skip straight to next section: The Typical features of This PoetryBrief Background

Poetry has a poor public presence in contemporary Britain, even though it plays a role in many people's lives. Where it does play a role, it is often as therapy or entertainment, or comfortable nostalgia. There is, though, a range of poetries in contemporary Britain which encounters the complicated state of our lives and consciousnesses in the third millennium in ways as compelling as you expect art or theatre or cinema or music to. This poetry is largely ignored by the dominant cultural propagandists and pedlars. It can be labelled avant-garde — or innovative, or linguistically innovative, or post avant-garde, or language-centred, or reflexive, or postmodernist, or even plain old modernist or late modernist poetry. There isn't a handy identifier (a part of the problem maybe!). These terms all refer to slightly different concepts, but with a lot of common factors, in terms of practices and social/cultural networks. This poetry is a major cultural activity that remains not yet picked up by fashion, finance or administrators — still at least in touch with genuine avant-garde impulses, though now with some academic bases.

If you are from outside Britain, you would be astonished at the anti-modernist and anti-innovative bias within the dominant British literary culture. To phrase it aggressively, the cults of deliberately narrow-minded provincial pettiness (Philip Larkin), felt-in-the-bones organicism and nature-worship (Ted Hughes) and populist triviality and accessibility (so many! — say Simon Armitage) have all imbedded themselves deep within the dominant British poetic tradition in the period since the 1950s. This has now become a bizarre situation given the way the visual arts establishment has increasingly opened itself completely to the post-conceptual movement labelled BritArt or the YBAs, and the genuine popular success of contemporary art institutions like Tate Modern. In Britain only a restricted "mainstream" poetry published by the larger commercial and heavily subsidised presses is given the bulk of what little publicity and distribution there is for poetry, or else a commercial entertainment-based “performance poetry” that aims at an amusing evening out.

British Innovative Poetry got going in the Sixties, with primarily American influences from Fifties and Sixties US poetry — initially the Beats, and the Black Mountain and New York Schools. This was a reaction to the vast limitations of the suddenly dominant poetry of the British Fifties, "The Movement", which embraced and exalted all the most conformist, xenophobic and anti-intellectual strains that infect the English soul. British Innovative Poetry has maintained itself in a position of opposition to the now sterile mainstream of British literary culture since that time. It will be interesting to see if its nature is changed by its recent success in establishing some toe-holds in universities and colleges.


skip straight to next section: A Final Note on NamingThe Typical Features of British Innovative Poetry

  • a focus on or acute awareness of poetry as concerned with the process of perception/consciousness/putting into language, rather than on what is perceived or experienced – hence phrases like language-centred or reflective, and hence too accusations of "difficulty" or "elitism", as its concerns aren’t just simple ones of recording things and emotions, rewarding the reader with triteness
  • various forms of estrangement effect to enable focus on language and process, and enforce awareness of the language of the poem itself, eg montage, use of found language, or of vocabulary chosen from a specific (non-poetic) discourse, use of complex syntax that fails to resolve itself – modernism
  • a sense of self or voice which is fractured, decentred or otherwise not engaged in the old con-tricks of authenticity and personality — postmodernism
  • improvisatory formal creativity and experimentation rather than following traditional forms and patterns – hence linguistically innovative, or avant-garde
  • there may be aspects of following chosen set procedures in the formal composition of the writing – paralleling art practice since the 1960s– late modernism
  • there may be also aspects of performance/improvisation in both the writing and the delivery of the texts, springing from:
    • links between avant-garde poetry throughout the period since the late 60s and improvised music;
    • an inheritance in performing (any!) textual material, coming from the neo-dada roots of the London-based avant-garde ("sound poetry");
    • the establishment more recently of the academic study of performance writing (eg at Dartington).
    • But note there is a separate entertainment-based Performance Poetry world of poetry slams, open mikes and stand-up routines, which has little overlap with linguistically innovative poetry
  • dissemination through small scale institutions, establishing their own traditions, genealogies and alliances. You will find these listed on Great Works' Links page, or on Web Pages & Websites Useful for Understanding British Innovative Poetry. Typically:
    • publication (largely) by specific small presses, often using print-on-demand digital technology, or specialising in high level book design, or on the other hand maintaining a punkish lo-tech aesthetic;
    • also a number of websites and blogs, some associated with publishers or reading series, many with individual poets;
    • the importance of readings, as a means of getting the poetry out, and as part of poetry's performative nature, and for social interaction — establishing a scene;
    • including a number of festivals or conferences;
    • and support now within a small but not insubstantial number of University Departments (including creative writing programmes) – making it with this incipient institutionalisation a post avant-garde.

Probably no texts demonstrate all these factors, but they are widespread across most of the British poetry published on Great Works and elsewhere. Check this out for yourself!