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An overview of contemporary British poetry since 1977


Why start with 1977? It is not in fact as arbitrary as it might seem to start a description of contemporary British poetry at this date, since it marks the defeat of the ‘avant-garde’ and linguistically innovative grouping of poets at the Poetry Society (at that time the premier organisation of poetry in the UK). In 1977 Eric Mottram left the editorship of the Poetry Review and Bob Cobbing was forced out of the Poetry Society under suspicion of financial impropriety and managerial incompetence. For most of the 1970s prior to that Eric Mottram and Bob Cobbing between them had done their utmost to support young poets, innovation and radical experimentation, in London and elsewhere, and their ethos and practice were marked both by the influence of American modernism (especially from the Black Mountain poets) as well as the European neo-avant garde. Peter Barry’s new book The Poetry Wars, forthcoming from Salt, deals with this episode in British literary history in great detail.

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1977 also represents the beginning (as far as poetry is concerned) of the post-1968 right-wing backlash, later leashed on a national scale in 1979 with 18 years of Thatcherite corporate-authoritarianism (immediately followed by the false dawn of Blairite corporate-authoritarianism). Thus began a long retrenchment for British poetry along market-lead, neo-con, publisher-driven lines stemming from the neo-Movement position adopted by the new Poetry Society management and the sudden purge of non-conformist poets and poetry from all public space (Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood stayed on a little later than the others, but not for long).

This was a return to form. The immediate post-war situation in British poetry was equally bleak, suffering from the long winter of the Movement (represented in particular by the likes of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, D J Enright, John Wain and Elizabeth Jennings and beginning around 1950). After 1977, it was Larkin’s spawn in the shape of Craig Raine and the Martian set, which includes the current poet laureate Andrew Motion, who have ruled the roost with an iron (and distinctly Tory, conservative) fist. On both occasions this conservative retrenchment into the narrowest confines of tradition has been disastrous for poetry in Britain. Genuinely energetic, innovative and modernist poetry (such as that represented in Italy by I Novissimi in the 1960s, for example) was largely squeezed out of large-circulation magazines, publishing houses, and most other public spaces where it might otherwise have found an audience.

The obvious result has been that since 1977 there has been a huge reduction in the number of good poets being published, a dwindling number of opportunities for wider publication, a slowdown in the rate at which poets respond to other trends in the arts, and a general malaise and feeling of ennui that took root in the 1980s: a decade to survive rather than one to flourish in, at least as far as the UK is concerned (the idiom of Language poetry was busy generating new work in the USA, although by 1980, even there, the US equivalent of the neo-avant garde had seen its best days). Nevertheless, below the surface of Thatcherism, a new generation of young poets was making huge steps to reinvigorate British poetry, while the veterans of the wars in the 70s maintained their practice largely out of sight, waiting for the tide to change once more in their favour. So, towards the end of the decade momentum was building up once again, to the point where it was possible for John Muckle (later Iain Sinclair) to edit a major series of works published by Paladin: Grafton Books, including the major anthology The new British poetry (1988) containing work by a host of younger writers, as well as important retrospective volumes of more established poets from the 1960s and 1970s whose careers had taken a downturn in the 1980s. These include Tom Raworth’s Tottering State (1988), Lee Harwood’s Crossing the Frozen River (1988) and the three-poet selection Tempers of Hazard (1993) featuring Barry MacSweeney, Chris Torrance and Thomas A Clark. This last came right at the end of this Paladin-led revival. Rupert Murdoch took over the press and his accountants advised him to pulp all non-profit making titles. Tempers of Hazard, last out, had barely been printed before it was recalled and pulped. An incident said to have led to a fresh bout of drinking by MacSweeney ultimately ending in his death from alcoholism in 2000.

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Since this false start at the beginning of the 1990s, however, a number of new features became conspicuous in what must still be considered the tradition of ‘linguistically innovative’ poetry, to use the descriptive term employed by Robert Sheppard in his book far language (1999), among others. Ulli Freer (who started working back at the end of the 1960s) continued to produce highly charged, condensed and vituperative anti-lyrics, a style that continued in another form with the Zukofsky-inspired work of Adrian Clarke, with its word-based line measure, and consequent syntactic breakdown. The freshest lyrical voice to come from the 1980s, and emerge fully mature in the 1990s, was Maggie O’Sullivan, whose ur-languages literally come into being on the page, inidividual words, syllables and sound-fragments verbialised and set in motion, making the poem the site of powerful transformations: ‘Water/ they unlidder/ shrieve hurtled/ folded/ suffixes — Dots. Dashes, Scraping fowls …’ (from ’Naming’ in In the House of the Shaman). Vigorous counter-currents were attested in London, Cambridge, and the North-East of England in particular, each with their own regional peculiarities.

