Good Bad Duncan
OTL's response to Andrew Duncan's A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 (Shearsman, 2015) written 7-iii-2016 as an email to Hugo Pinto Santos, who contacted OTL as he was writing a PhD on British poetry
It's weird to communicate my responses to A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 to you, Hugo, because a large part of what I have to say stems from frustration with Andrew's concept of "poetry" as a field for contestation — and I'm aware that you're engaged in a similar attempt to map British poetry in this time period. So, perhaps my comments will seem illegitimate to you … But I couldn't stop reading the thing after it arrived in the post (courtesy Andrew) a couple of days ago, and it's so close to many of my concerns, I'm forced to tell you what I think.
A Poetry Boom 1990-2010 is identical to Andrew's outpourings in Angel Exhaust, i.e. a bizarre mix of empirical sociology, outrageous "columnist" journalism à la Julie Burchill, snatches of trendy theory, satire, jokes and practical criticism. I only like the last three of these, and were I to edit the book, I'd consign outbreaks of the first three to the dumper (sorry, lixo). The theory and politics which emerge are bar-room bluster and, as John Wilkinson has remarked, ensure that Andrew's views on poetry will not be taken seriously in academic circles. Although Andrew does not share my interest in Wyndham Lewis, his willingness to offend every consensus is remarkably similar to the author of Time & Western Man. The way Andrew uses his skill at practical criticism as a platform from which to trumpet his wonky opinions on society, politics and philosophy reminds me of the punk era New Musical Express, when someone's undoubted skill at creating excitement onstage was magically converted into an excuse to talk unbelievable bullshit and have it printed and read by more people than actually heard the music. Andrew's first publication was Negative Reaction, a punk fanzine which (to my shame) I skim-read and didn't buy when it appeared in Remember Those Oldies on King Street in Cambridge in 1978, and this "punk rebellion", unformatted by reflection, pervades his writing. This also explains, though, the engaging nature of his prose: he's not kowtowing to any authority, and everything is expressed with oratorical flair. He writes it like he'd say it. He's the opposite of Paul Blackledge, the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) academic I criticised at an early AMM (Association of Musical Marxists) meeting, who suppresses his voice and personality when writing his books (this polemic is online). So, A Poetry Boom is not a book, it's a blog! Invigorating, and so encouraging counter-polemic and discussion … So, I wonder, is it possible to skim the dodgy politics and crack-brained theory off the surface of A Poetry Boom like congealed lamb fat, leaving us with a pure, strained and sustaining consommé? I shall try.
Andrew has an animus against Marxism which is as virulent as it is ignorant. He's forever whining about "the Marxists" who suppress individuality and creativity and first-person experience and poetry in favour of cold schematic generalisation. I doubt he's ever read a word by Marx himself, who simply cannot be described in this way: Marx's prose style, derived from Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, mercilessly satirises "authority" which claims to rise above a specific social position. Marx ceaselessly injects the writer's individual position — politics — back into theory and philosophy. The current of Marxism active when Andrew studied at Cambridge was "structuralist"/"post-structuralist"/"Althusserian", and it's easy to divine that it is this he is objecting to. After he left formal studying, Andrew seems to have read nothing but poetry, so this is the only kind of Marxism he knows. I remember as a Cambridge undergraduate arguing with a Communist Party student who said my objection to Maoist propaganda posters as kitsch was "simply bourgeois aestheticism/subjectivism", recommending that I read Althusser to find out how my taste was "structured". When the National Front had a public meeting in Cambridge, it gave me great pleasure to side with the SWP/Anti-Nazi League activists who wanted us to break up their hotel meeting rather than entering a church for a counter-seance as the CP recommended. Practical anti-fascism, all the rage when Andrew was a student and necessary in the ensuing decade, seems to have bypassed him completely, whereas it was a political education for me 1979-86. In A Poetry Boom, Andrew's problems seem almost entirely caused by "the Marxists" (capitalism as a shaping force is hardly mentioned), giving the book a similar ressentiment to Time & Western Man (not to mention Mein Kampf). Are the problems poetry experienced in the period really all due to the "bad ideas" of the Marxists? An elementary marxist reflection would be that Andrew is suffering from idealism, the belief that ideas control everything that happens.
