the literary magazine 1966 - 1975
"the most prominent and best established avant-garde poetry magazine of the period"
- Peter Barry, Poetry Wars, Salt, 2006
A Brief History
Through The Barricades: An Account by Martin Booth
Present Day Availability
Second Aeon Bibliography
A Brief History
Peter Finch's journal of contemporary poetry, graphics, fiction and reviews ran from late 1966 to early 1975. Issue 1 was 6 pages of foolscap (a kind of early A4) with a circulation of a hundred copies. Issue 21 ran to 268 in B-format with a circulation of 2,500. It was the British poetry magazine of the period featuring most UK writers and leavened with Americans and with Europeans in translation. The magazine had a strong leaning towards the innovative and regularly included concrete and experimental works in its pages. A great strength was The Small Press Scene, a vast and comprehensive round-up of activity among poetry and alternative publishers world-wide.
Begun at Finch's Maplewood Court flat in Llandaff North and later moving with him to Whitchurch, Cardiff the magazine was one of Wales great literary gifts to the world-wide poetry scene. For most of its run Finch edited and produced the magazine single-handedly. Financial help came from Welsh Arts Council grant aid and personal sponsorship from the poet and industrialist the late Cyril Hodges. For a few of its later issues the poet John Tripp helped compile magazine round-ups. The Post Office who disliked having their pillar boxes filled to overflowing with subscribers' copies offered to stick the stamps on.
From the magazine spun Second Aeon Publications, a series of small booklets, broadsheets and later decently sized bound volumes which eventually reached 100 in number. The series sold off the back of the magazine, often attracting their own discrete grant aid.
Production for the magazine was initially on a Gestetner duplicator moving (by issue #10) to offset-litho. Print was by Brown's of Bolton, shipped to Cardiff by articulated lorry and (once) left in stacked brown-paper packets in the drenching South Wales rain. The booklets were sometimes home assembled, collated, long-arm stapled, trimmed although just as often produced professionally by local jobbing printers. Setting was either home done on electric vari-typer or via a bureau.
Contributions, subscriptions, poetry, prose and books and magazines for review came from all over the world. Assembled in boxes ready to move from Llandaff North to Whitchurch the collected review copies more than filled a decent sized garage. The removal team charged extra to shift them.
When the magazine began Finch was working in local government; it ceased when he moved to a new post running the Welsh Arts Council's new bookshop and gallery, Oriel. Giving up the grant aid was one of the conditions of the post. The magazine went out while it was still very much on top.
The history of the period was one of internecine warfare between the traditional elements in British poetry and those who wished a more catholic, world-view to take hold. The make it new group were dubbed the experimentalists, their position viewed through the lens of the concrete poetry movement, their aspirations sidelined as a branch of the advertising trade. Looking back on it the reality was far less distinct. The visual and sound poets were as much at odds with the establishment as were those who preferred to work through American or European models. Poetry was moving out of the confining English trenches and into the larger world. Second Aeon, with its highly catholic view of literature, was there at just the right time.
No one in the UK at this time was interested in poetry as a whole art. Nor were there many opportunities to read outside the Penguin-Faber-OUP-Cape drawn lines. The small presses, still a vital part of literary adventure, were then of even greater significance. If you wanted concrete poetry, chance operations, non-referential, open field, post-beat, visual, found, collage, or any other new approach then little magazines were your only hope. America, despite Carlos Williams and despite Ezra Pound was still seen as hugely distant. Europe was a continent as far away as Asia. The celtic nations were beyond the pale. To get ahead you needed to be male, centralist and very English. Second Aeon wanted no part of that.
At one level the magazine provided a literary link between the poets of Wales and the rest of the world. Second Aeon was initially an outlet for local Cardiff writers (through Finch's involvement with No Walls, the local poetry workshop) and later for the whole of Wales (through Finch's work on reading tours, national literary events and the organisation Poet's Conference of which Finch was the National representative). On a larger scale Second Aeon represented the UK to the world and the world to the UK. Finch was a council member of the London Poetry Society and of The Association of Little Presses at this time. He worked to draw the strands of poetry into a common thread. Second Aeon was supported by many. It reached a circulation of 2500 copies, excellent by even today's standards. It had no central office and no staff. Copies lined most rooms in Finch's house. This was a literary phenomena. The UK national press totally ignored it.