Basil Bunting had already laid down a specifically North-Eastern modernism in Durham and Newcastle in the 1960s (he was one of the original modernists of the 1930s with close links to Pound, Zukofksy and Niedecker in particular). Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s this modernist renaissance has been continued by colleagues, and now their students and disciples: of especial note is the late Richard Caddell, but Colin Simms’ poetry of the wilderness and its wildlife should also be noted here (with its suggestion of a radical pastoral poetry, that could only come from this far northern province of England), as well as Tom Pickard’s. John Seed comes from Newcastle, but has long since moved south: nevertheless his allegiance to Bunting and the Objectivists is no less obvious for that.

Immagine articolo Fucine MuteOther contemporary northern poets of note are Geraldine Monk and Alan Halsey who have also published much important work through their imprint West House Books, including the Londoner who has made the opposite journey northwards, Bill Griffiths, whose most recent book is the exceptional retrospective volume of work covering the last three decades, The Mud Fort. The greatest of them all was undoubtedly Barry MacSweeney, at last recognised with the publication by Newcastle’s Bloodaxe of Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1965-2000 (2003).

Modernism and radical poetics have never been in serious danger in Cambridge, the hermetically sealed Cambridge Leisure Centre having produced consistently awe-inspiring poetry since the mid 1960s, originally under the impetus of Donald Davie, but then more clearly under the spell of J H Prynne, without doubt the greatest living poet writing in English today. Here is a brief taster from one of his best collections yet, Bands Around the Throat (1987), ‘Listening to All’:

As must, as will, intent upon this
night air twice over you say too,
the albedo white with shock. So still
and quiet, in deep discount at offer
of itself consenting, the living day
blocks its truth to the same: the sound
of its own name in the byword, very still
and quiet, the bond of care annulled

Poetry from Cambridge has been marked, in particular, by the glittering surfaces of its language, its use of non-poetical discourse in the body of the poem (e.g. bureaucratic, financial or scientific languages and registers), its ability to mix high modernism with lyric and metrical formality, and ultimately its ability to use all these features in savage critiques of ideology, state power, and the language that is in their service.

There have been at least three generations of Cambridge poets since Prynne, Tim Longville, John Riley, and Michael Grant set the ball rolling. Of note since have been Andrew Crozier, Peter Riley, Denise Riley, John James, Wendy Mulford, David Chaloner, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, John Wilkinson, and now emerging in the 2000s are the exceptional poets Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady, Marianne Morris, Stuart Calton and Jow Lindsay.

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For several decades Bob Cobbing also presided over some of the most exciting poetry, publishing and performance work of the Twentieth century in Britain, making London (once again) the true hub of British poetry. His was a career marked by numerous, shifting, collaborations, producing strange and wonderful fruit: first with Jeff Nuttall, but then with a host of other artists, some famous, some less so, including the monumental sequence Domestic Ambient Noise (DAN) written with Lawrence Upton, who now maintains Cobbing’s press Writers Forum, and the workshop associated with it. Upton is one of the very few still producing exciting and challenging new sound and concrete poetry, as well as remarkable lyric poetry. The latest generation of poets to have sat at the feet of Cobbing, the master, include Jeff Hilson, Doug Jones, Chris Paul, Aodhán McCardle, Stephen Mooney, Piers Hugill and Sean Bonney, whose fiery political diatribes and caustic lyrics somehow summarise the achievements of the London poets over the last four decades with apocalyptic genius. A selection of the last five years of his writing has just been published as Blade Pitch Control Unit (2005) by Salt.

Miniature foci have also come into existence at some London universities: for example around Robert Hampson and Redell Olsen at Royal Holloway, and with the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre (CPRC) at Birkbeck, where Aodhán McCardle, Stephen Mooney and Piers Hugill have been working with William Rowe. Olsen has been extremely influential in bringing ideas of performance in poetry, and mixed media approaches, to a wider audience, as well as doing a great deal of work to make younger female poets better known. See her How 2 website, co-edited with Kate Fagan from Australia, for more on women’s writing in Britain. Other key poets in the London orbit (although not all of them from London) are Robert Sheppard and Patricia Farrell, Harry Gilonis and Elizabeth James, Tim Atkins, Mike Weller and Peter Jaeger.

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Another outpost of experimentalism in UK poetry is in the heart of the West Country at Dartington College, where John Hall started a course in ‘performance writing’ in 1994. Caroline Bergvall, who was departmental director between 1995 and 2000, made the subject her own and has continued to produce some of the most startling work of the last ten years and more mixing the ephemerality of performance with the fixity of print, often doing so by exploring trans-generic writing in hybrid media, including site-specific and trans-linguistic work. Examples include the on-line text Éclat available at: http://www.ubu.com/ubu/bergvall_eclat.html.

