Sunday, 18 October 2020

Rhetoric around 1920, part 3

Militarist poetry and Alfred Noyes- part 3

This is a third post in a series about Alfred Noyes and the militarist-imperialist poetry which ruled the roost from some point in the 1890s until some undefined point in the 1920s. The core message is that the left-liberal climate of poetry has lasted for a hundred years and has a right to dominate proceedings. This post is about Noyes but the realm also involves William Watson, Kipling, Henry Newbolt, and no doubt others.

Noyes was half-way between Kipling and Swinburne. Does this sound like kitsch? yes, its sounds like kitsch. But, be fair .“The Torch-Bearers” (poem in three volumes) is not kitsch. He grew up.
If you look at “Nelson’s Year”, the point is really the Battle of Trafalgar, his greatest victory and the moment which the poem celebrates the centenary of. The poem does not describe any concrete aspects of the engagement. If you imagine it as a physical event, it is obvious that the core is homicidal. 2500 Spanish and French sailors were killed. Secondly, the Spanish and French were equal to the British. There was no certainty of victory and the three fleets were rather similar in the technology they were using. Nelson won by using better gunnery tactics – his enemies were aiming high, to shoot masts and yards away and make their enemy immobile, and they fired from a long distance, inaccurately; Nelson's captains held their fire until very close in, fired accurately, and aimed at the hulls – to kill the enemy crew. The homicidal quality is what brought victory. The other side had more ships and probably fired more shots. The patriotic remembrance, like Noyes’ poem, leaves out all the facts. This act of memory forgets everything. This is like the process of abstraction, where you take too many concrete facts and deal with ideas, but is really the dissolution of all contact with reality – you end up with a sort of sugary vapour. It is obvious that any element of facts and empiricism (examining ideas) would strengthen the narrative and just erase most of what Noyes has written. My guess is that the bullshit quality of naval propaganda and the anti-realist quality of highly rhetorical poetry are two different things. Highly wrought poetry does not have to be nationalist propaganda.
Part of the process which both Noyes and Kipling have gone through, on the way to their poetry, is the injection of religious language into secular, militarist contexts. I find this exceptionally nauseating. Secularisation does not give you the right to redefine war and territorial aggression as divinely ordained. Another part is simply silencing. You can't re-shoot the Battle of Trafalgar to make the French and Spanish disappear, and replace them with a kind of Spirit of History, sent from God, who decrees that England would dominate the oceans and occupy the less well defended territories of the world. It is too obvious that the spiritual and vaporous stuff has arrived to replace the facts which have been made to vanish.
To avoid me drifting off into abstraction and misrepresentation, let me quote Noyes:

And there were all those others, Drake and Blake,
Rodney and Howard, Byron, Collingwood;
With deathless eyes aflame for England’s sake,
As on their ancient decks they proudly stood, –
Decks washed of old with England’s purplest blood;
And there, once more, each rushing oaken side
Bared its dark-throated, thirsty gleaming brood
Of cannon, watched by laughing lads who died
Long, long ago for England and her ancient pride.
(from ‘The Phantom Fleet’)


(That is Byron the admiral, not the poet.) I can’t find any record of John Byron actually winning a battle – and he served in the American Revolutionary War, which Britain lost. My information is that at the Pageant of Empire, in London in 1924, there was a series of songs set to music by Elgar, and reaching a huge audience during the course of the Pageant performances. At least one of these ("The Immortal Legions") had a text by Noyes. The pageant seems to have been a completely unrealistic, sentimental, and imperialist act of group illusion, stripped of any element of fact but with lavish theatrical means. This was the natural home of Noyes’ poetry, and my impression is that he was a very talented hack who would do anything for money and acclaim. I say talented– his poetry is like film music, capable of endless emotional climaxes, flowing through inexhaustible tonal variations, but unlistenable outside the overheated drama it is nailed to. He wrote very talented, very bad, poetry.
At the risk of repetition, let me supply two quotes from the wikipedia article on Noyes:

" Noyes first visited America in February 1913, partly to lecture on world peace and  disarmament and partly to satisfy his wife's desire that he should gather fresh experiences in her homeland. His first lecture tour lasted six weeks, extending as far west as Chicago. "
"In 1913, when it seemed that war might yet be avoided, he published a long anti-war poem called The Wine Press. One American reviewer wrote that Noyes was "inspired by a fervent hatred of war and all that war means", and had used "all the resources of his varied art" to depict its "ultimate horror". The poet and critic Helen Bullis found Noyes' "anti-militarist" poem "remarkable", "passionate and inspiring", but, in its "unsparing realism", lacking in "the large vision, which sees the ultimate truth rather than the immediate details"." (Bullis thought that war healed most ills.)

