Sunday, 9 June 2019


Learning Irish

In a previous blog I wrote about the political history of famine in Ireland as a consequence of colonialism and land hunger. This post is about my personal project of learning the Irish language, with however many defects of skill and indeed of effort.
Sometime in 2016, I decided to attack Irish. I had learnt quite a lot of Scottish Gaelic (since an evening course in 2000) and I had a volume of essays (Cruth na Tire), on landscape in the Gaelic tradition, which was half in Irish and half in Scottish. This was provocative, and I determined to have a go at the Irish chapters, to see if I could read them. It was a difficult weekend. I came out knowing the “rotations” you need to connect Irish words with Scottish ones. I also concluded that I had to learn about 5000 new words in order to read Irish prose comfortably. (That is, very modern Irish – not anything older.)
There is just too much data to learn. But the process is deeply rewarding. I am counting my pupillage in Irish as a protest against Brexit.
Vincent Morley records that few manuscripts were written in Connaught. Why was that? I don't know.
One of the volumes of Maynooth Lectures (Leachtai Cholm Cille) has a piece about sermons which includes some such 19th C texts recorded in English spelling. Apparently the priests were native speakers but their Catholic education had not included literacy in Irish – although they probably knew Latin and English. So they wrote down their sermons in English spelling. This is very like a group of manuscripts from Scotland, where again you could be a native speaker and classically educated but not know how to spell Gaelic words Gaelic-style.
I wanted something lucid in organisation but interesting in content. This led me naturally to academic prose, usually about themes in the culture of the Irish Sea Culture Province, to use a significant phrase which not everyone may recognise. A significant scholar who chooses to write in Irish is likely to be a nationalist – this is just a cultural fact. So this has given me exposure to a range of views which I didn’t encounter while growing up, at the same time as initiating me into aspects of the culture of outer north-west Europe. Donald Meek remarked that the Gaelic world had rarely been studied from a Gaelic point of view – this might push me into an instability where there is no ground beneath my feet, if I reject a “European” point of view without having any knowledge of what I am to replace it with, but calls for a heightened sensibility to the deeper aspects of the regional culture, something going beyond the content of particular texts.
I wish I had the linguistic scope to read the bardic poetry which was so important to the culture of the nobles – but I can’t read this material in Welsh and I don’t see much prospect of me acquiring enough Gaelic to read either the incredibly rich Irish material or the less extensive Scottish equivalent. But memorizing language structures is enough for my purposes. Besides, there are quite a few texts I can access. The key thing is the overall structure of genres – the range of genres in the Gaelic world is quite different from the range in the mainland of western Europe, and this is immensely significant. I can’t reach a conclusion on this without encountering a large range of texts, it is part of the evidence as a whole rather than located in the lines of any single text.
I must say I am finding this process quite difficult. If you teach yourself, you can go down wrong paths. I felt very comfortable reading a novel “for adult learners”, published by the magazine Comhar. I got every part of the page rather than struggling on a ladder of guesses. But I couldn’t find a supply of simple Irish. Anyway, it’s good to read a book full of things you absolutely don’t know and which you find absolutely vital.
Before I got into the language, I read about Roderick O’Flaherty and had a strong image of him as someone who had Classical learning (he wrote in Latin) and yet also had a perfect knowledge of the old Gaelic culture. This struck me as wonderful and I really wanted that lost lore more than I wanted the language, although the language embodies the old Gaelic thing very directly. But when I looked at O’Flaherty’s book “Ogygia” (1684), it was unreadable. He just piled up recounted Classical learning and didn’t answer any questions. This is an example of acquiring a complete misunderstanding – part of the journey if you are entering a genuinely foreign culture. I had to form suppositions about what I was going to learn and because I was self-taught I formed bizarrely wrong ideas. But the Gaelic world has mainly been recorded through the filter of bizarre fantasies and distortions, that is the typical approach of someone travelling in from “inner north-west Europe” and most of the books you can get embody such distortions. So observing them in formation is very instructive. I don’t think you have anyone who observed the classical Gaelic world from an analytical viewpoint – by the time you had rational scholarship being brought to bear, all that is left is folk culture, and this isn’t what produced the myth-tales and the bardic poetry. I may be wrong about this. There was a terrific learned endeavour, say from 1580 to 1700, which recorded a great deal of the old knowledge. But it wasn’t asking questions or interpreting the material – it was part of the Counter-Reformation and it was confined inside theology and a deeply conservative learning. It captured the records about saints’ lives incredibly thoroughly, and the collation of Annals and so on was partly to get secure dates for the saints. Those people just weren’t asking “why is Ireland different from the rest of Europe” or “how was political power acquired and transmitted in Ireland”. Bernadette Cunningham quotes William Camden, saying in 1615 “if you take out of history why, how, and to what end, and what is done, and whether the actions answer the intents, that that remains is rather a mocking than an instruction, and for the present may please but will never profit posterity”(p.32); she does not spell this out, but in effect this defines what the traditional Irish historians, and even the large-scale works of the Counter-Reformation, did not do. It is quite easy studying the history of Ireland after the Tudor conquest (An Concas), but very difficult finding out how the traditional society worked. You have terrific stories, about saints and heroes or both together, but not political history the way Thucydides or Tacitus wrote it. Of course, this question-asking history is not typical of the West, even if it has taken over since 1600 or so.
Ireland did not have coins before the Danes arrived, and gave them up again after the Danes were defeated. It is very difficult to reconstruct how a society works without money, and it was certainly very different from what we know about. Pre-Norman Wales may also have been largely a non-monetary economy. Anyway, it’s no good thinking that 18th century Ireland was like that older Ireland, or that the knowledge of thinking Irish people then, however nationalistic they were, gave them or us access to the older society.
You may very well say, with Seamas O Siochain (Cultur agus an Stat), that anthropology is good with societies which operate without money or the State, and so would be good with pre-Norman Ireland. But anthropology is based on fieldwork, and no anthropologists studied Ireland before the 20th century. So the proposition is that “anthropologists have generalisations so powerful that they can give results with no fieldwork, and exploiting textual analysis and a bit of archaeology”. This isn’t convincing. I enjoyed reading O Siochain’s 1982 lecture (in Leachtai Cholm Cille volume 13) but it has limited concrete results. It is very interesting on a 12th C text, Senchus fer n-Alban, which is actually Scottish. There are zero Irish texts of this type and only one Scottish one. Unfortunately, this suggests that a very exciting method is going to run out of suitable evidence too quickly. The Senchus is a written document spelling out how the State (the Kingdom of the Isles) works in obligatory naval levies to fight off foreigners (probably the Norwegians). It is rare because Gaelic polities didn’t use written administration (and arguably weren’t states). It is obviously unsafe to generalise from it to kingdoms without chanceries and clerks. In some cases we know about, money arrived because states wanted a way of storing wealth and made people pay taxes in cash (rather than perishables such as flour). So perhaps Irish ‘petty kingdoms’ were politically weak and that is why they didn’t bring money into use. OK. I don’t see any way you could prove that. And, why was money not part of their political strategy but was part of the strategy of kingdoms in Southern England a century before the Romans came?
I was fascinated by the presence, in what may be the earliest piece of Irish prose (the ‘Cambrai Homily’, 7th C) of colour symbolism: the figure in which martyrdom can be either red, white, or green. This has been treated as something deeply Irish. But the figure is already present in a third-century (in the 250s) Latin tract by Saint Cyprian of Carthage. (This is discussed in Robin Lane Fox’s 1986 book Pagans and Christians, and the figure was also used by Saint Jerome.) The figure can’t be Irish, and the earliest written texts anywhere are likely to reflect the dependence of the literate minority on their patrons in the culture from which their knowledge of writing came. The idea of colour symbolism is good for teaching an audience of the uneducated, and evidently came from the Mediterranean milieu of early Christianity, and connects with the thinking which used colours to mark the robes of various grades of priest. But it may have become part of the Gaelic tradition, and been productive. Still, if Christian texts have deep structures, they presumably record the unconscious of the 3rd or 4th C Mediterranean, not of Ireland.
Something else which I was very curious about was the “revisionist” debate, between professional Irish historians, which began in the 1970s (and may be over now). (One version is that revisionism itself began in the 1930s, but that real arguments began after the start of the Troubles in about 1969.) The most radical essay in revision was perhaps a 1966 one by Fr Francis Shaw, SJ, on the legends of Easter 1916. This is a good way in for an outsider, because the experts disagree so much and there has been an explicit debate, citing evidence which you can study. The argument has mainly been about the period since the eighteenth century; so far as I can tell, there has been no argument about the period before the Norman conquest (of the 1180s). This is the most puzzling period, but I think it is hard to write about because the evidence is so thin and because it is so stylised. I found this period so frustrating when I was a student in 1977, and the only progress I can recall is shifting that frustration into a sort of awareness of a horizon where awareness ends.
Let me cheer myself up by thinking about a passage in St Cogitosus’ Life of St Brigid (analysed by O Siochain) which describes the building of a road where the route was divided up into stretches and different political groups (the text says “relatives and families”) supplied the work on particular stretches. This is a fascinating moment, as it is an “explanatory structure” which has been taken from an Irish text (of the 7th century) and applied to explain how “public works” were created in prehistory in other European countries. So archaeologists have looked at “causewayed enclosures” in England and found that different parts were worked in different ways – which they attribute to the participation of different tribes, competing or contributing to a “union” project.
I have a commemorative issue of the magazine Comhar for their record from 1942-82, something I can read reasonably well because journalists do write clearly and the issues they write about are stimulating. They reproduce pages from past issues (1982 was still the era of paste-up and photolithography) and the early ones still use the Gaelic letter forms (gaelach), which I can’t really read. Then in about 1949 they shift wholly to romanach, the usual European letter forms. Quite a big shift – one surely with pragmatic advantages. All the letters come from manuscript forms of the Roman alphabet, deviations don’t have much historical or orthographic force. I believe the print letters we use now come from a Florentine manuscript hand of the 15th century. All European countries which use the Latin alphabet now use those letter shapes. It is not very plausible to persist with a provincial variant. This isn’t a specifically Irish problem, for example the Gothic letters, or Fraktur, were used in 19th C Germany and revived by the Third Reich. Indeed, that rather aggressive revival may have influenced the Irish shift to a European (Florentine?) model. Scandinavian countries used a Gothic typeface up to some point and then abandoned it, I don’t have details on this. I don’t have information on the older Dutch and Flemish printing practices. Anyway, the Irish revivalists (athbeochan is the keyword) were not eccentric in putting a regional manuscript hand into print, but they were surely forward-looking when they switched typefaces. (Wikipedia tells me that English printers went on using blackletter, which is like Fraktur, until about 1590. You can probably find blackletter in the fonts available in your word processing programme. Wiki also says “It continued to be used for the Danish language until 1875, and for German, Estonian and Latvian until the 20th century.”) The Irish Text Society had antiquarian interests and printed its magnificent text series in the gaelach typeface. However, the short texts published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) use the European typeface, and these are a lot more accessible for learners.
I am asking the question “what language am I learning? where did this standard form come from?”, and this is revealing, although I certainly can't give a comprehensive answer. I believe that the texts printed in the first two decades of the 20th century used a basically 17th century standard of spelling, close in fact to Geoffrey Keating (in his work Foras Feasa ar Eirinn, finished around 1640). A reform then threw out a large number of non-pronounced letters, mainly intervocalic spirants. This produced something much more real and natural, but accentuated differences from Scottish Gaelic (which still uses such spirants in certain situations). Language building involves taking firm decisions, and some kind of centralised and authoritative body or bodies which can make those decisions uniform and valid. Once Irish stopped being “a language without a State”, it became part of the State.

