Iain Sinclair, ed. Conductors of Chaos: A Poetry Anthology, Picador, 1996. 9.99The history of so-called 'Mainstream Poetry' in Britain has been often orchestrated through its representative anthologies. Whether it has been the various Apocalyptic anthologies of the war years, The New Apocalypse (1939) and The White Horsemen (1941), (1) or the less pluralistic New Lines of 1956,(2) which launched the Movement, the thumbnail version of this history has been articulated in terms of what A Alvarez characterised as 'a series of negative feed-backs' (3) between decades and, by extension, between anthologies.
Maggie O'Sullivan ed. Out of Everywhere: linguistically innovative poetry by women in
North America & the UK, Reality Street, 1996. 9.00
The Movement presented itself as a rational alternative to the New Apocalypse, which it regarded as deliberately obscurantist and formless, embodied in the demonised figure of the recently deceased Dylan Thomas. Indeed, Alvarez' thesis was itself proposed in the introduction to another anthology, The New Poetry (1962) which sought to nudge British poetry beyond the perceived gentility of the 'academic-administrative verse, polite, knowledgeable, efficient, polished, and, in its quiet way, even intelligent' of the Movement itself, towards the extremity exemplified by Ted Hughes and - in later editions - Sylvia Plath.(Alvarez: 19) Retrospectively it appears that the eschewal of gentility was temporary. By the time of the 'reformation of poetic taste' (4) of the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, published in 1982 (which infamously declared that 'very little ...seemed to be happening' in the previous two decades) (Morrison and Motion: 11) the Movement orthodoxy, admittedly souped up with ludic metaphorisation, and thereby cautiously exhibiting 'something of the spirit of post-modernism', seemed back in business. (Morrison and Motion: 20) It had replaced what Peter Ackroyd identified in Plath as ' the experience of a false subjectivity generat(ing) a false world of objects' (5) with what Andrew Crozier dubs 'empirical lyricism' (6): a poetry which 'draws a line round an incident or area of experience' as Morrison and Motion put it in their Penguin anthology. (Morrison and Motion: 18) This is essentially the post-war empirical lyricial style exemplified by Larkin's 'Church Going': the solitary figure approaches an object or person with awe, only to be deflected or disappointed, before strategic withdrawal and some minute change in the narrator's belief systems. It is the blueprint for thousands of post war poems.
The arrival in 1993 of another volume called The New Poetry seemed either an opportunistic or an unimaginative confirmation of Alvarez' 'feed-back' paradigm. (7) Yet The New Poetry (the second) proposed itself as both a 'new generation of poets' (a term that was shortened in a marketing ploy of the mid-1990s), and 'the beginning of the end of British poetry's tribal divisions and isolation, and a new cohesiveness', the end of negative feed-backs. (Hulse:16) As proof of this last claim the editors point to their inclusiveness: 55 poets reduced from a list of 250 established by 'trawling exhaustively' through presses large and small. (Hulse:14) The emergent public poetry, which encompasses post-colonialism, a new regionalism, nationalism, gender and race, 'is unembarrassed by the constraints of Romantic first person lyricism' (Hulse:17). This places the Movement Orthodoxy (though anti-Romantic in rhetoric) as essential to this project, although the now unfashionable sexist, racist, post-Imperialist Larkin is the centre and absence of this contemporary discourse, which oddly remains as 'moral, representational' and 'empirical' as Movement verse, although its characteristic ironical strategies are replaced by a more playful 'scepticism' and a less defensive post-modernism than the previous decade's. (Hulse:27) This involves a plural sense of world, action and self, through a suitable mingling of literary and non-literary styles. However, some writers seem not to live up to these editorial generalisations, as when Sujata Bhatt and Jackie Kay are permitted to 'preserve a relatively uncontaminated singleness of the first person'. (Hulse:23) The case of Jackie Kay is instructive; the rhetoric of the introduction operates to assert her centrality by appeals to her (social and biographical) marginality. Indeed, the notion of a 'marginality becoming central', a rare critical formulation in the editors' introduction, which they have borrowed from Terry Eagleton (Hulse:18), becomes their metaphor for uniting their very wide range of poets in a rainbow alliance.
