British Poetry at Y2K
British Poetry at Y2K
John Matthias reports on the state of British Poetry and its criticism.
The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland. Edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford. Penguin 1998. 443 pp. £10.99 (paper).
Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain. Wesleyan University Press 1999. 280 pp. $19.95 (paper).
Conductors of Chaos. Edited by Ian Sinclair. Picador 1996. 488 pp. Out of Print.
Keith Tuma, Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers. Northwestern University Press 1998. 297 pp. $19.95 (paper)
O’Brien, Sean, The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. Bloodaxe (Distributed by Dufour) 1998. 317 pp. $25.95 (paper).
I: Penguins, Conductors, and Others
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
- Thomas Hardy, 1900
…Wrong from the start -
- Ezra Pound, 1920
Britannia’s own narrow
miracle of survival
was gifted to us by cryptanalysts…
The Bletchley magi!
- Geoffrey Hill, 1999
My attempt in this essay will be to conduct a survey of some British poetries at the turn of the millennium. Any number of books besides the five listed at left might also have provided an occasion or excuse for the undertaking, but these five - three anthologies and two books of criticism - will serve. It is perhaps a propitious moment for Americans to look again at British poetry. (I will only glance at the Irish. America is in love with Irish poetry and does not need to hear anything more at the moment about Harvard’s Heaney, Stanford’s Boland, or Princeton’s Muldoon.) One does have a sense that the smoothly running machinery of the post-Movement, post-Larkin, Oxbridge-London establishment has finally broken down, that in spite of the recent appointment to the Laureateship of Andrew Motion, Larkin’s biographer and co-editor of the Penguin anthology the three anthologies under review seek to displace, even the Palace and Prime Minister have recently had to consider the merits of poets as diverse as Carol Ann Duffy, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, and Benjamin Zephaniah. The ghost in the machine, the Y2K virus of modernism and postmodernism, has been mutating largely undetected for quite some time. Finally it threatens to kill off its host.
Not, however, without some resistance. I suppose it’s unfair to characterize the Armitage/Crawford anthology as a book that represents the mainstream in its derivation from a kind of Hardyesque ethos epitomized by Philip Larkin in his poetry and by Donald Davie both in his early critical writings and in his polemical Thomas Hardy and British Poetry of 1973. Among other things, there are too many Scottish eccentrics in its pages. Too many Irish and Welsh poets as well. And yet not only does one fail to find any of the younger experimental poets included in Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos, but the selections which overlap with the poets represented in Other are chiefly those from Guyana and Jamaica: an attempt to achieve a racially diverse table of contents following an introduction called, importantly, “The Democratic Voice.” And democratic it is, in a serious sense to which we will turn in due course. But the book also has the disconcerting feel of a democratic document of an almost Clintonesque kind - a book that might have resulted as much from reader polls and focus groups as from fiercely independent editorial judgment.
My first epigraph above, taken from Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” is meant to suggest, without irony, that the native bird is indeed still singing its song. But it’s also meant to remind us what an “anthology piece” is, whether in 1900 or 2000 - a poem which, as Davie said in his Hardy book, cannot possibly give offense, whether a bird or a dog. In spite of the importance of certain unexpected selections to which I will return, Armitage and Crawford have edited a book more than half-full of anthology pieces - from Muir and Auden to Motion, Duffy, and Fenton. But I do not mean to characterize the inoffensiveness of anthology pieces in Davie’s sense of innocuous composition. I mean inoffensive entirely with regard to over-familiarity and reader expectation. Ted Hughes’s “The Thought Fox” is hardly innocuous writing, but in a strange way it cannot possibly any longer give offense. It is not the same poem in this Penguin anthology that it was in The Hawk in the Rain in 1957. Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” Heaney’s “Punishment,” and even Plath’s “Daddy” have suffered from a similar anthological domestication over the years: all these former foxes are now wagging their tails by the hearth. The reader, having encountered these poems in a dozen other anthologies or studied them in school, expects to find them here; he opens the book and there they are.
I in fact respect Armitage and Crawford highly, and I like their refusal of the typical editorial vice of making their anthology a showcase for their own work, which indeed is not in the book and which, in the case of both poets, is much better than a lot of work that is. But where they say their book “is the kind of anthology in which [they] might have liked their work to appear,” I find myself thinking how much more interesting it would be to find it in a volume like Keith Tuma’s forthcoming Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry, where it would be read with a wide range of poetries written from aesthetic assumptions wholly different from their own - alongside, in fact, the work of many poets appearing in Other and Conductors of Chaos.
While it is still too early to examine more of the Oxford anthology than its table of contents kindly sent me by the editor, Tuma’s book will clearly attempt to establish a dialogue, if not a reconciliation, among pre-modern, modern, antimodern and postmodern poetries generally assumed to be antagonistic to one another in the three anthologies under review while rescuing from oblivion certain foundational works of British modernism which will tilt the volume, which covers the entire century, in a direction favored by the American angler who fished by obstinate isles rather than the one upon the shore with arid plains behind him. Tuma’s critical volume attempts to do something similar. Neither the Caddel/Quartermain Other nor the Iain Sinclair Conductors of Chaos are interested in anything like a dialogue with the majority of poets appearing in the Armitage/Crawford Penguin. Of the 144 poets appearing in the Penguin, which covers poetry from both Britain and Ireland since 1945, only three poets appear also in Conductors and only eight in Other. While Other includes British and Irish poets only since 1970, Conductors gives itself a longer memory by the innovation of making room for personal selections of poets from an earlier generation made by five of the younger contributors: J.F. Hendry by Andrew Crozier, W.S. Graham by Tony Lopez, David Jones by Drew Milne, David Gascoyne by Jeremy Reed, and Nicholas Moore by Peter Riley. This is to my knowledge a wholly original idea and constitutes the particular genius of this very odd book. Interestingly, two of the three poets in Conductors who are also in the Penguin are David Jones and W.H. Graham. The third, the only poet to appear in all three books - a perhaps unenviable distinction - is Denise Riley.
What is familiar, and perhaps over-familiar, in Other and Conductors is not a range of anthology pieces or a large group of famous poets. In fact, aside from some few readers who make it a point to consult British small press publications and journals, most Americans will be encountering these poems and poets for the first time. The familiar aspect of these books has to do with their editors’ aggressive presentation of a self-consciously avant-garde agenda and their selection of poems and poets working in international modernist and postmodernist modes that share many evolving and often contradictory assumptions with several generations of American experimental writing: the early modernists, the Objectivists, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets, the Beats, and the Language Poets. Other affinities which these poets variously share are mostly continental or Russian: Rilke, Celan, Rimbaud, Tzara, Apollinaire, Pessoa, the Futurists, and the Constructivists. In his critical volume and, implicitly, in the contents of his Oxford anthology as well, Keith Tuma takes a qualified stand - qualified by his understanding that one must remain alert to local contexts - in favor of this lingua franca of internationalist poetics which “seeks to either transcend (momentarily) or resist all cultural practices that gather identities too quickly and rigidly into the nation.” Deriving his title from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, he finds the resistance among many in Britain to the poets included in these anthologies to be a form of “obstinance.” “Wrong from the start,” said E.P.’s London critic…
“No, hardly….” And yet one does worry a bit about the continuing authenticity of an aggressively avant-garde stance at the turn of the new century. Ezra Pound, as Davie has shown, is sometimes at his most attractive when, in his private correspondence, doffing his hat along with his public role as impresario of the new, he seeks to make accommodation with Hardy himself: “I don’t think mere praise is any good - I know where I can get it…. Forgive me if I blurt out this demand for frankness.” So let it be said that, frankly, although my own sympathies, like Keith Tuma’s, are generally attuned to much of the work in Other and Conductors, there is something almost silly about the way in which the work is presented, beginning even with the titles of the books. These lightning rods and creatures from the black lagoon! The editors of both volumes, like Armitage and Crawford in their different way, narrate a version of cultural history intended to favor the work they present, a story told at greater length and with greater nuance in Tuma’s critical volume and given a thoroughly different focus and moral in O’Brien’s The Deregulated Muse.
The Other and Conductors ‘s version of this oft-told tale goes something like this. After the war an exhausted Britain was only able to launch that nominally challenged movement called The Movement. Enshrined in Robert Conquest’s anthology New Lines, Philip Larkin and his friends held the high ground unchallenged until A. Alvarez, in The New Poetry, attacked them for gentility and prefaced his selection of postwar British poets not only with a fighting introduction but with poems by Lowell and Berryman and Plath and Sexton as a kind of lesson in intensity for the anemic Brits. But Alvarez got it wrong. The real stateside news was not to be found among the confessional (or, as Alvarez called them, “extremist” poets), but from Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, itself in mortal battle against the academic-oriented Hall/Pack/Simpson anthologies of the period, with its New Yorkers and Projectivists and Beats. By the late sixties and early seventies, centers of opposition to the mainstream had established themselves around Jeremy Prynne in Cambridge and Eric Mottram in London. While Mottram briefly opened up The Poetry Review and The Poetry Society itself to innovative and experimental work, Prynne influenced (or actually taught) an entire generation of poets including Andrew Crozier, John James, Wendy Mulford, Peter Riley, Rod Mengham and Tony Lopez. Journals such as The English Intelligencer and Grosseteste Review were established, and presses actually edited by poets among the Others and Conductors briefly flourished. Late work by indigenous British modernists such as David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Basil Bunting was published and even more fully marginalized figures like the English Mina Loy and the Irish Brian Coffey began to be noticed again. While multicultural, multiethnic and feminist influences began to make themselves felt as part of the alternative poetry scene, the establishment regrouped. The Arts Council purged Eric Mottram from The Poetry Review, Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison edited the Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry (which promoted the work of all the wrong Irish, working class, and feminist poets and which thoroughly misunderstood postmodernism), Craig Raine took over at Faber and Faber while also launching The Martians, and Bloodaxe published the deceptive Hulse /Kennedy /Morley New Poetry anthology (which, like the Motion and Morrison, also backed the wrong Irishmen, working stiffs, and ladies, and which possibly misunderstood postmodernism even more thoroughly). This book more or less coincided with the arrival of the New Generation, with Simon Armitage as the point man, and a good deal of vulgar but commercially effective media hype on behalf of the lads.
