Sunday, 21 March 2010

The delivery of intimacy

The delivery of intimacy

essay on social behaviour around poetry

It was a bad day. I had published a book about modern British poetry, in the teeth of all the poets who weren't mentioned in it. One of the reviewers – quoting another one – was saying that I only seemed to like nine or ten poets. I was disturbed at this. The book in question had included a list of poetry books which I liked and recommended, 262 in all. It was obvious from the list that I liked about 100 poets. Reviewers would have no hesitation in sneering at me for liking anything, so the only motive for putting anything on the list was that I really liked it and was willing to be jeered at for doing so, obeying my real feelings. Nonetheless the reviewers wanted to believe that I only liked 9 or ten poets. I knew many poets and the claim that I disliked their work would cause great social inconvenience.
I felt great pain over this. I felt that the reviewers were using pain as a means of reducing to me to a state of unconsciousness where I would be unable to defend myself from further and even more deceitful attacks. At the same time, withdrawing from the whole literary world seemed like a good idea, since any participation in it would expose me to similar attacks, and be frustrated in its purpose by similar misrepresentations. It became clear, in a hallucinatory light seeping out of bruised feelings, that what was most important in my life was being close to poets, and liking their work, and that the image of being cut off from this hurt me more than seemed possible. I had written five books about modern poetry in order to get room to write about all the poets I liked. There was apparently no way of arresting these lies. The part of myself which was hurting was invisible and very small, yet it seemed close to where literary processing took place – it was the literary organ, perhaps. Because it was hurting so much, the information it was emitting was unusually vivid and frequent, and the moment seemed opportune to collect this information and try to detect patterns in it.

The picture I saw of the poetic world was like a big London restaurant crowded with people shouting at the tops of their voices, and yet being drowned out by brutal techno music. Where every table had two or three independent parties seated at it, and conversations were continually being sabotaged by other people, jeered at, or interrupted, other people taking away what you had said, taking the experiences you described and claiming them as their own. Where everyone else took your calls and your drinks. Where a dozen people standing around you were mortally hurt by the sight of you making psychological contact with anyone, and would go to any lengths to stop it. Where all your sentences are completed by two other people, and the context of any conversation is constantly being paraphrased in a distorted way by three or four people standing nearby and looking on. Where the only motive for not running away was the fear that your whole life would be recounted, in tones of the darkest malice, and that at least one person would go round the room telling everyone, one by one, that you had meant to insult them personally by leaving. People were constantly reading poems aloud and then declaiming “You aren’t listening to me!” Some of the poems consisted of this line, vehemently repeated. People were writing down all the abuse and malicious inventions they could collect, gathering the loose sheets in dossiers, with partitions for each poet. As a dossier got larger, they wrote on its cover the title of my book.

Critics hate it when other critics like a book. Because intimacy with a poet is the precious asset which all this game revolves around. Once we understand that, we know what to focus on. This scene seemed to offer the possibility of explaining some of the startling features of modern British poetry. It offered a way of finding the connections between stylistic gestures within the poetry and the level of practice and everyday interaction in the poetry world.

Poetry is in a balkanised state with no accepted narratives of reputation. There is no agreement on the basic artistic facts of the last 40 years.
Partly, because the pressure on poets to dissimilate is overwhelming. They want to be distinct from everyone else as a prelude to being remembered. They want their poem to have signature. They want their poems to be dissimilar from everyone else’s. To the extent that experience is shared, part of a common sense, it interferes with signature and has to be removed.

Why is there a preoccupation with being empty-headed; the Nincompoop school? Why the domestic bias of poetry?
According to social historians, culture has been heading in this direction of privatisation for a long time. The target is the cosy middle-class home with the poet in the role of a favourite child. This is the residue once all the external possibilities of poetry have been abandoned. Biedermeier is a name for a period of German and Austrian art and literature dominated by sentimental portrayals of rosy-cheeked children and the family circle, conditioned by State censorship of ideas of any wider scope. When looking at the anthology The New Poetry, we talked about the flavour of the times being Biedermeier - perhaps because the focus of the new economy on education involves a preference for poets who are young or who adopt the role of being young. Adult subjects are outside the range of this kind of poet. The wish of poets to exclude each other is rightly called sibling rivalry because it is a consequence of this infantile state.

Poetry has exited from drama and narrative, its most popular forms in the 19th century.
External action is irrelevant to the expression of personality and the attainment of intimacy. Style involves an extent of control over the details of experience which is only attainable over a short range and in a protected environment.

Anthologies are hermetically sealed off from each other. Why do different groups mutually ignore each other?
This is partly because style evolves, and small groups provide a sheltered environment where that can happen. Partly, because ventures into self-description create bad feeling. Partly also - because anthologies create an 'atmosphere', and an atmosphere in which communalism is good defines stylistic originality as bad, and one in which original style is good makes unoriginal (but populist and sincere) poetry seem bad. This means that a poem may only work in a matching atmosphere. Partly, because segregation prevents outright conflict from breaking out.

How do we get from “I like red or blue” to a scale of poetic judgements?
Why is there such a multiplicity of aesthetic philosophies?
These two questions are closely related. In fact, the multiplicity is a natural state, bound to triumph once you remove strict centralising rules (and a group prestigious enough to impose them).
The evolution of a reader may be as complicated as the evolution of a poet. However, poetry relies on shared experiences, and since spontaneous aesthetic reactions are as unshared as the choice of "favourite colour" it is more efficient to use response patterns acquired in a shared subjectivity, i.e. within cultural experience (books, films, church services, the classroom...). Readers are shaped by the poetry they read more than by anything else. Studying the poetry may give us a window on this shaping process - without being direct evidence of it. We may overrate the shared experiences because it is possible to talk about them. In the end, poets cannot make poems "efficient" in the sense that everyone will like them; and poetic judgements cannot be more "efficient" than the poems. In fact, I do not aspire to make evaluative judgements which will be shared by everyone else.
Poets like games in which you start by cancelling everyone else’s assets. The clique is a basic formation, and is a sheltered area where members accept each other’s assets. If you reject the common sense of things, it is efficient to develop a version of human life which is personal and private – which has signature all the way through it.

Within the poetry world, invalidation predominates as an act, internal violence is a daily event.
This is part of the balkanised state. Poets are trained to compete, must do so by differentiating from other people, and must invalidate the assets which they do not possess. It is not enough to have a unique set of verbal experiences of your own. Other people must recognise it, too. And you must destroy rival sets of experiences. Being invalidated is one of the most vivid subjective experiences, so I think more attention needs to be given to who's doing it and why. Perhaps poetry changes because acts of humiliation discourage a poet from using existing forms - they get chased off. Ridicule enforces stylistic rules.

What is the connection between privatisation and pop poetry?
The poet does a mime of being ineffectual in order to elicit parental caring behaviour from the reader or critic. Of course, there are also the critical and intelligent poets as an alternative to the Nincompoops. The media promote youth because they cannot stomach the critical momentum of poetic originality; "newness" is blazoned on book jackets as a disguise for formal conservatism.

What is the stake of fratricidal struggles in an art world where there are almost no economic rewards?
The object of struggle is attention. The means of struggle are linguistic.

How do children strive for the attention of adults?
Sibling rivalry is a mighty force. The historian of psychology, Frank Sulloway, has depicted competition between siblings as a struggle for niches, which become character, the set of preferred scenes into which adults try to make inchoate reality flow. Children develop extremely effective tactics for seizing adult attention, and some of this skill flows, through however many long and indirect reaches of learning and adaptation, into the tactics used by poets. At some level, a poem is always a suit for attention. We are grateful to poets who tone down the insistent melodies of need and demand and do not jab the buttons too hard. When poets make emotional demands too crudely, we are shocked by what those demands are. I would emphasize the voluntary nature of the reader's participation in poetry. Poetry really worth our time is written by people so gifted at seizing our attention that they have adapted to what we want, including being interested by other people, losing egocentricity, incorporating knowledge about the outside world, building in decoration and variation, etc. Poets have to focus on our needs, not just on their own. As for why children want the attention of adults, this seems to be an anthropological given.


How does the concept of being out of date circulate?
This may be only a special form of the game of invalidation.
Using worn-out ideas may be a symptom of being a bad writer, rather than the cause. People with a poor grasp of a language use rigid and stereotyped turns of phrase, people who have a good command of a language tend to produce original utterances, varied as the situation demands, all the time. These variations are original, but only as a symptom of being adapted, in a conscious way, to the situation. An unoriginal poem, similarly, may have problems besides being unoriginal.
In an art museum, the physical succession from one room to another implies the succession of styles; a new one arrives and, it seems, an old one disappears. Looked at closely, the game of poetic reputation involves dozens of small futures owned by small groups. To turn literature into history, we would need to look at innovations which failed, the mechanism of failure, and the economy of the small groups owning memory. Maybe the salon labelled “2000-2010” would have a dozen different styles in it.

Maximising attentiveness works to the benefit of the reader. It increases the supply of the precious asset. So why are the available accounts of the period so partial -overlooking most of the good poets?

Someone asked in a recent issue of Chicago Review dedicated to the under-rated why the neglect of gifted poets was so obvious and so extreme. My reply was that the championing of favoured poets was the reason. Loyalty creates a bounded zone of light inside which everything else is invisible. The prescriptive gaze of advocacy prevents people from getting a glimpse of the cultural field - and the whole range of poets.

Why do people lose interest in poetry after leaving school?
School allows formal situations for display, admiration and accreditation which the market does not. Simply, people wrote poetry because there was a structure of teachers, of grades, of prizes to be awarded, etc., not sustained by any enthusiastic audience. Also, they stop being children -and adult models of poetry are rarely available.

When will a consensus emerge about who were the significant poets of the period?
Where everything is a loyalty test, there is no firm external reality – and this makes paranoia far more persuasive. If there were respected reviewers, a collective narrative could emerge which would bestow a stable reputation on certain poets. But there is no respect for any reviewers, least of all from the poets, who panic at the sight of someone potentially affecting their career. Eric Mottram was the last respected critic who took an active interest in innovative poetry. Reputation leaks out as a kind of Gnostic lore, spread from mouth to mouth, reaching no further than across a room. Poets want to believe that, “in twenty years of work I have built a firm reputation and position”, but in the land of competing paradigms that is of course impossible. There are no firm positions. Everything is being attacked all the time. It’s the transvaluation of all values. If your self-esteem is attached to this vortex of shifting, vaporous, ideas, you are doomed to misery. You can stabilise your self-esteem by building a narrow horizon and not looking beyond it – but that brings problems of its own. Many of the mysterious features of the landscape, the eroded earthworks and ruined walls, are defensive works which some poet has erected in order to enclose a horizon in which they can remain stable.
A symptom of this paranoia is hostility, projected onto the people who have a low opinion of you. The multiplicity of value-systems encourages hostile projection. The projection might often take the form of caricaturally low evaluations of the person who isn’t interested in you. Uttered in speech, print, or emails, these hostile ideas make the problem of egos changing size even worse.

