Is it all over?

Posted by Ken Edwards on Friday, October 5, 2012 Under: writing
Peter Riley, in his always interesting regular slot for The Fortnightly Review, has been sounding off about a new Norton poetry anthology, American Hybrid, edited by Cole Swensen and David St John. 

Well, his piece is not really about this particular book, which was merely the trigger for a lot of stuff Peter has been wanting to get off his chest. Those who know him or his critical writing will recognise some familiar themes – but this publication has really got his goat and set him off on a particularly lengthy rant. And now his piece has in turn set me off.

Though I don't really know where to begin.

OK, let's start with Swensen's and St John's anthology, which I haven't read and haven't even seen. The online blurb says it "focuses on the new poem – the hybrid – a synthesis of traditional and experimental styles". The idea is that the division between experimental and traditional in American poetry is disappearing as poets adopt a variety of techniques and forms. The anthology aims to demonstrate this thesis with a selection of more than 70 poets – the range is from Jorie Graham to Lyn Hejinian – who exhibit "hybrid approaches".

What is interesting about this is that it's a Norton anthology, which means it's a product aimed at the academic/educational market, which means someone at Norton thinks it's saleable in that market.The notion that there is a body of poets who fail to fall neatly into either of two camps and therefore constitute a third category strikes me as either a truism or an extremely debatable and misleading marketing ploy – depending on how you choose to look at it. 

But for Peter Riley it is the very "two camps" formulation itself – whether in the USA or Britain - that is anathema. It was "created almost entirely by anthologisers and critics", he asserts.If there are not and never were two camps, the idea of hybridisation between them is of course nonsensical.

Speaking of Donald Allen's The New American Poetry anthology (1960) which he admits he and his cohorts of the early sixties were hugely excited and influenced by, he says it was "not a collection of extremists on the left, its poets were not 'marginal' – it represented just about everything that was worth knowing about in mid-century American poetry." But he then goes on to contrast it with the rival "conservative" anthology, "Donald Hall’s New Poets of England and America (1957) in which most of the conservative American poets are now unknown names".

Some contradiction here? This is, weirdly, a reversal of the position of official verse culture – certainly in the UK from the Sixties until fairly recently – which denies the notion of two poetic cultures with different paradigms, and asserts there is only one poetry worth considering – the "good stuff"! And anything deviating from the dominant paradigm does not actually exist. (It is the position that led Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison to make the notorious statement in their introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) that in the 1960s and 70s "very little – in England at any rate – seemed to be happening...")

Peter Riley's denial of the two camps theory is inextricably connected to his secondary theme in this lengthy review: resentment of American poetic hegemony.

For the introduction to American Hybrid repeats the by now familiar argument that American 20th century poets took their cue either from British or French traditions – the British attracting the poetical conservatives, the French the radicals. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification, but Peter's outrage at this assertion, which he has rehearsed elsewhere, seems to me a little over the top.

His review opens with his recollection of his involvement in "an annual gathering of poets in Cambridge, a rather chaotic affair" – that is to say, CCCP. He describes how he and his colleagues over a period of years during the 1990s invited a number of the poets now figuring in this anthology (and others who might have qualified) to read, offering them hospitality, and exchanging books with them. He describes this as "a rather shaky solidarity of the innovative" – but unfortunately, the American poets never showed any corresponding interest in British innovative poetry (what is this "innovative", if there were no such camps?), nor did they ever reciprocate the invitation. There is the sensibility of the jilted lover about all this.

I have a parallel but significantly different take on it. I never enjoyed the hospitality of Cambridge; in fact, in common with many other outsiders, I found the Cambridge experience, as a mere punter, distinctly unnerving. I am not the only one to complain of feeling frozen out by an apparently inward-looking clique. I don't think it was intentional hostility, but it was there. (I did get invited to read at CCCP years later, after the departure of the organising committee Peter describes – but there are lengthy narratives here I don't wish to go into.) 

Between the late 1970s-90s I was involved with similar goings-on in London – a variety of reading series, principally Subvoicive, which played host to very many visiting poets, from the USA and indeed from Cambridge, among other places. It felt friendlier to me, but then I was on the inside – I have heard people talk about how nervous they felt as outsiders at these events.

