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The youth tactic.

A Fortnightly Review of

Dear World and Everyone In It. New poetry in the UK
Edited by Nathan Hamilton.

Bloodaxe Books | 336pp | £12.00 $28.95

The Arcadia Project. North American Postmodern Pastoral
Edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep.

Ahsahta Press | 574pp. | £17.75  $28.00

By Peter Riley.

'Dear World...'DEAR NATHAN HAMILTON, You do know don’t you, that the tactic of announcing a new, fresh, lively, optimistic, young poetry which will replace a stale, gloomy, heavy, old poetry, is as old as poetry itself? Of course you do.1

NOT, THEN, “NEW” meaning recent, but a new kind of poetry is proposed, and it is proposed as a hybridisation of two opposed and extremist modes of poetry writing. And yet there are lines such as these:

In Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘The Public Square’
a languid janitor bears his lantern through colonnades
and the architecture swoons. I cannot read this poem
without being struck down with vertigo…2
(Oli Hazzard)

And there are lines like these:

all forgetting hemp day, you must hocus-pocus with fenugreek
all holding all butt holes open with your hand, f*ck doggy for you all
xxxgot to get f*cked in curry…
(Joe Crot)

than which it is difficult to imagine any more extreme or opposed ways of writing. So clearly something in the rationale is skewed.

This contrast is evident in a lot of the poems in the book; they conform one way or the other rather than agree to the editor’s hope for a unified new poetry. On one side, unproblematic deployment of explanatory, chatty or story-telling language retailing anecdotes of the self or symbolic narratives; on the other, disrupted syntax, impossible leaps, ill-fitting words thrust together. On one side a deliberated placing of counters, on the other mimicry of uncontrolled mania. On one side a plain often child-like vocabulary held close to a conceived subject, on the other a barrage of obscenities, remote technical and academic terms and names, and interventions designed to destroy any subject-matter. Where then is the hybrid centre?  Sometimes these contrasted modes seem to be straining to meet each other, which insofar as it happens is the point of the anthology, but the stubborn oppositions remain more evident to me. Could it be that the centre is in fact not hybrid, that poetry is not best defined from its outer limbs?

DON’T BE MISLED by the sentimental title. There are some very fierce poets in this book.

THE “YOUTH” TACTIC is a clearing of space. It always has been. It’s a binning of senior and threatening poets and editors in order to create a vacant space where youth can mount the stage and claim its audience. The platform on which it is done is perhaps invariably one of the ability to comprehend and cope with a changed world. I remember doing it myself in the 1960s. We binned people like Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas and claimed a new dispensation. Some 70-year-old poets are still doing it, to their everlasting shame.

DEAR MR HAMILTON, If I were you I wouldn’t have mentioned so many prizes in the biographical notes. They are still not generally trusted in this country, and their proliferation might seem to undermine the anthology’s claim to youthful independence of movement. Many of the judges of those prizes are among the “old editors” you attack in your Introduction. Perhaps particularly the Eric Gregory Award… But more on this later.

IN THE MONTH before the publication of this book I received two or three e-mails most days “inviting” me to the launch in the Royal Festival Hall, London. This building has a capacity of 2,500. Once again the celebration of the poetry is rather more noticeable than the poetry itself.

DEAR MR HAMILTON, For all the talk of youth and political opposition, among these 74 poets there are by my reckoning3 two Asian, one Caribbean, five Irish, one Welsh, one possibly African (and for some reason four or five Americans). So, as often in recent anthologies, the gender proportion seems to be the only one you need to worry about, the only one where you need to protect yourself against campaigns of vituperation. But perhaps this disproportion is not very surprising. Perhaps poets from places like Jamaica have no need of distrust of language, nor of faux-naïf posturing, in order to locate a style, but inherit a tradition of centrality in connection with an audience – i.e. they are used to people listening, perhaps people whose minds are open to what we used to call “imagination”.

WHATEVER COMMON GROUND can be claimed among these young poets there is no doubt that they are stretched between two opposed positions which will never see eye to eye. These, the polarities of the ensemble, are conveniently identified as ex-Cambridge poets, and what I call the “Gregory Trail”, with a number of volunteers from elsewhere in each camp. The contrasting versions of what poetry is, its purpose and its nature, are severe, and the whole anthology partakes of it in various degrees of strength or dilution. The oppositions outlined in my second paragraph are basically those of these two camps.

Those who have passed through the poet-processing plant at the University of Cambridge generally come out angry and riddled with beliefs about language which, at the extreme,  abhor meaning as such and place all the power of poetry, a world-saving power, in word-by-word problematisation, an occulted guerilla campaign to displace and corrode the language of the enemy. The enemy is the world in which we live and communicate from day to day. This is a crude summary, but the useful thing for this anthology is that this tradition now seems to produce two contrasting strands which are considered complementary. I think it would be perfectly legitimate to call them “masculine” and “feminine” in the familiar literary senses which have nothing to do with gender, but for the sake of safety I’ll call them “hard” and “soft”. It is of course the hard strand which hurls obscenity and scatology at us and lectures us on the betrayal of the revolution and rejoices in its own paranoia, ably represented by Joe Crot (who is a committee) and Keston Sutherland, who contributes a 13-page prose rant which feels rather antiquated (full of highly symbolised entities) and which at the end seems to crumble back into the remnants of a lyrical poem. The “soft” strand is inclined to be more intimate and particular, more reflective and considerate, or simply quieter, in short lines with each word carefully weighed, while the poets remain fighters. Women poets do seem to be more attracted to this mode, thus giving us the thoughtful and disturbed meditations of Emily Critchley and Amy de’Ath. But I’d put Michael Kindellan in this division and Marianne Morris mostly in the hard-line party.

