Saturday, 20 March 2010

marginalia to 'Affluence' work

web marginalia to 'Affluence' work

Comment. this is a set of notes around the seven volumes of 'Affluence', including admission of errors within it.

notes on Crichton Smith

Sometime in 2008 I got a copy of An t-Eilean agus an Canan by Iain Crichton Smith through the Internet. This is two long poems in Gaelic (the Scottish variety), published by the Celtic Department of Glasgow University, one of a series up to 19 items by 1987. I had to look up every second word. It was not possible to include anything about these poems in a book, where I am supposed to record valid information that I can vouch for. I would have liked to include some analysis of Gaelic poetry but I don't have the knowledge. When I went to a Scottish Gaelic class in London (in the next street to where I worked, oddly enough) it was full of Scottish people who wanted to recover family history in some way. I felt very secure being there because everyone felt the same way as me. My family spoke Gaelic through the depths of time and lost it at a certain point. I think it's just as well if there is a separation between deep emotional and personal things like the Gaelic and writing books that are supposed to be externalised and objective.

The one I read was 'An Canan', which means 'the language'. It is a meditation on the state of the language, which has been in crisis for a long time. This is quite a specialised interest so a translation may not come along very quickly. A language is like a liquid which flows into society, there is hardly a point where it does not reach and its site extends over many dimensions. A poem about a language has to map that super-complex shape in some way. Smith does it by a discursive pattern, with 20 individual poems strung out along an idea. They are bound together by a theme at the end of each one which links up to a theme at the beginning of the following poem.

though we interpret
it is in this place
where the shadows are on the peak
that we learn the music by heart

as suddenly as lightning
that was again lighting up this town
with its white leaves
with its agile authority itself.

in Garrabost
I saw a black-headed gull hunting
rabbits among the heather.

the sea after the land,
the big bitter mouth yonder
along the land of your love.

She is living on crisps and lemonade
your sweetheart beloved sweetheart
A music player at her ears.

This one is not ‘milkmaid’ or ‘queen’.

Luxemburg is speaking to her
though she is living on orangeade

William Ross, in making your song about her,
who is going in denims
across the ancient land
where the floor of the black house is not worthwhile.


The children are passing by, music players
around their ears.
They are going past on the channels.
The names are coming alive.

do ghaoil at the end of 10 is echoed by gaolach in line 2 of 11. I think the link between 9 and 10 is that the keen eye of the hawk is like the sharpness of the gleam of the lightning-bolt.
I can’t remember when William Ross was writing. 17th C?

There are powerful inhibitions in his work. He avoids the big myths of resentment which most people in Scotland are familiar with but they are the water on which the whole ship floats. It helps if you already know what these myths are. Yet there is no point saying outright that the language is dying. Everyone knows that. ‘An Canan’ is a lot more optimistic than much of his work. He seems willing to believe that the learners from outside the Gaidhealtacht (just outside or far outside) will keep the language alive.

‘An Canan’ has some resemblances to ‘Ancestor Worship’ by Emyr Humphreys, which is about the fate of Welsh and the Welsh. Both men are intelligent but both have a certain fealty to the old national customs and identifications. Smith’s poem is complicated in a way which belies a rural folk culture based on crofting and fishing. Smith was an urban intellectual even if he regarded that as a suit of clothes he could only wear part of the time. Where pessimism wears out it becomes a critical attitude which has rewarding results when applied to a situation which is complex and poorly understood by the wider world.

So ‘an canan’ means rather ‘the grammar (of Gaelic)' than ‘language’. Another Gaelic word for language, facal, is also Latin, from ‘vocabularia’ or ‘vocalis’ I think. There was probably an old use of the word for ‘tongue’ but this is not still here today. Translation is ‘eadar-teangachadh’ which contains the word for ‘tongue’.

I didn’t get into Welsh-language poetry although by about 1995 I had a reasonable grasp of Welsh. The issue with Gaelic was a bit simpler - there just isn’t very much Scots Gaelic poetry from the period, with its base of about 50,000 speakers, and anyway I was able to address Sorley MacLean through his own translations. There is a great deal of poetry in minority languages, so essentially in immigrant communities if you leave out the Welsh and the Gael, but I know nothing about this.

