Leaking Truth: British Poetry in the 90s
I wrote this note in the early 1990s for Sulfur, where it was first published (#35, 1994). While the information is fundamentally outdated, the poets discussed, and the fault lines noted, may remain of current interest.
Can you do no better than recite
what is heaped from old endeavor?
I would be there if language
had not split me, if salesmen
had not drawn me, self-clutching
on a pedestal imparadised, a mile
from the floor of workday seams.
It, they, set my breasts too high
and I bully you, a corner of worship
in my heart, unable to trust the lyric voice
as other than headed notepaper,
clangily portentous like the brass flock
on Assurance Hill. How I yearn,
in amnesia almost, for the landed age
which accompanies the label,
for strong-lined verses
that are more than tropes, less than gush.
— Gavin Selerie, from Roxy (in 10 British Poets)
Robert von Hallberg is probably right that mainstream poetry in the U.S can be characterized as a "suburban" poetry of accommodation and adjustment. Recently, reading over dozens of mostly little press books and magazines from the U.K., I was struck, as I have been many times before, by the tenacity and resourcefulness of so much contemporary British poetry outside the mainstream in resisting both accommodation and adjustment. — Some of these "alternative" poetries seem to desire nothing less than a new aestheticism achieved by means of a newly forming eloquence. Others of these poetries are resisting, with great energy and immense formal brilliance, the very aesthetic categories through which English poetry has traditionally been valued.
What follows is a brief sketch of some current work in the wake of these anthologies.
An artery awash
impart of tide lines
pith-strung and held
wheeling down nerves
a bracelet of mists
grazing the panic bolt's
arterial latrine of push petals
Peter Larkin (b. 1946) has been publishing a remarkable series of books and pamphlets since Enclosures in 1983. Larkin's extension of a Zukofskian sense of word order, indeed his uncompromising commitment to the pleasure of sight, sound and intellect, is evident in his sequence, "Care of the Retract", in Ten British Poets, ed. Paul Green (Spectacular Diseases, 1993; 83B London Road, Peterborough, Cambs. PE2 9BS). As "Care of the Retract" is a study of the word retract, so Scarce Norm Scarcer Mean (Prest Roots Press, 1992; 34 Alpine Court, Kenilworth, Warwickshire) is a set of variations on the poetic economy of scarcity: "The entered order enterprised / whole manners of nature in un- / spent fresco, but would their ventro- / pollutions sing no probal rites / slung to rest idiotypic of all / too much companionate salvage". Larkin's press, Prest Roots, has also published A Comparative Daimon (1990), a diaphonously obleak sequence by Paul Green: "... A madder, vaster, standard is ascension's; the / pasts are tesserae, and / flash, or / rise, too bleakly for their / time's amount. The / light dies, as if an / application of it meaned a fabric to be torn." I also recommended from Spectacular Diseases: Ulli Freer's "darting" "kicking" "magnetic" collection Stepping Space (1990). (Paul Green's Spectacular Diseases is also an excellent source for obtaining U.K. "little press" materials.)
&, finally, before I return to my senses, or wherever it is I am returning to, let me recommend just a few more books: Uncertain Time by Richard Caddel (Galloping Dog, 1990; 45 Salisbury Gardens, Newcastle upon Tyme NE2 1HP); The Sway of Precious Demons: Selected Poems by Geraldine Monk (North and South, 1992; distr. SPD); Tom Pickard's Tiepin Eros: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1994); and a three-book set of Anthony Barnett's Little Stars and Straw Breasts, his Zanzotto translations, and a collection about his work, from which I have quoted Prynne above (Allardyce; distr. SPD). Some of these books will be available by mail from Compendium Bookshop, 234 Camden High Street, London NW1 8QS.
Copyright ©1994 by Charles Bernstein