Caddel and Quartermain oppose their anthology to “the narrow lineage of contemporary poets from Philip Larkin to Craig Raine and Simon Armitage” and to their attendant “collectives” (the Movement, the Martians, and the New Generation). They oppose the typical poems by these poets because they find them to be “a closed, monolineal utterance, demanding little of the reader but passive consumption.” Iain Sinclair, who manages to mock and deride almost as many of his friends as his enemies in his introduction, ultimately finds only Donald Allen’s book and the 1987 Andrew Crozier/Tim Longville anthology of mostly Cambridge-based and Prynne-influenced poets, A Various Art, to be in any way models for his own. He rejects a “politically correct scorecard” of race, sex or educational status and anthologies with anything other than an aesthetic agenda. The New Generation poets, he says, “have arrived in our midst like pod people.” The work he values “is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured.” In his selections, he admits only to “registering a prejudice, not essaying an historical survey.” If Sinclair’s and Caddel-Quartermain’s reading of recent poetry wars seems to an outsider verging on paranoia, it’s worth noting that Caddel and Quartermain report that it’s “no accident, in this adversarial context, that when Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News International took over the Collins publishing group, an early priority was to close the Paladin Poetry series (in which a number of the most innovative writers featured here had appeared), destroying much of the remaining stock.”
If there is something legitimately embattled in these two introductions and in the contents of some of the poetry itself, there is also something disturbingly exclusionary, self-protective, and maybe even deluded as well. When Keith Tuma first mentions Conductors of Chaos in his book, he does so in the context of worrying the bone of authenticity as it is debated by theorists of the avant-garde like Peter Burger, Renatta Poggioli, and Charles Bernstein. Willing in the end to accept a “neo-avant-garde” with its “traditions alongside other [competing] traditions,” he questions Burger’s rhetoric of genuineness and Poggioli’s insistence on avant-garde “agonism” and “alienation.” The poetry among the Conductors and Others that Tuma likes to read can be read as well in the seminar room as on the battlements. It can also instructively be read beside valuable poetries deriving from “other traditions.” The problem with many among the Others and Conductors is in part their unwillingness to understand that Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford are not Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates, that a late stage in an art’s development might legitimately produce an atmosphere of accommodation and catholicity of taste, that, as Tuma says, avant-garde traditions now exist alongside other traditions and that the work itself might properly “leave its first coterie audience behind and enter the public sphere” without pretending that “radical subversion of institutions or large-scale social change is likely to result.” If Jeremy Prynne really ought to read Geoffrey Hill and if Hill should really read Prynne, certainly those of us who buy these books need to read both of them. It says something about the stage which the avant-garde tradition has reached, even in Britain where the going has admittedly been difficult, that anthologies published by a major university press like Wesleyan and a commercial press like Picador can even exist. And at this writing it is Oxford (OUP in Britain rather than OUP in New York, which will indeed publish Tuma’s anthology) - owned by Oxford and not by Rupert Murdoch - which has recently scuttled its poetry list, a list not known for poets among the remote, the alienated, or the fractured.
My last epigraph above is from Geoffrey Hill’s The Triumph of Love, certainly one of the great books of British poetry published during the century’s last decade. It may be a symptom of an oversimplified oppositional tactics, of pitting “them” against “us” and “their” notion of a unitary culture against “our” ideas of pluralism and diversity reaching back to a fourteenth century plain full of Saxon, Norman and Cymric folk, that Geoffrey Hill is seen in Other only as a poet of “stylized anglophilia” like Philip Larkin. His poetry could not, any more than Paul Muldoon’s, Peter Reading’s, and any number of others’ in the Armitage/Crawford Penguin, possibly be characterized as “closed, monolineal utterance.” Without engaging the question of who might be more remote, alienated, and fractured than thou, it’s worth noting the polyvocal strategies and oblique encodings of Hill’s recent work at this millennial moment of cultural dis-ease that might, in its sometimes almost autistic soundings, be read inside, rather than outside and against, the context established by work appearing in Other and Conductors of Chaos. Did Hill and Prynne know each other at Cambridge? Do they even now read each other’s work with any sympathy? My guess is that the answer to both questions is no. But it is these two ferociously difficult and demanding poets who seem to me to have produced the most challenging work to come out of Britain in the last twenty years. Hill’s brief evocations of Bletchley Park during the war in The Triumph of Love move me enormously. Here was a moment when the remote, the alienated and the fractured - all those mathematicians, linguists, chess grand masters, crossword-puzzle addicts, proto-computer nerds, misfit musicologists, men and women of every conceivable arcane and dubious passion - sat down together to break the Nazi codes and save the world. I like to think of Hill and Prynne and certain related poets in these books among them - Penguins, Conductors, and Others - born again as Bletchley magi working on a common poem in common cause.
II: Island Fishing and Deregulation
Ah, as Hill’s heckler from The Triumph of Love might say, isn’t that a pretty fantasy. It’s even a fantasy to assume that my American reader knows the work of more than two or three of the twenty or so poets I have alluded to thus far. That’s why Keith Tuma’s Fishing By Obstinate Isles is such a necessary and timely book.
Tuma sets himself the task of reading modern and postmodern British poetry in terms of its reception, or lack of it, by American readers and institutions. He begins the historical section of his book by arguing that British poetry - with a few important exceptions - was by the late sixties and early seventies virtually erased from the American literary consciousness by “a combination of benign neglect, ordinary ignorance, and casual half-truths of a critical journalism cognizant only of the narrowest field of extant poetry.” Interestingly, this was also the very moment that Prynne in Cambridge and Mottram in London were becoming magnets for many of the poets appearing in Other and Conductors. A very few Americans - Donald Hall in a number of essays and reviews, M.L. Rosenthal and Calvin Bedient, I myself in 23 Modern British Poets (1970) - and two or three British commuters or exiles like Donald Davie and Thom Gunn, pointed out some of what was happening or had already happened in Britain: the late work of Jones and Bunting, the early Prynne, Mina Loy’s forgotten poems, the Stevens- and Williams- influenced work of the early Tomlinson, Christopher Middleton, Roy Fisher’s City, and maybe the first books of Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood. In spite of these several voices arguing for the value and interest of certain British poets - and it’s important to remember that among the younger Irish poets who had any real affinities with the modernist-influenced Brits only John Montague at this point was really visible - no one, on the whole, seemed to be paying any attention. Americans during the Viet Nam and post-Viet Nam period read North Americans, Latin Americans and East Europeans. What little modern and contemporary British poetry was read or taught in the universities - Auden, Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Hughes and sometimes Gunn or Stevie Smith - suggested very little of what was beginning to happen in London or Cambridge or the North of England (where Neil Astley was soon to establish Bloodaxe Books), while effectively obscuring those foundational works of an indigenous British modernism still in the process of being rescued by Tuma himself and the five contributors to Conductors of Chaos who select and introduce work by their predecessors.
Tuma somehow manages to be at the same time both attractively modest and passionate in his advocacy. Since he regards his book as essentially a loosely-connected series of essays, it is probably best to avoid any implication that it can be regarded as a complete account of any kind or seeks an Archimedean point from which to survey the field. It aims, instead, to enact the tentative probings toward both a nearly forgotten British modernist poetry and a British postmodernist poetry still in the process of being written by coming again and again at its material in bits and pieces, and from first one angle and then another. The jagged pattern achieved is intellectually stimulating and aesthetically satisfying. While Tuma is definitely out to open up the transatlantic route once more to two-way traffic, he pessimistically assumes the odds are heavily against him. His strategy, however, may in the end be more successful than he supposes. He wants “to present enough poetries not to map the whole field but to erode established [American] caricatures [of modern British poetry] and prevent new ones from solidifying”; and he wants “to ventriloquize from enough perspectives to prevent discourses of national identity from emerging, as they have in the past, with the blunt force that inevitably distorts and interrupts the reading of poems, or just makes whole areas of poetic practice disappear.” Writing, then, chiefly for American readers, Tuma believes that “one reason for reading British poetry, and for reading as widely in it as possible, is to combat narrow views of that poetry that emerge in premature and reified accounts of American identity.” And if the typical American characterization of British poetry is indeed “a monolithic source of all that is obsolete, standardized, and ruled by timid conventionality,” the most effective method of combating such a view will be through the close examination of particular poets and particular poems that contradict it: work that is experimental, formally innovative, radical. While Tuma seeks to defend the academic study of contemporary poetry in his book, he also argues that “one good reason to study British poetry, especially British ‘experimental poetry,’ is to see what happens to a poetry which more often [than American] has had to go it alone, as it were, without being able to depend quite so heavily on the artificial economics created by the academy and other institutions.”
Actually, I find the book a good deal less fragmentary and impressionistic than I expected after first reading the introduction. The literary-historical chapters are extremely thorough and will be of enormous use to American readers who are, as Tuma reiterates, unaware of almost everything that has happened in British poetry for the past fifty years, while his considerations of work by Joseph Gordon Macleod, Mina Loy, Basil Bunting, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite are among the best I have read on these poets. The essays are short, but they say a great deal. They involve both analysis and advocacy. This last, again, is important. As Tuma says, he writes about work he admires. He wants to find readers for this poetry, and his discussions persuade us that the work will reward our attention. He is a critic who opens books rather than one who closes them. So I find the volume, in the end, something much more than “a series of essays.” It stakes out territory and establishes priorities with critical insight and imaginative energy. And the balance between the literary-historical chapters and the studies of major figures is aesthetically very satisfying. I very much admire, for example, the strategy of focusing sharply in Part One on the old Hall/Pack/Simpson New Poets of England and America anthologies in order to set up the recovery of British modernists like Macleod, Loy, and Bunting by way of extended readings of their best work. (I am reminded here of certain moments in M.L. Rosenthal’s The New Poets of 1967, a very useful book in its time and one that, in its way, also tried to find American readers for British poetry.) And I am deeply impressed, while sometimes also amused, by the sixth chapter on “Alternative British Poetry” that manages to maneuver through a difficult terrain - the very terrain occupied by many among the Conductors and Others - that has never before been mapped at all, a chapter that investigates contending camps of the British avant-garde with the scrupulosity of a fastidious anthropologist among newly-discovered tribes. Because my own orientation with regard to British poetry is somewhat different from Tuma’s, I do lament the exclusion of several important poets from his discussion. David Jones, for example, seems to me even more central to the story he has to tell than Bunting, Loy, or Macleod. Tomlinson and Middleton are missing. So are Jeremy Prynne and Geoffrey Hill and Christopher Logue’s versions from Homer. But Tuma’s reading both of his chosen major figures and the contexts out of which they emerge is fascinating, authoritative, and compelling. He knows the British poetry scene about as well as any American I can think of and his position is independent of fashion, original, and well-considered. Tuma’s frequent interjections of the personal, and his defense of the eclectic and the lapidary against the systemic and the theoretical, should prepare the reader for his reluctance to sum things up. Even without a summation, however, Fishing by Obstinate Isles is the best possible introduction for American readers to a range of British poetries and poetic histories long neglected here.