I bought 'Sar Orain', a 1932 schools textbook of early modern Scots Gaelic poetry, in a second-hand bookshop and was resentful at how much it cost. However, a few minutes after I got it out of the shop I discovered that Mary Macleod's poem 'Luinneag Mhic Leoid', of about 1670, had a binding device of repeating the last two lines of each stanza in the succeeding one. That's it - this is where Crichton Smith got his binding method from. I still don't know if this device is found elsewhere in classical Gaelic poetry.


Tha do chairdeas so-iarraidh
Ris gach iarla tha an Albainn,
Is ri uaislean na h-Eireann:
Cha breug ach sgeal dearbhta e.

Is ri uaislean na h-Eireann:
Cha breug ach sgeal dearbhta e.
A mhic an fhir chliutich
Bha gu fiughantach ainmeil:

Your kindred is familiar to every earl that is in Scotland, and to the nobles of Ireland: not a lie but a true account this. And to the nobles of Ireland: not a lie but a true account this. O son of a praised man (who) was generously renowned worthily.
(Some of these phrases don't mean very much although they are drawn from the stock of noble and exalted concepts.)

National nervous breakdown

I was reading two books by Alexander Walker about the British cinema industry. They are compelling in their account of the lumps of capital and the production companies which made the films possible on the business side. However he writes about few actual films (this was his day job, reviewing hundreds of films for a daily evening newspaper in London) and the business stories are so complex that he has no room to comment on the films. What he does say is extremely interesting, but what is lost is too much and so however much I liked these books I am glad to keep my books on poetry stuck on the level of artistic assessment. The story is that the British firms had too little capital to give business stability and so they lurched from crisis to crisis. The poetry concerns are much much smaller, so their story is just uninteresting. I can see it's interesting for poets to know why their careers never got anywhere and why the culture managers screwed up so much, but it's not of great interest for anyone else.

In these momentous works one point seems relevant to us: where he says of Lindsay Anderson’s film Britannia Hospital “Its very title was a metaphor for a sick country in the throes of a nervous breakdown". I find this completely convincing, and in fact no one is going to understand that era (say 1966 to 1990) unless they grasp this simple fact. The breakdown ended (at latest) when John Major became Prime Minister. It was probably not "national" but concentrated within the ranks of politicians and producers of culture, as it involved a fundamental shift in the way the media worked.

The phrase is Alexander Walker’s but it draws on close knowledge of what Anderson was going through. Anderson said in 1974, ‘I think what the film really shows is the way that Zen has supplanted Marcuse. One just has to accept certain things - that certainly doesn’t mean one has to throw in one’s lot and conform. [...] picking up a protest banner at every step can now only be seen as a sentimental gesture.’ (He was referring to his previous film O Lucky Man this time.)

This offers a zone where art can say something but even then it wipes out most of what art has traditionally wanted to say. No more understanding, no more schemes inside which transient sense data and transient excitements fit. Maybe this is what many poets bought into - they no longer have anything to say because they believe that is not possible. They know their poems are valueless but they stuff them with gossip and shallow verbal tricks because they think no one can tell the difference.
Anderson had been a strong ideologist, first as a film critic in Sight and Sound and then as a powerful critical film-maker. The 'Zen breakdown' effectively ended his career, but it came when the British film industry was going into eclipse anyway. Matthew Sweet says (in his book 'Shepperton Babylon') that the industry in the 1970s was dominated by sex comedies, quite a few of which were simply about sex. He wants to recuperate these as the central tradition, because he wants to go with the audience and reject intellectuals and artists. I don't have any wish to watch these films but what he says seems very likely to be true. It was obvious that Anderson was not going to make sex films in order to keep in employment. Sweet argues that these films have to be studied (which undermines Walker's book) but makes it clear that the films are terrible, unwatchable. He says that 'Come Play With me' was the most successful, longest-running, native British film in the history of the industry.
I envy that 'nervous breakdown' statement because it says so much in such a short span.

