SEXUALITY AND THE BODY as phantoms terrorising poetry; from Anglican Mass to performance artists
The evolution of bodily display during the era seems to pass through the following stages: One, an original Anglican set, where the priest is the visual focus of the attention of the parish, uttering poetry in a sacrosanct form and, as the peak of the shared experience, symbolically sharing the body of the God of their church. Marriage is also a sacrament, and the central space which it occupies displaces a number of non-marital sexual acts or feelings into a rim of prohibition. Self-doubt is permissible as a form of self-testing for being worthy of marriage. Love poetry is scarce and tends to be puzzlingly under-motivated, expatiating on (displaced?) topics of little interest.
Two, when the Church has already lost its natural authority for the poets; sexuality is still taboo in poetry, but is presented through "unconscious" images inspired by Freud; these tend to involve one person, to be dominated by a dread of the future, and to be infantile; the poet's body occupies centre stage in a non-realistic and quasi-sacramental form, so that political events are reduced to physiological imagery.
Three, a return to Anglican authority. The continuance of civilisation is equated with the restraint of sexuality, which is equated with moderation in poetic language. The spatial display has shifted to the classroom, where the poet is typically the teacher, faced with a roomful of adolescents whose sexuality he wishes to discourage, during the poem even if not outside it. The objects of dread now include myth (as a stand-in for colonial liberation movements), rock and roll, adolescent sexuality, and the profit motive. The lyric impulse has flitted out of poetry, vaguely replaced by unsuccessful attempts to make marriage interesting as a poetic theme. Although the cause of English poetry is identified with the Anglican church, and religious faith is part of the academic's claim to "efficacious contact" with the texts being taught, a loss of emotional belief in the Mass is a frequent topic of poetry, and a sense of exclusion results. The repression of display both for male and female writers does away with lyric poetry.
Four, when the repressive cultural stance is identified with lack of legitimacy, and gleaming sexual display becomes a claim to cultural legitimacy. It becomes important for the poet to lead an interesting life. The spatial setting of the poem becomes the reading, originally as a hot spot of political togetherness in protest against the big political parties, rapidly reduced to an act of communion with the poet and his alternative lifestyle. The total present replaces the deployment of acquired knowledge relating to the past. The new peacock male is dependent on female favour and disfavour; the new "display plumage" makes poetry more attractive and emotionally warm.
Five, the counter-culture. Culture increases in scale: the moment of the reading extends to become the commune, the individual artist is transcended by a whole proposed way of life, the performer is expanded into the "environment". It is life in the domains of the employer and the official teacher which is marginalised, while the domain of the "liberated people" becomes central. The compulsion and imperatives needed to sustain this idyllic setup lead to the emergence of authority (the guru or commissar) and the exclusion or reproof of those who fail to conform. Marriage, i.e. relationships, do become the subject of poetry, as the element of the unpredictable is now large enough. Problems both with neglecting conventional authority, and with pleasing "hedge" authority, lead to polarisation and disillusion. Feminism arrives both as a protest against the excesses of libertarians and marxists, and as part of the political hopes.
Six, performance poetry and feminism. Male sexuality is something no-one wants to hear about, unless dowsed in self-ridicule. Performance of poetry increasingly gets away from simple reading of a text which refers to a reality outside the performance; the poet's body and the performance space become the focus of group attention. It is permissible to write about sexuality, but vested interests largely make this impossible. The political aspirations of the counter-culture are replaced by privatisation; the medical metaphor allows the citizen to take control of their body, abandoning the public space. Health food and hypochondria replace attempts to reform society, and sex activity falls into place beside these.
The value of a high-level map is that it is correct for all the concrete points within its descriptive domain; and of course we have to ask how many proven inaccuracies the map can sustain without burning up. I have left out dates from the narrative; of course, writers who came to eminence in the 1950s were still writing in the 1980s, and dominated the poetry business in the 1960s. What I have said pushes the Anglicans off stage in the 1960s, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they decreased in absolute numbers, or that they gave up writing poetry; they just lost their majority status.
The influence of homosexuality, an afterglow from single-sex boarding schools, on the English poetic voice of mid-century, may have been very important, but I don't have enough evidence on this. I was much struck by Valentine Cunningham's remarks on this in Writers of the 1930s. The use of impenetrable language may have occult links with illicit personal feelings and with the hostility to outsiders of a conspiracy of the like-minded. The problems, up till the 1960s, of women in writing about romance or sex, in a culture which expected silence from respectable women on these topics, are discussed later. It may be that the absence of women from the poetic field, in an earlier era, was caused by this taboo more than anything else.
A concept that may not exist
Attempts to write a history of sexuality in poetry over the last forty years have foundered because the concept is liquid and has no independent reality in nature, as well as delighting in allegorical expression. Instead, we have a chorus of voices set to different rhythms which offer sexual feelings by claims and intentions; imitative of sexual imagery in the mass media, more or less able to persuade the reader to experience sexual feelings; held up by waves of fantasy which alter the nature of the underlying tissue tracts as their act of origin; a flight of successive approximations to a defined goal which hold themselves in being by avoiding the goal; an array of intentions of competition, status claims, polemic attacks on ideological rivals, acts of conspicuous consumption, claims to knowledge, etc., which fill the space we originally hoped to label as sexual; the linguistic traces of physical events whose relationship to language is so fluid that it could take a thousand different forms, so under-specified that in looking for the body in merely linguistic forms we cannot get further than someone gazing at the Saharan sands and guessing that a Tuareg troop has passed here sometime in the past six months. The flurry of abuse and self-promotion which we hear points to a shift of the underlying rules of poetry: the existing Anglican poetry (so defined to avoid the problems of defining the nuances of a dozen Christian sects) was replaced by a secular poetry, which often claims to be the free expression of individual wishes, and sometimes uses the depiction of sexual desire, sexual activity, as its zone of competitive advantage, its entitlement to wrap up the Anglican poetry and push it off stage. This evokes what has happened without necessarily being the truth. The contrast with Anglicanism cannot be judged in quite these terms, because there is no theology of sex in Anglicanism; consulting the most accessible books shows no mention of the word, which would appear only in transmuted form as part of the word love, and in the vows and theology of marriage. So, once we postulate that sex exists, lexically or biologically, apart from love, we make comparison unfair or impossible. Further, poetry is as far away on the conservative and romantic side of the bare-arsed titillatory sex-imagery of the mass media as Anglicanism is on the conservative and romantic side of poetry. If liberation is in brazen sexual display and thinking about sex nonstop, poetry is repressive. The contextual field must include a few issues of the Sun newspaper, or the covers of all the magazines in a newsagent's, as well as some books of modern poetry and some by Anglican poets.
