.By Peter Riley.
By Anthony Mellors
Aquifer Books 2016 | 54pp paperback. | £8.00
By Peter Philpott
Great Works Editions 2017 | 90pp paperback | $8.08
APPROACHING IN ALL INNOCENCE the piles of new poetry books which keep turning up here, and glancing at them to get some idea of what is going on, Anthony Mellors’ new book at once presents itself as one of the easiest to deal with, because there is an identity of procedure to it by which you always know where you are or what to expect. Where you are is here:
self-styled Aryan types
worship bones in a Skoda
balls between upturned cups
retrofit scuff plates
flap up from chafing pans
dangled in a plastic web… (page 14)
You are in a particular language use, or a particularly strong stress on language itself as the central problem and solution. So you know that the words are going to be like this, arranged in sentences but tightly meshed in a dense and restless figuration which is not metaphor because there is no distinction made between substance and figure. This means that apart from connectives, every move from one word to the next word raises a question which cannot be answered within casual or normative experience. And small actions or scenarios are created which beg a symbolic function but one which enacts its own destruction and negates what it might have shown, because neither of the two terms which go to make a symbolisation gains the status of a reality. The participation of negatively culturally loaded words (Aryan) and techno-modernities (Skoda, retrofit…) on a par with the general tone of disgust (hurt, irritation etc.) leaves us with a kind of anti-aestheticism (to some an anti-poetry) or the pursuit of ugliness, which is possibly echoed in the book’s cover designed by the author: two threateningly repellent pretty child/doll figures staring to the side of the viewer like infant vampires in some sci-fi horror movie. I feel this is somehow a representation of the commercial world, and even through it of the whole public world, which appropriates our tender feelings and gets them to bite us.
Complaint then, attack, rejection, directed against the world we inhabit through reversals of the artistic medium and language as obstacle. But the strongest sense is close to disgust; a positive distaste for the entire context exudes from the text, and how this context is defined is not important: call it our culture, our public face, authority, governance, structure, commerce, anything you like. It used to be called “the system”. “It’s a shit system” many a poet shouted in the 1960s (see below). Indeed application of the anger is a free choice. It operates within the language itself by a constant substitution: for any rational or clear conjunction of words substitute the reverse, for any positive (pleasing, poetical, sublime, comforting, heartening, etc. etc. ) image or echo, substitute a sexual organ or a squashed insect, for any landscape substitute a trade name… And often enough, for any glimpse of the world substitute an identity.
This is all common ground among the more angry or militant of the contemporary poets called “modernist” (+/- “late”, please yourself about that) especially in academic quarters, and I probably go beyond the confines of Mellors’ book in my characterisation of it. There are of course a multitude of ways in which this movement of repulsion passes through the person, but it always shows itself in various usages in which language squirms under the burden of the present tense, the despoliation that deafens the song-maker. It represents a strong alienation which does not need to be demonstrated or argued but is immediately recognised by the imputed alienated reader, from the first words of the first poem (though Mellors chooses to begin with a Beckettian chant of decrepitude) and the exercise rests on the ingenuity of acute verbal incongruity conceived as a weapon against complacency by sabotaging the singularity and consistency of the spoken account.
But I must add that Mellors’ tactics do not become as extreme as some others’ I could think of, where the syntax also is rendered self-defeating. By holding back from that extremism Mellors assures that it is in fact possible to “read” it, there is a dramatic address taking place before us. Elsewhere the act of reading in any understood sense is outlawed as, no doubt, a bourgeois indulgence. In the passage I quote above we can ask about actual sense, as when we put “self-styled”, “Aryan”, “Skoda, “worship bones” together as a consecutive construction which, you could say, implicates a shadowy statement concerning the coincidence (conspiracy?) of diverse institutional cultural and economic forces, to no good end. But sometimes the terms gathered together are too disparate for that kind of reading and no other avenue seems to be open. Yet disparateness is integral to the whole concept of the writing as an instrument of totalisation. The insistent alienation from the conditions, our knowledge that whatever the language is doing it is essentially in opposition, rests on the juxtaposition of conclusive declarations and phrases of bodily distaste. This poem ends:
some kind of authority hangup
eyes obscured by condensation
earwax like peanut butter.
Mellors is not here just dropping fortuitous images for effect: the “body” involved is at least the “body politic”; that is where the organs of perception reside which are blocked or clouded. It is that failed body which cannot see or hear the reality. In fact as I recall the things that were said in the early days of this poetical syndrome, this failure or disease can be taken on by the self as a kind of political infection. I remember the poet Douglas Oliver declaring in the mid-1990s, “…any political flaws in the public arena also reside in the ‘self’ — in ‘myself’…”.1 I was never able to understand this outlawing of innocence. In principle I suppose, you then become yourself a part of the enemy that you need, and all the disgust settles on the functions of your own body, and a quite angry resentment at being stuck with the details of bodily existence does indeed seem to be enacted by many poets of this inclination, or a parading of the self’s bodily functions as if they are a weapon against political wrong, though Oliver’s poems were not like this—rather a mental tussle took place between singular and public perception in competition for sight of the world beyond their incompatibility.
