Wednesday, 16 January 2019


Syberberg

This is partly an assessment of the idea that eccentricity is an English thing, by means of talking about some German eccentrics. There is or used to be a German comic called “Der Excentrik-Club”, which told the comic adventures of the members of that club – a German image of England. (There were some films about them, I believe, specifically a 1917 film called 'Die Hochzeit Im Exzentrik Club', credited to Joe May but allegedly written by Fritz Lang.)

If you believe that there is a sector of important ideas, whether in solving political problems or in cultural achievement, which is repressed by a liberal consensus, you probably belong to the new Right. This is the New Right's private property, the asset they trade with. I don't actually believe that the 'liberal consensus' (that is, the ideas sector within capitalism, or half-outside capitalism) has blind spots, or that there is a windfall you could collect if society gave up on it.

A specific example of someone whose artistic career came to a mysterious end, which was probably connected to misgivings in the ranks of cultural administrators about anti-Semitism and Far Right sympathies, is the director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Syberberg was born in 1935, in Mecklenburg, and came to the West in 1956. From the Sixties, he was making documentaries, funded by himself from his salary as a TV producer in Munich. He seemed preoccupied with subjects much older than him, in fact with people born in the nineteenth century. This activity expanded, he made long films about Ludwig II of Bavaria, Hitler, and Karl May, still with very limited funds and in a style which was almost home-made, abandoning cinematic values to save expense. The subject of the Bavarian monarchy and the Third Reich was unpopular with cultural managers in West Germany, but it could be interpreted either as an attempt to appeal to archaic authoritarian currents of opinion undermining the Federal Republic (and its cultural institutions) or as a laudable attempt to recover lost areas of memory and discredit them or clear them up. In 1990, he published a book which included a number of Far Right statements, including anti-Semitic ones – he saw modernity as Semitic because it was dominated by the ideas of Marx and Freud (not true in the Federal Republic, obviously) and connected his difficulty in acquiring funds to this nefarious cultural hegemony. His career then came to an almost complete halt. It is plausible that the funding panels, necessary to him since his work had little popular appeal, lost their nerve at this point. The ambiguity had almost disappeared – he was no longer seen as part of metabolising suppressed crimes and evils of the German past (this despite his statement about combining historical investigation with a Brechtian alienation effect, which would have meant that he didn't idealise Ludwig – or Adolf). As mentioned, he had always had difficulty in getting funding. However, 'Virgin King” was successful in France, playing at one cinema for six whole months, and it was quite rare for a contemporary German artist to be acclaimed in Paris, so that funding would not normally have been scarce following that. So far as I can tell his last important film was in 1982, but it's hard to tell from bare filmographies, some part of which may be just a display to refute widely-believed claims about isolation and decline.
I wanted to buy DVDs of his work, but the “marketplace” I consulted showed them only at about £40 a shot. This implies that they are all out of print, and that even used copies are scarce. It looks as if his disappearance from the cinemas prevented a demand from building up in the DVD world, and as if any “cult” following had been thin. There is no pool of used copies. I can’t easily quantify this, but you can get any old junk on DVD, the market is greedy and huge. Of course, this situation would encourage a certain kind of Far Right romantic, for whom anyone suppressed is of interest because they are hoping that there is a whole suppressed world which they can discover and then go and live in. You can get the 'Hitler' film on You-Tube, courtesy of the CelticAngloPress. My thanks to them although I suspect that my idea of the White race does not coincide with theirs.

So, it's not irrational to suggest that Syberberg is a talented artist whose access to funding dried up because he offended the liberal consensus. But the circumstances weaken the case for him to a remarkable degree – he really did go into print with anti-Semitic remarks in a country which wiped out half of European Jewry, he had received extensive State funding for films including a Hitler biography, there are major problems with his style, his slow and sparse manner is so unattractive to a wide audience that the commercial world has not picked him up (and he was rejected by them even before the 1990 book, so that he was deeply dependent on State funding). It looks more as if there is no demand for his work.

One webpage says He also came into contact with Benno Besson of Brecht's Berlin Ensemble and through him was invited by Brecht to Berlin where he made his first film, in 8 mm.” That would be about 1953. So maybe it's true that his unique approach to interview or biography was influenced by Brecht. He is not asking for identification but has a very important founding in documents, in dense recorded facts. He actually filmed the Berliner Ensemble at work (rehearsing four productions); in a context of 'alienation' this might not mean that he sympathised with their methods or Marxist propaganda content. He was 18 – this sounds like something unimportant to Brecht and yet also “spontaneous”, something we hardly expect in a zone of “managed culture” like the DDR. Had it been official, it wouldn't have been this 18 year old pointing the camera, it would have been a whole team of comrades, including a Spanish War veteran, a secret policeman, and an accountant.

I think Syberberg has his place in film history. I am not convinced that he had restored the sublime, or that the liberal consensus has crippled West German culture.

If you can imagine that one could have made feature films in 1885, what would those films be like? Unbelievably slow, wordy, close to the sublime, close to religious painting. Syberberg was making home movies in the style of the 1880s. The style of 'Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland' (HEFAD) is out of place. It is about ten times slower than you expect from a film narrative. This is not unpleasant but it is hard to admire; identification with the characters is impossible, and this is what might bring it close to Brecht. It is radical: it is as if there were two styles of cinema, Syberberg's and the Hollywood style. Does it leave us in a state of complete boredom? Yes, but that leaves an empty emotional space in which we can do other things. It is the opposite of an advertising film, in which visual and auditory senses are jammed, there are rapid cuts, there is no emptiness at all. Behind this is a theory about modernity, by which it involves a crazily speeded-up, jangling, cage of over-stimulation which prevents consciousness and leaves us in a state of hyped-up frustration. Continual stimuli wear out our ability to respond, and we sink into insensibility. In contrast, there was the Victorian Sunday, in which the formal banning of any pleasant stimuli left time for studying theology and philosophy (acceptable because it had roots in theology) and this gave us access to the Sublime, to a settled personal view of things. Of course these things might be dependent on the exclusion of a wide range of stimuli, which would either refute them or at least expose their weaknesses. The sublime is less available in the twentieth century. So many thinkers, normally of the Right, have expressed this doctrine that the time-sense of the 20th C was bad for people. Syberberg is proposing a style which takes us back into the 19th century. He is interested in subjects who were immersed in the sublime. His idea of Hitler as a fantasist, a classic German adolescent who had trouble with reality and tried to live in a world of his own, is strikingly original and in many ways convincing (although it leaves out his other career as a politician). Fantasy leading to violence? – yes, persuasive because dialogue, relationships, a sense of borders, indeed a belief in the reality of other people, are all likely to make violence unnecessary, and yet are less available to someone who is sunk in fantasy at all relevant times. The time-sense of the film is mimicking the tempo of Hitler's fantasies. Is boredom equivalent to sublimity? Is a move into monologues, into long takes, enough to drag us back into the nineteenth century? In HEFAD there is no critical voice – it is all monologues, although the voice may be Himmler's as well as Hitler's.

The tag in the New Right chat I saw on-line is “the loss of the essence of the German nation”. That is, the idealistic philosophy of the 19th century, “remote from the world” (weltfern), is raised to being the German essence, and its disappearance is a loss of essence rather than a development in public language and cultural style. I should say first of all that when this philosophy originated there were few bookshops in Germany and few people read books, certainly books of philosophy; and that the feeling of isolation and infinite power which animates the philosophy is connected to the status of a tiny educated class, cut off from the masses and by the way also cut off from a political process, in monarchies which obeyed no democratic principle. It is credible that the arrival of mass literacy, of a book and newspaper trade which reached all parts of the country, and of a political process (interrupted, to be sure!) which could solve problems by legislation, and which strove to reach all voters and indeed all adults, made this speculative and solitary philosophy out of date. In a strange way, the idealism produced both the arbitrary power of the petty kings and the helplessness of a thinker in a kingdom where he was not genuinely a citizen. It is plausible that German collective culture simply developed away from it, and so that it was not the “German essence” at all. To be accurate, 99% of Germans in the 19th century were hardly touched by difficult works such as those of Schopenhauer or Hegel, and the main axis of German thought was surely theology. The idea that Germany is suffering from a desperate shortage of megalomaniacs does not convince me.

