Saturday, 24 April 2010

Was there a School of London?

Ideoles 2
(London, circa 1972)

This follows up a piece about how hard it is to see big processes within the unlimited clutter of the daily life of poetry, asking whether the big processes are actually there, outside mythologizing texts which invent them in order to make themselves important.
We have a couple of examples.

There is a story in some issue of Poetry Review (I didn't record who wrote it) which records life in the Poetry Centre (in Earl's Court) in about 1975 and, among all the revolutionaries and counter-cultural agitators, one Bernard Kelley, who used to interrupt people's readings by popping up and saying 'I object to that line'. The story tells that when Kelley gave a reading his victims turned up and enriched his reading by frequent hommage interjections of 'I object to that line' - and he was really unhappy.

The story is soaked with nostalgia for anyone who recalls a time when people in the arts actually wanted to change things. However, the most interesting aspect for me is its lack of credibility: the Kelley reading is so much the pay-off which makes the anecdote slick and resolved that it sounds like a thousand other lies by mainstream gits about the Underground and we have to suspect that it is totally made up. There is no track record of mainstream gits ever telling the truth about the Underground, so why should this be different? In 2010 I went to a reading in Leicester by Tom Raworth and John James, and afterwards someone came up to Tom and asked him about Bernard Kelley. I seized the opportunity to ask him about Kelley, and his view of the PR anecdote. He expressed total disbelief that anyone would interrupt Kelley - because he was large, young and intense, and looked as if he would clock you if you interrupted. So the anecdote is probably fantasy.
Looking at it now, the line 'I object to that line' sounds like a satire on the authoritarian conservatives who ran poetry and who closed down Mottram's Poetry Review and the whole scene at the Poetry Centre where anarchist-dadaists could hang out without being chased away. Kelley was an anarchist and surely the whole Underground was libertarian and about allowing anything to happen in the poem, whereas it was the other side which had rigid literary-academic values and admired its own willingness to say No all the time.

Was Kelley's Dadaist action a symptom of something bigger? probably not. It was a joke. Its originality is present because of inhibitions: at any moment, in a hundred readings, half the audience may be bored and indifferent to what's going on, but normally they just stay slumped and silent. To put it another way: there is a basic rule that in conversation you are supposed to talk as well as listen, and in a reading the rule is that you are supposed merely to listen. In every reading some people are faced with the possibility of voicing their indifference or resentment. To draw attention to this draws attention to a whole mass of unconscious but binding rules. For this reason I feel sympathetic to Kelley. To have a saboteur-provocateur like that around, to have hundreds of other rebels and subversives around, gave the 70s scene legs. All the same it's wrong to interrupt and also it is right to give poetry total attentiveness because that is the way to the deepest psychological rewards and by giving attentiveness you make it easier for other people to go all the way. Laughter is a necessary release from the paradoxical result that you have to spend a great deal of your time giving ferocious attention to poems which are shallow and stultifying.

I have a book called 'Sonnet Brushes' which has 15 poems each by Ulli McCarthy (now Freer) and Kelley. It is a nostalgic document if only because they were both anarchists and it comes from a time (about 1972) when capitalism was tottering and radical politics had an emotional reality. I don't think anyone would want to revive Kelley’s poetry. He led his life as a gesture rather than creating an art-commodity which is still solid thirty years later. Ulli’s poems are gorgeous, I have just been reading them.

The other moment of ideole that has crossed my path was a claim (somewhere on the internet) that there was no School of London in the 1970s (or at any other time). This was news to me.
I suspect that the underlying drift is an egoistic fantasy running something like 'I am so original even my vowels are original I live in a universe larger than all other universes where only I can live you just can't see my originality'. At the same time, it is hardly the behaviour of a good critic to deploy descriptions of writers which those writers themselves reject. Originally, painters had to join guilds and these were called scuola in Italian. The phrasing was thus 'school of Venice' 'school of Cremona' etc. and this had no regard to individual style, which came much later in history. If you visit older museums, the Louvre for example, you see the labels saying 'English School' for any English painter, 'Flemish School' for any Fleming. It thus has a primarily geographical value. By extension, it has a second meaning, of painters or poets who knocked about with each other. Rarely, it can have a third meaning of describing stylistic affinity. So it is not clear to me which of these three meanings our friend- we may as well call him Reed Rothschild - is denying. The immediate purpose is surely to discredit the utterances of critics who might wish to draw the attention of the public to a roster of two or three dozen poets to whom public attention is largely unknown. I suspect the follow-up is to plunge the shared discourse into an exhaustive description of the differences between say a dozen of the London Boys, to the point that everyone else walks out. What may be at stake is the control of attention: X wants to focus all the attention of the public on the part of the spectrum where he can claim originality, setting aside our potential choice to look at the other 99% of the spectrum. The struggle for attention is the most fundamental struggle. A writer cannot simply decree as a prerogative act that attention deserves to be given mainly to the plane where they show to best account - everyone else has a share in deciding how attention is to be pointed. Pointing to a plane of minute detail & directing us away from other planes is the core gift of the writer, a task which all the artifices discarded by the avant garde helped to carry out.

