Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Its Chief Weapon is Excess": Chris Hamilton-Emery on Cambridge Poetry

Many a keyboard has been tapped, and many an email sent zipping across the Atlantic, inspired by the recent one-two punch combo of the Cambridge Literary Review's special feature on Cambridge Poetry and Kent Johnson's post on the "New British School" over at Digital Emunction (a site directed by Bobby Baird and others affiliated with the Chicago Review, the American journal most closely associated with experimental British poetry from the Cambridge-connected crowd).

One of the more interesting and informed comments I've seen comes from Chris Hamilton-Emery who, as the head of Salt publishing, has been well-positioned to watch developments in this kind of poetry, especially over the past couple of decades. His comment, from a discussion list I don't normally follow, came to my attention via Kent Johnson, and Chris was kind enough to let me reproduce it here. I've wedged my own comments in here and there. Here's Chris:

I think there is a need for a more general assessment of the poetries emerging from the British avant-​garde scene. I’ve published a great deal of course, and there’s certainly enough evidence for a reassesment of what was going on Cambridge in the 90s. It’s too highly coloured with Divisionist ideology to get a clear picture from outside.

I'm not quite sure how to feel about this.

Chris is certainly right that the time has come to try to get a handle on just what has been happening. The British experimental crowd for whom Cambridge serves as a center of gravity has been one of the most vital and interesting things going on in the U.K. for some time, and it hasn't really had much of an assessment. Even the degree to which it is correct to call it Cambridge Poetry hasn't been determined, although I've got a feeling the name will stick, despite how unhappy everyone is going to be with it. I mean, that's what happened with Language Poetry, and with New Criticism, and with Dada, and with just about everything: the borders of the movement, the essential features or debates, the list of who's who — these things are never defined to anyone's satisfaction, but the alternative ("let us not speak of this, lest we exclude someone or misrepresent the truth") seems unsatisfactory, too. I, for one, am going to stick with the monicker unless and until something better emerges, though I'm cognizant that there are people connected to the aesthetic and community in question who have no Cambridge affiliation (to the town or to the gown), and that there are several overlapping kinds of poetry involved. Anyway, to reiterate: I'm sure Chris is right: now is a good time to try to assess just what it is that's been happening.

I'm not entirely sure Chris is right about the place from which a clear picture is going to emerge, though. When Cambridge poetry has been described, it's usually been from either a position of hostility, or from a position of advocacy, with the advocacy emerging from inside the movement (actually, some of the hostility has come from within, too). People on the inside have the advantage of knowing the terrain intimately, but often there is something like a kind of true-believer's apologetics at work in their descriptions. I suppose I'm not speaking without a little apologetic of my own here: I'm very much outside the Cambridge scene, and I've tried to describe and understand it as neither an enemy nor an advocate. So maybe my sense that what's needed is an attempt at disinterest or objectivity (perspectives never entirely obtainable, but approachable by degrees) is itself self-interested. But I do hope for a better critic than I to step in from outside and survey the terrain as dispassionately and comprehensively as possible. Which would probably just tick off some people, who would find such a survey either insufficiently for, or insufficiently against, the poetry in question. Anyway, back to Chris:

It [the poetry] is properly underground but has really very striking uptake with US universities, certainly Buffalo, Miami (OH), UPenn, but much much wider than this.

Very true! A few key personalities are important at the institutions Chris mentions (Steve McCaffery and others at Buffalo, Keith Tuma at Miami of Ohio, Al Filreis at Penn). I'd add the University of Chicago to the list, primarily because of the graduate students who run the Chicago Review (Bobby Baird, Josh Kotin, others). But in the end I don't think it's just a matter of personal interests: the same logic that brought Language Poetry into the American academy seem to be at play: the poetry demands the kind of interpretive effort academe encourages, and the poetry has affinities with poststructural and Frankfurt School cultural theory — things that have found an American home in the university English departments. It's also good dissertation fodder: you can prove your sophistication by digging into the arcane and the difficult. Also, the poetry often has a kind of anti-marketplace ideology (Chris will mention this soon), an ideology flattering to the penniless graduate student learning the unmarketable skills of literary analysis. I mean, it's all very affirming to the kind of person you'll find studying poetry and theory in a literature department. Which is neither here nor there, in terms of the importance of the work. Once again, back to Chris:

