The origins and trajectories of English avant garde poetry in the last 40 years:
A dialogue between Peter Riley and Spilios Argyropoulos
I was introduced to Peter Riley in a Gallery at Notting Hill, in the mid 1990s, by a young poet who was studying then with Eva Stefanis at the National Film School. Eva’s friend first lent me a plastic bag full of slim volumes of poetry published by obscure houses, and written mostly by a poet he admired, a certain Tom Raworth. There started my first real foray into the English poetic avant garde. I had arrived in London a few years before, armed with a couple of names from Andreas Pagoulatos, who had met Paul Buck and Allen Fisher at the time of their association with the review Change in Paris in the 1970s. Other names I had from Nanos Valaoritis. I tried first the biggest bookshop of the time, Dillon’s at Gower Street, and then a succession of smaller ones around London. They had never heard of these guys. The infantile electronic databases of the time could not trace their names and nobody could tell me where to search for them. I saw Nicos Stangos a couple of times those early years, but he did not have the key to the door of that poetry either. Anyway, he seemed detached from poetry altogether by then. So, onwards to 1994-95 and the meeting with Peter Riley at a reading by Allen Fisher and Joseph Gulielmi at that long forgotten Notting Hill Gallery. My acquaintance, whose name I cannot remember any more, said that Peter was also a very good source for any small press poetry. Indeed, over the 12 years that followed, until Peter retired at the end of 2005, he became the fountain of all poetry and essay on poetry, American and English and often further a field. He was also the catalyst to meet with some others of the protagonists of the era, notably JH Prynne.
My other main interlocutor in Britain has been Vassiliki Kolokotroni. Ever since we met at Easter of 1993 she never stopped providing me with information and names to check out, from John Wilkinson to Marjorie Perloff, via Object Permanence and her good friend Drew Milne. The latter was the progenitor of the famous review Parataxis that defined poetical theory in England during the Nineties. Another source of texts became, once I discovered it, the Compendium bookshop at Camden Town. There one could find a great selection of American and English small press poetry, as well as the English translations of major French, Russian et al figures, all published by American University Presses. The passing of this bookshop in the late ’90s left a huge hole in the intellectual map of London.
Back to Peter Riley though. He was born in 1940 near Manchester in an environment of working people. He studied at Pembroke College Cambridge and the Universities of Keele and Sussex. He taught at the University of Odense (Denmark) but since 1975 has lived as a freelance writer, English teacher and bookseller. He lived for ten years in the Peak District of central England, and then lived in Cambridge since1985, where he ran a small press and collaborated in organising international poetry events. Some of his recent writings have resulted from his travels, principally to Transylvania in search of music, but also to France and Greece. Of some twenty books and pamphlets 1968-2006, the principal in-print items are: Passing Measures [a selection], Carcanet Press 2000; Alstonefield [a long poem], Carcanet Press 2003; Excavations [prose poems], Reality Street Editions 2004; A Map of Faring, Parlor Press (U.S.A.) 2005; The Dance at Mociu [Transylvanian travel sketches], Shearsman Books 2003; The Llyn Writings, and The Day’s Final Balance (uncollected writings 1968-2006), both just published from Shearsman Books.
Our dialogue, which started in August 2006, was conducted via electronic mail and with the explicit purpose to publish it at Poeticanet. Both interlocutors edited the extracts each time a certain amount of material had accumulated. The idea of the dialogue itself arose out of the electronic mail exchanges I had with Iossif Ventura, about my potential contribution to the website.
During the first half of the 20th century, the poetries written in English and Greek were in close contact. Kavafy found his way to international stardom through E.M Forster and his friends. Shortly before WWII or just after, John Lehmann, Cyril Connoly and others, with the crucial contribution of the expatriate Nanos Valaoritis, paved the way for the recognition of Seferis and to a lesser extent of some other poets. The dictatorship, along with the immigration to the UK of Nicos Stangos and others, also led to the preoccupation for a certain period with Yannis Ritsos. Of the major 20th century poetical exports of Greece, it was only Elytis who did not travel so well in English, and I remember your reaction of amazement when you read the “Diary of an Unseen April” a few years ago, but this is another story.
