Thursday, 12 August 2010

Self-adornment in Sixties Poetry

Pale Pink Acetate: Self-Adornment in Sixties Poetry

'How can I go cattin' without them crazy pink slacks? Man, them pants is crazy, them's pink pale acetate. Mister, you just don't know what those peggers mean to me. I gotta have 'em.'
-Eddie Cochran, 'Pink Peg Slacks', written by Cochran and Capehart.
'To an extent, in fact, all male fashion of the sixties was homosexual-derived.' -Nik Cohn, Today there are no Gentlemen

The period covered in this book is simply one of expanding affluence, with ever-increasing levels of leisure and education. These trends required an increase of available information. When we speak, in our title, of affluence, welfare, and fine words, we are pointing to the disappearance of economic limits (or, incentives) from poetry. Economics generally assumes that an activity will stop when the returns become too small – this is just not the case for writing poetry, where the inputs are unpriced and people do not withdraw from production because there is no market. The field falls under a different set of rules, governing choice and attention; and may be a foretaste of a future economy based on abundance, where unconstrained preferences have sway everywhere. Poetry is therefore governed by a law of mutual pleasure. The moment of being attracted to a poem is supreme. To shed light on the rules of intimacy is to shed light on how poetry works.

Much of the theorising around the poem has been in the form of attacks on this act of preference. An attempt to discredit human reason, no less, has been undertaken – starting from Marxist false consciousness theory. However, no replacement has been found. Even people who are serenely willing to deny other people’s wishes are in practice unable to prevent other people (morally mere trash, no doubt) from pursuing their wishes. Both poets and readers are merely addicted to the pursuit of pleasure.

The simplest way of explaining what happened in the Sixties is to say that an enactment was passed which said that poetry had to be attractive and agreeable. This was part of a cultural change which also meant males dressing in bright colours and worrying about style; the new styles favoured by teenagers came, as Nik Cohn pointed out, from lines aimed at homosexual men who had pioneered bright colours and dressing to please. Of course, the aim for most men was to please women, and this display meant a new vulnerability: where women were the judges, they could also say no; and this was a sign of the balance tilting away from male power.

One of the functions of language is to signal prestige: we scan messages very carefully to measure the relative and absolute levels of importance which they attribute to people mentioned. If poetry is a more intense use of language than the everyday, we should also expect prestige, hierarchy, to assume fuller dimensions and more detail within the poem. Traditionally, poetry has the function of eulogy; this function has slipped sideways to advertising, which uses broken poetic forms, and the figure praised within the poem now tends to be the poet; praise couched therefore in very oblique and exquisite forms.

As consumption of objects bearing status took off, in the 1960s, a wave of display made possible a new Socialist image of the individual worker, no longer as the underfed, excluded, needy figure of Thirties realist photographs, but the working-class dandy: male or female, disturbingly attractive, radiating vitality and prosperity enough to make the grey repressive bureaucrats of the bourgeoisie seem like phantoms. The poets this phrase especially applies to, in this time, are Tom Raworth, John James, Barry MacSweeney, and David Chaloner. Rebels from a more traditional background included George MacBeth and Rosemary Tonks. It would be amazing, would it not, if people could spend so much effort over their hair and clothes and not pay equal attention to their voices and the way they speak; poetry is a form of self-presentation, and can't escape the rules of that game. The more rowdy and disrespectful of students had begun listening to rock and roll long before, as teenagers; from the Sixties, there was no poet who was not formatively influenced by pop music: 1965 was the point when it became possible for students, with pride about them, to give up listening to jazz and pick up the new sound, made credible by Dylan and The Beatles. In pop, narcissism was de rigueur. The dandy, becoming aware of style as a thing to be controlled, is really making an artificial environment for someone else to get caught in: everything is smoothed and linked to make the whole experience of being with this me dazzling and impressive; a trap delightful to the prey. Pop also brought the mandate of insolence and subverting the rules of style. The problem for the dandy is always the edge of his or her control; bodily adornment creates a perfect visual shape, but this itself is caught up in a much vaster space, which overwrites and contextualizes its meanings. Class is one such superordinate space, an angry author who overwrites the messages which individuals are so careful generating. Control fails at the edges. Attention to context is a theme of the Seventies, after the dandy-hedonist trying to control the context in which his or her signs are released. When the individual tries to actualize social mobility by defining the meaning of their selves, they compete with the anonymously, collectively, conservatively generated set of public meanings; this struggle, marked by depression and elation, entered poetry with the Sixties and has run at storm level ever since. The stylist, issuing statements in a public code, is also issuing alterations to the given rules of that code; the audience, applying rules, unwrite the stylist's utterance and set it at naught.