But those US allegiances are misleading as I think the British avant-​garde have to be read from the peculiar social and cultural framework of the British 60s. We never had a 1968 moment. The political content of much 90s British avant-​garde writing has its origins in a liberation from post-​War thrift and limitation, it derives its thrust from a cultural exuberance not a political fracture or civil rights revolution. It’s politics are received. You can’t of course have a politics with out a polity.

This is the part of Chris' post I find most confusing. I mean, I do think it would make sense for exuberance to emerge after a climate of scarcity — but the fuse on this exuberance bomb seems too long. Can we really see the developments of the 90s as a delayed reaction to the scarcity of the British 50s? Or perhaps I'm misreading Chris. Perhaps he means that the work by Jeremy Prynne and Tom Raworth and others back in the 60s came about as part of the liberation from postwar scarcity, and that this work inspired what was done in the 90s. I can get behind that.

I find the final sentence intriguing — "You can't of course have a politics without a polity." This raises the issue that has most fascinated me about some strands of Cambridge Poetry: the question of political ambition and lack of political effect. But Chris touches on all this soon, so I'll shut up and let him get on with things:

There are two aspects I find fascinating, the first is nostalgia. A great deal of British avant-​garde writing is deeply nostalgic and utopian, and that’s partly I suspect a feature that it has yet to be properly assessed, digested, positioned, it’s been locked out of cultural debate and a history of poetics in the UK due in part to the Poetry Wars and their legacy. It’s almost as if we can imagine a poetry purgatory, not Dante’s but a kind of limbo where much of this writing has not been assimilated into a wider history of British poetry. It’s stuck but not of its own accord.

I, too, am waiting for someone to lay out the exact nature of the nostalgia and utopianism at work in the poetry, though I suspect it's a kind of negative utopia, like Adorno's, one that can't be named, or that would disintigrate if named (a kind of "if you see the Buddha in the road, kill him" ideal, in which the utopian can't be embodied without being desecrated, but in which the utopian aspiration must nevertheless be maintained).

With regard to Chris' second point above, that the poetry has been left outside of the wider history of British poetry against its will, I'm ambivalent. There sure are editors, scholars, and academics who want nothing to do with the stuff, don't like it, and suspect that it's all a matter of the emperor's new clothes (as some small percentage of it surely is). But I think there's been a reciprocal rejection: just as the many have decided to ignore this kind of writing, there has been a rejection of mainstream publication and even critical attention by some people inside the movement. The history of Prynne's publishing career is the most prominent example: he deliberately left major presses behind, and chose not to accept offers of prominent journal publication (Peter Barry's study Poetry Wars documents some of this). I suppose much of this is a matter of Prynne's very private personality, and some of it is a matter of anti-market ideology, which Chris is about to describe:

And the second thing I find fascinating is what I call Liberation Poetics, the idea that poetry has been enslaved in some consumerist conspiracy, and that leads to a kind of messianic quality in some work, and, as I’ve remarked before, a lot in Keston [Sutherland]’s. This kind of poetry needs to be outside, needs to be oppressed and needs to be secret. It can’t accommodate or mediate as it relies on an extreme position and in many respects requires converts and acolytes, neophytes and indeed some Grand Masters. It’s religious in effect. One has to believe. Though a key feature of the dogma is to express doubt, uncertainty and incompleteness, just as it embraces process over product, openness over closure and radicalism over restraint. Its chief weapon is excess. And of course it is oppositional.

All of this makes for a fascinating landscape. But it’s one that can feel like entering a sect, even for an afternoon of mysterious indoctrination. It is however, filled with great and yes, serious, art.

