Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Remarks on gay sensibility in poetry

DC Andersson wrote: Hello there, I'd been exploring the work of John Wilkinson, and hence came to your 'review' on pinko, which I enjoyed greatly. I have often thought that underlying many of the distinctions between rival schools of poetry has been the extent to which form (which demands to be recognized as such, rather than something that any coherent content has) and ego are to be aligned. Obviously there are different ways of politicizing this question - for some, left-wing ideas of the decentred self under the lights of the 1960s avant garde seem appropriate to some (whether or not these were in fact drawn from text or seemingly 'collective' practice of other art forms), or an alternate *radical* pattern would be drawn from the various mutations of feminism from the nineteen seventies onward. An alternative right-wing intellectual model for dealing with the pains and pleasures of the ego, with all of its necessary growing up and disciplining, is a sort of sympathetic engagement with institutions (a friend came up recently with the formulation that a Tory is someone who believes institutions are wiser than individuals). Other modes of social and ethical engagement being viewed as primary will naturally result in other forms or relation to the self, and one thinks of how so many great poets of friendship (from Horace to Auden to John Fuller) have also been poets of ego. I note, in a rather embarrassed way, that whenever I write of human relations in my own poetry, I tend simply to want to record accurately the stable socialized commitments that ebb and flow in and out of the networks of friendship and love and sex - a fairly obviously gay male aesthetic that privileges a combination of ego, archness and group identity and ability to ventriloquize others, yet respectfully and with honesty. As my friend Simon said of our rather more *angry* friend Mike, *You don't have to fight it, you know?*. For some this will place the muse of poetry too readily at the service of rhetorical functions (to console, to teach, to persuade into bed) that they will find are the route to the *Astleyization* (those Staying Alive anthologies) of poetry or its simplistic totalitarian aims. The range of humane warmth and the Horatian social aesthetic of course depends upon a set of material undergirdings that many will consider lead to a consumerist aesthetic - in the end, like Auden, I prefer *poems* to *poetry*. Pound wrote dismissively (was it in his ABC of Reading) of Cowper that he was simply doing in poetry what was being better done by the novel at the time, that his pastoral work would be unthinkable without the novel. By contrast, I think of that as a virtue, since I want to make poetry more expansive rather than more pure. In the same way, I rather like the novelettish autobiographical narrative poem. I am writing currently a study on Ian Caws, whose experiential underpinning of a suddenly desubstantiated self in the face of the sudden intrusions of a Christian past and Christian landscape (alas, comfortably home counties for some) seem to provide as accurate and as horrifying an account of the difficulties of identity and the dangers and consolations of form as anything in Tom Raworth, for whose integrity of purpose I have of course great respect. I never thought of myself as a conservative, always the opposite, but I think I've become one. I am about to launch my own new poetry magazine, called Tempo. Perhaps I could send you the link?'

All the very best Daniel --


aduncan@pinko.org wrote
i have been wondering about something for a number of years, which perhaps you can help me on. is there a separate market/network for gay poetry? If someone asked me about this, I would like to be able to reply (one way or another). People keep attacking me for leaving things out. Ignorance is not usually an excuse. Maybe there is something I have failed to notice (in 30 years of mooching around the poetry scene).

Alignment of ego and forms. Hmmm. The thing is with a Strong Personality that it's like having attractive performers appear in films all the time. Why watch someone more attractive than you are? In poetry, people are quite happy to identify and ride along with someone with a Strong Ego, just for as long as the trip lasts. There is something faintly comic about this. It's not quite being dominated, not quite dominating. who is Ian caws? should I read him? caws is welsh for 'cheese'. Still, weldon kees is also 'Mr Cheese'.

On 20/05/07, Daniel Andersson wrote

Is there a gay market for poetry? I think there are probably two conflicting strands in gay literary identity, looking about at my friends and their enthusiasms. One derives from the particularly American tradition of oppositionalism. It has roots in the Beats, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and slides into rock and indie and to the various democratic undergirdings of performance poetry and then further slides into an embrace of popular culture and from there into some sort of (usually negative) engagement with consumerism/camp/daily life. It is also a tradition nourished by the esoteric underground (especially in the musical field - one thinks of Throbbing Gristle, Coil, The The), and is not particularly engaged with christianity or, indeed, *mainstream* gay culture. Leaden, dishonest and superficial would be its chief terms of abuse. It tends not to be too suspicious of statement.

