“It Isn’t Race or Nation Governs Movement”: New Writers’ Press and the Transnational Scope of Irish Experimental Poetry in the 1960s and 1970s
The NWP initiated the real end of parochial lyricism in Ireland. The stuff still gets written & gets awards & reputations & blocks the progress of better work but NWP was a watershed.
NWP was at the forefront of internationalising poetry in Ireland in the 60s/70s.
Evidently it was not a coterie mentality nor a craftsman’s sense of technical skill—in producing books or poems—nor indeed a publisher’s desire to reach a particular public that underlay their first organic step into the stream of Irish poetry publishing. Instead, it was something much more fundamental, if comparably private: a poet’s innate desire to develop their own craft, informed by the preceding work of those they most admired. As I will clarify in this paper in due course, this mode of beginning would continue to inflect the central ethos of NWP through its most brazenly existentialist phase of activity in the 1970s.Mike already had some poems published in journals, which impressed me greatly. I’d been trying to ‘crack’ poetry for a couple of years, but without thought of publication, but Mike tore my stuff apart, and sent me off to read the best poetry and criticism of the previous fifty years. It was like an ice-cold shower.
1. Buy Gall; Put It in Your Ink: Addressing the Mid-Century Irish Poetry Scene
Don’t let lassitude lose you—there’s the whole Dublin establishment and scandalpit to kick the arse of.
Yes, not neurotically nationalist will do very well.
The implication here, as Joyce continues, is that such “relevant and acute criticism” would be levelled solely and vehemently on the Irish poetry scene, to the exclusion of nearly all other subjects of poetic discourse—the “arse-kicking” Coffey advocates. A series of “rebarbative attacks” on the commercial Irish poetry scene thus “made explicit, in retrospect, what had emerged as NWP’s editorial policy” (Joyce 1995, p. 281). That “editorial policy” is enshrined in invectives by Smith across Lace Curtains 3 and 4 (Smith 1970, 1971a) and The Denver Quarterly (Smith 1971b). For a broad example of what a characteristically punning Brian Coffey calls “the gall” in Smith’s ink (Coffey 1970d), the first of these delivers:We [he and Smith] both complained of the rarity of good new writing, and both felt the urge to do something about it. Our disagreement concerned the means: Mike felt that relevant and acute criticism could do the job, while I […] decided that the only way to get poetry written of the sort I would be interested in reading was to write it myself […]. As a result, I withdrew increasingly over the course of Lace Curtains 3 and 4, from active involvement in the running of the press […].
Smith and Joyce’s divergent approaches in this rift articulate respectively, “the pressing realities [in Ireland] of either representing the postcolonial nation to itself, or of forging the artwork directed to transcending mundane politics” (Goodby and Edwards 2002, p. 175). For a firmer understanding of Smith’s commitment to the first of these, it is necessary to go back a couple of decades to its origin as a conscious preoccupation for Irish poets. John McAuliffe offers an account of the mid-century commercial scene that suggests social and material conditions from which this preoccupation may have emerged:Now if there is any one thing on which it is possible to hang a thesis in a discussion of serious Irish poetry during the last twenty years that thing seems to me to be the gradual disappearance of nationalism and its concomitant bogus traditionalism. […] the best poetry written in Ireland during the last ten years or so has been written by poets for whom the Irish literary thing has had little or no interest, or when considered by them, was dismissed in disgust as something thoroughly soiled by sham and insincerity, and a thing that was, at any rate, artificial and irrelevant.
As a diagnosis of an intensely narrowed commercial scene, this is just as applicable to the context in which NWP was founded seventeen years later—as though the course of Irish poetry had plateaued over the span of two decades. As Joyce notes, the only other active Irish press by 1967 was Liam Miller’s Dolmen—an operation that “leaned heavily on the legacy of Yeats” (Joyce 1995, p. 276) and for whom “an experimental desire to problematize the lyric self and poetic language was not among its priorities”, as it was for NWP (Goodby and Edwards 2002, p. 176). The fact that there was only one other commercial press in Ireland, whose “small stable of writers” (Joyce 1995, p. 276) favoured the legacy of Yeats—the inevitable synecdoche of the “bogus traditionalism” Smith attacked—justifies NWP’s iconoclastic line. It suggests that any press seeking to publish anything outside of that “bogus” tradition would first have to carve out a new niche for itself within this truncated commercial channel. Such a prerequisite did not haunt campus magazines such as Icarus, however. The seemingly stunted growth of the Irish commercial scene between the 1950s and 1967 runs counter to Icarus’ evolution into a magazine that, between its inception in 1950 and relative maturity in 1967, had developed a genuinely transnational scope. By comparing the two, the inevitability of Smith’s “rebarbative” stance towards the commercial marketplace and the effect this had on NWP’s transnationalist potential emerge.The 1950s were a transitional period for Irish poets and publishers. Existing journals and publishers went out of business early in the decade. […] Irish poets were generally published in England […] In 1951 the journals Envoy and Poetry Ireland had ceased publication; […] The Bell rarely published poetry in the years before it closed in 1954. [The 1950s were therefore] a time when Irish culture can be characterised as insular and impoverished, and when—for poets—the complexity of Yeats’s legacy and example became more apparent.
