The Long Poem of the 1970s
A feature of the 1970s was the migration into long poems. The semantic context of short poems appeared to the new sensibility as shallow, conventional, and frustrating. The stalls of the time were full of A4 stapled-photocopied books which always seemed to be instalments of something even larger. The magazines were full of “extracts from works in progress” which were only partial disclosures of a glimpsed but unimaginable whole, only sequences of a few frames from an energy wave running on the idea that history itself was changing all the time. The open project seemed to give the poet a better chance of controlling this rush forward – and so expressed a revolutionary faith in guiding the wave of change towards a better society. The impulse came largely from the USA, where open poems taking decades to write offered a monumental challenge that seemed to raise the standards of poetic art.
The underground came into being because the mainstream structures failed to support the way poetry was moving. It made extra demands on space and funding, and the restrictions came to be emotive issues. The difficulties which editors and publishers put in the way of long poems demonstrate that there was a huge creative pressure to write in this way, The age of long poems came to an end – but no-one has ever said to me that they got fed up with the long poems. I have the impression that the logical development of poetry into long structures was checked by the budget problems of harassed editors – the underground could not afford it all. It attracted too many writers, not enough readers.
Since reviewers were unable to judge the complete works from the instalments, it is appropriate to revisit them now seismic activity has stopped. There has been no comparative study of these impressive poems. The period is one of mystery. There are no reliable anthologies, no textbook, no consensus. Few of the poems have been reprinted since the 1970s. Their extent pushes us back from confident conclusions; this constellation of undefined relationships between poems continues the novelty and uncertainty of the relationship of parts within the poems, which offer themselves as suggestive nontransparent spaces.
We presume that the genesis of such works is slow, and so that changes to their design occur slowly; there may have been a dip in mid-century where poets were uncertain of how to write long poems, faced with the collapse of traditional genres (narrative, verse drama, sonnet sequence). The emergence of these works at this moment, 1968-75, may be simply due to an exceptional economic conjuncture, the end of the post-war “30 year boom”. This is also why works from a much earlier period, by Hendry and David Jones, came into print at this moment; Faber had not published a new book by Jones in 22 years up to The Sleeping Lord. His work came out decades after it was written. That is, the milieu could acquire work orphaned by past eras and conjure it into life.
The short poem can challenge social and semantic structures by omitting them (as pop poetry did), but cannot demonstrate new ones. The motive for the long poem was probably, therefore, a state of conjecture and uncertainty, where the organisation of personal and collective behaviour was up in the air, as part of revolutionary social change. A key factor is then the reader’s capacity (singular and collective) for dealing with incomplete forms. Perhaps they define them as improperly formed, and reject them, with a businesslike snap. Perhaps waiting for a long time amounts to despair and disillusion. And perhaps the incomplete is an object of optimism and fascination. To give up completeness is also a renunciation of authority. The reader’s rules for treating uncertainty certainly dictate the quality of their experience when reading these conjectural poems. The end of the bar line?
We can get to a common theme in very concise form by considering the notion of the liminal as described by Victor Turner in a series of works (perhaps first in a 1964 paper). In certain rites, peoples go back to a fore-time where classiifications break down and a primeval unity is restored. People partake of communitas, where social roles and classes break down. These moments often take place in wild places, where there is no ownership, no property divisions, and no marks of human labour; they are marked by pure liquids, such as water or blood. Actions in these states partake of flow, that is they are fully formed, instant, and there is no such thing as mistakes. Often, the creation and first appearance of categories is recited there - and creation myths may belong to liminal rites.
These are called liminal states because they are rites de passage, on the threshold (limen) between two social statuses.
My impression is that the short poem is an adaptation to external pressure and hostility. The idea that a shorter poem is better is a stage towards the idea that no poetry at all is best, which was the underlying drive of the mass media. People who hate poetry give you five minutes, grudgingly, to deflect criticism, and you fit into the slot irrespective of what the design of the poem itself demands. The long poem is a seizing of autonomy, a protest against the marginalised and numbered conditions of the poem in the media. But also, pop music was shifting away from the single and towards the album at the end of the sixties; it seems that poetry may have been in line with mass taste in changing to longer forms, and even that the greater subjectivity allowed by the album forced poetry to go deeper in order to compete.
The reason for the increasing innovation, depth, and complexity of art in the 1970s is not hard to find. Walter Laqueur named his book on the international politics of the period A Continent Astray: the power structure had lost its grip, basic relationships were changing, and radical groups were powerful and courageous. The proof of this is the pessimistic state of the Cold War conservatives, really anticipating shifts of power which would weaken the grip of the rich over the economy, the military build-up, the political consensus, or industrial discipline. It makes sense to talk about “the system”, because an alternative was right outside the door, and really seemed about to walk in and take over. There was an alternative everything.