Why do poets strive for individual styles?
The concept of private property has to be invoked here.
This has also to do with being remembered. Someone who reads poetry magazines will see dozens of names and may only remember the ones who write originally. This imperative becomes clearer if we look at dozens of poets in whom the aggrandisement of originality has carved down the intelligibility or the sense of their poems.
But the majority of published poets have no individuality of style at all, and a deeper question is what induces a minority of poets to write in an original way. The ability to write originally may be the reason for doing so. Unoriginal poets are perhaps trying to develop attachments in the reader by showing attaching scenes - like Biedermeier prints, perhaps. They may also be relying on loyalty tests of a sociological nature - a reason why cognoscenti automatically think of 'social group' poetry as tedious and inferior.

Why the preoccupation with qualifying the experience of the self, and with invalidating the experiences of someone who is not philosophical and critical in the right way? Why would it seem to anyone that sceptical reason is necessary to writing a poem?
There is an interesting summary of this problem in Randall Stevenson's The Last of England, at pp. 229-245.
The answer has to do with the distribution of educational assets. Because the objections have to do with recondite branches of literary theory, they are only comprehensible to people with the required level of education. Using them is a way of disqualifying people with fewer educational assets. Invalidation is made more effective by the use of organised knowledge and alliances.
In reality, the objections to the validity of anyone’s experience are unimportant, and at the same time insuperable. Literature which is apparently sophisticated does not get round the objections merely by acknowledging them. The choice to identify is at all times a valid one. The choice not to identify is at all times a questionable one. This game of invalidation is ignored by the vast majority of the reading public. It belongs originally in France, and has been imported, to a limited extent, into elite universities here.
Applying the rules is an obligatory part of belonging to a certain caste, and makes pleasure impossible. Such rules are not applied to writers from the Third World, and this absence of rivalry is why literati enjoy that kind of literature so much.

Why is English poetry different from Welsh and Gaelic poetry?
This seems to be something to do with social roles – whether they are rigid or flexible. Flexible social roles help a commercial economy but make for permanent emotional insecurity. The insecurity is what makes you attack other people’s experience. A rigid set of roles is much more comforting. It allows prestige and recognition to the poet, makes praise poetry possible, and allows a sense of security. It discourages innovation but encourages high technical achievement.

Why is rhetoric a dirty word?
Through most of European history, rhetoric has been the goal of conscious study. The fact that it has become a dirty word in England is bizarre, and no explanations seem sufficient for what looks like an act of failure and forgetting. However, part of the explanation is to be sought in withdrawal from organised religion and from affairs of state as subjects for poetry. Elevated language was entwined with the offices and proceedings proper to these spheres of activity, and the specialised words no longer have a meaning when transferred to other spheres. The course of poetry has taken saints' lives and chivalrous romances, and displaced the Saints and Heroes in order to have the Poets take their place. This has been an extraordinary coup, a seizure of roles. Insofar as poetry puts the Ego more at centre stage than the novel, with its cast of characters, does, poetry is more modern than the novel. But the replacement would induce anyone to modesty and discretion, I would think - and it has killed off rhetoric.
This withdrawal by poets is part of the privatisation we have been talking about, and can of course be seen as a new higher valuation of bourgeois experience. Opinion in England – perhaps all over Britain – favours the intimate, the casual, the spontaneous, the implicit.

Why has formal technique collapsed? Why is poetry written so casually?
The disappearance of (regular) metre and verbal ornament is very closely related to the shunning of rhetoric. Some light may be shed on it by the dialogue in 'The Man Who Knew Too Much', which we discussed above [see posting on 'Eccentricity']. It seems that theatre and cinema went in for the casual, bantering style in a big way in the 1920s. There may well be a link between this innovatory and spontaneous style and the new conventions of poetry. Perhaps a belief in amateurism means that you are forced to write bad poetry. The words are supposed to be transparent in order to make character visible. The reader is supposed to be fascinated, maternally, by the manifestations of this character.


Why has so much poetry shifted into something incomprehensible to most readers?
This is only a specific form of originality, an exacerbated one. Serial dissimilation, applied again and again, produces language which is unfamiliar but also original; eventually someone has to reach the point of being highly original but incomprehensible. Of course, there is a social basis, in the form of a clique sharing implicit knowledge, whose members regard each other as more important than the rest of the literary world. Natural language is highly dependent on context and on implicit statements, and transforming it into something comprehensible when shown to someone without the contextual knowledge has always been effortful. Casual poetry is a terrifying thing, and intelligent poets react against it.

How does rivalry model the landscape?
Dissimilation is the key process - where a poet strives to make their poems dissimilar from other forms of speech. It takes two main forms, which we can call competitive and contestatory. Competitive dissimilation is where a poet moves away from existing poetic norms in order to become original and to write poems which are distinctive. Contestatory dissimilation has more to do with looking at symbolic codes which represent solidarity, and so political norms, a consensus, an agreed authority structure, etc., and writing against them, perhaps by reproducing them in distorted form. This is directed more at political and theological norms than poetic ones.
Dissimilation can always be perceived as distortion. The grotesque is a key area of modern poetics. Mannerism and the grotesque are closely linked. Where character can be seen as deviations from a norm, say of facial features, extrapolated originality is close to caricature, another development of the same period of Italian art. Where originality is dissimilation, the distortion becomes your special thing, the thing you identify with.
It is possible to see national myths in the form of authorised scenes, and poems as presenting variations on these scenes - with changed emphases. This is hard to prove.

Is style a metaphor for private property?
The rule that "what A has done, avoid" might resemble a suburban plot layout more than a balkanised terrain. In a suburb, what is owned by A cannot belong to B, and everyone tries to acquire their own plot. Everyone, there, desires to get out into boundless and unoccupied space, and this is the lure of new poetic techniques - they offer a new dimension, a way of migrating into virtual space.
The landscape is the result of an organic process. It has been going on for a long time, and the landscape is old and mature. Progress is compelled to follow particular lines. It is quite logical for someone who wants to outstrip rivals to push their development out along axes on which variation is possible. If we see poetry which is distorted and incomprehensible, this points to someone who has taken rivalry too seriously. The point at which someone stops the flight into the uncoded is where they feel the internalised pressures relax and go quiet. This point is the niche which they then occupy as poets.
The fact that the poet has personalised their style may not be of benefit to the reader.

Is privatisation an authentic artistic act?

It is a harsh environment in which it is still possible for artists to succeed. The verbal link to one single person is vital because it focusses matters into a zone small enough to be filled with intensity. The link to a person is vital because people are the milieu we live in, to which our faculties are attuned, which can transform us through mimesis, which we can assimilate at every level of the mind. Mimesis is the direct pathway to the soul. Archaic yet complex and perfectly integrated. Mimesis isn't going to work with clouds or abstract ideas or tree frogs. Just with people. It is a tunnel of brilliant light. An agate octagon. A swirling beam. A door which opens on the abyss where everything is waiting. It draws us into acute simple allover locked states of being. Phases of archaic unity binding spans of time.

Why is the modern avant garde so disliked when the modernism of 1920 is so prestigious?
A constituent part of the avant garde method is querying the hot gush of natural emotions and this comes over as coldness- the exact opposite of what people here want from a poem.

These descriptions of the whole field of modern British poetry are like looking down from high above and may be helpful when generalisations are hard to come by - as an antidote to myopic close reading of texts. However, the poets differ a great deal from each other, and analysis which explains why they are similar has limits on its accuracy. The explanation of the era through privatisation has (at least) two major rivals: the account through upward mobility, where the story of the period is one of excluded groups finding their way into poetry, failing to understand literary codes, and writing poetry which directly tells of their experiences, in a naive and banal, yet typical, way; and the account through bourgeois guardianship, where a moral elite write small-scale, clear, self-denying poems discouraging people from political or moral deviance.

I don't feel any incongruity in enjoying poetry of the most diverse kinds. We could say, I have a weak sense of identity. There are so many latent patterns. 4000 species of bacteria in a gram of soil. A million species in a kilogram. (Where did I see these numbers?) Maybe all patterns are latent in the brain and the problem is their reluctance to rise out of thermal death, not that they are missing. They compete with each other for dominance and resources, no doubt. To suppress the major ones is to release the unfamiliar ones - exactly the reason for the interest in minor and unconventional poets. Reading is a protected situation, and so one where it would be safe to allow any kinds of pattern to emerge. There is a particular cluster of sensations which I am addicted to, and I emerge from the ground like a bacterium whenever that microclimate comes into existence. Maybe I am present everywhere in the soil, but as minute spores.

That cluster has to do with finding rich and unfamiliar information, and a good source for it is uncovering the shape of the verbal world of a poet. The half apprehension of the extent of their strangeness and newness. The stage before you see the whole shape. When everything is growing and unfolding as you gaze at it. Extending my mind along a surface whose extent I cannot realise. Being a self inside a self. My preferred state is being inside unfamiliar experiences, and I do not see any continuity between the poets I prefer. What I prefer is a shift of coordinates, the peripheral becoming central. Fulfilling this basic wish to see new things all the time, I have enjoyed shared attention and closeness with more than a hundred modern poets - the ones I write about, the ones I like, in fact. The claim that I don't like them is malign and sadistic.
If you are being borne up by water, you want the water to be a mighty rushing torrent, not a trickle which cannot take you anywhere. We want the experience to be as immersing and as new as possible. It is not clear to me that I want to repeat acquired reaction patterns when there is a possibility of regressing to a state of mind which is nothing but empty and inchoate forms, impelled by their emptiness to acquire new data and new experiences. It's obvious when you reach the core of someone's work, because the pressure increases so much, hidden structures become so clear, hundreds of correlations emerge into plain sight. It's hard to keep balance under the buffeting of such forces. At the same time, the pressure to get to that point, the eye of all things, is racking and disturbing. Because the media and the retail trade gave up on modern poetry decades ago, the quest for the books where the evanescent fine details of personality are stored demands great energy and persistence. The thrill of the chase gives secondary structures, like the catalogues and shelves you have to fight through to get at the poems you want, a charge of excitement and affection. The landscape is hidden and opaque, but this too becomes a source of pleasure, in the lull before the senses are freed from clouds and the true shape of things is revealed. The ingenuity it takes to identify the essential books, and to find their meaning, however strange and complex, is another source of excitement, and pride. The landscape is soaked in frustration, but somehow this too ferments and is transformed to pleasure at the moment of realisation.
It's clear now that other collectors want to prevent this at all costs. That the moment of intimacy causes them a pang of envy and regret which lacerates some small soft part of them. They become territorial and wish for closed boundaries around the most precious object. The display of trophies of successful cultural experiences provokes panic and denial. As soon as you have intense focus, you have around it a zone intensely peripheral - a site of keenly humiliating and thwarting experiences.
If poets are miserable it is because the number of living poets of amazing talent is so large. It is logical for a reader to be happy and for a poet to be sad. I have discovered all the modern British poets of wonderful talent, and this fills me with amazement. I can see that it makes people jealous.
It might seem odd that I like some of Kathleen Raine's poetry, but in fact I have a vision of an implicit order, and her poetry is all about implicit order - even if she can't evoke it all the time. What I am addicted to is the glimpse of recessed orders making language transparent and model-like, a surface that articulates the bones of the land.

