Saturday, 24 April 2010

The history of the temporary: oral poetry

Oral poetry and Protest poetry

The text I wrote (in 'Long 1950s') about the elusiveness of oral poetry is an unconscious memory of a passage by Martin Booth in British Poetry 1964 to 1984. I only realised this when re-reading Booth to try and get a handle on 'live poetry'. So he says you can't write a history of live events but his book actually is that history. ‘How this new upsurge in poetry reading and the oral side of it came about is hard to define or accurately trace [...] Few people kept records or recordings of events. Where these were kept, they were not publicised but kept as private and therefore secret property.’ (p.86)
So let's start with theory A: that the tradition of platform poetry, protest poetry, was already there in the 1930s, boomed in the 1940s, and never stopped up till the mid-1960s and the poetry readings boom which Booth finds starting in 1964.
What also happened was a denial of memory. There is a treble path to this. In the Left, there is a shedding of the past. The past always seems too radical or too compromised. Then, the political issues of 1945 seem ridiculous in 1955 and so the poetry which was inherent in those issues dies as the issues fade, and fades also from memory, its questions not needing any answer. Then, the community of the meeting hall is a mighty force but it is transient, after a while you turn back into individuals and the intense presence of the words uttered from the platform becomes irrecoverable. Indeed, the engaged, cheering community of 1955 become the oppressive and inhibited dullness of 1965. The printed page is less vulnerable to this (though not invulnerable). The fact that there were enthusiastic crowds at a poetry reading in 1945 seemed unimportant to people in 1955 even if they knew about it. So, I know that John Manifold gave readings in 1944 or so which a thousand people attended. More than any readings in the 1960s, with perhaps half a dozen exceptions. But by 1965 no one knew who he was or that he had ever had this success. He was an Australian Marxist and it was an Australian poet who gave me the information about him. Manifold was also a RAF officer, of course. The activism which followed the Slump of 1929 and the Nazi takeover of 1933 wanted writers to appear on platforms before all things. They did that in big quantities but they knew it would all be forgotten and that is exactly so. But still I have to ask if the idea of the poetry reading or of protest poetry suddenly arrived in 1964. I don’t think so.

I have called this theory A, not because I have tons more theories to act as its rivals, but because I feel caution about it and don’t want to assert it as true, precisely because of the problems of documentation.

Booth believes only in what he sees and has no sense of doubt. Wherever he is, he thinks is the most important place. The sense of presence is so overwhelming that he never asks if there are scenes where he is not present, and so it is that his book is astonishingly incomplete. Reading it, I am aware of the whole process whereby you withdraw from the social scene you are in, compare it to other experiences, look at the class of data which arise from comparison, think about forms, move away from identification, in fact undergo the process of abstraction. Booth seems to live in an eternal present. His work is still a classic because he writes about the live events, criss-crosses the country recovering how good the atmosphere was at Nottingham Poetry Society or whatever it is, talks about the audience and about what they liked. His first-person witness is all the evidence we have now. The history of poetry is not just what is in the texts.

The loss of inhibitions during exciting events is related to the difficulty of recovering the memory later. The rational content was retracted but that is why the emotional message occupied your brain so thoroughly. You liked it, too.
To sum up I don't trust the history of live readings as it is found in print.
The live situation makes people unable to think abstractly and critically. There is a specific sector of false accounts by impresarios where they present what they did as the history of the entire art in the entire country. They have the most interest in recalling past events but their versions are egocentric and unreliable. Unfortunately, stage performers are subject to the same malady. This malady is related to the total concentration which live performance demands, total self-concentration. Having reached that concentration your ability to focus on anybody else even for five minutes is critically diminished.