The alternative, more well-bedded down tradition (more English) derives from an obsession with density, wit and form, but nourished emotionally by love, friendship, loss and group identity, understatement, urbanity and ventriloquism and via that ventriloquism to camp. It is a tradition more concerned with syncretism, understanding of society, observation, dialogue and engagement with institutions such as families, the church, the universities. It is a tradition that is as much as home in the literary novel as the musical scene. Poise, warmth, sensitivity, form, friendship and wit are its watchwords - and it probably has closer connections with mainstream gay culture. At its most *literary* and within the poetry tradition, it shades off into coterie arch group identity poetry, which one might consider some of the Cambridge school to be. Sloppy and self-indulgent would be its chief terms of abuse. It is often rather diffident about *statement*.

My friend James Mckay, who is a performance poet, is a very knowledgable exponent of the first tradition. I will ask him what he thinks of my distinction and get back to you.

Ian Caws is one of my favourite poets of the 1980s. He is a subtle, quiet formalist, recording the problems of christian faith in the Home Counties, full of understatement, and a great commentator on the seventeenth-century tradition of Herbert and Vaughan.

All best,
DCA

Daniel wrote: The distinction is almost between Whitman and Henry James. Henry James reviewed Leaves of Grass with about as much queeny dyspepsia as he could manage. Above all, James hated the endless statements in Whitman and the absence of the comforts of form that demanded to be recognized as such, the pleasures of a game which everyone knows the rules of and which everyone is subtly changing. I remember, in particular, one very funny piece of his review: he describes the way in which Whitman writes poetry in which the line seems to "exist in joyous independence of what comes either before or after it".

The rules of the game. Ruth Padel referred to Ian Duhig's (deeply heterosexual) poetry as 'sly'. A difference between straight sly and gay sly occurred to me. In straight sly, you tell a story, and you surprise people with where you end up (and the performer takes a great pleasure in having got there). In gay sly, everyone knows where you are going to end up, the slyness is in engaging people in an unusual journey, not an unusual destination.

Just some thoughts.

Best
DCA


aduncan@pinko.org wrote

Daniel, this opens up layer after layer of basically resistant encoding. I'm just worried about being accused of ignorance and prejudice. It doesn't look like I can let myself out of the accused cell without dieting for a long time. Let's be philosophical. If I write about modern poetry, I will be accused of monstrous acts no matter what I do. People in the poetry world love to have themselves photographed striking that stance.

Even more, it doesn't sound as if this layered meaning is going to benefit from me unclipping it and rolling it out straight. It sounds more like something more Maloryan - a vision that vouchsafes itself to the pure of heart.


Dr. D. C. Andersson (http://dcandersson.blogspot.com/) wrote:


I see what you're getting it, but the best way of avoiding prejudice and accusations of ignorance is to delimit the scope of one's enquiry. Being simple-minded has much in its favour on these sorts of occasion - dico expertus! I think that the layering you refer to is a not inaccurate broadbrush distinction in gay sensibility. Simply recording it clearly, and then querying to what extent poetry markets flow from (or do not flow from) given gay sensibilities will surely benefit you and your immediate audience, especially if it's a *general* literary audience.

I think that there IS something (in your terms) Maloryish about the competitive mercuriality of some versions of gay sensibility, which, in its more leaden versions, shades into snobbery, Senior Common Room wit and accommodation with existing power structures (camp flourish where something like class flourishes, unlike kitsch).

Mere thoughts. As I said, I have emailed James and I will report back.

My very warmest best wishes,

DCA

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Poetry Yearbook 1976

Poetry Yearbook, reverie about the state of poetry in 1976

I have a copy of Poetry Yearbook 1977, compiled by Samuel Gardiner, which lists all poetry books published between June 1975 and June 1976. Having access to this gives me an excuse for a nostalgic trip through the poetry scene. Strolling through these pages offers the chance once more to idle away an afternoon recalling the poetry world and my life in poetry. Gazing at these pages naturally draws on my memories, useless for books I haven't read, but offers a view with a low temperature, an indifference and completeness, which no single book could offer. The story of poetry in this time is here, even though in compacted and encrypted form. I seem to know something about most of the names in these lists, although in reality that can hardly be true. I seem to find an awful lot of them familiar. Gardiner says that in this year “770 new books of poetry by individual authors were published’, along with 88 anthologies. The figure is striking, as it is roughly six times as many as the equivalent figure for 1960. The fantasy of being a poet was appealing to very many people, and the issue of legitimation must arise. Is liberation enough?

This was an era when people were expecting revolutionary change in society. In line with that, people thought that the basic rules of the poetry world were able to be reset by conscious and collective action: the scene in 1976 was, it follows, in some ways the realisation of the idealistic fantasies people had had in 1965, 1968, and so on. 1976 was clearly a moment of downward turn for the countercultural enthusiasm of 1967: the Summer of Love had not really stopped, in its course to ever new regions and strata of society, but the activist group at its centre had been affected by a disillusion with the permanent results of the 'new consciousness' and by a gnawing need to make a living and (usually) join some kind of firm or institution in order to do so. The movement acquired momentum as it permeated and spread, so that obviously much more 'liberated' poetry was published in 1976 than 1967. Yet problems had found their way on stage.