Outside of the old Mainstream, of course, the emergent black poetries and women's poetries of the 1970s and 1980s staked their own claims to specificity, but it is the distinction of the editors of The New Poetry, in their own opinions, that they have apparently been able not only to cease the cycles of negative feed-backs but to effect a judicious assimiliation of various poetries in a spirit of what the editors describe credulously as 'total openness' (Hulse:14), to archive a healthy and democratic pluralism.
Claims to totality and centrality (or marginality for that matter) need unpacking precisely because they leave something or somebody out, in this case most of the formally inventive, experimental, poetries - what might once have been called the 'avant garde' - which operate almost exclusively among the small presses the three editors claim to have trawled so efficiently. (This is not to say that all small press poetry is formally inventive, of course.)
But what should we properly call this poetry? We could use the title of one of its few anthologies, The New British Poetry (1988), (8) yet this seems a little close to the title of the Bloodaxe anthology (although in fact it derives from the famous US anthology of 1960: The New American Poetry.(9)) In any case, the first two sections are representative mini-anthologies of black and feminist work, some of which reappears in The New Poetry itself. In the last two sections we find the innovative work which is my concern here and also a clue to terminology. The work of the British Poetry Revival of 1960-1975, a term Eric Mottram used frequently, is featured in the third section which he edited. This proposed itself as a formalist proto-Modernist negative feedback to the Movement, one which looked to European Dada and Surrealism and to the American revolutions in poetic metre and diction for its inspiration. It is curious to see that Hulse et al. claim the significant influence of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara on their poets, such as John Ash and Geoff Hattersley, when 30 years previously a more contemporary connection was established between these writers and Lee Harwood and John James , both of whom are in the first of the two recent alternative anthologies I wish to examine, Conductors of Chaos.
More recently the clumsy term Linguistically Innovative Poetry has been used of much of the work contained in the fourth section of The New British Poetry, "Some Younger Poets", edited by Ken Edwards, as a kind of analogue to American language poetry. It seems appropriate to work of the 1980s and 1990s which has a more theoretical turn, encompassing a poetic of indeterminacy and discontinuity, using techniques of disruption and creative linkage, while it continues, without a reactive feed-back, the formal ambition of the earlier British work. In practice there are many overlaps, not least of all between the two anthologies I will explore, the second of which is clearly in this area, given its full title: Out of Everywhere: linguistically innovative poetry by women in North America and the UK.
Conductors of Chaos is the brainchild of poet and novelist Iain Sinclair. A veteran of the British Poetry Revival, his recently re-issued Lud Heat/Suicide Bridge (book-length projects from 1974 and 1979 respectively) could very well be in the anthology; (10) his time as the Poetry Consultant at Paladin demonstrates his desire to obtain the same visibility for marginal poets that he has achieved himself; however it is odd that his introduction should not mention The New British Poetry, which his Paladin predecessor, John Muckle, coordinated (and which includes Sinclair). Odd indeed, because too much of his introduction is exhausted critiquing 'the absolute betrayal of the programme they presume to promote' of the 'ice-floe of meaningless anthologies' (Sinclair:xiii) that have appeared since the 1960s. He senses that, after Michael Horovitz' Children of Albion anthology of 1969, they had become an institution for 'the suppression of a more radical and heterodox body of work'. (Sinclair:xv) If these defensive gestures are meant to deflect from his own anthology's (necessary) shortcomings, they don't work, and they are peculiarly placed for any first time browser, or anybody hoping to discern Sinclair's programme.
Certainly there was no widely available anthology between Horovitz and The New British Poetry, (other than Edward Lucie-Smith's catholic British Poetry Since 1945 (11)). Why this was so is difficult to say; one reason which suggests itself is that for those in the know the operations of the dedicated small presses of the period worked as anthologies of their own: a trip to a poetry reading above a pub in London or Durham might yield a handful of publications, some purchased, some given away free. The existence of a vast network of small magazines also ensured that the thirst for comparative and multiple publication was handled in periodicals rather than anthologies. The reluctance of the big presses, of course, to commit money to a marginal enterprise also contributed to this.