Poets escaped the reach of banal judgments either by involution, the development of radical styles, or by extension, giving the poem more duration, allowing more complex semantic configurations. Both of these tended to lose the reader who did not have the same level of openness and adaptability.
Precision is only a meaningful concept if you can compare the poem, or the line, with a preset, agreed, fixed idea. The idea that precision is better is a variant of the idea that poems should exactly resemble the accepted generalisations of the era, and should not be original or critical. In modern times, the question is really whether the poet’s poems match their own aesthetic, and are precise in that sense.
The interest of long poems is partly that the relationship of the parts of a length of social process is explicit in them, rather than us having to rely on construction of several texts; and partly that the taxonomical chapter was about anthologies, and so dealt exclusively with short poems.
If a social structure is not dramatised and questioned in the work of an individual poet, it may nonetheless appear around or before the book we hold in our hands, in the shape of stylistic decisions whose end result is the text. If the geometry of a cultural matrix is truly shared, then a fragment of it implies the whole; it is possible for poets to make statements about social relations within the stylistic plane. Reflexive poets attuned to this regard with contempt poets who are not. The question for us is whether any of the reflexive poets are working with more than a highly organised narcissism, the skill of a couturier, or whether they are addressing something outside themselves— the space within which language is spoken, or the rules by which social action is ordered.
Style can become a social logic, recording a social vision of short distances as a narrative records a social vision of large-scale events. Instamatic Poems (by Edwin Morgan) is a transitional point between a narrative and a poem whose subject is its own point of view; the poems in it are playing a shared game but have no unity of scene or situation. This game unity could reflect a poet's temperament, but is for the ultra-sophisticated Morgan a deliberate break with the (personal and social) past in the form of a set of rules, i.e. almost a naked social structure. We can distinguish between a style psychotope and a narrative psychotope:
style (static; self-referential; one person only; cannot engage in test and conflict; selfconscious)
narrative (changeable; deals with a shared reality; unpredictable; not self-fulfilling; exposes characters to test and conflict, to learning experiences )
Style is differentiated and unified in the same way that a narrative is, but populated not by characters but by figures or distinctive features. It reproduces its own internal memory whenever the style re-appears; this context of interpretive rules can also flow from one author to another.
High Zero, by Andrew Crozier (1978) [I have deleted this because it appears in a book called Nothing is Being Suppressed, coming out shortly] tnbp3, CC, AVA 37 pp.
d it was hard to resist trying it out.
My sole companion in the forest: Ancestor Worship, by Emyr Humphreys 32 pp.
removed for book publication
Change: a Prospectus, by Tony Lopez (1978) 23 pp. Angels, CC, tnbp4 [removed for book publication]
Fox Running, by Ken Smith (published 1980) 22pp. tnbp3
We see Fox running through a city (London); just running. He is a wild creature misplaced, treating the city as if it were a wild place. He lives by scavenging and is hunted by dogs. He remembers "mountain ash and the wide sky". The fox is not the poet (who says "I've seen him"), but (apparently) a man-animal creature called Fox is the hero.
Fox writes in the margins of the one book he has left. He shows us a film show of someone long dead (Muybridge's experimental studies of motion?), bouncing a ball. Beginning and beginning over again; he recalls a marriage which broke up. He is perhaps out of bourgeois society because of grief; he makes a living but only from hand to mouth. He gets work as a barman. He remembers the days of love, repetitively thinks of suicide. He and his wife fought; he got a single ticket to the city. He is afraid of living lonely and dying alone; he doesn't want to die naturally, wants to die dramatically. He wants to keep running. In a borrowed room in Camden, he starts again from nothing. He is 40. He travels, in circles, drinks, signs on the dole and argues it out with the social security department. He sees his double on the underground. At midnight, high up in someone's house, he recovers from his wish to die (ambiguously); he listens on shortwave radio to American Forces Network, the English-language Radio Moscow, the police frequencies; until daylight. He imagines a nuclear war and the end of society. He remembers his wife and says, he was born to write but she made him what he is, a fox. He recalls being a dog, i.e. a good citizen with a home. He drifts again through the city, reading graffiti and playground rhymes. He becomes a crow for a stanza, possibly a reference to another Yorkshire poet. He chases his double and sees him killed by skinheads. The next ten pages, centring on the theme of Word but very loosely organised, seem to be about the search for a meaning to life to hold onto while imagining a lonely and seedy death, and experiencing it day by day. The focus spreads out from a particular day to a lifetime, from the concrete figure of Fox to anyone anywhere. He wanders around far-flung parts of London; applies for a variety of low-paid jobs, imagines a series of impoverished and rootless lives. A parodic flashback to a year zero, to (Neolithic?) "stonecutters" in moorland villages. He recalls men he knew of an older working-class generation, living in squalor. The death of Fox.
