Mainstream Poetry and the ecumenical view – Tom Paulin and Anne Stevenson

For a variety of reasons I’ve just spent some time with the mainstream and this odd experience has given rise to some thoughts about what Chris Goode recently described as my ecumenical position with regard to poetry in the UK.

This position, which was more about being ‘against’ factions rather than for everybody suddenly liking and respecting the work of everybody else has now boiled down to a disdain for bad-tempered and ill-judged attacks from one side of the fence to the other. This is compounded by the nature of the fence which is both ill-defined and mobile.

So, the best place to start is with a definition. This is unlikely to strike a chord with anyone else but makes sense to me. Mainstream poetry is characterised by a less convoluted use of syntax, a ‘sense’ that is reasonably clear after two or three (at most) attentive readings and is profoundly cagey about the obscure and/or the intellectual. In terms of subject matter, most of it seems to be taken up with what Michael Drayton once referred to as the “ah, me” type of versifying which seems to have been the most consistent theme of British poetry since the start of time.

The other disturbing and quite recent trend in the mainstream is to be quite arch in tone which may be pleasing to some but which I find to be an affected way of not saying very much.

I stopped reading any kind of contemporary poetry about fifteen years ago because the mainstream bored me, I viewed the Cambridge faction as hopelessly elitist and Geoffrey Hill scared me to death. I immersed myself in all things Spenser, Milton and Marvell which has been immensely rewarding. My recentish acquaintance with Hill and the Cambridge / Brighton / Adorno / vaguely leftist, dialectical faction has re-affirmed my faith in what’s going on now but that doesn’t mean that I like all of what the latter group produce, there are some poets that I find as dire and dismal as those in the mainstream even though their ideological and intellectual credentials may be impeccable.

I can however see the ‘point’ of what Hill, Prynne, Sutherland et al are trying to do whereas I tend to struggle with what appears to be the wilful smugness of the mainstream.

Just before Xmas I gave some money to Clutag because their latest edition of ‘Archipelago’ contains four poems from Hill’s forthcoming ‘Odi Babare’. I’ll write about these in the New Year but the other poets in this edition are fully paid up members of Establishment poetry (Motion, Oswald, Jenkins etc) and I read these with interest. There are two significant findings-

1. Whatever Geoffrey Hill is, he isn’t in any way connected to the mainstream. His poems stand out like sore thumbs in comparison to the rest. There are also much much more entertaining, powerful and technically efficient.

2. The mainstream still fails to hold my attention, I tried really hard to like the Alice Oswald poem but after three readings decided that it was cleverly empty but not clever enough to be impressively empty.

I also bought pamphlets by Tom Paulin and Anne Stevenson which went some way to redressing the above. I read Paulin up to the mid-nineties and then lost interest because he seemed to be free-wheeling and not giving his talent the prod that it needed. This pamphlet is called ‘The Camouflage School’ and it contains one poem that is very good indeed. ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ is about the desperate voyages made by merchant ships across the North Atlantic in the Second World War. It holds my attention because of its tone, the things it has to say and (most importantly) its use of ordinary language to say complex things-

your ship a heavy warehouse
its bridge a watchtower
- in it you feel exposed
like leading always with your chin
while the sea is a great lens
watching us till the storms
we crave burl and wrap us
from the U-boat's single eyes
or the sea is flat like a desert
a desert that watches us
as we wait to be wounded

It’s a long poem (14 pages) and it holds my attention because of lines like ‘like leading always with your chin’ and the use of images like wanting to be burled and wrapped in a storm (whilst still leading with the chin). It’s an accomplished ans striking piece of work yet it meets the above ‘criteria’ for the mainstream in every aspect.

The other poems are less successful and it might be argued that I have a soft spot for memorialisation poems but I think it shows that the mainstream can’t be entirely written off.

Stevenson and Paulin have Elizabeth Bishop in common, both have written eloquently about her and Stevenson’s ‘Lament for the Makers’ contains a reference to the first letter that she wrote to Bishop in the mid sixties. The poem is a sequence, the first part being ‘about’ Peter Redgrove and the second relates to other poets that Stevenson has known or admired.

I’m not usually terribly keen on poems about poetry but this one is sustained and accomplished with very few naff notes. The three line stanza is used throughout. This is the end of the first poem-

A last, late finger of grace
still brightens far reaches
of a barbarous empire

lyrically and lovingly.
Most of what we write
time will erase.

It’s also a dream sequence in the finest medieval tradition- this is Stevenson waking at the end of the first sequence-

Then the crowd suddenly rose-
a blizzard of insects,
so many I could not believe

fame had undone so many,
blinding me,
battering my hair and mouth.

I lay in an agony
of just-woken tears
accepting those stings like kisses.

Anybody who doesn’t recognise the value in this has no soul, is unable to recognise the honesty and intelligence of the above lines, is blind to the inherent worth of self-consciously writing within the broad river of English verse. To dismiss work such as these two poems because of a factional or ideological ‘position’ is just as facile as those who level the charge of obscurity and elitism.

