“A Fair Field Full of Folk”: OTHER British and Irish Poetry since 1970
The British Isles have long been, self-evidently, crowded, complex, and packed with chaotic overlays of cultures — local, imported or created — which develop and intermix constantly. Langland's fourteenth-century “fair field full of folk” was already an intensely plural society, where elements of Saxon, Norman and Cymric were evident alongside each other, with strong elements of Latinate church culture, and, never far away, mainland European culture jostling alongside the other elements of linguistic mix. Diverse cultures sometimes conflict violently, or sometimes make uneasy alliances, and sometimes, perhaps by chance, give rise to the creation of new forms or achievements. About the only thing which is not possible in such a pluralistic, fragmenting, evolving society is a unitary, closed-system approach to culture, an insistence on a single “great tradition” which can justify any degree of cultural domination. And yet at present the organs of this culture — from opera and literature to government — remain unshakably monolithic and centralised: to look at the central products of this culture is to be reminded just how assertive the “mainstream” has been, and how marginalised its alternatives have seemed at times.
The essay below will serve as the introduction to the Green Integer publication, due out in early 2007, of The PIP Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative Poetry in English 2005-2006. I felt that readers of Jacket might be interested in this introduction because of my comments on the current reception by the larger newspapers, awards, and prizes concerning what might be described as innovative or — I think a far better term — exploratory poetic and poetics. Obviously, most of the writers of the kind of poetry with which I am concerned have long ago recognized the absence of discussion and acceptance of their poetry in the venues I describe; but I think it is important to reiterate the increasing hostility of the national media and other self-proclaimed arbiters of contemporary poetry to the wide range of poetic writing today—not only in the US, but throughout the world in English. To me it still remains utterly shocking—particularly because it has been so longstanding — that publications such as The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Critics Circle Award and numerous other places available for reviews and recognition of poetry remain so narrowly focused in their definitions of poetic expression.
We are pleased to publish Kaplan Harris's response to Tim Jacobs's response to Kaplan's article “The Small Press Traffic school of dissimulation: New Narrative, New Sentence, New Left,” which we published on April 7, 2011.Here is the new response:
My thanks for this opportunity to elaborate on Tim Jacobs's column and to clear up any misunderstandings. Jacobs's column "Ramble" is preceded by five years of Poetry Flash contributions that cover readings and events throughout the Bay Area. They are an invaluable resource for anyone — like myself — interested in mapping what Jacobs rightly identifies as “a literary culture that was very diverse and growing rapidly” throughout the 1970s.
About 1982 Don Allen approached me to work with him as an editorial assistant for Grey Fox Press and Four Seasons Foundation. Had I met him before? I can’t remember, but probably so. My work-study job from New College was — get this! — to be Robert Duncan’s assistant (I had already known Robert well), but after two years or so that money ran out, and Don asked me to work for him. I wound up learning how to proof and copyedit, did some layout, some typing, and had the singular job of going through all of his correspondence in preparation of his papers going to San Diego. I was a pig in — well, gold: O’Hara, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Frechtman translating Genet, you know the list. They all passed through my hands before they settled down into the archives.
The Australian poet Martin Johnston died in 1990. This article by Johnston had been published in the March 1980 edition of The Athenian, a monthly English-language magazine in Greece. You can read five of Johnston’s translations of these Greek folk songs in Jacket #1, together with poems, photographs, an essay on Borges and other material on and by Johnston.
If modern European fiction “came out of Gogol's overcoat,” modern Greek prose came out of the ample folds of General Makriyannis's kapa. But the prose, in Greece as in Elizabethan England, is a distant second to the poetry and there is nothing in Makriyannis's always moving memoirs more moving than the passage in which he says, after a comrade has been killed: “So I made him a song.”
It's only proper — in Greece more than anywhere — that it should have been a great poet, Seferis, who wrote the definitive assessment of Makriyannis's greatness. Just as it was he and another fine poet, Elytis, who taught us to see the paintings of Theofilos with eyes clearer than those of the louts who threw rotten fruit at him and knocked him off his painting-ladder.