ALL THIS CONCERNS Anthony Mellors’ book partly by association, and that mainly for “Wracks”, the first of two sets of 14-line poems in the book. Here he does seem to be embedded in beliefs about how language may work which to me remain highly controversial, or to simplify it, the belief that language works when it doesn’t work, however that may manifest itself. But even in “Wracks” it is easy to find a poem without that heavy bodily distaste, such as this one:
This man called Rees
copse of rings at finger
huge ceramic mug
big man but out of shape
just wants this set right
in esteem low and high
fishing out keys
buys dusty figurines
rolling from jar to jar
jerkin struck with umber
specified in hex triplet
rough coconut matting
burning the rose (p. 19)
But it does operate through another kind of distaste, heaping up terms which we feel are highly censorious, a portrait of the enemy, without any field of reference by which to identify the target. It’s clever, witty and resourceful writing, like an eighteenth-century poet-journalist on the attack, or even a seventeenth-century “character”. But if so the details should be symptomatic and add up to a condition — but they don’t and the sharp unreason of the linguistic couplings, is why they don’t. The last line is a surprising burst of strength, damning the subject across centuries back to the original Romance. Well, poor old Rees, I think, I wonder what he did wrong.
The second set is “Confessional Sonnets”, and, as not unusually when any kind of wild or barbed poet heads a work with the word “Sonnet”, there is a sense of a softening of the attack. That is the case here, though they are sonnets only in the 14-line count and traces of metrical regularity — most often four beats to the line. The immediately noticeable difference is that the periods are not only considerably longer but can form a continuous discourse extending over the whole poem, frequently in a mode of address (perhaps to the dedicatee, Peter Hughes, in which case Mellors’ habitual manner has been tempered towards Hughes’ barbed playfulness). A lot, perhaps most, of what I have said applies, but in an extenuated delivery rhythmically maintained by clause progression, punctuated, and in a declared first-person narrative, a pronoun which seems to be completely banned from “Wracks” where all experience is projected as anonymously objective. This also permits a play of absurdity which however enmeshed in adversity offers the reader opportunities for recognition and question. There may even be structural implications such as that there are 26 sonnets, exactly double the unlucky 13 of “Wracks”. This is the finest work of Mellors I have seen, and if I have paid it less attention than the earlier sequence that was only to clear up some troubling questions of attitude. These may still be there in “Confessional Sonnets” but presented to the world in a less defiant manner and with more actual relish, not to mention good humour—-
………….It appears a true tell lasts less than
a tenth of a second so let’s all hold
hands and sing Kum-bay-ya floating there where (XXIV, p.48)
there is no there, dig out a niche for it,
keep cool and moist under the substance takes. (VI, p. 30)
There is no possible redemption here, the dilemma is as acute as ever: the impossibility of saying, or of being in a place of sufficient volume for any saying at all to take place, where a prayer for deliverance can only be sung sarcastically, and finally having to construct your own fictional space, a hole in the earth in which to sink into drugged inertia. This kind of tone is felt by many serious poets these days as the true theatre of what it is like to live through the current attempts to dismantle the state and the abandonment of all political hopes engendered since the end of the English Civil War. Here it is represented in a quite wistfully sarcastic mode, through smoothly flowing periods leading to a passable iambic pentameter, which lends a smile to it, what the French call insouciance, or a wayward shrug. This kind of distancing and palliative inebriation is one of the things able to redeem this kind of poetry from intense panoptic anger and ultimately despair. The song “Kumbaya”, a dialect version of “Come by here”, was found among the ex-slave population of the southern states in the 1920s. It is a typical “spiritual” choral plea for deliverance by God’s visitation.
THE RECOGNITION THAT Mellors’poetry takes an insistent option among current practices aligns him with many poets of several generations (to the poets it is not an option but a necessity) whose position is that of more-or-less total cultural and political alienation. However much this may connect to the ghost called “modernism”, and go back through that to 1890s aestheticism and earlier “decadence” and bohemianism, as it stands now in U.K. this cultivation of categorical denial had its beginnings in the 1960s, when a lot of small groupings were set up — enclaves or cult centres, dedicated to wrenching the cultural condition out of the hands of what were seen as “authorities” and entirely rewriting the agendas of poetry and everything else. Little eruptions of total protest. Some of these could be found in (to some) remote parts of the country (such as Blackburn) and were bands of disaffected youth who rejected or revised most of their education, and endeavoured to live independently of the given social structures through communalism and self-help. Others inhabited places like Cambridge colleges and subverted the status quo by, increasingly, infiltrating the academic career structures and spreading their doctrine among their students and associates. Some based their beliefs on instinctive perceptions of good in a concept of free living supported by popular versions of libertarian and orientalist culture. Others involved themselves in immense academic study of distant practices, continental linguistic and aesthetic philosophies, and Marxism. Both sought to establish a completely new kind of poetry in opposition to the official or successful poetry of that time.
It was never an easy course, but suffered on all sides from a shifting unease about terminology and, as rebellion, exactly what it was rebelling against, and what description of the future was actually being inscribed: on the one hand letting it all hang out, as they used to say, and a poetry of immediacy; on the other an intellectualism so acute as to be far beyond the reach of almost everybody and a poetry demanding commitment to a refusal of direct communicative language, indeed sometimes a hatred of it as the pivot of all harm. Each camp and all versions of this “poetry revival” must have suffered from a threatening awareness of the stark partiality in which they operated, or, you could say, their awareness of each other as unlikely and strained alliances, if not as simply more enemies.