He went from filming actors rehearsing to filming real people against a fantasy stage set. The predecessor to the Hitler film may be the interview with Winifred Wagner, in her eighties at the time. Once a close friend of Hitler, she is an unrepentant Nazi and makes no secret that she regards the twelve years of the Reich as the ones she recalls most affectionately out of her long life. Syberberg gives her all the time needed, and rigorously never either rebuts or sustains anything she says. The film is rigid and this may give insight into the rigidity of the Hitler film. The aesthetic is much more easily reconciled with an American aesthetic, i.e. that of various documentarists, say Pennebaker. If you look at Syberberg's subjects, Brecht and then the head of the Wagner family, it is apparent that ideology is the key thing, and that unless you show the sublime landscape of ideology you can't get close to the mentality of these rigid egotists. This accounts for the visuals of HEFAD – a static backdrop, rather complex, resembling the scenery of an opera. It represents Hitler' fantasies and is vague and blurred because that is how fantasies are. It shows for example the Welteislehre, the “cosmic ice theory” of Hörbiger, as Hitler’s idea of how the planets came into existence. The characters can't walk through the backdrop or interact with it, obviously. This is also very cheap. It looks as if Syberberg had never heard the American mantra of film, “don’t tell me, show me”: he gives 90% of the exposition to words, and the visuals are static (if sometimes beautiful). He is less interested in the sensory world than in reason, the faculty which makes us persons and draws us into the world of morality. While this cinematic world is profoundly Syberberg's, rescued from a state which is merely real, and not imagined, at the same time it is not a dream we share, the whole staging keeps us at arms' length.

Syberberg would have been ten when the Third Reich collapsed. He belonged to the landowners of eastern Prussia, in fact the “ostelbianer” who were cast in European mythology as the most militarist, right wing, and unreconstructed of all classes. The war destroyed their grip on the German army, huge numbers of non-professionals reached the rank of officer and large numbers of the professional officers died. The years after the war saw the destruction of their estates, redistributed in one of the few benign acts of communism. Syberberg came from an enemy class and grew up in a country where class determined everything about you. It is unlikely that he accepted the pieties of Marxist teachers at his school. Anyway, Mecklenburg was one of the most conservative parts of northern Europe. He missed the ethical teaching offered by Western German schools and universities and it is credible that he emerged into the Sixties as a deep conservative, regarding the twentieth century as one long night of trauma. It does not seem that the word progress meant anything to him. Certainly he was interested by the 19th C when he came to make documentaries. The word "market" probably didn't say a lot to him.



If you look at Ludwig II, with his glittering career as patron of the arts (chief funder of Wagner, builder of numerous fairy-tale castles, etc.) followed by intervention of the soulless Bavarian bourgeoisie, subjection to business values, budgets, etc. loss of his throne and sequestration in one of his castles, etc., it is hard not to see the pattern of Syberberg's career. Again, he was someone alienated from official DDR culture who managed to make himself alienated from cinematic culture in the Federal Republic. Some fatality is at work here. It may be that this romantic enactment of a myth is inseparable from a commitment to Idealism.

Rural Mecklenburg in the Thirties didn't have capitalism. The liberation of the peasantry in the eastern provinces involved the serfs paying the landowners back for their loss of property – it made the peasants poorer. Mecklenburg lost serfdom in 1822 (not every aspect was abolished) so nostalgia for the 19th century, in Mecklenburg, gets you close to feudalism. When the Romantics were vapouring about the Middle Ages, around 1805, the lower classes, in some parts of Germany, were still serfs. Again, I would question what exactly someone could mean by “the essence of the German nation”. Serfdom, tyranny, overlords – is this what Syberberg was afraid of losing?

But is there a “pot of gold” of Far Right culture which the liberal consensus won't allow us to see? I am sceptical partly because I have hung out in German bookshops and looked at the torrent of militaristic Second World War memoirs, which were sold in millions of copies. Ex-SS generals came out of jail and published their self-serving memoirs without problems. In the Federal Republic, from its foundation, you could publish all kinds of Reich-nostalgia-kitsch. Obviously, you couldn't buy those books in East Germany. Being a monarchist in the DDR of the 1950s meant living in eclipse, in oppression. A Jacobite in Britain in 1760 could not express his or her beliefs in print. The Jacobite songs from Scotland and Ireland got into print much later. But, in the West, the market rules culture. Everything gets published, and it only disappears because the shops can’t sell it. Former Nazi authors made lots of money in the 1950s, their books are available second-hand, today, in large quantities. (I looked up Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer, just now, on the abebooks marketplace: 618 titles.) The idea of a secret marvel world of Far Right cultural creativity is false – this area was not suppressed. At most, you can talk about work which never got written because the Far Right genius was so hurt at the idea of being mocked by clever centre-Left literati around their café table. He turned into custard in the face of their cosmopolitan sarcasm, etc.

Another eccentric German figure was Rudolf Borchardt (1877-1945). What I first read about him described him as having written a complete translation of La Divina Commedia into fictional mediaeval German dialect. This took decades. I imagined him as an unworldly and benign figure, and thought of this invented language as being like Tolkien – from philology into near-lunacy. However, when I read a biography of him it turned out that he was into power, dominance, and freedom from bourgeois restraints, that his preoccupation was with seducing well brought-up young women who had an idealistic view of men, and that he was a Jewish anti-Semite. The last part really sticks in my throat – I find it very hard to sympathise with someone like that. Admittedly, that group was large in Wilhelmine Germany, and you could even argue that disliking them is a form of anti-Semitism, since they were an integral part of the complexity of European Jewish culture. Borchardt wrote an autobiography which does not even mention his mother, allegedly because she was the channel by which Jewish blood had reached him. Pretty unusual, an autobiography which never mentions the subject's mother. Since the biography was published, actually since I drafted this post, a thousand-page long pornographic novel by Borchardt was published – 70 years after his death. After the German book market was closed to him, as a Jew, he had to think of ways of making money – having paying guests for cultural tours in his Italian villa, writing about gardening, and writing pornography were ways of keeping his family fed. The most interesting thing about Borchardt was that there is a document, signed by his former professor, directed to a prospective father-in-law, which describes all his youthful sins (quite a catalogue) and says that he was a rascal but has now grown up. The biographer says that it is very likely that Borchardt wrote this document himself. This is a complex event. Borchardt was someone who lived in a lofty and dead world of Classical European culture, hardly unusual in the late 19th century, and had problems in reaching a market, even if the book market now attracted millions of people. His breakout was as an orator – after 1918 he made political speeches – great speeches, allegedly, but dedicated to overthrowing democracy, overthrowing peace, restoring military honour by a new war which would first demand an end to demands by the workers. In the Thirties, he was unable to get with the Third Reich even if they had realised his personal programme and overthrown the Weimar Republic, and gave his energies to socialising with the (uncrowned) king of Bavaria, the former Crown Prince Rupprecht (1869-1955). So Syberberg was trying to connect to Ludwig II, Borchardt actually was connecting with Ludwig's relative. (I believe Rupprecht was the grandson of Ludwig's uncle, in fact.) The idea was that the Prussian monarchy had discredited itself too much but the Bavarian monarchy could provide the leadership for a new (old-style) Germany. Borchardt wanted a restoration of monarchy – he was closely associated (this included quarrels, obviously) with von Hofmannsthal, who originated the phrase “conservative revolution” to sum up the enemies of the republics in Austria and Germany who desired new monarchies. Von Hofmannsthal was an important influence on Eliot's Criterion. In the Thirties, a number of German Jews expressed conservatism by reconnecting with Jewish culture, word mysticism, medieval folklore, and with the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine – sadly, Borchardt made no connection with this at all. The Wilhelmine Second Reich really expressed what he believed in. I became aware of him through Thomas Kling's recovery of his poem “Bacchische Epiphanie”. I was translating Kling so I became aware of his cultural salvage exercise, recovering poets of the past often from under many tons of accumulated rubble. The “Epiphanie” is a great poem; I doubt a translation is possible, but anyway the outcome would be to show that B was imitating Swinburne, so that if you read Swinburne (especially “Atalanta in Calydon”) you have got what Borchardt was doing in his Bacchic poem. It is an extremely classicising, costume poem, 20th century elements are hardly to be found in it. Adorno wrote a long essay on Borchardt, from which we can gather that Adorno still belonged to 19th century ideals of high culture and classicism, and that he was by no means a participant in 20th C democratic culture in the way that his modern supporters would wish to have him.
Wikipedia reminds us that “As a direct descendant of Henrietta of England, daughter of Charles I of England, he [Rupprecht] was claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in the Jacobite succession.” I can't spend time on this, but it does allow a flashback into the “exile culture” of the 18th century. The origins of the European Right are often traced back to the speculations of French monarchists after the fall of the monarchy, spun out in their enforced leisure as exiles and people without power. This (in, say, 1792 to 1815) was the origin of the Counter-Enlightenment, but perhaps we can already find elements of it among the Jacobites and their fertile myths of resentment. In the 1920s, the European Right received a new injection of rather shopworn DNA from Russian, Austrian, and German monarchists, out of office. Rupprecht firmly discouraged any mention of his possible claims to the English throne, “However, during his mother's lifetime Jacobites had styled him 'Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay', because of her claim.” The Jacobite era was a moment of people emotionally living in a country which was not the one they physically lived in, and which in fact did not exist anywhere. This situation was one which became a habit of the Far Right, and contact with reality was something incompatible with their cultural style.
A book on Syberberg has this quote: “while his more sympathetic colleague Rainer Werner Fassbinder described him as a “merchant in plagiarism” who simply imitated Werner Schroeter’s techniques and “competently marketed what he took from Schroeter” (Frankfurter Rundschau, Feb. 24, 1979: 21).” I never managed to go and see any of Schroeter's films when the Goethe Institut, London, showed them (in the 80s?) but the write-up suggested they were extreme gay films, made from the point of view of someone who had no compromise with heterosexual aesthetics or emotional norms at all. I am not sure what Fassbinder says is true (as opposed to being a sprinkle of bitchy rage) but it does open up the possibility that the Far Right position and the far gay position might coincide, in their wish to find a new world hidden behind the dominant reality channel. So a film about Ludwig II might simultaneously express a reactionary monarchist sentiment and a gay, operatic, beautiful male martyr sentiment.
The idea that Austria/Germany do not produce eccentrics is much like the idea that they do not produce homosexuals or bad films or unambitious, popular films. There is a whole range of minority-interest material in Europe which simply does not make it through the boundaries of translation. If you wander round a city like Munich for a week, you find all kinds of things which never got exported – in Munich, the late-Baroque Catholic devotional kitsch is an obvious example, but I imagine something similar is true of every European city.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Logue  addition: the surface meaning 

