Posted by Ken Edwards on Monday, June 11, 2012 Under: writing
An Andrew Crozier Reader is a highly unusual book. It's not quite a Collected Poems, but as good as. It brings back into print most if not all of Andrew Crozier's 1985 Allardyce, Barnett volume All Where Each Is, long unavailable – adding the few poems Crozier published since then, as well as a selection of his critical writings. The whole is arranged chronologically in nine sections, each prefaced with a short biographical introduction by the editor, Ian Brinton, and assorted ancillary texts: extracts from letters by JH Prynne and others, interviews and so on.
Andrew Crozier died in 2008. A graduate of Cambridge University, he underwent a life change in 1964 when he spent time at the State University of New York at Buffalo, studying under Charles Olson and resurrecting the career of the then forgotten Objectivist poet Carl Rakosi. An associate of JH Prynne at Cambridge, he went on to obtain his PhD at Essex, and subsequently taught at the University of Sussex for the rest of his career. He founded the Ferry Press, The English Intelligencer and the Wivenhoe Park Review.
Crozier is credited with being one of the two main movers and shakers in the formation loosely referred to as "Cambridge Poetry" (a term he would have avoided) – the other of course being Prynne. Among poets associated with these two were Peter Riley, Tim Longville, John James, Wendy Mulford, Douglas Oliver, John Temple and John Hall. Some of these, and others who had little or no geographical link to Cambridge, were included in A Various Art, the anthology he edited in 1987 with Longville.
Although Crozier continues to be linked by many with Prynne, and although the two appear largely to share an aesthetic, there are significant differences between them. The most obvious one is that, while Prynne continues to this day to publish his highly influential poetry, which has morphed radically from the English projectivism of his early 1960s output, Crozier simply stopped in the mid-1980s. Why? It doesn't seem, on the face of it, to have been a falling off in energy or inspiration. Indeed, the only substantial addition to his oeuvre since All Where Each Is, the sequence "Free Running Bitch" – included in this volume – is rated by many, myself included, as his finest poetic achievement. But after that, nothing.
Where Prynne's poetry is highly torqued, its baroque vocabulary mined from a bewildering range of discourses, Crozier's language is relatively plain. Especially in his early, Olson-influenced work, he sometimes affects a deliberately prosaic, descriptive style: "The sheep on Romney Marsh / have probably been there since the sea withdrew / or at least since the salt was drained and the land / became pasturage" ("On Romney Marsh", 1964, revised 1967). Or the infamous "Fan Heater", which consists of, well, a detailed description in verse of a fan heater (from Walking on Grass, 1969).
Where Prynne is invariably inscrutable as regards personal life, Crozier returns repeatedly to domestic experience and personal pronouns: "Much rain the wind blew off / my cap turned Jean's umbrella / inside out" (from Pleats, 1975).
What, then, is the aesthetic? It is easier to intuit what it is from descriptions of what it is not. In Crozier's introduction to A Various Art (which is not included here) – famously spending three pages avoiding making a manifesto – he refers to the "poetry generally on offer" in contemporary Britain that is "either provincial or parasitically metropolitan, and furnishes the pleasures of either a happy nostalgia or a frisson of daring and disgust". In the later (2000) essay "Resting on Laurels" (which is), he identifies this further: "the canon" (whose emblematic poets in the 1950s, 60s and 70s are Larkin, Hughes and Heaney, followed in the 1980s and 90s by Craig Raine and Simon Armitage) has as its "defining nexus" the "relation between empirical subject and rhetorical figuration", "in which what is figured is given as deriving from the posited experience of a self which, in turn, appears as the author of the poem's figurative scheme, in a discursively foreclosed writing." It is Crozier's contention in this essay that such canonical writing has exhausted itself, yet continues to be reproduced, with, tellingly enough, the simile as its key rhetorical figure.
So far, so familiar. It was the rupture occasioned by this exhaustion that produced, not just the Cambridge school, but a host of new aesthetics originating in the 1960s espoused by, among many others, Roy Fisher, Allen Fisher, Barry MacSweeney, Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Iain Sinclair, Denise Riley – following what Eric Mottram dubbed "The British Poetry Revival". That this rupture continues to be ignored by the national gatekeepers of culture – if ever referred to, it is in terms of an eccentric band of acolytes gathered around Prynne, figured as the mysterious and reclusive Cambridge don, for Crozier has been written out of history – is lamentable.
It must be said, however, that the historic failure to coherently posit an alternative poetics, as opposed to theorising the canon's shortcomings, has not helped. Crozier's very English sense of discretion does not permit him to make claims for his own poetry, let alone that of his contemporaries. The nearest he comes to describing such a poetics is by implication only in a lengthy essay on Roy Fisher's A Furnace – also happily included in this volume.
Nevertheless, the admirable context the book provides, in terms of critical texts, commentaries by and about the author, and biographical information, enables us to appreciate Crozier's poetry in a special light. We can see that the frequent glimpses of domestic detail in his poems work quite differently from the canonical empirical subject with its emblematic freight. There are no easy epiphanies here. (I do wish sometimes official Britpo would adopt the famous motto of the US comedy series Seinfeld: "no hugging, no learning".) The meticulous descriptions are simply poetic facts, or elements of the poem's materials, along with those of the sheep on Romney Marsh or indeed the fan heater. They do not have ulterior designs on the reader. How they are put together is what matters; the constructivist approach is at its most rigorous in High Zero (1978), a work using a grid-like procedure involving 24 poems of 24 lines each.
It is not irrelevant that Crozier collaborated with artists throughout his career (his brother Philip, a celebrated painter, provides the front cover image for this book), and in this respect I can see parallels less with Olson than with Frank O'Hara, whose Personism may be the closest we'll get to a Crozier manifesto – allowing for the differences in sensibility!
Sometimes, especially early on, the careful, prosaic descriptions can seem clunky, but the sense of contrivance gets less the further one goes into the work, and the later sequences, including the aforementioned "Free Running Bitch", which opens out from meditations on traffic queuing during a visit to a hospital, are often virtuosic in an utterly unpretentious way.
I just wish the oeuvre had not suddenly been abandoned soon after.
I only met Andrew Crozier once, briefly. I think it is probably permissible to reveal now that for a number of years he was one of the more significant Anonymous supporters of Reality Street. The discretion implied by that requested anonymity was typical, as were the meticulously handwritten letters that on occasion accompanied the annual cheque, in which he commended some of my advertised choices for publication and expressed guarded scepticism (though preparedeness to take a chance) about others.
An Andrew Crozier Reader, I shouldn't need to add, is an essential purchase (even for those who already own All Where Each Is) if you have any serious interest at all in what matters in British poetry, or poetry in general, from the 1960s to the present day.
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