Serenity is possible as soon as we move out of the public space, with its overcrowding, its malice, its cacophony. Pleasure in poetry is like simply sitting in a quiet restaurant where intimacy and trust are possible, supplying a higher quality of speech. There, we share attention with three or four other people, ignoring a million conversations developing in other places. The implicit comes to be rich, undamaged, and fulfilling. We understand, and are understood. Hostile people are kept far away. This world is small enough to be changed by us, and we are small enough to be changed by it.
So much of the artistic revolution of the 1960s and 1970s seemed to involve a kind of sorcery whereby the artist conjured up the vast world of grey, defocussed, neglected facts and smashed a breach in the little shared world of discourse to let the excluded pour in. This was almost always ineffective. It mostly led to a loss of focus - the self when dispersed over a large cold space wanted to reconcentrate itself in a small warm one. For me the poem is the realisation of a vision confined to a strip - the model-like transparency making the focus sharper and more fixed, the periphery less distracting and less assertive. Information exists all the time as a three-dimensional matrix stretching off in every direction; the poem is a unique realisation of a series of violent acts of attention, a momentary path through that matrix, a kind of temporal paradox which did not exist before it happened and which ceases to exist as soon as it has finished happening.

The delivery of intimacyStevenson, Randall, The Last of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Sulloway, Frank J. Born to Rebel (London: Abacus, 1998)
There was also an earlier discussion of individualism in 'Council of Heresy'.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Robert Conquest on Charles Williams

Note on Charles Williams; praise for Robert Conquest

Note. My book Origins of the Underground was partly a search for links between the poetry of the 1940s, which went underground, and the 'underground' poetry of the 1960s. This note describes a link which I missed. This piece also expresses praise for a Movement poet, albeit not his poetry.

Earlier this week in an Oxfam shop I uncovered a lost link between two eras - Charles Williams' "Taliessin through Logres" bears striking resemblances to 'Czargrad' by John Riley. This sort of doesn't count because Williams was a [forgettable] poet and wasn't a proper New Romantic. Even if he seems to have belonged to an organisation suspiciously like the da Vinci Code.

(reply by Harry Gilonis)
I could have given you a free hardback copy this w/e, had I known you wanted one. I suspect I'm the only kid on my block to have the twin vol of that and "Region of the Summer Stars".

There's something persuasive about one or two of the poems - I would recommend, for example, the poem (title escapes me) with the extraordinary display of a Christian/neo-Platonist view of the universe refracted through the contents of a flower-garden, which is held on the page and then critiqued and dissolved by Guinevere's remark "Has my lord dallied with poetry among the roses?" - which prefigures her dalliance with Launcelot, which will lead, in a quasi-Eve-like way, to the loss of this latter Eden...

And there's something gloriously Lovecraftian about the octopoids, and the Headless Emperor in P'o-lu!
You could also link that Catholic critique of capitalism (following Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour¹) which, employing Thomistic natural law theory, proposed economic models dedicated to the common good, and inspired agrarian and co-operative movements - it leaves its traces on Gill and Jones, as well, perhaps, on Brian Coffey) to the Williams poem on the introduction of coinage to Logres:

They had the coins before the council.
Kay, the king's steward, wise in economies, said:
"Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style's dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange." <<

(back to AD's voice) This passage bears an odd resemblance to a passage in John Holloway's The Landfallers (1962), which I do not think is indicative.

***

When I saw Williams' poem (standing in an Oxfam shop, flicking through it) I had a flash of Riley's poem - it was just the same gestalt. The link is not too hard to work out. I am not sure Riley even read Williams (1886-1945) - he was attuned to the same weirdly static and elaborate Byzantine symbolism. Writing about King Arthur, the basic British myth, is likely to get back to the Empire because Arthur was evidently a subject of the Empire and this is in early sources. Then, he must have been 5th century, and after the 3rd century the Empire actually meant Byzantium. So the 'Byzantium' thing is easy to reach from within the staple Arthurian myth area. And then - Riley doesn't mention Arthur.

I win few points for noticing this because Williams was such a bad poet. I don't think anyone registers a vote for Williams any more although Harry Gilonis turned out to have all his books when I emailed him about it.

There is another angle on Williams. If you look up the 1957 volume of Essays in Criticism that has the celebrated attack by Charles Tomlinson on the much-hated New Lines, you will also see an essay by Robert Conquest on Williams, entitled 'Art of the Enemy'. If you take a few minutes off from Proper Research to see what Conquest had to say, you find that he has read Williams’ interminable poems and identified in them strong elements of beating fantasies and a preoccupation with women’s buttocks. 'Pleasure in and justification of corporal punishment are found throughout.' He cites

the hazel of the cattle goad, of the measuring rod of the slaves' discipline.

What RC is getting at is much more complex. He is saying that idealistic systems involve punishment at some point because human subjects do not conform to them, and the more unreal the system the more it has to preserve its patterns by repressing deviance. Williams was plunged in fantasy and mystical speculation and the inherent flimsiness of these dreams was buttressed by the dwelling on beating and discipline. The repression of the physical tier was not thorough, and this theme keeps emerging throughout his Arthurian poems. He has a round bottom as a symbol of balance in the State, because it has two curves; and has hills symbolising that. The hazel wand is at once the rod of correction and the standard of straightness:

Merlin grew rigid; down the implacable hazel
(a scar on a slave, a verse in Virgil, the reach
of an arm to a sickle, love’s means to love)

where the disciplining of a slave is again the function of a rod but this rod is also the canon (canon, literally a reed), the model of a correct verse line as in Vergil. The word hazel recurs many times in Taliessin through Logres. Conquest is saying that a political system which is not an organic development from inside a society will need intense punishment systems to keep itself upright: the Gulag Archipelago, in fact. ('Merlin grew rigid' presumably just means Merlin grew stiff; which may also define what love’s means to love is, another ‘rod’.) Williams was a fantasist but he is akin to mystical idealists in politics. The more perfect the society Lenin imagined, the more people had to die or be put in camps because they did not conform to the ideal. I think Conquest is perfectly right about this, and one of the signs of an organic political order is that it has a low crime rate, especially for political and ideological crimes. This argument is part of the network of ideas behind the favouring of empiricism, which is a word with an extremely complex set of notions behind it. Conquest is using Williams as a proxy for communist literature, and this also directs the attack at English writers, suggesting that a democratic attitude has to be worked for.

Conquest perceives a kind of poetry which jumps off from exalted speculation and writes something which is not experience. It encounters thousands of practical problems (because it is not based on tentative, learning, advances helped by Tradition) and takes authoritarian and damaging steps to fix these problems. In outcome it may fail as poetry but this can be covered up by clique fashions, by imperious Theory which instructs people that the poetry works although it does not. This poetry has an inorganic feel, it has patterning but lacks credibility. So far Conquest. I find his arguments convincing, but I also think great poetry can come out of speculation and writers with a detailed formal imagination can produce poems directly out of that creative thin air. Abstract and arid poetry exists but each poet has the right to have their poetry tested by the cognoscenti and enthusiasts of the day. Conquest was probably more involved with Soviet poetry than with English poetry, and the inorganic and fake quality was after all not rare in the kind of poetry the Soviet institutions were circulating in the 1950s. As a view of things in 1957, Conquest’s essay has a lot going for it. He was trying to answer the question “why didn’t absolute power in the Soviet realm produce the perfect State” which is better than not even asking the question. In 1957, people like EP Thompson and John Berger hadn't realised that Sovietland wasn’t the perfect State.

Any ideal pattern has the problem of what to do when other people don’t agree with it and cross its lines. But the problem of how to deal with people who don’t share/relate to the symbolism and currents of your poem is very different from being a dictator thinking what to do with citizens who don’t play the roles you have so attentively devised for them.

Williams was not really a 40s poet although his two main volumes were published in 1938 (Taliesin through Logres) and 1944 (The Region of the Summer Stars) and he was certainly writing about myth.

There is another issue, whether Williams was an orthodox Christian or an occultist believing in definably heterodox ideas. I found on-line a review by Rowan Williams in the TLS of a book about C. Williams. He was a friend of AE Waite and so was interested in the Rosicrucians (in this version) and the Tarot, NOT the Golden Dawn. So the body symbolism in Williams' poetry derives from mystic interpretation of the body as developed in the Kabalah and picked up by Waite. It is not clear to me whether he was an occultist who sounded Christian on occasion. He founded a mystic group called ‘The Companions of the Co-Inherence‘. Sounds a bit da Vinci Code. It would be interesting to know if their rites involved discipline.

‘Lloegr’ is Welsh for ‘England’ and this appears in French Arthurian romances as ’Logres’ (with a king, Locrine). Taliesin was a late 5th C/early 6th C Welsh poet whose poems we still have, in the Book of Taliesin. One line from the later accreted poems in it is ‘bro ser haf’, the region of the summer stars, the name of Williams’ other book of Arthurian poetry. It’s a beautiful line. Don’t ask exactly what it means.

The idea that Williams was writing a critique of the capitalist system, for example in the bizarre metaphor of gold coins as ’dragons’ (because they had a dragon symbol of the king on them? as Uther was ’pendragon’ with a title of authority) is tantalising. However, I think the answer is probably ‘yes’ but his views are not interesting because they are valid inside a fantasy (and not outside). In around 1940, there were many flavours of Christian anti-capitalism. I just don’t think Williams is the most nourishing one.

It is hard to get across just how bizarre Williams’ poems are. But think, he was living in Oxford from 1939, when the Oxford University Press moved its base from London to there. In Oxford were Tolkien and CS Lewis - other Christians interested in myth and the Middle Ages. If we connect Williams with the mythic fantasies of Tolkien and Lewis we will be close to the core of his work without even reading it. The plan was escapism and the writing is a kind of vacant fantasizing which forms curious patterns but essentially fails to resemble reality. This is why the inclusion of material about economics, distribution, good government, etc. has so little credibility. It is very remote from the real Middle Ages and even the real Middle Ages has very little relevance to the problems of the 1940s. The programme of purposive fantasy spinning as a form of contemplation has to be taken for what it is and not as a form of political thinking. The themes of morality and beauty are to the fore in Taliessin through Logres etc. and the idea is that thinking about beautiful things is close to experiencing beauty.

The empire’s sun shone on each round mound
doubled fortalices defending dales of fertility.
The bright blades shone in the shape of the province
The stripped maid laughed for joy of the province
founded in the base of space,
in the rounded bottom of the Emperor’s glory.

