Monday, 2 May 2022

Orchard’s Bay

Orchard’s Bay

A charity sale turned up a copy of Noyes’ 1939 book Orchard’s Bay which I thoughtlessly scarfed up. Two pounds. A cup of coffee costs more. I was interested because I had recently read quite a lot of Noyes’ poetry in connection with a reject in English nationalism and its complete exit from poetry in about 1924. Noyes had written a large amount of significant nationalist poetry, was 40 in 1922 and had followed the exit from that whole Public Emotion along with his rivals. I didn’t like that nationalist poetry but I was curious about the apparent legislative change which meant that poetry was governed by new rules. I am now, 2022, in an era of right-wing populism where poor people are induced to vote for governments which impose low taxes and low levels of welfare. A key part of this set-up is distrust of educated elites who are also liberal and fascinated by foreign cultures. The electorate scores, in contrast, as xenophobic and nationalistic. It interests me to return to a time when the educated elite were imperialist and xenophobic, and to recover how that steady opinion changed. Everybody witnessed this, but did they record what they witnessed?
Noyes has an account of the career of Stephen Phillips (a model for his own self-perception, perhaps) which shows him as having his career wrecked by a clique of critics who were animated by jealousy. This is already an anticipation of the UKIP theory of how things have gone wrong: if you disbelieve journalists, then it follows that you can cling to your populist-right views. So, we can say that bookshops stock what they want and people buy what they want, and so events in the poetic world are spontaneous - the democracy of the market validates rule changes. Or, we can accept that changes are the result of tiny metropolitan cliques who drink together, and so that every decision since 1905 has been arbitrary and a manipulation, and so that history should be re-run – with the losers winning. It is very difficult to prove which side is right, if any. Noyes does not explain how newspaper critics could overwhelm and replace word of mouth.

Bay was published in September 1939 by Sheed and Ward, Catholic publishers. It is a set of essays about his garden on the south shore of the Isle of Wight, interspersed with reflections on literature. That doesn’t sound very exciting, and indeed there is no page of it which I enjoyed or wanted to share with anyone. It includes about 30 pages of his poetry, presumably recent. The house is now a guest house and so you can find a photograph of it on the Internet, with notes on the topography. I certainly enjoyed the photograph. A few months after publication, the house was facing a coast occupied by the German Army. It is very far south: an unusual climate and one justifying a book about a garden full of plants that wouldn’t do well closer to the middle of England. He says the garden occupies ten acres, but not how many people were employed in the gardening of it. Bay is golden and unfocussed kitsch in the way that his famous poetry is drum-beating nationalist kitsch. 1939… Britain was visibly steaming towards another world war. Noyes had written the sentimental soundtrack to the first one. Did he remember what he had done, or have thoughts about the new militarism (in Europe) and its drum-thumping bards? Apparently not. He never mentions it.
1936 had seen two key anthologies of British poetry, both of which excised Noyes from the collective record. He was facing an eclipse, however suffused with the colours of the sunset. Did he notice? he never mentions it. This is an index of kitsch – it leaves out anything that interrupts its swaddling fantasy, any splinter of the real world. How could he write 300 pages while leaving out anything which intrudes on his state of serenity and vagueness, of blossoming self-love?

This is the sound of affluence. Any significant idea would break the spell of serenity. So he writes gushingly and grammatically about trivia. Or about false ideas- there is a moment where he disproves Darwin. How stupid do you have to be to think you can disprove Darwin without being a biologist or even reading any specialist literature? But that is the proposal of affluence, that you can make unpleasant ideas go away and that you can be a great thinker without effort or study. The world of ideas is as subject to him as his garden – he can have anything that does not suit cut down.

The clouds drift over the sea, the great white clouds,
Trailing their violet shadows, all as one.
For I remember watching them, long ago
In other lands, these clouds.
They are not changed,
The sunlit sea, the green-crested waves,
The dusky shadows travelling all one way,
Expanding like dark stains, or like a breath
Vanishing into the sunlit green again.
Nothing is changed. Nothing is there but beauty;
And yet, and yet;
O, why should beauty weigh on hungering eyes
And heart, as though some deep unuttered thing
Were there sealed up in lead?
(untitled, at p.153)

This isn’t very good.
Two features of Noyes. He has that quality of self-approval... it is very attractive. I certainly wonder if anyone who has close contact with a university has quite that level of inability to doubt any idea. Secondly, his fluency with words. He is saying almost nothing, but he is always rippling with words, like some pianist who can improvise decorations and variations apparently forever. Rippling, pointless, trills.
This is so elevated. The term Edelkitsch may apply. Edel means noble and Edelkitsch is a sort of bad art which ennobles whatever it looks at. And omits anything functional and work-related, naturally. Edelkitsch relies usually on Nature, God and the Tranquillised Past. The process of cultivating the past, of dissolving it down to egocentric story lines of a comforting shape, is like cultivating a garden: removing all the plants you don’t like and aiming at flowers. Freud wrote a paper called "The ego and mechanisms of defence". Really, Bays is all about mechanisms of defence. Evidently he is trying to sound as if he were writing in 1820. One defence mechanism has locked out news of the death of Tennyson, even the death of Keats. This is not like other poems written in about 1938, by Auden or Barker. But Gascoyne is not so dissimilar -

Hush, says the sameness of the snow
The Ural and the Jura now rejoin
The furthest arctic’s desolation. All is one:
Sheer mountain: plain, mountain; country, town;
Contours and boundaries no longer show.
(‘Snow in Europe.’)

I think we could label this as Edelkitsch.
I was vaguely interested in Noyes as a believer in the occult. This followed a snippet on the internet – which is actually more to do with a Believer projecting onto Noyes than with Noyes. The snippet records that Oliver Lodge tried to convert Noyes to spiritualism and failed. This is in his 1953 autobiography. But, in fact, there is a passage in the same book where Noyes talks about the invisible world:
And now having said all this, let me add that for years I have felt quite certain that communications from the invisible world do come unpredictably in quite a different way, subtle as the language of music or the colours of an evening sky, in aid and consolation to the lonely heart of man. On some of these personal experiences, I have dwelt in The Last Voyage, but it is a matter of living experience, not of detached experiment.