This is why I think Noyes was a hack – he had clearly understood, in 1913, how awful modern war was, but all the same he took a propaganda job when war came and spent all day producing propaganda. It is only fair to say that he stopped writing patriotic poetry in the 1920s, and avoided it for the next 30 years. This is part of the argument which says that poetry had learnt from the factual evidence about the Great War and had fundamentally moved away from nationalism. Poets learnt that you could not do a merger of religion and nationalism, to put it simply. People stopped believing that any poem which has the Destiny of the Nation inside it was more important, more large-scale. than any poem which was about a few ordinary people.

Also, some idle talk about ‘The Blind Goddess’, the 1948 film of Patrick Hastings’ play. The plot is that there is, around 1946, a refugee relief organisation in Central Europe. The money is being filtered away by the prominent people in charge, including an English lord, who has siphoned off £500,000 for personal use. The refugees are freezing or starving, whichever. An idealistic administrator, secretary to the noble lord, tries to blow the whistle. He is informed by a Czech administrator, who is murdered in the opening scene (but this is made to look like suicide). The noble lord sues the idealistic but wet young chap for libel. His lawyer is Eric Portman, also the star of the film, also the father of the young chap’s girlfriend. In a courtroom scene which lasts an hour (possibly more than that), he demolishes the young chap. However, he is relying information supplied by the lord and his solicitor, and is persuasively arguing a completely false case. He wins. The same day as the verdict, information arrives (partly from his daughter) which shows him that he has misled everybody. He reverses the injustice. The plot winds up, the lord jumps under a car, the young people marry. We never get to see any of the refugees – it is a very stagy film.
The real theme of the film is how a barrister can bring about a miscarriage of justice by accepting the information in the brief given to him (which the conventions say he should do). The contrast of oratorical styles does not come up – Portman argues in the modern style, being very courteous, never raising his voice, avoiding emotion. It is interesting that this factual style is shown, in the film, as persuading a jury of a false conclusion. It is the style which Hastings was famous for.
This is a good film – perhaps one has to have watched infeasible numbers of bad English Forties films to appreciate how good it is.

A useful website about Pageants has this quote from pageant master Frank Benson: "In a 1920 volume, Rejoice Greatly: How to Organise Public Ceremonies, Benson argued that pageantry was ‘Not only… the festal garb of Nations, their “robe of glory”’, but also
the expression of their inmost natures… Pageantry shows the nation in its mating plumage. It marks the tides of National life. It shows us a people romancing about itself, striving to make the reality fit the dream or to materialise the vision. Because it is all this and much more, Pageantry enables us to appraise the degree of National vitality, estimate the quality, nature and intensity of National culture. It shows us a people romancing about itself, striving to make the reality fit the dream or to materialise the vision. Because it is all this and much more, Pageantry enables us to appraise the degree of National vitality, estimate the quality, nature and intensity of National culture…"

This is quite explicit about falsification. Benson was aware that what he was setting up was false – quite unlike the real national past. This is the natural home of Noyes’ poetry – whether the pageants followed him, or he followed them, the phony scenes and fake collective emotion which the pageants staged for (possibly) a million people are exactly matched to his poems. These fantasies shed light on the term ‘ideology’. This word is used in different senses, for example someone can say “I have an ideology and it is Marxist” and this is something they own and assert, or elsewhere ‘ideology’ can mean any view which is dogmatic and resists evidence. The nationalist fantasy of the pageants shows us what was later called ‘ideology’ – a rewrite of history in which the other side vanishes and the record only shows victories. Someone who spends hours or days in this fantasy state is less capable of rational thought. It really isn't so hard to see why poetry moved away from this realm of feeling.
The collapse of nationalist/fake-religious poetry led to two possible outcomes. One was poetry which dealt with history, but from a Left angle, dissolving invested and frozen blocs of power in favour of the mass of humanity. Moments of history were bars in a larger score, this movement of history outwards and downwards. Or, you could have mere privatisation, poems dealing with domestic relationships, and factual matters within the reach of the sense organs, as carried around by a single person. These outcomes were radically different from each other.

