- Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play by Ben Watson
Quartet, 597 pp, £25.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 7043 7066 2
- Her Weasels Wild Returning by J.H. Prynne
Equipage, 12 pp, £2.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 00 000097 3
It’s quite a popular secret, the Cambridge Poetry Festival; a roomful of freelance delegates, all capable of keeping their eyes to the front, on the platform – no droolers, no crisp packets. By Saturday afternoon, a certain mid-term weariness is evident (so many readings survived, so many still to come); the post-traumatic shock of being allowed into the showpiece. King’s College, the part the grockles are never allowed to photograph (too squalid, these ranks of distressed vinyl chairs). It’s unreal: all these floaters drifting in from the street, straight past the uniforms, unmolested; an atmosphere of subdued revivalism, inauthentic elation (like getting high on a dope dealer’s promissory note). There is even a cadet Boulting, floppy-haired, who has volunteered to keep the video record. Otherwise the civilians, the print-grazers, wouldn’t believe it: poetry, the hard stuff, back on the agenda. Not the New Generation faces with the interesting jobs, the mugshots from Waterstone’s window, nor the ethically-challenged technicians who provide the polyfilla strips to fill a hole in the broadsheets with a slender genuflection aimed at the Balkans. The commodity these Cambridge jokers trade in is much more volatile. It congratulates itself on an audience-defying perversity. Read the list of ingredients: argument, intelligence, spiteful syntax, information overload. A negative dialectic that can live uxoriously with itself, assertive in its modesty. Poetry. An embarrassing word. The project is anachronistic. Well-meaning (but seriously pared-down) publishing conglomerates have had to let it go. The Oxford University Press feel no obligation to keep David Gascoyne’s Collected Poems in print. Faber and Faber get along very nicely on Tom Eliot’s singing and dancing pussy-cats. The Cambridge Festival (don’t tell them) is nowhere, it isn’t happening. What’s the story? Even the participants don’t know. Irony is currently unfashionable. An outsider couldn’t begin to grasp the laid-back intensity with which the poets (because they are all, it is understood, card-carrying practitioners) test the rhetoric for unsound doctrine. Anathemas are pronounced with quarrelsome tenderness. Rogue cadres peel away to check out the alternative festival, the real action, the underground’s underground.
An insider would have a sharper take on this scene. The Leeds-based poet, who operates as ‘Out to Lunch’, with long experience of these binges behind him, speaks of ‘a sell-congratulatory scum of proudly atomised sentimentalists’ and ‘the tedious outfall of SI critique of isolate art: poetry as dribbled politics’. Harsh, but not inaccurate. A post-punk SWP member, obviously. He’s right about the blend because, strictly speaking, this is not the Cambridge Poetry Festival (as sponsored by Eastern Arts) but the CCCP4 (blessed by a fantasy Comintern). That playful Stalinist logo signals a snakes’ nest of nostalgic affiliations (fun-house mirrors in which to define themselves): Maoists, Trots, IS, SI – more splinters than a hedgehog. (‘Of course the best poetry of the Forties was written by Marxists, hence the resurgence of Adorno.’ Out to Lunch. His notebooks.) There is a Cantab tradition (morphic resonance?) of double lives, whispers, betrayal, running back from the Gang of Four (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt) to the Apostles; a tradition that is impossible to honour now that there are no secrets left, no one to listen. The spy and his spook-master pay homage to familiar tutorial arrangements: civilised interrogations on park benches, brisk walks by the riverside, papers handed in for external examination. You feel that if these lefties had gone to Oxford they could have settled for a collar-up shuffle down Farm Street and a bit part in the Evelyn Waugh biographies. The primary task of the Cambridge poet is to find a language that respects this inheritance: as resistant as code, as the markings on a Sumerian clay tablet. A language justified in its paranoia. The poems we listen to in King’s are feverish, in meltdown, struggling to keep pace with earlier avatars: those lives of romantic duplicity, alcoholic and sexual derangement, gutter élitism, afternoon clubs at the interface of Soho and St James’s. Out to Lunch is himself the classic double agent, the turned man. He has a public persona as ‘Ben Watson’ (apologist for his nocturnal self, the crazed poet), columnist for the Wire, broadcaster, and author of the monumental and magnificent folly, Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.