Saturday, 13 August 2011
Sounds surround the icy waters underground: psychedelic coding
Note. This is a chapter written for the 2003 book 'Fulfilling the silent rules'. There are problems with it. The subject is important but the relationships are too subjective and 'deep' to be easily described. I feel that poetry of a certain time was composed of 'blinding signs' and that feeling has been lost. In general listening to a particular kind of music is often a way of coming round to understand a certain related kind of poetry. Which puts the critic off the bus, really.
The poetry of the 70s presents us with a formidable mass of difficult and intense work, to which there is no specialist guide at present. However, it is also, in the view of competent critics, the most fertile poetic decade of the 20th century. Brian Marley wrote:
With steam striking his jug-handle ears, our
new luggage, smell of old newspapers in
the hall - surely something wild must happen
without a slump in torpedoing the twentieth century
'Courage, Morris, courage... I neither neglect
to brush my teeth nor prune a handful of stars in
the early evening - as such, I know one true
particle in the mystery of bone-setting old
ceramics; the motionless dark, occultist
theorem, crumbs inevitably remaining
and I am (in my soupy way) blocking the nerves
from their coffee-veined stimulus - droning cellos!
The known-to-be-positive by reason, adjusting
a small knob - will frenzied faces appear on
our scanner? Duplicity, when peering up the
gun barrel, fingering the trigger: memories
are made of this!
(from 'Bargain Basement Sonnets #5', from Springtime in the Rockies, 1978)
Although forgotten by successive generations of poets in fierce competition with each other, this is splendid poetry. How is it possible for someone to achieve such lightness and brilliance in such a sustained way? When the style is more important than the subject, we have to qualify the style as far as possible - including tracing its external associations. All the new style poets of that vanished decade have in common the rejection of traditional genres, with their firm rules for the ordering and design of parts, which neither readers nor poets could easily get wrong. It is hard to summarise or paraphrase Marley's poem - isn't it valid to see this as virtuosity, and to see this capacity to hyperassociate, and to take over experience from the fatal cycles of memory and conventional behaviour sequences, as counter-cultural heroism? The aestheticisation of everyday life is represented by - the aestheticisation of the poem. Not by chance do 'reason' and 'memory' appear in the poem - it is telling us that consciousness has access to other processes. The poem is dominated by style - we can see this as like the lingering over ornament, at the expense of 'purposive' and busy musical structures, which parallels the songs of that time. All of their poems can be seen as interstitial to 1950s poems - they burst out into the space between the lines. They are unpredictable, unaccountable, non-functional - and, from the point of view of a critic like Allott, unnecessary. Ornamentation and hyperassociation are closely linked - the ornament breaks down the functional patterns to create an 'aesthetic', uncoded, space, which is filled with a purely subjective message, about the poet's state of mind - the hyperassociation is the message: I'm loose, I've got time, and I'm having a good time.
If we define this kind of poem as an improvised variation on moments within the traditional poem of the 1950s, with its rational account of highly conventional and involuntary behaviour sequences - we connect the new poetry to a new lifestyle of affluence, leisure and exploration - and simultaneously designate an 'out group' of poets who couldn't manage the incredible virtuosity needed to invent new structures that had an inner logic, and to get through poems without 'touching the ground', and relapsing into explaining and instructing. The new society was one of status competition, and radicalising leisure actually made things more competitive. Any loss of nerve would make the poem relapse into the familiar 50s drabness, and while the programmes of readers and editors involved evading or excluding this kind of poem, much of the ideological promotion around the texts has been an attempt to disguise the conservatism which makes the poet acceptable to the mainstream. There is a secondary question about the reader being baffled by poetry which doesn't pause for explanation. No-one likes being in the middle of a party where they don't know anyone and can't understand a word that is being said. But I feel that the youth culture of the 60s and 70s has spread, as youth got older, to become simply mass culture. The generation born in the 1920s which fought off and indicted the new poetry is marginal now; the preoccupations which blinded them seem eccentric to us.