Despite the objective details, the drama is taking place in the head of the hero; there is no dialogue. Another modern trait: there is really no drama, and certainly no resolution. We can speculate that indeterminacy at the level of the individual line is a compensatory move to replace the uncertainty once delivered by having several characters interacting, now lost in monologue dramas. Another theme could be said to be the internalisation of guilt, often identified as a great English trait; Fox doesn't seem to be able to find anyone to blame; logically, his wife is to blame, but the other rule of the time is that women aren't to blame for anything, so we don't get that either, and he internalises that failure too. The lack of interest in any kind of politics is an example of privatisation, there are no events except personal ones.
The poem starts with an exit from society and ends with an exit from personal identity and a localised body as well. When Fox is listening to shortwave radio, he is a disembodied listener to floods of messages not meant for him, from which he is absent; the room is full of clocks showing different times; and it is midnight, outside the normal time of activity and sociality. It is difficult, in terms of conventional narrative or drama, to explain why Smith wants to reach this no-place, with its negation of oppositions. The key appears to lie in Victor Turner's theory of liminality. The liminal state explains why we might perhaps want to reach this no-place, and enjoy non-local information. The scene of someone listening to the radio in the middle of the night while thinking about the atomic bomb exactly repeats a scene in David Gascoyne's 1955 verse radio play, Night Thoughts. The scene showing the Neolithic parallels a moment in Tony Lopez's poem Change. In fact, the whole situation of Fox Running is someone on the edge of a new life - like Change. Dissociation opens a psychologically empty area which the mind naturally wants to populate with new associations. This energy aroused by negation is the vital force of the poem, the experience we enjoy while reading it. Smith's feeling is that any straight-ahead account of the breakdown of a marriage is going to arouse hostility and partisan identification which wreck the poem as much as they wrecked the marriage. One of the great themes, probably, of Western art in this period, say 1960-90, was the end of relationships - most intensely, the breakup of marriages. A fox relates to a dog as an unmarried man relates to a married (and civilised) man - this is the core image of the poem. Of course, the notion that the civilisation process could be reversed, and a marriage break up, is revelatory and tragic. Smith's special approach is to see the timeless as a zone of depression - the place you go during a nervous breakdown. We have this collective idea of the liminal - but its contents are deeply under-specified. Everyone knows about urban foxes, but no-one thinks foxes are really happy eating leavings from discarded fast-food containers, in the chill of 4 a.m., by the glow of sodium light.
It seems to me that there are higher level movements in the poem, as if soliloquies with a degraded argument structure, where the various lines are moving in the same direction. The arguments would be about trying to achieve dignity, about demonstrations of strength (to wipe away shame), and about social esteem. The whole poem is limited by Smith's paratactic sentence structure keeping us in a continuous present but avoiding synthetic judgments. The introduction of the Muybridge photographs is a 'self-showing', because Muybridge's instantaneous and discontinuous exposures added up to a continuous narrative; but photography can only show the present. Fox is in the situation he is in because of trauma - an event in the past, affecting him at a level which photography cannot show.
[a statement in the text shows the poem was composed during 1980, so is not literally a long poem of the 70s]
Ranter, by Barry MacSweeney (published 1985) 36 pp. tnbp3, CC 3
[this was definitely composed after 1980 so is not a long poem of the 1970s. I misunderstood Barry telling me that it was a response to Thatcher- it was a response after 3 or 4 years of life under Thatcher]
The book is divided into four sections: "Ranter", "Ranter's Reel", "Snipe Drumming", and "Flamebearer".
In the first section, the character Ranter is running around parts of Britain; he is seditious; he is chasing a lost love. A string of epithets qualifying Ranter points to the timeless nature of his revolt: they are drawn from 14th C, 17th C, 19th C, and then 15th C movements of lower-class revolt, so that the enemy is disembodied and the apparent contest of wills cannot take place. The poem is then wholly liminal, taking place somewhere where the rules of time and society have been suspended. (This may correspond, physically, to the high wastes of Northumbria, unpartitioned because they are useless for agriculture: they represent the pre-human landscape.) It is difficult, for this reason, to trace changes between the first page and the last. If anything is happening, it has to do with the woman he is missing; it is hard to relate the data about revolt to this, but presumably it serves to make Ranter glamorous, as a virile and defiant rebel hero, as an argument why she should come back. Myth comes in to replace sociology here. All the love story is recent, set in the 1970s, while none of the political stories is twentieth century. The name 'ranter' seems to refer to 'ranting and raving', to a radical religious group, seeking the overthrow of the social order, in the 1650s, and to a style of folk singing in Northumbria (cf. 'The Collier's Rant', and the folk group The High Level Ranters, punning on the name of the High Level bridge across the Tyne at Newcastle). MacSweeney almost certainly wants all of these meanings simultaneously. The resurrection of the Ranters came with Christopher Hill's The World turned Upside Down, a study of the most antinomian of radical groups in the Commonwealth period which found great favour among the antinomians of the 1970s. On page 6, Ranter listens to a radio broadcast in his skull from "Bede and Cuthbert", clerics from ancient Northumbria; and to Sweeney, a figure from an old Irish tale, whose feathered pelt Ranter seems to be wearing. Some passages may correspond to the original Sweeney's nature poetry. In the scela, Sweeney went mad in a kind of 'post-traumatic stress disorder' and left human society, to live in the treetops - a kind of negative liminal. Ranter is oppressed by militiamen or by the emperor Hadrian (who campaigned in the North early in the 2nd century AD). A mention of monks on Lindisfarne, a monastery with scriptorium representing Northumbrian cultural achievement. He hopes for his bride's attitude to soften. He has the powers of animals and is owner of the wild (p.11), a liminal place. People are oppressed and do not fight back. Memories (of married life?) in Woolwich. Another run of self-praise epithets. Drunk, he falls down the stair at an Underground station. More regrets. The Norman ravaging of the North, AD 1069 - an example of peripheral revolt put down by centralised violence. French words are a bad thing. He lives out of doors, in the hedges.
