I've been taking part in a current discussion at the British-Irish-Poets Forum
(the title is "Forward for RFL"), of which the general theme (at least as far as my own contributions to it are concerned) is
1. meditations on two recent awards of poetry prizes to poets that are usually considered distinctly alternative (R.F. Langley and Giles Goodland);
2. the vexed term "mainstream" (in a UK poetry context), and whether it sheds more heat than light.
On this latter topic, I wrote this:
I accept, of course, that to use a generalization like "mainstream" involves inevitable fuzzy edges, that specific assignments aren't empirically provable, that the accusation of an undue sureness is probably just (though I don't indeed feel that sureness very securely, and I'm sorry if it sounds as if I do).
And certainly the word "mainstream" often implies a strongly pejorative opinion, at least in a context such as this forum. But it has not always been so used. I recall that the first time I really became interestedly aware of the word was in the context of Morrison and Motion's 1982 anthology of Contemporary British Poetry - I forget exactly what the back cover said, but it was something along the lines of "twenty fantastic voices from the mainstream of modern British poetry". I didn't share their tastes, in fact felt uneasy about that anthology in many ways, but I don't have a problem with the meaning of the term in the way they were using it and I'm not yet ready to dispense with it. To have a working conception of a mainstream seems to me necessary in order to have a conception of the non-mainstream - an innovative poet perhaps doesn't need it in order to write poetry, but if I'm going to give some order to my thoughts when I'm writing about modern poets, I do find it pretty useful.
And I'm aware that it covered at least four, largely overlapping but not identical, ideas: 1. the kind of poetry that could be found in High Street bookshops and was published by the larger presses, Faber Cape and Oxford at the time; 2. the kind of poetry that is most bought and most widely distributed, e.g. for school use (according to Wikipedia, in 2007, two-thirds of the UK sales of poetry books by living authors were by Seamus Heaney); 3. a sociological structure that embraced e.g. the published poets who read each other's work, the many enthusiasts and amateurs who read the published poets, particular ways of reading and thinking about and talking about and generally doing poetry, an implicit canon, the associated institutions, magazines, competitions, radio programmes, etc. (a structure that, on the whole, innovative poetry communities markedly distanced themselves from – it’s perhaps in this area, above all, that I share Mark [Weiss]’s sense of a very distinct boundary); 4. a particular style or bundle of stylistic features typical of the aforementioned. To which I should now, perhaps, add 5. widely held conceptions of the above, as much discussed (often, though not always, in a hostile spirit) by people who discuss poetry - accurate or not, those portrayals are now themselves part of the history of literature.
So I guess I will carry on using the term, despite the perennial risk of being interpreted as merely hurling mud at someone. And it will be apparent that I consider poetry competitions and poetry prizes as historically typifying the mainstream (in sense 3) and historically not typifying alt-poetry communities (Peter [Riley]’s view of such things, I’d guess, would be shared by many).
And, re the origin and early history of the term "mainstream":
Looking at the OED, there is indeed a riverine background (=principal current) but it’s probably not very present in most users’ minds today.
Nor, regretfully, is the notion of “mainstream jazz” – originally a fifties style between big band and modern jazz, approximately. But evidently still in use, e.g. on the cover of – contrived excuse for a plug - Joan Davis’ magnificent album “Promiseland” (2005).
You can see the metaphor in development in Arnold: “Byron and Shelley will be long remembered‥for their‥Titanic effort to flow in the main stream of modern literature.”
Ford Madox Ford (1938): “The very considerable influence that Mr. Pound‥exercised on literary mainstreams.”
What the OED entry doesn’t really show is how the word exploded in use around the 1970s (?), mainly in the sphere of mass media and culture, then extended in every direction (politics, economics, cinema...) . That, no doubt, is the direct source of its reintroduction into the poetry world.
At some stage around the 1950s, the idea developed of identifying yourself with the perennial outsiders, and consequently conceiving the mainstream in intrinsically negative terms. I think (though I can’t really prove this right now) that this was a pretty significant change in common conceptions of culture, and it happened in all sorts of cultural fields at around the same time.
1958, E.Crispin: (in Best SF Three 9) “Main~stream fiction‥has been almost uniformly catatonic in its withdrawal from environment.”
Yet Arnold’s idea of a mainstream not so much as a nasty conventional style but as the desirable and natural destination for any original artist who hopes to truly engage with her/his society still remains relevant.
There’s a pretty good discussion of this two-sided aspect of “mainstream” here (in connection with black and Asian British film)...
The whole wide-ranging discussion
is worth a look (and that's probably the only way to really make sense of it). The discussion also touches on Guido Gozzano, Ivor Novello, Nabokov's lepidopterism (Polyomattus blues), and William Barnes' "My Orchet in Linden Lea", among other more or less interesting things.
In the US, there's a Billboard rock chart begun in March 1981, which has had several names:
Top Tracks (1981)
Top Rock Tracks (1984)
Album Rock Tracks (1986)
Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks (1996-03)
Essentially this is a chart of music played on "mainstream rock" radio, more recently known as "heritage rock". The chart is no longer published, though it's still compiled; and in the dark days of its terminal senescence it even includes alternative rock, whereas the whole point of the original chart was that it excluded anything that had even the faintest kind of alternative heritage. The change in its name over the years is a chart in itself: a chart showing the steady decline of rock's cultural centrality.
Labels: Giles Goodland, Peter Riley, Poetics, R.F. Langley