Tuesday, 16 June 2009


POETIC SPECIATION AND DIVERSIFICATION; Or, Why I am Alarmed at the Role the Academic Environment is Playing in Contemporary British Innovative Poetry

I like using an analogy made by Andrew Duncan to explain the disparate heterogeneity of contemporary British poetry: the SciFi topos of centuries-long space-missions, venturing out from the home planet to reach different stars, and establishing their own separate lineages and cultures. These increasingly diverge from each other and become unable to intercommunicate.

I’d prefer to tweak this into a biological analogy, which I find more precise and powerful. I was exploring this in more detail, when I encountered the American-published but largely British-content magazine Hot Gun!, which got me thinking about a specific aspect of the adaptations being made in contemporary poetry. I’ve ended up by not dealing that much with the magazine, though this piece of writing started as a response to it: Instead I have ended up with a rationale in the present environment for my own activities in attempting the dissemination and nurturing of poetry.

I have, though, maintained this overall extended metaphor, or act of intellectual modelling, of evolution and poetry, for two reasons. I think its biological basis enables it to cope extremely well both with process and change, and also with the fuzzy logic & probabilistic distribution of how actual systems operate. I do find myself considering poetry as system, both a pure artistic one, working out the inherent logic of material and form, and also, of course, a cultural or social system, interrelated to all other human activities.

So, to start with the basics. Think Darwin: life forms spreading across a world reach a fresh range of habitats (new continent, archipelago, city, whatever). They spread, move across it as they find their own good places. As to who ends up where: some occurrences will be largely inescapable, some will be totally contingent. The life forms adapt to their new ecological niches (indeed as they do so, define these niches), and therefore change, tending to communicate and breed only within themselves, in their new communities. Speciation occurs. Interestingly, different species may even end up with similar adaptations (and phenotypes) when they encounter similar environments, but will not interbreed despite such physical resemblances. Genotype, or lineage, is all.

So it is with poets. The social/economic/technological changes since the mid Twentieth Century have opened up fresh cultural habitats, even as others have degraded and become unviable (eg commercial poetry publishing and distribution). Some lineages occupy dominant roles in the ecosystem at different times. There are lots of accounts of all these. The poetry I am most concerned with, and that I imagine, gentle reader, you may be too, if you’ve encountered this piece, we shall call British Innovative Poetry. We can trace its gene pool back to some writers in the 50s and the 60s, largely inspired by their American and European peers, and importing their genes into British poetry, thus challenging the then-dominant lineages in British poetry. These themselves represented the deliberate stripping of those adaptations to the Modern World British poetry had been making through the first half of the Twentieth Century. One might have expected the non-regressive poetry to have readily occupied the prime ecological niches, but that would be to forget both that British literary culture in this period was a degrading environment in which survival by clinging to the last dwindling resources was the most common response, and the sheer defensive ferocity of the then-dominant species (which themselves were relatively newly-established, despite fabricated genealogies). Since that point British Innovative Poetry has largely occupied until recent years very minor and unstable ecological niches, lacking in major sources of nutrition, and cut off from access to wider environments, eg the back room in a pub, or essentially private networks of aficionados and cultists.

Meanwhile, the larger cultural environment changes continually: the dominant species, adapted perfectly to what is, always finds it difficult to cope with what this changes into. The Internet is an obvious case here: imagine a whole new continent in which a David Attenborough figure can enthuse over a rampant plethora of different organisms, bearing many differences from those on other continents (like those of paper). If I go into Waterstones to look for Modern British Poetry – it is an arid desert, occupied by a few very low-level and undifferentiated life-forms. But if I google “modern British poetry” or “contemporary British poetry”, I find a much more differentiated range of poetic life forms, and with access easily made to Innovative British Poetry. This suggests the Internet is matching our poetry’s needs better even than the mimeo-revolution small presses of the 1960s and 70s.

Now, another interesting phenomenon of our times I can fit into this metaphor, is the increasing role of an academic environment in supporting poetry of our genus (or family, phylum, whatever). This is linked with, I believe, a whole range of different factors that have come together:

  1. The rise of new focuses of literary studies: Creative Writing, Performance Writing, Poetics and Poetic Practice as academic disciplines are all excellent environments for poetry fascinated by linguistic innovation and experimentation and reared in close location to theory.