I am wondering if the "hedge schools" taught pupils to write Latin but not Irish. That would suit the childhood years of future priests, who would go to a continental seminary and there speak Latin as an everyday language. In certain ways, the Middle Ages lasted until the 19th century in traditional Ireland. Scribes copy manuscripts because the printing press is not available. So the best pupils could become either priests or teachers in hedge-schools. But this conjecture is hard to confirm, after all the records of those schools are scanty. When did Catholic schools become legal? around the same time as the foundation of the college at Maynooth, in 1795? I guess literate Gaels had limited knowledge, but also had certain social power because everyone else was illiterate.

Addendum. The genealogist Dubhaltach mac Fhirbisigh recorded a political generalisation which belongs with "question asking" and is an exception to generalisations about the old Gaelic learning. It dates from sometime in the mid 17th century (in a book whose first version he completed in 1650) and states "It is customary for great lords that, when their families and kindreds multiply, their clients and their followers are oppressed, injured and wasted."

Friday, 7 June 2019


Poetry Wars





Parahistory is written from previously undisclosed documents. Deep history must be recovered from what was never recorded in the documents.
- Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics III




Some cameras are able to prevent certain kinds of people from appearing in the image.


There is an aside about the brouhaha at the Poetry Society in 1976-7, which Peter Barry wrote about in his compelling Poetry Wars (which I must have read four times by now, if not five). There is a problem with taking a stack, even a roomful, of texts and taking them as objects frozen rigid, with no connection to the social life, especially the conversations, flowing all around them. With Seventies poetry, the connection with a social movement which at the time was called the “Counter Culture” is one of the main issues. Verbal gestures within poems connected to a wider reality, and took their meaning from a social community, not from a sort of “pure form” which comes, as it were, from the planet Sirius.
My aside relates to timing, reacting to a claim by Dominic Sandbrook. If you accept that idealism was replaced by disillusion, during 1974 or soon after, most of the story is a narrative of disillusion. I have this memorised value of late 1974 as when the “generation of 68” lost revolutionary impetus and began searching for jobs or research funding. Sandbrook now claims, in his history of Britain in the 1970s (which eventually piles up to about 2000 pages), that the Counter Culture was effectively dead by 1972 (State of Emergency, p.178). This does not equate with the radical and counter-cultural phalanx at the Poetry Society, thriving up until a crisis early in 1977. I think he just wants to hustle the radicals off-stage as quickly as possible. He quotes as a source George Melly, as saying on 1 September 1974 that an event in August 1974 (a free festival in Windsor Great Park, broken up by the police) was the end of the counter-culture. But he has just said that it had been washed up by the start of 1972. That means it wasn't there to get beaten up in 1974! He is contradicting himself straight away. Melly published a piece just after the Windsor row – but he can’t have found that something involving 250,000 or 500,000 people had stopped in time for getting into the Sunday papers two weeks later, surely you would have to wait three years, then search, and then make your observation. Melly declared a “turning point” in order to make sure his article got published, he is claiming knowledge which could not possibly be available so soon. This source is no good! Sandbrook does not mention that Melly had published a book called Revolt into Style, whose theme was that movements which began as social revolts always ended up as merely forms of clothing, fashion, design, etc. The idea that youth movements always wound themselves up was part of Melly’s stock in trade, he was promoting his book by putting out what looks remarkably like fake news. The Windsor thing didn’t break up because there were not enough thousands of people there having a good time, it was broken up forcibly by the police. I can’t accept that the loss of optimism preceded the oil price hike – and, in fact, the stage where the price hike began to affect people’s disposable incomes and perceptions. Many available accounts leave out the new year-groups – they are fine with people reaching thirty and wanting to settle down, but they by-pass the equal numbers of people, every year, turning 18 and wanting to kick up a row and re-organise things on a more idealistic basis. There was a turning-point where people felt disillusioned with imminent change even at age 18 – but this came late and, anyway, they went for updated ideals rather than instant middle-age. The proposition that after 1970 young students were more impressed by their older, more or less revolutionary, peers than by employers, bishops, MPs, etc., seems remarkably convincing. Melly could sing jazz but in 1974 he was hardly an expert on youth culture. Actually, historians seem in a hurry to get the counter-culture off stage. This is all too neat a story. I am not convinced there was a generation of apolitical students. The generation of 68 may have got PhDs and mortgages but that could mean that they were much less radical than people younger than them.
Clearly the Mottram period at the Poetry Society is an integral part of the Counterculture,  and it hadn’t stopped in 1977. I think we can also conclude that by 1977 the Alternative was in very deep trouble and this wasn’t just due to the Arts Council. But, I don't accept Sandbrook’s claim and I also don’t think that the “alternative” poetry thing stopped in 1977, it has never really stopped. Maybe it was hard to find in the shops - that doesn't mean it wasn't there.
My impression is that students during the 1970s were rapidly developing into a separate world, as if a walled and self-preoccupied city, which was coming to live more and more by its own rules, ignoring the wider society. Confidence was growing. Idealistic politics was a core part of this confidence and it wasn’t tapering off and flowing away. By 1976, university staffs were awash with people who had been radicals in 1968. Then Thatcherism brought an uprush of student radicalism because it was so blatantly unjust. Radicalism never went away – it is more that journalists stopped writing about it.
You can’t separate underground poetry from the radical Left milieu, which changed every year as an outcome of all those arguments people kept having. But this history is poorly recorded. Maybe you don’t want an overview. And maybe all those arguments were valuable and deserve to be recalled.
Poetically – the "Meinungskorridor" or official alternative view is that people never went through a phase of optimism and (especially) never lost their ideals. The thing you are never allowed to say is that after 1974 the alternative poetic lost its meaning and that what followed was a phase of pessimism and territorialisation, as people tried to turn social ideals into private property, and to mark out their share of it. A process of enclosure. There definitely was a Generation of 68, and if Corbyn was born in 1949 and a cluster of key poets were born in 1948, then they belong with him.
Sandbrook’s two books on the 1970s weigh several kilos. But where he writes about something I know about, it doesn’t hold water. I went up to university in 1975. His narrative builds up to the climax of the first Thatcher government as an inevitable and admirable outcome, so that any alternative ideas which were voiced during the decade are groundless, childish,and effectively a waste of time. There was no Alternative!
For me, there were two things in the Seventies – a big lift of idealistic fantasy, the world of Sixty-Eight, and a crash where people lost expectations of a better world and suffered a terrific hangover after the high. This was the simple version – maybe not everyone went through those Events and, especially, the counter-cultural ideals probably spread successfully but gradually, so that the "high" in Blackburn could well be years after the "hangover" in Ladbroke Grove. (I reviewed a book about the Counter Culture in Blackburn.)