One thing I cannot say I have seen among all the claims and diatribes of “alternative poetry” in four or five decades is a convincing characterisation of the “enemy” poetry against which the whole thing was mounted. There have been endless attempts to formulate a sophisticated and credible version of the accusation that the poetry is in some way an act of selfishness, coded as subjective, I-centred, etc., that it is somehow allied to conservative and commercial power structures, that its marketing is corrupt, that it is “all the same” and so forth, culminating in blasts of obscenities. The word “fascistic” has also been used, without explanation. Not all of this is unjustified, but unprejudiced analytical attention to actual poems, and indeed even identification of the poets referred to, has been almost totally lacking.2
Exactly the same could be said of counter-attacks from the other side. This poetry “war” produced a climate in which comment sank to a very low level of assumptive dismissal and verbal abuse from both sides. It is indeed surprising that there was any counter-attack at all, why poets who were highly honoured, widely published and about as successful as it was possible to get, should have felt threatened, as they evidently did, by the contents of little mimeographed magazines housing poets with virtually no audience. Perhaps it was the possibility that they themselves were no longer the new thing. The counter-attack, like the attack, was generally unspecific, targeting a whole unidentified movement or block of poets (sometimes the word “post-modernist” was used) and what they were accused of was not so much writing bad poetry, as writing the wrong kind of poetry. I think that quite a few people will still remember Seamus Heaney’s appearance at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1977, in which he read to a large audience as the last of three poets, preceded by Allen Fisher and Lee Harwood. He mounted the podium and began by announcing, “Now we’ll get back to the true tradition of British poetry.”3 He went on to read some Wordsworth. So the claim was to a whole tradition as a guarantee of authenticity, which the Americanising others had disqualified themselves from. Yet the invective from the mimeographed revolution was set in much the same terms; poets were commended because they were outside the very tradition Heaney was trying to appropriate, and for no other reason. And the values offered were not infrequently subjective, especially that the poet felt personally liberated by the encounter with this “free” poetry.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN these positions strikes me as less and less important, and the stark cultural dichotomies they represent more and more irrelevant, as well as healable. Insofar as they can now be recognised, both versions of the poetical rebellion (which could be called the pastoral and the courtly if it helps) could be said to be in decline, or hanging on like grim death, or locked into academic self-fulfilling reclusion, while being quietly ignored by young poets who do not necessarily espouse or even recognise the “mainstream” against which these militants pitted themselves. After all, many of the hated “institutions” such as the poetry prize-winning industry have been extensively pluralised and politicised (to the point, sometimes, of sheer inversion) and both the dominant power and the homogenised output, if such it was, of the “big’’ publishers have been at least modified.
On the other hand the achievements of the rebels in such matters as the felt intellectual reach of poetry — that is, the possibly global or totalised zones of attention opened to poetical writing — and the sharp-witted, accelerated, deployment of figuration and displacement in the text, which can move the slightest percept into an immense connective distance on the instant; such possibilities are now in danger of submergence under the placid anecdotal surfaces encouraged in some (but not all) creative writing departments. And with them the whole concept of the potential value of poetry. For an important aspect of the poetical rebellion was in fact the restoration of poetical effulgence and wholeness and a willingness to take risks, especially the risk of writing just beyond the edge of your own comprehension, which goes back centuries, after the acute shrinkage imposed by successful poets and their publicists in the 1950s.
Among the more resilient poetico-revolutionaries the anger continues and intensifies, switching its objectives as the political scene changes, and an important phalanx continues to insist that language itself as the only valid site of conflict and resistance, which means (though I don’t know why it should) violating most or all of the norms and purposes of language use, such as realisation.
Anthony Mellors is obviously deeply set in this kind of practice (which I usually think of as “Cambridge” though it is no longer sited there), though not as deeply as some. Peter Philpott also relates to the linguo-militant faculty but works in a different and less unified way, through displacement and vocal multiplicity rather than intensification and problematisation of poetical figuring, which connects him more with the “pastoral” side of things. But the question to be asked of any poet except the most complacent now, left field or right, is: given the big failure, what does the poet propose against it? With both of these talented and virtuosic poets I find it impossible to know the answer to that question.
WOUND SCAR MEMORIES is, compared with Peter Philpott’s earlier writing, a particularly challenging and venturesome work, extended in scale and diversified in expression. There are three sequences of 17 poems each, the first concerned with Petrarch and Fontaine de Vaucluse, the second addressing poetry as game and play (I think), the third involved in the English dark ages followed by a substantial essay on the same subject. And in the poems the whole structure is continuous, a continuous questioning of the purpose of poetry using disturbed language almost as a weapon against poetry’s obsession with the past while seeking sight of verifiable authenticity in the life lived.
