Friday, 2 April 2010

What is shitgaze?

Another attempt to improve the vocabulary we use: m-stream (mainstream)

What is shitgaze? In about 1992, there was a wave of bands (notably Ride, Sundial, Bevis Frond) who were known as shoegazing because their slow, dreamy, rather droning music encouraged a sort of trance in the listener. The term was popularised by a radio show called Out on Blue Six, which broadcast a lot of this music. In about 2008, there was a sub-genre which continued the droning but also paid tribute to psychedelic pioneers of around 1970 (notably 'Oar' by Skip Spence and 'The madcap laughs' by Syd Barrett) who were extremely lo-fi and technically restricted. This subgenre was therefore known as shitgaze. I am afraid that this flexibility in rock speak shows up the poetic vocabulary as shallow and underdeveloped. I'm a little bit grebo. Yep, that’s good shitgazin’. Where the collective life is so thin the problems of communicating for an individual critic are very serious. No one would claim that you can engage in accurate description where the terminology hasn't been worked out. No doubt there are terms for poetry as it was in 1850 AD, or 300 BC, but who would suppose that they are revealing or clinching in the present state of culture? We need more descriptive terms for modern poetry. The agreement embodied in those terms would grant us a stretch of dry land, raised above the tides of incommunicable subjectivity. M-stream is not such a precise term as shitgaze, all the same it is useful in mutual understanding. Let’s talk about it!

Why is there a m-stream? originally this was was just the area demarcated by the various inhibitions of poetry editors. Poetry was published inside magazines which up to a certain point were hostile to poetry. Research shows that people tend to choose newspapers which reflect their own political attitudes. This implies that there is a level at which a newspaper is not conveying information but is filled with something which, if energy tends to change things, is the opposite of energy: a dense dull layer of stability, something which bounces off a perfectly dull and plane mirror to produce a flawless mirror image of itself.

It also implies that newspapers can maximise their circulation by writing to a set of fixed rules which are fairly clear to the journalists and also to the readers. Material in a newspaper has usually gone through an impressive convergence process. In the upshot, every edition of a given newspaper bears massive resemblances to every other edition. The ‘new’ bit occurs only a tightly defined area.

Following the design philosophy of magazines (and this applied to broadcast media as well), information was chopped up into digestible chunks and homogenised by a simple procedure of taking out anything complicated or original. When applied to poems, this produced a distinctive design which could fit inside the niche allowed by editors in terms of length and palatability and could also show darwinian features that adapted to these limits. These would include a kind of smartness, where a miniaturised and showy originality is used that fits into a small space, and a braying attack on ideas, which marries wonderfully with a text hole which does not allow for ideas. If someone had a completely conventional middle-class lifestyle, and wrote poems in which the grievances and complacency of middle-class life predominated and were as it were free information, they could reach the bored audience very quickly - albeit with information they already had. This was the poetry of domestic anecdote. Insofar as poetry achieved goodness by originality, paradox, disruption of prevailing ideas, inconclusiveness, complexity, etc. it was excluded from these niches.

The limits were unconscious design features and applied at all levels of the work of verbal art. They were limits of probability - i.e. the raw material of the poem was normally stock footage from newspapers and so on and the opinions passed by the poet were normally the stock m/c opinions. As the poem deviated from this comfortably familiar pabulum, it became less likely that the editor would accept it. The limits were suppressor switches and their existence was itself suppressed. This is so even though editors thought they were looking for originality.

Newspapers have a stratum of unchanging signal but that does not prevent them from publishing news. The static energy is as it were deep water which carries the level of variance. It is easy to underrate the complexity of language. The level at which poetry simply repeats what you already know, at which it shows stock footage (and repeats the stories you have just read on the news pages of the magazine), may be pleasurable and even necessary. Poetry can involve a wandering out into idle contemplation of things you already know, with detachment, lack of explicit purpose, detachment, etc., providing the special poetic features. If you are delivering stock footage (along the lines of massacring Muslims in Bosnia is wrong, bureaucrats are conventional, hedges are rural, poverty in Africa is bad) it may not go at all badly, but if you then try to make it all more efficient by speeding up the cycle, by shortening the gap between the stock footage and the evocation of it, you may end up with - nothing.

