Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Further notes on “Nothing is Being Suppressed”

Further notes on “Nothing is Being Suppressed”

These are some more peripheral notes to a book on British poetry in the 1970s, which is going to come out in 2021.

A question which puzzled me is, Why isn't 70s Alt poetry political? I took out a lot of stuff about politics because I couldn’t find evidence linking it to poetry.

I think the sense that everything was arbitrary was conducive to a conclusion that the present state of society was infinitely arbitrary and so infinitely unstable.

Also, at some level the belief in free association as the core condition of the poems must have equated to a belief in social and moral freedom.

The lack of discussion of current affairs in poetry (or at least in the poetry I find interesting to read) is a sign that poetry was looking at other scenes than the churn of day to day politics. I asked if you could find out about the 1976 governmental resort to the IMF, for an emergency loan, and couldn't find any mention. Similarly, you can’t find out from poems that there were four prime ministers during the decade. Poetry may be interested in variant ways of organising society, but it is not interested in what the government or the balance of payments is doing. So it was pointless for me to write several chapters about politics.

I think we have to imagine a hidden stratum A which contained ideas of transformation and widened experience, and of which poetry and radical politics were two separate developments. A9 and A27, we could call them. The two developments didn’t contradict one another, but the politicos didn’t necessarily have anything interesting to say to poets (or even understand 20th C poetry). The goal of radical political change was to reach a new state of mind, and this state would have been vacuous and useless if it hadn't already existed in the here and now. Representing it was what 70s poetry was doing, I think, but to be enjoyed rather than, primarily, as a call to arms. Politicos tended to want people to think the same thing and feel the same thing, at the same moment, and poets weren’t into this in any form. If the project is to make your own life unpredictable to you, so that consciousness will be switched on at every moment, it doesn't make sense to imagine uniformity, and this undermines the sociological knowledge which accepts that people are predictable, as the basis for generalisations which then become the charter for political theories. All that knowledge dissolves if people are acting in a liberated way.
A “figure” common to much of Alt poetry is the experimental landscape, in which the reader/ candidate is dissolved out of their everyday self and put through a series of tasks, or perhaps tests, which call on unused talents and unused areas of psychological knowledge. The nature of the tasks is not obvious, and the nature of the solutions has to be worked out. By going into an environment like this, the reader gains the sense that where they are is not binding on them, and acquires strength in dealing with the unknown. This relates rather directly to the way daily life is conducted, and to transformation and liberation. Groups can change but individuals can also change on their own – in the “society of the artwork”. I suspect some readers feel that they fail the tests – or do not want to start them in the first place.

I think that 70s poetry aimed for a stable state of high association, the mind ringing as if a musical instrument. It was a stable state even if the pattern of symbolic links was changing all the time. This state was the goal, rather than a set of preset outcomes in some didactic programme. It is the same for all the poems (and this is a notion of what the Era Style was).

If you compare the alternative poetry of the time to the traditional poetry, it becomes clear that being anti-authoritarian, and challenging knowledge structures which support authority, are two vital features of the former, distributed throughout the entire text. This is clear without being explicitly said, for the most part. But it connects to dissolving your own acquired and repeated reactions, rather than to the case of a specific strike, a specific factory closure, or whatever real issue is being argued about in the political world. The “thrill” of modern poetry was missing from the legacy poetry, and it feels like this thrill was, therefore, to do with the anti-authoritarian thing. Something I didn’t bring up in the book was how the new poetry could seem like a mockery when in your own life was, due to functioning in a job which demanded repetition and predictability as parts of efficiency, free consciousness was unavailable and even dangerous. For me, writing poetry made endless freedom to create patterns available, but daily work entailed the opposite and was clearly going to be an abiding necessity. It would have been, still is, ridiculous to renounce artistic freedom because economic success means becoming functional. My suspicion is that effective patterns in government and law follow the line of economics in demanding simplicity, predictability, efficiency. They are not the domain of freedom.
I found it difficult to chisel out specific political messages from the poetry I looked at. I concluded that if I described a great deal of poetry, at length, then the reference of each poem to political ideas, possibilities, contradictions, or even (exceptionally) facts, would reveal local facts from which the overall pattern would emerge; and I didn’t have to engage in tortuous explications of symmetries between complex shapes in either sphere of activity.

Peter Porter’s poetry reviews in the Observer turned up a lot of names I hadn't heard of – he had a wide intake. He refers at one point to someone not in the book he was reviewing – VC Horwell, he wonders what she’s doing. Horwell was “Veronica Horwell”, and she was in Faber Poetry Introduction 1, in 1969. She stopped then, I mean she may have published some poems decades later, but she wasn’t a full-time poet. She was, or is, a lifestyle journalist, you can actually make a living at that. Take this poem ‘The Jug’:

The jug squatted on the table:
Given by a girl from Bethnal Green
With three lovers and an analyst.
But the jug was found on a farm.

In its melon belly
Pregnant by generation of windowsills
Hummed June afternoons in lazy basses;
Whistled the crystal skylark of ice;
Danced the syncopated patter of rain.

An adman stole my jug
Or bought it
Spilt its liquid on his cigarettes,
Poured out its glories on dairy ice cream.

A frugal man who wasted nothing.
When empty he used it for a prop
For a pine kitchen selling prime pork pies.


This is such vivid writing. If a jug can be so interesting, a poem can too, but only if written by someone intelligent. She is fascinated and detached about the jug, and that is certainly more than most poets can manage. It is irritating to think that she stopped then. But it’s not tragic – people only write poetry because they have nothing better to do.
That Faber series includes 4 issues between 1969 and 1979, and they contain 33 poets. Born in the 1940s, roughly. They could stand as a “new generation of the mainstream”. It is usual to compare young Alternative poets with middle-aged mainstream poets, but you get different results if you drag that younger generation of the mainstream onto stage. There is a technical problem, that Faber captures them at the start of their careers – the Introductions are not their best work, you would have to locate their first book, or perhaps their second book. Still, it’s clear that in the 70s you have a generation of Alternative poets and a generation of new conventional poets, and they don’t overlap – and maybe their readerships don’t overlap. David Perkins speaks of the pessimistic 50s generation as dominating British poetry for thirty years (he was writing in 1987) – well, maybe the industry didn’t want to make room for younger poets. I am doubtful about “dominating”, but I would concede that part of the history of the time is a progressive crumbling of the eminence and credibility of poets like Larkin, Tomlinson, or Gunn. The Faber series shows a stage in that – their poets just aren't interested in the Fifties style. (Or, 80% of them aren't.)

Having written about Sorley MacLean's poem "The cave of gold", I feel obliged to cite Ronald Black's review of it, which yields all kinds of ideas I hadn't seen at all:
>>MacLean’s ‘Uamha ’n Òir’ (‘The Cave of Gold’) appears at first to have been one of his late poems. It was written, or at least reworked, in the 1970s. It refers to a very old legend which was found in pretty much every part of the Highlands and Islands where a cave on one side of a hill or mountain was believed to connect with a cave on the other. The legend always has it that a piper marched into the cave at one end, that he could be heard playing his pipes far underground, and that the sound stopped halfway, but that his dog appeared out of the cave at the other end with its hair singed off, revealing that his master had come off the worse in some encounter with evil. In this case the cave is explicitly stated to be in Dùis MhicLeòid, ‘MacLeod’s Land’ in Skye, and the people involved are MacCrimmons. There are basically three sections — one which describes the original legend, one which tells how another piper tries his luck in the same way, and one which draws a conclusion. The poem may be approached as history, as biography, as autobiography, or as a combination of these. As history, the first section presumably describes some early MacCrimmon, and the second describes Dòmhnall Bàn, who was killed in the Rout of Moy in March 1746. As autobiography, the first section presumably describes the poet as a young man, the second the poet in his maturity. In Dòmhnall Bàn’s case the cave becomes a metaphor for foretold death, suicide even: chaidh a’ ghalla ’na cheann / ’s ’na chridhe, ‘the bitch went into his head / and his heart’.
The poem is extremely difficult, and in this we are not helped by the poet, who was habitually economical with punctuation and whose translations were notoriously over-literal. As an experiment, I will present five stanzas of the poem, all except the fifth in three different forms: first the original, with my own punctuation added; then MacLean’s translation; then my own translation, done in my usual style, which I would describe as offering a modicum of rhythm and explanation. I have chosen these stanzas because they contain almost the only hard evidence for the subject-matter in the form of two references to the blind catechist Donald Munro (1773–1830), a one-time fiddler who not only gave up playing the instrument after his conversion but is said to have gone around making bonfires of bagpipes and fiddles wherever he found them. I begin in the middle of the first section, in which the poet expresses wonder that anyone should wish to leave such a paradise as the old Land of MacLeod, but admits that the motive is greed for the gold rumoured to be in the cave[.]<<
What other things did I leave out?

