Litter Home Page

 
 
 
 
 Header image
 

Andrew Duncan

It was a Milltown Around my Neck

Bruce Wilkinson, Hidden Culture. Forgotten History. A Northern Poetic Underground and Its Countercultural Impact (Penniless Press, 2017; 208 pp.)

People in English towns prefer to get their filmed narrative from Los Angeles and their CDs or MP3s from London. They are not impressed by artists from their own town and are doubtful that culture is geographically likely there. This is one of the silent rules. In some ways, it is a vote against yourself. Changing it would change the way the country works – you would be waking up on a different island. Attacking the significant and celebrated and influential intellectuals in the country may be progressive because it affects the centralisation of power – but difficult to the extent that you admire them, are glad to be like them even momentarily, learnt from them what you know.

Hidden Culture is a history of the Underground in Blackburn and Preston, focussing on the work of Tina Morris (b.1941), Dave Cunliffe (b.1941), and Jim Burns (b.1936). The first two edited Poetmeat, which published this poem by Steve Sneyd:

She has they say
birds for hands
like flaccid gloves
batting my body to the
floor as the curve
of a road submits to
the sweet railway in
its strength
& lies beneath it
panting in the sudden
silence of car radios
and the hoarse noise of
flatcars on the bridge

 

- pretty good, actually (issue 8, 1965). I think Sneyd lives in Halifax. Someone was saying to me the other day that in Norwich, where she was living at the time, nothing poetic was happening in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps this is the sort of fact which historians should know more about. A lot of poetic activity happens face to face. And a lot of Britain has a dearth of poetic activity. Maybe you became a good poet because you hung out with people who actually wanted good poetry. Martin Booth's 1985 book Driving Through the Barricades is based on this principle, he roamed the country doing readings and writes about the scene in every town he could find. Hidden Culture is partly a follow-up to Barricades - more about the audience than the text.

It starts with a history of East Lancashire, not original material but it does draw you into a view of the world where Blackburn is the centre and not at the periphery of vision. Wilkinson gives (pp.26-40) an account of post-war poetry involving 50s torpor and sludge, redemption through American bases, proliferation of little magazines, formal liberation (etc.) which we can now call the standard model. When I compared about 80 works about modern British poetry (circa 1997), this was the line most writers had gone for, if they accepted the idea of change at all. I suspect more people disagree than agree, but anyway it's firm enough for us to start asking for a new narrative about the 70s and 80s. Görtschacher points out that there were 2000 poetry magazines in the 60s. This reflected enthusiasm and a faith in the present and a dilution of the “poetry world” by the young, to the point of conquest. Then you get an account of Cunliffe, Burns, and Morris' magazine activities from 1963. The first issue of poetmeat was published in 1963 and had on its cover “Poetmeat- Literary lovebombs – a magazine of the poetic revolution. Beat, Folk, Avant Guard, Oral, Dissent, Wondrous”. The text reveals that Cunliffe took LSD for the first time in 1959 (wow) although it does not say in which year he came down. The author talks about the arrival of “alternative philosophies and lifestyles” and says “The little poetry magazines were one of the few places in the late 1950s and early 1960s where you could see the beginnings of this fundamental shift and, within this small field, Move and Poetmeat, specialising as they did in US poetry, were two of only a handful of magazines transmitting events from across the Atlantic. Burns, Cunliffe, and Morris played an integral role in developments which would eventually lead to the transformation not only of art but also of social thinking which few would realise originated from within an obscure literary field and even less would know had come through magazines published in Blackburn and Preston. It is also worth considering how difficult it must have been for largely self-educated working-class writers (arguably lower middle class in the case of Morris) to break into the traditionally middle and upper class world of poetry.” (p.92) It's not possible that the head of steam was sufficient to fill all those magazines with fabulousness. Poetmeat was certainly part of the present, certainly better than most. This part culminates with the 1965 prosecution of Cunliffe for distributing Golden Convolvulus, what sounds like a harmless anthology about sex. The impulse was to get poetry close to folk literature by collecting lavatory graffiti (and playground rhymes), which were seen as pure folk because untouched by literary knowledge. Cunliffe and Morris moved on to Global Tapestry (at one time combined with Vegan News):
There isn't time to wait for the state to wither away... before humanity is forced to abandon animal husbandry and related exploitation. Therefore our “Global Tapestry”'s non-violent total-revolutionary anarchist impetus: propaganda by word and deed...
(1969)

The title is because life is a rich tapestry and everything is interconnected. Then the narrative moves on (pp.98-182) to anti-racism in the 70s, an Alternative Bookshop called Amamus, road-building protests in Stanworth Valley around 1994, and rave/drug parties in the fields near Blackburn in the early 90s. Poetmeat 8 (1964) included an anthology of what the editors termed the “British Poetry Revival” - Mottram may have got the phrase from there. I don't think the Revival had produced any good poetry at that time – it was in the “hunt phase”. Arguably, the English Intelligencer project was the environment in which people learnt how to work in the new landscape. Wilkinson does not do literary criticism and is not trying to locate good poems. He is a historian of the scene – an uncritical historian, as close as possible to the first-person experience. The narrative comes from interviews, press clippings, digging through archives of magazines. This is a kind of work which text-based critics find too demanding. I think it's very productive, and it does shed light on David Chaloner (living in Manchester by 1963) and Michael Haslam (from Bolton), who did create wonderful poetic artefacts. I would have liked to know more about figures like Ian Vine and Steve Sneyd, whose work is mentioned briefly.