Semi-detached from Cambridge is a grouping recognisably “London” which is influenced by all the promotional teaching of experimental poetry which goes on there in three of the colleges, stemming from the legacy of Professor Eric Mottram, which has encouraged all and any forms of unorthodoxy, from a  purple letter upside down in the middle of the page, to hopping up and down making strange noises.  We do not get either of those here, but experiments with typography, visual word-patterns on the page, performative tactics, broken words etc. show the connection.

But if we recognise “softening” tendencies among these (and other) avant-gardists, this only superficially aids the hybridisation theory, partly because the “softened” poems retain a great deal of the edge-sharpness of the Cambridge connection, partly because the prize-winning alternatives are mostly so dull and superficial.

THE ERIC GREGORY Award, which was instigated in 1960, has always been a kind of stamp of approval from the establishment on young poets. I call it a trail because it generally starts from a magazine which carries some prestige, goes into the award, and, for some, on to greater things, such as Faber and Faber and/or top prestige in general. It is a career boost. None of the poets I would designate “Cambridge” or “London” has won it, nor any other prize, with one exception. But no less than 18 of the poets in the anthology have won the Gregory prize, which is really a very high proportion, and their number is swollen by poets who conform to its expectations but somehow failed to get the trophy. However well-meaning, an anthology like this cannot gloss over these differences in the way poets are treated and encouraged to align themselves, or the nature of the career envisaged. I should add that the Cambridge/London axis generally does very well for academic appointments, which some might think as potentially damaging to the poetry as anything else.

The editorial weakness, I think, is in not recognising how these poets remain conservative in many respects, and how similar, or identical, a lot of their writing can get to the stuffy old poets they are supposed to be displacing.

I think the Gregory Trail is the principal weakness of this anthology, one with which it was lumbered from the start by its connection with Rialto poetry magazine, which conspicuously feeds poets into this prize. It encourages a poised, theatrical, self-conscious poetical performance, a posing before the reader. Clever metaphors, ungrounded pseudo-allegory, little suburban scenes gone awry, easy irony, obliquely deflected chat, often in a tone and vocabulary suitable for addressing an infant class. Any cultural critique there might be tends to be rather coyly wrapped in a sense of careless chat or fabricated figuration; there is little real anger or concern, though there is sometimes a sense of helplessness. The editorial weakness, I think, is in not recognising how these poets remain conservative in many respects, and how similar, or identical, a lot of their writing can get to the stuffy old poets they are supposed to be displacing. Or how the society in which the poems belong is no healthier just because it is full of bright young things. Not that there is complete uniformity, and some of them certainly distinguish themselves in various ways. The sardonic wit and craft of someone like Sam Riviere, who is well advanced on the Gregorian pilgrimage, cannot be denied; indeed within the terms he sets himself he is exemplary, and there are others, including the ones I failed to notice.

IF THERE ARE conflicts between old and new poetry, as people insist there are, that is because poetry has become such a competitive activity, where, as in the visual arts, the question of what is good is inextricably tangled in the question of what is advanced. I take this to be something inherited from the late nineteenth century. At the same time the poets gaining most institutional reward for their work are mainly valued because they are not too advanced – just a flurry of it; new but not disturbing, politically correct without getting too excited.

DEAR NATHAN, I’M glad you say that this is not an anthology of the “best” young poets (a word which in poetry publicity has become a meaningless slogan, along with “leading”). You’re right to say that it is impossible to edit a representative anthology of young poets in UK and that it is impossible to be impartial. Likewise it is impossible to review 74 of these poets, many of them writing in manners alien to me and to one another. How should I know which to nominate other than by the insignificant process of what appeals to me immediately? What I mainly see is allegiances and tendencies, and what I can say is, “I wish they wouldn’t go in that direction” or “I wish they’d escape from those conventions” – which is what I do say about both of the outermost warring camps here represented. For I do think for instance, that the best of the “Cambridge” phalanx are those who withdraw themselves to a greater or lesser extent from the group aesthetic, which is mainly a matter of establishing some kind of calm which will  open vision beyond the confines of the evangelical channel. Similarly perhaps those within the Gregory fold who are willing to dwell more on single words.

IN FACT, I think that there does seem to be a new, characteristically youthful mode captured by this anthology among most of its poets, but which I suspect  to be a product of the editing rather than a national phenomenon, and which arises principally from some liberalisation in the world of the Gregory Award, assisted minimally by concessions from the avant-garde (very little of which is represented anyway, and that nearly all from the south-east). But I refuse to believe that the liberal distribution of unendorsed texts on the web has been responsible for a spread of unorthodox modes as against the control exercised by “old editors” on printed distribution, as the book’s introduction proposes. This ignores all the small-press activity of the last fifty years, and even if so, it is in that case remarkable how stilted and verbally inert a poem can remain when liberally peppered with unorthodox features.

Nathan Hamilton.

Nathan Hamilton.

What presides over the greater part of the anthology is the preponderance of a clever and zany prosaic patter, obliquely twisting ordinary percepts this way and that, as an exercise in its own right. Perkiness. Finding ways of not quite making sense. Messing around with the superficies of language. Perfectly ordinary discourses with little arresting features attached such as inappropriate diacritics, or unnecessary foreign words. Name-dropping or collage from cultural history. But none of the melancholy which has dominated twentieth-century lyrical poetry, thus rejecting the modes of big-name poets such as John Burnside or Carol Ann Duffy. The recent distressing revival of “Martianism”4 in young poetry also seems to be ignored for the most part. No prosody, and a lot of prose. No history either, not of poetry anyway, beyond immediate precursors and basic twentieth-century European masters. It is a poetry which is very much at home, mentally and culturally, and happy to stay there, sustained by verbal jolts now and then like shots of whiskey after work. It is no doubt “cool” but I fear it is also “square” (if anybody still understands that term).

