Miscellaneous blog August 2010
Note. This is all related to British poetry 1960-97 but it is miscellaneous. I have to point out again that the systematic work is in the seven books in the series (on British poetry 1960-97) and that the blog postings are unsystematic and round the edges.
The numbers raise questions about how the poets I choose to write about (150 or so) were selected. I may be biased but as the landscape itself is tilted in multiple ways and there are no straight lines it is very hard to measure where a bias is. Outcomes for individuals are reached through a cascade of many processes, each one of which filters people out or discourages them.
The ratio in the authors accepted should match the ratio in the authors rejected. That is, if 18% of poets in the 'rejected' pile for a decade are women, 18% of those accepted should be as well. These figures are quite hard to develop from the sources I have been able to access. Total figures require a lot of supporting data.
The shape of the 'haul' of excellent poetry is very peculiar and it is not obvious that you can map it onto 'social geography' without answering hundreds of questions about non-matches. I have not undertaken this exercise. The issue of bias arises but it's not one I am going to resolve. The resultant shape is complicated in the way suggested.
Why does the coastline go in and out like that? I am glad to have collected so much primary information and laid it out so that we can step back and see what the shape is. 'Why' comes later.
Why does Cornwall stick out like that? what happened to the rest of the land? Why are there no straight lines?
Origins of the Underground
I discussed Clive Palmer and the Incredible String Band in Origins. I have just discovered a whole book about Palmer, Empty Pocket Blues, pretty amazing for someone who never sold any records and was barely a professional musician. It appears that Palmer was in the Famous Jug Band and made some records with them. He was English, so the original ISB, on the first album, was an Anglo-Scottish collaboration, not the most frequent arrangement in our time. I say the ISB lasted circa 1965-74, but according to Wikipedia they formed in 1966. They also reformed in 1999, with all three original members, and went on playing for several years. (My error, my omission, sorry!) The book (author?) quotes some of the reviews for their 2000 tour. These are possibly the worst reviews I have ever seen of any band. It is amazing that he included them in a book presumably aimed to sell to fans of the ISB as well as of Palmer. I don't think I ever included the negative reviews of poets I wrote about. Maybe the folk crowd are more open to that, they are so anti stardom that they can have objective views of their famous musicians and they really think it's more about the ethos than about dominant individuals.
Joe Boyd wrote in his memoirs, “Mike and Robin were Clive's friends rather than each other's. Without him as a buffer, they developed a robust dislike for one another.” He was their manager. This just explains so much about what you hear on their records. With one sweep, a whole wall of puzzlement dissolves.
I also wrote about Folk in The Long 1950s and in an essay now online. This follows from a realisation that language is a recipient and so that I have to write about what the poetry is about and not just about the style it’s written in. The poem always points at something else. That something could be an entire climate of sensibility, a whole weather front enveloping England for a few days or years. So if you’re writing about poets active in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, you have to take on the Folk Movement. I think another factor was that I didn’t understand the Folk Movement, I heard folk music on TV from when I was 6 or 7 years old (‘The White Heather Club’ and many others), it was always there, but I felt ignorant about it. I had unanswered questions so it was always bothering me.
The folk ethos could be illuminating if you ever ask why poets can spend so much energy on a book that is going to sell 200 copies, 500 if they’re incredibly lucky. If you read about Palmer’s low income and attitude towards earning a high income, it doesn’t theorise what the market could have wanted, but it does shed light on how someone can spend thirty years writing poetry and not even planning to sell more than 200. What you have to grasp is that this was the admission fee, that no one was going to get involved with poetry unless they didn’t want to make money.
The Folk thing offers answers to other questions. The Georgians were very close to the ethos of what was later the Folk Movement. Suppose you ask ‘why doesn’t dialect feature in English poetry’, or, after research, ‘why does dialect play such a marginal role in British poetry’. The answer lies through the Georgians, because their ideology pointed them strongly towards dialect, and after some hesitation a lot of their writing is in dialect. It was necessary for them. But they were big enough to be an ‘institution’, a going concern, with a market valuation, a following, and so a history. If you follow that history from say 1920 to 1960 you will then know why dialect poetry is so unimportant. You have to keep up with the changes, and as it turns out the Folk Movement is a big chapter in that story. This story is also important for patois poetry, even though that comes from the Caribbean, not Great Britain. It fitted into the English speech-system, and came out of English in the first place.
