(4) The History and Development of British Innovative Poetry

Please note all the links open in a fresh window/tab.

* Robert Sheppard, A History of the Other

A detailed account of the development of avant-garde British poetry since the 1960s (up to 2000), seeing a rather failed "British Poetry Revival" replaced by the slightly different (more self-aware in terms of its poetics) tendency labelled "Linguistically Innovative Poetry". His account has many close analyses. A very effective and detailed introduction by a poet and academic.

The sections were published on Sheppard's blog, and require a little searching for as a result. They are on each webpage, but often quite far down. But as you seek, you will encounter much excellent poetry, and other, often very pertinent essays by Sheppard. Much of the material (apart from the last section) will be found in his book, The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and Its Discontents, 1950-2000 (Liverpool UP, 2005).

1. The British Poetry Revival

The "little press" activity from the very end of the 50s (Migrant Press) through to Fulcrum and Cape Goliard at the end of the 60s, via the interest in Modernist American poetry at Cambridge in the mid 60s.

2. Children of Albion

The influence of the American Beats, focussing on Michael Horovitz's activities from 1959 (New Departures readings & anthologies, Royal Albert Hall Poetry Incarnation [1965], and the very inclusive Children of Albion anthology [1969]), and the British "beat poetry" scene of the 60s.

3. The Seventies: What the Chairman Really Told Tom

The rise of readings and small presses in late 60s & early 70s, culminating in the avant-garde take-over of the Poetry Society (a national membership organisation with London premises and a widely read magazine [Poetry Review]), and their expulsion in 1977 by a counter-coup. Plus the continuing development of "Cambridge" poetry, and its differences from the more London-based group (main poles Bob Cobbing and Eric Mottram).

4. The 1970s (Continued): Poetry of Place/Poetry of Autonomy

Place – coming from the American poet Charles Olson's poetry and theorising – as a major factor in British avant-garde poetry in the 1970s (eg JH Prynne's The White Stones, Allen Fisher's Place, Iain Sinclair's Lud Heat). Plus early attempts to write a poetics for British avant-garde poetry, informed by the newly being assimilated French theory, and using Prynne as case study: Peter Ackroyd's Notes for a New Culture (1976) and the more influential Veronica Forrest-Thomson's Poetic Artifice (1978).

5. Linguistically Innovative Poetry and Small Rooms in London

The recovery through the late 1979s and 1980s from the nakba of 1977: rallying in small groups in small rooms, with reading series, and new small presses and magazines. Plus the deepening influence of critical and literary theory, and of the American Language Poets. Much referred to is the 1988 anthology, The New British Poetry.

6. Cambridge: Towards a Community of Risk

The focus switches to look more at Cambridge, with discussion of Angel Exhaust (for which see both editor Andrew Duncan's website and issues on poetrymagazines.co.uk) and Parataxis magazines, the Equipage pamphlets and the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry (1991–2006). Also discussed is the 1996 anthology, Conductors of Chaos.

7. Performance Writing

Not to be confused with the populist performance poetry to be found in most cities and towns (a distant descendent of the British Beats of the 1960s heavily cut with hip-hop and stand-up). This is innovative poetry rooted in performance or site. Sheppard draws attention to the role of Dartington College of the Arts.

8. Out of Everywhere: Be(com)ing a Woman Poet

The typically sexist assumptions of the 60s Poetry revival were succeeded by a continuing male preponderance of writers, and a problematic exclusion of innovative work from feminist canons.

9. Anthologies and Assemblages

An interesting series of observations based on a number of anthologies:

Discussing these anthologies, Sheppard also draws attention to the dominant poetry mainstream ideology, dating from the 1950s, the Movement Orthodoxy of communicability and accessibility.


* British Poetry Revival (Wikipedia)

This Wikipedia article, drafted by the Irish poet Billy Mills, covers a lot of ground very succinctly, from 1960s to 1980s. Many of the links give further useful information.

* Ken Edwards, UK Small Press Publishing Since 1960: The Transatlantic Axis

Paper by the poet and publisher Ken Edwards for Assembling Alternatives, an international poetry conference/festival held at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1996, which outlines very cogently the poetry publishing situation (and therefore the poetry situation) in the UK, with an emphasis, I think justified, on the importance of American links and influences:

So why 1960? What is significant about this as a starting date? It is the arbitrary beginning point of what the late Eric Mottram has termed the "British Poetry Revival". The mythology has it that Britain in the 1950s was culturally a drab place, a country still recovering from the War, with rationing and national service still in place, the first wave of immigrants from the Commonwealth still to make an impact on the national psyche, and long entrenched social attitudes dying hard. As with many myths, this would seem to have been entirely true.