If you can imagine a whole crowd of artists locked inside the condition of Hamlet, soliloquising, possibly mad, unable to act, being swept by immensely vivid and fluent hallucinations, unsure of the most basic things, that is surely where British art was for a period of maybe 15 years. Loss of touch with reality in the later 60s, left-wing excess in the 1970s, reaction and right-wing excess in the 80s. That is the bipolar curve and its signature is written right through the art of the time.
Anderson had the ability to make sense of everything and to formulate a cohesive reaction in advance. He was like an officer in war. But he lost it. This may be typical, as he thought. For me the equivalent is finding a coherence in history, sorting out how things were different in 1984 from 1954, deleting the things that were constant or sporadic, isolating the things that show a signature of change. This ends up with a book. As hundreds of literary objects crash in the models are impacted and I have to rethink the book, which is not written yet. Changing the models is the main task. Instability is the basic condition. If I lose this ability the book collapses, I could get stuck in a half-changed unworkable book for years on end. At those times, I can’t find what was stable and what changed. The data swamp my brain. This is my equivalent of a nervous breakdown. You can’t finish a book, a film script, a painting, or anything, without resolution and decisiveness. Yet, the times of crisis, of swamping, involve very intensive data processing, and that is part of what makes them crises. This was the situation in that ‘national nervous breakdown’, that people were amazingly creative even while they had a feeling of breakdown, of being at the heart of a shared breakdown, of being unable to complete anything. The point of the Zen is that it absolves you from understanding your decisions - you no longer try to test them out before committing to them, you just make them in order to exist from indecision - and from consciousness. Anderson picked up a key text used in ‘O Lucky Man’ from a broadcast on Zen that came up while he was facing problems with the script: ‘Every day should be lived in the moment with no sense of the past or future, and this is really what Zen is all about - living now.’.

In Walker’s book the text says "It’s the parallel sense of ‘living now’ in Britain’s present, in 1982-3, that O Lucky Man is all about." A strange saying when it was made in 1972-3. But Walker is perhaps saying that a realised lump, or boat, of cinematic meaning has relevance to times after it was finished, and it retains presence. It floats and reaches new lands as it floats. Anderson made two final films, in the last 30 years of his career, which he ripped out of the whirling mass of transient data and fixed. But he no longer had a conscious explanation for them. Through Zen he was making an exit into art as game - the polar opposite of the politically and theoretically conscious writer/director which he spent twenty years as. I found ‘O Lucky Man’ to have crucial weaknesses, I am not happy with Anderson’s exit from the problems of finishing trains of thought. Some films involve the past because they work on memory, and the future because they work through the implications of actions and reforms on the permeable texture of reality. These are better films. Anderson’s work as a critic starts out from that supposition.

Foreigners probably think this has to with the end of Empire. That is very very doubtful. The chronology does not fit at all. I don't believe that foreign policy is the source of people's knowledge of themselves. Losing colonies is big and obvious but the more important and less geographical processes within social cells are harder to assess. You can’t link history to art just by using the bits of history you happen to know about and which show up in a world atlas.

The source of the ‘art as nervous breakdown’ as a genre was the theatre of the absurd - something which had no origins in Britain at all. Fellini adapted it to cinema and English cinema picked that up on a fairly large scale. ‘The Magic Christian’ (Joseph McGrath, 1969, from Terry Southern‘s novel) is clearly about a nervous breakdown, every scene comes out of that, there is no attempt at naturalising the events or at looking for resolution. This kind of film could get made because Fellini’s ‘La dolce vita’ and ‘8 1/2’ were huge hits. But ‘The Magic Christian’ is also a political film, it is staging an attack on the traditional ruling class, the absurdity is also their absurdity in changed times. Where a social order is based on all present sharing its explanations of events, its script, then making a film which is close to reality and yet where nothing makes any sense is a revolutionary statement. The film stages disastrous and chaotic events and has the actual BBC-TV commentators of the day commenting on them - it brings back that moment of time with great clarity if you lived through it and took it in as mediated by those voices. It is also a writer’s film, conceptually worked out although anti-verbal, and it has the capacity to shed light on the poetry of the time, to put it back into a context of imagined events and scenes.

