Their own landscape


Dear World & Everyone In It: New Poetry in the UK, ed. Nathan Hamilton
(336pp, Ł12, Bloodaxe)


There's been an interesting exchange recently on a British poetry list about poetry and coteries. Coterie, as in, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: 'An organized association of persons for political, social, or other purposes; a club'; A circle of persons associated together and distinguished from 'outsiders', a 'set'; a select or exclusive circle in Society; the select 'set' who have the entrŽe to some house'; A 'set' associated by certain exclusive interests, pursuits, or aims; a clique'; and so on.

And while, throughout history, there are specific examples of particular poetic allegiances being formed, defined, maintained, more often than not labels come from the outside.

'Coterie': a badge; but also, in other hands, a pejorative.

As with most things, the poetry world is made up of various factions, most generally discussed along the uneasy and highly problematic lines of an apparently incontrovertible divide between the 'mainstream' and the 'avant-garde'. The one, so the argument goes, is inclusive; the other exclusive.

At issue here, obviously, is a difference of opinion. The lines of this difference run deep. One side of the coin conceives so-called 'exclusive' poetry as suspicious (at best). The fact that it might make certain demands, often unusual or non-immediate, on a reader marks it out as something not written for everyone. The other side of the coin conceives 'inclusivity' as a false description, and one which is made worse by 'inclusivity's' lack of awareness of its own 'exclusivity'.

All poetry cast in seriousness should, I think, be able to repeat, with Ezra Pound, and with meaning: 'If we never write anything save what is already understood, the field of understanding will never be extended. One demands the right, now and again, to write for a few people with special interests and whose curiosity reaches into greater detail.'

Besides, the business of poetry is not, strictly speaking (thankfully), a business. Strictly speaking, the poetry world is not a trade related to profit-led consumerism as it is by the more informal and far more interesting non-monetary custom of local communities, social networks and gift economies. On this model, poetry is not a commodity. Rather, the production and distribution (giving) of poetry takes place within the context of non-monetary social networks, themselves organised by notions of kinship, mutual interest and status and which, crucially, are structured by the informally mandated proposition that, in the words of Lewis Hyde, 'the gift must always move
'. In other words, as Hyde continues, in such communities, 'whatever [is] given is supposed to be given away not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move in its stead.' It is in this way that poetry not only enters the world of exchange but finds a readership and stays there.

In the context of poetry publishing, particularly important here is the notion that it may well be that such gift economies are not simply the mainstay of present and future models of poetic production but also the grounds for its self-legitimation, which is to say, the very reason for these social networks to exist already in the first place. According to Charles Bernstein:

     These institutions continue, against all odds, to find value in the
     local, the particular, the partisan, the committed, the tiny, the
     peripheral, the unpopular, the eccentric, the difficult, the complex,
     the homely; and in the formation and reformation, dissolution and
     questioning, of imaginary or virtual or partial or unavowable
     communities and/or uncommunities.

To put it another way, small press publishing, distribution, subscriptions, mailing and sales depend upon a community of readers: friends, colleagues, organisations, institutions, patrons. It is made up of a network of connections, of like-minded people and people who would like to be like-minded.

In her essay, 'Alarms and Excursions', Rosmarie Waldrop details how the effort of writing and publishing is far in excess of any material or measurable reward. Small press publishing, she maintains, exists somewhere between the demands of free markets and an economy of waste. On the one hand, 'it is obvious that the energy that goes into writing a poem is enormous and totally out of proportion to any gain it might bring [...] even if we include non-monetary gains like reputation, approbation of a group etc.' On the other hand:

     As far as publisher or bookseller being enriched, this holds for
     some books, but I doubt it ever holds for poetry, and obviously
     not for the small presses and their distributors which have no
     hope of even breaking even and must rely on grants or patronage.
     And I would like to see the bookseller who gets rich by stocking
     small press poetry. In other words, the whole small press world,
     rather than getting rich at the poets' expense, is like the poets,
     engaged in wasting energy, time, money; wasting it beautifully.

For Waldrop, the small press poetry publisher at best occupies a somewhat paradoxical social position - while their labour is not so much motivated by the financial basis of the marketplace they are still actually engaged in the business of producing a saleable commodity. The crucial point is that small press poetry publishing operates with a business model whereby the cost of production outweighs all and any return. And thus it's one thing to be given a grant to begin but when each print run produces an overall net loss, it's quite another to continue. It is in this way that small press poetry publishing exceeds Marx's sense of a restricted economy (with its bottom line barometer of market value) and yields rather a so-called general economy or economy of (beautiful) waste that has eyes only on the present. As Waldrop writes:

     The key word here is the present
, not being constrained by any
     considerations of the future in which the work might be read,
     appreciated, sold [...] In contrast, if I am concerned with building
     a career I write as an investment rather than spending [...] My eye
     is on the market, maybe just on the approval of a group, in any case
     on the future. I voluntarily submit to the order of reality, to the laws
     which ensure the maintenance of life or of career.

