II: Island Fishing and Deregulation
Ah, as Hill's heckler from The Triumph of Love might say, isn't that a pretty fantasy. It's even a fantasy to assume that my American reader knows the work of more than two or three of the twenty or so poets I have alluded to thus far. That's why Keith Tuma's Fishing By Obstinate Isles is such a necessary and timely book.
Tuma sets himself the task of reading modern and postmodern British poetry in terms of its reception, or lack of it, by American readers and institutions. He begins the historical section of his book by arguing that British poetry - with a few important exceptions - was by the late sixties and early seventies virtually erased from the American literary consciousness by "a combination of benign neglect, ordinary ignorance, and casual half-truths of a critical journalism cognizant only of the narrowest field of extant poetry." Interestingly, this was also the very moment that Prynne in Cambridge and Mottram in London were becoming magnets for many of the poets appearing in Other and Conductors. A very few Americans - Donald Hall in a number of essays and reviews, M.L. Rosenthal and Calvin Bedient, I myself in 23 Modern British Poets (1970) - and two or three British commuters or exiles like Donald Davie and Thom Gunn, pointed out some of what was happening or had already happened in Britain: the late work of Jones and Bunting, the early Prynne, Mina Loy's forgotten poems, the Stevens- and Williams- influenced work of the early Tomlinson, Christopher Middleton, Roy Fisher's City, and maybe the first books of Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood. In spite of these several voices arguing for the value and interest of certain British poets - and it's important to remember that among the younger Irish poets who had any real affinities with the modernist-influenced Brits only John Montague at this point was really visible - no one, on the whole, seemed to be paying any attention. Americans during the Viet Nam and post-Viet Nam period read North Americans, Latin Americans and East Europeans. What little modern and contemporary British poetry was read or taught in the universities - Auden, Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Hughes and sometimes Gunn or Stevie Smith - suggested very little of what was beginning to happen in London or Cambridge or the North of England (where Neil Astley was soon to establish Bloodaxe Books), while effectively obscuring those foundational works of an indigenous British modernism still in the process of being rescued by Tuma himself and the five contributors to Conductors of Chaos who select and introduce work by their predecessors.
Tuma somehow manages to be at the same time both attractively modest and passionate in his advocacy. Since he regards his book as essentially a loosely-connected series of essays, it is probably best to avoid any implication that it can be regarded as a complete account of any kind or seeks an Archimedean point from which to survey the field. It aims, instead, to enact the tentative probings toward both a nearly forgotten British modernist poetry and a British postmodernist poetry still in the process of being written by coming again and again at its material in bits and pieces, and from first one angle and then another. The jagged pattern achieved is intellectually stimulating and aesthetically satisfying. While Tuma is definitely out to open up the transatlantic route once more to two-way traffic, he pessimistically assumes the odds are heavily against him. His strategy, however, may in the end be more successful than he supposes. He wants "to present enough poetries not to map the whole field but to erode established [American] caricatures [of modern British poetry] and prevent new ones from solidifying"; and he wants "to ventriloquize from enough perspectives to prevent discourses of national identity from emerging, as they have in the past, with the blunt force that inevitably distorts and interrupts the reading of poems, or just makes whole areas of poetic practice disappear." Writing, then, chiefly for American readers, Tuma believes that "one reason for reading British poetry, and for reading as widely in it as possible, is to combat narrow views of that poetry that emerge in premature and reified accounts of American identity." And if the typical American characterization of British poetry is indeed "a monolithic source of all that is obsolete, standardized, and ruled by timid conventionality," the most effective method of combating such a view will be through the close examination of particular poets and particular poems that contradict it: work that is experimental, formally innovative, radical. While Tuma seeks to defend the academic study of contemporary poetry in his book, he also argues that "one good reason to study British poetry, especially British 'experimental poetry,' is to see what happens to a poetry which more often [than American] has had to go it alone, as it were, without being able to depend quite so heavily on the artificial economics created by the academy and other institutions."
