Notes on “The Long 1950s”
This posting is a mess of info related directly to a book called 'The Long 1950s'. The book is now available from Shearsman Books. Obviously, the good stuff is in the book and this is just a sort of saunter in a peripheral direction. The book, put simply, is about the ‘affirmative culture’ of the 1950s and how, despite the arrival of other artistic currents, it persisted into the 1980s; and then how the mainstream gave up that line and mutated into something more interesting. The idea of a 'history of the mainstream' shines through the work, but there was too much data for that so I just took 'slide sections', moments which I could look at closely. these tend to be discrete genres. It began as a collection of chapters that didn’t fit into other books, then was devised as a set of revisionist theories, then was narrowed down to ideas about the Mainstream, and finally was qualified to be an explanation of the range of amateur poetry through descriptions of the available styles. Through the genres, we can get a glimpse of the huge mass of mainstream poetry being written. Other themes crop up, naturally. The basic rule for the book was 'don't mention alternative poetry'. If you leave out the alternative, what do you see?
11 March 2012. Am just re-doing the index as the pagination shifted slightly when some corrections were put in. So The Long 1950s will be published soon, maybe in the early summer.
I did some work on numbers which suggested that the Mainstream might include 6000 writers in my chosen period. I wasn't going to attempt to deal with them as individuals. But the book has essays on about 14 individuals.
(Roy Fuller, John Holloway, Edwin Morgan, Peter Levi, Christopher Logue, Judith Kazantzis, Pauline Stainer, Jeremy Reed, Jo Shapcott, Jamie McKendrick, Robert Saxton, Alice Oswald, John Stammers).
The rule for the book was not to mention the Underground at all but I didn't quite manage that.
The posting basically includes info which wasn't interesting enough to go in the book (tied off at 112,000 words) and which is in snippets as opposed to the completed (but rejected) chapters which are also on this site somewhere. So this is aimed for people who have read the book and are still curious.
The book came out of another project, which was more simply one of trawling second hand bookshops and so on to find good mainstream poetry. This really came after work on my series of books had finished, and out of guilt that I had missed something of significance. The project had mixed results. There is just too much poetry for any search to be more than incomplete. Of course what you want is a learned guide, in which case you aren’t really searching and don’t have the same difficulties. This brings me back to what I was trying to do in writing guides to the period. Peter Levi and Anthony Thwaite were probably the main successes.
(the kidney-shaped table)
Some German book I read about 50s design had a sentence saying that 'the kidney shaped table was the Gothic Arch of the 1950s'.
This book started when I bought, in a retro shop in Nottingham, a plate (designed 1957) which has transfer prints of kidney-shaped tables as part of its design. I have an idea of the 50s and it's this. But really the precise emotion is an artefact. It’s my feeling of life before I became conscious, and when I was occupied with the details of tables, carpets and kitchenware because for me as a young child those were the immediate objects of consciousness. (The set was called ‘Homemaker’ and was designed by Edna Seeley. The Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent has one of the plates on show, with details.)
My mother bought a set of three wooden tables by Ercol, graded so that one fitted below the other. I remember them arriving in what must have been circa 1962. They weren't classically kidney shaped but a sort of long oval.
Culture in the 1950s was child-centred. This was OK with me because I was a child. ‘Affirmative culture’ tells the naive, children for example, that happiness is out there and that security is the normal condition of human beings. This is a message which is profoundly calming for the naive, for children. I didn’t want to be forced to think critically about things. That came with adolescence and predictably it brought a phase of despair and spiritual nausea.
There is a book called 50s cinema: a celebration, edited by Ian MacKillop and Neil Sinyard. (British cinema, that is to say.) I found this inspiring. The writers regard these culturally lost films from the centre of those films, not adjusting them to the norms of some other aesthetic. It was easy for me to get back into that emotional position, since after all I was a child in the 1950s and that material, worn out and leached out or not, saturated my earliest cultural experience; but the culture I learnt later was overlying it and blocked it off. The book by MacKillop and Sinyard gave me a way back and was a wonderful reading experience besides. I have just read it for the second time.
