What’s so funny about beefs, bad blood, and misunderstanding?: The Fear of Factions in Contemporary UK Poetry

A paper given at the conference, New Generation to Next Generation 2014: Three Decades of British and Irish Poetry, held at the Institute of English Studies, Senate House, London, 13-14 March 2015.

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An End of Movements

With her 2012 book, Beyond the Lyric, Fiona Sampson presumes to draw what her subtitle calls ‘a map of contemporary British poetry’. The book’s method is made more scientific in the introduction, where Sampson proposes ‘a quasi-Linnaean classification of poets’. ‘By observing poems and grouping them according to type,’ the book ‘identifies thirteen tendencies (or species) in contemporary British poetry.’ Beyond the Lyric had a fair drubbing in reviews; and, perhaps predictably, many critics focused on the logic of Sampson’s taxonomy or her suitability for the task. I want to consider a more slippery issue raised by its generally negative wider reception, which draws out what seems to me to be a more general unease around divisions in British poetry.

I’m wary that many of you might immediately be thinking that you, personally, have no such ‘fear of factions,’ as my subtitle puts it. Maybe you’re already counting on mental fingers all sorts of groups, movements, schools, or coteries you either belong to or resent, but certainly don’t fear as indisputable features of this country’s poetry landscape. Yet, maybe others of you would admit to a certain discomfort. Perhaps you feel, like many of the poets filling out questionnaires for the first New Generation list, that ‘talk of movements should be discouraged.’ Michael Donaghy added to his response, ‘Yes, “Movements” are dreamt up by publicists to help us sell poetry or by journalists and academic bores to help us understand it.’ Perhaps you agree. Perhaps you feel, that as a ‘community’, we’ve grown beyond the historical pettiness of ‘movements’, or that the ideas of movements and a single poetry community are essentially antithetical. Sampson does what she can to square this circle in Beyond the Lyric, following her delineation of ‘thirteen species’ with an afterword insisting upon the cooperation of ‘a mutually respectful community’, in which a ‘multiplicity of influences’ is cause for celebration, not rivalry. I’d suggest the New and Next Generations do it better. There’s no irony in Donaghy’s anti-movementism because, if anything, his own New Generation is a kind of anti-movement, celebrating individual achievement, celebrating diversity itself, above the rivalry of separatist factions. Maybe it’s unfair of me to call that ‘fear’, when it seems so rational.

Then let me revise my premise. A more tempered argument might be that this post-movement community consensus, in which the Generations project plays a key role, has a history. I mean this both in the sense that its rhetoric has certain origins and, I’ll offer tentatively, that its dominance may be waning. If you’ll forgive me playing the wide-eyed American, I’ll start with a story: Coming to the UK, thirteen years ago, I couldn’t help wonder at the apparent solidarity of the British poetry community. Unlike the formidably diffuse American landscape, it seemed everyone not only knew everyone, but was relatively tolerant of differences in practice. Even when, at that time, I’d read someone like Keston Sutherland denouncing Don Paterson or vice versa, these ill-mannered exceptions only proved the rule of etiquette. Part of what may have doomed Sampson’s map is that the wide central channel of contemporary British poetry culture regards such categorisation as vulgar.

A History of Violence

The second thing I noticed is that the rhetoric of consensus was often accompanied by vague references to a less congenial time, safely in the past now. In their 1993 anthology, The New Poetry, Michael Hulse, David Kennedy, and David Morley define their generation by such progress:

The new poetry highlights the beginning of the end of British poetry’s tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness – its constituent parts “talk” to one another readily, eloquently, and freely while preserving their unique identities.