The protest poem was something I identified in the Chicago Review diagram [clarity and organisation by Robert Baird, text by A Duncan] but which I had difficulty finding examples for. I have a strong memory impression of Poetry and Jazz events starting in the late 50s, which pioneered a new kind of reading. The impression comes from reading, obviously. Those events pioneered a new kind of reading, made a link with popular music, and featured mainly protest poems. These were the kind of events CND supporters went to. Christopher Logue and Adrian Mitchell were the most significant protest poets I could come up with, although I listed Ewart Milne too. Something I found of great interest while researching ‘The Long 1950s’ was a poem by Ewart Milne written after the loss of the submarine HMS Affray in April 1951, and called ‘Elegy for a Lost Submarine’. This is a remarkable poem. It follows a long series of Communist anti-war poems which were full of cheap effects and reckless jumping to political generalisations from concrete facts. It precedes, I suppose, a long series of poems about the dull feelings of individuals who were disenchanted and who couldn’t make ideas fit together and were relapsing into domestic sullenness. But it does neither of those things. It is a poem about death on the ocean floor which is frightening, majestic, austere, and does not preach. It is the work of a politically mature individual who did not overrate the powers of his own mind to find patterns in events. It is interesting to compare it to Judith Kazantzis’ anti-nuclear poem ‘Progenitor’, which is discussed in ‘The Long 1950s’ and which has a similar stature. (“Elegy’ was published in New Poems 1952, the PEN anthology, and also in Jon Silkin’s 1960 anthology Living Voices.)

Milne (1903-87) identified himself as Irish but spent a lot of his life in England, which brings him inside my purview. He was in the ambulances in the Spanish Civil War. In about 1986 (? dates) Prynne was recommending to his students to read Milne’s book ‘Time Stopped’ (1967) as something which no one on the scene ever read. Charles Bainbridge told me this. It’s a terrific book. I don’t really have much knowledge about Milne. Wikipedia says he was on the writers’ committee of the (British) Communist party in 1952, and no doubt that’s right.

I have much better tags on the anthologies Purple and Green (1984) and Angels of Fire (1986), which are both, for the most part, protest poetry of the era typified by anti-Thatcherism, and which I lived through. But I think everyone knew that protest poetry was no new phenomenon.

You can currently get a video footage of Logue and Kinsey on the net at:

(I was unable to make this play.) They perform Parlophone EP 8375, ‘Red Bird dancing on White Ivory’. Wrapper also reads ‘jazz and poetry’. possibly 1958? If this doesn't work you can get a sound file of the EP on You Tube.

tentative list of protest poetry

Herbert Read, Thirty-five Poems (1940)
Stephen Spender, Poems (1936?); Trial of a Judge (1939?)
New Lyrical Ballads (1947?) (includes Manifold)
Ewart Milne, 'Elegy for a lost submarine' (1951)
Euros Bowen, ‘Difodiant’ (1951)
Christopher Logue, Songs (1959)
Adrian Mitchell, Poems (1964?)
Wandor, Roberts, Kazantzis, Touchpapers (1982?)
Purple and Green, anthology (1984)
Angels of Fire, anthology (1986)

review: Angels of Fire (1986): an anthology of radical poetry in the '80s (edited Paskin, Silver, Ramsay)

Angels of Fire is oriented towards oral poetry. This does not come across well in books. I am using the print medium, and it's obvious that radio or TV is much better suited to presenting and commenting on work which only exists in 'live' time. It's rational to respect this limit. I don't think you can ask people to put up the deep focus and concentration needed to get into a prose book, and then give them something which has very little information and essentially asks them to empty their brains. I don't think oral poetry lends itself to recollection and discussion, and the emergence of reputation.

The work on offer in both the new british poetry and Angels is deeply split between written poetry and oral poetry. The former is considerably more interesting. It has been pointed out that the plays of Shakespeare and the sermons of John Donne are both oral literature. To make the field of play visible, we have to refine our terms and distinguish low oral from high oral. The former is in fact sub-literary and need not claim much of our time. It looks more like a form of under-achievement than something specific to any ethnic group or set of groups.

Angels describes itself in the sub-title as radical poetry. We take it that this implies as completion radical change, and that the poetry is descriptive only to be critical. The poet starts with a departure from alienated reality into a subjective or speculative state, from which the poetry is written.