Sean O’Brien’s The Deregulated Muse stands in relationship to Fishing By Obstinate Isles in about the same way the Armitage/Crawford Penguin stands in relationship to Conductors and Other: it frames the group photograph of avant-garde fraternity in both predictable and unexpected ways by exploring the work of an increasingly democratized, pluralist, and sometimes even experimental mainstream. While all thirty-six poets discussed by O’Brien can be found in the Penguin anthology and only one - Roy Fisher - in Conductors or Other, or discussed at any length in Fishing By Obstinate Isles, The Deregulated Muse nonetheless shares certain similarities with Keith Tuma’s book. O’Brien says at the outset that he is in no position (any more than Tuma is) to write a comprehensive account of contemporary poetry in Britain, that his approach will be non-theoretical, and that his notion of deregulation - a word in his title deliberately entangling his essays with the public world of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite history - acknowledges the notion that “it is not clear where authority in poetic matters resides.” Since Tuma laments that part of the blame for American neglect of recent British poetry might be extended to the British themselves for their failure to produce much serious critical writing on their recent poets, one imagines him welcoming a book like O’Brien’s even though it privileges such a radically different range of talents from those he himself would like us to read. Both critics, in fact, appeal to a non-specialist reader by writing in lucid, lively, memorable (and sometimes even aphoristic or epigrammatic) prose. Tuma says he wants no part of “the power of systematic, theoretical language” and feels lucky and grateful to have the reader’s attention at all. O’Brien says his essays are written “in the conviction that criticism had better be readable” and not something written in “the interior code of a class or professional cadre.” If Tuma’s audience might be imagined as a class of bright undergraduates or graduate students, O’Brien’s is the somewhat more endangered species of common readers who favor the tough, argumentative pub-talk of Grub Street reviewing whose journalists and professional writers are not much influenced by the terms of either British or American academic criticism. O’Brien, the British poet-journalist from Philip Larkin’s Hull, argues that “the very variousness of contemporary poetry seems to prevent the emergence of a dominant line.” Tuma, the American academic from Oxford (Ohio!), would clearly dispute that claim, feeling that the majority of O’Brien’s thirty-six poets are the dominant line (if that in fact means the line that has long sought to dominate). O’Brien acknowledges that “for some readers [his] idea of variety will be their idea of homogeneity,” and looks forward to reading their accounts of the matter.
O’Brien’s account of the matter begins with essays on Larkin, Hughes, and Hill that lean rather heavily, as does the introduction to the Armitage/Crawford Penguin, on Seamus Heaney’s excellent essay, “Englands of the Mind,” in Preoccupations. This opening section of the book, “The Ends of England,” is more or less predicated on Heaney’s notion, cited in O’Brien’s later remarks on the Irish poet’s prose, that “English poets are being forced to explore not just the matter of England, but what is the matter with England.” In general, O’Brien finds “the confidence of Irish poetry of the last two generations to be “in part an oblique commentary on the exhaustion and anxiety of Englishness.” But while insisting on the manner in which history impinges on these poets, and describing their responses - he is harsh on Hill, ambivalent about Larkin, and focuses rather surprisingly on Hughes’s Laureate poems in Rain-Charm for the Duchy - he would also seem to share the conviction he attributes to Heaney “that experiences and things in themselves have meaning and value, over and above those bestowed by institutional and class history, when made into poetry.” Indeed Heaney’s short and elegant literary essays seem in many ways to be a model for O’Brien’s approach - modified perhaps by the vitriol he finds in Tom Paulin’s prose and the concision he finds in Neil Corcoran’s - and he pays one of them the highest compliment one could well imagine when saying that Heaney’s argument “becomes the embodiment of its own justice.”
Finding the Englands of Larkin and Hughes in the process of vanishing, O’Brien in his second section, “Different Class,” looks sympathetically at a large body of work by Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn, and Ken Smith both in terms of its working class origins and its poetic achievement before going on to separate chapters dealing with two groups of Irish poets - Heaney-Mahon-Durcan and Carson-Paulin-Muldoon - which are divided by his discussion of feminist poets Fleur Adcock, Carol Rumens and Carol Ann Duffy and the first of what I think are the two most interesting chapters of the book, “A Daft Place,” which examines work by Roy Fisher, Peter Reading, Peter Porter, and Peter Didsbury. The work of these four poets, together with that taken up in the amusingly titled final section - “Postmodernist, Moi?” - makes the most interesting contrast with the poetry discussed by Tuma and anthologized in Conductors and Other.
The first thing one notices about the poets discussed in O’Brien’s chapter on postmodernism is that not a single one in this group warrants a mention by Tuma, Sinclair, or Caddel-Quartermain among poets assumed to be sympathetic to postmodernism in Fishing, Conductors, and Other, except insofar as they are perceived to completely misunderstand it. O’Brien’s notion of postmodernism is both inclusive in a one-of-the-lads sort of way and, as the title suggests, simultaneously skeptical. And it includes in its selection of representative postmodern poets both those identified as such in the Motion/Morrison Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry and the Hulse/Kennedy/Morley New Poetry anthology which in some ways opposed it and helped to launch New Generation poets like Armitage and Glyn Maxwell. Most interesting of all, perhaps, it traces the postmodern spirit in England not to Prynne at Cambridge or Mottram in London, but to the influence of John Fuller at Oxford; and it traces Fuller’s own sources not to Charles Olson or John Ashbery, but to W.H. Auden.
O’Brien argues that postmodernism is now so ubiquitous that definition has become increasingly difficult, especially as he finds that attempts to theorize it are both profligate and contradictory when both avowedly experimental and seemingly mainstream camps claim for themselves a piece of the action. Among the mainstream postmodernists (eux?) he discusses, the only common ground he’s much interested in establishing has to do with “a deliberate awareness of and curiosity about poetic devices [which are] often allied to the redeployment of familiar kinds of poem, particularly narrative.” He believes, “contrary to what some critics may claim,” that “theory is always belated,” and that abstract ideas about uncertainty, for example, are much less interesting than an impulse in any practicing poet which “relishes flying blind across the page” or peculiarities of a poet like Peter Didsbury which are as much innate as acquired, leading “less to an aesthetic program [than an] inclination to write poems.” He is not willing to add much more in general terms save the observation that “the concern of these poets is less with immutable truth than with the means [they] employ, and by which [they] are led, to construct ideas of it or to question the possibility of doing so.” Poets like James Fenton, O’Brien’s favorite poet of the group, may have learned from John Fuller’s teaching and example “a curiosity about the poem’s status and the workings of language which makes the frame of reference and the means of construction into part of the subject.” Although much of this could apply to just about any poetry at all, one can also see the interest in O’Brien’s attempt to retrace the emergence of a particularly British postmodernism emerging from Auden (whether early in The Orators or later in The Sea and the Mirror), and the reasons for his frustration with certain theorists’ disinclination to see that “the unwritten moment-to-moment history of poetry accommodates mess and disorder, chance and distraction, just as much as the determination to make it new and see the picture whole.” He complains that John Osborn, a postmodern critic of Didsbury, reveals a paradox that troubles him: “if the old Big Picture myths and explanations have given way to uncertainty, what grounds has uncertainty to be so peculiarly sure of itself?”
Although one could easily imagine the answers to these questions that Osborne or Jeremy Prynne or some of the critics O’Brien jokingly calls Muldoonologists might put forward, it is more interesting to look at what O’Brien says about some of the poets who appear in the Armitage/Crawford Penguin to see if any common ground actually exists between their work and that of the poets in Conductors of Chaos and Other. O’Brien complains about antitheses reproducing themselves from generation to generation - modernity versus tradition, avant-garde versus mainstream, establishment versus rebels - even to the point where poets who probably write from a similar impulse but inherit these binary echoes would, if given the chance, “go back and run each other over twice to be certain.”
III: Mainstream Postmods
Taking James Fenton as the representative student of Fuller and Auden, O’Brien in fact discusses “The Pitt-Rivers Museum” from the cycle Exempla in Terminal Moraine in ways that might almost satisfy N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge, authors of Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne. Fenton’s use, both here and elsewhere, of a range of technical languages to displace the lyric subject and its point of view, along with whatever consolations such a limited perspective might provide, recalls not only the use of scientific knowledge - anthropology and geology, for example - in Auden or David Jones, but also what Reeve and Kerridge call in Prynne’s work “the presence of discourses [which challenge] the humanist paradigm and its place in late-capitalist culture by imposing shifts of scale which immediately disrupt any sense of personal, unmediated perspective,” reminding us that we are in fact ourselves the products of infinitely large and infinitely small processes - cosmic, geological, molecular - to which the human subject may properly be subordinated in a poetry seeking an expression for these processes themselves.
In its sixteen sections and sub-sections, Fenton’s Exempla draws on such sources as Smith and Miller’s Developmental Psycholinguistics, Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Raymond Bush’s The Fruit-Growers, an Oxford billboard, an article on frogs’ eyes, and the museum labels and other materials from the Pitt-Rivers Museum. O’Brien calls the poem’s fragmentary narrative elements “residually Audenesque,” but so too, certainly, is the strange hodge-podge of bookishness recalling Auden’s own use of W.H.R. Rivers himself, John Layard and other anthropologists, psychologists and neurologists in Paid on Both Sides and The Orators. While the stanza O’Brien quotes echoes Auden even in the rhythms - “All day, / Watching the groundsman breaking the ice / From the Stone trough, / The sun slanting across the lawns” - the decisive point made about the poem as a whole in relation to Fenton’s work in general might well lead us back to Reeve and Kerridge on Prynne:
This is an early example of Fenton’s interest in interfering with, or removing, the interpretative frame through which readers may at first believe themselves to be viewing a poem….The poem is a ‘museum-piece’, whose random inventory gradually ushers us towards the realisation that to excerpt and categorize items from the world and encase them in a building does not enable us to stand outside the world from which we have removed them. The poem in fact makes an elaborate fetish of the museum, in order to view this place of learning or idle contemplation as the embodied unconscious of a culture….Fenton clearly gains in the relative indirectness of his approach, which enables the psychic strains of amnesia (‘A German Requiem’), displacement and class/cultural exhaustion (‘A Vacant Possession’, ‘Nest of Vampires’) to become matter for poems rather than rhapsodies on themselves, as they might in the hands of inferior writers in the confessional mode.