I looked at Logue again while writing a talk about gay themes in 20th century poetry.
Logue made no reference to any gay identity in his autobiography, but other information suggests that he was gay. So this is “quasi-non-factual”, or similar.
When I wrote about Logue’s Homer translations (material included in The Long 1950s), I interpreted the choice of subject in terms of a satire on militarism. Satirising the expedition to Troy followed up Logue’s 1950s poems on British troops being sent to Cyprus for a dubious war. Many years into the project (which began in 1959), dubious wars, with British participation, saw invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
Is this enough as a motivation for a project which stretched over 40 years and amounted to some 400 pages? If Logue was writing an anti-imperialist poem, would he have left out, as he did, any material making an argument against 20th C imperialism, and spelling out the purpose of his poem, which actually remains inexplicit?
I think we can also see the long series of combats as a parade of male beauty and self-adornment, which expresses a gay aesthetic by turning young men into glamour objects. Endlessly, or at least serially, we see young men, showing off their physical prowess, exhibited for our gaze. The patient description of their dress and equipment is probably unique in modern poetry. We might be looking at all this detail, not to support hostile feelings about the aristocracy, but as expensive pin-ups.
Two parallels led me up to this change of view. Louis Aragon’s La semaine sainte is a novel about the painter Gericault taking part in the campaign of Napoleon’s army just prior to their utter defeat at the battle of Waterloo. A lot of the characters are dashing young cavalry officers, wearing brightly coloured uniforms and riding spectacular steeds. There is no apparent reason why a Communist would choose this subject, which has no relevance to class politics. But if we see it as a gay writer describing an endless series of brilliant young men wearing ornate and expensive clothes and trappings, it makes more sense. Secondly, I was responding to Christopher Whyte’s remark that George Mackay Brown staged a remarkable number of deaths, one every three pages (roughly!). Whyte asked why this was, and the answer (for me) is a peculiar eroticism of persecution, whereby sexual feelings towards young men are tangled up with a sense of punishment and doom. The feelings themselves attract punishment, and doom or “civil death” is the fate of the homosexual in a mid-20th C society. Having grasped this for Brown, I gradually came to see that the same pattern prevails in Logue’s version of the Iliad, and he was describing a vast series of glamourised deaths. The deaths are the climactic moments, and it is significant that these scenes mainly concern athletic young men.
We could also think of Cecil B De Mille. It was said that de Mille was the director who discovered the bathroom. Even in the 1920s, his Biblical epics had a strong element of sex, and there was a double basis for his popularity. Despite his overt interest in religion, he created a classic moment of eroticism in the scene in Cleopatra where Claudette Colbert appears in the bath of asses’ milk. If we see Logue’s Iliad as a Bronze Age epic of the Near East with a foreground morality and an emotional foundation in spectacle and eroticism, that brings it close to the Hollywood line of films about ancient history. Logue is economical with footage of women characters. If you imagine the Iliad remake as a film, and imagine yourself in the canteen with all the actors, then what you would be seeing is a throng of glamorous and narcissistic young men. This speaks for itself.
It could be hard to explain to someone why 20th C films expressed sexuality in terms of women unclothed but submerged in a bath, or ranks of young women kicking their legs up in a chorus line. Everything gets displaced– everything profound loves a mask, as Nietzsche said. It certainly is hard to grasp how AE Housman expressed erotic interest in young men so often in terms of murder and hanging. Mackay Brown unmistakably repeats the poetic pattern which Housman established (and which he took in part from homosexual Hellenistic epigrams of the Greek Anthology). I find this hard to grasp, and it yields to patient work on iconography. The emotional intent is deliberately concealed, and is complex in nature – de Mille made everything visual and explicit, rapidly graspable, but the opposite is true of modern poets. Brown may be using physical death as a metaphor for doomed love, and for love which was never allowed to flourish at all, but was cut short when only a thought, a fantasy. The epigrams are often about the death of a young man – this cannot be reduced to “the eroticisation of violence”, instead the subject is the poignancy of loss and of flowers caught by a frost in the spring.
The process of civilisation has been said to be follow a course in which basic impulses are subject to more and more elaborate restraints. This produces complex cultural achievements. What if the basic impulses are being restrained by fear? That could produce even more complex cultural achievements, in which what is precious and significant is carefully hidden. What was designed to be ambiguous can never be reduced to plainness and certitude. It is possible to be wrong – but, at the same time, just reading the surface meaning cannot be enough.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Critique of the metropolitan elite

Intro. This follows up previous postings on Ken Smith, and on the relationship of UKIP to poetry (March 2017 and November 2018). It discusses the rejection of the most cultured tier of individuals as those most qualified to judge poetry, and suggests a link between this and a rejection of professional politicians in politics. It discusses the roles of Bloodaxe and Carcanet as the major publishing outcome of the 1970s turmoil, and why these publishers rejected poetry written in the modern style.
The rise of UKIP to win 18% of the vote in the 2015 general election, and the results of the referendum on membership of the European Union, were generally analysed by politologists as reflecting the protest of individuals, who felt themselves to be left behind, against metropolitan elites and their narratives. Xenophobia was well to the fore, but this was not the original policy platform of UKIP, and hostility towards an elite at Brussels was partly a reflection of hostility towards bankers and the political class at Westminster (provoked by the MPs’ expenses scandal). UKIP voters were, statistically, much less well educated than the population as a whole, and UKIP stood for rejection of the idea that “the highly educated should rule because they are better qualified to do it”. This attack on elites fairly obviously mirrors a line in poetry which also rejects the elite and which has expressed itself typically through jacket texts and passing grumbles. Because the anti-metropolitan groundswell in politics is so important, it attracts symbolism: if you use vaguely anti-metropolitan symbolism, it is going to be attracted to the structure of feeling around the rejection of the main political parties and of parliament, because that structure is so big that its gravitational attraction is not resistible.
The inability of the “managers” to conduct the business is shown in the difference between the poetry which sells and the noble discourse around poetry. There is a stratum which has as features low prestige- low participation – high resentment. As it follows, that layer also does not ascribe prestige to the high-prestige literary taste and its owners. The UKIP constituency is typically resentful and non-participating – a refuge in sulking which is very common in the poetry world. There is a layer which has high resentment but also, it seems, high-prestige manners.

