Saturday, 20 March 2010

Allotria and Allegros

Allotria and Allegros

One version would be that poetry is boundlessly subjective. This is not so and for me the reason is the preponderant value of imitation. There is a process of being socialised into poetry, like acquiring the customs and patterns of British life while growing up, although not as extensive and more voluntary. The process of learning how to read poetry is deeply related to the process by which we acquire language - where success is by definition the grasp of the rules which other people are actually using, uncovering regularity and order from a cloud of babble. Quite evidently we go into poems to found out what the poet is saying and enter states of mind which have a mirror relationship, an imitative stance, to someone else’s states of mind, captured in language. We mostly succeed at finding out what the poet is saying. We are not lost in some kind of hyacinth mist. We have the capacity for being swept out of our own incapacity and being carried away by a stratum of feeling which simply accepts us while stacking our limitations tidily at the door. The evidence for this socialisation is partly to be found in study of the works of those who fail the socialisation, the outsiders. Their inability to write poetry which involves other people is intimately related to their inability to share in the fertile inner structures of the poetry which they read - or might read.

The imitation process is not monolithic but is led down multiple paths which cause differentiation from each other. It does not lead everyone to the same end point. It is worth disagreeing because it liberates people even though it may also make them insecure or confused.

The imitation may be a manoeuvre pivoting on a false perception of what we are imitating. Insight is a limited faculty, as subject to cognitive flaws as other means to knowledge.

'I own this pattern and it is not there.'

This has been a period where the gatekeepers have prominently failed to prevent the publication of a huge number of books. A search of Amazon UK, the on-line booksellers, using "poetry" as the subject string, has brought up 160,000 titles (14/8/08). This is a quantitative background to the whole study. I have been unable to validate the data, although obviously we could delete quite a few entries for American books, books published before 1960, children’s poetry, school anthologies, and so on, perhaps nudging it down to 70,000. Conversely, the majority of poetry titles published during the 1970s are certainly not available from Amazon and do not feature in this count. The overall figure significantly confirms the laborious count of new publications for one year, 1995, which came out with slightly under 2000 titles. The expansion occurred in the later 1960s, and quite different conditions obtained in the 1950s. This quantitative background should not fall out of sight. It gives an index of the necessary incompleteness of my work - however much knowledge could be recovered from those 160,000 titles, or perhaps only 70,000 of them which are relevant to our topic, I have only recovered a small fraction of it. There is room for a whole study of amateur poets, a sector which would probably show an atmosphere of optimism and belief in great contrast to the critical attitudes favoured by ambitious poets. The number of people qualified to talk about modern British poetry is regrettably low. This condition of general and profound ignorance justifies writing numbers of books on the subject, even if this may also release wrong conclusions. The whole scale of the subject favours historians who are willing to be decisive and affirmative on the basis of small samples. It's also a great excuse for making mistakes in high-level overviews.

I have estimated that 53% of the readers of this blog will only be doing so to find something about themselves and will experience feelings of deep hatred when they realise they won’t.


How can a critic deal with this deluge of books?

A review of the first book in this series described some of the judgements as 'hair-raisingly wrong'. This offers the possibility of an exit into sharable opinions, or fairness, which proves illusory on investigation. I have wondered about writing about my limits as a poetic sensibility. I found this interesting but it was less interesting for other people. Am I fulfilling the unwritten contract? Show me the contract and I will tell you. I suspect there are 200 unwritten contracts and I am not fulfilling any of them. Security arises from law and grammar and I seem to have wandered into a territory that neither of them has reached. When someone asks 'but how did you evaluate the books which you did not evaluate' it all seems to crumble.
I looked while writing at an anthology by Kenneth Allott called Contemporary Poetry (in re-issue Contemporary Poetry 1918-60, also The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse). Allott included 86 poets of whom 6 were female (7%) and 35 studied at Oxford University (40.6%). This made me flash back to reading that anthology for the first time, on a family holiday in 1973. I was depressed because I had already committed myself headlong to poetry and Allott's book just didn't do anything for me. This was less because of the poems than because the book is overrun with Allott's phobic and control-freak prose, which gets more words than the poetry. He is a fan of Close Reading and seems to define virtue to within a centimetre. But, if Close Reading brings a fair result, why does he pick 40% Oxford poets?

I am not saying that you can reach fairness by manipulating these percentages. The figures tell you almost nothing. Everything significant happens in the area of complex aesthetic evaluation which these numbers tell you nothing about. Part of the problem with attacking an excessive proportion of Oxford poets (or any other kind) is that you would have to set down and justify what the right figure was. This is clearly impossible. You just can’t say that 10% or 30% is the right figure. So saying that 40.6% is wrong is not valid in any deep sense.

