Sunday, 27 September 2020

earliest Indo-european writing

earliest Luwian seal

The Dutch Anatolianist Fred C. Woudhuizen has published a discussion of a dated seal with hieroglyphic signs on it which belongs to c. 2000 BC and so becomes the oldest record of any Indo-European language. The previous claimant was fragments within Akkadian texts at Kanesh, so loanwords and personal names which later information allows us to fit into a context and to identify as Hittite. The seal was found at Beycesultan, in south-west Anatolia, inland but probably developed (and literate) as the hinterland of an Aegean coast which was the site of very vigorous trading activity and cultural stimuli. The site has been identified with ancient Mira. It is on the upper reaches of the river Meander.
The seal was originally recovered in 1958.
The paper is “Stamp Seal from Beycesultan”, 2012, and I downloaded it from the Internet.

This changes the history of the Indo-European languages. The object belongs to an era which is overwhelmingly silent, and must be atypical; but it is not itself silent. It is the first sound of a whole language group.
The oldest IE now clusters geographically: Luwian, Hittite, Cretan writing in Mycenaean Greek.
Incidental points are as follows.

The previous “oldest IE” known was not before 1950 BC.
Early written material from Western Anatolia is rare and we would expect the very earliest inscription to be in the south-east, close to the origins of writing in Mesopotamia.
The hieroglyphic writing system is original, and we would have expected something in cuneiform, imitating the thriving scribal industry of Mesopotamia and Syria, to get there earlier.
This very brief inscription has some signs from a syllabary. However, the phonetic values of the signs may be different from (more archaic than) the Luwian language as we know it from inscriptions mainly a thousand years younger. The seal says "(commander of) a thousand", giving the title of the owner. This corresponds with numerous other Luwian seals. The meaning is "the chiliarch of Mira (over) the river and this town", roughly.
The seal is precisely dated by stratigraphy. It was found by famous archaeologist James Mellaart. There is very convincing material, in print and on the Internet, about Mellaart’s fantasy material. It seems that he drew fabulous objects (wall paintings etc.) which did not exist, but there is no trace of him faking stratigraphy or forging objects. In fact, he did not recognise the scratches on the seal as forming a written message. Mellaart complained (in 1995) that in several years of digging at Beycesultan in the 1950s they had found no texts at all. He found the seal in 1958 and it was not seen as writing until the 1990s. So it is not very plausible that Mellaart faked it, and we can rely on the genuineness of the seal.
The Luwian seal-script bears no resemblance to the Cretan hieroglyphic A seal script. The two scripts may have originated in neighbouring regions, and be linked to an Aegean trade economy which involved both regions.
The Luwian hieroglyphs in their earliest form look very stylised and mature, that is, old. They are already far removed from pictures.
I do not know of any reason why the hieroglyphic script (which is a syllabary, not solely ideograms) thrived in parallel to cuneiform, or why the Luwians abandoned cuneiform in the written records of their late kingdom around Carchemish. There are ample Luwian records in cuneiform in the Hattusa archive (and this is a great help in reading the hieroglyphic version of their language).
The seal script is thinly recorded before about 1500 BC. It is known from sealings as well as from the seals.

Monday, 14 September 2020

Their trajectory was just large, part 2

Their trajectory was just large, part 2

In a previous blog, I discussed the fact that Salt had published about 90 debut books by British poets, between roughly 2003 and 2013, and that I didn’t even recognize the names of most of them. An unexplored realm. The subject is, sadly, my ignorance (and the vast extent of excellent new poetry) rather than the five poets I trawled up from a deep sea.
There is the question of whether Salt went down-market with their “novices” after pursuing a line of literary excellence in their first few years, albeit picking up poets in mid-career to do that. I selected five names at random out of 90 who made a debut with Salt in those years. They were Tapner, Rees, Hasler, Woodford, and Challenger.

Emily Hasler, Natural Histories (2011)
The announcement for Hasler’s 2018 book said “Emily Hasler's debut collection The Built Environment, published this month by Pavilion Poetry.” So at this point she was setting aside the pamphlet she did with Salt, as not being a real debut. OK. You can make a debut many times. If I say that X was making a debut, it may not actually be the very first debut they had made.
This isn’t a very good pamphlet. It’s striking that all the poems are on one theme (birds), but the delivery is superficial, if well-mannered.

Anna Woodford, Birdhouse

Birdhouse was Woodford’s first book, following pamphlets Party Piece (2009) Trailer (2007, Five Leaves) and The higgins’ Honeymoon (2001). I mention Five Leaves because it is the local radical bookshop here in Nottingham. Named after Nick Drake’s song Five Leaves Left, I think. A book Changing Room followed in 2018. I have misplaced my copy of ‘Birdhouse’ so this will have to remain pending.

Eleanor Rees, Andraste's Hair (2007)
This is fairly simple to describe, although a thematic description is difficult. The poems are long and drifting and come purely out of a mood. The tone is one of excitement, lyric suggestibility, anxiety, ideals soaring up and being threatened by reality. It is moving at a deep level and overcomes resistance. It reminds me of Keith Jafrate (cited in the foreword) and T Glynne Davies. Sorry – Rees is somehow Welsh but I don't think she is Welsh-speaking. The scene is Liverpool and the place is seen as a site of floods of aspiration and despair, alternately or simultaneously. I suppose a lot of the energy comes from the fact that the poems are not about the past, or familiar works of art, or an argument. They create their own space and sound. Here is a poem called ‘Night River’:

East to west, west to east,
wetness crawls

the promenade wall.
Oil and chemical, salt and tar:

the night is in my throat.

I consume distances
at the edge of the river,

three a.m., solitary
held only by the rain and the sky.