Being fascinated by another person provides the desirable moments in life, as people have more to offer than, for example, do possessions, sensual pleasures, earning, or physical prowess. Bleak, fussy, disapproving Fifties poetry had lost the possibility of a seductive, glittering, flamboyant flow of words sweeping your feet away from under you, but it came back through the rivalry with pop. The person could either be met in everyday life or in art. This attraction is one of the driving forces of art, causing the extremes of popularity or unpopularity. The poet sees this force from another point of view: desperate not to lose this magnetic personal appeal, anxious to seal up the gaps by which it might leak away, able by dint of cunning sensitivity to control it and make at least some of the signals and decisions conscious. What is conscious is free; but not spontaneous, as if that were the unfree.

The onus for generating and unwinding illusion in poetry is not on governments but on individuals, and the illusion in question is the personal radiance of the poet. Not only is fascination central to the appeal of poetry, but also the aura or penumbra through which one passes during the slow and puzzlingly shifting phase of leaving the fascination, needs to be dwelt on and made conscious. As two systems are simultaneously peeled and unpeeled, comparing them lets us delve a generation further back towards their origins. The skill of the poet is then to allow this simultaneity, with its mighty rewards, although at the expense of making the poem itself seem contingent, transient, and artificial. Perhaps the poet who is busy signalling permanence of values, and blocking any associations which lead in any other direction, is the one who is hiding the truth, as well as the most tedious one.

Facts, ideas, and stories built into the poem act like ornaments fixed to the body. Human appeal, I am suggesting, extends not only to the edge of someone's bodily person, or to their clothes, but also to the social world they give entrée to, to the experiences which their company promises, to the places associated with them, to their speech and even to the information retailed in their speech. There is an 18th C proverb about men being seduced through the eye and women through the ear; without having any up to date figures on this, I still contend that beautiful speech is a great site of vanity for men and of attention and eager responsiveness for women. The operation by which I redefine a brilliant anecdote as an item of adornment may seem like a subterfuge, but I think it helps to understand the insecurity and occasional triumphs of poets. A Doris Day song, 'My Ship':

My ship has sails
That are made of silk
The decks are trimmed with gold
And of jam and spice there's a paradise
In the hold

My ship's aglow
With a million pearls
And rubies fill each bin.
The sun sits high
In a sapphire sky
When my ship comes in.

I do not care if that day arrives
That dream need never be
If the ship I sing
Doesn't also bring
My own true love to me

presents the analogy between the body as sexual environment attracting and engaging someone else and objects in the outside world. The Sixties fascination with artificial environments, as in films like The Mindbenders and The IPCRESS File, derived from a dawning recognition that not only the work of art but even the personality as experienced by other people, is an environment. The poet's task is to construct these environments and to stop up all the holes in them, so that stage flats appear as real landscapes; an active task which may seem to the poet like endless passivity and dependence on the kindness of strangers. Although attempts to acquire outside materials can fail, selectivity can lead to a monotony and scarceness of matter which ruins the whole illusion. The poet has to keep the perceptual gates open and shut at the same time; the mouth is where inner and outer mix, its fluids starting to digest the incorporated matter and at the same time disinfecting it.

