British Poetry Revival
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"The British Poetry Revival" is the general name given to a loose poetry movement in Britain that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. The revival was a modernist-inspired reaction to the Movement's more conservative approach to British poetry.
If the Movement poets looked to Thomas Hardy as a poetic model, the poets associated with the British Poetry Revival were more likely to look to modernist models, such as the American poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and British figures such as David Jones, Basil Bunting and Hugh MacDiarmid. Although these major British poets had effectively been written out of official histories of 20th century British poetry, by the beginning of the 1960s a number of younger poets were starting to explore poetic possibilities that the older writers had opened up.
These poets included Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bob Cobbing, Jeff Nuttall, Tom Raworth, Michael Horovitz, Eric Mottram, Peter Finch, Edwin Morgan, Jim Burns, Elaine Feinstein, Lee Harwood, Dick Russell and Christopher Logue. Many of these poets joined Allen Ginsberg and an audience of 7,000 people at the Albert Hall International Poetry Incarnation on 11 June 1965 to create what was, effectively, the first British happening.
These poets provided a wide range of modes and models of how modernism could be integrated into British poetry. Fisher, also a professional jazz pianist, applied the lessons of William Carlos Williams' Paterson to his native Birmingham in his long poem City. Turnbull, who spent some time in the U. S., was also influenced by Williams. His fellow Scots Morgan and Finlay both worked with found, sound and visual poetry. Mottram, Nuttall, Horovitz and Burns were all close to the Beat generation writers. Mottram and Raworth were also influenced by the Black Mountain poets while Raworth and Harwood shared an interest in the poets of the New York School.
A number of publishing outlets for this new experimental poetry also began to spring up, including Turnbull's Migrant Press, Raworth's Matrix Press and Goliard Press, Horovitz's New Departures, Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum Press, Tim Longville's Grosseteste Review, Galloping Dog Press and its Poetry Information magazine, Pig Press, Andrew Crozier and Peter Riley's The English Intelligencer, Crozier's Ferry Press, and Cobbing's Writers Forum. In addition to the poets of the revival, many of these presses and magazines also published avant-garde American and European poetry. The first anthology to present a wide-ranging selection of the new movement was Horovitz's Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969).
Thanks in no small part to Cobbing's Writers Forum and its associated writers' workshop, London was a hub for many young poets, including Bill Griffiths, Allen Fisher, Iain Sinclair, Gilbert Adair, Lawrence Upton, Peter Finch, Ulli Freer, Gavin Selerie, Frances Presley, Elaine Randell, Robert Sheppard, Adrian Clarke, Clive Fencott, Maggie O'Sullivan, cris cheek, Tony Lopez and Denise Riley.
Griffiths writes a poetry of dazzling surface and deep political commitment that incorporates such matter as his professional knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and his years as a Hells Angel. Both Sinclair and Fisher share a taste for William Blake and an interest in exploring the meaning of place, particularly London, which can be seen in Sinclair's Suicide Bridge and Lud Heat and Fisher's Place sequence of books. O'Sullivan explores a view of the poet as shaman in her work, while Randell and Riley were among the first British women poets to combine feminist concerns with experimental poetic practice. For more on Griffiths's poetry, see William Rowe (ed.), Bill Griffiths (Salt, 2007).
Griffiths started Pirate Press to publish work by himself and others. Allen Fisher set up Spanner for similar reasons, and Sinclair's early books were published by his own Albion Village Press, which also published work by Chris Torrance and Brian Catling. Book production has always been an important part of Revival practice. Many of these writers also participated enthusiastically in performance poetry events, both individually or in groups like Cobbing's Bird Yak and Konkrete Canticle.
Eric Mottram was a central figure on the London scene, both for his personal and professional knowledge of the Beat generation writers and the US poets linked with the New American Poetry more generally, and his abilities as a promoter and poet. In large part through Mottram's presence there, King's College London was another important site for the British Poetry Revival. Poets who attended there (a number of them also students taught by Mottram) included Gilbert Adair, Peter Barry, Sean Bonney, Hannah Bramness, Clive Bush, Ken Edwards, Bill Griffiths, Robert Hampson, Jeff Hilson and Will Rowe.
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By the early 1950s, Basil Bunting had returned to live in Newcastle and, in 1966, Fulcrum Press published Briggflatts, which is widely considered to be his masterpiece. A number of younger poets began to gather around Bunting. In 1963, Connie and Tom Pickard started a reading series and bookshop in the Morden Tower Book Room. The first reading was by Bunting, and Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso all read there. They were soon joined by Richard Caddel, brought up in Kent but an honorary Northumbrian, Barry MacSweeney and Colin Simms.