I'd hate to reduce the Cambridge phenomenon, in all its diversity, to a cult. But there is something of that about it: Prynne, like F.R. Leavis, (or, at the other end of the poetic spectrum, like Yvor Winters) does seem to have a taste for disciples, a weakness that should not reduce our sense of his achievement. And we shouldn't ignore this, nor the role it has played in Cambridge poetry's status as a poetic counter-culture, rather than a position in more open engagement with the broader poetic culture. Of course it'd be nice if more critics who took Seamus Heaney seriously also took Tom Raworth seriously. Such figures seem in particularly short supply.


  1. Keston Sutherland5:24 PM

    I wonder what Chris means by "messianic", and between which lines in my poetry he thinks the messiahs are hiding out? I'd be excited to find them there, the scoundrels, but I have to admit, I wouldn't know what shape of thing to look for. Do they have beaks? Blowholes? Any profiling tips?

    It doesn't seem at all paranoid, to me, to think that its relation to consumerism and consumption is an important fact about poetry, and that poetry ought to have something to say about that relation. No major poet in the English or French traditions has ever failed to do that. The truly cultic and crackpot sectarian attitude is not vigilance in the face of hype and consumerism, but the trance of abject affability and egomaniacal unconcern about consumerism that so many poets wander into so that they can get published and have their author photos done. You don't need to be in drag as a priest to see that. Just stick your head into the Poetry Society Cafe in London, it's asphyxiating.

    The poets who are least upset by marketization seem in my experience always to be the most insecure, networky and narcissistic. Though of course "healthy" etc. I don't know if that's been Chris's experience. Once you understand that you don't write in order to be loved and admired and famous (gimme that breast back), the compromises are much easier to read.

    Waving my censer and chanting,


  2. Keston Sutherland5:38 PM

    Sorry, another thing. If Chris means by "outside" that the poetry is not in bookshops or on school curricula or reviewed in the TLS, then fine, he's right, it isn't. But it just isn't right to say that this poetry doesn't bid to occupy whatever cultural ground it can get. I mean, there's no conspiracy to stay out of public places. I sent _Hot White Andy_ and _Stress Position_ to Faber. They rejected _HWA_ with a printed postcard with some generic message on it, not their sort of thing thank you, and they never responded to _SP_ (which bothered me, I admit, because I was hoping to get together a little collection of rejection postcards from them).

    In any case, I reckon our best-selling books at Barque could compete even saleswise with the majority of the lists of the mainstream publishers in the UK. The simple difference between our list and lots of others is that we never for a single moment in fifteen years ever once considered whether anyone we publish is saleable or not. We publish poetry because we think it's good or promising or important. If you're published by us, you know that's the reason. Your looks, age, trendiness, ethnic or sexual identity, famousness, willingness to hustle and do launch readings -- none of that matters at all. That makes us a sect, right?

    Love, K

  3. This isn't the first time someone's mentioned to me that there's a different attitude out there now about getting the work into a more public sphere -- that the kind of privacy Prynne seems to have cultivated after his first book is in abeyance. So I'm perfectly willing to believe that things have changed. In fact, I'm glad to hear it.

    As for "messianic" -- I think I first heard that word in this context from Eirik Steinhoff, when he was involved with the Chicago Review. I've used it myself. Maybe it's not the best of terms. In fact, Chris' other term, "Liberation Poetics," may be a better way of getting at the political ambitions involved. Or maybe "negative utopianism" is the way to discuss these things. I mean, there's a kind of large-scale political critique at work in much of the poetry, and an attendant point of view, something bigger than a criticism of particular policies. And it's good to have a way to talk about it.

    Also, I think we (you, me, Chris) agree in thinking I there's nothing wrong with thinking-through issues of market and commodification. I've been trying to work through the history of poetry and the marketplace (and their various rejections of one another) for a few years now.

    As for the cult of personality thing around Prynne -- I think you've commented on it yourself, Keston (and if I remember, were critical of it). I don't think it's the only important thing to discuss, and I don't think everyone's been touched by it. But it's real enough, or has been real enough, hasn't it? For better and for worse, I suppose.