I reckon I discussed about 140 poets in the series of books which will complete with Fulfilling the Silent Rules. I estimated the number of poets, in the period 1960 to 1997, who thought they were important and needed to be written about as 2000. So there is this gap of about 1850 where I have strikingly failed to produce a positive response. (The count of 2000 may be too low.) It is futile to assert the amazing objectivity of my negative reactions, the sizzling quality of my decisions not to read 50 or 60,000 books, when most of the likely audience are in fact poets who don’t rate a mention in this unnecessarily long 7-volume series. Quite clearly the omissions are the larger domain. So why not set out to read the other 1800 poets? Wouldn't that be more objective? The problem is I don’t think I would have any aesthetic reactions to those poets. Some of them I have read a few poems by, heard one reading by, and I have a Notion that I want to know no more. With others I haven’t heard of them and I have a Guess that this is because everyone who has read them has put them on the D list. Bad poetry is a Big Thing but we are going to tiptoe around It and hope It doesn't wake up.

Who could forget that sight gag in Aces Go Places, a big money-spinner for Hong Kong cinema, where Michael Hu is subjected to a volley of flour which he defends against by using a colander as a shield? so that his face ends up speckled with a variegated pattern of flour, answering to the holes. (or was it Aces Go Places II?). I am facing the possibility that my sensibility is equally composed of strips of sensitive and insensitive skin, so that the pattern of this book as my product resembles Michael Hu spattered through a colander. This polka dot, or lace, print would be the anatomy of my intellect with all its heaves and sags. But what if my skin is perfectly sensitive and the signal it is not picking up is one not being sent - and the non-response is to bad texts with gapes in their literary texture? What does what I don’t know say about me? It can't say anything because it can't speak and has no organs.

There is a difference between unconscious activity and an area which you aren't conscious of and which is outside your psyche altogether. It is full of invisible objects but involves no dynamic of repression. We have already said that aggregating data about a thousand people is like listening to a thousand conversations at once, it cannot take on all the meaning. The big datasets are featureless, although every feature is somewhere inside them. As features define things, the defeatured is close to the non-finite. We can talk about it in terms of mysticism, the apophatic. We can say nothing at all about it without ascribing features to it - which it does not have.

It may be that sociology opens a portal into a pristine world of mechanisms, numerous and vital, beneath consciousness. Or it may be that it simply makes us lose consciousness of the fact that we have lost consciousness. By slicing off all the vogues, the brilliant and enticing poetic ideas, we may be falling into the underworld of sociology. You think you have switched off your ego when you’ve really disconnected your intelligence.

A poem is a temporary state of excitement filled with new and separate ideas, so removing the Vogue with its volatile plumes of heat may leave no poetry at all. People who dislike ideas normally also dislike art. If you apply sociology to artistic taste you take something which is featureless, grossed up and levelled down, and use it to explain something inaudible, i.e. nonresponse. To use the unexplained part to explain the other unexplained part - this is truly idiotic. How can you explain blankness? You hope that where consciousness stops it starts. it doesn't start there, does it, it stops.

The unvoice of the unconscious speaks and what it says is like a muffled, torpid explosion made of dust and blurt. Never aspiring to syllables. Without peaks or troughs or edges. A sort of sonic doughnut. and what does it say about me. BLUURGGH. But that's all it ever says about anything.

I am fascinated by the world of the damaged, the amorphous, the misdirected, thwarted, of pointless mimesis and random flecks. Naturally I feel unable to talk about it. If I were conscious of it I would not be unconscious of it.

Dearticulation relates to the nondiscursive or mimetic style of art, which is really speaking for what cannot speak and is only in some tenuous way human. Poetry without grammar (or, probably, much respect for the law) says nothing articulate but all the same it talks to you.

I have got up to an extent of 2000 pages - the vastness of the numbers of poets I leave out prohibits any detailed treatment, should we even want to do that. The fact that this domain is composed of unreason and structured like ignorance does not outweigh the huge bulk of poetry, mostly bad poetry, engulfed within it. Reason has a small part to play in the universe. Equally, good poetry has a small role to play in the world of poetry.

What I want to explore is not Allott’s bias but the guidelines for attacks on other people’s artistic decisions. Art offers an escape into subjectivity. A necessary part of this is that the people around you also want you to escape and want to escape. This exit from daily controls may be assured by a ritual of some kind, or by shared partaking in drink or drugs, or simply by a socially valid sign which demarcates it from everyday life. The social aspect is crucial to the mood change but the mood depends on the social input being favourable. If the separate autonomous world of poetry stops being relaxed and is full of hostile people observing all your reactions and medicalising them so that they reduce you to a prisoner/patient in some utterly imaginary authoritarian institution managed by them, then nothing works any more. The whole poetic experience is fragile and it does not survive people who want to managerialise it.

It is annoying to count up and see that someone like Hamilton or Allott have more or less written the history of the century in terms of Oxford poetry. This may give us some insight into why people drag sociology onto the stage. It is to cut out subjectivity. But why get into poetry in the first place? because it turns up the dial on subjectivity.