I can’t record a debate about poetics which didn’t occur. But, in the cause of nostalgia, let’s pick up a few voices from the time. Nuttall was reviewing “alternative” (then called “small press”) poetry for the Guardian from 1979 to 1981, and I was able to pick up some of these reviews from on-line copies of old Guardians.
Jeff Nuttall: “If there is one characteristic which indicates a main line of development in contemporary British poetry it is the technique of making a poem from disparate material. Poems made thus derive their impact from contrasts built into the structure of the poem itself rather than from references to other things. The effect of the poems springs not from what is being said but from the way in which the various things being said react on each other. The dynamic achieved may be muted as in Paul Brown or it may be violent as in Barry MacSweeney’s Odes. […] The power of perception underlying political conviction and impeccable professional accuracy in this work is stunning[.] The technique of disparity has its roots in Zurich rather than in Black Mountain College. In a sense, to give the poem’s structure pre-eminence over its subject is exactly the opposite course from allowing what is to be said to find its own form spontaneously as it does in speech.[…] The “breath line” as Olsen called it ranges from athletic rhetoric to asthmatic squibs of observation to artfully tailored work in regular stanzas.” [September, 1979]
Nuttall, again: “Art is misunderstood in this century because what is its main aspect, cultural sabotage, is treated as entertainment. The fireworks are Molotov cocktails. Uneasy applause follows the burst of machine gun fire from the podium. […] Delirium, real, emulated, or contrived, is a main tool of the poet. Syntax is dismantled either as a result of, or as a means to, delirium. Paul Matthews' essay, The Grammar of Darkness, ranks with […] as a statement of the reason for this. “If I define the universe as meaning we must realise the paradox in this: a poetry of hints and riddles, no longer just in the sounding. The silence too is recognised. 'A frog jumps in', and we listen to the ripple of it long after the words have died away. A poetry with hollows in it, pause and hiatus, to admit the universe. Form always merging, never fixed, formed and chaotic at the same time, allowing for interventions. A language turning into music, playing between sense and nonsense, (they both limit the language). A poetry which has come to the end of itself (and so come close to its beginnings). Thrown back into the crucible.“ (November 1979)
The gap between what Matthews says and the gloss that Nuttall puts on it is very surprising. My impression is that Nuttall had little interest in the poetry he was reviewing. Sometime in 2019 I went to an exhibition about the influence of the Bauhaus, at the Contemporary gallery here in Nottingham, and there was a section on the art course at Leeds Polytechnic which mentioned Nuttall. This may advise us. He was a teacher of rather arrogant late adolescents, very alert about stylistic distinctiveness and daring, and he had to compete with them to avoid being written off as a “compromised adult teacher” figure. And he did compete with them. They regarded Modernism as a gold standard, especially the more anti-bourgeois element of it. So he had a set style of extremism. His descriptions, just quoted, are heroic, but they have little to do with English poetry. His view of the time is not worth writing up, as one of the competing versions, because his interest in what he was reviewing is so limited. He is remembered as a good teacher of “general culture” for art students. The Telegraph did an article on this course headed “Progressive art or subsidised freak-out?”
I don’t think 70s poetry was “cultural sabotage”. Is culture the sabotage of culture? I met Paul Matthews in 2019 and he promised to send me a copy of The Grammar of Darkness. I knew he wasn’t going to send it to me. I didn’t try to ask him “what was it like in 1974”, because it was obviously a major effort to roll back 45 years. It was one of those moments in Dorset when you don’t get a breakthrough for your book. That quote from his essay sounds like hippy language. Students in 1979, still in the punk era, would have hated that. But the quote is very interesting. The tone is serene and empathetic, and this is what I like in 70s poetry. Nuttall's reviews were my first glimmering that small press poetry existed. It was something the media didn't cover. But since the publications he described were not in the bookshops, or in the Poetry Library, I couldn't access them. I really reached that poetry about ten years later.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

I don't know why

I don’t know why

Have been reading David Perkins’ A History of Modern Poetry, the second volume – 1925 to 1976, roughly. Published 1987. This is designed to be a standard work and achieves that, I believe. I just want to discuss two passages expressing one judgment. So at p.419 he says that poems were horrified by “Dachau and Hiroshima”, “yet the impact of the horrors on sensibility was less than that of the Labourite revolution. Poets favoured this revolution, but the social transformation was too peaceful, many-sided, and far-reaching to evoke any simple attitude or emotion, and the frame of mind of most poets was critically reflective, not only with respect to the social changes but pervasively in personal life“ so that “The 1950s were the heyday of the so-called Movement.” and at p. 426 “If a poet were mindful of his readers, Enright explained, he would be more likely to ‘restrain his oddities’. Socialist criteria for literature fused quite amazingly with the Augustan ideal of the polite monde, the homogeneous, educated, refined audience that would hold in check an individual writer’s crankiness and obsession.”
I don’t feel this is true. Actually, I don’t think anyone in Britain would find it true. The equation of “monotony” with “welfare state” is just a tatter of worn-out Cold War propaganda. If you define the Soviet Union as the core of monotony and lack of individual self-expression, then socialism means cultural monotony. But there was no “writers’ union” controlling literature in Britain, or in other Western European countries. People could express themselves all they wanted to. Even more obviously, there was a Conservative government in power in 1951 to 1964, the period of “Formalism” and Christian revival in Britain. It wouldn't occur to anybody (except a foreigner) that socialism was cracking the whip in cultural matters, during that time.
I don’t think Perkins’ judgement on this is credible. I don’t think there is even one Movement poem which is pro-Labour. But what interests me is how you would test and prove a statement like that. It’s fine to say ”this just doesn't sound right, move on”, but if you ask for objective and documentary proof then it gets difficult. I am interested in this because the problem applies to most cultural judgements. Of course, the difficulty is with making a claim of causality which applies to the entire cultural field. It is legitimate to think that you can trace one writer’s course (in favourable circumstances), while having doubts about generalisations covering one thousand (or, several thousand) writers.
I want to emphasise that Perkins is right in describing a manner of poetry which was practised in shockingly similar ways by many poets, and which was depressing and anti-artistic. Further, that there was a world of critics who defined this as normal and anything else as Dissident and morally suspect. He is quite right about the foreground phenomena, I am just doubtful about his version of the invisible and abstract realm, that of causality.
I have completed a study of British poetry from 1960 to 1997. It was long-term, taking 18 years. It finished 10 years ago, but I am still clearing up side issues. This could, then, be the moment where I move on to grand generalisations – having got all the data cells populated, I could see big overall patterns. But I just feel cold towards that level of statement. The evidence doesn't form big coherent patterns. No, it wriggles around and the people involved seem to have exercised autonomy and consciousness – freedom, dare I use that word.

Perkins at p.445 says that he can’t rapidly sum up the Movement style, but then does that and describes an “occasionally satirical poetry, suspicious of human nature and saturated with life’s pain, that has been dominant in Britain for the past thirty years”. This probably refers to institutional dominance, of university departments and “quality” magazines (Critical Quarterly?), but common opinion is that a dissident wing was present after 1965, or even after 1960, and since Perkins evidently thinks the dominant poetry was very limited, it would seem sensible to give most of his pages over to the dissidents. The “dominance” needs significant qualification even if we accept it as fact. For example Faber did 4 volumes of “Poetry Introduction” between 1969 and 1981. The 33 previously (more or less) unpublished poets included in this showcase can be taken as “the new mainstream poets of the 1970s”. Faber was the cultural centre, clearly. But none of them can be situated as Fifties-style, Movement poets. So “dominance” needs qualifying, as a term.

