The Fulminating Geographers

Looking back on the BPR with Iain Sinclair

At some point during the last week of January I got wind of a new poet. I picked up word of Tom Raworth, somewhere online. I remember checking out a few of his poems on the Poetry Foundation website during tea breaks, brief moments snatched from the day’s course. The screenshots come affixed with dates, periodized. One dozy lunchbreak I had opportunity to extend the scope of my casual research program and found an article on Raworth by Iain Sinclair in the LRB. The conjunction of writer and subject was associatively provocative – Sinclair was a ‘dad’s bookshelf’ writer. The provocative shiver was pleasingly built upon and galvanized, Sinclair’s article provided an enchanting contextualisation of Raworth and, as a homegrown historical materialist, I’m a complete sucker for the enchantment of contextualisation.

Little did I know this was absolute Sinclair territory. The dredged up clutter of lost communalities, hoarded, not sorted through, still held on to with a ‘lived-in feel.’ Slightly elegaic register.

‘Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire’ documents the expurgations of neoliberal Regeneration programs, catalogues the purifying rituals, all the while drawing up psychic maps for excursions behind the shiny, confident visage of a London teetering on the edge of financial collapse, a National Trust Guide to ‘The Roads Not Taken.’ Sinclair lays out out a smorgasbord feast of half-dead social offcuts, the crusts and pusses skimmed off the sleek sides of the new social body, the unfounded and unfunded. ‘Hackney’ is not a broadminded or sweeping survey of a particular locale, and it is only a ‘psychogeography’ periodically.

Rachel Whitbread in Kingsland Waste market: ‘In the 90s (John Major not Aubrey Beardsley), I would sometimes run into Rachel Whitbread… Dressed down, bibbed and booted, Rachel would be inspecting, without the predatory eye of the bargain hunter, goods spread across a ramshackle improvisation of stalls and boxes by Norman Palmer… storage trays and tea chests, Whitbread auditions… At the end of the days trading… scavengers advanced, raking over spurned libraries… refuse is a commodity which is never refused… The Kingsland Waste Market was a private view, open to all, a Royal Academy Summer Show of installations, photoworks, wrecked medicine cabinets’ (101). What is the crux of this vignette? Nostalgia – Sinclair’s remembered self and it’s remembered capacity to ‘run into’ young artists and picturesque street scenes.

‘Hackney’’s status as a documentarian para-Marxist polemic against Regeneration is continually obstructed and obtruded upon by Sinclair’s disinclination to avail himself of any literary weaponry beyond a Cyril Connolly ‘Enemies of Promise’-style group portrait of his own milieu. Sinclair exerts himself dredging and dredging, but he’s always digging up the same thing: traces of his own circle, varied by traces of their antecedents, even further varied by traces of their opinions. This shabbily gathered group portrait, an assemblage of propped-up cadavers, museum oddities and those still around to ‘carry the torch’, is haphazardly and for the most part unconvincingly stitched into a surrounding environment of paratactic, ‘polychromatic’ (Ackroyd) paeans to urban chaos and violence; this awkward alliance is forged as Sinclair’s counterweight in the dialectic-scale against REGENERATION. (There’s a delightfully ramshackle, homemade quality to Sinclair’s fault-ridden Contradiction Contraption when compared to, say, the formidable, High Constructivist system of fulcrums and pulleys and platforms used by Mao to expose and stimulate certain Chinese dynamics).

The community Sinclair dredges up and dredges up throughout ‘Hackney’ are united in their contrarianism. Although their shared 60’s-style Marxist intellectual adolescences have been variously shorn, replaced with developed adult personalities and self-contained artistic identities, certain vestigial tendencies and aversions remain with them, hanging on. This lost, dispersed community was once home to many of the elements out of which The British Poetry Revival (BPR) was distilled, one arm in that Cambridge-Essex-London network. It was common practice for Member-Poets to graft themselves with dimensions by coming up with personal battlelines …

2000’s Sinclair
Antipathies : The 2012 Olympic Games ; cyclists and cycle-routes ; the concept of Regeneration ; the Hackney Local Council ; documentary film crews.
Sympathies : ‘local flavour’ ; a kind of allotment-variety anarchism ; the literary-historical-(gnostic) motif of finding traces.
60’s Prynne
Antipathies : History ; Time ; verbs ; ‘diplomacy.’
Sympathies : ‘primary attention’ ; nouns ; gerunds ; ice ; etymology.

