Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Todd Swift

I disagree with the observation that, since disrupted syntax, shifts in levels of discourse, and other apparently innovative techniques are more common (in submissions, even so, to Salt), they may be designated as mainstream. While stylistic divisions between the so-called mainstream and the innovative schools may be shifting (as styles and aims merge or adapt) in the UK - and I think that, among younger (under-35) poets, they are - there remain actual differences in the poetics behind the choices that lead to, for instance, a disrupted lyric, versus an empirical, first-person, traditional British poem (for instance, that Nick Laird might write). There remains, in Britain, profound mistrust of opaque, excessive, or abstract usage of language, in relation to poetry, which, for most people, is still ultimately a vehicle for expressing something - for saying something - about the self and experience. Or rather, not about the problematic nature of an apparent self apparently trying to say something - but, instead, an easily accepted self easily and transparently conveying truths. Moreover, poems continue to be, on the whole, validated in terms of "making" that Pound, or Orwell would have approved (terms better used for for prose): clarity, hardness, and so on. These are scientific values that work well for language mainly built to control, or sell, things, including sentiments and ideas. In a paradox that I think has not yet fully dawned on British poets, modernism's no-nonsense tenets propelled the sort of Protestant work ethic of the Movement style, and its purities of diction - Davie, after all,
admired Pound.

My chief concern is with the idea of the "good poem" - so cherished by entrepreneurs in the poetry-editing business - since most often, when one examines the sort of criteria even so-called innovative editors swear by, they end up being rather traditional, and usually trite. The idea that poets have something to say, or that form and content are finding an organic match, are hardly cutting edge observations, and could easily sum up the New Lines view of the Movement era. Poetry publishing cannot be everything to everyone, or it stops being the art of publishing, and instead becomes the entertainment of publishing. Recent trends, in poetry, do seem to be moving from theory (as in the English departments) - how much is Eagleton to blame for this? Likely, not much. More seriously, few younger poets read, or understand, Poetic Artifice, and how that work inspired Charles Bernstein in America. There is a very real feedback loop, between 1976 era British Poetry, and Language poetry in the US - just as an earlier British generation found Allen's The New American Poetry foundational. But, in the mainstream, such a loop seems weaker - few American poets read or recognise, for instance, Don Paterson - and fewer British mainstream poets seem to get their bearings from North Americans (other than, say, Billy Collins, and even that seems unlikely).

The most important American poet, in terms of influence, remains O'Hara, who does seem to create a strange brotherhood of followers. The main ongoing tragedy in British poetry, to my mind, remains the unquestioned connection between publishing and poetry, in some minds. Too many young poets seek a career (sadly, or laughably) from the mainstream, one that seems afforded by the capital which publication - vindication - by Salt, or Faber, seems to accord. The main thing should be the composition of the poem. Poems should be read, and appreciated, regardless of, and indeed, apart from, their publisher. Instead, house styles, and publishing cliques no better than small closed clubs, predominate in the UK, whose poetry communities seem, from an outsider's perspective (and I have been kept an outsider), mostly incurious, and certainly, anti-internationalist, except in mainly avant-garde, circumstances.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