This is neither Catholic nor real – it is something like spiritualism, like the deduction of a world where the spirits lived, because to have them floating in nothing would have distressed the relatives. So Noyes believed in something like Summerland, the home of recently passed spirits. He believes that art obeys the rules of an invisible world – it works because we see part of that world through the external and sensuous forms of art. This is a kind of Platonism. “The real secret of this ‘desiderium' is that it is an attempt of the heart, often unconscious of its real aim, to transcend the Time process altogether; to escape from the world of shadows and perishable things, and find the eternal world.” ‘Desiderium’ is the word from which ‘desire’ derives. Getting away from Time may be a kind of response to the realisation that the collective memory of the poetry world is going to throw you off the boat.
He uses the phrase philosophia perennis several times – this holds that all religions contain the same basic truth, which is not compatible with Catholicism. So he wasn’t quite a good Catholic. He wanted to merge Platonic ideals and the Christian Heaven in some way – perhaps the details don’t matter. He is quite close to Kathleen Raine on this topic. I was interested in measuring how new modern occultist or New Age poetry was. Evidently there was a wave of poets in the first decades of the 20th C who were influenced by Theosophy, spiritualism, neo-platonism, G.R.S. Mead, and what have you. The details are quite difficult to dredge up. There were rationalist poets too – and, to be accurate, a great many Christian poets. But spirituality obviously wasn’t confined to the Christian realm, with its bureaucracy of very intelligent and logical people exposing inconsistencies and personal fantasies and throwing them out of the window, as it were.
Noyes wrote the words to the songs for the Pageant of Empire which was performed as part of the Empire Exhibition, 1924. Music by Elgar. He was right at the centre of the shiny coloured cloud which threw a nimbus around the bloody and quite uncontrolled activities which sustained the Empire. Anybody looking at attitudes today which are white-supremacist, unfair to Black and Asian people, against equal rights, etc., and going back to find where they came from, is going to look at that Exhibition because it was on such a large scale and because it made explicit feelings (or fantasies) which were wisping in the air prior to it. I don’t think the Exhibition included a stand portraying the Amritsar Massacre… omission is the key, and maybe Noyes’ practices of omission in writing these “intimate” and domestic essays will shed light on the omissions within propaganda as a kind of “aestheticisation” of a scene where the human blood was always fresh. (John Newsinger’s book The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire was on sale at the same charity event.) But my impression of Noyes is that he wasn't truly engaged in all that… he had a very low threshold of suggestibility, he was able to write poems (used as song lyrics) with great fluency, precisely matching a public mood, and rapidly assimilated by a big audience. So he was affluent by 1939, he actually didn’t have to worry about his next bank statement. When he wrote nationalist and imperialist verse, in prodigious quantities, it didn’t leave much mark on him. It was just a job. Conversely, I think he really was interested by Catholicism, by the history of science, and by the invisible world which he thought made its presence known through art. But the fact that he hadn't written any nationalist poetry for twenty years, that he had evidently changed his mind completely and given it up, doesn't give rise to any moment of reflection in Orchard's Bay – it is as if he had just crossed the street and forgotten the shop window he had just been looking at. No chance that we can find out why opinion moved against Empire, why the Empire was given up (just a few years later), what had changed. He just never mentions it.
He makes remarks about how fatuous modernity is, but this is perfunctory. He is very happy to think that any writer younger than him is a complete idiot. It’s a great feeling!

Noyes evidently didn’t actually do the gardening. He wasn't going down on his knees in the borders, or sawing off branches of trees. In the sense of Gardeners’ Question Time, he wasn’t a gardener at all – he didn’t know anything about plants. This certainly limits the interest of a book entirely about his garden. The plants are only there to reflect a brief yet bouffant mood of self-approval, of golden wisdom, of blossoming optimism, in the poet. It is an estate made of metaphors.
We could call the book an ode to the sense of leisure that flowed joyously when wages were low and you could afford servants.
The garden contains non-European plants and so we could link this to imperialism. The plants had been collected on various continents by botanists who were at least connected to colonial endeavours, for shipping, among other things. This is not a strong link, I find. You can be a gardener without being an imperialist.

My impression is that there is a connection between the bodiless communication which is the basis of Spiritualism and the “aural” emotional sharing which is the basis of nationalism. The devisers of the Empire Pageant didn’t have a good explanation for why a crowd could share nationalist sentiments… but they thought that crowd-feeling embodied a vast and real, if invisible, world. It was “already there” and the artist just had to channel it. They were very interested in how the Anglo-Saxon race could share big but invisible emotions, and not at all interested in a global system of exchange in which nobody who wasn't White had the vote. The Big Feelings were accepted as proof that Race existed. I think the same people who doubted that Race really existed doubted that spirits really spoke through mediums.
It is only fair to say that this is a minor work in Noyes' career. Like most works about gardens, I suspect.

At one point he talks about Pontanus and says he was the finest Latin poet of the Renaissance. Pontanus came from Spoleto, lived mainly in Naples, lived in the 15th century, wrote only in Latin. Pontanus did write a poem on the cultivation of oranges and so fits into a book about a garden. He is someone the modern person has probably never read… so it would be good to learn something about him. Noyes tells us almost nothing… you get the effect of Noyes being a great connoisseur, validating his own knowledge and his own aesthetic sensations, savouring the distilled finest vintages of the past, lost in admiration and self-admiration. That is, he scores the points needed to make Noble Kitsch come off. You get to see two whole lines of Pontanus. We hear that he was “the best” and this gives us a good feeling… it makes the prose overlap with the world of advertising, but maybe that isn’t misleading. It is the idea of Gracious Living.
The absence of doubt corresponds with the ability to exclude people who would disagree with him… he knows they exist, but somehow they are kept at a comfortable distance. The discussion isn’t really a discussion, it is more like music. It is not surprising that he chose to live on an island. We started with the Empire, and the fact that he creates this homogeneity in his prose, that there is only ever one side to any argument, is inexplicably related to racial homogeneity. I can’t analyse this but if the modern thing is for writers to experience Doubt then that is related to a society in which the verbal realm acknowledges divisions and the existence of diverse groups.

