My intention in this essay is to identify some of the tropes that have characterised debates about and constructions of value in mainstream British poetry of the 1980s and 1990s. The first part of the essay looks at how discussions of value in recent British poetry appear to be complicated by a number of anxieties, beliefs and perceptions about the gap between what gets published and reviewed and what people actually read and enjoy. The second part discusses how value in recent British poetry has increasingly come to be seen in terms repairing the breach between the two to the extent that, paradoxically, what Linda Hutcheon terms in A Poetics of Postmodernism ‘ex-centricity’ (Hutcheon 1988: 57-73 and passim) and a consequent pluralism seem to have resulted in a reconstructed mainstream and a new populism.
To be able to talk about the value of a thing, we first have to be able to describe it as a commodity. I don’t mean by this that we need to be able to say how much a thing is worth but that we should be able to ask and answer such questions as ‘what is it made up of?’, ‘who is asking for it?’, ‘who is doing it?’, ‘how is it distributed and to who?’ and ‘who is it for?’ There seem to be particular difficulties involved in asking these questions about poetry. Sooner or later someone will wonder if there any useful connections between the poetry written every day by ‘ordinary’ people - and probably never intended for publication - and the poetry published and reviewed in the pages of, say, Poetry Review or The Times Literary Supplement. In this context, poetry is perceived both inside the poetry scene and beyond as having two levels of value which are continuous with each other and, as a consequence, a unique identity as a cultural genre. But, if this continuity between two types of poetry makes poetry unique as a cultural genre, it does so in a peculiar way. As the poet and critic Sean O’Brien notes:
Of course, the
universality of language and the relative brevity of most poetry give
poetry an obvious appeal as a means of self-expression, but, [...] the
prospect of many thousands of composers clamouring for publication and
performance of their symphonies would be absurd.
The anxiety about people and poetry might be summarised as follows. Once upon a time, at least up until the Second World War, there was a large popular audience for poetry. Poets were often important public intellectual figures. Poetry was a part of the general culture, published and reviewed in daily newspapers. Now, however, poetry is not only no longer at the centre of cultural life, it is no longer at the centre of literary life. People mutter darkly about modernist obscurities, academics and poets writing only for themselves and each other. In this analysis, poetry is rather like an inner city public park: a disused, almost vestigial public space. This anxiety is also one that can appear ridiculous when viewed in terms of other cultural genres. If we look at the world of classical music, for example, there seems to be a general acceptance that a large audience will listen to the diet of popular classical music that Classic FM provides while a smaller audience will listen to contemporary composers. Indeed, it is not thought odd that different parts of the audience for classical music will listen exclusively to opera or lieder or to baroque music. Similarly, if we turn to the novel there seems to be no hand wringing amongst practitioners about the fact that there are large and quite distinct readerships for, say, romances or thrillers and smaller readerships for contemporary literary fiction. The type of anxiety I have been analysing in poetry may be traced to the idea that it is intimately connected to people’s lives and to life itself in ways that other cultural forms are not. It is this idea that appears in the William Carlos Williams poem ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’: ‘It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.’ An editorial in the small press magazine Blade gives another version, asserting that ‘poetry is not a commercial product and must never be allowed to become one’; rather, poetry is something that embodies ‘inherent truth’ (Holland 1997: 5). Peter Sansom also makes this point in his book Writing Poems when he comments that ‘We tend to feel that poems are true’ (Sansom 1994: 8). Another poet and critic argues that ‘the health of poetry resides’ not ‘in large notions of what culture is, and poetry’s pecking order within it’ but in ‘non-establishment practitioners of poetry’. They ‘are reaching for poetry to define small truths about themselves’ and ‘bringing voices in from the margin and making visible what official structures obliterate’ (E. A. Markham 1991/2: 51).
In terms of the poetry world this all sounds reasonable enough but it would be unusual, to say the least, to find someone arguing that amateur dramatics in church halls were the health of contemporary theatre. What the kind of views I have been sketching point to, I think, is a conception of poetry as a cultural genre that embodies universals but which remains in an important sense subcultural. Indeed, in this conception universality and subculturality seem inextricably linked and it this linkage that largely explains, I believe, the difficulties involved in describing what sort of cultural product poetry is. This, in its turn, gives rise to the peculiar way that poetry gets valued. If poetry is primarily subcultural, something that anyone and everyone can and apparently does write, then it becomes difficult to take it seriously as a cultural genre. Similarly, if poetry is primarily a place where ‘non-professional practitioners’ go ‘to define small truths about themselves’ then it also gets conceived as a species of democracy where everyone’s personal product becomes equally deserving of attention. Because the poem is the personal thing that might somehow give access to the universal, people become embarrassed about valuation to the extent that valuation becomes subjective. I was present at a public discussion about poetry at the University of Wales in Bangor where precisely this argument was made. ‘Who decides if a poem is good?’ asked a member of the audience. ‘Er, well, the reader does’ was the rather hesitant answer from one of the panel.