Freud claimed that sex instincts influenced everything in human behaviour, but also admitted that what he called the sex instinct was already present in animals which reproduced asexually; so that what he means is something universal, a will to power, which is prior to 'sex" and need not have anything to do with it. If an animal needs to eat in order to reproduce, we can claim that its eating instincts are a sexual function, but only by a kind of biological-philosophical trick. The idea of sex pervading sets out from an image of water in a stream which we can separate out to show that one part of it came from one source upstream, and one from another; this seems a remarkably dubious contention to make about human awareness. It would seem that the different kinds of water mix and cannot be separated. Freud never offers quantitative statements, this because no kind of measurement was involved in his work; and this was because he had not really captured the phenomena he was claiming to investigate, except by indirect, subjective, and unreliable means. We can say that some words in modern English are French, because we have knowledge of what French is; but we cannot observe sexuality in a pure form; so we can hardly say what parts of symbolic discourse are sexual and what not. The word can very well be applied to events like a penis becoming erect, a vagina dilating and becoming wet; and perhaps to other reproductive behaviour, such as the division of sperm, or ovulation; but there is a great gulf between these events and events in the brain, which may be related to them. Perhaps it is perverse to say that symbolic behaviour is sexual; and poetry is all symbolic. Something in a poem can only allude to sexual events, because its material nature is linguistic.
The notion of pure sexuality is problematic, because all sexual behaviour occurs within a situation, and there is no way of reducing the contents of that situation to exclude everything that is not sexual. If two people are making love, of their own volition, the situation includes a whole mass of factors other than sexual ones, and whatever transpires is affected by these other factors, and can reasonably be said to be happening on many other levels than simply introjecting the penis. Biochemical materialism shows a wide variety of different behaviour-affecting chemicals involved in sexual acts, which argues against an original, integrated package which we could isolate in a pure state; most of these chemicals are used in other behaviour patterns as well. The material substrate does not give us a sex object that is separate from other objects, unless we confine it to the physiological minimum described above. One cannot study pure sex by giving people doses of sex chemicals and recording exactly how they behave; because there are no "sex chemicals", and anyway giving people unnatural doses of behaviour-affecting hormones simply makes them act in an unbalanced way.
A pop producer of the early eighties—was it Nick Lowe?— said that what he looked for in a song was a basic fuckbeat. Later, there was a record label called F-beat. His ability to recognize a sexual rhythm within musical ones is an example of what we are trying to find; although a dissident might claim that rock and roll had affected the rhythms people followed when making love, and that the metric sense had changed after 1956. A keen observer gazing into a mental state, visualised as a body of water agitated by waves of different frequencies, might recognize one wave set as distinctively sexual. This would authorize the statement that behaviour X is displaced sexuality.
The notion of instinct can be stated as a hypothesis that certain genes programme the brain centres controlling growth to release, at puberty, certain hormones which stimulate the growth of both gonads and of glands which release in certain situations more hormones which incite the person to behave in particular ways. However, no-one knows which parts of human behaviour are stored in the genes and which are learnt. Sexual behaviour involves social perceptions which are by their nature quickly changing responses to an outside situation, not hard wired. The stately and antique mechanism of sexual arousal is governed by social situations, reading which calls for cunning and intelligence. Predicating aesthetics on instincts is intellectually attractive, but would exclude all non-biologists from the study of aesthetics, since they simply do not have the knowledge, the grasp of experimental method, the philosophical training, to investigate instincts.
He touched her clitoris. This sentence is inadequate to the nuances of the situation, which might demand a thousand words for precise description. This, after all, gives a justification for poetry, which offers a luxuriance of words and nuances. The case illustrates the existence of a response curve: the value of any caress, so far from being timeless or hard-wired, depends critically on the exact moment, within a rhythmic framework of minutes or hours, at which it occurs. Sexuality generates so many false statements partly because its truths fluctuate from second to second. At the same time, arousal makes one suggestible, so that many things become subjectively true which a few minutes before were not. Mere rubbing of the skin is not the whole; it is also an intentional act by which someone expresses their inner state and especially their intentions for the next extent of time; the claim that what is happening is merely physical is misleading, the full dimensions of the event are more complex, even if the intentions being signalled can be re-analysed as essentially a series of physical acts. The arousal curve tells us that sexual response occurs essentially in time, as part of a context; but touch is by its nature immediate, it has no extent in time. It seems quite reasonable to describe the scene without mentioning any body parts at all.
We can gather good information about language as used in writing, and about genitals as used by human beings; but the rules of the processes by which "sexuality" is translated into verbal acts are a third kind of knowledge, belonging to a superior and more difficult category; we should not be surprised to learn that no-one has an accurate transcription of these rules.
Sexuality seems to be imperialistic in language, occupying thousands of half-readable synonyms, converting entire landscapes to allegory. James Reeves' The Everlasting Circle analyses the lyrics of English folksongs in a way which makes almost everything seem sexual; yet his reasoning is quite calm and the patterns he finds seem quite robust. If a song talks about Five men, four men, three men, two men, one man, and his dog, went to mow a meadow, this refers to a sexual act, because mowing involves movement from the hips and a meadow is a luxuriant part of a woman's body in other songs. English folk-song is, on this showing, very similar to the blues. At the same time as proliferating, sex has been, and is, comprehensively banned and policed in its appearances in language. Because it demands such metaphorical reading, it resembles mysticism, which also gives us language floating without a ground, and proliferating in likenesses; images migrate from love poetry to mysticism and back, and scholars frequently argue, rightly or not, that mysticism draws on repressed sexuality.
The breaking of barriers in the representation of sex
Criticisms of the media landscape (now, but already in 1981) said a lot about the sexuality of photographs of the partly clothed female form. Possibly, the very concept of 'sex' (stripped of the real-life flavours of love, romance, bonding, interacting) derived from the invasion of sexy photographs; they were sexy without being human and so gave the world a concept of sex without humanity which doesn't exist outside films or the pages of magazines. Maybe it was impossible to talk about pure sex in the 19th C (as if it was a chemical), because it isn't a chemical, it can't be purified (i.e. stripped of humanity); but after decades of saturation in (dead, dumb) photo images of lascivious babes, and brief rushes of blood to the head while gazing at them, we can now conceptualise sexual feelings between two humans as impure. Photos have body parts but can't speak.
