Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

British Poetry Revival

The British Poetry Revival is the general name given to a loose poetic movement in Britain that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. The Revival was a modernist-inspired reaction to the Movement's more conservative approach to British poetry.


If the Movement poets looked to Thomas Hardy as a poetic model, the poets associated with the British Poetry Revival were more likely to look to modernist models, including the British poets David Jones, Basil Bunting and Hugh MacDiarmid. Although these poets had effectively been written out of official histories of 20th century British poetry, by the beginning of the 1960s a number of younger poets were starting to explore poetic possibilities that the older writers had opened up.

These poets included Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bob Cobbing, Jeff Nuttall, Tom Raworth, Michael Horovitz, Eric Mottram, Peter Finch , Edwin Morgan, Jim Burns, Lee Harwood and Christopher Logue. Many of these poets joined Allen Ginsberg and an audience of 7,000 people at the Albert Hall Poetry Incarnation on June 11, 1965 to create what was, effectively, the first British happening.

These poets provided a wide range of modes and models of how modernism could be integrated into British poetry. Fisher, also a professional jazz pianist, applied the lessons of William Carlos Williams' Paterson to his native Birmingham in his long poem City. Turnbull, who spent some time in the U. S., was also influenced by Williams. His fellow Scots Morgan and Finlay both worked with found, sound and visual poetry. Mottram, Nuttall, Horovitz and Burns were all close to the Beat generation writers. Mottram and Raworth were also influenced by the Black Mountain poets while Raworth and Harwood shared an interest in the poets of the New York school.

A number of publishing outlets for this new experimental poetry also began to spring up, including Turnbull's Migrant Press, Raworth's Matrix Press and Goliard Press, Horovitz's New Departures, Tim Longville's Grosseteste Review, Fulcrum Press, Shearsman, Galloping Dog Press and its Poetry Information magazine, Pig Press, Andrew Crozier and Peter Riley's The English Intelligencer, Crozier's Ferry Press, and Cobbing's Writers Forum. In addition to the poets of the revival, many of these presses and magazines also published avant-garde American and European poetry. The first anthology to present a wide-ranging selection of the new movement was Horovitz's Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (1969).


Thanks in no small part to Writers Forum and its associated writers' workshop, London was a hub for many young poets, including Bill Griffiths, Allen Fisher, Iain Sinclair, Gilbert Adair, Ulli Freer, Elaine Randell, Maggie O'Sullivan and Denise Riley.

Griffiths writes a poetry of dazzling surface and deep political commitment that incorporates such matter as his professional knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and his years as a Hell's Angel. Both Sinclair and Fisher share a taste for William Blake and an interest in exploring the meaning of place, particularly London, which can be seen in Sinclair's Suicide Bridge and Lud Heat and Fisher's Place sequence of books. O'Sullivan explores a view of the poet as shaman in her work, while Randell and Riley were among the first British women poets to marry feminist concerns with experimental poetic practice.

Griffiths started Pirate Press to publish work by himself and others. Allen Fisher set up Spanner for similar reasons, and Sinclair's early books were published by his own Albion Village Press. Many of these writers participated enthusiastically in performance poetry events, both individually or in groups like Cobbing's Bird Yak and Konkrete Canticle. Eric Mottram was a central figure on the London scene, both for his personal and professional knowledge of the Beat generation writers and his abilities as a promoter and poet.


By the early 1950s, Basil Bunting had returned to live in Newcastle and, in 1966, Fulcrum Press published Briggflatts, which is widely considered to be his masterpiece. A number of younger poets began to gather around Bunting. In 1965, Connie and Tom Pickard started a reading series and bookshop in Morden Tower. The first reading was by Bunting, and Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso all read there. They were soon joined by Richard Caddel, brought up in Kent but an honorary Northumbrian, Barry MacSweeney and Colin Simms.

Through Bunting, these younger writers became familiar with the work of the Objectivist poets. Specifically, Louis Zukofsky and Lorine Niedecker were to become important models for Caddel and Simms in their writing about the Northumbrian environment. Pickard and MacSweeney shared Bunting's interest in reviving Northumbrian vowel patterns and verbal music in poetry and all of these poets were influenced by the older poet's insistence on poetry as sounded speech rather than purely written text.

