Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

John Wilkinson reviews Late Modernism

Alex Latter. Late Modernism and “The English Intelligencer”: On the Poetics of Community. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. 288 pp.

Review by John Wilkinson

28 March 2016

Studies of American and British little magazines from the heyday of literary modernism through its twentieth-century tributaries have proliferated. Little magazines don’t come any littler than The English Intelligencer, a duplicated worksheet circulated between early 1966 and April 1968 to no more than sixty recipients. Remarkably, the present volume is the second to be devoted to this semi-legendary archive (even what would constitute a “complete run” remains unclear); the first, Certain Prose of “The English Intelligencer,” was published by Mountain Press, Cambridge in 2012 and benefits from a succinct introductory mapping of the mid-sixties British poetic avant-garde by Neil Pattison. The books complement each other; Late Modernism provides a detailed contents listing including side-projects and a spoof issue, while Certain Prose offers a circulation list complete with postal addresses. As its title indicates, Certain Prose is largely an anthology while Late Modernism is a critical monograph based on a PhD dissertation. There is a striking disparity between the stapled pages of the Intelligencer, bent and scruffy on first receipt through the mail, and the scholarly care evident in these books. Both books simultaneously embody and abjure canonizing ambitions.

An American reader picking up Late Modernism may do so owing to interest in the poetry of J.H. Prynne, stimulated by NYRB Books’ reissue of his major early collection The White Stones, first published in 1969. Prynne’s previous book Kitchen Poems (1968) acknowledged “These poems first appeared as news-items in The English Intelligencer” consistently with their urgent tone; and several poems in The White Stones first appeared there also. For such a reader, Latter’s study will correct a view of Prynne as an intellectual isolated in his Cambridge college rooms and of English poetry of the time as a backwater paddled by timid Larkins or prowled by beastly Hugheses. The worksheet’s circulation list included Tom Raworth, whose fleet and flickering writing was to find favor with American Language poets, the posthumously acclaimed R. F. Langley, and poets less known in the US including Andrew Crozier, John James, Peter Riley, Tom Pickard, and Roy Fisher. Only four out of around sixty recipients were female, the most prominent being Elaine Feinstein and Wendy Mulford. Many had no academic affiliations, and tensions between the Cambridge and Northern participants came to a head at an infamous meeting or collision in 1967 at Sparty Lea, a muddy field in Northumberland; nonetheless intense and passionate exchange continued between the representative Southern and Northern, academic and poète maudit figures of J. H. Prynne and Barry MacSweeney until MacSweeney’s death in 2000.

Latter’s fine-grained study attends to the contradictions inherent in a project that he identifies as “the terminal limit of late modernism,” with the dissolution of ambitions for totalizing works such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems. Olson’s shadow loomed over the Intelligencer, and the drama of his patriarchal unseating will be illuminated by the imminent publication of the Olson-Prynne correspondence. Prynne’s characterization of Kitchen Poems as “news-items” sits well with Latter’s emphasis on “an exchange that was founded on the principles of trust, risk and fraternity,” even if damaged by an editorial putsch and deeply injured by subsequent political events. The English Intelligencer belonged to a late-sixties moment when what poetry might achieve by way of cultural and political transformation seemed urgent and limitless, but the sustaining epistemological investments in Pound’s and Olson’s projects (with Whitehead in the background) and ontological investments in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy and claims for poetry, pervasive in both the prose and poetry of the Intelligencer, were disappointed. So too was trust in the British polity, with early signs of disillusion clear in Prynne’s sardonically titled 1971 collection Brass.

As Prynne came to displace Olson’s Gloucester and Heidegger’s Earth from the center of his universe, significantly invoking Paul Celan as the contrary spirit of Brass, Latter is also determined to dislodge Prynne and Cambridge from the center of his history. Latter’s signal move is to bring his discussion to a close with MacSweeney, a Newcastle poet and a newspaper journalist whose violent and obscene but lyrically intense poetry of the late 1970s focused on “the processes of the damaged life-world” at a time that the Thatcherite revolution was felt to close off any renewal, especially in the industrial North. The trauma of the destruction of the postwar social democratic settlement continues to resonate through British poetry, apt to issue “news-items” of great vehemence even whilst destitute of hope, and to resort through gritted teeth to lyrics of sexual love and even domesticity as haven in a heartless world. Meanwhile “principles of trust, risk and fraternity” have proved distressingly vulnerable to spasms of outrage now first reactions are broadcast instantly, unamenable to private exchange, negotiated understanding, or second thoughts. A fleeting thought or feeling can damn a listserv poster with no right of appeal. To read the Intelligencer is to be struck by the negotiations of thinking, the focused exchanges it enabled, by comparison with present-day self-censorship and the poverty of connection in a culture that endlessly proclaims its connectedness and commitments to “community.” The Intelligencer may have been short-lived and succumbed to fractures in poetic principle (surprisingly for an English intelligencer, not obviously legible along class or geographical lines), but its most recent electronic equivalent was dead at birth, participants mute after the obloquy swirling about its predecessor. 

Alex Latter’s study is exemplary in its management of a problematic material archive, in the precision of its historical narrative, and in the intelligence of its organization and analysis. It will be valuable methodologically to scholars of coterie journals and poetic communities who may have no particular interest in the poetic moment it addresses, as well as important to students of Prynne and of twentieth-century and contemporary British poetry.