The suggestiveness of poetry, the looseness of its semantic associations, are meant to evoke this chaos; the new society is held to start as incongruous and tentative behaviour by individuals; the word psychedelic may spring to mind. The start is governed by a medical metaphor, of exercises repeated in order to solve the malady of unhappiness, defined as submission or self-dislike; the outcome is governed by a political metaphor, as a new social contract, with, typically, less hierarchical structures and less aggression. The individual is understood neither as an object of passive domination, nor as an autarkic self living out buried imperatives, but as something vulnerable and put upon, yet able to achieve fulfilment by conscious effort to change, and by emotional openness to other people. Two key episodes are the experience of resentment, whether at institutions like the nuclear weapons arm and unequal rights for women, or more personal frustrations, which makes the poetry radical; and growth, the slow development of new behaviour patterns, which makes it possible to remove the causes of those resentments. The correct way to read this poetry is to read your own personal problems into it, and to use it as a protected area within which to explore your own possibilities; you cannot read it properly if you have no problems, or if you believe them to be insoluble. Or if you identify with nuclear armaments, property, and organized knowledge.

Angels of Fire was the name assumed by a troupe of poets who gave readings together from 1982. It might be more accurate to say that events with very mixed bills were staged; there were some core members, but most of the poets in the anthology were only occasional guests. The rubric Angels of Fire, a name for these mixed events, does not imply something new in British poetry, or any technique which all the poets share: the Introduction fails to suggest anything which might be this. The juxtaposition has a certain suggestive power: the poems seem to flow into each other, which is the mark of a good anthology.

More troublesome is Sylvia Paskin's attempt, in the Introduction, to establish that formal and social radicalism are really the same thing, and to set up a time sequence for the departure from conventional norms which she believes to be the norm for contributors to this volume. It would be convenient if what is most politically radical were most formally radical, but a careful look at the book suggests that this is not the case. Indeed, the strong links of the British Left to Nonconformism mean that attacks on the status quo tend to assume moral ideals, the idea of a moral community, the predictability of human affairs: all features of poetry throughout the Christian era, and so also in 1950s England. Awkwardly enough, this approach to existence and its equivalents in literary design are common in the past of English poetry. There is a trio of values to juggle: formal innovation, social radicalism, and being up with the fashion and the tastes of the market. Editors naturally wish to claim all three for their pet projects, but scepticism is in order for reviewers.

There are problems with the chronology in Paskin's introduction. She seems to be saying that left-wing poetry did not exist before the invention of the poetry reading (as carried on by the Angels of Fire troop). She implies that this was in the late 60s. However, there is evidence that Poetry and Jazz readings were taking place in the late 50s, and that these had a radical political flavour. There is an anthology, Jazz Poems, which demonstrates this. I would wonder, if there were a complete split in radical poetry in 1958, or 1968. Does Paskin's claim mean that radical poets were very daring in 1958 and then since around 1961 have been rigidly conformist to a fixed ideal? if there have been new ideas since then, or local heterogeneity, why aren't we told about it? or is the problem more that any definition of what is formally conventional will include most of the contributors? so that theoretical acuity is sacrificed for unity's sake?

I would wonder, if there were a complete split in radical poetry in 1958, or 1968, since the political nature of the radical movement means that its members take a view of the whole of living society, not just the young; to put it another way, the evolved radicalism of the Left before 1960 (not to say before 1925) made it impossible for youth to outflank age (and lose touch with them). There was no such split; the Left is more unified - and, of course, more divided, although on a finer scale. Rejecting the traditional art of the Right is very fine, but the traditional art of the Left is not so easily disposed of, either intellectually or artistically. Finding the poetry of the Right presents special problems.

The terminus a quo cited (page xviii) is the late 1950s, which is when the Poetry and Jazz events, linked by Jeff Nuttall to the Young Communists, were running. This is already a problem; because, if poetry is progressing, it should have shown changes between 1958 and 1985. Does this mean that radical poets were very daring in 1958 and then since around 1961 have been rigidly conformist to a fixed ideal of how radical poets write? if there have been new ideas since then, or local heterogeneity, why aren't we told about it? or is the problem more that any definition of what is formally conventional will include most of the contributors and leave the shared position hopelessly split? so that theoretical acuity is sacrificed for unity's sake?

