Desert boats; the unlearned and the unlearning
[[this relates to a chapter in “The Long 1950s”, which hasn’t been published yet. It is a kind of “taster” for the book. If you develop an enthusiasm for naive art, you start to wonder if there is any poetry which corresponds to it. The book is a attempt to define genres within the mainstream, and the folk style is evidently one of these.]]
It is widely agreed that academic study of English Literature does not automatically make you an excellent poet, and in fact that profound knowledge of history and of verbal structures presents people with problems which are excessive and which tend to destroy their poems while still inchoate, and that being well socialised in the attitudes of the wise and learned predisposes you to write a kind of poem which the wise and learned do not even like. The central agora of the age does not like modern poetry. It is hardly surprising, then, that poets try to regress down the line of time, as it represents advancing knowledge, and that there should pervade the scene a kind of envy of the unlearned who are (perhaps) wrapped in a blissful cloud of unknowing. This has been so for the last hundred years at least, and solutions were being developed already before 1900.
Was this necessary? It may be a refusal to simplify and to regress which has allowed poets like Hill and Prynne to transcend everyone else. It may be the refusal to integrate the great world, to read the newspapers every day, which has led other poets towards books which are more harmonious only because they withdraw into a simplified and smaller world. However, in this essay we are going to explore the unlearned and the unlearning.
To advance our concept of the minimal divisions of the poetic field, I am offering descriptions of six variants of ‘unlearned’ poetry:
(a) folk poetry including folksong
(b) naive poetry
(d) Outsider Poetry
(e) lyric poetry
(f) Grandiose poetry (or the Naive Sublime, or the Faustian style)
In 1975 I saw works by Adolf Wölfli, in Heidelberg I think. This was my first exposure to outsider art, to the art of the insane in fact. Wölfli was Swiss, and was in an asylum because of acts which were described rather vaguely by the courts of the time, (‘attentat à la morale‘) but which on reflection I believe to mean assaults on little girls. Wölfli was never going to be released. He was an orphan with almost no schooling, who had worked as a shepherd from the earliest age. His art was created purely for himself and it is doubtful that he had insight into other people’s reactions to it. Yet his manically filled spaces had a quality of greatness; it is hard to evoke, but his paintings (with some bands covered in words) have this effect on other people than me, which is why they were on display in a German museum. They created a visual ‘place’ which was utterly stable, autonomous, and uncompromised; the power of his illness blazed in dark tones from the paintings, although it was the weakness of the individual which let them out.
Those pictures have a distinctive and defective organisation of space, a special geometry. Sanity is needed to integrate inner and outer. His use of canvas suggests the way in which he was ill. But there are thousands of possible geometries, unorthodox but compatible with health, and this suggests how different poetics can differ from each other.
Variable geometry offers a way of thinking about the nature of representational conventions. Naive art rarely uses academic perspective, but it also makes expressive use of its flatness.
Perhaps in order to get away from the dominance of economic thinking and classification and empirical criticism we have to conjure up an entire population of means of proceeding through the world, and describe "instrumental reason" simply as one variant. We could describe this by considering a whole population of objects of which a few are flat and square, like pieces of paper. If you are writing on these flat square objects your poem will follow that geometry, but if there are thousands of other objects built as spirals, as mugs, etc. then you would be lucky to come across something razed and square and your words would follow spirals, curves, etc. when they were written on the other objects. Back in the Bronze Age, inscriptions are mostly on objects, and it is natural that an inscription on a ring, let’s say, would come back to its own beginning.
(a) Folk poetry including folksong
I will try to explain what 'folk' means to me through the example of a Norwegian hanging tapestry of about 1625 to 1650 AD. It shows the story of Guiamar, a theme from Arthurian romance, something which resembles and reproduces the same narrative in literary art, because it tells a story. The events have however been transformed in order to make them fit onto a textile. The hanging is made in concentric registers, so that there are continuous bands of textile around the outside and the narrative is in the middle, in four quarters. These represent events in the life (of Guiamar) which follow each other, so that four time zones are shown on the same woven surface. Right in the middle is a further panel, a roundel with decorative motifs and a face. I was interested in how the nature of the object on which the history is encrusted dictates what can be told, so that material limits dictate artistic procedures, and in how the idea of space is untouched by perspective or by other Renaissance norms and yet is finished and satisfactory. The space of this tapestry is continuous in ways we find strange and interrupted in ways we find strange. Looking at this helped me to think about the language of folk poetry as something stiff, stylised, limited, and yet composing an integral world. I admit I don't know the story of Guiamar (alternatively Guiomar or Guyomart, I think). While this space is unlike what we would call the space of Western academic convention, it is very different from the space of a Wölfli painting: it is the product of artistic convention and not of psychiatric problems.
