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Abandoning Purity

The only time mainstream culture acknowledges poets is when the Laureate dies and must be replaced, or when they're doing something other than writing poetry.
Mark Robinson

Issue #46, December 1999

Small press poetry culture in Britain is allegedly an alternative to the mainstream conformity in both poetics and politics policed by the London-Oxbridge axis and a media which ignores any poetry which refuses to play dumb for the annual National Poetry Day clowning. The only time mainstream culture acknowledges poets is when the Laureate dies and must be replaced, or when they're doing something other than writing poetry. The Poetry Society has a program called 'Poetry Places' which puts poets in unusual places - zoos, trains, chip shops, offshore gas platforms - where they spring the muse on unsuspecting civilians going about their daily business, providing photo opportunities galore to justify the Poetry Society's state-funding. That the interest has little to do with the transformative, revelatory powers of poetry is brushed aside in the hype. Fittingly the theme for this year's National Poetry Day is not even poetry, but song lyrics. Poetry needs an alternative to itself.

What is striking is how poetry is compelled to seem content-free in order to get access to 'the general public'. Poetry is seen as most able to reflect back a community in accessible, everyday language, arranged to please the ear in its modern slant on traditional form. It's truly depressing that the most popular poets in the UK are John Hegley and Wendy Cope, or that people like Ian MacMillan, a savage social-surrealist in his books, feels forced to adopt a 'jolly rhyming Yorkshireman' persona in his media appearances. The channels along which poetry must travel to meet its potential public seem designed to filter out anything too challenging in terms of content, form or language. What the audience wants is a reassuring hit of recognition - of their lives, opinions, or just how they talk - rather than the shock of the new.

Which is, of course, exactly the paradigm which has seen Tony Blair's New Labor Party become firmly entrenched in power. Give us what we know and what we say we want and no more. The mainstream of British poetry is rightly associated in many cases with the forces of conservatism with both small and large C. The representative poet of recent times has been Philip Larkin - dour, bicycle-clipped, rhymed and metred post-imperial melancholy. Larkin has been followed by the even more tedious Andrew Motion, the new Poet Laureate. He is New Labor exemplified, sharing a comforting smile, a robotic compassion, a bland, patronizing populism and a private education with Tony Blair.

But what oppositional force can any poetry exert beneath this (un)ideological wet blanket? There are literally hundreds of small magazines which would see themselves as alternative - if not in traditional political terms, in terms of production, distribution and the kinds of writers published. They operate as a cross between samizdat and parish newsletter - fed out almost exclusively to signed up aficionados but purporting to proselytize, inform and stoke debate. The scene is either a perfect reflection of the opportunities of pluralism, or of the worst kind of self-debilitating fragmentation. All too often the most exciting elements of alternative poetry would rather snipe at each other for heresies not visible to the naked eye, than combat the continued isolation imposed on them by the media. Indeed, many glory in this isolation and scorn attempts to communicate with a larger public, seeing this as bound to involve disabling a radical poetics. The practical impacts of this radical poetics are harder to trace, precisely because of the factionalist and self-isolating tendencies of these practitioners.

This tendency towards a poetic equivalent of the myriad splinter groups of the Left, each dissecting the others vocabulary, imagery and syntax for quasi-theological deviation has been marked in all sectors of the British alternative publishing scene for many years. The British Poetry Revival of the 1960's, documented extensively by Eric Mottram, was so oppositional it involved what amounted to a bloodless coup at the Poetry Society, involving poets such as Barry MacSweeney and Ken Smith. This, however, was too much of a threat to the establishment and Charles Osborne, the notoriously conservative Literature Director at the Arts Council, stepped in to wrest power from the radicals, who had been involved in what Mottram ironically called 'a treacherous assault on British poetry.' This supposed assault included publishing work by experimental, sound and visual poets and, even, foreigners, in particular American 'open field' poets. Understandably perhaps, given this treatment, and the marked lack of Arts Council funding for experimental poetries, the protagonists have since often retreated into glib oppositionalism.

This can be seen in the introductions to the two 'linguistically innovative' sections of one of the key anthologies of alternative writing: The New British Poetry, edited by Gillian Allnutt, Fred D'Aguiar, Ken Edwards and Eric Mottram and published by Paladin in 1988. While the introductions by Allnutt and D'Aguiar to their selections of women and black poets respectively are challenging, even combative in their stance, they put forward black and feminist writing not in terms of an alternative (though that may be implicit) but as previously unacknowledged voices staking a claim for space. Mottram, however, first defines the work of the 60's and 70's thus: "They are poets who resist limpet-clinging to past metrics, self-satisfied irony, the self-regarding ego and its iambic thuds." Although he then goes on to define some of what they do do, this is of secondary importance. It ain't what you do, nor the way that you do it: it's what you don't do that gets results. Ken Edwards, introducing 'some younger poets' very much in the shadow of the previous generation, also starts off by suggesting that they are defined by 'battles lost and won', in particular that over control of the Poetry Society. This new poetry is very self-consciously an alternative to the quotidian poetic of the Movement, and allies this with a political critique based on linguistic structures.