In poetry, the dominant ethos was that exemplified by The Movement, whose defining anthologies Robert Conquest's New Lines and G S Fraser's Poetry Now were both published in 1956. This was a poetry that foregrounded plain language, irony, self-deprecating pessimism and conservative form; its most celebrated exponent was, of course, Philip Larkin. It's probably difficult for an American readership to appreciate quite how ruthlessly those alternative traditions represented by variants of international modernism were suppressed by that chimerical institution, the English literary establishment.

The chimera, remember was a dangerous monster, requiring a hero to slay it.

* Piers Hugill, An overview of contemporary British poetry since 1977

A good starting point, ie from the Year Zero in which the British Poetry Revival looked as though it had been routed by the Poetryt Society counter-coup. Hugill's account takes up a lot of emphasis on performance poetry and other elements that have come to the fore recently. It is a very clear and information-filled essay, with some useful discussion of techniques as well as of genealogies and connections. From Fucine Mute Web Magazine, out of Trieste.

Peter Finch, Sound Poetry: Sound Poetry in the UK

Peter Finch, in an essay published on 57 Productions website, discusses the whole history of sound and performance poetry, emphasising the crucial role of Bob Cobbing as their British exponent.

By the 80s sound poetry had spread itself beyond its text-sound confines to become incorporated into LANGUAGE poetry and the work of the left-field British counter culture, at least what was left of them. Cobbing would take the stage with Allen Fisher, with Maggie O'Sulivan [sic — PP], with Johan de Wit and with others. The world outside, however, was no longer the free place it was during the 60s. Liberalism was retreating, violence on the increase, the freedom of ideas evident in the 70s defeated by a Thatcher driven rebirth of right-wing ideal. Nonetheless sound poetry still managed to sneak in the odd shock. Punk had Yurine Burns playing his Hot Skills Keep The Mouth Open (Balsam Flex). Cobbing teamed with the increasingly excellent Cris Cheek, Lawrence Upton and others to present a poetry which has as much to do with conceptualism as it did to pure sound.

Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain, "A Fair Field Full of Folk": Other British and Irish Poetry since 1970

The original, editors', cut of the intro to their 1999 anthology, which gets progressively more interesting in talking of the context, development and factors involved with the British avant-garde poetry it focuses on.

Nate Dorward, (review of) Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970

Nate Dorward, Canadian scholar and publisher who played a major role in getting together the Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, reviews its immediate predecessor, taking its introduction's over-simplistic attitude to the mainstream to task, but making a range of interesting and clear observations on the poets included.

'Carshalton MOB' special edition: beneath the underground

Rhys Trimble's magazine ctrl+alt+del reminds us that Carshalton was there before Cambridge, with his brief collection of their current writing, plus a memoir by Chris Torrance.

Sam Ladkin and Robin Purves, An Introduction to Chicago Review, British Poetry Issue (53:1)

Issue of Chicago Review, American academic magazine, devoted to innovative British poetry (featuring Andrea Brady, Chris Goode, Peter Manson and Keston Sutherland). This introduction aspires to be a brief but accurate guide to the development of poetry in the UK over the last fifty years as it informs the work of the four poets. The two writers (British academics and publishers) present a brief but effective and forceful Cambridge-centric version of the development (including the surprising revival of Adorno as guru amongst some younger academic poets and critics).

The difficulties this poetry poses for readers are potentially daunting. Complex hierarchies of syntactical dependence have to be followed and retraced, highly condensed and thoroughly dislocated references to the social world and its myriad discursive fields have to be followed up-and all the while readers' efforts are sabotaged by bathetic collapses, pratfalls, and aggression. It is the sort of poetry that seems to require introduction. And yet the quickness of prosody and critique refutes in advance the sure-footed preface that would measure up each poet and sing a dirge to finalize their interment. We cannot circumscribe this work, principally because its most fundamental concerns circumscribe us: who am "I", who are "we", how am "I" made and, in that making, who suffers as a result?
The most influential argument for the necessary obscurity of poetic language derives from Adorno, who argues that forms of communicative discourse that help to sustain structures of unequal exchange must be dismantled and rearranged in ways not assimilable to the interests of consumer capitalism. The absolute control exerted inside Sutherland's out-of-control prosody works in this context as an ethical intensifier. His poetry is the violently futile attempt to reconcile immediate corporeal sensation and political strategy, and to live inside that impossibility as the truth of the times.

