Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Robert Sheppard: A History of the Other (final installment)

Anthologies and Assemblages
Note: Previous instalments of A History of the Other derive from the historical chapters of The Poetry of Saying. While a few sentences of the following are included in the book, most of it was excluded on grounds of length.

The first edition of Edward Lucie-Smith’s Penguin anthology British Poetry Since 1945 dates from 1970, and is one such generously inclusive book, published at a time of some optimism in the British Poetry Revival. Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney and Paul Evans are featured as new writers alongside the canonical Larkin, Plath, and others. However, the revised edition of 1985 omits MacSweeney and Evans, despite the fact that they had both published significant volumes in the 1970s, in favour of such poets as Andrew Motion and Craig Raine (about whom Lucie-Smith is less than adulatory). Lucie-Smith notes that the decline of the small presses by 1985 – the four poets above were all published by Fulcrum - ‘seems to have left homeless a number of writers whose work does not fit conventional lists’. Unfortunately his selection, by its omissions, as the age demanded, bowed to market forces and ignored the plight of the homeless. Those spared this culling from a time before ‘the high tide of American influence ... receded’ (p 23) found their selections not updated as though their best work had only been accomplished while the Atlanticist zeitgeist was right, as though they were no longer relevant to, or even operative in, the Little England (and littler Ireland) of the Morrison and Motion anthology The Penguin Book of British Parrots (sorry! I mean) Poets of 1982, to which his up-dating is clearly indebted.

These misgivings should not diminish Lucie-Smith’s achievements in attempting to sample the whole of British poetry, not just the British Poetry Revival, but the work of David Gascoyne, George Barker and WS Graham, poets eclipsed by the Movement, and others such as Francis Berry and Tony Connor, who may yet see the tide of reputation turn in their favours. The editor seems to acknowledge such relativity; he sounds almost apologetic about the fact that ‘some of (the anthology’s) contents are seen with the eyes of 1970, which, given the cyclic nature of taste, may also turn out to be the eyes of 1990. Or 1995’. Or (we must add) 2005.…

A confident editorial route taken by poet Richard Caddel and critic Peter Quartermain in editing Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 in 1999, is to follow the North American fashion for teaching anthologies, an academic option one might imagine Iain Sinclair, for example, deploring, as editor of unrepentent counter-cultural Conductors of Chaos. As a number of poets enter the academy as teachers of literature or of creative and performance writing; as books such as former Alembic editors Hampson and Barry’s New British Poetries, and indeed, the present history, and the academic book of which it is an offshoot, are published; as conferences, such as Hampson’s at the University of London, are organized; as even a Centre for Contemporary Poetics is convened; the academicization of poetry is inevitable. Even the late 1990s Sub Voicive Colloquia have been held in academic institutions.

Indeed the occasion for Other, which was published by Wesleyan University Press in New England, in 1999, may have been the University of New Hampshire conference Assembling the Alternatives. Another event of 1996, this conference assembled ‘alternative’ British, North American, Irish and Antipodean poets side by side. British writers such as Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Ken Edwards, cris cheek, Miles Champion, Maggie O’Sullivan and Denise Riley, appeared alongside the leading language poets to both read and discuss poetics. Given the historical reluctance to theorize in Britain, and the lack of celebrity enjoyed by these writers, this event may be thought of as an international academic validation of this British writing. However, the fact that, like the anthology, it was not British in origin, tempers the celebration.
Other also placed these writers alongside some Irish counterparts who attended the conference, such as Catherine Walsh and Maurice Scully, whose poetry may be read about elsewhere. Caddel and Quartermain – both Bunting scholars - might also have been expected to include post-Objectivist writers, such as John Seed (see Page 452, February’s archive, see right), Tony Baker, and Caddel himself , but there is a surprise at the black writers collected there, such as Linton Kwesi Johnson (he’s great), Grace Nichols and Fred D’Aguiar (I stood next to them once in a Brighton bookshop. They seemed very important.)

