INFORMATIONISM AT TWENTY-ONE: RICHARD PRICE and ALAN RIACH INTRODUCE A RETROSPECTIVE ON ‘Contraflow on the SuperHighway’
This is Part One of a special retrospective on the Informationists, an experimental poetry group including Robert Crawford, W.N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey, Alan Riach and Richard Price. Part One contains introductions and retrospectives from Richard Price and Alan Riach. Also included is a new introductory preface by Dorothy Lehane, written especially for the planned Italian translation of the group anthology ‘Contraflow on the SuperHighway’ (see the Diafora website here). Five poems from the anthology are also included in Part One.
Informationism at Twenty-One
It is twenty-one years since Contraflow on the SuperHighway was published by Raymond Friel’s Southfields Press, co-badged with Gairfish, the little magazine. That anthology collected poems from the Informationists, a small group of lyric poets who integrated experimental techniques and at times somewhat unconventional subject matter into their poetry. In fact their work has a rich hybridity which means they are at time comic poets, at times political; on other occasions they are love poets and praise poets, re-imagining the lyric moment with a luscious and witty sense of the modern which, it has been said, recalls Norman MacCaig (or even John Donne).
The poets were Robert Crawford, W.N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey, Alan Riach and myself.
Although the anthology was in a sense an announcement of the group, it emerged from an environment of shared ideas which had been developing for many years and continued to do so. Although not all were or are academics, the poets on occasion write critical and theoretical work, revealing different figures and conceptual blocks that continue to inspire Informationism, from Joubert’s Pensées, through John Galt, to MacDiarmid, Margaret Tait, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Barthes, Derrida, and Edwin Morgan. They had been active in a series of literary and cultural magazines and presses where ideas were exchanged, rejected, developed. These included the magazines Verse, Gairfish, and Southfields, and Vennel Press. And before and after the anthology, the poets brought about mini-interventions, such as readings, installations, artwork, and exhibitions on Informationist lines.
That said, there was never such collective Informationist concentration as that afforded by the Contraflow anthology. It was our equivalent of a group show. The ‘moment’ of Contraflow asserted the Informationists as poets bounded by ideas, aesthetics and solidarity. Individuals, certainly, but willing to give away some of that individuality for the collaborative gain. This is in itself highly unusual in poetry – anthologies may be ‘generational’ (large anthologies these, which spread risk but blunt edges), they can be from a local writers’ group, or they can be thematic (anthologies about birds, about places), but they are seldom created by a self-identifying school or group in the way Contraflow announced the Informationists.
The widespread distaste for an assertive anthology of that kind stems in part from a sleight of hand which occurred decades ago, quite a few decades in fact before the Informationist anthology. This now commonly-held antipathy to what would pejoratively be termed a ‘clique’ was significantly conditioned by a now ancient intervention which was, ironically enough, a willed creation of a group-hating group. This was Robert Conquest’s gathering of Movement poets in his New Lines anthology of 1956.
That a hierarchical individualism emerged from that anthology, with its political and aesthetic consequences still with us, may only go to show one truth: the only collective behaviour that an Establishment will not seek to undermine is its own.
And as with so much of the work of the ‘entitled’ it is relatively quickly internalised by most of those who do not have such privilege, so that the idea of groups, schools, and even any other movement but the Movement, are seen throughout poetry culture even now as too artificial, too programmatic (too Left-wing), too theoretical, too ‘elite’, too clique-ish, or too ‘intellectual’, to be given a hearing. There were no reviews of Contraflow on the SuperHighway.
No magazine, small or large — at least that I ever came across – covered it, I guess for the reasons I’ve just stated. That was the end of the story. Until Informationism did something stranger: it started to pop up as a cultural reference in reviews of other books.
For example, the Dream State anthology of new Scottish poets edited by the poet Daniel O’Rourke, was attacked by one reviewer for encouraging a kind of poetry coup in Scotland as far as the Informationists were concerned. Then Informationism was referenced in David Morley’s review of an Iain Bamforth book in the Guardian. Funnily enough, Iain never was in the anthology, but as the Informationists didn’t believe in Official, he was and is associated with them; he toured with three of the Informationists recently in their Last Men on Mercury European tour (though they would probably bridle at the thought, all those who appeared on the tour – Dorothy Lehane, Peter Manson, Hannah Lowe, Lucy Burnett – can be Informationists as far as we are concerned!).
The referencing continued: Norman Jope compared the group to new Polish poets in a review of a Polish anthology in the magazine Stride. Brief online comments by the maverick English critic Andrew Duncan and the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Ron Silliman suggested that this poetry did at least actually exist and from Duncan’s point of view theirs was a poetry that contemporary readers needed to take account of. Jeremy Noel-Tod’s review of one of my books in Poetry Review, ten years after the anthology, noted how Informationism had developed since the days of Contraflow, and Informationism even registered in Noel-Tod’s Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry as one of the few avant-garde movements there has been in recent times in the UK (at one point the slightly proud train-spotter in me compiled a list of such occurrences which can be found here).