Reeve and Kerridge argue that “in order to survive, poetry has to collide with the powerful discourses of our culture (smashing them to pieces), rather than dodging into alley-ways while they pass, or lingering in safe places like gardens.” Although readers of Fenton and Prynne seem no more interested in talking to each other than do most Conductors to most Penguins, the manifesto-like passage of Prynne’s “L’Extase de M. Poher” ought to find the author of Exempla sympathetic to his tirade:
poetical gabble will survive which fails
to collide head on with the unwitty circus:
no history running
with the french horn into
the alley-way, no
of valued instinct, no growth
of meaning & stated order:
we are too kissed & fondled,
no longer instrumental
to culture in “this” sense of time:
1. Steroid metaphrast
2. Hyper-bonding of the insect
3. 6% memory, etc
any other rubbish is mere political rhapsody, the
gallant lyricism of the select.
No doubt the most obvious Audenesque aspects of Fenton’s work exist in his early and explicitly political poems about Indochina in the early seventies, like “Cambodia,” “In a Notebook,” and “Dead Soldiers.” But no one would have called those poems postmodern when they were first published and I doubt that anyone is inclined to now. Of the Fenton poems that appear in the Penguin selection, it is in particular “A Staffordshire Murderer” that O’Brien finds, together with “England,” among the “most truly radical…most impressive varieties of English postmodernism to date.” Noting that Fenton is again in Auden’s debt as he draws on ritual elements of the detective story in “A Staffordshire Murderer,” O’Brien goes on to describe with appreciation what he calls “its cubism,” which offers a series of menacing digressions without supplying a narrative or establishing any sense of novelistic “real time.” He quotes Alan Robinson to the effect that Fenton’s poems often exhibit “a recalcitrant fragmentation [which is] characteristic of much of an emergent tendency in Postmodernist writing which parallels the deconstructive preoccupations of much contemporary literary theory” and concludes his essay by saying that Fenton - and John Fuller as well - has undertaken an “unwriting” of England in which “the linguistic representation of ‘otherness’ encounters an experiential otherness so extreme that it subverts representation itself.” O’Brien imagines Fenton having “trained under hothouse conditions a type of poem that might have been glimpsed in Auden’s ‘Bucolics,’ to the point where it brings in question our capacity to grasp its internal contradictions, and where the only evidence of its own coherence and relevance to itself lies in the poem’s insinuating tone.”
I belabor all of these attempts to identify Fenton as a postmodern poet who can find his own radical sources in such a mainstream figure as Auden simply to suggest that, if this characterization is even remotely correct, Fenton - Oxford Professor of Poetry and anathema to many of the Conductors and Others - could without contradiction himself appear in Conductors of Chaos represented by cycles like Exempla or poems like “A Staffordshire Murderer” while also making a choice from early Auden - choruses from Paid on Both Sides, parts of “The Airman’s Journal” or “The Initiates” from The Orators, certain pieces from Poems (1930) - that would parallel in interesting ways the actual five contributors’ sponsorship of work by Gascoyne, Moore, Hendry, Graham, and Jones. Since O’Brien is rather stubbornly unwilling to discuss any of the poets in Conductors save Roy Fisher, he is not quite the critic Robert Pinsky called for some years ago in The Situation of Poetry who would be able to take up the work of particular poets without being distracted by the quasi-political divisions into groups or camps or parties with which they are superficially identified or superficially identify themselves. In part because he categorically groups and excludes “neo-modernists,” “language poets,” and “performance poets” from his discussion, it is necessary to consult a book such as Tuma’s to complete the account of recent British poetry in somewhat the same way one needs, in the American context, to read Marjorie Perloff after reading Helen Vendler. Nonetheless, O’Brien is generally more impressed by poets and poems than by movements and groups. Many of the poets he discusses are as much a challenge to avant-garde pieties as the really innovative work of British experimentalists - neo-modernists, language poets and performance writers among them - is a challenge to mainstream literary conventions.
It may be easier to claim Fenton’s work for a kind of mainstream postmodern canon than that of Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage. Although as co-editor of the Penguin anthology Armitage does not include his own work in the book, American readers should know that he has been paired with Maxwell - who now teaches at Amherst and is published by Houghton Mifflin - in journalistic accounts of the New Generation at least since the 1993 publication of the Bloodaxe New Poetry anthology. He has even played MacNeice to Maxwell’s Auden in Moon Country, a collaborative book about Iceland reminiscent of the Auden/MacNeice Letters from Iceland of 1937. O’Brien grants Armitage the distinction of being “perhaps the first serious poet since Larkin to achieve wide popularity” in Britain, but he finds the “everyday postmodernity” of his poetry, in which a younger readership has clearly come to recognize its own image, to consist mainly in “a kind of linguistic automatism, or echolalia - like language running around with its head cut off.” Clearly Maxwell is the more interesting poet.
Although I am pretty certain he would dislike some of the jargon, it’s possible that O’Brien might be willing to extend his provisional description of mainstream postmodernism to include certain terms and formulae that Hulse, Kennedy and Morley used to introduce Armitage, Maxwell, Didsbury, Reading, and even O’Brien himself as a poet in 1993. The editors of The New Poetry asked us to observe in their poets a “relish for cumbersome cultural props for their totemic presence alone,” a realization that “ideas of meaning, truth and understanding are in themselves fictions determined by the rhetorical forms and linguistic terms used to express them,” a “mixing of registers, idioms, and thematic provenances,” and “doubts about authenticity of self and narrative authority” where “the pronominal act is itself a risk.” Reading Maxwell’s work specifically as a response to the questions which they took to be implicit in many of the younger poets in their anthology - How does the new poet “escape the negative inheritance of British poetry: its ironies, its understatements, its dissipated energies?” - they pointed to Maxwell’s exploitation of “an untrustworthy I and a passive narrator,” his “self-conscious wit and an attack that came…from a relentless conceptualizing of language that plays with misreadings, tautologies, insecurities and qualifications,” and his “re-emphasized and re-directed syntax that, in mimicking the evasions and non-sequiturs of everyday speech, reminds us that language is always debased currency.” Maxwell, who does indeed manifest some of these characteristics in some of his work, also, like Fenton, simply sometimes sounds like Auden and, fleeing as he might “the negative inheritance of British poetry,” cleaves with some tenacity to its positive inheritance in formal verse written with an ease that might have impressed the master himself. His range, like Auden’s, is very wide - from light verse to narrative to elegy to satire. Derek Walcott has spoken of his ability “to orchestrate asides, parenthetical quips, side-of-the-mouth ruminations into verse with a bravura not dared before.” And Joseph Brodsky has said that “he covers a greater distance in a single line than most people do in a poem. At its best, the poetry sounds like this (from “Drive to the Seashore,” a poem that David Kennedy thinks of as a response to Geoffrey Hill’s sequence “Of Commerce and Society”):
We passed, free citizens, between the gloves
of dark and costly cities, and our eyes
bewildered us with factories. We talked.
Of what? Of the bright dead in the old days,
often of them. Of the great coal-towns, coked
to death with scruffy accents. Of the leaves
whirled to shit again. Of the strikers sacked
and picking out a turkey with their wives.
Of boys crawling downstairs: we talked to those
but did this: drove to where the violet waves
push from the dark, light up, lash out to seize
their opposites, and curse to no effect.
Maxwell’s boisterous metrical exuberance in congenial forms employed elsewhere, such as the Burns stanza, not only recalls Auden but also, in “Don’t Waste Your Breath,” playfully invokes his name before asking critics such as myself not to waste our own breath “telling me / my purpose, point or pedigree.” Fair enough, one says, while still insisting on how frequently the Auden trick is turned, the pedigree displayed, in something such as “Just Like Us”:
It will have to be sunny, so these can marry,
so these can gossip and this forgive
and happily live, so if one should die
in this, the tear that lies in the credible
English eyes will be sweet, and smart
and be real as blood in the large blue heart
that beats as the credits rise, and the rain
falls to England. You will have to wait
for the sunny, the happy, the wed, the white. In
the mean time this, and the garden wet
for the real, who left, or can’t forget,
or never meant, or never met.
At this point, some of the questions O’Brien raises about the Audenesque become important. He wonders, for example, exactly what it is that Maxwell is after in Auden - his “air of knowing [his] way about,” his “cultural assurance and power of synthesis,” his diagnostic abilities, his “tricks with articles and syntax,” his “formal gifts,” his “air of secrecy and conspiracy,” the “various personal myths,” his self-appointed role as the age’s representative, or some combination of these. What O’Brien doesn’t consider as a perhaps unintended result of Maxwell’s schooling himself on Auden is what Keith Tuma calls in Maxwell’s work “a pervasive air of diminished ambition,” the “desperate or campy futility” which vitiates some of Auden’s later poetry. And one might well associate these characteristics with the dangers of a “rhetorical imagination” that David Kennedy in fact celebrated in the New Generation poets he anthologized with Hulse and Morley as “a change of emphasis from the latencies and nuances of language to its forms and surfaces.” O’Brien sees in such a change of emphasis a sign of possible decline or impoverishment, a decadence of sorts which he associates with British cultural activities fueled by Thatcherism. Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the paradoxes of a poetry “in which carefully husbanded resources of containment and circumspection go hand in hand with exuberant enjoyment, prolific output, and a wide range of occasion and inspiration” strikes O’Brien as itself curiously Thatcherite, and he makes an unexpected connection between Maxwell’s poetry, Kennedy’s editing and criticism, and Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe Books - publisher of both The New Poetry and his own The Deregulated Muse. I’m sure Maxwell wasn’t thinking of postmodernism, the Y2K virus itself, in his Audenesque parable “We Billion Cheered” included in the Penguin anthology. Nonetheless, the obscure “threat” in the poem which seems to disappear when “currencies dance” only to arise again and, like one of Auden’s external “enemies” in The Orators, turn inward “like a harmless joke / Or dreams of our / Loves asleep in the cots where the dolls are,” is as real as the radical methods of invading Conductors and Others making mutants of mainstream poets who may seek to domesticate them in their work. Although “We miss it where / You miss my writing of this and I miss you there…”
We line the shore,
Speak of the waving dead of a waving war.
And clap a man
For an unveiled familiar new plan.
Nothing will start that hasn’t started yet.
It, its friend, its foe and its opposite.