David Kennedy: Drifting Hungers and Accessory Rage

In ‘Saws’, Trevor Joyce writes of ‘Drifting hungers and accessory rage’. Eléna Rivera writes in ‘See’, ‘The limit of reproduction and replica, / of “you” as reflection, of “you” as reaction’. Edmond Jabès has Yukel say in ‘The Time of the Lovers’, ‘A blank page swarms with steps on the point of finding their own tracks. An existence is a scrutiny of signs.’ Trying to answer Robert’s question inevitably raises others: is alternative doing the same thing? Has it changed? I have some sympathy with Chris Hamilton-Emery’s argument that innovative practices are now so commonplace they’re the new mainstream. But I’d want to add that I’m constantly astonished by how alternative elements don’t have to be very big in order to make a poetry that seems completely divergent from what comes from, say, Cape or Bloodaxe. But the poetry that’s excited and interested me the most in recent years seems to have enacted a testing of the whole idea of the alternative, a testing in the same way that Krzysztof Ziarek’s attempted a way past the so-called theory death of the avant-garde with his concept of the ‘forcework’. The alternative work of art is not an object but an event that unmakes and remakes the forces of power that circulate around it and through it. Ziarek’s wrong and right at the same time. He’s wrong because Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ is as much as a forcework as one of Bill Viola’s video installations. But he’s also right because it seems to me that the poetry I’ve found most valuable in the last 8 years is only fully activated off the page, in the air, in bookfair and conference moshpits, and in the upstairs rooms of performance. And that also connects with the fact that the most arresting voices occupying places and spaces have been women’s. Confronted with the work of younger poets—and you really are confronted—like Frances Kruk and Emily Critchley I want to yell something like ‘holy paratactic bad girl word salad Batman’ except it’s there in the work of older poets like Frances Presley and Geraldine Monk too. The voice is thrown out into environments—political, historical, sexual—to see what it catches and catches on. And you have to be there to hear it. I don’t see/hear this is the work of many male poets except Keston Sutherland and Sean Bonney. But then it’s hard to do the overview thing because, as earlier respondents have pointed out, you can’t put poets into boxes marked ‘London’ or ‘Cambridge’ anymore. (Could you ever do that with women poets?) And the actual socialities underwriting alternative poetry are much more interesting and surprising anyway. Overview brings me on to another thing I want to mention which is something that hasn’t happened in the last 8 years. We still don’t have the body of criticism to match the work we love. I’m talking big books not articles. Andrew Duncan and our host here have both made bold stabs but they both seemed to leave a lot out. Or perhaps Duncan was just too eccentric (outside) and Sheppard was just too concentric (inside). I’ve been sceptical about such a project elsewhere but I still think it’s worth an attempt. A final thing that comes to mind is Peter Riley’s appreciation of Andrew Crozier in PN Review 182. Riley mentions Crozier’s seminal essay ‘Thrills and frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’ and its famous summary of Larkin: ‘we are asked to trust the poet, not the poem’. Re-reading that, I know what Crozier means and I’m thankful for alternative poetry because I’m not interested in poets’ lives exponentially smoothed into consumer goods. I want to know that the poets I read and hear can be as confused, angry, sceptical, hysterical or perverted as I can. I want the work to jolt me. But at the same time I want to say ‘yes’ because if we can’t trust our alternative poets to do right by us in language in these dismal times then who? And when? And that’s why we need the criticism I was talking about. We (those who write and read alternative poetry) need to tell our own story. ‘The comic book version destroyed all / possibility for heroic action’, writes Eléna Rivera in ‘Painting our evidence’. Put an ‘almost’ and a date in there somewhere—you choose where and when—and you’ll get closer to what I mean.

Eléna Rivera’s poems are in Mistakes, Accidents and a Want of Liberty (Barque Press, 2006). A useful introduction to Edmond Jabès is From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader (Wesleyan University Press, 1991). Trevor Joyce’s poem is in What’s in Store – Poems 2000-2007 (New Writers’ Press/The Gig, 2007).

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Tom Jenks

Amongst the many interesting things on the Great Works website is Peter Philpott’s explanation of why he publishes on the internet. In it, he states that those who remain “emotionally involved with words on paper…have as much future as trained scribes post-Gutenberg.” I agree with his overarching assertion that the internet is changing the way we access poetry and talk to one another about it. After all, you are almost certainly reading this on a screen, which is where I am writing it. I don’t agree, however, that the printed page is doomed. Rather, I think information technology can reinvigorate it, both in the way that it is created and the way it is distributed. I also think that this applies particularly to experimental and innovative poetry.