The wind’s touch is courageous.

The stars are stags,
antlers pointed at each new shore

sailors discover
far from here, in some sunny waters

I open to it like a mouth

and sense her shining
full height on the horizon,

as if the horizon is a ledge
she balances upon,

and hovering I rush to her,
her starriness, her electric pulses
that beckon, she widens:

I immerse myself in her thighs.
Her whiteness, her size.

I am her: the sea is a boat.
We ride until the dawn.

I don't know why it took me 13 years to discover this, although the scene is so blocked up that nothing is really surprising. Anyway, this is a real find, one for the special bookcase. Salt did really well to find this. I don't think you would classify it as ‘alternative’, but most English poets don’t write about emotions so this does belong in a realm of the unconventional and anti-academic.
Not really sure who Andraste is. Aha – Google says that when fleeing Boudicca invoked a Celtic war goddess named Andraste. Boudicca undoubtedly spoke a rather old form of Welsh, so this is part of being called Rees I suppose. Source is Dio Cassius. The poem ‘Andraste’s hair’ is another extended mythical poem with realist elements, the characters like humans but not really human.
Although subjectivity apparently belongs to all of us, in poetry it is also apparent that some people can’t do it. Rees has a sort of perfect pitch for writing subjectively. That might be felt as simplicity or simply as being talented. Not everyone can write subjectively. But, if you can’t write subjective poems, aren’t you in the wrong business?
In Welsh, wen is feminine and wyn is masculine. So if you say "Olwyn's Valley" (p.29), Olwyn means'wheel'. Olwen is a girl's name. Great poem, mind.

Melanie Challenger, Galatea. (2006)
I concede that I did actually know her name (although I had forgotten it). Challenger was in Identity Parade and was one of the best poets in that anthology. Galatea was the lady who was originally a statue carved by Pygmalion, the one that came to life. The style is literary and over-educated, lost in the worlds of antique texts. The question is whether this represents freedom, the freeing of language from irrelevant bonds, or a kind of idleness. The poems exclude an “I” figure, in a certain sense; they are constructed around a bizarre optical set-up, a studio arrangement which does not leave room for a personality as well. They are as if written on objects of a very particular shape, say a wrought-iron figure of eight, with everything eliminated except what clings to that curved surface. I am thinking of baroque paintings, especially baroque ceiling paintings, where everything is depicted from a precipitous, dramatic, and distorting angle. They are not literally like paintings, of course. But take this poem. A note on it says “In 1901, an experiment was conducted by Raymond Dodge and Thomas Cline to plot the motion of a person's gaze by attaching the flake of a mirror to a cornea”, and part of the poem (the poem ‘Galatea’ indeed) runs:

In the glory of limitless reflection, he gazes
Through a fraction of her caste
At the hilt of his beating mind; there it lies
In the dark like a trap in the heart-
Wood, reconstituting by memory the cold regent of the sky
To a Hall of Mirrors where, by a single shard
His image builds itself infinitely
To the insatiate small shards of him, cut by a vanity
That is itself and reins itself with pitiless patience.

So, sight itself is made visible – as beams that can be tracked on something (a sheet of paper). (Perhaps light-sensitive paper?) The words are caught in figures as the light is caught by the traps of the experimenter. Like baroque paintings, the poems describe extreme experiences. “cold regent of the night” must be the moon, so the light criss-crossing the mirrors is moonlight, and “vanity” is not a realistic description but an image to describe the moon’s casting of multiple reflections. (Is there a link between Versailles, where that Hall of Mirrors is found, and reconstitute reflecting constitution, the thing which the French absolute monarchy did not grant? Unclear. In such a monarchy the government does not reflect popular wishes.) Another part of this poem runs:

He was a god disbelieving his own ability
To be extinguished; anointed by the wounds
Of her kisses, he said I cannot die,
Blood from his mouth like briar-roses
Each with their own tiny voice,
He tried to silence them but the roses
Found their tongues, oh Kay, they said,
We have been in the earth where
The dead are.

Now the corpse of light converses from its graveyard
Of unmade bedclothes, culvert, clenched fist,
Teasing the mirage of daylight from the menisci
Of snowflakes – as if the looking-glass of the sky
Ruins itself to bathe us in a thousand fragments
Of the world-soul.

So the poem as a whole may be about a narcissistic lover, and this motivates the mirror imagery. There does not seem to be any great reason for these poems. They are temporary decors, even if large-scale and dramatic in context. They seem to be moving on stilts. So if light pouring from the sky breaks up as it falls, calling it a graveyard is disproportionate. Light does not really die or evoke mourning. This is actually a trick of the light. The paradox of having light die and be buried is dazzling but evokes no feelings and is of momentary validity. There is such a thing as desensitisation through weirdness. A strange angle of visibility reduces identification, or the feeling of reality. The poet is missing from the poems, but perhaps the idea is like saints’ lives, as shown in paintings: the events shown transcend the possibilities of a body, or a mental faculty, and are recorded solely for that reason. As miracles, they are available for anyone. They are impersonal in the same way as superhuman.
Anointing (as coronation?), wounds, kisses: these images hardly belong together in a real experience. The sentence is over the top. But it fits in with opera or Baroque or mannerist painting (or some poetry of the same era). These are big-scale forms of art, they lasted for centuries, many people like them (even if they don’t suit the most contemporary taste). I like them, actually. But the literature about Mannerism includes people saying how unnatural it is, how it is hyperbolic and bored by its subject material.