It is fairly clear that in the 1920s and 1930s the share of women in the dataset of published poetry was rather small. This may be the most striking, gross-level, feature of the poetic landscape. It is an aspect which we would find very interesting to discuss, now in 2020. It looks as if the trade (industry?) will settle down with a majority of poets being female, and you can see reasons why that would be stable and self-sustaining. If 73% of A-level English Literature students are female, you might expect writing poems, which is a related form of behaviour (I would think) would be also be predominantly female. One of the reasons why I read large and well-researched books like Perkins’ (692 pages including index) is to get access to source evidence about this kind of thing. But he never comments on it. The “society of the poem” maintained a gender ratio of 85:15 (varying over time) but did not make the processes supporting this explicit. Activists blithely talk about discouragement, but concrete examples of it seem rare to non-existent. We have highly persuasive narratives of how this ratio was set in place, but given how silent the evidence is we have to ask if these narratives are accurate in any way. Maybe the narratives fail but resolve anxiety and let us move on to something else. I find it credible that there was a vast current of distrust of women poets, large enough to affect the response to every individual female poet, but that there was a taboo on stating this, explicitly and in print. This would explain why you can't collect evidence for it. I would be genuinely surprised to hear anyone say that there was no prejudice against women poets in the period 1900 to 1950. Sometimes you have to bypass the documentary evidence.
I have been rereading the big social histories of the 1950s and 1960s by David Kynaston and Peter Hennessey. These are incredibly impressive, they are convincing beyond the point where you even want to pick holes in them. They are the ultimately satisfying and substantial account of the national past. Dominic Sambrook’s work is less perceptive but equally large-scale, and complementary. Much of what they say does offer satisfactory answers to the reason “why”. I am not expressing pessimism about finding causes at any point in history. But if we grasp the sociology of the new housing estates, in 1955 and the years around it, it is because amazingly perceptive sociologists went and spent months studying them, recovering the reactions of the people directly involved. They did the work. Maybe there weren't enough such people. Anyway, there is no sociology of poetry. I can certainly imagine sending out 500 questionnaires, in 1955, asking “Why is your poetry so unoriginal?” - good luck with that! Poets apparently supply first-person statements which make the visits of sociologists unnecessary, but you can only use their printed statements if you are asking the questions which they wanted to answer. The problem isn’t in retrieving what poets said about their achievements, just in recovering any real processes from underneath all the narcissism.
Of 100 questions you want to ask, only one is answered in the rather boastful and aestheticised utterances of poets. When I say “unconscious” I don’t mean perfectly irrational. I just mean that the “dossier” of interviews, articles, etc. leaves them out. In fact I have the impression that the “dossier” anticipates critical questions and is impelled by a wish to cover over these questions and expel them from awareness. We are supposed to forget all about them. This wash of words is warm, it is disposed to lower our awareness rather than to raise it. To ask why a hundred Fifties-style poets were unoriginal, we have to supply material which they never uttered and which in fact they denied the existence of. This is the "unconscious” of the system. A silent realm. But, how can we disprove a theory which starts out from a lack of evidence?

New Lines had 6 poets from Oxford and 3 from Cambridge. My suggestion about the monotony of Fifties poetry is that little poetry was being published and that there was a very small educated elite, and that poets simply assimilated to a stylistic model which was accepted as expressing that elite. Twenty years later, the graduate class was much larger and more style models were tolerated inside it. Gortschacher gives interesting ideals about the decline of poetry magazines, because of inflation in the price of paper (for example).
As for the austerity, the whole period 1940-55 was a period of rationing, first because of enemy action destroying shipping carrying food and later because of restricting civilian consumption in order to pay for the cost of the war (and rebuilding bombed cities). This self-denial made people suspicious. The moral pessimism of the poets treats self-denial as a virtue and derives social authority from taking up the function of supervision of collective self-denial. I think the absence of literary pleasure from these poems is amazing but it goes along with an amazing lack of enjoyment of any material pleasures – the two things are connected. The historians are agreed that civilian consumption was recovering in the second half of the Fifties – everything changed. But the poets of this style stuck with qualities which they had accepted as virtues. The phase of austerity – hunger and cold, to put it crudely, a lack of new clothes and housing to move into, as well – was all part of fighting off the Third Reich, and nothing to do with realising socialist ideals.
So, these are part of the field. But the total number of causes is large.
I like to ask “why” but I think the state of evidence makes it hard to reply in most cases. There are reasons for sticking at the descriptive stage. Maybe rather than explore the mysteries of sociology we should produce entry-level reviews of another ten poets.
I realise that the reason I like thinking about the 1950s is that really very few poets were publishing. Because there are so few pieces on the board, it is easy to think about them and so it is a pleasant activity. I am afraid that the corollary of this is that thinking about much richer eras, where the answers would be more valuable, is difficult and inconclusive.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Noyes and rhetoric, six

Noyes and rhetoric, 6

To recap. The start point was politological books by Matthew Goodwin and collaborators which analysed the “Right populist” movements like UKIP and observed that, even if you disregard the objectives of such movements as unrealistic and scarcely beneficial even to their supporters, the orthodox political system was not talking to a large minority of the electorate, maybe 15%, in a language which they recognised. A symptom of this was a resentment against a “liberal metropolitan elite”. I wanted to relate this to poetry, which after all has lost public support to a far greater extent than the major political parties. As this “dwindling minority” situation has been stable for rather a long time, I went back to a point where we can perhaps see it starting, and replacing a quite different arrangement. Allott’s 1962 anthology, which included a 40.6% share of Oxford graduates in its list of poets, is a document which must raise doubts about legitimacy in any reader. However, Allott’s “clean sweep” very clearly follows up the earlier “clean sweep” in Michael Roberts’ Faber Book of Modern Verse, and this is what we have been discussing.

The tenor of this post will be that an “anti elitist” poetry is there but unable to compete with the “respectable” poetry on artistic grounds. Further, that explaining why things happened is going beyond what the evidence gives us. It works better if we just concentrate on what happened, rescuing that from forgetting. Further, that the poetry which has been consecrated by major anthologies (for example, from Faber or Penguin) probably deserved to win, and competed chiefly by attracting and persuading readers, not by crushing the opposition through institutional means.

The populist line, which I am inventing/voicing rather than drawing from any articulated source, would be that: the authoritative anthologies do not represent popular taste. Academics have a strong group ethos and are happy to ignore popular taste. Roberts in 1936 carried out a “clean sweep” leaving out maybe 80 poets of that time, and those poets represent the democratic taste which Modernism despised. He and Allott included a lot of Oxford poets who weren't very good but who were part of an in-group. The new taste was individualistic, aimed at private reading; this made it indifferent to rhetoric, which is essentially collective, part of performance, where people are swept away by a group identity. It also propelled it away from the wider cultural audience, which wants collective experience and is not in love with abstractions. The idea of a style relevant to a moment also allows the majority of poets to be swept into oblivion as “out of date”. The fashion impulse which works in other arts fails to work in poetry because of the dominance of an educated minority; the idea “out of date” is simply how they express their dominance. The succession of styles is not replacement, but the continuity of a cultural elite, validating itself and invalidating others. Academic poetry teaching is too focussed on Close Reading. The qualities which appeal to academics, obsessed with testing people, make poetry unattractive to the majority, who want a collective experience. Academic poetry is over-complex, allusive, and obscure, because this flatters the abilities which academics have (and which most people don’t). Populist poetry is cut off from its history because academics administer that history, and only put academic poetry on record.

