambridge poetry’:
The fear of labels is an endemic and edenic aspect of poetry, and the non-identity of such communities, perhaps best described as the Cambridge axis, indicates the need for a poetics of community, a poetics which, if successful, would have considerable and more general political value.
Apart from nostalgia for the stridency and intimacy of The English Intelligencer of the 1960s, mentioned in an earlier installment, he finds little to fulfil his wishes in 1993, though Parataxis itself preserved some form of community. Indeed one result of perceived insularity is the detailed way Cambridge poets critique one another. Like the writings of the American language poets these are no mutual back-slapping exercises. This contrasts with the paucity of critical writing in the London grouping, despite the examples of Fisher and Adair.
Probably the most extraordinary Cambridge activity, though, is Rod Mengham’s small press Equipage which has, with great frequency, brought out pamphlets, often from the now wide age range, of Cambridge poets, from Prynne and Chaloner, to Wilkinson and Drew Milne, to the active young editor of Quid, Keston Sutherland, but also of outsiders, such as Allen Fisher and Ulli Freer. By 2000 he had published over 60 pamphlets.
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Iain Sinclair was clearly collecting this series, and when he was commissioned to edit an anthology, this ‘mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk’ was readily to hand, and furnished many of his selections.
Sinclair edited Conductors of Chaos in 1996. (References marked CC in the text refer directly to the anthology.) As Poetry Consultant at Paladin, after John Muckle, he had attempted to obtain the same visibility for marginal poets that he has achieved himself, chiefly as a novelist. However it is odd that his introduction should not mention The New British Poetry, particularly since much of his introduction is exhausted critiquing ‘the absolute betrayal of the programme they presume to promote’ of the ‘ice-floe of meaningless anthologies’ that have appeared since the 1960s. (CC, p. xiii) He correctly suggests that, after Michael Horovitz’ Children of Albion, they had become an institution for ‘the suppression of a more radical and heterodox body of work’. (CC, p. xv)
My characterizations of the little press scene lack the panache and imaginative gloss provided by Sinclair's introduction. The gifts that have justly made Sinclair an acclaimed novelist, the depiction of a gritty hyperreality, an arcane and conspiratorial world, as evinced in White Chappel, Scarlet Tracings (1987) and Dining on Stones reviewed on Page 456, index March on the right), are deployed to create a vampiric world of poetic parasitism and backbiting. Its special-needs citizen[s] ... correspond compulsively and at length, dispatching multiple photocopies of their poison-pen squibs to the relevant small-press editors. A private world: their reports, scratched on glass, are of events that happen elsewhere, outside, beyond their sphere of influence.’ (CC, pp. xviii-xviii)
The introduction is unfortunately entitled ‘Infamous and Invisible’ but the mythic infamy only contributes to the continued invisibility. Boldly subtitled ‘A Manifesto for Those Who Do not Believe in Such Things’, Sinclair’s introduction presumes to speak for his 36 various poets (or ‘pick-’n’-mix shambles of has-beens, headcases and emerging chancers’ as he prefers). (CC, p. xiii) As a manifesto it is lacking; Sinclair has no theory of textual complexity, no appeals to a poetics, other than asserting the work’s right to be difficult: ‘The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to “understand” it but I like having it around.’ (CC, p. xvii) His assertion that ‘these apes from the attic ... are the ones that have been locked away, those who rather enjoy it’, seems perverse given the involvement of many of the contributors in publishing and performing ventures, such as Brian Catling, whose performance The Blindings at the Serpentine Galleries in 1994, consisted of him reading for 8 hours a day for the length of the show. (CC, p. xvii)
It is, however, this sort of performance work that Sinclair has in mind when he admits ‘that something, at last, is happening out there: crusty revenants conspiring with uppity newcomers’. (CC, p. xviii) The anthology is mainly a mixture of these new performance writers and work of the Cambridge axis, along with established writers, such as Harwood, Allen Fisher and Griffiths (and some New Apocalypse and modernist poets of the past).