The argument taking place is normally discernible only in the most general way because the text is, by the necessity of its intent, full of all sorts of stylistic clashes, blind alleys and U-turns, non-sequiturs and diversions. There is a strong interest in sense, in making sense of experience and world, in a basically serious discourse of complaint, which the poet will not allow its proper space, will not allow it to articulate itself, but must interfere with it in the cause of poetical modernity and a whole programme of alienation, so that it is often not possible to know what is actually meant. It is a textuality in conflict with itself, or in which what he desires of poetry attempts to burst through a lot of obstruction caused by what he believes about poetry.
But at the same time the work constitutes a diatribe against the enemies of poetry (inevitably old and official) who clutter its messages with artificialities, and is also a series of dramatic monologue-poems addressing or spoken by participants in a long lost narrative. Seldom in all this is what is said entirely clearly articulated except in particular moments which remain open to subversion; always we are distanced from the intent by interruptions, syntactical misfits, episodes of garbled language… which must all be part of the central message, but which render whole facets of the message indecipherable. And that too must be part of the message.
And, as we are reminded from time to time, the speaker is not to be identified with the author, so even when we do get a straight declaration it has to be taken with scepticism. In fact what we have is a whole sack-full of linguistic usage (voices) of different kinds occupying grades from childish simplicity through weighty and serious considerations to modernistic word-salad. They all contribute to a sense of progressive action, but the possibility of statement is dispersed among them, since the “I” can never be trusted, which is part of the poetical diatribe of the whole work. Each discernible voice claims the argument for itself.
The range is from the simplest expression of common and positive emotions to a quite elegant mode of serious address which tends to slide back into obscurity, and various modes of particular or personal address. The restless progression of the sequences tends to abandon the passages where any one voice gets the chance to become articulate, and leaves them unfulfilled. In fact I would be glad to welcome many of the various modes which attain an episodic substantiality and see them extended into entire passages (something like this does happen from time to time) but the reader is not allowed to relax into recognition (or even truth), so that where we are is in the end nowhere or fictional. The basic discourse is given in a written mode but rubbing shoulders with a colloquial spoken mode, and the work is scattered with the most casual and offhand asides which contest any kind of written distancing or thoughtfulness (“don’t you think?’ / “fuck off” / “OK OK” / “yay, yay” … / and things like the sudden lapse into dialect in the middle of an exposition. ) The most plain utterances suddenly lose their grip on syntax: the following quatrain is stable as far as the word “new”—
Love first the young, our stories uncontrollably of
The new am old patterns about
I gain a something something whipping
thru utopian transform of all time (“love first the young”, p. 39)
— after which the syntax dissolves, parts of speech become interchangeable or lose all grammatical function and the sense obtainable becomes at best vague, some of it perhaps redeemable to some extent if the reader supplies some punctuation (and why does the second line have just about the only lineation-determined upper-case initial in the book?) Perhaps lines 2-4 are a critique of line 1. I don’t find anything wrong with line 1; it is a line which accepts the reader’s presence (and tellingly, has the only punctuation mark — punctuation marks are to help). The rest has all the elements of a serious engagement with the world but disarticulated, as if what needs to be said must be kept secret from the prying reader, as if coded. We can only use the fourth line by reading “transformation”, which it isn’t, and even then would have trouble knowing which side the poet (or this voice) is on, as well as what the fourth line actually envisions. The hope of a better future has to become unreadable because of an insistence that the language used must also move forwards into a condition where (for unknown reasons) syntax dissolves, producing non-sense. This is an unusually extremist passage for him, reminding me only of the recent anti-syntactical writings of J.H.Prynne. I assume there is a belief such as that a disarticulated word like “transform” gathers a vocative energy to itself and is thereby “projected” to the reader with greater force than bourgeois grammatical conformity would allow. Actually I have no idea.
OF THE VARIOUS vocal layers the one I might call simplistic or naïve which tends to open a poem and be related to childhood, especially grandchildren, is the one I am happiest to relate to, not for its simplicity so much as for the way it goes straight to the matter —
ah, poet, and why are you so angry?
age and defeat bring impotence & worthless spit (“not neatly composed”, p. 50)
This poem then passes into more sophisticated matters during which it reaches back to the old alienated poetical anger, with talk of “the night hag of ideology, so-called economic system ? the delusions of demonolatry / & the theory of / profit-making sadism”. This is in fact more simplistic than the baby’s question about anger, as it carries with it an interpretation, or lack of one, of the current condition which is worse than dubious, delegating the causes of all harm to personal imperfections. It is a typical poet’s protest in despite of any consideration of what actually goes on (unless of course the voice here is itself partialised, which is difficult to know). There is a distinct need for poetry with lines like these —
our purpose to be helpful to each other and laugh…
she & I will die together I
guess & suppose I hope: she
deserved to live out this storm
she rejects its cause at root…
Arthur, oh Arthur, where are you now?
don’t send me off again to Specsavers…
imagine a world of free & equal people
imagine us together as one bundle
whatever communities we choose – all ac-
cepting each other’s rights living as we are (pp 61, 38, 45, 35)
— which I’d characterise as simple, direct, positive, though there are equally telling positive modes elsewhere with more substantial scope. The third section, in which the poems take up Anglo-Saxon and Arthurian matter (contextualised in the essay which follows) are particularly telling, perhaps because they include a lot of unfamiliar names which already act as a counter to the familiarity of the straightforward parts: history as chronicles of names contesting or completing the utterances of a child. (Probably Douglas Oliver has been a big influence here). I’m not qualified to judge the essay, the point of which seems roughly to be that whatever power arrives and sorts your society out for you, you were better off before it did this.