Looking at those magazine covers, with models in various alluring poses, exhibits a language of gesture which is quite archaic, because the body parts which are its lexicon are given by Nature; the parted lips, the curved back, the shining eyes, have not recently acquired their meaning. However, such study drives the real nature of the body away from our gaze: the problem of mapping physical gestures, of pose etc., onto verbal gestures, reveals a startling divergence. If they cannot be reduced to a single matrix, where is the emotional-affective body which underlies both of them? What is this object whose traces do not converge? Perhaps the body, in the broad sense, is the basis of all symbolic discourse; but its fertility in creating symbols may be such that no symbols locate its current position or its true shape. The still photograph shows nothing ultimate because it is only a moment from an unbroken series of moments of behaviour, governed by a generator which transcends all the individual moments. We might like to identify that generator with events in the brain, and hormonal events governed by the glands, as well as inner-body sensations caused (for example) by the heartbeat accelerating and the breathing becoming deeper; but unless we record or photograph those events in some way, we can invoke them only as a metaphor.
It is hard to sum up the new laws of photography as they emerged in the 1960s. At the simplest level, we have an extension of what it was permissible to show, both in violence and in sexuality, and these clearly belong together, they made cinema more physical, more brutal, more savage and involving. Cinema chose these methods of competing with television, which seemed able to bring the industry to an end, and which was not allowed to cross the limits of the 1950s because of its domestic role. The expansion was rapid; the 1958 horror film 'The Mummy' is very modest both in sex and violence. Carry On films of the 1950s are almost without sexual innuendo and have a very modest amount of female flesh on display. The relationship of cinema to other arts, such as literature, painting, magazines, and theatre, remains to be exactly described, since all branched out into the unnameable. Anyway, television has since pursued cinema and recycled hundreds of X films which could not have been broadcast in the 1960s. The preoccupation with flesh being exposed and penetrated in various ways seems to exclude politics, which deals with larger areas than a few square inches, but perhaps political art too was taken over by shock effects, to the detriment of reason, and the curiously rootless extremism of an era (around 1968-75) had its sources in X-style political melodrama, treating the powerful as ultimately evil and the workers as ultimately innocent. My intuitive understanding of the 1950s is simply as a cold era when cinema and so on were low-affect and uninvolving: obviously a distortion of a historical period, but yet it was a time of uncertainty and British poetry was not in a vigorous state then.
Where the link between mind and body is under strain, we are probably dealing with the Christian heritage, because a separation between the two seems to be a product of Christian psychology, and some of the strain on modern Westerners may be the result of trying to follow impossible imperatives. Concepts in non-Western societies seem to be quite different. Pornography as we have it may be the outlet of pressure built up by banning sexuality from the ordinary run of art; our concept of sexuality, which I doubt is really a unified or tractable thing, may derive from the clear legal concept of what is not allowed to be discussed, so that we perceive a boundary, and hence an object. An analogy might be masculinity: where the difference between men and women is so much observed, the area representing difference acquires a boundary around it, obscuring all the personality functions which are general human. Any depiction of sexual activity in our society conjures up theology, because theology banned it for so many centuries; problems surrounding such depictions in poetry, which may be significant in any search for the missing genre of love poetry, have to do not only with turning the audience on by excluding sources of anxiety, depicting a certain physical luxury, etc., but also arguing with the inherited Christian theory of art.
Sexuality and the body appearing as ghosts
In stage one, self-restraint, refinement, and low affect were regarded as positive virtues. Take Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), for example:
We are spirits, though, the dream denied, we are also ghosts.
We repose in our secret place, in the rainy air,
By the small fire, the dim window, in the ancient house;
Kind to the past, and thoughtful of our hosts,
Shadows of those now beyond thought and care,
Phantoms that the silence engenders, the flames arouse.
Those we have never seen, and those we shall see no more,
Haunting the tender gloom and the wan light,
Are there, as the secret bird is there, is betrayed
By the leaf that moved when she slipped from her twig by the door,
As the mouse unseen is perceived by her gliding shade,
As the silent owl is known by the wind of her flight.
Thus poor, forgotten, in a summer without sun,
In a decaying house, an unvisited place,
We remember the delicate dream, the voice of the clay;
Recalling the body before the life was begun,
Stealing through blood and bone with bodiless grace
In the elfish night and green cool gloom of the day.
(from 'Rainy Summer', published 1945) Everything about this poem is negative. Of course, in a society characterized by repression and hierarchy, the self does come to be perceived as a negation, negation can reach extraordinary consistency, and is part of social truth. Pitter was certainly in touch with something, which is why her poems repay thought; and it is striking how coordinated this poem is, how every line repeats the same message of chilling and waning: a zero-energy message hammered home with unrelenting formal energy. "We are spirits, though, the dream denied, we are also ghosts": this could be a description of pre-feminist women poets. "Bodiless grace" proved not to be enough, the ideology of refinement and delicacy produced something extraordinary (in terms of surpassing the ego and its base desires), but unsatisfying (because satisfaction comes from fulfilling those base desires).
The poem irritates by frequently nearly referring to sex and desire but then surreptitiously sliding away. What is this unvisited place, in a summer without sun? not a body filled with sexual longing, by any chance? the clay — this reference to Genesis wouldn't be a subtle way of pointing to conception, the act by which Adam is re-created? If we refer the imagery to folksongs, these poems use the imagery of courtship and mating, but always negated. I think Pitter's poem is like a blues song about longing, only that it's also about renouncing the longing, about longing wearing out: "the dream denied, we are also ghosts". A ghost is a soul without a body, "the body" symbolizes (in Christendom) base natural desires. The poem is, then, about ethical renunciation: high on the ethics, low on the animal drives. Or perhaps it has deep resentment buried in it. Perhaps suppression is being taken as more ethical than will and pleasure: the auto-alienation effect. For some people, greater refinement actually was greater alienation.
Greater refinement (in a word, Euphemism) seems to be the basic principle of Victorian poetry, and to have persisted at least until the Second World War. High culture was asked to exemplify social control. The aim of the modern rebellion would be to get away from this into an atmosphere of hedonism, high affect, pursuit of the appetites; in line with the general trends of consumer society.
Another Ruth Pitter poem from the same book is in praise of the colour dun. What I find upsetting about this object choice is the feeling that depressed or alienated people are fated to choose drab and barren objects to identify with or adorn themselves, with the result that they are cut off from the health-giving circuit of fantasy and vanity, and the impact of the world on their minds is dulled. Vanity and fantasy obviously have a function to play in a healthy mind: this becomes clear when one considers the result of lacking these abilities. The pessimistic object choice is part of the illness. The laws of perception do not change because Ruth Pitter wants them to: dun is a colour of low psychological interest, while red, white, or black, or gold, have a strong psychological interest. Whatever she is trying to get across, the message that arrives is one of inhibition, trauma, weakness; of burnt-out grief. If she had an extremely long poetic career without ever being made much of, it was because she wrote in a dun way; she was inconspicuous and subtly unexciting even when the spotlight was directly on her.