WHF Rivers was treating patients for shell-shock - a term which was invented by G Elliot Smith. There is a fascinating discussion of this by Elaine Showalter in The Female Malady. She caused some confusion by mis-spelling Elliot Smith. This is a great book and has few flaws.
Smith with a man named TH Pear wrote Shell Shock - and its lessons. I also talk about Smith in Origins of the Underground. I bought a book about the Piltdown Man hoax which blamed Elliot Smith for arranging it - without evidence except 'being possible' so far as I could tell. See posting on 'Death Cult and Dog Star' on this site.
In 2007 I developed, with graphic designer Robert Baird, a diagram for Chicago Review which put, on a single page, the vertices of the poetic space in Britain. This got us away from the Underground and pushed us towards a more complete picture, even if intense identification with the parts of the picture was no longer implied. The step towards a colourless or objective rendition of cultural space opened the enticing possibility of putting ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ poetry on the same map. This is something I followed up in ‘The Long 1950s’, naturally only for a few themes within a huge landscape.
Who invented the term 'domestic anecdote'? I said it was Crozier but on searching the text of his famous essay I can't find the phrase. So I don't know who it was.
My mother told me a story relating to about 1951. The new archbishop of Canterbury had a wife, who became ex officio national head of the Mothers' Union. She decreed that everyone had to renew their marriage vows or they couldn't go on being members. The local branch in Clifton was run by my grandmother (my Yorkshire grandmother). There was a member who was separated from her husband and who obviously couldn't renew her vows, although to be sure she still had the children and couldn't get rid of them and was, you would think, an Anglican mother. She was facing being expelled from the Mothers' Union - surely a blow too many. My grandmother dissolved the Mothers' Union and restarted it the next day under a different name with the same members.
It is striking that this she-bishop was a stupid stupid fascist, but rather more striking that she had no basis for assuming this authority except a sense of being God's gift and the fact that she was married to someone. The plot for mass expulsions of people she didn't approve of was part of a belief, not rare at that time, that the Church could roll back the 'secular' or 'libertarian' advances of the previous 50 years. In poetry, Christianity was winning back ground. This is related to 'metre and rhyme' coming back to the centre ground, even for young poets, in the 1950s.
In Roald Dahl's autobiography he tells of being at a school of which this archbishop man was headmaster. In that office, he revelled in beating boys excessively and took great pleasure in it. My mother was very pleased to read about this, because it confirmed her suspicions of the whole family. Arrogance, evil, and education were the triad of the ruling stratum at that time. This is the set-up that people were rebelling against.
For me the message is that Anglicanism stopped being power-obsessed and so it became possible for poets to write within it. You'd have to squeeze Rowan Williams for a long time to get a drop of evil out of him.
This is a story I didn't put in the text of 'The Long 1950s'. If people don't understand how evil the ruling class was in 1951 there is no point me trying to get it over to them.
I bought a volume of New Poems 1952 because it was edited by Roy Fuller and Montagu Slater and so I thought it would collect some left-wing poems. This turned out to be a good bet. One inclusion was ‘Elegy for a Lost Submarine’, by Ewart Milne. This was written in May-June 1951, according to the text. It is about 160 lines long. It is about the loss of a British submarine, in 1951, on peacetime manoeuvres. This is really a terrific poem. Part of my interest was the history of protest poetry - when I tried to name some protest poems for a diagram of poetic styles my mind went blank, I just couldn’t think of any. I listed Ewart Milne, as I had read this poem, too quickly, in an anthology made by Jon Silkin. The question was whether there was ever an interruption of continuity, from 1930s protest poems about the rise of fascism to poems circa 1965 about the atomic bomb and so on. There was a kind of ‘platform poem’ in the 1930s which was theatrical and oral, because of all the exciting political meetings of the period. I think that combination of ‘oral + public + protest’ poem was continuous. But the written record tends to leave it out. I think the protest poetry of the 60s has largely been written out of the record.