The myth of the avant garde is that you can invent the rules and not just the poems which embody them. There is a tragedy of objectivity. It may be part of the duty of a modern writer, the conditions of service, to accept that the world may want a 3-line caption account of you when you are ready to give a 30 page treatise. A critic loses the details, to define a genre.

People who furnish their creative work with a Theory often want that to replace critical activity. They think that you have to accept the Theory or misunderstand the work, but Clause One of the theory states that ‘my work is really important’, so actually the Theory is largely wish-fulfilment and not thought. My experience from writing workshops and so on is that people deploy Theory to prevent critical thought, not assist it. So am I allowed to set aside the theory and think for myself? or is that subversive? how far do I have to comply?

I wonder how Reed Rothschild would react if someone said that his work was incomprehensible. Probably he would justify it in terms of a set of procedures which are familiar from other writers and which the reader should therefore have been trained in as part of the process of knocking around with modern culture. The obscurity and arbitrariness would be justified in terms of a shared language, a shared theoretical framework. This is what the reader, lacking, is called provincial for lacking. This is also the tangible set of organs of the School. The reader appreciates the texts as a sequel to identifying the school.

There is also the effect of hegemony, of the prevailing assumptions which someone lives in day in day out. Because these become invisible, an individual may well not appreciate that they share a huge amount with the other avant garde writers they see every week, and so hugely overrate the few cells where they are original - after all those cells are the domain where their conscious activity expends itself. The more they merge with the group, the more they think they have a streak of originality.

Self-definition moves matters to the plane of authority and even tyranny. History should be written in such a way that the key participants recognise its validity and give it their assent of. But what if the participants are self-aggrandising? is there no external check? What if an account were instantly recognisable, and seemed true and telling to a great range of third parties, while the subjects themselves withheld their assent? Human beings give off a range of information too voluminous and diverse to be reduced to the strand under conscious control. That might be a modern project - to filter and attenuate radiant information so that there was nothing happening at the wavelengths outside the principal beam of conscious control. This would imply that a body of poetry had no meaning other than what is embodied, in final and unchangeable form, in the body of theory supporting it.
That would make life difficult for a critic. But as a critic you are transgressing if you aren’t bringing the conscious intent, and the uncontrolled appearance of the work to others, together. You are striving to bring back further and better particulars. It’s easy to get it wrong and you have to strive all the time.

Another question is, is there any evidence of alienation between the famous Schools of London and Cambridge?
This is of less interest now that the big collected books are so visible and so reliable - something which was not true when the processes in question were either theories or invisibly ‘underground’ and people were really uncertain about what had just happened.

I attended a day of reconciliation between the two groups (in about 1993?), organised by Ulli Freer and Rod Mengham, close friends down the years who obviously thought there was a barrier to be crossed. I remember questioning some people - at Ulli’s house, I think, in the next street to mine on North Finchley - what evidence they had for thinking that there was a feud. They just couldn’t come up with anything. They all believed in it but they didn’t have any reasons for believing it. cris cheek came up with some complete horsefeathers about somebody in Cambridge once giving him a funny look, in about 1978. I think there was an inchoate feeling that the Cambridge poets should be making some huge act of fealty to the greatness of the London School, and the fact that the Cambridge lot were happy to lead their entire lives without even thinking about the Tribe of Mottram was emotionally unacceptable. So maybe we should conclude that the famous Cambridge-London feud didn’t happen - it had no events, no products, no organs, no story.

This raises another question - whether tangible evidence has any value in cultural history, and whether we should instead accept the intuition of first-person participants and their memories, in later years, of what those intuitions were. This also raises the question of whether those intuitions also include fantasies - and how we would segregate the fantasies from the historical account. What if you have ten people who shared a cultural process and who give nine massively different accounts of that process?

Suppose we try to get along without two Big Pictures - suppose we resolve that ‘there was no Cambridge-London feud’ and ‘there was no School of London’.

I think these stories are too interesting. I was trying to write about the plane of banality and meniality, the surface of fog which intermittently you break through to find a pattern. About getting ten years of Poetry Review off the shelf to work on and having the heart-slowing feeling that there is not one good poem anywhere in the whole sequence. Drinking dust. It is an easy matter to pile up - at least by naming them - 20,000 books of poetry from our period. That primary stage, which includes all directions, and includes almost all possibilities of bad poetry as well as of good, is real and can be made available to all. But what if that appalling clutter is all there is and processes and directives are not really there, just some attempts of the ego to impose a shape on numerous tons of dust?

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