As one would expect from a dominant imperial culture like the English, it travelled easily to the periphery. It never ceases to astonish me how many translations of Eliot exist in Greek, and of the “Waste Land” in particular. Yeats, Pound, Auden became household names, but this process seems to have stopped around the time of the prominence of Philip Larkin. He was never taken in as a great poet, and I think this applies to Greek as well as the other continental poetries. Ted Hughes was not so much translated as discussed for all the wrong reasons. Some of his most interesting work was rendered into Greek by Natasha Hadjidaki, who lived in London for some years. He did not have wide recognition though, until the recent success of the Greek translation of “Birthday Letters” by Yannis Andiochou. Seamus Heaney was famously awarded the Nobel Prize while on holidays in Greece, but before he became known to his local colleagues.
This lack of penetration of English poetry into Greek, as opposed to the fate of French, and to a lesser extent the American and the German poetry, is baffling. Other aspects of culture (pop music, painting, architecture etc) travelled very well. I am sure there must be a good explanation why poetry was lost on the way, but it is probably irrelevant now. What I wanted us to do is to bridge this gap of almost 40 years, using your trajectory as a travel guide through what were years of seismic changes in English poetry. I have to declare from the outset that I am not interested so much in the mainstream old-fashioned poetry that Faber & Faber and Oxford University Press usually promote as contemporary. I find that its ways are either too academic, or it is written in a very outdated “paysage moralisé” style. It dominates the Poetry Review, its exponents like Simon Armitage are present in the national media, but I find it uninteresting. The exceptions are WS Graham from the older generation and Geoffrey Hill from the living ones. But I would welcome your thoughts and objections, perhaps, to these brash introductory statements. Please remember that I do not assume any other knowledge than that of the interested amateurish outsider.
Well clearly something happened to English poetry in the 1940s, from which it hasn’t yet recovered. There are many ways of viewing this, but one aspect of it is that English poetry seemed to turn its back on Europe. (Is it just a coincidence, I wonder, that Britain’s “special relationship” with U.S.A., which separates Britain from the western European consensus, and apparently obliges us to support U.S. foreign policy without question, however destructive or illegal it may be, also dates from the 1940s? )
As you imply, the earlier 20th Century in Britain was more cosmopolitan. Even Auden, in many ways a very “English” poet, translated from German and Hungarian as well as (of all people!) Gunnar Ekelöf. There was a sense that most poets were writing a kind of stylistic lingua franca, a rational and sincere controlled discourse of observation, declaration, and narrative, in an educated ‘central’ English without recherché vocabulary which could be translated into a foreign language without great difficulty, and was to a greater or lesser extent shared with many European poets who had not submitted to Surrealism or other Parisian avant-garde tendencies. Most poems were like a speech to a small audience, or were ironic lyrical constructs of plain language, with a predominant tone of world-weariness. The 1940s shattered this.
But remember, that Eliot, Yeats and Pound were not English poets, they were American or Irish. Of the poets you mention as accepted classics in Greece, only Auden was English, and he was, latterly, the principal exponent of that normative style. If you separate the “English English” poets from the rest what you tend to find is (with important exceptions) a continuum, going back to the late 19th Century, of pastoral reflective and lyrical poetry which is nervous even of Continental Symbolisme and completely ignores Modernism. I think there is a lot of good writing in this tradition, but when you look at the success of a very different poetry in Greece and other European countries – impassioned symbolism, direct confrontation with worldly power, psalmic incantation, the assumption of the self into cosmic and mythical theatres... – it is easy to understand why people would prefer Yeats and Pound.
I do think that the 1940s and 1950s remain the basis of the subsequent condition of English poetry. So perhaps I can stay with them in this first response and we’ll see where we go after that?
Three things happened around 1940 the war, and the intervention of the academy, and Dylan Thomas.
The war created a disruption of normal literary life, and a vacuum. Those who ran the show and controlled its contents – editors, anthologisers, broadcasters, critics, etc. – were mostly absent because of the war, and in their absence young and adventurous entrepreneurs took over the literary scene, many of them conscientious objectors. There was an upsurge of unconventional and experimental poetry in new periodicals and small books. Perhaps the war itself was the occasion for much if it. 1930s ennui suddenly changed into a dark hatred of the human condition which expressed itself in violently clashing images and broken syntax. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, for the late 1930s literary scene was still liberal in outlook and had been generous towards experimentation. But there was another intervention which annulled this generosity.