The original claims about “metropolitan taste”, as part of the UKIP set of theories, challenged the right of the people in charge of culture to legislate about taste. Given how much income from the market influences culture, these claims are problematic. I must admit that I find it hard to show why tastes change, which is obviously a big step beyond tracing where these changes occurred. If Watson suggests that the growing education of jurors affected courtroom rhetoric, that suggests that the move away from the older style was an attempt to reach ordinary people, since they supplied the juries. If it is true that the changes affected barristers in jury trials, actors, politicians and poets, in more or less the same way, then the people who run poetry did not have any choice in the matter, public taste was changing altogether and we can't find what legislature ordained that the rules should change. If you can’t locate the legislature, you can’t demand reform or submit a claim for judicial review. But perhaps we can change these rules almost on a household basis. If we can’t locate them, we are entitled to break them – to resist signing the contract.
We will pursue this "legislature" in a future post.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Rhetoric around 1920, part two

Rhetoric around 1920, part 2

I am going to quote the legal historian, Andrew Watson (this is the summary of a paper of his):
"George Keeton wrote, in 1943, about “a silent revolution in methods of advocacy as practiced by the English Bar over the last fifty years”. Changed standards of etiquette, professional rules and greater control exerted by judges over these years led to a vast increase in courtesy in interactions with judges and between counsel. The conduct of prosecutions had also improved. They were generally no longer carried out in a sneering hectoring manner with witnesses mercilessly browbeaten or bullied. Dramatic types of 19th Century advocacy, in which counsel was prepared to use mannerisms, tricks of speech and gestures to heighten the effects of their pleas to juries, was replaced by a conversational and matter of fact tone. The idea that to cross-examine meant to examine crossly had almost vanished. Appeals to juries were now to reason combined with a controlled, subtle and focused appeal to emotion. Jury trials in civil cases had continued to decline. Advocacy before judges was concerned with facts and the law, not oratorical flourishes. Fewer criminal trials before juries took place as the jurisdiction of the magistrates had widened further. The more restrained and conversational style of advocacy before criminal juries may have been to some extent influenced by that of the civil courts, where the leaders of the bar appeared more often and increasingly without juries. Two dominant members of the bar during the first half of the 20th Century were Patrick Hastings and Norman Birkett. Their styles, because of triumphs linked with them, were influential on those of other barristers. Hastings was a master of direct forcible speech without any embellishments or ornamentation and prized brevity. Unlike Hastings, Norman Birkett believed that the advocate ought to use the full range of English speech. Other factors lay behind the mainly conversational and matter of fact advocacy that had become established. These include a widely held suspicion of rhetoric and, very importantly, better informed and greater educated juries. Jurors were less susceptible than their predecessors to theatrical gestures and melodrama, which had largely been replaced in literature and on the stage by introspection and realism, references to God and the Bible, elegant and flowery, but empty, speech and appeals to strong emotion and prejudice. In a more scientific age jurors expected more of an appeal to reason. The success of barristers such as Hardinge Giffard, John Holker, Charles Russell and Edward Clarke, during the closing decades of the previous century, may have been because they appreciated early on the changes that were occurring to juries. Attempting to catch the eye of the press to help create a reputation, useful to generate work, was an important factor behind the emotive, vividly worded and aggressive advocacy of the early Victorian period and afterwards. The later decline of court reporting in the newspapers, removing much of the gallery from the stage, may well have contributed to the more subdued form of speech."
(Andrew Watson)

"Other factors lay behind the mainly conversational and matter of fact advocacy that had become established. These include a widely held suspicion of rhetoric and, very importantly, better informed and greater educated juries. Jurors were less susceptible than their predecessors to theatrical gestures and melodrama" - surely this is the history of poetry as well, and we could just replace “the courtroom” with “the poem”.

