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Aled Ganobcsik-Williams

Geraldine Monk (editor), Cusp: recollections of poetry in transition (Bristol: Shearsman Books Ltd., 2012), 255pages. ISBN: 9781848612501

In the editor’s ‘Preface’ to this collection of 25 brief chapters, Geraldine Monk describes the book’s aim: ‘to present the spirit of a brief era which, in retrospect, was exceptional in its momentum towards the democratisation and dissemination of poetry. The era or “cusp” I’m concentrating on is between world War II and the advent of the World Wide Web’ (7). To summon this spirit the book gathers individual poets’ very personal account of what it was like to be a practicing poet and/or publisher (most of the contributors were both) during the 30 period between around about 1960 and around about 1990. The literary history which begins the book starts in 1948, with Roy Fisher’s first encounter with poetry while studying English at Birmingham University—though Fisher’s is not the first chapter, he was the first born of all the poets writing here--and extends into the new millennium, in Tim Allen’s chapter on organising poetry events in Plymouth. But the significant decades are the 60s, 70s, 80s and (less pertinently, given the book’s assumption of a pre-Web environment) the 90s. In Britain this period witnessed a proliferation of experimental poetry in the ‘modernist’ tradition, by poets of the ‘British Poetry Revival’ (Eric Mottram’s term) and the younger generation of poets (of whom Monk is one) fostered by the revival poetry1. Almost all the contributors to this book were participants in this ‘movement’, so the literary history is, as Monk says, something of a ‘collective autobiography’ (7).

The British poetry revival is something of a holdall term for poets in the 60s and 70s working at the margins of the ‘official’ poetry world. To claim that the poets were a single ‘movement’ may be misleading since they were very diverse in terms of their geographic location and their guiding aesthetic or poetic philosophy. They did manage to create, though, an extended network of small press publishers. Sometimes referred to as ‘alternative’ or ‘non-mainstream’ or ‘non-canonical’ or ‘underground’ poetry, the poetry of the ‘revival’ was largely overlooked by the established publishing houses. In response to this neglect, as Jim Burns recalls, poets had to discover alternative ways of publishing and distributing poetry, through mimeographed magazines and small-press books. For Burns, there is truth in the charge that ‘almost all the editors were poets and that we were merely printing each other [. . . ]. We possibly thought that supporting our fellow editor-poets  was a kind of defence against the indifference of the literary establishment and the general public’ (19). The question that Monk asks is, given that there was no internet and given that these poets were geographically dispersed ‘how on earth did we all find each other in the first place. It seems highly improbable that such contacts should have happened at all’ (8). Some poets and readers simply did not find it. ‘I missed it all’ says Tony Baker of the Poetry Revival. ‘If your instinct was to trust the integrity of teachers and mentors, you tended not to see beyond them. The information revolution hadn’t happened. So far as writing was concerned, the circle that closed around reviewers, publishers, libraries, funding bodies, and educational institutions, looked complete’ (75-6). His experience cannot have been uncommon.

The book is not primarily concerned, then, with the evaluation of poetry—though of course there is plenty of that--or even, in the main, with its production—though there are some wonderfully evocative descriptions of the repetitive, labour-intensive and financially-unprofitable process of sifting manuscripts, printing and collating, duplicating, gluing and binding---but with its dissemination. What were the enabling networks for the distribution of information in the pre-Web period? The answers can be stated briefly: ‘the small publishing network and the alternative or specialist bookshops’ (9), but the interest of the book lies in the detail, in the rich description of a poetry world before Web-enabled distribution and email contact. In this world, it was the energy and passion of the publishers themselves that  made the networks happen. Peter Finch, publisher of the magazine second aeon, recollects being told that no one in the 1960s knew what was being published. The Small Press Scene section at the end of each issue of second aeon filled this information gap. Finch offered ‘exchange subscriptions (I send you mine, you send me yours and we both mention each other’s work) to anyone who wanted to join in. The hundreds of small press (and increasingly big press) publications that were starting to arrive at Maplewood Court turned into thousands’ (109). Peter Hodgkiss’s Poetry Information was another important source of information in the 1970s. Hodgkiss is the one publisher included here who was not himself a practicing poet and his work in disseminating contemporary poetry seems, as Monk recognises, to have been driven by an entirely selfless passion for the task.