As I write, you can go into a pub and find the house magazine of the corporation which owns it denouncing the metropolitan elite, as if whatever they said was inevitably untrue. The editorials by Tim Martin, in the pub hand-out, bear an unmistakable resemblance to the Introduction to Poetry With an Edge. The Seventies saw a swarm of small to micro poetry publishers, but the ones who survived to publish, eventually, hundreds of titles were Bloodaxe and Carcanet. Arguably, the presence of these two new firms, trying to break new poets in the High Street, was the tangible outcome of the Seventies. Their achievements were great in terms of keeping the shelves filled and finding an alliance of sensibility (which manifests, yes, as a market). The period after 1968 saw a polygon of ideals where hippies, Marxists, the New Age, Blake followers, new myth, and the experimental freedom of the alternative poetry vied to be at centre stage. Carcanet and Bloodaxe each represented a literary myth, but did not take on any of these ideals. The decay of these ideals has been taken as way of defining the 1980s. To understand the 1980s, you have to study Carcanet’s position statements, and the introduction to Poetry With an Edge. To put it another way, you can learn a lot by superimposing the two “alternative” sections of the new british poetry (1988), the Carcanet 1983 statement Some Contemporary Poets, and Bloodaxe’s Poetry with an Edge (1988). While they all cover the same period and its new poets, they barely overlap at all. This gives a significant way of defining the literary elite – if we see these three artistic proposals as offers to function as an elite, we can conclude that every elite is a minority and there is no consensus. In fact, the elite is hopelessly split, and in this new configuration looks remarkably like a market-place in which many brands compete for attention.
 I am writing about these firms with relation to the 1980s, and it is clear that their policies changed radically with time, so that generalisations true at one point cease to be true. To put that another way, their poets also changed with time.
Bloodaxe started from Ken Smith, and made his limitations into a perimeter. The jacket of The Poet Reclining quotes Charles Boyle saying “many (of the poems) have the harsh simplicity of Anglo-Saxon or other  oral verse.” To get with this, we have to get with a formation of taste. Such a formation holds assets which rise or sinks in value with the passage of time. A review of a 1960 book by John Holloway says “The poems display a sensuousness, a feeling for tangs, hardnesses, distances, for the muscularity of nature.” Thirty-six years later, the cover of the 2018 Smith Collected also says the poems are “muscular”. This formation shares, roughly, a belief in terseness and gruffness as masculinity and authenticity. Writing in stone is especially good because of its stiffness and, if vertical, erectness. Anglo-Saxon style features are admired because they are irreducible, terse, and, obviously, highly masculine. I suppose that in the 1960s reviewers explained what they wanted and poets tried to give it to them. The end of the age of ideology left reviewers clamouring for poetry about objects and physical work. A point of culmination might be the passage in part 1 of Briggflatts (1966), where the poet says, rather sententiously, that his message must be carved in stone because anything else is too soft. This equates poetic significance with stoniness. Descriptions of objects are admired and either introspection or abstraction are seen as anti-poetic: language has to stay with the concrete even if human beings flourish in feelings and ideas. This formation includes an admiration for the working class, seen as authentic because its members deal with objects and physical problems demanding strength. They take part in struggles. (This version has a male-only working class and they work only in demanding physical jobs.) Their distaste for abstraction correlates with a lack of abstract values like wealth, and of cultural capital.
It is not clear to me why Close Reading made certain moments of the poetic cycle unfashionable. It would be possible to read a text closely and favour any aspect of it. But evidently Close Reading disfavoured poems about ideas and feelings, and poems about objects and sensations, which apparently were more verifiable, and involved the poet’s personality less, were less subject to collapse in the classroom.
I quoted that book jacket because my perception is that this ideology about objects being more poetic than abstractions belongs to the early 1960s and late 1950s. This is part of my feelings of doubt that you can claim it as defining the new poetry after 1980. Bloodaxe have claimed at various times that they have caused a revolution, and that Ken Smith, their figurehead, was “the godfather of the New Poetry” and “inspired a whole generation”.  These claims seem implausible to me, and the way they are made, without any detail or argument to back them up, is typical of populism, where statements are not based on truth but on wishes. To make that clearer, the proposal that the new poetry of 1980 to 2000 was inspired by Ken Smith, and that the new thing during that period was represented by Bloodaxe poets, rather than by poets using innovative language and reacting to theory, is not credible. These are ideas which only work in connection with property – the context of selling a book and of claiming territory for the author (whose book you are trying to sell). They are quite different from statements made because they are true. To get at the real history of our lives, you have to strip away the territorial claims and self-exculpations.
This version of terseness could evolve into dumbing-down. That is the way you end up going when you discard ideas (as middle-class nonsense, or whatever). I think that some ideas have arrived since Anglo-Saxon times, which they did not have words for. In linguistics, a word is correct because a speech community accepts it as such, and in poetry we have to accept the power to legislate of social formations, small communities. The “objects are more authentic than ideas” party have had their successes, over the past fifty years. Of course, what Astley did as an entrepreneur was significant, and as we recover his commercial sensibility, in a vigorous propaganda through book jackets and so on, we find that it was popular. His ideology, with its components of a theory of style change over time, of authenticity, a local vocabulary which embodied preconceptions about poems, the pattern into which it fitted various contemporary poets as assets or witnesses, is a part of history and needs to be recovered. The cover of the 2018 Collected has that nutty claim that Smith inspired “an entire generation”;  I think we could rewrite it to say that Smith “inspired Neil Astley”. I am not aware of any significant poetry inspired by Smith. (With an exception – Ranter is based on Fox Running. But Barry copied Smith because he thought he could do better, at every level.) I understand that Astley hates the word “dumbing down”, but it is possible both to attribute a downer than down quality to much of Bloodaxe’s project and to admire him for reaching a new market which didn’t want difficult poetry. I started out as a rock fan, and the idea of simplicity and repetition doesn’t have the same negative charge for rockists that it does for academics.
The Introduction mentioned has two passages in which Astley dismisses the poetry which existed before Bloodaxe came along to legitimise the territory. One deals with literary poetry, one with the Alternative. The latter presents him as sitting harmlessly in the pub when someone sells him a magazine in the modern style, which he reads and finds to be full of meaningless advanced experimentation. Even though he claims to have only seen one issue of one magazine, he decides that this sums up a whole sector, and gives us 250 words to display his expertise from this wide exposure. The detail about him encountering this magazine shows that his knowledge is worthless – we cannot take it as of any value, since he has only seen one issue of one magazine. In fact, his belief that it represents the Alternative is unconvincing, since that would imply he knew the field and could recognise whether the magazine was ‘alternative’ or not. The subtext is “you’re stupid like I am”. The focus is featureless warmth, it is an anecdote about Astley and not about the range of poetry being created in Britain. Ignorant yet authoritative– this is the authentic Farage touch. It is hardly surprising that he does not say “in selecting poets for Bloodaxe, I looked for a style which had already been around for 20 years” – this would imply an overview which would imply possession of knowledge, and he is keen to present himself as someone who does not have knowledge. The fact that he does not mention the name of any older poet, of any anthology of older or even contemporary verse, or any name of any critic or magazine discussing modern verse, shows that all that connoisseurship, that scholarship, is meaningless to him – his ignorance qualifies him because it means that he does not share in the fatal flaws of the elite. Culture corrupts those who practice it.
Carcanet seized a literary wish-world in which there would never be any dumbing down, there would never be any breach between new poetry and the internalised love objects of classical English literature, where every text would have been made to withstand Close Reading, where there was no trace of invading Pop culture, where the poets stood up to moral examination and could defend their work as acting out a set of moral values. It would not invite mediagenic poets. The poetry would be free of the narcissistic pseudo-spirituality of Beat. It would be free of drugged/guru explanations of the cosmos. It would contain precise observations. All these values enacted inhibitions and the cumulative effect blocked off 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. The word neo-conservative was uttered. With Carcanet, the myth is about conservatism. Carcanet gave a robust valuation to the assets or beliefs which their market, of Eng. Lit. Academics, already possessed. This consensus was hesitant about the British Poetry Revival (and also about the avant garde of the 1940s) and was not necessarily looked up to by the wider poetry market (their ex-pupils).
Bloodaxe also offered a wish-world. Once you have piled up assets like {gruff, authentic, Northern, hills, Anglo-Saxon, hard, rugged, physical, working class} a significant fraction of the audience have already surrendered. It was an emotional place which many people wanted to spend time in. This line flourished in Stand, which Smith co-edited in the Sixties, and in the North. Smith got it from Jon Silkin and Ted Hughes. It flourished, from 1978, in Bloodaxe Books. It took on Bunting as an anti-abstract poet but rejected everything else about modernism. Later, it took on Smith and Pickard but rejected all the rest of the New Thing of the Sixties and Seventies, as defined by Mottram. It was puzzling how a style which in Smith was an expression of poverty and alienation, even nervous breakdown, could be presented in many younger poets as normal and even desirable. Perhaps it was asserting regional identity by discarding all the innovations of the previous 20 years – the metropolitan sacrifice. Fine words did not flourish north of Trent.
If I keep going on about book jackets, it is because I see them as part of the retail experience, which is one of the core social events of poetry. There is a gap between books about poetry and reviews, and another gap between reviews and jacket blurbs, but perhaps the blurbs are the closest to what readers want and find most persuasive. That is, shoppers may regard the blurbs as monomaniac distortions and partial truths, but they may not identify at all with the reviews or history books (which are usually 20 years behind the times). I think it is likely that there are no books which record the artistic ideology of Bloodaxe, which is clearly documented through their book jackets. Jacket texts record a certain history of British poetry, covering a wide area which never makes it into the formal, academic record at all. They describe thrills which aren’t actually available in the poems, but that is a trace of desires and fantasies which is of value in itself, and could even trace the designs of the poems. The jacket may, therefore, supply a way of measuring the failure of the poems. Further, the way the blurbs change traces a chronology which we should certainly be aware of. Things do change from time to time!
The anti-elite position is acted out in verse by Ken Smith and Peter Reading, particular. Smith attacks abstraction, in an interview. He says “I tend to avoid the Latin words. I tend to avoid the abstract words. What I like is the concrete image for things and Anglo-Saxon provides that all the time.”. This carries the latent anti-elite nisus. The people who understand abstractions are obviously educated and metropolitan and in positions of influence. They are part of the elite. This gives us a new idea of stylistics – we can equate use of advanced and differentiated vocabulary with acceptance of elite values. Conversely, use of repetitive concrete vocabulary may be a protest (or a sign of limited intellectual skills). I doubt that abstractions are meaningless, and I think further that the natural state for humans is to master abstract nouns, to be self-conscious and to record the reasoning which is inherent in that state, to have feelings and to interrogate them, to know other conscious humans and to engage in argument with them. To avoid this domain of language within poetry is to simplify natural language. Eschewing abstraction is a form of purity of diction which, like other purities, paints poetry into a corner where it must repeat gestures. However, the silencing of elite language is also a criticism of the people who use elite language. This is more to the fore in Reading, whose entire work can be seen as something deliberately ugly, linguistically damaged, full of unresolved conflicts and frustration, and as an attack on the people in charge, the ones who offer harmony as a way forward. His poems do not display reasoning because he dislikes the people who use reason. He is psychologically close to the UKIP camp.
If you eliminate abstract words, you come down to something chthonic, archaic, deprived of the modern senses. The purging of Latin and French vocabulary is the clearest expression of resentment of elite innovations and Continental influences. It extends the resentment back beyond the EU accession, into the Middle Ages. Foreign things are inherently wrong. The Bloodaxe book on Ken Smith (You Again) makes much of the Anglo-Saxon quality of his work, also in rhythm. This is seen as authenticity – but not as fear of the French. (To clarify – domestic elites structurally have skill in French and Latin vocabulary, and the protest is against domestic elites. It is not at all a protest against French people, Normans, or Romans, but about British people.)
 It is characteristic of a populist resentment that it ignores differences between various sectors which it wants to attack. But it is characteristic of elite individuals to differentiate themselves as much as possible, using and re-using the fine distinctions which Bourdieu talks about.

