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The Kiss of Life? The Kiss of Death? Some Thoughts on Linguistically Innovative Poetry and the Academy




Tim Allen


(NOTE: I will use most of the usual terms for such a poetry here and will flit between them as fancy takes me, none are accurate but they are all we’ve got, so no apologies.)  


Let’s start with an anecdote. I’m at an avant poetry event around 2009, really enjoying the poetry (well most of it) but my good mood is being dragged down every time the mistress of ceremonies introduces the next poet. Why? Each and every one of them, with one important exception, is introduced with a long list, not of their books, but of their academic qualifications and placements, as though this is what gives them the right to be heard and their poetry relevant. And I want to shout out, ‘For fuck’s sake, what is this? Do we really give a fig?’ But I don’t of course, I just sit there, and looking around nobody else seems to have a problem. And guess who the exception is, the one poet there who cannot be introduced in this way? It’s Maggie O’Sullivan, top of the bill, who proceeds to give a performance of her work that knocks everyone else’s into that proverbial cocked hat.  


The question of the so-called academisation of avant-garde poetry is a sod to address and I am not even sure if academisation is the right term; just because some of it has become subject matter in some university departments does not mean that it has been academised; would we use the word to describe any other human interest that forms part of degree courses, where its place there was just part of a spectrum? And isn’t a university department one of the natural homes for literature? However, the term has relevance because of the peculiar history of avant-garde poetry, the narrowness of its place in the spectrum etc. My almost visceral response in the scenario above shows that there is an issue, whatever we call it. Jake Berry’s essay, Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion) concerning the scene in the US shows too that there is an issue, whatever the take on it. His article says vital stuff but is also contestable in its details and categories, even for those who broadly agree with him, but that is not surprising considering the complexity of the US scene. Transfer that issue here to the UK and the question should be simpler but it somehow remains just as slippery. In the States the process is older and appears to be fairly well established, while the process here is younger and, in truth, still a bit raw. There are other differences between the two scenes too, caused by dissimilarity in size and culture, things which confer a similarity in the issues while yet making them quite different. Naturally, people’s experience of the issue in the US is going to have a bearing on their opinion of it here, but nevertheless what I say below mainly concerns the UK.


When the issue found its way onto The British and Irish Poets discussion list I was often caught in the middle between championing the poetry I like while asking questions about the implications of that same poetry having its networks of performance and discussion so closely linked to academic institutions and their outcrops. Those that tend to agree, at least with the questions being aired, have either been Americans complaining about the influence of the institutionally based creative writing culture over there, and so warning us not to go down the same path, or a handful of Brits with axes to grind. My problem is that I usually find those axes far too sharp already, with subjective experiences conflating issues then polarising them into black and white. There have been times when the issue has expanded into a thread (such as the one here, that has been salvaged by Jeffrey Side as a PDF due to it no longer being able to be linked to directly) but mostly the reaction to such probes has been silence or evasion. I discovered that the poets in the academy (or at least those on Brit-Po) are generally reluctant to talk about the subject of “poets in the academy”.


I first considered the issue publicly some years ago when working with Andrew Duncan on our Don’t Stop Me Talking book of interviews (Salt 2006). In Andrew’s interview with me I said:


Long-distance networks have changed the nature of the British avant scene, there is a sense in which it has saved it, but at cost. The cross-fertilisation between like-minded poet/academic/critics in universities in Britain and North America has rejuvenated innovation here. It has given many poets a sense of belonging to a larger group, and they no longer feel such a cornered minority.


I still stand by that, and if anything what has happened since has confirmed it. We can always speculate about what might have happened to the reputations of the poets of the Poetry Revival, for example, if this “academisation” had not taken place, but my guess is that the health of Brit avant poetry today, for both older and younger generations, would be far more precarious, it might even have become a historical footnote. But in that quote above note that I say ‘at cost’. The cost is whatever this move into academia has in store negatively, both for the poetry and for those who write it. I have no doubt that in addition to survival there are other positives, but they won’t be my focus here.


