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Groups and Boundaries: The Field of Poetry Around 1995

   

 

by

   

 

Andrew Duncan

 

 

The poet John Hartley Williams asked, in a baffled letter, "Why is there virtually no overlap between three recent anthologies of modern British poetry?" Mutual incomprehension is a threat to poetry, even if it is the product of passionate and largely successful revolt. Perhaps we can get some glimpse of the overall shape of the cultural field by looking at a number of anthologies, as formative sites where both poets and readers undergo violent waves of assimilation and dissimilation.

 

Method

 

I looked for names which overlap in 15 anthologies published between 1985 and 1996, including about 440 different poets, by my count. Quite a few significant poets are missed from these anthologies, as well as diverse insignificant ones. A count of the overlaps shows aesthetic distances: out of 156 possible paired links between two anthologies, only 48 actually exist; or, out of about 6000 possible overlaps of names, about 184 exist. The pattern becomes clearer if we go to a second stage and regroup the 15 anthologies into 7 clusters.

 

This is a schematic account that succeeds by screening out details. Will poets recognise themselves in it? There are two responses. You can see yourself as containing all things, transcending categories, so vivid that description must fail—what we call the ego-illusion. Or you can have a vision of cultural space, passive enough to contain all things, allowing them shape and location, composing a field where everything relates to everything else. This may be the difference between how you see yourself and how others see you.

 

The model proposed here relies on the ability of the editors of anthologies to identify genuine cultural fault lines, or genuine temporary identities if you will. Their errors of judgment would tend to invalidate the relevance of the model to the poetry audience. This is an attempt to make implicit knowledge visible and shared. It is subject to criticism and modification in order to make it more visible and sharable. Because poets write more than one poem, they may not fit snugly into a point in the space proposed. One poet like Hartley Williams may occupy three or four non-adjacent cells in a 3D space.

 

The clusters are as follows:

 

(A) Feminist/ women's/ (grading into) young pop-mainstream

(The New Poetry; 60 Women Poets; Angels of Fire; Purple and Green; The New British Poetry, part 2)

 

(B) Black and South Asian

(The New British Poetry, part 1)

 

(C) Intellectual

(The New British Poetry, parts 3 and 4; Conductors of Chaos; Out of Everywhere; A Various Art)

 

(D) Scottish

(Dream State; Contraflow on the Super-Highway; The New Makars)

 

(E) Young & amateur

(The Stumbling Dance)

 

(F) Traditional & low

(Outsiders, Exiles, and Rebels: Completing the Picture; Agenda, an Anthology 1959-93)

 

(G) Anglo-Welsh

(The Urgency of Identity)

 

Poets who "overlap" two clusters are 49/440, or 11%. To put this another way, the poetic groups are 89% sealed tight. This confirms that the boundaries are real. A provisional analysis of another 10 anthologies found that they made the boundaries more robust.

 

The central area for this dataset is those born between 1939 and 1963. Omissions from it include (H) the Jungian direction (variously, mythic, Gothic, psychotherapeutic, into primitive religion, based on folklore, etc.) which has produced some very interesting poetry disliked by most editors; on show in magazines like Temenos, Ore, and Memes. There is no source here for the continuance (cluster I) of the academic mainstream of the 1950s, although Agenda does include some poems in this line. There is no focused collection of Pop poetry, but it is impossible to think about Pop anyway, and its influence is strong in Angels of Fire. 

 

Examples

 

(B) The New British Poetry, edited by Gillian Allnutt, Fred D'Aguiar, Eric Mottram, Ken Edwards (1988), 360 pp., 85 poets: Section 1: "Black British Poetry" edited by Fred D'Aguiar

 

"I did try to tell her something of what was oppressing my mind: more than half of all English words directly or indirectly slur blackness—and I was teaching the bloody language and the bloody literature and also actually writing my novels in it." (Dambudzo Marechera, from The House of Hunger)

 

The Introduction disclaims completeness in favour of  "cross-section and […] representation"; says that the poems "tend to argue not just with themselves and with each other, but with society as a whole"; says that although poetry "cuts across race and class" these divisions do not vanish; says that the division between oral and literary poetry is declining. The selections are diverse in style and also mix Urdu with Jamaican poets.

