Thursday, 2 April 2009

Official Verse Culture

It’s interesting to observe the furore going on in relation to Jeffrey Side’s piece ‘The dissembling poet’ in Jacket magazine. Interesting and depressing because it illustrates only too well the kind of toxic atmosphere still hanging around from the late Poetry Wars. There are, of course, good reasons for the arguments to take place though they soon enough degenerate to name-calling. I’ve met people who, thirty years after the purge at the Poetry Society, still won’t go anywhere near the building, even if there’s someone whose work they might like performing in there. It’s impossible to be an innocent bystander here (in England) when, almost by definition, my own writing, along with that of so many others, can never be a part of Official Verse Culture. I use this term rather than Ron Silliman’s ‘School of Quietude’ because I think it describes with greater accuracy what can be seen at work in the UK. I prefer not to use the term ‘mainstream’ since it automatically means that the kind of writing done by the people I’m interested in is somehow beside the point. Peter Riley has suggested that it is this writing that is really the mainstream and that the work that appears in the weekend magazines is truly marginal, but I think he jumps the gun a bit here. What is or isn’t the mainstream can only become apparent in time. It’s clear though that the sort of work that appears in newspapers and the well-publicised books from large publishing houses does represent a kind of ‘official’ phenomenon. The pervasiveness of this ‘culture’ doesn’t occur in America to as great an extent (at least there are alternative ‘official’ cultures there), nor does it occur in Australia (I asked a friend to ‘imagine if the only poets whose work you ever saw in the Australian newspapers were Les Murray, Alan Gould and Mark O’Connor together with an occasional young person from their fan club. That’s what it’s like over here. Of course the internet and POD technologies have meant that non-Official work gets around. It is indeed a livelier and perhaps more pervasive phenomenon than the Faber and Faber catalogue would have you imagine. But as long as the old news media continue to be of any importance there will be a sense that the work so many people here are engaged in is ‘peripheral’ or, indeed, doesn’t exist at all.

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