(apologies for format problems in a previous issue of this post. This blog tenaciously resists adjustments to type details in an existing post.)





Thursday, 16 May 2019


George Szirtes
(addendum to the ‘Affluence’ work)
This poetry is photographic and oblique – unemotional descriptions of odd and elaborate events. Some of it is more like curious ceramics than poems. He deals with the artistic debate of the time when he was studying and being formed by ignoring them – certainly a solution and one with fascinating outcomes. The exotic quality defines a restricted range for the poetry and it doesn’t feel as if there is an equally vital goal or attraction pulling it all. The poems are elegant but not very committed. Szirtes (b.1948) made a debut, it would seem, in a volume of Faber’s Poetry Introduction in 1978 – a time when a large number of new poets regarded Faber as part of the conservative and corporate world which was about to vanish.
Quoting Szirtes may be misleading, because his style has quite avoided the impulses of “simplify and repeat” which could end up with a work which can be exhibited in short quotations (and makes its points quickly and crudely). The cumulative effect moved away from, or past, most poetic impulses. The aggregate was profoundly attractive and by being stable created an emotional place which created a following, a company to be found in that place. It would not invite mediagenic poets. Szirtes generally uses rhyme, and regular line-lengths to support that; this is probably more to do with Hungarian cultural politics than the English kind:
In the glass you see anatomies,
Bacteria and germs in broken places.
You see the future in slivers and shards
Faint, farcical, lobotomies.
I try to discover my disease in traces
Of tea-leaves, life-lines, livers, tarot cards.
(from ‘Border Crossing’)

Some poems record an old pain like a shell worn by the ocean, and recall the Soviet ‘fraternal’ invasion of Hungary in 1956, the mass deaths and the loss of freedom. In fact Szirtes was a political exile as a child. The poetry has a delicacy and passivity which may be a reflection of past aggression, a step away from old front lines. The lack of overall patterns may be a mirror-image, a negative image, of the Marxist style in which everything is teleological, everything is chained into one vast monolithic pattern – this is a guess but it may also lead us to seeing why Szirtes’ poems express freedom by not being like other Szirtes poems and capturing, when the weather is right, sensations that are quite unfamiliar.
The lack of intent is what makes the poems so decorative but also makes them inconclusive. At times the poems take on a life of their own. The detachment allows a peculiar elegance of diction:
[O]utside, a rusticated, vermiform
ebullience; outside, a cluttering
of pediments, pilasters, pargeting,
embroidery; outside, the balconies
expand in their baroque epiphanies,
their splendid Biedermeier uniforms;

outside, the casement windows under rolls
of stonework, rough or smooth or both [.]
(from ‘The Courtyards’)