I wonder if we can find a way of modelling this intractable material by borrowing the rock critic Sheila Whiteley's idea of psychedelic coding, in her book The Space Between the Notes. The specific 'ideal-typical' bands she names are Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Beatles, and the Pink Floyd (although hundreds of other acts recorded psychedelic material). In a complex exposition of a musical language, she points to features which had for the target audience a social meaning - referring to the counter-cultural lifestyle, to recognised 'affective identities, attitudes and behavioural patterns'. The musical conventions involved originated, she says, with the Charlatans' residency at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1965; the Charlatans were a San Francisco band, and because youth culture was international and fashion-conscious the style-package spread rapidly to the 'underground' in San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, and other places. The music refers to hallucinogenic experience by means which 'include the manipulation of timbres (blurred, bright, overlapping), upward movement (and its comparison with psychedelic flight), harmonies (lurching, oscillating), rhythms (regular, irregular), relationships (foreground, background) and collages which provide a point of comparison with more conventionalised, i.e. normal treatment.' She talks about virtuosity - the wild exceeding of the norms of blues-rock musical structures, while essentially obeying those norms. The elaborate variations on musical form are spontaneous - they vary all the time, and are decorations of the basic form. She identifies 'tripping' as the lingering fascination for a texture, or a sound, experienced while tripping. Typically, the style uses dislocation of time - two-chord tunes where the listener cannot recognise whether the chord shift is going forward or backward; and blurring of notes which partly contradicts the 'progress message' that one note has finished and another one is now due. 'Don't know if I'm coming up or down.' She says of Hendrix's recording of 'Purple Haze': 'Whilst this is basically a pentatonic blues riff, the extremes of distortion blur the actual pitching of the notes and the discordant partials make it practically impossible to hear the pitch. ... the electronic distortion, the fuzz and the resultant discordant partials. ... For the listener, the sheer volume of noise works towards the drowning of personal consciousness. The simultaneous underlying pulsating rhythm and the heightened sensation of raw power rip through the distorted amplification of the guitar sound with its sinuous tripping around the basic notes.' Again, of 'Love or Confusion', 'The use of distortion and fuzz creates an unknown element which can suggest uncertainty. This also comes through in the way in which Hendrix tuned his guitar. The top string was often tuned to D or Eb and the excessive bending and use of the wah-wah pedal served to obscure the actual notes played.' The belief in new possibilities for social institutions was expressed musically: "Stylistic complexity, the elements of surprise, contradiction and uncertainty suggested alternative meanings which suggested the hippies' emphasis on timeless mysticism."
I wonder if we can draw lines of analogy between the songs and the poetry. The timeless effect of two chords can, very weakly, be connected to indeterminacy in syntax - lines floating without tense, etc. Although paradox was something recommended (i.e. posited for all truly significant poems) by Cleanth Brooks, in a classic of the new criticism, the use of fundamental tensions and oscillations by 'underground' poets clearly goes beyond paradox, and can be equated with the uncertainties of pitch, rhythm, etc., which Whiteley describes for the classic bands.
We need to draw our attention away from psychoactive drugs. Extensive availability of biographical data has made it quite clear that a lot of 'psychedelic' musicians never took any of the drugs. The innovations of the period 1967-70 are logical extensions of what was happening in 1964-7, and one can easily find hundreds of recordings which are 'proto-psychedelic' at dates which unconditionally didn't see any use of lysergic acid in the places concerned. It is equally valid to see the new sounds as the product of new electronic devices - the maturing of electronic instruments and studio techniques. Whiteley quotes two sociologists to the effect that 'But this culture has already been defined in this way partially because of the existence in it of this particular kind of music. The system is perfectly structured internally... but has no necessary purchase on it from without.' People who take hallucinogens see the figures and narratives in the Otherworld which their culture has taught them to expect, and indeed one of the purposes of teaching children myths is to ensure this. 'Acid rock' pleased millions of people who had never taken any drugs at all. I have no evidence that any of the poets used any chemical assistance to their purely neurological resources. The issue of drugs is a big distraction.