We have to ask whether Allott was following his own inclinations. Yes - his sensibility had a lot to do with the prestige of Oxford which was also the cultural hierarchy for England as a whole. He wasn’t eccentric - this already suggests that his reaction patterns can’t be criminalised. Surely crime is confined to abnormal behaviour, by definition. All the same examination of other anthologies and books suggests that Allott has been moved by a belief in the assets which he shares. The social standing of the poet seems to be playing a large role in his judgement of "who matters". Close reading went, right from the beginning, against the grain of poetry enjoyment. There may also be parallels between sociology and close reading as weapons of monumental scale and striking ineffectiveness. Both are supposed to exclude subjectivity and so to bring arguments to an end. Allott destroys his anthology by inserting so much close-reading prose into it. He wants to come over as the opposite of frivolous. There is something almost tragic about the taking of these pains. Art needs people with a predilection for pleasure, with a selfishness permeated by clarity, a naive willingness to cling to fantasy and light-heartedness in the face of grand distractions. Oxford produced more people like this than anywhere else in the world. His identification with his own friends, his imaginary friends, people like him, is the most attractive thing about the book. And Allott is giving up those qualities in order to appear accountable and so enter a classless world. Whereas... one count of the background experiences of the poets and he appears instantly as someone reliving his own adolescence without a way out.

I have the same right to say things about poetry as I do to have feelings when reading poetry. I can't decry Allotment for describing his feelings about poetry without defining my own feelings as invalid. I have to defend him, then. We are pointing to his poetic world having a centre where he himself was, its egocentricity then, but if we remove narcissism and identification from the bounds of art little enough is left. If you follow the ideology of identity politics then everyone should read only poetry from the town they live in or the class they belong to. I find this laughable, I hate identity politics, but evidently Allott identified with himself and his own friends. Did he find the atmosphere outside the collusive elite of aesthetes hostile? possibly, but in any case if we are generating that named hostility then we should not feel complacent about it. But we value in an editor or reviewer the lightness of heart to venture outside their own social and geographical background and to thrive in unfamiliar linguistic surroundings.

That other expectation, that a critic should be left-wing and egalitarian, should work hard to find new poets and new styles, and should enjoy a broad spectrum of poetry, sounds perfectly reasonable to me but is not something which appears in any written contract, and it probably doesn’t appear in any unwritten contract either. In fact the issue of this unwritten contract is a great deal more complicated, or productive, than at first appears. Not only does it have hundreds of articles but also no one can agree what they are.

Should we cut out Allott’s right to have the complex and synthetic actions of the intellect considered, when he goes to such lengths to show them taking place? Is it accurate to say that the inchoate and dark prejudices are predominant in his choices- how would we demonstrate this? Could it be as accurate to say that the choice of many poets from Oxford is an expression of the ability to respond to complex and refined symbolic structures? in fact, it is fair to claim that a response to such elevated and reflexive verbal creations can be inchoate and dark? The sociological approach is a kind of assassination. It kills off the voice of the most adult and least primitive layers of the personality. Is that proper listening to, to raze off the conscious portion of someone’s brain activity and turn up the knob on the unconscious and class-based ones? the gross analogies? When does this denial amount to knowledge?

My argument with Allott is safely in the past. It is a non-violent substitute for arguments about what critic/impresarios like Paterson, Keston Sutherland, Ruth Padel, Robin Purves, Robert Crawford, are doing and what the artistic assumptions behind their cultural actions are. If I say that it is too early to evaluate what they are doing, this of course raises the problem that they are making the decisions now, in the present, and they are evaluating which the best decisions are before making them. An inquiry into the effectiveness of cultural policies is a needed thing, all I want to say about it is that it should look at the issue in enough dimensions to reach a fair result. I note that Allott’s anthology stayed in print for about 30 years. Evidently people were buying it. I also looked at Thomas Blackburn’s anthology from the same year, 1960, as Allott's second edition. It is the complete opposite in artistic terms but it also has 40% Oxford graduates. The 1950s simply did have a dominant Oxford voice.

I did the Amazon search again with a clause excluding second-hand books and it came down to 67,000 titles. This probably excludes all the books up to 1990 - at a guess.

When people have so much invested in their own importance, or the importance of their favoured poets, the confrontation with other opinions must bring on rage, extravagant verbal activity, counter-attacks, scurrilous rushes to discredit, and so on. I have no proposal for avoiding the fights. The sociological approach seems to demand that people band into factions which fight and ignore each other. Liking something a bit different from you is not disloyalty or pretension.

If this chapter seems to be meandering around, that's because I am trying to defend myself. But, any poet I don't write about will hate me once they realise the fact. Quel salaud! intellectual dishonesty! down with the symbolic violence of connoisseurship! And I will go on their letter bomb list straight away. I don't think the defence I have mounted is going to stave off the wrath of the serfs.

As a measure of self-defence, I am going to claim that the rank and file of poets do feature, either because they use techniques which are in common with techniques in poems which I do describe, or because I talk about ‘staple styles’ of entire eras and these descriptions cover a great many poets who are not named. In fact, several chapters in 'The Long 1950s' amount to a history of amateur poetry, a record of types of poem which an educated person could easily knock off when they felt a need to. Some poems are just like buying a suit in the High Street. Actually, you could argue that these are the most important products of the era, because they were written by thousands of people, which would be much like an art historian studying Sunday painters and ignoring people who have exhibitions and get reviewed in Art Monthly.

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