I’m not advocating a neutrality towards poetic value, not suggesting that we accept the dire and the dismal on either side of the fence but am tentatively suggesting that direct, straightforward poems don’t have to be bad poems.

Both pamphlets are available from Clutag at a very reasonable £10 each.

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6 responses to “Mainstream Poetry and the ecumenical view – Tom Paulin and Anne Stevenson

  1. Thanks for these — the excerpts you post are promising. I could cavil a bit at both (for example, the figure of the finger in the Stevenson seems undermotivated or underused), but that sort of complaint has a way of resolving itself in context.

    Your variant of “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell…” is endearingly characteristic, but it’s not much of an argument, I think you’ll admit. I would challenge you to spell out, for instance, the worth you find in quoting one of the most famous Dante quotations in English poetry, with a tweak.

    • They’re both cavilable for all sorts of reasons, I’m not going to accept the challenge because I think the tweaks via Dante and Eliot are part of the ‘point’. I like being endearingly characteristic although you’d have to expand on the adjective. I confess to using the same cliche when trying to find something positive to say about Hill’s ‘Oraclau’ but I think I’ll stop now.

      • I wrote “characteristic” because I thought you had written “anyone with a functioning nervous system must admire these lines” or words to that effect somewhere before. But that’s fine — obviously at some point arguments must devolve to “I like this”, and there won’t be an argument from first principles to be unearthed. So, apologies for the unnecessarily aggressive “challenge”.

        And happy new year to you!

      • Happy New Year to you too and thank you again for all your thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions.

        Thinking this through, I should have explained that Stevenson’s dream was about Peter Redgrove who had just died and was trying (like Virgil) to explain the afterlife to her. The extended run on “I like this” was an attempt to counteract the blanket sneer that is sometimes applied by members of the Cambridge / Brighton / Adorno / dialectical faction to all of the mainstream. I don’t think sneering in either direction is particularly helpful.

  2. One of my New Year resolutions is to spend more time responding (well it would be difficult to spend less) to your excellent running commentary on British poetry and publishing today. Your current posting is a good a place to start – and your typology, the ‘ah, me’ mainstream v. the Cambridge faction (although now migrated to Brighton) calls to mind a civil war battle with one side shrouded in mist and obscured to the view of the far larger and well organised side – fully backed by main stream publishing – and every town in the country offering venues for their views listened to by eager and attentive audiences. Of course the mainstream comprises what – 90% of sales? – if not more – and seldom do they give a thought to the mist – a raggle-taggle army – with a number of small presses, self publishing ventures, the internet – gathering in pubs and holding conferences at universities. No doubt the current Tory attack on working class educational opportunities will alter this landscape – if they are allowed to remain in power.

    Of course the division is simplistic, as you are aware – but often discussions with poets and poetry readers (ah they as scarce as short story readers?) will reduce to this ‘the difficult matter: to shrink the confines down’: ‘Yes – but what does it mean?’, when JHP’s poetry is raised – and you/I tire of explaining the road not taken by most, offered via modernism through Objectivism, Black Mountain, Field Theory an alternative scope for British poetry energising the few. This was compounded by university teaching in the seventies and eighties barely acknowledging developments in (French) critical theory, but I digress.

    Typecasting poets/poetry is quite fun but inevitably will harden into prejudices – your point is well made:

    To dismiss work such as these two poems because of a factional or ideological ‘position’ is just as facile as those who level the charge of obscurity and elitism.

    I’ve just been catching up on the March issue (Vol.3, No.1) of the ‘Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry’. It has a useful article by Will Montgomery: ‘Fractalizing the front line: Brixton in the poetry of Allen Fisher and Linton Kwesi Johnson’. I raise it here because who would ever think of putting these two poets, one popular – one obscure together and producing such an innovative article?

    Like you I’ve struggled with Hill for many years – I have a problem with his self regard – though you’ve never mentioned Christopher Middleton (no knighthood though!).

    Finally whatever school – let’s not forget ‘fun’ – and draw your attention to John Wilkinson’s just published (Crater Press: http://www.craterpress.co.uk/ ) ‘The ode at the gate of the gathering’ – well worth £10. What’s it about? – Ah well I’m still studying the ingredients.

    Happy New Year.

    • Peter,

      Happy New Year and many thanks for this which has set off a further train of thoughts. To start with, please feel free to digress away, I’m all in favour of the extended digress and feel that more of us should do it more often- apart from that I’d like to know where that particular train of thought was taking you. I’ve tried quite hard with both Wilkinson and Middleton but I’m still struggling to be enthusiastic/positive about either which is odd because, given their respective backgrounds and interests, I ought to be a fully committed fan but I’m not.
      I do look forward to the fulfilment of your resolution, your observations thus far have always been perceptive and thought-provoking.
      With regard to Hill, the four new poems from the forthcoming tome would appear to signal another abrupt switch in direction but this is likely to be more positive than the lurch taken with ‘Oraclau’.
      It also occurs to me that, even in this narrow corner, there’s far too much to read and give attention to.

      Thanks again

      john

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