Monday 20 November 2023

beautiful feelings

Beautiful Feelings – another bulletin
am in a tired and decaying state with my book ‘Feelings’. That is, the project is decaying because it is over. My energy is decaying. Preparatory to being abandoned. An email recently had a photo of an audience with the comment that they are all white and middle class. This is a new approach: the history of the audience. If we had a series of 1000 photos of audiences, going back 30 years (or whatever), we could analyse shifts in race and in gender composition. Who knows what. Absent that database, it is all speculative. Close analysis suggested that you could see “ethnic minority” faces in that photo. Discussion revealed that there is no way of identifying middle class people just from appearances. You could do that from their voices, yes.
Another email records a rejection note from a publisher which says that in the “application window” they had received 1000 applications for their chapbook series. My correspondent suggests that there might be another 1000, at the same time, for their (longer) pamphlet series. This contradicts something I say in the book about the gates being open. Pretty obviously the gates aren’t open if someone is receiving 1000 typescripts and accepting 70. There is a world of unpublished books, floating around outside the harbour entrance, just as there is a world of open mike poets who aren't good enough to get a gig as the “name” act.
The messages I am seeing often say that “I am being rejected because I am working class”. There are variants on this. I don’t discuss this in the book and at this stage I am collecting “a thousand stories I don’t tell”. I think editors turn down the poems, not the biography. But the other version deserves examination.
I am rereading Philip Norman’s Beatles biography. I hadn't noticed before, but at one stage (1961, in Hamburg) all five of the musicians on stage had attended grammar schools. Replacing Pete Best with Ringo brought in someone who hadn’t been to such a school- changing their image. No-one analyses their music in terms of this because it is supremely unimportant. A million pages of Beatles commentary and nobody sees it as a reflection of the effects of the 11-plus. Everybody can see that listening to Elvis was the key experience and there is no point analysing it in some other way. Similarly with poetry – people have a primal experience with poems and then try to offer a primal experience inside their own poems.

I read half of Richard Houghton's collection of fans’ memories of the Beatles (The Beatles – I was There). So you get people who were 16 in 1962 and went to the Cavern Club. The most perceptive memoir has a lot of detail and describes the frontmen as, one was a grammar school boy and one wasn't. He was wrong – Lennon did attend a grammar school although he was a tearaway. He was describing the difference between John and Paul, as a million people have. Relating it to schools is a good example of someone drafting in Sociology and getting it wrong.
Editors see poems, not biographies. But suppose you can detect class origins in verbal patterns, in preoccupations, in the cost of objects described in the poems, etc. etc. I really don’t want to start analysing poems in these terms. If someone feels that they are disliked by someone else because they are working class, they may be right. Also, from the audience side, people may want poets with a specific social identity in order to dramatise internal conflicts, longings and humiliations of biographical significance to them.
You rarely see people explaining that they were turned down because they took 20 lines to say what they could have said in 4, because they delivered emotions in preset packages rather than appearing genuine and sincere, because they sounded too much like other people, because they were predictable, etc. It is much more acceptable to return aesthetic preferences to the level of sociological prejudice. But surely poems can be good or bad?

I think this approach is able to make my subject disappear altogether. So you have McCartney being suave and manipulative and he is seen as typically middle class, you have Lennon being sarcastic and disaffected and this is seen as expected for someone who attended a secondary modern. The sociological approach makes personality disappear altogether… I want to describe poems as expression of personality, as the product of momentary states of mind, and finally as the expression of freedom. But sociology wipes that out by saying that being suave, or else being disaffected, are inevitable behaviour patterns expressing what niche someone belongs in. So I can’t really deal with sociology.
I am intrigued by the idea that any male pupil of a secondary modern school (or a technical school, the third model, the one which never took off) is bound to be disaffected. This is quite a deep observation. But poets are very proud of their disaffection; they don’t see it as a predictable response to being in a niche from which most of society is invisible and you are invisible to most people. They want you to be surprised by it and they want it to be temporary, as someone comes along and solves their problems.
I looked up the secondary technical school on Wiki and read “For various reasons few were built, and their main interest is on a theoretical level.” It never was a fully three-tier system, and then comprehensivisation took over.
So, a thousand stories I don’t tell. I am not going to list them. Should I read the thousand scripts which got turned down? At one level, this is information I am missing.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

open mike poetry

History of banal poetry

There was action in Facebook recently as Tim Allen raised questions about the “lyric I”, and people generally say that they are advanced users and their scepticism about having feelings is a proof of it. “The above certainly makes more sense to me than the usual stuff said about identity. Brings back a memory of a Wessex fest from long ago when I read some of my long 'I' poem (finally published in 2014 under the name 'Copyright' - Department Press, Manchester) and I was being heckled and argued with by lots from the audience because of the obvious questions concerning the term that were going on in the poem - David Caddy might remember.”

I’m intrigued by the story of sub-prime poetry. The fact that people can mock the Lyrical I, or Ego, as unsophisticated doesn't mean that it is the lower tier of contemporary poetry. It is a lot higher than that. It is the more conventional stratum of poetry which is reviewed, put in books, taken seriously. In fact it’s hard to write. My idea is that there is a tier below the Lyrical I and that lyrical writing is relatively fanciful and ambitious. On open mikes, people don’t usually describe feelings. The tone is informal, down to earth, often a spoof of a familiar form. Sincerity isn’t the big thing. Someone less skilled will go for the grumpy, jokey, cynical, parodic, etc. bits of worn-out language, turned around a bit. Instantly recognisable. In a recent session of open-mike readers I noticed poems about the royal family, Glastonbury Festival, and the NHS. These “low hanging fruit” deliver an instantly recognisable context which the reader has already been familiarised with. The poem does not reach autonomy or strive for it. That is for a more skilled poet.

I like the idea that there is a separate history of unskilled poetry, following a different pattern in time than intelligent poetry. I always write about good poetry. But perhaps we can glance at the history of sub-prime poetry.