Noyes' autobiography was called Two Worlds for Memory. The second one is this Platonic world, hidden from the senses but embodying memory and reaching us as a memory of the timeless world. The first one is the one of real life.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

undescribed overall feel

Received an email from Ralph Hawkins saying in part: "Also I think the discovery of form (alternatives) comes out of the book (the political ideas maybe (more) French than Hippy or Hopi, but the line spacings, arrangements, flows are distinctly American and with all become a different means of viewing the world and poem as construct). I can now see (today!) how some of the content is distinctly hippy, in search of the alternative past and an alternative future. But the future is always materialist and not a pipe dream! Puff of smoke."

[‘the book’ is Nothing is being suppressed]
('Hopi' - a people in the south-west USA- subject of 1000 PhDs -katsina dolls appear in a Martin Thom poem and Hopi mythology is the basis for David Wevill's great poem Fall of the Arrow. Maybe in a Nathaniel Tarn poem too, damned if i can remember. A symbol of Third World wisdom which the post-western poet can partake of.
I think this is very important and it is something which I never mention in the book. The idea of the poem changes between the ‘mainstream’ poets in ‘Poetry Dimension’ [vols 1 to 6] and the poets in 2nd Aeon. It is an overall thing and inarticulate ... and very hard to articulate. I think it involves several hundred poets in the Seventies… so, readily grasped however non-analytical and undescribed.
I am wondering how much it involves the presentation of the self… and the key thing about that self is lifestyle, a liberated lifestyle. An “affective identity”. And the self is not explicitly present in the poem, it is a schema which flows out of every line and flows over every line. it’s like the air in a room... you can’t see either the self or the air in the room.

American. I think there is a legacy problem because people have always said “American!” and not gone on to produce a description. Actually most American poets don’t have the relevant quality, we are talking specifically about the avant garde of the Fifties, the ones in Donald Allen’s anthology. The ones who re-founded British poetry. What I am thinking about is post-American but British, this is a local identity.
'Flow' is the key thing. The style would probably include (a)the American thing. (b) offering the partaking in the new generation, the one which emerged after 1965, and which includes student revolt and the summer of love. (c) free association, which includes the Self being the validation for the sensations that appear in the poem (d) intimacy (e) rejection of a previous regime in which there was "empiricism", so that intuition counted for nothing and the sense record was everything and there were no ideals because they were generalisations (f) absence of morality and the whole legacy of religion, except maybe Buddhism (g) dislike of forcing experience into existing schemas (h) lack of a work ethic (I) not describing sociology because the idea is being rejected that social status & income dictate consciousness (j) openness of the fabric to speculation, hypothesis, fantasy (k) sparseness of frame markers (l) jumps of sense… the free association… with the idea that there are many points of view and if you shift from one to another there are special benefits, maybe that if you see the edge of the frame you realise how it confines you.

This list is probably too rational and the overall feel drifts away as we start to analyse. If Peter Finch reviews 276 publications (from Britain) in one issue of 2nd Aeon (titled 19-21 to satisfy subscription contracts! 268 pages, wow), for 1974, I think all the authors in that selection had got this New Feel. So, easy to grasp, hard to analyse. 69 poets published in that one issue.

Thursday, 24 March 2022

1970s book finally out

'Nothing is being suppressed", my book about British poetry in the 1970s, is now published. You can buy it through the Shearsman website.
The booklist I included shows about 100 good poets working in the 70s, whereas I only write about 35 of them within the book. Notes on some of the poets I left out are here: capsule
and here: capsule
For more about the book, see entries under the label 'Nothing is being suppressed' in the column at the right of the screen. A list of poets I have written about, in many publications, and including many 70s poets, is on this post here:
reviews list
I regret that I didn't discuss every single poet in detail, but there is only so much you can do. I have written about almost all the 100 poets mentioned, but the texts are not all collected in one place.

I should express thanks to Kevin Nolan, for insisting on the merits of some Cambridge poets roughly 1975-80. I should have known about their work, after all I was there, but I didn’t. And, to Harry Gilonis, for suggesting a few extra Long Poems to make the list more complete.
That doesn't sound very generous, so let me admit that, while I didn’t discuss the book much with other people while writing it, I have drained endless knowledge from other people over a period of 45 or so years. A number of anthologies gave me the poets to follow up, Lucie-Smith’s anthology in first place. For the book, I read Peter Porter’s pieces from the Observer, in an on-line form of the original Seventies issues, and they were all fascinating and informative. This kind of thing doesn't happen without soaking up knowledge from informants, who themselves had soaked up knowledge from many other informants, so that my debt is to a whole network of the cultured and enthusiastic.

Someone has written in to point out a mistake. "MD", in Suicide Bridge, is not Montague Druitt but Marcel Duchamp. Who knew? Offer: anyone who identifies a mistake will get a free copy of all the mistakes.
"A passage about Montague Druitt illustrates this:
prisoner of the sharpened future cone
‘orbit of the Killing vector’
old question: is there death before life
MD cut it into the accident elbow
of his glass, his black keyhole
refined into inertia
it was found
among the grinding mills, the cones
a pattern
presented to him, trace elements
of the dying molecular equation
fuel’d his insight, brought his own decay
the magnitude
of what he could not see"

- so this is Duchamp and the 'grinding' refers to "the bachelor's chocolate grinding machine". The glass is "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)" (le grand verre).