Milne also wrote a book called ’Time Stopped’, which Prynne recommended to students in about 1983. Again, this is a terrific work. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read most of his books, but I know that he was a Thirties radical, a Marxist who served with the ambulance corps in the Spanish Civil War. He was ‘of mixed Irish and English parentage’, according to the note, but I think he identified with Ireland, as a non-imperialist culture. There was no Communist Party in Ireland so I believe he spent a lot of his life in England, where you could get involved in that kind of thing. He did move on from all that; the interesting question is what he wrote after reaching intellectual maturity. He did a book called ’Cantata under Orion’, which again I haven’t seen.
I am sure Britain didn’t need a Communist government in 1952, but if you look at the writers who were involved with the Party around that time they are a very interesting lot.
I also haven’t get the energy to acquire all 10 volumes of ‘new poems’ for the 1950s. The anthologies were made for the PEN club. If distractions go away I will get there eventually.
I never wrote about the genre 'protest poem', it caused problems.
Ross wrote some of the best poems of the 1950s. I didn’t find room for Ross in the book. The ones about being an intelligence officer for a destroyer, stationed in Germany just after the war, are especially good. The idea of being ‘tough’ worked for Ross, he could actually write tough poems. The evocation of a devastated landscape is concise, forceful, undeniable. The war had taken him to exotic places, sharpened his powers of observation, made him prefer terseness and decisiveness. But all his poems are good. He could write romantically about romantic places. ‘New Poems 1952’ has him writing about Brighton and a gypsy church on the Mediterranean, in the Camargue; the locations are slightly garish, too decorative, of diminished reality, but the poems are faultless.
There are always a few figures who evade the generalisations about any period.
Footnote to Reed essay
A quote from the Gospel of Thomas runs:
Jesus said to them, "When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom]."
My note on Wilson Knight's commentary (in The Christian Renaissance) shows 'When ye have trampled upon the garments of shame, and when the two have become one, and the male with the female is neither male nor female.' He credits this as coming from The Gospel of the Egyptians, but I could not find this in a version of that text on-line. I suspect both logia are describing chastity as the basis of holiness. For Knight the core figure of drama is bisexual figures who have a mediumistic and prophetic gift. The idea that people who became neither male nor female entered heaven provided a source for these figures. Thus the voices which speak to mediums are the dead as transfigured forms of the formerly alive.
I don't get into the androgyne thing, possibly because I was a teenager during the fevers of Glam Rock and just got overloaded with that stuff. Knight was still around in 1970 and in one of his books there is praise of David Bowie. He was watching TV around 1970 and obviously the sight of tall, willowy young men with long hair spoke to something deep in Knight. In fact, given what his major book on the history of drama (The Golden Labyrinth) says, you could say he had predicted glam rock.
What Herbert Marcuse defined as "affirmative culture" is the core of what we see in 1950s culture. The match is perfect. That affirmative quality is even what we feel nostalgia for and try to recover in surviving artefacts of 50s culture. But that’s the problem in what I have to write. Poetry is not “affirmative culture”. This is very important: poets belonged to the university elite, tiny as it was in those days, and held to an ideal of being critical and ironic. That whole line of resistance to popular culture, which seems so odd today, was in effect a deep dislike of affirmative culture. I wanted to write about it but because it doesn't feature in poetry that had to go. There had been a sublime line in poetry, and some of its practitioners were still alive in the 1950s, but it was clearly moribund and ancient by 1950 and it would not be sensible to write about it. Alfred Noyes was affirmative but he was just a reverend shadow by 1950.