Surprisingly, O’Brien finds Peter Reading also to be a species of Audenesque postmodern (anti-Thatcher sort of) Thatcherite. If this is surprising given the ferocity of Reading’s specific mockeries of Mrs. Thatcher, one nonetheless understands what he means. Focusing on the journalistic side of Reading’s work, its relationship to what he calls the “urgencies of its period,” the dangers of “whoring after relevance,” its determination to reveal the garbage of what Tom Paulin calls “Junk Britain” and make the poet “the unofficial laureate of a dying nation,” O’Brien finds “a huge hole where causality ought to be” and a kind of political exhaustion. He thinks the Swiftian contempt sometimes noted in Reading’s poetry is often only a “sclerotic posture” such as one associates with the late work of Kingsley Amis, and that Reading projects a self-loathing onto the general public with his castigations of the generic Beckettian “H.sap” and the “pangoids” and “morlocks” that populate his writing. He believes that the poems are finally complicit in “a cruelly Manichaen rationalization which lies behind Thatcherism” with its “use of effect (brutalization) to justify cause (impoverishment).” Reading is seen as a poet of the Coleridgean Fancy rather than the Imagination whose chief formal device is “juxtaposition,” and whose poetry, like much journalism, “shrinks its subjects to fit the requirements of its rhetoric.” This strikes me as a harsh and very one-dimensional view of a remarkable poet who even more than Fenton, and certainly more than Maxwell, can be profitably read in the company of poets appearing in Conductors and Other.
Armitage and Crawford make a good effort to represent Reading in the Penguin anthology, but ultimately the poetry is not amenable to any kind of selection at all because Reading’s best work appears in through-composed books, many of which need to be read dialectically in relationship to other through-composed books. But the eight pages taken from Ukulele Music - only Muldoon’s “Incantata” occupies more space in the book - is a gesture in the right direction. American readers should know that Reading’s two volume Bloodaxe Collected Poems is available from Dufour Editions and that Northwestern University Press publishes separately his Ukulele Music and Perduta Gente in a single volume. This last is certainly the best introduction to his work.
The editors of 1993 Bloodaxe New Poetry anthology claimed Reading - older than most New Generation Poets having been born in 1946 - as an important participant in their postmodernist agenda. Reading was seen as a poet who in his “mixing of registers, idioms, and thematic provenances” was happiest when he could “manipulate reader expectation by contrasting tonality and subject, lofty style and squalid nastiness” both in his “socio-political work [and his] writing on everyday human pain.” The “lofty” style has much to do with Reading’s choice of forms and meters - classical hexameters, the elegiac distich, the alcmanic, the alcaic, the choriamb - scansions of which sometimes appear in the texts themselves. The effect of these scansions is often very unnerving - two dactyllic feet cancelled with an X at the end of Final Demands, a fully scanned stanza emerging from a drawn skull’s mouth in Evagatory, the counting out of distichs in the “plinkplinka plinkplinka plonk” that accompanies and concludes the weird counterpointing of voices in Ukulele Music. Neil Corcoran has written that “one of the paradoxes of [Reading’s] work, of which he is lucidly self-aware, is that its grim occasions provoke it into greater and greater feats of ‘prestigitial’ invention, particularly in his adoption of resolutely unEnglish classical verse forms.” If Auden is sometimes present behind Reading’s work as he is in Maxwell’s, it is not only the Auden who imitated the falling meters of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” in “Get there if you can and see the land you once were proud to own” and whose social satires had, for a while, a Swiftian rage; it is also the later Auden whose obsessive subject in his talky, intricate syllabics was the ultimate frivolity of art and the inability of poetry to say very much that would disenchant and disintoxicate either the word-drunk poet himself or the self-enchanted reader.
For the same reason that it is difficult to anthologize Reading’s work, it is difficult to quote it adequately in a review. In her introduction to volume one of the Collected Poems, Isabel Martin argues for the “absolute unity” of volumes like Evagatory, Stet, Ukulele Music, Perduta Gente, and Going On achieved by “antithetical or polyphonic plotting, highly sophisticated structures, continual cross-referencing of narrative, imagery, motifs, voices and verbal echoes…[which constitute] an interweaving more commonly found in novels.” A very good way to begin hearing Reading correctly is in fact to watch the widely available Lannan Foundation video in which he reads both Evagatory and Diplopic in their entirety. In this tour de force of a performance there is no missing what Neil Corcoran has described as the “intermittent Bakhtinian polyphonies, the voices seeming to emerge from a buzzy radio static, the hiss of permanent interference, the cacophony of crossed signals.” Perhaps the following excerpt from Evagatory (which is brilliantly read on the video) will give some idea of a few of Reading’s effects, along with a sense of his famous “mordant humour” - a quality that saves his bleak vision, like Samuel Beckett’s, from at least some of the charges levelled against it in O’Brien’s account of his work. The characteristic falling meter of the centered passage introduces, with appropriately Anglo-Saxon trappings, a bard who will sing, in a made-up language, the praises of Mrs. Thatcher herself. The “patois” of his encomium appears in the left column; the translation (in “translationese”) appears on the right.
Snow-haired, an elder, dulled eyes gum-filled,
tuning a sweet-toned curious instrument,
gulps from a goblet of local merlot,
sings on a theme whose fame was fabled,
that of a sad realm farctate with feculence
(patois and translationese alternately):
Gobschighte dampetty, Wonderful little Madam
gobby Fer-dama, self-mocking Iron Lady,
getspeeke baggsy, who some said was a windbag
getspeeke parly some said talked
comma cul,comma like an arsehole, like
spmalbicker-bicker, a termagant - why,
porky getspeeke?, porky? why did some say that?
Pascoz vots clobberjoli, Because your pretty frocks,
vots chevvy-dur dur, your permed-stiff hair,
vots baggsymainchic, your smart handbag, your
vots collier-prick, tight-sharp necklace,
cuntyvach twitnit, satrapess so marvellous,
iscst pukkerjoli - were so beautiful -
illos jalouz dats porky! they were envious, that’s it!
Ni iscst vots marrypappa Nor was your spouse
grignaleto, ne. a pipsqueak - far from it!
Mas vots pollytiq But your many wise policies
saggio sauvay were saving your islet,
vots salinsula, your filthy isle, and
insulapetty, made all equal with nil
et fair tutts egal mit-nochts.
After viewing the Lannan Foundation video, the new reader of Peter Reading might have a go at Ukulele Music and Perduta Gente. The latter poem, dealing chiefly with a Dantesque hoard of urban “lost people,” many of them lying among their rags and cardboard hutches under Royal Festival Hall during a performance of Sibelius, recalls the world of Tony Harrison’s V and Ken Smith’s Fox Running. These gente perduta are the subject of Reading’s grim elegy for the “insulate ranks of expendables, eyesores, / winos, unworthies, / knackered-up dipsos / swilling rasato-and meths,” the dispossessed subjects of the “Wonderful Little Madam,” the Iron Lady whose praise-poem was sung by the snow-haired elder in Evagatory. Here, too, the Anglo-Saxon hammers the reader into the poem.
Don’t think it couldn’t be you -
bankrupted, batty, bereft,
huddle of papers and rags in a cardboard
bottle-bank cocktails and Snow soporifics,
beg-bucket rattler, no-hope no-homer,
squatter in rat-pits,
busker in underground bogs
(plangent and harp-twang, the Hwaet!
Haggard, the youthful and handsome whom I
loved in my nonage;
vanished, the vigour I valued;
roof-tree and cooking-hearth, sacked).
Bankrupted, batty, bereft -
don’t think it couldn’t be you.
The four voices speaking in the companion poem counterpoint a poet’s elegiac distichs with the prose of Viv, his daily help whose comments on her own life and on the poet’s manuscripts left around the house sound like Dickens via Monty Python; the archaic-heroic-imperial verse of an aging Captain who, also employing Viv and living in the same building with the poet, can no longer tell the difference between his own life on the sea and the “yarns” he has heard or read; and a series of goofy, high-spirited instructions quoted from a beginner’s manual for the ukulele. We are meant to understand that Reading regards the poet’s fulminations at the urban violence and ecological destruction all around him to be about as significant as “the man in the music Hall song that goes he play his Uku uker Youkalaylee while the ship went down,” as Viv has it in one of her notes. The four voices are kept separate in the first third of the poem, but in the last third, following the Captain’s account of voyages that include a time aboard the Lucky Dragon when it sailed too close to an atomic testing ground, they begin to merge - Viv and the Captain first appear in, then begin to write, the poet’s poems, while all three are accompanied by the banalities of the ukulele manual. Thus the poet’s versions of tabloid horrors are constantly played off against the Captain’s seafaring swagger, Viv’s Mrs. Gamp-like persistence, and the plinkaplinkaplinks of the Uke. It is at once a deeply upsetting and strangely exhilarating performance.
It’s the exhilaration that O’Brien seems unwilling to recognize. His desire that poetry must preserve “something of itself from the general wreck - not optimism or hope, necessarily, but the power of imaginative production” - is surely met by the logopoeia in Reading’s “feats of prestigital invention” that Neil Corcoran finds in the Bakhtinian polyphony of voices. Ukulele Music is much closer in its verbal energies to a novel like Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange than to the “sclerotic posturing” of the later Kingsley Amis, and it communicates a similar simultaneous pleasure in language and horror at the perpetration of gratuitous violence. It is also, like some of Fenton’s work, worth contrasting again with Jeremy Prynne as read by Reeve and Kerridge in Nearly Too Much. If poetry, as Reeve and Kerridge believe, must, like Prynne’s, “collide with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture,” and if, as Prynne writes in “L’Extase de M. Poher,” “any other rubbish is mere political rhapsody, the / gallant lyricism of the select,” what is to be made of the bits and pieces that result from the collision? Is some of the junk in Junk Britain “rubbish” in some positive sense? Prynne’s poem, quoted in part earlier, continues:
pertinent; essential; the
most intricate presence in
our entire culture; the
ultimate sexual point of the whole place turned
into a model question
This rubbish, Reeve and Kerridge argue, “is what results from the smash-up, when different discourses do not occupy the cultural places to which they have been directed, but cross the tracks and collide.” They also associate it with Julia Kristeva’s notion of “the abject”: “the expelled and used-up parts of the self which signify that the self is not separate and unitary, but involved in constant processes of dissolution and exchange with the world.” One does not need to read Reading with the full machinery derived from Bakhtin, Kristeva, Lyotard, and Habermas, brought to bear on Prynne by Reeve and Kerridge, to argue that one might read Reading that way, and that one might once again find some common ground between a mainstream postmodernist discussed by O’Brien and anthologized in the Penguin, and the poets in Conductors and Other. “Leider’s no art against these sorry times” writes the poet in Ukulele Music, and his heckler-critic answers a few lines later: “Reading’s nastiness sometimes seems a bit over the top.” “No / poetic gabble will survive which fails / to collide with the unwitty circus,” wrote Prynne. Reeve and Kerridge take their title from a pair of lines in his “Down where changed,” the second of which is the more important: “Nearly Too Much / is, well, nowhere near enough.” Poets more congenial to O’Brien’s taste are Peter Didsbury and Roy Fisher, in part because of the way they use their native cities to “think with.” As Fisher says of Birmingham, “it’s not made for that kind of job / but it’s what they gave me.” In fact, O’Brien admires Didsbury’s work almost as much as he does Fenton’s - largely, I think, because Didsbury does such interesting things with O’Brien’s (and Larkin’s) own native city of Hull, a place brought to almost preternatural life in some of Didsbury’s oddest and strongest poems in a manner recalling the paintings of Stanley Spencer in which biblical stories are reenacted in the village of Cookham. Not only does O’Brien argue that “it is as a celebrant…that Didsbury should be celebrated” who, unlike Reading, has “sustainable positives to set against the dismal, de-historicised character of contemporary life,” but he also takes his work as the site where he can contend with theoretical critics like John Osborne, quoted earlier, whose “linguistic materialism” and “Post-religious enlightenment” sound feeble “compared with the grandeur and terror of what [they] seek to replace” in the genuinely religious imagination of poems like “Eikon Basilike” and “A Winter’s Fancy,” where fiction “crosses over into belief.” And yet, although Didsbury himself expresses distaste at being described as a postmodernist, believing himself to be “engaged in tasks and duties and pleasures which are nothing if not ancient,” his work is clearly related to that of the poets discussed above and to American models such as Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery - poets, incidentally, who must also be celebrated as celebrants.