Through Bunting, these younger writers became familiar with the work of the Objectivist poets. Specifically, Louis Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker were to become important models for Caddel and Simms in their writing about the Northumbrian environment. Pickard and MacSweeney shared Bunting's interest in reviving Northumbrian vowel patterns and verbal music in poetry and all of these poets were influenced by the older poet's insistence on poetry as sounded speech rather than purely written text.
At Easter, 1967 MacSweeney organised the Sparty Lea Poetry Festival. This was a ten-day session of reading, writing and discussion. The participants, including the Pickards, MacSweeney, Andrew Crozier, John James, John Templedisambiguation needed, Pete Armstrong, Tim Longville, Peter Riley, John Hall, J. H. Prynne and Nick Waite, stayed in a group of four cottages in the village of Sparty Lea. This was to be a pivotal event in the British Poetry Revival, bringing together poets who were separated geographically and in terms of poetic influences and encouraging them to support and publish each other's work.
Although published by Writers Forum and Pirate Press, Geraldine Monk is very much a poet of the North of England. Like Maggie O'Sullivan, she writes for performance as much as for the page and there is an undercurrent of feminist concerns in her work. Other poets associated with the North of England included Paul Buck, Glenda George, and John Seed. Paul Buck and Glenda George for many years edited Curtains, a magazine instrumental in disseminating contemporary French poetry and philosophical/theoretical writing. John Seed had picked up on Objectivism while still in the North-East.
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The Cambridge poets were a group centred around J. H. Prynne and included Andrew Crozier, John James, Douglas Oliver, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Peter Riley, Tim Longville and John Riley. Prynne was influenced by Charles Olson and Crozier was partly responsible for Carl Rakosi's return to poetry in the 1960s. The New York school were also an important influence for many of the Cambridge poets - most obviously in the work of John James. The Grosseteste Review, which published these poets, was originally thought of as a kind of magazine of British Objectivism.
The Cambridge poets in general wrote in a cooler, more measured style than many of their London or Northumbrian peers (although Barry MacSweeney, for example, felt an affinity with them) and many taught at Cambridge University or at Anglia Polytechnic. There was also less emphasis on performance than there was among the London poets.
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In the 60s and early 70s Peter Finch, an associate of Bob Cobbing, ran the No Walls Poetry readings and the ground breaking inclusive magazine, second aeon. He began Oriel Books in Cardiff in 1974 and the shop served as a focal point for young Welsh poets. However, some of the more experimental poets in Wales were not of Welsh origins. Two of the most important expatriate poets operating in Wales were John Freeman and Chris Torrance. Freeman is another British poet influenced by the Objectivists, and he has written on both George Oppen and Niedecker. Torrance has expressed his debt to David Jones. His ongoing Magic Door sequence is widely regarded as one of the major long poems to come out of the Revival.
In Scotland, Edwin Morgan, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Tom Leonard emerged as key individual poets during this time, each interested in, among other forms, sound and visual poetry. The viability of a wider, deeper experimental infrastructure in poetry was helped by the gallery, performance space and bookshop at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow (later renamed the Centre for Contemporary Arts). Magazines such as Scottish International, "Chapman", and Duncan Glen's magazine Akros maintained links with the modernist legacy of the inter-war and post-war years while publishing contemporary poets; often, however, by mixing the avant-garde with aesthetically conservative texts.
In 1971, a large number of the poets associated with the British Poetry Revival joined the dormant, if not moribund Poetry Society and in the elections became the Poetry Society's new council. The Society had been traditionally hostile to modernist poetry, but under the new council this position was reversed. Eric Mottram was made editor of the society's magazine Poetry Review. Over the next six years, he edited twenty issues that featured most, if not all, of the key Revival poets and carried reviews of books and magazines from the wide range of small presses that had sprung up to publish them.
Nuttall and MacSweeney both served as chairperson of the society during this period and Bob Cobbing used the photocopying facilities in the basement of the society's building to produce Writers Forum books. Around this time, Cobbing, Finch and others established the Association of Little Presses (ALP) to promote and support small press publishers and organise book fairs at which they could sell their productions.