The introduction to The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 , published in 1998 – its title suggests that it has superseded Lucie-Smith’s Penguin Book - provides another review of the period covered by my study. However, it offers a self-consciously millennial consensus, consonant with that of The New Poetry, an anthology in which the two editors, Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford, are both featured. It pushes The New Poetry’s central notion of plurality, consensus, or, as the editors prefer, ‘the democratic voice’ back to 1945 in a revisionist reading designed to short-circuit Alvarez’ theories of generational feedback. The positive aspect of this anthology lies in its willingness to include in its consensus works written in the Gaelic languages of the British Isles, and its willingness to include work from the Republic of Ireland (something found also in its contemporary anthology Other). Like The New Poetry, it offers little access to the figures of the British Poetry Revival or the Linguistically Innovative Poetries. One might have expected, with its post-war time span, and the existence of Lucie-Smith book as a precursor, a revaluation of the careers of Lee Harwood or Tom Raworth. Roy Fisher is represented by two early poems from the 1950s; Denise Riley with a single text. While the editors are free to select the work of whomsoever they wish to prove the existence of the democratic voice, their claim to a ‘certain catholicity of taste which will disrupt over-exclusive readings of modern poetry’, is compromised by such omissions.

‘The notion of “the democratic voice” is not intended to suggest that all post-war poets sound alike or speak with one intonation - quite the opposite’. Such poets, we are told, are aware of their individual and social specificity, their class, their gender, their race, and their historical position in the atomizing of the British Empire and indeed the Union itself, but the acoustic metaphor in the editors' definition of difference - the ‘voice’ that appears in many of the post-Movement formulations of poetic individuality - bespeaks an obsession with social tone, as in many of the traditional views of work of the period. Indeed has it not been simply turned on its head when we are told that ‘Douglas Dunn, Seamus Heaney and Tony Harrison (none educated at public school or at Oxbridge) wrote consciously as “barbarians” from outside the traditional cultural centre’? The Movement poets, despite an Oxbridge education, regarded themselves as outsiders. Yet such cultured barbarisms provide common texts for the school syllabus; in Harrison, the emphasis on social origins continues in relatively unchanged poetic modes. This is despite the fact that the anthologists identify ‘an acceptance of a wide variety of forms and styles, with poets choosing, or being chosen by, the most appropriate.’ This strange passivity in the face of stylistic choice is explained by its lack of importance, in the editors’ complacent account of poetic artifice, whose only counter seems to be an easy choice between fixed meters and ‘vers libre’. ‘Attitudes towards form became more relaxed’ as the period progressed, but, I hope I have shown, this view is tenable only if one limits ‘poetry’ to exclude the challenges of Raworth’s interruptive poetics, Fisher, Clarke and Freer’s creative linkage, let alone Cobbing’s visual and sound poetries, or Maggie O'Sullivan's non-linear poetics. Plurality of voices does not mean plurality of techniques.

The nineteen forties are given the traditional short shrift by their introduction. The democratic voice arrived as the obscurantism of the New Apocalypse waned. Not surprisingly, the Movement is identified as its beginning, and ‘post-war poets’ (Larkin among the list) ‘wrote subtle, accessible and surprising poetry, communicating more directly with a wider public’. But accessibility, communicability, is precisely a proximity with an audience that detracts from the dialogic nature of poetic openness as I have defined it, and analysed in terms of the dominant Movement Orthodoxy. Nobody would deny pluralism within these practices (indeed, its flexibility has allowed the orthodoxy to survive) but it is one achieved by a narrow definition of ‘poetry’.

For Armitage and Crawford the autonomy of the imagination must be preserved from ideological determinants, even though they call for a social definition of a poetic democracy to mirror the democratization of post-war Britain. Poetry ‘carries its own authority’, an authority which

depends on an absolute aptness of verbal shape. The right words need to be in the right order. The line-breaks, and whatever other technical devices, need to be spot-on too, disrupting and conducting the flow of rightness exactly.

Poetry's authority is invested in itself, a sovereign autonomy that relies upon a rightness which operates as a judge of diction, syntax and rhythm; the editors assume shared values: we all know how to determine the ‘spot-on’. It is a casual equivalent of Donald Davie’s normative investigations of diction and syntax in the 1950s. The level of disruption here would not perhaps be equivalent to the interruptive technical devices I have, month by month, identified in more radical formulations of poetics during this period, although the editors – Crawford more than Armitage - are aware that some poets regard language as ‘something to be negotiated with and through, rather than something transparent’ (xxxi) but this apparent recognition of radical poetic artifice and the postmodern condition settles uneasily alongside rhetoric about accessibility.

Even the editors’ attempts to decentre the Movement prove its very centrality:

If older narratives of post-1945 poetry in these islands dwelt on the rejection of modernist aesthetics by the poets of The Movement (a group which crucially included Philip Larkin), then that now seems a dated and misleading oversimplification. Modernist interests in the run-down city, jazz and mixing unusual with demotic language, resurface in Larkin's work, for instance.