However much I like to make fun of the terribly earnest young ex-Cambridge poets and their theoretical certification, they remain virtually the only ones on show here to display a passionate concern for the world riven deep into the language, and also to show a serious involvement in the long-term history of poetry.

THE POETS WHO most appeal to me in this assemblage are not strung on a washing-line between two inimical walls, they come from their own places. In this context they offer a sense of relaxation, of not being in a desperate hurry to grab the next telling word immediately, but letting the poetry unfold while avoiding clichéd linkage. Young poetry suffers a lot from tightness, and ex-Cambridge can be tight to the point of asphyxiation.

James Wilkes, for instance, his spoken phrases flowing smoothly from line to line across major disruptions and building into a scenario –

we are speaking to you
from the fireside
from the bottom of our hearts
from a bunker several miles
beneath the smoking ruins
of chicken cottage
on Tottenham Court Road
as was
from one machine to another
from the cosmic ether
we are speaking to you
yes, just you…

Likewise the poet known (on this occasion) as Mendoza, his lines widely scattered across the page and with the rhythmic pointing of a performance text, but at the same time maintaining gravity in echoes of the most serious ancestry. The result shifts between bright and weighty as no other that I know.

from the wildernessxxxI defy sudden corrections. I could
build on these speciesxxxxxbut I wait for an observation
of self-xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxawarenessxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxor
purposexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxor

evolution:

Thus I, like Earth’s topography kiss the chorus of years

Kai Miller, amazingly the only Caribbean poet to get into the anthology –

A light song of light is not sung
in the light, what would be the point?
A light song of light swells up in dark
times, in wolf time and knife time,
in knuckle and blood times; it hums
a small tune in daytime, but saves
its full voice for the midnight.

This lyrical strength is not simply a product of his ancestry, but garners its resources internationally while standing on a solid ground. It’s the first of twelve stanzas which hold onto the lyrical structure through ever widening fields of concern. I never saw anything less hybrid.

I have written previously of Sandeep Parmar in The Fortnightly Review. She is represented here by four strong poems from the book I then reviewed. I’m struck by how afraid such a poet is to recognise her lyrical responsibilities, and to do so in all seriousness, as in this ending to an elegiac poem–

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx….that day of chaos
where you are still sounding your warning (though I was too
young). To be left with the bitter heaviness of song, its chaos.

And at least one of those I’ve classed as ex-Cambridge, Amy de’Ath. I can’t easily use the word “soft” of her writing as represented here, for it displays a sharpness, and a vocal insistence which drives the poetry forward through all kinds of thickets. But a few lines show her capacity for a lyrical tenacity which weaves an enigmatic texture entangling public and private images, but can be broken through to direct appeal.

Then paint me the sum of polygamy.
Tender brawny snippets, pear pips
& a drainpipe running down to the
sea. Not you not me.

With night you come stomping,
It’s kristallnacht in my dream–
why did you shave our heads?
When will we reinvent love?

I wish I could say that these quotations are typical of the entire collection. I rather think there could have been a lot more poets like these five included if the editing had not been fixated on binary opposition and how to appease it. But the anthology is welcome as it seeks to break the mould of adulation, to steer aside from the senior “best poets” publicity and all the attached routines, and offers a lightening of the popular concept of poetical substance which will encourage the admission of the unorthodox.

'The Arcadia Project'.YOU CAN TELL at a glance that the American anthology is a different proposition. About twice the size, a bigger page, 102 poets, utilitarian presentation, far too heavy to slip into your shoulder-bag and take home to read by the fireside – it’s meant as a college course book. Its theme is again one of mitigation. The term “hybrid” is not emphasised, but the concept is present; the stress is shifted onto “pastoral”. The anthology claims to represent a thoroughly modern poetry which has turned its attention to what I may be forgiven for still calling the natural world.

This is a good idea if it seeks to reclaim for poetry a function it has had, in the west, since the eighteenth century – and for millennia if you look eastwards – which has only recently been called into question. That is, a meditation on the rural or natural scene as in various ways a counter to urban enclosure, perhaps a recompense or consolation, but potentially a more positive and far-reaching thing, an acknowledgement of human and earthly distance, a means of attaining a sense of the total. But there seems to me to be little attempt here in either the presentation or in the texts themselves  to achieve that scale of engagement with the world, and I think the reason for this lies in the insistence on the “postmodern” subtitle, which can hardly be distinguished here from what is commonly called “experimental” or “linguistically innovative”. It’s also an insistence on more or less dysfunctional language in the poem which obscures the message and shrinks the scope. In fact the Introduction can only be called complacent in its cultural ahistoricity. The term “postmodern” is used as a given without any attempt to define it, and we are told at one point that nothing is quite the same after Language Poetry. I think there should be prizes for ignoring Language Poetry.