I have been thinking about originality. It is fair to say that these poems are unlike anything around them. That is almost unheard-of for the present crowded scene, and for a first book. All the comparisons I have proposed to myself are not credible as similar objects, or, especially, as ways of describing her poems in words. Richard Crashaw, maybe.
The great majority of her contemporaries have the rigid idea of writing in everyday language about everyday, personally relevant, events. That vote does not make the idea good or interesting. Challenger is following the opposite route – the one which leads to undiscovered territory.
An epigraph goes “We felt /a stone heart quicken, a deep fault made whole’, and this is presumably the moment of animation which made Galatea come alive, for the title.
I am worried about the word “caste” in the quote, it would make much more sense if it was “cast”, as in cast a reflection or a shadow. “a fraction of her cast”, from a flake of mirror, sounds like the set-up. I am not sure snowflakes have menisci. Meniskos means ‘little moon’ in Greek, so by transference a crescent shape. A meniscus is the surface of water in a tube, slightly curved, a crecsent shape. I don’t think this fits snowflakes.

addendum. A correspondent (anonymous of Hove) writes " yes she is that bit different to anyone else in that fold and I did wonder at 'caste', thought it striking but having connotations she might not have meant.

Her very engagement with things like Galatea is refreshing, like someone drinking mango juice out of a Roman head. But better because there's an odd compulsion to use the classical language that tends not to use human engagement, narrative or indeed experimental form, yet of course enlarges the frame. Nothing like a few clasical statues to invoke some desert world of antiquity, brushed with myth, history and the rush of centuries past it.

I wonder if Challenger is simply trying to hype up 'cast' and not thinking it through. She seems too verbally aware for that. But her curious mix of baroquerie - and it is that, set in a de Chirico landscape - is as you say also liminal.

It's at the edge of human sympathy and seems a world constructed out of a ranging mechanicus of words, without personal pressure or a narrative drive discovering something of itself. It is in a word artificial, its construction I'd say isn't so much factitious as forced - from something genuine that's on steroids.

Do we go back to Hopkins' use of Parnassian poetry, a kind fo work that isn't poetry yet can only be written by true poets? Might be true of Challenger."

Victor Tapner, Flatlands (2010)
I have to admit that I know Tapner’s name, as I published a poem of his in Angel Exhaust 10 in 1994. I would guess he was born in the 1940s, anyway he is of an older generation than most of Salt’s debut poets. (Is it true to say “I” did this when the magazine was co-edited? I think that at the time I was the only one who was willing to devote time to reading submissions ‘off the mat’ so it is fair to say that I selected Tapner’s poem. Which was very good, actually.) I have a feeling that I didn’t like Tapner’s other typescript poems so much, but 25 years later my memory may be totally at fault. Tapner's website says that when he started on Flatlands he

“had little idea that I was embarking on a poetry project that would take the best part of seven years – more if you count late stragglers.
A cycle of poems in three ‘movements’ set in prehistoric East Anglia, Flatlands was published in September 2010, but, like the region’s terrain, its way was often marshy and fogbound. I’d been interested in the pre-Roman era long before the collection was conceived, and the first poems were really random pieces in search of a voice and style. It was when I started to visit sites such as Norfolk’s Grime’s Graves and the Flag Fen excavations in Cambridgeshire on a vague quest to find cohesion for those initial efforts that the idea of a structured sequence began to gel.
It was with such people in mind – early farmers, tribal warriors, villagers in their smoke-filled roundhouses - that the cycle started to find its narrative rhythm, and the idea developed of a stripped language that could speak for a time when there were no written records. [...] I had two main intentions: first, to try to dramatise the lives of these remote ancestors and, second, that the poems, in large part, could be read as metaphors of our own emotional existence.”
He describes his poem ‘Thames Idol’, as “essentially the poem that sets the overall metaphorical theme”. It refers to an object known as the Dagenham Idol, a battered pinewood figure that has been radiocarbon dated to around 2,500 BCE.

“Flag Fen, which spawned a small grouping of poems in the middle of the collection, is an impressive archaeological site with reconstructed roundhouses. At first glance the excavations are a mish-mash of sodden bits of wood being teased out of the mud. However, the timbers have revealed a hugely ambitious structure - a kilometre-long defended causeway built during the Bronze Age when farmers sought to protect their pastures from neighbouring groups as rising waters encroached on the land. [...]

Other poems witness a widow’s grief beside the funeral pyre of Iron Age king Addedomaros, whose burial site may have been the Lexden Tumulus in Essex; villagers of the Iceni tribe from the Norfolk/Suffolk region as they face a cruel winter; captured tribespeople on their way to be sold on the continental mainland as slaves.

The setting of the final poem, ‘Blackwater’, is an Essex estuary where the voices of the cycle, which at the start are embodied in the literally earthbound flint miners, now dissolve ‘out of sound’ into the sea and sky.”

This sounds like a great idea, but one which quite a few other people have thought was a good idea. The flat bit is because he is living in and writing about, an alluvial plain – the basin of the Great Ouse, roughly. The sites are in Essex, Bedfordshire, and what used to be Huntingdonshire (outside Peterborough). I am obliged, by the conventions, to point out that archaeology in the last 50 years has been interested by thinking about the gaps in the evidence and how we can possibly form a view on people in the deep past whose voices have been effectively lost and whose cognitive schemes and social lives were radically different from ours. It is fair to point out that Tapner has no interest in this – it would get in the way of what he is doing, in fact. He has a costume drama in mind, with a lot about landscapes rather than just human scenes. Empathy tends to cover up the gaps and reduce the invincible alienness of the past. I have mixed feelings about this – I find it quite reasonable to re-create scenes from the past using imagination and empathy, and also I think that is how everyone gets into archaeology in the first place. I admire poetry about ideas in archaeology, for example the poems within The White Stones which deal with deep time. When Prynne writes about (this in the related prose, not a poem, directly) the Mesolithic as having lasted for thousands of years longer than more recent phases, and as having been fundamentally nomadic, migratory, this is compelling. He was attacking the idea of continuity and settlement, and so the English mythology of The Imagined Village. This is good for your brain – when I read in one of Francis Pryor’s books (there are too many) about the recent discovery of Mesolithic huts, thus proving some kind of settlement, perhaps only for half the year, I had to re-think an aspect of Prynne’s version of nomadism. Tapner is not writing a poetry of ideas and this is an old-fashioned view of archaeology.

