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Review - "Nothing is being Suppressed - British Poetry of the 1970s"

Alan Baker

“Nothing Is Being Suppressed: British Poetry of the 1970s” by Andrew Duncan, pub. Shearsman Books. 321 pages. £16.95

Reading this book one has the impression of eavesdropping on the thought processes of a brilliant mind, obsessively focussed on its subject, with its own idiosyncratic concerns and convictions and capable of strokes of genius alongside mere opinions. If the reader approaches this book as conventional, objective literary criticism  there're going to find it frustrating and inadequate; but to read it as a creative work in its own right, and a glimpse into the workings of a highly insightful mind with a vast knowledge of his subject ranging from broad historical sweep to tiny detail, it's an absorbing and stimulating read, at times frustrating but always dynamic, as if Duncan is working things out in his mind as he writes so the prose is a map of his thought processes.

The writer is revealed in this book as someone who wants to know everything, or at least as much as is humanly possible, about his subject. That the profusion of poetic publication - even by the 70s, let alone now - makes that impossible is painful for Duncan. Listing “books available in the 70s” and which had an influence on the era – ranging from Pound to Blake to Adorno - he comments "I feel upset because this is just a drop in the ocean…". This very personal response is one of the things that makes this book so readable, so long as the reader accepts this personal approach and doesn't expect the objectivity of conventional criticism. The sensation of reading the book is similar to that of being buttonholed by an entertaining, obsessive and brilliant talker determined to tell you everything he knows about his specialist subject.

So what is this book trying to achieve? This is set out clearly in the Introduction. Duncan says:

"I am not trying to re-evaluate a period that has passed by. It was never evaluated in the first place, so this is the first run."

He is referring to how, in the 1970s, the critical consensus was still dominated by conservative tendencies established in the 1950s and which promoted poets like Philip Larkin and Donald Davie. So the book's title is ironic, and the poetry under discussion in this book is what might loosely be termed avant-garde or innovative, which was never given a proper critical evaluation. Duncan goes on to say that his aim is not to argue ("I don't propose to spend the time we have arguing") but is simply to recover the poetry of the 1970s from the fading memories of those who were involved with it at the time; in other words, simply to document the period. As Duncan puts it "My interest is in presenting the Seventies through the eyes of the Seventies". Such a project has enormous scope and requires an encyclopaedic knowledge, both of which are in evidence in these pages.

Documentation and recovery of a forgotten period necessarily requires evaluation, and there is plenty of that in this book, much of it grounded in highly individual personal opinion. Duncan refuses to toe any party line, which, I think keeps his mind open to fresh views on established figures. He quotes, for example, a contemporary review by Peter Finch of Tom Raworth's 1973 collection "Act" ("I feel I should like it but I don’t. It’s tough going and going nowhere") and responds with one of his genuine insights:

"I believe that Raworth's work is like Op Art and genuinely immersive and without holds to cling on to. Possibly we have naturalized the shimmering surface and agreed on a reaction almost as a mechanism of defence".

Elsewhere, there is a convincing description how Bloodaxe and Carcanet established a conservative ethos which excluding much of the poetry under discussion, positing Basil Bunting and Ken Smith respectively as representing the avant-garde (incredibly, as Duncan sees it). But here again, there are strange judgements. Talking of Ken Smith’s long poem “Fox Running” he posits that the poem fails to express feelings. The “Fox” character fails to say why he is angry and resentful because “Smith’s grip on language wasn’t enough to let him establish that information”.  But a feature Ken Smith’s work is his investigation of masculinity and the inability of men to express feelings, which seems a more likely explanation, given that the overall impression the poem gives is one of suppressed emotion and frustrated male communication.

Evaluation and discrimination are also evident from what is left out of this survey. Lee Harwood, who published at least six collections of poetry during the 1970s and whose integration of New York school aesthetics with English sensibility was a significant influence on the decade is unaccountably left out of this history. There is no mention of Bob Cobbing or his Writers’ Forum small press and its associated workshops, which were an important feature of the 1970s scene in London. Nor is there mention of Bill Griffiths, Geraldine Monk or Maggie O'Sullivan. All of these were important figures in the 1970s and are still so now. I suppose that’s what happens when a critical work is so personal and subjective, but if Duncan’s stated aim was to “present the Seventies through the eyes of the Seventies” then, whether or not he likes their work or feels any affinity with it, these poets should surely have been included.

For afficionados of the type of poetry under discussion and the period in question, ”Nothing Is Being Suppressed” is an excellent compendium, full of fascinating matter. To those not already interested I can imagine it would be overwhelming and off-putting. Duncan makes no attempt to draw the reader in; he assumes you’re already interested. Also potentially off-putting to the disinterested reader might be the way book veers between objective analytics and personal opinions, the latter sometimes failing in the elementary need to separate the person from the text, which, however frustrating, can also be highly entertaining. He criticises Jeff Nuttall:

“His poetry is repetitive, overexcited, crassly physiological... I think he wanted to be Dylan Thomas (drunken, anarchistic, highly-sexed). I'm so attractive when I shed all my inhibitions, I don't think.”

