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The War of Laurence Upton's Ear

Friday, 29 July 2011 at 15:32

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This is my account of the Poetry Wars. Peter Barry has written an entertaining if partial account of the rise and fall of the British Poetry Revival and its occupation and departure from the Poetry Society in the1970s in the book of that name, possibly a rare example of history being written by the defeated. This is a version of some of the events from a leading member of the Poetry Society Reform Movement, unfairly labelled as reactionary or conservative.

I used to go to the Poetry Society in the mid-1970s when it was still located in Earls Court Square. It had been a large four-storey Victorian or Edwardian terraced house with large rooms, a basement where there was a print shop and a bar opening on to a tiny garden and a flat at the top where a caretaker, quite often with poetic aspirations, lived. The ground floor was given over to the running of the society although the room overlooking Earls Court Square was a poetry bookshop when I began going there. Upstairs there was a large front room where public readings and other activities were held and at the back there was a library where smaller closed events, such as Poets’ Workshop were held. After public readings and workshops participants and audience would go to the bar in the basement and then at closing time some of us would continue drinking next door at the White House Hotel, a seedy establishment which had a number of elderly residents, who when they breathed their last in the place had their effects ransacked by the owners. I was once assaulted in the White House bar by Martin Seymour-Smith after his talk on Shakespeare’s sonnets. He had gone on rather about Shakespeare’s sexuality and there I was dressed in something epicene from Take Six with a pretty ‘dark lady’ whom he obviously thought need to be rescued from my perverse desires. The dark lady took it into her head to lead him on so much so that he landed one feeble punch on my unresisting chin – Seymour-Smith was tiny and thirty years older and I am not a Hemingway-style brute. The incident went no further as Bob Cobbing, the Concrete poet, interposed his person between us. Being rescued by Bob Cobbing was a twist in the tale of the Poetry Wars as we had been on opposite sides some months before.

I was a member of two groups that met at the Poetry Society, besides attending readings and being a regular customer of the bookshop. There were other events, but there is a merciful lacuna in my recollection of a master-class under the direction of somebody called Odette Tchernine. Poetry Workshop was a successor to the Group and still had original members in George Macbeth, Alan Brownjohn and George Wightman, who participated as chairs of workshop sessions and who still submitted poems-in-progress for Workshop members to get their teeth into. There were talented poets who had been long-standing members such as Roy Bennet, Ted Burford, Jeremy Cartland, Jack Carey, Daphne Gloag, Farida Majid, Donald Ward and an old Communist veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Vic West, as well as newer talents such as James Berry, Carol Rumens and myself. Laurie Smith, who is a leading light and one of the founders of Magma, was also a member and was Secretary of the Poets’ Workshop. Alan Brownjohn was also a member of the Poetry Society Council as was George Wightman. The Workshop meetings were almost always devoted to one member’s work with only one workshop allowed in a single year to a member and these being selected on merit and interest by the Workshop committee. There were three terms with a long break from July through to mid-September. Sessions were serious and criticism was forensic. The poet,whose work was under scrutiny, was not allowed to speak until discussion of a poem had been completed.

The second group I attended was Poetry Round. This was chaired almost always by the late Roger Chinery, a television film editor. The quality of the work and discussion was considerably different from the Workshop. The poets, for want of a better word, would bring a poem to read and get a reaction from the other participants. Everybody who had something to read was given an opportunity. It was the ancestor of the open mike event. There was some overlap with a group that used to meet at the old Troubadour Club open readings not far away with some participants, such as Mahmood Jamal,attending both readings. Some of the participants were clearly quite mad. Once after working abroad I returned in a fit of nostalgia to Poetry Round and found it chaired by somebody who claimed to have trepanned himself. He read a poem addressed to his pet pigeon that he named “Brain Blood Volume.” Trying saying that aloud and you may well conclude that the operation had not improved his ear. There was entertainment of a harmlessly malicious kind to be had at Poetry Round. Some regulars at Poetry Round had talent and there I met my lifelong friends Marius and Bobbie Kociejowski. Irving Weinman, a key player in the Poetry Reform Movement also went to sessions and eventually joined Poets’ Workshop. A number of poets were good enough to have been in Poets’ Workshop, but they preferred to have an instant reaction to a poem rather than wait their turn over the course of a year. Some simply did not like Poets’ Workshop’s Leavisite pretensions.