It is difficult to sum up the meaning of poverty in poetry. One effect is wave after wave of people who want to take over. They reason ‘this has no commercial value so the price is zero so I can claim ownership of it without laying any money down. I take over, obviously my ideas are more important, and you have to do what I say.” This goes on endlessly. Because of the anti-success thing, the anti-power thing, the socialist thing, it doesn’t look as if poets own poetry. So there is always some politician, some academic, some authoritarian, who announces that they have taken up that role.
(rewriting the 1930s)
John Goodby visited and we talked about the 1930s. We broached the idea of an ’alternative 1930s’ and how distorted Samuel Hines’ book was calling itself ’the Auden generation’ when it was only ’the Auden clique’, and John went further by emphasizing how much of a campaign there was to set up Auden as important English modernist, and how unseating Dylan Thomas was part of this. Thomas was already a great poet by 1934 but standard line histories describe him as a Forties poet because otherwise he would get in the way of Auden being the great Thirties poet (this is what James Keery describes). There was a campaign of ‘normalising the past’ in the 1970s which involved this projection of Auden, despite all defects, and shunting Thomas off into eccentric obscurity. The organisation of this campaign is interesting, and may be in parallel with the writing off of the Underground at the same time, and an attempt to normalise contemporary poetry into a history of glory for a few rather conventional poets.
Hines’ book is very good but the idea that it covers the whole history of 1930s poetry is incredible to the extent that no one could ever have believed it. We spoke of the ‘alternative 1930s’ and how the base data have not been collected. It is said that Andrew Crozier was working on this, a book on English poetry 1930 to 1950, at the time of his death. Candidates would include, beside Thomas, George Barker, Joseph Macleod, Sorley MacLean, Edwin Muir, Richard Aldington, Sacheverell Sitwell, Ruth Pitter, Glyn Jones, David Gascoyne, Kathleen Raine, Hugh Sykes Davies, William Empson, Charles Madge, Francis Berry, Herbert Read, Basil Bunting, even Randall Swingler. James Keery has proved that the Apocalyptics began in the 1930s, around 1937, so they have to be written into the story as well. The story of the influence of Lawrence, who was really a contemporary as he was only 45 when he died in 1930, is one of the key issues and seems to be totally unwritten. (The Orators is very notably lawrentian.) In fact there is no coherent history of British poetry during the 1930s.
I pointed out that the Apocalyptic thing was already there in 1934, when Thomas and Barker had already mastered the style and were publishing in it. John described the evolution of Thomas in his notebooks, making a breakthrough even during 1933, writing the poems published in 18 Poems in 1934, writing them even when he was 19. John said that reviews of that first book described it as evolving out of Auden and going beyond him - so Auden was no longer ‘youngest talent’ already then, aged 26. This was a problem that Auden’s clique simply could not tolerate. That process of destruction and breakthrough was the origin of the Apocalypse, breeding the complex of devices which they were going to take on and exploit from 1937 on.
One of the photocopies John Goodby sent me had a review (1935) by Desmond Hawkins of Dylan Thomas' first volume, 18 Poems, of 1934. Hawkins says 'Mr Auden is already a landmark. His own poetry stands clear above fashion. But the Audenesque convention is nearly ended; and I credit Dylan Thomas with being the first poet to break through fashionable imitation and speak an unborrowed language, without excluding anything that has preceded him. Barker and others have promised this [.]' If you see Thomas as the successor to Auden, although his debut was only six years after Auden, then the idea of Auden as oversoaring the whole scene from 1930 to 1970, uninterruptedly, becomes strained. What also becomes strained is the projection of his reign as ending in 1970, peacefully, and with a handover and ‘coronation’ to new Oxford poets such as James Fenton and John Fuller, in a ‘legitimist’ theory of history. (The problem with accepting the existence of the Apocalyptics, circa 1937 to 1948, is that it presents a coherent and collective acceptance of Thomas the contemporary genius, equipped with theory and a world-view. As this pushes Auden out of the story, it does not fit into the legitimist textbook.) So the Auden faction of the 1970s and 1980s have followed Geoffrey Grigson's cue and striven to write off and paint out Dylan Thomas. He wasn't one of us.
Spender was greatly influenced by Herbert Read. Later, he took up the Apocalyptic style - a fact which Auden fans have consistently hushed up. If he decided that the Apocalyptic style, post Thomas and post Hendry and Treece by that time, was the sound of the time, adequate to the role of the individual in an age of totalitarianism, then that not only demolishes the idea of the ‘Auden generation’ but also drags the reviled and rejected Apocalyptic thing into the precious centre and core assets of the clique theory of history. In fact Spender has a claim to be the best Apocalyptic poet after Thomas.