This is a remarkable passage in a book of criticism, somewhat undermining its seriousness. But it’s entertaining and it’s symptomatic of Duncan's total immersion in his subject at a personal level.

At the start of the third chapter there is a "Reading list for the 1970s" with 120 titles listed, divided by year, followed by the challenging statement:

"The core of the 70s is the creative work collected in these 120 titles. There is little point in having the arguments without reading the evidence first".

In opening chapter there is a bulleted list of "Generalisations About the 70s". All of which makes the early part of the book read a little like a handbook on the period, and the chapter on Allen Fisher, demonstrates this. The chapter is entitled "20 Notions on Allen Fisher" and does indeed contain twenty numbered "notions", each consisting of a paragraph or two, the whole comprising an excellent introduction to Fisher's work, succinct, detailed and enlightening. It's not short of wit. Fisher's work is necessary and important because:

"... literature is pushed ever more into the area of 'this is my personality. you like me and I like me' or into the area of gardening and cookery."

Similarly accomplished is his chapter on JH Prynne, which involves a close reading of a Prynne poem and contains some flashes of brilliance. On the sudden switches from line to line in a Prynne text:

"We can see the style as a convenience product - the poet switches from theme to theme without artisanal effort - as if hitting a button on a console without leaving the sofa".

This chapter is very good on the change that occurred in Prynne's work with his 1971 collection "Brass", comparing a poem from it with one from his earlier collection "The White Stones". This is Duncan at his best, focussing on a complex subject that he knows and likes and has a deep understanding of, without some of the personal quirks and subjectivity he sometimes displays.

There are similarly accomplished chapters on major figures of the period including Colin Simms, and there are chapters on “Short Poems of the 1970s”, “Long Player: Long Poems of the 1970s” (the theme of pop music and its influence on poetry runs throughout the book) and “Two Visual Poets” which discusses the little-known poets Michael Gibbs and John Powell Ward. These and other chapters do a superb job of documenting and recovering work, some of which has already been forgotten. Alongside this focus on poets and poetry there are a number of chapters which provide background on the world in which this poetry existed. Duncan has a tremendous historical grasp, both of the specialised subject of “alternative” poetry but also of the social, political and artistic milieu in which it was situated. The book is punctuated by chapters which discuss this background. There is, for example, a chapter on Conceptual Art, one discussing the concept of "the future" in terms of social and economic change which also discusses the feminism of the period, and there’s a chapter on conceptual art.

In keeping with Duncan’s desire for completeness with regard to knowledge, he also displays a liking for metaphysical explanations for poetry, most in evidence in the chapter "The Liminal as a Form of the Sublime". This chapter outlines the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner who defined rites of passage between life stages in human society. Duncan claims that avant-garde 70s poetry represents a "liminal" state, that is a state between stages. The argument is that, for example, poetry about wilderness places, a feature of the period, is because "The wilderness is a liminal place". This thesis, which reads as half-way between serious philosophy and someone's pet theory, is illustrated by extracts from poems by Allen Fisher, Eric Mottram and Nick Jackowski. The coup de grace at the end of the chapter is Duncan revealing that the anthropologist Victor Turner was also a poet in the 1940s whose work he tracked down after a long search and the chapter concludes with a passage from one of his poems. The whole thing is strange, beguiling, fascinating and bewildering by turns.

The knowledge on display throughout the book is wide-ranging and eclectic; but allusions and references often appear unexpectedly, and their relevance is not always apparent; there's a passing reference to 4th century China; another to the domestication of horses and its effect on both native Americans and Indo-European expansion; fascinating snippets not followed up in enough detail to be substantiated. As there are no footnotes or scholarly references, Duncan could, for all the reader knows, have simply made these things up, or be mistaken about them. This scatter of arcane allusions and surprising juxtapositions reminds the reader of Duncan's own poetry and raises the question of how much his critical work is an extension of it.

Despite the apparent critical tone of some of this review, I regard this book, and the sister projects Andrew Duncan is engaged in, as a valuable and necessary re-appraisal of the literary history of Britain, and the scope and grasp of the subject is hugely impressive. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it. It’s one person’s take, of course, and quite an individual one at that, and would therefore have to read alongside other works on the period, including Robert Sheppard’s “When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry”, which, as it happens, has a photograph of two poets Duncan completely ignored - Bob Cobbing and Maggie O’Sullivan - on the cover.




Copyright © Alan Baker, 2022

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