The anthologies Gardiner lists seem dominated by locality. We see endless collections of poets from Streatham, poets from Waltham Forest, and what have you. I think that the strength of local links meant that people had to throw theory away. Theory was inherently divisive, it meant that people with differing artistic ideologies had to split from each other to protect the clarity of their artistic line. Sticking together meant compromising the artistic line. We have to speak of ‘legitimation through theory’. Theory was a new elitism. By saying that ‘to be a proper poet you have to have absorbed Olson/ Pound/ Oppen/ Robert Duncan etc.’ it defined a group even smaller than the group of ‘Oxbridge graduates’, and produced an intense focus on details of style which also defined failure and success in emotionally intense ways. This process was very productive of artistic excellence. But it was not compatible with the ethos of the Underground, which insisted that it was also self-expression and that everyone’s self had equal value. Belief in ‘theory’ is just such another lottery which holds that most poets are doomed to failure and only those hit by the lightning of ‘projective verse’, or whatever it is, will succeed. It puts power in the hands of connoisseurs who adjudicate on whether someone has understood the theory properly or is just copying admired gestures. In practice, acceptance by Mottram or Prynne was significant and had a great deal to do with the young poet’s feelings of belonging to an elite, with consequent calm and determination.

The Seventies did fulfil this role of ending the wish for freedom. I wrote a blog about this when reading Matthew Sweet’s book about British cinema, Pinewood Babylon. Sweet says that the local film industry collapsed in the 70s, and output was dominated by pornography in the guise of ‘sex comedies’. It looks a bit as if the promise of complete liberation was tried out through the banal means of sex films, which really did offer the breakdown of restraint, and which created feelings of satiation and even disgust. By 1980 people had the feeling that ‘freedom has been tried out and failed’. Similarly with devolving power, the unions were very active in the 70s. It was during the inflationary era triggered by the oil price rises. The strikes only led to workers getting 20% wage rises when inflation was running at 25%. The impression that the working class was taking over was basically false. Yet again, people reached the Thatcher government, or the 1983 election, with an unquantifiable feeling that freedom had been tried out (and had failed). In reality, the whole New Left project, or the counter cultural project, were still untried ideas, they were never put into practice and never failed. This complex was frustrating at the time and still remains frustrating. We can hardly relive the seventies without re-enacting this frustration.

The sheer number of publications reflects a more optimistic set of beliefs about individual talents and possibilities, yet most of the poetry published was hardly touched either by 'the Summer of Love' or by the more political 'movement of 68. It's obvious too that most of this poetry was rather bad. No one could attempt to resurrect most of this product. The 'full picture' does not include the 90% of low-grade books because they just don't repay attention. It may be that I was drawn into the poetry scene, around 1973, partly because it seemed to have low levels of attainment and it wasn’t intimidating. Most adult things seemed to have a high threshold of abilities. The poetry I saw at that time really didn’t, its weaknesses were quite obvious. It is hard to say that the scene encouraged excellence, when most of what it encouraged was anything but excellent. The feeling is more like the brilliant poets being quite alien from the scene and having to ignore its prejudices and expectations to get anywhere. It’s hard to say what the scene was for.

The split between the innovative sector and the traditional one is scored deeply into the data. The typical poetry of the time was what I call the 'mainstream'. (Poetry Dimension 2, from 1974, is a convenient summary of what I am calling ‘the mainstream’ at around this date.) It was against rhetoric and in favour of the empirical. Being against rhetoric meant that the language couldn't be interesting and was as bare as possible. Being empirical meant being against the imagination or ideas. The payload was freeing people from the commitments which emotions or ideas had bound them to. The misery of the mainstream poets is palpable even at this distance in time. I pick up the feeling that they desperately need a way out but that the gleaming future offered by the theory of the avant garde is a delusion and in the end offers no open door but merely more wall, stretching off into the distance. The future on offer was not the future.

It occurs to me now that the empirical project was trying to erase the unconsciousness brought by unchanging cognitive contexts. The plan was to write poems in which everything was vivid because you had scrapped general ideas. Everything is evidence and you are alert to everything. This bears strong similarities to the innovative project. Both are an attempt to reach overall heightened awareness by a break with the past and its knowledge. Obviously, the problem they were both seeing must have existed.

The tedium of much of this poetry was still affected by existentialism at that time. In the late 40s and the years that followed, existentialism led educated people to believe that they were not the leaders of society and that by writing as drably as possible they would achieve virtue. By destroying ideals and not setting up figures of admiration, including poets, they would be modern and serious. This was the local vessel into which abiding Christian energies were poured, at the time. Writing depressing poems was seen as spiritual. In fact, destroying the cherished ideas of other people who relied on the imagination and on emotionally coloured speculation was seen as a virtuous act - the goal of literature. I think this whole approach was going through a big dip already in 1965 or 66, but the logic of biology meant that poets who had been students in the 1950s were still prominent in the poetry world in 1975. Their grip was lost a few years later.

