Michael Peverett: From the Charity Shops..Two British Anthologies

It's unusual to find volumes by individual poets in the charity shops, but sooner or later every poetry anthology comes my way. Bemusing gift, library chuck-out...

The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, ed. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, is a mainstream anthology published in 1982. Conductors of Chaos, ed. Iain Sinclair, 1996, is an "alternative" riposte.

The Morrison and Motion book contains, of course, some wonderful poetry. It begins, breathtakingly, with Seamus Heaney's "Churning Day" -

A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast,
hardened gradually on top of the four crocks
that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry.
After the hot brewery of gland, cud and udder
cool porous earthenware fermented the buttermilk
for churning day...

That's how it starts. I suppose this must be an early Heaney poem. Somehow, as I continue through the Heaney section, the excitement sags a bit. Maybe "Churning Day" is crude, maybe "gland" isn't quite perfect, or "porous" quite true, but these are details: the butter-making is marvellously alive, and so is the voice that rolls it out.

On the other hand, from a later poem:

And in that dream I dreamt - how like you this? -
Our first night years ago in that hotel
When you came with your deliberate kiss
To raise us towards the lovely and painful
Covenants of flesh; our separateness;
The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.

(Glanmore Sonnets, X)

All clever and distinguished (imagine wedging it into a sonnet...), a quote from Thomas Wyatt for the EngLit readership, notice how he's dreaming of them dreaming, etc etc: but when all's said I don't feel transported to that vague hotel, and "covenants of flesh" doesn't bring anything to life for me. It seems like the only way to read this poem is to mark it. 8 out of 10. So what?

And then there are all the others. I keep admiring poems I couldn't write. Then I think: but why would you want to?

I would have been the party's life and soul,
But all you wanted was a bed of nails.
I would have chopped the logs and fetched the coal,
But all you lived on was the light that fails.

(James Fenton, "The Kingfisher's Boxing Gloves")

Yes, Kipling, I picked that one too. But granted the validity of this old-fashioned metre (which OK, I do), did the rhythm have to be quite so plodding and inert?

The subjects of these poems are serious and specific, every page has brilliant writing, but I'm bored. I'm more bored than these poems deserve. I know I won't turn the page and be blown away by something that alters my life. Like when I first read Pavese, or any of a dozen poets in Herbert Lomas' "Contemporary Finnish Poetry" - when you're not only thrown headlong into a new experience but (if I can put it this way) a new kind of experience, something all the poetry that you'd read before hadn't prepared you for.

The blurb on the back cover: "There has been no abrupt break with the past, the editors say, but there is unquestionably a new spirit in poetry today: a shared interest in narrative, a pleasure in metaphor, a post-modernist wit..."

Which is depressing, and doesn't do justice to my favourite poets in this collection. Penelope Shuttle:

A strong rain falls, a bony downpour.

("Downpour")

Now I believe she really is writing from out in the rain, whereas, for instance, if James Fenton has ever fetched in the coal he doesn't remember it, he just names it.

And Craig Raine:

Is it fear
halting my child

so that her thumb,
withdrawn for a second,
smokes in the air?

....

Without thinking,
I roll away a stone

with my foot
and find this toad
with acorn eyes

and a brown body
delicate as a drop
of dusty water

("A Walk in the Country")

Iain Sinclair, the editor of "Conductors of Chaos" is, to an outsider, inexplicably rude about the "flash dudes" in the Morrison and Motion anthology. "These purposefully offensive style cowboys..." he rants - and I shrug my shoulders. It looks like jealousy, but that would be like being jealous of someone finding 5p in the road.

Sinclair has a taste for the indigestible and has, understandably, invited his chosen poets to offer their own selections rather than try to sort out his own "favourites". The result is a vast anthology that is nine-tenths unreadable, but for all that, "Conductors of Chaos" makes a lot more sense as a book than most anthologies do. It certainly has an imposing, if rather appalling, presence.

