Thursday, 12 August 2010

Mid-century women's poetry

Notes on 'missing' mid-century poets

In my work on a phase of British poetry (1960-97), it became noticeable that there are very few women poets for the group born 1900-40, whereas some very strong male poets from that cohort show up. This is a blank but maybe we can blow some smoke through it. I have published several times on Kathleen Raine, Lynette Roberts, and Rosemary Tonks, I know more than most people about Eithne Wilkins, but it pretty much stops there.

The idea of femininity

I was inspired by reading an account of Harold Garfinkel’s study of a transsexual in 1958. Agnes' totally idealised view of femininity was so clear that it shed a bright light on the practice of femininity itself. Agnes post operation is completely dedicated to preventing the idea that she was once a man from ever coming up. She can spot this in conversation five steps before it happens and just steers the discourse away from it. The possibility that she was ever once gay, a boy involved with other boys, and got appearance-affecting hormones from them, is just written out of the script even though the sociologist is curious about it.

In about 1970 to 2000, maybe earlier, we are looking at an opposition between feminine and feminist. Women were not trying to write like men but they had to choose whether to be feminine. A core part of the feminine was to prevent most subjects of conversation from ever leaking into sound. Agnes was just an extreme version of this. More than that, we can think of a whole system of literature of an older time as being about choiceness of language and subject, a refinement which made unpleasant thoughts impossible and base motives unthinkable. This system died hard. There are very distinct effects on poems of living out that total purity and ideality. A feeling you might have after not being allowed to eat anything and drinking only sweet sherry for a week. Cloyed. Ladylike. Because Agnes’ version of femininity was totally constructed, it is simpler and easier to think about than the femininity of someone who was raised as a girl. But also, the essential feminine as it applied in 1958 was already doing what Agnes was doing: it repressed anything which was not ideal and refined. Femininity took an immense amount of work, which Agnes was doughtily prepared to carry out. It was not natural at all, it was an expensive cultural monument like a church - like ten thousand churches. Like culture, individual women had larger or smaller quantities of it.

There may be a link between the ideal qualities of ‘affirmative culture’ and the idealisation of women which makes it impossible, at a certain time, for women to write interesting poetry. Women were at the centre of affirmative culture. They were the most idealised factors and the most distorted. They did the most maintenance work. I think recuperating English poets of the feminine era is very difficult and I have not made much headway with this. Femininity is what they are over-fulfilling - a set of programmatic imperatives organising every aspect of behaviour. Because Agnes or anyone ladylike was fending off rents in the civil surface they were not able to benefit from the critical thrust which began by asserting that that surface could be shattered, pushed under, remade in a new form. The critical writer was going so much further in mid-century.

Fairly obviously, feminist poets were critical of every aspect of daily life, and did not start until 1970. Cohorts arriving on the literary scene between 1930 and 1970 can generally be assigned to femininity (the exceptions might be interesting). From 1970 to 1980, there is a mixture, with a feminist minority (I think). After a certain point, feminists would be a majority, almost a totality, although feminism was also evolving and diversifying very rapidly, so that a central 'signature' is no longer there.

Garfinkel’s work is reported in John Heritage’s book on ethnomethodology. Because Agnes had the secondary characteristics of female gender, the sociologist was interested in whether she had had access to synthetic hormones before the operation. Because of the links to an illegal drug market, because the connections to this market would have been through belonging to a milieu of gays and transsexuals, because this was in Los Angeles in the 1950s, it all sounds now like a James Ellroy novel. Whereas Agnes was trying to live a Doris Day film.

One of the genres of cinema associated with women was melodrama. In the 1950s, this applies to films like 'Dance Little Lady', 'Yield to the Night', 'Women of Twilight'. There is a really striking lack of equivalent for this in poetry by women. Poetry is acutely pushed up against peculiar limits by its genteel presuppositions. The exceptions are Audrey Beecham and late Plath, and it's obvious that they represent a breakthrough. The melodramatic quality is vital to the high achievement of their work in general.

I talk briefly about Audrey Beecham (1915-89) and her 1957 volume, ‘The Coast of Barbary’ in 'The Long 1950s'. I looked her up on the Internet (after finishing my book) and something there said she was a Lesbian. Well, almost everything on the I-net is untrue. All the same, this might alter the reading of ‘A Black Spell’, her curse of an ex-lover, as a proto-feminist poem - the lover could be female (although the poem uses the male pronouns throughout). It might also influence our reading of the stanza I quoted about ‘the rootless’. ‘A Black Spell’ is already in Rexroth’s 1949 anthology (as ‘Exile’) so is not a 50s poem.

I didn’t like this volume all that much so it doesn’t feature much in the book. It does remind me of Plath and Hughes and so of what was coming along to replace 1950s poetry, but her poems are so neatly trapped inside their rhyme schemes that they are also stuck in the 50s. She is not ‘affirmative culture’, that‘s the interest. The next point is, ‘so what’s attractive about being negative’, inspires further thoughts about how an alternative could become useful. The amazing thing about the 1960s is that people who dropped out of official culture didn’t just go and hide in their homes but formed coalitions and tried to create a new culture which could accept and relieve other refugees. The title poem of ‘Coast of Barbary’ is about a callous desert shore, hostile to visitors but also cursed by nature. So this is not a space where a coalition might form, that could only come after you get over the curse feelings. Exile, then misery, then autonomy, then counter-creativity. Does that sound OK to you?

