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Saturday, 7 June 2008

Quixotic tilts

A recent anonymous message to Eyewear reads:

"Todd, enough already with the Quixotic tilts and generalisations aimed at the perceived poetry establishment in the UK. How do you know how well known Blaser is or not here? Are we really expected to know all poets from around the world, even those of waist-deep in this business. How up are you on Filipino poetry, or NZ poetry, for example? How many North American poets have heard of Morgan? Had you before you came here?As for 'a measure of the insularity of Britain's main gate-keepers of poetry', that's camp hyperbole - take it out of eye-scratching code and say what you mean. Do you think he should have been invited here to do readings, that he warrants a Faber edition - let us know rather than bark. Who exactly are these 'gate keepers'? Why exactly are they insular?"

Notice the aggrieved tone. I marvel at how selectively people who read blogs read them - never bothering to trace the history of a blog, or its nuances. Instead, here I am, being typified, again, as a mere grumpy complainer, banging on about how dreadfully mean the British are. As if. Much British poetry is in happy rude health, as I often mention (see how many British poets I feature each Friday). Carcanet, Salt, and other smaller presses share important work with an international perspective. Ironically, when I question more conservative values, I get it, and when I don't, Sean Bonney shows up like a bull in a china shop.

Anyway, I wanted to reply to Anonymous in a new post. Firstly, it's a measure of the insularity of some poets and poetry readers in the UK, that they don't even recognise how narrow their tastes are, or how limited their ability to cope with the very wide spectrum of new poetries and poetics currently developing around the world. In short, the very fact this nonplussed messenger (cowardly in being anonymous) needs to ask how or who is insular in the British poetic communities (whether mainstream or beyond) is telling. I refer this anonymous person to the history of British poetry criticism of the 20th century - and certain key moments - from Donald Davie describing British taste as insular (especially in ignoring Basil Bunting for so long) to Don Paterson's more recent polemical Introduction to a new British anthology, that took potshots at "postmodern" poetry. This person, seeking insularity, might read John Burnside's recent article in Poetry Review, bemoaning the fact his otherwise talented poetry friends don't like, and actively mock, leading US poets, like Jorie Graham.

This isn't a story I or Richard Caddel (see his Intro to Other) made up. The history of modern and postmodern British poetry is one of establishment and oppositional poetics, and poetries. It seems that the various groups almost feed off of the reckless disregard they express for the others. It seems to boil down to the idea that language is a transparent medium to express experience and the self in the lyric and narrative modes, or, rather, that language constructs the self, and the world ("writes us"). It's a tussle between artifice and authenticity. And it's a tension between American and other foreign influences, especially after the humiliations of Suez. Most post-1955 mainstream UK poetry has resisted "going abroad" unless it could be home for tea, for a reason - either fear, or resentment, of American influence. This influence, from Dorn, Ginsberg, and more recently Language poetry, has been roundly resisted. The UK poets who learn from Pound, or Olson, or Zukofsky, in "these isles" are often treated as if they were mental patients by those who think poetic tradition is all about local voice, and "British themes".

I'm not, by the way, a member of any British school or camp - they won't have me. I'm interested in hybrid forms, between the High Modern lyric mode, and disrupted and abstract lyric utterances, that make my work as unsettling (or boring) to Neil Astley as to Rod Mengham. However, as in America, a younger generation is emerging who wants to move beyond the entrenched past. But anyone who thinks I am being "Quixotic" in pointing out the reception history of North American poetry (Wallace Stevens was long resisted by Faber under Eliot, for instance) in Britain hasn't done their homework.

As for the gate-keepers - they're the editors of the big London presses, mostly - particularly Paterson and Robertson - whose critical taste, I believe, is of less interest than their own poetry, which does have the virtue of being well-made. They and a few others have a rather limited sense of what poetic language can, and should do; their emphasis on music, and everyday speech, stems directly from Adam Smith's Belles Lettres lectures; this isn't personal - this is critical. I am responding directly to the critical and poetic statements they themselves have made, both in their writing, and the editorial selections they make. It isn't that these lists are bad - not so - the poets on them are often very "good" - but they're the tip of an iceberg.

John Ashbery is a good example. Ask your poetry friends what they think of his work. You'll soon see the litmus test at work. Then ask what they think of Lee Harwood. Or Susan Howe. By the way, I knew who Edwin Morgan was since I was ten. I discovered his work early, in anthologies, and loved it. I also know many poets from around the world. That's what I do - I've been editing magazines, and anthologies, since 1988, when I was 21 - seeking out new poets, wherever they may live.

The default insular British position lamented later in life by Donald Davie (not shared by all, but typified by Hobsbaum) is that there is an "English" tradition entirely different from the "American" language. This is the anti-international, anti-modern perspective. I take a different view. I welcome poetry, poetries, and poets, from any and all destinations.

I say this to the anonymous grouch: read your Leavis, your Wain, your Hamilton, your Alvarez, your Sheppard, your Lopez, your O'Brien - and trace the development of how some poetry was, and wasn't, encouraged, in these isles.
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