This is simply a detail from a complex poem about old buildings, evidently in Central Europe, quite likely in Budapest. The Biedermeier style flourished around 1830 and part of the emotional music is surely the contrast between the bleak and blank monumental ideals of Stalinism and the twirls of the early 19th century. Perhaps Hungarian Stalinism was becoming more similar to the post-Napoleonic autocracy in Hungary, in the era forever associated with Metternich. 
I wrote “unemotional” but this statement is not quite right, and the key might be that it avoids emotional peaks or that it describes major events obliquely. Many of his poems are acts to secure continuity between two countries and two parts of a family. A big theme is family history and the lack of ringing artistic climaxes is because a family does not reach conclusions in an operatic way, and its nature is in daily processes continuing over thousands of days rather than in big scenes. The poems mentioned are visibly part of a much larger verbal flow of family history which does not belong singularly to George Sz., as opposed to all his relatives. Quite a few of these seem to have died in 1944 and 1945, presumably as part of Himmler’s genocide project. The history of Hungary in the decades leading up to 1956 and the departure of Szirtes’ family saw a large amount of persecution and totalitarian posturing – the poet is not, obviously, interested in writing marching songs either for the Hungarian Right or for the Marxist dictatorship which succeeded Horthy. But also, he is not interested in refuting these oversized and over-loud ideas. He is very attentive to his relatives, and this founds the attentiveness which his poems show generally. We can notice that family history is more truthful, or flecked with errors of a smaller scale, than those ideas of the State and the people, but Szirtes is also not using his narratives to argue against the State, not explicitly anyway. The details are there to evoke a larger whole, which it would be over-dramatic to attack directly. People sometimes want poems about England, and even more so ones about eastern Europe, to lead them to sociological conclusions. Szirtes evidently does not think literature is there to nourish sociology. If he writes about a train, it may have 1000 people on it, but they are not part of the story of the train – they are part of their own separate stories. To some extent, writers since 1956 have existed to undermine the overload of grand sociological truths which the 19th century had produced and which were ever more different from what real humans thought or experienced.
Biedermeier was an era of lost hope and very detailed political censorship, in Central Europe, in which intimacy and family subjects took over art. (Bieder means something like "pious but dim".) The word is always used in a pejorative way, but the era (roughly 1815-48) did produce some art, even if ideals could not be described. Perhaps Biedermeier could be seen as a phase of rehearsal for writing poignantly and convincingly about intimacy and personal life, preparing for effective intimate art under another Central European tyranny, that of the Warsaw Pact satellites a century later. Szirtes' lack of interest in Marxists is interesting – it is as if they were so stupid that intelligent people could not even mention them.
A peak seems to be the 1986 volume “The Photographer in Winter”. A poem “The Child I Never Was”, about attempting to be English, includes the description of a composite face made out of things which reflect life near the North Sea – a pun, because the painter who made faces out of vegetables and so on in trompe l’oeil, was Arcimboldo, many of whose Mannerist canvases hang in museums in Vienna, near Hungary. He worked for Rudolf II, whose court was in Prague, and who was also King of Hungary. A 1989 statement by the poet quotes a 1985 statement initially, as “a central conflict between two states of mind. These I called [in 1985] ‘the possibility of happiness’ and ‘apprehension of disaster.’ The early poems in The Slant Door made repeated references to pictures, often paintings, as points of arrest between these states. Sometimes the setting would be domestic, other times exotic. The effort would often entail conflating the two.”
Another theme that recurs is depictions of paintings. The silence and liberation from time which that implies are qualities which point directly away from the implications of family history. The contrast may be a reason for Szirtes’ artistic success.
The statement quotes a poem “North China”, and a line “The great fantastic trains, like twists of barley” – I am guessing that this should be “twist of barley sugar”, a piece of confectionery familiar to people my or his age, produced (extruded?) as a stalk with spiral fluting along it – a kind of column with such fluting is referred to as “barley-sugar columns”. The fluting may actually be ice because the setting is a city in north China where the temperature sinks to 50 degrees below zero. The ice would be shaped into that dynamic and specific shape by the forward rush of the train – if that is not going too far.
The title ‘Transylvana’ refers probably to ‘Transylvania’, the land beyond the forest, and the poem is likely to be about a visit to his mother’s home town, Cluj (many other names!), which is now in Rumania and always was in Transylvania.
If you analyse all the poets who made debuts in the 1970s (something which took place during my specialist project and which may be hanging over us), it seems that Szirtes is an isolate; he was solving problems which other poets had not addressed. His 1989 list of favourite poets is open but does not show obvious influences (except Brodsky perhaps). I have found it hard to identify immediate predecessors, or rivals. It is worth thinking about Didsbury or even Kuppner. Encounters (1999, ed. Zsofia Zachar), an anthology from the English-language Hungarian Quarterly, is helpful in giving the background to the family history in question.
I didn’t get Szirtes’ artistic idea until this week. This is sort of stupid of me. I just didn’t read his poetry enough. There are problems relying on anthologies, because editors leave out many brilliant writers, because the showcasing often doesn’t work, but also because I read them and didn’t react to the evidence they offer me. I admit that Szirtes was present in anthologies I did read, such as Firebox and New British Poetry. I guess it was my brain which was absent.



Monday, 6 May 2019


Theme: unsuspected bad news about the homicidal effects of the Tudor and Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

The Melvyn Bragg radio programme last week was about the Irish famine in the 1840s and one of the distinguished contributors mentioned a famine in 1740-1 which 'proportionally' killed as many as the events in the 1840s. So just a glimpse and then they whisked on. This and the one in the 1690s were famines I hadn’t even heard of until recently. Obviously there are complexities, and the question is why you have 40 good years between famines, but the link between taking 90% of the land away from the Catholics, so that you have a concentration of land in a small number of families, going with a large number of people having no land at all and living on very low incomes which left them with no wealth reserves as well as no rights, and enormous numbers of people being simply destitute after one bad harvest, seems cast in bronze. But the landholding structure comes directly from the British connection and was the result of legislation.

I don't get why there is so little emphasis on these events (and on the
late Elizabethan famines). It's not clear to me why historians pass them over (although there is a new big-scale series of volumes out so maybe they get more into it). The mentions I saw were incredibly brief.

I was looking at Irish history as an ancillary to studying the language; the question of what exactly you are learning, with the standard language as reformed in the 1930s, is not straightforward. Sources on Irish society prior to “an Concas” (the Tudor conquest and colonisation) are utterly frustrating. It's as if sociological information only emerges from contracts, law-courts, and (by extension) politics. There are no cases recorded for Gaelic law
and it's been suggested that judges didn't actually use the law-codes when making decisions. There is a link between anglicisation and Catholicism, quite simply, in that Henry VIII grabbing all the land of the monasteries in England was intimately related to him asserting
feudal suzerainty in Ireland and claiming the ability to take land away from unruly vassals and re-grant it to (English) vassals. More specifically, the Gaelic lords had sequestered all the land once held by Irish monasteries and an inquiry under Henry got into this because he wanted to repeat the grab of monastic land over the water, in Ireland. The assertion of royal power over this (basically stolen) land destabilised the legacy relationship between the Crown and the Gaelic lords. Wars followed. Over a century or so, they were the losers in a way analogous to the Catholic Church in England. The 1530s are the pivotal moment.

So the cycle of famines predates the introduction of the potato? (from a correspondent)
cite: “The famine of 1740–41 was due to extremely cold and then rainy weather in successive years, resulting in food losses in three categories: a series of poor grain harvests, a shortage of milk, and frost damage to potatoes.[4] At this time, grains, particularly oats, were more important than potatoes as staples in the diet of most workers.”

OK, but it wasn't colder in Ireland than in, say, Yorkshire (or Germany). The difference is in poverty and in links of "vertical solidarity" between the higher orders and the low. So the question of land distribution is still basic.
One type of famine is related to rules of warfare in a pastoral society. You start by driving off your herds to hidden or remote pastures so that the enemy, thought of as a field army trying to occupy territory, can't get at them. But over say five or six years the "hideout" pastures get bitten down and your herds perish. Then the people perish for want of milk and so on. This happened in Libya, several times, and in Ireland certainly in the 1590s (Mountjoy) and the 1650s (Cromwell's lieutenants). The field army doesn't massacre people, they die of hunger.
This wasn't true either in the 1690s or 1740. (The 1690s saw a cold shock in Northern Europe and a famine in Scotland too.) The 1690s famine followed a war (Williamite, the “war of the Two Kings”) and was probably made worse by it.
Two points. One, were there famines in Ireland before An concas. I don’t know. Two, obviously Ireland was never all-pastoral and grew lots of oats. However, standing crops can't be hidden from organised armies who have cannon and so on. (I am guessing that the “refuge pastures” were in open woodland, in hill country, perhaps in dry patches of swamps. They were secret, obviously.)


There were two separate famines under Elizabeth – in the 1580s in Munster and around 1600 in Ulster. The second was not directly due to land grabs by English settlers, but to the effects of war. However, the scale of the revolt in the Nine Years’ War was due to a new national awareness, brought about by the sight of English settlers, since the 1530s, backed by the Crown taking large amounts of land (in Munster) and destroying the Gaelic way of life. This was the only thing that could unite the Irish lords. It is also true that Mountjoy, the English army commander, recognised that he could not crush guerrilla forces except by starvation, and that he destroyed standing crops and so forth as a means of warfare. The famine at the end of the Nine Years’ War was partly due to his concept of economic warfare. That famine was directly related to English aggression. The famine in Munster was due both to land grabs and to warfare.