In Don’t Start Me Talking in my interview with Robert Sheppard it is actually Robert who first brings up the subject… ‘… the increased entry of the academy by some of these poets is beginning to make a difference in terms of critical reception, and I suppose I’m part of that movement’. Which leads nicely into my:


Yes, of course, ha, that “entry into the academy” has been something of a concern of mine for a while because in some cases it seems to be a case of taking one step forward and two steps back, but sometimes the other way round too, thankfully. I do think it has changed things though, like being given resuscitation by our worst enemy.


So there again, I was hinting at there being a problem, a cost, without actually saying what the problem was. Why equate the academy with being the enemy of good old experimental poetry? Tongue-in-cheek yes, but definitely having a pop. Robert Sheppard even has his own little pop by quoting something he wrote in an academic paper about ‘the intimidating authority of the academy over those outside it’.


Why the academisation of poetry could be a problem is fairly obvious. It is highly likely that many will have a romantic view of poetry as being this eternally free and rebellious creature that refuses to be controlled etc. I don’t think that, but I understand why those who do, do, and this could apply more to enthusiasts for anything called alternative than to those who prefer the bland popular brands. The poetry of the Symbolists and various shades of European modernists that gave rise to the Anglo-American avant poetry of today had zilch to do with any academic interest or approach, the opposite in fact, being anti establishments, cultural and political, meant by default being anti-academy. Here in the UK in the 60’s, the poets who took their inspirations from international modernism did so almost entirely outside any ivory towers (“almost” because of one exception, Essex). The first real entry into the academy in the States was of course Black Mountain, but that project was really too idiosyncratic and remote to count, in my opinion anyway, though perhaps it set a kind of precedent. Either way it is no surprise that some people have a negative response to the academisation of what once was a corner of poetry that never gave two hoots about what some professor thought about it. And even now, here in the UK, the situation could be referred to as a bit of an anomaly—the only niche poetry that has found a niche in academia, because number wise, despite its energy and rising profile, it actually remains a niche.


How did it happen then? The first answer that comes to mind is that it was a sometimes deep and difficult poetry, relative though that is, that lent itself to being discussed in detail. It could be seen then that the move of innovative poetry into the academy followed the road of French revolutionary thought, from the Surrealist café’s and Situationist streets to the critical theorists in their academic libraries. For the most part both the linguistically innovative Brits and the Americans drawn into the Language orbit would be more likely to have read and/or had sympathies with the post-Structuralists especially. Not all of them by any means, but enough to make the difference. It doesn’t take too much of a leap anyway to see that there was a fit. There could also have been a parallel case of osmosis, the notion of “we never want anything to do with the academy” being gradually replaced first by a “why not?” and finally by a “but of course”.


Needless to say this move went down badly, especially with those who for whatever reason already saw the avant-garde as being precious, obscure, cerebral, elitist or distant (we know the tired list of adjectives), the move to the academy giving such folk just another shillelagh to wield. It has always been hard work countering the misconceptions of people who quite obviously get more emotionally out of their ridiculous refusal to read challenging and expansive poetry than they ever thought they would by opening their tiny minds a bit, and the entry into the academy has certainly not helped in that department, reinforcing all the original accusations. Nevertheless from where some people are standing, some of those accusations are valid and should not be dismissed. The whole thing gets worse when class gets thrown in the mix, not because it isn’t relative, because it is, but because in 99% of cases the objectors who shout the loudest are university educated middle class persons, not the working class at all. It’s all part of a massive and wide spread case of culturally stupid inverted snobbery that isn’t just hypocritical, patronising and muddle-headed, to me it’s rotten to the core, but let’s not go there now.   