Stannard and I often talk about the open mike experience because we both find it so difficult to sit through. We also talked about Colin Nixon, who is famous because of an interview in Görtschacher’s book Little Magazine Profiles which singled him out as someone who had got possibly 600 poems into print but who had never gone beyond the minimum artistic standards. His poems deliver a message, their intent is perfectly clear to the reader, they say little beyond the message. He was said to be disappointed that no editor had ever accepted a book of his; he was stuck in a world of low-prestige magazines. I think bogg and krax were the ones mentioned. Martin was editing a rather good magazine in the (later) 70s and 80s (Joe Soap’s Canoe) and recalls rejecting many poems by Nixon. He could hardly get through one thick envelope before another had arrived. Nixon used a special thin paper, presumably because he was sending out so many envelopes and so many poems that postage was a large cost. Nixon (born 1939) was really systematic about sending out and that is why so many editors have bad memories of having to read his output. He can stand for the whole world of bad poetry because he was so methodical. I looked under N in the South Bank Poetry Library last time I was there and found four tiny pamphlets by Nixon, but no book. He was a civil servant, working as a housing officer (or something?) for a London borough, and his writing style owes something to civil service conventions of clarity, impersonality, and lack of features. Nixon definitely didn’t use the Lyrical I, he wanted his poems to be part of the real world and so avoided subjectivity.

If you plunge back into that time, there was a Feeling that a world of poetry and personal relations was opening in which everything would be marvellous, and that poems or magazines were doorways into that marvellous realm. Having lots of magazines and opening them to lots of poets was a consequence of the feeling. But when you opened a magazine and found it full of junk poetry, another feeling could take over: in which the new realm was full of pointless experiences and conversations and had to accommodate a great deal of bad language.
I am interested in the situation of someone who runs a bad magazine. You are full of high hopes. But once you put out a couple of bad issues, good poets avoid you. They have many other places to go. So at publication time you have a tray full of bad poems. You put them out because that was your first intent and the initial energy is still running. It is courageous to go on. But the end result is a poetry world full of bad magazines and bad poems. It is not a new realm in any way that stands up to daylight. At this point we can approach the word “elite” or “elitist”. It means, concretely, someone who doesn’t want the bad stuff. Someone who defends the idea of a new ideal space. But, as used in speech, it is a negative word. Someone who is not an elitist accepts that 90% of the poetry coming out is no good but thinks it is impolite to say so.
I am advised that the big open mike slot at a readings series which Martin and I both attend was specified by the brewery. the organiser could have the room for no fee, it is an acoustically warm room, cut off from the sounds from the bar elsewhere in the building. The brewery sees it as another bar and wants it full of people. Their policy guy thinks that most people turn up to do their open mike spot. So the series has to have lots of open mike readers. Two breweries have quite a lot to do with staging poetry events in Nottingham. Personally I feel that you have to have little magazines and open mike slots, there has to be a non-selective tier where people can get started. If the brewery guy thinks that the audience would be much smaller if you only had the main scheduled poets, that implies that the pulling power of those poets is limited. This is probably correct. But it is unnerving to think that the audience is basically uninterested in anyone’s poetry except their own. That is not a good feeling. But also... that brewery is pretty good at making beer.

Friday 6 October 2023

Perverted patriotism

Perverted patriotism

Richard Griffiths’ Patriotism Perverted (1998) is about the Right Club in 1939-40 and is a follow-up to his previous book on British pro-Nazism, anti-Semitism, etc., in 1930-39, Fellow travellers of the Right. Perverted centers on Archibald Ramsay (“Captain Ramsay”), a Conservative MP who was so pro-Hitler that he was interned for four years while still an MP. He was head of the Right Club, whose main focus was anti-Semitism and the "Jewish conspiracy" theory.
The difference between Ramsay and other right-wing Conservative MPs of the late 1930s seems to have been that he was more vulnerable to conspiracy theory and less able to perceive other levels of reality. So once he had identified that there was a secret war against Christianity, and identified this with the Communist Party in Moscow, and identified the Jews with the Bolsheviks, his attitude to Hitler followed logically. He does not seem to have had the intellectual resources to realise that secularism had made a great start with the Enlightenment, in the mid 18th century, or that Christianity was not a logical and reasonable construct, that not all Jews were Bolsheviks, and finally that Hitler did not have the best interests of Great Britain at heart. Of course this involved depersonalising everyone who was not a right-wing Christian, and the link between belief in conspiracy and a lack of belief in the agency and reasoning powers of other people is striking.

To go back, the Depression in the 1930s made investment in the British and US economies unattractive. There was an over-supply of productive capacity and new inevestment was not able to generate income enough to make it worthwhile for the investor. However, the Third Reich was re-arming at a stunning rate and was keen to facilitate foreign capital investment. It was inevitable that funds would flow into the Reich from Britain and the USA. Equally logically, the investors, and their lobbyists or media agents, agitated against war with Germany, or anything raising tension between the Reich and the democracies. Politicians who rang up experts to find out the attitude of the City would be told that criticising German foreign policy was a Very Bad Thing. There was a whole apparatus discouraging attitudes, either public ones or among the political class, which could lead to a breach with Germany or even to running accurate stories about Kristallnacht, conditions in Dachau, aircraft production, and so forth. the information I have is that the City changed its attitude within days of the outbreak of war. To start with, the investments in German industry were no longer real – a dictatorship had as little respect for private property as it did for freedom of speech. The two things are intimately related. Secondly, they were in general patriots and could only be on one side in a war which had actually broken out. Thirdly, British re-armament was obviously going to be a source of profits beyond measure. This was the new focus for business, whatever else had closed down for the duration. So City funding for pro-German lobbying groups just dried up. Something similar happened to groups which had combined anti-Bolshevism with pro-Nazism. They rediscovered their patriotism. But, this left a reisidue of the irreducibles – people who were too pro-Nazi, or pro-Mussolini, to shift sides just because of a world war. And these irreducibles were likely to end up being interned without trial under a Defence Regulation.