If this suggests a defensiveness about value then it’s worth noting, in this context, another peculiarity of valuation within the poetry world: almost without exception poets review poets. The valuation that does occur takes place within a small and clearly defined reviewing infrastructure. There is an ever-decreasing number of serious mainstream publishers of poetry with medium to large lists. Poets published by mainstream publishers and who might be described as recognisable brands review other ‘recognisable brand’ poets published by the same group of publishers. Newspapers and journals which cover poetry tend to review these publishers as their default. Again we only have to turn to other cultural forms to see how odd this is. Novels, films and plays are regularly and one might even say traditionally reviewed by non-practitioners; indeed, a guest review by a practitioner is felt to be a rare treat.
It might seem, then, that discussions of value in poetry are always going to founder on such questions as ‘How can you value truth?’ or ‘How can you value individuals’ definitions and expressions of small truths about themselves?’ and assertions such as ‘She’s not a poet so she doesn’t know what she’s talking about’. However, what began to define discussions of British poetry in the 1980s and early 1990s was a recognition that poetry’s ‘inherent truth’ is, in fact, relative. What you write depends not only on who you are but where you write from. Consequently, cartographical and geographical images have come to dominate the discussion and presentation of poetry in recent times. Here are some brief examples. A Times Literary Supplement review welcoming the relaunch of the Penguin Modern Poets series in 1995 drew attention to ‘the diversity, in terms of style, subject-matter and geography’ and noted approvingly in an odd but telling conjunction that
A cartographic trope also appeared to define The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Finally, when the Poetry Society went on the Internet at the end of 1995, their web page was in the form of a map of a region of an imaginary country.
There are a number of ways of reading this. One way is to note the prevalence of cartographic tropes throughout contemporary cultural commentary. (1) Here are a few titles, noted at random from the University of Sheffield Library catalogue: Mapping men and empire, Mapping the women’s movement, Mapping desire, subtitled geographies of sexualities. In these contexts, maps and mapping are seductive because they imply representation without the anxiety and difficulty of evaluation. Maps are non-hierarchical. Making a map appears to be an uncontentious activity. Maps present an area and offer greater access to that area and to the relationship of all its parts. Maps suggest an active relation between different and distinct things but they leave the nature of that relationship unfixed and provisional, open to change and reformulation. In this sense, to speak of maps and mapping is to be projective, to go into an area that is new or emergent or unfinished. A map is not a definitive catalogue but something that is almost fluid. Most importantly in critical terms, a map is something we all think we know how to use and yet using it effectively, map-reading, is a special skill. To be the critic who maps is therefore to be someone who makes a transformative reading, who takes an area we think we know well and subjects it to a refiguring. In this sense, maps and mapping are simulacra of discovery not the act of discovery itself.
A map also invites us to find ourselves on it. To be the reader of a map is to enact the desire of finding or indeed the desire of writing out the tag that says ‘You are here’. And to make this positioning of the self implies a thinking through of one’s relationships. A map requires that we orient ourselves. We start to look at a map and we are already asking ‘Where do I exist in this space?’ and ‘Can I exist in this space?’ And to ask these questions is also, of course, to ask ‘Where and how do I exist now?’ Maps therefore become places of identity. Finally, a map is a place where multiple perspectives are possible. To draw a map becomes, then, an ambiguous if not ambivalent process: it resists an absolute set of values but at the same time it suggests or even enacts a process of revaluation.
It is this multiple mapping that is at work in ‘Mappamundi’ by the Scottish poet W. N. Herbert. The poem is, I would argue, emblematic of the self-conscious decentering that occurred in British poetry between approximately 1980 and 1990. The poem was originally written in 1982 but not published in book form until 1991.(2) It is written in Synthetic or dictionary Scots after the style of MacDiarmid:
oot a poetic map o thi warld.
o land ur penntit reid tae shaw
In this scenario Eh’m a bittern stoarm aff Ulm.
