Coterie, An Introduction

By Tara Aveilhe

Coterie, An Introduction

On May Day 1919, the premiere issue of Coterie went on sale for half a crown at The Bomb Shop, a fashionable London bookstall located at 66 Charing Cross Road. Published in six issues between 1919 and 1921, Coterie was a modernist little magazine that featured a diverse range of contributions by writers and visual artists. Printed on thick, high quality paper and featuring eye-catching cover art, Coterie appealed to an audience that wanted to remain “au courant in arts and letters” (Tollers 112). Editors Chaman Lall and Russell Green initially focused their attention on publishing new poetry from young, up-and-coming writers. The magazine earned a reputation during its run for publishing T.S. Eliot’s poem “A Cooking Egg” and Aldous Huxley’s poem “Leda”. The contents broadened in scope by the third issue to include visual art, drama, and prose by both new and established artists. Coterie was able to distinguish itself, Green argues, because it “abstained from the contemporary and traditional foible of prefacing each number with a heavy declaration of editorial policy” (4). With a far less bombastic approach than periodicals such as Blast and a less deliberately antagonistic approach than its contemporaries like Wheels and Arts and Letters, Coterie avoided becoming a mouthpiece for a particular movement or cause and aimed instead at becoming, in Russell Green’s estimation, “the only periodical of standing in contemporary literature which contains nothing but work of creative imagination” (5). The approach was distinctly cosmopolitan; the inclusion of a number of European and American contributors, a group of American editors, numerous works by women, as well as a transatlantic distribution, were but a few of the elements that made Lall and Green’s magazine significant in the midst of the shifting post-war literary landscape.

As Robert H. Ross, author of The Georgian Revolt, observes, many poets felt there were few outlets for publication following the First World War: “Coterie was begun because many young poets felt that during the war established English literary journals had fallen too exclusively to the control of conservative editors who banded themselves into an informal guild dedicated to keeping new and modern poetry off their pages and, conversely, printing only the verse of the Establishment” (200). Coterie consistently provided a platform for the work of avant-garde artists as well as relatively unknown Oxford poets such as T.W. Earp, Wilfred Rowland Childe, L.A.G. Strong, and Eric Dickinson. At its inception Coterie was an offshoot of a small literary group whose members had previously published in Oxford Poetry, an anthology written and edited by Oxford students. The first five issues of Coterie were edited by Chaman Lall, a law student at Jesus College, Oxford. The sixth number, a final double issue published in the winter of 1921, was edited by fellow graduate and poet Russell Green. Despite the fact that both Lall and Green published many of their own poems in Coterie, they remain largely nominal figures in literary history. Chaman Lall was an Indian immigrant born in the city of Shahpur in 1892. He was at the center of the literary group based at Balliol College, Oxford and after matriculation in 1914, he went on to gain a second-class law degree in law in 1918. It is unclear whether or not his departure from Coterie as General Editor after the sixth issue corresponded to his return home, but he did eventually leave England and return to India where he became prominent in the Indian National Congress and later became Ambassador to Turkey. Apart from his contributions to Oxford Poetry and Coterie there is no evidence that Lall continued his involvement in literary publishing in the U.S., England, or the Indian subcontinent. Lall’s successor, Russell Green, contributed to Oxford Poetry from 1915 through 1918 and in 1916 won Oxford’s prestigious Newdigate Prize for his poem entitled “Venice.” After Coterie, Green continued to write experimental verse and later wrote several books, including the obscure novels Wilderness Blossoms (1936), Prophet without Honour (1934), and Northern Star (1942). Green never gained wide recognition for his work, and eventually took a post at the Foreign Office in Whitehall where he worked as a clerk for most of his life. He went on to edit the little magazine New Coterie from 1925-1927, bringing along with him many of the same contributors who participated in the original Coterie.