The word “pastoral” runs through the entire history of poetry, and it has developed a large array of significations, some of the greatest seriousness. In the hands of critics such as William Empson and Northrop Frye it has become virtually a term for the entire process of transfer in script, the “elsewhere” held up before the reader as the mirror of society, or the artifice against which we stand accused. Such is the only true “Arcadian” sense. I think that among many young radical poets these days it has degenerated into a term of abuse, representing a turning away from the real world in search of a comfort which is blind to politico-economic realities, a fantasy time-lapse which is actually dangerous. It means rural watercolours by Churchill or Hitler.5 The word “lyrical” has, of course, been treated in the same way. The Arcadia Project espouses neither the comprehensive nor the reactionary sense of pastoral, but it is difficult to know what actually is meant by the word here, for on the one hand it seems to signify no more than bits of nature, and on the other its meaning is dispersed until there is almost nothing left of it. Certainly there is nothing of an historical sense which would make any work with Virgilian or ecclesiastic connections, such as Songs of Innocence, relevant to the enterprise.

THE THESIS OF the introduction (by Joshua Corey) to The Arcadia Project is that the postmodern pastoral engages with the quiescence of the pastoral mode in order to undermine it, and that this intervention will open perception to the real and the future. American prosperity is a bubble due to burst: we live in an Arcadia, he says, which is becoming obsolete as it slowly and piecemeal destroys the earth. It is time yet again to be ejected from the Garden of Eden. The conflict in the poem, “the intersection of the present tense with historical and ecological knowledge” forms an interruption of the dream and connects it to reality. Pastoral is a simulation, a theatre, which “contains within it a kernel of negativity that, when properly activated by poet and reader, promises to put us in touch with the reality, or the realities, of our contested world”.

Too often the reader is urged to trust that a healthy message which he cannot see is somewhere present in a cluster of language which refuses, or is not allowed, to say anything.

There is obviously a serious intent here, but it remains sectional and, as so often with introductions to heterogeneous anthologies, leaves major questions unanswered. Ecology is placed at the centre; there is no suggestion that economics, for instance, might be a major player in the despoliation. Nor is there anything to explain why poetry will enact this confrontation and contribute to a kind of intellectual rebirth better than mass education or prose expertise – or how anyone coming away from this book with a head full of garbled language will necessarily be empowered or enlightened. This last bit is, in fact, always missing from the apologias. The artistic need to claim your space by being advanced is always too precious to be forfeit to all the good causes which are invoked to back up poetry. Too often the reader is urged to trust that a healthy message which he cannot see is somewhere present in a cluster of language which refuses, or is not allowed, to say anything.

To me the most promising idea in this rather homiletic disquisition is that of the bringing-together of contraries. Mr Corey points to the integration of nature into the modern urban space (not that it was ever absent from ancient urban space – the space which first closed the gates on it was surely the working environment of the Industrial Revolution) and says, “To write the postmodern pastoral poem is to write from consciousness of this ultimate yet elusive reality, to be a digital native with dirt between ones toes. These poets are flaneurs in the country, naturalists in the city, zoologists in the suburbs.”

These reversals could be the impetus to a lot of sharp writing, including comedic and parodic genres, and could prompt the opening of perception beyond habitual confines. But there is not much dirt available to the toes in university offices, and I don’t think that the poetry collected here does, on the whole, grasp the potential of the paradox. One reason might lie in the statement, “Postmodern pastoral retains some allegiances to the lyric and individual subjectivity”. This belittlement or rejection of staple conditions of the short poem is where contemporaneity sticks the spanner in the works, for poetry cannot escape from song and remain poetry, and the personal (which does not have to be labelled “subjective”) is at least one of the forces that keeps it alive. This is why we do not get the opening or the realisation promised us, because forces inimical to the fully realised poem intervene.

And here the plot thickens as it is revealed that natural imagery (which dominates the book) is not necessarily part of the process at all, for we are told that any object of attention, even urban or electronic, is material for the pastoralist, “…celebrity websites and abandoned factories and telenovelas and  the New Jersey Turnpike are all eligible objects of postmodern pastoral’s dialectical nostalgia, sites in which the human and the unhuman mix and collide…”  So any percept, it seems, not necessarily even approved, any earthly thing, can form the Edenic enclosure from which the poet will eject himself by tracing the negative kernel. Here we naturally wonder if any modern poem has ever not been postmodern pastoral.

BUT THIS THESIS on the collision of human and not-human could bring us close to the heart of modern poetry. If (and it is a big if) the modern poem embodies a conflict, possibly an unresolvable conflict, which figures the “contested” condition of the world, then it does indeed hold an honourable and salutary position as guide to reality. Is this then what the challenging texture of so much contemporary poetry is all about? Does this account for the way poets say and not-say at the same time, deliver a message which is unreadable, wrench words out of their syntax, make meanings into blanks, offer their personal perceptions of the world while invalidating them, and generally take with one hand what they give with the other? The formula human/not-human hardly seems adequate if by “non-human” is meant no more than physical properties of the earth which come into conflict with the “human”. The conflict must lie deeper and spread wider if a world condition is to be attached. It has to be there in the language itself.

For whatever Mr Corey’s introduction says, the inner conflict of most of these texts is between saying and not-saying. And while we can understand the necessity for the human to confront the non-human (or the self the not-self for that matter) it is harder to accept that language’s transmissive function must, in poetry or anywhere, be distorted or negated because of the condition of the world. There is obviously nothing about the proposed existential conflict which absolutely necessitates any distortion or disabling of language, of which we get so much. No justification or theorising of this is offered (though no doubt in the classroom a lot is said about it). My own version is that the “human”,  understood in this narrowed and comfortable sense, is what is heard in normal or communicative language, while the “non-human” is heard in its opposite, and the conflict between these two is what produces the strange object in front of us on the page, in which “…words and syntax, like the pastoral itself, form a hybrid terrain of human and nonhuman elements to be negotiated and explored.”