It is Urania: through the darkened woodland
now she advances: now she brings her vestal
lamp to the tomb, with nameless consolation.
This longing for protection argues a powerful fear: the fear is incompatible with a desire for being conspicuous. So we can take a step from the dun camouflage of birds to a desire to conform and to abide by rules, in the literary sense. Assumptions of refinement were even more oppressive of women writers than of men. Feminism was at least as much an attack on the existing behaviour of women as on the existing behaviour of men; to understand the kind of geological rift it made, we have to recall how far women writers of earlier generations had identified themselves with religiosity, with conformism and self-denial, with the maintenance of moral standards.
In this connection we have to consider the phenomenon of depression, in its connection with political power, domination, and object choice. It is hard to think about this topic without becoming depressed, but it is one of the big medical facts of national life, and we cannot simply edge round it. How could we judge the call for self-assertiveness in the 1960s without considering the deficit of self-assertiveness which was under attack?
During the 1940s, poets like Barker and Thomas wrote a highly charged lyric poetry in which renunciation and self-control played little part. It was a period of greater frankness and stronger belief in personal desires and experiences. This is our stage two.
Christian revival in the 1950s
At the risk of simplifying the era, I have chosen a single poem of the 1950s, and our stage 3, selected however to illustrate what has changed. It is by Robert Conquest, is from New Lines, and is called 'The Rokeby Venus', after an 18th C painting which shows Venus, naked, regarding herself in a mirror.
Life pours out images, the accidental
At once deleted when the purging mind
Detects their resonance as inessential:
Yet these may leave some fruitful trace behind.
Thus on this painted mirror
The shield that rendered safe the Gorgon's head.
A travesty. —Yet even as reflected
The young face seems to strike us, if not dead,
At least into an instantaneous winter
Which life and reason can do nothing with
Freezing the watcher and the painting into
A single immobility of myth.
But underneath the pigments' changeless weather
The artist only wanted to devise
A posture that could show him all together
Face, shoulders, waist, delectable smooth thighs.
So with the faulty image as a start
We come at length to analyse and name
The luminous darkness in the depths of art
The timelessness that holds us is the same
As that of the transcendent sexual glance
And art grows brilliant in the light it sheds,
Direct or not, on the inhabitants
Of our imaginations and our beds.
Robert Conquest is an important Sovietologist, and so probably won't mind too much that I don't especially like his poem; which, like the rest of New Lines, possesses virtues which are the kernel of something it is not. The figure which dominates it is that of an unchanging central mass of moral truth, which does not vary for time or for individuals. The use of "us" is difficult to sustain today, since it seems to repress the reader's right to disagree; yet simultaneously undercuts the poet's involvement, by offering us what is generally true, rather than a moment of personal experience. The poem is about sexuality and yet is curiously sexless. Instead of enjoying sexual feelings about the naked woman, as Venus, in the painting, we are directed to the didactic value of such art. There is a self-contradiction lurking in the poem; the 'instantaneous winter' of the third stanza is the image of psychologically uninvolving Classicism, yet the first stanza says very clearly that only permanent, static truths matter in art, and not, therefore, pleasure or what is local, fleeting, and spontaneous. This belief is important, because it is what a later group of poets rejected.
In poems of the 1960s, there is a much simpler syntax; each statement is much less explicitly qualified. The precisely labelled relationships of organized syntax have been replaced by the open, unscripted links of free association. In the modern poetry, no moral generalizations are imposed: the situation is less precisely described, and this implies both that the situation can move in so many different directions that it is unknowable, and that the poet is not imposing norms on it. The poet's refusal to guide conduct, and the rejection or loss of general, predictive knowledge, go together. My suggestion is that unspecified syntax represents indeterminacy, i.e. the local freedom of particles, and reduced hysteresis, i.e. less exclusion of certain trajectories by the past of the system. As for the meaning of this, let's suggest that class determinism, the theory that the course of an individual throughout life, their ability to think independently, be creative, etc., were rigidly dictated by the socioeconomic status of the home they lived in during early childhood, is something which all the poets in question detest. This form of indeterminacy reduces the value of knowing someone's past, or of ascribing a fixed character to them; so this information is missing from the poem, and characters define themselves from moment to moment.
What happens if we no longer relate the events of the poem to this permanent, and so inert, mass of knowledge or duty? We could call it a centre, and say that modern poetry exists in a centreless landscape of accidentals. The moralizing of poetry suggested that personal experience was unimportant unless it could be tied to moral truths; in which case it was tautologous. This kind of poetry is based on institutional religion, and seems alien today because of the waning importance of religion in national life.
I have said that this is a lucid poem, but that is not so true, since there is an inexplicit statement, which alters its value as if resonating; this has to do with the Gorgon's head. In Classical myth this turned whoever saw it to stone; Medusa was a woman, and Freud interpreted the myth as fear of the female genitalia. Perseus killed her, staying alive by gazing at her reflection in his burnished shield, not at her. In the painting, we see Venus' back, but not her, sexually more sacred, front; while we see her face in a mirror. Conquest may be saying, in the second stanza, that catching the sexually desired image in paint, trapping it behind a glaze, may be a way of beheading Medusa and controlling anxiety. But, while the poem is about something not being revealed (the female genitalia, essentially), it neither specifies what is revealed by the 'luminous darkness' of art (an oxymoron which now seems to forego de Man) nor what is not revealed.
Conquest's poem is singularly impersonal about the subject, the who, of what is being related: a flattening, congregational "us" is balanced by talk about an unnamed person, the painter, dealing with unavowed feelings via a reflection within a painting. Ejection is not ejaculation. Modern poetry is much more head-on. The rational syntax of the 'Venus' correlates exactly with this attenuation or denial of direct, present-tense experience.
A point to score against both of us is the hypostasizing creation of a Typical Poem of the time, him to explain how New Lines replaced New Romanticism and me to propose how Sixties poetry was original. But of course many poets in the Sixties were still writing poems about a timeless world, neatly wrapped up with links to Moral Adages, and had no idea that everything was an accidental.
