Thursday, August 12, 2010

Children of Albion: Underground Poetry 40 Years On

I bought a copy of this anthology, edited by Micheal Horovitz, in my local Oxfam shop, out of curiousity as much as anything. How does it stand up after all this time? And is it still important or relevant?

There is inevitably going to be some wastage after all this time, and the less successful poems are the ones that bear too much of the imprint of the '60's. Two lines from Tom Taylor's High Sequence encapsulate its worst faults: "Violence is a drag / it brings me down". The hippy egotism of those two lines and their blissed out insoucience almost seem like cliches nowadays. This one poem shows why it's not a good idea to write when high.

On the other hand, I have a soft spot for some of the short instant poems that were probably written on the cuff, like Pete Brown's Vision:

Wow! 2
small virgins
a gigantic
Not, I'm sure you'll agree, the most deep and meaningful verse ever penned, but it wasn't intended to be. This inclusion of humourous instant poetry gives the anthology a charm that is sometimes lacking in more serious collections of avant-garde poetry. Then there's David Kozubei's delightfully Milliganesque Tragedian's Speech:

Death, death, death, alas;
Death, death, death, alas;
Woe, woe, woe, woe;

I don't suppose such poetry was ever really intended to last or be important, and the fact that it got into one of the more significant anthologies of the '60's is a happy accident. But other poets also have a kind of instancy about them that reminds me of Frank O'Hara and the poets of the Lower East Side who were operating at the same time. Poets such as Paul Evans, Pete Brown and Spike Hawkins, with a touch of that English strain of surrealism that descends from Lewis Carroll:

Shot Throughwithbrownlight

She fled from the carriage
In a flurry of sandwiches
That flew around the old man's head
Their springs broken
Like small fishes panting clank

There's a mixture of sharp observation and odd juxtaposition that is very English, as well as being part American. If this is influenced by Blake, it's by the poet of Innocence & Experience, not the poet of the prophetic books.

Blake does cast a shadow over the whole anthology, not just because of the cover, but because of the Afterword, which also invokes the Beats; but it's actually surprising how few of the poets here are actually Beats. The best poets in the book; people such as Gael Turnbull, Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Harry Guest and others; seem to me to be more interested in Black Mountain poetries, New York School poetries and the Objectivists. The worst poems seem like parodies of the Beats. Micheal Horowitz' own poems stand up, as do Jim Burns'; but the poems in praise of hash or about jazz music fail to do much more than be damp squibs.

So is it still an important anthology? Well, yes and no. There is still a stuffiness in the poetry that needs fresh air blowing through it. When Robin Robertson can declare with all seriousness that there are too many poetry books being published, there is still a need for the constant revolution of underground poetry. It's also good to become more aware of the various paths that poetry has taken in this country apart from the official line that leads from the Movement to Carol Ann Duffy. There is much beauty in this book, much joy, and an openness to experience, to the world outside the academy.

On the other hand, it does have its faults. The lack of women poets for one. The lack of rigour in some of the poetry is also regretable, though all anthologies contain duds. Not all the poetry here is particularly avant garde; Herbert Lomas, for instance, though I like his poems here, doesn't strike me as particularly underground. Non-mainstream poetry has moved on too, and there are ommissions from the time: no Jeff Nuttall, Eric Mottram, Bob Cobbing or JH Prynne for instance.

On the whole, I like this anthology. There are parts of it which are very sixties, but it survives the blissed-out hipness and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a trip to the past.

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