In "Snipe Drumming" the situation seems to be the same. His bride speaks, how poor she found Newcastle to be. The 'drumming' is male courtship behaviour, a non-vocal acoustic display which we can easily link to 'ranting' among humans.
In "Ranter's reel", (reel, a kind of dance), he makes a journey across the Northumbrian fells. Wild things are being hunted. It is his fiefdom. The bitterness of the poor, across all history. He is a figure of resistance to the powerful, and a bird. A threat to the powerful that their reign is coming to an end or reeling. Reel has associations with drink, unsteadiness, the loss of reason, high excitement, which make it akin to ranting.
The next section is called "The Flamebearer" after a character, in Welsh Fflamddwyn, who was an Angle fighting against the Britons in perhaps 600 AD; the theme of Anglo-Saxons versus Britons appears again. He appears in those old Welsh poems as an object of terror. Ranter, himself the destroyer of a household, remembers making love and regrets. Pages 37-40 are spoken by the bride, regretting how things went wrong; symbolically, the assertions fall silent and the woman's voice takes over. Her speech is more coherent and continuous than his. She refers to him as a bully. The power relations within the poem have been reversed, the boastful male central speaker is now the subject of the poem's speech, an object of judgment.
Ranter differs from the other poems discussed here in that it not only sees force as the adjudicator of history but also feels willing to take on the "ruling class" on terms of force. The local structure resembles, perhaps, the blues: simple stylised units, frequently repeated, in no particular order, without explicit links, but internally very highly motivated, so that the wholes can easily be guessed. The whole reminds one of an Irish poem "The Lament for Art O'Leary" (in An Duanaire 1600-1900, edited by Sean O'Tuama), except that the praise epithets addressed by the widow to dead Art are here addressed by Ranter to himself. (The duckdown at p.38 may actually come from the lament as translated by Thomas Kinsella, eiderdown being a more everyday way of putting it.) This boasting is another feature of blues lyrics. The bird persona can be compared to Muddy Waters' little red rooster (and to the phrase 'free as a bird'). The word cloakclasp (occurring 9 times) refers to a penannular brooch, a very prominent item of adornment of the Gaelic gentleman, of which there are many in the National Museum in Dublin and not a few in the National Museum in Edinburgh; MacSweeney has seized on the bright and showy things, to make something with an endless series of high spots.
The accessibility to the poem of historical moments scattered over 2000 years shows that we are in a liminal place: no particular time, all-time. The location is essentially Northumberland. The metahistorical schema comes essentially from EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, itself a projection of Soviet schemas of history, and epic history-writing, onto stubbornly un-cooperative English source material. The poet seized the core emotional situation and discarded the clogging detail and documentation. The use of Celtic and blues schemas helps to give 'structural' material a personal, heroic, focus, miraculously restoring it to narrative and flow.
Geographical crystal: Stane (being Place book 3) by Allen Fisher, (published 1977, as 'drafted 31.12.75') 100 columns with two columns per page [Angels; CC tnbp3)
The general drift of Place is to break down the polarisation of objective and subjective knowledge. The other parts are, so far as I know, Place Book One, Hooks, Eros:Father:Pattern, Docking, "Convergences, in Place, of the Play", Unpolished Mirrors, and Becoming. The project accepts that the observer is part of the observation, and details a vast number of inner sensations, perception of the outside world, and processes which occur in both media at once. Place is considered both as an influence on awareness at many levels, but also as the product of human action, modifying the environment. Place is an 'open' project; for example, although Docking is listed in Stane as one of the 'related works', it is not credited in its own accompanying notes as part of Place: instead we are told that one part of Place (section 66) is incorporated into Docking.
