Against this, what agency of love would know a sure way to treat this book’s bravely mustered generosity amid the cheeping and childish pleas for more? Denise Riley is to be congratulated on the number of poets she has persuaded to risk this gathering, even if some could not be persuaded to risk prose. But what is the quality of risk in a hopeful gesture seeking to negotiate the twin peaks of packet crisps and professional institutions? Doubtless many will scorn this glossily backed array, seeing a disarray which lacks ‘professionalism’ and academic ‘seriousness’ of purpose. But the most pertinent criticism might come from those who recognise that a community of risk should mediate variousness but who regret the lack of aesthetic integrity. As Riley concedes: ‘Although there are loose clumps of persuasion within the book, the allegiances here are given as much by the criss-crossings of small-press publishing and editing as by aesthetic or programmatic loyalties.’ (p.1) Loosely clumped persuasions are rarely persuasive.
The absence of more substantive integrity threatens to give the impression of discrete cottage industries settling for honourable isolation as the aesthetics of agoraphobia. Indeed, the more discrete and honourable (I still think of Brutus when I hear this word) seem the most reluctant to venture forth from their cottages. What of the names not just of those not asked but of potential contributors who scorned the agora in advance, preferring the steely winds of posterity to such primers. It may be as well, while raising a toast to this rectangular window on the culture industry, to remember the justice of an aversion to the engines of publicity. Against the reluctance of stone throwers in glass houses to name names, and since this book offers itself as a distant cousin to A Various Art and The New British Poetry one might wonder at the absence of J.H.Prynne, Andrew Crozier, Iain Sinclair, Brian Catling, David Chaloner, to name but a few: not to mention David Dabydeen, Michelene Wandor, Eric Mottram, Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, Ian Hamilton Finlay or Bob Cobbing. (This last prompted by the retrospective anthology VERBI VISI VOCO: A Performance of Poetry, edited by Bob Cobbing and Bill Griffiths (Writers Forum).)
Among further caveats which seek to ward off critique, Denise Riley notes that this book is ‘virtually Male Poets on Writing’ (p.2). The exceptions are two poems by Grace Lake, seven poems by Wendy Mulford, a selection from Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice and Carlyle Reedy’s essay, ‘Working Processes of a Woman Poet’. Regrettably Denise Riley herself did not risk her editorial position by offering more than an introduction. It would have been fascinating to read her thoughts on many of the questions suggested by the book, not least the question of gender in contemporary poetry. In lieu, Carlyle Reedy’s essay is overdetermined by the weight of evidence in the volume itself, evidence which often seems to illustrate Reedy’s claim that: ‘Inverted femininity has served the male in fitting in with purposes of a steadily declining art purposefully and ecclesiastically ruled by male elitism.’ (p.269) The legacy of modernist engendering of subject positions in poetics has only recently begun to receive sustained critical attention, but this legacy threatens to feature more as the return of the repressed than as understanding. One of the urgent tasks facing any critical investigation of the groups of poets represented here is to understand the overwhelming pressure and presence of maleness in both their aesthetic and social practices. Inverted femininity does not quite account for the panoply of damaged sensitivities, troubadour amorisms, faded Romanticist yearnings and priapic sententiousness which make up the agoraphobic inversions of masculinity. The spectacle of poetry used as an amatory tool is one of those historical legacies much in evidence when poetry goes public. It is enough to make even the boldest immoralist, male or female, doubt the dissidence of such aesthetic pleasures when so evidently an epistemological closet for other desires. The Adamic privilege of naming is invariably a patriarchal resource. Indeed, the legitimation of male power in the division of labour has found new purpose in bardic gnosticism and necromancy, notably in the reinvention of shamanisms, without much consideration of the gender politics of the social function of shamans, as though there were no shame in the man. Perhaps more fundamental is the persistence and sheer inertia of ‘Man’ as the anthropocentric ground of being and thematic object of poetry. It is striking, for example, that Veronica Forrest-Thomson refers to the poet who wrote her poems as a ‘he’. This prompts reflection on gendered assumptions in the epistemologies and ontologies of language which continually surface in this book. If language is the house of being, then poetic worldliness often finds it difficult to see the wood for the trees, since the wall-paper of interiority has often sealed up the windows of exteriority. Such questions threaten to reveal historical, even comic, faultlines in much of the poetry implicit here, as if feminism since the 1960s were merely, for small-press poetry, a further cause for agoraphobia. This history needs to be understood but there are few vantages within the poetry itself which might allow a sympathetic perspective on its mobile dickery.