Conditioning, another Sixties fetish, is the being influenced by other people, and is what happens in these environments. The trip point marking off illegitimate from desirable influence is one of the cruces of cultural theory, because it isn't there; it shifts from day to day and from person to person. Writing down the rules for finding it would be a remarkably slippery experience. This crux also marks the boundary between self and others, nugatory if there is no distinction between ideas originated by others and ideas originated by self. If information from outside makes no difference, then there is no point reading poetry; if the self is composed of layers of outside influences, series of dissimilar states shaped by transient excitements, then it is not its own property. If le soi contains all its future states at the start, and merely has to exfoliate them in a fixed order, what is the purpose of art? if these outer and acquired layers are so vivid, perhaps there is nothing at the core. The phases of the reader assimilating the poem parallel the acquisition process of the poet.

One response to the discrediting of ideology in the Cold War was to believe that there is no truth, only personal worlds snaking out like root-systems. The co-existence in utterances of physical reality, abstract truth, and personal needs for social power, self-esteem, or justification, is Absurd; a paradox to be turned round and round.

Maybe the milieu of modern texts is one of two governmental systems of ideology, telling lies with a teleological drift which governs the composition of every line, while millions of individuals know the truth about their own lives, without mediation, and tell that truth. Or maybe state ideology is only an adaptation of the deceit and wish for power dwelling in individuals; and everyone builds up an ideological system in which they appear as magnified and desirable, a doxology wardrobe affecting the composition of every line of their discourse; and the only exception to this is that weak individuals are drawn into the projections of the strong, so that their world-systems are tenuous, underdeveloped, and patchy. This suggestibility may be central to the way society works, and collective meaning is generated; and art could be a by-product of it.

The whole system of a poet can be seen as a world-hypothesis; it can hardly advance beyond this status, while there are so many others competing with it. Where someone is dispelling an illusion, someone else is constructing one. The demolition of world-systems by criticism is exactly symmetrical to their construction by acquisition, elaboration, and adornment. The root-system includes items of knowledge as well as trophies, origin tales, stories, marks of affiliation, and so on.

The poem is frozen behaviour, is an environment offering scope for certain behaviour to someone else, but is also a trophy, a form of wealth. It is not easy to find the gap between the ideologeme, the unit of ideology, and the praise formula or trophy, composing eulogy and adornment. In the Irish tale Scela mucce meic Datho, the heroes recite their feats to prove a right to the hero's portion of the roast pig at the feast; the next to last man, Cet, recites his brother's wonderful feats, the last man, Conall, produces the brother's head, detached, and dangling at his belt. The prime cut is his. "Conall answered, 'Welcome, Cet son of Magu, dwelling-place of a hero, heart of ice, plumage of a swan, strong chariot fighter, warlike sea, fierce beautiful bull, Cet son of Magu.'" (in Jeffrey Gantz's translation) In all societies, aretai-feats of hunting and fighting are remembered, stored in words; strength must be narrated. The utterance of the praises of God, or doxology, is copied from this kind of eulogy; do we have any other source of splendid language? As architecture is visible power, poetry and history are audible power. To explain why someone puts a necklace of shark's teeth around their neck would also explain, in part, why someone incorporates parts of the outside world into their poem. In a rather different culture, to be exact in an 18th century Mongolian block-printed book called The Book of Spells, we find this invocation of protective spirits: 'You sülde tngri, elder and younger brothers in a nine,/ Beaming out white and red light,/ Riding on horses as fiery as full-bloods,/ Your heads clad in the thunder-helm,/ Your bodies clad with the harness of yellow leather/ Your feet shod in high boots/ With a quiver of tiger-skin and its lining of panther-skin./ Around your hips the apron, dagger and sword belted,/ Clutching in your hand the threefold baton of reed./ Above your head the falcon flying,/ A lion rearing on your right shoulder/ A tiger leapt up on your left shoulder./ Around you and inside you black dogs, bears and yellow bears run around.' Here again we find adornment, appropriation, and praise; the splendour of the invoked beings is also the energy which drives the poetry. In modern poetry we trace personal worlds, stage sets; semantic atmospheres trailed around like a heat signature. Thousands of desired objects and flows lose their hard verifiable quality, become enriched as they become distorted in the swirl of ego fragments and ego investments. We are here partly I think to sketch the botany and morphology of these world-hypotheses, these spiral treasure-chambers where knowledge and ideas are ravished, as an army plunders a captured city. These glittering gewgaws become living tissue.

