Friday, May 12, 2006

British Matters

Well, what promised to be a relaxed & productive 1st week of summer break has turned out to be nothing of the sort, thanks to one child's mystery virus / succession of traumatic boo-boos, the other's decision that this particular month was the most propitious time to start trying out the "terrible" part of being two, & a minor catastrophe in an air conditioning outflow line. Not dull at all.
Bob Archambeau, similarly dug out from under the semester's wreckage, has a must-read "open letter" in response to Stephen Burt's recent review of Scottish & Northern Irish poetry in the Times. Bob makes the very accurate point – certainly not a new one to the 6 readers of this blog, but news to the readers of the Times and various other mass circulation periodicals – that British & Irish poetry is a far more variegated & rambunctious realm than one might anticipate if one's only points of reference are Seamus Heaney and the various lost-wax-process replicas of Philip Larkin who publish in the TLS.

Indeed, there's a lively alt-poetry scene in Great Britain & Ireland, & one that's been documented pretty well in a series of big anthologies: Michael Horowitz's Children of Albion (1969), John Matthias's 23 Modern British Poets (1971), Andrew Crozier & Tim Longville's A Various Art (1987), Eric Mottram et al.'s The New British Poetry (1988, and its spinoff volume, Future Exiles: 3 London Poets, 1992), Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos (1996), Ric Caddel & Peter Quartermain's Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (1999), & Keith Tuma's Oxford Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (2001).

Interestingly enough, all of these later anthologies (save Tuma's, which takes a kind of Oxonian high ground) employ much the same rhetoric as the roughly contemporaneous American alt-poetry anthologies – Silliman's American Tree, Weinberger's Innovators and Outsiders, Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century, etc.: a simultaneous valuing of the innovation represented in the works of the poets included & vigorous assertion of their institutional (public, academic, etc.) marginalization. What's interesting is that these British anthologies, quite unlike their American counterparts, were published by fairly mass-market presses: Penguin, Paladin, Picador and the poetry press Carcanet. I suppose the US equivalent might be seeing In the American Tree published by Vintage, rather than by the University of Maine's National Poetry Foundation.

That's one thought. Another thought – and this perhaps to explain the general impression that British & Irish contemporary poetry is somehow more formally & conceptually conservative than American poetry, or that it lacks the vigorous alt-poetry component: Often it's just a matter of what's available on the other side of the ocean. Up until very recently indeed, the only UK or Irish poets the average American reader was likely to encounter were either a) published in American magazines or b) published by American publishers. Bloodaxe Books have only started making inroads into American bookstores in the last 10 years or so, & their distribution is still lousy; Carcanet, so far as I know, sells nothing over here; small presses like Reality Street and Shearsman can be found at the better small press bookstores (Bridge Street in DC, Talking Leaves in Buffalo), but not at even the very best independent bookstores in (say) Austin or Miami. Which leaves one reading the British & Irish poets who have American publishing contracts, folks like Larkin, Muldoon, Heaney, Hughes, etc. In some ways this has always been the case: though we share (more or less) a common language with the British, that's no reason to expect that there should be any significant overlaps in the institutional structures of our literary production.

(The problems of "translating" literary "scenes" across national borders are of course exacerbated when there's a language difference. I know a half-dozen contemporary French poets' work pretty well, but I have no idea whether my sense of contemporary French poetry is any more accurate than Baudelaire's, who thought Poe was a divine genius. Conversely, I'm told on good authority that the Italians consider John Ciardi and Gregory Corso to be the top rank of American poets.)

I have to confess a bunch of ignorance here: I've probably only read 50 or 60 books of British & Irish poetry published in the past 20 years, & I have only a vague notion of the issues at state when speaking of the "experimental" or "innovative" or "postmodernist" wing of those poetries (for convenience, shall we say "Brit-alt-poetry"?). For instance:
•This whole "modernist/postmodernist" business; I get the sense the Brits would rather use the term "modernist" rather than positing some ill-defined "post" – which seems to me eminently sensible. Perhaps it comes out of the experience of a modernism which was more thoroughly repressed (by the Movement, the neo-late-Eliotians, whomever) & is now being reinvigorated – as opposed to the New American Poets, who in some sense are trying to work their way out from under what they see as an oppressive modernism?
•The various regional groupings: who's a "Cambridge" poet (apart from the obvious suspects – Pope Prynne and the Various Art folks), and who's loosely connected with some other group?

