Things can only get porous-er

Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry,
Fiona Sampson (309pp, £16.99, Chatto & Windus)

Fiona Sampson begins Beyond the Lyric with a simple description: 'This is a book of enthusiasms'. This seems to announce that she is not writing a book of criticism but she makes clear where such a book might be located: Britain only New Bearings in English Poetry
(1932) by F. R.
   Leavis and Sean O'Brien's The Deregulated Muse, published with
   an accompanying anthology in 1998, have made any serious
   attempt to articulate what is admirable in the mainstream of
   contemporary poetry.

Sampson dedicates Beyond the Lyric to O'Brien. She calls his book 'seminal' and 'remarkable' and praises him with his own description of Tom Paulin as 'a public literary critic devoted to poetry and able to speak authoritatively to the scholar and the general reader alike'. Such undead yearnings for the public critic are discussed at length in Rónán McDonald's The Death of the Critic (2008) and lie behind, for example, Fred Inglis's article 'Words as weapons' (THES, 05.05.11) which offered Leavis's language as 'the ordnance with which to defend the humanities' and counter-attack 'The language of managerialism [...] in which it is impossible to tell the truth.'

There is a complex argument to be had about what criticism is and where it takes place but there are two other things that need saying: let's call them the 'quantity' argument and the 'quality' argument. The 'quantity' argument goes something like this. Writing with authority is difficult when there is so much poetry being published. A blog I regularly read listed over 100 collections worth reading at the end of 2009. I hadn't heard of most of them. I was grateful to the blogger for bringing them to my attention but considering trying to read even a fraction seemed an unrealistic task. Similarly, following the links from a good e-zine like 3AM takes you into an energetic poetry scene of well-attended readings, blogs, e-zines, podcasts and quick and dirty magazine and pamphlet publishing that is nowhere to be found in the pages of established poetry magazines or the book pages of national newspapers. Whatever we think poetry is, it seems to be getting bigger. More to the point, it's got little or nothing to do with poetry as the 40 poem slim volume - an important shift that Beyond the Lyric could and should have made more of. And it's functioning transnationally in a way that's hardly addressed by Sampson's frequent references to European poetry.

I want to suggest, though, that the 'quality' argument is much more important because it's to do with the language that is commonly used to talk about contemporary mainstream poetry. It is the poetry scene's equivalent of the language of managerialism and appears in the 'Introduction' and 'Afterword' of Samson's book. Twenty-first-century Britain is 'more open to cultural multiplicity' and 'poetry is no longer the dialect of a relatively small, white male middle-class, tribe [...] nor the product of a homogenous education system, culture and society.' As a result, the reader should be 'non-partisan, open and excited by the range of contemporary British verse'. Similarly, 'contemporary literary writing is porous' and 'Today's British society is complex, various and interdependent' and 'Culturally porous'. Sampson goes on 'Fairly obviously, such a society can no longer be univocal: if indeed it ever truly was.' The quantity and the quality arguments can be easily combined to excuse a lack of critical courage (Leavis, in contrast, was brutally selective) so that the default position is identification and representation instead of judgement and taste.

Sampson gathers contemporary British poetry into thirteen identities or, as the blurb has it, 'groundbreaking new classifications': plain dealers; dandies; Oxford elegists; touchstone lyricists; free and easy?; anecdotalists; mythopoesis; iambic legislators; modernism; post-surrealism and deep play; new formalists; expanded lyric; and exploded lyric. Let's look at the plain dealers and the exploded lyric in more detail. The plain dealers are 'a generation now in their eighties': Dannie Abse, Alan Brownjohn, Ruth Fainlight, Elaine Feinstein, the late Herbert Lomas, Anthony Thwaite and Fleur Adcock. They are 'associated with social reconstruction through educational democritization'. In other words, they are poets of the postwar consensus although Sampson doesn't use the term. But, after that, I found it hard to follow Sampson's argument as she moves quickly from the plain dealers through a bewildering array of references including the New Generation (who seem to be like them but aren't), Cool Britannia, Festival of Britain, the Fifties, The Movement, The Group, and the Liverpool Poets. There seems to be an argument about the plain dealers as a kind of still point but it doesn't come clearly into focus. At one point Sampson is quite hard on Adcock and calls her 'nerveless'. But in the next sentence she's 'pioneering' and 'courageous'. A similar thing happens in her discussion of Thwaite. One minute, his 'nostalgia [...] could also sound like resistance to the new' which just avoids sounding like a dismissal; the next his 'Nostalgic resistance has a characteristic music' which just avoids sounding like an endorsement. On the next page, his voice lacks the 'existential necessity' of Larkin's but then his 'vocal flexibility is both his strengthÑand a clue that his poetic sensibility might be to some degree learnt.'

