Tactics of disarray

Conductors of Chaos: a Poetry Anthology, ed Iain Sinclair Picador, pounds 9.99; Understanding modern poetry is not the point,
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The Independent Culture
Conductors of Chaos doesn't pretend to be a compre-hensive anthology. Sinclair calls it "a compromise" in his wondrously scabrous introduction - "a scratch selection hoping to transform itself into something more than the sum of its disparate parts." Sinclair doesn't trust anthologies ("At their worst," he says, "anthologies are lies"), nor claim to understand the work he likes. But he likes having it around.

In this anthology and in the recent Out Of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry By Women in North America and the UK (edited by Maggie O'Sullivan, Reality Street, pounds 9.00) there is a substantial body of work written over the last 40 years by over 50 poets. In its volume and its seriousness of practice it is at least equal to, and almost totally separate from, the body of poetry that the literary establishment acknowledges. Why then, if its presence is so strong and durable, does it remain obscure? The answer is simple: nobody, including Iain Sinclair, can understand it.

In the face of such a substantial literary phenomenon, such simplicity is suspect. Should that "can" be "will"? Is understanding the name of the game anyway? Is participation, appreciation or enjoyment a more appropriate approach? Certainly these lines from Bill Griffiths - "the slim pea / beautious rides bikes-plant fence mensefully / brave seems lady-pod / waves / flapping pink in colour / grapply" - would seem to indicate that neither F.R. Leavis nor I.A. Richards, with all his resources of Practical Criticism, won't help us here. "Why should it be easy?" asks Sinclair. "Why should it not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which it (and we) exist? There is no key, no masonic password; take the sequence gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonic. Suspend conditioned reflexes."

This poetry, says O'Sullivan, "does not represent a familiar world and therefore cannot be read in the familiar way." Wendy Mulford, who writes the Afterward to O'Sullivan's collection, describes the work as "lexical tactics of disarray" - "a web of signs whose primary interest is not in translating experience into writing".

This is poetry that denies objectivity - its usefulness, its reliability, even its morality. It thrives in the climate that holds the distanced dispassionate viewpoint to be an authoritarian strategy. Its values are musical rather than explanatory. Its forms are simultaneous and concentric rather than vertical or linear. It is no accident that so many of these poets are involved in visual art and music.

It's ridiculous to assume that this work cancels, out-dates, or even opposes poetry like that of, say, Carol Ann Duffy or Peter Reading. It doesn't relate to the same canon. There is no claim that all radically innovative work is better than all conservative work. There are good and bad radicals just as there are fine and dire conservatives. It is true, though, to say that the finest art is that which penetrates new areas of sensibility, minting new language out of necessity.

This is true of Joan Retallack and Catriona Strang in "Out of Everywhere", of Barry McSweeney, Bill Griffiths and Douglas Oliver in "Pilots Of Chaos", and of Maggie O'Sullivan, Geraldine Monk and Denise Riley who are found in both anthologies.

Sinclair admits to his admissions. It is odd that he did not want to include Dylan Thomas or Basil Bunting. Tom Raworth was allowed to exclude himself. There should be some Bob Cobbing and some Eric Mottram, to whom Sinclair's book is dedicated. The modesty whereby Sinclair excludes himself is false.

But these are negligible grouses. Work of this vitality and in such plenitude has not been evident in the UK since the 19th century and the best of these poets, if they are to be understood, are to be understood in these dimensions.