Watson talks about the start of a more factual-objective style of courtroom advocacy in the 1890s (actually he says “closing decades”). This underlines the slow nature of the changes in poetics – a simpler and anti-rhetorical style was already there in the 1890s (Housman, Kipling, Hardy), but it was decades later that other styles became decisively unfashionable and so “pompous” and “ridiculous”. If the audience is composed, at any point, of people aged 20 to 70, it is credible that any profound shift of taste takes four or five decades to become dominant, as opposed to being attached to a specific group which is surrounded by living alternatives.
I find this passage very enlightening for what happened in poetry. What he says about prejudice is enlightening – certainly if you look at Noyes and Kipling then patriotic prejudice is a big part of their message, and the neglect of fact is all tied up with that. So we would say that the collapse of the national “drug high” of World War patriotism around 1925 meant a radical change in poetry. Patriotic poetry began to sound murderous as well as false. But we have quickly to look back at Watson – barristers were shifting towards a cooler and more factual style, respecting the rational judgement of jurors, already in the 1890s.
Watson is implying that judges and jurors had completely different ways of reacting to the speeches of advocates. The factual style spread from “the civil courts”, where judges listened to arguments about contracts and the law of contracts. He is implying that judges preferred the law to gusty emotions. But, in a jury trial, everything you say is heard by both judge and jury.

Watson quotes an older source, Keating, as attaching the change to "fifty years", so starting around 1893 and still prevalent in 1943.

If you follow these posts, you will know that I began writing about Kipling and Noyes in connection with the rise of UKIP. The smash of the “portentous patriotic poem” in the 1920s was the start of the “left liberal bubble”. Reading Noyes and Kipling explains why poetry gave up on writing about big battles which killed lots of foreigners. At the same time, I read Norman Jope’s article (in Tears in the Fence) about Michael Sullivan, a xenophobic poet who was apparently in sympathy with UKIP and Farrage and who had a poem in the Plymouth Herald every week for two years (around 2013 to 2015). Sullivan has just died aged 66. Apparently he was in mid-poem. (Death was in May 2019.) Some poems are lethal. Someone thought that Plymouth needed militarist, patriotic poetry. Sullivan’s poems are pastiches of Kipling's patriotic and naval poetry (The Five Nations, etc.). The Herald reports “His knowledge of guns was so extensive he had been a Home Office consultant and edited a shooting magazine and the Tackle and Guns trade publication, and penned a book called The Rough Shooter’s Guide.” So there is at least some poetry which is outside the anti-capitalist sentiment of the majority.

While writing this someone has been on the radio telling us that 17,000 sailors of the Royal Navy died suppressing the slave trade. I think there is something suspect about this figure. Only 500 British sailors died at Trafalgar. It must refer to ships sinking while on patrol, not to sea-fights with slave-runners. But it is also incomplete – why not tell us how many British seamen died while taking part in the slave trade? Or how many Navy men died in fights for the West Indies colonies, which were profitable and totally reliant on slave labour? After the first fact, there are several others.

We have been conversing about the quasi-Biblical aspect of Noyes and Kipling – where they know what Destiny is Uttering. But Kipling’s poems were also close to music-hall recital – they had a large colloquial element and some were (in the 1970s) adapted as folk-songs. Something similar is true of Noyes. Think about the naval rivalry with Germany, the new militarist interest which marked British politics so much from 1890 to 1914. The core is British sea power, although that also means trade, access to markets, secure control of the colonies and of overseas sources of raw materials. A warship is a symbol for all that power, for nationhood. But, the vital part of the ship is sailors. Militarism has to seduce the working classes. So the militarist poet is going to look at popular song, folk music. Noyes writes fake folk material – this is a big component of his work up to 1920. The obvious solution was sea shanties, as in his ridiculous poem “Forty Singing Seamen”. I was taken aback to read in N.A. M. Rodger’s history of the Navy that the Navy banned singing – the key was silence so that commands could be heard. It was a very precise business, like running trains. So, no tradition of song in the Navy (after 1800). I was taken aback because I had seen so many fake sea shanties, in the poets of a certain era. “Drake’s Drum”, and what have you.
If you are going to write the history of the folk style in British poetry, you have to thread in the use of it by nationalists. It looks to me as if we are seeing a take-over of folkness by the Left, seizing it from the Right. Edward Thomas was close to folk-song, it was part of the Georgian thing, and this is completely different from the ‘folk style’ deployed by Noyes and Henry Newbolt. Today, we expect folk to be associated with protest songs, the authenticity of the poor, the corruption of the rich and cultured. That is not necessarily where folk came from.
The decline of sailing ships meant the death of sea shanties. Cecil Sharp went round old ex-sailors and collected a couple of hundred of them. Very impressive. Sharp was most probably in the Right current, enthused by the Nation and interested in simple songs as a response to the extension of the franchise to the working class, and the urge to co-opt the lower classes to prevent them from taking over the State and directing it to their own interests. Sharp was part of ‘Leitkultur’, middle-class guidance and avoidance of change. Bourgeois guardianship.
The history of “folk song language” in poetry is unnaturally complex.