In the early twentieth-century British and American periodicals intended for small audiences of artistic or educated elites were often referred to as “coterie” publications. Many editors and independent publishers responded to mass culture with antipathy, attempting to resist commercial taint by fashioning specialized publications that would appeal to an avant-garde minority. Unlike many popular, mass-produced magazines, Lall and Green’s publication did not rely upon a wealthy press or advertising contributions for publication. Advertisements in the first four issues were narrowly limited to single ads for The Bomb Shop, the leftist bookstore owned by Frank R. Henderson, who published and sold Coterie in London (Fire Leaves). The final issues included advertisements for a handful of other London publishing houses such as Constable & Co., and Chatto & Windus, which marketed themselves to the educated public. Vincent Tollers suggests these ads would have “kept down the costs, but the magazine was still fairly expensive” (112). Lall and Green created a magazine that neither relied upon the whims or preferences of invested advertisers, nor upon the tastes of a large publishing company or powerful critics. As Mark Morrisson suggests in The Public Face of Modernism, while modernist writers and editors did not entirely turn their backs on mass audiences, individuals such as Ezra Pound, Dora Marsden, Margaret Anderson, and Max Eastman often expressed concerns over issues such as, “culture controlled by corporations” and “sacrificing the original…to the lowest common denominator” (5). In a charged essay by Lall in issue three of Coterie entitled “What’s Wrong with the Theatre?” he argues that the theatrical system in London commercializes art by putting it under the “iron heel of wage slavery” (77). His conception of the failure of the “popular” arts reflects the anxiety of a many of those involved in the cultivation of little magazines.

Directly preceding Lall’s critical essay in the third issue is an article by Douglas Goldring entitled “English Literature and the Revolution.” Goldring, who was previously an editor for Ford Madox Ford’s little magazine The English Review, blames the allegedly dire situation of genuine writers in England on a corrupt system of criticism, stating, “The London papers whose reviewing ignores social or commercial influences can be counted on the fingers of one hand” (“English Literature” 69). Goldring argues that a revolution is necessary to change the system, to turn art away from dependence on monetary gain, social affiliation, and mass appeal. Andrew Thacker, author of “Coterie: A Loosely-Edited Miscellany?” states: “Goldring’s views echo many of the founders of modernist little magazines, and represent almost the accepted justification for the explosion of the little magazine in this period, and later. In order for an artistic voice to be heard, it must circumvent the commercially-dominated press governed by the mass circulation publishers” (3). In line with Goldring’s convictions, Russell Green, in the one and only editorial statement published in Coterie (in the final issue), claimed, “[Coterie] has not needed six thousand mercurial circulars to establish its reputation; nor is it aided by attachment to a wealthy press” (4). Green describes Coterie as an “aesthetic quarterly written by volunteers, rather than pressmen…” (4). There is no record that Coterie ever paid its contributors; Vincent Tollersargues that “contributors gave to a cause, expecting nothing in return” (112).

While the magazine exemplified many of the qualities of a typical little magazine, it nonetheless owed a considerable debt to the burgeoning mass media promotional culture—a culture from which Lall and Green took many cues in their attention to visual impact, transatlantic distribution, and diversity in content. Compared to many little magazines, Coterie also had a sizeable distribution. Tollers estimates that circulation numbers reached around 1,000 for select issues (112). While Lall and Green’s inclusiveness came across as too broad or watered-down to some reviewers, it demonstrated a growing consciousness to audience appeal. The title of the magazine itself was paradoxical and provoking; the term Coterie had become an insult in literary circles, and the editors embraced and accepted this token of literary snobbery in order to self-consciously create an elite commodity. They were also ironically trading on the previously fashionable concept of a clique or “Coterie” without actually representing one cohesive group or school of thought. In The Public Face of Modernism, Mark Morrisson argues that most modernist little magazines, like their more popular counterparts, borrowed mass media tactics of self-promotion (85). Even Coterie’s independent approach to publication presented opportunities for artists and writers to garner cultural capital. In “Modernist Writers and Publishers”, Joyce Wexler argues against the common misconception of modernist writers as ambivalent toward their audience or unconcerned with mass dissemination of their works. Modern writers and artists were an integral part of the literary marketplace and often sought “coterie” publications as a way of gaining recognition within the avant-garde subculture while still resisting large commercial publishers.