In addition, campus magazines are usually able to avoid becoming wedded to one particular agenda, because, as is the case with Icarus, they tend to cycle through editorial teams on a regular academic-yearly basis, as Reid acknowledges in the same piece, “Icarus [has] no aesthetic creed, no overall design” (Reid 1960, p. 10). This means that one editor’s aesthetic may be directly contradicted just as easily as it may be maintained between years.Icarus, helped by a tiny grant from the Board and by a generous guarantee, has kept going for ten years without a break, and we believe that it is the only literary magazine set up in the British Isles since the war that can advance such a claim.
Against such a nationalist agenda for the magazine, Simpson offers the following riposte, bolstered by the aforementioned implication that such an agenda does not and should not fall within the remit of a campus magazine:Dr. Davie is asked to review the twelfth issue of [Icarus], and he does so, making much of the fact that it contains very little that is Irish. These are some of his exact words […] “the current number of Icarus surely makes a queer showing as the literary magazine of an Irish university […] after all, Trinity is not an English provincial university, and it is a pity when Icarus gives the impression that it is”.
Icarus has published a great deal of material which slid easily into the category of “Irish writing”, but it is true that a great deal more of its content has been “cosmopolitan”. If Trinity had been leading a revival of Irish letters Icarus would have played a leading part in this. At the moment she is merely […] doing her best not to be as sterile as she is supposed to be.
From here, Sinclair lists various poetic innovations, heralded by, most prominently, Charles Olson, as the harbingers of a remedy for such otherwise “negligible” poetics. The gravity of Sinclair’s polemic would only be fully realised in issues 48 and 49 (both produced in 1966), however, where Olson receives pride of place among the editors’ genealogy of contemporary poetry. In issue 48, this is literally the case, with his name appearing at the centre of a mock-up contemporary poetry family tree (Anonymous 1966), while in issue 49, the reprinting of three of his Maximus Poems—through the permission of his American publisher, Jonathan Williams, specifically (Olson 1966a, 1966b, 1966c)—consolidates Olson’s importance.It is not enough to replace one set of prejudices with another. Merely to remove the school of Yeats and set up something more contemporary […] would not be enough. […] To choose your influences well, like Eliot, is the best possible start for a poet. To choose America is to do this. English verse outside America this century is negligible.
Hence, that “transatlantic connection” became economically and ideologically viable in Britain—not unlike how a dialogue with Britain became available to Icarus.One of the immediate effects of the agitated, charismatic activity of these groups was to diminish the authority of such traditionally powerful discourses as nation […] in determining the course of a poet’s work.
Icarus was not subject to such “hostility and apathy” because it endured in a peculiar auxiliary wing of production, disconnected from the constrained commercial space of poetic output in Ireland—able, therefore, to do what Smith and others could not. It is telling, for instance, that Sinclair would only manage to “float magazines that never got beyond the proof stage” in Ireland’s limited commercial structure after finishing with Icarus (Sinclair 2013, p. 12), before relocating to Britain where he could—via the doors opened by Finch’s Second Aeon—successfully renew his small-press publishing efforts through his own Albion Village imprint (Sinclair 2016, pp. 61–62). Sinclair recollects those very limits to the Irish commercial scene with regret:I’m afraid that too often as a critic, I am over-mindful of literary politics, thrown off balance by a narrow-minded missionary zeal […]. It comes, I’m sure, from working in an atmosphere of hostility and apathy.
Such strictures were specific to Ireland, severed wholesale from some of the foundational limbs of this late modernist poetic network. Britain was not only infinitely freer than Ireland in this regard, but it represented, as Sinclair implies here, a stage upon which experimental poetry was genuinely thriving.Living in Dublin for four years kept us at a certain distance from what can now be seen as the beginnings of “The British Poetry Revival” (Eric Mottram) or The Children of Albion (Michael Horovitz). Neither were we part of that useful adventure in correspondence, the circulation of The English Intelligencer. Or the fraught weekend gatherings of warring tribes in Northumberland cottages: Cambridge formalism, Newcastle wildboy.
