Iain Sinclair opens his introduction to Conductors of Chaos with an attack on anthology culture. He denounces the major publishers, the culture of the prize-winning poem, and the preference for "poets with a serious agenda: Belfast, the Caribbean, sexual politics, madness". Sinclair calls his own selection a "pick-n'mix shambles of has-beens, headcases and emerging chancers who will put one over on the All Blacks".
The focus is certainly British and white, but readers and contributors might have hoped for a more positive account of the nature and purpose of this anthology than that implied by this ambivalent remark or the disclaimers which follow: Sinclair is "registering a prejudice", refuses to "identify the 'best' or 'most important' poets", and concentrates on characterising his contributors as obsessive, eccentric and agoraphobic. To some extent the agenda does not need to be explained because it is already well known. The target is the conservative stranglehold on mainstream poetry publication represented by The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) and The New Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1993). The latter is particularly resented for its frank populism and for the Next Big Thing splash with which it was launched on the market-place (and thence into many a school curriculum).
Sinclair's object then is to establish the importance of the long-standing alternative represented in Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville's A Various Art (1987) and in the late Eric Mottram's section of the collectively edited The New British Poetry: 1968-1988. Many of the poets featured in these earlier anthologies are given space in the new one, of whom Allen Fisher, John James, Douglas Oliver, J. H. Prynne and Denise Riley are the most symptomatic. However, Sinclair includes recently emerged authors who have aligned themselves with this tradition, and allows contributors to offer a selection from a more or less neglected or misrecognised progenitor: J. F. Hendry, David Jones, W. S. Graham, David Gascoyne and Nicholas Moore. The aim is to establish the existence of a tradition of British neomodernism which does not simply recycle the practices of influential American poets, such as William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson, who nevertheless provide a near-constant background noise.
Taken at his word, Sinclair is more interested in sharing his tastes than in securing the academic reputations of his contributors. The average browser may well consider that, on this showing, British small press poetry is in a healthy condition, is there for those who want it, seems likely to be granted its own "alternative" anthology every five or eight years, and should be left to its own devices as Sinclair claims its practitioners prefer.
However it is not enough to think of this anthology as merely the last chance for "real" poetry before the next one. There is an interesting parallel with Paul Hoover's Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (1994) and Douglas Messerli's From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry (1994). These are generous anthologies, designed for a broad readership, and committed to aesthetic inclusiveness. An equivalent, from a venerable publisher, and with a broader and more academic brief than Sinclair sets himself, is sorely needed in this country.
This anthology encompasses the dense logics of John Wilkinson and Drew Milne; the rant of Out to Lunch; the tempered modernisms of Denise Riley and Tony Lopez; and a good deal more that cannot be sensibly summarised, including writing from the visual arts and performance art.
Typographical and experimental gestures are at a premium however, and there is more here of art than of anti-art. The publication of this volume will no doubt trigger a new round of sectarian violence among the hardened subscribers of the neomodernist small press periodicals, Parataxis, fragmente, Angel Exhaust, but it is its public reception which ought to be of more interest. Many of the contributors would concur in lamenting the lack of a serious poetic culture in this country beyond themselves and a small circuit of readers, and newspaper reviews so far have confirmed this vision. In the introduction to his selection from the truly neglected Nicholas Moore, Peter Riley points out the willingness of journalists and cultural administrators at the time to treat what they did not recognise or wish to give time to as simply rubbish. That was in the 1960s, but reviews of Conductors of Chaos have echoed the earlier tone of complacent dismissiveness. It is true that not all of the poetry in this anthology is fully realised, but it should be impossible for the unprejudiced not to feel engaged by writing which at its best is so frank, demanding and committed - and so obviously good.
My hope is not merely that this book will gain a few more readers for poetry but that it will be taken up institutionally as an alternative to playing safe in the teaching of contemporary literature. The climate which has made respect for difference a watchword can surely recognise the political necessity of aesthetic difference in poetry. This is a substantial taster rather than a definitive anthology (the poets have selected their own work), but it is a convincing selection and should be allowed to persuade us not only of the viability of this marginal activity, but of its potential for centrality to our aesthetic thought.
David Ayers is lecturer in English, University of Kent at Canterbury.
Conductors of Chaos: A Poetry Anthology
Editor - Iain Sinclair
ISBN - 0 330 33135 3
Publisher - Picador
Price - £9.99
Pages - 488