Yet the issue is not black and white, and it won’t stay still either, it flaps around like a slippery fish. Despite the nagging persistence of notions of romantic or revolutionary opposition the real world has changed, and the changes have blurred what before were sharper cultural and social distinctions. If we go back to Robert Shepherd, his response to my ‘one step forward two steps back’ comment was, ‘Of course we live in an age of mass education, so it isn’t so elite any more’. Note the second ‘so’ by the way, but he is right, about the growth of mass education, and I don’t think it is a minor issue. Whatever the inns and outs or rights and wrongs of the changes to higher education it is a fact that the shift has had sociological consequences, leading to a different mind-set, or what I would call a psychological/world view response, by recent generations in their relation to educational/academic authority. Couple this with the technological changes and you have a world that is very different. Opinions concerning academia, both positive and negative, of someone like myself, are not going to be the same as those of a young person who’s interest in good poetry leads them to take a certain course at Uni etc. Traditionally positive views of universities as places where learning could take place for its own sake and where knowledge is valued for and in itself have taken a severe pounding in recent years, and by all accounts the situation is getting worse. But correspondingly views of them being bastions of establishment privilege and elitism no longer hold the same sway either. A young person’s experience of and attitude towards higher education will be quite fluid, with a diverse set of positives and negatives. I think it is fair to say they will already have developed a more perfunctory relationship with the idea of university being a place where you go to get the right certificates, of knowledge as a means to a personal end. A bit of a blunt exaggeration I suppose but due to what is an almost existential swing with regard to notions of freedom and negotiated choice, more than relevant for this topic. This change in perspective means that what I sense as some of the possible problems of the “academisation of poetry”, others will not, they certainly won’t feel them in the same way even if abstractly they might discern an issue. Students find a host of concerns connected with gender and race but I very much doubt that this side issue of one particular art form will rank very highly. The other side of this coin though is that the less it becomes an issue for them the more it will become an issue for others, especially young poets who, for whatever reason, are not connected with a higher education course or establishment.


And our problem (I say “our”, meaning those of us whose poetic interests cover this niche) is that the poetry will increasingly have its most high-profile spokespeople and arbiters (what Jake Berry calls the Gatekeepers) placed within academia and its associated organs and publishing connections, while views of the poetry itself will be percolated through academic concerns and preferences, leading both to privileged networks and hierarchical structures for creativity. Doesn’t sound very nice does it? Doesn’t sound very radical. Doesn’t sound very healthy. Meanwhile the poetry of mainstream writers will still have its “gatekeepers” in all the usual places, their opportunities for being taken seriously not depending on what letters they have after their names, not yet anyway. Mind, things might be going that way owing to the growing importance of, as Robert said in that interview, ‘creative writing as a discipline’. In the long run that could affect the mainstream more than it does any niche, but as yet the poets who have been mostly touched by this problem (even if that touching is more psychological than practical) are avant inclined poets of a certain age.


One of the problems that plague this issue is the difficulty in distinguishing that psychological from the practical mentioned above, or to put it another way, distinguishing perceptions from reality. If Robert Sheppard in his Birkbeck paper talked of the ‘intimidating authority of the academy’ did he mean in psychological or practical terms, or both? This is as important question for me because of my interest in the concepts of “value” and “status”, particularly in regard to literature when mediated by so-called authority. I never went to university, I went to a Teachers Training College, but even there, in my English as Main Subject studies, noticed a difference between my attitude, or the nature of my response to literary texts, and that of the majority of other students. The difference is as hard to explain now as it was then but it had something to do with the value or status given both to the texts and to those mediating them, the lecturers. For the most part I had a high respect for my lecturers as people, but as to their being possessors of knowledge, my attitude towards them wasn’t so much respect in the normal sense, as something I haven’t got a word for. I was avidly curious and wanted to know what they knew and more, but I never looked on them as any kind of “authority”; their natural authority as those who had experienced knowledge had, for me, no corresponding formal authority. Similarly my response to the books and poems they were teaching and introducing was on a level, my approach to them was not pre-judged, it was open and giving, neither was it reverential, either before or after the encounter. This was in contrast to how I saw my fellow students respond. Whether they enjoyed a book or hated it didn’t seem to make a difference, in both cases the item became a talisman, a symbol of the cultural “authority” that had bestowed it. And this happened as naturally as sin, almost casually, as a by-and-by. It was quite obviously unconscious, something conditioned.