A decade later, David Herd and Robert Potts, who edited Poetry Review just before Sampson, speak similarly of a bygone age when ‘the categories according to which the territory was divided, the short-hand by which British poetry was routinely assessed had come to be damaging.’ The sentiment persists in Roddy Lumsden’s introduction to Identity Parade (2010), which he describes as ‘inclusive’ and the generation included as ‘a more harmonious one’. He writes: ‘This might well be the generation of poets least driven by movements, fashions, conceptual and stylistic sharing.’ I read such things and can’t help wonder, honestly, how you did it. It’s partly an historical question: What was the peace process that delivered such harmony? And it’s partly a question for now: How, I have to ask, is the consensus implied by such statements enforced? So I’ll focus this afternoon on the role of the New and Next Generation campaigns and the broader mood of generationalism they inspired, in both the achievement and maintenance of that accord.

First, I knew, any search for the terms of reconciliation required a clearer sense of the dark past than the comments above allow. The vagueness with which that past is invoked seems typical of post-conflict psychology: For those who remember, it doesn’t bear repeating. For those too young, be grateful. Why re-open old wounds? As Alan Brownjohn put it in 2007: ‘Nowadays, unless you speak to a few scarred survivors, you might not realise that the Poetry Society “wars” of the 1970s ever happened.’ Brownjohn’s occasion for breaking the silence was a review of Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars – a book which, thirty years after the event, presents the so-called ‘Battle of Earls Court’ with the sort of archival detail and implicit nostalgia for which another sort of man might turn to the latest account of Stalingrad. I’m sure I don’t need to recount the whole sordid history here. Suffice it to say, once upon a time, the ‘radicals’ found themselves in charge of the Poetry Society, then lost it back to the ‘conservatives’ – though in such a way that, according to Barry, both sides really lost, in the end. The ‘two tribes’, as he calls them, ‘had both been superseded’ by the end of the 1980s, by which time a hybrid approach had become the new ‘hegemony’. ‘In that sense,’ Barry concludes upbeatly, ‘we are now in a “post-dualist” poetry world.’

A Free Market Future

This ‘Third Way’ proposition seems consistent with Lumsden’s or Hulse, Kennedy, and Morley’s sentiments, and chimes with Ian Gregson’s notion of ‘cross-fertilisation’ (1996) or a more general emphasis on hybridity. Linda France, in Sixty Women Poets (published simultaneously with The New Poetry in 1993), also sees an ‘active, constructive dialectic’ at work:

What is new here is that these opposing forces are seen as co-existing, part of the same whole; as if duality has been exposed as yet another inherited out-worn tradition, used too frequently to divide rather than to unite.

This, then, is the reconciliatory context in which the first Generation list was conceived and announced. That said, very little of the official language around the project is explicitly reparative. Dismissing what he regards as ‘journalistic clichés of the new pluralism’, Peter Forbes, in that Spring 1994 special issue of Poetry Review, suggests that the ‘wilful individuality’ of the 20 New Gen poets might be ‘the true plurality’. Elsewhere in his editorial, Forbes extends this paradoxical definition of a group whose ‘isolation and intensity’ responded to the wider ‘social atomization’ of the 1980s. He also anticipates Barry’s historical optimism, labelling the New Gen poets ‘the true fruits of postmodernism’, with ‘all cultures … now available to add to [their] own inheritance’. The world was their post-tribal oyster. Curiously, in an essay in that same special issue, New Gen poet Sarah Maguire already raises concerns about this particular brand of ‘postmodernism’:

The unbridled relativism of certain aspects of postmodernism strikes me as being deeply reactionary, the free-play of signifiers having more in common with the so-called “free” trade and the free-play of money markets than its promulgators would perhaps like us to believe.

In an important sense, the ‘unbridled relativism’ suggested by Forbes’ sense of ‘all cultures’ being open to appropriation goes beyond the post-dualist hybridity suggested by Gregson’s ‘cross-fertilization’ or France’s ‘constructive dialectic’. In this regard, the British poetry industry’s adoption of language from broader neoliberal triumphalism in the 1990s is perhaps best and most unapologetically symbolised by Sean O’Brien’s ‘deregulated muse’, in his 1998 book. Through such rhetoric, the advancement of free market poetics toes a fairly consistent line from the ‘wilful individuality’ Forbes celebrated in 1994 to Identity Parade (2010), both in its titular metaphor and in Lumsden’s praise for ‘the essential individualism which I see in this generation’.

