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What is Mainstream?

01/05/2007

I’ve been musing a little about the usefulness or otherwise of the term “mainstream” in relation to Scottish poetry. I think it’s fair to say that, in UK terms, Hugh MacDiarmid would not be regarded as mainstream. His non-mainstream status is emphasised by the fact that he turns up in the marvellous PENNsound archive, which focuses on the more experimental/avant-garde end of American poetry, and the fact that Eliot Weinberger considers his work in an admiring essay in Karmic Traces. And yet MacDiarmid is a hugely significant figure in 20th century Scottish poetry by anyone’s standards. This surely makes him mainstream in a Scottish context, which perhaps emphasises his contention that Scottish literature is a separate tradition to the so-called English literature canon and market.

An analogous situation obtains with Gael Turnbull. Gael’s role in injecting postwar modernist American poetry and poetics into the British scene was highly significant. He was an unceasing experimenter and his work sits comfortably with Shearsman Books, who published his Jacket tribute also fitted easily into the much more mainstream arena of Shore Poets, of which he was a valued (and is a much missed) member. Is Gael’s work mainstream or experimental? Why should I (or anyone else) care? It’s full of inventiveness, wit, insight, beauty, energy, playfulness and seriousness. It’s simply worth reading.

Does this mean that, in Scotland, we have less of a distinction between the mainstream/accessible and the experimental/difficult? I’d like to think so, but I’m not convinced. After all, the poetry scene in which I’m involved is pretty much the main stream. But then, where do writers such as Frank Kuppner, David Kinloch or Price sit in relation to this supposed dichotomy? They have all appeared and/or are appearing on the bill at Shore Poets and other mainstream poetry readings, but they certainly don’t row down the main current of the main stream, as indicated by the fact that Kinloch and Price both appear in the Archive of the Now.

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