During a time when many of the characteristic artistic movements of the pre-war era had begun losing momentum and a new group of young avant-garde artists were vying for recognition, Lall and Green’s editorial choices made for an eclectic and occasionally controversial publication. Coterie never balked at presenting dissenting approaches and aesthetics within its pages. A review of Coterie in the Daily Herald on November 24, 1920 suggested that its “ineffectiveness” was “due to the individualism of its contributors,” as well as its “lack of collective significance”(quoted in Green 3). Green responded to this criticism by mocking the paper’s notion that literature should be “jaundiced with the anemia of a flat and sullen uniformity” (4). As debates continued to flourish between the disciples of vers libre [free-verse] and adherents to rhymed verse, Coterie featured lengthy prose poems alongside traditional metered works. Experimental poems by the Sitwells like Edith’s “At the Fair” and Sacheverell’s “Week-ends” in issue three appeared alongside the work of Georgian poets like Edmund Blunden, against whom the Sitwells railed in their own literary review, Wheels. Several Georgian poets who had been featured in Edward Marsh’s Georgian Poetry anthologies, such as Harold Monro and W.W. Gibson, also published regularly in Coterie. Imagist poetry, an often-antagonistic counterpoint to the Georgians, came to be a distinguishing feature of the magazine as well. Well-known Imagist poet Amy Lowell published her poems “Granadilla” and “Carrefour” in number four, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) contributed “Sea Heroes” in that same issue, and Richard Aldington published his poem “Bones” in issue three and “La Maudit” and “On Frederick Manning” in number four.

Lall and Green followed the lead of Wyndham Lewis’s Blast in creating a publication that combined visual art with literature. The magazine features images as broad and varied as its literary contributions, and Coterie’s unique covers embodied an array of visual styles. Many of the same artists associated with Lewis and the Vorticist movement, including Lawrence Atkinson, Edward Wadsworth, William Roberts, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska contributed to Coterie. The angular, aggressive lines so characteristic of Vorticism are evident in many of the visual art selections, including the cover of the third number which features a propaganda poster-style drawing by William Roberts. In stark contrast, issue number four features an art nouveau-influenced illustration by Mary Stella Edwards, evocative of Aubrey Beardsley. Coterie also subtly participated in the modern debate over the merits of abstract art versus representational art by featuring work by artists on both ends of the debate. Artwork by the outspoken neo-realist Walter Sickert and abstract artist Gaudier-Brzeska both appeared in the second number of Coterie. Other notable avant-garde contributors included Fauvist painter André Derain, Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani, Hungarian artist Moise Kisling, and the Englishwoman Nina Hamnett.

Coterie was not a forceful, manifesto style publication, and Lall and Green seem to have recognized that many of the artistic schools which had so vigorously attempted to assert their positions just a few years earlier were now simply being “felt as a style rather than a movement” (Thacker 4). As Thacker puts it, “The war seems to have halted cultural jockeying for position that characterized the years from around 1910, between Cubism, Post-Impressionism, Futurism, Vorticism and Imagism” (4). In issue number four, an ironic poem by Douglas Goldring entitled “Post- Georgian Poet in Search of a Master” addresses an emerging sense of post-war plurality, as well as some anxiety about the changing literary market:

I had been well brought up: I liked the best.
My prose was modeled on Rebecca West.
My “little things” erstwhile reflected tone,
My brother poets claimed me as their own.
In those blithe days, before the war began –
Ah me, I was a safe young Georgian!
Now all is chaos, all confusion.
Bolshes have cast E.M. from his high throne:
Wild women have rushed in, and savage Yanks
Blather of Booth and Heaven: and T.S.E.
Uses great words that are as Greek to me.
Tell me the truth, and ah, forgo these pranks –
Whom must I imitate? Who’s really it?
On whose embroidered footstool should I sit?

While Goldring’s poem makes light of a writer’s reluctance to accept change, it also brings up an important point about the failure and dispersal of the many “isms” so prominent during the time between the turn of the century and the First World War. According to Simon Gikandi, “Modernism, as a transnational phenomenon, invites a reconfiguration of the time and space of modernity” (422). This “transnational phenomenon” was played out in the pages of Coterie as Lall and Green embraced, whether consciously or not, a cosmopolitan approach to art in the marketplace. Goldring’s ironic jab at the chaos produced by the “Bolshes,”“Wild women,” and “Yanks” can be viewed as shrouded praise for Coterie’s own wide embrace of the art and literature emerging out of the post-war literary market.