The stripped-down style belongs to the present day – the age of Hughes and Heaney. It is close to the objects which have survived from the past. It is not reasonable to suppose that Neolithic peasants spoke in a verbal style resembling “tough nature poetry” of the 1960s. So check this out, ‘Arrow Maker’:

I straighten hot hazel
scrape the nubs

fix white feathers
from a goose’s wing

with wax and sap
I bed the tang

nettle string binds
the slotted head

I run my finger
from tip to quill

sealed in the shaft
the cry of the kill

This bears out what Tapner says about bareness. But, it’s so evocative. The minimal verbal fabric opens onto a much larger reality, one of the imagination. The poems are like objects released by the earth's mouth after 3000 years, they are worn but authentic. The volume works like one poem – amazing generosity, wiping out any problems from flatness and bareness. (I believe the reference is to “steamed hazel”, you can straighten a shaft of hazel when it is hot.) The nubs of wood would slow the shaft down, in flight. The shaft screams like the animal it is going to penetrate. Tapner’s poetry is inspiring. The style is as he says, sparse – like the relics which he is looking at – but taken in quantity it is very evocative. He is working on a plane of the essential, a kind of darkness where every phrase sears your eyeball.

I have just been looking on-line at the archaeological paintings of Alan Sorrell – who turned dig sites into beautiful panoramas of life in 300 BC or whatever it was. I owe a permanent debt to his ability to turn the imagination into visual form. You can’t reduce archaeology to abstract ideas. (“Sorrell is principally remembered today as an illustrator of articles on archaeology for The Illustrated London News and books ranging from Roman Britain to The Holy Bible, (more than 15 books over a period of 40 years, the last Reconstructing the Past appearing posthumously in 1981) and for reconstruction drawings for the Ministry of Works – later English Heritage.” see )

The books examined don’t confirm the idea that Salt were “dumbing down”. On the contrary, they leave me with the upsetting feeling that I should read all the 90 Salt debuts – something incompatible with my economic status but curiously attractive as a project. As an aside, I still feel that Salt should have done an anthology as a showcase for their poets – this would still be interesting. The excellent “Salt younger poets” (2011) is exclusively poets working towards a first volume – so excludes every published Salt poet by its definition! Amazing!
Does reading 5 books get me to the core of what Salt did? Hardly so. In the scene as a whole, the number of significant debuts over a 10-year period was probably several hundred. I can't keep up with all that highly charged activity and I don’t want to claim any expertise in the field.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Roddy Lumsden (1966-2020)

Roddy Lumsden (1966-2020)
I was saddened to hear of the death of Roddy Lumsden, in January this year. He was 53. One obituary speaks of cirrhosis of the liver, so this may have been a consequence of the traditional Scottish diet. He said in interview that he had read 350 books to compile Identity Parade (his 2010 anthology of debuts roughly from 1993 on) so the combination of workaholism and this may give us something of the tune. Both speak of excess, of a refusal to believe that the cave stretching under the sea doesn't come out into daylight at the other end.

He has been described as a “trivia genius” and seems to have had a passion for quizzes and puzzles. Possibly this began with a kind of pub games machine that asked you quiz questions and would actually pay out money if you got enough of them right. This was possibly a source of funding for many unemployed autodidacts in the era of Thatcherism, when nobody had a job. Anyway, he published a book of obscure quiz questions (Vitamin Q: a temple of trivia lists and curious words) and may have derived income from quiz questions throughout his career. Inspector Rebus began as a puzzle solver- the name means a kind of puzzle (in pictures), and the first Rebus book is ‘Knots and Crosses’, a set of puzzles. I like to think of a pub, in Edinburgh, sometime in the 70s, when Lumsden and Rebus took part in the same pub quiz.

He is said to have published ten books of poems, although to be honest I haven't read any of them.

I was impressed by Identity Parade and wanted to interview Lumsden for our magazine, Angel Exhaust. My co-editor, Charles Bainbridge, was against it, on the grounds that Lumsden would be too cautious to say anything useful. I expect that is right, based on the prose in IP. IP describes Lucie-Smith's 1970 anthology of British Poetry since 1945 in the introduction. This sets the bar incredibly high, but does tacitly make the point that IP was the first anthology since Lucie-Smith to undertake a survey of the entire span of British poetry. It exposes a problem, that Lucie-Smith wrote pieces of incredibly focused prose about each of 86 poets (one more than Identity Parade) and Lumsden was unable to do that – his little intros say what the poet wants to hear about themselves but don’t start on classification and description. He says that "this may be the generation least driven by movements, fashions, conceptual and stylistic sharing", but this may really mean that there are lots of conventions but he is not analytical enough to identify them and write them down. This is "hegemony". It is conventional to judge writers by the quality of their critique – Lumsden didn’t have a critique. However, it is also possible to say that poets want warmth and softness. How bad is that – a kind editor who doesn’t try to separate poets on the basis of the size of their talent! Some social media postings refer to him “influencing hundreds of poets”; that is unlikely, and may mean “interacted in workshops with hundreds of poets”, but it points to the value of being nice to people. It may be we should set Lumsden down as “a great workshop convener”, and although that is novel language it may be the truth in this case. Lucie-Smith was the convener of “The Group”, a prototype workshop in the 1960s where the poets actually criticised each other. I think generous enthusiasm is all people aspire to in the modern convention, although that is probably not going to make you a better poet. The face to face world is essentially different from the world of thought, but it is necessary to the poetic process. There are people who are self-aware enough to listen to articulate criticism of their poems and turn it round and write better poems in the following years, but I think a lot of people are not so rational at all and the value to them of hearing criticism is questionable. A lot of sensitive people have high anxiety levels and anything which reduces their anxiety, soft words for example, will open up the way for them to write more poems.