John said that Thomas developed his style out of intensive study of Blake and Donne, books in his father’s library - as well as from Auden. Thomas is the first chapter in the reaction to Blake, and to the insatiable but tantalising need to imitate Blake, which was so important over the next fifty years.
In more discussion with John Goodby we came across the two ideas (a) that Modernism was in steady decline in the 1920s and that the moment of 1914 was fading before finally disappearing (b) that Modernism was a whole era which was brought to an end across the whole continent by the Depression, which meant that the intelligent audience became very interested in economics and politics and had no time for formalism in art. At stake of course is the era of non-innovation in Britain from 1930 to 1960 and the status of the revived modernism (if that is a fair description) in Britain from 1960, continuing either to 1977 or even till the present day. I definitely vote for (b). I think the poetry of the 1920s shows a whole group of modernist poets, it was the style of the time. Macleod’s ‘The Ecliptic’ (written 1928 and published 1930) comes towards the end of this era but is not after it ended!
The Apocalyptic style originated around 1931-3, because Dylan Thomas and George Barker (and even Francis Berry) were writing poems in that style in 1933 - it was complete by then. This date is obviously connected to the eclipse/arrest of Modernism in roughly 1931. Depression, ideological despair, the rise of dictatorships - all this made a complete cut in the career of poets who were in their productive prime at that time.
Hawkins: 'In a confused foreground we have glimpses of Charles Madge and David Gascoyne, the fire and mist of George Barker, the spectre of Martin Boldero glaring down from Jack Straw's Castle, and a whole rabble of sentimental - but very chic and modern - Communist dandies.'
Boldero? A quick check suggested that he existed but had never put a book out. Clearly there was a question to be answered here. Boldero, we found, featured in quite a few issues of Grigson's New Verse, but not in the anthology Grigson later put out summarising the scene. Clearly Hawkins was a close observer of the scene, if he knew about poets before their first book was out. In fact this paragraph, incidental to hailing the arrival of Dylan Thomas, could be the basis in raw intelligence for a project of recovering the Thirties poets who were written out of the story because they weren’t chums with Auden.
(I think 'Boldero' was Grigson - Ian Patterson told me this.)
Mackay Brown, Muir
I have a friend from north-eastern Scotland who reports that among the gay community in that region the presence of Mackay Brown for recreational and experimental purposes in certain public lavatories favoured by the fraternity was quite noted a few years ago. As his appearance was so distinctive this presence was unmistakable, especially to a community which valued cultural achievement so much (above all among creative figures from the north-east itself). Sympathy for someone who was so demonstrably one of their own was only very slightly tempered by the duty to gossip and so raise everyone's consciousness, if only gradually. I took this one as a highly probable fact, limited only by the hypothesis of a Mackay Brown impersonator. It is not hard fact. I record it here because I am so deeply out of sympathy with the elements in Scottish society which oblige people to disguise their sexuality. This is something of a specialist topic in the history of Scottish poetry.
If Brown was gay, he undoubtedly kept it as quiet as almost everyone else born in 1921 who had the same sexual issue. The story helps to recognise the inner meaning of his poetry in one way, that the central figure of Saint Magnus as martyr can be interpreted as an emblem of Brown’s martyrdom to the morality of his rural community. Magnus’ celibacy is an aspect of this. Magnus meant much more to Brown than he ever seems to mean to readers of Brown’s work. Symbols can be used to hide things as well as reveal them. Was the celibacy the martyrdom, or was it sanctity?
It is curious that someone who wanted, if only periodically, to engage in gay sex, should go on living on Orkney, where that kind of thing did not happen. But his relationship to urban life was stretched, and he was forever writing about how bad towns were. Brown lived in Edinburgh for at least two periods, in 1951 and 1962-4. He must have learnt the mechanics of the brief encounter at that time. There are anecdotes about Brown - first, that, as stated in his obituaries, he had never visited England. But secondly, that he had travelled on a sleeper the whole way from Caithness to Edinburgh without discovering the cord which turned the light on. His political dislike of technology was matched by a remarkable lack of grasp of it. Urban life was simply too much for him. Catholicism would have mandated a celibacy which was easier to defend in Orkney than in a big town full of the temptations of the flesh. If someone is so keen on arrested development, you have to wonder how they apply that to their personal life.
