The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry

by Andrew Duncan
ISBN: 1876857579

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A Review of: The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry
by Kevin Higgins

In its sweeping judgements, hostile tone, and lack of nuance, Andrew Duncan's The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry is a book-length version of the kind of strident editorial one might find in some tiny magazine whose ultimate aim is the overthrow of the existing poetry establishment. "The reader may be surprised," Duncan writes, "that I do not discuss poets such as Craig Raine, Tony Harrison, James Fenton, U.A. Fanthorpe, Tom Pickard, John Fuller, Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion and Simon Armitage." Indeed, this reviewer was flabbergasted that he managed to barely mention so many prominent poets in a book which claims to be a kind of history-albeit a biased and eccentric one-of the development of British poetry since the 1950s. His failure to engage with the work of Carol Ann Duffy (b 1955) and Simon Armitage (b 1963) is particularly galling. They are, by far, the most successful poets of their respective generations, having achieved both critical acclaim and a substantial readership. And both come from far outside the traditional literary establishment. Duffy is a feminist born in Glasgow, while the more apolitical Armitage is from, and still lives in, the Northern working-class town of Huddersfield, West Yorkshire; a place Evelyn Waugh would only ever have visited by accident. In short, they are both poets to whom labels such as "establishment" or "conservative" cannot be neatly applied.
This indifference to Duffy and Armitage weakens Duncan's polemic: if he honestly believes they have been hyped out of all proportion by an establishment he loathes, then he really should point out the shortcomings he sees in their work. Perhaps that way he might convince his readers that they should at least take a look at the work of some of the more linguistically radical poets he favours, such as Denise Riley (b 1948) or J.H. Prynne (b 1936). That he refuses to do so is a sad, if predictable, example of an advocate of avant-garde poetics being even more narrow-minded and exclusionist than the establishment he wants to topple.
That said, if one takes the trouble to wade through the book, there is a fairly coherent argument lurking there. It goes something like this: most mainstream contemporary British poets are still to some extent labouring under the malign influence of Larkin and The Movement. As Duncan sees it: "The Less Deceived [Larkin's first collection which was published in 1955]...has certainly dictated the typical tone of English poetry ever since." And this, of course, is an entirely bad thing because, as Duncan tells us on page 62: "Larkin precisely defines what poetry should not be: poetry is exciting, Larkin is depressing; poetry is hyperassociative, Larkin discourages the formation of ideas; poetry is emotional, Larkin is frigid and prudent; poetry is social, Larkin dislikes other people; poetry takes risks, Larkin cringes." And, as if all this wasn't enough Duncan goes on to give poor bespectacled Philip a few more smacks in the gonads. Larkin "had no literary talent" and "never managed to write a good poem." In the same paragraph Duncan appears to qualify this somewhat (or perhaps to contradict himself?) when he says that "By common consensus, Larkin was streets ahead of the lesser poets caught up by the mud-slide of The Movement." How can a poet be "streets ahead" of anyone, if they have "no literary talent"? But that, perhaps, is beside the point. Duncan doesn't like Larkin: that much is clear.
Another important strand of his argument concerns the Liverpool poets of the 1960s, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. Many at the time would have seen them as a welcome breath of democratic air in an otherwise rather musty and snobbish English poetry world dominated by Larkin, Betjeman et al. Duncan is, once again, absolute in his condemnation: "The equation [blownup personality: emptied technique] neatly sums up the Liverpool poetsThe use of irony is necessary to tone down the insistent presence of the poet's ego, which has squeezed out all subject matter." Then, in the mid-1970s, Duncan's worst nightmare. Pop Poetry collapses into the mainstream, and a blend of the style of Larkin and the style of McGough is suddenly dominant. "As the progeny of Larkin and Roger McGough merged, it became easier to see those two writers as merely successive waves of anti-literary, desensitised, restricted-vocabulary populism."
As Duncan sees it, the two worst features of the contemporary British mainstream are the dominance of the accessible, middlebrow poem, and the relentless use of easy, glib irony as a way of always avoiding the issue. As one would expect, light verse has no place in Duncan's world; Stevie Smith is the victim of a particularly savage attack: "Stevie

"Smith...a ghastly pseudo-naive poet clinging to the values of the Edwardian nursery, has been made the subject of a regressive and typically English cult."

However, there is more to this book than naysaying: Duncan does actually believe in something. Here's how he spells it out himself: "Exposure to serious contemporary poetry makes it perfectly comprehensible; at which point one converts the original recalcitrant complexity into richness. The age of leisure and education demands complex poetry." So, it seems Duncan's anti-Larkin crankiness, his hostility to the Liverpool poets and the bile he pours on Stevie Smith are all the result of his frustrated desire for a poetry more complex than anything their work might have to offer. As his argument winds on, Duncan begins to sound like a follower of Adorno or Walter Benjamin, rather than an advocate of US style L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics.
He certainly shares the Frankfurt school's hostility to instantly accessible populist works of art, which in his view try to make the Modern world seem simpler and more stable than it is. But Duncan, being his contradictory self, goes on vitriolically to dismiss the theories of "Adorno, Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse" as "Marxism when practised by refugees seeking funding in America" and "Marxism without politics." In the context of some of his other arguments, his outright dismissal of the Frankfurt theorists seems to me a little bizarre. Perhaps Duncan is one of those people so concerned with his existential uniqueness that he finds it difficult to admit ever having borrowed an idea from anyone. However, despite many such idiosyncrasies The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry is of value because of the sheer force of its argument. At a time when many critics prefer to sneak out of making stark value judgements, Duncan is admirably forthright with his opinions, if more than a little crude in the way he presents them.
The key recent landmark for those of Duncan's school of thought was the 1997 anthology Conductors of Chaos, edited by Ian Sinclair. Throughout Duncan's book Conductors of Chaos looms like a vision of the promised land British poetry might one day reach, if only it could shake off the middle-brow populism, and take real risks.

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