Approaching the Informationists
(from Richard Price and W. N. Herbert (eds.), Contraflow on the Super Highway, 1994)
Defining the Informationists is difficult - "approaching" them in an informal way, putting them in a thumbnail historical context and admitting as much, is probably a better idea and most of this introduction will try to do that. A few framing ideas first, though. The Informationists are here, to gralloch Eliot's dictum, "to verify, to instruct others and themselves, to inform curiosity and to carry report." They are, firstly, bearers of news: the information they make available in their poetry includes rather than necessarily opposes media news because part of their raison d'etre is to digest and transmit as many different types of data as they can. Little-known information, social history and all kinds of "underprivileged" facts, possibilities and ideas are recontextualised in their poetry; hierarchies are exposed. Secondly, in presenting information these poets also scrutinise that very process, sometimes they parody, often they extend it: they meddle with "enlightenment" itself. This typically involves substitution of fantastic but also unfamiliar elements into patterns of accepted knowledge, so that Einstein's birthplace is "discovered" to be Scotland and the consequences gleefully pursued, a mathematics teacher proudly declares her family tree has been traced back to a fossilised fish, and the Cinderella of Germanic languages, Scots, becomes a metaphor for the identity homosexuals are supposed not to declare. As these examples suggest, the concerns of the Informationists range from the apparently frivolous to the fundamental problems of existence; from antics to the ontic. Indeed, the word "Informationism" is such a preposterous - yet serviceable! - phrase, it seems to undermine itself in the short time the reader takes to get from "In" to "ism". Though the garment is robust, the label is not only not washable, it's soluble.
That's why, short of actually reading the poets, a more "historical" way of looking at the poets might be helpful. One way of approaching the Informationists, for example, is through the little presses which have published them. The Scottish cultural review Gairfish and its sister small press Vennel have been the most consistent publishers of Informationist poetry: that I have to declare my involvement in them (and in some ways, at least, am only too happy to do so!) suggests immediately that Informationism has operated in the past in a fairly restricted even cliquish way. That's true, and that is one of the reasons why it can be regarded as a kind of movement, though I will have more to say about the differences in the group a little later in this introduction.
Gairfish was set up by myself and W. N. Herbert in 1989, and was intended as a lively meeting place of views, styles, and biases for the discussion and showcasing of ideas and literature - Scottish in the main, but by no means exclusively so. It was hoped that through such "conversation" information and creative work could be shared. That Bill had considerable knowledge of Hugh MacDiarmid's work, and I of Neil Gunn's, seemed to promise a wide foundation for debate - and agreement - upon which to build. The broad cultural work of the Scottish Renaissance writers of the 1920s and 1930s, ie not just poems, novels and drama, but the debates and means of propagating these debates, was an inspiration. We were also excited by Edwin Morgan's work: by his embrace with modernity, by his formal achievements, and by the enormous psychological breathing space he has created for new poets. Our love-hate relationship with popular culture made Gairfish a magazine very interested in the social and aesthetic questions begged by different kinds of post-modernism.
As Gairfish developed I began to feel that certain poets I particularly enjoyed reading in the magazine were unlikely to get wider publication in their own right, at least not as quickly as they deserved. The poetry infrastructure in Scotland simply could not cope with the riches it had on its hands; a dull oblivious southern neighbour wouldn't have known what to do with them (and still doesn't). The typescript of Donny O'Rourke's book Second Cities had made American poet Leona Medlin and myself start up Vennel Press. We began to develop a modest catalogue of works with definite Scottish biases and soon several of the Informationists joined our catalogue.
Though some of the writers had been writing for a considerable time before, through Vennel and Gairfish a small group of poets emerged who shared specific characgteristics and seemed also to relate to each other in explicit ways. They were so clearly a connected group of poets writing in a way that seemed to open up areas of ideas tackled little in the poetry of our time. While I was worried about talking about a "School", it seemed to me that these "Informationists" did indeed add up to a distinct kind of poetry, a distinct movement in Scottish letters. I put down my first thoughts in 1991 in Michael Gardiner's Interference, a student mag at Wadham College in Oxford, and since then have been waiting for the opportunity to say things better and at a little more length.
The Informationists are: Robert Crawford, W. N. Herbert, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey, and Alan Riach. I also include myself, now, but as a figure rather on the margins of Informationism, as a poet between their "generation" and the one that is still developing (the Informationists were born in the late fifties and early sixties; I was born in 1966). It need hardly be said that reservations about the name and the taxonomy of that name are likely to be expressed by all the Informationist poets. To that I would say that a short reading of the group presented here will be enough for any reader to see the respective idiosyncracies of each poet's voice: they stand out a mile. "Informationism" as a term is intended to introduce therese poets as having much but not everything in common; it is not meant to traduce their individuality. There is also a strong case to be made that the different rhetorical strategies being employed by this group are part of the Scottish Zeitgeist and that writers as various as Iain Bamforth, Michael Gardiner, Brent Hodgson, Kathleen Jamie, Alison Kermack, Rob Mackenzie, Hugh MacMillan, Drew Milne, and Don Paterson are part of this. It seems to me, though, that the respective approaches of these writers are more diffuse than those gathered in this Primer, and that they might not take kindly to the Informationist descriptor.