Education is bound to meritocracy and is seen as hierarchical by the people inside it, who manage it. It follows that some intellectual assets are more valuable than others. It follows then that some assets in reading and talking about literature are more valuable than others. It seems fairly clear that Theory is regarded as more prestigious than scholars who merely describe texts and assess their artistic qualities. The advent of Theory was tangled up with the student revolts of 1968 and adjacent years. The reaction of scholars of older generations to these events, French theory and students denouncing their elders, was not always either of welcome or of submission. The advent of a new elite did not see the elite in possession willing to withdraw. The role of theory is to separate high and low in an industry where ranking and assessment are one of the central, daily activities. What stands out more clearly in this educational context is that those with the top assets believe in hierarchy and those without them believe in solidarity.
I found a series of articles on Fascist writers in PN Review in 1978-9. The series seemed to express a passive-aggressive stance. The series seemed pointless because it was going back to the Thirties, and obviously avoided dealing with the situation of 1979, surely full of fascinating and creative poets. PNR was not a pro-Fascist magazine in the broad sense – they weren’t even trying to clear the names of those shunned figures. Schmidt had left-wing sympathies, although he did not like hippies. But they certainly wanted to undermine the people who saw connections between ideology and literature and wanted political readings of literary classics. For example, who wanted literature to promote change in society, and literary scholarship to promote changes in culture. The series seems to be drawn by guilt; breezy left-wing thinkers who denounced writers for backing Hitler and Mussolini are being framed as villains for doing so. But the concept is not to vindicate the writers who got into fascism when it was lucrative to do so – guilt is not being denied and is actually part of the appeal. There seems to be a vicarious quality about this– it speaks for conservative and middle-aged academics who know they aren’t very progressive or brilliant and who resent having their failings being called out. The central point is that they don’t disagree with the accusations– the emotional appeal starts with guilt and is a way of soothing it.
People who can’t compete, culturally, want a refugium where they are protected from losing. The idea of refugium applies even to literary academics. I think quite a few people felt that the gurus, first of all, (later, the “post-structuralists”) were brilliant and opening new worlds, but they personally had no ability to do that and wanted a safe place where they didn’t have to encounter these radical ideas. I spoke of featureless warmth as something distinctive for populist discourse. That is, closeness is offered in the absence of evidence or argument. There is a favoured spot for someone educated, where they believe that people who know more than they do are distantiated and inauthentic, people who know less than they do are locally bound, ignorant, and confused, but people who know what they know are simply in the right place. You can see that it is uncomfortable to have any other view of the cultural geography. It is possible that poetry, in the contemporary condition, offers a remedy which reassures people of the value of their cultural assets: bringing comfort, at the expense of course of reducing doubt and making change less likely. It is also possible that we can relate the ideology of given publishers, their brand image, to a comfort zone and to specific valuations of specific cultural assets.

In that PNR series, Michael Hamburger wrote very interestingly on Gottfried Benn. Benn produced an ardently pro-Nazi lecture in 1933. Then he found out that they regarded him as a degenerate. And he had a publication ban. If Hitler says you are unconsciously anti-Nazi, does that mean you are anti-Nazi or that you are consciously pro-Nazi and, as an intellectual, it is your conscious beliefs which count? You do want to read this, no question.
Where grand theory offers idealism, an ideal society (even if after a thousand-year delay), it is clear that populism does not offer ideals, or ideas. It is plausible that populism is involved with feeling of shame – positions which the liberal thought-world condemns. The populist response is not disagreement but resentment with agreement. They do not feel pride in cultural assets which they do not possess. They think their assets are inferior.
I suppose that a whole sector of poets is separate because their poetry comes out of idealism and theory. That is, they have the ability to move from abstract thought into a poem. They have speculated, and their style is what speculation gives them rather than being something awkward and clumsy, the legacy of older speech. It is hardly in debate that this poetry is high, and poetry which merely reproduces memory, with limited patterning, is low. But it is also likely that poetry of this kind also evokes anti-metropolitan resentments, and that the whole complex of resentment which produced the soaring voting figures of UKIP is also engaged in the resistance to elevated poetry. The more this poetry reflects psychological freedom, the more it makes people feel their own limitations. Also, once you go there, you don’t really want to be anywhere else.
Bloodaxe took their name from a character in Briggflatts, and Carcanet issued what looks like an ideologically regulated version of modern history – Under Briggflatts (by Donald Davie). Davie had been an editor of PN Review, the public voice of Carcanet. The clamour for poems about the sense record, about objects and tools, was prevalent in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It is curious to see this wing where Bloodaxe and Carcanet touch each other. Both publishers claimed Bunting as the founder of modern poetry – incredibly. Bloodaxe merged Bunting and Smith as icons of modernity. Neither publisher had any space for the British Poetry Revival, for radical lifestyles, or for the poetic Left. (Some details – Bunting’s poem mentions Eirik Bloodaxe, king of York, and opens with a passage about lines of verse being so terribly important that they should be carved in stone– with an edged tool, obviously. The flagship anthology Poetry with an Edge refers back to that edge, the stonemason’s chisel, and to the axe which Eirik liked to use on his subjects. Bloodaxe’s leading figures were Ken Smith and Bunting, fused together as poets who cut out all abstract words. In the first 120 pages of his 1982 collected poems, Smith used the word “stone” 100 times, and this is also fused with the writing in stone which Bunting longed for. )
Davie identified himself with the Movement, saw himself as its chief ideological manager, and seems to have had some animus against all the poets who arrived on the scene after the Movement (i.e. after about 1956). His book about poetry 1960 to 1988 is essentially a campaign to wipe out rivals. What is being offered is more like “Bunting is a legitimation for all the British poetry which survives after we have eliminated from view all the poets who could actually write”. This is a different proposition from a history of the time. On examination, the poets being excluded and off-mapped could be defined either as “poets influenced by American poetry” or “poets who want to write about ideas within the poem”. Briggflatts was consecrated as a poem about autobiography where ideas played no role, there were only experiences, primarily of objects. I think Bunting has been instrumentalised, and in more than one way. It is almost as if he had been defined as the decommissioned form of modernism, and by claiming him you could promote deeply unintellectual and in fact tedious poetry, while also claiming to be part of the modernist heritage. What set fire to the new ranges of the 1960s was certainly the American poetry (in Donald Allen’s anthology, as a gateway) rather than Briggflatts. Bunting’s poem of old age is too weary and resigned to set a new wave of poetry off.
What Bloodaxe and Carcanet had in common was a distaste for talking about feelings – the impulse was to describe objects or living things but strip them of any symbolic value. This was felt as an escape from ideology. Ideas and feelings somehow belonged together, and both represented an egoism, or risk-taking, which they were saying No to. The new poetry was not going to find its way away from “small presses” and into the bookshops so easily.
Carcanet included several different currents of ideas in the 1980s, and evolved steadily during their long history. The anthology Some Contemporary Poets was a programme statement for Carcanet as it was in 1983, not necessarily five years later. Under Briggflatts was a statement of position for Donald Davie, but, even though Carcanet published it, it is not necessarily true that other players in the Carcanet team shared its ideas, for example its negativity about poetry after 1960.
To reiterate, Ford and Goodwin’s book (Revolt on the Right) raises questions that need to be addressed, and the issue concerning them is less about the merits of a possible UKIP government than about the long-term decline of the major political parties. The decline of the elite can be connected with the greater political awareness, and better access to (non-print) information, of the lower classes – the decline of deference. This basic state of affairs will persist even if UKIP disappear from the scene. Leaving the European Union is an issue which has pitched the graduates (dare we say, graduate class) against the non-graduates, but it  is only one of a whole series of issues which expose a similar opposition, because that opposition is structural and runs very deep. Conversely, the anti-elite current in poetry can carry a wide variety of messages, and is not straightforwardly an artistic error. Because the relationship between the highly educated and the bottom 40% is so important, or because modern life is so complicated that only theory can really help modern government, this object: abstract, or Germanic: Latinate, opposition is a stylistic means through which significant messages can be written.
Literature is, to generalise, about shared feelings displayed through symbolism. We have been talking about feelings which are inside the cone of silence, which were not shown in shared symbolism, which were private and to some extent shameful. There is another category, of feelings which were shameful but which are shared, which are the material of an alliance which can affect public life, and which are perhaps the inexplicit content of symbolism or the content of inexplicit symbolism.
There are two results about the attack on the elites. First, a shift of perspective whereby you see a group of people as carrying out a function, not just being natural and seeking pleasure but as enthralled to other people and providing services to them which can be criticised like other commodities. People would not necessarily agree what these services do or should consist of. Secondly, the ebb and flow of political power. The investment of the elite is not secure. The elite as promoters may be faced with the refusal of the public to consume what they offer, or with surges where certain poets become unexpectedly popular. Commodities can fail in the market, and the retail arena is the decisive area. When waves of resentment billow up, from feminists, ethnic minorities, Marxists, outsiders, and so on, the ship changes course, and this is of great interest to participants.