Around this time, or somewhat earlier, the university literati, especially those of Cambridge, assumed it as part of their duties to supervise the production and reception of new work as it happened. By 1950 they or their influence had reached beyond academic journals into literary journalism as a whole. They claimed high moral ground in the protection of the English tradition in poetry from anything foreign or experimental. Virtues such as clarity, modesty, balance, rationality, were very important to them and any attempt at the high incantatory voice was damned as “pretentious”, as was any dealing with “myth” or echoes of religiosity. They were very influential, and when the professionals returned from the war many of them took over and maintained and intensified this programme into the 1950s.
Dylan Thomas is by far the most important poet of this period. He virtually invented a new kind of poetical writing, his own version of Modernism, single-handed, and he did it in the late 1930s before these disruptions began. The academics, of course, hated him and did everything they could to destroy his reputation, and so did their followers in the 1950s. Thomas is still not generally accepted in the university English departments to this day. He is accused of meaninglessness, pretentiousness, obscurity, irresponsibility – all the vices abhorred within the tradition of English gentility (and of course he was not English). But the trouble was, that although he was capable of passages of extreme difficulty, with disrupted syntax and clashing metaphors, loaded with what might now be considered “élitist” properties, Thomas was very popular, and still is, and attempts to undermine that popularity have failed. He is also the foundation of the subsequent development of a native Modernist poetry in Britain.
But what can Greece make of Thomas? Many of his poems must be impossibly difficult to translate, and since you don’t mention him I assume he has made no great inroads into the Greek consciousness, though I know he has been taken seriously by German modernist poets such as Bobrowski.
Meanwhile the “English” development as it ran into the 1950s produced an ever more restricted, rationalist and empiricist poetry of the self, as a continuation and reduction of 1930s poetry, of which the figurehead is Philip Larkin, another very popular poet. Neither this development, nor that of Thomas, showed signs of any relationship with European poetry, nor with Continental or American modernism, and they are both best described as, respectively, “English” and “British” in both origin and substance.
So you have these warring extremes, neither of which I can see as relating to Greek poetry, and, as it must appear, a great void between them. And since the 1950s this schism has continued and the gap has widened and widened, and the two forms of poetry proposed by it have both become extremist, and I don’t see how either of them could be welcomed in a literary climate such as that of Greece. I know little of modern Greek poetry – just six leading modern poets – but whereas in England I see mainly schism and disruption, in Greece I see a great variety of writing and a forward development, all held within a strong continuity.
But I have to add finally that this description of a divided national poetry is not the whole of the reality. There are more exceptions to it than confirmations of it. Perhaps we should look at them next?
Some quick thoughts on the points you raise. I wonder to what extent the fundamental change in English poetry around 1940 might be related to the end of the British Empire. I suspect people would have felt it coming by then. Is it possible that, on a psychological level, the narcissistic trauma of this loss led to identification with the US and the turning away from Europe? Am I knocking on open doors here? Of course I am conscious that some of the poets I mentioned were American or Irish, but their poetry arrived to Europe through England, to the extent that for some of them, especially Eliot and Yeats, it became almost synonymous with English poetry. It is also true that the pastoral tradition of English poetry did not really penetrate Europe. The fate of various older poets is interesting in this context. Browning still exists in the continental consciousness in the guise of late romantic hero. Hopkins never had much of an impact either, and we are still lacking a decent translation in Greek. We know Hardy the novelist but we ignore Hardy the poet, and I don’t think we ever got the point of Housman. On the other hand, there was a sustained fascination with the new, hence the adoration of high modernists wherever they were coming from.
I find the triptych you describe about the 1940s changes very interesting. I am vaguely aware of the effect of war on the literary scene, mainly because it was exported to some extent in Egypt, and led to some interesting periodicals that were published there during that time. Writers from different backgrounds collaborated, including Seferis and other notable Greek exiles. But I had no idea that the academia exercised such strong influence during that period and I presume I do not know the poets they put forward either. You are right to suspect that Dylan Thomas did not have much of an impact in Greece. Lack of good translations played a role. He also suffered, I think, from the perception that people had about his lifestyle. His legend put him closer to the beat generation than English poetry itself. Natasha Hadjidaki was again a major advocate of his, having translated Under Milk Wood.
But do I read it correctly then that what happens in the poetry of the ‘50s over here, especially with reference to the academia, has some parallels with the developments in philosophy in this country? I am referring to the domination of analytical philosophy, so detached from the French and German developments of the time. Is this a valid comparison?
