Thursday, November 6, 2008

THE GREEN INTEGER REVIEW Nos. 11-16 (Charles Bernstein on British Poetry)

Charles Bernstein
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 While the information is fundamentally outdated, the poets discussed, and the fault lines noted, may remain of current interest.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.

Information about the alternative directions in contemporary U.K. poetry is difficult to come by. For a number of years, I compiled a list of new U.K. poetry publications for the now discontinued Segue Distributing catalog and in this way was able to keep in touch with some of the currents in the work. On a recent trip to England I was able to pick up additional material, only to realize how much more I had missed — how much the intense cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K make it easy, despite shared words and formal concerns, to miss crucial social and class contexts as well as unstated assumptions. Types of class antagonisms and gender prerogatives are played out in the alternative poetry scenes in the U.K. in ways that are more marked, and dispiriting, than in the U.S. (where class and "society" values nonetheless play a crucial legitimating function for official verse culture). Certainly it is striking how many current collections and anthologies of alternative British poetry include few or virtually no women. At the same time, a particular range of aesthetic procedures seems to be propped up by a patrician decorum and Oxbridge authoritativeness that barely covers over the thematic renunciation of these values.

Indeed, the margins, in the U.K. and in the U.S., are cohabited by quite disparate (and often desperate!) factions — not only poets committed to open and new forms but also those with a tenacious commitment to an unobtainable lyric, a sort of sprung voice that takes on a religious quality at times. This may help to explain why some poets, ostensibly dedicated to alternative poetics, display a corrosive dismissiveness toward exploratory works that are radically skeptical of the rhetorical grounding of both sprung and traditional lyricism. In Britain, one senses that a struggle for the right to poetry is taking place far outside the corridors of official verse culture and, indeed, that all parties to this struggle are subject to a level of establishment abuse well beyond that experienced in the U.S. Mandarins at the margins can produce poetry that is quite poignant in its eloquent straining, but it becomes delusory when this straining achieves a monopoly on value — when the partiality of this, as any, poetic project is refused in deference to a belief in the truth of what is no more than the work's own self-imploding (or self-creating) diction. — In this context, the range and power such poets as Maggie O'Sullivan, Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Denise Riley, Tom Leonard, and Bill Griffiths seems all the more remarkable and compelling.

The New British Poetry: 1968-88, ed. Gillian Allnutt, Fred D'Aguir, Ken Edwards, and Eric Mottram (Paladin, 1988) is the best introduction available to contemporary U.K. poetry. Mottram's section of the anthology consists of poets who began writing in what Mottram describes as "The British Poetry Revival", working in traditions related to Bunting, MacDiarmid and Jones, and includes Thomas A. Clark, Bob Cobbing, Allen Fisher, Griffiths, Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney, Wendy Mulford, Tom Pickard, Raworth, and Iain Sinclair. D'Aguiar's section focusses on "Black British Poetry" and includes explosive work in nonstandard and "dialect" forms by John Agard, Jean Binta Breeze, Valerie Bloom, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Merle Collins, and Grace Nichols among others. Allnutt's "Quote Feminist Poetry Unquote" presented works in more narrative styles by Eavan Boland, Alison Fell, Frances Horovitz, and others. Edwards's section consists of formally innovative poets born in the immediate postwar years including Richard Caddel, Cris Cheek, Ulli Freer, Glenda George, Geraldine Monk, Maggie O'Sullivan, Elaine Randell, Gavin Selerie, and Robert Sheppard.

A Various Art, ed. Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville (Carcanet, 1987) provides a fuller context for one tendency represented in the Mottram section of The New British Poetry, a tendency that has been particularly influential for its renovations (or refashionings) of lyrical and pastoral (or postpastoral) forms. Seventeen poets are presented, including Anthony Barnett, John James, J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, and Iain Sinclair, many of whom are loosely associated "Cambridge" and most of whom began publishing in the late 60s and early 70s. The only woman in the anthology, and among the youngest contributors as far as I can tell, is Veronica Forrest-Thomson, who died in 1975 at the age of 27.

In sharp contrast, Floating Capital: New Poets from London, edited by Adrian Clarke and Robert Sheppard and published in the U.S. (Potes & Poets, 1991; distr. SPD, Berkeley) features the work of 14 poets, mostly younger, working in "linguistically innovative" and performative directions, with some debt to Fisher and Cobbing, who lead off the collection; the poets include Gilbert Adair, Cheek, Adrian Clarke, Kelvin Corcoran, Edwards, Virginia Firnberg, O'Sullivan, and the Australian poet Hazel Smith. Floating Capital is a fundamental resource for understanding British poetry in the 90s.

What follows is a brief sketch of some current work in the wake of these anthologies.

