Saturday, 7 August 2010

Notes on the poet Joseph Gordon Macleod

Waking a Lost Sound: Joseph Macleod

In the 1930 volume of Poetry (Chicago) which contains the original Objectivist anthology is an essay by Basil Bunting on modern British poetry which praises Joseph Macleod (1903-84) to the skies. If not for this, the name of Macleod would still be buried in obscurity. Everyone, in the 1970s, interested in the sources of the new avant-garde, went back to that anthology; no one could resist reading what Bunting had to say. And so people began to search for Macleod's rare and untraceable books. And so, eventually, Cyclic Serial Zeniths from the Flux, the selected poems of Joseph Macleod, came to be released, which everyone will soon be familiar with. It has a long fact-bulging introduction (by me), so this note will just deal with marginal or obscure aspects of the Macleod Story.

I have a recurring anxiety dream in which I lose control of my wordprocessor and find myself down on the lawn gazing longingly up at the window where I can see a radge/hypercool culturato helming the next big thing. And so, did I select the right Macleod poems for reissue? A week spent in the National Library of Scotland back in January 2001 revealed that Macleod was one of the most prolific poets of the 20th century. I put together a package of 128 pages because it seemed affordable. There must be another 800 pages for someone to dig up. Why did I only pick one book from The Ecliptic rather than the whole thing? We, the River, a documentary-epic poem from about 1937, has never been printed. I really liked it, although it's unfinished and the impetus hardly sustains the whole length of something which sets out to explain the whole agricultural economy of Huntingdonshire. All I can say is that the typescripts are all in the National Library. Among many very Scottish things.

Foray of Centaurs and The Ecliptic are two book-length poems which form a discrete phase in the poet's work. The Ecliptic was written in 1928 and published in 1930, at the same time and in the same livery as Auden's Poems, also from Faber. Faber, inexplicably, turned down Foray of Centaurs (composed 1930) and went with the Wyster. Macleod rewrote Foray in 1936 and this is the only version we now have. By 1936, everything had changed.

I couldn’t work out the significance of the geometry in Foray – I can register it at the level of a visual motif recurring in a film, but I can’t attach a discursive meaning to it. The figures of the Centaurs’ dance in Canto I are described with a precision which suggests their physical existence prior to the poem. The bean shape of the dance echoes the “cotyledon” seed from which the Centaurs are held to grow. How does this vegetable reproduction tally with the symbolism of the Centaurs as dynamos of sexual energy? I think 'cotyledon' may include a sonic echo of 'cotillion'. However, the “incomplete circle” may be more significant, because it recurs throughout the poem. The circle motif may relate to the circuit of the year drawn by the sun – and there is a strand of sun imagery about fertility which seems central to the poem, as an abiding energy in contrast to the temporary and unnatural repressed state of the Lapiths. The odd fire religion which the Lapiths observe is also related to this. (The seasonal fires on Mount Pelion may symbolise the fire of the sun and be lit at the solstice.)

Macleod was a theatre producer in the early 1930s and had the faculty of visualising complex motion. Foray has this starting point of the writer imagining intricate and highly choreographed movement and then using daring language to describe it. This is why it is difficult (but repays close reading). The poetry starts from something already highly complicated, artificial, charged with meaning. It really takes off when describing dance and architecture. We could logically set out on a study of it by studying art history. Instantly we would realise that these two early poems have an affinity for the ballets russes and for everything associated with them. They belong to a sensibility which withdrew with the arrival of the Depression, which closed down the avant garde and oriented everyone, not least Macleod, towards social action and so towards documentary and ideology. Any reconstruction of the ballets russes today is likely to consult the writings of Adrian Stokes, who had the advantage of seeing the productions (at least those of the 1920s) and of mixing socially with the company. Stokes was at school with Macleod and was a lifelong friend. Foray is partly a series of dances.

The poetic milieu in which the two long poems belong is perfectly reconstructed by Sydney Bolt's 1967 anthology Poetry of the 1920s. It is unfortunate that he does not include The Ecliptic. There is an essay where Macleod identifies his influences as Aldington, Lawrence, and WJ Turner. Examination of the section where Bolt collects poems by these three will shed all kinds of light on the style of The Ecliptic and Foray. It also includes Herbert Read - who, as reader for Faber, rejected Foray. We may reflect that Turner was a ballet critic and Read an art critic (Sacheverell Sitwell, bizarrely omitted by Bolt, wrote art history as well as poetry). Fitting Macleod into this context gives us little in the way of restrictions - it was a moment when poets could use any material and make the most dizzying jumps of association. It was also a moment when poetry was dominated by visual art - which in fact offered a shared culture as a foundation for these jumps, unit structures of a liberated awareness. Take these passages:

There is yellow lightning among the trees
Impassible foliage-bearers, dense dreams
Of running water - itself so clear, transparent!
Uplifted trunks of a myriad buried elephants
Petrified into solid stone
Buried in clear yellow glass;
Resting upon other layers of elephants
Their trunks turned downwards in the solid rock
Pre-historic tree-ferns!

