Monday, June 06, 2016

experimental and mainstream poetry in the UK

These are some emails I recently contributed to a discussion on the BRITISH-IRISH-POETS list on Jiscmail (the conversation, under the heading "Names", ran all through April and May 2016). My own principal interlocutor was the experimental poet Tim Allen; later I was also responding to Geraldine Monk, Peter Riley and Jamie McKendrick. For the purposes of this blogpost I'm just going to paste my own emails and leave the contexts to be inferred.

(What term to use for innovative/linguistically innovative/experimental/avant-garde/post-avant poetry?)

19th April:

Of course there's no simple answer. I think I've used all the terms at one time or another.

I think avant-garde is the most problematic because of particular historical associations, within poetry and beyond.

I kind of favour "innovative" or "experimental". (Linguistically-innovative seems to me an unnecessary clarification...) . Perhaps because those terms have the virtue of not having been taken up or associated with more exclusive groupings.

And a secondary virtue, it connects with experimental music (the term "experimental" is much more widespread in the music world). There's a hidden link there to what I consider the epitome of experimental poetry, UK stylee: John White ... Clarence Cardew ... the anti-University ... Bob Cobbing....

Of course I'd want to stress that the terms "innovative" and "experimental" are intended as descriptive rather than complimentary, they are not just an infantile way of bigging up one's favourite poets at other people's expense.

But these terms do seem to me to point to the most fundamental distinguishing feature of this body of work, compared with poetry as conceived by most ordinary people and as practised at all levels from primary school up to the poet laureate.

 (And - to attempt, like Peter, to head off inevitable debate on this score - this includes a host of poets that I admire and that at their best, I'm ready to agree, are as truly inventive and original as the best experimentalists, and much more so than the all-too-often-seen work that only apes innovative styles.)

Despite these provisos, there remains an essential distinction in the practice of writing poetry as conceived by the experimentalists (And, in fact, this might be said to include the terms "practice" and "praxis", borrowed from art college like so much else on the experimental side). Whether as reader, listener or writer we begin, as it were, with the assumption that the poetry is meant to be in its essence an experiment, a provisional project. Not so much the production of poems (love-poems, elegies, and all the other good things that poems can be) as an open-ended exploration of the possibilities of poetry. Isn't that simply it, really? ... [I might add that I wouldn't consider most of my own poetry to meet this criterion...]

21st April:

Hiya Tim ...

You are right of course. Within one's own praxis, whatever that is, there are only perhaps a few days when conscious of attempting an experiment; and these may be the least valuable days, since most experiments are failures. On the other days the practitioner is most likely doing more of what they do; a work that grows and evolves rather than leaping randomly about. So from the practitioner's own point of view, this work is not literally an experiment, for the most part. Even if, in hindsight, the practitioner's work as a whole comes to be seen as strikingly original or experimental. Even if the practitioner in question is a composer of "British experimental music" or "linguistically innovative poetry".

This makes me think about terms for groups of artists. They are terms of convenience, and the people they most convenience are the audiences, the students and academics, the promoters and sellers. The artists themselves generally don't have much need for such labels, and usually when saddled with one are painfully aware of all the ways in which it isn't particularly appropriate. (It's really with my reviewer's hat on that I feel the need for a term.)

Such terms can either be coined anew ("modernism") or they can deploy a word that already exists and adapt its meaning ("romantic") - not completely, but somewhat. The sight of a ruined priory above a waterfall on the Scottish borders is romantic. Anna Laetitia Barbauld isn't romantic in precisely the same sense as the Scottish view, nor is Samuel Rogers, or Wordsworth (maybe Byron is!), but still the word Romantic is useful as a way of connecting them to each other and at least it isn't totally un-apt. That's the most I would aspire to in the case of "experimental".

It's important too that any such term is value-neutral and that it encompasses not only the startlingly original pioneers of the genre but, just as important, the enthusiasts who write in the same sort of style yet without the same originality or urgency. Just as "Romantic poets" covers the full gamut from genius to slavish dabbler, so must the term I require.

