A strange thing about Cambridge is that despite its being a medieval university city, the bulk of its architecture is twentieth-century. Sure, the centre of the town is medieval, and the architecture of the old colleges is among the most interesting in Europe, a tourist calling-card if ever there was one. The beauty and immensity of King’s College Chapel are internationally known. And there are other gems such as the Norman building known locally as the Round Church which pre-dates even the University, and abuts Trinity Street, the main drag of the old colleges, if you like. But, as one discovers in the Cambridge & Countryside Souvenir Guide (given to all visiting Fellows at Churchill College and perhaps elsewhere), the modern also plays a large role:
Cambridge’s growing reputation for the study of science and technology has led to the development of high tech industry in the area at a rate of growth which has caused it to be called the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’. An example of the close co-operation between University and industry is the new Science Park on the outskirts of Cambridge. Created by Trinity College, the Park has rapidly attracted companies working in such diverse fields as microcomputer systems, lasers, pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering. (5)
On a more mundane level, the electric bollards are a great source of amusement for my daughter who perceives something magical in their rising and falling at allotted hours of the day to allow business traffic into the central shopping district. Cambridge is a polite town where things are a little more ‘controlled’ than most places. It’s like the college porters, who insist that they are not there to carry baggage, but as ‘keepers of the gate’, ensuring the smooth functioning of these sovereign states that collectively combine with the university departments to form that entity known as Cambridge University.
Cambridge has a reputation for being a pretty conservative place, and anyone who has dined at High Table in college, waiting for the gong to be rung, will find this an accurate observation. But Cambridge is also the home of at least one school of avant-gardism in English poetry. Each year (1996 being the 8th occasion), a gathering of poets known as the C.C.C.P., or the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry, occurs. The defining characteristic of this conference is a concern with investigations of writing process, non-referentiality, the word as thing-in-itself, and generally the ‘non-mainstream’ approach. There is obviously an interest in American LANGUAGE poetry and a large number of American LANGUAGE poets have been guests at the Conference over the years, but also avant-garde writers from other movements and elsewhere. Paris has been a popular source of poets and in the last couple of years I have attended, I’ve heard Pierre Alferi, Anne Portugal, and Pascale Monnier, among others, perform. They read in French with approximate translations being made available.
However, probably the major unifying factor of the so-called Cambridge School is the poet J.H. (Jeremy) Prynne. Prynne has been writing a unique poetry for four decades. Superficially Prynne seems to be a diversion from the traditions of English poetry through his apparent absorption of American contemporary poetry, especially the more experimental schools such as the New York (John Ashbery, etc) and LANGUAGE schools. But this is a simplification of convenience as his poetry is in fact an extension of the traditions of English poetry that has introduced the element of the reader into the process. It is dense, intense and intellectual work, with a strong lyrical bent that in many ways represents the most genuinely new work in English this century. In a recent book, Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne, N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge say the following regarding the reading of Prynne’s poetry:
Post-structuralist theories of the decentred, destabilized self, moving along a series of subject positions constructed by discourses, rather than occupying a single, external viewpoint, and always confronted by excess and lack, seem to describe the reader of Prynne rather well. The apparent impossibility of achieving a complete reading of a Prynne poem, a reading which exhausts the poem’s otherness, suggests that the poetry is postmodern in its indeterminacy, its avoidance of totality and closure... (2)
Prynne is a private person and poet who shuns publicity and public contact. He is, however, regarded as a great teacher, and has influenced many contemporary experimental poets and critics with his teachings. It is rather ironic that many of those who gather at the conference do so as devotees of Prynne, since he generally avoids conferences himself. One would like to say devotees of his work, but there is also a kind of mythology around the man himself. It’s a case of the more you attempt to avoid a public or shun publicity, the more it makes you enigmatic. Personally, I find it rather amusing that many of these so-called Prynneites speak of deploring the lyric and persistently announce or wish for its death. I find Prynne a sublimely ‘lyrical’ poet.
This reservation aside, the Conference is incredibly energetic, and is not satisfied with mere reproduction or repetition. It seeks to define a poetics.
In recent times there has been a debate centred on the Conference as to whether or not there is actually such a thing as a Cambridge School of Poetry. If there is, it is perceived as being something in opposition to — both antagonistic to and receiving antagonism from — the more traditional London School of poets. This is not to say that London does not have its avant-gardists, for example those poets associated with the reading Subvoicive, but that ‘London’ represents tradition and centrality (Ted Hughes, the poet laureate, would be considered to be among this group, despite not hailing from London — coming from Yorkshire and having studied at Cambridge!). Cambridge, despite its origins and status, has always perceived itself as being intellectually removed from the mainstream of society. It is therefore natural that it should operate artistically on the fringes. Maybe this is why ‘colonials’ have been welcome in recent times. We share common ground in attitudes toward this edifice known as London.
Probably the most active commentator on the London-Cambridge (‘Leisure Centre’) dichotomy is Andrew Duncan, editor of the poetry journal Angel Exhaust, named after an exhaust shop near The Angel, Islington. In the AE issue ‘The Bloodsoaked Royston Perimeter’ (Royston being a town halfway between London and Cambridge!), which carries the blurb ‘New Poetry from Cambridge and London’, Duncan describes the respective prejudices about Cambridge and about London. He then goes on to elaborate on technical differences, but the prejudices in some ways get to the heart of the matter:
The prejudices about Cambridge: elitist, supercilious, cliquey, neo-pastoral, torpid, referential, too attached to traditional linguistic structures, incomprehensible, literary.