I looked in vain for any discussion of poets younger than Cunliffe and Morris in the towns. So a key to poetmeat, Palantir, and Global Tapestry is that they didn't inspire a local scene and a “wake” of poets building a regional school. We have to consider the history of what was uninfluential. They stuck to the territory but didn’t occupy it. Presumably young people from East Lancashire did A-levels and went to universities and absorbed academic culture – trying to write essays incorporating Theory, feminism, post-colonialism. That sort of thing. This model may have de-emphasised personal creativity. Why were Move, poetmeat, etc. not influential in the region? We do hear about Tlaloc, a concrete/visual magazine edited (1964-70) by Cavan McCarthy (b.1944?), who lived in Blackburn at least around '67:
As a concrete poet, McCarthy developed various innovative ways of reading his verse including […] throwing in the air words written on bits of paper and using the way that they landed to create new poems [.]

This sounds wholly unrelated to Poetmeat.

Wilkinson says (paraphrasing Tom Leonard) that “there is an almost invisible working-class literary tradition hidden from the study of English Literature” and that “the 1960s explosion allowed some of this popular verse to break through”. (p.36) This fills me with enthusiasm but I think it is vitally untrue. The new poetry was a creation and not the downhill seep of tradition, whether middle-class, Anglican, or working-class. The rejection of Lancashire dialect poetry and music-hall was just as pervasive as the rejection of bourgeois guardianship. Further, working-class people born in the 1940s were building a new life in the 60s. A migration into the future. Later in the same paragraph we hear that it was all inspired from America – how does this go along with embodying working-class tradition? There was some Left/proletarian poetry in the 1950s (see the 1951 series of pamphlets from Fore Press, a front for the Communist Party, brilliant stuff to be honest) but there was no wave of “recoveries” years later because there was no buried treasure. Sociology looks for embedded patterns, limits, as its results, but that doesn’t really get you there, poetically or as a historian of culture. I am not convinced that class identity was the message of the new poetry – that implies a circular journey, where you repeat deep programs, burnt-in during early childhood, throughout adult life. You would really need to prove this to me. New means new.

That pattern involving culturally influential judgements, the downwards dissemination of judgements, dumbing down, the selection of winners and losers, is very hard to catch. But again, it is key to how culture works in a country like this. Resetting some of its regulators would change the product very radically. It is an invisible process, but looking carefully at some of the losers is a valid way of seeing how the process works.

The “official” model in the Sixties was the Movement, who had taken over in the mid-50s. Wilkinson is very clear about this. Part of the Movement model was channelling existentialism, the loss of belief in the Scriptures, empiricism, and it was poetically uninspiring partly because of its powers of critique renouncing the stylemes which had made poetry authoritative in bygone eras. This went very well alongside a critique of the social stratum which had exercised authority in those times, and which had lost power. So the 1960s saw a strange vacuum of power at the centre. Ginsberg did want spiritual power, he simultaneously wanted to occupy Marxism, occupy religion, and to abolish any critique of the glory of the writer. For these reasons, he didn't go down well in England, and it was not likely that Cunliffe, as a branch or franchise of Ginsberg, would go over well either. Wilkinson emphasises the loss of restraints. Meanwhile his project sticks to its self-imposed boundaries, sternly ignoring the siren call of Manchester or Hebden Bridge. In this way it acquires existential density, cumulative force, a view of the individual as tied to the earth. The strength of his book comes entirely from the restraints.

Burns is very similar to Larkin, as a stilted writer who promotes scepticism about exciting experiences and has an unresolved nostalgia for the virtuosity and formal freedom of jazz. There is nothing inspiring about his work, it is not alternative. It was not likely that he was going to inspire a regional school of poetry. His association with the committed Left (poetry editor of Tribune for many years) did not translate into a radical poetic. (Didn't Booth replace Jim Burns as poetry critic of Tribune?)

A paragraph about Tina Morris is missing here because I couldn't remember seeing any lines of her poetry anywhere. So an evaluation of Morris will have to wait. The book has:

I will be the first
to run
outside
into the agonising hour
& catch dust in both arms
& hug the soft burning snow
& fall to the ground
sobbing.