Anthologies are prickly things: they are their own landscape, or at least, they want to be. They are all about groupings and gatherings; and they tend also to be about identities and definitions. Inclusivity is not in the anthologist's remit. Anthologies polarise; it's in their nature. It's about a certain kind of branding such that selectivity is everything. Some anthologies are more selective than others.

At issue here is the difficult and often highly contradictory notion of poetic value. In financial terms, there is little or no 'gain' from poetry. The economy of poetry is an economy of loss rather than growth. In relation to this, for Charles Bernstein the value of poetry is not to be determined by its economic role but rather by a particular understanding of its cultural function:

    Poetry's social function is to imagine how language works within

    its culture, while pursuing a critique of the culture; this suggests

    that poetry can be a countermeasure to the reinforcement of

    cultural values at the heart of both popular entertainment and

    consumer politics. At the same time, poetry's aesthetic function is

    to refuse even this 'value' in the pursuit of what Louis Zukofsky

    calls the pleasures of sight, sound, and intellect.

Such notions of non-monetary value no doubt also go some way to explaining the cultural marginalisation, in relative terms, of poetry: in a sale or return culture there is little room for a literary form which doesn't simply critique that culture but which even devalues the very terms of its own 'value' in favour of complex categories such as aesthetics which, arguably, are even more abstract than money. This is Bernstein again:

     The very distance that separates poetry from the dominant forms
     of the macro economy of accumulation give poetry a social, political,
     and aesthetic power, because - at least potentially - poetry's
     realizations of, and reflection on, its 'host' culture are not only
     trenchant but otherwise unobtainable. A culture that despises its
     artists may need them even more than one that embraces them.

As Bernstein continues:

     Since the mass scale of journalism and movies and pop music
     undermine the criteria of evaluation in our culture, it's important
     to emphasize that a singular value of poetry is the freedom,
     complexity, and depth that derives from its small scale, the fact
     that it has few readers, that it is difficult to access, that it's not
     a mass art form.

For Bernstein and Waldrop, as well as small press publishing more generally, the aim is for a literary work to be perceived as something rather more than a 'mere counter of exchange'. Implicit within Bernstein's critique of the commercial publishing industry is the sense that marketing campaigns are directed less, if at all, towards introducing readers to work that is innovative, unfamiliar and new but rather towards the 'manufacturing [of] renown'. In commercial publishing, benchmarking is key whereas in small press publishing difference is everything: commercial publishing seeks classification because such categories provide both marketing strategies and sales potential (if you like this, you'll love this
); small press publishing, on the other hand, establishes value by privileging aesthetic exclusivity. Technē, for instance, is a quality inseparably linked to that singular poet and which can be neither fully reproduced nor bought wholesale. Put another way, commercial publishing is contractual; small press publishing is social.

Anthologies occupy an interesting place within the poetry market. Often they define - label - groups. The title of Roddy Lumsden's 2010 anthology (also published by Bloodaxe), Identity Parade
, is a case in point. The other noteworthy thing that anthologies do is sell. And so perhaps it's not really a surprise that we seem to live in the age of the anthology (Salt's annual series, The Best British Poetry... following the example of the model of The Best American Poetry is one relatively high profile example among many).

So anthologies sell, and it's probably not that hard to see why. They appeal to groups, and the poetry world has more than most: groups of the best, the young, the old, the mainstream, the gendered, the remaindered, the innovative, the you-name-it-these-pages-are-full-of-it-some-names-familiar-some-names-less-so-a-new-adventure-a-bit-like-the-last-one-but-unique-and-all-of-its-own-making-on-every-page. Here, faction/coterie = dedicated market.

Nathan Hamilton's Dear World
is an interesting anthology. On the one hand it plays the anthology game by establishing a relatively unique place for itself within the poetry market, and it does so by stressing its newness, its self-conscious stylisation, its generational difference, and so its energy and vitality. Hamilton's extended, idiosyncratic introduction makes repeated claims for the anthology's freshness, difference, arguing that the poetry world as currently conceived needs restructuring and, by implication, that this is a book to begin that process.

On the other hand, one of the other interesting things about this anthology - one of the really
interesting things, to my mind - is its eclecticism. Such eclecticism is interesting because, relatively speaking, it is rare. For that reason alone this anthology is worth reading. No anthology, of course, can escape selectivity, and there are notable poets missing from the pages of this book. But there are many important and vital poets included here, poets with risk and seriousness and ambition. I particularly admire the space given over to longer poems, to sequences, largely because to my mind these are the most interesting poems and partly because this is an unusual editorial practice for anthologies where, at best, editors often only include short samples from much longer works. 

It seems unhelpful to name individual names from a book of this kind. It doesn't seem in the spirit of things. Besides, whatever the measure, the fact remains that the worlds of poetry and poetry publishing require some kind of financial assistance from one source or another, and those trying to do something just this side of different need it a little more than most. And, anyway, as Rosmarie Waldrop has noted, even though 'poetry, like philosophy, leaves everything as it is [...] when your government consistently lies through its teeth, it just may be very important to pay attention to words in the way poetry does.'

     © Nikolai Duffy 2013