A few extracts from folk songs:
If by chance you look for me
Perhaps you’ll not me find,
For I’ll be in my castle -
Enquire for Reynardine.
Sun and dark she followed him,
His teeth did brightly shine,
And he led her over the mountains,
That sly, bold Reynardine.
My mother was a westerne woman,
And learned in gramarye,
And when I learnèd at the schole,
Something shee taught itt mee.
‘There growes an hearbe within this field,
And iff it were but knowne,
His color, which is whyte and redd,
It will make blacke and browne.
And thus they renisht them to ryde,
Of tow good renisht steedes,
And when they came to Kyng Adland’s halle,
Of redd gold shone their weedes.
If all those young men
Were as hares on the mountain,
Then all those pretty maidens,
Would get guns, go hunting.
('Hares in the mountains')
But up then rose that lither lad,
And did on hose and shoon;
A collar he cast upon his neck,
He seemèd a gentleman.
And when he came to that lady’s chamber
He tirl’d upon a pin;
The lady was true of her promise,
Rose up and let him in.
He did not kiss that lady gay
When he came nor when he yode;
And sore mistrusted that lady gay
He was of some churle’s blood.
He set his ae fit on the grund,
The tither on the steed;
The ring upon his finger burst,
And his nose began to bleed.
He rode till he cam to Lunnon town,
To a place they ca Whiteha;
And a’ the lords o merry England
A traitor him gan ca.
(Child ballad 208, ‘Lord Derwentwater’)
The bit about “one foot on the ground” is like “You put one foot on the platform, the other on the train” in ‘House of the Rising Sun”, a big hit in 1965, a song written about 1900 I would guess. The songs are made of “unit structures” that are recombined.
The similarities with a strand of popular song of recent times, based in blues and in American folk music are obvious. However, the first thing to strike us is that a 20th century poet has no chance of writing in this style, and the idea is ridiculous. A few poets have used the style of folk songs. A lot of the forgotten poetry of the 20th C is close to folk song because it is so naïve -even if it's a learned naïve. Housman wrote wonderful poetry in a rigidly simple style but hundreds of others failed. So many Scottish poets regard Burns as the model and used it as a basis for writing bad poetry. The whole plan for imitating Folk was worked out around 1880 to 1920. This is the era of Hardy, Kipling, and Housman. The Georgians took the ideas of those writers and spread them over a large circle of writers. The end of the history was already visible in 1920 and revivals in 1958-65 or at other times still tend to relive parts of the story already told.
More recent examples of the "folk style" are particular poems by Ian Duhig, WS Graham, Kathleen Raine, John Holloway, and George Mackay Brown. These poems are not numerous. It is easy to forget that Graham, for example, wrote ballads in an oral style ("The Ballad of Baldy Bane"). This manner of composition is so demarcated from 20th century language that it could well correspond to what is called “naive painting”. The songs contain almost no introspection but are rich in animals and flowers (among other things) that are symbols of inner processes.
The density of patterning, the unusual symmetries, allow stylisation. When Mackay Brown uses ballads, he discards the rhythmic and stanzaic form altogether, but uses the devices of symmetry and stylisation to create highly original patterns. What he writes is a complete reworking of folk literature.
If poets were not using these songs, in the 1960s or 1970s, other people were. The Folk Boom was roughly 1958-65 but it didn't go away after that. I now grasp that acoustic blues, folk, protest songs, and singer songwriter things were all happening in the same clubs and not separated at the time. This is very interesting. They are completely different in their assumptions. A lot of the impetus came from the skiffle boom, actually.