Your comment about your view of the Greek poetry as a continuum without a schism touches on an important point we prefer to ignore back home. We always accepted as a given a dichotomy along political lines, the result of the civil war, which was supposed to extend to literature as well. With hindsight, there were not that many differences between these poets on either side. I may be castigated for saying that, but I do get the feeling of a lyrical body of poetry that moves forward as a whole, with varying doses of experimentation, irrespective of the political agenda of the poets themselves. There is also an underlying ideological unity, the death of the humanistic ideas in the horrors of the war, and that affected everybody in the ‘50s.
But I welcome your suggestion to turn next to the exceptions of the divided national poetry that you identified.
There have been attempts to align poets either side of a divide with reference to politics and philosophy throughout the 20th Century, but this principal seems to me to operate at a very simplistic level. Certainly poets such as Philip Larkin and his followers could be described as “empiricist”, meaning that they will not admit anything into their poems which they cannot perceive directly, so you could link them with the British empiricist philosophers. Both, you could say, refused to admit a “spiritual” dimension, however defined, and language was to them an instrument for making investigations within quite strict parameters rather than an active creative medium. But they had very different concerns. Larkin wrote mainly character-sketches, of himself or fictional persons, and commonplace observations of life around him. It didn’t occur to him to question through language whether the chair he sat on really existed. Indeed he assumed an entire set of perceptual givens without question, the ordinary language of his day, as the basis of his poetry.
More recently some poets in the modernist or experimental line of development have been heavily involved with Continental philosophy: Hegel, Adorno, French linguistic philosophy etc. especially Derrida. But I don’t feel that the philosophy has informed the poetry: it has been used by poet-academicians as a justification, a posteriori, of a difficult and complex poetry which developed through influences such as Pound, Stevens, Eliot, Thomas, Surrealism, and many others. It developed in practice, in the history of poetry, and practice could remove it from that philosophical connection at any time.
In politics a leftist, socialist, democratic or even Marxist position is claimed on both sides. Poets who insist on plain and instantly comprehensible language claim a democratic function, an opening of poetry to the common man. They have been claiming this for about sixty years and still the poetry seems to elude the common man – or at any rate, a lot more claiming is always considered necessary. But poets of highly complex and disruptive linguistic usage, labelled “élitist” by their opponents, also claim leftist credentials on different grounds – that they are deconstructing and re-forming the language by which we recognise what we are, towards a new definition, and a radical social and political vision.
I think these are basically elaborations of a dichotomy in British poetry which is never more than half true. The rift is driven deep into the past – Hardy and Hopkins are set in opposition to each other as father-figures. But in the past the literary world was able (sometimes after a struggle) to accept two such very different poets as complementary, without forcing a dichotomy of choice. Even in the late 1930s the very different poetries of Auden and Thomas to some extent cohabited, though there were those determined to start a war. There could be immense differences and disagreements, but there is a sense that they took place within a comprehensive continuity. The patterns of poetry publishing in Britain up to the 1940s make it clear that to a large extent there was a unified audience for poetry, an educated one which was aware of antecedents and tolerated difference.
But I can’t view of this dichotomy as a matter of balance, that a middle position between the two options would be a poetical norm. I don’t think it would. Dylan Thomas was important because he re-established something which had been lost in 1930s rationalism, and which concerns the entire nature of poetry. He made the poem into something which, like a painting or a sculpture, uses the materials of the world to create an entity which stands independently of the world, and which rather than a commentary on, or reflection of it, is, as W.S. Graham put it, “an addition to the world”. In the populist view of poetry, and still to the majority of academics involved in contemporary poetry, the poem is an event of the person, innately autobiographical, and can be understood by reconstructing the author and his opinions from the poem, with societal and historical contextualising. But to people like Thomas the poem was an event of the world, a raising of language to a pitch beyond the realm of “expression”. Of course it does still describe and comment on the world, but in the manner of a theatre. It erects a stronger, richer or more revealing world, whose language cannot exactly be our language; it sets itself apart by formality or by figuration.
The poetry of Thomas and his immediate followers was extremist. They set up an almost impenetrable barrier on the surface of the poem which absolutely separated it from prose. But I think that some version of this has been of the nature of poetry at least since the Renaissance, and certainly of early 19th Century “Romantic” poetry, and that the English delegation of poetry to a kind of poised and mundane talk, is a kind of anti-poetry, and the structure of opposition is more a usurpation than a civil war.
It seems to me that modern Greek poetry, and that of many countries other than England, especially in Latin America, maintained the central definition of poetry, that poetry remained “poetic”, through whatever great changes and disputations took place.