Rhetoric around 1920

Rhetoric

Thomas Grant’s really terrific book on “Court No 1 the Old Bailey” had interesting text comparing two styles of advocacy. The specific moment for us is the 1949 memoirs of an advocate, Patrick Hastings, who denounced Sir Edward Marshall Hall for ‘flatulence’. The implication is that a new, unemphatic, factual style came in and found a grandiloquent, Victorian, rhetorical style mendacious and long-winded. But Hall (1858-1927) had won many cases, including some where he probably got guilty people acquitted. He specialised in dramatic cases, so not the regular stuff of interpreting contracts and petty crime. He had the reputation of holding the jury enthralled – which applied also to the spectators in court. If they found it exciting, they did not also find it flatulent. (The word refers to breath, but in fact as a euphemism for either belching or farting, so gas which does not come from the lungs.) Hall was a firearms expert, in his way, and large parts of his speeches were involved in rather detailed questions of fact, such as how much pressure it took to release a trigger (had the wife shot her husband by accident). He was certainly well equipped to present such issues – his rhetoric was not vague and cloudy. He had spent a lot of time examining and firing guns. Hastings was also famous and also won many cases. As he was 22 years younger than Hall, we can date the change – not to a moment, but to a couple of decades.

The implied shift between two generations of barristers has interesting parallels with shifts in political oratory, the delivery of actors, and poetry. Probably also in the manner of sermons, I have less information on that.
I believe the shift is related to the rise of scientific and technical knowledge. This demands a factual and terse way of speaking. Politicians who were explaining government policies in which accurate and abstract knowledge was essential, were not also going to use rhetoric, in which emotions outweigh facts. Economics became central to parliamentary business, and demanded much use of numbers and of explanatory models. Classical rhetoric was not suited to that. Parliamentary sentiment came to accept business values, and to set less store by linguistic beauty and the ability to carry an audience away.

A good example of the overblown and rhetorical style of poetry is Alfred Noyes. He was actually a contemporary of Edward Thomas, and the Georgian poets, although he lived until 1958. Take this:

Hasten the Kingdom, England;
For then all nations shall be one;
One as the ordered stars are one that sing upon their way,
One with the rhythmic glories of the swinging sea and the rolling sun
One with all dreams of beauty,
One with all laws of duty;
One with the weak and helpless while the one sky burns above;
Till eyes by tears made glorious
Look up at last victorious,
And lips that starved break open in one song of life and love.
(from “Nelson’s Year”, in the 1907 volume Forty Singing Seamen)

This we could call florid (I certainly don’t want to use that word ‘flatulence’), and it is probably worth comparison with the oratorical effects of a Marshall Hall. Part of the alien part is the poem’s claim to knowledge: it describes a vision, so it simultaneously describes the fate of the planet (when Christ’s kingdom comes), and is also about something that you can't possibly see. It is unreal, hard to falsify; the details cannot be right. Noyes’ poem is an account of a hallucination – but a fictional account, so of a hallucination which the poet did not actually experience. If you ask questions like “how do you know this” “what did you actually see and hear”, “what objects did you touch or see”, it all collapses. I do wonder what makes the stars sing; this is possibly a fragment of Hellenistic cosmology, about the “music of the spheres”, by which outer space is filled with sound. You can’t actually hear it. I don’t want to get too far into Noyes, since the discussion is meant to apply to hundreds of poets, but we have to quote a bit more of his poem:

Hasten the Kingdom, England;
Look up across the narrow seas,
Across the great white nations to thy dark imperial throne
Where now three hundred million souls attend to thine august decrees;