THERE IS A lot of negativity to set against these positive gestures, such as the attack on Petrarch’s sonnets in the first section, which whether it is authorially meant or not is carried out in terms familiar in the annals of alternative or rebellious poetry: they’re all the same, they’re mannered, backward-looking, they’re all about Petrarch himself, “fancy figures of speech”, they stop “at the barrier of safe understanding” (as if there were no such thing as a barrier of safe not-understanding). By his own account, he fights shy of the naked Petrarch texts and approaches them through the recent anti-translations of Peter Hughes and Tim Atkins.
Equally familiar are the terms of outbursts of rage against the “ruling elite” and the false poets —
so many arguments today when
the important one is simple
so we let a small group of lucky shits
– cut off from normal human beings
– unengaged in this shared sensible life
retighten & enforce their dominance
taking from us everything we have
owning our bodies, our minds
our dreams & our destinies… (“written during their festival of literature here”, p 49)
who ’ d believe we might win out against the rich
___________their armed thugs and their lawyers
___________tame poets, politicians, publicists
___________their planners & all their aspirants… (“what & who are we asking questions about here?” p 57)
Not that these passages might not be an entirely inaccurate account of what’s happening in this kingdom at present, but everything about the tone is “the same old stuff”, the same hyperbolic rhetoric, after 50 years of poetical rant to no effect. This applies whether it is authorially meant or not. Recent more gladdening political results in Britain might seem to share this rhetoric, but they also suggest that the power of “they” has been massively over-stated, especially as interiorised, and who can these “tame poets” be? This is more like a return to the 1960s than a derivation from them.
I mentioned the front cover of Anthony Mellors’ book. Philpott spends a day in Fontaine de Vaucluse, which I remember as a delightful village, busy with visitors but relaxed and attractive in its pale southern housing, and with things to offer. He carries a camera with him and out of all that there is there, photographs, and places on the front cover of his book a quite hideous plastic double-headed walking ice-cream cone monster about four feet high. If it walked in by your front door you’d scream and rush out the back. I suppose it is the face of commercialism, one of the nominated enemies of innovative poetry through the whole century.
Much of the poetry is like that (much of the kind of poetry it allies with is exactly like that), powered by the negative impulsion in a determination above all not to be any of those “mainstream” things (correct, backwards-looking, subjective, tame, singular, stiff, formal, lyrical and so on). It works best if we not only accept the claimed anonymity (which I find difficult to trust), but also identify a sort of base layer which surfaces in episodes of tenderness and gentle wit, which does not progress but is a static repetition of love and sincerity, exposing any reader’s weakness as a form of strength.
Wound Scar Memories is a tough book but also a step forward, a move towards a greater scope partly by planned stylistic contradiction. I have to prefer his excellent Ianthe Poems (Shearsman 2015), as less fraught and more fluent. The following is the kind of poem Wound Scar Memories finally attains when it exceeds all the contradiction and fracture:
“Gwyr a aeth gatraeth”
oh Neirin, my little one, my darling grandson
how you hate all this shouting even in
Dog Tanian you flee it: absurd!
but this world you will find is full of it
most of what they say – ignore!!
it is obvious why you want to stay a babe
as happy and as innocent as we all were born
your purpose is to be helpful I know & to laugh
this world alas! much more indescribable
it may come to fierce struggle we are afraid
though we do good things & make our pilgrimages
that’s not enough here to make sure we all survive it
you will do fine, my little boisterous boy
even when you travel in the warband to Catterick
you will break the silence when you return
you will help us with what we need to do
all of us together helping to build up & tend
these poems survive even then our darkest ages4 (p 51)
RETURNING TO OLD enclaves (and both Mellors and Philpott owe a lot of their confidence to them), Hidden Culture Forgotten History: A Northern Poetic Underground and its Countercultural Impact is an account of two innovative poetical enterprises in Lancashire in the 1960s and later.
One of them is Jim Burns, who was never an enclave but a real poet; the other, on which I want to concentrate, we referred to at the time, rather ungraciously, as “The Blackburn Beats”. They consisted mainly of Tina Morris and Dave Cunliffe, who published, separately or together, three periodicals (principally Poetmeat and Global Tapestry, but also Vegan Action) and about 25 small-press booklets under the imprint “BB Books” or “Screeches Publications”, beginning in 1962 and continuing, less and less frequently, through to 2012, in Blackburn, a large ex-mill-town in south-east Lancashire. Basically it was a 1960s enterprise, and espoused every 1960s cause it could lay its hands on: veganism, anarchism, sexual freedom, anti-racism, drugs various, ecological protest, pacifism, interspecies culture… it’s a long list. But poetry was in some way at the start and the heart of it. The poetry was “underground”. The ensemble was “counter-culture”.