My characterisation of the small press scene lacks the panache and imaginative gloss of Sinclair's introduction. The gifts that have justly made Sinclair an acclaimed novelist (and it is interesting that he had to largely neglect poetry to gain that regard), the depiction of a gritty hyperreality, an arcane and conspiritorial world, as evinced in White Chappel/Scarlet Tracings (1987) and Downriver (1991) (12) are deployed to create a vampiric world of poetic paracitism and backbiting, choosing for its 'special-needs citizen' characters (Sinclair:xvii) seedy locations for their damaged egos, a kind of inverted version of appeals to the institutional marginalities of The New Poetry. 'They correspond compulsively and at length, dispatching multiple photocopies of their poison-pen squibs to the relevant small-press editors. A private world: their reports, scratched on glass, are of events that happen elsewhere, outside, beyond their sphere of influence.' (Sinclair:xviii)
This has all the advantages and disadvantages of putting Cornell Woolrich in charge of publicity for the Millennium Dome. The introduction is unfortunately entitled 'Infamous and Invisible' but the mythic infamy causes the continued invisibility, and is reinforced by the rhetoric of this nonetheless enjoyable introduction. I only recognise the satiric shadow of my own involvement in this poetry, not least as an anthologist myself.
The introduction is boldly subtitled 'A Manifesto for Those Who Do not Believe in Such Things'; Sinclair presumes to know what his 36 various poets believe or don't and to speak for them, verbalising their marginality. His assertion that 'these apes from the attic ... are the ones that have been locked away, those who rather enjoy it' (Sinclair:xvii) seems perverse given the efforts by many of the contributors to be involved in publishing and performing ventures. You don't spend a week at your own exhibtion, as did Brian Catling at the Serpentine Galleries in 1994, reading for 8 hours a day, without a desire for an audience. It is, however, this sort of performance work that Sinclair possibly has in mind when he admits 'that something, at last, is happening out there: crusty revenants conspiring with uppity newcomers' (Sinclair:xviii) even if Sinclair's ventriloquist introduction warns us of 'joyous exorcisms of polluted public spaces by poet-shamans who don't give a damn if anyone is watching'. (Sinclair:xviii) To any newcomer this must surely be a turn off!
As a manifesto, too, it is lacking; Sinclair has no theory of textual complexity, no appeals to a poetic of creative linkage, for example, other than stating the work's right to be difficult:
The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don't claim to 'understand' it but I like having it around. The darker it grows outside the window, the worse the noises from the island, the more closely do I attend to the mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk.... The very titles are pure adrenalin.... You don't need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers.' (Sinclair:xvii)
This fetishism of the book seems comically close to that of Raymond Briggs' Bogeymen who 'like to taste their books' (though small press books are notoriously not 'made with stout covers to protect them from the licking and sucking they have to endure'! (13)
The criteria of selection of this 'pick-'n'-mix shambles of has-beens, headcases and emerging chancers' (Sinclair:xiii), to quote another turn off from his opening paragraph, is haphazard if we take seriously his assertion that despite 'trawling', like the editors of The New Poetry (though in Sinclair's case for 'hunches') he 'offered space to those who seemed to want it most'. (Sinclair:xix) The result is mainly a mixture of the new performance writers (accessed, I imagine, through association with Catling, the artist Joblard of Sinclair's novels), and work of a group with which his own poetry is often associated: the so-called 'Cambridge' school. The 1988 anthology A Various Art, (14) which previously collected much of that 'school' is presented here as the David who couldn't be bothered to turn up for the fight with the Goliath of the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. Conductors of Chaos is not an attempt to present the 'best' or 'most important' (Sinclair:xix); it has the force of enervated witness-account; it does not declare the kind of 'comprehensive' poetic consensus exemplified by The New Poetry's rhetoric. Its very existence destabilises those claims: Sinclair reserves his bitterest satire for the 'new generation', 'the eternally not-quite young' who 'feed off images of blight'. (Sinclair:xvi)
The consensus is also contested by the inclusion in Conductors of Chaos of edited excerpts from non-canonical writers of the past who have slipped outside of official views of twentieth century poetry, and who deserve their places in any retrospective acclamation of the margins: David Jones as a representative of a neglected British modernism; David Gascoyne as surrealist opposition to the MacSpaunday 'contemporaries' of the 1930s; JF Hendry and Nicholas Moore as examples of the much maligned Apocalypse (try Hendry's magnificent Yeatsian "London Before Invasion, 1940" (Sinclair:74) and WS Graham, that fine lyricist of the fictive who emerged from that 1940s ambience to be the finest 'rediscovered' poet since Basil Bunting. The early though flawed Lee Harwood piece 'Cable Street' (1964) (Sinclair:141-148) could almost belong with these precursor texts, exemplifying an early assimilation of Williams' and Olson's concern for the local, which was translated into the East End of London, and which influenced later British Poetry Revival writers, not least of all Sinclair himself.
