Coherence and Exceptionalism
If there is a core of poetry, we could describe the whole range of poetry compactly; though we would need to state rules for how to expand the core into the whole. But is there a core which consensually and accurately describes the whole? is there a centre of this poetry? for, if there is no such place (even of virtual status) then there is no route for us to follow. The sense of completion at the end of the book would come from my ability to furiously act out messages saying, subliminally, 'we've finished. it's time to stop now. we've covered the territory.' - possibly, from the reader's exhaustion - rather than from some objective schema. In order to decide whether the map was adequate, we would first have to possess a complete understanding of the territory. But, how can we get this except from maps?
Watching a series of Bergman films, one can hardly avoid the thought that the series of wonderful actresses we see over so many years, with Eva Dahlbeck in the 1950s being scarcely less goddess-like than Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in the 1970s, is related to something in the structure of Scandinavian society, giving freedom and equality to women, as the basis for proper parts being written for female characters, allowing actresses to learn and to become known. Already the statement may be flawed – we say “Scandinavian” because of the triumph of the Dane Asta Nielsen around 1910-25, because of the female roles in the films of Carl Dreyer (also Danish), because Liv Ullmann is Norwegian; but the use of a geographical term points out that the borders of this social structure must exist somewhere in space, and that cinema is hardly a tool for locating just where they run. Evidently there is at least one social structure somewhere in Britain, and evidently some of its or their component parts are reflected in the way poets write. That is – either in writing taken as an act of behaviour, or in the inner and outer life of the poet described in the poems, or in the behaviour of other people described in the poems. It is very efficient to describe a structure which appears throughout many poems and poets – and the compactness is exciting. Not least because it implies that I can say things which don’t become irrelevant when we move beyond the bounds of a single poem.
I opened The Starlit Dome (by G Wilson Knight), saw an essay titled ‘Poetry and Spiritualism’, and began shaking with excitement – because it offered a way of interpreting Francis Berry’s poem on the Norse Greenland settlements (which includes a mediumistic trance), because it had first been published in a Spiritualist magazine later edited by Kathleen Raine, because the Prophetess theme in Raine had prepared the way for “shaman” poems which so many poets have written, because the theme of prophecy was so important to the Apocalyptic poets that they named themselves after it. The moment was exciting, unfortunately, because of its rarety value. How many moments are there which shed light on several writers at once? And aren’t they divided into dozens of separate groups – so that what we can say is trapped within boundaries which take a lot of space and effort to define? Berry and Wilson Knight were colleagues (at the University of Leeds), and known to be close; this doesn’t make them “central” to anything else – in fact, they were erudite and eccentric figures. The knowledge they collected was private to them – the knowledge they generated, as creative thinkers, was new. It wasn’t something stored in the whole social-linguistic texture of Leeds – and hadn’t flowed into the poem from that texture.
Short of a central site to depict, I can at least explain what I'm actually going to do. To start with, we have analyses of 80 individual books - 95, if we count the anthologies. It's easy to see how these aren't the centre - no-one is representative of all the other poets around them. Since the individual books don't resemble each other - one isn't typical of the others and none is typical of the books not discussed. Interspersed with these quick snapshots of books, we have chapters on the question of linking clauses together, on 'collective mythology' viewed through the focus of propaganda for the British way of life, on the new hedonism of the 1960s. Sounds great - but it's easy to see that each of these is in its way a distraction. Although each one could claim to open a window giving onto the centre, none is that centre. Why aren't there further chapters on religion, politics, intellectual history, visual art, or literary theory? Why exclude those themes and dwell at luxurious length on these other things? What kind of relaxations are we allowed? to focus on a single book is clearly a decline away from generality - but no greater than seizing on a single theme which is traced through many books, obscuring the overall design of each one. We cannot represent the totality except indirectly.
People seem to agree that the unit by which to organise one's memory-stores about poetry is the Author. This is a disaster for a project whose task is to write about the whole scene. Further, just like auteur theory in cinema, it leaves out the history of the desires of the market, of conventions, of new techniques, of politics and ideas.
When you get preoccupied with something, after a certain point your response to unrelated stimuli sinks down towards zero. This is a wonderful explanation of why anyone would ever think that they have written an adequate account of any era of poetry: they haven't - but their interest in the aspects they haven't covered has been unnaturally weakened. Ownership is squeezing the blood supply to their brain. A formula for writing a compelling poem - might be a cone, where everything falls inward and every scintilla of data is focussed towards the apex, so that the outside world (temporarily) disappears. Or, perhaps the unit with a cone shape is not a poem but a whole book of poems, or the whole oeuvre of some poet. If participating properly in such art means reducing our sight to its horizon - we could never be inside a great poem and outside looking at the landscape at the same time.
One central place would seem to be the myths drawn on by the mass media. They draw their strength from familiarity - and are shared by everyone. Our chapter about privatisation and eccentricity traces a coherent body of myth about the right to be eccentric as a form of freedom. This is problematic because the number of myths is very hard to count. Deciding which one is most important, or how important any one is, is difficult. Further, this myth is coherent because of the way it was commodified - it was set up as war propaganda, for political mobilisation against Germany and then Russia. Because this propaganda was designed to be consistent, and was written by people under salary, it is self-similar - eccentricity does not exist inside it, oddly enough. Because it was inspired by government agencies, it is possible that this myth is not really one of the myths by which the population does its own thinking. It would be better to look at the whole pattern of myths, and not just at one easily retrievable one.
In the poems, we have found showings of liminality - Victor Turner's term for a state where the personality and the ego are weakened, and experience takes place in an altered state - apparently in touch with deeper truths. As you have already spotted, this is the exact opposite of the pattern shown in the chapter on Privatisation and Eccentricity. [elsewhere on this website] Could we see this as the aesthetic expression of a possessive individualist society which has a craving for tribal unity and harmony, repressed in daily business life, but emerging from under being dominated to dominance in the free spaces of culture?
Looking at these distinct kinds of analysis of social behaviour - in their rich diversity and elaborate internal integration - makes us aware of the complexity of the human subject, producing all of them. What they do not do is show us ever the same shapes, repeating in the data of different instruments. Should I see this as a disproof of one, or several, of them? How should I redesign the book - which after all is my property, and which will be criticised for inconsistency if it is less than perfectly repetitive - to suppress this? After all, inconsistency is a sign of weakness of character.
One cunning reason for presenting studies from separate intellectual angles that don't converge is to suggest that the object of study is complex and heterogeneous. This might be a way of fighting off aggressive coups from nationalist critics in other countries who would prefer that British literature be homogeneous - so that they can write it off without inspecting its products one by one. Perhaps the arrival of weakness is a source of strength. By abandoning levelling preoccupations, we achieve a state of full emptiness. By abandoning focus and continuity, we free ourselves to notice the shifting of simultaneous planes, with control alternating between them.
Michael Roberts' introduction to the original Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936) is a succinct example of the pressure put on poets to be 'precise'. Modern poetry has a prehistory of being squeezed by exact observation and sources of exact knowledge, in a way not wholly different from the pressure put on painting by photography. Photography was a stick to beat poetry with, too - if the poem was less exact than a photograph, wasn't it inaccurate, and wrong? The idea of a shared and transparent set of images of the world is a wonderful basis for poetry; the violent wish to discredit such images makes poets distrust clarity, and so brings a disfiguring obscurity as a by-blow. Poetry had a romance with documentary which goes all the way back to the Georgians. The start of this romance coincided, more or less, with the start of another grinding pressure on poetry, from 'scientific criticism', which got going in the 1920s and has not ceased to grow since. The penalty for acquiring this greater credibility and relevance was accepting the efficiency of merely sensory means of perception (at the cost of intuition), and the repetitive quality of situations, as the guarantee of the relevance of observations collected at any local point. This made poetry predictable - and even marginalised any unpredictable element of poetry, as a distraction which would be discarded at some point. This is a prehistory which wasn't at the forefront in our period - where the main attraction is poets actively sabotaging frameworks of knowledge in order to make a political point against the alliance of government, sociologists, market researchers, and business, which seemed omnipotent at many stages in the last 40 years. This sabotage is called exceptionalism. It involves the poet in deliberately throwing the focus onto the data which is a problem for sociological generalisations, reversing the usual act of attention which casts the problem data into a semi-darkness. Part of the point of this was as a competition in intellectual acuity - which drew intelligent poets like flies to jam, and also made poets who stuck to notions of being typical, ordinary, and representative seem like losers. If poets are committed to an exceptionalist ideal - then, someone like me saying their work fits into a pattern, and is predictable, is going to make them furious immediately. I admit I made my career as a critic largely by pointing out patterns, and indebtedness to sociolinguistic norms, in exceptionalist poets. In fact, I invented the noun exceptionalist. If one exceptionalist is like another, they're both like a hundred others. And how exceptional is that?
An atmosphere of privatisation and individualism means that the central symbolic institutions are like railway stations - always full of people who, individually, want to leave them as quickly as possible. A scan of the sales figures for living poets suggests that this evacuation of the centre has put paid to poetry as a living art, although the canon survives as an institution. The dwarf fossil symbolic centre is nonetheless crucial for the success of poetry, defining its relevance to readers outside the poet's biological relatives.
