(1) The State of British Poetry

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

* Tim Love, Poetry and Society in the UK

This is a very balanced and sane schematic overview of the entire "poetry world" and its ecology in, I think, England, rather than the UK. Tim Love is a Cambridge computing engineer, with an extraordinarily useful website for information on contemporary literature.

* Ken Edwards, Introduction: The two poetries

This essay was published in a different form in Angelaki 5.1: Poets on the Verge, ed Anthony Mellors and Robert Smith (2000). Ken Edwards, poet and publisher, deals very clearly and cogently with the situation in the United Kingdom, with the conservative aesthetic that has dominated poetry since the 1950s, an aesthetic so all-pervasive that it is no longer perceived as a specific paradigm but is simply the way poetry is, at least to the critical and educational establishments, and the continuing attempts to produce a different poetry. There is a little general historical background, and, extremely usefully and clearly, a very well argued and perceptive comparison between texts by Matthew Sweeney (a competition winner!) and Allen Fisher, coming off a rash connection made by competition judge Michael Hoffman between the Sweeney poem and the work of Joseph Beuys:

The poetics involved in poetry of the type Allen Fisher writes, requiring as it does continuous creative input of the reader to constellate its energy, driven by the material rush of its language, seems to have more in common with nonequilibrium structures. While remaining stable, it appears to shimmer with new possibilities at each reading. By contrast, the Sweeney type of poem, with its pared-down language, lacking intrinsic interest as material and therefore only functioning as the bearer of a single, semantic meaning, seems to tend to wind down into a low-energy equilibrium state. The compensations the poet makes for the lack of overdetermination involve balancing symmetries of meaning: in this case, the death of the whale against the death of the mouse, days against nights, the end of the earth and the beginning of the ocean. But these are not dynamic complexes of meaning; one could easily sort all the elements of the poem into two discrete piles, just as the poem itself divides neatly into its two symmetrical stanzas.

There are also excellent discussions of the difficulties in finding an acceptable name for the poetry this site deals with, where Edwards prefers the term "parallel tradition", and of its relationship to American Language poetry. The text here published is part of an academic project, but is quite self-contained as an introduction, and is well referenced.


* Peter Middleton, The Poetry Review Essay: Recognition (Poetry Review, Vol 94 No 1, Spring 2004)

A well-balanced, and therefore, given the state of things, slightly sad, essay by an academic and poet about the range of poetry over the last thirty years, and the failure of any attempts to see this as a whole, picking up on the power of popular emotion and sentiment, but also suggesting their weakness.

One feature of the division has been to caricature the poetry of the main commercial presses as "accessible" and the avant-garde as incomprehensible, yet this polarisation hides much of what is most valuable about the poetry. A poem by Fred D'Aguiar, Sarah Maguire, Polly Clark, or Andrew Motion may seem to offer direct authorial self-representation, but the very openness of admission diverts attention from questions about the use of details of personal history and memory, the handling of the time of the consciousness that speaks the poem, or the claim to representativeness of a wider community. As long as we don't ask these questions we are missing much of what is most powerful in the writing. The surfaces of a poem by Maggie O'Sullivan, Tom Raworth, John Wilkinson, can be puzzling because they use unfamiliar formal and verbal techniques. Failing to notice them altogether, as appears to happen quite often, or to have little sense of how they can be heard so that they produce the equivalent of several different instruments of meaning playing together, leads to incomprehension and the deadly prejudice that the work has no literary merit. It is as if a reader were listening for violins only, and the orchestra was relying on woodwind and percussion to carry the depth of the music.

* moderated by Catherine Wagner, Post-Marginal Positions: Women and the UK Experimental/Avant-Garde Poetry Community A Cross-Atlantic Forum

including contributions from Andrea Brady, Geraldine Monk and Jow Lindsay, explores the embarrassing problem, which I am sure you have picked up on, that the UK Experimental/Avant-Garde Poetry Community appears a very male-oriented game, and the issues this raises, the reasons for it, and any ways forward.

* Kent Johnson, The New British School

The American poet Kent Johnson casts a favourable eye on the current British innovative poetry scene. It's a little too Cambridge-centric (gosh, Americans do get suckered in so easily, don't they?), but offers a wide list of names and some interesting observations from USA's most acerbic and thorough commentator on avant-garde poetry.

