Discovering the Northern Isles
As an Australian at school in Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s I was presented with a history of poetry that was largely British and Irish with, as a kind of appendix, a handful of locals like Kenneth Slessor and Judith Wright. American poetry (excepting TS Eliot) largely didn’t figure until I was at university and British poetry, for all intents, ended with the anomalous Dylan Thomas. Not even Larkin had made a dent at that stage and as for any poetry that had taken off from Pound or his ‘Objectivist’ followers there was just no inkling.
Possibly the first poetry book I bought that wasn’t a prescribed text was the Penguin anthology Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton. Skelton was, as far as I knew, Canadian, at least he resided there (and there’s a significance in this which I didn’t grasp until much later). In that anthology, and Skelton’s further volume Poetry of the Forties, I discovered a range of writings I would go on to investigate, in particular both the Auden crew and the Surrealists. I was not initially fond of Auden himself; instead the ‘Macspaunday’ poet who appealed most to me was Louis MacNeice, particularly his ‘Autumn Journal’ and the very idea of a poetry of reportage or at least an ‘impure’ poetry. I saved up my pocket money and bought MacNeice’s Collected Poems on the strength of what I’d seen in the anthology.
MacNeice was easy enough to obtain, but British and Irish poetry not of the ‘mainstream’ was difficult to access (even to know about) in the Australia of the late sixties. The first inkling I had that there were other poetries about came with another Penguin, the much criticised Children of Albion anthology. In it I came across the work of poets like Gael Turnbull, Andrew Crozier and David Chaloner. Not long after this, or maybe even a bit earlier I stumbled across books (then, remarkably, on the shelves of Marguerita Webber’s, a Melbourne bookshop) published by Fulcrum. My Poundian friends at Monash University had known about Basil Bunting and now, at last, here he was. I discovered for myself the work of Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood, even Pete Brown whom I’d known as the lyricist for Cream. Around the same time I bought Gael Turnbull’s two Cape Goliard volumes, A Trampoline and Scantlings. Through a reference to Bunting I also discovered the first book by Barry McSweeney, The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of his Mother. Here was a poet only a year older than me with a published book! I no longer felt like a complete outsider.
Kris Hemensley, an English poet, had moved to Melbourne around 1966. He became involved in an inner-city poetry scene quite different to the one I inhabited twelve miles out in the suburbs at Monash University. Although both groups were involved in post-Poundian poetries, mutual suspicion meant there wasn’t much contact until the early seventies when I actually met Kris. He had been editing stapled, gestetnered and screenprinted magazines, first Earthship, then Ear in a Wheatfield: the first local sources of current innovative British poetries. For some Australians this was the first time their writing could sit alongside that of poets from elsewhere without the sniff of condescension (an Australian magazine I had been associated with in the early 70s would often publish its overseas heroes in a special coloured paper section). I published some early poems in The Ear and around this time ‘loosened up’ considerably. My strictly Poundian schooling had come up against the writing of Ted Berrigan and Philip Whalen. I don’t think Kris’s contribution (to my own and to other people’s work) can be overrated. The Ear’s contents ranged widely across ‘postmodern’ anglophone poetries and delved deeply into translation (it was where I first saw the work of Jabes).
A decade later, Scripsi, another magazine based in Melbourne (edited by an old University friend Peter Craven, together with Michael Heyward) moved in on the high end of all this. Though it tended to go for the authors who were already famous (i.e. canonized by the TLS and LRB) and though its ambition seemed to be to replicate Granta, there were some interesting less well-known writers on its list. Through this magazine I began to correspond with Gael Turnbull (who’d written to say he’d liked something of mine). I also met the American poet August Kleinzahler who, along with Christopher Logue, took part in a Melbourne literary festival that was more exciting than any before or since (the Scripsi editors had called on Kleinzahler at short notice due to John Ashbery’s illness, and the festival organisers weren’t given the opportunity to ask ‘August who?’). To Scripsi I especially owe my attempts to translate Martial which they published as a small volume with an issue of the magazine. Some of these poems also appeared in a special translation issue of the English little magazine Figs, edited by Tony Baker. I had first visited Britain in 1987 where I finally met Gael Turnbull and, through him and various others had met more of the poets whose work I’d been reading. I met Tony (and, through him, Roy Fisher) in 1992 when I spent three months in Manchester.