I am just about young enough to say that I grew up with computers. I can certainly say that they have been around for all of my adult life. Yet I still, to use Philpott’s phrase, remain “emotionally involved” with the book as artefact, with the physical rather than the virtual text. So too do the people I know in and around Manchester who are engaged with contemporary poetry - editors and small press publishers who all, whilst using the internet, still see the printed page in general and the book in particular as valid. What information technology has done, however, is to give us the keys to the citadel. I was reading recently about the upheavals in the Poetry Society in the 1970s, when Eric Mottram et al somehow sailed their Black Pearl through the reefs and under the radar, boarded the ship of state and seized the wheel. One of the most radical things they did was to make the presses, the physical machinery for producing texts, available to anyone with the ideas and inclination to use it. Such an act now seems impossibly romantic and oddly archaic, like a sit in or a march to Aldermaston. Yet we are now in the very situation Mottram was trying to engineer. Anyone with ideas and inclination can produce a book and, more importantly, thanks to the evolution of print on demand, they can produce the book they want when they want it. By chance, I happened to appear on a Radio 4 programme about the small press scene a while ago. One of the other participants was Michael Schmidt, who declared himself of the opinion that the proliferation of publications facilitated by technological change is a bad thing. His argument seems to be that there should be an elite, a crack team of cultural arbiters who decide what to blast and bless, who know where the ladders are and know when to lower them and when to pull them up – gatekeepers, keymasters, curators, custodians. On one hand, you can see his point. Print on demand and the vanity press are, if not exactly bedfellows, certainly roommates. On the other, why should writers always have to seek approval, to be supplicants holding out bowls for a ladleful of gruel? Visionaries and innovators are, by definition, out of synch with their times. They are not the sort of people who find their way into Waterstones or onto the library shelf amongst the Armitages, Duffys, Copes and 100 Poems To Clean Your Teeth To. I am not saying that such people have not had an outlet before – far from it. But technology has made it easier than ever to produce high quality texts which can be the stuff from which alternative worlds are constructed, the currency of local scenes with their own phenomena and epiphenomena, their own flora and fauna.

In addition to changing the way that the printed page is distributed, technology can also radicalise the way that is created. Philpott’s reference to scribes is oddly apt, for in some ways that is what technology has made us . I grew up around the corner from the site of St. Peter’s monastery on the banks of the Wear where Bede spent his formative years and I’m beginning to think all those childhood trips to Durham cathedral to stand next to what may or may not be his bones did something to me. After years of seeing the page as simply a place to put words, my increasing familiarity with computers has gradually transformed my practice to the extent that I now view myself as a producer of illuminated manuscripts, incorporating images and non-verbal figures to work in a way that is as much about the eye as the ear and the voice. The screen, far from being a stifling, standardising influence, can be liberating, making the page a playground and a palette. Technology can make new forms. It can also make the old forms new.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Adrian Clarke

A Response to Chris Hamilton-Emery
Though his approach modestly takes account of the limitations his need as a publisher to identify a “commercially viable project” impose, Chris Hamilton- Emery’s posting on changes since 2000 from the British Poets list prompts a response to some of its provocations.

I too recognise the declining significance of location and social identity. The schools of Mottram and Prynne are no more and some of their survivors have been evidencing a more generous spirit. Along with the rooms upstairs, poetic activity in pubs has become more elusive, while its nature has become a little more inclusive – with an attendant risk of a certain anonymity; and, yes, “institutional locations” offer a problematic alternative. I myself have been publishing with the Birkbeck-based Veer Books, and in my experience of the ambitious activities of the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, if it has an institutionally academic agenda it is well disguised. But London and Cambridge Colleges, the University of Southampton, etc. are far from the old dream of an anti-university; they are subject to the administrative imposition of restrictive political agendas, and the kind of ambience they can offer is, rightly or wrongly, unlikely to be perceived generally as one that can foster or disseminate uninhibited creativity.