The feudal theory of homage stipulated that all land was held from the monarch, and that an individual tenant-in-chief could lose the land for acts of disloyalty to the Crown. I think this applied throughout Europe, anyway there was no body of law which held that Henry VIII couldn’t seize land from vassals who defied him. That would apply to all the Gaelic lords of Ireland – they didn’t pay tax or accept the verdicts of royal courts. It was like another world. But, there was a terrifying growth factor in this situation – the more Irish land the Crown seized as “suzerain”, the more disaffected Gaelic lords there were, and the more likely other Irish lords, allied to them, were to rise against the crown to protect the status quo. But, the more these land-owners fought against the crown and defied the courts, the more reason the Crown had to seize the lands of all of them – to bestow them on vassals who were, most probably, English. The new settlers were likely to be people with cash, so that the Crown could defray the costs of war by taking fees from them. This process escalated and was incredibly hard to halt until the whole Gaelic realm had been seized, dispossessed, redistributed to foreign but cash-rich lords.
My problem with reading about this is “disembodiment”. I can’t go back into Irish history without being present, but that presence is unavoidably Anglo-Scottish and this destroys my ability to justify being present at all. I read a little history to back up studying the Irish language (which I began in 2016, I think). What the historians show is just appalling.
It shouldn’t be so difficult – Irish is just one more European language and shouldn’t be less international than, say, Russian or Greek. It is part of the European cultural legacy. I did a degree (or, part II of a degree) in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic back in 1977-8, so I have been involved in Celtic studies for all this time, mostly on the back burner while I studied other things. I found that degree course almost completely frustrating and it left me with numerous questions, a few of which I have found answers to over the last 40 years. It is difficult to get into Gaelic and Welsh literature, even at the level of asking what kind of language a text is written in and what audience it was directed at, without slipping into questions about social history – and so, with hardly any delay, into the history of imperialism.



Sunday, 7 April 2019

The madness of Tristan: Eric Mottram, Local Movement (1973)

Note. This is a study of a long poem by Eric Mottram. It was written in 2017 as part of work on poetry of the 1970s but it was cut from the final design of the book. I am releasing it anyway. I attended a seminar on Eric in London last week and we shared concerns about his poetry, as well as his prose, being unavailable. You can’t really get to the bottom of Seventies poetry without reading Eric’s poetry, difficult as it is. My feeling is that Eric produced designs for great poems, even if the handiwork is hasty and obscure.

The text is 54 pages long, plus some graphics that look like mistakes made by a photocopier. “Resources” are listed at the end, which actually means “sources”. It is an A4 typescript photocopied or mimeographed and stapled. Some words at the end of lines (e.g. pages 38 and 40) have been lost, as the reproduced page does not include all of the original typescript. The initial title is from Santayana: “The human heart is local and finite, it has roots and if the intellect radiates from it, according to its strength, to greater and greater distances, the reports, if they are to be gathered at all, must be gathered at the centre”. The text offers these poem titles: 'Local Movement' at pages 1-20, 'Towards the Heart' , an untitled poem about Tristan (27-8), 'Turning Point' 'A Homage to Hugh MacDiarmid' 'William Harvey' 'Homage to Denis Saurat'  'Flight' 'The Condensation' 'Transfigured Night' 'Chance' 'Art News' 'what he saw then he never saw again', untitled poem with a quote from Wagner, 'For Max Knoll' 'The City as an Image of Man' 'Tristan Comes: A conclusion' 'Definition' and 'The Galen Tradition Unbroken'.
The title poem starts:

the i is dot although it may be at an unconventional
distance    the hand performs    is basis and pattern
all movement muscles   work in hands spirit in muscles
the soul works in its body to his end in perfection
muscles in which not one tiny fibre of sinewy material
of eyes tongue larynx

A description of planting lilies. A passage about a beautiful garden. The dead around, unmoved unmoving. Creatures flee what is desirable and avoid what is harmful. Creatures are animated by flamen, [breath, roughly] a vital force. A revolving movement in heliotrope, hensbill, sponges. Flying, swimming, walking. The activity of semen. Eleven stanzas of disconnected utterances: “I myself an enemy/ makes torrents/ dance lone dance/ of outward/ without a // mirror”. Then “through fibrous creepers to a clearing” where there is no word for snow and they eat maggots from under bark; this seems to be about a tribe somewhere, contacted by an anthropologist. Burnt flesh at your point of production. Where it says this poem it should say a clearing taken by eastward ships. Dawn over flooded fields. Everything moves, new roads let disease travel faster. The Great Herbal of Shen Lang, 3000 BC.
At this point we have reached the fifth page (numbered -7-) and can pause to find orientation. The title seems to be based on a chance resemblance between Santayana talking about the local movement of the heart (in the initial quote) and the title of a 17th C work by the medical researcher William Harvey, a treatise (worked on from 1627 on) called De motu locali animalium, discovered in 1957 and never printed before then. Harvey is famous for his 1627 account of the circulation of the blood and how the heart works. The subject of his unpublished work is the locomotion of animals (so locus, motus), and its title could also be translated as the local movement of animals, so taking us back, however weakly, to the Santayana quote. The treatise is also about sensation. So where the poem talks about movement it is probably a description of attraction – movement as a consequence of appetite, and is probably a “treatment” of Harvey’s work on locomotion. It would be advantageous to rename Mottram's poem Appetite or Impulses or Attraction. The original is undoubtedly organised in a very logical way, complex Latin sentences conducting an argument flowing through multiple points, and Mottram has almost certainly produced the poem by wiping out all the logical structure and leaving tags. These are either essential Imagist high points or tatters, depending on your point of view. We are on page 5, out of 20, and already we have too many extra themes to count. Pages 7 and 8 are clearly about the history of medicine: the plague moves from Central Asia to Italy with the Huns, surgery, medical progress stultified by religious blocks, pulmonary circulation described in Arabic in 1270 but not translated into Latin until 1553, the school at Salerno. In the middle, we have a reference to “the god enters dreams/ on the temple floor”, the practice of autopsy, where the sick person sleeps on a temple floor and expects to see the god in a dream who will explain a cure to him. I know about this because it comes in a poem by Iain Sinclair (and I read Reitzenstein to research something else).
A reference to “a theatre of equal temperament” probably means the starring of glass in the light source for surgery, to avoid highlights, something also used in early cinema studios. The poem is maybe 530 lines long and shoots through possibly 100 themes in that time. On the junction of 8 and 9 we have a description of the dexterity of a musician and the ability of a plant which shuns the sunlight, to move – clearly examples of movement and probably from Harvey’s work, therefore.
Page 9 includes text about Tristan and Isolde (from Beroul’s Tristan, we are told). What about Tristan? how does this link to a poem about the heart? It is affairs of the heart. Tristan and Isolde are the great love story. Their story is also an example of desire as a basic feature of human behaviour, and as the origin of movements. Page 10 is about animals’ movement again. Page 11 is the start of part 2 and this seems to be about sexuality. So we get a compressed or crushed “treatment” of a 12th C Welsh poem about a lovely woman, what may be a robot woman invented by Edison, what may be a silent film diva as “flawless future Eve”, artificial aids to sexual gratification, and then more material about excitement as it affects movement. The “resource” is Cohen’s Human Robots in Myth and Science. Pages 12-13 take us back to Tristan and Isolde, and refers to 'Tantris', an anagram of Tristan, who got close to Isolde disguised as a sick minstrel named “Tantris”. The line to do with robots, featuring possibly as an illustration of the mechanistic view of physiology, what is left when the vitalistic theory of biology has been dispersed. Pages 13-14 are more material from Harvey.
Part 3 moves on to Duchamp, as the poet explains: “'delay in glass’, a title in Marcel Duchamp’s work, begins a number of derivations from his notes for The Bride Stripped Bare[.]”. The themes of desire and movement are still the basis of the pattern, but the imagery has moved on. Pages 15-20 are a development from Marcel Duchamp's glass panel work “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”. One can ask how this could connect to Harvey, and while it is certainly an elaborate extension of the theme it follows logically from the Tristan and Isolde story – because the double panel work is certainly about sexual attraction. Duchamp made 93 sheets of notes on the meaning of the work, which were published in 1934. If we see “sieves of dust-glasses” this refers to the dust which had gathered on metal forms set for inclusion in the glass, which Duchamp left in when the panels were actually made. The work shows forms which clearly include a bride in the upper panel and 9 bachelors or suitors in the lower panel. The subtitle is “delay in glass”, and the delay is the delay between desire and fulfilment – a gap crucial in the plot of “Tristan”, which is after all completely about separation and longing. The forms are nothing like human, they look like machine parts, and they stand for drives of humans which impel them towards the opposite sex. This continues an earlier passage about robots, which showed sexual compulsion and reaction, detached from conscious control and the personality. But, we get back to the Tristan story at the top of page 17 and again for most of page 19. I believe that the last page, 20, records free additions to the bride story rather than paraphrases of Duchamp's Notes. These 5 pages would be incomprehensible without knowledge of Duchamp's work (which we are at least pointed towards by the Resources) but the verbal material is at least unified, you can get an impression of what it is about. Thus the section starts:

sun of this ship
iron in equilibrium
compass to lodestone
muscles in automata
delay in glass