This special pleading for Larkin as a proto-modernist is not convincing. To compare the patronizing depiction of devalued urban crowds with the re-explorations of Birmingham in the composite-epic of Roy Fisher is to contrast misanthropy, and worse, as I have shown, with a triumph of continual poetic renewal of the City of modernism in the de-Anglicized Midlands. Likewise Larkin’s supposedly polyphonic verbal surfaces relate less to the hetereoglossia of Pound and more to an uneasiness about social tone and the speaker’s position in class structures, as Jonathan Raban has (long ago) argued.

It is with the example of jazz that Larkin’s antipathy towards modernism becomes pronounced. ‘After Parker ... After Picasso! After Pound! There could hardly have been a conciser summary of what I don’t believe about art.’ Larkin suggests that a jazz writer who says that ‘You can hear Bessie in Bird’ may be sincere but that he rates his ‘mental competence below zero’. Those who hear modernism in Larkin catch the echo of an echo, it seems to me, and amplify that into an inheritance.

On the other hand, and more importantly, the anthologists argue that

the experimentalism of Larkin's near-contemporaries WS Graham, Edwin Morgan and Ian Hamilton Finlay show an openness to language and international poetic currents (whether of concrete poetry or concerns about the materiality of language) which challenges ideas of post-1945 verse as Movement dominated.

These three Scottish writers – again I detect the more progressive voice of Crawford - have indeed been important, in ways consonant with the writers I have focussed upon in previous posting. They are less known than Larkin, and their work has often been regarded as difficult, elitist and challenging, precisely because of the patronizing claims for an ‘accessibility’ that has underpinned the dominance of the Movement Orthodoxy. Indeed, as Tony Lopez argues, it was precisely this dominance that led Graham to a poetic silence from the first days of The Movement until 1970.

Graham’s position in British poetry was defined by the Movement... for the perception of what was good poetry in 1955 is something that was carefully constructed by those who were served by a shift in public taste

away from Graham’s post-New Apocalypse style in The Nightfishing. The world his verse creates, one made up of a treacherous and trenchant linguistic matter, is not the world of Mr Bleaney. The same might be said of figures like Basil Bunting who are represented as ‘isolated’. But Bunting was not at all isolated from the early 1960s: he was published by, associated with, and was admired by, and influenced, many poets of the British Poetry Revival.

We cannot wish the Movement Orthodoxy away, as Armitage and Crawford pretend, even if, now well past the dawn of a new century, it had outlived its spectral afterlife. It had persisted through most of the post-War period, changing and assimilating, yet so naturalized as to be invisible, as a normative pattern that limits the function of innovation within its compass and the acceptability of poetic experiment beyond it. The only way discontents - the three they name, the ones featured in this study, or the many necessarily excluded from it - can be given their true place in anything approaching a democratic literary history, is by a mode of critical re-writing with which this anthology, for all its pluralism, does not engage.

The most impressive thing about Lucie-Smith’s anthology remains, as I’ve said, that it was the only attempt between 1950 and 2000 to present a survey of the range of British poetries. The next attempt would have to wait until 2001. The American critic, Keith Tuma, acknowledges Lucie-Smith’s first edition, in his introduction to Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry and reflects, ‘I am closer to Lucie-Smith than to some editors in imagining that the selections for this anthology reflect a kind of pluralism.’ Yet, as his critical book Fishing by Obstinate Isles demonstrates, he is an engaged reader – with the eyes of 1995, perhaps - of the work of the British discontents analysed in this book. He also has a revisionist agenda with regards to pre-War British and Irish poetry, which involves placing the great Mina Loy and Joseph Macleod – he has been a critical advocate of both - next to Eliot and Ford Madox Ford; or Charlotte Mew and Elizabeth Daryush next to William Empson and Robert Graves; Brian Coffey and Thomas MacGreevy next to Yeats and Austin Clarke. As certain British poets suspect, who have sought themselves to recover some of Tuma’s poets (John Rodker, Lynnette Roberts or Nicholas Moore), the revision of pre-War poetries may have distinct effects on our readings, and on the subsequent public reception, of post-War poetries. As Basil Bunting or Hugh MacDiarmid, even Charles Madge and Denis Devlin, supplement Auden and MacNeice, the latter appear less wholly representative figures of the 1930s.