"I leak truth like a wound," writes Barry MacSweeney ("The Shells Her Auburn Hair Did Show") in the first issue of the welcome new Scottish magazine Object Permanence (1/94; #2: 5/94; 121 Menock Road, Glasgow G44 5SD). The magazine is usefully committed to including a fair number of contemporary U.S. poets in the company of the most innovative contemporary U.K. poets, allowing for the possibility of a shared cultural space that seems encouraging for all involved; even if we leak "our" truths differently on the other side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, in London, Bob Cobbing (who recently celebrated his 70th birthday) and Adrian Clarke have revived the ever-lively And (#7, 2/94), following the publication of the Writers Forum's 500th publication, a 320-page collection of 112 poets, VerbiVisiVoco, that seems the antithesis of the "high-seriousness" often associated with the practice of verse in the U.S. as well as the U.K. Writers Forum has been going since 1963, publishing books and supporting alternative writing practices through its frequent workshops. The anthology, coedited by Cobbing and Bill Griffiths, which has an international line-up, emphasizes performance, sound, visual and conceptual poetry. The result is an exuberant, uneven collection featuring a welcome variety of typographical and visual display, made possible in part by the fact that many of the pages are photocopied from the original Writers Forum books, including some early mimeo works. Also from Writers Forum, and highly recommended, is ExcLa, a new "berserk" "supernuminous" collaboration between Maggie O'Sullivan and Bruce Andrews, filled with "whistling ablutions", "lemony innuendo", and "Unfixed Palettes." (Writers Forum: 89a Petherton Road, London N5 2QT.)

One of the great literary events in Britain in the past few years is surely the 1992 publication of Future Exiles: 3 London Poets by Paladin, a trade press now owned by HarperCollins. The three poets — Allen Fisher (b. 1944), Bill Griffiths (b. 1948), and Brian Catling (b. 1948) — have each included 150-page selections from their work. Griffiths has organized his "Selected Poems, 1969-1989" alphabetically by title. Griffith's use of "prison talk, biker talk, dialect, literal translation, ancient English, phonetic spellings, obscure nicknames, opaque references, playfully and violently rearranged [syntax]" (to appropriate Jeff Nuttall's introduction), within poems that are sonically saturated and often madcap, make him one of the premier exponents of what I call ideolectical poetry. Griffiths is also a superb translator of Old English; see, for example, his translation of The Battle of Maldon (Pinner, Middlesex: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1991). Fisher's ambitious projects, most particularly a thorough refiguring of the complex of relations among information systems, theories of knowledge, and poetic processes, are represented here mostly by inclusion of work from the 80s that demonstrates how a "multiplicity of attentions" leads to a poetics of "informed intuition". Stepping Out (Pig Press, 1989; distr. SPD, Berkeley) is Fisher's most recent title readily available in the U.S.; I highly recommend it.

Aaron Williamson, who is deaf, has been called one of the best young performance artists in Britain. His new book, A Holythroat Symposium (Creation Press, 1993; dist. Inland, East Haven, CT) is a collection of texts based on his performances that explores deafness through language, sound and gesture: "The central design .../ was to fortify the conjunction / between / a sense of identity / evolving from out of the physical situation .../ of deafness / and the ongoing exertion... / of engendering texts. / That is, to oscillate between / what has become congested / into a state of anatomy / and the mechanical synopsis of its trace / thereby / diminishing the distance / of its seesawing / to this end. // The primary source of identification / the body / as residue / conducting fulgurative interrogations / of the phonic / in and around language / yet to one side of its drag...// I wanted to suggest / the sanctity of vocalization / as anatomical process / within an environment / that is usually normalizing it / into an activity that is granted." Williamson's writing is vivid and unexpected, with a striking range of tone and velocity of syntax:

An artery awash
impart of tide lines
evince map-rings
pith-strung and held
inside quartz
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.)

Two of the best recent books from British poets have been published in the U.S.: Tom Raworth's Eternal Sections (Sun & Moon, 1993) and Ken Edwards's Good Science (Roof, 1992). In Good Science, Edwards (b. 1950), who edited the galvanizing magazine Reality Studios in the 70s and 80s, moves through a variety of forms, showing a moral imagination and generosity of engagements that make his book, to quote the "Preface", "agitational, molecular, powerful, disparate, innumerable, blank, necessary, accurate, conscious, communal, conservative." The sheer social force of Raworth's resolutely ongoing work produces resonating concatenations that extend beyond the borders of the book. Raworth (b. 1938), whose work is extensively published in the U.S., including Tottering State: Selected and New Poems 1963-1983 (The Figures, 1994; distrb. SPD) and Visible Shivers (O Books, 1987; distr. SPD), also has two chapbooks in the Equipage series (see below): Blue Screen (1992) and Survival (1994). Emptily, a book-length work by Raworth, is featured in Talus #7 (1992), an excellent journal out of London (English Dept., King's College, Strand, WC2R 2LS).