The most important aspect for us is the coding which relates specific linguistic traits to a view of how life should be led - liberal, exploratory, hedonistic, not preoccupied by status and possessions. This wished-for new life was political - because it inevitably led to clashes with the captains of 'bourgeois guardianship'. It was also apolitical - because it was essentially about the dominance of leisure, and pleasure, over work and duty. It lost many of its qualities when the living people who made the coding moved on to new personal interests and rules. At the time, it 'pointed' to this group (of 'concrete living people who can be loved', as we say) - and was therefore as indefinitely complex as the behaviour of those people. Because the people were three-dimensional, the 'counter-cultural' concept is too. Precise, contract-like, definition of the meaning is inappropriate. The question of what it means now (when the people are 30 years older and quite different) interests me a great deal.
Younger than the other musicians discussed were the Pink Floyd, who were able to form their style in an atmosphere already saturated with psychedelic sounds, and so with the influence of blues, with its folk/Christian framework, minimised. They were consequently able to pursue the new style for longer than the others. Whiteley discusses 'Astronomy Domine': 'the dip shapes in the guitar solo create a strong feeling of floating around the beat and this is reinforced by the lazy meandering around the notes(.) ... The chord sequence moves against any formal organisation and (...) there is no real resolution. Instead, there is a movement towards a disorientation of the norm...' The lyrics run in part:
Lime and limpid green, a second scene
A fight between the blue you once knew
The sound resounds around the icy waters underground(...)
Neptune, Titan, stars can frighten
The repeated syllable 'ound' echoes the musical sensation of time failing to run forward, and the third verse mutates one of the lines to 'surround the icy waters underground', a near-echo but with the syllable break shifted and the voiced -s- unvoiced - a 'tripping' effect of cognitive dissonance and the semantic tier being eroded. The sequence 'Miranda and Titania' sounds when sung like "Mi ran da ran dTitania', breaking up into nonsense - a later line runs 'Blinding signs flap flicker flicker blam', and this could be a description of these irresoluble, shifting phonetic patterns. The second scene is attracted by the tighten and frighten sounds below it to second sight - the psychedelic insight into a hidden and private world of symbolism, enabling you to see fairies like Oberon and Titania. It also contains the acoustic shape of (for a) second seen - which relates to the flickering a few lines later. The vision is blinding but intermittent - as shaky as the ghost words of which these lyrics are so full. The equation between the skies above and the icy waters beneath suggests a dissolution of the observer's point of view, the loss of the human scale of a body, on a surface, as the stable ground for a mind; the hyper-vivid description of the infinite expanses through their colours (blue for the sky, green for the waters, we suppose) does nothing to restore scale. Whiteley quotes a medical source about LSD's effect of dissolving the bounds between the self and the outside world or other people; the notion of 'cosmic rock' arose from the photographs taken in outer space (universal in the media at that time), partly from the 'weightless' music dreamed up for the soundtracks of science fiction films in the 1950s, largely from the projection of this depersonalisation into a place without persons or objects: a feeling of the dissolution of boundaries was sited, mythographically, in a place that had no boundaries and was mere extension. Oberon and Titania are not stars – they mislead, they have the power of flight, and they command potions which delude reason – significant images for psychoactive drugs. Their servant, Puck, is also a will of the wisp – a light that misleads travellers (hence blinding signs). Miranda also awoke into a new world: O brave new world, that hath such people in it! - an obvious drug reference. Saturn and Titan are not names of stars, but are perhaps not randomly chosen. Both are names of mythical figures who were thrown down from heaven – the sensation of falling is a terror involved in psychedelic ‘flight’. Titan is a moon of the ‘leaden planet’ Saturn – a frozen body which may contain the ‘icy waters’. Its shining rings are a sly reference to light-shows. (Miranda, Titania, and Oberon are moons of Uranus.) The word 'Titan' sounds, ambiguously, like 'tighten' - a reference to tension which anticipates the word frighten, in the next half-line. These lines are closely packed – a product of hyperassociation, which is the main event in the psychedelic experience. Their refusal of a character to identify with, a feeling to isolate, leads to a loss of orientation. The beloved pop song vanished, replaced by a trick surface, with a slight malice or slyness. We advance onto shifting grounds and don’t know if we’re falling or ‘tripping’.
