Wednesday, 12 August 2009

'the council of heresy'

12/8/09 I have decided to use this free space to release some material related to my work on modern British poetry, title 'Affluence, welfare, and fine words'.

peri or para stuff on ‘The Council of Heresy’

Preamble. ‘The council of heresy’ is a book which shearsman put out in 2009. It contains further material on modern British poetry, notably a primer of the avant garde and matter on depolarisation. Poets discussed include Anthony Thwaite, Kathleen Raine, Christopher Logue, Robert Hampson, Asa Benveniste, Kelvin Corcoran, Tony Lopez, DS Marriott, Maggie O'Sullivan, Tom Raworth, Helen Macdonald, Barry MacSweeney. You are mightily recommended to read their books and skip mine.
This is a sort of wander through various points that are just outside the book. Peri(pheral) and para(lipomena). It may not seem more than drugged ramblings unless you've read the book. Which is ruthlessly fabulous.

The book is based around reviews of books by poets - as usual, it’s a problem structuring a book around this. On the other hand, by piling up enough books I eventually get to the end of all the poets (of 1960-97) I want to deal with.

Space as property, ratios, non-artistic criteria, etc.

There was a blog which in the context of a demand for equality between genders in space allocation cited Mulford, Randell, Tarlo, Bergvall, Presley and Reedy as poets we should have included in our book of interviews, Don’t Start Me Talking (edited by me and Tim Allen). I’m eager to avoid interest-group pressures which drown out the message I’m trying to get over, but it hardly seems likely that those people could have produced interesting interviews, and I am unwilling to devote precious space to writing about their work when its artistic merits are so small. Here is a passage which didn’t make it into the final draft of ‘Heresy’:

“Understanding the competition over style is a gain, but distracts us from a fundamental objection to the whole game, including the titles of the winners. This is that very few of the innovative poets are women - and in a larger view, very few of the modernist heroes were women, few of the participants in the game of historicist progress were women. It is problematic reducing the history of poetic achievement to the history of innovation. If we privilege this game above all others, we make it inevitable that women poets will lose - the majority of the space will be given over to male poets. We have to acknowledge that this game has an edge, and beyond that edge other games are being played.

Meanwhile, it would be folly to ignore a strain of women poets who did develop a personal style - Mina Loy, Lynette Roberts, and Maggie O’Sullivan spring to mind, and all of these have been made the object of adulation by poetry enthusiasts.
The core of the manoeuvres around style is the idea of contamination. The biggest impulse towards it is disaffection from the capitalist class - the bourgeoisie, in Marxist terms. Furious filtering of linguistic gestures is impelled by the fear of contamination by bourgeois values. The number of people who fundamentally object to the state as war machine, the capitalist system, the Empire, has always been large - but feminism wrapped up all these objections and more to produce the biggest sense of contamination of modern times. Along with it, it offered a vision of purity - of non participation. However, this expressed itself differently. If we look at Purple and Green, an anthology of feminist poetry from 1985, when feminism was still radical and unconventional, the poetry is very convincing, but the poets are hard to distinguish from each other. The plainness of style makes the argument persuasive, and the similarity between the poems makes the common thesis more persuasive. The game of radical poets rotates around competition, differentiation, allegiance, fantasy, revolt, personalisation, winning; in Purple and Green the poets go for plainness and for establishing relations with as many people as possible. They are not defining themselves by the way they write, but by the way they show themselves behaving in the poems and by the attitudes they express.

Gombrich associated historicism in the self-understanding of art with Hegel (although he was largely drawing on Winckelmann) and this makes it likely that the preoccupation with contamination and self-definition in poetry was driven by Marx, as a disciple of Hegel. This observation also makes it likely that the fascination with radical innovation in the period 1965-80, roughly, is correlated with a fascination with Marxism, in the same period. Poetry may now no longer be going in that direction.”

It’s clear that special pleading is being made for poets, ignoring their lack of artistic merit. It’s fairly clear, also, that there is a long-term shift in the composition of the class of best poets; if we scan the publications of the 1950s and compare them with successive stages up to 2006 (say), women poets have become much more prominent. The revolutionary feminists of the 1970s were right to attack the complex of inhibitions and prejudices which held women writers back at that time. It is historically wrong to suggest that this liberation happened rapidly, or that there were scores of effective women poets in the 1960s. In fact, that suggestion would have made feminism unnecessary. I also don’t accept that it’s fair to kick male poets off stage just because of a political prejudice; the way they write is decisive.

If you have an explosive growth of a cultural area in which 90% of the high-achieving poets are male, then you have an explosive growth of high achieving male poets. This is surely an adequate description of the British Poetry Revival, and any history of that period should reflect that.