But revisionism sometimes makes trouble for Tuma’s undoubted pluralism, nowhere more so than in the period covered by my study; he acknowledges that his anthology is ‘most contentious in its representation of recent decades.’ Contention for Tuma resides in the fact, analysed throughout my study, that

it is the contemporary poetry which is most obviously indebted to an international modernism that has fared worst in many of the anthologies of British and Irish poetry published over the last 30 years, especially by major publishers in England, which until recently have seemed interested in perpetuating the influence of the Movement's anti-modernism as it emerged in the 1950s.

To remedy ‘the logic that declared a British (or Irish) poetry engaged with modernist traditions somehow “foreign” to traditions purportedly more native or indigenous altogether suspect’,24 the book literally places Bob Cobbing next to Philip Larkin, Lee Harwood next to Seamus Heaney, Roy Fisher next to Ted Hughes, Tom Leonard next to Craig Raine, Allen Fisher next to Eavan Boland, Veronica Forrest-Thomson next to Liz Lochhead, Maggie O’Sullivan next to Paul Muldoon, cris cheek next to Carol Ann Duffy. (That we find James Berry sandwiched between Christopher Middleton and Ian Hamilton Finlay, and EA Markham between Carlyle Reedy and John James, or even Gael Turnbull between Thomas Kinsella and John Montague, presents other telling juxtapositions.)

These accidents of arrangement by date of birth are liberating because they impose on the reader’s well-schooled mind – like Other it is an American teaching anthology - the questions that arise from a compare and contrast exercise. As Tuma puts it: ‘One of the ‘revisionist’ agendas of this anthology is to complicate the categories while discarding the potted histories, or rather while encouraging you, the reader, to rewrite those histories.’

The anthology ends with three of the young poets who also appeared in Nicholas Johnson’s Foil (and a fourth who had appeared Other): Caroline Bergvall (b. 1962); Drew Milne (b. 1964); Catherine Walsh (b. 1964); Helen MacDonald (b. 1970). It enables them, relatively early in their careers, to gain for their poetry ‘a hearing amongst other poetries’, as Tuma puts it. Older poets – myself included – achieve this belatedly, but at least in their lifetimes. The anthology’s greatest service to the discontents is to place them in a chronological narrative that may engender a genuine democratic literary history.

As convenor of the Six Towns Poetry Festivals in the Midlands between 1992-1997, and as a mature student of performance writing at Dartington, Nicholas Johnson was in a good position to consider the ‘defining’ of poetry in the years leading up to the millennium. In his introduction to his anthology Foil: defining poetry 1985-2000, Johnson, can be as effusive as Iain Sinclair in his enthusiasms but as tight-lipped and evasive as any anthologist trying to justify his or her choices.

A range of speech seized as birthright. Punned, sampled or appropriated, serpentine and spatial, hysteric or vitriolic: this poetry pays keen attention to sound and has a driving pulse rhythm.

This range of linguistic innovation, means the ‘acts of disruption’ found in the volume are quite various. There is less syntactic play and grammatical disruption than one might expect, although the inclusion of, for example, Adrian Clarke, ensures this is by no means absent. Prose continues to play an important part in the work of writers evading metrical regularity, none more so than Richard Makin’s texts, which present intense accumulations of allusive material and linguistic deformation; dense textualities brim with portmanteau words and neologisms, as in O’Sullivan, but embedded in long paragraphs that resist easy reading. Peter Manson and Ira Lightman are both represented by uncharacteristically lyrical work, with only hints at the little-published work both have systematically undertaken in visual poetry, multiple layouts and text transformations.

The kinds of linguistic deviation favoured here are predominantly lexical, as in the multilingual works of Shelby Matthews and Bergvall, or in the macronic Scots-English work of Rob MacKenzie. Meg Bateman’s dual Gaelic and English poems show a more traditional approach, one that stretches back to Sorley MacLean, and embeds her politics in her choice of language rather than in linguistic innovation. More radical experiments in what might be called fake dialect, include Johnson’s own work, and Khalid Hakim’s angry epistles, with their aberrant and inconsistent spellings, which work as critiques of the stability of identity in dialect, defiant idiolects against the inherited sociolect. Yet they share these pages with attempts to present ‘authentic’ regional and national voices, as in Alison Flett’s Scots, a feminized response to Tom Leonard’s dialect style. Issues of identity and speech intersect with questions of ethnic and gender identities, sometimes in complex ways, as in Bergvall’s tri-lingual queer poetics.

