And the Beat goes on ...

January 2, 1998

Shamoon Zamir applauds the opening of a unique collection devoted to the work of poet and scholar Eric Mottram

Later this month, King's College, London, will open the Eric Mottram Collection. The creation of a remarkable scholar and poet, the collection is a unique archive of books, papers, poetry and research manuscripts, correspondence and audio tapes relating to American literature and culture, post-1950s British poetry and interdisciplinary studies.

Eric Mottram (1924-95) taught at King's from 1961, when he was appointed Britain's first lecturer in American literature, an event accorded a leader in The Times. In 1963 Mottram became a co-founder of London University's Institute of United States Studies.

Mottram established himself as one of the most original European scholars in the field of American studies, perhaps best known for his ground-breaking study of the novelist William Burroughs, The Algebra of Need. His daring support for the 1950s Beat writers and uncompromising insistence that these writers be granted serious critical attention will remain one of his most important legacies. While the Beats were quick to acquire an underground status, Mottram's work distanced itself from the shallow aspects of the popularity of writers such as Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg. For Mottram, Burroughs was the most acute and consistent political analyst among the Beat writers. His dramatisations of the nature of power and control through the central metaphor of addiction extended for Mottram far beyond the accusations of sensationalism that have often been used to dismiss Burroughs's work.

In addition to the Beat writers, Mottram wrote on the likes of Melville, Poe, Whitman, Twain, Faulkner, Hemingway, Pound and Williams. He did much to introduce poets in the Pound-Williams tradition - Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, Rothenberg and many more - to British readers. His cultural investigations stretched from the relations of law and literature, technology and culture and US fears of invasion to the rock culture of the 1960s, the music of John Cage and the use of Sufi philosophy and poetics in postwar US poetry.

Mottram was one of the moving forces behind "the British poetry revival" started in small publishing presses in the 1960s and, until recently, largely ignored by major publishers and literary critics. From 1971 to 1977 he edited Poetry Review, a meeting place for some of the most radical and innovative writing from either side of the Atlantic. British poets he later included in his The New British Poetry anthology included Thomas A. Clark, Allen Fisher, Roy Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Lee Harwood, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth and Denise Riley.

In introducing his section of The New British Poetry, Mottram said of the poets he had chosen: "They are committed to imaginative invention and to taking up the challenge of a wide range of 20th-century poetics in Europe and America. They stand, in their different ways, for resistance to habitual responses, for explorations in language notation and rhythm, for discovery without safety-net for the poet or reader."

In all, he produced several books and pamphlets of literary and cultural criticism, over 20 books of poetry and more than 200 academic articles. No less significant is his work as a teacher. Anyone who studied with him will testify to what, in today's world, appears as a reckless generosity with his time and energy.

At a time when interdisciplinary work is fashionable, his own vision of a multidisciplinary imagination provides a valuable model. For him it was never a matter of mere addition, one discipline simply put alongside another, but a question of imaginative synthesis in which disciplines can be transformed and a new way of talking about the world emerge. Always encouraging his students to risk multiplicity, Mottram would often quote the words of the American poet and scholar Muriel Rukeyser: "the range must be taken".

His breadth of interest and originality of vision are embodied in the Mottram Collection - some 12,000 books, hundreds of boxes of papers and several hundred audio cassettes, including much material unobtainable elsewhere in Britain. The papers consist of Mottram's own drafts, manuscripts and research notes (containing much unpublished scholarship and poetry), correspondence with a wide range of writers in the US and Britain (including Ginsberg, Duncan, Jerome Rothenberg and Basil Bunting), and diaries and creative notebooks that record his own development and contemporary literary and cultural history.

These last include his detailed journals of counselling students and staff after student protesters were shot at Kent State University, where Mottram was teaching, in 1970. His record of the debates and disagreements around the activities of the Poetry Society and Poetry Review in the 1970s is a unique literary resource. The vast majority of the tapes in the archive are original recordings of poetry readings, interviews, lectures - including an unpublished series on literature by Allen Ginsberg - and discussions.

At a time when the extraordinary achievements of the British poetry revival are largely ignored by critics, literary historians and archive libraries, the opening of the Mottram Collection is a major event for the academic and literary communities of Britain.

Shamoon Zamir is lecturer in American studies, King's College, London.

For more information about the Mottram Collection contact King's College Archives on 0171 873 2015.

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