Each poet of the 36 poets is well introduced in terms of bibliography and a couple of useful quotations in this generous 488 page volume. The anthology can be best characterised by its startling contrasts of style. It opens, by accident of alphabet, with the careful, usually too meticulous, performance work of Caroline Bergvall, showcasing a spendidly funny, typographically extravagant post-porn piece for two 'kissers': ('come legs over legs suck armpits with tongue') accompanying a marginal gloss: 'on remembering one's past suddenly' (Sinclair:7); the volume closes with Aaron Williamson's no less exuberent explorations of deafness, risking distorting semantics and allowing play on the space of the page as a text for performance: 'AN OVERHANG OF SPAKE ... HARANGUE ITS ACHE'. (Sinclair:475) The vatic shallowness of Jeremy Reed's self-presentation ('I anticipate meeting William Blake/leading two lions on a leash' (Sinclair:360)) contrasts with the evanescent presentation of a far from stable lyric female ego, a voice that the promises of identity divides from itself, in the work of Denise Riley:
in sleep alone I get articulate to mouth the part of anyone and reel off others' characters until the focus of a day through one-eyed self sets in again: go into it. I must. (Sinclair:393)John James presents another cool 'Cambridge' take (though a male one) on nocturnal fantasy in the luscious 'Sleep' ('you came to me in a dream in a mini-crini/turning away the crease at the top of your thighs') which ends self-reflexively: 'here in this your poem & mine. I beg you to free this boy'. (Sinclair:180) This finds its intertext in Kelvin Corcoran's more tortured: 'Here in this your underworld and mine/I beg you to keep this boy'. (Sinclair:46) Stewart Home's anarchist elitist-populism ('These are the idiots who read Milton instead of Abiezer Coppe' (Sinclair:166)) compares unfavourably to the work of JH Prynne who has read, and learnt from, both. The supposed figurehead (Godfather, I suspect Sinclair would prefer!) of the Cambridge 'school', is represented by a baffling but beautiful new text, 'Her Weasels Wild Returning'; its 7 sections of 24 lines (divided into 12s) suggest the measures of time itself, whilst focussing, not on an 'I', however fractured, but on an obsessively tracked "she, she, she, and only she". (Sinclair:351) Whereas earlier work had used specific specialised discourses, here the text seems to suggest simultaneously the language and worlds of consumerism, physical attack, even rape, in a knot of refernce that might be called an image-complex. Note the connotations that radiate from the word 'slashed', which invites the sceptical judgement that follows:
Her step pervades the slashed shelf life here to utter startled bleeding, that can't be right, loaded entry starvation gives over at last these particulate verticals. (Sinclair:351)The influence of of this dense multiple referentiality can be detected in the works of Rod Mengham, Ian Patterson, Drew Milne and John Wilkinson, although in Wilkinson particularly this is driven to a new intensity of engagement. Other 'Cambridge' writers here demonstrate ways to escape the verbal impaction of Prynne, Peter Riley and Michael Haslam into pastoral, Andrew Duncan and Andrew Crozier into the quasi-narrative, as in the latter's brilliant exploration of the vissitudes of perception and consciousness, 'Free Running Bitch', which is reminiscent of the abstract perceptual obessions of an absent fellow-spirit, Roy Fisher:
an outline of rod or cone which jumps from figure to ground filling in gaps, section to plane, volume with shape as bodies in space set out in rows to start looking repeating itself, recessional accent on memory making out lines between stripes. (Sinclair:65)However, Douglas Oliver's rhetorical excursion into African history seems ill-judged in 'A Salvo for Malawi'.