One of the youngest veterans of 1977 is cris cheek, who like Bergvall, has done more than anyone to expand the possibilities of what poetry can be as both a performative and technological art-form. Much of his early work was inspired by a combination of Cobbing’s influence at his Writers Forum workshop and press, and visiting the USA in the mid 1970s when Language poetry was taking off. This cocktail has proven explosive and there are few poets with a more exuberant and fully thought-through perfomance style, or with a wider understanding of the possibilities of stretching a reader’s resources. Other inspirations have been the talk poems of David Antin and Steve Benson. In the last few years cris has worked with both Sianed Jones and Kirsten Lavers on a number of multi-media projects, most notoriously as TNWK (Things Not Worth Keeping), which mix writing, performance art, handicrafts, film and installation art in extravagant and luscious hybrids. Dartington is set to produce a new generation of artists and poets, of whom Kirsten Lavers and now Chris Paul are living examples.

Poets that don’t fit into any of these categories include Ian Davidson in Wales, the magnificent Peter Manson and Thomas A Clarke from Glasgow, Scotland, as well as Brian Catling, Professor of Sculpture at the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, and Allen Fisher, another two London exiles.

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Having looked at the regional make-up of the contemporary poetry scene in the UK, it might also be worthwhile considering some aspects of genre and the current areas of interest that are exciting and motivating younger poets. The following are a list of some of the features that seem conspicuous in current poetry:

Techniques of fast cutting and montage inherited from an interest in cinema: this also relates to an interest in American modernism, both of the New York School type as well as the poets associated with the Black Mountain College. This is especially prevalent in the older generation of poets, who began writing in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth and Roy Fisher.

An interest in contemporary music. At least in London this has tended to mean a close association with the free improvisation scene, as well as with Electronica to a lesser extent. Of most note in this respect are the Esemplastic Tuesday sessions organised by Out To Lunch (Ben Watson), a student of Prynne’s at Cambridge, held at the Royal College of Art. These combine free drawing, free improvisation in music and radical poetry. OTL often plays back sessions on Resonance FM, London’s only experimental radio station (it is also broadcast live on the internet at: http://www.resonancefm.com/)

Despite a common ancestry in concrete poetry and text-sound scores among many on the London scene, there has been a tendency to combine the lessons learned from these earlier forms in either multi-media performance, or as elements within more textual or even lyrical writing. That said, two years ago Andres Anwandter and Martin Gubbins, both from Santiago in Chile, brought a Latin American high modernism to London, that still employed sound and concrete in a very fresh and invigorating way, thus amounting to a mini-renaissance of these forms.

One interesting feature of the poets who are emerging in this first decade of the twenty-first century has been the playfulness with which they have adopted older registers and forms in poetry and made them new. Thus there appears to be a case for a radical pastoral poetry with Jeff Hilson’s use of bird-lore and other ‘folk’ elements in his short lyrics (as with Tim Atkins’ Folklore), a latter-day Romantic mysticism below the brooding urban surfaces of Doug Jones’ powerful work, and a Blakean derangement and revolutionary political anguish in Bonney’s sensational rantings. Hilson, for example is currently editing an anthology of experimental and radical sonnets, a form, it appears, still widely used by many poets in Britain. There has always been an interest in Augustan poetics (the end of the 17th C and the first half of the 18th C, the key poets of which are Dryden and Pope) at Cambridge, stemming from the influence (benign or malign as taste dictates) of F R Leavis and later Donald Davie and C H Sisson, and this is no less the case now. Simon Jarvis has just produced a monumental 300 page lyric, The Unconditional (2005), which investigates form and tradition in a way rarely seen on such a scale, and which must prove devastating to the trivial whimsy of the New Formalist reaction.

Immagine articolo Fucine MuteAnother distinctive feature of London poetry especially, has been an abiding interest in the city as place, and London as locus of attention, history, political and spiritual intrigue, and of paranoia. As has already been noted above, Charles Olson, and especially his Maximus Poems, made a huge impact on poets in the UK. Later when Ed Dorn came to Britain he brought with him an even sharper, more politically realist geopoetics, as manifested in work such as The North Atlantic Turbine. Prynne was an early admirer of Olson and his The White Stones collection of 1969 is heavily indebted to both with its observations regarding huge-scale geological and historico-cultural phenomena, as witnessed in, for example, ‘The Glacial Question, Unsolved’:

… We know where the north
is, the ice is an evening whiteness.
We know this, we are what it leaves:
the Pleistocene is our current sense, and
what in sentiment we are, we
are, the coast, a line or sequence, the
cut back down, to the shore.