How flimsy the lighting seems,
The wavering of a candle flame in polished steel -
So still the waters, the hills, and the vegetation;
The priest of white stone, the altar,
The crepe-hung Moon!

(WJ Turner)

Our structures are of steel and glass
their subtle struts not obvious
we build with space in space
and by ingenuity produce
our aerial houses high towers
our winding stairs -
all is in light
above-board and ought
to win the approval of the masses
No need to multiply instances.
But we must reduce the area of glass:
we have avoided darkness
our structures are transparent -
only the skeleton visible and adamant
lies like a net embedded criss-cross.
This would fail as an ambush
therefore blacken the glass
fill in the mesh
with soil and cement
any opaque element
so that their eyes cannot penetrate
partitions or discover remote
repetitions of plane and space.

(Herbert Read)
The similarity to the idiom of early Macleod is obvious. We have to underline the structural liberty - the creation from intense concrete images and dizzying jumps of association of new worlds, ambiguous and disturbing. Around 1930 the set-up was quite close to allowing the poem to go anywhere the poet wanted it to go. All these poets saw an inexhaustible significance in geometry. The creation of simple yet primal shapes - or the isolation of structure-giving forms in the real world - was essential to their creative effort. And so we return to the broken circle:

Deliberately broken cycloid, bitten pediment,
correctly ovolated entablature
and hexastyle unpinned by utile dummy or urn:
the lawn's compaction and the tailored topiary,
salvias uniform in column of platoons,
the muted parterre quasi-semi-italianate:
these masses gather, these lines join
where apsed marquee lies anchored
within the balustrade,
and the wedding breakfast is spread, and metal peacocks
share mulberries with enamelled chinese pheasants.
(Foray of Centaurs)

I find this just as exciting as I found Bolt's anthology when I read it about 25 years ago. Two long poems develop religions based on energy cults and lead up to the New Romantics. These are Fall of a Tower by Francis Berry, 1943, and Foray of Centaurs, 1935. The marriage ceremony in Foray is bizarre and unfamiliar. We seem to see a cult of pure energy, without personal gods. However, it is very similar to the energy religion described in Fall of a Tower. I believe that the link is DH Lawrence - to be exact, the religious system he describes in 'Apocalypse', which says that the sun is a living being. (This cluster of ideas is developed also in Etruscan Places and The Man Who Fled.) I found an explanation in Richard Aldington's introduction to 'Apocalypse'. The title may ring a bell - this is probably where the New Apocalypse group of the 40s and late 30s got their initial ideas from. This group represented a radical return to Lawrence, but in fact there was a strong current of lawrentian poetry throughout the 30s. We can in fact see the 1930s as a contrast between two poetic groups: the Auden clique and the followers of Lawrence. The latter group were pushed right into the darkness by the Auden gang. Along with Foray we should mention Aldington's Life Quest, as well as Fall of a Tower, one of Berry's major works - and Sacheverell Sitwell, clearly influenced by Lawrence. I got a glimpse of this while researching the background to the Apocalypse group, for a book called Origins of the Underground. Something which kept cropping up is the neo-pagan cultic 'new life' community at Ascona (in Switzerland) who almost indisputably gave Lawrence his ideas about the sun. Lawrence got these German ideas from his wife.

It's a good idea to read Foray along with Fall of a Tower. Berry also wrote a long poem about centaurs - 'Mediterranean Year'. Something curious is the recurrence of a theme - namely the murder of a king by the Centaurs - in both Foray:

Resplendently then
the captain cowry-necklaced in the midst
is crowned with a rosette of steel
buttressed by six boulders.
The sun rises. All yell. The lyre is struck. Swords lock.
Triumphant the captain's head
from six sides severed
totters on his shoulders: and
another furred ancestor is lost in the fragrant forenoon.