So much, then, the (notional) anti-metropolitan line. I can’t get rid of this, because the evidence is not dense enough to resolve questions about processes which are, effective, unrecorded. I find the line intuitively unconvincing. Roberts and Allott produced great anthologies, not fragile and contemptuous collections of fakes. A key moment is, evidently, when ‘The Mersey Sound’ was published in 1967, was very popular, and was completely uninteresting to educated reviewers (see previous post!). Popular taste did not match what the universities were recommending. However, this reveals to me that the retail world always had an existence separate from the world of universities. To be contrary, perhaps, I would suspect that the Liverpool scene came out of art colleges and its first audiences were students. That is, it was part of a wider academic world, which assembled large numbers of young people in close proximity. I suspect most poets find Close Reading a problem when they are being creative: it negates creativity but it is so neutral that you can't refute it. You don’t write a book of poetry by applying Close Reading until it is nearly finished.

Also, I think that because poetry is made of information it offers greater opportunities to those of high verbal intelligence, and will give more striking results to people who use it in a way that makes information autonomous, that is, original, complex, puzzling, exploratory. This is not a conspiracy by an elite. I can see that, for the generally rejected, the scene must look like a conspiracy of the intelligent. But, that is like saying the music world is a conspiracy of the musical.

Roberts eliminates from his “intense lens” about 80 poets whom Palmer discusses. This is the key process underlying his anthology. But he never discusses them. They are silenced and that act is itself wrapped in silence. There is a message here – the vital stuff is not recorded and you can’t make it speak. You can sort of see a stain where it was, a discolouration with no features preserved. Yes, something happened.

I can control the level of names and texts without being able to control the more abstract level of causality. I got into this to refute ideas about a metropolitan takeover of poetry in the early 20th C (say 1920 to 1940), but I can’t conclusively refute them. I find them unconvincing but the data doesn't really give enough to confine the ambiguities down to one possibility. Another line is the lack of dialogue. Palmer and Roberts both wrote at about the same time, and about where poetry was, and was going. They are on opposite sides. But they both ignore the other side – they select topics where they know they can win. If they both addressed the same topic, we would have a stereo view, and we could get a grasp of what happened. But they don’t. They avoid areas of vulnerability. The fact that you can’t find any questions which Palmer and Roberts both answer suggests that the extent of what is not being discussed is endlessly larger than what is being said. But the part which is never discussed is what we can’t recover. I can’t imagine that what we do have is going to answer the questions we want to raise. My conclusion is that 99% of the cultural field is never verbalised, and so remains unconscious for us, as it was left unconscious by the involved critics at the time of the events.

Palmer, writing 2 years after Roberts' anthology, refutes more or less everything Roberts says. So, there was a competitive process. Roberts, and Eliot, didn't just declare victory and start erasing the record of anything else. There was plenty of opposition, and the market could choose from a range of different poets and different poetics. Most poets active in 1930 were forgotten by 1970, but probably because they stopped producing and their readers died off. Roberts, and Allott, won, but only after decades had passed and the contest had ceased to interest most people.

I don't want to reconstruct the poets Roberts erases. The exceptions are Aldington and Macleod – both dedicated modernists. I can't explain why Macleod’s career petered out, although it was quite obvious to him (and his archive has a typescript labelled “posthumous poems of Joseph Macleod” dated 1936 – when he was 33), and although I know quite a lot about his poetry, after spending time with his unpublished typescripts. The process is not inscribed in the typescript like some kind of watermark. It’s good to scrutinise some documents closely, but the underlying process remains enigmatic.
Donald Hall’s intro to the revised edition of Roberts’ book remarks that what reached Britain in poetry was not modernism but modernity. This is probably what most people would say. "The English came late to modern art, in painting and sculpture and music and poetry. 1936 is late for a book which introduces people to Hopkins and Yeats and Eliot. Sometimes I wonder if England ever came to modern art at all." So Hall in 1961 doesn't think that Roberts' flagship book has won the game - the English market has said no.
I think, tangibly, that Roberts was wrong to exclude Edward Thomas, and Allott was wrong to exclude Charles Causley. The market corrected their mistakes.

My interpretation of the shift of taste around 1920 is that it represented a shift of the borders of embarrassment. The new literati found all kinds of things embarrassing which the reading market up till then had found attractive. There is no chance of recovering what this shift was, because it was not obvious to the principals involved that it had taken place: they viewed it as a world of poetry moving into meaninglessness. It did not occur to them that it was a change in the observer rather than the thing observed. It was a narrowing of taste; responses to a range of poetry switched off. This could be defined as a restriction of emotional range – the growth of inhibition. That could be a result of self-centredness, a lack of life experience – in fact connected to status, and the attitudes of undergraduates at a moment when only 2% of any year-group went to university. But that can’t be proved, and anyway it is only one part of a ‘revolution of taste’ that involved several parts. It was certainly linked to privatisation and the cutting of bonds to a social group. It said No to a lot of obsolescent kitsch.

Roberts’ introduction has quite a lot about Hopkins and Arthur Hugh Clough, both of them dead decades before. He creates a scene in which Hopkins and Clough are ancestors of modernity, and the other 99% of the Victorian scene vanishes into oblivion. This is a conspiracy theory from the inside. The implication is that only 1% of what is present in 1936 really counts– bad news for everyone else to hear. This story relies on almost everybody losing their stake. It also colludes with a social pattern in which only 1 or 2% of the population has university education. But, the idea is also that this modernity is part of future culture, and that everyone, in particular everyone young, can join in with it – and end up on the winning side.
Most people who write poetry are on the outside of the business and aren't going to get into the authorising anthologies. It would be inhuman not to be unhappy about the fact of exclusion, or to enjoy its process. It is such a large part of the human experience of the poetry scene. At this point we have to return to Herbert Palmer and admire him for giving detailed, carefully observed, empathetic evaluations of the famous 80 poets whom Roberts cheerfully threw overboard. I am not rushing out to read them all, but it is good that Palmer gave them attention, and it is good if someone does that for marginalised poets of the last 30 years, for example. Concretely, he devotes six pages to J Redwood Anderson (1883-1964). I don’t think you are going to replace Eliot and Auden with J Redwood. I didn’t like his poetry that much (although paradoxically, I would like to read at least one more book of his, one I couldn't find). But Palmer gives us the vital information. He says Anderson was totally neglected even in 1938. He was the original Hull poet. Palmer quotes him: I saw instead The cone Of a gyrating, black, immense, Tumultuous cyclone. And there were cannon-bursts of pain And spears of agony that pierced Its multitudinous thunder; there were cries Of formidable triumph, and the call Of mighty laughter and shattered gales of song; And under all The long Surge of titanic effort. (The description is of a city; 'cyclone' could also be a vortex.) This isn't bad, but it doesn't mean he could write a whole book. I can't name the poem this comes from, but to make up I can observe that it is an echo of Emile Verhaeren.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Academic taste: Further comments

Academic taste: Further comments

This is part of a series on the possibility of poetry being led astray by an elite, and the resentful thesis that multiple varieties of poetry have been suppressed (as opposed to being published even when no good in a very tolerant scene). Last time we discussed the existence of an “academic taste”, linked to reactions and feelings within university English Literature departments. People talk about this, often, in connection with the poets that academics find uninteresting. “Allott was an academic and his anthology confirmed the disappearance of a range of poets, including Noyes and Watson.” Anthologies can’t erase memories, but they do provide a focus for memory.
The argument about academic taste is roughly:
(1) academics have selective attention and are not interested by a great deal of poetry that the rest of the audience like
(2) most of the serious reviews are now written by academics (since about 1960?), and most books of poetry don’t get reviewed
(4) reviews and syllabus choices influence publishers a great deal, and also affect word of mouth and consumer choice
(5) and this affects the books that retailers stock
(6) the publishing and retailing businesses are paralysed by academic prestige and inhibited from publishing kinds of poetry which would sell (but which are disapproved of by conservative academics).

(4) and (5) just aren't true. This is where the theory falls down. (6) is almost completely untrue. We could add a final idea, that “the poetry which uses/imitates entire cognitive processes also used by academics is favoured by academics”.
As for (6), I would think that Oxford University Press and Carcanet do favour the academic taste. (That is, OUP did before they abandoned the contemporary poetry market.) But unsophisticated poets could get published somewhere else. Carcanet define and satisfy a specialist taste, they appeal to a particular sector of the market and it is clearly not true that they are preventing other publishers from being successful.