It seems to me that this bubbling, almost rhizomic behaviour of Informationism, far from being a muted defeat of Contraflow is a compliment to it. In my original introduction I suggested that while the anthology was on the one hand a grouping of poets who had been involved with each other’s work in shared enterprise, on the other hand the approach was to a certain extent Zeitgeist-ish and could be detected in some aspects of much more and much less famous contemporary poets, too. Like mercury, it existed in its own materiality, but slipped in and out and through other materials as well.
This year Ermanno Moretti, from the Italian group Dia-foria, contacted us and has started to translate Contraflow for an Italian edition, with a new essay by the poet and critic Dorothy Lehane. Lehane has kindly agreed to share that essay in English here: here she introduces and re-contextualises Contraflow, suggesting some key themes shared by the group and offering a new way of understanding their work, with reference points within Scotland, certainly, but much further afield, and transnationally, too. One of the original Informationists Alan Riach contributes to the retrospective, reflecting on tonal and contextual as well as transactional aspects to information. We republish some of the original poems from the anthology to give readers a glimpse of the poems, as the anthology is long out of print.
In later episodes of this Informationist retrospective, I’ll select poems from across the group which raise particular questions about poetry, perception and society. And then, since this 21-year old must surely go out into the world on its own, we Informationists will close the front-door gently behind once Informationism has said Goodbye and stepped out, hoping it will thrive independently now, as all good people and countries must.
So, Informationist Poems
All the arts give us the most essential information about what it is to be human. Paintings and poems, sculptures and symphonies, stories and songs, string quartets and nursery rhymes, are all fundamental to what humanity is. They are as vital to our well-being as medicine and we undervalue them at our peril.
Perhaps the most familiar use of the word to our generation, growing up watching Patrick McGoohan as the Prisoner, is in the opening dialogue:
Number Six: What do you want?
Number Two: Information.
Number Six: Whose side are you on?
Number Two: That would be telling. We want information… information… in-formation.
Number Six: You won’t get it.
Number Two: By hook or by crook, we will.
But who’s who, here? The individual asserts his right to withhold his information from the establishment, the authorities, the powers that be. But the establishment authorities are keeping vital information to themselves, which the prisoner needs to get, to be free. The need works in more than one direction. Reason it not, because reason won’t give you the answers.
In the approach to the referendum on Scotland’s independence it became very evident – and was conclusively demonstrated in published scholarly research by Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland – that the BBC and almost every other form of mainstream media was supporting a No vote, the status quo, the United Kingdom. Only one national newspaper supported independence, and that was the weekly Sunday Herald – no daily newspaper supported independence. The information, the data, the facts that were reported could, generally, be proven as facts, when they were facts, but the modes and tones and forms of presentation were increasingly obviously organised to deliver an interpretation of them. That interpretation came through in the ways in which they were represented.
These liabilities and the choices they arise from are familiar to anyone seriously working in the arts. Ambiguities of meaning, purpose and interpretation are our materials and methods. Sometimes this is obvious in some forms of architecture: the state constructions of fascist Germany or Italy are almost identical with that of corporate America. Big and regular, chilly as marble, uniform, ungiving. In London as elsewhere, banks look like temples. Cultural houses – the Lincoln Centre in New York, the National Galleries in Edinburgh – are assertions of power. Yet the information we can get from what is held within the museums and galleries is often subversive, critical, or openly hostile to the brutalities of the power that screens (and protects) them.
The information is needed, because without it you have nothing to choose between. A democracy requires that people are educated so we know what we’re choosing. Democracy educates. Education democratises. But it depends what you mean by ‘democracy’. And it depends what you mean by ‘education’. And it depends what you mean by ‘mean’.
How you ask questions predicates certain answers.
What the questions are predicates others.
A poem’s form is telling you something as vital as what the words literally refer to.
So is its language.
So is its sound and its tone.
So is its imagery.
So far, so very obvious.
I remember when the first television was carried into my grandparents’ living room by two of my uncles. Four Feather Falls, Stingray, The Untouchables, Wagon Train, Rawhide, The Fugitive, Burke’s Law. From the village to The Matrix, it’s the Blade Runner ethos (I mean that of William Burroughs, as much as Ridley Scott. Any relation to Walter? Discuss.)
We began publishing poems in the 1970s and 1980s, and carried on, before, during and after the internet and email became commonplace. And now, instant communication across continents, data just a click or two away. (Peter McCarey’s little poem that gave its title to his little book, Double-click, said it first, I think: ‘Double-click on this / And nothing happens.’)
But what does happen, but? (Leave that but hanging there, Glasgow style.)
What happens to tone in emails? (Ed Dorn: ‘Email is MEail.’)
What happens when your work colleague six yards away is sending you messages via the machines, not talking? What happens to touch? What happens to how we get the data from the poems, the paintings, the works of art? Walter Benjamin gave us the prophecy in 1936, the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction is an object democratised, easily available – that’s good. It also loses the value of its singular authority – that’s bad. A hundred years on, or so, so much more good is possible. So much more bad is the practice. Death is so much better for business than life.
We’re out for life, said John MacLean, in Edwin Morgan’s poem – and all that life can give us. What do we want? Information. What do we want to give? Information. That’s the difference. That’s why we teach. The arts are there to give us things. Advertising is made to take things from us. Poems can’t be adverts because they make so very little money. And pleasure can serve any political purpose.
And that’s why the stakes are so high.