The swallowing-up of reason: Jeff Nuttall and the counter-culture
Interrogation of the influence of the material nature of the printed word, which became popular in the 1960s with the influence of McLuhan and then of the conceptual art project, often came up with the notion of the missing body; speech, originally the product of a human body, is in writing separated from a body. Any other sensory streams are compressed and translated into the single one of language, while this is translated into a series of phonemes without the physiological and acoustic qualities present in any voice. This merged with other theories about alienation from the body, of which the most influential were those of D.H. Lawrence. I am not going to expound these theories; writing may be disembodied but it seems to be very effective for pornography, not only in the West (notably since Aretino, but also in Classical times), but in China and India, so it connects very effectively with "the body" when it wants to. If writers choose not to write about physical events all the time, this is not due to the repression of a side of their personalities but to a decision to depict other sections of human behaviour. Printed poetry is a minority activity, and can be accused of sensory deprivation in comparison with something like cinema or rock music, which immerse the spectator; this does not apparently make any effects impossible in poetry. What interests us is the effect of this critique, during a certain period, and the conventions and assumptions which enticed people into believing that poems about objects are true, and poems about feelings are false; or that poems about sex prove the wisdom and power of the poet, whereas poems about anything else don't.
In the sixties, male artists identified liberation with portraying young and attractive women, in compliant and alluring poses, to such an extent that the birth of Women's Liberation was partly due to the distaste and annoyance this aroused. Recycling of the art of that time is selective about these images; but a whole swathe of the Underground approximated to a style now only found in pornography or in certain areas of advertising (album covers, possibly). The attitude survives in the photography magazines, where the idea of self-expression for hundreds of thousands of hobbyists is clearly to photograph young women in the nude. Back files of the magazine Ambit will illustrate the trend to some extent. Times have changed; Women's Liberation has won its battle in the experimental-avant garde area, and people forget that there was a battle.
Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) published poetry intermittently over forty years (Pieces of Poetry, 1966; Penguin Modern Poets 12, 1968; Selected Poems, 1970; Poems 1962-69, 1970; Sun Barbs, 1976; Objects, 1976; An Early Summer Landscape, 1978; Grape Notes, Apple Music, 1980; Muscle, 1982; Scenes and Dubs, 1987; Mad With Music, 1987) without ever being seen as a poet by the public. Yet he was published both by Fulcrum and by Trigram—a unique double from the most prestigious houses of the time. The impression his poetry leaves behind is of an excitement and profusion of ideas which add up to an inability to concentrate. The problem is not the expertise of the setting, but the confused nature of the personality behind it, his inability to come to rest and give clear signals. Yet when he describes a place, for example, his febrile gush of ideas captures a great deal that is correctly observed and undeniable. One of the main profiles in his work is the imprint of Ted Hughes, who is the subject, transformed, of his novel The Patriarchs.
Face high, proud, springsmacked.
Scatter smattered starflak. Night disasters.
Sea-wrack peppered heartsplit.
Condemned to disparity.
Iggy rockthrob kissed curled naked round the pickup.
Consternation all round.
Cloven-toed, cracks the swollen pain-whip:
"Wake up. Get your eyes open."
Continuum-tears confess unresolveables.
Probe lightsockets. Scream coupled fuckfingers.
Robbed vault, love's void body.
Guts, cunt, brain scoured, sealed.
Life sentence suspended. Hung destiny.
Here where spindrift peppers paradox. Awake.
(from 'Two Takes of the Same Chorus', in Mad with Music)
So much energy is often the sign of a basic lack. However rapidly his sensibility moves, however slight the occasions, he is menaced by a slide into over-physiological, over-mythical, acoustically clogged language. Someone trying out Hughes' tunes. Arousing energy without finding a discharge for it. Of course, the physiological language of this passage is also close to the New Romantics, and Nuttall's other great influence is Dylan Thomas; he belongs both to stage 2 and to stage 5 of our schema. He likes the scenario where the poet, a creature of untarnished vitality, instinct, drive, generosity, is hindered by repressed people of diminished reality. This myth, learnt no doubt also from Lawrence, needs to be staged in persuasive and unchallengeable form. He reminds one sometimes of the climactic line of 'Flesh for Frankenstein': "To know Life you have to fuck Death in the gall bladder." The Udo Kier of poetry? (Is Iggy the rock singer, formerly titular head and meneur de jeu of Iggy and the Iguanas?) And what about the absence of pronouns? is this a rejection of merely bourgeois notions of identity in favour of edgeless energy vortices throwing us all arse over tip, or is it just a trick to pack more emotionally laden syllables into the metrical line?
A poem printed in Penguin Modern Poets 12, 'The Whore of Kilpeck', which I still remember almost twenty years after reading it, evokes the sheela-na-gig on the timpanum of a church at Kilpeck in Herefordshire:
The Mother of Red Muck slewed out her gibbering sheilaghnagig. The entire spring season ploughed her in her eldritch luminous paralysis.
Who'd help her or give to her further? She squats and she claws clamp-hands at her loud wet seed-pit. The hazel twigs whimper.
This pristine piece of Bronze Age ribaldry—a stone whorl depicting a grotesque female form holding her vagina wide open with her hands, the opening taking up almost all the depiction— effortlessly gives Nuttall's physiological saloperie a lineage going back through the ages. There are some of these in the National Museum in Dublin; their presence in places like Kilpeck presumably points to contacts with Ireland. You might not want to have one over your mantlepiece, but you can't deny the power of the image. The labels in the National Museum explain that the image, quite well known in Romanesque churches, is a deliberately repellent showing of the vice of lechery. The power of the image makes it ambiguous, dependent on mediations - but Nuttall hates mediations. Another poem is about Cranes:
I stalk with the razorblade cranes, my pinhead reeling wingpower in the white light,
Stilt legs reed legs red from menstrual delta.
I stalk with an agate eye and a lunatic trapped in my fossilized head—My stare...
He is afflicted by a vivid sense of the illegitimacy of all social institutions, which implies a perpetual contest of strength between these and the poet, as anarchist, Pied Piper, and leader of the dance; the sense of revolt is attractive, always hard to argue with, but the poetry itself forms no counter-pole, but seems slapdash, as unpersuasive, after a few firework effects, to him and us, as the school or job we are fleeing from. The position lays him open to defeat every time that a product of order, such as a computer, a gramophone, or a meal in a restaurant, visibly works and satisfies us. Filled with enthusiasm for Artaud, Burroughs, Hughes, dozens of other protean rebels, Nuttall seems threatened with a slide into mere fandom. His insight was probably that the breach of art has to be carried out on all levels of life; a call which needs endless nerve and resolution, dwarfs the work of art itself (as something enjoyed in your home without interrupting your existence), and de-legitimates all institutions curating and teaching art. Art can hardly bring about a spontaneous attitude to life while it is the product of a work ethic.