Any consideration of what happened would involve network effects. The crucial energy involved was not individual talent but the summative effort of a network in which the energy was distributed all over the figure. Rivalry, solidarity and admiration played equal roles here. The stimulation relied on identification with the admired objects. This is based on similarity at some level. Someone with the wrong shaped ego couldn’t identify and therefore did not join in the game. This is nothing to do with physical organs but all the same it left some poets standing on the dock watching the ship sail away. While this fantastic game was going on, someone who wouldn’t play the game, who refused collusion, was left with a much more down to earth set of devices. This renunciation left someone less vulnerable to shocks but did not necessarily leave very much that would fly when put into a poem. In fact it may have encouraged domestic anecdote.

Another element is competition - which may in fact rely on intense mutual identification. Someone who declined to compete saved energy but would not in fact end up with a body of poems, the object of the competition.

If we look at the 70s, refusing to play the (male) game was central to feminism. But the older, traditional model was of women refusing to compete. Players who felt timid would become stressed if they did unusual and contentious things. This made it difficult to innovate - the old-style woman poet was conventional, and found reassurance in convention. Between those two things, it is not astonishing if the British Poetry Revival was not dominated by dozens of women poets.

In Heresy we do talk about Kathleen Raine and Maggie O’Sullivan. This is on the basis that they wrote very good poetry. If we talk about Raworth, Benveniste, etc., that is also because they wrote good poetry. This is fairness.

In general, if you write about modern poetry you will get a large amount of incoming munitions. This is because there is no public space - people see your position and can’t stand the fact that it’s different from theirs, they want to smash bits off it until it is the same as theirs.

Perhaps we can draw a line between historicism and the effect of social networking. The historicism which Hegel presented had a long term in which to evolve. It was static in many ways - he talks about ‘Dutch art’, characterising it very movingly, but does not ask it to evolve through phases - it remains as Dutch art. The historicism of the 20th century has a much shorter cycle. In the version accepted by many people, Abstract Expressionism was historically necessary in 1955 and minimalism in 1963. This transition cannot possibly be linked to changes in American society, or Western society. However, it is plausible as a reflection of changes to ‘market values’ in a group of a few hundred people - the artistic elite. The intensity of communication within this network means that ideas burn out quickly, and would not be possible in a larger group. The change of fashion is an imperative which is beamed out at a very high intensity at those disposed to receive it. However, if there are several networks in a field such as poetry, there may be several manners authorised at a particular moment in time.

In order to escape these conditions, it is not necessary to become a hermit, but simply to be detached from the overheated world of art (and its poetic equivalent). Any part of the country that is not full of cultural commentators would do. Calling it ‘world-historical’ shows a lack of sensitivity to scale.

I am not going to worry until someone actually chucks a grenade through my kitchen window.

Quinlan Terry
We omitted to mention the classical attack on modernism led by Prince Charles in the 1980s. There is a good book about this by Maxwell Hutchinson. The favoured anti-modern architect was Quinlan Terry.

The Tradition
‘Tradition’ is one of those loaded words. Raine was fond of it. There is a website here about Traditionalism, which is of great relevance to how Raine used the word. It may actually have come from Rene Guenon - I’m not clear about this.

There is more about the history of European occultism and Counter-Culture in my book ‘Origins of the Underground’.

Mark Sedgwick owns this site and says among other things that “Traditionalism [is] central to the extreme right in post-Soviet politics”, led by Alexander Dugin. The site is largely a way of publicising Sedgwick’s book on traditionalism, ‘Against the modern world’. The title is actually a translation of part of the Italian title of a 1934 book by Julius Evola, ‘revolt against the modern world'. Evola was a Nazi - he thought the fascists were too soft so he went Germanic. Redgrove quotes him a few times (in ‘Source’) - I didn’t pick Redgrove up on this because he was not astute and probably went for the occultist side of Evola without realising the Nazi side. One of the web bookselling sites Sedgwick points to, the Integral Traditionalists one, is carrying what seems to me like modern Nazi material. There is a sculpture on their (digital) flier… three naked warriors holding up an anatomically infeasible oversize sword. Arno Breker? It looks familiar somehow.

“Specialists of IE culture were ipso facto suspected of Nazi sympathies. Sometimes this was not altogether baseless, e.g. the Dutch scholar Jan de Vries, whose studies on Germanic and Celtic culture are still standard works, was chairman of the Kulturkammer, the collaborationist institution which controlled the purse strings for all cultural activities under the German occupation of the Netherlands. Under his supervision, Nazi themes were cunningly interwoven with legitimate Dutch or Germanic folklore. Though arguably not a full-blooded Nazi by conviction, he could hardly be considered innocent. “
- another Internet capture. I include this because I quoted de Vries in the essay on shamanism. Maybe I should have called it ‘shamanism is not Anglicanism’. I read de Vries’ classic 2-volume work on Germanic religion when I was a student at Cambridge, probably in 1977. I just want to make it clear that I am not sending a ‘coded message’ here - I am definitely not in sympathy with a Nazi-Nordic supremacist interpretation of European prehistory. I am on the left wing of the Labour Party, and that covers most of my positions in one go.