The extent to which a male poet might inflict damage on himself, seeking to remove himself from damaged experience to a reflectively distanced aesthetic position, is a recurring topos. The sought for tranquillity of some kind of recollected being – echoes of Romanticism are persistent – risks inflicting new damage in the distance achieved. Indeed, this damage is often figured in the use of metaphors of the mirror and the lamp to suggest poetic illumination. This indicates that discussion of poetic creativity is still mired in the territory analysed by M.H.Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic theory and the critical tradition.
One of the most engaging, witty and discursively flexible essays which addresses the relation between a contemporary poetic and romanticism is Michael Haslam’s ‘The Subject of Poems’. Haslam makes ironic virtue of his supposedly ‘quite amateur cultural speculations’ (p. 72). Haslam locates an idiosyncratic sense of modernism and postmodernism which he turns towards a strikingly untimely ‘neo-romantic’ evocation of ‘The Soul’ and of the poet as a ‘stupid fool’ (p.79): ‘Here goes. Poetry is a quest for truth, and purity, and essence. This despite the poet’s follies and corruptions, egotism and hypocrisy. Purity and essence and truth are platonic ideas, and not ashamed to be so. Poetry is the speech of the soul. The soul is the subject of poetry.’ (p.76) Such speculations, which the essay itself then modestly undermines, complement the untimely exhilarations of much of Haslam’s poetry (compare Peter Riley’s illuminating but all too brief commentary on Haslam’s Continual Song in Reality Studios 9). Nevertheless, Haslam’s avowed neo-romanticism is patterned with modern surprises by the pithy pathos of its declared amateurism: ‘Poetry is a grice: a hobby, a predicament, an obsession not unlike a medical condition – acute or chronic. It isn’t, anyway, a profession – or not in the modern bureaucratic sense.... I think it has to be an amateur art, attending on the romantic-enough chance of whose cheek the visitant fans.’ (pp. 75-6) The pathology of poetry’s unpaid labour suggests that romanticism may continue to provide a solace of affirmed vulnerability, but with a perilously pre-modern purchase. There is a Luddite whiff about this strain of agoraphobia. Nevertheless, Haslam’s essay provides a clear instance of the rewards both of a poet on writing as such, and as illumination of that poet’s poetry: may its song continue and its fame resound.
While Haslam suggests an honourable refusal to play the professional poet, John Hall’s essay suggests some of the ontological violence involved in seeking to sustain the identity of being a writer: ‘The aspiration itself entailed scorn of so many other identities, and a form of prospective irony awaited just about any of the pragmatic decisions about the earning of income that sooner or later would have to be made. And this dislike of any other possible self was (is) a helpless ethical judgment, lacking any practical grasp of economics and power.’ (p. 42) The abstract impracticality of the Great Refusal (Marcuse) of much poetic aspiration can be as violently coercive as the liberation it promises. In seeking to live the real as the rational, aesthetic projection may internalise the weight of prevailing social irrationality only to scorn the compensations of more practical social projects. Elsewhere, Haslam comments that ‘The desire to gain fame by making striking phrases is a mean sort of aim. Put plainly, it’s vain, and in terms of their fames, poets as a whole are a foolish bunch.’ (p. 70) More speculatively the pathology of the desire to be a writer may involve not just creative day-dreaming, but gendered displacement activity (womb-envy?); a regressive even destructive id mediated by authoritarian cultural super-ego (the will to power?); or a compulsion to repeat the alienation of impossible utopianism (spirituality as opium of the propagandist?). However therapeutic, poetry does not suffer the reality principle gladly.
