Agoraphobia, and the embarrassment of manifestos:
notes towards a community of risk
This piece is 5,000 words or about ten printed pages long.
... from Parataxis magazine, Cambridge
‘All right then no stoic composure as the
1. The conspiracy of expertise
Severely wounded by the culture industry, the contemporary small-press poetry scene suffers from an appearance of exclusivity, compounded by the oft noted situation in which there appear to be more poets than readers of poetry. The sense of heritage, of important but often barely visible poetic traditions, becomes almost theological in the depth of assumed knowledges, and hermetic in its collectivity. This is compounded by the need not to speak for others, and the necessary preservation of the integrity of individual writers, both historical and contemporary. ‘To Prynne, a lyric poet in the era of late capitalism, the composition of poems is even more than to Baudelaire an involvement in a culturally marginal activity. Any claim to prophecy or the revelation of correspondances from such a quarter would look vulnerably bardic in 1974, and the poetry builds sardonic acknowledgement of this into its every utterance.’(6) The example is salutary, but we need to transform this vulnerability into a community of risk, a community of writing which liberates its possible readers. Rather than an open avant-garde there seems more evidence of a tyranny of expertise perceived as a conspiracy, and the assumption that it is necessary to be in the know, on the inside, coupled with a tightness, even stiffness of lip, upper and lower. This might be understood as a defeatist response to the ideology of ‘difficulty’ and ‘unreadability’, air-brushed by the oxygen of privacy and the pleasing ether of hermeticism.
2. An embarrassment with direct statement
Symptomatically, direct poetic statement seems naive, despite examples of clarity, such as the concrete instances of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s neo-classical wit, contemporaneity and polemical purpose: ‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution.’(7) A corollary of the oxygen of privacy is hesitancy and embarrassment about public pronouncement, programmes and manifestos, indeed a full scale retreat before the notion of a collective avant-garde. Modes of evasive or transcendent hermeticism seem less vulnerable. This suggests a hostility to collective statement, and, by implication, a hostility to collective criticism. There is a desperate absence of successful modes of mediation between the expertise of the initiated and the naivety of the ignorant. Most of all this is exemplified by an embarrassment and lack of interest in description or criticism which might seek to support or refine creativity, and thus a sense of the priority of poetic inspiration over communicative rationality; a priority of the individual poet’s work over the collective mediation of poetry. Without succumbing to demagogic disgust with the dreaded hierarchies of elitism, we need to suture the wounds of knowledge. (The collection Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970–1991, published after this paper was given, addresses such questions, but remains hesitant before the collectivity it represents: ‘It’s contributors don’t form a self–conscious collectivity or agree on any shared project or school of writing.’(8))
3. Hostility to traditional literary criticism and recent literary theory
This hostility is fuelled by a justifiable distrust of the scorn shown to contemporary poetry by British academic literary critics. Symptomatically, there is an absence of fully developed and disseminated critiques of the self-styled poetic establishment from Larkin to Hughes, despite a shared sense of its lack of substance and deadening public ethos.(9) This is coupled with an absence of widely available introductions and open doors for those who are unfamiliar with contemporary or avant-garde poetry. The situation is changing, and recent books, notably A Various Art and The New British Poetry (see below) suggest we may be at a historical point where new constituencies and audiences are formed. Another recently published book, Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory, reveals but does not examine or theorise the pertinent contrast with recent North American poetry and its critical reception. A further compounding difficulty is the declining public awareness of modern poetry, as the historical achievements and institutionalized accounts of modernism, however unhelpful, recede. In the hot air baloon debates of postmodernism, Madonna and Public Enemy fight it out for critical attention,(10) while Ezra Pound has been ditched along with various politically incorrect sandbags. This reflects a continuing crisis of publics and publicity, which is also part of a crisis for the continuity of any aesthetic practice which is not mortgaged to a redemptive day of judgement or bartered for immediate sale. What would constitute a quality of social exchange? ‘Yet living in hope is so silly when our desires / are so separate, not part of any mode of con- / dition except language & there they rest on / the false mantelpiece, like ornaments of style.’(11)
4. The ‘tap at the window’ syndrome of futurity
This syndrome lies along the lines of Iain Sinclair’s journey in Downriver: ‘I was trying to discover how much the contemporary poet felt that he was ready to accept the role of scapegoat, the condition of exile. If the culture at large refuses to imagine your existence, how strong is the impulse to spit in its eyes? Or: do you stick modestly to your last and wait (to the death) for a tap at the window?’(12) The danger is of developing hibernation strategies which envisage a futurity whose solace is retrospective. A possible audience and the quality of receptivity remain determining features of what can be written. If the value of poetry is seen as dependent on posterity, and thus in opposition to strategies of intervention in the present, particularly to interventions with any serious prospect of political effectivity, then contemporaneity is mortgaged to aesthetic ambition. This is not to stress any necessity for what used to be called ‘commitment’, and more recently and ignominiously ‘relevance’. ‘Ought to be, that makes me / wince with facetiousness...’(13) Nothing could be more relevant than perspectives which might jolt us, indeed blast us out of the miasma of our present tenses and tensions. But part of the less prophetic engagement with the present involves a comparative neglect of the possible functions of poetry, and of the already existing states of poetry as a social institution — within ‘education’ and so on — as a strategic quality of the verse written. A brief physiognomy might trace a higher brow than thou approach to questions of power; the preference for autonomous high roads rather than avant-garde intervention; and the validation of oeuvre over process, completion over development. Whatever the dangers of open fields and common pastures, enclosure movements are premature. Without hypostasizing an Olsonian fetish for notes, letters and shopping lists in progress, the valuable risk of the essay, Versuche and work in progress, suggests a need to reinstitute the dignity of failure.