Didsbury’s poetry is characteristically self-conscious and self-reflexive in the manner of these other poets and it frequently meditates on language and the versions of the self that speak it. Walking in “the empty heart” of his home city, a speaker finds it suddenly like “a level Baltic town,” its canal emptying “into a turbulent German Ocean” with “dereliction on one side of the stream” and “an Arctic kind of Xanadu on the other.” Shivering, he thinks of his hip-flask and realizes he “hadn’t actually invented it yet” but knew he “wouldn’t be leaving it very much longer.”
If this was what linguistic exercise meant
then I didn’t think much of it. The deep structures
I could cope with, but the surface ones
were coming at me in Esperanto, and fragments of horrible Volapuk.
In “Back of the House,” in an English garden, “Language, fat and prone beneath her fountain, / idly dispenses curling parchment notes, / her coveted, worthless, licenses to imitate.” And at the end of “A Winter’s Fancy”:
The cattle squelch past beneath a sodden sky
below my windows and before the eyes
of Peter Didsbury, in his 35th year.
I consider other inventions of mine,
which rise before me on the darkening pane.
The American reader may feel he has seen enough of this sort of thing in the native product, but Didsbury’s British cultural context makes it all a little more distinctive than short quotes can illustrate. In a blurb taken from the Observer on the back of Didsbury’s recent book, That Old-Time Religion, Alan Jenkens says that “some of his invention…hints at a rich humane vision of England which yields a kind of surrealism all of its own: estuaries, farms, country estates, city streets and bedsits, a kind of tatty or compromised pastoral are detectable in Didsbury’s oblique, desperate celebrations.” This strikes me as a fine characterization of a body of work that is difficult to characterize. About the long passage he quotes from “The Hailstone,” O’Brien says that memory functions, not as in Reading always to yield only images of something lost, but as something held in store, a “granary of the imagination.” He finds a Lockean association of ideas provoking “a momentary experience of the uncanny, as if the mind wakes up to its own presence and contents, refreshed and restored to the original vividness of relations with local and domestic culture.” It is a poetry in which an extremely literary poet “tries to show us a world before literature gets at it.”
We ran by the post office I thought, ‘It is all still true,
a wooden drawer is full of postal orders, it is raining,
mothers and children are standing in their windows,
I am running through the rain past a shop which sells wool,
you take home fruit and veg in bags of brown paper,
we are getting wet, it is raining.’
It was like being back
in the reign of George the Sixth, the kind of small town
which still lies stacked in the roofs of old storerooms in schools,
where plural roof and elf expect to get very wet
and the beasts deserve their nouns of congregation
as much as the postmistress, spinster, her title.
I imagine those boroughs as intimate with rain,
their ability to call on sentient functional downpours
for any picnic or trip to the German Butcher’s
one sign of a usable language getting used,
make of this what you will. The rain has moved on,
and half a moon in a darkening blue sky
silvers the shrinking puddles in the road:
moon that emptied the post office and the grocer’s,
moon old kettle of rain and ideolect,
the moon the sump of the aproned pluvial towns,
cut moon as half a hailstone in the hair.
If Didsbury’s poems recall Stanley Spencer’s painting, Roy Fisher’s urban art is a curious amalgam of figures like L.S. Lowry and Edward Hopper on one hand, Tatlin, Malevich and Paul Klee on the other. If there frequently seems to be a low mimetic convention at work in his poetry, his serious joke about being “a 1920s Russian modernist” is in fact a key to his work and, as I have written elsewhere, even the seemingly realist City needs in the end to be read in a context of constructivist and assemblagist innovation as its fictive world emerges from the signs and names of real things. Although O’Brien, like Donald Davie before him, underplays and possibly misunderstands this aspect of Fisher’s work, his affection for, as it were, the Hopper-Lowry in Fisher clearly goes very deep for some of the same reasons he admires Didsbury. But we have now come to a point at which - with Fisher’s work as a bridge both between the Penguin anthology and Other and between O’Brien’s reading of contemporary poets and Keith Tuma’s - we must look at a few of the “alternative” poets discussed in Fishing by Obstinate Isles. There is no great mystery why Fisher can, in fact, function as a bridge by producing work that can be admired by both camps, appear in both anthologies, and be sympathetically discussed by both critics. He is an extremely reader-friendly postmodern (or “1920s Russian modernist” who has moved on), and often he is very funny. As O’Brien says, “he has the artfulness to support the radicalism of his aesthetics and to invite readers into the complicated landscape of his work.” He is as good a poet - all schools and movements aside for a moment - as Hill or Tomlinson, Douglas Dunn or Paul Muldoon. Which means he’s one of the best alive. But it is, as O’Brien says, his inclusion of consciousness in his poems in such a way that “the poetic imagination has, as it were, no back wall to rest against” and where “the mind itself is continually becoming part of the picture,” that aligns one side of his work with the epistemological concerns of Tuma’s Cambridge poets, just as a certain affinity with Language poetry (in The Cut Pages especially) aligns another side of his work with Tuma’s Londoners. But his austerities and self-imposed constraints are all his own. Six short lines allow us a transition and sound a warning:
Because it could do it well
the poem wants to glorify suffering.
I mistrust it.
I mistrust the poem in its hour of success,
a thing capable of being
tempted by ethics into the wonderful.
IV: Adjuncts to the Muses’ Diadem?
Tuma’s chapter on “Alternative British Poetries” begins by sketching the continuities he perceives between Movement poets, middle generation poets like Harrison, Dunn and Heaney, and the New Generation poets celebrated by David Kennedy who receive the qualified support of Sean O’Brien. The chapter ends with brief but close readings of one book each by Peter Riley, Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk, Tom Raworth, and Roy Fisher, all of whom, along with Maggie O’Sullivan whose work is considered earlier on, figure as major contributors to Other and/or Conductors of Chaos. Along the way, Tuma fine-tunes his distinction between the Cambridge and London branches of his favored alternative poets, and indeed makes clear that the quarrel between a Cambridge-based poet-critic like Drew Milne and a London-based (at least initially) poet-artist like Allen Fisher is both interesting and quite substantial. But the chief service Tuma provides in this chapter is to foreground work by six poets whose poetry does not appear in the Penguin anthology, who receive no mention at all in O’Brien, who are very little known in this country, and who have written books which he clearly prefers to those by Fenton, Armitage, Maxwell, Reading, and Didsbury. I will focus here on Riley, Raworth, and the Fishers while also quoting a few of the others both to broaden contexts and simply to exhibit some unusual work.
Peter Riley (no relation to John or Denise; there are three Rileys as well as the two Fishers on Tuma’s “alternative” team) is a poet whose work can be read with profit either in the context of Cambridge-based writing by poets like Prynne, Milne, or Mengham, in the context of British modernists like David Jones or Basil Bunting, or indeed, as he would seem to prefer, in the full context of English poetic traditions stretching back to Renaissance songs, lyrics and madrigals. Riley is rather suspicious of American poetry and in fact argues that the influence of American experimentalism on British poets had run its course by the mid-1960s. Some of his more general statements about poetry, including the excerpts from an interview printed in Conductors, seem, outside any context of avant-garde militancy, both accommodating (in ways I have described and implicitely endorsed above) and aesthetically conservative. He argues that “we need a stronger emphasis on the poem as a beautiful object,” that contending camps in modern poetry ought to open a dialogue with each other, that one can no longer confidently divide “modernist and traditionalist” in terms of a politically “dichotic metaphor” nor be certain that “advanced poetic praxis” will employ only open forms - and indeed one of Riley’s best known poems, “Ospita,” is a sonnet sequence. Still, the poems in Distant Points, the book discussed by Tuma, twelve sections of which also appear in Conductors, look like this:
If this is a species of British postmodernism that has any kind of commerce with the five poets discussed by Sean O’Brien on whose work I have focussed above, the most obvious connection would be with James Fenton in his use of documentary materials in Exempla. Expanding on Riley’s own notes to Distant Points, Tuma examines the poet’s sources for these prose poems in his use of nineteenth century excavation accounts by J.R. Mortimer who worked on human burial deposits of the Neolithic/Bronze Age culture in the Yorkshire Wolds. Juxtaposed with quoted, modified, rearranged and condensed texts taken from Mortimer (mostly in italics), are passages in boldface deriving chiefly from early English song and madrigal verse along with passages in Roman type linking, mediating, questioning or reconciling elements among the “found” materials in what Tuma calls a “collision of discourses” that create “a postpastoral, postlyric space” where “lyric emotion” and “brute facticity” contend and struggle for some kind of harmony or accord. The effect of the sequence as a whole–and even of the twelve sections printed in Conductors –is deeply elegiac and reminiscent of David Jones in passages from “Rite and Foretime” in The Anathemata and “The Sleeping Lord.” Collectively, these poems also seem to incant with Jones (although above the graves of later “adaptable, rational, elect / and plucked-out otherlings” of Tellus):
By the uteral marks
That make the covering stone an artifact…
By the penile ivory
And by the viatic meats…
Dona ei requiem.
Riley’s prose poems manage, Tuma concludes, “to confuse or invert the relationship between one and the other genre of writing, so that the deathly description undertaken in the italicized fragments over the course of the series… can seem to gain an affective weight one would think to be reserved for the fragments from the English lyric archive.” He agrees with John Hall that the final effect, as in Riley’s earlier Tracks and Mineshafts, is a kind of “hesitant self-contradictory and doomed transcendentalism.”
