Sunday, 11 March 2012

town & gown

John Forbes had a love-hate relationship with Cambridge. He found its academic rigour stimulating (at last people you could really argue with) yet at the same time he felt that the directions the arguments often took led to places he didn’t necessarily want to visit. He described to me the air as ‘electric with brain power’, adding ‘nothing pleasant about it’. At a later date he noted ‘Cambridge ET IN ARCADIA EGO! Just because of the poetry’, though he felt that some of this consisted of ‘endless, fussy prolegomena to the actual Subject’. This was the Cambridge of the 1990s with a new generation of poets whom Peter Barry might view as part of an ongoing British Poetry Revival. Early episodes of this modernist rebirth may be seen in Neil Pattison, Reitha Pattison and Luke Roberts edited volume Certain Prose of The English Intelligencer (Mountain Press, 2012). The Intelligencer was a roughly produced ‘poetry worksheet’ with a mailing list of some 40-60 people, appearing from January 1966 to April 1968. It included poems but as so many of them have appeared in volumes of the various poets this collection presents a selection of notes, letters and commentaries. It began as a necessity though as soon as it had served its purpose it came to an abrupt end. It is a fascinating glimpse at a developing poetic but nonetheless I share some of my late compatriot’s doubts. A long piece dwelling on occurrences in the Palaeolithic and Neolithic eras seems from this distance far too deterministic (I keep thinking of O’Hara’s line about the track star from Mineola Prep. Should we always be looking over our shoulders like this?). Of course many of these pieces were written by people still in their early to mid-twenties. At that age I was an overly dogmatic Poundian, though this particular take on the English landscape and its implications for a poetic is more of an Olsonian one. In my own case I needed a healthy slice of New York pastrami on my Black Mountain rye. The Intelligencer doesn’t, of course, speak with the one voice. There is the very young Barry MacSweeney suggesting that ‘everyone’s gone and left the ordinary things out’ and wondering where the love poems are. And Jeremy Hilton, who wishes for a sense of the ‘life lived’ as he found it in the work of Williams, Zukofsky, Olson, Snyder, Creeley and others. Perhaps it was the divide between town and gown working itself out over the brief life of this publication.

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