This physiological vision is present too in the Villain:

Phosphorescent on the stagnant level,
a headless figure walks in a crimson cope

[...]
His guard heaves around him; heaven sweeping tentacles
stretch, dragging octopus bodies over the level;

Inarticulate always on an inarticulate sea
beyond P’o L’u the headless Emperor moves,
the octopuses around him; lost are the Roman hands;
that are the substantial instruments of being.

(p.171)
The tentacled Evil Emperor seems to rhyme with the Yog Sothoth myth of the horror writer HP Lovecraft and in fact this part of the story is lovecraftian. HPL’s mythology was based on Arthur Machen who was in the Golden Dawn along with Williams (to be exact Williams was a member of the FRC, ‘Fellowship of the Rosy Cross’, a successor organisation led by AE Waite, from 1917 until at least 1928, according to the website of the Charles Williams Society). I am uncertain whether he knew Machen. Occultists not uncommonly debouched into horror fiction, and we can compare Williams also to M.P. Shiel. The same website says that Williams ‘spoke of himself as having belonged to the Golden Dawn’ and had a sword, one of their liturgical objects; so perhaps he belonged to the GD and followed Waite into the FRC. ...

swung be the measuring hazel wand
over thighs and shoulders bare,
and grace-pricked to gules the field
by the intinctured heart’s steel;
but best they fathom the blossom
who fly the porphyry stair.

The core image seems to be the hazel wand as a source of accurate measure but also via its role in punishment as the teacher of measured behaviour to people; so that ‘pricked to gules’ means ‘whipped to blood’. ‘heart’s steel’ seems to point to the heart (as pumping the blood) which is hardened by the castigation. (Steel also means measure, as in Steelyard.) The word hazel, already seen in the quote about chastising a slave, is obsessively repeated. It is hard to think Conquest was wrong about this.

A neo-conservative magazine of the Left

PNR, A neo-conservative magazine of the Left: a recovery of Carcanet’s history

what is Carcanet about

Note. In 'The Long 1950s' I cover the 1983 anthology edited by Michael Schmidt, presented as evidence that the famed ‘long 1950s‘ were still continuing in 1983, although they were interrupted sometime during that decade. The politics of anthologies are complex and the text below is extra material which I did not wish to include in the published book. This is part of a long series of essays about anthologies, which as a form give insight into genres and artistic groupings.

In The Long 1950s, I pointed out that the title and introduction of 'Some Contemporary Poets' (edited by Michael Schmidt, 1983) were very reticent and that I had to guess what the sustaining ideology was which framed the selection of poets, bizarrely partial as it was. I suggested that the covert title would be ‘the Carcanet Book of neo-conservative verse’.
Some light may be shed on this by the magazine Poetry Nation, which started in 1973 and led directly on to the Carcanet publishing concern as we know it. The magazine was edited by Schmidt and Brian Cox, and in 1976 it became PN Review and added CH Sisson and Donald Davie to its board. According to Schmidt, reminiscing around 2009 about issue 1, “There follows a symposium in which the editor (the same editor who writes this) contends with the Partisan Review, with English and American experimental writing, and seems to propose something like a New Formalism as a radical, even a Marxising antidote to the excesses of experiment and the aftermaths of modernism which trouble him. He sees Poetry Nation as a journal of the left. His declaration is followed by suggestive demurring comments from Donald Davie; a densely argued clarification by Terry Eagleton (who was the editor's tutor at university), 'Marxism and Form'; an essay on the poetry of the Viet Nam conflict by Robert B. Shaw [...] and a remarkable interview with that first great English Marxist editor Edgell Rickword, a neglected poet too. [...] It was a rich profusion, and confusion of themes, inheritances and generations. The Guardian called it a thrust from the cultural right, which seemed at the time like a deliberate misreading. Then it was pointed out that the title included the word Nation, a term whose toxicity in the European context at the time put it beyond polite use. The intention had been to evoke a republic rather than a tyranny of letters. 'Poetry Nation' was abbreviated to 'PN'[.]”

The idea of ‘poetry nation’ was much more 'we belong to the nation of poetry', which is like 'the domain of the human' 'the realm of art' ‘the republic of letters’ and so on. Or even ‘Woodstock nation’, a phrase of the time. Schmidt is Mexican so the idea that he was an English nationalist does not have much credibility. The quote above is from the history of PN Review currently at http://www.pnreview.co.uk/ip001.shtml. The claim that Poetry Nation was a magazine of the Left is the area which attracts extended analysis here. I cannot find this claim within the pages of that first issue. There is an ‘editorial note’ which certainly makes no such claim. The symposium mentioned is titled ‘The Politics of Form’ and could, I suggest, be a position statement for the magazine and for Carcanet Press too.

To go back to the beginning, Brian Cox (CB Cox) founded Critical Quarterly in 1958. Carcanet the magazine started in 1962 (data taken here from an article on Carcanet's website) and its original aim was to link poets from Oxford and Cambridge universities. Thus healing the major split in English poetry, I suppose! Strange what people were worried about in 1962. This is irrelevant to our task, though; Schmidt (b.1947) travelled from Mexico, joined up with the magazine as an undergraduate in 1967, published a few poetry pamphlets, in 1969, and formed Carcanet Press Limited in 1970-1. (The article credits the founding to Gareth Reeves and Peter Jones along with Schmidt.) His intentions at this point are not in that article, but the 1973 first issue of Poetry Nation is all about ideology and may shed a light on Schmidt's emerging intentions, which became the framework for Carcanet - except that Poetry Nation was co-founded with Brian Cox, and that Schmidt aged 25 or so could be assumed to supply the eagerness while Cox supplied the ideology. There is another story that Schmidt wanted Edgell Rickword (b.1898) to be the editor and that this only fell through because Rickword was too old and ill. A light deserves to be shone on this: Rickword had edited an important magazine in the 1920s. Schmidt clearly knew his history and was in awe of old people. Rickword was also a Marxist, and edited worthy Marxist reviews Our Time and Left Review; so Schmidt was not simply planning a neo-conservative masthead. Critical Quarterly, (the other Manchester magazine, Cox‘s other magazine) was, to put it plainly, anti-ideology, but that does not exclude an unconscious programme favouring academics, the academic view of poetry, close reading, empiricism. (This is the academics of 1958 not 1968.) Cox could be seen as a 'leavisite' at point of origin, or rather at point of graduating from Cambridge, but he jettisoned all the lawrentian baggage of Leavis and CQ needs to be considered in its own terms. SCP mainly ignores the innovations of the 1960s and 1970s but includes strongly Left poems by Jeffrey Wainwright and a poem by Robert Wells about Pasolini. Wells' style is grey and faded, but thematically these poems could not possibly have been taken by a neo-con editor. In 1983 the neo-cons were hypersensitive even to a Marxist twitch of an eyebrow, as anyone who was around at the time will remember. Issue one of Poetry Nation includes translations of Peter Huchel, a major East German poet who fell out with the regime but retained a loyalty to a deeper idea of the Left, and who was being published further, in more depth, by Carcanet 30 years later.

A very large volume of 'Essays and Opinions 1921-31' by Rickword was one of Carcanet's first volumes. Ending at 1931 cuts out his 'committed' period. The whole cultural world was getting into politics in 1931, Communist where not Fascist. Part of being a committed intellectual then was writing to reach the masses and not for other intellectuals. It may very well be that what Rickword wrote from 1932 up to 1960 or so was not worth reprinting by 1974. I have not read it but I have read a certain amount of Marxist periodical literature of the time.
How could a magazine of the Left include as editors Sisson and Davie? what on earth did those two have to do with the Left?

I think the verdict on Some Contemporary Poets is that it is opportunistic. It was trying to surf a wave in the market. Carcanet were not broadcasting a set ideology because they did not have one. Publishers have to sell books and they have to catch waves and then slide off them and catch the next one. SCP genuinely is a neo-conservative anthology, Carcanet serviced a neo-conservative clientele, PN Review carried vicious attacks on English modernist poets, but that was not all they did and the oddly inarticulate quality of Schmidt's introduction may indicate a lack of commitment on his part to the neo-con project. He was publishing left-wing writers. If we redefine him as 'the type of conservative who regards Gramsci, Brecht, Huchel, Rickword, and the Marxist theorists, as neglected parts of the imperishable European heritage and in need of conserving' we are closer to the truth.

Around 1970, Schmidt was trying to become the deputy to someone born in 1898. The problem is obvious, and one can only wonder what would have happened if he'd met a brilliant Marxist thinker born in 1947 (as he was) instead.

A secondary verdict on SCP would be to identify it with a particular stratum of the Left which was opposed to modernism in the arts. This is not an undiscovered island - the official policy of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers’ Party, as of any other Marxist groups known to me, has been rigidly anti-modernist but in favour of European classicism, the culmination of ‘bourgeois art’. The SWP has a clear vision of a future in which the working class will all take piano lessons, take ballet lessons, listen to classical music, read great novels, etc., and where subversion of the classical standards of, say, 1880, will no longer happen (and nobody will wish for it). This vision is clear partly because that was the official policy in the Warsaw Pact countries (notwithstanding serpentine nuances over the decades). What we are looking at here, though, is a fraction of left-wing academics within the Labour Party, rather than the unelectable Marxist bands. At this point the opposition between libertarian and conventional comes to the forefront. The Black Papers on Education, co-edited by Brian Cox, were attacks on the pupil-oriented approach to teaching in schools, as they affected English in particular. His position was greeted with enthusiasm by the Right but was not incompatible with being on the Left and with wanting State schools to give first-class educations to pupils from income groups D and E and generally to give the working class access to upward mobility. The pupil-oriented approach was associated with lack of discipline for children and with the encouragement of creativity, and so with the excess of creativity which characterised the cultural scene in the 1960s. All arts, also poetry, were being practised by a new style of creative person who was not promoting morality, saw invention and spontaneity as desirable ways of leading life, was less interested in neatness and concentration as parts of the art experience, was detached from ’social poetry’ because of its realism and bonds to the material facts of life, and favoured the ‘quality of liberated experience’ over memorising facts as the goal of study. It has often been suggested that a permissive attitude to child behaviour produced a whole generation of wildly creative adults, and the new wave were, for whatever reason, extraordinarily distant from the previous generation. This whole line was unacceptable to someone like Brian Cox. The line in the sand being drawn by Poetry Nation was not to do with government policies and foreign policy but to do with culture and, most probably, methods of teaching, in particular of English. The story being told is that ‘bright kids will be taught permissively and never learn how to study and will reach 16 and fail their A level courses because they are too busy having acid trips and listening to pop music and not carrying out Acts of Discrimination and will end up with no exam certificates doing dead-end jobs to the great disappointment of their parents’. This is not uttered in Poetry Nation but because of the Black Papers it was in the atmosphere and I think it was evoked when the contributors talk about form, rigour, etc. Conservation (of the self) is being opposed to extravagance (of the self).