Try to imagine Sinclair reading ‘Brass.’ That collection of Prynne poems published by Ferry Press in 1971. How did he get it down? What was the particular form taken by his astonishment? How did he keep it down? Prynne’s complex, fibrous word-bark donated into the personal mind-stomach. Questions bubble underneath in that collection, glimpsed-implied: language, being thought, is also thought’s substitute and stand-in for us, therefore, what language tics, pre-occupations and tricks do you want in place of thought processes? … ‘Brass’ is alot.

THE FUNDAMENTAL CONTRADICTION inflicting and inflicted by the British Poetry Revival is : Geography vs ‘The Movement.’

Certain conditions, shared axioms, contexts need already be in place for contradiction such as this to be taken seriously. In this case, the assemblage of conditions, axioms and contexts is the one convened under the banner of High Modernism. It is fitting then that one of the first places in which the BPR’s quintessential contradiction was unleashed is in correspondence with fucking Charles Olson. In the correspondence the young Prynne lets fly a number of dicta that could easily take their place in the monsters gallery of classic Modernist assertion like ‘…published 1845–62, just before the world collapsed into notion and salesmanship’ and ‘ice is the totally serious condition’ and ‘Betjeman’s England, the successor to Auden’s.’ Peter Riley exposes the fundamental assumptions underlying this last assertion, digging out the Modernist crag-iron on which the whole Geography vs ‘The Movement’ contradiction depends –

‘Betjeman’s England, the successor to Auden’s’ … Not, then, Auden’s or Betjeman’s poetry, but their England. The distinction is not made. The poetry creates the land, and if we don’t create it ourselves we shall just have to live in somebody else’s miscreation— ‘a dismal land with its lost element of primary attention and governance.’

‘The poetry creates the land’ … ‘To purify the dialect of the tribe’ … ‘to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’ … It is only in the rarefied Kenner-climes of shared assumptions like these that debates more like to be hashed out, interminably and inconclusively and irrelevantly, in academic conference rooms or periodicals, instead are given world-historical amplification in the High Court of Modernism, weighed in the scales of the Pisan cage. Instead of a journal article titled ‘Worth Considering?: The Movement Reconsidered : Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie and their Contemporarories’ we are given ‘THE MOVEMENT’ ON TRIAL FROM CRIMES AGAINST ‘THE SPIRIT OF A NATION.’  The verdict of such a trial, only relevant to the accusers, the small clan of poet-flagellants who have enough fervour to inflict it upon themselves while the accused look on with detached amusement, completely unaffected, is to load their own poetry with the resources of appropriate counterthrust. Modernist consternation only bounces back on itself, the Modernist weapon is almost all kickback : as the accusation grows in scope, to include everything, so does the amount of effort required by the accuser to avoid implication, in fact this exertion, the increase in hermeticism, in difficulty, is the only metric for the accusation’s growth.

A BPR is inaugurated! Launched! Commenced! Attack directed at the heart of British ‘Movement’-consciousness – ‘parochial mediocrity … rotting in a provincial squeamishness … wan confusion … English sanity … official verse culture.’ Launched on the homeground of that ‘Movement’-stream in English consciousness : the parochial – an assault on the very concept, making it impossible, untenable, flooding it with everything it supresses, mystifies, holds back by ironical detachment, flooding it with the kinds of things that the whole field of Geography is devoted to not leaving un-commented upon (especially when practised with a Historicist, Critical bent). (The image one should have in mind, perhaps, is of a fete on the village cricket green suddenly beset by 16th century Levellers wielding lagoonal Purbeck boulders in a crowd that also includes collaged-assemblages of planning permission documents, Poor Laws, Thatcherite manifestos and chalk deposits that walk in stride like zombie hollow-men alongside field diagrams of networked data that are also drifts of pollen with biker gangs streaming through this deep traffic colliding into people who are historical side-shows wearing historical dress holding out models of buildings with occult histories in their oustretched palms – all of them chanting in unison ‘Chips     80 percent prefer chips to poetry’).