Although Distant Points is not necessarily typical of work which Tuma identifies with Cambridge, Riley’s poetry and his statements about the art are nonetheless associated in particular with the group’s “regard for the artificial status of the poem as a resolved and ‘finished’ object,” Riley having asserted that the poem exists “as an object between poet and reader which is both a means of communication and a barrier to communication” and that even individual units in a poetic sequence need to achieve an “utter completion.” Riley also affirms a notion of impersonality in ways that again recall David Jones (and T.S. Eliot), while extending his notion of the work as both a means of and a barrier to communication by saying that it is “constructed out of paradoxical or conflicting motivations within a tradition: desire crossed with fear, envy crossed with confidence, the need to say and be revealed crossed with the need to remain silent and secret.” Without wanting to attribute Riley’s views to other poets, these characteristics can, I think, be seen in work by other Cambridge poets associated in various ways with Jeremy Prynne whose poems appear in Conductors or in Other, and which I would like to quote if only to provide a glimpse of some important writing most American readers are entirely unaware of. Here, for example, is Drew Milne:
Clamour for change, with this to plough on
even though fresh mint, under a flat
climate, borders on wisteria
buoyed and flushed in a slogan too far,
or wills no attempt to portray what palls
as in every body flirts, don’t they?
So minting, some feel like death over it
whose only sin is unlikely grist,
wit and wag this sizzling raunch bears all,
wailing wall to boot, and now we’re told
due more to Herod’s engineering,
nature not withstanding, as a fly
passes on withering western winds,
and all the bold sedge goes hand in fist,
spent in forage round other and earth.
This is John Wilkinson:
To his seeming true the apothecary turns about,
padding between his plastic rows, maintenance of
plant & smits of government subsidy will make
his garden grow with Scotch Tape, barrier cream,
grids of planting shunt the energy where tactful.
Divert it to the maidens asking for slow horses
to woa at a residential door swings like gunsmoke -
words drain their faces, violent ballet means
decided something from a treatment they accustom
to draw out of a particular chair by details so
yielding, Alzheimer’s mutates to a contact disease…
And Andrew Crozier:
… see them flash by, time unit
continuous for two frequency cycles, heart
stutter, one travelling fast round another’s
light pulse, delayed burst, in the sequence and
out, remnants of colour displayed, falling
away on the curve of its tangent, out of
the corner, scattered before its return swept
into the bay as a double beat counted twice,
its point in the line divided and dotted
back where, see what, time rushing past
your one body, small corner and one little eye,
time rushing ahead through its gaps, meeting
its markers and dying away as you pass,
snatched up to the stars, sideral passenger
so many vertices plotted, invisibly now
across the celestial sphere, so much infinity
sectioned, such stories foretold, fixed a word
for them, call it out of luck, or under what sign,
or on what base are they struck, short use life,
weather beaten, fallen, degraded, one on its own
if not lost must have been stolen.
Here certainly is a poetry that, just eluding paraphrase, foregrounds the materiality of language in a kind of Heideggerian withholding of exactly what is offered. The atmosphere of all three passages, claustrophobic as Riley’s Neolithic graves, is nonetheless alluring: Milne’s poem derives from the verbal world of newspapers (the reading of which G.F. Hegel, quoted in the epigraph, once called “the realist’s morning prayer”) and, later in the sequence, recalls the use of tabloid journalism found in Peter Reading’s work; Wilkinson’s apothecary-shop-cum-horse-show-and-doctor’s-office-of-a-stanza somehow begins to answer the question more or less raised by the title, why do “City Scientists Grow Magic Skin”?; Crozier’s lines apparently describe a hospital monitor – cardiogram or encephalogram or both – where scientific fact and human terror simultaneously register their graphs. All of the poems are stanziac (Crozier’s unit is 30 lines and therefore has been excerpted), two are sections from cycles, and some effort has been taken in each case to give the parts as well as the wholes a formal integrity. Elements of narrative appear in all the poems, but, as Reeve and Kerrige say of Prynne’s “A Night Square” (eleven poems each containing eleven lines), “energizing forces are traced as they run up against obstructions.” In Prynne’s case, as Reeve and Kerrige observe, the layout on the page resembles the walls of a maze, but the other poems have mazelike qualities as well. Here is Prynne:
the small ensign of love a
the docks past
the screen past
the lithograph is fixed so desperately
the screen past
when he sets his wheel by the form
of a per
fected nail in
structed second part
Although Crozier’s sequence may come close to positing the existence of something like an empirical self, there is great suspicion among these poets of the first person singular, which is probably best regarded in their poems as an entity entirely constructed by linguistic convention rather than something like a psychological identity with a state of mind. In this they resemble Roy Fisher, who has spoken of his attempt to “steer a sufficiently agile course [that he might] be able to see the back of [his] own head” while locating the “I” that is being thought rather than the “I” that is thinking. In fact, the claustrophobic atmosphere is also like the world of certain Fisher poems which point the reader finally to a zone that is, as he says, “turbulent, bulky, dark, and lyrically remote.”
It is significant that Tuma’s group of Cambridge poets, more than other contributors to Conductors, are interested in establishing something of a genealogy for their work by making the selections from David Jones, J.F. Hendry, Nicholas Moore, and W.S. Graham. Milne’s choice of Jones’s “The Narrows” and the remarkable passage on “The Zone” from The Book of Balaam’s Ass reveals an Eliotic High Modernist coming apart at the seams whose “antisocial critique needs to be read against its overtly affirmative claims”; Crozier’s Hendry is a one-time New Apocalyptic poet of the Blitz whose work “broke through structures of language and social convention” and whose poem on the air raid that killed his wife should be read beside better-known poems on the raids by Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Stephen Spender, and Eliot in “Little Gidding”; Riley’s Nicholas Moore reveals a poet “in the full throes of his argument with language as power” while Tony Lopez (not discussed by Tuma, but a Ph.D from Prynne’s Gonville and Caius College) introduces W.S. Graham’s work as the link, via “The Nightfishing,” between Eliot’s Four Quartets and Bunting’s Briggflatts which demonstrates the continuity of British modernism in spite of the greater visibility of The Movement and its successors. Graham’s later work is seen as poetry whose explicit subject, like that of several Cambridge poets, is language itself. However, this writing about writing - taken up by John Wilkinson and Denise Riley, among others - is no mere formalism. Its “language games [are] concerned with damaged and lonely people, with political propaganda, with coercive oppression, with the effects of torture and warfare on local communities.”
The American reader will doubtless be asking by now whether or not these Cambridge poets who draw on this particular archive ought to be read as British colleagues of North American Language writers like Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Steve McCaffery, and Susan Howe. It is a question which Tuma addresses directly and at length while making a transition to Allen Fisher and the London-based alternative poets on his list.
While Tuma finds little interest per se among his Cambridge poets in notions like Ron Silliman’s “new sentence,” Bernstein’s “antiabsorptive” techniques, or the utopian program of Steve McCaffery’s poetics, he also suggests that specific and sometimes hostile critiques of Language writing which emanate from Cambridge sometimes mistakenly “read what are in fact performative critical texts intent on re-directing contemporary poetic practice as a series of truth-claims and/or ‘theoretical’ propositions about language, reading, politics, and so forth.” Perhaps this is better understood, he implies, by his London poets, who certainly share an enthusiasm for parataxis - the title, incidentally, of one influential Cambridge journal - with both U.S. Language writers and Cambridge poets, but whose experiments with concretism and performance texts, engagement with everyday life, interest in improvisation, chance operations and disruptive techniques that violate what Drew Milne calls “the persistence of lyric,” make them a kind of edgy and anarchic urban foil to the hyper-literary, reflective, radical pastoral poets from Cambridge and more receptive (vulnerable?) to Language writing on one hand, American Black Mountaineers, Beats, and New York School poets on the other.
At this point another run of I hope fairly representative passages may again be useful as these poets, seen in contrast to the five quoted above from the Cambridge group, suggest at once both the interest and the risk in pressing poetry as far as possible toward an endgame of incoherence while maintaining an ability, as Tuma says of Maggie O’Sullivan, “to baffle all critical languages or ‘theories’ that would seek to ‘explain’ [the work] or bring it back into the discipline and decorum of… hermeneutics.” Here is a passage from Allen Fisher’s “Mummers’ Strut” which Tuma will include in his Oxford anthology, along with its notes and what is perhaps a send-up of notes in his notes on the notes written in the third person. I quote it from the journal Westcoast Line:
So much so difficult to take in
Mule driver holds to
a raised path
in case of submersion.
Even as dew drops through
a window space the driver
can be seen holding the ropes’ natural lubrication.
What was once cracking has become squeak
and then whistle
before the buckles rust.
Sodium ions are represented by two children
in the skins of nylon bears
dyed fluorescent blue
or ultramarine cut with steel and oil.
Naturalists exchange informations on the relation
between bog bush crickets and the sound of dried grass
The footnote to this section refers the reader to Helmuth Plesner, Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, while the note on the notes to the whole reads in part: “In summary it may be said that, if ‘Mummer’s Strut’ was exemplary of Allen Fisher’s poetics in action, then the poetic strategy is one of slow discomposition, disruption of autobiographical voice through the use of many voices, aspiration to multiple and collage form through the pasting of many sources, many spacetimes, and a subversion of collage form through a use of re-narration, a simulation device evident elsewhere in this poet’s work.” Well! In the same issue of Westcoast Line, Maggie O’Sullivan’s “riverrunning (realisations” includes a passage which is also a kind of note on her notes, saying that she celebrates - like Fisher and Raworth, one concludes - “Origins / Entrances - the/ Materiality of Language: its actual contractions &/ expansions, potentialities, prolongments, assemblages - / the acoustic, visual, oral & sculptural qualities/ within the physical: intervals between; in & beside.” The O’Sullivan text which Tuma says we need to hear in performance to sense its “bardic” quality, along with the way it seems to hover between a preliterary and postliterary existence, reads in part on the page:
And although Tom Raworth is not specifically grouped with the London poets, certainly his most characteristic moves are much of a piece. He can make them very rapidly indeed, like this:
These two early poems from Lion Lion, “Jungle Book” and “Unease,” read in retrospect like sections frozen in a kind of permafrost from Raworth’s more recent process poems like Catacoustics, which Tuma quotes and discusses at some length.
