Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Poems missing from the record

Poems missing from the record

The posting on Spender elsewhere on this site discusses Spender’s complex and highly motivated rebuilding of his poetic record, with the 1985 Collected being an especially fragile and minimal version, which quite probably leaves out half of his published poetry. The possibility of 'rigging the past to fit alliances and positions in the present' is on the pitch somewhere, although I would emphasize that there are many other possibilities. Anyway, if you cut part of the written record the reasons why you do it are inherently not in the record, and any reasons you offer are subject to suspicions of being just as heavily edited as the texts themselves.

I thought to talk about 'missing texts' because it is a natural extension of talking about 'missing poets', which has been my main topic as a historian.

Spender's two Collecteds leave out his verse play 'Trial of a Judge' and his long poem 'Vienna'. Given the small extent of his Collected (and what survives in it), these texts are important for any historical understanding of Spender’s achievement. However, the 'authorised' version also leaves out quite a few poems from Ruins and Visions and Poems of Dedication.

My feeling is that Spender spent a great deal of his life preventing the truth about who he really was from coming out, and re-editing his poems was part of this. This is hardly separable from his reform of his own early communist position - the god that failed, quote - and this is one of the most courageous and conscious aspects of his career. How can you convict all the others of being totalitarian cat's-paws and then go on to criticise Spender for rethinking everything and repenting and outspokenly attacking dictatorship, concentration camps, and the whole package? Would we admire someone so "conscious" that they stuck to the positions they grabbed at the age of eighteen and totally ignored the passage of history and such unpoetic things as events? Personally I find Spender one of the most sympathetic poets of the whole 20th century.

Anyone setting out to recover the history of modern British poetry is going to be faced with the possibility that, besides the poets whose names you don't know, the Collecteds you gather up by the well-known names have been reconstructed to suit the central official position (that is, the position of conformist oppressive smugness which denies its own existence). If you just look at the final version, vetted by all the bureaucrats, you may completely misunderstand the course of events.

One view is that poets as they get older come to identify with the bourgeoisie and experience a greater anxiety at not conforming. They come to know their patrons and to realise that they are the same people they are attacking. Another is that older poets reject their own work out of pure and elevated aesthetic concerns, so that the poems they keep are the better ones. When I started out in this business, I was being told that compromise was the ideal, that I should idealise Auden because he was totally compromised and this was the distilled wisdom of the ages. This was in 1972 or 1973.

Over the past five or ten years, the reissue programme of Shearsman and Salt has put into print the vast majority of the recent poetry that I am interested in. Almost perversely, this draws attention to the poets who have not featured in this convulsive resurgence of the past - Martin Thom, Brian Marley, Paul Gogarty, Dunstan Thompson. The effort of gorging on and absorbing all this wonderful material is inevitably going to delay a proper understanding of the whole. With the poets prominent enough to have been given Collecteds, the question of the pressure to conform requires further analysis so that we can know the history of what has been forgotten. My impression is that the group of people involved in the poetry business is cohesive and that they have had a cultural programme which they have been well equipped to translate into a package of actions. The scheme to promote Auden and demote Dylan Thomas is the most prominent of these. Of course it is possible to agree with this sort of central club-room of poetic gossip as well as to disagree with it. If you stick around on the scene you find the past being rewritten in different ways as time flows on.

In 1974, I read in a book by Martin Seymour-Smith about two outstanding ‘documentary poems’ by Charles Madge which had never been printed. They were ‘The Storming of the Brain’ and ‘The Father Found’. In 2008, I was allowed to write the commentary accompanying the first publication of one of these in the Cambridge Literary Review. This was a rare privilege. As the other one was in his 1994 collected/selected from Anvil, they are both ‘out there’ now. As the poems date from circa 1949-50, this was quite a delay. The literary history of that time needs to be rewritten to accommodate them.

Of course a very large proportion of the older poets of interest, I mean before the 1970s, have never been re-published. I only came across this problem when I read Logue's 1959 volume, Songs, which surfaced in North Finchley Library for 50p, in around 1991, and which was the volume which set me off on this project. After reading this really very distinguished book quite a lot, I looked at Logue's retro-selected -and discovered that he had edited away almost everything. There were two even earlier volumes which he had simply eliminated from the official record. We are bound to note that Spender and Logue have one thing in common, that is being prominent political poets - arguably the most distinguished political poets of their respective generations. The ability to react so comprehensively and brilliantly to political events as they were happening may actually be connected to a need to discard poems once the events they reflected or summed up had ceased to be current. Then, the poems disappeared into the same cellar of the recent past as the events they described - and as the political personalities who guided and pretended to interpret those events. Both poets have in common a certain lightness - they genuinely responded to passing events, rather than simply turning out more poems based on their personal and inflexible style modules.