Actually, I find the book a good deal less fragmentary and impressionistic than I expected after first reading the introduction. The literary-historical chapters are extremely thorough and will be of enormous use to American readers who are, as Tuma reiterates, unaware of almost everything that has happened in British poetry for the past fifty years, while his considerations of work by Joseph Gordon Macleod, Mina Loy, Basil Bunting, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite are among the best I have read on these poets. The essays are short, but they say a great deal. They involve both analysis and advocacy. This last, again, is important. As Tuma says, he writes about work he admires. He wants to find readers for this poetry, and his discussions persuade us that the work will reward our attention. He is a critic who opens books rather than one who closes them. So I find the volume, in the end, something much more than "a series of essays." It stakes out territory and establishes priorities with critical insight and imaginative energy. And the balance between the literary-historical chapters and the studies of major figures is aesthetically very satisfying. I very much admire, for example, the strategy of focusing sharply in Part One on the old Hall/Pack/Simpson New Poets of England and America anthologies in order to set up the recovery of British modernists like Macleod, Loy, and Bunting by way of extended readings of their best work. (I am reminded here of certain moments in M.L. Rosenthal's The New Poets of 1967, a very useful book in its time and one that, in its way, also tried to find American readers for British poetry.) And I am deeply impressed, while sometimes also amused, by the sixth chapter on "Alternative British Poetry" that manages to maneuver through a difficult terrain - the very terrain occupied by many among the Conductors and Others - that has never before been mapped at all, a chapter that investigates contending camps of the British avant-garde with the scrupulosity of a fastidious anthropologist among newly-discovered tribes.
Because my own orientation with regard to British poetry is somewhat different from Tuma's, I do lament the exclusion of several important poets from his discussion. David Jones, for example, seems to me even more central to the story he has to tell than Bunting, Loy, or Macleod. Tomlinson and Middleton are missing. So are Jeremy Prynne and Geoffrey Hill and Christopher Logue's versions from Homer. But Tuma's reading both of his chosen major figures and the contexts out of which they emerge is fascinating, authoritative, and compelling. He knows the British poetry scene about as well as any American I can think of and his position is independent of fashion, original, and well-considered. Tuma's frequent interjections of the personal, and his defense of the eclectic and the lapidary against the systemic and the theoretical, should prepare the reader for his reluctance to sum things up. Even without a summation, however, Fishing by Obstinate Isles is the best possible introduction for American readers to a range of British poetries and poetic histories long neglected here.
Sean O'Brien's The Deregulated Muse stands in relationship to Fishing by Obstinate Isles in about the same way the Armitage/Crawford Penguin stands in relationship to Conductors and Other: it frames the group photograph of avant-garde fraternity in both predictable and unexpected ways by exploring the work of an increasingly democratized, pluralist, and sometimes even experimental mainstream. While all thirty-six poets discussed by O'Brien can be found in the Penguin anthology and only one - Roy Fisher - in Conductors or Other, or discussed at any length in Fishing by Obstinate Isles, The Dergegulated Muse nonetheless shares certain similarities with Keith Tuma's book. O'Brien says at the outset that he is in no position (any more than Tuma is) to write a comprehensive account of contemporary poetry in Britain, that his approach will be non-theoretical, and that his notion of deregulation - a word in his title deliberately entangling his essays with the public world of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite history - acknowledges the notion that "it is not clear where authority in poetic matters resides." Since Tuma laments that part of the blame for American neglect of recent British poetry might be extended to the British themselves for their failure to produce much serious critical writing on their recent poets, one imagines him welcoming a book like O'Brien's even though it privileges such a radically different range of talents from those he himself would like us to read. Both critics, in fact, appeal to a non-specialist reader by writing in lucid, lively, memorable (and sometimes even aphoristic or epigrammatic) prose. Tuma says he wants no part of "the power of systematic, theoretical language" and feels lucky and grateful to have the reader's attention at all. O'Brien says his essays are written "in the conviction that criticism had better be readable" and not something written in "the interior code of a class or professional cadre." If Tuma's audience might be imagined as a class of bright undergraduates or graduate students, O'Brien's is the somewhat more endangered species of common readers who favor the tough, argumentative pub-talk of Grub Street reviewing whose journalists and professional writers are not much influenced by the terms of either British or American academic criticism. O'Brien, the British poet-journalist from Philip Larkin's Hull, argues that "the very variousness of contemporary poetry seems to prevent the emergence of a dominant line." Tuma, the American academic from Oxford (Ohio!), would clearly dispute that claim, feeling that the majority of O'Brien's thirty-six poets are the dominant line (if that in fact means the line that has long sought to dominate). O'Brien acknowledges that "for some readers [his] idea of variety will be their idea of homogeneity," and looks forward to reading their accounts of the matter.
O'Brien's account of the matter begins with essays on Larkin, Hughes, and Hill that lean rather heavily, as does the introduction to the Armitage/Crawford Penguin, on Seamus Heaney's excellent essay, "Englands of the Mind," in Preoccupations. This opening section of the book, "The Ends of England," is more or less predicated on Heaney's notion, cited in O'Brien's later remarks on the Irish poet's prose, that "English poets are being forced to explore not just the matter of England, but what is the matter with England." In general, O'Brien finds "the confidence of Irish poetry of the last two generations to be "in part an oblique commentary on the exhaustion and anxiety of Englishness." But while insisting on the manner in which history impinges on these poets, and describing their responses - he is harsh on Hill, ambivalent about Larkin, and focuses rather surprisingly on Hughes's Laureate poems in Rain-Charm for the Duchy - he would also seem to share the conviction he attributes to Heaney "that experiences and things in themselves have meaning and value, over and above those bestowed by institutional and class history, when made into poetry." Indeed Heaney's short and elegant literary essays seem in many ways to be a model for O'Brien's approach - modified perhaps by the vitriol he finds in Tom Paulin's prose and the concision he finds in Neil Corcoran's - and he pays one of them the highest compliment one could well imagine when saying that Heaney's argument "becomes the embodiment of its own justice."