Rejecting that phase of art is like rejecting ’Hamlet’. The Hamlet story in Saxo Grammaticus takes about a page. That’s all there is - the rest is elaborate hesitations, projections, variations. All based on inactivity.

An acid trip is also like a nervous breakdown. Everything seems unreal and yet vivid. This is also a good basis for writing a long poem.

There is boundless freedom in poetry today but the point is having something to say. If you don’t have those world-scale doubts then it all shrinks down to a simple story. Hamlet kills his uncle and gets on with ruling. The End.

My work on poetry is mainly about that ‘national nervous breakdown’, the convulsive derepression in the later 60s and 1970s and the rollback of conformism and repression in the 1980s. The work covers the 1950s and the 1990s, even the 1940s, but those periods belong to a different story and the work would have more unity if they were just taken out. because it doesn’t have unity, it can take on dozens of eccentric figures who don’t fit into the main story, if only because of the date they were born and the corollary of when they were formed and found themselves. This is the ‘permanent nervous breakdown’ aspect, that the work obviously doesn’t pass the test of coherence, and further that I could have tried (maybe for 100 years) to find a way of fitting all the data into the same pattern. What we actually have is a lot of data that is fitted into six or eight quite separate patterns. It would obviously be more coherent if it was just the history of left-wing poetry and I’d cut out 12 or 15 Christian poets in whom I was very interested.

A brief trip to iMDB suggests that the director of ‘Magic Christian’ made sex films during the 1970s. This bears out Matthew Sweet but still does not allow recuperation of dreck. I just don't accept those films as the mainline of English cinema. People made them to stay afloat during an industrial crisis. The question of why better films could not get financed and made is still urgent. Part of it was a collapse of shared fictions. No wonder groups like the feminists wanted to pull out of the 'central current'.

Sweet says further that the grossness of the sex comedies and their numbing de-repression led to 'the romantic and conservative ... emphasis upon starched wing-collars and tasteful homoerotica' as a reaction, in 80s British cinema. This also says a great deal about 80s poetry. All that hushed good taste.

Sweet and Alexander Walker give amazingly different versions of film in the 70s but both are important books. This tells me how I want 'Affluence' to be: someone else could write a completely different interpretation

Robert Murphy's 'British Sixties Cinema' says that indigenous comic films collapsed after 1965. This is in the middle of a boom. Also, comedy had never really succumbed, it goes back to the 1920s or even earlier, it never stopped. So if films stopped being funny after 1965 this is part of the 'nervous breakdown' and it means that people were so uncertain they couldn't tell what was new and strange from what was simply absurd and comic. Murphy lists all the Peter Sellers films which aren't funny - incredible, he was the best thing English cinema had. Those films are so bad they are easy to forget, but if you dredge them up you see something rotting and disintegrating. One aspect of this is overtly comic films fluffing the jokes and getting into sexual titillation as a way of appealing. Maybe this is relaxing, anti-authoritarian, pleasurable, in ways closely resembling humour, but surely people wanted comic films. Anyway the fatal slide towards 'Come Play With Me' is already happening in 1965. Once you have unfunny comic films the arrival of unfunny 'sex comedies' is predictable.

The Owl

I picked up a volume of the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Glasgow and saw a study and edition of a 16th century poem called Oran an comhachag, the song of the owl. I noticed that several stanzas start with the phrase ‘Chi mi’ (I saw). This is like the phrase I picked out as repeating in Sorley MacLean’s poems (in Centre-periphery, p.199). Maybe Sorley got it specifically from this poem. It sounds like a stock formula. I wish I knew more about Gaelic poetry so as to find out. ‘Song of The Owl’ seems to be about a bird which had lived for centuries and seen the woods grow, be cut down, reseed, and grow again. The owl lives on a crag by Ben Nevis, the highest point of these islands. Owls have notoriously good eyesight.

Minority cultures

I heard an announcement of Stephen Watts’ bibliography of poetry in minority languages published in England.(circa 1998? 2000?) What do you say to someone who tries to sell you a list of all the books you don’t know how to read?