Erica Roche, le 02 mai 2010 à 10:55 :
pardon, Alain,Word Press m’a fait “un coup de calgon” hier soir et je n’ai pas pu terminer. A la fac j’avais comme directrice de la résidence universitaire où je me trouvais la nièce de Beecham qui s’appelait Dr. Audrey Beecham si ma mémoire ne me fait pas défaut. C’était une vraie excentrique anglaise, complètement percutée, passionnée de chasse à courre et souvent en bottes et fusil à la main…

EJ Scovell

(This is more about the theme of absent women’s poetry.) I don’t think you can get away with claiming that Scovell’s poetry is good. The appearance of being conventional, neat, and repressed is also what is lurking at the depths. What we can do is try to work out why she put so much effort into producing something so white-bread.

It is clear that women writers are mainly thriving in other genres, but we have to ask why other women poets are not being effective. I would reply through over-fulfilment. There are paradoxical effects of acquiring certain virtues too thoroughly. The model starts from a theoretical basis of blind drives for gratification and aggrandisement, which are subsequently modified by laws of culture. These are, from the point of view of the initial impulses, acts of repression. The basic principle of poetry - still with the model - is that the poet is exceptionally good at impulse control; this permits profound attentiveness to others, and this is the basis for the linguistic richness (which enables the reader to be superlatively attentive to the poem). The poet is thus an idealist and the poem is in the realm of ideals.

The cinema historian Robert Murphy gives us a quote by DE Cooper, from his essay in the historical collection The Age of Affluence: "those qualities which are supposed ... to exude from the worst in women: pettiness, snobbery, flippancy, voluptuousness, superficiality, materialism.' This tirade usefully defines the inhibition & virtue of 50s women poets. They really did not have these vices. We have to admire that, given the consequences which those vices have. The civilisation process is not lightly undertaken and its results are not to be mocked. The writing is there to illuminate virtues which I unhesitatingly admire, yet if you acquire the acknowledged virtues too thoroughly you cease to be an interesting writer.

A segment of poets follows this concept quite simply and produces poems which are attenuated. All the principals act in an idealistic way. Other impulses are pushed into the category of dirt, a high barrier forms between them and ideal behaviour, they are not described directly in the poem. The poet carries out work to make this happen. At the end, it turns out that the poems are not of literary interest and that the core of literature involves the fulfilment of impulses and not, simply, their repression.

This corresponds at the level of sociology to the middle-class ideal of objectivity, which is in reality only one side of the coin and does not have any real existence except alongside the programmed self-aggrandizement of middle-class families and individuals. You go into business to make money, not to give service.

50s cinema offers us a whole range of insipid female film stars and the problem under discussion could be described as the Virginia MacKenna look. Decoration and repression?

Women poets in the 1990s and 2000s did not overcome these inhibitions. Due to changes in society, associated with the 1960s and pervasive in the era which followed, they never had them. The older poetry, written for example by poets born in the 1920s or 1930s, offered almost no admired models; it did not transmit models to be redesigned in complicated ways, because it was simply unattractive. One of the most admired qualities in this new poetry was not to be other-directed at all. This inverted the values of an older generation of women. Something silently built into its foundations was the fact that feminism had scathingly criticised men for not being other-directed, and that to possess this quality was to connect with historically male attitudes.

Looking at dozens of bad performances by actresses in 50s films sheds the greatest possible light on weak poetry by women in the 50s. This was the basis for a revolutionary reaction - of rejection - by later women poets. It offered little resistance to this rebellion.

Mai Zetterling appeared in a 1951 film called 'Dance Little Lady' and just electrifies the screen. The thought is just irresistible that she radiates truth and constancy because she really had a strong character and this was because she came from a culture, Sweden, where women were not reduced to some caricature of gentility. Is that unscientific? Put it another way: do you ever see a weak woman character in a Bergman film?

The thought occurs that the directors who got somewhere in cinema of that time did so because they were patient or lucky with their actresses: Val Guest with Zetterling, J Lee Thompson with Diana Dors. Also, it's not all disaster; Dors, Sylvia Sym, even Margaret Rutherford, all deliver something memorable and uncompromised. Jean Simmons had huge talent but made no important films in England after 1950. I am not trying to write off British 50s cinema, it's just that readers who know those films can use them as a quick way of understanding why 50s women's poetry turned out so badly. (Zetterling had already worked with Bergman by 1951, acting in a script of his if not under his direction.)

I'm sure MacKenna had talent, but something about the camera or the films switched off her real intelligence and character and what is captured on film is inhibition, embarrassment, the hope that no one will find you out. 'The smallest show on earth', which I first saw in 1966, springs to mind as one of the most searingly bad performances on celluloid. MacKenna clearly didn't want to be there but didn't know what else to do. This is shameful, in a way somehow worse than watching the camera strip her naked. Her determination to hold out in adversity is admirable but does not avert disaster. If you watch ‘Sink The Bismarck’, it's still MacKenna but her every action seems graceful and credible. This was an American studio's attempt on the British war film and it makes the others look like crap. If you see 'Smallest Show' it helps explain why EJ Scovell could be intelligent, cultured, even noble, and yet write poems that have no impact.