A third network to which Jack Carey,George MacBeth, Irving Weinman, Vic West, George Wightman and myself belonged was a salon held by the poet and translator, Farida Majid at Cadogan Square once a month. Farida was a member of Poets’ Workshop. Other poets who came to Farida’s included Fleur Adcock, Tony Buzan, Gavin Ewart and Kit Wright. The group was by invitation only according to Farida’s perception of one’s talent and conversational gifts. In those days I was fairly promiscuous in the poetry activities that I engaged in. Relevance forbids me to give a detailed account of the evening at Avatar somewhere in South Kensington, chaired by Sir John Waller, who fell asleep and dribbled down his shirt front or of the poetry theatricals at the Cockpit in Paddington involving a group of feminist poets and myself organised by Harriet Rose. I think Take Six might have provided my costume either the black velvet or the white suit made in the style worn by Mick Jagger. Was the Herbert Johnson fedora involved? It blew away down an underground tunnel after an unwisely severe haircut. Once I went to a group in Highgate and was afterwards invited by a bespectacled man back to his place for a cup of tea. I declined sensing an attempt on my virtue. Years I recalled that this person had a resemblance to the serial killer, Dennis Nilsen active in the Highgate area.

Poetry Round met once a week on Wednesdays except during August and Poets’ Workshop once a fortnight on a Friday evening. Both paid a small weekly fee for the hire of the room, which was nominal. Workshop members paid an annual fee to cover the cost of printing workshop poems and room hire. The Round charged participants each week and used the money to pay for the room. A letter from Roger Guedalla quoted by Barry claims that Round never paid its rent. But Roger Chinery was meticulous in such matters, so I find the charge difficult to believe.

It was after a Round evening in June1975 that the war started. Myself and David Lovibond, a journalist with the Daily Mail, had enjoyed ourselves either in the basement bar or in the White House, probably over a mutual enthusiasm for archaeology not politics, and got into a shouting match with members of the Poetry Society’s executive committee. I recall Bob Cobbing, the treasurer, Laurence Upton, deputy chair, and Jeremy Adler. Alcohol inflamed the argument, which turned upon Poetry Review, then edited by Eric Mottram. I’m pretty sure I complained about the quality of production of the magazine and what seemed to be a narrow range of work in the public readings although Geoffrey Hill had recently read at the Poetry Society. Lovibond and I were attacked for not being members and for our group being subsidized by the Poetry Society. I asked what expenses Round incurred beyond electricity and we got into a heated argument about the cost of light bulbs.The argument broke up when Lovibond, who had an adolescent attachment to Fascism, proclaimed “Fuck you! I follow the Führer!” This piece of idiocy gave the Reform Movement a wholly unjustified reputation as a crypto-fascist group of poetasters who wished for a return to rhymed verse of an absolute British provenance.

After this opening exchange of fire,there was a meeting of the Poetry Society’s Management Committee in July whereit was decided that the Round should be asked to move to another venue as the Poetry Society would be starting its own “Open House” activity which would render the Round’s activities an unnecessary duplication. The Management committee seemed under a misapprehension that David Lovibond had an organizing role in the Round. In fact, Round was organised by the self-effacing Roger Chinery, who chaired most of the evenings with occasional substitute chairs such as, the film-maker, Julian Roberts. There were no meetings in August, but trouble surfaced in September. There were allegations that the notice board in the Poetry Society had been defaced by a Round participant. The truth of this was never established, but Roger received a letter requiring Round to quit the premises. He wrote asking for an explanation, but this was not forthcoming for two months. We decided to fight back while continuing to meet at the Black Bull in Fulham Road. I rang Irving Weinman, who no longer went to the Round, preferring the more studious rigours of Poets’ Workshop, but who possessed considerable organizational skills. We had a meeting at the house in Bowerdean Street where I was living. The members of the eventual Reform Movement committee were present plus Roger Chinery and Madge Herron, something of a legend for her poems recited from memory and not written down. She sometimes recited Ezra Pound’s “The Garden” at the Round, which impressed the ignorant who thought it was one of her own. She had to be asked to leave my home after some anti-semitic ranting, which upset Irving. The people on the committee were Tim Coxe, Denis Doyle, David Lovibond, Padraic MacAnna, myself and Irving Weinman. Two of us had pronounced left-wing sympathies, one was a strong supporter of a united Ireland, one was a professed pacific anarchist and one lived in a New Age-style commune. David Lovibond was the exception, but as I have indicated he gave us a wholly misleading reputation.