For a term to be of any use to me I need to be able to use it without in-depth assessment of whether the poetry is good or not. I need a way to name what I can see from the most superficial assessment of style and manner. I want to be able to say, for example, that such and such a mag publishes experimental poetry. That's a useful and meaningful thing to say, entirely leaving aside the merits, originality and inventiveness (or not) of individual contributors.

Today I happen to be reading Lars Gustafsson (Swedish poet who died last week, recent Bloodaxe selection) and Lisa Samuel's Tomorrowland. I admire both to distraction, but the former I should call essentially traditional poetry (for all its originality and excitement), and the latter definitely experimental, innovative, or whatever. As a reader I find the encounter with these texts involves totally different approaches and expectations. Anyway, I'm rattling on, I think you and I are in agreement about the existence of this very clear distinction, it's only the choice of terms that we're still debating.

(Tim asked if I thought of experimental and traditional poetry as different art-forms or as part of a poetry spectrum in which intermediate positions were possible).

25th April:

I've spent a bit of time thinking about your question about the spectrum and I haven't come up with an easy or fully satisfying answer.

On the whole I tend towards the view that experimental/traditional is an either/or and best treated, almost, as separate artforms. That is, I see each form as having evolved its own rules, tactics, aspirations and the practitioner either does one or does the other, but you can't really do both at the same time. My analogy would be serial/tonal music as conceived by Schoenberg. He could compose either sort, but the procedures were so different that there wasn't really a middle position between the two. Either you had a tone-row or you had a key signature.

And on the whole I think this is the best model to describe the two poets I mentioned. If you use the "new sentence" (Silliman's valuable term), then the mind-blowing polyvocality of Lisa Samuels' Tomorrowland becomes possible. But on the other hand the kind of things Lars Gustafsson can do with traditional narrative, anecdote, tone and irony and so on become unavailable. His art requires the "old sentence".

So with that kind of model in mind I am usually a little prejudiced against the hybridity promoted in recent years. But I think others might see it differently. I'm aware that the "new sentence" is only one aspect of modern poetry and that there are poets I care for very much (Lee Harwood, Peter Hughes spring to mind) for whom the on/off model seems entirely to break down, and when contemplating those poets a spectrum model of universal discourse seems to reassert itself.

May 4th:

Hi Tim,
Taken me ages to reply but not because I haven't been thinking about it.

>I see the spectrum or essential difference question as being like the wave/particle duality in electromagnetism
>depends what aspect you are measuring

>Narrative is more likely to be implied or fragmented, but it's still narrative as a device. Tone - whole areas of possible tonal manipulation are possible when a poet breaks out of the typical mainstream mode. Irony becomes something else, often twisting into something extreme. Etc.

Yes, there's a transformation. Naturally I agree with you that old excellences can still be found in new forms, - . But the transformation is radical, and it involves subtraction as well as addition. For example, the new sentence can go beyond traditional description in its extraordinary ability to suggest the multi-dimensional quality of lived experience. Still, there's a sacrifice in terms of definite assertion, though in another way the impression is needlesharp, transcending the potential of stated description. But much art and much that is possible is kind of dependent on that discursive basis. I'm not saying it well but that's how I see it.

>In the past I've put forward the idea that it is the modern UK mainstream poem that is the real anomaly within poetry as a whole, both with regard to the past and to poetry internationally, not the linguistically innovative.