Meanwhile, new peace-keeping forces have taken up position on the blood-soaked perimeter, seeking to offer Borgesian classificatory schemes and poetic geographies with all the dubious ingenuity of Vance-Owen cartography. We should be wary of the rush to map-making. The subtitle of Poets on Writing offers two dubious projections: ‘Britain’ and ‘1970–1991’. The temporal delimitation suggests an arbitrary empiricism reluctant to address either the agony of contemporaneity, or the pathological prehistory of modernity. The spatial delimitation – Britain – is less than frank about its studied parochialism. The no less evasive list of various places mentioned in the introduction of A Various Art – Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, London and Manchester – has the advantage of modesty over nationalism, but not only does the list need to be extended (Colchester, Lewes, the peripatetic addresses of Grosseteste Press and so forth), it also mystifies the Cambridge diaspora effect blasted with such verve by Andrew Duncan in Angel Exhaust 8. Poets on Writing is frank about not offering ‘a trimly-bordered ‘Cambridge School’’ (p.1), or indeed any kind of shared project. No one here wants to be guilty of being identified with a community, but it would be interesting to have some kind of class analysis of the relation between social articulacy and poetics as it informs the work of the poets collected here. (I can’t be the first to notice a certain preponderance of disaffected public school boys and the ‘beneficiaries’ of single sex education, for whom poetry is the articulation of sustained bruises.) This leaves ‘Britain’ as the mark of an exclusion zone to warn the unwary non-Anglo, not least because, as the book’s copyright page informs, Macmillan has representatives throughout the world.
To ward off such anxieties Denise Riley offers the caveat: ‘No claims of cohesion, other than by land-mass are made by the subtitle.’ (p.2) The relation of ‘cohesion’ by land-mass to the use of language is, however, one of those linguistic imperial leathers which ‘English’ poetry has to confront and rearticulate if it is not to soft soap the relations between power and literacy. Bosnian Serb leaders have claimed legitimacy from the affinity between a Greater Serbia and Great Britain. The desuetude of greatness will not release the dialectics of oppression which make up the unity of kingdoms, any more than earnest digging in Celtic peat bogs.
The contradictions of land-mass as a code of being are, moreover, part of the book’s explicit range of concerns. Nevertheless, while arguments voyage to Tikiraq in northwestern Alaska and the Yucatán peninsula, the epicentre is what Peter Riley refers to as ‘English poetry now’ (p.109), and there is little sign of embarrassment about Celtic fringes, post-colonial dispersals or multi-cultural metropolitanisms. The need for more fundamental rethinking of geography is pressing, not in the name of a British inclusiveness, but at the risk of reclaiming an aesthetics of place and placelessness from the abstract unfreedoms proclaimed by the U.N. and the inter- and intra-national violence of global capital.
John James offers an apt and witheringly ironic aside in his ‘A Theory of Poetry’ (one of the few non-prose pieces whose poetic relation to the book’s project more than justifies its inclusion): ‘do not be overawed / by wide open spaces / love France by all means / but love your own language first’ (p. 251). Elsewhere the ludic nomadism of Nick Totton’s ‘You Can’t Get There from Here’ (pp. 30-40) offers the bizarrely contradictory hope of ‘the form of a revolutionary nation’ (p.37), as if to demonstrate the failure to think beyond positivist geography.