I make a few remarks about the life of writers who were not making their careers in the 1950s but who in a way dominated the decade. For example, Lord Dunsany, born in 1878. I believe he was president of the Authors' Club, I think Robert Filreis says that in his wonderful book about the conservative opposition to modern poetry (in 1945-60) but I couldn‘t confirm this. Dunsany was one of the more vocal people saying that vers libre was rotten and led nowhere. There is a 1952 editorial by him in Poetry Review where he denounces modern poetry (viz. everything since 1905?) using a series of examples which turn out all to have been written by him. This is the most dishonest piece of polemic until the 1960s produced affronted conservatives. I don't even think he read any modern poetry, I think he just got a book by Stanton Coblentz which contained twisted fragments of selectively bad modern American poetry in order to justify Coblentz's outrageously anti-modern thesis. In the 1960s you had people into ‘youth culture’ and confident enough to ignore aged culture; in the 1950s that was scarcely so and the presence of poets born before 1900 loomed over everything. Young poets envied people with real religious belief and envied poets writing in repetitive and rigid metres. PR ran a set of letters agreeing with Dunsany - the other side doesn't appear.
There is a lot about Coblentz in Filreis’ book, whose subject is the organised attack on modern poetry and free verse in the period 1945 to 1960. It is set in the USA but it is such a good book that it sheds light on England and other countries too.
Optimistic Art; the box of beautiful things
My fascination with the amateur comes from an essay by Andrew Brighton in which he talks about amateur art and how because it lacks the inhibitions of professional art it can got to places where the highly educated cannot reach. Actually, I never read Brighton's essay, I was inspired by a mention of it in one of Peter Fuller's books. I tried quite hard, years later, to find Brighton's work, but Fuller did not give a citation and I never found it. [update: it was an exhibition, by Brighton and Lynda Morris, called "Towards Another Picture". The exhibition was in Nottingham, where I live, and I now have the volume of documents issued to support the exhibition. It covered the whole spectrum of art in England.] All this is coming back because of reading a fictionalised account of an art historian, who is undoubtedly Fuller, in Iain Sinclair's book Hackney, That Rose-red Empire. Sinclair's account has many literal details from Fuller's life in Graham Road but is malign and unreal. The bottom line is that I never saw the bright and decorative paintings which he wrote about and I never found any naive poetry of modern times which I could find innocent and refreshing. So writing a book about it was a vague gesture - waving benevolence to people I hadn't read and wasn't going to write about except as a symbol.
Fuller had developed a whole framework for reacting to the pessimism of the visual work that he was specifically dealing with at a certain time, which we can call the Seventies. He explained this through kenosis, a theological concept. Fuller was a fan of theology and saw 20th C art as a re-enactment of theological passions in different form, as I do. Kenosis is ‘emptying‘. He saw 20th C art as growing increasingly empty and ending up with a kind of abstract bleakness which was terrifying. This idea of there only being one kind of art, and of it developing and abandoning previous positions, also seems to go along with the increasing emptying of high art. It leaves out every other kind of painting. It could be combined - in somewhere like Hackney, in a year like 1975 - with an idea that capitalism had created sensory emptiness and alienation, and that art could bring people to realise the full sterility of capitalism by bringing them to peaks of anxiety and desolation which they had never experienced in the outside world. Quite possibly, the idea that there was a thing ‘capitalism’ separate from our own beings was a symptom of a sensory emptiness which permitted a very high degree of abstraction. Immersed in this heady and collectively managed bleakness, Fuller eventually reacted against it and came out asking for art to be sensuous and optimistic. It was in this context that he grasped at Brighton's constructive idea as a way of escape.
Another problem is to explain why, when ostensibly writing about the poets of low competence, I have entire chapters about Pauline Stainer and Jeremy Reed. This is hard to explain. A big factor was just that I wanted to write about them and that I only write prose books because it lets me write about people like that. But the other factor is that they have nothing to do with that kenosis that Fuller talks about, and with the critical alienated line in 20th C art. It is profoundly right to include them as examples of Christian myth and realisation of glamour fantasy (respectively) because by doing that they illustrate two genres which many poets, including weaker ones, write in. It is impossible to write about a genre through a poet who can't write.
