Saturday, 24 April 2010

Obscure and conventional poets; or, Bodgers

Into the valley of the bodger codgers: Completing the picture: exiles, outsiders, and independents (ed. William Oxley; Stride, 1996; 185pp.; £9.50) 34 poets

This is a terrible book, and for us can only play the role of exhibiting the mediocrity which radical poets daringly and bewilderingly escape from. Its lumpish and heedless qualities bring it close to the lumpish and heedless qualities in national life. In a pluralist age, this exhibition of a sensibility, closely allied to Stride magazine, to The Poet's Voice magazine, to Oxley's activities as an editor, and to the University of Salzburg republication/reanimation programme, expands our knowledge even in the manner of a scaly monster pulled forth from the deep. One of Anna Adams' two poems is not bad. The selection from James Kirkup is disappointing, not necessarily indicative; there are hints in what I have read of his work that there is a real poet in there, concealed by his over-fluency. He would be of the third class within good poets, which is why I haven't got the energy to go off and read his two dozen books. I think The Descent into the Cave (1957) is probably OK; the structure of imagery in his volumes of the 1950s is compelling even though the versification is tuneful but undistinguished. This, of course, raises the spectre that some of the other poets may have something going for them, and that Oxley has chosen their worst poems, reducing the diagnostic value of the anthology to zero. Feyyaz Fergar is not a bad poet.

The two favoured topics seem to be hedgehogs and King Arthur. An Arthurian poem about hedgehogs would presumably be very popular in this market.

The rhetoric of the title is curious: it seems you can only market things by calling them untraditional and rebellious. But the poems in the book are awesomely traditional, conventional, and ordinary. As are most of the poetry books people buy. Why is there this use of false colours? why is it that editors disguise the fact that their wares are ordinary, unoriginal, old-fashioned, and simultaneously deny the existence of the poetry which is really innovative, experimental, and daring? Why is it necessary to tell so many lies? after all, you can sell beer on the basis that it gets you pissed, and perfume on the basis that it smells nice.

Oxley says in his introduction that the poets have nothing in common except being "a recognizable continuation of the tradition of English poetry" and that they are critically ignored (he does not specify if they are more popular with publishers or readers, or other poets). They don't suffer from "technosis". He relates the ‘exile’ of the title to the exile, or internal exile, the "recluse", which all poets must be, as original people. Such exiled poets tend to 'over-produce'.

The claim to completeness made in the title has to be demolished. I can imagine that Lotte Kramer, say, is no. 3,450 down the list of British poets, and that the anthology covers poets from 3,299 to 3,800 down the list. Collecting them doesn't amount to any kind of completeness. These are big figures, but once you have universal secondary education, and expose millions of people to the wonderful heritage of the English language, whoops! big figures are what you get. This is great for the consumer. Up to 2000 books & pamphlets of poetry are published a year; there are 250 poets whose work and style I know. It might be a problem for me selling my expertise as a commodity: if I say, "what I say about British poetry is Right and so what I don't know must be unimportant". I have only read a fraction of published modern British poetry, and so my general views on it, like this article, must have a proportion of arbitrary simplification and partiality in them. Chaos is always threatening to break in - I mean loss of consciousness due to torrents of unassimilated data.

The interest of this anthology is that, given that we can tell from catalogues that there are a few thousand poets wandering around the landscape rather than a few hundred, our curiosity about this shadowy social anatomy can be partly satisfied by reading a couple of hundred pages by low-quality poets. We have the High Street poets and the formally original poets, but clearly there are a great many poets who fall into neither camp. Reading this book gets us away from total ignorance, although it may not have any representative quality just because we want it to.

This raises the questions of modernity and how the live strands of ideas give a poet a boost, the equivalent of belonging to a society which cares about poetry. Arguing about form sharpens the poet's attention and so makes it possible to write poems which are not stultifyingly dull. Other poets are operating inside static artificial environments unable to give them dialogue. Poetry is a kind of mass crowd suggestibility; poets either believe in mass-contact with the dead through continuity of form or in mass-contact with the living and transient through use of the latest and most pristine form. Poetic styles contain latent gestures implying social relations around them. The anatomy of a fish tells you about water. If a poet has no particular style we are entitled to think that this is the outcome of a process, an adaptation to external pressures and internal capacities.