I needn’t go into detail. Bruce Wilkinson has done a lot of research and produced a reliable and detailed account of what went on, with illustrations and exhaustive bibliography. He adopts the usual tone of unjustified neglect towards his subject, but does not examine the poetry and only contrasts it with a mass category called “mainstream”. His interest is in the ensemble, and the development which increasingly reached out into practical politics. It is good to get this reliable picture of how and why it operated as it did in its locality, for like most similar ventures it is now virtually unknown. He makes a point of respecting the untiring resourcefulness whereby poetry contacts were made all over the country and sometimes beyond, new forms of activism repeatedly espoused, and major setbacks overcome (in 1965 Cunliffe was charged under the Obscene Publications Act and fined £500, which halted publishing for some time). What interests me most on reading this chronicle is the possibility of comparison between the “Blackburn Beats” and what has been called the “Cambridge School of Poetry” in which I was involved for many years.
To attempt a quick sketch: In the crucial formative years, c. 1966-68, a little later than Blackburn, “Cambridge” was no more than an association of a dozen or so poets who were in contact with J.H. Prynne at the University of Cambridge, gradually increasing in number and issuing a private mimeo’d worksheet in 1968, but never publishing anything communally, and at that stage were divided as much as united. Later it involved more and younger poets, many of them students, and gained from somewhere the “School” title, which it never wanted. Originally it was a criticism and discussion group operating mainly through correspondence and never really had a programme; ideas and directions emanating from Prynne began to look like one, but that wasn’t the only source. Its centre was purely notional, its “members” scattered all over the country, and there was, at first, no definable consensus.
The distance from what went on in Blackburn is so obvious as hardly to need mentioning: on the one hand an instinctive discourse of freedom in writing and living, fed by basic leftist and pacifist texts and Ginsberg, on the other a high intellectualism which consumed whole libraries and relied on global scholarship on anything between Siberian shamanism and Mayan glyphs (the latter courtesy of Charles Olson). Living in tents in the tops of trees (as occasion demanded) as against the departmental common room and the office desk. Yet both groups constituted bids, by stepping outside the given models, seen as obstructions, to achieve contact with a total condition, a fundamental description of the experience of the human species in the present tense, as something only, or principally, possible in poetry as a writing of the whole. And both involved a wish to free poetical language from formal constriction and promoted, whatever global tapestries might be created, direct and accurate rather than a pre-endorsed “literary”’ delineation of personal experience, physical and mental alertness echoed in irregular lineation and syntactical licence. The world, both its enormous past and its immediate present, were in both cases subjected to a new attention, and the particular subjects (global religions, oral cultures etc.) might to some extent have been agreed upon, though Cambridge would have the advantage in anything technical, such as astro-physics or linguistics.
I can’t compare the two as producers of poetry, because the Blackburn poetry has never been reprinted in either collected or selected form; indeed most of it must still lie in mimeographed and stapled products almost impossible to get your hands on, and there are nowhere any absolutely complete library holdings. Wilkinson gives a sample at the head of each chapter. My impression is that possibly only the founding mothers and their first adherents really retained and continued attempts to realise experience in contact with a cosmic image-field, which first established them as authorities and drew other poets to follow them. While the bulk of the poetry in Poetmeat was American-style syncopated plain-speaking (shades of Williams and Creeley), Dave Cunliffe’s poem “Government Suicide Note”, dated 1963, begins —
The night sky grows white as the
eyes of stars burn out & their
charred sockets hover like terrible
vultures’ ears strained eager to
savour the final screams of the world.
If this is an echo of New Apocalypse, so are some Cambridge effusions (neither consciously, I think). If this is the result of imbibed substances, so are, actually, some of the Cambridge products. If this is poetry of ultimate crisis, so is most of Cambridge. There are considerations of “quality” which will no doubt qualify the connection substantially, though maybe difficult to formulate (there are experts on that).
Both enclaves sought connections with kindred sites. In Cambridge this was mainly the work of Andrew Crozier, who, like others in the “school”, maintained an interest in plain-speaking or at least non-cryptic poetry which avoided literary mannerisms, which drew him to make contact with Jim Burns, as did their shared obsession with America. Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry was almost a bible in Cambridge. Blackburn probably got its Americana piecemeal and it tended towards the freewheeling, but there was quite a lot of it. It looks as if both congregations incurred a split between highly figurised, aureate, poetical language, and starkly plain-speaking delineation of specific perceptions. Blackburn was more generous than Cambridge towards less aspirational poets such as Lee Harwood and Roy Fisher, and to women poets.
Perhaps the most interesting point of comparison concerned politics. The Blackburn poets (especially Tina Morris) seem to have moved increasingly into political thinking and activity, possibly to some neglect of the poetical side of things; I can’t be sure about that. As the Cambridge succession rolled onwards towards the next generation the variegated interests and practises of the initial grouping gave place to a more unified agenda. The poetry continued at full force, but politics increasingly dominated the discourse and was offered as the justification for the increasing difficulty and rebarbative pressure of the poetry. It was as if only angry politics had sufficient force to keep the poetry going, and I have seen the central purpose of the whole thing described as “aestheticised politics” (rather than “politicised aesthetics” presumably meaning that the poetry was the active, shaping form brought to a given political belief system.) It would be highly contentious of me to say that in both cases maybe the poetry, as an independent construct of hope, didn’t work too well, so I’m not going to say it.
