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Redefining Terms in Contemporary British Poetry: A Review of Fiona Sampson’s Beyond the Lyric

By Harriet Staff

beyond lyric

Our attention’s been drawn to a good review of a posited survey of contemporary British poetry, written by former editor of Poetry Review Fiona Sampson, entitled Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry. As the publisher writes, “This is a book of enthusiasms…a radical, accessible guide to living British poets, grouped for the first time for the kind of poetry they write.” (Groupings include the “Plain Dealers,” “The Dandies,” “The Oxford Elegists,” and “The Exploded Lyric,” among others.) Joe Kennedy of The Oxonian has another take, writing that “Ultimately, the best outcome of this overview’s publication would not be the reader’s sharing in a ‘story of pleasures taken’, but a metacritical inquiry of Levesonian dimensions into why such a moribund poetics has come to enjoy a virtually absolute hegemony in contemporary Britain.” More:

If, as China Miéville has suggested, literature tends to oscillate between recognition and estrangement, then the British poetic mainstream groups around the former pole while seeking to cash cheques in the latter’s name. Beyond the Lyric is a perfect illustration of how successful poetry in this country stifles the challenge of what Sheppard terms the “linguistically innovative” with something that may be a cousin of Freudian “kettle logic”; according to this rubric, the avant-garde doesn’t really exist (its estrangement effects are just gibberish designed to fool the credulous) and the mainstream is where everything that’s truly experimental occurs anyway. Sampson separates her peers into finickety, portentously-named categories like “The Iambic Legislators” and “The Touchstone Lyricists” to create the illusion of edgy, internecine aesthetic struggle between these poets who devote so much time to puffing up each other’s work. Shapcott and Paterson are “Dandies,” wielding their “swagger-sticks” of linguistic brio against the “Plain Dealers” who succeeded the Movement and “Anecdotalists” like Jackie Kay and Paul Farley. What a rich, complex poetic ecology this country can lay claim to.

Sampson’s imperial generosity means that Prynne and a few others who trade in “The Exploded Lyric” – a name which sounds like it should be above the door of a fashionable pub in Dalston – get a chapter to themselves, but the effect of this is to reduce the output of individuals as diverse as Sutherland, Barry MacSweeney and Denise Riley to one undifferentiated, protean practice. This conflation is foreshadowed fifty or so pages earlier in a discussion of Modernism, a category apparently inhabited by Peter Porter, various regional writers, Geoffrey Hill and, puzzlingly, Ian Duhig. In this conceptual Oceania, Sampson is at liberty to provide the following, bizarre explication of one and a half centuries of intellectual history:

Modernism is, of course, not postmodernism. Postmodernism succeeds modernism and positions itself in relation to it, establishing both itself, and thereby modernism, as cultural moments. Modernism, on the other hand, self-identifies as an attitude or project. As the term suggests, it has faith in progress; it follows that it holds some states of affairs and ways of doing things to be better than others. Postmodernism sees this kind of belief as superseded. It argues that the contemporary world demonstrates how nothing is more valuable than anything else, and that what we imagined was progress was merely change. Postmodernism is the cultural cousin of moral relativism, while modernism is associated with social conscience. Progress, after all, is a largely social enterprise, associated as it is with such collective phenomena as the introduction of the Welfare State, ‘The Electrification of the Soviet Union’, or the replacement of superstition by human and civil rights.

There’s about forty conferences worth of argument in that passage, and one suspects that its leaps and shimmies aren’t driven by naivety or laziness but by aesthetic ideology. Modernism is framed as a worldview committed to benevolent social grands projets, a point which puts its portion of accuracy in the service of the idea that poets with some form of clearly-articulated social conscience must be modernists and, by extension, the agents of Patersonian “real originality”. All connoisseurs of rhetoric should be able to pick this out as an instance of converse error, but one senses that the fallacy is deliberate. The absence of obviously-delineated points of social reference in “linguistically innovative” poetry condemns it, on these terms, to the postmodernist camp, leaving the mainstream to bask in the reflected glow of modernist utopianism.

Of course, nobody self-identifies as a postmodernist, least of all poets. Ever since Mottram’s ousting from PR, the closed – some might say postmodernistically self-referential – world of London poetry-editing and reviewing has had a fine time caricaturing the work of Prynne et al as mere kaleidoscopism, “play of signifiers” and relativism. This is representative of a failure to engage with the texts themselves. A cornerstone of Prynne’s thought is the sceptical interrogation of the Saussurean claims about linguistic arbitrariness on which “play” rests, and while the poetics of some experimentalists (such as those of Tom Raworth, for example) may err towards polyglossic anarchy, the work of many others (particularly those in the line running from Prynne to Sutherland) exhibits an austere sense of control. Beyond the Lyric refuses this, calling a poem by Sutherland a “postmodern project of continuous play [which] continually eschews anything beyond the surface of language”. This is a reading arising from what seems to me to be wilful disregard, or, worse, a desire to troll.

In contrast to reviews like Tom Payne’s at The Telegraph, who at his most incisive felt that if “[Sampson] could bear in mind the novice as well as the initiate, then it could help poets decide what poems they’d like to write, or else what tropes or traps they’d like to avoid,” Kennedy’s scrutiny of more potent issues of Beyond Lyric is significant. He writes: “The dismissal of the avant-garde as elitist forecloses the possibility of analysing the ways in which a select group of poets and poet-critics accumulate and then bank critical capital, thereby stalling discussion about what truly constitutes literary ‘risk’ and preventing more challenging poetics from encountering a general audience.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.