- and 'Mediterranean Year':

The circuit malice of the horsemen Killers narrows-
Converging on the King like knived and beckoning prows,
With outstretched clumsy arms the purple King is crying -
With his own royal robes they swaddle him to death.
Then throbs his flesh beneath the hand and club marauders
And as the drowning Elk in puckered marsh, he moans.
Melt under earth the long bronze horns:
Stuffed with ash the tired iron urns:
Death divides your rare dear flesh -
Kiss and keep me, kiss.

I do not find this in any of the ancient myths about the Centaurs. Berry can't have read the unpublished Foray. The regicide does not seem to connect to the rest of Foray particularly.  My first attempt to locate sources for the Centaur dance came up empty. I speculated that Macleod had invented it. However, a simple Google search (on “sword dance beheading”) in January 2018 has uncovered a whole stream of references to beheading as part of a sword dance within a Mummers' Play, with resurrection by the Doctor as the climax of the play. Some of these have the Captain as the beheaded figure – so Macleod’s execution of a king as part of the dance was based on folk sources after all. Cf. >>The plays are closely related to the English mummers plays and parallel the Greek folk play in Thrace. In the dance the swords are interlocked at one point, forming a “rose,” or “lock,” that is held aloft and placed around the neck of a performer in mock decapitation. Often the “beheadedfalls “dead,” to be revived by a “doctor, a fool, a man-woman, or other subsidiary character. The roots of these dances are in ancient vegetation rites of death and renewal, possibly in sacrifice of a leader to ensure fertility.  <<

Macleod uses the phrase "swords lock", and the word "captain", obviously a reference to this movement in the Sword Dance. And in particular:

>>The Grenoside Sword Dance is a unique sword dance. Although many of the moves it contains can be found in other sword dances, the dancers wear clogs and perform a breakstep between figures. The dance also features the ritual 'beheading' of the captain near the beginning of the dance. <<
>> It made a great impression on Sharp. He was particularly interested in the ritual slaying of the Captain/Fool and speculated in his book that this represented some previous human/animal ritual sacrifice or slaughter. The Grenoside dance was the most complex single dance that Sharp would see. <<

The severed head is the gap in the "broken cycloid". It is likely that Macleod associated the Centaur, as man-horse, with the Hobby Horse in the mummers' plays. The "folk play" in Thrace may also have been stimulating - Foray is set in Thessaly, which is where the Greeks bred horses, but Thrace is not so far away. My attention was drawn to locked sword beheading by a Ngaio Marsh detective novel, Off With His Head (1957), which is all about folklore. The theme is likely to connect to the ideas of J. G. Frazer (as Marsh suggests) and perhaps to the execution of Tsar Nikolai II. The real-life source explains why Macleod and Berry use the same motif. Berry eliminated the swords but keeps the ritual king-murder.

Auden began with The Orators, work heavily influenced by Lawrence (Kangaroo). A few years later, he led English poetry off towards documentary - which is also where Macleod went, switching from ballet to documentary film as the visual source of his poems. The overlap of Macleod and Auden is interesting. The portrait of sexual frustration in Foray is compelling, but the mythical liberation by the irruption of rough primeval urges is both lawrentian and deeply embarrassing. It was an editorial temptation to kind of leave that part out. It's fortunate that the whole story is so distantiated and defamiliarised.

It is puzzling how a bloc which venerates modernism leaves out all the native modernists and stops with Eliot and Pound. The Twenties saw a lot of modernism in poetry. It seemed to me after reading Bolt that British poetry had gone seriously wrong in 1930, with thirty years of wandering in the wilderness before things got back in the groove in the 1960s, with a generation of students who had swallowed Read's doctrine that the Modernist Revolution was what really happened in the 20th century. The reconstruction left out dance, which didn't leave a record of recoverable objects - but in general Read was right, I think. You can get fed up with his Mottram-like partisan zeal, but if you look at the rival line represented by late Auden, Betjeman, John Fuller (Auden's editor), Fuller's friend James Fenton, and Glyn Maxwell, it seems like we've had 50 years of the wrong people in charge. While this background doesn't bring us a step closer to the youthful Macleod of 1928, it does help to explain why Macleod's name is unknown. I understand that James Keery has now extended his re-analysis of the poetic history of the 1940s back into the 1930s, still puzzling over silences in the official version.

This was published in Richard Price's magazine Painted, Spoken. It is issued here for the convenience of people who didn't get to see Painted, Spoken.
A reissue of The Ecliptic edited by Rich Owens has now come out from Flood Editions. I understand that Owens has a typescript of 'The Ecliptic' which includes several sections not in the published version.

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