The title claims the, perhaps dated, myth of the outsider; so far as I am concerned the poems on show are notably conventional. The presence of such dull and undistinguished poets clamouring for attention deafens readers to the possibility that there might be something outside the High Street mainstream which is different from the conventional and containing mysteries or new lights. Why would a reader go on turning to obscure poets, with hope, after checking out a hundred who proved to be confused, garbled, and unoriginal? It is boredom which stabilises the borders of the governed and permissible. There are no punishments for unconventional reading except having to plough through the failed mutants, the failed enterprises. Why do people do it? The poem is a way of translating self-regard into public regard.

The word ‘technosis’ is striking. I assume that Oxley means by this the use of verbal technique, which draws the poem away from the most colourless and colloquial level. This connects to the idea of the poet as ‘recluse’: we would expect someone living and creating in isolation to evolve into new realms of language, but that may not be true at all. What is hard to follow is why someone would be a recluse if they are not original. But, if we set aside the need for an explanation (and it might just be ‘being unfashionable’), it is enlightening to realise that if there are 3000, or 5000, poets who can’t get published or reviewed, most of them are conventional in style. There is a good deal of poetry which has textural loyalty and decency but does not inspire any positive aesthetic choice. Low affect writing is less demanding than the high-affect equivalent. There are some destructive effects of competition, as Oxley points out, but unfortunately some poetry which avoids competition is simply not very good. With a lack of commercial pressure and an atmosphere of warm sympathy from the tiny groups who have an abiding interest in it, poetry can sink to appalling depths of benign banality. The difference between poets writing in an original way and poets using dowdy and dull techniques may be to do with social networks: poets who use innovative techniques have links with groups of poets and talk about poetry with them, whereas the unambitious ones are isolated (and really ‘recluses’). Being ’connected’ does not necessarily mean that you have hundreds of readers, just that there is a shared space.

In 1962, Allott anthologised a poem of Kirkup which was a documentary: he was asked to watch a heart operation and to describe it. It is a good poem, he was accurate like a draughtsman. He could write about many different subjects but did not show a central sensibility, conceptual or linguistic. His poems remain enigmatic because they do not leave much trace. It may be that James Kirkup’s nimbleness and stylistic inconsistency were connected with his status as a homosexual, as a gay chameleon. This possibly indicates why heterosexuality is signalled by dullness and self-repetition: to show gravitas and fitness to hold power. This would give us a link between personality and style. In fact, Kirkup may qualify as a genuine outsider: that was his situation, although his poems conform in every other way to the norms of poets writing in the 1950s and 1960s. (see posting on this site)

Harry Guest is someone else who does not have a reputation commensurate with their talents, and who is not easily categorised. Still he is an important poet, and I have spent effort recently collecting his books and trying to work out the pattern of his career. I am afraid there is a problem here and it is that Oxley is a very poor anthologist. Guest appears to better effect in Penguin Modern Poets 16 (with the compelling Jack Beeching) and Tony Frazer's anthology A State of Independence. You can get PMP16 on the Internet for 50p just now, and I suggest you do that.


Nicholas Moore (1918-86), included in Conductors of Chaos as a forerunner, was the nephew of T. Sturge Moore, a poet well known in the nineties who complained (quoted by Herbert Palmer, who knew him) in the late 1930s that no one had been willing to publish him for thirty years. What did Nicholas do? he was quite successful as a young man and then spent forty years of almost total obscurity. Could this be the origin of the Cambridge School? T. Sturge (1870-1944) was a decent if erudite and rather slow-moving poet, perhaps best-known for alleging (in the 1922 anthology Twentieth Century Poetry) that

No sight earth yields our eyes is lovelier than
The body of a naked strong young man.
O watch him course the meadows flecked with shade
Beside a stream, before his plunge be made!

(Girls, I hear you interject. Girls?) Possibly those long Hellenic narrative poems of his are really gay novels, and their obliquity is self-protection; his history from 1914 (he was also involved in book decoration and the wave of fine-art, genteel, low-run book production which eventually led to one strand of the small press scene) foreshadows the non-trade poets whose artistic specialisation was based on an honourable marginality; exclusion from the institutions (and from marriage, too) yields a leisure which breeds erudition and laconic, ciphered, non-standard diction. I think all his poetry has been printed; this may not be so. Nicholas' poetry, however, is drivel; the relevant Ministry should hire an official to go round destroying the unpublished poetry of doddering, cranky, prolix, crackpot recluses. The Bodger Codger Officer. Could I suggest myself?