The mainstream poets were proud of not glamorising their abilities and lifestyles. But by proudly writing about boring and compromised experiences they were not producing interesting poems, and large sectors of the audience simply identified this project as one of accumulating boring poems. The domestic approach was going to work best when poets were leading interesting lives and were in fact naturally glamorous and dominant individuals. Poems about typical events in the lives of unexceptional people were not going to work.

A lot of the poets writing at this time had styles very similar to each other. This was not necessarily something popular with a wide audience - it belonged to an in-group, being the English Literature academics of a certain period, who had a strong caste consciousness and approved a cluster of stylistic traits related to the study of literature. The audience that bought poetry books was, I think, much more interested in poets that explored emotions and were sensitive to feelings and details of personal relationships, more like the market for singer-songwriter records. The academic, existentialist, Christian poets did not like the retailing side of poetry, the atmosphere in High Street bookshops, because they did not thrive in it. The experts in publishing or the media had a different view of what poetry should do. George MacBeth was perhaps the most prominent of these.

The 'anti-rhetoric' thing involved an implicit critique of the means of earlier poetry. This was the precursor of some of the most radical experimental poetry, which questioned the basic structures of language and the self. Making formal devices the subject of poetry was already part of the 'anti-rhetoric' project, which came out of classroom experiences in dissecting poems.

The list allows us to consider the makeup of the scene - the failure of the past to disappear, even. Someone from the deep past who was still publishing was Sacheverell Sitwell. He had been in the Wheels anthologies of around 1917, almost the first blast of avant-garde poetry in England. He had written the libretto for a Diaghilev ballet, surely the incontrovertible proof of Modernist status. He was not though in any way on the scene for poetry in 1974 - he found the scene unbearable and was self-publishing his poetry in a way which avoided reviews and avoided sales, as it was largely distributed to friends. So we can say that there was roughly a 50 year span in the poets actively publishing in the sample year. A very young poet who published two pamphlets in this year was Jeremy Reed. Just as the official scene was unsympathetic to the new poetry of the 70s, driving it into the ‘Underground’, so also it was probably unsympathetic to poets from much earlier periods. The latter could thus also form an ‘underground’. I would guess that the publication by DS Savage, 'And also much cattle', a libretto of 16 pages, falls into this category. Savage was part of the New Romantic scene of the 1940s and it is likely that this publication passed almost unnoticed. The surviving New Romantics didn’t even have a magazine to keep their group feeling going (although Kathleen Raine provided something like that with Temenos, from 1984).

There are so many wonderful books in this single year. Poems 1955-75, by Peter Levi, High Pink on Chrome by JH Prynne, Striking the Pavilion of Zero by John James, Pleats by Andrew Crozier, Dense Lens by Asa Benveniste and Brian Marley, Catacomb Suburb by Alistair Fowler. There are quite a few other pamphlets or books of interest. However, it’s not obvious why the area of high artistic achievement needed also to have the area of low artistic achievement around it. (We could also mention Taj Express, by Alan Ross, not his best, and a book by George MacBeth which I can’t evaluate because his collected poems doesn’t identify which book things came from.) You have Long Shout to Kernewek, by Allen Fisher, written much earlier and not yet great poetry. It is clearly the predecessor of his major work ‘Place’, which was in progress at its time. Antony Lopez published Snapshots, Anthony Barnett Blood Flow.

I picked up the book with the supposition that I am the first person who has taken on the mass of publications from this time and sifted out what is good. After reading the list through, I still think that. Most of these books did not get reviewed, the reception system effectively broke down. If anyone has sifted through this material, they haven’t made the results known. The corollary of such a high publication rate is that the process which forms collective knowledge and reputations seizes up.

If I had to sum up the pattern of these publications, I would talk about irrational generosity. There was no need for so many books and their numbers also defy all commercial logic. The typical event behind the publications is an empty act of acknowledgement: some publisher (unpaid and running at a loss, usually) acknowledges the talent of a poet, yet the poet has no talent and the acknowledgement is an empty one, something generous but also disproportionate and even unjustifiable. We hear a lot about tough gatekeepers locking people out of the buildings where they had a natural right to be, but the heart of the scene was something totally different. What was happening, in hundreds of cases, was people publishing a book of poetry by someone who didn't really deserve it, because they put the moment of gift, bestowing, recognising, prizing, above the moment of accurate scrutiny. The scene was unmistakably benevolent to the sensitive, introspective, uncertain (and even immature), and this atmosphere gave it a strength and durability which were thinly connected to artistic achievement and to connoisseurship. The affection of the publishers for their clients is the more admirable because it wasn't tied to genuine talent - it was pure and unconditional. It was impossible to stop.