Early Floyd 'experimented with improvising around one chord used in a drone-like way, seeing how they could extend it. On March 27 , Floyd played a number lasting half an hour.' This static immersion was aided by 'using electronic feedback in continuous controlled waves which added up to complex repeating patterns.' The effect was, obviously, timelessness - a loss of boundaries and orientation to complement the loss of spatial reference points. The Floyd spent the next thirty years exploring these ideas of timelessness and immensity, through varying drones, heartbeat-like bass riffs, repetition, and barely punctuated, engulfing, emptiness. Essentially in parallel to this, poetry moved into the long poem, in which the exploration of inner space, the capture of emptiness, reflexivity (=feedback), and the approach towards timelessness, were all vital.
Whiteley speaks of affective identity. Certain features of music became signs of belonging - music was not merely a pastime but the seizure of a group identity. I suggest that, similarly, there were poetic traits which readers at that time created and recognized as signs of the counter-culture. One of these is contradiction - the confrontation of two cognitive frames which don't really belong together. Along with this, is the move of flowing two levels of knowledge into each other, so that the reader is destabilised (confused?), and responds (in theory) by a reorganisation of their existing knowledge. Reversion to the origin of social forms is held to invite the question why do we do things this way - and conjecture about how things could be different. Montage suggests a rapid shift of psychological horizons - preparation for revolutionary change. It challenges the predictable structures of consciousness. The key to the style is found in the anti-functional quality of virtuosity. These poems are not simply methodical philosophical enquiries. Art as something logical, a form of work, a piece of evidence, a test of character, is being discarded - hollowed out to leave space for the rhythms of pleasure. The shifts and leaps of the poets need to be compared with the rock guitar solo to be properly understood - they are outbursts of spontaneous virtuosic display. The flouting of preset procedures is a form of hedonism - the play principle.
Defining this new style points to an elite of poets who could go far enough in abandoning traditional concepts of logical coherence: Prynne, John James, Barry MacSweeney, Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Martin Thom, Brian Marley, Iain Sinclair, Eric Mottram. At a certain distance, we could add Ted Hughes and George MacBeth. Of course, there were any number of people hanging around with the underground and writing poetry which was too feeble, prudent, or inconsequential to make its mark as part of the New Thing. The reference to shoemaking external, making art a proxy contest about social ideals, can make the art collapse when the referent migrates, but also makes it plausible that the conservative hostility of critics like Davie, Grigson, Hamilton, or Thwaite was due to misplaced authoritarian politics rather than to serious artistic judgment. So many products from that era look ridiculous now the libertarian Utopia has been dissolved by its creditors, but work like Marley's which has a richness of internal organisation is a permanent now, undamaged by time. Today we complain about overkill of reissued music on CD rather than pontificating about how 'pop music' will all be forgotten in five years' time.
Let's look at particular pieces of poetry to see how far they really show the posited traits. Martin Thom wrote:
and have no shy
nervous origin. Mirrors none
the map streaked
with present joy. Jet, Iron
Amber/ from the North in
long trade across Mesopotamia
delirious in no-home, days and
weeks, a manic loop of assimilation
writing these journals to hold time
against all loss of shadow. A true
night of pale registrations
spread out coldly above
the nomadic line spilt through sand
sinking in the impossible
and no relief
Blankets burnt at the Indus source
far from any German sky-pole of the world
raw with all change in nerve and loss
of known quality
Until the moment breaks
rain to earth, valley to range of hills
rich off the dead structures they
build terraces, splint earth with kindness
and gather quiet and dark
the quiet and the dark flower
Not in cruelty. I do not live
to rise from sleep to strike
these birds of impossible design
held by no poem to sing in ears
sharpened to receive
below the threshold, as in that unity
spoken of in trance
all crazed in head and holy
sick with images since thirteen years old, now rich
in poetry and hidden chants
whirling their iron dress, taking blood from the ear
and waxy gold
Now we are blue with the reflected coldness
of strangeness affecting us.