As you can see, it’s a story that would appeal to a great many people on the Left and to a great many dedicated teachers. There is a paranoid version of it which sees Pop culture as a way of doping the masses and follows that up to regard the penetration of Pop culture, of play, of not doing things you don’t want to do, into the classroom as an identical ruling-class trick for producing compliant and apathetic consumers. This paranoid version would see the trick as being pulled only in working-class areas while schools for the elite continue with nineteenth-century standards of rigour, hard work, doing difficult things, etc. Clearly Pop was close to capitalism and to the world of advertisements.

Because women were the primary child carers, the revolution in childrearing was a revolution initiated by women; feminism addressing affairs outside the household was a later chapter of this story. More liberal teaching for young children was also mainly introduced by women, because primary school teachers were mostly female. It was subversive.

The introduction to the symposium on ‘The Politics of Form’ refers twice to a symposium in Partisan Review (1972) on 'the new conservatism' and gives us firmly to understand that Schmidt regards this 'new conservatism' as the right way to write radical poetry and as the path which Poetry Nation will follow.
To sum up, Poetry Nation 1 is a plea for left-wing neo-conservatism. He says exactly 'the so-called cultural conservative ... reveals always new areas of potential, while consistently keeping alive in himself and in his readers an awareness of origins and integrities.'

This is clarified by 'Perspective is only achieved through form, a prime objectifying tool, or through an accurate sense of time and the effect of time upon the immediate experience, the initial response. A writer communicates the truth of an experience only by objectifying the experience [...] to see around and through it. To grant to the experience its integrity he opposes to it an integrity, a form of words which does not invade or break down the image, idea or experience by imitating response directly[.]' This is a fine passage which however excludes from literature any fantasy or improvisation or even wish. Perception always dominates. The idea that conservatism conserves information and so makes possible complex writing, whereas egocentric spontaneity lets information leak away all the time and remains shallow, is compelling. A text conserves information; it draws on what was already conserved by memory. Yet political radicalism would seem to be restricted to campaigns for a political order which we have never yet experienced and which cannot be comprehended by accounts of experience. Incidentally, all politics is oriented towards the uncertain future, as the past cannot be influenced. PN 1 includes a long essay by the art critic Adrian Stokes (1903-72), whose collected works Carcanet later published, to great acclaim. Stokes followed the Kleinian or object relations variant of psychoanalysis and regarded all art as the enactment of infantile fantasies. How is this compatible with the ‘integrity’ of ‘experience‘ as a framework? yet it’s right there in Poetry Nation issue 1. The vocabulary of objective external form has certain echoes of Charles Maurras, chief of Action française, and favourite writer of CH Sisson, who logically enough was a Franco supporter. For Maurras it has to do with burning Mediterranean light, hard edges, stone buildings, and the desired prevalence of Roman virtues. This probably is not a direct path to Carcanet’s cultural policy, yet Sisson did play a role in framing that.

I think this recovers the state of debate in 1973, which is intimately related to the 1983 anthology we started from. I don’t want to finish the debate, even though so many years have gone by. I prefer to leave it unresolved. I am deeply committed to ‘complex’ poetry and am prepared to work to reach it, mostly in foreign languages but also in English when needed. I am quite content to see ‘concentration’ or ‘absorption’ as the quality I want when reading poetry, and to accept that this resembles work or study in some ways, and that it may involve puzzlement, perplexity, uncertainty. However, I basically regard art as play and the phases of effort are only moments in a whole which appeals to the child in me. A split between ‘Pop’ art and ‘serious’ art, which seemed to threaten us in the 1970s, no longer seems real, and so we don’t have to finish the debate.

If we look back to that point in 1973 we can see that postmodernism shows up as a ghost or a caricature: the sober academics are saying that art will abandon rigour and become totally uninteresting, but what came along did abandon rigour and did exploit the excess creativity of products of permissive childrearing, but it was interesting too. By 1983, Schmidt is anthologising John Ash and Frank Kuppner, and permissive attitudes are inside the gate. These brilliant poets are the start of a new wave of the "ludic" and the insouciant.

I don't think it’s a secret that the generation of people who were students in the second half of the Sixties, especially during 1968, were globally different from people who were students in the 1950s or the 1940s. The teachers did not reproduce their own views in their pupils, in this case what was reproduced was quite different. It is also no secret that ‘child-centred learning’ was allied with ‘reader-centred reading’ as a direction in literary theory and in writing literary history. Indeed, the whole return to Nietzsche, deposition of the author, revival of subjectivity, insistence on playing games with literal meaning, is connected, on the ground, with the child-centred approach. The resistance to such theoretical activity, and to the formally new poetry which emerged (mostly) after 1968, was preformed by the organised opposition to freestyle learning which Brian Cox was leading. When we say ‘academic’ we have to qualify which generation or which direction they belong to or it is almost as ineffective as describing someone as a ‘poet’. The intervention of academics in the world of poetry has been crucial all along but it has had a different value in each year and asks for considerable unravelling. Schmidt was visibly a student in 1968, his tutor was the Marxist Terry Eagleton, but he does not seem to have gone through a Marxist/protest phase and most probably can be assigned to the tier of students who studied hard and disliked the revolutionary teenager discourse to be heard around them. Conservative students were numerous at all times; students were the bourgeoisie of the future and could choose whether to feel guilty about this or to feel calm and even proud. Concomitantly, Critical Quarterly represented by 1973 an older tier of Eng Lit academics and by no means the whole campus.

“The ‘new conservatism’ ... the reassertion of standards of form, is anything but socially conservative in quality.” When Schmidt comes to list his admired radical poets who are apparently cultural conservatives and yet not, he gives us Burns Singer (posthumous debut 1957), Graham (debut 1944), Larkin (debut 1945), Douglas Dunn (debut 1970), Davie (debut 1955), and Sisson (first retained poems 1943). He has a new publishing house but it houses the old poets. The cargo seems to be inherited from the very first issues of Critical Quarterly. I set all this out because it leads us, once again, to our initial proposal that Some Contemporary Poets was part of the ’long 1950s’ even if its colophon says ’1983’.

Schmidt claims his favoured poets as ‘the New Formalism’. Formalism was, as described by Eric Homberger in particular, the dominant mode in English and American poetry from 1947 to 1961. Schmidt’s 1983 anthology includes a number of poems in rhyme, or assonating. Nothing about them shows anything that cannot accurately be described as the old formalism. These are poets who are happy to ignore changes of fashion as identified by someone like Homberger; Schmidt chose them because of their mournful, withdrawn, anti-metropolitan quality. Again, SCP fulfils a criterion of belonging to ‘the long 1950s’. The magazine Schmidt controlled gives a number of reasons why ignoring innovations of the period 1961-1982 should be seen as an act of authenticity, a sign of depth. As for ‘Marxist ... New Formalism’, this did not exist in England, or even in Britain. It could be applied to a number of poets in East Germany at that time, (Karl Mickel springs to mind) and probably to ‘official’ Russian poets too. But in England?

Being ‘Left neo-conservative’ sounds like a psychotic condition. Having said that, it is not necessarily true that any position adopted during the 1970s was free of contradictions or was not drastically disproved by events, within weeks sometimes. It was a time when people were trying to work things out and conditions were changing very rapidly. If I talk about ‘the 1970s’ I mean a process, not a set of positions that would compose an enduring landscape.

The most striking point about Carcanet is their paralysis with regard to young poets. This was eventually fixed, notably with A Various Art, but that was 17 years after their foundation. Their early decades took place as if the British Poetry Revival had never happened. The editorials in PN Review and so on are mainly an attempt to prove that the chief current of contemporary poetry was not happening or was a breach of utterly precious doctrines. Carcanet stands for "anti-modern modernism" as well as "Left neo-conservatism".

PN 1 regards anti-Vietnam War poetry with utter horror and claims that England needs a whole cultural policy to prevent that kind of thing from happening here. Robert B Shaw expresses this in an essay and it is picked up in Schmidt’s editorial statement. Protest poetry is equated with ‘rhetoric’. It was all a long time ago, but surely that period is remembered as one of the great periods of American poetry and one which mobilised huge numbers of people, and which participants look back on with great affection and often contrast with a come-down and hangover afterwards. Also, the people who don’t have those feelings about the poetry which spoke to the anti-war community are precisely the neo-conservatives, and that is probably the one thing you need for a neo-con membership card.

**
This was in 'The Long 1950s' but then got chucked out because of length and because finally everyone agrees that there was a slide back to 1950s values in the 1980s, and so it was not worth bashing away trying to prove this. The mainstream of the 1980s included that tendency but it was reduced to minority status by the much more popular 'ludic' or' postmodern' tendency. I think unwinding a position like this tends to show how complex and contradictory positions inside the mainstream can be.

Time engulfed by subjectivity: historicism

Time engulfed by subjectivity: historicism

another essay on poetry and time

This [viz as defined in essay on mainstream] emptying of the poetic frame is comparable to the emptying of the painting as it evolves into abstracts with ever simpler colour schemes and fewer lines. Language embodies social structures so the breakdown of language breaks down the store of social structure so we can make statements about political organisation by disintegrating language. This works in some way similarly to the way emptying of pictorial space to get back to a plane canvas surface is saying something about the organisation of imaginary space. Foregrounding through breakdown. Language contains the whole history of the race so blocking parts of it out recovers an uncoded state.

By following theories poets may thus end up with a vacuous text in which units of meaning are almost absent.

We have at any moment a set of literary norms by which the individual components of a poem have a value of effortless, old-fashioned, novel, or difficult. We assimilate the norms of the moment we are living through simply by reading modern poetry - something only a minority do. The nature of artistic failure has to do with the norms accepted by the reader. It is very probable that these norms change with time, and so questions of artistic value are affected to some extent by theories of time. Styles change. Artists try to be up to date. They can go out of date. There are though two versions of the movement of style. In one the advance of style is irreversible and is dictated by the changing concerns of a minority elite, in all advanced countries. The style of the common run of writers is based on the style of the elite of 30 years earlier. The elite can be identified by their practice of the destined new style, as distinct from their ties of self-legitimation. The shifts in poetic style are linked to shifts in ideas.

In the other one, art is affected by vogues. These have a much more rapid lifecycle than shifts in the rules of discourse. The latter are irreversible but slow. The vogues are there to signal the distinctiveness of a few artists and cannot also represent a period as a whole. They burn out and do not leave a permanent mark on the rules of the art. There are artistic functions which have a much longer lifecycle and which may indeed be so old as to seem permanent. They would include tactics like narrative characters, identification, emotion, lyricism, the description of nature, the appropriation of symbols to express inner states, projections, expressivity, mimesis, fantasy, ornament, allegory, myth. If you go ahead 30 years from any point in the 20th C it may be that these tactics are still valid when you arrive - and that the vogues are not.