Having myself attempted to demolish "structuralist Marxism", which I consider to be a Stalinist corruption of Marx, in order to make room for poetry and creativity and subjectivity, I feel sad that this theoretical work has made nil impact on Andrew over the years. For Andrew, the end of the Soviet Union in 1989 meant the end of Marxism. He writes like I don't exist … like an army of anti-Stalinist Marxists never existed. His book ends with Prynne — the best poetry he could find in 2010 is probably just a return to 1960s Prynne — and Prynne's ("first wave") Maoism is certainly a problem. But this is never discussed explicitly (I took on this task in my Blake in Cambridge).
So Marxism is dissed throughout. John Berger, whose TV series Ways of Seeing introduced a generation to the ideas of Walter Benjamin (a poetic, anti-Stalinist Marxist if ever there was one) is a particular figure for scorn, as if Berger's critique of private property is simply a killjoy's hatred of ease, luxury and fun. This is the mud slung at the left in every editorial of The Sun (popular British rightwing newspaper), it's idiotic. But Andrew really has no other theory. He introduces some empirical sociology, noticing that the 1960s boom in higher education means poetry is no longer the domain of the male Oxbridge elite, but includes regional, working-class and female voices. This is ascertained by some statistics. But then the sociology is abandoned because poetry is about Quality anyway. So why introduce the statistics in the first place? It's a bluff, a show of erudition to intimidate the opposition.These are the sad moilings of an unworked-out intellect.
Having dismissed Marxism, Andrew is prone to whatever "theory" is hitting the bestseller lists: information theory, fractal, neuro-biology, quantum mechanics etc. These theories prove that everything is very "complex", so you canot say much about anything, especially society or government or business or international relations, much less take a political position. The only people who take political positions are "Marxists" who are so dogmatic and prejudiced they're more despicable than Christians, who at least write nice poetry. Again, were I an editor, I would simply bin these pages: if all you can report is that the subject under consideration is "complex" and "hard to understand", then the report is not worth the page it is written on. Words are all about significant abstraction and telling simplification. So he writes about the huge "complexifying" work of Allen Fisher and Tony Lopez as a kind of duty. He doesn't really like them at all.
Andrew has similar problems with the "avantgarde". He's inspired by Prynne — that extraordinary intensity Pryne inspires in his readers, coupled with the knowledge that this work is somehow unacceptable to normal life — and so has to deal with the avantgarde, but he cannot accept its embattled logic. He hates the Prynnian epigones with a vengeance, so John Wilkinson, Drew Milne, Simon Jarvis and Keston Sutherland are excluded, not by analysis or reasoned polemic, but simply by being ignored. Andrew is quite funny when dealing with the ironies of subaltern studies ("the great poetry of the period was written by women, except they were oppressed, so they didn't write anything" etc), but his lack of philosophical principle means he has to salute success as real, in fact the only reality. A Blakean has no trouble thinking today's unknown poet or disregarded artist might be the legislator of tomorrow; Andrew's positivism and empiricism prevent him thinking like that (in AE23 he mocked my idea of a socialist Blake by quoting from the prophetic books and saying that wouldn't go down at a union meeting; but it's just such a conjuncture the AMM proposed!). For Andrew, poetry is a Darwinian struggle for survival, and the fittest survive. Without a Marxist understanding of the different kinds of society being struggled for today, you canot differentiate between poets on the basis of their vision, only on the basis of their relative success under this system.