I’ve mulled over this a lot since. Was my lack of this condition down to being a year or two older than the others (I’d spent three years working while studying at night school) or was “class” the root of it? This was the first time since my junior school days that I had mixed with middle class kids. The college had a high working class input in its Physical Education and Craft departments but in my English group we were outnumbered. Or was it because I was already a poet, with a whole load of reading and writing behind me that went far beyond my O and A level Eng Lit. syllabuses. I still don’t know the actual reason, though I recognise it now as being identical to strands of anarchist sensibility, but I do now have clues. In short, the other students’ unconscious internalising of the texts, whatever their conscious and personnel response to them, was symbolic. It was some years before I came upon, or understood enough, the concept of cultural capital etc, but that is exactly what I had intuitively witnessed. Those students had automatically received the works as cultural icons, not things to be experienced but things to be both bowed to (worshiped) and marked off (forgotten). One of the most striking examples of this I came across on more than one occasion when running the Poetry Exchange in Plymouth. It was the difference in attitude towards texts that took place between those in an unofficial forum, such as the Exchange, and those that were delivered by an “authority” in the context of an educational and academic institution. In the former there was always a match between the personal response and the value given the text, but that match disappears in the latter, when the text is delivered as part of an academic lecture or course. And it is this phenomenon which, slightly weird as it might seem, is the basis for my main negative observation of the “academisation of avant poetry”: an inbuilt presumption of quality made by those external to the academy.


Of course I have no proof or evidence for this, and I admit I see it, here in the UK, more as a possible danger than as a current reality. It’s a speculation, a calculation made both from my experiences of human nature and my understanding of this stuff. I could be accused of being cynical, even silly, but the more I think about it the more significant it feels. If in the minds of readers, critics and publishers work produced in an academic setting is automatically allotted a higher status (unconsciously or not) then in the everyday business of creative management and dissemination of new literary texts the dice will be already well and truly loaded. The question as to whether this has already happened in the USA I cannot answer, I’ll leave that to others, but it does need pointing out that such a tendency might not be so damaging over there, because of the different size and variety of the scenes, but here in the relatively close and crowded UK scene such a thing becomes both more possible and more deeply damaging.


In the great scheme of things this probably matters little but on the level of the individual poet, or potential poet, its consequences could be severe. I suppose my simplest problem with it is that it is unfair. If we take the example two linguistically innovative poets, whose works are roughly speaking equal in merit, who then send manuscripts off to one of the better known publishers, I’d confidently wager that more serious consideration would be given to the one that had an MA behind them, particularly, and here’s the rub, by a publisher that was not that au fait with innovative work. No? You don’t think so? Think again. It happens to be the case that in the innovative sphere (and yes, outside it looking in) there is an inherent problem caused by the difficulty in assigning merit, of coming to a decision on how good or bad a poem is (an issue I’ll return to below). Such indecision is going to be influenced by the most minor factors, let alone a big symbolic factor like a track record of academic study giving that talismanic quality to one of the manuscripts. Even at the level of a publisher wishing to add kudos to the brand this bias is more likely. (Please don’t come back at me that such things do not happen because you must know that they do). Ultimately these processes would reveal themselves in class advantages and disadvantages. 


What are poets to do in this situation? Well, to begin with, as I pointed out, a high proportion of the younger ones will already be attached to academia in some form, and dare say they won’t think too much about it, accepting the process as simply the way things are, just as Art students who want to make a career out of their craft accept without question the need to go to Art School. Both on the practical and psychological level it’s the world they are used to. But what about the increasing number of poets who have, let’s say, seen the lay of the land and so think “hell, to stand a chance of getting my stuff published I need to get a creative writing degree or something”. Such thoughts might be conscious or not, and differ in degree as well, but the tendency is all in one direction. The “unfairness” leads to a situation in which the task of compensating for that unfairness leads to both an acceleration and a consolidation of the original situation, because of the totality of individual responses. And why is this my “main” negative observation? Because this phenomenon and the processes it gives rise to are external to the academy itself, meaning the academy has no control over them, however well meaning the motivations of those involved.


Before I continue with what I see as negatives I have to say I actually have no objection whatsoever to this poetry being studied, discussed, analysed or whatever in academic settings; I would be a fool if I did not recognise all the really positive things that can come from it, especially on local and micro levels. This is not a contradiction. While I might not be quite in the “of course this move to the academy is right” camp, I am certainly in the “why not?” camp, even if I appear to be giving a list of “why not” observations. It’s just that I think people should be aware of the implications and, where possible, address them. If they cannot be practically addressed then they should at least be talked about, especially by a poetry milieu that still has some sense of itself as being political, which at least some of the Brit avant-garde still does, I think. If I am wrong on that point then this whole issue takes on an even darker aspect.