 

Ginsberg was a much more old-fashioned writer than Larkin or Wain because he hadn’t grasped secularisation. Fusing religion with the American Communist Party didn't really carry that out. If we put together a package of rules: [there are no universal truths and poems can’t embody them. You have to figure things out for yourself. Rhetorical moments tend to be the weak points of the poem. Close reading of your own poem is where empiricism lives and takes you to the core. You are trapped in the physical world and it needs empirical exploration. You have to find what is personal to you to be creative. A personal creative vein is all that matters and you must know the limits of your human powers to find crisis and process] - we can see that almost everyone writing now subscribes to that. But the Movement were promoting that package. It was influential because it was convincing and you can't reduce this just to the consecrated status of Movement poets and theorists as Oxbridge stars. These ideas were part of an Existentialist and anti-ideological wave which rolled more or less everywhere in Europe and which got its impulse from the decline of the era of ideologisation, say 1930-45. They were Continental and prestigious but they were not inherently elite and they were also convincing. The question of how ideas win is not just a pale reflection of the prestige of degrees from different institutions. Some wrong ideas fail to spread out simply because they are wrong ideas.

The author describes how in 1989 “small parties began in the Mill Hill district of Blackburn with DJS playing tunes to dancers looking for 24 hour kicks. As word spread, they gradually grew in size, attracting several hundred people, organisers using the many derelict mills and factories from the area's once vibrant cotton industry, hosting ever bigger raves. The [...] events continued to expand, several thousand revellers descending on the town each weekend, often bringing traffic to a standstill.” The spread of the idea of raves, so that an audience knows they want them, is interesting. How could someone want them before they existed? We see repeatable behaviour modules – perhaps these are the subject of cultural history, and we can recall the rise of alternative poetry in the same terms, as a geographical event involving assimilation and repeating the desired experience. Tracing diffusion patterns is easier than proving causality. Some of the organisers, as Wilkinson admits, may have got them going in order to sell drugs at them. Cultural offers without repeatable, imitable behaviour modules are not going to be very successful. Practice saying the following drills: “Let's start a little magazine!” and “It's cosmic, man”. Now you too can be part of the pattern.

Jim Burns says in interview (undated but perhaps c.2016):
I think poetry did become almost popular, and it did seem for a time as if the dominance of the London/Oxbridge elites had been challenged, although I'm not convinced that it was the case. Some of the challenges were absorbed into the establishment, as usually happens in what appear to be revolutions, and in due course the establishment soon re-asserted its control. In the early days many readings were loosely arranged[.] [then government money made life easier] but of course it was a way for the establishment, largely located in London, to assert control.
(p. 66)

I am not persuaded. When was control asserted? what controls were imposed? how? Surely the sheer abundance of poetry being written and printed has continued and even increased. As for Oxbridge graduates, is it really true that they were bound to tradition, or rather that many of them were the most open to modernism and the use of theory as a way out of repeating traditions? Why not check off the names in Mottram's essay on the Revival, or in Conductors of Chaos, as a test. If experimental poetry became less popular, maybe that is the market going up and down, rather than a tiny elite issuing decrees. Why would the bookshops do what academics told them? I think the truth is a bit more complex. 

There is something plausible in saying that poetmeat's product was anti-elitist and it is “hidden... forgotten” for that reason. Another way of putting it is that the good people of Blackburn ignored it. The critics in London (or Oxford, or even Manchester) looked at it and didn't like it. They reached the same judgement and so this wasn't an elite judgement. Global Tapestry Journal was promoting Beat assets in 1995 and surely the product was out of date by that time. They must have been aiming for the nostalgia market, for people who had been young in 1963. They were still doing issues in 2012.

The publisher is Penniless Press, associated with what looks like a very interesting Left/philosophical poetry magazine, and edited by Alan Dent. Poring over their website, I noticed they dwell in Blackburn. Blackburn? No mention of this magazine in the book at all. This just shows how incomplete every published account is – and, yes, I could do with another book about poetry in the cotton towns.
Wilkinson mentions my work at one point and criticises it. The convention is to reply to these things, so I apologise if this is egoistic. He takes me down for mentioning Jim Burns but not discussing his work as magazine editor. OK, this is true. But there were 2000 magazines in the 60s.

The editor has queried whether Prynne, Raworth and A. Fisher are pursuing a personal vein. I think the answer is yes, in the sense that all the parts of their poetry resemble each other and that this represents an utter distinctiveness in contrast to poetry by other people. However, they are not projecting their personality as if marking symbolic territory, and are ego-free in this way. We could talk about the more infantile-compulsive functions of the personality, and later, more distantiated ones to do with cognition and interrogating perception – lateness would be the operative word here. But this discussion could go on forever.

 

 

Note:
Books referred to are Martin Booth's 1985 book British Poetry 1964-84. Driving Through the Barricades and Wolfgang Görtschacher's Little Magazine Profiles 1949-93.

 

 

 

 
Copyright © Andrew Duncan, 2017