The tapestry from Gudbrandsdalen is a mixture of the home-made and the elevated- the figure shown is wearing noble costume of the early 17th C, with puffed-out hose and a ruff. It looks like naive art, but in fact was a display object for what must have been one of the richest families in Gudbrandsdalen. There is the possibility of oriental influence at some point in its prehistory - the catalogue (from ‘Norwegian Art Treasures’, a 1958 exhibition) links another work, a cushion cover, with Persia and with a dragon motif from China. The theme of imitation of something greater is important, as with so much naive art: it is a re-creation of an exalted artefact which may not be physically available at the place where you live. Successful naive art has an imitation process which is arrested, stable at a mid-point, freestanding. Its belief in the original is pious - this is the opposite of a critical attitude. Presumably the weavers had access to pattern books, and the books had some kind of knowledge of Arras and Gobelin.
If you start from the rejection of intellectual poetry, the ‘miasma of intelligence’, you may conclude that folk stylisation is the natural vessel for what has been called 'poetry' and that as literature has grown more cerebral and less rigid and bound in form it has ceased to be 'poetry' and become something else. There has been a certain impulse to regress back to older embodiments and in concrete terms to folksong.
I looked at a few poems by Charles Causley just now to check something out. Actually there is no doubt that he, along with G Mackay Brown, was the poet most involved in folk material. But the point which struck me, and which I had missed, is that Christopher Logue's 1959 volume Songs is influenced by Causley. Causley belongs essentially to the 1940s, and I believe there was a whole strand of Forties poetry which was imitating ballads, although this was mixed up with much other material and Causley was alone in doing it single-mindedly. This is an important strand in Barker (and his poetry bears important resemblances to Causley). Dylan Thomas, too, was close to folk song in works like Under Milk Wood.
The apex of involvement of cultivated poetry with folksong was reached in about 1900 to 1920, and is mainly associated with Kipling, Hardy, and Housman. Indeed, it seems that Logue was drawing on poems by Brecht which essentially went back to Kipling. These three major poets created an atmosphere which is visible in a number of minor poets belonging to the Georgian Movement. The use of folksong certainly tapered off after 1918.
Causley was a good poet but it is hard to read his poets consecutively and this exposes the limitations of the folk style. As he expands the poem without deviating from the rule of presenting everything through concrete details, the poems become obscure. Take the poem on ‘Prinz Eugen’ for example. I do not understand this. Eugen was a general in the Austrian service and a colleague of Marlborough in the wars against the French, around 1700 to 1715. He was also a commander in wars against the Turks. Since Eugen is apparently dead in the poem, this is not a concrete situation, but something stranger. Each line has a concrete image, but what is actually going on?
English Literature academics committed, in 1958, to intense penetration of Renaissance forms, adapted the forms into the poetry they wrote. But as the Elizabethans were an asset of the New Criticism, they could be seen as already the start of fatal modernity. Thus the miasma of intelligence leads people back to pre-Renaissance resources. This impulse could link, also, to anti-Reformation fantasies by groups in thrall to Roman Catholicism. So, stripping away the literature of later centuries, folk song was seen as a ‘tunnel' back to the idealised and intact Deep Past.
Formalism (1950s Formalism) was the precinct of intellectuals but its limitations led them in the same direction as folk musicians: confronting the members of an archaic pattern which favoured simple psychology, paradoxes, and generalised truths. It was related to learned students writing poems in direct imitation of Elizabethan originals. The formalist thing was so involved with going back to Renaissance forms that it had a point of juncture with the Folk Movement, equally play-acting with pre-modern strict forms. The differences are crucial, but there is a shared vertex and this should not be forgotten. Once you get involved with stanzas, couplets, repetition with variation, set rhythms, you are using structures shared with music and this brings you inevitably closer to music, the kind which exploits that kind of symmetry. 'Art songs' of Elizabethan times still had a great deal in common with 'folk songs'. In fact, there was a set of structures they shared with lyric poetry and with hymns. The movement of the intellectual classes led steadily away from formalism, which we can see as a 'trial overload' which proved this poetic system to be unusable. The closing of the trial left nonetheless an empty space which could be filled with something new and admirable.