The acquisition engulfs entire social scenes; one cannot imagine David Harsent, for example, without his typical scenes and characters; the material is not autobiographical unless we extend that term to include observation of other people, and the less objective processes which postdate observation, such as conjecture, fantasy, stylization, dramatisation. Having occupied this whole narrative world, Harsent is then vulnerable to attack at any point of it; passive defence along the border soaks up precious resources. The repetitive quality of the artistic imagination implies perhaps favourite gratifications, perhaps an arbitrary stabilisation of sense data, protecting the brain from the full variousness of the world. Defining these perceptual blocks as constitutive, so that what is not in the artistic work is its most important formal feature, is the thesis of deconstruction. The poet's ability to outpace the reader, or other poets, depends on the conditional ability to lift up these perceptual blocks and gaze at the undifferentiated chaos beyond; the penalty for which is that the defenses of the self, almost its structure, appear as arbitrary and untenable rules. In so doing poets walk on the lip of the abyss. If the rules of the mind appear as artificial as those of a work of art, the mind then starts to dissolve its own structure in the search for what is steadfast and durable. Perhaps what is durable is a very small amount. Perhaps all perceptual environments are artificial; and most of experience is self-organizing structures of reception rather than energies impinging from outside.

A central thing in poetry is persuasion. A poet who wishes a mountain to be high and snow-capped, and can't persuade you that it is so formed, will not succeed. The decisive line of contention, however, may be carefully hidden in the verbal mass, as a lawyer will hide the point he really wishes to establish beneath the visible flow of argument. For example, if the poet offers a moving anecdote about the suffering of the poor in a far-away country, with the coating of radical ideology —Red, Islamic, or Green— which would whisk the problem away with a single twirl, the substantive point may not be that a different policy governing international capital flows would, etc. etc., but that {the poet is compassionate} and therefore also {a good lover and husband}, {intelligent}, {mature}, and so forth. The case involves multiple circularities as, for example, the contention that {I am unselfish} leads to the deduction that {I tell the truth} (since deceit would serve the ignoble personal ends which I am not following) and so to the acceptance that {I am unselfish}. Some people can compose self-reinforcing utterances and seem incredible and dishonest, others compose them and are persuasive. This resembles dress, where the gestures which make one person seem dashing, cool and sexy make another seem pretentious, false, and ridiculous. Likely that readers assess every story by their basic reading of the poet's personality. They also assess the poet's personality by the kind of stories they tell, but at least we can posit an origin of this spiral, a tiny nucleus presetting its angle and direction. Insofar as the environment is coherent, it is also circular in assertion; the two qualities are synonymous in this case. Since bad poets show not only the same vocabulary and sound patterns, but also the same range of subjects, emotions, and moral judgements, as their betters, we might ask whether powers of suggestion, persuasion, self-presentation, and of composing self-reinforcing utterances, are the resource which gives good poets the edge.