Palmer describes for us maybe ninety poets of the inter-war period who just aren't read today. In fact, none of them were intellectuals, and that is connected with Allott’s decision not to include them in his large-scale retrospective anthology in 1962. Many of them were very popular in their day. Certainly Noyes and Watson sold a lot of books. But the market abandoned them – this is a much larger-scale event than the rejection, much later, of such kitsch-nationalist poets by Allott, Ian Hamilton, or other compilers of standard works. The popular market is much more voracious in forgetting and throwing away than the academic world. Everyone forgets the cultural product of last week so that they can consume the product for this week. It’s part of the consumption process.

It is only fair to define Allott’s book as a sequel to Michael Roberts’ 1936 Faber Book of Modern Verse, since Allott accepts almost every British poet who was in the 1936 selection. The converse applies – Roberts purged a large (if indefinite) number of poets who were still alive and whom he effectively defined as irrelevant. Roberts says that he has selected only poets who seem relevant to the future– an untenable claim, since he can have had no accurate idea of what was going to happen next. Anyway, the work of purging was done by Roberts and the (ten years younger) Allott just followed his pattern. Allott seems keen to follow the detailed examination which Roberts extols as part of creating new values. The attention to detail is supposed to carry out the liberation from outmoded values. This is a trick – it is all too obvious that if JC Squire had examined poets closely he would have ended up choosing poets which suited his taste, and that Roberts and Allott used “objectivity” to select poems by other Oxford graduates.
The way in which close reading is used on the text while being rigorously not applied to the person reading the text is still irritating. Roberts and his allies seem to be taking over the whole poetic scene, including its past. Their own ideological composition is therefore of the highest interest. But they blank this out. The lens is strong enough to disperse most of the poets writing, as at 1936. but it is invisible to itself. Reflexivity is being fundamentally denied. Saying that you’re The Future doesn't really cut it.
I see the problem in a different way. Poets are paranoid about being ignored. The academic conversation does validate some things, but leaves out maybe 99% of the work that gets published. This makes academics a target for paranoia. I think this is irrational. Academics aren’t there to write testimonials for x thousand bad poetry books. To dwell on that – academic writing only has status because it eliminates what is irritating when you dwell on it. It may be that poetry gets forgotten on a large scale – this doesn't mean that academics have to remember all the poets whom everyone else forgets. Thinking that the formal record in magazines like Critical Quarterly is the record that counts is just the kind of error that makes people annoyed with academics. But wherever I take a close look, most of the books being sold are the ones not getting “serious critical attention”; the academic conversation, or the memory it sets up, gives a consistently misleading version of what we were actually reading – in 1930, 1965, or now. Most poetry is not satisfying to do a close reading of, or to write about. But it may actually be pleasurable – the illusion is when you decide that all poetry is more intelligent than popular music. Actually, a great deal of poetry is simple in the way that pop music is, and it can reach a large audience with those qualities.
Geoffrey Hill is the classic example of a poet fully absorbed by academic life, writing difficult and opaque work that many people do not find gratifying. The bibliography of academic work on Hill is formidable – he seems to be a “safety shot” for someone who wants to research the modern period but is also deeply conservative. He is a safe academic asset for the uninspired. But, simultaneously, he reaches a great many people who otherwise find modern poetry dumbed-down and poppy and trivial. He is not a cult figure, although he probably was in the 1950s: Allott forced him to supply an explanation of his poem before Allott would consent to include it. But, I don’t think he is a basis for generalisations about academic taste. He spent much time not producing anything, and much of his work is unsatisfying because he was determined to produce, without a winning idea. This connects with emotional processes in Hill, quite well known by now, and not with some secret rules of academic existence. Work like Mercian Hymns and Speech! Speech! is spontaneous and emotionally rewarding, and that just shows that much of his work is hard going because it cost him too much effort to write it. It didn't excite him.
Were Hill’s inhibitions related to high “academic" standards? maybe, but academic status also gives some people an unnecessarily high self-regard and a tendency to talk highly-educated nonsense without ever wanting to stop.
I have spent considerable time recently studying catalogues which list all, or most, of the poetry books published in a given year. I am not sure how productive this is. But it underlines how diverse the business is. If you actually look at all the books published in 1977, they include a dizzying variety of poetry, most of it bad I expect. Most of it certainly wasn't academic. There never was a "stranglehold" of the academics. As I said, a magazine like Critical Quarterly, reviewing maybe 1% of the books coming out, only reviewed books of interest to their audience, who were mostly English teachers. They didn't block anybody else from reaching an audience. This is just a myth.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Herbert Palmer - more and better

Palmer, two: more about Palmer’s 1938 book

This is some better detail on poetry between 1901 and 1938, as recorded by Palmer.
I don’t think Palmer was an idiot. I take that back. But there is a problem in that he hates modernism, and can only represent it through parody, and that he cannot find anything (else) significant happening after 1920. He doesn’t make this explicit, but the implication of all the detail he piles up is that the crisis was, not eccentric (and irrational?) poets writing under the influence of Dada and Surrealism, but the drying up of the main current of English verse, which had flowed ever since the Elizabethans. He doesn't push forward any new poets, after the fifth Georgian Book, as significant even in conservative terms.
I was disappointed, because what I wanted was to find out about poets who went on writing “nationalist-patriotic" poems after the fashion for that collapsed, and Palmer says there weren’t any. My thesis was that there was a sector of poets who weren't aware of fashions because they weren’t aware of the book market, and who continued dozens of forgotten verbal and cultural styles. This may not be true, or at least Palmer doesn't bear it out.
I also wanted something intimate about the thriving of kitsch, or at least about why poetry moved away from it. That is, if we view Noyes, Stephen Phillips, Francis Thompson, as kitsch. Palmer is not really interested by these poets and doesn't see the march away from that overripe style as especially important. Again, he doesn't give me information about poets who failed to notice the change of style and were still writing kitsch in 1930. This is frustrating. My impression is that poetry was more dominated by fashion, a hundred years ago, than it is now, because it was more linked to the commercial system. We seem to have poetry as an act of piety, almost, but buying a book is akin to buying a cake; it involves temptation, indulgence, and fascination with novelty.

This is what Palmer says about Sir William Watson, who got a baronetcy for a fulsome wartime poem praising Lloyd George– telling untruth to power, basically: “Only a few of his poems have a completely independent existence, for their music had to be felicitous to survive the conventional phrasing. The good in the man seemed to be well known, the bad was getting more frequent and self-evident; and as he was a rather pompous egotist (almost as bad a megalomaniac as John Davidson) and believed in himself beyond the confines of normality, all you could do was to shrug your shoulders and leave him alone. He could not develop. [...] He was a back number, and on the shelf.”
This is really good literary criticism. I don't think people are so honest today. Palmer carefully finds the good in Watson while making it clear just how bad he was. He doesn't use the word “kitsch” but really Watson is a prime example of it.

“By 1910 Kipling had had his day, his great vogue, and suddenly Masefield stepped triumphantly into his shoes.” - This is really interesting; it wasn’t the war which toppled Kipling, although obviously by 1920 a militarist seemed to be a monstrous thing. Militarism had been on the poetic agenda since 1897 (‘Admirals All’), and fashions rarely last so long.

