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David Kennedy

British Poetry Never Was

or, Some Observations of Andrew Duncan’s
The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry

This piece is 2,400 words or about six printed pages long.

A different view of this book is provided by James Keery in Jacket 30.

The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry appears to be organised chronologically. For example, Chapter Four is called ‘Blowing Your Mind: Immediacy in the Sixties’ and Chapter Eight is called ‘An era of rising property values: Conservatism 1979-97’. However, throughout Duncan’s book something curious is happening with dates in the discussion. The first two chapters of the book sketch a post-war background and contain 34 dates of which 67% are in the 1960s and 1970s. The last chapter of the book, ‘Poetry in the 1990s’, contains 27 dates: 52% of them are in the 1960s and 1970s and only 30% of them are in the 1990s.

In some ways, this is perfectly understandable because what Eric Mottram called ‘The British Poetry Revival 1960-1975’ continues to function as the return of the repressed. For example, Neil Corcoran’s 308pp apparently inclusive survey, English Poetry since 1940, devotes only one page to it. The dominance of books like Corcoran’s means that any genuinely alert and representative account of post-war British poetry is obliged to go on rewriting and re-righting literary history. Critical accounts of avant-garde poetry are therefore condemned to mirror black, feminist or gay narratives, perpetually reinscribing the struggle to overcome being silenced, to come to consciousness, to come out or to gain rights and recognition. Reinscription remains the paradigm in what might be termed ‘identity narratives’ not only because they are ‘happy ever after’ stories but more importantly because the priorities of the system in which such individual stories are constructed remain unchanged. And, of course, because no-one can imagine what happens after recognition has been achieved.

In other ways, Duncan’s focus on the 1960s and 1970s is less desirable because it is has two curious effects. First, it shuts British poetry — modernist-derived or otherwise — into a kind of pastness. Consequently, it risks imprisoning latter-day practitioners in an aftermath where, like nineteenth-century prisoners, they are obliged to walk the treadmills and pick the oakum of old dissatisfactions and disputes. Revisiting the past also risks allowing the priorities of the system in which those dissatisfactions and disputes occurred to continue to dominate. Duncan raises the issue in his introduction — “If poetry is sold and publicised in the basis of what was happening thirty years ago, what is there for new poets? what do they plug into?” — but he seems to think that only what he terms the ‘pop-conservative mainstream’ is guilty of it.

   Second, the demand for belated recognition for ‘The British Poetry Revival’ and for work derived from it means that British poetry remains a matter of ‘ought to be’ because its past was a matter of ‘should have been’, ‘could have been’ and ‘never was’. Narratives of British poetry are therefore characterised by belatedness translated into what Duncan terms ‘retro-editing’. For example, an argument — not Duncan’s — that the most important books of the 1970s were Ted Hughes’s Crow, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and J. H. Prynne’s Brass is meaningless because such suggested interrelatedness was invisible then. Crucially, it either looks like wishful thinking now or sparks the same controversy it would have done at the time. At best, British poetry is like a maquette of Tatlin’s skew spiral Memorial to the Third International: a mind-boggling structure that was never built. Duncan rightly observes that “By locating this intoxicating sensation of new in a past era, of 1966 to 1975, we lose it forever ... we alienate ourselves from it as a sensation which occurs inside us and which belongs to us”. However, as my brief analysis of dates shows, he can’t quite avoid this alienation himself.

Tatlin's model 1919-1920

Tatlin’s Memorial to the Third International, model, 1919–20

It would wrong to read Duncan’s pastness purely as personal preference. Latter-day discussions of avant-garde, alternative, experimental, innovative or investigative cultural products generally are species of nostalgia. This is not because, as Matthew Collings argued in the Channel 4 television series This Is Modern Art, we are living after the end of newness or, as the American poet Ann Lauterbach has suggested, in a state of postmodern despair at the déjà new. It is because avant-garde activity has lost any sense of inevitability, of being, like Tatlin’s Memorial, the unavoidable outcome of cultural, economic, historical, political and social conditions. US Language writing, for example, is controversial precisely because it attempts to reclaim this sense of inevitability: it claims that this is the only way that poetry can and should be written in this time and in this place.

