P O R E S   4
An Avant-Gardist Journal
of Poetics Research
A  l  a  n      H  a  l  s  e  y
title page

Tony Trehy
Questions of Ideology and Ideological Apparatus

Gallery of work from contributors to the Forum on Women Writers:
Elizabeth Jane Burnett
Marianne Morris
Susan Johanknechtarmour
Emmanuelle Waeckerle
Carol Watts

Allen Fisher
Minimaus: in response...

Will Rowe
Invisible Power

Frances Presley
Piano Trio by Nicola le Fanu

Frances Presley
two flames

Frances Presley
Frances Van Goor

Philip Davenport
Vogue Divine

Bill Griffiths
In Audience

Tony Lopez
What Can Be Done

Ceri Buckmaster
Contemporary Poetics and the Re-inscription of Urban Subjectivities

Dell Olsen

An Open Letter to Will Rowe

Dear Will

Thanks for your invitation to contribute to the discussion. I must admit I've felt quite wary about it, mistrusting the way these exchanges often become entrenched in a confrontational mode inherited from the 'poetry wars' of the 1970s. I see those events as specific to their time, and the harking back to them as more harmful than beneficial in that they belie the diversity both of the work you and I enjoy and of the broader politico-cultural spectrum. And yet, as your invitation suggests, the entrenchment is not only on the 'radical' side and it's difficult to ignore the ferocity of recent attacks on Robert Potts' editorship of Poetry Review and on Keith Tuma's anthology.

It would of course be foolish and self-defeating to expect that any work which is genuinely radical will find an immediate wide readership and appreciation. In most periods recognition of 'the new' has been delayed. In a mid-nineteenth century anthology you will not find Keats or Shelley but you will certainly come across lesser poets such as Bernard Barton and L.E.L. Counterparts of the latter fill most of our contemporary anthologies and do tend to be a bit vociferous if they do not appear in all.

I am nevertheless doubtful about the term 'avant-garde' as applied to contemporary work. I suspect that it ceased to be helpful 80 years or more ago; adherence to it has in England ceded ground to our latterday Bartons who have cheerily harnessed the word 'mainstream' for their own use. 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. By the same token, however, I regret the omission of (among others) George Barker and R.S.Thomas from the Tuma anthology since they seem to me to belong to the same broad development. A more comprehensive view would undermine the lazy persuasion that the challenge to the signifier in particular and questioning of signification more generally is an exclusively 'postmodern' preoccupation.

Around 1980 there was certainly an expectation among small-press publishers and poets that there would be a breakthrough into a wider public recognition. The commercial lists were in a particularly desultory state: it seemed fair to suppose that their readers would soon be attracted by the liveliness of the work issuing from the London and Cambridge presses and that this would be seen as the new and relevant poetry of the time. Such an optimism reckoned without the peculiar ability of the established publishers with their attendant reviews and reviewers to convince a not entirely independent-minded readership of the 'authority' of its judgments. It is a nice question why this phenomenon should particularly afflict poetry during a period in which contemporary visual art has enjoyed a wider appreciation; it is even nicer to ask why textual 'experiment' in visual art has been welcomed while the more searching explorations made by poets are shown stubborn suspicion. The effect of that suspicion is more to the point in our context: poetry in England has appeared to bifurcate into two 'cultures' neither of which has much to do with the other.

There was perhaps a misleading precedent in the relative commercial success of publishers of 'radical' poetry such as Fulcrum and Trigram in the late 60s & early 70s. We tend to attribute their demise to the withdrawal of grants by an increasingly conservative Arts Council. This did happen but it is crucial to recognize that these independent presses flourished in a period of independent booksellers and a relatively laissez-faire policy in the more traditional bookshops. By the 1980s the independent booksellers were beginning to disappear and the retail booktrade was being subsumed within chainstores. Faber by glossing the dinner-party modernism of Bloomsbury with a fashionable corporate image adapted cleverly to the changing situation, as did the heavily-subsidized Bloodaxe, although I suspect that in sales terms neither could support the notion that they were offering 'popular' poetry, whatever that might suggest in the popularity stakes poetry of any kind is no match for music or even the novel and it is silly to pretend otherwise. The poetry lists of commercial publishers represent no more than a self-serving claim on cultural 'validity' and must therefore not offend the sensibilities they claim to validate: it's as circular, and non-economic, as that. (No surprise, then, that the poetry thus promoted is often close kin to weekend-supplement journalism, riding on a notion of 'human interest' never meant for close scrutiny.) Twenty years later the high street bookshop is virtually redundant as a source for anything except a limited range of books; at the same time as print-on-demand, desktop typesetting and internet bookselling have pushed the overall situation into freefall independent publishers and booksellers can again compete with their corporate rivals. This is probably a significant ground for recent antagonisms: our contemporary Bartons can no longer rely on the ascendancy (and therefore good will) of the commercial presses. There is an undertow of panic in the protests, as if the chief antagonists begin to see themselves as victims of their own dullness: The Dunciad remains as relevant as ever.

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. It's that notion of the ways of reading, and its transmission, which has been so problematic in England and for the most part dependent on individual exertion: the work has been produced for so long but until recently the loci for a critical understanding have been largely denied.

I'm merely recording here an observation of the way a certain thing has happened and not suggesting that the Creative Writing Program as an academic department is the ideal transmitter. Its effect in some quarters seems to have been a dangerous loss of long-term memory; 'avant-gardes' prepare the ground for a new and often shallow conservatism, looking to their own preservation. I'm not in fact convinced that a relatively public discourse or placement is a helpful thing for the writing of poetry; the impressive body of work produced largely unnoticed in England during the last 40 years at least shows that a spotlit forum is not a necessary condition. Poets certainly need correspondence and correspondences but the art remains essentially private. I love it for that.

As ever, Alan