(Raine, Muir)

Muir underwent a Jungian therapy in 1919. That’s amazingly early - he must have been almost the first person in Britain to go through that. This would be a blow to anyone looking for a British line of archetypes, neo-myth, etc., which is not dependent on Jung in some way. Obviously Raine is dependent on Muir. He was analysed by Maurice Nicoll, arranged by Orage. (see Michael Hamburger in Encounter, 1950, XV)

(Heresy, SD)

- this is recent info on the link between brainwashing, sensory deprivation studies, and torture by disorientation. The links date from the early 50s and have been discussed rather thoroughly by the community which studies the ‘intelligence world’ and also the academic science funded by the defence world. This link may be volatile, but if you enter tags like {Donald Hebb, Jerome Bruner, Office of Naval Research, Guantanamo, sensory deprivation}, you will at any time get at the material of interest.

This is not explored in my book. Like, it’s only 100,000 words long and this leaves about 85,000 links I haven’t followed up.

Jack Vernon: “It seems that radar observers, radio monitors, truck drivers, and others who have monotonous and routine jobs that last for long periods are often subject to unusual sensory effects. They see a radar pip that isn‘t there, they hear messages that aren’t real, they see hitchhikers who don‘t exist, or they experience a wide variety of other bizarre sensory distortions.”

The link between the CIA and the funding of the MacGill experiments is a sort of ‘blacked out knowledge’, but Jack Vernon is quite clear at p.17 about the link between the funding and the brainwashing problem. The research into SD was aimed to help prepare captured US Forces personnel for disorientation techniques applied by China or possibly the Soviets. However, and this is not stated anywhere, that knowledge once developed could also be used to build ‘brainwashing’ techniques for use by the US on captives from Communist bloc countries.

I did some light research into SD about 20 years ago, for another book which never came out. So I can’t remember all the sources I used. I think the key material on this is in ‘The search for the Manchurian Candidate’, by John D Marks.

To be plain, I read about it for a book on propaganda, which looked at brainwashing; but some of the ideas I read about were relevant to poetry so I recycled them.
It’s fairly clear that a lot of the UFO folklore is directly linked to radar observers mildly hallucinating at the end of a shift. So the message that Nikita has finally sent over his nuclear bombers could just mean that one of your radar operators was seeing something that wasn’t there. The planners, the staffs, were aware in about 1953 that the next world war could be set off by a man on radar watch on the DEW line going mildly psycho. This was a research priority. I presume it made us all safer. The SD idea goes off in about 50 different directions. It was something undertaken for good practical reasons which nonetheless produced fascinating results which are rich in new ideas.

If you look up ‘ganzfeld’ on the Internet, a lot of the hits have to do with the paranormal – ganzfeld restrictions are used to make sure that subjects are not cheating in psi or telepathy experiments. Embarrassing. I find this totally uninteresting.

I think ‘ganzfeld’ really refers to a completely homogeneous visual field, one without patterns. In practice you need goggles and things to achieve this.

My guess is that monks developed a fixed idea about theology because they were put through SD experiences. The peasants were much less suggestible and the monks were a kind of ‘forcing elite’ who took the belief in supernatural authority much further, dragging the rest of society behind them.

There was a 1963 film with Dirk Bogarde called ‘The Mind Benders’. I saw this on TV in about 1975. Dirk plays a scientist at Cambridge or similar who is undertaking SD research. He gets into one of his own flotation tanks and, while he is in it, someone plays him, with his agreement, tapes which include the suggestion that his wife is unfaithful. Although he is a super-rational guy, this suggestion takes him over and destroys him. It’s not one of the great horror films, because the drama too soon sinks down to be about a little triangle of people, and so it doesn’t have the imaginative reach of Nigel Kneale or the ‘Children of the Damned’ cycle. All the same it has concision and integrity. And someone involved had actually been reading about sensory deprivation. I suppose the theme is that however intelligent you are if you do a deal with the military-industrial complex then the fallout will hit you as well. Further, that under every structure of rationally tested positions there is a kind of ‘pit’ where total unreason takes over, and the more self-regarding an intellect is the more cunningly it will disguise and defend the irrational base. Bogarde’s idée fixe is like so many other idées fixes which very intelligent people have been prey to.