Belatedness, pastness, nostalgia and retro-editing are also symptomatic of the level of critical debate about British poetry. Duncan is right when he points to “a problem in communicating” but the problem is more far-reaching than he is prepared to acknowledge. If we accept his cartoon of a “split between a pop-conservative mainstream” and the inheritors of ‘The British Poetry Revival’ “undergoing complex internal evolution in a cultural margin ... [innovating] constantly, questioning everything and relying on spontaneity” then we will also have to acknowledge ferocious prejudices on both sides of the split. As I have noted in a review of Assembling Alternatives at, criticism written from both sides of the split is still often characterised by an emphasis on what a poem looks like rather than on what it does and how it does it.

The problem in communicating is not helped by the fact that there are distinct critical languages for poetry produced on both sides on the split. Here’s a cartoon to add to Duncan’s. Writing about innovative poetries often seems to be motivated by a desire to rise to what the writer sees as the intellectual complexity and linguistic innovation of the work. The result can be criticism that is less penetrable than the work it addresses. Writing about mainstream poetries often seems to be motivated by a desire to avoid any engagement with the linguistic surfaces of the work or with the conditions that mark its creation. The result can be criticism that tells us more about the writer’s response than the work itself. Here’s Brian Henry writing about James Tate in Poetry Review in 1998: “If tragicomedy is the bastard offspring of delight and terror, then Tate is a terribly delightful poet.”

Both types of criticism are forms of excess caused by assumptions about poetry on opposite sides of the split and by the economic conditions of poetry generally. Here’s another cartoon to add to Duncan’s. Innovative poetries are characterised by the presence of poetics which means that poetics — rightly or wrongly — comes to be seen as the only way of writing about poetry. The condition of “undergoing complex internal evolution in a cultural margin” means in turn that writing about poetry — one’s own or others’ — becomes part of continually unfolding textures of poetics which are an inextricable part of that internal evolution. The fact that there is so little at stake in terms of financial rewards, book royalties and readerships means that innovative writers can afford a little self-indulgence.

Mainstream poetry is characterised by a complete lack of anything that one could call poetics. Heaney’s essays, for example, do not repay re-reading and the short essays that appear in, say, poetrynews on things like line length rarely rise above the level of an instruction manual. Mainstream poetry is characterised by the presence of reviewing which because it is co-extensive with blurbs and PR comes to be seen as the only way of writing about poetry. Since there are identifiable financial rewards, identifiable readerships and predictable royalties which are to a large extent pre-formed by this low level of writing about poetry, mainstream writers can afford a little complacency.

In this context, one of the most valuable things about The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry is that it reads as a performative exploration of what sort of critical language is possible for British poetry now. Duncan veers between a number of different styles. There is wild, wrong-headed assertion: Tom Raworth is “a poet of the early Sixties” and Charles Olson was “an American who ... never managed to write any good poetry”. There are curiously unedited and/or underwritten passages: a discussion of Peter Redgrove suddenly starts referring to him as ‘R.’. There is echt Duncan: “In [Ken Smith’s] The Poet Reclining I find virtually no hypotaxis at all.” There are peculiar recommendations: George MacBeth and Jeremy Reed. There is echt Duncan: “Prynne’s pessimism” and “anti-idealism” in the late 1960s are likened to “the need for military discipline within the Red Army at a time when comrades expected the issue of the struggle to be a society without offices”. There is knockabout comedy: mainstream poetry is “a kind of torture which may well be declared illegal by a future session of the European Court”. There is agit-prop manifesto: ‘Logical complexity can only be achieved by tampering with the unit structures of language.’

