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BRITISH-IRISH-POETS  2000

BRITISH-IRISH-POETS 2000

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Subject:

Re: A Mainstream or Many Niles?

From:

"David Kennedy" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

David Kennedy

Date:

Thu, 13 Jul 2000 19:29:22 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (221 lines)

Robert wrote: "David, when you have time, could you unpack 'reinvented the
pluralism and fragmentation of 1982-89'?"

Here are excerpts from a soon to be published paper on this subject. The
context is a discussion of W N Herbert's poem 'Mappamundi'.

Sean O’Brien’s comment about Simon Armitage articulates a prevalent view
that
could be applied to large areas of recent mainstream writing. O’Brien argues
that his work,

"proceeds very confidently from the assumption that there is no battle to be
won about where he comes from - he is a generation on from Tony Harrison -
this battle has been fought and won and it’s not something he has to concern
himself with."

What is significant here is that O’Brien’s comment misses the way that
Armitage, Herbert
and Crawford, like Harrison and Heaney before them, have found and continue
to find it
useful to mobilise cultural and linguistic shibboleths. I would argue that
this mobilisation and
its acceptance function in a similar way to that identified by Peter
Middleton in the context of
political writing:

"Heaney’s success as a poet is part of a widespread phenomenon in
recent British literature. A surrogate political culture has developed in
which the representations of political struggles within South Africa,
Eastern Europe, India and Ireland provide the primary media for
much of the politically conscious cultural argument widely
disseminated within the public sphere in England."