2. Navigating the Central Whirl of London: Transnational Near-Misses
No one in London (not even Bernard Stone and Better Books) has heard of the “New Writers’ Press”.
By the way, how are sales over here? I ask because I haven’t seen Writers’ Press publications in the usual bookshops in Charing Cross Road.
In this final sentence, we recognise the reference to Smith’s enduring critical maxim in the 1970s that the likes of Kennelly and Montague—“a few ignorant people”—were the sentinels “controlling” the Irish literary scene, with the implication that such an obstacle must be met head on. Squires, however, suggests renovating such an approach in the idiom of the British self-help publishing movement; his concluding sentiment echoes the sense that in Britain, at least, as I have already established in this paper, there was a way around the mainstream publishing channels “if [one] had a certain amount of energy” by this time. Squires goes on to suggest the particular path by which Smith could achieve this flanking manoeuvre in Ireland:Compared with past ages, we have a marvellous accessibility of information, alternative pasts, modes, and no one is restricted on that score anymore, if he has a certain amount of energy. Also, printing and publishing have become cheaper—witness the proliferation of all sorts of small papers and mags. So although there may be some truth in the complaint that the literary scene is controlled by a few ignorant people, I think that particular barrier can be broken through quite easily.
Not only, then, does Squires suggest precisely the kind of “cultural transfusion process” by which the likes of Turnbull fostered Britain’s “transatlantic connection” with America in the late 1950s, he even volunteers the very poets and poetics championed by Turnbull and that British faction—not to mention mid-1960s Icarus—as its prospective agents. If, however, Squires offers Smith the means for a direct line into a transnational experimental community here, Smith’s draft response of 1975 in the NWP archive rejects them. Instead of embracing a “foreign option”, as NWP had in 1969, Smith doubles down on his inward-looking endeavour to reinter the legacy and example of the Irish “experimentalists” of the 1930s within a contemporary Irish consciousness. Though he extols the fact that a poet’s “inheritance may be more than local” by the 1970s in Ireland, “ideally”, he concludes, Irish poets should operate under the influence “of what has been thought and felt by men before [them]” (Smith 1975)—a rather conspicuous reference to those 1930s modernist precursors. Such a stance surely exists at quite a remove aesthetically from the NWP that published Billy the Kid six years previously.There is of course the foreign […] option, and I can see people looking to France, East Coast US, West Coast US, Latin America etc for this, a kind of cultural transfusion process. For myself, I think I have gained a great deal from reading Olson, [Robert] Duncan and those who talk about ‘fields’.
With the “arse” of “the whole Dublin establishment and scandalpit” seemingly sufficiently “kicked” in Lace Curtain 4, Coffey turns his energies to a new “dream”, encompassing both the exportation and importation sides of NWP’s operations at once. Envisioning The Lace Curtain as a platform simultaneously launching “intelligent Irish writers” into a transnational “common market” and “drawing foreign writers” to an Irish audience, this “dream” represents an apolitical model whereby Smith could have shed his obsessive iconoclasm.What I dream of [for The Lace Curtain] is something equivalent to La Nouvelle Francaise emanating from Dublin and not tied to politics in any way. The best young writers respectful of language’s potential from every country […]. The circumstances of the common market should mean for intelligent Irish writers an immediate entry on the stage where human events are tried. We ought to be ready for this and have formats which draw foreign writers to us.
Better Books, as we saw, was an important hub where British experimental poets could buy the work of their peers and foreign influences, and it operated as a focal point for otherwise dispersed poets—not unlike Cobbing’s ALP (Miller and Price 2006, p. 121). The use of Galvin’s “off-spring”, then, would have facilitated the stocking and promotion of NWP books amid a readymade confluence of British experimental poets and publishers; all we know for certain, however, is that by 1970 at least, Better Books had no awareness of NWP’s existence according to Andrew Yablonski (Yablonski 1970), with no further indication that it ever would. Both Coffey and Squires would also emphasise the value in getting NWP titles on the shelves of another “significant” bookshop for small presses and little magazines, according to Miller and Price (Miller and Price 2006, p. 121): Compendium in Camden (Coffey 1971b; Squires 1974). James Liddy too would recommend these and several others in a long list of important British and American bookshops to which he boasted connections (Liddy 1969a).As my off-spring is more or less in charge of the poetry section in Better Books he can always give a good push to any publications as good as yours. Not only in the shop, but at the various poetry readings organised by Better Books.