The poetry world revealed in this catalogue shows a retreat away from meritocracy and commerce. This was a reversal of the values by which everyday life is conducted and this reversal is significant in typing poetry as a zone of innocence and autonomy. This is important to the scene as a place to live, a zone that offered sustenance. You can't simply ridicule it. It was a code of conduct. Of course you can't get away from the idea of excellence in art forever.

Along with a collapse of the need to hit a particular market went a collapse of the need to write interestingly or to link the poem to an experience of intense focus and awareness of which it is in part a record. Some people wanted liberation in order to achieve excellence and others wanted to write undifferentiated slush - to abolish the sense of failure.

It occurs to me that Writers Forum, rather than breaking with the inherited patterns, was actually over-fulfilling imperatives present in the structure of the field. They went further out of inanity, a lack of intellectual structures that could have formed a brake or a counter-policy, so ending up with zero-effort works that could not be sold and were not on sale anywhere. Breaking with the theory that talent existed ended attentiveness.

The element of recognition was wiped out of the patronage equation. WF was totally undiscriminating so being published by them didn't mean anything at all. The scene has pulled back from the most total realisation of incomplete sets of imperatives, without really resolving the problem of quality control.

The wash of mediocre material contributed to the loss of interest in poetry by the reading public. If you have an incredible overload of poetry product, viz. the 700+ books emerging in 1975 or 1976, then you really need a whole tier of people who are coldly differentiating between good and bad, truth and fantasy or hype, and who bring back the results. If you have that then the good books come out top over the bad ones, and this is really such a desirable outcome. Another effect would be that people would be effective at resisting group imperatives and be better at looking at the evidence, i.e. the texts themselves. This is not something which was a big feature of the scene in 1976. The critical attitude, which segregated good from bad, did have positive effects. The poetry scene did seem to be realising a programme of equality which erased the reader from the equation. Applying commercial values would have closed down the poetry industry altogether. Yet getting away from commerce should not have meant ignoring artistic quality and readability. The end result was the destruction of respect for the term ‘poet’, and the loss of interest by bookshops in stocking new and unknown work. Forget about commerce, people had been ripped off too many times.

Someone who ploughed into all this stodge with real enthusiasm would end up tired. There is something fated about this. In 1976 there was still a ‘counter-culture’ hoping to replace the existing structures of behaviour and group organisation. The relevance of dropping the controls, which had certainly happened in poetry, as in the visual arts and pop music, was that it gave a foretaste of freedom in a realised Counter Cultural takeover. The conclusion which many people must have drawn was that the appallingly low quality of the cultural product which ensued was a foretaste of failure by the revolution if it ever took over. If you look at this morass of poetry as a test, the signal that comes back seems to say that people are bored by freedom, they lose focus and release frustrations in a basically uninteresting way. The ‘political dimension’ to poetry was certainly important in 1976, but the cultural message it finally came back with was not the one poets were hoping for.

The elitist argument wins. Lots of people were trying to break down the validation of central cultural agencies. If poets had marched away from the points of validation and still retained intellectual and artistic focus, still produced works of excellence, the argument would have been won. But so many people rejected ‘standards’, dropped out, found publication through thoroughly ‘unlegitimated’ publishers, and produced deeply uninteresting poetry. This is a big part of the story of the Underground. It proved that the prospect of success and recognition by the ‘authorities’ made poets reach perfect focus just as the presence of a crowd might make a cricketer reach perfect focus.

Gardiner evidently got tired typing all this stuff up. Thus, 'Edge', credited to Asa Benveniste, is surely 'Grip Edge Lay Edge'. 'Residues', by Gael Turnbull is 'Residues: Down the Sluice of Time'.

I notice two books by Eric Mottram. Evidently Eric was excited. Publishing two books within a year is rare, yet quite a few people are recorded in the Yearbook as doing this. 1922 Earth Raids and Local Movement are not artistically successful, yet they do testify to a phase of creativity and energy, optimism and release. They are intricate works. He went through a bad patch when his contract as editor of Poetry Review came to an end.

I found the same title published by two different publishers. Probably both were self-publications, the author (Bill Griffiths) toshed out a few inky copies in the print room at the Poetry Centre and declared that as publication. If Akros publishes five works by Duncan Glen in one year, it may help to recall that Akros was Duncan Glen. We seem to have three books by Brian Jones, but I think two were republications which London Magazine Editions had craftily smuggled in, and the original versions were around 1970.