However, unlike Peter, I did get reciprocal invitations to read in the USA and (once) Canada. And I was overwhelmed with the hospitality I received there, and the openness of response to my readings, so different to the typical British experience where people rarely actually talk to you or give you any feedback on the work they have heard you read.

The enthusiasm was so palpable that I really thought I had made a breakthrough. A fellow British poet I talked to recently about their experience in the States told me "I thought, blimey, I've cracked America!" An illusion of course - a week after your visit, you're probably forgotten.

And I can empathise with Peter's feeling that the Americans' general interest in innovative British poetry is still limited. I was fortunate to enjoy the hospitality of several American poets and the run of their home libraries. Usually, their wall of books was familiar in many ways, with one glaring difference: bar the odd Tom Raworth or JH Prynne volume, there would be hardly any Brits on their poetry shelves. 

I used to talk with my US friends at great length about the British poets that excited me, and they seemed to take an interest. But I have to admit that, with a few significant exceptions, I suspect ignorance in this area remains much as before. The internet has improved matters, but maybe not by a great deal.

So we're more interested in them than they are in us. That's how cultural hegemony works. I don't know that there is a great deal more any one of us can do about this.

What I don't think we should do is rewrite history. Peter has spoken eloquently of his excitement at encountering the New American Poets all those years ago, but I get the distinct impression there has been some revisionism in the Cambridge School in the years since, perhaps fuelled by disappointment at the perceived lack of reciprocation from across the water. For example, Peter's championing of Nicholas Moore, the late Andrew Crozier's of JF Hendry, others' rediscovery of the likes of Lynette Roberts seem to me like an attempt to construct an alternative, "radical" pre-history that owes nothing to American, or indeed, Continental models. The intended narrative is of a broad tradition of progressive modernism in British poetry that was only briefly obscured by the flash in the pan that was Larkin and The Movement.

I don't buy it! Estimable as the poets above may be, I know nobody among my generation or that just before who claimed to be influenced by them or had even read them at all before they were "rediscovered". No, the truth remains that it was the Americans, and in some cases the French (or other Continentals - Lorca in my case) who inspired us. I'm talking about music, art and film as well as writing. And we built something of our own out of that inspiration, whether or not that is recognised.

This revisionism depresses me. It seems insular; I experience it as a closing down. Peter Riley's hatred (his own formulation: he calls it "ugly") of Language writing is of a piece with this. By contrast, I experienced it in the late 1970s as a bolt from the blue, not only throwing into question in all sorts of interesting ways what writing is, but doing so in the most upfront and exhilarating way - a huge contrast to the tight-lipped English stereotype: "if you have to ask what the rules of the club are, you're outside it". There were Language ideologues who could be tiresome - my god, there are ideologues everywhere, try a few Cambridge Marxists for size - but in the pages of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E itself and other outlets there was debate and dissent galore.

And another thing I found fascinating is that the participation of women in the new innovative poetry in the US was hugely increased; in late-70s Britain they were still almost invisible. But Peter deplores the influence of Gertrude Stein (another of his pet hates) on women poets in particular. Why Stein's poetics and sensibility, a useful counterbalance to Olson's sometimes liberatory but often über-macho dicta, should come in for such opprobrium I don't know.

Let me end, however, on a note of agreement. Peter Riley points out that the contributors to American Hybrid, in contrast to those in The New American Poetry, seem to be dominated by professors and prizewinners. He deplores the academicisation of innovative poetry and the increasing influence of creative writing programmes. As a small publisher, I tend to groan when presented with a pitch by a young poet anxious to convince me that their work problematises questions of gender and identity, or explores intertextuality. Or some such tosh.

It is this, and the gradual migration of many of my poet friends into academic jobs – where they mostly do excellent work, and dammit, everybody has to pay their bills – and also the gradual marginalisation of other poet friends who remain outside the academy – that convinces me it's all over. There remain some signs of life outside the academy, but essentially, what was radical and challenging in the poetry I encountered in London as a young man in the 1970s is finally mutating into a kind of norm. This process has already been well under way for some time in the USA, where everything, unfortunately, still happens first, and is far from complete in this country. But it's now time to move on. Where to? Who knows?

In : writing 

Tags: "peter riley" cccp "language poetry" "new american poetry" 
blog comments powered by Disqus

About ...

Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at