How the South Wales Echo reported it all in 1968 is here.
At London's Poetry Library you can now read an online version of the great 19-21 final issue of second aeon with other issues to follow. Babylon Wales - Notes From The Margins Of Welsh Culture features the place where it all began - Maplewood Court
A comprehensive study by Malcolm Ballin (Cardiff University) Welsh Periodicals in English: Second Aeon and Poetry Wales (1965-1985) appears in Welsh Writing In English - A Yearbook of Critical Essays edited by Tony Brown (CREW - distributed by University of Wales Press), 2007. This essay which discusses at length the magazine's relationship with its funders and its relationship with Wales.The Second Aeon Archive 1967 - 1974 is part of The Fales Library & Special Collections held in New York (Fales Library and Special Collections Elmer Holmes Bobst Library 70 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012). The Library notes: "The Second Aeon Archive is comprised of all the correspondence and manuscript material that created Second Aeon's issues, such as: magazine layouts, page proofs, letters to the editor, illustration layouts, and original manuscripts. Noted correspondents include Paul Auster, Carol Berg, Robert Bly, Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, John Cage, Cyril Hodges, Alison Knowles, Jim Morrison, Jeff Nuttall, and Peter Redgrove. Also included in this collection are manuscripts used by Second Aeon's small press to publish various poetry books and anthologies. The Second Aeon Archive was acquired via purchase from Richard Aaron of Am Here Books, in 1974. The Second Aeon Archive is part of the Avant Garde Collection, collected at Fales Library during the 1960's and 70's by Mel Edelstein and Theodore Grieder." Online here
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Through The Barricades
A good description of the magazine appears in Martin Booth's British Poetry 1964-84 - Driving Through The Barricades (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985). An extract is reproduced here:
There was one magazine that did the lot, publishing Edwin Morgan's visual work and sound poetry beside Peter Porter's densely academic work, Wes Magee with Clayton Eshleman, Philip Ward with George MacBeth, Peter Redgrove, Frances (wife of Mike) Horovitz, and adding, in translation, Dutch, German, French, Eastern European and Scandinavian poetry. Pictures, visuals, abstract doodles, traditional poems, way-out rubbish and way-in rubbish, superb verse, experimental verse, prose poems, straight prose all appeared in it, in issues that could be 250 pages thick, in paperback book format, It was called Second Aeon.
The most important magazine of the period, Second Aeon was founded and edited by peter Finch and its publication, late 1966 to early 1974, coincides with the main poetic years of growth, excitement and state of well-being. Finch did what no one else either could or would. He saw the weaknesses of a system and exploited them to overcome them and try to give some balance and direction to what was a very loose state of affairs, riddled with sub-groups, groups, bands of friends and enemies.
Much of what follows is drawn from Finch's own account of the years of Second Aeon. Characteristically frank and forthright, Finch set about his redress of poetry's ills.
The magazine ran for twenty-one issues with the first being a foolscap-sized mimeographed slim thing of six pages and 100 copies. This gradually expanded to the last issue which was a 268-page, perfectly bound offset-litho production. Finance for this venture came initially from Finch's own pocket, justifiably so when one considers his editorial 'policy' at the start, but later on the Welsh Arts Council put up 45 per cent of the cost with another 45 per cent coming from the private funds of the Welsh poet Cyril Hodges who, over the years, had been quietly supporting the Welsh arts. The remaining 10 per cent came from Finch's pocket, advertising and subscriptions. The magazine never made a profit that would anything like clear the grants and private subsidisation. Sales were (Finch says)) an impossible task for a one-man business. Copies were distributed by subscriptions, free copies, bookshops and a network of poetry world people who sold copies on commission both in Britain and the USA from where Second Aeon drew about a quarter of its material, bringing British readers, often for the first time, the poetry of North America, where the art was flourishing (and has continued so to do) to an even greater extent than in the old country. Interestingly, part of Finch's concept of the all-round publication came from the example of Dustbooks, in the USA, which carried out a similar function of drawing information and work into a central set of pages. Alongside second Aeon went a booklet production process that brought out over 100 slim titles including some that were of great literary merit and importance - Nicki Jackowska's first work, Peter Redgrove's Love's Journeys and an anthology called Typewriter Poems, the first easily obtained collection of visual poems made from typewriter work rather than art work.