There have been many poets of the early and middle 20th Century who I think call into question that division in British poetry. One of them I find particularly interesting.
W.S. Graham (1918-1986) was a Scottish poet who began under the influence of Dylan Thomas and his earliest poems are among the most difficult that have been produced in modern Britain. Wildly dislocated post-symbolic rhetoric powered by an instinctive love of the linguistic theatre itself, the symphonic music and clashing imagery of which language is capable at its most intense and unrestrained. Through the whole of the rest of his career his poetry underwent a slow and progressive process of simplification. To the poetical populists this was a victory of course – the abandoning of élitist Modernism in favour of democratic accessibility, and academics will now happily equate his late poetry with Larkin, to the detriment of Thomas. But I think this is quite wrong, because in the most important matters his poetry never changed. However direct it became it maintained the condition of poetry as an imaginative space to which the reader is admitted; it remained a language apart, a theatre in which the world is metamorphosed. His later poetry proves that you do not have to construct immense barriers to understanding in order to achieve this, but that you do not achieve it by a subjective appropriation of experience to the self or its representatives. Graham never accepted that language was a simply transparent medium. I’d guess that Graham would go well into Greek, or harmonise with modern Greek poetry, except that you would not get that “Mediterranean” theatre of heat and light as an image of human potential and freedom; you would get rain and dark colours, and the image of the sea as the human world’s defining and fearful contrary.
There were many other poets whose work casts serious doubt on the validity of the conflict, now usually known as “mainstream” versus “modernist” (or avant-garde or postmodernist and many other terms). Indeed the work of most poets denies the severe categorisation. Thomas’s best poems certainly do, and even Thomas Hardy obviously cannot really, with his formal strictness and his comprehension of the rural vision, be claimed as the founding father of slick and easy urban chat-poetry. Perhaps only a few earlier anti-intellectualist poets such as Louis MacNiece and Larkin, and experimental (“concrete” and “letterist”) poets such as Bob Cobbing and Ian Hamilton Finlay fit the pattern.
If the opposition centres on Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin, there are many poets, within the same generations, who had nothing to do with either of them. Of course there were many extra-English poets whose traditions never became involved in the split: Irish, Welsh and Scottish, including poets writing in the Welsh language and in Gaelic. But even within England there were poets such as Nicholas Moore (1918-1986), now unfortunately forgotten, a virtuosic poet who wrote in many different ways: surrealistic, realist, plain or figurative... but all with a “classical” sense of craftsmanship which separated his work from normative usage; and others who simply drew on a broader range of possibilities, especially from knowledge of European and American poetry, such as David Gascoyne and Basil Bunting.
This brings us to the poets born around 1930, such as Ted Hughes and Roy Fisher, who form a distinct generation, an attempt perhaps to transcend both language-centred and populist approaches. After that the whole thing gets out of hand, the divisions multiply and the attacks become increasingly unpleasant, while at the same time there are signs, I think, of unifying and healing possibilities.
I would hate to interrupt your flow at this point. It seems to drive us forwards apace while I get the chance to meet all sorts of different poetries on the way! I will only note a few pointers I keep for further reflection. I don’t think that the intolerance of ambivalence, as exemplified in these imaginary poetical wars, is a phenomenon restricted to England. This kind of split, reminiscent of the best that borderline personality psychopathology can offer to society, appears from time to time anywhere. However, it would take a poet great enough to encompass all the opposites and lead to some kind of poetical synthesis beyond the mundane of these battles. I am wondering who would be such a worthy example in Greek poetry. Kavafy? Seferis? Certainly not the likes of Ritsos or Elytis. Ambivalence was banished from their poetry.
I also note what you wrote about Thomas and his elevation of the poem to a new object. Do I detect here correctly some antecedents of language poetry? Is there a direct link with poets like Prynne as well?
As for WS Graham, I have never heard of him before I came to England, and I only have a cursory knowledge of his work. I took your suggestion and I am looking at him again.
Finally, a historical curiosity for me, which could be dealt with in a couple of lines I suppose. It is clear that surrealism never penetrated the culture of this country the way it did with disparate places like Spain, Chechoslovakia or Greece. What about David Gascoyne? Does he exist on the English poetry map? Or is he simply someone who is known outside of the country but barely registered here?
Back to the poets born in the 30s though.