Whether you're a Carribean in Brixton able to instruct me, or white middle class in Surrey ... all our paradoxes meet in Chilembwe's life, (Sinclair:286)may be true, but the public mode of address seems awkward, false.
Other idiosyncratic voices which date back to the 1970s - some have contrasted a London to the Cambridge school- are representated here by recent work, and are worth the price of the anthology alone. Allen Fisher, for me the most important in the anthology, is represented by excerpts from his long project Gravity as a Consequence of Shape, a work which offers interfering narratives that combine the condensed reference and poetic use of specialist languages, as found in JH Prynne, with juxtapositions and leaps of a Tom Raworth (another major writer excluded). The excitement of these texts lies in the tension between the forward thrust and the lateral shifts which creates a jagged polyphony. The texts involve the reader in structuring the irregularity into coherence:
The misogynist produces now a soiled history before he becomes part of its process Through inhibition of similar structures in his organs to those he is disgusted by he erects the parental crack of his hatred (Sinclair:107)where the 'crack' of the misogynist's vocabulary mixes with the scientific language of biochemistry that has partly determined him and thrusts him into history 'now'.
Bill Griffiths is a true independent, often self-published in a welter of short run individual pamphlets, whose thematic range includes Hells Angel wars and Anglo-Saxon translation, local history and anarchist philosophy. The single long, and multi-voiced, sequence, 'Reveries' balances what feels like a transliteration from some ancient text
And clouds bring ghosts orb-gobs not a gold-chain of justice for them anywhere soon they're soaked hellwards (Sinclair:115)with what appears to be a demotic and satirical denial of cherished contemporary instituions:
(things are nothing) you take and sell weddings are made in white curvy clothes of the women and jelled ribs 'n' god's tablet gifts 'n' advert sponges timeless dogs' faithfulness a fuck off (Sinclair:122)Barry MacSweeney, who with Book of Demons (1997) (15) is the only one of these poets to make the Bloodaxe list, excerpts his tortured 'Hell-Hound Memos' where heroes such as bluesman Robert Johnson stand as analogues in a fight with pyschological and social depression, but with a sudden sense of contemporary bleakness that matches Peter Reading, whilst still remaining, as do all these writers, in much freer measures:
I'm the only jackpot chancer on the job, estate joy-rider extraordinaire. Bored by the listless summer, when the boys in blue are in Marbella on the piss (Sinclair:227)Newer writers, such as Alan Halsey, with his discourse of tricky puns and aphoristic tangles ('They keep things straight in the belief that straight/things keep'(Sinclair:132)) or the alliteratively generous Geraldine Monk and Maggie O'Sullivan show the vitality of the non-'Cambridge' linguistic innovation of the 1980s and 1990s, to which I shall return. Cris Cheek's 'Stranger', though perhaps too typographically arbitrary, points towards a more mediated, estranged, engagement with Africa than Oliver's:
'Hey, Stranger - I dreamed that you Were' Here where it is always Almost daybreak. A perpetual drawback of Misunderstandings. That lie in Objects half seen, half truths Crawling, fumbling corruption Part light out of Humane Incomprehension A Prehensile compassion. (Sinclair:27)Writers who don't fit into my window space summary are the intense Grace Lake, the brooding Tony Lopez, the ebulient Zappa-voiced Out to Lunch (though here with a fake Herrick epiphany: 'the tidemark at low ebb, the /downy underwear changed nightly'(Sinclair:323), the hopelessly bucolic Chris Torrance and American fellow traveller of the language poets, Stephen Rodefer.