Why was the Troubadour club called ‘The Troubadour’? I was looking at Jean Garrigue's poems. 'And so I thought when I beheld/ Baffled by my heartsick blood/ A palfreyed horseman ride/ Between three castles and their ivory sides/ Upon a night-blue road.' (from a volume published in 1959) This is very reminiscent of the songs the Folk Movement was producing in the 1960s. You can imagine some girl in a long dress singing it in a folk club to the plangence of a lute. The deliberately archaic word 'palfrey' reminds me of the use of the word 'jester' in Donovan songs (he kept re-using it because he liked Dylan using it) to evoke a dreamlike mediaeval scene. Garrigue's poetry is, already, much more complicated than song forms, even the overlaps show that. She writes about some Renaissance painting seen on a trip to Italy; it is 'like' a club singer in 1960 stubbornly entering a song from the 15th century, but at the same time it's so much more complicated and rich in information that the comparison is tenuous. If you think of Hill's early formalist poems as 'wayward' 17th C hymns, versions of Herbert escaped into the wild, you can imagine that 'self entrapment' in an old song form as being like Shirley Collins performing a song from some 17th C manuscript, but obviously what Hill is doing is much more demanding, as much in fact as Herbert was more demanding than a usual song-writer around 1640. Learned poetry in England produced a revolution, after Wyatt, which folk song missed.
I got more interested in folk after finishing the book (The Long 1950s). It is marginal to poetry. It's really important for Mackay Brown, Causley, for some Raine poems (based on Carmina Gadelica) and for Peter Levi using Greek ballads via Nikos Gatsos. The folk style has to be there to complete a polygon of styles, defining the edges of the poetic space. But by count very little recent poetry has to do with folk. It is a sensibility involved in reading and listening which doesn't affect poetry very much. There is a sort of later stream in New Age spirituality which picks up on a hinterland of spells, incantations, and folk hymns and emerges as a branch of very stylised neo-folk poetry. I would locate poems by Sarah Law and Hilary Llewellyn-Williams in this line. The result has affinities with GM Brown but not through direct influence I don't think.
I didn't catalogue the poets who used folk forms, but one of the ones that sticks in my mind is John Holloway. That late volume Planet of Winds gives up a 'sophisticated' register to spin out a whole series of clever anti-modern forms. I suppose you could relate it to the Skeltonic fashion. It is occasional verse rather than ambitious but it's a very original book. I came across this as part of the research on the Movement. Holloway was a really interesting poet and evades any generalisations about conformist 50s verse. Like Wain, he took part in the new waves that led poetry very far away from the Movement.
(b) naive poetry
Meanwhile the recycling of naive techniques into the "learned art" of art school graduates over the past 50 years, since Dubuffet in fact, has been an unceasing flow, and no longer has much ability to surprise or refresh. In poetry, too, these techniques have been recaptured and redesigned by educated poets so intensively over the last 80 years or so that there is no point pretending that they still have a revolutionary edge. They were good ideas. They probably still are good ideas, but they are not radical and unheard-of. I am not sure that there is any poetry which corresponds to "naive art". I want amateur poetry to be like naive visual art and offer the same pleasures - but that is probably just an unrequited longing.
If we look for poetry which is naive in the sense that it is optimistic about life and poetry, is not drained of energy by rational criticism, which is decorative in a profound sense, then we are probably looking at David Barnett and Michael Haslam. To put the case quickly I will quote from Barnett’s blurb to one of his books, "Now living in an isolated farmhouse on the moors, he says ‘I have plenty of time to dream, circle-dance and to connect with the goddess who continues to be the inspiration for all the poetry I write." The appeal corresponds to the appeal of naive painters. But Barnett is an Oxford graduate, just as Haslam is a Cambridge graduate. Their access to intact sources of myth and ceremonial came from Western collections of ethnographic knowledge, not from ’the folk’. They have both led ‘eccentric’ lives in remote parts of the country, but their artistic understanding is sharpened by great learning and by contact with 20th century theories of art. To put it another way, someone genuinely naive may not get very far with attempts to write ‘naive’ poetry. There is another strand of ‘learned naive’ poetry which draws on Christian ’folk’ poetry and the naive resources of British Christianity for methods and styles. As an alternative to reading Karl Barth you can read the Hebridean folk-charms of Carmina Gadelica and make new poems imitating them.
Clearly there is a raft of techniques which are legitimately naive and which are beyond the reach of academically trained writers. There is a group of poets who have found and captured access to these techniques, and they are the ones catalogued under the heading of Jungians, mythical poets, users of folklore. If we find Penelope Shuttle, for example, writing poems in which there is absolutely no line drawn between waking life, dream, fantasy, and borrowed folklore, we are already seeing what a primitive poet would write. However, her work is organised by the care of a modern intellect and has none of the gaudy, limited or clumsy qualities which mark off true Raw Art. In a world where objective, numerically accurate, representations so often prevail, it is arguable that artistic expression of any kind partakes of the nature of the childlike and anti-rational. This would pitch any emotional poetry into the same part of the world as anthropological and folk art. It also highlights the strange role of rational poetry, a whole sector created by academics and others, remarkable for its lack of expressive energy.
