The first decade or so of the twenty-first century has seen the recovery of several marginalised or entirely ‘lost’ poets. Perhaps, as the twentieth century recedes into history, a desire not to leave its poetic record misaligned, unjustified, is at work. Bloodaxe’s publication of J. H. Prynne’s Poems in 2005 queried the canonical version of that record by producing a major body of work from what – for anyone naive enough to assume that the standard Larkin/Hughes/Heaney/Raine/Motion/Armitage reading list pretty much covered it – might just as well have been nowhere. Published by the same company in the same year, Roy Fisher’s The Long and the Short of It pulled another rabbit out of a neglected hat, while more recent posthumous collections by A. S. J. Tessimond and Bernard Spencer have helped disperse the illusion that the writings of poets shoe-horned into the artificial category of the ‘1940s generation’ can be safely filed between Auden and Larkin as ‘aberrant’ – or, at best, ‘transitional’ – minor work.
On the face of it, these recoveries have little in common – what has Prynne got to do with Fisher and what have either of them got to do with Spencer? – but what’s at stake in all cases is what happened to Modernism and, for want of better terms, experimentalism and the avant garde.
According to the canonical record, Modernism itself was an aberration, introduced into British poetry by foreigners (Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce), and then successfully assimilated into it or excised from it by the return to form and native ‘common sense’ represented by Larkin and The Movement (and an almost criminal misreading of Hardy). As if in penance for this insular cutting-of-ties, the never-knowingly-internationalist 50s poets were succeeded by Hughes’ much-vaunted confessional generation – who had at least read contemporary American poets like Robert Lowell – who, in turn, gave way to Heaney and the Northern Irish ‘school’ (readers of Akhmatova, Brodsky, and Holub), Raine and The Martians, Motion, Armitage, Duffy, Zephaniah et al.
By the early 2000s, the canon had been extended to incorporate what seems to be a multiplicity of voices, from Geoffrey Hill on the one hand to Patience Agbabi on the other. Over the course of sixty years, in other words, the official version of British poetry was free to settle on a diversity and adventurousness which The Movement – or at least the version of The Movement described by Robert Conquest in his introduction to 1956 anthology New Lines – closed down and rejected. This diversity and adventurousness, however, owes nothing to Modernism or any engagement with Modernism; it’s presented as being wholly self-generated, self-invented. Paradoxically, this version of multi-culturalism springs not from an internationalism born of the interwar, pluralist avant garde with roots in Vienna, Berlin, Prague, but from the tabula rasa of Larkin’s return to Englishness: it conveniently does away with American, Indian, Caribbean, Italian, Russian and other poetries which were seeking their own routes away from the monolithic 1920s way before New Lines.
The connection between today’s conservative multi-culturalism and Larkin’s privations is one made by Andrew Crozier in his essay ‘Resting on Laurels’. Born in 1943, Crozier published collections of poetry with small presses throughout his career, beginning with Loved Litter of Time Spent in 1967 and culminating – depending on your point of view – in The Veil Poem, High Zero or Free Running Bitch. He was also a keen advocate of poetry as a serious enterprise, founding publications like The English Intelligencer (that uniquely ad-hoc 1960s journal of poetic toing-and-froing amongst the likes of Riley, Raworth and Prynne) and championing those – like Americans Carl Rakosi and George Oppen – who glimmered in the late Modernist twilight. Charles Olson and Ed Dorn were significant influences, and Crozier was unashamedly interested in the ‘line’ which arises in William Carlos Williams and wells up into the work of the Black Mountain poets and beyond – a line which only the most foolhardy of post-2000 British poets so much as dabble in if they don’t want to be written off as ‘weird’ and ‘eccentric’..
As such, Crozier had little time for the tepid surface distractions of the so-say English scene, its focus on the utterances of a self-aggrandizing, highly polished, lyrical self or ‘what we can all feel comfortable with, each in our own social exclusion zone’. The steady-drip of metaphorical utterance wasn’t Crozier’s bag at all, and in ‘Resting on Laurels’, he argues that post-war British poetry has been hemmed in and rendered dull by its firm insistence on a certain kind of poetic voice or ‘mental conceit’ supported by a limited repertoire of rhetorical figures. Since the booting out of Modernism in the 1950s, he argues, poets have been operating within the delusion that readers are interested in them, rather than in the work they produce. Crozier’s critique suggests that poets have been complicit in creating a spurious avant garde – a celebrity avant-garde – and become standard bearers of a culture which they’ve made great and spectacular but ingenuous efforts to reject.
Like Prynne and Fisher’s, Crozier’s own poetry is ostensibly resistant. Interpretation doesn’t come easily, and yet this apparent ‘difficulty’ transforms, through the experience of reading, into an invitation. Surely, the most democratic form of poetry (or any art) is one which says; ‘Well, here it is. I made this but don’t quite get it. Do you?’: don’t listen to my voice, just appraise the object (Crozier’s splendidly austere Williams-esque poem about a fan heater being a case in point). And once you’ve got over the nagging desire to understand everything or place every reference, it becomes clear that this is the invitation that Crozier’s making, whether that’s in the early anti-sentimental vignettes of Train Rides, the determinedly apersonal Printed Circuit or the more obviously tricky arithmetic of High Zero and the hospital- and traffic light-inspired psychogeography of Free Running Bitch.
One of Crozier’s big things was the line – and he’s certainly a master of that. The Veil Poem – arguably his masterpiece – is full of remarkable examples, and elsewhere you’d be hard-pressed to better the aphoristic quality of Crozier at his most acute: ‘Time – there’s the rub – as wily as a sailor/With only one idea,’ he says in ‘Conversely’, or there’s ‘We can renounce all privilege, no one/can escape the ordeal of being with everything else/in the world’ from ‘The Life Class’. At the same time, the limpid early-ish poem ‘On Romney Marsh’ is a conventionally recognisable gem, the kind of work which could happily sit alongside Alun Lewis’s ‘All Day It Has Rained’ or Bernard Spencer’s ‘Boat Poem’ as an example of what twentieth-century poetry does best – and does better than the faux rhetorical tug of ‘Whitsun Weddings’, ‘The Thought Fox’ or ‘Very Simply Topping Up The Brake Fluid’.
In bringing together Crozier’s poetry and prose, Ian Brinton has done an incalculable service. To describe Crozier as ‘an interesting figure’ is to do nobody any good. Crozier’s combative attitude may not have won him many friends amongst the ungenerous, but as a poet and critic he was more hospitable than most and that, in many ways, is the point. Brinton’s Reader probably won’t win over those already sold on the Larkin-Armitage nexus, but since it also includes a judicious selection of valuable contextualising material (letters from Prynne, some of the postcards which inspired The Veil Poem and so on), it will open doors – and, within Crozier’s unique iconography, tear back veils – for those who are genuinely less deceived. What’s more, it might also help to underline the democratic, pluralist impulse behind the 60s/70s avant garde – the impulse which, beneath those surface difficulties, aimed to offer some alternative to what Prynne described in ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’ as ‘the/gallant lyricism of the select’. (Tom Phillips)
An Andrew Crozier Reader edited by Ian Brinton is published by Carcanet. Full details here.
This review originally appeared in Various Artists.
This review originally appeared in Various Artists.