At first sight, the poem satirises English internal cultural imperialism and English ideas about the world at large and rebuts them by being written in Scots.(3) The title of the poem invokes the medieval Mappamundi in Hereford Cathedral and therefore makes clear that the subject of the poem is a view of the world which, like that particular map, is based on disproportion and fantasy. The first and last lines of the poem are set apart from the main body of the text and a direct relation is therefore implied between them. The last line seems to enact a resigned acceptance of cultural marginalisation. But I would argue that something more complex is happening here. After all, to have worked out the poetic map of the world described in the poem is no great feat; such a map, it might be argued, is obvious to anyone within the British Isles and particularly to those in the supposed cultural and political hinterlands. What the poem engages with is the ludicrously arbitrary nature of English cultural constructions and, by extension, the unlikelihood of cultural or indeed any other consensus. How, the poem seems to asking, can the supposed Anglo-Saxon centre be satisfying to anyone? In this sense, Herbert’s poem makes a similar point to that made by Douglas Dunn in an interview with Bernard O’Donoghue. In response to the question ‘Isn’t there some irresponsibility in dismissing British Society as "rubbish" or "boring" [...] ?’ Dunn replies
The last line of ‘Mappamundi’ makes clear that what Herbert’s map reveals is only one way of looking at the world of poetry. It is a ‘scenario’, that is an outline, a synopsis or an imagined sequence of events or set of circumstances. By using the term, the poem questions the apparently monolithic authority of English culture and English views. To use the words of the poem, ‘in this scenario’ Herbert’s marginalisation becomes as fictional, as imaginary as English culture and other scenarios become just as likely.
However, I think we can also describe Herbert’s scenario in another way because what ‘Mappamundi’ parodies and questions is not only the forming of a mainstream view of poetry but the forming of the cultural mainstream in the widest sense. It is a question Jacqueline Rose asks explicitly, albeit in the context of translation, in her book States of Fantasy: ‘So, who passes into English? Who decides? And at whose expense? [...] that ‘into English’ is already, again, becoming part of a myth-making process, framing and binding our access to what we like to think of today as a wider, more inclusive literary and cultural world.’ In this sense, Herbert’s map shows what Rose goes on to describe as ‘English literary culture and the worlds it partially and irregularly acknowledges as its own’ (Rose 1996: 22). This is what is mocked by the line ‘Ireland’s bin shuftit tae London’. Herbert has glossed this further in an essay published in 1992:
(Herbert 1992: 7)
In the light of these remarks, Herbert’s last line becomes extremely problematic. At first sight, it appears to be asking to be read as a resistance of domestication or neutralisation. It suggests that poets originating from or based in the areas that ‘England knows nothing about’ are not going to waste time opening an argument with that nation and its ignorance. However, it seems just as likely that signalling that there is an argument with the mainstream might also be the first step towards assimilation. Herbert’s identification of himself as ‘a bittern stoarm aff Ulm’ participates in a hierarchial argument. Ulm is at once a decentering which acts to re-centre the poet, albeit in a rather self-pitying manner. Similarly, it remains unclear whether it is the English poetry establishment or the poet himself who sees his location ‘aff Ulm’ as comically remote. Herbert’s location of himself ‘aff Ulm’ works to reorder a hierarchy rather than dissolve it. Why should we be interested where he ‘is’ at all? The last line of ‘Mappamundi’ suggests that we are interested since it answers an implied question and tells us whether we want to know or not. ‘Mappamundi’ is not resisting domestication but, rather, enacting how resistance becomes domesticated. In this context, it is interesting to note Sean O’Brien’s comment about Simon Armitage which articulates a prevalent view that could be applied to large areas of recent writing. O’Brien argues that his work,
(O'Brien 1992: 62)
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:
(Middleton 1993: 108)
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 (Heaney 1972: 27; Harrison 1987: 122-3). 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 Herbert’s 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’ (MacNeice 1941: 52). 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. (4) 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’ (1989). 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’ (PN Review 1993: 1). 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)’ (1989/90: 3). 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.(5) 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’ (Poetry Review 1991: 3). 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’ (Forbes 1994: 4; 5). 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 (Forbes 1995: 46). 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 an issue devoted to ‘New Women Poets’ Forbes observes that while, collectively, their work exhibits ‘no dominant style, [...] the rise of formalism is noteworthy’ (Forbes 1996/7: 3).
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 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.(6) 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’ (Forbes 1995: 47). 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 (Forbes 1996: 6).
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’ (Kumar 1995: 190). 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.
I am indebted to Richard Price, Peter Riley and members of the Sheffield Hallam University Research Seminar for comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
1. One could, perhaps, go further, and argue that maps and mapping have actually become a cliche of both postmodern primary texts and commentary on them. (Back)
2. First published in book form in W. N. Herbert, Anither Music (Vennel Press, 1991), p.1. I quote the version that is printed in Forked Tongue (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994). Quoted by permission of Bloodaxe Books. (Back)
3. The following argument draws on but reworks material in my book New Relations: The Refashioning of British Poetry 1980-1994 (1996), pp.19-20. (Back)
4. See chapter 8, '"Everyone Agrees" or How British Poetry Joined the Culture Club' (Kennedy 1996). (Back)
5. I should point out that I am well aware that many find McGuckian's work 'obscure' or 'difficult'. My point is not that it is easy to understand but that it is, like the other poetries in Eagleton's list, easy to consume prosodically. (Back)
6. A book such as the massive Norton Anthology Postmodern American Poetry, ed. by Paul Hoover (1994) would be unthinkable in Britain from a mainstream publisher. (Back)
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