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

book on 70s finally out

Nothing is Being Suppressed; British Poetry in the 1970s

This book is a pioneering attempt to roll back misrepresentation and depersonalisation and recover one of the most high-achieving eras of British poetry. The Seventies saw the collapse of the post-war settlement amid apparently insoluble problems over inflation and profitability. Consensus broke down and a lot of things that people remember about the 1970s didn’t actually happen. The outcome for poetry was a radical attempt to write down ideas about a different society and personal lifestyle, but also a polarised climate in which one faction tried to erase others from the record. Right-wing historians like to write about the period as an error in which all trajectories led inevitably to the rise of Thatcherism and that rise corrected the error. But it is equally valid to be fascinated by the other social possibilities and to appreciate art for imaginary paths that were not followed. Is it not true that the Seventies saw styles of good poetry (maybe bad poetry too?) which have been lost to memory ever since?? The role of the implicit was destabilised in the Seventies, and we are trying to recover what was shared but unstated. A list of 100 long poems suggests the direction that poetry went in, and that the idea of extension and exploration was to mend social memory and restore a shared language. Right and Left felt equally threatened and in need of reciting ideological primal scenes. Most of the text is about the long poems, following them as they attempt to reframe seized-up arguments. A larger rhythm, a deeper scan. A wider range of voices. Returning to the unenclosed field where myth, law, and sociology are still tentative and unstable. In doing so, it dredges up unrecorded layers of a buried time. It reveals how Iain Sinclair’s Suicide Bridge develops a circular theory of time from up to the minute theories about faster than light particles and the end of black holes. This is not the only deviant theory of Time floating around. We find that “the dream is over”, but why is it that this key moment has been variously located anywhere from the death of Stalin to the break-up of Pink Floyd? Repeated bulletins announcing the decease of the counter-culture, squatland, and hippies hearing secret harmonies, just showed that those features were here to stay. Elsewhere, the narrative records that malice and distorted reporting of someone else’s speech and conduct are actually part of the social structure and not something fleeting and forgettable. It also offers tuition in the correct use of the phrase “it’s cosmic man” as part of gracious living.

Featured poets include Jack Beeching, Euros Bowen, Paul Brown, Gerard Casey, Andrew Crozier, Paul Evans, Allen Fisher, Roy Fisher, Eddie Flintoff, Ulli Freer, Michael Gibbs, W.S. Graham, Harry Guest, Ralph Hawkins, Frances Horovitz, Nicki Jackowska, Philip Jenkins, David Jones, Antony Lopez, George MacBeth, Sorley MacLean, Rod Mengham, Edwin Morgan, Eric Mottram, Peter Porter, J. H. Prynne, Kathleen Raine, Jeremy Reed, Colin Simms, Iain Sinclair, Iain Crichton Smith, Ken Smith, Martin Thom, Gael Turnbull, John Wain, John Powell Ward.
and see this website for some of the poets I left out.

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Rules of the elite

Thinking about Allott and his anthology … again

I am revisiting Allott via a set of email exchanges with Simon Jenner and John Goodby. We started with Charles Osborne’s memoirs and discussion of the impersonal style of arts management, with objective and apparently anti-artistic criteria taking over. Osborne was writing about this in 1986, as he left the Arts Council. It takes us back to the late stage of the rule of connoisseurs, as what the impersonal style replaced. A good example is Allott’s Penguin anthology (one edition in 1950 and another in 1962) with its central decision to include 39.5% of Oxford graduates in its selection of poets. This covered the period 1918 to 1960. That one figure sums up the horror so many people have for the dominance of choice. It links in to a vision of uncontrolled elitism: an in-group owns poetry, reproduces itself, shuts everyone else out. They set standards of taste by which other groups become out-groups. In the bad vision, this elite compiles a product which drives most of the audience away. There is a whole new cultural market, but poetry can’t keep up with it and becomes an old-fashioned genre run by old-fashioned people. The impulse is to eliminate choice as a factor. The guess is that if you edit and subsidise poetry according to bureaucratic, governmental criteria then it will do much better.
Note that if you add in Cambridge graduates it becomes 60%. We are looking at what happened to “validated” 18 year olds, but if we had more evidence we would probably see that they had already been to one of a fairly small number of “good schools” and had probably encountered English teachers who actually read modern poetry. The unfairness starts early on. People don’t like this... they want the outcome of the game to be unknown before the game is played. They do not want to observe X being given a coupon at the age of seven and cashing that coupon in, aged 30, as entry into a Penguin anthology.
I have just acquired Heath-Stubbs’ 1946 book. It is good, although I think he gave up trying to be good at a certain point in the 1950s. At this distance in time, we can say that there were objective risks… because Heath-Stubbs failed, there was evidently a risk of failure. He wrote a lot of bad poetry and people lost interest. Being in “8 Oxford Poets” was apparently a ticket, but maybe a ticket to obscurity. The malice of his immediate peers is the objective risk; this is a game that people can lose. Martin said Heath-Stubbs was “a coming man who never came”; I think they had known each other for 40 years at that point. Actually, Allott’s poetic career was pretty disastrous. Both Allott and Heath-Stubbs were clearly under a lot of strain… they knew they were losing the game. “Privilege” does not capture this situation with any precision.
John sent us a copy of a floridly Apocalyptic poem:

O antique vistas of stone sarcophagi,
Silent except for the stammer of literature
Through millennia,
Whose yellowing relics caricature and festoon the
Dropped anonymous features of this ice-era;
All plasm shaped to human symmetry
Through shell-coiled generations of incessant downpour;
Assemble backward out of charred time’s collapse.
Honeycomb each coxcomb
With drums for the dead and sea-green elegiacs,
Ring now like tinnitus in every ear.
Hands, be immersed in suffering like a surgeon,
And eyes, probe everywhere.

O agnus mundi, baa-lamb inhabiting
The inhibiting volcanic ranges of today,
Hovered over by harpies, restricted to cavities
And fissures out of the metre of time’s way,
Labyrinthine limp hero of a thousand epics,
Miles from the mild archipelagos of content,
Let these who underline your rhythms and stresses
Warn you like sirens of imminent judgement;
Sailors at sea
With their mercy of coracles and compasses,
Learn with the flashing miracle at last discernment.
Let their lives warp you away from the thinly-roofed crevasses.
You need not go astray, as they do, in the mountain passes.

Yet what heartbreak we have managed to mint between
The abstract cold that eyes us and the iron fire,
In our cage-bubble of doom barely six miles high,
Our quaking littoral with its sastrugi of pressure
Where nothing is shipshape, and time
Flares like a vesta and finds
An odour of memory like a pink keepsake.
Spreadeagled fall from your precipice of pride
Crying ‘Peccavi’,
Who futile and supine rut in the folded hills,
Wishing disasters may happen somewhere else.
The shadows are eerie,
The eyelids heavy,
The chances of flowers go out like a life on the tide.
(‘Ode in Wartime’, part of)
The strange thing is, this is by Kenneth Allott. So he wrote some audenesque poems in the Thirties... got carried away by the New Romantic style and wrote terrific poems from inside it… then became part of the enemies of the New Romantic thing… and compiled a standard anthology which eliminated the New Romantic thing from the record. And lost the ability to write.