At Easter, 1967 the MacSweeney organised the Sparty Lea Poetry Festival. This was a ten-day session of reading, writing and discussion (and no little drinking). The participants, including the Pickards, MacSweeney, Andrew Crozier, John James, John Temple, Pete Armstrong, Tim Longville, Peter Riley, John Hall, J. H. Prynne and Nick Waite, stayed in a group of four cottages in the village of Sparty Lea. This was to be a pivotal event in the British Poetry Revival, bringing together poets who were separated geographically and in terms of poetic influences and encouraging them to support and publish each other's work.


MacSweeney felt close to the Cambridge poets. These were a group centred around J. H. Prynne and included Andrew Crozier, John James, Douglas Oliver, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Peter Riley, Tim Longville and John Riley. Prynne was influenced by Charles Olson and Crozier was partly responsible for Carl Rakosi's return to poetry in the 1960s. The New York school were also an important influence for many of the Cambridge poets. The Grosseteste Review, which published these poets, was originally thought of as a kind of magazine of British Objectivism.

The Cambridge poets in general wrote in a cooler, more measured style than many of their London or Northumbrian peers and many of them taught at Cambridge University.


Peter Finch ran Oriel Books in Cardiff and the shop served as a focal point for young Welsh poets. However, many of the more experimental poets in Wales were not of Welsh origins. Two of the most important expatriate poets operating in Wales were John Freeman and Chris Torrance. Freeman is another British poet influenced by the Objectivists, and he has written on both George Oppen and Niedecker. Torrance has expressed his debt to David Jones. His ongoing Magic Door sequence is widely regarded as one of the major long poems to come out of the Revival.

Although published by Writers Forum and Pirate Press, Geraldine Monk is very much a poet of the North of England. Like Maggie O'Sullivan, she writes for performance as much as for the page and there is an undercurrent of feminist concerns in her work.

A Treacherous Assault on British Poetry

In 1971, a large number of the poets associated with the British Poetry Revival joined the Poetry Society and elected a council to represent them. The society had been traditionally hostile to modernist poetry, but under the new council this position was reversed. Eric Mottram was made editor of the society's magazine Poetry Review. Over the next six years, he edited twenty issues that featured most, if not all, of the key Revival poets and carried reviews of books and magazines from the wide range of small presses that had sprung up to publish them.

Nuttall and MacSweeney both served as chairperson of the society during this period and Bob Cobbing used the photocopying facilities in the basement of the society's building to produce Writers Forum books. Around this time, Cobbing and others established the Association of Little Presses (ALP) to promote and support small press publishers and organise book fares at which they could sell their productions.

In the late 1970s, in response to the number of foreign poets being featured in Poetry Review, the Poetry Society dissolved the editorial board of the magazine, describing their activities as "a treacherous assault on British poetry".

The 1980s and After

A number of younger poets, many of whom who first found an outlet in Poetry Review under Mottram, began to emerge around the end of the 1970s. In London, Robert Shepherd, Wendy Mulford and Ken Edwards were among those who were to the fore. These, and others, met regularly at Gilbert Adair's Subvoicive reading series. Edwards ran Reality Studios, a magazine that helped introduce the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets to a British readership and ran Reality Street editions with Mulford. In the Midlands, Tony Baker's Figs magazine focused more on the Objectivist and Bunting inspired poetry of the Northumbrian school while introducing a number of new poets.

In 1988 an anthology called The New British Poetry was published. It featured a section on the Revival poets edited by Mottram and another on the younger poets edited by Edwards. In 1994, Crozier and Longville published their anthology A Various Art, which focused mainly on the Cambridge poets, and Iain Sinclair edited yet another anthology of Revival-related work Conductors of Chaos (1996).

This last featured another aspect of the Revival; the recovery of neglected British modernists of the generation after Bunting. Poets like David Gascoyne, W. S. Graham and Nicholas Moore have been reappraised and returned to their rightful place in the history of 20th century British poetry. Another interesting development was the establishment of the British and Irish poetry discussion list by Richard Caddel. This continues to provide a forum for discussion and the exchange of news on experimental British poetry. Caddel, together with Peter Quartermain edited the most recent anthology to cover the field. Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 1999.

External links