Only 9 of the 30 contributors to Out of Everywhere are British women poets, 5 of whom I have mentioned so far as contributors to Conductors of Chaos: Bergvall, Lake, Monk, O'Sullivan, and Riley. The book features a large selection of North American poetry, mostly so-called 'language' poetry, a movement whose formalism consists of using disruptive techniques and exploiting the mechanisms of reference in ordinary language to generate estranged discourses that, in Barthesian terms, are essentially writerly, that re-orders discourses and the world that discourse constructs. (16) Some of the best practitioners are the women published here, with work which may be characterised as representing a dialogue with chosen materials. (17) Rosmarie Waldrop has been producing an extraordinary series of prose texts, well beyond the muted lyricism of the prose poem, that are 'writing back' to other texts (notably Wittgenstein's).(18) Occasionally they take on an explicitly feminist slant, as here, where the language written back to is definitely patriarchal. 'Being a woman and without history, I wanted to explore how the grain of the world runs, hoping for backward and forward, the way sentences breathe even this side of explanation. But you claimed that words absorb all perspective and blot out the view. (O'Sullivan:123)
Lyn Hejinian's My Life, first published in 1980, is a fractured prose autobiography, procedurally generated (one sentence in each section for each year of her life) as the author ages. (19) The reader is involved in what is only ironically a personal discourse, since 'my life' is conducted primarily at the level of form, not of content. The updated 'nineties' excerpt here begins with some surprise at the insufficiencies of autobiography as a mode: 'What! is the fiftieth year of my life now complete? such a living life? such an inconstant one?' which precedes what was formerly its opening, a meditation on its own method of juxtaposing empirically unrelated sentences. 'Imagine the film equivalent of this, one shot per sentence, this one of....' (O'Sullivan:63) And then the reader negotiates the next 'jump-cut' of the text, a technique of constant re-adjustment and insight not unlike that of Allen Fisher's, but which has gained the name of 'the new sentence' in language poetry theory. (20)
It is beyond the scope of this essay to consider whether ' criture feminine' exists, as that is articulated by Cixous, but if it does then it arguably resides not in the work of Jackie Kay or Carol Ann Duffy, but in this work, both North American and British, which is interestingly located outside of most gatherings of women's poetry, despite its relevance to its debates. Editor Maggie O'Sullivan's introduction uses the words of 'an unidentified audience member' (O'Sullivan:9) at a Waldrop talk who noted how such linguistically innovative work by women is doubly excluded by the institutionised marginalities of feminist poetry or Gilbert and Gubar anthologies. The comment provides this volume with its title: 'There's an extra difficulty being a woman poet and writing the kind of poetry you write: you are out of everywhere (laughter).' (O'Sullivan:9) The danger is of being 'out' in the sense of being nowhere while the favoured margins become the new centre. O'Sullivan points out, perhaps a little too stridently, that 'Excluded from "women's canons", such work does, however, connect up with linguistically innovative work by men who have themselves also transcended the agenda-based and cliché-ridden rallying positions of mainstream poetry', (O'Sullivan:9) work featured in Conductors of Chaos and other anthologies listed below.
Comparison with the Sinclair anthology can be afforded by recourse to the genuine and distinctive voice of Denise Riley, quoted above, whose work is in both books. In the context of these formal experiments her work (which, in any case, has found itself in the Penguin Modern Poets series),(21) seems muted, the ironical play with voice and self more often attenuated by traditional rhetorical figures.