He speaks of the two traditions (“Within IP, the reader will find poems from both the conventional and innovative styles, and which take their influence from both traditions at once”). Two? Lucie-Smith divides his poets into ten sections. This is probably more productive – two may not be the right number. L-S throws his poets into their projects – exposing the risk and artificiality of what each one is doing, the need to create artificial rules in order to create original poetry. Naturally failure is an aspect of these bold and fragile worlds. Lumsden bypasses all that. I am not convinced that he understood the “alternative tradition”, but my suspicion is that it takes many years to reach that understanding, partly because the language around it is so cryptic and hostile and unhelpful, and that the critics who do come to understand it do so by neglecting every other part of the spectrum.

An anthology called the Salt book of younger poets is possibly even better than Identity Parade. Note that he did the one based on reading 350 books in 2010 and this set of 50 poets, none of whom had a book out, the year after. This is a high work rate (SYP was co-edited with Eloise Stonborough, so maybe she did most of the work. OK, I don't have a view on that. But it still looks like two major anthologies in two years.) Finding poets who haven’t done a book means diving into a pathless underworld of little magazines, student websites, unpublished typescripts, rejected typescripts… it is heroic. Anyone willing to swim in that river, most of which is work so bad it deserves to be lost, is stalwart. Like Rebus in Niddrie.

The introduction to IP says that the “field”, of debuts between 1993 and about 2009, was a thousand names. This is accurate. Reading 350 books was already selective! I think you have to deal with this by saying "anybody I have never read may be Utterly Brilliant". Nothing else will do.

The introduction to IP says that the characteristic of the poetry under consideration is "the self-exploration of individualism", and that very little of it was political. I think this is problematic as a characterisation of poets born in the 1960s (this is roughly what the field is) and the truth is that “pluralism” (p.20) has no descriptive power at all. All the same, diversity is the right diagnosis. Some people are less diverse than others. The idea that everyone is excitedly exploring is belied by the contents, where most of the poets are very similar and clearly wary of originality, as an enemy of empathy and group solidarity. It is vital that Lumsden includes genuinely diverse poets, like Helen Macdonald and DS Marriott. As for politics, my guess is that he is expressing what he loves and believes in even as he is denying what the poets are interested in. So, it is not plausible that all the poets who write poems about feminism or the need for Green policies were apolitical: “Overall, political poetry has been scarce since then [1993], and much of it is ineffective, unconvincing.” I mean, the green thing involves the end of profits for most corporations, the end of fossil fuels, the end of aviation and private cars – it is anti-capitalist and you just can’t see this as apolitical. Feminism too, is asking for a change of every cell of society. And you probably couldn't find even one female poet who would admit to not being a feminist. But opinions are divisive, and Lumsden is trying to isolate a feeling of togetherness by effacing differences. This is really a consistent strategy, not an omission. He is more interested in the poet's feelings than in what they have feelings about. As for the poet descriptions in IP, they do give the titles of publication and how the poets want to be seen, and that takes them a long way. No critique, no analysis – that leaves a whole range of other cognitive tactics. Maybe Lumsden could read 350 books (without going completely numb) because he was genuinely fascinated by (mediocre?) poets and willing to open up to every new poet, however many times he had been disappointed.

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Their trajectory was just large

Their trajectory was just large : Salt and the release of new poetry If you search on the Web, you can still find stories about Salt giving up publishing new poetry (except an anthologies series) in May 2013. The coverage does not also cover their deletion of their back catalogue – technically, Print on Demand books need never go out of print, but Salt rationalised big-time. I don't have a date for the big deletion, but it was some time after the withdrawal from new work. (maybe 2016?) Chris Emery told the media:
“For many years the market was static, and then it went into quite sharp decline, particularly through the traditional market of bricks and mortar booksellers. There has also been a massive increase in the number of poetry publications coming out. We think that’s a good thing, but we can’t commercially be part of it … As a very small, niche commercial publisher, we can’t possibly sustain what we have done in the past.”
I am quite surprised to hear that the volume of publication had gone up from (say) 2001 to 2013. The Word Wide Financial Crash had intervened, and people were talking about recession and a zombie economy.
Salt had about 400 poetry titles in 2013 (according to rumour) and deleted most of them. But it is unfair to record that moment without paying much more attention to the process by which Salt came to find and release so many books. Clare Pollard posted at the time “I mean, their list is bursting with talent: a whole, brilliant generation.” While I am aware that I haven’t read most of those poets, i.e. the ones who debuted with Salt, I am quite open to the idea that this was a generation and that Salt was an open door for the best young poets in a time frame of, say, 2001 to 2013. I think they did roughly 200 British poetry titles in that time. This is surely a Blair-era Grand Project. “Their trajectory was just large”, as a showbiz journalist would put it.