Not mentioned by Paskin is Christopher Logue's epoch-making volume Songs of 1959. This provided the blueprint for the live political poetry of the Sixties; Blake, protest, the A-bomb, song forms, ballad romanticism, sex, all are there. He even produced an LP of songs at the same time. Sex existed, in the 1950s, at least for Logue and George Barker. In Logue's book are, however, concealed two originary names: Brecht, Neruda. Logue invented the direct voice poetry of the Sixties: but he was adapting the Left avant-garde of the Twenties. One of the results of living in a continuous present is that you don't realise you're part of the past.

The word 'collective' used for the A of F poets makes me feel a bit queasy, since after all they didn't write any poetry collectively; one has to ask whether this meant anything more than appearing on the same stage, one after another, to read personal, individualist poetry. What it could have meant is an intense process of discussion and artistic contact which caused a group of people to evolve a new style together and be the context for each other's experiments. This kind of heightened formal acuity would mean a heightened way of discussing form: there is no evidence of this, in fact Paskin's introduction (pp. ix-xxv) acts as if formal questions didn't exist, with the vital exception of the difference between performance and reading a book. The former is alleged to be virtuous. Angels of Fire was a loose bag of individuals of libertarian beliefs who did not share any formal innovation or provide an aesthetic context for each other.

One version of the arrow of time is that it runs away from written poetry and towards the recitation. In this perspective, simplification, reduction, stridency, and schmalz are progressive. The pressure of the live audience is flattening, obscuring aesthetic differences so that people become insensitive to form, inducing a group loyalty and camaraderie which also means intolerance of outsiders; a form of aesthetic blindness. In my experience reading poetry is a much more involving and worthwhile experience than listening to hammy and simplified "performance" poetry.

The preoccupation with the group and with spontaneity are part of a general tendency of the Sixties. The boundaries on the power of the group are wiped away in two directions: the power of the individual to resist, and the power of superordinate rules to restrain group autonomy. The group is a transient thing, but lives in an eternal present. It makes its own rules. This notion is reminiscent of the prayer meeting, equally impatient of learning and favouring the spontaneous spoken or sung word; and of television, the new dominant medium of the Sixties.

There is no kind of ensemble playing here; the poems are predicated on the personality of the poet because in the live performance the person speaking bears all the weight, is all the scenery, the only source of information, etc. This personalism restricts the kind of information that can be put across in a poem. Again the word "collective" jars, because the striking difference between this and any kind of theatre troupe is the lack of ensemble playing or collusion, the absence of dialogue. John Arden, the best and most poetic of the Left playwrights of the Sixties, claimed that "Literature generally has been spoiled by the cult of personality of the individual artist", something made far more intense and monolithic by the unnatural form of solo recital. (Paskin might well claim that the whole apparatus of "technique" is artistic vanity, to be replaced by live recital and "realness".) The critique of the self opens out the space available for unpredictability and exploration in poetry, which is hammered flat by the performing self and its self-promotion.

Paskin's handling of people who are bored by performance poetry involves some twists of logic. She says "Poetry written for performance is ... badly written showbiz, ephemeral in its nature, superficial in its substance and ultimately not to be taken seriously" - a brilliant summary of three decades. Unfortunately, the missing clause is "is conventionally regarded by academics and the mainstream élite as". This is all twisted up; I don't see how the mainstream, a majority, can also be an élite; the term "conventional" implies that it isn't the real reactions of the people described but something on the periphery of their being; one might retort that people in poetry readings are forced to respond by embarrassment and vague benevolence, and it is in private reading that real choice and exploration can occur. Performers get over-excited about an audience that does not react in the desired way. This is an argument in favour of print, which makes nonconformism easier and arouses less insecurity and hysteria. I can see that it's tempting for an overwrought and queasy actor to say "if you aren't committed to my performance then you are against the future and ultimately responsible for the devastation of the planet and damage to the social fabric": which confirms that the right to think brings about disagreement. Does this indicate that if I can adhere to a collectivist ethos then I never have the right to say no to any artist? how is this compatible with radical revolt and self-determination? if I always surrender my personal choice, wouldn't that mean I had to agree with an elected Conservative government? what exactly is my right to disagree with the majority?