Male English film actors are marginally better but the same effects are very visible in them too. The whole game was being built around them and that may be why they come off a bit better.

In my records, the only women poet to produce an important first volume in the 1960s was Rosemary Tonks. This is a completely different problem, but anyway there was still some major problem as society became permissive. I am sceptical that any of the other books of that time stands reviving. After 1970, things got better.

Mid-century women poets

I said (around 1996) in an essay on Purple and Green -
"Feminist editors have done an expert job of resuscitation on pre-modern poets — a foray into the desert zone — but the overall story is of cultural failure, and the women's poetry which has flourished since 1968 is an extremely radical departure from the norms of women's poetry as they existed before. Many of the names of women poets listed in manuals of the earlier period are now completely forgotten. Perhaps some Balkanist will one day come along and map the disappearance of earlier generations of women poets. None of the names in the British Council pamphlets on Poetry To-day (1946, 1957, 1961) rings a bell; the Sixties simply eliminated them. Any historian, however critical, has to count excellent poems written by Lynette Roberts, Rosemary Tonks, Charlotte Mew, Anna Wickham, Edith Sitwell, Frances Cornford; I am more uneasy about approving such poets as Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Jennings, Fredegond Shove, Anne Ridler, Elizabeth Daryush, E.J.Scovell, Patricia Beer, Alice Meynell."

(Meynell died in 1922 so she is included by mistake.) This could open a lot of arguments so it is worth further discussion. What is the story of mid-century women’s poetry? Quite evidently the horizon of 1965 knows extremely few women poets of any stature. Sitwell, recently deceased, began publishing during the First World War. Lynette Roberts is emphatically off the scene. Tonks has produced one volume. Plath has left the ground, deceased. Tonks is in fact the only woman poet actively writing credible poetry at this point. My data collection shows no significant 'debut volume' by a women poet in the 1950s and only one (by R Tonks) in the 1960s. As the poets debuting in that time-span dominated the whole era of my study, this affects the whole work. I thought to address some of the women poets of that time before feminism. I could have made an error, so recuperation could be on the board. The 50s did produce a long poem by Eithne Wilkins (never published as a book) and one by Audrey Beecham of whose artistic merits I am uncertain. (Neither went on publishing in the 1960s.)

The university library in Cambridge has a book in three volumes by a German (or Austrian?) scholar named Sabine Coelsch-Foisner on mid-century English women poets. It's huge, 1100 pages long. I didn't read this. The title of the book is: Revolution in Poetic Consciousness: An Existential Reading of Mid-Twentieth-Century British Women's Poetry (2002). This is a fascinating project, because after all there was so much poetry by women in the mid-century, and because it has largely been unread since the period when it was published, when of course literary taste was totally different. Revision and rediscovery seem desirable. The century may offer several unrecognisable worlds, especially if you are a 'modernist purist' who skips from ‘Ash Wednesday’ to the 1960s. Yeats’ 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse captures or creates such a world. This 'lost world' includes several women poets (10 out of 98 by my count); the poems by Dorothy Wellesley are rather good.

I am doubtful that the poetry of Maggie O'Sullivan, for example, owes anything to mid-century women's poetry. It is meaningless to say that the one evolves into the other. This radical break shows why feminism was necessary, and is summed up by feminism. If it was a radical break, it doesn’t have a genealogy. There is no point putting together a collection of heirlooms.

If you see women's poetry from 1970 to 2010 as being tremendously important, it is logical to follow up by reviving the older poets whom time had forgotten. The path is that once you become detached from the set of rules composing 'female nature' and have conscious control of how you relate to them, then you can rotate those rules and go back to the 1950s and enjoy that fundamentally alien poetry. 1100 pages is too much but the idea that someone is trying to revive the genteel and pious and conventional poets of mid-century is intriguing. Is there a way of reading these writers that makes them in some way interesting? Coelsch-Foisner lists as her subject matter Edith Sitwell, Frances Cornford, Lilian Bowes-Lyon, Anna Gordon Keown, Sylvia Lynd, Dorothy Wellesley, Stevie Smith, Kathleen Raine, Phoebe Hesketh, Ruth Pitter, Ann Ridler, Frances Bellerby, EJ Scovell, Sheila Wingfield, Kathleen Nott, Margaret Willey, Elizabeth Jennings. She defines these as belonging to two generations, which is why it extends to Jennings, who began publishing in the mid-1950s. The generations are one which began publishing in the 20s and 30s and one which began publishing in the mid-50s and even beyond. (So it is not clear why Sitwell and HD appear.) (The measure of being 'forgotten' might tangibly be omission from key Penguin anthologies edited by Kenneth Allott and Edward Lucie-Smith.)

Sitwell does not count as a mid-century writer, apart from being a great poet. Her aesthetic is based on what Diaghilev’s ballet troupe were doing before 1914. Kathleen Raine clearly wrote some very good poetry, in the 1940s 1950s and 1960s. Some of Ruth Pitter's poems can be revived. Apart from these I think the project is artistically dubious. (HD appears 'for comparison' while being excluded from the main line of argument on ground of nationality.) Mina Loy does not appear and nor does Lynette Roberts.

I knew that there was a Collected of Sylvia Lynd in a nearby 2nd hand bookshop, so I went and bought it, having vowed to select the poem on page 50 as the sample. Here it is.

The Folded Hazel Leaves

One April evening clear and pale,
And full of birds as leaves,
I listened to the nightingale.