The concept for The Long 1950s has to do with the m-stream but also to do with my own past career of attacking it. In FCon (written circa 1993, published 2003) I mounted a large-scale attack on it, which startled quite a few people who had no concept that there was anything which was not m-stream. This increased the polarisation on the scene. In Heresy (published 2009) I veered round and attacked the polarisation, saying that this lowered the quality of information available to the market and damaged the feelings of collective harmony and symbolic sharing which were essential to the poetry experience, and that we had to move on from obsolete positions. That feeling was partly switched on by reading Anthony Thwaite, circa 2005, and realising that I really liked his poetry. In 2005-08 I was agitated by a wish to repeat the win and find other m-stream poets who could actually write, which led to a lot of digging and a few positive results.
To drag myself away from my own history, the problem of the mainstream has to do with this notion of stock footage. The rejection of the poetry which is rejected is because it is seen as lacking neatness. It is sprawling and confused. Poets refuse to rewrite it to become neat because they see great value in the features which challenge the stock footage, which either make it more vivid and detailed (so making it longer) or disrupt it and smash a hole inside which something else can be imagined (causing us effort).

The difference between the situation in the 1950s and 1960s and the 19th century, or the deep past, was the business efficiency of the media in the modern phase. The degree of homogenisation of all material in a magazine to avoid bumps, the design of all the editorial content to reflect and support the advertising material, the reduction of length to avoid any engagement, were reaching a new intensity. Media design was becoming a technology on a par with, say, designing a car engine.
This designed quality was higher attention to detail rather than simply apathy, and poetry could have benefited from it. If we look at the demon pop world of the 1960s, we may notice that the key product of the time was the single, which the business prescribed as being not much more than 3 minutes long. This was a magic moment for popular music, and the deterioration of quality and universal resonance once songwriters were not completely focussed on writing the perfect 3 minute single is obvious to all. If someone in 1966 was writing compact and clear poems that took 3 minutes to read, it would be quite possible for them to be as brilliant as singles by the Beatles or the Beach Boys, whose simplicity and coherence were obviously transcendent virtues.

Equally, those 3 minute singles were highly differentiated from each other, and a m-stream poem would not have to resemble all other simple poems in order to pass the restrictions of the editorial regimes even though these had a net homogenising effect.

The nature of the conventions varies with the makeup of the magazine. For example, a lot of poems were published in Critical Quarterly or Stand rather than the Listener. It is important to recall that the central thrust of the Eng Lit academics, certainly of those who graduated in the 1940s and 1950s, was to resist the onsurge of the mass media, seen as crude and levelling. (When I mention that generational limit, I am pointing to changes in the collective views of academics which all would agree are of great importance, even if a precise definition is difficult.) What those magazines were marketing was in fact toughness and moral and intellectual aspiration, values which were seriously out of tune with the London media (and their preoccupation with advertising). The kind of poetry which they favoured can be called academic existentialism. (More discussion in 'The Long 1950s'.) In fact the noun toughness can usefully be seen in contrast with sweetness, in a mutually defining pair, where ‘sweet’ is taken to mean high sugar content and low taste, and to define the mass media. Because there were numerous magazines which published poetry, and had more than a few dozen readers, we can see the official world as being multipolar, with an element of competition by differentiation between the rival magazines.
(U-stream stands for 'underground'.)

