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Voices in Denial: Poetry and Post-Culture

   

 

by

   

 

 A. C. Evans  

 

 

This essay aims to argue two points: first, that British poetry during the 1960s missed an opportunity, suggested to it by other art forms, to positively engage with mass popular culture and second, that the denial of the “authorial voice” in poetry, due to the influence of various Postmodernist literary theories, should be challenged and rejected.

To take the second point, I would deny the very possibility of a “voiceless poem”, regardless of the style or mode of the work, regardless even of the stated intentions of the author, who may vociferously deny his own voice. Notwithstanding the inherent difficulties of defining the voice itself, you cannot surgically remove the individual (“voice”) from the creative process without destroying the mechanism of the creative process itself. Beyond all the textual analysis and critical theory that can be directed towards a specific poem, the ultimate defining characteristic of the work is the unique “signature” (strong or weak) of the writer. The essential criterion of difference between a poem by Stevie Smith and one by W. H. Auden is ultimately a difference of personality, irrespective of literary theory. This is self-evident. It is also true of poems written by poets who tell us they deny the voice – all you hear is their voice. I should point out at this point that the existence of an authorial voice does not imply interpretative exclusivity. The potential for plural meanings in a text and the creative involvement of the reader remains unaffected by the presence of an authorial voice. The ideal poem would always resist, or subvert, clear-cut interpretations or didactic messages; it is unlikely to conform to expectations derived from the received wisdom of either traditional dogma, or fashionable orthodoxy. I make no apologies for this essay’s polemical tone, and welcome an open debate on its argument. Such a debate, in my view, is long overdue.

Roughly, between 1952 and 1958, the British Pop Art movement promoted the idea that artists should not denigrate mass popular culture, but rather celebrate it. The British Pop Artists of the late fifties (the London Independent Group) developed an aesthetic that celebrated the mass media and mass popular culture. By the mid sixties, this became apparent in fashion (Mary Quant mini-skirts, Cecil Gee suits) and pop music (The Rolling Stones, the “acid dandyism” of Jimi Hendrix). Curiously, few of the participants in this process were poets, so this was not actually a literary phenomenon. Generally, writers have often trailed behind the visual arts, and British poets of the time failed to take a creative interest in mass popular culture (the hippie mysticism of the sixties versions of Beat Poetry was essentially anti-materialist). It is a given within British Poetry (both mainstream and non-mainstream) that mass culture is to be minimised and that poetry occupies an oppositional role in relation to its perceived detrimental influence – an influence usually seen as a corrosive process of vulgarisation. The long-term effect of this rupture between mass culture and poetry has been to sideline or retard literary development in the poetic sphere and to perpetuate conservative, even authoritarian trends. This is usually the case, even among writers who consider themselves exponents of literary “progress” and often profess a world-view quite the reverse of conservative. It is also misleading to define this rupture in terms of a popular/elite opposition, although it is certainly the case that non-mainstream poetry projects an elitist image, even when playing with populism or flirting with street credibility.

In the sixties, British poetry was separated into two symbiotic “warring” camps: conservatives and radicals. The conservatives can be epitomised by publications such as Encounter magazine (1953-1967), and by poetic “schools” such as The Movement and the Confessional Poets. The radicals comprise what is now known as the British Poetry Revival, but was recognized in the sixties as the Underground, or the Children of Albion. In this essay, I will refer to the latter as the Albion Underground.

The abuse of the word “radical” to mean “progressive” is endemic when looking back at this era. There is an assumption that experimentalism must be radical by definition but that is not necessarily the case. Poetic movements of the Left tend to monopolise this terminology, conflating the meaning of “progressive” and “radical”. Radicals like to think of themselves as working to a progressive political agenda, often involving ideas such as social justice and revolution. Most “radical” poets fall into this category along with, for example, “protest poets” who often are neither innovative nor experimental in the avant-garde sense (“avant-garde” here being a synonym for “radical”). In my view, the term “progressive” must be related to freedom and – in a literary context – to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression depends upon the concept of “the authorial voice”; consequently, if you deny the voice, you deny the agent of expression. To deny the voice is, thus, a reactionary and not a progressive position.