Beside him, in hazel wood,
Among blue violets I stood,
And heard him sigh,
And heard him sigh, Eheu, alas,
Lies one who grieves.

Eheu, alas, I hear him sigh
That youth will end, that love will die,
That Spring's so glittering glass
Brim full of joy and pleasure soon will pass -
What time the folded hazel leaves
Are shaken out like handkerchiefs.

The jacket says Lynd's poetry: 'is marked by an appreciation of the delights and subtle charms of the English countryside. The verses in this collection fall under such headings as Night and Silence, pastoral, personal, Birds, Children, Epistles, and Fairy tales.' (This book came out in 1945.) This is conservative, not revolutionary; aestheticised, not existential. Also, it does not call for any labour of re-evaluation: it is exactly what you would expect if you know anything about mid-century poetry - given that there is a typical mode in mid-century poetry and we read today, almost exclusively, something which was quite atypical of the industrial production of the time. In a foreign language it's easy to misread conventional poets as being great ones. English is my native language and I don't have this problem.

Anything less revolutionary than English women's poetry 1930-60 can hardly be imagined. But writing an 1100-page book about insignificant writers is no harder than building a 1000-ton tomb for some President who had no ethics and no achievements. If we put Meekness in Poetic Discretion: a mild reading of mid-20th C women's poetry that would identify assets this poetry actually possesses. I think the author is ignoring the question of literary merit, and simply compiling a detailed description which monumentalises everything selected for description and is monumental in itself.

As these poets were almost entirely delicate and concise in their poems, the match between their preferences and the monumental approach of Coelsch-Foisner is curiously absent. What it reminds me of is East German scholarship. There the outsize quality was related to a national belief in heavy engineering projects and in size in general. The impulse to write concisely was missing because people were not really supposed to read it. It was more like intimidation - you could point to Marxist scholarship rather than actually reading it. It was a blockhouse built for endless waves of disbelief to wash over it. Those historians were trying to speak for the silenced and this is perhaps what Coelsch is trying to do as well. Their wish to connect with the oppressed is admirable.

I guess the author comes from the Rhineland or the south-west, as the oi spelling is unusual and reminds me of Hombroich, where Thomas Kling lived. Then Coelsch is a dialect form meaning 'from Cologne', as used for Cologne dialect.

If we look at Ruth Pitter’s poem ‘In praise of the colour dun’, it’s obvious that she is choosing a constricting strategy. Dun is just much less exciting than red, gold, yellow, even black. It’s a kind of sensory blur. She is abandoning the most interesting terrain in order to gain control of something lesser. She, like other Christians of mid-century, may have taken literally the saying that ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’. They were meek and mild, they were not critical intellectuals, they disliked conflict. Surely that isn't so hard to understand. In the older society, people were judged by the quality of their inhibitions. This lot have their inhibitions well in place. They are not rock and roll tearaways in any noticeable way.

So, why is this exercise taking place? The basis of this revisionist work is that the past was wrong, that people in the past failed because they did not conform to rules of behaviour authorised, or invented, by an activist minority in the present day. While this is an important aspect of present-day scholarly activity, I do have certain reservations about it.

The revisionist line wants every woman, every poet especially, to be dominant. Irrespective of how society is going to proceed if everyone is in authority, this is the invisible first clause of the research project. Some of these poets definitely fit into the role of authority - Sitwell, for example. But mostly they don’t.

Style is not wholly separable from character, and this connects with the design of roles in society. The women poets in question assimilated to a social role. The nature of this role implicated their poetry - for many of them, its status as minor poetry correlates with their condition of meekness. The message they are projecting is of meekness, however intensely they project it. The outcome is that one office of ‘society’ approves of them for conforming and not causing trouble, and another ‘office’ slots them into a low tier of the artistic scale because their poems are so colourless. The revisionist analysis of the mid-century sees the acceptance by poets of this subsidiary role as oppression.

What it seems to me is that these poets, notably meek and Christian as they were, had made a conscious adjustment to the need for people to co-operate and agree in a society, and that the way they wrote was soaked in this thought to the point that it means nothing without it. This must limit the reach of the revisionist project.

It follows from the ‘first clause’ that any critic who looks at say 400 poets publishing in the 1940s and says that some of them are more important than others is committing a crime. If we look at the ‘subsidiary role’ embodied in the literary style of many of these poets, it represents an investment which embodies a previous choice. If we recede one step to find this choice, we find the issue of why they chose a limiting strategy, a constricting strategy. We can hypothesize that they wanted to dominate. So if we ask who guided them into this losing strategy, the answer is the literary world - their models, their advisers, their editors, and so on. The revisionist line construes this as oppression. This would define the whole social process as a criminal association.

I have a problem with this because the coherence of the literary world at that time was very high. People writing poetry wanted to be part of that world and they identified with it. The people who were interested in the work of young poets, who bothered to read it, who encouraged it, were the cultural managers - the ones whom the revisionist line would accuse of criminality. Given this coherence, I think we can speak of colonising the past. You can’t impose the norms of 2010 onto the world of 1950.

