Saturday, June 30, 2018

Robert Sheppard: Actual Poetics: Roy Fisher and the Field of Literary Production

I want to address the radicalness of Roy Fisher. But first one has to deal with an assumption that pervades accounts of the work.

It seems he has been absorbed (or nearly absorbed) into a mainstream narrative about British Poetry. It’s one you see played out in the cases of Ken Smith or Denise Riley, as well. They are lifted out of the periphery into the mainstream. Almost.

I am accused of a certain kind of adversarial criticism, which pits a perceived mainstream (‘The Movement Orthodoxy’ that certainly existed until at least 2000, when I lost interest) against its Other (for which we have contested names, and, although I’m uninterested in that contest, I’ll accept, with responsibility, the imperfect notion of innovation). But then if the Mainstream is reading this work (let’s return to Fisher) it will read it in a certain way, extracting the anecdotal and the humorous rather than the distanciating and the formal, which is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy. To read it as radical may also be, but at least it is a minority view, in contention. All of this (which I’m finding hard to articulate, even to myself) is best illustrated by looking at a quotation from Roy himself.

(Note: would it be interesting to write a book on Roy and deliberately NOT quote him, since he is still, in some ways, the best commentator, or the most authoritative, on his work, not an ideal situation, critically speaking?)

He writes to Paul Lester (who had written a pamphlet on his work some time in the 1970s, but was delayed by some years in publication (I think I have it somewhere)). (Those who don’t remember these years will perhaps wonder why Lester self-published his critical piece. At that time, it was not easy to write much in established (if not establishment) journals about a poet like Fisher, certainly not before OUP published his Poems 1955-1980 in 1980. My 2005 book The Poetry of Saying was based on my 1979-87 work on a PhD: it took 25 years to be able to be able to publish such a book: thank you LUP!)

Roy was clearly replying to Lester in the early 1980s, given the references to Ash and to appointments of Poets Laureate, by which time the binary ‘underground’/establishment had been replaced by the binary of innovative/mainstream, with which it is not completely identical. It is also odd that the passage is clearly raising a question that is not broached in Lester’s (if I remember, politicised) reading of Fisher’s work. But I’m running ahead of myself here. The piece is reprinted in the Shearsman book An Easily Bewildered Child: Occasional Prose 1963-2013 and here’s the apposite passage:

It’s not part of your purpose to examine the relationship between ‘underground’ and establishment poetic activity, but it’s a question I seem to have raised merely by existing. The two forms of activity seem to me to be demarcated not by a division of substantive issues but behaviourally, by the centripetal effect of a pair of rather turgid whirlpools in different parts of the pond. What distinguishes one from the other is a difference in the conception of how the group and its activities relate, ethically and functionally, to the society. In these terms of allegiance and operation, although I’m obviously much more interested in the actual poetics current in the ‘underground’ group, I don’t feel drawn by the gravitational pull of either. For me, to ‘go underground’ and remain there would seem pretentious and academic, just as to ‘go’ in the other direction in the hope of finding a location would seem fatuous. As a result, I get used as a between-worlds counter in reviewers’ debates, as in Peter Porter’s recent discussion of John Ash’s experimentalism, where I’m the excellent Roy Fisher, whom nobody suggested should be Poet Laureate. (p. 160)

I propose to analyse this sentence by sentence. (Wouldn’t I rather be writing poems? What about that book on Frank Sinatra and me?)

As I said, Fisher raises a question, here presented existentially, that Lester doesn’t ask (which is why I will not consider his, Lester's, piece further, but stick to Fisher’s argument): ‘It’s not part of your purpose to examine the relationship between ‘underground’ and establishment poetic activity, but it’s a question I seem to have raised merely by existing.’

As I’ve said, this uses two terms that were already outmoded by the time Fisher was making (or, at least, publishing) his response. The terms are political in origin (just as ‘avant-garde’ is military: the demon of analogy leads us into strange back alleys and mugs us). But Fisher is thinking of the term ‘underground’ as used by the 1960s counterculture generally and more specifically as it is used by Michael Horovitz in Children of Albion (a 1969 anthology Fisher shares with other members of the British Poetry Revival, as I would prefer to say, and others; so Andrew Crozier is ‘in’, but Ted Milton is ‘other’ in my reading). The ‘establishment’ is a word that has a particular period stink: one thinks of Peter Cook lambasting the House of Lords or the complicit judiciary (say, in the Jeremy Thorpe trial), but the term was used of publishing to mean the big publishing houses (Cape, Faber, etc) which carried lists of mainstream writers, metrically decorous and rhetorically restrained (largely; there were always exceptions, a built-in ‘Get out of jail card’ the establishment always reserved for a rainy day; in Thorpe’s case, quite literally, of course.)  