However, what this alternative was not overly concerned about was communicating with a wide public. The poets collected in the experimental sections of The New British Poetry were, with the sole exception of Roy Fisher (who published with Oxford University Press), published by small independent presses. While this was partly due to the mainstream presses systematic refusal to engage with experimental poetry, it was also a conscious choice on the part of many. J.H. Prynne, for instance, the Cambridge-based Pontiff of English experimental poetry refused for many years to have his highly influential work published outside small pamphlet and letter press editions, until the 1998 publication of 'Poems' (Bloodaxe Books). Over time, this has hardened into an orthodoxy which has led many fine poets to deliberately restrict their audience to a tight, all but closed circle of mutually publishing poet-publishers.

There is just one word between the titles of The New British Poetry, and The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley and published by Bloodaxe in 1993. But the rhetoric of the anthology, was built around an explicit pluralism, in terms of both political/social categories and of poetics: "the new poetry highlights" the introduction trumpets, "the beginning of the end of British poetry's tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness." This is linked to a political analysis which sees the new poetry as responding to Thatcherism, the collapse of communism, and loss of empire. Not only does this poetry respond to its times, but it can affect the political culture by its investigations and revelations. The representative piece in this respect comes from one of Britain's most popular poets, Carol Ann Duffy. (Andrew Motion's nearest rival for the Laureateship, allegedly ruled out by Tony Blair because of her more radical politics, and her being a lesbian.) Her 'Poet for Our Times' is a popularized language poem, based on tabloid journalese, which satirizes tabloid, poet and reader alike:

And, yes, I have a dream - make that a scotch, ta -
that kids will know my headlines off by heart.
The poems of the decade...Stuff 'em! Gotcha!
The instant tits and bottom line of art.

But the pluralism of The New Poetry does not extend so far as the experimental poets of The New British Poetry. Of the 129 poets in the two books, only 10 are in both. Of these, nine can be found in the black or feminist sections of the earlier book. Only the fiercely political Tom Leonard is in both anthologies without reference to ethnicity or gender. (It should be said that it's likely that if The New Poetry had had a different cut-off point regarding age, then both Roy Fisher and Ken Smith would have been included, as they are clearly father figures to different strands of 'the new poetry.') The only areas of common ground are therefore in arguably the only truly new recent additions to the mainstream in British poetry - women's writing and writing of Afro-Caribbean heritage. The schisms between these two 'new poetries' shed some light on what British poetry activists have meant by alternative, and how apparently similar modes of production and distribution (most poets in both books published at least partly in small presses) can effect very different interventions. While the linguistically innovative poets - also represented in anthologies such as A Various Art (Paladin 1986) or Floating London (Potes & Poets 1992) - share the Language poets' preoccupation with disrupting and mediating language to reveal underlying power structures, as Duffy's poem does, the poets collected in The New Poetry are also rightly identified by the editors as seeking an audience, "out of a conviction that poetry must get its hands dirty if it is to take on the enemy and help preserve a liberal society and humanist culture." This dirtying of the hands may involve not just a move away from the apolitical domesticism of the Movement, or acquiring "a new complexity in the available voices, syntax and language of poetry," but being prepared to reach out, to make the work accessible to more than the handful of readers prepared to embrace the pleasures of parataxis.

academic Both anthologies present themselves as an alternative to the mainstream, but they present almost totally different views as to what an oppositional poetry should be. When I started my own small press poetry magazine, SCRATCH, it was very much as an alternative to this schism, and as a vain political gesture. This was in 1989, when Margaret Thatcher had just begun her second decade in power (and all the Left had left was gestures). The magazines I had started to get published in were full of poetry hidebound by Movement decorum, or unconcerned cryptic crossword verse, or only quasi-readable 'experiments.' A taste of my simplistic naivete can be gained from the editorial: "the exercise of the imagination is an act of liberation... pretend the artist is not marginalized and ignored and maybe he/she won't be... forget the silence of the canon established by the universities and Sunday supplements, of poetry as high art for a few." I was determined that SCRATCH would be an open space with high standards. I wanted work which reflected the society that formed it without sticking to social realism, or being linguistically boring, and that reached out to potential readers rather than turning them away. So included in the 284 poets from 24 countries published in 17 issues from 1989-1997 were writers from most sections of non-mainstream poetry - from New Generation poets to hardcore experimentalists, and all points between. Such is the state of British poetry, this ensured I got flack from all sides. Populists thought it was obscure and intellectual. Experimentalists thought it was too safe, too mainstream, too domestic - one reviewer, in the exciting linguistically-orientated Ramraid Extraordinaire started a long-running dispute over poems about ironing, to which I responded with a wodge of Barthes in the original French. Oh yes, things got dirty for a while. (I don't recall ever publishing a poem about ironing, by the way, though subsequently I did use one about writing poems about ironing.)