As I write, the Brexit issue is tearing the country apart and even tearing both major political parties apart. Nobody really enjoys this level of division. The point of an education that makes you look at ideas is that thereafter ideas don’t become rigid and you don’t let them evolve into rigid political divisions. I find it incredible that any stylistic or cultural oppositions in poetry could be permanent, or that everything could rotate around them. In everyday speech, we use a mixture of Saxon, French, and Latin words all the time. Poetry is about shared feelings; its linguistic fabric is made up of moving semantic oppositions, but it is not an investment in permanent social oppositions.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Further thoughts about Ken Smith

(addition amplifying part of "Affluence")

I attended a talk by John Goodby (9 November 2018) in which he brought up three aspects of Smith: the frequency of the word “stone”, the problem of masculinity, and the hesitancy or indeterminacy In his work. This was at a “celebration” (or book launch?), in Leeds, where several of the people I spoke to didn’t seem convinced of the merits of Smith.

The next day, I looked at The Poet Reclining (the 1989 Selected) and came up with 100 uses of the word “stone” (or variants, e.g. “stony”) in the first 120 pages. This does seem like a serious problem, and we have to address it.

Smith’s first book was called “The Pity” and has a poem called by the same name which describes someone being made to watch while the Kuomintang political police garotte his wife. (This was Mao Tse-Tung, and his first wife.) As he watches he feels the pity drain out of him: “instead of blood I watched and saw the pity run out of me”. This is a central poem, and what we see as the story of The Poet Reclining is that the heart which has had all the pity squeezed out of it becomes a stone, and all the stones in the poems come from this original loss of pity. Mao told this story as part of a positive development process, a step towards political wisdom. We have to ask whether the stone is a heroic state, and attractive, or a barren substance, the deposit of pain and endurance. This is also the question of whether Smith’s poetry, with its simple and repetitive language, is attractive or bleak. The stone is both the thing which Smith hates for its cruelty and the thing he most identifies with, and sees as most authentic. Porter Wagoner sang a country and western song about "(Who taught who) the Cold Hard Facts of Life", and the stones, obviously, are these "cold hard facts of life". Is feeling cold and hard actually a feeling?

Towards the end of the volume is a poem, 'Fox in October', about the character Fox – detached from the main bulk of Fox Running (a 1979 long poem held to be Smith’s major work). It is about 80 lines long and includes the phrase “He forgave” 20 times. The problem isn’t just about re-using the same image, it is about direct verbal repetition – and this is a consequence of a neglect of the power of syntax, a shunning of the devices of language that relate things to each other, qualify them, find a pattern in them and conduct an argument. This connects to a wider subject of the use of parataxis, which affects a number of Seventies poets and deserves extended study. In Smith’s case, it represents a dislike of abstraction.

If you consider that hills are made of stone, the stones represent hills and upland ground. In England, this is mainly found in the North. The stones are a symbol of the North (and a negative of the “softness” of the South, home of alluvial lowlands and of literate culture). In Anglo-Saxon, many names include the element “stan”, or stone. They are all male names. Stone is a male substance, and a symbol of people seen as harder, stronger. They have rugged faces, with bones larger and more prominent, and gravelly voices.

I don’t want to get into the topic of indeterminacy. Robert Sheppard has published extensively on this, it was the subject of his doctoral thesis so he has been working on it for thirty years or more. His books on the subject cover a lot of ground and are basic to the understanding of modern British poetry. I just want to observe, first, that you can be indeterminate and still not be writing good poetry. Robert has so much interest in it that he has re-defined it as the goal of style, instead of being just a feature. Secondly, that it is decisive for Smith. When he writes about masculinity, the hesitation and uncertainty in his poems remove the possible thesis of an aggressive masculinity. Rather, his appeal is inseparable from masculine features like courage, terseness, even ruggedness, but he has withdrawn from the hero figure so common at mid-century and is even casting doubt upon that figure. Heroic figures inevitably win victories – they excel their opponents. Hughes’ voracious beast-figures constantly destroy other creatures, the weaker ones. Smith’s heroes never win.

The jacket of Reclining quotes Charles Boyle saying “many (of the poems) have the harsh simplicity of Anglo-Saxon or other oral verse.” To get with this, we have to get with a formation of taste. I mean by that a coherent group of people for whom certain public statements hold true, which holds assets which rise or sinks in value with the passage of time, which seeks a certain kind of poetry and encourages poets to write it. A review of a 1960 book by John Holloway says “The poems display a sensuousness, a feeling for tangs, hardnesses, distances, for the muscularity of nature.” The cover of the 2018 Smith Collected also says the poems are “muscular”. This formation shares, roughly, a belief in terseness and gruffness as masculinity and authenticity. Writing in stone is especially good because of its rigidity and, if vertical, erectness. Anglo-Saxon style features are admired because they are irreducible, terse, and, obviously, highly masculine. I suppose that in the 1960s reviewers explained what they wanted and poets tried to give it to them. The end of the age of ideology left reviewers clamouring for poetry about objects and physical work. A point of origin might be the opening of Briggflatts (1966), where the poet says, rather sententiously, that his message must be carved in stone because anything else is too soft. This equates poetic significance with stoniness. Descriptions of objects are admired and either introspection or abstraction are seen as anti-poetic: language has to stay with the concrete even if human beings flourish in feelings and ideas. This formation includes an admiration for the working class, seen as authentic because its members deal with objects and physical problems demanding strength. They take part in struggles. (This version has a male-only working class and they work only in demanding physical jobs.) Their distaste for abstraction correlates with a lack of abstract values like wealth, and of cultural capital. This line flourished in Stand, which Smith co-edited in the Sixties, and in the North. It flourished, from 1979, in publications (and jacket texts) from Bloodaxe Books, whose founder seems to have been much stimulated by Smith (their first book was his Tristan Crazy). It took on Bunting as an anti-abstract poet but rejected everything else about modernism. Later, it took on Smith and Pickard but rejected all the rest of the New Thing of the Sixties and Seventies, as defined by Mottram. In fact, it discarded Mottram’s message as whole.

