Thursday, 8 December 2011

Long Poem Magazine link added

Not that this is particularly timely, but just had yet another note from one of the loveliest editors around, Linda Black, about the latest issue of Long Poem Magazine.

The dedication to the sprawl of imagination known as the long poem, which is a rare beast, especially in the wild territories of print mags, is commendable in itself. Yet it's also a magazine that can make a firm claim to pluralism and a great eye for quality.

It's a wonderfully simple design, A4, clean as can be, better use of space than PN Review, which I find a little too dense, especially the italics there, where here it's more about space to breathe, which you need when a poem stretches over several pages.

I went to the launch party for issue 2 (I think), in the Barbican Music Library, ostensibly to see Andrew Bailey, who had an unfortunate bird/swine flu or something.* So I sat through a selection of unknown-to-me poets, including the astonishingly wonderful Sharon Morris (here and here), a tape recording of a US contributor's poem (but I think the battery ran out towards the end, it was that long) and a selection of others, all of whom were evidence that length is no barrier to concentration or entertainment in the right hands.

Anyway, Long Poem Magazine is a highly enjoyable and eclectic artefact, and I've been meaning for a while to both subscribe and submit, though haven't done much of any of that anywhere for a while. Too busy trying to wind Simon up with nonsense postings on here. (Though the Conan posting was NOT a joke, Simon.)


* Incidentally, Andrew's first collection is due out some time in the next year or so. I failed to make a proper mental note last we communicated, but I think Enitharmon, April 2012? This is an invitation to Andrew to correct me in the comments...

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Simon Turner - A Look Forward to a Surrealist New Year

February looks set so be something of a bumper month, at least as far as my expenditure goes.  Not only are Alcest, my all time favourite shoegaze influenced French post-black metal band, releasing a new album, but there are two - count them, two - new publications on British Surrealism appearing almost simultaneously.  OUP are putting out Night Thoughts, a long-overdue biography of David Gascoyne, whilst Carcanet have an anthology on British Surrealism, On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight, waiting in the wings.  Edited by Michel Remy, a leading expert in the field, On the Thirteenth Stroke (hereby referred to as Stroke) is something of a pioneer, selling itself as the first anthology of British Surrealism in the world, which is true: it's certainly, by the looks of things, the first properly rigorous anthology of its kind, including not only poetry within its remit (never Surrealism's strong suit, either here or on the other side of the Channel), but paintings, manifestos (ah, that's more like it: the avant garde's real innovation in form) and 'declarations', which are always fun.  But Remy's anthology - which looks to be designed as a kind of companion to his academic work on the same movement - is not without precursors.  Specifically, it has one (problematic, though enthusiastic) ancestor, Edward B. Germain's 1978 Penguin anthology English and American Surrealist Poetry (retitled in subsequent editions as Surrealist Poetry in English, which smooths over at least one of the problems with the anthology that I detail below).

Where Remy seems to be restraining himself editorially to the historically specific movement of British Surrealism (taking in the big guns - Gascoyne, Penrose, Sykes Davies - and more subsidiary figures, like Conroy Maddox and the other Birmingham Surrealists), Germain lets himself roam across the entirety of English-language poetry in the twentieth century, and he seems to find Surrealists wherever he goes.  The Penguin anthology's very useful as a compendium of poets who might otherwise have fallen completely off the map - useful, too, in drawing the reader towards points of affiliation with Surrealism in poets we might never have thought capable of such antics (Robert Conquest?  John Crowe Ransom?  Hmmm...) - but its editorial omnivorousness is simultaneously its chief strength and its greatest weakness.  The problems with Germain's approach are spelled out in the conclusion of his introduction, where he states that:

"The spirit of surrealism has become the spirit of modern poetry: the search for the marvellous; the desire to break through the boundaries between subject and object, between desire and reality; the need to create a vision superior to the ugliness of contemporary civilisation.  Surrealism endures in its insistence on a vivification of language, so that pre-learned categories crumble, and desire can reveal the beauty that categories cannot.  Poets believe in this beauty."

Basically, Germain comes dangerously close to saying that surrealism - an historically specific, politically minded, and aesthetically revolutionary movement - is just a modern form of the universal poetic impulse, a formulation that suggests that all poems - and all poets, for that matter, in spite of their feelings on the subject - are potentially surrealist: it just depends on how you choose to read them.  Hence, I suppose, the out of nowhere choices of Ransom and Conquest. 