The bookshops, some of which have become almost legendary—Better Books, Oriel, Ultima Thule, The Hay Poetry Bookshop—were ‘nerve centres’ of this poetry world and facilitated personal contacts (‘Preface’ 9). David Annwn’s suggestion that Alan Halsey’s Poetry Bookshop at Hay was ‘a place for roving poets to meet up, a kind of floating community’ is charming (and inadvertently suggest a virtual café). Such communities might be self-selecting, as Halsey remembers, with some poets drawn in and some kept away by the shop’s reputation: ‘I remember  Christopher Logue popping in for a chat while his pal Craig Raine kicked his heels outside’ (137). (It would have been fascinating to have had Raine’s take on this episode.) In addition to the publishing networks and the bookshops, there were poetry readings: the large festivals such as the 1965 poetry gathering at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the following year in Nottingham, the Six Towns Festival of the 1990s, and the numerous poetry readings series around the country.

The contributors to Cusp were, apparently, responding to Geraldine Monk’s request to describe their lives in poetry in the period up to the explosion of web communications. There seem to have been no set questions or preferred format, so each contributor responds in his or her own manner, each picking up his or her autobiography at a different point. Some contributors spend quite a bit of time on the culture of their childhood and their education (Peter Riley, Chris Torrance, Geraldine Monk, John Seed) whereas others pick up their story at the moment they became involved in the alternative poetry world (Peter Hodgkiss, Paul Buck, Tim Allen). Some personal histories are focused by a following particular chapter in that history (Tom Pickard, Ian Davidson, Nicholas Johnson) and other contributors are writing biography rather than autobiography (Hannah Neate, Gillian Whiteley). The variety in the form of contributions is a strength in the book. In such a collection of overlapping personal histories, there is certain to be some repetition, but the contributors take a different perspective on the same happenings and so the narratives complement each other and the story is never predictable.

Given the sheer number of non-mainstream poets writing in the provinces during this period, it is reasonable to ask how the editor arrived at the list of contributors. The introduction makes only two remarks on the basis for selection. One decision was to limit the inclusion to poets living and writing in England and Wales—‘these two countries seemed to harbour the nerve centre of the poetic activity I was most aware of’--and the other was to concentrate on poetry coming out of the provinces—‘from the industrial cities of the North and Midlands such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Cardiff’—rather than from London and Cambridge, ‘those two strongholds of poetic power, and sometimes clubbish exclusivity’ (7-8). That London and Cambridge have already been written about as centres of experimental poetry is a fair comment and it is important to write up the importance of what was happening in other regions of the UK. As a result we do indeed get a very broad geographical cross-section in this book, but this by itself does not really explain why the editor chose the poets she did.

Of course, it is an editor’s prerogative to invite the contributors she wishes to include and as she says ‘everyone will cite someone who “should” have been included’ (12). It would have been interesting, nevertheless, to have some insight into the process of selection. Hence, though Liverpool is referred to as one of the cities associated with the alternative poetry and though the Liverpool poets—Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough, Brian Patten among them—are mentioned many times by the various contributors, there is no chapter here specifically on the Liverpool scene. That no Liverpool-based poet was able or willing to write the account does not seem a reason for the omission, since the history of the activity in Nottingham (the Trent Bookshop and Stuart Mills’ and Simon Cutts’ Tarasque magazine and Press) is written by Hannah Neate, an academic researcher. There are other omissions that might spark a debate. For example, the relative marginalisation of women within the poetry revival has been commented on many times and is remarked on several times here (13, 169, 214). Thus, it would have been interesting, since the book is about poets’ personal recollections of the poetry world of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, to hear more about the experience of exclusion from women who were there. There are really just three chapters written to record women’s perspectives: by Glenda George, Frances Presley, and Geraldine Monk herself. The other three chapter written by women are ‘about’ men: Connie Pickard’s personal reminiscences of Basil Bunting, Neate’s chapter on the Nottingham-based poets, and Whiteley’s chapter on Geoff Nuttall. These are all fascinating and worthy of inclusion, but the experience of the women poets does seem under-represented as a consequence.