Peter Finch, British Poetry Since 1945

Taken from an article from the American Continuum Encyclopaedia of British Literature which was published in 2003, the Anglo-Welsh poet, critic, author and literary entrepreneur Finch tries to be extremely even-handed in his broad survey. He may be a little too kind to the risibly feeble and vacuously populist attempts at a moderate post-modernism promulgated by some of the hipper exponents of the mainstream

By the turn of the millennium poetry in Britain had reached a multi-faceted stand-off. Despite the work of editors like Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford (1959-) who have made brave attempts at uniting post-modern, post-Christian, post-war, post-Hiroshima, post-structuralist, post-devolution poetries under one pluralistic banner the many gleaming and disparate parts of British poetry do not like making a coherent whole. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales the literatures no longer find themselves overshadowed by an English big brother. The sound coming in from the centre can and is increasingly ignored. The argument between form and content remains as strong as ever. It has been raging for a hundred years and there are no winners yet. The counter-culture may have changed name and altered its emphasis (from lifestyle to free-form experiment and back) but it remains as strong and has as many adherents as ever. They may say there is no British L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry but there are plenty of fellow travellers. The line which runs up from Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), through D.H.Lawrence (1885-1930), Philip Larkin, Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), Douglas Dunn, Andrew Motion, and Simon Armitage continues, although is no longer quite a central as it once was. Minority writing (ethnic, genre, sexual orientation) has as many proponents and fans as pop writing did in the seventies. Twenty-first century British poetry is no longer precisely English. Like the world literature with which it is now firmly allied it has as many facets as the eye of a fly. Saying exactly what it is remains the problem of the moment.


The origins and trajectories of English avant garde poetry in the last 40 years: A dialogue between Peter Riley and Spilios Argyropoulos

The poet Peter Riley begins the task of explaining the situation of English poetry for the benefit of a Greek interlocutor:

But I can't view of this dichotomy as a matter of balance, that a middle position between the two options would be a poetical norm. I don't think it would. Dylan Thomas was important because he re-established something which had been lost in 1930s rationalism, and which concerns the entire nature of poetry. He made the poem into something which, like a painting or a sculpture, uses the materials of the world to create an entity which stands independently of the world, and which rather than a commentary on, or reflection of it, is, as W.S. Graham put it, "an addition to the world". In the populist view of poetry, and still to the majority of academics involved in contemporary poetry, the poem is an event of the person, innately autobiographical, and can be understood by reconstructing the author and his opinions from the poem, with societal and historical contextualising. But to people like Thomas the poem was an event of the world, a raising of language to a pitch beyond the realm of "expression". Of course it does still describe and comment on the world, but in the manner of a theatre. It erects a stronger, richer or more revealing world, whose language cannot exactly be our language; it sets itself apart by formality or by figuration.
I think one result of the sweeping success of "establishment" poetry in a dichotomised history is that the alternatives become fragmented and discontinuous. The academic attack on Thomas was pervasive and influenced poets and critics inclined to Modernism as well as conservatives, and it insisted not only that Thomas's poetry was worthless but also that it was a dead-end. It specifically ignored the development of Thomas's later poetry and others', such as W.S. Graham, into a more accessible voice which retained richness of figuration (or it represented this as a reversal and a capitulation). I think that poets such as J.H.Prynne in the 1960s, through a study of modernism and of much older poetry, arrived at ways of writing which sometimes resembled the textuality of Thomas and Graham but without direct influence. It was as if the current went underground and surfaced twenty years later without anyone specifically digging for it. Some younger poets are now busily engaged in research to locate "lost precursors" — forgotten British modernist or experimentalist poets of the 1930s-1950s, of which there are not many, but they do exist.

John Matthias, British Poetry at Y2K

Matthias, an American poet and critic with good knowledge of British poetry, presents a very lengthy and detailed survey of British poetry at the turn of the Millennium, centring it on the range of anthologies then published (or about to be in the case of the Keith Tuma Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry), and trying to make sense of the mainstream avant-garde split. There are some very interesting long quotations and analyses. It's densely argued, but perceptive. He longs to bang heads together — come on, chaps, there's no need to carry on this quarrel! Matthias talks very interestingly about figures he feels bridge/transcend these splits, especially Geoffrey Hill (probably admired greatly by many on both sides), Roy Fisher (one of us at heart!), and Peter Reading (wonderfully maverick and inventive, but not I think greatly followed in Cambridge etc), though not on James Fenton (totally caught up in mainstream literary policing operations, despite his actual poetic practice). The most relevant sections to avant-garde poetry are:

I: Penguins, Conductors, and Others – setting the scene
IV: Adjuncts to the Muses' Diadem? – discussing the "Cambridge" and "London" groupings
V: Unfinished Business, Current Events – where he eagerly and optimistically awaits the Keith Tuma Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (OUP [NY], 2001) (whose selections of poets enraged mainstream poets and commentators in the UK!)

ed. Robert Sheppard, Turning the Pages

Robert Sheppard's excellent Pages blog hosted a series of responses from October 2007 to March 2009 on the question:

What have been the most significant developments in the alternative British and Irish Poetries (however you define those) over the last 7 years? This can be answered in terms of big picture socio-poetical contexts or in terms of local poetic practices, but please think through both the negative and positive aspects of your chosen sphere. Avoid predictions.