This ahistoricism explains the jumbled and decontextualised manner in which the poems that follow are arranged.  We are given no biographical details on the poets chosen, aside from what's mentioned in the introduction, so unless the names happen to be familiar (and some, but by no means all, are, relatively speaking, household names: Ashbery's in here, as are O'Hara and Koch; the Deep Image crowd are represented by Merwin and Bly; whilst the British Poetry Revival only manages to field Tom Raworth), we're very much navigating without a compass (or, indeed, a paddle.  Or a canoe, in many instances: Bravig Imbs, anyone?  No, I didn't think so.  Oh, and I've just Googled him, so don't try and palm me off with a half-digested Wikipedia entry dressed up as original scholarship: that won't cut any dice with me, sweetheart).  Germain does group the poets officially connected to the British Surrealist movement together, so there's a degree of concession being made to collective affiliation, but otherwise it's something of a free for all, with Deep Imagists, Black Mountaineers, New Apocalyptics and narrative surrealists like James Tate all placed on an equal footing, as if there were no way of distinguishing between them.  Biographical details would at least give the interested reader a starting point, a means of coming to the conclusion that, say, Tate and Bly were very different poets, rather than assuming - as we're pretty much forced to do - that their inclusion in this anthology implied an equal adherence to an agreed-upon set of aesthetic and political principles that have remained pretty much unchanged since the inception of Surrealism in the early 1920s. 

Considering surrealism's relation to post-war movements would have also helped draw attention to the rather odd editorial omissions: of the Beats, why McClure and not Philip Lamantia or Bob Kaufman, who were actively engaged with the heritages of surrealism to a far greater extent than any of their peers?  Why Bly and Merwin, but not James Wright?  Tate but not Charles Simic?  In addition, let's look at that title again, or at least its first half: English and American Surrealist Poetry.  'American' isn't an issue, but I suspect that the national affiliation implied by 'English' might come as something of a shock to Dylan Thomas (Welsh), Norman MacCaig (Scottish), and J. F. Hendry (also Scottish).  Again, such a seemingly minor oversight speaks of an editorial policy that tends to ride roughshod over complexities of affiliation and difference.

Of course, it's not all bad news, and Germain's anthology did - and does, as it's readily available in the form of second hand copies - proffer a great deal of interesting material that might otherwise have been denied the general reader who's not tied up in academia (where British Surrealism as a subject has languished for some time).  Moreover, Germain's rather cavalier editorial decision to bundle all his poets together under a generalised 'surrealist' label, in spite of the inherent shortcomings of this approach, does throw up some interesting juxtapositions: certainly, I can't think of another anthology that would place Robert Conquest and Tom Raworth in such close proximity, nor one that would rescue Norman MacCaig's Apocalyptic juvenilia from the poet's own aesthetic disavowal.  As I said, the anthology's weakness is also its greatest strength: we just need to be cautious, as readers, to fill out the over-simplifications, and fill in the gaps, of Germain's methodology as we go along.  Hopefully, Remy's new anthology might make that task a little easier.                            

Friday, 2 December 2011

"a completely wilful assemblage of nervous 'images,' surreal/mechanic often enough in the worst NY manner."

--J.H. Prynne, in a letter to Peter Riley, April 8 1967.

George Ttoouli's Riley Ramblings

"I just don't see the point in such near parody's [sic] of Olson as, for example, that first poem—I mean, I'm interested to see what [John] Temple can do with his "roots" etc.—but must he swipe the means so obviously from Olson? . . . I know, it's easy to carp, and easy to be negative etc., but the whole thing seems to me to be an easy transcript into what is the currently fashionable American poetic idiom . . . at least it should be possible to avoid the more obvious sort of "I, minimus, of West Hartlepool etc."—or the nervous jerks of Creeleyesque."

--Gael Turnbull, letter to the English Intelligencer, 3 October 1967

"Jeremy has done a review of Dowden for me (which wasn't so much keeping up w/ the scene as that the terms of that particular book seemed to demand some kind of note: Albion arise and all that shit)."

--Peter Riley, in a letter to Andrew Crozier, December 3 1967.

"There hardly seems to be much force holding people together any more. Jeremy wrote (weeks ago) that he's completely disillusioned & lost interest in the whole American Olson/Ginsberg/Creeley thing."

--Peter Riley, in a letter to Andrew Crozier, undated, but after the end of the English Intelligencer.

I found these in an article called 'Wholly Communion, Literary Nationalism, and the Sorrows of the Counterculture', from Framework, Spring 2011 (you'll need some kind of academic login to access that).

The author, Daniel Kane, makes some excellent points about the notion of give and take across the 'big pond'. While explicitly pointing to the idea of a nationally distinguishing literature or poetics, he fails to read the signs of the inferiority complex that the British poetry scene seems to express in its secondary writings.

To put it another way, this background bitching is an indicator of status anxiety, rather than an indicator of serious aesthetic concerns. It seems both facile and misguided to suggest that there's a colonisation, rather than a refreshment, a renaissance taking place, when overseas influences enter a local poetics. The stagnation begins at home. The logic of Prynne's argument seems to point towards a wider picture of paranoia, whereby certain Anglo-American modernists resided in the UK so as to exploit the intellectual resources of Albion and France, relaying back a line of experimental oil from early 20thC European deposits, thereby powering the Buicks of post-War US avant poetry, yadda yadda.