So why are we reading about these poets? We are reading about them because

   it is worth remembering how powerfully this generation of
   writers, emerging in the immediate post-war era, resisted the
   twin pulls back to a mystifying, aristocratic literary past, or
   forwards to dangerously utopian visions of transformation.
   Their poetics of proportion measures up to big abstractions -
   and indeed to difficult moral and emotional experiences.
   Producing clarity from the chaos of experience, it lays the
   best possible foundation for the diversity and eclecticism
   that has followed.

This is history and literary history as wishful thinking but, crucially, it doesn't fit with the earlier discussion unless Sampson really thinks that you can be nerveless and pioneering, be flexible and not have a sensibility. It doesn't say much for those who came after and, in terms of Beyond the Lyric's 'enthusiast's guide' agenda, it is confusing for anyone who wants clear pointers to the contemporary scene and where it comes from. The combination of cut-and-paste cultural and social history and oddly phrased even-handedness sets the tone for large areas of Beyond the Lyric. However, the even-handedness largely disappears when Sampson writes about what she calls radical poetics in the book's final chapter. She tells us that 'British radical poetics of recent decades have largely been concerned with the impossibility of communicating and denoting' and then sketches three radical generations. The generation that emerged in the Sixties (her examples are Harry Fainlight and Barry MacSweeney) 'practised a kind of hyperbolic 'over-saying'. A second generation, emerging in the Eighties and Nineties (her example is Elisabeth Bletsoe) replaced this with 'what can seem like a dearth' in which 'a poem's silences [...] make space for multiple meanings'. Finally, in the current century, poets are practising 'a kind of automatic writing' exemplified, Sampson says, by poets associated with Equipage, Reality Street and Shearsman. This poetry 'runs through a series of grammatical tasks or takes up space on the page' and eschews any interest 'in the possibility that it might in itself create readerly experience, evoke insight, give pleasure or even argue a case.' J. H. Prynne 'unifies' these different radical generations, writes poetry that is 'mandarin' and 'leaderly', uses diction that is 'not at times tremendously removed from that of Geoffrey Hill', and 'is still publishing at the height of his powers today'.

In its own way, this is as bizarrely entertaining as Neil Astley telling readers of Staying Alive that 'W. B. Yeats wrote great poetry despite having a highly confused love life and muddled ideas drawn from a hotchpotch of philosophies' or Andrew Duncan trying to convince readers of The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry that George MacBeth and Jeremy Reed are important postwar poets. But Sampson doesn't stop there. With Prynne installed in Cambridge as a kind of poetic Moriarty at the centre of a web of 'wider regional loyalties', she gives us a cut-and-paste account of the radical Sixties in which we move quickly from the discovery of Outsider Art to bipolar disorder which produces writing that is 'like art brut' and is 'a shared language game' confined to a group, a game which is 'extraordinarily seductive for poets'. At one point, Sampson seems to be arguing that Fainlight and MacSweeney were Sixties casualties who were led astray by, among other things, Beat poetry. A quote from Horses Boiling in Blood is followed by this amazing sentence:

   Echoing art brut's pre-war discovery by modernist artists
   like Pablo Picasso and Joan Mir—, but working in tandem
   with popular music of the Sixties and Seventies, MacSweeney's
   poetry borrowed tropes of delusion and hallucination to 'fight
   the language which is nailed then driven down'.

I've read that over and over and I'm still not sure what it means. Here's another amazing sentence summing up W. N. Herbert's 'project' to 'produce universal speech from locality': 'The restless verse it produces seems a signal that the British cultural status quo is not yet representative in the balance it strikes.' How does that make Herbert's work worth reading? And aren't we told elsewhere in the book that 'Today's British society is complex, various and interdependent', that 'obviously, such a society can no longer be univocal' and that 'There is no longer only one shared cultural transition underway at any one time'? I think it's probably a mistake to read any of this as criticism. What Beyond the Lyric does is re-brand mainstream poetry. Its account of proportionate diversity and eclecticism seems designed to comfort funders and show younger poets how to have a career. This is why the 'Afterword' asserts that 'Ultimately, then, this is a book about the great web of tradition' but reveals that tradition is incredibly short. When Sampson reads Colette Bryce it reminds her of Jo Shapcott and Fleur Adcock. Sampson thinks that this is a sign of 'how unexhausted the resources within contemporary poetry are'. One assumes that Sampson meant 'inexhaustible' as 'unexhausted' has a specific meaning of 'not completely used up'. As Peter Middleton wrote nearly twenty years ago, 'poems can only mean as much as the discourse where we give them attention.'

    © David Kennedy 2012