I left all this material out of ‘Affluence’. I said no to megalomania, just for once. Leaving out material you don’t understand and haven’t read is often a sensible move.

Stephen does not know these languages and cannot comment on the poetry, which he has not read. I cannot imagine what this list is for. I cannot find it in the catalogue of the British Library - maybe they didn’t find a use for it either.

'Affluence' would be more complete if it covered all the minority languages. Personally I am happy to have written about Welsh and Scottish poetry. If I had started learning Polish, it would have been virtuous, but it would just have slowed up my acquisition of Gaelic. When I write about poetry in Welsh (a marginal part of the work), it is baffling to people who can’t read the original poems. I'm sure a lot of significant poetry has been written in this country in Polish. Even supposing I could understand it, isn't it part of Polish literature and not English literature?

The catalogue shows a book of modern Kurdish poetry co-translated by Stephen, so that is a positive achievement.

(relates to ‘Council of heresy’)
Two books I stumbled across have the suggestion that the village did not originate in the Neolithic (in Britain, anyway) but arrived at a definite point in the Dark Ages, being preceded by a much more scattered kind of rural settlement. One of these was Oliver Rackham and the other was (I think) a work on Dark Age Economics (author?). This would mean that the fact I recorded was wrong. However, the function of this proposition in Origins and Council of Heresy is to make a statement about what other people believed, in fact Massingham and Screeton. So it can still stand, because what they believed has not shifted. It is possible to think that this aggregation, with a much more effective organisation of productive powers, brought an end to the Dark Ages (by processes which took centuries to build up, evidently). This claim appears on p.178 of Rackham’s History of the Countryside, 1997 edition. “Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention. [...] it appears also to have been part of a social revolution, in which people took to living in villages instead of the earlier hamlets and farmsteads.” Rackham is commenting on relations in a particular region within Britain, and on changes in Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps between the 8th and 11th centuries; he is not commenting on possible aggregated settlements in the Neolithic or in Roman times. Very large parts of Britain did not support villages in pre-industrial times, but a more dispersed pattern, ‘hamlets and farmsteads’ as Rackham says. Rackham says cautiously that west Berkshire was the seat of development of the openfield system. He also says that literacy may have been necessary to make something so complicated run properly.

The claim I make about Massingham, Screeton, and related writers is that they were part of the Imagined Village project, as described by Georgiana Boyes, and that their attribution of supernatural powers to the Neolithic peoples is a projection of this powerful mythological imagery into prehistory. When we read that the arrival of metals led to the end of spiritual powers and the collapse of landscape-forming powers connected to them, we are evidently dealing with myth. This village-myth is not something that the poets I write about plug into, but it was part of the monumental debris of imaginative schemes which were littering the landscape.

The other source was The Landscape of Place-names, by Margaret Gelling, which has a passage in fact about another topic, but confirming what Rackham says about openfield. She reports that the openfield system began in the second half of the 10th century. I have been unable to locate her source for this idea.

Serpent force

I understand from the writings of Ronald Hutton that the idea that the ridges on the side of hills such as Glastonbury Tor were of artificial origin was first developed by Geoffrey Russell, not Geoffrey Ashe (cf. Hutton, Witches, Druids and King Arthur). This is discussed by Ashe in the introduction to the re-issue of his 1957 book King Arthur's Avalon at page xvi. So my statement in Council of Heresy is misleading.

One of the melodies playing around the edge of the work for me, all along, was Eric’s poetry and why it is so bad. There is a discussion of Eric’s poetry in an interview with Allen Fisher (in Marvels), a long discussion in a piece on this site, a brief discussion in the Afterword to ‘Origins’, another discussion in a chapter of ‘Heresy’.

Jeremy Reed and colour
I talk about Reed and colour. What I left out is the interest in 'colour sensitivity' in a part of the occult. One of the standard experiments is to look for unusual levels of sensitivity to colour and this is seen as an index of sensitivity in general, a precursor to sensitivity to the Invisible, to 'thought waves' and so on.

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