With these people I exchanged books and ideas, and with Collected Works, the bookshop that Kris Hemensley and others set up, it had finally became possible to keep up with some of the current British and Irish work. Here you could find small press offerings often a decade or more old as well as the new releases. Anthologies were an important (if belated) source, though it was often difficult to ‘situate’ the writing. When Carcanet brought out A Various Art I found myself out of sympathy with the characteristic Cambridge tendency to omit information that was considered extra-poetic. As an Australian I wanted biographical details (photographs even) though I broadly shared the editors’ feelings about ‘personality’.
Of course the ‘mainstream’ Australian poets, our local variants of those Ron Silliman has termed the ‘School of Quietude’, already had their British and Irish connections. When I was asked to submit material to an Australian issue of Verse magazine I sent them a book from which to choose work. The editors published the shortest poem (three lines) and in an unsigned introductory article warned their readers not to bother with my poetry. Even since then, Australians of non-‘mainstream’ persuasion, on publication in the UK, have had to run the gauntlet of reviewers (expatriates themselves often enough) who see themselves as gatekeepers.
Strangely, many of the critics who supported post-Poundian poetries were unaware of any ‘other’ British poetry. Hugh Kenner, normally astute, wrote what is perhaps his worst book, A Sinking Island, about English writing and managed to avoid mention of any of the poets who might have belied his thesis: that Auden, Larkin and their ilk were simply not worth the attention of adult readers. Beyond Bunting, Kenner seemed blind to any possible poetries from the ‘island’; this when even the TLS and LRB were starting to write about Roy Fisher and one or two others. Perhaps the paranoia of ‘post-avant’ writers didn’t help. More than is the case with the Americans there has been a tendency among British poets in particular to shield their own work from the uninitiated, so that the Cambridge scene could be viewed from a distance as a ‘closed shop’, nouveau Apostles if you like. There was certainly, through the seventies and eighties, a perceived need for the outsider to show credentials. This may explain a tendency of some poetries to present themselves, John Forbes astutely noted, as ‘endless prolegomena to the subject’.
What has finally altered the shape of the poetry world (the ‘avant’ and ‘post-avant’ world at least) has been the advent of the internet and of print-on-demand technology with its associated ordering methods. I was finally able to obtain the books of poets who had been writing for as long as or longer than I had like Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk, Denise Riley, Wendy Mulford, Alan Halsey and Trevor Joyce (to name a few). The new modes of production and distribution have also taken the preciousness out of the British ‘avant’ poetry world. It has become clear enough that there are people out there in cyberspace who might actually want to read the work; all that was necessary was the existence of an efficient system of distribution and storage. You could simply bypass the major book festivals and chat shows, delivering yourself without compromise to a wider audience.
I mentioned at the beginning of this piece the significance of a Canadian resident (Robin Skelton) editing the Penguin books of Thirties and Forties poetry. At the time I naively awaited the appearance of a Fifties volume, though now I can understand why Skelton just might not have been interested in doing it. In retrospect it’s hard to imagine an English editor of the time taking on such a task since the legacy of the Fifties had all but obscured the interesting writing of an earlier period (pretty much until Peter Riley excavated Nicholas Moore’s work). It’s significant too that one of the more interesting general anthologies of modern British and Irish poetry should be edited by an American, Keith Tuma, and that, though published in the States by Oxford, the English division simply didn’t bother. It was an interesting exercise, not least for the anomaly of birthdate placing Philip Larkin next to Bob Cobbing. This is the Phillip Larkin who, as Roy Fisher amusingly (and amazingly) noted, almost appeared in Cid Corman’s Origin.