Since I've quoted the first lines of "Contemporary British Poetry", here for comparison is what "Conductors of Chaos" gives you:

SHORT FILE ON COMPRESSION

East is dry carries the journey that will propulse me from there to here: from then to now: I was not ready for so much light. Was not expecting such impact. Bodies carried out and exposed to light: light carrying out its work on the body: vast areas of skin matter: warm: burn: grow unevenly: bulky from exposure: here scarred: here carved and split: disclose fibres of raw flesh: here caved in:

(Caroline Bergvall, "Hands On, Catullus")

Which, to me, feels like automatic writing without too much sign of talent (all the Morrison and Motion poets are, of course, talented). There's 500 pages of this.

Let's pick it up at random later on:

      Please delete, don't sleep yet, not
too sure to get shot through upstream. I know that what
you set under a minded shade tree is hit by first debate
and the air locks in, at a dab rack roaming the field.

(J.H Prynne, "Her Weasels Wild Returning")

Birth stagflation riots in the nest in their nest
woven from the tresses cut according to call-sign,
Bits of copper wire, of red & black sheathing
stuffed with shred old copies, end-users' manuals
nest inside the hollow greet their candidate:

(John Wilkinson, "Cabling the Suburbs")

Unfair to say that it's all like this, but it nearly all is; I swear I didn't have to search for these extracts. It's all breathless, packed with energetic words ("vast", "scarred", "shot", "locks in", "stuffed", "riots"), aggressively contemporary vocabulary (but not idiom), broken syntax that cancels your exhausted attempts to shape a context, ultimately dream-like. The aesthetic of hard-core clubbing: hammering endurance, and finally perhaps visions.

Am I having visions, or is Tony Lopez in fact a very good poet?

A man in ear-muffs and overalls
Strims cow parsley where it shades
Bluebells and snakeshead fritillaries
In the reconstructed wildflower meadow.
Nylon chord rips through lush and juicy stalks
Composing a self-sown woodland glade
With an adroit surgical motion,
Leaving a whiff of petrol on the breeze.
Starving faces in the compound watch
Multi-ethnic commercials on TV
The perfect remodelled features on screen,
Relief grain sacks piled at the quayside
A convoy of burnt-out trucks on the road.

("When you wish...")

It still sounds a bit like an album review in the NME ("rips", "adroit"), and I don't have much feel for a "surgical motion", but I'm struck by the connections he's making in this longish, non-progressive, associative poem. The word "perfect" is, at this stage, connected with vomiting chocolate on white bathroom tiles: bullimia. I'm bothered and upset, but I do begin to believe that there is a way of charging language with a different kind of electricity.

And "When you wish..." does manage to walk around in that bit of modern life that never appears in "Contemporary British Poetry". It's quite a big bit. Like many of the other poets in "Conductors of Chaos" Lopez is fundamentally disgusted, but he gives me more than his disgust, he gives me a sense of the processes of modern life as well. Obviously, these can't be expressed in a traditional way: too many compromises, you lose your objectivity, you tell charming little lies. (It's fantastically difficult to write poetry and not turn your back on the looming vastness of commercial civilisation.)

"Conductors of Chaos" is poetry in what the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim calls "extreme situations". Not to imply that the poets are in that state, unless maybe the bad ones. But the poetry is: it's forced to cohabit with an anti-poetic subject that is much bigger and more powerful than it is, it's bent out of shape to survive... The reason that most of this poetry doesn't make much sense is because it won't talk about particulars, it wants to try and get a sense of everything at once, to be able to tell the truth.

Well, maybe that's impossible, and probably there's a better method to be found. In the mean time, not many people will read this poetry, which Sinclair thinks the poets themselves don't mind. (How depressingly different it all is to that 60's anthology with which he hints a comparison, Michael Horovitz's "Children of Albion"!)

I sit here, growsing at the book: really, I don't care about it, they're pretentious and often just incompetent, they work in a soft medium, they name-drop each other and are spiteful about everything else, Sartre is much more truly alienated and yet he's lucid as can be. It's too much bother to read, it gives me a headache, it turns evenings into deserts...

But it's "Contemporary British Poetry" that's going back to Barnardos.