Thursday, 5 April 2007

Simon Turner - Some thoughts on the 'mainstream'

Paul Farley, in September 2006, penned an article in the Guardian Review entitled 'Lines of Resistance', which professed to be a defence of 'mainstream' poetics. Like many such defences, it was actually a thinly disguised attack, and is in a tradition of similar sideswipes, which seem to be making something of a comeback at the moment. The gist of Farley's 'argument' (and it has this in common with other comparable diatribes) is this: 'mainstream' has become a dirty word within poetry circles; the experimentalists have taken hold of the academy, and are preaching a virulent combination of formless poetics and covert Stalinist politics; that 'the modernist century' somehow engendered a 'break between poetry and its readers' (this in spite of the fact that modernism in its most difficult forms is hardly a mass art, so how this could have inculcated a mass exodus of readers is beyond me - the alienation of the 'common reader' from poetry began a long time before modernism. Surely this was a vital component of their discourse on readership and poetry production? Aaaanyway. . .); and so on.

What's interesting, and troubling, about the article - and this is something that Geraldine Monk also noted in her response letter published the following week - is the way it evades the fact that the 'mainstream' is so called because it is the dominant current within modern poetry; it is what most readers read - whether this is because mainstream poetry is more readily available than experimental work is another matter. One might also want to ask where mainstream is a dirty word? On university creative writing courses, perhaps? Not really: St Andrews University, foe example, numbers John Burnside and Kathleen Jamie amongst its teaching staff; Sheffield Hallam's had Sean O'Brien on its payroll, another mainstream attack dog; and Andrew Motion's taught at a number of institutions.

Okay then, the press: except here too the mainstream has much of the control, and where it has occasionally lost power (during the Potts-Herd years at the Poetry Review and Guardian poetry pages) it has, with almost Stalinist ferocity, wrested control back from the enemy. The TLS, the LRB, the de-clawed Poetry Review and Guardian Review, are all distinctly mainstream in their coverage.

Oh, in that case it must be the prizes; the Cambridge collective must have the Forward sewn up. Except, of course, the opposite is the case once again, Neil Astley having pointed towards a Picador-centric bias in the judging system some time ago.

I apologise for this rather heavy-handed irony, but I feel that it's necessary in order to unpick the essentially fraudulent terms of Farley's analysis. Upon even the most perfunctory inspection, the key accusation made in the article - that mainstream poetics are a dying art, and need to be defended against the imagined 'post-modernist' barbarians - is proven to be a lot of hot air. There is, of course, an entirely different agenda at play here, one which Farley attempts to keep behind the curtain; but, sadly, we can still see the shoes. This alleged defence of mainstream values (which seem to be in rude health in spite of Farley's assistance) is in short a bullish assault on 'experimental' poetics (or, rather, experimental poetics as defined by the mainstream, a definition so ill informed that it sees no difference between the popular public poetry of Ginsberg, and the far more rarefied work springing up in the wake of the innovations of the Black Mountain school, the 'British Poetry Revival', and the 'language-centred' poetics of Ron Silliman and co, which to my mind at least represent the dominant inheritances of 'experimentalism' or 'post-avant' poetics on both sides of the Atlantic. Ginsberg's influence, if it persists, can be seen more readily in slam and performance poetries).

Which brings me back to an earlier point: that 'mainstream' when applied to aesthetics is effectively meaningless, as the term only has valency in relation to matters of economic and historical contingency - who is in charge of the big presses, which reviewing organs have the biggest circulation, the class, ethnic and gender make-up of the readership at any given time, etc. The aesthetics of the mainstream will shift according to these dictates; the formula cannot be reversed. That is to say that an aesthetic - whatever that aesthetic is - cannot be mainstream once it has ceased to be the dominant mode of discourse and production. The binary constructed by the mainstream - 'mainstream' vs 'avant garde' is, then, based upon a confusion of categories. The 'avant garde' can lay claim to an aesthetics - one equally dependent upon historical, economic and social contingency, but an aesthetic nonetheless - but the mainstream cannot, or, more correctly, their conflation of aesthetics and economics (of poetry production, and poetry consumption) is deeply misleading. In short, I guess what I'm saying is that when Farley and his mainstream brethren are no longer on top, so to speak, then they will have cause for complaint; but, when that happens, they'll no longer be mainstream, and the terms of the debate will no longer be in their control.

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