Returning to the negatives, there is regrettably a dilemma that would be internal to the academy, or the community of academies, which though fairly obvious is more difficult to talk about because it depends so much on human behaviour within professional situations. It’s what I would call “extra literary judgements”. This is more difficult to discuss because it entails notions of trust and distrust, the kind of thing where what one person would never dream of, or imagining themselves doing, another would, without compunction, indeed, they might even see it as simply “doing their job” and “doing the best for the student”. It is quite natural that a teacher will have to some degree an emotional and/or professional stake in their student doing well, and I very much doubt if they would be a very good teacher if they didn’t, at least without the emotional stake. But what does this quite normal situation in its internal context do in relation to the outside world where poems are published, performed and received? The answer would be in some cases nothing at all to speak of, but in some cases it might mean quite a lot, especially when the lecturer concerned is also involved with that outside activity of publishing or promoting, and remember, owing to the smallness of the scene, many are. This is a situation in which the relatively small size of the current avant scene makes this kind of thing more likely than if the scene were larger. If the process of academisation continued to grow this problem would, ironically, actually decrease.


The problem of “extra literary judgements” also becomes evident in what at best I’d call the “hidden sources of favourable opinion”, but could be referred to as toadying (or at its worst could be called a lovely vulgar term I won’t use here) within departments and with academic colleagues in other universities. A kinder term might be professional expediency. This of course has the potential to be received with extreme touchiness, or indeed, tetchiness, and understandably so. It is likely to be seen as an affront, something that questions an individual’s integrity. It is all very well for an individual to say they are immune to this kind of activity, and they are probably right, but what about the person in the next room? I have no doubt that this explains why this issue is rarely mentioned, except by those who already have a highly developed antipathy to the academisation and see it as being some kind of giant conspiracy against themselves in which the profs puff up each other’s poetry with accolades while ignoring everyone else’s. There is no conspiracy of course, it’s processes, but nevertheless you can see why some people think of it in that way. The reality, I hope, would be far more subtle, but there is not the slightest evidence that inter-personnel interactions in academia are any different to any other walk of life. This aspect is the one that would contribute in the long run to a distortion of what should be a neutral critical process. I would argue that critical processes are rarely neutral in any situation but this is one in which the possibility is unnaturally heightened. Even if the blanket harm done in human terms was minimal, what about the actual poetry? Isn’t this an important source of one of the most talked about negatives, the danger of “commoditisation of style”. Efforts to impress colleagues, whether conscious or not, when combined with other influencing factors arising from the demands and workings of academic teaching, could have a detrimental effect on the poetry produced within this club, particularly in regard to aspects such as originality and energy.


Above, I broached the subject of problems caused by the difficulty in assigning literary merit, and it is most evident in a trend I’ve noticed in analytical articles on innovative poetry—a lack of criticism. I know there are some post-modern relativists for whom “literary merit” is an anachronism and yet in practice merit is often still assigned, but somehow exterior to the text. Often the writer abandons any attempt at qualitative judgment and concentrates exclusively on process and inter-textual matters. This may be done in good faith but there is an unspoken implication of “I am going to the trouble of writing about this therefore it is definitely worth it”. It might well be, but that is not the point, if that is all we get time and time again then it builds up to a massive evasion (Andrew Duncan talked about this some ten years ago). It is a separate issue to the one I’m addressing here but it does contribute to the general problem avant poetry has of negative perception by its detractors. It is relevant because the unsaid implication can appear to be one of intellectual snobbery—“this work can only be fully appreciated by those who are clever enough to write about it in this manner”. I don’t know if there is any truth in this but I do know what impression it gives. (There is also a contradiction because the party most often missing in this analytic exercise is the reader, despite the fact that, theoretically, the reader is lord of all—it’s a mystery I’m still trying to unravel.) The roll of the academy in this is a chicken-and-egg conundrum: does the language of academic discourse contribute to this trend or is it that the trend finds its natural home in academic discourse? To add fuel to the fire some of the poets who get dubbed Cambridge School seem to take a perverse joy in being accused of elitism and obscurantism, almost inviting it in their attitude, (not their attitude IN the poetry but their attitude TOWARDS it)—I suppose we have to take our painful pleasures where and when we can. Yes, there is humour in this situation, but I don’t find it so funny when I’m trying to defend them.