  2. British Innovative Poetry has developed since the late 1960s in tandem with trends towards theorising in literary studies (and across the whole gamut of humanistic studies indeed). The establishment of a theoretical basis is one of the conditions which encourages survival in the academic environment (like gills in the sea or legs on land – you can manage without, but it’s easier with). The undefined and unreflective nature of much mainstream poetry acts against it here.

  3. Cambridge. (Sorry!) Like some kind of master set of genes that just, well just does, give a sense of superior life efficiency or dominance, any lineage involving this place boosts its possessor’s chances. (That’s what gets paid for, after all.) As British society increases in its inequalities, the training ground of the social elite simply attunes its products best of all for current high level social/ecological niches.

  4. American connections and examples. I would say these give both access to major sources of nutrition, and other boosts to biological success. The rise of MFA programs and the earlier success of the Language poets in attaining academic positions represent earlier parallel evolutionary trends.

  5. Moreover, what may be overall most important for the ecology of poetry is that academic niches also give excellent reproductive benefits. This is basic. Fresh poets of our genus (or whatever etc) can be spawned wholesale, with careful control moreover in the academic process that their genotype does not suffer too many mutations (a major problem with poetic genetics).

This has all come together in recent years to encourage a major ecological breakthrough for British innovative poetry! The success of other poetry lineages in seizing the dominant ecological niches is potentially reversible. We can outbreed them with true offspring, and have a solid ecological basis at last. We are the future dominants! The coup by which the small shrewlike creatures typified by Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin seized the lush pastures in the early 1950s can be reversed at last. Indeed critics are already fabricating a whole new fossil ancestry for us (typified by Joseph Macleod and Lynette Roberts). (Unlike biological organisms, there do seem to be survival benefits to poetic organisms in believing they are part of a long-standing and successful strain).

Am I serious? Hmm. Am I happy at this state of affairs? The poetic ecologist has no emotions, merely records what is there and how it all interrelates.

But the poet is a bit alarmed.

The reasons for my alarm, other than my general pessimism and paranoia coupled with a painfully acquired expectation of failure always, can be dealt with by referring to Hot Gun! It is a neat little mag, elegantly and engagingly produced, from New Haven, CT (ie Yale) with some fine poets, almost (all?) British. Unfortunately, I found myself very unmoved by it, once I’d got over my initial pleasure at the very cool appearance. This may well reflect problems with my responses, so I won’t go into detail with what stuck in my craw – and did so to my surprise and against my expectations. There are poets included, like Jow Lindsay and Andrea Brady, who usually bring me great joy. But, in this mag, I found a certain poetic monoculture that drained excitement from them. The similarities blurred the poems, the procedures used became obvious and expected. I was not challenged. Delight was lessened by monotony. “Is that all there is?”

Now, one of the quasi-academic essays, Emily Critchley on “Women in Language Poetry”, I found more useful and interesting. She presents a careful and accurate critique of much Language writing, and defends other writers who may be less publicised because of qualities like tentativeness and openness. These writers are female – the more successful ones male. Critchley links qualities as writers with gender, and indeed with gender politics:

the female Language poets pursued the heterogeneity, subtlety and openness that now characterizes third wave feminism and which I hope will come to be the more lasting legacy of this complex literary era. ‘The thing to demand was, and remains, heterogeneity,’ as Hejinian puts it, ‘– weird and wonderful and multiple ways of being women, and of being men, and of being human, and of being animal – or why not, riverbanks or saxophones or horticultural supply houses.’

Now this is the game I want to play, or the life I want to live, being invoked here. It is a good piece of writing, useful to me as a poet, recovering what may be valuable from the Language poets. In it, moreover, the academicisation inherent in their poetry is pinned onto the board for all to see:

The low frequency of theoretical work that initially accompanied the poetry of the female Language writers may have meant that they were at first taken less seriously by their male peers – an anxiety that several of the language poets seem to have grappled with throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, perhaps explaining their belated critical output.

To be taken seriously is to be a successful secretor of secondary discourse, rather than a good poet.

This is obviously a major problem for the poet in the academic environment: the primary purpose of poetry is less important than the poetically secondary purpose of producing academic material.