Provocation comes with the suggestion that “a great deal of innovative writing … is using tools and techniques that are actually rather hackneyed” – particularly when three paragraphs later Hamilton-Emery observes that “new Muslim writing seems to have been branded as identity writing as if this were somehow old hat and not worth investigating”. Innovation would appear to have a variable contextual value; the explanation is that it is, in fact, a red herring, because “what’s being said is suddenly more vital than how it is being said”. - Back to a – once more respectable? – form/content split and the ascendancy of Meaning with its faithful accomplice me-meaning in tow. Nevertheless, irrespective of their hackneyed disrupted syntax and indeterminacy, because of their “huge take up” he considers “it might be more accurate to regard these (innovative) practices as mainstream”. He doesn’t define the term, but if it applies to most of what is received enthusiastically in the Guardian Saturday Review and the like, then the mainstream is so dire as poetry and so naïve and ignorant in its preconceptions that if there is no “binary opposition” between it and our output I see little point in persevering. It is, I think, fair to ask if Marjorie Perloff's account of an emergent materialist poetic with its seeds in early modernism mounting a growing challenge to the credibility of mainstream lyric poetry, year in and year out obedient to the "commands of sense" or "the path of least resistance", may not offer a more pertinent interpretation of what continues to be at issue.
Hamilton-Emery’s eagerness to “see what new European migration brings to the mix” seems distinctly more useful. There is a receptivity to radical poetries in most of Western Europe that shames us, and the decline in the commercial publishing of established contemporary poets from those countries in translation - and now the withdrawal of funding from small presses willing to fill the gap - is a depressing indicator of the health of our literary culture. Eastern Europe approaches from a very different cultural direction, but it is hard to believe its emigrants will readily acclimatize themselves to more or less genteel neuroses, facetious rhymes and the cosy verse essay.

Returning to that “binary opposition of avant-garde (now surely a historical term) and the mainstream”, Hamilton-Emery is certainly right that “there are no power structures that make sense within such a framework”. The operative structures are clearly external. I see no escape from the continuing relevance of Lyotard’s wry observation: “Administrative procedures should make individuals ‘want’ what the system needs in order to perform well.” If the system is “terrorist” it is so by “eliminating or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him”. Our justification is that we are calculatedly not what the system needs, while the “consumption” of our work and that in other genres and media with similar aspirations may offer an index of that system’s efficiency. Look elsewhere enviously we may; here and now it’s the practice of outside alright.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Clark Allison: Plural Locutions

Clark Allison

Clark Allison has published the prose poem 'Six Paragraphs' as well as reviews of George Oppen and Barbara Guest at Stride magazine website( and well as on Pages.

Plural Locutions: Remarks on recent developments in British and Irish poetry

(Momentary glimpses of the personal amid the plural:)

A poem felt like this:An entirely new way to beginWalking itself first thing in the morning…
It can’t quite help itself.A stranger to being in words
-- John Welch ‘Personal Poem’ in ‘fragmente’ 9, 2007

The historical moment being what it is change in social and aesthetic consciousness can take time to filter through, though there are generally also inescapable fads and fluctuations that happen quicklywithout necessarily at first securing a convincing hold. There may be age stational latency prior to assimilation and the most obvious indication of this now is probably the uptake of digital and electronic poetry, often of a mixed and fluid, fluent nature characteristic of new media (there are now also it must be added a great many interesting and relevant literary blogs on the Web, the British and Irish Poetries mailing list continues as does the British Electronic Poetry Centre . Sometimes exchangeable formats to circulate this kind of work can’t readily be secured so it exists more in its tentative and now centred way as a species of performance fixed to the localities capable of presenting it, not unlike a gallery presentation or a custom, view only type of website, amenable to housing the tangible synchrony of physical and technical specifities needed to display it, poetry being reconceived as new media exhibit or performance. This sort of approach will surely evolve, but looks highly gallery or event space dependent in a way that the traditional,venerable book unequivocally isn’t.