 

The Black section, carefully partitioned off so that readers don't have to pay any attention to other people's sections, offers the seductive potential of a world periphery, a kind of free trip to a different and exotic topography and sociology. The problem of consuming exoticism is always that, the more exotic the message is, the more incomprehensible it is. The more remote Caribbean poetry is from the British cultural context, the more peripheral and ignorable it becomes for a British reader.

 

The idea of erasing your own code, of pouring yourself out to the periphery, suggests that this experience will be significant: reading Black poetry will not be like reading White poetry, it will take you somewhere and be progressive and unselfish. Oral poetry (as rapping, toasting, mike chanting, etc.) is popular in the Black community. This has a destructive influence on the printed version, which does not have the added attractions of music, beer, and dance. Contacts with the home islands are very close, and this means a steady flow, not just of reggae records, but also of  "dub poetry" and other cultural adaptations from the other side of the ocean.

 

 Caribbean sociolinguistics is peculiarly complex and locally variable. On anglophone Caribbean islands, as I understand it, the upper class speak something very similar to Received Pronounciation English, and the graduations from that to a creolized basilect correspond to social status. Psychological problems follow; this produces an almost ineluctable pressure to stylistic polarization, so that it would become impossible to write about ideas in patois or about intimate feelings in Standard English. On the island, in situ, this elaborate structure supplies rather precise information, useful for characterization, humour, etc.; but transfer the speakers to England, and speech differences no longer supply valid information. Patois in fact aligns with a naïve self-presentation in poetry. Patois carries, at least potentially, a nationalist and lower class charge.

 

The audience expectation of colonial peoples involves authenticity and untouchedness. Like other myths of the periphery, this involves the concept of depth: in the depths of the slums; in the abyss; deep patois. This expectation of profound homogeneity discourages self-consciousness in the author. We also use the word “deep” of colours. The funding agencies put indirect pressure on Black artists to be conservative and populist in form, because they want their campaign to promote ethnic arts to be visibly Black and visibly ethnic, and they feel much more secure about this if the art in question involves patois, yams, coloured clothing, and a beat-box. There is a niche for this kind of thing, a circuit. A Black artist who is being conceptual or, heaven preserve us, avant-garde, is likely to vanish from sight.

 

(C) Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair (1996), 484 pp., 35 poets

 

The poetry included has been described as radical, modernist, experimental, non-realistic, counter cultural, dissident, theoretical. The Introduction says, "The work I value most is that which seems the most remote, alienated, fractured" and speaks of "Pulp and poetry, the most extreme cultural responses, trapped in a clandestine marriage." Within Conductors we can detect two trends, carried out by rival groups known as the Cambridge and London schools. The geographical terms do not describe where the poets live or studied, but seize a division which is of association and reference; it refers much more to which magazines someone publishes in than to artistic affinity. In the "London" group, we can detect a rejection of convention, replaced by a language-game in which events are monotonous and energetic, as if liberation meant being free from differentiation and qualification. In the "Cambridge" tendency, we can point to a reflexive approach, where the poet's self is always present, and the action tends to be the play of nuances within the moral and aesthetic tribunal controlling the self's behaviour towards others. The London school moves towards a state of jumping up and down shouting, whereas the Cambridge school moves towards painting and philosophy. One is a fast and dirty aesthetic; one is a cool aesthetic. In London there is an interest in graphic poetry and sound poetry, the disintegration of word and of phonemes, as if totality were to be reached by breaking down the primary rules of language, which in Cambridge is seen as infantile regression; whereas Cambridge poetry is seen in London as not being strange enough, failing to compete in a game where differentiation from natural speech is an index of power and virility.

 

The roughness of some of the language leaves it open to being interpreted as careless and badly finished. The superabundance of implicit statements possibly points to a profound homogeneity of the creators and the target audience, as a group that has lived together for twenty years and has unstated common valueswhich, indeed, would be profoundly bored by the statement of these common values. This can be compared with the greater social and geographical diversity of an anthology like The New Poetry, which has minimised the ideas content and simplified the style in order to meet an unprimed audience. Every poet here is extremely stylised; if the start point is improbable, the improbability grows with every successive line that fits in exactly with the previous ones and does not drift back towards the ordinary. Clearly, the poem is growing out of the idea of itself; it is partly a hypothesis, partly auto-suggestion, perhaps an anxiety hallucination; the brain programme which thinks and hypothesises is as much writing the material of the poem as the programme which takes in information, and continually updates it, from the outside world. The observer is the subject as much as the observed. The inside of the poem is as much like a museum or a philosophical argument, as like a length of film of a domestic scene. The principle of association of components in the poem can be either simultaneity in space and time or logical and emotional affinity. A visual record of a domestic event can be misleading, because it does not show the internal processes of the actors, for example emotions and memories; the visual record can reveal these only under improbable and even rigged circumstances.