‘Generation’

In an essay published last year in B O D Y, I wrote about a wider trend of generationalism in British poetry, clearly inspired by the New/Next Generations, and of which Identity Parade is one of many satellite generational surveys over the past twenty years. Where the 1994 New Gen list coincided with Bloodaxe’s The New Poetry and Sixty Women Poets, as well as the launch of Carcanet’s New Poetries, since 2009, we’ve had Bloodaxe’s Voice Recognition and Identity Parade, Salt’s Book of Younger Poets, Oxfam’s Lung Jazz, Bloodaxe’s Dear World & Everyone In It, and last year’s CAST: The Poetry Business Book of New Contemporary Poets, all providing generational group portraits more or less annually. The 2014 Next Generation promoters might feel they’re now competing with the project’s own influence. Without repeating myself too much, my previous argument related this poetic ‘generationalism’ (borrowing the term from historian Robert Wohl) to its wider political impetus. This included right-wing agendas in the US and UK, and the sociologist Jonathan White’s suggestion that ‘generationalism may be one of the many ways politics increasingly resembles a marketing exercise.’ But I concluded with an emphasis on how, according to White, the category of a generation ‘risk[s] projecting undue uniformity onto the social world’. White’s critique centres on the extent to which

those assigned to [a generation] are especially powerless before whatever public connotations that category may acquire, and limited in their ability to take distance from claims made on their behalf.

I now think that argument wants tweaking. The problems of power when assigning individuals to a category, either by anthology editors or a panel of judges, are still clear enough. But any attempt to pin down specific ‘claims’ or ‘connotations’ made on behalf of or acquired by the New and Next Generation poets proves frustrating. New Gen poet Simon Armitage acknowledges the ambiguity of rhetoric around the project, in his introduction to the 2004 Next Generation list, which he judged:

We’d had the Movement, we’d had the Group. We’d even had the Martians. Now, a new clutch was ready to hatch… The New Generation was underpinned by literary and philosophical ideas. Allegedly. … We were a School. We had things to say, we were good at saying them, and we wanted to be heard. That, if I remember rightly, was how the argument ran.

It’s hard to say whether Armitage is remembering rightly, since this idea about the New Generation being a cohesive ‘School’ runs so contrary to the Poetry Society’s language, and to that ‘deregulated’ individualism championed throughout the 90s. But whether or not it’s a straw man, Armitage is plainly dubious, and in that way, supports the company line. He also adds that ‘the Next Generation [2004] promotion doesn’t make such claims about its delegates. As I understand things, it’s more of a celebration.’

What has become clearer is that, rather than ‘projecting undue uniformity’ or imposing a specific group identity on these poets, the generation category does the opposite. The strategic beauty of the ‘generation’ is that it doesn’t mean anything. In the Guardian last week (1 March), Catherine Bennett took the Conservatives to task for what she calls ‘generationist’ rhetoric, which employs ‘typecasting’ and a narrative of ‘generational conflict’ to mask a divisive economic agenda. I don’t think the same can be said for these poetry generations, which go out of their way to avoid typecasting, or any kind of group descriptions. Of last year’s Next Generation list, which officially recognises the ‘most exciting’ poets, judges chair Ian McMillan summarises ‘an exhilarating mix of style and subject, reflecting a truly diverse range of voices’. Judge Clare Pollard adds only that the Next Generation 2014 poets tend to write a lot of sequences. With the nearly 40-year age gap between the oldest and youngest poets on the latest list, the ‘generation’ proves the ultimate non-category category, operating in that regard as the ultimate buffer against any dark tribalism that might otherwise resurface.

End of Consensus?