5. Agoraphobia, and the embarrassment of manifestos
Emerging from these different difficulties is a sense that the disparate fragments of contemporary poetics are at a point where a much broader public is within grasp. Thus there is a need to draw together these fragments into a community of risk which can develop a different social basis for a poetry which is both public and private, while transforming the terms of such an opposition. This might be characterized as a move towards what Allen Fisher called ‘civic production’ in a review of A Various Art. (14) At the same time the strategic and revolutionary sense of what it might mean to transform the mediation, not just of contemporary poetry, but of society itself — in short, to invent a viable avant-garde — seems fraught with anxieties. Part of the difficulty of such a move, if broader productive networks are to emerge, is to develop accounts of existing communities which clarify the challenge of such diverse projects, without blurring critical differences or denying the specific localities and experience which make such communities possible. Charles Bernstein suggests a paradigm in his book A Poetics: ‘Insofar as the climate of response to the sort of poetry and poetic thinking I’ve been involved with has opened up, or deepened, this can be attributed to the efforts of a number of individuals pursuing different — and, significantly, conflicting — courses who have nevertheless created communities of response as an alternative to the deadening isolation that has often been the fate of iconoclastic North American artists and intellectuals.... Dissent and subversion remain operations that cannot be collectivized without losing the most powerful pyschic effort; but only response — in the form of exchange — allows such acts to enter into a social space where they can begin to lead a life of their own.’(15) The risks are clear, but the dialectical relation between individual writer and communities of response cannot be resolved into a choice between the ideology of the artist as prophet or shaman, versus a collective with a ‘scout-camp idea of revolution’.(16) This highlights the need to rethink the oft noted embarrassment with terms such as ‘school’. Peter Riley memorably responded to the question ‘Is there a ‘Cambridge’ group of poets?’ by saying: ‘Well, there was, and wasn’t, and there isn’t....’(17); and this is echoed by Denise Riley, ‘There is not, say, a trimly-bordered ‘Cambridge school’ ...’(18) I have even heard this shadowy and non-identarian group referred to as the ‘Cambridge mafia’. All that this suggests is a group with no identity outside the paranoid perceptions of a conspiracy of expertise. The fear of labels is an endemic and edenic aspect of poetry, and the non-identity of such communities, perhaps best described as the Cambridge axis, indicates the need for a poetics of community, a poetics which, if successful, would have considerable and more general political value.