 

Conductors includes five poets of the FortiesDavid Jones, JF Hendry, W. S. Graham, Nicholas Moore and David Gascoyneas ancestors. The absence of any poets from The New British Poetry 1 and 2i.e. the feminists and the racial minoritiescan be taken as an indication that Sinclair may not like the work of those poets, or that the target audience does not like it; conversely, the lack of public presence of the poets who do get selected can be interpreted as a mass opting by the left-intellectual audience against left-intellectual poets and in favour of oppressed groups who have client status, whom administrators need to understand, and who are traditionally heard only as third persons in sociological reports or welfare records.

 

(A) The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy, David Morley (1993), 340 pp., 57 poets

 

The boundary is poets who have emerged since 1982, the date of an anthology which the editors regard as canonical. The Introduction talks of "the hierarchies of values […] disappearing", "flux", "accessibility, democracy and responsiveness", "death of the national consensus", "ironic social naturalism", "the marginal becoming central", "pluralism", "multicultural", "challenge the centre", "a questioning of ideas about poetic authority, sincerity, and authenticity", "above all sceptical", and claims a great diversification of British poetry starting in 1980, ignoring the British Poetry Revival catalogued by Eric Mottram in 1974. Perhaps the most significant point about The New Poetry is that it excludes every single poet in Conductors; or vice versa; a strip of cognitive dissonance which leaves the present writer without a vantage point where to stand.

 

Most of the poets belong to what has been described as the Nincompoop School, because of their expert avoidance of seriousness, stemming from a fear of being authority in an era of popular cynicism; they are products of a Biedermeier era, of flight from an aggressive right-wing ruling group into domestic art and artificially prolonged immaturity. This is a reaction against the moral seriousness promulgated by the new criticism (and which, conventionally, was overrun by Pop hedonism in the 1960s). Most of the innovations of the 1960s and 1970s have been cast aside in a regression to the conversational norm that is, however, described in the publicity statement as innovative and experimental. We can speculate that the suppression of the existence of the avant-garde in so much of the media is due to a territorial rivalry in which conventional material is marketed as experimental. The relationship between the two groups depends on reading age: experimental poetry demands more reading skills than The New Poetry, its attenuation of literalism gives it far more formal freedom, but also gives the reader far more chances to get confused and then angry. The New Poetry is much tidier and more conventional and helpfully labelled. It minimises the gap between poetry and stand-up comics or disk jockeys.

 

The connection between resistance to convention: high educational level: political radicalism: fitness for authority drawn during the era of 1968 has as fallout that readers find poetry which is more conventional and less morally serious, more relaxing. There is a break point as one rises up the curve of intelligence at which tidiness ceases to be a mark of intelligence and becomes one of conformism. Of course, this raises questions of prestige (and of the mimicry of prestige behaviour). Poetry that questions everything certainly fulfils one of the imperatives of the education system, certainly minimises repetition of old information, but also faces the breakup of language itself.

               

In general, this is conservative and light verse to set beside the complex and brilliant art of Conductors; however, examination of the poets closest to the boundary will show that several of the Conductors’ aren't complex or intelligent, and that several of the airheads in The New Poetry are brilliant and far from simple.

 

(G) Completing the Picture: Exiles, Outsiders, and Independents, edited by William Oxley (1995), 185 pp., 34 poets

 

The rhetoric of the title is curious: the poems in the book are traditional, conventional, and ordinary. The two favoured topics seem to be hedgehogs and King Arthur. An Arthurian poem about hedgehogs would presumably be very popular in this market. The claim to completeness made in the title is not credible.

 

Oxley says in his Introduction that the poets have nothing in common except being "a recognizable continuation of the tradition of English poetry" and that they are critically ignored (he does not specify if they are more popular with publishers or readers, or other poets). They don't suffer from "technosis". They are unsuccessful, he says, because the critic cares more about the biography and sociological identity than the poem; because of the “parlous state” of criticism; because of exile, or internal exile, as a "recluse", which all poets must be as original people. Such exiled poets tend to “over-produce”. “There are no role models here for the poetic lager-lout!”