The cultural climate of the later half of the twentieth century was very different from that of the Second World War or the period of Late Modernism. The Beat Generation of 1945-1960, haunted by the ghost of Rimbaud was among the last of the “Romantic” groupings defined by the image of the artist-poet as mystical prophet, seer, wandering visionary and popular shaman. Ann Charters has asserted that the Beat Poets ‘relied on autobiography’ because their marginal identity lead them to insist ‘on the validity of their own experience instead of accepting conventional opinions and the country’s common myths’.1 From the 1970s onwards, in the UK, in Continental Europe and in North America, we see the ever-expanding influence of academia. “Literature” became an almost exclusive domain of the universities, resulting in most innovative poets becoming functionaries in the Academy. Consequently, the traditional metaphor of the poet as wandering troubadour, alienated “genius”, or tortured outsider was replaced by the “academic expert in loco parentis” drawn from the post-Structuralist intelligentsia. A new fashionable orthodoxy was born – Postmodernism.

Postmodern Theory (a diffuse and ambiguous phenomenon full of internal self-contradictions) was a consequence of the French universities general strike of May 1968 (“The May Events”) in which academics became disillusioned with the Left after the Unions and the Communists sided with the Gaullist Establishment. Displeased by the turn of events they decided that all the Grand Narratives of the Modern or Proto-Modern past (the Enlightenment, Marxism etc.) were worn out or invalid – the “condition” was Post-Modern, the situation was new. At the same time, Roland Barthes proclaimed "the death of the author", one of the first assaults on the idea of the integral authorial voice.

By the 1970s there were, roughly, two strands or varieties of “difficult” poetry trying to maintain the status of the avant-garde in a post-avant-garde cultural landscape. There was the Euro-centric strand, inspired by Neo-Dada movements such as Fluxus, and there was the American academic variety inspired by Charles Olson’s Projective Verse and the Objectivism of Louis Zukofsky. Fluxus was an early sixties Action Art movement initiated in 1961 by George Maciunas. It was concerned with the integration of art with life and the negation of social hierarchies. Allen Fisher, a poet once associated with Cobbing’s Writers Forum, is the most noted exponent of Fluxus-inspired poetics, as can be seen in his publications Place (1974-1981) and Scram (1971-1982). Objectivism was an offshoot of Imagism promoted by Ezra Pound. British Objectivism imported by Basil Bunting, came to be identified with the Northumbrian School centred on Barry MacSweeney, and the Cambridge School whose most famous exponent is J. H. Prynne. Prynne is also an enthusiast for the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (as you might expect Heidegger’s philosophy is notoriously “difficult”). One aspect of Black Mountain doctrine was the eradication of the ego. Ironically, and despite this, the Post-Albion Underground experimentalists were addicted to huge, grandiose, self-important projects emulating the Cantos, Patterson, Zukofsky’s A and Olson’s Maximus.

Academic poetry differs from the writing of the pre-Albion Underground era in that it substituted theory for personality in the creative process: this was, above all, a Poetics of Process. As a Poetics of Process it paved the way for the next style of American poetry to arrive, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Like Olson, the Language Poets were explicit in their denial of the individual “voice” and were distinguished by their concern to exclude all “autobiography” and “ego psychology” from writing. This stance, which coincided with contemporary debates in the academic sphere about the role of science, identity politics and knowledge epistemology, assumed the illusory nature of the “Lyric I”, and the non-existence of facts beyond language as unchallenged givens. In many respects, these ideas have now become entrenched as key doctrines of “radical” experimentalist poetry in both the United States and the UK. In reality it was another generational revolt: they used the denial of the voice and the principle of linguistic determinism as tactics to challenge the established status quo and assert their own “radicalism” – just as all “new” movements seek to do. Ron Silliman, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman and Barrett Watten say in their 1988 group manifesto, ‘Our work denies the centrality of the individual artist’.2 This statement suggests an authoritarian tendency in operation. Nothing is more authoritarian than the denial of individual “expression”.  As an aesthetic or poetic this is entirely retrograde and reveals a mistaken view of the creative process.