The problem with defining the imposition of norms as a crime is that the most reliable definition of crime is as a breach of social norms. It is manifestly true that some people within most modern societies, certainly in British society of 1930-60, were conscious of the norms of the society, capable of criticising them, and eager in fact to overthrow them and replace them with new ones. This would include writers, quite notably. It does not include any of the poets in Coelsch’s list -so far as I can make out they were not politically radical writers at all. Raine was possibly a radical conservative, anti-modern in most ways.

That mid-century culture knew a category of people who believed in the force of pure ideas and wanted to overthrow the given state of affairs. This applies as much to the rules of verse as to town planning, ownership of the economy, the Empire, the design of buildings, what have you. They were arrogant but exciting. Modernism is all locked up with the fate of those ideals, of that self-declared ruling group. The problem here is that the radical and demanding and rebellious writers we know about were mostly not women. They chose modernism as their line of expression and they weren’t writing neat, rhymed, stanzaic poetry. They occupy almost the whole horizon of our optics for looking backwards, and there is a real problem in buying optics that would let one revalue Pitter and Raine, never mind Nott, Bowes-Lyon, et aliae. The poetry of these women falls into a category which does not even overlap with that. It was not revolutionary. It was neat and proper. They were happy to have inhibitions in place which restrained the arrogant. They were not much on smashing inhibitions or overthrowing the social order. They were certainly reading Poetry Review, not Ezra Pound.

I am wondering why Vita Sackville-West, who outsold all these writers, is not included. Sackville-West was the daughter of a duke. Wellesley was married to a duke. Bowes-Lyon was the cousin of the Queen. Sitwell came from a titled land-owning family, even though they didn’t give her the family money. All this shows a relation to the power structure, and we are not parting from reason to find the power structure revealing itself here. As, the dominated fraction of prestige group A are still more prestigious than the dominating fraction of prestige group C. Aristocratic women felt that what they had to say was important. This helped them write poetry. Women from income group C, let’s say, suspected that what they had to say was unimportant. If globally you find that 15% of authors publishing poetry are women, the correlation with self-importance is a distinct possibility.

Being low on cultural confidence predisposed women poets to write in a conventional way, like Lynd. The inhibitions they suffered from are directly connected to our wish not to read them today. Of course, most male poets were very conventional as well - we are talking about a percentage difference. It is noticeable, looking at the converse of this, that Edith Sitwell and Lynette Roberts were marginalised, at least from 1960, and did not benefit from the relentless productivity of the academic industry around Eliot, Auden, Yeats and (less so) Dylan Thomas and Ezra Pound - despite the originality and complexity of their work.

Writing small-scale verse could be the expression of a belief that autonomy means everyone living on a small scale and that creating large-scale units is connected to power-mad individuals seizing control of them, so that many other people forfeit autonomy. David Matless’ book Landscape and Englishness describes the line of spatial planning and town planning, which was in fact where Theory and university graduates came up against the old landowners and the old society, also where ‘crime’ comes up often as a metaphor. Part of slum clearance was to develop new towns, and these were not built from scratch, but added to existing nuclei, which had a certain amount of infrastructure. When Stevenage was chosen to be one of these New Towns, to have several thousand families from London moved to, the local upper class put up quite a fight. East End families did not fit into the pastoral vision. The minister in charge was Lewis Silkin, and the reactionaries referred to the planned town as ‘Silkingrad’, a covert reference to Silkin’s family history in eastern Europe. There is no doubt that the development changed the character of Stevenage. Anyway, public opinion was keenly aware of the possibilities of excessive use of transformatory power, as seen in England, although Soviet Russia and Germany were used as metaphors. My point is that these formally conservative mid-century poets were quite aware of the possibilities of revolution, that their vote was to restrict the powers of any group holding sovereign authority, and that their anti-revolutionary verse form expressed this social-political belief. There is a latent theory of political virtue waiting inside their poetry, but it is not revolutionary. The belief that the quality of inhibitions is all-important applies just as much to the legislative powers of the State and to the speculative intellect as to personal relations and to verse form. The hypothesis that X or Y wanted to dominate can be replaced at this point: if you don’t want anyone to dominate then you don’t want to dominate yourself.

Imagery to do with delicate and fragile things is common in these poets - thus flowers and birds for Lynd. This quality noticeably resembles the poems themselves, delicate and inviting sensitivity. I would suggest that this predilection is involved with a kind of politics, one where small units are to be autonomous and massive redevelopment programs are not to be pushed through by alliances of the powerful. This is anti-capitalist as much as anti-government. Modernist poems are fond of things like trains, cars, Metro trains, aeroplanes, tanks, escalators. Speed, long distances, metal, power. Even the intellectual thrust is based on power, on great spatial and temporal perspectives. So I suspect that there are political beliefs inscribed into the ‘small is beautiful’ attitude, a preservationist position.

The trouble with this kind of sociology is that you tend to end up writing the history of poetry that never got written. Of course playing with theoretical quantities is basic to any intellectual life. This lets me wheel on the intellectuals, whom we have already mentioned. They assumed authority without having any family background or great estates that would justify them in doing so. They wrote about a theoretical society and, you could say, their power was theoretical too. The more theories you have, the more (imaginary) power you can wield.

If after committing enough knowledge of poetry to memory you can conceptualise that borderless mass of data, draw a line round it, imagine a shifted version, the poetry that didn’t actually happen, I think that is admirable. If you are going to speculate, you would start with ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first‘. That is the normal place to start, the most productive I would think.