Editorial policy is best outlined by Finch:
"Second Aeon began by having no policy, only an idea to publish myself, and then myself and my friends and then to mix local and other poets. With maturity forced onto the magazine by its age, size and circulation the policy, unstated, changed to become the presentation of a bird's-eye view of poetry, in English and in translation, in the UK (and America) during the late sixties and early seventies. It was an open magazine, a mix of experiment and tradition, a redressing of the balance and a hard lean at the avant garde. I also felt it vital to fill the information gap … to review and mention all that went on in the small press scene. I carried few reviews and hardly any critical articles but did, towards Second Aeon's end, move into fiction. The magazine was started, as I've said, in order to publish myself. But by the end it had nothing to do with my own work. The balance of values in the poetry world was wrong … much vital and important work was being ignored because it was regarded as too radical, too different, too difficult or was just simply misunderstood. What was needed was a common platform for all that was going on. I tried to provide that."
And, certainly, Finch did. Large chunks of the back pages of Second Aeon became listings, in tiny print, of everything he could get his hands on with a brief comment on it. Small press work, magazines, posters, hand-outs, everything went into these lists which became the main (if not only) source of information that bound all aspects of the poetry scene together. At last, there was a man trying to cut across the petty barriers of cliques to show what everyone was doing and, looking back from the 1980s to those issues, one sees an astonishing array and diversity of art. There has never been the like since and nor is there likely to be.
Inevitably, bar the Welsh Arts Council's support - they are noted for spending more on the literary arts than the other national arts councils - albeit backed by a 'perpetual misunderstanding of what I was trying to do', the establishment roundly ignored Second Aeon. No national newspaper, not even, for example, The Times Literary Supplement which actually wrote about Poetry Review in an editorial at a time when it was in a state of flux and under a caretaker set of editors who produced a slightly less moribund issue than usual, gave second Aeon a single line. It was roundly ignored, despite the fact that practically every major poet appeared in it. Perhaps it was, as Finch suggests, that his magazine employed change and the set literary world was not prepared to consider it. In addition, the magazine hit at the self-centeredness of the British scene as a whole and that was - and still is - resented.
The magazine ceased partly because, as I have mentioned, Finch took a job with the Welsh Arts Council and that precluded him from accepting money from them: on top of that, Cyril Hodges died and it was not until after this that his patronage became known. He had insisted upon it being anonymous. It must, I feel, be right now to acknowledge what this man did. Through his agent Finch, Cyril Hodges did more for British poetry (and, to some extent, poetry at large) than any other. He financed its main magazine, he gave it moral support, he backed it in every way possible. He gave the new poets credibility and the old a place in the development. Luckily for everyone, he backed the right horse, too. Finch was not a partisan but a cause worker and he did everyone proud.
The most expensive Second Aeon cost 60p. Mostly, it cost 25p though it took £1 to produce. It could have survived, selling, even then, at £1. It stopped, though, and it is right to say that the decline and rot set into British verse soon after. It is justified to feel that the demise of Finch's astounding enterprises led to the showdown of the art. A central cog had seized in the engine.
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Back issues of the magazine are naturally all gone. The second hand and antiquarian market offers a certain turnover; prices have not yet risen to impossible levels. Check the bindings on the later issues. Sixties glue cracks with time, open your copy fast and all the pages will fall out. (rebind using Copydex, quick, neat and effective). Complete files of the magazine and most of its attendant publications exist at the UK Copyright libraries, and at University College London Little Magazine Collection. In the States sets of the magazine were purchased by both Buffalo and California. Many private collectors hold complete series.