But then the great thumping paradox (a contradiction so colossal we need to go back further than Wyndham Lewis for its equal, namely John Ruskin!): Andrew believes in Quality, so … even though all coteries and avantgardes are dissed for their anti-populist, elitist arrogance, 95% of published and unpublished poetry is actually rubbish, leaving us with … Andrew's favourites. The strange thing is, perhaps indicating that theory and politics are not the best place to start in discussing poetry, I agree with most of Andrew's judgments. He is one of the few critics whose feelings when reading concur with mine. I agree with him on how insufferable are the ethical postmodernist academics (Charles Berstein, Majorie Perloff, Robert Sheppard, Kenny Goldsmith) with their pieties about the correctly "decentred/powerless" text. He is correct to perch Prynne and Raworth at the top of the tree. He puts Geoffrey Hill up there too, although my feeling is that he's giving in here to other people's judgments, I sense no real enthusiasm from Andrew (I cannot stand Hill myself). Among the London poets, he likes Adrian Clarke, Maggie O'Sullivan, Ulli Freer (my choices too, but I'd include Johan de Wit). When he quotes poets new to me (Judith Kazantzis, David Ashford, Andrew Jordan), I usually like them. The pages on Hegemonick remind me of the pages I wrote on Iain Sinclair in Art, Class & Cleavage and an article I wrote on the conspiracy theorist Joe Lancaster (available on <www.ammarxists.org>): the poetical uses of schizophrenia. Although I think it's surrepticious of Andrew to deal with the Prynne epigones by omission (i.e. the Prynnians grooming themselves for succession, there are plenty of "amateur Prynnians" out here you know), I must admit I've never much enjoyed reading them either. I think he gets Sean Bonney very well; the pop power of the texts, but the anxiety about someone who's attractive to readers as a "star" rather than a live wire (in the way Eric Mottram and Prynne and Cobbing electrified people and made them productive).
I fail to see anything in Simon Smith's work, and conclude that Andrew was simply overpowered by the fact that such an influential figure (director of the Poetry Library on the South Bank) should form an alliance with him (they co-edited AE together for a while). He keeps calling Free Improvisation "jazz" and doesn't understand its connection to Performance Art; I think this may explain his hostility to Bob Cobbing, without whom the "London" avantgarde (Clarke, O'Sullivan, de Wit, Freer) wouldn't be in print (Writers Forum). Cobbing's Birdyak was just amazing; I think if Andrew had witnessed Birdyak as Improv (he liked Last Exit when he saw them) he's have got the point of Cobbing rather than simply seeing him as a poor "poet". Never trust a Folkie on music. He's got a bit of a crush on Marianne Morris, I guess, and on Karlien van den Beukel, but Karlien's stuff is fab, really flows, don't you think?
So, in conclusion … of course the rejection of Marxism (i.e. the "Cambridge Marxism" of Drew Milne and John Wilkinson and Keston Sutherland) was necessary for Andrew to begin trusting his own reactions and become a good practical critic, but I grit my teeth because his polemics sound so reactionary. I wish after leaving academia he'd associated with active socialists and anti-fascists and so found out about, say, Raya Dunayevskaya and Charles Denby; read some Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky instead of dismissing them as proto-Stalins; been intellectual enough to tackle Benjamin and Adorno, who are all about maintaining fantasy and play in the midst of materialist analysis; been generous enough to consider my arguments (and not depended on Rob Young, who has no critical acumen, for his guide to the pop of the period) and those of Esther Leslie. Andrew's words on the new generation — the hedonism, the attention to local detail, the disrespect, the wit, the delight in nonsequiturs — reminded me of the Psychedelic Bolsheviks, my favourite young-person political group (you can find their blog online). The PB's don't read Frank O'Hara, but they write better than he did. If only Andrew could break from the "poetry" niche he's carved for himself, and simply write about what he likes and doesn't like … he'd be me, which maybe would NOT be a good thing, actually … ha ha.
It's been fun writing this. Thanks for your emails which got this exchange going. I don't think this piece of writing is for Andrew, though, it's for you.
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