 

The anthology exhibits the mediocrity that radical poets daringly and bewilderingly escape from. This proposition of a lumpish and heedless sensibility expands our knowledge even if by dredging scaly monsters from the deep. It is possible that Oxley has chosen their worst poems. Feyyaz Fergar, Anna Adams, or Harry Guest do not show up too badly. Oxley also supplies an introduction to each poet, about another 34 pages.

 

The poets do not seem confident with their texts, as if getting to the end without disaster were ambitious enough; expressivity would demand more technical command. Positive aesthetic choice is sidelined, to be replaced by a certain loyalty, to the idea of the poem and its familiar tune, and decency. The strain between being unfashionable and being unoriginal dominates the book. Oxley criticises Anna Adams, a gifted contributor, saying, "A good poet needs some obsession […] a sort of message or vision". We need a word for the category that includes {visions, obsessions, fashions, political ideals, and experiments}. The problem with a vision is that it is apodictic, authoritarian, and non-negotiable, and as soon as we make it open for modification and for discussion by more than one person it has become a hypothesis or experiment, the very things Oxley is attacking the modern poetry world for doing. The term “outsiders” suggests two sets of non-mainstream poets; those in contact with other poets, who penetrate the realm of formal experiment; and those who are cut off, and stick to literary devices which are many decades out of date. Someone like Cris Cheek or Caroline Bergvall, for example, is obviously an insider in the sense that they make a living out of art and are in daily contact with other writers; however small their audience. The decree by which something becomes out of date is arbitrary, emitted by a literary circle, and can be called tyrannical; it is possible to opt out of it at household level, like refusing to pay the Poll Tax. The hypothesis that recluse outsiders write bad poetry because they have no grasp of the reader's sensibility, and so are under-stimulated, and largely uninventive and repetitive, remains a hypothesis. The rejection by the selected poets of literary trends (advances? crazes?) since about 1960 may allow us to identify what these trends have been; permitting a critique of the milieu as being academic, metropolitan, socialistic, anti-romantic, etc. This is one more contest over legitimacy.

 

(A) 60 Women Poets, edited by Linda France (1993), 275 pp., 60 poets

 

There is an Introduction that includes the following: "that communicates itself effectively and unequivocally", "a sense of history", "the honesty of a clearly owned I", "a well-lived life", "small acts of kindness", not "unrealistic, high-minded-ascetic", "the sense of place, of community", "our concerns are essentially very similar", "never any sense of the merely ephemeral, of fashion, 'schools'”, "being true to their own nature".

 

Faced with a reliably predictable environment, one seizes on the moments of deviation and transgression from homemade rules. We find indeed at many points attempts to be unpredictable, to be ambiguous, to offer sensations that aren't immediately classifiable, moments of biography that aren't instantly demonstrations of womanly virtues. Typically, this occurs through smells: because they are elusive yet arousing, physically dispersed yet really there. Smells stand in for abstract ideas.

 

A repeated image is the fantasy about being a cow, a leitmotif that could have made a good cover image. If your secret dream is to be a cow, this book is for you. A certain massive reliability, indifference to distracting stimuli, physically founded self-confidence, contentment with immediate surroundings, speak for themselves. Also food is constantly being described. This is meant to be sensuous and so superior to abstraction; and is status competition. Imagine a geometer who reconfigured Sainsbury's so you could never leave. A poem about food is not like food, it is made entirely of ideas and has to fulfil the laws of the intelligence or leave us hungry.

 

With a few exceptions, the poets all seem to write in the same style. Maybe this is just my insensitivity to fine differences in patterns I am weakly motivated to notice, so the verbal differences might be like stylistic differences between a dozen dresses which I am happy to classify as "dress". Perhaps they all cluster in the same few square inches because that enhances differentiation.

 

60 Women Poets can be related to Purple and Green as depoliticised, compared to Out of Everywhere as anti-intellectual and low. It relates to amateur poetry, not in these 15 books, as brighter and more efficient.