    I guess I don't see Chris' comments as an attack on Cambridge at all. It may be that the history of animosity and rejection (as you say, the TLS doesn't take the work seriously) colors things in ways I just don't see, or maybe I'm wrong in reading your comments as a bit defensive. Anyway, I think it'd be hard to make a case that Chris has not been supportive over the years.



  4. Keston Sutherland6:32 PM

    Hi Bob,

    I'm not attacking Chris, I'm just startled by the weird vignette of cults, sects, mysteries, conspiracies, messianism, contrived suffering, programmatic self-exclusion, etc. Things might be more exciting if any of that were true, but the reality is that most of the people on Kent's list are outgoing, public poets, happy to see their work in print and as widely distributed as possible, happy to be on You Tube, and full of rationalistic, godless good cheer about giving poetry readings (in fact many of the poets on that list regularly read to crowds much larger and much more enthusiastic than many of the "better" published but derivate, boring and careerist middlebrow poets so much in vogue over at Poetryetc. And for good reason. Peter Manson's readings make Seamus Heaney's readings sound like the schoolteacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons).

    If anyone's obnubilated in incense and ectoplasm it's people like Fiona Sampson, the editor of the once again wretchedly conservative and dull _Poetry Review_.

    Only making things worse,


  5. Some of Prynne's behavior over the years, and some of the reaction to it, does kind of look that way from a distance (disciple-having, publicity-rejecting). We'll probably never see eye to eye on that, but maybe we can agree that the man does seem to inspire something a little stronger than mere admiration.

    I think the thing that first drew me to have a look at these things was the strange resemblance to Winters and his crowd, which I'd been writing about.

    I'm not sure this is bad. I'm not convinced it's wrong about some of the things in the past. I'm happy to be told it looks different from where you are, and believe it needn't be the way things go in the future.

    I've only heard Manson read once, and Heaney twice, and didn't think either of them sounded like one of Charlie Brown's teachers. I did, however, sound like that at a reading myself once. I blame the flu and the whiskey.


  6. Keston Sutherland6:52 PM

    Hi Bob --

    "Of course it'd be nice if more critics who took Seamus Heaney seriously also took Tom Raworth seriously."



  7. Good question! You know, in that it keeps me honest.

    I suppose my answer would be something like:

    "Because it'd be good to hear what someone whose inclinations or history as a reader have led him or her in other directions has to say about Raworth. For example, one would probably see, in such a person's reading, different things than one habitually sees, or than have been seen by people who admire Raworth but not Heaney."

    Or how about:

    "Because what happened in the early 20th century in New Orleans — when people with a different musical heritage than that for which European instruments like the trumpet and the piano had been produced got there hands on those instruments and did different things with them — was an intriguing and ultimately very positive thing."

    I could go with either of those statements. And it'd probably do the critic some good, too, to have to grapple with things he or she didn't habitually read.


  8. Keston Sutherland5:27 AM

    Thanks for the reply Bob. I see what you mean, but I must say I remain sceptical that taking both Raworth and Heaney seriously, whatever that may mean, could amount to the sort of fabulous hybridization at the origins of jazz, or even that it would much advance our understanding of Raworth. The thing is, we're not just talking about two poets, each with his style and his thinking, in either of whose work value can be found, etc. That way of talking has a friendly eclectic ring, nice tones of tolerance, but it's deceptive to the extent that it obscures what is the primary and most obvious fact for most readers, namely that "Heaney" is by this point practically an armrest of the state apparatus, a gigantic administrative mugshot, whereas Raworth continues to be what he always was, not a bust in alabaster with a sinecure at Harvard for ramming down the necks of schoolchildren and proclaiming Irishness but a poet freely and excitedly exploring the furthest reaches of what can be done in our living language. Raworth is entirely uninfluenced, so far as I at least can make out, by his success as a poet: he still publishes in little journals and little presses, still does readings for free (so you can hear him at a pub -- he doesn't have to be hosted by a grand U.S. university with 30,000 dollars to pay him for his 40 minutes), he's the warmest and least bullshitting imaginable friend to young poets, whoever they are, -- the list of differences could easily spiral on. Is it really a form of cultic outsiderism to think that all these differences matter, and that the idea of "the poetry itself" is an ideological mirage to the degree that its context is pushed out of view?

    The other problem of course is that the critics who might take seriously one poet or another or both are, most of them, paid thinkers, professional commentators on poetry, the logic of whose institutional setting makes exactly that sort of eclecticism profitable. You win job points by it. I've talked to editors at UK university presses who say that they wouldn't consider a proposal for a book on Prynne, or on UK avant garde poetry generally, but they'd be interested in one that stepped back and made a not overly judgmental sociological survey of the scene as a whole, drawing parallels and exposing the strcutures of attitudes and motivations etc. Interesting work probably, and anyone can see how it could be done; but the important thing from my point of view is that the book on Prynne will not be published unless its author is prepared to do exactly what you're suggesting: why not think about Prynne *and* Heaney, Prynne *and* Andrew Motion? I don't see why we shouldn't skip the foreplay and just publish a metacritique on Prynne and academic textbook market penetration.

    Anyhow, off to my institution!

    Very best, K

    (Hope your leg gets better soon)

  9. Hey K,

    Sorry, I must've been unclear. I'm not against single-author studies. I mean, I'd love to see your doctoral dissertation on Prynne as a book. I'd also like to see what a guy like, say, James Longenbach would have to say at length about Prynne. (Why? Because I'm not sure what he'd come up with, and it would be good to see a fine mind like his, coming from an odd angle, approach the work).

    As for the undeniable fact of the Heaney Industry -- I take your point. But I don't see how this would mean that it would be bad for people who spend a lot of time reading and writing about Heaney to make get engaged with Raworth's work which is really what I'm advocating here.

    I'm not quite sure why you're so reluctant to see such an interest. Maybe you aren't, maybe I'm getting it wrong.

    But since you asked about the impression some people get of Cambridge as insular or cult-like -- I think this seeming (and it may just be seeming, but it is at least that) resistance to the idea of being studied from outside, or from a position other than advocacy, or along with other things, is part of what gives that impression.

    Also heading off to my institution,


  10. "a not overly judgmental sociological survey of the scene as a whole, drawing parallels and exposing the strcutures of attitudes and motivations etc."

    "I don't see why we shouldn't skip the foreplay and just publish a metacritique on Prynne and academic textbook market penetration."

    I'd like to see both of these books. I'm not sure how the one is foreplay for the other, or less important.

    I also think both would have a hard time finding a publisher, especially the second, now that publishers are frightened of losing money. I agree that publishing conditions are sub-optimal.

    Kerridge and Reeve did manage to get their Prynne book out, though, so all is not hopeless.

    As for eclectisim and job-points -- maybe. But most of the pressure from institutions seems to be to find a specialization and to stay there. Maybe that's an American university thing.


  11. Here's something new from Chris, over in the comments thread at:

    Might be of interest here....


    Author: Chris Hamilton-Emery
    I'm not quite sure I was personally declaring K as the Messiah, though I have shaved my tonsure especially to consider this. Hi, K!

    Cambridge poetry can have an air of converts and zealots, especially with young boys — it’s mainly a boy’s thing. Lots of concern for secret knowledge, The Truth, saving us from oppression. I was there in the 90s meeting in cellars. It’s unfair to decontextualise K from the wider attempts of the British avant-garde (though it might be *harder* to put him in that context), in fact much of the new experimentation isn’t a Cambridge/Sussex thing at all. There’s a wider historical context for the third generation of Cambridge writing, and I think that K’s generation was the strongest thing to emerge in recent years. I think Cambridge Poetry is an historical term now. Like LANGUAGE, it’s over. Leaving the boys aside for a moment, I think that Brady, Critchley and Morris are equally important in assessing what was going on and its various emanations into a broader cross-fertilization of recent British poetries. Cambridge, after all, is far too insular and largely ins
    titutional. Just like any other industrial centres most of the poetry written by the undergrads was just dire. K always amazed me, because, and I hope this doesn't embarrass our Messiah, he really worked on himself. There was a lot of noise and bluster in the very early work, but what was striking was how K constructed himself. And it worked. He's a lyric writer, I'm not personally interested in the politics, it's the voice that interests me. There's something to be examined in why K has had such uptake in the USA, not much in the UK. What does he represent to the US avant-garde?

    Cambridge poetry has over the years I think had it's moments of self belief. It has its forms of secret knowledge, it has designs upon you, to reveal truths and to impart justice, we all know it had political intentions (how much of that was an emanation from the espionage of the cold war years?), though it was broader than that. It has its own revelations. But considering the religiosity and persecution of one small avant-garde community needs something more considered than I've got time for as a knackered middle aged businessman.

    I suppose one ought to ask, technically, has the British avant-garde succeeded? What is it in front of? Is there a route forward? Where is the centre? The British poetry scene, is remarkably diverse, and that diversity has exploded in the past ten years. That’s less to do with an explosion of new practices (so many practices are old practices) and more the impact of the Web in revealing just what is actually going on. Had always been going on. What seemed at times like a two horse race is suddenly a massive sweepstake.

    Most of the concerns don't really lie around what readers are reading (or in my case buying), but more around resources and ideas of exclusion and exclusivity. Most of the problems around the British poetic landscape aren’t about aesthetics — it’s not a matter of intelligence, it’s mostly an economic problem. It’s an issue of resources, the management of those resources and the impact of government funding of a publishing infrastructure and an infrastructure for managing reception. Much of the British poetry economy is a planned economy. It was never a war over content. It was a war over logistics.

  12. Boris Jardine12:24 PM

    Still wanting the minutes with which to follow up my last on 'the other' Cambridge post, but in the meantime, I think some empirical evidence of the last few days wouldn't go amiss.

    So, talking as we are of the wider world, the CLR has indeed hit the TLS, though the blow was deflected, the CLR stumbled and is winding up a retort:


    The Cambridge Literary Review, No. 1, is a splendid affair. It is 280 pages long, tastefully printed on good paper; the copies are numbered – ours is 514 our of 1,000. It is ludic, as you would expect: Keston Sutherland's impenetrable excursion in prose contains footnotes, one of which explicates "You" as "You" (if you had gone to Cambridge you would get the joke); and it is, of course, "difficult". It even contains an essay, "A History of Difficulty: On Cambridge poetry" by Jeremy Noel-Tod, in which he settles a score with Craig Raine, his Oxford tutor. Raine's problem, according to Noel-Tod, is being insufficiently appreciative of poetry that no one can understand. Cambridge Literary Review has a stack of poetry whose reason for existence is to be difficult:


    and so on for quite a few of the tastefully printed pages. There is a poem by J. H. Prynne – not presented as "A Message from Our Sponsor", though it might as well be – and a portfolio of poems, compiled by Peter Riley, by "a poet about whom neither I nor anyone I have spoken to knows anything", Ray Crump. They were sent to Prynne and Riley in the 1960s, and the author remains a mystery. Is this true? Mr Riley wishes to persuade us that it is – as if we weren't aware that the raison d'ĂȘtre of the Review is to encourage us to challenge anyone's "truth".

    No one will accuse the editors of rootless cosmopolitanism: it is concerned with Cambridge difficulty, the Cambridge Poetry Festival, "Messianic Privacy in Cambridge Poetry". Richard Berengarten writes engagingly about the Festival's beginnings, and Elaine Feinstein offers reminiscences of Prospect. Can she be referring to the monthly journal of politics and current affairs? Of course she can't. She means Prosepect the Cambridge literary magazine of the 1950s. "Occasionally J. H. Prynne looked in on us." Half a century later, he's still doing it.

    (Times Literary Supplement, October 9)


    I'm not quite sure where to start, but the first thing to be said, given the above and other things zipping around right now, is that the willful misrepresentation on offer here is surely symptomatic of a wider desire to keep the denizens of the Eng. Fac. Cam. et al in their place -- the 'Cambridge school' as a useful opposite to the kind of 'accessible' but 'serious' (deadly dull) poetry on offer in the TLS, LRB, etc.

    This relates to the anxiety I expressed in my last post, that too close a focus on the question of whether 'private' can be 'political' risks ignoring the fact that good criticism and theory AND poetry all exist and the priority is surely (pace Barque) just to get things done/out etc. The reason I wanted to think more (and still want to think more) before writing this is that it engages your piece, Rob, very closely indeed, and I think in a fruitful way.

    Ah, ok. Well I want to say more, especially since Chris' post at least gestures towards the kind of historical interpretation that interests me -- and that I liked in "Messianic privacy". But I have to run. I also desperately want to take up all the claims in that review. Only one brain two hands and all that though...


  13. Thanks for this, Boris!

    I agree with your take on the TLS description of things.

    Still and all, and with all sorts of reservations, I do want to say that I imagine the shout-out in the TLS will get you some interest.



  14. Oddly, per the above (given that I wrote in relation to the topic of "Cambridge poetry" at Digital Emunction last week), the TLS is supposedly coming out this week with a review of my last book, Homage to the Last Avant-Garde, which Shearsman published last year. Strange doings...


  15. >(given that I wrote in relation to the topic of "Cambridge poetry" at Digital Emunction last week),

    I mean in *some* relation...

  16. Jamie McKendrick7:39 AM

    Keston, reading through the exchange, I was surprised by your remark about
    “the trance of abject affability and egomaniacal unconcern about consumerism that so many poets wander into so that they can get published and have their author photos done." It’s my impression that most poets are informed about this issue, whether they pronounce on it or not. (And the will to do so would hardly be a helpful marker of the major poet, as you seem to imply.) Your division of poets into those who survey with distaste the ‘marketisation’ of poetry and those who collude with it seems to me largely fictive, assuming a position of integrity - your own - against a general state of corruption.
    I’m not being affable here, but I’m glad some of Barque’s books are selling well, and so, presumably, is the Arts Council who gave it a grant. But I believe your assumption that the bigger poetry presses work on markedly different principles is unfounded:
    “We publish poetry because we think it's good or promising or important. If you're published by us, you know that's the reason.”
    15 years ago (have things got so much worse since?) I worked briefly as a reader for O.U.P’s list. Maybe a sad example, but the only direct experience I’ve had of publishing. Even if my own choices often differed from those of the editor, Jacky Simms, it wouldn't have crossed either of our minds to be seeking anything other than what you call writing that’s “good or promising or important”. We’re all bound to have our own ideas about what fits this description, but why assume almost everyone but you is compromised? The notion that “willingness to hustle and do launch readings” determine who’s to be published is, to the best of my knowledge, an irrelevance. (The only exception I’ve seen were some guidelines Chris published regarding Salt, but despite his commercially-orientated statements, I suspect, or hope, that like everyone else, he’s choosing the poetry he likes.) Going to print with work publishers actually think isn’t any good would damage their reputation, for what would most likely, anyway, be the smallest of rewards.
    I’m not particularly sanguine myself about who does and doesn’t get published nor about the criteria brought to bear: I see the increasing role of academic writing courses in Britain, as launching-pads, as especially dubious, and am troubled by the scarcity of publishing houses (your own included) willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. How then are people who are not willing “to hustle”, or not already “famous” in whatever small group is known to the editors, ever to have a chance? My point is that it’s merely puritanical, rather than “utopian”, to assume that those whose judgements differ from yours are therefore ill-motivated.
    Something similar, but worse, happens with your contrast between Heaney and Raworth. You offer a generous (folksy perhaps but I’ve no doubt accurate) portrait of Raworth’s relation to the poetry world set beside a malicious (and unrecognizable) caricature of Heaney. It’s hardly worth wasting time on your depiction of him as “practically an armrest of the state apparatus” and “a bust in alabaster" ramming (a sinecure) “down the necks of schoolchildren and proclaiming Irishness”. Last time I met him was at the Dun Laoghaire festival, where, despite ill-health, he drove over every night to a number of other poets’ readings and spent much time afterwards talking to younger poets with the same genuinely encouraging manner you praise Raworth for.
    There may well be some valid arguments to counter Rob’s responses to your question (why consider Raworth and Heaney within the same critical context) but this isn’t one of them.
    I’m not quarrelling with your right to shoot barbs out in all directions but I’m just noting at least two that miss their intended targets by a mile.

  17. It's called "divide & conquer". A marketing technique with an ancient pedigree. Most recent example prior to Cambridge manifestations : Ron Silliman's "post-avant" versus "School-of-Quietude" serial melodrama.

  18. Okay, I left a testy remark on the thread at Digital Emunction 3 weeks ago and then slunk off, browbeating myself for having "done it again." Got in over my head and then spouted. Now I'm back, and all I really want to say is thanks to Bob, because he expresses what I wanted to get at so much better than I did! And Jamie, you too. The realities of poetry and "consumerism" are quite sad, really.

    I *am* that person you talk about, Bob - as I suspect are you. My shelves hold both Heaney and Prynne... I was once met with amazement by a friend in New York - we met at the Strand - who couldn't believe the mix of books in my bag, saying no American poet would buy both Neidecker and Merrill.

    It's true, I love Merrill more; like me, he would be very suspicious of this word "ideology." But I've long suspected that, even within given poetics or preferences, there are such vastly different qualities of experience that it becomes impossible to extrapolate anything from someone's "alliegances." Or "taste." To me, the extremities of (say) Merrill's blank verse, and sometimes even his rhyme, seem literally to take the reader to the edge - of breath, of the experience of the sounds of language - he wraps meaning in sound so thoroughly that it becomes indivisible. What I'd have thought every poet dreams of. Yet other people consider him (merely) arch and camp. Well, that too. But it's largely my ear he works on. As Chris says of himself, I'm less interested in politics than the voice. (though I hate that word "voice.")

    As to Chris' submission guidelines, of course he is looking for excellence, for poetry he can be proud of having published. Of course he wants to bring out poets who will make a difference. But he's been very clear from the off about his criteria, one of which is that he expects his authors not to sit on their arse and make him do all the work of getting their books to readers. I think that's fair enough and only what one would expect anyway, but he has had a few bad experiences and now feels the need to say it explicitly. It's hardly "consumerism" in the way, say, X Factor is about consumerism. In his case it's because he's put himself on the line. But there's also nothing wrong with justifying the injection of government money by being seen to make some kind of an effort.

    As to this remark of K's - "The poets who are least upset by marketization seem in my experience always to be the most insecure, networky and narcissistic... Once you understand that you don't write in order to be loved and admired and famous (gimme that breast back), the compromises are much easier to read." - well, plus ca change! It's never been any different since time immemorial; it's not about what school of poetics you subscribe to. I'm reading a book about poets in Dublin in the 1720s and it was, refreshingly and amusingly, exactly the same. Insecurity is a human trait. In a doctor it might express itself by a certain kind of manner with patients; in a teacher, by power games with students; in artists or performers, by a desperate desire for the validating glow of adulation - or, conversely, iconoclasm.

    Well, I'm trying to sweep up the path I muddied three weeks ago so I'll stop now!

  19. "This kind of poetry needs to be outside, needs to be oppressed and needs to be secret. It can’t accommodate or mediate as it relies on an extreme position and in many respects requires converts and acolytes, neophytes and indeed some Grand Masters. It’s religious in effect. One has to believe. Though a key feature of the dogma is to express doubt, uncertainty and incompleteness, just as it embraces process over product, openness over closure and radicalism over restraint. Its chief weapon is excess. And of course it is oppositional."

    This could just as easily have been a succinct description of how Ron Silliman keeps trying to position what he calls the post-avant in poetry, which of course includes LangPo, and most of the poetry he likes to promote.

    The urge to be oppositional, to be Outsiders, seems universal at times, although it also seems universally adolescent at times, as well.