JH Prynne is represented by one of his baffling texts of the 1990s, ‘Her Weasels Wild Returning’; its seven sections of 24 lines suggest the measures of time itself, whilst focussing, not on an ‘I’, however fractured, but on an obsessively tracked ‘she, she, she, and only she’, almost quoting one of Coleridge’s complaints to Asra. (CC, p. 351) Whereas earlier work had used specific specialized discourses, such as geology, this text seems to connote simultaneously the language and worlds of consumerism, and scarcity, physical attack, even rape, in a knot of reference that, following Veronica Forrest-Thomson, might be called an ‘image-complex’, which leads to the condition of ‘suspended naturalization’. The connotations that radiate from the word ‘slashed’, invites the sceptical judgement that follows:
Her step pervades
the slashed shelf life here to utter startled bleeding, that
can’t be right, loaded entry starvation gives over at last
these particulate verticals. (CC, p. 351)
The text intertwines its discourses so that on different readings different connections seem prominent. The loading bays of supermarkets which promise starvation may indeed ‘give over’ to other readings in which ‘particulate verticals’ may suggest rainfall, scientific discourse, or return the reader to supermarket shelves, or even the shelf upon which ‘she’ is left. Even then there is the suspicion that ‘that can’t be right’, semantically or morally. The influence of this dense multiple referentiality can be detected in the works of John Wilkinson and Drew Milne. In one example of the harsh mutual-critiquing of the Cambridge poets, Drew Milne usefully defines Wilkinson's differences from Prynne in terms of semantic containment and dispersal.
Whereas Prynne's work often seems constrained by the authority of an almost literal, stoic fidelity to relations between cognition and semantics, Wilkinson's work is more restless ... in a perpetually renewing struggle for recognition which is reluctant to eschew the possibility of a freer subjectivity.
Part of this restless struggle can be seen in ‘Cabling the Suburbs’ from Conductors of Chaos; the title alludes to the installation of underground communication cables connecting a domestic margin to an absent centre.
The valleys echoed cathedral with mechanical
azaleas, roseate petals smudged down the pathways,
cones were set out, varicose cables trenched
off the head station, little magnetic workers
trudge down their powerful lines blowing & refute. (CC, p. 468)
Although there are some visual images here (varicose, for example), ‘Wilkinson's work affords many such uncanny encounters with our polluted life-world, drawing out figures of lyric form from a distress which is at once social and political,’ as Milne says. The mechanical azaleas, the magnetic workers are not simply the metal cable being laid, but have become autonomous metaphors. The lyricism of this is indeed conducted through figurative devices, a semantic dispersal that Wilkinson characterizes as ‘metastatic’. This is a way of describing a dispersal of linguistic elements, that are also subjective counters, throughout the body of the poem (metastasis literally describes the spreading of cancer cells) through ‘a set of linked and transforming entities, which can be syntactical gestures, vowel and consonant patterning, imagistic or discursive modes’.
The metaphors take over the power of narrative and argument without becoming either, the struggle for recognition of its subjective agency and efficacy. A state of stillborn economics where riots are emphatically at home, offers the ‘Birth stagflation riots in the nest in their nest’ of the poem’s opening, with its strange repetition that reminds us that ‘they’ own the nest. (CC, p. 468) This improvisatory method of composition, a series of transformations and dispersals, brings it closer to the practice of Allen Fisher and others than the resultant hard surface might suggest. Interestingly, Wilkinson takes up Milne’s term risk to discuss his method ‘at the micro-level…’
Risk in poetry is found where the accepted word would join the poem in an unanticipated way to the world .... It’s hard sometimes to know the difference between risk and defence. If I vandalize a lucid but banal passage am I taking a risk (with a reader’s willingness to follow)...?
Perhaps the passage I quote above originally contained the banality of the empirical but was editorially ‘vandalized’ out of easeful lucidity. The a-syntactical and unanticipated ‘& refute’ refutes the visual images of workmen digging that lie behind the metaphors. By the time the poem ends the suburban has become a desert; identity is dispersed and desperate, multiple yet collectively narcissistic:
Reprobates they cry, then a devolved cost rifle
pans out as We. We where the child pinkish like
from an exhaust, We passing for collective in
multiplex repeat but through carbon foil, we
whether we like it or not, wringing the crusts. (CC, p. 469)
A series of metastatic figures works alongside the first person plural here: the exhaust, the carbon, reminders of the ecological vandalism that supports the multiplex, the social emerging from the lyrical trajectory.