 

It is possible to argue that ideas are the concern of powerful people, food the concern of ordinary people, so that the exclusion of ideas represents a rejection of elitism and a reaching-out to the mass market. This depoliticisation raised two other topics: first, that the goal of politics could well be a kind of suburban affluence, and apolitical poets, by depicting this material plenty, could claim to have "got over politics", and that freedom from ideas is actually freedom from anxiety. Secondly, that contestation of settled authority became a form of status competition, like having experience of drugs and alcohol; there was a kind of rule that "anyone non-contestatory is an idiot" (concomitantly, "all settled authority is an idiot"), which ceased to be fashionable in the 1980s; the redefinition of the poem away from ideas and towards objects, away from the community towards the household, is in line with what the Conservative Party designed, and what accounts for their electoral success.

 

(E) The Stumbling Dance, edited by Rupert Loydell (1994), 246 pp., 22 poets

 

The Introduction states that the idea of the anthology was new or young poets, but this turned out not to be the case. The editor does not believe in schools or manifestoes.

 

A look at the contents list indicates that two of the poets' names are misspelt on the cover. It has been included here as a source of poetry of low standards, as a background against which to examine literary poetry. The contributors seem to have low confidence in their own ability and in the powers of language. They don't ask very much of the reader. They don't put the reader into a specialised state, an elaborate game calling for behaviour which departs widely from everyday norms, and which moves inside a complex symbolic array; this may go along with a suspicious attitude towards ideas, a truculent feeling that things are obstinate and that ideas don't change them very much. If these poems did induce one into an error, it would not be of a captious or treacherous kind. It is hard to date the poems by style, since style of any kind is hard to locate; this does not mean that they are coterminous with reality. Looking at them, one hypothesises that the elementary condition of poeticity is a game shared between writer and readers, which resets the terms of reality, and whose depth depends on the enthusiasm of both sides; a virtual space whose dimensions are specified by the sociolinguistic situation. Being unable to take part in games may imply a criticism of commodity capitalism, the media, or the education system, as sites where games take place. The poets represent situations which they seem to have little control over or stake in; no-one could accuse them of rigging experience to bear out ideas, which they don't have. They often use the word “traipse”, to signal a kind of clumsy reluctance with which they go through life. This stolidity is perhaps a denial of the authenticity of sensibility; both an idea and an emotion seem, here, to depend on a basic distortion of probability, a trick of the brain against the universe, preordained to be found out.

 

Not all the poetry is uninteresting: Paul Holman is one of the hopes of British poetry and Norman Jope is a mythic-Jungian who has written some beautiful poems. In general the anthology serves to illustrate non-literary poetry, the opposite pole from skilled poetry, whether mainstream or artistic.

 

(There is no overlap between (7) and any of the other anthologies.)

 

(D) Dream State, edited by Daniel O'Rourke (1994), 229 pp., 25 poets

 

Aesthetically, Dream State covers a wider formal span than the other books here listed, from high to low; while diverse, it is of very uneven quality. You have to be both younger and Scottish to be allowed in.  It covers a wider formal span than the other books here listed, from high to low; while diverse, it is of very uneven quality. I counted 29 poems in Scots out of 156. The Introduction refers to the enormous influence of Edwin Morgan, and quotes him on "the other dedicationto a society, to a place, to a nation." All Scottish poets were affected by the withholding of autonomy in 1979 and the fanaticism of the Thatcher government that came to power soon afterwards; but "a kind of queasy quietism seems to have prevailed as far as day-to-day dialectics were concerned". The poets were dreaming a new state, enjoying "a vigorous pluralism" to a society, to a place, to a nation." All Scottish poets were affected by the withholding of autonomy in 1979 and the fanaticism of the Thatcher government that came to power soon afterwards; but "a kind of queasy quietism seems to have prevailed as far as day-to-day dialectics were concerned". The poets were dreaming a new state, enjoying "a vigorous pluralism" and "unprecedented cultural confidence". The poets were born between 1955 and 1967, but the Introduction does not relate style to age. As the Introduction says, "(A)ny statement about Scotland is likely to be true": a dreamlike state, not quite a dream (and not quite a state); the rest of the introduction is about individual poets and not to our purpose; it merely claims pluralism.