It is difficult to discuss poetry conflicts because there is always a temptation to take sides; and you feel you shouldn’t take sides, but sometimes it is necessary to be partisan. Naturally we hope to gain a generous overview, but we can’t assume that the various factions in the conflict are equally positioned, that the opposed forces are diametrically marginal to the centrality we seek. Those labelled “extremists” might sometimes be central, which is I think in some respects the situation in Britain now, as it has been before (such as in the early 19th Century when Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge were all under attack from conservative and metropolitan positions). “Tolerance of ambivalence” is an interesting critical concept; I usually think of “tolerance of difference”. I think I can see (in translation) that Ritsos and Elytis both enact a large, confident, male role, of a kind I associate with the southern climate. They are big people in the sunlight. The nearest to that in English is probably among Americans, especially Pound, and also, in various ways, Whitman, Williams, Ginsberg, Olson... but in Britain also Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Hugh MacDiarmid and others, all Celtic, because the English have been so down-trodden culturally in the twentieth century, made to feel so guilty for their history, that self-confidence is difficult.
And of course this confidence gives people like Ritsos and Elytis a courage, a freedom to explore, so that they constantly discover and reveal new relationships between experience and language, and they are able to offer their own experience into the equation wholeheartedly and generously. I suppose the contrary to this is Philip Larkin, with his self-depiction as a small, unfulfilled, secretive suburban creature. But Larkin shows no tolerance of either ambivalence or difference. He is angry and resentful, with a great sense of personal superiority, guarding his identity against alien expansive and disrupting forces. Hence his hatred of Modernism in art, literature and music, and his sexism and xenophobia.
But none of this prevented him, of course, from becoming extremely popular – with the help, it must be said, of an army of critics, journalists and academics, but also understandably when you consider that his poetry is a poetry entirely of the present tense. It depicts the present condition as a function of the self, unanalytically, without historical or any other informative intervention, but recognisably, and with skill. It isolates the present condition as a personally lived enclave, which is comforting. I think this created an imbalance in the 1950s which has never been corrected. Perhaps if Dylan Thomas had not died young in 1953 the “Larkin side” may not have won the poetry war (it is more like a cricket match than a war really) but they did, and established a connection between certain kinds of poetry writing and the entire cultural establishment which still flourishes.
The war has been won but refuses to stop! Recently some very successful young poets have been issuing vituperation against unnamed poets they call “postmodernists” (nobody knows what this term means) and one of them recently appeared in a major newspaper repeating Larkin’s rejection of Modernism and hatred of Pound. (Pound gets attacked from some sectors of the avant-garde too, but for purely political reasons). The attacks continue, although the poetry they protect has changed a great deal since Larkin’s time. Yet as a generalisation it remains true that most commercially successful and officially endorsed poetry remains a poetry of the insulated present, in which the self (an authentic self or a personified self) is displayed as the monadic ikon by which the perceptual world is made accessible. To “identify with the author”, or to share an experience, is considered the greatest prize of poetry reading, valued as an end in itself. History, science, and most other channels of cognition are silent. Obviously, although this poetry wins all the prizes and gains all the prestige, dominates all the festivals, gets all the international tours and official support etc. etc., and although it produces a lot of engaging and thought-provoking poetry, there will always be opposition to it, because whatever its virtues it can never be the whole of a nation’s poetry. There will always be some who need to use poetry to reach further out. Perhaps it is natural too in this situation that at least some of the successful and prestigious poets should be extremely defensive, constantly campaigning to discourage the reading or publishing of less successful poets who write in a way which defines their own poetry as conceptually limited.
To answer your question about Thomas, I think one result of the sweeping success of “establishment” poetry in a dichotomised history is that the alternatives become fragmented and discontinuous. The academic attack on Thomas was pervasive and influenced poets and critics inclined to Modernism as well as conservatives, and it insisted not only that Thomas’s poetry was worthless but also that it was a dead-end. It specifically ignored the development of Thomas’s later poetry and others’, such as W.S. Graham, into a more accessible voice which retained richness of figuration (or it represented this as a reversal and a capitulation). I think that poets such as J.H.Prynne in the 1960s, through a study of modernism and of much older poetry, arrived at ways of writing which sometimes resembled the textuality of Thomas and Graham but without direct influence. It was as if the current went underground and surfaced twenty years later without anyone specifically digging for it. Some younger poets are now busily engaged in research to locate “lost precursors” – forgotten British modernist or experimentalist poets of the 1930s-1950s, of which there are not many, but they do exist. But I don’t think Thomas has had any real influence in America. The dense figuration and prosodic thrust of his poetry would have been thought of as European qualities which needed to be escaped from.