Yet the relationship is a two-way resource, as with any renaissance. The smaller, less capitalised partner - English experimental poets - find a greater, more engaged audience overseas. In fact, quite a few have built their reputations abroad, before being 'imported back', like chopped up tuna in the form of sushi, to our bookshelves - Roy Fisher being a prime example. Ditto on the scale of publishing houses, like Carcanet, or Shearsman, who depend upon US distribution for a relevant portion of their income streams.

At an aesthetic level, the interchange might seem to do with eroding identity, as Prynne and Turnbull seemed to think (as represented in Riley's statement), but then you could also look into the stagnation that's setting in, the need to cut out the deadwood. By 1940, surrealism is old hat; whatever movements are emerging in Europe - Lettrism and Situationism for example - seem to be rehashed derivatives of something fresh.* Understandably, they translate poorly beyond their locales. The localised avant writers in the UK find themselves locked into a struggle with a domineering backlash against experimental writing, as Kane points out: "poets challenging the restrained formalism and hostility to the modernist project characteristic of the British "Movement" poets."

How do you break a struggle? How do you break the entrenchment between two warring nations? (I'm sorry to militarise the struggle between avant and Movement, but--no wait, I'm not sorry. I'm just goading you on again.) You appeal overseas to someone with bigger guns. Olson, Creeley, the Beats: they're the atomic weapons of post-war experimentation in English language poetry. The alliance might seem to renege on locality, on "roots", as Turnbull calls them, but actually this is a misperception. You can't change or escape from where you came from, as many UK-based North American writers will testify - that core of casual xenophobes who call themselves 'English' (Albionians?) won't let you forget, even after a few decades in this country, that you're a foreigner at heart.

What Prynne and Turnbull point towards is not necessarily nationalism. Riley goes a little far in calling Prynne's attitude one of "Albion arise and all that shit", as funny as I find the statement. Prynne's quotation points more specifically to an idea of US-influenced poetry being a false direction for poets to take,** and his review of Dowden (which I've not tracked down, but assume Riley's assimilated before making his statement) suggests that he's promoting a refreshment from English localities as against state-defined nationalism.

~~~ [another of my famous digressions, so go put the kettle on and come back to it in a bit if you're blessed with a short attention span.]

I've lately been immersing myself in Riley's Alstonefield, which is in itself a quest to find alternative meanings for what he sees as the irrational presence of landscape as pre-meaning, yet asserting importance. Why is landscape so important, why this landscape? He rejects, immediately, any effort to align place with national significance: that way lay/lies war. And he classes Prynne's arguments into the nationalist waste bag, rather than giving this taxonomy space to breathe, to become a counter to the Movement's domineering assertion of national identity in formally cleaned up, anaesthetised lines.

Aesthetics is both an enabler and disabler of community and disagreement is a healthy state when multiplicities can co-exist. Movement poetics and avant poetics couldn't co-exist in the minds of critics, but Prynnism and Rileyism was a space, in the '60s, to explore alternatives to the Movement's debasement of 'the language of the tribe'. The dirtily realistic Beat dialects and processes were one way through to an alternative stance. Prynne's counter, that there ought to be an alternative poetics rooted in English landscape, implies a need for taxonomising a distinction against the Movement, against state control, against foisted identities that didn't sit with personal feeling.

There's an indication, then, that the Beats, as a model for British poetics, is as false as the Movement's return to a Victorian, or Georgian formalism as a way out of contemporality. In fact, the challenge facing all post-war poets, perhaps all poets at any age, is not just 'make it new', but to make it discernibly new.

And to celebrate one's locality didn't have to fall into a category of nationalism, despite the dominant trend underpinning recent disastrous ideological expression and, arguably, underpinning the Movement in a crude manner (at least through the squinty lens of the opposing camp). As Kane puts it: "The Beat poets in particular saw no contradiction in positioning themselves as antiestablishment figures while maintaining a marked patriotism that distinguished them from their more internationalist peers."

But I think I'm in Riley's pocket at the moment, reading his poetry. There's nothing quite as alienating as plastering a street with red crosses on white backgrounds, particularly when it's done by people who don't acknowledge the absurdity of culture and nationality.

* Yes, this is an opportunity to come back at me with something a bit more solid and intelligent, but I'm using shorthand, because I'm a blogger.

** I've since heard on good authority (Dan Katz, a Spicer expert) that Prynne was in fact Olson's typist for a brief period - see Tom Clark's 'Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life'. This contextualises Prynne's attitude somewhat differently. He's had it from the horse's mouth and perhaps there's a combination of seeing other poets as derivative of Olson et pals, along with a sense of wanting to shake off his own ghosts/literary daddy. This is speculation for the time being, until anyone with a bit more knowledge can add clarification.