I didn't explain this in the book because I wanted to leave the whole critical-alienated line out of the book. Just for once.
Both Stainer and Reed are optimistic writers and in that specific way can be identified as naive. If you talk about the 'box of beautiful things' you can see that both poets believe in that box. Even, that they want to create a box of beautiful poems. So maybe this is the optimistic art which takes us away from the heady high-altitude wastes of negation.
I am still wondering about the paintings that Brighton saw. Just now I passed an art shop, in Nottingham, just near the Nottingham Contemporary, our new museum of the modern. The shop has a very large naive painting in the window, showing a scene of ice skaters. (The Ice Arena is also not very far away.) It is brightly coloured, full of detail and realistic endeavour. There is no characterisation but it has this positivity, it is all about having a good time. It didn’t raise my mood. It struck me that it was very like an advertisement - that lack of depth, that endlessness without substance. It’s not that people don’t enjoy ice skating or that the sight of happiness makes me unhappy. But the scope of naive poetry is probably limited, in the same way as naive painting, by the saturation quality of advertising in our society. Optimistic painting has to be quite artless and poorly designed to avoid getting sucked back into the drained colour surface, from looking like a poster for the English Tourist Board or for the Ice Arena or whatever. Poetry books already have blurbs on the cover which represent Affirmative Culture in the poetic realm, and some of which are utterly mendacious. If you wrote a book of Naively Optimistic Poems the inside would just read like the blurbs around it - something already there. So maybe the only way to love naive poetry is not to read it but simply to imagine it.
Maybe Andrew Brighton was also into another dream of the Left, that there were people with intact sensibilities in the lower classes and they would walk in and replace the sophisticated urban neurotics with their art based on competition and on failed competition. I believe it is true that whatever dead ends cultured art, driven by fashion and cultural overload, finds itself in, will always be recovered from in the next generation. In a sense renewal always comes from children who come along and grow up with different ideas and with fewer acquired traumas. However, the most demanding art is the product of the most cultured people, and that doesn't seem to change very much. That style, which was based on a belief in Marcuse’s theory of ‘affirmative culture’ and tried to be ‘negation’ and then eventually, after decades of suffering ’the negation of the negation’, was peculiar to the 1970s, it is not around much now and you would have to explain to a young person today what it was or had ever been.
I do like the idea that there are people who paint the sea and ships and that they will spend their lives on the coast with an easel, indifferent to hotheads denouncing bourgeois art. The book should have been called 'the box of beautiful things' or similar but I fought shy of that. Anyway good poetry isn't simply a pile of beautiful things.
After decades of waiting there is now a good book on the Folk Revival: Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival, by Colin Harper. Actually it’s more than good, it’s wonderful. Jansch came from Leith, the port area of Edinburgh. He began playing guitar in 1960. He was one of two singer/guitarists in Pentangle, a group consciously formed to reach a large audience, which did reach a large audience and in a way ‘represented’ folk in the 1967-71 period. Harper’s book has a large amount of detail on the key period 1958-65. It is not overwhelmingly about Jansch and after all he was very much part of a Scene.
The two problems that memory wants to write out are easily summed up. Folk came out on two classic labels, Topic and Transatlantic. Topic began as the label of the Workers’ Music Association, whose membership was mainly communist. Transatlantic got started with recordings from America, folk and blues. The question is how English folk music could emerge from under these two currents of power. Or, how far is the stream of music that came out on those two labels, not all of it classic but pretty big swathes of it, either folk music or English. I have long been curious about the link between folk and communism. My intuition is that figures like Ewan MacColl thought they were running the whole thing as propaganda for the Party, but that they lost control of the craze very quickly and that only a fraction of the participants had any connection with communism. I have not found any definitive statement on this but Harper’s book does not confirm any Red dominance. He covers MacColl quite thoroughly but ties the communist thing to a group of people around him rather than to the rank and file of the Revival. The evidence is complicated and it crops up in many parts of Harper's book, so I will point you to that rather than summarise it. I keep recognising minor figures in Harper’s narrative as communists.