These various innovations had a major influence on non-mainstream British poetry, which, prior to this, had shared, to some extent, a Beat aesthetic, founded on an authorial voice. In Britain the Academic Left consolidated a position based on Post-Structuralism and similar tendencies (e.g. Social Construction Epistemology, Reader Response Theory etc.) influenced by the later writings of Wittgenstein and Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). This book in particular had a tremendous impact, and precipitated what is known as the “science wars”. A key idea was the denial of objectivity and the view that the individual is a “cultural construction” not an innate entity. There can be no established facts, only incommensurable “paradigms”. However, as Terry Eagleton has pointed out in one of his critiques of Postmodernism, significant transformative action in the real world requires the participation of an integrated unified, human individual/subject. By extension, the same is true of artistic creativity in all its forms. Postmodern Theory usually denies this possibility.

The rise of the mass media since 1945 has consolidated an already incipient post-cultural state. This is a state in which former cultural values have evaporated and “high culture” has disappeared. It does not follow that the evaporation of high culture vindicates the historical claims of Postmodernism – that would require an agreement on the nature of Modernism and a clear distinction (perhaps) between Modernism and “modernity” in order to define “post-modernity” as a viable chronological category. I consider Postmodernism to be a doctrinal outlook: a limited (but diverse) quasi-philosophical tendency intrinsic to the late Cold War period. The era 1968-1989 saw the rise and fall of “Postmodernism” in this narrow, doctrinal sense. The emergence of post-culture on the other hand can be dated back to the mid-to-late nineteenth century, a period that saw the rise of mass circulation newspapers and popular entertainment such as Cabaret and Music Hall, the period of photography and the first moving pictures.

In the twenty-first century, the state of post-culture continues to evolve at an ever-increasing rate of acceleration, rendering superfluous the old, nineteenth century “vanguard” model of literary and artistic self-definition. A crisis of self-definition on this level has created an alienated intelligentsia still clinging to notions of high cultural value. These values have no viable place in a “new world order” of globalised mass “infotainment”. We now inhabit a world where hitherto “profound” masterpieces stand revealed as propaganda, a world where a tabloid headline or a refrain from a pop song may possess more aesthetic value than a poem by J. H. Prynne or Basil Bunting.

It is ironic that the position we are describing has lead an alienated literary class to deny the value of the authorial voice, not only the voices of others – but their own as well.

 

 copyright © A. C. Evans

 

A. C. Evans was born in Hampton Court in 1949, and lived in South London until 1963 when he moved to Essex and co-founded the semi-legendary Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group in 1966. Moving back to London in 1973, he currently lives in Mortlake, near Richmond. Working in the tradition of the bizarre and the grotesque, he also considers himself a Realist. Influenced by everything on the dark-side, he is also inspired by the iconoclasm of Dada, revolutionary Surrealism and the immediacy of Pop. He regards all these as points of departure, none as a destination – we live in a post avant-garde world.

His individual author collections include The Xantras (Trombone Press), Chimaera Obscura (Phlebas Press), Dream Vortex (Tabor Press), Colour Of Dust. Poems And/Or Texts 1973-1997 (Stride), This Sepulchre (Springbeach Press) and Fractured Muse (Atlantean Publications). The poetry sequence ‘Space Opera’ was made into a digital film and shown at the onedotzero3 Festival at the ICA in 1999.

He considers creativity to be the indirect effect of irrational drives and desires; an infinite quest for self-discovery and, inevitably, an indictment of both established dogma and fashionable orthodoxy. In his extremist, author-centred, poetry and graphics he uses ambiguity, juxtaposition, irony and objective chance to question assumptions about convention, identity and reality – black humour and the absurd are his constant preoccupations.


The Penguin Book of the Beats (1993), p. 435.  

2  ‘Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto’, Social Text, (1988), pp. 19-20.