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Conductors of Chaos by Iain Sinclair (editor) (Picador, 1996)

To tie-in with Southbank Centre's History is Now festival, we decided to take look a at Iain Sinclair's 1996 anthology Conductors of Chaos, published in reaction to the poets and poetry that were dominating the mainstream at that time.

We began with an introduction to the British Poetry Revival - a Modernist inspired reaction to the Movement poets, which took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the British Poetry Revival: 

Books on this subject in the Poetry Library include:

The failure of conservatism in modern British poetry / Andrew Duncan 
Published:  Cambridge : Salt Publishing, 2003 

Poetry wars : British poetry of the 1970s and the battle of Earls Court / Peter Barry 
Published:  Cambridge : Salt Publishing, 2006 

During the 1970s, British Poetry Revival poets dominated the Poetry Society's council and Eric Mottram, a key figure in the British Poetry Revival, was editor of the Poetry Society's journal Poetry Review.  However, the late 1970s saw Mottram removed as editor of Poetry Review and at the same time, the Arts Council set up an inquiry that overturned the result of the Society's elections that had once again voted in a council dominated by those sympathetic to the Poetry Revival. In reaction there was a mass resignation from the Poetry Society of British Poetry Revival and radical poets and the Poetry Society returned to its conservative ways. What came next for the British Poetry Revival poets was "at least a decade and a half of total cultural exclusion - no profiles in Sunday papers... no platform appearances at Summer festivals" (Peter Barry, Poetry Wars). None of the Poetry Revival poets were included in the Poetry Society/Arts Council New Generation Poets promotion of 1994.

It was into this landscape that Picador published Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos anthology in 1996.

Sinclair kindly gave us permission to share his introduction to the anthology with book club attendees prior to the meeting. Here's a quote from his introduction that might help as a way into the poems: "The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don't claim to 'understand' it but I like having it around...There's no key, no Masonic password; take [it] gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes... If it comes too sweetly, somebody is trying to sell you something."

Here are two extracts from contemporary reviews:
William Scammell in the Independent on Sunday commented simply that "some of the shamans are less horrendously incompetent than others" - that was the kindest thing he said, while Don Paterson in The Observer was more generous: "If a more challenging anthology comes out of the 90s I shall be surprised. Sinclair's anthology, whether he likes it or not, is likely to leave the margin less crowded".

Each poet is represented by several poems in the anthology (or a long poem) and we looked at five poets - a poem or a section of a poem by each of them.


1. Geraldine Monk

Biography of Geraldine Monk by Monk on the West House books website:

The poem we looked at was 'Alizon Device' page 283 which comes from Interregnum (1994), an engagement with the history of Pendle in Lancashire (Monk is from Lancashire), specifically the story of the Pendle witches.

1. Is this an 'experimental' poem?
2. How necessary is it to know the context of this poem?
3. ARE YOU LISTENING? What does the sudden change of tone add to the poem?
4. "Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects." (Ian Sinclair from his introduction) - does this help us with the poem?
5. The word 'dwindled' appears four times in the poem. What effect does it have on the poem?



2. J. H. Prynne

Biography of J. H. Prynne on the Poetry Foundation website:

The poem we looked at was the first section of 'Her Weasels Wild Returning' -  'The Stony Heart of Her' page 349 

1. Does this poem make any sense to you?
2. Is it written in a set metre? Does that give it a sense/purpose?
3. Who is the 'her' of this poem? Does it matter that we're not really sure?
4. How do feel about that fullstop ". For" that ends the 6th line?


3. Denise Riley

Biography of Denise Riley at the European Graduate School:

The poem we looked at was 'A misremembered lyric' page 399

Here is Riley reading the poem:

This poem includes lyrics from three songs (perhaps more):

Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart:

Do Shrimps Make Good Mothers:

Rhythm of the Rain:


1. Do you feel that the poem has a point to argue?
2. 'Bossy' - what do you think of the poem's use of this adjective?
3. 'Oh and never notice yourself ever' - are you familiar with the tone of this statement from your own experience?
4. Is it fair to say that the poem is enacting a thought process?
5. What to make of the 'pool with an eye in it'?



4. Lee Harwood

Biography of Lee Harwood on the Poetry International website:

We looked at the poem 'Cable Street' - the first two pages (up to "tender filled with love") pages 141-143 which was first published in Harwood's collection The White Room in 1968.

Cable Street runs between the edge of London's financial district the City of London, and Limehouse.

The Battle of Cable Street took place on Sunday 4 October 1936 in Cable Street in the East End of London. It was a clash between the Metropolitan Police, overseeing a march by members of the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, and various anti-fascist demonstrators, including local Jewish, socialist, anarchist, Irish and communist groups. The majority of both marchers and counter-protesters travelled into the area for this purpose.

1. Is this poetry?
(Have you come across Haibun? - Japanese form that combines prose and haiku. A haibun may be as brief as a single terse paragraph followed by a single haiku or an extended work involving an alternation of prose and verse. The range of haibun is broad and frequently includes autobiography, diary, essay, prose poem, short story and travel journal.)
2. Is this a love poem? A political poem?
3. Do you like the speaker of the poem? Would you like to live on Cable Street?



5. W. S. Graham

Sinclair asked some of the poets he'd selected to choose a poet from a previous generation and write an introduction to them and select some poems.  There are five of these older generation poets in the anthology including W. S. Graham, who was selected by Tony Lopez.

Biography of W. S. Graham on the Scottish Poetry Library website:

Harold Pinter on W. S. Graham:

The poem we looked at by W. S. Graham was 'Look at the Children' page 221, written for the UNESCO International Year of the Child in 1979, commissioned by The Observer newspaper.

1. Can you imagine the photographs Graham is referring to in the newspapers?
2. Is this poem still relevant 25 years on?
3. Is the final stanza a call to action or is it resigned?
4. The rhythm of this poem is a bit like a nursery rhyme (has a ballad feel to it). What does that add to the poem?
5. Do you think the organisers of the International Year of the Child were expecting a poem like this?


Conductors of Chaos is now out of print but we have copies for reference and loan at the Poetry Library.


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