So we can update the binary (The Poetry of Saying in dealing with this period favours The British Poetry Revival and the Mainstream Orthodoxy, which doesn’t mean that I favour these terms, but I’m going to need to adopt some such for this analysis). But we broadly know what we mean, socially and aesthetically.

‘It’s a question I seem to have raised merely by existing.’ The passive stance here attempts to drain agency from this positioning. He didn’t join either side in his writing, if these camps are regarded as matters of aesthetics or poetics. Indeed, ‘The two forms of activity seem to me to be demarcated not by a division of substantive issues,’ we are told. Not by ideas. ‘The two forms of activity seem … to be demarcated … behaviourally, by the centripetal effect of a pair of rather turgid whirlpools in different parts of the pond.’ Here, the emphasis on behaviour takes us away from aesthetics, perhaps into politics, but he is not yet clear at this point. It is perhaps about groups and belonging, Mods and Rockers rather than Beats and Academic Poets (though even that US binary involves a distinction between certain kinds of sexual and social decadence and decorum, as it were).

More importantly, we have the introduction of the central conceit of the passage: the spatial. This is appropriate for the author of City – but it is also strangely congruent with the spatialisation of cultural groups and affiliations in the work of Bourdieu: the field of cultural production as a plot colonised by those groups. (Let’s use that later.) What Fisher posits is more dynamic and fluid: ‘the centripetal effect of a pair of rather turgid whirlpools in different parts of the pond’. Each turgid (sluggish, slow) involuting force, ‘moving or tending to move towards a centre’, away from each other, is self-involved. Similar in motion, of course, but with a ‘difference in the conception of how the group and its activities relate, ethically and functionally, to the society’, a formulation that implies that the ‘underground’ is oppositional, while the other is normative: the never-meeting worlds of the commune and the family, the peace march and the military, anarchy and ‘culture’, very different societal ethics. Even: free verse and free love against conventional metrics and conventional marriage. These are essentially ‘terms of allegiance and operation’, in Fisher’s words, of social belonging and doing, behaviour (or habitus, to reintroduce Bourdieu for a moment). ‘I don’t feel drawn by the gravitational pull of either,’ Fisher says, slightly complicating his image of the two whirlpools, in that gravitational pull isn’t really a matter of choice. But the word ‘drawn’ (as in ‘I was very much drawn to the piano playing of Lux Meade’) does imply volition, although the state of not being drawn is ambiguous: is that resistance, or simply non-attraction? The context implies the latter, although the qualifying subordinate clause of this sentence is, for me, the clincher: ‘although I’m obviously much more interested in the actual poetics current in the “underground” group.’

Let’s repeat that: ‘I’m obviously much more interested in the actual poetics current in the “underground” group.’

The use of the word ‘poetics’ animates me, of course. (I take it in the sense I use it as the speculative discourse about how one makes art, the structural principles behind it, though even if Fisher is adopting it as in the stylistics that he used in his MA thesis on Mailer (yes! true!) it is instructive. ‘Actual poetics’ means the principles behind, or beyond, the apparent (or surface) beliefs of the ‘underground’. He is, in short, expressing an affiliation (however nonchalantly expressed as ‘interest’) with the modernism and American poetics that underpin the best of the ‘underground’ work: again, a broadly shared set with Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, John James, and Gael Turnbull, rather than with the work of the more socially-identifying writers in Children of Albion. (Let’s spare naming them, because some of them changed later.) He could not go all the way (I repeat the spatial metaphor for a reason): ‘For me, to “go underground” and remain there would seem pretentious and academic,’ Fisher says. The spatial metaphor ‘under’ ‘ground’ suggests invisibility, being buried, as well as subversion, but Fisher (no child of the sixties) could not become a senior Timothy Leary figure (or better, closer to home and also of poetic pedigree, an Alex Comfort figure). (Christ! Roy would have laughed his head off at that! But Comfort was the budding (wrong word), up and coming (worse!), poet of the 1940s, according to Francis Scarfe.) Roy was jazz, not rock ‘n roll, and not even modern jazz, let alone free jazz. ‘Academic’ is an odd word to use of that possible choice.