If the dividing line between m-stream and u-stream was simply what editors found acceptable, there should not be two separate worlds but a continuum in which poets might operate in both worlds according to the complexity of the particular poem they had a idea for. The notion of an empty gap separating the two domains, which would allow a clear definition of terms, would seem unlikely. It emerges - if it does - if we consider two centres of attraction which poets converge on: if two poets are streaming towards different centres at high speeds, they will move away from each other and so an empty conceptual space can open up between them. Something similar applies if you find three, seven, or fifteen different centres of attraction. The separation emerges also if you have a scheme in which mainstream poets are suppressing vital impulses in order to fit into hostile media, compromising artistic values, so that a poet changes radically as soon as they stop compromising.
Editors in magazines that have to sell to survive, in a news retailing environment which stresses the new all the time, are attuned to fashion. This heavily implies that the boundaries could not stay in the same place over 40 years and so that the m-stream itself could not remain the same over such a long time. This draws on a following question, viz. when and how did it change, and following chapters will make remarks which shed some light on this. Objects typically have shapes defined by boundaries: if the boundaries of the m-stream shifted, according to the attitudes of different editors in post and fluctuating media fashions, then you can argue that it has no shape and is not really an object. Visibly, some editors had a wide spectrum approach to poetry and dropped most of the restrictions. Also, fashion could work in favour of poetry by picking up something which was brilliant and making that flavour of the month. Editors weren’t forced to choose boring and conservative poetry all the time.

If you have very little time to make your case it is efficient to bring in preset contents which can be delivered rapidly. The classic way of doing this is to deliver a form of accepted prestige and envy, and the normal form of this in English poetry has been the Oxford manner. The concept of leisure/ privilege/ brilliance/ knowing famous people/ being cultured is familiar to everyone and can be delivered with remarkable speed by deploying signals which have been used thousands of times before. This may not be such a good idea for the poem. (There is a chapter on the Oxford style in 'The Long 1950s'). Arguments about this are potentially endless. For example, slow delivery of effects is hardly a virtue in itself. Or, prestige is evidently quite fundamental in art and is hardly separate from the economy of art even in the Bronze Age. You can’t really enact a rule which gets rid of it, but at the same time it mortgages the work of art to something outside art, and what is more it puts hundreds of poets at a strange disadvantage because they have not been to Oxford. To denounce Oxford poetry for delivering a feeling of pleasure and freedom and sociability in or near Oxford is stupid because you could equally well denounce the Beach Boys for delivering quite similar Arcadian adventures about the beaches of Southern California, which equally sold around the world and are still popular forty years later. Famously, there were surf bands in Michigan when the craze was strong. The deployment of simple strong reactions in poetry is perfectly normal - they are just one tier of possible sources of meaning, they can't be banned. However poems which deploy them and which don't have the patience and persistence to create meaning complexes which are unique to the poem and unfamiliar to the reader may die a dreadful death of gluttony and apathy.

Similar concerns of rapid delivery apply to features like the use of stock footage and the imposition of the poet’s personality. Each gets there rapidly but when you get there it may not feel like you’ve gone very far.

If we compare m-stream and u-stream it is obvious that they do not represent complementary opposites and do not represent two halves of an original whole. If you assemble a cluster of texts from each side, no kind of symmetry is to be found and so compare and contrast are actions you can scarcely carry out. I think the idea of neatness brings out far-reaching oppositions of temperament. People who like neatness behave differently, enjoy different levels of pattern, from people who like the unpredictable and complex. I think this one opposition correlates with a lot of features of poetic taste. But, to be honest, you are going to do better analysing 40 features and paired oppositions than just one.

My belief is that the concept of mainstream has no real validity until the 1950s, and was conjured into being by the ejection from public view of the New Romantic group in around 1948. This was an event taking place on many levels and involved a kind of consent from most of the poets thus ejected: they stopped writing rather than constitute an underground (although in fact a magazine like Nimbus or Nine can be thought of as an underground around 1951 or 1953). Unpublished work by poets like Charles Madge, Joseph Macleod and Lynette Roberts was a feature of the 1950s but poets rejected by serious editors- by TS Eliot in this case - usually gave up writing poetry. It is striking how few older poets were picked up by the underground when it began around 1960, or was thriving around 1965. A theorist could conjure up hundreds of conjectural divisions in the field of poetry without too much effort. The u-stream: m-stream opposition is the key one because it is one which thousands of people have believed in, it is a lived in distinction. It was a choice which large numbers of readers identified with. During the 1960s, British poetry developed an outside, an external settlement which had walked out but which hadn't given up cultural creation.

