Ulysses, The Less Deceived, A-22/23, The New British Poetry, A Various Art
fulfil an astonishing variety of functions, some of them marginal, others as crucial as Sylvia Beach's publication of James Joyce's Ulysses, the Gaberbocchus Press's editions of Alfred Jarry's work, or the Marvell Press's publication of Philip Larkin's The Less Deceived. The present significance of small presses as outlets for work of value neglected by established publishing houses began as a phenomenon of the 1960s; numerous small presses emerged at this time with a specific agenda, fostered in part by a strong reaction against certain insular and regressive tendencies imputed to the pervasive influence of the Movement poets of the 1950s. Some notable British and American Modernist (see Modernism) poets remained unpublished, a situation which Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum Press remedied by issuing work by David Jones, Basil Bunting, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, and others. Asa Benveniste founded Trigram Press and produced an edition of Louis Zukofsky's A-22/23. Tom Raworth, Barry Hall, and Nathaniel Tarn, editors of Goliard Press (later Cape Goliard), published the work of Charles Olson, John Wieners, Robert Kelly, and Allen Ginsberg. Equally important was the publishing of British extensions and revisions of this already varied modern American tradition: as well as issuing the work of Robert Creeley, Gael Turnbull's Migrant Press produced books by Ian Hamilton Finlay and Roy Fisher, while Goliard and Trigram published Raworth and Fulcrum published Lee Harwood, Tom Pickard, and Spike Hawkins.
The death of Charles Olson in 1970 seems a symbolic end to this initial period of energetic activity by the small presses; while American concerns like Black Sparrow and New Directions continue to publish many of the poets named above, more experimental American work has latterly received diminished attention in Britain from both established publishing houses and small presses. Two recent anthologies offer a comprehensive summary of what has been taking place in British small press publishing since the early 1970s. The New British Poetry (1988), edited by Gillian Allnutt, Fred D'Aguiar, Ken Edwards, and Eric Mottram, has a wide range, including both feminist and black British poetries, together with a catholic selection of work from younger writers. A narrower view is offered by A Various Art (1987); edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville, the anthology stems in the main from their publishing activities with the Ferry and Grosseteste Presses, which issued work by Peter Riley, John Riley, Douglas Oliver, Anthony Barnett, and J. H. Prynne. Crozier, Fisher, Peter Riley, John James, Iain Sinclair, and Ralph Hawkins are represented in both these anthologies. The contributors to A Various Art insist on opacity in poetry because they are intent on examining the opacity of language itself. In this, their work has similarities to the Language Poetry now well established in America and shares with that movement an acknowledgement of the inevitably political nature of most forms of communication. The New British Poetry reminds us of possibilities which remain marginalized, for example Bob Cobbing's and Bill Griffiths's energetic experimentation in sound-poetry and other modes. If anything unites these two anthologies, it is the sense of disaffiliation from any orthodox definition of literary culture which is central to the motivations of the small presses. Both collections constitute interesting responses to a fundamental difficulty facing contemporary poetry: in the 1960s there was a perceptible continuity of effort which was sharpened and enriched by the tension between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ work; Thom Gunn's respect for William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan or Donald Davie's keen interest in Pound and the Black Mountain poets bear witness to the productive element in the midst of disagreement.
No such productive dialogue existed in the 1980s, while poets continued to feel the need to broaden their horizons still further. More generally, as boundaries of gender and race begin to erode, the range of competing voices has begun to extend beyond hope of confinement, a situation for which the small presses are uniquely well suited; desk-top publishing of the 1990s stands ready to take over the role of the mimeograph machines of the 1960s, its rapid and inexpensive dissemination of material providing the small presses with a technology adequate to the challenges of our rapidly evolving times.