Tuma compares the “disjunctive gaps” in Raworth’s syntax with the “white spaces cut between Peter Riley’s fragments” in order to argue that a poetics based on “bafflement” has replaced Riley’s poetics of the sublime. “Our attention,” he explains, “devolves not into a terrifying ‘real’ altogether beyond the unknowable, calling for our inevitably desperate and failed efforts to acknowledge if not grasp it, but rather into the abundance of material particulars which obstinately refuse any effort to gather them, positively or negatively, into depth or coherence.” If this distinction between a poetics of bafflement and a poetics of the sublime among these poets makes any sense, then Roy Fisher can be seen as a poet who has explored both possibilities. The former is predictably represented in the selection in Other, and, while the Fisher sublime (rare, but very real) is not exactly on exhibit in the Penguin selection, every attempt has been made to exclude the side of his work that might baffle the casual reader while printing the one and only Fisher chestnut-of-an-anthology-piece (which the poet dislikes and regards as unrepresentative of his work), “The Entertainment of a War” from City.
Following City, and on route to his revision and radical reconception of that poem in A Furnace - it is as if Eliot had written The Waste Land after rather than before Four Quartets - Fisher wrote a series of sequences such as “The Cut Pages,” “Stopped Frames and Set Pieces,” “Metamorphoses,” “Matrix,” and “Handsworth Liberties” that make use of improvisation, chance methods and automatism, the congruence of subjective musical associations with objective visual imagery, constructivist procedures reminiscent of the Russian formalists, and a treatment of semi-hallucinatory mental spaces in a manner recalling M.C. Escher’s Print Gallery in which the world we see, as Francisco Varla describes the etching, defines a cognitive domain “we cannot step out of,” where we are “entangled in the strange loop of our actions” since there is “nowhere to step out into.” It should be clear by now why such poems by Fisher might be respected by poets from both the Cambridge and London groups, and indeed there are moments when he might be thought of himself as a member of one group –
But it is precisely with a poetics of the sublime - and Keith Tuma’s original fisher by obstinate isles thought he might “maintain ‘the sublime’ / in the old sense…Unaffected by the ‘march of events’ ” - that I want to leave this Fisher of the latter-days and all but conclude this essay. I am not alone in thinking that A Furnace may be one of the two or three great long poems by an English poet written in the last quarter century. Deeply resonant of modern traditions reaching back through Pound, Yeats, and John Cowper Powys to journeys to the underworld in Homer, Virgil, and Dante, the poem invokes a Heraclitean fire “to persuade,” as Fisher says in his preface to the poem, “obstinate substances” - like obstinate isles themselves? - “to alter their condition and show relativities” in a context understanding that “the making of all kinds of identities is a primary impulse which the cosmos itself has; and that these identities can only be acknowledged by some form or another of the poetic imagination.” A Furnace, as much as Geoffrey Hill’s The Triumph of Love, is a poem that seeks to bring whatever blood the poet has to offer as libation to the dead, fishing not among the Cantos’ “souls out of Erebus,” but nonetheless for “timeless identities” like “the one they called Achilles…or like William Fisher” who are guided by a syntax Tuma rightly calls conjunctive (as opposed to the disjunctive syntax of Raworth or The Cut Pages) to “enter Nature…animist, polytheist, metaphoric, coming through.” In their way, Geoffrey Hill’s Bletchley Magi (with their syntax of grids, probabilities and recursive functions) also half-created what they half-perceiveed in a situation where initially, as Hill writes, “unrecognized [was] not unacknowledged…unnamed [was] not nameless” and “bad faith… rest[ed] with inattention.” Fisher’s attentions are to codes as difficult as DNA and as ancient as the figure of its double-spiral, in terms of which he tries to think about time. Possibly tempted at last, if not by ethics then by metaphysics, into “the wonderful,” the poem seems to find their miracle of survival perhaps just miracle enough.
from stasis, radiance or dark
impending, and slides
directly and fast on its way, twisting
aspect in the torsions of the flow
this way and that,
through a single
glance of another force touching it or
bursting out of it sidelong,
fetches the timeless flux
that cannot help but practise
the coming into sense,
to the guesswork of the senses,
the way in cold are
ice-crystals, guessed at, come densely
falling from where they were not;
and it fetches
riding in the flux with no
determined form, cast out of the bodies
that once they were, or out of
the brains that bore them….
They come anyway
to the trench,
the dead in their surprise,
taking whatever form they can
to push across.
V: Unfinished Business, Current Events
V: Unfinished Business, Current Events
So why is there no anthology of British poetry that represents both Prynne and Hill, both Raworth and Fenton, both Riley and Maxwell, both Allen Fisher and Peter Reading, both Roy Fisher and C.H. Sisson? At this writing, Keith Tuma is trying to edit such a book for OUP, a book which will moreover recognize the sources of various contending traditions discussed above by reaching all the way back (with long and sometimes surprising selections) to Hardy and Eliot, Edward Thomas and Mina Loy, Robert Graves and David Jones, Basil Bunting and W.H. Auden. Along the way, the book will recover work by Joseph Gordon Macleod, Charles Madge, Nicholas Moore, John Rodker, Lynette Roberts, Rosemary Tonks, F.T. Prince, and David Gascoyne, while going on to print Gael Turnbull with Thom Gunn, John Riley with Tony Harrison, Andrew Crozier with Craig Raine, and Maggie O’Sullivan with Carol Ann Duffy. Instead of giving the reader the almost meaningless tiny selections common to most anthologies, Tuma will print, for example, all of Bunting’s Briggflatts, all of W.S. Graham’s The Nightfishing, all of Tony Harrison’s V, the whole of “Introit” and “The Return” from Fisher’s A Furnace, and fifteen sections from Hill’s Mercian Hymns. Such full-scale generosity to long works has in the past mostly been accorded only the likes of Eliot and Pound. Although Tuma is acutely conscious of the strengths of Britain’s multicultural poets - E.A. Markham, David Dabydeen, and Benjamin Zephaniah are in the book - the anthology will not strive to implement things like gender balance, affirmative action, or other kinds of politically correct pieties in formulaic ways. It will not assume that skill is democratic, even though the muse may be deregulated. Political equality does not mean that people are given an equal ability to write good poems. But the anthology is also willing to risk including radically experimental poems where aesthetic standards like those confidently put forward by O’Brien and Armitage-Crawford must be willingly suspended. When we are truly entering the unknown - as we do in some of the poems that Tuma will print by poets who appear in Conductors of Chaos - we must acknowledge the difficulty of placing value on unprecedented experiences which we are in fact having for the first time. Along with the work of many fine Irish poets whose poetry I have excluded from this discussion in order to focus on at least some of the Brits, American readers will at last be able to compare a range of poetries generally antagonistic to one another and decide for themselves if some kind of dialogue between them is possible or interesting without having to subscribe to six or eight small press catalogues, or surf the Web for distributors of books and pamphlets published in tiny editions across the water.
Until Tuma’s anthology appears, we seem to be left with the Armitage-Crawford Penguin, the Caddel-Quartermain Other, and the news (just in) that Conductors of Chaos is not only permanently out of print but also - no doubt intensifying the British alternative poets’ sense of exclusion by and hostility toward the mainstream - that it has in fact been replaced at Picador by The Firebox, an anthology much like the Penguin, edited by Sean O’Brien without as high a degree of openness to experimental work as one had sensed in The Deregulated Muse. O’Brien’s introduction, like Armitage-Crawford’s, makes much of notions of pluralism. So does the introduction to Other and that of the 1993 Hulse-Kennedy-Morley New Poetry anthology. Ideas of pluralism are extended in these books to race, religion, region, class, language, gender, sexual preference - to everything, in fact, except poetics. There each book pretty much draws its own particular line. O’Brien’s new Picador includes even fewer of the younger poets who appeared in the Iain Sinclair anthology it has just displaced than the Penguin, and the Penguin includes just one. I suppose Keith Tuma will be attacked in some quarters on the Obstinate Isle as an American interloper willing to extend pluralism to poetics. But he has the blessing of this reader. He sails in a big ship and will land a big and various catch.
Finally, rereading this essay, my own omissions disturb me. While discussing British poets, I have intentionally written only about the English, not making it sufficiently clear that the editors and authors of all these books, and Armitage and Crawford in particular, are clear that much of the most interesting poetry being written off the mainland of western Europe is written at a time of political devolution by poets from Wales and Scotland, some of them not writing in English. And my earlier contention that American poetry readers already know enough about the mainstream Irish poets certainly ought not to imply that I think they know anything at all about poets in Other like Randolph Healey, Billy Mills, Maurice Scully, or Catherine Walsh, whose work derives not so much from Yeats, MacNeice, and Kavanagh as from Coffey, MacGreevy, and Beckett, or that they are any better acquainted with the poems in Irish by Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill than they are with the poems in Scottish Gaelic by Sorley MacLean. The best way, under the circumstances, that I can make a sudden exit from an essay that has grown very long through wanting to quote at length some work I know my reader will not have seen, is to quote yet one more time. The poem by Peter Finch, a Welshman, appears in Other. It is called “Why Do You Want to Be English?”
You can’t do English much
a lot of them
really don’t have much to do with English
I’m English they are going to steal my cattle
Does doing an English
overlaid with a false English
mean you are not British
English is a straw dog, a real dilemma
I am interested in English as one blossom
one hundred percent English free of guilt
not my ancestors ran the Roman Empire
English Bengali like the remnants of Bosnia
I could go on
English disjuncture like a blind stick
please speak clearly after the long tone
archipelago consensus no longer a land mass
do not write anything down
primary works cited
The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland. Edited by Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford. Penguin 1998. 443 pp. £10.99 (paper).
Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain. Wesleyan University Press 1999. 280 pp. $19.95 (paper).
Conductors of Chaos. Edited by Ian Sinclair. Picador 1996. 488 pp. Out of Print.
Keith Tuma, Fishing by Obstinate Isles: Modern and Postmodern British Poetry and American Readers. Northwestern University Press 1998. 297 pp. $19.95 (paper)
O’Brien, Sean, The Deregulated Muse: Essays on Contemporary British and Irish Poetry. Bloodaxe (Distributed by Dufour) 1998. 317 pp. $25.95 (paper).
additional works cited
Acheson, James and Romana Huk, eds. Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism. Albany: SUNY Press, 1996.
Corcoran, Neil. English Poetry Since 1940. London: Longmans, 1993.
Fisher, Roy. A Furnace. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Hill, Geoffrey. The Triumph of Love. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Hulse, Michael, David Kennedy and David Morley, eds. The New Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1993.
Kennedy, David. New Relations: The Refashioning of British Poetry 1980-94. Bridgend: Seren, 1996.
O’Brien, Sean, ed. The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland After 1945. London: Picador, 1999.
Prynne, J.H. Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1999.
Quartermain, Peter, ed. Westcoast Line: New British and Irish Writing 17 (Fall 1995).
Reading, Peter. Collected Poems. Vols. I and II. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1996.
Reeve, N.H. and Richard Kerridge. Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1995.