Lall, himself an immigrant, potentially fostered acceptance of artists and writers of various nationalities and schools of thought. Aside from American contributors such as Amy Lowell, Babette Deutsch, Edward J. O’Brien, and John Gould Fletcher, Coterie published works by other foreign writers and artists, as well as English language translations. The South African writer Roy Campbell, who was often compared to T.S. Eliot, contributed several poems to Coterie, including “Gigue Macabre” and “Bongwi the Baboon” in number four. Paul Selver, a poet in his own right, also translated poems by Czech writers Antonin Sova, J.S. Machar, and the Czech Symbolist Otakar Brezina. Polish artists J. Rubezak and Moise Kisling were also featured. In stark contrast to popular poetry anthologies such as Georgian Poetry, which featured only two female poets during its entire twelve-year run, Coterie reflected a spirit of inclusiveness instituted by avant-garde literary circles such as the Bloomsbury group and the Imagists. Female artists and writers like Edith Sitwell contributed over the course of the magazine’s run. Helen Rootham, Edith Sitwell’s friend and former governess, published translations of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems from Les Illuminations in issue number two. Iris Tree, Anna Keown, and Dorothy Roberts also published in Coterie. Artist Nina Hamnett contributed original artwork in addition to her participation on the editorial board from issues three through six.

Though Coterie began as a small collective of British writers and Oxford students, it quickly became a transatlantic collaboration by the third issue. Frederick Hoffman, in The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography, describes Coterie as “distinctive” within the little magazine market, partially due to its support from American authors and editors (255). The third number saw dramatic changes to its editorial page: an expanded editorial committee was introduced and a new pair of American editors appeared. Stanley Rypins from the University of Minnesota joined the staff, and Conrad Aiken worked as the agent between “the journal and its sizeable number of American contributors” (Tollers 110). A new price and address were listed for the U.S. distributors in New York; copies could be purchased at Brentano’s bookstore in Manhattan for 75 cents or a yearly subscription purchased for three dollars. A new subtitle also appeared, effectively renaming the magazine as Coterie: A Quarterly—Art, Poetry and Prose and capturing its efforts to include a broader range of genres, contributors, and presumably, readers. According to Vincent Tollers, Coterie“is a fine example of the closeness of British and American letters in the decade surrounding the World War” (111-112). Lall and Green’s transatlantic approach reflected a newly emerging cosmopolitanism, and while the majority of foreign contributors were American, their presence in the periodical still suggests a changing cultural consciousness. Although some critics believed arts and letters were going through a time of “post war paralysis” (Ross 239), more convincing is the notion that a pervasive anxiety had taken hold due to the waning of old ideologies and the slow ascension of new ones. Trench poets were being read and published alongside experimental avant-gardes, and the disparities in style that began to occur directly corresponded to debates between British poets with different aesthetic and ideological allegiances at the time of the war. In the final issue, Green observed that “It is not by perpetuating the barrel organs of Georgian poetry that the race of Helicon shall be renewed. Nor is English literature in general likely to rebuild its Parthenon out of the accumulated rubble of somber academicism” (5). What remained of these various ideological alliances, whether as movements or styles, were presented on equal footing in the pages of Coterie.

The largest issue of Coterie was also its last. Green’s editorial served as the final defense of an important, but short-lived publication. Green proudly asserted: “Coterie has now been in existence for over a year and a half. Relying for success rather upon inherent quality than upon a preliminary campaign of publicity, it has gradually attained, by the merit of its vital and sincere originality, the favour of all readers whose critical flair is not warped by malice or rusted by ineptitude” (3). While the reason for Coterie’s end is unclear, many little magazines suffered a swift demise due to a number of factors, not the least of which was lack of sufficient funding. However, Coterie’s significance cannot be measured in terms of monetary success or longevity. What is important to consider are the ways which Lall and Green (as well as the American editorial board) attempted to create a standard of inclusiveness, a magazine for the post-war age that included novices, avant-gardes, and traditionalists side by side. Coterie’ s style of modern pluralism might not have issued forth a permanent change in arts and letters, but many of the contributors featured within Coterie, from both sides of the Atlantic, would go on to form a new generation of original and influential modern artists and writers.


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