This brings us to J. H. Prynne of course, whose poetry is magnificent and who has rightly become one of the brightest stars in the linguistically innovative firmament. However, he has also become a caricature of the academic recluse, given almost sage-like qualities by his coterie but used as an example of everything that is wrong with the avant scene by poetic adversaries. I find both views equally ridiculous, but there is no doubt that Prynne and the wider Cambridge School issue have played a significant roll in giving the poetry a certain image. The fact that the other “stars in the firmament” are not in academia, even if their works are discussed in it, is never mentioned—Maggie O’Sullivan, Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Alan Fisher. It was the following generations of innovative poets who found themselves in academia, but that was part of the sociological change that has taken place since the 70’s, not some secret project or long-term plot. It just happened.


Let’s return to the “commoditisation of style” question. Is there evidence for this yet? In Jake Berry’s article he draws an important distinction between what he sees as avant poetry sanctioned by the academy and that which is not. In my reading of American poetry through the 00’s I too began to notice a difference, a difference that relates to what Berry says even if it doesn’t quite reach the same conclusion. The poetry coming from the more college based innovative poetry, call it post-Language or whatever, appeared to be getting smoother and glossier, while the poetry in the more basic alternative and experimental magazines and small publishers seemed to be going in an opposite direction, more raw, more expressionist and jagged. As I reader I could appreciate both, just as at times I did not; the worst of the smooth and glossy seemed to offer little but that smoothness and glossiness just as the worst of the other stuff seemed to offer little more than its wild jaggedness and aggression—both could be as boring as hell. Yet there were things uniting them, one being the gradual cross-over from conceptual art and what we might call transported Oolipo methodologies, no surprise there, while the other, to me anyhow, appeared to be an increased interest in the “self”, which is surprising. With the glossy poetry this manifests itself as content, the social, emotional and intellectual world of the well educated city-based American middle class arties, whether in academia or not, but the greater percentage of them appear to have been so. On the other hand the “self” in the rawer material seemed to be moving back towards a rough kind of personalism, a poetry driven by an individual’s emotions. Most often this came in an avant form that went some way to concealing what is going on. Even if I was right interpreting the material this way I know it is a gross simplification extracted from such a widely disparate scene, but this is what I immediately thought of when reading Berry’s article. So, yes, there is a kind of split, and though I don’t feel qualified to talk about this in detail, it does point to there being a degree of homogenous formalisation occurring in the poetry of the academically based. This could have happened anyway I suppose, the more widespread any type of writing becomes the more it begins to clone itself, but as this work is coming largely out of the universities a strong case can be made that this is the new academic poetry of the 21st century. A lot of it certainly lacks something, has the “thrill” really “gone”?


One of the things that more recent academised American avant poetry lacks, and I find this both telling and quite incredible, is any obvious engagement with the huge social and political problems that currently beset the country. This is in stark contrast to the innovative poetry of earlier years. Discussions around the poetry sometimes treat the art form as if it were dynamically a self-enclosed world, while what we call issues are referred to abstractly or become little more than background noise in front of which the writer orientates a nuanced self-conscious style. Surely this is evidence of an internal flight, a way of blocking out the need for engagement with the overwhelming cultural crisis of identity and morality. The drive to write something sounding intelligent and knowing takes precedence as it marks out a sophistication. Is this an unfair exaggeration? It is perfectly understandable, both psychologically and socially, but even if only partly true it would still be evidence that avant poetry in the US had probably lost its ability to be radical in anything more than literary form, which of course means that those forms will soon become hollow structures.


I think this has greatly contributed to some of the recent criticism it has faced on the race issue, even though its general retreat from social issues has been across the range. (The noticeable exception to this of course is Gender, which seems to have risen in proportion as other subjects have decreased.) The place of Conceptualism in all this, particularly the up-front bluster of Kenneth Goldsmith, shows that this flight away from social engagement and comment does not have to be into the self, here it is the very opposite, the flight into the warm safety of the inter-textual playroom. Now I quite enjoy being in the inter-textual playroom, yet it depends on the skill and the humour of the play leader who takes me there, but that’s another topic. I’ve heard the argument made that Conceptualism is involved politically by re-using texts that, owing to their original source, bristle with issues. Frankly I find that disingenuous, but I am open to persuasion.