By contrast work by Maggie O'Sullivan herself, upon which I wish to concentrate as the most interesting writing by a British woman in the book, can baffle or delight, baffle and delight, particularly in performance, where the constant stream of words is delivered with a careful attention to its rhythmic weight, to its alliterative connections. In the poem 'Hill Figures', which suggests an ancient cromlech amid a natural landscape, the sinister evocation of brooding hilltop birds is negotiated by a sound structure that is not mimetic:
Owls, Blood-bed Bird-gear turbulent Ruled it, (O'Sullivan:70)She invents new lexical items, some fairly simple, 'twindom' instead of kingdom, (O'Sullivan:70) but others approach a Joycean pun: 'superates' (O'Sullivan:70) or 'reversionary'. (O'Sullivan:71) New compounds surprise:
elved X, chema - tensions chema- nexions: (O'Sullivan:71)This provides new ways of thinking in terms of tensions and connections within nature and culture. The suggestions of mutant elves and the X of the chromosomes, or of textual deletion or partial erasure (is 'elved' a word fragment?) link with the next, isolated word in the text: 'poisons'.(O'Sullivan:71) It registers an alarm at ecological and linguistic erasure. The reader has to pay attention to this particular and peculiar lineation, spacing and punctuation on the page. I believe the reader has to recognise a moment which resembles language being born rather than language being used to represent something, witnessing an ideolect, a personal register of language, becoming a thick sociolect she or he temporarily shares, even as the words themselves are cut in half or twisted (that excisive X again) in the suggestive violence of:
pins, xins, flicted rid out of hell reflectorised - clanked - (O'Sullivan:71)I believe O'Sullivan's process of writing to be a series of transformations of descriptive language into exuberant and performative language, a transformation that is fully aware that the material of poetry is not perception but language. Yet what is fascinating and complex about this work is its refusal to abandon the precision of the naturalist's eye (and ear). There is as much fidelity towards the given as in Ted Hughes, at the root of the transformation, the 'hill figures' of the 'nailed Eagles' of the poem's first line: a predatory but, finally, inviting, world. (O'Sullivan:70)
fanged, crowey, clotted into: buckled poly-scream drip wounds Bade. (O'Sullivan:71)But the comparison with Hughes does not extend to technique. The only way to make language shift like the lard that O'Sullivan's hero Josef Beuys used as his sculptural substance is to work with the instability inside the linguistic sign. Materiality, as in lard, is precise and precisely transformation. It is this tension between a trenchant poetic artificiality and its fidelity to the processes of nature - which meet in the notion of materiality, as both a visual text and as sonic realisation in performance - that makes O'Sullivan's work as unique as that of Griffiths and MacSweeney, to whom she has paid homage. It is proof of the strength of linguistically innovative writing in this country at the moment. There is more British-based work akin to this in Out of Everywhere. There are examples of the slender lyricism of Wendy Mulford; the performance and visual poetry of Paula Claire; the performance and text pieces of Carlyle Reedy and Fiona Templeton (though not an extract from her breathtakingly complex urban real-time play for an audience of one, You - The City, which explicitly revalues theatrical conventions). (22) Because of this it makes Out of Everywhere, for me, a more satisfying collection of contemporary practices than Conductors of Chaos.
Nevertheless, both are essential reading. I have emphasised the sheer diversity and contrasts of this work because most of the very few accounts of this field of cultural production represent it as a slender but monolithic avant garde. A 'mainstream' review of Conductors of Chaos, in The Observer, by Don Paterson, pronounced (from the security of the centre of course, his cardboard cut-out adorning Waterstones for the season), 'Poets end up at the margins for different reasons' (23), but it is my point to show how powerful, numerous, and various are the poets who choose to start and stay there, working with the resources of a radical poetic artifice, a creative linkage that engages the world, inventing fresh continuties. Other anthologies supplement Conductors of Chaos and Out of Everywhere; Verbi, Visi, Voco: Ten British Poets; my own co-edited Floating Capital; plus two North American magazine anthologies, 'New British and Irish Writing: A Selection', edited by Peter Quartermain in West Coast Line, and 'A Selection of New UK Poetry' edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Middleton in Talisman, which could be considered as previews of Caddel and Quartermain's projected anthology Other, due this year. (24) Between them they must cover the work of about 250 marginal poets, the quantity of The New Poetry's initial trawl. (Additional note, 1999: both Other and The New Poetry contain the work of 55 poets.) An anthology, then, like The New Poetry, will always be more than usually exclusive, despite its attentions to the marginalities of race, gender, etc., unless it can accommodate stylistic marginalisations of the kinds touched on here which are suffering from 'exclusion', as the fashionable word has it. The resultant field would be wide, but, of course, the intensity of engagements there, if admitted, might threaten the apparent consensus of the 'New Generation' and its rhetoric of neatly balanced institutionalised marginalities into a confrontation with historical and contemporary Others.
This review-article was first published in Critical Survey, Volume 10, Number 1, 1998