Three notes on historical change, or, Equivocations 2
(a) The song does change from time to time; or, oral poetry again
If we look for overall shifts in poetry between 1960 and 1997, the rise in the status of women, the rise of performances, the breakout into a boundless variety of styles and ’balkanisation’, a breakout into classlessness, simplifying and accessibility, and the decline of regular metre and rhyme, are often mentioned. These may not hold water, notably people are divided between the increasing intellectualisation of poetry and increased simplicity as prominent features of the era. My interest in these processes is limited, as focus on individual poets is more urgent. The overall features are amorphous and hard to bring into high definition. The piece which follows deals with oral or performed poetry, with the statistical rise of women poets, and with formal liberation. It is also about the difficulty of comparing ‘the overall scene’ in 2000 with the one in 1950.
Martin Booth’s enthusiastic book title ‘Driving Through the Barricades’ (subtitle, British poetry 1964 to 84) anticipates several others. Restrictions collapse, rules fall into disuse. The idea is always that poets charge in and as they pass the whole landscape changes for ever. It is hard not to think that the whole landscape may be completely unchanged and that there is a momentary semantic tumult which lasts as long as the book, or the reading, but leaves no trace afterwards. If you want to demonstrate that the whole landscape has changed, you would at least have to describe how it was before. I don’t see people doing that. What we seem to find as a general pattern is that live performance creates a transient sense of empowerment and ability to change everything starting right now which disappears on the bus home. There is a difference between carrying out speech acts and changing the rules by which communication is framed and succeeds. What if the rules restricting poetry are the problems of fitting ideas into words, the distracted and over-stimulated condition of people’s brains, the suspicion the audience feels for artists and intellectuals, the difficulty in getting other people to follow your trains of associations, the treacherous nature of language itself? These are as intact in 2009 as they were in 1955, I imagine. I would want to see a demonstration that barriers were being torn down and rules of language being relieved. Behind all this braggadocio, the possibility of mapping the real landscape and then finding out whether it has changed remains intact, left off the agenda.
Let us hear again what Booth says: ‘Few people kept records or recordings of events. Where these were kept, they were not publicised but kept as private and therefore secret property.’ This may, strangely enough, be a specific reference to Eric Mottram, who taped everything, was seen to do so, but never managed to do anything with the tapes. They are however available at the Mottram Archive. You can go there and listen to them or also the staff will make copies for you on request. The ‘property’ thing can be over-emphasized. Legally, the recordings probably belong to the poets, not to the archive.
Two more thoughts following from re-reading Booth. First, the prerequisite for identifying changes in the landscape is a theory of substitution. It is pointless to equate pop poetry of 1990 with intelligent poetry of 1960. Evidently you would have to compare intelligent poetry of 1990 with intelligent poetry of 1960, and light verse of 1990 with light verse of 1960. A map of the complete field has to come before comparisons of indivdiual points.
To take an example, if you want to study the innovative quality of readings in 1966 you would have to classify them and search for anything similar in the past. If you found poetry recitals in 1944, perhaps as part of political meetings or revues, you would have to compare them with the 1966 readings, with jazz or whatever, to see if the landscape had really changed. Phenomena are named and categorised differently in different times and you have to see through this categoric fog in order to find out what was really there. I think you need to have a picture of the whole literary system before you can say whether any patch, any cell of poetic space, is actually new or just a re-brand. This takes us right back to the Chicago Diagram. It shows you everything and at least gives a basis for seeing how things move around. If we’d done one for 1945 and one for 2000, you could then trace the shift which maps one landscape onto the other.
If you strip down the category of 'poetry reading' to 'live reading + verse + performer' then you would have to look, in the 1950s, very much at religious ceremonies. The texts may have been old but large portions of them were verse. If you ask 'were 60s poetry readings a secular equivalent for the services which people didn't go to any more' then the answer is YES in all kinds of ways and the answer goes on through a hundred twists and turns. Everyone can agree on this: congregational religion declined and secular art replaced it but inherited a great deal from it. The simplest line goes through the poetry of nuclear protest. The Easter Marches were at Easter because they were primarily a religious protest against militarism. But the Aldermaston marches, CND, etc. led inexorably on to the main stream of British protest poetry. This suggests that we can map protest poetry of 1965 or other times onto sermons of 1955 or other times. The sermons were already delivered live, they were aimed chiefly at people who could not read or chose not to read. The community of the ‘live’ poetry reading has to be compared with the community of the parish because that is its match.