Griffiths started his book, he records, with the Red Book, a ledger containing a membership list of the Right Cub dating from 1940 and seized by the police when they arretsed Parker Tyler, which msyteriously turned up in the safe of a solicitor's office when they were clearing out the stored documents of a client, in the late 1980s. The client was deceased, not necessarily recently. Someone at the office recognised that the aged ledger had some historical value and delivered it to Griffiths – they had read Fellow travellers of the Right. Griffiths concluded, after a while, that the use of a formal membership list was to impress hesitating potential recruits. The list might therefore contain many names of people too sober and stable to join up with a conspiracy (aiming to change British foreign policy and frustrate His Majesty's Government). It might well be a fake list. A list of headstrong Fascisti would not be persuasive for someone hesitant. Griffiths therefore felt that the ledger was not a reliable piece of historical testimony, although he also does not accept that it was for show (p.124).

It is bizarre that the ledger was in the flat of a US citizen, a traitor to the US government, at the moment when he was arrested by the police. This suggested a link between Ramsay and active supply of secret informaiton to the Italian government (so indirectly to the German government, which no longer had an Embassy open in London). That link led directly to Ramsay’s arrest and internment, along with a raft of Far Right opponents of the war. However, it was never tested in court. Ramsay was never convicted of giving aid to the enemy. The Red Book was returned to him, since it was possible evidence in a case which was never going to be brought.

Maxwell Knight of MI5 was present when the arrest was made and if you are a right-wing conspiracist you surely believe that the Red Book was a fake and that Knight planted it in Tyler’s flat to justify a group arrest of Far Right conspiracists. It would have been a key document in a mass trial of Hitler supporters and peace-makers – which never took place. Most of the people whose names appear on the list were never interned.

Looking up the string 'Right Club' gave me a group of hits identifying the Right Book Club, an association whose publication might give an outline iconography of the cultural Right. If you look at the committee of this club, you can see names which also occur in Griffiths’ book as pro-Hitler and indeed English Fascists. Wikipedia gives a complete list of their books.
I also thought to collect some elementary material for a future discussion of the Right in poetry. So, here goes.

Edmund Blunden. Was so anti-war as to be pro-Hitler in the 1939-40 period.
David Jones. Was much influenced by Spengler and had difficulties with the Jewish Question and the anti-Bolshevik question. See an earlier post on this blog where I explore some neglected utterances of Jones.
CH Sisson. Was pro-Franco and emotionally committed to Charles Maurras and the position of Action Française. Seems to have had a phobia for the Left and for the State solving social problems.
Kathleen Raine. A very anti-political person but was connected to the Counter-Enlightenment and so opposed a range of processes following on the Enlightenment, characterised as “the rise of materialism”. She identified the decline of the arts with the rise of materialism. She married two very left-wing husbands but this is not unambiguous in its implications.
Peter Abbs. used imagery from Spengler in some of his most powerful poems. Is strongly christening and by implication anti-materilaist. Disliked the culture of demonstration in the 70s. Later poetry involves the promotion of Great Men as part of an anti-modernist position. I have just been reading an essay by Alan Sinfield which discussed Abbs as part of an analysis of different policies of teaching English in schools. Abbs comes out as a “progressivist”, so one who believes in the inner needs of the pupil emerging and turning into an adult personality, through culture. This is derived from Lawrence, although it has developed over the following decades. Teaching is central to Abbs and that argument does not lend itself to left-right oppositions, or not easily.
DH Lawrence. This is probably an out of date issue. In the 1950s, people wanted to say that Lawrence was like Nazism because both believed in the irrational and instinct. This was probably part of saying that free verse led to the breakdown of character and civilised constraints, as part of promoting regular metre and so on. I doubt anyone living today takes this stance. Lawrence does not have much to do with the Conservative Party, who were certainly the local Right, so there are major problems in defining his ideas, or a subset of them, as Right. He certainly had a German wife but equally certainly the attitudes which she shared with her friends were a million miles away from Nazism. One of her cousins was a fairly prominent nationalist, but that doesn't prove anything. Robert Conquest. Was a communist as a student and possibly learnt Russian as part of this. Served in the Army during the Second World War and ended up in military intelligence, it would seem, on the way to becoming a sovietologist. His professional career was inside the defence establishment. He was firmly anti-communist although this is not the same as being right-wing.
Philip Larkin. Was a great fan of Thatcher and the likelihood is that he regretted every aspect of modern life after 1945 which Thatcher was later an enemy of.
Agenda. Agenda magazine was set up on the instructions of Ezra Pound and had an abiding link with reverence for Mussolini, which led to editors resigning on at least two occasions. It was the main editor who was a fan of Pound and Mussolini, and I am not clear that other poets appearing in Agenda had the same enthusiasms. There were other right-wing poundians, for example Denis Goacher, but these are not much-read poets. Agenda may have been a focal point for right-wing poets, but I do not have information on this.
Hugh MacDiarmid. According to Wikipedia "MacDiarmid flirted with fascism in his early thirties, when he believed it was a doctrine of the left. In two articles written in 1923, Plea for a Scottish Fascism and Programme for a Scottish Fascism, he appeared to support Mussolini's regime. By the 1930s, however, following Mussolini's lurch to the right, his position had changed[.]” Mussolini himself said that his regime was neither Left nor Right, so working out the implications of supporting him is a baffling task. As he said that he had no ideology, establishing what fascist ideology was is arduous and can never reach a satisfactory conclusion. MacDiarmid did not understand politics, he was tone-deaf when it came to politics. (Mussolini did not lurch to the Right in 1930, although he took on racial politics in 1938. This is not a meaningful statement if we take “by the 1930s” to mean “by the end of 1930”. His regime was militarist and expansionist from the word go.)
Peter Russell. As a poet, Russell was amazingly unimportant. He did edit the magazine Nine, a source for right-wing culture of the early 1950s. Encounter. Everyone knows that Encounter was financed by the CIA through various front foundations, and that it aimed to dissuade the centre Left from making common cause with the more solid Left. It published a lot of poetry, partly because it paid more than anyone else. It does not follow that the poems are right-wing. Encounter always spoke with a centre-left voice, even if it was always convincing people to move further towards the right. It did not favour overtly political poems (although it did publish at least one, by CH Sisson.) The point, not made explicitly, was that high culture was in favour of the status quo and so of the Cold War. It is not a good source for studying the Right itself.