Responses were by Chris Hamilton-Emery, Clark Allison, Adrian Clarke, Tom Jenks, David Kennedy, Todd Swift, Aidan Semmens, with final comment by Sheppard. They bounce off the question, off each other, and off other positions on contemporary British poetry. Here is Todd Swift:

I disagree with the observation that, since disrupted syntax, shifts in levels of discourse, and other apparently innovative techniques are more common (in submissions, even so, to Salt), they may be designated as mainstream. While stylistic divisions between the so-called mainstream and the innovative schools may be shifting (as styles and aims merge or adapt) in the UK — and I think that, among younger (under-35) poets, they are — there remain actual differences in the poetics behind the choices that lead to, for instance, a disrupted lyric, versus an empirical, first-person, traditional British poem (for instance, that Nick Laird might write). There remains, in Britain, profound mistrust of opaque, excessive, or abstract usage of language, in relation to poetry, which, for most people, is still ultimately a vehicle for expressing something — for saying something — about the self and experience. Or rather, not about the problematic nature of an apparent self apparently trying to say something — but, instead, an easily accepted self easily and transparently conveying truths. Moreover, poems continue to be, on the whole, validated in terms of "making" that Pound, or Orwell would have approved (terms better used for for prose): clarity, hardness, and so on. These are scientific values that work well for language mainly built to control, or sell, things, including sentiments and ideas. In a paradox that I think has not yet fully dawned on British poets, modernism's no-nonsense tenets propelled the sort of Protestant work ethic of the Movement style, and its purities of diction — Davie, after all, admired Pound.

Alan Halsey, An Open Letter to Will Rowe

The poet, publisher and bookseller (West House Books) makes a comment on the state of British poetry, for P O R E S: An Avant-Gardist Journal of Poetics Research — trenchant and forceful:

In English-language poetry the 20th century 'mainstream' surely derives from Pound, Eliot, Williams et al — all of whom in various ways saw themselves as continuing an older tradition. But in England 'mainstream' has come to denote a poetry diverted in the 1950s into a backwater which would be seen to reinstate 'traditional' poetic practices in place of the modernist, a claim which bears little examination: we find in it a limited concept of the lyric coupled with easy irony and uncritical notions of description and narrative, with barely a hint of the adventurous spirit of English verse displayed in any historical anthology. In the face of this it is all too easy to strand oneself on a little island called 'the English avant-garde', as if forgetting that the work of Prynne, Griffiths, Corcoran, Monk & many another does belong to the 'mainstream' by any rightful name
There is of course a notable difference between our situation in England and that of our contemporaries in North America. In the early 80s there was clearly a family resemblance between the work of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group and writing published in London and Cambridge; but whereas a decade or so later the North Americans had established themselves within the overall discourse of contemporary poetry and poetics our English work for the most part stayed remorselessly 'underground'. I do think this was partly to do with economics and the means of production: cheaper offset printing meant that by the mid-80s the North Americans were producing smart paperbacks while in England most such work appeared in stapled mimeo or modest pamphlet: perceptions of specific forms of the book as normative cultural object are hugely influential, and for the same reason internet publishing seems unlikely to replace the book as primary source. At least equally significant, I suppose, has been the enthusiasm of many 'language' poets for theoretical writing and the merging of theory and practice in cross-genre 'interdisciplinary' texts which can ostensibly be placed in the framework of a (broadly speaking) post-structuralist critique; engagement with the same areas of theory is evident in much English work but few poets here have been tempted into similarly intergeneric writing which does in any case find no ready welcome in the native nomansland between literature and philosophy departments. In the longer term the North Americans have been able to establish themselves in Creative Writing Programs within official Academe and teach 'radical' notions of writing and reading to the next generation

Tim Love, The formalist/free avant-garde/mainstream UK/US splits

An interesting and fairly dispassionate brief summary of the splits in each country and the differences between US and UK situations

Tim Love, The poetry mainstream

A more recent article has some interesting suggestions about the mainstream/non-mainstream split, and its significance and resolution.