A map at the beginning of Place Book I shows Stane Street, a Roman road, running from Sussex to Southwark, and presumably the main axis on which early South London grew - including the borough of Lambeth, the setting of Place. Stane is printed in landscape format. The columns are numbered from 1 to 100 at the bottom. The numbers printed at the top of the page refer to parts (listed as "45 to 81" on the title-sheet) which were interleaved and intercut to produce the final text. There are numbers at the top of the pages of Stane which refer to the Parts of Place (so that page 1 has 80 at the top). Numbered resources at the back of the book show how the text relates to its factual source material. Some page tops show, for example, (63)/74, to show that the Resources for 63 have also supplied material for part 74.
The back cover shows a street map of part of South London, partly replaced by a diagrammatic view of a texture which a note informs us 'includes photos and drawings of environments given way under stresses it was assumed they could bear'. They seem to be structural materials now showing rips. A small image on the front cover shows a map of Greater London. That is, we are being shown something at three different scales. This gesture casts the light back at the observer - it is saying something about the limits of our biological senses in the face of an environment whose processes occur on a much larger scale than our bodies. As clever mammals, we make up for this by all kinds of perceptual strategies - which sheds light on the multiple strategies of Allen Fisher. The note implies that London itself has been put under stresses too great for its materials - and has given way, failed as a community. This aspect is explored in Unpolished Mirrors and Brixton Fractals. The lettering is that of a typewriter. The text is printed in red. A note tells us that "STANE serves as a preview of Book III, Place 45 to 81, moving back into Book IV via Book II and including those parts of GRAMPIANS cut-in." This implies that there will be a later version of sections 45 to 81, but this has not been published so far as I know. The disruption of the notion of sequence is part of a new way of ordering information in word groups, pages, and books; what this draws attention to is the excess of possibilities for arranging data. It is organic - I mean, we are 'naturally' inclined to examine situations several times as new information arrives, so that viewing a kind of information once, and never being allowed to go back, is inorganic. The types of text we have are only a tiny cluster in an immense range of possibilities. Perhaps we have learnt and rigid ways of moving through fields of data - which are not the most appropriate for the part of the world we find ourselves in. We own them because they are old. Perhaps accepted sentence structures are inherited from early modern times and relate to acts of knowledge storage and retrieval which were suited to the organized knowledge of that time, for example in the law, the Church, or estate administration. Stane includes an index to the sections, which tells us for example '39 59 into 56'. Liberating the cutting and joining shows that the same piece of information can produce different results in different contexts.
I don't know of any successful exegeses of Fisher's work. I would regard a summary in prose which was longer than the poem (Stane, in this instance) as being unsuccessful - whereas taking a few themes and saying 'here, these are more important than the rest' is dishonourable. A structural value might be going to the limits of what we already know - to include the frames by which we normally constrain the speed and complexity of the information being made available at any point. If I suggest that information is normally packaged in an industrial way, in standardised and controllable units, this sheds light on Fisher's rules of procedure - he starts on the wrong side of those constraints and goes on from there. Basic techniques in this breakout are approaching from unusual angles, using subject matter usually neglected, looking at information on many different scales, and rapid cuts between different strata of material - showing new connections.
The deal offered to the reader is a speed-up in the rate of conceptual jumps in the data they are consuming. This is probably a dividing line in the audience - one faction sees the speed-up as purely desirable and exciting, one faction quickly gets bewildered and wants the poem to be normal and reassuring and just like all the other poems.
When Durer drew a rhinoceros, a beached whale, and the bones of an 18 foot giant, he chose these subjects because they were truly wondrous and unfamiliar, and because he had a means of recording. The availability of photographs, broadcasting, cheap printed matter, etc., has changed the terms on which art can be surprising. It is possible to re-analyse the history of poetry in terms of the collection of rare and interesting facts. This explains, perhaps, why so much of pre-modern poetry seems boring to us - because we already have better explanations of what it presents; and why such poets don't supply the information which seems interesting to us - because they were locked in cognitive frameworks which define what was strange and fascinating (and are different from the ones we are locked in). We could define myth in terms of anomaly, disruptions to the order of knowledge - and present poetry about myth as a collection of wonder-tales, defying sense, and recorded formally (in metre) because they were anomalous. Recent autobiographical poetry has a restricted audience because the lives recounted are not unusual enough - they adhere to sociological norms and so are too predictable; however, it is the anomalies which make the poems interesting - being autobiographical, on its own, was not interesting. Equally, readers of those times regarded religious lore as accurate information about the structure of history and the after-life. Western art since 1965 or so has had a bias towards the conceptual - this should not be understood as meaning that Western art of the previous 2000 years was not didactic and intellectually curious; instead, it expresses a new relationship between 'art' and other information media, where art lightens its load of primary information and focusses on cognitive jumps, shifts, and reorganizations. Art is a form of information and must conform to the basic physics of information. A vital factor is the information the spectator already has - art has to move into unfamiliar territory in order to acquire a unique data commodity.