“The news that their poetry publishing will now be slashed to a single annual anthology is terrible for British poets.” Pollard said in detail: “I mean, their list is bursting with talent: a whole, brilliant generation. People like Luke Kennard, Antony Joseph, Mark Waldron, Chris McCabe, Katy Evans-Bush, Julia Bird, Siân Hughes, Melanie Challenger, Simon Barraclough, Jon Stone, Kirsty Irving, Amy Key, David Briggs, John McCullough, Tom Chivers, Antony Rowland, Liane Strauss, Amy De’Ath, Sophie Mayer, Tamar Yoseloff, Tony Williams, Anna Woodford, Abi Curtis, Rob A Mackenzie, Andrew Phillips and Tim Dooley (to mention just a fraction).”
I have never heard of most of these people but it is perfectly possible that I was just moving in the wrong circles. I think it’s regrettable that Salt didn’t do an anthology to showcase this group of young poets (and I am guessing that they did as many as 90 debut books or pamphlets). So this blog is about a wish to know what that generation was all about (and an inadequate hand waving toward where the answer might be). So, the blog activity has started with me trawling the British Library catalogue to get a list of the books which Salt published, and sending off more or less at random for second-hand copies of five of them. If we look at Roddie Lumsden’s 2010 anthology of new poets, Identity Parade, for Bloodaxe, we find that out of 84 names 16 had published with Salt. So we may suspect that the concept of “a generation” is simply much larger than the story of Salt poets. However, 16 is a pretty massive score.

Para 2. Salt spun out of the Australian magazine Salt and was set up by John Kinsella, who (along with Tracy Ryan) edited Salt. (They still do edit it, see the Salt Publishing website.) I do recall a meeting with John in about 1995 (Simon Smith will also remember this) and I think there was some publishing activity around then, although the moment I recall is, predictably, Salt putting out my Selected Poems in 2001. In fact, I have a Rod Mengham book from Folio /Salt (address given as Applecross, Western Australia) dated 1996 – it was re-issued in 2001. The early Salt list included many Australian poets but also many American poets, because John was a frequent visitor to the USA and in touch with many poets there. If you have that depth of involvement to find terrific books that don't have a publisher, you are in a prime position. The pressure to exploit what you know is strong. So Salt ramped up very quickly, due to these contacts. John was living in Cambridge and it's obvious that many of the British poets of early Salt had that C*mbr*ge connection. At some point Chris Hamilton-Emery took over, or was in charge of the UK operation, but I don't know the details of this (and I think Kinsella was still involved). That pattern of featuring numerous poets from Australia, the USA, and Britain, evidently came from Kinsella's connectivity, his personal geography you could say. I think Chris did all the technical work, so bypassing a typesetter to prepare a digital file which went directly to the printer's output system. At some point the idea of using Print on Demand came in. Traditionally, small poetry publishers have limited capital and it is tied up in their stock. If they have one, maybe two, books which don’t sell, they no longer have any capital to pay for printing the next one. And the melody comes to an end. With POD, you can have a very small initial print run. You can survive titles that don’t sell. And in this way you can climb, up and up, to 400 titles in the end. This was revolutionary. Salt did publish something like 50 titles a year at one stage, and you have to have taken part in this kind of hands-on publishing to know just how tiring and (over-)exciting this is. A book deadline every week? That is like being dangled out of an aeroplane once a week. Personal opinion.

Para 3a. The first phase of Salt involved, beside the high-end US and Australian poets, collections of high-grade British poets of the alternative scene who had debuted in the 1960s. This matched initial collections of people who had debuted in the Seventies- Rod Mengham and Tony Lopez in fact. Salt were out-pointing everyone else in this phase. They published two of three volumes of Allen Fisher’s Gravity poem – a monumental poem which required equally large-scale publishing to exhibit it adequately. This and the Collected John James, back in 2002, were probably the high points of Salt’s achievement.
3b The element by which Salt will be judged is the quality of the poets whose first books they published, not their series of Collecteds. The Collecteds certainly draw a lot of attention, but getting in amongst poets in their twenties and divining which ones have real talent is the difficult part and so, logically, the part people admire most and remember most.
Roddie Lumsden was announced as taking over the role of poetry editor at Salt at one point. To my great regret I found his obituary in the on-line Edinburgh News when I was researching this blog. It records “In 2010 he became Commissioning Editor (Poetry) at Salt Publishing, with a remit to introduce new first-book authors to the list.“ He co-edited a Salt Book of Younger Poets (2011) with 50 names included, and Salt continued a series with Best British Poetry 2013 and so on.
Salt may have been concerned about the lack of reviews for their poets who as yet had no reputation. Reviews generally did not catch up with the huge amount of books coming out, this wasn't a problem native to Salt. Because of this, it may be, they launched a series of Salt Companions and also an in-house magazine for reviews, published on their website. This has been described as the online arts magazine Horizon Review (Salt Publishing), and ran from 2008 to 2010. I did read it once but I was disappointed by the low intellectual standards. You can’t promote ambitious poetry via dumbitious reviews. I attended a Salt event for Salt writers, in London, I can't remember just when, around 2010. Some poets read, they weren't very good, and several people, poets published by Salt, expressed to me a belief that this announced the firm going down-market in a big way. They quite simply felt that Salt was no longer a home for their work. My impression is that the alternative poetry scene didn’t read the young poets discovered by Salt. Since I think Salt offered debut events (let’s skip the word “coming out”) to about 90 people, they evidently covered a broad spectrum and it is not possible that they were simply trying to be a variant on Bloodaxe.
There was clearly a shift after about 2005. It would seem as if there was a whole swathe of possible follow ups to the quite vital career collections of David Chaloner and Randolph Healy. The focus shifted to debuts by younger poets. People close to the situation evaluated this as bypassing young poets for the alternative scene in favour of another sector altogether. Salt had a new view of the landscape. But in a sector which had such a folklore about exclusion and marginalisation, this change of direction was bound to cause disquiet. Maybe disquiet was their natural state. Maybe the separatism was a weakness that held people back. Publishers like Veer and Equipage outflanked Salt.
There was certainly a poetry boom in the Nineties which continued, breaking historical precedents, into the Noughties. First volumes are risky, you are abidingly likely to lose money on them. So in that window starting in, say, 2001, you have an awful lot of young people producing terrific first volumes and looking for a sluice to release them into the high seas. (?) If you have a firm which has realised that you can use POD to minimise losses, and that you can achieve economies of scale by releasing hundreds of titles, or one a week, you have the opportunity for a wonderful synergy. It’s a historical Goldilocks Spot. This is where Salt seems to have found itself.