That phrase “Kingdom” shows that Noyes is not drawing a clear line between the kingdom of Christ and the British Empire. The cosmic scheme of the New Testament seems to include the growth of the British State. This scale serves to make the poem important, and the poet. From the perspective of today, it also seems vacuous: it’s all smoke. It is understandable that people didn’t find this a convincing account of politics, or theology, and it is fair to describe the changes of the second quarter of the 20th century as eliminating the florid style. This is a change which the poetry world has stuck with. Edward Thomas describes things you can see and hear. He is free verse. This is the new thing in around 1912. Thomas is quite widely brought into service now as a “valid ancestor” for modern and plain British poetry. This is not totally honest, since his poetry was very good and the recent poetry in question is often very bad. But, it is a myth worth knowing. I don't think anyone claims Noyes as an ancestor. Or even Tennyson, although people still read Tennyson. If you look at poetry being published between 1920 and 1940, a lot of it is in an unreformed manner. The Georgians were popular, Housman was popular, and there were modernists (quite unpopular I suspect). But other people still wrote in a way we think of as tennysonian.
It is hard to reduce Noyes’ poem to concrete facts. Its subject is the centenary of Nelson’s death – this is a notion, not a real event. The poem is about feelings about patriotism, warfare, maritime expansion and so on, which may be important but which are no more than feelings. The poem does not involve any “things you can see and hear”.

A point where the style of elevated speech in Britain abandons traditional powers and virtues may shed a light on the contrast between British idiom and that of many other cultures, including ones whose members have migrated to Britain in significant numbers. It is hard to explain why poets lack command of the resources of language, when that is their stock in trade. Since rhetoric was designed to make formal language persuasive, it is hard to see why it should be excluded from poetry. People may expect poetry to be enthralling, copious, elaborate, and so on. Where we can trace historic bodies of poetry from other cultures, they often use rhetoric, and are more elaborate than prose or everyday speech. There are often similarities between religious language and secular poetry. This is also true of English poetry up to the first book of Georgian Poetry (1912), which was strikingly spare in language. This was only one style of several floating around at the time. Thomas was born in the same year as Patrick Hastings – whose courtroom approach was so much less high-flown than Hall’s. Hastings used the plain style and it was completely non-literary – even drab. Hastings once had a hit play in the West End and was also Attorney General in the first Labour government. He thus crossed the courtroom, Parliament, and the stage – a reminder that you can’t wholly separate these various sites of elaborate and public language. (One of his plays was made, in Hollywood, into a silent film named The Notorious Lady, in 1927.) (Another was made into The Blind Goddess, which I have a copy of on my PC, it stars my favourite actor, Eric Portman, gosh, I must watch it.)

The shift in poetry is often connected to the rise of Close Reading, a way of getting students to write about literary texts which was a new fashion in the late 1920s, and started in the universities. This may be a false point of origin – one has to explain why people founding the Cambridge English Tripos thought the new approach was desirable, and what directed them away from a Victorian style which was still quite common in the 1920s. Every point of origin seems to be false, a result rather than an origin. The empirical and documentary style of poetry was already available around 1905. However, the steep decline of the rhetorical and non-religious style was twenty years later. Noyes made a career, with huge sales, during that transitional period.
Other sources might be that people rejected religion and wanted literature to be more scientific and factual. Or, that the overblown public emotion of the First World War set off a reaction in the Twenties, which took the form of streamlined and direct writing. Or, that the latent knowledge which had been the basis of poetry was replaced in the thinking of its readership by scientific knowledge. Or, that the Depression made poets interested in issues of economics and politics, which required less rhetoric and more facts. Possibly all these explanations are true.
Using Close Reading in the classroom could have made poetry more rhetorical and less banal. There is something about the silent rules of the classroom which meant that rhetoric got “exposed” and banality or literalness were less castigated. In general, poets find Close Reading oppressive, and associate it with being unable to write. It is fair to recall that the classics of the New Criticism did not reject high-flown writing; if you look at the choice of texts in “The Well-Wrought Urn”, they are mostly very rhetorical and literary. They are not domestic anecdote.

Modern British poetry is anti-rhetorical. It is plain and tries to rely on facts. This may correlate with a national habit of diffidence, embarrassment, verbal awkwardness. The two things may be related.

The standard book on Marshall Hall was written by someone who worked with him, and it is very much biased in his favour. It is a heroic narrative. Voices which found Hall to be theatrical and misleading, and perhaps out of date in his later years, are not represented in that book. Incidentally, it didn’t matter if other barristers found his speeches theatrical and fantastic, as long as the jury found them enthralling and convincing. That biography (I use the green Penguin edition which is abbreviated, I admit) does not comment on whether the wife who shot her Egyptian husband in Hall’s most famous case was guilty. Grant’s narrative implies very strongly that she was. This is surely a question to raise about Hall’s courtroom rhetoric. He got the jury to acquit because the husband was Egyptian – that is pretty much what happened. Grant’s writing is impressive because anti-rhetorical. It is unimprovable – I can't get enough of it. But can you write poetry in that way?