- and this is obviously about attraction. To simplify, Harvey was probably researching the nervous system of animals, as governing movement, but collected the material without finding a new explanatory principle (or an anatomical basis). This was why his treatise was not published until 1957.
Pages 21 to 26 give us another poem about Harvey, with more material about Tristan. This one has information about Harvey’s biography, drawn from Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Pages 34 to 36 give us another poem about Harvey. Page 39 sees the physician Robert Fludd, a friend of Harvey who was also a Rosicrucian and involved in the kind of occultism which Bruno promulgated. Max Knoll was a researcher into electricity, and co-inventor of the electron microscope. He also lectured regularly at the Eranos gathering, a sort of summer outing for fringe science, in Ascona. The Knoll poem involves the sun and the heart and so fits into the main pattern. Presumably the interest is in periodicity, and the electrical basis for the rate at which the heart beats. Mottram is linking the idea of the heart as a pump, following the laws of physics, to the mechanisation of the world-picture – with organs behaving like machines, within the physical world.
The Resources show us an excerpt from the Gorhoffedd (here 'Delight’) of Hywel ap Owain Gwynedd on p.10 (actually page 11), a poem also translated by John James as one of the 'Welsh Poems'. (The date is quite close to that of the earliest Tristan poems.)

In bright lands of the North
a foam-coloured girl in river meadows
white seagulls and its lovely women
its fastness little clover wilderness
her heather-coloured gown her gift
her choice   her voice   silence her gentle words

We can compare this with Anthony Conran's 1967 version:

I love, today, England's hatred – open ground
of the North and edging the Lliw, thick woods.
I love [...]
The meads of its waters, and the valleys,
its white gulls and lovely women.
[…]
I love its field, their wealth of small clover,
where honour could for sure rejoice.
[…]
My choosing, a lovely girl, graceful and slender,
white and tall in her cloak, the colour of heather;
and my chosen wisdom, to wonder at her womanly,
when she barely but speaks the grace of her mind;

The poem appears as one long piece in the manuscript but has now been separated by scholars into two poems. Hywel was killed by some of his half-brothers in 1170. Mottram's version is accelerated. It takes about 5% as long as the original. This is like sampling, which didn't exist in 1973. It has been made peculiarly de-authenticated. The insertion into a new context severs the lines of attention and continuity which in the great 12th C original gave us a sense of place and presence. This is a key to the texture of Mottram's poem in general – radically de-authentic and accelerated. There is no stability in the poem, no contained time. Mottram was celebrated for his bibliographies, reading lists for eager students; his poems are also like bibliographies, insanely speeded up and stylised. The splicing together of texts degrades both strands, both are miniaturised and the new text seems only to exhibit clashes and echoes and not to be about real things happening to human beings. Mottram seems to have limited interest in his material, and the substance is left in the original texts, which the poem is only a skein of references to. The question of what the point of Mottram's snippet is, beside Hywel ap Owain's original, is fundamental to the question of what Local Movement is for and what it does.
On p. 39 we get another Harvey. This one was a rabbit six foot tall who haunted the alcoholic character played by James Stewart in the film “Harvey”. We never see Harvey but we do see his shadow. He is referred to as a “pookah”, a kind of Irish goblin: “hare form of/ the god pooka friendly Harvey friend of the star”. We started with William Harvey, who was a friend of Robert Fludd, then the Protestant publishers in the Palatinate of the Rhine which printed Fludd’s works (and the Rosicrucian tracts), then a book on America which they also published, then an American rabbit god. Then Harvey the rabbit.
The Harvey material dominates the book and we get many variants on the heart and on stimuli, movement, and appetite. But is the whole book, 54 pages long, part of one extended poem named Local Movement? 'Turning Point' is made entirely of imagery from Malaysia. Mottram was a professor in Malaysia for a few years around 1960. My conclusion is that half these 19 poems belong to a grouping about the history of medicine, and the other half are unrelated (although similar in the paratactic style and the way they are assembled). The labelling is not clear and the effort of trying to find links between all of these poems would really be a headache. The definition of where the boundary of meaning runs is left up to the reader and is one of the things we have to establish. This opens the question of how clear the intention is, or whether we are seeing a manic accumulation of material in which multiple incomplete snips of meaning make many linkages possible but the poet is strewing them around rather than having links in mind. A state before logical argument. It is possible that this expresses a view of the past in which things do not connect intelligibly and instead there is a warehouse of material which mostly does not form any logical order. Where the accepted view is made of points that all support each other, the suppressed past is excessive, overflowing, unpatterned. The waste material does not bond to itself.
  ‘Transformed Night’ is a straightforward and beautiful poem. “Resource” is “source” but has an implication of “recycling” and ecological soundness – re-use not refuse. At p.42 “The Condensation” is another poem about Tristan and Isolde. It starts with the love potion, the ship on which they travelled, the drawn sword in the bed, the killing of the giant Morholt, and has then spiralled off into something unrecognisable. It finishes

emerge in moonlight masked gnomes
a white snake hardens by frozen ripples
blanched shells   salt grains stung to his forehead
by invalid copyist   endless themes breathing their first