two primary modes of reaction to the devaluation of art within the culture as a whole: the first involves a strain of almost hysterical knowingness by a theatricalism of manner, an assumption of a role of cardinal importance as a form of compensation for an actual state of affairs in which art remains ineffectual; the second mode of reaction is a form of ‘cul-de-sac’ communication ... which arises in situations where there is a radical disesteem for the value of communicative rationality with a corresponding over-emphasis on the need for a form of silent or secret communication with what are called ‘subjective objects’; since communication within a world of instrumental rationality is linked to a degree of false or compliant object-relating, ‘cul-de-sac’ communication carries with it a paradoxically greater sense of the real by offering to restore the balance that is lost when the being of the subject is limited by the identity conferred upon it in social transactions.(19)
There is much that is striking about this formulation, not least the implied strain on the viability of communicative rationality in the face of an instrumental culture industry. Many poets seem threatened by the apparently easily appropriated and fungible modes of prose and prosaic rationality. The relation between hysterically knowing theatricalisms of manner and cul de sac communications through hermetic subjectivity distinguishes the wounded relation of public and private extremities. These relations are both a general problem of the distorted life-worlds of contemporary capitalism, and of particular relevance to Wilkinson’s poetry. Wilkinson explicitly addresses similar questions in ‘Cadence’:
The sorry liability, as much avant-gardism attests, is that with deeper implication into the impersonal of the most personal, a compensatory movement occurs, and atop the magma of grossly accelerated, fissile desire — all radioactive fallout — a tendency is asserted toward the hollow, posturing figure of the adventuring writer, a frozen romantic tableau, a rhetoric akin to that of freedom at present. The best can bob like foolish cork over the radical speciousnes which is their true achievement.... The danger, I repeat, is the separation enjoined by an inherited literary body, neatly disposed on the stainless table in autoptic witness; where cadence becomes the frozen posture of the misunderstood, the truly tedious figure of the poète maudit. Post-mortem life is also the way both of a soured modernism, and the distinctive agoraphobia of much admired English verse.... What I call integrative cadence, at least proposes for poetry an ethical future; so to write is an endless forward cast. Of course there is nothing subversive here, I present for the first time my superversive manifesto, the half-arch, the rainbow bridge of cadence! (20)
Wilkinson’s piece is a consummate attempt to rise to the challenge of the embarrassment of the manifesto, with a hestitation and a promise for futurity in what he calls a ‘superversive manifesto’. This call to arms as a call to cadence, is echoed, I think, by an earlier fascinating letter J.H.Prynne addressed to The English Intelligencer, in which Prynne writes:
... sound in its due place is as much true as knowledge (and all that mere claptrap about information and learning). Rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in the shared places, the echoes are no-one’s private property or achievement; thus any grace (truly achieved) of sound is political, part of the world of motion and place in which language is like weather, the air we breathe.(21)
What these statements alert us to is the art of the manifesto, the art of a kind of poetic and declarative statement which risks a community of possible misinterpretations and abuses. This art of the propositional or polemical statement need not be restricted to prose; it is perhaps evident in Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and The Cantos, and in the work of Wilkinson and Prynne. There is a pleasing, even epic quality about a kind of public declaration which can bring its private extremities into sharp and critical relief against the violent hierarchical demotics of what is called public speaking. Nevertheless, nothing is more worrying in twentieth century British poetry than the prospect of being known and read as a writer of a manifesto; mangled by critics who plough in endless litanies of the obvious; only then to be ignored for having committed the original sin of putting statements of intention before poetic achievement. Nevertheless these necessary reasons for embarrassment with manifestos hide the extent to which the manifesto is a key modernist art form in its own right, and an art form which demonstrates the dynamics of a relation between aesthetics and politics.
We do not refer to the 1960s in order to invoke the spirit of a regretted golden age. Nor do we assert the claims of some speculative counter-culture, alternative or underground, an Albion in place of England perhaps.... We have not attempted to provide a polemic apology or manifesto because no claim is advanced here for the existence of anything amounting to a school. Many of the poets represented have read and responded to one another’s writing, but what impressed us most, while we made our selections, was the degree of difference that existed between individual poets, and the extent to which each poet had accomplished a characteristic and integral body of work, with its own field of interest and attention. What we claim is both the possibility and presence of such variety, a poetry deployed towards the complex and multiple experience in language of all of us. (23)
A more forthcoming explanation of the choice of poets and the selection from those chosen would be interesting, even if only as elaborations of the criteria for poems which the editors ‘could agree to admire’ (24). By contrast, Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry declares that: ‘In the face of manifesto-making a degree of scepticism is only proper’(25) but nevertheless goes on to make somewhat ridiculous claims about the contemporary spirit. Like many such crass statements Morrison and Motion provide endless material for public notice and quasi-educational debate, particularly for discussion topics and examination questions. The reticence of A Various Art amounts to a tasteful tact and diplomacy about anything more collective than an opposition to existing establishment poetries and a preference for diversity. In the absence of more overt statement, we have to read A Various Art as a book which offers a manifesto for diversity without a clear view of historical context or rationale, but rather an aesthetic body of case law. As a critical guide to this anthology, Allen Fisher’s review of A Various Art, is helpful. He argues that: ‘If the reader takes A Various Art as a whole, as a book in itself, its proposal to the reader is that of a civic address or an aspriation to such an address’,(26) and goes on to present a critical sketch of the constituent components of the implicit aesthetic. The embarrassment with manifestos is also echoed in The New British Poetry anthology, which follows the expedient of four editors, four sections and four ‘introductions’, thus compounding the impression of opportunist variety as opposed to strategic diversity, despite the informative and provocative nature of the introductions. It is A Various Art, however, which offers the more substantial claim to an integrated conception of a collective but diverse poetics of the contemporary, even if as a tentative kind of case law.