Finding the Englands of Larkin and Hughes in the process of vanishing, O'Brien in his second section, "Different Class," looks sympathetically at a large body of work by Tony Harrison, Douglas Dunn, and Ken Smith both in terms of its working class origins and its poetic achievement before going on to separate chapters dealing with two groups of Irish poets - Heaney-Mahon-Durcan and Carson-Paulin-Muldoon - which are divided by his discussion of feminist poets Fleur Adcock, Carol Rumens and Carol Ann Duffy and the first of what I think are the two most interesting chapters of the book, "A Daft Place," which examines work by Roy Fisher, Peter Reading, Peter Porter, and Peter Didsbury. The work of these four poets, together with that taken up in the amusingly titled final section - "Postmodernist, Moi?" - makes the most interesting contrast with the poetry discussed by Tuma and anthologized in Conductors and Other.
The first thing one notices about the poets discussed in O'Brien's chapter on postmodernism is that not a single one in this group warrants a mention by Tuma, Sinclair, or Caddel-Quartermain among poets assumed to be sympathetic to postmodernism in Fishing, Conductors, and Other, except insofar as they are perceived to completely misunderstand it. O'Brien's notion of postmodernism is both inclusive in a one-of-the-lads sort of way and, as the title suggests, simultaneously skeptical. And it includes in its selection of representative postmodern poets both those identified as such in the Motion/Morrison Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry and the Hulse/Kennedy/Morley New Poetry anthology which in some ways opposed it and helped to launch New Generation poets like Armitage and Glyn Maxwell. Most interesting of all, perhaps, it traces the postmodern spirit in England not to Prynne at Cambridge or Mottram in London, but to the influence of John Fuller at Oxford; and it traces Fuller's own sources not to Charles Olson or John Ashbery, but to W.H. Auden.
O'Brien argues that postmodernism is now so ubiquitous that definition has become increasingly difficult, especially as he finds that attempts to theorize it are both profligate and contradictory when both avowedly experimental and seemingly mainstream camps claim for themselves a piece of the action. Among the mainstream postmodernists (eux?) he discusses, the only common ground he's much interested in establishing has to do with "a deliberate awareness of and curiosity about poetic devices [which are] often allied to the redeployment of familiar kinds of poem, particularly narrative." He believes, "contrary to what some critics may claim," that "theory is always belated," and that abstract ideas about uncertainty, for example, are much less interesting than an impulse in any practicing poet which "relishes flying blind across the page" or peculiarities of a poet like Peter Didsbury which are as much innate as acquired, leading "less to an aesthetic program [than an] inclination to write poems." He is not willing to add much more in general terms save the observation that "the concern of these poets is less with immutable truth than with the means [they] employ, and by which [they] are led, to construct ideas of it or to question the possibility of doing so." Poets like James Fenton, O'Brien's favorite poet of the group, may have learned from John Fuller's teaching and example "a curiosity about the poem's status and the workings of language which makes the frame of reference and the means of construction into part of the subject." Although much of this could apply to just about any poetry at all, one can also see the interest in O'Brien's attempt to retrace the emergence of a particularly British postmodernism emerging from Auden (whether early in The Orators or later in The Sea and the Mirror), and the reasons for his frustration with certain theorists' disinclination to see that "the unwritten moment-to-moment history of poetry accommodates mess and disorder, chance and distraction, just as much as the determination to make it new and see the picture whole." He complains that John Osborn, a postmodern critic of Didsbury, reveals a paradox that troubles him: "if the old Big Picture myths and explanations have given way to uncertainty, what grounds has uncertainty to be so peculiarly sure of itself?"
Although one could easily imagine the answers to these questions that Osborne or Jeremy Prynne or some of the critics O'Brien jokingly calls Muldoonologists might put forward, it is more interesting to look at what O'Brien says about some of the poets who appear in the Armitage/Crawford Penguin to see if any common ground actually exists between their work and that of the poets in Conductors of Chaos and Other. O'Brien complains about antitheses reproducing themselves from generation to generation - modernity versus tradition, avant-garde versus mainstream, establishment versus rebels - even to the point where poets who probably write from a similar impulse but inherit these binary echoes would, if given the chance, "go back and run each other over twice to be certain."