This craze is relevant to poetry, but - like communism I suppose - as something which everyone was attracted to and which had notable failures revealing fatal structural weaknesses. So that everyone came out the other side.
Harper cites The Weavers selling a million copies of a cover of ‘Goodnight Irene’ in 1950 - in the USA. The timing of the American folk revival was completely different from the English and Scottish one. The folk thing in the USA was smashed by McCarthyism. The links many of its leaders there had to the Marxist Left probably explain why MacColl thought a ‘Red folk’ was possible in Britain. I don’t think the British thing would have taken off without influence from America, but I was only two years old in 1958 and my guesses are unreliable - especially as written sources are so few. The guitar had no role in British folk culture so the guitar orientation came from copying American styles, and later turning the learnt skills to the Anglo-Celtic repertoire.
When I say ‘smashed’, of course it came back. It just went through a bad time.
I think everyone liked Pentangle and the musicians were probably more critical of the group’s weaknesses than the listeners.
One version of the Folk thing is in Jeff Nuttall’s book Bomb Culture (1968), where a major storyline is how there was a human type who went on CND marches, was into trad jazz and folk, belonged to the Old Left, disliked pop music, and was generally contemptible. Nuttall blindly believes that “style A is JUNK and style B is WONDERFUL’. For him it’s always that everyone cool is at gig B on a certain night and everyone dismal and tedious is at gig A. Eric Mottram uses the same pressurising polemic structure. It’s exciting but finally it’s like Ewan MacColl, it’s authoritarian. I don’t accept that every folk song was dull or that every electric pop song was groovy and exciting. I suppose what this brings us to is that not every avant garde-Underground poet is interesting and not every Oxford/ mainstream/ tweed poet is dull.
Michael Brocken’s book The English Folk Revival (2003) has a great deal of information about the role of the Communist party in Topic records and the folk movement in general. Topic was the label of the Workers’ Music Association and was formed in 1939. Their pressing run was about 100 copies, it was a club thing. When the CP lost most of its members after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the subscriptions for the WMA also dried up and Topic had to think about selling to the public. This is probably when they became a significant record label - when they had to worry about shops and turnover. They now sold a lot more than 100 copies. The people who worked there kept their ideology, it was probably in the mid 1970s that it began to wear thin. Being communist meant loving the people and loving folk music went along with that rather sweetly.
Brocken has (at p.37) the story from an interview with Ewan MacColl where he says there were in the late 50s 1500 folk clubs in Britain directly expressing the ideals of the movement and of MacColl. But checking an issue of ‘Sing’, the communist-oriented folk song magazine, for 1957, shows a list of ‘What’s On’ which only lists nine folk clubs. This is probably the correct total. The rest were the product of MacColl’s imagination. (This analysis is already in Dave Harker’s Fakelore (1985), if I am not mistaken.) It is a notable example of first-hand evidence being thoroughly unreliable. It also shows Stalinist heroic propaganda values at work in Britain.
Harper gives one half of a famous story about MacColl, which is that in the club he ran English people weren’t allowed to sing American songs and vice versa. The second half (and who knows where I heard this from) is that later on this applied to regions as well, that if you came from Lancashire you had to sing Lancashire songs and if from Essex you had to sing Essex songs. People cite this as the Puritanism of the rigorous folk scene, which never reached the public. It was like Stalinism, which is the social group where MacColl got his sense of the fitness of things. I think his policy was defensible - it forced people to make an effort, to explore the hidden repertoire and research untapped sources. If you look back at 1958 from 2010 you realise that if they hadn’t expanded the repertoire of folk music, both songs and styles, the whole thing would not have survived until now, it would have died of boredom. There was a point about regional singing styles, being diverse in the same way that dialects are. I certainly think dialects and regional singing styles are precious. To my ear, English (revived) folk music is important because it eventually got beyond reproducing the Scottish singing, Scottish Traveller singing, American singing, which were so dominant at the outset. Its flourishing had a lot to do with accepting regional styles. This also had a lot to do with getting over embarrassment and accepting the sound of your own voice. MacColl had foresight but undeniably he was authoritarian.