(poster text: “Perverted … Soulless! The most different and dangerous movie idea an audience has ever been subjected to!”. One of the on-line movie catalogues also says it is the direct predecessor to ‘Altered States’. Well, yes. ‘Altered States’ was based on books by John C Lilly, who was involved in the early SD experiments in the mid-50s and extended the idea to include voluntary deep suggestion and release of unconscious strata (?). I think the implication here is that psychology lab setups of the 1950s were ‘reversed’ extensively in the 1960s in order to induce unusual states of mind for purposes of pleasure or spiritual change. I suspect that this is one of the factors in the art emerging in the 1960s. I even think that envy of scientists was one of the factors impelling artists in that period.) Lilly had the idea of deep regression, which is in the film ‘Altered States’. Strangely enough, deep regression is also key to the 1958 British TV series ‘Quatermass and the Pit’.

In the preface, we talk about the things which prevent understanding, and in the book we go into procedures and context. This leaves out the other two elements, of malice and of unshared feelings about lifestyle and politics. The politics side is hard to deal with in a short time. Shortening the description is a distortion. So it’s better to leave people to get the political history of the period from the full-length books about the subject, which are numerous. The story about lifestyle is also difficult.

You can’t really separate poetry from the experiences it describes. If someone doesn’t want to go to Scotland, thinks of it as cold and unglamorous, they probably don’t want to read poetry set in Scotland. This sort of choice is deep but does not seem worth discussing. People can keep their preferences, I suppose. Where we might try to explain the silent scenario a bit is when it comes to ideals. When I was a kid of maybe seven, I had a Robin Hood outfit, with a bow and arrows and so on. I could play at being Robin, though I can’t really remember if I did. If you look at some rather arid poems by people who want to be Cold War Intellectuals, you have to set this in the founding scene of ‘High Noon’, with Gary Cooper as the sheriff abandoned by the townsfolk who waits for four killers to come and get him and shoots them all one by one. In period context, this is about Eisenhower in Korea, facing down godless communism. Poets shaped in the fifties who wanted to be tough and resolute were living out this scenario. Of course it didn’t make sense when the war was in Vietnam. But a lot of poetry doesn’t make sense unless you connect it back to a founding scene like that. This is not to say that the poetry is good.

Something similar applies to the avant garde poetry that used to be around, there was a founding fantasy of being a Constructivist in 1920 or something, creating flawless flying forms out of glass and Perspex sheets. In this case the key information is not “right there in the text”, it’s in the reference back to a pristine moment which the poet of 1973 is re-enacting. And does anyone find that difficult to share? is there anyone who doesn’t have a roll stored somewhere in their memory which shows 1920, Paris Moscow or Berlin, a Modernist triumph, a new world apparently lying at our feet? Isn’t it somehow avaricious to reject that?
Maybe this is essentially what I have to do as a critic: to connect poems back to the original fantasies. This might apply to Raine too; her poetry isn’t really comprehensible unless you have some of the occultist and Neo-Platonist background. Of course with many of these poems the ideal is like some artefact buried beneath sixty feet of English mud, we have to haul to bring it up.

The significant things are the gestures within the poems. I seem not to be talking about a contest between being old and being young, male and female, rich and poor. I don’t find the pitch marked off in quite that way.

The poetry of domestic anecdote may not have an ideal locked inside it. It seems to be inherently banal and undemanding. Admittedly the West defined the war against communism in terms of household income and the equipment of the suburban home. That was almost heroic. The poetry is not heroic.

(the British Poetry Revival)
Peter Barry tries (at pages 123-43 of 'Poetry Wars') to define the characteristics of the BPR. Elsewhere in the book he says that Eric published 200 different poets in his 22 issues of Poetry Review. Surely this is the primary document of the BPR and it is irrational to separate the definition of the BPR from the instantiations. I don’t think you can contemplate assigning shared characteristics to 200 poets. This is not a tractable task.

(There is a statement by Eric in one of the issues of Poetry Information where he sums up the Poetry Revival in his terms and the wording he uses there obviously covers several hundred poets.) There is a reasonable descriptor to apply, namely that there is a set of poems which the authoritative conservative critics of the time would reject. If we see the mainstream as a central block of over-familiar scenes and gestures, we can describe a category of poetry by its ‘escape velocity’, as things which breach that perimeter and make an escape into somewhere further out. If these poems are streaking out in 360 different directions at high velocity, they will not resemble each other. Moreover they will get less and less similar as time goes by and they travel further. I feel sure that this is the true description. If you try to find shared features between Bob Cobbing and JH Prynne you will lose your marbles.

I can name as a reference text Poetry dimension 2, a 1972 anthology edited by D Abse. I bought this to get a text by A Thwaite about ‘The Two Poetries’. It collects poems published during the previous year in mainstream mags like the Listener and Critical Quarterly. As a set, they do conveniently define the limits of the mainstream at that moment.

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