The idea of writing about myth is related to the idea of lyric poetry. Trying to write myth is a move away from knowledge, a regression into the Bronze Age past, yet central to 20th C poetry and recognised as central by almost all critics. The precondition of 20th C poetry, generally, is the loss of Christian myth and of Classical myth. These were by 1900 (or even 1850?) worn out systems of artistic meaning, which yet led to craving for a replacement.
The variety of ways of recapturing myth since Swinburne (to take a rather arbitrary point) is huge and a description could easily fill a volume on its own.
I have just seen an exhibition at a Nottingham art gallery showing human traffickers getting illegal migrants from inland Africa, the band south of the Sahara, to the coast of Morocco and then to Europe. The government can control fishing boats, so the voyage no longer uses real fishing boats that float. The traffickers don’t hire boats, they make the migrants carry pre-cut sections of timber from their homes, and build the boats close to the shore. They are Ikea boats. The migrants generally have no idea about boat building. They make boats that look like boats in pictures but don’t necessarily behave like them. In these they take on the North Atlantic.
The 20th C intellectual writing poetic myth is like someone from 300 km away from the coast launching their boat into the North Atlantic. It may look like myth. It may be a copy of myths they’ve seen. But does it act like a myth when you chuck it in the ocean?
They showed a photo of boats in various stages in a sandy area that may simply be a desert. Desert boats. It is a great photograph. The boats look like they are wrecks being eaten away into a skeleton, but it’s the other way around, they are at different stages of assembly, growing. The photograph was taken from the air by the Moroccan police trying to catch the migrants.
The way into myth led through folklore.
It may well be that Outsider artists looked like people who were living in the mythical era, so lacking in reason that they were unable to criticise and so the seeds of myth survived and throve.
(d) Outsider Art
I was so impressed by Harald Szeemann’s completely wonderful book Visionäre Schweiz (Visionary Switzerland), that I wanted to do something similar for Britain. Szeemann (1933-2005) was a great exhibition organiser and his catalogues have the quality of literature. He produces numerous Swiss visual artists whose methods were naive and whose message was optimistic, humanitarian and idealistic. They do not have any element of close psychological observation and character recording, but are vague and focussed on an allegorical no-place where everyone is noble and benign. I think the key to Szeemann is that he merges ‘outsider’ artists and trained ‘academic’ artists and makes absolutely no distinction between them. It is all about what they can do, what reveries their works inspire, whether they can create stable and evocative spaces and whether those spaces can be brought to life in an exhibition. Switzerland has a tradition (since the mid 19th C) of sanatoria where people with long-term sicknesses could live, and one of their traditions was psychiatric asylums. Some of these developed a line of gentle handling, and part of this was a therapeutic approach which included giving the inmates art materials so that they could express themselves. The product could also be used, perhaps, for understanding mental processes, and a ‘deposit’ of this material grew up. Szeemann drew on the Swiss interest in this art, and also with other Swiss ideas of Swiss people as ‘children of nature’ and in touch with the sublime because of proximity to the mountains. (This gentle handling was not happening in Switzerland only.)
In a 1946 manifesto-essay, Jean Dubuffet used the phrase art brut, which was translated into English as Raw Art. Dubuffet hated the art tradition altogether. He only liked the art of the insane, of children, of complete naives, of primitive peoples. His claims about ‘high art’ are furious and quite unbelievable. He wanted to destroy everything except art brut. This is excessive and art brut does not deserve that much attention. His liking for people who couldn't paint was just a pendant to his hatred of his fellow artists. The customs around rage are different in France from in some neighbouring countries. Raw Vision is the name of a magazine devoted to ‘outsiders’ in art.
