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Monday, 24 August 2009

The New Andrew Duncan Book: Preaching to the unconverted

I received a review copy of the new Andrew Duncan book of polemical criticism, The Council of Heresy: A primer of poetry in a balkanised terrain, on Friday, and read it through over the weekend, as gripped as if by a thriller. Duncan is perplexing and exasperating and compelling in equal measures: he's arguably one of the most significant poet-critics now writing seriously in Britain (if not the most), because of his passion, wide experience, eccentric insights, and unexpected juxtapositions and references (often to obscure German or medieval or theological texts). He never writes as an academic, per se, but uses footnotes. He is definitely not of the "mainstream" yet he retains an open mind. And, unlike almost everyone else, he knows who Terence Tiller is (the best joke in this book is when he claims that the 40s poets failed because of their moderation, a paradox worthy of Wilde).

He also has here rescued Anthony Thwaite from semi-obscurity (and let's face it, undeserved and general disinterest)by championing his work, an unexpected apologia from someone on the margins that I am sure Thwaite (as a Larkin ally) might be wary of if it wasn't so comprehensive and erudite a championing. Duncan can also be obtuse, naive, funny, and odd, in the same paragraph. Reading him is like reading something by Blake, if Blake read about neuroscience and was an idiot savant. You never know what you are going to get in a Duncan book - they are almost like Gysin cut-ups, with throw-away lines and observations of sometimes near-genius. I think I disagree with 80% of him, but treasure what I don't agree with, when he says it, anyway. He's the informative, engaging and punk edge of experimental UK poetry, in his new role as Greil Marcus to the Prynne Era.

There are too many important elements in this book to explore, or ignore. If you are a British poet, or critic, or want to know about the "poetry wars" and poetics, then you have to read this. It's about as unmissable as Avatar will be for sci-fi film buffs this winter. It's the Future. It's also the Past. Duncan in this book sets out to explore ways of imagining how we might go about solving the differences between the Cambridge avant-garde, the conservative postmoderns (Muldoon, Fenton, his designation), the mainstream, and the British Poetry Revival types. He has many important things to say and suggest, not least that there are maybe "eight or eleven factions" not two. He is the first critic to really bluntly state the fantasy aspect to all poets' imaginary positions, and his comparison of Raine's and Mottram's is useful and striking.

Duncan also offers correctives and explanations, to help understand the emptying out of the speedier, more abstract style of experimental British verse, and suggests - heretically I think - that the best way to read it is not to try too hard to understand it. It's meant to wash over one. He also wryly observes that maybe the reason so many people objected to the Mottram-era Poetry Review is because most people don't "like" experimental poetry. Duncan is good on remembering that poetry has or needs readers, and that they have wishes and needs too.

His main point is that there needs to be some sort of truth commission, where poets, and cultural managers and editors on all sides of the battle from 1960 to the present, the battle over the limited resources and assetts that poetry has to offer (and he notes these are real, often editorships for commercial presses where "seedy businessmen" hold sway), can meet and express their differences, truthfully. This is a Utopian dream and he admits it. Duncan's thinking through of why and how there are different poetries and receptions for poetry is confused, at times, I believe. Sometimes he is lucid and accurate, as when he notes that most poetry opinions are formed without reading the books of our enemies; and that since most poetry decisions are made in private there is no historical record of the injustices. However, he seems to want to say that readers may legitimately find modernist work as off-putting as ugly tower blocks, but that also it is ultimately the truer path for poetry.

Duncan is charmingly honest - he never pretends to like most "mainstream poetry" - though he lists some of the books by mainstreamers he does like, like Oswald's Dart. He believes that private mythology passionately expressed is important, so he approves, for instance, of Hughes. If Duncan does want to effect a rapprochement, he might have tried harder to edit out some of the cheap shots that mar this important and smart book. Jibes like we might need to decommission the poetry wars by having a controlled explosion of Don Paterson, or claims that all mainstream poets lead boring lives, seem jarring (especially since most experimental British poets are hardly models of thrilling lifestyles, either; indeed, a lot of poetry's Dad's Army-Shamanism seems pathetic, a bit like the pseudo-Satanist sent up in Polanski's The Ninth Gate). His claim that Auden is a chief problem with mainstream Anglican poetry and its light-verse conservatism also apparently ignores Auden's support for Ashbery, hardly a mainstream-Christian poet.

Duncan traces many problems to Anglicanism and Englishness, and Nonconformism, and the class struggle - yet praises Rowan Williams. Other confusions and errors appear - he claims there needs to be some work on narcissism and the artist, as if the work of the London Freudian school had never explored such things. He calls Ed Wood the Ed Wood Story. He also cites an anthology by the wrong title at some stage. He also claims to have never read critics on how diction claims can be related to suppression of alternate political positions and movements in history - well, he hasn't read Donald Davie then. These seem more like eccentric errors of the fast-thinking math whiz, mere untidiness amid the brilliant clutter. Perhaps his biggest error is to claim that the test case historical moment of observable conflict and suppression of the experimental wing in the UK was the Poetry Review Mottram episode.

Duncan, in general, doesn't think much has happened since 1980 of interest, and that the revolution was essayed in the 70s (and failed). He might have read his comrade, Ian Brinton, and his recent Cambridge guide to contemporary poetry, to see that the best test case was in fact the experimental poems about the Iraq war, and the attempt to suppress them (see Kendall, Tim). Duncan also seems to have missed the fact that the Internet has been effecting a depolarisation since 2002 at least, when Nthposition began publishing global poetry from all known schools and styles; nor does Duncan mention the "fusion poetry" movement, nor the recent Norton anthology of "Hybrid" poetry. There are attempts to reconcile styles and concerns.

What ultimately impresses me is Duncan's claim that such differences between schools and styles have "meaning" - and in fact, in a market, offer the greatest choice for readers. What remains insufficiently explored, for me, is why poems that explore domestic arrangements, and the personal voice, are necessarily poorer or duller than poems that empty out grammar and syntax, and present sped-up, verbally hyperliterate texts. I personally feel that much poetry of all kinds is dull and poor, but enough is worthwhile, across the spectrum. My own work attempts to explore some aspects that Duncan respects - the riotous, the artificial, the rhetorical, the passionate, the mythic - but also wants to be able to speak of the personal, and my experiences. After all, in a capitalist world, perhaps the only thing we almost possess is our self, and even that, of course, is not true; but trying to explore speaking through the almost-self is a valid "procedure" too.
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