In the late 1970s, in response to the number of foreign poets being featured in Poetry Review, Mottram was removed as editor of the magazine; his editorial practices being describedby whom? as "a treacherous assault on British poetry". At the same time, the Arts Council set up an inquiry that overturned the result of the Society's elections that had once more brought in a council dominated by those sympathetic to the Poetry Revival.1
A number of younger poets, many of whom who first found an outlet in Poetry Review under Mottram, began to emerge around the end of the 1970s. In London, Bill Griffiths, Ulli Freer, cris cheek, Lawrence Upton, Robert Hampson, Robert Sheppard, and Ken Edwards were among those who were to the fore. These, and others, met regularly at Gilbert Adair's Subvoicive reading series. Edwards ran Reality Studios, a magazine that grew out of Alembic, the magazine he had co-edited through the 1970s. Through Reality Studios, he helped introduce the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets to a British readership. He also ran Reality Street Editions with Cambridge-based Wendy Mulford, which continues to be a major publisher of contemporary poetry. The London-based Angel Exhaust magazine brought many of the younger poets together - in particular, Adrian Clarke, Robert Sheppard and Andrew Duncan. In the Midlands, Tony Baker's Figs magazine focused more on the Objectivist and Bunting-inspired poetry of the Northumbrian school while introducing a number of new poets.
In 1988 an anthology called The New British Poetry was published. It featured a section on the Revival poets edited by Mottram and another on the younger poets edited by Edwards. In 1987, Crozier and Longville published their anthology A Various Art, which focused mainly on the Cambridge poets, and Iain Sinclair edited yet another anthology of Revival-related work Conductors of Chaos (1996). For an account of some of the work produced by these poets, see Robert Hampson and Peter Barry (eds.), The New British poetries: The Scope of the possible (Manchester University Press, 1993). In 1994 W. N. Herbert and Richard Price co-edited the anthology of Scottish Informationist poetry Contraflow on the SuperHighway (Gairfish and Southfields Press).
The anthology Conductors of Chaos featured another aspect of the Revival; the recovery of neglected British modernists of the generation after Bunting. Poets David Gascoyne, selected by Jeremy Reed; W. S. Graham, selected by Tony Lopez; David Jones, selected by Drew Milne; J.F. Hendry, selected by Andrew Crozier and Nicholas Moore, selected by Peter Riley were reappraised and returned to their rightful place in the history of 20th century British poetry. Another interesting development was the establishment of the British and Irish poetry discussion list by Richard Caddel. This continues to provide an international forum for discussion and the exchange of news on experimental British poetry. Much wider publication for Revival poetry was arranged via the USA. Caddel, together with Peter Middleton, edited a selection of new UK poetry for US readers in a special issue of Talisman (1996).2 With Peter Quartermain Caddel also edited Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 (USA, 1999); whereas Keith Tuma's Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (Oxford University Press, USA, 2001) incorporates this poetry into a wider retrospective of the whole century.
Into the 1990s and beyond poets such as Johan de Wit (poet), Sean Bonney, Jeff Hilson, and Piers Hugill have surfaced after direct involvement in the Cobbing-led Writers Forum workshop. An interesting sub-development of the workshop was the instigation of the Foro De Escritores workshop, in Santiago Chile, run on similar aesthetic principles. This workshop has contributed to the development of Martin Gubbins, Andreas Aandwandter, and Martin Bakero, to name but few. Those associated with the Barque Press (most obviously Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland), and more recently Bad Press (in particular, Marianne Morris and Jow Lindsay), have made a similar impact via the Cambridge scene. Perdika Press in North London has been instrumental in bringing to wider attention contemporary Modernist writers such as Nicholas Potamitis, Mario Petrucci, Robert Vas Dias and Peter Brennan; the press was also responsible for the first publication in Britain of Bill Berkson. From Scotland, Peter Manson, who had co-edited the magazine Object Permanence in the mid-1990s, Drew Milne, editor of Parataxis, David Kinloch and Richard Price (previously editors of Verse and Southfields) also emerged more fully as poets in their own right. New writings have arisen from the involvement of cris cheek, Bridgid Mcleer, and Alaric Sumner, under the direction of Caroline Bergvall and John Halldisambiguation needed through the Performance Writing programme at Dartington College of Arts including Kirsten Lavers, Andy Smith, and Chris Paul; from the involvement of Redell Olsen in the MA in Poetic Practice at Royal Holloway, University of London, including Becky Cremin, Frances Kruk, Ryan Ormond, Sophie Robinson, John Sparrow and Stephen Willey; and Keith Jebb at University of Bedfordshire's Creative Writing programme, including Alyson Torns and Allison Boast.
- For a detailed account of these events, see Peter Barry, The Battle of Earl's Court (Manchester University Press, 2007).
- Talisman: a Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 16 (1996): 110-173.
- List of related links
- The English Intelligencer Archive
- The Morden Tower
- Archives of the British and Irish poetry discussion list
- The Life and Works of Jeff Nuttall
- Piers Hugill on British Poetry since 1977