What you can call a poetical avant-garde in Britain now dates basically from the late 1960s (and the beginnings of its disintegration from the 1970s). You could say that it began as a reaction in a changed world to the persistence of the “mainstream” tradition from the 1950s. But between the two generations (poets seem to come in generations of about ten years) there were those poets I mentioned previously, born around 1930. My personal list of them consists of Ted Hughes, Roy Fisher, Charles Tomlinson, Christopher Middleton, Matthew Mead, Geoffrey Hill, Peter Levi, and the forgotten Rosemary Tonks; but there were others, including several Scottish and Irish whose orientation was necessarily different. It’s important that these poets were English because I think what they represent is a concerted attempt to revise the narrow Englishness of Larkin and his followers, to achieve a cosmopolitanism without recourse to senses of “Celtic” (or “Bardic”) mystique, and generally to transgress the narrow rationalism of the Movement.
You can see this in simple terms of international connections. Fisher and Tomlinson looked to America, especially to Williams Carlos Williams, and developed a poetry of perceptual exploration and questioning through the free handling of language in that tradition. Middleton and Mead were both intimate with German poetry and translated it (Middleton is a professor of German literature, Mead lives in Germany) and both took on qualities of intellectual scope and/or poetical concentration from the continental traditions. Levi of course lived for a long time in Greece as a Greek scholar and knew all the leading Greek poets of his day. Hughes remained English but emphasised the north of England as almost a separate society from the south and the capital (like Thessalonica?). And there was a general renewal of interest in the Symbolistes, as in the modern art (cubist, abstract, surreal etc.) which Larkin so much detested, potentially related to ways of writing. Among some poets this produced a strong re-assertion of metaphor, but among the American-influenced poets the opposite: a wish to avoid rhetorical figures and tropes completely, and both of these were refreshing after what preceded them.
But more than this, there was an urge towards the irrational, and various definitions of “spiritual”. Fisher cultivated an intuitive and partly impersonal sense of the power of place as a means of realising in language humanity’s condition in the world. Hughes toyed with paganism, forgotten English gods, talking crows..., and constantly directed attention to an essentially animal condition of the soul, a fatalistic empathy with all living creatures, dramatised in metaphor. And Hill’s poetry is heavily involved with Protestant Christianity in a way which brought it to a tortuous engagement with language, struggling against guilt and harm in terms which could not be further from the claustrophobic furnishings of Larkin’s world. In many ways the gates were opened by these people, and a large awareness of the world’s cognitive artefacts extending far beyond immediacy – history, myth, religion, philosophy, art, classical and European if not global culture – were re-admitted into poetry.
But it could also be said that while they broke away from the mainstream they continued it, and this is how most of them were viewed by the next generation of modernists. For the most part there was not a radical rethinking of the function of poetical language. Language was still used rationally or even pedagogically to talk and explain to the reader, or alternatively to set up a theatrical vocal rhetoric. The self was still a monolithic entity. Hughes especially, for all his spiritualist séances and earthy blood-lettings, let his language develop more and more into a suave and mannered form of address, taking on from the Larkin inheritance a certain indirect mode of admitting the reader piecemeal into a half-described scene, viewed from within the self, which has become a standard of “acceptable” poetical discourse. Fortunately he dropped this in his last book. Among most of these poets it is as if there is a nervousness about poetry itself, an unwillingness to plunge into a fully poetical mode (a fear of Dylan Thomas?). For many this meant settling into a received concept of the poem as descriptive and parsimonious. The more radical of these writers tended to move into a more and more prosaic form of poetry, which still risked lapsing into received tropes. But exception needs to be made for Roy Fisher, whose general course was indeed towards the prosaic, but who was a much more independent-minded poet than most of the others and far more willing to risk the self into ambivalence.
Peter Levi is a writer who particularly fascinates me. Academically he was very conservative, a great admirer of Larkin and probably opposed to most forms of innovation. He would have called himself a “classicist”. But it is as if simply by being so heavily involved in Greece and Greek poets, and perhaps even the intoxication of the Greek climate, his own poetry was capable of rising above that condition. It retained a great sense of control, but achieved a very impressive sustained figurative discourse of strong elegiac emotion, and sometimes reads to me as if he were actually a Greek poet (albeit of an earlier generation).
(To be continued)