I can’t gloss this or stanza six. The poem has advanced beyond where there are paths. A performance on stage is definitely involved so this may be about Wagner’s opera on the same theme. Maybe this included gnomes. The title may refer to Ezra Pound’s wrong etymology “dichten = condensare” (making poetry =condensing). By this yardstick, Mottram would be a better poet than Beroul.
At pages 53-4 we have “Tristan comes”, but after nine lines about Tristan that line stops and we get material about American politics in the 1970s. I have no idea how this links to Tristan or the circulation of the blood. The nine lines seem to treat Tristan as a kind of human-deer hybrid rather than a chivalrous hero.
'Homage to Denis Saurat' is actually about Giordano Bruno, the Neoplatonist occultist, and presents his idea of the sun, as the centre of the universe and source of occult influxes, as an analogy to the heart as the centre of the body. We get 150 lines about Bruno but his name is never mentioned. We get a lot of material about Bruno getting burnt by the Church, though we are not told what his crime was. I think that the link between Bruno and the circulation of the blood is that Bruno saw the universe as heliocentric. This was part of the Neoplatonist occultist doctrine that the cosmos was a chamber where forms radiated and dominated matter, and the sun was the source of the forms. So this forms a parallel of some kind to the heart as the centre of the body. I could not find any part of the poem which was about local affections so as to bear out the quote on the title page. The detection of the figure is a high point in the course of reading and is presumably designed to be that by Mottram. Its hidden site is key to its emotional value. It is secondary that the match is arbitrary or at least not very strong. Finding the link is a moment of joy, an aha moment. This is discrete from the weakness of the link. Also, there may be an analogy between the movement of the celestial bodies, i.e. the thing which Galileo was trying to explain, and the movement of animals – these things are not really similar but can be joined by a literary figure. 'The City as an Image of Man' is a quote from Bruno and is part of Neoplatonist thought, actually the idea of a magical city in which various shape lenses channelled benign influences from the cosmos. It is curious to compare Local Movement with the works of Frances Yates, so Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), which cover the same material but were very popular and widely admired. One wonders if these complex ideas are suited to presentation in verse, especially in a style where the connectives have been thoroughly deleted so that no logic is apparent. Why not mention the name of the thinker, so that the reader has some chance of grasping what the poem is all about? It is as if the moment of normalisation were a moment of fear, where the poet loses control of the situation as the conventional truths re-assert themselves.
I am pausing the description there, although obviously the variety of themes is a dimension of the artistic design and there is a case for cataloguing every single theme to capture the impetus of the work, the axis along which the text has advanced towards its purpose. Making an inventory of all the themes in LM would really be a problem. In a sense this is richness of fabric. To some extent the work is unparaphrasable. It is a cloud of fragments, dabs of text which are either moments that shock you into awareness like a dash of cold water or incomplete, cut too quickly, and irretrievable. The speed is wrong. There are no thematic labels and because it is all paratactic the connections have to be supplied with effort. Every passage is based on sources, complex originals; it is as if the poet were lecturing on images which he has in front of him but which we can’t see. I suspect that I can get the meaning only because I have read Yates and similar works and more or less know the context. Does the book have a thesis? To some extent the multiplicity of directions abolishes that possibility – the multiplicity is the theme.
The artistic syntax reminds me of Life Quest, high points disconnected by sharp cuts but forming a higher argument. Aldington’s poem is calmer, it allows more stability to its moments before the camera moves on to the next high point. You can pinpoint the problem with Aldington simultaneously buying the Imagist idea and being interested in Greek and Romance poetry, the complexity of the past. How do you mix Imagism and complexity? Then the Great War politicises everything and makes cultural criticism the centre of endeavours. He tries to combine panoramas of the contemporary world and radical politics and Imagism and Romance lyrics. Montage comes on stage. So Mottram’s problems go back to the 1920s.
It is hard to imagine how the work could have been released in this state, which seems inaccessible and inarticulate. I feel that what it resembles is brilliant and uninhibited conversation, in which someone extraordinarily erudite and prone to great leaps of association rambles through an assortment of tempting and lost ideas to entertain a company and while an evening away. Mottram’s enthusiasm is the key. He is maximising what he sees as the good stuff and themes we already know about are radically thrown away.
The point of departure for Mottram is possibly a line of conventional poems where the poet seizes on a moment from history as a way of opening the page out, away from the poet shopping and reading the newspapers. But the problems of describing context are too great and the poet chooses a story which is totally familiar. It is instantly understandable because we already know all about it. It has no impetus left. The mainstream poet fears originality. The riposte is to hunt out something unfamiliar – William Harvey and Giordano Bruno fit the bill. But, to catch that richness of unshared background, the richness of the lost past, you have to field the information somehow. How can you get the richness on stage unless you include 300 pages of technical prose? Eric thinks you can win by delivering at speed. But I find the poem almost wholly obscure. Anyway, if you get the impulse to maximise the wealth of lost ideas PLUS maximise the speed of delivery PLUS maximise the wild leaps of association, you get where Eric is coming from.
The graphics must be the worst ever released. Aha –they are by the publisher. This explains a lot.

During the Seventies, Eric wrote a series of 90 poems to great individuals, called Elegies. 'Local Movement' is like an elegy to William Harvey. Barry MacSweeney wrote a book of poems on the greats called "odes". It seems possible that the concept of Odes derives from Eric's Elegies work. The first one, possibly, was Starry Messenger, about Galileo. This sounds a lot closer to Eric's daily reading than to Barry's.

Friday, 29 March 2019

forgotten poets - the 1970s


Additamenta

Notes on peripheral work for the project on “poetry of the 1970s”.

John Smith. It was necessary to read Smith because he was made a Poetry Book Society choice twice, in 1958 and 1973, and this is probably unique. I started with Entering Rooms (1973), which includes the poem 'The Prologue'. This describes someone entering a featureless white room and being unable to detect small features because the white blanks out differences. So the human is in an artificial environment, one where all information is withheld and has to be acquired by sensory exploration.

Curiously enough you will at first refrain from touching it
Though unaware of the reason. You will kneel down
And gaze upon it for a long time. Because there are no shadows
You will not at once discover that it possesses a small groove
Encircling it some one and a half inches from the top.
Not until you touch it with your fingers will you know this.
So it may be a box, a box with no fastener.
However the lid, if it is a lid, refuses to lift
Though refusal, for such an inanimate block, is a word
Too human and personal, say rather it will not move.
Therefore it may merely be a solid cube of wood.

This is intriguing, although it is striking that he has devised a white cube without connecting to the “white cube” which was so much discussed in avant garde art. My guess is that this is a significant poem but Smith has not gone through that door into real mystery and the unknown because he felt alone, he was not in contact with a community of experimental writers who would have both competed with him and encouraged him to go beyond. It is not a great poem, because its real charge is conceptual but it is weighed down by a literal description of the space, which discourages us from conceptual exploration. My feeling about the book is that he went into the unknown but came back too quickly. I certainly liked that poem. It reminds me of 'The Cut Pages', by Roy Fisher.
I looked also at Excursus in Autumn (1958). The wrapper has a design deriving from the “Festival Design Group”, using physical forms acquired from looking through a microscope compelling for me. It looks like a textile print. The text around it has familiar themes from the 1950s reaction – the poet is meritorious because he has abandoned modernity and thinking about ideas and has no ambition. So much for the sales tactics! You shouldn’t swallow these, and indeed Smith offers us an 18-part poem on the life of the Buddha which hardly fits into 1950s-style restrictions. He wasn't in revolt – but he also hadn't taken on the cultural politics of the 1950s, he isn't using the set themes of the time, the clichés of the academic poets born in the 1920s. JS was born in 1924, and this was already his fourth book (omitting one early one). In 1990 he published a book or pamphlet, 'For Paul Klee'. Depressing in a way  I mean that, if he had accepted in 1948 that poetry had to be MODERN in the same way that Paul Klee's art was MODERN, he might have been a more powerful poet (even if the conservatives around him would have made his life hell). Further – Klee was a generation older than him, the classic formulation would be to get with art which is totally modern and also from your generation, your contemporaries. There is a poem, already in 1958, about a Klee etching:

Now see: two mandarins in this desert meet
Naked and bald as coots; their spindle-shanks
Spider the sand with flat and horny feet;
A scrubby hair spouts from their scrawny flanks.
Who could suppose that scarecrow shapes like these
Would court such ceremonial niceties
As to consider their respective ranks?

This isn’t bad, but it's so conventional compared to Klee even though he is providing the subject matter (which is two people meeting when each thinks that the other is of higher rank). The ability to make an argument in tight verse is astounding, I don't think people can do that any more. John Holloway or Roy Fuller could do that. I think “formalist” is the word, and as Homberger says this was on the way out by 1964. The book also includes 'Winter Morning':

The razors of the wind have shaved the sky
To apple brightness of astringent green
And on that glass rock-crystal geese are strung
Frozen like sharp stars necklacing the sun
Till midday melts the wires on which they hang
And to the swan-white woods they squawk and fly.


Well, this is good. We can't deny that. It has the qualities of decorum and repressed tension you look for in Fifties poetry. but it doesn’t suggest something great. I don't want to push Smith back out of history, but this isn't going to rewrite the story of that Twenties-born generation. The symmetry of the verse gives it a serenity which poetry no longer has – the impersonality fixes it into position. The love poems don't attempt wisdom and this gives them a vulnerability. The serene framework gives us a serene view of uncertainty, frustration, vulnerability. The framework doesn’t have to shake because the subject is excited. The love has a reality outside the person feeling it. This may be because it can have a life longer than the short time frame of self-consciousness. Love songs of the era before rock and roll are out of fashion but they still bear listening to. There was a selected poems (1948 to 82) which includes a long poem, new in 1982, in what looks like a formalist and avant garde style. I only got a brief look at this, it looked original, witty, but not a game changer.
He was a literary agent. This meant he was making money for writers. He was also editor of Poetry Review for two or three years, and no doubt published a lot of poets. This kind of thing makes you friends. I think this goes some way to explain his double victory with the PBS panel. I am not saying that the books aren't worth reading, rather that they aren’t triumphs and we don't have to rewrite history to accommodate them. He doesn’t feature in the anthologies and this is a wrong outcome – you can’t simply rely on the anthologies and a mainstream anthology may not capture all the good mainstream poets.

