Academic journal article Chicago Review

Off the Grid: Lyric and Politics in Andrea Brady's Embrace

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Off the Grid: Lyric and Politics in Andrea Brady's Embrace

Article excerpt

The most intellectually ambitious collective poetic endeavor in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century has mutated a remarkable and quite new strain of politically engaged writing. This might surprise British readers inclined to believe the routine dismissal by conservative critics of "Cambridge poetry" as a donnish pastime, or to those who have followed the careers of individual writers. For American readers the entire history of this writing remains occluded, despite the efforts of the critics Keith Tuma and Romana Huk. Therefore the first half of this essay is devoted to a back story, highly selective inasmuch as it discusses styles of political engagement within the history of one poetic group. Since literary influence resembles an urban freeway system more than a royal succession, such an account is liable to be irksome to all concerned, especially the writers to whom the second part of the essay is dedicated. The modest aim is to situate the strategies of these younger writers (and especially Andrea Brady) in their reinvention of the political lyric. A particular question is how they reconcile the lyric turn towards multiple ambiguity and a horizon of indescribable plenitude with the felt necessity to light a path toward an identifiable and attainable political objective (whatever the delay, whatever the conditionals).

I

Cambridge poetry begins with The English Intelligencer, a near-legendary worksheet edited by Andrew Crozier and Peter Riley between 1966 and 1968. Along with the Intelligencer's urgent format, the historical resonance of those dates flags an interventionist leftist politics; but there are further points to be made about this matrix. The first is that the small group of about thirty participants was as much a Newcastle group as a Cambridge one, and included the aggressively working-class poets Barry MacSweeney and Tom Pickard. Nor should it go unnoticed that William S. Burroughs (then living in London) and J.G. Ballard were of the number, anticipating the later Cambridge association of the novelists Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. As geography and career paths separated the Newcastle and Cambridge groups, the so-called Cambridge School itself resolved into two wings, the Northern branch around Grosseteste Review and the Southern around Ferry Press. At that time, the Grosseteste homes of Leeds and Derbyshire yielded nothing to Newcastle in grittiness.

In its origins, the Intelligencer was a Black Mountain/Buffalo outgrowth, a product of the Olsonian force-field. It reproduced the odd combination in Olson's thought of high modernism, deep history, and phenomenology, which in J.H. Prynne's Kitchen Poems and The White Stones achieved its too-magisterial synthesis, even as The Maximus Poems were collapsing into archival fragments and phallic flourishes. The Northern wing stayed largely faithful to the Intelligencer's founding moment, its Poundian right finding a religious haven (John Riley in Russian Orthodoxy), while Peter Riley, a Northern poet although resident in Cambridge, elaborated out of sixties phenomenology an ethics and a poetics of responsiveness testable against geological time, cultural displacement, and musical improvisation. According with general British cultural geography, the Southern poets, including Prynne, showed a greater urbanity, becoming aligned with a Gramscian New Left more exercised by cultural and sexual politics than with the entrenched oppositions of labor and business or of industry and pastoral. Some even were so unorthodox as to be women.

The period from 1969 to 1971 saw Prynne's break with Olson poetically and politically. Brass (1971) is the book with which a new British poetics influenced by European dialectical lyric (especially Trakl, Celan, and Ungaretti) is inaugurated, and is a work of such power that all ambitious British poets continue to work in its shadow, knowingly or not. Its materialist poetics are the basis of a continuing distinction between British and American understandings of what a materialist poetics might entail. …

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