The split is very hard to project back into earlier phases of English history. Its growth into something unmistakable and long-lived is related to the intensification of the marketing discipline in the world of periodicals, with the increase of advertising revenue and the rapid technical development of the market research area which fed the advertising industry and led its clients steadily towards it. Poetry became an area of underdevelopment, of brilliant weeds and eccentricity: increasingly, the sales profiling side of the business gave poetry editors more specific restrictions, in area and ideology. Arguably, the editors and their poets of choice also went through a rapid evolution, a modernising growth towards rationality and efficient self-profiling. The boundary lines around the official media oscillate between those set by the arbitrary, aesthetic wishes of the editors, which fluctuate all the time; and the rational, accurately calculated, sales drive of the business units within magazines (and, equally, book retailers, publishers, radio producers, etc.) It is difficult to say which is more in control.

Empson argued persuasively that ambiguity was a feature of great literature, Cleanth Brooks argued that paradox was central to great poetry: but Empson wrote very clearly and Brooks made statements which were clear and not reversible. No amount of dislike of the m-stream, as represented by poets like Larkin, Harrison, or Carol Ann Duffy can wipe out basic artistic rules like the need for clarity, for rapidity to the extent that this avoids lagging, plodding, bogging down, etc. Faced with the complexity of the universe and society as givens, poetry will seek out scenes and images which are unambiguous and which exude clarity at every point and which lead to definite conclusions. If m-stream poets succeed at doing this they will have written good poems in doing so. Readers ask what the point of a passage is, and any passage whose point they can’t determine may give them feelings of frustration and blankness rather than admiration at what might be depth. The archaic literary virtues don’t walk off stage just because the public is more educated and has more leisure to take on literary complexity. It is normal to rewrite poems to make the emphases clearer and to eliminate information which does not contribute to the main flow of sense.

The breakout of rock music from the restraints of the 3-minute single and daytime radio was driven by mighty energies and has a strong relevance to the era of poetry we are considering. Most people would acknowledge that the album has a right to exist - which was an avant garde idea, within pop music, in 1965. Music got more complicated, so did poetry, which may always have stayed close to music. But the advent of the album was followed by the era of progressive music and by hundreds of extraordinarily bad albums, including many double albums. Something of the same problem may have followed poetry around. A theme of The Long 1950s will be the reaction of poetry against the combination of tendentious leftism and artistic experiment which was such a feature of the 1970s, and the advent of something more pleasant, less intellectually demanding, and sweeter in several senses.

The thesis of 'The Long 1950s' is that the limits of the generation who came to power in the 1950s dominated the scene until the 1980s and that the scene loosened up and became less repressive during the course of the 1980s. The sixties saw quite a few poets arriving who used the new pop style, and after a while quite a few poets who were using new innovative styles. However, it would be incorrect to present these as dominating the field, as after all the bulk of the poetry being reviewed and (probably) read was something much more formal and conservative, and linked in fact to the numbers and cultural power of the academic world. Eng Lit graduates were prone to write poetry and also to buy poetry books. The manner they usually chose was within the limits set by the Movement. To be sure, this line was becoming less fashionable from 1964 at latest, as shown by the development of John Wain, a key participant in New Lines. However, it was something which the poets in question absorbed in their student days and clung on to. Whatever label we assign, this was a hegemony inside which poets could write fluently and without having to think too hard. We can dig up whole rows of anthologies in which almost all the poems fit under the rim of a not very large cup, grouping together poems which seem to speak with a single voice and which perhaps derive their authority from that lack of individuality. I think it is fair to say that the strength of this poetry was more that it expressed professional solidarity among the kind of people who ran the Eng Lit world than that it reached any artistic heights.

English poetry had a continuous history of over a thousand years before 1950, so it is puzzling how a group of poets could actually invent norms which were accepted by a wide range of the public, including readers older than they were, and reach centre stage. I think we have to speculate that just as the 1960s favoured young and hedonistic and excitable people interested in clothes so the 1950s favoured conformists who liked life inside organisations, and the atmosphere of the time fostered people who could combine a very high degree of conformism with an element of ruthless careerism. The damage done by being accused of breaching the norms was so frightening that it allowed these partially hidden insiders to develop and push new norms. The norms stayed in place because the rule makers had a gift of political insight. It was like the invention of the corporation, which to a significant degree was also a product of the 1950s.