It is obvious that I haven’t identified any right-wing poets born after 1940. This is probably a genuine result, although there might be a lot of evidence which I am just not aware of. I think the biggest problem in this area has to do with seeing the Right as something unitary and in which all parts share exactly the same set of ideas, which leads necessarily on to the idea that almost everything is secret and that the invisible evidence would support the unitary theory!). One has to allow for most poets not being very political – they are too immersed in poetry. Most invisible things are not visible because they are not there. I feel that more research is needed in this area, that is uncovering visible evidence and not invisible speculations.
One of the titles published by the Right Book Club was the 1938 This England: a book of the shires and counties, by W S Shears. This raises a real can of worms. The one certain thing is that the people in charge at this reactionary club thought that topography and provincial interests were of interest to consumers on the Right. When we start to extend this to proposals such as “writing about landscape is right-wing” or “writing about anything outside the big cities is right-wing” or “writing about the past of any district in Britain is right-wing”, these proposals sound totally unconvincing and we are faced with the prospect of doing a lot of fine-grained work and ending up with results which are also fine-grained but unimpressive and, in the end, inconclusive. I have a weary feeling that we are going to spend much, much work on this precisely because it there are no undisputed facts.
I have great difficulty in supporting the proposal that we can identify poetry about landscape as right-wing from the word go. I can extend that to saying that I am impressed by ideas that art has to have serenity, has to represent something larger than humanism and more stable, that it gives us access to abstract ideas by showing objects stable enough to make thought about them possible. So I can’t just identify art with what is critical, depicts conflict, undermines individual consciousness, and so forth. These things may appeal to many left-wing cultural thinkers but they do not characterise the Left as a whole.
I have also been reading Raphael Samuel’s Island stories: Unravelling Britain, his last, notably unfinished, work about how British people remember the British past. He was the son of two communists and remembers going on hikes through beautiful countryside in groups of young people organised by the Party. So there they were, looking at landscapes, seeing remote parts of the country, experiencing the past by seeing old (possibly ruined) buildings. This cannot have been a right-wing experience. (The essay is “Country visiting: a Memoir”, and is 20 pages long.) The date he specifically mentions is 1940-1 but I get the impression that he, or his family did a lot of hiking in the 1930s and 1940s.
I have no doubt that there is a right-wing way of imagining the past and the landscape, integrating real things into a fantasia which has a minimal connection to reality. I have much more doubt about finding such fantasias in poetry of the past 80 or so years.
Captain Ramsay, interned in Brixton jail, was still allowed to ask parliamentary questions because he was still an MP. Griffiths records him asking one which dealt with the activities of the Advisory Music Council. This organised music for the armed forces and was headed by Sir Victor Schuster (1885-1962), a name which could be Jewish. The question “asked the Secretary of State for War whether he is aware that, under the chairmanship of Sir Victor Schuster, the Radio Music Council has been overburdening the musical programmes for the Forces with renderings characteristic of Oriental and African races; and whether he will ensure that programmes shall contain a greater proportion of music characteristic of the white races and especially those inhabiting the British Islands.” (Hansard) This was debated on 3 August 1944. The wording is a code for jazz, felt to be something African which was often played by Jews. I am listening to a Benny Goodman recording to check this out. Fabulous! I guess that the music in question was not jazz but non-improvised dance-oriented pop with an African-American influence, so swing. This is a moment when a Right view of culture comes into the open. The point was clear in 1944 but I don’t think it holds good today, the conservative-supporting newspapers expect their readers to listen to rock music, and no doubt they are right. The Sixties changed everything and we have to work out a description of right-wing cultural preferences which is accurate for today and not for 1944.
(I have consulted Hansard and the reply was “I am informed that the Advisory Music Council over which Sir Victor Schuster presides acts in an advisory capacity only to E.N.S.A., and possesses no executive authority.“ So this would relate to music given at Army entertainments, by ENSA, and not to military music as used for marching, on parades, etc. The government spokesman said further that “The Advisory Music Council is concerned solely with the place and share of classical music” in ENSA, so was not even involved in the dance music which ENSA might use, in revues for example. The question was framed entirely because Schuster is a possibly Jewish name. Most of the classical music played under government auspices during the war was put on by the CEMA, not ENSA, so I am not clear that the Music Advisory Council had any importance. Is there somewhere a master list of "wartime committees which didn't really do anything"?) **

Thursday 14 September 2023

beautiful feelings

“beautiful feelings” – more themes

It is a question whether there is any influential person in the present time, or one whose ideas I should be reporting. I began thinking about this while looking at copies of Poetry Review which I had acquired in order to read up their reviews. I had an issue from 2008 and the feel was of reviewers discussing works by influential people and being deferential to them, and artistic stimuli not being much present or decisive. So I don’t discuss anybody influential in my book... I was wondering if any of these people, working at the TLS or at famous publishers, actually have any influence, apart from the obvious one of pressuring people to be more conformist. But that leaves out the issue of people being influential by the quality of their ideas, and not because they have a job which gives them patronage. (Or because they have a seat on the board of the Poetry Society and have the power to fire or appoint editors of Poetry Review.)

I think one of the prominent features of the 21st century scene is that there are no influential figures. It could be that there are people influential within particular cells of poetry and it is a question of isolating cells small enough for this power to be detectible.