The taste which sets up totally uninteresting poetry for admiration as a social duty because someone honourably went on writing it for 95 years is bound to drive the audience away. Is one paying attention for some motive, or just because the poet wants it? The past as damage? (I should point out that there were two good poems by Moore N. This is important. It does not follow that his other poems are valuable.)
It's normal for a teenage boy to define his power in terms of physical strength, but advancing age defines power increasingly in terms of being listened to. Attention is basic to one of the measures of hierarchical importance, and it is hard for us to extract the attentiveness which art needs from this complex. The relation of rebels or dropouts to the hierarchy is always questionable; their reason for making the exit may be wounded pride, inability to accept second (or seventeenth) place, and their plan may be to be male number one in the (deserted) exile territory. Short of having anyone to listen to them, their means of exercising power may be to be resolutely attentive to themselves, and to record every little flicker in dead verse. So the end result may be just like the scheme of the conservative critics: you have to listen to the burblings of senior males, not because you want to, but because they want you to. It is arguable that books and universities exist to give an outlet for the vain, not to benefit those who are inclined to learn.

Special features of this development towards the full-blown codger monologue are a refusal to believe that time exists (due to waiting in vain for success for twenty-five years), or that talent exists (for a similar reason), furious resentment of the young (unless adopting Take Me O Guru postures), reducing the poem to a series of infinitely protracted Acts of Respect (because reading them is an act of veneration), investment in anything derelict, marginal, and out of date, collecting of bad poets of the past. Early radicalism and willingness to take on the authorities turn, as vigour fades and each fight seems hard to win, into a nervous dislike of any political confrontation at all, and, concomitantly, definition of quietism as radicalism; while any real radicals are viewed with condescending hostility.

In analysing a block of anthologies of around 1995, I was taken aback by the level of overlap between the Agenda anthology and Outsiders. This points to a sector to be called “literary”, which is then radically split between people interested in new and incomplete knowledge and ones satisfied with the knowledge they inherited. These assets bring status of different kinds. I was upset to observe the contrast between literary and oral poetry – superficial as I might find the oral kind, riddled with cheap effects, it is also true that some literary poetry is boring. It broadcasts complacency. The breakdown of anthologies inclines us to put David Jones and Geoffrey Hill in the same category as some very tedious and hidebound poets. Objectively, both are in touch with literature of the past, the information in their poems includes information about the English (and Welsh) past, stories which people heard in childhood (and this was more likely if they were middle-class children).

Books are a medium that (also) desensitises you. The middle-class effect in poetry allows for culture, but also embodies complacency, the feeling that people who have already made it have about the world. If nothing is different between the start and the end, what is being processed in the poem? Clearly, leading a non-radical lifestyle inclines you to write boring poetry. This is only not celebrated because so many people lead non-radical lifestyles and want to keep it quiet. Knowledge too is a source of psychological protection – it slows people down by inclining them to comfort and repetition. So, the two anthologies mentioned are full of poets who are boring precisely because they are literary and educated. It is manifest that knowing lots of literature makes you less able to create good literature.

I believe we have to distinguish between kinds of formal knowledge based on how new they are. New information turns your brain on, it makes all kinds of brain areas light up. Old knowledge doesn’t. It is static. We can classify both Hill and Jones as great conservative poets: they are attached to the past and they reproduce knowledge as part of conserving old things in general. But the difference between them and most of the poets in Outsiders, for example, is stunning.
A shorter account of the anthology will appear in ‘Fulfilling the Silent Rules’ when that finally comes out in September 2018. This is a different text, which was originally written around 1998 as part of the project of analysing anthologies to look for the divisions within the poetic field. The interest is still ‘does a collection of bad poetry give insight into the vast extent of bad poetry in general’ and the answer is probably ‘no’. In The Long 1950s I try to deal with the whole notion of Amateur Poetry, and that works out a bit better than ‘Bodgers’.

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