The domestic is actually a hotbed of debate and dissension in England. My view was that it is a key new political battlefield, and that radical politics (and poetics) had better get used to it. This has been vindicated by the relentless emphasis which the Blair administration has put on defining and regulating the family. While acknowledging that the poetics of any investigation of domesticism has to be daring and exploratory, I see the experimental refusal to deal with this frustrating and limiting. It seems to stem from a refusal to deal with, or approach, the lives of ordinary people. (It also derives, I suspect, from a reluctance to accept the influence of women poets since the 60's, though that's not to say that the many fine women poets currently publishing are all, or 'merely,' preoccupied with the politics of domestic life feminism has made apparent.)

The infighting I saw within the small press publishing culture was enormous and constant. It was also, more often than not, conducted at a pretty low level of debate, and with little sense of an audience outside a coterie of aficionados, or even the possibility of one. While I looked forward to receiving certain magazines like 10th Muse or Terrible Work, just to see what criticism their editors would heap upon SCRATCH, its pamphlets, or my own collections, after a few years the fun simply wore off and I began to realize what a dead end this was. If the theory of marginal art can be simplified as radical innovations having a quasi-homeopathic influence on the mainstream, it was simply not working. Although I have been disappointed with how the 'deregulated muse' (to use Sean O'Brien's phrase) has utilized the space created by the early 90's concentration on accessibility - serious poets reduced to photo calls on trains and oil rigs, dumbing down in the hope something of a poem's essence might get through - it was a better option than pious exclusivity. Which is of course exactly the same argument that the members of the Left within the Labor Party would use to justify their co-option by Blair's Third Way. Poetry and politics thus intertwine in the same circular arguments that tie up many 'alternatives.'

Which might be a good point to finish, albeit a little depressing: it sounds like the eternal chorus of 'There is no alternative.' But I want briefly to suggest that the same small press mechanisms of production and local distribution can, with luck, have some impact on the broader culture, providing a genuine alternative to maintaining an ineffective purity.

From 1993 until 1999 I was also working in community-based literature projects, and in adult education, in Teesside in the North-East of England. Teesside has some of the worst levels of unemployment, ill-health, educational achievement, and other indicators of social deprivation, due largely to decline in the steel and chemical industries. It has next to no cultural facilities, and little in the way of a tradition of artistic activity.

As part of my work, collaborating with other local writing activists, a new small press was set up, Mudfog, deriving its name from a Victorian nickname for Middlesbrough. (Reclaiming and flipping over a negative representation into a positive.) This had a significantly different 'program' than SCRATCH - or, perhaps, just a more evolved program, still focused on sniping at the forces of conservatism. Mudfog publishes local writers who have progressed through the local writing culture of workshops, readings and adult education courses. It has published more than 30 writers in the last 4 years, most of which have sold out of their modest print runs. Which is what most average small presses might hope to do, thus creating an impact on the larger literary culture and thereby a political influence in the broadest sense (perhaps so broad as to be meaningless). But Mudfog has formed part of a range of initiatives which has, in my more optimistic moments I feel had such an impact on Teesside. These have included major projects with young people and in those areas worst hit by social deprivation, as well as readings and projects which introduced innovative writing to communities. They have been based on equal participation between community and writer, and on a genuine pluralism of poetics. They have had significant impact on local arts and community development policies and on regeneration projects including writers and writing projects within their strategies. The poets and prose writers published by Mudfog cover a wider stylistic range than any recent anthology of British poetry - although all the writing is good, it's not even all to my own taste. This has been a project where individual poetics have not been the deciding factor - although they are definitely not put aside, as hours of argument at editorial meeting prove. The alternative vision - of a community where socially excluded people are empowered to create their own means of expression - has been more important than our aesthetic debates. As Charles Bernstein put it, writing of American alternative presses, the project has been about "the creation of value amidst its post-modern evasions... In this sense, the work of our innovative poetries is fundamentally one of social work."

This activity has led to poetry invading the local epitome of mainstream society - the evening newspaper, which now publishes regular supplements of creative writing by local people, with over 20,000 copies distributed, as well as a weekly column of more traditional verse. While only some of the writing is at all experimental, the whole idea of publishing serious contemporary poetry to such an audience can only be described as experimental and innovating with language. Alongside the other activity it is changing lives and involving contemporary writing in the daily life of a whole area. We have already seen it having radical effects on large numbers of people: they have started writing poetry, that powerful alternative to both powerlessness and silence.

Mark Robinson works in the Center for Lifelong Learning at the University of Durham in the UK. He has previously been a freelance writer and editor, literature worker and award-winning vegetarian chef.

Copyright © 1999 by Mark Robinson. All rights reserved.