Silent cinema was anti-verbal. Its makers had to cut the speeches in their source material and narrate everything visually. Did this influence novels and poems? I don't know. But culture is porous and subject to a thousand substances flowing in and out.
The legal historian Andrew Watson has written about the shift in courtroom styles and made the point that it was the juries who changed – the barristers followed the juries. Jurors became more educated and more critical. Also with poetry, we have to see the audience changing, not sovereign decisions by poets.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

SNP and the Scots language

New development for the Scots language

Start point for this post was wading through quite a large-scale book on Scottish politics since 2007 (edited by Hassan and Barrow) and realising that there was nothing about language policy in its 607 pages. This was disappointing. I looked more closely and found that it was an evaluation of ten years of life under the SNP – a narrower theme. If the SNP has no language policy, then such a book is not going to talk about it. The agenda is set and there is an emerging, or yawning, space of things that just aren't on the agenda. I was recalling articles in the magazine Lallans, about 20 years ago, which drew attention to the lack of a question about the Scots language in the 2001 Census and suggested that there had been such a question but it was removed because admitting the existence of Scots would oblige the Edinburgh government to spend money on it. Later probes found that there was no interest in Scots among the SNP, officially, and that they didn't even have a policy on it. The website of the Scots Language Centre confirms my memories: “In 1994 the Aberdeen University Scots Leid Quorum was formed to campaign for a question about Scots language ability in the Scottish Census. By 1996 the General Register Office for Scotland had been persuaded to discuss including a question on Scots in the 2001 census. However, in 1997 the Scottish office rejected that. In 2000 MSPs debated a motion to include a question on Scots in the 2001 census. The motion was defeated. In 2001 a campaign group 'Forgotten Folk' was formed to campaign for a question on Scots in the census.” [Lallans = 'Lowlands', so Scots as distinct from Gaelic. leid=language]

The SNP was thus the only nationalist party in Europe which had no interest in encouraging or reviving the national language. If you look at the relationship “Scotland is dominated by England” and then “Scots in Scotland is dominated by English” then you might continue to say ”a Scottish nationalist movement would reverse the English domination both politically and linguistically”. The reasons why that logic was never applied are quite interesting. A bit of checking uncovered the fact that the SNP now has a policy about the Scots language. It was developed between 2010 and 2015 and is now enshrined in a policy paper. 2011 sounds a bit late, when the party had its first breakthrough in the 1960s, but the government they run is now funding a range of Scots institutions, including the Scots Language Society – which runs Lallans and was responsible for severe criticisms of official-nationalist approaches to the local language at around Devolution time. As the Scottish government website says, “The 2011 census included a question on the Scots language for the first time. 1.5 million people reported that they could speak Scots and 1.9 million reported that they could speak, read, write or understand Scots.”
I have downloaded the Scots version of the policy paper and am very happy to see it. It starts “We wad like tae encourage ye aw tae recognise the valuable heritage we hae in the Scots leid and tae continue tae promote its popularity and recognition across sindrie aspects o Scottish life.“ Actually that is the third sentence. I put it there to show that the translation from English has gone wrong towards the end of the sentence, so it is really staying in English. The first sentence is “We are fair blythe tae be eekin on a cuttie innins tae this Scots Language Policy. We, in the Scottish Government, are continuin tae tak important steps tae heize the profile o the Scots leid.“ This has some inorganic moments, where official English turns into a register of Scots that doesn’t currently exist (although maybe it did prior to 1603). The sound is a bit stiff but it is heartily welcome because this shows the old language being extended – the creaks are the sound of new growth in an old tree. “eekin on” translates “appending”, and “cuttie innins” translates “short introduction”. (The same verb is spelt eikit later in the document.) A lot of word-creation has to happen, and Irish Gaelic is an example of how this task can be undertaken and brought to fruition, so that what had been a peasant language, around 1900, was brought to a point where complex works of scholarship could be written in it, and understood by the intellectual community. I only got one hit for a search on “SNP + language policy”, but at least they are trying. (The SNP website does not show any language policy, but actually the Scottish government, run by SNP ministers, does have one.) The Westminster government recognised the existence of Scots in 2001. A bit late, you may think.
The prevalence of Lallans follows socio-economic class – it is concentrated in income groups D and E. Within Scotland it does not signal “Scottish” but “lower class”. This may explain why the SNP did not identify itself with it. If the early SNP spokespeople had gone on stage and delivered their ideas in broad Scots, they would not have been taken seriously (i.e. even less seriously than, in 1960 or 1965, they actually were). A lot of people who spoke Scots were strong Labour voters and a lot of early SNP voters were middle class and spoke English all the time. A version where the SNP would have sold itself through the Scots language and sent out its propaganda or policies in Scots is entertaining, but counter-factual. I am on a website looking at someone holding a banner which reads “Dinnae haed yer wheish. Haed yer ain”, a great slogan, but although it is anti-English you can instantly see it isn’t an SNP banner.
Any policy directed at 1.9 million people is going to cost a lot of money. Helping Gaelic is a different question – the number of speakers is so low that almost any policy is inexpensive.