I tried to narrow down the time window for the paradigm shift which I keep talking about, but I couldn't find a tenable proxy index and to be honest the sources I tapped to track year by year changes were too boring to spend days churning through. Positive evidence for the persistence of the "long 1950s" is easier to find. I don't think this is controversial any more, but it is right to point to the evidence. Specific sources would be the Morrison/Motion anthology of 1982, the Schmidt anthology of 1983, and the 1980 anthology by Enright. Evidently the conservative/academic poetry of 'empirical lyricism' and 'domestic anecdote' was still at centre stage. Slightly earlier, there was the series of 'Poetry Dimension' anthologies, which was published through the early 70s and triumphantly excluded anything outside the mainstream conventions. We do know that there was a radical wave sweeping through English poetry, this seems like the principal thing happening in the 1970s in retrospect, but this series ignores that wholesale and shows that mainstream poetry was being published in large quantities during the decade. A magazine such as Poetry Nation was completely dedicated to extolling the Movement and neo-Movement orthodoxy against enemies who were allowed on stage only as a rumour and a spectre. The most robust and durable finding seems to be that the conventional poetry which moved to the centre in the 1950s was still at the centre in the 1980s and that its stylistic rivals were always the losers during that time. The praise for Kuppner in the 1983 anthology, before his first book had come out, seems like a herald of change. [more discussion of this 1983 anthology on this website]

The domestic anecdote and toughness are not the only components of the mainstream. If you look at an anthology like Poetry Dimension 2 (ed. Abse, 974?), there are variations of tone even though the poets allowed entry stick within a narrow range of stylistic possibilities. In the period, there were also people imitating Housman, Tennyson, folksong, or Christian hymns. Not all poets were academics, and there were ranges of colloquial or Pop poetry which had nothing to do with the heritage of Close Reading. These lines do not seem to me especially productive.

I would like to propose a few more terms for classifying poetic productions.

proll on proll off
tedious proletarian style based on trivial sound echoes and unproductively simple semantic oppositions frequently referring to lorries and suitable for delivering at high volume while on a weekend trip to a foreign country

National Trust poem
style based on acts of solemn auto-veneration by the poet whose ego is implicitly taken to be rare, precious, and fragile, if not necessarily also small. Indeed, it may be of monumental size. The reader is supposed to spend their Sunday afternoons standing behind the red velvet ropes, venerating, refurbishing, coddling, these frail relics of a better day, in a collaborative way. Almost as a national duty.

auto exoticism
Third World poem treating the poet's experiences in meaningless decorative and infantile terms in the idiom of a travel poster advertising a beach holiday

sectarian-contrarian aka centre of insolence
Believe that they have a cluster of techniques which allows authentic living and authentic writing (this is the sect part) and that everyone else has a cluster of assumptions which makes authentic living or writing impossible. Thus happiness in this alienated state is simply an illusion. Language is supposed to communicate but never does. People never understand each other. Consciousness is laughably flawed. Buses are supposed to be big and red but really they aren’t and people only think they are because they are blinded by lazy habits of perception.

The problem with joining this school is that everyone - especially all poets and all readers of poetry - wants to be in this stance some of the time, and they hate someone trying to take it over.

The nondiscursive
Poetry without grammar (or, probably, much respect for the law)

This got taken out of 'The Long 1950s' because I thought it was going to annoy people, also because it wasn't directly about poems. I think the idea was to increase mutual understanding and so reduce hostility. As if that would reduce hostility. Bah.

"Shoegazing" was also so called because it tended to be based on "drones", so the guitarists were not looking at the fretboard but at the effects pedals, which were mostly on the floor by their shoes. The Spacemen Three probably led the way for the style, and their first recordings were in 1986.

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