Persuasion brings us back to the test of strength; in the too high count of world-hypotheses, speech is nearly always adversarial, and it is hardly ever of interest to assert something unless to undo what someone else has been saying, and so to affect the local social structure, that is the hierarchy within the group. Perhaps creating an intellectual and artistic position is the precondition for digging a niche in the social fabric. The poem contains masked declarations defining the enemy, an invisible rival whose speed and bulk are outlined by its rebuttal of him. The anti-authoritarian bent of modern poetry is really symbolic combat; obese politicians and clerics are rousted out and speared like pigs in some hoary Germanic hunting foray. Contentiousness is the supreme virtue of modern art, which is rarely of interest without it. The struggle over forms is stirring if it is both lost and won in plain sight and between worthy adversaries. Rivalry is central. It's clear that, as with mice, the more similar you are to your rival, the more likely you are to fight. You are competing for the same resources because you are similar. To excel is to imitate.

The hierarchy of human societies is given more by intelligence than by physical strength. The struggle to seem intelligent is a peculiarly bitter one. Its unit structure is the idea— a thesis which by virtue of its originality becomes personal and property. It is intelligence which allows people to deceive others, as well as to dazzle them and influence their thoughts. It is hard to be intelligent without appearing intelligent. England has indeed produced a range of poets proud to proclaim unoriginal ideas, and to formulate ideas which show themselves to be false as they unfold. It is hard for foreigners to grasp the merits of these gestures. I am not sure I grasp them myself. If it takes admirable qualities to write a good poem, someone afraid to display these qualities cannot write one. The claim {I am compassionate}, along with the fable-anecdote in which it is embedded, becomes part of a constellation of fable-claims, surrounding the poet as a root-system does a plant. What is grasp and acquisition is also nutrition and, eventually, the beauty of the ripe plant. A poet cannot create a symbolic landscape without also demarcating symbolic territory, as male mice do. This estate is not made up of fields but of utterances; in fact, hypotheses. It may be defined as a place by the set of judgement rules which apply locally inside it. The poet's attempts to seize the rules of art cannot be successful because these are in the hands of the reader, readily applying them to throw the poem away: a shake of the head.

The experience of being disbelieved, unwound, laughed to scorn, is crucial for any poet, although consciously shunned; defensive devices are mounted to prevent this from happening, to paint it out. The poems which fail may be the most revealing. The poet cannot always disagree with this unwinding process. One of the doors into the freakout is a perceptual shift whereby the truths which you accept move out of the truth category and into the category of artifice, ideology, and adornment. Contextual clues lose their effect and become classifiable as contextual clues. Sensitivity to context emerges out of political incredulity and social displacement. Sixties poetry is freaked out, recovered, rebuilt from glittering scattered drops.

Repetition makes local pits of predictability, vouchsafed for example by jobs and the division of labour. Repetition turns hypotheses into durable rules. Jobs are designed to be repetitive to reduce errors and decision times, but this does not mean that such constancy is inherent to the mind. The attempt to separate the character of the artist from the productive rules which let him generate the work of art may be in vain. Art by its constitution seeks for variation and for constancy.

Poetry often deals with someone ceasing to love you, also wooing, or someone starting to love you. These experiences make self-esteem fluctuate; things which are normally fixed become loose. While you are being pulled between two hypotheses about yourself, you can't believe in either. The small machines of being sexually attractive and winning over a reader fit inside the big machine of class. The history of how you came to have a certain job is more long drawn out, more full of abysses of the inexplicable, more impersonal, than the story of how you came to be a particular person's lover. Social mobility is the unstable rule generator dominating modern cultural production; the signs by which other people form their judgement of you changing so rapidly that the whole process becomes grotesque, and transition threatens to wash away all other perceptions. While appearing to free us so that we capture control of the meaning of ourselves, it drags us into new contexts where the people apply rules of judgement we don't understand because they are unfamiliar. The poem is not the reader entering the poet's linguistic regime but the reverse.