There is a review by Fiona Moore in a 2016 issue of PR talking about the “Best British poems of 2015” anthology (edited by Emily Berry) which correctly points out that there is a shared Tendency in the poems chosen (like, 10 out of 71 maybe) towards erotic poems by women, and that this is related to a tendency in the USA called gurlesque and indeed that this idea was mediated by Roddy Lumsden, who pointed out to various poets that this was a workable idea. The name relates to “burlesque”, which in US theatre talk means not “comic/ parodic” but “striptease”. The poets involved are not actually girls, that too is a word which involves innuendo. I dedicate a whole chapter to the poets in that anthology and it was the dropping of inhibitions which struck me. Of course what the inhibitions were driving off stage is very complex and unfamiliar, and trying to confine it to a single idea is misleading. Googling “lumsden + gurlesque” produces 4 hits, although there are many more hits which do not show the two words within one sentence. It shows Amy Key saying “Five years ago I pitched an essay to the editors of a new edition of Gurlesque – an anthology of women poets that was central to Roddy Lumsden’s teachings. I wanted to use the essay to highlight Roddy’s incredible influence on a generation of UK poets. [...]The updated edition of the anthology however, never seems to have happened, so for what its worth I’m publishing it here, because this story is really important to me. The writing in the essay is a bit awkward and I wouldn’t write it in the same way now – its almost five years old – but I’ve left it as is.“ The US anthology came out in 2010, was edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, and featured Chelsey Minnis. When Kay says “generation” I think she means maybe 2% of an age group, and the distinction between “generation” and “tiny cell” is one I especially want to bring out. “Back in London, Roddy ran two weekly poetry workshops. In one of his classes, sometime in 2006, he introduced three poets totally unknown to everyone in the room: Chelsey Minnis, Brenda Shaughnessy and Matthea Harvey. He told us these poets were loosely known as ‘gurlesque’ writers. I can’t remember who was in the room, but around this time a few of the names I mention above were in this group with me. It was common for the poems Roddy brought to class to be taken apart—this happened most often when we were looking at work from UK poets, ones that might be defined as mainstream.“ So first we hear “generation” and now it’s one poetry class in an institute doing evening classes in Covent Garden, London. It does occur to me that there is a country outside London. This looks like a significant transmission process, Lumsden did something significant even if he hadn't invented the idea and didn’t have the skill to write poems in that style. I am doubtful about the firmness of the link between "gurlesque" and the poems in Berry's anthology.
I am facing the possibility that there might be 100 identifiable cells and that I would have to crawl through a lot of detailed evidence to identify the influences which flowed into the cell or also flowed outwards from it. To be honest I think it is better to deal with particular books close-up and leave out the question of what they are sequential to.
I don’t like the word Gurlesque, it is too close to striptease, but I would go for the word “derepression”; that is the long-term thing, continuously since the 1960s, and it has given us not just a landscape with thousands of poets but also a bewildering range of styles. If people are not conformist, then tracking influences is relatively unproductive and frustrating. That 2015 anthology gives generous space to the chosen poets to comment, and none of them mentions Gurlesque or anything like it. I found an interview with Berry about the anthology which also does not mention Gurlesque. I am grateful to Fiona Moore for pointing out the context and for observing that the editor of the series in which Berry’s anthology appeared was Roddy Lumsden.

I think someone can become influential by first of all recognising that there is no avenue for being influential on a large scale. Once they accept that the “cell” is the largest unit in which they can change the melody, they can be effective. Diversity of taste has discredited the older critics of poetry who set up a rigid ideal and became significant because they owned it. That makes you look authoritative, whereas if you recognise diversity as the sound of the time, you appear not to know anything of any value. All the same the credible critics or experts are the ones who accept diversity, that is the small size of any nameable patch. John Berger is the most tyrannical and irrational critic I can think of, someone charged up with the Stalinism of the 1950s. There were others, too. But it is hard to think of anyone like that operating today, and in fact there has been a shortage of Authority figures emerging since the 1970s. People don’t want to hear that kind of aggressive tone. I link it with territoriality, someone like Berger thought they owned the landscape and that enabled them to lay down the law. I suspect that it works in two ways, that the great range of creativity today is possible because people like that have fled into the wilderness, and that the diversity also disproves any rigid and generalising theory and discredits the would-be Commissars.
Lumsden included notes on the 85 poets in his 2010 anthology ‘Identity Parade’. The notes are really bland and passive, tending to reproduce the poet's publicity lines rather than stating anything precise. Even though he admits to copying the model of Lucie-Smith's anthology, he has none of Lucie-Smith’s ability to sum poets up. Obviously there are benefits from not being exact and analytical. In the end you could learn from Lucie-Smith how modern poetry works, but there is nobody you can learn that from today. The possibility of making a living these days comes from teaching writing classes and workshops, and that role works much better if you are passive and receptive. Encouraging students and not imposing any dogma on them. I think this is now the style of “experts”, and you can have many people being very grateful to a former teacher without subscribing to any position which they stood for. This is something to emphasise….you have plenty of people who are friendly and amenable to ideas, who want to be liked and whom you end up liking. I don’t know how to paint a picture of this, but it is certainly why you have the scene being mobbed with people who want to be poets. Also, the key ideas don't have owners.

In the book I talk about Anthony Mellors’ use of Wilhelm Müller's poem “Der Leiermann”, set to music by Schubert. I was also impressed, just now, by the use of Donovan's song “Hurdy gurdy Man” as the ominous soundtrack music to a key murder scene in David Fincher’s film “Zodiac”. Leier is a hurdy gurdy, obviously. In Donovan's lyric (to this distorted, intense, rotating psychedelic song) he talks also of “roly poly roly poly roly poly man”. I saw a reference a few days ago to a roly poly landscape. Aha – it refers to something rolling (not just to someone carrying a lot of fat). The ‘roly’ must refer to the handle of the hurdy gurdy being turned round and round. This is what causes the strings to vibrate.

Maybe if I collected stories from 100 different poetry writing classes I would have the history of poetry in the last 20 years. And that would be Success. OK, maybe I am doing the wrong kind of work. But I don't think ONE story from ONE writing class is the story of a generation.

“The RED CANDLE PRESS, Britain’s longest established formalist poetry press, was founded in 1970 by Dale Gunthorp and M. L. McCarthy, without financial capital but young and feisty enough to take on the intolerant and dictatorial prose-gone-mad poetry Establishment - it really was the Establishment then - on behalf of verse and sanity.” (ML is “Len”, apparently.) I read this website in 2023 so it seems they are still going 50 years later. (More looking digs up “After the October 2010 issue of the magazine, publication of Candelabrum was suspended indefinitely.”, but the press is still going.) It is striking that people who reject modernity do not boast about being conservative and reactionary. Not just here, they always present themselves as rebels. If you are still a beleaguered minority after 50 years it may be that you are simply unresponsive to modern art, as opposed to being about to bring about its final defeat and exit from the scene.

