Wise Comments & Revealing Moments

Don't start me talking: Interviews with contemporary poets
edited by Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan (374pp, Salt)

If we ask what in, say, the past 50 years, new poetry has contributed to the general intellectual pleasure, wisdom, social wellbeing, curiosity, religious speculation and practice, and serious playfulness, is there much cause for celebration?

Perhaps it's the wrong question, and it would be odd and scary if we had all been making poems the same way. If on evolutionary theory we have been competitive, an aspect of which is mutation and new growth out of surprising and fruitful innovation, what have been the terms of it? Where are we all now as a result?

All but one of the people interviewed in this book are men, and I suppose this might suggest something about what kind of network it is, though I hesitate to try to define it.

There is some bad feeling in the book; not that mirror-image bad feeling isn't located also elsewhere, witness this from the (as I've thought) genial Hugo Williams (in Strong Words
, poets on poetry, Bloodaxe 2000), "The high style is necessarily a pastiche of past dictions, a pumping up of old generalities, as in neo-surrealists John Ashbery, Jeremy Prynne and their followers. When I read the counterfeit madness of these poetries I can't help thinking of the struggle of John Clare in his asylum, seeking and finding lucidity in his real madness. The thought of those tongue-in-cheek hipsters playing the cross-eyed loon to impressionable academics isn't a pretty one."

Out to Lunch in his interview in the present book makes a wise comment, knowing what it's like to be seen as outsiders: "I don't think it's possible to build a serious programme around 'nonconformity'. It's too dependent on conformity - like committing yourself to a shadow." That shadow does darken some of the book, but of real interest is the commitment to finding new poetic ways and means.

The 21 interviews (Andrew Crozier interviewed twice) were begun in 2003, not otherwise dated, & the one with Eric Mottram is a reprint (interviewer Steve Pereira), undated (he died in 1995).

Strong Words
included none of this book's poets, and vice versa. Is there a university 'creative writing course' that would recommend the one under review or both? A very few poets are, one might say, cross-over: Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting, of the living Roy Fisher, and the Americans Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson,… But then I wonder: where is the evidence of Pound, Bunting, Olson in the mainstream? Specific to this book and not the other: Iain Sinclair, Allen Fisher, Bob Cobbing, W S Graham, J H Prynne. It's a bigger matter than I have space for or know how to think about, the question of influence. Women are not absent from this side of the fence, some referred to here: Geraldine Monk, Wendy Mulford, Maggie O'Sullivan, Veronica Forrest-Thompson, and others but not many others.

The book has led me to review my own poetry life as no book has done before, so I am allowing myself to open the door to my history. Back in, I suppose, the early 1970s a page of a species of my choral piece for audience, OCKSTVP, written for and performed as pub theatre in Moseley, Birmingham, was published in Strange Faeces. I had, let's call it, an experiment, in Poetry Review when Eric Mottram was editor, and again and more obviously poem-poems more recently when the editors were Robert Potts and David Herd; but I don't feel I've been an insider to any of these spaces. Alan Halsey when he was in Hay introduced me to W S Graham and a good deal else by what I found in his shop. Most of what I've published as single poems has been in what this book would call 'the mainstream' and I've won its prizes. But my books have come from Five Seasons and Flarestack. I went almost into abeyance as a writer when I worked for West Midlands Arts, but was lucky enough, amongst other ventures, to connect thereby with Nicholas Johnson (who is in this book) and his festivals in Newcastle under Lyme. I had discovered surrealism and much else across the art forms in London in the late 1960s, and my language was formed more than anything else, I came to think, by the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, singing all those childhood years in a good church choir and continuing on from there during the 1960s. I heard someone on the radio recently saying we are formed essentially by the time we are 25; maybe, and I wonder in what ways by our own decisions?

There is some meanness in the book's introduction, written it seems by just one of the editors ("I have to say…." p.7), it isn't said which one, where he sets out their criteria for inclusion. "We didn't want to read texts which were close to application forms, fliers for gigs, book jackets, and other publicity material. It seemed possible to interview some mainstream poets, for contrast, but looking at published interviews made it seem that some people who write conventionally can't even articulate their prejudices in a cogent way. Theory can be bureaucratic. Granting bodies set criteria in search of accountability. They make these criteria public, to achieve fairness. Grant-seeking professional poets register the criteria and compose their work to fulfil them," and so on. The little phrase some people
gives the game away; in every branch of every kind of work we humans are a mix, in our inner selves and in relation, the argument here is not rational.

But the passage does helpfully imply what the interviews do want: discourse on strategies (as they might say), decisions as to the work regardless of external criteria for success, language used in other than everyday ways, and so on.