I kind of have an inkling of what you mean, but it's a pity you haven't been challenged on it so I'll play devil's advocate. In all the nations whose modern poetry I have some faint acquaintance with (US, Aus, Sweden, Spain), the poetry that is most publicized, most studied in schools and most sold in bookshops is traditional poetry -. In Finland maybe the norm is more towards experimentalism but even in Finland there is plenty of what I see as mainstream traditional poetry. Is UK mainstream poetry so different in kind from what's marketed as poetry in other nations, or is their traditional poetry an anomaly too? UK Mainstream poetry appears to derive from an unbroken, respectable, well-anthologised tradition going back through the centuries (Anne Stevenson - Hardy - Keats - Milton - Sidney .... that sort of lineage). ....Horace, Catullus.... Also, does the anomaly idea apply not just to poets whose work we dislike and don't read but also to poets who I suspect you might agree with me in admiring: Elisabeth Bletsoe? Penelope Shuttle? Kathleen Jamie even... ?

I'm writing this not to be argumentative but because I'm eager to hear the other side of it. Maybe you've already elaborated on the idea somewhere.

[Tim's reply connected the anomaly with his own particular response: " my instinctive negativity to the poetry that began to flood the mainstream channels, both high and low, from the 80's onwards ". That generated a lot of replies and the conversation became more general. My own reply was delayed:

24th May

Sorry for the delayed response - I feel like an owl in daylight. I left the discussion at Tim's interesting and honest response to my questioning of his suggestion that UK mainstream poetry was in some way an anomaly.

My response has become rambling and I’m having to throw it ashore before another long interruption. I haven’t had time to tidy it. I apologise in advance for repetitions, slipshod expression, incoherence, tedium, and any inadvertent annoyance it may cause.

And Geraldine's suggestion of the term "exploratory" for the kind of writing that I've been calling experimental. "Exploratory" seems entirely accurate as description of the praxis of such an author as Lisa Samuels (my exemplar earlier in the conversation). My only hesitation is because "exploring" has become such a cliche of reviewers and critics to account in the vaguest possible way for what some or other artist is doing. “both books explore the relationship between public and private…”, “[Ang Lee] explored the relationships and conflicts between tradition and modernity, Eastern and Western..” Or, to come down a bit more to brass tacks, “Their poetry often has a neo-romantic character and trajectory that thrives on the natural world in order to explore human nature, especially concepts of social order, love and relationships.”, … (I sometimes think the term must have originated with educationalists talking about the developing child. And maybe in a larger sphere it exemplifies the neoteny that is said to typify advanced human cultures. Maybe the issues that Tim and I have with some contemporary poetry is a debate about problematic meaning of adulthood.... anyway, I'm going way off track here... )

But back to the anomaly idea. Most of what I might have had to say about this has been subsequently voiced by Tim himself, by Jamie and by Peter. The only thing I can really add is autobiography. I came to contemporary UK poetry very late, after many years delving in the past, as a mediavalist and enthusiast of everything up to about…. Say, 1870!. Something in the first year of uni had given me a thorough distaste and contempt , ignorant of course, for everything from Auden onwards. The only modern poetry I knew and cared about was in translation, Penguin Modern Poets from mainly Europe and Latin America. Belatedly, at the end of the 1980s, I felt provoked into seeking out the poetry of my own time and place. At first, like any High Street browser of the time, I thought Faber and Oxford was the place to look. Oliver Reynolds, Craig Raine, Christopher Reid, Douglas Dunn, Heaney, Mahon, Hughes, …. I struggled to like this writing, though I had hardly any sense of what I might like better.

Funny how that era has all gone now. No poetry world is static. You don’t find Raine and Reynolds in Faber any more. They’re reduced to Raine’s own Arete magazine, the natural heir of Ian Hamilton’s New Review, with Ian McEwan replacing Julian Barnes and John Updike. (Class and ideology do come into these things.) [ TLS readers are currently re-reading… Waugh, Powell, Proust (this is the current TLS blog)…] Alan Jenkins isn’t in Chatto any more, but Enitharmon. Douglas Dunn (who I don’t wish to suggest has any but a left-wing ideology) hasn’t published a book since 2000. But you will find Timothy Thornton in Penguin!