Brocken has extensive material from folk singers on how weary they got of MacColl and how authoritarian he was. After a certain point you start to feel that he gets slagged off so much because he was important; if he hadn't been part of the landscape, people wouldn’t have got so frustrated with him. Brocken says ‘it is quite clear that the origin of the revival was indeed political for several important disciples’ and concedes the importance of the Leftists.
It’s surprising how much British Marxism achieved even with the handicaps of very small numbers and of rigidity, personality cults, delusion, and so on. A big role in the WMA was played by Alan Bush (1900-95). In 1951 he won the competition to compose an opera for the Festival of Britain, to be staged at Covent Garden. When the bosses discovered that he was a communist there was a lot of brouhaha and in the end his opera was not staged. This story is in Norman Lebrecht’s book on Covent Garden. No good telling someone like that that artists are oppressed in the Communist bloc. There is a story that when the end of communism came Bush was 90 years old and ill and his friends kept it secret from him in case it made him more ill. I don’t know if that is a true story.
(For more on folksong, see posting on ‘The unlearned and the unlearning’ on this site.)
I was re-reading Robert Hewison's In Anger, a standard work on culture in the 1950s. I think I have read Hewison’s book four times now. Some other books were very useful: John Press’s Rule and Energy, Eric Homberger’s Art of the Real and Edward Brunner's Cold War Poetry in particular. Kenneth Allott’s prose commentary in the anthology Mid-century Poetry is useful although too grim. I found 50s films and also books on 50s films very suggestive in thinking about the poetry of the time.
John Press’ book Rule & Energy (1963) actually is a history of British poetry in the 1950s (although I hadn’t read it when I wrote my chapter). This gives a rather wider view than I do. I recommend this book. Press writes very well about the Blakean, post-Symboliste, etc. line in this. He portrays the British scene from the war up till when he was writing (in 1962) as a struggle between the visionaries and the rationalists. The visionaries are few in number. However, he’s quite right to suggest that the Oracular line was there in the 1950s and didn’t spring from nowhere in 1967, or 1965.
Hewison sees a split in the 1950s, with a different tone starting in 1956. This was a revolt against what was already there (mostly much older than 1950) and centres on 'Look back in anger'. This is fascinating but doesn't work in poetry.
Hewison quotes John Berger sounding off about the 'rule makers'. Amazing. He was making up rules and trying to shove them down people's throats more than anyone else. A Stalinist who thinks he is liberating people. Sort of Ewan MacColl without the beard.
In Anger makes major use of the idea of typicality, that there is a single literary person and a change to the role affects everyone. He pulls it off but the deadline for that kind of thing was running out, and typicality was leaking its substance in a hundred directions in the 1960s. The thing is that poems use this universal lay figure in much the same way that Hewison does. In 1955 it did feel as if every writer was a pupil at the same school, shuffling down the same chilly corridors, scared of the same headmaster, late for the same compulsory sessions of ideology, sneaking off for a cigarette in the same hidey-holes. All that's gone and I can't write poetry criticism in those terms.
In 1955, what books offered was much more like the company of a certain kind of person. If you didn't like that sort of person it just wasn't interesting to be there. Writers who adapted to that and learnt how to put their 'voice' over didn't understand why the audience wasn't interested, a few years later, when poetry had become a much wider exploration both of subjectivity and of objective knowledge. 'You have to feel the same way that I do' - and this was very close to thinking 'this poem, any poem, HAS to be written in this way'. There was a whole stock of banal but educated poetry which was like the park in your town: you have to go there because it's the only park and it's conventional to go there.