There looks to be a need then to differentiate long term from short term literary/poetic movements and trends, not least because when short-termism does realise assimilation it can, in doing so, be radically reconceived. Among more recent observations and instancings, looking abroad for incoming modern - Modernism incontrovertibly an omnivorous phenomenon that traversed national boundaries - and postmodern inspiration, it is doubtless significant that American avant-gardes likethe New American poetry, which included versions of projective verse, jazz inspired free improvisation and painterly conscious species of abstract figuration, moving onto the dis-locutions and textural disruptions, if not irrepressible postmodern posturings and provocationsof Language poetry (‘L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ magazine, ed. Andrews,Bernstein 1978-81, archived in gif format at is the classic locus), never could credit more than a minor efflorescence here amongsympathetic British readers and respondents. Tricks and torts have been lifted, stolen or tweaked but the full blown package of ideological practice obstinately resisted. Similarly the strong blast of Continental stylistic and theoretical agenda making that proposed an aesthetics of intrinsic, perhaps universalisable structure even along mythic lines of a kind uncovered by Levi-Strauss, only to deconstruct these into the aporias of quirks, uncertainties and shadowwork leaving on dust clearing little other than the dubieties of Lacan’s ever disruptive Symbolic, created a flurry of ripples in Anglophone readers until succumbing to not much more than an unconvincedly resistant scepticism, still attuned to the supposed immoveability of traditional, perennial verities. Oulipo plied much of this radically reformed systematic elaboration (eg in Perec, Queneau) as well as foretasting its irresistible dissolution, not unexpectedly positing a recuperation, if not also a blurring, of past aesthetic spaces along the way.

If British poetic preoccupations have seemed a mite insular, there are numerous signs that pluralism is increasingly making an impact. Pluralism has differing predominant loci of effect, bespeaking aplurality within, an increasing differentiation and heterogeneity, are cognition of multiplying constituencies, as well as an increase in borrowing from without, be it America, the Continent or elsewhere. The plural is ‘Other’, to borrow the title of the Caddel/Quartermain’98 anthology, and is concerned with addressing questions of social and political identity. The notable alternative anthology “The NewBritish Poetry” (ed. Allnutt/D’Aguiar/Mottram/Edwards, Paladin 1988) bundled its contributors into separable categories, feminist, black, younger and British Poetry Revival-inspired, signalling some obstacles to integration as well as locating the '70s BPR experience as a peculiarly potent and aligning event, one that is still discussed, pro and con (see Peter Barry “Poetry Wars” Salt 2006), where the prolonged delay in arriving at detailed documentation looks significant.The Poetry Society and its organ ‘Poetry Review’ wages on, exuding its air of crusty, uncomplicated conservatism, prompting attitudes,variably, to engage or disregard. The most persuasive and reliable recent compendium is Tuma’s “Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry” (Oxford, New York 2001), which has people in it as varied as John Wilkinson, Catherine Walsh, Carol Ann Duffy and Benjamin Zephaniah but lamentably no Prynne or Andrew Duncan. The categorisations of the classic Paladin anthology, however, are far from arbitrary, and as we find the BPR even now being reassessed there is unlikely to be much confirmation that we have moved as far as we might towards integrating or resolving them, as Chris Hamilton-Emery observed in his pointed commentary earlier, “Innovative poetries in the Black andAsian communities have largely been excluded from recent surveys…and new Muslim writing seems to have been branded as identity writing”. The situation with feminist (or just women’s) writing is perhaps not quite as bleak or intransigent, though the air has stilled a little, perhaps,since the 1996 Gilbert/Gubar ‘Norton Women’ anthology and the Maggie O’Sullivan edited “Out of Everywhere” of the same year. The sheer profusion of graspable cultural identity categories is perhaps so wide that geographical locus or instead the marshalling of more specifically identified ‘issues’, such as environmentalism or cyberpoetry or personal development or obscurities of aesthetic taste (difficult, complex, authentic, transparent etc) or just as consumers what to wear and buy (“no real framework…outside of consumption” Hamilton-Emery), across geographic boundaries, is rather claiming the agenda.

Peter Finch in a persuasively encompassing retrospective survey of the broader developments in British poetry in 2003 thought he could still discern what he called a neo-Georgian line in British poetic development ‘which runs up from Hardy, through D.H.Lawrence, Philip Larkin, Betjeman,’ encompassing the Movement, to in the present day ‘Douglas Dunn, Motion, and Armitage,’ “although is no longer quite as central as it once was” (see This delineates the mainstream current, the centre, against which the marginal and experimental articulate and contest. We may actually have now, or bemoving toward, a plural “multi-hued, post-modern, culturalenvironment, available to all” (Finch) but the wheels of change are slowly turning.