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Modernist Legacies Ed. Abigail Lang & David Nowell Smith Palgrave Macmillan

Modernist Legacies Ed. Abigail Lang & David Nowell Smith Palgrave Macmillan

On 18th February this year David Caddy posted a blog about the Manchester University Press publication of essays edited by David Herd, Contemporary Olson. The book itself arose out of a conference held at the University of Kent in November 2010. As the Acknowledgements section in this recently published collection of essays from Palgrave Macmillan stresses ‘Like so many collections of essays, the current volume has its beginnings in a conference titled “Legacies of Modernism: The State of British Poetry Today”, which took place at the Université Paris-Diderot, Institut Charles V, June 9-11, 2011. The Charles Olson book was terrific in its range of essays and is possibly the most important book on the American giant who coined the term ‘Postmodernism’ to have appeared for some considerable time. This new book, subtitled ‘Trends and Faultlines in British Poetry Today’, is also a very powerful introduction to the world of contemporary poetry in Britain. Divided into three sections (‘Histories since Modernism’, ‘The Modernist Legacy’, ‘Poetical and Political Commitments’) the book looks at major poets such as J.H. Prynne and Barry MacSweeney, Anthony Barnett and Allen Fisher, Andrea Brady and Wendy Mulford, as well as focussing upon a wide range of other poets whose work is central to the world of contemporary poetry: Caroline Bergvall, Jeff Hilson, Drew Milne and Keston Sutherland.

I was fascinated by the interview between Allen Fisher and Robert Hampson dealing with the ‘Interaction between American and British Poetries 1964-1970’. The background to much contemporary poetry comes to life as we can read about Better Books and how Tony Godwin enlarged the shop on Charing Cross Road to incorporate shops at 1, 3, and 5 New Compton Street in November 1964. As Fisher had made clear in an earlier interview with Adrian Clarke, Better Books did not just sell books but also created ‘a space where you would find out about other activities going on’. The shops became informal meeting places for the building-up of a subculture and as such they were perfectly in tune with a world that Fisher recognises as connecting John Ashbery and Wendy Mulford. Referring to a poem from the late 1960s in Mulford’s Bravo to Girls and Heroes, as well as poems by Andrew Crozier, David Chaloner and Roy Fisher, Allen Fisher says

‘What these poems share with Ashbery is a self-consciousness made explicit in the form—the poem discusses its own processes in the script of the facture en route. But also, it’s self-analysis not so much as questioning as rather indicating its dialectical thrust—the logic of the particular having a larger interest as if—or, rather, so that—the simple description or fragment of description feels metonymic for a far larger philosophical position.’

This interview gives us fascinating insights into the world of American poetry’s effects upon what was happening in Britain and if I have any quibble it must only be about one tiny piece of misinformation given as a footnote. Allen Fisher tells us about Jonathan Williams (Jargon Books) often being at the Dulwich poetry readings in South London but the footnote says that the readings were held upstairs in “The Crown and Sceptre” in Dulwich village. The pub was actually named “The Crown and Greyhound” and it still stands there today!

How refreshing to find a chapter devoted to the work of Anthony Barnett. As Xavier Kalck, associate professor at the Paris-Sorbonne University, points out ‘Barnett’s work opens Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville’s landmark 1987 anthology A Various Art, and his work then and since epitomizes the well-known connection pointed out by Crozier and Longville in their introduction: “Certainly, at the time [the 1960s], one of the means by which many of the poets in this anthology were identifiable to one another was an interest in a particular aspect of postwar American poetry, and the tradition that lay behind it—not that of Pound and Eliot but that of Pound and Williams.” Kalck also highlights Barnett’s central position within the world of contemporary British poetry when he refers to the newly collected poetry and noncritical prose numbering no less than 647 pages.

I was delighted with this book, the most recent contribution to a fine series devoted to ‘Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics’ promoting and pursuing topics in the burgeoning field of twentieth-and twenty-first-century poetics. It is a goldmine of information and suggestion, constituting a perfect starting-point for anyone interested in what can sometimes feel like a difficult territory to map out.

Ian Brinton 30th September 2015

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