Following this first meeting we decided to call for an EGM. This required a statement of our case, a manifesto for reform, and funds for postage in order to circulate the membership for signatures calling for an EGM. It was also decided to produce an anthology to show what poetry could be published in Poetry Review in place of a content dominated by poetry derivative of the American Beats and Black Mountain. We were never concerned about preserving genteel decorum or the rumoured loutish behaviour of the cabal in charge at the Poetry Society. On that score there were possibly one or two skeletons in Poetry Round’s closet. I drafted a series of proposals for reform which form the ‘Contention’ part of the manifesto on the basis of our discussions. The proposals were then amplified by an introduction, which I believe Irving wrote. The Manifesto was then amended and agreed by the whole Reform Committee.

The whole document can be found in Peter Barry’s “Poetry Wars.” Those who care to read the manifesto will see that it is far from a reactionary call to return to genteel values and rhymed verse.Barry discusses our five demands on page 51 of his book. The first two demands were that the Poetry Society “should seek out, encourage and present the work of the many groups practising in Great Britain” and, secondly, that the Society should “extend its work beyond the premises and initiate community events,whether centred in a village, a commune, an adventure playground or even where poetry is merely an element in a festival.” Barry describes them as unexceptionable although permitting himself a sneer at “the Merrie Britain idyll” he imagines that we imagined in the second proposal. A Merrie (White) Britain might have been in the mind of David Lovibond, but not in the minds of the rest of us. Poetry is a low cost activity and I was thinking of places where low cost, easy-to-organise art activity might usefully happen in the Britain of the 1970s. The availability of poetry readings, local festivals and events was far less than it is now. If one looks at any region of contemporary Britain outside London, for example, East Anglia, one find dozens of well-organised arts or poetry festivals. The image, I hesitate to claim vision, in the manifesto is rather close to present reality. Likewise the publicity given to poetry events throughout Britain by the Poetry Society corresponds to what was in the first demand. Probably the growth in activity of Regional Arts Associations in the 1980s and 1990s was responsible rather than any subliminal influence of the Reform Movement.

Our third demand that the General Council stand for re-election every year is rightly panned by Barry as potentially destabilising. However, we were reacting, and this is confirmed by Barry’s account, to the gradual incremental domination of the General Council over a period of four years from 1971 by a group of poets with little tolerance of aesthetic views different from their own or indeed of organised and accountable managerial procedures. An example of how exclusive and elitist the radicals can be seen in The Manifesto of the Poetry Society, which Jeff Nuttall wrote in response to our Manifesto for Reform.Point 9 declares “That the belief in the absolute validity and predominance of traditional forms be granted its rightful place in the Society as the interesting unique reaction against poetry which it is.” That “absolute” saves it from one kind of nonsense, but only to create another kind of nonsense. How many poets and readers of poetry believe in “the absolute validity and predominance of traditional forms.” None I think. The use of “absolute”indicates the state of mind of the radicals at the Poetry Society; ‘you’re either with us or against us.’ Moreover, you’re against if you disagree with point 5 of the manifesto: “That literature is passing through a stage of development in which the merit of poetry is usefully measured by the degree of innovation apparent in its structure.”