And again, one of Andrew Duncan's questions goes into an aside to say he "can't stand the 'well-turned' poem because it's under control and therefore not out of control. But I think this might not be because it's 'commodified' but because it's self-possessed and wholly predictable - the mimetic, group feeling, thrilling element has been snipped away." I know what he's saying but it works only if this becomes a definition of 'mainstream', which would be absurd. And unnecessary, surely.

As where Tim Allen in a question says, "that from the point of view of the average poetry reader and the, for lack of a better word, mainstream poets themselves, and many of their critical supporters, especially those not attached to academia, poetics is something to be avoided because to entertain the very idea of 'poetics' is to entertain the idea of different choices, different ways of engaging with language. Their poetics is a given, a habit, a rule-book that you question at your peril."

Such attitudes in the questions do not give a true picture of the responses, but they do show up the editors' premises. I speak as someone who has quite some baggage of annoyance and despair of my own at much poetry published and written on courses, and so on, and I'm not that clear and untroubled about my own. Perhaps missing from the book's questions is a deeper curiosity about why poetry has gone the ways it has. In the responses there is much here to think on, from Robert Sheppard, R.F.Langley, Tony Lopez, Simon Smith, Kelvin Corcoran, and so on, there is a devotion to duty, as it were, that is often both enlightening and painful to read, at its best where curiosity, not superiority is to the fore.

I have been prompted by the book to make two lists by way of two questions. The first is this: what are the motivations for anyone to make a poem?
- meaning (and then: what kind of meaning? etc )
- the revelatory moment
- moral engagement
- political hassle
- language music
- narrative?
- visual art and music correlations
- personal/self-expression?
- religious conviction?
- playful experiment
- rules of the game(s)
- mathematical construct
- making art (other questions: art is?)
- spirit of place?
- the language tone poem

- the to and fro of suggestiveness
The question marks suggest these are not of significant concern to these writers.

Then to wonder why poetry has been the way it has in Britain in the 20th and into the 21stC.
- formal education, including teacher training
- publishers' p
erceived market (and then the market so perpetuated)
- bookshop buyers
- published poetry as gift, whether books or cards
- the emotional and intellectual lives of the English
  (not precisely the same in Wales, Scotland and Ireland?)
- wars
- the tastes of the editors of book-publisher's magazines and magazines publicly subsidized
- publicly subsidized book publishers
- the canon as taught and examined in universities
- what in conversation can be said concerning poetry
- being sensible

Again, for myself,
I don't know why my own poems have been written, quite variously, the way they have. I can speak in this way and that about where I've come from, but I'm not sure what decisiveness, what severe choices I can claim. It puzzles me. Even if I can make some claim to choice, on what basis is trickier, and whether I can reasonably claim superiority for it.

There is rigorous knowledge in the book, severe reflection, sometimes in detail spelled out, and here is a rush of it, a page or so of what Robert Sheppard says, moving from the Movement's orthodoxy via Philip Larkin's published letters (sad) through Linguistically Innovative Poetry, the futility of Iain Sinclair 'praising Prynne over Larkin on the Today
programme', Sean 'O'Brien's rant' (in Strong Words) Don Paterson's attack on 'academic postmodernists' through The Judgment of History and the Test of Time, past Michael 'Horovitz's gong', arriving at optimism about 'the fact that the alternative strategies - from Prynne to Cobbing , from Adrian Clarke to Sinclair, are more various than those found in even the currently authorised but circumscribed pluralism'.

I find his rush of thought infectious, I like it. But to locate it in the wider world is a trickier matter, as I dare say he'd agree. It begs the question - as the book often does - whether as a poet, as a person - one opens up or narrows down. The image of the poet and prose writer who (can I say?) works like a poet: they/we sit in a room. Did Kafka say 'and a snail walks across the page', or after most of my life thinking it, have I imagined he did? Something like that, the solitariness.

The book might reasonably be seen as a companion volume to Andrew Duncan's The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry
(Salt 2003). And to what I recall as a kind of (welcome) publishing aberation, of books that actually appeared in High Street bookshops, the anthology A Various Art (ed.Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville, Carcanet 1987, Paladin 1990); and shared collections, Future Exiles (poems by Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Brian Catling, Paladin 1992), The Tempers of Hazard (poems by Thomas A Clark, Barry MacSweeney & Chris Torrance, Paladin 1993); and 36 poets in Conductors of Chaos, ed.Iain Sinclair (1996, Picador).

To discover the proper archeology of the present book would be much harder. The presses here, of which the relatively more widely known might be Enitharmon, Stride, Shearsman include Angel Exhaust, Writers Forum, Barque, Galloping Dog, West House Books, Oasis, Many Press, Etruscan Books, Ship of Fools, Torque, Prest Roots, Pig Press, and not a few more. As well as the magazines or occasionals. And where to find them? Compendium Books in Camden Town is mentioned a few times - long gone, I remember it well, as if in another life - and I remember there was a shop in Manchester, and there was & still is the Poetry Bookshop in Hay on Wye. I haven't checked for all these presses on the internet, but I imagine they are there, which seems a good thing while also a very different thing.