If you are looking for live poetry in the 1950s you would surely find religious verse drama, a major feature of the first half of the decade. Around 1955 Christopher Fry was selling books in huge quantities and selling theatre tickets in other huge quantities. It must have looked as if the future of poetry was sophisticated verse drama. There is a recollection of this in AS Byatt’s novels featuring a fictional verse dramatist, of which the one actually set in the early 50s is Virgin in the Garden. This wave declines but lyric readings rise. (Priestley’s novel Festival at Farbridge features a chapter of destructive satire on the verse drama scene, which he obviously didn’t approve of. It’s good satire but it doesn’t explain what people liked so much.)
Compared to the Fry boom, the 60s readings boom does not look particularly successful. It also looks diminished in technical means. You go down from maybe eight voices to one. You can’t tell me that readings had the same impact as the productions of Fry’s plays with Olivier, Richard Burton, or Paul Scofield. The readings look like a parsimony of means, a withdrawal from shared space into a kind of refuge zone. Comparison always has the power of qualifying achievement.
The question of poetry and performance is almost a trick; I chose it because it leads to unexpected conclusions. Substitution is altogether a tricky area. First, you can't get away from it. Secondly, it's hard to get people to agree on it. I can imagine a catalogue of substitutions, which at least would allow us to stand back from these fundamental operations and scan them for hidden problems.
Since the vocabulary we use inevitably enshrines equivalence and substitutions, the way to a valid lexicon leads through a difficult phase of testing substitutions.
The problem of equivalences is a profound one. It is difficult to make any set of equivalences that can be defended or believed in. Yet it is obvious that if you equate something in 2000 with the wrong thing in 1950, then you will expend effort which is completely wasted and reaches unusable and worthless conclusions. You can’t compare a thriller in 2000 with a musical made in 1950 and get anywhere. You have to compare it with a 1950 thriller - preferably, comparing 50 thrillers of moment A with 50 thrillers of moment B. With poetry, you haven’t got the proficient division into genres which the film industry gives you on a plate. You have to get the whole scheme of genres and of classifying poets right before you can start to locate change across time.
If you divide present day poetry into 100 cells and poetry in 1945 (or whenever) into 100 cells and decide how those cells can be equated with each other, you can then as a second operation determine how they have changed in between the two times. As a third operation you could decide whether a revolution had taken place.
What follows from a theory of genres is the ability to situate each or any poet in a named point in stylistic space. This would be wonderful, although this finding should hardly be hard to do if you live in the poetry world. A project of making equivalences would have to follow a project of populating cultural space in which you put poets (100? 1000?) on a map. Due to factional differences there are problems in doing this.
I will say only one thing about this. It is reasonable to compare Pauline Stainer with Kathleen Raine. They belong in the same cell of cultural space even if they were born 34 years apart. This is a ‘hit’. Comparing them allows you to see the particular qualities of both more clearly. The dissimilarities are striking, naturally. This is one hit and what I am saying is that if you look at 500 poets making such sensible equivalences is very hard to do.
(Hilary Llewellyn-Williams can also be compared to Raine - they are into the same heretical theological sources.)
The basis for being a historian is thinking that most scenes are unimportant. This sounds brutal and there is also a proverb which says that to a historian all things are important. Let me qualify this. I want to get behind hundreds of poetry readings to a more fundamental shape. Scenes where this shape emerges are more important than many others where it doesn't.
Note. In 2005 Robert Baird and I published a diagram of British poetry in Chicago Review, a one-page graphic. Its lack of information gave it its severe and evocative quality. It covered the entire poetry landscape in a single diagram and revealed an alarming shared space in which Pop poets and intellectuals were on the same page. This essay spoils the concision by taking the issues further.
(c) Two eras?
(This piece describes a revolution happening in British poetry. The revolution is undoubted, but there are doubts about the claims of certain people to own it or to have managed it, and so of the dating which they present in order to justify their peevish claims.)