A problem has emerged in the shape of a curve. The figures I have (from forays into the British Library catalogue) have the following percentages for women poets (of single-author collections):

2000 38.4%
2010 36.1%
2019 41.9%

The expected upward drift is not there. Evidently the percentage was rising during the Nineties:
1990 29.5%
1995 32.2%

but on this quite extensive evidence it has also seized up after the new century started. I was really surprised to see this. I would have expected the movement to stall, not at 50%, but somewhere in the 50s. I can do another crawl-through of the data, but I can't see corrections affecting this basic contour. Of course the basic catalogue entries give you names and you have to guess what the gender is, which leaves a region of uncertainty, perhaps 2% of the names. One can look these up one by one and resolve some fraction of them, but that is very tedious. Anyway the percentages do not shift much if you carry out that exercise.
I can’t interpret this curve. I analysed the titles listed by the Poetry Book Society, for a 5 year period 2017 to 2022, and in that set 55% of the poets were women. I also can't analyse why this is different from the ratio in the complete data (which in theory would include also Bad Poets).
A question would be if the increase of women poets has meant a decrease of male poets. No, because the overall count of titles has increased steeply and so both shares have been growing at the same time. It follows that 40% in 2019 actually means more poets than 40% in 2000. However, it is surprising that the moment of “50% of poets publishing are women” does not seem to be close.

It is interesting to compile these spreadsheets and work through them, cleaning up the data. The titles give you a glimpse of how the poet sees the poetic world. Aesthetic response is based on actually reading the poems and I would probably not know more than 4% of these poets. They number in thousands. Looking at the whole mass of poets gives you a different perspective. It may be that you would find two radically different histories if you looked at "400 poets earnestly publishing" and "200 effective and ambitious poets", and write two different books about them.

Sunday 27 August 2023

John Ash

I found out yesterday that John Ash was dead. He died almost four years ago (so less four months). I didn’t even know he was dead. I really liked his poems. I realise now that he published two books during the 21st century, which I haven’t read. There is a note by Michael Schmidt on-line which records that he had returned to England in 2015 but minus his “living archive” and as he couldn't even type there are major problems in recovering his late work. (“He left Istanbul having abandoned all his possessions – books, manuscripts, records, paintings. It seemed they were irrecoverable, though in the last few weeks Carcanet has begun assembling an archive of his letters, poems and other writings [.]”) There will be a Collected poems, I guess that is still in the works. I don’t feel compulsive about the possible lost poems (from say 2010 to 2015?). My feel is that he had worked out how to sound the same in every poem, so it doesn’t matter too much if you have a collected of 300 poems or 500 poems. The way that the “John Ash voice” is a role he played is connected to how well the poems go over and how much you can play at using that voice while reading them. He had that combination of Bohemian lifestyle, economic vulnerability, and a work ethic when it came to poems. I recorded that the volume (two books in one volume, allegedly) Anatolikon/ To the City was 140 pages long. Clearly he had a shoreline on abundance.

There is a moment of fertile excess here, which is the amazing number of serious poets who were born in 1948: as well as Ash, Denise Riley, Grace Lake, Brian Catling, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney, David Harsent, Peter Didsbury. It is surprising how few of these are still around– we do have their works though. The direct cause for the spike in creativity must be the student uprising in 1968, so that the idea of a new society became convincing and poets wrote thereafter from inside that idea. The spike must also be an artefact – there were three year-groups at university in 1968, not just one, and people didn’t always start or end university “on time”. Also, the people who became vital poets were not necessarily even at university in that year. I think it sounds a bit superficial to consider student radicalism in terms of producing fab poets rather than looking at the bigger idea of entering a new society and living there. Corbyn was born in 1949 and is part of this wave. Partly channelled by Corbyn, a new upsurge of student radicalism has made an electoral impact and may also have produced a new generation of poets.
Ash evidently fell into a certain disarray, towards the end of his stay in Istanbul, if he couldn't even transport his personal possessions home. Similar disarray was a feature of the lives of at least one of the poets mentioned. Their commitment to poetry may have been accompanied by a refusal to “get a proper job” and a mortgage: dropping out, then. To recite the obvious, the radicals who got academic jobs made things better for students and actually changed a key institution.
The other point often made is that poets who became academics became cultural bureaucrats bound to defend the institutions and their own positions, and that their residual wish to write radical poetry has failed because it was in contradiction with the circumstances of their everyday lives. I have a friend who makes this point to me too often.
In general I find that over 55 years since 1968 too much has happened, too much data has arrived and it doesn’t fit into any known pattern. People didn’t just fulfil ideals. However, the poets of that generation are on my mind because they took fascinating positions and had a symbolic role because of their ability to dramatise the issues and live them out.
I should add that I don’t have the biographical details of these poets (or at least not all of them). What I do have is the legends, the rumours. The legends exist because the poets made significant gestures, their messages were startling and yet did not have the flaws that big gestures usually do. Formulating these signs was to some extent outside the poems, in another way was the basis for the poems, the ground on which they rested.
If you drop out you are intentionally not supporting the institutions. That indifference may be mutual. Someone like Ash needed the institutions to hold him up. It is apparent from Schmidt’s brief account that Ash was phoning him every morning after his return from Turkey. This shows that there was an institution which supported him and that it was Carcanet as a body and Schmidt in particular.

I think the shared element between these poets is derepression. Ash wasn’t political but it occurs to me that he was the first English poet whose style, whose voice, was consciously gay. I am worried about this because he started in the late 70s and it seems as if there should have been lots of such voices prior to that. (I can cite Dunstan Thompson but after all he was American, and moved here after having become a poet.) Perhaps more research is needed.

Someone posted on Facebook this week about reading Ash’s poems and enjoying them. He also didn’t know Ash was dead. Found this out from comments on his post. I think Ash dropped off the radar and it must have been because he lived in Turkey for 20 years.

