No Amateurs in the New Poems of 1973

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Having to move a bookcase and its contents is a good way to encourage a pause and then a browse of some of those long unread books you’ve taken off the shelves for the shift. I had a quick scan of a 1997 Ambit and then this first of two P.E.N. Anthologies, the other from 1975.

I thought it would be interesting to remind myself [it could well be the 40+ years since I really looked] and write about what was ‘new’ in 1973, hoping to find some as then undiscovered and now celebrated poet. I lose track of how old – excusing the obvious opposite – established, currently famous poets are, but a quick check on the names collected revealed these were already well-established writers, and the work selected was therefore ‘new’ to that year and, apparently, unpublished. These luminaries will give an indication of that revelation: Fleur Adcock, W.H. Auden, Charles Causley, Douglas Dunn, D J Enright, Gavin Ewart, Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes – and stopping that early in the alphabet suggests what will follow in more ways than the surname order.

All good poems, by the way, but I needed another angle on what I might write, and it came timely in Stewart Conn’s Introduction and in this opening line to the intro proper,

‘A marked polarisation is evident in English poetry, and the public’s response to it, today’

and I will pick out this other line from a little later,

‘The trend is healthy so long as it is for the right reasons, and provided the poetry’s real strength underlies local colour’

It should be obvious from these two extracts where this is going: I am of course referring to the very recent Rebecca Watts PN Review article ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’ and the subsequent furore this has generated, obviously the forensic blog response from Hollie McNish and the debate’s reporting in, for example, The Guardian, including the Dan Paterson response, as well as attendant social media commentary, and, among many others I have read, the Soraya Roberts The Baffler article ‘No Filter’ which you can read here [and I link because this might not be as obvious as the others – apologies if I am wrong].

No, I am not entering the debate and not endorsing any views referenced here. Chicken? Probably. But I was fascinated to see the parallels – no more than this – in Conn’s Introduction which I will post in full for you to read if you will, as well as his further observations on how poetry/writing engages with its ‘new’ world of 1973, the parallels with today quite captivating as well,

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I want to select one poem as illustration from the whole, and this has proved difficult, most being today quite well known. In the end I went for the following from Edwin Morgan, a favourite writer of mine, one of four poems from a sequence called School’s Out. In the first, Morgan uses Plato as his main reference point; in the second it is Milton; in the third – and I really enjoyed this – it is Summerhill’s A.S. Neil, and in my chosen fourth it is Ivan Illich, but more important [and in an echo of Conn’s introductory comments on the impact of the then modernity] how in education, like poetry, we embrace as subject matter and indeed means of production the new technologies and/or similar,

‘We know how Armstrong landed, bleeps call us
in our breast-pockets everywhere we go,
we’ve got cassettes….’

and whilst these references, and those you will read next in the full poem, seem and are dated, it is what they represent and mean that still reverberates, though I particularly like Morgan’s humorous final take on this,

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Falling Behind in the Pencil Grip

In the 2017 Ofsted report Bold Beginnings – as if an assertive alliteration generates meaning – it is concluded that many 4 and 5 year old reception class children are ‘falling behind their peers’.

While the report recognises the importance of listening to ‘stories, poems and rhyme’ – though this seems the oddest trilogy, and it doesn’t initially mention writing stories and poems – the conclusion seems to be that this, and other aspects of learning at this stage, aren’t formalised enough:

The EYFS profile (EYFSP)3 is a mechanism for statutory summative assessment and if this doesn’t demonstrate that the perceived best learning is right, children are ‘falling behind’.

And when the report does mention children writing, this is the focus:

In schools visited where writing was of a high standard, the children were able to write simple sentences and more by the end of Reception. They were mastering the spelling of phonically regular words and common exception words. These schools paid good attention to children’s posture and pencil grip when children were writing. They used pencils and exercise books, while children sat at tables, to support good, controlled letter formation.

‘Pencil grip’. There’s another title for a new found poem. But for now, here is what I found in the report’s opening Executive Summary:

Reception Years

It was
comprehensive

this falling
behind

their imagination,
painful and

unnecessary
at the

heart of the
curriculum,

a missed
opportunity

for their
life ahead –

our children
spelling

spelling,
selling synthetic

preparing for
Inspection, exposed

to critical
consequences

in their stories
and poems years.

Top Fifty 11: Eagles – Desperado, 1973

[Originally posted June 2013]

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Pretty Is As Pretty Was

I’m working my way through the fascinating Eagles documentary History of the Eagles, The Story of an American Band shown recently on the BBC. I’ve just watched the section where it features the recording of their second album Desperado, and this is the album that introduced me to the band, having pretty much missed their first. It did then and does now appeal to everything I love about this country-harmony sound, a style Glen Frey in the documentary refers to disparagingly as ‘Beatles-Country’ as dictated [to a shared degree I think if the band is totally honest] by then producer Glyn Jones. The criticism is made because both Frey and Henley wanted a heavier sound, which they did move on to with their next On The Border where production duties were soon transferred to Bill Szymczyk [and the stylistic dichotomy between Bill and Glyn is an intriguing as well as mildly comic revelation in the programme].

Whilst interesting, these relatively minor schisms in style are meaningless in as much as I am a continuing fan of their oeuvre, but this second album is in my Top Fifty as both introduction to and exemplification of their beautiful harmonising and songwriting. The fact that JD Souther and Jackson Browne also still contribute to that songwriting on this album [well, on Doolin-Dalton] is significant, being a fan of their work too, as platitudinous as that statement and proclivity is. The point is I am with Glyn Jones on thinking this is the sound that defines the Eagles.

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The ‘outlaw’ concept with album cover and other photos added an attractive if ultimately tenuous connection with notions of being alternative at the time, but I do recall playing the album over and over, as with their next two, for those glorious vocals. Pretty yes, but pretty damn fine then and now.

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West to West Humuments

w to w0011

I am a hoarder of much, including work related to my 30 years as an English teacher [from teaching resources to student work, especially their creative writing], and when I have the occasional rummage and clear-out, though the latter is an intention rather than a fact, I generally come across some precious memorabilia that reinforces the good times, especially in the early years/first half of my teaching.

So coming across this today brought back one of my fondest recollections, and at 1997 it occurred into that second half I generally regard as the beginning of the decline [pre-1997 had seen beginnings of Tory SATs and targets, and 1997 itself saw Labour come in to power – and continue it all, with enthusiasm].

These two clips from a newspaper written by the students who were involved in the West to West visit/‘exchange’ set the context. I put exchange in inverted commas because our American friends did not come back to the UK, but our British students did stay with and in the homes of their American partners.

This only scratches the surface of what went on and how dynamic and rewarding the whole week was there in Ashland, Oregon, but on a personal note I was reminded today – with the re-discovery of this ‘hoard’ – of the writing workshops I took there and how brilliant that was as a teaching experience for me. Though humuments gets misspelled by the student writer in the following article, that is all a part of the honest reality of the experience and the two humument examples [USA on the left; UK on the right – I edited out the names as I don’t have permission]. I must stress that these two examples are just the text – humuments also have their crucial visual element and we couldn’t at the time reproduce this, but I might be able to find in another hoard and will perhaps post at a later date.

humu - Copy