Andrew Duncan, legends 5: An era of rising property prices: Conservative poetry

Part of the poet/critic Andrew Duncan's constant anatomisation of British poetry, here dealing with aspects of mainstream poetry: Oxford poetry and what he calls the Unsophisticated Postmodernism of Paul Muldoon, James Fenton, and Andrew Motion. Of "Oxford poetry":

a geographically located fantasy of tinkly, theatrical, narcissistic, clever, artexed, showbiz poetry swanning around in seventeenth-century rhetorics, and this gobbles up young talents and spits out their bones. After all it suits the British book-buying public very well: in fact, part of its emptiness is its eagerness to please. In 1960, just about the last time you could be au fait with the poetry world without reading the little magazines, Betjeman sold 100,000 copies of Summoned by Bells (imitated by 1000 poets writing about their childhood and parents, the basic model for Motion, Tony Harrison, and Hugo Williams). Comforting, witty, nostalgic, anti-modern narrative without introspection.

There are several more pieces by Andrew Duncan listed here — and many more available on the Web and in print. Andrew has read it all — and made sense it! I am in almost constant agreement with his evaluation of poets, and am profoundly impressed by his ability to contextualise, both intellectually and socially, their writing and milieus. I have limited his representation in this list to prevent his voice becoming too dominant, so others can be heard also.

Andrew Duncan, map of 7-volume work on modern British poetry: Map of the Affluence work

On his new blog, Duncan has given an overall description of 'Affluence, Welfare and Fine Words', a history of British poetry (in English) 1960-97. Not all is yet published.

Words in pictures: Keston Sutherland

The poet reads "Hot White Andy". Posted on the New Statesman site, adding also This reading will provide an introduction for those who are unfamiliar with Sutherland's work, and an aural/visual treat for those who have only encountered it in print. Teetering on the precipice of sound poetry, this poem — and indeed Keston's oeuvre in general — will appeal to those who sympathise with his sardonic yet lyrical disdain for neoconservatism, Fox News and high-capitalist consumerism. It is dense, high-octane poetry, to which, for newcomers, acclimatisation may require several viewings. An interesting pointer to greater openness in some quarters.

Robert Archambeau, "Its Chief Weapon is Excess": Chris Hamilton-Emery on Cambridge Poetry

American poet/critic Robert Archambeau's Samizdat blog ran a piece excerpting and commenting on Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt's view on a NewsList posting about the nature of Cambridge poetry, and the ambivalence between "cult" and oppositionalism. Very interesting responses as Comments by Keston Sutherland (labeled "messianic" to his horror) and others, climaxing with Boris Jardine quoting a trivialising review in the TLS of the first, Cambridge Poetry issue, of The Cambridge Literary Review. Yes, all storm in teacup etc; but who put the poetry in the teacup in the first place, and does it want to remain there?

Amy De'Ath, Poetry Publishing: As It Stands: Innovation, the Post-Avant, and Current Publishing Practices

This long piece by the young poet Amy De'Ath presents a pretty accurate record of British poetry seen from her viewpoint, with interesting and useful discussion of a range of factors and a range of publishers. Her summary of Ron Silliman's amusing but also accurate phrase "The School of Quietude" is good:

which, 'as I've noted before, is simply a placeholder for that other poetry tradition which tries so very hard to be the unmarked case. I won't call it Mainstream, because it is not.' (Silliman, 2009). Silliman argues that The School of Quietude, comprised of more traditional and formalist modes of poetry, is consistently recognisable through its refusal to name itself. Secondly, he argues that this is a characteristic which is detrimental to more formal schools of poetry since it discourages any rigorous critical analysis of their traditions, roots, and praxes. Finally, he argues that the denial of self-identification is a power move: 'it remains foggy precisely because it refuses to name itself. That refusal is a power move — nothing more, nothing less. (You might say that my naming it is likewise, and you would be right).' Silliman does not clarify what he means by the term 'power move', but it would not be unreasonable — given his affiliation with specifically anti-conventional Language poets — to build upon these comments to suggest that more formal poetries, by refusing to explore their own territories, simultaneously marginalise (post)modernist and avant-garde schools of poetry as 'oddities', or even deny the existence of these approaches.

De'Ath provides a good, clear introduction to some of the major trends in current innovative writing, and who is making it available.

Barry Schwabsky, The Verge of a Language

This piece in the busy American ezine The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Art, Politics and Culture discusses the very female-centred Greenwich Cross-Genre Festival (Bless you Emily Critchley!), an American anthology, Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics (Saturnalia Books, 2010) edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, and the British Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by U.K. Women Poets, edited by Carrie Etter (Shearsman Books, 2010). Interesting points are made about the sheer liveliness and variety of contemporary innovative women's poetry.

Interview with Sean Bonney

See listing on Let's Take Some Actual Poets and Their Poems . . . for more information.

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Ken Edwards on Reality Street

This interview on the Canadian poet Rob McClennan's blog gives a good picture of how one of the several small presses vital to the functioning of Contemporary British Innovative Poetry operates. [Q:] What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing? [A: ] The construction of writers' and readers' communities, for mutual benefit. sums up a lot of their role.