Para 4. this is where we talk about some of the poets who made debuts with Salt. This is being held for a future post. I have ordered the books but they haven’t arrived yet.

para 5. I have been looking recently at the Carcanet series of ‘New Poetries’ (1994 on), which certainly captured a number of terrific young poets. I mean, maybe they weren't all terrific. But if you look at those books it surely emerges that not everybody was going with Salt. The idea of defining a generation takes more home-work than just delving into the archives of Salt.
If you search the BL catalogue using the strings “2008” and “[contains] Salt”, you ought to get up all the titles published by Salt (as well as many fascinating titles published in Salt Lake City). But in actual fact this search doesn’t work very well, and looking at that list of Clare's reveals that many of the names didn’t show up in the catalogue search. I think they had about 200 titles of British poetry in-catalogue in 2013.
I should make clear that Salt continued publishing single-author titles after 2013, and that they have kept many of their classic titles in print. It is possible that talking about entities like publishers and ‘Cambridge schools’ (etc.) just slows us down. This also applies to entities like “a generation”. The productive bit is where we get into individual poets. After all, they present complete artistic worlds. Should I have just reprinted Clare Pollard’s list of 27 names? And actually, none of those is in the list of 50 people in Lumsden and Stonborough’s Salt Book of Younger Poets, two years earlier. But poetry is not an irresistible force. The process by which a book comes into being is intricate, and publishers are autonomous and intelligent agents. Their story should be told.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Mercator projected

Better git it in your soul: Mercator Projected, by East of Eden In 1971 Peel played sessions by East of Eden. I bought Mercator Projected in the marché aux puces in Paris in 1973, and Snafu, in 1974, from a shop called Soul Hole just round the corner from the factory where I was working at the time in Loughborough, making cell doors for a prison. Late arriving information has allowed us to confirm that one of their numbers actually adapts Stéphane Mallarmé's "Tombeau de Baudelaire" -Slobbering in mud and rubies, the idol Anubis-as its lyric. (from 'Gum Arabic/ Confucius', on their first album ‘Snafu') They recorded a number called ‘Beast of Sweden’. No wonder they never got anywhere. East of Eden, formed in Bristol in 1967 and so technically part of the "psychedelic" thing, recorded a tentative single for Atlantic in 1968 before signing to Deram and making two albums. The cover of Mercator shows them dressed up as Chinese mandarins, perhaps freaky clobber of the time but also a reference to the photo of the band on the cover of Mingus Dynasty (some editions of it), which is perhaps where the east part comes from. The moon shone on the yum-yum trees, antelopes sang their song. Lacking a front man or a confident singer, obsessed by Mingus and Bartòk, they were never going to mint it in the pop shopping mall. Ah-Leu-cha, petite Afrique/ Ice-cream cones and Hide and Seek, says where they were coming from. They produced my favourite rock lyric of all time: Flickering in slow light movements Of her musicians, Eve pivots with the sun: Bruised pink peel through sapphire dust. Strike up! for the thin trapeze girl. By reconstruction, Dave Arbus translated Stephane’s sonnet but became frustrated, partway through, by its potential as a song lyric, and adapted it in a direction of his own. He uses the Anubis/ rubis rhyme but strays thereafter into a wordscape for ‘A Night in Tunisia’. Too languid to engage in the burlesque sexual heel-drumming of rock, they strolled through a series of exotic pastiches with dreamlike delicacy. In 1969, it was perfectly unfashionable to play ska cover versions, then associated with skinheads; to discard the insistent rhythmic figures from Don Drummond instrumentals and tease out the pure lines of a lost bebop number-this was a salto mortale, an act of masking whose logic is unanswerable. Who knew in 1970 that the phrase "the palace at 4 am" referred to a painting from Giacometti's surrealist phase? The sax players wandered through their shared fantasy of being Booker Ervin and John Handy of the band that made Mingus-ah-um with catlike sure-footedness; the tune, ‘Better git it in your soul’, was Mingus' attempt to re-create the rowdiness of Black religious music from without, a literate mimicry which sums up the band; when they play like Bill Haley (for about 32 bars), it sounds like Illinois Jacquet playing Bill Haley, the brawling of a 1952 jump band snap-shot, a haleyness which the true Bill was imagining while he stumbled through dated routines. The Dionysiac surrender to drift and improvisation saw too many people revert to the sheet music they'd first learnt to play from, which is why progressive music is so forgotten today, but some bands of the late sixties recontextualised fragments from disparate musical languages, being possessed by them without being repossessed by them: along with Led Zeppelin, Kaleidoscope, and The Band, East of Eden have their place. As we relive the late sixties in the current passion for sampling and looping, I would like to think that poetry too will explore a psychedelic academicism, dissolving the edges of identity in a recombinatory drift. East of Eden recorded a single called ‘Jigajig’ in 1971. Since the record company hadn't let them in the studio for two years, and then only offered them a single session, it would have been foolish to do anything but go for the hit: a jig, with rockist rhythm section, in the fashion of the time, which they could probably justify to their basic aesthetic by referring to Bartòk and his compulsion for the sound of Hungarian village bands. Made catchy and irritating by mesmerising and academic fast tempi and shifts of tempo which don't really penetrate the ancient rustic circularities of the material, it became a big hit and sealed their fate; it annoyed all the bien-pensants (Peelie certainly never played them again). The band split (the alto sax player isn't audible on ‘Jig-a-Jig’, although he gets the session credit), and the stand-in combo appeared before vast Top 20 audiences who discovered that they couldn't even play ‘Jig-a-jig’. The second East of Eden played some of the least memorable music I've ever heard, prematurely attacking the progressive rock aesthetic in favour of two minute songs and instant communication; one can't imagine the EE led by Arbus and Caines as singing about put on your dancing shoes. So everyone remembered them for this: a true damnatio memoriae. No re-releases on 10th Smile or Bam!Caruso for them. But in 1969 Richard Williams said "I believe what they are playing is both the truth and the future. (...) it seems to me that this is the music of the Seventies." (written circa 1998 for an issue of Angel Exhaust that never came out) Ron Caines' website says the lyric is: Flickering in slow light movements of her musicians Eve pivots in the sun blues and pink peal through saffire dust strike up for the thin trapeze girl (so 'peal' is like a peal of bells?)