There is a complex relationship in all poetic movements (or genera), on the relationship between poems and discourse (whether explicit manifestos, essays or whatever). Poetics is not necessarily inherent in the poetry – it requires procedures for it to be made manifest and explicit. There can indeed be interesting mismatches between poetry and its attendant discourse. However, what the Language poets did was to up the stakes to the max in unreadability and academicisation (and I do hope you dislike this word). The advanced theoretics winning the male poets their academic status was mainly bullshit which obfuscated the actuality and origins of their writing, but bigged them up good to their lasting (so far) benefit. I think this is to do with their relationship to the academic environment they so successfully engaged with, only secondarily with gender. The gender differential may well relate to gender bias within the academic community at that time, rather than be absolute or essentialist.

So, I’m sure you can get my drift here. My assumption is the on-academic one that poetry has survived as a cultural activity through its relative ease of access, and its direct relationship with human needs involving the range of functions language plays in our lives. It is readily produced, readily consumed. It is at root unspecialised. There’s plainly a form of it, or range of forms of it, I feel, as I daresay you do, important and worthy of survival and further development. Its value is that it is also at root unspecialised, highly variable and adaptable. Even British Innovative Poetry must be approachable on terms that don’t necessitate academic training and in places that are separate from higher education.

It seems dangerous to me that the academic ecological niche is becoming so important. I have overheard people commenting that they needed to do an MA to become a writer. This fills me with despair.

This is despair not aimed at the individuals concerned, nor their current activities. The Editorial Team of the imminent Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry is a veritable dream team: Robert Sheppard and Scott Thurston (editors), with an editorial Board of Peter Barry, Caroline Bergvall, Charles Bernstein, Andrea Brady, Ian Davidson, Alex Davis, Allen Fisher, John Hall, Robert Hampson, Romana Huk, Elizabeth James, Tony Lopez, Anthony Mellors, Peter Middleton, Ian Patterson, Marjorie Perloff, William Rowe, Keith Tuma and Tim Woods (13 Professors, 7 Doctors in total – 4 of whom are American academics). I have published, or presented in performance, at various times ten of these people, and all others whose poetry I know I would dearly love to publish or present.

Interestingly there is a lack in the listing of names for this journal of several individuals I have published/presented involved with academic Creative Writing courses (BA and MA), eg Jeff Hilson, Tim Atkins, Lesley Mckenna, Keith Jebb, Simon Smith. All superb poets whose work I am proud to have published or presented. I keep publishing work by their students also – these courses appear to do what they do superbly well, and are plainly aiding a significant creative moment in British poetry. Believe you me, all those named here (and others who might be), this is not a personal concern, not a criticism of your academic or poetic activities: “Lord, I am not worthy” etc.

It is alarm at this change in the mechanisms by which British Innovative Poetry sustains itself as an institution. These changes, I suggest, will necessarily alter the nature of the poetry, and of the poetic community, and of entry to it. We are being set up for being a poet as being perceived as requiring somehow graduate entry, indeed possibly postgraduate entry. Now, I have been professionally employed in such professional education, having done some work at Harlow College on the BA in Journalism, and played a major role in setting up a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism (the first with accreditation from both the NCTJ and PTC). There are debates within journalism over practical versus academic training, but plainly as a way of ensuring starting journalists acquire necessary skills and knowledge bases such courses play a major role, and the traditional days of local papers hiring bright lads straight from school do not match the nature of journalism as a contemporary profession. And even then, they were sent off on block release for training at colleges, like Barry MacSweeney at Harlow (just before my time).

But with regard to poetry, I don’t see academic courses, whether “practical” (ie creative) or theoretical (more traditional literary studies), as playing the role of the genuine training courses I have mentioned, nor needing to be for the continuing reproduction of poetry. It would be absurd. Poetry isn’t important because it is the subject of academic study. In no way does it depend on academic study. It is important because it is a fundamental human relationship with language (like music is with sound-production, art with mark making, dance with movement). Poetry as such is as unstoppable as sex. It will take place!

It’s how it’s done is always the issue. Specifically, it is the fate of the lineage of contemporary British Innovative Poetry that is uncertain. Having the academic environment as a main base seems to me to be a trap, for a large number of reasons:

  1. The poetry will be there at the mercy of the utterly reductive target-culture which dominates all aspects of British education, and distorts everything within education. Their values within our education system, that dominate and form it, are totally antithetical to anything related to innovative poetry. All those involved may well be at present fighting this off, I’m sure they are. It’s as futile as trying to fight a major climatic change.