Maybe in his depressing poet-analyses Allott is doing an autopsy of the cadaver of his own talent. Those poems were reprinted – after his death. The early-50s reaction against Apocalypse was a punishment of Allott as much as anybody else. The friends he valued so much had decided that this style was Outside Good Taste and this enactment prevented him from any further creative fulfilment. This is a really interesting story.
In the notes, Allott is squeezing young poets like someone juicing a grapefruit… it’s horrible. But it’s not outsiders who are getting this treatment, it is insiders, young insiders. He has Thwaite and Levi on board but you get no idea of what they were going to do, he only sees flaws. He apparently knows everything about that little Insider group, and they are homogeneous and so knowable. But he totally fails to get those two, even though they are going to be the “star” Oxford poets a few years later. Relations inside the dominant group are so interesting. They certainly aren't friendly all the time. Yes there is hostility towards outsiders, they are “blanked”, excluded; but the hostility among insiders is more cogent. The Wars of the Roses were a huge series of factional struggles between members of the elite, often related to each other; they weren’t fights between the nobility and the peasants. You can't bring those fights on stage because they didn't happen.

I wrote: “Even more about Allott. Martin said about Heath-Stubbs “a coming man who never came”. This could be like someone selling wine in an honest way… I can imagine Martin saying “a touch of the cat-piss but excellent value for money”. In a wine-shop where you go on Friday night and he knows his stock because he is always drinking it.” This is Martin Seymour-Smith, a genuine Forties poet whom Simon and I knew well many years later. John Goodby said “I’m not saying Allott was a manager anyway - don’t know enough about him. I just don’t like the censorious, anti-pleasure, nit-picky nature of his prose intros in that anthology.” John is quite right about this. We are looking at the Oxford network as the most privileged people, ones freed from the usual controls. This does not seem to have worked for Allott. This is the most interesting thing in the story. How can you have a system where people at the apex are not free, can’t do what they want? Surely that makes the apex unattractive? So maybe the Apocalypts demanded freedom, seized it… and were punished by the real managers for doing so.
All through those Notes (skewering the poets he is anthologising), he sounds unhappy… that is being presented as the prestige behaviour. He gives away pure freedom to interrogation and collecting evidence. I mean, you don’t sell wine by showing people who drink it and don’t enjoy it. He doesn’t even answer the question, why did you decide to spend your life doing this.
If you think about the wine trade, the people who face the public actually enjoy wine. They even enjoy getting a bit drunk. They stimulate people to buy – that is an aspect of spreading knowledge. They can do the talk because they really know what wine is about – a taste you enjoy. The elite which Allott was part of was not hedonistic. They lost a lot of ground in the Sixties as people came along who did take a hedonistic attitude towards poetry. The strange thing is, this mixture of austerity and Close Reading is moving towards an impersonal-bureaucratic style of decision-making. If it is not based on pleasure, what is the point of personal choice? It has to be “I like this one, I don’t like that one”; if you don’t enjoy the ones you like, the whole project has run out of fuel. I mention wine because it was something which around 1930 only a tiny number of people were enthusiastic about, and it was an aspect of upper-class pleasures which made that downward journey, it was marketed and people wrote How To books about it and now a couple of million people are involved. You know, wine, Mediterranean holidays, visiting art galleries, French food. A whole package of things which poetry somehow isn’t part of.
We need to go back to where we started, with an impersonal decision style in the arts and documents written in management-speak. It seems like a big disaster. You can’t market leisure commodities in that way. But there are unsolved problems to do with connoisseurship and personal choice. These tend to come out when people discuss anthologies. If you make an anthology with 85 poets today, you have probably a thousand poets who didn’t make the cut seething with resentment. That sort of resentment is now a big part of the conversation around poetry. I guess the conversation must be productive of something. I suspect also that it displays the spread of privatisation and the destruction of shared and public space. Is it too much to admit that the other team has won?

Sunday, 27 February 2022

70s book coming soon

New bulletin
I have finished proofing and am awaiting a test copy of the fully manufactured book, for a final quality check. And… it arrived while I was typing this.

Meanwhile, my announcement of the book on Facebook incited an inquiry whether I had included Rivelin Press. If people want chapters on each of about 80 small presses, I am toast. What do I know about Rivelin… actually I do have ‘Tunis’ which they published. It lists some of their output around 1972: Kevin Borman, Owen Davis, John Freeman, Jeremy Hilton, AG Hill, David Tipton. Hmmm. More research needed.

Rivelin is a part of Sheffield. I looked at the 1974 defining list of the “British Poetry Revival” and counted that 5 of 36 poets lived in the north of England. Evidently there was a geography of the new poetic culture. I prefer to deal with the generational aspect, which is easier to grasp. I have just seen in Poet’s Yearbook an anthology of five Suffolk poets coming out in 1978 from Syntaxophone… including Martin Stannard. And Joe Soap’s Canoe started in Ipswich (later Felixstowe). I am tempted to interview Stannard about this, although I don’t have the materials to develop the right questions. So actually I know nothing about what was happening in Suffolk. The reality is that I have information about half a dozen “scenes” but there were scenes in every city.

The poets I am looking at now are Hilton and Houédard. It seems impossible to come to the end of reading the 1970s. I am also reading the memoirs of Charles Osborne, who was demonised by jilted grant claimants when he was chair of the Arts Council’s Literature Panel. He claims to have played Pilot Officer Foxlee in the film "The Dam Busters". Wow. I am wondering if another viewing would expose Eric Mottram and John Heath-Stubbs in even smaller roles. He also quotes an essay by Peter Porter describing how vital was the book shop which Osborne co-ran in Brisbane in 1947-9: “the once or twice I met Charles Osborne I found him dauntingly sophisticated. Charles ran the Ballad Bookshop in the city, where I often bought books… Charles was always a man of great courage, and he led the way in defying Brisbane’s puritanism and philistinism. […] All this group dared to practise a mixture of left-wing politics and high camp at a time when such notions were dangerous.”
Osborne comes out in his memoirs as a very sympathetic person. I suppose that re-personalising someone who has been depersonalised is the most unforgivable thing and you can never be forgiven by the people who did the original depersonalising. But the whole process is so central to the history of the 1970s. It is not just a matter of recovering what was repressed, but also of uncovering the act of repression. Clearly most of the things which the folklore recalls about the Poetry Society flap never happened.