The Poetry Book Society used to publish a 'Check List of new verse' (becomes 'poetry' in 1967!) which yields a count of the total number of new books of British poetry published in a year. The series stops in 1977, possibly due to political rifts within the poetry world. I counted the totals for some years (not all as the process was too tedious).
1957 136 books + translations + 15 anthologies
We can compare this with another isolated but helpful figure for a single year:
1995: 1944 books
(counted in a slightly different way and published in PN Review). The number of titles has grown by a factor of thirteen. It is as if we are talking about two different eras here: the position of 1957 is irrecoverable. In between has come the arrival of lifestyle choice as the central thing in everyone’s life, even if that also means the growth of commercialism to supply the disposables which the choice requires. Without much doubt, the change has been good for the reader but bad for critics who want their expertise to be intact in the face of data too rapid and diverse to assimilate. That is: you can have whatever poetry you want but you can't have the information that would let you get at it. Modestly, I propose my own work as a solution to this.
An era split would cut through the lifetime of millions of living individuals. This sounds like a disproof: your life can't split in two. However, the cultural record does show two phenomena, of individuals going through a conversion experience and changing their attitudes en bloc and of a conservative cadre denouncing all forms of new poetry and trying to disqualify it from the very name of poetry. (We have mentioned the third process, of younger people finding that ‘really, there was nothing here then’, that the older generation had no creativity.) All this is consistent with the idea of a change of era, but it happens in one segment only of the period we are looking at, and that is roughly 1967 to 1976. From the Summer of Love to the resignation of Wilson.
The history of mainstream decline
The other agreed fact is that British poetry was in a terrible state mid-century and that the sixties came as a breath of fresh air. I wrote a book about this called The Failure of Conservatism. The whole underground movement was impelled by the idea that official poetry had run helplessly aground. This was a convulsive, animal-brain, panic reaction, rather than a finding of exact philological science. However, not only this, but also the counter-reaction against innovative poetry, are essential concepts- if you fail to understand them, you fail to understand the history.
It has been such a tenet of informed opinion, ever since I began to be involved with poetry, in 1973, that the mainstream was desperate and dismal, that we have neglected to wonder why this was and consequently whether this condition may have come to an end, like other illnesses. The utter feebleness of mid-century British poetry (and I am including Wales and Scotland in this, with good reason) must have an explanation, and I suspect that the overwhelming attachment of the ego to an Empire and its asset-sheet of accessories which was in rapid and worldwide decline may account for it. This includes the Atlantic fringe because nationalism was a minority and eccentric view right up until the 1960s, and the dominant body of opinion was as attached to the Empire and the careers it offered as the homeland regions of England. The patterns of exports provide an excellent explanation of this. To be sure, observers at the time analysed the problem of writing in different terms. It is significant, though, that they dedicated so much effort to explaining the problem. Creativity had become threatened and uncertain, consciousness raised too many problems for consciousness to come to terms with. Many writers at that time agreed that the bourgeoisie were in hopeless decline, but being Marxists saw this as positive and as a result of historic guilt. Another favoured explanation was the collapse of shared cosmological frameworks, stable sets of meanings within which complex literary creations could be constructed expressing communal values. Destabilising and grandiose emotional projections onto Soviet or American culture were a symptom of geopolitical preoccupations being translated into the realm of culture (and of the ego). Roy Fuller said in his interesting 1956 essay, 'Poetry: Tradition and Belief', that
'Poets who have successively emerged from their youth since 1914 have usually felt their greatest problem to be one of belief. No doubt a minority has accepted Christianity or Marxism: accepted, that is to say, a dogmatic ideological system to be worked out in poetry. But most have inherited the vague and difficult humanism of the Western World(.)'
This humanism is now confused: 'Its feelings are ambivalent, its comments choked(.)' He goes on to say that if poets have no ideology their work 'is always in danger of degenerating into triviality, stock response, dead forms', also that such a poet 'has usually found it beyond his power to link poetry to life, to incorporate life in his poetry'(.) He is not specific about this problem; but he does not say that it consists in the poet, afflicted by middle class guilt, being uncertain of how the audience is going to respond to social judgments. But what is missing, surely, is a sense of an audience. Without this the poem can never stabilise, it is like ink on a hard surface, forming temporary letters which just flow and blur every time the surface vibrates.