I also read 'Artorius', by John Heath-Stubbs. I read at least one review when this came out, in 1973, and have managed to spend 45 years avoiding it. But finally, I read it. It is almost as bad as I expected. It is not going in my list of “long poems of the 1970s”. It is difficult to rehabilitate Heath-Stubbs – Jim Keery included a poem of his in JK's (as yet unpublished) Apocalyptic Anthology which I rather liked. Working out why someone didn't write well involves too many unknown quantities – but Heath-Stubbs was gay and unable to write frankly about his feelings – and too culturally conservative to put real energy into a revolt against social and stylistic norms. Myth, specifically Christian myth, was the most likely path for him to write about his deepest concerns in a linguistic pattern distanced and ornate enough to disguise the personal origins. He did write about myths and saints, quite a lot. But myth was so much the special subject of the Apocalyptics, and he felt so trapped as a conservative of a generation which was swept away by aggressive conservatives in the early Fifties, that this promising solution area was fraught with powerful inhibitions (and not able to offer a release from inhibitions). George Barker was his natural model (and the collected is dedicated to him with “homage”), but the chances of him writing barkerian poetry were blocked off behind mine-fields and marshes. He was not a courageous writer. His natural bent was to regress to the 19th century, not to take on the 20th with its alarming demands for frankness, sincerity, and individuality. He was forthright in conversation, there is that famous anecdote of him saying to Martin Seymour-Smith “I am a Christian and homosexual and a poet”, while the vessel with the dinner in it heated up and exploded. If he had written poetry about the validity of being a Christian homosexual, it could have been great poetry, but of course he never did that. I can't really write about him as a gay poet because he had walled it off too successfully. (Martin was there with someone, can’t now remember who.)
The poem in 'Apocalyptic Anthology' is 'The Hill', published 1946:

All night long in the garden under the cypresses
I heard the song of the childish dead, chirping
With black dried lips, like crickets in the beams,
And the silence of the stream whose watery tongue is gone.
But now with a sound of trumpets
The sun, of golden feathers, beating his wings
Through the granular ether, out of his eastern cave
Of darkness comes – a bird, whose iron beak
Is pointed at my dry and singing brain.
And so early in the morning I climb to this hill
Islanded in blue intense of the circling air,
Hearing only the long melancholy line of the shepherd’s piping
Or calling to his dog down there in the valley.


I couldn't work out what the plot of this poem is, it sounds like part of the New Testament but the pattern has been broken up and re-fitted wrongly. The early poems at around pages 219 to 330 of the Collected are worth thinking about. Not 'Artorius'. Those poems are apparently based on known myths but are also unparaphrasable – the plots go wrong. The obscurity provides a vague area in which original events can emerge, protected by half-light. It is as if we had a collection of Classical paintings of saints being martyred and Greek gods doing various extreme things, in exotic landscapes, and they were being subtly repainted, not to get rid of the naked bodies and the extreme experiences, but to change the story and make it even less natural. But also – the poem fits perfectly into the Apocalyptic Anthology and Heath-Stubbs' repeated and petulant cry that he had nothing to do with them is denying what everyone else can see. Anxiety and obscurity fight their way to centre stage and the rest is hidden behind them.

The book I wrote about the 1970s filled up and material got squeezed out. Some of the most neglected material was part of this, so it is going to stay neglected. Let me just mention 'Lusus', by George MacBeth – some of his best work.

B.C. Leale (1930-2018) seems to have engaged intensively in poetry but did not publish a book until 1984, when two came out Leviathan and The Colours of Ancient Dreams. He published in many magazines  40 are credited in LeviathanA New and Selected Poems is said to be in preparation, but no actual books have appeared since 1984. I came across his name in a review by Peter Porter – I was going through all his reviews in the on-line archive of The Observer. Leale was part of The Group in the Sixties and Porter evidently knew him. I say this because Leale does not seem to crop up in any of the anthologies. (An exception is the Group anthology, in the Sixties.) Leale emphatically belongs with the terse, high-energy, and even violent poets. Leviathan is named for a poem about a whale which ends the book:

holy oil burning on the rim of night
baleful eye we would banish
down a forgotten hatchway
a cachalot engraved on paper

[…]
flailing white foundry rounding
on earth's emptiness
ivory nail scarring
the dark slate of the eternal.


The word appears again:

Hotels Royal, Imperial, Grand –
stranded leviathans drying out
at the city’s dead centre.

Furs, confections of feathers,
so gracefully taken,
jammed on hooks.
(‘Lost Worlds’)
The aesthetic is fairly obvious. The language is cut right down to allow primal and violent processes to emerge, and the main goal is to be kinetic. At page 49 we have two poems, one 20 words long and one 22 words long. Leale almost patented the one-word line. Ethics and psychological nuances are cut away – the objects or impact traces have to speak for themselves. This is not exactly unknown in the Sixties, but if Hughes, Harsent and MacBeth were so successful doing it, and coming out with ‘shots’ which had the impact of action cinema or advertisements, it was something the era wanted. Leale had realised the logic of the kinetic, startlingly so, and it is hard to see why he did not achieve a reputation. These poems have an instantaneous hit, even if that involves a touch of the perverse and the violent. They simply have a modern aesthetic. Take this account of a musician:

Goes out for a snack
or to write up his memoirs
or to crash the barriers of sound
in a jet that feathers down to Africa.
He hunts the last of
visible wildnotes in the life-mask
of Stravinsky or merely

finds a locked room
in which he's sitting
in Paris in London in New York:
bullet/bone shield/brain high-pitched shearing/dismembering.

Heifetz listens at a lager glass
to a pacific
whisper of foam.

(‘Visible Wildnotes’)
This reminds me of Jeremy Reed. The poem catches people in brief, shrill, instants; but that is not necessarily to delete their characters, rather their unavowed passions are caught as if by a light that cuts through flesh and cultural defences. The belief in the kinetic leads to the damage associated with high speed  a way of generating form. The passage a street of speed-/vibrated faces seems to encapsulate his view of the world – the special world visible when moving at speed. He had a photographer's eye but was more interested in motion than in a still moment.
Colours is a collection of surrealist poems – hard-hitting but somehow academic. I can't really explain their lack of impact, perhaps it is due to habituation on my part. Even the cover looks like dada graphics of the 1920s rather than graphics of today. The proposal to publish two books in one year involved differentiation, so this differs from Leviathan even if the poems in that book are closely related to Colours. It includes the poem "Fouquet’s”:

tweezerings of iced
volcanoes. Tumbrils whirl. Delicate
lit spindles. At Fouquet’s you replace your glass
excessively (a gramme of strength
gone from you). It’s charged with a pale deluge
of sipped grape. The imagination's Venice
crusted in snow.
The Piazza brimming with an unspilt light.
The sky’s gondola riding a harbour of stars.

You step into the street drilled by its
rough lexical strata.


Also, what seems to be a text found by cutting-up a Barbara Cartland novel:

The Duke walked through the shrubs holding his
big Balls and Receptions right on the edge of the sea.

Anoushka looked up at him, her eye no longer
propped against the side of the balcony.

Their kiss took a long time while the Duke
paid some of his tailor's bills

Under a glass sky (1975?)) is described by a bookseller as “concrete Poetry”. This would correlate, as most surrealist poets in the 70s surely did concrete work as well. But booksellers are not tied down by mere fact.
Leale belongs to a moment of the immediate present which I associate with the halcyon period 1965-74. He seems uninterested in his own personality, certainly in his social position, uninterested by the past. The kinetic objects of his poems are speeding through the exit from their own past. For this reason it is difficult to wrap him in some kind of cultural nostalgia. I just don't understand why his poetry has disappeared from view.