Critically and stylistically, Duncan seems unable to decide whether he wants to sit at his desk and write or stand on it and harangue large crowds. The stylistic mix makes it very hard to follow what argument Duncan is trying to present. This is partly because the book is performative: Duncan likes to argue because he likes to argue as opposed to arguing in support of a particular viewpoint. However, large parts of the book are not an argument at all but splicings of readings, opinions, and politicised literary criticism. This often makes The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry remarkably similar to Martin Booth’s 1985 book British Poetry 1964 to 1984: Driving Through The Barricades in its unstable mix of lists, surveys, odd opinions and journalistic chattiness. Can you spot who wrote what?

Consider the aforementioned [X.] He is a typical small press man and a look at him and his operations over the years since 1968 shows just what small pressery is all about. He made mistakes and he had considerable success.


For ten years, he pursued this creative voracity, through half a dozen pamphlets and as many books; invisible, in a literary underground, where other “radicals” had wives and a job; [X] has never had a job except poetry.

   Duncan is also inconsistent in following his own approaches. He wants to make wide-ranging socio-historical overviews of particular decades but isn’t always able or willing to link these overviews convincingly to the poetry produced in those decades. I think this is because Duncan can’t decide whether he wants to write about poetry or about culture and society. This is a great disappointment because the other really valuable aspect of the book is a passionate argument that surfaces intermittently about the need to view British poetry in terms of what is variously called ‘collective change’, ‘style history’, ‘collective practices’, and ‘the style which answered to the era’. Chapter Six, ‘The Gothic Strain in Seventies Poetry’, is an object lesson in how to write this sort of criticism but many of the other ‘decade’ chapters are less successful. This may be because the Seventies was one of the few decades when the phrase ‘culture and society’ had any active meanings.

The performative style of The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry makes it a very exhausting book to read. The performative style is partly derived from Duncan’s vigorously enacted belief — in this book and elsewhere — that criticism’s primary function is to annoy, irritate and enrage. This belief may partly account for what John Wilkinson has noted: the small number of poets that Duncan actually seems to like, around nine or ten. Wilkinson may well be correct when he says that that this is due to “the historical formation of Duncan’s taste in the late sixties and early seventies”. Narrowness of taste is not a failing in itself. However, a book whose title promises a broad historical narrative and whose introduction announces an intention “to give the elements of a history of non-conservative poetry in this country” must necessarily be less concerned with taste than with representativeness. The fact that Jeremy Reed gets substantial coverage when, for example, Bob Cobbing, Ric Caddel, Peter Riley and Geraldine Monk get none underlines the dubious nature of Duncan’s critical project.

The narrow coverage means that Duncan misses two important facts about what he calls ‘non-conservative poetry’. The first is that, contrary to the picture implied throughout the book, innovative poets do not work in isolation. Duncan’s discussion of Kelvin Corcoran begins thus:

the principal formal influence is Raworth, although Kelvin has spoken of Alan Halsey as someone he reveres, and wrote an (unpublished) doctoral thesis on Peter Riley.

What surfaces briefly here, despite Duncan’s insistence on Raworth, is the way that innovative poetries function through socialities of reading and writing. There is no point categorising the condition of innovative poetries as “undergoing complex internal evolution in a cultural margin” if you can’t be bothered to explore and represent how internal evolution functions through relationships and how such relationships may themselves be a condition of marginality. The second fact Ducan misses is that many innovative poets partake of a range of literary and non-literary avant-garde practices. Alan Halsey, for example, produces work that is marked, variously, by concrete poetry, visual text, US poetry of the 1960s and 1970s and the high modernism of David Jones and Wyndham Lewis.

The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry can be read as a recipe book of different ways to write the history of post-war British poetry and to make the case for innovative poetries. However, the book also invites a much less comfortable reading: that a detailed historico-critical account of post-war British poetry, non-conservative or otherwise, is actually impossible. This is largely because Duncan’s writings often convey a sense of devilish, pessimistic jouissance of the apparent impossibility of obtaining the true object of his critical desire. As a consequence, Duncan seems positively Lacanian.

So we are left with a question: is post-war British poetry as a critical task simply too big and too much for us now? Until an answer can be found, or the search for one definitively shown to be misguided, it seems that British poetry never was and will never now take place.

Jacket 26 — October 2004  Contents page
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