Also in the U.S., Abacus #81 (4/94; distr. SPD) features Upstate Stoic by Floating Capital poet Gilbert Adair: a vibrant foray into hyperreality (e.g. "accelerated motion" at "60-noise-proof"). Floating Capital's editor Adrian Clarke is the author of Obscure Disasters (Writers Forum, 1993), a work that is acrobatically infectious in a way that brings to ear both O'Sullivan and Raworth. Clarke's poetry is dizzying in its momentum, constantly shifting linguistic focus with a stream of constant attention to contour (line) as outer edge of a probing, probational activity ("fixed pattern arraying idiolect / in a standardized exchange / letters for meaning what / you won't again borders / protect the field blocked / to centre misnomers on / scattered leaves heard right"). Clarke is the subject of the first of 12 single-author "resource" issues focussing on "linguistically innovative poetries" (bibliographies, commentary, new work) of Robert Sheppard's newly revived magazine Pages (239 Lessington Avenue, London SW17).

Rod Mengham, a poet and critic of the immediate postwar generation, who teaches at Cambridge University, is editing a determined series of chapbooks under the Equipage imprint (Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL). About 20 have appeared so far. While some of this work, but more generally some of the poetic tendencies often associated with "Cambridge", get bogged down in a decorous solemnity that pulls back from the "wild" sonic and formal risks sometimes gestured at, there is certainly an enormous commitment, not to say devotion, evident. Still, the virtually reified rhetorical surface of the sprung lyric — "the voice belongs in the words and not to a speaker", in J.H. Prynne's words — can seem more a house style than a ticket to a "true" poetry that "wrings the heart", more a "vehement theology of the Word" than a participatory democracy of language. Isn't the jeopardy, indeed, "false assuagement", clinging to the vestiges of the old music as if it were the only music, the old truths as if they were the only truths? In any case, much admirable work is being published by this press. Michael Haslam's Four Poems (Equipage, 1993), continuing in the direction of his earlier Aleethia and especially his amazing Continual Song, is the most over-the-top in wildly lyric, Blakean excess; while a younger poet, D.S. Marriott (b. 1963), often seems to glide giddily on the affective musical surfaces of self-eviscerating lyrics, making his poems attractively difficult to pin down in their nonetheless manifest allegiances and resistances (see Airs & Ligatures [Prest Roots, 1990] as well as Lative [Equipage, 1992]. Prynne's Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994), while as dense as ever, seems almost nostalgic, in a biting sort of way, for the gender narrative of the somewhat-less-than wild lyric tradition — though note the literally equivocating ("weasling"!) title of this Equipage edition. Peter Riley's Equipage title, Lecture (1993) suggests another way of framing the problem: it is notable for its foregrounded reworking of lyric and liturgical forms. Riley publishes a fine series of letterpress pamphlets under Poetical Histories imprint — 31 have been issued since 1985; Riley, as bookseller, is also a good source for small press work (27 Sturton Street, Cambridge CB1 2QU).

Denise Riley has included her Equipage chapbook, Stair Spirit, in Mop Mop Georgette: New and Selected Poems: 1986-1993 (Reality Street, 1993; distr. SPD), an engaging multiplicitously self-reflective and self-refractive collection (from "Lyric": "Take up a pleat in this awful / process and then fold me flat / inside it so that I don't see / where I was already knotted in.") Also new from Reality Street/Studios is Wendy Mulford's The Bay of Naples.

The New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible, ed. Robert Hampson and Peter Barry (Manchester University Press, 1993; distr. St Martin's, NY, for an outrageous $70) is one of the few substantial collections of essays on the topic and is a good companion to The New British Poetry. It features useful summaries of recent poetic history by Mottram ("The British Poetry Revival, 1960-75"), D'Aguir ("Black poetry in Britain"), Roger Ellis (little magazines); Peter Middleton ("The Politics of Subjectivity"), Hampson ("Language and Ideology"), Helen Kidd ("Women, Writing, and Experience"), as well as Barry on Fisher, David Miller on Gael Turnbull and Sheppard on Lee Harwood. Commentary on the new British Poetry, along with much poetry, can also be found in fragmente (8, Hertford Street, Oxford OX4 3AJ), which has published 5 issues since 1990, focussing on such topics as "women and (post)modernism", "language writing" and "pastoral".

Considering how unhospitable the alternative British poetry scenes appear to be for women, Peter Middleton's remarkable new study, The Inward Gaze: Masculinty and Subjectivity in Modern Culture (Routledge, 1993) is not only necessary medicine, it is a pioneering work in how we can understand what is often regarded as gender neutral as indeed examples of the work of "men poets". Middleton, a poet and professor at the University of Southampton, insists that we bring the maleness of supposedly neutral writing by men out of the closet of its imaginary invisibility. See also his essay "Silent Inscriptions of Gender: Recent Men's Poetry" in fragmente #4.

&, 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

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