I consider its title [The English Intelligencer] to be the most shrivelled proposition in the whole drooping matter. I am frankly bored to death by the total contrast between the discrete sequence of good and interesting things — separate, house-proud, often so local as to be without any force as risk — and on the other side an almost complete lack of momentum, of culmination or exchange.... I had thought that perhaps something might move, if there were perhaps some initial measure of trust, so that the community of risk could hold up the idea of the possible world.... No fearless tracker band, into the undergrowth, but must the decorums of privacy always intervene? ... now, I feel even quite angry, at the feeble young, hamming the trick of being old, and the old confident that their impersonation of youth has got to be accepted. ... the intimate and necessary become the public option. I trail my coat; I can see no reason to wear it.... (TEI, pp. 189–190)
As with much of Prynne’s early poetry, this has an extraordinary declarative urgency and ironic sense of diverse imperatives. This is exemplified, for the purposes of my argument, by ‘QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING’, which, like much of the work in Kitchen Poems (1968) and The White Stones (1969) first appeared in The English Intelligencer.
I did feel that we were held in the germ at least of something common, i.e. the choices seemed dictated, and open to further dictation from the looked-to participants... Am I wrong to be disappointed that no one has taken up seriously the various possibilities offered of discussion and exchange, or do they not have thoughts the Intelligencer might have given wing to? Or sad that so many have taken refuge in writing offhandedly to say they dislike criticism? How wide of the mark can so many be? Poems on their own are inadequate as they are presented in the Intelligencer. (TEI, p.203)
Here, then, is evidence of a hostility to critical discussion beyond the autonomous productivity of the individual poet, and evident frustration on the part of an editor attempting to overcome the difficulties of this situation. Difficulties in prompting serious critical discussion of contemporary poetry persist. It is perhaps not suprising, then, given this frustruation and the aspirations suggested by Peter Riley’s response, that the role of facilitating editor passes to Peter Riley, who heads the second series with an announcement offering the formula: ‘Physiological Presence + Cosmological Range.’ This polemical, manifesto-like formula produces a disappointingly lame set of responses, perhaps daunted by the extraordinary ambition of Peter Riley’s ‘Working Notes on British Prehistory’ and Prynne’s ‘A Pedantic Note in Two Parts’. There emerges a sense of muted dismay at the breadth of a scholar-poet attempt to overcome the division of labour in processes of knowledge, in which, as Simon Jarvis suggests, ‘readers are asked to become researchers’(28). Jeremy Hilton, for example, comments: ‘I get a little disturbed at a seemingly more intellectual preoccupation in the TEI poets (completely opposed to established academicisms, I know, but still ‘academic’, in its own different way)...’ (TEI, p. 353) Before succumb ing to this dismay, a dismay which may well be of central importance in the development of Prynne’s work after The White Stones, it is worth quoting at some length from Peter Riley’s response to the letter from Crozier quoted above. This extended quotation will serve as my conclusion, because it poses questions and emphases which remain pertinent, indeed are similar to the questions and emphases suggested above in my theses for discussion. In our very different contemporary circumstances, and allowing for an ethics of quotation which respects such differences, it is perhaps worth reworking the idea of a community of risk suggested by Riley:
We’re not trying to work towards disagreement, or justification — we want to set up an organ in which there’s no need to be deliberately provocative in order to get a response, and where no kind of defensiveness is called for. & having said that I’m immediately up against the problem of exclusion.... For TEI to be a success there has to be a common faith among all those taking part in the possibility of poetry as to whatever extent a communal activity. There needs to be among them the exact opposite to the view Gael Turnbull put on p.26a — that of a poet occupying his own private world of language and experience, and his job to get these privacies on paper as best he can. ‘... this individual and that individual with his or her voice, discrete and each themselves.’ If we hold any current with this sort of defeatism then we might as well shut up the shutters RIGHT NOW and forget the WHOLE THING as all go back to our little residencies and continue to turn out a never-ending stream of finalities till we get famous. What exactly we do hold in common is something [which] can be thrashed out when we’ve found out how to talk to each other ... What I’m after now is direction, the very willingness to talk and listen on a common ground, simply that only through such a communion can we hope to achieve, any of us, a poetry of any use whatever.... A magazine is by its printed nature more or less precluded from such an activity. By its permanence. The work in these sheets should be what’s in progress now, gestures in the right direction, not any arrived complacency .... And the poems to follow more as illustration to the comment than anything else.... The language we can use has to be worked out in common, among however many will allow themselves to trust, respond, risk, REACT, move outside their private worlds ... And to hell with the ‘finished’ work — leave that to the quarterlies, and may they sink ‘neath the weight of it. (TEI, pp. 205–207)
As the saying goes, to be continued...