 

The pressure to break up the spectrum which has led to so many separate markets in England is here ignoredbut not quite, for there is no tradition in Scotland of anthologies of younger poets, and this one is therefore an innovation. The Scots market is less mature than the English one, where this specialisation of commodity also seems to imply a narrowing of scope for the individual poet. There is also less sense of specialisation inside the poets' work. Whether we read this array of rejection and withdrawal as sophistication or as hostility will influence our judgment on the development of the market. A Scottish anthology is of course a specialised commodity, isolated by nature in bookshops that hold masses of American and English poetry. Regional anthologies are also starting to exist, but mostly including prose; Fower Brigs til a Kinrik, an excellent volume, collected poems by four poets from Fife. Whereas a nationally defined anthology is pictorial, accepting, and identifying, asks readers to think of the society which generated it, using the separate poets as characters, like figures in an illustration showing all the different types that make up a society; a technical anthology like Conductors asks us to think about the forces which generate a self. It is critical, isolating, and analytical. It relates to sociological theory (for example, phenomenology) but not to descriptive sociology. Because it narrows views down to those of the poets, it is much more homogeneous than Dream State. It claims to be universal, but through being non-faithful to, and outside, actual social experience. Apart from the Informationists, the poetry included is quite uninteresting.

 

(F) Agenda An Anthology: The First Four Decades 1959-93, edited by William Cookson  (1994), 281 pages of poetry,

and more of prose, 53 poets

 

The model put together has an obvious flaw when we look, not at 1995, but at the prehistory, say around 1920-40. I mapped Agenda as literary and low because of 9 overlaps with Outsiders. But it includes poets such as Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, MacDiarmid—quite certainly the ancestors of the poets in A Various Art and Conductors.  This connection—quite undeniable—gives us a headache: Why do the younger poets in Agenda not appear in A Various Art, and why do the poets from A Various Art  never appear in Agenda?

 

The Introduction describes the editor's contacts with Ezra Pound, the inspiration of the magazine, and not artistic policy. There are only a series of circular statements; to the effect that good poetry is good. There is a horizontal split in the magazine's cultural selection: for poets born before 1900, it chooses the most radical and the most ambitious, but for younger poets it chooses obscure and unambitious figures. Speculatively, Cookson (the editor) was smitten, when he was a teenager, by meeting poets fifty years older than he was; this experience could never happen again, and so he was disappointed with, and resentful of, all later poetic developments (later than 1959). Geoffrey Hill gets proper handling, but he was already established in 1959. Agenda's handling of First World War veterans like David Jones and Giuseppe Ungaretti has been absolutely exemplary. The poetry in Agenda is conservative rhythmically, syntactically, in the logical sequence of ideas, in the lack of linguistic effects, in the way the image of the poet is presented, in the lack of contention with established authorities and ideas, in the reserved and low-affect tone, in the lack of conjecture, in the preference for old books and buildings, in the sense of stability, and sometimes in the resort to religious values and a disapproving morality. There are exceptions, for example the metre of David Jones is not conservative. This conservative literate poetry represents a continuation of the Movement style, and of the conventions accepted by Eng Lit academics in the 1950s.

 

The ambience of Agenda is unusually specific, and is the sequel of a position of embittermentanti-democratic, anti-modern, anti-establishmentand concomitant illuminist conspiracy of the secret elite, in 1959, which has developed by violently rejecting anything new happening since 1959, while striking attitudes of martyrdom (at not being a recognised authority) and exilic condemnation (exercising authority to revile and condemn without having any authority), in a vogue of security and solidarity, the fraternal feelings of the conspirators. The specifics of the Poundian position of the editor are unshared by anyone else, but the magazine's support represents a wider faction, that of an educated group with low upward mobility who regard all the challenges to middle-class authority that have occurred over the past 40 years as insolent and dangerous The educated public is in fact split between those who accepted the proposals of the New Left in the 1960s, and those who did not.

 

(G) The Urgency of Identity, contemporary English-language poetry from Wales, edited by John T Lloyd (1994). 217 pp.,

including interviews, 19 poets

 

The Introduction speaks of "colonizer's language", "a colonial or postcolonial condition" where use of English "compromises their sense of identity [...] a kind of treason" (hence the name of the book), "Welshness", "struggle to preserve the Welsh language", "pressure towards Anglicization", "a minority language under siege", "fundamentally shaped by Welsh culture, landscape, and language", "clear nationalistic bias [...] has not gained recognition, much less acceptance", "lose its distinctive qualities over time", "language/identity issues", "specifically Welsh times and places", "interested in mythology and in history", "grounded in place and time".