the glass of the world does not speak
washed out to the image of the
to every sign on these hills, and no call to
and all tired herds sink in rain
to ashen valleys, lie there
to the left of your optic range
sand sweet as grass, from red and blue cinnabar, rivalling
the Linnaean geocracy
bright with dew and quick bees
all light burning, not damned or lost
in th'imagined breath
to live in the flight of shy nervous origins
loving their origin
(from The Bloodshed the Shaking House; dated 1974, published 1977)
The passage evokes the shamanism of Inner Asia - an ecstatic, irrational, practice, associated with wild dancing and repetitive drumming. The theme is also nomadism - used by these poets to get away from rootedness and its mental consequences, and the equivalent in poetry of cosmic flight in rock. The realm of anthropology was coded at that time to switch on thoughts about the function of social institutions, the possibility of changing them. The relaxation of rational boundaries acts to release impulses - both Freud and anthropology are used as windows on a hidden inner self of metaphors, analogies, wishes, fantasies, and pictures. The self dissolves its contracts with the outside world, and finds a way of grasping what reason is. This unbearably rich formal world reminds us of the undisciplined sonic world opened up by the 'free' guitar solo. It is spontaneous, improvised, led by affect, constantly shifting. This is why I find it hard to paraphrase - just as Whiteley found freestyle guitar passages hard to transcribe. Reducing it to order damages something integral and perpetually moving. The attachment of anthropological and Freudian imagery serves as a "frame opener" to key the kind of free association we are supposed to carry out while reading the poem. It is there as a window, opened through convention to show our inner selves: Now we are blue with the reflected coldness /of strangeness affecting us. This is really the opposite of didactic writing - although it is very erudite and rich in ideas. We have to mention Deleuze and Guattari, because they also wrote about nomadism, and because Thom's later career was as a translator of French psychoanalytical works - he was probably very early in reading avant-garde psychoanalysis, such as Guattari, in the early 70s. So the breakthrough in connecting free association, vagrant thoughts, with nomadic wandering, may already come from Traite du nomadisme comme machine de guerre. But - it may come from The English Intelligencer circa 1966. delirious in no-home is really a metaphor for wildness and freedom, for the boundless expanses which the new poetry is going to gallop over; the jumps between personal experience in the now and the deep time of the ethnographical descriptions evoke this wildness and are the match of psychedelic disorientation. There is also a theory of Indo-European origins (a phase before the Saxon identity) among South Russian nomads, which has lost most of its credibility over the last 60 years. The material of the poem is like soft sand - fit to record the finest ripples of the medium passing over it, passive to autosuggestion. Poetry sited boundlessness in the free reaches of Inner Asian space (or, the North Atlantic, or, the prairies of the northwestern USA) rather than in space beyond the earth's atmosphere or under the ground. Yet the dry air and flat horizons make the stars perilously close: A true /night of pale registrations / spread out coldly above /the nomadic line. The 'icy waters underground' (so close to blue with the reflected coldness of strangeness) bear a puzzling resemblance to the imagery of Northern icy waters in Malcolm Mooney's Land and Hendry's Marimarusa. The ocean was evidently chosen as the expression of 'lifting' of the body image into the boundless and weightless - which relates to 1940s radical use of the body as the source of all imagery. Eric Mottram wrote:
a helmet set on a head
for the horns reach from brain folds
to planets above towers
beyond a lens
moon light in his antlers
curl and spiral of universe
curve out of the brain
skill of mountains receptors to wind curve
from space to caves in the heart
a coil of horn around a nerve
which tunes the herb
(from A Book of Herne, 1981)
The imagery comes from Ferenc Juhasz, and no doubt Eric would connect the physiological equations to Charles Olson, but for me this fits perfectly as a piece of psychedelic cosmic poetry. Besides, the part about linking caves to space is too much like Syd Barrett's lyric about 'the stars that surround the icy waters underground'. I can't read 'moon light in his antlers' without hearing 'blue moonlight in your hair', from an old Cream song. The animal imagery comes from a shamanistic context, although mediated by Juhasz, and this echoes Thom - we can see this as the poetic equivalent of the counter-cultural interest in Asian religions. (Eric's Peace Projects also draws on the great poem, 'The Pearl', from 3rd century Syria, as discussed elsewhere on this site.) I don't like Eric's poetry, but at the same time almost everything I like in the cosmos appears in it somewhere. I counted eight radical cuts/discontinuities in the first 