Our fourth demand that Poetry Review be edited by an “editorial board of five” seemed absurd at the time, but had both precedent in an experiment by Jon Silkin’s “Stand” and was a reaction to the editorship of Eric Mottram, who in Poetry Review published no reviews and only at the end of his term published in the magazine a “Poetry Information”, a list of events and publications which was difficult to decipher. The obvious criticism of our demand was that there would be no consistency in content and that it would be difficult to organise the editing of a magazine with a committee. Our proposal in detail was that editorship should be rotated round the editorial board, a practice which bears some resemblance to the working practice of the highly successful magazine, “Magma” where Laurie Smith is still a major force.

Our final demand that the Poetry Society should support the circulation to the membership of an alternative review is difficult to understand after thirty-six years. There was a strong desire particularly from Padraic MacAnna for such a publication and it resulted in a small anthology, which was paid for by donations from the members of the Poetry Society to whom we appealed when we circulated our manifesto. In retrospect this was probably an irrelevant demand as our initial motivation was to create an open Poetry Society responsive to the needs and wishes of the members whatever these might have been. The actual “little red book”, to use Barry’s witticism, had work from eighteen contributors ten of whom were members of Poets Workshop including, Anna Adams, James Berry, Jack Carey and Carol Rumens.From the other eight there were two contributors from Papua-New Guinea. The selection had to be outstanding in order to make a valid point against Mottram’s Poetry Review. In the event the selection was competent and unexciting and served only to distract attention from the focus on the lack of democratic and accountable practice.

While we were putting together a manifesto and organizing a circular to the membership, Poets’ Workshop came under the cosh. There had been a long-standing complaint about the Workshop’s fortnightly meetings on a Friday evening. This clashed with Poetry Society public readings with Workshop members making a noise on the stairs when they .arrived or even worse popping in for the first part pf the public reading before leaving for the Workshop. Members of the General Council had begun to record the public readings, but were experiencing difficulties with extraneous noise.As with the print-shop fiasco it was another example of a good idea completely ruined by the technical incompetence of those trying to put it into practice. Surely, a uni-directional microphone was available in 1975?

In August 1975 Laurie Smith, who was secretary, received a letter requiring Poets’ Workshop to change the day on which it met and in September this was made a ‘fiat’. Poets’ Workshop, like the Round, went into exile at The Black Bull in Fulham Road. Poetry Round approached Poets’ Workshop but they were understandably cautious about too close a connection. Some members supported the Reform Committee especially in the matter of securing an EGM. Others such as George Wightman and Alan Brownjohn clearly indicated that the Reform Committee consisted of talentless amateurs who were momentarily useful. Alan Brownjohn has a long and distinguished publishing career and George Wightman co-translated a Penguin book of medieval Arabic poetry and came second in the 1982 National Poetry Competition, which he claims to have founded. Wightman had been a member of the General Council for a number of years, but apart from complaining about the radicals and about Charles Osborne, the Arts Council Literature Director, who perhaps did not belong to his class, had done nothing to change matters.Osborne seemed to be a bete noire for everybody although I never had the experience of meeting him. MacAnna had once been to see him to request financial support for his ambition to write full-time. Osborne offered him a pencil and piece of paper and said, “Here’s the Arts Council’s support.”

We got our EGM, but we were soundly defeated at the meeting on all our proposals, modified from our original manifesto after further discussion. They were for an editorial board not an editor, half the Council members to stand down each year, continuous terms on the General Council to be limited to four years, members to have the right to inspect and make copies of the accounts, election of Council members by poll not a show of hands. Seven of us then stood up and secured a postal ballot which was subsequently lost. This meant the end of my active participation in the Reform Movement. David Lovibond continued with some publicity mostly for himself and some hare-brained schemes, such a “poetry van” visiting remote communities desperately in need of poetry. Opposition was taken over by a “Poetry Action Group” led by General Council members noticeable for their previous inaction; Alasdair Aston, Alan Brownjohn, John Cotton, Clifford Simmons, and George Wightman. All of these were adept at insider manouevring and managing to preserve a front of sceptical, public distance from the Arts Council, whose funding power was to prove decisive. At the AGM in June 1976 the “moderates” as the Poetry Action Group, like Mrs. Thatcher at the time, styled itself had begun to take back power in the General Council. I left to work in Saudi Arabia in August and shortly after I returned in 1977 there was the legendary debate overa desk prompting a sarcastic remark by Charles Osborne followed by a spontaneous walk-out and resignation by the radicals. Barry cites evidence that the walk-out had been contemplated for some time, but it would be when the issue of the new editors of Poetry Review was raised, not in response to continuing disdain by Charles Osborne. Whatever the truth of the matter it seems the radicals had perceived, like political leaders who have lost the confidence of the electorate, that the game was up and had decided to leave rather than be pushed. Unfortunately impatience led the grand gesture to be mistimed so that they lost the opportunity to make a point about the control of the content of Poetry Review being the editor’s rather than the Arts Council and let Charles Osborne and journalists in sympathy with him imply that the Society had been run by a bunch of squabbling misfits. The radicals staged a boycott of the Poetry Society, but the reaction of those who succeeded them seems to have been“Am I bovvered?”