Even more significant than Coffey’s gestures towards the likes of Cobbing and Benveniste, Longville’s proposal here of a physical “swop” of their respective magazines and his commitment to providing “attention and a friendly reception” to the work of Smith and the “folks around him” represents the potential for a legitimate and even fruitful transnational exchange. Based on Longville’s next letter, furthermore, this is an avenue that Smith evidently does not ignore; it is, in fact, Longville’s appraisal of the poetry Smith lines up for his consideration for GR on behalf of NWP, and his commentary on Lace Curtain 3, which forecloses on such an exchange.I thought I’d write, ask (a) if yourself or any of the folks around you have stuff you’d care to send us […]; no guarantees except attention and a friendly reception; (b) if you’d care to swop copy of Lace Curtain for one of GR [Grosseteste Review]: maybe make it a regular thing […]; (c) send list of things your press has done?
I enjoyed reading the poems—they are very accomplished—but I see nothing in them (which may be the effect of distance from what they describe) […]. My blindness most likely, but all I have to work with”.
The tug of [James] Joyce, Beckett, and the other poets of the ‘30s has been strong enough to allow us to feel free of all the hegemonies, whether from Britain, America, Europe or elsewhere, and to confirm to us that writing in Ireland can be radically innovative and independent without privileging any external authorities. We seek from nowhere the franchise to regard ourselves as innovators, or to provide a living alternative to those tendencies we find most intimately oppressive. We continue to read American, British, and other radical poetry with respect, sympathy, and sometimes with excitement. We look to have the same openness extended to us.
Conflicts of Interest
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Many of the quotations used in this paper came from various materials accessed in the New Writers’ Press Archive at the National Library of Ireland (Collection List No. 85; MSS 40, 118–40, 179). As many of these quotations are taken from personal letters directly, they are denoted by their send date for in-text citations—in the form of “d/m/yy”—where applicable. In the few instances where a quote is taken from an undated letter, the year in which to the best of my ability I have determined they are sent is given. A comprehensive list of the entire archive collection on New Writers’ Press at the National Library of Ireland is available for further reference at the following web address: http://www.nli.ie/pdfs/mss%20lists/newwriters.pdf. In addition, I have also quoted extensively from various back issues of Trinity College Dublin’s literary magazine, Icarus (1950-). These were accessed directly at the Early Printed Books Section of the Trinity College Berkeley–Lecky–Ussher Library in Dublin.
It is worth noting also that Iain Sinclair himself cites Second Aeon as his own inlet into this British scene upon his return from studying in Dublin in the late sixties: “Second Aeon, edited by Peter Finch, out of my natal city Cardiff, was a good noticeboard on which to discover what was going on, and to make contacts” (Sinclair 2016, p. 61). Tony Lopez also had virtually the same experience: “I can’t remember where I got hold of the magazine Second Aeon, but that was my first source of wider information and it gave me a sense of what was possible” (Lopez 2016, p. 65). So too, Peter Barry: “Since around 1972–1973 I had been sending poems to poetry magazines I knew were OK, because they were listed in Peter Finch’s journal Second Aeon” (Barry 2016, p. 111).
While it is impossible to confirm this is a Raworth poem, the speaker—“Tommy”—shares several biographical details with Raworth, including being born in London just before the Second World War (specifically, “Cancer’s child I was, July”—Raworth’s star sign and birth month), having an apparently undetected heart defect (“diagnosis fell on a deaf ear”) and having ancestors involved in revolutionary affairs in Dublin in 1916 (Raworth 1971). Furthermore, Benveniste confirms that Raworth definitely did send poetry despite having “vowed not to contribute to magazines anymore” in an archived letter to Coffey (Benveniste 1971).
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Fleming, W. “It Isn’t Race or Nation Governs Movement”: New Writers’ Press and the Transnational Scope of Irish Experimental Poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. Humanities 2019, 8, 178. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8040178
Fleming W. “It Isn’t Race or Nation Governs Movement”: New Writers’ Press and the Transnational Scope of Irish Experimental Poetry in the 1960s and 1970s. Humanities. 2019; 8(4):178. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8040178Chicago/Turabian Style
Fleming, Will. 2019. "“It Isn’t Race or Nation Governs Movement”: New Writers’ Press and the Transnational Scope of Irish Experimental Poetry in the 1960s and 1970s" Humanities 8, no. 4: 178. https://doi.org/10.3390/h8040178