There are significant antecedents to poetic exceptionalism in other fields of intellectual endeavour in Britain. For example, take Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954). Leach had worked among the less rich tribes in the hills of Burma - primarily the Kachin. This, his second book, is a kind of time-bomb primed to overthrow the generalisations of functionalism which were so predominant among British anthropologists at that time. Functionalism holds that social structure is stable, that it acts to smooth out disruptions (and to make things more stable), and that it is purposive - constantly readjusting to prolong itself. Leach's book shows Kachin society as having no permanent structure, but as running through a cycle of different structures - each of which is unstable, and builds up its own downfall - thus opening the way for its successor, which also builds up to its own downfall. The idea of a society patiently, collectively, refining its social design, over thousands of years, towards a perfectly integrated whole which could stand as an artefact, dissolves to nothing if the society radically changed its political structure every century, or every generation. Leach was attacking the very substance of the knowledge of his fellow-anthropologists. Functionalism showed society as defending itself against instability. This instability presumably came from some of the members of that society. So did these rules exist to frustrate the wishes of members of society? Whose wishes did they then fulfil - who, exactly, was the true subject of the clause 'society defends itself'? how would you distinguish this from a conflict of interests? Elaborate actions are not the product of an unconscious agency - nor can this agency assume political authority.
Is there a social structure? Everyone has a conceptual image of the society around them, but do a thousand people see the same image? Elizabeth Bott studied, during the 1950s and with a team from the Tavistock Clinic, families in London. Bott collected the views of hundreds of informants on what they saw as the social structure of their town. The results did not map onto each other. The various informants did not share one view of the social structure of their own town. If we recover something stable, integrated, precise, self-stabilising - perhaps we are constructing something which is not really out there. Perhaps what we dredge up from the deeps is a blank tablet. The research found that most people saw a system with three classes, but suggested that this corresponded to people's egocentric view of society as consisting, roughly, of people like them, people less well off, and people better off. So a hundred people might draw the two necessary dividing lines in a hundred different places. Even though most people saw three classes, it might be possible to discover hundreds of different classes within the data - quite contradictory to any one person's experience. Whatever results the sociologist comes up with, will disagree with virtually all the witnesses consulted. How then can we talk about a social structure? It only exists in minds, not in physical reality. So whose mind does it exist in? who is the authorised subject?
The linguist JR Firth quoted, in a 1948 essay, Antoine Meillet's famous dictum that chaque langage est un système où tout se tient, and said that, on the contrary, the reverse is true, and language has only a fraction of the possible forms of symmetry and self-consistency - while also being stuffed full of breaches of symmetry. He uses the word polysystemic. This seems to be an important line of division between the French and the British approach. The French regard consistency as proper and well-formed knowledge - the British regard a grasp of exceptions, asymmetries, and fluctuations as proper and well-formed knowledge. This agrees with the obvious line of division whereby the French want to write poems in agreement with theories and the British regard this as the sin against the Holy Ghost. (This means that unconscious rules are of singular importance in British poetry. If you dig them up - expect deep hostility.)
If the scholars mentioned brought back these results, it is partly because they were looking for them. The imperative driving them is closely related to the one which brought about religious liberty, civil rights, the subjection of tax-raising to an elected parliament, and the subjection of the government to parliament. Sweeping intellectual systems are interpreted, in these parts, as a support of Jacobinism and a government which has absolute powers over its citizens. Where unconstrained central political power is justified by the theories of which its executives are brilliant masters, supporters of local autonomy and limited government do well to attack the theories. The idea that human cognitive systems are not tightly articulated to each other is very precious to British people. The dislike of intellectuals, and the denial of being one, goes very deep in the culture. A sensibility dwells on inconsistency, on neglected and unregulated parts of the world, on failures of symmetry, on breaches, as the beautiful things which we cling to. Most of the public regards a poem which conforms exactly to a reflexive theory as alienating and oppressive. Gerard Hopkins' poem which identifies beauty, more or less, with irregularity, has a wide resonance in the culture.
The behavioural patterns we have discussed are just a few among many - a number, indeed, which cannot be counted. How do they find their way into poems?
Is there a core structure simpler than the surface? is structure acceptable as a metaphor for the pattern of poetry? Another metaphor would be about measuring shifting flows, where we accept that measurement at a single point does not capture the whole system. Probability tables for a large population of events might be more useful. We saw two myths, of individualism and of loss of the ego by union with a group. Both are valid - and the fluctuation of a collection of poems between the two might be a signature, a characteristic which we could measure and store. Perhaps this transfer of control might be comparable to a political rule by which the government changes every few years. The social structure has a rule whereby a group can't stay in power. The rule outlasts the government of the day. We might analyse an individual, unfamiliar poem using the following axes:
predictability to unpredictability
private ownership to common stock
documentary moving into fantasy
reflexivity opposed to solidarity
We could locate social structure in the sense which tells us when such reversals are fit. Mathematically, we could express such a rule in terms of a probability rule whereby the occurrence of any feature X in any temporal slot n was less probable, the more often X had appeared in slots (n-1, n-2, n-3, n-4...). Indeed, it seems the writing of poetry is governed by a cluster of such rules.
The rule is that the dominated must shift position to become dominant, while everything which holds power must lose it. We could compare such a rule to the nuclear family, where the children are going to leave to form households of their own.
this was part of 'Fulfilling the Silent Rules' which I cut in order to get the length down to about 115,000 words. So written about 2003.