The mobilisation of shibboleths and their acceptance - from Heaney’s ‘last /
gh the strangers
found / difficult to manage’ to Harrison’s ‘[uz]’ - functions as a
simulacrum of the
mainstream’s inclusiveness. Shibboleths become the marks of irreducible
difference which
simultaneously exoticise works from outside the mainstream and thereby
disguise the fact
that they reproduce the mainstream’s models of subjectivity as well as what
W N Herbert terms
its ‘traditional prosody’. More to point, a shibboleth does not exclude but
identifies work for
an intended audience. As Louis MacNeice once wrote: ‘Ireland being a small
country, the
Irishman can trade on the glamour of minorities.’ To extend MacNeice’s
metaphor:
shibboleths become items of barter between the periphery and the dominant
culture. If
Herbert really is ‘a bittern stoarm aff Ulm’ then there is a strong sense in
which it is uncertain
whether he is satirising expectations or playing up to them. Finally, the
belief in the existence
of a poetic tradition which welcomes irreducible difference is also a
comforting belief in the
existence of something called ‘the British nation’.
    It is possible to detect another way in which place which has become
intimately concerned
with the valuation of poetry. Place, in the sense of both origin and
location, has become
highly marketable. I discuss this process at greater length in my book New
Relations: The
Refashioning of British Poetry 1980-1994 and will restrict myself to one
example here. The
blurb of Simon Armitage’s best-selling first collection ZOOM! quotes one
reviewer noting
that Armitage’s voice ‘really is his own voice - his language and rhythms
drawn from the
Pennine village where he lives: robust, no-nonsense and (above all) honest’.
Here
authenticity, geography and value appear to have become virtually
synonymous. More
importantly, perhaps, poets seem to have become synonymous with their
audience. Neil
Astley, founder of Britain’s largest independent poetry publisher Bloodaxe
Books, remarked
in an interview that ‘the provinces are after all where everyone lives’.
Once again, a
particular way of reading a map results in a species of poetic democracy.
    If large areas of British poetry have been involved in ‘writing back to
the centre’ or in
simply ignoring it, the imagined London-Oxford centre - where, presumably,
in poetic terms
most people don’t live - has not been inactive either. W. N. Herbert’s
portrayal of Ireland
being shifted to London symbolises the way in which the mainstream reinvents
itself by
assimilating or overtly annexing particular types of activity at the
periphery. Terry Eagleton,
surveying British poetry of the 1980s for Poetry Review, observed that ‘The
poets who seem
to me to matter most are those ‘‘skewed’ to the dominant social wisdom [...]
in the sense of
having access to historical or symbolic resources, submerged allegiances and
affiliations’
and characterised the period ‘as (very broadly) polarized between [...]
writing, where the
marginal becomes somehow central, and a self-absorbed, knowing,
postmodernist ironizing’.
Eagleton categorised these two types of writing in terms of ‘region (Heaney,
Muldoon,
Paulin), class (Dunn, Harrison) [and] gender (McGuckian)’. As this makes
abundantly clear,
there are permissible ways of being ‘skewed’ to the dominant social and
cultural wisdom. For
example, Allen Fisher, Roy Fisher, Trevor Joyce and Denise Riley are all
poets who would fit
Eagleton’s categories equally well but whose work has little interest in
what might be termed
an easily consumable and assimilable prosody. An editorial in a Poetry
Review from the
early 1990s made the same point as Eagleton but with a very different
emphasis, lamenting
that in Britain ‘canon-making has collapsed into hectic pluralism and
specialist interest
serving’. This, the editorial went on to argue, was to the detriment of ‘an
audience, beyond
the insiders, who would like to know what is happening in poetry’. What has
been
happening from the mid-1990s onwards is a process whereby the ‘poetry
establishment’ has
sought to make skewed perspectives, marginality and ironising part of itself
in the service of
a so-called new populism. Activity by the Poetry Society and editorials in
Poetry Review
show this process at its most obvious. The event which did the most to
promote assimilation
in the service of populism was the New Generation Poets promotion of Summer
1994, a kind
of poetic ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. The promotion was the brain
child of the then
poetry editors at Harvill, Faber and Secker who, reported Poetry Review,
‘felt that the
strength of the new generation of poets justified a major celebration’.
Twenty poets were
chosen who were notable for their ‘ex-centricity’: there were, for example,
seven Scots, one
Irish-American, one Anglo-German, one Guyanese Indian and one Pakistani.
Poetry
Review’s editor Peter Forbes noted that ‘These poets are the true fruits of
postmodernism’,
celebrated their ‘isolation and intensity’ and in the same article mocked
The Oxford
Companion to 20th Century Poetry as ‘a map of a lost empire, that famous
hegemony’.
Nevertheless, a year later a new hegemony seemed to be emerging. In an
article entitled
‘Why The New Popular Poetry Makes More Sense’ Forbes wrote of poetry’s
‘resurgent
popularity’ evidenced in such things as ‘Poems on the Underground, the
Forward Prizes,
National Poetry day, promotions like New Generation Poets and Poetry for
Christmas’.
Poetry’s ‘resurgent popularity’, Forbes argued, was founded on what he
termed ‘the New
Plain Style’ and its ‘grab-you-by the lapels directness’ which was a much
needed and
overdue ‘antidote’ to the excesses of postmodernism. He used three of the
most
accessible of the New Generation Poets, Simon Armitage, Glyn Maxwell and
Carol Ann
Duffy, to support his argument. In a more recent issue devoted to ‘New Women
Poets’
Forbes observes that while, collectively, their work exhibits ‘no dominant
style, [...] the rise of
formalism is noteworthy’.
    It has, then, been an apparently short journey from ‘the fruits of
postmodernism’ to its
antidote. However, while postmodernism has certainly influenced a
significant number of
mainstream British poets who began to write and publish in the 1980s and
1990s, it has never reached the status of a full-blown counter-tradition as
it has in America. What is really being
celebrated in Forbes’s talk of ‘resurgent popularity’ and ‘the new plain
style’ is the end of
what Poetry Review lamented at the start of the 1990s as ‘hectic pluralism
and specialist
interest serving’. The New Generation Poets promotion showed that with the
use of
marketing and public relations poetry can be made into an identifiable
commodity that had
little to do with the factions and tribes of the poetry scene. ‘The new
popular poetry’, Forbes
asserted, is something that ‘becomes part of your emergency emotional repair
kit’. It can
be sold direct to a newly identified audience for accessible poetry. It was
this audience who,
for example, bought 100,000 copies of Poems on the Underground within its
first six months
of publication and bought well in excess of 200,000 copies of the pamphlet
edition of
Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’, popularised by its use in the film Four Weddings
and a Funeral.
    British poetry, in its late 1990s manifestation, started to look and
behave like other cultural
genres. It had something to sell and someone to sell it to. Value could now
be easily defined
in terms of the number of books sold and the size of the audience reached.
The public space
was no longer disused or vestigial. British poetry’s reinvented mainstream
seems to parallel
what the sociologist Krishan Kumar terms ‘the standardized principles of
global marketing,
and the differentiated products of global consumption’. According to these
principles, the
heterogeneity of the ‘ex-centric’, the marginal and the peripheral is raided
in order to
revitalise and refurbish the homogeneity of the centre. Diversity is used to
underwrite a new
uniformity.

cheers
David




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