The collection which Dubuffet brought together found a home eventually in Switzerland. There seems to be a geographical basis for this sensibility, and Switzerland and Yugoslavia seem to be the main homes of naive art. Jung was a psychiatrist in Switzerland, at the Burghölzli in Zurich. The Swiss tradition was much older than Dubuffet’s vogue. Jung was almost saying ‘paint as if you were insane but still be sane’. His version got into the English literary world in a way which Dubuffet’s savagery didn’t. A trawl on the Internet told me that Edwin Muir underwent a Jungian analysis already in 1919: incredibly early, really. Muir is a direct line to George Mackay Brown, Kathleen Raine, and Ted Hughes. He didn’t influence the mainstream at all but he had an intense influence on a small group of poets.
Dubuffet’s assertion of the irrational in art is very similar to a British movement in poetry which had started seven or eight years before. The Apocalyptics virtually banned logic and reason from poems, trying to develop other faculties.
(e) Lyric poetry
The incompatibility of learning and poetry is inscribed deeply into the tradition via the notion of lyric. Scholars are agreed that lyric poetry is close to the core of poetry, and close to the human heart, but clearly the modes of perception which animate the lyric feeling have nothing to do with the ways of perceiving which are embodied in science and scholarship. A great deal has already been said about this topic, much of it too good to need any corrections. I just want to add, first, that there is a strain of intellectual lyric, for example in John Donne and in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and that the predilection of the new criticism for the Metaphysicals was a recognition that this strain was something which resolved the contradictions of 20th C scholars who wanted to write about feelings. When I say ‘resolve’ that already misses the point that much of that 20th C poetry was trying to embody the contradictions, via irony and ambiguity. Geoffrey Thurley wrote a brilliant interpretation of this line which also hailed the new and simpler poetry of the 1960s as a return to true feeling. Secondly, that love is based on insight into the other person and that simply being naive and ignorant may mean you miss the heart of the matter, not that you own it.
(f) The Naive Sublime
As a generalisation, a difference between the 19th C and most of the 20th is that poets no longer write about ideals and the history of ideals being realised in time and in the life of an individual. This becomes pungent when we look at the descriptions in Szeemann’s book of naive artists in the late 20th C showing such noble ideals.
Brian Maidment discusses poetry in 19th C Manchester in his anthology and study The Poorhouse Fugitives. Maidment divides the poetry of self-educated men in the nineteenth century into three types: Chartist and radical writing; Parnassian poetry, often using “the most complex and elaborate traditional forms within the British literary tradition”, with “the ambition to rival the educated classes in poetry”; and “deliberately homely rhyming”, often using dialect. The engine-driver Alexander Anderson was of the Parnassian kind and wrote, in about 1881 -
Dare I fix my vision further, deeming that we mould this mind,
But to look in steady splendour on the toiling of our kind?
(viz. the task of recording the details of working lives)
Heart! but this were something nobler than the poet ever felt
When the fought-for happy laurel clasp’d his forehead like a belt;
When the liquid fire of genius, rainbow colour’d, flash’d and glow’d
All its mighty beams above him with the splendour of a god,
Wider in its stretch and grandeur than the brain could ever dream
To look down on our fellows from some planet’s blinding gleam,
Watching with seraphic vision, grasping with delighted soul,
All the goals to which they hurry as the moments shake and roll,
Linking with an unseen quickness vigour to the tasks they do,
Touching each with fresher impulse as a nobler comes in view.
Then when triumph crowns their striving, start to hear the heaven sublime
Fill its azure arch with plaudits echoing from the throat of time
(from ‘A Song of Labour’, printed by Maidment)
It is the point of view which is important here. Anderson imagines a spectator on a satellite (the invention came later) and shows us the view which that spectator sees. My understanding is that this idea of a poem which has the knowledge of all parts of the earth, and of all phases of history, was quite common in the late 19th century, or perhaps specifically from 1880 to 1910. Stephen Phillips’ A Vision of Judgement is a good example. I think this topos came specifically from Henry Irving's legendary production of Goethe’s Faust, where the scene in which Mephistopheles tempts Faust in order to find something he enjoys turned into a vast procession of tableaux. Faust is shown all parts of the world and all parts of history. This fascinated the people of the time. Of course the topos tended to get adapted into the history of freedom, the history of representative government, the history of Christianity, the history of Science, possibly the history of private property for all I know.