There appear to be two ways of viewing the presumed consensus which this generationalism facilitates. Alan Brownjohn reads Barry’s Poetry Wars as a ‘warning’. ‘Few on either side could be proud of their part in the ferocious struggles,’ he writes, as a veteran of what Barry calls the ‘conservative’ side:

Altogether it was a sorry period. It can only be hoped that Peter Barry is right in believing that modernist poetry now has its fair chance; and presumably doesn’t need to storm frail citadels like the Poetry Society.

Thank goodness, in other words, we’ve achieved such peace, where everyone can have their ‘fair chance’. Robert Sheppard offers another view of this post-war togetherness in his review of the same book in Jacket. From his perspective, as a veteran of the other side in Barry’s account:

The chorus of democratic poeticality that seems to dominate several fin de siècle British anthologies promotes a broad church that includes everybody but the ‘radicals’ and their heirs.

But even Sheppard ends his review with a strange echo and agreement with Brownjohn’s hopeful sentiments, saying, ‘I hope [Andrew] Motion’s words [in the foreword to Barry’s book] prove true … One can only hope that, with the Laureate leading the chorus this time, a true plurality will emerge.’ Sheppard may have a point about those overlooked by the Post-Gen consensus, or what Keith Tuma describes as ‘a cynical but certainly in the short term successful exercise in the imposition of a cultural hegemony for the times’. But I want to finish by considering whether that time is up.

On the surface, Sampson’s and the New/Next Generation’s strategies for defending the consensus seem opposed, with Sampson’s taxonomy apparently cutting across generationalist discourse. Nevertheless, in their commitment to a ‘community’ of individual achievement, over collective action or factions, I’d suggest they share what David Wheatley sees in Sampson’s book as a failure to acknowledge ‘the possibility of conflict between rival groups and generations as a driver of poetic history, let alone conflict within groups and generations.’ They also share a curiously specific tactic for establishing their pluralistic authority at their outset. Sampson lays out her credentials as objective and disinterested mapmaker by contrasting herself with Ian Hamilton, which might seem pettier, more than a decade after his death, if it weren’t for the specific language with which she condemns Hamilton to a bygone era of ‘literary patronage’. In this, she may as well have quoted directly from her Poetry Review predecessor, Peter Forbes, in his New Generation editorial. Forbes also describes Hamilton’s ‘chain-letter’ method for compiling the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry as the ‘last gasp’ of an out-dated ‘system of patronage’.

If this is the sort of partisanship which the new consensus cannot abide, what daring or foolishness it must have taken for Nathan Hamilton to confess to adapting his uncle’s method in editing 2013’s Dear World & Everyone In It. And Nathan Hamilton is nothing if not upfront about his own biases, as he skewers some of the new consensus’s sacred truths:

It is impossible, and silly to pretend, to be comprehensive or impartial … It is impossible to be comprehensive in representing the amount and the variety of activity in the poetry scene. Conversely, it is impossible to be impartial in a world this small, where many of the individual poets will be known to you and a number of them may be friends you don’t want to make sad.

Although Hamilton teasingly echoes the dominant discourse at one point, wondering aloud whether ‘categorising poetry is just a bad idea’, it doesn’t stop him from playfully comparing different poets to different Star Trek species, wondering if poetry could be described in terms of colour groupings, and finally, and perhaps more earnestly, advancing a distinction between poets more concerned with ‘product’ vs. ‘process’. But maybe a better indicator that the enforced consensus may have outlived its usefulness is in the sense that the 2014 Next Generation’s pluralistic reach may have exceeded its grasp. Of course, it’s hardly a failure of that list’s promotion that the biggest hook for all major media outlets was its inclusion of ‘performance poet’, Kate Tempest. But I would argue that this demonstrates a promising failure to absorb a meaningful and practical difference into a notional consensus. It’s just one example, but I’m encouraged by these and other noises of productive difference re-entering discussions around British poetry, without fear of what it might mean for the ‘frail citadel’.

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