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Reproducing the Line: 1970s Innovative Poetry and Socialist-Feminism in the U.K.
  • Samuel Solomon, Occidental College

This dissertation considers the experimental group of ""Cambridge poets"" in the 1970s and explains how and why their somewhat obscure body of work was a battleground for cultural politics. I focus on the writing of women who bridged Cambridge poetry and socialist-feminist politics even as they worked at the margins of both communities. I argue that this poetry took shape at a unique conjuncture – the history of literary study at Cambridge, the varied British reception of Marxist thought and political action, the rise of Conservatism, and the increasing influence of feminism – that made radical poetics a hotly contested site for the production and reproduction of social relations, both in the 1970s and beyond. I follow the poetry's circulations between the colleges of Cambridge University, poetic communities of practice, and revolutionary socialist-feminist organizations. The poems and critical writings of Veronica Forrest-Thomson, John James, Wendy Mulford, J.H. Prynne, and, in particular, Denise Riley, form the backbone of this study; I read their work through the above-mentioned nexus of formal, historical, political, and economic contexts and trajectories. ❧ The dissertation considers the transformative possibilities of fields that produce and reproduce ruling-class ideology, namely, literary education and poetry. It is my task to explain how the writers in question navigated their contradictory commitments and to outline the formal effects of such contradictions on their poetic output. I also consider how the exigencies of socialist-feminist organizing were directly related to their work: such social practices are not merely a ""content"" that fills autonomous literary forms; they are part of the formal fabric of the work and of its circulation. I argue that a narrowly construed literary history cannot explain these texts; it is my aim, instead, to produce a materialist account of feminist social movements and dialectically to bring such an account to bear on the formal analysis of poetry. ❧ My introduction provides a historical and theoretical sketch of the connections between Marxist and feminist analyses of ""reproduction"" and cultural education. ❧ Chapter 1 explores the history of poetry at Cambridge, tracing the movements from I.A. Richards and William Empson to Veronica Forrest-Thomson and J.H. Prynne to underscore how studying and writing poetry were seen as moral preparation for the creation or restoration of a better society. From here, I turn in Chapters 2 and 3 to the writings of Riley and Mulford, who were trained in this tradition and who also actively engaged in socialist-feminist theory and practice. I track the continuities and differences between the Cambridge-based, pedagogical-moral understanding of lyric's social worth and socialist and feminist political ambitions for poetry. Chapter 4 returns to the poetry and prose of Riley from late 1980s through the early 2000s. Finally, my epilogue outlines the situation of contemporary British poets who have been influenced by the subjects of the preceding chapters and who are currently involved in anti-austerity movements to defend social services and state-funded education.

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Citation Information
Samuel Solomon. "Reproducing the Line: 1970s Innovative Poetry and Socialist-Feminism in the U.K." (2012)
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