I got an email from one of the poets in the book, “Hi Andrew, the grand events that I was interested in had very little to do with poetry, and more with politics. I was a trotskyist from the age of 16, selling papers down the docks in London, and having them burnt out of my hands. I was as active in that as I was in poetry. I was at the American embassy when the police first tried out their "kettling" procedure in 1968, with my pregnant wife. I was there at the New Cross/Lewisham protests in 1981, which I must admit was more like the carnival of the oppressed than I have ever seen – all the streets in Lewisham & New Cross came out to support the protestors.” This is something I would have liked to write about more – the problem with discussing political commitment is the diversity of opinions and (also) the lack of information recorded about what individual poets identified with.

I got a CD called "English Weather" which collects examples of a style in rock music which the editors (the guys from St Etienne) claim only lasted for a couple of years around 1970. I find this method of anthologising very interesting, certainly styles changed very fast during the Seventies. In the packaging is a photo of a poster for a benefit gig (on January 23, of 1972?). The beneficiary is “UCS” which I believe to be Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, a workers’ co-op set up after an occupation of the works by workers facing the loss of their jobs. This was part of the mix at the time – the idea was to have an economy composed of a myriad co-ops as an alternative to a largely discredited model of State monopoly corporations run by civil servants. This model is what a lot of people had in mind at the time – it seems to have been forgotten after 1979. In building seagoing ships, you are exposed to the world market. When the state of world trade is poor, the existing capacity of ships is enough, and there are no orders. Then, when things pick up, you have to build your ships, spending a lot of money before you receive payment. So this is a capital-intensive industry and an unlikely sector for firms without capital and relying on human assets to succeed in. At the time, Tony Benn was very keen on this model of workers’ takeover – it was a line of divisions between Right and Left of the Labour Party because the Right was against this sort of progress and was, in practice, much happier to stick with capitalism. The step before the occupations was bankruptcy – the owners were firing everybody as part of closing the business down. If you had some money to invest, a bankrupt concern is the last place you would invest it – there was a deep problem with the socialist cause pouring its energy into concerns that were not in any way “going”.
There was an analogy with the world of squats, which were generally derelict properties which had been rehabilitated by young people moving in to find rent-free homes. Again generally, they were owned by town councils which did not have the funds to fix up the houses themselves. Because the squats were self-governing (often in housing associations), they were also co-ops (and even ‘occupations’). But there was also a focus on the derelict which did not promise a hold on the future. There is a symbolic link between poets seizing and modifying source texts, to modify them, and squatting a house.
Quite a lot of Britain was derelict in 1972. One effect of this was a pulse of self-confidence (and self-regard) by the young, as the old system seemed so unable to defend itself. This does explain quite a lot of the culture at the time. It was a later time which saw everything either being modernised or closed down altogether.

Osborne says somewhere (sorry can’t find the page!) that, around 1980, everything was worse than it had been 25 years earlier, i.e. 1955. Music, theatre, novels, etc. This is an unusual judgement. Personally I think everything was better in the 1970s, and that is what I assume when writing. In the 50s Osborne was trying to work as a actor and supporting himself by writing music journalism and sleeve notes etc. I am sure that recorded music was much better at that time than in the 40s, because of the arrival of the long-playing record and of stereo. But it is fair to say that he was hearing the 19th and late 18th century repertoire being transferred to vinyl, and that was not music composed and devised during the 1950s. He wasn’t interested in Boulez, Nono, and so forth.

Am looking at Sam Gardiner’s Poet’s Yearbook for 1976. He says “Throughout this book the Arts Council emerges as by far the greatest patron poetry has ever known. As an agency whereby public money can be directed towards the arts with a minimum of state interference it is easy to imagine less desirable arrangements.” I should have quoted this.

I quoted Eric Mottram:

a helmet set on a head
for the horns reach from brain folds
to planets above towers
beyond a lens
moon light in his antlers
curl and spiral of universe
curve out of the brain
skill of mountains receptors to wind curve
from space to caves in the heart
a coil of horn around a nerve
which tunes the herb
(from A Book of Herne, 1981)

Mottram is referring to the etymological connection between keras “horn” and cerebrum “brain”. Both are curved (or convoluted) organs growing out of the head. Herne was a deer-man figure whose name is cognate with the word horn (which is itself cognate with keras). There is the symbolic image of the cornucopia, the horn of plenty, which could be associated (perhaps not before the 20th C) with the fertility of the brain. The link goes back to an ancient time (the Bronze Age?) and reflects how etymology gives us a liminal zone, with ‘roots’ as primal things which mutate to develop the concepts of everyday life. The reconstruction of a world of etyma rather than of real words carries us to a realm of creation and timelessness which fits in well with a theme of my book. However, I have left it out. I find Mottram’s poem obscure – the connection between keras and cerebrum is not recognisable to most people. The horn: brain link does not work in the English language. And the whole world of etymology, fascinating as I find it, is antiquarian and not well suited to poetry. You can’t write a poem in roots, you have to use actual words.
Evidently the creativity used in a poem is a part of the collective creativity which created language in the first place, a gigantic act of creativity and blossoming analogies, lasting thousands of years.
Many poets were aware of a realm of origins, with connections which were profoundly exciting and beyond conventional associations. Etymology is a door onto such a creative realm, but may not be the best way of getting there.
Herne seems to be connected with the cosmos and in fact his horns seem to be working as antennae. The phrase about “curve and spiral of universe” is reminiscent of something else – isn’t this about the spiral force described by John Michell and Guy Underwood, and isn’t the comparison between cosmic spirals and the convolutions of the cerebral cortex?