40 lines of 'Peace Project 5'. I see this merging of different conceptual/cognitive frameworks as intrinsically psychedelic - although Whiteley does not actually explore the use of montage, incongruity, recontextualisation, and merging in 'alternative' art. An example would be the cover design by Hipgnosis for the Pink Floyd's second album, 'Saucerful of Secrets': an uncalculable space unifies images, partly overprinted, of a real photo of space, what may be the fluid slide of a light show, a painted illustration of the planets, a row of green glass bottles (or alembics?), a photo of the band by a lake and against the sky, the Zodiac, a coloured print of a man in green (a magician?) in a forest, etc. This collage style, with its disorientation and overload, was coded as 'counter-cultural' at the time, and you certainly wouldn't have found it on record sleeves for jazz bands, family entertainers, or 'pop' groups. (Whiteley does talk of 'blurred/overlapping timbres'. The sound collages of a track like 'A Day in the Life' are a musical analogy.) Eric's manically branching associations parallel the hyperassociative state of a trip - and the stunningly rich sheafing of variations in musical improvisation. His edits are bewildering - much unlike the perfect smoothness which Martin Thom achieves. What I think is significant about the way he writes is its aestheticisation of knowledge structures. The really big revolution in poetry was the loss of anxiety about intelligence - the recognition that the boundless landscape of human knowledge was material for its own landscape poetry. The counter-culture called a mighty subjectivity to life - vigorous enough to burn away the problems of the monotony of so much of human knowledge, the exasperations of accuracy, the company of dusty and sanctimonious pedants. His poems are designed like bibliographies - but his bibliographies are incredibly exciting and pushed a whole generation of underground poets into poetry.
A dream in sepia and eau-de-nil ascends
from the ground as a great wish for calm. And
the wish is green in season, hazy like meadow-sweet,
downy & soft waving among the reeds, the
cabinet of Mr Heath. Precious vacancy piles in
this studious form, the stupid slow down & become
wise with inertia, and instantly the prospect of
money is solemnised to the great landscape.
It actually glows like a stream of evening sun,
value become coinage fixed in the grass crown.
The moral drive isn't
quick enough, the greasy rope-trick
has made payment an edge of rhetoric;
the conviction of merely being
right, that has
marched into the patter of balance.
(from 'A New Tax on the Counter-earth', from Brass, 1971)
While this style is over-simplified by any description, and the passage is clearly rational (and even waspish), we do seem to find psychedelic traits in it: the blurred, shimmering, quality, the pastoral feel, the aspirations to shed material values, the dominance of disembodied colours, the apparent dream state of the speaker, the use of hazy textures (the delicate seed-heads of the plant meadow-sweet), the virtuosity, the sudden leaps of cognitive level. Perhaps not only musicians were sitting in meadows thinking anti-capitalist thoughts? How far is it from 'lime and limpid green' to 'sepia and eau-de-nil'?
The method of quotation neatly excludes exhibition of the effects of loss of boundaries on the duration of poems. While we can only point to exhibits here, it is clear that the 1970s saw an explosion in the number of long poems, and that this wish for new volumes was related to 'space rock' and the infinite reaches of subjective experience opened up by the counter-cultural emigration. A good exhibit here would be Allen Fisher's Defamiliarising, a volume length work (100 pages) which is itself only a part of an even vaster work. Fisher's 70s work presumably does overload, destroy, and transcend inherited structures of the poem, and the poet/self audible within it, just as the Pink Floyd destroyed the 'song' and 'the pop star' by plunging into half-hour improvisations as the audience watched the osmotic swirl of the light show.
So, how successful is this comparison as a way of describing the new feel in poetry? I think there are considerable problems with it, as exceptions press themselves urgently on my mind. The verbal art is much more informationally loaded and conceptually more sophisticated than the musical art - as is true in any period. The music comes into existence because it refers back to itself and the poetry has to contain everything outside itself in order to exist. The advantage of the comparison is that many of my readers will already be familiar with recordings by the Beatles, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, etc., and so can form a concept of the poetry by drawing on memories of the music of 1968-73. The 'era feeling' obviously changed around 1974, by when most of the bands had either vanished or mutated unrecognizably; I feel that the poetry had got going later, and went on for longer, but we are left with the questions of what happened after 1977 - and what the poets of the underground era have been doing over the last 25 years.