But is the poem, or the world, necessarily conflictual as is proposed here? Do we not rather choose such a reading ourselves? Couldn’t the process of the poem be expressed less as human/not-human and more as human/more-human ? Then might the peculiar textures of modern poetry arise not from a conflict of meaning but from an excess of it? This does not imply a “subjectivity” which subsumes physical reality to its own theatre, but rather recognition of the extent of human cognition as it faces all that resists it. Is it not a specifically human act to recognise every stone on the shore and to donate their “meaning” whether friendly or inimical? The conflict could be within humanity as most fully understood, rather than a threat to it. And are not the acts of humanity themselves among the greatest threats we know? Does not the entire history of poetry present us with an enormous quantity of valuable constructs produced entirely out of the condition of being human, with all that is entailed therein by the complexity of the selfhood and all its fields of action and reaction? The difficult and threatening things of the world (stone, wars, decay, etc.) do not have their own language; they use ours, they are already part of the “human” and as such need to be confronted. I don’t know any reason to think that a language of reduced or eliminated efficacy is the best tool with which to do this. What we mostly get from this “postmodern” textuality is a constant halting and reversal of the discourse prompting emotions of worry, doubt, or exclusion. The lone self is frequently the terminus of events, left helpless and silent.

Could there not be a modern poetry which is as complex and difficult as you like, and as fiercely and specifically directed towards the world’s ills, while inciting emotions of consolation, exhilaration, pride, and so forth, positive emotions, rather than being restricted to pricking the reader with the sharp points of homiletic contradictions? Well indeed there are such, and some of them are in this anthology, among a great deal of studious and sophisticated writing unable to escape from an oppositional despair – a great deal, in fact, of puritanical writing.

Joshua Corey.

Joshua Corey.

I MANIFESTLY HAVE been reviewing the Introduction to this anthology and not the poems. I have not named or quoted a single poet. But there are 102 of them in 500 pages, and the poets are far from offering anything like the unity of manner and purpose which the Introduction suggests, though there are majority concessions. The principal criterion of inclusion is very much reference to the natural world, though it can be minimal – mention  a birch and you’re in. It is quite commonly, though, impossible to see a trace of anything which could remotely be identified as pastoral, and these must be the poems which occasion the Introduction’s excursion into the dispersal of the pastoral concept, where any earthly percept will serve.

Does the inclusion of words like “leaf” and “earwig” really make such a mix of poetry styles all subscribe to one thesis of pastoral, as if they are all engaged in the same process? Although most of the poets must be young (the information is not given) there are a dozen poets approaching seniority whose concerns are well established and whose presence can only be an asset, though they are not all well represented on this occasion. I’m particularly glad to see Jack Collom, Merrill Gilfillan and Lisa Robertson included among them, poets whose reputations have perhaps suffered from their distancing from the academy. Otherwise there are poets who could be characterised as surrealistic, religio-ecstatic, gobbledegook, objectivist, minimalist, collagist, discursive and all sorts. I was quite pleased to stumble, on page 145, upon a lineation which could almost come from British “New Apocalypse” poetry circa 1940.  But what there is a tremendous amount of is a spaced-out punctuationless texture scattered around the page or in columns, floating particles of language, white paper between more or less unlinkable entities from diverse vocabularies, always avoiding sentences, involving fragments of landscape or details of natural phenomena. This is clearly the orthodoxy of this department.

I could spotlight some thirty names for special mention but I’ll restrict myself to one. In this context it was a great relief to come across the long poem by Juliana Spahr – a hope more than a relief. We are back in a world in which human beings wholeheartedly offer language to each other for mutual help and understanding. It is a passionate outcry of engagement with earthly existence which becomes complex and crowded but is not afraid of simplicity of utterance, in a chant-like mode resting confidently on its non-western affiliations.

THE ANTHOLOGY IS divided into four sections with titles which are nowhere explained and which mean nothing to me. A class project perhaps? Find out what the sectional subheadings mean. One of them is Necro/Pastoral which to me means village funerals.

There could also be a class project to find out who all these people are. Faced with a new anthology, especially one of this bulk, I usually turn first to the section of mini-biographies to get some sense of where it all comes from and possibly some interesting detailed information. The section “About the authors” in this book is the most boring and uninformative of its kind I have ever seen. Almost all entries begin “(xxx) is the author of…” and all you get is a list of books followed by a list of prizes and then usually the university at which the poet teaches. We are not normally told which generation a poet belongs to, what part of the States she comes from, her ethnic background, beliefs, anything. Nothing is spoken of except success in the eyes of the institutionalised world, and only the few poets who do not fit the standard academic career pattern get any contextualisation. Is this what poets have become over there – production and reward machines?


Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Note: This article was edited 28 April 2013 to correct a typographical error.

NOTES:

  1. This review mimics, from time to time, the mode of the quite engaging (but evasive) editor’s Introduction, a collection of sparsely connected short passages, many of them addressed to the world or various poetical persons.
  2. From “a languid janitor…” to “…swoons” is exact quotation from the Stevens poem.
  3. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these head-counts as the information is mostly not given, but I don’t think they can be far wrong.
  4. “Martianism” was a mode pioneered by Craig Raine and James Fenton in the 1970s which rejoiced in clever, self-regarding, metaphorical tropes and nothing much else.
  5. I was once present at a lecture on W.S. Graham in which it was suggested that to live in a ramshackle cottage near Land’s End was in itself in some way to subscribe to German National Socialism.