Because we are in the realm of words, and logos= speech, we can call these poetic fashions logues.

Vogue is distinct from vague as in nouvelle vague. Both are French words, although vogue comes via Italian from, I suppose, Lombard. We could call these ripples either vogues or vagues.

These two theories produce very different results when we apply them to the history of British poetry around 1960 to 1997. It is convenient to bundle the innovations visible around 1970 together (see my book FCon for a list of 34 points of stylistic change). For example, a reader may qualify a book which lacks the innovations as m-stream and therefore not wish to read it. Another reader may qualify a book as obscure, difficult and abstract because it uses the innovations and again not wish to read it. The initial act of taste may be a recognition of these surface signs in a programme which precludes advancing into the space of the poetry on offer and finding its artistic value at a deeper level of knowledge. The surface effects of style - chemically or even toxically reactive markers - are basic to the polarisation which affects the scene.

Historicist theory involves a special view of 20th C art in which evolution progressed rapidly from 1905 to 1930, was then frozen by the era of political polarisation circa 1933-56, migrated to America, migrated back under the aegis of the CIA and the CCF, and re-started in Europe circa 1960. The movement since 1960 is the long-lost son of the movement which stopped around 1930, and everything in between is not allowed in the game.

It may be helpful here to give a few details of this historicism in the form in which it grips many agents of the avant-garde. Three essential components are that everything which is not avant-garde is kitsch, that artistic innovation is ‘world-historical’ and so more important than anything else, and that there is a timetable of formal innovation which always goes forward (and which disqualifies anything else as retro). A fourth tenet is that artists are engaged in a debate about the formal properties of the art object and that somehow the art is about its own formal properties. When the debate moves on, all older artistic practices become obsolete. This continual emptying is very exciting for young poets because it continually creates territory which they can stake out and occupy. The ’timetable’ of advance allows for a zone of originality which can be demarcated and turned into private property. Thus the advance into undefined stylistic space is like the occupation of the USA by White Americans. If you destroy the sentence or the line of verse you can claim personal territory which if you stick with the sentence and the line of verse as known to the English language you can't claim. Withdrawal from the zones of known art including the most fertile and effortless ones is thus mandated by the territorial metaphor, and to stray outside the boundaries of owned (and sensorily derived) estate would invalidate the idea of ownership and so the whole bundle of historicist metaphors. Moving on thus implies wiping out the past and progression towards grey monochrome painting and white cube rooms was a logical extension of impulse. It was a process of becoming conscious in which climactically the objects of consciousness disappeared.

A painting is said to be ‘about’ flatness and immobility and so a painting which asserts those properties is preferable to one which deploys illusionistic space and places objects in it as if in a real space. Visual art since the Renaissance is said to be in a process of discovery in which each new phase represents more self awareness and more rejection of illusionism and laying bare of inherent formal properties of the painted thing. The timetable is thus extended back to the 15th century, at least, and all European artists are supposed to know their places on it or are proven to have misunderstood their allotted role in history. This allows for a whole schema of who’s in who’s out to be built up for the benefit of the loyalists. Changes in painting during the 20th C are thus part of a philosophical debate and each style became obsolete as its contribution to the debate was made and used up. Few people can keep up with this rapid progress and what is up to date at any moment can only be judged by world-historical experts, in fact a few critics in New York, or perhaps just one critic.

It is hard to apply this model to poetry but in a general way the critique of personal consciousness and its objects of knowledge played the same role. When Anthony Easthope says, in a description of a 1950s poem “the speaker of the poem is presented as detached, critical, not self-deceived, confident of submitting the world to a controlling gaze; in other words, very much the poised, individualised, empiricist subject whose voice has been represented as speaking in English poetry for over two centuries. At first on the journey objects viewed from the window - knowable, reassuringly familiar - help to generate the mastery of the experiencing 'I'; a river, canals, and then 'the next town'. [...] Everything in the poem - train journey, landscape and townscape, the couples, the concluding vision - is constructed by a script which represents a speaker who experiences all this for us. And the condition for that is an effacement of the materiality of language, to give the effect of someone 'really' speaking.” We are to suppose that all this is very very bad. Even if this text dates from 1999, the critique is recognisable as a tune of the avant garde from much earlier than that. The unconscious belief that language is material rather than symbolic (if it's made of matter, how much does it weigh?) points us towards the Marxist investment underlying this; Easthope was rather a Stalinist than a Trotskyite, I think. This line gives us the historicist scale in two senses: writers who want to reproduce experience are 'out of date' technically and people who approve of English society as it was in the 1950s, or at any later moment, are 'out of date' in the light of Marxist politics.

This bundle of theories, or fantasies, was part of the general ‘Lend Lease’ shipment of American ideas which reached England along with rock and roll and McKinsey-style management consultancy. The British poets who flocked onto the beaches and bought into it were also the ones who bought into American fashions in poetry. The cargo cult in the visual arts has been described by Patrick Heron (who helped it happen in the 1950s) and John A Walker (Cultural Offensive). Its rollout in poetry is described, not as a process but as an Act of Destiny, by Eric Mottram, in essays now in his archive. A brief inventory check of poetry in the USA shows that the import was extremely selective. Olson, Robert Duncan, Zukofsky, O’Hara, Ashbery, Wieners, Jack Spicer were the main stocks. Later poets did not seem to go over. The visual arts market in the USA was rather well centralised and fashion dominated. Patrons could feel secure about their investments. Painters who did not run with the Ab Ex stampede had grave career problems, at least according to various reports on the period. No doubt many of them gave up. The US poetry world, though, did not work in this way at all.

The belief many poets cling to is that there is a critique of poetic form taking place among concerned intellectuals and that by violating the rules of language they are simultaneously connecting with this debate among the few and highly qualified and making a break with ordinary and 'greyed out' language or knowledge. The breaches inspire thought about how language works (and maybe society and the brain as well). They create a risk which is held to focus the entire powers of the mind on the moment of the breach and the way it is made. The violation of probability in these various forms lets the poem escape from the grey array we discussed earlier. It is fair to say that this radical gesture is not self-explanatory to most of the poetry reading public. Many people respond to phrases like 'cutting edge’ ‘leading edge’ and in this case we can claim that there is an adrenalin reaction even if the phrases have no meaning.

The key source for historicist myth is GWF Hegel. As an illustration, I am going to quote part of his Lectures on aesthetics. (This was a course he gave many times and which is not ascribed to a particular date, as also the text published in 1835 was compounded from several different manuscript versions of the lectures.) The part I am going to look at is Chivalry, found at pages 607-14 of the Reclam edition. He starts by saying 'The principle of subjectivity endless in itself made first of all, as we saw, the absolute itself, the mind of God, as it mediates and reconciles itself through human consciousness and so doing becomes truthful for itself, into the content of faith and art.' This kind of statement is the source for the belief in consciousness developing and realising itself through the development of art. This chapter is a section in the division on 'The religious sphere of Romantic art', and we note that for Hegel this meant the mediaeval chivalric romances, not the art which was modern in the 1790s. The division goes through the story of Christ's redemption, religious love, and the tales of martyrs, and the section immediately before this one is about 'miracles and saints' lives', where he observes that the miracle is for nature 'the conversion story of immediate natural existence' and the equivalent of conversion for a human, as the 'reason' of nature, its ordinary course of processes bound by laws, is interrupted. He then gets to the epics of chivalry, as a second division of religious art, and says that they centre on honour, loyalty, and love. 'This form of romantic love is at home in two hemispheres: in the West, this decline of the mind into its subjective inner place, and in the Orient, this first expansion of the consciousness which opens itself up to liberation from the finite.' Hegel assigns chivalry to the Arabs, but modern scholars would give this role more to the Persians, whose long epic poems such as the Shah-Nameh are so similar to Western European romances, and to Turkish and central Asian cultures under Persian influence. It may be in fact that he is not distinguishing between the courtly love lyric and the romance (in which love stories are of course numerous): he was in that case already familiar with the theory that love poetry came to Western Europe from the Arabs. Hegel says that the romances show suffering which is like what ascetics endure but differs because it has a function in the world, all the same they are free: "In this connection Poetry has here no objectivity proposed to it, no mythology, no visual arts and forms, which are there ready to be expressed. It stands free, immaterial, purely creative and productive; it is like the bird which sings its song freely out of its throstle.' Hegel remarks that the romances are very specific, as they deal with the love of a specific person for another specific person, or conversely the loyalty of a single vassal for a specific overlord. ‘In honour a human has therefore the nearest affirmative consciousness of his endless subjectivity, independent of its contents. What the individual possesses, what distinguishes something special about him, after loss of which he could go on existing as well as before, in this the absolute validity of the whole subjectivity is invested through honour, and thereby presented for himself and for others.’ This is very surprising for people who when reading the romances had been impressed by their stereotyped, vague nature and their lack of any characterisation; this above all in contrast with classical Greek literature.

Hegel's ideas were developed by Marx and reached 1950s style American historicism through Trotsky; Clement Greenberg was a trotskyist and matured in a milieu of intellectual New York Marxists for whom the Partisan Review was a mouthpiece. Trotsky liked the avant garde and saw it as a form of revolution, whereas Lenin and Stalin rejected anything in art later than the 19th century.
Hegel really invented secular historicism. Before him there was for example Joachim of Fiore, who saw history as encompassing the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and the age of the Holy Ghost, but this kind of theological allegory does not take on the events of human history as Hegel does. The 'timetable' of development is a later accretion to the system; Hegel shows art as developing but gives very few dates. Also, he admits a geographical basis to artistic style, which would imply that time is subject to spatial restrictions; thus his description of Dutch art is one of the most convincing parts of his narrative.

It is difficult to reconcile Greenberg’s theories with the art practice of genres. These are simultaneous in time but radically different in means and presuppositions. One can accept that a certain art style correlates with the deeper nature of a society, say American capitalism of the 1950s, only if one believes that such a society is a monolithic block and so able to be reflected. This seems dangerously close to thinking of a society as like a work of art, with each part obeying the rules that shape the whole. It does not take very much study of sociology to realise that a society of 180 million people cannot be treated in that way. The historicist project relies on astounding simplifications by Hegel, where for example he defines Dutch art as if there is only one spirit of Dutch society and only one art which captures and expresses it. This comes off a great deal better for the smaller populations of Antiquity or the Middle Ages than for modern times; it also comes off better if you only have access to a few hundred works of art in a museum rather than to the full volume of artefacts which compose the inventory of art. In fact, what Hegel says about Dutch art is wonderful and completely convincing.

The evidence has been available for a long time now and it turns out that there is no international elite with judiciary powers, that the highly educated in various countries are following completely different agendas, that the line of progress since 1950 is visible so intermittently that it effectively isn't there, that a considerable amount of excellent poetry has been produced which is not 'innovative' in historicist terms, that the idea of a debate about form as the main subject of art is shared by almost no one, that 'world history' has no front line and finally that there is no "world-historical art" outside the minds of Hegel and a few over-excitable followers of Hegel. These are commonplace opinions, so widely shared that they do not require proof in this place, at this time.