While Milne sees the political shining through the lyric resources, Wilkinson sees the opposite in Milne. In his introduction to Milne’s Conductors of Chaos selection, he writes, ‘Milne’s use of poetry as a critical instrument is not reduction of its lyrical potency.’ (CC, p. 253) Repetition is more controlled for Milne: each of the 12 15 line poems of his sequence begins with the word ‘Clamour...’ and the effect is not of dispersal but of confinement. The title ‘Foul Papers’ is focussed for the reader by a characteristic epigraph from Hegel: ‘Reading the morning paper is the realist’s morning prayer’, but Milne seeks to deconstruct what he finds; the text is a reading through the Daily Clamour of newsprint:
a flurry of front page glorie
and nemesis time on the footsie,
when ten thousand chickens died, we’re told,
in a fire started on purpose. (CC, p, 255)
The ‘we’re told’ is not parenthetical but chillingly central: the paper’s ‘foul’ news punning away the ‘fowl’ news, and the casual, even flirty, abbreviation of the Financial Times Share Index (FTSI), whose index involves the nemesis of the financial loss of such news. The juxtapositions here reflect the juxtaposition that news itself offers. The section finishes:
I suppose it’s the marine in me
says go if the hearing continues. (CC, p. 255)
This would be funny if it were not the sudden intrusion of an individualized militarism that can threaten and act against the impositions of a legal proceeding, such as a public ‘hearing’, inquiry or inquest.
While the poem is polyphonic (‘Voices rather than voice, then, and as writing’ as Milne writes elsewhere,) the gesture requires an Adornoesque belief in the resistance inherent in the autonomy of the art object, but Milne rejects the emptiness of Ackroyd’s theories of autonomy, and the utopian ease of Marcuse. (Did I mention I visited Marcuse’s grave in Berlin? No? I must stop butting in.) Yet the text hovers around a skeletal argument in its elaborate punning: ‘word without bend/in a maze of blight’ (world without end in a blaze of light) (CC, p. 257) that is constantly refunctioning the ‘wisdom’ of the cliché, a borrowing that is precisely ‘debit where debit is due’. (CC, p. 254). There is a savage indignation that instructs us at its end to ‘stand toxic, tall and tousled, as we/go forth coldly into the dark page’, (CC, p. 259) which is a call to use poetry as a critical instrument upon the real, which, despite the worked surface, recalls Adair’s anti-Thatcherite bus stop resistance examined in part five of this history.
Peter Riley represents the lyrical, even pastoral, side of Cambridge poetry in his long poem Alstonefield. (The whole is available now from Carcanet.) Whether his work amounts to the ‘renovations’ detected by Bernstein, he courts the evocation of a fragile pastoral balanced against the modern world, exequy against decay, Blake’s echoing green echoed again in an image of community that harbours sinister secrecy:
But a pastoral substantive, where the story
gathers to a close the community accedes to what
‘must be’ in secret delight. Here the maidens
dance on the darkening green to the end of day
a torse in history that rights itself by
candle lanterns, as the soul is timed to
exequies. Bow to it and cross the glowing river
on a wooden footbridge into urban decay. (CC, p. 409-410)
But the torse of the past can also involve the textual materials of another of Riley’s projects, Excavations, which collages the writings of JR Mortimer on his exhaustive and actual excavations of burial mounds, with Tudor songs, to present a reconfiguration of our knowledges of what lies under urban decay:
hollows in the earth, the secrets of our hearts declaimed from ridge to ridge as white tumuli, writing the edge of belonging on a winter arch. (CC, p. 405)
These conductions of order, rather than chaos, this writing of such an edge in Excavations brings the text closer to the historical found poetry of Bill Griffiths or to Linguistically Innovative Poetry than its author would acknowledge. Tom Lowenstein calls the first two parts, published as Distant Points, by Reality Street,
a recalcitrant, somewhat rebarbative text. Dislocated and restless, the eye forks over the paragraphs in search of connections that make sense, greedy for the threads, veins, intercalations offering a route through the labyrinths of discord. And is this not the nature of excavation?
Yes it is, we might say. Next month: Performance Writing.