Prejudices about London: a deeply invested tendency to think ‘oh it’s not evenly printed on white paper and it makes a terrible racket and lacks gravitas and it’s not written in proper sentences and anyway it’s by no-one we’ve ever heard of.’
The three organisers of the Conference are well-known identities in the Cambridge poetry world. Ian Patterson, Rod Mengham and Peter Riley are poets in their own right and along with J. H. Prynne, Andrew Duncan and others, can be found in the recent Picador book edited by Iain Sinclair, Conductors of Chaos.
Rod Mengham is also editor of the pamphlet/booklet publisher Equipage, which has published some of the more important avant-garde texts written in England (and elsewhere) in recent years. Some Equipage authors include Cambridge’s own Grace Lake, Caroline Bergvall, J. H. Prynne, D. S. Marriott, Tony Lopez, and the ubiquitous Out To Lunch (author of, among other things, Frank Zappa and the Dialectics of Poodle Play). Equipage recently published my ownThe Radnoti Poems and will be doing a further volume, Graphology, late in 1996.
Peter Riley also runs a mail-order book service (27 Sturton St Cambridge CB1 2QG) that has a fascinating catalogue containing many English, and American avant-garde poetic texts.
Many poets outside Cambridge (and quite a few inside) deny there is anything remotely akin to a school of poetry in Cambridge. But it is telling that when I was talking recently to an English poet resident overseas, the first thing he said on hearing I was living in Cambridge was, ‘I suppose you’re wrapped up with that Cambridge lot!’ The more bitter the tone behind such an expression, the more welcome it is to the ‘Cambridge lot’. It would seem necessary for many of them to have something to react against. But then this is surely at the core of avant-gardism. One of the anecdotes you hear on arriving in Cambridge concerns a stag that took refuge from hunters centuries ago in St John’s College. The spot is marked by an inscription of the time: ‘STAGE [stag] NOVR 15 1777’. It can’t be ignored that there is a sense of safety in ‘free thought’ about this place. It seems that intellectually anything is possible, and it’s therefore not surprising that it is perceived as a centre of avant-gardism in poetry, that most readily intellectualised of the arts.
An interesting aside in this picture of Cambridge is the Strawberry Fair which has been held each year for twenty-three years to celebrate the summer. In a sense, this is more representative of the spirit of Cambridge than the temporal tourist-impression of aesthetic exclusiveness. My family was actually alerted to this event by J. H. Prynne. I can probably best describe it by extracting a paragraph from a recent letter I wrote to the American LANGUAGE poet Lyn Hejinian:
Yesterday was Strawberry Fair Day in Cambridge. Given that most of the year you only see a combination of Professors, students, and tourists, it was unusual, to say the least. It’s an annual ritual, held strategically after the final examinations. Every single alternative life-styler (and others) in the district finds his or her way here, usually in packs. There are the hippies, the Druids, the dope-heads, acid-heads, and fiends, the metal-heads, the goths, the punks, and all of those in between. If the rhythm starts to sound a little like the Pied Piper then it’s not coincidental! There are bands, ‘natural high’ stalls, clothing, craft, and pipe stalls, vegan, vegetarian and ‘eat whole pig’ stalls, you name it and it’s there. The place stinks of dope and you ski on vats of beer. At the centre is the surging beat of the 10 to 10 Strawberry Dance Party. This rave drags all to its dark heart. And for all the colour and ‘celebration’ there is a darkness here if you are tuned into such things. ... Violence lurked only a little beneath the surface, and hierarchies were quick to assert themselves. The remnants of the skinhead culture were a particular worry. There was plenty of ‘play fighting’ that was borderline stuff.
Speaking of identities, when is a don not a don? Answer: when he’s Michael Jackson. Michael is a janitor at one of the colleges, and has a habit of unexpectedly impersonating real or imagined dons for the benefit of the uninitiated. There’s a great story that does the rounds about Mr Jackson pretending to be a well-known doctor of economics and showing around a group of visiting scholars. He pulled this off without a hitch. So well in fact that when the real doctor of economics later visited their country, one of the scholars insisted it wasn’t him, as he’d met the real doctor in Cambridge...
I haven’t got around to punting along the Backs, or to riding in the open-topped tourist bus, but I have walked many times down to the local school near Jesus Green to pick up our daughter, who has developed a particularly Cambridge accent, and tells us to say ‘lorry’ instead of truck and ‘plaster’ instead of bandaid. On these walks one may occasionally hear one partner saying to another, ‘But contact lenses are more aesthetically pleasing’, or an operatic tenor busking to a karaoke machine: La donna è mobile, qual pium’al vento, muta d’accento e di pensiero...
Robert Graves’s withering poem, ‘The Laureate’, so relevant to notions of the ‘centre’ (read: London), sits comfortably in my mind with lines from J. H. Prynne’s The Oval Window... maybe?