This version of terseness could evolve into dumbing-down. That is the way you end up going when you discard ideas (as middle-class nonsense, or whatever). I think that some ideas have arrived since Anglo-Saxon times. In linguistics, a word is correct because a speech community accepts it as such, and in poetry we have to accept the power to legislate of social formations, small communities. The “objects are more authentic than ideas” party have had their successes, over the past fifty years. The cover of the 2018 Collected says that Smith inspired “an entire generation”; I am uneasy about this, and not only because Smith’s ideals are generic. This line wasn't exactly new in 1966, with Briggflatts, and it hadn't got any newer by 1975. It was not equipped to become the new poetry of the 1980s.

The ordeal is a significant image for Smith. Mao’s political education through torture is just the most striking version. Obviously, the more like a stone you are, the more you can bear an ordeal. Fox Running is effectively the tale of an ordeal – in this case torture by sensory deprivation and cognitive dissonance (“gaslighting”) rather than physical pain. Quite probably, the poet sees the workers and peasants as the most meritorious people, because they have suffered the most and so acquired the most merit. I say probably – but as the poems do not tolerate abstractions they don’t really tell you. It just feels like he sees history as an ordeal.

The really difficult thing to explain about Smith is how people enjoy his work when it is so repetitive and underdeveloped. I can point to folk music (including blues). Folksong is also repetitive, stylised, and without introspection. And we do like it. But these options limit the possibilities for development. This is where Fox Running happens – a breakout into a more complex form which could not be sustained without taking the linguistic fabric apart and modernising it.

Smith’s characters rarely seem to have any influence over their own destiny. This accounts for the lack of dialogue and reasoning in his poems – that kind of behaviour is just irrelevant, it doesn’t influence anything. We have to speak of a sociological group who are so gripped by poverty that they do not take part in the political process, and this is why they see the world as made of stones, unable  to be influenced. Smith gives a voice to people who don't vote and don't read a serious newspaper because they feel that change would not affect them and politics will always leave them behind. This is what gives his work authenticity: genuine poverty and genuine endurance. You can read his poems while feeling left-wing feelings, but the poems are terrifyingly apolitical, they don't believe that things have causes or that reason will explain why. It echoes a world of people who do not have political hopes, and whose wealth is negligible. The readers of poetry are not within this world, but they respect its voice. That voice is organically expressed in folksong, which does not believe in causality but only in fate, not in human reason but only in grief and joy. Smith’s poems have some of the appeal of country and western, where the dullness of the language expresses the low status of the players and the authenticity of their testimony. All his objects are inexpensive ones. We can answer the question now – once you have piled up assets like {gruff, authentic, Northern, hills, Anglo-Saxon, hard, rugged, physical, working class} a significant fraction of the audience have already surrendered.

I thought to look at a poem by John Holloway, in pursuit of the fan-base of the word “muscular”. Here is one from his 1965 volume, Wood and Windfall. It is about stonecutting:

The severe sense: face
Without message, rebuffing from inward. Once
For an hour I watched the master mason lettering.
And  the blade at its dry rising,
Coming out in a puff
As he butted the haft with a birdswing lightness
But a birdswing boldness. The feather and chip of the script
Flowing in a flutter: variety,  gaiety,
A trickle of flowers down the stone in
Brightness, a lightness…
Severity
Made also this garden [.]
(”Severity”)
The last two lines are a bit obvious:

A spare, linear, elegance: message from
The chisel.

Sounds like the opening of Briggflatts, doesn’t it? But as it was published the year before ‘Briggflatts’ this is not influence – it’s just the kind of thing reviewers were asking for, in 1965. My impression is that Holloway was a much better writer than Smith, that his poem creates a series of unique moments through words modulating each other and Smith grimly repeats the same moment. As for sensuous – Holloway’s poem is sensuous and Smith’s aren’t. He never has a voluptuous attitude towards sensation: his poems are de-aestheticised. In a sense, they aren’t poems. But Smith has that authenticity, gruffness, bleakness. People like his poems and apparently don’t notice the repetitions.

I feel that the weakness of Fox is in expressing ideas – Smith is so keen to reduce things to images that much of the plot is unclear. The images lack definition. The main character cannot articulate his feelings. The lack of definition makes it hard to say anything conclusive about the poetry but also makes it hard to find bottom when you are in the middle of the poem. In fact that is one of the core sensations when reading Smith: underdefinition. The only source of information on the situation wasn’t very communicative. Even at the end, you haven’t got very much. But as we saw, there is a poetic sympathy group which wants to define this inconclusive result as a victory. It is like a film with no soundtrack: it turns out that the range of clear visual equivalents for feelings is limited, and people do better expressing their feelings through words. We are used to being told that stupid poetry is good because it embodies femininity. About 90 times a week, actually. But here it looks as if we are being asked to ignore the artistic weaknesses of some work because the writer, via gruffness and rigidity, etc., is linked to masculinity. The masculinity is not explicit but we can’t explain the popularity of the poetry without it. What makes Smith work is a sense of doubt about being gruff and macho. What holds him down is the unwillingness to talk about ideas or feelings.

I mentioned that 'Fox in October', which should be the climax of the work, repeats the phrase "He forgave" 20 times. What is he forgiving? the main poem does not describe Fox as being resentful or say why he was angry with these 20 people or groups of people. Smith's grip on language wasn't flexible enough to let him establish that information. So the forgiveness is puzzling and underdefined. The repetition is a sign that the poet's verbal powers are inadequate.

John also spoke about the influence of “deep image” poetry in Smith, and an essay by Robert Bly was cited (by another speaker at the event) as being annotated by Smith, as a statement he valued. Evidently, the reliance on images, such as stones, is typical of folk-songs. Such songs notably lack abstractions or introspective statements, they prefer symbolic images. Smith’s use of legends in poems can be seen as an extension of this folk-song style. The poems about heroic Amerindian figures (“The Sioux cleared from Minnesota”, etc.) are notable for using simple and primal images, and lacking sociological detail. The poet has very few concepts in common with the subjects, so concepts are thrown out. What remains is simple if emotive. It also resembles the writing in numerous Fifties Westerns in which Indians are major characters, so Broken Arrow, Taza Son of Cochise, etc.

Is using the same word 100 times repetitive? Of course. And this repetitive solution is a symptom of preceding decisions which blocked development and constrained a repetitive question and a repetitive answer. Smith has resort to myths which produce even simpler verbal contexts.

The blurb for the new Collected advises us "Ken Smith (1938-2003) was a major voice in world poetry, his work and example inspiring a whole generation of younger British poets." It does not say which generation this was, and the phrase might actually mean "inspired Neil Astley". Astley founded Bloodaxe Books and their debut with Smith's Tristan Crazy was an important moment. I feel that Smith’s example has been used to cover up a line of weak poetry, where abstraction is chopped out as unpoetic and every situation is simple. He may even have helped to get this poetry going – as an editor of Stand and as an adviser to Neil Astley. Of course Bloodaxe located a market for the style which they isolated, they made that market happy, but of course this style deserves to be critiqued, like other ideas, as a proposition about what poetry is. You can write poems which exclude abstractions, but you can't define the poetic as "that which is without abstractions" and you can't define modernity as "the exclusion of abstractions". There is an “interest group” which is simply wrong about how poetry works and where it should go. In about 1973, there was a whole world of advanced poetry in Britain, and Smith was wrong to overlook most of it and just go for the poets who were afraid of abstraction. This approach is still wrong. In Smith’s poetry, it is throughout possible to read the simple style as damage: the groan of a heart which has had the pity squeezed out of it. I do not believe someone telling me that this music of damage is what we want, what makes us happy, the destination we should be travelling towards.