  2. The poetry will be there at the mercy of a higher education system which is drastically underfunded, and about to face both pressures to charge students more, and major funding cuts (oh, and with an emphasis on employability and practical, ie money making, applications). Creative writing (or whatever) is undoubtedly cheaper than physics or engineering; but, well, if a cost-benefit analysis is applied by someone not involved, where are we?

  3. It will be subject to the vagaries of intellectual fashion and internal politics within universities.

  4. Discourse about poetry will be placed as central, rather than poetry itself, and necessarily and inescapably both discourse and poetry will be valued which require further academic processing above poetry (and discourse) which do not.

  5. Perceived barriers – which indeed are ultimately class barriers let us remember – will be placed in the way of would-be poets.

  6. The poetry will probably end up tending towards a very clever but empty reproduction of formulas and phrases – precisely what is meant by academicism in poetry.

These things cannot be avoided. They may well only be minor factors at present, and I repeat my admiration for the work that is done creatively within Higher Education. And though I may be more dubious about the value of some critical writing to anyone other than another labourer in the academic vineyard, I’ve put myself down for a subscription to JBIIP. But those above are real constraints which the academic environment will impose over time. This is an environment with huge risks, which could greatly change the nature of Innovative British Poetry.

To return to my governing extended metaphor: a successful adaptation by our genus to the academic habitat would be a disastrous specialisation, dooming us to restriction to this apparently favourable habitat, and dependent on it for our survival (when it is inherently unstable and potentially about to degrade). We need a wider range of environments to flourish in to prevent this, and to allow us to retain the full potential of a more generalised lifestyle. This is especially true, as up to now, we have survived in the interstices, on the margins etc. This teaches good survival tactics, enables very generalised and adaptable body forms and a range of life patterns. I mistrust the changes that may occur if British Innovative Poetry becomes an appendage of the Ideological State Apparatus, to use the good old Althusserian phrase, rather than with an essentially oppositional stance towards cultural dominants.

To counter this academicisation I urge therefore a greater looking out for audiences for our writing that are not dependent on the Higher Education environment (even if they benefit from its presence). The role of reading series which address a wider audience than those already signed and sealed into the confraternity/consorority of poets is important, that present our work in ways which can appeal to those not already accredited or inoculated (there’s another metaphor going on here). Openned and The Other Room, with all their attendant activities, are the leaders in this. Contemporary writing is presented as enjoyable and entertaining, with access by those not already involved encouraged and built into the projects. This is what I tried to achieve in Sundays at the Oto. There should be more of this, with an encouragement always for those even vaguely interested to grasp some basic rules of our game, and lay themselves open to the direct experiencing of the fascinating and pleasurable operations of language involved. (If you need a bleedin’ degree to understand it – fuck it!)

There are threats here also. There is a commercial world of performance poetry in which essentially the audience domesticates the poets, who must produce solely the products the audience feels they have bought (easy humour and emotion, a couple of rhymes, maybe even a bit of competitiveness). This is an intensely dreary monoculture. There needs to be a careful control of the symbiotic balance between audiences and poets to ensure variety and development within our genus. I would avoid the commercial operators here, unless we really want to end up as one-trick performing ponies, zombie poet-entertainers (metaphor mix again!).

Access to publications is another need to encourage a wider habitat for us. Bookshops, to carry on with forceful language, are fucked, unfortunately, though books may not be. (Despite my online presence, I’m dubious about ebooks and ereaders, as being less satisfactory experiences – though obviously this may be my own lack of adaptability.) We are coping with this. I think all major publishers of British Innovative Poetry now have websites where their books can be bought (and indeed many operate through Amazon). What might be useful would be a site acting as a virtual online retailer, with links to the publishers’ sites, but with the possibility of drawing together the whole range of what is available, so that an interested person, for example, could simply check what is in print by Peter Riley or Andreas Brady, and order it from the publisher just like that. This should be doable, I would have thought.

So, I am not suggesting a replacement of the academic environment, in which indeed so many thrive – I am demanding the diversification of the conditions under which British Innovative Poetry is encouraged, encountered and allowed to flourish. We maintain hold of what we have, as it were, and venture further abroad. We must be grey squirrels, adaptable, robust, unspecialised and rapidly reproducing; not red squirrels, stuck with requirements for very specific habitats, ending up, yet again, merely with relict populations, too small to be viable. Diversification, that’s what I’m after. It’s an evolutionary winner.


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