An obtuse child, bemused by witch-mists holds the boat on course across a foam of doubles.
Incisive is the precisely vertical drop of the sun on Bretagne.
She holds a steady rudder on my chemical drifts of impulse.
Suicide and peroration come together in a gull-sung scum.
Her prow of ice-eyes honed-nose slicing self-propelled proclivities,
Draws the skirts of mine and other men's emotions in its wake.
The harbour gates are lifting, rust gilded in a kyrie of terns.
The newly-coined compounds are a feature of New Romantic poetry. His poetry is blemished by huffing and puffing, inarticulate shouting, repetition, but conceals a few plausible passages. He has dabbled in several other arts—drawing, performance theatre, jazz—achieving his best, I think, as a cultural critic, in the prose works Bomb Culture and Common Objects/Vulgar Fractions. He was unlucky not to become a guru of Media Studies, since he was making very clear statements about the meaning of youth culture in clothes, rock music, etc., at a very early date. His ability to write clearly about deep subjectivity is unparallelled. His Texts for Performance (Performance Art volume 2) are difficult to read on the page; volume one, his history of the Performance movement, was criticised for being about what he did and said during the period. Quite likely his theatre work is his most significant.
Bomb Culture contains a description of early Writers Forum meetings around 1966, and he published a pamphlet with Writers Forum as early as 1966 (Mr Watkins got drunk and had to be carried home), and his work is an earlier stage of what the London School were up to in the 1980s and 90s. It contains, for example, clang associations (lamprey prison/ lambent jism), defacing of text and images, excess physicality, lack of pronouns and syntax, reduction of text to an element of composition within a graphic whole.
There is in the work of certain poets an existential turn whereby the rushing heady energy of their hopes and of the potential of language is replaced, at a critical moment, by a pessimism which is wary, based on self-knowledge, denies that the impossible can become possible, and founds itself on exhausting scrutiny of each syllable and combination of syllables. It is this which I call existential. The poet has in fact to become sceptical about the possibilities of poetry in order to write a poem which is faultless, and truly a poem, and reveals the possibilities of poetry. Nuttall has never made this turn; which gives him access to an intact mad idealism which could appeal to a mass audience. How depressing to learn that the poets one admires have no illusions about themselves, and spend their days in a state of mind as grim and methodical as a watchmaker; filing away at the verbal substance of the poem a milligram at a time.
Nuttall appears as a Silenus, a master of the revels whose wild train causes people to indulge in sensual excess and leaves chaos and empty bottles behind it. One can write off individual poems, but not the Dionysiac principle as a whole. The question of theoretical desirability brings up the issue of precisely what Nuttall's influence has been, and of an overall understanding of the art of the past thirty years, which defies resolution at present.
Both Logue and Nuttall however were interested in writing about sexuality, and this flew the banner, at that time, both of extending the frontiers of art and of holing bourgeois poets beneath the waterline, convicting them of a secrecy which emptied their language and made their claims to understand and dramatize human behaviour incredible. 'Beyond acceptance, my direction was towards the aesthetic of obscenity. Clearly what is called beautiful is merely what was called ugly previously.' Merely? Because sex was carrying this polemic burden, it couldn't be written about with much realism or sensitivity. The verbal fighting over territory was one more way of purging sexuality of its female element. Nuttall's resort in despair of language to an excess of physicality which eviscerates dominates and transcends the text while remaining trapped inside it because still verbal anticipates similar appeals to a higher authority, delegitimating the substance in which one's message is being carried, in modern poets. There are indications that the real opponent in Nuttall's work is not the government (big business, the Church, etc.) but women; the combat is being fought on a domestic, not cosmic, scale, and the aim of struggle is not to defeat the defeated party but to absorb her into an assertive theory of what the relationship should be, and of who the 'first person', the poet, really is. What the description of Nuttall's 1964 installation, the sTigma, most powerfully evokes is the home, that living three-dimensional environment where after all most of the objects mentioned are found, and in fact many of his theatre pieces seem to have been about marriage, something so overwhelming that it can only be dealt with by grotesquerie. The subject could logically have led on to the theme of socialization, which in fact was about to be pulled into centre stage by feminism, by gay liberation, and by other fractions of the New Left. The problem of reducing to a philosophical model the whole process of intense involvement with other people, with objects, behavioural rules, symbolic structures, by which a new-born child becomes an adult and an economic agent, and a parent, is one which still awaits poetical solution. One cannot study the origins of language either through ancient parchments, archaeology, or adults interrogating themselves in solitude; one can study it through children, because it takes place afresh in every child; and it then proposes itself as a function within various relationships between the child and adults or other children, a product of those relationships, damaged in the way they are damaged. The project of investigating language, which one might associate with Pinter, Raworth, or W.S. Graham, is only a short way removed from the study of the family and the home, as one finds it however partially in Nuttall or Brian Catling. The evolution of the identity became the topic par excellence of performance art.
The 1950s were a time of Anglican revival, and the shock tactics of the 1960s may have been largely a reaction against Anglicanism, a response to its defeats and withdrawal as supervisor of the limits of art. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was largely an Anglican movement; the Arts Together group which designed the sTigma was formed as a result of a letter to Peace News in 1962, and the first premises offered to it were the spacious cellar of Saint Martin's in the Fields, in Saint Martin's Lane, London (Bomb Culture, p. 138). The relation of these secular radicals to the Anglican Church was partly that they seized on something which Church people couldn't possibly do, i.e. excess physicality, and redefined it as the central thing in art-politics. Although this consigned the Anglicans to the past, its dialectical implication was that Arts Together was basically similar to the Anglicans, and wanted to capture their moral authority from them. The assumption was that the emotional shock of terror and obscenity would provoke a reaction within the frame of 1950s concerned theology, i.e. reflections on the human condition, the horror of history, repentance, political commitment, the attempt to link up with other concerned idealists. Actually, reactions to visceral shock were diverse and utterly unpredictable; the link with an anti-nuclear stance was not really there, but a kind of morphic memory left over from the matrix of committed Christianity. The techniques developed by performance troupes, Writers Forum poets, environments, and so on, could be taken on by later artists, easily stripped of their ideological trappings, and adapted to totally different ends.