12 Comments

  1. A timely and well wrought Defence of Poetry and a defence of the human and what it might do if it came out from behind its ironies. I felt the need to break a taboo and respond at length to this. I wanted to reveal my hand.

    “Nothing is spoken of except success in the eyes of the institutionalised world . . . ” With more and more poets taking cover within institutions, is that where we are headed? The big corporate Yes of the university sector and what you have to give up to be a part of it . . . describe yourself as right on, think positive and increase your ranking.

    It is like a sci-fi city under a glass dome (We, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, also sprang to mind). There I am with the rest of the barbarians living discretely in our unruly Arcadia and there’s them lot in the big jar talking nonsense to each other as a kind of bonding ritual. I looked through them and saw how in their world the hermetic ritual is the aesthetic. When draped upon the self it looks very much like narcissism. Is it just a matter of picking your jar and then working your way up the levels?

    The things that people need to do to rise up the hierarchies that inform any institution – whether they be formal (such as universities) or informal (a poetry scene) – corrupts the language of poetry and degrades criticism (e.g. if you need to provide worship to a name to get included on their lists of those they mention approvingly, etc. or to be cited by them in a journal. . . ). This so effects some prominent critics of contemporary poetry that their comments are only safe when directed at poets who are long dead.

    On the whole, the institutions that have made poetry their concern tend to reward independently minded individuals less than those willing to be compromised, in that they are not promoted, tend not to be praised, don’t get prizes or bursaries or residencies or salaries and departments with en-suit sycophants, etc. It makes people cynical. If poetry is an Arcadia it is increasingly an enclosed one. Sometimes those who present themselves as the radicals of this landscape are also those most busy building fences over it. That they call themselves ‘radical’ just adds another load of irony to their fence.

    Power and the desire to please, these will always lead to unfortunate effects, and they do their work in terms of influence even within the most independently minded of poets and critics (they move through poems and reviews like an invisible hand, we must guard against this but we cannot prevent it). The poetry sector, like much else, has become increasingly instrumentalised and within it poems – innovative or not – have become a commodity wallpaper in a room or series of rooms in which those who subscribe and do the climbing enact their success; but that’s what you would expect. It has nothing to do with poems. Poetry is subordinate.

    Our job as critics is to respond as honestly as we can, to say what we mean and be clear about what we don’t understand, and to try to prevent the more or less invisible hand from inscribing our response; as a poet I just get on with it, read more, read more widely . . . The force that flows through a voice that speaks directly deals with the nonsense. I’m not saying I agree with everything Peter Riley says, but I have for some years recognised his tendency toward independence of thought in a world where that is more rare than you would expect and in this essay, as in previous ones, he confirms this and I want to use this very visible hand to give it a thumbs up.

    Saturday, 27 April 2013 at 19:08 | Permalink
  2. Keston Sutherland wrote:

    The review early on sounds what will be a familiar note to those of us who have followed Peter’s criticism over the past fifteen or so years. The problem with the anthology is that it is not truly representative of a centre ground. The middle, which is where honest communication takes place in good faith and where lyric poetry can be preserved in its proper guise as a set of responsibilities to be transparently fulfilled, is evacuated in favour of what Riley thinks are the star-crossed extremes of “Cambridge” paranoia and mainstream Eric Gregory careerism. Nathan Hamilton’s claim to have convened a diverse group of poets in such style that their disparate practices might be curated into cross-pollination founders on the manifest irreconcilability of what are really just two gangs. There is no conversation but only a kind of trench talk wafted across the no man’s land of the real centre, that stretch of nature jammed between warring pits of artifice. Despite being the only habitus in which lyric responsibilities can be decently owned, measured and fulfilled, the real centre is nonetheless lamentably depopulated. Poets are seduced away from it by heady baubles. Rather than speak to real people with open minds who listen to what they say, the soi-disant young make jokes about poo. Things are better in those other spaces of the mind whose nature has not been corrupted by trendy attitudinising about power and injustice, like Jamaica. Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise:

    “For all the talk of youth and political opposition, among these 74 poets there are by my reckoning two Asian, one Caribbean, five Irish, one Welsh, one possibly African (and for some reason four or five Americans). So, as often in recent anthologies, the gender proportion seems to be the only one you need to worry about, the only one where you need to protect yourself against campaigns of vituperation. But perhaps this disproportion is not very surprising. Perhaps poets from places like Jamaica have no need of distrust of language, nor of faux-naïf posturing, in order to locate a style, but inherit a tradition of centrality in connection with an audience – i.e. they are used to people listening, perhaps people whose minds are open to what we used to call “imagination”.”

    It is confusing to hear Peter doing these head counts and making these accusations. It’s a while since I studied the figures, but from memory, at least, I don’t recall Peter’s own, excellent and much-missed, Poetical Histories booklet series making any notable inroads toward a representative spread of demographics. That didn’t seem to be Peter’s priority at all. I don’t remember anyone thinking it ought to be. Perhaps Peter scorned to edit his series in a spirit of precaution against all those fanatical campaigns of vituperation to which he no doubt was subject. This is after all the wrong world, the anti-Jamaica in which almost everyone who gets embroiled in poetry ends up a ranter or a careerist, making it very hard for the few remaining responsible lyric poets to live in peace in their allotment of nature in the centre.