I thought briefly about ‘mid century German women’s poetry’. Obviously, the whole history is one of damage. Some women poets died in the camps, others were faced with a basically corrupted and supervised literary market, others fled into exile. It would be a retrieval project like reconstructing a ship from the floating spars of its wreck. So perhaps this is a retrieval project too. The women poets who came through all that were ‘revolutionary’ and ’existential’ but the English experience was just much safer.

When I looked at the Penguin anthologies, by Lucie-Smith and Allott, both had 7% women poets in their choices. They span the period 1918-70. This could sum up the mid-century scene, but the trouble with that is that figures I have cobbled together (not amazingly reliable figures, I grant) show that the share of books by women being published was considerably more than that, maybe 12-15%. (Look at the lists in the British Council pamphlets on new poetry, for example.) This gap is a vector specific to the taste of these two editors. We could think of an unequal ability to identify, so that these two male editors identified less easily with female poets. We could also think of an unequal approach to artistic ambition, so that of the 15% of women publishing a much smaller proportion wrote ambitious poetry likely to survive one or two generations. This theory - if it is accepted - would correlate with a sense of a diminished share of power, and with being other-directed. All the criticism of conservatism misses the point of why writers found it attractive. Presumably it was low-risk -the primary wave of reaction would find the method unexceptionable and so would neither criticise it nor give it a fanfare. This is an important ‘submerged’ dimension of modernism, if you like - why between 1920 and 1960 so few writers exploited it in any way, once the method had been taken to such heights by 1914. Conservative writing was simply comfort writing, it was low-risk. One correlative of it was a diminished ability to develop a personal style - old styles cannot be personal to any great extent, they are ‘previously enjoyed’. So the ‘vector’ could be due to fear of sticking out too much. There is a vector.

I went to an exhibition of sculpture by Helen Chadwick, one of the really gifted artists of my generation. All of it was extraordinary, but one group of works sticks in my mind. It was a series of bits of furniture. The theme was development through life, and each piece was roughly the size of Chadwick herself at a specific stage of life. So it was an autobiography without words. Suppose we think of Sylvia Lynd in terms of size. Adjectives like delicate, slender, exquisite come to mind. So if we take the poems in terms of body size we can consider that most women wanted to have smaller bodies and then speculate that Lynd wanted to write small poems for a similar reason. The preference for birds and flowers is not random - these are small and delicate organisms.
I am tempted to compare the bird theme with Ted Hughes.
I don’t know if I have a limited ability to identify with women poets. These things are hard to quantify.

(Let me refer to writing on Raine in my book The Council of Heresy and also here and here: .)

Lynd does not stick to strict metres:

A bird of urbane
Elegance is the flycatcher, straight-backed, self-possessed, slim.
He watches and marks his prey and neatly outflies him -
A peregrine in miniature. The midges are conspicuously
Fewer for his hunting.
Good luck, it is said, attends the dwelling that he makes his own.
Certain it is, when he is gone, Summer is gone
(from ‘The Flycatcher’)
With syllable counts of (13, 12, 16, 6, 15, 12) by my telling this is free verse, quite a departure for a poet like this. There is a rhyme scheme although it is irregular. The poet is perhaps thinking of DH Lawrence.

The idea that society is a criminal association is powerful but maybe too powerful. I am not convinced that the contrast between 'managers of literature' in 1940 and such managers in 2002 is so great as to justify donning prosecutor's robes by the latter. How do we know that future historians will not consign everything we do to the category of criminality? The next step would be to announce that we follow the ethical norms of our own time and so are legitimate. I cannot make this announcement because it is not clear to me what the norms of our own time are and so the claim to be observing them seems vacuous. Detective stories usually set out with the idea that you don't know who the culprit is, but what do I do in a story where I don't know what crime I've committed?

‘Selected Poems’, by Dorothy Wellesley (1889-1956)

Yeats in his introduction describes ‘Matrix’ as the leading philosophical poem of the present day. I think it is obscure but not philosophical. ‘Love sobs for the womb of the grave,/ for the womb and the grave are one. // the spiritual, the carnal, are one.’ This is not meaningful enough to be philosophy. It is about mother-child relations. This would seem to exile abstract ideas in favour of concrete relationships as the basis of human society. An abstract argument against abstraction is always hard to express. Actually it’s hard to make out what she’s getting at. The starting point seems to be a point of infancy where you have intense feelings but no words. Finding a linguistic equivalent for a non-linguistic state is a technical problem the poet did not solve. Maybe the poem is about souls and incarnation. It is mush from a semantic point of view. The poems Yeats compares it with are by Herbert Read and Walter James Turner. He also wrote about her on pages xxxii-xxxiii of the introduction to his Oxford Book of Modern Verse.

These aren’t bad poems but there is nothing I would really want to revive. The number of archaic words is not huge but there are quite a few of them. The poet seems untouched by Modernism and quite a few poems explain this by exposing her attitude towards modern life. There is a certain nobility and idealism about her work which makes it close to Raine. (Yeats' letters to W were edited by Raine.) The poems describe ideals. Originality is not sought for where it would block typicality.