1. J.H.Prynne, ‘QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING’, The White Stones (1969), quoted from Poems (Edinburgh and London: Agneau 2, 1982), p. 111.
2. Nigel Wheale, ‘Uttering Poetry: Small-Press Publication’, Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970–1991, ed. Denise Riley (London: Macmillan, 1992), pp. 9–20 (p. 19).
3. Prynne, ‘QUESTIONS ...’, p. 112.
4. By the ‘avant-garde’, I intend a reference, with dissents and reservations, to Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Manchester: M.U.P., 1984), & Peter Bürger, ‘The Significance of the Avant-Garde for Contemporary Aesthetics: A Reply to Jürgen Habermas’, trans. Andreas Huyssen & Jack Zipes, New German Critique, 22 (Winter, 1981), 19–22. See also Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the language of Rupture (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986); & Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT, 1985).
5. John Wilkinson, ‘Imperfect Pitch’, Poets on Writing, pp.154–172 (p. 166).
6. Geoffrey Ward, ‘Nothing but Mortality: Prynne and Celan’, Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory, eds. A. Easthope & John O. Thompson (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), pp. 139–152 (p. 148).
7. Ian Hamilton Finlay, From ‘Unconnected Sentences on Gardening’, quoted in Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer (Edinburgh: Reaktion, 1985), p. 38.
8. Denise Riley, ‘Introduction’, Poets on Writing, p. 1.
9. Nb., however, Andrew Crozier, ‘Thrills and frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’, Society and Literature, 1945–1970, ed. Alan Sinfield (London: Methuen, 1983), pp.199–233; and Antony Easthope, ‘Why Most Contemporary Poetry Is So Bad’, PN Review, 48 (1985), pp. 36–8.
10. Examples prompted by Andrew Ross, ‘Poetry and Motion: Madonna and Public Enemy’, Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory, pp. 96–107.
11. Prynne, ‘QUESTIONS ...’, p. 112.
12. Iain Sinclair, Downriver (London: Paladin, 1992), p. 316.
13. Prynne, ‘QUESTIONS ...’, p. 112.
14. Allen Fisher, ‘Towards Civic Production’, Reality Studios, 10 (1988), pp. 66–85.
15. Charles Bernstein, A Poetics (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard U.P., 1992), p. 180.
16. Prynne, ‘QUESTIONS ...’, p. 112.
17. Kelvin Corcoran, ‘Spitewinter Provocations: An Interview on the Condition of Poetry with Peter Riley’, Reality Studios, 8 (1986), pp. 1–17.
18. Denise Riley, ‘Introduction’, Poets on Writing, p. 1.
19. Rod Mengham, ‘Wilkinson Framed’, Archeus, John Wilkinson issue (1989).
20. John Wilkinson, ‘Cadence’, Reality Studios, 9 (1987), pp. 81–5 (pp. 83–5). See also, Wilkinson, ‘Imperfect Pitch’, Poets on Writing.
21. Letter by Prynne to The English Intelligencer, 14.iii.68.
22. ‘Preface to Some Imagist Poets 1915’, Imagist Poetry, ed. Peter Jones (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 135.
23. A Various Art, eds. Andrew Crozier & Tim Longville (Manchester: Carcanet, 1987), p. 13. Cf. The New British Poetry, 1968–88, eds. Gillian Allnutt, Fred D’Aguiar, Ken Edwards & Eric Mottram (London: Paladin, 1988), esp. E. Mottram, ‘A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry’, pp. 131–3; & K. Edwards, ‘Some Younger Poets’, pp. 265–270.
24. A Various Art, p. 14.
25. ‘Introduction’, Blake Morrison & Andrew Motion, eds., The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 11.
26. Allen Fisher, ‘Towards Civic Production’, Reality Studios, 10 (1988), pp. 66–85 (pp. 66–7).
27. The English Intelligencer, p. 9. Given its mode of circulation, the Intelligencer represents something of a bibliographical mine-field. Quotes here are from the complete run held by Edinburgh University Library, as part of the Ramage collection of contemporary poetry. Quotes hereafter in brackets in the main text.
28. Simon Jarvis, ‘Quality and the non-identical in J.H.Prynne’s ‘Aristeas, in seven year’’, Parataxis, 1 (1991), pp. 69–86 (p. 70).
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