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DAVID KENNEDY - SPRING 2001 FEATURE  

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FEATURE

Grace Cavalieri
The Poet and The Poem #5: A one- hour audio program exploring the African-American roots of rap poetry and the current art form with German rap poet Bastian Boettcher.

David Kennedy
David Kennedy discusses the state of anthologies and the latest gathering by Nicholas Johnson, Foil: Defining Poetry 1985-2000.

Daniela Gioseffi
The haunting, subconscious-driven poetry of Martha Rhodes in her new book, Perfect Disappearance.

John Kinsella
Haycarting: Dialogue, discussion, and dictation among herbs, vegetables, and fruits in the latest chapter of John Kinsella's autobiographical series.

David Kennedy

David Kennedy was born in Leicester, England, in 1959. He co-edited The New Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 1993) and is the author of New Relations: The Refashioning Of British Poetry 1980-1994 (Seren, 1996). A selection of translations from Max Jacob's surrealist classic Le Cornet à Dés (The Dice Cup), in collaboration with Christopher Pilling, was published by Atlas in January, 2001. Cornell: A Circuition Around His Circumambulation is forthcoming from West House Books. David lives in Sheffield and is a contributing editor to The Cortland Review.
David Kennedy: Review

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Foil: Defining Poetry 1985-2000
Edited by Nicholas Johnson
Etruscan Books
April, 2000. Hardcover. 
Our Price: £9.50 (~$15.20)  buy this book


The more poetry fragments and recedes from public consciousness, the more we seem to be inundated with anthologies. In terms of British poetry, there have probably been more anthologies of both mainstream and non-mainstream poetries in the last 20 years than at any other time. Here's a brief sample: The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), A Various Art (1987), The New British Poetry (1988), The New Poetry (1993), Conductors of Chaos (1996); and Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (1999). There were also at least six anthologies devoted exclusively to Irish poetry in the same period as well as The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry (1992) and The Bright Field: an Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from Wales (1991). And then there were the big period- and century-defining anthologies which appeared as the twentieth century ended: Peter Forbes's Scanning The Century, Sean O'Brien's The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945, Simon Armitage and Robert Crawford's The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, and Michael Schmidt's The Harvill Book of Twentieth Century Poetry in English.

In one sense, anthologies might be said not only to respond to anxiety about the status of poetry, but also to attempt to repair it. The truth about contemporary poetry might be fragmentation and unclassifiable diversity, but the anthology insists that poetry can still be defined. Similarly, anthologies are a way of keeping poetry on the wider cultural agenda because they are likely to be reviewed in national newspapers and journals where poetry is otherwise ignored. This is why introductions to poetry anthologies always tend to over-emphasise the extent to which the work they collect has been involved with the social and political events of its times. Anthologies insist on poetry's continuing importance, but perhaps the most curious and interesting thing about them is that they do so through a series of paradoxes.

The first paradox is that anthologies claim to be objective historical surveys when they are, in fact, the product of individual taste and, in some cases, of publishing politics. This leads into the second paradox which is that anthologies claim to be inclusive when they are, in fact, highly selective. For example, to the untrained eye scanning the bookshop shelf, Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 might seem to offer a comprehensive survey, but on a closer examination, it is confined to non-mainstream poetries. The New Poetry (1993)—which I co-edited—claimed to have been compiled 'with total openness to what is being written,' but this was only true with regard to mainstream poetries. Similarly, the period- and century-defining anthologies mentioned earlier find hardly any room for non-mainstream poetries.

The third paradox is that all anthologies claim to represent the diversity of contemporary poetry but manage to do so in a single volume which rather suggests the opposite: that poetry is small enough to go into one book. The fourth paradox is that anthologies claim to represent important shifts in sensibility, but these shifts are often long past by the time the anthology appears and may, in some cases, appear to be historical blips. The final paradox is that anthologies often appear to be compiled according to the old Downbeat poll category of 'talent deserving wider recognition'. However, whatever type of poetry an anthology represents, the very fact they are anthologised is a signal that these writers are in the process of becoming the new establishment, the new canon or whatever. The anthology is the point of crossover.

Most importantly, however, anthologies are symptomatic of the fact that no one can say with any certainty either what poetry is or what is happening in it. To put that another way, they are symptomatic of the fact that anyone can—all perspectives are equal. Once, everyone could agree that poetry was T. S. Eliot or Anne Sexton or Robert Penn Warren. This is no longer the case and explains why anthologies are always the cause of such bitter and heated controversy. There is always at least one argument to be made by someone that a particular anthology is not truly representative.