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

depolarisation, 3: Tim Allen! Jeremy Hilton!

depolarisation, 2: mutual respect

Depolarisation (2). Where did I put those blocks? The urge for premature definition sweeps aside vagueness at the cost of introducing fundamental error. It is fitting for critics to struggle with areas of art that haven’t resolved yet. It is fitting to devote time and effort to artists who, in the end, turn out to have been a waste of resources. My guess is that what people want from cultural critics is to locate the watersheds, the lines where one faction divides from another. This location would expose unconscious blocks to understanding and allow us to debate and perhaps eventually remove those blocks. It seems likely that Rosenberg has identified one of the blocks. See blog of 31 May 2020 for details on this.For Rosenberg, the avant garde wants to consign every part of existing art to landfill. Rosenberg describes the institutionalisation of the avant garde, and wrote about it even in 1964. This institutionalisation, at one level, justifies the vangardistas in thinking that they are Superior Beings. But, at another level, it points to problems with claiming political status for innovative art. This is a different problem from the battered chronology of the modern vanguard. So, if you want to promote the new poetry of the 1970s as representing a breakthrough, it is surely a problem that this poetry is now almost fifty years old (and that its poets are hoary and venerable, if not decrepit). In fact, dealing with the collective estate of “modernism” is like trying to get agreement from a board of directors of whom some date to the 1920s, some date to the 1970s, and some to 2020. They barely understand each other, but any statement has to accommodate the relationship between those three areas. So in fact futurist art is dominated by the past. It is produced by people who have succeeded in the academic world by demonstrating expertise in the art of classical modernity. Their ability to start from zero is effectively nil. (That Partisan Review symposium on a "new conservatism" supplied one of the ideological bases for PN Review, when it was starting out.) Arrogance is a factor in the scene subject to reform. But the problem may be in defining the splits as “blocks”. From another point of view, they are not “blocks” but “components of my personality”. You can’t have some poet say “the reason you don’t like my work is that your personality is defective and you have unconscious blocks which prevent you from realising how brilliant I am”. Because the next step is “a brief and inexpensive course of surgery will modify your personality so that you DO realise how brilliant my poetry is”. Rather, everyone has to concede that disliking a volume of poetry is everyone (else)’s civil right, and that it is not subject to being defined away by the PR of some faction or other. Quite a lot of the discourse around culture these days is based on a deficit theory, whereby someone you disapprove of is suffering from unconscious blocks, and you can see what these are (although they’re invisible), and offer a cure. It’s great to feel that you are culturally healthy and everyone else has terrible disabilities. There is no better feeling. But this whole domain may be based on a fallacy. Just because you have a goal, of promoting the artists you approve of, does not mean that you have a valid theory of why other people find them uninteresting and not worth laying out money for in a book-shop. Indeed, if there are a thousand poetry titles on the shelves of the Waterstone’s in Nottingham (I didn’t count, so it could be fewer), then leaving almost all of them behind is going to be a feature of most trips to the book-shop. Cultural customs are going to be based on that physical fact, if on nothing else. You do have the right to say no. I am really doubtful that you can see inside someone else’s mind and produce structures which they aren’t consciously aware of. I know a lot of “legitimated knowledge” depends on that, but it seems flawed and risky as a concept. In reading a poem, you have easy access to the conscious intent, the strands or paths which the poem is organised around. Other levels are a puzzle and may not actually be there. Under the surface, there is no light and no sound and you effectively don’t have access. All this may be a conjuring trick to cover the fact that you are suppressing the conscious message of the other person. By defining their desires, pleasures, preferences as a “binary myth” you are effectively saying that you have the right to speak for them and they don't have the right to speak for themselves. Five thousand poets have an investment in saying that part of the market has an unreasoning block resisting their excellent work, and critics are motivated to follow in line and search for those blocks, and turn out sketches of them. But perhaps the breakthrough is in recognising that these blocks don’t exist. The reasons for not reading a volume are many, most likely that it is hidden behind all the other volumes on the stand, but may also be rooted in cognitive preferences which are part of how someone deals with the world. (5000? could be more!) Let’s say that people's consumer choices in art are guided by the memory of past pleasure. This gets away from “deficit theory” and also identifies a domain where criticism can be useful: I record my pleasure, in a verbally explicit way, and people who read what I say then have an “acquired memory” of pleasure, and this extends their aesthetic range. Most proposals about depolarisation offer to wipe out divergence in a malign way. But we are only going to get closer to each other by being friendly and respectful.