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Daryl Hine

Daryl Hine 1936-2012

I had not heard of Daryl Hine before reading Northrop Frye’s review of his 1957 book, but I now realise that he was an ambitious poet and that his career is one of the most complex in the history of literature in North America. I do not have the plan of describing that career, and to be honest his books are hard to get hold of as well as numerous. The secondary sources suggest that he made radical breaks but they were not wholly successful. At this point I am looking at what you might call typical Hine. Hine, who came from British Columbia, produced a book in 1957 at the age of 21. This is astonishing, but as the cover reminds us he had previously published Five Poems, so he had probably released teenage poems. Over-rapid learning in the Fifties made it unlikely he would un-learn it as precocity faded into something else. We are thinking of over-internalisation, and the flowering of the time was formalism, light verse, indifference to abstractions, fascination with decoration to the exclusion of real beauty. It was a few years later that Marcuse defined affirmative culture, but it was the 1950s he was thinking of, and that un-nourishing sweetness did not go away after that unless the individuals expert in it repented and found a new tune. Hine fits into that category all too cleanly. Suave? got suave. Pretty? got pretty. Sociable? got sociable. Lighter than air? got lighter than air. Hine saw the light during the formalist era and absorbed its ideals almost too much. He continued to write formalist poetry all his life, as the poetry world moved on. The objections to his work apply to formalism in general, and reflect the thinking of the great majority of poets born after 1936. They are familiar. However, that way of writing was peculiarly suited to Hine’s talent, and arguably he took it further than anyone else – where it favoured virtuosity, he was more of a virtuoso than the others. It has been called artificial, but it was evidently natural to Daryl Hine.
The title of his 1957 book is The Carnal and the Crane. The title is that given to an English carol, 23 verses long in at least one version, which is supposedly a dialogue between two birds, one of which is a carnal (otherwise unknown but at a guess could be “corneille”, a crow). They tell a tale of the very first Christmas, and Herod is the central character. He says that if he is wrong, and what the Wise Men say is true, the cockerel which they have just cooked and served up for dinner will get up and crow. Of course it does that; the theme is resurrection (what the birth of Christ brought to mankind). The cock soon freshly feathered was
    By the work of God's own hand
And then three fences crowed he
    In the dish where he did stand

(fences – times) The crowing is an echo of the cock which crowed three times for Peter to deny Christ; Christ's coming back to life is a repeat of his incarnation, in Bethlehem. The carol is raw folklore and its very creativity suggests ignorance of learned tradition (and the absence of theologians who had read all the patristic texts). One possibility is that the carnal is so called because crows eat red flesh (including that of humans, sometimes), whereas the crane eats fish; this refers to sacrifice and to purity (embodied in whiteness). But really we don’t know; the carol may be based on legends which the world had forgotten, and its text may be the product of multiple forgetting. The title excepted, I could not find any allusion to the carol in Hine’s book. The signature of ‘Carnal’ is that most of the poems are about Christian myths but Hine’s level of interest in the doctrines is sketchy. He slips into the sequence of poems about Herod and the Wise Men a gay poem. It is about Alexis and Corydon, gay shepherds in Vergil’s Georgics. That poem has long been connected to the New Testament, since a prophecy within it was connected to the birth of Jesus. “Novus ordo saeclorum”, etc. Also, at least one of the Gospels definitely has shepherds in it. But, nobody with any belief in Christianity would slip a gay love poem into the Gospel narrative about the birth of Jesus. The myths are inherently significant, if you believe in them but Hine’s poems are merely decorative because his level of sincerity is so low. It is as if the audience of the time, sophisticated and affluent, dreaded sincerity; as a threat to decorum and gracious living. This poetry is secular in the same way that a department store at Christmas is. It is hard to explain why Hine would devote 13 pages to the story about King Herod and the Wise Men if he has no sincere belief in any of it. In ‘Carnal’, the turning of heavy religious themes into mere décor is intriguing but the ability to dissolve significance away is also a trap. It may leave art as a repetitive set of theatrical decors. The threat is that the decor will be as flimsy as the costumes – and like religious motifs painted on teacups.

The lack of significance reminds us of postmodernism. This was not around in 1957, when ‘Carnal’ came out. I don’t think it helps us. The 1980s had to face some of the problems which emerged in the 1980s as people gave up on theology. A revived interest in politics, society, government, social change, made those problems go away.

It is possible that the formalist atmosphere of 1957 reflects admiration for Dylan Thomas as well as Auden. Clever metrics were apparently the way to out-compete everybody else, at the time. I mention this because Hine’s exuberance suggests a link with Thomas – that virtuosity which was the opposite of spontaneity and spasmic release of unconscious material. Hine is almost too much in control of his material; he is not compulsive. Again, we may consider Christopher Fry and Eithne Wilkins as the most direct comparisons in the world of Forties English poetry. But the echo of Auden is altogether too strong. Of course that is Fifties Auden, with no element of documentary or of interest in politics, just suavity, fluency, and a layer of generalisations that sound wise and mean almost nothing.

The poems conduct arguments but their outcomes do not seem to matter. We are not moving from dark to light. Rather we have a steady state and the exits are neatly closed off. The classical poet whom Hine resembles is Marvell – at least, this is what I seem to be detecting. That just underlines how little interest Hine has in the arguments he constructs.
Evan Jones said “I think Recollected Poems is an excellent introduction, but In and Out and Academic Festival Overtures are Daryl’s masterpieces. […] My own favorites, in addition to those noted above, include “Don Juan in Amsterdam,” “Copied in Camoes” “Patroclus Putting on the Armour of Achilles,” “Letting Go” and “A Conceit,” poems that have moved and impressed me in equal measure.” I have not read the long poems, but three of the poems which Jones mentions are in the 1980 Selected Poems, which I do have.
I was more interested by the two poems, at the end of Carnal, about the Fat Boy entering Paradise. Their message is less obvious and their optimism more chequered. It is frustrating that he does not explain who the fat boy was when alive or what he is feeling when losing his way in Paradise.