Sunday 13 August 2023

Macleod at the BBC

Macleod at the BBC Joseph Macleod (1903-84), a rather marginalised poet, published A Job at the BBC (1945) after leaving them. It is rather paranoid but documentation now coming to light has suggested to several Macleod scholars that he was right to be suspicious. He describes the firm as being run by people with no official title or job, and these people also censored his scripts and prevented him from workng.

I don’t mean to upset you further, Andrew, (and it upsets me greatly to recall and write this), but I found out a great deal when I went to the BBC Written Archive at Reading in 2007. I was only 27, so I reckon I could have pushed a bit more if I’d gone at my present age - but I was quite pushy and maybe my youth helped extract that little bit extra information. The Head Curator, a lady in her 60’s, was remarkably abrupt and clipped in her speech with me from the get-go. She knew exactly who Macleod was and what he was “about” she told me. She showed me a set of files from the early period of his employ and was strangely reluctant to show the ones from 1943 onwards. I photographed a great deal of it with my digital camera, as surprisingly I was permitted to do, but I’d brought it just in case. When I got up to leave, having seen the scandal of Macleod’s being bundled out of the BBC due to his accent and leftish leanings by the then Director General Lindsay Wellington and also the surprising (and, bizarrely, later super-famous as (not the best) Oxbridge boat race commentator) thorn in Macleod’s side - Head of Presentation, John Snagge - I mentioned the scandal of 1945 and how Macleod had clearly had been swiftly removed from his position after reading Churchill’s election defeat, to which the strict curator replied very defensively and I thought even aggressively- “Macleod was NOT removed. He RESIGNED!” I decided not to argue - though the papers I’d just seen and photographed showed a mighty row took place before he departed. 
(email from James Fountain, author of the only book about Macleod)

I have just copied this from the BBC website:
"By that stage [1985], a policy of flatly denying the existence of political vetting - not just stonewalling, but if necessary lying - had been in place for five decades.
As early as 1933 a BBC executive, Col Alan Dawnay, had begun holding meetings to exchange information with the head of MI5, Sir Vernon Kell, at Dawnay's flat in Eaton Terrace, Chelsea. It was an era of political radicalism and both sides deemed the BBC in need of "assistance in regard to communist activities". These informal arrangements became formal two years later, with an agreement between the two organisations that all new staff should be vetted except "personnel such as charwomen". The fear was that "evilly disposed" engineers might sabotage the network at a critical time, or that conspirators might discredit the BBC so that "the way could be made clear for a left-wing government"."
Macleod had sympathies with the Soviet Union (publishing three books about Soviet theatre) and his problems with BBC management almost certainly related to his uncertain security status, rather than anything else.
His book does not mention a purge of leftists already on the staff, in the later 1940s, but I hear persistent rumours that this is what took place, even if MI5 had been vetting new recruits since 1935. The radically changed conditions of the Cold War brought more polarised attitudes towards hapless staff members. Presumably this had not happened when Macleod was writing his 1945 memoir – the Cold War had not then begun.
My feeling is that the archivist reacted so extremely because she knew what James were looking for and because she had had other people looking for evidence of the same process. Because the process had occurred and it is of considerable interest.
What upsets me is the ability of a large organisation to cover up new ideas and opinions and then to cover up the fact that a cover up had taken place. Suppression was itself suppressed from the record. So meetings that never got minuted, people in vetting jobs that aren't shown in the organogram or in a job title, decisions hidden behind fake “performance issues”. The frame itself is not visible even though it is the restriction on what is visible.
James also mentioned the yawning gap between the coverage by the British media of Middle Eastern politics and what had actually happened. This brought us to a new theme – Robert Fisk, writing about the great war against the truth, is dealing with the large scale, but the BBC coverage of what happens in Britain can only distort subtly, because the audience have the means of comparing the broadcast with the reality. So we as cultural historians are tracking subtle distortions. We are directed at the small scale. This is our situation. But perhaps long practice has also given us the ability to detect what was never entered into the record. The skill we admire is that of detecting the frame and seeig where the cut-off is.

Sunday 30 July 2023

Feathers on Glass

To my great excitement Shearsman are putting out my new book of poetry, With Feathers on Glass, in the next couple of weeks. This is the first new book since 2006 so this is a big event for me. (Some of the poems came out in magazines.)

The title refers to the use of feathers, sometimes, for painting on glass (Hinterglasmalerei). A blurb follows: “The original idea of “Feathers on glass” was to get close to folk art. After a long period attempting to learn Gaelic and Welsh, this new poetry is saturated in folk-lore and myth. The paintings are a distribution of cultured art motifs to rural households, patterns copied onto glass with feathers or brushes made of marten-hair. They are an expression of humility towards the illiterate. The idea of cultural difference being the effect of distribution technology was illustrated by the peddlers who carried the glass panes around the villages of central Europe. The interest in shopping follows a previous and prolonged interest in manufacturing and production, completing the sequence. Reminiscences of childhood and the wreck of the great High Street department stores around 2020 combine in a personal mythology of grand motifs and elaborate ruins.
This is a new start after a long period of silence and begins with an inventory of concrete facts around the poet, in his home in Nottingham, close to where he grew up. One theme is defeaturing, the recreation of court and metropolitan art forms in a simpler manner. Radiant messages broken up by distance. A statue park around The Mall allows for a re-enactment of the history of the State.‘Tautology’ is a poem about neuroscience as something setting out to replace self-awareness as an account of how the mind works. It gives a history of the self as a block on perception, behind which an intact world hides. Where the claim to omnipotence of the ego is ruined by the cosmic impartiality of light.
‘Dr Mabuse meets Dr Marcuse’ tells an adventure in which the famed theorist of de-repression and ‘one dimensional man’ faces the more famous super-villain of Weimar cinema, and they struggle for the future of California and its beaches.”