Martin Thom’s essay ‘The Poet as Ethnographer’, however, sketches some of the contradictions in Olson’s redemptive display of prehistory and anthropocentric geography. Nevertheless, Thom stops short of offering explicit formulations about post-Poundian poetics. This is perhaps the defining situation for contemporary poetry which this book needs to address, and where the accumulated evidence of cottage industry anecdotage is most damaging to the possibility of small-press poetry as something more than a DIY hobby or Sunday supplement. Nevertheless, the evident if honourable failure of Olson and Olsonian speculative geography inadvertently suggests by implication that this seam of ‘English’ poetry offers not so much a counter-Pleistocene of imagined geography, but a neo-plasticine shamanism of the aptly named Cambridge dark room.
At the same time, Thom’s essay has the considerable merit of highlighting many important questions and parameters, as well as offering suggestive frameworks for thinking about Olson and Dorn. Indeed, even if one doubts ‘Lowenstein’s visionary sense of primordial human culture’ (p.199), Thom’s speculations on ‘areal geography’ (p.187) suggest the ambitiousness of the ‘early, but fully achieved poems in this vein by Andrew Crozier, John Hall, John James, Douglas Oliver, J.H.Prynne, Peter Riley and John Temple’ (p.187). This ambitiousness is one aspect of poetry in this vein which marks it off from secondary-modern poetry for schools (Larkin, Hughes, Harrison, Heaney) which has otherwise obscured its reception, and it is this kind of ambitiousness which is one of the more obvious justifications for cottage industry labour as the qualitative risk of a necessary agoraphobia.
As such, Thom’s essay emerges as one of the more important essays in the book, illuminating part of the Anglo-American context, but perhaps more importantly indicating the failure to carry through the implications of such projects: ‘It was then possible, in a way that is now only too rare... to treat a wholly alien value-firmament as a measure of what our civilisation now is.’ (p.196) Nevertheless, the difficulties of any transcendental fulcrum as a critical lever which eschews immanence and the dialectical process of negativity are not simply those of lapsed ambition. As Thom says of Dorn: ‘the image of a lost, primordial loveliness is continually obscured by the complex relationships between all the peoples participant in American history...’ (p.198) Historical evidence is contested but the modern political economy of North America is based on the genocide, according to some estimates, of ten million native American Indians. Such ‘civilisation’ represses the historical knowledge of what it brutally suppressed: the construction of the wholly alien is the return of the repressed as a totemic myth which repeats the violence of domination.
The necessary abstraction of selecting that which is non-identical to ‘our civilisation’ – as scholar-poet, seer, shaman, ethnographer or anthropologist – is part of the very mode of appropriation which has formed the cultural other as such. The anthropological turn, in whatever guise and however poeticised, cannot easily free itself of its historical role in the subjugation of other peoples in colonisation and imperialism. Such a turn is invariably one of the leading epistemes in the inhuman sciences of the oppressor. It has to participate in the process of global hybridisation in ways which cannot overcome its vantage of objectification without losing the critical claims which might motivate its project. The contradictions of vantage become subject to a dialectic of abstraction which summons cultural others only to evade complicity with the social totality from which vantage is sought. The solace of lyric cannot easily survive the barking dog and trumpet of Her Majesty’s Voice, at however many revolutions per minute. The particular which is displayed to convict the logic of identification in commodity exchange is selected from a perspective as totalizing as that which it convicts, a perspective which in turn generalises the particular in the abstract suggestion that things might be different. Moreover, the logic of specialisation in the knowledge necessary to participate meaningfully in such speculative poetics harbours within it a repressed identity. This identity is a desire for identification with an other sufficiently abstract to release that identity from itself. The sought-for protection against this repressed identity, however reflective, seeks to disturb itself by a specialisation which becomes a brittle shield against its own pathology. Perhaps, in speculative form, it is possible to discern part of the armoury of masculinity in a mode of appropriative objectification, a mode which fails to mediate the movement from critical statements of what is to a sustainable song of what might be. The labour of spirit argues for Hegelian tenacity.
Nevertheless, such speculations are perhaps premature, confronting poetics with an inflated and incommensurate cognitive task which only obscures the more particular qualities of poetry. Martin Harrison’s essay ‘The Particularity of Poetry’ suggests that: