Time engulfed by subjectivity: historicism
another essay on poetry and time
This [viz as defined in essay on mainstream] emptying of the poetic frame is comparable to the emptying of the painting as it evolves into abstracts with ever simpler colour schemes and fewer lines. Language embodies social structures so the breakdown of language breaks down the store of social structure so we can make statements about political organisation by disintegrating language. This works in some way similarly to the way emptying of pictorial space to get back to a plane canvas surface is saying something about the organisation of imaginary space. Foregrounding through breakdown. Language contains the whole history of the race so blocking parts of it out recovers an uncoded state.
By following theories poets may thus end up with a vacuous text in which units of meaning are almost absent.
We have at any moment a set of literary norms by which the individual components of a poem have a value of effortless, old-fashioned, novel, or difficult. We assimilate the norms of the moment we are living through simply by reading modern poetry - something only a minority do. The nature of artistic failure has to do with the norms accepted by the reader. It is very probable that these norms change with time, and so questions of artistic value are affected to some extent by theories of time. Styles change. Artists try to be up to date. They can go out of date. There are though two versions of the movement of style. In one the advance of style is irreversible and is dictated by the changing concerns of a minority elite, in all advanced countries. The style of the common run of writers is based on the style of the elite of 30 years earlier. The elite can be identified by their practice of the destined new style, as distinct from their ties of self-legitimation. The shifts in poetic style are linked to shifts in ideas.
In the other one, art is affected by vogues. These have a much more rapid lifecycle than shifts in the rules of discourse. The latter are irreversible but slow. The vogues are there to signal the distinctiveness of a few artists and cannot also represent a period as a whole. They burn out and do not leave a permanent mark on the rules of the art. There are artistic functions which have a much longer lifecycle and which may indeed be so old as to seem permanent. They would include tactics like narrative characters, identification, emotion, lyricism, the description of nature, the appropriation of symbols to express inner states, projections, expressivity, mimesis, fantasy, ornament, allegory, myth. If you go ahead 30 years from any point in the 20th C it may be that these tactics are still valid when you arrive - and that the vogues are not.
Because we are in the realm of words, and logos= speech, we can call these poetic fashions logues.
Vogue is distinct from vague as in nouvelle vague. Both are French words, although vogue comes via Italian from, I suppose, Lombard. We could call these ripples either vogues or vagues.
These two theories produce very different results when we apply them to the history of British poetry around 1960 to 1997. It is convenient to bundle the innovations visible around 1970 together (see my book FCon for a list of 34 points of stylistic change). For example, a reader may qualify a book which lacks the innovations as m-stream and therefore not wish to read it. Another reader may qualify a book as obscure, difficult and abstract because it uses the innovations and again not wish to read it. The initial act of taste may be a recognition of these surface signs in a programme which precludes advancing into the space of the poetry on offer and finding its artistic value at a deeper level of knowledge. The surface effects of style - chemically or even toxically reactive markers - are basic to the polarisation which affects the scene.
Historicist theory involves a special view of 20th C art in which evolution progressed rapidly from 1905 to 1930, was then frozen by the era of political polarisation circa 1933-56, migrated to America, migrated back under the aegis of the CIA and the CCF, and re-started in Europe circa 1960. The movement since 1960 is the long-lost son of the movement which stopped around 1930, and everything in between is not allowed in the game.
It may be helpful here to give a few details of this historicism in the form in which it grips many agents of the avant-garde. Three essential components are that everything which is not avant-garde is kitsch, that artistic innovation is ‘world-historical’ and so more important than anything else, and that there is a timetable of formal innovation which always goes forward (and which disqualifies anything else as retro). A fourth tenet is that artists are engaged in a debate about the formal properties of the art object and that somehow the art is about its own formal properties. When the debate moves on, all older artistic practices become obsolete. This continual emptying is very exciting for young poets because it continually creates territory which they can stake out and occupy. The ’timetable’ of advance allows for a zone of originality which can be demarcated and turned into private property. Thus the advance into undefined stylistic space is like the occupation of the USA by White Americans. If you destroy the sentence or the line of verse you can claim personal territory which if you stick with the sentence and the line of verse as known to the English language you can't claim. Withdrawal from the zones of known art including the most fertile and effortless ones is thus mandated by the territorial metaphor, and to stray outside the boundaries of owned (and sensorily derived) estate would invalidate the idea of ownership and so the whole bundle of historicist metaphors. Moving on thus implies wiping out the past and progression towards grey monochrome painting and white cube rooms was a logical extension of impulse. It was a process of becoming conscious in which climactically the objects of consciousness disappeared.
A painting is said to be ‘about’ flatness and immobility and so a painting which asserts those properties is preferable to one which deploys illusionistic space and places objects in it as if in a real space. Visual art since the Renaissance is said to be in a process of discovery in which each new phase represents more self awareness and more rejection of illusionism and laying bare of inherent formal properties of the painted thing. The timetable is thus extended back to the 15th century, at least, and all European artists are supposed to know their places on it or are proven to have misunderstood their allotted role in history. This allows for a whole schema of who’s in who’s out to be built up for the benefit of the loyalists. Changes in painting during the 20th C are thus part of a philosophical debate and each style became obsolete as its contribution to the debate was made and used up. Few people can keep up with this rapid progress and what is up to date at any moment can only be judged by world-historical experts, in fact a few critics in New York, or perhaps just one critic.
It is hard to apply this model to poetry but in a general way the critique of personal consciousness and its objects of knowledge played the same role. When Anthony Easthope says, in a description of a 1950s poem “the speaker of the poem is presented as detached, critical, not self-deceived, confident of submitting the world to a controlling gaze; in other words, very much the poised, individualised, empiricist subject whose voice has been represented as speaking in English poetry for over two centuries. At first on the journey objects viewed from the window - knowable, reassuringly familiar - help to generate the mastery of the experiencing 'I'; a river, canals, and then 'the next town'. [...] Everything in the poem - train journey, landscape and townscape, the couples, the concluding vision - is constructed by a script which represents a speaker who experiences all this for us. And the condition for that is an effacement of the materiality of language, to give the effect of someone 'really' speaking.” We are to suppose that all this is very very bad. Even if this text dates from 1999, the critique is recognisable as a tune of the avant garde from much earlier than that. The unconscious belief that language is material rather than symbolic (if it's made of matter, how much does it weigh?) points us towards the Marxist investment underlying this; Easthope was rather a Stalinist than a Trotskyite, I think. This line gives us the historicist scale in two senses: writers who want to reproduce experience are 'out of date' technically and people who approve of English society as it was in the 1950s, or at any later moment, are 'out of date' in the light of Marxist politics. (The poem is evidently 'The Whitsun Weddings', by Philip Larkin.)
This bundle of theories, or fantasies, was part of the general ‘Lend Lease’ shipment of American ideas which reached England along with rock and roll and McKinsey-style management consultancy. The British poets who flocked onto the beaches and bought into it were also the ones who bought into American fashions in poetry. The cargo cult in the visual arts has been described by Patrick Heron (who helped it happen in the 1950s) and John A Walker (Cultural Offensive). Its rollout in poetry is described, not as a process but as an Act of Destiny, by Eric Mottram, in essays now in his archive. A brief inventory check of poetry in the USA shows that the import was extremely selective. Olson, Robert Duncan, Zukofsky, O’Hara, Ashbery, Wieners, Jack Spicer were the main stocks. Later poets did not seem to go over. The visual arts market in the USA was rather well centralised and fashion dominated. Patrons could feel secure about their investments. Painters who did not run with the Ab Ex stampede had grave career problems, at least according to various reports on the period. No doubt many of them gave up. The US poetry world, though, did not work in this way at all.
The belief many poets cling to is that there is a critique of poetic form taking place among concerned intellectuals and that by violating the rules of language they are simultaneously connecting with this debate among the few and highly qualified and making a break with ordinary and 'greyed out' language or knowledge. The breaches inspire thought about how language works (and maybe society and the brain as well). They create a risk which is held to focus the entire powers of the mind on the moment of the breach and the way it is made. The violation of probability in these various forms lets the poem escape from the grey array we discussed earlier. It is fair to say that this radical gesture is not self-explanatory to most of the poetry reading public. Many people respond to phrases like 'cutting edge’ ‘leading edge’ and in this case we can claim that there is an adrenalin reaction even if the phrases have no meaning.
The key source for historicist myth is GWF Hegel. As an illustration, I am going to quote part of his Lectures on aesthetics. (This was a course he gave many times and which is not ascribed to a particular date, as also the text published in 1835 was compounded from several different manuscript versions of the lectures.) The part I am going to look at is Chivalry, found at pages 607-14 of the Reclam edition. He starts by saying 'The principle of subjectivity endless in itself made first of all, as we saw, the absolute itself, the mind of God, as it mediates and reconciles itself through human consciousness and so doing becomes truthful for itself, into the content of faith and art.' This kind of statement is the source for the belief in consciousness developing and realising itself through the development of art. This chapter is a section in the division on 'The religious sphere of Romantic art', and we note that for Hegel this meant the mediaeval chivalric romances, not the art which was modern in the 1790s. The division goes through the story of Christ's redemption, religious love, and the tales of martyrs, and the section immediately before this one is about 'miracles and saints' lives', where he observes that the miracle is for nature 'the conversion story of immediate natural existence' and the equivalent of conversion for a human, as the 'reason' of nature, its ordinary course of processes bound by laws, is interrupted. He then gets to the epics of chivalry, as a second division of religious art, and says that they centre on honour, loyalty, and love. 'This form of romantic love is at home in two hemispheres: in the West, this decline of the mind into its subjective inner place, and in the Orient, this first expansion of the consciousness which opens itself up to liberation from the finite.' Hegel assigns chivalry to the Arabs, but modern scholars would give this role more to the Persians, whose long epic poems such as the Shah-Nameh are so similar to Western European romances, and to Turkish and central Asian cultures under Persian influence. It may be in fact that he is not distinguishing between the courtly love lyric and the romance (in which love stories are of course numerous): he was in that case already familiar with the theory that love poetry came to Western Europe from the Arabs. Hegel says that the romances show suffering which is like what ascetics endure but differs because it has a function in the world, all the same they are free: "In this connection Poetry has here no objectivity proposed to it, no mythology, no visual arts and forms, which are there ready to be expressed. It stands free, immaterial, purely creative and productive; it is like the bird which sings its song freely out of its throstle.' Hegel remarks that the romances are very specific, as they deal with the love of a specific person for another specific person, or conversely the loyalty of a single vassal for a specific overlord. ‘In honour a human has therefore the nearest affirmative consciousness of his endless subjectivity, independent of its contents. What the individual possesses, what distinguishes something special about him, after loss of which he could go on existing as well as before, in this the absolute validity of the whole subjectivity is invested through honour, and thereby presented for himself and for others.’ This is very surprising for people who when reading the romances had been impressed by their stereotyped, vague nature and their lack of any characterisation; this above all in contrast with classical Greek literature.
Hegel's ideas were developed by Marx and reached 1950s style American historicism through Trotsky; Clement Greenberg was a trotskyist and matured in a milieu of intellectual New York Marxists for whom the Partisan Review was a mouthpiece. Trotsky liked the avant garde and saw it as a form of revolution, whereas Lenin and Stalin rejected anything in art later than the 19th century.
Hegel really invented secular historicism. Before him there was for example Joachim of Fiore, who saw history as encompassing the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Holy Ghost, but this kind of theological allegory does not take on the events of human history as Hegel does. The 'timetable' of development is a later accretion to the system; Hegel shows art as developing but gives very few dates. Also, he admits a geographical basis to artistic style, which would imply that time is subject to spatial restrictions; thus his description of Dutch art is one of the most convincing parts of his narrative.
It is difficult to reconcile Greenberg’s theories with the art practice of genres. These are simultaneous in time but radically different in means and presuppositions. One can accept that a certain art style correlates with the deeper nature of a society, say American capitalism of the 1950s, only if one believes that such a society is a monolithic block and so able to be reflected. This seems dangerously close to thinking of a society as like a work of art, with each part obeying the rules that shape the whole. It does not take very much study of sociology to realise that a society of 180 million people cannot be treated in that way. The historicist project relies on astounding simplifications by Hegel, where for example he defines Dutch art as if there is only one spirit of Dutch society and only one art which captures and expresses it. This comes off a great deal better for the smaller populations of Antiquity or the Middle Ages than for modern times; it also comes off better if you only have access to a few hundred works of art in a museum rather than to the full volume of artefacts which compose the inventory of art. In fact, what Hegel says about Dutch art is wonderful and completely convincing.
The evidence has been available for a long time now and it turns out that there is no international elite with judiciary powers, that the highly educated in various countries are following completely different agendas, that the line of progress since 1950 is visible so intermittently that it effectively isn't there, that a considerable amount of excellent poetry has been produced which is not 'innovative' in historicist terms, that the idea of a debate about form as the main subject of art is shared by almost no one, that 'world history' has no front line and finally that there is no "world-historical art" outside the minds of Hegel and a few over-excitable followers of Hegel. These are commonplace opinions, so widely shared that they do not require proof in this place, at this time.
The question then is why historicism exists at all, or why it is so important to such a large number of people. This elimination of all possibilities except one is deeply repulsive but also fulfils a devouring appetite of poets and painters to be the only one who counts. It is a selfish gene fantasy. It disqualifies everyone except one narrow spectrum band, a kind of slit. If you can only occupy one slot, it is logical to want every other slot to be put under a solemn theological and political curse as bourgeois and kitsch and passé. The art market is unstable and always liable to be captured by organised cliques animated by highly articulate fantasies of this kind. The fantasy of being the sole survivor is much more dangerous when it expands, without losing its basic impulse, to be the fantasy of a coherent group of people. When people are surrounded by anxieties which forbid them to use almost any piece of language from the past, they are forced into extreme measures to find a way out. At this point they are really on their mettle and something genuinely interesting can emerge. The key to explaining the force of this extreme poetry is surely the need to gamble and to reach the edge of time which Spender set out in his 1940s poems. Poets under such pressure can react with their whole brain to the concrete situation and can become completely conscious. The chosen poverty of their means encourages the new wealth of invention. The question of risk shows us that there could be a reason for finding a breach with the past even if the historicist project is delusory or self-referential. Breaking the line of time is necessary and formal departure is one way of achieving it. This gives us a basis for understanding what happens in modern avant garde poetry even if we intellectually reject the whole model of history which is represented by formalist historicism and if we privately believe that Hegel, who was not a historian, produced an account of history which was violently counter-factual and more like a beautiful textile pattern than a credible report.
The group relations of innovative poets are of great interest. The originality depends on an expert audience to be appreciated, and this audience needs a shared game in order for the innovation and temporal breach to be effective, legitimated. The game is never completely shared, the players move in patterns which never quite fit into each other. Ideally the poet develops a unique signal which yet permits large-scale production and deep expressivity.
Another form of poetic gambling is political risk. This collapses if it verges into extreme improbability but rises when it envisages changes which are improbable but conceivable and represent a radical and almost unrecognisable change from the existing order. This is a risk which we can share as readers. Again, it is rather obvious that the hope for radical political change is much more exciting than the hope for stability or for modest and eventually bipartisan and so permanent change.
If we pursue the line of improbability it is inevitable that we will also get to verbal obscurity. The two qualities must, for sufficiently obvious reasons, live in territories which mostly overlap. The area of risk can be restated as the area where failure is likely. Indeed, the posited high alertness would not kick in if failure were not so likely. Unlikely lines are more poetic than predictable ones.
You may ask whether the subscription to historicism is the key to the differences between the u-stream and the m-stream, the investment which makes a reader join one team rather than the other. I think the answer is no. The lure of the u-ground has to do with the artistic power of the great poetry it produces, a power residing in several dimensions of language at once. Getting involved in that scene before it had the masterpieces was an act of daring which went beyond the facts. Getting involved once books, such as The White Stones or Striking the Pavilion of Zero, were there was a response to artistic facts rather than theories. The decline of historicism as an art discourse is of marginal importance to a u-stream whose asset base piles higher year by year.
I do not find that Hegel ever applies the adjective 'world-historical' to art, nor that he ever mentions the avant-garde - which would have been difficult enough in the year 1800. He does write about originality in art, in such a way as to link it to individual personality and so to disconnect it from conventions which change in grand time but are shared by an entire age. Thus individual style is for him quite separate from the history of style.
The poets who were the foundation for the English u-ground were in nothing like a dominant position in the US. They may have been recognised late in their lives, relatively, but that rise was not a solid upward stroke which raised them to dominance of the bookshops, the libraries, and the textbooks. Actually, that dominance belonged to no individuals in a literary market an order of magnitude larger than the single European countries taken one by one. American poetry involves thousands of poets, whether they tried to succeed by conforming to public trends or by innovating into what might be a lonely part of the prairie. If we map this decentralised market onto the British scene, we find, I think, that the British poets who had a marginal but relatively “intellectual” niche map onto US poets who were occupying a post-Poundian niche and that this was not the future in any simple way. Distance from a central cluster of stylemes did not represent the length of an advance into the future but a trek into a niche in stylistic space which the main arteries of commerce would continue to bypass. There are hundreds of poetic scenes in the US present and no one would go back and say that any scene in the 1955 or 1965 “owned” this present. That is: no scene of 1955 or 1965 represented the future. That is: historicism was imported to Britain from the USA but failed to work in the USA.
It is hard to trace how many people in this country subscribed, or subscribe, to these ideas. I think most people active on the poetry scene are unfamiliar with them and would be shocked even to hear them expounded. But they do have a value in explaining how avant garde writers enjoy these fantasies of annihilating the past.
The two theories predict very different outcomes over time. Consider a point anywhere in the 20th C and map it onto a point 30 years later. Either the future imitates the vanguard present, and validates it, or the future ignores the vanguard present, and redefines it as merely a vogue, or raft of vogues. Peter Barry, in his book Poetry Wars (at page 179) says that the innovations set out by Mottram around 1974 have become absorbed into the m-stream of British poetry. This position has a double effect. Retrospectively, it invests the BPR with the mantle of futurity: the future has paid off their cheques drawn on the future. In the present, it annihilates the legitimacy of the continuing underground: if the vital techniques have been learnt and taken over by the m-stream, what is the u-ground for? This raises the question of whether the u-ground has developed new and exotic techniques since 1974 or so, or whether its coherence and solidarity have produced a classicism of the marginal and new waves of recruits, at times few at times many, have assimilated to it. This is controversial and I don't have an opinion on it.
The vogue theory asks for a different understanding of separation in the literary world. The rise of a distinctive style may point to the coherence of a social group of a couple of dozen people. Their closeness to each other is the air which the new style breathes: the style points as its implicit meaning towards the group. The elite concept is the group’s conceit of itself rather than the huge voice of the ‘world-historical’. Distinctiveness is also hostility towards other groups. The debate about form is a custom of the group rather than the principal subject of the work of art. The rise of the vogue suggests the outward spread of the boundaries of the group: its descent suggests the decoherence of the group, the dissipation of its special group feeling. The vogue theory allows for a geography in which dozens of different groups thrive simultaneously, if to differing rhythms: an awkward fact for any theory to adapt to. Since the period actually exhibits many different styles, no past style dominates the present. The ‘timetable of style’ does not work unless it has multiple parallel lines. The idea of legitimacy and domination of one style is in question and would have to pass tests of truth before being accepted.
The history of style can be connected to complex and extremely powerful forces of group process, such as intra-group competition, competition with other groups, seizure of symbolic assets, loyalty tests, self definition, games, expressing shared ideas, mutual praise and tribute. These offer explanations other than the actions of a wandering Zeitgeist which biologically belongs in the realm of spirits and not in anyone’s botanical sketch-book. I suggest that competition over assets within a group is the most dynamic shaping process: competition between groups that do not share assets is abstract and without solid grounds that could really inspire stylistic creativity. Obscurity is a by-blow of competition. By intensifying you out-score rival poets even if your work becomes meaningless and profoundly obscure on the way. This is illuminism, in theological terms: cutting out the sensory tier of secular mediation to reach light directly. By over-fulfilment of distinctive rules you claim to belong to the group more than someone who uses a wider range of stylemes, i.e. that the group belongs more to you. Obscurity takes us into the dark heart of group process.
Thus the changes in the period may turn out mostly to be reversible and indeed to have vanished from the work of young poets even within the period.
In our period, we have quite a few figures who were writing both in 1960 and 1997. This span is shorter than the span of one individual creative biography. We could name Logue, Hill, Levi, and Thwaite as examples. (To reiterate, my personal project does not go beyond 1997, although I admit to forays back into the ‘dead ground’ before 1960.) The period has been one of rapid stylistic change but whenever we look we find continuity and the calm which marks the attitude of great artists.
The vogue theory slices off the most prominent features of the landscape. It leaves a population of what may be deep changes: where the generally accepted rules of 1995 are different from those of 1955. These changes are hard to locate because they lack prominence. They are even hard to remember. Assembling what is common to 1000 poems is tedious and hard to notate or store. It is hard to get interested by it. Features at this level might be changes in the verse, i.e. what falls between two line breaks; in the notion of finish, i.e. the proper degree of attentiveness/ consciousness which marks a poem off from informal speech; in cohesion in ideas, i.e. allowing “jumps” of association in joining successive moments within the poem. To help the debate I have included a chapter on poetry as it was in the 1950s. To find the typical poem we have to discard each actual poem and of course we may prefer not to do this but to linger on actual poems, which have the plus that they exist and can be enjoyed.
Note. This was part of what became 'The Long 1950s' but was cut because it is about the Underground poets and the whole concept of that book was not even to mention them. It defines one of the 'genres' which 'The Long 1950s' is intended to map.