The dig at "academics" is odd because surveys of regular poetry readers show a concentration of teachers, university teachers, students, and librarians, so that the audience she is attacking is the typical poetry audience. The term "conservative" is extremely confusing here, since there is a large cadre of the New Left in academic life, and the audience for avant-garde poetry is concentrated in universities. Why is Paskin pretending the opposite? Part of the answer is that fear of thought which is the core of English cultural conservatism; part is a faith in the arrow of time and in modernism, leading to a wish to appropriate progress: Paskin has to pretend that avant-garde art isn't there so that she can propose her pet poets as the avant-garde. The literary academic world is denounced as conservative because it is progressive - in politics, in literary theory, finally in poetic form. Left poetry obviously uses simplicity, because it aims for the largest possible audience; it uses familiar forms, for the same reason; it is realist, because it wants to affect people's perception of the practical world; it is didactic, because it wants to inform and persuade. How can it also be avant-garde? How can you go to great lengths to make your writing as ordinary as possible, and then be annoyed when someone says "this isn't extraordinary"? The strain between populism, moralizing propaganda, and the radical-experimental, can't be abolished by mere singsong amiability.

There is a contrast within Angels of Fire between the straight-ahead first-person moral uplift stuff and certain poems - by Allen Fisher, Paul A. Green, Bill Griffiths, Ken Edwards - which are totally different, because they are avant-garde. They are included for prophylactic reasons, to ward off attacks. Paskin is attacking these poets included in her own anthology; but she is unable to criticize the general run of it, its defects have been pushed out of awareness. The mainstream response to the avant-garde, the formal periphery, involves four strokes: it's bad; it doesn't exist; we are it; and it used to exist but doesn't any more. Amazingly, it is usual to deploy all four at once. When she happily talks, on p.xviii, about the poetry which Eric Mottram used to promote as "disappearing into obscurantism", one has to at least suspect that this darkness visible comes from editors denying that it exists; that what is called obscure is simply new and demanding; that the hard-won new psychological space of this poetry is missed by readers out of negligence, induced by the marginalizing gestures of editors and reviewers; consequently, that this poetry (Mottram published 121 poets during his stint as editor of Poetry Review) has had a course since the grand distractions of 1977 - and, that the poets in Angels of Fire were in 1985 one to two generations behind the leading edge of poetry. Of course my attitude here may be subjective - I have always written Socialist Realist poetry and never anything avant-garde - but it has the point, over Paskin, that it tries to describe the most difficult of modern poetry rather than simply closing the door on it: you wouldn't like it in there. If there is a periphery of British poetry, a zone of mystery and repressed possibilities, it is here.

The best poems in this anthology are those by Fisher, Green, Edwards, and by James Berry. The device under interrogation seems to be the voice: the avant-garde poems do not conjure up a central speaking voice, they are traversed by multiple processes without an obvious agent who could "mean" them, they do not chatter to us and do not offer a reassuring moral resolution. Berry's strikingly dense and close evocation of an inner-city riot is very different in style, being metrically even and semantically determinate:

On and on again through night
of thudding and jawfuls of blood,
of skin of gravel and glass,
quickly bodies change places
in flashes of flames.
And smeared people, gutted
shops, charred billboards,
all make streets
into stoned and trackless woods.

('City Riot') but it is similar in that the author's opinions are withheld, and in fact he is not an actor in the scene: 'Involved, yet inactive, you look on'. We could compare someone who, given a space to fill up with visual information, inserts, not a photo of their face, but some shape which they have created and wrought. There is a whole world of processes and shapes outside the personality. If the self-centred poem is the norm, especially in performance poetry, then poetry which excludes that centre is a creative periphery. The exploration of negative space would seem able to locate unused possibilities and inconsistencies, something to stop the self from repeating itself and therefore allow it to change.

This poetry is the politicized riposte to all the depoliticized verse in the Bloodaxe book (The New Poetry), the committed counter of all their light verse. Indeterminacy opens up a space for change, rapidly emptied out, by cynical and apathetic people, into jokes and inconsequentiality. Either way, it is one of the features of modern poetry.