Throughout the 1970s Allen Fisher produced a major series of poems known collectively as Place (republished in its entirety in 2005): as with Olson and Gloucester, Massachusetts, Fisher focuses on London and its history, landscape, rivers, trade, agitation and unrest, and population changes, to demonstrate the relation between all these and the present state of things, with all that that implies politically. An analogous project was undertaken by Iain Sinclair with his works Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (1979), with what Sean Bonney has called a sense of ‘paranoid realism’, mixing prose and poetry in a crazed and obsessive tale of his journeys round ‘underground’ London sites, in search of the hidden truth be’ind the city, always finding even stranger answers. These traditions have survived, and Sean Bonney has written some excoriating psychogeographical ‘documents’ about travelling round London, hounded by oppression, rage, war and despair. Stephen Mooney has begun what promised to be a major project tracking gay subculture round the London Underground’s District Line, with a similarly paranoid snarling and rage just beneath the surface, and Chris Paul (now departed for Latin America) has produced some equally intoxicating accounts of life on the margins of the biggest city in Europe.

Another distinctive feature of the new poetry from the 1960s onwards has been the development of innovative performance styles and an increased awareness of the importance of the poet’s voice as an instrument in its own right. In London especially, this has led to the development of very personal styles of performing. Of especial note are Ulli Freer’s incantatory readings. He always begins with some brief spectacle; whether it be playing some ‘house’ music and dancing round the room, or folding and unfolding a large sheet of metallic paper to the sound of tribal chants; either way, whatever he does breaks open a space in which the audience feels compelled to listen to him, as he reads his poems swaying backwards and forwards, his voice modulating rapidly as he scans across the short lines of his verse. Adrian Clarke has learned a lot from Freer’s techniques and is just as likely to perform his ultra-modernist poems with an exaggeratedly emphatic rhythm, assisted by the fact the his poems tend to be written on the basis of the number of words rather than syllables to the line, creating a syncopated, bee-bop feel that he does nothing to discourage. The absolute master of performance, however, has got to be Brian Catling, who creates films, and performance installations, where he can maintain a performance for hours at a time, and for days in a row. As with Maggie O’Sullivan, also a stunning performer of poetry in her own right, Catling makes use of the poet’s shamanic inheritance, introducing elements of fear, pain and haunting into his poetry and performances, which can be unnerving as well as hysterically funny at times. It is true to say now that any poet performing in London is going to have to at least deal with performance issues to get an audience interested in their work. The belief is still held by many that a poem only really exists once it has been voiced. Other younger poets have really taken the performance idiom seriously, and cris cheek, Caroline Bergvall, and performance groups like London Under Construction, and the students of Redell Olsen, among others, have made performance itself a serious site of poetic creation in improvisation and live on-site manipulation of language.

Immagine articolo Fucine MutePerhaps strangely, digital technology has also been implicated closely with new performance practices. If nothing else is entirely unique in contemporary British poetry, one thing that perhaps is is the degree to which the performance of poetry has been hybridised with various new media and technologies. ‘Performance Writing’ as a concept in itself, implies technologies of writing and the way the very process of writing becomes performative through the mediation of new technology. The place of the poet, their body, their voice, and their relations to others are all investigated in the performance traditions emanating from Dartington and Royal Holloway. If it is clear that the use of new media became central to the poetic practices of many poets throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, it is natural that an extension of this into the 1990s and 2000s is the employment of ever newer digital and electronic media; in particular the extraordinary capacity for the internet to process and store information, and the huge amounts of power now available in laptops, utilisable in live, improvised, and semi-improvised performance. Instant generativity and interactivity have opened up the possibilities for poets to extend their work in inter- and hybrid media, beginning perhaps in the early 1980s, and even to expand the social and collective participation in poetry both in performance, as well as in the forms of mass composition that hypertext and code make possible. John Cayley is the single most important British artist (actually a Canadian by birth) to work with digitial poetics, and with the author of this article he organised E-Poetry 2005 in London with the American poet Loss Pequeño Glazier, bringing the leading light of international digital poetry and demonstrating the peculiarities of the British focus on performance and performativity rather than programming code. Lawrence Upton, Bob Cobbing’s erstwhile collaborator has also done very important work in this area.

It is probably too early to say whether the possibilities that have emerged with ever greater access to digital technologies will lead to fundamental changes in poetry, or whether, as with the typewriter, they will simply be absorbed and become just one more item in the writer’s toolkit. I would suspect the latter, and already the concept of a specific genre of digital poetry seems to be weakening, as the use of new technologies, and even knowledge of advanced programming, becomes commonplace.


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