Andrew Duncan

An inside with no outside: Foil: defining poetry 1985–2000

(ed. Nicholas Johnson, etruscan books, 2000, ISBN 1 901 538 28; £8.50, 395 pp.)

Foil counts 33 poets, and is 400 pages long: CANDESCENT in the glare of omissions, REARED to epic length by monumental errors of judgment, REDEMPTIVELY it is bathed in dazzling rays from the future. Roughly, they are the generation born in the 1960s and early 1970s, excepting those who want to be McGough or Larkin. Or Joni Mitchell. Foil is unrivalled, opulent, far gone. It is also a kind of storage warehouse where bales of sleazoid academicism, careerist finger-painting, and avant-garde pastoral are a cartonnage to protect the fabric of brilliant poems from daylight. As a new cultural pattern emerges, an array of 30 poetic arrays, linked to each other by symmetries and oppositions, a debate is opening which, alas, I cannot predict. This will be an ideal-type description, inaccurate for unusual poets — Helen Macdonald's work, for example, sophisticated and three-dimensional.

We look at maybe 15 radiant new poets, and add 15 new years to the curve, to the extent of British poetry. We see their withdrawal from politics, and from exploring emotional experience. After a crisis of legitimation, we find the restoration of a scale of prestige. Above is now linked to below in a stable way. The introduction draws our attention to visual poetry, to 'environments', to the return of the body and the oral, to performance: conceptual innovations of the early sixties. IBM was then, is not now a high growth stock; the new era has no wilderness to stake out, its self-definition is on the fine scale. The canard about the period is that it has seen no masterpieces; it may be that an era of mass higher education and distributed functions does not want language as symbolic power, and so we have delicate chamber poetry. Perhaps we are delicate enough to listen to it?

The tariff structure seems to be that knowledge acquired from speculation, or from philosophers, is superior to knowledge that comes from intuition and from inside. Theories are expensive and exclusive, feelings are commonplace. Personal experience, in relationships and real-world situations, has been reshelved as a kitchen art, less white than white goods. Hmmm. Feelings are Stone Age software but are not the Stone Age of software.

The editor has remarked that the poets don't believe in the counter-culture. Autonomy is not located in a possible new society but in a reduction of scale; a virtual object, a consistency wrapped in a paradox, affluent or ludicrous, programmable and waiting to acquire features. Perhaps we no longer believe in a transformation of social relations, while a transformation of the information patterns by which we produce, amuse our brains, and earn money, is inevitable. The ability to learn (docility) means employment success.

Each folio of poems is the product of a game; each, the application of a procedure which develops a virtual space. The poem game is like an exotic virtual toy, which fascinates by metamorphosing. It contains information, but only about itself; though we explore, there is nothing to explore. Eliminating reference to a self, it is self-referential.

A game is repeatable ad lib., that is, you can always start again at the system origin. It has a non-recursive point; that is, it has a zero or system origin which is not conditioned by any previous moves. Later moves are recursive (that is, defined by preceding moves), and the "richness" of each move is related to the density of its implications for succeeding moves, but also to the amount of effective data which is new and not fixed by previous moves. A good game is, for one thing, one in which the ratio of implication (implexity?) to explanation is high. A game may involve planning, probability, pattern matching, memory, and gaining virtual assets. If it is possible to invent the rules of games, there must be a set of rules by which the game-rules are generated and controlled, at a deeper layer of arbitrariness and compulsion. Inventing games is a kind of game. Niall Quinn, Nic Laight and Nick Macias are poets who have devised geometrical spaces which allow great kinetic excitement, impressively combining transparency and complexity. It may be that we could regard all software as a set of mathematical puzzles; and all poems as mathematical puzzles, local cases of information theory. Imagining the good society was like a game, a sublime zero followed by a cascade of implication.

Idealism has been abandoned as a motive for deep language. The documentary project now seems to have been part of socialism, and the project of self-knowledge and self-expression to have been part of Protestantism; what was a pleasure then. The relation between signs and any inner processes, has been suspended. Sympathy, attachment, identification, are not on the scene. All this is parallel to the New Gen crew.

Instead of identifying, we are in the poem like mice in a polychrome maze. The withdrawal from the multiplanar cohesion of real-world experience gives the abiding problem of re-building complexity. This was not, always, present in the old, character-based, poetry. One must admit that some poets have very boring personalities; if you read RS Thomas, you will notice that the same few ideas occur again and again. So in theory he is free to be diverse, but what he has chosen is a very simple rule-set which repeats itself in a short time and which has been running for sixty years (it seems like more). Artificial rule-sets can easily be more complex, and have more scatter in their results, than "organic" ones. Let's not try to name the winners when we haven't yet worked out the new rules of the game. That someone will be surpassed and destroyed, is clear.

A rule is that the high:low dimension of poetry is now also the depersonalisation: identifying/autobiographical contrast. Sharing is the surrender of distinction. The quality for which poets strive has shifted away from authenticity and towards virtuality. The high prestige of virtuality corresponds to the low prestige of making things, e.g. cars. The admired formula is: arbitrary rules consistently applied. Two match-winners for depersonalisation might be these. First, naive poets assume that you're fascinated by their feelings, and write poems which just don't stand up on paper, without their composer being present in the room. Better poets write poems which are self-standing, away from the self they refer to. It was easy to deduce that poems which didn't refer to a personality at all were the most sophisticated. Secondly, boredom with identity politics, something which went on for far too long. Alert poets were bound to dissimilate from this central, accessible, sludge. Dissimilation is vital to prestige, while also abandoning territory where, indeed, happiness would have been possible.

American carnivals had a clown called the bozo, whose patter was drawn entirely from reshaping what the audience said to him — an improvisation of precise timing, at risk from the rubes. Khaled Hakim is a bozo on the loose among the culturati, reflexivity on legs, ignoring the rule that analysis is what you do to lower-status people. His work is an act of gratitude for the trauma of having other people demonstrate how well they know your culture. His evocation of overgrown, blown, briar-draggled wild patches of Birmingham is extraordinarily touching.

I also think wistfully of poets who aren't included, points on a bigger and better curve. You can't write DS Marriott out of history.