    I have had this argument with Peter many times over the years. For Peter it is an incontestable dogma that people do not listen to and are not moved or illuminated by the sort of poetry from the past 40 years that he associates with J.H. Prynne. Does it matter that Prynne’s books sell in large numbers? Not a bit. Are we to weigh in the balance of the issue the large secondary literature about Prynne’s work, in which many, possibly hundreds, of critics and reviewers profess to be deeply engaged by the poems and moved by them? Indeed not. The work is, by Peter’s own definition, simply not capable of being understood and enjoyed; its only motive is to attack the world and deprive people of the means of mutual understanding. That motive can be explained (and is only ever explained) in shorthand as a sort of hyperbolization of distrust, a sheer retraction of possibility that opens up no new channels. Because the motive is genetic, written into the basic code of the art, there is no use feeling or thinking anything about it except what must irresistibly be felt on first looking into it: it doesn’t want us. It thinks we are dead or not there any more. Audiences are, for it, like Father Christmas. Good for the naive, but a childish thing to be put away once the serious business of vandalising language and preventing listening gets underway.

    It is an exorbitantly formalist dogma, in the old sense. Its judgment about poetry can be sustained only at the very burdensome expense of perpetually screening out and ignoring all the real social evidence to the contrary. A couple of weeks back I did a reading in Brighton together with Joe Luna and Azad Sharma. Poetry which in Peter’s schema cannot be anything but the prevention of listening was listened to by over 130 people packed into a very hot and sweaty bar. The listening was, dare I say it, full of immediate pleasure and recognition. The readings were cheered and lengthily applauded. Something must have gone wrong: why were the audience not duly alienated? Why were they there at all? Were they not under an injunction to cease existing? Had they been seduced into abandoning their own trust in communication and understanding, and were they now content merely to be bombarded with toxic waste? Were there any Jamaicans in the audience?

    There is much in Peter’s review that seems fair and is incisive. Peter is a very good critic in all sorts of ways, I think. I always enjoy reading his work. But I can’t help wondering what impetus might be given to his thinking if he could for once acknowledge what his dogma makes inadmissible: that this poetry which he thinks is all fanaticism and distrust is actually enjoyed and even — if we trust the judgments of readers themselves, as I do but he apparently does not — understood by hundreds and even thousands of readers whose interpretation of its relation to society and history is altogether different from his own. It is simply not good enough to retort that anyone who thinks this way must be hallucinating: that is exactly the miserable snub used by Don Paterson, Craig Raine et al., to dismiss Prynne’s work. Anyone who finds anything valuable in the poetry has really just put it there himself and pretended to find it; Prynne doesn’t have readers, he has conjurers, acolytes, disciples, etc. Readers are after all the exclusive privilege of those who are brave and determined enough to make a little welcoming committee for them on the middle ground. Peter is an important and admirable poet and critic whose own thinking and art could surely in some part be rejuvenated by the risky effort to think outside and beyond this dogma. It is a dogma that makes his arguments about the centre ground, which surely do have some truth in them worth tackling, ring unfortunately false. It makes those arguments sound like a mixture of complacency and bitterness. There is more to them than that and I regret that the stumbling block of this decades-long-sustained dogma has caused them to assume such a philistine appearance.

    I expect most of us have at least the seedlings of our own dogma somewhere in our mental flowerbeds. I’m sure I do. Perhaps not every dogma is corrosive to poetry or disadvantageous for critical thinking, either. But this one of Peter’s does seem to me to have run its course and even lapped itself a few times. It is stopping him from reading.

    Sunday, 28 April 2013 at 13:38 | Permalink
  3. mark goodwin wrote:

    :)Peter, I will forgive you for using the expression ‘natural world’ – even though it’s like saying ‘wet water’!:)

    Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 09:51 | Permalink
  4. Brian Lewis wrote:

    As more power accrues to the academy and to the prize-giving bodies, so it ebbs from the poetry. Peter and Andrew identify a number of issues that have, I think, contributed to a process of cultural aridification in recent decades. Poetry written within and for the institution sustains many an academic career (and vice-versa), but rarely seems to be tested by the pressure that contact with non-specialist audiences might provide. It’s not unlike a plant that can only thrive in a managed ecological niche – transplant it to more ‘challenging’ territory and it withers. Similarly, a poetry that is expressly shaped for the consideration of award committees – writing towards the prize – is not only self-limiting but devitalizing for the wider culture. A great deal has been invested in this apparatus; it’s unfortunate that the returns are shared by so few. Many literate people are dissuaded from investigating contemporary poetry by the numbing recitation of the poet’s awards and academic achievements that invariably suffices for an ‘introduction’ to their work (and which, in truth, tells us nothing about their work). Perhaps some of the poets are comfortable with this state of affairs; are content to read only to friends and fellow academics. I know several people (neither academics nor poets) who have experienced this casual exclusion at readings; something in the air that speaks of a sense of entitlement. It’s been difficult to persuade them to attend further poetry events.

    As Andrew suggests, these conditions are corrupting poetry and the reception of poetry. He and Peter are to be applauded for speaking up.

    Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 10:00 | Permalink
  5. mark goodwin wrote:

    I spend much of my time trying to encourage those who do not usually engage with poetry or poetic ways of thinking and being, to have a go at making poetry. I’ve worked with school children and adults, and over the years discovered that it is easy to help people actually make poetry, to help them make words come together in ways that can open fields of possibility. However, too often it is impossible for me to convince people, children or adults alike, that what they have just created is valid, and so the fields of possibility remain inaccessible to them. The best way to hide poetry from people is to make them feel inadequate in the presence of an edifice called ‘Poetry’ – and I think that is what might have happened for a lot of the people I work with. Poetry as the smooth dark-grey block at the start of 2001 A Space Odyssey. Of course, commercial advertising depends on that smooth block – fields of possibility don’t grow cash-crops. Poetry is not post-modern, it is not modernist, nor romantic, nor martian, nor eco; poetry is not any of the ‘labels’ required (or not) to make descriptions about it. poetry is just ‘someone saying something about something [in some way] to someone’ – and it is a shame, a true shame to be disgusted with, that so often I witness a complete novice write or utter something with poetic integrity and power, and yet the delusions foisted upon them prevent them knowing their own creativity.

    Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 11:35 | Permalink
  6. Matthew Clegg wrote:

    I share many of the anxieties expressed here. Peter’s article/review seems fresh, honest and independent.

    I received an Eric Gregory Award in 1997. For a few years this opened doors for me, including one prestigious residency. I can quite honestly say it took me much longer to adjust to the culture this gave me entry into – a culture I was ill equipped to deal with, and eager to exit.

    After a brief period of feeling validated – even inflated – doubt and cynicism set in as I witnessed the unattractive aspects of poetry careerism – be they those of the so-called Gregory Trail, or those of poets sheltering comfortably in various validating, but insulated institutions.

    I was happy to admit I didn’t have the stomach (or even the talent) for it; but perhaps more to the point, I felt like it was steering my poetry away from values and (modest?) concerns that were real and necessary to me.

    Poetry should be tested out there in the world. I share Brian’s concern that many thoughtful, sensitive people are exiting poetry events with a reluctance to return. They are perfectly equipped to think their way into an appreciation of much that is written – but they simply find the career/institutional machinery and surrounding chatter meaningless or alienating.

    Real value is hard to talk about without seeming to be contentious. I hesitate before even trying. But one important challenge within our poetry culture has got to be that of discriminating between status and real value. I feel there is much status awarded, but less real value earned or achieved.

    I’d eagerly read any review, or participate in any discussion, that sharpened my wits to meet this challenge.

    Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 14:06 | Permalink
  7. mark goodwin wrote:

    Hlo Matt, you may know that Chris Jones and myself used to joke about our being ‘Lost Gregories.’ I think there must be quite a few ‘Lost Gregories’. The award really boosted my confidence, something I am grateful for, but later I too felt confused by the gleam bounced off The Gregory Road’s yellow bricks …

    Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 16:38 | Permalink
  8. Tom Field wrote:

    Does anyone want to talk about poetry?

    Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 17:22 | Permalink
  9. “But one important challenge within our poetry culture has got to be that of discriminating between status and real value.” (Matthew Clegg.) The failure to address that issue is something that unites the various aspects of ‘contemporary poetry’ in the UK and perhaps elsewhere. That is partly because those who have the status or are focused on achieving it take to the subject like a vampire to holy water.

    And of course, status is easier to measure – especially so if you are an academic – defining real value is more difficult. But I’m sure we would all agree that sometimes difficulty denotes virtue. It depends on the particular difficulty and the particular poem, etc. It would be a shame if there were bad feeling in a debate about the various kinds of difficulty.

    I enjoy ‘difficult’ poetry but think that a lot of nonsense is talked about some versions of it. Were poetry a science there would perhaps be a bit less of that nonsense being produced from universities, but I’m sure those people have to be seen to be doing something.

    Going to the sources, in this case books of poems, I can happily say that I enjoyed reading Keston Sutherland’s The Stats on Infinity nearly as much as Peter Riley’s Excavations. (In being honest about my preferences I’m splitting a hair, they are both things that I will read again in the future with pleasure.) I experienced – and I’m about to give a totally subjective opinion here – my reading of both books in similar ways. (And I don’t live that far from Brighton, I might even have been in that sweaty audience.)

    Having said that, I don’t think a high regard for the feelings (and status?) of J. H. Prynne explains the response above. Perhaps I am mistaken, but it does make him seem a bit like a sticking plaster that is there to hide some other wound. Words like proportion and perspective sprang to mind. If I offend a priest should I be lectured about how I have slighted the image of God? I’d think such a priest had status anxieties. “Babylon is burning . . . ” I might remark, quoting a pop song and revealing my age.

    Tuesday, 30 April 2013 at 22:33 | Permalink
  10. mark goodwin wrote:

    Longbarrow Press recently published a blog, by me, about poetry publishing, which relates closely to this issue of ‘status’ versus ‘value’.
    http://longbarrowblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/a-piece-of-my-mind-mark-goodwin/

    I know that many poets suffer under heavy-handed, status-driven editors. I’m fortunate that my publishers, the likes of Longbarrow and Shearsman, are delicate, nimble visionaries seeking value. (That’s not to say that the heavy-handed publishers always manage to flatten their poets!)

    Below, I’ve lifted just a few lines from my Longbarrow blog, which connect here:

    I enjoy encouraging others to write poetry, but it is tainted for me; by knowing that should I ever help to get someone to become a poet they will very likely end up entering any of various literati-combat zones where their creative rights are far down the agenda.

    It is a shame to say that, as a mentor of poets, it is my responsibility to help the poet shed (or at least knowingly engage with) any delusions inflicted upon them by the various cultural machines that construct and project competing notions of what poetry ‘should’ or ‘should not’ be. (I have no problems with debated notions of ‘could-bes’.)

    Wednesday, 1 May 2013 at 16:36 | Permalink
  11. David Latane wrote:

    Juxtaposing these two anthologies made for an especially interesting review.

    Thursday, 9 May 2013 at 15:53 | Permalink
  12. See bebrowed.wordpress.com/2013/05/31/dear-world-everyone-in-it-a-poem-by-benjamin-mullen/

    Wednesday, 12 June 2013 at 16:14 | Permalink

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