What do the poems of Crawford, Herbert, Kinloch, McCarey, Riach and Price have to link them? As their Scottish roots might suggest, the relationship between an individual and the nation-state is a recurring theme in their work, even when that relationship can entail their hooking on to aspects of Scottishness and re-directing them in essentially non-nationalistic ways: that interest in social constructs makes them particularly able scrutineers of other popular culture phenomena (and of other countries' delusions). This is not to say that the poets are "not nationalists": rather, their poetry explores what it means to "belong" to a country. While Herbert is the least politically engaged of all the Informationists, his poetry is fascinated by Scottish kitsch and its mobilisations. The Walkman-Whitman hymns to and for Scotland sung by Robert Crawford have a pluralism I suspect is still a radical idea either side the border. Riach and McCarey, more sensitive to hegemonic structures and international politics, are searching analysts of globalisation and are the least politically naive of the group. McCarey's poems in particular offer a critique of multinational involvement in subservient countries which we cannot afford to ignore. David Kinloch and myself experience and express politics largely through questions of personal identity.
As, before Edwin Morgan's emergence, poetry in Scotland had been dominated by only one man this century, Hugh MacDiarmid, inevitably each Informationist has taken some stance with regard to him. Three of the Informationists have each written a doctoral thesis on the work of this poet of the 1920s and 30s - Herbert, McCarey, and Riach. Robert Crawford has also written at some length on MacDiarmid, and I have written about MacDiarmid's relationship with Neil Gunn. Only David Kinloch, whose field is French literature and culture, can claim to be more aloof. By happenstance, though, Kinloch's grandfather, William Jeffrey, was a contemporary and friend of MacDiarmid. Jeffrey received some back-handed praise from the "Great Poet" on the quality of his Scots poetry. That this was at a time when Jeffrey hardly needed telling - he was on his death-bed - only confirms what we know of MacDiarmid.
The link with MacDiarmid is a complicated one. While Herbert, McCarey and Riach have each added considerably to our understanding of the poet's work in their respective critical studies, and Herbert and Riach have consolidated Edwin Morgan's suggestion that the later long and long-winded poetry be given a second chance, a view with which Crawford has concurred, McCarey has been less willing t defend what is so nauseating in the man's work. The latter view, which, significantly, Liz Lochhead and Kathleen Jamie have also expressed, is closer to mine: it is another element which markes my distance from Informationist orthodoxy. Nevertheless, all the Informationists can be said to have learned and not uncritically from MacDiarmid's poetry. In particular a digestions of the apparently indigestible pseudo-technical English poetry, and the well-learnt lesson of making the poem a carrier of abstruse but (the poet hopes) fascinating news, characterises a substantial number of Informationist poems: it is a tribute to their abilities and their open-ness to other influences that the result is seldom a bite-size MacD.
If all this is sounding very academic, in a way it is. Each of the Informationists has successfully completed a doctoral thesis. All the Informationists bar myself studied at an Oxbridge college, too. Herbert, Crawford, and Kinloch were actually at Oxford at the same time (as postgraduates) and were published in an Oxford anthology during that period. This was entitled with typical humour, Password: SCOP, and it shows, incidentally, howe early on each poet's style was established.
Three of the poets remain in academe - Crawford at St Andrews, Kinloch at Strathclyde, and Riach at Waikato in New Zealand. Herbert is a free-lance writer and teacher with his base still in Oxford, McCarey is a translator in Switzerland, and I am a curator at the British Library. The permutations of Exile and Establishment are interesting, some, not least my own, are apparently self-contradictory, and they point to further marked differences in the group. Crawford has had two volumes of poetry published by a mainstream English poetry publisher, Chatto, and can be said to be much more part of the established British poetry infrastructure than any of the other poets (somewhat arbitrarily, he is the only poety within the group to have a full entry in the Oxford Companion to Twentieth century Poetry in English). W. N. Herbert, despite his apparent unconventionality, is also published by a mainstream publisher, Bloodaxe (see under "Lallans" in the Companion!). Riach is published by Auckland University Press (distributed by OUP). Despite comparable bodies of work, the others have appeared only in magazines, anthologies, and in limited edition small press publications (have they "seized the means of production", or what means they could?); all, however, appear in Daniel O'Rourke's Dream State: the New scottish Poets (Polygon, 1994).
There is some importance in the fact that each poet has spent a considerable time outside Scotland, and has been able therefore to mythologise and criticise it. A principle of multiculturalism is strong in all the poets' work; McCarey, Riach and Kinloch are truly in the tradition of learned Scottish travellers, and of their contemporaries only Kathleen Jamie can be said to have been more of a dustie-fute. It is true also that most of the poets know each other, either as fellow co-editors, collaborators, or through interested correspondence. The critical work as well as the poetry which has appeared in Gairfish is alive to the issues of Informationism and each has contributed broadly theoretical work. It seems to me that their poems often have another Informationist friend in the rear mirror, even if it is only to parody, argue with, or develop Informationist ideas.