I make this point not by way of pedantic criticism of the content of the book, which is excellent, the most riveting literary history I have read in a long time and for which the editor and contributors are to be thanked, but because the book itself raises questions it does not explicitly answer. As a collective history, the collection does aspire to some degree of representativeness: hence, the wish that ‘a fair and representative picture emerges of the nature and interconnectedness of the poetry world [ . . .], a fair reflection of the people, poets and events of the time’ (12). It may be that the book does achieve this aim, but it is difficult for readers who were not ‘there at the time’ to judge since the book lacks a broad account of the diverse era to which it refers and which it attempts to reflect. More significantly, the ‘finite’ form of the book does make me wonder whether it is appropriate medium for staging this project, when the web’s ‘infinite’ space has effectively ‘transformed the concept of the anthology’ by removing the need to limit and select 2. Anticipating, Geraldine Monk poses the same question on the first page of the Preface: ‘But why this collection when the web holds many pages of biographical information on the majority of poets here?’ (7). The response that ‘building up connections and interconnections [on the web] can be very hit and miss’ (7) is not entirely convincing. It’s difficult to believe that a decent librarian/ web designer would not be able to create a resource that would incorporate the materials in this book along with many more and, at the same time, allow the interconnections to be seen or made more quickly and reliably. I write this as a bibliophile and technophobe: perhaps there are some things that the Web just does better. Then again, Monk is surely correct to say that, for many readers, ‘books still have some draw’ (7). I first read the book on a train journey. The intimate, tactile pleasure of turning the pages of the book would not have been exactly replicated by reading it on a screen.

A book on the non-mainstream poetry of this period would be hard pushed to avoid some reference to the ‘poetry wars’ and this book does not avoid referring to them. The experimental – alternative, innovative, non-mainstream, counter-canonical, avant-garde--poets in Britain have tended to define the poems they write by opposition to those written by ‘mainstream’ poets, invoking a greater willingness to take risks in the interest of exploration and discovery. In abandoning conventional formal constraints, Eric Mottram suggested, the poets of the poetry revival stood ‘for resistance to habitual responses, for explorations in language notation and rhythm, for discovery without safety net for the poet or the reader.’ 3 Thus Tim Allen, writing of a split within a regular poetry reading group in Plymouth: ‘The outline of an all too familiar opposition begins to show, it doesn’t matter at what level, the difference is still the same, the old versus the new, the safe versus the experimental, the formal versus the expansiveness’ (198). To Kris Hemensley, living in Australia in the late 70s and 80s, the British avant-garde poets’ attitude of embattled and dogmatic opposition to the ‘broader poetic community’ appeared bloody-minded and parochial (103-4). He suggests that the ‘myopic, aggressive  . . . partisanship’ still persists (writing in 2012), hampering ‘critical discussion and understanding’ (104). But on the whole, perhaps surprisingly, the contributions to this book do not manifest the zealotry Hemensley identifies as a continuing characteristic of the English experimental poets. In retrospect and with distance from the poetry wars of the 1970s, the poets writing here seem capable of ‘equanimity’ in viewing their own practice as part of a wider poetry scene.

Hence, John Freeman, regrets ‘having for a period been blinded by partisanship to anything good in Ted Hughes, and I deplore the viciousness with which some attacked him just because he had so many readers’ (122). Geraldine Monk and Tim Allen also write of their early enthusiasm for Hughes’ work (188, 196). Alan Halsey and David Annwn—their joint chapter is presented as an engaging conversation—recall their first appreciative responses to Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Seamus Heaney’s Wintering Out, while still offering a cogent defence of why they value more highly the work of Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk, and Thomas A. Clark (138-9). Jim Burns evaluates past achievements with clarity, when he says that while not all of the poetry has stood the test of time this fact is true of any era. ‘What does come through [. . .] is the openness of the era in terms of the kind of poems that were written and published and the range of contributors they came from. I wouldn’t want to deny that it could lead to untidy writing and sometimes silliness. But some interesting work was produced and I’ve always thought that the flawed but interesting might be of more value than the worthy but dull’ (22). Burns’ sentiments—which echo Geraldine Monk’s view (quoted earlier) that the era was ‘exceptional in its momentum towards the democratisation and dissemination of poetry’-- would be affirmed by most if not all the poets represented here. The overall impression given is that former divisions are less important than they seemed at the time. Indeed, from the perspective of the present (2012), the contributors (on the whole) suggest that the experience of being outside the mainstream was accompanied less by an attitude of aggressive opposition or a feeling of anger and more by a sense of excitement at working on the margins of respectability. It might be argued further—and has been argued by self-publishing small-press poets of the period—that economic and material limits and constraints can be as much an instigation to creativity as the limits imposed by writing in strict poetic forms. 4