If we look at William Watson's ‘The Superhuman Antagonists‘, published 1919, we see a work which could be put in a dictionary as an example of vacuous and naive idealism. It concerns an offer made by Ahriman, god of evil and all things underhand and turpid, to Ohrmazd, god of light and goodness. Ohrmazd travels through the corridors of Space, bypassing stars, to meet Ahriman, who says, this war of good and evil is exhausting, let's build an impenetrable barrier between our two domains and so our forces will never mix. Ohrmazd says they will meet in another hundred thousand years at the same place, and goes home. He goes to his city and sits on his throne of light. The city is covered in luminous hyacinth mist, has tall towers, domes, vast walls as white as sea-foam. Ohrmazd consults with three lieutenant gods, who advise him that Evil is cunning, and he decides to send out spies who will collect information. It seems that there are other planets with intelligent life, and we get a glimpse of the origin of Life, seed cast ‘on waste foam or stone’. ‘Gorgeous the web of wonder that is spun/ Out of the spilth and offcast of the sun.‘ The spies pass invisibly by humans who shiver at their presence, which they cannot identify. They search for 90,000 years and then come back to report, and the data is collated and synthesized. The conclusion is that Good is winning the war, and Ohrmazd travels back to the agreed rendezvous, bypassing a madding torrent of meteors, through ‘the cold, blank, tremendous quietude’. He shares the news that he is rejecting a truce with Ahriman, whose rage emanates as twilight, mist, and dusk, and who then departs, attended by shapeless but loyal afflictions, ’swirled in mad vortices/ [...] an innumerable swarm/ Of horrors.’ This is about 600 lines, iambic pentameters rhyming AABB with a very strong caesura. The style is vague but deliberately sublime: ‘Young planets, the shy novices/ of Night’. The visual perspective parallels the knowledge set down in writing by the expeditionary spies: perfect knowledge is very much the underlying idea of the poem, and this knowledge is what carries idealism, is its habitat. We have at one moment Ohrmazd looking down into the universe from his base: an optically impossible situation which works only if you imagine that he is on a mountain and the various heavenly bodies are laid out beneath him like fields in a valley. This visual layout is typical and suggests that Swiss people found it easier to think this way because being up mountains was more normal for them.
The problem I have with the poem is its closeness to contemporary politics: the title could only refer to the Great Powers at war, and the determination to keep up the struggle looks very much like an exhortation to ignore the insidious temptations of peace and go on fighting even if a whole generation died. That is, the problem apart from its feebleness for which there is no reprieve. If we could visualise the white-walled city it would look exactly like many of the paintings by Szeemann's favourites. The bit where the data from all the inhabited planets of the universe is written up is much like Armand Schulthess’s activities with the slips of paper on trees. The bit about spirits from another planet coming to earth to collect data is an anticipation of several flying saucer cults - not bad in 1919. Watson's poem is exactly what someone meant in about 1970 when they said 'cosmic'. It's cosmic, man!
John Redwood Anderson published a triptych of three volumes in 1946-7: Approach, Fugue of Time, The Ascent. For reasons set out in The Long 1950s, this bears very powerful resemblances to the 'grandiose-outsider' art exhibited by Szeemann. Anderson's work has sunk into oblivion today, but its 'outsider' status is surely compromised by the fact that he was an Oxford graduate and many of his books were published by Oxford University Press. There are interesting resemblances to Watson's poem. The line about clouds that 'turn/ from purple to the sable reach of night' echoes the title of one of Watson's books, Sable and Purple.
I was wondering where the outsider poets of Britain had got to, and then, possibly in a momentary lapse of reason, it came to me that we could grandiosely relabel religious epics by J Redwood Anderson and Sir William Watson as comparable to the idealistic extravaganzas of Szeemann's book. They are the Naive Sublime. However, their 'cosmic' qualities belonged to the high art of a particular period of time, and it was misleading to present them as possible models for 'outsider' poetry being produced in the period since 1960. Also Watson's poetry wasn't Outsider Art when it was being written: he was 'non contemporary' in the last 20 years of his life, and this was probably true of Anderson in the last 50 years of his life. However they fitted into a late Victorian set of notions which were official art at that time. What we seem to see is that the ‘cosmic’ mode of Outsider artists is simply displaced in time and corresponds to the high art of a previous era of European culture. This suggests that injecting this element into the flow of British poetry is principally going to bring a sector of out of date and shabby Parnassian poetry. The resurrection of older styles may not truly bring them back to life.