As I have suggested, and as the name implies, the most obvious characteristic of Informationism is a profound interest in the nature of information itself. The editors of Angel Exhaust have expressed it in this way: "Their 'informationist' tag indicates their overt interest in the movement of information in society and particularly the information that is prevented from moving. They are creating a new sense of social history and self-critical explorations of nationa identity crucially through their fascinating linguistic position."
That "fascinating linguistic position" appears to refer to Scotland's three languages: Gaelic, Scots, and Scottish English. Though it is true that the existence of these languages does require young Scottish poets to work hard to come to terms with their cultural heritage (if only through translation), and though they surely benefit in the process, it may be as the inheritors of another kind of lingusitic faultline that the Informationists have so clearly emerged.
That fissure, and the earth on either side of it, is certainly found within the Scots language (though Informationist poetry is classically written in English, to varying degrees each of the Informationists has written in or used Scots). Having said that, I am still not quite sure if "Scots" is just one more paradigm in Scotland's rich kist of ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities with which so many of the new Scottish poets are acquainted or if it reaqlly has been the primary influence on the Informationists. Informationism is more attuned to multiple influences than to any particular one. A glance illustrates what fertile ground Scots is in its own right, but also how symbolic it is of Scotland's intricacies. Not only does it have marked urban, rural, and littoral variations in vocabulary and syntax, in poetry it ranges between a prosaic lexis with a corresponding formalism and an academic Scots which is both "highbrow" yet "streetwise" - a Scots which may draw from the forgotten past in the same breath as it creates words imagined from the distant future. Clearly the "Caledonian Antisyzygy" and various other Jeckyll/Hyde tropes worn-out in attempting to analyse Scottish culture are quite inadequate here. Though the substantial work in Scots by Robert Crawford and especially Bill Herbert shows them to be generally on the side of "academic Scots", each would claim that no such distinction need now be made: that in the postmodern world a super-saturated mix 'n' match approach to Scots, and therefore to the writing of poetry in general, is not only admissable it is inevitable. This is essentially a poet's view - the rhythms and vocabulary of Scots as it exists in novels (though it, too, is stylised, as can be found in the novels of Kelman, Torrington, and Robert Alan Jamieson) assume a closer link to the everyday and do, I think, proceed from a different assumption about accessibility and readership - but in any case Scots as such is not quite the point for the Informationists. Edwin Morgan, reviewing Dream State, the first widely available anthology of young Scottish poets' poetry (before Dream State, you always had to be over 40 to qualify as 'contemporary' in Scotland), has noted this crucial point: "[...] the new poets are at ease with that variety of linguistic approach which after all is in line with the nature of the country. Although the majority of the poems are in English, it is often an English which has many lexical, syntactic, and especially tonal departures from southern standard, if indeed any such standard can now honestly be said to hold sway, or hold water, or even hold out."
The extraordinary possibilities of Scots, muchmore those of Scotland itself, teach the Informationist user of English that English itself can be used to define nuances of experience 'standard' English poets and other poets in English have shied away from; the Informationists and other Scottish poets show that politically, socially and intellectually, the conventionally unthinkable can and must be imagined.
The opening of their poetry to English readers in this way might show that they have been tempted by the Irish example in striking out for the biggest market, ie by producing Anglo-American consumables trading on 'Scottishness' in the sham-rock way, but the Informationists are rather more prickly than, yet as tender as, the Irish bards. And so we have David Kinloch's inspired use of Scots as a metaphor for homosexual love, its stigmatisation, and its insights: "the day you called me rinker, a tall, thin, long-legged horse, a bloody harridan, I called you rintherout, a gadabout, a needy, homeless vagrant, like the tongue we spoke beneath the sheets." (from 'The Love That Dare Not', Dustie-fute, [p.13]). There is a good-nature in Alan Riach's poetry which is immediately attractive, and the fact that he is quite often involved in re-jigging found and borrowed poems and yet still manages to speak engagingly in a wovice with, as it were, Riach-like personality, is a tribute to his abilities; his family cameos, like the ones featured here, wear their American influences on their sleeves yet that openness opens on to rooms which are quite unAmerican! Different again, McCarey's acute analysis of political dilemmas is underwritten by intelligence and humanity: the cool tones of his poems are the concentrates of passion.
Because the Informationists so often use linguistic scrutiny as a means of making poetry it is not surprising that their work engages with the international vocabulary of multinational companies and transglobal information networks, the premium subject matter of postmodern poetry. The point is, however, that Scottish poetry, to paraphrase Iain Bamforth, has been in some ways a postmodernism-in-waiting, and that the reason for why the Informationists seem so edgily at home among the ambiguous mutations of 'global society' is bound up with their national identity. What's more, it is my sincere hope that the argumentative but also the transcendent in a good deal of Scottish writing in the last two hundred years may have equipped the Informationists, like other contemporary Scottish writers, to go beyond postmodernism. While the distinctly (though not necessarily) nihilistic elements of postmodern art might be turned around, enriched, and made affirmative by many a poet, it seems to me that Scottish ones already have a headstart. Informationism's cerebral and human concerns coincide in the work of fine lyric poets.
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