Geoffrey Thurley's attack on Auden, in The Ironic Harvest, locates both the fatal attraction and the pathological weaknesses of light verse more precisely. For him the insouciant stance is the end product of moral compromise, which is simultaneously artistic compromise; the English poet of mid-century is characterised by a sense of inadequacy, which could play the time-honoured role of repentance and opening of a better life, but often takes the form of a spiteful mocking of any form of utterance which does involve loyalty to a political, ethical, intellectual, or artistic principle. To revert to autobiography for an instant, when I entered the poetry scene as a fan and reader in 1973, my impression of it was dominated by this fear of commitment, resentment of integrity, inability to make something graceful out of compromise. I was terrified, naturally, lest it should happen to me, and characterise my trajectory as an adult and an artist, two things I planned to become. It is a relief to have found Thurley's 1974 book detailing, with so much scope, the vision which burnt itself into my retina, and the historical vortices which led up to it. Thurley says, 'What has happened to poetry over the past thirty years [this is 1974] is, roughly, that a sense of inadequacy and defeat (...) has infiltrated into the poetic consciousness. This process is clearly conditioned by important historical and political factors. The ironist school itself typifies the intellectual state of England at the time at which its empire, its traditional sense of greatness, and its class-system were beginning to crumble.'
Auden's later poetry converges on a personalist position, for which everything outside the household, or the poet's body (as "comfort zone"), is inauthentic and merely spectacular. Thurley says "we find in Auden's 'social' poetry, a variant of the ironical theme: class guilt is bodied forth by means of irony and a consistent self-qualification, working on the principle that to find oneself in the wrong guarantees a certain degree of probity and mental alertness, and redeems the class guilt. In point of fact, it does nothing of the sort(.)" While this fatally reduced the scope of poetry, its renunciation of significance can be seen as modesty. Perhaps the original sense of guilt is the abjection before God demanded of the Christian, mandated to think on his sins and fallenness. In the nineteenth century, it may be reforming itself as guilt about the inability to believe. In the 1930s, it speaks to us as the state of mind of the bourgeois poet, disillusioned about capitalism and parliamentary politics, but threatened by the palpable hatred of the Marxist cadres for anyone bourgeois. In the 1950s, it becomes a mixture of guilt about inability to believe, shame at not being able to convince other people to believe in the Church, and shame at not being enthusiastic or excited about anything. In the 1960s, we can add guilt about Empire and exploitation of the working class; and guilt about the treatment of women, which mutated though various forms to become central to the whole literary scene in the 1980s. In 1993, guilt has mutated into the formulas of the Nincompoop Poet, whom I defined in my review of The New Poetry. However, the formation may be on the way out.
Fuller's early work has the distinction of looking at bourgeois society with detachment and scorn, projecting an intellect which has contained power and autonomy. But as years went by this reserve power ceased to be convincing, and his detachment came to seem like inability to identify, an inner witheredness; he wasn't taking emotional part in society (a difficult position for a socialist), and little is really going on in his poetry. Thurley sees him as typical in a bad sense - a place where badness seeps to the surface and looks back at us.
"For Fuller, it is impossible for the poet to be right in anything: his action and his inaction are alike culpable and dishonest. (...) The only course left open to the poet is a continuous unmasking of himself (...) What he can do is give constant expression to his sense of his own dishonesty. Bad faith (...) is really the theme and substance of Roy Fuller's poetry." (Thurley)
Fuller's later poetry is a key part of the mid-century decline. If you are embarrassed about your personality, you have no access to modern-style poetry, in which form, created anew for every work, is charged up by the movements of the poet's personality, which it reveals at every beat. If you feel guilt, you don't want to make choices. Hence the mixture of light verse and conservatism; as explained by Thurley, 'form, for Auden and Fuller, is both a genuflexion to the reading public, and a kind of interior decoration. It confesses their guilt at the same time as it apologizes for the insolence of breaking silence...' The solution for poetry was not, as Fuller wistfully predicted, swallowing a rigid framework of cosmology and ideology, but deciding the value of each event as it comes up, and making doubt and unpredictability and resistance the visible and fascinating process of the poetry. The poet who didn't suffer from paralysing guilt could invent themselves as they went along, drawing an audience in by a sound which was robust and unpredictable at the same time.