If we take the scheme of a building containing images of the great men of past ages, we can see that it is altogether familiar. The old National Museum of Scotland had paintings of 120 kings of Scotland on its walls (widely agreed not to be real likenesses, as also most of them probably never lived). Indeed, this was the design of the Pantheon, that visual product of the French Revolution. The question is whether naive artists create new modes of perception or simply regress to older modes which were once used by the academies, by court artists, by artists commissioned by the Church, and so on.
Icons of Time, by Peter Abbs, follows roughly this schema, of a parade of Great Souls. Based on how important the subjects are, this is an important book.
Freud speaks somewhere of the infantile hallucination of omnipotence. I think we should take this more seriously in poetry. Close up experience has made me aware that grandiose, even egomaniac fantasies are not rare on the scene, but so commonly exposed that we must suspect them to be typical, given that they try to disguise themselves. Surely the idea that you can understand the entire poetry scene is megalomaniac, in a literal sense. If we accept that this feeling of omnipotence is very pleasant, and that the literary act tends to make the states of mind of one person available to others, it is credible that this omnipotence is a great source of pleasure in poetry, and that poetry is a plunge into archaic states of wholeness and boundlessness. Further, that the attraction of philosophy for poetry (theory as for some reason it is called today) is that a certain streak of philosophy embodies these archaic qualities, in its groundless attempts to capture the qualities of the whole universe and the nature and course of development of man, and thus is so akin to the dearest wishes of poets that attraction and envy are the main terms of relationship. This would lead us on to another generalisation about the scene: that the rejection of idealistic and boundless casts of writing in favour of empirical pessimism, suburban realism, or light verse is both a sign of austerity and a renunciation of literary power.
If you imagine someone in 1963 setting out with Blake and Beat poetry (recycling Blake) as favoured influences, it would seem reasonable to label them as Outsider Art. This is how the Underground started, so there is a prima facie case for defining the Underground as Outsider Art. To explore the idea, we should consider two American poets of the 1950s, Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg. Both of them fall into the category of Naive Sublime, and if you find outsider art irritating you will probably find them irritating. Duncan clings to idealism although in the form of self-idealisation. Both of them were influential on the poetry of the Underground in Britain.
The description of the Underground as Outsider Art is not totally untrue. However, it may not be illuminating. The input of rational, critical, thinking, of the wish to win political arguments by sober and weighed judgements, to trace ideas and record concepts sharply as part of the critical project, was of great moment, and the bulk of this poetry is just not ‘art brut’. The religiosity of Duncan and Ginsberg was unacceptable to the major players. Even in terms of American poetry of the 1950s, a dozen other poets were also very influential, and the chilled Marxist input of the Objectivists was greatly favoured by the English poets we still read, 45years later.
(f ii) Can we see Marxism as a Naive Sublime?
The prehistory of Marxist poetry in England is presumably the poetry which Maidment prints in The Poorhouse Fugitives. There are several mysteries about the link between Marxism and poetry. Marxist poetry of the 60s and 70s completely left behind these older traditions and their problems. It didn’t try to re-stage world history as a pageant. This was happening in prose.
After this review we have ideas of some peripheral but basic types of poetic language and we may hope that by defining enough extreme types we can find the farther edges of the literary field and so determine its external shape. Two problems with this approach are, first, frequency. Modern poetry does not often imitate folksong, in fact probably less than 1% of it does. So while we can describe this, its usefulness is limited. Secondly, salience. It is fun to talk about myth as a genre, but this may not say very much about a particular poem. Kathleen Raine and Ted Hughes were amazingly dissimilar as poets even though their ideological sources are very similar.
We saw Muir undergoing a Jungian analysis in 1919. This ‘early entry’ may have been important for the “learned” evaluation of folklore. This may support my overall judgement on “naive poetry”: there is no poetic equivalent of a “naive painter” but the modes of perception that we find in folklore have been assimilated by learned poets as part of a repertoire which allows for constant variation of texture. Edwin Muir was thinking the problem through already in the 1920s. Before there was Hughes, there was already Muir. And Hughes’ assimilation of all kinds of folklore, Third World myth, unorthodox religious traditions, developed with great intensity during the 1960s and was then “there” for all later poets.
The idea of variant and multiple modes of perception, thrown up by this discussion, is unexplored but possibly fertile for explaining why the work of a poet is distinctive.
The 'faustian parade' is further described in Origins of the Underground.