The preceding account may seem like an unnecessarily long preamble, but it provides a background against which to understand the appearance of yet another anthology of recent British poetry, Foil: Defining Poetry 1985-2000, edited by Nicholas Johnson. The blurb tells us that Foil is a "sounding that excavates writings and performed space. This extensive anthology gathers 33 poets and prose artists whose work defines contemporary attitudes to poetics [...] Performance art, visual writing and photo-text; lyric/experimental poetry, poetry in Gaelic, Scots and regional idioms clash together in this controversial and contentious anthology. [...] This writing, which emerged between 1985-2000, has never been gathered into an anthology before. Foil represents a long overdue survey of a submerged high-risk culture."

Even without the word 'experimental', terms like 'poetics', 'sounding', 'excavate' and 'submerged' tell us that the work anthologised in Foil is broadly non-mainstream. Indeed, 'submersion' and 'burial' are common tropes in anthologies of similar work. Iain Sinclair's introduction to Conductors of Chaos urged prospective readers to 'Treat the page as a block and sound it for submerged sonar effects.' Similarly, in their introduction to Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970, Ric Caddel and Peter Quatermain told us their book's purpose was to 'uncover' what dominant mainstream poetries 'have helped to bury'.

At the same time, Johnson seems determined that Foil should be as unlike other poetry anthologies as possible. The cover of the book, with a large white cross in a red circle, seems more akin to CD compilations of dance music. The book is, in fact, slightly larger than a CD case but it is nearly 400 pages long, 1.5 inches thick, and weighs nearly two kilos—not an easy book to handle.  Where most anthologies can be designated mainstream or non-mainstream, Johnson's introduction announces a focus on a fractional area of activity: 'The parameters, post-New British Poetry (Paladin, 1988), were to locate a body of writing which barely grazed Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos (Picador, 1996).' The ambiguous sense of 'grazed' suggests poetries which are not only not included by conventional accounts of non-mainstream work but are not strongly influenced by the conventions of the non-mainstream either. We are already, then, entering the country of paradox, but Johnson seems to revel in discontinuities. His statement about parameters and the anthology's subtitle insist that all the work in Foil is related, but here are some more assertions of the opposite from his introduction:

*This folio offers a disparate gathering.

*  I propose no systematic groupings of this work around specific approaches to language, text, and poetry.

*  Perhaps a 'non successive continuum' in not being referential to the writing and polemic of two previous generations also mirrors their differences.

It's hardly surprising that Johnson's one attempt at linkage falls flat on its face: 'Being at one remove from the standardized English education system is one of the few links between this non-community of writers'. However, a quick scan of what the book calls the 'bio-data' of its thirty-three contributors reveals five PhD's, six Cambridge University graduates, two Cambridge University lecturers, one graduate of the Slade School of Art and several higher education teachers.

Foil, then, positions itself with innovative, oppositional poetries, but I think that its interest and importance go beyond that. And that interest and importance actually derive from its apparently self-destructing subtitle, "defining poetry 1985-2000". Foil contains quite a lot of work that isn't particularly radical. For example, the Scottish Gaelic poet Meg Bateman writes a type of passionate love lyric which will probably always be written as long as there is something called poetry:

Though everything has been swept away
that love granted at its fullness,
I do not regret the onrush of the tide
or the pain and silence of its ebbing...
'Though everything has been swept away'

More to the point, with a few obvious exceptions such as Caroline Bergvall, Adrian Clarke, and Aaron Williamson, most of the book's writers have, either by accident or design, not been involved in defining anything at all about British poetry in the last fifteen years of the twentieth century. However, I do not think this is a failing of the anthology: I think that this is precisely the point. Foil enacts a kind of negative definition because it collects a wide range of work which can't easily be described as mainstream or innovative even as it appears to lean in one direction or the other. It contains a lot of work which is generally excluded from both mainstream and innovative anthologies.

What I mean by this is that Foil enacts a different kind of inclusiveness. Twelve of its thirty-three contributors are women. This is a better ratio than Other (10/55), The New Poetry (17/55) or Conductors of Chaos (5/36). The non-white British writers in Foil, in contrast to Other, say, or The New Poetry, don't seem to be present only in the service of an argument that contemporary British poetry is a multicultural, rainbow nation. Poetry seems to come before identity politics. This is also true of the regional voices and languages in Foil. Their presence is not a socio-political argument but an acceptance that this sort of writing is going on all the time and is, therefore, just a part of what's going on. Finally, in one area at least, Foil pays attention to a neglected but important English genre: the dream journey, which can be traced from the medieval poem 'Piers Plowman' to Hugh Sykes Davies's 'Petron' in the 1930s and beyond. Aidan Andrew Dun's 'Vale Royal', Tim Atkins's 'Folklore', David Rees's 'The London', and editor Nicholas Johnson's own work all seem to fit this category.