There is something else they have in common. Logue's early volumes, Wand and Quadrant and Devil, Maggot, and Son, were both indebted to the Apocalyptic style. His debut was clearly related to Dylan Thomas and George Barker. So we can guess that the project of recuperating the New Romantic poets is not confined to the period books of the poets who were never republished but also the period books of poets who deleted their own New Romantic poems from the written record. This was a daunting challenge and I am not sure we ever cleared it up altogether. (I think James Keery has written about this somewhere but I am not sure where that essay is available.) The most notable examples were Logue, Spender, Norman MacCaig and Lawrence Durrell. With Durrell, the final Collected reinstates all his New Romantic poems - leaving the first Collected as something slightly suspicious.

I was looking at the current Collected Auden today and find it leaves out one book altogether - The Orators. This book is significant to me as an example of the influence of Lawrence, part of a great line of Lawrence imitation during the 1930s, which sheds light not least on Foray of Centaurs, a book by Joseph Macleod which was never issued during the 1930s and for which I was trying to reconstruct a context, seventy years later. I think it is urgent to read Foray - and Vienna, and The Orators.

Barry MacSweeney was in court, as an apprentice journalist, a school-leaver, at one of the two most famous child-murderer cases of the century. Something like thirty years later, he wrote a book of poems about the redemption of that child. This cannot be published because it is not fictionalised and some of the characters might sue to protect their character.

The list of missing MacSweeney books, actually existing or not, is not short. When I interviewed him, we discussed Pelt Feather Log. I think this was announced by Grosseteste, I can’t really remember. Barry couldn’t remember either whether it had been published or whether he had written it. The ‘pelt feather’ connects, very probably, with the feathers grown by the Irish legendary character Sweeny (Suibhne Geilt) in the tale of Sweeney’s madness (as the word geilt was translated by a Latin writer as ‘volatilis’, i.e. ‘poultry’). Sweeney could fly, hence had a feather pelt. Sweeny was also MacSweeney, by a simple mythical transformation. The image connects with a ‘fetherham’ (pelt of feathers) appearing in a poem by Chatterton and connected (by Barry) to Chatterton’s own soar upwards and fatal fall, another biography appropriated by Barry to show his own life. Bladud (in Geoffrey of Monmouth) also had a flying cloak, soared, and fell on London. This appears in Iain Sinclair’s other version of British myths, which overlaps with Barry’s.

Toad Church definitely does exist, I now have a photocopy of the typescript. And someone has sent me a photocopy of 'Pelt Feather Log'.

In an issue of Poetry Information, Barry announced a set of projects he was working on. "Black Torch, book 1, a first part of a long projected work, drawing on the political/social activity of Northumberland and Durham miners, will be published by London Pride Editions this autumn. Much of it is in Northumbrian dialect. Book 2, half finished, works around John Martin's diaries -he is the Northumbrian painter- tracts by radical Baptist ministers, and the trial of T. Dan Smith. Book 3 is planned to be based on tape recordings with residents of Sparty Lea and the Allen Valley in Northumberland." For Black Torch, there is only ‘Book 1’, as published, and Book 4, which is the elegy to his grandfather published in the new british poetry and elsewhere. I am not sure any of the others actually got written, as we discussed this when I interviewed him in 1995. 'Other works include a series of poems on 1950s British B movies and a sequence of stories about working as a reporter in Newcastle and elsewhere.' - also unknown and perhaps unwritten. I have just been reading The British B Film, by Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane, a strange and moving work which probably goes as deep into that lost world as anyone ever will. They watched 500 of these films and have surely resurrected whatever is living and breathing from that lower depth of cinematic banality. One of the typical characters of those ‘supporting films’ is the journalist, and it’s possible that this was Barry’s identification figure. Of course this was the trench-coated investigative journalist uncovering crimes; this works if you see British society as based on crime, and a whole range of Barry’s poems can be seen as ‘fearless exposés’ describing the crimes of the ruling elite against the mass of the population. The story of T Dan Smith was presumably the great story of Barry’s career, although he chose not to write down what he knew. Smith’s rise and fall may make him the original source for the Chatterton figure in Barry’s personal myth.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andrew,

    Do you happen to remember please what the Martin Seymour-Smith book was called in which you found out about the unpublished Madge poems?

    Thanks, very best, Josh