In order to write a book which shows wonders and anomalies all the way through, you would today have to adopt techniques akin to Fisher's. It is not enough to find a rhinoceros.
While looking at this, I wondered about the word 'coherence'. Clearly, connection between successive sections is not necessary. We can make sense of violent shifts just as we can watch a landscape changing through a train window and disembark in another city. The rules for using the word seem to be completely subjective - it is applied when the reader is nonplussed and finds the next section not apropos. Further, 'coherence', as it is stepped up, gets ever closer to redundancy - the line which is most coherent with the previous line is one which repeats it exactly. Any line which offers new information is to some extent incoherent with the previous one. All the long poems we are looking at are very free in their construction. They do not converge on a line. I don't have a test of 'coherence' which many people could agree on. I find the poems 'well constructed' because I do not find myself confused or bored by the arrival of successive sections. But this confidence in the poets is subjective and relies partly on my identification with them.
"47" is a letter about rising damp in walls. It describes the passive-osmotic system of fluid circulating in masonry. This continues the theme, laid out in the previous section, of human life imagined as energy (a spiral) rather than as an anatomy. A human body exchanges energy all the time, and moves; anatomy is static. If you base your biology on corpses, you miss these things - and what is vital, proper to living things.
"46" shows us a voyage down the bank of the Thames. Mill pools where the water is strong and fish grow big; pent up. Chokes on the course of water considered as switches, where choices are made; (analogy with the course of fluids inside the body, the blood and lymphatic systems, affecting so much of the "sense of self"?)
A "less reduced" version of some pages of Stane was published as Fire-Place in a volume called Fire-Works, adding some more material. "Stane" is just a phonetic variant of "stone" (i.e. paved road), but may also represent a pun on stain, as a form of capillary action; the work is much concerned with buildings and the circulation of fluids in the earth and in the body, or, in fact, with the mediation between social and physiological structures and consciousness.
Any summary of Fisher's work is superficial; there are so many themes happening at once. One of the constructive rules is a pedagogic rigour whereby beliefs are constantly broken down into the experiences which found them, in the assumption that the reader has the right to judge of first and last things. We find him constantly reaching the zone of smallest form-generating differences (he refers in Necessary Business to "small initial differences"); the qualities which distinguish materials are ultimately in their molecular structure (and an exact definition of "hardness", e.g. of stone versus water, would be a molecular diagram). These slight quantities allow us to break down the sterile opposition between citizen and electorate, mind and body, person and place, will and compulsion, objective and subjective, personality and information, etc. and to tell a different story; the references to spirals imply the crossing of oppositions in mutual generation, winding eventually back to the slight differences which broke the symmetry of the apeiron and made stone different from water.
Interviews with Fisher during 2005 revealed the existence of a plan of formal symmetry organising Place. The details are explained in the interviews collected in Marvels of Lambeth (due to come out in 2012). The key concept is mirroring, which is a formal relationship between two poems or passages of poetry. To quote the 1974 book of explanations:
"In my terms then, a statement or fact laid on page five of Book I would find SHADING on page 95 of Book III. This reflecting nature brought about the structure. It is generally thematic from place I thru to XXXVII in Book I, and from LXXXI to XXXV in Book III."
Stane is thus a mirror of Place Book I. Since there are 37 parts of Stane and 37 of Place I-XXXVII, we might suspect that the parts map onto each other. It is slightly more complicated than that, since Stane is also numbered as pages 1-100, and Place Book I has a table in the back which demonstrates how it is also constituted by 100 pages (in the typescript and also in the book, although the page numbers are not printed). The symmetry is made more elusive by the fact that Stane starts with part 81 and works back to part XLV. Page 1 of Book I maps onto page 100 of Stane, and so on. The mirroring is not very obtrusive. For example, the line in Place 1 'walked the straight road in sunlight' connects with the line in Place 81 ''I walk from Balham gateway to the South/ my head from process of walking nodding', but other connections are not obvious. I understand the strategy was to allow readers to read 1 and 81 together and perceive new connections affecting the subject (of how site affects perception). Readers of a certain generation will recall a spoof travelogue recorded by Peter Sellers, in which the line 'Balham! Gateway to the South!" was heard.
This scheme explains why notes are included at points which say 'GRAMPIANS cut into PLACE", and so on; the extra overlays partially hide the scheme from view. The passages about a visit to the Grampians probably do not take part in the fundamental symmetry. (Book I has an inclusion called Lakes, about the Lake District.)
The title of Unpolished Mirrors, a set of poems which is part of Place but only partially included in it, refers to incomplete symmetries: the reflection is dulled.