This might suggest that Foil is politically naive—a dangerous stance for any anthology—but, as Johnson's introduction implies, an impatience with categories seems to come before anything else. It seems to me that Foil contains a lot of work which can't really be called poetry and is only called poetry because no one can think of a better word for it. I should point out straight away that I'm not about to launch into a 'it's terrible, it doesn't scan or rhyme' diatribe. What I mean is that, to me, it makes less and less sense to think of a lot of so-called innovative poetry as poetry. It's more a question of text works or fine art with words or behaviour(s) with/in language. I expect a lot of the writers in Foil would disagree with this. It could also be argued that it's more important to know what something does as opposed to what to call it. But to me, the distinction is important because it suggests that if all the work in Foil is poetry, then the term poetry merely refers to writings that are uncategorizable in any other way, to writings whose emphasis is on play, performativity, on scanning and mixing; writings which self-reflexively focus on how meaning is produced and where it is usually located culturally—this cultural location being at once social, economic, and political. Foil, after all, contains work which looks like prose, work which collages image and text together. A lot of these texts are like frequency scanners/radios/dishes/antennae tuned to all the language that's clashing and swirling around out there and 'in here'. Or perhaps, as Richard A Makin puts it in 'Too Mouth for Word', this is 'the time of conversion arts'.

Foil is quite unlike any other anthology of contemporary British poetry and has tremendously good value. Its diversity and refusal of categories means that each reader will, in a sense, make his own map of it. I'd like to conclude, therefore, with examples of work by three writers in Foil who most excite and engage me. The first of these is Adrian Clarke whose work in Foil is excerpted from the longer 'Spectral Investments':

the system is closed
an official told reporters
police opened fire to
make sense of their
text an arrow of
retribution dictated to the
Prophet in airports and
suburbs paternal translates traveling
to the heart of
needles the people asked
to explain the Book
a rather arrogant fiction
with a certain global
objectivity after Friday prayers

The formal principle here is reduced to something that is at once unobtrusive and very powerful: four words per line. This has the effect of producing texts which seem fragmented but demand to be read at a speed so that meaning is constantly being offered and whisked away. The reader not only experiences the text as a play of discourses, but also experiences himself or herself as constructed in that play. It seems to me that Clarke's texts could only have been written in the last fifteen years: the so-called 'information age' where we have so many facts and yet so little solid ground under our feet.

Richard A. Makin's work is also concerned to perform a play of discourses, but where Clarke is concerned to strip language back to the phrase, Makin piles meaning upon possible meaning, as in this extract from 'Universlipre':

Mouths of a current state man overstone scone, a revenant prehistory of antinomianism and graffiti; meltdown yielding code via a prescient mediaship. Crises crosses the rubricron die, a dna dyslexicon geniiiiiii rises, when the wave is up and the cobb is undersea the only sound route is that beyond the white window frames whereat fastidie free masons and master builders of gothick cathedrals sprinkle hot orage ground pepper and oils of garlic into the commune named cenogamy: the interpretation of rheam's cathedral.

'Universlipre' might imply a new universal language or that linguistic slippage is everywhere our condition. Makin's texts are at once compelling and disturbing. There is a sense of apocalyptic meltdown and of some visionary power that would reclaim language as both a place of and a means of accessing energy and mystery. In this sense, these are texts that need to be read aloud so that the reader is literally speaking their many tongues.

My third and final poet is Harriet Tarlo. Her author statement tells us that she prefers to 'write outside...I'm more at risk, less protected by walls and stoves, chairs and food, and by the constructed explaining subject itself...writing outside is being on the outside of what you cannot understand'. Here's the opening of 'Brancepeth Beck':

rained itself
out rock grows beck
turned against
pouring grows over
mud widening faster
than I can
run faster than
stumbled gorse pulls
against rained it
self out

This makes a powerful contrast with what is popularly called 'nature poetry'. There is no assumption that the scene before the poet can be rationalized either in terms of the 'beautiful' or as 'nature red in tooth and claw'. Nature here is a play of impersonal forces in which the human has to struggle for a place.

The work anthologized in Foil is neither 'easy' nor easily consumable under the category 'poetry', but it is writing in which challenge and reward are present in equal measure. The challenges and rewards of Foil derive in large part from the different ways its 33 poets treat the page and the text as a means of 'being in language' and thereby make the reader rethink what is meant by the category 'poetry'. Perhaps Foil is ushering in the age of the anti-anthology. The writers in Nicholas Johnson's 'disparate gathering' are largely inaccessible even to interested readers in the UK which means that they are likely to be completely unknown to readers beyond its shores. This makes Foil an essential purchase wherever you live and read.

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© 2002 The Cortland Review