How to think about the power of poetry? Or to live with its powerlessness? The politics kind of power surfaces, for instance, - in Tony Lopez's then recent work, and angrily from Out to Lunch (Ben Watson), while Harry Gilonis implies it with his personal history of parallel poetry and music enthusiasms. Disjunction, dysfunction, unease show up through the book. A poem or two or an extract is printed from each poet (how useful while also tricky to be so represented) and it is interesting to see how the poetry and the strong opinions make their fire and peace and whatever else. Can there have been any expectation that these poems would 'change the world'? But then what of such poets who imagine they, via their poems, can?

Sean Bonney's "objection to capitalism is rational
. I genuinely believe that the capitalist system has led to insanity: how else can you explain the continued destruction of the environment, mass paranoia and denial, ridiculous wars. And I'm not pretending that I'm not part of it - I live in this society." This combined with distress that anything "even remotely difficult or obscure gets routinely denounced as elitist - the message … is focussed on, rather than the energy or excitement."

There are plenty of big questions? What is experiment for? Is there a dominant art form that instructs and leads the others? Are the poets here doing more than others to keep the language fresh and capable?

R.F.Langley speaks about being influenced by the visual arts, via Adrian Stokes and Wollheim, towards deciding to "play around formally to get a unit like that, something that exists within the frame of the poem in a body-like fashion." John Hall thinks it likely that generations of poets to come will not only repeat print on screen, but will use the medium in quite new verbal and visual ways.

Nothing can be separated from anything else, and something significant can be laid at geography's door, poetries can be traced back to local inheritances, voices, friendships, a university [most often Cambridge here], perhaps in this book with more urban connections than rural ones. Alexander Hutchison brings to the book a distinctive Scottishness which for me (with no Scottishness at all) has an especial richness of voice, reference, mischief.

There is a moment, too, when he introduces in passing the metaphysical
and is asked what this might mean. He replies, "How does anyone mean metaphysical? More than the rustle of leaves in a bag."

A whole book could be written on presentation: the ways and means of publishing, the way school teachers tell what poetry is or isn't, poetry as variously printed and spoken, and not least the devious art of the blurb. Here, from a web site, is what promotes a book by one of the interviewees, Robert Sheppard [published 2005 Liverpool University Press]

'The Poetry of Saying
unearths a secret history of fifty years of experimental British verse, revealing and illuminating the daring work of British poets who have spent a half-century rewriting the rules of English poetry. Poet Robert Sheppard considers individual poets such as Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood as well as the role of poetry magazines and the Poetry Society. Sheppard's position at the center [sic] of the 1950s British Poetry Revival enables him to offer an insider's commentary on the social, political, and historical background of this particularly fertile and exciting period in British poetry.'

So we went through a 'secret' and 'particularly fertile and exciting period'. Who will read the book? What influence will it have? They are not damning questions only curious ones.

There is in the book under review a not infrequent reference to being influenced by someone else, to someone's introduction to this or that poet or way of working, to collaboration sometimes, and there's a lot of working it out alone. What they discovered, were introduced to, has often an excitement about writing, about making, to the extent that I have felt I must look up anything I didn't know of before. Then I have paused with a yes and a no. I have had my own luck, my own discoveries, and at this stage in my life,… etc etc. The book puts on record the work of poets of a certain age, which more or less parallels my own. I have found myself asking: what would a poet in their teens or twenties find here? It's too general a question but I think has some point to it.

By the way, Hugo Williams' lumping John Ashbery into his scorn is interesting. I have regularly read Ashbery with students (and on a few occasions also Prynne).  No-one in the book mentions Ashbery: why is that?

By the way again, in
Well-Remembered Friends
(ed.Angela Huth, John Murray 2004), memorial service obituaries for (amongst others) writers, whether or not (I imagine) they'd been churchgoers, shows the divide: W H Auden, Kingsley Amis, Ted Hughes.

There are ways of talking about poetry which put us into - put others into - enclaves. In a response and question to Robert Sheppard, Tim Allen says, '….an encounter with otherness
being exactly what many readers do not want.' Robert Sheppard had spoken of wars and the confusion of energies of the 20thC, and had said, 'An encounter with a poem should be an encounter with otherness, not confirmatory,…' I thought, among others, of George Steiner and the writers he has pointed to, and I question Tim Allen's taking up a superior, dismissive position, which was not at all what Robert Sheppard was doing.