There are quite a few books from what we would think of as the 'Cardiff underground'. I notice two pamphlets by Mark Williams, a figure people told us about when we were researching the Welsh underground but who proved elusive. I think he was mainly a performance poet. Anyway, I haven’t seen these pamphlets. We see also pamphlets by Barry Edgar Pilcher.

Other works of interest would include pamphlets by Asa Benveniste, Gael Turnbull, Penelope Shuttle, George Mackay Brown, Harry Guest, Paul Evans. I must admit to an interest in works by David Grubb and David Tipton, marginal figures but ones who perhaps put something good together when the weather was favourable. There is a pamphlet by Susan Musgrave which I haven’t seen but based on other work this is probably good. She is Canadian but I think living in Britain around this time. The Snow Party by Derek Mahon is probably very good, I saw his selected poems. We have by David Tipton the pamphlet Millstone Grit including the long poem of that name. I think he was writing better poems around 1972 than later on. He claimed in a later book to have been influenced by Harry Guest, which may shed light on his intentions. Here he is pulling the camera back to allow much more information in than the conventional poem with its limiting 'lyric intensity'. The narrative is complex enough to reach a real flow. Yet the aggregate is close to the banal, the lack of introspection makes it like a TV drama showing the same events and it lacks the familiar virtues of poetry. The language has been simplified to allow so much to be said. The poem is poised on the edge of excellence yet avoids it and flows on past. He differs from Guest by having no pattern of symbolism, it is all earnestly fixed on the surface of a set of social relations.

Something missing from the list is feminism. The accepted start of modern feminism is in 1970, but in 1976 this was a momentous but private literary process, rather than something which was appearing in finished works to any great extent. mine field by Judith Kazantzis came out in 1977, the curtain is about to rise on this new sector of artistic productivity. (We do have ‘Webs on Fire’ by Penelope Shuttle, maybe this was feminist. I haven’t seen this one.)

Gardiner also lists poetry magazines. He counts 170 of them but it seems likely he missed a few. In general they were even less selective than the books, so the worthless bulk of low-grade poetry books is surrounded by an even larger bulk of low-grade poetry in magazines. It’s probably easier dealing with magazines, they are more varied and you get less worried or irritated by the incompetence of the poets. You just move on to the next thing. That Britain could fill 170 magazines with excellent poems is a claim no one would make.

It may not seem sensible to regard trivial things like sex films (and drug trips) as valid tests of a liberatory project, and as grounds for rejecting it. But that is how politics works, the victors make up the rules after the game has been played. The problems with the overall social project just lead us back to the success of individual works of art.

addendum on sex films

Sweet's version of the British film industry in the 70s is too striking for me to let it go without adding some context. A BFI publication, Seventies British Cinema, edited by Robert Shail, gives the figures. A total of 56 'sex comedies’ were filmed in the Seventies. (p.5) Meanwhile, 'During the course of the Seventies, the number of feature films produced more than halved from eighty-four to forty-one.' (p. xiv) So, OK, a lot of people employed in the industry in 1971 were out of work in 1977. Some of them must have worked on the sex comedies, but these did not 'take over' because by count other genres were always the large majority. (See table on page 67.) The sex comedies were cheap and since they didn't expand more than they did they obviously weren't making super-profits. Sweet says 'In the 1970s, sex comedies accounted for the bulk of British production[.]’, but Shail's figures show them as just on 10% of production of feature films. Is this 'the bulk'? or is Sweet someone who watches too many movies?

Homage to Victor Carroon

A few days ago, I went to the Poetry Library and borrowed a copy of 'A Book of Herne' (subtitled ‘1975-81'), by Eric Mottram. I noticed an illustration showing a drawing of a cave relief made by the Abbe Breuil. The previous day I had seen a version of the same drawing appearing as part of the decor of a laboratory in 'Quatermass and the Pit', a 1958 TV serial. Reaching page 93 of 'Herne', still on the train back to Nottingham, I discovered a reference to another Quatermass serial: the original one of 1953, 'The Quatermass Experiment'. Mottram says 'Victor Caroon'. He offers no further illumination, but the context is one of pagan re-enactments and Carroon's fate was to become like a piece of fungus inhabiting Westminster Abbey, a recollection of 'Green Man' images carved in stone inside churches, representing human figures given over to vegetation. The coincidence justifies me in writing about Mottram in connection with Nigel Kneale, an author who I greatly admire.

The basic story of the film is that three astronauts go up into outer space in a rocket. The base loses control of it, and loses its signals. When it returns to earth, the hatch has not been opened but there is only one man inside it. He has the memories of one of the missing men. (I was told this part of the story in about 1961 and never forgot it.) He is Victor Carroon.