In any case, that form of invisibility was rejected, yet so was visibility, expressed in his last spatial metaphor: ‘Just as to “go” in the other direction’ to the mainstream (my spatial metaphor) or the (literary), ‘in the hope of finding a location would seem fatuous.’ A location sounds like a place to operate from, a base camp, an institution even. Centred on a pedestal. What Fisher doesn’t ask, at this point, is whether they would have had him, allowed him location in their domain. Certainly not at the height of the Movement, as Fisher acknowledges later. ‘I owe CM a debt of understanding,’ Fisher wrote of Christopher Middleton in around 2012, in a short note:

At a time when the Sunday broadsheets still carried reviews of new poetry there appeared a review of his book Torse #3. [sic] The piece was by its own standards civilised: but it was patronising, ignorant, insular and weary. I had at that time virtually no contacts and no prospect of getting a book published; but I was working tentatively in a distant corner of the same territory, and the review showed me in an instant how the cards were stacked. It freed me from setting any store by opinions that might come from such a quarter. (Fisher 2014: 196)

Another spatial metaphor, note, in that ‘corner’, and one that suggests distance (from both Middleton and the Movement, the note implies). ‘It freed me’ is important, in acknowledging a liberating invisibility, as opposed to the ‘academic’ burial of the counter-cultural underground. This itself should be some sort of a riposte to those who see Fisher as ‘absorbed’ by the mainstream and ‘its standards’ (neatly summarised by Fisher as ‘patronising, ignorant, insular and weary’).

But by 1980 or so he was aware that he was a ‘counter’ in an argument about the field of literary production, again a passive party, when he declares, ‘ I get used as a between-worlds counter in reviewers’ debates,’ and I suppose I have been one of those reviewers. (See my reviews of Fisher for the Times Literary Supplement:  'Timeless Identities' (Roy Fisher) here.  And my 'Commitment to Openness' (on Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth) here.) But at the time (and Fisher refers to this review several times, though it is not of himself, but of John Ash, he states: ‘In Peter Porter’s recent discussion of John Ash’s experimentalism … I’m the excellent Roy Fisher, whom nobody suggested should be Poet Laureate. (p. 160) Well, I would never have made that suggestion either (though somebody at his funeral told me that when his domestic phone rang the day Ted Hughes died, Fisher leapt to his feet and cried, ‘It’s the Palace!’ but devotees of Fisher’s humour will recognise the self-deprecatory tone here!). The humour deflects from the point that he would not be appointed as an establishment stooge – and nobody expected him to be. He’s not on that list. Neither would he be crowned hippie King of the May, like Ginsberg in May 1965, in Prague. (See my PN Review review of Ash here, at a time I was turning away from his work and finding less of the ‘experimental’ in it than I had hitherto.)

BUT the clause ‘although I’m obviously much more interested in the actual poetics current in the “underground” group’ brings us back to poetics as a speculative, writerly discourse, and the word ‘obviously’ suggests that his relationship to the ‘underground’ was palpable to all who might choose to see it. But even Porter’s review suggests he won’t fit into the mainstream, even if he had tried to locate himself there. He never was a half-way house and his interest in the avant-garde poetics demonstrates that (at the very least) he was not looking both ways, but looking chiefly towards the underground for poetics and poetic analogues and homologies. (But he’d not be averse to being published in mainstream contexts: I suppose such a refusal would be ‘academic’: he isn’t J.H. Prynne.)

If I write a book on Fisher, I would write about that ‘actual poetics’ in relation to Roy Fisher’s poetry – but also about the actual poetics of his own poetry. For I take the point of his social and behavioural resistance to the pull of the underground seriously (as I do the terms of his exclusion from, and wariness towards, the mainstream). But he is not a lone wolf (anymore than Barry MacSweeney was) but he’s no card-carrier. He’s also (and this also should be obvious) in possession of his own poetics that would be the main focus of the book.

Trial and Error: the underground as trial; the establishment as error.

Robert Sheppard

June 2018

[Update 2022: I have discovered the quotation from Fisher I needed to seal the argument above: ‘I enjoy innovation and I think I can think best in a radical position; the further I can take that, the better I work … unwilling to let go all sorts of fruity and fulsome sides of literature, and I always want to find ways of taking some of the richer and more meaty sensations of writing or of the arts into more and more radical situations.’ (p. 42 of Interviews Through Time, Shearsman)]

Other Links

See also

for my account of Fisher’s ‘Untitled Note’ in ‘Tributes to CM’, in in which Fisher’s is one of a number of fine tributes to Christopher Middleton.

The Note (and his reply to Paul Lester) is also published in Fisher, Roy. An Easily Bewildered Child: Occasional Prose 1963-2013. ed. Peter Robinson. Bristol: Shearsman, 2014: 196. Buy the book here.

See also my own take on Christopher Middleton, published in The Wolf, which kicks off with the same Fisher 'note', here. (There is more on Middleton on this blog here and here and here.)
Finally there’s more on the British Poetry Revival, both socially speaking and as a repository of a poetics, here, a recent piece,

and here, as I write of it in The Poetry of Saying:

And definitions of poetics here: