For Your Information…

Cusp – recollections of poetry in transition
, ed. Geraldine Monk
(254pp, Shearsman Books)

There’s still a relative dearth of books outside of the academy commenting on contemporary poetry and even less, I suspect, dealing with material which is largely away from the mainstream. This welcome volume edited by the poet Geraldine Monk isn’t a series of critical essays but provides instead first-hand recollections of a variety of ‘poetry scenes’ mainly from the viewpoint of writers living in England and Wales. It’s a book which is ‘probably best described as a collective autobiography’ as its editor succinctly puts it. The historical period discussed is largely that between WW2 and the development of the internet, and Monk’s prime aim is to suggest the emergence of a great variety of material, often under-documented, which displays a democratisation of poetry in all its often contradictory forms. Even now it would be easy to think that the work currently being produced is rather narrow and limited in its styles and concerns if you relied on the ‘mainstream press’ and on the key big-players in poetry publishing for your information. Seminal names here are the late Jeff Nuttall and publishers such as Salt, Shearsman, Stride (as was), Etruscan, Salzburg and to a lesser extent, Carcanet and Bloodaxe. There are others.

There are twenty six ‘protagonists’ in this enterprise and I’m going to mention a few of them here. Tom Pickard’s chapter ‘Work Conchy’ describes the difficulties of growing up in 1960s Newcastle, with a working-class background, trying to become a poet. Despite the success of the Morden Tower readings and Pickard’s association with Basil Bunting, the trials and tribulations appear both formidable and threatening. That he came through is partly down to luck and to talent and also, helpfully, to contacts (Ed Dorn as well as Bunting) but it was a close thing. Nobody, I suspect, would call Pickard’s work particularly experimental but its up-front political aspect was confrontational and was something which, back then, caused him real problems. This is a tendency which seems to be re-emerging. Monk herself had a similar transition, from potential ‘factory fodder’ (a dismissive term, but one which still has resonance) from a working-class Catholic background in Blackburn, to ‘way-out’ experimentalist in Sheffield. Her recollections are both warm and critical and her chapter title – ‘A Working Class Elitist is Something to Be’, playing on Lennon’s song, is both assertive and a challenge to the kind of orthodoxy which might now be accepted in the work of Tony Harrison, for example.

Frances Presley’s intriguing piece ‘Hidden Lines’ is one of the highlights for me as it perceptively analyses an accumulation of poetic influences – from Surrealism and European Modernism to post-war American poetry – and integrates these adequately into an exploration of her own work. Presley seems to have had a precocious questioning attitude to received wisdoms and this, allied to a strong feminist perspective, makes for one of the most interesting essays in the book. Ian Davidson’s piece is both useful and intriguing, focussing, as it does, on the contribution which the University of Essex made, both to his development and that of many others. Essex, in fact, seems to have been a key institution, both poetically and politically during the 1960’s and 70’s, having a higher than usual percentage of working-class undergraduates, including many from overseas. This mesh of cultures and also the number of poets who either taught there or were students (in some cases both), seems to have produced a vital environment in which a lot happened and in which many flourished.

Fred Beake’s ‘A Life in Poetry’ represents a different kind of odyssey but one which also had its trials and tribulations, including an incompleted History degree from the University of Sussex (much later he gained a Classics degree from Bristol) and a relationship with the mainstream and the avant-garde (to simplify the issues) which appears to have left him with a foot in both camps. Fred’s work in fact is exceptionally unusual, with its mix of the modern and the archaic and despite his idiosyncratic reading style his poetry is both demanding and accessible, an underrated poet of great distinction. I couldn’t finish this piece without mentioning Tim Allen’s contribution – ‘The Difference Is Still the Same’ – which focuses on the various faces of the Plymouth Poetry Scene during the past twenty years. The number of readings put on during this period has been phenomenal and Allen’s description of the fostering of a wide variety of ‘non-mainstream’ writing through the coming together of a group of disparate yet open-minded writers is exemplary and will doubtless have resonance elsewhere. I’m certainly personally very grateful to have been involved in the developing Plymouth scene during this period. Hot on the heels of Tim’s piece comes Chris McCabes’s fine contribution, a poem, which describes an ‘after-event’ tour of Plymouth’s hot-spots on the way home:

Steve & Norman in the back, I had no appetite for the diluvian
drink, the crashpad catch-up of a cold & the cache of the trains
was pushing me on for the polar bears & bards. Shit joke
at the junction: Exit pursued by a polar bear.

First we lost Norman through the gates of the Fin-de-Siecle
Hotel, then Steve at Krushchev Holiday Hill. Earlier,
when we’d met at the station, Tim had filled up on petrol
now I couldn’t see the point: de-crank the handbrake

and a city of hills drops me down to the arctic sleep.
(from ‘The Barry MacSweeney Guest Room’)

There are also contributions from Chris Torrance (from legal executive by day to the Carshalton chapter of ‘the beats’ by night, followed by a long stint as creative writing lecturer in adult education at Cardiff University), John Freeman, Peter Finch, Tilla Brading, Peter Riley, Jim Burns, Connie Pickard and Nick Johnson, among others. This is a book to dip into and to think about. It represents an unusual kind of documentation and one that I’d like to see more of.

© Steve Spence 2012