Noel Annan : 'It also began to be recognised how much homosexuals enriched the nation's culture. Hardly surprising since by the sixties the best known English-born poet, the outstanding composer, the most famous choreographer, and the most prestigious painter - Auden, Britten, Ashton, and Bacon - were all known to be homosexuals.'
(quoted from Neil Miller's Out of the Past, a Gay and Lesbian History, p.259) Saying 'by the sixties' actually means 'during the 1950s', although Bacon's fame was ascending during that decade.
Norman Lebrecht says about the Fifties -'England's leading painter (Bacon), poet (Auden), actor (Gielgud), composer (Britten), novelist (Forster) and choreographer (Ashton) were all homosexual, an attribute that was unmentionable in studies of their lives and works.' (Covent Garden, the Untold Story, p.177)
This is in a passage set specifically in 1953, a moment of gay-bashing by the media and the police. This is a salient fact, in 1953, and must be part of the Fifties arts world. I don't have an explanation for it. Gays were not prominent in poetry, at least so far as evidence survives. In poetry, people didn't have an anxiety that you had to be gay, they had an anxiety that you had to have been born before 1900 to be a great English poet.
No one else writes as interestingly as Lebrecht about the arts world. He evokes ‘arts gays’ circa 1950 as a cosy little conspiracy, and that insider quality could have effects in allowing people to be self-indulgent (knowing they have a welcome) or to be implicit and allusive, in a private code (emptying the poem of overt meaning). But - I have just argued that literature in general at that time had the quality of letting you be with ‘certain people’, it was all a conspiracy, a fellowship of the willing. That intimacy is what the text exploits. You can trace it to Oxford University or to the Gay Fraternity, but those are false leads, because literature had that insider quality even when it had nothing to do with those two in-groups. The readers of the time were shocked by writers like Beckett or Tomlinson who offered no warmth or indulgence at all; that felt new and unattractive, in the Fifties.
The chapter on singer-songwriters. This was added after the main text was completed. It has the problem of not being based in textual details but in the overall 'feel' of a large number of texts. Bringing in the singers is a way of answering questions like "why is modern poetry (since 1960) so flat? why is it so hopeful that the reader will be fascinated by the poet's personality? why do poets think they can produce a wholly verbal creation which makes no use of verbal style?" These questions shed light on a great deal of poetry which is not of great interest. The significant poets do not raise these questions because they addressed the problem of flatness and have solved it by developing a verbal style whose richness differentiates it from the landscape around it. The questions may not be worth raising. On the other hand, I think this style was new in the 1960s and represents what replaced the formal, literary, ethically demanding, poetry of the 1950s, itself perhaps a continuation of a long line of literary poetry. The victorious sound of the 1960s was not anything modernist or experimental but this flatness which is also conversational and also egocentric. It was not inspired by Pound and Structuralism but by Judy Collins and Donovan. Of several thousand poets who got into print, few could understand either Pound or Lévi-Strauss, but a lot of them could understand Donovan.
Equally, the vast mass of poets have given up on the stylistic elevation which marks the ‘heritage’ of English and Scottish poetry. Analysing the modernists in terms of cultural aggression and deliberate destruction of classical serenity is irrelevant unless you also consider that the mass of poets now writing also use a flat and unliterary style.
It is not accurate to call the vernacular modern style ‘Pop’, because it lacks many qualities necessary to Pop. It is more accurate to compare it to a vein of song creation which would claim to be the expression of conscience and to be opposed by its bareness and authenticity to the sugar rush of Pop culture and to its commercialism. It is too earnest to like adornment.
Of course, it is arguable that all the poets who fell in love with this musical idiom failed, because leaving out the music was simply a step too far and this kind of poem could never work, being unpoetic. It would then be a mass movement in the wrong direction. I got the feeling, when researching for The Long 1950s, that the Folk Revival had been a failure - leaving behind an archive of dullness. This possibility has to be considered.