The ethologist Robin Dunbar, among other scientists, has drawn attention to the practical social units: not 58 million UK citizens, but a dozen people we are very close to, or 150 people forming a wider close environment, which he calls a 'clan'. A poem cannot show behaviour without the meaning ascribed to that behaviour; this meaning may differ from observer to observer, as between two lovers of whom one is rejecting the other's advances, or between a poet and the reader who rejects the poet. The poem cannot logically be read without the social unit grounding the set of rules of behaviour which animate it and define what is invalid. In archaic human societies, individuals had sometimes to acquire new culture, for example as a bride being exchanged into another tribe, with a different dialect; or as captives, or as exiles. The proposed unit of 150 people has a very tenuous boundary in an urban society: it is possible for individuals to reject a social group, with its rules, and move into another one, and in fact what we may be seeing in a city is social groups separating and differentiating on the basis of maximising shared values which are counter to those of the groups around them. This brings an element of aesthetic choice into the behaviour you carry out and the meaning which is attributed to it. Lifestyle choice implies internal emigration. The social group we take part in at the age of 18 may not overlap with the one we were taking part in before, at school. The group may change again when we are 21. This may provide a threshold experience during which everything is new and strange and fascinating. Society is not stable but in constant thermal agitation. Poetry likes to use effects of ambiguity, oscillation, transitions; these may reflect social transitions being made by an individual, migrating through the loose and densely patterned structures of a fluid society; the book of poems may be all about the transition experience and never about the dwelling somewhere. Since a printed poem is 'frozen behaviour', the need to capture mobility imposes special formal problems.

The curiosity which animates us as we study a work of art may be a welling up of the cognitive skill which enables us to enter a social group and acquire its inner rules, so that we do not offend and are not rejected by the others. Poets, actors, and politicians presumably possess this skill much more than other people. We can equate these rules with perceptual blocks, because they are arbitrary and bring stability. The term world-hypothesis may be replaceable by another term including the idea of the values local to a social group. Perhaps it really means an individual's stored representations of another dozen people, their likely interaction patterns, their cognitive rules; a memorized landscape. The self is a representation of other selves. One may deny that individuals exist outside these social matrices, where values are minted, but they exist briefly as they cross from one to another, in the interim where values appear as dynamic and conscious.

Competition and differentiation

The increase of information and distinctions has given rise to the balkanization of the scene, bemoaned by Eric Homberger in 1977 in Art of the Real. 22 years later, John Matthias, in a significant review article (for the Electronic Book Review, currently at, was saying something very similar, and asking for the different sectors of the poetry scene to read each other. He asked why no anthology could unite the many vertices of the stylistic space. Unless you see the breakout into self-definition, stylistic freedom, and unknown territory as pride and joy, I think it must make no sense at all. It must seem perverse. People want to stop it happening. I think it has a lot to do with narcissism and exhibition. I can see that it doesn't fit in with an Anglican approach to art - where pride is something you try to purge away.

The increase of affluence and the spread of education have been producing far more people who want to write or read poetry. This means that the number of poets you have to compete with is far higher. If we imagine the poet’s work in spatial terms, it means that the space available for each poet is smaller, or that there are more people competing for the same niche. This makes it desirable to specialise – to dissimilate. The new landscape – the one which became visible to everyone in the first half of the Sixties – both created this pressure to dissimilate and supplied the economic resources which made it possible to sell such a large number of niche products. Perhaps people reached reflexivity through the experience of endless rejections. The new stylisation generated far more information – this is how diversity was made possible. When fully flowering – and after say 10 years of accumulating – this produced a data-rich and niche-riddled landscape which, from the viewpoint of a single bewildered critic, could appear as balkanised. From the point of view of the consumer, this divergence was nothing but good – it prolonged the possibilities of consumption.

Some poets innovated in the way they wrote, in order to stand out and so fix themselves in your memory; and others relied on their social identities to provide brand recognition, without changing anything in the standard model of the mid-century poem. They relied more on the prose biography on the book jacket, or in the back of the magazine, than on their poems. They expected readers to vote for themselves by admiring someone sociologically similar to themselves. Among the former, meanwhile, stylistic differentiation was achieved by fine distinctions. A shift into subjectivity created free variation which could be used to develop personalised stylistic niches. It occurred, necessarily, by weakening the functional characteristics of language.

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