 

The quality of the poems is low; unfairly using information from outside the book, I can suggest that more gifted poets (David Barnett, Elisabeth Bletsoe) were excluded because they are "ethnically" English. Chris Bendon has been included and raises the quality significantly. Your address decides whether you get arts-grant money; one of the rules of a game that I cannot expound, because the committees sit behind closed doors. The poems by Peter Finch are also excellent; David Greenslade, the other half of Wales' avant-garde, was not visible in 1994. The limitation to "poets of the 1980s and 1990s" explains why Roland Mathias, Raymond Garlick, and Emyr Humphreys are not included.

 

Meic Stephens, interviewed, remarks that reviewers and writers in Wales mostly know each other, and he misses argument and theoretical debate in Wales.

 

Analysis

 

We can answer Hartley Williams’ question by proposing that identification leads to partial loss of insight. A poem grips the reader’s mind at many levels—and, so occupied, the mind is less able to transform and identify with other kinds of poetry. Anthologists recognise this and produce convergent selections of poems. We propose that each anthology is organised around an ideal. The divisions of the map are not there because there is a wholly empty space separating each group, but because poets strive towards an artistic ideal the areas remote from any single ideal are sparsely populated.

 

I see the clusters named as similar to genres. In 1956, someone who went to a western one Friday could go to a musical the next Friday and a Doris Day flick the week after that. Genre, even at its height, is not co-extensive with an individual’s needs; the concept is more one of temporary cultural identity, where someone can adopt different artistic wishes at different times.

 

The radius that is the stylistic distance between Sean O’Brien and J. H. Prynne, say, is the most striking feature of the scene. Viewing the scene as a virtual space allows us to see this distance as a monumental quality: the object that contains it is like a mountain or a pyramid, a triumph of scale. The mutual rejection of various individuals (secondarily, of various groups) is the feature of the scene which most calls for explanation. I suppose understanding of it follows only from a grasp of hundreds of individual works. We can suggest that it may follow from a simple quality of speech: we wish to be the only person speaking (when we speak). If we extrapolate this to a field of 400 poets (a minimum figure) the wish for other poets to fall silent may also climb to high levels. I would wish to deliver the experience of knowing O’Brien’s apprehension of Prynne and then at once of knowing Prynne’s apprehension of O’Brien.

 

Because this research was done so long ago, we have to raise the question of how the cultural field has changed since then. The Graywolf anthology (New British Poetry, ed. Paterson and Simic, 2006) shows how things have developed. Although the continuity between it and the 1993 The New Poetry are obvious, the individuals have developed artistically over 15 years. They have worked out how to write their ideal, we could say. However, my perception is that the basic field is remarkably stable, and has been over the last 30 years. There has been brouhaha recently about depolarisation. What I see is much more like the separate sub-markets becoming more different, along with their loyal readerships, as they mature. This is like other arts. The counter-factor is the collapse of the revolutionary/Marxist wave of the late 1960s. Identifications—and condemnations—based on that were at a peak around 1977 and have diminished over the past 25 years. It is appropriate now to re-evaluate the rival schools of the 1970s.

 

The anthology itself is a powerful generator of analogies, spectrums, power relations, and sustenance or subversion. The format of anthologies incites the reader to compare poets with each other; it differs from reading a volume all by one poet, which generally follows an act of preference and relies on mutual indulgence. Such reading calls for a sociology of solitude and self-consciousness; the reduction of household size over the last few decades is related to the reduction of the number of people in the average poem. We seem to see in poetry the most extremely original and personalised poets, the furthest from the collective norms, voicing the most advanced collectivist beliefs. The modern poem finds it hard to allow a second voice. The purchase of the anthology is the revenge of the reader on the single self-confirming voice. We can think about the single voice of the poem by looking back at the Ealing comedies, or contemporary soap operas, as if at a matrix from which the individual ran away; where the casting of a variety of different characters allows for constant alternation of tone, lets us realise different parts of ourselves in different roles, and encourages peculiarities while also reassuring us about our physical and moral failings, in a spirit of forgiveness. We don't go into art to become somebody else; we go in to become everybody else.

 

 

 

 

copyright © Andrew Duncan

 

 

 

 

Andrew Duncan studied as a mediaevalist and started writing in punk fanzines. He has been publishing poetry since the late 70s. His collections include: In a German Hotel, Anxiety Before Entering a Room, Sound Surface and Surveillance and Compliance. He was one of the editors of Angel Exhaust and now reviews regularly for Poetry Review.