“Genesis’ is a poem about the history of Man. This would put her in the same region as Redwood Anderson. She is a better poet than Anderson, but these 600 lines on 10,000 years of history really don’t show very much except juvenile self-confidence. It’s unbelievable how much things have changed, or maybe she was ignorant about poetry even in 1936. Poetry had to take on ideas, but this has been a painful process for people who also thought that poems should not contain any abstract ideas at all. “Genesis’ is about development but is just a series of pictures. It’s not enough. Her poem is very naive compared to Aldington's ‘Life Quest’, which is roughly contemporary. The quality she has is integrity: the picture of Bronze Age Europe really does stay still for as long as she wants to write about it. It is clear and all the colours are deep and rich. The question of just what she is seeing, when she has no experience of the time and the surviving evidence is essentially not pictorial, does not arise. ‘Genesis’ is interesting as a point of departure for many poems about archaeology which have been written since; most of them foreground the act of reconstruction in some way rather than having antiquity simply stand there before you like a video. Having that picture dissolve might be a tragic moment, a moment when a personality module breaks down.

I thought the poems about animals were the best. I quite like parts of ‘Moths’.

Drab, stout, like little mice
Scampering after rice.
Fen moths that feed
In parsley, wild angelica, lucerne,
Companions of newt and leech and hern.
And Mottled Rustics that love teaselweed;
Waved Umber moth that in the forks of pears
Spins its soft silk cocoon.
Breaking into wing in the short nights of June
To feast upon dog roses and sweet briars;
The moth named Phoenix, symbol of the rest,
For all their brood
Were grubs that bred their beauty in a wood

‘Hern’ is an obsolete word for ‘heron’ and elsewhere the poet uses ‘rath’, as a half-rhyme for ‘death’. ‘rath’ is the root of ‘rather’ and means ‘swift’, but this word has been dead for many centuries. If you marry a duke you presumably don't want too much modernity. ‘Moths’ uses irregular line lengths and a pattern of half-rhymes (briars/ pears) that isn’t quite predictable. Mixing rhymes with variable line lengths produces a strange hybrid, but that is what most 20th century poetry was, a hybrid for which terms have not been coined. (Could we call this 'softened modernism'?) This poem is reasonably similar to Sacheverell Sitwell (personal view).

Vagueness and nobility go together. I suppose the preoccupation with ideals links to motherhood: if you are talking to children the whole time, you want to set them examples of ethical standards, so the concrete quality of individual situations is not so important. Doubt does not fit into this and this is why the picture of Prehistory in ‘Genesis’ is so clear, without any notion that what has been dug up is a stupidly small sample of what once existed and that interpretation of it is unbelievably difficult; that even in 1936 different archaeologists had different theories and that in 70 years after 1936 a whole new set of evidence would be dug up. It’s more that noble people with noble ideas must be right, and that the process of criticising and sifting knowledge is menial and ignoble. But then, one must admit that pictures are easier to memorise and even that what memory stores may actually be pictorial, and the whole process of evidence, hypotheses, anomalies, flaws, etc. sinks into memory only with extreme reluctance. We dream in pictures. It reads as if Wellesley had only read one book about archaeology, but another poem (at p.39) explains to us that before digging a site you should sow it with barley or beans and use colour variations in the crop to expose hidden underground features which have affected their growth patterns. I had never heard about this and it is a telling concrete detail. This shows that as classification we should put Wellesley under 'idealistic-documentary'. She collects the facts. Look at this:

And wonderful are dry-docks, where the ships
Are run on keel-props held by timber-shores,
And sterns and prores
Stand up for scrapers' work, and the paint drips
Among algae and mussels, wonderful when
Docks still are in the building

The idealistic bit is distinctive: 'And wonderful are dry-docks'. But just look how much information is collected in the poem. Most of her poems engage with the material world but they always find it wonderful. We associate documentary poetry with the 1930s but there was an earlier documentary style with Kipling in the 1890s. The formula of 'details of handicrafts + the transcendent' could suggest David Jones, born six years after Wellesley. I suppose 'prore' is a word for 'prow', one listed by the OED as poetic and rare. W's poetry is the opposite of existential, soaring high above material issues and emphatically idealistic and aestheticised. Being existential was a complete breach with the main body of European culture and it obviously isn't true that most people writing in the 1950s were existentialist.

I first read Yeats' anthology (the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935) when I was about 17, in 1973 therefore, and I remember Wellesley's poem in it as being about gazelles, but on checking it isn't. There is a line about a 'Mongolian tarpan' and I possibly thought this was a gazelle whereas it is a wild horse. I can visualise the gazelle. Possibly it is the one which appears in a poem by WJ Turner a few pages away. The poem also in that Oxford book about an 'Asian Desert' is also good, with this description of central Asian earth:

There is her spine, dark, rack-a-bones,
Iron-stone ranges her limbs
Zigzagging the sky,
Cleansed and eased is her sex,
Pure, bitter and rank
The follow, the dearth of her flank,
Here lies the mother of men.

The idea that central Asia was the original home of humanity was floating about in the 19th century, I don't know why. The British Israel people thought that the Lost Tribes had moved to central Asia. It was legend rather than a scientific theory. I don't think there are any primate fossils in central Asia and no really early settlement sites. There are some Neanderthal bones now known, and found there, but I think they are recent finds. 'Rack-a-bones' is a challenge to gloss. Let me say at once that I think it is a dialect word, then that I suppose it to be the product of confusion, as a subjective zone of meaning. The OED gives 'rackbone', as vertebra. This is close but not complete. In Scots we have 'rickle', glossed as 'a living skeleton' and as 'a loose heap'. In sum, the earth is stripped to bones. Further glosses give 'rickle' as a verb meaning 'rattle' and 'rackle' as an adjective meaning 'loose, shaky', especially of stone walls. Searching the web shows ‘rack a bone’ as a description of skeletal horses. ‘Follow’ is presumably just ‘line, curve’.