Both of these are now things of the past, of course, but attitudes and manners reverberate from them. Blackburn was one of many, though a particularly active and far-reaching one; Cambridge was unique and its influence has remained identifiable as a singular strain resulting from the persistent belief in the value of damaged language as a cultural/political counter, though this is generally tempered among the younger poets. But there has always been something addictive about Cambridge poetry. It informs Anthony Mellors very strongly, and interferes with Peter Philpott piecemeal.
What am I saying here? “Cambridge School of Poetry — what is it but another hippie settlement out there in the wilds, sitting round the campfire taking pills and intoning blessings and curses”?5 How could I say this? But how could I not (without adding “more curses than blessings”)? Neither of them, anyway, can be dismissed offhand, however outrageous or out of touch either may appear in certain lights. Both have made a tremendous difference to the possibilities of British poetry and the revision of its history, in themselves or through what they have come to represent. As regards the value of the poetry produced in either context or the many others that busied themselves with stencils and ink at that time, and its survival in the work of younger poets, we are hardly in a position to know, in the increasing dissolution of agreed value structures for the art. It seems likely to me that many of the most interesting poets now are likely to be involved in a practice which acknowledges these earlier disruptions in some way, without joining a club of either/or. And I retain a distrust (with exceptions) of poetical writing which refuses to acknowledge the existence of anything, in the history of poetry or in the world, which could even faintly disturb the given and obvious agendas, or will under no account raise its sights beyond the living-room floor.
I apologize in public to Jim Burns for ignoring his part of Hidden Culture. There would be plenty to say but enough is enough. He represents something very different from the Blackburners, in spite of their shared interests and intermittent collaboration (he lived through this period a mere nine miles away, in Preston). I don’t agree, and neither does he, with Wilkinson that he too promotes “counter-culture”. His position has always been “working class”, writing from within the existing culture in that sense rather than beyond it. Aside from escapades with Paris, New York, and jazz, what he did was to get a job and stick to it for the rest of his working life and write from there in the language spoken all round him and within the experience of the populace, while forming links all over the place, including the plain-speaking side of Cambridge, and becoming an expert in the history, bibliography and musicology of a mass of alienated or rebellious artistic practices through the century. Long may he continue to do so.
1.This is a tremendously useful book in the thoroughness of its coverage and the detail amassed in it on the selected poets and their interconnections. Their poems get analysed and related to each other, their views made clear, scenes in which they participated (if they did) mapped. And of course, their works are subjected to all the ideological causes and critical jargon available now or previously. There are some very fine and balanced essays on these matters. The latest additions to the “canon” of modernism are present, mostly women poets who were somehow sidelined from the start and ever since, and have been rescued from oblivion by recent research (I hope that one day there will prove to be enough written material by Jessica Dismorr for her to be included). Similarly there are chapters on African American modernism, “War modernism” etc., and an introductory section dealing with theories and general historical connections. It will be invaluable, mainly for those sitting on a certain side of a certain fence, by which I mean, of course, engaged in the study of the poetry rather than its wider uses, such as seeking some hints on how to live (reference to “life” is taken to be anti-modernist). But this does not at all mean that it will only be of use within the walls of an academic institution, though that is where most copies of the book will end up on account of its price.
2. Outside of that condition, it is more likely to be irrelevant or marginal, as it more or less discounts the reading (or writing) of a poem as the unique experience of a single human being at a place and time (use of the word “human” is taken to be anti-modernist). The state of the world implied by modernist poetry, just exactly what the ever augmenting degree of fracture corresponds to in the sphere of the knowable, and how that extends into the present tense, is perhaps its most serious condition, and its biggest problem. Here the question will likely be set aside or automatically endorsed, replaced by a sense of a proliferation of technicalities. But what poets have in common could be less interesting than what they don’t.
3. Surely it is a fallacy to think that a kind of poetry in English called modernism can have a history completely separate from that of all the poetry excluded from that definition, especially when the excluded poetry can be as fully difficult, and unorthodox in many ways, as the included. The insistence that guaranteed authentic modernism began around 1912 with the formation of Imagism means that strictly it is a history of one poetical idea or thread. Fortunately many contributors do not restrict themselves in this way. I remember a time when Stevens was excluded completely from modernity, which is fortunately no longer the case, and it’s pleasing, for instance, to see a chapter by Helen Carr on Anglo-American poetry 1901-1917 entitled (and the title tells it all), “Edwardian, Georgian, Imagist, Vorticist, and ‘Amygist’ Poetry.” No attempt is made to enrol the reader as a latecomer into any of these five persuasions, and the fuzzy edges of most of them are pointed out. Elsewhere the partiality remains. There is an inconsistency throughout concerning modern and modernist — whether we are talking about (a) a poetry which recognises the conditions of modernity which surround it in reality, such as the metropolitan, or (b) a poetry that adheres to a particular aesthetic which prioritises the visual (architectonic) rather than the aural (rhythmic) (and is free to be entirely rural). I’m somewhat surprised that strictly viewed the title of modernism is restricted to poets born roughly in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century even in America, so that there is really nothing here about a lot of poetry I’ve always assumed to exist in a continuous relationship with the pioneers, in a direct development of their techniques (New York School, Spicer, Blaser, Duncan, Olson, Lowell, Roethke, Ginsberg, Plath, Guest and many more) except in the last chapter (see below). A chapter offering coverage “to the 1950s” is concerned almost entirely with the late work of Pound and the rest.