A withdrawal from the State as war machine expressed itself during the Second World War politically and theologically as Personalism, and poetically as New Romanticism; this is where Nuttall comes from as a poet. He is in fact an Apocalyptic, intending to reveal the deepest secrets of history and human nature. In the sTigma, the world has contracted to what we can touch: a new system of values is to be constructed from what is seen as purely authentic, i.e. sensations inside the body. The work of art takes you inside a body. The existence of the abstract and symbolic is rejected in favour of immersion and tangibility; clear relations erased by the replacement of the eye with touch and emotion. His poetry exhibits chains of substantives, impoverished in connectives, qualifications, or syntax; qualities which he associates with the language of the State.
Performance art as the new pulpit
The history of performance art shows a retreat from this immersive totality. In fact, it has also regressed back from the next stage of Nuttall's career, where (with The People Show and other troupes) he was putting groups on stage, containing three-dimensional space and also the immersive social space of dialogue. Largely because of problems in delivery and repeatability, the "performance" has shrunk down to one person, without scenery; making more or less furtive attempts to recapture space, the body, and sociality. The performer has as symbolic display objects only their body, and the space around them; typically, a classroom. The convention of this ultra-conventional genre is to "map the space" in some way, as a fallback from being able to design it; and to write in an excessively dull way about physiology, in doing which they produce "texts" reminiscent of the New Apocalyptics.
The "prophetic" element is supplied by absurd theses from Bataille and Lacan, chosen because they are about "the body" and so can make use of the only prop which is available. The cutting of dialogue has meant the forfeit of reason.
The prehistory of horror as we know it is in certain art forms produced by Christianity; for example, depictions of Hell, and tales of devils. The apocalyptic in British art is largely confined to the horror film. The horror audience, however, does not have religious associations with these images; 'Night of the Living Dead' starts with the resurrection of the dead, but is not a religious film. 'Hellbound' is partly set in Hell, uses imagery of damnation and redemption, but is still not religious in the way we actually watch it. Perhaps this area shows us the overlap between the Gothic, as we know it in poetry, and performance art; an overlap represented by Brian Catling, above all. I identified, some time ago, poets such as Catling, Jeremy Reed, D.M. Black, Hughes, and David Harsent as a special genre of seventies Gothic; perhaps they came out of the shock art of the sixties, and the bizarre events of sixties performance artists link this Gothic to the modern stream of performance poets such as Caroline Bergvall, David Rushmer, Aaron Williamson, and cris cheek. Catling has reached great artistic power in installations and in the texts which accompany them; stage 6 of our schema. Soundings gives an account of some of the installation pieces; the texts are collected in such books as Pleiades in Nine and The Stumbling Block.
The X film shows the body only within a certain teleological course, endlessly repeating a few obsessive scenes, blown up and stylised outside anybody's real experience. When Nuttall writes about body parts, he is not really exploring instinct, but altering the volume ratios of different types of sensory input. In making love, one is relatively cut off from language and sight, relatively more immersed in touch, inner-body sensations, and intuition of the other person's feelings and responses; talking about guts or cunt says almost nothing about the drives, which are controlled by glands situated mostly in the brain, but switches focus to one set of inputs rather than another. Nuttall is cutting a cable to shift dominance to another cable. The syntax of Nuttall's poems is weakly articulated, because analytical reason is not one of the faculties he wants to be active. There seems to be a mismatch between Nuttall's sense of what is dominant and the material nature of a printed poem.
Barry MacSweeney and Jury Vet
Another poet of the sweeping away quality of sexual experience is Barry MacSweeney. John Wilkinson, in his review in Angel Exhaust, compares Barry MacSweeney's work (in Odes and Jury Vet) to the Boston poet John Wieners, remarking that what was transvestism in Wieners became fetishism in MacSweeney. This refers to works like these extracts from 'Jury Vet', belonging to stage 4 of our schema, first published in Equofinality #1 (1982, and edited by Wilkinson), not printed in full until The Tempers of Hazard, where it fills 40 pages:
FUL DEBONARE she glistered on the secret
carnal bed. Lunglips
flobbing, chenille wrapettes uncreased.
Mousse shadow sheer concealer stick.
PEARLISED rose & suck loose powders.
Automatic tit mascara flows.
Fluid cheek blushers mate with rust
to win the heart of mannish boys.
RAKE STORMING CHEEKS WITH Marjolaine.
frozen cliffjuts scalped & frosted tourmaline.
amazing jumbo pencils.
Liquid amaryllis true earth ground.
('Stocking Dust for Fire')
Frail apache, rue de la disco waif, let me part the Dralon
curtains down across the city of yr Birth.
Shattered vinyl strawhead, drenched
natural beauty (wheatgerm hair conditioner), bust
bounties & Bunty annuals
combined. JET LEATHER strapettes
skim her milkshake skin, blue lights
('Pink Enamelled Tosspot') The tone is like that of the compere at a fashion show, describing the goods as the models shimmy across the catwalk; but the clothes are punk. Following the 'Odes', the idea is obviously to move away from media stars and to make ordinary people into stars, on the basis of their flagrant dress and unstudied animal magnetism. This is also the 'aesthetic of obscenity' which Nuttall talked about.
FUL DEBONARE: Fragments of 15th C English (from Chatterton via 'Thomas Rowley') crop up throughout MacSweeney's work. He has been much occupied with a phase of pre-Romanticism which produced, out of envy and fury at the sterility of the poetry world of the Enlightenment, wholesale forgeries: Rowley, Ossian, Iolo Morganwg, even a whole Shakespeare play named 'Vortigern and Rowena'. This developed into much more coherent products of envy; Scott wrote an ending to a 14th C Scots romance in 14th C Scots, but went on to invent the historical novel. MacSweeney is always using source material, acknowledging a collective history, but his personal style is located in the editing method and the organization of phrases. The result could be called surrealist historicism.
MacSweeney, robustly elevating modern gangs and youth movements into the continuum of myth, is denying the artificial separation between 'folklore' (of the past) and contemporary culture. The method of appropriation and punk glamorization is palpably similar to John Wieners. Wieners was often, in Behind the State Capitol, or, Cincinnati Pike, rewriting a Hollywood film or a 'lifestyle feature' or gossip column in a magazine (possibly even an ad), in the form of a poem, starring the poet, wearing women's clothing; his weak identity allowed this acquisitiveness, and indeed the two are inseparable. Barry was taking found material, from magazines (Vogue and New Musical Express have been suggested), from popular culture therefore; and writing poems directly from the photographs, using the text to supply the necessary vocabulary. A work announced but never published was based on 'British B-movies of the 1950s', a similar re-make of mass-appeal material. His ego boundary was somewhat stronger and he also wasn't gay (his interest in women's clothing was differently motivated). Clearly, reduction of the other person to inanimate body parts is a deviation. MacSweeney didn't invent the pin-up (pin-down); and he is in passive mode, recording the semiotic rampage of female punks, giving way to their control of the visual and sexual realms.