I had to compile a new Selected poems in 2017, which I found difficult, as you might expect. Thirty years of writing. But as a result of the difficulty I got interested again and began having ideas, so the first sketches for Feathers were in about September 2017. I then wrote a lot of poems and I was nervous about the effect and about dividing the poems into two books. I wanted that division to be perfect before going into print. So this delayed things. I don’t really want to get into why I stopped, back in 2005. It had to do with “The Imaginary In Geometry” being very difficult to write and then not getting reviewed when it came out. I felt it was a climax. When it was time to start again, I felt that it was just too difficult and anyway I couldn't do better than “Geometry”. But a whole set of things changed in 2005. My job in London vanished (it wasn’t on the new corporate organogram) but I got a new one in Nottingham. I moved to Nottingham which is about 13 miles from where I grew up, in Loughborough. I think part of the pattern was that in London I was under strain the whole time, the environment was insecure and competitive, and I didn’t belong there. This was very stimulating, in its way. When I moved to Nottingham it was going home and I wasn't under strain any more. What changed, later, was that I acquired a house with a garden, I acquired a cat who liked the garden, and then I retired and didn’t even have to go into the office any more. So I felt united in a new way. I was happy. And this was the basis for new poems. I wanted to write about this and a series of poems set in my garden seemed to be the way forward. What I discovered, hidden under an aggressive elder hedge, was a sink with cockle shell (and snail) decoration: obviously an ornament in imitation of a Grotto. This was naive art in my own back yard. I was very happy with this. It connected to the paintings on glass. The centre had sent something out to the periphery and visibly this was me, I had reached the periphery and had only vague ideas of what was happening in the world’s cultural metropoleis. I had a long relationship with naive art which came to a head with reading Harald Szeemann’s book Visionäre Schweiz. Szeemann just filled me with enthusiasm, like a jug. The shells of the decoration referred to the distant sea, and by an obvious shift they could be referred to the tides, stirring in obedience to the Moon. There was the glimmering of a poem here. The idea was to record the feelings I actually had and to use the processes of naive art to bring them into words. He quotes “a way of thinking that shows magical-animist traits, without sharp separation of fantasy and reality” and in which “the way of thinking and acting is pre-logical, concrete, with symbols, compressions, dislocations; objects are perceived as animate”. Another source was a document called the Papyrus Jumilhac (known to me from a description rather than directly) which relates to a single nome (province) of Egypt, the 18th, but sets all the great myths locally, in terms of the hills and waterways of that province. So everything happened here. The gods shrink to local scale. They are small enough to be seen in a garden. This reinforced the idea but it was already there, really. So this is “personal mythology”, written as folklore rather than myth. I really liked, also, a painting by Gerhard Altenbourg called "Ich-Gestein", or "I-ore"; the geology of an attachment to your home.
Szeemann was an exhibition organiser and essayist. He did all kinds of things but one of them was to bring naive artists, of whom Switzerland seems to have produced quite a few, right up against modern artists (of the 60s and 70s, usually) and erase the boundaries between them. So his exhibition catalogues were sacred texts for me. I also have catalogues (bulletins) from the annual exhibitions of naive art at Bratislava, edited by Štefan Tkač, a Slovak art historian. He had to rename the events “Insite” (= in situ), because the Party did not accept that any citizen of a communist country could be called Naive. No, they were all enlightened. So he could have the exhibitions as long as they were called something else. There was also a 1964 book about peasant artists in Yugoslavia by Oto Bihalji-Merin, which the library here gave away for about 50p. A wonderful book. This is actually where I got interested in painting in glass, I suspected that the paintings he illustrates were influenced by an older Catholic tradition in the Hapsburg realms, although after investigation I don’t think that's true. (Bihalji-Merin is categorical about this.) Someone called Hegeduśič went to teach art to villagers, in Croatia, in around 1929, and glass was one of the media he used. It is significant to me that these historians were all European; Swiss, Slovak, Serbian, this appeals to my abiding ideals.
For the first five years I had no money – the pension was about 20% of my previous salary. So I wasn't going anywhere. I was already there. This was really the end of alienation but also of events: every day was empty and I had to fill it. Everything was very simple and the poems could only record what was there. My gestures were magnified: unconscious fantasy was audible because there was no other sound to make it unclear. The poems started with images, or clusters, which I found significant, and used “pre-logical” means to develop this primary material into more elaborate structures. I am not sure how this fits in with the ethos of Alternative Poetry. I suppose the direction was prescribed by the lack of the autobiographical themes which I had written about in previous books – so falling in love, being rejected, conflicts with an employer and with the business system in general. I had reached a stage in life where that music had stopped playing. The new direction allowed me to connect with what was happening inside me and so to write a new autobiography, even if the themes seemed esoteric.
The poem most about glass painting is called “Paintings on glass”. This mentions the Peace of Westphalia. The story is that the paintings, aimed at modest households, were originally of saints. Protestant households were not interested in buying these. The producers reasoned that the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, had been the basis for free and unpersecuted religious activity for Protestants in Germany. The envoys to the peace discussions had faces and you could make paintings of them. They were undoubted representatives of Protestantism as a secular and political interest, a community. (The design is a few decades younger than the Peace, around 1700.) So you could produce stylised paintings of them and sell them to Protestant households, to decorate their front rooms. This does mean something to me, because a large print (from a painting from a photograph!) of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843 was a feature of my grandparents’ home. It was later a feature of my parents’ home, although it was not in the front room. This is continuous with the glass paintings tradition, although I am not aware of any significant art being produced in this line. That 1843 photograph (a composite of many photographs, I believe) is significant in the history of photography.
Having reached the point of retirement I was doubtful about the value of learning anything more. It was hard to explain how it would equip me to lead the rest of my life. I went on studying Welsh and Scottish Gaelic and impulsively added Irish Gaelic. I found this difficult because there was so much of it I didn’t know. But it was wildly stimulating. I was drawn to these languages, old and dwelling on the periphery of Western Europe, because I was also on a periphery and because I felt close to my ancestors – the effect of age and simplifying life. It was like withdrawing into my garden. I was getting closer to what was fundamental, intact although buried by everything less stable and more superficial.
It’s hard to change your style after sixty. It is no good thinking that when you open your mouth something different is going to come out. More probably what you hear is just what was there before, but more developed, bonier, more essential and less distracted by graces and trills.