Angels of Fire was giving performances in London, so all its staple poets were living in or near there. How is it that the new and progressive, as defined by Paskin, Ramsay, Silver, lives in London when the ideology of Hulse, Kennedy, Morley, in the Bloodaxe book, says that London is the centre of tradition? is somebody telling a lie? or do we have a nasty clash over the progress franchise here? London is the biggest concentration of anarchists, feminists, socialists, and everything else (if not miners, shepherds, and sailors). Or is it true that the regions are where obsolete and Victorian poetic practices thrive and multiply? Archivists will note three poets who appear in both anthologies: Michele Roberts, Jackie Kay, and Grace Nichols. All three appear in the Paladin the new british poetry too; all three are intellectually under-funded; Roberts has some talent but nonetheless gets published because of her overt feminism. The incidence is due to editors' wish to appear liberal.

Questions raised by this debate are: what is the conventional from which "radical" poetry differs? what were the new techniques of the 1960s? what is the chronology of new styles? how is style mimetic of social innovations, real or desired? where did the formalist group go after 1975? what were the ideas of the group around Eric Mottram?

One of the tantalising things about this problem of the Nether Oral is that it takes us persistently back to Scotland. The two breakthroughs for Scotland, fifty years apart, were James MacPherson's Ossian and Walter Scott's novels, beginning with Waverley. Both were huge hits all across Europe; based on oral creativity, heavily adapted to print (and mass circulation); and attracted vocal criticism for being 'fake'. English scholars have decayed into sordid excess in attacking Ossian, which certainly has roots in Gaelic ballads of a style which became popular in the 14th century, and collected in quantity in for example Duanaire Finn. We could add Burns, another hugely popular poet whose work is always close to oral genres.

The price for this enormously profitable acceptance by the English literary market was a disabling nostalgia for songs and ballads which has afflicted Scottish poetry ever since. This was MacDiarmid's assertion throughout his career.

Certainly in Scotland we find the crushing impact of an over-valued oral folklore and song on high poetry, along with the attachment to a regional dialect imbued with values of loyalty and solidarity. We find undertainment and kitsch. The complex of values at stake today seems to go back to the 18th century without a break. Its geographical reach makes research difficult, but it may be that the set of oppositions in play is one of the inheritances of the Empire, which formed (however momentarily) a cultural system. That system involved a rigid role structure, and this would seem to have implied fixed literary roles for different registers of English. These minor literary genres had an alliance with non-standard variants of English speech. To the extent that they stood for exclusion from elaborate and high culture, and that there were large groups willing to identify with this solidarity of non-admission, the genres and dialects held a cultural charge.

We are also likely to draw on the analyses of the major Scottish theorists of poetry, in particular Edwin Muir (Scott and Scotland) and Hugh MacDiarmid (his campaign against Burns) to explain how the diglossia of Standard English and a low-prestige dialect can lead to the latter becoming specialised in menial functions and of little use for poetry.

In England, in the 1840s, there was a sub-literary stream of dialect poetry written by, and largely read by, working-class people. It was often politicised, but in general suffered from the restrictions which we have labelled as the Nether Oral. It had solidarity and presence. This presence, though, was very compatible with being forgotten. Indeed, this genre persisted up to the 1960s without ever impinging on literary historians or authoritative anthologies. It was precisely sub-literary. Working-class poets who arrived in the 1960s were claimed to be the first ever working-class poets. The choice of the Georgian poets, around 1905, to write a considerably more legitimate version of the same proletarian realism, has been forgotten, as the reading public simply stopped reading it. The likely fate of social, oral, simple, cheerful poetry is to be rapidly forgotten - and this is the basis for blurb writers claiming that it is new and revolutionary whenever it shows up.

Note. In about 1998 I worked for months on studying anthologies to work out the divisions of the poetic field. I wrote a huge amount of material and the above is part of it. The final results are in a chapter of 'Fulfilling the Silent Rules'. This piece also talks about nodes in the Chicago Review diagram, which people found very condensed. It includes material about protest poetry in the 1950s which was aimed for 'The Long 1950s' but didn't make it.
Oral poetry crops up throughout the ‘Affluence’ work and I don’t want to list all the relevant passages.

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