Thurley found, when he published in 1974, that poetry had recovered, a new generation was spontaneous, lyrical, and hopeful. This is what I see, that the crude increase in the extent of poetry meant a greater diversity of form and social experience, and more talented poets. Even failure became far more diverse and less tied to exhausted social predicaments. There is some disagreement about when the 1950s stopped. There is the claim made for example by John Lucas (in Starting to Explain, 2003) that there was a sudden rush of diversity in British poetry after decades of persecution and greyness, and that for example the 1996 Bloodaxe anthology The New Poetry represented just such a moment. This claim is frequently made in Bloodaxe sales literature. The problem here is that these 'moments' seem only to represent the moment when the distinguished critic in question gives up persecution and greyness (if only for a moment) and acknowledges the diversity of modern British poetry.
Let us look at the counts in the PBS checklists:
1960 131 + 27 anthologies
1964 127 books
1965 109 + 24 anthologies
1969 252 books
1974 450 books + 61 anthologies
1975-6 859 titles
1976-7 906 books + 68 anthologies
The figures make it quite clear that the quantitative boom in the number of publications was occurring in 1969, still making major advances until 1977 or so. There is a very big growth in the first half of the 70s. The growth from then up to 1995 is much less dramatic: the boom had already happened by 1977. The rise in the number of books is out of synch with the cultural revolution of the 1960s but presumably follows, with a lag, the boom in magazines: as Gortschacher remarks, there were 2000 magazines in the Sixties, and that is where the poets tried out their skill before getting round to books.
It is not plausible that the growth in the number of poets was not also the growth in diversity. The advance of aesthetic diversity was in full swing in 1968 and had reached its climax by 1977. The event tracked in 1996 is therefore simply the breach of mainstream barriers against anything which is not close to the inherited tedium of the Movement and Pop poetry, respectively. Lucas fails to locate this moment in 1968 or 1967 simply because he observes the rule of academic critics, and of mainstream magazines, that 'small press' publications do not count. He himself criticises this attitude, since he says that the 'small press' publications need to be taken into account for the period of 1960-80. He completely neglects to do any such taking into account, and the criticising of policies which have dominated his entire career is a typical gesture in Starting to Explain. The other frequent source of claims about a 'breakthrough' is the jacket blurbs of books published by Bloodaxe Books, where the claim to novelty is simply an attempt to create a brand image for Bloodaxe Books, and has no more substance or thought behind it than an advertisement for soap powder. Thinking of lists of terrible poetry books reminds us that diversity is not enough on its own to mean artistic achievement, and that a large volume of production is not identical with an improvement in quality. Further, an examination of volumes like The New Poetry and The New British Poetry (of 2004) shows that the rules of exclusion are extremely cogent and sinister, and have in no way been blurred by the passage of time.
The most likely solution seems to me to be that:
- there was no increase in diversity in the 80s and 90s
- the supposed 'broadening' event was merely a demolition of the efficient walls built by centralising editor/critics against the small press world and its terrifying innovations
- this demolition was in practice a new form of repression under different terms
- the liberation of poetry in the 90s was really the application of a package of reforms implemented outside the mainstream during the 1960s
- the 'liberation event' is something which both managers and poets urgently want to claim as part of their personal trail of achievements and assets, and this is why it is claimed to occur at dozens of different years.
-this claiming process is not constrained by the reality principle
-the repression process is never claimed as a first person act by any cultural manager but the amount of liberation cannot possibly be greater in quantity than the amount of repression which it undoes
The issue of mid-century cultural decline is only of historical interest. The sense of superiority and urgent grand destiny felt by the Underground was only sustainable while conventional writers and commentators were suffering from this debilitating shortage of creativity. I suspect that both the mainstream and the Underground positions have collapsed, and that young poets now [written 2010] are faced by a strange and unexplained situation.
(This is an out-take from 'The Long 1950s', removed because it did not make the book clearer. There is a lot more about Fuller in the book. I like his work a lot more than Thurley does, and spent a lot of time re-reading it to get the story right.)
More on the problem of equivalences in the article on ‘Equivocations’ on this website. More on oral poetry in "The history of the temporary" on this website.