But if the old divisions within the poetic community have receded in importance over time, perhaps other divisions are emerging or have emerged to take their place. At the very end of the editor’s preface, Geraldine Monk describes a cultural change for the worse, occurring between the revival era and the present one: the connivance of contemporary poets with the literary critic’s plan to ‘destroy the “author” and usurp the crown of creativity’ (14). Thus, Monk laments that while the book’s contributing poets cite ‘other poets as their main inspiration or influence’, poets today ‘trot out a litany of theorists as their main source of influence’. The cause of this collective failure of nerve of contemporary poets, ‘the failure of belief in one’s chosen genre’, is the dominance of critical theory in university English departments (13-14). In a book that is elsewhere so rich in particulars, it would have been interesting to have had more detail added to the argument, by way of analysis of specific groups of poems, by the naming of names as it were. Of course, the relationship of non-mainstream poets to the university has altered over time and it may be possible to make an argument that the overall effect of poetry’s ‘incorporation’ by the University—if that is what has happened—has not been conducive to creativity, innovation, risk-taking in the pursuit of discovery, and so on. As it stands, the editor’s blanket indictment of contemporary poets is too categorical and, though it is clearly not the intention here, the dislike of ‘theoretical poetry’ comes across as a suspicion of ‘difficult’ poetry.

I have written far more than I intended to do when I sat down to review this book and I have left unwritten a great deal of what I had planned to say. For example, I had planned to write more about what the book has to say about aesthetic differences within the poetry of the revival poetry, clearly manifested in the editorial stance of Mills’ and Cutts’ Tarasque magazine (45-6) 5. Cusp thoroughly engrossed me as a reader and I read it twice, cover to cover. It continues to engage me as I work out my initial response. As I suggested earlier, the book presents a richly detailed if unavoidably limited view of the period it sets out to capture, the tip of the iceberg. The collective autobiography begun by Geraldine Monk and the other contributors certainly deserves to be continued, expanded to include other perspectives on this period that was so significant in shaping of contemporary poetic practice in Britain.6

 

 

Footnotes:

1. ‘British Poetry Revival’ is usually taken to be Mottram’s coinage, but Bruce Wilkinson notes that Dave Cunliffe, Blackburn poet and editor of the small poetry magazine Poetmeat, invented the term a few years earlier: see Bruce, Wilkinson, Hidden Culture, Forgotten History: A Northern Poetic Underground and its Countercultural Impact (Penniless Press, 2017), pages 73 and 95.

2. Hank Lazer, ‘American Poetry and its Institutions’ in Jennifer Ashton (ed) American Poetry Since 1945 (Cambridge: CUP, 2013). page 164.

3. Eric Mottram, ‘A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry: introduction’ in Gillian Allnutt, Fred D’Aguiar, Ken Edwards, Eric Mottram (eds), The New British Poetry (London: Paladin, 1998), 131.

4. Thomas A. Clark describes the creative freedom of self-publishing in these terms: ‘The fairly severe limitations of the Adana [table-top letterpress machine] have been a continuing influence on my poetry, as confining and empowering as let’s say the haiku or the sonnet [ . . .] The pleasure is to be inventive, to play with the financial and material constraints.’ Thomas A. Clark, ‘An Inconspicuous Green Flower’ in Simon Cutts (ed) Certain Trees: The Constructed Book, Poem and Object 1964-2006 (Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche: Centre des livres d’artistes, 2006), 143

5. For more detail on the editorial position of Tarasque and its sense of it own aesthetic distance from ‘most little presses’ of the 1960s poetic underground, see Simon Cutts interview with Wolfgang Görtschacher in Simon Cutts (ed), Some Forms of Availability: Critical Passages on the Book and Publication (NY and Cromwell, UK: Granary Books and RGAP, 2007), 29-30. In the same interview, Cutts acknowledges that their aesthetic criticism of the poetry of the poetic were ungenerous (30).

6. Bruce Wilkinson’s Hidden Culture, Forgotten History (see footnote 1, above) is a significant contribution to our knowledge of the poetic underground in Blackburn and Preston.

 

Copyright © Aled Ganobcsik-Williams, 2018