Common themes have emerged in these poems, to my complete amazement. They weren't selected to resemble each other. Four of the poems discussed mention the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain, generally dated to the 5th to 8th centuries AD. Perhaps there is a shared imaginary which poets go to in order to find their visions. All the poets seem interested in the "fore-time" before the rise of mediaeval civilisation; all seem interested in the origin of our customs and social structure; none shows a situation between several people, and which is altered by a series of events which it structures; all are deeply politicised and deeply angry at the way we live. All have suppressed the signposts, the "ifs" and "therefores" which lead an argument: the discourse of the poem is "before" these, and this beforeness is part of poemicity. This points to a latent theory about the ambiguity of reality, which is chopped and channelled by the social structure, which is subliminal cognitive filters distributed over the whole population; poets like Raworth and Thom have gone on to make the acts of affabulation and composition the subject of the poem.
The striking of coins is described by Lopez and Fisher, and by Thom, whose discussion of the appropriation of metals almost certainly involves their circulation and treasuring as money. Important as liminality is, it is not present in the poems by Martin Thom and Andrew Crozier.
The hope that these large-scale poems would offer symbolic statements about social structure has been proved vain. In general, they deal only with a single mind, largely freed from social bonds. Experience is not shown as emerging from interaction with other people. This requires us to look at the sociology of privatisation.
The intrication of poems with the contents of books (of radical philosophy, politics, history, etc.) depends on collective representations, expressing wishes and the need for play as much as re-arrangement of experience, which precede both, although dialectically they can be shaped by both. These long poems show us, through an exhausting effort to seize and externalise, experience itself, as it is staged by human agents, in long or short strips: what good sociology captures better than bad sociology. The search for a central, dominant arena of social reality is vain, since the efficient unit of experience is clearly the individual brain.
These shared features include the restriction of the poem to the experience of a single individual, or privatisation; the shifting of stress from factual knowledge to intellectual method in framing and highlighting the material; the move away from narrative or drama or action; the collapse of a stable system of moral norms and imperatives, to be replaced by unquiet but essentially personal intellectual curiosity and model-making; the advance of untunable noise or dissonance within the models, and the pre-eminence of doubt as a response to it.
Myth appears in these poems, as part of the palette; but they form a strong contrast to Classical mythological poems. The oppositions which are significant to them are: central versus local-communal authority; the power of money versus less impersonal social bonds; tradition versus reason; Wales versus England; alienation versus fulfilment; symbolic versus sensory experience; subjective versus objective knowledge. These are not topics which mattered to Hesiod.
Another cast back shows a dislike of what the State does; the history of England, then Britain, as a "company" is surely centred on warfare against other states, with a long intricate chain of conquests of overseas territories, tax innovations, grabs of the entrepot trade, naval battles, sieges of key bases, arms races in workshops, acts of heroism, straight shooting, and what have you. The poetry in question excludes discussion of (warfare + political struggle + economic competition + competition between poets for legitimacy) — the ways of power. The State as military machine is cut out, and history is written in terms of (ordinary) households. If we go back to the late 19th century, we find the invention of sociology was just this: a study that shut out the State and looked at the citizen body. So poetry has been competing with sociology for a niche in the spectrum; but sociology was there first, because in 1900 poetry was still dealing with naval battles. This triangular relationship (between Church, State, and poetry) is not quite clear to me; the replacement by the State of the good works formerly carried out by the Church is clear; also, fear is part of the pattern, since the possessor class were frightened by the threatened arrival of the mass franchise (and this perhaps gave rise to sociology, in England and Germany?), and the poets we are discussing are clearly afraid of the power elite (shall we say, the military-industrial complex, the Tory Party, the City, and the Pentagon). Christianity lacks a coherent theory of the State, because its early strata were formed under State persecution and did not expect the Second Coming to be delayed long enough for politics to matter; this omission may be guiding the course of modern British poetry. Poetry since 1960 seems much more aligned with Nonconformism than with Anglicanism. All the poets discussed in this chapter are political radicals, excepting Crozier; and some comments outside the poems seem to equate the media with the forms of illegitimate power, and their wish to write long poems is related to a wish to compete with the "authorised versions" of the media, by supplying their own semantic context.
The omission of power politics from the boundaries of poetry seems to resemble a previous rule of omission, namely the simplicity expected of song and lyric poetry, which were not to deal with the sordid material of human relations. The double stance of radical poetry (ignoring the State and all its works while also planning actively to infiltrate over and transform the State) is very reminiscent of the stance of the Protestant churches in our period.
The abjuring of "power" is correlated with the excision of certain kinds of emotional pressure on the reader, and of pure self-expression. How can you disagree with the military-industrial complex and still want to unleash the self-aggrandising self of the confessional poet? When we see the poem as territorial object, we see the principle of competition for space at work in literature.