Palmer writes interestingly about Modernism because he is so uninhibited: he is like someone locked in an environment he doesn't understand, bombarded with stimuli which he forms into multiple explanatory patterns, all of which are wrong. He gives us 58 pages on Modernism, all of which seems erroneous and overwrought to us today, since we know what the poets were really saying. But, actually, he found Modernism very stimulating: his reaction is full of new patterns, even though they are the result of disorientation and frustration.
“And as the rhythm of modern life is so mixed and jarred, and full of dissonances and artificial derivations, you do, of course, find the expression of all this in the rhythms and moments and quotations and kaleidoscope patterns of The Waste Land – which is suggestive of gramophone groanings, wireless adjustings, machinery buzzings, fog-horn explosions, cinema clackings, motor traffic, underground traffic, street wanderings, the tarred road, comic opera, jazz, typewriter clickings and sandwich-paper rustlings.”
Palmer doesn't differentiate between poetry having a cultural critique, and capturing negative features of an industrial civilisation, and poetry being unpleasant (and anti-aesthetic). But there is a deeper problem, which brings us up against Time issues: faced with a new rhythm, he wants to break it down and replace it with a familiar rhythm, whereas someone younger would assimilate to it, and hear the tune as it is being played. This rigidity presents itself as a belief in rules (always described as ‘eternal’). It is pretty much like hearing a jazz tune and interpreting it as just being a series of mistakes – you could improve it by removing all the syncopation and the blue notes. Palmer may have been rigid because he liked what was already there; this is speculative. Anyway, age makes for rigidity.
Palmer doesn’t mention the phenomenon of “bypass areas” and their populations; but, in 1938, he was clearly living in such a bypassed area, because he rejected the new poetry of the past (almost) twenty years. This would stand more exploration than he gives it; if you are part of the literary world for forty years (or more), and fashions change every five years, you may spend a lot of your life on a island – cut off from what is happening and repeating patterns you already know.
Maybe it is true that “poetry in the past twenty years has simply gone crazy and is just howling”, but it is also possible that you have lost your receptivity and your brain is just rejecting new patterns. It could be either, couldn't it.

I only have one real problem with Palmer’s classification. He discusses WJ Turner as part of the “moonlight school”, who dominated the fifth Georgian Book, and does not add to that; whereas I see Turner as a Modernist, and something like “The Seven Days of the Sun” can only be classified in that way.

He mentions one Katherine M Buck: “Another poet of ‘heroic’ dimensions is Katherine M Buck, who in the Wayland-Dietrich Saga has written ‘the world’s longest poem’, a gigantic unveiling of myth and folk-lore and barbaric customs, an enormous work revealing wide and massive scholarship and much knowledge of wild life in the country.” A bookseller’s list advises “9x6. 3608pp. Frontis, some b/w illus and maps. Ex-libris. This saga describing the legendary life and times of the Gothic King Theoderic the Great, remembered in Germanic legend as Dietrich von Bern, casts a fascinating light on the life and customs of the thirteenth century., showing our mediaeval forefathers as they lived and hated, loved and died." In 8 volumes (plus an Index volume). OK, that is quite long. We have sword and sworcery tales and so did they. Theoderic died in AD 526, not the 13th C.

I wanted to find confirmation of the thesis that poetry became more empirical and more preoccupied with fact and the testing of ideas. Palmer does not directly comment on this, but where he describes the Georgians you can fairly accurately interpret part of it as representing the rise of fact and the shunning of rhetoric. He lists 12 features of Georgian poetry – the careful breakdown is an empirical effort in itself, avoiding generalisations and the assumption of authority. There is also this comment on the development of Noyes in the Twenties –“It is interesting [to…] notice the post-War increase of a mystical and intellectual horizon and a more fastidious way with words.”
I am not sure about the mysticism.

I wanted to check if there were other verse dramas beside the ones of Phillips, but Palmer is not explicit about this. Flecker wrote the beautiful ‘Hassan’, but I think this was only produced after his death (by Basil Dean). In 1923. Choreography by Fokine, music by Delius. It was a big hit. A stray Web page informs me that Hassan was the last full-scale West End production of a verse drama until Murder In the Cathedral. I am not sure which production this means, since the 1937 production was at the Mercury Theatre, which is too far out (Notting Hill) to be West End. I am guessing the West End production came after the war.

It is convenient to think of “Georgian” poetry as being one single thing, but in fact the anthologies were conceived of as displaying a whole generation, and the poets were very diverse – quite apart from the 5th anthology being different from the first one. The most puzzling thing about Palmer is his identification of a “Second Georgian Revolt”. This is defined thus: “Even though the moon be not mentioned by name it is frequently felt. The landscape is hushed. The winds are still, with just faint clouds trailing their gauzy edges across its disk. The music of the verse is slow and mournful. The colours are uncertain, tending to dissolve into greys and dark greens and silvery blues. The Celtic Twilight has moved forward into the Georgian Moonlight.” This is the Moonlight School. It is surprising if many poets began doing the same thing, but Palmer remarks of the 4th and 5th Georgian Books - “Each of the post-War Georgian anthologies is excessively pastoralist. Now we are definitely confronted by the poetry of escape, not only from the ardours and horrors of War, but also from the demands and decisions of the peace that followed it.” Not a revolt, more of a wandering off into the woods.

I wanted to identify the point where poetry became associated with Left-liberal positions, so that people with Right attitudes kept them quiet and did not expect poetry to express them. Well, I couldn't locate this date before reading Palmer, and Palmer sheds no further light on it. I would guess that “1965” would be a good moment to look at. But the history of anti-Left cultural positions is more complex than people give them credit for. Filtering non-political poetry, and statements, to dig out pebbles of political thought, is exciting because it reveals things we don’t know about. The more unfamiliar they are, the less they are a significant part of the life of poetry, as opposed to some unconscious and interred layer of detritus. There isn’t really a heritage of Cold War Poetry, even if the Cold War was prominent in the news and in the way the poets reacted to the newspaper every day. Writing “empirical” poetry expressed a support of Cold War positions for some people – because it represented a rejection of ideology. But, the factual style was very widespread, and you could probably find people writing in a documentary, factual style who were actually Marxists if you asked about their political beliefs.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Noyes and rhetoric, five: the academic dominance of taste?

Noyes and rhetoric, five

Event A


We are investigating the linked populist Right theses about culture, about being too Left-liberal, not representing most of the population, reflecting the views of a metropolitan elite, being unpatriotic and secular, being fashion-driven and obsessed with small formal distinctions, etc. I don’t like any of these theses but it seems part of being civic to discuss them.
This time we are going to discuss a theory that poetry was taken over, in the 1950s, by an academic taste which rewrote history to erase everybody who wasn’t intellectual, made it impossible for poetry to be popular, and linked the fate of poetry to the academy. We will call this event A, for brevity. I don’t see any detailed or explicit statement of this; it is a significant fact that the populist arguments are never made at length, they are circulated mainly as anecdotes, suggestions, insults, etc. This asymmetry is important – the complete set of academic statements about poetry is matched only by a range of populist positions which are couched in allusive and fragmentary ways and quite well suited to life as brief subjective and angry comments in social media sites. However, we have for the period 1901-38 a source, Herbert Palmer’s book (see previous blog), which is so remote from other treatments that it acts as evidence that an academic taste existed – being whatever Palmer disagrees with, crudely.

Two of the main shifts during the 20th century were the decline of nationalism and religion, two emotional patterns which abidingly resisted evidence and plugged directly into intuition, or prejudice. This shift applies to culture at large as well as to poetry. Because universities are dedicated to finding evidence to test theories and attitudes, and because they have a belief in objective knowledge, it may be that spending time in academia encourages the poet to deploy evidence in poetry. That is, they would introduce facts in order to explain states of mind, or tenets of belief, rather than simple assertion, or use of symbolic images. Such poems would do well in Close Reading classes. We would call this an empirical kind of poetry. Testable knowledge competes with prejudice or ideology (intellectual speculation) as the authoritative source of the information which is the substance of poetry. This sounds convincing, but, as my last few posts have argued, the rise of facts and checking is much wider than poetry, and is part of a civilisation based on technical knowledge and on the purchase of commodities. However, the move away from religion did happen earlier among the educated.