The first ‘possessed’ character in ‘The Pit’ takes up a weird and distinctive shambling posture and gait which are based on the ‘sorcerer’ as recovered by Breuil. In the Hammer film version, he is played by Duncan Lamont who, confusingly, played Victor Carroon in the 1953 BBC serial. The 'Sorcerer' drawing is one everybody must be familiar with. It is supposedly a reproduction of a really existing engraving/relief inside the Grotte des Trois Freres, near Foix, France. It shows a human figure disguised as a horned creature, either wearing a costume and mask or really being transformed into their animal equivalent, reared up on two legs in what may be a dance. It is half-crouched, adorned with big antlers and a human penis. It is the conventional 'proof' that there was shamanism in the old Stone Age and one of the most widely reproduced of all prehistoric images. Other people have examined the relief and found no antlers. Yet the drawing was produced by tracing. It is fair to say that the critique is itself controversial. Other images resembling Breuil's re-creation have not been found.

'Herne' is based on the idea that archetypal mythic images are important to our psyche and that they can be re-animated to form the central narrative of works of art. It does not work very well. 'Quatermass and the Pit' is based on a similar idea. It shows us humans as the descendants of a Martian breeding programme, in which our deepest impulses were programmed by the Martians and are ready to be amplified and brought to frightening intensity by the radiant powers invested in the semi-alive hull of an ancient space-craft, the one dug up from the 'pit' of the title. The archetypal rite in question is a 'Wild Hunt' in which human beings, losing all inhibitions, run around in troops destroying people who are 'different'. This was a feature of the Martian hive-society. Kneale built his story from the image of the Notting Hill race riots, in which for example 400 people chased one black man into a shop, threatening his life. Kneale started from the news story and from there spun his tale of the evil pooled at the base of our psyches and how it wanted to seize control. The climax of 'The Pit' shows as fantasy what had really been seen on the streets of Notting Hill, a few months before. He in fact is with the writers who saw the archetypal as evil and recognised in 'the urge to repeat' the origin of war, tyranny, totalitarian states and prison camps. Another wing saw the archetypal as liberation, and believed that the goal of art was to elicit these primal narratives and causes us to re-enact them. Posing a question - of hidden sources of actions - in this way was a feature of the cultural scene of the time.

David Mellor also draws a comparison between Victor Carroon and the Green Man (or the Burry Man), in his 1987 exhibition at the Barbican, 'Paradise Lost?", about the Neo-Romantic movement. He showed an image of Carroon at an earlier stage of his metamorphosis, when he still had the shape of a man, although the texture of his flesh had become like a plant.

Mottram as a matter of fact cites the 1956 Hammer film, 'The Quatermass Experiment', as his source, which was presumably more available than the TV series when he was writing in the 1970s. Only two of the episodes were on film, the others went out live on camera and so do not exist today. However the DVD package of the three Quatermass serials for the BBC includes the scripts of the 'lost' episodes.

The problem with it is less that the poetry is bad than that it runs out of breath too quickly:

tines/ shivered by impact and scarved neck
his feet lift lightly/ with mere memory
of gentler seasons. Lungs full of the drug, antlers
rake back, he halts the herd, his voice filled
with custom of combat and unslaked lust
Victor Caroon
(‘Notebook 3‘)

This is quite interesting but it’s just a blip, the character does not have enough substance to continue after a few lines, and the poem jumps to another theme. I do not really get a lift out of this. The moment of cut/splice, the engine room of montage, is so delicate to manage. You can jump into another dimension of analogy and higher pattern, or you can lose the thread. It is hard to catch the transition, however you try to slow it down it’s over in a flash - of failure or brilliance. (‘Scarved neck’ might be ‘scarred neck’? The ‘drug’ might be the hormone which governs the ‘rut’ which causes fighting behaviour between stags?)

If you look at a range of Mottram's work (I am slowly working through it), 'Herne' sticks out as distinctively worse than adjacent books: worse than '1922 Earth Raids', than 'Local Movement' or 'Peace Projects'. The date 1975-81 includes a period which was notably low in Eric's existence, according to the testimony of his friends. Further the subject matter of 'Herne' is almost over-ripe, romantic and barbaric, breaking out into areas of mythic liberation. The contrast with the behaviour expected of a professor and someone whose opinion was taken seriously in forming policy, academic or cultural, was too severe. 'Herne' appears more as a schematic describing an unwritten work than as a work on its own. The time inside it is crushed down, dissected into fragments, unable to move or to flow. He recognises a number of sources for a postulated romantic-mythic poem about a Stag God, but at each point the source overwhelms him and leaves him weaker. The citation of Ferenc Juhasz, whose great 1955 poem about 'The Boy Transformed into a Stag at the Gate of Secrets' appeared in 'Modern Poetry in Translation' around this time, identifies where greatness is but lacks any creative impetus of its own. Eric liked to compile reading lists and 'Herne' spends too much time acting like a reading list.