It is only fair to the Hassan/Barrow book to mention that it has a strong interest in social empowerment, the enfranchisement of the poor and ill-educated– what in England is called “social exclusion”. This is a book about politics which takes an interest in people who do not vote. After all, the problem is not really what language people speak, but whether they feel that other people are going to listen to them, and whether they feel that public space belongs to them. The issues around Scots are not to do with what kind of “u” vowel occurs in a word, but with feelings of being wrong about abstract questions, of being someone who is not going to be listened to anyway, and of being laughed at. The acquisition of autonomy by the Scottish nation would seem to translate naturally into individual Scottish people, especially those of low status, reaching for autonomy and feeling that they no longer have to remain silent and listen to other people instructing them. One of their essayists talks about “fuzzy spaces”, which seems to mean spaces where social roles do not apply (or are unclear). The chapter is "Alternative Scotlands: New Spaces and Practices and Overcoming‘Unspace’". This is part of linguistics in a particular way, that anxiety and comfort affect people’s freedom to speak, and those qualities are somehow “scorched” or “imprinted” into shared spaces, and making those spaces “fuzzy” means that everyone feels OK about speaking up when contained in them. This seems like a pretty deep aspect of linguistics, actually. The idea that Scotland ceased to be “dominated space”, or “peripheral space”, in 1999, is romantic but close to being true.
Gerry Hassan has written about “unspace” which seems to be “blocked and impassible space” or even “space impassible to language”. Maybe, too, “the domain of experience that never gets written about”. Fuzzy space is a transformation of that social geometry.
Scottish writers may have overrated the language question, for reasons inherent in the point of view of a writer. Issues of status and credibility are wider than language alone.

Imagine a child whose home speaks broad Scots encountering the school system, which is invested in English. That child is going to have difficulty dealing with English, which is a foreign dialect. Their own speech patterns will be corrected and, unavoidably, stigmatised. When they write, they have to use English. The people in charge speak English. They are being set on the route to leaving school as soon as possible, with the smallest possible number of exam passes. If they reach higher educational levels, they will give up using Scots. This issue is too obvious to be overlooked, and as a result the Lallans movement has shifted towards primary schools (and social inclusion). The trauma is happening at primary level – dealing with 11 year olds is too late. It is their right as citizens to have a school which is positive about Lallans. So the language gets funding to produce material for primary school pupils, and to promote social inclusion. I have to point out that this means a lot of product which is not of great interest to me, as an adult. Strangely, the domain restriction which meant that the language lost great areas of vocabulary is being re-enacted by the stress on writing material which is suited for young children (who also have a restricted vocabulary, with few abstractions.) This was my trouble with the magazine Lallans, that the material they printed was too oral, too simple, not literary enough. Of course the strength of Scottish oral tradition is also important, and it is a larger part of Scottish heritage than the equivalent is in England. I am sure that having affluent, articulate, attractive people go into Scottish classrooms and speak broad Scots to the pupils is a terrific idea. The idea that Scots is not a failed attempt at English, but a language without a State, is something that should be shared with every child. Primary school pupils need material which is close to the oral style, and other material has to be newly written; after all, they are not going to read William Dunbar. If you change the life of 5 to 8 year olds, you will eventually produce a new country.
I don’t think poetry in Scots is in a very good state. The most interesting poets who were involved in it 30 years ago have given it up. I have an anthology of young Scottish poets (2014) which is 189 pages long and only has 2 poems in Scots. (with Scots traces in a third.) I don’t want to guilt-trip people for not belonging to income group D, this is just an objective count.

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 " ...as 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 alansorrell.com )

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.