Beyond the Lyric
Chatto & Windus, 2012
Fiona Sampson’s new survey of British poetry is, on the face of it, a charitable effort to draw attention to the “great deal of wonderful poetry” being written in the United Kingdom at the moment. Professing to eschew the tribalism which has both created and sustained a divide between the mainstream of “Faber poetry” and an avant-garde typically thought of as clustering around J.H. Prynne and the so-called “Cambridge School”, Beyond the Lyric presents itself as a “book of enthusiasms” seeking to categorise the various ways in which verse has diverged from the lyric over the last two or three decades. Such a mission statement invokes a descriptive, rather than a proscriptive, critical prerogative, marking what is – at least in the liberal, broadsheet cultural worldview – an ostensibly laudable commitment to a pax poetica for our times.
The political drift of the post-1989 world; however, demonstrates that the voices making the loudest sounds about their neutrality are usually the ones aligned most firmly to entrenched positions. A similar analysis befits Beyond the Lyric, which requires only a gentle push to reveal its poetic predilections and, beyond that secondary false wall, its desire to fortify the mainstream’s claims to cultural authority. Sampson, editor of Poetry Review until earlier this year, deploys a number of strategies which work covertly towards the maintenance of a certain status quo, and it’s only by applying the standard of close reading that she demands critics bring to poetry – and setting the effects of this reading within the context of debates that have been raging since Eric Mottram’s controversial editorship of PR in the 1970s – that one fully sees the implications of her work. Ultimately, the best outcome of this overview’s publication would not be the reader’s sharing in a “story of pleasures taken”, but a metacritical inquiry of Levesonian dimensions into why such a moribund poetics has come to enjoy a virtually absolute hegemony in contemporary Britain.
Sampson’s introduction promises a “serious attempt to articulate what is admirable in the mainstream of contemporary poetry”, a declaration which seems at odds with both her proclamations of Catholic taste and the fact that various non-mainstream poets (not only of the Prynnian stripe) receive coverage. Why this contradiction? Given that it comes on the heels of a lament about the scarcity of “major poet-critics” in Britain, one can assume that the validation of a “poet-critic” worthy of the name comes only when they are willing to engage meaningfully with the mainstream. It’s subtle, and those whose reading is directed primarily or solely by the Faber list won’t notice, but this move serves to marginalise the extensive critical work of experimental poets like Prynne, Robert Sheppard and Keston Sutherland. The point may be somewhat trite, but surely no one seriously regards Pound as a “minor” poet-critic because of his preference for the difficult and obscure: Sampson might strike a note of magnanimity, but its obverse is suspiciously territorial.
At this point, it’s worth recalling an earlier, more outwardly combative attempt to legitimise mainstream practice in the face of a supposed threat. New British Poetry, a collection published in the United States in 2004 and edited by mainstream figurehead Don Paterson and American poet Charles Simic, featured a warlike introduction by Paterson in which he flailed against those whom he labelled the “Postmoderns”, experimentalists dedicated to the “systematic denigration of those unlike themselves”. This tract has become legendary amongst its targets as one of literary history’s weirdest pre-emptive strikes. Paterson’s attack on the “Postmoderns” was twofold: it dismissed both their hermeticism or obscurantism and – a little paradoxically – their supposedly facile difficulty, something which was not under any circumstances to be muddled with “real originality”. One can see from this that the mainstream’s claims rested simultaneously on accessibility and innovativeness, ideas which have been coded as “generosity” and “risk” in the endless round of mutually facilitating reviewing and blurb-writing that Paterson, Hugo Williams, Jo Shapcott, Alice Oswald, Lavinia Greenlaw and many, many others have participated in since their emergence in the 80s and 90s. On the one hand, the poetics of the mainstream are represented as “generous” enough to create points of ingress for their readers, while on the other, all of that “risk-taking” positions a literature often regarded as formally unadventurous as the true successor to modernism.
All of this is to say, if you don’t concur with its arguments about what poetry should be and do, one often has the sense that the mainstream is a place where the clocks strike thirteen. There was certainly something of the Ministry of Information in what Paterson felt moved to say in 2004, and Beyond the Lyric deserves to be seen as a successor to that screed. Sampson is a dab hand at locating bravura stake-raising in what, to the modernist eye, would be bafflingly recursive: the eider-soft Heideggerianism of Paterson’s reworkings of Rilke, or Greenlaw’s experiments with “liminal themes” (a quotation which provides just one example of how a lagged version of continental philosophy is appealed to throughout). In one astonishingly hubristic aside, we are informed that Paul Muldoon “changes what literary language does as cannily as Samuel Beckett did”. With no small amount of predictability, the mainstream turns to its traditional Emmanuel Goldstein figure as we’re told of the “Poetry Wars of the Seventies, waged by Eric Mottram”, a series of events which the author clearly feels under no responsibility to provide an in-depth account of.