The Wikipedia entry on Wellesley says she was a Lesbian and separated from her husband in 1922. One of the poems has material on male homosexuals. Wiki says W went to live with Vita Sackville-West, a best selling poet who interestingly enough was also the scion of a ducal family. We seem to find a pattern here. It also says she lived, later, with someone called Hilda Matheson, who was a relation of mine. I think we had better stop there.

It seems possible that W's poetry began after she separated from her husband. This is a guess, based on publication dates. So leaving the married state may have been the starting point for being a poet. I have been reading Sarah Bradford's fascinating biography of Sacheverell Sitwell. Bradford at p.310 describes the behaviour of Dorothy W at a poetry reading in April 1943 as recounted by Edith Sitwell in a letter:

Lady Peel (Beatrice Lillie)... tried to enfold her in a ju-jitsu grip and hold her down on her seat, Stephen Spender ... seeing her wander outside, tried to knock her down and sit on her face, Raymond Mortimer ... induced her to take his arm and go into Bond Street, where she promptly sat down on the pavement, banging her stick and using frightful language about A the Queen and B Me - (The worst being about me!) ... she smacked Harold Nicolson... All we needed was Dylan Thomas ...

Interesting but radically incomplete as a story. Perhaps we could complete it by:

WH Auden began reading a long poem setting a book of popular theology by Reinhold Niebuhr into verse, in a kind of Oxford pansy sing-song which shocked almost everybody. Most of the audience left, many of them swearing never to encounter modern poetry again, others fell asleep, finally the embattled survivors stormed the stage. The organiser came on and promised that Auden would shut up soon, but then Arthur Waley held him up with an antique Chinese firearm of considerable value. Eddie Sackville-West began playing bebop piano (after a recent visit to Minton's), Kathleen Raine began conjuring up Syrian demons, and Wellesley began dancing the tarantella. Lady Peel tried to enfold her in a ju-jitsu grip ...

Alas I had to make this up. All the same if a poet reacts badly at a poetry reading one has to suspect that this is a genuine aesthetic response. People are normally too polite. This is possibly not a portrait of DW in typical form.
Does smacking Harold Nicolson count as cultural critique?


Just after writing this I was reading 'Cold War; building for nuclear confrontation 1945-89', by Wayne C Cocroft and Roger JC Thomas (English Heritage, 2003), which is about the 'built environment' of the Cold War in Britain. What it says explains the New Town Story in more depth. The people moved there in around 1950 had jobs as well as housing and this was because the new Aerospace - Communications -Electronics industries were being set up in those towns. This was a sort of anti-bombardment defence - as well as putting facilities in bunkers you put them 50 miles away from any other factory so that they don't get hit as an 'overspill'. So it is Day Ten after a nuclear strike. London has Gone. There is no London. Your radar and plane bases want spares and new items of hardware. Because the factory is in Stevenage it can fill the orders and maybe you can stave off Wave Two of the Soviet assault. This is what Cocroft and Thomas' book explains. The radar gear is above ground rotating and listening. There is a limit to how much you can harden it. This book is published by English Heritage which is a government department, so what it says is probably not an X-File or some kind of hippy divination. The Cocroft/Thomas book lists the firms involved and shows photographs of their works. Lewis Silkin's vision of Ten Days After doesn't really slot into some squire's belief that Stevenage cannot change from what it was in 1910, your 'pastoral poem'. But they were both thinking of the same few acres around Stevenage. This is the kind of argument town planning throws up. In the arguments people imagine the land and those images recur in poems and the poems take place inside those images.

Matless does not record this but recovers the planning row over the new Stevenage in a very compelling way. Matless' book shows everything inserted into 3D space as emerging into about 97 different planes. I think inserting poetry into 3D space is a key to understanding it. Maybe you have to look at the whole town to understand the poem written in it. Sound keeps bumping into objects, it is articulated by those obstructions or reverberations. Poetry takes place in imaginary space but it is often space imagined by people other than the poets.

East Britain in the 1950s was being laid out like one giant fortification, drawn with a view to bombardment from above, designed for blast containment. Recovering this is 'landscape archaeology' of a rational and impressive kind. The West was the 'rear echelon' and Norway was the gatehouse. Forget about archaeo-astronomy, we have to map NW Europe through the eyes of radar batteries. All this development is before the advent of the ICBM and even before the advent of the supersonic bomber - it is aimed at subsonic nuclear bombers operating from bases on the western or northwestern rim of the Warsaw Pact area. The New Towns were like the towns in Wales that grew around Norman castles. The contrast between 'great space' and 'personal space' became much more intense after 1945, whatever pitch it had reached during the world war.

The migration of those firms into consumer electronics out of military applications is a story of great importance. The New Town thing was like three-dimensional chess, every move had simultaneous implications in about 12 different planes.

1 comment:

  1. The content of the article was in good details. I hope you’ll keep posting nice to read blogs and informative articles. Thank for sharing a nice one. Great job.
    Exhaust Repair