Within his head a rank and silent fortune
Gestured slowly. On the silver screen
Papier-mâché herds of buffalo
Pursued a cowboy over endless prairie,
While down his cheeks the glittering orbs of sorrow
Ruled their separate tracks to final ruin.
What password did his virtues and his powers
Whisper, that he awoke within the gates,
Preserved against his enemies the hours,
While we who, like the vultures near the towers,
Live at the expense of those who die of boredom,
Enchained by the strait enchantment of their longing,
Must pitch our camp beneath the walls of Sodom,
Detained within the sweet preserve of time?
(from ‘A Bewilderment at the Entrance of the Fat Boy into Eden’)

What difference does it make that he is fat? Does that disqualify him from entering Eden? I must say that I am really not clear what this stanza means. What is the connection between Eden and Sodom? Why are they outside the walls of Sodom? Are they struggling to get in? Why is the fat boy sitting in a cinema? Is that a form of paradise, or is it somewhere else? Is a fortune gesturing within his head because his head is a misfortune, so that the sight of his face is rank and silent, part of a role which must remain silent? In the cinema, his face is invisible. Does “rank” mean “overgrown and undesirable”, like a plant, or is it a noun describing his social status, in parallel with his fortune? Rank was the biggest film company in Britain at this time, maybe not so big in Canada. Why does the sight of buffalo make him cry? Why are the buffalo pursuing the cowboy and not running away, as their allotted role as prey would seem to propose? In this way the poem seems unfinished and we don’t find out who the fat boy was. At one level, the stanza describes frozen time (as in death) versus the world of transience (which has some unclear link with Sodom). Google suggests that the name Baldar, which appears twice, is a spelling variant of Baldr or Baldur, a Norse vegetation god who was killed by a dart of mistletoe. That refers to vegetation myth, the dormancy of plants during the hard winter months. That would explain why the protagonist is dead, but why does he appear as a vegetation god? The poet seems to be so fluent that the poem fills up before it tells us what it really has to tell us. The drink turns to froth, it expands and expands but there is no wine left to drink. I like these poems but they are also a point where you realise that Hine is not properly in control of his own fecundity, that he does not focus enough on the essential point of his poems.

I started on 50s Canadian poetry because I was interested in the theme of personal myth. With Hine, it is the opposite – he takes public myths which he has almost no interest in. His next book “The devil's picture book” is almost free of Christian themes– they have just been jettisoned. It is a less interesting book than “The carnal and the crane”. His poems seem like goods shining under the high-key lighting of the department store rather than objects within somebody's home.

Hine, up to his death in 2012, represented the legacy of the 1950s. Auden had become extremely affluent in the 1950s, partly on the strength of having said farewell to communism and partly on the basis of his having access to lost and pre-modern funds of indigenous technical knowledge with regard to metrics and gracious living. This is the 1950s which the 1960s churlishly spurned. Daryl Hine never spurned it. The style had a sixty year life inherent in it once it was clarion enough to capture someone in their teens. The terms affluence and affirmative linger around him and it is only if you find them irritating that you would want them to disperse into a more cool and hi-anxiety environment. It is impressive how at 21 he has assimilated Auden, probably the most prestigious English-language style of the moment, and taken that merely as a point of departure. That might seem like a merely public ambition, but Hine has seized it with a peculiar accuracy and confidence. At that point any recovery of the 1950s is going to shed lustre on Hine. Maybe anxiety and the ways of transforming it always were the central issue. Hine certainly does transform it even if we find his result a bit like Christmas music in a department store. The verbal fluency is a form of affluence. You have to get the package – I mean, youth, effortlessness, virtuosity. It is fabulous and it really is churlish not to enjoy it. But he has difficulty with deep notes – with gravity. Marzipan is not a meal. The top film genre of the 1950s was the musical and Hine has some of the same delight in sheer skill – in the disappearance of the restraints, of realism or even of gravity. In his poems, the costume designer seems to have free hand and the dramatist to have disappeared on a long weekend.

Is this gay poetry? Well, there are 1000 ways of being gay. You can argue that a social or legal atmosphere which imposed permanent anxiety on the gay milieu elicited a response in which nothing is ever made explicit and anxiety never arrives to spoil the party. That comes out rather like a heated-up version of affirmative culture: gracious living simply expands to cover everything with its peculiar gloss and wholesomeness. It is not essentially different from any other affirmative culture – if we are going to recover the time, we have to recover the motives for that gloss, for the wish that cooking would never go wrong and that people mingling socially would always like each other. Pervasive anxiety and social rejection in adolescence could be one of the motives for wishing for sweetness in adult life. He does the generalisations about how great life is. A good example is in a poem, published under different titles, but here as “The copper maple”:

Sufficient the momentary recognition
Of the world as anomalous and perfect
As this emblematic copper maple
Alien yet rooted as we are,
Whose shade is not the green of contemplation
But imagination's fierce metallic colour,
Bronze, an aegis under which we flourish.

(from ‘The essential Daryl Hine’) The affirmative generalisation is the key message. The maple must be a reference to Canada, so this is even a patriotic poem– although another version of it was called “The copper beech”. What I miss is the transition from anxiety to freedom from anxiety. His poems don’t seem to open on anything – the threat is not allowed to be present so there is no open ground to advance into. The world it recounts has no negative side. He is interested in behavioural beauty but in terms which confine it to behavioural prettiness. I guess the anxiety might be latent in the verbal grace which might trip at any point. But we don’t really expect a formation dance in “Seven brides for seven brothers” to be interrupted by a mistake; and after a while we don’t expect emotion to interrupt Hine’s dazzling cadences. The opening of this poem is a magic moment:

After 10 am in Evanston
The leaves droop as if tired in the heat
The sky has put on that etiolated pallor
Which protests that it cannot absorb more light.
Colorless as paper. In the paper
Those who affect to predict the weather say
That it will be over 90 again today.

Evanston is where Hine lived for many years and the poem must almost certainly be taken as one about happiness in marriage, gay marriage in this case. The leaves are emblematic of a desirable suburb, an agreed symbol for settling down and enjoying life together. This is a great poem but not great all the way through. The differences between the two versions are fascinating but may also be a distraction. But, we can also offer ourselves the feeling that he could have written ten different versions, all good – that what you get with Hine is that sense of fluency, where he can go in any direction and any path he offers is going to be equally decorative, equally vivacious, equally undemanding.