If, as China Miéville has suggested, literature tends to oscillate between recognition and estrangement, then the British poetic mainstream groups around the former pole while seeking to cash cheques in the latter’s name. Beyond the Lyric is a perfect illustration of how successful poetry in this country stifles the challenge of what Sheppard terms the “linguistically innovative” with something that may be a cousin of Freudian “kettle logic”; according to this rubric, the avant-garde doesn’t really exist (its estrangement effects are just gibberish designed to fool the credulous) and the mainstream is where everything that’s truly experimental occurs anyway. Sampson separates her peers into finickety, portentously-named categories like “The Iambic Legislators” and “The Touchstone Lyricists” to create the illusion of edgy, internecine aesthetic struggle between these poets who devote so much time to puffing up each other’s work. Shapcott and Paterson are “Dandies,” wielding their “swagger-sticks” of linguistic brio against the “Plain Dealers” who succeeded the Movement and “Anecdotalists” like Jackie Kay and Paul Farley. What a rich, complex poetic ecology this country can lay claim to.
Sampson’s imperial generosity means that Prynne and a few others who trade in “The Exploded Lyric” – a name which sounds like it should be above the door of a fashionable pub in Dalston – get a chapter to themselves, but the effect of this is to reduce the output of individuals as diverse as Sutherland, Barry MacSweeney and Denise Riley to one undifferentiated, protean practice. This conflation is foreshadowed fifty or so pages earlier in a discussion of Modernism, a category apparently inhabited by Peter Porter, various regional writers, Geoffrey Hill and, puzzlingly, Ian Duhig. In this conceptual Oceania, Sampson is at liberty to provide the following, bizarre explication of one and a half centuries of intellectual history:
Modernism is, of course, not postmodernism. Postmodernism succeeds modernism and positions itself in relation to it, establishing both itself, and thereby modernism, as cultural moments. Modernism, on the other hand, self-identifies as an attitude or project. As the term suggests, it has faith in progress; it follows that it holds some states of affairs and ways of doing things to be better than others. Postmodernism sees this kind of belief as superseded. It argues that the contemporary world demonstrates how nothing is more valuable than anything else, and that what we imagined was progress was merely change. Postmodernism is the cultural cousin of moral relativism, while modernism is associated with social conscience. Progress, after all, is a largely social enterprise, associated as it is with such collective phenomena as the introduction of the Welfare State, ‘The Electrification of the Soviet Union’, or the replacement of superstition by human and civil rights.
There’s about forty conferences worth of argument in that passage, and one suspects that its leaps and shimmies aren’t driven by naivety or laziness but by aesthetic ideology. Modernism is framed as a worldview committed to benevolent social grands projets, a point which puts its portion of accuracy in the service of the idea that poets with some form of clearly-articulated social conscience must be modernists and, by extension, the agents of Patersonian “real originality”. All connoisseurs of rhetoric should be able to pick this out as an instance of converse error, but one senses that the fallacy is deliberate. The absence of obviously-delineated points of social reference in “linguistically innovative” poetry condemns it, on these terms, to the postmodernist camp, leaving the mainstream to bask in the reflected glow of modernist utopianism.
Of course, nobody self-identifies as a postmodernist, least of all poets. Ever since Mottram’s ousting from PR, the closed – some might say postmodernistically self-referential – world of London poetry-editing and reviewing has had a fine time caricaturing the work of Prynne et al as mere kaleidoscopism, “play of signifiers” and relativism. This is representative of a failure to engage with the texts themselves. A cornerstone of Prynne’s thought is the sceptical interrogation of the Saussurean claims about linguistic arbitrariness on which “play” rests, and while the poetics of some experimentalists (such as those of Tom Raworth, for example) may err towards polyglossic anarchy, the work of many others (particularly those in the line running from Prynne to Sutherland) exhibits an austere sense of control. Beyond the Lyric refuses this, calling a poem by Sutherland a “postmodern project of continuous play [which] continually eschews anything beyond the surface of language”. This is a reading arising from what seems to me to be wilful disregard, or, worse, a desire to troll.
Beyond the Lyric, then, repeats Paterson’s move of high-handedly dismissing the non-mainstream as “postmodern”, only this time it adds to that notion a weight of negative connotation. Postmodernists are not utopian, are not socially engaged, and they have no “faith in progress”. Instead, they indulge themselves with linguistic frippery in small-circulation pamphlets and on blogs. Admittedly, Sampson finds things to like in Prynne’s work, but this amounts to little more than damning with faint praise: it’s clear that she sees the real work of poetry as occurring in the mainstream, the legitimate heir of modernism.
What this work really tells us – if we examine it closely enough – is that the terms of the argument about poetry in contemporary Britain are being defined by a coterie in whose hands the entire apparatus of debate lies. The dismissal of the avant-garde as elitist forecloses the possibility of analysing the ways in which a select group of poets and poet-critics accumulate and then bank critical capital, thereby stalling discussion about what truly constitutes literary “risk” and preventing more challenging poetics from encountering a general audience. Essentially, then, little has changed since the antimodernist coup staged by the Movement immediately after the Second World War. If poetry is to attain a new potency, its structures of critical governance need to be held up to scrutiny in a way which goes far beyond the bad-faith “receptiveness” on show here.
Joe Kennedy  teaches at the Universities of Chichester and Portsmouth and holds a PhD in modernist literature from the University of East Anglia. His poetry has been published in several anthologies and in the Oxonian Review.