Included with attack on parochiality is a positive objective : the arrogation to the poem of a articulate vision of contaminated, unstable locality, radical, incidental locality. A new option : how to capture the local as an optic without getting stuck within the confines of the parochial as an outlook. ‘The field is set by singleness and passage (which may be the ecology of a river bank, or the Pennine chain). This will bring the local, but the implication mustn’t be forced. And from here the beginnings can be reached out for. The Anglo-Saxons are the purest exemplification of what may be meant by predicament, how the singleness crosses with passage’ these are the inexplicable conditions under which the local can be safely captured. To avoid parochial mystification we must have the local-within-the-sweep, it must come wrapped in contamination. Working methodologies and strictures from other fields – Geography, Geology, American Experimental Poetics (Ed Dorn and Kathy Acker as emissaries), Marxism – are incorporated, pressures fixing the formation of the BPR counterpunch, which finds itself fixed in the shape of ANGLO-SAXON SYSTEMS THINKING (surprising result!) ; Prynne says of the Anglo-Saxon corpus ‘the local is here and not coy, the Chronicle is the full periplum of its extent, and about the last time the regional scarps and river basins were visible from the written word.’ This Anglo-Saxon vision of the local, singleness and passage, has to be re-created under artificial conditions, in the lab as it were, with the stock of methodologies and scientific optics as an acid bath to eat away at the ideological plaque the local has since accrued. 

from Peter Riley on Olson, Prynne and Paterson in the Fortnightly Review, which this piece is intended as 'a counterpart to, a garland woven around'

Laying along the bottom of the acid bath is some philosophical sludge. In the bath’s combinatorial flurry of methodologies and disciplinary paradigms it is to be expected that certain clumps will form, and drift downwards, literary-philosophical orientations half-felt in the depths of various BPR works.

Half-Felt Clumps / Tenets of the System of British Poetry Revival / Prynne-Thought circa 1960 :

  • An uncertain line between Geography and Epistemology. Poets approaching the geological features of their allotted landscapes through psychic pincer-movements, oscillating ambiguously between empirical note-taking and Transcendental Deduction. ‘the ice fronting/ the earlier marine, so that the sentiment/ of ‘cliffs’ is the weathered stump of a feeling/ into the worst climate of all’ – try pointing the Empson Geiger-counter at this passage’s ‘so that’ and see what happens… 
  • Noun Naturalism. A careful deployment of specific nouns can delete the time, the calcifying history of usage, interceding between us and the moment in which they were first used. When we perform poetic archaeology and careful deployment upon these nouns (often drawing upon the techniques of open-field poetics developed by the American poetic avante-garde)  they become wilder, more natural, more like the thing they name.

There’s no point listing the rest, in the end it would only amount to so much re-phrasings of Heidegger, who, it turns out, is the coagulated sludge-monster half-felt in the depths of the BPR acid bath. 

Although theoretically significant to Prynne, the green algae of Heideggereanism never appears on the surface of his poems. In part this is because the surface of Prynne’s poems are too coruscated, and churning. Also significant is the fact that, unlike some of his BPR compatriots, Prynne never makes the mistake of confusing ‘Geography’ with ‘stuff outside.’ Like Milton, about whom Dr Johnson wrote that ‘He saw Nature … through the spectacles of books‘, Prynne is a great nature poet because he isn’t interested in going outside. Prynne accesses a landscape by consulting the OED, dredging up niche journal articles and field reports, peering into the lease history. To Prynne it is obvious: landscapes are ideological trigger-movements offered up in parochial postcard-formats and ‘Nature’ isn’t the answer to the question ‘what is outside?’ but to the question ‘what language tics, reflexes, pre-occupations and tricks do you want in place of certain thought processes?’ In his Gonville and Caius College study it is relatively easy for Prynne to avoid the Heideggerean temptation to meditate on the ‘is what it is’-ness of a landscape or natural subject, it would be difficult for him to get caught (?) up in epiphanies about the landscape’s impassivity, its ability to withdraw from its own mythologies, to appear completely pristeen, as a thing in itself, suddenly shorn of its personal or social histories of meaningfulness. Open some books written by other members of the BPR during the 70’s and 80’s, however, and you will find some very ontological pages.