That Iain Sinclair, poet, essayist, impresario and weaver of arcane fictions, is one of the more generous spirits around is obvious from this brave, demanding and often flummoxing anthology. Thirty or forty poets are represented; most have remained in relative obscurity, partly because their work fell on deaf ears, partly because they believed in the notion of a mainstream which intellectual loyalties led them to disparage quicker than it could disparage them. 'The voices here,' says Sinclair in the Introduction, 'are the ones who have been locked away, those who rather enjoy it.' Twenty-five, thirty years after the best of them began to publish - John James, Chris Torrance, Lee Harwood, Andrew Crozier, Peter Riley, J.H. Prynne, Michael Haslam, Douglas Oliver, Barry MacSweeney, Denise Riley - they must nonetheless wonder, from time to time, whether theirs is a case of having missed the boat which would only have been worth catching if they'd been on it in the first place. Perhaps that is why Sinclair gives the impression of his poets as a ship of fools docking for an open day. 'The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don't claim to "understand" it but I like having it around.' Plenty of his contributors are not chaoticians at all. They do not make a meal out of alienation and fracture. Yet the alternative to implying, as Sinclair does in his adversarial way, that because they are crazy and wild, his favourites can wipe the floor with the dandies of the London lists, would have been to argue that they were an avant garde with coherent ideas whose bearing on British poetry will in time become clear - and this is unlikely. Their identity is now too loose, the poetic culture on which they might have a bearing too amorphous. Their vanities, moreover, are not those of an avant garde: Sinclair's people have too much both in the way of an admirable reticence and a less admirable vigilance which drives some to any lengths to avoid the sin of facility. Most important, the forms of patronage that made avant-gardism a reliable means of insertion in a 'prevailing' discourse, and the political contexts in which this was possible, no longer exist. Low-paid day jobs or faculty teaching posts have kept too many of Sinclair's unworldly contributors at a remove from anything resembling an open forum. If they now speak largely to one another, sometimes in a mysterious babble, that is our loss, for many of them are, or have been, very good indeed.
LRB 3 July 1997 | PDF Download