There is a clear reflection of the performance work that has gathered around, and been generated by, Bergvall’s courses at Dartington Hall: from more of Aaron Williamson’s ‘Cacophonies’ to the installation work of Bergvall herself, and the visual presentations of Tertia Longmire, whose found text-treated text ‘transcriptions from graffiti found on thirty school examination desks abandoned in south London during 1996’ fares less well on these square pages than they do in the space of a gallery within the context of Longmire’s sculptural-textural explorations of detritus and its strange messages. Surprisingly these screen like pages do not help the reader to grasp the radical ‘work in movement’ of John Cayley’s cyberpoetic island: a computer work which features multilingual transformations between languages. But then even this rather trendily designed book – it resembles a CD - cannot substitute for such environments, such movements. Yet for many poets here, as for others before them (from Roy Fisher to Bob Cobbing as I have shown), page space is the performance space, a site for visual regularity (Drew Milne’s austere blocks) or irregularity (Harriet Tarlo’s field of typefaces and lyric fragments of radical pastoral, the objectivist lyric released into this postmodern textural space, or onto its screen).

The attempt ‘to be poetri & not poetre at th same tiyme’, as Hakim puts it, is typifies his own and Makin’s experiments in non-generic prose (of which there are monthly installmetns on Great Works), but it also characterizes many of the contributors as they push away from the unnamed normative centre. There is not, as Armitage and Crawford argue in their anthology, an attempt to gather a democratic voice as a singularity, but something more like a democracy of voices pushing towards a variety of conceptual and performative poetics. The best innovate within language, not at the level of page presentation, or not only at that level, but in the density of linguistic event, with an aesthetic, rather than conceptual, theory of language.

That Foil ignores the mainstream – it refreshingly avoids pitching itself at an orthodoxy which ignores it - does not mean that it has gone away any more than it had for Armitage and Crawford, nor has it been vanquished. There are pitfalls in the lack of attention it pays to the Movement Orthodoxy, which are related to the uses of the techniques of performance writing, conceptual art, and cyberpoetics. Even as some of these writers and artists appropriate these areas for poetry, there is the attendant danger that they will be written out of, or marginalized within, non-democratic literary histories simply because of their ambitions to go beyond poetry. This might not matter – and for a practitioner these things do not matter - if it were not for the fact that this gives one more excuse for the Movement Orthodoxy to ignore the discontents of British poetry and reassert the centrality of the democratic voice. The desire for work not to be poetry might be balanced, as Hakim wisely but belligerently reminds us, with the imperative ‘to be poetri’.

British poets are acknowledged in an international context, placed among the world’s avant-garde, in another American published anthology project, the two volume Poems for the Millennium, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris (who was resident in Britain during the British Poetry Revival period). The presence of Prynne, Raworth, Allen Fisher, Cobbing and O’Sullivan in the second volume, From Post War to Millennium (1998), is supplemented by the inclusion of a part of John Cayley’s Indra’s Net in the section ‘Towards a Cyberpoetics’, which sheds more light on the issues raised above. Despite Jim Rosenberg’s work for John Cage in the USA, and the early work in Britain of Fencott and Moore, the computer has been under-utilized for poetry. Cayley’s work, as Foil perhaps did not show enough, employs ‘generative algorithms and semi-aleatory processes.... to set up a feedback loop’ so that the text on the computer screen is generated in unpredictable ways. Later versions of the CD Rom text allow the reader an intervention into the process to irreversibly change the text. The anthology quotes the oracular Michael Joyce; ‘The book is slow, the network is quick; the book is many of one, the network is many ones multiplied; the book is dialogic, the network polylogic.’

But remeber: somewhere between the shifting screens of randomly generated computer text and the frost-blown epigraph sculpted onto a headstone for all time lies your responsibility.

You cannot shift the ethical onto the technical and abandon even yourself to ‘effects of textuality’.

The story you tell can’t just accept responsibility as a by-product of ‘openness’. It has actively to assume a stance toward reality, though only in processes that build you into it, in its formal means (which paradoxically take you out of it).

But if you want to read more about these issues, they are covered in my book The Poetry of Saying, from Liverpool University Press.

Published now at £50 hardback. (Can be found second hand, in e-format, and bits of it on Google Books).

isbn 0853238197

Page 485

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