Belief in a separate history fosters the assumption that a poet becomes interesting simply by being allotted membership, as if it is an achievement in itself to meet certain requirements. The narrow definition of modernism excludes poets who are undeniably “modern” by any account but who do not meet the terms of the ex-Poundian prescription, such as Dylan Thomas. I have thought for a long time that the academic pursuit of modernism barely masks an anti-British sentiment which American poets have been promulgating for close on a century. It is with undoubted glee that the verdict is repeatedly delivered: “Modernism did not take root in Britain”. Something wrong with our soil, evidently.
4. As it happens, Anthony Mellors is the author of the final chapter of the book, which deals with the latest developments, which is quite a task as the preceding twenty chapters struggle to get past 1920. It is a thoroughly professional performance, providing a lot of information and some quite original interpretative vocabulary. Broadly speaking he toes the line, so that British poetry remains peripheral until, for the second time in the book, Basil Bunting emerges like a sunrise shedding contemporaneity on a lot of peasant poets — “Only Basil Bunting gives us a clear idea of continuity”, meaning continuity not even with America, but with Pound, what other continuity could any poet need? And similarly, Dylan Thomas is merely a “neo-romantic” like Kathleen Raine (!). And it will hardly be a surprise that the Cambridge School of Poetry is acknowledged (he does not have space to do much more with it) and the Blackburn Beats do not feature. The decision to endorse modernism immediately selects its own history. The definition of the “mainstream” is as desperate as ever, though in some ways idiosyncratic: they are subjective, subject-centred, conservative, iambic-based, rational, continuous, lyrical, elegiac, discursive, direct, continuous, lamentational, “of the private self”… You begin to wonder what’s left, or you begin to realise that perhaps the whole of modernism is a concerted attempt to narrow the potential scope of a poem. And given the constraints he must have been under, he devotes too much time to trying to show that a poem by Sharon Olds has something wrong with it, not innately but by conforming in the last analysis to non-modernist expectation. I don’t think I have met elsewhere (except in Cambridge) the idea that a particular group of emotions signified by melancholy, lament, regret, elegy etc. is a sign of “mainstream” regression. You could not find anywhere a collection of dedicated malcontents to match the British experimental poets. And as for the “private self”, how can there possibly be such a thing evinced in language?
It’s all part of the remit. And in truth, Mellors is perceptively critical of some of the claims inhering in these proscriptions, and is happy, writing about Olson and Prynne, to point towards buried contradictions and dubious implicit triumphalism. This includes the failure of Maximus to attain its claimed release from subjectivity. As pure description the whole catalogue could stand unchallenged, were it not bound up with polemic. But Mellors is a subtle critic and having used “lyric” as a pejorative he rescues it as a major vehicle of the whole hope of achieving an actually poetical script, whether formalised or not, even if the lyric has to be “broken” in the process. The principal objection that can be levelled against populist or opportunist poetry in U.K. now is not that it is unbroken, but that it is not poetry and makes no attempt to be poetry.
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 (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.
→ See also in The Fortnightly: Alan Wall’s remarks on Modernist poetics.
- Preface to his Selected Poems, New Jersey 1996. ↩
- The one significant exception to this I’m aware of is a couple of articles by Andrew Crozier: ‘Thrills and Frills: Poetry as Figures of Empirical Lyricism” in Society and Literature 1945-1970 edited by Alan Sinfield (1980) and “Resting on Laurels” (2000), now reprinted in An Andrew Crozier Reader, 2012. Even here the account cannot be said to be free of prejudice; especially as philosophical and formal assumptions are set prior to the criticism. The words “empirical” and “lyrical” are heavily loaded, especially as they both get -ism attached so that it is a belief rather than a practice which is under scrutiny. Crozier’s dealings with critics and publishers and their use of commercialist techniques, especially the reckless deployment of the word “best”, are more sound. ↩
- At this distance it is impossible to be sure of the exact wording, whether he said “true” or “real”, “British” or “English”. I don’t cite Heaney here as a criticism of his poetry, which is not relevant. But since some of the commentary now goes so far beyond the literary as to elevate him to the status of some kind of saint, this example of gross bad manners in insulting both a fellow-reader and the organisers at a large-scale public event, and the evident smug self-satisfaction with which it was conducted (I was there at the time) could be borne in mind where appropriate. ↩
- The title is an old Welsh poetical formula used as the first line of several poems of Y Gododdin, elegies for British warriors who died in the failed siege of Catraeth, which if it is Catterick is still a major military site — “Men went to Catraeth”. Neirin = Aneirin, author of these poems. Dog Tanian: something to do with a Japanese-Spanish animated series? ↩
- One reason for not saying this is that the word “hippie” should be used with caution. There was a great deal of youthful movement away from the centres in the 1960s and 70s, and in this country very few adopted that title. What the word signified is bound up in a contradiction of, on the one hand, peace-loving gentle people with finger-cymbals, on the other something like robber bands roaming the countryside preying on other, more industrious, youthful settlers. ↩