Elective Outsiders

Jeremy Harding

  • Conductors of Chaos: A Poetry Anthology edited by Iain Sinclair
    Picador, 488 pp, £9.99, June 1996, ISBN 0 330 33135 3
  • Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne by N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge
    Liverpool, 196 pp, £25.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 85323 840 5
  • Carl Rakosi: Poems 1923-41 edited by Andrew Crozier
    Sun & Moon, 209 pp, $12.99, August 1995, ISBN 1 55713 185 6
  • The Objectivists edited by Andrew McAllister
    Bloodaxe, 156 pp, £8.95, May 1996, ISBN 1 85224 341 4

That Iain Sinclair, poet, essayist, impresario and weaver of arcane fictions, is one of the more generous spirits around is obvious from this brave, demanding and often flummoxing anthology. Thirty or forty poets are represented; most have remained in relative obscurity, partly because their work fell on deaf ears, partly because they believed in the notion of a mainstream which intellectual loyalties led them to disparage quicker than it could disparage them. ‘The voices here,’ says Sinclair in the Introduction, ‘are the ones who have been locked away, those who rather enjoy it.’ Twenty-five, thirty years after the best of them began to publish – John James, Chris Torrance, Lee Harwood, Andrew Crozier, Peter Riley, J.H. Prynne, Michael Haslam, Douglas Oliver, Barry MacSweeney, Denise Riley – they must nonetheless wonder, from time to time, whether theirs is a case of having missed the boat which would only have been worth catching if they’d been on it in the first place. Perhaps that is why Sinclair gives the impression of his poets as a ship of fools docking for an open day. ‘The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to “understand” it but I like having it around.’ Plenty of his contributors are not chaoticians at all. They do not make a meal out of alienation and fracture. Yet the alternative to implying, as Sinclair does in his adversarial way, that because they are crazy and wild, his favourites can wipe the floor with the dandies of the London lists, would have been to argue that they were an avant garde with coherent ideas whose bearing on British poetry will in time become clear – and this is unlikely. Their identity is now too loose, the poetic culture on which they might have a bearing too amorphous. Their vanities, moreover, are not those of an avant garde: Sinclair’s people have too much both in the way of an admirable reticence and a less admirable vigilance which drives some to any lengths to avoid the sin of facility. Most important, the forms of patronage that made avant-gardism a reliable means of insertion in a ‘prevailing’ discourse, and the political contexts in which this was possible, no longer exist. Low-paid day jobs or faculty teaching posts have kept too many of Sinclair’s unworldly contributors at a remove from anything resembling an open forum. If they now speak largely to one another, sometimes in a mysterious babble, that is our loss, for many of them are, or have been, very good indeed.

In The Kodak Mantra Diaries, Sinclair’s record of a film project based on Allen Ginsberg’s stay in London thirty years ago, there is an interesting exchange with the psychiatrist David Cooper.

Sinclair: It seems to me that what has emerged from this Congress [the Dialectics of Liberation] is the necessity for what has been described as madness – as one of the few active means of keeping society alive ...

Cooper: Yes, I think we’ve changed our ideas very much, in the sense that we now see madness as something precious; not as a diseased state of consciousness but as an expanded state of awareness.

Despite a quarter of a century of revision, the lingering notion of madness both as a gift and as a practice sounds a keynote for Conductors of Chaos. It’s not the madness of mental illness, which, along with ‘Belfast, the Caribbean, sexual politics’, Sinclair dismisses as a marketable poetic agenda, but something more impersonal, closer to the magical attentions of the ‘poet-shaman’, who (like Ginsberg) can reconfigure the world with a poetics of utterance and enactment, or else with a more strategic approach (such as ‘cut-up’, which Sinclair tell us he’s been dabbling in at the beginning of The Kodak Mantra Diaries) that would liberate language from the custody of ‘sense’. In both cases, the objectives are revelation and transformation, and two exemplary young poets who revealed and transformed the world in ways that Sinclair approves are named in the Introduction: Mark Hyatt and Veronica Forrest-Thompson, both engaged until their deaths in the Seventies in wringing that impersonal madness from very disconcerting forms of solitude – Hyatt’s poems raw and visionary, Forrest-Thompson’s more in the nature of a long conversation with difficulty.

Common to at least half the contributors is a keen interest in Modernism, identified with Pound, among others, but less with Eliot, and a resentment of the Movement, which is seen as a drab cul de sac down which a serviceable Modernist tradition was diverted and then done away with. If going back is impossible, a handful of refugees have looked for other ways out: the culture here is excursionary, touching on far more than the merely ‘English’. There is a good familiarity with American poetry, tending out of Objectivism, through Black Mountain, Beat, the ‘New York school’ and on, much later, to the more detached experimentalism of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers whose notion of ‘subverting’ the ‘imperialism’ of poetic discourse won a hearing in Britain shortly after the launch of their journal in 1978.

Surrealism is also important: David Gascoyne is one of five predecessors, each chaperoned by a younger contributor, to win a place in the anthology. Here and there, traces of a heady European education are to be found, chiefly in phenomenology and Marxism – Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, vestigial readings in the Frankfurt school – leading on, in some cases, via the Situationist International and then the Tel Quel of the mid to late Seventies, to Derridean anxieties about the metaphysical haunting of texts. Which may simply be to say that several of these poets have been around for a while, and that they’ve been interested in radical or oppositional modes. Often notions of purity and incantation (the poet-shaman, again) get the edge over the numbing mix of craft-consciousness and attitude which Sinclair takes to be the British career-poet’s strongest suit. Alternatively, we are offered a belief, verging on superstition, in the excellence of difficulty and a tendency to think of vernacular as an entrenchment of social and political habits which can be unsettled and perhaps dislodged by radical work on the page.

For some of these ‘elective outsiders’, as Sinclair calls them, quality time at the keyboard is conceived as a challenge to power: the poem is a flamboyant descent into the street, part Pentecost, part June Days – old allegiances among the poets run from the Communist Party through most stations of infantile disorder. In literary political terms, there is a vigorous disdain for an impervious centre: London literary life; the breezier, upmarket poetry lists; the reiteration of English down-in-the-mouthism (‘careers,’ says Sinclair, ‘built on rummaging through Larkin’s bottom drawer’).

For Peter Riley, the failure of Nicholas Moore, another of the predecessors, to break through to a wider readership (bigger publishers) after his success in the Forties proves ‘that poetry-in-public ... was already completely useless in the Sixties for any purpose except re-endorsing the pre-endorsed’. From which it follows that there are margins, and that these are by definition zones of virtue, in the moral, political and personal senses proper to poetry. This seething peripheral space used to be called counter-culture, or, as Michael Horowitz preferred, the ‘underground’, and in the Sixties, whatever the wreckage, it was probably easier going than it is now. But the older Conductors of Chaos, and their anthologist, never thought of counter-culture as a leisure activity.

Difficulty of an obvious order occurs at the level of the page. To cull at random:

A forced landing in parlance
as aforesaid in the aphoristic
pall as predicted disafforested
the wordland ‘on balance’.

                                         Alan Halsey

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