Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

"The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry" by Andrew Duncan (Salt, 2003)


He likes people to be aware of their language - "On one side stand W.S.Graham and J.H.Prynne; on the other, Peter Redgrove, Robert Graves, and Ted Hughes. One purifies language by striking out teleology; the other by bending poetic space till it becomes total teleology, curved air, rendering the poet's personality where objectivity is a constraint" (p.322)

  • "With the exception of Eric Mottran, I have not found a single critic who has a distinguished record of writing about the poets younger than them", p.21
  • "the magazines Spanner and Grosseteste Review between them published almost all the important writers of the decade", p.174
  • "The White Stones by J. H. Prynne (1936-) is probably the most significant single volume of the 1960s.", p.118
  • "Sinclair, Hughes, Catling and Jeremy Reed were not only the central poets of the Seventies but also very closely linked by the themes of "horror" and the "Gothic"", p.213
  • "[Jeremy] Reed is obviously the most gifted poet of his generation", p.227
  • "Wales has not produced any striking books in the 1980s, so far as I have been able to discover, except for the works of Peter Finch", p.253
  • "Today [Maggie O'Sullivan] is my favourite modern poet ... I can't explain how these poems seem to be saturated in every dimension, and still flow with that dreamlike fertility and amplitude", p.267
  • Alison Brackenbury ("Dreams of Power (1981), seemed to me a perfect example of mainstream verse", p.256) and Isobel Thrilling ("orthodox in every way", p.257) get honorable mentions.


He's not keen on poets who seem unaware of social and political influence, who write without intelligence or write poems using the language of essays. He's anti-Movement and dislikes repression - "Christians and conservatives seem to have redefined self-expression and formal experiment as selfish and narcissistic; poets who have accepted this have just wasted their lives" (p.193).

  • "Writers who don't think about each poem are bound to be outgunned by readers who do", p.251
  • "My assumption is that anyone who writes excessively simple poetry is an egoist and a failed priest", p.144
  • "Larkin had no literary talent ... Larkin never managed to write a good poem", p.62-63
  • "In 1969 came Children of Albion, Poetry of the Underground in Britain (Penguin, ed. Michael Horovitz); perhaps the worst book I have ever read", p.99
  • "As the progency of Larkin and Roger McGough merged, it became easier to see those two writers as merely successive waves of anti-literary, desensitized, restricted-vocabulary, populism", p.173
  • "Auden is popular not because he wrote good poems but because he wrote poems about a famous person, himself", p.295

Times and Places

I can understand how expansion of universities and changes in Arts funding might affect the use of poetry, but many of the political passages he covers seem less relevant. I'd say that poets are rather immune to such influences - reading a poet's lifetime work will tell you little about political change, though certain types of poets will be favoured by some political systems. After the high point in the 70s, he thinks that innovative poetry was pushed to the margins by institutions (p.290). Those who didn't toe the line were thought to be lacking in social skills (p.292), incoherent or neurotic (p.293) He makes many observations that I'd rather see dealt with by epidemiological study.

  • "The dominant genres of [the sixties] are the Photograph (as domestic snapshot), the Interview, and the Advertisement. Every work of art is pressed by these hegemonic forces, which correspond in importance to Christian art in (say) the 13th century. All three are: domestic; (super-)realistic; and dominated by the Personality to the exclusion of other signifieds. I would argue that the 'high' art of the sixties and seventies was taken over by these genres", p.85
  • "The 1970s have now emerged as the classic period of modern British poetry", p.173
  • "This drama of past and future may explain why there are so few poets born in Wales since 1940 who can write good poems", p.191
  • "Wales seems to have less room for eccentrics; the communalism of the prevailing political philosophies produces sociability, poetic affability, rich anecdotes, but also levelling down: it's hard to be experimental in Wales", p.253
  • "The British resistance to modern art and ideas is tangled up with a nostalgia for the wonderfully and morbidly over-developed culture of childhood", p.303
  • "There is a distaste in Britain for speculative philosophy. This may go back to the church settlement of 1662, when peace seemed to depend on theological compromise. There is a connection between weakness in building philosophical speculations, distaste for political innovations, and lack of imagination in poetry. Conservatism in government and the lack of propects for change, seem to have coincided with the decline of the imagination within poetry", p.305
  • "The major topic of conversation over the past twenty years has been feminism", p.318


Sometimes the prose is interrupted by a sudden opinion or side-swipe, or an over-due summary. E.g.

  • "I have suggested in a previous chapter that injecting indeterminacy into the microstructure of the poem was compensation for the seepage of possibility brought by the abandonment of lyric and narrative", p.280
  • "I'd be glad if modern poetry weren't difficult, and much of this volume is an attempt to explain why almost all mainstream poetry is so bad, not to celebrate the fact. I find it depressing and alienating that the overwhelming majority of good poetry is on the "modernist" side and comes out from small presses ", p.258

At times I'm unsure whether he's putting forward his own considered views, putting words into the mouths of conservatives, or merely speculating. Assertions aren't always explained, and when they are, I'm not always convinced. The "There is a distaste in Britain ..." quote above shows how a chain of reasoning can run wild. Consider this from p.199

Evoking objects does not evoke human experience. Mail-order catalogues are not sensuous. For this reason, the greatest pleasure of sensuous poetry, including Freer's is not laborious descriptions of flowers and recipes, but its evocation of social and physical space. The organisation is in flakes ("a plague doctors costume/ crystal eyes a beak filled with perfumes/ pecking pecking/ at our string pearl hearts/ splitting precious knots") slight and flexible enough to pick out the contours of the real

The first sentence is a viable starting point for discussion, but the third sentence doesn't follow from it, and the example doesn't illustrate the point to me convincingly. His phrasing doesn't always help either: the following for example sounds messy to me

The suggestion that poetry has grown greatly in complexity since 1960 allows the historian a modest pride but needs some important qualifications. First, the previous state can be taken to be narrative. In narrative, the quality of uncertainty is built in; the whole appeal is that we don't know what is going to happen next. Lyric poetry has been blown up to fill the whole landscape

Whose suggestion? Which historian? What does "allows ... a modest pride" mean? What can be "taken to be narrative"? What has lyric poetry to do with the previous points? Is it being constrasted with narrative poetry and aligned with complexity?

Mainstreamers will welcome some of his opinions. He's not excited by Ashbery - his poetry is "akin to walking through a glass bead curtain for half an hour" (p.202) - and of fragmentation and indeterminacy he says

  • disruption is a useful way to break old habits, not an end in itself. It's naive to use fragmentation as an attempt to somehow imitate modern society, but it should be noted that readers are changing. As he points out on p.250 "excess availability of symbolic data via TV, records, and so forth [make] children more sophisticated about the rules of editing and composition", "The complexity which a writer has to deal with is that of the reader's psyche, always threatening to abandon attention and move on to something else more interesting" (p.250) and "If the reader is quicker at spotting patterns ... then the writer can signal the framing regularities much more economically and lightly, leaving more room for the unpredictable variation which generates complexity" (p.251-2).
  • "Indeterminacy on its own may be very boring and poor in possibilities. ... The poem has to engage [the subversive reader's] intelligence on every level, not simply to dissipate away to avoid confrontation. Associations follow from sequences of ideas, and if these are not well structured the reader will stop connecting anything with anything" (p.285)

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