There is a relationship between Conceptualism and academia though and it is largely a positive one. In the UK conceptual ideas and examples came leaking out from the Art colleges along with a normalisation of cross-platform art practices, creating a direct path between text based art work and avant poetry. A similar thing was happening with regard to links between academic research and the poetic/creative organisation of archival material etc. A slight shadow hangs over this because the time, space and resources needed to carry out much of this type of art/poetic activity are only available when institutionally sponsored, and this leads once more to a suspicion of there being a two-tier system.    


Before concluding it is important to ask if there is already a poetic split in avant circles here in the UK that corresponds to what Jake Berry says has happened in the States. I would say no, not yet, but there is one pointer. One of the more recent types of poetry here in the UK from some younger poets is a kind of hyper confessionalism or unmediated realism. It’s a phenomenon needing an article all to itself but which I mention here because in its raw directness and opposition to over-refined poetics it could be seen to mirror aspects of the split in the US. Some of it has taken its cue from non-academic American models but I believe its main roots come from experiences of social media. This phenomenon could just as easily disappear before it has even been noticed (it happens) but it is interesting in that it seems to come from both avant (e.g. Richard Barrett) and mainstream (e.g. Melissa Lee-Houghton) directions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it our own version of Hybrid, but it’s worth mentioning and is certainly a result of changes in the dynamics of both scenes.


Changes in the dynamics of scenes are what, in the end, open out into optimism, even with regard to this “academisation”. Because there is no turning back, the shift has occurred and I don’t see it going into reverse any time soon, and as I’ve hinted a few times here, actually, the more the thing expands the more the negatives get a chance of becoming distilled—this is my glass half-full take on it anyway. By developing a more critical approach to the contexts in which they are working, and how it impacts on others, those involved should become more conscious of both possibilities and limits, and be able to negotiate better through its advantages and disadvantages. It is really down to them. I remember an old argument with my mother concerning the Catholic Church when I was beginning to question its tenets (aged around 14). She answered me once by saying, ‘it’s not the Church, it’s the people who run it who are at fault’. My reply was, ‘Yes, but Mum, the Church IS the people who run it’. 


At the start of writing this article the biggest question in my mind was, “What is going to happen to the poetry? Will this academisation result in a commoditisation of style and eventual decay? Has linguistically innovative poetry been given the kiss of life or the kiss of death?’. To be honest there are so many variables involved that I don’t see how any of us can predict what will happen. Even if this particular variety of poetry dies in the atmosphere of academia, something just as good or even better will no doubt spring up somewhere else. More and more young people appear to be developing a taste for a poetry that falls outside the post-Movement legacy that has dominated our mainstream, in various guises, for so long, and at the moment that makes me smile. (English is not the only language in the world anyhow, and I very much doubt if what happens to the art form in the future will depend on it.) And if poetry is bigger than a country then it is certainly bigger than any academy. So finally let’s just say that if I am irritated to high heaven by the kind of thing I related in the opening paragraph, and know that poetry produced within an academic context gives no de facto pointer to its quality, just as no poem has a de facto quality because it has been published, then I am equally happy that I happen to live in an area of the country where tendrils growing from academically centred creative writing courses and poetic study have given rise to a very active and healthy avant inclined scene.


So yes, mixed feelings... actually very mixed feelings.



copyright © Tim Allen  




Tim Allen ran the Language Club reading series in Plymouth and edited the magazine Terrible Work. Now lives in Lancashire and involved with the Peter Barlow’s Cigarette events in Manchester. Books include Don’t Start Me Talking (Co-Editor, Salt 2006), Settings (Shearsman 2009), The Voice Thrower (Shearsman 2011), The Carousing Duck (zimZalla 2013), Copyright (Department 2013), Tattered by Magnets (KFS 2014), Default Soul (Red Ceilings 2014) and A New Geography of Romanticism (Red Ceilings 2015).