Peter Riley, An Endnote

Peter Riley lists for the Chicago Review what he feels are the most significant or defining texts produced by the (First Generation) Cambridge School:

I've been asked more than once to define more closely the poetry I praise . . . the poetry that ". . .developed through Cambridge in the 1960s and 70s." I find it more in particular books and poems than in particular poets, and it's not restricted to those decades. It developed through Cambridge, and sometimes didn't emerge for a long time afterwards.
The influence of J.H. Prynne was certainly instrumental in this formation . . . it seems at its most fruitful to have been the long-term result of a confrontation involving both accommodation and opposition between his poetry and others', operating in both directions. A certain way of handling items of elemental vocabulary seems to mark the resulting texts, a passionate renewal of space stretched between experience and history, a personal reach for an inclusive sublimity harbored in the past of poetry and in the universe. I think I can trace this current surfacing in various people's work for three or four decades.


Andrew Duncan, legends 6: Sound as a volume; or, real space as fictive space

Reportage and analysis by Andrew Duncan on the cream of the poetry avant-garde at the launch of Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos anthology:

Where 20 published poets, or more, were in the same room, here is the social air which the poem inhales and speaks with; the situation where the modernist poem ceases to be alienated and starts to be a social token like a dress or an ornamented Bronze Age belt. Here is the reference group for the language, able to decode it and to qualify utterances as well or badly formed; and to which one presumably assimilates by reading the poems. The poem, detached from its origin in such a dense lake of behavioural impulses, can either seem rich, because of reproducing its origin, or poor, for the same reason, and because the cinema projector fails, the poem/film remains unlit and does not unfold its fictive space.

and a visit to the thriving and quite heterogeneous poetry scene in Plymouth.

Andrew Duncan, legends 7: Avant garde neo-classicism

Here Duncan deals with the sense of continuity or even tradition genuinely within the poetic avant-garde:

The advantages of being part of an experimental scene are obvious; obvious too is the anomaly of a group oriented towards the unknown which also has continuity and relies on accumulated artistic power from the past.

Around 1966-70, with the poetry world in a state of deathlike excitement about the new world of pop, there was a scene in England which was reflexive, critical, and innovative; the passwords were the Objectivists (and Olson, O'Hara, Ashbery), and the key outlets included Ferry Press and Grosseteste Review. The lure of the GR-FP style had led to widespread imitation by Cambridge undergraduates around the time I was there in the mid-70s, as preserved in copies of magazines like Blueprint and Perfect Bound. A new generation of poets were animated by punk, and published in Equofinality; the next 15 years seem largely blank as far as new Cambridge poets goes.

The anthology A Various Art (1987) relaunched the Grosseteste Review poets; the institutional basis for the revived GR-FP ambience was the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry, founded by Chris Milton, an annual fixture from 1991, which allowed the experimental world to assemble in one room and be exposed to a barrage of poetry. The continuity at a social level is very clear to me; what's less clear is whether this represents a "tradition", instead of a "feel" which has actually changed all the time. If I look at a copy of Resuscitator from 1965, of Grosseteste Review from 1976, and fragmente from 1993, I perceive them as part of the same "thing", but also they're totally different.

Andrew Duncan, Groups and Boundaries: The Field of Poetry Around 1995

Duncan analyses a number of poetry anthologies, and meditates upon the divisions revealed (usually expressed as Cambridge v London):

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.
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.

Andrew Duncan, Such that commonly each: A Various Art and the Cambridge Leisure Centre

Andrew Duncan does a late review and essay on the 1987 anthology A Various Art, often labelled "Cambridge School", for an issue of the online magazine Jacket with a focus on Cambridge poetry.

Americanism is the starting-point for the renewal of 1959, or of 1965, or whenever it was. Outbreaks can be traced, sometimes, to individual teachers, such as Tomlinson at Bristol, who were au fait with the most advanced US poetry. The map of British poetic factions was partly a result of which American models they had chosen to follow.
The anthology represents a Timenow of about 1975. This is the British response to the generation of American poets who included Olson, O'Hara, Ashbery, John Wieners and Dorn, as well as to Carl Rakosi and George Oppen, the generation of 1931.

The appearance of A Various Art created, although slowly, a considerable stir in English poetic circles. It was the acceptable face of the underground. It gave the lie to the mainstream myth that the small press scene consisted only of lumpish primitives, heedless spontaneists, self-alienating rock musicians without guitars; it showed a delicacy, reflexivity, and sensitivity which turned on a whole market sector of intellectuals who had given up on modern poetry. The history of poetry consists, no doubt, much more of the progress of the lie of the cultural managers that the excluded poetry was less intelligent than they were, than of the internal course of poems and poets. But the audience is missing an account of the aesthetics behind that peculiarly light and fastidious style, and of the history which led up to it.