My overall view is that the feeling of distaste and hostility reported by Tim and to an extent experienced by myself is a proximity effect. Readers are thin-skinned at home, where they’re acutely sensitive to unexpressed meanings, but thick-skinned abroad, blithely unaware of possible causes of offence.

[Why did Adorno loathe Strauss’ Alpine Symphony so much? He’s unable to explain, and when we listen to the magnificent music now we can’t see it. But I don’t doubt that the offence was there for Adorno, he heard it as clearly as anyone who hears a tone and knows they’ve been insulted by it. (And sometimes, we get this wrong.) You can appreciate that, for Adorno, there was a lot at stake. ]

 As Tim rightly said (if I understood him right), the thing that offends is mostly not something said or meant personally by the poet in question, but something as it were encoded in his medium of expression. In fact the knee-jerk reaction may, if I can speak autobiographically, be more about an unconscious stylistic, a manner, than anything that the poet consciously put into the poem. That’s why it only takes three or four lines to identify. I’m thinking of identifying markers such as the particular use of the present tense. (

Though I am calling it a proximity effect I don’t mean that the reaction is not a real insight. I don’t think the mainstream poetry of today is really an anomaly (or if it is, that’s rather a compliment – I’m all for anomalous poetry) ; but it certainly is unique.

For example in its extraordinarily heavy usage of the word “He’d”. (Also” I’d”, “She’d”. But I did my Google searches on “He’d”.) Anyhow, the elided past continuous (short for “he would” or “he had”, both are equally characteristic).

A word that’s vanishingly rare in linguistically-innovative, exploratory, experimental etc… (Prove me wrong!) . It’s obvious that there’s some quasi-sociolinguistic lining-up here.

A word with a great deal encoded in it. As briefly as possible, you might say it means being persuaded that poetry can be made by rehearsing narratives of the habitual past in an informal manner. Of course that’s a reductive and prejudicial way of putting it. But a prejudice is what we are talking about. I frankly admit that it gets in the way of comprehending the specificity of the poems in front of me.

I’m not sure if this particular usage would be one of the things Tim dislikes, probably not, but I instance it as demonstration that what is reacted to is not merely imaginary, there is some demonstrable objectivity in the recognition of difference.

Manny Blacksher:

When he hastened
    back from lunch at one each day, his heart
    brim-full of blameless industry, he'd stop
    to buy cigars and chew the toothsome fat
    with Mister Stein, who'd bought the lobby shop
    with money found inside a fresh latrine
    in a dun field outside Dachau where he'd sat
    and seen a shadow snake like pain in sunshine.

Michael Donaghy:

He needed a perfect cathedral in his head,
he’d whisper, so that by careful scrutiny
the mind inside the cathedral inside the mind
could find the secret order of the world
and remember every drop on every face
in every summer thunderstorm.

David Wheatley (translating SEÁN Ó RÍORDÁIN)

You could see that he understood, and his fellow-feeling
for the pain in the horse’s eyes;

and that dwelling on it so long he’d finally stolen
into the innermost space

Simon Armitage (“Hitcher”)

We were the same age, give or take a week.
He'd said he liked the breeze

to run its fingers
through his hair. It was twelve noon.
The outlook for the day was moderate to fair.

Carol Ann Duffy (“Eurydice”)

He’d been told that he mustn’t look back
or turn round,
but walk steadily upwards,
myself right behind him,
out of the Underworld
into the upper air that for me was the past.
He’d been warned
that one look would lose me
for ever and ever.

[The lineage:
Thomas Hardy (“The Man He Killed”)

            "I shot him dead because —
            Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
            That's clear enough; although

            "He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
            Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
            No other reason why.

Wordsworth (The Ruined Cottage)
Five tedious years
She lingered in unquiet widowhood,
A wife and widow. Needs must it have been
A sore heart-wasting. I have heard, my friend,
That in that broken arbour she would sit
The idle length of half a sabbath day—
There, where you see the toadstool’s lazy head—
And when a dog passed by she still would quit
The shade and look abroad.

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