Attributing the change of taste exclusively to the universities is clearly wrong. Two key moments in this event were the publications of FR Leavis’ New Bearings In English Poetry (1932) and of Kenneth Allott’s Penguin Contemporary Poetry (editions in 1950 and 1962). It is reasonable to think that these were influential on how poetry was read, and in fact that the taste which they condemned (by omission in Allott’s case) came to be seen as kitsch. Allott underwrote a view in which Eliot and Auden were the major poets of the 20th century (up to 1960), and this did tend to equate intelligence with good poetry. Noyes does not feature in Allott’s book; he had sold a lot of books, but has made an exit from the market-place. We can see these two books as bad moments for Noyes, without having to accept that everybody fell into line when these two academics proposed a line. It is equally credible that the poetry public was composed of obstinate and non-suggestible people, who acted by intuition, were conservative in bias, and had limited exposure to “taste-makers”. We can propose an alternative explanation for Noyes’ exit, namely that his poetry actually is kitsch. Without getting too deeply into the evidence (there is too much of it), Noyes is also omitted from Yeats’ Oxford Book of Modern Verse. I counted about 85 poets who are treated in detail in Palmer's book (with more than half a page, roughly) and found that only 15 of them make it into Allott's anthology. Allott was culling the literary stock as well as recording it. Admittedly, Allott does not start until 1918 - but he does include Laurence Binyon, and Palmer says Binyon was too old to be included in the first Georgian Book.

When in 1967 the little Penguin book The Mersey Sound sold a hundred thousand copies (eventual sales even higher), it was possible to see this as a revolt against a dominant academic taste. My suspicion is that it was never dominant. Most people who were reading poetry were not reading books about poetry, and the role of “serious” reviews in getting poetry known is always controversial. The Liverpool poets reached their audience, I would think, first by live readings and then by word of mouth. The books which the serious reviewers praised (always temperately) did not necessarily sell very well at all; which is not proof of “dominance”. I am happy to agree that there was a large anti-intellectual taste in the Sixties which liked pop poetry, but I have to insist that there was a large anti-intellectual public taste in the 1950s. It may have been true that the Close Reading reviewers, in Critical Quarterly for instance, were out of step with the market. The strange thing is that they wanted this: they were a reform group and this is only possible if you start by being out of step. Actually, this was a reason for buying their books, or Critical Quarterly itself.

The situation of academics in a country where there are very few graduates encourages them to take up the attitudes of a minority, either as rebels and martyrs, or as an elite acting out behaviour models to be copied. The position of serious reviewers, up until the Seventies at least, was of people who knew reading techniques, or maybe moral principles, which everybody else didn’t: this was only possible if you were a minority, and consensus would destroy it as a position (or as a commodity).

It is interesting that Allott omits Rudyard Kipling, from his book labelled 1918-60. It is awkward to locate the real significance of this, since Kipling barely published any poetry after 1919 ('The Years Between'); quite probably he was someone who wrote great poetry but who was politically unacceptable in 1960. I am doubtful that Allott was staking out new territory here: Kipling disappeared partly because he was a militarist and people had bad memories of the Great War, partly because he was an imperialist and the empire became emotionally unfashionable after 1945. Surely these attitude shifts came from outside the poetry community.

The word “hegemony” is often used here. That would be to say, the universities had a hegemony on literary taste after 1950 (or after 1930? or 1980?). I suspect that hegemony is anything that someone else believes that you don’t. There is a piece of false logic – books about poetry are bound to be written by more or less intellectual people because anyone else would get bored and so flake out. It is credible that both the people who read books about poetry aren't typical of people who read poetry. The books have to be interesting, and so they have to contain ideas– even if a lot of poetry readers are afraid of ideas. I can accept that academics take over some of the jobs as critics (and partly as editors) from a group of freelance agents, (like Read or DS Savage) but not that the written record catches the movement of the market. Let us cite Poetry Review, and Herbert Palmer’s 1938 book Post-Victorian Poetry, as counter-evidence – expressions of views which are completely non-academic and anti-intellectual. I have looked at a few issues of Poetry Review from the 1950s, and they are scarily unintelligent. They ran an attack on modern poetry and then a set of letters which agreed in being scared of “modern poetry”. My point is that people who found it helpful to set out their ideas at length, in words, were exceptional, and exceptionally intellectual, cultivated, and modern. They are possibly where modern taste came from. But the others could be in the majority without leaving much of a record behind – their views were prejudices and had been learnt informally rather than from ambitious theoretical writings.
An area where event A is real is in the teaching of poetry in schools. Certainly the teachers are influenced by the academic degrees which they studied for. People who reject poetry probably can associate that with bad memories of lessons at school. But this is misleading; after all people don’t learn about rock music or cinema from school, but they enjoy them. School is associated with poetry because teenagers don’t read it much outside school – so the rejection is a social thing, pervasive and the product of voiceless and intangible processes. The school part would not be important if poetry hadn't already vanished from a normal consumption pattern. It is irrational to make the school central in the formation of taste. Admittedly, people who give a lot of time to poetry as adults mostly have favourable memories of poetry at school. If they liked their teachers, that is contact with the university, at one remove.
There is something simpler than “hegemony”, namely that, where huge numbers of people were going to university and eventually becoming graduates, the “academic” taste spread for basic numerical reasons. The theory of “close reading” is that you take your primary aesthetic reaction and find what signs inside the fabric of the verse brought the reaction about. In theory it is completely permissive and so should not bring about assimilation, that is, reduction of attitudes that don’t conform to the rest of the class. Most people don’t find that it is quite so neutral.

I don’t have suggestions about poets who should be celebrated and advanced in front of Eliot and Auden. It is clear that there are some stylistic features which link Francis Thompson, William Watson, Noyes, and Stephen Phillips, and that all of those poets have been kicked into the long grass by modern taste (since about 1930). But those stylistic features add up to kitsch.

If we consider British poetry 1900 to 1938, I would think that the poets who are still read are like this:
War Poets (probably Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon)
Robert Graves
Edward Thomas
TS Eliot
Dylan Thomas
WH Auden
women poets (in a lump, in revisionist anthologies only)
Stephen Spender
Hugh MacDiarmid
Note that I omit poets who had made a reputation before 1900 (so, for instance, Housman, Hardy, Kipling). We know that many poets well-known at the time have now lapsed from memory.
Palmer’s record on this list is like this.
War Poets (probably Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon) admires – but features Robert Nichols, Owen, Sassoon, and Graves
Robert Graves -present
Edward Thomas Palmer likes him a lot
TS Eliot ridiculed
Dylan Thomas not mentioned
WH Auden brief mention (says “whose verse […] seems to have excommunicated more than it has communicated – including, of course, the English language”.
women poets – favourable if vague chapter on women poets)
Stephen Spender tiny mention (says SS was influenced by Robert Bridges)
Hugh MacDiarmid mentioned but not discussed

I am not sure if people still read the poetry of DH Lawrence and Edith Sitwell. Bunting was born in 1900 but his poetry up to 1951 is negligible, and it is his two late long poems which people mainly read.

I have suggested that the contrast between Palmer and (say) Allott is between naive taste and academic taste. But an alternative view is that they are simply two different generations and that the changes in taste were chronological. They would correspond to shifts in taste affecting furniture or clothes. I think shifts in time give scholars difficulty because they imply that the scholar is subject to forces they can’t control and not on a raised vantage point outside Time. Academics these days want to write about poetry in terms of gender, class, or ethnic group. These do not offer an account of why poetry changed. They may not offer more than a very crude account of differences in taste. That is, the view through identity politics may fail when the usual empirical tests, looking for evidence and asking for the basic theory to have a visible trace in the texts, are applied.
Allott was an academic and his anthology confirmed the disappearance of a range of poets, including Noyes and Watson. But, this was probably not controversial at the time. My guess is that Allott was rather selfless and that his selection is of very high quality. He wasn’t carrying out some kind of coup d’etat. In fact Palmer already basically writes Noyes off – he likes his 1920s poem on the history of science but basically says his early work, hugely popular, was kitsch. This is pretty much what I felt about Noyes. Allott would have been eccentric to pack Noyes into his anthology in 1962.
The reason for a constant change of taste may be as simple as the fact that nobody buys the same book of poetry twice. The commercial sense wants to acquire and put out new product all the time. If you don’t issue new books every quarter, you don’t have a business. Change is there absolutely all the time and is not dependent on theoretical reforms or sociological changes.