It has exercised me in my own work and in working with students, what it is poetry is for that is not usually possible in other uses of language, in prose fiction, in journalism, academic essays, conversations, emails, etc. And of course significant moments of 'otherness' can show themselves in any of these; but yet more obviously as 'poetry' we think it more likely. I suppose my argument with some of what is said in this book, is that it is too easy to assume bad faith, laziness, abject conformity, when 'poetry' & our compulsions into it are elusive. And to work enter that 'otherness' as a way of life can be scary.

How even to talk about what we do? The editors and some of the interviewees bring a language of discourse, text, poetics, procedures, utterance,
and so on, which is closer to the academic than to the usual local writing group. Again, I only wonder at how we arrive at what we do and how we talk about it.

Difference is a watchword of the book, as to practice and purpose. It is very hard, isn't it, to get at what the poem wants of us, what life wants of us, what the moment wants; and whether there's anyone out there wants, or might find they want what we are doing? The gap between the necessity to write and the afterthought about it; and how influences can become stale memories of influence. And to what extent poetry works to our predetermined plan.

Tony Lopez: "I think that there are many poets whose work is a kind of theory - and not just the so-called experimental poets. Carol Ann Duffy or Jo Shapcott are feminist writers in their way just as much as RaeArmantrout, Denise Riley, Susan Howe or Rachel Blau DuPlessis. The treatment is different but theory is everywhere, it is a fact of life in our time." The book is such that I was startled to find Carol Ann Duffy and Jo Shapcott referred to at all, let alone with positive interest.

Eric Mottram, "The mainstreamers can't go of their allegiance to the fag-end of Victorian and Edwardian British poetics, their desperate need not to advance beyond Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. Add a bit of Robert Lowell's borrowings from William Carlos Williams and you have the limits of the Movement poetry's poetics don't care to invent anything further. They don't care to invent anything further. When you consider the range of poetics in this country, in Germany, in France, and in America, and then look at who wins prizes,… and is published by the big presses, it's clear that the boss-poets don't care to be in the twentieth century."

Where is personal experience in what the poets in this book write? Almost every phrase we might use of any poetry - or for that matter of conversation - such as 'personal experience', doesn't bear much scrutiny except as a shorthand. There is always selection, a way of saying, there is image, and whereas some poets might spell something out (another apparently easy phrase), others might work indeed with forms of shorthand; some might work a direct narrative while others might alternate or in some way put into conjunction a one thing and another.

Elizabeth Bletsoe: "Even though I write as 'I in many of my poems there is very little 'me' in them, except in so far as any writer's experience, knowledge and environment inform their imagination and the kind of language they use. Even a poem like 'Puberty', which has been taken as directly autobiographical, is an amalgam of typical difficulties in adolescence; it speaks for me but also for many others undergoing that kind of trauma."

There's a revealing moment in the interview with David Miller, where Tim Allen responds to his saying his work has sometimes met with ignorance or indifference or even downright hostility by saying, "What is it that you do, how could your writing be so different, to cause such a reaction? Is it what some people might call its spiritual qualities?"  And then, "I hope you don't mind me calling your work accessible. I was not being ironic, your poems hit the spot directly and there is mystery in that."

So 'accessible' can come to seem like a dirty word; whereas how often does one see it in newspaper reviews as the most positive praise? Well, it is absurdly reductive; and this book doesn't fall for it. But nor need a poem's clarity of acquaintance be suspect.

I would like to quote from David Miller on his prose poems, 'Spiritual Letters', on his understanding mote widely of what he does, but no few words would do it. His work I haven't known and would like to. 

I will quote here from some of the contributors' poems. I know how inadequate this is, but for readers who don't now, the distinctiveness might be indicated. From Simon Smith:

     I walked to Hayley's but it could be Hades
     The eyes were taking notes
     Complete sense out of sight
     Earplugs in his head
     You can see clouds let them dissolve jump

And from Elizabeth Bletsoe:

     soul of all metals I am, but
     'in a raw state' dreaming
     the black stone of the self;
     an idea seeking form as when,
     above pondwater,
     the ectoplasm of a projected leap
     waits for a frog to flow into it

From David Challenor:

     sometimes a definition, and sometimes a mistake,
     you are your own worst enemy,
     and occasionally a conflict will persist for days,
     without victory or defeat.
     sometimes your name emerges
     from between the lines, and sometimes
     the lines themselves are its only disguise.

From Nicholas Johnson:

     on dead lime
     of farmed fields we kids
     scrap and build
     in tall corn
     we hide and yellow lines
     go cross
     our faces

It is not a tilt against the book if I wonder (in my own writing as well), how much is from our personal everyday speech voice, from what has been picked up from inherited and contemporary poets, and how much is deliberately contrariwise - to be a creating person is to establish difference. There's ego in it and politics
and not least the fascination with what language can do out of the ordinary.

            © David Hart 2007