The national mythical site, which in the 1940s was wherever the heat of the war was, was in the late seventies in the persons of extravagantly dressed punks. MacSweeney took the poem to where the focus of interest was, accepting the primacy of the audiovisual media but simply taking these as the outset of the poem. The switch from a sphere of government activity, in some sense centralised (even if the war was happening somewhere in the North Atlantic), to a domain of private life, concerning clothes and attitude, belongs to peace and affluence. Where in 1941 the zone of collective attention was the shifting front line in the Western Desert, in 1966 it was in "how explicit" the media could be in portraying sexuality, and in 1977 it was in the semiotic recoding of clothes, hair, musical sounds, etc., by the punks. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand how national myth works. While Jury Vet is certainly working from photographs, the photos in question are of punk girls (there is a catalogue of punk girl groups of the time in it) and the primary ordinance of signs is theirs. These were sarcastic ripostes to the bleached and glamorized version of femininity which Socialists and feminists had criticised. As we have mentioned, punk literally derived from fetishism; the early punk garb existed (in specialist shops) because it was already being used by fetishists; the Neale Street premises of the Roxy Club were also used by a rubber/leather club (which still exists, insulated from the public world) as well as by a gay club; the clientele overlapped because people kept turning up on the wrong night. It wasn't Barry MacSweeney who arranged this. Sex, the clothes shop owned by Malcolm MacLaren's wife Vivienne Westwood, was a fetishist shop, and the punks adopted the rubber/ leather/ bondage gear as part of a marketing policy of shock (and increasing turnover). Of course, the clothes lost their pervert implications because punk was so big, they were 'recoded' just as being signs of Punk. But at the outset punks, especially girls, wore them as parodies of sexuality — the appeal to the male viewer's fantasies was overblown, satirical, subversive. Most people who claim to be subversive are merely deceiving themselves as they do something blatant and antique, but punk really was it. How often do you get girls deliberately making themselves up to look ugly? Because these meanings were in the pictures MacSweeney is describing, logically they are part of the complete meaning of Jury Vet. The ideal publication of the poem would be as an album with the photos on facing pages; this would make clear that the female dress in question was maximally assertive, selfconscious, politicised (even), and that Barry is writing down their revolt. He is making a transition from mythical biographies of Chatterton, Jim Morrison, etc., to mythic descriptions of roaring girls. If we compare Jury Vet with Odes, its immediate predecessor, we find uncritical glamour in the 'Mia Farrow Ode':
Her wild oregano
my empty room
Jury Vet was really a ruthless break away from this kind of thing.
It was some fifteen years ago [viz. 1982] that I first read extracts from Jury Vet; after long reflection I can now say that the programme of full-on sexuality never cooling down was wholly miscalculated; it takes its rules from media other than poetry. It resembles a whole string of other works, almost a school of poetry, which are equally tedious, overheated, and monotonous.
When I interviewed Barry in 1996, he said that Jury Vet was about a girlfriend of his; the material about clothes was the furniture of a sexual fantasy, albeit a mutual sexual fantasy. This was impossible to work out from the text; as so often with Barry, the tone is clear to him and unclear to the reader. The theme of jury vetting was in the news at the time, but plays no part in the work at all.
There are a number of methodological problems with this subject, and this account can only be tentative, even it serves to displace some excessively generalised and unhistorical versions of the story. This trip through various positions on the representation of sexuality suffers from the problem of equating single poets with the common rules of verbal propriety in given periods; I must be prepared to give back some of my results, since the reader may legitimately claim that the subjects chosen (Pitter, Barker, Nuttall, MacSweeney, etc.) are not typical at all. Perhaps I could go further along this line and state that salvationist theories about the goodness of poetry depending on its ability to treat sexual feelings are mistaken: they are one of the simplifying delusions which poets use to reduce their own perceptiveness. I am quite happy to see lack of personal investment as one of the great problems of mid-century British poetry, but this depersonalisation was not merely sexual, and the corollary that poets who write a great deal about sex are constantly interesting is just not true. The reader may well object that I have left out feminism, since I have only dealt with poets who were formed before its impact was felt: this is quite true, but the effects of feminism call for a book on their own, while they are also very widely discussed, and the tensions (variously, of silence and of male self-indulgence) which preceded feminism and in fact called for it, are less familiar. The difficult balance between "love" (not excluding sexuality) and "sex" (not excluding love) has also been omitted, because it would have just produced too long and diffuse a discussion.
The situation today is of a great lack of restrictions in subject matter, which only draws attention to the radical unreliability of aesthetic responses to descriptions of sexual feelings and acts: the franker you are, the more people will find your poem distasteful and unrecognisable. Essentially, readers are no more likely to be attracted to the "consumption" of sexual feelings evoked by you than to engaging in sexual acts with you. Foregrounding sexuality leads to a pattern of multiple, fragmented, groups closely attached to authors developing their sensibility in some depth; which in fact is the poetic landscape we have. The course which includes the detachment from banal autobiographical display and saucy self-projection as an object of vicarious desire, but excludes the discouraging recession into depersonalisation, moral generalisation, and coldness, is what is sought.
The poets of A Various Art are notable for the exclusion of explicit description of sex, and for an atmosphere of romantic involvement between the (male) poet and a woman, in which the element of reflexivity reduces and criticises the power element in romance. The tacit assumption is that intense emotion is selfish, and that cool-headedness is the basis for an adult relationship, where domination and insecurity are both minimised. This in fact is the basis for the mystique of A Various Art: its refusal to accept that a bigger emotion means a bigger poem. My claim is that the attractiveness of poets like John James, Andrew Crozier, John Hall, and David Chaloner, is their attention to the zone which lies between (but very close to) two people, implying control of the "inner" and selfish areas of sexual appetite and sheer emotions. This inverts the principle that the further inward anything is, the more authentic it is; while also making social life possible. In fact, writing explicitly about sexuality tends to be regressive and repetitive.
This was written in about 1999 and was part of Origins of the Underground for several years before succumbing to the pressure of space. At that point, Origins was called 'reflexivity', and was about the relations between reflexivity and intimacy, identification, etc. Then it was 'Secrets of Nature'. Then it was renamed 'Origins of the Underground' because I discovered that the phrase 'secrets of nature', which I had taken from a series of nature documentaries of the 1920s, had a specific meaning in occultism, which I didn't want to be associated with.
I think I wrote about MacSweeney six times. It's hard to reconstruct why. Not wholly a bad idea, or even six bad ideas.