Methinks I should be reading Andrew Duncan's and Robert Sheppard's books, & soon. What I'd really like would be an old-fashioned literary history of post-war British poetry, the sort of thing promised but not realized in Perkins's History of Modern Poetry & Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets.
Just finished John Xiros Cooper's Modernism and the Culture of Market Society, & struck by this exchange from Wyndham Lewis's Tarr:
"Art is merely the dead, then?"
"No, but deadness is the first condition of art... The second is the absence of soul, in the sentimental human sense. The lines and masses of the statue are its soul. No restless, quick flame-like ego is imagined for the inside of it. It has no inside. This is another condition of art; to have no inside, nothing you cannot see. Instead, then, of being something impelled like an independent machine by a little egoistic fire inside, it lives soullessly and deadly by its frontal lines and masses."
Week's random 10:

1) "The Slave," Art Bears, Winter Songs
2) "The World Turned Upside Down," Oysterband, The Shouting End of Life
3) "Valerie," Richard Thompson & Danny Thompson, Live at Crawley
4) "Imperial Thorn," Death Ambient (Hideki/Mori/Frith), Death Ambient
5) "Piram," John Zorn/Masada, First Live 1993
6) "Frownland," Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica
7) "I Know Why the River Runs," Julie Miller, Broken Things
8) "Here He Comes," Brian Eno, Before and After Science
9) "Portent," Painkiller, Guts of a Virgin
10) "Funk in Deep Freeze," John Zorn/George Lewis/Bill Frisell, News for Lulu


Henry Gould said...

Tell me one thing, Mark - what is the value of training your "6 readers" to better educate the readers of the TIMES?

In my experience, the counter-culture abysm-elitist mandarin-brahmin-populist acadddemmia which you, Ron Silliman, et al. represent is far more exclusive than anything the TIMES chooses to highlight.

You have you CANON which is extremely DISCERNING - in a literary-political-philosophical way - than anything the "mainstream media" could ever have time to produce.

I don't mean to pick on you - it's a gen eric situation -

Henry Gould said...

What I mean toi say is - if you DISAGREE with the TIMES - try writing a public essay, instead of grousing to the choir -

Mark Scroggins said...

Whoa, whoa, Henry -- first off, I'm simply responding to Bob's "open letter" to the Times writer; I'm not trying to educate anyone. To whatever extent I educate, I do so in the classroom: if I think Tony Lopez is more interesting than Philip Larkin, say, I put TL on the syllabus & not PL.

What I'm interested in is a) why most american poetry readers -- and that's both New Yorker "casual" readers & rabid elitist counter-culturalists -- think of British poetry as this sink of conservatism, and b) what shapes & courses modernist/postmodernist poetry in Britain has taken. I think I know a little about (a); I want to learn more about (b). That's all. You might want to cast an eye back over the course of this blog, & consider the various poets I've touched on, before you accuse me of whatever that string of adjectives you just put together to throw at Ron S. was.

Thanks for alerting me to the new Geoffrey Hill poems in Poetry.

Henry Gould said...

SORRY for previous comment, Mark. Not at my best last night. I had just returned from having a tooth pulled. Should not have been on the machine or my high horse.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of blowing my own trumpet: If anyone wants to know a little bit about *Irish* poetry written in the slipstream of modernism, I've a chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed. Matthew Campbell, which might be of some interest to American readers unaware of such developments. Bob Arch. has also written about this, more concisely and more eloquently, in a chapbook for Wild Honey Press. I'm pretty sure it's still available from the WHP website.

Edmund Hardy said...

I'd add Nicholas Johnson (ed) FOIL (etruscan) to that list of anthologies.

An interview with Robert Sheppard regarding The Poetry of Saying among other things will appear in the next few weeks at "Intercapillary Space".