Robert Sheppard, Poets Behaving Badly (review of Peter Barry, Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court [Salt, 2006])

Detailed and perceptive review of Barry's book about th expulsion of the British avant-garde from the Poetry Society, which they had briefly controlled. Sheppard has a nuanced take on it, and is anxious to dissociate his concept of "linguistically innovative poetry" to some extent from the earlier avant-garde, as a rebirth rather than a development.

In my analysis, linguistically innovative poetry (which, unlike Barry, I separate from Mottram's 'British Poetry Revival') evolved in those years, particularly through the London Sub Voicive reading series. . . . Barry acknowledges some of this, and quotes cris cheek on the activities in these smaller rooms . . . .I have to stress this, because it is the supportive context in which my own poetry and (shared) poetics developed.
If the radicals had found a way to capitalise on their entryism, and 'hung on in there' as the logic of entryism dictates, might they not have fulfilled (at least part of) their mission statement of 'informing the Nation' about this difficult poetry, given the visibility they had? Perhaps then, instead of organising a talking shop in my front room, I might have been chairing a roundtable discussion on poetics on BBC Radio 3? Or staged at the Bob Cobbing Foundation for Advanced Poetics? A look at other (particularly continental European) cultures suggests this sort of thing in not pure fantasy. 'How come you lot are still the avant-garde?' my Head of Department asked me the other day. I think he would enjoy Barry's book, and then be able to answer his own question: 'Because the radicals walked out of the Poetry Society in March 1977.'

Alan Brownjohn, Poetry Wars (review of Peter Barry, Poetry Wars: British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court [Salt, 2006])

Brief Poetry Review review (from a "mainstream" poet's viewpoint) of the conflicts within the Poetry Society that ended up with the expulsion of the avant-gardist group which had taken over the venerable institution – a nakba it took years for the avant-garde recover from, and which still colours their responses to the groups hegemonic within English poetry ever since.

A C Evans, Voices in Denial: Poetry and Post-Culture

Interesting essay by a poet exploring the failures of British (and American) avant-garde poetry, as not connected to "pop culture". Valid and informed riposte by Andrew Duncan, A Reply.

Poets in a Lens, by David James

"Earlier this year my father died, at the age of 85. He left behind a little book that he had written, about poets and poetry readings in the North East of England. It was never published, but it may be of interest to people who enjoy modern poetry, or who are interested in the history of culture in the North East." Photos taken at readings form the 1960s to the 80s at places like the Morden Tower, Colpitts, Ceolfrith and Castle Chare events, of both performers and audiences. Plus a handy list of googled links to people and places! A little time capsule! Thank you, Jeremy James.

Peter Barry, The Fall of Fulcrum

Stuart Montgomery's astonishing small press Fulcrum published in beautiful editions highly important work at the close of the 60s and the early 70s, before suddenly folding. Peter Barry's revisionist account blames the notoriously defensively aggressive Poet Ian Hamilton Finlay:

Here, Finlay seems to put the brake on the expansion of Fulcrum in a spirit which is almost puritanical — it's all beginning to look too much like capitalist success: poets should be fighting it out day-by-day with the forces of philistinism and cultural conservatism, not living it up on Easy Street. There are presses today — like SALT — which are achieving prominent, up-front distribution of attractive books, abandoning the hand-produced, small-scale, locally-based craft values of the traditional small press poetry publisher. The danger is that the same kind of backlash could occur again. The presence of that danger is one of the lessons of the Fall of Fulcrum.

Lawrence Upton, Writers Forum (Workshop & Publications)

Very clear account of the ethos and history of Writers Forum by the man who knows it best, taking over the running of it after Bob Cobbing's death. The tragicomic narrative of shabby treatment by a series of venues is sadly typical of innovative poetry's commercial standing (and can be considered a badge of praise therefore, maybe). The piece is good on the underlying basics of the Writers Forum approach (central to many Londom-based poets' practice):

we continue as convenors of the workshop, aiming to continue with the principles as they have evolved; they work. Those principles make it possible for people to perform their poetry without fearing that they will be attacked verbally; they encourage mutual esteem; they make it possible to learn by example. All who support our ethos and focus may attend; and we are keen to meet new people.

Which brings me to the kind of poetry one might bring to a WF workshop. Anything!

Cobbing was interested in a broad variety of poetry; but, in particular, extended the poetry’s range into what is sometimes called visual and sound poetry and the indefinable linguistically-innovative poetry. That became the workshop's unexclusive focus, and so it remains.

We put emphasis on performance, though that does not imply a great concern with much of what is now called "Performance Poetry". It may just mean being heard clearly. We have an eclectic interest in poetry as an art and craft, including as a matter of course what has been called "Experimental", often in hybrid forms. There is a fascination in hybridity, crossing of boundaries and confounding of categorisation. We are interested in poetry / dance, poetry / music and poetry / painting.