The question then is why historicism exists at all, or why it is so important to such a large number of people. This elimination of all possibilities except one is deeply repulsive but also fulfils a devouring appetite of poets and painters to be the only one who counts. It is a selfish gene fantasy. It disqualifies everyone except one narrow spectrum band, a kind of slit. If you can only occupy one slot, it is logical to want every other slot to be put under a solemn theological and political curse as bourgeois and kitsch and passé. The art market is unstable and always liable to be captured by organised cliques animated by highly articulate fantasies of this kind. The fantasy of being the sole survivor is much more dangerous when it expands, without losing its basic impulse, to be the fantasy of a coherent group of people. When people are surrounded by anxieties which forbid them to use almost any piece of language from the past, they are forced into extreme measures to find a way out. At this point they are really on their mettle and something genuinely interesting can emerge. The key to explaining the force of this extreme poetry is surely the need to gamble and to reach the edge of time which Spender set out in his 1940s poems. Poets under such pressure can react with their whole brain to the concrete situation and can become completely conscious. The chosen poverty of their means encourages the new wealth of invention. The question of risk shows us that there could be a reason for finding a breach with the past even if the historicist project is delusory or self-referential. Breaking the line of time is necessary and formal departure is one way of achieving it. This gives us a basis for understanding what happens in modern avant garde poetry even if we intellectually reject the whole model of history which is represented by formalist historicism and if we privately believe that Hegel, who was not a historian, produced an account of history which was violently counter-factual and more like a beautiful textile pattern than a credible report.

The group relations of innovative poets are of great interest. The originality depends on an expert audience to be appreciated, and this audience needs a shared game in order for the innovation and temporal breach to be effective, legitimated. The game is never completely shared, the players move in patterns which never quite fit into each other. Ideally the poet develops a unique signal which yet permits large-scale production and deep expressivity.

Another form of poetic gambling is political risk. This collapses if it verges into extreme improbability but rises when it envisages changes which are improbable but conceivable and represent a radical and almost unrecognisable change from the existing order. This is a risk which we can share as readers. Again, it is rather obvious that the hope for radical political change is much more exciting than the hope for stability or for modest and eventually bipartisan and so permanent change.

If we pursue the line of improbability it is inevitable that we will also get to verbal obscurity. The two qualities must, for sufficiently obvious reasons, live in territories which mostly overlap. The area of risk can be restated as the area where failure is likely. Indeed, the posited high alertness would not kick in if failure were not so likely. Unlikely lines are more poetic than predictable ones.

You may ask whether the subscription to historicism is the key to the differences between the u-stream and the m-stream, the investment which makes a reader join one team rather than the other. I think the answer is no. The lure of the u-ground has to do with the artistic power of the great poetry it produces, a power residing in several dimensions of language at once. Getting involved in that scene before it had the masterpieces was an act of daring which went beyond the facts. Getting involved once books, such as The White Stones or Striking the Pavilion of Zero, were there was a response to artistic facts rather than theories. The decline of historicism as an art discourse is of marginal importance to a u-stream whose asset base piles higher year by year.

I do not find that Hegel ever applies the adjective 'world-historical' to art, nor that he ever mentions the avant-garde - which would have been difficult enough in the year 1800. He does write about originality in art, in such a way as to link it to individual personality and so to disconnect it from conventions which change in grand time but are shared by an entire age. Thus individual style is for him quite separate from the history of style.

The poets who were the foundation for the English u-ground were in nothing like a dominant position in the US. They may have been recognised late in their lives, relatively, but that rise was not a solid upward stroke which raised them to dominance of the bookshops, the libraries, and the textbooks. Actually, that dominance belonged to no individuals in a literary market an order of magnitude larger than the single European countries taken one by one. American poetry involves thousands of poets, whether they tried to succeed by conforming to public trends or by innovating into what might be a lonely part of the prairie. If we map this decentralised market onto the British scene, we find, I think, that the British poets who had a marginal but relatively “intellectual” niche map onto US poets who were occupying a post-Poundian niche and that this was not the future in any simple way. Distance from a central cluster of stylemes did not represent the length of an advance into the future but a trek into a niche in stylistic space which the main arteries of commerce would continue to bypass. There are hundreds of poetic scenes in the US present and no one would go back and say that any scene in the 1955 or 1965 “owned” this present. That is: no scene of 1955 or 1965 represented the future. That is: historicism was imported to Britain from the USA but failed to work in the USA.

It is hard to trace how many people in this country subscribed, or subscribe, to these ideas. I think most people active on the poetry scene are unfamiliar with them and would be shocked even to hear them expounded. But they do have a value in explaining how avant garde writers enjoy these fantasies of annihilating the past.

The two theories predict very different outcomes over time. Consider a point anywhere in the 20th C and map it onto a point 30 years later. Either the future imitates the vanguard present, and validates it, or the future ignores the vanguard present, and redefines it as merely a vogue, or raft of vogues. Peter Barry, in his book Poetry Wars (at page 179) says that the innovations set out by Mottram around 1974 have become absorbed into the m-stream of British poetry. This position has a double effect. Retrospectively, it invests the BPR with the mantle of futurity: the future has paid off their cheques drawn on the future. In the present, it annihilates the legitimacy of the continuing underground: if the vital techniques have been learnt and taken over by the m-stream, what is the u-ground for? This raises the question of whether the u-ground has developed new and exotic techniques since 1974 or so, or whether its coherence and solidarity have produced a classicism of the marginal and new waves of recruits, at times few at times many, have assimilated to it. This is controversial and I don't have an opinion on it.

The vogue theory asks for a different understanding of separation in the literary world. The rise of a distinctive style may point to the coherence of a social group of a couple of dozen people. Their closeness to each other is the air which the new style breathes: the style points as its implicit meaning towards the group. The elite concept is the group’s conceit of itself rather than the huge voice of the ‘world-historical’. Distinctiveness is also hostility towards other groups. The debate about form is a custom of the group rather than the principal subject of the work of art. The rise of the vogue suggests the outward spread of the boundaries of the group: its descent suggests the decoherence of the group, the dissipation of its special group feeling. The vogue theory allows for a geography in which dozens of different groups thrive simultaneously, if to differing rhythms: an awkward fact for any theory to adapt to. Since the period actually exhibits many different styles, no past style dominates the present. The ‘timetable of style’ does not work unless it has multiple parallel lines. The idea of legitimacy and domination of one style is in question and would have to pass tests of truth before being accepted.

The history of style can be connected to complex and extremely powerful forces of group process, such as intra-group competition, competition with other groups, seizure of symbolic assets, loyalty tests, self definition, games, expressing shared ideas, mutual praise and tribute. These offer explanations other than the actions of a wandering Zeitgeist which biologically belongs in the realm of spirits and not in anyone’s botanical sketch-book. I suggest that competition over assets within a group is the most dynamic shaping process: competition between groups that do not share assets is abstract and without solid grounds that could really inspire stylistic creativity. Obscurity is a by-blow of competition. By intensifying you out-score rival poets even if your work becomes meaningless and profoundly obscure on the way. This is illuminism, in theological terms: cutting out the sensory tier of secular mediation to reach light directly. By over-fulfilment of distinctive rules you claim to belong to the group more than someone who uses a wider range of stylemes, i.e. that the group belongs more to you. Obscurity takes us into the dark heart of group process.

Thus the changes in the period may turn out mostly to be reversible and indeed to have vanished from the work of young poets even within the period.
In our period, we have quite a few figures who were writing both in 1960 and 1997. This span is shorter than the span of one individual creative biography. We could name Logue, Hill, Levi, and Thwaite as examples. (To reiterate, my personal project does not go beyond 1997, although I admit to forays back into the ‘dead ground’ before 1960.) The period has been one of rapid stylistic change but whenever we look we find continuity and the calm which marks the attitude of great artists.
The vogue theory slices off the most prominent features of the landscape. It leaves a population of what may be deep changes: where the generally accepted rules of 1995 are different from those of 1955. These changes are hard to locate because they lack prominence. They are even hard to remember. Assembling what is common to 1000 poems is tedious and hard to notate or store. It is hard to get interested by it. Features at this level might be changes in the verse, i.e. what falls between two line breaks; in the notion of finish, i.e. the proper degree of attentiveness/ consciousness which marks a poem off from informal speech; in cohesion in ideas, i.e. allowing “jumps” of association in joining successive moments within the poem. To help the debate I have included a chapter on poetry as it was in the 1950s. To find the typical poem we have to discard each actual poem and of course we may prefer not to do this but to linger on actual poems, which have the plus that they exist and can be enjoyed.

**
This was part of what became 'The Long 1950s' but was cut because it is about the Underground poets and the whole concept of that book was not even to mention them. It defines one of the 'genres' which 'The Long 1950s' is intended to map.

Sub-prime: The idea of the cliche

The idea of the cliche

essay on 'naive' and 'up to date' poetry

A huge grey area of dullness and fatigue is right at the core of the poetic art. In the area which must be easiest to reach, because so many people get there, is a set of ideas that don’t work. You set out by trying to use them in poems, and learn that they do not work. Most poets are too tired at this point to go on; others persist and write original poems. Which is very tiring. You can define a competent poet basically by what they don't do: dip into the pool of banal situations, worn out ideas, debilitated images, tawdry conceits, derelict projects. The most typical experience in reading a book of poetry is a feeling of flatness, as the poet has failed to find anything distinctive - as an experience or as a literary tactic - and so there is no lift. This desperate slough of sludge is the main feature of the shared geography: by the time you get out of it, you are strange and puzzling.

I tried at a certain point to produce a catalogue of these sub-prime ideas, of what we know as clichés. What stopped this was the difficulty of recording patterns, since what is copied and repeated is the patterns rather than complete poems; what slowed it down was the nostalgic and emotionally charged quality of the clichés. I could not look at it without mutating it into a kind of Betjeman. The cliché is a formerly loved thing. If you could fill a room with books by imitators of Tennyson, this is inseparable from the emotional fact that his poetry was supremely inspiring to imitators; and the original can still be reached, and is still great poetry.
If a poem says "I am angry. I am jealous/ I am happy. I am proud./ I am successful. I am unemployed./ I am on Bali. I am in Huddersfield./ I am old. I am young." we are unlikely to participate in the states it offers. However, poems essentially consist of such offered states. The gap between a banal poem and a good one consists of nuances, and the more we look at them the more frail and artificial these nuances appear. It is nearly true that all bad poems are like all good ones. Bad poems are imitations of good ones, the resemblances are strong. There is no feature which is not imitated. The bad poems run through all the stored sensations which are already there, the defocused array, without amplifying them. Chemical analysis of bad poetry is just going to dredge out the elements which we recognise from good poetry.