As an aside, I think John and I agreed that Ranter is an imitation of Fox Running, which is what Neil Astley felt when Ranter was submitted to him. What convinced me was the stuff about radio. There is a page about shortwave radio in Fox. There is mention, at three points in Ranter, of characters communicating by radio – a completely unexpected event since they are all in the Middle Ages. It is logical for Fox to have insomnia, since his days are unused; and in the Seventies normal radio switched off at midnight, so that insomniacs used the shortwave (VHF) to pick up broadcasts to fill the night. In the added poem, ‘Fox in October’, we hear “his ear to the radio noise/ out at the last edge of the little we know,/ In the dark of the planetarium’. Radio waves run through your house without really having any connection to you. Radio telescopes pick up "noise" at the edge of the detectible, Fox is leading a life without picking up meaningful signals, where his brain is losing pattern. The whole of Fox Running is about disconnection. The indifference of cosmic, interplanetary noise to humans is the final extension of Fox’s inability to connect with London, to find a job, friends, or a home. The radio imagery is much more deeply and structurally embedded in Fox than in Ranter, and therefore looks like an undigested and unnecessary add-on to the latter poem. Incidentally, David Gascoyne’s Night Thoughts (1955) also has someone listening to VHF broadcasts in the middle of the night. It was just part of insomnia.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Turning back at the Threshhold


Had  a conversation with Khaled Hakim last night (9/10/18) after a reading. Discussed amongst other thing the affluence of women and ethnic minority artists to the poetic avant garde, in the past. The reasons for the lack of diversity in the avant-garde are impossible to disentangle, but the outcome is a Thing, it’s an object of discussion and I have thought about it a lot in the past year – which is why I think you can’t resolve it. However, if you look at Conductors of Chaos (1996), you find  5 female poets out of 36. (And zero “non-European immigrants”, or however you put it.) This shows a much worse (i.e. less diverse) situation than in the mainstream at an equivalent date, and furthermore attempts to assemble an anthology of the Underground poets who emerged after 1977 have failed because the pattern which emerges is now sociologically unacceptable (and not subject to admiration when developed in an anthology).
If you compare Conductors with an anthology which came out a year later and covered the same period (but from a neo-mainstream point  of view), you find that Conductors has roughly 14% women and The New Poetry has roughly 29%. Actually, the Underground was significantly more male-dominated (or, unattractive to women), and this is one of the things it is beneficial to discuss. It’s part of the picture – even if the only story that the participants want to hear is of “lonely and impoverished virtue”. (Further comparison. The 1988 anthology the new british poetry has two sections of alternative poetry. They contain 43 poets of whom six are female. These are almost the same figures as in Conductors.)
Part of writing about modern poetry in a connected way is that you realise that the result isn’t connected,  I mean that you can’t answer most of the questions which people could ask about “why?”
Khaled was talking about The Film-makers’ Co-Op and how Bob Cobbing had been one of the people who set it up (in 1968 or whenever it was). The film-makers, the London Musicians Collective (which meant free jazz, exclusively), and various poetry gigs, all happened in that old British Rail equipment depot in Gloucester Avenue. God knows how many times I went there in the Eighties. Times past counting. Khaled was involved (don’t know when, maybe from 1995 on?) in both the film-making and the poetry scene. He was telling us that the film-makers didn’t have this diversity problem, they had lots of ethnic minority people and lots of LGBT people as well. The problem just didn’t exist for that collective – or, the obstacles weren’t  off-putting for the young people who turned up wanting to be creative. So we didn’t get to the stage of making invisible obstacles speak and utter their names, but we did see everything going well for one branch of art –and badly for another. I found the contrast quite devastating to think about. I think people want to deny that any such obstacles ever existed. I also think that making the “silent rules” audible and subject to discussion, subject also to tweaking and reform, is going to be a feature of the arts scene in the next couple of decades, something which will be there but wasn’t there over the last 50 years.
I think at this point people think sociological awareness means “there should be a rule that anyone who doesn’t like me has to leave” and “because I wasn’t promised enough rewards for participating and didn’t participate the Scene should offer me fabulous levels of compensation for turning up at all”. It is not going to work like that, and these vain demands are a sign of an immature stage of what in maturity will be splendid and robust.
The New Poetry has Irish poets (11 out of 55 people). Conductors doesn’t do Ireland – this is just one of the differences which is hard to analyse. Most questions can’t be answered.

I used to spend time with someone who knew a lot of poets’ wives – she was a recipient for the gossip, and the social scene around poetry (Cambridge poetry) in a way that I wasn’t. She stated that most of the wives had a witheringly indifferent attitude towards the Cambridge poetry which their husbands wrote. Like, “if you aren’t going to get written about in the Observer magazine there is no point you doing it”. Or “you don’t get events put on at the ICA so you are a failure and persisting is just selfish”. It was disapproving tolerance and certainly not support and admiration. The advent of feminism meant that it was fashionable for women to define men’s private artistic interests as “egotistic and indulgent” rather than as a way to the truth. At an elementary level, the flocking of new women poets into the mainstream was the cause of the revival of the mainstream in the Eighties and of the defensive and cut-off situation of the poetic Underground. The discrediting of female art debilitated the innovative poetry scene because most of the innovative poets of the past had been male. There are a thousand stories and I don’t even want to tell all of them. Clearly there has been a past of women selflessly supporting unpopular male artists, reading what they did as a versions of a Saint’s Life. In history, saints’ lives stopped, at some point, being the most popular reading and listening matter – and maybe the male artist’s life also stopped being so central (and specifically, after 1980 or maybe even after 1975). This was bound to affect unpopular (”Underground”) male artists born in the 1950s. If you shed that mythology of art, it became undeniable that poetry had to access an audience, and that the only way to do this was to write in a very simple, open style, using  stylistic effects which everyone was familiar with because of their traditional nature. So it was that new women poets arriving on the scene in the Eighties overwhelmingly plumped for a mainstream style.

Explaining the male centre of the Underground through the lack of material rewards does not work when you look at the Film-makers’ Co-Op. Nobody could have turned up to that more than once without realising that everyone was broke and no-one was going to start making a living out of their “structural speculations” anytime soon. If people found it so attractive, it must have had something that poetry didn’t have. It’s reasonable to think that the very same people would have got involved in poetry if the public events had been equally inspiring (and inhibition-breaking). Thinking about it now, it might have been better for me, in terms of having fun and getting close to other people, if I’d got into film-making in 1981 and not gone on with poetry (which no-one published).

SubVoicive was a series of avant-garde readings taking place fortnightly (except during the summer) throughout the Eighties. It was stable, so it could gradually have built up an audience. Audiences were stable but tiny. They took place in London, a city of 8 million people, in the South-east region, which held probably 17 million people in all. Why of 8 million people did only 20 turn up? Once you explain this, it becomes much simpler to explain why so few poets (including Asian and female ones, obviously) didn’t want to participate. Crudely, a lot of eager poets who turned up probably saw the small audience, the primitive arrangements of the venue (upper rooms in a pub), the home-made quality of the publications, the lack of connections to a wider world, and didn’t come back. The idea of spending 30 years of endeavour to reach the level of non-success (failure?) of the senior poets in that world just wasn’t a big turn-on.
Reconstructing what someone saw, on a single visit, and why they didn’t come back, has become a Thing. Because you can’t get at the ‘lack of diversity problem’ without getting at why people said No. The lack of evidence is overwhelming – if people entered the pipe and went on for 20 years, you can easily get information about them. It’s cheap. But as for half a million people who saw the announcement for SubVoicive in Time Out, once, or every two weeks for decades, how do you get information about them, and why they didn’t react with excitement?
What I think is happening today is that people, especially would-be managers, are intensely imagining the threshold moments where people decided not to come in and join the scene. These moments could be very rich in psychological content, but they don’t leave any documentary evidence. My guess is that people take the key decisions at the point when they have the smallest amount of information. People who encounter the Alternative Scene once and say “no” have very little to base the decision on. Actually  the Alt Scene has generally been so close to invisible that you could only find it by accident. To read that little listing for SubVoicive, you would have to know that it was “the alternative scene” and also have a concept that there was such a scene in existence. It took me ten years, after I moved to London, to get involved with that scene. People want to ask the retrospective question ”what was the Underground’s recruitment strategy and what resources did they make available for new starts”, but that just exposes the fact that the Underground had no resources, was a “body without organs”, and didn’t have any policies or organisation. To some extent, people are inventing something that was never there in order to de-legitimate it.
This line of intellectual inquiry starts to overflow into the area of marketing. OK. You can’t do market research on a zero budget. No budget, no data. This could be an infinite discussion, because  without data you can never disprove any explanation, however stupid, and people will sustain their tawdry and self-serving fantasies for ever. Is that the ideal discussion? Ideal because never boring and totally inconclusive, maybe. The idea that nobody will ever be proved wrong is attractive.
SubVoicive wasn’t the only entry point for modern-style poetry, of course. It is likely that most of the gifted poets in London were absent from any SubVoicive event on any named evening. Modernity was happening beyond the edge of the Underground rail network, I suspect. It’s just a point to focus on.
The Underground had this exclusivity. And this determination not to get involved in star-myths. To deconstruct the idealisation of the Artist. Perhaps by achieving those goals it doomed itself to marginality, and incidentally to not achieving “diversity”. It blocked out the signals which novice creative people found most attractive.

Having reached the end, I am wondering if I have answered any questions at all. Oh dear. But maybe I haven’t disseminated any self-serving myths. That would be a start.