Herbert Palmer and the disappearance of entire swathes of poetry

Leering out of the Darkness: Herbert Palmer (1880-1961)

I have been reading about human fossils, and people winning arguments by making exact measurements. With poetry, you can’t zoom in and the results are not reproducible. People can’t agree whether something is made of stone, or of bone. Let alone whether it’s a rib or a talus.
The start point is a 1938 book by Palmer in which he abolishes modern poetry. The book is ‘Post Victorian Poetry’ and brief checks suggest that it remained in print until 1978. The key statement is this: "Surely Mr Eliot never intended The Waste Land to be taken quite so seriously, at least not quite so constructively, especially as it exhibits too many of the features of a hoax...If The Waste Land means anything to me in relation to 2030, it is that The Waste Land will truly be a waste land, unknown and unhonoured, leering out of the darkness at all other English poetry, which will be equally unknown and unhonoured." I have just ordered the book from the Internet, but I did read it about 25 years ago, so I know what the proposition is. Palmer was writing from the point of view that everything to do with Eliot was corrupting and menacing, and I come from the position that Eliot was the most significant poet between the wars, and fundamental to the poetic taste which has flourished since the last world war. There is a complete incompatibility between me and Palmer, and the question is whether we are all fundamentally different from each other and any public statement reflecting taste, e.g. claiming that Eliot was the vital poet in the inter-war era, is by nature unable to reflect a collective truth.

The point of this blog is not to resurrect Palmer (I think he was an idiot) but to explore the subjectivity inherent in the judgement of poetry. This is also the question of whether it is worthwhile writing about poetry (and whether I wasted 20 years when I was doing that every day). I am talking about a situation where I talk to an (imaginary) room with 100 people in it, expound very detailed and convincing views on several books of poetry, and at the end half the room disagree with me. That can’t be success. But there is another way of defining failure – if I read a book in a vanished style, say a book by Noyes or Palmer, and dislike it, that can be defined as a performance failure. Let’s draw the camera closer to home. I read Fiona Sampson’s “Beyond the Lyric”, about poetry roughly 2000 to 2014, and I couldn't relate to the judgements and descriptions at all. My stunned reaction was that maybe other people read my books and couldn't relate to those, either. I had written something like 2500 pages of criticism, so this was a big worry. Suppose Fiona read one of my books, would it mean anything to her? The pebble we are looking at… actually the pebble is me, and I’m just one of a million pebbles on the shore of a sea which makes pebbles to pass the time.

I think calling something “post Victorian poetry” is stupid. You can't describe an era by saying “the era when Victoria was not on the throne”. It is vacuous. My conclusion is that the logical title would have been “modern poetry” and Palmer already had traumatic associations with the word “modern” and was impelled to avoid it. Palmer’s subject area is roughly “everything EXCEPT modernity”, so he writes about whatever was not touched by stylistic reforms. There is an obvious link between this “refuge from modernity” and the UKIP style right-wing populism, which since about 2000 has been, largely, a reaction against globalisation, with (less centrally) a revolt against modern culture because the urge is against everything which the “metropolitan elite” like. There is a class of people for whom the word “modern” represents anxiety – and mention of “London-based literati”arouses suspicion.

Palmer’s attitude is roughly that, where there had been “legislation to change taste” between 1905 and 1938, he rejected the legislation in each case, so that he condemned the poetry welling up from each new idea and favoured the poetry which was written in a “refuge zone”, so out of fashion and ignoring the reforms of taste. This is useful because it sharpens our understanding of those legislative acts. They are the shared history of poetry, it would seem. It is especially interesting to examine poetry from the “refuge zone”, because that would shed light on what the reforms were, and what they were trying to do. We would like to know who originated the new ideas, and how they publicised their new ideas to a scattered world of readers (who were very attached to what they already liked). Is there a sociology of innovation? and, if so, which strata produce the innovations?

Actually, it is more accurate to say that Palmer’s taste froze at a certain point in his life. He finds the Georgian reforms quite acceptable but does not then go on to assimilate the new ideas of the 1920s.
There is another argument here. Culture makes people converge. You sit there in a reading, you all have the same reactions at the same moment. You breathe in synchrony. If you take part in poetry readings, and in reading poetry, for forty years, you naturally get closer to other people in the same scene. This makes it reasonable to think that you can speak to other people, reasonable to publish your judgements and expect them to be meaningful outside your own front door. Of course, it makes certain moments of the conversation developmental, because they are where you realise what other people's version is. You then converge on that, for the sake of the conversation and for the sake of poetry itself. Those moments are also where you realise what a poet is about, what they are aiming for. And the gratification in poetry is partly the pleasure of pleasing the poet – you get what they are saying and feel happy. The gratification is a conditioning stimulus, it affects how you react next time. It builds a new organ. You feel “symbolic” approval, and this is possibly what separates people who give a lot of time to culture from others who don’t. But the developmental moments are when you read a convincing page by a critic, for example, or look at the selection page of an anthology, or maybe at a publisher’s list. Those are moments when you find a piercing light being shed on your own reactions, but also a similar light poured onto other people's feelings. This lets you detect norms – and you are then able to assimilate them, maybe right away or maybe after a couple of years. To repeat, if you go through a lot of this you become aware of where other people's sensibility runs and of where you stand in relation to the “centre” of poetry. It is reasonable to think that there is a collective conversation about poetry, and that the poetry is an extension of the conversation. I like the sound of this. But that is why it is disturbing, or worthwhile, to read someone like Palmer and find that there was a completely different conversation going on, and that Palmer rejected every inter-war poet whom we still find interesting, while having an audience for his opinions, and a “constellation”, an “asset network” of anti-modern poets whom he favoured (and whom he thought were going to dominate the Future when all this materialist and urban frenzy had died away). Maybe we only remember one of several inter-war literary cultures. Maybe the majority of the reading public found “modernism” alien and not at all pleasurable.
I find that Palmer uses the word “Georgian revolt”. I find this interesting, because I picked it up from Robert H. Ross’s book (1965, English edition 1967) and used it as a chapter title (in a book called “Centre and periphery”). Is this from Palmer? or did someone, Edward Thomas maybe, use it around 1914? To be exact he has two chapters on the First and Second Georgian Revolts. So, apparently, I am recycling Palmer's idea. Another point is that Faber published Palmer’s book ‘Season and Festival’ in 1943, even though he had gone on record as the world's most determined anti-Eliot figure in 1938. Palmer published a poem called Cinder-Thursday (described in his book-list as “a parody”), which would seem to be a parody of Ash-Wednesday. A bookseller describes it thus “A parody of T.E. Eliot's Wasteland and Ash Wednesday.” OK, Eliot didn’t mind being parodied. Not sure who this TE Eliot was.

Ancillary evidence is RL Mégroz’s book Modern English Poetry 1882-1932, published in 1933, which I used to have a copy of. I found it very sympathetic, but he seemed to like everything and in the end it wasn’t possible to read the scores of lesser poets whom he enjoyed. Mégroz is not even close to Palmer, or to other versions of the landscape as reflected by “The Faber Book of Modern verse”, 1936, or the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse.

Palmer makes visible a sort of absolute strangeness. His whole outlook on poetry is meaningless to me – a non-repeatable observation. I want to turn that strangeness into a pebble and hold it in my hand. And it cuts both ways – I represent absolute strangeness for another observer. Maybe even for someone the same age as me, but with different cultural assets or investments. I rely on the power of empathy to conclude that by writing for long enough I can make my reactions “learnable”, and so that the whole makes the individual parts clear.

That idea of agreeing “this one is a stone and that one's a piece of bone” does not seem possible to achieve for the period 1900 to 1938, certainly not for Palmer’s favoured poets, whom we now regard as kitsch and religion at one remove. I reported (in my previous four blogs) that empiricism was the successful reform of the early decades of the 20th C. However, at the outset there were probably readers who regarded such adherence to facts as inherently disappointing and unartistic, and felt that “verbal magic” was where poetry lived. “We” never means everyone.