What inspired me to think about the uninstructed was an essay by Peter Fuller which talked about research by Andrew Brighton which looked at unfashionable, amateur art, mainly painting, and found a range of traditional modes of beauty which were profoundly unfashionable but which still flourished, by some measures anyway, in cultural zones which were unaffected by reflexivity, pessimism, the critique of personal experience, or what have you. Admittedly, although this was 15 years ago, I never found the research - it may have been in the catalogue of an exhibition curated by Brighton, the National Open Art Exhibition, although I think it wasn't. I did find it inspiring. So many times I went to the ICA in London and passed the exhibition of the association of marine watercolourists, held annually next door, and wondered at people still faithfully painting sea landscapes and ships passing by. Perhaps the key is not to read the poetry, but to imagine a world of poems which recaptures all the beautiful things of the world and which is uncorrupted by reflexivity and theory. I experienced all this within poetry when reading the magazine Fire, a very successful magazine which takes on the whole spectrum and includes what you would call naive poetry. Even when the poems were e not of great artistic quality they were pleasurable to read and I lost the upper layers of my personality, I myself split open and flowed across the spectrum. Ego restraints were lost. Depolarisation hit its target and exploded its warhead.

Because the domain of myth is also made up of collective and familiar things, there is an odd simultaneity at the heart of the basic area: a double image where things are simultaneously grey and banal and then, shimmeringly, hot, golden, and mythical. This is hard to explain. Amateur poets are attempting to reconstruct primal cultural experiences. This is where poetry meets politics - propaganda images of Britain are designed to be loved and yet they are the most shabby and worn-out things. Indeed, almost all original modern poetry reaches that condition by abandoning the battered myth-park of collective politics and migrating out to where the original can be chased.

Whenever I have started to collect sets of clichés I have been pulled up short by my affection for the material hidden under blundering and badly drawn forms: pilasters recalling temples on Classical promontories, religious kitsch recalling baroque masterpieces. The project of assembling and exhibiting clichés is too close to the project of building an English mythology.

We could put this in simple terms by considering the death of narrative poetry. This was possibly the most popular genre in the 19th century. After a certain point it stopped. Probably, poets today do not even try to write narratives. They clock fairly early on that it does not work. I see book-length narrative poems by amateur poets - beneath the horizon. They have not learnt that narrative does not work.
The idea of reviving narrative is beautiful. We could theorise that all cultured writers imitate each other and learn inhibitions. Then, they do not write narrative verse because they have been taught not to. The trouble is, narrative poetry really does not work and the amateur poets just write failed poems. The inhibition is in the reader as well as in the poets: maybe even in something more structural and virtual, in a set of shared semantic structures or in the teaching processes by which people acquire literary habits.
What applies to narrative poetry also applies to a range of other things which I would also claim as unconscious collective inhibitions: regular metre and rhyme, verse drama, religious poetry, nature poetry. Even, love poetry.
What is striking is how social these rules are: the problem with telling stories in verse is not something that struck down one or three poets, but has crossed the entire social field and wiped out the genre everywhere. The inhibition theory can be inverted: people who read are acculturated by the experience, they learn how to enjoy what modern poetry has to offer, people who fail in the imitation never come to enjoy the art in its modern form. Along with being bored by what it is seemly to be bored by there is being excited by what it is seemly to be excited by.
Anyone who starts up a poetry magazine - more exactly, anyone whose magazine is listed in the sources easily available to amateur poets - knows that there are hundreds, even thousands, of people who see themselves as poets but who have not qualified that innocent belief by actually thinking about how they write. The most conventional poets are unpublishable: when we speak of the mainstream, we normally mean poets who are exceptional in their ability to use conventional patterns and ideas in an at least partly effective way. The history of poetry could take account of these toiling hundreds, since their numbers are so great: but generally will not, because of the problems of acquiring the data, never mind reading it. We are going to talk about outsider poetry which dwells entirely within the boundaries of the banal. This is an unusual moment for a critic. But we are going to look for the virtues of that poetry, its vigour, its hopefulness.


Let's suppose that there is a set of rules which allow you to read a complex modern poem and that these rules are acquired by reading poems, so that they are not available to outsiders. They are also invisible, even to experts - so that their existence, let alone their nature, is in question. There would in this supposition be a fundamental difference between insider poets and outsider poets - people who wrote poetry but are not very interested in poetry by other people. To read them would be utterly unreasonable. There is a vital line of division between the m-stream which is widely published and reviewed, and poetry which is conventional but sub-literary and hardly published or disseminated.
With the unfiltered amateur poetry we have the perspective of a vast range of subjects and styles which make the professional literary taste of the day seem artificial and selective. The link with metrical formalism is just one example; there is such a huge spectrum which modern poetry is just leaving empty. We can glimpse that empty spectrum, as a wilderness, a kind of excessive and inexhaustible wealth. Of course actually reading the unregarded poetry brings us back down to earth: it doesn't work and reading large amounts of it just brings us back to the well-known poets, who actually know how to write. All the same looking at the empty spectrum takes us to the characteristics of the age - confined inside invisible boundaries. It is as if the acknowledged poets had learnt a hundred lessons of what does not work, and had wiped those areas off their maps, whereas the amateur poets have missed all the lessons and are happily wandering about in the rest of the universe.

rule: only someone who knows very many of the rules, and is therefore an insider, knows enough to appreciate stylistic innovation. Formalist art rewards previous knowledge.
The social logic surrounding formal innovation resembles that around the domestic car, as an object where competition can take place in terms recognised by all, without physical conflict, and bringing pride; and involving endless reminiscing and discussion of nuances.
If cars could not be owned, or if they were all the same, they would hardly arouse as much interest. This territorial map of innovation is meaningful to very few people, and accepted, as a long social game, by even fewer.

The site where such rules are issued and distributed may be the text on the back jacket of books. This produces an inequality between experienced readers and new ones; in 1998, someone who has been reading poetry since 1973 (me, in the concrete instance) knows more rules than someone who began reading it in 1996. This is not quite the same as education, because it might just come from hanging around in bookshops and public libraries; we can guess that the distinction between reading as a free consumer and reading as part of acquiring accreditation within academic institutions may be important in the composition of the market.
The argument on literary rules also has it that the rules are unconscious once acquired, so that people who have learnt them have no insight into the problems of people who haven't. The behaviour around "modernism" may be a discriminatory barrier, offering a target for learners to strive towards, and a rough and ready way for people with mastery of the rules to signal it to each other. The unconscious is the most voluminous part of the literary set; when the genres shift the unconscious lurches into full view and we can briefly see the full extent of it. As a socialist I always want to reach out for these collective rules - but then all poems are written by individuals, so the collective view takes us out into the unfocussed and to somewhere where there are no poems, but only abstract patterns. The difference between the unchanging and abstract and the unique and transient is of peculiar importance to the success of poetry.


*
In 'Wild Minds', by John McCrone; New Scientist 13/12/97, we read

"The tick-over firing echoing around the brain may be a defocused representation of everything you have ever learnt". We can qualify the action of a successful poem within this model. It activates existing patterns by using words which we recognise; but by amplifying them it also makes new patterns. Words are shared, conventional, and referential of past experience; but the pattern linking them can produce new states of mind. All brain cells fire all the time. The "grey" stable low-voltage activity which may be the sum of all experiences we have ever had, repeating itself but with such a low level that it is a mere background; and large-scale high-energy connection patterns which are temporary and dynamic. It is a darkness composed of degraded light.

The passive "grey" network could correspond to our knowledge of the language, more precisely the language plus the knowledge embodied in it or {L+K}, which is there the whole time. This library of stock footage, with its recognisability, is another way of describing the most basic component is a central zone of modern poetry, the pool of grey torpid sludge which is not only at the middle but also below everything else. The m-stream poem stays forever within this domain of the already experienced, dully reverberating from one grey memory to a dozen others.
The distinction between the m-stream and underground poetry is essentially that the m-stream realises modules of the banal but spins a slight variation on some aspect or other of them, whereas the underground flees from the centre and creates something thoroughly original and unheard-of. The disposition of the underground scene is therefore scattered and untrackably diverse: each axis leading away from the foul swamp of banality leads away from every other trajectory, and distances on the periphery are greater than those in the middle.
There is a necessary argument about how easy it is to revive the module degraded by repetition; for example, if someone writes a poem about falling in love, about industrial alienation, about the sight of the sea, about birdsong, are those experiences so necessary and strong that they can be revived by a poet although they are necessarily familiar, as much from life as from other poems and songs. Ash and fire are typically found in the same places. They are opposites: the ash shows where fire has passed and use up the possibility of fire in future. It is a great effort to hope that fire can return where so much ash, so much greyness, has buried the traces of so many past fires.


A poem cannot be familiar without being boring, but also cannot contradict the world-knowledge of the reader, which supplies the elements of meaning of which the poem is made.
The fact that there is a limit to the brain's resources suggests that a rule exists which resists excitation; a large scale activation pattern excludes other patterns from forming, thus protecting the resources of the brain. A pattern, having overcome this resistance, has to provide its own resistance to other patterns. Competition between patterns takes place, for the same resources. Perhaps removing information, the baffles effect, is an excellent way of intensifying mental activity around a single, selected, topic. This concentration is an improbability, it is self-referential, or at least self-organising. But some poems create temporary high-energy patterns, which are unique and transient reconnections of common and permanent units of speech and knowledge. It is striking that they use the same words and the same syntactical and metaphorical structures as bad poems.

It would be tempting but distracting to recover exceptions to the negative rules. There was a burst of verse dramas around 1950, some of them of much interest. There is a category of modern narrative poetry - for example Logue’s great Homer translation, or George MacBeth’s narrative poems, or Gaudete. The social nature of these rules is puzzling and gives us pause. If it is social, it is the true matter of history - perhaps the structure of genres is the area which most lends itself to historical study. One has to do a great deal of work to reach these results. That part is less enticing.
The gaze at the reaches of empty spectrum gives us a tantalizing glimpse of a unity between the m-stream and the underground, a set of rules of extreme abstraction which unifies the whole period and underlies the whole world of surface variation. When I try to look at this unity, it instantly vanishes.

It is notorious that photographers do not simply register reality but go out with an ideal in mind and take photographs of momentary patterns in the visible world which resemble it. We can suppose that if we could look at hundreds of poets, it would be like looking at masses of amateur photographers, and there would be an ideal of landscape which many of them would have in mind and which would be collective. Poetry presumably grasps directly at these ideals, although unable to escape from the sensuous world in its attempt to capture them. There is no doubt that English people love the English countryside, or English nature in general, and that they are willing to respond to symbolic representations of it in art. It almost seems as if the poets are withholding this pleasure, distracted either by the less fascinating demands of their own personalities or by the intellectually prevailing distaste for such things, held to put us at the mercy of the ruling class, or some other reason which makes the appreciation of forests and green hills a source of contempt for the well informed.



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