My research into the writings of popular Protestantism shows a valuation of physical details as corroboration of essentially unlikely tales of spiritual achievement; based on courtroom confrontations (Foxe's Book of Martyrs brought these to their greatest ever height) in which simultaneity and entanglement provided a difficulty of invention and so showed veracity; in these modern poems, there seems to be a rule that any experience which involves several different sensory channels at once is more credible. I don't say this is good or bad as a rule, merely that it provides the specific difference between British poetry and (say) French or Russian. Concrete details mark a good witness. If Fisher recounts his spiritual experience in seven or eight channels of perception at once, this can be taken as over-fulfilment. Another rule in the early lay-spiritual literature is that lighting effects in the sky indicate divine assent, something we find in many saints' lives; if Fisher relates his preoccupation with celestial light to the pineal gland, we may believe this or not. However reluctantly, we have to concede a similarity between the serotonin/luminosity effects and the lyrics of 'Astronomy Domine'.
A preliminary reading-list of Long Poems from the 1970s
Peter Abbs, For Man and Islands
Asa Benveniste, Tabelli Linnaei
George Barker, Villa Stellar, In Memory of David Archer
Anthony Barnett, Fear and Misadventure; Mud Settles
Jack Beeching, Myth of Myself
Francis Berry, The Singing Dome
D.M. Black, 4 narrative poems (in The Happy Crow and Gravitations)
Euros Bowen, Siap rhyw profiad
George Mackay Brown, Fishermen with Ploughs
Gerard Casey, South Wales Echo
Barry Cole, Vanessa In the City
Andrew Crozier, High Zero; Pleats
Allen Fisher, Place (4 volumes); Long Shout to Kernewek; Sicily; The Art of Flight; Shorting Out
Roy Fisher, The Cut Pages
Eddie Flintoff, Sarmatians
Ulli Freer, Rooms
Raymond Garlick, Notes for an Autobiography
Paul Gogarty, The Accident Adventure
W.S. Graham, Dark Dialogues; Implements in their Places
Harry Guest, Elegies; Miniatures
John Hall, Days; Couch Grass
David Harsent, Dreams of the Dead
Lee Harwood, The Long Black Veil
J.F. Hendry, Marimarusa (composed around 1947)
Geoffrey Hill, Mercian Hymns
Jeremy Hooker, Soliloquies of a Chalk Giant
Ted Hughes, Crow, Gaudete, Cave Birds, Adam and the Sacred Nine, Prometheus on his Crag
Emyr Humphreys, Ancestor Worship
Phil Jenkins, Cairo
David Jones, various poems in The Sleeping Lord and Other Fragments (and) The Roman Quarry (mostly pre-1970 in fact)
Judith Kazantzis, Clytemnestra
R.F. Langley, Matthew Glover
T.S. Law, Referendum
Peter Levi, Christmas Sermon; Canticum
Anthony Lopez, Change. A Prospectus
George MacBeth, The Orlando Poems; A Poet’s Life; Lusus
Hugh MacDiarmid, Direadh
Sorley MacLean, Uamha 'n Oir /The Cave of Gold
Barry MacSweeney, Black Torch
Brian Marley, Bargain Basement Sonnets
Alan Massey, Leechcraft
Roland Mathias, Madoc
Matthew Mead, The Administration of Things
Christopher middleton, Anasphere: le torse antique
Edwin Morgan, The New Divan, Instamatic Poems, Memories of Earth
Eric Mottram, Local Movement, Tunis, Elegies
Walter Perrie, Lamentation for the Children
FT Prince, Dry-points of the Hasidim
J. H. Prynne, News of Warring Clans
Kathleen Raine, On a Deserted Shore
Tom Raworth, Ace
Peter Redgrove, Love's Journeys, Dr Faust's Sea-Spiral Spirit
Jeremy Reed, The Isthmus of Samuel Greenberg, Stratton Elegy
John Riley, Czargrad
Colin Simms, long poems on the American Indians, including A Celebration of the Stones in a Water-course, Parflèche, Carcajou, The Compression of the Bones of Crazy Horse, No North-West Passage
Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat, Suicide Bridge, Red Eye
Iain Crichton Smith, From the Notebooks of Robinson Crusoe
Ken Smith, Tristan Crazy; Apocrypha from the Western Kingdom; Fox Running
Nathaniel Tarn, Lyrics for the Bride of God
Martin Thom, The Bloodshed, the Shaking House
Edward Boaden Thomas, The 12 Parts of Derbyshire
Gwyn Thomas, Cadwynau yn y meddwl, Craig a dwr
Anthony Thwaite, New Confessions
John Wain, Feng
Jeffrey Wainwright, Thomas Müntzer
David Wevill, Where the Arrow Falls
95 poems? There are a couple more I am in doubt about. Anyway this is a large-scale phenomenon. I have been working (2017) on a longer analysis of the genre.
We could complete this list with a number of other works which I do not greatly esteem.
'Direadh' was published in 1974 and is printed as the last poem in the 'Long poems' volume of MacDiarmid's Collected, but other evidence suggests it was written in 1937-8. I am inclined to stick with the publication date. There is a possibility of more or less endless argument about what is or isn't a "long poem", which I have tactfully suppressed.