Brown wrote absolutely no personal poetry. This was pretty rare for someone born when he was. It can easily be attributed to a love of folk poetry and a belief in the importance of the community as a whole. There are other interpretations though. More like, Dont ask, dont tell. If we suppose that he had a pressing wish to avoid the topic of his personal life, then the creation of a set of patterned and stylised stories, unfolding in a fascinating and highly controlled way and not demanding his participation, was an adequate literary habitat for that. The patterning is notably archaic and decorative, and notably frozen and repetitive; it was something he could hide inside. The doctrine of timeless and ineluctable roles, adopted from his teacher Edwin Muir, can act as an explanation of being gay - it’s as natural as a horse being a horse, then. But the escape into the past can also act as an evasion of the question of becoming what you have to become, as part of an escape by postponing the whole issue, refusing to develop. The present with its burning decisions, its burning desires, its conflicts with the family or with religion, can be permanently side-lined in an aesthetic labyrinth designed not to have an exit. There is no question of Brown’s unrevealed sexual identity damaging the quality of his work. He never pretended to be anything else, to have a set of feelings that he did not truly possess. The intensity of his stylisation - closer to Walter Pater than Scottish patriots would have you believe - masks everything but also transforms it, and is robust beyond the point where mere biography could erode it.
I never wrote about the presence of homosexuality in poetry. I just didn’t have a feel for it. Information very generously supplied by Daniel Andersson (posted on this blog) has extended my understanding of the issue. Not to the point though where I could write a chapter about ‘homosexual poetry’, although I hope someone else does that and amends our ignorance and failed understanding of this subject.
Brown saw Orkney as part of Scandinavia. There must be a whole shelf of literature about the problem of homosexuality in rural Scandinavian communities, as undoubtedly many writers have engaged with that issue for urgent personal reasons. Unfortunately I do not know the names of any of these books. Quite possibly the story of Brown would be in those books.
I came across two stories at much the same time. One was Brown’s never visiting England, the other one was about a Scottish language activist and his obituaries proudly revealed that he had only been to England once. All this may be the behaviour of a genuine Scottish writer, undistracted by a wider literary world and market, but can also be the education of a genuinely bad genuinely Scottish writer.
I do not think I registered my admiration for Brown's poetry sufficiently in my writing. Let me add a footnote, which is no more than incidental. Brown's theory of human life involves repeating and static roles, and is acquired from Edwin Muir’s extraordinary poem ‘Variations on a Time Theme’, as I correctly pointed out. However, Muir’s theory is already set out in some detail in Bram Stoker’s novel Lair of the White Worm (1911), where the serpent-woman of the title explains how she had lived in the same spot in Yorkshire for 2000 years and watched the same eternal human types pass before her, so that no one had any originality, but repeated what their predecessors had done. Bram Stoker was a great talent, capable of originating permanent myths, but it is a little embarrassing to see Muir copy a Gothic novelist. I am wondering if there is another source and Stoker picked this up from another writer, in his industrious research into folklore and the occult. White Worm is not a great novel but there are some wonderful set-pieces of bizarre prose in it.
He does not divert the resources to tell the stories of the ‘forerunners’ of his early 20th C characters, but the Serpent describes how she recognises them - it is very much like ‘Time Theme’, it’s all there. The eeriness of recurrence and predestination reminds me of Nigel Kneale, these themes thrive in the genre. The ‘recurrence’ theory does not really add to the plot, it’s just an inserted page of speech which is fabulous and does not alter the basic situation.
Writing up the short summary of poetry for this site, (‘Handlist’), I couldn’t help noticing the lop-sided balance of poets born in various decades. I do not have any poets born in the 1960s. The conclusion is simple: my take-on of the whole flow of verse, that activity like drinking a river, is weak for poets born at that time (or later). The information just hasn’t reached me. The pace at which the literary reception organs filter and evaluate the raw flow of poetry is slow, the knowledge arrives with decades of delay. Conversely, I can claim that I have taken on the generation born in the 1950s. The list of poets I have now assembled is likely to be quite good for that cohort. This was knowledge I hadn’t got when I began editing a magazine around 1991, and which has trickled through as I was doing the job.
So, on purely theoretical grounds, we have a basis for imagining another 20 important poets born during the 1960s. This is quite exciting. I wonder where I would look for them.
Roddy Lumsden identifies, for the period after 1995, roughly 50 to 90 debut volumes a year. I am not attracted to the idea of reading all these. I have to rely on the mentioned ‘organs of reception’. Which take 20 or 30 years.
Did I really ‘get’ what was happening in the 1990s? probably not.