Saturday, 20 March 2010

A neo-conservative magazine of the Left

PNR, A neo-conservative magazine of the Left: a recovery of Carcanet’s history

what is Carcanet about

Note. In 'The Long 1950s' I cover the 1983 anthology edited by Michael Schmidt, presented as evidence that the famed ‘long 1950s‘ were still continuing in 1983, although they were interrupted sometime during that decade. The politics of anthologies are complex and the text below is extra material which I did not wish to include in the published book. This is part of a long series of essays about anthologies, which as a form give insight into genres and artistic groupings.

In The Long 1950s, I pointed out that the title and introduction of 'Some Contemporary Poets' (edited by Michael Schmidt, 1983) were very reticent and that I had to guess what the sustaining ideology was which framed the selection of poets, bizarrely partial as it was. I suggested that the covert title would be ‘the Carcanet Book of neo-conservative verse’.
Some light may be shed on this by the magazine Poetry Nation, which started in 1973 and led directly on to the Carcanet publishing concern as we know it. The magazine was edited by Schmidt and Brian Cox, and in 1976 it became PN Review and added CH Sisson and Donald Davie to its board. According to Schmidt, reminiscing around 2009 about issue 1, “There follows a symposium in which the editor (the same editor who writes this) contends with the Partisan Review, with English and American experimental writing, and seems to propose something like a New Formalism as a radical, even a Marxising antidote to the excesses of experiment and the aftermaths of modernism which trouble him. He sees Poetry Nation as a journal of the left. His declaration is followed by suggestive demurring comments from Donald Davie; a densely argued clarification by Terry Eagleton (who was the editor's tutor at university), 'Marxism and Form'; an essay on the poetry of the Viet Nam conflict by Robert B. Shaw [...] and a remarkable interview with that first great English Marxist editor Edgell Rickword, a neglected poet too. [...] It was a rich profusion, and confusion of themes, inheritances and generations. The Guardian called it a thrust from the cultural right, which seemed at the time like a deliberate misreading. Then it was pointed out that the title included the word Nation, a term whose toxicity in the European context at the time put it beyond polite use. The intention had been to evoke a republic rather than a tyranny of letters. 'Poetry Nation' was abbreviated to 'PN'[.]”

The idea of ‘poetry nation’ was much more 'we belong to the nation of poetry', which is like 'the domain of the human' 'the realm of art' ‘the republic of letters’ and so on. Or even ‘Woodstock nation’, a phrase of the time. Schmidt is Mexican so the idea that he was an English nationalist does not have much credibility. The quote above is from the history of PN Review currently at The claim that Poetry Nation was a magazine of the Left is the area which attracts extended analysis here. I cannot find this claim within the pages of that first issue. There is an ‘editorial note’ which certainly makes no such claim. The symposium mentioned is titled ‘The Politics of Form’ and could, I suggest, be a position statement for the magazine and for Carcanet Press too.

To go back to the beginning, Brian Cox (CB Cox) founded Critical Quarterly in 1958. Carcanet the magazine started in 1962 (data taken here from an article on Carcanet's website) and its original aim was to link poets from Oxford and Cambridge universities. Thus healing the major split in English poetry, I suppose! Strange what people were worried about in 1962. This is irrelevant to our task, though; Schmidt (b.1947) travelled from Mexico, joined up with the magazine as an undergraduate in 1967, published a few poetry pamphlets, in 1969, and formed Carcanet Press Limited in 1970-1. (The article credits the founding to Gareth Reeves and Peter Jones along with Schmidt.) His intentions at this point are not in that article, but the 1973 first issue of Poetry Nation is all about ideology and may shed a light on Schmidt's emerging intentions, which became the framework for Carcanet - except that Poetry Nation was co-founded with Brian Cox, and that Schmidt aged 25 or so could be assumed to supply the eagerness while Cox supplied the ideology. There is another story that Schmidt wanted Edgell Rickword (b.1898) to be the editor and that this only fell through because Rickword was too old and ill. A light deserves to be shone on this: Rickword had edited an important magazine in the 1920s. Schmidt clearly knew his history and was in awe of old people. Rickword was also a Marxist, and edited worthy Marxist reviews Our Time and Left Review; so Schmidt was not simply planning a neo-conservative masthead. Critical Quarterly, (the other Manchester magazine, Cox‘s other magazine) was, to put it plainly, anti-ideology, but that does not exclude an unconscious programme favouring academics, the academic view of poetry, close reading, empiricism. (This is the academics of 1958 not 1968.) Cox could be seen as a 'leavisite' at point of origin, or rather at point of graduating from Cambridge, but he jettisoned all the lawrentian baggage of Leavis and CQ needs to be considered in its own terms. SCP mainly ignores the innovations of the 1960s and 1970s but includes strongly Left poems by Jeffrey Wainwright and a poem by Robert Wells about Pasolini. Wells' style is grey and faded, but thematically these poems could not possibly have been taken by a neo-con editor. In 1983 the neo-cons were hypersensitive even to a Marxist twitch of an eyebrow, as anyone who was around at the time will remember. Issue one of Poetry Nation includes translations of Peter Huchel, a major East German poet who fell out with the regime but retained a loyalty to a deeper idea of the Left, and who was being published further, in more depth, by Carcanet 30 years later.

A very large volume of 'Essays and Opinions 1921-31' by Rickword was one of Carcanet's first volumes. Ending at 1931 cuts out his 'committed' period. The whole cultural world was getting into politics in 1931, Communist where not Fascist. Part of being a committed intellectual then was writing to reach the masses and not for other intellectuals. It may very well be that what Rickword wrote from 1932 up to 1960 or so was not worth reprinting by 1974. I have not read it but I have read a certain amount of Marxist periodical literature of the time.
How could a magazine of the Left include as editors Sisson and Davie? what on earth did those two have to do with the Left?

I think the verdict on Some Contemporary Poets is that it is opportunistic. It was trying to surf a wave in the market. Carcanet were not broadcasting a set ideology because they did not have one. Publishers have to sell books and they have to catch waves and then slide off them and catch the next one. SCP genuinely is a neo-conservative anthology, Carcanet serviced a neo-conservative clientele, PN Review carried vicious attacks on English modernist poets, but that was not all they did and the oddly inarticulate quality of Schmidt's introduction may indicate a lack of commitment on his part to the neo-con project. He was publishing left-wing writers. If we redefine him as 'the type of conservative who regards Gramsci, Brecht, Huchel, Rickword, and the Marxist theorists, as neglected parts of the imperishable European heritage and in need of conserving' we are closer to the truth.

Around 1970, Schmidt was trying to become the deputy to someone born in 1898. The problem is obvious, and one can only wonder what would have happened if he'd met a brilliant Marxist thinker born in 1947 (as he was) instead.

A secondary verdict on SCP would be to identify it with a particular stratum of the Left which was opposed to modernism in the arts. This is not an undiscovered island - the official policy of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party, as of any other Marxist groups known to me, has been rigidly anti-modernist but in favour of European classicism, the culmination of ‘bourgeois art’. The SWP has a clear vision of a future in which the working class will all take piano lessons, take ballet lessons, listen to classical music, read great novels, etc., and where subversion of the classical standards of, say, 1880, will no longer happen (and nobody will wish for it). This vision is clear partly because that was the official policy in the Warsaw Pact countries (notwithstanding serpentine nuances over the decades). What we are looking at here, though, is a fraction of left-wing academics within the Labour Party, rather than the unelectable Marxist bands. At this point the opposition between libertarian and conventional comes to the forefront. The Black Papers on Education, co-edited by Brian Cox, were attacks on the pupil-oriented approach to teaching in schools, as they affected English in particular. His position was greeted with enthusiasm by the Right but was not incompatible with being on the Left and with wanting State schools to give first-class educations to pupils from income groups D and E and generally to give the working class access to upward mobility. The pupil-oriented approach was associated with lack of discipline for children and with the encouragement of creativity, and so with the excess of creativity which characterised the cultural scene in the 1960s. All arts, also poetry, were being practised by a new style of creative person who was not promoting morality, saw invention and spontaneity as desirable ways of leading life, was less interested in neatness and concentration as parts of the art experience, was detached from ’social poetry’ because of its realism and bonds to the material facts of life, and favoured the ‘quality of liberated experience’ over memorising facts as the goal of study. It has often been suggested that a permissive attitude to child behaviour produced a whole generation of wildly creative adults, and the new wave were, for whatever reason, extraordinarily distant from the previous generation. This whole line was unacceptable to someone like Brian Cox. The line in the sand being drawn by Poetry Nation was not to do with government policies and foreign policy but to do with culture and, most probably, methods of teaching, in particular of English. The story being told is that ‘bright kids will be taught permissively and never learn how to study and will reach 16 and fail their A level courses because they are too busy having acid trips and listening to pop music and not carrying out Acts of Discrimination and will end up with no exam certificates doing dead-end jobs to the great disappointment of their parents’. This is not uttered in Poetry Nation but because of the Black Papers it was in the atmosphere and I think it was evoked when the contributors talk about form, rigour, etc. Conservation (of the self) is being opposed to extravagance (of the self).