In ‘Pit’, there is a passage where Quatermass is researching the history of the area (Hobb’s Lane) where the still mysterious hull or shell has been discovered, and tracing a history of disturbances, apparitions, ghost stories, and mass fear, going back to the Middle Ages. It is a ‘ghost story’ in that the evil spirit is tied to a place. The cumulative force of the stories going back deep in time is part of the eeriness which Kneale manipulates so brilliantly. This is a short passage carried off with great precision. It resembles Mottram’s bibliophile accumulation of sources for the great poem he is unable to write. But Mottram’s rambling listings are not part of a coherent dramatic context. Another passage has Matthew Roney, the archaeologist, defining the ‘insect’ figures discovered inside a compartment in the hull in terms of visual comparisons to gargoyles, demons, and of course the horned figure in Breuil’s fanciful drawing. Roney has a frieze of cave paintings running round the walls of his laboratory. He evokes an archetype by demonstrating the common points between dozens of disparate visual creations. This also is what Mottram is trying to do, but without the dramatist’s flair for making ideas exciting. The resemblances he picks up are real but they are not exciting. The Canadian actor Cec Linder is wonderfully warm, sweepingly enthusiastic, as Roney. Kneale repeated the effect in his ‘The Stone Tape’ (1973), and dozens, possibly hundreds, of authors, have tried to repeat the effect in the decades since. ‘Herne’ quite closely resembles Roney’s montage, the pin-up board of an art historian: an excitable spill of images, a pattern to release the imagination. It has a static quality: the bits do not go in a direction, their order is irrelevant because there is no narrative line or argument. This might be true of a pin-up board or an archive. In a book-length poem it is a sign of muddle, of a design phase that has been missed out.

The Danish painter and theorist Asger Jorn was also interested in the Green Man, the stone head with leaves and branches radiating out of it. He saw this as a pagan image which had been taken over by Christian sculptors. For Jorn, it was one of a whole group of images: a significant cluster of elements was assembled into a binding image, once, and was then reproduced many times. The meaning could be re-invented to suit the audience, but the ‘craft expertise’ of the sculptor was retained with obstinate persistence. After the first century or three, it had a "meaning unknown to the maker". Arguably, the real meaning was the very first one, which had inspired the moment of origin. This re-use of images led him to invent ‘detournement’, which he imparted to the Situationists, a group he co-founded.

In the Green Man passages, Mottram mentions RILKO, which is too romantic to be true. I discussed the Research Into Lost Knowledge Organisation in my book Council of Heresy. His interest in them suggests once more that Eric was too involved in lush and romantic territory for the tastes of the formalists he hung out with. If we revisit the terrain of ‘poetic theory’ (a move which unfortunately may take us back into an era of trench warfare, but let’s just try it), the failings of ’Herne’ do not invalidate the theory he was using. Other works based on much the same theory worked much better. However, because ’Herne’ is a bad example, it is obvious and undeniable that the theory does not inevitably work and so is incomplete and fragmentary in itself. This makes it doubtful that we would want to do battle for it. Conversely, the reasons why a book of poetry is bad may have to do with more subtle and uncontrollable psychological qualities like depression and desensitisation, even lack of inspiration. The idea that a set of theoretical decisions, logical and fully controllable, can solve your problems may be an act of psychic self-defence which is actually tragic. The next poem may only be reachable by forgetting the decisions that made the last one succeed.


Another step of comparison. ‘Herne’ is noticeably similar to ‘Crow’ and ‘Gaudete’. It is a march deeper into Hughes territory. It is also close to ‘Ranter’, but both follow Hughes.

The guides I used did not guide me to other 'man-stag' images from the Palaeolithic but the German archaeologist Nicholas Conard has claimed that 'the transformation between man and animal, and especially between man and felines, was part of the Aurignacian system of beliefs'. In a cave, Hohlenstein-Stadel, in the Lone Valley was found ''One such ivory figurine just a few inches long" which "depicts the hybrid features of a man and a lion'. The new ‘Lowenmensch’ figurine was not quite ‘found’ but assembled in the museum from fragments found in 1939. It was only ‘recognised‘ in 1969 by Joachim Hahn. A similar figurine was found nearby, in the Ach Valley, in 2004 (by a group led by Claus-Joachim Kind). So the class of man-animal hybrids does exist and the 'stag-man' belongs to that class. (The Lone and Ach valleys are in Swabia. One quote I found has it that ...."Figurative art began in Swabia, music began in Swabia," but we really have to move on.) (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%B6wenmensch , also http://www.loewenmensch.de/  )

A cave nearby, still in the Lone Valley, is called Vogelherd and Thomas Kling wrote a poem about it.