The radicals’ departure did not mean a sudden change into competent management and open communication with the membership. There was introduction of the Poetry Competition, not an original idea as I recall I.P. Taylor, a Poets Workshop member, winning the Stroud Poetry Competition in the 1970s. But there was also an expenses scandal and potential insolvency to come before the Poetry Society gained some semblance of competence. The membership did not become more involved in the management processes of the Society largely because most of them live outside London and a trip to London for the AGM of the Poetry Society is unlikely to be a priority especially as most poets and readers of poetry have to be careful about expenditures. The moderate Poetry Action Group gained power and held on to it as signalled by Alan Brownjohn’s longevity as Chair of the General Council. Presumably his objection to a public vote at the recent EGM indicates the last flicker of the old committee insider’s dislike of public polarization of issues through a vote as opposed to private lobbying. I recall an attempt by Laurence Cotterell, a moderate member of the Council and Chairman of WH Smith’s, to suborn me by telling me that I was a talented young poet who could go far if I didn’t involve myself in the lunatic fringe. Unfortunately for his ilk Poetry Society members are now rather more inclined to action and the use of the internet helps. In 1975 we had to print our manifesto, fill envelopes and raise money for postage and wait for a response. Recent events at the Poetry Society and the successful action initiated by Kate Clanchy indicate that the old committee animal is a dinosaur although still it seems to hope if it hangs on the members will get bored and go away.

Doubtless the radicals of the 1970s would have left the Poetry Society eventually worn down by the attrition of the Arts Council in keeping the purse strings very tight. The Reform Movement I would say catalysed a feeling of dissatisfaction and probably accelerated the departure of the radicals. The mystery is why a radical group of experimental poets ever thought of taking over the Poetry Society. It was founded as an Edwardian charity at a time when poetry in Britain was at its lowest ebb. Ezra Pound had not yet or barely arrived in England and was still employing an archaic vocabulary in his poetry. The Georgians were still a couple years away from existence. The Poetry Society pottered along as a marginal force in British poetry for half a century with Poetry Review publishing work from the leading poets of the day only when they were well established alongside work bysuch as Teresa Hooley, “the Derbyshire poetess” who awarded me my first poetry prize in a local competition in the 1960s. Her moment was in the 1920s with a poem on the First World War. Only in the 1960s did the Poetry Society become part of the mainstream and somewhere an ambitious young poet might cautiously visit. The only parallel to the radicals' action I can think of is as if the unlamented Militant Tendency had decided to infiltrate the Rotary Club because Club members had decided wear their hair slightly longer and play Cliff Richard’s records at their dinner and dances.

The Poetry Society is now a major enabling force for poetry in Great Britain and because of the diversity of styles available to potential readers of the art should always be facilitating rather than prescriptive. The broad limits should be that the poetry it facilitates should enjoy significant support and not cause public disorder. What constitutes significant support is matter for the judgment of the professional staff for which they are paid. Public disorder is matter for the police. The fundamental error of the British Poetry Revival was to prescribe the kind of poetry they wished to promote and when challenged they proscribed two relatively inoffensive poetry groups, which proved to be the last straw.

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