As you can see, it’s a story that would appeal to a great many people on the Left and to a great many dedicated teachers. There is a paranoid version of it which sees Pop culture as a way of doping the masses and follows that up to regard the penetration of Pop culture, of play, of not doing things you don’t want to do, into the classroom as an identical ruling-class trick for producing compliant and apathetic consumers. This paranoid version would see the trick as being pulled only in working-class areas while schools for the elite continue with nineteenth-century standards of rigour, hard work, doing difficult things, etc. Clearly Pop was close to capitalism and to the world of advertisements.

Because women were the primary child carers, the revolution in childrearing was a revolution initiated by women; feminism addressing affairs outside the household was a later chapter of this story. More liberal teaching for young children was also mainly introduced by women, because primary school teachers were mostly female. It was subversive.

The introduction to the symposium on ‘The Politics of Form’ refers twice to a symposium in Partisan Review (1972) on 'the new conservatism' and gives us firmly to understand that Schmidt regards this 'new conservatism' as the right way to write radical poetry and as the path which Poetry Nation will follow.
To sum up, Poetry Nation 1 is a plea for left-wing neo-conservatism. He says exactly 'the so-called cultural conservative ... reveals always new areas of potential, while consistently keeping alive in himself and in his readers an awareness of origins and integrities.'

This is clarified by 'Perspective is only achieved through form, a prime objectifying tool, or through an accurate sense of time and the effect of time upon the immediate experience, the initial response. A writer communicates the truth of an experience only by objectifying the experience [...] to see around and through it. To grant to the experience its integrity he opposes to it an integrity, a form of words which does not invade or break down the image, idea or experience by imitating response directly[.]' This is a fine passage which however excludes from literature any fantasy or improvisation or even wish. Perception always dominates. The idea that conservatism conserves information and so makes possible complex writing, whereas egocentric spontaneity lets information leak away all the time and remains shallow, is compelling. A text conserves information; it draws on what was already conserved by memory. Yet political radicalism would seem to be restricted to campaigns for a political order which we have never yet experienced and which cannot be comprehended by accounts of experience. Incidentally, all politics is oriented towards the uncertain future, as the past cannot be influenced. PN 1 includes a long essay by the art critic Adrian Stokes (1903-72), whose collected works Carcanet later published, to great acclaim. Stokes followed the Kleinian or object relations variant of psychoanalysis and regarded all art as the enactment of infantile fantasies. How is this compatible with the ‘integrity’ of ‘experience‘ as a framework? yet it’s right there in Poetry Nation issue 1. The vocabulary of objective external form has certain echoes of Charles Maurras, chief of Action française, and favourite writer of CH Sisson, who logically enough was a Franco supporter. For Maurras it has to do with burning Mediterranean light, hard edges, stone buildings, and the desired prevalence of Roman virtues. This probably is not a direct path to Carcanet’s cultural policy, yet Sisson did play a role in framing that.

I think this recovers the state of debate in 1973, which is intimately related to the 1983 anthology we started from. I don’t want to finish the debate, even though so many years have gone by. I prefer to leave it unresolved. I am deeply committed to ‘complex’ poetry and am prepared to work to reach it, mostly in foreign languages but also in English when needed. I am quite content to see ‘concentration’ or ‘absorption’ as the quality I want when reading poetry, and to accept that this resembles work or study in some ways, and that it may involve puzzlement, perplexity, uncertainty. However, I basically regard art as play and the phases of effort are only moments in a whole which appeals to the child in me. A split between ‘Pop’ art and ‘serious’ art, which seemed to threaten us in the 1970s, no longer seems real, and so we don’t have to finish the debate.

If we look back to that point in 1973 we can see that postmodernism shows up as a ghost or a caricature: the sober academics are saying that art will abandon rigour and become totally uninteresting, but what came along did abandon rigour and did exploit the excess creativity of products of permissive childrearing, but it was interesting too. By 1983, Schmidt is anthologising John Ash and Frank Kuppner, and permissive attitudes are inside the gate. These brilliant poets are the start of a new wave of the "ludic" and the insouciant.

I don't think it’s a secret that the generation of people who were students in the second half of the Sixties, especially during 1968, were globally different from people who were students in the 1950s or the 1940s. The teachers did not reproduce their own views in their pupils, in this case what was reproduced was quite different. It is also no secret that ‘child-centred learning’ was allied with ‘reader-centred reading’ as a direction in literary theory and in writing literary history. Indeed, the whole return to Nietzsche, deposition of the author, revival of subjectivity, insistence on playing games with literal meaning, is connected, on the ground, with the child-centred approach. The resistance to such theoretical activity, and to the formally new poetry which emerged (mostly) after 1968, was preformed by the organised opposition to freestyle learning which Brian Cox was leading. When we say ‘academic’ we have to qualify which generation or which direction they belong to or it is almost as ineffective as describing someone as a ‘poet’. The intervention of academics in the world of poetry has been crucial all along but it has had a different value in each year and asks for considerable unravelling. Schmidt was visibly a student in 1968, his tutor was the Marxist Terry Eagleton, but he does not seem to have gone through a Marxist/protest phase and most probably can be assigned to the tier of students who studied hard and disliked the revolutionary teenager discourse to be heard around them. Conservative students were numerous at all times; students were the bourgeoisie of the future and could choose whether to feel guilty about this or to feel calm and even proud. Concomitantly, Critical Quarterly represented by 1973 an older tier of Eng Lit academics and by no means the whole campus.

“The ‘new conservatism’ ... the reassertion of standards of form, is anything but socially conservative in quality.” When Schmidt comes to list his admired radical poets who are apparently cultural conservatives and yet not, he gives us Burns Singer (posthumous debut 1957), Graham (debut 1944), Larkin (debut 1945), Douglas Dunn (debut 1970), Davie (debut 1955), and Sisson (first retained poems 1943). He has a new publishing house but it houses the old poets. The cargo seems to be inherited from the very first issues of Critical Quarterly. I set all this out because it leads us, once again, to our initial proposal that Some Contemporary Poets was part of the ’long 1950s’ even if its colophon says ’1983’.

Schmidt claims his favoured poets as ‘the New Formalism’. Formalism was, as described by Eric Homberger in particular, the dominant mode in English and American poetry from 1947 to 1961. Schmidt’s 1983 anthology includes a number of poems in rhyme, or assonating. Nothing about them shows anything that cannot accurately be described as the old formalism. These are poets who are happy to ignore changes of fashion as identified by someone like Homberger; Schmidt chose them because of their mournful, withdrawn, anti-metropolitan quality. Again, SCP fulfils a criterion of belonging to ‘the long 1950s’. The magazine Schmidt controlled gives a number of reasons why ignoring innovations of the period 1961-1982 should be seen as an act of authenticity, a sign of depth. As for ‘Marxist ... New Formalism’, this did not exist in England, or even in Britain. It could be applied to a number of poets in East Germany at that time, (Karl Mickel springs to mind) and probably to ‘official’ Russian poets too. But in England?

Being ‘Left neo-conservative’ sounds like a psychotic condition. Having said that, it is not necessarily true that any position adopted during the 1970s was free of contradictions or was not drastically disproved by events, within weeks sometimes. It was a time when people were trying to work things out and conditions were changing very rapidly. If I talk about ‘the 1970s’ I mean a process, not a set of positions that would compose an enduring landscape.

The most striking point about Carcanet is their paralysis with regard to young poets. This was eventually fixed, notably with A Various Art, but that was 17 years after their foundation. Their early decades took place as if the British Poetry Revival had never happened. The editorials in PN Review and so on are mainly an attempt to prove that the chief current of contemporary poetry was not happening or was a breach of utterly precious doctrines. Carcanet stands for "anti-modern modernism" as well as "Left neo-conservatism".

PN 1 regards anti-Vietnam War poetry with utter horror and claims that England needs a whole cultural policy to prevent that kind of thing from happening here. Robert B Shaw expresses this in an essay and it is picked up in Schmidt’s editorial statement. Protest poetry is equated with ‘rhetoric’. It was all a long time ago, but surely that period is remembered as one of the great periods of American poetry and one which mobilised huge numbers of people, and which participants look back on with great affection and often contrast with a come-down and hangover afterwards. Also, the people who don’t have those feelings about the poetry which spoke to the anti-war community are precisely the neo-conservatives, and that is probably the one thing you need for a neo-con membership card.

This was in 'The Long 1950s' but then got chucked out because of length and because finally everyone agrees that there was a slide back to 1950s values in the 1980s, and so it was not worth bashing away trying to prove this. The mainstream of the 1980s included that tendency but it was reduced to minority status by the much more popular 'ludic' or' postmodern' tendency. I think unwinding a position like this tends to show how complex and contradictory positions inside the mainstream can be.

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